Union of Armed Struggle: The lost strongholds in the wester borderlands

Union of Armed Struggle - the predecessor of the Home Army

On 13 November 1939, the Union of Armed Struggle, or ZWZ [Związek Walki Zbrojnej] was established at the newly established seat of the Polish government-in-exile in Paris. The Union was the first underground army in what would soon be occupied Europe. The task of the Union was to fight the two occupying forces. When thinking of the Polish Underground State, we often forget that it encompassed virtually the whole of the Second Republic (in its September 1939 borders).

by Michał Szukała


To perceive the operations of the underground only from the perspective of fighting the Germans in the General Government is to forget the actual goal of these operations: the preparations for an open battle to regain sovereignty. The uncompromising character of this assumption rendered it necessary to establish underground structures even in the least favorable circumstances, and to fight battles in a hostile environment. From the very first, the eastern half of the Second Republic, seized by the USSR, became the most difficult and bloodiest battleground.

Germans invading Poland in border checkpoint at Kolibki which is the begining of the Second World War 1 September 1939 (author: Hans Sönnke; public domain).


On 27 September each year, we celebrate Polish Underground State Day. It falls on the anniversary of the day when the first underground structure in occupied Poland had been established. The task of the newly developing organization was to continue fighting after the defensive war had come to an end. Gen. Michał Tokarzewski-Karaszewicz became the first commander-in-chief of the new structure. He received his nomination to the post from Gen. Juliusz Rómmel, who had been authorized by Marshal Rydz-Śmigły to command the remnants of the Polish forces that had combated the German and Soviet invasions. Rómmel’s order, in which he entrusted Tokarzewski with “continuing the struggle for maintaining independence and the integrity of the borders” makes the Service for Poland’s Victory, or SZP [Służba Zwycięstwu Polski] the legal continuation of institutions of the Second Republic. However, contrary to popular opinion, Służba was not the first underground organization.

The construction of underground structures began as early as 7 September, within hours of German troops entering Kraków. The man behind these structures, Major Kazimierz Kierzkowski, was an extraordinary man of almost symbolic stature. He was an officer of the Polish Military Organization and of Piłsudski’s Legions, fought in the Silesian uprisings and was commander of the Union of Riflemen [Związek Strzelecki]. It was thanks to individuals such as Major Kierzkowski that underground Poland continued various strands of the nation’s long tradition of the struggle for independence. Scouts and members of Związek Strzelecki who had links to Major Kierzkowski became the first soldiers of the White Eagle Organization, established on 20 September. It is worth emphasizing that that the first organization already distinguished between two autonomous sectors of activity: civilian and military. These two would establish the foundation of the phenomenon known as Polish Underground State.

The question needs to be addressed of why ZWZ was established a little more than a month after the defensive war had ended. The second half of September 1939 was a time not only of dramatic war against two invaders but also of extraordinary political change in the government of the Second Republic. After the government and Marshal Rydz-Śmigły had been interned in Romania, it became necessary to appoint new authorities. After a period of chaos triggered by President Mościcki (who appointed the ambassador of the Republic of Poland in Rome, Gen. Bolesław Wieniawa-Długoszowski, as his successor), the former head of the Senate, Władysław Raczkiewicz, took office. His candidacy had been a certain compromise between the sanacja administration – adherents to the late Marshal Piłsudski who dominated Polish political life before the outbreak of the Second World War – and the circles centered around the new prime minister, Władysław Sikorski.

General Władysław Sikorski decorates crew members of ORP Piorun (public domain)

Nevertheless, Raczkiewicz had not been a favorite to take the presidential office. Initially it had been proposed that Gen. Kazimierz Sosnkowski become head of state. However, Sosnkowski’s whereabouts were unknown as key decisions were being made. On 22 September, struggling to make his way into the besieged city of Lwów (today Lviv), he was as good as surrounded by the Soviet army. Under the circumstances, he ordered his troops to make their way to Hungary in small groups. In early October, in civilian attire and under the name Wacław Stelmaszczuk, Sosnkowski made it to Paris via Hungary and Switzerland. President Raczkiewicz was keen to pass his duties on to Sosnkowski: an opportunity refuted by the latter, who argued that the new Polish authorities must be kept as stable as possible.

