Red Scythemen. In the summer of 1939 port workers of Gdynia volunteered to help with digging trenches. After the outbreak of the war they formed five battalions of popular militia. Unfortunately, there was not enough arms for them, so they armed themselves with improvised weapon - long poles with scythe blades attached upright.



Poland, brought to the independent being after 123 years of absence on the political maps of Europe, on 10 February 1920 received access to the Baltic Sea. However, it was not a reason for excessive joy, as the coast awarded to Poland by the decisions of the Treaty of Versailles constituted merely a 142km-long stretch of sandy beaches from Hel Peninsula to the outskirts of Zoppot. Danzig with adjacent area was declared a free city under the international control; although it maintained certain formal links with Poland, majority of its population was German. Poland was too weak politically to get a better deal. The narrow "corridor" of the Polish Pomerania, wedged between the German Pomerania and East Prussia in a space no bigger than 40 kilometres, was impossible to defend in case of a conflict with Germany. The whole area had barely few fishermen villages, with only one small port in Puck. The Germans made sure that no objects of economic importance were left to the Poles; the land was stripped of anything that Poland might use to build a real sea economy and a navy. In the beginning of 1920s Poland's access to the sea was an illusion rather than a reality.

In those circumstances it was amazing how soon, vigorously and successfully Poland started building its position on the Baltic Sea. The Polish Navy, brought into being in the beginning of 1919 in Modlin on the Vistula, immediately moved to the sea. Puck became its first base, where anchored few boats and gunboats inherited from the German and Russian navies. Hel became a temporary merchant transit port, while Westerplatte - a Polish sovereign enclave in Danzig - a military one; they played their roles till 1923, when Poland started building of the modern, fully Polish, and independent seaport in Gdynia. At the end of 1920s Gdynia became one of the biggest ports in the Baltic Sea. The Polish navy was transferred from Puck to the new, modern navy base built in 1925-1926 next to Gdynia in Oksywie. Since then Puck served only as the base for the squadron of hydroplanes.

The political situation of the Polish Pomerania, wedged between the Reich and East Prussia, predetermined the concepts of its defence and proper fortification in case of a war with Germany, which never renounced the territories ceded to Poland by the decisions of the Versailles Treaty. The Germans never concealed their resentment towards the Entente and hatred against the Poles for the change of borders, which separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany, and left a sizable German minority outside Germany. The Germans of East Prussia, whether old or young, nazis or not, from the top state and party officials to the last breadwinner, nursed hopes for revision of the borders. They resented that while travelling between German Konigsberg and German Berlin they had to carry passports and be submitted to the Polish customs control, as well as Polish police invigilation while visiting their friends and relatives in Polish Pomerania. Those resentments were shared by the Kashubians and Masurians - the Slavic minority, which spoke a dialect of Polish language, but did not identify themselves with the Polish state. The German propaganda exploited those resentments utterly.

On the other hand the Polish state and military authorities demonstrated a flabbergasting placidity. They knew the real state of the matters - from spies and diplomats, not from newspapers. Yet, during the whole 20 inter-war years they did practically nothing to have the Pomeranian "corridor" properly and timely prepared for a German aggression. The highest authorities of Poland are to blame for such a state of matters, because despite of numerous initiatives from civilian and military sources they kept, for completely incomprehensible reasons, belittling the German menace to Pomerania, and especially to Gdynia and Hel.

Many present-day historians try to explain the situation with the difficulties of building of the new state in all spheres of politics and economy, chronic lack of money and laborious building of what the rest of Europe had built over the centuries. They do not explain, though, why several times plans of fortification of Gdynia and deploying there fortress units (at least one division with auxiliary services), worked out by the military engineers, were ignored.

