Monday, 12 September 2016

01.IX.1939 - Defence of the Polish Post Office No1 (Gdansk)


Alongside my passion for all things Poland '39 is a specific interest in the very first shots traded in WWII in the city of Danzig (now named Gdansk). Westerplatte has plenty written about it and plenty of photogtraphic evidence to support it if you know where to look BUT a story of somewhat unsung heroism has to be that of the 50 postal workers who held back the Nazi warmachine for 12 hours at the start of the war.

The monument to the murdered defenders of the Polish Post Office in Gdansk. It shows a mortally wounded Postal Officer handing his rifle to Nike, the Undying Goddess of Victory. He is, as Poland was; bowed but never broken!

Alongside my wanderings over Gdansk, Roxi (she who must be obeyed) agreed to come to the 'Polish Post Office' building that is today still operating as a working post building!

So... here is their story:

Poczta Polska Gdanska

The defence of Polish Post Office No1 was one of the first armed clashes of WWII.

When  Poland was granted extra-national territories in the 'Free' city of Danzig as a part of the Treaty of Versailles one of the largest was that of Polish Post Office No1.

The main entrance to the Post Office with a Postal Officer standing proud outside the entrance

There were other post offices in Danzig that were held by the Poles of course but this one in particular was important because within the building was also the telephone exchange that was in direct contact with Poland proper. It is estimated that before the war over 100 people were employed inside the 'Poczta Polska Gdanska'.

A Polish Switchboard Operator in the Polish Post Office

The building itself used to be a hospital but had since been divided into two wings by temporary walls with the Danzig Labour Department occupying the West wing of the building (now occupied by a school) and the Polish Postal service occupying the East wing.

A Polish Post Office Workers Uniform

Before the war the Post office workers were principally reserve NCO's of the Polish army and the self defence unit of the Post Office was led by Alfons Flisykowski.

The information plaque about Alfons Flisykowski in the museum

These post office workers all belonged to the Polish Rifle Association which was a cover to train up extra territorial Poles in self defence and subversive activities and these workers would periodically return to Poland to participate in training courses aimed at improving their combat skills.

A photograph of the Post Office Workers who were members of the Polish Rifle Association

From April 1939 the Polish General Staff were anticipating the coming war with the Nazi's and dispatched Lieutenant Konrad Guderski to take over command at the Post Office. This officer was an engineering and intelligence career officer and somewhat of an expert on guerrila warfare and disruptive activities. 

The information plaque about Konrad Guderski in the museum

On arrival he immediately set about training himself up on the workings of the postal systems but also in preparing Post Office No1 to defend itself in the event of a Nazi putsch in the city.

For the purposes of self defence the post office workers removed all trees from the grounds around the Post Office and ensured that the entrances to the building had extra fortifications.

A view from the grounds across from the Polish Post Office's main entrance

In mid August a further ten 'mail workers' were seconded to Post Office No1 from post offices in Gdynia and Bydgoszcz.



This was the calm before the storm...

The German Plan

The German plan of attack which was developed in July 1939 directed the troops to gain entrance to the Post Office through the temporary connecting walls that divided the Post Office from the Danzig National Labour Office. At the same time three assault groups formed by the paramilitary would tie down the defenders from the front of the building, soon thereafter assaulting and breaking into the front.

The Post Office Museum has the original plan and translations into Polish and English

The original German attack plan, and English and Polish translations.

Attack Plan Page 1

Attack Plan Page 2

Attack Plan Page 3

Attack Plan Page 4

Attack Plan Page 5

Attack Plan Page 6


The Polish Plan

According to the guidelines layed down by the Polish General Staff, the postmen were to continue resistance for about 6 hours, until relieved by elements of Polish Army 'Pomerania' (Armi Pomorze). However, unlike the hapless commander of Westerplatte (Major Sucharski), the Postal Workers were not informed of the dissolution of the Corp of Intervention, or of the cancelled coordination of the defence. This meant that throughout this battle, the postal workers would have been waiting for relief that was never destined to arrive... 

The German Forces

The German forces assigned to this task were principally from three sources. 

