On January 8, 2022, Aleksander Tarnawski turned 101 years old. 101 years prior he had entered the world kicking and screaming in Słocin in the Rzeszów poviat in Poland. At age seventeen, Tarnawski graduated from the gymnasium in Chorzów. He then enrolled in the University of Lviv studying Chemistry. The following year the entire world conflagrated.
Poland suffers from some of the most lamentable geography. Poland is on the way to any number of juicy geopolitical targets and has suffered from some of the most deplorably unneighborly neighbors. Like most of the young males of his generation, Aleksander Tarnawski soon found himself swept up in the war.
Tarnawski was not drafted in time to serve during the German invasion, but he was eventually arrested by the Soviet NKVD. At this time in this place, the NKVD didn’t need much of an excuse to arrest or even kill you. After presenting his documents from the University of Lviv he was ultimately released.
Tarnawski’s was the first generation of modern Poles to come of age in a free nation. When commenting on his mindset and that of his comrades he said this, “During my childhood and youth, after so many years of captivity, patriotism and the need to sacrifice oneself for the motherland were the main slogans. And if a young man like me grew up in such an atmosphere, it was as it is.”
Poland fell to Germany in 35 days. Their dedicated professional army was outnumbered by more than two to one. The overwhelming combat power of the Wehrmacht secured the nation on October 6, 1939. 874,700 Poles were hors de combat. 66,000 gave their lives in defense of their country…in 35 days. By comparison, we lost 58,000 troops in ten years’ worth of intense combat in Vietnam.
Traveling with a large number of refugees fleeing the Nazis, Aleksander Tarnawski made his way across the border to Hungary. After a stint in a Hungarian refugee camp, he crossed into France, where he reported to the WKU recruiting point. From there he was assigned to the 1st Infantry Regiment of the 1st Grenadier Division.
By now the Nazi blitzkrieg seemed irresistible. With the collapse of the Allied armies on the continent, Tarnawski was one of the lucky few to escape across the English Channel to Britain. Upon his arrival, the young man immediately began training to take the fight back to the Germans.
Once in Great Britain Tarnawski trained as an armor soldier. One day in mid-1943 he was approached by a Polish Colonel who asked if he would like to return to Poland. He explained, “I was 22 at the time, and secondly, there was a war all over the world, and I was sitting here idly, I agreed to go to Poland without hesitation.” Aleksander Tarnawski had just assessed into the Cichociemni.
The Cichociemni were the commandos of the Polish underground. The word roughly translates to, “The Silent Unseen.” Their mission was to infiltrate occupied Poland, coordinate and execute resistance operations, and kill Germans.
Drawn from all units of the Polish Armed Forces not under German subjugation, they knew they were volunteering for the most dangerous work of the war. Tarnawski trained in the art of close combat, silent killing, demolitions, covert communication, and spycraft under the tutelage of the British Special Operations Executive.
Tarnawski’s training included extensive physical fitness and the expert use of a wide variety of German, Russian, Polish, Italian, and British weapons. They trained to covertly emplace mines while learning cryptography, land navigation, and advanced marksmanship techniques. They learned about life in German-occupied Poland covering everything from curfews and military laws to contemporary fashion trends. Their hand-to-hand training was based on jujitsu.
Of 2,413 candidates, only 605 passed the training course. Among them were fifteen women. Of those, some 579 qualified for operational assignments. 344 of those trained operators were eventually deployed to Poland. 113 of these were ultimately killed in action.
On the night of April 16, 1944, Aleksander Tarnawski climbed aboard a four-engined Halifax bomber from the 300th Bomber Squadron at the Allied airbase in Brindisi, Italy, as part of Operation Weller 12 under Captain Edward Bohdanowicz. After an uneventful night combat insertion near the Polish village of Baniocha at Gora Kalwaria outside Warsaw, Tarnawski went to work. He was ultimately assigned to the Nowogródek District of the Home Army.
The Polish Home Army was designated the Armia Krajowa or AK for short. Their general mandate was to make life as miserable as possible for the German occupation forces. As the Soviet Red Army got closer to the Polish border the AK got more audacious in their combat operations.
