The Warsaw Uprising of 1944
After five hard years under German occupation, we tried to save our dignity. When the Home Army intelligence found out that the allies of our allies crossed pre-war borders of Poland, we started Operation Tempest. As our deputy prime minister, Stanisław Jankowski Soból, said, “We wanted to be free and to owe this freedom to ourselves and ourselves only.”
Uprising In order to suppress the Uprising, the German command despatched the Korpsgruppe, under the command of SS General Erich von dem Bach. On 5 August first German units carried out a counter-strike from the West, attacking Ochota and Wola. Their main task was to take control over two main Warsaw highways running from west to east, and to establish a link with Gen. Reiner Stahel’s group, which was cut off in the centre of the city. By 11 August, after fierce fighting with the insurgents, the Russian-Ukrainian units RONA had seized Ochota. At the same time, Germans captured Wola, reaching the insurgents’ well-fortified stronghold in the Old Town. Having been ordered by Hitler to kill every inhabitant of Warsaw, German units took the district of Ochota, committing numerous crimes against the civilian population. In Wola they mounted a planned extermination operation. As they could not capture the Old Town with a single strike, the Germans began a systematic destruction of buildings and Polish positions with artillery fire supported by air raids. Finally, after long and fierce fighting, on 2 September, German units captured the last defences of the Old Town. After adopting defensive tactics, the insurgents achieved their only significant success in Śródmieście. On 11 August they captured the Staszic Palace. On 20 August – the powerful PAST (State Telephone Company) building at Zielna Street. And on 23 August – the Holy Cross Church and the Police Headquarters at Krakowskie Przedmieście. In other districts, the shortage of soldiers in the insurgents’ ranks made it difficult to reinforce the defence and to improve the support bases. The insurgents mounted two big offensive actions in Żoliborz: two assaults on Gdański Railway Station – on the night of 20/21 and on 22 August. They also tried to establish a link between the Old Town and Śródmieście on 31 August. They were unsuccessful. The Insurgents sustained great losses, and all three clashes went down in history as the most bloody battles of the rising. Genocide in the middle of Europe The reaction of the Third Reich to the initial news of the Warsaw Uprising was furious and ruthless. Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, communicating Hitler’s order to destroy the city, added: “Every inhabitant is to be killed, no prisoners are to be taken. Warsaw is to be wiped out and thus serve as a frightening example for the rest of Europe”. From the first days of August Germans followed this order meticulously. On 5 August the German assault aimed at regaining control of the two main Warsaw highways began. The task was carried out by a group under the command of SS Gruppenführer and Police General Heinrich Reinefarth. It consisted mainly of Russian-Ukrainian units of the RONA Brigade, under the command of Waffen-Brigadeführer Bronislav Kaminski, and the Brigade of SS Standartenführer Oskar Dirlewanger, staffed by criminals. Mass executions in Wola and Ochota turned into acts of genocide against the civilian population of Warsaw, one of the most horrific German crimes committed during the Second World War. Systematic extermination of Poles began on 5 August, later known as Black Saturday, the day when Germans started killing the citizens of Wola. The murders were preceded by rapes and unprecedented looting of houses. It is estimated that, within Wola alone, over 40 thousand men, women and children died at German hands. Executions were carried out in hospitals, factories and courtyards. Soon, Germans were short of ammunition. One evening, after a conversation with the commander of the 9th Army, General Nicolaus von Vormann, General Reinefarth asked: “What shall I do with the prisoners? I have more prisoners than I have ammunition”. The acts of genocide committed on the civilian population continued for a few days. The number of deaths was slightly reduced by the decision to use some prisoners as forced labourers. But until the fighting was over mass executions were carried out all over Warsaw in insurgent hospitals seized by Germans. Frequently, civilians, especially women, died when they were forced by the SS to be human shields in front of