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Wolf's Lair

Found deep in the Mazurian Lakes the Wolfschannze was Hitler’s largest wartime headquarters, as well his most notorious. It’s here he spent the longest amount of time – nearly 900 days in total – and it’s also on this site that Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg made his ill-fated attempt on the Fuhrer’s life. Today what remains of the Wolf’s Lair bunker complex is open to visitors, and is a must-see for anyone with a passing interest in modern history.

Getting There

The fastest and most efficient way to reach Wolf’s Lair from Gdansk is in a hire car, and SatNav and/or a competent map reader are all you’ll need to make the 230km journey in about three and a half hours. You’ll need to be following a south easterly direction to the town of Ketrzyn, and from here head eight kilometres east to Gierloz. Wolf’s Lair lies in the forest ahead. Travelling by public transport presents more of a challenge. Buses depart from Gdansk Bus Station each day at 06:40 and arrive in Ketrzyn at 12:10. From here you can take one of the infrequent buses that run to Gierloz, or else just flag a cab.

Where to stay

Reszel Castle
ul. Podzamcze 3, tel. 089 755 01 09, fax 089 755 15 97, info@zamek-reszel.com, www.zamekreszel.com.

Built between 1350 and 1401 the castle is to Reszel what a parrot is to a pirate. Originally used for military purposes the end of the 16th centruy saw the zamek surrendered for recreational use, and it became a hunting residence for passing bishops. In 1772 it was turned into a Prussian prison, and fifty years later it was passed into the hands of an evnagelical commune. In 1958 stewardship of the castle was handed to the Social and Cultural Association, and nowadays you’ll find the castle leading a double life as a hotel with a specifically artsy angle. That’s down to sculptor and propreitor Boleslaw Marschall, and over the past few years he’s worked tirelessly to turn the zamek into a bona fide retreat while striving to preserve its character. The rooms, some of them positioned in medievel turrets, are excellent, many touting rough cut timber furnishings made by Marschall himself. There’s also a restaurant, its vaulted chambers decorated by the squiggles of passing artists, while next door stands a modern art gallery featuring the works of some of the biggest names in Polski art.

21 rooms (1 single 210zł, 9 doubles 210 - 280zł, 4 triples 210 - 360zł, 5 quads 400 - 440zł, 2 apartments 400 - 500zł).

Księżycowy Dworek
Gierłoż 2, tel. 089 752 42 77, fax 089 752 42 32, recepcja@ksiezycowydworek.pl, www. ksiezycowydworek.pl.

A lakeside manor house whose principal claim to fame is that it served as the bolthole of Hitler’s paramour, Ewa Braun. This is actually a lie, one perpetrated by locals looking to prey on passing tourists. But while Braun never stayed General Warlimont did, and this place is a pretty good deal, as well as just minutes from the Wolfschannze complex. Accommodation is suitably antique, with beast skins and antiques interspersed among blood red fittings. Look out for the resident St Bernard, every inch the size of a horse.

52 rooms (7 singles 150zł, 45 doubles 200 - 220zł).

Wilcze Gniazdo
Gierłoż, tel. 089 752 44 29, fax 089 752 44 32, www.wolfsschanze.home.pl.

For the full immersion experience sleep in a former SS barracks right onsite. Lodgings are spartan, but each room comes with ensuite facilities and a price that can’t be faulted.

29 rooms (4 singles 70zł, 24 doubles 100zł, 1 triple 140zł).

History

The 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact saw Poland carved up between Germany and the Soviet Union, yet even this failed to satisfy Hitler’s growing megalomania.

His core ideology demanded further expansion eastwards and hence it was in the summer of 1940 construction of an eastern HQ was initiated. The forests of what was then the Eastern Prussian region of Gorlitz (today Polish Gierloz) were identified as ideal for this end; lakes and swamps surrounded the proposed site, while the nearby Boyen fortress lent added protection from capture.

Over the following 12 months Organization Todt sealed the area off and set about constructing what the locals of Rastenburg (today Ketrzyn) thought to be a chemical works. In reality a series of wooden barracks were erected, as well as string of concrete bunkers up to three metres in thickness. Camouflage netting of Bakelite leaves were hung over forest clearings to confuse aerial reconnaissance and the area was heavily fortified with mines and fences. Finally, with Operation Barbarossa two days away, Hitler arrived abroad his private train on June 24, 1941.

