“Many of the resistance’s own submachine guns, grenades and pistols had been secretly mass-produced for years as part of what could best be described as history’s most remarkable underground arms industry.”
IN AUGUST 1944, nearly 20,000 fighters from Poland’s underground Armia Krajowa (AK) or “Home Army”, launched a series of coordinated assaults on that country’s Nazi occupation force.
The late-summer offensive, which targeted Wehrmacht and SS units stationed in and around the Polish capital of Warsaw, was the capstone to months of unrest that had rocked German-controlled areas like Lublin, Zamość, Wilno, and Lwow.
Yet despite the abruptness of the attacks, the campaign, which was dubbed Operation Tempest, was a long time in the making. In fact, the 400,000-strong Home Army had been secretly stockpiling weapons and ammunition for the onslaught for more than a year.
And while the insurgents were woefully outgunned by the mechanized armies of the Third Reich, Poland’s rag tag amateur soldiers still managed to field a considerable arsenal of captured armaments, as well as a diverse assortment of improvised weaponry. In fact, many of the resistance’s own submachine guns, grenades and pistols had been secretly mass-produced for years as part of what could best be described as history’s most remarkable underground arms industry. Consider these examples of homegrown Polish fighting equipment:
Vis for Vendetta
Already in production at the outbreak of World War Two, the 9mm Vis pistol, also known as the Radom, was by all accounts an exceptional firearm that was inspired by the American .45 caliber M1911 and even the Browning Hi-Power. But when in 1939, the Nazis seized the manufacturing facility and relocated production to the Styer plant in Austria, gunsmiths loyal to the Polish resistance secretly resumed production of the Vis inside occupied territory. Home Army workshops eventually turned out hundreds of simplified variants of the weapon. While inferior to the earlier production models, the contraband Vis pistols were assembled from stolen parts and fabricated components and then passed into the hands of insurgents. All production of the Vis ended in 1945; the post war Polish defence forces equipped its new army with the Soviet-made Tokarev side arm. Today, Vis pistols are much sought-after collectors’ items.
The “Lightning” Gun
Not all resistance firearms were based on pre-war designs. In fact, weapons like the Błyskawica, or “lighting” sub-machine gun were exclusively conceived, designed and manufactured by guerrillas all throughout Nazi occupied Poland. Modelled on captured German MP-40s and even British-made Sten guns that were dropped into the country by the Allies, more than 700 Błyskawicas were produced in secret factories scattered throughout Warsaw. Guerrilla commanders distributed the weapons in preparation for the summer of 1944 uprisings. The guns, which featured screw-together threaded parts requiring little welding, were also cleverly engineered to fire German 9 mm pistol rounds. The “lighting” gun got its name from three small jagged lines etched onto the original model’s barrel. The symbol was similar to the logo used by a national radio factory in Wilno where some of the weapon’s designers worked before the Nazi invasion.
Polish craftsmen (and women) also secretly cranked out several thousand weapons modeled after the ubiquitous British Sten gun. While the Allies secretly delivered nearly 10,000 of the bargain-basement automatic firearms to Polish AK forces, resistance commanders set up nearly two dozen separate make-shift armouries where labourers mass-produced copy-cat Mk. II Stens s well as a stripped down variant known as the Polski Sten. The insurgency switched out many components in its domestic models with relatively easy to obtain non-military materials like ordinary metal tubing, hydraulic equipment components and run-of-the-mill metal springs. Despite this, Polish Stens, which were produced in 1942 and 1943, were engraved or stamped in English to fool the Nazis into thinking all of the weapons came from British factories rather than an underground Polish arms establishment. Other isolated resistance battalions engineered their own rough Sten knock offs. The Kis gun was designed and produced in 1943 by insurgents trapped in remote southern Poland. Fewer than 40 of the weapons were manufactured in a secret facility. They included Sten receivers and side-loading magazine, but had no pistol grip or butt stock. Then there was the Bechowiec, an ungainly looking home-made automatic weapon produced in limited numbers in 1944. How “limited”, you ask? Only 13 were ever manufactured.
Improvised Explosive Devices
It wasn’t just small arms that came out of Poland’s underground weapons factories. The insurgency also designed a series of impromptu hand grenades. One such weapon was the Sidolowka bomb. Named for Sidol, a German-made household cleaner that was popular in Poland before the war, the grenade resembled a bottle of the ubiquitous disinfectant. Each was filled with 250 grams of homemade explosives and shrapnel. More than 300,000 of the devices were manufactured in basement armouries. A similar weapon was the Filipinka. A crude cylindrical device made of a rudimentary plastic, the bomb didn’t feature a timed fuse, but exploded on contact with the target. More than a quarter million were manufactured. Many were stamped “Mk. 41 Paratroop Grenade” in Russian, again to help conceal the fact that the Polish underground was in the munitions business.
DIY Flame Throwers
The Home Army even manufactured its own line of flamethrowers, known as the wzor K or K-pattern. The system included a double-cylinder backpack (one tank for the diesel/gasoline mixture and the other for compressed air propellant), a length of rubber hose and a gun assembly that housed a rudimentary nozzle and trigger. A simple valve system squirted the fuel/air mixture out of the muzzle where it made contact with a segment of oiled rope that needed to be lit seconds before firing. The weapon, which had a range of only a few yards, could manage up to 30 one-second blasts on a single tank. A crew of three helped the gunner change out the tanks as they became empty. Several hundred K patterns were manufactured in occupied Poland, many of which were used to great effect in the room-to-room combat of the Warsaw Uprising.
The Polish ‘Panzer’
The K pattern flamethrower was also the main armament on the Home Army’s most curious fighting machine: the Kubus or “Little Jacob” armoured fighting vehicle. Built in a Warsaw garage just days before the launch of the two-month uprising, the Kubus was little more than a steel plated civilian Chevy truck that had been outfitted to carry up two a dozen resistance fighters into combat. Only one was ever constructed. It first saw action on Aug. 23 when resistance units used the vehicle, along with a captured German half-track, in a daring assault on a Nazi stronghold at Warsaw University. The attack, which proved unsuccessful, was repeated less than a week later — also without success. Lightly damaged in the second raid, the Kubus was pulled from action for repairs but then never used again. It became a museum piece in 1945 and is still on exhibit to this day. A replica, which was built in 2004, makes appearances at events when it’s not on display at the Warsaw Uprising Museum.