World War II: Poland--Warsaw Uprising (August-October 1944)


Figure 1.--Warsaw was one of the heaviest damaged cities in World War II. The Luftwaffe desevtated the city which had no air degenses during the German Blitzkrieg offensive (September 1939). It was the first major terror bombing of the War. NAZI officials at the time assumed that the Luftwaffe would prevent other countries from bombing German cities. The city was further damaged in the Warsaw Getto rising (1943) and much more damage was done when the Home Army rose against the NAZIs (1944). When Stalin ordered the Red army not to support the rising, the NAZIs completed the destruction of the city and murdered large numbers of the city's surviving civilian residents. Here we see what was left of the city when the NAZIs were through. Warsaw children are playing in front of the ruins of the Marien Kirche. The photograph was taken after the War on March 4, 1946.

The most dramatic resistance effort by the Polish Home Army was the uprising against the NAZIs in Warsaw when the Soviets neared the Vistula (July 1944). After Operation Bagration (June-July 1944), Warsaw on the Vistula was the principle barrier standing between the Red Army and Berlin. The Poles did not greet the Red Army in the same way that populations in the West cheered the Americans and British. They had no illusions about what would follow in the wake of the Red Army, a Stalinist dictatorship. The Home Army (loyal to thev London goverment-in-exile) decided on a desperate gambit at the Red army apprpached the Vistula. They would stage an insurrection and free Warsaw. The Home Army rebelled (August 1) anticipating the support of the Red army. Instead Stalin ordered the Soviet troops to stop on the far side if the Vistula. The German reaction was savage. On one day alone the SS rounded up and shot 25,000 Polish men women and children. The Americans offered to drop supplies, but Stalin refused permission for the flights to use needed Soviet air bases to refuel for the return trip. Thev Poles fought valiantly on, finally capitulating (October 2). The Germans at Hitler's orders virtualy razed the city. The Soviets finally took Warsaw with little resistance from the Germans (January 1945).

The Home Army (Armia Krajowa--AK)

Poles operating at considerable personal danger formed many resistance groups in Poland after the NAZI invasion. Most were loyal to the Government-in-exile. The major exception was the Communists. They organized a network constituting an underground Polish state. The principal military force of the underground Polish state was the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa--AK) was the underground army fighting the Nazi German occupation of Poland during World War II. The AK evolved from the Service for the Victory of Poland (Sluzba Zwyciestwa Polski--SZP) (September 27, 1939). SZP was a political-military organization which was created the military organization Union for the Armed Struggle (Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej--ZWZ. The ZWZ was the fondation for the AK. The AK was an integral part of the Polish Armed Forcesand under the command of the Polish Armed Forces in London. The best known commander of the Polish Army was General Sikorski. The activities of the AK were intelligence, sabotage, suppression, diversion, and finally uprising. The overwealming NAZI military superiority and the cooperarion of the Soviets in the supression of Poland made any kind of armed resistance virtually impossible. As a result the initial operations were aimed at organizing and intelligence. The AK assisted the British in learning about the NAZI V-weapons program. As the NAZI military situation weakened, overt military actions became feasible. The most dramatic resistance effort by the Polish Home Army was the uprising against the NAZIs in Warsaw when the Soviets neared the Vistula (July 1944).

The Red Army

Operation Bagration was the most devetating Soviet offensive of the War (June-July 1944). It was timed to support the Western Allies' D-Day invasion so that the Germans could not concentrating forces to repel the invasion. Bagration proved even more destructive to German arms than D-Day. It destroyed the Wehrmacht's most powerful remaining formation--Army Group Central. The Soviets attacked with a massive forces smashed into Army Group Center still holding Belorussia seized during Barbarossa. The Soviets completely surprised the Germans, not only with the force of the attack, but with their mobility--in part due the Lend Lease Studabaker trucks. Army Group Center was devestated, the Whermacht in may instances broke and run and there were many major encirclements. Bagration destroyed the Whermacht as a major force. It also brought the Red Army to the Vistula. Warsaw and the Vistula were now principle barrier standing between the Red Army and Berlin. The Poles did not greet the Red Army in the same way that populations in the West cheered the Americans and British. Poland had already experienced Soviet occupation (1939-41). They had no illusions about what would follow in the wake of the Red Army, a Stalinist dictatorship and futher efforts to destroy Poland as a nation. (In fact he laster did not happen.)

D-Day (June 1944)

The Home Army rose not only as the Red Army approached the Vistula, but as the Western Allies broke out of the Normandy breachhead and began the sweep through France. Too often Anglo-American accounts of D-Day focus on the battle as the decisive blow to NAZI Germany. It was an important blow to the NAZIs, but not as damaging as many German reverses in the East. The real importance of D-Day is that it prevented the terrible repression of Western Europe that Stalin conducted in Poland and other Eastern European countries after the War.

