The city of Danzig was home to a lengthy territorial dispute between the Germans and Poles who inhabited it and had been declared a free city by the League of Nations. In late August 1939, the Schleswig-Holstein, a German World War I–era battleship, had entered Danzig on a goodwill visit. At 4:45 AM on September 1, it fired its first shots against the Polish garrison, consisting of just 88 men, at the peninsula of Westerplatte. Eight minutes later, the garrison came under attack from elite German commandos and marines, but they were forced to turn back following heavy casualties.
On September 3, 60 Luftwaffe dive bombers attacked the peninsula, wreaking such havoc that the German troops didn’t think anyone would still be alive, yet only five Polish defenders were killed. After subsequent attacks were repelled, resulting in heavy casualties, two fire trains were sent the next day. Both of them failed, the first one resulting in heavy casualties for the Germans.
As the German Blitzkrieg pushed the valiant Polish army back everywhere else on the front, Westerplatte became a symbol of resistance. However, it wasn’t to last. Despite the Poles’ successful defense, the German army had almost reached Warsaw, and gangrene was starting to affect the wounded. On September 7, the Polish garrison surrendered. While they may have lost the battle, they won the utmost respect of the German troops, who allowed Polish commander Major Sucharski to keep his sword and supposedly saluted the Polish defenders as they marched out. The fighting killed 15–20 Polish soldiers but a staggering 200–400 Germans.
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