This was a Polish series of uprisings by the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) resistance and military organisation under the command of Generał dywizji Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski in anticipation of the arrival of Soviet troops to help them at the end of ‘Bagration’ (1 August/2 October 1944).
The Soviet forces of the three Belorussian Fronts had reached the virtually the limit of their lines of communication and were exhausted after the huge ‘Bagration’ summer offensive of 1944, and were ordered by Iosif Stalin to halt just to the east of the Vistula river from the region in which the uprising was taking place, so giving German SS formations a free hand to crush the uprising despite the arrival of limited material aid dropped by Allied aircraft operating from the UK and Italy. Quite apart from the military necessity of pausing his armies, Stalin saw his halt order as a golden opportunity to cause the deaths of the pro-Western Armia Krajowa in preparation for the inauguration of a pro-Soviet regime in Poland.
The primary objective of ‘Burza’, so far as the secret Polish forces were concerned, was the seizure of the areas and cities in which the Germans were preparing defences against the Soviet armies, thus paving the way for Polish underground civil authorities to take power before the arrival of the Soviet forces, and so facilitate the re-emergence of Poland as an independent state rather than a Soviet puppet.
The Armia Krajowa had come into existence in 1942 on the basis of the Związek Walki Zbrohnej (Union for Armed Struggle), the underground army whose establishment had been ordered in January 1940 by Generał dywizji Władysław Sikorski, leader of the Polish government in exile in London. The ZWZ itself emerged from the Słuzba Zwycięstwu Polski (Service for the Victory of Poland), the initial resistance organisation formed at the end of September 1939 under the leadership of Generał dywizji Michał Tokarzewski-Karasierwicz. Right from the start, the Armia Krajowa and its predecessors had prepared for a national armed rising against the Germans, and the basic framework of the future rising had been created in September 1942. According to the plan, the uprising was to be ordered by the Polish commander-in-chief in exile after the defeat of the German armies on the Eastern Front had become apparent, and was to start in central Poland, more specifically in Zagłębie, the Kraków Voivodship (administrative area), and the Białystok and Brześć areas of what the Germans called the ‘General Gouvernement’ headed by Hans Frank.
The uprising’s basic objectives were first to end the German occupation, second to seize the arms and supplies needed for the creation of a Polish regular army on Polish soil, third to counter the threat from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, fourth to rebuild a regular Polish army, fifth to rebuild Polish civil authority, communications and arms manufacture, sixth to maintain peace and order behind the front lines, and seventh to launch offensive operations against the German forces still on Polish soil.
Reconstruction of a Polish regular army was to be based on the pre-war Polish order of battle, and within this context Armia Krajowa units were to be expanded into conventional divisions as and when the situation demanded and permitted.
This first part of the overall plan called for the creation of 16 infantry divisions, three cavalry brigades and one motorised brigade, all of them to be equipped with weapons either captured from the Germans or delivered by the Allies. The second phase was to see the re-creation of the 15 divisions and five cavalry brigades which, before the war, had been stationed in eastern and western Poland.
The plan had been partly implemented by the start of 1943, when Armia Krajowa units were grouped into larger units bearing the designations of pre-war Polish divisions, brigades and regiments.
Early in 1943, after the crushing German defeat at Stalingrad, it became clear that the Western Allies had made relatively little progress toward an invasion of the European continent, and that the planned Polish rising would face a still powerful German army rather than units retreating to an already largely defeated homeland. In February 1943, the Armia Krajowa’s commander, Generał brygady Stefan Rowecki, amended the core plan so that the uprising would be implemented in three stages. The first stage would be a rising in the east (with main centres of resistance at Lwów and Wilno) as the Soviet army approached. In preparation, the ‘Wachlarz’ sabotage organisation was formed. The second stage would be an armed struggle in the zone between the Curzon Line and the Wisła river. And the third stage would be a national rising throughout the rest of Poland.
