I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.
Warsaw Uprising. Soldiers
Every August 1 since 1994, sirens sound over Warsaw, Poland's capital. Throughout the city, people stop walking, traffic halts, those sitting down rise, some hold small flags, some light flares. All are absolutely silent for one minute as they remember and honor the 200,000 Poles who lost their lives during the abortive Warsaw Uprising against the Germans in 1944.
In the summer of 1944, Soviet armies had entered Poland and were pushing the Germans steadily back toward the Vistula River which ran through Warsaw. Far to the west, the Allies had landed in Normandy. Hitler had just barely survived the attempted assassination in his Wolf's Lair field headquarters. The people of Warsaw saw all this with hope mixed with apprehension. It looked inevitable that the Soviets would very soon liberate the city and the Poles very much wanted to liberate themselves, afraid that the Soviets would install their own puppet government. Commander Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski of the Polish Home Army, the underground force loyal to the Polish government in exile in Britain, deliberated about what to do. There were upwards of 40,000 insurgents within the city, including 4,000 women, with weapons only for 2,500. The German garrison in Warsaw consisted initially of 15,000 soldiers with tanks, artillery and planes.
On July 27, the Germans sent out an order for 100,000 Polish men to report for duty to strengthen Warsaw's fortifications. Warsaw and the Vistula River were the last major defensive positions before Germany proper. Few Poles reported and the Home Army feared retributions. Soviet-controlled radio stations exhorted the Poles in Warsaw to rise up and throw off their oppressors. On July 29, Soviet armor approached the eastern outskirts of Warsaw.
Home Army Control in Warsaw, Poland
The Uprising Begins
With all this coming together the Polish Home Army decided to rise and attack the Germans within the city as the Soviets attacked from the east. They figured that, with Soviet help, the Germans would be overwhelmed in a week or so and they wanted to have control of their capital before the Soviets did. On August 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising began.
Despite being repelled from bridges, airports and military and police installations, the insurgents captured significant portions of Warsaw west of the Vistula River, as well as food depots and weapons. Then the Soviet Red Army advance stopped about twelve miles from Warsaw's Praga district on the eastern side of the Vistula and the Red Air Force stopped flying over the capital. Without the expected Soviet aid, the rising in Praga was crushed. The Home Army still managed to advance westward for four days even though it was completely alone and surrounded; the skies were controlled by the German Luftwaffe's planes.
German 600 mm Mortar
On August 5, the reinforced Germans counterattacked. Following SS chief Heinrich Himmler's orders, special SS, police and Wehrmacht units followed the army's advance and went house to house killing everyone they found regardless of age or gender. The bodies were then burned. The army shot captured insurgents on the spot. These policies were meant to crush the rebellion but had the opposite effect as it was clear to the defenders that fighting to the death was preferable to being shot like a dog. Although losing some districts to the Germans, the insurgency stiffened and the Home Army managed to stop the Germans and even take back some areas.
A sort of stalemate was reached during most of the rest of August with neither side making significant advances. The Germans bombarded the Poles with heavy artillery, incendiary rockets and dive bombers. They also used Karl Morsers, giant 600mm mortars, firing gigantic shells every eight minutes into the city.
Direct Hit by 600 mm Shell
The Red Army Moves Closer
The Soviets finally resumed their offensive towards Warsaw on September 11 and by September 16 controlled Praga and the east bank of the Vistula River. By then, the German's had blown all the bridges across the river. The Red Army then sent Soviet-controlled Polish First Army units across the river several times to try to link up with the insurgents. These night attacks during the period September 15 to 23 failed as the Germans massacred the Poles trying to cross the river, inflicting more than 5,500 casualties.
600 mm Dud
Cease-Fire; Warsaw is Emptied of Poles
A cease-fire was finally negotiated whereby the Polish insurgents were to be treated as POWs under the Geneva Conventions and were to be handled by the German Army and not the SS. It was signed on October 2, 1944 and all fighting stopped that evening. About 15,000 Home Army soldiers were sent to POW camps and the entire civilian population of Warsaw, upwards of 550,000 people, was expelled from the city. Of these, about 60,000 were sent to concentration camps and as many as 150,000 went to forced labor camps.
