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Westerplatte, Gdansk

  
  - darkometer rating:  5 -
   
Westerplatte 22   main monumentThe 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 Gdańsk. 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

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

 
More background info: The city of Gdańsk, 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 Nazis' 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, small museum and war relics at Westerplatte make for a popular excursion for Poles and foreign visitors alike.
  
There are now plans for a more comprehensive commodification of the story of the battle of Westerplatte, which is politically controversial, as it is intended to be a more “patriotic” (and more nationalistic!) counterpart to the Museum of the Second World War near the centre of Gdańsk (see background). It remains to be seen what comes of all that.
 
 
What there is to see: Quite a lot. To take it all in it is recommended that, if coming by bus, you get out not at the terminus but at the penultimate stop, called Przystań Żeglugi 01. This is also near the landing stage for the water trams that depart from the waterfront of Gdańsk’s Old Town.
  
Note that the place is in flux. Archaeological work is being done and there are plans for a series of reconstructions and a couple of new museum exhibitions to be added to what is already to be found here today. The first one, to be housed in the former power station behind the main monument towards the western end of Westerplatte, is scheduled to open in 2022, a larger purpose-built museum to the east of the main monument is scheduled to open in 2024. A new visitor centre is also to be created at the eastern end of the whole complex.
  
Below I describe what I found on my visits in 2008 and 2019:
  
When setting off from Przystań, begin your walking tour at the concrete Westerplatte sign daubed with indications of the Polish national flag’s colours. Nearby are remains of a railway station. A path then leads though a forested area parallel to the seafront. Along this path you pass an old ammunition bunker and a concrete observation tower. The latter actually dates from after WWII, when it was part of early Cold-War-era fortifications.
  
Dotted around any point of interest are open-air information panels that provide some historical background as well as photos, maps, etc.; the texts and labels are bilingual, in Polish and English.
  
Further along the path you come to some more or less intact remnants of bunkers and fortifications, again some dating back to the 1950s rather than WWII. The interiors of these are, however, not accessible to the general public. Nearby are also yet more smaller memorial monuments.
  
Near the site’s parking area for coaches there are the first two of four clusters of larger information panels, seven each. These panels go far beyond the events of September 1939 and also provide an overview of Westerplatte’s pre-war history and its non-military functions as a seaside resort. This set of open-air panels is entitled “Spa – Bastion – Symbol” and it’s not entirely clear whether these are to remain in place or only serve as stand-ins until all those new commodifications plans are realized. A few additional panels further along the way provide previews of what it is being planned out here.
  
Now heading south you come to the western car park and a cluster of fast-food outlets. A bit further into the forest park is a small original bunker, Guardhouse No. 1, that survived the war largely unscathed. his houses a small 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 is 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 – of the sort fired by the “Schleswig-Holstein” – weighing 330 kg each. Whether this museum will remain is also unclear. I can well imagine that it will be superseded by the new museums that are in the pipeline (see above).
  
Further along the route westwards is another of the “Spa – Bastion – Symbol” open-air museum panel clusters as well as more concrete remnants.
  
The highlight of these is the two-storey barracks building that was largely destroyed in the shelling of September 1939. This dramatic ruin has meanwhile been made accessible – a metal walkway leads inside from where you can marvel at twisted reinforced concrete and flattened staircases. Metal steps also lead down to the basement level for yet more views of this ruin.
  
The path then widens and a few steps lead to the ceremonial approach road with flagpoles at the end of which is the hillock atop which stands the main Westerplatte monument. You can follow a path up to the base of the monument that spirals round the hillock. At the foot of the hill is the final set of large open-air panels.
  
The main monument itself is partly abstract and partly has stylized depictions of soldiers with helmets and machine guns and bears some Polish inscriptions. It is a typical socialist concrete monument standing some 25 metres tall on a small hill overlooking Gdańsk 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. If you are coming by boat you may see the monument from the water as boats often do loop round to the end of Westerplatte before returning to the landing stage.
  
Much of Westerplatte feels more like a seaside park, and many locals come here not so much for the history but simply to see the sea. I also found it a nice add-on.
  
All in all, the excursion out here is totally worth the while. There’s already a lot to see, and over the coming years the whole complex will become much more commodified still. In what fashion that’ll be done remains to be seen, but it will certainly be even more interesting when all these new developments are finished.
  
 
Location: at the outermost northern edge of Gdańsk's vast harbour area, right by shores of the Baltic Sea.
  
