Friday 12 July 2024

Polish Resistance in World War II by Kathryn Gauci


Polish Resistance in World War II


Members of the Polish resistance (Polish Institute of National Remembrance)

June 6, 2024, marked the 80th anniversary of Operation Overlord and the D-Day landings in Normandy and although it was a success, many people lost their lives prior to that in the struggle to fight Nazi tyranny. From the very beginning of World War II, resistance groups started to form in every occupied country in Europe, the Middle East and the Far East, but the first organisation was in Poland in the winter of 1939, and was led by a Major Henryk Dobrzański, known as Hubal.

Henryk Dobrzański, 

In March 1940, this group completely destroyed a battalion of German infantry in a skirmish near the Polish village of Huciska. A few days later, in an ambush near the village of Szałasy, it inflicted heavy casualties upon another German unit. As time progressed, resistance forces grew in size and number. To counter this threat, the German authorities formed a special 1,000 man-strong anti-partisan unit of combined SS-Wehrmacht forces, including a Panzer group. Although Dobrzański's unit never exceeded 300 men, the Germans put at least 8,000 men in the area to secure it


Witold Pilecki 1901-1948

In 1940, Witold Pilecki of the Polish resistance, presented to his superiors, a daring plan to enter Auschwitz concentration camp, gather intelligence on the camp from the inside, and organize inmate resistance. The Home Army approved this plan, provided him with a false identity card, and on 19 September, he deliberately went out during a street roundup in Warsaw and was caught by the Germans along with other civilians and sent to Auschwitz. In the camp he organized the underground organization. From October 1940, his network sent the first reports about the camp and its genocide to Home Army Headquarters in Warsaw.

Witold Pilecki as KL-Auschwitz prisoner, KL Number 4859, 1940

On the night of January 21–22, 1940, in the Soviet-occupied town of Czortków, the Czortków Uprising started. It was the first Polish uprising and the first anti-Soviet uprising of World War II. Anti-Soviet Poles, most of them teenagers from local high schools, stormed the local Red Army barracks and a prison, in order to release Polish soldiers kept there.

1940 was also the year of establishing Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau in occupied Poland. Among the many activities of Polish resistance and Polish people one was helping endangered Jews. Polish citizens have the world's highest count of individuals who have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem as non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination during the Holocaust.

From April 1941, the Bureau of Information and Propaganda of the Union for Armed Struggle started in Poland. Operation N was complex organisation of sabotage, subversion and black-propaganda activities carried out against Nazi German occupation forces during World War II

By the beginning in March 1941, Witold Pilecki's reports from Auschwitz were forwarded via the Polish resistance to the Polish government in exile and through it, to the British government in London and other Allied governments. These reports were the first information about the Holocaust and the principal source of intelligence on Auschwitz for the Western Allies.

In July 1941 Mieczysław (Mietzislav) Słowikowskii (using the code-name "Rygor"—Polish for "Rigor") set up "Agency Africa" one of World War II's most successful intelligence organizations. The information gathered by the Agency was used by the Americans and British in planning the amphibious November 1942 Operation Torch landings in North Africa.

General Jacob Devers with Major Mieczysław "Rygor" Słowikowski, on awarding him the Legion of Merit for his invaluable contributions to the Allied North African campaign.

Operation Torch

On 20 June 1942, the most spectacular escape from Auschwitz concentration camp took place. Four Poles, Eugeniusz Bendera, Kazimierz Piechowski, Stanisław Gustaw Jaster and Józef Lempart made a daring escape. The escapees were dressed as members of the SS-Totenkopfverbande, fully armed and in an SS staff car. They drove out the main gate in a stolen automobile Steyr 220 belonging to Rudolf Hoss with a smuggled report from Witold Pilecki about the Holocaust. The Germans never recaptured any of them.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and The Warsaw Uprising

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After the Grossaktion Warsaw during summer 1942, in which more than a quarter of a million Jews were deported from the ghetto to Treblinka and murdered, the remaining Jews began to build bunkers They built dozens of fighting posts and smuggled weapons and explosives into the ghetto. Next they executed a number of collaborators, including Jewish Ghetto police officers, as well as Gestapo and Abwehr agents (such as Judenrat member Dr Nossig, executed on 22 February 1943). Józef Szeryński, former head of the Jewish Ghetto Police, committed suicide.

