Distributed by the Polonia Media Network
PART 5 - "THEY ARE BURNING WARSAW"
Friday, August 5, 1944, dawned a clear, hot summer’s
day. But for tens of thou-sands of Warsaw’s inhabitants, it be-came
In the early hours of the morning, Reinefarth’s and
Dirlewanger’s units had assembled for their first major counterattack.
All concentrated on the Wola district: Dirlewanger’s 1st Battalion took
up position south of the main street through Wola, Wolska Street [Litzmannstaedter
Street in German plans], Reinefarth’s police companies moved up to the
north. A few tanks of the "Hermann Goring Brigade" took up positions to
provide heavy supporting fire. The Tank-Destroyer Unit manned their
numerous large caliber assault-guns, which could snap the Poles’
makeshift barricades like matchsticks. Early in the morning General
Reinefarth moved his operations room, a staff-bus, to a crossroad in
Wola. He in-tended to make a narrow breach in the Polish defenses
through which to advance through the city center, past the Saxon Gardens
and as far as one of the Vistula Bridges.
Wola is about three miles from the Vistula; under
normal circumstances anyone could easily walk it in an hour.
Reinefarth’s soldiers took three days, and by the time they had finished
whole streets had been reduced to ashes.
His advance was also intended to relieve General
Stahel, the city’s Army Commandant, who had been besieged in his
Headquarters since August 1.
"We’ll carve you out as soon as possible, Herr
General," Reinefarth had promised on the telephone on August 4. "Don’t
be too hasty," Stahel replied. "Wait until you really have enough units
together. Better to wait one more day. You know, of course that the
principle of concentrated effort, no messing about, applies in this
case. too." Reinefarth inquired, "How long can you hold out," and felt
somewhat reassured when Stahel, reputedly an exceptionally skilful and
intelligent Austrian. maintained "We can hold out here for another few
Therefore, Reinefarth also ordered five or six
hundred men besieged at numerous individual points not to just defend
their positions but, in conjunction with other splinter groups, to
attack Polish units from the rear and thereby relieve the front for the
"main forces." Admittedly "main forces" did not really mean much in this
context. Reinefarth could only mass about 2,500 men in the central
sector. Dirlewanger’s 2nd Battalion was still being brought up and could
not be mobilized. even by telephone, until August 6.
About 1,700 AK men were entrenched opposite
Reinefarth’s sections. They belonged to the crack "Kedyw-Radoslaw" unit,
consisting almost entirely of experienced and well-equipped fighters.
All the Poles were wearing German uniforms--the camouflaged SS combat
outfits from the captured Waffen-SS depot. Both sides dressed
identically except for the armbands or berets worn by the Poles. The
Poles stood waiting, tense and expectant, behind the Wolska Street
barricades and in the cemeteries on the outskirts of the Ghetto ruins.
They spent many anxious hours before the Germans attacked, partly
because they had no idea how strong their enemy was.
Reinefarth fixed the beginning of the attack for 8:00
a.m. The military objective at this stage could only be to push forward
as far as the Vistula, possibly advancing along no more than a single
thoroughfare. Writing after the war, Reinefarth described his goal: "At
that time it was vital to divide the city into two parts. This meant
recapturing one or two streets running through the city as far as the
Vistula bridges. On one hand, this would have made the main command and
conduct of the uprising much more difficult for the Poles and on the
other it would have restored the vital communication artery for sending
reinforcements to the Eastern Front, which the uprising had severed."
On the right wing, in Ochota (the southern area of
Wola) Reinefarth had brought up [the Russian] Kaminski’s 1,700 men under
the Russian Major Frolov. A mere 300-400 Polish soldiers faced them.
Though outnumbered three or four to one, the Poles
kept control of almost all their positions until nightfall, Major
Frolov’s Russians advancing only 300 yards. Their attack did not begin
at the scheduled time of 8:00 a.m.--they were not "ready" until 9:30
a.m. The German Supreme Command observed such nonmilitary behavior with
complete amazement. The writer of the War Diary noted with a touch of
bitterness and sarcasm "Kaminski’s troops engaged, as planned. Two hours
later than anticipated."
would have been better had Kaminski’s unit not entered the struggle at
all. Hand in hand with Dirlewanger’s hardened criminals and a few less
important and unidentified units, these soldiers used Himmler’s
hysterical paper-command to turn Wola into a bloodbath. On August 5,
Dirlewanger’s SS convicts advanced about 1,000 yards. In every single
street in Wola recaptured by the Germans, even far behind the actual
battle line, the inhabitants were ordered to leave their homes, induced
by promises of "evacuation." As soon as large groups of civilians
assembled on the streets, they were not, however, taken to evacuation
points, but were herded together in cemeteries, gardens, backyards,
factory forecourts or squares. Soldiers then fired machinegun bursts
into the human mass until there was no further sign of movement.
