The Masurian Lake District
We went to explore the Masurian Lakes district in northeastern Poland. It is a region very famous for its forests and lakes interconnected by rivers, thus forming a vast system of waterways. A haven of peace that offers many outdoor activities, very popular for bucolic holidays.
Take note, fans of canoeing, fishing, hiking, biking, and all nature lovers!
But this is also where The Wolf’s Lair is located…
Our two-day itinerary
For two days, we stayed in Gizycko, one of the main towns in the region. It is a charming town which offers a great choice of nature activities, excellent restaurants, and delightful walks in the city. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to enjoy it fully.
The first day, we paid a visit to The Wolf’s Lair in the morning and finished the tour at the Święta Lipka basilica. When we came back to Gizycko, it had gotten dark and cold so we decided to stay in the hotel. On our second day, we preferred a bike ride around the lakes. Maybe an extra day would have permitted us more time to stroll along the city.
The distances between each point of interest
- Warsaw- Gizycko 259 km – 3h30
- Gizycko – Wolf’s Lair 34 km – 34 min
- Wolf’s Lair – Mamerki 21 km – 27 min
- Mamerki – Święta Lipka 41 km – 47 min
- Święta Lipka – Gizycko 45 km – 46 min
To begin with, what is “The Wolf’s Lair?”
“The Wolf” is the nickname Adolf Hitler made for himself, and “The Wolf’s Lair,” the military headquarters where he spent most of World War II — 800 days in total — a dent of some 50 bunkers camouflaged in the woods of Gierloz in northern Poland.
The now-destroyed 15-km² complex, which then housed 2,000 people, was surrounded by two rows of tall barbed wire fences, reinforced by additional wire fences from which signal mines were hung. The spaces between them were mined with anti-personnel mines and anti-tank mines. It was here that Hitler made his strategic decisions and decided on the creation of the death camps. But it was also here that he was the victim of a failed terrorist attack in 1944.
As he said, the danger to his life came more from within than from the outside.
I did not know of such a place. I was shocked at the scale of the site and the size of the buildings. The visit is an opportunity to immerse yourself in the history of World War II and learn a little more about this period and Adolf Hitler.
We will enter a place witnessing one of the tragic passages in our countries’ past.
Why the Gierloz woods as a location?
For several reasons:
- The forest was remote, dense, and situated near the border with the Soviet Union. One of Hitler’s plans, Operation Barbarossa, called for an attack on the USSR.
- A railway crossed the woods, which suited Hitler who mainly traveled by train.
- The many lakes that made up the region were natural protections against land attacks.
It was built in July 1907 and used by locals and tourists visiting the Ketrzyn SPA.
During the creation of The Wolf’s Lair, the Gierloz station at the entrance was reserved for Hitler’s train “Amerika” and for the reception of allied dignitaries who cooperated with the Third Reich.
Hitler’s train, Amerika
During the first campaigns of the war, Hitler used it as a mobile command post. But with The Wolf’s Lair, he used it essentially for travel across Europe.
Two locomotives towed 15 wagons, each having its function: bedroom, kitchen, dining room, garage, office…
A name that may surprise
What a surprising name for this train!
The reason is that Hitler was fascinated by America, the land of conquest. This country represented the destruction of the Indians and the expansion towards the west — one of his favorite references when he spoke of his own aspirations to annihilate all non-Aryans in Europe. But when the United States entered World War II, the train was renamed “Brandenburg” after a piece of German land.
The construction of The Wolf’s Lair
The decision to start construction was made in 1940.
No one knows how many workers participated in this construction or whether they were prisoners of war or forced laborers. Because, in order not to arouse suspicion about the purpose of this project, each employee had a civil passport. It was then also rumored that it was about the creation of a chemical factory. Until June 21, 1941, a Russian airline was even allowed to operate flights between Moscow and Berlin and fly over the site. One way not to attract attention.
The first thing that stands out when entering the site is the size of the bunkers. They are gigantic! On the other hand, the interior is much smaller than I had imagined. It is due to their two protective walls.
First of all, an indoor shelter was built with a height of 2 m, like a standard building. It was then covered with a second reinforced concrete one, with walls up to 3.5 m thick. The void between the two walls was then filled with basalt stones.
Each bunker was also equipped with an aeration and air filtration system. This did not prevent the interior atmosphere from being very humid.
The Wolf’s Lair camouflage was entrusted to a specialist gardening company in Berlin. Most of the buildings had flat roofs with around 20-cm cavities filled with soil and in which artificial bushes and trees were planted.
