Blizna Historical Park and Museum

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Hidden in the bucolic forests in southeastern Poland sits an important part of WWII history: Blizna Historical Park. When it was built in 1943, Blizna was already part of SS Camp Heidelager, the largest SS training camp outside of Germany. Visitors can now tour a small museum and remnants of the launching platforms and bunkers in the nearby woods. 

Reconstruction of the observation trench to watch launches at BLizna

After the bombing raid on Peenemunde on August 17, 1943, the German Strategic Command decided to decentralize and divided the research and building of its V-2 missiles among three different geographical centers. The assembly plants were transferred to underground factories in the massive hollowed out cave complex in the Harz Mountains.  Development and design were moved to offices in Ebensee, Austria.  The main missile testing and training were transferred to Blizna which was perfectly situated outside the range of Allied bombers. Bliza became the main test launching site for the V-1 and V-2 missiles.

Missle on launcher

Construction at Blizna was accomplished through the work of slave laborers from the Pustkow Concentration Camp and local forced labors. The local Poles had been removed from their homes and farms and had no other options. 

During WWII, 15,000 people died in the Pustkow Concentration Camp: 7,500 Jews, 2,500 Poles, and 5,000 Soviet captives. The next article will detail Pustkow.

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Bunker at nearby Pustkow Concentration Camppolish-slave-labor

Polish forced laborers working for the Reich

New infrastructure, starting with concrete roads and a narrow gauge railway, was needed for the transfer of these massive weapons. The workers also built barracks, bunkers, and the specialized equipment necessary for the operation and firing of the missiles.

Blizna, within Camp Heidelager, was the perfect covert wilderness setting, but it was supplemented by a mysterious fake village. The Germans built uninhabited wooden houses and barns, hung laundry on clotheslines, and placed statues of farm animals to create the impression of a peaceful village. This village was likely built because the Allies were taking aerial photos, and a village would give the impression innocent people would be killed if they dropped bombs near Blizna. The Polish Home Army (also known as the AK or Armia Krawoja) was the first to notice this setting.

The Germans started to remove the Polish population living in the area immediately after the September 1939 invasion. The residents of Blizna were moved on December 17, 1940, and most of the surrounding villagers were evacuated shortly after that.  The Poles were forced to abandon their homes, leaving behind most of the moveable property for the perpetrators to loot. Most homes were torched, but a few were moved to be used for workers homes in an adjoining camp area. The brick buildings, like manor houses, schools, and churches were left untouched to serve the needs of the invaders.

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On the outskirts of Camp Heidelager, the Reich created huge German farms managed by the SS using the local forced laborers. Everyone over the age of fourteen was required to work to serve the needs of the occupiers. The Nazi’s long-term goal was to colonize Poland with German citizens and to totally eliminate Poles from existence. (see reference at end.)

The site at Blizna was considered to be of such high strategic importance that it attracted personal visits from many of the Nazi régime’s most elite officers. Heinrich Himmler, Hans Kammler, and Gottlob Berger visited Blizna in September 1943. The commander of the site was Major General Dr. Walter Dornberger, leader of Nazi Germany’s V-2 rocket program. Adolf Hitler visited in the spring of 1944. Wernher von Braun, the creator of the V-2 and the central figure in Germany’s pre-war rocket development program, visited the test missile impact areas to troubleshoot any problems discovered during trials. After the war, he became director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

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Himmler (in middle) during his 1943 visit

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von Braun visiting Blizna

The first test firings began in November 1943 using both V-1 and V-2 missiles. 40% of all the missiles shot from Blizna did not reach their destination, and sometimes created huge craters in the local area.

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The V-1 or “flying bomb” was an automatically controlled unmanned aerial vehicle with a jet-propelled engine.  The V-1 could be taken down by fighter and anti-aircraft fire before it even reached its destination. The launching was from a stationary ramp.

Missle on launcher 

Because of the limitations of the V-1, the V-2 was created. It was the first long-range ballistic missile powered by liquid fuel.  The speed and altitude of the V-2 meant there was no possibility of destroying them before they could reach their destination, but they were also known for their poor accuracy. The V-2 was launched from an upright position on mobile platforms.  The first test runs showed poor reliability with only 20% of the missiles reaching their target destinations. Both the V-1 and V-2 were mostly used to terrorize the civilian populations in England and never created the damage Hitler envisioned. 

Heidelager Blizna 1943

The partisans of the Home Army immediately began sending reports to the Allied Command about this previously unknown weapon.  With the assistance of the foresters, railway workers, and local farmers, the Polish soldiers risked their lives to gain information.  They performed extensive surveillance of the Nazi’s activities and sabotaged the equipment and railroads.

