Warsaw Uprising
Polish Resistance organises an uprising against German occupation
1 August - 2 October 1944
author Paul Boșcu, December 2016
The Warsaw Uprising was organized by the Home Army, the armed side of the Polish Resistance movement. The uprising was timed to coincide with the withdrawal of German forces from Poland. During the uprising the Soviet Red Army stopped its advance short of the city, enabling the Germans to regroup and defeat the Polish uprising. The fighting lasted for 63 days, and it was the largest military effort undertaken by any resistance movement during World War II.

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On this day there was an important meeting in Warsaw during which Colonel Janusz ‘Sek’ Bokszczanin reported the Soviet’s intentions in not aiding the uprising. Also present at the meeting was notable resistance fighter Jan Nowak, who had just returned from London. He gave several vital pieces of information to Bór-Komorowski: Generał Sosnkowski was against an uprising; the AK could not count on support from outside Poland because both the Polish Parachute Brigade and the Polish Air Force were now under Allied command; and the Polish squadron in Italy was very small.

Bokszczanin reported: “Soviet artillery fire is so far only intermittent and light. It does not seem to be an artillery preparation for a general forced crossing of the Vistula and an attack on the city. The armoured reserves which the Germans are directing to the front near Warsaw are fully equipped and prove that they intend to fight at the bridgehead. Until the Soviet army shows clear intention of attacking the city, we should not start operations. The appearance of some Soviet detachments on the outskirts of Praga does not signify anything. They may simply be reconnaissance patrols.”

It was clear that opinion on calling an uprising was split. Crucially the man who was to command the Warsaw Uprising, General Antoni ‘Monter’ Chruściel, was against launching it, because of the lack of arms in the city for his troops, as was the AK head of intelligence, Colonel Kazimierz ‘Heller’ Iranek-Osmecki. Opposing him was Generał Leopold ‘Kobra’ or ‘Niedźwiadek’ Okulicki, who had been a prisoner of the NKVD in 1941, had been released and had returned to Poland by parachute. His hatred for the Soviets knew no bounds and he was willing to take any risks in the cause of Polish independence.

Bór-Komorowski and Jankowski decided that the uprising would start soon but would only last for 3–5 days. General Antoni ‘Monter’ Chruściel told the meeting of the AK command that he had received information that Soviet tanks were entering Praga, Warsaw’s eastern suburb on the banks of the Vistula. This news electrified the meeting and so the die was cast: the uprising would begin.

As the Red Army approached Warsaw and soon after crossed the Vistula south of the city, the Polish Prime Minister, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk flew to Moscow to confer with Stalin. Expecting to overrun the Polish capital quickly, Soviet radio called on the public in the city to rise against the Germans as the thunder of artillery could be heard from the nearby front.

In the original plans for Operation Burza, no role had been assigned to Warsaw, therefore the question has to be asked: why did the Warsaw Uprising take place? The government delegate, Jan Jankowski, gave what is probably the best analysis: “There were several reasons for our uprising. We wanted to repel by force of arms the last blow the Germans were preparing to deal at the moment of their departure to all that was still living in Poland; we wanted to thwart them in their aim of revenge on insurgent Warsaw. We wanted to show the world that although we wanted to have an independent Poland, we were not prepared to accept this gift of freedom from anyone if it meant accepting conditions contrary to the interests, traditions and dignity of our nation. Finally, we wanted to free Poland from the nightmare of the Gestapo punishments, murder and prisons. We wanted to be free and to owe this freedom to nobody but ourselves.”

The next two months saw something like a repeat performance of the 1939 invasion against Poland. The Red Army had slowed down on the approaches to Warsaw. Now it halted short of the Vistula—pushing to the river only after the insurgents had been driven away from the opposite bank—and placed its emphasis on expanding bridgeheads over the river south of Warsaw and obtaining bridgeheads across the Narev river to the north.

The AK commanders were acutely aware of the threat of the communists. The communist radio station Kościuszko was making broadcasts calling on the population of Warsaw to rise up and liberate themselves, and leaflets appeared in Warsaw containing a call to battle addressed to the AL, the communist resistance, and issued in the name of Molotov and Polish communist leader Edward Osóbka-Morawski. The radio broadcasts were picked up by the radio monitoring stations in Britain.

Given permission to act when ready by Mikolajczyk, the Polish commander in the city, General Antoni ‘Monter’ Chruściel, ordered an uprising. He and his men could sit it out and be condemned as useless or pro-German—the latter a favorite term of condemnation applied to them by the Soviet government—or take a chance on either winning control of the city at least temporarily or going down to defeat.

The members of the AK wore a red-and white armband but few had more formal uniforms. Most wore a mixture of old Polish uniforms, British uniforms, and about 3,000 German uniforms stolen from a warehouse. The use of the latter caused confusion when the AK encountered the Soviets and led to allegations that the AK were on the German side.

Secret food caches had been created in five locations throughout the city, containing 90,000 rations. In the event all five were in areas that the AK never controlled, and so the population of the city suffered greatly from hunger during the uprising. Indeed, food supplies were particularly low as the retreating German armies had taken everything with them.

The AK were strengthened by cooperation with other armed units. The AL, which had about 400 men in the city, put itself operationally under AK command but fought separately; it was woefully under armed. About 1,000 Jewish survivors also took part: one ŻOB platoon joined the AL while another joined the AK. Various other nationalities present in Warsaw helped: Italians who had deserted the Germans, escaped Soviet POWs, Hungarians, Slovaks and a Frenchman. An escaped British POW, John Ward, had joined the AK and during the uprising would telegraph reports to London. He was invited to submit daily bulletins on the fighting to The Times.

Many AK members such were nowhere near their assigned position. Units that were together and in position were ill-equipped to say the least. The actual first shots of the uprising were in fact fired well before 5.00pm. In one case, at around 2.30pm a small contingent of Polish communists attempted to start the insurrection, and fired on a German position. They were quickly subdued.

A isolated firefight took place when AK soldiers preparing to assault a German garrison in a factory building, which the AK had selected as a command center, were surprised when a truck loaded with German railroad police pulled up in front of the building. The Poles were spotted, and a firefight broke out. The driver of the truck was shot and killed. The Germans succeeded in reinforcing the building but dismissed the episode as a foolish, isolated shooting.

When the uprising began in earnest, additional Polish troops from one of the the elite Kedyw Battalions were called in for an assault on the Kammler Factory, now being used as Bor-Komorowski’s garrison. The Polish offensive had isolated the building, and although the Germans bitterly fought off several attacks, the building was taken and the Polish headquarters was established there. By 8.00pm, only three hours after the uprising began, the Polish flags, hidden away since 1939, once again flew in parts of the city.

Adrenaline and morale drove the attacks with such intensity that the Germans were knocked back on their heels. General Bor-Komorowski, estimated that the Poles had taken control of nearly two-thirds of the city. Objectives captured on the first day gave the Poles significant strongholds, but the unsuccessful attacks left pockets of strong German resistance within Polish-held territories as well as leaving numerous AK elements isolated behind German lines. Small battlegrounds developed, with alternating Polish- and German-held positions dotting the city.

Most of the Wola District had been taken by the AK, including two large cemeteries that the Poles hoped would be used as drop zones for supplies, weapons, and the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade, which they knew about and which they had assumed would join their fight. Within the Wola District, the Germans occupied the Pawiak prison. With no heavy weapons to overcome the thick concrete walls, the prison gave the Germans a fortress within the Polish lines, and also a clear view and line of fire into the Jewish ghetto.

Within the city center the Germans continued to hold on to massive municipal buildings such as the telephone building. The suburb of Praga, was now, after a brief battle, in German hands. Praga was hoped to be the bridgehead for the Red Army to cross into Warsaw proper. A surprise Polish attack from within and a hammer blow from the Soviets, now just a few km away, could have spelled the end of the German occupation of Warsaw.

