World War II started on 1 September 1939 with the attack of Germany on Poland. This commonly known fact is not exactly accurate as well as many other historical “axioms”. The first WW2 shots really sounded on 1 September 1939 and not on the Poland territory but in a little country located between Eastern Prussia and the Pomeranian Voivodeship of Poland — the Free City of Danzig.
The fire in the Free City
The Free City of Danzig was a city-state, it had a special status and belonged neither to Poland nor to Germany. Being under the protectorate of the League of Nations, Danzig was a part of a customs union with Poland and Poland also represented its interests on the international arena. On the other hand, the City had its own currency — the Danzig gulden. The city population was 70% Germans.
The territory of the Free City of Danzig (except of the capital itself it concluded 4 more little towns, 252 villages and 62 farmsteads) was proclaimed a demilitarized zone by the League of Nations. Nevertheless, the special relationships with Poland left a certain imprint on the situation inside Danzig. For instance, the railway that connected the city with Poland was run by Poland. Despite the demilitarized status, there was a polish ammunition depot in the Gdansk bay on the Westerplatte peninsula and Poland had a permission from the League of Nations to place a little garrison for the depot protection. There was a Polish Post Office in the city.
On the 1st of September German training battleship SMS “Schleswig-Holstein” making a courtesy call in Danzig, at 4:45 am opened fire at the ammunition depot at Westerplatte and namely those volleys started the Second World War. The heroic depot defense during a week is a rather well known thing, the main official Polish events dedicated to the memory of WW2 take place precisely at Westerplatte.
However, one more battle episode that deserves our attention happened in Danzig on the 1st of September. It is so interesting because unlike Westerplatte defense that was carried out by two hundred Polish career militaries here the civil servants of the Polish post gave a decisive rebuff to SS, SA units and the Danzig police.
Directorate of Posts and Telegraphs on Jan Heweliusz Square
Resulting from World War I Poland got some inalienable rights in Danzig, including the right on its own telegraph, telephone and post service organization. The Directorate of Posts and Telegraphs of the Second Rzeczpospolita was opened on Jan Heweliusz Square in 1921.
Both the Free City administration and the population itself treated the Polish Directory quite hostile. On the 5th of January 1925 the Poles established mailboxes with the Polish eagle on them and the inscription “Only for letters to Poland”, literally the next night German nationalists painted the boxes into the black-red-white colours of the German flag.
Taking into consideration the hostile attitude and the constantly growing threat of the direct German aggression, the Polish leadership started seriously thinking over the Post office defense plan in the Free City. In 1936 already General Tadeusz Kutrzeba developed the intervention plan in Danzig in the case of the direct danger of Nazi coup. According to the plan, the solid rock building of the Post office should have held out 6 hours – until the Polish Army arrival.
The civil staff should carry out the defense of the Post office building however many of them were Polish Army reservists or members of a clandestine military organization “The Streletsky union”. Taking into consideration that the plan had been worked out for the rebuff of the local SA storm troopers and other combat groups but not the regular army-such staff could do the task.
About 110 people worked in the building in 1939. The self-defense organization was led by the Directorate second commander and the Soviet-Polish war vet named Alfons Flisykowski. In March 1939, the situation escalated so much that the self-defense organized night shifts in the building and in April, the defense leadership of the Post office was taken by a regular officer Konrad Guderski who was sent by the Polish Army.
At the end of July, the Poles evacuated the families of workers and civil servants. Sublieutenant Guderski was preparing the defense for the whole August. The Post office employees removed all the nearby trees, surrounding the building. Moreover, ten reserve non-commissioned officers came from Gdynia and Bydgoszcz to strengthen the defenders.
On the 28th of August, the postmen managed to deliver firearms secretly. Their arsenal comprised three light machine guns, several riffles, around 40 guns and three chests of grenades.
The Germans’ preparation
Meanwhile, the Germans did not lose their time in vain too. In March 1939, the Free City pro-German authorities began creating their own armed detachments. In June, the Germans secretly moved to Danzig a reinforced SS battalion from “Ostmark” regiment replenished with local volunteers. By July two local police regiments were formed (the Free City was not allowed to have its own army but it could create the police force for the sake of its territory and borders protection) which were commanded by a German General named Friedrich Eberhardt. He also had under his leadership an artillery division, sapper and communicator units. A reinforced SS battalion “E” was formed under the guise of “auxiliary police”. By the beginning of the War, there also was the 6th SA Brigade in Danzig.
German-Danzig units also had armored vehicles in service — armored cars ADGZ were secretly transferred from Vienna.
On the 3rd of July, police obermeister Erich Hertz proposed the storm plan. The commissariat building, in which Hertz served, was adjacent to the post office. As he considered the front attack to be too dangerous, according to the plan the storm should start from the commissariat. The plan prescribed three storm groups of 10-15 men get over the fence and break into the post office building and the machine gun nests were supposed to suppress the defenders' firing points. All in all, it was planned to attract 180 men to the storm– policemen, SS and SA soldiers.
