The end of the German occupation and the seizure of Nowy Sącz in 1945

Dawid Golik

The Red Army offensive and its advances in July 1944,resultet also in the Sącz region in intensive preparations of the occupants for the future defense of the line of the Poprad and Dunajec Rivers, but also in the evacuation of the German offices. The effectiveness of the fortifications being built was to be verified only in January 1945, while the partial evacuation of the German administration, and in particular of the documents and families of officials and functionaries, took place already in 1944.[1]

The Germans assumed that the Dunajec River would become one of the most important terrain obstacles in Southern Lesser Poland for the Soviets pushing west. Therefore, the planned A-2 line (code name “Mercury”) was to go through the area of Nowy Sącz (including the city itself as a fortified enclave on the right bank of the river); first it was outlined by by sappers along the Poprad and Dunajec Rivers, and then built using the work of Polish forced laborers from August 1944. As Piotr Sadowski rightly points out: An important point […] was the Sącz Basin, where between the areas of Chełmiec and Podegrodzie the fortifications were built on varying levels – the first line consisting of two to three trenches was located in the valley on the western bank of the Dunajec River, the second line was crossing the the slopes of hills surrounding the valley from the west. The second line included artillery posts that controlled the exit roads from Nowy Sącz. The fortifications had a system of anti-tank and anti-personnel obstacles with added minefields.[2]

At that time, not only the structures of the Home Army, but also Soviet guerrilla and sabotage units operating in the Beskid Mountains since mid-1944, were involved in gathering information about German fortifications, as well as about the warehouses of explosives and forces being prepared to face the Red Army. The most famous of the operations of the Soviet partisans was undoubtedly blowing up, in cooperation with a group of Poles commanded by Tadeusz Dymel “Srebrny”, the castle in Nowy Sącz. The operation was planned by the partisans from the Union of Soviet Partisan Units in Poland of Lt. Col. Ivan Zolotar „Artur”, and it was carried out by young Poles employed for construction works by the sapper uniot stationed in Nowy Sącz. Dymel’s subordinates, cooperating with the Soviets (first operating within the structures of the Peasant Battatlions of the Home Army [BCH-AK], and in the last period of the occupation as an independent unit with the code name “Opór”) provided them with sketches of the German fortifications around the city, and later informed them about the explosives and munitions being stored in the cellars of the Nowy Sącz castle.[3]

One of the main executors of the operation, Witold Młyniec, in his diary on 10 January 1945 mentions: […] The Germans are transporting explosives from the railway station, and we have been specifically instructed to observe where ammunition, weapons, explosives, etc. are stored We learned from Jurek, the assistant of the TODT chauffeur, that they were transporting explosives by car. They made four trips to the castle and one to the TODT warehouse in the former concrete plant at Długosza Str.[4] “Srebrny” passed this information to the staff of Lt. Col. Zolotar’s group, where on 13 January the decision was made to blow up the storage. It is worth noting that the Soviets, thanks to the intel from the “Srebrny’s” group, were perfectly aware that not only explosives are stored in the castle grounds, but above all the currently used combat means among others in the form of “armour fists” (the so-called panzerfausts, manual launchers designed to destroy tanks), which were supposed to be equipped by the German troops defending the fortifications of the Dunajec-Poprad line. Despite all, it was deemed necessary to destroy the storages, at the same time blowing up a monument priceless from the point of view of the Sącz region.[5] This is how the whole operation was described by Józef Bieniek: Using mines with timed detonators, which were given to Dymel by the head of the sapper team in Zolotar’s group, Kostia Pich, Dymel passed on the received order [to blow up the storage] and mines to Młyniec and [Edward] Skórnog, instructing them to perform the task. […] On 16 January, both boys, who were then employed to transport these materials to the castle, and stealthily located both mines in packages of donarite, which they then carried down to the castle cellar and left in the storage, where about 10 tons of dynamite, donarite and TNT, as well as a large number of mines, were kept. When they finished the unload, it was 14 o’clock. The detonators of the mines were set to explode in between thirty and forty hours. And indeed, the explosion occurred exactly 39 hours later – on 18 January at 5.20.[6] It is worth noting that while he agreed to blow up the castle, Dymel also decided to warn the Polish people living nearby about the expected explosion. Two of his colleagues – Emilia Dobrowolska and Agata Klostermajer – were tasked to do so.[7]