On 25 April 1943, Polish/Soviet diplomatic relations were broken by Stalin after Polish inquiries about the Katyn massacres, and it became clear that the advancing Soviet army might not come to Poland as a liberator but, as Rowecki put it, ‘our allies’ ally’. On 26 November of the same year, the Polish government-in-exile issued instructions that, if diplomatic relations had not been resumed with the USSR before the Soviet forces entered Poland, the Armia Krajowa was to remain underground pending further decisions. The Armia Krajowa’s commander, however, took a different approach, and on 30 November 1943 a final version of the plan was drafted, this being based on co-operation with the advancing Soviet army on a tactical level, while the Polish civil authorities emerged from concealment and took power in Allied-controlled Polish territory. This plan was approved by the delegate of the Polish government-in-exile and by the Polish underground parliament (Krajowa Reprezentacja Polityczna).
On 2 January 1944, forces of the Soviet 2nd Belorussian Front crossed the pre-war Polish border. At the same time, massacres of Poles in Volhynia reached their peak and the Armia Krajowa’s 27th Division was formed, so starting ‘Burza’ as a national rising. The division managed to contact the commanders of the advancing Soviet forces and began successful joint operations against the German forces. Soviet and Armia Krajowa forces together took Kowel on 6 April and then Włodzimierz. Podpułkownik Jan Wojciech Kiwerski’s (from 18 April Podpułkownik Jan Szatowski’s, from May 3 Major Tadeusz Sztumberk-Rychter’s, and from 16 July Pułkownik Jan Kotowicz’s) 27th Division was soon forced to retreat to the west, however, and in the Polesie area was attacked by both German and Soviet forces. Polish soldiers taken prisoner by the Soviets were given the choice of joining the Soviet army or of being sent to Soviet forced-labour camps. The remnants of the 27th Division later crossed the Bug river to the east, and were attacked by Soviet partisan units. After liberating the towns of Lubartów and Kock, the division (now reduced to some 3,200 men) was surrounded by Soviet forces and taken prisoner.
In the north, on 7 July 1944, the forces of the Wilno and Nowogródek Armia Krajowa districts (some 13,000 men under Pułkownik Aleksander Krzyżanowski) began the Wilno uprising (also known as ‘Ostra Brama’) against the German forces in and around Wilno (now Vilnius).
It was on 12 June that Bór-Komorowski had issued orders for the preparation of a plan for the liberation of Wilno before the Soviets could reach it. The commander of the Wilno Armia Krajowa District, Major General Aleksander Krzyżanowski, decided to regroup all resistance units in the north-east of Poland for an assault which was to take place simultaneously inside and outside the city. The start date was fixed as 7 July, and on this day some 12,500 Armia Krajowa soldiers attacked the German garrison and managed to seize most of the city’s centre. Heavy fighting lasted in the outskirts of the city right to 14 July, and in the city’s eastern suburbs Armia Krajowa units co-operated with reconnaissance units of General Ivan D. Chernyakovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front.
Krzyżanowski wished to group all his resistance units into a re-created Polish 19th Division, but once the advancing Soviet forces had entered the city on 15 July the NKVD internal security forces started to intern all Polish soldiers. On the following day the headquarters of the 3rd Belorussian Front invited Polish officers to a meeting but then arrested them. The internees, numbering almost 5,000 officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks, were sent to a provisional internment camp in Miedniki, a suburb of Wilno. Some of them were offered the chance to join the Soviet-controlled Polish 1st Army, but the majority were sent to prisons and gulag labour camps in the USSR.
After this episode, what was left of the local Armia Krajowa headquarters ordered all units to retreat to the Rudniki forest, and it is estimated that by 18 July almost 6,000 soldiers and 12,000 volunteers had reached the area, where they were soon surrounded by Soviet troops. The commanders decided to split their units and attempt a break-out to the area of Białystok, but most of the Armia Krajowa forces were caught and interned. Some of the soldiers, under the command of Podpułkownik Maciej Kalenkiewicz, remained in the forests around Wilno until a time early in August. On 21 August there occurred a minor battle between these remnants and the NKVD, and very little is known of the Poles’ subsequent fate.