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Germans watching a V-2 launch from the trenches

A group from the Polish underground infiltrated the crew and often sabotaged the construction of the missiles. Once the flawed rockets were placed on their launching pads, they did not follow the programs and commands of the microcomputers. The rockets would lift off but then fall back either directly on the spot or would fly off course.  The saboteurs had either cut the wires or slackened the fuel conduits. Exploded missile fragments found near Blizna were routinely collected and smuggled to the Allies for decoding. Sometimes, local farmers repurposed the high-grade metal into shovels and tools. These heroic acts of sabotage came at a high price: an average of 300 workers working on the missile production at the three sites were killed every day. 

Crashed v-2 missile at Blizna

Crashed V-2 near Blizna

Learning of this sabotage, Von Braun intervened and decided that the rockets should be dismantled before transport and later reassembled in Blizna. This was done in the assembly hall close to the barracks near the road to Blizna.

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In the summer of 1944, local partisans discovered a fully intact and unexploded V-2 rocket, analyzed the components, and then smuggled the parts to London as part of Operation Wildhorn III. A full explanation of this operation can be found in this article:

https://donnagawell.com/poland-in-wwii-niwiska-and-anna-grabiec/world-war-ii-in-poland/operation-wildhorn-iii/

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Part of the V-2 rocket being recovered from the Bug River near Sarnaki

In late July 1944, the advance of the Red Army forced the Germans to evacuate their work at Blizna. The Red Army reached Blizna on August 6, 1944, about ten days after the Germans had moved out. Before they left, the Germans blew up remaining missiles and removed anything of military or material value, including valuables stolen from the locals. The remaining structures built as SS Camp Heidelager were torched and destroyed.

Many remnants of V-2 missiles were recovered by the Russians.  British intelligence agents were eventually granted access to the launch site in September 1944. By this time, the Red Army had already cleared out most of what the Germans had left. The British managed to fill several crates with some useful V-2 rocket parts, which were then transported to England with the full co-operation of the Soviets.  When the crates were opened in London, they did not have the expected contents. Instead, they contained old rusty truck and tank parts. Likely, the Soviet agents had switched the boxes.

The soldiers of the Home Army fought bravely to prevent the Russians from gaining access to the information about the top-secret missile program. A great number of people were killed during the numerous attempts to overtake Hitler’s retaliatory weapons making it the bloodiest operation in the history of the Polish Home Army. Polish officers, cadets, and the Home Army soldiers were arrested by the Red Army after it took control over Poland.

Unfortunately, the Western Allies did not remember the Polish Home Army’s contribution to this great effort. As a result, these brave men and women were sent to a communist prison in Poland and Gulag prison camps situated in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic. Many of these prisoners, known as “the doomed or cursed soldiers,” lost their lives, and only a few were able to emigrate west.

Today, an attractive historical park is surrounded by the remnants of the war years in the exact location where the missiles were tested and launched. The people in the area and the community wanted to save the historical truth of the place from oblivion. Blizna played an important role in the history of World War II and the subsequent shaping of military technology, including the space programs in the USA and USSR.

The museum emphasizes the important role of the Home Army that once operated in this area and its contribution to the unmasking of one of Hitler’s most guarded secret projects. Thanks to these Home Army soldiers and local informants, their efforts helped change the direction of many V-2 missiles, preventing them from reaching their targets.

If the Germans and the V-2 had been successful, these large-scale weapons and the adaption of missiles carrying nuclear charges could have produced an entirely different outcome in the war and the history of the modern world.

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More photos from Blizna Historical Park (taken by Donna Gawell during her two visits in 2016 and 2018:

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Portable Radio Station used during WWII

 

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Power Generator at Blizna

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Portable WWII Mess Kitchen

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Outline of V-1 launching platform

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A telescope used to view launches from the trenches

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Allied Survellience map of Blizna

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Two of the many displays of V-1 and V-2 material fragments recovered

by Home Army partisans near Blizna

examples of missle fragments found by partisans

 

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Bunkers near Blizna

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Be sure to visit the beautiful wild horses that live in the woods near Blizna

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Hitler’s plans for extermination of Poles were first stated in his 1927 book Mein Kampf. He called for Germans to give up their attempt to regain their former colonies (lost after WWI) and to revert instead to their ancient “Drang nach Osten” (Push Eastwards) so as to conquer new territories for German expansion (“Lebensraum”) in Poland. Twelve years later, in a speech to the leaders of German armed forces on August 22, 1939 Hitler ordered: “Kill without pity or mercy all men, women or children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space (Lebensraum) we need. The destruction of Poland is our primary task. The aim is… annihilation of living forces.”

