How Polish resistance carried off a stunning 100 million zł bank heist that stunned Nazi Europe
This weekend marks the 80th anniversary of Akcja Góral (Action Highlander), the largest heist not just in wartime Poland, but also, reputedly, the whole of occupied Nazi Europe.
Taking just over two minutes, the robbery was executed by the Kedyw Unit of the Home Army on August 12th, 1943, and netted just over 106 million złoty.
Named after the commonly used nickname for the 500 złoty note (a mountain highlander was depicted on the note), the operation took over one year of planning and was undertaken to boost the Home Army’s rapidly diminishing war chest.
Having been left under no illusion as to how parlous the underground’s finances were by Captain Emil Kumor, the order to rob a bank was directly issued by General Stefan ‘Grot’ Rowecki.
This was by no means the first time that Poland’s resistance had opted to take such measures, but this would prove to be easily the most spectacular.
Targeting a convoy leaving the Issuing Bank on Warsaw’s Bielańska street, the daring action was made possible by the number of Poles that were employed in the bank.
Codenamed Michał I and Michał II respectively, Ferdynand Żyła and Jan Wołoszyn were vital when it came to providing the underground with inside information.
The planning stage, though, was far from smooth. In June, 1943, General Rowecki was betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo. Transported to Berlin for interrogation, he would never see freedom again.
The plot was further jeopardised when a group of Kedyw’s saboteurs, known as Kosa 30, were apprehended by the Germans whilst attending a wedding. Regardless, Kedyw’s new commander, General ‘Bór’ Komorowski, decided to go ahead with action, handing the responsibility to a cell of elite soldiers commanded by Lieutenant Roman ‘Pola’ Kiźny.
Initially planned for August 5th, a communication breakdown saw the robbery aborted at the last moment and postponed for a later date. After this failure, the attack’s commander, ‘Jurek’, was demoted to deputy and ‘Pola’ found himself personally entrusted to lead the action.
Thanks to information collected by Michał I and Michał II, the Home Army already knew that vans carrying cash from the bank took three routes – work on Poniatowski Bridge automatically cancelled out the chances of one such route being used.
On the second route, which ran down Miodowa street, operatives erected false road closure signs. The Germans had no choice but to use the third route which snaked down Senatorska.
Learning that a big shipment of cash was due to be delivered to Kraków the next day, Michał II informed his handlers of the news on August 11th. At 9 a.m. the following day, it was confirmed that a convoy would leave the bank at 10 a.m. Pola’s men immediately sprang into action and within 45 minutes all participants had assembled.
Turning down Senatorska street at about 10.17, the convoy found its passage blocked by a parked van and a two-wheel cart filled with crates. Signalling his men to begin the ambush, Pola fired the first shot and a brief but fierce firefight broke out.
Lightening fast, it was all over within 150 seconds. Six Germans lay dead after the shootout, so too did three Polish bank employees caught in the crossfire. Of the 50 or so Poles involved in ground operations, just one was wounded.
Transported to a house on Sowińskiego 47, the cash was buried in the garden and covered with potatoes and sprouts. Two days later though, it was on the move again.
Thrown into crates of tomatoes, the haul was transferred to a safehouse on Śliska street where it was finally counted – in a pleasing twist of fortune, the figure was double what would have been seized had the initial raid gone ahead.
Stung by the action, the Germans swiftly launched an investigation offering rewards of 5 million złoty for tip-offs leading to the cash and 1 million złoty for information about those who may have participated in it.
Quick to respond, the Polish underground sought to confuse matters by sending in hundreds of letters containing false information – one directed agents to Pl. Zamkowy. When they arrived, investigators found the square empty barring the statue of King Zygmunt staring down at them from his column.
Soon, the investigation found itself floundering. Clouding it further, the deaths of the Polish workers meant that the Germans were unable to determine if the caper had been an act of resistance or simply a gangland crime. As tragic as these deaths had been, were it not for them it’s likely the Germans would have ordered random street executions as punishment.
Widely known as ‘the hundred million action’, the robbery soon entered folklore and has come to be regarded as one of the underground’s finest moments and has subsequently been immortalised in song, poetry, comic strips and suchlike.
Remembered via plaque at Senatorska 3 that marks the spot where the ambush took place, other key landmarks also remain, not least the bank building itself. Completed in 1911 and built to a design authored by Leonti Nikolaevich Benois, it initially served as the Russian State Bank.
Set close to Old Town, it was captured by insurgents during the Warsaw Uprising and was a redoubt from which fighters were able to break through German lines and escape to the city centre.
Scene of heavy fighting, bullet wounds still pockmark the exterior whilst above, eagle-eyed visitors can even spot an exposed safe in one of the walls. Mooted as a potential sight for the Rising Museum, today it stands as a reminder of Warsaw’s wartime experience.