The Nazis first used police and SS units to slaughter as many Poles and destroy as many buildings as possible. Deploying units primarily interested in killing, raping, and looting, they initially made little headway beyond containing the insurgents. Slowly they added regular units, demolished the city block by block, split the Polish held area, drove the AK from the left bank of the Vistula, and in a steady advance ground down the defending Polish forces.

In the Mokotow section of town, a key objective was the Woronicz School. The Germans used it to house troops and a valuable stockpile of weapons and ammunition. The Germans inside the school were well-concealed, protected, and heavily armed. Several Polish attacks were beaten back and the AK losses were devastating to the small group. They expended most of their ammunition in the desperate fight. The Poles dug in for the night fearing the worst. However in the second day of the uprising the tables turned and the Poles managed to drive the Germans out of the school after heavy fighting

The German garrison launched an assault on the Polish troops outside. They pressed forward, meeting little resistance from the sparse Polish forces that remained from the previous day’s battle. The successful advance of the German troops gave them a false sense of security, and they pressed their advance further from the safety of the school building. When they had been drawn out into the open, the Poles launched a ferocious counterattack. The avenue of retreat to the school was cut off by reserves the Poles had brought in during the night, and the remaining German infantry were forced to flee the area in any direction possible.

German defenders still inside the school building now found themselves outnumbered, and the Poles soon overran the building. Another invaluable cache of weapons ammunition and supplies was liberated from the Germans.

The insurgents had two main aims in the first days of the uprising. The first was to secure the bridges over the Vistula, especially Poniatowski and Kierbedź, and the main east–west thoroughfares to assist the Soviet advance. The second was to seize control of the main municipal districts on the west bank: Stare Miasto (the Old Town) and Środmieście (the city centre), Żoliborz, Wola, Ochota, Mokotów and Czerniaków, and Praga on the east bank, in order to establish Polish control over the city. But the insurgents lacked the arms and manpower to achieve all these objectives.

Warsaw is divided into districts. In 1944, the western portion of the city, known as Wola, was the initial location of the AK HQ. The Jewish ghetto separated the Wola District from Stare Miasto, or the Old Town, to the east. The Old Town’s eastern edge was flanked by the Vistula River, and southeast of the Old Town was the city center. To the south was the Mokotow section of town, also a stronghold for Polish forces. On the northern outskirts near the Kampinos Forest was the Zoliborz District, separated from the Old Town to the south by railroad tracks controlled by the Germans. Directly east of the Old Town, on the other side of the river, was the suburb of Praga.

The civilian population flocked to assist the AK by tearing up paving stones, overturning trams and other vehicles, and providing furniture to build barricades. The mood in the city was optimistic and it appeared that the entire population backed the actions of the AK. The Underground Government was caught by surprise, since there had been no time to inform it of the exact time of the start of the uprising, but it quickly moved to establish civilian control in the liberated areas.

Not everyone knew the exact time and date of the uprising, but all knew it would be soon and everyone knew their role. The Red Army was a few short miles from Warsaw. Early on the morning of the uprising, there was heavy German military traffic in the city. Perhaps due to an understandable preoccupation with preparing defenses in anticipation of the Soviet attack, the Germans did not seem to notice that there was also heavy activity by the Poles. Polish soldiers moved with the crowds on the streets to carefully preselected buildings, houses, and crossroads.

Of particular strategic value were German barracks and weapons supply locations. If they could be taken quickly, the weapons would be invaluable in the ensuing days of fighting. Reminiscent of 1939, the Poles assumed that Allied help, this time in the form of the Soviets, would be two to three days away. They in fact had been told this by the Soviets via radio broadcasts into Warsaw. With the Red Army already in the suburb of Praga, the AK had no reason to think otherwise.

The German defences were so strong that the AK attacks on the university buildings, the police and Gestapo headquarters, and other major buildings, all failed. The AK’s attacks on both of Warsaw’s airports met with defeat and heavy losses. They failed to cut or even hinder German communications by telephone and telegraph.

None of the bridges or main thoroughfares were wrested from German control, nor was the main railway station. There were some successes: by the end of the first day, the Poles had varying degrees of control over five municipal districts on the west bank, but had been forced to retire from Praga.

A propaganda victory was scored when the Poles occupied the tallest building in Warsaw, belonging to the Prudential Insurance Company, and hung a large Polish flag that could be seen across the city. The German garrison was caught by surprise and, according to the report of the German commander of the Warsaw garrison, Luftwaffe Lieutenant-General Reiner Stahel, the Germans suffered 500 casualties on the first day.

Hitler’s first reaction when informed of the uprising was to issue an order to ‘raze Warsaw completely’ from the air, using the Luftwaffe present on the Eastern Front. He was informed that this would cause an enormous number of German casualties because their military units and civilians could not be extracted from the city. Therefore, Himmler and Guderian were ordered: ‘upon stifling the uprising with all available means, Warsaw was to wiped from the face of the earth, all the inhabitants were to be killed, there were to be no prisoners’. Placed in command was General Erich von dem Bach. When he arrived he ordered the SS to stop killing the civilian population.

The Wehrmacht concentrated on wresting control of the main thoroughfares from the AK, and also creating an impenetrable ring around the city to prevent reinforcements reaching the insurgents within it. It did not take long for the Germans to realize the extent of the Polish attack, and armored cars were called in to support German counterattacks. This action had been anticipated, and a few Molotov cocktails and grenades from close range successfully disabled the vehicles, turning them into imposing obstacles in the narrow streets and providing additional cover for the Polish forces.

Nazi tactics were clear from the outset: no distinction was to be made between AK soldiers wearing identifying armbands and the civilian population. The SS units were responsible for terrible atrocities in the suburb of Wola, where they went from house to house pulling out all inhabitants regardless of age or sex and slaughtering them. On one day alone, ‘Black Saturday’, 5 August, it is estimated that 40,000 civilians were murdered. The Germans impressed a group of Poles to burn the bodies in improvised crematoria created in the cellars of buildings.

Himmler ordered SS units to be rushed to the city. A special SS brigade, commanded by SS Obersturmbahnführer Oskar Dirlewanger, was rushed from East Prussia to the Wola suburb of Warsaw with the order to ‘kill anyone you want, according to your desire’. The Dirlewanger brigade was mostly composed of recently released criminals.

Von dem Bach recalled what he witnessed on entering Warsaw: “Already on the main road leading from Warsaw toward the west near a cemetery I realised that unbelievable confusion was reigning. Wild masses of policemen and soldiers were shooting civilians. I saw the heap of bodies splashed with gasoline and set afire. Toward that fire a woman with a small child in her arms was being led. I turned her about and asked her, ‘What is going on here?’ [From her escort] I received the answer that Hitler’s order, which did not allow for taking prisoners, but called for the total destruction of Warsaw, was being carried out. I went alongside the battle-line, and then called all the officers, who authenticated the existence of such an order. On my own responsibility, I nullified it immediately.”

Himmler ordered the Russian National Liberation Army (Russaya Osvobodityelnaya Narodnaya Armya, RONA brigade), commanded by SS General Bronisław Kaminski, to go to Warsaw from Częstochowa. Placed in overall command was the experienced anti-partisan commander General Erich von dem Bach.

Even after Von dem Bach had ordered an end to this massacre, there were occasions when German police murdered unarmed civilians, notably in Mokotów and Żoliborz. The effect of the slaughter in Wola was that survivors fled into AK-held areas, and the knowledge that the Germans drew no distinction between civilians and fighters led to an increased feeling of solidarity between them.

The AK began the uprising planning to treat all Germans they took prisoner according to the Geneva Convention, and the evidence suggests that soldiers of the Wehrmacht were treated well. But the SS were tried by the underground courts and shot: One SS officer who had murdered Jews in the Ghetto offered a suitcase full of jewellery for his life. It was not accepted.