Photograph from SS General Juergen Stroop's report showing the Warsaw ghetto after the German suppression of the ghetto uprising.

The uprising started on 19 April when the ghetto refused to surrender to the police commander, who then ordered the burning of the ghetto, block by block, ending on 16 May. A total of 13,000 Jews died, about half of them burnt alive or suffocated. German casualties were probably less than 150. It was the largest single revolt by Jews during World War II.

The Jews knew that the uprising was doomed and their survival was unlikely. Marek Edelman, the only surviving commander of one of the groups, said that the motivation for fighting was "to pick the time and place of our deaths". According to the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, the uprising was "one of the most significant occurrences in the history of the Jewish people".

Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, Commander of the Polish Home Army

The Warsaw Uprising which took place in the summer of 1944, was a major WWII operation by the Polish underground resistance, led by the Home Army. The uprising was timed to coincide with the retreat of the German forces from Poland ahead of the Soviet advance. While approaching the eastern suburbs of the city, the Red Army temporarily halted combat operations, enabling the Germans to regroup and defeat the Polish resistance and to raze the city in reprisal. The Uprising was fought for 63 days with little outside support. It was the single largest military effort taken by any European resistance movement in WWII.

Warsaw Old Town after the uprising. 85% of the city was deliberately destroyed by German forces

Initially, the Poles established control over most of central Warsaw, but the Soviets ignored Polish attempts to make radio contact with them and did not advance beyond the city limits. Intense street fighting between the Germans and Poles continued. Unfortunately, there were strong allegations that Stalin tactically halted his forces to let the operation fail and allow the Polish resistance to be crushed

Home Army soldier from the Mokotów District surrenders to German troops.
Warsaw's Old Town Market Place, August 1944

The Warsaw Uprising which took place in the summer of 1944, was a major World War II operation by the Polish underground resistance, led by the Home Army. The uprising was timed to coincide with the retreat of the German forces from Poland ahead of the Soviet advance. While approaching the eastern suburbs of the city, the Red Army temporarily halted combat operations, enabling the Germans to regroup and defeat the Polish resistance and to raze the city in reprisal. The Uprising was fought for 63 days with little outside support. It was the single largest military effort taken by any European resistance movement during WWII. 

Polish red-and-white flag with superposed Katwice ('anchor') emblem of the Polish Underground State and Home Army 

Initially, the Poles established control over most of central Warsaw, but the Soviets ignored Polish attempts to make radio contact with them and did not advance beyond the city limits. Intense street fighting between the Germans and Poles continued. Unfortunately, there were strong allegations that Stalin tactically halted his forces to let the operation fail and allow the Polish resistance to be crushed

Winston Churchill pleaded with Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt to help Britain's Polish allies, to no avail. Then, without Soviet air clearance, Churchill sent over 200 low-level supply drops under British High Command, in an operation known as the Warsaw Airlift. Later, after gaining Soviet air clearance, the U.S. Army Air Force sent one high-level mass airdrop as part of Operation Frantic. 

Warsaw in flames. 

 Although the exact number of casualties is unknown, it is estimated that about 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and about 6,000 badly wounded. In addition, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly from mass executions. Jews being harboured by Poles were exposed by German house-to-house clearances and mass evictions of entire neighbourhoods. German casualties totalled about 2,000 soldiers killed and missing. Approximately 25% of Warsaw's buildings were destroyed and following the surrender of Polish forces, German troops systematically levelled another 35% of the city block by block. Together with earlier damage suffered in the 1939 invasion of Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, over 85% of the city was destroyed by January 1945 when the course of the events in the Eastern Front forced the Germans to abandon the city. 