Google maps locators:
  
[54.4039, 18.6819] – start of the route at Przystań
  
[54.40574, 18.68054] – observation tower
  
[54.406,18.676] – old museum 
   
[54.4065, 18.6717] - walk-though ruin
   
[54.4067,18.6671] – main monument
 
  
Access and costs: easy to get to by boat, but not necessarily cheap, depending on how you get there.
 
Details: There are different ways of getting to Westerplatte. If you’re driving, first head out of Gdańsk city centre along route 501 and then take route 89 north; get off the motorway-like road at the roundabout (avoiding the route towards crossing the river again) and carry on along the now smaller route 89 further through partly active, partly derelict industrial quarters until you come to the eastern end of Westerplatte. You can park on one of the lots to the right, or carry on to the end of the publicly usable road and park there.
  
If you’re using public transport, you have two options, a cheap one taking bus line 106 from outside the main train station. The route goes through the same industrial parts and thus isn’t strictly speaking very scenic (unless you’re into industrial dereliction – which I actually am), but it’s also the fastest option.
  
The more expensive, but slow and scenic way of getting to Westerplatte is by boat from the Old Town waterfront. Either get a regular Water Tram (line F5) e.g. from Targ Rybny, or even that mock-pirate ship that plies the same route. Of course it doesn’t actually sail, but is just a regular engine-driven boat with a fake, and rather tacky, pseudo-historical superstructure.
  
Westerplatte as such is accessible for free at all times (though going there outside daylight hours wouldn’t make much sense). The small old museum charged a low admission fee (in 2008 it was 3 PLN, now it’s likely more, perhaps twice that); information about opening times was not available at the time of writing. Whether the envisaged new museums will charge an admission fee, and if so how much, remains to be seen.
 
 
Time required: in its current form around two hours, depending a bit on whether you want to read all the text on the open-air panels and if you start right at the eastern end or only concentrate on the western half from the bus terminus. The small old museum takes at best 20 minutes on top. How elaborate the planned new additional museums will be is currently impossible to foresee.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Gdańsk.
  
The more central attractions most related to Westerplatte are the Museum of the Second World War, which also has a section on that battle, and the Polish Post Office, which also came under attack at the same time as Westerplatte, and where there is a small museum exhibition.
  
If you’re taking the boat to get to Westerplatte from the centre of Gdańsk, then you’ll get good views of the harbour and some of the still active shipyards (as opposed to the largely derelict old shipyards), and you’ll also pass the old Wisłoujście Fortress.
 
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Gdańsk.
   
 
  • Westerplatte 01 - signWesterplatte 01 - sign
  • Westerplatte 02 - old ammunitions bunkerWesterplatte 02 - old ammunitions bunker
  • Westerplatte 03 - towerWesterplatte 03 - tower
  • Westerplatte 04 - bunkersWesterplatte 04 - bunkers
  • Westerplatte 05 - coastal bunkerWesterplatte 05 - coastal bunker
  • Westerplatte 05 - monumentWesterplatte 05 - monument
  • Westerplatte 06 - established open-aircommodification Westerplatte 06 - established open-aircommodification
  • Westerplatte 07 - big proposals for further commodificationWesterplatte 07 - big proposals for further commodification
  • Westerplatte 08 - established small museumWesterplatte 08 - established small museum
  • Westerplatte 09 - shells outsideWesterplatte 09 - shells outside
  • Westerplatte 10 - inside the museumWesterplatte 10 - inside the museum
  • Westerplatte 11 - first shots of WWIIWesterplatte 11 - first shots of WWII
  • Westerplatte 12 - ruin lurking behind treesWesterplatte 12 - ruin lurking behind trees
  • Westerplatte 13 - you now can enter itWesterplatte 13 - you now can enter it
  • Westerplatte 14 - going in Westerplatte 14 - going in
  • Westerplatte 15 - lower levelWesterplatte 15 - lower level
  • Westerplatte 16 - tourist groupWesterplatte 16 - tourist group
  • Westerplatte 17 - hanging by a threadWesterplatte 17 - hanging by a thread
  • Westerplatte 18 - inside the ruinWesterplatte 18 - inside the ruin
  • Westerplatte 19 - dramatic sightWesterplatte 19 - dramatic sight
  • Westerplatte 20 - yet more concrete remnantsWesterplatte 20 - yet more concrete remnants
  • Westerplatte 21 - long approach to the main monumentWesterplatte 21 - long approach to the main monument
  • Westerplatte 22 - main monumentWesterplatte 22 - main monument
 
 
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

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