We’ve taken a bit of a detour to the East since our last post, our main objective being to visit the Wolf’s Lair.
The Wolf’s Lair was Hitler’s WW2 headquarters in Eastern Prussia, from which he
mucked up directed operations on the Eastern Front. Apparently he spent over 800 days here during WW2…..
The camping area would’ve been peaceful if there hadn’t been about ten blokes mere yards away doing chainsaw carvings:
As with the Polish tourist attractions we’ve visited previously, you do have to read up before arriving as the information on offer whilst visiting can be pretty minimal. We’d downloaded and read a short book about it (however did we manage before Amazon???) and bought a good guide book when we got there that explained the route round the ruins and which bunker was which.
Here is the site of the bunker where the unsuccessful attempt was made on Hitler’s life in 1944, with the memorial next to it:
Claus von Stauffenberg, one of a group within the army opposed to Hitler, brought a bomb hidden in his briefcase to a meeting at the Wolf’s Lair. Unfortunately, Hitler wasn’t killed: if only the briefcase hadn’t been under a heavy oak table, if only someone hadn’t moved it, if only the meeting hadn’t been moved to a light bunker (where the blast was less contained) etc. You get the idea…… We haven’t seen the 2008 film Valkyrie which dramatises these events, though we’re struggling to imagine von Stauffenberg being as short as Tom Cruise, who apparently plays him in the film…. (ah, yes, according to that reliable source of information that is the internet, von Stauffenberg was 6 ft 3 tall and Tom Cruise is 5 ft 7…..)
There’s also a memorial to the many Poles who died trying to clear the mines from around the site after the end of the war:
The Wolf’s Lair was constructed in three phases between 1940 and 1944, with each phase seemingly involving the addition of yet more reinforced concrete. In all, over 140,000 cubic metres of concrete were used.
Our book included excerpts from interviews with secretaries and other low-ranking staff at the site. Apparently it was an awful place to work. New concrete sweats buckets, so in the winter it was cold and damp (which apparently did Hitler’s health no favours at all; unfortunately he survived) and in the summer it was hot and, due to the fact that they’d sited it on an area of very marshy ground, mosquito-infested. There were plenty of pools of standing water to be seen in the woods when we visited but, it being September, the mozzie count was thankfully quite low.
The biggest bunkers are the “heavy bunkers”. No-one lived in those full-time; the idea was that you’d take shelter in them in the event of an air raid.
The big cheeses Hitler, Bormann and Göring had their own heavy bunkers (the ‘photo above is of Hitler’s). All of the bunkers were blown up by the retreating Germans before they left, resulting in big cracks and some precariously leaning walls. Not that that stopped Mark disappearing up an original ladder to the roof of Göring’s heavy bunker:
There are residential bunkers near the heavy bunkers. Hitler’s residential bunker is the most wrecked of the lot (presumably they took no chances blowing that one up) but Göring’s is still in reasonable nick:
We had a good look around everything and also investigated a second area of bunkers on the other side of the road and train track:
Some people seem to think that the place has a real atmosphere to it, but we didn’t. It’s just a lot of concrete in the woods, not like visiting the site of any of the concentration camps, for example. Perhaps it’s because this was a place where horrendous decisions were taken rather than a place where the resulting atrocities actually took place?
Moving on from the Wolf’s Lair, we continued a little bit further East to the Mazurian Lakes, a big Polish holiday destination in the summer. Here be camp sites! (the Wolf’s Lair had a camping area where we could stay overnight with electricity but no fresh water or grey / black water disposal, so we now needed a night on a fully-equipped camp site to get Kampington fettled). The camp site was OK but as things turned out, we didn’t even get a photo – the weather was reminiscent of the English Lake District in November….. oh well….
From here it was back West to our next destination, Grunwald. This is the site of one of the biggest medieval battles, fought in 1410 between the Teutonic Knights on one side and a combined Polish / Lithuanian force on the other. There’s a small museum at the site (though again, it helps to read up before arriving) together with a couple of monuments.
It’s interesting that such a big deal is made of the battle given that the outcome didn’t immediately / fundamentally change the course of history in the region (this was no Battle of Hastings). Basically, the Teutonic Knights got beaten (not looking so clever now in their shiny armour? 😋), which can be seen as the start of the order’s decline (though it wasn’t until over a hundred years later, in 1525, that they finally threw in the towel).
The Teutonic Knights were outnumbered at the battle (guesstimates vary greatly, but the leaflet we were given at the site proclaims “with high probability” that the Teutonic forces numbered 15,000 and the Polish and Lithuanians 20,000 and 10,000 respectively), but they should have made up for this through their superior training and equipment.
The Teutonic Knights hadn’t helped themselves. They’d marched 15 miles to the battlefield, then stood around tired, hungry, and in the full glare of the sun in their armour whilst their leaders faffed about with the niceties of chilvalrous behaviour. Instead of just attacking, they sent two unsheathed swords to be presented to the Polish King, a traditional invitation to step up to battle when he was ready. So the Polish King, whose forces were set up in the shade under trees, kept them waiting – hearing two masses, having breakfast, and knighting a thousand squires (presumably not one by one – that would’ve been taking things a bit too far!) before getting round to fighting….
It’s estimated that around 8,000 of the Teutonic Knights’ forces were killed including the Grand Master and 203 of the 250 brothers (i.e. the full-on war-mongering Teutonic monks) taking part; most of the combatants weren’t full members of the order and many were simply mercenaries (both sides employed a lot of these).
After the battle, the Polish army marched straight to Malbork Castle, with many of the lesser castles of the Teutonic Knights surrendering to them as they went. An eight-week siege of the castle failed, though, and as the Poles retreated the Teutonic Knights took back almost all of their castles and land.
A big settlement to be paid as part of the peace agreement together with the crippling cost of paying the number of mercenaries needed to defend the order’s lands tipped the Teutonic Knights into financial difficulties and decline. The end came in 1525 as the Reformation swept Europe. The Grand Master secularised the order and the Teutonic State became part of Poland (the Grand Master was made a Duke for his trouble – so there is a whiff of “selling out” here…). A second branch of the order held out in Livonia until 1562 before taking a similar path. Interestingly, though, the third branch, based in Germany, survived and still exists to this day. They’re now based in Vienna, and interestingly enough their website makes no mention of the more… erm… aggressive aspects of their past.
Without wanting to sound negative, much of Poland isn’t exactly stuffed full of beautiful scenery, touristy little towns, or enthralling tourist attractions, so over the last couple of days we’ve driven South past Warsaw and are now… ooh… probably 2/3 of the way through Poland in terms of distance?
We’re now parked up on a really busy little camp site at a place called Kazimierz Dolny, which is a bit of a Polish tourist trap. We’re planning to spend two nights here and go for a wander round the town tomorrow. After a couple of cool and intermittently wet days, the weather has come good again so we’ve wasted no time in getting our first load of washing into a machine and hung out to dry ☀☀☀ Ah, the joys of a Kampington life 😎