Valor Friday

| September 6, 2019 | 7 Comments


Witold Pilecki

Mason has done it again, this time with the incredible saga of Witold Pilecki, a Polish Freedom Fighter before, during and after World War Two. He fought Nazis and Russians in their turn, was even willingly incarcerated in Auschwitz to gather intell on the conditions there. Enough from me, here’s..

Mason

As this week commemorates the 80th anniversary of the German’s invasion of Poland, which started the Second World War, I think it’s fitting that we look at a Polish hero of the war.

Nobody would ever want to be sent to a Nazi concentration camp, right? One man did. That’s not even the most incredible thing this man did. This is the story of Witold Pilecki of the Polish Army.

Born into a Polish aristocratic family who had lost everything for supporting the January Uprising in 1863, he was born in the Russian Empire in 1901. His father was a forester for the Russian Civil Service, public service being a part of the family’s penance.

At the outbreak of the World War, the young Pilecki’s family home was now in German occupied territory. They fled to Belarus. Here Pilecki would join the secret ZHP scouts (Polish equivalent of the Boy Scouts).

In 1918, having graduated secondary school, Pilecki returned to Wilno, Poland and joined the ZHP scouts section of the Lithuanian and Belarusian Self-Defense Militia, a paramilitary organization allied with the White movement within Russia. The militia disarmed the retreating Germans (who, with the rest of the Central Powers, had just lost the war) and sought to prevent or resist an invasion into Poland from the Soviet Red Army.

When the Soviet Army invaded, the militia fought hard but ultimately fell. After the loss of the city, Witold and his compatriots resorted to partisan warfare against the Soviet occupiers.

Pilecki then enlisted with the newly formed, all volunteer Polish Army in 1919. During the Polish-Soviet war from 1919-1921, Pilecki served through many decisive battles of the conflict including the Kiev Offensive, the Battle of Warsaw, the liberation of Wilno, and the ?eligowski rebellion (which saw Polish forces invading and annexing the Vilnius region of Lithuania).

During the Polish-Soviet war, Witold was twice awarded the Cross of Valour, Poland’s second highest award for combat bravery.

After the war, Pilecki was transferred to the reserves. Remaining active with the reserve forces, he was promoted to corporal and later selected for officer training through the Cavalry Reserve Officers’ Training School. In 1926 he was commissioned an ensign with the 26th Lancer Regiment. He was made a second lieutenant the following year.

During the next 10 years he would inherit his family’s estate, modernize the house there (which had been destroyed during WWI), would marry, and have two children. Witold was a well-liked figure and civic leader in the region. He ran the fire brigade, started an agricultural cooperative, and started a cavalry school in 1932 at Lida. He was made the commander of the 1st Lidsky Squadron and held that post until 1937. In 1938, he was awarded the Cross of Merit in silver. The Cross of Merit is a Polish civil decoration for services rendered to the state. He received the middle grade, with there existing a bronze level below and a gold level above.

The German invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939 started World War II. Being a reservist, his unit was called to active duty and he was absorbed into the 19th Infantry Division as a cavalry platoon commander.

Over the next few weeks, Witold and his men would fight heavily against the German advance. As his platoon was almost wiped out at one point, they were incorporated into the 41st Division, with Pilecki serving as second in command of the division behind a major. It speaks to the desperation of the men fighting this invasion by a numerically superior and better equipped enemy that a division was being commanded by a major and second lieutenant.

The men of the 41st were credited with destroying seven German tanks, shooting down one airplane, and destroying two more on the ground.

On the 17th of September the Poles found themselves under attack from both sides, as the Soviet Army invaded from the east as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Facing assured destruction, the Polish Army officially surrendered to the Germans on September 27th.

Witold and many of his men refused to surrender and instead went underground to undertake guerrilla fighting against the invaders. On November 9th, 1939 Pilecki and his former 41st Division commander Major W?odarkiewicz formed the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska, TAP). TAP became one of the first underground organizations in Poland.

Witold served as the organizational officer, and by 1940 TAP personnel numbered 8,000 men, 20 machine guns, and several anti-tank guns. For cover, Pilecki worked as a manager at a cosmetics storehouse.

The TAP was incorporated into the Union for Armed Struggle (Zwizek Walki Zbrojnej), later renamed the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK). The Former TAP members became the core of the direct action arm of the Home Army, conducting surveillance and attacks on Germans in the country. Their goal was to cut off the German forces who were now heavily engaged by the Soviets on the Eastern Front, the former allies having turned on each other.

