February 15, 2011

SPY WEEK Famous Polish Spies - Witold Pilecki


Code Names: Roman Jezierski, Tomasz Serafiński, Druh, Witold 

Witold Pilecki was a soldier of the Second Polish Republic and founder of the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska) a resistance group and a member of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa)

He was the author of the first Intelligence report on Auschwitz, which the Polish government-in-exile used to convince the Allies that the Germans were carrying out genocide of the Jewish people.

Pilecki volunteered to work for a Polish resistance operation in order to get himself arrested and imprisoned in the infamous Auschwitz death camp. Once there he gathered enough information to support his claims. In the meantime he organized a resistance movement among the Jewish inmates.  The Allies were informed as early as 1940 on German atrocities. Three years later, Pilecki escaped and eventually took part in the Warsaw Uprising.

He was executed in 1948 by the Urzad Bezpieczenstwa, Stalin's secret police, on charges of working for "foreign imperialism", a euphemism for MI6. Pilecki's allegiance was for the Polish Government in exile located in London, a factor that led to his execution.

The Polish communist regime had suppressed information about Pilecki's activities until 1989. The Polish government commemorated Pilecki's life by issuing a coin for the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz..

Witold Pilecki was born May 13, 1901 in Olonets (Oloniec),Russia, where his family had been forced to resettle by Tsarist Russian authorities. His grandfather, Jozef had spent seven years in exile in Siberia for having taken part in Poland's Uprising (1863-1864). In 1910, Pilecki moved with his family to Wilno (Vilnius, Lithuania), where he completed Commercial School after which he joined the secret ZHP Scouts organization. He founded a local ZHP group in Orel, Russia where he had relocated in 1916.

During World War I Pilecki joined ZHP Scout section in the Wilno area. When his sector of the front was overrun by the Bolsheviks, his unit resorted to partisan warfare behind enemy lines. He joined the Polish Army and fought in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–1920, serving under Major Jerzy Dąbrowski. He was part of the cavalry unit defending Grodno (now Belarus) fighting in the Polish retreat from Kiev.

On August 5, 1920, he joined the 211th Uhlan Regiment and fought in the Battle of Warsaw, as well as at Rudniki Forest (Puszcza Rudnicka) and in the liberation of Wilno. He was twice decorated with the Krzyż Walecznych (Cross of Valor) for gallantry.

After the Polish-Soviet War ended in 1921 with the Peace of Riga, Pilecki passed his high-school graduation exams (matura) in Wilno, as well as that of exams for an NCO position in the Polish Army. He also studied at the Stefan Batory University in Wilno, and rebuilt his family estate which had been ruined during the war. He served in the cavalry in 1926, after having completed courses in officer training. While in the reserves he was also active in supporting local paramilitary training activities. He took time to work on the family farm located in the village of Sukurcze, and developed a reputation for being a social work activist and an amateur painter.

He married on April 7, 1931 to Maria Pilecka (b.1906 - d 2002) née Ostrowska. They had two children, Andrzej (January 16, 1932) and Zofia, (March 14, 1933) born in Wilno.

In 1938 Witold Pilecki was decorated with the Silver Cross of Merit for exemplary service in community and social work.

World War II

On August 26, 1939 just before the outbreak of World War II, Pilecki was mobilized as a cavalry-platoon commander in the 19th Infantry Division under the Command of Józef Kwaciszewski (part of Polish Army Prusy). His unit fought heroically against the advancing Germans during the invasion of Poland though they suffered many casualties.  His platoon withdrew southeast toward Lwów (now L'viv, in Ukraine) and the Romanian bridgehead where it was incorporated into the recently formed 41st Infantry Division and where he served as its second-in-command, under Major Jan Wlodarkiewicz.

During the September Campaign Pilecki and his men destroyed seven German tanks, shot down an aircraft and destroyed another two on the ground. When the Soviets invaded eastern Poland on September 17, after heavy fighting on two fronts, Pilecki's division was disbanded five days later, partially surrendering to the enemies. He returned to Warsaw with his commander, Major Wlodarkiewicz.

On November 9, 1939, Pilecki and Wlodarkiewicz founded the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska, TAP), which was one of the first underground organizations in Poland. Pilecki became its organizational commander and TAP expanded in many major cities of central Poland, including Warsaw, Siedlce, Radom and  Lublin. By 1940, their ranks numbered about 8,000 men, more than half of them armed. Subsequently the units were incorporated into the "Union for Armed Struggle" (Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej)which was later renamed to "Home Army" (Armia Krajowa).  As part of the AK, the TAP units comprised the core of the Wachlarz unit.


