Battle of Hel
The Battle of Hel at the Hel Peninsula, including the town of Hel at the peninsula's tip, was the pocket of Polish Army resistance that held out longest against the German invasion in World War II. Some 2,800 soldiers of Counter Admiral Włodzimierz Steyer's Hel Fortified Region unit, part of the Land Coastal Defence formation, defended the region from 9 September to 2 October 1939, when they surrendered.b The Germans contained the pocket and did not launch any major land operations until the end of September. The pocket surrendered due to low supplies and morale.
After Armia Pomorze had been defeated in the Battle of Tuchola Forest, and other Polish coastal strongholds (see Battle of Westerplatte, Battle of Gdynia, and Battle of Kępa Oksywska) had capitulated, from 20 September until its capitulation Hel was the only substantial pocket of Polish resistance in northern Poland. It was also the site of the campaign's only naval surface engagement.
Construction of a Polish Navy port at Hel began in 1931. In 1936 the north section of the Hel Peninsula was officially declared the Hel Fortified Region (Helski Rejon Umocniony). Construction of the fortifications had not been finished before war broke out, though over several months prior to the war, as tensions between Poland and Germany mounted, the fortifications were reinforced with provisional earthworks.
The Fortified Region had coastal (anti-ship) and anti-aircraft artillery batteries. The coastal batteries of the Coastal Artillery Division comprised one 4 × 152 mm battery, two older 2 × 105 mm batteries, and three batteries with 8 × 75 mm guns. The anti-aircraft batteries of the 2nd Sea Anti-aircraft Artillery Division had 6 × 75 mm and 8 × 40 mm guns, 17 machine guns, and two 120 cm searchlights. Infantry cover for the Fortified Region was provided by a Border Defense Corps (KOP) unit, the Hel KOP Battalion under Major Jan Wiśniewski, which had several artillery pieces – 4 x 75 mm, 6 x 37 mm – and 62 machine guns and 2 large and 9 small mortars. The Coastal Artillery Division was some 162 soldiers strong, the 2nd Sea Anti-aircraft Artillery Division, 1,000 soldiers strong, and the KOP battalion, 1,197 soldiers strong.
Overall command of the Fortified Region was held by Counter Admiral Włodzimierz Steyer. However, Hel also became the headquarters site of the commander of the Polish Navy, Counter Admiral Józef Unrug, who relocated his command center there on the eve of the invasion, on 31 August 1939, concluding that the Hel Fortified Region was much better suited to prolonged defense than the more provisional defenses around his peacetime headquarters in Gdynia. Unrug also reinforced the Hel Region with some soldiers from his Gdynia garrison.
In September 1939, some 2,800 soldiers were stationed in the Region. While the Hel coastal batteries were the strongest in Poland, they were inadequate to confront the German Navy and posed no great threat to any of the numerous German battleships. Likewise the Region's air defense batteries were too few and too light to deter the enemy, and the Naval Air Squadron's planes tasked with defending the Region, stationed at nearby Puck, were both older than their German counterparts and also outnumbered about 10:1.
Hel was a target of German Luftwaffe air attacks from the first day of the invasion. The first air raid occurred at 13:30, targeting the Polish coastal batteries. The second air raid, the same day at 18:00, targeted ships in the port, damaging the Polish light minelayer Mewa. Further air raids occurred the following day.
On 3 September 1939, the Polish destroyer Wicher and large minelayer Gryf, supported by Polish coastal-battery fire, were engaged by two German destroyers, Z1 Leberecht Maass and Z9 Wolfgang Zenker. This was the only surface naval engagement of the entire campaign and was relatively inconsequential. The German destroyer Z1 Leberecht Maass sustained light damage and four fatalities. The Polish Gryf also sustained light damage, with seven fatalities. The German ships retreated, and later that day the Luftwaffe sank the Polish Gryf and Wicher, as well as the Polish light minelayer Mewa; the Polish gunboat General Haller sustained heavy damage, was abandoned, and sank on 6 September. The Polish gunboat Komendant Piłsudski, though largely undamaged, was also abandoned. This effectively eliminated the already heavily outnumbered surface Polish Navy as a fighting force on the Baltic Sea, with only three light minelayers remaining operational in the theater.c The surviving crews of the sunken Polish vessels joined the garrison's defenders, and two 120 mm guns from Gryf were salvaged for shore-battery use.:39
In the first week of September, the German Army forced Polish Armia Pomorze units to retreat from the Danzig Corridor and, having captured the nearby town of Puck, on 9 September began assaulting the Polish forces on the Hel Peninsula. The advancing German forces included the 42nd Border Guard Regiment and the 5th Cavalry Regiment. Polish forces started a slow retreat toward the port of Hel on the Peninsula. On 10 September the Germans captured the village of Swarzewo, and on 11 September the town of Władysławowo on the peninsula's very border. The Polish defenders fortified the next village, Chałupy, situated on the peninsula itself. The Germans, having cut off and contained the Polish units on the isolated peninsula, did not launch any major land operations until month's end.
