defending Warsaw Polytechnic
At the end of July 1944, there was a lot of excitement, suspense, and hope in Warsaw. After almost five years of brutal German occupation its end was approaching fast. Allied forces had landed in Normandy and were moving east, Polish Army conquered Monte Cassino, and scouting units of the Soviet Army were reaching the outskirts of Warsaw on the right bank of the Vistula River. The German Army was in retreat. Trucks and horse-drawn carts, filled with soldiers and equipment, were moving westward through the streets of Warsaw. It was not yet a chaos, but certainly it was not the same victorious army that marched into Poland in 1939. Older people remembered how in November 1918 the Germans were surrendering their weapons to the newly formed Polish militias. Certainly, the history could repeat itself. Soviet controlled radio urged people of Warsaw to rise against Germans. On the other hand, German command had just requested 100,000 Polish 'volunteers' to dig trenches around Warsaw against the Soviets. The 25,000-strong Polish underground army was ready to strike.
In the years preceding the uprising, I was active in the underground movement. Like a number of my High School colleagues I was a member of the battalion 'Baszta'. Our assigned task, for the first days of uprising, was to take control of Mokotow, a district in the southern part of Warsaw. The racetrack was to be our assembling point. In the last two days of July we were in the state of readiness; the identification papers and white-and-red armbands to indicate our military status (since we had no uniforms) were issued. On August the 1 st, just before noon, I was informed that the uprising was to start that day at 5 p.m.. After saying “good bye” to my parents I boarded a streetcar that would take me from the Old City, where I lived, to Mokotow. About halfway, when we entered the Square of Three Crosses, we found ourselves in the line of fire. The SS-men at the entrance to Aleje Ujazdowskie were firing wildly. The driver stopped the car, and dived into nearby bushes. I, and the rest of passengers followed his example. The time must have been about 3 p.m.. Apparently, the Germans knew our zero hour, their shooting was simply a pre-emptive action; so much for the secrecy. Once I got out of the line of fire, through Mokotowska Street, I went south with an intention to reach my destination somehow. It was hopeless though. There was no more public transportation. People around knew that the uprising begun. Instinctively they started to build barricades, mostly of the concrete plates ripped off from the sidewalks. I found that the battalion assigned to that area, 3rd Armored Battalion (Golski), had its headquarters in the School of Architecture on Koszykowa Street. After presenting my I.D. I was gladly accepted to the unit because, as it turned out, over 30% of their members did not reach their destination for the same reason as mine.
There was not a single piece of armored equipment in the unit; the battalion was named 'Armored' because its leaders came from the 3 rd Armored Battalion that fought in the 1939 campaign. In terms of manpower, it was a fairly large unit of approximately 800 men and women; however, its firepower was extremely modest: 100 pistols, 8 automatic pistols, 200 hand-grenades, 26 rifles and 1 mortar. The ammunition, which in most cases was hidden underground since 1939, was of poor quality, i.e., containing many duds. In the first few days, I was assigned to the detail manning the barricade on Koszykowa Street, next to the entrance to the 'Koszyki' open market. It was an important post, because it blocked an entrance into our territory and from there we could at least impede the German traffic moving along Aleja Niepodleglosci. After a week or so, I was transferred to the mortar platoon of the 1 st company. Actually we had only one authentic mortar (there was another, 'home-made' of little value) and 18 projectiles to go with it. I was pleased with this transfer, because the platoon was quartered on the site of Warsaw Polytechnic where I spent the last two years as a student of Mechanical Engineering. Unlike the city buildings that formed solid walls and blocks, the buildings of the Polytechnic were dispersed in a park-like setting. It was quite obvious that to defend such a site would be much more difficult. Two sides were open to German attack, one along the Aleja Niepodleglosci,
with Kraftfahrpark located on the opposite side of Polytechnic, and the
other along the 6th of August Street.
Beginning August 15th the Germans tried several times to take the Polytechnic but each time they were repelled. In that, our mortar played a significant role. The 'big one' came on August 19th. It started before dawn with a barrage of artillery and mortar fire. Supported by six tanks, the Germans took control of the majority of buildings in a few hours. By 6 a.m. only the Chemistry and the Main Building were still in our hands. The fighting was fierce. To break our resistance, the Germans used 'Goliaths' (remotely controlled vehicles loaded with explosive materials) to make openings in external walls and then, flamethrowers to burn the buildings from inside. By 6 p.m., running out of ammunition, we started withdrawing to the other side of Noakowski Street. By 10 p.m. the fighting was over. In that battle, we lost 25 men and about 100 were wounded.
