Liberation of Poland: the Man who Saved Krakow

Liberation of Poland: the Man who Saved Krakow

Krakow, the ancient capital of Poland, has recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of the city's liberation from fascist Germany. The festivities devoted to the date included city excursions and seminars organized by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Experts on local history and museum staff tried to shy away from comments.

Soviet infantry men marching in Krakow on the liberation day, January 1945

The city museum of history adopted a derisive attitude naming an exhibition «Liberation or Subjugation?» The organizers of the exhibition preferred to avoid discussing the losses suffered by the 1st Ukrainian Front and everything related to the fierce fighting that took place to liberate Krakow. Instead they told an invented story that the city, which was made a regional capital by Nazis, did not suffer great damage because it was a military target of little importance. 

This is a brazen lie. The ancient Polish city avoided the devastation thanks to two people. Ivan Konev, the Marshal of the Soviet Union, gave an order not to use heavy artillery to avoid damage during the battle to liberate Krakow. The liars resort to a dirty trick rejecting his contribution into saving the city from destruction. The successors of those who survived those days as the city was spared expressed their «gratitude» to him in the most peculiar way. The street named after Konev has been re-named to become the street of Armia Krajowa (the Polish Home Army). His memorial sculpture in Krakow has been dismantled. 

Soviet soldiers in liberated Krakow, 1945

There is another person the city owes its very existence to. His name is not mentioned in Krakow at all. He led a group of people who exploded a huge storage of explosives near the Jagiellonian Castle located in Nowy Sacz, a town in the Lesser Poland Voivodship (region) in southern Poland. The operation prevented Germans from destroying Krakow and the bridges across the Dunajec River (used by the Red Army to enter the city) and the Rożnów Dam. If not for the men who did it, the city would have been flooded and the rapid advance of Red Army through the broken lines of German defences would have been delayed for uncertain period of time. Germans would have had an opportunity to beef up their defensive positions. 

Aleksey Botyan led the group of Red Army soldiers to destroy the storage (killing 400 fascists there). The action prevented the demolition of Krakow. Botyan was born on February 10 (January 28 according to the old calendar), 1917 in the western Belarusian village of Chertovitsi, Oshmyany district 78 km from Minsk. After the Soviet-Polish war the place of his birth happened to be located in the territory of Rzeczpospolita (the Second Polish Republic). As a petty officer of Polish air defense forces he joined the fight against Germans on the very first day of the Second World War. His battery brought down a German Yunkers plane on September 1, 1939. He was taken prisoner by Red Army near Lutsk. Having gone through a thorough check, Botyan graduated from an intelligence school to join a special troops infantry brigade that defended Moscow. He took part in subversive operations in the enemy’s rear, including the demolition of German commissariat (a military registration office) in Ovruch, a city in the Zhytomyr Oblast (province) of northern Ukraine. He killed 80 German officers, including experts in anti-guerilla operations and military instructors. 

There is an obelisk near the town of Ilza on the way to Krakow with a sign that reads «Night time May 15, 1944 the Armia Ludowa and a commando group codenamed «Alesha» under the command of Lieutenant Alexey Botyan were here to fight fascist occupants». 

A year before the end of war the Alesha group was actively involved in subversive operations near the ancient Polish capital. It fought the Hitlerites and the punishers of Ukrainian SS division Galichina. It also had to resist the low acts committed by Armia Krajowa under the command of Polish London-based interim government in exile. Alexey Botyan wrote in his memoirs «Poles were afraid of Soviet soldiers. An Armia Krajowa’s officer who went around under the alias Captain Galya (former staff-captain of Russian Tzar’s Army Musilovych) warned me that the Army command will suggest that we engage in a joint operation to lead us into an ambush set up by Germans. Thanks to this information we avoided the trap». 

Many Polish patriots helped the group. By the end of 1944 Alesha and Polish comrades-in–arms took prisoner Zigmund Ogarek, a German survey-engineer who served in a rear located unit. He had maps of German defence fortifications. The prisoner provided valuable information on the plans to ruin the city as Soviet troops approached. He also informed on the location of the storage with explosives to demolish Krakow, dams and bridges. 

On January 10, 1945 the information was confirmed. The Botyan group intercepted a telegram sent by German staff. Ober-Lieutenant Franz Shligel, an officer who was trapped and killed, had a document which provided the information on the plans to mine Krakow memorials and other objectives. It also provided some additional data. According to it, Germans planned to demolish and flood the city to inflict maximum damage on rapidly advancing Soviet forces that happened to be much closer to the city than Germans expected. 

The occupants had no time to fulfill the plans. The Alesha group demolished the storage on January 18. On January 19, the forward based units of the 1st Ukrainian Front under the command of Marshall Ivan Konev moved forward without artillery support to enter Krakow having broken German defences in a rapid and unexpected assault. 

Red Army soldiers fight Germans at the outskirts of Krakow, January, 1945

This and other operations conducted by Alexey Botyan serve as lessons for special operations training courses. After the war he remained on active service for forty years. He took part in creating Vympel, the legendary special operations force, sharing his vast war experience. He trained the special operations soldiers who took the Amin Palace in Kabul in 1979. 

He was nominated twice for the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. The both times he was decorated with Order of the Red Banner. His service as a petty officer within the ranks of the Army created by Pilsudsky regime did him more harm than good but his friends and comrades-in-arms continued to cherish the dream of achieving justice. With every passing year more people put their signatures on the petition. The number of signatories grew to 450. 

The day came. According to the presidential executive order № 614 on May 10, 2007 the 90-year old Colonel, retired, Alexey Botyan became the Hero of the Soviet Union «for courage and heroism displayed during the operation to liberate the Polish city of Krakow and the prevention of its demolition by German fascists in the period of 1944-1945». 

«It's an honour for me to give the Honour of the Hero of Russia to a military intelligence officer. Thanks to his courage, Krakow, one of the most beautiful European cities was saved for Poland and the whole world», said Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

Krakow residents and Soviet soldiers, January, 1945

Tags: Poland  Russia  USSR