On August 5 no one was spared. Everyone perished,
innocents, old men, women and children, too, as well as members of the
The soldiers piled the corpses in large heaps, poured
petrol over them and set them on fire. Then the scene of such atrocities
was covered with rubble and debris from the ruined houses. Special
German troops set all the nearby buildings on fire, and blew up
factories and ruins. In the evening, the AK signaled London: "The
Germans are burning Warsaw methodically. Many and large fires. Attempts
of the civil population to extinguish hem are frustrated by the
Hospitals in the Wola and Ochota areas suffered worst
of all that day. The "good fellows," as Himmler called them, with
Dirlewanger at their head, stormed into the wards, shot the sick and
wounded where they lay. Nurses, nuns, helpers and doctors suffered the
same fate. Even these atrocities were mild compared with those
perpetrated in the Curie-Sklodowska Radium Institute. Kaminski’s
soldiers occupied the hospital around 11:00 a.m.
The Institute contained only women suffering from
cancer. Lying in their beds, they and their nurses were raped and then
shot by the drunken mercenaries. The Russians in German uniforms ran
amok in a frenzy of looting. They murdered, pillaged and "collected"
rings and jewels, watches and gold, they drove the Polish women down
into the cellars …
Ninety percent of the victims claimed by any military
operation in a large city are civilians. Every military commander must
consider their fate in his orders. But, the events in some areas of
Warsaw were nothing short of systematic, cold blooded murder without any
possible military justification, directed against civilians who had
nothing to do with the uprising, who might evenn have been indifferent
to it. This involved not merely "slips" by Minor units--on the contrary,
Himmler clearly and unmistakably condoned the horrors of August 5 and
the following days: "Every inhabitant of Warsaw is to be shot. Prisoners
will not be taken; the town is to be razed to the ground."
Finally, it must be emphasized that the
responsibility for these atrocities did not rest with the Russians and
Dirlewanger’s convicts alone. Regular SS and Police units made up some
of the execution squads that played their part in the dance of death on
this Black Friday.
Finally: the German military command learned about
the executions and atrocities very early on. Some-what anxiously General
Vormann, the Supreme Commander of Ninth Army spoke on the "phone with
Gruppenfuehrer Reinefarth, temporary commander of the first day, at
mid-night: "What’s your situation?"
"We are advancing only slowly. What should I do with
the civilians? We have less ammunition than prisoners," Reinefarth
answered. Vormann knew what Himmler had ordered, but he did not relish
his unavoidable duty. He did not want to be involved in such crimes. He
countered: "I’ll make a suggestion, which you should make public. Use
some of your propaganda companies for that purpose: Pull all the
civilians out of Warsaw. It has to happen sometime, doesn’t it, because
Warsaw is to be flattened, after all. Bach-Zelewski is responsible for
that, isn’t he?"
Reinefarth confirmed this and Vormann went on
quickly, "Apart from all this the Fuehrer told me he could use another
Reinefarth reported his first-day losses. On the
German side there were only 6 dead, 24 badly wounded and 12 slightly
wounded. But, when Vormann inquired about losses on the Polish side,
Reinefarth said guilelessly "10,000 including those shot."
Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who was really in
command, finally arrived in Warsaw that evening. His first action was to
order that the mass execution of the civilian populace should cease
forthwith, and that looting should stop immediately.
now became clear that mobs like those of Dirlewanger and Kaminski could
not be halted as easily as they could be started on their destructive
careers. News of dreadful and incredible atrocities even filtered
through to the Fuehrer’s Headquarters itself. General Guderian later
wrote in his memoirs, "What I heard then was so hair-raising that I felt
obliged to inform Hitler in detail about it that very evening, and to
demand that the two brigades be withdrawn from the Eastern Front."