Schutzpolizei: Gdansk had its own paramilitary police force, The Free City of Danzig Police or Schutzpolizei as it was known locally. There was the General Police that had over 3000 members and other branches which included the Harbour Police (Kustenschutz der Danziger Polizei) which participated in the assault on Westerplatte. These guys all fell under the command of Polizeioberst Willi Bethke who had allocated his Special Tasks Unit for the assault.

SS Wachsturmbann 'E' (Eimann) was set up in July 1939 and was considered an armed reserve for Danzig SS-Standarte 36 which was formed in Danzig. Organised in 4 squadrons of 100 men each along with a Headquarters platoon and a truck platoon. Each of these squadrons were posted at different points of the city of Danzig before the war broke out, including at one location named Victoriaschule (which will become important later on).

SS Heimwehr-Danzig. In June 1939 following a secret visit by Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, who stated that he believed that the local SS forces to be too weak, the Danzig Senate, under Albert Forster decided to form their own armed force ostensibly for Police Actions around the Danzig area. The 'SS Home Defence Danzig!' was proposed. A cadre of this 1500 body of men was formed of SS Wachsturmbann 'E' (Eimann). The Reichs authorities in blatant disregard for Danzig's League of Nations 'free city' rulings fully supported this motion.

As a result of this the III battalion of IV SS Regiment 'Totenkopf' were transported to Danzig by sea in civilian clothes to form the basis of SS Heimwehr-Danzig, which was strengthened by the members of SS Wachsturmbann 'E' to the tune of an extra 500 men. They were also strengthened by an Artillery and Anti Aircraft unit from east Prussia (Panzerabwehr Lehrsturm der SS-Totenkopfstandarten).

By 18th August these forces were ready for action. On this day they paraded through the streets of Danzig with their band and waving their flags. SS Heimwehr-Danzig became a part of General Friedrich Eberhardts Volunteer Brigade under the overall command of SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Hans-Friedemann Gotzego.

Units of these three services were supplemented by a further three ADGZ Armoured cars (Ostmark, Sudetenland, and Memel). The attack was to be commanded by SS Untersturmfuhrer Alfred Heinrich although the operational responsibility of the paramilitary organisations actions would fall to SS Oberfuhrer Johannes Schafer.

The Polish Forces

The Polish Post Office situated on Helvelius Square in Gdansk had at the time of the battle a complement of 43 Postal workers that had been supplemented with a further 10 postal workers from Gdynia and Bydgoszcz, as well as 1 further addition; a Polish Railway Worker, Peter Teshmer.

They possessed three lkm Light Machine Guns (Browning wz.1928), a selection of pistols and rifles and about 60 hand grenades. This was the complement that was on duty on the night of 31st August/1st September along with Lieutenant Konrad Guderski, Post Office Director Jan Michon and Postmaster Jozef Wasik.

The information plaque about Dr Jan Michon in the Post Office Museum

The information plaque about Jozef Wasik in the Post Office Museum


Unfortunately, in this building on the top floor at the same time was also the building warden Jan Pipka, his wife, Malgorzata Pipka and their 10 year old foster daughter, Erwina Barzychowksa

10 year old Erwina Barzychowska

The Battle - 1st September 1939

The Germans set up a Police Cordon around the post office in the early hours area to detain all workers that were scheduled to start work at 08:00 that morning.

04:00: Bernard Binnebessel informs Konrad Guderski of the first hostile action. The electricity and telephone communications are cut by the Nazi's. 'Konrad' places the Post Office on emergency alert and orders the distribution of all weapons to the staff.

A photo reconnaissance view of the Polish Post Office and the directions of attack through the battle

04:48: Coinciding with the SMS Schleswig-Holsteins naval barrage against the Westerplatte garrison, the first German attack against the Post Office takes place in the basement of the building where the Nazi's try to breach the temporary walls separating the Post Office and the Labour Office using grenades.

SS Heimwehr-Danzig and SA begin their assault on the Polish Post Office

The defenders greet them with a hail of small arms fire and a fist full of grenades! Casualties are inflicted, including the death of SS Untersturmfuhrer Alfred Heinrich and the Nazi's are forced to beat a hasty retreat.

Unfortunately during this attack Konrad Guderski is seriously wounded by shrapnel from a grenade that he throws, savaging one German assault team in the process but causing his own death shortly thereafter. The responsibility for defence now falls on the shoulders of postal clerk and reserve non commissioned officer Alfons Flisykowski.

The next German assault, which happens almost simultaneously with the first, is launched against the front door to the post office situated on Helvelius Square, supported by machine guns and again attempting the use  of grenades for the breach. This is again beaten back by the defenders fire.

The continual raking of the building with machine gun fire begins, in order to keep the heads of the defenders down and to keep their attention occupied.

About 10:00: Danziger Polizei Gauleiter Albert Forster and SS Oberfuhrer Johannes Schafer turn up on site to check on the progress of the battle. They are not amused with what they find.

German troops at rest in between attacks on the Post Office

Forster decides that he needs to take a hand in the planning and execution of the battle and decides to do a combat reconnaissance to get a close look at the building from Helvelius Square. He mounts an ADGZ armoured car and, supported by infantry, conducts his reconnaissance.

ADGZ 'Sudetenland' with an infantry escort scouting out the position

About 11:00: Following a request for artillery support the assault force is now reinforced with two SS Heimwehr-Danzig infantry guns (7.5cm Le.IG18).

The SS Heimwehr-Danzig bring forwards Infantry Gun support

The two infantry guns lay down fire at the front of the building just before a second assault is launched against the doorway. Once again the defenders scramble just in time to beat it off with a hail of small arms fire and grenades. Holes are starting to pepper the front of the building though...

The SS Heimwehr-Danzig huddle around a doorway keeping the Poczta Polska under close observation

The raking of the building with machine gun fire and the occasional artillery shell continues into the early afternoon.

One of SS Heimwehr-Danzig's Infantry Guns
13:00: German Sappers find there was down into the basement complex of The Labour Office and Police Station No2 and start to sap there way under the main structural wall of the Poczta Polska.

About 15:00: The German commander orders a break in the assaults and firing and announces that he is giving the postal workers two hours to surrender. During this break however the Nazi's are not idle.

A 105mm Howitzer is brought up to support any further attacks.

The German 105mm Howitzer opens fire on the Post Office

Within this two hour pause the German Sappers have completed mining under the load bearing wall of the Post Office and lay a 600 pound explosive charge.

17:00: The postal workers opt not to surrender and the explosive charge is immediately detonated, collapsing a part of the buildings wall around the entrance.

The smoke from the demolition charge floods the street...

Simultaneously the Germans launch another assault, supported by fire from the three cannon.

The German 105mm Howitzer seen mid recoil from a shot

This time gaining access to the building and clearing all floors except the basement.

ADGZ 'Ostmark' sitting outside the Post Office entrance after the demolition smoke has settled

A stiff resistance is maintained from the basement however and the Nazis can make no further headway.

About 18:00: Becoming desperate for a solution the German command orders forward a Fire Engine with the water replaced with Benzine. They park it up behind a nearby building, run out the hose and flood the basement with Benzene.

German troops creep up the side of the front of the Polish Post Office

The basement is immediately set alight by German flamethrowers and 5 postal workers are burned alive, including clerks Bruno Marshall and Stanislaw Rekowski.

About 19:00: By this point the building is burning and a resistance has been kept up for 14 hours, there is no food and little water, and the ammunition is starting to run low. It is clear to the defenders that they can expect no relief and so Alfons Flisykowski opts to surrender.

White flags are waved from the windows and the first to exit the building is Postal Director Jan Michon waving a smaller flag followed close behind by Postmaster Jozef Wasik. Jan Michon is immediately shot in the stomach, whilst the Nazis set light to Postmaster Wasik with a Flamethrower.

The bodies of Jan Michon (Left) and Jozef Wasik (Right) lay partially covered after their murder.

The theory runs that at this time, one Bronislaw Szulc manages to escape the Post Office at this moment of confusion as the authorities attempt to calm the situation. He disappears from history at this point although one body was discovered with a head shot followed by burning with a flamethrower...

