Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland in English
Upon hearing the news that the most talented poet of the Generation of Columbuses, Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, had joined the Home Army’s diversion units, the well-known literary scholar Stanisław Pigoń said: “We belong to a nation whose fate is to shoot at the enemy with diamonds.” Baczyński was not alone. There were many others – talented, young and determined, ready to die fighting for a liberated Poland. Thousands of them formed the Gray Ranks (Szare Szeregi) – the largest scouting resistance organisation in German-occupied Poland.
The history of scouts in Polish lands goes back to 1909, with the appearance of the first news about the educational programme proposed by Robert Baden-Powell. Independence organisations became interested in it, seeing in scouting a good method for raising future citizens of a liberated Poland. In 1911, Andrzej Małkowski began forming scouting structures within the Sokół gymnastic association. He and his wife Olga Drahonowska-Małkowska are considered to be the founders of the Polish Scouts. During World War I, scouting instructors were for the most part incorporated into the army, but their students, the scouts themselves, took up auxiliary service for the Polish Legions and helped victims such as orphans, fugitives and the poor.
The spirit of helping the weakest and serving the homeland accompanied the ideals of the scouting movement also later on, during the period between the two world wars. Scouting organisations enjoyed great popularity following the German and Russian aggression of 1939. It is interesting that while the Gray Ranks are mostly remembered as heroic Scouts, in the beginning they were neither the only organisation of this type, nor the largest one. In the early days of the German occupation, the scout troops in eastern Poland, e.g. in Lviv, were very active.
Clovers and Bees
The name “Gray Ranks” (Szare Szeregi) was taken from the operation carried out by scouts in Poznan. Leaflets addressed to German families containing information about the forced resettlement of Poles to the General Government were signed with the initials SS. The full name first became popular in Poznan, and from 1940 it became the official name of the organisation throughout the whole country. An organisation of girl guides was active under the codename “Union of Clovers” (Związek Koniczyn), and from 1943 “Be Prepared” (Bądź Gotów), but in general they were referred to as the female Gray Ranks. The girl guides, like their male colleagues, were responsible for liaison, carrying out sabotage, intelligence and diversion operations. They joined the medical services, cared for prisoners, helped Jews and children. Out of the 15,000 members of the Gray Ranks, 7,000 were girls.
During the war, the Polish Scouting Association retained its pre-war structure, though given the need for secrecy, formations were provided with codenames. Banners became “beehives,” troops became “swarms,” teams became “families” and squads became “bees.” The Headquarters, also known as the “Apiary,” was commanded by Florian Marciniak, followed by Stanisław Broniewski and Leon Marszałek.
At first reserved for young people over the age of 17, from 1942 the Gray Ranks opened up to other age groups. The youngest scouts, aged 12-14, belonged to the Zawisza group and did not take part in fighting directly; however, they were trained in liaison and rescue services. Scouts aged 15-17 served in the Combat Schools. They underwent military training and were responsible for minor sabotage, i.e. propaganda and psychological operations, addressed to both the occupying forces as well as Polish civilians. The oldest members of the Gray Ranks made up the Assault Groups, which reported to the Home Army Directorate of Diversion (“Kedyw”). Their responsibilities included diversion operations, service in partisan units, training in schools for cadets and other ranks up to lower commanders.
Today, Tomorrow, The Day After
The Gray Ranks not only fought against the occupying forces. They were also involved in self-education and training of personnel for a victorious Poland. The programme formulated in 1941 was based on the motto “Today – Tomorrow – The Day After,” where “Today” meant underground operations, “Tomorrow” – joining the planned general uprising, and the “The Day After” – work in a liberated Poland.
The struggle of “Today” was an armed conflict, such as Operation Arsenal, described by Aleksander Kamiński in Stones for the Rampart, as a result of which scouts freed Polish prisoners from the hands of the Gestapo (including Jan Bytnar “Rudy” – see biogram). However, the greater part of the participants of the struggle began with the aforementioned minor sabotage operations. The idea was to make life difficult for the Germans and to raise the morale of the suffering Poles. For the most part, rebellious posters were hung, Nazi flags were torn down and Polish flags were hung. Windows were broken in establishments run by collaborators, cinema seats were dirtied, and slogans were written on walls – such as the famous sign of “Fighting Poland.”
The slogan “Tomorrow” was obviously a signal to take part in the planned uprising and was best expressed in the course of the Warsaw Uprising, which broke out on 1 August 1944. The scouts joined the Home Army. The youngest, the Zawisza group, were responsible for liaison – it is estimated that they forwarded from 3,000 to 6,000 letters a day! The scout groups fought across nearly the whole city. In the first days, the “Zośka” and “Parasol” battalions, considered to be among the best trained and armed groups in the city, fought in the Wola district and later defended the Old Town. They also fought in the districts of Mokotów and Górny Czerniaków. It is rarely remembered that they also fought in other places in the country, e.g. in the Świętokrzyskie Mountains and in the Vilnius Region.