From the point of view of the Soviets, only the military benefit of blowing up the castle was important – nota bene not really necessary, as without it the Red Army would still have easily taken over Nowy Sącz. The propaganda points, that have been repeated for many years, about it being sacrificed to save the city itself and the Rożnów dam, which were supposedly being mined by the Germans, are completely untrue. The theory repeated today by the media of the Russian Federation, saying that the explosion in Nowy Sącz saved Kraków from destruction sounds even more fantastically.[8]

The explosion of the castle itself was undoubtedly spectacular. It was described in the reports from that time by both the city commissioner of Nowy Sącz and the district staroste, both stressing that the storage of explosive was located in it. Staroste Dr. Reinhard Busch reported: About half to 7 in the light of the dusk I evaluate the damage that resulted from the explosion of the castle. Krakowska Street – transit route № III – is completely blocked with rubble at the entrance to the bridge. I instruct the police to gather the people to remove the rubble[9]. The explosion almost completely destroyed the castle and damaged the adjacent tenement houses, throwing tons of bricks and stones up in the air, which, among others, temporarily prevented passage through the nearby bridge on the Dunajec River. However, it was not damaged – it was destroyed later by the Germans themselves when they were withdrawing from the city. Also in the detonation an undetermined number of German soldiers was killed – probably more than ten and less than twenty (and not – as it was repeated in the postwar propaganda – several hundred).[10]

Even before the explosion in the cellars of the castle, the first harbingers of the arriving front line began to be felt in the city. On Sunday, 14 January, Dr. Busch ordered to draft the German men from the district fit for service into the so-called Rural Guards, who were to be included in the military operations this way (similarly to the Volkssturm). Two days later, on Tuesday, 16 January, the military situation in the east became so serious that the troops of the German gendarmerie from the district were ordered to man part of the fortifications of the A-2 line, and at the same time in the so-called German district, several houses were prepared to be used as headquarters for the staff of the 11th SS Corps, which was soon to retreat to Nowy Sącz under the pressure of the Red Army.[11]

On 16 January 1945, around 14.00, Nowy Sącz also experienced its first Soviet bombing, which was aimed at the railway station and the storages located there.[12] The planes with the red star operated over strategic targets, including the railway and roads in the following days as well. The first waves of refugees – especially German employees of the GG administration, who had to leave their places of residence – visible on that day were a tangible proof of the advancing Soviet offensive. Even before noon, the evacuation column of the district administration from Jasło reached the Nowy Sącz – after it was incorporated into the front zone in the autumn of 1944, the city administration temporarily stationed in Gorlice. The officials together with the staroste received accommodation in the headquarters of the Nowy Sącz gendarmerie platoon.[13] Nevertheless, on this day the staroste recorded in the war diary of the district he was keeping: I noticed that we all believe that the Wehrmacht, with the right use of the fortification system, will manage to push back the Russian assault.[14]

The decision to also evacuate the Nowy Sącz district (or at least the part of it to the east of the A-2 line) was made around noon on 17 January, and at 13.30 such an order was given to the officials by Dr. Busch. The assembly point for the departing officials was to be Długosza Str. – whereby the head of the evacuation column was to form at the “Dunajec” cinema. From 18.00 everyone was supposed to be ready to march out, but the command was not given yet, as everyone was waiting for the developments in the situation. At the same time, Dr. Herbert Hüller, the city commissioner of Nowy Sącz, acted as an official assigned to the staff of the 11th SS Corps as a district office liaison. In addition to the officials, under the care of some the Sonderdienst officers, other German civilians were leaving – they were to go, in case of no communication with the staroste, through Limanowa to Rabka, further toward Sucha, and the meeting point for all was designated in Bolesławiec, in Lower Silesia.