Foliage-like plastic nets were stretched between the buildings and the trees that lined them and over the walkways in the forest.
Finally, the walls of the buildings were covered with a mixture of seagrass, green dye, and cement, which formed an irregular and porous “plaster.” Today, this plaster has lost its original green, but its shape and structure can still be seen.
To ensure that everything was perfectly hidden, planes were sent to take pictures to check the result.
One of its prerogatives: sticking to a simple life, luxury being displaced during times of war.
The Führer’s working days began with receiving reports from the fronts. Then invariably, he followed the same routine.
- From 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.: walk with your dog
- At 10:30 a.m.: reading the morning mail
- At noon: afternoon advice followed by a meal
Until 1942, Hitler, a vegetarian, ate most of his meals at the casino surrounded by guests from his close entourage. After this date, due to his psychological state and his isolation, he ate his meals alone in his bunker.
- From 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m .: evening talks on air warfare issues.
…and Hitler’s parties
The tea room was a place of relaxation where “Hitler’s tea parties” took place.
Indeed, each evening, Hitler invited close associates to end the day’s discussions. But what was to be an exchange ended tirelessly with a boring monologue from the host that could last until dawn. Each guest had to struggle to stay awake and laugh at his “jokes.”
Operation Valkyrie and the failed Hitler bombing of July 20, 1944
Operation Valkyrie was the code name for a plot to save Germany organized by a group of high-ranking Wehrmacht officers, the culmination of which was to be the assassination of Hitler on July 20, 1944. The providential man who made this plan possible was Colonel Claus Von Stauffenberg. Indeed, thanks to his appointment to a strategic position, he obtained personal access to Hitler.
The course of the attack
Claus Von Stauffenberg, provided with a briefcase containing a primed bomb, entered the meeting room where Hitler and his officers were. He put it down next to Hitler and left the room claiming a phone call. He then headed for the exit of the camp to escape and return to Berlin. But he found out later that the bomb did not kill Hitler.
History presumes that Heinz Brandt, who stood next to the Fuhrer, mechanically pushed the briefcase behind the thick leg of the conference table, which saved Hitler’s life in the explosion. He came out with a perforated eardrum.
On the other hand, when Stauffenberg arrived in Berlin, he was arrested and an investigation was opened. Seven thousand people were arrested, of whom 4,980 were executed. As for his wife and children, they were sent to special camps.
The end of the Wolf’s Lair
In November 1944, as the troops of the Red Army approached, the headquarters was moved near Berlin.
So that the buildings didn’t fall into the enemies’ hands and become a fortress, its destruction was ordered. The entire complex was therefore mined, each bunker having required 8 t of TNT. The explosions were so powerful that concrete blocks flew through the air, 30 m high for the larger ones and up to several hundred meters for the smaller ones. Witnesses even reported that the blast caused the ice to crack on nearby lakes Moj and Siercze, 2 km as the crow flies.
The visit in pictures
3. Staff meeting room
The building, initially constructed of wood, served as accommodation for official visitors. It was subsequently reinforced and first housed Albert Speer, Minister of War and director of the Todt organization, then Hitler during the construction of his new bunker. During this period, the bunker was set up to accommodate daily briefings on the war situation. It is why it was the theater of the attack of July 20, 1944.
A commemorative plaque indicates the location of the meeting room where the bomb exploded.
6. Guest bunker
One of the largest bunkers after Hitler’s and communications bunkers.
7. Stenographic service
The stenographers came from the German parliament and were responsible for transcribing all international and state meetings and discussions between Hitler and his army commanders.
Indeed, at the end of 1942, following a disagreement between Hitler and one of his leaders, which led to the failure of an operation, Hitler ordered a detailed recording of each meeting he attended. The importance of this service increased dramatically at this time.
In 1943, the barracks were thus surrounded by wire mesh fences and guarded day and night.
13. Adolph Hitler’s bunker
This bunker was the last one built for Hitler and was completed in November 1944.
It measured 67 x 38 meters, was built with brick and reinforced concrete extensions on its sides and contained a kitchen, dining room, bedroom, bathroom, meeting room, and Hitler’s office.
Hitler only lived there for 12 days, from November 8-20, 1944, before he escaped from The Wolf’s Lair. He then took refuge in a bunker in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, where he remained until his death.
14. Fireproof swimming pool
Built in 1944, it served as a water reserve.
