In September 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland and the country was completely taken over by October. Even with the loss of their country and the major powers fighting for dominance, the people of Poland never gave up. A government in exile was set up and numerous resistance organizations sprung up around the country and the world as Poles both at home and abroad was ready to stand and fight for the liberation of Poland. But the fight was not an easy one. The Poles were outnumbered and their enemy was much better armed, but still, they fought bravely. Below are 10 amazing facts about the Polish resistance during WWII.
Secret Operations Successfully Took Out Nazi Officials
Operation Heads was the movement by Polish Resistance fighters of the Home Army. The Home Army or AK (for Armia Krajowa, ‘Home Army’ in Polish) was the largest resistance group in Poland, formed in 1942. They were loyal to the Polish government-in-exile and sought to liberate Poland.
Operation Heads was the code name for the mission to assassinate Nazi officials. The name came from the Death Head symbol on the SS Nazi Germany uniforms and headgear. Special courts of the Polish Underground would pick Nazi officials and sentence them to death for crimes against Polish citizens during the German occupation. The operation would target the German administration, police, SS, SA, the labor office, or German agents, anyone that was seen to be committing atrocities against civilians.
The operation started largely as a response to the German policy of ‘lapanka’. In territories that Germany occupied, they would regularly round up large groups of people to be killed or sent to concentration camps. German soldiers would pick a street, neighborhood, or even a passing group, surround the area with troops, and then take anyone that was captured. Between 1942 and 1944, there were about 400 daily victims of lapanka in Poland.
As a way to maintain order and stop the Home Army from attacking leaders, the Nazis published a daily list of Poles to be executed in the event of an attack against Nazi troops. The Home Army had their own list of targets, and they killed hundreds of Nazi officials.
One of the most remarkable things about the Polish Underground is that they were completely outgunned by the Germans. Many people joined the Resistance with nothing but a pistol, and they would not be outfitted with anything better. But the Polish Underground planned major offenses and would spend a year or more planning, creating, and stockpiling weapons and ammunition for a single offensive.
In 1939 the Germans took over the manufacturing facility of the Vis pistol, an exceptional firearm made by the Poles. But gunsmiths remained loyal to the Polish Resistance and continued making weapons for the Home Army out of their homes or basements, using whatever parts they could find or fabricating weapons themselves. Hundreds of these pistols were made in secret and passed to Resistance fighters. The guns may not have been as good as the Vis pistol but it was still a huge accomplishment.
The Home Army also created 700 Blyskawicas in underground factories in Warsaw. The sub-machine gun was modeled after German MP-40s and British-made Sten guns. They were designed and built by guerrilla forces in Poland and were made from parts that were screwed together and that required very little welding. One of the most brilliant aspects of the gun was that it was engineered to fire German 9mm pistol rounds.
One of the most ingenious ways that the Resistance forged ahead against an army that had more weapons and vehicles than them was to create their own armored vehicle. The Kubus was a civilian Chevy truck that was covered with steel and could carry 8 to 12 soldiers. The Kubus took only 13 days to build. It saw action in two failed assaults on Warsaw University. It sustained minor damage during the failed assaults and was pulled from use and abandoned just a few weeks after it was created.
There were Hundreds of Thousands of Resistance Members
The Polish Resistance was not a small group. There were several different Resistance groups that sprung up following German occupation. Some of them had differences of opinion, some wanted to support a Communist government for Poland, while others supported the government-in-exile. The largest resistance group was the AK, or Home Army.
The AK was formed in 1942 and had 100,000 members at the onset. It was originally known as the Union of Armed Struggle or ZWZ (Zwiazek Walki Zbronjnej), which formed in 1939 following the German occupation of Poland. It was renamed the Home Army in February 1942. The membership-only grew as time went on. At the start of 1943, the membership had grown to over 200,000 members.
As the Home Army became the main Resistance group in Poland, several other groups merged into it. The Bataliony Chlopskie was the second-largest Resistance organization, and had 160,000 men in its ranks by the summer of 1944. That summer that the Bataliony Chlopskie merged with the Home Army. The next largest resistance group was the National Armed Forces or NSZ and they had about 70,000 members in 1943. Some members of the NSZ merged with the AK, but the majority stayed separate. The Communist Resistance group Armia Ludowa had about 30,000 members and never merged with the AK.
When the AK reached its largest membership in the summer of 1944 it had anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 members. It incorporated most of the other Resistance groups and received help from allies around the world. The Polish Resistance is credited as being one of the largest, if not the largest, Resistance organization of World War II.
A Resistance Member Volunteered to go to Auschwitz
Witold Pilecki is considered to be one of the greatest heroes of World War II by the Polish people. He was a soldier before the outbreak of World War II fighting in the Polish-Soviet War. Once Poland fell to the Germans he formed the Secret Polish Army in November 1939. By 1940 the group had grown to 8,000 men with 20 machine guns and a few anti-tank rifles. The group merged with the Union for Armed Struggle, which became the AK.