On the night of 12/13 September 1939, the remaining Polish light minelayers laid a minefield near Hel. The following day, the Luftwaffe sank the Polish light minelayers Jaskółka and Czapla at the port of Jastarnia, while the remaining minelayers Czajka, Rybitwa and Żuraw were damaged. In view of German superiority on the Baltic Sea, the remaining Polish naval units docked at the Hel port and their crews joined the ground forces. The ships' armaments were stripped and converted into additional land gun emplacements.
From 18 September, German naval units, including the old battleships Schleswig-Holstein and Schlesien, shelled the Hel Peninsula, but to little effect. On 25 September the Schleswig-Holstein was lightly damaged by Polish coastal batteries. Further bombardment by the battleships took place on 27 September. A number of air raids targeted the Region; the Polish Hel anti-aircraft batteries proved highly effective, shooting down between 46 and 53 German aircraft.
Henry Steele Commager writes that the Germans, after initially being stalled by Polish defenses, brought up land artillery batteries and an armored-train battery to support their barrage. German forces slowly advanced, still facing substantial resistance and counterattacks. On 25 September, after the Germans took the village of Chałupy, Polish military engineers detonated torpedo warheads in the narrowest part of the Peninsula, thus temporarily transforming the Peninsula's farther end into an island.
However, a somewhat different account appears in the Polish-language Poland's Battles, 1939–1945: an Encyclopedic Guide, edited by Krzysztof Komorowski: The chapter on the Battle of Hel states that no substantial land engagements took place until 28 September, when German units slowly advanced toward Chałupy. In this account, the major push happened on 30 September 1939. The German units at this point assigned to take Hel comprised the 374th Infantry Regiment and the 207th Light Artillery Regiment. They took Chałupy on 30 September, and shortly afterward the Poles detonated the torpedo warheads – but the resulting damage was "less than expected", though it wrecked the Peninsula's railroad line.
On 1 October 1939 the Polish Navy's commander, Counter Admiral Józef Unrug, taking into account that the Polish outpost was running out of supplies and that no relief force would be coming, and in view of low troop morale, with two mutiny attempts quelled on 29 and 30 September, gave orders to capitulate. Some Polish soldiers attempted to flee across the Baltic Sea to Sweden on remaining light craft and civilian vessels, but most were unsuccessful. The Germans occupied the Hel Peninsula by 2 October 1939.
Some accounts of the Battle of Hel note the sinking of German minesweeper M85 on 1 October by a minefield near the Hel Peninsula, with 24 resulting fatalities. The minefield was laid down by Polish submarine Żbik as part of the Worek Plan; Żbik together with two other submarines Sęp and Ryś was stationed at Hel and departed to the sea on the first day of the war.
Polish battle casualties were light – some 50 dead and 150 wounded. Some 3,600 Polish soldiers were taken prisoner. German losses were similar, estimated at a few dozen dead and wounded.d
Some remaining Polish light crafts, such as the light minelayers, gunboats and non-combatant units like the tugboats, which were not sunk by the air raids, might have been scuttled before capitulation (sources vary); in either way most were either outright captured by the Germans or raised from the shallow waters and pressed into German service in the subsequent weeks.
After Hel's capitulation, the only organized military resistance in Poland was conducted by Independent Operational Group Polesie, which eventually capitulated at the end of the Battle of Kock on 5 October 1939, marking the end of the organized resistance to the German invasion.
Some Hel fortifications survived to become tourist attractions. One of Hel's four 152 mm Bofors batteries is now on display at the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw.:59
The Battle of Hel is one of the battles inscribed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw.
- ^ This includes troops initially deployed at the Battle of Kępa Oksywska.
- ^ Capitulation negotiations began the night of 30 September / 1 October 1939. Ceasefire orders were issued the following day, and on 2 October 1939 the Polish troops were taken prisoner-of-war by the German force that occupied the Region.
- ^ Three other large surface ships of the Polish Navy, destroyers ORP Błyskawica, ORP Burza and ORP Grom, were successfully evacuated shortly before the war started to British ports, following the contingency Peking Plan.
- ^ It is unclear whether these estimates include any fatalities among German aircraft personnel downed by Hel air defenses, or fatalities among naval personnel on the two sides. German destroyer Z1 suffered 4 dead and 4 wounded in the engagement with Hel defenders on 3 September. Polish minelayer Gryf suffered 7 fatalities during the naval engagement; all Polish naval units also suffered some further fatalities from the air raids. German minesweeper M85 was sunk on a nearby minefield with 24 fatalities.
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