world war 2: warsaw uprising 1944

Jan Nowak. Courier from Warsaw.

Reprinted with permission of the Wayne State University Press.

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Radio station 'Lighting'

August 7–15, 1944

jan nowak photoI was delighted not only by the new job but also by the idea that an insurgents' radio would be established. Since the Rising had begun, it was important to do everything to see that it did not remain a tempest in a teacup, unnoticed by the rest of the world. The story of Lightning is a good illustration of how things never work out as we expect. For the last two years Kowalik, with his usual energy and eye for detail, had been preparing for large-scale propaganda during the Rising. The plans included a film unit, photojournalists, a public address system, a newspaper, posters, songs, a theater, and a radio station which would broadcast on the powerful prewar antennas at Raszyn and in Fort Mokotow. The communication department was to provide short-wave transmitters and all other installations. Entire archives of radio scripts, poems, and phonograph records, as well as a team of reporter s, public speakers, journalists, writers, and poets, had been gathered. Even the words and music to songs about the Uprising had been composed and recorded in some gymnasium. Everything was ready and planned, but when the Rising started neither Raszyn nor Fort Mokotow was taken. What was worse, we were not able to take the Polytechnic building, where the broadcasting equipment was housed.

Luckily, Kowalik had in reserve another short-wave station at Czestochowa, and two weeks before the Rising, Leszek achieved a considerable feat: he had the whole radio apparatus, taken to bits and

hidden in suitcases, smuggled into Warsaw on the train. The transport of these suitcases from a cache near the Central Railway Station must have been even more difficult than bringing them from Czestochowa to Warsaw. They were taken from the station and hidden in an area of intense fighting. During the night, in the middle of the bombing, the men assigned to protect the propaganda team fearlessly dragged the radio equipment over the barricades and through the fiery streets.

Unfortunately, the apparatus had been damaged by humidity and would not work. A team of technicians worked day and night to dry everything out and get it going. All this took a week. On August 7, they announced that everything was in working order, and on the morning of August 8 I started to write my first script. I would not write it alone, as my English was not good enough, so a Pole born in London, Adam Truszkowski (‘Adam’), was assigned to help me. He spoke English like a native (in fact, he spoke Polish with an English accent!). Our collaboration worked like this: on one side of the desk I would sit scribbling in Polish, then shove the completed pages to Adam on the other side. A cigarette dangling from his lips, he would sit at a typewriter tapping out my text in English.

A little after ten that morning, our station signal was heard on the air for the first time: the opening notes of the ‘Varsovienne,’ and then, in Polish, the announcement: "Hello. This is Blyskawica, the radio station of the Home Army in Warsaw, broadcasting on short-wavelength 32.8 and 52.1 meters, medium-wavelength 224 or 251 meters." The first English-language broadcast followed in the afternoon at 2:30. Like the Polish ones, it consisted of news and my opening commentary. This first text I read myself, after a few rehearsals so that Adam could correct my pronunciation. For the good of the enterprise, Adam read all the subsequent commentaries, combining the functions of translator and announcer. A radiogram announcing our first broadcast was sent to London.

By comparison with most radio stations, Lightning was a buzzing bee. Its power was only a hundred watts, but we hoped that the BBC's most powerful advance monitoring receivers would pick up our voices. We listened to London that night in vain, and on the following days the story was the same: there was no echo. We left our microphones with a feeling of deep disappointment. The military radiograms from London confirmed our belief that Lightning could not be heard.

In Warsaw, of course, our English-language broadcasts could not even attract a small number of listeners in the city and its suburbs who had access to an illegal radio set and were following Lightning's programs in Polish. Nonetheless, day after day Adam and I followed the same meaningless routine: writing, translating, and broadcasting our programs in full knowledge that we were speaking only to the walls before us because nobody who understood us could hear us.

But while Lightning was broadcasting into the void, a new channel unexpectedly opened to let out the news from insurgent Warsaw to the British radio and press. On about August 11, a young Britisher came to see me. In a fluent, although incorrect and heavily accented Polish, he introduced himself as Flying Officer John Ward of the RAF. He wore a Home Army armband and a Polish eagle on his cap. He had been shot down over Germany some two years before, interned in a German prisoner-of-war camp near Poznan, and escaped. He was one of several British prisoners-of-war hiding in the city and one of those who had joined the Polish underground.

During the first week of the Rising, in downtown Warsaw, Ward met a courageous couple, the Korbonskis, who had operated their own short-wave transmitter for many years and now were transmitting to London in Morse from their flat. Korbonski had an idea: Ward should give him dispatches in English which he would transmit to London in Morse code. Thus, on August 7, the first dispatch from a British war correspondent in Warsaw was sent to London. Ward had come to us to secure a better flow of information then he had access to. As a flier, he was most interested in news of air drops of arms and ammunition. He was brave, bustling, very sure of himself, and slightly arrogant. He quarreled with Monter, to whom I took him at once, but what was more important was the fact that he was very much caught up in his mission and in the fate of the Rising.