On the 30th of August, The Polish Army General Staff took the final decision to abandon the Gdańsk intervention plan in the case of War beginning in connection with the strategic vulnerability of the Danzig Corridor. It is not known yet if sublieutenant Guderski got the order to leave the Post office but the German interrogations of the survived defenders showed that they were waiting for help from the Polish Army.
On the 1st September night, there were 57 people in the Post office building: 43 local Polish employees, 1 railway worker, 10 unter-officers from Poland and the building caretaker with his wife and daughter. After the Adolf Hitler’s radio performance, Konrad Guderski opened and announced the secret plan of the building defense. He explained to the defenders, as not all of them were members of the clandestine organization that he was the commander of the building defense and Alfons Flisykowski was his deputy. The Post Office manager in the peacetime, Director Jan Mihon announced the instruction according to which they were prescribed to defend for 6 hours.
At 4:00 am sharp, the Germans cut the building off the electricity and telephone and they tightly blocked all the ways out. 45 minutes later, simultaneously with SMS “Schleswig-Holstein’s” cannon sounds, a bomb blew up by the fence in the Post Office yard. A little bit later, another one blew up from the other side and three storm groups of Germans tried to break into the building. Under the Polish machine guns and pistols fire, the Germans could kick down the door and break into the parcel hall, but the success did not last long. The defenders’ grenades and machine guns forced them to retreat with two killed and seven wounded as the losses.
A little bit later, the Germans broke the first floor wall from the adjacent the Post Office police department. Sublieutenant Guderski met them there and threw the storm group with grenades. At the same time, he himself got the lethal wound (either from a German bullet or from his own grenade fragments) and the defense was led by Flisykowski who also was slightly wounded by that time.
The Germans tried to attack with armored cars support, but the attempt was unsuccessful.
By 11:00 am, the Germans pulled up the artillery to the Post — two 7.5cm leiG 18s. The gunners opened direct fire on the building from 50 meters away.
After the artillery preparation (that, however, one was compelled to stop due to the Poles’ aimed fire at the German crews), around 01:00 pm, the besiegers stormed again under the cover of armored vehicles. That time the Germans started pelting the Post office windows with grenades but many of them rebounded off the walls and blew up among the attackers. By that time, the Poles started running out of ammunition but they still managed to repel the storm.
The Germans retreated and organized the evacuation of the dwellers of the nearby houses. They drew a 105 mm howitzer leFH 18 to the battle site and the sappers dug a tunnel under the wall of the building and placed an explosive charge (Polish sources usually mention 600 kg of TNT, the German ones write of three 200 liter barrels with petrol). The Post Office defenders were announced by megaphone that if they did not surrender the building would be destroyed together with them. The Poles did not give up and at 17:00 pm, the charge was blown up. At the same time, the fire was opened from all three cannons.
After that, all the building floors were occupied by the attackers but the survived Poles moved to the basement. Then by 18:00 pm, the Germans set the Post Office on fire with flamethrowers. When several building defenders burned alive and even larger number of them received severe burns (including 10-year-old caretaker’s daughter who the Germans set on fire when she was getting out of the burning building) it became clear that the resistance was no more possible. At 19:00 pm, Director Jan Michoń left the building with a white flag but the Germans shot him at once. The next envoy, Józef Wąsik, was burned alive by a flamethrower.
However, the usage of flamethrowers by the Germans during the storm remains questionable – the version is based only on the Polish sources. According to the alternative point of view, the fire and the defenders’ burns were caused by the explosion of the barrels with petrol. Nevertheless, 6 men from the amount of the defenders were killed during the battle, two – while surrendering, 5 died in the hospital. The Germans’ losses consisted of 10 killed and 25 wounded.
The survived Poles were let to surrender by the Germans but 6 of them, including Flisykowski, managed to escape from the ruined building through the back yard.
The Nazi mock trial
The captured Post office employees appeared in front of the German court-martial. All the accused were charged of “guerrilla actions” and according to the German law they were sentenced to death. On the 5th of October, 38 Polish postmen were shot by SS men.
The Nazi sentence badly violated the provisions of a number of norms of the law in force at that time. The German special military penal law, on which basis the Polish defenders were identified as guerrillas, was to be used only in the case of war actions and Germany attacked Poland without declaring war (formally, the War began only on September 3, after it was declared by France and Britain). Until November 14, the local criminal code was valid throughout Gdansk territory, which provided no death penalty at all.
Above all, the Post Office building was a part of Poland and it had a special status. On top of all, the accused were entirely deprived of the right to protection.
Five men from the number of the Poles, who were in the building in the beginning of the storm, survived the War. That was the elderly caretaker’s wife who was not shot by the Germans after all and four out of those six who had escaped from the building through the back yard.
In 1979 on the square in front of the restored building, a monument was installed. The Goddess of the victory Nike passes a rifle to a deathly wounded postman and letters are falling out of his bag.
- Bartoszewski A., Gomulski W. Żołnierze w pocztowych mundurach. — Gdańsk, 1969;
- Bogucki F. Poczta Polska w Gdańsku. — Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza, 1978;
- Schenk D. Die Post von Danzig. Geschichte eines deutschen Justizmords. — Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1995;