Courier from Warsaw - Jan Nowak

Courier from Warsaw Book Cover

Courier from Warsaw

Jan Nowak

ISBN 0002621215
London: HarperCollins



96 Books about Poland | Polish War Graves in Britain

Spring of 1943. Poland remains occupied by Nazi Germany. Communication between the Polish underground and Polish military authorities in London is difficult. The sending of intelligence mail by courier through France took several months. The use of Swedish businessmen, travelling from Stockholm to Warsaw, to pass on mail had by the autumn of 1942 been blocked.

Jan Nowak, working for the Polish resistance, volunteered to try and re-establish a courier route from Poland to Sweden. It was known that Polish workmen who loaded boats had managed to stow away to Sweden. The Gestapo knew this too and searched every vessel with dogs before it was allowed to set sail. Any attempt to stow away would be dangerous and if found by the Gestapo torture and execution awaited.

Courier Network

Jan Nowak was 26 years old when war broke out in 1939. As a reserve soldier he reported for duty with his regiment the Second Squadron of Horse Artillery. On September 15 they engaged the enemy in the vicinty of a village called Uscilug on the river Bug. Nowak was eventually captured by the Germans but later escaped and made his way to Warsaw. By 1941 he was working for the Polish resistance in a cell called "Action N". Their function was to produce literature which appeared to have been written by a German military underground organisation and then distribute it where Germans would find it. The intention was to demoralise the Germans and encourage the Poles. Nowak's task was to establish a courier network which would distribute the material to the western provinces of Poland and into the German Reich itself. By the spring of 1943 he had the idea of setting up distribution centers in the Baltic ports of Gdansk and Gdynia so that the literature could be placed on German warships and also supplied to Swedish sailors. It was then he learned about the Poles who had stowed away on ships to Sweden.

Stowaway to Sweden

In April 1943 Nowak left Warsaw for the port of Gdynia. He had an identity card as a workman, in the name of Jan Kwiatkowski, which enabled him to enter the dock area. A crane operator, called Franek, helped smuggle him on board a Swedish ship where he hid in the hold which was full of coal. On April 20 the ship set sail. The journey to Stockholm would take three days and eight hours. After half that time the ship's engines stopped. The hold hatch cover was removed and Nowak revealed himself to the Swedish sailors. He was not in Stockholm but on the Swedish island of Gotland. Eventually he was taken to Stockholm and to the Polish legation. His journey from Warsaw to Stockholm had taken 24 days.

Journeys as a Courier

Jan Nowak made five journeys as a courier. The table below gives the details.

Route Journey
Warsaw to Sweden 11 April 1943 departure from Warsaw; 5 May 1943 arrival in Stockholm. Swedish ship from Gdynia (Poland) to Island of Gotland (Sweden).
Sweden to Warsaw 21 June 1943 Swedish ship from Luleo most northerly port in Sweden; 29 June 1943 arrival in Szczecin, Germany. A few days later arrival in Warsaw.
Warsaw to London 15 October 1943 - 7 November 1943 arrived in Stockholm; Swedish ship from Gdynia (Poland) to Malmo (Sweden). Flight in small bomber from Sweden to Scotland, then train to London.
London to Warsaw 11 July 1944 flight from London via Gibraltar and Algiers to Italy; Flight from Brindisi (Italy) to Poland; 26 July 1944 arrival in Warsaw.
Warsaw to London Left Warsaw at end of Uprising in early October 1944; Waited for air transport through all of October, November and into middle of December. Eventually on 19 December 1944 decided to leave overland for London, via Germany, Switzerland and France. On 23 January 1945 arrived in London.

The Black Week

Nowak's return to Warsaw in July 1943 coincided with what became known in Poland as the "Black Week". On June 30 the Gestapo arrested General "Grot" (Stefan Rowecki), the commander of the Home Army (AK). On 4 July General Sikorksi, Polish Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces, died in an air crash at Gibraltar. He had been returning to Britain from a visit inspecting Polish troops in the Middle East. Poland had lost two of its most important leaders in a single week.

