With August 1st marking the anniversary of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, we take a deeper look at the role foreigners played in the insurgency…
By Stuart Dowell, Illustration Michał Miszkurka
Although often thought of as a straight battle between the Poles and the Germans, there were in fact a lot of foreigners who fought in the Warsaw Uprising. These included Slovaks, who had their own Home Army unit and their own uniforms, Georgians who had escaped from Nazi prisoner of war camps, Czechs, Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Jews from countries including Greece, France and Romania who had been liberated from the Gęsiówka concentration camp on the fifth day of fighting.
The Italian restaurant owners of Marszałkowska did there bit by providing meals for the fighters, and there was even a German Luftwaffe officer, Willy Lampe, who switched sides because he was from Alsace and didn’t consider himself German. Among this foreign legion, two characters stand out. The first is August Agbola O’Browne, the only known African to fight in the uprising. Born in 1895 in Nigeria, he found work aboard a British ship and sailed for England, from where, in 1922, he left for Gdańsk, before finally settling in Warsaw. Before the war he worked as a dancer and a jazz musician and would often be seen strolling along Marszałkowska, always in a dapper suit and a fedora hat.
When the Germans laid siege to Warsaw in September 1939, considering himself to be a fully-fledged Pole for better or for worse, he reported as a volunteer to defend the city. Not much is known about how Agbola survived during the occupation in the face of Nazi racism, but there are reports that he made a living by teaching English and trading electronic equipment.
During the uprising he fought under the nom de guerre Ali in the ‘Iwo’ Battalion, mainly in the south of Śródmieście. Details of Agbola’s service are scare, but there are corroborated accounts of a black soldier working at the battalion HQ, probably in the communication section. It is not known what happened to Agbola immediately after the capitulation and the banishment of all the citizens of Warsaw from the city. He turns up again in the records in 1949 when he joined a combatants’ association and revealed his involvement in the Home Army and the uprising, a revelation that at the time could have led to arrest and even death.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s he again played in bands in Warsaw’s clubs and restaurants. He married for a second time in 1953 and had one daughter in addition to two sons from a previous marriage. In 1958 he left Poland with his family and went to the UK, where he died in 1976.
Our second foreign insurgent is John Ward, a British airman who was shot down over Luxembourg on the first day of the Battle of France and taken into German captivity. After being sent to a POW camp in Leszno, the 19-year old radio operator seized his chance and escaped. He was caught a few days later but managed to escape again the very same day. After much night-time meandering and assistance from local Poles, he made contact with the Home Army and was placed in Warsaw to train young radio operators and to listen to radio traffic in English and German (in which he was fluent).
When the uprising began, Ward moved to the Information and Propaganda Office and was the only British officer to send information back home about what was happening in the city. In a report to The Times on August 23rd he wrote: “Today in Warsaw a battle is going on that I think is very difficult for the British nation to understand. It is a battle that is being carried on as much by the civil population as by the A. K., the troops of the Polish Home Army. It is total warfare.” On the same day, he wrote to the air minister Sir Archibald Sinclair: “Sir, the situation here in Warsaw is critical. We have not sufficient weapons and ammunition to carry out any offensive operations, and hardly enough for defence. In a few days’ time we shall not even have enough for defence. Losses are colossal.”
When the fighting in Warsaw stopped he moved south and fought with the Home Army near Kielce against the Germans. Later, on advice from London, he handed himself over to the Soviets, who interrogated him at length before finally sending him to Odessa, where he boarded a ship bound for Malta and then took a plane home to London, completing a 5-year odyssey. After the war, he worked for MI5 in diplomatic missions around the world. He never spoke openly about his experiences in Poland and never wrote his memoires.
In their darkest hour, when they felt most alone and forgotten, the role of foreigners fighting shoulder to shoulder with Poles on the barricades and in the rubble must have given succour to the men and women of Warsaw in 1944.