The Polish Home Army on The Trail of the V1 and V2 rockets

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Part of a V-2 rocket recovered from the Bug River

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In early 1944, a V2 rocket crashed onto a muddy bank of the River Bug near the testing ground at Sarnacki not far from the village of Mezenin near Klimczyce. And remarkably, the V2 did not blow up. The Polish underground, who had been waiting for such a situation, rushed to the rocket and disguised it with bulrushes and osier bed. The Germans, desperate to retrieve it, quickly organized an aerial and ground-based search mission, but failed to locate the now-camouflaged rocket.
After the week-long search came to an end, the Poles returned to the site. This time they brought along four Polish scientists who carefully disassembled it and packed the pieces into empty barrels. The parts were then shipped to a barn in Holowczyce just a few miles away.

The discovery of Germany’s secret rocket armaments research centre and munitions factories in Peenemunde, and their subsequent bombardment, constituted a decisive element in the outcome of World War II. My examination of American archives revealed the prominent role played by the underground Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK) intelligence services in this discovery. This fact, for so long overlooked in English-language historiography, can no longer be ignored.

On August 17, 1943, Great Britain had 586 bombers on standby for their mission over Peenemunde, on the island of Usedom. The first aircraft took off at 21.00 hrs flying eastward following the southern Baltic coast, reaching their target past midnight. At 1:10 hrs they began their bombardment, dropping over 2 thousand tons of explosives. Before take-off, the RAF squadron leaders were told that their objective was to destroy factories producing precision anti-aircraft weapons, certainly an appealing target for the airmen. This false information was to provide a psychological incentive for maximum effort. In fact, this RAF mission was aimed at the top-secret research and manufacturing installations employing top German scientists in the production and testing of the Wunderwaffe – Hitler’s wonder weapons – that is, guided missiles known as V-1 and V-2 rockets.

Polish historiography recognizes the fact that a decisive role was played by Home army intelligence in the discovery of the secret installations in Peenemunde. The best treatment of this subject is by Michal Wojewódzki, whose seminal work on the German rocket research and production facilities was based on testimony he obtained from participants involved in this action. Unfortunately, most of the documents related to Home Army intelligence perished in the general destruction of Warsaw during the 1944 uprising. Because the post-war Communist regime considered Home Army activities to be tantamount to criminal activity, documents that survived the fires of war in the hands of Home Army members were subsequently destroyed because of the danger they posed to its members. For these reasons, Polish archives do not contain materials that document the Polish role in discovering Germany’s “wonder weapons.”

Only fairly recently did two former AK intelligence personnel, Danuta Stepniewska and Hanna Mickiewiczówna, make available to historians some microfilm containing intelligence reports about German industry that had been smuggled to London by AK couriers. Some of these, dated early 1943, include reports on the building of rocket engines. Since the Polish Underground Trust (Studium Polski Podziemnej) kept records of courier messages sent and received along with a synthesis of the contents, we know that these reports reached Section II (intelligence) Chief of Staff (Oddzialu II Sztabu Naczelnego Wodza), and, it follows, were turned over to the British. No doubt one of the first reports about Peenemunde must have been brought to England by Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, the AK courier who, after the war, became director of Radio Free Europe.

The Polish role in the uncovering of the Peenemunde installations merits no mention in the extensive English-language historiography. The latest book published in Great Britain on the subject, “The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemunde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era”, does not contain a single word about Poland’s contribution. According to the author, Michael J. Neufeld, the most valuable information came from Britons working in the Riech, vaguely identified as foreign forced labourers working in Peenemunde. He writes nothing further about their nationality, nor about their means of getting information out of the most strictly guarded research centre in the Third Reich and into England. Therefore, one gets the impression that these foreign workers were agents recruited by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – British intelligence. However, the only known network with agents inside the rocket research works was the one set up by the AK, code-named “Lombard”. The most valuable information obtained by Lombard came from a Wehrmacht non-commissioned officer, Roman TrSger [note: this must be a typo], code-named “T2-As.” A Pole of Austrian origin from Bydgoszcz, he accepted German citizenship in 1939 and joined the AK at the beginning of 1943. British historiography does not acknowledge the existence of Lombard.

