Gdańsk – The Wisłoujście Fortress, Gdańsk
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Gdańsk – The Wisłoujście Fortress

Gdańsk

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Wisłoujście Fortress, taking its name from the Vistula River mouth where it is situated, is one of the most outstanding examples of military architecture in Poland, its spatial layout, technical and engineering solutions and location making it a site of truly exceptional value. Generations of eminent architects and engineers modernised and redesigned the fortress throughout the period between the 15th and 19th centuries.

The oldest brick structure inside the fortress is the cylindrical tower erected in 1482, designed to replace an earlier, wooden structure which was lost in the fire. From the moment of its construction, the building served both as a lighthouse and watchtower. In 1562–1563, the lighthouse was surrounded by the so-called “Ring” – a three-storey artillery tower modelled after similar Italian solutions. A complex of vaulted casemates existed beneath the new structure, both for inside communication and for storing of equipment. Gun emplacements were positioned along the entire circumference of the building, allowing the crew to fire a battery of several cannons positioned on the two lowermost storeys at the incoming attackers. An overhanging gallery above the second storey was designed for small arms use. In the 1570s, the Ring was surrounded by a complex of temporary wooden and earthen fortifications designed on a quadrangular plan. These fortifications were of the bastion type and were connected by an earthen rampart secured by a tall palisade. The entire structure was surrounded by a water moat. Both the bastions and the rampart were reinforced with buttresses with breastworks and featured gun emplacements positioned in casemates. In 1577, the conflict between King Stephen Bathory and the municipal authorities of the city of Gdańsk led to the king’s siege of the fortress, whose defenders managed to stand their ground despite the structure itself sustaining substantial damage. The reconstruction of the fort began in 1584, with the rebuilding of the Wreath and then the Lighthouse, which increased in height to approximately 30 metres and was equipped with a tall cupola roof, designed in the Renaissance style and featuring a gallery for the guards as well as a light room at the top. In 1586–1602, the fortress was extended once again; this time the existing structures were surrounded by a fort designed on a square floor plan, modelled after the Fort Carre in France. Four bastions were built during that period: The Artillery Bastion, Ostrorog Bastion, South-Eastern Bastion and the Water Gate. Entering the Fort Carre was only possible using a drawbridge over a moat below, leading into a gatehouse clad with massive granite blocks, forming part of the eastern curtain wall. The entire design was modelled after similar Italian structures. The entire construction process was conducted under the supervision of Hans Schneider of Lindau, who was also the fort’s designer; later on, he was superseded in his role by Anthonis van Obberghen.

The looming Swedish threat prompted later yet another redesign of the fortress. The works were conducted in 1624–1627, under the direction of Peter Jansen, an engineer from Weert in the Netherlands. The fortress was later extended through the addition of the Eastern Bulwark which consisted of five bastions: Pucki, Ostroróg, Świński Łeb (Hog’s Head), Bielnik, and the Wiślany (Vistula) Bastion. The entire Eastern Bulwark, much like the Fort Carre itself, was surrounded by a moat filled with water from the Vistula. In 1627, the Western Bulwark was erected on the other side of the river. This structure has not survived to the present day, razed to the ground in the 19th century. In the 17th century, a line of two-storey brick houses for the fort’s commandant and officers were erected along the courtyard side of the Ring. The two-storey army barracks positioned alongside the eastern curtain wall originate from the same period.

The efficiency of the extended and modernised fortifications was subsequently put to the test during the war with Sweden in 1655, when the city of Gdańsk and the fortress were besieged by the armies of King Charles X Gustav. Neither the city nor the fort were taken, despite the prolonged siege followed by a maritime blockade.

During the 1733 war of succession, Gdańsk took the side of King Stanisław Leszczyński, backed by the French against Augustus III, with the latter supported by Saxony, Russia and Prussia. Following a siege which lasted for over six months, both the city and the fort finally surrendered to the Russian forces once their supplies finally run out. As a result, the fortress fell for the first time in history, yielding to the enemy forces.