The planned blitzkrieg against the Russians stalled at the gates of Moscow, and when it became apparent the Soviet Union would not crumble so easily the decision was taken to fortify the Wolf’s Lair further. Existing wooden barracks were encased in concrete half a metre in thickness, and more structures sprung up around them. Yet even this was deemed ineffectual, and on Hitler’s orders a final phase of construction was undertaken between February and October of 1944 – this saw bunkers built on top of bunkers, as well as the addition of a thirteen metre tall bunker for Hermann Goring.

To all intents and purposes the Wolf’s Lair became a world within world, complete with two airfields, railway station, central heating, power generators, sewage system, sauna, casino and even a cinema – though it’s unknown if Hitler ever used it to watch the complete set of Mickey Mouse films allegedly gifted to him by Goebbles. Over 2,000 people worked there, including a detachment of 1,500 guards, and in spite of the confidentiality surrounding the complex it soon became an open secret amongst the locals that this was Hitler’s base; one anecdote tells how Hitler received local children on his birthday, entertaining the budding young fascists with biscuits and Fanta. In fact, it’s probable the secret spread and that the Allies knew of the location of Wolf’s Lair by late 1943 – why they didn’t bomb it remains a source of hot debate amongst historians.


Some claim Western spies must have been working at the base, others that the Allies wanted nothing but Germany’s complete and unconditional surrender; killing Hitler would have forced peace negotiations and scuppered the chances of this.


In spite of the facilities life at Wolf’s Lair was tough, with General Jodl concluding it was ‘half monastery, half concentration camp’. The nearby swamplands – one just a hundred metres from Hitler’s bunker – meant the complex’s residents were constantly plagued by mosquitoes, and period photographs show guards resorting to wearing ridiculous bee-keeper style hats to stave off this menace. In the words of historian Heinrich Hoffman, ‘the army – in an attempt to kill all the mosquitoes – poured oil on the lakes, thus destroying all the frogs with the insects. Hitler was upset because he enjoyed hearing the frogs croak as he fell asleep, so more had to be brought in for this purpose’.


If Hitler was upset about the frog palaver, then one can only imagine his reaction to the plot to assassinate him. On July 22, 1944, Claus von Stuaffenberg undertook the mission to kill the Fuhrer by leaving a time bomb in the situation room. Hitler’s anticipated death would then see Operation Valkyrie come into effect, a coup that would overthrow the Nazi hierarchy and force peace negotiations. As we know, however, the assassination attempt failed. Stauffenberg, in spite of being equipped with two bombs, only set one – possibly because his dastardly preparations were interrupted. The conference he was to attend was originally to be held in Hitler’s bunker, though this was switched at the last moment to the lightly reinforced bunker number three. Unperturbed, Stauffenberg placed the bomb under a heavy oak table close to Hitler, before making his exit on the premise of a phone call. It’s known the briefcase containing the bomb was moved slightly, and when it detonated Hitler was saved by a table leg which bore the brunt of the blast. Had Stauffenberg used both bombs as originally intended then there can be no doubt, Hitler would have been killed outright. The switch of venue cannot also be underestimated – in a heavier bunker the explosion would have been fearsome, but in the light bunker number three the open windows provided an immediate outlet for gases. Stauffenberg was executed later that night, and in the purge that followed over five thousand more plotters were rounded up and killed, their deaths recorded on film for Hitler’s pleasure.


And so the poisoned Austrian remained in power, and the war rumbled on towards its bitter conclusion. With the Soviet Union poised for their decisive offensive Hitler finally took leave of his HQ on November 20, 1944. His favourite yes-man, Field Marshal Keitel, immediately ordered Operation Inselsprung into effect; the complete destruction of the Wolf’s Lair complex. Tonnes of explosives were brought in from Fort Boyen, though in the event the demolition charges were only detonated on January 24, 1945, just three days before the Russian’s rolled in. Approximately eight tonnes of TNT were used in each bunker, with the ensuing blasts sending thick slabs of concrete flying through the air like scattered dominoes.