There was a lot of talk about the sea and the hard defence in case of a war in the pre-war Poland, but the whole effort boilt down to the nationalist propaganda and no practical activities. Meanwhile anybody, who would have a sober look at the map of the pre-war Poland, had to realise that the fates of a possible struggle for the Polish access to the sea would be decided not at sea, but on the land, and that the future of the Polish access to the sea would depend on efficiency of defence of the main Polish naval bases - Gdynia and Hel. Danzig was a German city, only formally associated with Poland by the decisions of the Versailles Treaty, and in case of a conflict with Germany it would be lost in advance. Poland's position on the Baltic Sea was too weak to afford neglecting defence of the Pomerania in case of a war.

It is impossible to explain rationally that hiatus between the propagandist theory and the poor, makeshift practice of the supreme Polish authorities in the Pomeranian affairs. One cannot but help to build a gloomy picture of Warsaw leaving Pomerania to its own fate in case of a conflict with Germany. Did they put their hopes to defend the land in a navy expanded to monstruous dimensions for such a poor country with such a tiny exit to the sea? Or they did not believe in the possibility of a conflict with Germany? Unfortunately, there is a lot of evidence that it was so.

In 1921-1937 the cardinal leitmotif of the Polish military doctrine was preparing offensive operations against the Soviet Union. It was not until 1933-1935, when the nazis came to power in Germany and started rebuilding Germany's military power that some officers got sober, and undertook first studies on the plan of defence in the west. The first plan was worked out at the end of the life of the Polish dictator Marshal Józef Piłsudski, and remained just a theory on paper. After Piłsudski's death the staff that worked on the plan under the cryptonym Laboratorium was disbanded by the decision of the new Marshal of Poland, Edward Śmigły-Rydz, in 1936 and never had any chance to put their studies in practice. The next study, made by Gen. Tadeusz Kutrzeba and Col. Stefan Mossor in 1937-1938, also had never been put in practice. As ironical as it is, it survived the war and after the war it was published; military experts judge that the study was plausible and under certain conditions might be successfully implemented.

The third attempt to work out a plan of defence of Poland against a German invasion was undertaken in 1939 under the pressure of the political developments, and practically at the eve of the outbreak of the war. The studies were conducted under the supervision of the Chief of Staff of the Polish Army, Gen. Wacław Teofil Stachiewicz and his chief of operations, Col. Józef Jaklicz. The plan, codenamed Zachód (West), had never been finalized, and its practical implementation in September 1939 was reduced to the desperate attempts to plug the gaps in the front. Overall, Polish strategists from the entourage of Śmigły-Rydz were preparing the defence of Poland in hurry and without a coherent operational concept. That does not testify too well about their professional integrity.

Eventually, the real preparations for defence of Pomerania were not undertaken until the autumn 1938, and even then they progressed sluggishly. The commanders of the Polish Navy - Chief of the Navy Executive, Rear-Admiral Jerzy Świski in Warsaw, and the Fleet Commander, Rear-Admiral Józef Unrug in Hel - did not receive funds adequate to heel all needs neglected for years. Most of the funds allocated for the defence of the Pomerania in 1921-1938 were spent to build an oversized fleet of ships. The Chief Executive of the Navy did not foresee the land defence of the Pomerania at all. Therefore, in the summer of 1939 the land defence was lacking everything - troops, ammunition, automatic weapons, artillery and aircraft. It ended up in the situation when the defence of the Polish Baltic coast was carried by reserve units, paramilitary organizations, volunteers, and sailors from the sunken ships. They totally lacked preparedness for the tasks that awaited them, and especially for the modern warfare that the Germans had been preparing for years then.

Responsible for such a state of matters was first of all Warsaw, where prevailed obsolete concepts from the First World War (1914-1918), and the Polish-Soviet War (1920-1921). The fact that the technological progress had changed the methods of the warfare and military doctrines since then was ignored. Most of the high-ranking Polish officers were professionally weak; they gained their experience in the battlefields of the First World War, which were dominated by traditional infantry, cavalry and artillery, and, with some exceptions (like Gen. Władysław Sikorski or Gen. Kazimierz Sosnkowski), did not see sense in developing the air force or armoured and motorized troops. Also, they did not see necessity of building permanent fortifications along the Polish frontiers, because they foresaw offensive operations with the masses of infantry and cavalry. Such views were imposed on lower ranks, and all deficiencies or obvious weaknesses of such a military doctrine were covered up with silence or hurray-optimistic propaganda, whereas any sober criticism was regarded for defeatism and lack of trust in the state and military authorities. It was not until the defeat in 1939 that clearly demonstrated the bankruptcy of such a policy, which could not be saved even with the utmost heroism and sacrifices of the Polish soldiers.

