POLISH CONTRIBUTIONS BEFORE AND DURING
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
The most widely known contribution is probably the breaking of the Enigma cipher machine secrets in the last months of 1932. This undoubtedly constituted perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of cryptography. This could only have come about because the Lt Col. Langer, the head of the Polish Cipher Bureau, had previously set up radio listening posts soon after 1930 and in 1934 these had also begun to listen to important enemy field exercises. This three-part organisation of Interception, a cryptological centre and a means to disseminate the resulting intelligence had links back to the Polish success in the Polish-Russian war of 1920.
These wireless intercept stations had provided enciphered texts that the cryptanalyst Marian Rejewski, working at first alone but then joined by the other two famous colleagues, had managed to decrypt, by advanced mathematical methods together with a useful pieces of stolen intelligence material handed over to them by the French officer Bertrand. He had obtained this material over a long period of time by purchase from a German Government official who was in a position to obtain it and who needed such payments to facilitate an expensive lifestyle.
This, of course, was a remarkable Polish achievement but the truly magnanimous gesture and unprecedented gift occurred in July 1939 at the meeting in Pyry, just outside Warsaw, convened by the Polish Bureau and to which they had invited the French and British Intelligence representatives. At this meeting the Poles explained to their French and British guests how this major intelligence coup had been achieved and they showed them the devices they had developed to enable them to do so.
They revealed not only what good fortune had benefited them, what brilliant mathematical insight and sparkling guesswork had achieved but also how close the British pre-war investigations by Dilly Knox had come to a fruitful attack on the steckered Enigma following success on the modified commercial version used in the Spanish Civil War.
The tremendous benefit that the Allies gained from the Polish gift was that the Enigma cipher machine was not something that was used by just one, perhaps small, part of the enemy forces but that it was in use throughout the German Navy, the German Army, the German Air Force, the German military Secret Service (Abwehr), the German Railway system, the docks and the Police. There were, of course, different ‘keys (ways of setting up the machine) for all these different users but the basic piece of equipment was the same, so that it was in universal use. Towards the end of the war it was also supplied in limited quantities to the Japanese.
As so often in the case in really important breakthroughs in the history of mankind’s achievements, it was the progression and culmination of, sometimes many, small steps along the way. In the Polish case one can cite the setting-up of the radio-intelligence section under Lieutenant Kowalewski in 1920. The Polish Staff appreciated the importance of experience gained by reading uncomplicated German and Russian ciphers. When the Germans began to use machine-generated ciphers in 1926-28, work on trying to decrypt these transmissions was in hand by the turn of the year 1928/29. This, of course, was only possible because interception by the monitoring service could supply the basic raw material.
It was Lieutenants Ciezki and Michalowski (from 1933) and the engineer Antoni Palluth who made the initial Investigations on this enciphered traffic. However their efforts did not bring success but the next step along the road proved to be an action by the General Staff in setting up a cryptographic course for outstanding mathematical students in January 1929 at the Institute of Mathematics at Poznan University. Eight of the most talented students took employment in the underground rooms of the Poznan City Command centre.
The unit subsequently transferred to Warsaw where three of the mathematicians Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Rozycki began work upon intercepted German messages.
The attacks were made upon the opening section of each message that contained Indicator information to alert the receiving station to the particular Enigma machine settings that had been used to encipher that particular message. Such settings were pertinent for twenty four hours from midnight, after which time it was replaced by different settings.
The following passage is taken directly from the Bletchley Park Trust new edition Report Nos. 2, September 2008
The Poles subsequently developed three principal methods to enable them to decipher the intercepted German messages. These were :-
(i) A search procedure using a catalogue of certain characteristics of the twice enciphered message keys. This had been painstakingly constructed with the aid of a device known as the ‘Cyclometer’.
(ii) Another searching technique based on a small electro-mechanical machine known as a ‘Bomba’.
(iii) A procedure based on a set of pre-prepared perforated sheets of card that were known as the ‘Zygalski Sheets’
These methods were developed in response to the changing operational procedures introduced by the Germans over a period of some years that progressively made the task of decipherment more difficult.
The achievement by Rejewski is widely regarded as one of the greatest in the entire history of cryptography. Zygalski is remembered by the method dependent on the hand-cut perforated sheets. Rozycki developed a ‘Clock’ method but he is, perhaps, both under-valued and under-mentioned in the literature.
When, in 1939, the Poles realised that Germany was going to invade Poland, their Intelligence Bureau arranged a Meeting with the French and the British at a place called Pyry, just south of Warsaw. At this meeting the Poles explained to the other two countries how they had broken the secret German Enigma machine messages and they also gave these countries a replica of the Enigma machine that had been made in a Polish factory.
It might well be said that perhaps the major Polish contribution throughout the war was the silence by Ciezki and Langer, who were captured by the Gestapo in March 1943, even when under interrogation they kept the secret, by persuading their interrogators that although they had broken the cipher in the 30’s when the changed procedures had been introduced they were unsuccessful. Without that brave and defiant action the subsequent achievements of the Bletchley codebreakers could very well have been substantially less.
To quote from Ralph Erskine’s paper “It should never be forgotten that those who fell into the hands of the Gestapo must have displayed considerable courage, since nothing can have been revealed by them about the Polish successes against Enigma”
The Polish Air Force played a major role in the Battle of Britain. Some 17,000 passed through the ranks of the Polish Air Force on British soil. They shot down 745 enemy aircraft, with another 175 unconfirmed, destroyed a further 25 on the ground and damaged 259. They shot down 190 flying bombs (Vi’s) aimed at London. They dropped over 13,000 tons of bombs, sank three ships, eight miniature submarines and two U-boats and damaged another thirty. They flew over 290,000 operational flying hours during almost 103,000 sorties. The cost was 1,973 killed and 1,388 wounded. They were awarded 342 British gallantry awards, including 9 DSO’s and 191 DFC’s.
