Operation Tempest or Plan Burza
Polish nation-wide anti-Nazi operation
author Paul Boșcu, December 2016
The Warsaw uprising was a resistance operation by the Polish Home Army during World War Two. 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.
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.

The Poles fought for 63 days in Warsaw with no outside support. This was the largest operation launched by any resistance movement in Europe during World War II. The Uprising was crushed with maximum ferocity by the SS, in scenes that can be seen in powerful contemporary film footage at the Uprising Museum in Warsaw today.

The British government had made it clear to the Poles that they could neither fly in the Polish Parachute Brigade nor carry out extensive air operations at enormous distance from British bases, right in front of the Red Army.

For weeks, the Soviet Union refused either to send aid itself or to facilitate the sending of aid by the British and American air forces. The latter did send some supplies by air drops from Britain and Italy, but these operations were very costly, strongly objected to by the air force commanders, and in any case more effective for morale than supply purposes since a high proportion of the supplies fell into German hands.

Before the uprising the Polish prime minister, Stanisław Mikołajczyk, made a broadcast to Poland stating: ‘We should have preferred to meet the Soviet troops not merely as allies of our allies, fighting against the common enemy, but as our own allies as well.’ The omens were not good. The Soviet response to Mikołajczyk’s speech appeared in the Soviet Monitor and reiterated the Soviet claim for a revision of Poland’s eastern frontier.

Poland had a long tradition of uprisings against occupying powers, most notably in 1863 against the Russians. Thus it is not surprising that such a concept, an uprising against the Germans, should form a central plank in the strategy of the Polish Government.

Plan Burza concentrated the efforts of the Polish Home Army units (Armia Krajowa, known as the AK) in eastern Poland and severely hampered German efforts to supply the eastern front. Supply and troop transports were routinely damaged or destroyed. The main route from German-controlled industrial centers in Germany and occupied Europe to the Russian front went directly through Poland. Plan Burza also called for large-scale direct combat against German units and the liberation of Polish cities by the AK.

With the exception of relatively few supply airdrops, the AK and civilians had no support in their campaign against German forces. They managed to fight off several German Panzer divisions, regular Wehrmacht units and German police supported by the Luftwaffe, heavy artillery, field artillery, and hundreds of armored vehicles as well as a small number of Panther and Tiger tanks.

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 overwhelming force and speed of the German attack left scattered Red Army units without support behind German lines. In some cases the Soviet soldiers took refuge with the Polish population and formed their own partisan groups, which worked alongside the Polish underground. Sadly however, many Red Army groups ignored the opportunity to find support among the Poles, and chose instead to further terrorize Polish civilians, looting and burning villages and in some cases worse. Untold numbers of Polish women and young girls were brutally raped and beaten.

The AK command was ordered to intensify the sabotage campaign against the German Army in Poland. Operation Fan, a large-scale, widespread AK demolition offensive, was conducted from late 1941 through to 1943. Operation Fan spread out in five ‘fingers’ into different districts of eastern Poland, fanning out over a wide area of what was then German-held territory. During the two-and-a-half-year period, AK ‘forest partisan’ units and Cichociemni operatives escalated the destruction of troop and supply transports, railroads and communications systems.

Although during the occupation young people from all over Poland were recruited into the underground and trained in various duties, many of the AK units in the field were highly-trained professional soldiers who had remained in the field following the 1939 defeat. So, while they were outnumbered and outgunned, they were not a ragged, loosely-knit group of peasants wandering through the forests, but motivated fighting men with a strict military discipline and a chain of command headed by the London government, and supplied by Allied air drops.

As the Soviet offensive against Germany gained momentum and the Soviets began their push to the west in 1944, it became clear that the Soviets would reach Poland before the western Allies. The Kremlin had no diplomatic relations with the Polish London government. In hope of gaining some degree of formal recognition by the West and the Soviets, playing a role in the liberation of their own country, and legitimizing the AK in the eyes of the West, Operation Burza was launched by the Polish AK.

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.

The establishment of a Soviet puppet regime had been preceded by months of internal preparations and over a year of dispute, sometimes in public, sometimes quietly, with the Western Allies, who recognized the Polish government-in-exile which had fought the Germans continually since the start of World War II.

