The attack by German troops on the Polish Military Transit Depot at Westerplatte has become a symbol of the beginning of the Second World War – the largest armed conflict in human history, which resulted in the death of millions of people. The Westerplatte Peninsula, an enclave of the Republic of Poland within the territory of the Free City of Gdańsk, was heroically defended by approximately 210 soldiers of the Polish Army for almost 7 days. At least 15 of them died in the fighting against the overwhelming forces of the German invaders.
From those first few days of September 1939, poems and films have been written about the heroism of the Polish soldiers fighting at Westerplatte, streets and workplaces have been named in their honour and the defense of the Military Transit Depot has been well described in textbooks and books.
It is difficult to understand why Westerplatte has had to wait several dozen years for the establishment of a museum that would be able to properly research the history, as well as to popularize general knowledge about this unique place. The first Westerplatte Museum was established in 2007, but the name of the institution was changed soon after, and a subsequent extension of the scope of the research of the museum to include the entire period of World War II, resulted in the marginalization of the Westerplatte incident. It was only in December 2015 that a project to establish a facility dedicated to the events at Westerplatte was reactivated.
Half a year later, the Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939 (from April 2017, a branch of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk) began the first comprehensive and systematic archaeological research into the history of the peninsula. So far, they have covered an area of almost 18 thousand square metres, documenting the remains of the key buildings relating to the functioning and defense of the depot: guardhouse No. 5, the officers’ quarters, the so-called old barracks, the administration building and the non-commissioned officers’ canteen. Subsequent seasons of excavation work have resulted in the acquisition of almost 50 thousand artifacts depicting the turbulent history of the peninsula. A large part of this collection includes unique memorabilia relating to the difficulties and responsibilities faced by the Polish soldiers who served at Westerplatte and the fighting that took place during the defense of the Military Depot.
September 2019 saw a breakthrough in the archaeological research being conducted on the peninsula by the Museum. These discoveries – made on the anniversary of the outbreak of World War II – generated keen public and media attention, similar to that of 80 years ago, when Westerplatte and its defenders were first on everyone’s lips. This particular stage of the research was carried out despite a lack of consent from the Gdańsk authorities who were managing the Westerplatte area. It was only made possible after a decision issued by the Pomeranian Provincial Conservator of Monuments in Gdańsk. This allowed the Museum to continue its archaeological research, moreover, it imposed an obligation on the administrators to make the site available for the duration of the research. The purpose of the excavation work was exceptionally important – to unearth and explain the fate of the fallen defenders of Westerplatte.
Locating the graves of the Westerplatte defenders turned out to be a complicated task. Museum archaeologists, apart from planning and implementing the next stages of the excavation work, also collected and analyzed literature on the subject, archival photos and accounts of participants in the dramatic events from almost 80 years ago. However, the memories of the defenders of Westerplatte, when describing the fate of their fallen comrades in arms, were not very clear. More information was obtained from the analysis of the accounts of Polish civilian prisoners of war who, under German supervision after the capitulation of the Depot defenders, were able to bury their fallen compatriots. In these memories there are numerous contradictions as to the number of fallen soldiers as well as the graves in which they were buried. However, all of them indicated an area to the west of the officers’ quarters and guardhouse No. 5, as the location where around September 10th, 1939, on the order of the Germans, the remains of the fallen Polish defenders of Westerplatte were buried.
The exact location of the graves was made possible by archival photographs, taken by German soldiers visiting the Westerplatte area after the fighting had finished. The photographs captured telling symbols of the fighting which had taken place nearby – including the graves of Polish soldiers. Three photos taken from different angles show a cross hastily made of planks, stuck between mounds of earth placed at the corners of the garrison. However, it turned out the most important details could be found in the background of the photographs. In the distance can be seen the building of the officers’ quarters and the ruins of Guardhouse No. 5, destroyed on September 2nd by the German air force. Behind the graves, dark trunks of old oaks are also clearly visible. Due to the fact that most of these trees are still growing today, as well as thanks to the location and examination of the remains of the quarters and the guardhouse, it was possible to precisely determine the location where the fallen defenders of Westerplatte had been buried after the fighting. However, it still remained uncertain whether the remains of the Polish soldiers would still be there.
According to one of the civilian prisoners of war working in Westerplatte, in January 1940 he took part in an exhumation of the graves organized by the Germans. During this action, the mutilated corpses of about 20 Polish soldiers were dug up and transported away from an area near the officers’ quarters. The bodies were moved to an unknown location, most likely to the Zaspa cemetery in Gdańsk. Archaeologists have searched unsuccessfully for any records of these burials in cemetery registers and in aerial photographs of several cemeteries in Gdańsk made during the first half of the 1940s. One account has indicated that during examination of the burial locations of the defenders of Westerplatte, only the remains of the graves destroyed during the exhumation and a few fragments of bones or military equipment left behind in 1940 could be found. Only work that included field excavation would be able to verify this information.
Another intention of the museum archaeologists was to restore the memory of a place that has become so important in the history of Westerplatte. Until this research began, the site had been neglected and completely forgotten, overgrown with bushes, despite the fact that it is located on the road leading to the Monument to the Coastal Defenders at Westerplatte, which is right behind the cemetery commemorating the fallen soldiers. After the research was completed, it was also planned to restore the earth tomb mounds and erect a wooden cross to enable visitors to the battlefield at Westerplatte to find the original burial place of the heroic defenders of the Military Depot.