After the fall of Polytechnic, the situation on our frontline became almost static; the Germans occupied the west side of Noakowski Street, and we held the east side. The distance between us was less than 50 meters. It was this proximity that protected our position from the artillery and aerial bombardment; the rest of our territory did not have the benefit of such protection. The most dreaded were one-ton projectiles fired from a special railway car that could bring down a five-story building, and the multiple rocket launchers, called 'cows' since they made cow-like sound before launching. Aerial bombardment and shelling continued without letup. Because of these, Warsaw was continuously on fire, the streets were completely deserted, and smell of burned buildings, and of decaying corpses was everywhere. People wouldn’t dare to venture walking in a street. In order to go to other houses, or across the street, they used tunnels dug beneath the street surface. These tunnels often crossed various pipes and conduits and of course there was no light in them; the result was such that nearly all of us had bumps on our foreheads and noses. To go to farther parts of Warsaw separated from us by Germans, we had to use sewage canals, which was very unpleasant, tricky, and dangerous since the Germans often threw grenades into them. Nevertheless, after the fall of Old City, large number of our fighters reached our position in this way. The canals were also used as means of communication between the fighting units, since from the outbreak of the uprising the Germans succeeded in controlling all main arteries, bridges and railroads, thus, dividing the city into a number of isolated areas of resistance.
While the German attacks, shelling and aerial bombardment, were of primary concern to us, other factors begun to play ever increasing role. They were shortages of food and water, especially for the civilian population. Since the middle of August the Germans had occupied the filter station, and shut off supply of water to the city. To provide water for us and for the population, artesian wells were dug. Their usage presented a serious danger, because they were located in open spaces and, also, because one often had to wait in line, due to scarcity of such wells.
Our battalion had stored food supplies for about two weeks; later on, they were supplemented from various sources, such as abandoned shops, storehouses, etc.. Our daily rations were reduced to below-thousand calories per day. The major such source for us was the Haberbusch brewery located some two miles north of us, on the other side of Aleje Jerozolimskie that was under German control. Hence, the transports had to be done at night through special underground passages. In that brewery a variety of produce was stored, such as, barley, wheat, and some preserves. However, barley was the main produce. We used it to make a soup. That barley was not of purest quality, it contained fair amount of chaff, which was spat out in the process of eating, hence the name of such a soup, the 'spit soup' (zupka plujka). How important were these transports of food could be indicated by the fact that our day was divided into three eight-hour shifts: one for combat, one for transports, and the third one for rest. There was also a limited source of fresh produce very close to us. It was an about 20-acre piece of vacant land (Pola Mokotowskie) divided into small parcels where people grew vegetables. The problem was that it lay between our and German lines, hence, it was completely exposed to the enemy fire. The only time we could venture there, was at night and even so, it was very risky, because of the almost constant machine gun fire and flares. I have never been so close to good mother earth as then, on a couple of such escapades.
Before the uprising, the communist controlled radio was urging people of
Warsaw to rise and defeat the occupier together with the advancing Soviet
Army. By middle of September, the Russian Army was in full control of the right bank of the Vistula River. However, on Stalin’s orders right from the start of the uprising, no help was to be given to our units. Only toward the end of September when it was known that the end of the uprising was near, and in order to prolong our resistance, the Soviets finally started dropping (without parachutes) some foodstuff and small-caliber weapons. Because of our hopeless military situation and utterly deplorable conditions of the civilian population, and after we were granted combatant rights, on October 2nd, we surrendered.
After the fall of Warsaw I found myself in a POW camp (Sandbostel,
later Markt Pongau). My father who had fought in the battalion 'Gozdawa' in the Old City, landed in a detention camp near Tarnow, and my mother ended up in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Our home vanished, yet we came out alive. 200,000 people were not so lucky. Such a gigantic loss of human life and complete destruction of the city, forces one to ask a question: was the uprising worth the sacrifice of that magnitude?