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WARSAW UPRISING OF 1944

Distributed by the Polonia Media Network

PART 1 - INTRODUCTION

Just as a flight over familiar countryside will reveal unexpected shapes and colorings in the scene below, so a distant overall view of an historical phase occasionally prompts unusual reflections. Even the most hardened skeptic, looking back over the past few centuries, must wonder whether there is not, after all, some form of Supreme Being--though hardly one of beneficent nature. How otherwise explain the misfortune and tragedy which has so consistently dogged certain races in modern times? If the persecution of the Jews may be speciously attributed (by those who wish) to the Crucifixion, such primal cause certainly cannot be responsible for the fate of the Armenians who have suffered almost as much, or of the Poles upon whose romantic heads misfortune and tragedy has consistently fallen; when reading of their unending adversities, one has the impression that Fate has smeared a malignant thumb mark across their very existences, not even granting them the relief of extinction but sentencing them to life under continual threat and oppression.

German planes bombs WarsawPoland’s geographical position between the giants of Germany and Russia has certainly contributed much to the recurrent tribulations her people have undergone, though a certain lack of realism has often compounded their misfortunes; romantic belief in the continued effectiveness of the horse on the battlefield had almost as much to do with Poland's defeat in 1939 as had Guderian’s panzer columns.

Then in 1944, the Polish Home Army rose in a gallant but ill-fated attempt to take over their own capital, Warsaw, so that when the Red Army entered it, the Poles may at least have hoped for some part in the shaping of their own futures. This proved a vain and unrealistic hope, for they were not only exchanging at this time one traditionally antagonistic overlordship for another--they were also exchanging one demonic personal dictatorship for another: Stalin's ruthlessness was just as implacable as Hitler's hatred, as the earlier horror of Katyn had made perfectly clear.

Soviet historians have always claimed that the Red Army could not aid the Warsaw Rising as much as their leaders wished, solely because after the truly enormous battles involved in the clearing of Belorussia (now Belarus), their forces were exhausted, tired, and at the end of attenuated lines of communication.

Perhaps, but regret for inability to help those who mount a gallant attack against your own enemy--however misguided you may feel their efforts to be--is hardly expressed in the terms of shrill vituperation vented by Soviet writers against the leaders of the Warsaw Rising ever since, and by Stalin in immediate response to Anglo-American reproaches.

General Bor-Komorowski and his followers were no "group of criminals"; they were men and women who reasonably wished to have some power of decision in shaping their own destinies. Their fault was that despite their history, they had not accepted the cold fact that unless Warsaw could be as much a symbol of industrial and military power as Berlin or Moscow, it would always be subservient to one or the other.

AUGUST OF 1944

The end of the Second World War, a conflict that had already cost some twenty million casualties, was just round the corner. In the west, Eisenhower’s Anglo-American armies had made their successful landing on the Normandy beaches and Patton, known affectionately as "Old Blood and Guts" to his men, had begun his astonishing breakout at Avranches. In the east the six million-strong armies of Marshal Zhukov, the Red Army commander, had finally cleared the Germans out of Russia after three long and bloody years.

It was obvious to the hard-pressed Germans, now at last fighting with their backs to the wall, that the final great push from east and west would squeeze the remaining breath out of them. The inevitable defeat of that Third Reich which Hitler had promised would last a thousand years-- but which in fact would last a mere twelve--was within sight. Defeat after defeat had been suffered in the East after the traumatic experience of Stalingrad. There, a whole German army had disappeared into Soviet captivity, most of the grey shattered wrecks who had once been soldiers never returning to their homeland. Yet their leaders were determined to hang on to what they still possessed in the East. In particular, the German High Command was resolved to retain a hold on Poland, which would provide a bulwark between the victorious, ever advancing Red Army and Germany proper. But they knew that if they wished to retain Poland they must maintain their grip on the country's chief city-Warsaw.

Thus it was that in the summer of 1944 Warsaw, the city whose fate it had always been to suffer dreadfully because of its geographic position between the great powers of Russia and Germany, was once again drawn into the combat zone.

