December 5, 2011

Secret Polish Forces of WW2: The "Silent & Dark Ones" PART I: Introduction

On September 1st, 1939 the German Wehrmacht launched a blitkrieg attack on Poland the likes of which had never before been seen in the history of warfare. Two weeks later the Soviet Union attacked Poland from the east. Though Polish troops were overwhelmed  by the German war machine, they did not cower but fought courageously. However, by month's end they withdrew upon the orders of the Polish government. A massive evacuation was underway as thousands of Polish troops headed for Romania, and from there to France where they reassembled their forces under the auspices of the French Armed Forces.

Within a few short months, on December 30, 1939 a plan had been devised by Captain Jan Gorski for the creation of a secret unit that would maintain contact with the Polish underground unit called ZWZ (Związek Walki Zbrojnej) Union of Armed Struggle. Gorski in collaboration with his associate, Captain Maciej Kalenkiewicz, studied and analyzed documents about German paratroops, and how a Polish equivalent could be used in covert support operations, and assist in a future uprising in occupied-Poland. However,Gorski's plan was never adopted despite his frequent submissions.

Captains Jan Gorski and Maciej Kalenkiewicz,England WW2

According to one Polish Air Force Commander, General Zajac, the plan was a good one, but efforts at implementing it would have been futile due to the lack of materiel resources, transport, and training facilities in France. After the capitulation of France, Polish troops again evacuated and regrouped in Great Britain.

On September 20, 1940 General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Commander-in-Chief of Polish Armed Forces, ordered the creation of special covert operatives, the Oddział III Sztabu Naczelnego Wodza (Section III of the Commander-in-Chief's Staff) whose mission was contingency planning and covert operations in Poland, as well as air delivery of arms and supplies and training of Polish paratroops. Just several weeks earlier, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, had officially inaugurated the SOE (Special Operations Executive) with the sole purpose of conducting guerilla warfare against the Axis powers. Their chief objective was to provide instruction and assistance to resistance movements in Nazi-occupied countries. To use Churchill's words they were to "set Europe ablaze".

Training took place in Scotland under the utmost of secrecy and was directed by the Polish 6th Detachment of the General Staff and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Because of it's secrecy very few allied officials even knew of it's existence. The SOE was instrumental in providing the secret Polish forces, the Cichociemni with every resource at it's disposal including training facilities and logistical support. Many of the Polish units were based at Audley End House, in Essex, England. There they received rigorous training before parachuting into Poland. Recruits were also trained at Ringway in Manchester. Incidentally, each paratroop was promoted one rank higher at the moment of their first jump.

Cichociemni - Parachute Training in Great Britain - WW2

Thousands of Polish men and women volunteered but only a few were chosen.  Among the recruits were one general, 112 staff officers, 894 officers, 592 NCO's,  771 privates, 15 women, and 28 civilian envoys of the Polish government-in-exile. Of a total of 2,413 candidates, only 605 successfully completed the rigorous training and passed all their exams. Among those transported to Poland were soldiers of all grades. The oldest agent was 54 years of age, and the youngest, 20. Only those demonstrating superior physical and intellectual faculties were accepted into the elite corps. These elite fighters were officially sworn in as members of Armia Krajowa - their identities known only to the Polish General Staff.

Training was comprehensive and extremely demanding.  In addition to sabotage, covert operations and partisan warfare, there was intensive instruction requiring the mastery of the use of all weapons which included British, Polish, German, Russian and Italian armaments. Courses dealt with a vast array of specialized subjects which included topography, cryptography, and sharpshooting. Recruits were also taught the details of German laws that were imposed on occupied-Poland, the art of Jujutsu, and shooting at invisible targets. The final course concentrated on strategies and techniques for creating a new, false identity.

Cichociemni Training in England: Otton Wiszniewski and Jan Serafin (operating Sten machine gun)

The chosen few eventually came to be referred to as the Cichociemni, the "Silent, Dark ones" so-called because individuals would vanish mysteriously and silently during the night to carry out special operations. Although the Cichociemni collaborated with the British SOE, the former was predominately independent. Polish Command was free to choose their own operatives, and operated their own radio communications.

