Intelligence intrigues of a conspiracy spy ring

The organization has many secrets, but the most important one is its founder who appeared like a meteor during the occupation of Poland and like a meteor he disappeared – says Adrian Sandak, author of the book “Muszkieterowie 1939–1942. Historia tajnej organizacji wywiadowczej” [The Musketeers, 1939-1942. The history of a secret intelligence organization].

TVP WEEKLY: Who was the mysterious and charismatic creator of the “Musketeers” organization, Stefan Witkowski?

Indeed, he was a charismatic man, able to convince the people around him that he was right, and he always had a ready answer. But the answer to your question as well as to others linked with the Musketeers’ actions won’t either be straightforward or unambiguous. The leader and founder of an intelligence organization, bearing the name “Musketeers”, which sounded quite exotic in Polish reality appeared on the scene of occupied Poland at the begging of October 1939. He I supposed to have commanded a sabotage detachment, comprised of several dozen soldiers near Kock. According to Witkowski himself, and to colonel Adam Epler, commanding the 60th Infantry Division fighting under the orders of the general Franciszek Kleeberg within the Independent Operational Group “Polesie”, the detachment was supposed to fight the Germans and Soviets. Here comes out the first mystery.

It’s related to the circumstances in which largely unknown civilian was to become leader of a sabotage unit, equipped, at that, with the secret weapon of Polish infantry – the famous antitank machine gun model 35, also known as the “Ur”. Witkowski wasn’t a regular soldier, it was impossible to find information that he was in the reserve or even what his rank was. But that’s not the end to mysteries and enigmas. In the common consciousness Witkowski is considered a talented inventor and an almighty agent.

This consideration doesn’t reflect facts?

It’s hard to find a spectacular invention by Witkowski, we shall rather find information about utopian ideas which all ended up failing. We are talking here about the famous “rays of death” which allegedly were prototype lasers, about a basketball-sized energy plant supposed to give light to an entire town or about an aquaplane, widely covered in the pre-war press, meant to sail from Europe to the US. Fragmentary information shows that the Musketeers’ future leader was in touch with the British intelligence. From post-war sources we know Witkowski was closely connected with Edward Rydz-Śmigły, who had him prepare a report on military strength and capacity of Romania and Hungary in 1939. We also know that the marshal was a generous sponsor for the “inventory activity” of the “Engineer” – that’s one of Witkowski’s occupation noms de guerre.
Article on Witkowski’s aquaplane, which was to sail from Europe to the US. Photo: Adam Sandak’s archive
What did the cooperation between the Musketeers and marshal Rydz-Śmigły, after he returned home in 1941, consist in?

On October 27, 1941 the marshal returned secretly from Hungary to Poland. In Kraków, he was welcomed by none other than Stefan Witkowski, who two days later, after the marshal’s arrival in Warsaw, assigned his people to protect him. To this day, no one can answer the question of what the marshal’s plans were: did he intend to join the current of the already existing conspiracy, or rather planned to create something under his patronage. Personally, I would lean towards the second version. A man of such stature, with obvious political ambitions, thinks in terms of leadership. It is worth adding that at the same time, there stayed in Warsaw the pre-war prime minister Leon Kozłowski, who in strange circumstances got through the German-Bolshevik front line from the army of the general Władysław Anders. In the underground press, as well as in the collaborationist press, information appeared about plans to create a collaborationist Polish government with Leon Kozłowski as prime minister. These rumors were also spread by the Germans. Without source materials or credible memoirs, we will never know whether Kozłowski and the marshal actually intended to create a rump government and whether the Musketeers were to constitute its military and intelligence base.

What was the phenomenon of the Musketeers as a conspiratorial organization?

The very fact that the organization was created practically from scratch, without the support of any political party, which was a frequent phenomenon in the case of other underground organizations, or without relying on a military cadre, as was the case with the Headquarters of the Defenders of Poland (Komenda Obrońców Polski – KOP), which was established on the basis of the Border Protection Corps (Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza – KOP). Witkowski’s charisma and enthusiasm for action attracted people willing to fight the occupier like a magnet. Gathering survivors from September 1939 and making the organization an efficient machine in the initial phase of the occupation, not inferior to the achievements of the Union of Armed Struggle (Związek Walki Zbrojnej – ZWZ) , is largely Witkowski’s personal merit. Another argument in favor of the positive reception of the organization was the fact that both its head and most of the people working in it were amateurs and had little knowledge of intelligence work. Thanks to its intelligence, contacts and entrepreneurship, it was able to operate in the harsh conditions of the occupation for almost three years.

