02 November 2023

War and Occupation

The aggression of Nazi Germany against Poland, which began on September 1, 1939, came as a great surprise to the people of Radom, including the workers of the Arms Factory. Prior to the outbreak of war, preparations were made to protect the factory from aerial attacks, as it was known that aviation would play a significant role in the conflict. Two anti-aircraft gun platoons with Bofors 40 mm guns were stationed on the factory premises, likely operated by specially trained employees. Many members of the staff, including officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers of the Polish Army, were issued mobilization cards instructing them to join their respective military units. This significantly disrupted the previous plans for the factory to continue operating at full capacity in support of the Polish army.

While the factory operated relatively normally during the first days of the war, the increasing German air raids over Radom and reports from the areas affected by fighting indicated that the situation for Poles was deteriorating. The turning point likely came on September 4, 1939, when orders were received to evacuate the Arms Factory personnel to the right bank of the Vistula River, considered a stronghold where the aggressor could be halted. The factory workers were to make their way to the Lublin region and then proceed further east, ultimately reaching Łuck, the capital of the Wołyń Voivodeship, where they were to await further developments. It is presumed that the evacuation of the factory was led by engineer Kazimierz Ołdakowski. The exact number of workers who followed the evacuation procedures is unknown, but it is estimated to have been a group of several hundred people, primarily composed of members of the management, engineering staff, and foremen from various departments. Due to the impossibility of transporting machines and tools with the workers, they were left behind in Radom. However, the workers likely took some documents, including the technical documentation for rifles and pistols, with them. On September 5, 1939, the evacuation column crossed the bridge in Dęblin and continued deeper into the Lublin region. The anti-aircraft guns were also removed from the factory, leaving it completely defenseless. In Radom, a selected group of employees remained behind to guard the premises against fire and theft.

On September 6, 1939, Radom was engulfed in what is known as the "evacuation panic," resulting in the factory buildings no longer being protected in any way. It is likely that the following day, the Germans bombed the factory, completely destroying, among other things, the machinery for stock processing. Theft, perpetrated by criminals, also caused significant losses. The stolen items primarily included office equipment, curtains and drapes, small furniture, metal components, and stored wood. Bicycles and pistols were also popular targets for thieves. When German forces entered Radom on September 8, 1939, the factory had been severely devastated and looted.

Although it was uncertain whether the Germans would resume the factory's operations under the occupation, a decision on this matter was made quickly. It should be noted that the Mauser rifle remained the primary weapon of the German infantry, and the "Vis" pistol was also highly regarded by the Germans. German soldiers also used bicycles, which were also utilized by the Polish army. It was decided that the Steyr-Daimler-Puch joint-stock company based in Leipzig would take over the management of the factory. From that point on, the employees sent from Germany worked closely with the German command. As a result, the Arms Factory in Radom (Waffenfabrik in Radom) resumed production in the first weeks of 1940, reemploying a significant number of pre-war workers. However, the situation was different for the engineering and technical staff, as they were primarily replaced by newcomers from the Third Reich. The attempt to convince engineer Kazimierz Ołdakowski to return to work at the factory failed. When the Gestapo officers appeared at his Warsaw apartment in early 1940, he committed suicide by jumping out of the window.

According to sources, the employment level of Polish workers in the factory was stabilized at around 3,500 people in 1940. As time went on, the military authorities demanded the continuous increase in production, necessitating the recruitment of new workers. In an effort to minimize costs, the factory resorted to using Jewish forced labor, obtained initially from the ghetto and later held in a camp built near the factory. According to data from the autumn of 1943, the factory workforce comprised just under 3,400 Poles, 1,100 Jews, 60 Germans, and 80 ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche).

The production of rifles and pistols for the Wehrmacht and allied armies constituted the most important and extensive part of the factory's operations. In terms of weapon types, the production was identical to what the factory had supplied to the Polish Army before the war. The main role was played by the Mauser rifle. The factory produced almost all of the nearly 60 metal components of the rifle. The exception was barrels and stocks, which were manufactured in Germany, with final assembly taking place at the Steyr factory in Oberdonau. The same arrangement applied to the "Vis" pistol. Its production was resumed in Radom by the Germans, who manufactured almost all of the parts except for the barrels. The decision by the occupiers to adopt this approach was motivated by the fear that if complete firearms were produced in Poland, the resistance would seize the parts for their own clandestine assembly.

The production of rifle and pistol components was highly efficient. For example, in late 1941, the factory produced 15,000 sets of rifle parts and 5,400 sets of "Vis" pistol parts per month. By autumn 1943, the monthly production levels were expected to stabilize at 21,000 sets of rifle parts and 10,500 sets of "Vis" pistol parts. The Germans also started the production of "Steyr" pistols in Radom. Additionally, the factory manufactured bicycles for the German army and established large workshops for the repair of mechanical vehicles.

Significant production achievements were possible due to the policy of constant terror applied to the Polish workforce. Among the industrial plants operating in occupied Radom, the Arms Factory was notorious for subjecting its workers to the most difficult conditions. Every employee of the factory faced continuous harassment, insults, and abuse, as well as severe beatings. Any misconduct or even repeated tardiness could be deemed sabotage, leading to imprisonment in concentration camps. The Arms Factory in Radom also became a place of martyrdom for individuals of Jewish origin. In 1942, a forced labor commando was established in the Radom ghetto, and the surviving prisoners were subsequently placed in a labor camp constructed near the factory. In January 1944, this camp became a branch of the Majdanek concentration camp. The prisoners were forced to work on the production of weapons in two shifts, working 12 hours a day for 6 days a week. The German supervisors subjected them to violence, including severe beatings and even killings. The prisoners in the Jewish camp at the factory existed until the summer of 1944 when they were transferred to Auschwitz and then to forced labor camps in Germany.

Many Polish workers at the factory became involved in underground activities, including the theft of rifle and pistol components

This was possible, among other things, by hiding a significant number of barrels for the "Vis" pistols in September 1939, which allowed for the assembly of complete pistols from stolen parts. The system of acquiring weapons, established by the soldiers of the Union of Armed Struggle - Home Army, worked almost perfectly for a long time. Unfortunately, on September 19, 1942, a group of conspirators intending to execute a death sentence on a Gestapo informant clashed with a patrol of the German gendarmerie at the railway station in Rożki. Two "Vis" pistols, stolen from the factory, fell into the hands of the Germans. As a result, the Germans conducted mass arrests in Radom, deciding to execute 50 individuals by hanging them at various locations in the city. On October 14, 1942, one of the gallows was set up on the lawn in front of the main building of the Arms Factory (from the side of Ciepła Street), where fifteen men were executed, including eleven employees of the factory. Many of their colleagues also perished in other executions, while others died in concentration camps. The sacrifice made by the factory's staff for their patriotic stance was significant.

The Arms Factory in Radom operated under the discussed occupation conditions until the summer months of 1944. The arrival of the Eastern Front to the Vistula line prompted the Germans to initiate extensive evacuation efforts, primarily targeting entities involved in the war machinery. As a result, the Radom factory was completely devastated and stripped of its assets. Equipment was taken from the factory and loaded onto approximately 500 trucks and 480 railway wagons. The stolen items included the entire laboratory and technical equipment, all machining tools (estimated at around 3,500), raw materials, and the dismantled electrical, water supply, sewage, and foundry networks from the buildings. Consequently, the factory entered the post-war period in a state of complete ruin.

Dr. Sebastian Piątkowski.

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