This was an election year in the United States, and President Roosevelt was hesitant to take steps which would alienate the Polish American voters. Thus he was not as explicit as the facts warranted, in his declarations about the inability of the United States to assist the Polish government in the face of the Soviet advance into Poland.

From the moment the Soviet government broke off relations with the Polish government in the spring of 1943, various efforts were made, especially by the British, to get relations reestablished, but without success. The nominal stumbling block was the eastern part of Poland, occupied by the Soviet Union under the German-Soviet Pact. Stalin indicated a willingness to accept minor modifications to this border in Poland’s favor but expected agreement on it. Churchill urged the Polish government to accept the new border, especially because Poland was to be enlarged at the expense of Germany and because the Red Army was certain to occupy Poland.

Another element was the functioning of the Polish underground army, the AK, inside Poland as the Red Army advanced into the portions of German-occupied Poland where it was active. There were all sorts of problems and frictions, but the major pattern was that the advancing Soviet units utilized the assistance of the AK, especially their local knowledge, until an area was firmly under Red Army control and then arrested and either shot or deported them.

If the spectacular scene of those months was the bloody battle for Warsaw, the quiet one was a permanent change in British and American attitudes. Neither allowed the issue to cause a break in the wartime coalition against Hitler; with much of the war still ahead, they needed the Soviet Union to continue in the fight against Germany. But there was a sea change in the attitudes at the top in both countries, and their relationship with the Soviet Union would never be the same afterwards.

The Polish government-in-exile was itself frequently divided internally, but practically none of its members was prepared to agree to the territorial demands of the Soviet Union. The other Soviet demand, voiced increasingly stridently by Stalin and Molotov, was for a major change in the personnel of the Polish Cabinet. While the Prime Minister, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, was willing to make some changes, there were limits to what he would concede.

There was nothing the western Allies could do in an area far from their military power and a few kilometers from the Red Army, but having themselves sent aid to the Soviet Union and to Marshal Tito's partisans, they remembered Stalin's attitude toward an independent Poland.

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.

The Underground Government had long been preparing to govern Poland in the interim until the Poles in London could return and new elections could be held. It established the Council of National Unity as a quasi-parliament under the chairmanship of Kazimierz Pużak. This included three members of each of the four large parties: the Polish Socialist Party, the Peasant Alliance, the National Alliance and the Labour Alliance. It also included one member from each of the three smaller parties: the Democratic Alliance, the Peasant Freedom Organisation and Motherland, and one representative of the clergy and one for the cooperatives.

The Lublin Committee included both communists from Poland and Polish communists from the Soviet Union. Wanda Wasilewska, who had been so instrumental in creating the Polish communist movement in the Soviet Union, did not, however, travel to Poland. She preferred to remain in Moscow with her husband. The two communist armies, the underground AL and the 1st Polish Army, were merged under one overall commander, General Michał Rola-Żymierski, although General Zygmunt Berling retained command of the 1st Polish Army.

The Council of National Unity established a cabinet, the National Council of Ministers (Krajowa Rada Ministrów, KRM) with four members: Jan Jankowski as the government delegate, Adam Bień, Stanisław Jasiukowicz and Antoni Pajdak.

The Council of National Unity issued its political manifesto, O co walczy naród polski, ‘What the Polish nation is fighting for’. This demonstrated a certain amount of political wishful thinking, but it also reflected awareness of the attraction of communist plans. The first section called for an international organisation more powerful than the League of Nations to regulate the relations between states and thereby prevent future war. The manifesto was clear on the future shape of Poland: the eastern frontier would remain unchanged but Poland would be increased in size with the absorption of German territories to the north and west.

The second section of the Council of National Unity’s political manifesto covered the future political structure of Poland: it would not be ruled by a narrow band of men like the pre-war Sanacja regime, but would be a parliamentary democracy with a strong executive body. The third and final section reflected the influence of the communist plans: key industries, large financial institutions, public utilities and the forests would all be nationalised; land reform would split up large private estates; social reforms would give more power to trade unions and an expansion in education.

The communists were making their own plans. For much of 1943 the German arrests of key Polish communists meant that communications between them and the Polish communists in the Soviet Union had ceased. Now, at the beginning of 1944, communications were restored and it quickly became apparent that the plans of the two communist movements had been developing along different lines. The situation could only be clarified and resolved by a meeting between the two groups.

