The Warsaw Uprising lasted from August 1944 to October 1944. The Warsaw Uprising, led by General Tadeusz ‘Bor’ Komorowski, failed for a variety of reasons but it remains an inspirational story for a people under the rule of the Nazis since the invasion of Poland in 1939 and whom had suffered greatly as a result of the Holocaust.
Fueled with hope as a result of the rapidly advancing Russian Army, The Polish Underground Home Army decided to take on the might of the Germans in the Poland. Not unnaturally, they felt that their efforts would be helped by the Russians. Units from the Polish Home Army took on the Germans at Vilnynus, Lublin and Lvov. While the Russians attacked from the east, the Poles fought German forces to the west, effectively squeezing the German Army. In all three cities they gave the Russians valuable help. Buoyed by this success, the Home Army decided to do the same in Warsaw. However, here different circumstances occurred which were to have dire consequences for the uprising. The Germans had decided to make Warsaw a fortress city which would be defended at all costs in an effort to stem the advance of the Red Army.
General ‘Bor’ Komorowski had decided that the uprising would start at 05.00 on August 1st. He had about 40,000 soldiers at his disposal but only 2,500 had weapons. They faced a German force in the city that numbered 15,000 men. However, there were 30,000 German troops in the immediate vicinity of the city. Unlike the Polish Home Army, the Germans had tanks, planes and artillery at their disposal. Many were also battle-hardened troops from the Hermann Goering SS Panzer and Paratroop Division and the SS ‘Viking’ Panzer Division. They were in and near Warsaw to defend it against the Red Army. Therefore, when they found that they were needed to fight the Home Army, they were in no mood to be merciful.
Hitler had handed over the command of the German land forces in the east to General Guderian on July 21st 1944. He had done a great deal to strengthen the German forces around the city and he had put General Stahel of the Luftwaffe in specific charge of Warsaw. ‘Bor’ Komorowski believed that his Home Army would receive support from the Russians as whoever held Warsaw, held the most important communications centre on the River Vistula. The Poles in Warsaw had been rehearsing their plan for three years.
‘Bor’ (Komorowski’s code name) had one major advantage over the Germans. Those in his army were driven by the dream of driving the Germans out of Warsaw and Poland. However, he also had a number of crucial weaknesses that had to be catered for. He only had the most basic of weapons – typical infantry weaponry. However, far more important, the Home Army only had ammunition for seven days fighting. ‘Bor’ put his faith in the capture of German weapons and ammunition and in air drops by the Allies.
The very first day showed up the problems the Poles were to face. The operational orders for the units in Warsaw were issued at 06.30 on August 1st. However, local commanders did not receive them until the next day – 24 hours late – because of a curfew in the city.
German forces to the east of the Vistula were heavily engaged in fighting with the Russians. Therefore, when the Poles in Warsaw finally organised themselves, they found that they had the advantage in the city over the Germans. By the end of the first day of the uprising, the Germans had suffered many defeats within Warsaw. However, the Poles did not manage to critically erode German power in the city. By day five of the uprising, the Poles had captured many German weapons but their expenditure on ammunition meant that despite captured German weapons, the Poles were running short of ammunition. The Poles also lacked the necessary weapons to successfully attack well defended German emplacements within the city. In many cases, the attacks by the Poles on August 1st and 2nd, had taken the Germans by surprise but they had failed to sustain the impact of these attacks. Regardless of this, Hitler had reacted to the uprising by appointing SS Obergruppenführer Bach-Zelewski to be the commander of the German forces in Warsaw. Bach-Zelewski was an expert in fighting resistance movements behind the front line. Such an appointment made life for the Poles involved in the Warsaw uprising extremely difficult as Bach-Zelewski brought with him a dedicated team experienced in such warfare. By day five of the uprising, both sides had stabilised their positions. The Poles controlled three areas of the city, while the Germans controlled the rest. The Poles found it very difficult to communicate with themselves within the three separate sectors. It was decided on August 6th that the three sectors would have their own commander.
The Germans attacked the Polish Home Army positions with utmost ferocity. As the fighting had to include buildings being taken one-by-one, the Germans had sent many flame throwers to its troops there and Goliath tanks – mini-tanks that exploded when detonated and which were controlled by wire by the Germans so that they could position them as near to a target as they wanted without endangering their own lives. While the initial stages of the uprising had been successful (as the Poles had surprise on their side), they now had to fight an enemy fully equipped to deal with urban warfare.
The Germans fought to keep the Poles away from the banks of the River Vistula as they wanted to ensure that they could have no contact with the Red Army that was nearby. They had initially decided to blanket bomb Warsaw but realised that they could not do so as there were German defensive positions within the city centre itself. These were vital to the Germans as they split the attention of the Home Army – do you take on the Germans outside of the city or those in it, or split your forces?
In areas of Warsaw controlled by the Poles, the Germans simply used their air power to destroy such areas – including the use of incendiary bombs. While such areas were in disarray and while the Home Army’s units there were disorganised, the Germans moved forward. No prisoners were taken – civilian or otherwise – as the Germans assumed that all civilians could be members of the Home Army. Even those in makeshift hospitals were killed. As the German noose tightened around the city, those in the Home Army who were still alive, used something to their advantage that only those in the city could fully know about – the city’s sewers. Units of the Home Army that were trapped in certain areas (places such as the Old Town) knew that they could move away from the Germans by literally going underground. The photo above is of a statue in Warsaw that commemorates this – the Catholic priest is in memory of the help given to the Home Army by priests within the city. One of the grills just by the statue (but out of shot in the photo) is said to have been one of the ones used by the escaping men and women in the Home Army. Such routes could not be used to evacuate the badly wounded and Colonel Iranek-Osmecki who fought in the Uprising claims that the Germans soaked the wounded in petrol and burned them alive.
Right into September, the Home Army based its hope on receiving help from the Red Army that was nearing the Vistula River. It never came and the Polish Red Cross , on September 7th, tried to negotiate a ceasefire. They were given a few hours grace during September 8th and 9th and several thousand children and elderly were allowed to leave the city. Many in the city simply did not want to go as on September 10th, the Red Army had defeated what remained of the German Army on the east bank of the Vistula. They were literally on the banks of the river in certain places – opposite the heart of the city.
However, on September 14th and 15th the Germans sent fresh troops to the city centre and consolidated their positions on the west bank of the Vistula. The XXV Panzer Division had been sent to the city to finally defeat the Home Army. Their approach to the Home Army was as before – total ruthlessness. If a building was thought to contain members of the Home Army, it was simply destroyed with whoever was in it. When house-to-house searches took place, flame throwers were used. Building by building, the city was retaken by the Germans – and massive damage was done to it.
By the end of September, the Home Army was short of all supplies – food, fresh water ammunition etc and the city was being systematically destroyed. The Polish Red Cross negotiated with Bach-Zelewski and on October 2nd a ceasefire was announced. An act of surrender was signed the same day. Those in the city who had survived were moved out. Buildings that were left standing were destroyed after anything of value was taken to Berlin.
No-one is quite sure of casualties but Polish historians believe that 150,000 Poles died in the uprising. Bach-Zeleski claimed that 26,000 Germans were killed in the two months of the fighting.