Warsaw, Occupied Poland July 29, 1944

By July 1944 Poland had been occupied by the armed forces of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany for close to five years and by those of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union for con­sider­ably less. (For nearly 2 years, from Septem­ber 1939 to June 1941 when the German Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union (Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa), the Soviet Army had occu­pied West­ern Poland in a devil’s pact between twin dic­ta­tors Hitler and Stalin that divided Poland down the center.) The Polish resis­tance Home Army (Armia Krajowa, or AK), 45,000 Warsaw-area irreg­u­lars loyal to the London-based Polish govern­ment-in-exile, had long planned some form of insur­rec­tion against their German occu­piers. Led by Lt. Gen. Tadeusz Komo­row­ski, the Home Army ini­tially planned to link up with the invading forces of the West­ern demo­cra­cies, which excluded the nefa­rious Soviet Union fighting alone on Germany’s Eastern Front. How­ever, in 1943, the apoc­a­lyptic struggle for Stalin­grad marked the begin­ning of the Axis defeat on the Eastern Front (August 23, 1942 to Febru­ary 2, 1943) and with the inva­sion of West­ern Europe (it would be in Normandy, France) months away, it began to appear that Stalin’s Red Army just might reach the pre­war borders of Poland before the armies of the Western Allies did.

On this date, July 29, 1944, in Warsaw’s suburbs, citi­zens heard the sounds of battle as German forces counter­attacked the approaching Soviets. Two days later Soviet forces were on the defen­sive, or at least appeared to be. Un­aware of this, the Home Army launched a revolt against their oppres­sors. Oper­a­tion Burza (Tem­pest) was intended to con­front the advancing Soviet armies with Poland’s capi­tal and largest city firmly in the hands of sol­diers loyal to Polish Prime Minis­ter Stanis­ław Miko­łaj­czyk’s Western-backed govern­ment in London. From this posi­tion of strength, Polish free­dom fighters figured a more equi­table future for Poland could be assured even if the old set of repres­sive occu­piers were ejected and replaced by a Soviet-spon­sored set of Moscow-based com­mu­nist toadies in a post­war representative government.

Alas, fate could not have dealt Free Polish leaders at home and in dis­tant London a worse set of cards. German forces, including SS (Schutz­staffel) units and Russian merce­naries, ruth­lessly put down the two-month-long Warsaw Uprising at a cost approaching 25,000 Germans killed, wounded, or missing in action. Some 2,000 German soldiers were Polish prisoners of war. By the time the Home Army capit­u­lated on Octo­ber 2, upwards of 250,000 Poles had been killed, most of them civil­ians—a quar­ter of Warsaw’s popu­la­tion at the time—and 15,000 had been cap­tured. A special unit com­posed of German profes­sional crimi­nals and SS men on proba­tion—the Dirle­wanger Brigade—accounted for 30,000–40,000 of these deaths, which included young chil­dren and hos­pi­tal patients. The Germans ordered the city’s evacu­a­tion, and 350,000–550,000 civil­ians were passed through a transit camp on their way to death, concentration, and work camps or other locations.

The ferocity of AK freedom fighters enraged Germany’s leaders. Adolf Hitler declared, “War­saw has to be paci­fied, that is, razed to the ground,” and SS chief Heinrich Himm­ler issued orders to make Poland’s former capital “com­pletely dis­appear from the sur­face of the earth.” Warsaw was to be turned into little more than a military transit station.

The Germans diverted consider­able resources to destroying the city. Demo­li­tion squads used flame­throwers and explo­sives to method­i­cally destroy buildings street by street, paying special atten­tion to histori­cal struc­tures, the Polish national archives, and other places of national in­terest—this under the super­vi­sion of German scholars no less. By Janu­ary 1945, when War­saw was liber­ated at the start of a mas­sive new Soviet offen­sive, roughly 85 per­cent of the city lay in ruins. The offen­sive would take the Red Army swiftly across Poland to the former borders of the Reich on January 26, 1945, and to the gates of the Nazi capital on April 16.

Poland’s Warsaw Uprising, August 1 to October 2, 1944

Warsaw Uprising: Warsaw destroyed, January 1945Warsaw Uprising: Prudential building being destroyed, Warsaw, August 28, 1944

Left: An aerial view of Warsaw taken in January 1945. Post­war esti­mates of mate­rial losses were put at 10,455 buildings, 923 his­to­rical buildings (94 per­cent), 25 churches, 14 libra­ries including the National Library, 81 pri­mary schools, 64 high schools, the Uni­ver­sity of War­saw, the War­saw Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, and most of the city’s his­tor­i­cal monu­ments. Almost a million inhabitants lost all their possessions.

Right: On August 28, 1944, the Germans used “Moerser Karl,” a self-pro­pelled siege mortar, to fire 2‑ton mortar shells into the Prudential building, Warsaw’s first skyscraper. Smoke from burning and blasted buildings engulfed the city in a grayish-brown haze that reduced visibility to a dozen yards (10 meters).

Warsaw Uprising: German flamethrowing units, Warsaw 1944Warsaw Uprising: Routing insurgents using flamethrower, Warsaw 1944

Left: During the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, much of Warsaw’s Old Town was badly damaged by the Luft­waffe’s cam­paign of terror bombing. After the War­saw Uprising (August 1 to Octo­ber 2, 1944), what had been left standing was sys­tem­at­ically blown up or torched by flame­throwing units of German Army, as shown in this photo. The destruc­tion of Warsaw’s Old Town was so thorough that city fathers resorted to 18th-cen­tury oil paintings and pre-war archi­tec­tural drawings to guide them in recon­structing the historic district. Warsaw’s New Town, a neighbor­hood dating from the 15th century, was only partially restored to its former state.

Right: A German caption accompanying this photo read: “Each nest of insur­gents must be indi­vid­ually smoked out. The flames of this flame­thrower crushed every instance of resistance that kept popping up from this hard-to-reach cellar.” Not neces­sarily so every­where. One German Army intel­li­gence officer who spent most of the war in Warsaw wrote his wife and children: “When streets of houses are delib­er­ately burned down and the civil­ian popu­la­tion flees some­where, rebels occupy the rubble and go on firing. Any­one sighted on the streets is shot.” Quoted in Nicholas Stargardt, The German War, p. 436.

Warsaw Uprising: Polish Home Army soldiers march into captivity, Warsaw, October 5, 1944Warsaw Uprising: Poles emerge from hiding places, October 1944

Left: Soldiers of the underground Polish Home Army sur­ren­der to the German Wehr­macht at a check­point in Warsaw, Octo­ber 5, 1944, two days after their leaders had sur­ren­dered to the German Army in a formal signing cere­mony. According to the agree­ment, the Wehr­macht pro­mised to treat Home Army sol­diers in accor­dance with the Geneva Con­ven­tion—granting them com­ba­tant status and sending them to POW camps—and to treat the civil­ian popu­la­tion humanely. But within days the entire civil­ian popu­la­tion of War­saw was expelled from the city. Out of a half million evac­uees, 90,000 were sent to labor camps in the Third Reich and 60,000 were shipped to death and con­cen­tra­tion camps. Of the 28,000 Jews who had some­how suc­ceeded in hiding them­selves in the city, fewer than 5,000 survived.

Right: Sick and starved people emerge from base­ments and sewers in War­saw in Octo­ber 1944, two months after the start of the War­saw Up­rising. Some people con­tinued hiding in the deserted city and were called “Robinson Crusoes” or “cave­men.” The Germans called them “rats” and killed them when found. Among the best-known “Crusoes” was Wła­dy­sław Szpil­man (1911–2000), whose best-selling memoir The Pianist was turned into a film of the same name in 2002.

CNN Documentary on Warsaw Uprising: The Forgotten Soldiers of World War II

Continue Reading