Even Gruppenfuehrer Fegelein, Himmler’s Chief Deputy
and Hitler’s "brother-in-law" confirmed, "Yes, indeed, Fuehrer, they
really are villains."
From all this, it became obvious that real military
activity had been kept to a minimum on August 5. Some units even
invented tales of wild struggles and surprise attacks to divert
attention from their own meager advances. For example, when Kaminski’s
Brigade signaled Reinefarth to inform him of their military failure,
they tried to excuse it by making exaggerated demands for help which
carried the implication that fierce resistance was the cause. "5th
August, 1944, 1530 [3:30 p.m.] Kaminski to Reinefarth: Bandits
entrenched with area of Machorka Factory. Further attack only after
mopping up this area .. 1612 [4:12 p.m.] Reached Machorka Factory.
Heavily occupied and defended by bandits. Area fenced in by high wall.
Urgently requested explosive and incendiary material."
Reinefarth and Frolov would have been very surprised,
if they had known that Ninth Army Command was keeping a careful watch on
all tactical radio communications with Kaminski’s Brigade, because they
had found this unit suspect from the very beginning. What Ninth Army
thought of the Rona units’ "success" can be clearly seen from an entry
in the War Diary: "One regiment ("Kaminski") advancing from the South
towards Reichsstrasse [Jerozolimskie in Polish] had boozed its way as
far as the Machorka Factory."
Just because they mistrusted this wild rabble so
much, Ninth Army had stopped the engagement of their 4th East Prussian
Infantry Regiment in Jerozolimskie-Allee. They wanted to avoid a clash
between regular front troops and these demoralized marauders. It had
been hoped, in higher quarters, that the simple numerical superiority of
Frolov’s Russians would crush the Poles from the western side of the
Allee. As we have seen, this failed because the Rona Brigade was, in the
words of the War Diary, "plundering instead of advancing."
A single energetic combined thrust from both sides
onto Jerozolimskie Street could have established almost immediate
contact between the German troops advancing from the Vistula Bridges and
those commanded by Reinefarth. In fact this thoroughfare was not
captured completely until September, although it was almost handed to
the Germans on a plate on August 5. Had they captured the area then, the
Germans could have split the rebels up into pockets one month earlier.
The pillaging and slaughter of August 5 was fatal for the Germans, and
not only from a purely military point of view. From this moment the
Poles fought all the more fiercely and fanatically, causing them to
order that several categories of German prisoners to be shot. The terror
continued to escalate and this in no small way contributed to
lengthening the uprising and to the increase in losses on both sides.
Reinefarth himself had to accept responsibility for
the military fiasco of August 5, because he had passed on Himmler’s ill
advised command and also distributed the troops wrongly. He now did his
utmost to ensure the success of the August 6 attack. He was able to send
in several hundred reinforcements, and these he divided into "assault
groups" North (Wehrmacht units), Center (Dirlewanger, the Azerbaijan
units, Police and Military Police) and South (Kaminski). Tanks were also
available again--captured Russian T-34s and Panthers belonging to the
Hermann Goring Division. However, the most valuable support came from
the Luftwaffe [Air Force]. In the course of the morning thirty machines
took off from Warsaw’s airfields. In successive flights they dropped
incendiary and explosive bombs in the area of the attack (the streets of
Wolska and the Jerozolimskie-Allee). The stukas placed their explosive
charges and mine-bombs accurately in front of the North and Center
Groups, their 1,000 lb. bombs sweeping away entire barricades at one
stroke and blowing great gaps in the Polish pillbox lines. This
shattered the Poles’ communications, as well as creating chaos in their
Then Dirlewanger’s men arrived. They knew exactly
what was at stake and they had nothing to lose. "If you retreat or
fail," they had been told, you will be taken from the probationary unit
and sent back to the concentration camp. If you are captured, the Poles
will shoot you." But, though they engaged in heavy combat, suffering
dreadful losses, they advanced only slowly. The brave Poles defended
each street, each house and even each floor to the bitter end, but they
were forced to give up one building after the other. Every bullet, for
them, was precious; the Germans were lavishly equipped with ammunition.
When the defenders were forced from the roofs into the cellars,
Dirlewanger’s mob had no need to follow; they had only to wait until the
flamethrowers advanced. Flames up to fifty yards long seared into the
cellars; burning oil smothered the least sign of resistance