When a city of almost one million people was nearly obliterated from the face of the earth
By DOUGAL MACDONALD
Much has been written by historians about the Warsaw Uprising in Poland which took place from August 1 to October 2, 1944, during the Second World War . Much of it is false. The main aims of the past and modern falsifiers of the history of the Warsaw Uprising have been to attack the Soviet Union and its great leader, Joseph Stalin, to whitewash the Polish reactionaries and their modern-day descendants, and to try to pretend that the innumerable Nazi war crimes which were committed against the Polish people were a mere historical footnote. But the facts of history are stubborn things and they do not change just because of the scribblings of reactionary historians.
In 1944, the Soviet armed forces were steadily advancing after the great victories at Stalingrad and Kursk, marching toward Berlin, forcing the Nazis back on all fronts. On July 21, during the successful drive toward the borders of Poland, at a session of the National Council of Poland in Chelm (the first piece of Polish territory liberated from the Nazi occupiers) the Polish Committee of National Liberation was created as a provisional government for a democratic Poland. On the second day, the committee called for the Polish people to struggle for complete liberation from the Nazi occupiers. One of the first and most urgent tasks of the revolutionary regime was to create the Voiske Polskoye, an anti-fascist army loyal to the people.
When the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the so-called leaders of Poland put up no resistance but fled to Romania and left the Polish people to fend for themselves. Against Poland, the Nazis perpetrated one of the worst crimes history has ever known. Poland suffered the largest number of casualties per population of any European country. Direct extermination by mass murder, death camps, slave labour, starvation and other means took some 6 million people’s lives, including 2,700,000 Polish Jews, 2,000,000 children and youth, more than 50,000 Roma, some 12,000 people deemed mentally handicapped and thousands of Polish prisoners of war, soldiers and officers, as well as national minorities who were systematically eliminated.
Some 40,000 Polish intellectuals, political personalities and other leaders were shot by the SS within the first six weeks of the Nazi occupation. Beginning in May 1939, Operation Tannenberg, which was part of Hitler’s Generalplan Ost (Masterplan East), had already identified more than 61,000 Polish activists, intelligentsia, scholars, former officers and others who were to be interned or shot. The bodies of the 4,143 Polish officers who were found buried in Katyn Forest is just one example of the many executions the SS and the Wehrmacht carried out.
Even in the face of complete desertion by their so-called leaders, the Polish people kept their spirit of resistance strong. Many Poles fought courageously in the communist-led underground Resistance against the Nazis. They formed their own patriotic Polish military divisions and fought against the Nazis alongside the Soviet Red Army all the way to Berlin. Eventually the Polish leaders who had run away and who represented only the Polish landowners and industrialists, established a phony “government-in-exile,” first in Paris, then in Angers and finally in London. From London, they schemed and plotted to regain power over the Polish people, in collusion with the British imperialists.
As early as July 24, 1944, with the Soviet forces steadily pushing back the Nazis, the reactionary government-in-exile and its subservient Polish Home Army had decided to order an uprising in Warsaw to take place before the Soviet Forces reached the city. The aim was to establish their own organs of power, to restore the old regime which had fled the Nazis in 1939 and abandoned the Polish people to the criminal occupation, and to oppose and destroy the newly-formed democratic provisional government of Poland.
The London-based reactionaries had discussed the idea of the Warsaw Uprising a long time previously and the commander-in-chief of the Polish Home Army, General Count Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski, had reported to London that the uprising could not possibly succeed. But when the organs of the people’s democratic regime appeared on liberated Polish territory and were enthusiastically greeted by the Polish people, the government-in-exile and the Polish Home Army changed their minds. On July 25, Bor-Komorowski reported to London: “Ready at any minute for the battle for Warsaw.”
Neither the Soviet government nor the command of the Red Army nor the organs of the newly formed people’s democratic regime in Poland nor the nascent Voiske Polskoye, which had already taken part in the liberation of Lublin, Poland on July 24, 1944, were informed of the planned uprising. Even the allied military command, SHAEF, declared they knew nothing about it, although this may have been a cover-up. The commanders of the Polish Home Army, subordinate to the London government-in-exile, tried in every way to conceal the planned uprising from the Soviet forces and command. At the same time, representatives of the London government-in-exile and their collaborators kept a close watch on the fighting on the Soviet-German front, especially near Warsaw.