How come the intelligence agents of this organization operated almost all over Europe?

I do not agree with your statement that the organization operated throughout Europe. The intelligence agents operated mainly in Poland. To a small and not very precisely confirmed extent – in Germany. They traveled via couriers to Hungary, probably to the Vatican, and with the help of the Abwehr – to London and Buzuluk, where General Władysław Anders was stationed.

There are many mysteries associated with the “Musketeers” organization. What are the most important ones?

Social and community life of Polish authorities in exile. London vicissitudes of emigration presidents and prime ministers

Garden party at the Anders’, carnival balls and masses in Kensington.

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The most important mystery of the organization was its founder who appeared like a meteor during the occupation of Poland and like a meteor he disappeared. The organization itself was engaged in intelligence activities similar to those of other organizations. It obtained information, which was then sent to the Polish authorities in exile, competed with the ZWZ/AK [Armia Krajowa – the Home Army] in this context, did not want to submit to general Stefan Grot-Rowecki, who, by order of the Commander-in-Chief, general Władysław Sikorski, was to be the head of the entire Polish conspiracy. Witkowski, without the consent of the Polish military authorities, independently contacted British intelligence, and tried the same with the Soviet intelligence. He did not want to reveal his network in Germany, which probably did not exist, and information from Germany was obtained from casual people and from the official German press. The above accusations, plus Witkowski’s great ambition and other sins, meant that most of the fighters joined the ZWZ/AK, unable to understand the two-track nature of the two practically competing organizations. The theme of cooperation between the Musketeers and marshal Śmigły-Rydz and Witkowski’s ambiguous contacts with the Abwehr often appear when discussing the Musketeer subject. This fires the imagination and contributes to inventing various conspiracy theories.

Why was an intelligence mission of the Musketeers to General Władysław Anders, stationed in the Soviet Buzuluk, possible?

Another question for which, unfortunately, there is no exhaustive and satisfactory answer. Contact with the Musketeers through Captain Lipiński from the Mu (code-name of the Musketeers) and a German agent, Tadeusz Dębnicki, was established by two white Russians who worked in the Abwehr – Borys Smyslovsky-Holmston and Włodzimierz Bondorowski. We don’t know which side the initiative to establish contacts came from. Smyslovsky proposed to the Musketeers to send some fighters behind the German-Bolshevik front line in order to obtain intelligence information. Dębnicki convinced Poles that Smyslovksy and Bondorowski were Russian patriots, enemies of communism, and that the Musketeers had great prospects, not only in terms of intelligence, but also financial ones.

What did Witkowski want to achieve thanks to these contacts?

The possibility of creating a transfer channel from Poland to general Andres’ army through the front line. And here we come to one of the greatest mysteries, not only of the Musketeers, but of the entire conspiracy. Because the Polish independence organization, with the help of white Russians working for German military intelligence, transferred four of its fighters to Buzuluk in the USSR, to the army of general Anders. After many vicissitudes, they checked in with the general, where they were greeted with honors. After a short time, a great scandal broke out, because in the soap brought by the musketeers there was a hidden letter, calling on general Anders to attack the rear of the Soviet troops. It was most likely that the Russians, who detained the four musketeers and held them there for several days, knew the content of the letter. General Anders, being in a very uncomfortable situation towards the Russian hosts, ordered the arrest of the Mu fighters and brought them to trial.
General Władysław Anders inspects the Polish Army troops in the USSR, years 1941-1942. From the left: N.N., general Michał Tokarzewski-Karaszewicz, general Władysław Anders. Photo: NAC / Photo archive of Czesław Datka, ref. no.: 18-307-1
What verdicts were reached in this trial?

The commander of the group, Captain Czesław Szadkowski, was sentenced by a military court to death, which was later changed to 10 years, the other three musketeers were acquitted. He served 3 years and in 1945 he was released on the order of general Marian Kukiel, in 1952 he returned to Poland, spent several years in prison, and died in 1970.

Decades have passed, but disputes on this topic still persist.

There are many questions and few answers about what Witkowski’s actual intentions were when sending his fighters and who the author of the aforementioned letter about the attack on the rear of the Soviet troops was. Could it have been marshal Śmigły-Rydz, as Stefan Witkowski was poorly known? What did the Germans want to achieve by sending an ill-prepared group of Poles, of whom only Szadkowski spoke Russian?

