Poland was one of the earliest casualties of World War II. After being invaded by Germany, its government fled, leaving citizens to contend with the German forces themselves. Many took to joining the underground resistance movement, including the children of the Polish Scouting Association.
Germany invades Poland
The German invasion of Poland began on September 1, 1939. In an attempt to rationalize its actions, the government claimed Poles were persecuting ethnic Germans living in the country and accused the Polish government of teaming up with France and Britain to tear Germany apart.
The assault was a surprise to the Polish Army and, when paired against the German military’s vast size and skill, was no match for their invaders. The Germans tore through their defenses and quickly advanced on Warsaw. Within weeks, the country fell, a loss not helped by the fact the Soviet Union had invaded the eastern portion of the country, stretching the Poles’ defenses thin.
While the country’s government officially surrendered on September 27, 1939, the last of the Polish resistance ran until October 6. From then on, the country was split between the Germans and the Soviet Union, along the Bug River, and its citizens were forced to live under the rule of outside forces.
The Gray Ranks
Everyone in Poland was affected by the German invasion, including the Polish Scouting Association (Związek Harcerstwa Polskiego). Activities related to the organization were banned, and all Boy Scouts and Girl Guides were branded as criminals. As such, they needed to head underground.
As part of the Polish Underground State, the Scouts rebranded as the “Gray Ranks” (Szare Szeregi). Under the leadership of Scoutmaster Florian Marciniak, it became a paramilitary group, working independently but in cooperation with the resistance. As it had in past conflicts – including the Great Poland Uprising and the Polish-Bolshevik War – the ZHP was going to fight.
Despite being turned into a paramilitary unit, the ZHP followed the same motto as it had prior to the war – “service to the people and country, and education and improvement of their skills” – but also expanded it to include a three-part action plan. This consisted of the struggle for Poland’s independence (“today”), a national uprising and the country’s liberation (“tomorrow”), and rebuilding Poland after the war (“the day after”).
Every Scout contributed to the cause
The youngest members of the ZHP were the Zawisza. Between the ages of 12 and 14, they prepared for the auxiliary service that would be needed following the impending uprising. They were taught in secret schools to ensure they were prepared for the day Poland was liberated.
Scouts aged 15 to 17 attended Combat Schools, and were involved in “small sabotage.” They participated in the everyday disruption of German practices and were involved in three major campaigns: Operation N, which saw the distribution of propaganda newspapers among German soldiers residing in Poland; Operation WISS, the surveillance of German units; and Operation Wawer-Palmiry, which involved the destruction of German propaganda.
Even Girl Guides got involved in the ZHP’s efforts. They formed auxiliary units and worked as liaisons, nurses, and munitions carriers.
The eldest Scouts made up assault groups (Grupy Szturmowe), which were the Polish Home Army’s best-trained troops. They trained at secret schools, and studied at underground universities. Organized into battalions, they took part in “major sabotage,” including blowing up railway bridges, liberating inmates from German prisons and transports, and carrying out executions ordered by special courts.
The Warsaw Uprising was the result of the Red Army‘s insistence that the Home Army stage an attack against the German forces. While initially nervous about the request, the Home Army agreed, hoping to liberate Warsaw before the Russians arrived.
On August 1, 1944, troops with the Warsaw Corps attacked, and three days later controlled most of the city. However, the Germans sent in reinforcements and bombarded the Polish forces with artillery and air attacks, forcing them into a defensive position.
The Red Army soon arrived in Praga, and the Soviet government denied Allied forces access to Soviet airbases, meaning they couldn’t deliver supplies to the Polish resistance. Without support, the Home Army divided itself into small, disconnected units. Scouts within the ZHP, particularly members of the assault groups, saw action with these units.
Despite their efforts, the resistance was forced to surrender on October 2, 1944. After the Germans had taken whoever they could into custody, the Red Army established a pro-Soviet government. Unbeknownst to the Germans, they’d eliminated the main threat to the Soviet’s control of the country.
The ZHP following the war
On January 18, 1945, the ZHP stopped fighting the German occupation of Warsaw. It reverted back to using its former name and re-entered the public sphere. This was only for a short time, however, as the occupying Soviets pressured it to join the Pioneer Movement, a communist children’s organization.
The ZHP was banned in 1949, and until 1956 only existed via its international branches. Following the deaths of Joseph Stalin and Bolesław Bierut, the Polish United Workers’ Party renamed itself the ZHP, but with a catch: it didn’t consider itself a continuation of the prewar ZHP.
From then on, the organization underwent several changes as Poland’s political climate shifted.