1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

The outbreak of war

September 1, 2009

Poland commemorates the battle of Westerplatte, which marked the start of World War II on Sept. 1, 1939. Ignacy Skowron was one of the soldiers who tried to defend his country from the Germans' overwhelming attack.

German warship "Schleswig-Holstein"
The "Schleswig-Holstein" opened fire in the early morning of September 1Image: picture-alliance / akg

The war started when a German battleship opened fire on a small Polish military depot on the Westerplatte peninsula in what was then the free city of Danzig on the Baltic Sea coast.

The barracks was expected to hold out for a matter of hours but the skill and bravery of the Polish troops saw them resist for a week before they surrendered. One of the Polish soldiers who fought in that first battle of the war was 94-year-old Ignacy Skowron.

Ignacy Skowron, decorated with medals
Ignacy Skowron fought in the first battle of WWIIImage: DW

"I looked out at the channel with a telescope, first right, then left, and then at the battleship which was moored in the bay. At that moment I saw a flash and the first shell hit the gate," he recalls.

"Later the battleship sailed into the channel and began firing one shell after another, and I saw large trees being snapped in two."

The German battleship "Schleswig-Holstein" had launched its attack on the Polish Military Transport Depot. The barracks was defended by just 182 soldiers.

Westerplatte became a symbol of Polish resistance

Nobody expected the defenders to resist for long as they came under attack from the sea, air and land, by a force of more than 3,000. Despite overwhelming odds they managed to repel attack after attack.

"The Germans saw that this wasn't working," Skowron says. "They had flamethrowers and they thought if they couldn't break through by shooting they would overcome us with flames."

"By the sixth day, we were barely managing to survive because we were cold and hungry; we were dirty and hadn't slept. We were struggling."

German soldiers raising the flag on the Westerplatte
German troops took Westerplatte after seven daysImage: AP

On the seventh day the Polish commander gave the order to surrender. By that stage half of Poland had already fallen under the German invasion.

For Poles the Second World War caused enormous destruction and suffering. Around six million people were killed and its cities were left in ruins. But people here are proud of their resistance record.

"Westerplatte is the most important, the most recognizable symbol of Polish heroism and Polish resistance," explains Professor Pawel Machcewicz, an historian and adviser to the prime minister.

"This was an isolated post with 200 Polish soldiers. Their duty was to resist for 12 hours, and they resisted for seven days against an overwhelming German army."

An apology from Moscow?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Merkel and Putin are in Gdansk for the commemorationImage: AP

Two weeks after the German invasion in 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. That and the subsequent murder of more than 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police in the forests of Katyn still provoke painful disagreement between Moscow and Warsaw.

Professor Machcewicz says Poles are keenly waiting to hear the content of Russian Prime Minister Putin's speech at the commemoration ceremony in Gdansk.

"There is a very strong expectation among the Poles that Mr Putin will make a gesture towards the Polish historical sensitivity. A gesture that could be related to Katyn, to the aggression of the Soviet Union towards Poland in September 1939. We are waiting for a gesture."

Author: Adam Easton in Kielce, Poland
Editor: Rob Turner