Regarded as one of the greatest acts of resistance throughout Warsaw’s war, March 26th marks the 80th anniversary of Operation Arsenał…
Viewed as a melting pot of decadence, a hotbed of dissent, a cradle of European Jewry and a symbol of Polish independence, no other city aroused as much disdain from the Nazis as Warsaw. Denied the most basic rights, the Poles responded by forming Europe’s largest underground movement. Commonly believed to number around 400,000 members across the country, the Home Army (AK) was the largest of these illicit organizations. However, it was not the only one.
Among the others were the Gray Ranks (Szare Szeregi), a paramilitary scouting group with close affiliations to the AK. Adopting their name in 1940, they were responsible for a string of subversive actions that ranged from the publication of propaganda leaflets to the assassination of collaborators and high-ranking Nazi figures.
Fighting under the nom de guerre of Rudy (Ginger), scoutmaster Jan Bytnar was especially prominent in the Gray Ranks – when he was arrested in 1943, a plan was hatched to free him. Given the codename Mexico II, though more widely celebrated as Akcja pod Arsenałem, the daring operation would later enter Polish folklore.
A Life In Dates
Jan Bytnar is born on May 6th in the small south-eastern town of Kolbuszowa. The son of a headmaster and teacher, in 1926 the family move to just outside Warsaw after his father, Stanisław, receives an offer to take up higher studies in the capital.
Though living in the satellite town of Piastów, an offer to attend a prestigious elementary school in Powiśle is too good to refuse. Travelling in each day, Bytnar joins school No. 29 at Zagórna 3 (pictured above). Years later, he resumes his ties to the school by leading a scout group here whilst also running a day room for under-privileged children.
High grades at school No. 29 earn Bytnar a place at the acclaimed Stefan Batory high school at Myśliwiecka 6. To this day, the school’s reputation precedes itself having attracted visits from such luminaries as Queen Elizabeth II and Michael Jackson. Coinciding with Bytnar’s enrollment in this school, his family move to Mokotów, taking apartment No. 63 at Niepodległości 159 (pictured below).
Bytnar takes the scouting oath and rapidly rises up the ranks – by 1938 he has obtained the highest rank possible.
At school, Bytnar shares a desk with Aleksy Dawidowski (pictured below), another scout that will later become a war hero – in 1942, Dawidowski becomes the talk of the underground after replacing a German plaque hanging off Warsaw’s Copernicus moment. One year later, he will die during the attempt to free his former classmate.
Already active in the underground, Bytnar has already demonstrated commitment to the Polish cause after delivering secret messages in and out of Pawiak prison. In March, he joins the Gray Ranks and by summer is commanding his own unit in the Ochota district.
Leading by action, Bytnar’s escapades include tearing a swastika flag from the Zącheta Gallery, then home to a House of German Culture (pictured above). In the same year, he constructs an elaborate fold-up pen that allows him to write messages from a distance of four-meters.
This comes in handy when he defaces the Aviator Monument (pictured below) on Pl. Unii Lubelskiej (now reconstructed and found at the intersection of Wawelska and Żwirki I Wigury) by painting the Kotwica (the anchor-like symbol of ‘Fighting Poland’) on the plinth.
On New Year’s Eve, Bytnar takes part in an action to blow some train lines near Kraśnik. More than anything, it is a test to check the combat readiness of the Gray Ranks – Bytnar passes with flying colors and on January 18th he shoots a German official on Emili Plater. On February 2nd, during an operation to rescue documents from a flat on Bracka 23, he is wounded in the thigh and recuperates at Koszykowa 75. On March 23rd, he is arrested along with his father during a dawn raid on the family home at Niepodległości.
Arrest, Flight & Death
Detained after German investigators found his address in the notebook of another resistance fighter, Bytnar was immediately taken to Pawiak prison. Searching the apartment, incriminating evidence was found, including stolen German flags and anti-German brochures. Interrogated, Bytnar was the transferred to the Gestapo HQ at Szucha 25 (pictured below) later the same day.
Subjected to merciless beatings, by the second day he was unable to move due to the extent of his injuries. Moved to the hospital in Pawiak, little did Bytnar know that a plan to spring him had already been formed.
News of Rudy’s arrest had spread like wildfire, sowing panic and alarm among those linked to him. Often delivering chocolates to the Germans due to his work for the Wedel company, Zygmunt Kaczyński was a familiar visitor to Szucha and it was he who filed a report stating that Bytnar would be moved between the Gestapo HQ and Pawiak. From this information, an operation titled Mexico was born but was abandoned at the last moment after consents weren’t issued.
Rearranged for March 26th, Mexico II was devised with the plan envisaging the Renault truck transporting Rudy being ambushed with petrol bombs as it turned from Długa to Nalewki.
Signaled by a whistle, three backup plans were also made with the idea being that the ambush units would then, by in large, retreat to the Old Town. Emergency first aid facilities were arranged in a safehouse on Ursynowska 46, with the wounded – and Rudy – being rushed there in an old car (previously, only a horse and carriage had been available for transport).
Picking their point carefully, the attack was planned for the s-bend outside the Arsenał building as it was known that the prison transport would have to slow at this point.
Likewise, the proximity to the Warsaw Ghetto added a relative shield of safety as it was thought that the Germans would be unlikely to pursue their prey should they cross beyond its walls.
In all, 28 people were to take part in the attack, and news that Rudy was on the move in a stretcher was again passed on by Zygmunt Kaczyński. Using a phone at the Gestapo HQ, he phoned his superiors and, in the presence of several Germans, said: “The goods are being sent – they absolutely must be picked up.” As the truck progressed through Warsaw, operatives utilized a chain of signals (such as exaggerated tips of their hat) to track its journey. However, thereafter little went to plan.
Rather than a clinical extraction, a fierce gun battle ensued after the burning truck rolled to a halt outside Arsenał. Fortunately, several Germans chose not to involve themselves, among them sentries by the Ghetto and a German cyclist who happened to be in the area.
Twenty-one prisoners were freed, but the gunfight still raged. The casualties included Bytnar’s childhood friend, Dawidowski who was fatally wounded. German reinforcements finally arrived 20-minutes after the dust had settled.
Taken to apartments on Kazimierzowska 15 (pictured above) and then Karłowicza 18, it became clear that Rudy’s injuries sustained during interrogation were life-threatening. Finally taken to the Wolski Hospital on Płocka 26, he succumbed to his wounds on March 30th – but not before he was able to furnish his colleagues with the names of his interrogators, both of whom would later be assassinated.
Buried under an assumed name at Powązki Military Cemetery, he was posthumously promoted to scoutmaster and awarded the Cross of Valor.
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