world war 2: warsaw uprising 1944

Stanislaw Likiernik. By Devil's Luck: A Tale of Resistance in Wartime Warsaw.

Reprinted with permission of the Mainstream Publishing Company.

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  August 11, 1944

The telephones were still working and I was able to make enquiries. I learned about Olek's death in Zoliborz. Stefan Graf, my workmate from Pfeiffer's, had also been killed. The attempt by my unit to take the German police barracks in Wola, the attack in which I had been wounded, had failed. Even worse, it was followed by a massive wide-fronted German onslaught on Wola, making the insurgents fall back towards the Old Town. The aim of this German offensive from the west was to reinforce their positions along the strategically important east-west route. The inhabitants of Wola, who had greeted us with open arms in the first days of the Rising, were mercilessly slaughtered by the SS. Practically the entire population of the quarter, somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 people, mainly women, children and old people, were driven from their homes and murdered.

In their retreat, my friends spent the night in the Pfeiffer tannery. To proceed further they had to reclaim Stawki, the quarter originally taken by us and by now retaken by the Germans. It was not an easy task, as the road was barred by a tank and they had no anti-tank weapons. In this second attack on Stawki, Janusz and Janek were killed at the same time; in all our previous battles my place was always next to them. Olszyna, an assistant professor of Warsaw University and second-in-command to Jozef Rybicki, the OC of the Warsaw Kedyw, also fell. Zygmunt, a friend from the vocational school, was another casualty. It was soon after he had heard of the death of his fiancé, Zosia; quite possibly he had lost his will to live. In this one day I learned of the deaths of eleven close friends.

My wounds were still troublesome, but I was reasonably mobile and I set out to look for my unit. The first detachment I came across was made up of boys from Wola, most of them industrial workers. They were in trouble, having been accused of disobedience. The problem was that our unit had lost several officers in quick succession and command had passed to Since. He was older than most of us and had completed his officer training before the war. There was no denying his personal bravery but, unfortunately, he lacked common sense and any ability to foresee the consequences of his actions. He had a perfect right to risk his own life, but he gave little thought to the lives of his subordinates, setting them impossible tasks. When he ordered a frontal attack on the tank barring the road, the boys had refused to follow his order. Since reported them for 'insubordination in the face of the enemy'. It was insubordination, there could be no doubt about it, but the attack would have bee n suicidal. I found those boys disarmed and sulking, but eventually managed to talk them into rejoining the unit. Subsequently, they fought with great courage and determination throughout the Rising, in spite of heavy casualties.

Two or three days after my arrival in the Old Town, I suddenly heard shouts of joy and cries of "hurrah!" just outside the hospital. I went to the window. On the corner of the street, a small tank captured from the Germans was surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd. I was still very slow on my feet and hadn't yet managed to get downstairs when a huge blast shook the building. Plaster came down from the ceiling and the whole building trembled as if shaken by an earthquake. I hobbled back to the window. The tank had disappeared, and in its place there was a large crater in the road. The vehicle had been a trap, a Trojan horse. Filled with explosives and fitted with a detonator, it was a time bomb.

No less than 200 people were killed and the number of wounded was even greater. The area was littered with bodies. Those standing near the tank had been thrown into the upper floors of nearby houses. From every direction there came the cries of the wounded. From being a patient, I turned into a nurse. Now I was looking for the husband of one wounded woman, now for the child of another ... Within minutes, the near-empty hospital filled with casualties. I needed a moment's rest and found a place in the cellar next to a man with severe burns. He had been one of the firefighters when an incendiary bomb hit the ground next to him. He was groaning with pain, while his wife and children sat with him, crying. I couldn't bear it any longer and left the cellar as fast as I could. There were now no more vacant beds in this hospital, and besides I'd had enough. I was about to leave the building when I came across one of our boys, Remec, from the Mokotow unit of Kedyw. He told me that the remnant of my troop were defending the John of God Church and mental hospital. Soon the two of us were on our way to rejoin them in action. I could just about walk, with difficulty.

The relentless, heavy German fire continued. Artillery shells, rockets and other assorted missiles were falling all around us. Particularly unpleasant were the heavy shells known to us as `cows' or `wardrobes' because their explosion was preceded by a noise like cattle lowing, or a heavy wardrobe being pushed about. Having reached the Old Town we stopped for a short rest. This saved us from a `cow' which exploded a few metres ahead. We reached the John of God Church just in time to bury one of our boys, killed by a bullet which had cut the artery in his neck.

We held the position for several days. The hospital doors now stood open and, lost in a crazy world of their own, some of the unattended mental patients kept strolling backwards and forwards in the no man's land. Inevitably, some were hit. Some found shelter in the cellars of the Old Town, adding to the chaos that had overtaken the civilian population.

A very bleak picture of these days has remained with me until now; I still see the crazed patients strolling under fire in the no man's land, falling, trails of their blood making patterns on the ground.

