“The Olkusz man that won the war”: Antoni Kocjan remembered on anniversary of execution

Kocjan survived a stint in Auschwitz but was later shot in one of the last batch of executions conducted at Pawiak Prison. Public domain

Imprisoned in Auschwitz alongside Witold Pilecki, forgotten WWII hero Antoni Kocjan was the man that deciphered the technical aspects of Germany’s most secret weapons, the V1 and V2 ballistic missiles.

On the 13th of August 1944, he was one of the victims of the Wehrmacht’s last brutal batch of executions at Warsaw’s Pawiak Prison, the largest political prison in German-occupied Poland

Kocjan was a keen aviator and responsible for constructing some of the world’s most famous gliders – pictured is the Kocjan Orlik II.FORTEPAN/Vojnich Pál

Born in Olkusz, he was first a pilot and engineer, frequently awarded in flying competitions and known for constructing some of the world’s most famous gilders from his workshop in Warsaw’s Pole Mokotowskie.

He had also notably fought in the Polish Bolshevik war in 1920.

However, it was his wartime actions during WWII that earned him the greatest recognition, in particular his role in demystifying German wonder weapons between 1943 and 1944.

So notable was his contribution, that historian Dr Adam Cyry, closely associated for many years with the Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, described Kocjan as “The Olkusz man who won the war”.

It was Kocjan’s wartime actions that earned him the greatest recognition, in particular his role in demystifying German wonder weapons.Public domain

Joining the Polish Home Army as a captain at the start of the war, Kocjan was accidentally caught up in a German street roundup in Warsaw in 1940 and taken to Pawiak Prison. From there, he was deported to Auschwitz in September 1940 alongside Witold Pilecki and Władysław Bartoszewski.

Though he would survive the deportation to Auschwitz, he would fatefully return again to Pawiak in 1944.

Due to the efforts of friends from Warsaw, and a German firm he had worked for before the war, Kocjan was released from Auschwitz in November 1941, but was quick to join the underground; his gliding workshop became a covert printing house publishing illegal pamphlets.

Kocjan was crucial in deciphering the technical aspects of the V1 and V2.Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1975-117-26 / Lysiak / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Between 1943-44, Kocjan worked with Polish intelligence services and led the team working on deciphering the specifics behind the German V1 flying bomb and the V2 long-range missile.

At the time, tests on these so-called wunderwaffe were being carried out at a specially built testing facility in Peenemuende, on the island of Uznam (German: Usedom). Located close to what is now known as Szczecin, the operations were headed by Wernher von Braun, the man behind the construction of these ‘retaliation weapons’.

According to Dr Cyry, the air force intelligence unit of the Main Home Army Command, which was directed by Kocjan, made an enormous contribution in identifying the German centre of missile testing as well as in furthering the understanding regarding the construction of the V1 and V2 missiles.

Kocjan was first imprisoned in Pawiak in 1940. Returned there in 1944, he did not survive his second stint.Wojciech Pacewicz/PAP

Kocjan led by example, and personally contributed enormously in this.

It was only after receiving a telegram from Kocjan with a description of the new weapons, and the location of tests, that the Allies were able to bomb the German testing facility.

“Thanks to intelligence information passed on to them, the English bombed the base at Peenemuende in August 1943,” says Dr Cyry.

Kocjan was imprisoned in Auschwitz alongside Witold Pilecki, one of Poland’s best-known heroes.IPN

“That meant that the German programme of using these weapons was delayed by half a year, which enabled the Allies to conduct the invasion of France on the 6th of June 1944 – London was saved from far greater destruction.”

In November 1943, the Home Army obtained parts of the V2 rocket and these were set to be transported to England by an Allied plane under planned Operation Wildhorn II in May 1944 , which was eventually successfully carried out after the second attempt, Operation Wildhorn III, in July 1944.

It was intended that Kocjan would be on the flight to personally hand over the parts of the V2 rocket and the documentation containing his analysis to the leadership in Great Britain, but he had already been arrested by the Gestapo.

Kocjan was arrested again at the beginning of June 1944 and returned to Pawiak Prison where he was executed on the 13th of August. To this day, it is unknown where he may have been buried.

Honoured posthumously with the Order of Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military decoration, Kocjan’s story remains far lesser-known than that of his contemporaries. 

Kocjan will be the subject of an upcoming conference organised at the Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau.Jacek Bednarczyk/PAP

Seeking to redress this, he is to be remembered as part of an upcoming conference organised by the International Education Centre at the Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The conference, titled ‘Biographies as sources of knowledge about Extermination and Auschwitz’ and aimed at teachers and educators, will be organised online on 28th and 29th of August and will serve to highlight Kocjan’s profile amongst those deported to the camp as part of the second transport from Warsaw in September 1940.

Among those who accompanied him were Witold Pilecki and Władysław Bartoszewski.