*** war and social upheaval: World War II -- Poland Warsaw Uprising 1944

World War II: Poland--Warsaw Uprising (August-October 1944)

Warsaw Uprising
Figure 1.--Warsaw was one of the heaviest damaged cities in World War II. The Luftwaffe desevtated the city which had no air degenses during the German Blitzkrieg offensive (September 1939). It was the first major terror bombing of the War. NAZI officials at the time assumed that the Luftwaffe would prevent other countries from bombing German cities. The city was further damaged in the Warsaw Getto rising (1943) and much more damage was done when the Home Army rose against the NAZIs (1944). When Stalin ordered the Red army not to support the rising, the NAZIs completed the destruction of the city and murdered large numbers of the city's surviving civilian residents. Here we see what was left of the city when the NAZIs were through. Warsaw children are playing in front of the ruins of the Marien Kirche. The photograph was taken after the War on March 4, 1946.

The most dramatic resistance effort by the Polish Home Army was the uprising against the NAZIs in Warsaw when the Soviets neared the Vistula (July 1944). After Operation Bagration (June-July 1944), Warsaw on the Vistula was the principle barrier standing between the Red Army and Berlin. The Poles did not greet the Red Army in the same way that populations in the West cheered the Americans and British. They had no illusions about what would follow in the wake of the Red Army, a Stalinist dictatorship. The Home Army (loyal to the London government-in-exile) decided on a desperate gambit at the Red Army approached the Vistula. They would stage an insurrection and free Warsaw. The Home Army rebelled (August 1) anticipating the support of the Red army. Instead Stalin ordered the Soviet troops to stop on the far side if the Vistula. The German reaction was savage. On one day alone the SS rounded up and shot 25,000 Polish men women and children. The Americans offered to drop supplies, but Stalin refused permission for the flights to use needed Soviet air bases to refuel for the return trip. The Poles fought valiantly on, finally capitulating (October 2). The Germans at Hitler's orders virtually razed the city. The Soviets finally took Warsaw with little resistance from the Germans (January 1945).

The Home Army (Armia Krajowa--AK)

Poles operating at considerable personal danger formed many resistance groups in Poland after the NAZI invasion. Most were loyal to the Government-in-exile. The major exception was the Communists. They organized a network constituting an underground Polish state. The principal military force of the underground Polish state was the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa--AK) was the underground army fighting the Nazi German occupation of Poland during World War II. The AK evolved from the Service for the Victory of Poland (Sluzba Zwyciestwa Polski--SZP) (September 27, 1939). SZP was a political-military organization which was created the military organization Union for the Armed Struggle (Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej--ZWZ. The ZWZ was the foundation for the AK. The AK was an integral part of the Polish Armed Forces and under the command of the Polish Armed Forces in London. The best known commander of the Polish Army was General Sikorski. The activities of the AK were intelligence, sabotage, suppression, diversion, and finally uprising. The overwhelming NAZI military superiority and the cooperation of the Soviets in the suppression of Poland made any kind of armed resistance virtually impossible. As a result the initial operations were aimed at organizing and intelligence. The AK assisted the British in learning about the NAZI V-weapons program. As the NAZI military situation weakened, overt military actions became feasible. The most dramatic resistance effort by the Polish Home Army was the uprising against the NAZIs in Warsaw when the Soviets neared the Vistula (July 1944).

The Red Army

Operation Bagration was the most devastating Soviet offensive of the War (June-July 1944). It was timed to support the Western Allies' D-Day invasion so that the Germans could not concentrating forces to repel the invasion. Bagration proved even more destructive to German arms than D-Day. It destroyed the Wehrmacht's most powerful remaining formation--Army Group Central. The Soviets attacked with a massive forces smashed into Army Group Center still holding Belorussia seized during Barbarossa. The Soviets completely surprised the Germans, not only with the force of the attack, but with their mobility--in part due the Lend Lease Studebaker trucks. Army Group Center was devastated, the Wehrmacht in may instances broke and run and there were many major encirclements. Bagration destroyed the Wehrmacht as a major force. It also brought the Red Army to the Vistula. Warsaw and the Vistula were now principle barrier standing between the Red Army and Berlin. The Poles did not greet the Red Army in the same way that populations in the West cheered the Americans and British. Poland had already experienced Soviet occupation (1939-41). They had no illusions about what would follow in the wake of the Red Army, a Stalinist dictatorship and further efforts to destroy Poland as a nation. (In fact the later did not happen.)