After the population was expelled, the Germans, despite the fact they were fighting a losing battle on two fronts, systematically and methodically went about destroying the city, using flamethrowers and high explosives. Fortunately for them, the Soviets did not begin their assault in the Vistula sector until January 12, 1945. By the end of the war, 85% of the buildings in Warsaw had been destroyed, 60% of them as a result of the uprising. As many as 200,000 Poles were killed during the fighting; the Germans suffered about 25,000 casualties, with 9,000 of them killed.
Young Soldiers of the Uprising
The Soviets maintained that, though their forces were near the outskirts of the city, this was their furthest position west and, strategically, they had to attend to Axis armies to the north, near the Baltic and especially the south in Romania before launching the offensive further west into Germany. It appears their strategy conveniently brought all of Eastern Europe under their control in addition to letting the Germans erase an armed force that might cause problems for the Soviets in Poland after the war.
The Western Allies weren't all that helpful either, though, as in the beginning of the war, Poland had been nearly beyond their reach. Stalin refused to allow American and British planes to use Soviet airfields and, when Churchill proposed sending planes in anyway, Roosevelt said he didn't want to upset Stalin.
Finally, in late September, the Soviets had allowed some Allied planes to fly from Italy. They managed to drop some supplies, though most fell into German hands. Some Allied planes that strayed into Soviet airspace were fired upon. Because they had to fly over so much enemy territory to make the drops, about 30 of the 297 planes were shot down.
Warsaw in 1950
If This Doesn't Put a Lump in Your Throat...
© 2012 David Hunt
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 11, 2014:
Always nice to hear from you, Graham. After having researched and written this, I was aware of the latest anniversary this past August. When the people and traffic stop, it's almost chilling.
Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on October 11, 2014:
Hi David. An excellent but very sad read indeed. Great research and presentation as usual. Tip Top.
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on March 31, 2013:
Grant, I'm not knowledgeable enough to support or deny what you say and I appreciate your comment. I must say, though, that the "Ukrainian" is an honorable a fair man who has consistently contributed to Hub pages and has shared many thoughtful views on many subjects.
Grant on March 29, 2013:
Harald, I think the Ukrainian above should be immediately corrected about the Home Army(AK) being pro-russian and not communicating their plans with russian commanders. I'm not going to get into the brutality of the Ukrainian divisions in Poland. The AK was anti-russian, matter of fact the russians tried to instill their own underground communist party in warsaw, but no one ever supported it. And the Russians and Stalin cut all communications with Polish leaders pre Uprising to avoid any need to act, not to mention the NKVD would shoot any AK member on site or arrest them even though the Russian broadcasts urged for Warsaw to start an uprising. This Uprising is an ultimate display of disloyal politics of the US and Britain, and the calculative oppression and murder by the Russians. That is why the Uprising is not known among 99 percent of people in the world even though there is no such experience in the Western world in modern times.
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on August 03, 2012:
Hi Gypsy. Thanks for reading and commenting. The Germans had plans for Warsaw--- one of them was to turn it into a lake.
Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on August 03, 2012:
Another fascinating hub. Didn't know the Polish people lost so many and that Warsaw suffered such damage. Passing this on.
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on August 02, 2012:
Thanks for stopping by and commenting, JBrumett. Yes, I think each war makes its own "insanely crazy", World War II was just biggest. So far.
JBrumett on August 01, 2012:
Good Hub. I always like reading about history subjects. World War II seems like it was so insanely crazy compared to any other war we've had in modern times. The only thing I can relate to is being in Iraq for one tour, and with all the modern technology we have it probably wasn't nearly as stressful as previous wars.
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on August 01, 2012:
Pavlo, thanks for commenting. I really appreciate your perspective. The Allies certainly did not cover themselves with glory regarding the uprising. It really gave a foretaste of postwar machinations.
Pavlo Badovskyi from Kyiv, Ukraine on August 01, 2012:
I read about it before. Huge loses among polish people were because the Soviet army stopped their movement. It was considered that this uprising was organised by pro-russian groups there and Stalin did not see any sense of supporting them. Soviet soldiers were explained that this uprising was not coordinated with soviet commanders and was pro-russian, therefore Soviet army is not going to support it. Later on our army continued attack, but too many of polish people died fighting for freedom.