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England’s Poles in the Game: WWII Intelligence Cooperation

Date: Fall 2006-Spring 2007

The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies, vol. 15, no. 2 (Fall 2006-Winter 2007): 98-100.

England’s Poles in the Game

The Cold War retarded and even, in some cases, prevented research into intelligence activities of the Allied nations between 1939 and 1945. First, the Soviet threat assured that many historical records pertaining to the Second World War, including the struggle against Nazi Germany, would remain classified. And this went well beyond the usual procedures dictating that all intelligence agencies jealously guard their secrets. Second, there was no academic freedom behind the Iron Curtain. Hence, captive historians put out hardly anything uncensored.

Third, even in the free West, however, there was certain reluctance to pursue research in the field of intelligence. Some of it had to do with the fact that, embarrassingly, the USSR conducted anti-Western operations before, during, and after Moscow’s alliance with Berlin (August 1939-June 1941).Last but not least, responsible Western historians were cautious about publishing some of their revelations lest they cause adverse repercussions behind the Iron Curtain. Namely, by identifying war-time, anti-Nazi Western assets in the East, one exposed them to Communist terror. This impacted the Poles in particular.

Poland was virtually the only nation in East Central Europe to join the Western coalition from the outset of the war in 1939. Poland had also the unfortunate distinction of having been invaded by both the Third Reich and the USSR at the same time. The Poles saw two enemies, Hitler and Stalin. Western Allies pretended that only the former was a threat to freedom and democracy.

Nonetheless, the Poles trusted the West. Consequently, as reflected in the recent findings of a joint Anglo-Polish Historical Committee, the contribution of the Polish intelligence to the victory over Hitler was second to none. According to the records of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “between 3 September 1939 and 8 May 1945, the total was 45,770 [intelligence] reports – 22,047 of which were received from Polish sources” (p. 560). In fact, the Poles supplied more “than 80,000 reports” to the Brits (p. 17). At the conclusion of the war, Commander Wilfred Dunderdale, the Prime Minister’s liaison with the intelligence community, stated that “the Polish agents have worked unceasingly and well in Europe during the last five years, and that they have provide, often at great danger to themselves and to their relatives, a vast amount of material of all kinds on a wide range of subjects. The Polish IS [intelligence service] has made an invaluable contribution to the planning and the successful execution of the invasion of France, and to the ultimate victory of the Allied forces in Europe” (p. 560)

The Brits were in a unique position to know. The Poles resolved to share their secrets and assets with the British from the outset. Although the Polish intelligence remained subordinated to the Polish constitutional authorities, its operations, infrastructure, and finances were to a certain extent intertwined with the British secret services. This was especially true at the spy center in Great Britain, where the hosts controlled virtually all incoming and outgoing radio and courier communications of the Poles.

Geographically, the intelligence activities of Poland literarily spanned the globe. The Polish net covered all of Europe, including Nazi-controlled territories, German satellite nations, neutral countries, and the Third Reich itself; north Africa, both free and Axis-dominated; Asia, including Japanese-occupied territory in China; Latin America; and North America.

In terms of the personnel, most operatives were ethnic Polish Christians of all political orientations, except the Communists. There were naturally a few persons of Jewish origin. Perhaps the most intrepid of them, the colorful Countess Krystyna Skarbek hiked the Carpathians to infiltrate into Nazi-occupied Poland, escaped from the Nazis in Budapest in a trunk of a car, and parachuted into France right before the invasion. But even Skarbek, her Jewish background nothwithstanding, was of Christian faith and Polish culture.

The exception to the mono-cultural rule was the Polish intelligence set-up in France, where, by mid-1944, the majority of agents were French nationals. However, even there the iron Polish rule applied: no mercenaries. All operatives were highly motivated individuals who carried out their activities for idealistic reasons. They loved freedom. They hated Nazism and Communism. Most did not draw any salaries. Scarce funds provided to the network by the Polish Government-in-Exile (and by the British and Americans) barely covered the operational costs. But the price most commonly paid by the agents was blood. The losses among the assets were enormous. In a single case, in 1942, 500 operatives were arrested and executed after the Gestapo destroyed a Polish underground net which had conducted espionage and sabotage deep inside the Reich (including bombing attacks on the Berlin railway network). But the Poles kept fighting because their ultimate reward was to be a free Poland.

Aside from idealism, perhaps the most salient characteristics of the Polish operations were their sheer pragmatism, audacity, and forethought. The Poles not only diligently spied on Nazi Germany and its confederates, but also vigilantly kept a watchful eye on the Soviet Union. For example, Poland’s secret operatives in the United States tracked down Nazi and Communist sympathizers in the so-called ethnic communities, Slavs and others from Eastern Europe. Further, the Polish intelligence took advantage of its pre-war ties to its Japanese counterpart to milk it for secrets on the Nazis. In fact, Polish intelligence officers, usually under the cover of White Russian émigrés, worked out of Japanese diplomatic missions in Kaunas, Stockholm, Bucharest, and Berlin itself. The Poles swapped with the Japanese news about the Soviet Union for intelligence on the Third Reich.

