Eighty kilometres southwest of Wrocław, the 'Sowie,' or Owl Mountains are one of Poland’s oldest mountain ranges – a compact massif of steep, largely inaccessible terrain overgrown with spruce forest stretching along the Czech border. It was here in 1943, as the tide of war began to turn against the Third Reich, that Hitler ordered the undertaking of a massive, top-secret underground complex known as Project ‘Riese’ (Giant). One of the Führer’s most ambitious and maniacal schemes, the exact nature of which remains unclear, Riese remains one of World War II’s greatest mysteries, about which suspiciously little is known over seventy years since.
Underworld of the Third Reich
Unknowns temporarily aside, let’s begin with the knowns. There are 90,000 cubic metres of excavated concrete tunnels carved into the Owl Mountains, with seven major access points to separate tunnel systems found at Walim-Rzeczka, Jugowice, Włodarz, Soboń (Ramenberg), Sokolec, Osówka and Książ Castle. In addition to these main compounds, a casual walk through the mountains will reveal frequent and somewhat frightening traces of abandoned military barracks, bunkers, warehouses, building materials, excavated matter and tunnel openings, many of which are barricaded, bricked or blocked by hardened сement bags; others are filled with water and some seemingly go on forever, leading nowhere.
In 1943, as the Allies initiated air-raids against Germany, the Third Reich began the endeavour of decentralising its infrastructure and moving it to secret underground locations. As a resource rich region of hindersome mountains with an established mining tradition, Lower Silesia was an ideal choice. Based on the time works were begun, and their similarity to other armament sites, it is widely theorised that the Riese Complex was at least originally intended to house underground arms factories. Several major companies and operations were moved to Lower Silesia at this time, including the Krupp machinery factory which manufactured parts for the Me-262 jet fighter in a temporary warehouse in Głuszyca while awaiting the readiness of an underground facility in the mountains.
In the early stages of Riese, labour was done by Polish, Italian and Soviet POWs from the AL Riese labour camp – a satellite of the nearby Gross-Rosen concentration camp – from which the project took its name. Typhoid was rampant, escapes were frequent and progress was slow. In April 1944 a displeased Hitler gave the directive to transfer production on the project from the Silesian Industrial Company to the Todt Organisation (OT), headed by Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect and engineer. Hitler ordered that the prisoners of Gross-Rosen, primarily Polish, Hungarian and Italian Jews, be used as labourers as well. It was at this point that the direction of the project seems to have changed. OT moved their base of operations into Książ Castle where two kilometres of tunnels were hewn into the bedrock beneath the castle and a 50 metre elevator shaft was dug as part of the Riese Project.