"For over two months..."
by Peter K. Gessner
The 1944 Warsaw Uprising occurred after five years of Warsaw's occupation by the Germans, an occupation unprecedented in terms of its ferocity and cruelty. The Uprising began as Soviet troops were attacking German positions in the vicinity of the city.
After more than half-a-century, events marking the later stages of World War II are half remembered in their detail. This is particularly true of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, which, for various reasons, was not well reported even at the time, even though it was one of the major battles of the war.
On August 1, 1994, at ceremonies held in Warsaw marking the 50th anniversary of the Uprising's start, the Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore, made a speech in which he said: "For over two months, Warsaw was swept by the sound and fury of battle. Heroic Polish freedom fighters faced virtually alone the fierce might of the Nazi Wermacht. In the end 200,000 died - almost as much as my country lost in all of World War II."
The American Vice-President's words put in context questions which have, over the years, troubled Polish historians and the Polish nation as whole. Why did the Poles receive virtually no help, why were the casualties so high, what was the objective of the Uprising and, if the cost was to be so high, why was it ever started. Opinions regarding the answers to these questions continue to be divided and, in the end, students of history, informed of all the pertinent facts, have to arrive at their own conclusions. The text that follows, derived from a documentary made for Polish Television, presents the pertinent facts.
Speaking in 1964 in London, Gen. Tadeusz "Bór" Komorowski, the Commander-in-Chief of the AK (Armia Krajowa, Poland's Home or Underground Army) at the beginning of the Uprising, said: "I take full responsibility for the decision I made to commence the Uprising. We had estimated that by attacking the Germans from within the city at the same time as the Russians were mounting their attack upon them from without, the duration of the battle would be shortened and the resulting devastation would be less. Our error was in supposing that military considerations, namely the rapid defeat of Germany, would be more important for the Russians than political ones. As It turned out, that was not so."
The start of World War II
On September 1, 1939, the first shots of WW II were fired and on that day German planes first bombed Warsaw. By
September 9, the German army was besieging Warsaw. Almost alone, it withstood German might thy after day. On September 17, 1939, while German bombs were setting Warsaw on fire, Stalin invaded Poland from the east.
On September 23, Stefan Starzyński, the mayor of Warsaw, addressing the Varsovians by radio, said: "I had wanted Warsaw to become a magnificent city. I and my co-workers had drafted plans for the future greatness of Warsaw. But, Warsaw has achieved greatness. As I speak to you I see it through my window:
Warsaw in all its majesty and glory, surrounded by clouds of smoke, lit by the light of the fires, the magnificent, indestructible, fighting Warsaw. For the last time I appeal to our Allies. No longer do I ask for help; it is too late for that. Rather, I demand revenge. Revenge for the burned churches, for the national heritage destroyed and for the tears and blood of the murdered victims. Let all the world hear: Warsaw is defending itself, Warsaw is fighting!"
Besieged Warsaw fell on September 28. During the siege 2000 Polish soldiers lost their lives. Among the civilian population the casualties were higher: 10,000 dead and 50,000 wounded. Moreover, 12% of the houses were destroyed.
On October 5, 1939, Hitler held a victory parade in Warsaw. A few weeks earlier, on August 23, he bad told his commanders: "The destruction of Poland is our goal. The first objective is to liquidate the enemy forces. Be brutal, not merciful. Might is right. Hence, I've ordered my SS units to kill Polish men, women and children without hesitation."
How brutal the ensuing occupation would be was presaged by the words of Hans Frank, the German appointed to administer occupied Poland On May 30, 1940, he said: "As the result of our action against the Polish intelligentsia, many, many thousands of intellectuals will have to part with their lives."
The fate of the Jewish population
Prior to WW II, Warsaw had been home to the largest number of Jews of any city in Europe. Following its occupation, the Germans created a Ghetto in Warsaw and forced all Jews to move there. Overnight from the 15th to the 16th of November 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto was cut off from the rest of the town. Nearly 450,000 Jews found themselves behind the ghetto wall.
