On March 26, 1943, members of the Gray Ranks assault groups near the Arsenal building carried out an operation to rescue Janek Bytnar “Rudy” from the hands of the Gestapo. The action at the intersection of Długa and Bielańska Streets has gone down in history as Action pod Arsenał.
In February 1943, the underground magazine “Demokrata” published a poem by Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, later entitled “Warszawa”.
“A city as dangerous as a coffin fall.
Sometimes deaf as thunder with a club
collapsed into the abyss and proud
like a black lion that languishes for a long time.
The mood of the poem matched the situation of the inhabitants of the capital after more than three years of occupation. Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad and its defeats in North Africa were seen as vague and distant harbingers of a turning point in the war. The echoes of Allied victories, however, mobilized the command of the Home Army to prepare for active actions against the German occupiers, the key element of which was to be sabotage actions against the German war machine and attacks on the machine of terror and its collaborators.
“We still hear about sentences being carried out on Gestapo agents,” Ludwik Landau, the chronicler of the occupied capital, noted in the spring of 1943. Larger military actions were considered decidedly premature and exhausting the resources prepared for the general uprising planned for the moment of Germany’s collapse.
Arrest of “Red”
In the first years of the occupation, the armed rescue of prisoners from German torture chambers or prisons was considered almost impossible to carry out. Hope for saving the prisoners was seen rather in corrupting the guards and rank and file officers. Of course, it was impossible to buy out important representatives of the underground. Only on January 18, 1943, a unit of Jan Piwnik “Ponury”, pretending to be Soviet partisans, attacked the prison in Pinsk in Polesie, from where they freed, among others, Cichociemny – Alfred Paczkowski “Wania”. It seemed much more difficult to rescue the prisoners in Warsaw, a city terrorized by powerful German forces.
On the night of March 18/19, 1943, in an apartment at ul. Osiecka in Warsaw’s Grochów, the Gestapo arrested Henryk Ostrowski “Heńek” – the commander of the “Praga” troop-platoon of the Gray Ranks Assault Groups. During the search, the Germans probably found training and intelligence materials in his possession, as well as notes, among others. with the address of Jan Bytnar “Rudy” – commander of the “Południe” (“Sad”) troop-platoon.
A few days later, on the night of March 22/23, in a tenement house at al. Niepodległości, the same Gestapo arrested Bytnar “Rudy” and his father. Also in his apartment, the Germans found items that testified to sabotage activities, e.g. British press fuze for explosives. In Pawiak, “Rudy” was tortured.
Preparations for action
After Bytnar’s arrest, an alarm campaign was carried out in the Assault Groups, his colleagues were notified of the situation, warehouses were evacuated and underground premises were cleared. “Rudy’s friend and superior Tadeusz Zawadzki “Zośka”, the deputy commander of the Warsaw Assault Groups and the commander of the “Centrum” troop, immediately took action to recapture Bytnar, ordering a combat alert in the “Centrum” and “Południe” detachments.
“Zośka” made contact with the Chief of the Gray Ranks Florian Marciniak and the commander of the Warsaw Banner and the commander of the Assault Groups in Warsaw Stanisław Broniewski “Orsza”, presenting them the concept of recapturing “Rudy”. Although based only on the assumption that the arrested person would be transported from the Gestapo headquarters to Pawiak on the same day, it was initially approved by the superiors. Information about the situation in the prison at the headquarters of the Gestapo at Szucha was collected by a member of the Gray Ranks, Zygmunt Kaczyński “Wesoły”, who moved freely among the Gestapo, offering them the sale of Wedel products, which were extremely desirable by their families in the Reich.
Due to the uniqueness of the project and concerns about the scale of retaliation after the operation, the final decision on the recapture was to be made by the command of the Kedyw Disposal Units of the Home Army Headquarters. Unfortunately, it turned out that their commander, Major Jan Wojciech Kiwerski “Lipinski” left Warsaw on business. Despite his absence, “Zośka” decided not to interrupt the preparations. The operation is scheduled for March 23 at 5.30 p.m.
Prisoner rescue plan
Thanks to the information provided by Konrad Okolski “Kuby”, a former prisoner of Pawiak, the daily route of the prison transport was established, which led from Pawiak through Nalewki, pl. Teatralny, Krakowskie Przedmieście to al. sighs. The return took the same route. It was decided to perform the attack in the afternoon, at the intersection of ul. Bielańska, Długa and Nalewki, near the Arsenal.
The creator of the plan was “Zośka”. His concept assumed attacking the prison shack on the bend from Bielańska to Nalewki, when the speed of the vehicle was the lowest. This is where “Zośka” decided to set up the first element of the “Atak” group under his command – the “Bottles” section, commanded by Jan Rodowicz “Anoda”.
If, despite throwing incendiary bottles, the shack did not stop, the next element of the attack was to shoot at the chauffeur with a machine gun by the “Sten I” section, led by Sławomir Bittner “Maćek”. Another section standing in the depths of Nalewki was “Sten II”, commanded by Jerzy Gawin “Elephant”. Armed with one Sten submachine gun and a handgun, the section members had the task of finally stopping the vehicle. The last barrier on the prisoner’s path was to be the “Granaty” section, led by Maciej Aleksy Dawidowski “Alka”. Her task was to smash the engine of the car with grenades. In addition, they were to cover the action from the side of Nalewki.
In addition to the “Atak” group, the unit also included the “Ubezpieczenie” group, commanded by Władysław Cieplak “Giewont”. Its task was to prevent accidental enemy forces from entering the battlefield. The group consisted of sections: “Old Town”, “Ghetto” and the insurance of the car in which “Rudy” was to be evacuated.
