The youngest soldiers of the Warsaw Uprising
When the 1944 Warsaw Uprising broke out, around 50 thousand soldiers assembled in various clandestine units, dispersed in almost all the Warsaw districts, were ready to fight. Most of these units were formed by the Home Army (AK) detachments, but other organisations, such as NSZ, AL, PAL, KB were also represented.
Initially, the uprising was planned to take place on 27 July 1944. It was preceded by the all-night vigil in the set concentration points. The date was cancelled and the soldiers returned home. The second outbreak date was hastily decided to be on 1 August at 5 p.m. The orders, delivered by the liaison officers, were received by the individual cells at the last possible moment resulting in some soldiers' late arrival at the previously planned locations. The outbreak of the uprising surprised them in places far from the concentration points, cut off from the weapon magazines.
Since the capital was divided into a series of separate battle centres, in many cases it was impossible to reach the parent unit. Hence the insurgents joined the nearest units, where they were registered, and entered the fighting.
Adult soldiers were joined in their fight by the children of Warsaw. Boys aged 11 to 18 reported to the commanders of the insurrectionary units demanding to be allowed fighting the aggressor. Some of them underwent relevant training in the Polish Scouting Movement called the "Grey Ranks" or the conspirational officer cadet schools, but most gained experience in street combat.
Commanders of the individual sections were giving in to the volunteers' pressure accepting their AK soldier oath and incorporating them into the insurrectionary ranks. Young boys served as couriers or guides in the sewers, destroyed the German tanks with the petrol bottles, armed fulfilled their front-line duties on the barricades.
They became famous for their frantic bravery and determination. Many of these young heroes were promoted, for their services for the country, to higher military ranks: rifleman, corporal, lance sergeant, sergeant and even second-lieutenant. Dozen or so were awarded Virtuti Militari, the Cross of Valour and the Cross of Merit with Swords. Many of them became wounded or killed in action.
At the end of the Uprising, the Warsaw District AK fighting units were formed into regular forces as the Nazis, pressurised by the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States of America, acknowledged combatant laws to the insurgents hitherto called plain bandits. Unfortunately, in many cases it had no impact on the Nazis' behaviour. Captured insurgents were still executed in Czerniakow and Mokotow districts, and the Polish resistance hospitals were set on fire.
The insurrectionary units were transformed into the Warsaw Home Army Corps comprising: 8th Romuald Traugutt Infantry Division, 10th Stefan Okrzeja Infantry Division, 28th Maciej Rataj Infantry Division.
The 8th division comprised 13th, 21st and 32nd infantry regiments bringing together the Kampinoska Forest units and the Zoliborz units. The 10th division comprised 28th, 29th and 30th infantry regiments bringing together the units from Mokotow, Sadyba, Czerniakow and the Chojnowski Forest. The 28th division comprised 15th, 36th and 72nd infantry regiments in which the Srodmiescie units merged.
On 2 October 1944 the Polish forces signed the capitulation in the German headquarters of Ozarow in the presence of General Erich von dem Bach. AL and KB soldiers were provided with the Home Army ID cards, protecting them against extermination by the Nazis.The insurgents started preparing for the march to the POW camps. All detachments assembled in places where the marching columns were formed. Soldiers were ordered to surrendered their weapons. In accordance with the previous arrangements, submitted weapons were damaged so the enemy was unable to use them again.
In overall, between 4th and 5th October 1944, around 15 000 insurgents were taken prisoner by the Nazis. Their real names as well as the codenames were known to the enemy. Some of the insurgents left the ruins of Warsaw with the civilians, including Kedyw (sabotage) soldiers who were ordered to continue their conspirational activity.
Among dozen or so thousands of the insurgents marching to the POW camps, there were around 2 500 women and 1 100 boys aged from 11 to 18. They were the youngest prisoners in the history of all wars, constituting a unique group, incomparable with anything else. As mentioned earlier, they included the Knights of Virtuti Militari, the Cross of Valour and the Cross of Merit with Swords. In accordance with the agreements of the Geneva Convention of 27 July 1929, they were to be treated as the prisoners of war, just like the other soldiers.