Courier to London

In the middle of August 1943 Nowak met with the Home Army (AK) leadership to be briefed by them prior to his next courier run which was to be to London. General "Bor" (Tadeusz Komorowski) had replaced General "Grot". "Bor" emphasised to Nowak that:

You will be the first emissary to arrive in London since General Sikorski's death and Grot's arrest...You will tell the commander-in-chief what you have seen for yourself. The Home Army is fighting on, the present resistance and the preparations for the general rising are continuing, and everything is proceeding according to plan...We must count on a continuing German retreat on the Eastern Front and on the possibility that the Soviet troops will be in our eastern provinces before the invasion of the Allies and the collapse of Germany....We are awaiting instructions from the commander-in-chief [General Sosnkowski] and the government to cover that eventuality. The matter is urgent... (p. 188)

Nowak was instructed to gather political and military intelligence in London and to influence British decision makers on the value of the Home Army so that they would increase arms drops to them. His return to Warsaw was delayed until late July 1944 due to an accident he sustained when undertaking parachute training. On 29 July 1944, just two days before the start of the Warsaw Uprising, he reported to General "Bor" and the Home Army leadership on his visit to London.

I repeated all that I had memorized, beginning with a reconstruction of the talks in Moscow and Teheran on the basis of [Prime Minister] Mikolajczyk' conversations with Eden, Churchill and Roosevelt. I stressed very strongly the point that the occupation zones for the British, Americans, and Russians had been set without regard to the probable location of the front when the Third Reich collapsed, and that the presence of Allied troops on Polish soil was not foreseen...Bor was mainly interested in whether or not Warsaw could count on massive drops of arms and the dispatch of our own parachute brigade from Britain. To these questions I replied firmly in the negative...The chief of staff [General Sosnkowski] had told me about his conversations with the British, which had ended in placing the Polish parachute brigade under British command...for operations on the Western Front...these men could have few illusions...the Soviets regarded them as enemies. Coming into the open could at best mean imprisonment, at worst death....My mission was too late; it could at most deepen the inner conflict of these people at a time when every decision was the wrong one. (pp. 332-335)

The Warsaw Uprising

At 5pm on 1 August 1944 the Warsaw Uprising began. On that day the Polish flag was once again raised.

...on the top of the Prudential Building (the only skyscraper in Warsaw) a huge white and red flag waved proudly and gently. I experienced a moment of violent emotion. The flag must have been visible throughout the city...An hour later we learned that the flag had been raised by a seriously ill tuberculosis patient, Ensign Garbaty...who had left the hospital only a few days earlier following the removal of a lung...he climbed to the 16th floor, got up on the roof under heavy fire from a German garrison in the Main Post Office, and put up the flag. (p. 344)

Nowak had a new task as editor of English programs for the Warsaw Uprising broadcasting station "Lightning". He broadcast news and reports from the city and composed appeals directed at people of influence in England. From 9 August, until the surrender to German forces on the 3 October, 57 English programs had been broadcast.

During the Uprising when the end seemed imminent Jan Nowak proposed to his future wife, Jadwiga Wolska "Greta", that they get married immediately.

I told her, "this has to be the end. Powisle fell today...tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, those pockets of resistance that are still miraculously holding out will probably all collapse...Let's get married now...while there are still some churches and priests left in the city"..When her sister Jula was killed some days before, we promised each other that we would get married immediately after the Rising..."The end is drawing near...Let's face it as husband and wife"...We were married on September a chapel not far from the quarters occupied by the Home Army chaplains. (pp. 377-378)

Return to London

On 24 September General "Bor" gave instructions that Jan Nowak and his wife were to take a collection of documents - the archives of the Uprising - to London. They set out for London on 19 December 1944 from Greta's parents house in Cracow.

The people who bade us farewell had been robbed by the war of two children, and now the third and last was leaving. They realised the danger to which we would be exposed, but they uttered not a single word to stop us or to appeal to their daughter's feelings, as they parted with the only treasure they had left...They awaited our return, always hopeful, for 24 years of a lonely, frighteningly sad old age. They died in 1968, almost at the same time and are resting in the cemetery of Cracow, far from the graves of the other two children who were killed in action. (p. 406)

Jan Nowak and his wife arrived in London on 23 January 1945.


Jan Nowak died in Warsaw on 20 January 2005 aged 91. The Independent (UK) wrote in Jan Nowak-Jezioranski - Resistance fighter and 'voice of free Poland' that:

...when he was a courier for the Polish Home Army - the underground resistance - Nowak-Jezioranski travelled across Nazi-occupied Europe to London to brief personally Winston Churchill and his Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden about conditions in Poland, and bring news of the extermination of the Jews...Nowak-Jezioranski built up a legendary reputation. His was perhaps the best-known voice in Poland during the Cold War. When the collapse of Communism made it possible for him to return home in 1989, his arrival at Warsaw Airport was greeted by the entire senior leadership of Solidarity, the newly triumphant pro-democracy movement, and by a crowd of several thousand well-wishers.