AK tactics were to allow the Germans to come close to their positions before showering the Germans with grenades, Molotov cocktails and machine-gun fire. Shortages of weapons was, however, a major problem and led to frustrating encounters. Fuel by the need for freedom the AK’s soldiers morale in the beginning was high.

Ruth Altbeker, a Warsaw Jewish resident witnessed an attack on a German tank: “Near to me two boys were watching. They quickly threw two bottles filled with petrol at the passing tank. Their aim was precise and the tank burst into flames. Two SS men with their hands up jumped from the burning vehicle. I looked at the boys – neither had any weapon. The SS men stood dazed for a moment, uncertain about their fate. They looked at the boys, the boys looked at them and eventually the Germans, their hands still raised high, started slowly retreating in the direction of Szucha Street where at last they began running wildly.”

The few tanks and armored vehicles the Poles were able to capture were invaluable, but only as long as their ammunition supply lasted or they could evade a round from an enemy tank. The Germans had several divisions and hundreds of tanks and armored combat vehicles at their disposal.

Light armored vehicles, particularly those with open tops, were easy prey for the Molotov cocktails and grenades. The Panther and Tiger tanks were a taller order. At a range of only a few yards, a barrage of several Molotov cocktails hurled at a tank could often stop it. The explosives were not sufficient to damage the armor, but a large enough volume of flammable liquid could find its way into the engine compartment and burn wiring or even into the crew compartments, forcing the crews to abandon the burning tank or perish in the flames.

With no heavy weapons, not enough small arms to go around, and many soldiers with only rudimentary training, the AK knew they could not stand toe to toe with the Wehrmacht for long. The uprising was intended to be a surprise punch on the nose to knock the Germans back on their heels, and to act as the forward element of the main assault by the Soviets.

Five years of occupation and covert preparations masked by an outward display of submissiveness fueled the fighting of the AK. What the Poles lacked in weapons, equipment, and training was overcome by its will and determination. “It was a glorious feeling,” recalled AK fighter Wieslaw Chodorowski. “When you fight for freedom, you get a very special feeling that never comes again. One doesn’t worry about getting wounded or dying, there is just an eternal optimism that everything will come out all right no matter what will happen. It was not a feeling of revenge either. We did not feel hatred, just exhilaration in fighting for freedom.”

If the uprising was to continue for more than a week, it was essential for the AK to receive supplies through airdrops, but the Allied governments were under no obligation to do so: after all, they had repeatedly warned the Polish Government that such operations carried impossibly high risks. The supplies sent by the Allies were not nearly enough. Stalin refused for weeks to airdrop supplies in Warsaw for political reasons.

The Soviet Union was ideally placed to give assistance, since it controlled 6 airfields in Poland, the nearest of which was at Dęblin, a mere twenty minutes’ flying time from Warsaw. Churchill cabled Stalin informing him that the British and Poles were making airdrops, and requesting him to do the same. Stalin was in the middle of negotiations between Mikołajczyk, who had just arrived in Moscow, and representatives of the Lublin Committee. The latter had informed him that no uprising was in progress and so Stalin turned down Churchill’s request.

As the uprising continued, Bór-Komorowski and Jankowski sent further warnings to London that the lack of assistance was doing enormous political damage to the entire cause: ‘Of course, after the fall of Warsaw, power in the whole country will fall into the hands of the communists.’

The statistics certainly bear out the difficulties faced by the brave aircrews making the hazardous flight to Warsaw. A total of 199 aircraft took off from southern Italy – 94 Polish and 105 British and South African. But Warsaw itself only received 30 airdrops and the nearby Kampinos forest another 28. The difficulties in supplying Warsaw were immense.

Jan Nowak and John Ward witnessed a successful airdrop from a Polish plane but then: ‘I could not help crying out in anguish at the explosion far away, beyond the city. In the flash when it was hit, for a split second we could see parts of the wings and the fuselage scattering in all directions”. The 1586th Polish Special Duties Squadron alone lost 16 crews in flights to Warsaw. The British also lost planes, and one landed on a Soviet-controlled airfield where the crew were interned by the Soviets until the British embassy in Moscow intervened on their behalf.

The airdrops had, however, provided the AK with 1,344 small arms, 3,855 machine pistols, 380 light machine guns, 237 bazookas, 13 mortars, 130 rifles, around 14,000 hand grenades and over 3,000 anti-tank grenades, over 4,500,000 rounds of ammunition, 8½ tons of plastic explosive and 45 tons of food. The AK managed to retrieve about 50 per cent of the canisters in the early airdrops but this percentage fell steadily as the insurgent-held areas shrank.

The courage and ingenuity of the Poles during the Uprising were remarkable. When the Germans cut off the water supply to the city, the Poles bored wells by hand. As the front to the east grew silent, Soviet planes dropped not weapons but leaflets on calling for an end of resistance and berating the Polish government-in-exile.

Before the uprising had begun no plans had been made on how the insurgents in different areas of Warsaw were to communicate with each other, and radio traffic between them had to go via London. Therefore, the AK command established an impromptu communications network using the complicated labyrinth of sewers running under Warsaw. Despite the awful conditions in the sewer system, the tunnels were safe. They became a critical lifeline between otherwise isolated Polish positions in Warsaw. Short-wave wireless radio sets were few and unreliable. They worked only intermittently and relied on limited battery life.

Signposts were painted on the sewer walls and a system of guides and messengers issued with special passes was created. Supplies were brought into the Old Town via the sewers and the severely wounded evacuated.

A veteran of the uprising recalled a journey through the sewers: “We advanced slowly in the slime and after a while the smell did not seem so overwhelming. We crossed several intersections where the sewage fluid moved swiftly and light penetrated from open manholes. Our hands, our shoes, in fact everything was covered in slime. Periodically we rested. The trip seemed to go on forever although it did not last more than three hours.”

While they remained out of the reach of the Allies, short-wave radio and courier-delivered messages kept the various sectors of town in communication with one another. Reports of successes and failures and requests for ammunition and reinforcements poured into HQ regularly.

Messengers and couriers were also used to keep scattered outposts and isolated strongholds linked. But, carrying communications between Polish positions was a dangerous gamble. Within Polish strongholds, messengers could pass through the passageways smashed through the interior building walls, and they could cross roads behind barricades. However, until the sewer tunnels were used, passing from one Polish-controlled sector to another meant a mad dash across an open boulevard within perilously close range of enemy positions. Many couriers were younger boys and girls, and many were killed daily trying to pass communications.

The tunnels of the city sewers kept a lifeline of information, men and materials flowing. Their use was so important and common it became clear the traffic had to be managed. AK commander General Bor-Komorowski actually created a staff to manage the tunnel passages. Men would move in one direction during certain hours of the day, and the opposite direction at other scheduled times. Sappers were sent down to try to control the direction and rates of the sewage flow in key tunnels better. No one was allowed to travel the tunnels without written permission. There were at times “traffic cops” checking papers and directing personnel.

Men were assigned as tunnel guides to assist various parties in reaching their destination without becoming lost in the pitch-black maze. Regardless of the rank of the soldiers in the party, the guide was in command of the group. The tunnels passed directly under German-held positions and absolute silence and dark were imperative.

In Old Town the Poles captured 2 German tanks. One of the tanks, crewed by men from the Zoska Battalion, smashed through the walls of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, freeing the remaining inhabitants. Over half a million Jews had been herded into the tiny ghetto and systematically starved, all the while being deported en masse to concentration camps. The Polish underground had been in contact with the ghetto underground and had smuggled in food aid and weapons, and even helped smuggle out VIPs. However, the aid was insufficient to say the least.