From noon, the “Signalization” section, commanded by Konrad Okolski “Kuba”, was to take care of the insurance. After signaling the approach of a female prisoner, this section was to fall back and act as insurance.
The team prepared in this way on March 23, after 17 took up positions near the Arsenal. However, just before the prisoner’s arrival, it turned out that Major Kiwerski was still outside Warsaw, so it was impossible to obtain his consent to the operation. The next day, despite the absence of Maj. Kiwerski, the action could not take place anyway, because “Rudy” was not transported to Szucha. On March 25, he was again brutally interrogated in the Gestapo building. After returning to Pawiak, he was taken to the prison hospital.
On Friday, March 26, 1943, news came that Major Kiwerski was returning to Warsaw. Around 2:00 p.m., one of the liaison officers reported that “Rudy” had been transported from Pawiak to Szucha. Although there was still no formal consent of Kedyw for the operation, the entire unit of “Zośka” at 17 again took up positions at the intersection of Długa and Bielańska.
To meet Maj. Kiwerski with Florian Marciniak and Stanisław Broniewski took place at pl. Trzech Krzyży just before 5 pm. After a concise report from the head of the Gray Ranks, Major Kiwerski replied briefly: “Crack!”. The operation was code-named Mexico II. The consent was given to “Zośka” by phone. Another encrypted phone call informed that the transport, which set off from al. Szucha, there is “Rudy”.
The action, commanded by Broniewski “Orsza”, began at 5.30 p.m. “All sections of the insurance are supposed to liquidate all uniformed Germans and liquidate navy blues and civilians reaching for weapons” – Broniewski pointed out.
Zawadzki “Zośka” ran up to a policeman who appeared near the place of action, called him to hand over his weapon, and when he tried to use it, he shot the officer. At the same time, the commander of the “Granaty” section – Dawidowski “Alek” – liquidated an SS officer walking along Nalewki Street. At that time, the “Anode” section threw bottles at the driver’s cab of the oncoming prisoner, which burst into flames. One of the Germans jumped out of the vehicle, the other fell onto the road. The “Bottles” section fired shots at the still rolling wagon. The Gestapo men sitting in the back returned fire and one of them was killed.
Tadeusz Krzyżewicz “Buzdygan” who was running across the road was wounded in the stomach and leg by a policeman lying on the ground, who was then killed by members of the “Sten” section. There was a sharp exchange of shots from the “Zośki” group with the Gestapo man sitting in the back of the car and with the gendarmes from the nearby ghetto. Among the shots, the “Atak” group ran to the car. The last wounded German escaped from the vehicle.
The moment of releasing “Rudy” was described by Tadeusz Zawadzki as follows: “When all the prisoners spilled out into the street, Janek appeared from the depths of the wagon, scrambling on all fours through the benches. Shaved head, green-yellow face, sunken cheeks, a huge bruise under the eye, blue ears “Big eyes wide open looking at us. We grabbed him in our arms. Every time we touched him we screamed in pain.”
The “Atak” group withdrew, taking “Rudy”, who was placed next to the wounded “Buzdygan” in a car prepared by his friends. During the action, one of the liberated prisoners, Maria Schiffers (an agent of the Secret Intelligence Service), was also injured and placed in a commandeered civilian car. Both vehicles drove off towards the Old Town. Unfortunately, the British agent was found by the Germans and murdered.
“For the first few moments, I didn’t pay attention to him, changing magazines and watching the street,” recalled Zawadzki, who was sitting next to “Rudy” in the car. “After a while I looked at Janek. […] There was a smile on his face through a spasm of pain. He took my hand in his and held it tight. His hands were black and swollen. He would say: ‘Tadeusz, oh Tadeusz, if only you knew’. I reassured him saying ‘he’ll be home soon’. After a while, ‘I didn’t think you’d do it.’
The last part of the group leaving the place of action was shot at by several Germans. The commander of the “Granaty” section – “Alek” was wounded. “Anoda” killed one of the Germans, and the wounded “Alek” ended the engagement with a grenade. His colleagues stopped the third car in which they placed “Alek” and drove off. At the corner of Miodowa Street, an armored military truck passed them, and two soldiers ran out of it. “Alek” again used a grenade to defend himself and left with his friends. Part of the unit left the place of operations on foot.
Balance of Shares under the Arsenal
In Operation Arsenal, 21 prisoners were freed, among them, next to “Rudy” – Henryk Ostrowski “Heńek”. It was attended by 28 members of the Gray Ranks. On the Polish side, the losses were as follows: one person arrested – Hubert Lenk “Hubert” (later beaten to death by the Gestapo) and two seriously wounded: “Alek” and “Buzdygan”. “Alek” and “Rudy” died on the same day, March 30, 1943. On April 2, “Buzdygan” also died in the hospital. The next day after the action, on March 27, in retaliation, the Germans shot 140 Poles and Jews in the courtyard of Pawiak. On the German side, there were four dead and nine wounded.
Operation Arsenal was one of the most important and crucial for the Polish morale actions of the Polish underground in the occupied capital. “The sensation of Warsaw was the attack on the transport of prisoners from Pawiak, made yesterday evening, shortly before the curfew came,” wrote Ludwik Landau in “Kronika lata War i Okupacji”. For many days, the inhabitants gossiped only about the events at the walls of the Arsenal. Already in July, the heroes of the action were commemorated on the pages of the 2,000-print issue. copies in one of the underground publishing houses of the novel “Kamienie na Szaniec. A story about Wojtek and Czarny”. Its author was Aleksander Kamiński, who signed himself as Juliusz Górecki.
This is how the legend of the Gray Ranks was born, which became one of the most important elements of the memory of the military effort of the Polish Underground State.
Main photo source: Lech Marcinczak / tvnwarszawa,pl