Prisoner transports bound for the German POW camps were organised in Ozarow and Pruszkow. The insurgents travelled in closed, barbed-wired freight cars, 50-60 persons jammed into one car guarded by the Germans. Sitting was impossible due to extremely cramped conditions, the cars remained closed in the train stations, and the basic physiological needs were satisfied in the cars. In order to terrorise the transported prisoners, the Germans fired from machine pistols along the cars to eliminate any runaway attempts and to silence the screams of suffocating people. Healthy, wounded and ill prisoners were all crowded together in the freight cars. Beyond Czestochowa one of the cars went on fire resulting in death of one insurgent and leaving two others wounded. The corpse remained in the car and the wounded soldiers were left unaided until the arrival at the POW camp.
Warsaw Insurgents were interned, among others, in five POW camps:
Stalag 344 O/S Lamsdorf (currently Lambinowice)
Stalag XI A Altengrabow near Magdeburg
Stalag XI B Fallingbostel near Hanover
Stalag X B Sandbosten near Hanover
Stalag IV B Mühlberg-Elbe in Saxony
The most numerous group was directed to Lamsdorf. Around 5 800 men included circa 600 teenage insurgents. Apart from them, the camp turned out to be the prison for around 1 000 female insurgents. The Wehrmacht soldiers were prone to violence and brutality: the insurgents were pushed onto the railway embankment, beaten with the rifle butts and tabbed with the bayonets. The Nazis tore the white and red arm-bands off and removed the Polish eagle-badges from the hats, deprived the ill of their walking sticks. They called the insurgents the Polish bandits from Warsaw - "polnische Banditen aus Warschau".
The victims were organised into marching columns and led to the camp 6 kilometres away. The escort set dogs on the insurgents, while the local people, amidst the hostile shouts, pelted the marching columns with stones and mud. Some prisoners discarded their rucksacks, suitcases, blankets and cloaks in order to uphold the marching pace and have strength to save children, the weaker and the wounded. One of the columns was forced to march along the wires two times before they were allowed to cross the gates of the camp. During the march, the escort robbed prisoners of their cloths and the more precious belongings. The prisoners were directed towards the roll call square, where they collapsed to the ground, totally exhausted. They received neither water nor food.
The camp was already housing thousands of prisoners from the allied countries, with the Russians representing the biggest percentage of the POW population. Children attracted particular attention. Colonel Franciszek Rataj "Pawel", commander of 11 AK infantry regiment and the Polish senior officer of Lamsdorf camp, protested against the order to hand their armbands in, but the German commanders claimed that they did not receive any instructions from their superiors as regards their prisoner-of-war status. For the Nazis, the captives were plain bandits. In such situation the insurgents placed their armbands in the middle of the square. The first trainload, which included many minors, was forced to spend the night outdoors, in freezing rain and without any possibility to change place as the Nazis forewarned that they would shoot the moving captives.
Next day, at the roll call, the Nazi camp commander lieutenant-colonel Messner announced that he had received the terms of capitulation from Warsaw, expressed his regret over the situation and ensured that the insurgents would be treated in conformity with the Geneva Convention arrangements. The internees were informed about the camp rules and permitted to collect their white and red armbands.
The insurgents standing in the roll call square managed to establish contact with the neighbouring groups of Russian captives, from whom they were separated with wires and a kilometre-long strip of ploughed earth. The Russian prisoners informed them that they destroyed all the documents, and in particular the certificates of the military decorations. The Poles did the same, burning their documents in the roll-call square.
Before being allowed to enter to the barracks, the captives were strip-searched in the so-called "looting square" where they were robbed of money, personal belongings, watches, extra pair of shoes, etc., which were taken to a "deposit". However, some people managed to smuggle many items, including the radio transmitter and the machine pistol - Schmeiser, into the barracks.
On 8 October 1944 the Nazis registered the newcomers and provided them with cardboard, and eventually metal numbered badges (marks of identity). All were also photographed wearing their number badges. The Nazis took away their names and assigned them numbers. From then on, for the Nazis the prisoners of war ceased to be human beings, becoming mere camp numbers. Talking to each other, the prisoners used either codenames or their real names.