The results of German bombingTwice in the last four years the Polish capital had suffered the full weight of an enemy attack--in the autumn of 1939 when the Germans had first marched in and in 1943, when the desperate Jewish members of the city’s Ghetto rose against their German overlords. In "brotherly" agreement, Germany and the Soviet Union had divided the spoils of the 1939 campaign. The eastern areas of Poland fell to Moscow. Germany, for her part, regained the areas she had lost after the First World War through the Treaty of Versailles (1919), and in addition she gained large parts of eastern Upper Silesia, Lodz and Zjecanow. The remainder of Poland became a German colony under a Governor General. For Poland the war seemed, for the time being at least, over. Then the horrors began, and with them Polish resistance to the occupation.

The nucleus of a resistance organization had formed even before the Polish generals signed the surrender agreement in 1939. Hitler was reviewing the Victory Parade in Warsaw, and German and Russian tanks rolled past their commanders, Generals Guderian and Tschernakowski, in Brest-Litovsk, celebrating their mutual victory. In the strongroom of the Polish Savings Bank (PKD) representatives of almost all Poland’s political parties were already meeting to discuss the organization and guiding principles of the resistance movement. The communists, of course, did not take part, as Hitler and Stalin were still allies.

By October, General Wladyslaw Sikorski (who later died under suspicious circumstances because he would not go along with Russian-Allied cooperation) had founded a Polish Government in Exile in Paris which later moved to London. The Polish resistance, too, placed itself under the General’s command. From February 1942 onwards the organization was known, on his orders, as the Armia Krajowa [Home Army] or AK for short. The British centre for the coordination of resistance against the Germans in Occupied Europe, the "Special Operations Executive. (SOE)," supported the Home Army. Using para-drops, they delivered weapons, ammunition and signals equipment and also flew in important specialists. The AK were beginning to have vague notions of open rebellion against the Germans sometime in the future.

In the period of occupation the latter ruthlessly exploited the country's economy, excluded the Poles from any say in their own administration and declared that they were `sub-human: (`Jews, gypsies, and Poles' was a phrase forever repeated in German proclamations and decrees.) The Master Race was beginning to have vague notions of Germanizing further parts of Poland. In no other occupied country did the Germans face such widespread opposition; and the toughest and most barbaric reprisals were carried out. An inflated and bestially cynical remark made in 1940 by Dr Hans Frank, Governor General appointed by Hitler, describes this aptly: "If I were to have one poster hung up for every seven Poles who have been liquidated, all the forests in Poland could not supply enough paper."

At that time Germans and Russians still collaborated in persecuting the Polish resistance forces. The security authorities of both the occupying powers exchanged information over the demarcation line several times. Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, finally shattered this hypocritical alliance. As the German front pushed forwards into Russia the direct threat of the Russians to Poland disappeared. German pressure increased now because the Polish interior was important for the conduct of the war, the Jewish populace (in Warsaw alone almost one third of the inhabitants were Jews) were herded together in ghettos and exterminated in camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz. In the spring of 1943, the remaining inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto, Jews from all over Europe, rose in a desperate and hopeless struggle against their German oppressors. The uprising was crushed in a few weeks by units commanded by SS Gruppenfuehrer Stroop. The majority of those Ghetto Jews who survived the horror were transported to the extermination camp at Treblinka. The Ghetto itself, about one twentieth of Warsaw’s residential area, was completely destroyed and razed to the ground. The Second Battle of Warsaw had been fought and won by the Germans.

At the same time the world was confronted with the news of the Soviet mass murder of Polish officers at Katyn, a village twelve miles west of Smolensk. For a long time the London based Polish Emigre Government had been demanding information about the fate of 7,500 Polish officers taken prisoner by the Russians during the occupation of Eastern Poland in September 1939. At first Moscow denied all knowledge of the matter. When the Poles persisted, and when Generals Anders and Sikorski went to Moscow personally to enquire, Stalin remarked cynically that the officers had perhaps "escaped," and continued: "Maybe they’ve gone to Manchuria?" Horrifying reports from farmers at Katyn started to come in, and mass graves were finally discovered containing the corpses of 4,500 officers, who had been shot at the base of the skull; murdered by the Russian Secret Service (NKVD).

