One of the many places I have visited recently was the North Polish peninsula of Westerplatte. Once a spa resort, this small piece of land is an important landmark of recent history. It was there that a small group of soldiers faced up against the odds in a modern day Thermopylae. It was there that the first shots of World War Two were fired.
It all started on September 1st 1939. A few days previously, a German battleship arrived in the peninsula on a courtesy trip to Gdansk, just South of Westerplatte. However, as the clock struck 4:48 that day, the ship fired. Only 182 men were around to defend Westerplatte against 3500 Germans, with no relief. For seven days, they did. At one point the officer in command, Major Henryk Sucharski, considered surrender, but his men convinced him otherwise. So ferocious was their defence that the attacking forces believed the defending garrison to be far more numerous than it actually was. They were convinced of the presence of underground tunnels and snipers hidden in the trees. The German’s supposedly easy victory turned into a seven day siege, against a resistance that helped lift the morale of those fighting elsewhere in Poland. In the end however, after an intensified attack, the Polish were forced to surrender. Supplies were low and medical resources almost non-existent. Of the 182 men that defended Westerplatte, only 20 were killed. The German commander, General Eberhardt, was so impressed by their courage and efforts that he permitted the Major to carry his sabre into captivity – a mark of respect.
Today very little of the defensive structures remain. Most of it was either destroyed in the Battle of Westerplatte or shortly afterwards. But what is left still garners a respect for those who fought in the garrison and what they went through. A couple of guardhouses and barracks still stand along with signs indicating where others once stood. Behind one is a commemorative plaque listing all the Polish soldiers involved. Further along is a cemetery for those who fell in battle while at the far end of the Peninsula, rising above all else, is a monument. Soviet in style, it represents a sword plunged into the Earth, symbolic of resilience and the determination of the garrison. Below it, in white lettering, are the words ‘Nigdy Więcej Wojny’ – Never Again War. A sentiment we all share.
The day I spent in Westerplatte resonated deep within me. It is not one I am sure to forget. Seeing the courage of such few men in the face of a large enemy can only send shivers down the spine. It is admiral and inspirational. I can only hope that one day I am able to emulate at least half of their strength.