After the fights for Westerplatte, General Friedrich Eberhardt salutes Major Henryk Sucharski. But was it deserved?



The case of the command on the Westerplatte and steadfast and heroic stance of Major Henryk Sucharski seemed to be beyond dispute ever since the end of the Second World War. Suddenly, it became not so obvious, as a picture of the defence of the Military Transit Depot on Westerplatte from 2 to 7 September 1939 has been emerging quite different from that Polish youth has been learning from the History classes for decades.

Streets, schools, and scout teams are named after Major Sucharski. His image also appeared, among others, on a commemorative coin and postage stamp. A merchant ship bears his name. Is it for sure that Major Henryk Sucharski deserves these honours? Who should be praised for the fact that Westerplatte has become so much a landmark name in Polish history?

Here is how Second Lieutenant Zdzisław Kręgielski, in 1939 commander of the outpost Przystań, described his superior officer:

Major Sucharski (...) possessed no extensive military knowledge. After all, as the commandant he did not need it. For military affairs he had a deputy, Captain Dąbrowski. Maj. Sucharski had no interest in military affairs, but he liked to play politics and impose his political opinions on the subordinates. He did not respect anybody's beliefs, and even used to force others to adopt his lifestyle. His presence at the joint gatherings as a rule created heavy atmosphere. In his relations with the superiors he was submissive to the utmost and always servile. Assuming about his position and the importance of his person. The post of the commandant of Westerplatte was bringing great material benefits, which easily filled up two PKO Bank pass-books of 10,000 zlotys each. He was a type of petty scrooge. (...)

His attitude toward people has such an example: at the time of escalation of the situation, there came orders not to leave Westerplatte. Therefore, Capt. Dąbrowski suggested that Lt. Grodecki, as a reserve officer (and commandant's aide-de-camp), boarded with us. Maj. Sucharski objected to that vehemently, believing that detrimental to have his dinner together with Lt. Grodecki. It seems that the outbreak of the war had nullified many of his plans. He lost all he had saved. Not enough a militaryman to command, he only wanted to demonstrate subordination to the orders - to hold for 12 hours. Hence, after the air raid on the second day of fighting he was the first one of the garrison to break down. Since that moment on he ceased to exist as the commander. [Borowiak M. (2001).]

So there came the day 1 September 1939. At 4:45 the battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish garrison of Westerplatte. Thanks to the excellent training under the command of Captain Franciszek Dąbrowski, the deputy commandant of Westerplatte and the commander of its sentry squad, about 220-230 Polish defenders were not caught unawares, and within 2-3 minutes after the first salvoes and took to their action stations. Captain Dąbrowski, a professional machine-gunner, before the war paid great attention to the deployment of the firing points in the defense system of the Military Transit Depot, and that played a great role in the dramatic days of the battle for Westerplatte.

An open-text message was transmitted: Help, we are under attack! The first who received the message was apparently Leading Seaman Zdzisław Piechocki, the wireless-operator of the submarine Żbik.

On that day Polish soldiers repelled two assaults, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy with the loss of four. Next day past in skirmishes with German patrols. Then a lull came in the evening, and it seemed that the second day of the battle was over. Yet, soon after 18:00 a squadron of Junkers Ju-87's flew over the Westerplatte and within next two hours dropped on the peninsula 8 bombs of 500kg, 50 bombs of 250kg and 200 bombs of 50kg each (altogether 26.5 tons of explosives!). The effect of the bombing was overwhelming. Barracks and outposts were literally "floating" from explosions. A direct hit destroyed the outpost No.5 with its entire personnel. Two bombs hit the barracks. All four modern mortars were destroyed on their positions, abandoned by the soldiers, who fled to the barracks. Telephone intercommunications were disrupted. Soldiers started to show signs of panic. Personnel of the emplacements Fort and Elektrownia abandoned their positions. After the raid of the German dive bombers nothing could be seen through a hundred-metres column of thick smoke and dust billowing over the Westerplatte. The Germans assumed that nobody had survived on the Westerplatte.

Meanwhile in the barracks Major Sucharski fell in a state of acute shock. He sobbed over the death of his orderly, Private Józef Kita, killed at the outpost No.5. Shocked from the "stukas" raid, he ordered to burn secret documents and code books (standard procedure before surrender). But he did not check up on his orders, and in result the Journal of Coded Dispatches and the Polish Fleet Code Book after the capitulation of Westerplatte fell in the German hands. Since then on the Germans exercised ease in decoding all messages of the Polish navy ships, and land troops fighting in Oksywie and Hel peninsula. In is worth mentioning at this point that Sergeant Kazimierz Rasiński, the radio-operator of the Military Transit Depot, was not shot by the Gestapo (according to the official communist version), but was transferred to the Kriegsmarine radio-interception centre in Brusterort. Did he collaborate voluntarily or was forced to do so? It transpires from the German archive documents that he himself proposed collaboration!