D-Day (June 1944)

The Home Army rose not only as the Red Army approached the Vistula, but as the Western Allies broke out of the Normandy beachhead and began the sweep through France. Too often Anglo-American accounts of D-Day focus on the battle as the decisive blow to NAZI Germany. It was an important blow to the NAZIs, but not as damaging as many German reverses in the East. The real importance of D-Day is that it prevented the terrible repression of Western Europe that Stalin conducted in Poland and other Eastern European countries after the War.

Operation Tempest: Desperate Gambit (August 1, 1944)

The Home Army (loyal to the London government-in-exile) launched Operation Tempest (August 1, 1944). It was associated with the massive Soviet Bagration offensive (July 18). Operation Tempest was a nation-wide effort, but focused on Warsaw. For AK it was a desperate gambit at the Red Army approached the Vistula. Buoyed by the success of D-Day and the the beginning of the Allied push through France as well as the sound of the Red Army's big guns to the east, the Home Army struck to liberate Warsaw from 5 years of vicious NAZI occupation. The Home Army hoped to free Warsaw before the Red Army arrived. There were other factors involved. The Germans were preparing mass round-ups of able-bodied Poles for 'evacuation' to the Reich for war work. And Radio Moscow's Polish Service was calling for an uprising, Themajor impetus, however, was emotional. The desire to reestablish their national government and to seek revenge against the hated Germans. Davies, pp. 268 and 271.] The AK staged the insurrection to free Warsaw much as the French were about to do in Paris two weeks later. The difference was that it was the American Army driving toward Paris and the Red Army driving toward Warsaw. The Home Army anticipated the support of the advancing Red Army.

The Uprising

The AK struck in Warsaw (August 1, 1944). The Germans were badly defeated east of the Vistula but the Red Army had not yet reached the Vistula. The Vistula cut through Warsaw, but most of the city was west of the River. West of the Vistula the Germans still had well armed forces. The massive Red Army victories in Belarus and eastern Poland which had destroying Army Group Center, which had been the most powerful German formation. German military power was , however, still overwhelming superior to the lightly armed and equipped AK volunteers west of the Vistula. The AK at first managed to gain some important successes against the surprised German Warsaw garrison. The AK had two main objectives. First was to drive the Germans out of Warsaw. Second was to liberate Warsaw and assert Polish sovereignty before the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of National Liberation (the Lublin Committee) could establish control. The AK did managed to gain control over most central Warsaw on the west bank of the Vistula. They also gained control over other areas of the city. The Germans managed, however, to hold many pockets throughout the city. The Germans quickly mobilized reserves and the resulting fighting in the city was fierce. The AK had control over most of central Warsaw, but even here there were pockets of resistance. This included Warsaw University buildings, PAST skyscraper, the headquarters of the German garrison in the Saxon Palace, the Polish excluded area near Szucha Avenue, and the bridges over the Vistula. The AK was unable to establish a central stronghold, secure communication links to other areas, or a secure land corridor to the northern area of Żoliborz through the northern railway line and the Citadel. The AK gained control of areas outside the city center, but here their control was more tenuous with larger areas of German control. Even more ominous, the Red Army which the AK had been counting on, ignored AK radio transmissions attempting to coordinate military efforts. Fighting between the Germans and Poles intensified as the Germans reinforcements began to arrive with heavy weapons. The AK reached the limits of its liberation effort (August 4). The AK fighters managed to establish front lines in the western-most neighborhoods Wola and Ochota. It was at this point that the German forces stopped falling back and well-armed reinforcements began to arrive.

NAZI Reaction

The German reaction was savage. The same situation was unfolding in Paris at about ther same time, only at Paris the Americans rushed to aid the resistnce. Stalinn had no intention of diung this. With the Red Army surprisingly inactive, the remaining German forces could concentrate on the Poles. It was soon obvious to the Germans what Stalin was doing. Hitler hated Poland more than any other country. Hitler now had one final chance to reek his revenge on the Poles. German reinforcements were rushed to Warsaw, doubling the size the German forces to 30,000 men. The effort was turned over to the SS. SS General Erich von dem Bach was given command over all the forces being assembled to fight the AK Uprising. The Germans organized counter-attacks aimed to link up with pockets of German resistance in the city. And they began to cut the AK fighters off from the Vistula where there was the possibility of Soviet aid across the River. Among the reinforcing units were forces under the command of SS General Heinz Reinefarth. He was ordered to organize a military unit consisting of personnel from security units involved in extensive war crimes and moved toward Warsaw. Upon arrival, Kampfgruppe Reinefarth joined the forces under von dem Bach. From the beginning the two SS commanders were engaged in terrible atrocities and massacre of civilians. Eventually about 50,000 German troops took part in the operation to suppress the AK Warsaw Uprising. The German units included the notorious Dirlewanger and RONA brigades, units of Hermann Göring and Viking SS divisions, 19th and 25th panzer divisions, and others. The Germans brought in armor and heavy artillery, including a 600 mm mortar. This massive mortar was hard to use against the Allies or Soviets because it was so cumbersome and could be attacked from the air. The AK of course had no air arm.

