Central War Gaming Blog

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Monday, October 29, 2018

The Battle of Westerplatte, 1 - 7 Sept 1939

I have recently found that Amazon Prime Video has a huge selection of obscure (to me at least) foreign war movies. Most interesting, is that many of them are from the other side of the Iron Curtain, things we couldn't see when they were first shown.

Some are awful, but some are fun, and others are classics. Today I want to talk about Westerplatte (1967). There's also a 2013 Polish movie on the same topic, but it's too angsty, too full of flashbacks, and uses bad 3D effects.

But the older film is wonderful. Guns are authentic to my eye as they are both Polish productions, and interesting to see as different from the usual US (or non-gun/airsoft gun). IMFDB page on it. They seem mostly properly employed. Lots of fussing with MGs to load them, to make sure they are moved to the best position all the time, re-water them!

People are yelled at to fire only short bursts. They even low crawl very properly. 
The film even went to the level of making not everyone a hero. People broke after days under fire, or just decided they didn’t want to fight until an officer all but threatens to shoot them. Maybe worthy of the Mindset Quote thread (translated) is a day 3 discussion in the local HQ by the officers:
We talk about surrendering, while our men only worry if they have enough ammunition. Well, gentlemen, we have enough ammunition.

The battle itself is super interesting for reasons that are perfectly relevant today. The political situation was horrid. They were on a weird little bit of only nominally Polish land, with both land and sea on all sides from what was supposedly an open city. 
Danzig was supposedly not really part of Poland or Germany, and had a police force but no army, but the Germans effectively occupied it, in a great example of peacekeepers not doing their job before the Canadians led the UN to generally figure out how to do this. Here's a close up of the Westerplatte peninsula. Danzig (modern day Gdansk) is mostly to the west. 
This strongly misrepresents what a fortification consisted of, but is an easy to read simplified plan:
The League of Nations nominally enforced Danzig being open, but it was entirely toothless. And, too beholden to avoiding war at all costs, so appeasing and backing off, as we all learned didn't work very well in the end against the Nazis, or the Empire of Japan. 
I am reminded of the UN mission to Rwanda doing nothing, and the French having to come and rescue all the Westerners, but leaving everyone else behind to die. Compare to Operation Unicorn, where French peacekeepers counter attacked and destroyed the entire Ivorian Air Force for an attack. Last year, UN withdrew from a peaceful Cote d'Ivoire; enforcing peace with force can totally work. 
German Photo-reconnaissance from 1936 clearly showing many of the buildings
The garrison on the peninsula was restricted in size, and from having significant weapons, or fortifications. All because of a desire to not make the Nazis angry, and give them an excuse to attack. Of course we know now that lacking that, the Germans just made up an excuse when it was time to attack. The Polish Army even reinforced for a few weeks shortly before this, but had to withdraw under international pressure. 
And to add to the awfulness, despite sea access and being in sight of Poland, it’s actually entirely cut off from friendly territory. Everything goes through the Open City of Danzig, which rapidly became  effectively enemy territory. Not only is there no way to fall back, but supplies are restricted even during the build up. 
Another photo-reconnaissance shot from 1936 showing where the New Barracks is situated (by the black arrow) and also showing the old ammunition bunker on the lower far right of the photo with the Old Barracks and Officers Casino about the half way mark on the extreme right of the photo whilst the Red Wall can be seen running the length of the photo.
Even the movie hits on this well. That logistics and the whole tail matters. The medical section complaining their supplies are held up in customs is just another dumb administrative thing to deal with before the war starts. But once the shooting is on, it means all your casualties stay that way, or die, because there’s not even enough dressings, much less antibiotics, surgical tools, or enough staff.
The same for backup radios and commo wire; from the first day they had to use runners to talk to outposts, are risking guys running more wire. And for most of the time they cannot talk to higher at all so cannot get clarified orders or more intelligence. Or, how to feed people once the kitchen is blown up because you expected that the big fort would be bomb proof. And a thousand other things that sap the ability of your men to fight.
Generally, it’s a good example of how individual bravery and the man with a rifle will do a hell of a lot, but artillery, air attack, and machine guns will often win out. The newsreel footage in the older film didn’t match at all, but I didn't mind as it as jaw dropping. Every gun on an battleship firing on the island at a range of about 150 m (really) is, even in grainy film, a sight to behold.
Above is a painting, but I like it.
The whole movie is also on YouTube for free, just start at the beginning instead of from this clip where the bombardment is. 
I cannot imagine sticking it out in the face of that.  And no one expected they would. The tiny, determined garrison was actually planned, at the national level, to only last 12 hours, and that was considered nuts, as it was up from a pre-no-reserves estimate of maybe 6 hours. If I haven't outlined enough horrible things they had to overcome then try this last add on for the tactical situation: The whole island isn't theirs. There's a wall down the middle, and Nazi soldiers on the other side. 
Another aerial photo from 1936, clearly showing the Red wall running the length of the 
Harbour Canal and the Old Barracks in the extreme right of the picture edge
And not a fortification. A wall. like what you might separate your back yard from your neighbors. Here is it after the battle. Yup, it's about one layer of brick, and some wire on top.  
A German posing for a shot by the ruins of the Red Wall
And yet, they lasted an entire week under those conditions. Imagine if they had even twice the manpower, better fortifications, and a dozen mountain guns to wheel around and blast the Germans with?

I bring this up not just to celebrate some really solid heroism, but because horrible situations happen, at small scales and large, for unimportant battles and key moments in history, all the time. 
CWG events, and training, tend to focus on getting the basics right. Not just teaching and letting you exercise small unit tactics, or using fewer and unencrypted radios, or how to navigate with a compass. No, while we are happy to teach those, more important than knowing any one skill is understanding principles. 
With those, you can react to loss of material, loss of mannpower, loss of communications. You can change and adapt to the situation, instead of waiting for direction from on higher, failing to take action because there's no fire support or air support, or just sitting there clueless while you wait for the Blue Force Tracker to get fixed. 

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