world war 2: warsaw uprising 1944

Jan Rossman 'Wacek'. In the Warsaw Sewers.

Zeszyty Historyczne, No. 109, Instytut Literacki, Paris, 1994.

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  Jan Rossman 'Wacek', a member of the top leadership of the Szare Szeregi [Gray Ranks, Polish Scouting] during the war, was an officer in the command of the Polish Home Army 'Zoska' battalion. At the end of August, 1944 [during the Warsaw Uprising] he made a passage in the sewer system from the Old Town to the Zoliborz district with an assignment of evacuating the wounded from the Old Town and obtaining supplies of ammunition from Zoliborz. During the construction of the sewer dam between the Old Town and the Zoliborz district, the author was in Zoliborz. He commanded the demolition unit which blew up the dam. Until the end of the Uprising, he was in the Zoliborz unit responsible for sewer communication.

This article, with the exception of the reports by SS General Erich von dem Bach and SS Major General Jürgen Stroop, was published in the monthly magazine Mowia Wieki No. 8/20 in August of 1959.

Translation: Łukasz Nogalski

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The designer of Warsaw’s sewer system, an excellent English engineer by the name of William Lindley, did not expect that Warsaw’s municipal sewer system designed by him towards the end of the 19th century would be used as transportation for the military and the civilian population, as well as a place of combat. It was due to the existence of the municipal sewer system that the remnants of the Old Town’s defenders and its civil population disappeared mysteriously at the end of August 1944 before the German occupiers during the Warsaw Uprising. At that time, around 6,000 people were able to retreat to Warsaw’s downtown district, and about a 1,000 managed to make it to the Zoliborz district. General von dem Bach admitted during the capitulation talks that initially he did not recognize the role of the municipal sewer system and its usefulness as a means of transportation and communication between Warsaw’s city districts. Indeed it was the disappearance of the defenders of the Old Town that signified the problem regarding the municipal sewers to the German forces was a crucial one. From that point on, “sewer paranoia” developed among the German forces in Warsaw. The Germans lived in constant anxiety that resistance fighters had the ability to come out of the sewers unexpectedly and to strike at German positions from the rear.

Until the very end of the Warsaw Uprising, the Germans were not able to overcome this “underground” resistance in Warsaw. The sewer system remained solely the turf of the Polish underground fighters for the entire duration of the Warsaw Uprising. The Germans did not succeed in cutting off the sewer system located in the Zoliborz district from that of Warsaw’s Old Town. The author of these words took part in several crossings, using the sewers in the Zoliborz district, the last of which took place on August 30th, 1944 year and led from the Zoliborz district to Warsaw’s downtown district. During this crossing, the author was able to visit and carry out a reconnaissance mission nearby at the Jewish Cemetery on Okopowa Street and also in the New Town district.

The Germans were afraid of the sewers, and so what was the real essence of the fighting that took place there? I will recollect and tell about some of the fighting that took place in the sewers during the last days of the Old Town’s defense.

Sometime after the middle of August, the resistance fighters began to use the sewers leading under Bonifraterska Street, the Gdanski Railway Station, and Stoleczna Street. There is a sewer junction under the tracks of the Gdanski Railway Station where the main sewer lines of the city converge: A1 and A2 which run under Okopowa Street; B runs underneath Marszalkowska Street; and C from underneath the New Town district and Miodowa Street.

The sewers come together at a depth of about 12 meters under ground. The sewer tunnels were high enough to permit people to freely travel through them. The Germans must have noticed traffic between the Old Town and the Zoliborz district because from time to time they lobbed grenades under the manhole cover over this sewer junction. They would lower a listening device into the sewer well and patiently wait for any sounds coming from underneath. These methods forced the groups moving about through the sewers to act with utmost care, i.e. units transporting weapons, slightly wounded troops, civil population, as well as communication units. Not only was there no possibility of using flashlights in the sewers, but conversations were also forbidden. More than that, one had to move so as not to make any noise, like a cat. Just imagine the macabre-like procession of silent shadows in the deep darkness of a sewer tunnel. In an extremely difficult manner, the columns moved step by step over the rounded and slippery bottom of the sewers. One hand rested on the person in front, the other was placed on the wall of the sewer for balance. Such passage lasted for several hours. Under the dangerous manhole cover, i.e. one above which were Germans, one had to pass one person at a time and very quickly. Moreover this spot was even more unpleasant because in the A1 sewer one could encounter a rushing stream of water. A crossing was only possible by holding onto a chain or a rope placed on/across?/at? the spot. When we were crossing under that manhole with a patrol, it was hard to resist the desire to shoot up a series of rounds at the Germans.

During the night of August 25th to the 26th, the last columns made a crossing from the Old Town. Germans began erecting a heavy dam under the manhole cover on Muranowska Street. The purpose of this dam was to stop all traffic in the sewer, and even worse, to significantly raise the water level in the sewers under Miodowa Street, Krakowskie Przedmiescie, and the New Town district. The dam was well-built with wooden beams, steel beams, and sandbags. After 2-3 days, news came from the Old Town district that the raised water level in the sewers has already reached the vicinity of Krasinski Square. It was then the idea was born to blow up the dam using demolition charges.

The idea originated with three officers from the Sabotage Section of the Home Army, who found themselves coincidentally in the Zoliborz district to which they had come during the last days of open sewer passage from the Old Town. The commanders of the Zoliborz district did not want to undertake this mission without the consent of the Commander of the Group North, Col. Wachnowski, who was located in the Old Town. The only means of communication was a radio-sent telegram through London. A small radio station from the Zoliborz district sent the message to London. From there, the message was relayed via radio to the radio station in the Old Town. Intermediate radio communication between the Old Town and the Zoliborz district was not possible due to technical considerations.

