The Greek-Speaking WWII Spy Worth Entire Division of Soldiers

Statue of Jerzy Iwanow-Szajnowicz, the Greeks-peaking spy, in Athens War Museum.
Statue of Jerzy Iwanow-Szajnowicz, the Greek-speaking spy, in Athens War Museum. Credit: Gre regiment. CC BY 4.0/Wikimedia Commons/Gre regiment

Considered by some to be the influence for Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, the Greek-speaking British spy Jerzy Iwanow-Szajnowicz carried out a series of unique, solo espionage missions that undermined the Nazis during their World War II occupation of Greece.

Up until his capture and execution in 1943, Jerzy Iwanow-Szajnowicz was arguably the most courageous and effective British agent in Nazi-occupied Greece. He was worth an entire division of soldiers, according to British officials.

Iwanow-Szajnowicz was the son of Vladimir Ivanow, a Russian army officer, and Leonarda Szajnowicz, a Polish woman from Warsaw. The couple separated not long after the birth of their son.

Leonarda, then residing in Batum, Georgia, met and married a rich Greek businessman named Joannis Labriandis.

In the months after the Russian Revolution, the couple emigrated to Salonika (Thessaloniki), however, Iwanow-Szajnowicz was educated at a Catholic boarding school in Bielany, Poland, and then attended a French high school in Salonika.

As a young man, he showed an exceptional aptitude for athletics and his academic studies and later achieved a degree in agronomy at the University of Louvain in Belgium. Thanks to his upbringing, Iwanow-Szajnowicz was fluent in Polish, Greek, French, and Russian, and also learned to speak very good English and German.

Before the war came upon the world, Iwanow-Szajnowicz was planning to use his degree in agronomy to lend his hand to the development of farming in Africa. Between 1939 and 1941, he worked in Salonika; helping Poles fleeing Nazi occupation escape to the Middle East.

Becoming the Greek-Speaking Spy

Following the German invasion of Greece, he went to Haifa, Israel, where he volunteered for the Polish Carpathian Brigade, and then served in North Africa. His dual citizenship along with his varied skillset, however, led to him being recruited by Polish military intelligence. He was then seconded to the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).

A soldier of the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifles Brigade on board one of the Royal Navy destroyers.
A soldier of the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifles Brigade on board one of the Royal Navy destroyers. Credit: Julius Jääskeläinen. CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons/Julius Jaaskelainen

Iwanow-Szajnowicz’s fluency in Greek showed itself to be a valuable skill. At the time, SOE had very few Greek-speaking agents and was attempting to build a network of spy operatives in occupied Greece, which was a hub for German and Italian shipping and a constant issue for Allied operations in the Mediterranean. Once he had received training in spycraft, diversion, and sabotage, the young Pole was shipped back to Greece in October 1941 as SOE Agent 033B.

Once in Greece, the spy created a network of Greek patriots – businesspeople, students, and former military personnel – to gather intelligence on Axis operations, which was transmitted via secret radio sets.

On December 18, 1941, he was betrayed by a colleague and arrested by the Gestapo. He managed to escape his Nazi captors who reacted by putting a huge 500,000 drachma price on his head. Despite being forced to stay in hiding, Iwanow-Szajnowicz, far from lying low, ramped up his efforts. He adopted a series of disguises and became a one-man army of espionage brilliance.

High-Risk Espionage

In early 1942, he sabotaged the Maltsinioti Brothers factory in Athens, destroying a lot of ammunition and several aircraft engines that were under repair. Nazi authorities later killed ten Greek workers in response. In February and March, he infiltrated the Skaramanga naval yard in Athens disguised as a worker.

German U-boat UB 14 with its crew.
German U-boat UB 14 with its crew. Credit: SMU Central University. CC BY 1.0/Wikimedia Commons/SMU Central University

On the night of March 13, he swam across the harbor to the German submarine U-133 and placed explosives on the vessel, which was set to leave on a combat mission. A few hours after U-133 left the harbor, the bombs exploded, sinking the submarine and killing 45 crew members. In August 1942, he swam across the harbor again and placed a delayed fuse bomb aboard the U-boat U-372, which was due to be sent to support Axis intelligence operations in the eastern Mediterranean.

The bombs went off when U-372 was off the coast of Palestine, forcing the submarine to surface, which then saw it sunk by British ships and aircraft, and the crew taken prisoner.

Iwanow-Szajnowicz was also able to set charges that sank the Spanish transport ship San Isidore, which was being employed by the Germans to smuggle arms and supplies to their agents in the Mediterranean.

Off the island of Paros, he sank several Italian transport vessels used to ferry troops and supplies to garrisons on nearby Greek islands.

Later, accompanied by his 17-year-old Greek associate, Gabriela Milonopoulou, the spy then infiltrated the Axis airfield of Elliniko and destroyed fuel supply tanks and several aircraft. During this period, he also destroyed a locomotive and derailed a train full of military supplies.

Interviewed in 2013, Milonopoulou, who saw firsthand several of Iwanow-Szajnowicz’s exploits, said “He was an ardent patriot and a very brave man. He was educated in Belgium, spoke fluent Greek and three or four other languages. This was a man of ‘supernatural’ fearlessness and perfect as a spy. When he escaped from prison, he removed handcuffs with serpentine movements, using Vaseline.”

She also recalled one occasion when the Gestapo managed to track their radio set. Iwanow-Szajnowicz hid her and the radio set in a coffin and placed it in the back of a commandeered truck. Disguised as a simple truck driver he drove them out of the city and away from the Nazi dragnet.

Utilizing his network of Greek patriots, the spy infiltrated a Greek factory that made engines for German and Italian aircraft. Iwanow-Szajnowicz and his colleagues placed parts in the engines that would gradually decompose over time when in contact with oil. The engines would pass all initial tests and be placed into operational aircraft where they would soon fail, sometimes while in flight. It is estimated that Iwanow-Szajnowicz and his group destroyed or disabled around 400 Axis aircraft.

The Assassination Attempt Against Mussolini

At one point he came close to assassinating Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. During Mussolini’s visit to Athens in July 1942, Iwanow-Szajnowicz, disguised as a German officer, planted a bomb in the hotel where the dictator planned to stay. Mussolini cheated death only because of a last-minute change in plans which resulted in cutting short his stay in Greece.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. CC BY 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

He was arrested by Italian authorities in 1942, but escaped again, this time squirming his way out of prison by disguising himself as a drunk Italian officer. He was captured for a third time by the Nazis in November 1942 and given three death sentences.

He told his captors “The British sent me, but I am an emissary of the Poles, who will never stop fighting you.”

While being taken to be executed, he almost escaped again, overpowering one of his guards before being recaptured. On January 4, 1943, he was executed by a Nazi firing squad near Athens. Witnesses reported his last words were “Long live Poland! Long live Greece!”

Iwanow-Szajnowicz was posthumously awarded the highest decorations for valor by both Poland and Greece: the Polish Virtuti Militari and the Greek Cross of Valor (Gold), as well as a medal by the British government. He is commemorated with a monument in his adopted hometown of Salonika where an annual swimming competition is held in his honor.

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