It was in 1940 that Pilecki approached his superiors in the Union for Armed Struggle about a daring plan. He wanted to enter Auschwitz concentration camp and gather intelligence and organize a Resistance movement within the camp. At the time no one knew anything about the camp and thought of it as just a prison or internment camp. No one knew about the atrocities that were already occurring. Pilecki’s plan was approved.
He was given a false identity card with the name Tomasz Serafinski. On September 19, 1940, he went out during a Warsaw street roundup and was caught by the Germans. He was one of 2,000 civilians taken that day. After being held and beaten for two days, he was taken to Auschwitz and given the number 4859. Pilecki quickly got to work forming an underground organization in the camp with the goal of improving prisoner morale, getting food and clothing for the members, and setting up intelligence networks that could get information to the outside.
For years, Pilecki and his group gave information about the horrors of the camp and his reports made it all the way to London. His reports were the main source of intelligence about the camp for the Allies, and Pilecki hoped that there would be a drop off troops or arms to the camp to help them to rise up and escape. In 1943 he decided to break out of Auschwitz in order to convince the Home Army to perform a rescue operation at the camp. He succeeded in escaping, but he could not find enough Allied support to help the AK liberate Auschwitz.
The Polish Resistance was fighting two fronts against two armies that vastly outnumbered and outgunned them. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a non-aggression pact between the Nazis and the Soviets which divided up parts of Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. The pact stated that neither side would ally with or aid the enemy of the other party.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact divided up Poland into separate spheres of influence between Germany and the Soviet Union. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the Soviets were quick to follow with their own invasion, on September 17, 1939. The Polish Army was focused in the West fighting the Germans and was not prepared for a second invasion in the East. This allowed the Soviets to move quickly through the territory that had been agreed upon by the Pact.
Between 1939 and 1941 the Soviet NKVD arrested and imprisoned 500,000 Poles and 65,000 of them were secretly executed. There were numerous restrictions placed upon the Poles in the territory that was occupied by the Soviets, and a Resistance movement built up almost immediately. The Soviets lost control of their occupied areas of Poland when the German army continued advancing and broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by outright attacking the Soviet Union.
The battle against the Soviets was not over for the Poles or the Polish Resistance. During the summer of 1944, the Red Army advanced and regained the territory that they had lost to the Germans. With the end of World War II, the Soviets were allowed to keep all of the Polish territories that they had been promised with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. To make it up to Poland they were given the southern half of East Prussia and territories east of the Oder-Neisse line.
The First Civilian Uprising was Carried Out by High School Boys
When the Soviets invaded Poland there was very little resistance to stop them. All of the attention was focused on the German invasion. Therefore, when the Soviets advanced the number of people who stood in their way was very few. The Soviets annexed large areas of eastern Poland, including the town of Czortkow. Czortkow was made part of the Ukrainian SSR and the new rulers of the area quickly started repressing the large Polish population.
46.4% of the population of Czortkow was Polish and they were not willing to accept the new restrictions, and being annexed. By October 1939 a Resistance group, called the National Alliance, was formed by mostly students at the local high school. The students and their teacher were founders of the organization, and it grew as the repression of the people increased. Several of the students, Tadeusz Bankowski, Henryk Kaminski, Heweliusz Malawski and their teacher Jozef Opacki, decided to rise up against their oppressors.
In December of 1939, the Soviets diverted troops from the garrison at Czortkow to send them to fight the Winter War in Finland. With a large number of the troops gone from the garrison, the National Alliance believed it was their chance to attack. They wanted to attack the barracks and then free a number of Polish Army prisoners that were being held in the local prison. If they were successful, they then planned to take over the post office, hospital and railway station, they even wanted to seize a train and blow up the rail bridge.
About 100 to 250 people gathered and were divided into four groups to accomplish all of the objectives of the uprising. However, the group underestimated the Soviet strength and were quickly overpowered by the number of soldiers in the barracks. Fourteen Poles and three Soviets died in the uprising attempt. The next day the Soviets arrested 150 people they believed were involved. They brutally tortured 24 students, exiled 55 men in Siberia, and killed several of the students and conspirators.
In 1942, the Zamosc region was the next area of Poland that the Germans wanted to subject to Generalplan Ost. The region had fertile black soil and therefore was seen as an ideal place for German colonization. The plan was to clear out the current inhabitants of the area and make room for 60,000 Germans by the end of 1943. 110,000 Polish citizens were removed from 300 villages. Some were resettled, but most were sent to forced labor camps and concentration camps. Some villages were simply destroyed and the inhabitants killed. 5,000 children were kidnapped from their families because of their potential for Germanization. After the war, only 800 of the children were found.
The people of the Zamosc region would not go quietly for the Germans. They fled into the woods and formed a massive resistance movement. The movement bribed Germans for the return of children, helped those who had been expelled, set up self-defense, and fought the Germans. The resistance was made up of mostly the AK and the Bataliony Chlopskie, but there were also Soviet partisans and pro-Soviet resistance groups that helped evacuate citizens and assault German colonists.