German radio first reported the discovery of the graves on 13th April 1943. Simultaneously the German government arranged for and permitted the graves to be visited by neutral experts, doctors and journalists. Poles were among them including Mackiewicz, the well-known journalist. As, at that time, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was being brutally repressed by the Germans, the Minister of Propaganda, Dr Joseph Goebbels, blatantly played up the Katyn case to divert attention from the atrocities perpetrated in the Ghetto. Naturally the outer world suspected for a time that the Germans themselves--possibly the feared SD had carried out the murder of the 4,500 Poles. Today the truth is known, made public in a report by a Committee of the House of Representatives in 1952. The Soviet Union, however, long stuck to the German murder version, while in Communist Poland the case of Katyn remained taboo. Personal identification of almost 3,000 of the murdered irrefutably confirmed what the AK and the Polish Emigre Government had long suspected that these graves were linked with the officers they had been searching for in vain. The postwar committee established that the officers had been killed in the dense and dark woods at Katyn in April 1940, in other words, in the Soviet occupied area, and one year before the German attack on Russia began. This is generally regarded as settling the Katyn controversy once and for all.

The discovery profoundly shocked the Polish Home Army, the civilian population and naturally the Polish Officer Corps in the Allied armies. They now found themselves having to face the fact that one of their allies in the common cause against the Germans had had many thousands of their own army officers murdered. When the Poles finally demanded that the International Red Cross settle the matter, Stalin threatened (in a telegram to Churchill) to break off diplomatic relations with the Polish Emigre Government--this occurred on April 25, 1943. The day before, Eden had even demanded that Sikorski declare that the Germans were responsible for Katyn. Sikorski refused. Naive, pessimistic and powerless, Churchill said resignedly "The Bolsheviks can be very cruel."

Young defenders of WarsawThe Polish Home Army now resolved not to rely on military cooperation with the Red Army and, indeed, to break with them entirely. Despite their long accumulated hatred of the Germans, some part of the Polish Nationalist Resistance Movement must have thought it necessary to at least assess the possibility of an agreement with the Germans against the Russians. Dr Ludwig Hahn, Chief of the Warsaw Security Police, recalled:

"Months before the Uprising, talks with the Polish Nationalist Resistance Movement took place. In the mess with me I had a small delegation who wanted to know the German attitude to the suggestion that a Polish Anti-Communist Legion be founded from groups of the Polish Nationalist Resistance. We notified the Fuehrer’s Chancellery directly of this offer in a secret top-priority telegram. The answer we received completely forbade us to have any further dealings with the Poles or to give them any explanation."

Despite the Fuehrer’s uncompromising attitude at least one curious event happened.

Janusz Piekalkiewicz, a Polish officer, related:

"On about 25th July, my father, a former officer who belonged to the AK, received a visit from some other Home Army officers. Their release from the Gestapo prison of Pawiak the day before had been a complete surprise. At that time the prison was being phased out. Communists and Jews were shot in the process. Those released included Major Karski, an officer formerly with the Uhlan Regiment, who had been arrested by the Gestapo in 1943. The ranks of these officers ranged from captain to colonel. They could not have been collaborators for less than a week. Later they were not only fighting with the rebels, but most of them perished in the bitter struggle against the Germans."

We will probably never be able to establish the exact reason behind this strange occurrence. One fairly plausible suggestion is that the Security Police freed the Polish officers in the hope of improving the climate between the Polish Nationalists and the Germans, to aid any possible negotiations about an agreement directed against the Bolsheviks.

The situation became even more critical when, on January 4, 1944, units of the 1st Ukrainian Front of the Red Army crossed the former Polish frontier (of September 1, 1939) at Sarny in Wolynia for the first time, and began marching westwards. Poland became a battlefield once again and even more of a political bone of contention. On January 15, in a note to the Allies, the Emigre Polish Government demanded that Russia respect the rights and interests of Poland, especially with regard to territory. At the Teheran Conference in the previous year, Stalin had already demanded that Eastern Poland, conquered by the Russians in September 1939, should remain Soviet, and that Poland should be compensated with areas of German territory. The Poles protested, but still were not consulted on the shaping of their postwar fate. Under pressure from Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to this blatant violation of Poland's frontiers, although the United Kingdom had gone to war for their supposed sanctity in 1939. However, the Emigre Government in London never relinquished its claim to the frontiers of 1939 and to Poland’s independence.

