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SOE and the Poles In Hungary

Hungary’s position throughout the war was complex and precarious ever since Lásló Bárdossy saw an opportunity to regain lost territories by declaring war on the Soviet Union on June 26th 1940. Geopolitically, Hungary was sandwiched between rival forces and cultures and whose population had immense sympathy and support for the Poles. A network of Polish - Hungarian organizations provided routes for couriers working for SOE and ZWZ/AK (Bor-Komorowski, 1951), sanctuary for young escapees in schools, (Zenon Krzeptowski) and the removal of material from the VI and VII weapons programme from Peenemünde (Garlinski, 1978). Foot (1984) suggests SOE’s work in Hungary was ‘slight’ and yet files recovered from the Public Records Office show a different story where the main focus of activity was to ‘turn’ Horthy against the Germans.

The Hungarian section of SOE was shackled in terms of operations by the Foreign Office since it was in the Russian sphere of influence. Although Lieu-Colonel Howie arrived in Budapest in September 1943, building up a network was slow and arduous and many Polish groups worked independently of each other. Inside an internee camp he was introduced to Lieut. Radyskiewicz and his wife (Countess Tarnopolska). They used a cut-out courier who introduced him to Prince Andrew Sapieha who had the protection and confidence of the Horthy party and was awarded many privileges (PRO HS4/226/98295). Prince Andrew Sapieha was the personal representative of General Bor-Komorowski, (head of the AK) and there were approximately 30 men working under him in reconnaissance and signals. Lieu-Colonel Howie was impressed with the running of the organizations and commented upon the high frequency of trips made by couriers to Poland where some had made over 100 trips (one was code-named as Artur). This well organized unit included Colonel Corvin and Officer Szuroda and supported by Madame Rawuska (code name Marie-Rose). The networks were small and carried out a wide variety of tasks. For example, radio valves and spares made by Phillip’s in Hungary made their way via these couriers to Poland to repair damaged W/T sets supplied to the AK.

Lieu-Colonel Howie was based in a flat belonging to Father Szentivany who had pro-Anglo sympathies. Father Szentivany undertook rounds of P.O.W camps to ensure the conditions of the British were improved. However, when the Germans invaded Hungary in March 1944 many Polish working in ‘cells’ were caught and shot by the Gestapo including Officer Szuroda. Such was the influence of Prince Andrew Sapieha that W/T transmissions were made from the Royal Palace and this group was used to negotiate with Admiral Horthy a conditional surrender after the collapse of Romania. Unfortunately, pro-German officers arrested the team and therefore delayed the course of history. Released and put under the care of Colonel Tost (Horthy’s ADC) the team tried to signal the FO and the Supreme Command, but as the transmission sked was out of synch, and the messages were not received. The Gestapo picked up the signal and requested information about ‘strange signals’ being transmitted from the palace. The Hungarians were afraid and further transmissions cancelled. Couriers took the message of surrender overland to Hungarian Legations based in Switzerland and Sweden. The team were whisked out of Budapest to lake Balaton and hidden then moved across the Danube to the home of Baroness Romaska. Here a plan was hatched to negotiate the release of interned Polish military personnel and arm them against the Germans. The Hungarian authorities (under the command of Colonel Utasi and pro-German) moved the Polish internees to the northern edge of lake Balaton in the Zala area. Numbering 10,000 Lieu-Colonel Howie estimated only 3,000 could be described as in fighting condition and ready to fight under the command of Colonel Corvin. The plan never materialised.

While Hitler hid behind shallow legalistic jargon to intimidate, the Gestapo rounded up anti-Nazi sympathisers, Jews, journalists, priests and anybody who might openly resist. The Nazi war machine had officially swallowed up Hungary. Plotting and a potential coup d’etat to put General Sztojay as Regent were the final curtain calls for a complex war. As Germany withdrew through Bulgaria and Rumania, numerous states began simultaneous negotiations with both the Russians and the Allies in secret with any troops being withdrawn from supporting Nazi activity in the Balkans. The politically besieged Admiral Horthy attempted to escape the Nazi grip. On October 15th 1944 he attempted to broadcast a proclamation on Radio Budapest and the Gestapo supported by Nazi sympathisers killed the student guard and pursued Horthy to the Palace where the defenders were murdered and their bodies dumped in the Danube. Admiral Horthy and members of his family were deported to Germany. Major Szalasi, leader of the Arrow Cross party seized power and lasted just seven weeks before fleeing to Vienna to escape the advancing Russian Army. Horthy and his family were sent to concentration camps and although released, post war politics (namely at the instigation of Tito) kept them virtual house prisoners.

In the same archived material is a request by the Allied Supreme Commander, Eisenhower (dated Sept 1944) demanding access to the Poles interned in Switzerland (2DSP), other fragments in France and those conscripted into German Units to reinforce his main battle groups. Naturally, the Government in Exile turned down his request due to it being outside his sphere of influence. In the light of the Yalta Agreement where all Polish personnel would become ‘illegal,’ the request beggars belief !

While the operations in Hungary were essential in the supply and flow of information and underground operatives, Poles in exile had impact in other theatres of war. Poles were found fighting in Yugoslavia, Greece and Albania. Although Lt. Col. Hazell led M/UP and their work focussed on mainland Europe, subgroups worked in the Mediterranean. Colonel Hancza was based in Italy and worked for Section VI Bureau at Polish Headquarters and coordinated Polish outfits located in the Balkans. Lt. Colonel Mercik was based in Cairo and coordinated his work through what was known as AD/E (SOE’s head of operations in N.W Europe) in London (PROHS4/226/98295). Little is available in the public domain over Polish activities in the Balkans. However, their role must not be overlooked or diminished. A cable sent on 20th July 1944 by Lt. Col. Hazell (PROHS4/226/98295) indicates the operation being run by a British liaison officer hampered activities in Greece, Crete and Rhodes. It appears the plan was for organising a revolt of foreign troops on the island but needed a Polish officer to lead the ‘substantial unit’ in the field.

Other activities involved specialist units (MP/50) looking at destabilising the German occupation of Yugoslavia. Major Gawronski appeared to be in contact with Tito’s foreign minister, Smodlacka to broadcast propaganda alongside subversive military activities. However, plans were withdrawn, as Tito did not recognise the Polish Government in Exile as an ally.

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