It seemed that the surrender of the Military Transit Depot was just the matter of time. Sucharski suggested capitulation to Dąbrowski. Yet, outraged Dąbrowski pointed to him that the sounds of fighting were coming from the outposts and other positions:
Look, men are fighting! he said.
Major only mumbled:
It's of no use. We have carried out the orders. [Borowiak M. (2001).]

Till the final surrender he was hiding an important information from his deputy: the date of the expected German attack, and the fact that nobody was going to come to the aid of Westerplatte. That information came at the eve of the war from Lieutenant-Colonel Wincenty Sobociński, the Plenipotent Commissar of the Polish Republic in Danzig. Why did Sucharski keep it secret from his soldiers, who he exposed to unnecessary risk? Why did he not share the information with his deputy? That would be quite natural.

Sucharski ordered hoisting the while flag to incidentally met Corporal Jan Gębura, who raised some white sheet or table-cloth over the roof of the barracks. Watches on the Schleswig-Holstein spotted the white flag in the thick smoke, and the assault group got the order from the battleship:  Nicht schißen, warte, weiße Flagge auf Westerplatte (Don't shoot, wait, white flag over Westerplatte).

While the Germans were waiting for confirmation from their observers, Captain Dąbrowski learned about the white flag over the barracks. Furious, he ordered some soldier to tear it down immediately. Next minute there was no white flag over Westerplatte any more.

Major, who was thinking about surrender already 12 hours after the outbreak of the war, upon the news about the torn-down flag became furious as well and got a severe shock. He suffered an epileptic seizure - he was shaking and wheezing, and got the foam on his lips. Major's hands and legs started producing convulsive movements, after which he fainted. By Dąbrowski's order Lieutenant Stefan Grodecki brought the doctor - Captain Mieczysław Słaby. Together they put Sucharski on a bed and tied him with belts. Major received a shot of tranquilizer and his seizure gradually yielded. By Dąbrowski's order the officers swore not to reveal to the soldiers of Westerplatte that Sucharski wanted to surrender it, and that he could not stand the psychological stress and ceased to be the commander. The soldiers were not supposed to know anything. That would only deepen the chaos and undermine possibilities of further defence. Nothing indicated that the commandant of the Military Transit Depot had to surrender Westerplatte. But the shock and nervous break-down dismissed him from the command.

At this point it is worth mentioning that after the air raid more mysterious events took place on Westerplatte. The Germans discovered there unmarked graves of the Polish soldiers. In the Internet one can stumble over allegations about some mutiny of the soldiers of Westerplatte. Will the mystery be ever solved? People, who know the answer to all the questions are still alive.

Soldiers respected Captain Dąbrowski, whom they nicknamed "Kuba". After the commandant's break-down "Kuba", as the most senior officer, took over the command and quickly restored the defences. After the loss of the outpost No.5 he organized two other outposts and forbade his men move around Westerplatte to hinder observation of the Polish positions from the battlefield and the other side of the port canal. Also, Dąbrowski ordered to report casualties. There were 10 killed and wounded - not bad for the garrison of 220-230 men. Westerplatte had means to fight - there were enough food and ammunition for several weeks.

Dąbrowski did not assume command to claim glory and honours in the future; he never actually did it after the war. Neither did he identified himself with heroism. He just believed that resistance had to continue while there was such a possibility, because surrender of Westerplatte would be a painful blow to all the Poles, to whom the war news "Westerplatte fights on" brought hope, and mobilized for the struggle with the Nazi invaders.

And so, Sucharski was locked in the basement under Grodecki's supervision. Later, when he was allowed to the commanding post, he made an impression of absent-minded. Beginning of 5 September, Major started hanging around the barracks and agitating NCO's to persuade Dąbrowski to surrender. By then Sucharski was shattered psychologically so much that he made a pathetic appearance. He did not believe in the sense of further resistance, sobbed in front of the soldiers, and apparently did not take part in decision making any more. "Kuba" had a hard time. On one hand he had to continue to command the defence, and on the other hand he had to keep Major away from any contact with the soldiers, so they would not discover that their superior officer did not see any sense in further resistance. Sucharski had to be reprimanded constantly, often in sharp words: Why the hell don't you pull yourself together; people are watching! or Heniek, if I see you again among the soldiers, I will lock you up! Lieutenant Grodecki was trying to bring Major to his senses and restore his dignity, pointing at the order of Virtuti Militari hanging at his chest, and asking: Major, sir, doesn't it oblige you to anything? But Sucharski only lamented: I can't take it any more! I can't take it any more! or wandered around with absent-minded look and mumbled: What's going to happen? What's going to happen? [Borowiak M. (2001).] Being a disciplined officer, Dąbrowski did not lock up Sucharski, because he did not want to cause commotion among the soldiers. Till the end of the fights he maintained the appearance that Major was in command of his subordinates. When couriers were coming with reports, Major as a rule was "tired" or "taking rest". It was Dąbrowski to receive reports and give orders. Thanks to him the defence was restored and "Westerplatte was fighting on".