Polish Home Army During WW2

Today is the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the Polish Home Army which was by far the largest resistance force in Poland when it was occupied by Nazi Germany. At its height, in 1944, over 400,000  Polish men and women were involved in the Polish Home Army’s resistance efforts. They performed well over 30,000 acts of sabotage and fought over a thousand pitched battles and 24 major encounters. They had no armored vehicles or tanks and no air force or navy. It was mainly infantry aided by their compatriots who were forced into slave labor in camps. By design, these factory workers produced munitions and equipment that malfunctioned or rendered useless in battle.

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Polish Underground Grenade Production

Poles of all many religions, Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox, and Muslims, joined the predominantly Roman Catholic Poles in The Home Army. They all shared a love of country and Poland’s standards and wanted their country back. There was also what could be referred to as a phantom army of supporters. The fathers, mothers, sisters, brother and neighbors were the ears and eyes that provided medics, chaplains, messengers and financiers for the regular Home Army.

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German Train Blown Up by the AK

The resistance blew up German bridges and railroads, and their mission was to reduce Germany’s ability to wage war and to defeat them through acts of espionage to provide intelligence for the Allies. They also worked to rescue countless Jews, Poles, and POWs in prison camps. An estimated 1-3 million Poles died trying to rescue or help Jews.

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Polish Underground Radio Station

The Polish government still existed throughout WWII, intact and in exile in England with a small navy and air force also stationed in there. Poland’s treasure in gold bullion was sent to England and helped Britain purchase weapons and materials for its defense.

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The Polish underground sent a working replica of the German “enigma machine” along with the ciphers to England in 1939. With this device, the British could read every military dispatch sent from Germany by airwaves or by captured couriers. Three Polish mathematicians, Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zyalsi were credited with the enigma replica. Alan Turning, a Brit was later given exclusive credit for this feat but was really responsible for making a version that could meet the wartime challenge of daily code changes.

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AK (Armia Krajowa)

During WWII, 7,000 German trains and 5,000 German vehicles were destroyed by the AK. Polish intelligence was the most consistent, prolific and reliable compared to any other occupied country during the war. The gallant efforts of the Home Army allowed the Nazis to squander valuable manpower and resources on failed operations.

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Symbol of AK (Armia Krajowa

Although the Allies greatly valued the AK’s work, in the end, the Polish Army was given very little credit. We must not forget the millions of precious heroes who gallantly sacrificed their lives but were extinguished so ruthlessly.

 

Operation Wildhorn III

Operation Wildhorn III

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One of the most dramatic recoveries involving a V-2 missile happened not too far from Blizna and Niwiska. The missiles were directed to areas northeast of Blizna and most blew up in mid-air. The Polish underground army (AK) had become very proficient in arriving at the missile crash sites before the Germans. Plans were made by the AK to storm the Blizna site or attack the rail transports carrying the weapons, but an increased Nazi guard presence made this impractical.

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AK transporting V-2 parts

Then, on May 20, 1944, a V-2 missile launched from Blizna landed in the marshy area near the village of Sarnaki on the Bug River. It had failed to explode and was the first intact rocket containing entire V-2 system ever found by the AK.  The 22nd Infantry Regiment of the AK  hid the rocket under reeds until it could be hidden in a barn nearby. It was then transported by cart under potatoes on little-used rural roads that were shadowed by armed partisans.

Jerzy Chmielewski and Antoni Kocjan worked to dismantle and log all 25,000 parts with a team of engineers and scientists from Warsaw.  This enhanced V-2 missile also included a new type of guidance system that had not seen before. Detailed reports with diagrams, photos and a chemical analysis of the propellant were made for delivery to London.

The local agents had new information about the unusual fuel composition which was neither oil nor gasoline and the AK attempted to transport a sample in a flask. The Polish couriers had no cars and had to transport the flask by bicycle by means of a relay. They would bike for 10 kilometers and pass it to the next member, but soon discovered the flask was empty and that their trousers near the flask were cold. The couriers assumed that someone had spilled the substance or had failed in their task. After another unsuccessful attempt, they were given a special flask with a precisely polished glass cap. This resulted in a successful run, and it was discovered the solution was ethanol alcohol and water.

