To the British he was worth an entire division of men. To the Germans he was a worst nightmare come true. To the Poles and Greeks, he was a hero on par with Achilles and Odysseus.
He was the one and only, Jerzy Iwanow Szajnowicz
Szajnowicz was born in 1911 in Warsaw, Poland, the son of a local Polish woman and a Russian military officer. Soon after his birth, his parents separated, and his mother, Leonarda Szajnowicz, married a Greek businessman. The couple moved to Salonika, Greece, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. The young Szajnowicz attended Catholic boarding school in Bielany, Poland, and went to a French high school in Salonika. The young man excelled in athletics and academics and later received a degree in agronomy at the University of Louvain in Belgium. Due to his travels as a child, Szajnowicz became a polyglot, and could speak Polish, Greek, French, Russian, German and English perfectly. He was also a very accomplished athlete, and was a world-class swimmer. After becoming a Polish citizen, Szajnowicz would join the National Polish Water polo team.
Though Szajnowicz spent much of his time in Greece and other parts of Europe, he was a fervent Polish patriot, and had a great love for the land of his birth. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, marking the beginning of the Second World War, he wanted to help his homeland. While he was too late to aid in the defense of Poland, he used his position in Greece to help Polish soldiers fleeing Nazi occupation escape to Palestine, where the ground work of a Polish Army in exile was being formed.
After the German invasion of Greece, Szajnowicz escaped to Haifa, where he volunteered for the Polish Carpathian Rifle Brigade. The Poles saw in the talented polyglot swimmer more than a front-line soldier, and decided to enroll him into their intelligence service. Later, he was referred to the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), who recognized his fluency in Greek as an important asset. The British wanted an agent who could create a network of operatives in Greece, which was a major hub of German and Italian shipping. Szajnowicz was to create an organization, spy on Axis shipping routes, gather information on Axis troop movements, and cause as much pain to the Germans as possible. After receiving training in spycraft, Szajnowicz was put on a British submarine and brought to Greece during October 1941, where he promptly commenced operations.
Szajnowicz organized a network of Greek patriots, and quickly began to retrieve information on German troop and convoy movements. Once the information was gathered, it was sent to the British via makeshift radio sets.
On the 18th of December 1941, Jerzy’s story almost met a quick end when he was betrayed by a local Greek to the Gestapo. However, it would take more to knock the wind out of Szajnowicz, who managed to break free from his German captors as they were transporting him to another prison. One of his partners, Gabriela Milonopoulou, described the skill of the Polish agent,
"He was an ardent patriot and a very brave man. He was educated in Belgium, spoke fluent Greek and three or four other languages. This was a man of 'supernatural' fearlessness and perfect as a spy. When he escaped from prison, he removed handcuffs with serpentine movements, using Vaseline."
The Germans promptly put a price of 500,000 Drachma on his head, but this did not stop this intrepid individual. In fact, his exploits had not even begun.
In his first major action, Szajnowicz managed to infiltrate the Skaramanga naval yard in Athens disguised as a worker. Between the 13th and 14th of March 1942, the daring Pole swam across the harbor and planted explosive devices on the German submarine U-133, which was preparing to leave on a combat mission. As the German sub left the harbor, the bombs exploded, killing 45 crew members.
In August, Szajnowicz swam across the harbor once more, and laid time set explosives to German U-boat U-372, which was about to be sent on an Axis intelligence operation in the Eastern Mediterranean. The bombs exploded when the U-boat was off the coast of Haifa, forcing the crew to come to the surface, where it was later finished off by British airplanes and naval vessels.
Szajnowicz set out into the deep blue again, managing to sink the Spanish Transport ship San Isidore, which the Germans were using to smuggle weapons to their agents in the Mediterranean. After this action, Szajnowicz moved to the island of Paros, where he swam up to Italian transport ships and planted explosive devices, sinking several. He then managed to sneak his way into the Axis airfield of Elliniko, destroying several planes and fuel tanks. During this time he also destroyed a locomotive and derailed a train full of military supplies.
His crowning achievement came when he and a few of his compatriots smuggled themselves into the Maltsiniotis plant, which was producing engines for German aircraft. He and his comrades placed parts in the engines that would eventually decompose when in contact with oil. This one operation destroyed and disabled 400 Axis aircraft, which were sorely needed in North Africa to provide air cover for Rommel’s army in North Africa during the battle of El Alemain. Many German planes simply stopped functioning in the air, sending many Luftwaffe pilots to their deaths.
In July 1942, Szajnowicz came close to dramatically altering the course of the war when he nearly succeeded in assassinating Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who was scheduled to visit Athens. Dressed in the uniform of a German officer, Szajnowicz personally infiltrated the hotel where Mussolini was supposed to stay, and planted explosives. Mussolini only avoided death by chance when he decided to spend the night in the Italian embassy instead.
In late 1942, Szajnowicz was arrested yet again, but managed to bluff his way out of prison disguised as an intoxicated Italian officer.
In November, Szajnowicz was once again captured by the Gestapo, and was given three death sentences. As the sentence was being given, Szajnowicz proclaimed to his enemies who he was really fighting for..
"the British sent me, but I am an emissary of the Poles, who will never stop fighting you."
While being sent to his execution, Szajnowicz managed to overpower one of his guards and almost managed to escape once again. Sadly, he was shot and wounded by a German officer, and dragged to the shooting range for execution. Right before the German soldiers fired their weapons, Szajnowicz shouted, “Long live Poland! Long live Greece!”.
And that is how our hero met his end.
For his bravery and courage, Szajnowicz was posthumously rewarded with highest military decorations of Poland and Greece: The Polish Virtuti Militari and the Gold Greek Cross of valor. Like many of the thousands of Polish heroes who fought Nazi Germany during the war, his amazing story has been forgotten. It is up to us to maintain their sacred memory.
Today he is buried in his adopted hometown of Salonika, Greece, his tombstone inscribed with the words, “He died for Poland.”