Apart from their fighting spirit, we must also remember that the Poles played an important role in the Enigma machine. Three Poles, Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki, and Henryk Zygalski disclosed their Enigma results and handed their allies-to-be copies of the Enigma machine. On 1 September the war broke out. The three genius mathematicians fled Poland and later joined the French cryptographers in France. The knowledge they had provided considerably contributed to the cracking of the more complicated wartime Enigma codes used by the Germans. This happened at Bletchley Park. 

 Memorial at Bletchley Park commemorating three Polish mathematicians. 

(Photo by Magda Szkuta)

Krystyna Skarbek, OBE, GM 

Poland also gave the Allies one of the best female spies. Krystyna Skarbek, OBE, GM, also known as Christine Granville, was a Polish agent of the British Special Operations Executive during the WWII. She was the first to bring back photographs of German troops amassing on the Polish border ready for Operation Barbarossa.

These people, numbered in their thousands, were exceptionally brave and their heroism must never be forgotten.

There is a currently a film about Witold Pilecki on Netflix.

Kathryn Gauci is a historical fiction writer whose WWI and WWII novels are set in France, Austria, Greece and Turkey. Three of her books are the recipients of the CIBA Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction.



Friday 5 July 2024

The Dead Man's Penny by V E H Masters

 Writing books can be quite a lonely business. In the past few years, post COVID, I've occasionally taken a table at Fairs, along with fellow historical fiction author Margaret Skea, to sell my books and chat to readers, or potential readers – and to other stall holders.

 Recently I found myself at an Antiques Fair – my books are historical fiction so I thought it was roughly a fit to sell them there – and grew curious about some of the memorabilia the neighbouring stall holder was selling.

One particular display drew my attention. 'It's a Dead Man's Penny,' said Neil Watson, the stall holder,  and went on to explain the sad story associated with it.

The official name for the Dead Man's Penny, also known as the Widow's Penny, was the Memorial Plaque. Cast from bronze it was sent to the next of kin of everyone who died serving overseas with the British Empire forces in WWI, along with a scroll and a message from the king. 

This plaque came into being as a way to give the family something tangible in memory of their loved ones. A competition was set up in 1917 and the winning design, by Edward Carter Preston, was chosen from more than 800 entries. Almost inevitably it includes Britannia and a lion although the significance of the dolphins is lost on me and as for the olive branch, which Britannia is extending… perhaps that is a prayer for the future.

In all 1.33 million were sent out, of which 600 were in memory of women who died in service during WW1.

The Dead Man's Penny which I saw was particularly poignant since it came with pictures, medals and the letter notifying his mother of the lad's death. His name was William Towers, which was inscribed on the plaque. None of the pennies had the rank included since it was considered that no life lost was more or less important than another. (The cynic in me also wondered if it saved on the costs to limit engraving.)

William, a soldier in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was only eighteen years old when he died in April 1918. He had been at the front for four months. The collection associated with William's Dead Man's Penny is for sale because his family line has died out – which likely would not have happened had he survived.

I'm always drawn to war memorials. Here's the one in the very small village where I used to live. There are two things of significance for me about it. Firstly the far greater numbers who died in WW1 as opposed to WW2 and secondly the numbers sharing a surname – which likely meant brothers, father and son, or cousins gone from the same family. I cannot even begin to imagine the grief.

Proportionately Scotland lost more men in WW1 than any other country fighting as part of the British Empire. I've always been curious why.

Field Marshall Douglas Haig, who was in command on the Western Front from 1915 onwards, believed the bravado and tenacity of his Scottish regiments could win the war for him. A Scot himself from Edinburgh, whose family owned the successful whisky distillers, he had little patience for trench warfare and wanted to push through. In the frequent assaults it was often his 'favoured' Scottish regiments that were sent out first. Lauded as a hero at the end of the war this perspective changed in the 1960s when his war record was re-examined and he was given the epithet Butcher Haig.

My grandfather fought on the Western Front from 1915 onwards. On the single occasion as a child when I persuaded him to speak of his war experiences, he told me that he heard a bullet whistle past his ear at the battle of the Somme. Miraculously he survived three years of war uninjured – else I wouldn't be here!


