Underground Army

The necessity to take up armed resistance against the occupier became obvious already in the Fall of 1939 for two groups: officers of the defeated Polish Army and for young people, born and raised in a Free Poland, for whom underground conspiracy became a formative experience. This whole generation was labeled “Generation of Columbuses” after the 1957 work by Roman Bratny, Kolumbowie

Right from the start of the German and Soviet Occupation of Poland, many small, secret armed groups spontaneously arose. Organized by officers, scouts, university and high school students, these groups would often not abide by critical underground conspiratorial guidelines, and were quickly liquidated by the occupiers or were incorporated into other larger organizations. There was no shortage of the latter, as almost every political party sought to organize their own paramilitary organization. The People’s Party formed the Peasants’ Battalions, Socialists formed the People’s Guard and the Polish People’s Army, Nationalists created the National Military Organization and National Armed Forces, Communists the People’s Army/Guard. However the most significant was the Service for Poland’s Victory, which was formed in the Fall of 1939 and subservient to the Polish Government in Exile. In November 1939 the name was change to Union of Armed Struggle (ZWZ), and in 1942 into the Home Army (AK). AK, as part of their goal to unite, brought under their direction most of these organizations with the exception of the Communists and some nationalists, and in 1944 counted approximately 380,000 sworn members, out of which 110,000 were mobilized when the time came.

ZWZ/AK was commanded by the Head Command, which was led by General Stefan “Grot” Rowecki from 1940 until his arrest and imprisonment in June 1943. He was succeeded by General Tadeusz “Bor” Komorowski (until October 2, 1944) and then General Leopold ” Bear” Okulicki until the Home Army was disbanded on January 19, 1945. The Home Army was organized on the basis of a regular army, with a chief of staff, its own disciplinary organ, chaplaincy, and territorial administration. It was active not only in occupied Poland, but also in Germany, the Soviet Union and in Hungary, where it participated in both diversionary actions as well as information gathering.

Soldiers in the platoon of Second Lieutenant Tadeusz “Orlik” Nowicki, who were part of the Home Army Group “Kampinos” during Operation Tempest, 1944. Photo: Institute for National Remembrance
Soldiers in the platoon of Second Lieutenant Tadeusz “Orlik” Nowicki, who were part of the Home Army Group “Kampinos” during Operation Tempest, 1944. Photo: Institute for National Remembrance

The objective of the underground army was a popular uprising. However from the start of the occupation the government in exile opposed an overly aggressive armed resistance, especially partisan operations, in fear of the mass repression of civilians that such an action could provoke. The daily operations of the Home Army were thus limited to propaganda efforts, counter intelligence, diversion actions, sabotage operations, efforts to protect the population and carrying out death sentences against collaborators as well as the most dangerous representatives of the occupying authorities. In the years 1940-1944 units of the ZWZ/AK carried out 730,000 of these kind of operations.

Direct armed confrontation was undertaken in the middle of 1944 within the framework of Operation Tempest, which culminated in the Warsaw Uprising, the longest and bloodiest engagement between Polish and German forces since September 1939. The uprising’s defeat was also the end of active operations of the Home Army, which at this point became focused solely on the defense of the civilian population. On January 19, 1945, one week after the start of the Red Army’s general offensive, General Okulicki gave the order to disband the Home Army. Aware, however, that the battle was not yet over, he order that the organizational structure be maintained, and that arms and munitions be hidden. So began a new chapter in Poland’s underground, in which although the opponent had changed, the goal of an independent and democratic Poland remained the same.