D. Casino and tea room
The casino was completed in 1941 and consisted of two floors. The kitchen on the ground floor had its water supply and served as a warehouse for food. The first floor included two dining rooms; one for Hitler and his distinguished guests, the second for less important guests such as secretaries and non-commissioned officers.
As for the tea room, it was built in 1942 next to the casino, the two entrances being connected by a wooden bridge.
In 1944, the tea room and the casino were in turn covered with a reinforced concrete bunker.
21. The shelter of the communication center
It assured communication between headquarters, battlefields, Berlin, and Allied capitals round the clock.
There are still many other ruins of bunkers now overtaken by nature; the bunkers of the head of the armed forces, the chief of the Wehrmacht operations staff, or the head of the Reich press.
The latter was a significant man. He was responsible for all official press releases published in the German media and informing Hitler of the content of the foreign press concerning him.
Our site visit ends with a visit to a bunker.
We decided to continue our day with visits to Mamerki and its museum.
The village of Mamerki is the former headquarters of the Supreme Command of the Land Forces. It was a large area with bunkers, shelters, and houses for generals and officers.
The museum of World War II
One can visit the exhibition dedicated to the Eastern Front, enter a submarine replica, and for the bravest, climb to the top of a 36 m metal tower from where you can admire a view of the surrounding landscape.
One of the jewels of the museum, a replica of the Amber Room
History of the Amber Room
Created at the beginning of the 18th Century by the architect Andrzej Schluster from Gdańsk, the Amber Room panels were intended for the Prussian King Fryderyk I Hohenzollernau to decorate his office at Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin. A few years later, in 1716, his son William I offered it to Russian Tsar Peter the Great to seal their alliance.
The work was thus sent to St. Petersburg, where it was exhibited at the Summer Palace, the Winter Palace, then in 1755 at the Tsarskoye Selo Palace by order of Czarina Elizabeth of Russia. There it was enlarged and enriched.
In 1941, the palace was looted by the Germans. The amber chamber is dismantled and sent to Królewiec Castle in northern Poland. On April 9, 1945, the Red Army invaded the region, thereby seizing the fortress of Królewiec. But they couldn’t find the Amber Room.
Research and hypotheses still exist around its disappearance.
Moreover, the replica exhibited at the museum was made in May 2018, after another unsuccessful but highly publicized “treasure hunt” was carried out in Mamerki in 2016.
Our visit ended, we hit the road for a less emotionally draining destination. We go to Święta Lipka, a small village further east, to discover a Catholic basilica. This high place of pilgrimage dedicated to the Virgin Mary was built at the end of the 17th Century. The basilica is one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in Poland and around the world.
The shrine of Our Lady of Święta Lipka
As is the case with many shrines, its creation is linked to a legend that took place in the region.
The story took place in the 1300s in Kętrzyn prison.
The day before his execution, a death row inmate saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary who asked him to make Our Lady and the Child sculpture from a piece of wood that she handed him.
The following day, the guards found a magnificent statue alongside the man. Considered a sign of forgiveness from God, the convict was released. At the request of the Virgin Mary, he placed the figurine on the first lime tree he encountered on the road that led him to Reszel.
Soon, the figure became famous for the miracles it performed. The inhabitants of Kętrzyn then solemnly decided to transport it to a church in the city. But the next day, they found it back on the same tree. Another unsuccessful attempt was made, leading to the same result. Believing it was a new message from God, the faithful built a chapel and then a church next to the lime tree where the statue stood.
A place of pilgrimage
One of the first noteworthy pilgrims was Albert, Duke of Prussia, who graced the place after walking barefoot the 1,000 km from Königsberg in 1519. Other ones, such as the Teutonic Knights, followed.
During the Protestant Reformation in 1524, the sanctuary was destroyed and replaced by gallows intended to frighten the Catholic faithful.
It was not until a century later that the personal secretary of King Sigismund III ordered its reconstruction. A painting of Mary with the Child Jesus by Belgian painter Bartholomew Pens from Elbing replaced the missing statue.
The main building was erected in 1693, the monastic house in 1698, and the cloister with the chapels in 1708. It was 40 years after the consecration of the church that its facade was created in 1730.
Our day ended with this beautiful church.
To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect when I learned of the existence of what was Hitler’s wartime benchmark. I knew our day was not going to be particularly entertaining, knowing that we would travel to a sad time in history. However, I do not regret my choice; I think it is important to remember those tragic moments and to see for yourself what Hitler created for his ideology. It was a very informative, remarkable experience and recommended even for those who are not fond of World War II history.