Meanwhile,  SZP’s commander-in-chief, General Tokarzewski, enlisted the aid of couriers to deliver his report to Marshal Rydz-Śmigły, interned in Romania, which notified the marshal that SZP had been established. Śmigły sent the report to the new authorities in Paris. Władysław Sikorski, who was not favorably disposed towards those who had governed Poland prior to September 1939, surmised that Tokarzewski must have known that Sikorski had already been appointed commander-in-chief. Hence Silorski took Tokarzewski’s report as a demonstration of disloyalty. With a view to increasing his control of underground structures in Poland and, hoping that the war would end in victory by spring 1940, he decided to disband SZP and make the new organization subordinate directly to the government in exile. On the day that ZWZ, the Union of Armed Struggle, was established, Sikorski nominated Gen. Kazimierz Sosnkowski to the post of ZWZ commander. The decision to establish a new underground organization was thus been the result of a double political game played by Sikorski, who sought to neutralize his rival while also demonstrating his willingness to reconcile the sanacja circles to opponents of Piłsudski’s adherents. The firm belief on the part of Polish politicians and commanders that the war would end in 1940 with the victory of the Allied forces likewise played no small part in the establishment of ZWZ. The moment the Third Reich suffered an immediate defeat, Polish underground military forces were to step forward at the rear of their opponents and take over governance of the country, as the Polish Military Organization, or POW [Polska Organizacja Wojskowa] had in 1918.

Marian Kukiel, Kazimierz Sosnkowski and Stanisław Kopański in 1944; public domain

General Sosnkowski took the underground alias “Józef Godziemba,” after his noble family coat of arms. Sosnkowski outlined the organization’s strategy, its financial foundation and means of remaining in contact with the government of the Republic of Poland. Most important, he set out the field structures of the organization, providing it with a set of rules and strategy of action. Even at that early stage, the general recognized that in order to make the co-ordination of the struggle more effective, it was necessary to transfer ZWZ headquarters to occupied Poland. The transfer was completed in June 1940, following the defeat of France. In mid November, the Ministerial Committee for Poland, chaired by Sosnkowski, passed a directive concerning the new organization. In this directive, the committee noted that, for the time being, any action on a wider scale would be ineffective. “The effect of such an action would, most likely, be in no way comparable to the repressions which it would bring upon our country, giving the occupants a reason to exterminate Polish people in a most ruthless manner. It is also recommended that you refrain from any subversive activity for the time being, and await instruction on the matter from the commander-in-chief.”

There remained the issue of putting Sosnkowski’s strategy into practice. On 4 December, the commander of the Union issued “Instruction No. 1 for Citizen Rakoń,” which reached Col. Stefan Rowecki and General Tokarzewski in late December. The goals and forms of action for the newly established ZWZ were discussed in the instruction. The Union was to group “all honest and righteous Poles who wish to fight an armed underground battle with the occupant, and who are in every respect suitable to the high moral demands of this type of underground work.” In addition, the instruction ordered that provincial commands be established in the regions (i.e., regions of Soviet and German occupation). These were to be divided into smaller, local units. The former SZP commander, Gen. Michał Tokarzewski-Karaszewicz, was appointed ZWZ commander for the eastern half of Poland. His was to be an almost suicidal mission. The general was under no illusion: “I regard my new posting as colossal nonsense, if not an act of spite. But I am a soldier, an order is holy to me, even if I might disagree with it. All the same, I have got a strange feeling that I will not make it to where I am posted, and posted against my will.”