A delegation of four members of the National Council for the Homeland, led by Marian Spychałski, left Warsaw and arrived in Moscow. Six days later the delegation met Stalin, who pointed out their dilemma: ‘The KRN has no army and the Polish army in the Soviet Union has no government.’ If the communists wanted to govern Polish territories after the Red Army liberated them, then the two groups would have to thrash out an agreement now. The negotiations ended with the creation of the Polish Committee of National Liberation known more commonly as the Lublin Committee after the city in Poland in which it first established its base.

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 AK command kept the Polish Government in London fully informed about the progress of Operation Burza and the conduct of the Soviet authorities. The Polish ambassador, Edward Raczyński, in turn, passed the information on to Anthony Eden, the British foreign minister. The British Government, however, was not prepared to make public any news that detracted from the reputation of its ally, the Soviet Union.

Generał Kazimierz Sosnkowski told Generał Bór-Komorowski: ‘The Allies have approached us suggesting preparations for action against communications. The political situation may render such action necessary from our point of view, to demonstrate our goodwill in respect of the “Friends”... We are ensuring secrecy at our end to prevent the Soviets from taking propaganda advantage for themselves or placing any obstacles in our way.’

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.

Sikorski’s order of March 1943 was issued when Poland and the Soviet Union still had diplomatic relations and had not been revised when they were broken off in April. A historian of these plans has noted: ‘To the last, Sikorski refused to revise his instructions ordering the Home Army to treat the Russians as allies and to cooperate with them. Stefan Grot-Rowecki, for his part, remained unconvinced, to the day of his arrest, of the wisdom of these instructions.’

The double tragedy of Sikorski’s death and Grot-Rowecki’s arrest in July 1943 meant that new men, Mikołajczyk as prime minister, General Sosnkowski as commander-in chief and Bór-Komorowski as commander of the AK, would have the opportunity to revise these plans.

Bór-Komorowski sent a dispatch to London outlining the situation in Poland and requesting advice. He believed that the AK could not remain passive for much longer, awaiting the opportune moment for an uprising. The AK was growing impatient and wanted to take reprisals against the increasing German terror, and morale was suffering because of the lack of overt activity. Worse still, the increased activity of the Soviet partisans on Polish soil was proving attractive to the AK soldiers keenest on revenge.

There was the danger that the Polish communist party, the PPR, would exploit the situation, making its aim of taking over the Polish government after liberation all the easier to achieve. Above all, Bór-Komorowski wanted advice on how the AK should respond to the arrival of the Red Army, and an update on how the London Poles viewed the issue of a national uprising.

Because chances were high that the Soviets would attempt to disarm the AK units, every unit was issued with a short wave radio transmitter so that Bór-Komorowski would be kept fully informed and could amend orders as required.

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.

The plan, conceived early in the war, stipulated that it should occur at the moment of the German collapse under military pressure from the western Allies. In early 1943, it was clear that this plan would have to be revised since the western Allies had no troops at all in Europe and the Soviets had just defeated the Germans at Stalingrad. This meant that it was increasingly likely that the forces that would bring about a German collapse would in fact be Soviet.

Now that an uprising was to be staged in the capital, there was a terrible shortage of weapons. When the uprising took place as ordered, the insurgents were unable to seize either the whole city or many key locations. As the Germans rallied their forces, the AK was relatively quickly confined to segments of the capital. When it began, only 14 per cent of the Home Army were even armed, with only 108 machine guns, 844 sub-machine guns and 1,386 rifles.

No one has explained why the Polish underground learned nothing from the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto the year before. For those who have studied the 1944 uprising, it seems as if that event might as well have taken place on another planet.

Under their indomitable generals, Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski and Antoni ‘Monter’ Chruściel, the Poles understandably wanted to wrest control of their capital, and hopefully the sovereignty of their country, away from the Germans. It was important for them to do this before the arrival of the Russians, who they correctly assumed had no more desire for genuine Polish independence than the Nazis.

While the Uprising was aimed militarily against the Germans, it was also aimed politically against the Russians, something that Stalin well understood. The result was as desperate and tragic for the Warsaw Poles as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had been for the Polish Jews in April 1943.