In July of 1942, mass exterminations began: 300,000 Jews were "resettled" to the Treblinka death camp where they were murdered. Nearly 70,000 remained in the Ghetto. In December 1942, the Jewish Combat Organization was formed. The first paragraph of its charter stated "Not one Jew will be deported without our resistance."
On the morning of April 19, 1943, a German force under SS Gen. Brigadefuehrer J. Stroop entered the Ghetto with the intent of destroying it. An Uprising ensued, a tragic battle against all odds. On May 16, 1943 Gen. Stroop telegraphed Berlin: "The former Jewish quarter of Warsaw has ceased to exist, its destruction completed with the blowing up of the Great Synagogue. The sum total of Jews captured or confirmed dead is 56,065." The Germans registered 16 soldiers as killed.
Period leading up to the Uprising
In the rest of Warsaw the terror grew worse daily. A period of street executions began. German posters giving the names of those executed appeared more and more often plastered upon walls. Come the late spring of 1944, the Soviets were inning battles and the front was moving rapidly westward. On July 23. 1944. an attack by the Red Army annihilated the German defenses on the River Bug. Soon the rumble of artillery could be heard in Warsaw. On July 30, the "Ko¶ciuszko" Radio Station, transmitting in Polish from Moscow, repeatedly broadcast an appeal: "Warsaw trembles in the roar of cannons. The Soviet Forces are pressing on vigorously and are approaching the suburb of Praga. They are advancing to bring liberation. The Germans will try to make a stand in Warsaw, and to destroy everything. To arms! Attack the Germans!"
On July 31, 1944, at a 6:00 staff conference at the Head Quarters of the AK, Gen. "Bór" Komorowski, its Commander-in-Chief said "Early this afternoon the dispatch of the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht stated: 'Today the Russians have started a general advance on Warsaw from the south-east.' We can expect the Russian attack to commence any hour now. In my opinion, if we start the Uprising now we will prevent the Germans from bringing up reinforcements or resupplying their troops. On the other hand, if the Red Army pushes the Germans to the Vistula, which can be expected, Warsaw will become the battle ground between the Germans and the Russians armies and, as a consequence, it will be destroyed." The order to start the uprising was issued.
The start of the Uprising
August 1 at 5:00 p.m., and in some areas earlier, Warsaw entered into a battle with the German enemy. The attitude of the population is described in the dispatch sent on August 4. 1944, to the Government-in-Exile in London by Gen. Bór: "The civilian population have made common cause with the soldiers, building barricades against the enemy's tanks. On all captured positions and on the houses in areas controlled by the insurgents, Polish flags have been hoisted spontaneously. A constant concern is ammunition, the supplies of which are dwindling by the hour, and the scarcity of weapons which is preventing the participation in the battle of the masses of volunteers. The whole capital is caught up in the exhilaration of the battle, the Germans are being beaten and the symbols of the occupation are being wiped out." In the final analysis, however, the first day of the Uprising is viewed as bringing only partial success. At the start of the Uprising the AK had 41,000 soldiers in Warsaw. Of these 2,000 were dead at the end of the first day. The Germans reported 500 of their soldiers as either dead or wounded with several hundred having been taken prisoner.
The German Counterattack
On August 3, the Germans brought reinforcements to relieve the units fighting with the insurgents. Among the reinforcements, along with the SS Police Forces from Poznań and East Prussia, was the SS Assault Brigade "RONA" (Ruskaiia Osvoboditielnaiia Narodnaiia Armia, the Russian National Liberation Army) made up of renegade Russian soldiers who distinguished themselves by their brutality.
Hitler's directive, transmitted by Himmler, was to liquidate the population of Warsaw without regard to gender or age and to destroy the buildings without compromise. Advancing through the Wola district, the Nazis burned the houses and murdered en masse the civilian population. The Hermann Goering Armored Division advanced into the center of the city, driving civilians in front of its tanks as a protective shield and for the purpose of disassembling the barricades.
The August 4, 1944, entry in the war diary of the German 9th Army reads: "No change in the situation in Warsaw. The center of the city is completely controlled by the insurgents."
