The Tczew (Dirschau) Bridge destroyed by the Poles.
Wehrmacht soldiers in Dirschau / Tczew Poland 1939.
The Battle for Dirschau [Tczew]
The importance of Dirschau to the German leadership was the geographical position of the Vistula Bridge. In the plans for war with Poland, the 837m long double railway and road bridge presented a decisive connection between East and West Prussia. This bridge was described as a “most important point” in the “Military and Geographical Description of Poland” given out by the OKW in 1939, which informed the leaders of the three parts of the Wehrmacht accordingly: “In the initial stages of the attack, the preservation of surprise remains imperative for the taking of the Vistula Bridge.” It was clear that Poland knew the strategic importance of the bridge, and would therefore have taken suitable precautions. That is why everything had to be done from East Prussia to take the bridge intact. These efforts were to be supported from Danzig. That Poland knew the importance of the bridge can be seen by the fact that earlier in the year units particularly qualified as reliable were brought to strengthen the bridge. Poland had also begun to fortify the bridge, for example, with wire entanglements and machine gun nests, in 1938.
In East Prussia, Oberst Medem was picked for the “Dirschau” mission. He created the “Gruppe Medem”, which consisted of:
- 1 Battalion of Grenzwacht-Regiment 1
- 1 Infantry Replacement Battalion
- 1 Light Artillery Detachment
- 1 Armoured Train
From the north, on the eastern side of the Vistula, SS-Heimwehr Danzig and from the air a Stuka wing of Sturzkampfgeschwader 3 were to support the Gruppe Medem.
The plan was that the Gruppe Medem, with the co-operation of the Luftwaffe, should prevent the destruction of the Vistula Bridge and capture it, so that a connection could be created between the German troops coming from the west and the East Prussian units. The SS-Heimwehr Danzig received the order to attack Dirschau from the north, make contact with the East Prussian soldiers and protect the bridge and the city of Dirschau against possible Polish counter-attacks. The bridge was to be taken by a goods train filled with East Prussian soldiers, which would cross the bridge at a specified time, while the Luftwaffe bombarded important points in Dirschau such as the barracks and the power station. The action involving the freight train was arranged to take advantage of the good working relationship which was then obtained between the Polish and German railway authorities. Poland was responsible for the area of the Free City of Danzig. If a train from East Prussia was to travel to Danzig or the German Reich, Poland took control of the transport, and would use a Polish locomotive. At the border, it was uncoupled, and a German engine would be used again. This happened in this case as well: Poland was asked to pick up an empty goods train at 0445 hrs on 1st September 1939 and take it to the western border. When the Polish locomotive arrived at Marienburg, East Prussia, the Polish train drivers were overpowered, replaced by German officials in Polish uniforms, and the Gruppe Medem was loaded into the empty goods trucks. The first setback happened at Simonsdorf Station in the Danzig territory. The following Armoured Train was steered into a siding by Polish railway officials. It had now to be tediously shunted, and valuable time was lost. The Polish officials reacted accordingly, and shot a flare as a warning for the bridge garrison. Thus when the goods train tried to cross the bridge, it found an iron gate blocking its way. Completely contrary to plan the train now sat outside the gate while the Luftwaffe had already started the bombardment. The Poles opened fire immediately on the train and blew up the bridge. The East Prussian soldiers jumped from the train and took cover in the embankment.
Parts of SS-Heimwehr Danzig, about 1,200 strong, went to their stand-by area north of Dirschau on the night of 31st August 1939-lst September 1939. They arrived at around two in the morning. The stand-by area stretched around the village of Rambeltsch, one of the last towns in Danzig territory before the border. At 0300 hrs, the commander, Goetze gave the order: “Make and keep contact with the East Prussian units.” The SS-Heimwehr Danzig went over the border and turned south-east to the Polish village of Mühlbanz.
From here it marched south without incident to the village of Damerau. The attack was then confined to the railway embankment between Dirschau and Danzig, after strong Polish resistance afforded from the city suburbs. The distance to this was around 1,500 m. Due to the concentric fire, a crossing of the railway embankment to the south, in the direction of Dirschau, was not possible without substantial losses. Even an anti-tank gun and a shock troop set up to engage the Polish positions were unsuccessful.
The former SS Officer Leo Wilm in the HQ Staff Goetze witnessed this action: “… The Poles had concentrated their fire on the embankment and the railway underpass there, so that crossing the embankment or storming the underpass would only have been possible with heavy losses. After a thorough observation by the Commander himself from the embankment, he gave me the order: “Bring Adjutant Westermann here, a platoon leader with an anti-tank gun, and as many hand grenades as possible, for a shock troop to be set up under his leadership: objective to attack recognised resistance nests and destroy them”. Despite heavy opposing fire it managed to get through the underpass at the first attempt and immediately to find cover in the ditch under construction in Dirschau. The anti-tank gun followed on the road to Dirschau and supported the shock party from a completely unprotected firing position. Through the loss of the gun it was very difficult to get to the houses and resistance nests. The attack of the shock party failed having had no effect…”
Almost the whole battalion stayed in its initial position at the embankment until the afternoon of the 1st September. The plan to take Dirschau by surprise was unsuccessful. Only with further support from the Luftwaffe and heavy artillery could SS-Heimwehr Danzig get into Dirschau in the afternoon. In the city itself there was only isolated resistance, which occasionally flared up until 5th September 1939. The new command post in Dirschau was set up in the kindergarten.