The uprising in Lwów began on 23 July, and was again launched in co-operation with the advance of the Soviet forces. The city was liberated in four days, and then the Polish civil and military authorities were summoned for a meeting with Soviet army commanders and seized by the NKVD. Of Pułkownik Władysław Filipkowski’s remaining forces which did not manage to escape back to the underground, some were forcibly conscripted into the Soviet army, and the rest sent to a gulag.
The Warsaw uprising (‘Powstanie Warszawskie’) was the Armia Krajowa’s attempt to liberate Warsaw from German occupation. The undertaking began on 1 August 1944 within the context of the ‘Burza’ national uprising. In overall terms, the Polish troops in Warsaw resisted the German forces, which included Lithuanian and Ukrainian auxiliaries as well as German army and SS units, for 63 days to 2 October, and the Polish losses totalled 18,000 soldiers killed and 25,000 wounded, as well as more than 250,000 civilian dead, mostly in mass executions by German troops. Casualties on the German side amounted to more than 17,000 men killed and 9,000 wounded. During the urban fighting and after its end, Adolf Hitler ordered the German forces to undertake a systematic incineration of the city, which destroyed some 85% of pre-war Warsaw.
The uprising started at a crucial point in the war as Soviet forces neared Warsaw. Although the Soviet ground forces had reached a point only a few hundreds of yards of the city, along the eastern bank of the Vistula river, by 16 September, they then halted after being temporarily checked by SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Herbert Gille’s IV SS Panzerkorps and General Maximilian Felzmann’s (from 20 September General Martin Fries’s) XLVI Panzerkorps. This fact allowed the Germans to crush the uprising at will.
Despite serious doubts about the wisdom of undertaking a military rising at this time, and also deep concerns about the merits of committing the future of the renascent Polish armed forces to co-operation with the Soviets, especially after the April 1943 discovery at Katyn of the bodies of many thousands of Poles killed by the Soviets after their 1939 invasion of eastern Poland, the Armia Krajowa had continued to plan ‘Burza’.
As of the early summer of 1944, German planning had concentrated on the use of Warsaw as the focal point of the German resistance against further Soviet advance to the west, and the city was therefore to held at all costs. The Germans accordingly built fortifications and strengthened their forces in the area. This process slowed after the failed plot of 20 July to assassinate Hitler, but by a time late in July 1944 the German forces had reached almost their full strength once again.
As their forces approached Warsaw in June and July 1944, the Soviets called for an uprising in Warsaw to cut the lines of communication to all German units on the eastern side of the Vistula river. On 29 July the first Soviet armoured units reached the outskirts of Warsaw, but were counterattacked by General Dietrich von Saucken’s XXXIX Panzerkorps 1.
This attack enveloped and annihilated the Soviet III Tank Corps at Wołomin, 9.25 miles (15 km) to the east of Warsaw, in a battle that ended on 11 August after the Soviets’ had suffered a casualty rate of about 90%.
On 25 July the cabinet of the Polish government-in-exile in London approved the planned uprising in Warsaw. Fearing German reprisals following the ignored order for the Poles to contribute to the construction of fortifications, and believing that time was of the essence, Bór-Komorowski ordered full mobilisation of the Armia Krajowa’s forces in the Warsaw area on 1 August. This mobilisation decision had major ramifications for the Allies, especially as Stalin expressed his outrage at not being consulted about the matter, and clearly felt that the Western Allies and the government-in-exile had an ulterior motive. Both sides were, of course, jockeying for advantage in the forthcoming regional political alignment, with the Armia Krajowa wanting a pro-Western Polish government and the Soviets intending to establish a Polish communist regime.