Unfortunately, London would receive and send messages only once a day. Thus, the consent from Col. Wachnowski was long awaited. When the consent for action came, the mission was initiated. A three-man patrol reached the dam, coming from the direction of the Zoliborz district. Three kilograms and a timing device were placed on the dam. The patrol retreated and safely reached the Zoliborz district, and at the given hour, the detonation took place. After about a half an hour, water appeared in the sewers in the Zoliborz district , as well as, various materials that were now afloat in the sewer. The sewer passage leading from the Old Town to the Downtown district was dry. as dry? However, only several people later made their way on the route from Old Town to the Zoliborz district. This part of the fight for the sewers was won by the insurgents.

Several days later a group of “sewers rats” from Zoliborz began systematic work. They carried out reconnaissance missions. An exit to the Vistula River was discovered, starting from the storm sewer underneath Krasinski Street. It was further determined that underneath Marszalkowska Street the Germans had constructed a similar dam to the one on Muranowska Street. The destruction of this dam by the Zoliborz group was carried out swiftly. The sewer passage from the Zoliborz district to the Downtown district was thus cleared. The couriers then set out through this passage. They were usually boy scouts from the 227th Platoon – young, handy boys. In the middle of September the idea to lay telephone cables between the Zoliborz district and the Downtown district was presented. The phone line became operational exactly on the afternoon of the day during which the Germans began their assault on the Zoliborz district, i.e. 29th September. Unfortunately, as a result of this assault, the phone line was not used.

The Germans were frantically afraid of the sewers. As General von dem Bach recollects, he never managed to convince his soldiers to descend into the sewers and carry on the struggle there. Germans resorted to throwing grenades down the manhole covers. In the Mokotow district they also sent poisonous gas down into the sewers; it was probably carbide. The effects of this gas were so intense that we observed them even in the Zoliborz district. The indicator candle, which we burned as we proceeded through the sewers to check the purity of the air, would not burn for several hours.

As we gained more experience, our “sewers” techniques became more sophisticated. We placed informational signs under the major crossroads and at sewer junctions. In certain spots, namely in wall cavities and on sewer platforms, we set up reserve food and medical stores, etc… From the Zoliborz district we set out on far reaching reconnaissance missions to the Wola and Ochota districts.

Nevertheless, during the above-mentioned capitulation negotiations, von dem Bach admitted that the Germans did use the sewers, but to a very limited degree. The Germans would transfer collaborators, ethnic Germans, and Ukrainians back to the city through the smaller sewers under the Downtown district. These people would come back to the German-held territory and mix in with the exodus of the city’s populace. Many of them did not come back. Others did not reach their destinations and returned with made up intelligence.

Of those who did not come back, there were individuals who fell into our hands. We recognized the existing situation, and we carefully checked identity papers and scrutinized every individual whom we met in the sewers or who we saw was coming out of them. The major entrances to the sewers were guarded by the resistance gendarmerie. This struggle in the sewers is unique in the history of the Uprising. It is also probably one of a kind in the history of warfare.

In his report to the Commander of the 9th army, General Vormann, on August 29, 1944, General von dem Bach wrote the following:

“Despite the fact that Polish resistance had undoubtedly inferior heavy weaponry, according to trustworthy field reports, their certain high human losses are being constantly replenished by forces from all over Poland. After their formation and training, the newly formed units, which range from a company to a battalion, infiltrate into the city through a widely branched out system of sewers and underground passages. The infiltration has even reached the Old Town district which is completely surrounded on the surface… This situation has led to that in the south [Mokotow district] and in the north [Zoliborz district], the enemy became emboldened to shift to the offensive which until now can still be repulsed but, in part, only by carrying out counter offensives.”

The supposedly significant replenishments of the Uprising forces through the sewers were purely fictional, but this evidences indicates the fact that General Bach himself was under the spell of the “sewers” paranoia. In reality, the sewers were utilized in the evacuation of the crews from two city districts, namely the Old Town and Mokotow, and in maintaining communication between the besieged parts of the city. There was also an attempt by a squad from the Old Town to launch a rear attack out of the sewers on the Germans stationed at Bankowy Square. An exit from the sewers leading out of the city toward the Vistula River was surveyed and made ready. A telephone line between the Zoliborz district and the Downtown was laid in the sewers. As it turned out, the sewer played a significant psychological role in the fighting.

Did the Germans have combat experience in Warsaw’s underground sewers? An SS and police commander for the Warsaw district, General Jürgen Stroop, wrote the following in his report on the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto [during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising]; the report is dated May 16th, 1943:

“During the first intrusion into the Ghetto, the Jews and the Polish bandits, through the use of earlier set fires, were able to repel the forces committed to the fighting including tanks and armored vehicles… To prevent an escape to the sewers, the sewer system underneath the Jewish housing district was immediately flooded; this, however, was an illusion as a result of blowing up of the main water valves by the Jews.

Jews hid in the sewers and specially outfitted bunkers. In the first days, it was assumed that only individual bunkers existed. However, during the course of the long-lasting mission it turned out that throughout the entire ghetto there was an organized system of cellars, bunkers, and passages. Every passage and bunker had access to the sewer system. This sewer system was utilized by the Jews to cross underground to the Aryan side of the city.

The Jews were determined to defend themselves and in the process utilized every possible means and every weapon that was at their disposal. Under the Polish-Bolshevik leadership, the so-called fighting units were formed which were supplied with arms and paid any demanded price for the arms that were possible to obtain.

I decided to completely annihilate the housing district by burning down every apartment building including the buildings next to the armory.”