tanks during attacks on insurgent barricades. As a rule, Germans shot captured insurgents on the spot. The Declaration signed by the United Kingdom and the United States of 29 August, stating that the Home Army constituted a part of the Allied forces and that combatants’ rights applied to the Home Army soldiers, did little to improve the situation of Polish POWs. After the war, it was revealed the mass graves in Wola held the bodies of over 100 thousand Warsaw citizens. Most of these people were murdered when Germans took control of the district. Rise and fall of the Uprising in the Old Town After several days of constant gunfire, bombing raids and furious enemy assaults, no single building was left intact in the Old Town. The condition of the insurgent units deteriorated from day to day. An attempt to break through the cordon of German troops failed. The only remaining way to get out of the siege was through underground passages. The Sewers When the Uprising was put down, the only one way to escape from the Old Town, fro that part of dying city, were the sewers. In 1944 that was a long route – almost 2 km. It took about 4 hours to cover that distance. The conditions during the passage were terrible – the ceilings of the real sewers were much lower and the insurgents waded in toxic sewage. It was dark and the insurgents were scared that the Germans lurking near manholes could hear them. In spite of all those difficulties the evacuation of the Old Town was a success. However, a tragic fate befell the soldiers of LieutenantColonel Józef Rokicki, codename „Karol” (in English “Charles”), who tried to leave Mokotów on 26 October. Contradictory orders, toxic sewage and German attacks from above meant that many soldiers from Mokotów died in the passage. Only 800 utterly exhausted insurgents reached their destination. The use of a municipal sewer system in the Warsaw Uprising on such a scale was a unique phenomenon, unknown in any previous armed conflict. Bad September – to fight at any cost or to surrender After the collapse of the Old Town and the evacuation of the „North Group” units, the insurgents kept their positions in Śródmieście, Powiśle, Czerniaków, Mokotów, Żoliborz and in the Kampinos Forest. Their priority was to defend strategic areas on the banks of the Vistula. The control over those areas gave hope for a successful landing from the Praga side of the river. Germans also feared the Soviet offensive from the other side of the river. That is why they directed their main attack towards the districts situated by the Vistula – Powiśle and Czerniaków. Poles were still counting on support from the East, and, in spite of extremely inferior weaponry, they tried to hold on to their positions at all costs. So-called „hard front” was one of the potent symbols of the Uprising. It was a line of Polish defences in Northern Śródmieście, running from the Postal Railway Station at Żelazna Street, over the cross-town railway line, and through the following streets: Towarowa, Grzybowska and Królewska. On 9 September, the Information Bulletin, one of the insurgent newspapers, announced that: “The soldiers fighting at that section, with their heroic stance, are doing a great favour to the rest of the fighting capital: by attracting the heaviest attacks of the enemy, they act as a shield protecting other districts, even those quite distant from their positions”. Surrender On 1 October Gen. Tadeusz Komorowski, codename “Bór” (in English “Forest”) sent a telegram to the Polish government in London: “Further fighting in Warsaw has no chance of success. I have decided to put an end to it. The terms of surrender guarantee full combatant rights to the soldiers and humane treatment to the civilian population”. On 2 October, the representatives of the Home Army High Command – Certified Colonel Kazimierz Iranek-Osmecki known as “Heller” and Certified Lieutenant Colonel Zygmunt Dobrowolski known as “Zyndram”- in the headquarters of Gen. Erich von dem Bach in Ożarów near Warsaw, signed a ceasefire agreement for Warsaw. According to its provisions, the insurgents were to lay down their arms and leave the city in close ranks, headed by their commanders. The civilian population also had to leave Warsaw. The Death of the City During the Second World War, Warsaw was destroyed four times. First, during the German siege in the September Campaign of 1939, when air raids caused serious damage to a number of buildings. For the second time, after the Ghetto Rising was crushed and the Ghetto was demolished, when