The sirens go off at 5pm on the streets of Warsaw, the whole city stands at attention.
People stop in their tracks and stand still, vehicles break and stop moving, Polish flags emblazoned with the Kotwica flutter in the background, red flamesticks go up smoking up the sky around it. It is quite a sight – the annual one minute of remembrance to the Warsaw Uprising on 1944 at the tail end of World War II.
The hour and time of the uprising was 1 Aug 1944, 5pm.
The Uprising was seen as the starting point to many things : 1) liberate Warsaw before the Soviets came (so that the Polish Resistance would be treated as colleagues when the Soviets reached Warsaw), 2) use German arms to rearm and supply a regular Polish Army on Polish soil, 3) watch the rear against the Ukranian Insurgent Army, reestablish a safe space for an administration before the Soviet-backed communist administration was put in place. and 4) prepare to go on the offensive against other groups of soldiers from the Wehrmacht still on Polish soil
This was not the first time an uprising against Germany was planned. The year before, in 1943, Nazi-occupied Warsaw say its first open revolt against the Nazi’s by a small pool of Jewish youth during the fateful Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The leaders of this uprising were only able to help those in the Ghetto by supplying ammunition and arms. But the damage to the Germans was substantial then, a few thousand young Jewish solders managed to present a threat to the Nazi’s for close to a month.
The Warsaw Uprising was meant to be even more damaging to the Germans, they only had arms for everyone for 3 days with little hope in hell of taking back Warsaw, but they fought for 63 days, and were almost able to take back Warsaw if not for backstabbing by the Soviets.
Poland had established an underground state with Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz as the internationally recognised head of state (Polish government in exile) living in the UK.
Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz (Source)
The underground government was established the moment the Nazi’s took over control of Poland. It exercised considerable influence on Poland despite being outside of it and had both a government arm as well as a military arm, the Army Krajowa (AK, or Home Army in English) set up in 1942.
Tin eagle badges for the field caps of the insurgents with the AK
The AK had almost 400,000 soldiers all over Poland, a huge army for an underground resistance.
The plan for the AK was simple – hit the Wehrmacht at their weakest. They were to train and recruit soldiers for combat and bide their time for when the reckless Nazi charge on the Eastern Front was clearly going to fail on which they would strike and chase the Nazi’s out of Poland. The Polish army was poorly equipped and soldiers were using a whole mix of weapons instead of a standard military issue – whatever could kill, would do the job.
The uprising throughout Poland was conducted over three phases – the first in the eastern edges mainly in Lwow and Vilnius in support of the approaching Red Army, the second would be a military struggle over a narrow stretch west of the Vistula River and the final blow would be a Poland wide Uprising. The Polish plans were however already scuttled by the Tehran Conference that the leaders of the UK, US and USSR had convened at the end of 1943. Poland was a pawn in the discussion and the fate of Poland had been sealed – it would be the Soviet responsibility to attack the Germans there and therefore have a large zone of influence after the war was over.
Plans never go according to how you want them and that was the general outcome of the various stages of battle. Due to a lack of quantity and quality in arms and soldiers the Polish troops were destroyed by the Nazi’s in a number of places. Fearing that the advancing red army was not going to come to liberate Poland but to replace one overlord with another the Polish government order the AK to stay underground and not come out into the open. This order was ignored and the soldiers came out to join their comrades from the Red Army. That naive decision sent these soldiers into new Soviet-made chains. Those that defeated the Germans were quickly disarmed by the Soviets and put in jail to prevent them from joining any sort of revolt.
The fate of the Uprising rested on Warsaw. This one had to be big, it was Poland’s last hope at giving itself its own independence. To do so, the Poles needed a city wide uprising to overthrow the Germans and so establish the capital and a base for the government in exile to return to. The Poles and their friends had numerical superiority to the Germans, there were about 10,000 German soldiers (the government of Nazi-occupied Germany was in Karkow where some 30,000 troops were stationed) while the allies had anywhere from 25,000-40,000 soldiers. The uprising could have succeeded.
Another weapon in their arsenal was the element of surprised. Unfortunately, the commanders decided to also surprise their own soldiers, who were trained to attack from pre-dawn to dawn. The strategic plan was to launch a pre-dawn attack and take over the city in 4 days just as the Soviets arrived. The commanders decided instead to launch the attack at 5pm on 1 August, W Hour.
From the onset the attacks did not go to plan, many areas were unable to overcome their opponents the nadir of which was the fourth day when the Germans regrouped and merged with reinforcements to massacre some 40,000 to 50,000 people in the district of Wola. Although the aim of this massacre was to crush the will of the Polish resistance, it had the opposite effect with the resistance hardening and fighting growing even stronger.
The Wola District today, with the Warsaw Uprising Museum located in it
That was the turning point in the fight. The Polish soldiers were steeled with greater resolve and liberated the Jewish Ghetto. Supported by the civilian population, the less well equipped Polish army was able to force the Germans into a stalemate. The insurgents decided to give up the Old Town which was completely surrounded by Germans and fled through the underground sewage system.
The fight had dragged on for months and was predicated on the Soviet army reaching and reinforcing Warsaw. Unfortunately Stalin decided to backstab Warsaw a second time. His soldiers stayed just outside Praga district and were not given orders to march into Warsaw. Despite Winston Churchill’s pleas to allow him to support the soldiers Stalin refused to respond. The rest of the Allies did not dare to act without Stalin’s approval, and he refused to give it. The only support they obtained was after a frustrated Churchill decided to go ahead with risky air drops regardless of Stalin’s lack of response.
Stalin refused for a simple reason, he wanted both sides to utterly exhaust each other so that neither would be a strong challenge to him when his Red Army marched into Warsaw and established a puppet government in its place.
The stalemate continued for a few more weeks before negotiations began. The Germans were afraid that further damage to Warsaw would hurt their ability to hold the Eastern Front while the Poles were concerned that they were unable to sustain more casualties before all out surrender. Talks began on 7 September and lasted on and off until 2 October when final capitualtion was agreeded. The lifes of the people were to be spared and the Polish soldiers were to be treated humanely as Prisoners of War. The whole Polish population (except 1000 who were hiding in their homes) were evacuated from the city and an order was given for the whole of Warsaw to be destroyed. 2005 estimates put the total loss of the city at close to USD 55 billion.
The Uprising still stirs emotions in many people seeing as none of the objectives were achieved. While one group argues that what was done was patriotic and correct the other argues that it was an unnecesary loss of life.
But the horror to Warsaw locals was not yet over. Stalin had backstabbed them once with his pact with Hitler, he backstabbed them again with his agreement with Churchill and Roosevelt. The Polish and Warsaw people had not reason to trust him, for he would abuse them a third time, this time on his own accord.
ON THE MAP