A fine example of the fierce determination that the Poles brought with them into the conflict is the following. In the period of the phoney war, Wladylaw Cehak, who was a navigator in a Polish bomber shot down on 14th September 1939. When the blazing plane crash-landed, Cehak leapt clear. He recalls that “I had been shot in the face, my right arm was almost shot off, I had four bullets in my right leg and my uniform was on fire”. He was transferred to a Field Hospital in eastern Poland that was invaded by the Soviets three days later and he fell into the nursing care of the NKVD. After a couple of months without medicine, his wounds wrapped in packing paper and with little food, he lapsed into despair. “I made a noose with a towel and kicked myself off the bed”. But he was untied and revived “I was too weak even to accomplish that simple act” he writes. But to the NKVD he was still a threat and the hospital inmates were evacuated to camps serving as staging posts on the way to the forest of Katyn.
A Polish doctor drafted to work in the hospital gave Cehak an injection, wrote out a death certificate and his apparently lifeless body was taken to the morgue, whence it was spirited away by the Polish Underground. After a few months in hiding he felt strong enough to attempt to escape to rejoin the Polish forces in the West and set off across the snow-covered Carpathian mountains. He was caught and fed into the merciless gulags in northern Siberia. Held in sub-zero temperatures, without adequate food and clothing, with kicks and blows, they died in their thousands. Many prisoners were criminals, always trying to steal what little food or clothing he had and he killed four times to survive. He should have been freed in 1941 when the Soviet Union joined the Allies but he had been sentenced for life. It was not until ten years later that he was released. This must rank very highly as an example of truly indomitable courage and the will to fight to survive.
The achievements of Squadron 303 are legendary. Not only did they set a record on 15th September, fifteen German planes shot down but the Poles and 303 in Particular were especially effective at breaking up and driving back enemy bomber formations. On 27th September, with an RAF squadron, 303 destroyed 31 German planes in 30 minutes over the Isle of Wight and notched up its hundredth confirmed kill in Britain. In October 1940 there were times when one in five of the British fighters defending London was manned by a Pole. When 303 was withdrawn from front line duty on 11 October it had set two records - for the highest number of enemy planes shot down in a month (more than double the tally of the next highest-scoring squadron and for the lowest ratio of own losses to successful kills. While statistics show that in the RAF as a whole, 4.9 kills cost one own death, the Polish squadrons notched up 10.5 enemy planes destroyed for every own pilot killed. The average age of the Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain was twenty-four while for all pilots who took part it was twenty. This difference implied many more flying hours and fighting experience.
Its first Mosquito raid on 22 January 1941 was exhilarating for 303 but brought additional risks. One pilot had six inches shorn off the end of each of the three airscrew blades. Another flew so low over Le Touquet airfield that he brought 25 yards of power cable back to Northolt wrapped round the tail of his plane. It was the far from effusive Dowding who declared that “Had it not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish squadron and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of the battle would have been the same”
The contributions of Polish troops in the Eighth Army through North Africa and up through Italy are legendary, particularly in the battle for Monte Cassino where it was Polish soldiers under General Anders who raised the flag at the climax. It had taken three British attempts, at heavy cost, before the Poles finally won the day.
There were several major Intelligence contributions made from Poland. Perhaps the highlight of this concerned ‘Hitler’s secret weapons’, the V2. Reports from Polish sources were being received from October 1943 and may in fact have originated somewhat earlier. A report with a rough sketch of construction work at the German testing site at Peenemunde came via Switzerland and this may have played its part in the first Allied bombing raid a few weeks later. In the Spring of 1944 a V2 rocket fell into the sandy bank of the River Bug, near the testing ground at Sarnacki not far from the village of Mezenin near Klimczyce. The Resistance used bulrushes and osier bed to quickly hide machine and did it so well that in spite of a search on foot and by plane, that lasted several days, the Germans were unable to find it. Almost a week later parts of the rocket were extracted from the mud and transported 8 kilometers, to Holowczyce, where they were hidden in a barn. Some parts were later smuggled into Warsaw where Polish scientists examined it, extracted some of the fuel and sent it to London in May. It seems almost incredible but in July a combined effort by SOE and Polish Intelligence resulted in an air pick-up by a British Douglas C-47 Dakota that put down on the night of 25/26 July at a Home Army secret landing strip in the vicinity of Wal Ruda near Tarnow to collect the 50kg chassis and one of the technical experts. This precious cargo reached Italy on 26th and arrived at Hendon on 28 July. The operation had been named WILDHORN III.
An article such as this has not mentioned other topics such as the involvement in the battle at Arnhem (Oosterbeck). The decisions made at the YALTA Conference and the discreditable disposal of eastern Poland to Russia. There was the shameful omission of Polish representatives from the 1945 Victory Parades. The tragic situation that meant that so many Poles could not return to their native homeland after the war, a war in which so many had played such a major role and for which so many had paid the ultimate price.
The Enigma Bulletin, Issue Nos. 6
Rejewski, Living with the Enigma Secret. Bydgoszcz 2005
The First Breaking of Enigma. Frank Carter. Bletchley Park Trust Report Nos.2 (new edition).
The Report of the Anglo-Polish Historical Committee Vol.1