On August 4 at 8:00 a.m., Gen. Bór signals London: "I demand immediate supplies of munitions and anti-tank weapons. We are facing a battle of at least several days duration. Make the effort." Again on August 4 at 6:00 p.m.:
"The Germans are burning houses along Jerozolimskie Avenue in the center of town, dragging out the inhabitants to murder them. German bombers have started to raid the city."
The High Command of the AK was disturbed by a fact evident to the whole of Warsaw: Russian air raids had stopped; the rumble of Soviet artillery, so clearly heard before August 1, suddenly ceased. In his telegram of August 2, Gen Bór informed London: "The Soviet attacks have stopped." The Polish President, Władysław Raczkiewicz, appealed personally to Churchill, who sent Stalin a telegram: "At urgent request of the Polish Underground Army, we are dropping, subject to weather, about 60 tons of equipment and ammunition into the south west quarter of Warsaw where, it is said, a Polish revolt against the Germans is in fierce struggle. They also say that they appeal for Russian aid, which seem to be very near. This may be of help to your operation."
On August 5, Stalin replied: "I think that the information which has been communicated to you by the Poles is greatly exaggerated and does not inspire confidence. The Home Army of the Poles consists of a few detachments, which they incorrectly call divisions. They have neither artillery nor aircraft nor tanks. I cannot imagine how such detachments can capture Warsaw, for the defense of which the Germans have produced four tank divisions, among them the Hermann Goering Division." On August 2, however, a secret order from the Kremlin had reached Marshall Rokossovsky, the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet 1st Byelorussian Front, to cease the advance on Warsaw. That information became known only years later.
At 1:00a.m. on the night of August 5, British "Halifax" planes flying from Italy made the first Allied air drops of weapons, awaited since the first hours of the Uprising. At 7:00 a.m. the same day the Germans launched a counterattack in the Wola district. Artillery, heavy machine guns, battle tanks, and air raids were used. At 2:00 p.m. SS troops stormed into the Wola Hospital. shot the staff of 60 and the 300 sick and wounded patients. On Saturday over 30,000 civilians were murdered and burned in the Wola suburb. Meanwhile life in the city center went on more or less normally. Enemy fire did occasionally paralyze traffic; you could feel it was sovereign Polish territory.
Overnight from August 9 to 10, British planes successfully dropped weapons and ammunition. On August 12, Churchill telegraphed Stalin: "After ten day the Poles in Warsaw are still fighting the German forces which have cut the city into three... They implore machine-guns and ammunition. Can you not give some further help, as the distance from Italy is so very great?"
Stalin's Strategy Becomes Evident
On August 13, Stalin replied: "I have familiarized myself with more closely with the Warsaw affair. I am convinced that the Warsaw action represents a reckless and terrible adventure, which is costing the population large sacrifices. ... In the situation that has arisen, the Soviet Command has come to the conclusion that it must dissociate itself from the Warsaw adventure as it cannot take any direct or indirect responsibility for the Warsaw action." After two weeks of pondering and deliberation, Stalin showed his true face. He bad been following with concealed but mounting concern the course of the fighting in Warsaw. Deliberate and unscrupulous, he realized that the outbreak of the Uprising and the continued fighting in Warsaw was compromising his plans. He knew that Marshal Rokossovsky could have easily entered Warsaw in August - but that would have been a political blunder. The whole world now knew that the Uprising had been staged by Poland's AK and that representatives of the London-based Government-in-Exile were in charge.
The Germans Introduce New Weapons
In mid-August the Germans began using the heavy mortar "Thor" with shells of 1.5 tons. At about the same time they also introduced batteries of coupled mortars which delivered salvos of either napalm or explosive charges over relatively short distances. Zbigniew Stypułkowski recalled: "It was a terrible, unnerving weapon, called 'the cow' by the insurgents. As I was walking towards the Press offices of the AK on Jasna street, I heard the mooing of a 'cow.' Less than a minute later, all that remained on the sidewalk were the charred remains of what had been people."