In January 1943, of the nearly 500,000 people in the ghetto, only about 80,000 remained. The rest had been murdered, starved to death or been sent to concentration camps. In April 1943, when they could endure no more, out of sheer desperation the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto had attempted their own uprising. Their fight was gallant but futile, and it brought horrible retribution from the Nazis. A retreat attempt was covered by AK soldiers from the Kedyw Battalion, and a few hundred managed to escape. With the rebellion quelled, the Nazis resumed the liquidation of the Jews and burned down the ghetto.

What was left of the population in the ghetto by the time of the 1944 uprising, amounting to only a few hundred inmates of the Gesowiak prison, essentially a mini concentration camp, was freed by the AK. A small contingent of men still with the strength to fight had assembled and volunteered for service with the AK.

In the Polish stronghold of the city center, the Germans continued to occupy buildings too strong for the lightly armed Poles to overrun, including the telephone building and the police station. The Poles began an assault of the PAST telephone building. Unable to breach the German defenses, the AK was suffering heavy casualties. After 9 days the AK finally managed to capture the important PAST building.

An older civilian approached AK commanders with an opportunity. The man had worked for the telephone company before the war. Since the beginning of the rising, he had tunneled to the foundation of the building. Through the tunnel, the Polish troops were able to blast an entry point into the basement of the building, and a daylong, floor by-floor struggle took place within the walls of the building. The Poles battled SS men and German police from the basement to the rooftop before finally gaining control of the building.

Within Warsaw the AK insurgents were beginning to lose ground: Wola and Ochota had been lost, and there had been a temporary withdrawal of AK units from Mokotów and Żoliborz. The Germans began to concentrate all their resources on the reduction of individual sectors. The first area to experience the full impact of an all-out German attack was the Old Town, a six-centuries-old warren of narrow streets, overlooking the Kierbedź and railway bridges.

The Germans sent 8,000 troops into the battle and the result was catastrophic for the Poles: ‘A sea of fire and bombs had swallowed up a square kilometre of ancient, dry-rotted buildings, packed with tens of thousands of people.’

A booby-trapped German tank, captured by the AK, blew up in the middle of a crowd of onlookers, killing over 400. An AK fighter, Jan Dobraczyński, noted that incident ‘seemed to presage defeat in the Old Town. From that day there was a considerable increase in the number of victims. More and more graves appeared in the courtyards and on the grass.’ It was clear that the AK would have to withdraw.

By the end of the first week of fighting, the Germans had pushed Polish defensive positions back to within a few hundred m of AK headquarters. HQ was withdrawn to the Old Town section of the city. From that position they had strong buildings, which had until that point sustained little damage. It gave them a good vantage point of the battle, but the area was also a temporary home to some 170,000 civilians who had fled from the war torn sections of the city.

The Germans had driven a wedge east to the Kierbedz Bridge over the Vistula, effectively splitting the main Polish stronghold in half. The Old Town defenders had been completely separated from the city center section of town. The Germans, completely unhampered from outside interference, systematically compressed the Polish positions. A concentrated effort was focused on the Old Town. This little enclave of Warsaw was battered daily by artillery fire, tank attacks and air bombardments. Polish defenders of the Old Town soon learned they were far safer in the rubble of leveled buildings than they were in any intact structures.

The fighting in the Old Town was particularly brutal and personal. The Poles had dug in and showed little sign of collapse. The Germans increased the stakes, and additional SS units were brought in to take the Old Town. The SS force included units from the Viking Division and the notorious Dirlewanger Brigade which had been brought in to brutally beat, torture, rape and murder Polish civilians en masse. The Polish fighters were therefore not inclined to surrender and face retribution, but fought to the death.

Old Town was dominated by St John’s Cathedral. The thick strong walls held firm against most of the initial bombardments and became a key defensive position for the Poles. Old Town was of critical strategic value, as it served as an important east-west corridor and offered a route to bridges over the Vistula River, which the Poles hoped would allow the Red Army to join the fight. News of the international political turmoil with the Soviet Union had not effectively reached Warsaw.

While the small enclave had already endured relentless artillery barrages, dive bomber attacks and armored assaults, the Germans tried to breach the Polish barricades with Goliaths. Goliaths were small, unmanned, remote-controlled tracked vehicles packed with explosives. They could be detonated by impact with an object or by an electric detonator. They packed a heavy punch, but the drawback was that they were easily disabled. They were hard-wired to the control unit, and the Poles disabled several with hand grenades. The exploding grenades severed the control wires and rendered the weapons harmless.

The Germans brought in a 600mm mortar to completely level the Old Town. Except for the sewer system, there was now no way in or out of the Old Town. The tens of thousands of civilians that remained within the area suffered heavy casualties. In fact, the points further from the front lines were bearing the brunt of the bombardment.

Lieutenant Czeslaw Korzycki, an AK soldier who fought in Old Town, explained: “We fighting on the front lines were in relatively better circumstances, for the separation between us and the enemy was very small –only about thirty feet, so the Germans could not bomb the front line with heavy weaponry or use the air force for fear of their own soldiers.”

The SS were now rounding up Polish civilians and marching them in front of panzer and infantry attacks as human shields. Initially AK soldiers watched in disbelief the sight of children, women, and old men being marched at gunpoint at the head of enemy formations. The Polish people encouraged the AK to fire, preferring to die as participants in the liberation of Poland rather than as helpless victims. AK soldiers were faced with the choice of being overrun and allowing the enemy’s inhuman tactic to be successful, or fire, knowing that they would inevitably kill some of the people they were trying to liberate. On this occasion, they fired.

Fighting in the Old Town escalated as the Germans intensified the bombing. Since the first few days of the uprising, the Luftwaffe had been bombing the Old Town two or three times a day.

The Germans intensified the ground assaults as well. By mid-August, German infantry had taken St John’s Cathedral. Lieutenant Korzycki of Wigry Battalion was tasked with retaking the cathedral. Fighting intensely for two days, they slowly pushed the enemy from the church. Another German assault was quickly launched. This assault too was repelled by the AK. As the battle intensified, positions changed hands two or three times a day, and the fighting was up close and personal.

The increased offensive against the Old Town left the Polish headquarters vulnerable to being overrun. The defense was weakening. General Bor-Komorowski, ordered HQ move to the city center. Bor-Komorowski and his staff under the cover of dark slowly entered the sewer one by one. Upon reaching the city center, General Bor-Komorowski found the conditions there desperate as well. While this section had been spared the massive bombardments that had plagued the Old Town, food, water, ammunition, and medical supplies were critically low. The heavy fighting in Old Town continued as preparations were made to evacuate that part of the city.

For most of the night, the general and his staff made the dash from the cover of rubble to a manhole in Krasinski Square. From there they began a grueling five-hour trek through the filth of the sewer to the city center. At times they would pass directly under enemy positions.

Food stores had been depleted, and the city center had not had even the meager resupply that the Old Town had received. Despite the shortages, Bor-Komorowski’s first order of business was to try to evacuate the remaining defenders and tens of thousands of civilians in the Old Town. The defenses could not hold much longer and it would take weeks to move that number of people through the sewer system. Polish forces from the city center would begin an offensive to open a corridor across the German lines from the Old Town to the city center, while the Old Town force would fight its way to the bridgehead opened by the city center units.

The German offensive against the Old Town continued. Positions continued to change hands daily. The fighting was brutal, often hand-to-hand. Czeslaw Korzycki’s unit was pulled from the defense of St John’s Cathedral and assigned positions near the SS headquarters building still in German hands, now reinforced by heavy tanks and additional SS units. But the Poles continued to hold out. Korzycki’s current position would be the defensive line for the evacuating forces. He along with his command volunteered to act as the rearguard.