After the invasion of Poland, German forces used the former military barracks of Auschwitz I as a prison. It was thought to be holding military and political prisoners and was not thought to be a death camp, though little was known about it at the time. Pilecki came up with the idea to intentionally be caught to enter Auschwitz to provide intelligence reports and foment an uprising.

Provided with forged documents in the name of Tomasz Serafi?ski he went out on the night of September 19, 1940 into Warsaw when it was known the Germans were going to be conducting a roundup. Witold and 2,000 other people were captured.

Pilecki was initially held at the Light Horse Guard Barracks, where prisoners were beaten with rubber batons. He was then sent to Auschwitz and assigned prisoner number 4859. During his time in Auschwitz he was promoted to first lieutenant.

In the camp, Pilecki was to collect intelligence, organize an underground within the camp to get that intel out, and organize the prisoners to prepare them to take over the camp should an attack from the Home Army come from the outside. The people in Auschwitz would also need systems in place for hiding any potentially air dropped arms and for distributing food and clothing that would be smuggled into the camp.

Witold took to organizing the prisoners straight away. His Union of Military Organizations (ZOW) consumed many smaller pre-existing groups in the camp. ZOW was able to, starting in October 1940 (just weeks after Pilecki’s arrival in camp), get out regular intelligence reports from the camp to the Home Army. Starting in March 1941, these reports were shared by the Polish government in exile in Britain with their UK allies and hosts with details of the atrocities being conducted. For their part, the Allies at the time believed his reports to be hyperbolic and uncorroborated.

In a chapter right out of Hogan’s Heroes, over a period of seven months, the ZOW was able to assemble a radio transmitter from bits and pieces and parts smuggled in. Beginning in 1942 and broadcasting until August 1942, they relayed by radio, daily reports of arrivals and deaths in the camp. The secret radio was never discovered, but the men dismantled it themselves for fear of someone with a big mouth tipping off the Germans.

The intelligence collected by Pilecki and his agents meant that knowledge about the extermination of Jews was reaching the western Allies as early as 1941.

The year 1943 saw the camp Gestapo cracking down on the ZOW in the camp. Many members of the ZOW were killed and many other transferred. Witold’s hopes for an Allied liberation of the camp were waning. Sensing that his transfer to another camp was imminent caused him to seek his escape. He left in the hopes of using his first-hand knowledge of the horrors in the camp to spur the Allies into liberating Auschwitz.

Pilecki and two companions, Edward Ciesielski and Jan Redzej, had only a single night to execute an escape plan they had carefully crafted. Failure would lead to a very public death. It had been arranged for the men to be transferred to the bakery that night, which was located outside the main camp.

The night of April 26 into the 27th, the men overpowered a guard, used a duplicate key to open the door, cut the phone lines, and after getting out, barricaded the door from the outside to make it harder to follow them. They escaped into the woods with many documents taken from the Germans outlining their atrocities.

The men crossed the So?a river and then the Vistula river after using a boat they happened upon. The men travelled 100km on foot over the course of seven days after their escape before they were able to make contact with members of the Home Army.

By late August, Witold had arrived in Warsaw and was briefing his commanders on conditions in the camp. The Home Army had already lost several personnel in the Auschwitz vicinity, and so they determined they lacked sufficient strength and resources to liberate the camp without Allied support.

Pilecki authored an extensive report on the atrocities at Auschwitz after his escape. Known as the “Witold Report”, which included an estimate that “By March 1943 the number of people gassed on arrival reached 1.5 million”. This was a very close estimate. Post-war estimates by researchers indicate about 1.1 million died in Auschwitz. He documented that some of those sent to the gas chamber were not even in-processed, so even the German’s notoriously thorough record keeping might fall short of fully documenting their crimes against humanity.

In November 1943 Witold was promoted to cavalry captain. He also joined a secret anti-communist organization called NIE (nie being the Polish word for “no” and also short for niepodlego (independence)).

As the Soviet Army pushed the Germans back to the Auschwitz area, the Soviets showed no interest in freeing the camp. Pilecki continued to be in charge of coordinating ZOW and Home Army actions until the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944.

The Warsaw Uprising was an attempt by the Home Army to free Warsaw from German occupation. During the uprising, Soviet forces held back, allowing the Home Army units to soften up their German adversaries. Fought for 63 days with no outside support, the Uprising was the largest single action taken by European resistance fighters during the war.

