- March 15, 2013
Polish flag on Gediminas’ Tower
During battles for Vilnius fought as part of Operation Ostra Brama on 13th July 1944, Jerzy Jensz (a.k.a. Krepdeszyn, 1914-2004), together with Artur Rychter (a.k.a. Zen) was the first to have hung the Polish white and red flag on the Castle Hill.
Years later, Jerzy Jensz described this act, for it is certain that the flag had hanged on the tower until 17th August that year, because this date is mentioned in many recollections of citizens of Vilnius. It was not easy to climb to the top of the tower during the battle for Vilnius… The heroic act is related by the contemporary soldier from the Armia Krajowa (eng. Home Army), “Krepdeszyn” – Jerzy Jansz:
“On the morning of 13th July I was ordered to capture the Castle Hill tower and mark it with our flag without weakening the guarding stations of the Headquarters on Jakuba Jasińskiego street.
I chose the six best equipped men from the team of corporal »Zan«… We walked in this patrol down Ludwisarska street. Behind us, the last houses on Wilenska street were burning out and on the right, from Świętojańska and Dominikanska streets, and from a newly-built Jewish ghetto, dark smoke of the burning city raised and its clouds were blocking the morning sun.
We were in the middle of Ludwisarska when suddenly, down Tatarska street before us, we see two soldiers of some kind, both wearing helmets. Hide! – was our first reaction. We dash into the nearest gate and lock the guns. They, too, withdrew into Tatarska street. After a while, however, we realise that they are not Germans, but Soviets – we call out to them that we are Polish.
Carefully, with submachine guns ready to shoot, the two soldiers in summer shirts and helmets on their heads emerge with bags on their backs. Having noticed our white and red sleeve bands, they come towards us confidently and ask about German positions. They knew that Poles fought in this part of the city. We explained to them that they could continue going up the street and that Polish positions were behind the burning buildings and that was where they fought with Germans.
The soldiers from Tatarska street were followed by a Soviet reconnaissance troop. Its commander warned us that on the Castle Hill and at the banks of a rivulet that merges with the Neris, surrounded Germans fought for their lives. He also asked us about our destination and orders. I told him that our task was to contact our troops which fought on the other side of the Neris. My answer satisfied him and he cautioned us to be careful.
Above, behind »bogomolnim domom«, i.e. a cathedral, a German sniper was located and within his aim was part of Arsenalska street leading to the Neris.
We had the flag well hidden. Corporal Zan’s flag was tucked under his shirt so that it didn’t attract anyone’s attention until it hanged on the top of the tower.
After this meeting we reached the Cathedral Square without any obstacles. Here, we came across a corps of a German gendarme, a huge fellow, lying by a fence on the corner of Biskiupia and Bonifraterska streets. As we passed him, a swarm of flies took off, whirling and buzzing over his body and over us. His putrid smell meant that he must have been lying there for days.
The north-west part of the Cathedral Square from Mickiewicza street was within the range of German fire. In order to get to the bottom of the Castle Hill, called Cielętnik, without being shot we had to walk though Biskupia and Marii Magdaleny streets up to the corner of Zamkowa and Królewska. From there, hidden behind the large building of the cathedral, we could reach Cielętnik, a square overgrown with trees and bushes.
Thus, we began our scramble over a forested slope towards the tower. Carefully, we trudged through the sheer, overgrown hillside. From the side of Syrkomli alley and the Botanical Garden we could hear battle noises. We climb in a secured formation, two of us in an advance guard in front at a seeing distance. Suddenly, they stop and give us signs to stop as well. It means that something is afoot. Staszek slowly backs away and reports that they noticed an entrenched German station. It’s probably the sniper station mentioned by the Soviet commander. It’s true, they have part of Arsenalska street within their bullet range.
The sound of shots intensifies on the right, we can hear the rattle of a machine gun and shell explosions. We need to find out what the situation is on the other side of the slope so that we’re not ambushed. We had a notion that the battles flared up by the Vilnia and that the charge came from the side of the Neris and the hill of Three Crosses. I left »Zan« with four soldiers who were supposed to observe the snipers and followed the sound of the machine gun with »Arkan« to see what was going on there. Hiding among the trees, parting bushes and, finally, crowling, we reached a place where we could, unobserved, see a station of a German heavy machine gun. The garrison of the station was focused entirely on firing to Polish and Soviet soldiers, attacking them from the side of the barracks, from the Neris along Syrkomli alley on the bank of the Vilnia. The Germans, hiding behind the trees and fiercely returning fire, slowly backed away towards the Botanical Garden (Bernardynka).
