Project Riese (Giant) is one of the most mysterious construction projects of II WW. It was conducted in the region of the Owl Mountains by Nazi Germany. Even now, so many years after the II WW, no one is sure what the exact purpose was; was it quarters for the Supreme Command of the Third Reich, an underground laboratory, a factory for constructing the atomic bombs? The construction was never finished, the documents were destroyed, and what remains today is just a number of constructions sites across the Owl Mountains. Currently, four objects are open to visitors: Osówka, Włodarz, Walimskie Drifts, and the Książ Castle, but there are many more both discovered and undiscovered.
Before the trip, we didn’t know much about the Riese project except that I heard it’s an interesting place to visit. We had no clue which one was the most interesting, so we went to all of them; thus, Walimskie Drifts became our first stop.
In 1943, after many German cities were air-raided and the tide of war started to change, Hitler ordered the undertaking of a massive, top-secret underground complex known as Project ‘Riese’ (Giant). The work on that project lasted until the last days of the war in 1945, where it got abandoned only when it became painfully clear for Nazis that they would lose control over that area. They boobytrapped the corridors and exploded the entrances so no one would be able to access them. Because they fled in a hurry, they left countless building materials, cement bags, aggregates, cables, and the foundations of unfinished ground structures in the forests of the Owl Mountains. Even today, if you take a walk through the forest paths, you can notice the remains of it.
The project itself was humongous; imagine that for the Riese project alone, more concrete was used than was allocated in 1944 for the whole population to construct air-raid shelters. It was estimated that over two million cubic meters of rock would need to be blasted out of the Owl Mountains to complete this massive underground city.
To dig the tunnels, Nazis used forced laborers from the Gross-Rosen concentration camp located in the nearby village. Most of them were Jews, about 70 percent from Hungary, the rest from Poland, Greece, Romania, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. What is horrifying is the fact that, on average, the prisoner used for digging the tunnels lasted around three to four months. This was due to several factors: the inhumane conditions they had to withstand with an unproportionate amount of hard work and almost no food (the concentration camp motto was Vernichtung Durch Arbeit (‘Extermination Through Work’)). They had to dig in gneiss rock, which has the same hardness as steel while using only basic tools. And the temperature in the shafts was around 5C with high air humidity, causing the small pieces of clothing they had left to be wet almost immediately.
To speed up the project, laborers mined from different locations concurrently. It was planned to eventually connect all those sections in one extensive system of tunnels, but the sudden end of war stopped the construction. Even though the project is not finished, with the varying condition of tunnels, it is still a place worth visiting and commemorating all the victims of war.
Walimskie Drifts (Sztolnie Walimskie) is the underground tourist route in the “Rzeczka” (“River”) complex located on the eastern slope of the Ostra Mountain (653.3 m) between Walim and the Rzeczka river. It was the shortest of the Riese complexes available for tourists, with a length of 500m.
In front of the entrance to the underground, there is a multilingual exhibition about the project, prepared by the Walim Commune in cooperation with the Museum at KL Gross Rosen. The collection also presents the history of specific people who were forced to work there during the war years.
The underground part of the complex has a plan similar to the letter “E”. It consists of 3 parallel drifts, 40 and 50 m apart, and a system of chamber workings connecting them at right angles, the so-called Hal. The tunnels were drilled concurrently on two levels, which later were supposed to be merged together and reinforced with concrete casing. The most impressive is the hall connecting drifts I and III, which is 80 m long, 10 m high, and 8 m wide! Imagine how much effort it took to dig it out in one of the hardest rocks. The total length of the underground workings is approx. 500 m, the area is 2,500 m², and the volume is 14,000; however, only eleven percent is reinforced by concrete.
We liked this place because the guide was very enthusiastic and passionate. He shared a lot of information and history with us and even encouraged us to take pictures and videos. The impressive part was a couple of audiovisual shows inside, helping visitors to immerse themselves into the narrative. The most powerful one, which is still hard to forget, was at the end of the tour. With the music in the background and humongous hall as a foreground, we saw how petite humans looked compared to the hole they were digging. And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, their life ended, extinguished way before their time, ending up as just a tiny flicker of a flame. That reminded us that Walimskie Drifts is not only a tourist attraction but, above all, a place of remembrance for those who lost their lives there in oppressive conditions.
- There is a free parking spot close by
- Foreigners can rent an audio guide in English, German, Czech, or French.
- For more info, check out the official site