Westerplatte, Gdansk

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The place where the first shots of World War II were fired on the first of September 1939, namely at a Polish military depot in the port of Gdansk. Despite being totally outnumbered and outgunned the Poles held off the German assault for seven days – while elsewhere Poland was rapidly being overrun. 

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


More background info: The city of Gdansk, then known by its German name Danzig, had been given a special status of 'Free City' after World War One by the League of Nations, and this status allowed Poland a few privileges in the city too (incl. the Polish Post Office), hence the presence of a Polish military transit depot within the harbour of Danzig, namely at its outermost promontory known as Westerplatte.
On the morning of 1 September 1939 the German battleship "Schleswig-Holstein" began shelling the Polish garrison – the war that would develop into the colossal tragedy that was World War II had begun. The Poles at Westerplatte fought back heroically for longer than had been expected, though.
Despite the German use of heavy artillery and aerial bombing, it took seven days before the Polish commander surrendered, after it had become clear that no support from the Polish Army would be forthcoming. It was losing the war in mainland Poland in a military storm that became known as 'Blitzkrieg'. (This German propaganda term means something like 'war as quick as lightning', and it is not to be confused with 'the Blitz', Britons' pseudo-Germanism used to refer to the German air raids on British cities, especially London).
By the end of the month the country was largely taken by Germany … while the Soviet Union, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, seized the eastern territories that today are still part of Belarus, Ukraine, and Lithuania.
Still, the heroic resistance at Westerplatte (and the Polish Post Office) is still proudly remembered in Poland. It is often seen as having set the scene for Poland's long resistance struggle that followed for the next five years and eight months …
The monuments at the site make for a popular excursion for Poles and foreign visitors alike.
What there is to see: Westerplatte is dominated by a huge monument, standing some 25 metres tall on a small hill overlooking Gdansk harbour and the ship canal on the one side and the Baltic Sea on the other. Value judgements about the memorial vary greatly, some find it "soothing", others see it as a "monstrosity". Whatever, it sure makes its mark.
There are various smaller memorials scattered about the area as well, as are some ruins of the original buildings that were the target of the shelling by the Germans.
A small original bunker that survived largely unscathed today houses a museum about the events of September 1939 and World War II. Apart from photos and models of both Westerplatte back then and the "Schleswig-Holstein" battleship, there are also a few original artefacts from the time such as guns, uniforms, radio equipment. Some of the labels bear English translations, other texts are only in Polish. Overall, it's really just a minute little museum, comprising of just three smallish rooms. Probably the most impressive exhibits are to be seen on the outside: two 280 mm (11 inch) shells weighing 330 kg – of the sort fired by the "Schleswig-Holstein".
Furthermore there is an open-air exhibition about the history of Westerplatte, curated by the "Museum 1939" (see under Gdansk). This opened after my visit so I haven't seen it with my own eyes yet. I'll report once I have managed to go back to Gdansk ... 
Otherwise Westerplatte is kind of a public recreational park, popular also with non-dark tourists. Since it is located at the outermost edge of Gdansk's harbour area, you can also come here simply to see the sea.
And if you go by boat, it's an interesting harbour tour in its own right. It passes some of the busier parts of the Gdansk shipyards – whereas the bit near the gates at Plac Solidarnosci is pretty dead. That is so because these days the shipyards are run at only a fraction of their capacity, and are thus not economically viable. But it's too much of a national symbol to be simply closed down completely. En route the boat also goes past two older waterfront fortresses.
Location: at the outermost northern edge of Gdansk's vast harbour area, right by shores of the Baltic Sea.
Google maps locators:
[54.406,18.676] – old bunker museum
[54.4067,18.6671] – main monument
Access and costs: easy to get to by boat, but not necessarily cheap.
Details: The most pleasant and convenient way to get to Westerplatte from the touristy centre of Gdansk is to take one of the boats that depart from the waterfront: The most touristy option is to take the mock "pirate" sailing ship, which looks really odd against the backdrop of a modern harbour – and it doesn't "sail", of course, it's merely a model set on top of a normal modern steel hull propelled by diesel engine and screw. This departs from opposite the Maritime Museum near the Old Crane.
Or, if the "pirate ship" is too tacky for you, get on one of the normal boats departing from a landing stage closer to the Most Zielona bridge. Price-wise there isn't much difference (in August 2008 I paid 45 zloty return, now it's likely to cost a bit more).
The boat first goes past Westerplatte so that you can admire the main monument from the water before arrival. The boat then turns round again and moors at the landing stage. From there it's a bit of a walk to the monument but doable. The somewhat more peaceful route further out and closer to the sea takes you past some WWII ruins too. You can then loop back to the main walkway linking to the monument and take in the small bunker museum on your way back (open daily between May and October, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.).
First this you first have to get your ticket from a souvenir kiosk in a different building some 50 yards away (the museum's curator doesn't sell tickets, for some bizarre reason). Admission is 3 zloty – not much, but then again, there's relatively little to see inside … still, it's cheap compared to the boat fare.
A cheaper way of getting to Westerplatte is to take a bus (No. 106) departing from the train station, but obviously the route is less scenic. There's also a chain ferry connecting Westerplatte to Nowy Port on the other side of the Wisla ship canal, and you can get there by tram (No. 10).
Time required: The small bunker museum hardly takes more than 20 minutes, if that, nor do any of the monuments take up much time individually. But you do have to factor in a bit of walking time between the various parts. Plus getting there of course. Especially when also taking the boat back into town. They are not that frequent, so make sure you note the times for return departures before you wander off exploring  …
Combinations with other dark destinations: see Gdansk.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Westerplatte is also a destination for its seaside location and its nice woodland park. On fine summer days people come here to sunbathe by the sea. The boat trip out to Westerplatte from the centre of Gdansk is itself also a pleasure trip in its own right.
See also Gdansk in general.
  • Westerplatte 1 - main monumentWesterplatte 1 - main monument
  • Westerplatte 2 - in Polish coloursWesterplatte 2 - in Polish colours
  • Westerplatte 3 - smaller memorialWesterplatte 3 - smaller memorial
  • Westerplatte 4 - museumWesterplatte 4 - museum
  • Westerplatte 5 - shells outside the museumWesterplatte 5 - shells outside the museum
  • Westerplatte 6 - museum interiorWesterplatte 6 - museum interior
  • Westerplatte 7 - war ruinsWesterplatte 7 - war ruins
  • Westerplatte 8 - approach to main monumentWesterplatte 8 - approach to main monument
  • Westerplatte 9 - monument with concrete and steelWesterplatte 9 - monument with concrete and steel
  • WesterplatteWesterplatte

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