Work began on September 12th, 2019, as was usual at Westerplatte with cleaning up the debris which was lying on the site of the future research trench. On September 24th, 80 years and 2 weeks after the original burials of the fallen soldiers, the first remains of one of the Depot defenders were discovered. The makeshift grave was very shallow – the skeleton of a soldier torn apart by an explosion was covered by only 40 centimetres of soil. The sight of the numerous injuries that had resulted in the death of the young man made a shocking impression. The left arm, right forearm, pelvis and both legs of the fallen soldier had been torn off as a result of an explosion, and his body had been unceremoniously thrown into a shallow pit. The soldier’s skull was shattered and was severely burned at the back of the cranium.
As soon as the first skeleton was found, questions started to arise. Had the German exhumation at the beginning of 1940 even taken place? Or maybe it had been conducted so superficially and quickly that the remains of one of the fallen had been missed? Is it possible then that the ground there was hiding more human remains? After a few days, archaeologists soon received answers to these questions. Further pits were discovered both north and south of the first skeleton. During this research, a total of five graves were located, and the remains of nine of the fallen defenders of the Military Depot were exhumed. Apart from one case, the bodies of the fallen and other fragments had been thrown into makeshift graves along with rubble and other rubbish. In other words they had been treated simply as garbage. Particularly poignant was the sight of the torn remains of five soldiers, whose bodies had been thrown into a hole in the ground in layers one on top of each other in a pit the size of a single grave. Fragments of Polish uniforms and military equipment were found on the fallen: military leather belts with ammunition pouches, military boots with high uppers (so-called sappers), fragments of fabric along with uniform buttons, a bayonet and an FN 1900 pistol. On one of the skeletons, archaeologists found a leather wallet containing 50 coins from the period of the Second Polish Republic – almost 40 Polish Zloty in total, which was a considerable amount at the end of the 1930s. During the last days of August 1939, the Military Depot staff had received their pay two months in advance. As it turned out, not all of the soldiers managed to send the money they had received to their families.
Extensive injuries on the discovered remains of the soldiers indicated that most of them had died in a nearby explosion. This suggests that at least some of the soldiers had belonged to the unit from Guardhouse No. 5, which was destroyed on September 2nd, 1939. During the air raid, the guardhouse was hit by two 50-kilogram aerial bombs. At least six Polish soldiers were killed in the attack on Guardhouse No. 5. A few of the survivors were helped out of the burning ashes by their fellow combatants from nearby buildings. The bodies of the soldiers who had died during the bombing remained in the ruins of the broken guardhouse after the fighting and until the later deportation of civilian prisoners to Westerplatte. It was these civilian prisoners who, under the supervision of German guards, excavated the bloodied bodies from the rubble and moved them to the pits which had been dug several meters away. Other fallen soldiers, found during the general cleaning up of the Military Depot, were also transferred from the peninsula to this location. Later, in order to obliterate any traces of the graves, the German overseers ordered the wooden cross and the mounds that marked the graves to be destroyed.
The grave diggers were Polish civilian prisoners of war – intelligentsia, Polish activists from the Free City of Gdańsk, priests, monks, and railroad workers. All of them had been arrested in Gdańsk and Gdynia in the first days of the war solely because of their nationality, education, profession or social and political activity. As prisoners, they found their way to Westerplatte directly after the fighting had ended. They were made to work in the clothes they had been wearing when they were captured – and they were often arrested at night, so they often worked in pajamas or slippers. On the peninsula, they were made to clean up the area after the fighting – fill in trenches, break up and carry heavy concrete fragments, remove unexploded bombs, dismantle buildings and obtain bricks for the concentration camp in Stutthof, which at that time was being expanded by the Germans. All of this was done under the watchful eyes of SS men who resorted to the most brutal methods, including killing the workers. The Polish prisoners did not have any mechanical equipment, gloves or wheelbarrows at their disposal. They slept on the peninsula in the demolished, unheated buildings, and later on in the barracks at Nowy Port. All the work that the Germans ordered them to do had to be carried out quickly and precisely according to the guidelines, on pain of death. In this light, it is not surprising that the prisoners very hastily buried the fallen Polish soldiers.
After the fighting had finished, in the mind of the German aggressors, Westerplatte was to remain forever the forgotten, nameless location of the graves of a dozen Polish defenders, and the very history of the place where World War II had begun was to be erased from the memory of history. Fortunately, this did not happen. The fifth stage of the archaeological field research on the battlefield at Westerplatte was completed on November 15th, 2019. During this research, the archaeologists discovered the as yet untold story of the fate of the people who had once sacrificed their lives so that we could speak and think freely in Poland today. However, difficult questions still remained. Why – despite the fact that witnesses to these past events had still been alive not so long ago – had the effort to find the graves of the heroes of Westerplatte not been made earlier? Why had the homeland they had died in defense of 80 years earlier not taken care of the site of their burials – and why had it not respected their real graves, not just what they symbolised?
Since June 2020, the Museum’s archaeological team has been carefully examining the vicinity of the graves, knowing that every scrap of Westerplatte’s past they discover at this location may turn out to be for Poles not just simply remains, but relics.
Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk
Dziewanowski A., Kuczma F., Samól W., The Return of Heroes from Westerplatte, [in]: NETWORKS No. 36/2020 (403) 31.08-6.09.2020, pp. 46-48.