Furthermore, the Navy, which considered itself a branch of the armed forces "smarter" than the traditional infantry, treated Pomerania as its own feudal fiefdom. Therefore, until the outbreak of the war there was no practical co-operation between the navy and army officers responsible for the defence of Pomerania. In particular, Rear-Admiral Unrug and his staff treated the commander of the land defence, Col. Stanisław Dąbek, with unconcealed contempt, and ignored his postulates and requests. The Navy took care only about the defence of Hel, the main wartime navy base, and left Gdynia, the main port of Poland, to Dąbek. The Navy did not render to him any assistance, which he requested many times. The commandant of the Torun Military District (later the commander of the Army Pomorze), Gen. Władysław Bortnowski, tried to intervene into the matters of the land defence in August 1939, but to no avail. His interventions only aggravated the tensions between the Army and the Navy, and the only practical result he achieved was deployment of a battery of obsolete guns on Kepa Oksywska.

Eventually, it was decided that Unrug would assume the command of the coastal defence. Apart from the garrison of Hel, he received under his command the garrisons of Gdynia and the Military Transit Depot in the Free City of Danzig (Westerplatte). The decision was made on the turn of July and August 1939. It was definitely too late. Sailors did not know the specifics of the land combat, and Unrug neglected co-ordination of the operations of subordinated units. He limited himself to concentration of the navy ships in Hel, and maintaining radio-communication with Gdynia and Westerplatte.

Danzig was left out of the operational zone of the Polish forces. Therefore, the garrison of Westerplatte was left to its own fate. Tiny forces deployed along the coast were dispersed in isolated pockets of defence, and doomed to being surrounded and destroyed by the attacking German forces one after one. From the military point of view it would be better to abandon Danzig as a position lost á priori, and transfer the garrison of Westerplatte to reinforce the defence of Gdynia, or may be Kartuzy or Wejherowo. They were well armed and trained, and one could make a better use of them than keeping them on Westerplatte for propaganda reasons.

From the historical perspective one must admit that the defenders of the Polish coast carried their duties with honour. The manpower equivalent to three infantry divisions, crammed on a tiny scrap of land, and cut off the rest of the country since the third day of the war, delivered resolute resistance to the enemy exercising triple superiority in the troops, and absolute superiority in artillery, tanks, aircraft and ships. While putting unwarranted hopes in the Allies' help, against all odds and the logic of warfare, Westerplatte resisted 7 days, Gdynia - 19 days, and Hel - 31 days.

The most admirable is the fact that the Poles not only held their defences, but also counter-attacked, catching the enemy in complete surprise. The defence of Hel was so resolute, that the Germans eventually abandoned any plans of taking it in a land assault, and mounted a regular siége with continuous bombardments from the land, air and sea.

The resolute defence of the Polish coast astonished the German commanders. It just did not fit the idea of the "lightning war". It was the merit of Adm. Unrug, Col. Dąbek, Capt. Franciszek Dąbrowski, and their soldiers and sailors, who were daring to remain on the lost positions, and instilling the invaders with respect. If the defence of the Polish coast had been prepared better in advance, it could have been even more efficient. Fortunately, the most valuable ships of the Polish Navy were sent to Great Britain at the eve of the outbreak of the war according to the plan Pekin. Thus, the monstrous fleet, built at the huge expense of the Polish treasury and society, did not play any significant role in the defence of Pomerania. It was solely the merit of the Polish soldiers and sailors, who fought as long as the ammunition, medicines, food, and hope lasted.