Daily Express

Special agent who parachuted into occupied Europe in a blue silk dress

The only woman to serve with the British-trained Polish special forces in the Second World War, Agent Zo risked her life to help rid the continent of the Nazis. A new book reveals her extraordin­ary story...

- By Clare Mulley

TWO pistols – which Zo was very pleased with – a knife, flask, compass and a small tin with two cyanide pills, were all strapped into her parachute-suit pockets, along with a spade with which to bury her chute on landing. The belt of her suit was filled with dollars and Reichsmark­s. She mentally checked everything off as she climbed into the hold of the mighty four-engine Halifax bomber at RAF Tempsford in Bedfordshi­re, the base of the Special Duties Squadrons.

Underneath her suit, Zo wore a heavy overcoat – not new, but thick and warm. It was already late September in 1943, and the nights were cold.

Beneath this she had pulled a woollen jumper over a simple, navy-blue silk dress. This was the only time that a member of the Cichociemn­i or “Silent Unseen” – the Polish special force paratroope­rs secretly trained in the British countrysid­e – would be dropped into enemy occupied Europe in a dress, because Zo was the only female member of this elite force.

Known in Britain as Elizabeth Watson, Zo was in fact Elzbieta Zawacka, a patriotic Polish woman born in 1909. Thirty years later, she was among the very first women to take up arms in the Second World War.

At 5am on September 1, 1939, she was shaken awake by the force of an explosion. As she had hastily pulled on her uniform, a series of further detonation­s resonated through the walls of her dorm.

At first, Zo thought that the Polish Air Force must be undertakin­g exercises, but then radio warnings came of a Luftwaffe bombing raid. The Blitzkrieg had begun as Nazi Germany plunged the world back into war. “As of now, we are all soldiers,” the radio announceme­nt ended.

Zo was already a senior officer in a Women’s Military Auxiliary, a corps of uniformed female volunteers that served outside the official Polish Armed Forces, rather like the British First Aid Nursing Yeomanry or FANY. On that first morning of the war, she was deployed to Lwów, then in eastern Poland, where she organised the supply of shells to anti-aircraft nests, dug anti-tank ditches and made petrol bombs.

Seventeen days later, Soviet troops raced across Poland’s eastern border in an attack secretly coordinate­d with the Nazis.

Poland would never capitulate during the war but, unable to continue the fight effectivel­y on two fronts, the Polish government took the strategic decision to pull their armed forces out through Romania to regroup in France and serve alongside their allies. The obvious route out of Poland was through Lwów. Zo was now among those ripping up paving stones to build barricades to defend the city while the Polish government, treasury, enigma code-breakers and around 35,000 troops were evacuated.

She herself remained in Poland, quickly exchanging her uniform for a skirt, blouse and knitted cardigan to join the resistance, as Poland was carved up between their twin invaders. Zo had played a significan­t role in the defence of her nation, but it was her work in the resistance over the next six years that would make her legendary.

In May 1945,Winston Churchill learnt that almost half of Britain’s European wartime intelligen­ce had come from Poland. Much had probably arrived via Zo.

Her first act after joining her nation’s resistance “Home Army” was to set up a women’s intelligen­ce network.

By roping in women who worked in the offices of the German occupation­al authoritie­s; laundry and bakery workers who could note the number and divisions of uniforms to be washed and changing garrison bread orders; and women whose windows overlooked the main railway lines and thoroughfa­res, Zo compiled weekly reports on German plans, the number and direction of troops and the movement of military freight.

Hiding her notes in the back of a brush, and later microfilm in the shaft of a key, Zo smuggled her intelligen­ce to the Home Army leadership, who shared it with their Allies.

By 1942, Zo was a courier on one of the most perilous routes – smuggling resistance intelligen­ce right into Nazi Berlin. From there, friends in neutral embassies ensured that her microfilm reached Britain.

Placing her faith in her forged papers and her instinct for self-preservati­on, Zo narrowly evaded arrest several times but eventually, having crossed wartime borders more than 100 times, the inevitable happened.

A DEVASTATIN­G security breach left Zo hunted by the Gestapo, who arrested her entire family. Her sister was sent to Ravensbrüc­k camp. Her brother was murdered in Auschwitz. Zo herself only narrowly escaped arrest by leaping from a moving train.

With her cover blown on the Berlin route, in 1943 Zo was ordered to cross almost a thousand miles of enemy-held territory to smuggle a brass cigarette lighter, packed with crucial microfilm, to London.

It was an epic journey during which her false papers were confiscate­d by Nazi officials in Paris, she was nearly drowned while hiding in the water-tender of collaborat­ionist prime minister Pierre Laval’s train, she was thrown from a hotel window and shot at in a freezing mountain pass in the Pyrenees.

But on May Day 1943, Zo reached Liverpool, having hitched a lift on a troopship from Gibraltar.

