71st Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, guest post by Mary Rose
On August 1, 1944 at about 5:00 PM, I heard machine guns and grenades exploding. From my balcony at 28 Kopernika Street, I saw the attack on the University. The boys positioned themselves along the street; the girls were delivering weapons and ammunition...That first night, full of uncertainty, the insurgents felt that all of Warsaw was behind them, supporting them...The first shots freed the city from the nightmare of the Gestapo. An uplifting mood reigned in the streets...We are free! We will defend freedom to the end!..."
young Polish soldier
At 1700 hrs. on August 1st, 19444, in Warsaw, Poland, the Polish Home Army rose up against the occupying German garrison in an attempt to win back their city after five years of oppression. Moments after the first shots were fired the Poles exuberantly radioed to London "We are fighting!" By nightfall the Polish soldiers had captured a German arsenal, the main Post Office, a barracks, the power station, the tallest building in Warsaw, and other buildings. During the night barricades were thrown up all over the city by the Polish people, cutting off the city streets as a hindrance to the Germans' tanks, etc. For the first time in over four years, the Polish flag was flying over Warsaw.
Polska Walczaca, meaning Fighting Poland or Poland in arms: A group of Polish Home Army insurgents
On September 1st, 1939, Poland had been invaded from the west by Germany; sixteen days later, Russia invaded from the east, in accordance with a secret pact made earlier. They divided Poland between themselves, Germany occupying the western half, and Russia the eastern half. For five years the Nazis occupied Warsaw, rounding up Jews, massacring civilians, mistreating the populace in typical Nazi style. The Polish Government had fled to London. The Polish Underground State, an administrative, political, and military formation directing and engaging in resistance to the Nazis, was set up and the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK) gradually evolved as the military wing of that structure.
To arms in the ranks of the A.K.!
Plans for a national uprising had been in the works since the Nazi invasion. There were several reasons as to why August 1944 had to be the start of the rising. First, the Russian army was approaching Warsaw. The Nazis, being Nazis, had broken their non-aggression pact with the Soviets and invaded Russia in 1942, kicking the Russians out of Poland in the process. Now, in 1944, the Russians were pushing the Germans out of Russian territory and towards Germany. Warsaw was directly in the way.
The Poles and the Russians were not on very friendly terms, and in fact diplomatic relations had been broken off in 1943 after the Russians had massacred about 22,000 Polish prisoners, most of them Polish officers or soldiers, at the Katyn Forest. Stalin was planning on setting up a pro-communist system in post-war Poland, whereas the Poles wanted to re-establish their own pro-western democratic-capitalist government. If the Russian Army 'liberated' Warsaw, the capitol of Poland, the true Polish Government-in-exile would most likely be forgotten by the Allies, a communist government set up and the Home Army branded by Soviet propagandists as Nazi collaborators. Therefore, the Home Army's plan was to liberate Warsaw before the communists, thus manifesting Polish sovereignty and also as express resistance against their age-old enemies, the Germans.
Polish Home Army soldier
The Polish Home Army knew it would have to accept help from the Russians, but trusted that America and England would prevent Russia from setting up a communist Poland.
They thought that the Polish Forces-in-exile would be allowed to come to their aid.
They expected airdrops from the US and Britain and hopefully put out white sheets to guide American bombers to Polish territories.
And, at the start of the Uprising, the Polish soldiers outnumbered the Nazi troops stationed in Warsaw, everybody's spirits were up, and morale was at an all-time high, so, on August 1st, 1944, there was plenty of reason to think that the Uprising would be short and successful.
Polish soldiers of the Parasol battalion
Alas. The expected help from the Allies was small and unsatisfactory. Stalin would not allow Allied planes supporting the Uprising to land at their bases; consequently Allied bombers were forced to carry smaller loads over long distances above enemy territory. Casualties among the bombers were high and the airdrops were mostly unsuccessful, as many of the supply containers fell into Nazi hands. President Roosevelt was unwilling to join Churchill in defying Stalin's orders, hoping to keep the peace with his treacherous Russian ally.
The Russian Red Army sat on the opposite bank of the Vistula river, sometimes fighting, but mostly watching the fighting. Stalin knew the anti-communist sentiments of the greater portion of the Polish Home Army, and looked on the Uprising as a handy way to get rid of them--let the Nazis finish them off.
The Nazis sent reinforcements of troops and tanks to Warsaw, doubling the German forces in that area. The German SS chief Heinrich Himmler declared that Warsaw must be leveled as an example to all of Europe, that no prisoners were to be taken and that all inhabitants of the city were to be killed. SS troops were a terror to all inhabitants of Warsaw. They committed all sorts of atrocities, from the horrific Wola massacre to the burning of insurgent hospitals, etc. Many civilians turned against the insurgents, saying that it was their fault for bringing all this horror and destruction upon them.