V E H Masters is the author of four historical fiction novels following the adventures of the Seton Family as they navigate their way through the perils of 16th century Europe. She is the winner of the Barbara Hammond Trophy and her books are regularly on the Amazon Bestseller lists. She lives in the Scottish Borders.

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Thursday 27 June 2024

A Pause to Sip Wine in Burgundy, by Carol Drinkwater


A statue of wine-pickers in Puligny-Montrachet

A few days ago, I set off from our Olive Farm overlooking the Bay of Cannes in the south of France on a nine-hour drive to our northern home east of Paris situated a few miles west of the border to the Champagne region. As I was travelling alone, I decided to take the timing at my own speed rather than my husband's more hurried pace. In fact, I decided to break the journey with a stopover when and wherever the mood took me. I love such open-ended choices. It feels more like an adventure than a journey. The sun was shining; it was a very warm day. I made five hours without any stress and pulled up in Beaune for petrol and then decided that I would take my pause there. Not in the city centre - it has a one-way system which takes some patience and negotiating. 

Beaune is the wine capital, the epicentre of Burgundy in the Côte d'Or department, also known as the Slopes of Gold.

I checked into a modest hotel on the outskirts of the city. It had an outdoor swimming pool alongside which they were serving dinner accompanied by a choice of fine Burgundy wines. I ate my meal beneath the stars while sipping an excellent Beaune red. Perhaps it was the headiness of the fine wine but I decided that the next morning instead of heading directly to the motorway I would investigate a few of the neighbouring villages along the Burgundy Grand Cru route and try to discover a little of the local wine history about which I am fairly ignorant.

The following morning, I was again blessed by beautiful sunshine, beaming 25C. Perfect for a little motor along the lanes flanked by ancient plane trees. The vineyards were humming with life. The byways were slowed by tractor traffic.  

The cabs of these "speciality" tractors are high off the ground. The body looks very narrow. I assume they are designed specifically for vineyards and are used only for work in vine fields. The tyres roll either side of the vine rows, with the main body of the machine straddling the plants. The design, I think, is to avoid bruising the grapes. 

Most of the tractors I travelled behind were transporting wide-winged spraying machines filled with insecticides, which was a little troubling to see. It must be spraying season.

I had set my mental compass for Puligny-Montrachet, ten kilometres south of Beaune. Here is where some of the world's most famous white wines are produced. This meticulously kept village with a population of less than 500 inhabitants is a pilgrimage site for many wine connoisseurs. 

Looking about, it seemed that everyone was earning their living through the production of this first-class wine because I was hard put to find a café for a morning cup of coffee and I did not see a single shop. Not so much as a tabac to purchase a copy of Le Monde. Eventually, I came across a lovely bar with outdoor terrace shaded by vines. Hélas, they shrugged, they were only serving wine. Even for me a little after nine in the morning is a bit early to imbibe!

Puligny-Montrachet seemed to exist solely for the produce of its vineyards. All the buildings, clusters of houses and caveaux selling or offering dégustations of the local wines are constructed from the local stone, which is pale in colour, almost white, and very elegant. A caveau, by the way, is historically a vault or a sepulchre where families buried their dead. In modern times here, they are used as wine-tasting cellars. Due to the thick stone walls, they keep the wines ideally cool.

The village of Puligny-Montrachet has two squares, in one of which I drank my morning coffee while watching the world (less than a dozen people!) go about its day. The postman dropped by delivering a couple of parcels to the house alongside the cafe-bistro where I was seated. Four elderlies from Yorkshire cycled by and then decided to stop for coffee. Cycling is a big tourist attraction in this sleepy and very leafy area. Cycling and wine-tasting. The thought of this combination brought some comical images to mind.

As I sat sipping my coffee, I wondered about the history of this lovely settlement which covers a mere 7.28 km2 and yet has a highly-prized international reputation for producing some of the very best wines in the world. The Montrachet whites are produced from the Chardonnay grape. Their reds are pressed from the Pinot Noir or Pinot Nero variety.

The Chardonnay vines were first planted in France in and around Chablis, which is north of both Puligny-Montrachet and Beane. Chablis is yet another town along this Burgundy Grand Cru route that seems entirely dedicated to its wine-production. The Cistercian monks who founded Pontigny Abbey in the Chablis region planted up their Chardonnay vineyards in the 12th Century.