Allied Pressure on Stalin
On August 20, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill sent a joint appeal to Stalin: "We are thinking of world opinion, if the anti-Nazis in Warsaw are in effect abandoned to their fate. We hope you will drop immediately supplies and munitions to the patriot Poles in Warsaw, or you will agree to help our planes in doing it very quickly. We hope you will approve. The time element is of extreme importance." Stalin, however, wouldn't agree to have Allied planes to land on airfields in the hands of the Red Army.
The Parallel Uprising in Paris
On August 24, the insurgent press reported the liberation of Paris. The events in Paris present an analogy. When Gen. Patton reached the Seine River, the Parisians rose without communicating with the Western Front's Commander-in-Chief, Gen. Eisenhower. Despite different plans, upon Gen. De Gaulle's suggestion, Gen. Eisenhower changed these plans and Gen. Leclerc's Free French division liberated Paris after a week of fighting.
The Fall of the Old Town
Warsaw's Old Town was in agony. From Gen. Bór's diary: "In the evening I climbed to the top of our house to look for the last time at the Old Town. Before me stretched out the town or the ruins of what had been called the Old Town, the ruins of the Church of Our Lady, the shelled roof of St. James's Church, the remnents of the Cathedral towers. The manhole leading to the sewer was only 200 yards from the Germans lines and under the constant fire of their grenade launchers and heavy German machine guns. Bent over, I crossed the fifteen yards or so at the double and I climbed down, slipping and stumbling and found myself in complete darkness."
During the Uprising, the only liaison between city sections and pockets of resistance was through the sewers. Kazimierz Pu±ak, Leader of the Polish Socialist Party and Head of the Council of National Unity recalled his evacuation from the Old Town by this means: "On the night of August 25, we entered the sewer in Krasiński Square at the corner of Długa Street and immediately were in water reaching up to our chests. We bad to hold each other because of the strong current. The Germans patrolled the manholes, dropping grenades inside. We heard trucks and tanks overhead. Finally, somewhere near the Church of the Holy Cross we entered a still smaller sewer. In feces, bent in half in order not to hit the ceiling, we finally reached the exit near Warecka Street. At last a breath of fresh air.." About 3000 insurgents were evacuated in this way from the Old Town and the city center and Żoliborz, in such secrecy that on September 2 the Germans, unaware, continued heavy bombardment of the completely deserted section.
Further Pressure on the Soviets
On September 4, the British War Cabinet sent Stalin a message which read, in part: "The War Cabinet wish the Soviet Government to know that public opinion in this country is deeply moved by the events in Warsaw and the terrible sufferings of the Poles there. Our people cannot understand why no material help has not been sent from outside to the Poles in Warsaw. The fact that such help could not be sent on account of your Government's refusal to allow United States planes to land on aerodromes in Russian hands is now becoming publicly known... Your Government's action in preventing this help being sent seem to us to be at variance with the spirit of Allied co-operation to which you and we attach so much importance for the present and the future." Stalin delayed answering.
Day by day foodstuffs dwindled in the city center. The Haberbusch Brewery with its barley and rye grain stores, was the main supply source. Józefa Radzimińska, a liaison officer in the AK recalls: "The 'spit' soup has been the staple for a week ... made of grain whose husks and chaff you spit out. but soon you don't ... to cheat your empty stomach."
On September 9, Gen. Bór reports to London: "Our situation has worsened and the insurgents' endurance is almost at an end. We are losing ground to the enemy. If we receive substantial assistance in terms of bombing and airdrops of supplies on the night of September 10, we may endure for a few days more. Otherwise we will capitulate."
The Soviet Response
On September 10, Molotov replies to the British on behalf of Stalin: "The Soviet Government has previously informed the British Government regarding its opinion that it cannot assume any responsibility for the Warsaw adventure, which was undertaken without the Soviet military command having been duly informed. That responsibility rests with the Polish Government-in-Exile in London." He doesn't seem to remember Moscow Radio's appeals to start the Uprising. He continues: "If, however, are you definitely convinced regarding the effectiveness of this form of assistance, and insist that the Soviet High Command organize it in collaBóration with the British and the Americans, the Soviet Government is willing to cooperate."