The nineteen suitcases of the specialized equipment and V-2 parts, reports, and over 80 photos were readied to be smuggled to London. A Dakota V of the 267 Squadron prepared to leave Brindisi, Italy and the landing site was to be at Zaborow near Tarnow. The passengers would board the plane according to priority knowing the risk of being left behind if the plane could not take off. They had reasons to be concerned as so many obstacles would challenge the success of the mission.

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Dakota

The rains poured heavily for over two weeks, and the grassland airfield was very wet. It would take another two and a half weeks before the airfield was dried out for the landing of the Dakota plane. Then when it was almost dry, a Hungarian plane exploded and crashed near the field. It was complete demolished, and the engine sank beneath the earth.

In late July, the signal was given to Warsaw that London could be informed that it was time to commence the operation. Only London was in sole contact with the pilot at Brindisi, and everything appeared to be well planned, but another problem arose. One hundred Germans had just arrived with 2-3 anti-aircraft guns and were resting at a school just 1000 meters from the airfield. They had just fought Soviet guerilla troops in a difficult battle.

The AK prepared a group from their troops who would be ready to fight the Germans when the plane began to land. Their goal was to stop the Germans from getting to the airfield to prevent the plane from landing or taking off. If the Germans had noticed, everyone would have been slaughtered.

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German Storch Airplane

Another problem arose: three German Storches had landed, and the Germans left the planes on the airfield for the night. The AK passed the news of this problem to Warsaw, and they suggested using the horses to drag the planes off the airfield.  Meanwhile, the Germans had a watch all around the airfield. Fortunately, the German planes took off the next morning and were not in the way for the Dakota’s landing.

The Dakota required a couple of hundred meters for a ground run and the field needed to be somehow lit so that the pilot could see the landing field. The twenty-five AK officers brought oil lanterns from their homes and covered them with a cylinder made of stiff black paper. The lanterns could not be seen from the side, but their light was visible from the air.

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It was a beautiful, pitch-dark night in July and the AK took their positions in the airfield. The commander, Colonel Baszak reported they were all shaking, and all had to remain completely silent. He said that he would have shot anyone who attempted to light a cigarette.

The plane drew near, gave a light signal as it was flying without running lights. At the signal of a whistle, everyone on the landing field removed the cardboard sleeve from all fifty lanterns.  The pilot was too high and couldn’t land so had to circle to attempt another landing. Baszak reported that the huge two engine plane “wailed like the devil.”

Finally, the Dakota landed, and everything was quickly loaded onto the plane. When the pilot attempted to start the engine, there was silence. Then the engine finally started, but the plane wouldn’t move. Those onboard guessed that the brakes had probably locked up. There were three attempts to start followed by three failures. The crew suggested that the only option was to burn the plane. Baszak understood that there were other risks to burning the plane, including the inevitable revenge killings of innocents in the nearby villages by the Nazis.

Baszak boarded the plane as he assumed the Dakota had at least a few machine guns but soon learned that the crew had dismounted the weapons to accommodate the increased quantity of fuel felt necessary for such a long flight. Their only weapon was a small “ladies’ style” handgun with four bullets.

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After 80 minutes, Baszak walked around the plane and noted that the tires had sunk quite deeply in the muddy field. He called for his men to bring “plunks” which are the deep, slanted sides of a wooden cart and these were used under the tires of the plane.  Soon, the plane was in the air, and the plane eventually landed at Brindisi. The precious cargo was handed over to the Polish General Staff to translate the coded documents. They were then handed over to the British Crossbow Committee.

This information was passed on to Duncan Sandys, the rather brash and arrogant son-in-law of Winston Churchill who was certain such an unknown fuel did not exist and blamed the Poles for the supposed error. The AK responded that the British should come and see for themselves.

One of the most unusual stories about Operation Wildhorn III came from a Polish scientist who covertly worked out of German officer’s apartment in Warsaw on the V-2 parts. The officer’s servant worked with the scientist who hid some of the V-2 components in the officer’s empty suitcases. The servant would call the officer each day at his office at the airport to ask what he would like for dinner and when it should be served. This information alerted the scientist about the time period when he could work and he would then leave each day safely.

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Also discovered was the control box that consisted of transistors, something that did not exist in England at the time. Eventually, the British, working with Polish scientists, were able to give orders to the German rockets before they fell in England. The Germans would give the order to “FLY, ” and the English intervened and gave an order to “NOSE DIVE.”  The Germans couldn’t reissue orders to override the interception, and the rocket would fall down. London was saved from the more potentially devastating attacks of the V-2 because of the bravery of the incredible bravery of these Polish Army officers.