Assassination of ‘Executioner of Warsaw’ was one of Poland’s greatest WWII offensives
Regarded as one of the Home Army’s most daring actions of WWII, today marks the 79th anniversary of the assassination of SS-Brigadeführer Franz Kutschera.
Known as ‘the executioner of Warsaw’, Kutschera had been appointed the city’s SS and police chief just months before in September and it was directly under his watch that street round-ups and executions soared in number.
Born in 1904 in Oberwaltersdorf, Kutschera’s early life was largely unspectacular; first working as a cabin boy in the Austro-Hungarian navy, he later followed in the footsteps of his father to carve a career as a gardener.
Joining the Austrian Nazi Party in 1930, within a year he had volunteered for the nascent Austrian SS.
If his earlier years had been defined by their plodding sense of unambitious mediocrity, the birth of the Third Reich lit an internal fire. Climbing the ranks rapidly, by the time the opening salvos of WWII had been fired, Kutschera was serving as the acting Gauleiter for Carinthia.
This, however, was not enough. Eager to experience the thrill of military service, he took part in the invasion of France before being reassigned to the Balkan Campaign. It was during this period that his callous brutality came to wider notice.
Revelling in his new role, Kutschera oversaw scores of pacification actions on the Eastern Front before being handed the plum role of Warsaw’s police chief by Heinrich Himmler.
Coinciding with a decree signed by Hans Frank ordering the summary execution of any Pole guilty of “hindering or interfering” with German “reconstruction” work, Kutschera’s promotion unleashed a new wave of terror. For the people of Warsaw, their wartime trauma was about to be amplified even further.
By the end of 1943, it’s understood that approximately 5,000 citizens had been shot on Kutschera’s orders – around 40 per day.
Although the posted daily death lists of executed Poles were signed anonymously, by November Kutschera had found himself on the Home Army’s radar.
Kutschera lived on Al. Róż 2 inside an elegant residential block in the heart of Warsaw’s so-called German district, but despite the short distance to the city’s SS headquarters, he preferred to make the 220-metre journey in an Opel Admiral limousine.
Located inside the Leszczyński Palace on what is now Ujazdowskie 23, the SS building often found itself under routine surveillance by the Home Army, along with other German institutions such as the much-feared Gestapo building on Szucha.
So it was, it was whilst spying on two other potential assassination targets that Aleksander Kunicki (a.k.a. Rayski) noticed Kutschera’s luxury car arriving to Ujazdowskie 23. Intrigued, his curiosity was raised further when he noted Kutschera’s insignia.
Often pretending that he was catching a tram, Kunicki was soon able to file a report to his superiors on the mysterious comings and goings and the identity of Kutschera was established.
Sentenced to death by the Home Army, Kutschera found his movements covertly watched by an undercover team of three females – the youngest being just 14.
Monitoring the street, it was their duty to work out Kutschera’s schedule as well as to note military checkpoints, potential getaway routes and other such details.
Weighing up the pros and cons, it was decided that Kutschera would be ambushed outside his workplace – ironically, not far from the very spot on which Hitler had stood when admiring a victory parade in 1939.
To be carried out by the Kedyw unit of the Home Army, the first attempt on Kutschera’s life was abandoned on January 28th when he failed to emerge from his apartment. Four-days later, the 12-strong hit team was ready to try again.
Standing across the street close to the entrance of Park Ujazdowski, an operative called Kama alerted the team that Kutschera had climbed into his car by moving her coat to her right hand.
Following an elaborate chain of hand and body signals, news of Kutschera’s movements was then passed swiftly between those in the unit, with the removal of a hat acting as the final cue for an operative called Miś to spring into action.
Driving an Adler, he blocked Kutschera’s vehicle as it approached the palace’s gate. Seizing the moment, Lot and Kruszynka leapt from the Adler to pepper Kutschera’s car with gunfire.
Joined by Miś, the Poles then pulled the wounded Kutschera out of his car before finishing him off with a shot to the head.
Unfortunately, thereafter, whatever could go wrong, did.
As two getaway cars moved into position, German sentries engaged the Poles and a heavy firefight broke out. In the chaos, an operative called Ali found himself unable to open a briefcase full of hand grenades and the Poles found themselves sustaining casualties whilst trying to dash for safety.
Among others, Miś, who had fired the fatal shot that killed Kutschera, was himself hit in the head.
In the noise of battle, several failed to hear the order to withdraw. Even so, in spite of the mayhem, all of the Polish participants managed to eventually extract themselves from the scene and fled in two vehicles waiting on Chopina street. This, however, was not the end of their ordeal.
Although a medivac point had been arranged prior, the gravity of the injuries forced a frantic search for alternative operating facilities. Rejected by several doctors, the delay in treating two soldiers called Lot and Cichy would cost them their lives.
Neither were these the only team members that would pay the ultimate sacrifice. Returning to central Warsaw having finally left Lot and Cichy at a hospital, Sokół and Juno were stopped by German soldiers on Kierbedź Bridge. Refusing to surrender peacefully, the duo jumped into the Wisła in a hail of gunfire.
Seen as the most high profile assassination since that of Reinhard Heydrich, news of Kutschera’s death sent shockwaves through the Nazi hierarchy and within hours 100 prisoners were transported from Pawiak and shot en masse outside the Rzyszczewski Palace on Ujazdowskie.
Another 200, meanwhile, were shot in the ruins of the Ghetto.
Infuriated yet also panicked, the Germans levied a fine of PLN 85 million on the city, and also introduced measures such as outlawing Poles from travelling by car in the city.
Under heavy security – many Varsovians found themselves temporarily thrown out of their homes – Kutschera was afforded an extravagant and somewhat bizarre funeral ceremony on February 4th.
Most likely taken to the long-demolished Bruhl Palace (some accounts claim his body was taken to the Presidential Palace), it was here that Kutschera’s heavily pregnant Norwegian fiancée, Jane Lilian Steen, swore allegiance to the body.
Surrounded by Nazi banners and mysterious runes, she is reputed to have married Kutschera posthumously inside a chamber filled with high-ranking SS figures.
Thereafter, most historians agree that Kutschera’s body was transported to Berlin via the Gdański train station, although recent times have seen some argue that he was, in fact, buried near Skierniewice.
Still actively commemorated to this day, Kutschera’s assassination remains one of the resistance’s biggest wartime triumphs, something born out by the facts.
Whilst it cannot be disputed that Warsaw paid a heavy price for Kutschera’s death, it should also be remembered that public executions ceased two weeks after the action.
At least, that is, until the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising.