The Warsaw uprising was a resistance operation by the Polish Home Army during World War II. The goal of the operation was the liberation of the Polish capital, Warsaw, from German hands. The uprising was timed to coincide with the Red Army’s approach to the city. The Red Army however stopped its advance before entering the city, therefore enabling the Wehrmacht to regroup and defeat the uprising. The uprising began as part of a nation-wide anti-Nazi operation called Operation Tempest, or Plan Burza in Polish.
Following the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the Polish Home Army, the AK, was forced into an unenviable situation. Those in the Soviet sector of occupied Poland were no better off than those on the German side. AK operatives were routinely arrested, imprisoned and deported by the NKVD. The initial success of the German attack on the Soviet Union did at least unify the AK, focusing the fight on a common enemy, but the consolidation was bittersweet. The eastern AK was tasked by the western Allies through the Polish government in London with essentially supporting the Soviets, who only days earlier had been their enemy.
The city of Lublin, taken by the Red Army during Plan Burza, came to be known as the seat of a Soviet sponsored government for Poland, a group generally referred to as the ‘Lublin Poles’ to distinguish them from the government-in-exile in London. This new government had been announced by Moscow and was placed in nominal command of the Communist underground and partisan movements, while the new Polish army under General Berling was under the direct control of the Red Army Fronts to which it was assigned. In the end, the western Allies, who supported the Polish government-in-exile, could only concede to the Soviet political agenda.
To complicate matters further, within Poland itself there were two diametrically opposed political groupings seeking to form a government in liberated Poland: the Underground Government, representing the Polish Government in London, and the communists. These two movements would soon come to blows.
An uprising in Poland had no place in Allied strategic planning. If it had been given a central role, then more effort would have been made to parachute adequate supplies into Poland. Instead, the Allies wanted the AK to continue its operations aimed at disrupting German communications.
The Prime Minister, Wladyslaw Sikorski was adamant that the Soviets should be greeted as allies but, should the ‘Russian attitude to us become clearly hostile’, then it would be advisable ‘to reveal only the civilian administration and to withdraw the AK units into the interior of the country to save them from destruction’. The AK commander Grot-Rowecki was convinced that the Soviet attitude would be hostile. He wanted permission to make preparations to resist their armies. These men would soon be replaced as leaders of the Polish resistance by Mikołajczyk as prime minister, Generał Sosnkowski as commander-in chief and Bór-Komorowski as leader of the AK.
The Polish underground army was commanded in the city by Generał Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski. He decided that it was better to take a chance than to stand aside, and it is clear that the bulk of his associates agreed. What is not so clear is why this reversal from previous AK strategy was made with very little preparation. In prior years, the plan had always been to stage an uprising against the departing Germans in the rural areas, and accordingly weapons had been moved by the AK out of Warsaw into the country-side.
Bór-Komorowski had outlined his theory of a national uprising in a lengthy dispatch to London in October 1943. His principal maxim was that ‘the uprising must not fail’. He considered a range of possible courses of action: from total inaction through to limited operations against the Germans, to a full-scale war against the Soviet armies. The main thrust of his argument was in favour of uprisings in a number of localities of central importance to the Germans. Of these the most essential was, of course, the capital. Bór-Komorowski, however, was not aware of the Polish Armed Forces situation outside of Poland.
The Polish Government in London radioed Bór-Komorowski instructions to prepare plans for a national uprising, which became known as Operation Burza. It considered several possible scenarios.
Operation Burza was begun by the AK 27th Division, commanded by Major Wojciech ‘Oliwa’ Kiwerski, which was operating near Kowel (Kovel) in the Wołyń province. It was a well-equipped division with 7,300 men divided into 8 battalions and 2 cavalry squadrons, as well as signals, engineers and military police units. These soldiers were armed with 4,500 rifles, 700 pistols, 140 sub-machine guns, 100 machine guns and 3 anti-tank guns. The division started fighting alongside the Russians, but when the Germans counter-attacked they became separated from the Red Army. This first engagement was both a military and political failure.
The Western Allies wanted the AK to initiate operations against German communication lines. The result was Operation Jula, in which Polish paratroopers sabotaged rail lines.
During the spring and early summer, the Soviet armies made no further advances against the Germans. The Soviets now occupied parts of the Polish provinces of Wołyń, Stanisławów and Tarnopol but were too weak to undertake military operations to liberate any major cities. Instead, they were occupied with the disarming of any AK units they found in Wołyń and East Galicia.
The Soviets launched Operation Bagration, designed to destroy the German Army Group Center and thrust the 1st Belorussian Front, under General Konstantin Rokossovsky, deep into central-eastern Poland. Other Soviet armies would drive against Wilno to the north and advance along the Lwów–Sandomierz axis in the south. The sheer weight of the Soviet attack took the Germans by surprise, and within two weeks the Army Group Center had been routed, leaving a gap 250 miles wide and almost 100 miles deep in the German front. Following Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front was the 1st Polish Army.
The Red Army was approaching the city of Vilnius. The AK wanted to seize it first in the name of the Polish Government, so Lieutenant Colonel Aleksander ‘Wilk’ Krzyżanowski ordered over 10,000 AK soldiers to attack the German garrison. The battle began with the AK attacking Vilnius from four directions with artillery, air and tank support from the Soviet forces. The city fell to the AK, and for two days the Polish ‘red and white flag flew for the last time on the Giedymin Tower’ before being hauled down by the Soviets.
In Lwów, the AK commander Colonel Władysław ‘Janka’ Filipkowski and 3,000 poorly armed soldiers fought to wrest control of the city from the Germans as the Red Army advanced into the suburbs. After the Germans were driven out, the NKVD arrested all the high-ranking officers of the AK.
It was clear that Operation Burza had failed completely in the disputed eastern provinces, and Bór-Komorowski acknowledged this and issued an order disbanding AK units east of the Bug, specifically ordering the enlistment of the soldiers into the 1st Polish Army.
Lublin proved the test case of Soviet goodwill. As soon as the Germans left the city, the local government delegate, Władysław Cholewa, took over the town hall and began organising the administration, and the AK opened a recruitment office for a Lublin battalion. Their authority was challenged by the arrival of a delegation of the communist PKWN, or Lublin Committee, led by Edward Ochab, followed a day later by the first units of the 1st Polish Army, which paraded through the city. With the Red Army’s support, the Polish communists established themselves as the ruling body of Lublin.
The western Allies were embarrassed by the reports from Poland on the conduct of the Soviet authorities and chose to ignore them. They were also not inclined to believe reports on the Nazi terror regime: when the Soviets liberated Majdanek, they invited journalists to view the evidence of Nazi extermination policies. They reported seeing partly demolished gas chambers and piles of clothing taken from the dead. The war correspondent Alexander Werth sent a dispatch to the BBC. The BBC declined to use Werth’s report, dismissing it as Soviet propaganda.
Operation Burza continued because there appeared to be signs everywhere of an imminent total collapse of the German Army. The Germans who lived in Poland were the first to leave, along with German administrators from eastern Poland. Before leaving they attempted to sell the properties and goods that they had stolen from the Poles back to them for very low prices. Elsewhere the Nazis frantically attempted to erase all traces of their murderous regime, using prisoners from concentration camps to dig up and burn the corpses. The Germans tried to call up thousands of Polish men in Warsaw for forced labor on the defenses.