The actual fights for the city broke out only after the Soviets had dealt with the German defense of Grybów and crossed the Dunajec River north of Nowy Sącz. The assault began on 18 January, and on that day the Red Army troops coming from Dąbrowa and Librantowa got closest to the defenders’ positions. Around 9.30 a.m. Nowy Sącz also experienced artillery fire for the first time – the missiles fell on the eastern edges of the city, striking, among others, near the candle factory. This became a direct reason for the German authorities leaving the city on that very day, going by cars to Limanowa. The final stage of the evacuation of Germans from Nowy Sącz was also accompanied by attacks of dive bombers and explosions of bombs dropped by Soviet planes.[15]

On the night of 18 to 19 January, Chełmiec was already seized, the Soviet armored troops supported by infantry moved also from Naściszowa toward Zabełcze.[16] The fights on the streets of Nowy Sącz began on the next day. Infantry supported by tanks of the 31. Guards Tank Brigade before evening had reached Lwowska Str. (in the area of the intersection with Naściszowska Str.) and Gołąbkowice (these were units of the 264th, 332nd and 318th Rifle Regiments, which belonged to the 241st Rifle Division). In the skirmishes of that day, several Soviet OT-34 tanks were destroyed or damaged: the wreck of one of them was left near Naściszowska Str., another burned down on the Kołłątaja Str.. On Naściszowska Str., before the bridge on Łubinka River, the ISU-152 self-propelled gun was also lost. While the crews of combat vehicles reported destroying, among others, two German assault guns.[17]

The Germans, despite being pushed out to the other side of the Kamienica River, continued firmly resisting. The city center was defended by parts of the 1017th security battalion and other minor sub-units of the 601st Special Division, as well as groups of soldiers of the 320th and 545th Volksgrenadier Divisions.[18] The assault was coming also from the direction of Grybów, from where the 121st Rifle Division was attacking. It reached Falkowa in the evening. On the night from 19 to 20 January 1945, the attack was continued, preceded by artillery fire; the northern districts of Nowy Sącz were cleared of the enemy until the early morning hours. The defense of the line of the Kamienica River was also eventually broken and the Soviets continued toward the railway station, which the Germans, however, managed to defend for some time. It wasn’t until about 11.00 a.m. that the German forces left the city, retreating to south-west, along the Dunajec River. The former occupants still weakly resisted in the area of Stary Sącz, but their positions, due to the threat of being surrounded – both those on the left bank of the Poprad River, as well as the points of resistance in the area of Biegonice (including at Winna Góra Mountain) – were abandoned very soon.[19]

After they completely seized the city, the Soviets could continue their attack in three directions simultaneously – north-west, toward Limanowa and Mszana Dolna; south-west, along the upper Dunajec River to Krościenko nad Dunajcem and further toward Podhale and the Nowy Targ Basin; and south, toward Krynica and Piwniczna.

It is estimated that during the fights in the Sącz region the Soviet losses amounted to a total of about 320 killed, 25 missing and several hundred wounded. It is assumed that a total of 93 Red Army soldiers killed in the fights were buried in Nowy Sącz or in its immediate vicinity (which are now administratively part of the city).[20] The German losses are much more difficult to estimate, but it seems that their number (including the victims of the castle explosion) does not exceed several dozen. Many soldiers were buried in the German military quarter at the Gołąbkowice cemetery. In total, 564 German soldiers and officers killed in service or dying of wounds and diseases in the years 1942–1945, rest there.[21] The losses of the civilian population can also be retraced to some extent. Between 18 and 21 January 1945, most likely 66 people were killed in Nowy Sącz (inside its borders of that time), with as many as 31 of them on 19 January 1945 in the ruins of a tenement house at Matejki 34 Str. demolished by a Soviet bomb.  It is also worth to mention the buildings at Lwowska 86 and Wałowa 12 Str. destroyed during the fights, in which a total of 5 people died, including 2 children.[22]


[1] Bundesarchiv Berlin-Lichterfelde [later as: BArch], ZB II 1429 A. 02, Bericht über die Räumung der Kreishauptmannschaft Neu-Sandez, Meiβen, 12.02.1945

[2] P. Sadowski, Działania wojenne na Sądecczyźnie w styczniu 1945 r. [in:] Masz synów w lasach, Polsko… Podziemie niepodległościowe i opór społeczny na Sądecczyźnie w latach 1945–1956, ed. by D. Golik, Nowy Sącz 2014, p. 14.

[3] For more about Tadeusz Dymel and his unit, see: D. Golik, Tadeusz Dymel „Srebrny” – bohater czy konfident?, “Rocznik Sądecki” 2010, v. 38, p. 167–188.

[4] Archiwum Muzeum Okręgowego w Nowym Sączu, Arch. MNS 72305 II/66, W. Młyniec, “Z mojego pamiętnika”, typewritten, p. 2. Organisation Todt was a German paramilitary construction formation, carrying out various projects they were instructed to do, but it was primarily responsible for the creation of strategic military facilities (including fortification).

