Distributed by the Polonia Media Network
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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."