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WARSAW UPRISING OF 1944

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PART 10 - "THE FINAL AGONY"

In the meantime, the German military situation along the Vistula Front worsened considerably. For weeks ambitious Marshal Rokossovsky had been preparing his two armies 47th and 70th along the Vistula for a major drive against the German Eastern Front. The Russians had already secured two bridgeheads over the river in preparation for their offensive, but the Germans still had one bridgehead on the east bank--the district of Praga in Warsaw itself. Of course, at this stage the Germans could not hope to start a new campaign eastward, but they wanted to hold Praga for as long as possible. For Rokossovsky, on the other hand, German-held Praga meant having a dangerous bulge in the Vistula Front, which he would like to have straightened out before starting any large scale operations.

At this point an excellent "public relations" opportunity presented itself to the Russians. At the same time as straightening the front, Stalin could be seen to be giving Warsaw military aid … or at least appearing to do so.

Sygmunt Berling, Commander, Soviet First Polish ArmyThus, the 1st (Soviet) Polish Infantry Division, stationed along the Vistula received orders to prepare to storm Praga. This Division was one of three in the First Polish Army., commanded by the Polish General Zygmunt Berling. They had been formed from Polish ex-prisoners of war, held by the Red Army since the Autumn Campaign of 1939, ad from recent conscripts from Eastern Poland. Major portions of these divisions were, therefore, neither well-trained nor well-armed. But, for the attack on Praga they received considerable support from Soviet tanks, artillery and engineers. Accompanied by two neighboring Soviet Divisions, the Poles (now known as the "Polish Assault Division") began the battle for Praga. Sections of two German divisions opposed them. By evening the Poles had managed to fight their way deep into Praga. But the battle was by no means over.

The following morning General Kaellner, Commander of the 19th German Tank Division, personally took charge of an attack. He led his hurriedly collected rearguard and advanced, pinning the Polish and Soviet attack down in the maze of houses in the suburb. Rokossovsky had to draw off extra troops from the First Polish Army on the Vistula bridgehead. On September 13, however, Berling’s Division stormed unchecked as far as the Vistula and the Kierbedzia Bridge.

Polish strongpoint captured by GermansNow Polish soldiers were fighting the Germans on both sides of the river. Noise of the battle around the AK pockets in Mokotow and the city center mingled with the sound of gunfire from Praga. Unfortunately, from September 8 onwards the Germans had gradually won back the area directly opposite Praga, tactically one of their major achievements. In doing so they prevented the Polish soldiers on both sides from combining forces. German troops could also escape almost unhindered from Praga over the bridge. On the night of the 14th September all the bridges over the river were blown up. The Germans had barred the way to those who were trying to relieve the uprising.

But, Rokossovsky did level out the front. It is indeed noticeable that he now left all attempts to force the Vistula without any major Russian support, reducing the whole operation to a purely Polish affair.

Because of this, all attempts by General Berling’s units to cross the river show the same spirit of desperate and hopeless daring. On the night of September 16, Berling ordered units of General Galicki’s 3rd Division to attempt the first large-scale crossing. He required them to do nothing less than attack, make contact with the AK and AL sections and occupy Warsaw. He did outline to them the approximate strength of the enemy on the opposite bank: "opposite you are the 5OOth Assault Battalion, 1st Police Battalion, the 501st Engineer-Assault Battalion with a combined fire-power of 120 machine guns, 15 mortars, 4 electrically-fired mortars (Nebelwerfer), twelve 77mm gun batteries and about 30 assault guns."

Obviously any attack by the forces available mounted against such "modest" opposition could only turn into a complete bloodbath. In addition, Intelligence reports have revealed that the Germans knew the exact timing of the attack. Thus this first attempt to cross the Vistula in the dark failed completely. The Poles could not hold any part of the west bank.

However, attempts made on the following days did have more success, especially north and south of the Poniatowski Bridge. There, Berling’s soldiers managed to get a foothold on the west bank for a few days. After an unbelievably tough struggle, they made a temporary bridgehead 500 yards deep and half a mile wide.

Here, on September 19, the rebels fought side by side with Polish Red Army soldiers for the first time. Both sides reported that these clashes were among the most bitter of the whole uprising. One single street near the Vistula was fought over fiercely until the evening of September 22. It is indeed rare for the day’s report of a whole army to be limited to the details of fighting around one single house, but this is what happened in Warsaw. "The last of the rebel-occupied houses near the Vistula has been burning for two hours" ran the entry in the Ninth Army’s War Diary.