What to see

Wolf’s Lair attracts over 200,000 visitors annually, yet in spite of this information plaques are scant and largely uninformative. A local guide is essential to understand the inner workings of Hitler’s sanctum, and none are more knowledgeable than Jadwiga Korowaj (tel. +48 601 677 202). Her tours last from one hour upwards, and are priced at a bargain fifty zloty per hour.


Those who insist on independence should buy the little red Wolf’s Lair guidebook at the entrance, an invaluable pamphlet featuring a historical overview, map and suggested tour route. Indeed, without a map or guide you’ll be left wondering around dense undergrowth staring in ignorance at the twisted ruins in front of you. Do also dress suitably; what looks good in a club isn’t going to cut the mustard when clambering around war ruins. While there’s no need for an Indiana Jones hat, a sensible pair of durable shoes are essential. As is a torch, and by this we mean a great, big powerful one, not the tiddly thing you use to search the attic.


Tours kick-off in the car park, and it’s well worth first popping into the bottle green building to stock up on refreshments before hitting the forest. Today it’s home to a restaurant and hotel, in the past this building was used as living quarters for officers. From here you’ll pass the remains of barracks used by Hitler’s personal security, and then, directly in front, the ruins of bunker number three – the site of Stauffenberg’s bomb plot. A plaque unveiled by his grandson commemorates the assassination attempt. The path ahead leads to two restored light bunkers, one of which is notable for a rusty radiator lying outside. That’s not junk, rather an original radiator salvaged from Hitler’s bunker.


Beyond this and inside the renovated building is a scale model of the complex, as well as a glass case full of artificial leaves used for overhead camouflage. Moving back outside and you’ll notice a display of scary-looking shells and explosives. These are some of the 54,000 mines which were planted around the perimeter, and the boulder behind them commemorates the Polish sappers who died in the ten year operation to diffuse them.

From here the prescribed route will bring you to bunker number 6, better known as the guest bunker. Hitler took up temporary quarters here while his own was being strengthened, and it’s here that foreign dignitaries would also be lodged. Onwards and you’ll find yourself passing several trenches – these aren’t defensive fortifications, rather the fallout from post-war Polish efforts to plunder the underground communication cables. More gargantuan ruins follow, until the tour reaches its zenith at bunker number 13. This was Hitler’s bunker, and while the signs outside urge visitors against entering it’s still possible to sneak into some of the corridors. Albert Speer likened Hitler’s domain to a Pharaohs tomb, and penetrating its gloomy depths can be a sinister and haunting experience.


Best preserved of the bunkers is Goring’s, and it’s still possible to climb to the very top where the flak gun placements were positioned – a head for heights and nerves of steel are recommended on this one. Also, it’s well worth exploring the bunkers to the south of the railway line. It’s here you’ll be able to enter buildings used as Speer’s residence, and touches like fireplaces and shower floors can still be spotted by the eagle-eyed investigator. Finally, consider a trip out to the airfield where Stauffenberg made his ill-fated escape, still under the conviction that his mission had been successful. Better still, why not actually hire a plane from that period and fly over everything you’ve just seen. Find more details at www.lotniskoketrzyn.pl.

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  • Robert Scott - Sale, Australia, Victoria 19 January 2013
    Very interesting. All this history happened 5 years before I was born and half a world away from Australia. Maybe I will make another trip to Europe & include this in my travels, when money permits & or I am not too old.
  • asw - poland 09 June 2012
    thank you very much Kyandre )
  • Kyandre - UsA 04 May 2012
    Who wrote this article? 'Tis great and informative. 'Twixt us all Hitler and Himmler made a wonderful dyad.
  • martin copelin - charters towers, australia 08 July 2010
    I understand the German SS demolished the Wolfs Lair before retreating from the Russians. However is there any evidence or remains that show this was Hitlers major headquarters in the east.
  • Letitia - Brattleboro, USA, Vermont 01 June 2009
    Great history lesson in your description. Hard to believe that 200,000 people visit this place every year. I went in 1999 and there was a bus load of older Germans along with my travel companion and myself. We climbed inside lots of exploded barracks that are now big-chunk boulders. We lost the Germans and the place was silent as a grave yard. Rather creepy, given its history. I agree that the most challenging aspect of Wolf's Lair is getting there.

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