Another memory is of a seemingly ghostly apparition. One day, as we were defending Konwiktorska Street, I went to investigate a strange noise coming from the outside. The Polonia football ground across the street was in German hands. The noise came from a figure clad in nothing but a long shirt, shuffling across to our position. This was happening in plain view of the enemy, who were not known for sparing anybody, but somehow they held their fire. The strange man entered, holding an empty jar in his hands. Politely, he kept offering us pickled cucumbers and honey for sale. For once I was lost for words. "The quartermaster is in the back," I told him eventually. He went to look for him with his 'wares'.

Under unrelenting German pressure, we had to abandon the church and took up our position in apartment blocks at the far end of the hospital garden. Our leaders, however, decided the church had to be retaken, as it was strategically important for the defence of the Old Town. Columbus, at the head of ten lads, was to mount an attack across the hospital garden while I, with seven men, was to proceed through the cellars and attack simultaneously on the right flank. We climbed out of a basement window and ran towards the church. It was nine or ten in the evening and quite dark, but the Germans must have heard us. As I learned later, Columbus was wounded in the knee right at the beginning and his attack lost its momentum. My group found shelter behind a brick wall about twenty centimetres high. The Germans turned a flame-thrower on us, but luckily we were not within its range. Though it did not do us any harm, it did stop us from gaining more ground. I found a piece of an old plank . "Touch wood," I said. "Now we'll be safe." Somebody laughed. And so I discovered that in a tight spot a cool head and a bit of humour may save the situation, perhaps even lives ...

I decided to fall back to our starting position. In the cellar I counted heads. One boy was missing. We were about to look for him outside when he returned unaided, though with a serious head wound. Taken to the Crooked Lantern makeshift hospital, he was later murdered in its cellars, as were most of the other patients.

My wounds from the days in Wola were still oozing. A friend of mine, Zbylut, a fifth year medical student, dressed and redressed them, but proud flesh prevented proper scar formation. One of the Salonikan Greek Jews whom we liberated in Stawki was a doctor, an old man of at least forty-five or fifty. Zbylut asked him to have a look at my injuries. Their only common language was Latin. It was the oddest consultation. In spite of its loftiness, even in November 1944 my wounds were still giving me trouble.

We defended the Old Town for twenty days. The day-by-day details can easily be found in reference books. It suffices to say that we endured those twenty days under constant artillery fire from Praga across the river, amidst exploding rockets and `cows' and under repeated aerial bombardment. The Germans used only four bombers. They would come over, drop their load of incendiary bombs – both half-ton and small – on us, turn back to reload and deface the cloudless Warsaw sky with another bombing mission forty minutes later. They had the sky to themselves; the Red Army was stationed just across the Vistula, but not a single Soviet fighter challenged them. Bombing Warsaw was as easy as a turkey shoot, and just as safe for the crews.

The civilian population survived in the cellars as best they could. The intervening walls had been demolished in places to allow free passage between individual cellars, and the latter-day cavemen could circulate underground without having to venture into the streets. We used the upper floors for sleeping in. Flats were empty and offered a choice of bedrooms, even of libraries if one was so inclined. They were infinitely more congenial than the cellars. More dangerous? Yes, but some of us had become practising fatalists. One day, four lads were playing bridge while off duty. Somebody discovered a gramophone and some records; so we had music to relax by. Stretched out on a sofa, I was reading a book. Suddenly, a deafening explosion interrupted my reverie. The ceiling plaster came down and a cloud of dust filled the room. Stoically the bridge players swept the rubble off the table and continued their game. But not for long. A three-storey wing of the house, on the other side of the central courtyard, was brought down suddenly by a `cow'. We had to rescue people buried under the rubble. End of our rest.

Another day, I was inspecting the lookouts placed in the garrets of the buildings in our front line. One of the lads was standing clearly silhouetted against the clear, blue evening sky, even at a distance. The dry weather continued and fires burned unchallenged by a single drop of rain. I lost my temper. "You fool!" I shouted. "Do you want to cop it? The Krauts can see you plain as day."

"See for yourself," replied the boy. "Can I lie down here?" And indeed, a rafter of the ruined house was alive, covered with a column of bedbugs on the move. Thousands of them marching, a second bloodthirsty enemy army, though this one only on parade. I ordered him to a new observation post.

Soon after, there was a memorable death. The boy must have joined up late, after the Rising had started. I didn't know him well and I have forgotten both his name and his pseudonym. He was hit at his lookout post on the fourth floor. We carried him downstairs to bury him in the yard. Amazingly, we found a ready-made grave. Somebody must have dug it just in case. I didn't give it much thought. There was a constant demand. We buried our friend's body. Somebody said a prayer. We stood over the grave at attention for a minute's silence.

We had just started on the way back to our quarters when I heard a scream: "Bloody hell! They've stolen our grave!" A group of soldiers was coming from the other side of the courtyard, bearing another body. They didn't seem pleased – quite the opposite. We had to clear out in a hurry.

