History of Polish Intelligence Services - 1939–45


Until 1939 Polish intelligence services did not, as a rule, collaborate with the intelligence services of other countries. A partial exception was France, Poland's closest ally; even then cooperation was lukewarm, with neither side sharing their most precious secrets. An important exception was the long-term collaboration between France's Gustave Bertrand and Poland's Cipher Bureau, headed by Gwido Langer. The situation only began to change in 1939, when war appeared certain and Britain and France entered into a formal military alliance with Poland. The most important result of the subsequent information-sharing was the disclosure to France and Britain of Polish techniques and equipment for breaking German Enigma machine ciphers.

The initial break into the Enigma ciphers had been made in late 1932 by mathematician Marian Rejewski, working for the Polish General Staff's Cipher Bureau. His work was facilitated, perhaps decisively, by intelligence provided by Bertrand. With the help of fellow mathematicians Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Różycki, Rejewski developed techniques to decrypt German Enigma-enciphered messages on a regular and timely basis.

Six-and-a-half years after the initial Polish decryption of Enigma ciphers, French and British intelligence representatives were briefed on Polish achievements at a trilateral conference held at Cipher Bureau facilities in the Kabaty Woods, just south of Warsaw, on July 26, 1939, barely five weeks before the outbreak of World War II. This formed the basis for early Enigma decryption by the British at Bletchley Park, northwest of London. Without the head start provided by Poland, British reading of Enigma encryptions might have been delayed several years, if it would have gotten off the ground at all.

Key Polish Cipher Bureau personnel escaped from Poland on September 17, 1939, on the Soviet Union's entry into eastern Poland, and eventually reached France. There, at "PC Bruno" outside Paris, they resumed cracking Enigma ciphers through the "Phony War" (October 1939 — May 1940). Following the fall of northern France to the Germans, the Polish-French-Spanish cryptological organization, sponsored by French Major Gustave Bertrand, continued its work at "Cadix" in the Vichy "Free Zone" until it was occupied by German forces in November 1942.

After the 1939 invasion of Poland, practically all of the General Staff's Section II (Intelligence) command apparatus managed to escape to Romania and soon reached France and Britain. Reactivating agent networks throughout Europe, they immediately began cooperating with French and British intelligence agencies. After the subsequent fall of France, most of Section II ended up in Britain.

At that time Britain was in a difficult situation, badly in need of intelligence from occupied Europe after rapid German advances had disrupted its networks and put German forces into areas where Britain had few agents. Following the personal intervention of Churchill and Sikorski in September 1940, cooperation between British and Polish intelligence organizations entered a new phase.

The Poles placed their Section II at the disposal of the British, but as a quid pro quo requested and obtained (at that time without any reservations) the right to use, without British oversight, their own ciphers which they had developed in France. The Poles were the only Allied country that was given this unique status, though as the war progressed it was challenged by some agencies of the British government. Due to support from members of the British Special Operations Executive, the Poles kept their ciphers to the end of hostilities.

In the first half of 1941 Polish agents in France supplied Britain with intelligence on U-boat movements from French Atlantic ports. The Polish network in France grew to 1,500 members and, before and during Operation Overlord, supplied vital information about the German military in France. Agents working in Poland in the spring of 1941 supplied extensive intelligence about German preparations to invade the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa).

Polish spies also documented German atrocities being perpetrated at Auschwitz (Witold Pilecki's report) and elsewhere in Poland against Jewish and non-Jewish populations. Polish intelligence gave the British crucial information on Germany's secret-weapons projects, including the V-1 and V-2 rockets, enabling Britain to set back these German programs by bombing the main development facility at Peenemünde in 1943. Poland's networks supplied the western Allies with intelligence on nearly all aspects of the German war effort. Of 45,770 reports received by British intelligence during the war, nearly half (22,047) came from Polish agents.

On March 15, 1946, Section II was officially disbanded, and its archives were taken over by Britain. At Section II's dissolution, it had 170 officers and 3,500 agents, excluding headquarters staff. Very likely at least some of the Polish agents continued working directly for Britain during the Cold War.

The Polish intelligence contribution to Britain's war effort was kept secret due to Cold War exigencies. In later years, as official British histories were released, the Polish intelligence role barely rated a mention. Only when British wartime decryption of Enigma ciphers was made public in the 1970s, did a Polish contribution begin to become known; even then, however, the early versions published in Britain (and some versions even to the end of the 20th century) claimed that Polish intelligence had only been able to steal a German Enigma machine. The truth, which had previously been disclosed in Bertrand's book and would later be detailed in papers by Marian Rejewski (who had survived the war and lived to 1980), made slow headway against British and American obfuscations, mendacities and fabrications. The Polish Enigma-breaking effort had been much more sophisticated than those English-language accounts made out, and had in fact relied largely on mathematical analysis.

Historians' efforts to gain access to documentation of other Polish intelligence operations met with British stonewalling and with claims that the pertinent Polish archives had been destroyed by the British.

More recently, the British and Polish governments have begun jointly producing an accurate account of the Polish intelligence contribution to Britain's war effort. The key Anglo-Polish Historical Committee Report on the subject was published in July 2005. It was written by leading historians and experts who had been granted unprecedented access to British intelligence archives. The report concluded that 43 percent of all reports received by British secret services from continental Europe in 1939-45 had come from Polish sources

See also: Home Army and V1 and V2

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