Churchill met the Polish Commander of the 2nd Polish Corps, Władysław Anders, at his HQ in Italy. Anders had been imprisoned in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, and was under no illusions: as he told Churchill, ‘Stalin’s declarations that he wants a free and strong Poland are lies and fundamentally false.’ Anders then spoke about the way the Soviets had treated Poland in 1939 and about the Katyń massacre before exclaiming, ‘We have our wives and children in Warsaw, but we would rather they perish than have to live under the Bolsheviks.’ According to the minutes taken by Anders’ aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Prince Eugene Lubomirski, Churchill replied: ‘I sympathize deeply. But you must trust [us]. We will not abandon you and Poland will be happy.’ He probably meant it at the time, but he was really no longer in a position to make such a promise considering that a Red Army of 6.7 million men was poised to march right across Poland.

The German plans to make a stand on the Vistula did little to improve Polish prospects. The Polish Home Army fought desperately, largely unsupported because the Soviets refused to allow the Western powers access to their air bases for supply missions.

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.

Bór-Komorowski wrote: ‘Warsaw, with her airports, communications, railway junction, the river crossings and, what is of supreme importance, her wealth of informed population, which will not only be a great attacking force in the uprising, but also, immediately after being cleared of the Germans, will be the largest and the most valuable source to replenish our power quickly and in strength. I also believe it is necessary to gain control of Warsaw in a smooth fashion, because here are our main political and military centres, and their speedy liberation is of immense significance. Also I have concrete grounds for believing that Warsaw and her surrounding countryside is a region which could soonest receive reinforcement from our armed forces in exile.’

Bór-Komorowski also outlined the assistance required from outside Poland: greater numbers of weapons, ‘air forces in various guises’ and, as soon as the situation allowed, the relocation of the Polish armed forces in exile into Poland.

Bór-Komorowski’s dispatch displayed a considerable degree of naïveté concerning the real military and political situation, which was alarming because the Polish Government failed to enlighten him. He was clearly unaware that the importance of the AK in Allied military strategy was diminishing, and consequently the level of supplies remained low. Bór-Komorowski also remained ignorant of the fact that the Polish Air Force was not independent but under Allied command. Even when the small Polish heavy bomber wing was transferred to Italy, it was not free to concentrate on conveying supplies to Poland but also had to make flights to the partisans in Yugoslavia.

Bór-Komorowski was on more certain ground when he assumed that the Polish Independent Parachute Brigade would be sent to Poland in the event of an uprising, since this was the very purpose behind its creation. Yet the Polish Government failed to inform him that, after heated negotiations, it too had been put at the disposal of the British. Nor had anyone informed Bór-Komorowski that the shortage of suitable aircraft to lift the men in the brigade and the difficulty of transporting its heavy equipment by glider were such insuperable challenges that no serious planning had even been attempted.

The blame for leaving Bór-Komorowski in the dark lies primarily with the Polish commander-in-chief Sosnkowski. In his dispatches to the AK commander, Sosnkowski counselled against an uprising largely on political grounds. For example, on 28 July, he telegraphed Bór-Komorowski: ‘In present conditions, I am categorically opposed to a general uprising... Your appraisal of the situation must be sober and realistic. A mistake would be enormously expensive. It is essential to concentrate all forces, political, moral and physical, to prevent Moscow’s annexation designs.’

The commander-in-chief, Sosnkowski, did not expressly forbid an uprising in Warsaw, nor at the crucial moment was he available to give orders in light of the rapidly changing circumstances. At the end of July, he was visiting the Polish troops in Italy and refusing all calls from his government to return to London.

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.

In the first scenario, the Red Army would halt on the border of Poland, satisfied with having cleared its own territory, with its offensive being resumed only when the western allies were pressing the Germans in the west. During this interim period the role of the AK would be to wrest control of areas of Poland from the Germans, which the Underground Government would then govern. This scenario was pure fantasy.

Bór-Komorowski replied to London that he had sent orders to all provinces and districts: ‘As can be seen from the order, I have given all commanders and units instructions to emerge into the open after taking part in operations against the retreating Germans. Their task at that moment will be to give evidence of the existence of the Republic of Poland... In the event of a second Soviet occupation, I am preparing a skeleton network of a new organisation which will be at the General’s [Sosnkowski’s] disposal.’