Germans wiped out the whole of what had been the Jewish quarter. The third time was during the Warsaw Rising, as a result of heavy artillery fire and shelling of insurgent positions. The fourth demolition, after the collapse of the Rising, took place when Germans began the systematic flattening of the Polish capital. The German operation resulted in the destruction of nearly 83 percent of the city’s buildings, and the destruction of almost all of the capital’s cultural heritage – the intellectual centre of Poland. The Soviet troops, stationed on the other side of the river, did not take any action to stop Germans. Once again, the objectives of Hitler and Stalin, deadly enemies, appeared to coincide as far as policy towards Poland was concerned. It was very convenient for the Soviet dictator that the “bourgeois” elite of the nation be destroyed and no trace of pre-war Warsaw remain. As a result he could rebuild the city according to his own social-realist urban vision, erecting in the city centre his “gift” to the Polish nation, the Palace of Culture and Science – a symbol of soviet domination. The causes and consequences of the Warsaw Uprising On 1 August 1944 about twenty five thousand badly armed underground army soldiers were about to begin their struggle against superior German forces. Fifty thousand went on to join the struggle. After over two months of fierce fighting, Polish units managed to seize a significant part of the city and inflict heavy losses upon the enemy. However, the lack of sufficient support from the Allies, the unquestionable technical superiority of the German army and an extremely high number of casualties eventually forced the Polish command to end their heroic struggle after sixty three days. Fighting in the city, planned to last only a few days, continued for over two months. The people of Warsaw did all they could to help the insurgents from the very start of the rising. They fought street battles, built barricades and organised support bases. The Germans, threatened by the approaching Eastern Front, sent several selected units to fight the resistance movement. They were tasked with suppressing the rising with the use of all available resources, and by doing so, they were sending a terrifying message to the rest of Europe. This led to the total destruction of the city and numerous acts of genocide. About 150 thousand civilians were murdered by Adolf Hitler’s soldiers. For the Rising was not a mindless, romantic act of a group of madmen, but a conscious albeit tragic political decision made by the lawful government of Poland. Having experienced two cruel occupations – German and Soviet – Poles were clearly aware of what was on the Soviet agenda. They knew that the Red Army, approaching from the East, was fighting not to liberate Poland, but to replace the Nazi totalitarianism with their own, totalitarian communist regime. The Warsaw Uprising attempted to liberate the Polish capital by Polish forces allowing Poles to welcome the advancing Soviet troops as genial hosts. It was the last attempt to save Poland from Soviet enslavement.
• Hans von Kranhals, Der Warschauer Aufstand von 1944. Bernhard & Graefe, Verlag für Wehrwesen, Frankfurt am Main 1962; • Norman Davies, Rising‚ 44. The Battle for Warsaw, 2004;
• Philip Gibbs ,No Price for Freedom, London 1954;
• Władysław Szpilman, Śmierć miasta. Pamiętniki Władysława Szpilmana 1939–1945;
• Władysław Bartoszewski, 1859 dni Warszawy, Znak, Kraków 2008;
1. Warszawa – Śródmieście Północne – Napoleon’s Place (today pl. Powstańców Warszawy – Warsaw Insurgents’ Place), Świętokrzyska street. A photography from the Warsaw Uprising. An explosion of a shell 600mm calibre (launched from a mortar Karl Morser Gerät 040) on the roof of the Prudential Hotel at pl. Napoleona 9. View towards west. In the foreground – ruins of buildings at Świętokrzyska street.
2. Warszawa – Śródmieście Północne district – Zielna street. Two insurgents watch the burning building of Polish Telephone Joint-stock Company (PAST) from barricades on Zielna street.
3. Warszawa – Śródmieście Północne – Zielna street. PAST (Polish Telephone Joint-stock Company) building at Zielna 37/39 in flames; a view from Świętokrzyska street. Insurgents look at the fire from behind a barricade.
4. Warsaw – Śródmieście Północne district – corner of Sienkiewicza and Marszałkowska streets. An enactment of the attack launched by the insurgents from “Koszta” company on the corner of Marszałkowska and Sienkiewicza (during the occupation renamed to Artystów street).