In World War II, Germany fully embraced the advantages of moving underground. From the Atlantic Wall to Hitler’s Eagles Nest, mother earth and vast quantities of German cement protected many aspects of war including artillery, ammunition, manufacture, and everyone from the armed forces to the general public. In September 1943, Albert Speer started talks that initiated Project Riese. Riese in German translates as ‘Giant’ which gives some indication of the size of the planned construction. The Schlesische Industriegemeinschaft AG (Silesian Industrial Company) was created to conduct construction work. In November of the same year collective camps were established for forced labourers and Prisoners of War, mainly from the Soviet Union and Poland.
A huge network of roads, bridges and narrow gauge railway was created in the Owl Mountains of southern Poland to connect excavation sites with nearby railway stations. Prisoners worked on this infrastructure and the transportation of materials as well as the actual excavation. Complex Włodarz was one of the underground sites where most progress had been made before abandonment. Before we ventured into the tunnels our guide led us on a surface walk where we could clearly see, despite the encroaching forest, part of the huge network of narrow-gauge railway. The tracks led away from the tunnel entrances on parallel embankments. At the end of each of these could be seen where spoil had been dumped – sometimes separate piles from individual wagons could be made out. It is possible that when one dumping area filled up, the track was moved to a new location, rather than the entire network being active at the same time. We could see a few remaining sleepers – in one case apparently heading towards a yet-undiscovered tunnel entrance.
Also outside, within what is today a heavily wooded area, we could discern vast stockpiles of bagged cement – totalling in the tens of thousands. The immensity of this scarce resource (imported from Italy) shows both the priority of the project and the anticipated rate of progress. As were to see, very little of the cement ever made it inside the complex. Approaching the main entrance of the complex in fading light, we were startled by a vociferous guard dog and glad to reach the relative safety of the tunnels.
A museum site since 2004, the complex has four known entrances, leading to three parallel entrance galleries and one offset by around 40 degrees. 50 metres or so inside each tunnel is a guard room complex, complete with a machine gun loophole. Whatever the purpose of the tunnels, it was intended to be well-guarded. Most of the complex is still in native rock but the far left-hand tunnel guardroom was largely completed with a concrete lining.
Around 50 metres beyond these strong points, the complex expands into an orthogonal network of tunnels, with a total length of around three kilometres. In some places a second, higher level of tunnels has been excavated above the entrance level. In a few areas these two levels have been knocked through to produce tunnels or halls up to ten metres high. One theory is that the tunnels would only be combined in this way where the extra space was required for particular factory machinery. It is equally possible that the whole system would have been enlarged in due course.
Bringing materials and finished product out through narrow tunnels could have been a constraint if the complex had ever become an operational facility but it is possible that the entrances were being kept small to minimise the risk of detection from the air and to reduce the impact of bomb detonation.
One large shaft to the surface remains, whether this was purely for construction or would have played some part in the final operation is not known. A substantial flow of water entered the tunnels through this shaft. Two of the tunnel entrances are currently blocked by falls and other debris and as (like most mines) the entrance adits slope slightly uphill to aid drainage, around a quarter of the tunnels are now flooded. The museum has exploited this by offering visitors a boat ride through the flooded sections, self-hauled by ropes attached along the roof-line of the tunnel.