Rumours were circulating that boys under 16 years of age were to be transferred to Czestochowa where they would remain in RGO's charge (Rada Główna Opiekuńcza - Central Welfare Council), the Polish social organisation created in General Government in 1940 upon the approval of the German authorities. Therefore, in the course of registration, some minors provided the German camp authorities with partly false personal data, lying about their age, surnames and places of birth. Some juvenile prisoners of war, fearing that their families could fall victims to repressions due to their children's part in the Uprising, gave false names. Several under-age insurgents of Jewish origin, in order to avoid immediate death, decided to hide their identity as well.
The living conditions in Lamsdorf were appalling. The insurgents were placed in the sub-camp meant to accommodate the Russian prisoners of war, in devastated, louse-infested barracks. There were no sanitary facilities, no water, and the earth closets were located in the remote corners of the camp. The only pieces of equipment were wooden three-tier bunks and cast-iron small stoves, but the prisoners lacked fuel. They did not receive any mattresses or blankets, being forced to manage themselves if they did not want to sleep on the bare boards. A stone trough with icy water was a substitute for the wash room. Piercing coldness often made people sleep in their clothes.
Ever-present dirt was food for insects, which infested the camp barracks. In the evenings, when the vermin left their hidings and attacked their victims to such extent that it was impossible to sleep, someone used to announce the "insect-killing" time. The internees took their clothes off and, sitting on the floor (there were no stools or benches), penetrated the seams in search for hidden insects. There were also other means of "hunting". However, lacking the possibilities to eliminate the source of such conditions, it was almost impossible to bring this plague under control. The prisoners suffered exhaustion of the entire organism, which easily fell to infections and epidemics. Disease was rampant.
Lack of bowls and spoons constituted another significant problem for many juvenile prisoners who were forced to eat from food cans, which were subject to fast corrosion. Meals were very inadequate. According to the Geneva Convention, the Nazis were required to provide the POWs with meals corresponding to the food portions assigned in their reserve army, but the Polish soldiers were usually held either on the verge of starvation or in the state of chronic hunger. Low-caloric and undifferentiated food, securing ca. 700 calories a day resulted in the case of juvenile prisoners in significant weight reduction and various diseases. Suffice to say that a daily calorie requirement for young people should amount, depending on the age group, to 2 600 cal for 12-year-old boys and to 3 700 cal for 18-year-olds. Thus, the daily food norm was insufficient to satisfy the basic needs of the human organism. All the juvenile Lamsdorf prisoners look in their reports on the camp reality through the prism of constant hunger. The principal and final aim of starving soldiers was their gradual emaciation.
A consequence of malnutrition, very bad living conditions and dirt was quick development of diseases, in particular diarrhoea, typhoid fever and epidemic typhus, anaemia, pneumonia and scurvy. In spite of spreading disease, the camp governors did not bother with providing the prisoners with at least basic care and medical aid. The interned AK physicians organised a provisional sick ward in one of the barrack rooms. In the briquette-heated ward, bunks were equipped with palliasses.
Everyday roll calls held outdoors for many hours by the Nazi commanders in order to control the amount of the Warsaw Uprising soldiers were unbearable. Poorly clothed underage prisoners, standing to attention ankle-deep in mud, in frost and wind, were freezing nearly to death. In the meantime the prisoner-block leader (blockführer) strolled along and played in counting the prisoners. Another problem were strip-searches and inspections carried out in the prisoners' barracks.
The camp regime was very strict. The prisoners were prohibited from leaving the barracks from dusk until dawn. They could not even go to the toilet i.e. a hole in the uncovered concrete plate. Strong searchlights, installed on the sentry boxes, floodlit the entire camp area. Those who approached the barbed-wire fence or left the barrack at night risked death.
An unusual roll call
On 18 October 1944, Stalag 344 Lamsdorf witnessed an unusual and unexpected roll-call during which the German camp commanders wanted to separate the juvenile soldiers housed together with their adult comrades. The Nazi camp commandant, lieutenant-colonel Messner, deceived the Polish executive officers who looked after the minors, claiming that the Germans aimed at securing better conditions for the young insurgents or even relocating them to Czestochowa.
