At seven it was already completely dark. Scattered in window wells along an avenue as wide as a park we waited anxiously, nerves taut, knowing that we were the last ones left on Mokotow. All the other Mokotow units had already surrendered or had retreated earlier to the City Centre. The remnants of the ‘Parasol’ battalion which I commanded had been ordered to act as rear guard and to retreat last when darkness fell.
We felt uneasy, knowing we were alone. At nine sharp we left our positions and hugging the walls closely edged our way along empty streets to the designated manhole at Pulawska and Szustra streets. At the entrance to the sewer we found a group of people waiting – civilians who had worked as auxiliaries for the Mokotow groups. This was not part of the plan, but we lined them up and one by one lowered them into the sewer. It was slow going as they were all much older than we. Finally our turn came. A last glance at the dark, empty, silent streets of Mokotow, and I went in.
We were making our way in tenebrous darkness, touching one another so as not to lose contact. We knew this sewer from a previous journey, but progress was extremely slow and after a half hour we came for a complete halt. "What's going on in front? Why aren't we getting into the main storm sewer?" – I sent a message up the line. "German barbed-wired barricades in the main sewer;” the answer came back.
We seated ourselves crosswise in the narrow sanitary sewer pipe – head and legs up on the curved walls, our buttocks in the oozing, stinking muck. From inside my windbreaker I took out a loaf of bread, opened my penknife, and asked for light. Someone struck a match – the flame went out. A second, a third – the same. The matches were dry but there was not enough oxygen to sustain the flame. I wiped the putrid mess off my hands on a handkerchief and cut the bread in the dark passing it up and down the line. I ate my small portion without much gusto, but somehow without revulsion. I was hungry.
Time began to drag. Ahead, nothing was moving. How are those people in front making out? I suddenly imagined the bristling barricade reaching to the top of the sewer, water up to the chin, and middle-aged ladies trying to climb the thorny wires which swayed, and bent, and cut, but did not give. I sat upright. "What is happening at the barricade? Pass the question up the line!" – I commanded. No answer came. I waited a few more minutes, then gave orders to force our way through. Pushing one another, we soon reached the wide main storm sewer.
With mixed feelings of anger and compassion I realized what was holding us up. The Germans had seeded the sewers with carbide grains which, when wet, exuded poisonous gases. Several of the older people in front had succumbed to the fumes and could not move on, blocking the passage. Some were unconscious, some begging for help. We began to pick them up and drag them. With every step the water became deeper, the air fouler, our charges heavier.
Suddenly I stumbled over something soft in the water. With horror I realized that it was a human body. I tried to lift it and drag it, but then ... there was a second, a third .., still alive and moving. What to do? We were gasping for breath ourselves – the gas, the lack of oxygen – our strength was ebbing. One of our girls fainted, then a boy. Frantically I thought we can’t go on like this, or we too will be buried here for ever. "Push on!" I barked.
The next hundred yards were one interminable nightmare – we were climbing over a mass of moving, slippery bodies, some clinging to our feet, grabbing at us, holding on to our clothes. At last we reached the first barricade. Here, the water was over our heads, but we made it across.
From here on we proceeded faster – the water was not as deep and we had no interference. At the next barbed wire barrier a bit of light seeped from an open manhole ... Germans! In absolute silence we searched for the breaks in the wire cut earlier by our men. We found them low under water. Holding up the wires, one by one we swam through. We all made it.
Tired out, leaning on each other, gasping for breath we plowed on. Somewhere nearby, there should be the branch sewer leading to City Centre. But where? How to find it? Where the hell was that promised liaison man? My commands to keep together no longer had any effect. Our line began to stretch and break.
To make things worse we began to meet soldiers apparently strayed from other units which had gone ahead of us. Lost, they were coming out of side sewers whose exits were blocked by rubble. Half-crazy, they waded in the water back and forth, back and forth, seeking some way out. Some screamed hysterically that there was no more oxygen, that we were being gassed. One wanted to throw a grenade ac a locked manhole. Another yelled. "It’s the end!"
My legs were giving away – for a moment I leaned against the wall, helpless. Red spots were floating before my eyes. Was this really the end, I asked myself. Suddenly I sobered up. A stream of fresh air hit my face. Slowly, moving my hand along the wall I found an opening. In the faint yellow glow of my worn out flashlight I saw the letter ‘S’ chalked on the wall. Could it be possible ...? God, let it mean City Centre! "I've found an exit!” I called to the others. "Gather around me!" A few shadowy figures stopped, but others passed unheeding, frantically pushing on forward. Finally a small group of my ‘Parasol’ people managed to stop them by force. I sent one of my soldiers to investigate the side canal.
Then someone called to me that Scarlet (my present wife), was not here. That together with two others she had walked at the head of the column, and that they must have met Germans at the mouth of the main storm sewer at the Vistula. I was powerless to help them. Exhausted, we stood leaning against the walls.
The terrible silence was suddenly broken by the loud sound of splashing water. In a moment Scarlet and the others were back with us. They had reached the opening at Zagorna street and one of them climbed up to investigate. By the open manhole stood a German guard. A quick grab by the boots, and they both tumbled down into the sewer. While walking away, the dead guard left in the water, they heard the Germans shouting and cursing, but no one had followed them.
The soldier I sent returned with a liaison man from City Centre. It was the right exit after all! With new strength, on all fours, we crawled through the narrow stinking sewer, climbed a ladder to a higher level which led straight to the manhole, and there, using a rope we reached the street.
Bright sunlight blinded me. It took me several seconds to recognize the familiar contours of Ujazdow Blvd., Warsaw's most beautiful avenue. It was two o'clock in the afternoon. Sixteen hours had passed since we entered the sewers.
We entered the nearest building, and in a side roam under a table I found a cozy shelter. Around me the whole ‘Parasol’ unit settled half alive but intact. I fell asleep.
The first major Polish-made film to reach the West after the war was Andrzej Wajda's Kanal (The Sewers) [ resources ] . Main in 1956, in depicted the horror-filled hours of a group of Polish insurgents who in the last days of the Warsaw Uprising were trying to make their way through city sewers form the outskirts to the center of town still held by Polish forces. The film was a big hit in Europe, receiving several major international awards, and was shown in many movie-houses in the U.S. [...] Of course the story and characters in the film are fictitious but the incidents portrayed are based almost entirely on the experiences of one of the AK (Home Army) insurgent units – the remnant of the famed 'Parasol' (Umbrella) Scouting battalion. This unit at the time portrayed by the movie, had been reduced by casualties from its original 600 to about 60 members. We are lucky enough to receive an eyewitness account of these tragic hours, written by the then commander of 'Parasol', 2nd Lt. Jerzy Zapadko 'Mirski', who was 20 years old at the time.
[The Quarterly Review Ed. Note]