Incredible true story of swashbuckling Polish agent who became resistance leader and chief saboteur in WWII Greece
In July 1942 Jerzy Iwanow-Szajnowicz, posing as forced laboured, smuggled himself into a Nazi factory in occupied Greece for a spot of sabotage.
The resulting destruction his actions wrought on the German war machine helped cement the Pole’s reputation as a swashbuckling scourge of Nazi forces in wartime Greece, and would later help him be called the “Polish James Bond”.
The results of Iwanow-Szajnowicz’s clandestine factory mission 77 years were impressive to say the least and came without a shot being fired. Leading a team of resistance fighters he infiltrated an aircraft-engine servicing plant in Athens and contaminated engine oil with sugar. Their actions resulted in up to 400 German aircraft either crashing or failing to get off the ground owing to engine problems, and helped the British defeat German forces in the Battle of El Alamein later that year.
Along with ruining aircraft the Pole had a big hand in the sinking of two U-boats, wrecked trains, once escaped capture and almost certain death by getting his guards drunk, and generally made life hard for the occupying forces.
But despite exploits that won him fame in Greece, Iwanow-Szajnowicz remains an obscure figure in his native Poland and almost unknown in the rest of Europe.
He was born in Warsaw in December 1911, the son of a Russian colonel and local Polish woman. When he was still young his parents divorced and his mother married Ioannis Lambrinidis, a Greek merchant, and the family moved to Thessaloniki.
At school he excelled at sports, especially swimming and would later become the Greek 100-metre freestyle champion and a leading water-polo player in Poland.
After the outbreak of war the athletic and multilingual Pole helped Polish refugees in Thessaloniki but his talents were soon spotted by Polish and British intelligence. Following the German invasion of Greece, a British submarine transported Iwanow-Szajnowicz back to Greek territory where he would begin his remarkable career as a resistance leader and saboteur.
Taking to the water in late 1941, and utilising his swimming prowess, he helped destroy two U-boats, a destroyer and some transport ships with limpet mines. Iwanow-Szajnowicz would also destroy steam locomotives by mixing an explosive material that looked like coal into their fuel. When chucked into the engine’s furnace it would explode, destroying the machine.
He also planned to kill Mussolini with a time bomb during a visit by the Italian dictator to Athens. Alas for Iwanow-Szajnowicz, Mussolini changed his plans at the last minute.
The Pole’s exploits made him a wanted man, and the German’s offered the substantial reward of 500,000 drachmas for his capture. In December 1941 he fell into the hands of the Gestapo after being betrayed by an old school friend, but true to his reputation as a swashbuckling agent he managed to escape after three days.
Captured again after an operation on the island of Faros this time Iwanow-Szajnowicz plied his easy-going Italian guards with drink in a local tavern before making a run for it.
But his luck ran out in December 1942 when the Germans picked up him up in Athens. Sentenced to a triple-death penalty by a Nazi tribunal, in January 4, 1943 he was taken to an old shooting range to be executed. But true to form he made one last escape bid. Injured in the attempt he was taken back by the SS and put before the firing squad. His last words, apparently, were: “Long live Greece! Long live Poland!”
After his death Field Marshal Alexander, the Allied commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, sent a letter of thanks to his mother, while the Polish government awarded him a posthumous Virtuti Miltari, the country’s highest decoration for heroism and courage.
Some years after his execution Queen Elizabeth II would also donate 1,000 pounds to his family.
His grave in Athens bares the simple inscription: “He died for Poland.”