It was now obvious that in their struggle the Home Army had to face two foes: "Enemy No 1," the German Reich, and "Enemy No 2," the Soviet Union. Ridiculous as it was for the Poles to consider fighting against both. powers simultaneously, or even one after the other, that was just the decision that Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, Prime Minister of the Emigre Government, could not avoid.

German 111 Infantry Regiment  in WarsawSpeaking by radio, with his deputy Poland, Jankowski, the Prime Minister told him of Stalin’s plan to build up a puppet administration in Poland, dependent on Moscow. For this reason the Resistance had to seize the initiative very soon and present the Russians with the fait accompli of an independent and autonomous Polish Government. Against this background, and partly without the knowledge of the rest of his Cabinet or the General Staff in London, Mikolajczyk encouraged open rebellion against the Germans. Warsaw replied that open rebellion was impossible as the German army was retreating from the Russian front intact and did not as yet show any sign of collapsing completely. This, of course, did not exclude local uprisings where the German army had suffered overwhelming defeat. In addition to the main group, the AK, other smaller groups could be used in such risings, including the Anti-Bolshevik Movement, NSZ, led by Colonel Tadeusz Kurciusz.

According to different postwar sources the AK consisted of well over 87,000 NCOs and almost 9,000 fighting units or "platoons," having an estimated combined strength of about 350,000 men.

The plans of the uprising had been outlined by February 1943 under the code-name "Burza" [Tempest]. Even after the Commander of the AK, General Stefan Grot-Rowecki, (codenamed "Grabica") was betrayed and fell into German hands, these plans were fundamentally adhered to.

General Duke Tadeusz Komorowski, "Bor," succeeded him. Until 1939 the Duke had commanded the Cavalry School at Graudenz. Before the war he had made a name for himself as an amateur rider in international tournaments. The German Security Police disparagingly called him "little Rowecki," even though a certain sense of relief had flooded through them when he took over command from his dreaded predecessor.

In December 1943 the AK had received general orders for the Uprising. On 18th February 1944 the Polish Commander in Chief in London confirmed these orders again. They stated that the uprising should take place in phases only, spreading from east to west as the Red Army advanced. It should be sparked off between Lvov and Vilna; Bialystok, Lublin and then Warsaw should follow. Tactically the Poles aimed at harassing the German retreat in depth; both to prevent German outrages in the panic they anticipated during the retreat and to secure the-most important cities for the Emigre Government before the Russians could `liberate' them. These orders again made clear (in the words of the German historian Krannhals) that Operation Burza was directed `militarily against the Germans and politically against the Russians'.

Stalin very quickly made clear his opinion of Operation Burza. At the first meeting between AK troops and Soviet units at the beginning of July, the immense specter of Katyn again reared its ugly head. After the Russian General Tschernakovski had officially welcomed the Polish leaders as "comrades in the fight against the Germans," they were unceremoniously shot--in spite of the fact that AK units were fighting around Lwow and Wilno and many other places, and were thus giving valuable support to the advancing Red Army. Hardly had the Germans been driven out, when the Russians disarmed the Poles, and immediately began using the recently liberated concentration camp at Majdanek to intern Polish Nationalists. The important Polish leader Aleksander Krzyzanowski ("Wilk") and his whole staff plus entire companies, including their wounded, were shot. Stalin had betrayed the Warsaw Uprising in advance of his later policy of calmly leaving it to bleed to death. Brutally and explicitly he made clear to Poland that he attached no importance to their help and that Poland’s independence did not interest him in the slightest. He only gave support to the "Armia Ludowa" [Peoples Army], where the Communists held sway, and who tried to undermine the AK right up until the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. Their strength was less than one tenth that of the AK.