The former member of SS-Heimwehr Danzig, Wenzel Woldrich reports on the severity of the fighting: “I was number 1 on the light machine gun and was wounded on the very first day of battle. Ours, the 1st company, whose 1st platoon I belonged to, suffered the most losses on this day. Five dead and five wounded in the 1st platoon alone…” Similarly, Päpper, the former Section Leader in the 1st Platoon, 2nd Company remembers: “… I was likewise with my section on the embankment before Dirschau on the morning of the 1st of September, only I had advanced with my men over the embankment to near a garden settlement left of the underpass, because the order to proceed only as far as the embankment had not reached me. There, Gunner Behrend was wounded. As I established there was no progress to be made from here over the open plain due the enemy fire, I went with my whole group back to the embankment again. There was almost the whole battalion stuck fast in its initial position… The Poles defended themselves bravely…”
Willy Fischer, a volunteer from Danzig, experienced the battle for Dirschau as follows: ” I was born in 1917. From 1936 to 1938 I was a recruit in the 1st Cavalry Regiment in Insterburg. Since I felt my homeland threatened by Poland, I joined the Heimwehr with quite a few other reservists. Firstly we went to Berlin for training, then back to Danzig. One day there was an alarm. Three trains with Polish soldiers had pulled into the main station. We went to our position on the Bischofsberg. The Poles probably noticed this, and pulled out again after two hours. I was wounded on the first day before Dirschau. A shot to the spine. Immediately I was taken to the hospital in Danzig, and then to Berlin-Hohenlychen in a plane. There I was operated on by Dr. Sauerbruch. Back in Danzig I was visited in hospital by our Commander Goetze and my company leader, Baier. Here I was also awarded the Iron Cross 2nd class. Before the French campaign I went to the Bayerisch-Zell sanatorium…”
Charlotte Kuthning, nee Grätsch and sister of SS-Heimwehr Danzig member Herbert Grätsch recalls: “I was a nurse in the city hospital in Danzig and got to know everything from the other side. On the first day of battle, vehicles carrying the wounded were coming in one after the other. A 20 year old from East Prussia had lain for two hours in the water at the Dirschau bridge: a shot to the cervical vertebrae – completely paralysed. He lived two more days. The most seriously wounded were tended to first. Sometimes even a Pole. I always shook when some came from the Heimwehr. Could have been my brother. Then in the afternoon the Poles from the Polish Post Office. Burned black, shaking with fear and pain. We wrapped their whole bodies in bandages with pain-relieving ointment. They got morphine injections, tetanus and poison gas serum. On the next day it was somewhat calmer. I could watch the Stuka attack on the Westerplatte from our roof…”
The action of SS-Heimwehr Danzig had not fulfilled the goal of the mission from the German point of view: the Vistula Bridge was destroyed. German sappers began to build a pontoon bridge from east to west, to re-establish contact. The SS-Heimwehr was ordered from Dirschau back to Danzig-Zoppot. Here it was made subordinate to the Landespolizei, and with the exception of occasional scouting party operations, clashes did not take place. The motorcycle messenger Leo Wilm also took part in an operation of this type: “… Since the Poles were retreating and contact with the enemy was broken, a new shock party was formed from the HQ Staff Goetze – Adjutant Westermann and three men in a Kübelwagen, as well as me on my motorcycle. After around 15 km we came upon brief resistance, but the enemy retreated. Here we saw a terrible, bloody atrocity. A man was crucified on a barn door and a family of seven killed in their home with their tongues nailed to the table…” The SS-Heimwehr suffered most of its losses before Dirschau through head shots by Polish sharpshooters. 26 members of SS-Heimwehr Danzig fell: that was a third of their total losses. Around a half of these were Danzig volunteers. Whether this was to do with very short training we cannot say, since the Wehrmacht had just as high losses.
SS Heimwehr “Danzig” was an SS unit established in the Free City of Danzig (today Gdańsk and environs, Poland) before the Second World War. It fought with the German Army against the Polish Army during the invasion of Poland, and some of its members committed a massacre of Polish civilians. After this it became part of the 3rd SS Totenkopf Division and ceased to exist as an independent unit.
On 8 September members of the SS Heimwehr Danzig killed 33 Polish civilians in the village of Ksiazki.