Another scenario envisaged that the Soviet armies would cross into Poland and continue to fight the Germans. If this happened, then the Polish Government hoped that diplomatic relations between Poland and the Soviet Union would be restored, and the AK and Underground Government should then reveal themselves to the Soviets. If, however, diplomatic relations were not restored, as the London Poles knew was likely but did not explicitly inform Bór-Komorowski, then the AK and Underground Government should remain hidden.

Sosnkowski sent Bór-Komorowski an amended order giving the terms on which the AK units were to reveal themselves to the Soviets: ‘By order of the Government of the Polish Republic, we present ourselves as the representatives of the Polish administration (as commanders of AK units) with proposals to establish collaboration on these territories with the armed forces of the Soviet Union, for mutual action against the common enemy.’

Bór-Komorowski and Jan Jankowski considered the government’s instructions to be fatally flawed, as it appeared to have completely ignored Bór-Komorowski’s view of the political situation in Poland. As he later explained, ‘the only chance of gaining anything was a constant demonstration of our will to fight Germany to the last, sparing no effort, in the teeth of every adversity’. The political purpose of an uprising could only be fulfilled if the AK came out into the open.

Bór-Komorowski issued the orders for the launch of Operation Burza, and later described how they were put into practice: ‘Partisan groups were assembled into larger units and directed to districts which lay across the German lines of retreat. In the eastern provinces, which were the first to start Burza operations, all soldiers of the Home Army were being mobilised. Regiments, battalions and divisions received names and numbers as in 1939. Arms and ammunition, radio and other equipment, stores, warm clothing (short uniform overcoats, caps and boots), hospital equipment, etc. – all these things manufactured at home in secret workshops – were being gradually smuggled to the forests. The Polish partisan groups in the east grew into substantial regular forces long before the Red Army front reached them.’

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 division engaged the Germans and their Ukrainian auxiliaries in some fierce actions, leading to AK control of small areas of Wołyń. In March it encountered the leading units of the Red Army and cooperated with them in the capture of Turzysk (Turiysk) and Kowel.

Sosnkowski warned Bór-Komorowski: ‘The Allies, under influence of unfavourable propaganda, suspect that neither the central H.Q. nor the Home Army Command are really in control of the Underground as a whole. The dates and events of battle and sabotage are taken as accidental and unintentional from our side.’ Bór-Komorowski’s response was to ask Sosnkowski to approach the British Government to ask it to dispatch a military mission to Poland to observe what the AK was doing and ‘which could serve as a witness to Soviet moves and oppose them’. In April Churchill gave a final and unequivocal refusal to this request.

The Soviet commanders, General Sergeyev and Colonel Charitonov, praised the action of the AK division and agreed to allow them to fight alongside the Red Army and under its operational command while still maintaining direct contact with AK command. Bór-Komorowski was delighted with this response from the Soviets and radioed back his agreement.

The Germans attacked the 27th Division and the Soviet 56th Cavalry Regiment with four divisions which included SS Panzer Division Viking. Major Kiwerski was killed and his place was taken by Major Tadeusz ‘Żegota’ Sztumberg-Rychter. After five days of heavy fighting, the Polish and Soviet troops became separated and the Poles were left to fight alone. As their losses mounted the decision was taken to flee for the relative security of the nearby marshes.

Most of the supplies and heavy equipment were destroyed and 900 horses let loose, then ‘we took light automatic weapons, as much ammunition as we could carry, and we set off towards the Pripet marshes’. The remnants of the division fought the Germans for another two months before AK command ordered them to retreat westwards across the river Bug.

The first major battle of Operation Burza was a military failure. It was also a political failure despite the hopeful nature of the first contact with the Soviets. Unknown to the AK, an order had been issued to Soviet commanders in November 1943 for the disarming of AK units and the murder of those soldiers who resisted.

The first battle of Operation Burza was also a political failure on the international front because the AK was not being given any credit for its actions: the Soviets publicised the activities of their partisans but failed to mention the AK units who had worked alongside them.

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.