This mandate was both incredibly complex and unimaginably dangerous. With support from the Cichociemni and Allied logistics, AK operatives conducted sabotage and direct action raids, emplaced mines, and established supply caches to support their sweeping insurgency efforts. The largest coordinated resistance operation of WW2 was the Warsaw Uprising that kicked off on August 1, 1944, under the direction of the AK. The Warsaw Uprising was part of the overarching Operation Tempest.
For sixty-three days Polish unconventional troops engaged in raging combat with German forces with little to no outside support. The Red Army had drawn up alongside the eastern suburbs of the city on Stalin’s orders and refused to assist the initiative. Stalin knew that the subjugation of Poland would be a necessary part of his post-war plans for conquest. Allowing the Germans to crush the Polish Home Army dovetailed perfectly into his dark schemes.
The Poles began the operation with nearly 49,000 men under arms. However, these were generally highly motivated but poorly trained irregulars armed with little more than a scrounged weapon and a handful of ammunition or a grenade. Arrayed against them were as many as 25,000 battle-hardened Wehrmacht and SS troops amply supplied and equipped with state of the art weapons.
During the course of the fight, the Poles employed two captured German Panther tanks, a Hetzer assault gun, and a pair of armored half-tracks. The Germans for their part had dozens of armored vehicles at their disposal along with Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers. The end result was a massacre.
More than 15,000 Polish resistance fighters died in the fight, while another 15,000 were captured. 5,660 Polish First Army soldiers became casualties. Balanced against that the Germans suffered as many as 17,000 killed or missing. There was as many as 200,000 civilian dead. Once the fighting abated the Germans came in and systematically leveled the city. The breadth of destruction precluded reliable numbers.
The Polish AK fought with whatever they could scrounge. They improvised armored vehicles out of civilian trucks and widely employed the Błyskawica submachine gun. A crude Sten-like weapon, the Błyskawica was the only standardized, mass-produced weapon to be built in occupied Europe during the war. The gun fired 9mm Para at around 600 rpm from a 32-round box magazine. Roughly 700 copies were built in underground workshops in Poland.
Throughout his time in occupied Poland, Aleksander Tarnawski undertook difficult and hazardous covert missions and also trained AK soldiers in the combat skills they needed to face the Germans. In slightly more than a year in combat Tarnawski earned the Polish Cross of Valor four times. He left the military as a Major.
The Rest of the Story
After the war, Tarnawski got a job with Polish Radio in Warsaw. Despite the chaos of active special operations service against the Nazis, he still retained his passion for Chemistry. He subsequently landed employment as a lab assistant in the Walenty Wawel coal mine in Ruda Slaska. From there, Tarnawski earned a Masters Degree in Chemical Engineering from the Silesian University of Technology.
Tarnawski eventually served as an assistant professor at the Institute of Non-Ferrous Metals in the 1960’s. He then earned a position as Senior Laboratory Engineer at the Institute of Plastics and Paints in Gliwice where he worked until he retired in 1994. Along the way he was married, widowed, and remarried, this time to a fellow Chemistry professor. Together they had a daughter who eventually earned her own PhD in Economics.
In September 2014, at age 94 at Książenice near Grodzisk Mazowiecki, fully seventy years after being dropped into Poland at night from a British Halifax bomber, Aleksander Tarnawski made one last parachute jump. This time he hit the silk with former and current GROM operators. GROM is short for Grupa Reagowania Operacyjno-Manewrowego which loosely translates to “Group for Operational Maneuvering Response.” I’m told this also means, “Thunder.”
Formally activated in 1990, GROM is one of five special operations units of the Polish Armed Forces and is respected around the world within the specops community. GROM is named in honor of the Silent Unseen of the WW2-era Polish Home Army. GROM operators are colloquially referred to as “The Surgeons” for their recognized capabilities at precision direct action operations.
As of January 2022, Major Tarnawski was the last survivor of those original 344 Cichociemni sent into combat during World War 2. After fighting the Germans undercover for more than a year and facing the likely prospect of torture and horrible gory death at any moment, Tarnawski went back to school and spent his entire professional life making the world a better place. He also saw to it that his daughter was educated and productive as well.
As amazing as his story was, Aleksander Tarnawski was typical of his generation. Those crusty old guys grew up with absolutely nothing and then faced literally unimaginable challenges. They not only prevailed in the face of such profound adversity but also thrived. Today’s crop of perennially-offended, easily-breakable social justice snowflakes would do well to learn from their example.