After the First Partition of Poland in 1772, the New Port area along with the Western Bulwark was incorporated into Prussian territory. As a result, Wisłoujście Fortress itself, which was still part of Poland at the time, lost control over the port canal entrance. In 1793, following the Second Partition of Poland, the entire fortress became part of the Prussian state. Almost immediately after they took control of the fort, the Prussians began the construction of additional fortifications as well as the modernisation of the Eastern Bulwark. In 1807, the fort and the rest of the city of Gdańsk were overrun by Napoleon’s army. The French had the fortifications extended even further, completing the reconstruction of the Eastern Bulwark, which was now reinforced by a pair of bastions and a ravelin. As the Fort Carre now required a greater crew to run, the existing barracks were extended upwards by a single storey. Later on, when Napoleon was defeated, the fort was taken back by the Prussian forces. In the years that followed, the fort gradually lost its former significance, which meant that no serious investments were made. From the 1820s onwards, the fortress served as a political prison.

The final series of modernisation works were carried out in the 1860s and the 1870s. Storage facilities designed to keep munitions, military equipment and gunpowder were incorporated into the Eastern Bulwark. In addition, the walls of the entire Fort Carre were repaired and clad with a new layer of brick on the inner side, while the outer side received a concrete plaster cladding which now covered all the original walls of the Lighthouse, the Ring, the officers’ houses, the barracks and the casemate interior walls inside the fort’s bastions. The embrasures in the northern and southern bastions were modified to accommodate quick-firing guns. In the last years of the 19th century, the cupola roof of the Lighthouse was destroyed once again. The roof was reconstructed in 1891–1892 in the form of a slender cone with slate cladding.

In the early 20th century, Wisłoujście Fortress became part of the rapidly expanding city of Gdańsk. During World War I, the fortifications played no major military role. Once the hostilities were over, the Free City of Danzig (Gdańsk) was formed under the Versailles Treaty, which also provided that the entire area was to remain a demilitarised zone. The fort lost all of its former defence significance, serving a variety of purposes in the years that followed, including that of a headquarters of the local sailing societies. Sailboat docking platforms were constructed alongside the Fort Carre, while a number of hangars and boatbuilding workshops now clustered around the northern part of the Eastern Bulwark.

During World War II, the fortress was converted to serve as a military storage facility, army barracks and a field hospital. In March 1945, as the Red Army was storming the city, the Lighthouse, a part of the Ring, roofs of the officers’ houses and the top storey of the barracks sustained damage as a result of artillery barrage. In the second half of the 1950s, works began on the reconstruction of the fortifications. In 1956–1957, the walls of the Lighthouse were reconstructed up to cornice level, while its interior now featured reinforced concrete stairs and floors.

In 1974, the Wisłoujście Fortress complex was handed over to the Museum of the History of Gdańsk (currently known as the Museum of Gdańsk). In 1992, the entire site of the fortress was opened to the public.

Today, Wisłoujście Fortress remains the only coastal fort in existence both in Poland and on the shores of the Baltic Sea in general. The complex is an excellent example of the evolution of military architecture over the period of four centuries. A number of eminent engineers and fortification architects from Italy, the Netherlands and France made contributions to its design. Over the years, the structure performed a variety of roles, serving as a fort and a prison, a lighthouse and a hospital, an industrial facility and a museum, a recreation centre and a warehouse complex, a representational building and a vehicle for propaganda.

Ever since it was originally erected, the fort played a special role in Poland’s history. During the early modern period, it became known as the “Gate to the Commonwealth”. It was here that the Polish fleet that decimated the Swedish ships during the Battle of Oliwa on 28 November 1627 rode at anchor, and also many Polish officers and freedom fighters were held captive following the fall of the November Uprising in the 19th century.

In addition, the Wisłoujście Fortress also has an exceptional landscape value. Its original layout, preserved virtually unchanged from the 18th century on, makes the fort a unique phenomenon on a nationwide scale. The area is also a notable natural heritage site, protected within the framework of the Natura 2000 Programme as a habitat of numerous bat species.

General information

  • Type: defensive structure
  • Chronology: 1482 - 2. poł. XIX w.
  • Form of protection: Historical Monument
  • Address: Gdańsk
  • Location: Voivodeship pomorskie, district Gdańsk, commune Gdańsk
  • Source: National Heritage Board of Poland

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