The London plotters did not intend to start the uprising until the Soviet forces came close to Warsaw. They hoped that if those engaged in the uprising got into a critical position, the Soviet forces would rescue them. At the last moment, Bor-Komorowski moved the date of the uprising ahead to August 1, making it impossible to carry out any plans which had been previously worked out. At the outset of the uprising, there was not even elementary communication among the different insurgent forces. Many soldiers did not know where to find their commanding officers and many officers did not know where weapons were stored. The element of surprise was lost and the Nazi occupiers seized all the key points for communication, transport and electrical power.
At the same time, the hatred of the Warsaw inhabitants for the Nazis gave the uprising a popular scope and character which the reactionary planners had not expected. Many people joined in, beginning to build barricades and joining the military detachments even though they had no weapons. Some thought the uprising had been planned in collaboration with the advancing Soviet forces. Due to the high fighting morale of the insurgents and their hatred of the fascist occupiers, true miracles of heroism were performed. The mass support resulted in some degree of success but soon the Nazis struck back viciously with their superior numbers and weaponry.
Meanwhile, the situation worsened on the main Soviet-German front when the Nazis launched a strong counter-attack, forcing the Soviet forces to fight a hard defensive battle. Meanwhile, Warsaw was burning. The smoke was seen by the Soviet commanders who had gone to the area of the counter-attack to direct operations. A few days later, the Soviet forces smashed the Nazi counter-attack, but were unable to overcome the Nazi defences and break through into Warsaw.
On August 4, British Prime Minister Churchill sent a message to Stalin mentioning the Warsaw uprising for the first time and implying that it was succeeding. He claimed that the British were supplying arms, that the insurgents had asked for Soviet help, and that the aim of the uprising was to help the Soviet forces. Stalin was skeptical and stated so in his reply the next day: “The Polish Home Army consists of a few detachments which are incorrectly called divisions. They have neither artillery nor air support nor tanks. I cannot imagine how such detachments can take Warsaw, into whose defense the Germans have put four panzer (tank) divisions.”
Stalin then ordered his generals to report their ideas concerning the capture of Warsaw. The August 6th generals’ report stated that the Soviet forces were not strong enough at the time to break through the German military grouping between them and Warsaw. “We cannot go over to the offensive until August 10 because prior to that time we will not have been able to bring up the requisite ammunition.” The Soviet leadership agreed. Despite the exhaustion of the Soviet forces and the need to improve the security in the rear, the Soviet Supreme Command began to organize a new offensive with the aim of liberating Warsaw. Even under the most favorable conditions, however, the offensive could not have been launched before August 25.
Meanwhile, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, “Prime Minister” of the Polish government-in-exile, was holding talks with Stalin and Molotov about the situation in Poland. Later, he returned to London and falsified the nature of the talks to Churchill, slandering the Soviet Union and blaming the Soviets for the difficult situation of the Warsaw insurgents. When contacted by Churchill and asked about this, Stalin replied immediately by issuing a public statement that the Polish government-in-exile was responsible for the events in Warsaw and had given no warning to the Soviet command or attempted to coordinate operations. Therefore all responsibility for what had happened lay with the exiles in London.
Stalin also wrote directly to Churchill, stating in his letter that the uprising was a senseless adventure for which the inhabitants had paid with countless victims. “This would not have happened if the Soviet command had been informed before the beginning of the Warsaw action and if the Poles had maintained contact with them.” Stalin then advanced an alternative plan which differed radically from that of the London Poles, a front-line assault operation to crush the enemy.
The new plan was put into effect immediately. Fierce fighting took place especially on the approaches to the Warsaw suburb of Praga. Once again the Nazi defences proved too strong, especially since the Soviet forces were short of ammunition. The Soviet troops were also tired after long months of continuous fighting and, in addition, supplies needed to be brought up if further fighting was to be successful. The Soviet forces had to go temporarily over to the defensive. Playing his duplicitous role, Churchill then sent a letter to Stalin, co-signed by Roosevelt, that world public opinion would be unfavorable “if the anti-Nazis in Warsaw were abandoned.”
Stalin’s reply was immediate and direct: “Sooner or later everyone will learn the truth about the handful of criminals who, for the sake of seizing power, organized the Warsaw adventure. These people abused the trust of the Warsovians, throwing many virtually unarmed people under the German guns, tanks, and airplanes. The result was a situation such that each new day was used not by the Poles to liberate Warsaw but by the Hitlerites to ruthlessly annihilate the inhabitants of Warsaw.”
Early in September, Soviet reconnaissance discovered that one German Panzer division and several other forces had moved from Praga to a Soviet bridgehead on the Vistula River. The Soviet forces took advantage of this transfer of enemy troops to strike a blow toward Praga, beginning on September 10. On the night of September 13 they broke into Praga, where they were greeted as liberators by the inhabitants. That was when the Warsaw Uprising should have started so as to stop the Nazis from blowing up the bridges across the Vistula, allowing the Soviet soldiers to cross into the heart of Warsaw.