The initial attacks from the city center led by the Kedyw Battalion caught the Germans off-guard, and the Poles began to reach some of their early objectives. A human wave of fleeing civilians began pouring through the opened corridor and hampered the progress of the offensive. Old Town units nearest them were able to reach the forces from the city center, and were rescued. However, as the civilians continued to flood the route, the Germans regained their composure and began to counterattack. The breakthrough attempt stalled.

Later that evening, several hours after the forces from the city center had attempted to reach the Old Town, the Old Town units rallied and began to try to fight their way to the city center positions. Again, some made it through, but the attempt faltered.

After a month the AK defenders had to retreat from Old Town, using the sewers accessible from a single manhole in Krasinski Square. “A few gas-bombs through the manholes or an outbreak of panic in the tunnels would be enough to prevent anyone getting out alive,” recorded Bór-Komorowski. “Besides, how could the entry of 1,500 into the sewers be concealed when the manhole by which they must enter lay concealed only some 220 yards from the enemy positions?” He nonetheless gave the order, since the defenders “had nothing more to lose”. “Slowly, very slowly, the queue of waiting people disappeared,” wrote Bór-Komorowski.

Leaving the Old Town completely defenceless in the event of a German surprise attack, a force of 1500 resistance fighters, along with 500 civilians, their wounded and 100 German prisoners, went down a manhole to evacuate Old Town. Bor-Komorowski wrote “Each person held on to the one ahead. The human serpent was about 1½ miles in length. It moved slowly. There was no time for rest periods, because room had to be made for the others who were waiting by the manhole. It was only with the greatest difficulty that the line moved forward, for the water had now almost completely drained away and the mud had been replaced by a thick slime which gripped their legs up to the calf. The soldiers had had no sleep at all for several days and their only food had been dry potato flakes. The rifles slung round their necks seemed unbearably heavy and kept clattering along the tunnel walls… The last soldier in the queue entered the manhole just before dawn.”

General Bor-Komorowski described part of his own passage through the sewers: “The level of the water was now lower, but the mud was thicker and progress no easier. I helped myself along by putting my hands on my knees. I had to find a new technique for advance in order not to cut my legs on the sharp scraps of rubbish lying at the bottom of the sewer. At one point the guide put his torch on for a minute or two. In its light I could see the bodies of cats lying amongst the indescribable filth and excrement. The air was becoming steadily more fetid. Only below the open manholes could we fill our lungs with comparatively fresh air. Leg muscles and backs ached intolerably.”

About 5,000 insurgents were killed in the battle for the Old Town, which ended on 2 September, and the Germans also suffered casualties to over half their force. Shortly afterwards the area of Powiśle by the Vistula fell.

The governments of Britain and the United States did take a step of immense importance: they issued separate but identically worded declarations granting combatant rights to the AK: ‘The Polish Home Army, which is now mobilised, constitutes a combatant force forming an integral part of the Polish Armed Forces.’ The situation in Warsaw was deteriorating rapidly. Bór-Komorowski telegraphed London: ‘The civilian population is undergoing a crisis, which could have a fundamental influence on the fighting units.’ The withdrawal from the Old Town had taken its toll, and the civilians were now badly demoralised.

The British Government went further in another declaration that effectively extended combatant rights to the civilians. These statements were extremely important to Bór-Komorowski because they had to decide whether or not to continue the uprising, which had already extended far beyond the week they had originally envisaged. Now they knew that, if the AK surrendered, the western Allies would do their utmost to ensure that the AK soldiers would be treated as POWs and not be massacred.

As John Ward reported in The Times, conditions were appalling: “On every conceivable little piece of ground are graves of civilians and soldiers. Worst of all, however, is the smell of rotting bodies, which pervades over the whole centre of the city. Thousands of people are buried under the ruins . . . Soldiers defending their battered barricades are an awful sight. Mostly they are dirty, hungry and ragged. There are very few who have not received some sort of wound. And on and on, through a city of ruins, suffering and dead.”

The Poles knew that Paris had been liberated, but otherwise had little idea of the overall progress of the war. Hence Bór-Komorowski’s extraordinary question: ‘Do you think that action in the west will bring about the end of the war within the next few days?’. But the war was not to end until May 1945, 8 months later.

Talks between the Poles and Germans had opened on the possibilities of evacuating civilians from Warsaw. On three days, there were brief ceasefires to allow this. Although the Polish Red Cross would supervise the evacuation, no one knew how the Germans would behave. The Underground Government distributed leaflets explaining the German’s attitude after the evacuation began: “It has been ascertained that men are separated from their families by the Germans. Everyone must spend a few days in the camp at Pruszków and from there the men are sent to do fortification work and women and children will be sent west.”

The Underground Government advised the sick, the old and mothers with children to leave the city, but expected all the young men to stay to continue the fight. Estimates on the number who did leave vary, but it can be assumed that it was between 20,000 and 25,000.

While the Germans were slowly regaining control of portions of the city, they too had isolated forces in buildings and fortified positions within Polish-held territory. The opposing lines were so close to one another, and the Poles’ ability to maneuver troops under cover was so good, the Germans had a difficult time resupplying and reinforcing some of their own units. The Germans had tried to airdrop supplies to some of their own secluded forces, but due to the proximity of the front lines, some of the containers fell into Polish hands and offered some much-needed supplies.

As the battle was still raging in Warsaw, outside, Operation Burza was gaining momentum. Juliusz Przesmycki recounted various engagements: “On September 2, our division had to fight off German attacks in Radoszyce: the ensuing battle lasted two days, in which time the Germans had used some 15 officers and 550 men supported by Kalmuk units. All of the civilian population of Radoszyce was saved by the swift and well conducted operation of the units of the second and third regiments who chased away German gendarmes who brought villagers to the main square and tied their hands behind them for the execution. Similarly, on September 13, the second regiment liberated the men of the Miedzierza village who were brought by the wall of the local cemetery to be executed.”

The city center was now in the enemy’s crosshairs. This final bastion of Polish resistance was about to feel the sting of the German war machine. During the time the Old Town was the focus of the enemy onslaught, the city center had suffered relatively little bombing and shelling. With the Old Town in enemy hands, that was about to change. The German guns were turned on the city center, and the impact was immediate. Electricity was cut off and the AK was quickly running out of even basic supplies.

Hospital facilities were damaged and destroyed. The main electrical plant in Powilse, which had been in Polish hands and operating and supplying limited power to some parts of the city since the beginning of the rising, was pummeled by enemy artillery fire and destroyed. Arms and ammunition production came to a virtual halt. Medical care was further hampered by the lack of lighting. Food supplies had been running short for weeks.

The city center, now crammed with soldiers nearly all wounded to one degree or another, and hundreds of thousands of civilians, was bearing the brunt of the massive enemy bombardments. Stuka dive-bombers, field artillery, tanks, railroad guns, and the German rocket launchers called Nebelwerfer, jokingly known as “moo cows” by the Poles owing to the sound they made while launching their bank of explosive rockets, all unleashed their fury on the city center.

By early September the AK and the civilian population were subsisting on a watery “soup” made from barley and hops. “We only had this soup,” recalled AK veteran Halina Konwiak. “They got supplies from a place where they made beer. We called it ‘Plujika,’ [‘spit’] because we were always spitting out the shells.” “Spit soup” was virtually the only ration left for the people and the army.

The Germans stepped up their offensive against the city center, increasing the intensity of dive-bomber and artillery barrages. The Herman Goering Panzer Division along with the SS Viking Division closed ranks on the ravaged Polish defenders, and waves of infantry and armor raked the Poles. Final desperate calls went out across the Vistula for Soviet artillery support. It never came.

The AK headquarters was bombed and destroyed. Command had to be moved to the “Little Pasta,” the massive, heavy-walled telephone building which had been wrested from German hands a few weeks earlier.