The Armia Krajowa in the Warsaw District totalled about 50,000 soldiers, 23,000 of them equipped and ready for combat, although only with light weapons, amounting on 1 August to some 1,000 rifles, 1,700 pistols, 300 sub-machine guns, seven machine guns, 35 anti-tank guns (including several PIAT weapons) and 25,000 hand grenades. In the course of the fighting the Poles obtained additional weapons from Allied air drops and by capture from the Germans, whose ‘contribution’ to the uprising included several armoured vehicles. The insurgents’ own workshops operated throughout the uprising, moreover, producing 300 automatic pistols, 150 flamethrowers, 40,000 grenades, a number of mortars and PIATs, and even one armoured car.
Most of the men had trained for several years in partisan warfare and urban guerrilla warfare, but lacked any training for and experience in prolonged daylight fighting. The Polish forces also lacked equipment and manpower, especially since the Armia Krajowa had shuttled weapons and men to area lying to the east of Warsaw before making the decision on 21 July to include Warsaw in ‘Burza’.
As well as the Armia Krajowa proper, there were also a number of other partisan groups which subordinated themselves to Armia Krajowa command for the uprising. Finally, many volunteers, including some Jews freed from the concentration camp in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto, joined as the fighting continued.
Generał dywizji Antoni Chruściel commanded the Polish forces in Warsaw. Initially he divided his forces into eight areas: Obwód I or Area I (Śródmieście and Stare Miasto), Area II (Żoliborz, Marymont and Bielany), Area III (Wola), Area IV (Ochota), Area V (Mokotów), Area VI (Praga), Area VII (Powiat Warszawski), and the Zgrupowanie Kedywu Komendy Głównej.
On 20 September this structure was reorganised to accord with that of the Polish forces fighting among the Western Allies. The entire force, renamed the Warsaw Armia Krajowa Corps (Warszawski Korpus Armii Krajowej) and still commanded by Chruściel, now comprised three infantry divisions: the 8th ‘Romuald Traugutt’ Division under Pułkownik Żywiciel-Niedzielski, the 10th ‘Maciej Rataj’ Division under Pułkownik Radwan-Pleiffer, and the 28th ‘Stefan Okrzeja’ Division under Pułkownik Karol-Rokicki.
On 1 August the German garrison in Warsaw numbered some 10,000 men under the command of Generalleutnant Friedrich Stahl. Including a number of units on the left bank of the Vistula river, the German forces comprised some 15,000 to 16,000 army personnel as well as SS and police forces. Critically, these well-equipped German forces had prepared for the defence of the city’s key positions for many months, and a combination of several hundred concrete bunkers and massed lines of barbed wire protected the buildings and areas thought vital to German interests. Also, at least 90,000 additional German troops were available from the forces holding the surrounding area. As of 23 August, the German units directly involved with fighting in Warsaw included Generalmajor von Rohr’s Kampfgruppe ‘Rohr’, SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Heinz Reinefarth’s Kampfgruppe ‘Reinefarth’, SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Dr Oskar Dirlewanger’s Sturmgruppe ‘Dirlewanger’, Major Reck’s Sturmgruppe ‘Reck’ and Oberst Schmidt’s Sturmgruppe ‘Schmidt’ as well as various support and reserve units. Stahl also has under personal command the Warsaw garrison force.
A significant proportion of the ‘German’ strength in fact came from non-German ethnic forces collaborating with the Germans, these including Russians who had left in the tsarist era, and also Azeris.
The Warsaw uprising began with simultaneous pre-arranged attacks at 17.00 on 1 August. The Polish planning of the uprising had been posited on the belief that the whole undertaking would last only the few days before the advancing Soviet forces arrived from their forward positions outside the city, but the Soviets never arrived, for the reasons noted above, and the Polish forces were therefore condemned to fighter for a considerably longer, and indeed hopeless, period almost without outside assistance.
Initially the battle raged throughout most of Warsaw, but after a short time became limited to the districts of the city’s western side. The key factor in the battle was the two sides’ massive imbalance of weapon strength: the Germans were very well equipped while the Poles initially possessed only light weapons and ammunition barely sufficient for a few days of fighting. The policy of ‘one bullet, one German’ then allowed the Polish fighters to sustain the uprising for many weeks at the cost of their own lives. Some areas fought for a full 63 days before an agreed capitulation came into effect.