The establishment, in 2000, of a joint Historical Commission by the Prime Ministers of Great Britain and Poland, aroused the hope that Polish historians would have access to the Polish intelligence documents that were turned over to the British during World War II. After the defeat of Germany, SIS took over the entire archive of the Polish intelligence bureau, Section II Chief of Staff. It is in this archive that Polish historians would find the documents proving that it was the Home Army intelligence that determined to penetrate the Peenemunde secret, and did. Unfortunately, discussions with British representative to date have not produced the desired results. The Polish intelligence files that were turned over to SIS remain unavailable. In fact, according to the British representatives on the joint commission, they were destroyed

Consequently, the Director of the General Administration of Archives, Professor Daria Malecz, who heads the Polish team of the joint commission, decided that it is necessary to examine the American archives. From 1942 on, American intelligence services, notably the Office of Strategic Services and the military Intelligence Division, were the second most important wartime depository of Polish reports. About 90 per cent of the information passed to the British was also received by the Americans. My own search through the archives turned up several thousand pages of Polish intelligence reports, including interesting materials concerning the V-1 and V-2 rockets.

According to works published to date on the subject of the German Wunderwaffe, starting in 1941, Britain began getting reports about secret, terrifying new weapons being developed by German scientists inside strictly guarded, high security research and production installations. Actually, these reports contained only rumours that were in general circulation. They contained no technical information about these “wonder weapons” nor gave any indication where they were produced and tested. As an American intelligence officer, Commander E.G.N. Rushbrooke, wrote in March 1943, reports about “wonder weapons” and other alarming information were not treated seriously because “it is well known that one element of German propaganda is to play on our fears, fear of invasion to make us keep a large part of our forces at home.

It was only in the spring of 1943 that London received information that caused the allies to start taking seriously that possibility that the Germans had developed new and highly effective weapons of a type hitherto unknown. Files found in the National Archives in Washington contain documents from this period that corroborate the fact that the earliest report containing technical details about the German rocket project came to the allies from Polish Home Army intelligence as early as December 2, 1942. In early November 1942, a Polish agent, most likely a worker at the Czech steelworks plant in Witowice, noticed that the Germans were conducting top-secret tests under strictest security. He succeeded in finding out that these experiments were related to special bullets made of hollowed out steel ingots using the Mannesman process. This method involves drilling the steel ingots to two-thirds their length and then applying them to a revolving cylinder. At this stage, the shells were forwarded to the manufacturing firm, “Reinametall Borsig – Berlin Tegel. Its exact location remained unknown.

To the non-specialist, the information in this report concerning the dimensions of steel ingots, the shells, and the composition of the steel, is meaningless. American specialists, however, realized that this report was important enough to be forwarded to the chief of military intelligence services. Specific technical details about the production of shells so huge that they called for special production techniques obviously caused concern among the intelligence services of the western allies. No doubt this called for more detailed information about the production at the Witkowice works, which the Polish report highlighted. On January 18, 1943, a subsequent report informed the British and the Americans that 80 per cent of the iron ore in Witkowice came from the Kiruna and Gellivare mines in Sweden. It should be noted that the Witkowice steelworks was, at that time, the most modern plant of its kind in the Third Reich.

At this point, there is a break in Polish intelligence reports among the documents in files listed under “Germany’s secret Weapons” at the National Archives in Washington. The next Polish reports date from September 1943, that is, after the bombing of Peenemunde. Curiously, the reports from July-August 1943 do not identify the source as, for example, “Polish” or “Danish” as, they had until this point. Instead, they are marked only with an unexplained “Source Z.” We can suppose that when British intelligence received its first reports, they purposefully removed any identification as a matter of security. Both the British SIS and the American OSS, fearing exposure to German intelligence, protected their own and their allies’ network of agents. In the case of Peenemunde, the most important source was the Polish AK intelligence network working inside the Reich, from whom originated the above cited reports.