Polish Police

When the NAZIs and Soviets invaded Poland they interned the Polish Army as POWs. We are not entirely sure what happened to the Polish police (Policja). We know that the police were among the individuals (intellectuals, college professors, government officials, and others) targeted for arrest and execution in the A-B Aktion. Some were shot immediately. Others died slower deaths in the concentration camps the NAZIs established in Poland. The NKVD had a similar program. Among the NKVD victims found at Katyn were Polish police. The goal of both the NAZIs and Soviets was to destroy the Polish nation by eliminating national leaders and prominent individuals. We are not sure to what extent the pre-War Polish police were eliminated. Some Polish police seem to have been retained and operated under German direction in the General Government--Granatowa Policja. We are not entirely sure about this or the numbers of individuals involved. There are reports of the Polish police cooperating with the SS in persecuting Jews while also working with the resistance. We know of no instances in which the Polish police worked in the concentration camps. We would be interested in any information that readers may have. We note Polish police involved in the Warsaw uprising. What we do not know if these were individuals that worked under German control or individuals who put on their pre-War uniforms after the uprising began.

Allied Air Drops

The Soviets also made no effort to provide air cover, even though by this stage of the War, the Red Air Force had gained air superiority over the Luftwaffe which had been basically destroyed by the Western Allies. Nor did Stalin w cooperate with pleas from the Western Allies for landing rights to facilitate air drops. The Americans and British offered to drop supplies. Warsaw was, however, at the extreme outer range of Allied aircraft to make return flights. Soviet controlled airfield were needed to make return flights. Stalin refused permission for the flights to use needed Soviet air bases to refuel for the return trip. The controversy over Poland had been a difficult issue between the Western Allies and the Soviets. Churchill and Roosevelt did not push the issue hard. American, British, and South African planes did attempt some drops. About 200 tons of supplies (weapons, medicine and food) (August 4-September 18). Not all of this reached the AK. Some fell into German hands. The flights came from Brindisi, Italy. The distance to Warsaw and back was over 1,600 miles. In the later stage of the uprising (after mid-September), Russian bi-planes dropped about 50 tons of supplies, but the low-level drops without parachutes destroyed the most of the material dropped.

Stalin Stops the Red Army

The Red Army finally reached the eastern Bank of the Vistula (September 14). A small Red Army force crossed the Vistula, but they were not reinforced. And the Soviets made no effort to supply the AK with neither weapons or ammunition. Most non-Soviet historians believe that Joseph Stalin purposefully halted his forces to ensure that the AK failed and allow the Germans to crush the non-Communist Polish resistance. One historian calls the Soviet behavior 'one of the major infamies of this war which will rank for the future historian on the same ethical level with Lidice.' [Koestler] There seems to be no doubt about this as the Red Army and NKVD in eastern Poland had been arresting AK fighters and either summarily shooting them or transporting them to the Gulag. Stalin referred to the Home Army (AK) as 'a band of criminals'. Indeed on the path to Warsaw, the Red Army would cooperate (but not supply) the Home Army. Once in control of an area they would arrest and shoot the men and women who had resisted the Germans. Unlike the Americans in France who reacted to pleas from the Resistance, Stalin ordered the Red Army to stop on the far side of the Vistula. The Red Army finally reached the Vistula. They captured Praga a Warsaw suburb east of the Vistula (September 16). The Red Army made no effort, however, to cross the Vistula or even to supply supply the AK. The AK attempted to link up with the Russians, but the Germans pushed the AK forces back from the Vistula and the Red Army did not interfere with German operations.

German Suppression of the Insurgents

Fighting in the Old Town was fierce. The Germans finally secured the upper hand (September). The AK units were by then isolated and surrounded. The Germans used both air attacks and heavy artillery to reduce pockets of resistance.