Although the fighting in Stalingrad during the winter of 1942/43 had already revealed the full extent of the combat horrors which a city can impose on armed forces in urban combat, and also the importance of local support, the Warsaw uprising was probably the first demonstration that, within an urban context, a vastly under-equipped force supported by the civilian population can hold its own against far better equipped professional soldiers, although only at the price of vast sacrifices by the city’s residents.
W-hour (from the Polish wybuch, meaning outbreak), the moment of the uprising’s launch, had been rescheduled from 24.000 to 17.00 on 1 August during a briefing on 31 July at about 17.30, and this change soon proved itself a very costly error which reduced the Poles’ chances of surprising the Germans, especially since many of the Polish partisans were not trained for prolonged fighting by day. Moreover, the order to start the uprising did not reach all Polish units as a result of organisational problems. The fighting actually started before ‘W-hour’ in several places where German units encountered Polish units as these latter were assembling: from 14.00 on Żoliborz to 16.00 around Plac Napoleona, Hale Mirowskie, Plac Kercelego marketplace, Okopowa street and Mokotów.
Until W-hour these separate incidents were not generally perceived as part of a bigger plan. However, at about 16.00 SS-Standartenführer Paul Otto Geibel, chief of the police and SS in the Warsaw District, received a warning about the uprising from an anonymous lieutenant of the Luftwaffe, who had in turn been warned about it by a Polish woman. He alerted the units under his command, and these were fully ready for the main outbreak at 17.00, thereby drastically reducing the element of surprise on which the insurgents had been counting. However, despite the fact that they had been considering the possibility of an uprising, the Germans had not prepared any operational plans for implementation in such a eventuality.
The results of the first two days of fighting in different parts of the city were as follows. In Area I Polish units captured most of their assigned territory, but failed to eliminate pockets of major German resistance such as the Warsaw University buildings, PAST skyscraper and headquarters of the German garrison at Piłsudski Plac. The Poles thus failed to create a central stronghold which could have provided a secure communications hub to other areas. The main failures were in not establishing a secure land connection with the northern area of Żoliborz through the northern railway line and the Cytadela fortress, and the capture of no bridges over Vistula. The forces mobilised in the city centre also failed to capture the German-only area near the Szucha avenue.
In Area II the Polish units failed to secure the most important military targets in the area of Żoliborz, and many units soon retreated outside of the city into the surrounding forest areas. Although the main body of the area was captured, Colonel Żywiciel’s force failed to capture the Cytadela fortress area and break through German defences at Warszawa Gdańska railway station.
In Area III the Polish units initially succeeded in securing most of the territory, but sustained losses in the order of 30%. Some units retreated into the forests, while others retreated to the area’s eastern part. In the northern part of Wola Pułkownik Radosław’s force managed to capture the German barracks, the German supply depot at Stawki Street, and the flanking position at the Jewish cemetery.
In Area IV the Polish units did not capture either the territory or the military targets (the Warsaw concentration camp on Gęsia street, and the SS barracks and Sipo barracks located in former Students House on Narutowicz Plac). After suffering heavy casualties, most of the Armia Krajowa units retreated to the forests west of Warsaw. Only two small units, of approximately 200 to 300 men under Porucznik Gustaw, remained in the area and managed to create strong pockets of resistance. They were later reinforced by units from the city centre.
In Area V the situation was very serious for the Poles right from the beginning of hostilities. The partisans were meant to capture the heavily defended and fortified so-called Police Area (Dzielnica policyjna) on Rakowiecka street, and to establish a connection with the city centre through open terrain at Pola Mokotowskie, but succeeded in none of this. Some units retreated into the forests, while others managed to capture parts of Dolny Mokotów, which was, however, severed from most communications routes to other areas.