What was the purpose of Abwehr’s cooperation with the Musketeers?

The Germans had their plans and they didn’t really get anything out of this trip. Witkowski discredited himself and his “falling shares” in Warsaw reached touched the bottom. In his post-war memoirs, general Rudnicki stated that the scandal was neither spy nor pro-German, but rather an unpredictable and irresponsible act of Witkowski, who wanted to shine with his omnipotence as a conspirator. Having no source materials, I am inclined to general Rudnicki’s explanation, of course, regarding the Polish side.

Is it justified in this context to accuse the Musketeers of cooperation with the Germans?

I don’t know where the black legend that the Musketeers were supposed to cooperate with the Germans came from. I haven’t found any confirmation of this in the source materials. There were only unfounded allegations made by the communists after the war against some of the organization’s fighters. As I have already pointed out, the Musketeers’ contacts with the Abwehr were ambiguous, but one cannot say that they collaborated with the Germans. Anyway, many soldiers of the Home Army and other pro-independence organizations were charged with the same, which, as we know, was a judicial crime, and which in most cases ended in rehabilitation processes. The Home Army counterintelligence never charged Witkowski himself or anyone from the organization with cooperation aiming at treason, at least I have not heard of such cases. Bernard Zakrzewski, head of the Security and Counterintelligence Department of the 2nd Department of the General Headquarters of the ZWZ-AK, recalled after the war that Stefan Witkowski was not a German agent, he was not charged with high treason.
Wydawnictwo Libra, 2022
Maybe it was Witkowski’s underground activists who collaborated with the Soviet intelligence?

Witkowski, in order to improve the financing of the organization and emphasize his independence, at the beginning of 1940 got in touch with the Soviet intelligence. In one of the underground premises of the organization, a meeting took place with a certain Aleksander Benisz, a Polish citizen recruited by the NKVD. The musketeers expected from these contacts the possibility of free passage to the Soviet side and financial benefits. The Poles were to provide the Soviets with information about the German troops. Contact was broken after a short time by the Soviet side. It should be added that the Polish authorities, still in France at the time, forbade Witkowski from such contacts with foreign intelligence.

Musketeers were disbanded on the order of general Stefan Grot-Rowecki, and the liquidation section of the Home Army shot Stefan Witkowski. Why did it happen? was it just the result of competition for influence in the Polish underground as well as for gold and money that flowed to the conspirators from Great Britain in exchange for intelligence information?

The cooperation of the Musketeers with the ZWZ/AK had not been successful since the very beginning. As I have already mentioned, Witkowski didn’t want to submit to general Rowecki, on the contrary – one can conclude from his behavior that he wanted to direct the entire underground work. There was information that Witkowski often sent exaggerated or even made-up reports to the West. He was accused of intercepting ZWZ reports, liquidating his courier Włodzimierz Szyc, whom he accused of appropriating dollars from Budapest for organizational activities, which turned out to be untrue, maintaining forbidden contacts with foreign intelligence services, robberies on the premises of the Government Delegation. In mid-1941, Mu militants established that Witkowski was trading reports with the British, which was strictly forbidden. The mission to the East with the help of the Abwehr was one of the last elements that contributed to the dissolution of the organization by general Rowecki in August 1942 and finally to sentencing him to death by the Military Special Court. Witkowski was liquidated on September 18, 1942, in the stairwell of one of his underground apartments in Warsaw at 9, Warecka St. The sentence was carried out by the liquidation cell of the Home Army in German uniforms, the action was directly supervised by the deputy head of counterintelligence, Stefan Ryś.

Witkowski knew the agent Krystyna Skarbek – was she really the prototype of James Bond’s girlfriend?

Due to her turbulent life, warfare, romances she became very popular in the public space. In October 2022, a feature film about her began to be shot in Warsaw. Skarbkówna was a British agent, due to her pre-war acquaintance with Stefan Witkowski, she was the Intelligence Service’s liaison officer in the Mu, but she was not a Musketeer. I consider the statement that she was the prototype of a James Bond girl [Vesper Lynd – trans. note] and the slogan that she was “Churchill’s favorite agent” to be a fairy tale for the purposes of a wide audience.


I haven’t heard of any source material to back up this information. I don’t think Churchill knew the rank-and-file employees of his intelligence service, and the plot with the Bond girl fits perfectly into the expectations of those seeking sensation. I treat it as unwittingly repeated rumors, as in the case of Adolf Hitler, who allegedly escaped from burning Berlin and ended up in Argentina.