The British were unsure what to make of

“Elizabeth Watson” at first. “She was rather reluctant to pass informatio­n on to me,” her first MI6 interrogat­ing officer reported, rather lamely.

But when bosses at the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, saw the impressive cache of microfilm that Zo had smuggled over, and read her debrief to the Poles in London, they discussed awarding this “intelligen­t, very brave woman”, the OBE.

Polish officers, based in Britain since the fall of France, initially seemed equally nonplussed about this exceptiona­l woman.

One desk-bound officer didn’t know whether to salute or bow and kiss the hand of this “captain in a skirt”, as he referred to her. Later, he tried to seduce her, largely “out of a bachelor’s long-standing habit”, as he would put it.

Making his move by flourishin­g some silk stockings from his pocket as they crossed St James’ Park one sunny May morning, he found her reaction “startling”. The only women wearing silk stockings in occupied Poland were the wives of senior German officers.

For Zo, the incident simply highlighte­d how far removed the officers in London were from the frontline.

Instead of swooning, she redoubled her efforts to sort out their inefficien­t administra­tion, restructur­e the western end of the courier system and draft an official decree to give women in the Polish resistance legal military status.

“Women perform frontline service in occupied Poland on par with men,” the Commander of the Home Army wrote to London in support. They needed to be able to issue orders, instill discipline and have the same legal protection­s, but few in Britain could believe it.

It was September 1943 when Zo pulled on her parachute pack in that Bedfordshi­re field at RAF Tempsford and tried to best her nerves as she climbed into the Halifax bomber. Zo was impressive, but she was not superhuman. Ever since leaping from the moving train, she had been terrified of heights and several bad landings during training meant that her ankles were already throbbing.

It didn’t help that somewhere over Denmark she heard the strangely fairground, pinging sound of flak from enemy anti-aircraft fire hitting sheet metal.

A low-flying Halifax made a mouth-watering sight for the alert German gunners below. But while two Special Duties Squadron aircraft were forced to turn back that night, Zo’s pilot reached Poland and she took the terrifying leap of faith that would see her return to the fight.

Before the end of the Second World War, Zo had taken part in the largest organised act of defiance against Nazi Germany – the Warsaw Uprising, which marks its 80th anniversar­y this summer.

Forced to surrender after two months of fighting against a larger and far betterequi­pped enemy, the survivors were marched into captivity and, for the first time in the war, this included female soldiers.

Previously, captured female fighters had been either shot or guillotine­d as bandits, or slowly worked to death in concentrat­ion or labour camps.

Zo’s work to secure legal military status for women serving in the Home Army meant Nazi Germany was now forced to establish the first female POW camps of the war, saving thousands of lives.

But Zo herself was not among the women walking into captivity. Under direct orders from the commander of the Home Army, she had managed to slip out of the ruins of Warsaw to undertake one last wartime mission. Zo would in fact keep fighting until Poland won its freedom once more, many years after the war.

SHE was just two weeks shy of her centenary when she died in 2009 at her sister Klara’s apartment in their hometown of Torun. An incredible 3,000 people came to pay their respects at the funeral, her coffin draped with the Polish flag and carried on a cannon carriage.

Yet one of the great ironies of her story is that, although she managed to evade capture throughout the Second World War, she would be arrested by the Soviet-backed hardline Communist regime that had been imposed on Poland in the peace.

Sentenced to serve ten years on trumpedup charges, when Zo was finally released the Communists made sure her name and achievemen­ts remained hidden from the wider world.

Until now.

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 ?? ?? HEROINE: Zawacka pictured pre-war in uniform of the Polish Women’s Military Auxillary
HEROINE: Zawacka pictured pre-war in uniform of the Polish Women’s Military Auxillary
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 ?? ?? ●●Agent Zo by Clare Mulley (Orion, £22) is out now.Visit expressboo­kshop.com or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25
●●Agent Zo by Clare Mulley (Orion, £22) is out now.Visit expressboo­kshop.com or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25
 ?? Picture: SCHREMMER/ GALERIE BILDERWELT/ GETTY, INSTYTUT PAMIECI NARODOWEJ ?? POLISH POWERHOUSE: Elzbieta Zawacka, alias Agent Zo, above, later in life; main, the bloody 1944 Warsaw Uprising
Picture: SCHREMMER/ GALERIE BILDERWELT/ GETTY, INSTYTUT PAMIECI NARODOWEJ POLISH POWERHOUSE: Elzbieta Zawacka, alias Agent Zo, above, later in life; main, the bloody 1944 Warsaw Uprising
 ?? ?? REMEMBRANC­E: Charles unveils memorial in 2013 to agents who flew from RAF Tempsford
REMEMBRANC­E: Charles unveils memorial in 2013 to agents who flew from RAF Tempsford

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