In Area VI on the right bank of the Vistula river, the local units had as their primary task the seizure of bridges over the river and the securing of bridgeheads until the arrival of the Soviet army. Here the situation was far worse than in other areas, and it was clear that there was no chance of help from the outside. After some minor initial success, Podpułkownik Antoni Władysław Żurowski’s forces were badly outnumbered by the German forces concentrated there. The Poles therefore broke contact and went underground. After the Soviets finally reached the right bank of the Vistula on 10 September, the officers proposed re-creating the pre-war 36th ‘Academic Legion’ Regiment, but were all seized by the NKVD and sent to the USSR for interrogation and further disposition.
In Area VII, comprising areas outside the city limits of Warsaw, the Armia Krajowa’s operations mostly failed to seize their targets. Units of the Zgrupowanie Kedywu Komendy Głównej managed to secure most of the northern part of the area (Śródmieście and Wola) and captured all of the military targets there. However, they were soon tied down by German resistance from the south and west despite the fact that, with those of Area I, they had been the most successful Polish units during the first few hours of the uprising.
Many primary objectives were not achieved on the first and subsequent days, these including the early capture of the PAST building and attacks on Okęcie, Pola Mokotowskie and Warszawa Gdańska train station. After the first several hours of fighting many units adopted a more defensive strategy, while the civilian population started erecting barricades throughout the city.
The uprising reached its maximum physical extent on 4 August, when soldiers of the Armia Krajowa managed to establish their front lines in the Wola and Ochota districts. But there were still several German pockets of resistance inside Polish-controlled territory, most notably the PAST skyscraper, the bridgeheads, and the police headquarters.
On this day SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski was appointed commander of all the forces fighting the uprising, and he immediately began the process of concentrating his newly arrived troops. These included SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger’s SS-Sturmgruppe ‘Dirlewanger’, Reinefarth’s SS-Sturmgruppe ‘Reinefarth’ , Reck’s Sturmgruppe ‘Reck’, and Schmidt’s Sturmgruppe ‘Schmidt’. von dem Bach-Zelewski’s primary aim was to break through to the German bridgeheads and then cut off the Polish forces in Warsaw from the river by attacking both southward and northward.
On 5 August the three German groups started their advance to the west along Wolska and Górczewska streets in the direction of the main east/west communication line of Aleje Jerozolimskie avenue. Their advance was halted, but the SS-Sturmgruppe ‘Dirlewanger’ and SS-Sturmgruppe ‘Reinefarth’ started to carry out the orders of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler: behind the lines special SS, police and even army units went from house to house shooting all the inhabitants and burning their bodies. The aim of this policy was to destroy the will of the Poles to continue the fight and to put the uprising to an end without having to resort to the potentially costly process of heavy urban fighting. In these mass executions approximately 40,000 civilians were slaughtered.
At the same time the Zośka and Wacek battalions of the Armia Krajowa managed to capture the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto and the Warsaw concentration camp. The area became one of the main communication links between the insurgents fighting in Wola and those defending Stare Miasto.
On 7 August the German forces were reinforced by the arrival of armoured fighting vehicles, and also started to use civilians as human shields. After two days of heavy fighting the German forces managed to cut Wola in two and reach Bankowy Plac. Until mid-September, the Germans shot all captured insurgents on the spot. Dirlewanger and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Bronislaw Kaminski were the men responsible for the worst of these atrocities. After von dem Bach-Zelewski arrived in Warsaw on 7 August, it became clear that atrocities only stiffened the resistance and that some political solution should be found, considering the relatively small forces at the disposal of the German commander. The aim was to gain a significant victory as a means of showing the Armia Krajowa the futility of further fighting and thereby encouraging an early surrender which would save thousands of lives. This did not succeed, but from the end of September, some of the captured Polish soldiers were treated as prisoners of war.