After making sure that we were not in danger on this side, I thought it necessary to first get rid of the sniper station. For our success depended on eliminating the German station, because they made it impossible for us to come close to the tower. Having left »Arkan« to observe the German machine gun, I went back to my colleagues, taking care of the snipers.
I presented the situation on the eastern part of the slope and my idea of how to attack both German stations. I emphasised that the core element in our situation that would ensure our success was to fully surprise them. I told the boys to take suitable positions approximately 10 steps from each other, very carefully not to be noticed by the Germans, and to open fire at their station on my mark.
The German soldiers in their entrenched position were about to have breakfast, they opened canned goods and prepared slices of bread, drinking from their canteens. We saw those preparations plainly from our positions above them. Our boys under the leadership of »Zan« were able to move inconspicuously, so that the attack took the snipers completely by surprise. So far they had not expected any hostile actions, assuming that they were covered.
Taken aback by the unexpected and fierce fire, they sprang to their feet and ran, leaving part of their weapons and the unfinished breakfast. Breaking through bushes and sliding on wet grass of the slope the snipers ran down towards Arsenalska street. Prompted by Józek’s unnecessary grenade, they accelerated even more. Thus, we »took care« of the western German station.
Now we needed to decide, what next? Out task was clear enough: To wave the flag on the tower. At the moment, the machine gun operators are absorbed by the fight and would not hinder us from entering the tower. But if they are driven away from their position by troops from the north and east, they might retreat in the direction of the sniper station and then we would be endangered. It can happen any time now as a result of Germans backing down along the banks of the Vilnia. The conclusion is clear: We need to tackle the machine gun crew. After a short council we decided: »Zan« with two of his men will sneak under the wall of the castle ruins, go down the slope so that he is as near their station as possible from the west side, and Józek and I will join waiting »Arkana«. On my signal, Józek will throw a hand grenade at the station, which will be our cue to open fire simultaneously. Józek was an expert in grenades.
After waiting some time needed for »Zan« to take their positions, I gave the signal to Józek, but »Arkan« did not want to stay behind so he too threw his grenade at the same time. The outcome of our sudden ambush was better than we had expected: Both grenades landed just by the machine gun. Two of the Germans were torn to pieces on the spot, several, bleeding and limping, ran down towards the retreating troops, where, upon Vilnia, a persistent battle was fought. »Zan’s« soldiers opened fire towards the running Germans, and »Arkan«, propped against a tree right next to me, tore them with his MP.
After taking care of both stations, we could safely resume our task. I remember the joy on my boys’ faces when we gathered under the tower after destroying the German machine gun. We walked casually to the main gate, but could not enter it because it was blocked from the inside by a high pile of debris.
Having concluded that getting to the top of the tower would take us some time, I told »Arkan« to secure us against would-be surprises and unwanted guests with evenly spaced stations. Now we could take our time with »Zan« and examine the tower from all sides, thinking of ways to get to the topmost level. We found it to be impossible from outside, so we tried to find a way to scramble onto a higher level. No luck. We had to find a way to get in. We came across a window, heavily shattered by bullets, but although it was the lowest one in the whole tower, it was still 4.5 – 5 metres above the ground by the remains of a curtain wall. How do we get in there?
After some consideration, we decided that the only way of getting in was through the window by the wall. Somehow, »Zan« managed to climb onto the wall, but he could not reach the window, so I had to hand him a branch that fell off a tree. He used it to reach the window recess. The bars were quite loose, at some points they even did not touch the wall. When I joint »Zan«, together we managed, with some difficulty, to loosen the bars and bend them so that we could just fit through.
The inside was a complete ruin, the stairs were practically non-existent. With much difficulty, clinging to the remains of the stairs and handrails and supporting each other, we finally reached the upper platform, which was also damaged, through a round shaft of the tower. There we found the remains of a fallen flagpole and tied our national Polish flag thereto. We propped the upper end of the pole against the remains of a balustrade on the west side of the tower, and secured the other end with a large piece of rock from the wall.
After fulfilling our task and letting off steam, our descent seemed to be the hardest part, disproportionately difficult in comparison with the ascent. The round shaft was very daunting with the shattered remains of stairs, boards and metal, which could spear us right through if we fell on them from a height. For some time we could not decide to go down. I do not even remember today how we managed to do that. When we found ourselves on the ground, a firing of the Castle Hill commenced from the side of Wielka Pohulanka street, somewhere under the Orthodox church. It looked like Germans noticed the Polish flag on the tower. One of the bullets hit the wall under which I stood. I lost my consciousness, and regained it after several hours at a hospital on Bogusławskiego street.”
After years, at the end of his story, Jerzy Jensz wrote: “And what was all that for? Definitely not for Poland.”
Tłumaczenie Aleksandra Christ w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Aleksandra Christ within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.