In an American military intelligence document compiled directly after the bombing raid on Peenemunde, comprising extracts from earlier reports, the straightforward information about the Peenemunde compound and the collaboration of Germany industry in rocket production contains the following sentence: “The confidential file reference of this scheme is “Program A-4”. The symbol “A-4” stood for both the V-2 ballistic rocket research program, and the rocket itself – as German scientists called it. In 1943, the use of the term “A-4” could only have originated either directly from the research centre on Usedom Island or from the small circle of highly placed officials and administrators who had been apprised of this top secret project. Particularly interesting is that the English text uses the term “Program A-4” in quotation marks, as though it were a foreign term. The word “program” is not spelled this way in German. Whereas in English it can mean a television program, or a theatre program or, more recently, a computer program, its is not, as a rule, used to mean a project, or a research or a production program. The writer of the extract, however, invariably used quotation marks when citing “Program A-4”, indicating that this must be quoted directly from the original. Obviously, the English or American writer for some reason used the term exactly as it appeared in the Polish report that came from Peenemunde.

Particularly important are the documents that reached the OSS in Washington from the above mentioned “Z.” An analysis of the Washington files indicates that “Z” frequently contained Polish intelligence information. Some of the reports are barely altered duplicates of Polish documents dated June 28, 1943, which means that six weeks before the bombing of Peenemunde, the Americans already knew that the Germans were testing rockets with a range of 200 km. The parameters of these weapons were close to the V-1 rockets that were later fired over London. For testing purposes, the rockets were fired parallel to the coast, towards Gdynia. They were to go into mass production in September or October. Larger rockets were still in the experimental stage. The casings for the rockets were cast at the Deutscher Oehrewerke Muehlheim in the Ruhr region, and important elements were produced in Witkowice. The next report from “Z,” dated in the second half of August 1943, was drawn up immediately after the bombing of Peenemunde and gives precise geographical details about the location of the research centre on Usedom Island. It also includes a description of two types of rockets navigated by radio waves, one with a reach of 250 km, the bigger one with a reach of 450 km. (Obviously the V-1 and V-2 rockets.) Particularly significant is the information contained in this document that some parts of these rockets were produced in Auschwitz, in one of the factories that used slave labour from the concentration camp there.

All the documents in American files dealing with German rocket weapons obtained after the August bombing of Peenemunde contain repeated references to Witkowice and Auschwitz, i.e. to places that were closely observed by AK intelligence units and, as the American files clearly show, where no other intelligence networks were operating. Considering this, together with the fact that the American translations use the Polish term “Program A-4” to identify the V-2 research project, only a considerably prejudiced attitude could deny the Polish provenance of at least a part of these reports.

After the successful bombing of Peenemunde, when restrictions were a bit eased on the classification of the documents related to the German rocket research, documents marked “Polish intelligence” reappeared in the files. On December 2, 1943, Poles delivered to the allies the electrifying news that the Germans had transferred portions of the populations in the Brunn, Wischau and Olmutz regions in Bavaria and built underground factories including research stations similar to those in Peenemunde. The city of Porssnitz was most likely included in the new industrial complex. This report clearly shows that AK intelligence had detailed information about the installations on Usedom Island.

The contents of the Washington military intelligence files confirm the hypotheses that Polish historians developed as they examined the network of Polish activity during the war that the allies fought against German rocket weapons. Until now, we depended upon easily undermined oral reports; now we have access to American documents that could be put into question only by British sources. So far, the archives of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) have put forward no documents that would either confirm or negate the contribution of AK intelligence towards exposing the Third Reich’s greatest secret.

This article by Rafal Wnuk was published in Polish daily „Rzeczpospolita” in May 04, 2002 edition.

(Dr. Rafal Wnuk is a member of the Institute of Political Studies PAN, head of the Lublin Branch of the Bureau of Public Education IPN, a member of the Polish-British Historical Commission for the Investigation of Polish-British Intelligence Cooperation.)

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