Warsaw Children

Children were involved in the Warsaw uprising. And not just teenagers. Older boys served in the AK itself. Younger boys, especially Scouts, delivered messages for the AK. Here mostly boys would be involved. Thus from an early stage there were child casualties and not just civilian casualties from the terrible fighting. Children were in the thick of the fightimg. We note a Scout being buried at an early stage of the uprising. In the areas liberated they delivered mail. They provided a range of services such as fighting fires and assisting those in bombed out buildings. Girls often served in hospitals. Różyczka Goździewska who was 8-years old was the youngest nurse. As the Germans retook the city, the resisters including virtually all of the men were shot. The inhabitants of Warsaw that survived, chiefly women and children, were rounded up and marched through the streets under arrest. Some were shot, especially if they had nothing with which to bribe the Germans and Ukrainians. The fighters after the final surrender were accorded some protection. This was not the case for the civilians. The civilians not killed were forced in to a transit camp where they were processed.

NAZI Atrocities

NAZI actions were directed not only at the AK, but defenseless Polish civilians as well. On one day alone the SS rounded up and shot 25,000 Polish men women and children. The NAZIs killed more than 200,000 Poles in Warsaw, many of them civilians. The only way out of the city was for civilians to make their way through the city's sewers clogged with human waste. Vast stretches of the city were reduced to rubble. Warsaw was Poland's pre-War capital and largest city. The population included many of Poland's most educated and cultured citizens. The lost to the country was incalculable. There is no definitive account of the civilians killed in Warsaw. Historians provide various estimates, but the NAZIs appeared to have killed about 150,000-200,000 people, a total that included many non-combatants shot or otherwise killed.


The Poles fought valiantly on, finally capitulating (October 2). About 200,000 Warsaw's inhabitants were killed in the Uprising. Most were civilians. Some were killed in the fighting and German bombardment. Others were murdered by the Germans as they retook the city. After the the Germans regained control, all of the city's residents were expelled from Warsaw. Some were shot. As a result of an agreement signed with the AL, AK insurgents were sent to POW camps. The civilians were treated more harshly, they were sent concentration camps where many more died.

Military Assessments

The Germans experienced substantial losses given that they were fighting lightly armed resistance fighters and not a well equipped and trained military force. German losses were about 1,300 men weekly. This was higher than during an average week on the Western Front (1944-45) and the Italian Front (1943-45). The AK in Warsaw would fight for 63 days with mostly light weapons and limited munition. Put into perspective this was longer than the French Army after the onset of the German Western Offensive (May-June 1940).

City Razed

Hitler did not just take out his vengeance on the people of Warsaw. He wanted the city absolutely obliterated, wiped off the face of the earth. Warsaw had already been heavily damaged during the German invasion (September 1939). Most of the damage was from Luftwaffe bombardment, but the city was also shelled by artillery. Little of the damage had been repaired. There was also damage during the NAZI suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto, but here the damage was almost entirely within the Ghetto. The fighting during the Warsaw uprising in 1944 covered a wide area of the city. And even after the Germans suppressed the uprising, they set about destroying what ever remained standing. The NAZIs succeeded in destroying about 80 percent of Warsaw buildings west of the Vistula. After the Germans cleared out the AK fighters and civilians. The Germans then on Hitler's personal orders razed whatever building that were still standing. Hitler had plans to totals destroy other cities, including Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad. It is difficult to imagine how a great city could be actually razed. Hitler showed in Warsaw just what he and the Wehrmacht was capable of accomplishing. What they did to Warsaw is what they would have done in these as well as other cities had they won the War. Hitler also ordered the destruction of Paris, but the German commander their refused to comply.

Red Army Enters Warsaw

The Soviets finally took Warsaw with little resistance from the Germans (January 1945). [Davies] Once the Red Army arrived, the NKVD set around arresting any resistance fighters the could find.

War Crime Trials

The destruction of Warsaw and the atrocities committed against both combatants and non-combatants alike was not one of the crimes Germans were tried for at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal (1945-49). Most of the German commanders responsible for the carnage were known. The reason they were not tried is the complicity of the Soviet Union nd their desire to minimize the resistance operations of the Home Army. The Soviets not only were minimizing the importance of the Home Army, but were in the process of arresting and executing many resistance fighters


Davies, Norman. Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw (Viking, 2004). Davies is critical of The Western Allies, President Roosevelt in particular, for allowing Stalin to swallow up Poland. Like other authors making similar charges, Davies does not explain just what could have been done to have prevented it.

Koestler, letter in Tribune Magazine (September 15, 1944. The letter was reprinted in George Orwell, Collected Works, "I Have Tried to Tell the Truth," p.374.

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Created: June 3, 2004
Last updated: 11:50 PM 10/2/2022