Anti-Communism also allowed the Poles to operate much more suavely than the Anglo-Americans in Hitler’s European satellites and in neutral countries, Spain and Portugal in particular. The Polish even exchanged intelligence with the Finns and the Swedes. From 1940 at least Poland’s secret services worked hard to wean Hungary, Rumania, and Bulgaria from the Axis. At the same time, they supplied the Western Allies with crucial intelligence, for example facilitating US Air Force bombing raids against the Rumanian oil fields and refineries.

Of course, the greatest Polish gift to defeating the Nazis was the cracking of the Enigma code by Polish mathematicians working for military intelligence. That happened already before the Second World War. Still more, on the eve of the war, in August 1939, the Poles presented the French and the British with a working model of the Enigma machine, reconstructed from the scratch in Poland. Carried on by the Poles and the British, the decrypting project, code-named Ultra, provided the Allies with the most valuable intelligence which, ultimately, greatly expedited the victory over Hitler.

Other Polish contributions, both major and minor, are quite notable, if obscure. The Polish intelligence located and penetrated the Penemünde V-1 rocket factory, which, ultimately, resulted in its utter destruction by the Allied bombers. The Poles also stole an intact V-2 rocket, which was passed on to the Brits. Next, the British authorities received periodic, weekly and monthly, reports on industrial espionage, troop movement, target spotting, and the effects of the Allied bombing on Germany’s infrastructure and civilian morale.

Further, the Poles supplied the British with the Nazi plans to invade the USSR. The reports included the details of the German troop deployment. From the fall of 1941, the Polish underground Home Army, or, more specifically, its commando units led by Polish special service officers parachuted from Great Britain, carried out a sustained and massive sabotage campaign against German transport and personnel behind the Eastern Front. The intelligence teams reached as far east as Moscow. However, the epicenter of the sabotage undertaking was in occupied Poland, the Nazi transportation hub. Sustained assaults seriously retarded and, occasionally, halted the rail-based movement of the German troops.

The Poles prepared the grounds for the Allied landing in north Africa, so-called operation “Torch”. According to an American military attaché in the region, “the Polish network… were by all odds the most efficient and professional in their field, supplying the Allies with a wealth of valuable and proven information” (p. 36). Polish operatives also set up the stage for the invasion of Normandy. Polish agents served as decoys. By staging sabotage acts elsewhere, they lured the German forces away from Allied landing zones. Cases of supreme sacrifice and exemplary devotion to the cause can be multiplied virtually ad infinitum.

The achievements of the Polish intelligence were simply stunning. The Allies appreciated the high quality of their Polish network and frequently poached agents from the Poles. For example, the UK’s most valued “Agent no. 1” aka “Athos”, responsible for numerous acts of sabotage in Nazi-occupied Greece, including blown up oil depots, cargo ships, and submarines, was really Poland’s water-polo Olympian Jerzy Iwanow-Szajnowicz. Further, the British frequently passed on to the Americans numerous Polish intelligence reports either without attributing them or as their own. But Washington received the very same copies directly from the source by a separate special arrangement with the Poles. The US appreciated the contributions of the Polish ally.

Deputy Chief of American military intelligence General Hayes A. Kroner commented that “the Polish Army has the best intelligence in the world. Its value for us is beyond compare. Regretfully there is little we can offer in return” (p. 90). John Colville, Private Secretary to Winston Churchill, concurred: “Probably the best all-round players in the [intelligence] game were the Poles” (p. 37). A British scholar of intelligence, Hugh Skillen, dedicated his work “to the Poles who gave so much and received so little” (p. 472).

And what did the Poles receive? Well, Poland was sold to Stalin at Yalta. Most Polish intelligence operatives were abandoned to the Soviets. In one classic case of British naiveté, after the Soviet capture of Rumania, London asked Moscow to help evacuate Polish military intelligence officers undercover in Bucharest and elsewhere. Upon receiving from the British their names, characteristics, and general whereabouts, Stalin’s secret police proceeded to arrest the Poles. Some were killed; others shipped off to the Gulag.

London also did next to nothing to protect its Polish allies from Soviet infiltration. For example, MI5 dispatched Anthony Blunt to keep an eye on the Polish-government-in-exile. Blunt was, of course, an agent of the Kremlin, not uncovered until the 1960s. Moscow deployed against the Poles also the notorious double agents Kim Philby and John Cairncross. His Majesty’s Government was too busy fawning to Stalin to take the simplest security precautions against his assets in the UK.

In all fairness, a few Polish officers outside of the reach of Moscow were assisted moderately by the British. However, the Americans were much more generous than the Brits. More than a few Poles were employed in undercover work during the Cold War. For example, Captain Jerzy Niezbrzycki aka Ryszard Wraga served as the CIA’s top counterintelligence consultant. Niezbrzycki began his struggle against the totalitarians in 1917. He and a few of his comrades-in-arms lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall. Their stories can now be told, a Polish continuity in the struggle for freedom.

Tadeusz Dubicki, Daria Nałęcz, and Tessa Sterling, eds., Intelligence Co-Operation Between Poland and Great Britain During World War II, vol. 1: The Report of the Anglo-Polish Historical Committee (London and Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2005).

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
30 October 2006, Washington, DC