I’d never actually heard of Westerplatte – a testament perhaps to my prior disinterest in modern history, or to be more accurate my disinterest in history once people start preferring guns to swords and they’ve invented things like the steam engine. I was a little embarrassed to find that Westerplatte was the place where the Second World War began, on 1st September 1939. I had a bit of history to brush up on before going there, so I turned to my trusty friend – Mr. Internet.
I was a little confused, to be honest, because everything kept telling me that WWII began when Nazi Germany attacked Poland…and Westerplatte was part of the Free City of Danzig [Gdansk] which wasn’t actually properly part of Poland. However, apparently there was a Polish post office at Westerplatte, and it was this that was attacked. The Poles had been doing some defensive fortification work around there, in preparation for the invasion they were quite rightly expecting. So Westerplatte was where a war that killed apparently 55 million people started. I’m not convinced that that is something anyone would want to be known for.
I’d been a little ignorant of what exactly officially started the war, and so just in case I’m not alone in that respect, here’s a brief outline of WWII’s Franz Ferdinand equivalent. As most people know, Nazi Germany was pretty keen on expanding its territory, taking over Europe, killing everyone they didn’t like and all that. In August 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a lovely non-aggression agreement called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which they basically divided the independent nations of Central and Eastern Europe between them. The first stage of the plan was for Nazi Germany to invade Poland, with the Soviets following suit for their half of the country a couple of weeks later [17th September]. Germany desired some kind of justification for the invasion – the usual ‘We’re just defending our homeland against terrible aggressors’ rubbish – and so after a number of Polish army uniforms were acquired [interestingly, by the famous Oskar Schindler…a very interesting character, a member of the Nazi party and a German spy], they dressed up some German soldiers in said Polish uniforms and had them attack an innocent German town. Justification for invasion created, Germany subsequently attacked Westerplatte on 1 September. The Polish garrison, with the support of a number of civilians, posties and the like, managed to hold the base for a week before surrendering and all being killed. Britain and France condemned the invasion pretty quickly but didn’t deign to provide any military support or intervene until it was too late. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Westerplatte is about 7km north of Gdansk and the most enjoyable way to reach it is by ferry. It takes about 45 minutes to get there, and it’s a pleasant journey up the river.
It’s all industrial, so not exactly a nature excursion, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing all the massive freight ships and stuff that I didn’t know what it was. The ships were all brightly coloured, and I felt absolutely tiny in comparison to the metal beasts hulking over the little ferry. It was all going tremendously.
Then, the instant I stepped off the ferry it started to rain. It was fine at first, like a gentle summer shower and I was quite happy with my umbrella. Then something changed and the rain was hurtling towards me at right angles with unbelievable ferocity. My umbrella had a great time turning inside out and trying to fly away, which I’ll admit was NOT appreciated, as it was clearly failing in performing its duty of keeping me dry. I was walking along the peninsula using my umbrella as a shield before me; waving from side to side as the rain kept changing directions to spite me. Still, I was determined to proceed.
There’s a guard tower that I climbed up as much for the view as for the fact it had a roof. The view wasn’t spectacular, but it was dry. Unfortunately the rain wasn’t going to ease anytime soon so shortly I was back out fighting the elements. As if it hadn’t been troublesome enough already it decided to double in intensity and attack from all directions.
The rain had declared war on everyone innocently trying to visit Westerplatte, and all around me people were scurrying for shelter, hiding under umbrellas and raincoats under trees, or enveloping themselves in pink and blue plastic throwaway ponchos. I was trying to stuff my camera into its case and into my bag so that it wouldn’t be drowned in the onslaught.
Still though I persevered. My umbrella was useless in such a downpour and to be fair wasn’t the most effective shield, what with the turning inside out and all. Despite my best efforts, I was drenched head to toe, my sandals squelching from ankle-deep water. The rain had slowed a little, and mistakenly I imagined that it was coming to an end. As I was already wet, I could justify jumping childishly in a couple of puddles on my way to the old barracks.
I almost made it to the barracks before the torrential rain returned. It was hard to get into the barracks as it was already crammed with people hiding from the sheets of water angrily hurling themselves at the ground and anyone who dared get in its way. As the barracks was mostly ruins, there wasn’t a whole lot of space, and after about five minutes the number of people seeking shelter far exceeded the space available. I gave up. Clearly someone was determined to prevent me from making it to the monument at the tip of Westerplatte on foot, and I’d already seen it from the ferry. I was also cold and wet, and the ferry returning to Gdansk leaves hourly so I decided that I’d be on the next ferry. Time to walk back to the dock.
Typically, the instant that the ferry left the dock the bloody rain stopped. Completely.
I think it’s fair to say that I’d be a pretty crappy soldier. Raining? I’m going home.