Poland, The Underground Army And The Role Of The SOE
Prior to 1939, the Poles had practical experience of running underground military
operations at local and regional level. As a partitioned 'state' between Russia,
Germany and the ailing Austro - Hungarian Empire, Poles dreamed and conspired
to be reunited long before the ink dried on the Treaty of Versailles. Almost all
inter-war political parties had secret armies (Garlinski, 1969; Novak, 1983).
A memorial in Warsaw dedicated to the 1863 Rising bears the names of those who
attempted to set up a provisional government as a testament to their prior efforts.
While historians like Liddel-Hart painted a bleak picture of the inter-war arms
race and the threat posed by Hitler to an unprepared Europe, Poland had within
its new status defeated the Bolsheviks in a battle described by Lord d'Abernon
as the 'eighteenth decisive battle of the world'. 'Polish Rifle Units' had existed
in 1908 and were active in the Austrian occupied areas and were quite
typical of this era.
At the fall of Poland, a core of trained troops many of who went into hiding as
the Germans overran their positions began to assemble an underground army. Until
mid 1941, the ZWZ (Union for Armed Resistance) was a fragmented organization based
upon both small and large political and military factions (Nowak, 1983; Davies
1981). Run by the mysterious General Grot, the ZWZ had military together with
political and propaganda sections working under direct orders of Sikorski. One
of General Stefan Rowecki's key tasks was to unite the various factions through
the setting up of the BIP (Bureau of Political Information) in order to create
an effective underground army, possibly the largest in Europe (Davies, 1981).
Recruitment together with political and social programmes had full freedom at
local level. The Home Army had about 400,000 enlisted men while the communist
backed Peoples Army (Armia Ludowa) did not exceed 10,000 supporters.
The ZWZ had early success using black propaganda campaigns by distributing pamphlets
to German troops outlining 'widespread' dissatisfaction within the Wehrmacht at
the progress of war on the Eastern Front. Action N (N for Niemcy or 'German')
targeted propaganda to destabilize German morale and was a highly successful operation
(Nowak, 1983). ZWZ activities were courageous and quite often low key due to the
terror campaign being run throughout central and Eastern Europe. Harassment and
derailing of trains reminded the Germans' occupation would not be easy. The underground's
plot to kill Hitler during the Victory Parade in Warsaw on 4th October 1939 almost
succeeded. Assassinations of leading Nazis and their collaborators were a hallmark
feature of the Home Army (or AK - Armia Krajowa) who remained active throughout
the war and kept valuable frontline troops tied up in security operations. Vital
military intelligence and the secrets of the V1 and V2 rockets were carried by
a network of couriers through the southern trails in the Tatry Mountains. In April
1943, a force resisted the clearing of the Warsaw Ghetto. SS infantrymen sent
into the ghetto to liquidate Jewish remnants was openly resisted. After three
weeks of fighting some 7,000 armed Jews had been killed in action. It is estimated
another 6,000 were burnt to death in their hideouts and another 56,000 transported
to Treblinka (Davies, 1981).
By the autumn 1943 the AK openly attacked the German Army in the countryside and
most parts of southern Poland had been cleared. Occupied towns like Zakopane were
heavily fortified against attack and the Germans readily used severe reprisal
attacks on the local population. The Soviets had sent in partisan units to sabotage
and cause disruption in Eastern Poland and begin the elimination of local resistance
to Soviet ideology. In 1942 General Andray Vlasov had been captured by the Germans
and 'turned'. Vlasov recruited an army of several hundred thousand starving and
dissatisfied Russian soldiers to be used for anti-partisan work who were noted
for their cruelty and wanton looting (Garlinski, 1969). The Soviets hung General
Vlasov in Moscow in 1946.
Such was the success of the Poles to maintain a sizeable army throughout the war
that this success caught the attention of Stalin. The Warsaw rising remains one
of the disasters Stalin had an active freehand while the Allies were emasculated.