The Nazis' additional purpose was to make a propaganda movie featuring juvenile soldiers in order to propagate the idea of Volkssturm (literally the People's Storm) among the young Germans. It was the Third Reich's military territorial organisation created on the basis of Hitler's decree of 25.09.1944 (issued on 18.10.1944) as part of the total mobilization aimed at supplementing the Wehrmacht forces. Volkssturm swept into a single organization virtually all German males between the ages of 16 and 60 who were not already members of the German Armed Forces. Goebbels, the master of propaganda, claimed that Volkssturm, fighting by the side of regular army, might still win this war. According to the Germans, showing such roll call to the German youngsters would have a psychological impact and encourage them to join the new militia.
Minor AK heroes of the Warsaw Uprising, aged 11 to 17, many honoured with the Cross of Virtuti Militari or the Cross of the Valorous started to step out. As the group was growing in size, the Nazis were becoming increasingly furious and eventually stopped filming. They realised that the filmed material had completely another meaning, praising courage and dedication of the youngest soldiers of the Warsaw Uprising. They saw for themselves that in Poland everyone mobilized to oppose the Nazi invader and that only the Polish army could attract such young soldiers.
As many as 5550 of the world's youngest prisoners-of-war stood in the Lamsdorf roll call square. And it should be remembered that most of the juvenile fighters left the town ruins accompanied by their parents and other civilians. Many minor insurgents were also imprisoned in other POW camps. A ten or so youngsters, unable to trust the camp commanders, remained hidden among the adults.
The Nazis failed to keep their word. After the roll-call, the boys were taken away and placed in a separate top-security camp section, classifying them as the 5th POW category, which "allowed" the Nazis to act particularly cruelly with a profound sense of impunity.
The inhumane conditions in which the juvenile prisoners of war were detained caused them to make escape attempts. International law recognizes the prisoner's natural drive to regain freedom. A person who endeavoured to escape, even if repeated, and was captured, should be liable only to a disciplinary punishment. The use of weapons against prisoners of war was to constitute an extreme measure, which should always be preceded by warnings appropriate to the circumstances.
Several boys decided to escape. They were three 17-year-old senior riflemen: Jan Lewandowski "Aleksander" (the Knight of the Cross of Valorous), Janusz Zbigniew Sznytko "Bogdaniec" and Ireneusz Jan Wi¶niewski "Irek". They decided to escape at night on 2 November 1944. They swapped clothes with their inmates, getting rid of any elements of the soldier's uniform like buttons featuring the Polish eagle. They planned to reach less closely guarded sector of the French prisoners of war, and then get through the barbed-wire fence to the nearby training ground.
After the evening roll call, they did not return to their barrack. Having observed the frequency of searchlight flashes on the lookout towers they, one by one, in jumps covered a distance separating them from the French section. They crossed the shallow ditch and forced through the wire fence. After a brief discussion, they crawled towards the fence separating them from the training ground where they discovered additional guards situated along the fence at a distance of 50 m from each other. The escapees cut the wiring and removed the barbed-wire tangles clearing for themselves the way to the safety. All of a sudden there appeared a Nazi officer inspecting the guards on a bike. The accompanying him dog sniffed the boys out and started to bark. The Nazi stopped, took out his gun and, without any warning, started to shoot from 3-4 meters at the defenceless soldiers. "Bogdaniec" was shot dead on the spot, "Aleksander" wounded in the chin and "Irek" received two shots in his left shoulder and under the shoulder blade. Having detected the escapees, the officer fired the rocket. Between ten and twenty Nazi soldiers and officers arrived at the scene and started kicking the boys and hurling abuse at them. Dogs were tearing their clothes and biting them.
The Russian prisoners of war employed in the field hospital took away "Bogdaniec" and wounded, unconscious "Irek" on a stretcher. The Germans considered the latter to be dead as well. "Aleksander" went unaided to the hospital, where he had his jaw dressed. The Nazis subjected him to close questioning during which he was severely beaten. He spent two weeks cut off from all contact with the outside world and companions in a dark solitary confinement and released only upon his relocation to another camp.