Simultaneously with the German attack on Wola, Kaminski’s Sturmgruppe ‘RONA’ started its onslaught on the Ochota district. The forces defending the area consisted of only two ill-equipped battalions, while the Germans were aided by tanks, artillery and Goliath self-propelled mines. However, the morale of the generally low-grade German forces was notably poor, and the main aim of the soldiers fighting there was to loot and rape rather than to attack the Polish positions. As a result, the two battalions of the Armia Krajowa managed to defend the area with heavy casualties until 11 August, when they retreated toward Mokotów.
The Starówka (or Stare Miasto) area was initially weak and almost undefended. However, it posed a great threat to the German bridgehead by the Kierbedź bridge. Also, the Polish positions were close enough to the northern railway line and the Cytadela stronghold to prevent the Germans from effectively using either of these. Knowing that, the Germans planned to cut off Stare Miasto from both the north along the railway line toward the Vistula, and south from Bankowy Plac almost to the Kierbedź bridge.
On 9 August German units from the Mariensztat area managed to capture the Zamek Królewsk (the old royal castle), but failed to drive farther from the river. The Armia Krajowa counterattacked, and on 12 August forced the Germans out of Bankowy Plac. However, German aerial bombing and the extensive use of armoured fighting vehicles inflicted heavy casualties on the defenders and civilians alike of Stare Miasto. One of the first buildings to be bombed was a field hospital marked with a huge red cross on its roof. A German attack from the north was also halted with heavy casualties on both sides. Major combat started in the area of Bankowy Plac, with the square and the nearby barricade at Tłomackie street changing hands several times. The Germans managed to establish a link with their forces under siege in the building of the German garrison (Mostowski Palace) on 15 August, but the huge building became a scene of heavy door-to-door and room-to-room fights. The fighting lasted until 18 August, when both sides withdrew from the ruins.
The no man’s land and the covering positions of the Polish defence lines were composed of Warsaw ghetto ruins and big open areas of Kercelak Plac, Żytnia street and Leszno street. The Armia Krajowa was not well enough equipped to withstand a German armoured attack in the open, but the main positions Stare Miasto lay in a densely urban area with small, narrow streets.
After initial successes in taking the outer rim of the Polish defences, the German advance was now halted. However, Germans made increasing use of artillery to launch a constant bombardment of the area behind the Polish lines. According to von dem Bach-Zelewski, the number of artillery pieces used in this bombardment was 220 weapons of various calibres, one Thor 610-mm (24-in) heavy mortar, 50 Goliath self-propelled mines, one company of Nebelwerfer 42/43 rocket launchers, and one Granatwurfer battery with equipments of various calibres ranging from 150 to 320 mm (5.91 to 12.6 in). Four Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers also operated from Okęcie airport, and one of these machines was shot down by Polish troops on 26 August. Constant artillery and air bombardment inflicted heavy civilian casualties and helped to complete the destruction of the city.
Despite German superiority, both technical and numerical, Stare Miasto was held until the end of August. The situation of both the Armia Krajowa and the trapped Polish civilians became increasingly desperate as they ran out of food, water and munitions, and this made the further defence of the ruins impossible. Several plans to break through the German positions in Ogród Saski park to the down-town area and through the northern railroad to Żoliborz failed. On 2 September Stare Miasto’s defenders therefore withdrew through the sewers. More than 5,300 men and women were thus evacuated.
The several front lines now stabilised for a short time until, during the next days and weeks, the German counter-offensive recaptured Żoliborz and Stare Miasto, splitting the area held by insurgents into three separate sectors connected only by underground means. The sewer system became an important communication network for the Armia Krajowa, which used it to move under the areas occupied by Germans, thus allowing contact between surrounded positions despite the fact that the insurgents had almost no radios. Sewers were also used to evacuate areas which could be defended no longer.