Attacks from several thousand Resistance fighters slowed the Germans down in late 1942 to early 1943, but the Germans fought back in the summer of 1943 by terrorizing the civilian population. The Resistance fought back even harder with numerous battles that stopped the German advances. By the middle of 1943 only 9,000 colonists were the area and only 4,000 more were moved by the end of 1943. The resistance even began to regain control of the region in the spring of 1943.
Both sides continued fighting in 1944 with the resistance continuing to take ground and culminated with the battle of Osuchy, where the resistance was defeated. In July, Operation Tempest managed to liberate large areas of the Zamosc region, and the Germans abandoned the region due to the efforts of the resistance and the advancing Red Army.
In August of 1943, the headquarters of the Home Army was coming up with a new plan against the Germans. They were preparing to take armed action against the German border stations that were on the frontier between the areas annexed by the Third Reich and the General Government. The Home Army was poorly outfitted, but they believed that they had a chance to catch the Germans off guard and take out some of the German outposts.
The main operation took place on August 20-21, 1943. The objective was to attack seven German stations on the same night. It was successful, with all seven German stations being completely destroyed and only limited loss of life on the side of the Home Army. However, Tadeusz Zawadzki or “Zoska,” was one of those who were killed in the operation. This was a devastating loss as the 22-year-old was one of the most important personalities of the Polish underground, leading missions and encouraging others with his personality and activism.
With the success of Operation Belt, it was General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski that ordered the preparation of another armed action just ten days later. The operation was dubbed Operation Chain and was a continuation of Operation Belt. This operation took place at the end of November 1943 and involved several units of the Home Army attacking border stations on the southern part of occupied Poland.
There were also other attacks by the AK in the Autumn of 1943 that focused on German outposts on the border with Slovakia. The operations were largely successful, with 13 German outposts destroyed by February 1944 and minimal casualties for the Home Army. It was one of the major large-scale operations by the Home Army that was very successful.
The Resistance Was Victorious at the Battle of Porytowe Wzgorze Despite Being Massively Outnumbered
The Battle of Porytowe Wzgorze took place on June 14, 1944, and it was one of the largest battles between an underground Resistance force and the German occupation forces in all of Europe. In the spring of 1944, numerous resistance groups were operating in the Lublin region, including the AK, the Bataliony Chlopskie, the National Military Organization, and the Armia Ludowa. They were pushed toward the West as the Germans advanced, but they continuously attacked German supply lines and convoys.
In response to the attacks by the partisans, the Germans created a plan of action they dubbed Storm-Wind. The Operation was to eliminate the underground forces from the Janow Forests. In mid-June, 3,000 Resistance fighters found themselves completely surrounded by a large number of German forces. 25,000 to 30,000 German troops were supported with artillery, tanks, armored cars, and air support. The Germans planned to end the Resistance in the area once and for all.
The Germans with all their support did manage to make two breaks in the defense, but it was short-lived as the lines were eventually driven back. The Germans managed to take a small section of forest that allowed them to constantly barrage the partisan troops with fire and inflict heavy casualties. It was on the night of June 14 that partisan forces were able to break out of the trap and reach the safety of the Sloska Wilderness. Against all odds, the partisans escaped after suffering 250 casualties. The Germans lost 495 soldiers along with German police forces and auxiliary forces.
While the Resistance did live to see another day, Storm-Wind II took effect at the end of June. This time operation Storm-Wind II culminated in the Battle of Oshuchy and did accomplish the goals of the Nazis. The local forces took 400 casualties and were defeated by the Germans.
Cursed Soldiers Continued Fighting Long After the End of WWII
When World War II ended, large areas of Poland were occupied by the Soviets and it was agreed by some that it would stay that way. The Soviets planned to exterminate the AK and any Resistance groups that stood in the way of the territory they felt was rightfully theirs. The Red Army and the Home Army had fought several times during the course of World War II. The Home Army had tried to prevent the Soviets from gaining territory. However, the AK officially disbanded in January 1945 to avoid conflict with the Red Army.
The end of the Home Army did not mean the end of the Resistance. The AK structure that was designated for dealing with the Soviets was the NIE (Niepodleglosc) and they continued operating until August 1945. There were several Resistance groups that saw the Soviets as occupiers no different from the Germans and they sought Polish liberation. A Resistance of 50,000 members in different groups sprung up to fight the Soviets. Resistance groups that continued after the end of the war became known as Cursed Soldiers because of the likelihood of being caught and killed by the Red Army.
In an attempt to stop the partisan violence in Poland, many groups came out of the woods and surrendered under the promise of freedom in 1947. Many of them were arrested anyway. A post-AK group, Wolnosc I Niezawislosc, was formed as a way to help those AK veterans transition to civilian life and escape persecution. The members of the group were considered enemies of the state and rarely had the funds they needed. Their operations largely stopped after 1947 and the group disbanded in 1952.
Other Resistance groups continued operating as hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians were arrested and killed under accusations that they were members of the opposition. Millions of citizens were considered suspects and were subjected to investigation. In 1956, 35,000 former AK members were released from prison, but still some Resistance groups continued. The last “cursed soldier” was killed in 1963. This finally brought an end to the WWII Resistance movement against the Soviets.