Contributor: John Radzilowski
In 1944, Poland’s political situation grew increasingly precarious as Soviet forces moved into eastern Poland. In the West, unbeknownst to the Poles, the Allies had agreed to give Joseph Stalin a free hand in eastern Europe after the war. In Poland itself, the brutality of the German occupation continued unabated, with thousands dying every day in camps, summary executions and street round ups.
Polish resistance forces were unified under the aegis of the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army (AK, pronounced “Ahh-Kah”). (The only exceptions were the miniscule Communist movement and a small group on the right, the ONR.) This underground force was large and well-organized, but lacked sufficient weapons. Only 1 in 10 fighters had a firearm of any sort and heavy weapons were almost non-existent. This organization prepared for an uprising that would strike back at the hated occupiers.
With the tacit approval of the government in exile, the Home Army prepared Operation Burza or Storm. As the Red Army advanced, the underground would rise up, defeat the retreating Germans and greet the Soviets as master of their own country. In the summer of 1944, as the Soviets approached Warsaw, the Poles decided to retake their capital city. Their goal was to drive out the Nazis and welcome the Soviets as masters of their own house, forestalling any effort to impose a Soviet-style puppet regime. In Wilno (Vilnius), the AK played a major role in ousting the Germans from the city and helping the Red Army. The Soviet reciprocated by executing the leaders of the Polish resistance and conscripting the rank and file into the Red Army’s Polish units. This was an ominous beginning, but the real test would be in Warsaw.
On the evening of 1 Aug 1944, shots rang out across the city of Warsaw as some 40,000 poorly armed citizen soldiers, including teenagers, men, and women, backed by almost the entire population, attacked the well-equipped, well-fortified German garrison. The first European capital captured by Adolf Hitler’s armies was fighting back.
Fierce fighting broke out across the city by the late afternoon of 1 Aug. Only 1 in 10 Polish fighters had a weapon, but many went into action hoping to use captured arms from the Germans, or from their own fallen comrades. Units of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, some as young as 12 or 13, attacked Nazi panzers armed only with bottles of gasoline. The Poles seized large sections of the city, but failed to take many key fortified strong points, including the bridges across the Vistula River. Losses were heavy, but the Polish citizen soldiers quickly learned from their mistakes.
Hitler’s reaction was furious. He ordered the completed destruction of the city and death of all its inhabitants. Heinrich Himmler confidently predicted “Warsaw will be liquidated; and this city . . . that has blocked our path to the east for seven hundred years . . . will have ceased to exist.” The Nazi command sent SS police, units of former Soviet soldiers who had deserted to the Nazi cause, and the sweepings of German military prisons—murderers, rapists, child molesters, and thieves. Behind them came tanks, aircraft, and heavy artillery. Many Nazi units were sent into purely civilian areas where they murdered, raped, and pillaged for days on end, killing men, women, and children without mercy. German and ex-Soviet troops rampaged through hospitals, even maternity wards, killing every living soul.
Although murdering helpless civilians came easily to the German command, retaking the city did not. Units that were skilled in slaughtering the innocent proved less effective against armed citizenry. Nazi forces seized buildings during the day, only to find that the Poles retook them during the night. Fighting raged house to house, room to room. Julian Kulski, a teenager fighting in the city’s northern suburb, recalled how his unit tricked the Germans into thinking their position was unoccupied:
Normally, the Poles spared their ammunition under the slogan, “one bullet, one German,” but when it came to the SS, a different policy was practiced:
In the ruins of the Jewish Ghetto, a unit of Polish volunteers, using a captured tank, smashed through the walls of the “Goose Farm” death camp, routing the Nazi guards and freeing about 400 Jewish prisoners. Although small, it was the first Nazi death camp to be liberated by Allied forces. Amid scenes of joy, the Polish officer who led the attack saw a file of men standing at attention. A former prisoner stepped forward, saluted, and announced “Jewish volunteer company ready for action!” The former prisoners were enlisted in the ranks. As the officer later recalled the Jewish volunteers were “exceptionally brave, ingenious, and faithful people.”
As the city fought desperately and the Germans began to bring in reinforcements, the reaction of the Soviets was silence. Soviet forces, which had advanced confidently throughout the summer, stopped within miles of Warsaw. When Allied planes sought to use Soviet airbases to airdrop supplies to the Polish resistance, the Soviets refused. Allied supply planes were forced to make a dangerous return trip and Allied planes that strayed into Soviet-controlled areas were shot at from the ground or even attacked by Red Air Force fighters. Despite the dangers many American, British, Polish and South African aircrews volunteered for this mission.
After the first weeks of failing to retake the city, the Germans began to remove some of the more thuggish police units and bring in regular combat units backed by dive bombers, tanks, artillery, and railroad artillery. The infamous Kaminski brigade made up of Soviet deserters, responsible for the mass murder of tens of thousands of civilians was relocated to the Kampinos Forest outside the city. On the night of September 2, local AK forces slipped into the brigade’s compound and tossed hundreds of grenades and petrol bombs into their barracks, virtually annihilating the unit.
Denied re-supply from the east, the insurgents were driven back by overwhelming German firepower, and forced to rely on capturing weapons or making their own in secret workshops. To escape German detection, the resistance turned to the city’s sewers, using them to move undetected from place to place. This was often highly dangerous, and even skilled guides could become lost or fall into German booby traps.
Although forced onto the defensive, the Poles continued to mount attacks on Nazi positions. On 20 Aug, the Home Army attacked the State Telephone Exchange, one of Warsaw’s few skyscrapers. Special sapper units made up of young women—called minerki—led the attack, detonating homemade explosives in the lower part of the building, driving the defenders into the upper floors. Then teams armed with homemade flamethrowers set the building ablaze. Most of the Nazis inside jumped to their deaths to avoid the flames, shot themselves, or were killed trying to fight their way back down the staircases.