On September 13, the Soviet troops reach the outskirts of Praga. For the first time since the start of the Uprising, the Varsovians begin to consider a German withdrawal form the city as a possibility. In the afternoon, the Germans blow up all four Warsaw bridges over the Vistula.
Soviet planes drop letters into the center, Żoliborz and Mokotów with greetings and promises of airdrops of weapons, ammunition and food.
On September 15, Gen. Bór learns from Prime Minister Mikołajczyk "We are unlucky. With the Russian permission to land, a mass of planes were ready to take off with supplies, but fog on the British airfields prevented it." It was only at dawn on September 18 that the effort got under way, the 110 Flying Fortresses had 73 "Mustang" fighters for escort. German anti-aircraft fire was largely ineffective, only one bomber being shot down. Another was hit and had to make a forced landing in Soviet-held territory. Of the dropped supplies. 16 tons or less than 20% fell into insurgent bands; the Germans got the rest.
The battle to capture Praga lasted four days. The long lull in the fighting in this area had allowed the Germans to bring up reinforcements and to substantially improve their defenses. The Russians concluded that forcing the Vistula and taking the left bank would be costly. Accordingly, they decided to assign this task to Gen. Berling's Polish First Army, which had been formed in Russia and was fighting under Russian command. A total of three attempts were made, the last in the early afternoon of September 19. Unsupported by planes or artillery, 2614 of the soldiers of two battalions made it to the west bank. They were decimated like flies, and when the operation was over, only 627 of them made it back to Praga, 289 wounded. The remaining 1987 were killed or lost on the west bank. Such was the price of Stalin's maneuver.
On September 21, Heinrich Himmler said in a speech: "As soon as I heard the news of the Uprising, I went to the Fuhrer and told him: "The moment is not convenient from a historical point of view, but it is a blessing in disguise. In five or six weeks we will crush the Uprising. Warsaw, the capital and the intellectual center of Poland will be liquidated. This nation, which for 700 years has barred us from the lands to the East and which has been a constant nuisance to us ever since the first battle of Tannenberg (Grunwald), will no longer be a grave historical problem for our children or those who come after them. I have ordered Warsaw to be totally destroyed, each house to be burned and blown up."
On September 30, Gen. Bór advised London: "Our fight is breathing its last. All we need now is food. Only an immediate Soviet attack could save us." And the next day, "We stand no chance, according to the terms of the capitulation all members of the AK will be treated as prisoners-of-war, no reprisals will be taken against the civilians, I have to go to a POW camp myself. I thank all the AK soldiers for their efforts in the common cause."
A massive drop of supplies was being planned in London for October 2, Instead, at 2:00 a.m. on October 3, the surrender agreement was signed. The evacuation of the city began on October 3.
The great Uprising had ended in defeat. The capital of Poland, a city of over a million inhabitants was completely destroyed, if not during those 63 days, then after the surrender. Hitler's orders were to liquidate the city and to create a lake in its place. Over 200,000 Poles, including 10,000 AK soldiers, perished. Another 20,000 soldiers were sent to German prisoner-of-war camps, The Germans had sustained casualties of 15,000 dead and 9,000 wounded.
The Uprising and the resulting liberation of Warsaw by Polish Forces was to have allowed the Poles to establish a different relationship with the Soviets, asserting their political and military independence and leading to the establishment of a non-Communist Poland. Stalin understood this and sabotaged it. On the other hand, historical leads suggest that Stalin bad intended to make Poland into one of the republics of the Soviet Union. This he had already done earlier, in 1940, with the three Baltic republics, namely Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The Warsaw Uprising, in the opinion of some historians, demonstrated to him how fierce an attachment to independence the Poles had, and made him think better than to incorporate them into his empire. Although some Soviet archives have been opened, others remain out of reach for the present. The possible confirmation of this theory must await another day.