Before the uprising broke out and before it was followed by post-war settlements in which the members of the Gray Ranks were treated like enemies, the youths had been told from the beginning that they also had to think about the future. Clandestine classes were organised, scouts passed their matriculation examinations and later took part in classes held at underground universities. The greatest emphasis was placed on technical and administrative programmes in the belief that these would train an elite to rebuild the war-ravaged state. Support of education went beyond the structures of the scouting organisation – unaffiliated young people were also targeted with the distribution of special self-education material, the organisation of cultural events and the establishment of clandestine but generally-accessible libraries. Care was also provided for war orphans and homeless children, for example through the organisation of activities in day clubs.
The losses were immense. It is estimated that during the occupation, 5,000 Polish scouts lost their lives. They died in concentration camps, during the uprising, during arrests and in prisons, in combat and in guerrilla activity or – like many others – in mass executions of civilians on city streets. Many disappeared without a trace.
Alek, Rudy, Zośka – the most famous heroes of the Gray Ranks
In 1943, Polish writer Aleksander Kamiński published the best-known book of occupied Warsaw, the fact-based Stones for the Rampart. The story traces the operations of members of the Gray Ranks, focusing on the fate of three members: Tadeusz Zawadzki AKA “Zośka,” Jan Bytnar AKA “Rudy” and Aleksander Dawidowski AKA “Alek.” Aleksander Kamiński wrote down this story on the basis of the accounts of “Zośka.” It is a fascinating tale of many minor sabotage operations as well as youthful friendship and sacrifice for one’s country.
To this day, the book has not been translated into English. However, there is a 2014 film entitled Stones for the Rampart.
Tadeusz Zawadzki AKA “Zośka” (1921–1943)
Tadeusz Zawadzki was born in Warsaw to an intelligentsia family. He attended the Stefan Batory middle and secondary schools, where he met colleagues who were later also active in the Gray Ranks. In 1933 he joined the Bolesław Chrobry 23rd Scouting Team of Warsaw (also known as the “Orangery” due to the orange colour of their kerchiefs). From the very beginning, he was active in the resistance movement, heading the War Orangery and later becoming commander for the Górny Mokotów area of Warsaw. He became best known for his minor sabotage activity, consisting of writing on walls, ridiculing Nazi orders and making life difficult for the occupying forces. He was commander of the “Atak” group during the famous Operation Arsenal, during which 21 Polish prisoners were rescued from the hands of the Gestapo. He also headed operations involving the liberation of prisoners near Celestynów and blowing up the railway bridge near Czarnocin. He died on 20 August 1943 during an attack on a Grenzschutzpolizei post. One of the battalions of the Home Army, of the Gray Ranks, was named “Zośka” in his honour.
Jan Bytnar AKA “Rudy” (1921–1943)
Born in Kolbuszowa to a family of teachers, together with his parents he moved to Warsaw, where he was admitted to the Stefan Batory State Middle School. He was active in the Bolesław Chrobry 23rd Scouting Team of Warsaw. Before the outbreak of World War II, he attained the highest male scouting rank – Scout of the Republic. In 1939, he joined the resistance movement, becoming a member of the Gray Ranks in 1941. He carried out several well-known minor sabotage operations, such as the removal of the Nazi flag from the Zachęta art gallery, or painting an anchor (the symbol of Fighting Poland) on the Aviator Monument. During the occupation, such actions were punishable by death. In 1943 he was arrested and sent to the infamous Pawiak prison. There he was interrogated and tortured. He was rescued while being transported from the Gestapo headquarters during the famous Operation Arsenal. He received medical care, but his condition was so bad that he died four days later on 30 March 1943. His codename “Rudy” was given to the 2nd Company of the “Zośka” Battalion. The Gray Ranks carried out retaliation operations on the Gestapo officers who interrogated Jan Bytnar.
Maciej Aleksy Dawidowski AKA “Alek” (1920–1943)
Maciej Aleksy Dawidowski was born in Drohobycz to a family of engineers. In 1929 he moved to Warsaw together with his parents. While attending the Stefan Batory State Middle School, he met “Zośka” and “Rudy.” At the very beginning of the occupation his father was arrested, and “Alek” joined resistance operations. From 1941 he was active in the Gray Ranks, also becoming involved in minor sabotage operations. His best-known accomplishment was taking down the German-language plaque hung by the occupying forces on the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus. When afterwards he tried to take a photograph of the statue, a German patrol asked him to produce identification but did not arrest him. Following these events, “Alek” was forced to leave Warsaw. He secretly returned after less than a year. He took part in Operation Arsenal, during which his school colleague “Rudy” was freed. Unfortunately, during the retreat he was wounded in the stomach. Both “Alek” and “Rudy” died on the same day, 30 March 1943. The 2nd Platoon of the 2nd “Rudy” Company of the “Zośka” Battalion was named after him.