                                                                         Abbaye de Pontigny. 

I got chatting to the lady who was serving the coffees. She told me that the mother monastery for the Cistercians in this region is Cîteaux Abbey in Saint-Nicholas-lès-Citeaux. I confess I hadn't heard of it till I made this little stopover. Founded on Saint Benedict's Day (21st March)  in 1098, this was the original house of the Cistercian fathers and it is still occupied today by thirty-five Trappist monks. In the Middle Ages, they produced cheese and, she told me, they still sell their famous cheese.

The monks were originally gifted lands which they planted up with vines to produce wine for the celebration of their masses. However, the priests soon began to understand the rudiments of viticulture and how different grape varieties are affected by the soil and weather etc.

If you are visiting Chablis or the tiny village of Pontigny, do take the time to visit this marvellous and inspiring medieval holy site. It sits alone in its fields and seems quite timeless. It is no longer a monastery, and there are no monks working the fields, hoeing their vineyards, but it remains very impressive. It is quite a humbling moment to stand within the abbey walls and remind oneself that Thomas Becket was amongst its illustrious visitors. Becket, when twenty, spent a year studying in Paris. Later, he studied canon law in nearby Auxerre.
The abbey, originally founded in 1114, was partially destroyed during the French Revolution but was restored at the beginning of the twentieth century and was used until the outbreak of WWII as a cultural centre for writers.

Burgundy wine history dates back to somewhere around 50 BCE. The Celts were producing wine in Burgundy before the Romans arrived and conquered the area. The Romans continued the tradition and gave licences for inhabitants to produce their wines. 

I have written extensively in my two Mediterranean travel books The Olive Route and The Olive Tree about the founding of the oldest city in France, Marseille, in the 6th BCE by Greeks from Asia Minor, from Foça/Phocaea along the coast of what today is Turkey. These Greeks brought with them not only the tradition and cultivation expertise for olive growing and the production of olive oil but also for wine. The founding of Marseille, Massalia, as it was originally called, was a transforming moment for Provence's Mediterranean shores and then, as the knowledge travelled northwards, for what much later became  France.

I think it is probably accurate to say that it was when the Catholic monasteries took over that Burgundy wines really began to come into their own. 

Saint Vincent is the patron saint of vineyards and viticulturists. His holy day is 22nd January. Every year since 1938 a traditional festival is held over the weekend that follows his saint's day. If you happen to be visiting this region in the winter you might chance upon these Saint Vincent Tournante celebrations, which every year take place in a different village. Next year, the hosting village for the 81st event is to be held over the weekend of 25th and 26th January 2025 is Ladoix-Serrigny. 

Here is the poster for next year's village celebrations. I found it online and apologise for the fact that it is very small. I hope you can see it. I also don't know who to acknowledge for its copyright.

The weekend celebrations begin with a procession, a cortege, between vineyards on a frosty late January morning. After the procession comes a high mass which is followed by a banquet during which some TWELVE THOUSAND bottles of wine are uncorked and offered for tasting. The festivities are titled Saint Vincent TOURNANTE, which translates as turning, because each year a different wine-growing village hosts the celebrations. This allows Burgundy to honour its many appellations.

Now that I have discovered these celebrations I will certainly try to return for them. The word Ladoix in old French means a spring, a source. Ladoix is predominantly producing red wines over a surface area of ninety hectares. The village boasts a thirteenth-century church and eleventh-century chapel. The wines though little known are considered to be excellent. I look forward to discovering the village.

Before I set off for the motorway to continue my journey I made a very brief stop in Mersault which also produces some of the most famous white wines in the world. I pulled into the parking outside Les Caves du Vieux Pressoir. Founded in 1978, this wine outlet offers a vast range of quality wines from the region. I bought modestly: six bottles of Bourgogne Aligoté and two magnums, one of Chablis and another, a red, from Montrachet.

In these few hours I felt I had dipped into the history and traditions of one of France's most esteemed agricultural regions.