In 1940, Witold Pilecki proposed a highly unusual plan to his superiors which would have him enter Auschwitz with the objective of gathering Intelligence of the camp from the inside, and the organization of a resistance movement among camp inmates. It was generally believed, at the time, that Auschwitz was just an internment camp or large prison, rather than a death camp.  The plan was approved and Pilecki was provided with a false identification card in the name of "Tomasz Serafinksi".

On September 19, 1940, Pilecki deliberately went out into the Warsaw streets and allowed himself to be caught in one of the street roundups (lapanka).  He was arrested along with 2,000 other innocent civilians, among whom was also Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and imprisoned in the Wehrmacht barracks where he was tortured for two days. The Germans then sent him to Auschwitz where the number 4859 was tattooed on his forearm.

Photos of Witold Pilecki in Auschwitz, 1941
At Auschwitz, Pilecki was forced to work in various kommandos during which time he was stricken with pneumonia, but survived. He organized an underground Union of Military Organizations (Związek Organizacji Wojskowej, ZOW) as well as many other smaller underground organizations which eventually merged with ZOW. Its objectives were to improve inmate morale, provide them with news from the outside, distribute extra food and clothing to members, set up intelligence networks, and train detachments to take over the camp in the event of a relief attack by the Home Army, arms airdrops, or an airborne landing by the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, based in Britain.

ZOW provided the Polish underground with invaluable information concerning the internal functioning of the camp. From October 1940 these reports were transmitted to Warsaw, and beginning March 1941, they were forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London. These reports constituted a principal source of Intelligence on Auschwitz  and Pilecki hoped that either the Allies would mobilize and drop arms or troops into the camp, or that the Home Army would organize an assault on it from outside. Unfortunately, though the plans were daring and courageous, they were deemed impossible to carry out. In the meantime, the Germans had increased its efforts to uncover the underground movement, many of whose members were executed. Pilecki decided to escape and use his influence to convince the leaders of the Home Army of the validity of conducting a rescue mission.

He waited until he was assigned to work the night shift at the camp bakery, located just outside the fence. Then he and two other inmates overpowered a guard, cut the phone line and escaped on the night of April 26/27, 1943 - taking with them vital documents which they stole from the Germans.

Outside the camp

After several days had passed he contacted Home Army units. On August 25, 1943, Pilecki reached Warsaw and joined the Home Army's intelligence department. The Home Army was of the decision that its units were not sufficiently strong on its own to capture Auschwitz camp and they required Allied help to do so - especially after having lost several of its own operatives, including the Cichociemny commando Stefan Jasienski.  Pilecki's detailed report (Raport Witolda—"Witold's Report") was dismatched to London but British authorities refused to provide air support to assist the Home Army in its Operation to help the inmates escape. The British considered an air raid too risky, and doubted the reports from the Home Army as gross exaggerations about the German camp.   In his report, Pilecki wrote: "During the first 3 years, at Auschwitz there perished 2 million people; in the next 2 years—3 million" the data has been established that the total number of deaths at Auschwitz between 1939 and 1945 was approximately 960,000. (Editors Note: though data varies considerably from various sources, it does not diminish the staggering number of lives lost.)

The Home Army was ill-prepared for a mission of such magnitude, and the Russian army, despite being within attacking distance of the camp, had no interest in joining the Home Army and ZOW in their mission to free the camp. Pilecki was in charge of coordinating ZOW and AK activities, and provided whatever support, though limited, that he could offer to ZOW.

On February 23, 1944 Pilecki was promoted to cavalry captain (rotmistrz) and joined a secret anti-communist organization, NIE ("NO or NIEpodleglosc - independence"),  of the Home Army whose goal it was to prepare resistance against a Soviet occupation.

Warsaw Uprising

When the Warsaw Uprising broke out on August 1, 1944, Pilecki volunteered for the Kedyw's Chrobry II group. Initially, he fought in the northern city center and chose to conceal with military rank. During the course of time, as many officers were killed, he finally disclosed his true identity and accepted command. His forces held a fortified area called the "Great Bastion of Warsaw" an area which caused considerable difficulties for German supply lines. The bastion was able to withstand two weeks of constant attacks by the German infantry and armor. When Warsaw capitulated, Pilecki hid some weapons in a private apartment and went into captivity, spending the remainder of the war in German prisoner-of-war camps at Lambinowice and Murnau. 