All medical supplies had long since been used up. Scraps of clothing were being torn from the dead and used as bandages. The water supply was so contaminated it was hardly suitable for washing, and drinking it was out of the question. The few doctors and nurses that were still capable of aiding the wounded could offer little more than comforting words to the thousands of daily casualties. Dead and wounded were being dug from the rubble of crumbling buildings constantly. Rescue efforts continued even during the artillery bombardments and air raids.

Another severe blow to the Warsaw defenders was inflicted when the Germans discovered the Poles’ use of the sewer system. The Germans had been tunneling to the Polish Exchange building, still in Polish hands. During their excavation, the Germans accidentally dug a hole through exterior walls of one of the sewer tunnels and before long they could hear the movement of the Poles within the sewers. For many Poles, this once-vital lifeline became a battleground of its own. The Germans use every means at their disposal to make it very difficult for the AK to move through the sewers.

The Germans began throwing grenades down all the manholes in German-held territory. In some cases they poured flammable liquids down the sewers and ignited them. Other tunnels were filled with concrete. Still others were boobytrapped by stringing grenades across the passages.

In the pitch black of the tunnels it was impossible to see the deadly obstacles dangling from the low ceilings, and by the time they were discovered, it was too late. Once-familiar routes were now either deadly traps or virtually impassible. Some men lost their way and went mad in the pitch-black labyrinth, and their screams echoed in concert with the groans of the wounded.

Those who still had to pass through the sewers out of necessity had literally to walk over the bodies of those killed below ground. It was no longer enough to keep quiet in the tunnels. They now had to hope to avoid booby traps and they feared every manhole overhead.

General Rohr, commanding the Germans forces in the south part of Warsaw, invited Bór-Komorowski or his representatives to talks to discuss the terms for surrender. Bór-Komorowski was prepared to surrender on three conditions: that combatant rights for the AK soldiers would be respected, clarification of the fate of the civilians, and clarification of the German attitude towards the Underground Government. These conditions, as Bór-Komorowski informed London, were designed to delay the surrender because it seemed that the Red Army was renewing its advance on Warsaw.

Rohr responded with assurances that there would be no reprisals against either the AK or the Underground Government, that combatant rights would be assured and that the civilian population would be evacuated westwards out of the range of the Soviet advance. Bór-Komorowski responded with a request that the civilian population be allowed to remain in Warsaw, and demanded that the agreement should be endorsed by General Georg-Hans Reinhardt, the commander of the Central Front, and announced on German radio.

The AK command made two important decisions: to continue the uprising, particularly now that the most vulnerable civilians had been evacuated, and to prepare to greet the Soviet Army. The plans prepared by Bór-Komorowski followed similar lines to those that had failed in Operation Burza. All the AK units fighting in the city would be incorporated to form an Armia Krajowa Warsaw Corps, which would open the thoroughfares through Warsaw to enable the Soviets to clear the city of Germans and advance further west. Then the corps would fight as an independent unit alongside the Red Army.

Throughout the uprising Bór-Komorowski had been receiving further reports from Soviet-occupied Poland, all of which contained the same message: the Soviets disarmed the AK, arrested many of the officers and conscripted the men into the 1st Polish Army. Therefore, there appears to be no good reason why he should have assumed that the Soviet entry into Warsaw would lead to any other result. Stalin did not want the uprising to succeed, so he ordered the Red Army to wait outside the city.

Stalin did not welcome the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. He had telegraphed Churchill to explain his endorsement of the Lublin Committee as the administrators of liberated Poland, justifying his support on the grounds that there appeared to be no organised underground army or underground government. The uprising had proved him wrong. It is clear from his telegrams that Stalin expected the uprising to be crushed soon. He called it a ‘reckless and fearful gamble’, and told Churchill: ‘Soviet headquarters have decided that they must disassociate themselves from the Warsaw adventure since they cannot assume either direct or indirect responsibility for it.’

When the uprising began the Soviet 1st Belorussian Front under Konstantin Rokossovsky was not in a position to mount an all-out attack to take Warsaw. The Soviet armies were too spread out. The 48th and 65th Armies were still over 95 kms away from Warsaw. The 70th Army was engaged in taking control of Brześć and the 47th Army was fighting at Siedlce. Only the lead elements of the 2nd Tank Army were approaching Warsaw. The two bridgeheads over the Vistula at Magnuszów and Puławy, to the south of Warsaw, held by the 8th Guards and 69th Armies and the 1st Polish Army, were temporarily subjected to a strong counterattack by the German forces.

Even without an attack on Warsaw, the Soviet forces could still have given air and artillery support during August. Air support would have been particularly valued since the Luftwaffe operated freely over Warsaw. Reconnaissance planes flew over the houses with impunity, spotting targets for the artillery and the bombers.

The 1st Polish Army had taken part in the attempt to force the Vistula at Dęblin and Puławy, but fierce German resistance and the combat inexperience of the Poles meant that the operation failed at the beginning of August. The Polish troops were withdrawn and sent to reinforce the Soviet bridgehead at Magnuszów. After the heavy German counter attack had stalled, Rokossovsky informed Stalin that he would be in a position to attack Warsaw. But Stalin did not respond. Instead, the main Soviet effort was turned southwards into the Balkans, and it seemed that the 1st Belorussian Front was to remain on the defensive outside Warsaw.

Rokossovsky was permitted to undertake limited operations to secure the bridgeheads, and the momentum of the 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Polish Army carried them into Praga at the beginning of September. The Germans were forced to blow up all the bridges joining Warsaw to the east bank. The Poles in the 1st Polish Army were keen to take the fight into Warsaw to help the uprising, but we were made to gaze, powerless, as Warsaw went up in flames.

The Lublin Committee needed to do something to assist the uprising because to do nothing would have been politically suicidal and have forfeited it all the support it had worked so hard to gain. International pressure was also beginning to have an effect on Stalin. Stalin finally gave in and the Soviets made a massive airdrop on Warsaw with 382 planes carrying a total of 64,000 pounds of food, 18,000 rounds of ammunition and 1,200 grenades. The Soviets offered some other assistance with sporadic artillery support and air support.

The AK was squeezed into ever-shrinking sectors, meaning that to achieve pinpoint accuracy the Soviet airdrops had to be made from such a low level that parachutes did not have time to inflate, so many of the canisters split open on hitting the ground, rendering their contents useless.

Most of the ammunition dropped was of Soviet manufacture and did not fit the Polish weapons and those seized from the Germans. It should have been possible for the Soviets to have sent German war materiel which they had captured, but only 350 German carbines were dropped.

The Soviets could have given more efficient assistance had communications been established between AK headquarters and Rokossovsky’s headquarters. Rokossovsky later denied that the AK attempted to make contact with him, yet AK sources list the liaison officers sent across the Vistula and the instructions on how to open direct telephone contact.

Stalin also at last permitted the shuttle bombing facilities at Poltava to be used by the Americans for an airdrop on Warsaw. 110 B-17s accompanied by 73 fighters from the Third American Air Division flew to Warsaw from its bases in Britain and dropped almost 1,300 containers over the city. Only 388 canisters were retrieved by the AK. No planes were lost during the airdrop.

A gleam of hope remained to the south of the city, where Hungarian units were stationed. They were wavering in their loyalty to Germany. The policy of the Hungarian Government appeared to be not to allow its troops to join the Poles but also not to intervene against them.

Polish general Antoni ‘Monter’ Chruściel could report: ‘Hungarian units placed south of Mokotów display great cordiality towards the Polish population; they also warn us about the Germans and do not interfere with our actions.’

One AK platoon commander was given coffee by the Hungarians on his way to Warsaw. Polish approaches to the Hungarians for further assistance, such as joining the AK or giving them artillery, were turned down.

As the areas under AK control shrank, more airdrops were made into the nearby Kampinos forest, and from there smuggled into Żoliborz, with the Hungarians turning a blind eye to the AK’s activities.