General Stefan Rowecki in 1930s (public domain)


The Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939 ended all hopes of keeping up effective military resistance. It did not, however, sap the will to fight. The battles of Grodno, Wilno (today Vilnius) and Lwów were fought after 17 September by spontaneously formed units comprising mostly volunteers with little or no training. These engagements were proof of local Poles’ attachment to their state, and of their capacity for self-organization. It is thus no coincidence that seeds of later underground structures began to take root in the eastern borderlands as early as in the second half of September. These were called into being by civilians or by army officers with well-established links to the area. The fact that these organizations were frequently exposed indicates that those who called them into being did not originate in army units. Members did not abide by basic rules of underground work. Compiling lists of member names was common practice. Equally important, in the Soviet NKVD’s work to eradicate Polish military organizations, it had powerful allies in ethnic minorities of the Second Republic: Ukrainians, Belarusians and Jews, with each group possessed of its own ethnic and national interests, which had long made up the complicated reality of these borderland regions.  

Soviet terror aimed at Polish resistance efforts was particularly brutal in cities already known for their opposition to the Red Army in September 1939. In Grodno, as early as autumn 1939, the Soviets were conducting mass executions and arrests in an alleged act of retribution for serious losses suffered by the Red Army during its defense of the city. That notwithstanding, in autumn 1940, troop numbers of the Union of Armed Struggle in and around Grodno stood at 1,800 soldiers. The endurance of the Polish resistance and resilience of its units against assaults they suffered must be held in high regard. In February 1941, the provincial ZWZ commander, Franciszek Mazurkiewicz, was arrested with five commanders of local units. The organization changed its character to cadres and despite, major losses it suffered, endured until this Soviet occupation ended.

Soviet Red Army entering the Polish city of Wilno (Vilnius) after the joint German-Russian aggression against Poland (public domain)

POW, the Polish Military Organization, was also in operation in Grodno. It needs to be emphasized that it was chaired by a woman, Tamara Horbaczewska-Podlach. Along with her husband, she deserves to be credited with expanding the POW structures, with membership consisting mostly of young people and members of the Strzelec organization. At its peak, POW in Grodno numbered around 1,000 soldiers. Small combat groups emerged quickly from among the enlistment: the aim of these groups was to tackle and eradicate the ominous network of NKVD agents. Unfortunately, over 400 POW members were arrested between summer and winter 1940, from betrayals. The rest became involved in ZWZ underground work.

Immediately after the Soviet army entered Vilnius, an organization called the Government Committee was established in the city. A cadre, it was deeply secretive in nature. From the outset, it had its own intelligence sector. Rapidly, a complex network of spies who kept a close eye on actions of the Soviet army came to be established in the Vilnius region. This network later became the basis of local ZWZ units. Development of these structures was not interrupted by ceding of Vilnius into the still independent Lithuania in late autumn 1939.

The Regiment Associations [Koła Pułkowe] were another important organization later included into ZWZ structures. Among the Association’s commanders was Zygmunt Szendzielarz “Łupaszka,” who later became a legend. His task had been to establish a network of contacts as a basis for recreating the Fifth Lancer Regiment that had fought in September 1939, and was to undertake partisan activity in the Vilnius region. Officers recruited by Łupaszka would become commanding officers of the famous Fifth Partisan Home Army Brigade, known as the Death Brigade.

Soldiers of the 5th Wilno Brigade. From left: Henryk Wieliczko “Lufa”, Marian Pluciński “Mścisław”, Zygmunt Szendzielarz “Łupaszka”, NN, Zdzisław Badocha “Żelazny” (public domain)

Like the ZWZ in Grodno, the underground army in Vilnius suffered great losses among commanders during the Soviet occupation. Commanders in the Vilnius District including its commander-in-chief fell into the hands of the NKVD in March. Nevertheless, during the first Soviet occupation, Vilnius became the capital of sorts of the Polish Underground State in eastern regions.