Joining a battalion of Home Army fighters in Warsaw, Pilecki fought as a common soldier. He didn’t reveal his actual rank until some time into the battle, after many of the officers had been killed or wounded. Revealing his true identity, he accepted command of a company in downtown Warsaw.

After the Polish forces capitulated, ending the uprising, Witold hid a cache of weapons in a private apartment before turning himself in to Wehrmacht authorities on October 5th, 1944. He was sent to a series of Stalags, the POW camps that the Germans kept. He was liberated on April 28, 1945 by the US 12th Armored Division in Murnau, Bavaria.

Repatriated from his second internment in a German prison camp, he was assigned to the Polish forces in exile in Italy as an intelligence officer. He was ordered to Poland to collect intelligence on the situation inside Poland under the Soviet occupation that had begun just before the end of the war.
Once in Poland, he began to organize an intelligence and resistance network utilizing many of his contacts from his time in Auschwitz and with the secret armies he’d served with during the early years of the war.

Living under a series of assumed names and holding a wide variety of cover jobs, from December 1945 until 1947 he uncovered evidence of Soviet atrocities against the Polish people during the 1939-1941 war and unlawful arrest and kangaroo trials of Home Army veterans and ex-members of the Polish armed forces who had served in exile in the west during the war.

Arrested by Soviet authorities May 8th, 1947 he was tortured for several days. He was charged and tried at a show trial on March 3, 1948. The charges against him included illegal border crossing, use of forged paperwork, failing to enlist with the military, carrying illegal arms, espionage (for his command in exile in Italy), espionage for a foreign power (British intelligence), and planning to assassinate officials of the Polish Ministry of Public Security.

Pilecki denied the charges of assassination and espionage for a foreign power. He admitted to passing information to his bosses in Italy, as he was an officer assigned to them, he did not see that as a crime. Witold pled guilty to the other charges.

On May 15th he was found guilty, along with three comrades. He was executed with a shot to the back of the head on May 25th, 1948. He was 47 years old.

On the occasion of his sentencing to death, the stoic Captain Pilecki had this to say: “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.”

His grave has never been found. In 1990, after the fall of the communist regime in Poland, he was exonerated fully. He was posthumously promoted to colonel in 2013. Among his other honors given after death include the Commander’s Cross in the Order of Polonia Restituta (Order of the Rebirth of Poland) in 1995, a civil and military order for extraordinary and distinguished service. He was given the Order of the White Eagle in 2006, Poland’s highest order given only to the most distinguished Poles. He’s now regarded, rightfully, as a national hero in Poland.


Order of the White Eagle

Thanks again, Mason.

Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

Category: Guest Post, POW, The Warrior Code, Valor

Comments (7)

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  1. Hondo says:

    Ahem:

    https://valorguardians.com/blog/?p=37478

    https://valorguardians.com/blog/?p=37583

    It’s been almost 6 years to the day since the first of those articles appeared here. Thanks for again reminding everyone of the man’s amazing heroism.

    Perhaps one day Hollywood will decide to make a film about his life. Then again, that would also mean showing Marxism in it’s truest form – e.g., that of an ugly, authoritarian dictatorship with zero respect for human life or freedom. So I’m not holding my breath.

    • Wilted Willy says:

      I agree Hondo, this guy really had a huge set of brass ones! It would make a great movie if only hollyweed didn’t make it!

    • The Stranger says:

      I thought I had seen something on this badass on this site before. Definitely worth repeating.

      • 5th/77th FA says:

        ^word^ and ^this^ Thanks for bringing this hero back to our attention Mason. I agree with Hondo in that if Hollywierd made a movie on this subject he would be depicted as an enemy of the peace loving gubmit of the People’s State who refused to allow the Red Army to Liberate the Camps or Warsaw.

        Gun Salute, fire by the piece from right to left….Commence Firing!

    • AW1Ed says:

      Heh. Can’t say I’m surprised he’s a repeat, but in my defense you have a lot more seniority here than I. I think every six years is pretty reasonable to repost Colonel Pilecki’s exploits.

  2. Sapper3307 says:

    Sabaton – Inmate 4859- for we metal heads–
    https://youtu.be/wvDg7UftJw8

  3. Retired Grunt says:

    W……O……W…… such people have lived…. I can’t begin to fathom.

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