One of the Cichociemni, a elite Polish paratrooper from Britain, ‘Szyb’, took part in the operation to blow up a 150-foot span of the railway bridge over the Wisłoka, in the Przeworsk–Rozwadów sector: ‘Two trains were coming, one in each direction. They were going to pass each other on the bridge. One locomotive thundered over the bridge and already a long stream of trucks was following. I waited as long as I could; then as the second locomotive was coming over the bridge, we detonated the charges.’

Two munitions trains were blown up at Rogoźno and near Nowosielce. German records show that during this period 34 main railway routes were attacked in over 6,000 separate incidents. The Allies gained independent verification of the AK operation through Enigma decrypts, and the head of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Lord Selborne, wrote to Sosnkowski expressing his delight at the success of the operation. The SOE was a British organization responsible for the conduct of sabotage and espionage missions in occupied Europe during World War II.

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.

Orders were issued for the conscription of all men aged between 17 and 35 into the 1st Polish Army, and those who refused either to be disarmed or to join that army were arrested. Many were deported to an unknown location in the Soviet Union. By July over 6,000 AK soldiers had been arrested.

The Polish units were also under pressure from the Germans: in June and July, the Luftwaffe regiments mounted large-scale anti-partisan hunts in the forests of Białowieża in Podlesie and near Biłgoraj, 90 km south of Lublin.

The AK had played its part in the Soviet successes. In January 1944, the AK in the Wilno province launched Operation Burza. By the end of April they had fought more than 20 major actions, capturing German arms, ammunition and stores, and taking control of areas of the province.

The AK continued to fight, and the Soviets continued to arrest and execute its members, especially officers. In one particularly gruesome encounter, Red Army officers sent a request to meet with an AK officer to discuss a joint operation against a German stronghold. The Polish commander rode out to meet the Soviet officers on his horse. That evening, the Polish officer’s horse was heard galloping toward the camp. AK soldiers were horrified to see the body of their commanding officer lashed to the horse’s back. He had been decapitated and sent back as a message: the rest of the unit should turn themselves over to the Soviets or face a similar fate.

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.

One by one, major cities fell to the Soviet forces: Minsk, the capital of Belorussia, Wilno, Lublin, Brześć and Lwów. By the end of July, the 1st Belorussian Front had crossed the Vistula near Dęblin, Puławy and Magnuszów. The 1st Ukrainian Front had reached the Vistula near Baronów, south of Sandomierz. The Soviet armies were now converging on Warsaw.

After fighting in the battle of Lenino in October 1943, the 1st Polish Army ‘Kościuszko’ Division had been withdrawn to Bobyry in the Ukraine for reinforcement and further training. While it was there, the political commissars informed the troops about the Katyń massacre, making it clear that the Germans were responsible. The Polish army chaplain, Father Kupsz, held Mass in the Katyń forest. One Polish soldier chanced upon an old man in the woods who whispered to him: ‘If these trees could talk, they would tell you much.’

The 1st Polish Army consisted of 3 infantry divisions, tank units, artillery and auxiliary units, numbering 43,508 men and women. An article in Pravda greeted the creation of the 3rd Division: ‘This Division has been trained and prepared for fighting on the Soviet- German front. To a considerable extent the Division is composed of Poles who lived in the western regions of the Ukraine, recently liberated by the Red Army from German occupation. Among the men of the Third Division are a number of former members of the underground organisations created by the London émigré Polish Government. These men, however, could not reconcile themselves to the humiliating position in which they were placed by their leaders. This Division was named “Romuald Traugutt”.’

The army was commanded by General Zygmunt Berling, with General Świerczewski his deputy commander responsible for operations, and General Aleksander Zawadzki deputy commander responsible for political affairs.

The 1st Polish Army joined the 1st Belorussian Front. The first Polish province it entered was Wołyń, and the first Polish towns it passed through were Równe and Łuck. After three years of exile in the Soviet Union, the Poles were delighted to be on home territory at last. The towns looked familiar but it was the countryside that made the most lasting impact on them: ‘We came to a large village where not a single house was left standing. In this cemetery, cherry orchards were ripening, full of red juicy fruit as though in defiance of death and of this genocide. A sense of something sinister increased the deep silence which hovered over the place.’