When, on July 24, 1944, Soviet troops took Lublin in Eastern Poland, they marched in side by side with General Zygmunt Berling’s Polish Division; which was loyal to Moscow. Thus Communist power arrived in Poland. In Lublin the Polish "Committee for National Liberation" was set up. Rivaling the Emigre Government in London, this Committee later developed into Poland’s Communist Government.

Members of the Radoslaw Unit - Polish Underground ArmyThe Polish leaders in Warsaw knew all this when they decided to strike. Jankowski and General Antoni Chrusciel ("Monter"), the Warsaw Commander of the AK, unrealistically estimated the extent of the German defeat on the Eastern Front and cherished illusions regarding the Russians’ intentions. In addition, the Poles now viewed Warsaw as "especially important," as a counterbalance to Lublin. The Emigre Government in London too, kept encouraging the Polish leaders. The weakness shown by the Germans in the heart of Warsaw seemed an open invitation to rebellion. After the collapse of the German Army Group Centre on the German Eastern Front during June, the remains of the defeated German Ninth Army streamed eastwards through Poland in complete disarray. On Saturday, July 23, the demoralized remnants passed through Warsaw. "The sight of the disbanded units in full retreat provided an undreamed of spectacle for the populace of the capital. These German troops no longer resembled the proud victors who had so triumphantly moved into the city five years before. For the first time since 1918 people saw a defeated German army, a sight they really enjoyed. With every passing day the city grew more excited, and many Poles openly gave vent to their joy.

Slogans on the walls equated 1944 with 1918. The Poles felt that the fruit of Warsaw was ripe for plucking and would fall into their hands at the slightest touch, especially when the German leaders, in the week of July 24-30, began drawing off all effective fighting troops from Warsaw, leaving behind a mere 2,000 men. The majority of these belonged to signals units and Ninth Army reinforcements. The Germans had already evacuated important military bases and installations. German civilians packed hurriedly, and even the Governor of Warsaw, Dr Ludwig Fischer, fled. However, he returned unexpectedly on July 26 and summoned the inhabitants to enlist for work on fortifications. Evidently German Supreme Command had decided to defend Warsaw!

This decision can only be understood within the framework of a general stabilization of the German Eastern Front. On 21st July Hitler had recalled the tank expert, Heinz Guderian, who had fallen into disfavor, and transferred the Supreme Command of the Eastern Front to him. Of course, Guderian could not work miracles, but he did manage to bring up (comparatively) weak reinforcements to stabilize the front around Warsaw. These included the crack Hermann Goring Parachute-Tank Division, which had been brought from Italy, and the SS Grenadier-Tank Division, known as Wiking (a force partly based on Scandinavian, Dutch and Flemish volunteers). They threatened to use the toughest measures possible at the least sign of collapse along this part of the front. The Ninth Army orders expressly stated: "All units which detrain in Warsaw will march eastwards in perfect military order through the city, and should preferably use the main streets. Their bearing should destroy all rumors among the local populace that we do not intend to defend the city with every means in our power."

On July 27 Air-Chief Marshal Rainer Stahel, an ascetic-looking intellectual Austrian was appointed military commander of Warsaw. In the meantime, unhindered by the Germans, the Russians had crossed the River Vistula sixty-five miles south of Warsaw, and had formed a strong bridgehead. Meanwhile, the 3rd Soviet Tank Division pushed forward into Wolomin, about ten miles from the city. Having received information about the appearance of Russian tanks on the horizon. east of Warsaw, even General Komorowski, "Bor," who had hitherto remained skeptical, felt that the moment was ripe for action. Didn’t the Russians appear to be advancing directly on Warsaw? Was there no hope for Soviet political intervention, if the Moscow-run radio station was to be believed? On July 29, for example, it had broadcast in Polish: "For Warsaw, which never capitulated and never gave up the struggle, the hour of action has struck … By fighting in the streets of Warsaw, in houses, factories and stores, we shall bring nearer the moment of ultimate liberation, and we shall preserve the country’s wealth and the lives of our brothers."

On July 31 in Warsaw, Jankowski and Chrusciel decided to revolt. In the end Komorowski and his deputy also agreed. The uprising was to begin twenty four hours later: on August 1 at 5:00 p.m.

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