But this tragicomical episode was an exception. The general atmosphere was far from jovial. The conditions were dreadful, especially for the civilian population, camped in the cellars: women, old people and children, the escaped mental patients roaming amongst them. At first, the civilians accepted the situation with a mixture of enthusiasm and resignation. But soon their forbearance began to wear thin. Towards the end of August we were met with hostility and often with rage, while using the underground passages. On the day of the bridge party, on 25 August to be precise, the news spread - probably from the radio-monitoring service of the Home Army – that Paris had been liberated. It filled me with unmitigated envy. I happened to be talking to Jodla as we heard the news. I had known him well as Roman's schoolmate in Garwolin and subsequently as our tenant for several months in Zoliborz. Unbeknownst to me he had found his way into Kedyw, and I met him again at t he start of the Rising. I clearly remember saying to him `Perhaps the Krauts will capitulate now that they have lost Paris. If not, we are finished. There they got rid of them in three days, while we shall all perish here before Warsaw is free …

At the time we knew nothing, of course, of either the help given to the Paris insurgents or of General de Gaulle's negotiations with the Americans, which facilitated General Leclerc's division to save the French capital.

Under constant German pressure, the part of the Old Town we held kept shrinking. On 26 or 27 August we lost the State Mint, a big concrete building and thus an important northern bulwark of the Old Town's defence. We were posted to Zakroczymska Street to fill the gap in our lines. By then our strength was down from the original seventy five men to about twenty, and that included several walking wounded like myself, the rest having been either killed or hospitalised.

About that time an old friend, Antoni, unexpectedly rejoined us. He had lost part of his hand in June, before the Rising, in our somewhat unorthodox attack on the Gestapo car in Zoliborz. Having learnt that we were in the Old Town, he pleaded to be posted to us. As the Old Town was surrounded, this was a difficult proposition. He made his way through the city sewers, partly on his knees, carrying his rifle above his head, and reached us just as we were at the end of our tether.

Our next task was to take the houses along Koscielna Street. Antoni with eight lads was to attack from the corner of Franciszkanska Street, and I, with the remaining seven, from Zakroczymska Street. To do so we had to pass to the right of an old palace which, at the time of the 1830 rising against the Russians, became the barracks of Czwartacy, a famous regiment of infantry.

We advanced. There was no sign of Antoni's force. I sent a lad to reconnoitre. He came back with the news that Antoni's detachment had been eliminated by a single howitzer shell which left them all wounded, Antoni in both legs. They had been taken to the Crooked Lantern hospital. And so, left on our own, our strength reduced to eight, we tried to take the shell of a burnt-out building across the street. Incredibly, it was still standing, though its walls had been weakened by fire. A German soldier tried to stop us with a flame-thrower. A sudden blast of wind turned the flames back onto him. I must admit that all I felt was relief.

We were inside the burnt-out house when we heard the aeroplanes and explosions. They usually came in two or three waves. The next lot of bombs, or the one after, was bound to be for us. I ordered a retreat across the street, where a carriage gateway offered a more solid-looking cover than the barely upright walls of the burnt-out house – or so I thought. I counted my men. One was missing. I was not going to retreat with my detachment incomplete so I stayed behind with Zbylut, our doctor, who kept me company out of sheer friendship. "Broda, Broda!" we kept calling the missing lad, when the bombs came down. Blasts ... deafening noise ... falling bricks, black dust ... flying chunks of plaster ... When the dust settled, my boys were nowhere to be seen. The `safe' gateway across the street took a direct hit. They were all buried. In the middle of the road, about five or ten metres from us, lay a half-ton unexploded bomb. Zbylut and I owed our lives to a saboteur s lave-labourer in a German munitions factory – maybe a Pole.

I could see the head of one of my boys protruding from the rubble of the gateway. This seventeen-year-old volunteer had joined us only two or three days before. He kept crying out with pain. I ran to him. "Panie poruczniku, Lieutenant Sir, I am sorry, please forgive my screaming." We started digging him out, but we couldn't manage on our own. I ran into the nearby Franciscan Church. The crypt was crowded. "My boys are buried, I need help!" Nobody stirred, not a soul. An obviously fit man in his prime stood next to me. I turned to him: "You are coming with me!"

"Not me," he answered, and didn't budge.

Furious, I stuck my Parabellum in his belly. "Move, or I'll shoot." This time he responded.

We managed to dig the boy out. Both his legs were fractured. I sent him to the Crooked Lantern hospital. Along with others, he was murdered there by German troops a couple of days later.

All my other soldiers were buried deep under the rubble. Among the dead was Budrys, whom we had entrusted with a leather bag containing the chronicle of our unit from the first day of the Rising. I was certain that the document was irretrievably lost, but it surfaced again in 1989. The bag and its contents had been found during the clearance of the ruins of the Old Town soon after the war, and the damaged loose leaves, difficult to decipher, were entrusted to Jozef Rybicki. Under the Stalinist regime in Poland, the secret police raided and searched his flat again and again. If found, this valuable document would have been confiscated and the eye-witness evidence had to be protected. In fact, Rybicki had hidden it so well that in later years he himself lost sight of it. Much later, after his death, his daughter Hanna discovered the cache, deciphered and copied the notes and passed them on to Mr. Giedroyc, in Maison Lafitte near Paris.

Mr. Giedroyc has been publishing Kultura, a Polish political review, since 1946, having started it in cooperation with Mr. Czapski, a well-known writer. Our diary appeared in print in Zeszyty Historyczne, or Historical Notes, an offshoot of Kultura issue No. 94.

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