Soldiers of the AK also remembered their first encounter with the 1st Polish Army, particularly their impression of the officers: ‘Making such a parody! You dress up a Russian who doesn’t even speak Polish... They were unruly. They were not elegant. They had no discipline. They looked more like riff-raff... You see, a few months earlier he was a forestry worker and [now] has to pretend he’s a captain, a major, a colonel! And they would address themselves as “comrade”, stressing the political character of the army.’

While in Wołyń the soldiers of the 1st Polish Army received an increased level of political indoctrination designed to convince them of the legitimacy of the Union of Polish Patriots and the PPR, and efforts were made to discredit the Polish Government in London. The army crossed the river Bug, the new Soviet-Polish frontier, and advanced towards Lublin. The crossing of this new frontier ‘was given a very solemn character – with flags flying and the band playing’.

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.

The Red Army used the Polish AK to support the Soviet attack on the city. As Polish soldiers, elated at the victory, prepared to enter the city they were prevented from doing so by Soviet troops and ordered to withdraw from the area. Following the German defeats in these areas, the Soviets again quickly attempted to root out the Polish AK.

‘Wilk’ was invited to talks with General Ivan Tchernichovski, commander of the 3rd Belorussian Front, during which it was suggested that the Poles should form an infantry division and a cavalry brigade from their troops. The Poles opposed the offer and the NKVD arrested ‘Wilk’ and 70 of his officers and deported them to the Soviet Union. Some escaped and took nearly 6,000 AK soldiers back into hiding in the forests. All the arrested Polish officers were forced into former German concentration camps in the area, or deported to Soviet labor camps. Some enlisted men were conscripted into the Red Army.

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.

As the Germans retreated, Filipkowski established his headquarters in the city and disclosed his identity to the Soviet forces. He was then invited to talks with General Ivanov, representing General Ivan Konev, the commander of the 1st Ukrainian Front, and with the NKVD General Gruczko. During their meeting a message was read out from General Konev thanking the AK for its ‘brotherly cooperation’.

Filipkowski reported to AK command that General Gruczko had informed him: ‘finally Lwów is Soviet and Ukrainian but this does not exclude later modifications between the governments’. The Soviets had also demanded the disbandment of the AK units and their enlistment in the 1st Polish Army. Filipkowski returned to the Soviet headquarters for further talks, whereupon he and 5 of his staff officers were flown to the 1st Polish Army base near Zhitomir in the Ukraine and arrested – and never returned.

The NKVD surrounded the AK headquarters and arrested everyone there, including the local government delegate, Professor Adam Ostrowski, and sent them all to the prison in Ulica Lacki.

As the Germans left Lwów, famous post-war Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and some Jewish survivors of the concentration camp at Janów were used as cover, taken with them by the fleeing SS: ‘Now we understood why Warzok had spared us. As long as the SS had someone to guard, they might get out of front-line duty. We 34 Jews became the life insurance for almost 200 SS men. We were all going to be a happy family. Warzok said we would try to reach the woods of Slovakia, where we would hide until the war was over.’

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.

The operation was not cancelled, however, because now the Soviets had entered ‘Poland proper’ there was still a chance that the Soviets would acknowledge the legitimacy of the AK and the Underground Government.

The Soviet attitude appeared at first to be denial that the AK was fighting the Germans at all. When General Vasily Chuikov first encountered AK units near Lubartów in Lublin province, ‘its formations numbered about twenty thousand men and were officially organised into companies, battalions, regiments and even divisions. But they simply did not fight the Germans at all, and the latter in turn did not touch them.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Fighting on its own, the AK captured 7 towns, and fighting alongside the Red Army it captured 11 more, including the city of Lublin.

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 Polish communist delegation approached Cholewa and the local AK commander, Colonel Kazimierz ‘Marcin’ Tumidajski, but both men denied that the PKWN had any legitimacy. However, they stated that they were willing to hold talks with the Soviets.

The AK was faced with the stark choice: either disband and be disarmed, or join the 1st Polish Army. The AK units operating in ‘Poland proper’, in Zamość, Białystok, Przemyśl and Rzeszów, all strongly resisted being disbanded. Their officers were arrested and dispatched to the Soviet Union, and the men sent to recently vacated former German concentration camps. By the beginning of October, over 21,000 AK soldiers had been arrested and many more had fled westwards.