[5] The decision to blow up the storage at Długosza Str. was finally not made. In his diary, Witold Młyniec suggested that it might have been connected with the fear for the fate of Polish people living nearby (the area was densely built-up).

[6] J. Bieniek, Łącko konspiracją kwitnące, Nowy Sącz 1988, p. 169.

[7] IPN Kr 111/2820, op. cit., p. 13, Protokół przesłuchania podejrzanej Emilii Dobrowolskiej z 31.08.1947; p. 14, Protokół przesłuchania podejrzanej Agaty Klostermajer z 31.08.1947. On the basis of the testimonies quoted above, it is difficult to assess what effect the action to warn the citizens of Nowy Sącz of the expected explosion had, because Dobrowolska refused to execute Dymel’s order, while Klostermajer in her testimony does not clearly confirm that she notified anyone about the castle being mined.

[8] More about the propaganda aspect of the Nowy Sącz castle being blown up, among others in: D. Golik, Nieszczęście „Aloszy”, “Biuletyn IPN” 2009, № 8–9, pp. 152–158. The “miraculous” saving of Krakow was described by: J. Bieriezniak, Hasło „D.S.”, Kraków 1977; R. Sławecki, Manewr, który ocalił Kraków, Kraków 1975.

[9] BArch, ZB II 1429 A. 02, Bericht über die Räumung der Kreishauptmannschaft Neu-Sandez, Meiβen, 12.02.1945 Cf.: ibidem, Tagebuch der Stadtkommisars, fortsetzung, Neu-Sandez.

[10] The names of 12 Germans were identified, whose deaths were directly connected with the explosion or it can be assumed that they were caused by it. It is however not known how many people were wounded and injured. Data on Polish people who suffered from the explosion is also difficult to determine. On that day, a total of 9 people died within the borders of Nowy Sącz, but the vast majority of them probably died as a result of Soviet artillery fire and bombings. The death of one person could be cautiously connected with the consequences of the explosion. See: Urząd Stanu Cywilnego w Nowym Sączu [later as: USC Nowy Sącz], “Nowy Sącz Miasto 1927–1945 Zgony”; “Kolejowa 1937–1945 Zgony”.

[11] BArch, ZB II 1429 A. 02, Bericht über die Räumung der Kreishauptmannschaft Neu-Sandez, Meiβen, 12.02.1945.

[12] Ibidem.

[13] BArch, ZB II 1429 A. 02, Der Kreishauptmann im Jasło, Kriegstagebuch fuer die Zeit vom 12. Januar 1945 – 6. Februar 45, typewritten. Around 17.00 on 17 January, the officials of the Jasło district continued their journey through Limanowa to Rabka, where they arrived only after midnight on 18 January.

[14] Ibidem.

[15] BArch, ZB II 1429 A. 02, Bericht über die Räumung der Kreishauptmannschaft Neu-Sandez, Meiβen, 12.02.1945. The staroste of Nowy Sącz finally reached the meeting point in Bolesławiec on 27.01.1945.

[16] P. Sadowski, op. cit., p. 35.

[17] Ibidem, p. 36

[18] Ibidem.

[19] Ibidem, pp. 36–38.

[20] Ibidem, pp. 45–47.

[21] In the literature on local history the number of 381 German soldiers and officers buried in this cemetery appears (P. Sadowski, op. cit., pp. 35, 48–49), which is probably taken from the data contained in the Polish graveyard surveys prepared after the end of the war (Archiwum Narodowe w Krakowie, Oddział IV, UWKr II 1043, Groby wojenne – groby żołnierzy niemieckich). However, the correct number was determined based on more precise German documents. See: “Lista imienna żołnierzy niemieckich pochowanych na kwaterach w Nowym Sączu i Rabce-Zdroju” – document shared with the aithor by the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge through Mrs. Barbara Chlebus from the “Memory” Foundation, 17.07.2012.

[22] In the analysis of this issue I used the working list of people killed and buried in the parish cemetery at Rejtana Str. in 1945 prepared by Dr. Marcin Kasprzycki for the purpose of the research and identification division of the Institute of National Remembrance, Cf.: USC Nowy Sącz, “Nowy Sącz Miasto 1927–1945 Zgony”; “Kolejowa 1937–1945 Zgony”; L. Migrała, Historia Nowego Sącza, Nowy Sącz 2017, pp. 306–307.