The most savage fighting occurred in the Old Town, Warsaw’s historic heart. German heavy weapons smashed building after building, driving the defenders back into an ever smaller area. Civilians were used as human shields for German tanks. The struggle raged around the fifteenth-century cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Its medieval walls resisted even point blank fire from tanks. Assault after assault on the church was thrown back with heavy losses. Nazi commanders, certain that the church was garrisoned by some elite commando unit, packed a small remote-control tank full of explosives and rammed it into the building. The explosion collapsed the walls. As the smoke cleared, the bodies of the defenders could be seen lying amidst the rubble, still wearing their Boy Scout uniforms.
As the Germans closed in on the Old Town, the defenders made a daring escape. Thousands of freedom fighters and civilians slipped away single file through miles of sewers beneath the Germans’ feet. The wounded were carried through the muck. Some went mad confined in the stinking darkness, others got lost, drowned in sewage, or killed by German booby traps.
As the people of Warsaw fought and died amid the rubble, the Soviets stood by. Stalin was content to let his former ally, Hitler, get rid of the non-Communist resistance movement. The Western Allies, who had already secretly agreed to Soviet hegemony over eastern Europe, saw the naked lust for power of their Soviet “comrades.” Although in public, they maintained a façade of good relations, for many Western leaders Stalin’s promises and his good will could no longer be trusted. In the eyes of many historians, the struggle for Warsaw was the first battle of the Cold War.
On 2 Oct, after 63 days of fighting, the defenders of Warsaw, abandoned by their allies and left to face the Nazi army alone, capitulated. The freedom fighters were treated as regular POWs under the Geneva Convention—a concession that showed how badly the Germans wanted to end the Uprising. The civilians were to be evacuated without reprisals.
On Hitler’s personal orders, Warsaw was systematically leveled, block by block, street by street. By the war’s end, one of the great capitals of Europe was a field of rubble, with not a building left standing for miles.
On the Polish side 15,200 insurgents killed and missing, 5,000 wounded, 15,000 sent to POW camps. Among civilians 200,000 were dead, and approximately 700,000 expelled from the city. Approximately 55,000 civilians were sent to concentration camps, including 13,000 to Auschwitz. Zygmunt Berling’s Polish Communist Army losses were 5,660 killed, missing, or wounded in an unsupported effort to cross the Vistula. Material losses were estimated at 10,455 buildings, 923 historical buildings (94 percent), 25 churches, 14 libraries including the National Library, 81 elementary schools, 64 high schools, Warsaw University and Polytechnic buildings, and most of the monuments. Almost a million inhabitants lost all of their possessions. During World War 2, 85% of Warsaw's left bank buildings were destroyed: 25% in the course of the Warsaw Uprising, 35% as the result of systematic German actions after the Uprising, the rest as a combination of the war in Sep 1939 and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Between the war, occupation and Holocaust, Warsaw lost more people than all U.S. and British casualties. German losses in the Uprising were 16,000 killed and missing, 9,000 wounded. Up to 2,000 Germans were captured by insurgents, 1,000 returned after the Uprising (most of the remained were killed by the heavy bombing and shelling). Material losses included three airplanes (two outside the city in the Kampinos forest ); 310 tanks, self-propelled artillery, armored cars; 4 rocket launchers, 22 artillery pieces (caliber 75mm), and 340 trucks and cars.
As the Uprising ended, Soviet propagandists and their Western apologists began to sing a different tune: the people of Warsaw were led by “fascists” who had “betrayed” them to the Germans. In time, the Soviets would seek to blank the Warsaw Rising from historical memory, and many Western scholars would go along with this version of events. Many histories of World War 2 in English lavish fulsome praise on the Soviet leadership but ignore the Warsaw Rising. Yet, the Rising destroyed whatever shred of legitimacy the Communists might have had over their new eastern European possessions. For all their anti-Nazi rhetoric, they had allied themselves with Hitler at the start of the war, and then stood by while the Nazis killed off the cream of a generation. However, the Soviet failure to help the resistance destroyed any chance of a legitimate Communist regime being established in Poland. The Uprising remained the ultimate symbol of Communist betrayal and bad faith for Poles. Decades later, its memory helped to fuel the non-violent Solidarity movement that would play an important role in toppling Soviet power.
Sources: Rising ’44, Traveller’s History of Poland, Warsaw Uprising.
Warsaw Uprising Interactive Map
Warsaw Uprising Timeline
|1 Aug 1944||Soviet 1st Byelorussian Front under Konstantin Rokossovsky arrived in the suburbs of Warsaw, Poland. Seeing the arrival of friendly forces, the Polish Home Army rose up against German occupation troops.|
|20 Aug 1944||Members of the Armia Krajowa attacked the State Telephone Exchange high-rise building in Warsaw, Poland.|
|25 Aug 1944||The headquarters of NKVD rear guard troops of Soviet 3rd Byelorussian Front ordered Soviet troops to disarm and detain all Polish Home Army troops who were attempting to pass through Soviet lines toward Warsaw, Poland.|
|14 Sep 1944||Soviet troops reached the suburbs of Warsaw, Poland and began air dropping supplies to the Armia Krajowa.|
|27 Sep 1944||2,000 fighters of the Armia Krajowa surrendered in Warsaw, Poland.|
|2 Oct 1944||The Warsaw Uprising ended in failure after 63 days of fighting largely due to lack of food and ammunition. 15,200 insurgents and 200,000 civilians were killed, while the German occupation forces suffered 16,000 killed. Many buildings were destroyed in the fighting.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945