With Praga lost to them, the Germans turned their attention to attacking Czerniaków, the area directly across the Vistula from the 1st Polish Army, in order to prevent the Poles from crossing the river. General Berling, commander of the 1st Polish Army issued orders for such an attempt to be made. After initial contact with the AK, the 1st Polish Army was forced to withdraw from Warsaw after a heavy German counter-attack. The Poles suffered heavy casualties. The 1st Polish Army would not enter Warsaw again until January 1945.

The main attack was to be towards Czerniaków by the 4rd Infantry Division, under General Stanisław Galicki, with subsidiary operations towards Żoliborz by the 2nd Infantry Division, under General Antoni Siwicki, and to the area between the Poniatowski and Kierbedź bridges by the 1st Cavalry Brigade, under Colonel .

A second crossing was made with 3,370 soldiers but they were unable to make contact with the AK. A renewed attempt to cross into Czerniaków was more successful and two battalions of the 9th Infantry Regiment established contact with the AK units under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Jan ‘Radoslaw’ Mazurkiewicz.

The first attempt at crossing the river ended in disaster: 120 men out of 150 in the leading company were killed or wounded. According to the artillery commander, Colonel Frankowski, many of the Soviet officers were drunk and never took up their commands. Also the crossing started late, just before dawn, and the boats were spotted by the Germans and destroyed. The Poles retreated to Praga, bringing with them two AK officers, one of whom, Major Kmita, had been assigned as a liaison officer to the 1st Polish Army.

The Germans sent an armoured column and the SS to crush the Czerniaków bridgehead, and in the fierce eight-day battle the 1st Polish Army suffered the loss of 4,892 men. The most experienced Polish division, the 1st, had been withdrawn from Praga after the heavy fighting there, and the men in the 2nd and 3rd Divisions had been recruited only recently.

The collapse of the Czerniaków bridgehead left the Germans free to concentrate on the reduction of Mokotów and Żoliborz. Famed Resistance fighter Jan Nowak met Okulicki, the AK chief of staff, who warned him that the AK would have to surrender soon because there was no more ammunition or food. A meeting was held between General von dem Bach and Lieutenant-Colonel Zygmunt Dobrowolski, representing Bór-Komorowski. Von dem Bach asked for the surrender of the AK, promising to respect the latters combatant status. He also offered a cease-fire for the evacuation of the remaining civilians in the city.

Von dem Bach made four proposals: the recognition of combatant status for all AK male and female fighters; officers would be allowed to keep their personal arms; the International Red Cross would supervise the surrender; and the civilian population would be evacuated from Warsaw. If the AK wished to continue fighting, then the Germans still wanted the evacuation of the civilian population, after which ‘the fighting would be carried out with every available means until the town and the army were totally destroyed’

Bór-Komorowski contacted Rokossovsky asking him to renew his offensive and Mikołajczyk sent a final appeal to Stalin: ‘At this extreme hour of need I appeal to you, Marshal, to issue orders for immediate operations which would relieve the garrison of Warsaw and result in the liberation of the capital.’ No response was received. Although the Poles were not satisfied with the conditions at Pruszków, the decision was made to go ahead with the civilian evacuation then. A mass exodus of civilians began. Gradually, Warsaw was emptied of its civilian population, about 280,000, who were then processed in the camp at Pruszków.

After a long discussion, opinions on surrender were divided, and Bór-Komorowski concluded that he was in favour of the evacuation of the civilian population but wanted to delay the surrender of the army. The excuse given, which was accepted by von dem Bach, was that the Poles wanted time to inspect the civilian camp at Pruszków.

Over 100,000 civilians were sent as slave labour to the Reich and thousands were sent to the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and Mauthausen. Those unable to work were abandoned to find somewhere to live and some means by which to survive.

When the Germans were obviously winning, Stalin decided to reduce tension with the Western Allies by indicating he did not object to their helping the Poles —as long as their planes did not land on Soviet airfields—and sent a little help himself. But the strategy had worked: the Germans crushed the AK for him. The remaining AK forces surrendered, and the Germans levelled to the ground most of what was left standing of Warsaw. The last shot of the Warsaw Uprising was fired on October 2, 1944.

It is important to note, as was the case in 1939, and throughout the war for that matter, that while the brutality the Polish people endured was real and prevalent throughout the occupation, it was not the universal behavior of every German soldier and officer in Warsaw. Most regular Wehrmacht units fought with military standards and discipline. Some took advantage of the situation to act as barbarians and others must have been frightened by the close urban combat, not knowing exactly who or where the enemy was at any given moment. Generally, though, the worst of inhuman brutality was undertaken by the fanatical SS troops and Nazi military police.

In all 15,200 insurgents were killed and 7,000 wounded before Bór-Komorowski was forced to surrender. Yet German losses were high too: some reports claim as many as 17,000 died. Himmler’s revenge was to send 153,810 Polish men, women and children to the concentration camps, from where only a handful were to emerge alive.

Over 180,000 Polish civilians had been killed during the uprising. To put that in context for today’s readers, as expressed by noted historian Norman Davies in a lecture at Georgetown University in October 2002, the death and destruction of Warsaw during August and September 1944 was equivalent to the 9/11 World Trade Center attack repeated every day for 63 days.

Only after the Uprising had been completely crushed in early October did the SS withdraw from Warsaw, and it was not until January that the Red Army crossed the river and took over the smoking ruins of the city. It had been an epic struggle, which sometimes tends to be skated over in Anglo-American histories of the war. As an historian of Poland, Norman Davies, has pointed out, the Warsaw Uprising ”engaged twice as many [soldiers] as did the attack on Arnhem; it lasted ten times longer; and it caused five times as many casualties. What is more, the fate of an Allied capital was at stake. And three times as many civilians were killed as in the entire London Blitz”

In heavy fighting that eventually descended into the sewers, the Germans retook Warsaw block by block. The worst sort of SS units conducted much of the fighting, and the atrocities were extraordinary, even by Nazi standards. Heroic courage was simply not enough against superior firepower. Virtually nothing remained of Warsaw when the fighting finally subsided. The German destruction of the Polish resistance would make Stalin’s job that much easier at the war’s end: few remained to oppose his tyranny.

Around 4,500 Jews had been killed in the uprising: some were civilian casualties, some died fighting with the AK or AL, and a few were killed by anti-semitic Poles. After the surrender the remaining ‘hidden’ Jews of Warsaw mostly departed for Pruszków and shared the fate of the other Polish civilians. But some, such as composer Władysław Szpilman, hid in the ruins, and a number crossed the Vistula and were saved by the Soviets.

The German governor of the General Government, Hans Frank, ‘urged the population to be generous to the stricken survivors, to give refuge, accumulate relief funds for them, and on top of that he initiated a public collection of money’. The Poles responded well: ‘Along the railway track peasant carts from various neighbouring villages waited, and the peasants simply invited the refugees into their huts.’ The Underground Government left with the civilians, hoping to escape detention and to re-form later.

Bór-Komorowski signed the capitulation agreement. The Polish Government informed him that he had been appointed as commander-in-chief of the Polish Armed Forces in succession to Sosnkowski, who had been sacked. Bór-Komorowski transmitted the terms of surrender to London, and then he and ‘Monter’ broadcast a farewell to the AK. Bór-Komorowski informed London that he had appointed Leopold Okulicki to succeed him as commander of the AK with orders to continue the underground fight. He also told London that he felt morally obliged to march into captivity with the soldiers he had commanded.

Bór-Komorowski said after the war:‘My escape would have been looked upon by the Germans as a breach of the agreement I had signed with them, and would undoubtedly have had repercussions on the fate of both soldiers and civilians.’ He was accompanied by other leading AK commanders, including ‘Monter’ and the chief of staff, Pełczyński. The AK was ordered by the Germans to supervise the evacuation of the civilians and the surrender of the insurgents and their weapons.