In September the eastern part of Warsaw had been captured by Soviet forces. In the Praga area Polish units of General Zygmunt Berling’s Polish 1st Army were in position. On the night of 14/15 September three patrols landed on the shore of Czerniaków and Powiśle areas and made contact with Armia Krajowa forces. Under heavy German fire only the 1 and 3/9th Regiment of the 3rd Division were able to land on the western bank of the Vistula. At the same time the Soviet commanders refused to support the Polish troops with artillery, tanks or bombers. The Germans intensified their attacks on the Armia Krajowa positions near the river to prevent more landings, which could have compromised their line of defence, but were not able to made any significant advances for several days while Polish forces held those vital positions in preparation for expected wave of new Soviet crossings.
Polish units from the eastern bank did in fact attempt several more crossings, and during the next few days sustained heavy losses including the destruction of all their landing boats and most of their other river-crossing equipment. Other Soviet units limited their assistance to sporadic and insignificant artillery and air support. Shortly after the Polish 1st Army’s crossings, the Soviets decided to postpone all plans for a river crossing in Warsaw ‘for at least four months’, and soon after this Berling was relieved of his command.
On the night of 19 September, after no further attempts from the other side of the river had been made and the promised evacuation of wounded had not taken place, the Armia Krajowa’s men and the elements of the Polish 1st Army which has crossed the river were forced to begin a retreat from their positions along the bank of the Vistula. Out of some 3,000 men who landed on the western bank of the Vistula, only around 900 made it back eastern bank, about 600 of them seriously wounded.
From 4 August the Western Allies had begun to provide some support for the Warsaw uprising with airdrops of munitions and other supplies The first deliveries were made mostly by Polish bomber units stationed near Bari and Brindisi in southern Italy but later, at the insistence of the Polish government-in-exile, these were joined by South African and British units. The drops continued until 21 September, and the total weight of Allied drops was 104 tons. The USSR refused the Western Allies permission to use its air bases for these supply operations, so the aircraft were forced to use bases in the UK and Italy, which reduced their payload and the number of sorties they could make. The Allies’ specific request for the use of Soviet bases, made on 20 August, was denied by Stalin on 22 August, the Soviet dictator referring to the insurgents as ‘a handful of criminals’. US aircraft were not involved in the operation.
After Stalin’s objections to support for the uprising, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 25 August, proposing to send aircraft in defiance of Stalin’s refusal and ‘see what happens’, but on the following day Roosevelt said that he would support no such effort.
Although the German air defence over the Warsaw area itself was almost non-existent, except for elements of Oberstleutnant Dieter Hrabak’s Jagdgeschwader 52, the highest-scoring fighter formation in the Luftwaffe and the unit which claimed its 10,000th kill of the war on a Soviet aeroplane over the Warsaw suburb of Praga, about 12% of the 296 aircraft taking part in the operation were lost. Most of the airdrops were made at night, and poor accuracy meant that many parachuted packages landed in German-controlled territory.
From 13 September the Soviets finally began to make their own supply airdrops, delivering a total of some 55 tons in the period up to 28 September. Since the Soviet airmen did not equip the containers with parachutes, most recovered packages were damaged.
On 2 October Bór-Komorowski signed the capitulation of remaining Polish forces at the German headquarters in the presence of von dem Bach-Zelewski. By the terms of the capitulation agreement the Armia Krajowa soldiers were to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and the civilian population was to be treated humanely.
As a result of a lack of co-operation and often the actively aggressive moves of the Soviet forces, in combination with a number of other factors, the Warsaw uprising in particular and ‘Burza’ in general failed in their primary goal of liberating at least part of Polish territory so that an administration loyal to the Polish government-in-exile could be established.
Most of the Armia Krajowa soldiers, including those who took part in the Warsaw uprising, were persecuted after the war. Many were sent to gulags, or were executed, or merely ‘disappeared’. Most of those sent to prisoner of war camps in Germany were later liberated by British, US and Polish forces and then remained in the West, these including Bór-Komorowski and Chruściel.
Factual knowledge of the Warsaw uprising, inconvenient to Stalin, was twisted by propaganda of the People’s Republic of Poland, which stressed the failings of the Armia Krajowa and the Polish government-in-exile, and forbade all criticism of the Soviet army or the political goals of Soviet strategy.