Gambit (August 1, 1944)

The Home Army (loyal to thev London goverment-in-exile) decided on a desperate gambit at the Red army apprpached the Vistula. Buoyed by the success of D-Day and the the beginning of the Allied push through France as well as the sound of the Red Army's big guns to the east, the Home Army struck to liberate Warsaw from 5 years of vicious NAZI occupation. The Home Army hoped to free Warsaw before the Red Army arrived. They staged an insurrection to free Warsaw much as the French would do in Paris a few weeks later. The difference was that it was the American Army driving toward Paris and the Red Army driving toward Warsaw. The Home Army rebelled (August 1) anticipating the support of the Red army.

The Uprising

West of the Vistula, despite the mounting German defeats, the German military power was still overwhelming and the AK volunteers only lightly equipped. The AK at first, however, scored some important successes. The AK seized control of most of Warsaw's left bank (west of the Vistula). Fightin in Warsaw was fierce. The Germans experienced substantial losses given that they were fighting lightly armed resistabnce fighters and not a well equipped army. German losses were about 1,300 men weekly. This was higher than during an average week on the Western Front (1944-45) and the Italian Front (1943-45). The AK in Warsaw would fight for 63 days with mostly light weapons and limited amunition. Put into perspective this was longer than the French Army after the onset of the German Western Offensive (May-June 1940).

NAZI Reaction

The German reaction was savage. With the Red Army surprisingly inactive, the remaining German forces could concentrate on the Poles. It was soon obvious to the Germans what Stalin was doing. Hitler hated Poland more than any other country. Hitler now had one last chance to reek his revenge on the Poles. German reinforcements were rushed to Warsaw, doubling the size the German forces to 30,000 men. Eventually about 50,000 German troops took part in the operation to sipress the AK Warsaw Uprising. The German units included the Dirlewanger and RONA brigades, units of Hermann Göring and Viking SS divisions, 19th and 25th panzer divisions, and others. The Germans brought in armour and heavy artillery, including a 600 mm mortar. This massove mortar was hard to use against the Allies or Soviets because it was so cumbersome and could be attacked from the air. The AK of course had no air arm.

Polish Police

When the NAZIs and Soviets invaded Poland they interned the Polish Army as POWs. We are not entirely sure what happened to the Polish police (Policja). We know that the police were among the individuals (intelectuals, college professors, government officials, and others) targeted for arrest and execution in the A-B Aktion. Some were shot immediastedly. Others died slowers deaths in the concebntration camps the NAZIs established in Poland. The NKVD had a similar program. Among the NKVD victims found at Katyn were Polish police. The goal of both the NAZIs and Sovies was to destroy the Polish nation by eliminating national leaders and prominent individuals. We are not sure to what extent the pre-War Polish police were eliminated. Some Polish police seem to have been retined and operated under German direction in the General overnmernt--Granatowa Policja. We are not entirely sure about this or the numbers of individuals involved. There are reports of the Polish police cooperating weith the SS in persecuting Jews while also working wiuth the resistancet. We know of noinstances in which the Polish police worked in the concentration camps. We would be interested in any information that readers may have. We note Polish police involved in the Warsaw uprising. What we do notknow if these were individuals that worked under German cointrol or individuals ho put on their pre-War uniforms after the uprising began.

Allied Air Drops

The Americans and British offered to drop supplies. Warsaw was at the extreme outer range of Allied aircraft to make return flights. Soviet controlled airfield were needed to make return flights. Stalin refused permission for the flights to use needed Soviet air bases to refuel for the return trip. The controversy over Poland had been a difficult issue between the Western Allies and the Soviets. Churchill and Roosevelt did not push the issue hard. American, British, and South African planes did attemp some drops. About 200 tons of supplies (weapons, medicine and food) (August 4-September 18). Not all of this reached the AK. Some fell into German hands. The flights came from Brindisi, Italy. The distance to Warsa and back was over 1,600 miles. In the later stage of the uprisung (after mid-September), Russian bi-planes dropped about 50 tons of supplies, but the low-level drops without parchutes destroyed the most of the material dropped.

Stalin Stops the Red Army

Stalin referred to the Home Army (AK) as 'a band of criminals. Indeed on the path to Warsaw, the Red Army would cooperate (but not bsupply) the Home Army. Once in control ofan area they would arresst and shoot the men and women who has eesisted the Germans. Unliked the Americans in France who reacted to pleae from the Resistance, Stalin ordered the Red Army to stop on the far side of the Vistula. The Red Army finally reached the Vistuala. They captured Praga a Warsaw suburb east of the Vistula (September 16). The Red Army made no effort, however, to cross the Vistula or even to supply supply the AK. The AK attempted to link up with the Russians, but the Germans pushed the AK forces back from the Vistula and the Red Army ndid not interfe with German operatiions.

