Polish Home Army trapped in the Warsaw sewers

The Home Army propaganda poster calling for the efficient use of ammunition by the insurgents. The exact translation reads - 'One bullet, one German'.

The Home Army propaganda poster calling for the efficient use of ammunition by the insurgents. The exact translation reads – ‘One bullet, one German’.

Exhausted soldier of the Polish Home Army emerging from a sewer after escaping from German encirclement. One of his fellow soldiers pulls out his submachine gun of the sewer hatch.

Exhausted soldier of the Polish Home Army emerging from a sewer after escaping from German encirclement. One of his fellow soldiers pulls out his submachine gun of the sewer hatch.

The battle in Warsaw had now been grinding on for almost two months. Gradually the German forces were were reducing the areas held by the Polish Home Army to isolated pockets. There was no way to get around the city except by going underground – into the sewers. Soon the Germans were aware of this and began trying to block the sewers or force people out with gas.

For one anonymous fighter the sewers that were the only possible means of escape soon turned into a deadly trap. He was trying to evacuate a badly wounded female fighter along with two companions, it was a desperate business and it soon became more desperate:

It was 26 September. For the last fortnight I and my radio group had been in Mokotow, where the situation was critical, not to say hopeless, just as it had been in the Old Town a month earlier.

We were on a narrow strip of territory like an island, with the Germans all round. We carried her in turns, stumbling over corpses, knapsacks and arms. It was horrible. Ewa’s demented howling mingled with other unearthly screams. She was not the only one. I felt my strength ebbing away. At one point I lost my footing and fell heavily. My companions, Oko and Geniek, helped to put me on my feet again.

We set Ewa down and covered her with overcoats; we had to rest. She sat, propped against the side wall of the sewer, no longer screaming, and with glassy eyes. A procession of ghastly phantoms kept filing past us, some of them howling as Ewa did only a short time ago. Those screams, multiplied by echoes, were about as much as one could stand.

Then a new party approached. I wanted to warn them that we were resting, but before I could do so one of them had fallen, and the others, no longer aware of what they were doing, went over him, trampling him down into the bottom of the sewer — automatically, quite unconscious of the fact that he was still alive. In the same way they would have walked over us.

When they had passed we got up. Ewa no longer gave any sign of life, nor did the man who had been trampled on. We walked on. We passed a barricade put across the sewer by the Germans. After some time we caught up with the group which had passed us. Then we came to another barricade. This one was well built and was a real obstacle. There was no way through here. I turned back with my group, and some of the others followed. When we came to the first barricade, the one we had just passed, we met a party of people who told us feverishly that the sewer beyond the barricade in the direction of Mokotow was flooded. So we should never get to the top! .

A despairing argument took place between the two groups, the one that had brought the news of the flooding and the one that had come up against the impenetrable barricade. By then people had lost their senses; they were shouting in their fury and anguish.

Some remnant of judgment indicated a return to Mokotow. It was not very likely to succeed, but it was the only way of keeping alive — no matter for how long; the only thing that mattered was not to die in the sewer.

The gas was affecting our eyes more and more the whole time. I felt just as if I had sand under my eyelids; my head, too, was rolling to one side in a queer way. The mass of people all round were still arguing how to save themselves. From time to time a hideous bubbling was heard, as one more person whose strength had gone slipped into the foul liquid. But even more unbearable would be the voice of some woman pulling him out: “Look, he’s alive, he’s smiling! My darling, you’ll soon be on top again!” Oh God, not to see it, not to hear it!

I realized during my increasingly rarer spells of clarity that I was beginning to lose consciousness. I held on to one thought: to get back to the surface. I did not want someone else to hear the splash and the bubbling which my ears would not hear. I shouted then, at the top of my voice: “Make way, I’ll lead you out!” But the angry yells which met me on all sides were the worst thing yet. “Who said that? Fifth columnist! Shoot him!”

This shouting, like a sharp lash, spurred me to an extra effort. I escaped. I had enough sense left to realize that at such a moment what they threatened could well happen. Edging sideways close to the wall, my group and I crossed the barricade unnoticed by the rest. We were over on the other side. We were going back, come what might.

At once we were deep in it. After a few steps we could no longer feel the bottom, but with the help of planks, knapsacks and abandoned bundles, we managed to keep our heads above the surface. After a short time we again felt the ground under our feet. The cold water and the absence of the blasted gas helped to clear our heads, and, holding each other’s hands, we crawled slowly forward. Forward, that was what mattered. I knew that by following that sewer we were bound to come out in Dworkowa Street. We had to make it. ”

At 4 p.m., seventeen hours after we first went down into the sewers, we were pulled out of them by S.S. men in Dworkowa Street.

This account first appeared in: The Unseen and Silent: Adventures from the Underground Movement Narrated By Paratroops of the Polish Home Army.

Soldiers of the Home Army watching out for the enemy, hidden behind a street barricade. Note that two of them are armed with handguns only.

Soldiers of the Home Army watching out for the enemy, hidden behind a street barricade. Note that two of them are armed with handguns only.

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