Continuing their criminal activity, the leaders of the uprising from the London camp still refused to make contact. However, leaders of the local anti-fascist Armia Ludowa or People’s Army, who had joined the uprising, sent two brave messengers to the Soviet lines who did provide details of the uprising, the situation in the city, and the deployment of the insurgent forces. Soviet forces then dropped a large supply of weapons, ammunition, and other materials into Warsaw, which reached the hands of the insurgents, the beginning of regular supplies. At the same time, the Soviet command concluded that their forces were still not strong enough to liberate Warsaw.
On September 16, forces of the anti-fascist Polish First Army crossed the Vistula. Under the pressure of events, Bor-Komorowski, the commander of the Polish Home Army finally made contact with the Soviet command. Home Army detachments in Warsaw were told to get in touch with the Polish First Army, then establish communication with the Red Army forces. On September 18, the Allies sent eight groups of Flying Fortresses over Warsaw at 4,000 metres to drop weapons, ammunition and foodstuffs. Some reached the insurgents but due to the height from which the planes made the drops, some fell inaccurately into the hands of the Germans. Meanwhile Soviet pilots continued regular and very accurate night drops from a height of 150-200 metres.
The battle to enter Warsaw raged for days. The Germans had superiority in both troops and weaponry but the Soviet forces and their Polish allies fought on. Then on September 20, news was received that Bor-Komorowski had issued secret orders to undermine the insurgent forces from within. He had commanded that any armed insurgents oriented toward the new democratic Polish government in Lublin were to be forced to take orders only from him and that those who did not comply were to be severely punished.
The concentration of new and very substantial German forces, including tanks, in the centre of Warsaw decided the outcome of the battle for the city. In the last days of September, insurgent activity had dropped, even as the Germans stepped up their attacks. Finally the Soviet generals, in consultation with the General Staff, decided they had to discontinue military operations in Warsaw. On September 28, the Nazis launched a general offensive and fierce battles raged for three days. Again, the remaining insurgent forces were sabotaged by the command of the Home Army, who ordered their immediate surrender. Only a small group emerged from the battle to be brought back across the Vistula to the Soviet side.
On October 2, resistance within Warsaw ceased. The leadership of the Polish Home Army capitulated to the Germans. Strangely, Bor-Komorowski was allowed to live and was put into an internment camp in Germany. Liberated at the end of the war, he spent the rest of his life in London. From 1947 to 1949 he served as Prime Minister of the decrepit Polish government-in-exile, which no longer had any diplomatic recognition from most Western European countries.
The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth and serve only as a transport station for the Wehrmacht. No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation. — SS chief Heinrich Himmler, 17 October, SS officers conference
The Warsaw Uprising cost the lives of over 200,000 inhabitants of Warsaw. Countless numbers were wounded. Hundreds of thousands of residents were sent to the concentration camps or expelled from the city. The city was almost completely destroyed. Although the insurgents were unable to achieve final victory, the struggle cast a glow of unfading glory on them and covered with eternal shame those members of the so-called Polish government-in-exile whose treacherous plans had undermined the struggle from beginning to end. Only in the course of the offensive of the winter of 1944-45 could all of Poland and so also Warsaw be liberated.
The Warsaw Uprising has become a symbol of the bankruptcy of the Polish reactionaries whose descendants still try to spread their lies about what happened. At the same time, the barricades of Warsaw bore witness at the time to the whole world of the courage of the Polish people and the people’s forces, and the unswerving commitment of the Soviet Union to the complete defeat of Nazism. In all, 600,000 Soviet soldiers gave their lives for the liberation of Poland. An eternal flame was lit on the Czerniakow Bank of the Vistula River as a reminder of the blood shed by the Polish and Soviet soldiers in the joint battles against Nazism for the liberation and bright future of the Polish people.
1. The Warsaw Uprising is not to be confused with the earlier event known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which took place from April 19 to May 16, 1943.
This article draws mainly on The Last Six Months by General Sergei M. Shtemenko, published in 1977 by Doubleday. Shtemenko was Deputy Chief of General Headquarters. He worked directly under Stalin, and helped coordinate Soviet activities across the whole Soviet-German front, including during the Warsaw Uprising.
Originally published by TML Weekly Information Project, August 2, 2014 – No. 26. Many photos and captions have been added by TS.