The Polish Escape Routes


Rog Stanton

There were Oflags and Stalags situated in Poland during WW2 from which many soldiers and airmen escaped. The Colditz escapers, and the Great Escape from Stalag Luft 111 are well documented but there is little information broadcast about the ‘ordinary people’ of Poland, without whose help escapers would not have made it home. 

During WW2 the Nazis placed upon the soil of Poland extermination camps, concentration camps and hard labour and work camps, in addition to the many POW camps that housed allied aircrew and soldiers. The Jewish population of Poland suffered more than those in any other country, including the Soviet Union; over 2,900,000 Polish Jews murdered. Tens of thousands of Gypsies and thousands of Polish Officers, soldiers and ordinary people all met a horrendous fate. The draconian rules and regulations imposed on the Polish people, the confiscation of their homes, and the severe shortage of food in the towns made for dreadful living conditions. Despite the danger, many Poles joined Resistance and escape line organisations, and ensured that the fight continued from both inside and outside of the country. 

On the 30 August 1939, an unbelieving Polish nation listened on their radios, to Hitler’s ultimatum. At 1130, a flash German announcement stated that Poland had violated the German frontier post and the radio transmitter at Gleiwitz, killing the German operators. In fact the border had actually been attacked by concentration camp inmates, dressed in Polish uniforms and forced into the action by the Germans, who then shot them all dead. At 1730, the German army invaded Poland. Clare Hollingworth, the Daily Telegraph reporter, watched from the border as events unfolded, reported back to England, then left very quickly. Two days later, the British government declared war on Germany. The Polish nation was left fighting for its life.

On the 16thJune 1952, a short article appeared in the English national newspapers, reporting that a stewardess, working for a Union Castle Line mail ship The Windsor Castle, had been murdered in a London hotel the previous day. Her murderer was identified as a kitchen porter called Dennis George Muldowney, who worked at the Reform Club. By the 17thJune, the small newspaper article had exploded onto the front page of every newspaper in England. On Tuesday 30 September Dennis George Muldowney was hanged for the woman’s murder.

The reason for the intense interest lay in the identity of the stewardess – Christine Granville, OBE, GM, Croix de Guerre, Polish by birth and very patriotic. During WW2 Christine had run an escape line from both Poland and Hungary. She had worked as a secret agent in Poland, Hungary, and France, and was a heroine of the Polish and French Resistance and SOE. Christine had rescued SOE agents from Gestapo jails, and had fought with the Resistance in the bloody battles and massacres on the Vercors. 

As a young girl Christine was adventurous; a keen mountain walker and skier, known for her risk-taking, spending much of her time in the High Tetra and Carpathian mountains. Her background provided valuable knowledge and skills for her future escape networks. At an early age Christine was ‘playing games’ with frontier guards and customs officials. She smuggled tobacco and cigarettes in and out of Poland; found ways through the border areas, and was at one with the mountain people who trusted her – and she trusted them. The mountain folk provided her with accommodation in the villages and were valuable contacts for moving fugitives across borders. 

Many of the escape routes from Poland headed to neutral Turkey, and others passed through Hungary and Romania. Other routes still, ran to the Baltic and the Black Sea ports, and then to Malta, Cyprus, Palestine, and on to France. Routes via Yugoslavia, Italy, and Greece were also used, and in all three countries the Poles were assisted by the local population. Most routes continued into France, then via Spain to Gibraltar or Lisbon, and finally England. On many occasions, dependent upon numbers, shipping was commandeered from Malta, Cyprus and Palestine to take the escapers to Gibraltar or England. Over 16,000 officers and men arrived in Britain in late 1939.  The highly respected General Sikorski was appointed their Commander in Chief, and both the Polish Air Force (PAF) and the Polish army established its ‘Free Army’ in England. Later, over 90,000 Poles were brought out along the underground networks. At the onset of war, volunteers fled to the countryside to join the Polish army. Later, underground movements moved individuals and small groups on a regular basis. 

Poland had a history of underground warfare dating back through many European wars, and had often been a ‘partitioned state’ between Russia, Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the German invasion of Poland, the army switched from over ground operational mode to underground operational mode within days, becoming the largest underground army in Europe. The Polish Home Army alone had over 400,000 men and women. In the early part of the war only geographical distance kept Britain’s assistance to the Poles at a low level. However, Churchill was so impressed with their underground army, their Resistance groups and escape lines, that he instructed all Polish matters to be dealt with under the EU/P section of the SOE. This was unique, in that the Polish section of SOE was allowed to deal with all activities through the Polish Government in Exile, and they were not directly under SOE strategy for the future liberation of Europe. 

Re-supply to Poland was difficult from the onset. Aircrew undertook flights of over 900 miles, lasting over fifteen hours, in very cold and often unheated, early bombers, many of which had poor navigational equipment. All air operations were very difficult. Despite the problems, the RAF dropped agents, stores, ammunition, weapons and equipment on a regular basis. SOE agents and Resistance groups, many of which operated in the densely wooded areas south of Warsaw, fought hard battles on the ground; life was extremely tough and dangerous, and included having to cope with the harsh Polish winters. 

The initial escape line routes ran by Christine Granville and her fellow Poles, mainly crossed the Tatra and Carpathian Mountains, often using smugglers caves for respite from the weather. Most routes headed to Krakow, then headed south to Zakopane situated in the foothills of the mountains. Others crossed Germany and headed for France and the Low Countries. A few routes linked up with established escape lines in France. Most border crossing points were heavily guarded and routes generally relied on the smuggling communities to find ways through. Winters in the mountains were particularly harsh, and were made worse by patrolling German ski troops who hunted the fugitives down like animals, then shot them. No one knows how many died, but it is thought to be thousands. Anyone caught on skis, or found in possession of skis was summarily executed together with their family. There were no trials; the occupiers dealt harshly with the Polish underground and Resistance movements.