What Happened Next...

Six postal workers made a bid for freedom after the surrender. Two of them, Francis Mionskowski and the injured Alfons Flisykowski are detained a second time on the 2nd September and tried with the other defenders. The other four (Andrzej Gorski, Francis Mielewczyk, Wladyslaw Milewczyk and Augustine Mill) manage to escape and survive the war, although I have seen at least one record that states that one of these individuals was recognised in Auschwitz and betrayed to the Germans leading to the his murder.

The surrendered defenders of the Polish Post Office are lined up against the wall in the alleyway alongside the Post Office

The plaque on the wall in the alley where the defenders were lined up.

The remaining defenders (28 individuals) were placed in Police custody whilst the ones with more serious wounds and burns (16 individuals) were placed into the city hospital to recover.

Nazi troops carry away the injured Polish postal workers to the city hospital

Of the individuals that were sent to hospital to recover from wounds 6 died, 5 as a result of burns.

The defenders being marched off to captivity

The youngest victim of this battle was unfortunately 10 year Erwina Barzychowska, the foster child of Jan and Malgorzata Pipka who was burned attempting to leave the building and died in hospital after clinging hold to life for 7 more tortured weeks.

The imprisoned defenders were, after a few days moved to Victoriaschule which was one of the main posts for the SS Wachsturmban 'E' and were tried as illegal combatants for their defence of Polish ground on 8th September 1939 by a German military court.

The Case against the Defenders of Poczta Polska Gdanska No1

The defenders were tried in two court martials under the auspice of Brigadier General Friedrich Eberhardt, who was operating as a part of the 3rd Army under General Georg von Kuchler. On September 8th 28 postsal workers were tried whilst the remaining 10, after recovering from their wounds in hospital were tried on September 30th with a single Wehrmacht officer as their Counsel of Defence.

All were sentenced to death as Illegal Combatants under the German special military penal law of 1938.

The third article of this penal code states:
"a partisan punishable by death is one who, without having provided for by international law external badges of belonging to the armed forces of an enemy power, weapons or other means are used, or have in his possession with intent to use to the detriment of German or allied troops or belonging to kill them or take action that for the purposes of war may take only members of the armed forces in uniform"

The sentence was demanded by the prosecution Hans Giesecke and declared by the presiding judge Kurt Bode, Vice President of the Oberlandesgericht Danzig (Higher Regional Court of Danzig). 28 of the judgements were countersigned, and thus became legally valid, by General Hans Gunther von Kluge, the remaining 10 were countersigned by Colonel Eduard Wagner. A clemency appeal was rejected by General Walther von Brauchitsch.

The sentence was probably announced on 5th October 1939 at 04:00 on the Scutzpolizei's training ground at Zaspa. The postal workers were shot in an old shooting range at the airport Wrzeszcz and buried in a mass grave to be forgotten by history until their grave was discovered in 1991, following which their remains were reinterred on holy ground with thier own memorial to their contribution to the Polish cause.

A Revision of the Facts

In 1995 the District Court of Lubeck conducted a revision of the postal process, stating inter alia violation of the rules of court proceedings and breach of the IV Hague Convention of 1907. As a result they were aquitted by the court. To begin the process author and historian Dieter Schenk released his magnus opus "Polish Post Office in Gdansk - the story of a murder by a German Court". This judgement allowed for the request for compensation from the German government whcih was duly paid.

A List of the Heroes:

The Museums wall plaque of all of the defenders...

Died September 1st 1939

Konrad Guderski              b.19.II.1900                      Lieutenant Engineers. Commander of Defence
Brunon Marshall                b.01.I.1904                       Clerk
Jan Michon                       b.01.VI.1888                     PhD, Postal Director
Stanislaw Rekowski          b.17.IX.1900                     Clerk
Bronislaw Szulc                 b.03.X.1910                       Postman
Juzef Wasik                       b.08.VII.1904                    Head of UPT
Unrecognised Body
Unrecgonised Body

Died in Danzig City Hospital

Erwina Barcychowa           b.16.X.1929  d.20.X.1939     Foster Child. Died of Burns
Bernard Binnebesel            b.20.V.1893  d.04.IX.1939    Assistant. Abdomen Shot & Skull Damage
Stefan Cywinski                 b.29.V.1907  d.02.IX.1939    Assistant. 2nd & 3rd Degree Burns
Aloysius Franz                   b.17.II.1905   d.05.IX.1939   Assistant. 2nd & 3rd Degree Burns
Joseph Nitkowski              b.15.VI.1885  d.31.X.1939    Controller. 2nd & 3rd Degree Burns
Jan Pipka                           b.20.VII.1872 d.02.IX.1939  Housekeeper. 2nd & 3rd Degree Burns

Executed by Firing Squad in Zaspa probably 05.X.1939

Jan Banaszkowski              b.17.X.1904                        Postman Seconded
Wladyslaw Bazgier             b.22.IV.1911                      Assistant Seconded
Stefan Baczkowski             b.04.I.1906                         Postman Seconded
Heliodor Becker                 b.03.VII.1904                     Assistant
Aloysius Bela                      b.09.VI.1899                      Postman
Andrew Binkowski             b.11.XI.1902                      Postman Seconded
Florian Budziak                   b.01.X.1911                       Postman Seconded
Maximilian Cygalski            b.17.IX.1900                      Assistant
Jan Ellwardt                        b.03.XI.1905                      Clerk
Alfons Flisykowski              b.22.IX.1902                      Commander of Defence
Kazimierz Gdaniec              b.17.I.1907                         Driver
Konrad Groth                     b.26.VII.1906                     Postman
John Kilmek                       b.20.IX.1889                       Clerk
Francis Klinkosz                 b.22.XII.1899                     Clerk
Wladyslaw Koprowiak       b.21.V.1897                       Assistant Seconded
Francis Krause                   b.13.VIII.1900                    Postman
Francis Kuntz                     b.24.VI.1907                       Postman
Wojciech Kurkowski         b.24.IV.1893                       Clerk
Augustine Lis                     b.27.XI.1900                      Postman
Francis Magulski               b.02.IX.1904                       Clerk
Bernard Majewski             b.07.XII.1900                     Postman
Francis Mionskowski         b.13.IX.1897                      Postman
Jan Nowak                        b.04.II.1890                       Branch Manager
Stefan Nowakowski          b.21.VIII.1901                    Clerk
Kazimierz Orzechowski     b.23.XI.1915                      Assistant
Brunon Pielowski              b.29.VIII.1902                    Driver
Sylwester Ploszynski         b.07.XII.1906                      Postman Seconded
Ignatius Polom                  b.06.VII.1898                      Clerk
Alexander Racks              b.14.X.1903                         Clerk
Francis Rabca                  b.04.I.1904                          Clerk
Kazimierz Rogaczewski    b.25.III.1903                        Clerk
Joseph Rzepka                 b.25.XI.1899                        Clerk
Leon Schreiber                 b.05.IX.1912                        Postman Seconded
Ignatius Sikorski               b.23.X.1895                         Head of Newsprint
Joseph Strzelecki              b.15.III.1887                        Clerk
Leonard Wisniewski         b.02.I.1904                          Clerk
Peter Teshmer                  b.16.XI.1894                       PKP (Railway) Clerk

Survivors

Andrzej Gorski                 b.21.VII.1910                      Assistant
Francis Mielewczyk          b.02.XII.1910                      Driver
Wladyslaw Milewczyk      b.02.V.1901                        Driver
Augustine Mylinski            b.25.XI.1905                       Postman
Malgorzata Pipka              b.xxxxxx d.1963                  Caretaker  

Images of the formal re interment of the victims of  the Nazis that defended the Post Office


The cenotaph to the Polish Post Office defenders in their resting place just outside Gdansk

Just LOVE this monument!

...and that as they say is that for this visit to Poland. Next time I will spend a bit of time exploring the Polish defensive belts around Pszczyna and Wegierska Gorka and possibly trample over Jordanow (seeing as I have links to the Podhale Rifles and an interest in the 10BK) until then... its time for something completely different!

No comments:

Post a Comment