The 1943 Pinsk Prison raid was one of the most spectacular raids in the history of the Home Army and the Polish Underground State. It took place on January 18, 1943 in Pinsk, the town in Eastern Poland (now in Belarus), which at that time was under German occupation as part of Reichskommissariat Ukraine. The purpose of the raid was to release a Cichociemni agent and his comrades, who had been captured by the Germans while trying to blow up the Horyn river bridge.
The raid was a success, as 40 Polish soldiers, divided into six groups and commanded by Jan Piwnik, managed to enter the heavily guarded prison, and release Alfred Paczkowski (Wania), Marian Czarnecki (Rys), and Piotr Downar (Azorek). A fourth prisoner, Mieczyslaw Eckardt (Bocian) had been killed by the SS during the interrogation. The raid lasted only 15 minutes. Several of the participants later received military awards for their actions.
Captain Alfred Paczkowski (nom de guerre Wania) was trained in Great Britain and as a member of the elite Cichociemni, was parachuted over Poland in 1942. Named one of commandants of the Wachlarz sabotage organization, he was engaged in diversionary activities in the rear of German forces, operating on Eastern Front. Sent to Belarus, he liquidated Gestapo agents and blew up German transports between Brzesc nad Bugiem and Minsk. Captured by the enemy, together with three other agents, Czarnecki, Downar and Eckardt, he was taken to the Pinsk prison.
Colonel Adam Remigiusz Grocholski, who was Commander in Chief of Wachlarz, came to the conclusion that all four agents were lost. General Stefan Rowecki, however, decided to try and release them, after consulting the matter with Generals Tadeusz Pełczyński and Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski. Furthermore, Marian Przysiecki, a resident of Pinsk and former chief of local Wachlarz, who had managed to escape from the prison, pledged his support. His assistance was crucial, as he knew the prison well.
The Germans were aware of the fact that Paczkowski had been sent from England, and tortured him, hoping to get some information. Paczkowski tried to tell his oppressors made-up names and stories.
General Rowecki ordered another Cichociemni agent, Jan Piwnik (Ponury) to execute the raid. The purpose was simple, to release the captured soldiers, in any way possible. Piwnik's chances were slim, as the prison was heavily guarded both by the Wehrmacht and Ukrainian auxiliary forces. Polish agents had very little time, and did not manage to get to know the town well.
At first Piwnik tried to bribe the prison guards with 40,000 Reichsmarks, but he was unable to reach their overseer. The only solution was to carry out a raid. Its success was based on precision and surprise. The plan was prepared in a conspirational apartment in Brzesc, by four Cichociemni agents: Piwnik himself, Jan Rogowski (Czarek), Waclaw Kopisto (Kry) and Michal Fijalek (Kawy). Altogether, they decided that 16 people were needed for the raid. They were opposed by 100 German military police, 300 Ukrainian auxiliaries, 1,000 Don Cossacks, and a Wehrmacht battalion: altogether, some 3,000 men were stationed in Pinsk in January 1943. Furthermore, the prison was located in a building with very thick walls, and in case of success, all released prisoners were to be transported to Warsaw, some 400 kilometres (250 mi) away, across occupied territory.
The raid began in the morning of January 17, when fourteen men gathered in the apartment in Brzesc. They all headed towards Pinsk in two vehicles: a Ford truck and Opel Kadett. At the same time, a Chevrolet truck left Janow Poleski, also heading for Pinsk. In the evening all conspirators reached their destination, and Piwnik presented to them the plan of the raid. Four groups (twelve men, including Piwnik), with one soldier dressed in an SS officer uniform, were to enter the complex, and complete their mission in less than 30 minutes. Four members of the two extra groups were to wait in the vehicles. All decided to use Russian language during the raid, to make the Germans believe that Soviet partisans were responsible. Also, they wanted to prevent possible German reprisals against ethnic Polish civilians.
At three minutes to five p.m., the Opel Kadett with Polish conspirators appeared by the prison complex. An SS officer emerged from the vehicle, ordering the guards to open the gate. The vehicle entered the coutryard, and the guard who locked the gate was shot by the Pole who was wearing the SS uniform. Soon afterwards, the second group entered the office of the prison, destroying telephone wires. Two additional German guards, Hellinger and Zollner, were shot by the Poles, who after finding the keys, began opening the cells, shouting in Russian: "In the name of Stalin, you are free, get out!" Among those released was Paczkowski, who was very weak, but still alive.
All conspirators, together with the freed men, jumped into their vehicles, heading back towards Brzesc and Drohiczyn. Meanwhile, the Germans, due to destroyed telephone wires, found out about the raid only after several hours. Finally, on January 20, 1943, Paczkowski reached his Warsaw apartment, where his wife Alicja awaited.
On February 13, 1943, in recognition for the exemplary raid, Jan Piwnik and Jan Rogowski (Czarka) were awarded Silver Crosses of the Virtuti Militari, by General Grot Rowecki. Other participants in the raid were awarded the Cross of Valour.
The Germans quickly found out that it was the Home Army, not the Soviets, who carried out the raid. In return, they shot 30 captives, ethnic Poles, arrested in Pinsk.
This is the list of the soldiers, who took part in the Pinsk Raid:
Group I: Jan Piwnik "Ponury", Wladyslaw Hackiewicz, "MSZ", "Zaleski", Zbigniew Wojnowski, "Motor, Zbigniew Sulima (dressed as SS officer)
Group II: Jan Rogowski, "Czarka", Waclaw Kopisto, "Kra", Zbigniew Slonczynski, "Jastrzebiec", "Jastrzàb", Turon, "Dzik".
Group III: Michal Fijalka, "Kawa", Wiktor Holub, "Kmicic", Czeslaw Holub, "Ryks", Skwierczynski, "Dym".
Group IV: "Wrona" – "Kruk", Wladyslaw Westwalewicz, "Plomien".
Group V: Edward Pobudkiewicz, "Monster", Henryk Fedorowicz, "Pakunek".
Group VI: Bronislaw Posluszny, "Drucik", other names are unknown.