Rain, autumn rain, sings a song of tears...
On the other hand, there were many civilians supporting the Uprising, and many soldiers in the ranks of the Home Army or the Polish scouting union. Men, women, children were all fighting side by side. Kids of ten and twelve were running mail through German territory to different Polish-held sectors in Warsaw, or helping the Red Cross, or painting anti-Nazi, pro-Polish propaganda on the walls, or fighting in combat. Women were in the Home Army, the scouts, the Red Cross, acting as couriers, liaison officers, radiomen, nurses, soldiers. They ran hospitals, aid stations, relief centers, carried ammunition to the soldiers, etc. Old men and teenagers mounted the barricades side by side to fight, their home-made grenades and machine-guns in hand.
Szare Szeregi (Grey Ranks), the wartime name for the Polish boy and girls scouts
But, outnumbered and with insufficient weapons, by late September, Polish forces were forced to evacuate their sectors through Warsaw's sewer system and assembled in the City Center, which was the last district of Warsaw still in Polish hands.
Insurgents reading a Polish underground paper, Biuletyn Informacyjny (Information Bulletin)
On October 2nd, 1944, at 8:00 PM, all fighting ceased. General "Bor", commander of the Home Army, said in his farewell address to the soldiers of Warsaw:
"Soldiers of Fighting Warsaw! The heroic deeds of Polish soldiers which constitute two months of fighting in Warsaw are proofs, however full of horror, of our desire for freedom — our strongest desire. Our battle in the capital, in the face of death and destruction, stands in the forefront of famous deeds of Polish soldiers during this war. They will be a lasting memorial to our spirit and love of freedom. Although we were not able to gain a military victory over our enemy (since the general situation in our country was not favourable to our endeavor), those two months of fighting for every foot of Warsaw’s streets and walls have fulfilled a political and ideological goal. Our struggle will influence the fate of our nation, since it is a contribution without equal in its heroism and sacrifice to the defense of our independence. Today, when the enemy’s technical superiority has forced us into the central sector of our city — the only sector still under our control — when the city’s ruins are crowded with soldiers and the heroic civilian population, suffering from unbearable conditions of living on the battlefield, when we have not enough of even the most primitive food, and when there is virtually no chance of defeating the enemy, we have to confront the problem of complete destruction of the population by the enemy and chance of having most of the fighting soldiers and hundreds of thousands of the civilian population buried under the ruins. I have decided to call a halt to the fighting."
Thousands of civilians streamed out of Warsaw in dismal columns. Polish soldiers began tearing down the barricades. They handed their weapons over to the Nazis and marched proudly out of Warsaw to German captivity, their heads held high, still carrying the Polish flag. Some German soldiers saluted the insurgents as they passed the lines of triumphant Nazis, in a gesture of respect. As a German soldier said in a letter home: Let's not deceive ourselves: Warsaw fell thanks to our heavy weaponry and not to the courage of certain units, however well they fought...They (the insurgents) came out with fully deserved honours after true heroism in battle. In truth they fought better than we did.
The Warsaw Uprising lasted 63 days. It failed because of the political situation between the Soviet Union and Poland, and lack of support from the Allies. The Poles had thought the Russians wished to capture Warsaw, whereas Stalin instead preferred to sit back and watch the destruction of the mostly anti-communist Home Army, and they were unaware that Poland had been placed under Soviet control in an Allied conference of 1943. It is estimated that over 15,000 partisans, 200,000 civilians, and 16,000 Germans were killed during the rising.
Warsaw was systematically looted, burned and destroyed by special Nazi destruction units, with especial care in obliterating historical and religious buildings. In January of 1945, the Red Army rolled victoriously into Warsaw. Communist rule in Poland began. Members of the Home Army were branded as criminals, hunted by the communist secret police, and many were executed on the charge of being traitors to Poland.
For decades the Warsaw Uprising was a subject of great embarrassment for America and England, as they were so unhelpful to the Poles and lenient to Stalin. In communist Poland, the Warsaw Uprising was a forbidden topic.
However, in Poland today, August 1st is commemorated as a great anniversary. Every year Polish citizens congregate at the Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw to honor the brave Polish insurgents. Here are some videos of Polish street bands in Warsaw on the 1st of August, singing the rousing songs of the Warsaw Uprising (you can also click on videos of lots of other songs by the same groups of street singers):
And here are some good sites for you to read more about this forgotten episode of history, in which the civilian population of a city rose in defense of freedom.
Photos of the Uprising:
Guest Post by Mary Rose. Illustrations by ditto.