These special Polish agents played a large role in allied covert operations. Their first flight was organized on the night of February 15-16, 1941 in which three Polish soldiers (athletes), were transported by a two-engine British Whitley bomber headed for Poland: Captain Stanislaw Krzymowski (code-named Kostka "Cube");  Jozef Zalbieski (code-named Zbik "Wildcat") and courier Czeslaw Raczkowski (code-named "Wlodek"). The flight was a long and hazardous one whose route passed directly over German positions.  The intended drop zone was to have been in Wloszczowa in Kielce, but due to unknown circumstances they ended up at Cieszyn Silesia, near Skoczdw, in a zone that Germany had annexed. 

Due to the extreme danger, flights were suspended temporarily.  After a period of nine months flights resumed however using an alternate flight path from Denmark or Sweden, and air transport by a Halifax Bomber that was built to handle long hauls.  Planes had to take off only during the night and only by moonlight - Poland did not have radar making it essential for the pilots to rely on eyesight to navigate. During summers, flights were altogether suspended due to the shorter night hours.  By the end of 1943, the Cichociemni base was transferred to Brindisi, Italy and flights resumed by Liberator aircraft.

Flight path carrying Cichociemni agents to Poland WW2

Cichociemni parachute drop Poland WW2

Allied missions conducted a total of 483 air bridges but lost 68 planes to crashes and enemy fire.  Apart from the Cichociemni themselves, about 630 tonnes of war material were delivered in special containers.  The Cichociemni airdropped supplies and war materiel including large amounts of currency to the Armia Krajowa in Poland -  currencies amounting to 40,869,800 in forged Polish zloty, $26,299,375 in banknotes and gold bullion, £ 1,755 in gold bullion,and 3,578,000 German marks.

By December 1944, 316 Polish soldiers and 28 envoys had successfully parachuted into Poland. In addition, 17 Polish agents parachuted into Albania, Greece, Italy and Yugoslavia, to carry out missions for the SOEC, although the number of Polish agents who parachuted into France is still undetermined. Among them was one of the most famous of Cichociemni, the vivacious and inimitable Krystyna Skarbek. Incidentlaly, she was one of the founding members of the SOE, and helped to organize cells of Polish spies throughout Central Europe, including Poland, Hungary, France and Egypt. Skarbek, it had been said, was one of Churchill's most favorite spy, she so dazzled him.

Krystyna Skarbek - Cichociemni - SOE Operative

The Cichociemni agents were assigned to special units of the ZWZ and the Armia Krajowa, mostly comprising units of the Wachlarz, Zwiazek Odwetu, and KeDyw underground divisions. Many of them were promoted and served as staff officers of the secret Polish army. They carried out many missions, most notable among them were Operation Tempest, and the Uprisings in Wilno, Lwow and Warsaw.

Cichociemny Jan Piwnik (Ponury) and colleagues from Kedyw unit of Home Army
Radom-Kielce Home Army area, 1944

Among their areas of expertise, the Cichociemni were highly skilled and efficient in the covert take-over of many functions in Nazi-occupied countries, working for intelligence organizations, functioning as radio-operators and envoys, flying missions, and coordinating airdrops and forging documents.  Many of them were instructors in secret military schools, teaching the art of anti-tank warfare, diversion, and partisan warfare.

The emblem of the Cichociemni is a Polish eagle, descending on the attack, clutching a wreath of olive leaves encircling the letters PW- Polska Walczaca, meaning Poland Fights. The Cichociemni were the predecessors of today's GROM, (Grupa Reagowania Operacyjno-Manewrowego), that is, the Operational Mobile Reaction Group - special anti-terrorist forces unit.  The name GROM means "thunder", aptly represented by an emblem of the same Polish eagle on the attack cluthing a lightning bolt.

Of the 344 Cichociemni flown to Poland, 113 were killed in action: 9 were shot down before their planes reached their targets; 84 during battle against the Germans, or died as a result of being tortured by the Gestapo, after having been captured and arrested; 10 committed suicide in captivity in prisons and concentration camps; and 10 were executed by the Communists during and following the end of war. 91 Cichociemni took part in the Warsaw Uprising. 18 were killed in action.

  PART II: MISSIONS  Operation Foxley

1 comment:

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