I advised him not to send his dispatches into the void but to address them to important British personalities by name. Ward did not know any names, so I suggested Sir Archibald Sinclair, Colonel Perkins, and the chief of the prisoners-of-war department in the War Office. Knowing how suspicious and distrustful of Polish sources the British were, I imagined that they would doubt whether the messages were really from an Englishman, so I advised Ward to give his full name, rank, and last posting so that London could identify him. As he still doubted that he could reach such important personalities in this way, I drafted a radiogram of introduction to Colonel Perkins and sent it through military channels.

One did not need to tell Ward anything twice, and on the spot we agreed to help one another and to exchange information. The next day I learned that during the night of August 13-14 an important British drop of arms was expected. Orders were given to prepare signal lights in squares and on rooftops, and personnel were assigned to receive the canisters. Wasting no time, I crossed Jerozolimskie Avenue (with no difficulty this time) to see the Korbonskis. They were a well-matched couple, with a lot of courage and a great deal of luck, which together had enabled them to emerge safe from incredible scrapes. They took me to Ward, and I returned with him to the part of the city where the drops were expected. It was important that he should observe them from a good spot and at once pass on his observations to London.

We were lying on the roof of a six-story building in Moniuszko Street which housed the most fashionable night club in the city before the war, the Adria, waiting for the drops. The night sky was lit by the glare of fires all over the city. Suddenly anti-aircraft artillery started firing and searchlights cut the sky. In a nearby square fires had been lit in the outline of triangles. The noise of several aircraft was heard. "Halifaxes!" exclaimed Ward. "I recognize the sound of their engines."

They flew low over the city. Against the background of the dark purple sky the bombers looked like enormous black birds. It was an amazing sight, like some kind of eerie air attack by many planes flying just above the ground, lit up by the searchlights tracking them. One of the enormous planes, with Polish insignia on the fuselage and wings, flew over our heads with a deafening roar. Dark oblong bundles spilled out of it on the roofs, streets, and nearby Napoleon Square. For a second it appeared that the plane would hit the Prudential building. I watched it go, praying for the safety of the people with whom I had been talking only a few weeks ago on the airstrip at Brindisi. The plane disappeared in the darkness, and then suddenly… I could not help crying out in anguish at the explosion, far away, beyond the city. In the flash when it was hit, for a split second we could see parts of the wings and the fuselage scattering in all directions. This same tragic spectacle wa s repeated two or perhaps three times.

Meanwhile, Ward made curt expert comments. He counted fifteen searchlights and a number of anti-aircraft batteries. According to him, there had been at least twenty aircraft. The Germans, he concluded, had been well prepared for the reception, but the pilots had chosen well in flying low: the anti-aircraft batteries were aimed too high. The losses over the city, given the strength of the anti-aircraft defenses, said Ward, were inconsiderable. The real question was how many German fighters they would encounter on their way back. "No support or cover from the Soviet airforce," he suddenly exclaimed angrily. "They certainly must have airfields within a quarter of an hour's flying time from the city!" "Include that in your dispatch," I suggested. "No need to," he replied, "each crew will be debriefed on its return and they will report it."

The next day the mood in Warsaw improved suddenly. Our photographers had taken pictures of our soldiers opening the canisters dropped. Some had fallen into German hands, but most were recovered by our people from roofs, courtyards, or squares. The boost to morale in the city was powerful.

Personally, I did not share this mood. I listened each evening to London and knew that Mikolajczyk had not succeeded in reaching any agreement in Moscow. After his return to London, Soviet propaganda suddenly shifted 180 degrees. Until now, even after the start of the Rising, they had been accusing the Home Army of inactivity, even of collaboration with the Germans. Now the Rising was being called a crime whose instigators should be brought to justice.

The war communiqués of both sides were analyzed by Monter's staff, and it was thought that perhaps the Russians had suffered a local reverse near Praga which would not hold them up for long. The fact that they had maintained a bridgehead on the left bank of the Vistula, south of Warsaw, was considered a good sign. From there an encircling attack should be launched any day. The staff was not impressed by propaganda. It believed that military considerations would prevail: Warsaw and Poland lay on the route to Germany and Berlin.

In the corridors of the PKO building and among Monter's staff, anxious voices were heard. It was difficult to understand why British bombers must make such a long flight over enemy territory at the cost of considerable losses when Soviet fighters could take off from the outskirts of Warsaw. Further, why didn't the Russians drive off the nine Stukas that were systematically and freely strafing the city each day? The Russians could also easily have shelled the German batteries that were reducing the city to ruins.

On August 15 a happy event occurred in our group which for a moment chased all these worrying thoughts away. In the evening London for the first time confirmed radio reception of Lightning and repeated the gist of the broadcast given that morning. Incredible excitement! After a fortnight's struggle in the face of great difficulties the technicians had their moment of glory, and the journalists, writers, and poets knew that they were not talking to themselves. From then on, all those involved in programs broadcast in the morning sat next to their sets at night to listen to their own words returning from far away.

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