In general the Germans treated the AK fighters with respect as is illustrated by a meeting between a Polish patrol and a German patrol: “When the Home Army patrol was only a few yards away from the Germans, the German officer in command raised his hand to his cap, the soldiers slapped the butts of their rifles, and holding themselves stiffly, they stamped the pavement briskly with their boots. The Home Army patrol did a smart ‘eyes left’; and in this way the mortal foes, the Poles and the Germans, exchanged honours.”

AK fighter, Czeslaw Korzycki recalled one rather surprising incident. As his men assembled, he noticed an SS officer approach another group of SS men and they began pointing fingers in the direction of Korzycki and Wigry Battalion. “I was thinking that I did not know which way to run. The Gestapo had been after me for years and I thought they were going to arrest me. Then they told us to move in that direction, and I heard a loud ‘click.’ I looked and they were saluting us.” The elite fighting men of the Waffen-SS recognized the efforts of the AK struggle, and in their darkest moment offered the Poles a sincere gesture of respect and dignity in surrender.

The Germans honored their commitment to treat most of the AK as prisoners of war. However, the guarantee of combatants’ rights applied only to those AK soldiers who fought in Warsaw and surrendered following the Warsaw Uprising. The many thousands still fighting outside Warsaw were labeled bandits and criminals and were treated as such, many ending up being executed or interned in concentration camps.

The AK marched out of Warsaw and a total of 15,378 insurgents and 922 officers, including 3,000 women, became POWs. The men were despatched to join other Polish POWs in camps run by the Wehrmacht in Germany. The women, however, suffered a very different fate, as the Wehrmacht had no idea of how to treat them since their only experience of women captives were those in various resistance movements without POW status. The women were sent to various camps in Germany, usually adjacent to the men’s camps, but lived in tents rather than huts like the men.

Pressure was put on the women to renounce their POW status and to become civilian workers. Those who refused to do so, 1,721 of the 3,000, were sent to a penal camp at Oberlangen. This had been a POW camp until October 1944 when the International Red Cross was informed that it was now disused, so the IRC did not know of the presence of the women POWs there. The women received no aid and lived in appalling conditions until they were liberated by General Maczek’s 1st Polish Armoured Division in April 1945.

The surrender of the Warsaw garrison did not spell the end of the entire AK. Almost 300,000 soldiers still operated within German-held territory, and although the Soviets were escalating their concentrated effort to disarm AK units and arrest and execute AK commanders, the Burza offensive continued. However, the large-scale offensive operations were over. Partisan units continued to conduct raids and sabotage missions, but most began to melt back into the population. As the Soviets advanced in Poland some of them tried to escape from the country as to avoid being captured or evan executed by the NKVD.

Despite the defeat in Warsaw, the AK still regarded it as a duty to try and punish those who had committed crimes against the Polish people. When the sentence handed down was execution, the AK was choosing to send its own indication that the crimes had not gone unnoticed and that the perpetrators were not immune from punishment.

The AK women, along with other Polish soldiers and civilians liberated by soldiers from the western Allies, found refuge, aid and support from brothers in arms. For this reason, being captured by the Germans, while at the time demoralizing and humiliating, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Their counterparts in Poland, under constant threat of arrest, deportation and murder by the Soviets, were as badly off as they had been under the German occupation. In fact, they were much worse off as there would be no hope of liberation from this hostile force.

The remnants of the AK command and the Underground Government were in a state of total disarray, searching for a new base of operations and a redefined purpose. The Polish Government in London had lost a considerable amount of credibility because it had manifestly failed to keep its representatives in Poland fully informed about the international situation, and then had proved unable to support the uprisings either politically through publicity or militarily by ensuring adequate supplies through airdrops.

The AK throughout Poland was forced to flee in one form or another, either by hiding out as civilians or by trying to escape from the country. Those who chose to stay in an attempt to fulfill the freedom for which they had fought and bled were still targets. According to accounts from AK members, many of the first Poles to join the Communist Party and align themselves with the Soviets had been active German collaborators or openly pro-Soviet socialists.

The AK may have officially been dissolved, but it was in fact still very active. The political situation inside Soviet-held Poland was quickly unraveling, and, aside from their families, the AK members knew they could perhaps only trust one another. They continued to operate under different names and organizations.

Ironically, those captured by the Germans and shipped to prisoner of war camps in Germany turned out to be the lucky ones. After various interrogations and interviews with high-ranking German officers, Polish General Tadeusz Bor- Komorowski was interned in Oflag 73, near Nuremberg.

While the Red Army engulfed Poland from the east, the ravaging of Poland continued. The AK continued to face the reality of this new Soviet occupation force that considered it criminal. In the west, American, British and Polish forces were sweeping through into Germany and liberating prisoner of war and concentration camps throughout the former German territory and in Germany itself.

At the end of the year Stalin wrote to Roosevelt to complain that the Western Allies were effectively supporting Polish democrats, whom he characterized as “a criminal terrorist network against Soviet officers and soldiers on the territory of Poland. We cannot reconcile with such a situation when terrorists instigated by Polish emigrants kill in Poland soldiers and officers of the Red Army, lead a criminal fight against Soviet troops who are liberating Poland, and directly aid our enemies, whose allies they in fact are.” To describe Polish democrats as the allies of the Nazis shows Stalin’s attitude towards Poland at the time.

Of course Stalin was not fighting the war for democracy; indeed, as historian Richard Overy points out: “The greatest paradox of the Second World War is that democracy was saved by the exertions of Communism.” Stalin was fighting to protect the October Revolution and Mother Russia, and lost twenty-seven million Soviet citizens in the process.

Stalin had no intention of allowing a free Poland. He had already begun implementing the Lublin government, a puppet regime loyal to Moscow. The AK would resist this imposition as they had resisted both the Soviet and German occupations of Poland for the previous six years. Stalin’s forces had already been executing and imprisoning thousands of AK as they conquered Polish territory.

The “Big Three,” as they had become known, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union as represented by President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Marshal Josef Stalin, had decided the fate of Poland. Without the consent of or representation by any Polish official, Roosevelt, and Churchill, succumbed to the demands of Stalin and effectively surrendered Poland to the Soviet Union.

The Uprising led to the systematic destruction of 83 per cent of the city of Warsaw by the Waffen-SS. All major public buildings, including St John’s Cathedral, the Royal Palace, the Opera and Ballet House and the main library, were blown up. The destruction took three months, and a soldier with the 1st Polish Army, Jan Karniewicz, watched helplessly with his fellow Poles as the Germans burned Warsaw: ‘there was an aura over Warsaw in the evening – a red aura, a pink aura’.

In a strategic as well as an operational sense, the Soviets now went over to the defensive in the center and north. Their armies were positioned deep in the Baltic states and Poland, and they were within easy reach of Eastern and Central Europe. The Red Army’s success in these two offensives had been extraordinary. Bagration had largely destroyed Army Group Center. It had also pushed Soviet-held territory nearly 320 kms to the west and inflicted over half a million casualties on the Germans. But victory came at a heavy cost. The Soviets lost 243,508 dead, with a further 811,603 wounded in these two offensives.

After the fall and subsequent German leveling of Warsaw, the Soviet offensive commenced again. It was clear that the Soviets were content to let the Germans and the Poles kill as many of each other as possible. An extended and bloody battle between the Germans and the AK would ultimately make Stalin’s intended domination of Poland easier.

Every German soldier killed and Tiger tank destroyed meant that the task of the Red Army in taking Warsaw and the surrounding area would be that much easier. Even more important was the thinning of the Polish AK. The AK represented the best, brightest and most motivated of the Polish population, with the ability and motivation to resist a hostile occupation and to fight for a free Poland.