The capture and liberation of Warsaw ended the Lublin–Brest Offensive and signalled the beginning of the Vistula–Oder Offensive, the final massive Soviet thrust against the Germans through Poland to the River Oder and into Germany.
Stalin had over six million soldiers at his disposal; Hitler had just over two million. Nevertheless, Hitler called the Soviet build-up in the central sector of the Eastern Front “the greatest bluff since Genghis Khan”, and refused to withdraw troops from any territory where they were active, thus increasing the risk of his armies being isolated, cut off and destroyed.
On 12 January 1945, the Vistula-Oder Offensive was launched in the south by Marshal Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front. Two days later Marshal Zhukov, commanding the 1st Belorusian Front, began advancing due west from the centre. The attack in the north, which began on 13 January, was the responsibility of two fronts: the 2nd and 3rd Belorusian Fronts would advance on East Prussia, after which the Second, commanded by Marshal Rokossovsky, would continue on to East Pomerania.
The Polish part of Pomerania had been annexed by Germany since 1939; for the battle-scarred Soviet troops, Pomerania was, as much as Prussia, the Fatherland of the hated enemy, an enemy that had committed barbaric acts against their country. Most would have witnessed the aftermath of terrible atrocities, and in some cases been personally affected by them. Unsurprisingly, thoughts of revenge were uppermost in many soldiers’ minds, and to a large extent were encouraged by Soviet anti-Nazi propaganda. In East Prussia evacuation of civilians was slow in happening, and the inhabitants of many villages and towns were subjected to the full brunt of Soviet carnage, arson and mass rape.
The main strategic aim of the East Pomeranian Offensive was to overcome the German forces in Pomerania so as to eliminate the risk of a counteroffensive against Marshal Zhukov’s advance on Berlin. As each town was overcome, the German Army retreated and many German civilians fled with them. The coastal town of Kolberg (modern Kołobrzeg) experienced a ferocious siege in the first two weeks of March, during which time the Germans evacuated around 70,000 civilians and about 40,000 troops by sea to Germany and Denmark. Many ships carrying thousands of refugees were sunk by Soviet submarines. The other Baltic ports of Gdynia and Danzig (Gdańsk) were no less fiercely defended against the vengeful onslaught of Russian and Polish troops. Apart from a handful of German soldiers on the Hel peninsula who battled on until May, this left Poland free from Nazi occupation. It was a freedom that was shortlived, however, as Nazi subjugation was replaced by Soviet domination.
Erected in 1966 during the communist era, this monument is a tall, chunky Soviet-style structure dedicated to the coastal defenders of World War II in general, rather than the Westerplatte garrison in particular. Nearby exhibition panels explain the modern history of the peninsula. Some of the ruined guardhouse and barracks are still standing and one building is now a small museum telling the story of the events that took place here in the first week of September 1939, when the German battleship SMS Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Military Transit Depot at Westerplatte peninsula. In the face of heavy bombardment and attacks from the air, the small Polish garrison held out for seven days before the hopelessness of their situation forced their commander to surrender. Memorials are spread across the peninsula and it takes a couple of hours to see them all. Westerplatte can be reached by bus or boat from Gdańsk.
On 1 September 1939, the Polish Post and Telegraph Office was attacked by a local SS unit and the police. Workers, along with a handful of others put up fierce resistance, until the Germans pumped petrol into the basement and ignited it. Those not killed in the attack were tried and sentenced to death.
On the 40th anniversary of the Post Office workers’ defence of their building, a small museum was opened to commemorate the events that occurred here, with a monument erected in the adjacent square. The exhibition contains a wealth of documents and evocative photographs, as well as a copy of the plan of the attack, drawn up in July 1939. Other material, including a reconstruction of the postmaster’s room, outlines the history of the Polish postal service and the wider Polish community in Danzig/Gdańsk.
A spectacular tower, tilting at a seemingly impossible angle, is the dominant feature of this new museum, designed by a local architecture firm. Most of the permanent exhibition is actually located underground (the tower is used as offices). The original concept of the displays sought to place the Polish experience of World War II in a broad international context, with an emphasis on the lives of ordinary citizens, while also looking at current conflicts. Immediately after it opened in 2017, the Minister of Culture criticized the museum as insufficiently patriotic and sacked the director and his deputies. Despite the political controversy, the museum is well worth visiting, with thousands of objects imaginatively displayed. It’s an immersive experience, with recreations of whole streets, organized in three narrative themes: “The Road to War”, “The Terror of War” and “The Long Shadow of War”.
The day after the German invasion, Stutthof, to the east of Danzig, was established – the first Nazi internment camp outside of Germany. It was used to imprison and then kill Polish professionals and the intelligentsia. Less well known than other Nazi camps, Stutthof grew in five years from a camp housing mainly local Poles to an extermination camp, with 39 sub-camps, containing tens of thousands of prisoners from across Europe. The museum researches and displays archival records and historical artefacts relating to the camp and its administration. Exhibitions, films and photographs provide a haunting insight into the lives of the 110,000 people that were imprisoned here during World War II before its liberation by Red Army troops in May 1945.
In a forest near the village of Piaśnica, close to the port of Gdynia, between 10,000 and 12,000 people are estimated to have been murdered between September 1939 and April 1940. The perpetrators were the SS, assisted by local German paramilitaries. Those killed included Kashubians (a local ethnic group), Polish intellectuals, Catholic priests, Jews, Czechs and patients from mental hospitals. At the end of the war, as the Red Army approached, the Nazis forced Stutthof prisoners to dig up the corpses and burn them. In the forest, 9km to the north of Wejherowo, there is now a commemorative grave site for the victims, with a monument and a nearby chapel. The Piaśnica Museum in Wejherowo is currently housed in a temporary site while its intended location (the former Gestapo headquarters) undergoes restoration.
Built in Britain and launched in 1936, ORP Błyskawica was the most modern surface ship of the prewar Polish Navy; today, she’s the oldest surviving destroyer in the world. Shortly before the German invasion, she left the Baltic along with two other Polish destroyers and sailed to Britain where she served under the operational control of the Royal Navy. Błyskawica took part in several major operations, including the Allied invasion of Normandy where she provided cover for the landing forces. Now a museum, much of the ship can be explored by visitors, including the engine room, and there are displays about Błyskawica’s service during the war.
About 600,000 Russian soldiers fell as the Red Army advanced through Poland in 1944–1945. Some 3100 are buried in this cemetery, many of whom died in the bitter fighting to win Gdańsk. Each soldier’s grave is marked with a star. Since the fall of communism in 1989, Soviet monuments have become a contentious issue and some of the more political ones have been removed. At the moment Soviet cemeteries continue to be respected, although there have been instances of vandalism.
The ruins of Hitler’s secret headquarters, known as the Wolfschanze, or Wolf’s Lair are located close to the village of Gierłoż, about 225km east of Gdańsk and close to the border with Kaliningrad. Wandering through the compound, which contains around eighty buildings, is an eerie experience. As the Red Army approached, Hitler ordered its complete destruction by an SS team, a difficult task considering that many of the bunkers had walls over five metres thick. Nature has now invaded the remains, covering much of the site in dense foliage. Only a wall survives of Hitler’s bunker, but that of Goering is almost complete; a plaque marks the location of the failed assassination attempt and there is a small on-site exhibition.
Top image: Soviet tank T-34 monument on Westerplatte © Jarek Fethke/Shutterstock