Communist Poland

On July 9, 1945, Pilecki was liberated from the POW camp, and after which he joined the 2nd Polish Corps,stationed in Italy. There he wrote a monograph on Auschwitz. In September Pilecki accepted orders from General Wladyslaw Anders, the commander of the 2nd Polish Corps to return to Poland under a false identity and gather Intelligence for the Polish government in exile.  (Relations between the Polish government in exile and its rival counterpart, the Polish Committee of National Liberation had been steadily worsening.)

In October 1945, Pilecki returned to Poland in order to organize his intelligence network. However, Poland's fate had already been sealed by the Yalta Conference and there was no hope of obtaining its liberation. By spring of 1946 the Polish government-in-exile ordered all partisans still in the forests to either to return to their normal civilian lives or to escape to the West. In July 1946, Pilecki received communication that his cover was blown and he was ordered to leave. He refused.  In April 1947, he began collecting documentation of Soviet atrocities and on the prosecution of Poles (mostly members of the Home Army and the 2nd Polish Corps) and their executions or imprisonment in Soviet gulags.

Arrest and Execution

Trial of Pilecki

On May 8, 1947, Witold Pilecki was arrested by the Ministry of Public Security. An investigation was headed by Colonel Roman Romkowski during which time Pilecki was subjected to intensive interrogation by Col. Jozef Rozanski, and savage torture at the hands of his lieutenants S. Lyszkowski, W. Krawczynski, J. Kroszel, T. Slowianek, Eugeniusz Chimczak and S. Alaborski. Pilecki revealed no sensitive information, seeking to protect his colleagues.

On March 3, 1948, the Soviets staged a show trial in which Pilecki was condemned by the testimony presented by a future Polish prime minister, Józef Cyrankiewicz, (who was also a survivor of Auschwitz.) Pilecki was accused of illegal crossing of the borders, use of forged documents, not enlisting with the military, carrying illegal arms, participating in espionage for General Władysław Anders (head of the military of the Polish Government-in-Exile), espionage for "foreign imperialism" (thought to be British intelligence) and preparing an assassination on several officials from the Ministry of Public Security of Poland.

Pilecki denied the assassination charges, as well as espionage (although he admitted to passing information to the II Polish Corps of whom he considered himself an officer and thus claimed that he was not breaking any laws); he pleaded guilty to the other charges. He was sentenced to death on May 15, along with three of his comrades.

Ten days later, on May 25, 1948, Pilecki was executed at the Warsaw Mokotów Prison on ulica Rakowiecka street. His executioner by Staff Sergeant Piotr Śmietański, nicknamed by the prisoners the "Butcher of the Mokotow Prison".

Pilecki's conviction was part of a prosecution of Home Army members and others connected with the Polish Government-in-Exile in London. In 2003, the prosecutor, Czeslaw Lapinski, and several others involved in the trial were charged with complicity in Pilecki's murder. Cyrankiewicz escaped similar proceedings, having died; Lapiński died in 2004, before the trial was concluded.

Witold Pilecki and all others sentenced in the staged trial were rehabilitated on October 1, 1990. In 1995, he received posthumously the Order of Polonia Restituta. In 2006, he received the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish decoration. His place of burial has never been found. He is thought to have been buried in an unmarked grave near Warsaw's Powązki Cemetery's garbage dump.

Order of Polonia Restituita

(corrected image) Order of the White Eagle - Poland

Source: Wikipedia

Editors Note:  FYI:  The images of medals posted here may or may not be the exact version which was awarded to the recipient.  There are several classes for each medal depending on various factors such as type of military (or civilian) service, rank of officer (or soldier), class of award, year in which it was awarded, etc   The lack of sufficient information on the web (or omission) has compounded the difficulty in selecting the correct class of medal. I apologize for any inaccuracies. 


  1. Thanks for the information about Pilecki. An amazing story. My paternal grandmother was Polish. It makes me proud to know about brave Poles. She was! Came to the US when she was 15 years old. Again, thanks for the info. Nostrovia! Keep up the good work.

  2. You are welcome and thank you for your compliments. I find that the more one explores Polish history, the more amazing stories there are to be found. Polish people are truly amazing. I am just trying to get the word out! Best Regards!

  3. Please change the photo of the Russian Empire Order of the White Eagle to the original polish Order of the White Eagle.

  4. I have replaced the image as soon I as received your comment. Thank you for your keen observation.

  5. Thank you so much for this amazing information! I’m glad it is not being lost. I’m going to follow your blog.