Enshrined in legends of how it had fought in November 1918, Lwów also became a focal point of resistance to the Soviet army. The city played a special role in the first stages of the war, when columns of Polish soldiers fled en route to Romania and Hungary through the Lwów province. For that reason, the Polish Organization for the Fight for Freedom [Polska Organizacja Walki Wolnościowej], being established from the day Soviet troops marched into the city, was promptly included in the Union of Armed Struggle structures. Sadly, the commander of the Organization, Marian Januszajtis, was arrested by the NKVD as early as 28 October 1939.

In subsequent months, arrests became very frequent among commanders of Lwów’s underground organizations. In March 1940, as Gen. Michał Tokarzewski-Karaszewicz attempted to cross the Soviet-German border, he was arrested by NKVD officers. He was sent to a forced-labor camp near Vorkuta, and then to Lubyanka prison in Moscow. That autumn, mass arrests significantly weakened ZWZ operations. That notwithstanding, underground forces carried out a spectacular attempt to assassinate Semyon Timoshenko, a Soviet marshal in Lwów at the time. By that time, forces in Lwów had been dispersed and heavily infiltrated by Soviet security services. Under the circumstances, the assassination attempt – grenades thrown at Timoshenko’s entourage – were to no avail: the marshal was not even wounded. All the would-be assassins were arrested in the following months.

Citizens of Lwów looking at corpses of relatives and friends who were the victims of Soviet NKVD, murdered in the last days of June 1941 (public domain)

Gen. Leopold Okulicki was given the mission to save the Union of Armed Struggle in Lwów.  His mission was doomed to failure  As a result of betrayal by one Union officers in Wołyń, the man who later became final commander of the Home Army was identified by the NKVD even as he attempted to cross the border of the General Government. He made it to Lwów nevertheless, where he was arrested after three months of working for the Union. After the outbreak of the Soviet-German war, the NKVD made Okulicki the offer to continue his command of the Union against the German occupation. It is likely that Okulicki definitively rejected the “offer” made by the Soviets, deciding instead to play a game with the aim of manipulating NKVD investigators.


On 22 June 1941, the German military attacked the USSR along the full length of the border established by the two states in September 1939. In following weeks, Poland found itself under new occupation. For the ZWZ, this meant having to change their battle strategy, which was still fought against two opponents: Third Reich forces as well as Soviet agents and partisans. Under the circumstances, the Polish government in London made the decision to take action that would support the erstwhile occupant; but also actions that would pave the way for a universal uprising as soon as the Germans were defeated and the Soviets began to make rapid progress. The ZWZ commander-in-chief established a complex subversive structure known as “the Fan,” the aim of which was to debilitate German forces. The ZWZ thus reported the goals of the action to the commander-in-chief: “uprising-related activities are to be screened with subversive and partisan action from the east, in order to survive, at least for a time; or, at the very least, to constrain the influx of German army transport that enters the rising area from the east.” Thus the Storm [Burza] actions, which culminated in the Warsaw Uprising, was a direct descendant of ZWZ.

Warsaw Uprising. Polish soldier in Holy Cross Church, 1944, photo: Eugeniusz Haneman (public domain)

Various aspects of the decisive battle between the Third Reich and the USSR got underway in the east. On 14 February 1942, the ZWZ was renamed the Home Army [AK]. It spread across the entire territory of the former Second Republic, including the eastern borderlands, embroiled in a struggle against two occupiers. Despite the huge advantage of the enemy, ZWZ–Home Army troops in eastern Poland were the elite of the underground army. Units including the 27th Wołyń Infantry Division wrote one of the most distinctive chapters in the history of the Polish Underground State, as they fought incessantly for seven months in three provinces: throughout Wołyń, Polesie and Lublin. In addition, the civilian sector of the Polish underground was as developed in the east as in other regions of the occupied country. As elsewhere, the Union and the Home Army were doomed to failure, faced with the two most powerful enemies Polish soldiers had had to tackle in their nation’s entire history.


Author: Michał Szukała
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin