Authors: P. R. Reid
The Full Story
P. R. Reid
HE STORY OF
Colditz Castle in the Second World War begins on the narrow peninsula of Hel. Hel is little more than a very long sandbank on the Baltic coast of the Polish Corridor, directly north of Gdynia.
The story also begins in the person of Lieutenant JÄdrzej Giertych, a reserve officer of the Polish Navyâvery tall, robust, with a strong, handsome face, brown hair, aged thirty-six, married with four small children.
The day was Thursday, 24 August 1939. Russia and Germany had signed a pact of friendship the day before. The pact could only mean one thing for Poland. She would be attacked very soon, by one or the other, or by both.
JÄdrzej was roused from his bed at his home in Warsaw at 7 a.m. by a repeated ringing of the doorbell. A policeman was there. He saluted, handing JÄdrzej a paper which stated that he was called up for service, that he was to arrange his private affairs in the next two hours, then to proceed by all speed to the railway station, take the train for Gdynia and report to the naval dockyard at Oksywie. He arrived that evening.
JÄdrzej did not see his wife or children again for six years. The youngest child was only two months old.
He was marooned at naval headquarters for two days before being assigned a post. In the meantime, on the Polish political front, general mobilization was delayed at the request of the Western Allies “so as not to increase international tension.” The blindness, culpable and cowardly, of those Allies today seems incredible. When mobilization came it was already too late. Hitler had seized the initiative.
JÄdrzej was assigned to the Detachment of Fishing Cutters, centered round the commandeered local tourist passenger ship called
, acting as a “mother” ship. The captain was Lieutenant-Commander Yougan. Together they hoisted the flag of the Polish Fighting Navy on the
. JÄdrzej was allotted a cabin. He unpacked his portmanteau, taking from it first of all a framed picture, blessed in church, of Our Lady of Swarzewo. Swarzewo is a coastal village containing a shrine dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, which is venerated by the Polish fishermen of the Baltic Sea.
The cutters arrived on Thursday, 31 August, with their owners and crews, the fishermen, in twos and threes and in larger clutches. They mustered soon between seventy and eighty and were immediately divided into groups of six boats. JÄdrzej became the proud commander of such a group. On the next day each existing cutter crew would be augmented by two or three army reservists. He would be the officer in charge of about thirty-five men. That night he went to his bunk very late. There had been much to do.
At 4 a.m. he was awakened by the sound of planes overhead, followed at once by the scream of dive bombers. German stukas, in number, were bombing the naval installations all around him. This was the opening bombardment of the Second World War.
was anchored in the naval harbor. The early morning aerial bombardment continued at intervals. Naval shells began to fall on the city. JÄdrzej went ashore and managed to collect his reservistsâeighty of themâfrom the naval barracks. These were transported to the
temporarily before being allocated to their cutters. At this point, at about 2 p.m., the
received orders to move out of port into the Bay of Puck. The naval airport at Puck had been one of the main targets of the morning aerial bombardment.
He studied the coastal marine charts on the bridge. The town of Puck was at the head of the bay, where, from the mainland, the peninsula of Hel formed a hook, turning sharply from north to south-east, continuing almost in a straight line like a needle, at some points only 200 meters wide. Along this needle lay three fishing villages, Chatupy, Kuznica and Jastarnia, the last with a little harbor, facing south-west into the bay and out towards the mainland.
JÄdrzej, in the last cutter, followed the
and the lines of little ships out of the port. In the afternoon the aerial bombardment of
grew to massive proportions. The whole skyline darkened to a livid mauve as JÄdrzej watched, and the thunder of explosions vibrated in the marrow of his spine. Black erupting clouds split open with the lightning strokes of detonation. Whirlwinds twisted the fountains of building ash into gaping red mouths, spewing rubble and debris,
the vomit of destruction. The devastation inflicted by Hitler's onslaught was spread over many Polish cities and military targets on that first day of the war.
was now anchored in shallow water in the bay, about nine miles from the city whose name she bore. JÄdrzej reported on board. The eighty reservists were to stay on the ship that night, along with the civilian ship's crew. The ship's total crew would be 120.
Dusk had fallen when Lieutenant-Commander Yougan ordered JÄdrzej to lead a convoy of the cutters to the shallows around Jastarnia, which was about three miles distant, to disperse and anchor them amongst the sandbanks, and take himself and the fishermen crews off to rest in the port and village for the night. This task completed late into the night, JÄdrzej wrapped his overcoat around him, lay down on the cobbles of the jetty and, with his head leaning against a bollard, went sound asleep.
He was awakened, once again, by the sound of planes. They were soon overheadâlarge formations of heavy bombers and dive bombers from the direction of KÃ¶nigsberg, heading for the Polish mainland. Out of one formation, suddenly, a group of planes divided. Stukas again. One after the other they turned, seemed to dropâthen with accelerating, calculated fury, they descended on the
. The ship seemed to break up like matchwoodâinto several pieces. She sank within ten minutes. Men were hurled into the sea in large numbers. Then the stukas came again. They machine-gunned the men in the water and dropped anti-personnel bombs as they dived. Some managed, though wounded, to reach the shore, only to die later. Some were dragged from the water by helpers from the land. They also died later. Yougan survived, because he too had been called ashore.
The ship's secret instruction papers went down with the
. JÄdrzej does not know to this day what purpose the “Cutter Detachment” was scheduled to fulfil. His holy picture of the Virgin of Swarzewo went down with all his other belongings, save a briefcase that he had taken ashore with him.
On Sunday, 3 September, the Detachment was disbanded and the survivors were transformed into a “Yougan Company” of naval marines, soon reinforced by crews of other sunken ships.
Over the radio they heard of the declaration of war by Great Britain and France.
The village of Hel at the head of the peninsula had contained a mainly German population up to 1914; though originally Dutch, they had become German. Between the wars the population became predominantly Polish, and the village grew and became a naval establishment with a naval basin and a
commercial port. Polish submarines, as well as surface craft, were based on Hel. It was well defended with artillery, naval guns and anti-aircraft guns.
The peninsula was now invested by the Germans. A German land force advanced from Puck but was halted at the narrowest part between Chalupy and Kuznica, where the front could only take one company of men at a time, facing an enemy company.
Hel, with a garrison of some 3,000 men, was subjected to a most devastating attack. The two German battleships,
, bombarded systematically and incessantly. German aerial bombardment, too, was without respite. The next danger for the defenders was a German landing. JÄdrzej was incorporated into a company, which was given the task of organizing the defense against such a danger. They fortified the beach at the most likely place, near Jastarnia, where there was a good depth of water close inshore.
The German land force advanced slowly. The
and the destroyer
were damaged by Polish artillery, and a German minesweeper was sunk. The German landing did not materialize. But the pressure never relaxed.
A month after the commencement of hostilities, the peninsula of Hel remained the last remnant of Poland's territory still unconquered; Rear-Admiral Unrug was its commander. In the early hours of 2 October, with his artillery silenced for lack of ammunition, he decided to surrender in order to avoid civilian losses in the peninsula's fishing villages, which the Germans were about to storm. The whole of Poland was already in German or Soviet hands, with the exception of a Polish Army composed of several battered, numerically reduced divisions still on the move in the neighborhood of Lublin. This Army fought, on 6 October, a last battle against the combined Germans and Russians near the small town of Kock. It was destroyed in this battle, except for a detachment of cavalry under the command of Major Hubal, which survived in the Polish forests until the spring of 1940, when it was destroyed by the Germans and its commander killed.
The decision to surrender the peninsula of Hel was, for Unrug, a painful one; but the continuation of resistance by this isolated redoubt no longer served a useful purpose. JÄdrzej, learning of the impending surrender, asked and was granted leave to escape. Five officers and men joined him; a stout rowing boat was purchased, and at nightfall it was launched into heavy seas off the beach at Jastarnia. Men waded breast-high in the surf to help it over the breakers. They rowed a long way into the night in the direction of Sweden. High seas breaking over sandbanks in shallow waters were their undoing. The boat was overturned by a freak wave. They all swam for their lives, reaching the main shore safely.
The next morning JÄdrzej went to the seashore to see if anything had been washed up. They had loaded the boat with heavily packed suitcases. He had only taken his briefcase. It was the only thing washed up.