In case you would like to read more on my travels to discover the history of olive cultivation and my trips around the Mediterranean - I spent seventeen months travelling alone for these two books - here are the jackets. The titles are available in the United States through Open Road books 

Or in the UK, they are published by Orion ...

Happy travels and happy wine-discovering days.

Friday 7 June 2024

Magnificent Men and Disastrous Machines. By Judith Allnatt

This is the story of Percy Pilcher, a man who could have beaten the Wright brothers to their record of first  flight in a powered aircraft if only he had made one crucial decision differently.

Born in 1867, Lieutenant Percy Pilcher was a British inventor and a pioneering aviator. He developed and flew several hang gliders, romantically named The Bat, The Beetle, The Gull and The Hawk. Unfortunately, the ideas evoked by these names, of speed, fast directional control, soaring and hovering were incredibly difficult to achieve with the materials and technology available at the time. Percy, a bachelor, was supported by his sister Ella who stitched the cotton and silk wing canopies of his ‘aerial machines’ and assisted at test flights, each one of which must have been a terrifying trial to watch.

Model at Stanford Hall showing the fragility of the construction.

To achieve flight in Pilcher’s hang glider the craft was pulled along by horses with a rope and geared pulley attached to the glider, until it lifted off the ground as a kite would. The pilot's arms rested on leather supports and he held on to two struts to maintain his position. Once airborne the craft was hard to manoeuvre and was prey to the vicissitudes of the wind, which might gust or change direction any time. A flight was typically between 20 or 50 feet above ground -  high enough to be extremely dangerous. As materials were basically cloth and bamboo, there was nothing in the structure to protect the pilot from impact. Nonetheless, Pilcher took the risks and broke the world distance record in 1897, flying 820 feet in The Hawk in the grounds of Stanford Hall, Leicestershire.

Pilcher was determined to invent a tri-plane capable of powered flight and, with the help of motor engineer Walter Wilson, developed an internal combustion engine to power it. On 30th September 1899 his plan was to demonstrate its flight to potential sponsors in the grounds of Stanford Hall but sadly the engine’s crankshaft had broken. Having dined with those who might support his work and allow it to move forward, and finding hundreds of people had turned up at the estate to see his flying attempt, the pressure on him to provide ‘a show’ must have been immense and he considered flying The Hawk instead. 

Despite windy conditions, he had managed several flights successfully in the morning that day, but in typical British style for September, the afternoon had been wet and stormy. In the crowd were other military men whom he wanted to impress and even local school children who had been given the day off to see the flight. When the weather improved, he decided to go ahead, not realising that the sodden fabric of the wings was putting awful strain on the bamboo structure. Two attempts were unsuccessful because the line attached to the machine broke, the third achieved lift off. The local paper, the Rugby Advertiser, reported the accident that ensued: 
"The Hawk moved forward and took flight but crashed when a “cross-bar” behind him snapped in a sharp gust of wind as Pilcher moved his body, in standing position, to one side or the other to navigate . . . the apparatus was seen to collapse in the air, turn over and fall to the ground – a distance of about 20 feet – with a thud, Mr Pilcher being under the wreckage. His devoted sister was one of the first to reach the scene . . ."

Pilcher had broken both his legs and was concussed. He died two days later having never regained consciousness. 

Had Pilcher lived to fit his engine to his tri-plane during the following weeks as he’d intended, experts expressed the view that he would certainly have been the first man to achieve engine-powered flight. Instead, no one was crowned with those laurels until the Wright brothers flew the first powered ‘heavier- than-air’ craft in 1903, achieving an impressive distance of four miles, and were credited with inventing the first successful aeroplane. 

Pilcher’s death, four years earlier, robbed him of that more elevated place in aeronautical history but we must salute his creativity, tenacity and courage. As the inquest reported: ‘. . . he had lost his life in perfecting what, if he could have proved a success, would be some good to the world’. 


To see actual models of Pilcher’s amazing aricraft, visit the Percy Pilcher museum at Stanford Hall, Leicestershire. To see video of the National Museum of Scotland's model being made visit