Polish patriots in PragaDespite Rokossovsky’s Polish descent he did not seem to think it important to support Warsaw. He neither widened the Russian bridgehead nor did he bring up fresh troops. On September 22 the Germans had the situation in Warsaw completely under control again. But the (Soviet) Polish Army had lost at least 2,000 men in its attempts to cross the river. General Berling was relieved of his post. Stalin, however, had achieved what he needed. While the battle for Praga raged and the attempts to cross the river failed, Allied radio stations tried desperately to patch up the split in the alliance which had now been brought into the open. They broadcast that "the great Battle for Warsaw" had entered its "most decisive stage." They did not forget to give due praise to the help "which Marshal Stalin has given the besieged Poles." Soviet radio stations, too, suddenly began to side with the "adventurers" of yesterday, with those so called "criminal elements."

However, General Bor and his hard-pressed units, crushed together in the incredibly small area of Zoliborz and the City Center, did not get much out of this lip-service. It is true that from September 13 onwards Soviet planes did drop weapons and ammunition over Warsaw a couple of times, usually without parachutes, simply packed in sacks and boxes. Most of the material that reached the Poles was too damaged to use. As for the ammunition, it was all of Russian calibers and so did not fit the mainly German weapons used by the AK.

Combatants and civilians suffered more and more as supplies of food and ammunition began to run out. Polish Command, therefore, waited in even greater anticipation for the American supply drop they were expecting, now that the planes could land in the Ukraine. But the Americans and Russians were not ready until September 18.

Early that morning 110 Flying Fortresses took off from Southern England. They followed the shuttle-bombing system evolved for the bombardment of the Rumanian oilfields. They flew over Warsaw, landed swiftly at Poltava in the Ukraine and then winged their way back to England from there. What a proud spectacle the air-fleet made as it appeared over Warsaw that day. The Fortresses were accompanied by 148 fighters. AK soldiers emerged from the trenches; civilians crept from the cellars. They waved handkerchiefs and cheered the Americans. Not even the flak which exploded around the bomber formations and then rained down on Warsaw's streets could dampen their joy. Suddenly thousands of parachutes opened over the city (1,248 were counted in all.) The chutes billowed and gently bore their heavy burdens to the ground.

Headquarters of Ninth German Army received an alert-signal informing them that parachutists were being dropped to reinforce the rebels. They soon realized what was really happening however, and must have felt considerable relief, for the dropping zones, areas still in Polish hands, were too small, and more than 90% of all the supplies fell into German hands. Because of German flak the American Boeings had to fly too high for accurate supply dropping. In addition, all their cargo could not be dropped in their first run and heavy defensive fire made a second too risky. The Germans sent all the weapons and ammunition captured in this way to the Volkssturm (the German Home Guard) they were forming in East Prussia, where they were used against the Russians a few months later.

German anti-tank gun near Opera HouseEven the meager success of the drop did, however, mean that the rebels could continue the struggle another few days. Despite negative reports on the operation from the Eighth USAAF, further drops were planned, but could only have taken place after October 1. Day after day, General Bor signaled London: "Hunger. Autumn cold. Starvation rations. Civilian population depressed." Bach-Zelewski’s units had now been reinforced with almost intact Wehrmacht units drawn off from Praga after the stabilization of the Vistula front. On September 24 they attacked Mokotow. Polish losses were so great that the Home Army had to give up the area and evacuate the last remnants of their troops.

All too monotonously the same process was repeated in Zoliborz. After days of skirmishing, the Germans used what remained of their 19th Tank Division, which had been evacuated from Praga, to start one of the heaviest attacks of the whole uprising. They disregarded their losses. The demands for surrender, issued as a routine procedure before any such attack, were turned down by the Polish Area Commander who, although severely wounded, continued to command the action. He did at least agree to evacuate the civilians.

In the first grey light of dawn on September 29, the Germans began a hurricane artillery bombardment. Then wave after wave of tanks, assault guns and self-propelled guns moved up in the direction of the heavy barricades around Wilson Square. Infantry from Schmidt's Combat Group followed hard on their heels.

Then Warsaw saw the last--and ultimately unsuccessful--combined Russian and Polish action. In Zoliborz they had established direct radio links with Rokossovsky. Now at least, heavy Russian artillery bombardment from Praga interdicted the German attack.

The tactical disintegration of the Home Army was now obvious to everyone. While the Polish Colonel Wachnowski (code-name Karol Ziemski) was getting in touch with the Germans to negotiate a total surrender, the Commander of Zoliborz, Lieutenant-Colonel Zywiciel, who was severely wounded and in a totally hopeless and desperate situation, was still, on September 30, refusing to give in to continual German demands for surrender.

Then the German Command permitted Colonel Wachnowski to go up to the battle line. He went as far as the frontline--just as another tank attack began on Wilson Square--then he changed his mind. After seeing the real situation in Zoliborz he ordered the district to surrender at once.

On September 4 at 6:15 p.m. battle stopped in Zoliborz. General Bor signaled London: "Our struggle is in its last agonizing stage … I shall be compelled to capitulate."
 

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