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.

An item in the New York Herald Tribune summed up the reaction in the west: ‘Maybe we should wait for further corroboration of the horror story that comes from Lublin. Even on top of all we have been taught of the maniacal Nazi ruthlessness, this example seems inconceivable... The picture presented by American correspondents requires no comment except that, if authentic, the regime capable of such crimes deserves annihilation.’

It was certainly true that the state of the survivors of Majdanek had immense propaganda value: Soviet and Polish soldiers and new recruits were taken to see the concentration-extermination camp. The Soviets then filled the camp with AK soldiers who refused to join the 1st Polish Army.

Operation Burza had exposed the soldiers of the AK to the full wrath of the Germans, and so the Polish Government asked the western Allies to grant combatant rights to the AK, which would give them the protection of the Geneva Convention. Since the Soviet Union was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention, it is unlikely that an Allied statement would have had any effect on the conduct of the Soviet authorities and Polish communist bodies in Poland. The AK would only receive combatant rights during the Warsaw Uprising.

The British Government was asked to make a radio broadcast on the following lines: ‘Detachments of the Polish Home Army form part of the Polish Armed Forces and remain at war with the Germans since 1 September 1939. Cases have occurred when soldiers of the Polish Home Army, even when fighting openly in close formation, were after their capture shot or handed over by the German military authorities to German civilian authorities to be shot by these. The German authorities and German soldiers are hereby warned that further disregard of rules of international law regarding combatants will force the Polish Home Army to take reprisals in the shape of shooting captured German soldiers.’

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.

Polish doctor and historian, Zygmunt Klukowski noted in his diary: ‘Our own people are busily buying... Today’s picture of German misery makes us all feel good.’

The evidence on the totality of the German collapse was conflicting. While the German governor of Warsaw, Ludwig Fischer, ordered the evacuation of the German civilian administration to Łódź, two days later he reversed this decision and the Germans returned in strength. Executions of prisoners continued and an increased number of German police and SS patrolled the main thoroughfares through Warsaw in tanks and armoured cars.

As the Germans entered Warsaw, the Poles turned out to watch them: ‘On the road, an endless column of German soldiers was slogging along wearily, in a state we had never seen them before. They were in rags, dirty, many without arms, and without boots, on foot, on bicycles and carts, in a disorderly retreat, frequently without officers.’

Fischer ordered the mobilisation of 100,000 Polish men and women to report for work, building defences. This placed the AK in a quandary because obedience would deprive it of manpower but disobedience could lead to massive reprisals. In the event, the order was generally ignored and the Germans took no reprisals. This led the AK commanders to believe that the German hold on Warsaw was shaky and that the Germans would abandon the city as soon as the Soviets attacked, suggesting that an uprising could succeed.

The crucial question still to be answered was: where were the Soviet armies and what were their intentions towards Warsaw? The Poles knew that the Hermann Goering Brigade had passed through Warsaw on its way to the front, but they did not know of the heavy fighting taking place at the Soviet bridgeheads on the Vistula at Puławy and Magnuszów. The AK commanders gathered in Warsaw knew that they only had sufficient equipment for about a week’s fighting, so the timing of the uprising was absolutely crucial. They met daily, and sometimes several times a day, to deliberate.

Even Jews who had been hiding in Warsaw came to watch the Germans, glorying in the fact: ‘These members of the Herrenvolk now looked like the Jewish victims they had hounded out of the cities of Europe to their death. Thousands of people stood all day to watch the beggarly procession of soldiers. The atmosphere was relaxed. No one was afraid any more. The Poles openly made cheap jokes about the former murderers and rulers of Europe.’

Incredibly, the Polish AK had massed 40,000 soldiers in Warsaw in preparation for the battle. The need for the utmost secrecy prevented men from knowing more than a few soldiers in their own unit. As the time drew nearer, soldiers were told their objectives and their rally points. Through detailed and meticulous planning, a miraculous feat of organization was achieved. This massive force, with carefully guarded information and communication, expected to begin notifying troops of the uprising less than 24 hours prior to the operation, and reach every soldier throughout the city in less than two hours.