The best agents of the Musketeers, as well as people associated with them, such as Krystyna Skarbek, lost their lives in tragic and unclear circumstances. Why did Klementyna Mańkowska survive?

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For me, the only one that is quite mysterious and unexplained to this day is the death of Teresa Łubieńska, a close associate of Witkowski, who was stabbed to death at a London Underground station in 1957. Despite a meticulous investigation and interrogation of several thousand witnesses, the perpetrator could not be identified. Robbery was ruled out in the case. Krystyna Skarbek’s death - after analyzing her biography, available materials, and memoirs – appears to be a death of a moral and romance nature, because she was stabbed to death by a rejected lover, not a sensational-intelligence one. Of course, I realize that the second version appeals more to the audience as more interesting and stimulating the imagination, but I exclude it as illogical. Klementyna Mańkowska is another unsolved puzzle for me. Like the four aforementioned Mu couriers to Anders’ army, she was almost simultaneously sent by Witkowski to London. She was formally recruited into the Abwehr, but with the knowledge of her parent organization.

What do we know about it based on currently available documents?

At the current stage of research and the closed British intelligence archives (one might say jokingly: “forever”) it is impossible to answer what the actual purpose of Mańkowska’s mission to London was, both for the Abwehr and the head of the Mu. From the Germans, she received very general intelligence tasks, including, for example, describing the possibility of traveling from Lisbon to Great Britain, describing the difficulties that may arise during a trip to England, or establishing social relations with diplomatic circles. I am inclined to the hypothesis here that admiral William Canaris was trying to establish contact with the British. On the part of the Musketeers, Mańkowska’s task was to reach the Commander-in-Chief, General Sikorski, and establish direct contact with him, bypassing the tutelage of the Home Army. For me, one phrase by general Kazimierz Sosnkowski, with whom Mańkowska spoke after reaching London (she was not admitted to general Sikorski), is very puzzling, I quote from the memories of Mańkowska herself: “You met so many so-called good Germans, that sometimes you get the impression that fate has touched you only with such people”. In the years 1942-1948 Mańkowska stayed in Scotland. There she worked at the Edinburgh Hospital as a secretary and interpreter. In 1949, undisturbed by anyone, she left for Congo, from which she returned to Europe in 1967, settled in France and died of natural causes in 2003. I know nothing about the allegedly mysterious deaths of other women active in the Mu.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Why have you taken up the subject of the Musketeers?

I came across the name of this organization for the first time a few years ago, while reading a book by Zygmunt Kałużyński entitled “To be read in the shower”. There was a subchapter “How Polish countesses die” about the murder of Krystyna Skarbek. This was long before it became fashionable. From her I found my way to the Musketeers and that’s how my adventure with them began, which continues to this day. The direct stimulus to start writing the book was various publications, pseudo-scientific articles, especially the book by the late author. I do not want to mention his name because he can no longer defend himself, but there is such an accumulation of absurdities, errors and twisted, unsubstantiated conclusions in it that I decided to write a work based on source materials, and not on conjecture and cheap sensationalism. I took up the topic also because no professional Polish historian has done it, with the exception of Roman Buczek – an emigrant historian from Canada.

With this book do you finish the fascinating subject of engineer Witkowski’s intelligence organization?

Apparently, almost every author can say that his book is incomplete. I am constantly looking for new materials, sources, everything related to the organization of the Musketeers. It’s a bit of a never-ending story. I don’t know if I can solve most of the riddles, after all, I am moving in the world of intelligence intrigues, but I enjoy taking up this topic. I am happy with any element of the puzzle, no matter how small, that will brighten up the hazy image of the Musketeers. As for the next publication, I am at the stage of collecting materials, but for now I would prefer not to go into detail.

– Interviewed by Tomasz Plaskota
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Known members of the Musketeers. On the right, the founder of the organization, Stefan Witkowski (photo from Adrian Sandak’s archive). From the top left: the well-known pre-war actress Mieczysława Ćwiklińska and Teresa Łubieńska – in her flat was the first headquarters. Below: designer Antoni Kocjan, murdered at the Pawiak prison; engineer and inventor Kazimierz Leski, president of the Warsaw Insurgents’ Association in the 1990s. Photo NAC / IKC, Wikimedia Common – Public domain
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