German Suppression of the Insurgents

Fighting in the Old Town was fierce. The Germans finally secured the upperhand (September). The AK units were by then isolated and surrounded. The Germans used both air attacks and heavy artillery to reduce pockets of resistance.

Warsaw Children

Children were involved in the Warsaw uprising. And not just teena gers. Older boys served in the AK itself. Younger boys, especially Scouts, delivered messages for the AK. Here mostly boys would be involved. Thus from an early stage there were child casualties and not just civilian casulaties from the terrible fighting. Children were in the thick of the fightimg. We note a Scout being buried at an early stage of the uprising. In the areas liberated they delivered mail. They provided a range of services such as fighting fires and assisting those in bombed out buildings. Girls often served in hospitals. Różyczka Goździewska who was 8-years old was the youngest nurse. As the Germans retook the city, the resisters including virtually all of the men were shot. The inhabitants of Warsaw that survived, chiefly women and children, were rounded up and marched through the streets under arrest. Some were shot, especially if they had nothing with whih to bribe the Germans and Ukranians. The fighters after the final surrender were accorded some protectipn. This was not the case for the civilians. The civilains not killed werevforced in to a transit camp where they were processed.

NAZI Atrocities

NAZI actions were directed not only at the AK, but defenseless Polish civilians as well. On one day alone the SS rounded up and shot 25,000 Polish men women and children. The NAZIs killed more than 200,000 Poles in Warsaw, many of them civilians. The only way out of the city was for civilians to make their way through the city's sewers clogged with human waste. Vast streaches of the city were reduced to rubble. Warsaw was Poland's pre-War capital and largest city. The population included many of Poland's most educated and cultured citizens. The lost to the country was incalcable. There is no definitive account of the civilians killed in Warsaw. Historians provide various estimates, but the NAZIs appeared to have killed about 150,000-200,000 people, a totl that included many non-combatans shot or otherwise killed.

Capitulation

The Poles fought valiantly on, finally capitulating (October 2). About 200,000 Warsaw's inhabitants were killed in the Uprising. Most were civilians. Some were killed in the fighting and German bombardment. Others were murdered by the Germans as they retook the city. After the the Germans regained control, all of the city's residents were expelled from Warsaw. Some were shot. As a result od an agreement signed with the AL, AK insurgents were sent to POW camps. The civilians were treated more harshly, they were sent concentration camps where many more died.

City Razed

Hitler did not just take out his vengence on the people of Warsaw. He wanted the city absolutelt obliterated. Warsaw had already been heavily damaged during the German invasion (September 1939). Most of thdamage was from Luftwaffe bombardment,but the city was also shelled by artillery. Little of the damage was repaired. There was also damage during the NAZI suppresion of the Warsaw Ghetto, but here the damage was alnost entirely within the Ghetto. The fighting during the Warsaw uprising in 1944 covered a wide area of the city. Abd even after the Germans suppressed the uprising, they set about destroying what ever remained stnding. The NAZIs succeeded in destroyng about 80 percent of Warsaw buildings west of the Vistula. After the Germans clear out the AK fightrs and civilans. The Germans then on Hitler's personal orders razed whatever building that were still standing. Hitler had plans to totaly destroy other cities, including Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad. It is difficuklt to imagine how a great city could be actually razed. Hitler showed in Warsaw just what he and the Whermacht was capable of accomplishing. What they did to Warsaw is what they would have done in these as well as other cities had they won the War. He also ordered the destruction of Paris, but the German commander their refused to comply.

Red Army Enters Warsaw

The Soviets finally took Warsaw with little resistance from the Germans (January 1945). [Davies] Once the Red Army arrived, the NKVD set arround arresting any resistance fighters the could find.

War Crime Trials

The destruction of Warsaw and the arrtocities committed against both combatants and non-combatants alike was not one of the crimes Germans were tried for at the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal (1945-49). Most of the German commanders responsible for the carnage were known. The reason they were not tried is the complicuity of the Soviet Union nd their desire to minimize the resistance operations of the Home Army. The Sovies not only were minimizing the importance of the Home Army, but were in the process of arresting and execuing many resistance fighters

Sources

Davies, Norman. Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw (Viking, 2004). Davies is critical of The allies, President Roosevelt in particular for allowing Stalin to swollow up Poland. Like other authors making similar charges, Davies does not explain just what could have been done to have prevented it.







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Created: June 3, 2004
Last updated: 12:29 AM 9/10/2009