Much more complicated future awaited "Irek" Wi¶niewski. Considered to be dead and deprived of his ID card, he was secretly cured by his inmates and following various adventures, under different name, managed to survive until the liberation by the American army. Fate was malicious for him even many years after the war, when due to being reported in the camp records as deceased, he was deprived of the prisoner of war status entitling him to a compensation.
None of the escape attempts was successful. At the beginning of November 1944, 14-year-old rifleman Tadeusz Górski "Góral" was shot dead when trying to lift from the "death strip" (ploughed earth between the wiring) a head of cabbage thrown over the fence by one of the French prisoners of war.
In such "honourable" manner the Wehrmacht followed the Geneva Convention agreements.
The family of Janusz Zbigniew Sznytka "Bogdaniec", who was shot dead in Lamsdorf, has never found his grave.
From the second half of November 1944 to the second half of January 1945 the juvenile prisoners of war were transferred from Lamsdorf to the following POW camps:
Oflag VII A Murnau
Stalag XVIII C Markt Pongau
Stalag VII A Moosburg
Stalag VII B Memmingen
Stalag III A Luckenwalde
Stalag VII C Sagan
Stalag IV B Mühlberg
Stalag IX C Bad Salza
Stalag XIII D Nürnberg
Oflag II D/Z Gross Born
Only one of the minor prisoners, 11-year-old rifleman Ryszard Chęciński "Myszka" was released from captivity by the Nazi commanders. He was collected by his mother with the status of a civilian forced worker.
Young soldiers transported to other camps were forced to slave work in the German war industry. It was another breach of the Geneva Convention, which stated that work carried out by the prisoners could not have any direct relation to the war operations or endanger the health of a prisoner of war. Boys were made produce the Messerschmitt airplanes, cannons, machine guns, anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. Whenever possible, they committed the acts of sabotage. After many years, the fictional - in such conditions - status of the prisoner of war made it impossible to receive any compensation in virtue of forced labour.
The fate of the juvenile soldiers of the Warsaw Uprising released in 1945 varied. The prisoners liberated by the Soviet army immediately returned to Poland, and some liberated by the US army were directed to the Guard Companies organised in Germany. Others were admitted to the Military Cadet School in Palestine. Those, who decided to come back to Poland, for a long time suffered discrimination from the Polish Communist authorities.
In spite of it, many of them managed to complete studies in Poland or abroad, becoming outstanding engineers and scientists, occupying high-ranking positions in the government units and diplomatic service. Their extreme patriotism and fortitude displayed in the horrible conditions of Nazi occupation deserves recognition and permanent remembrance of the future generations. Each individual history is worth of separate account.
Taking the date of arrival at Lamsdorf camp (6.10.1944) as the point of reference, it may be said that 550 juvenile prisoners of war, who were present at the roll-call on 18 October 1944, included:
2 - 11-year-olds
6 - 12-year-olds
9 - 13-year-olds
48 - 14-year-olds
115 - 15-year-olds
175 - 16-year-olds
On the basis of available sources it can be stated that:
3 of them were the Knights of the Cross of Virtuti Militari
18 were the Knights of the Cross of the Valorous
In the course of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, 206 of the imprisoned juvenile soldiers, i.e. 37%, were promoted, in recognition of their particular courage, to higher military ranks, including the rank of second lieutenant.
a monument commemorating Warsaw Uprising insurgents
(former Lamsdorf camp, Lambinowice)
Below you can find a complete list of 550 participants of the roll-call held on 18.10.1944 in Stalag 344 Lamsdorf.
(based on Damian Tomczyk's book "Najmłodsi jeńcy w historii wojen. Powstańcy warszawscy w Stalagu 344 Lamsdorf.", Opole 1993)
You can find more information about Lamsdorf camp on a CAMP MUZEUM site.
prepared by Maciej Janaszek-Seydlitz
Copyright © 2005 SPPW1944. All rights reserved.