The Warsaw Uprising, which lasted from 1 August to 5 October 1944, was the largest single operation of any resistance movement in World War II Europe. Yet for reasons of postwar politics, it has not gained the recognition that it deserves. It was organized by Poland's underground Armia Krajowa (AK; Home Army), pitting some 50,000 poorly armed fighters against a similar number of German professional SS and auxiliary troops. It aimed to capture Poland's capital from occupying German forces as the victorious Red Army arrived on the scene from the east, and it was expected to last for a few days. Due to the Red Army's failure to give effective assistance, however, it lasted for nearly ten weeks and ended in the near-total destruction of the city. Some 40,000 soldiers were killed, together with perhaps 180,000 civilians. Furious at the Poles' defiance, Adolf Hitler ordered all survivors deported and the ruins burned, bulldozed, and obliterated. No other Allied capital suffered such a catastrophic fate.
The uprising had been authorized in London by Poland's exiled government, which was a founding member of the Allied Coalition. With help from Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE), the Polish underground had been preparing a major action against the Germans for years but it was inhibited by the Soviet Union, which regarded Poland as part of its theater of operation on the eastern front and which had broken off diplomatic relations with the Polish government over the Katyń Forest massacres. Indeed, unknown to the outside world, the Red Army was still arresting and shooting members of the Polish underground as it advanced toward Warsaw. The Polish premier, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, was caught between Poland's commitment to the fight against Nazi Germany and his fear of a Soviet takeover. After detailed consultations with President Franklin Roosevelt, he decided to pursue a dual policy of attacking the German grip on Warsaw and negotiating with Joseph Stalin in person. His cabinet approved the policy on 25 July 1944. The same day, he issued the order to the Home Army and left London by air for Moscow. That same week, the Red Army reached the Vistula and approached Warsaw's eastern suburbs.
The timing of the uprising was left to the underground leaders, and opinion among them was divided. But the issue was settled on 31 July, when Soviet tanks were sighted entering the eastern-bank suburb of Praga. General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, commander of the AK, with the support of the government delegate, gave the order for battle to commence at 5 the following afternoon. The plan was for Poland's capital to be in Polish hands so that the Red Army could be welcomed by the lawful authorities and the position of the Polish government be strengthened in future negotiations. The moment was well chosen. As is now known, Soviet Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky's instructions were to capture Warsaw on 2 August.
Over six hundred Home Army companies secretly took up positions throughout the city and at the appointed hour emerged to assault the German garrison. The result was a rash of confused battles and skirmishes. In several places, the attackers were mowed down when they tried to rush fortified German positions, but by evening they controlled three-quarters of the city and the German arsenal had been successfully stormed. Polish flags flew over the city center. The main disappointment of the day was the failure to secure the airport, the Vistula bridges, and the main east-west thoroughfare.
Everyone, including the Germans, the Soviets, and the Western Allies, expected the next week to be decisive. Winston Churchill immediately ordered the Royal Air Force to organize an airlift of supplies from Italy. Hitler put countermeasures entirely into the hands of Himmler's SS, which brought in massive reinforcements, including an SS brigade of renegade Russians. Instead of rounding up the insurgents, however, the SS massacred tens of thousands of civilians, while the Wehrmacht launched a powerful, panzer-led counterattack on the Vistula sector, driving Rokossovsky's armies back. In Moscow, the Polish premier found Allied diplomats unhelpful and Stalin noncommittal. Warsaw was locked in a stalemate.
For nine weeks, the Home Army battled on against overwhelming odds, waiting for a political solution. They faced a professional army equipped with tanks, bombers, and heavy artillery, and they fought better than their adversaries. Magnificently patriotic, brilliantly resourceful, and solidly supported by heroic women auxiliaries, they defended every cellar and every street corner, inflicting on Germany losses equal to their own. Eventually, SS General Erich von dem Bach was persuaded that it would be simpler to arrange an honorable capitulation than to crush the insurgents by force.
The political performance of Poland's allies was less impressive. Churchill was infuriated by Stalin's denial of landing rights for British and U.S. airplanes, which he assumed would be able to refuel on Soviet-held territory and which were thereby prevented from delivering more than a fraction of the necessary supplies. But he failed to persuade Roosevelt to join him in the diplomatic intervention he intended in Moscow. The Soviet command rejected Rokossovsky's plan of 8 August to take Warsaw by storm, deciding instead to pour the Red Army's reserves into a Balkan offensive. Stalin denounced the uprising as a "criminal adventure" and took no effective steps to mount a rescue. Washington and London, deeply influenced by pro-Soviet advice, decided that nothing could be done. Yet for the last weeks of the uprising, the Red Army rested on one bank of the Vistula while the SS destroyed the insurgents on the other bank. Between 16 and 25 September, a Polish division under Soviet command made an ill-fated and apparently spontaneous attempt to cross the river; it ended in disaster. After that, when the Red Army command refused to answer radio signals let alone to help, the insurgents capitulated.
Jewish soldiers fought in the Home Army, and also in the tiny Communist People's Army. The AK's medical services were run largely by Jewish personnel. One of most daring actions of the Parasol Battalion, which had captured some Panzer tanks, was to storm the SS Gęsiówka camp in the former ghetto and release its Jewish prisoners.
The terms of capitulation, which were put into effect between 3 and 5 October, recognized the Home Army fighters as legal combatants. Soldiers were to be sent to regular Wehrmacht prisoner-of-war camps, but all civilians were to be evacuated. Some were released, some were sent to Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Mauthausen, and most were sent to work as forced laborers in Germany. The Soviet Army did not enter the ruins of the city until 17 January 1945.
At war's end, the Soviet government put the leaders of Poland's resistance movement on trial on false charges of collaboration. Unlike the SS, the Soviet Union's People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) had never recognized underground fighters as legal combatants and sent thousands to their deaths in the gulag. The postwar communist authorities in Poland acted similarly. They held that the uprising had been a wild political adventure conducted by "fascist" émigrés. Heroes of the uprising were denied all civil rights, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. No monument was permitted in Warsaw until 1989.
From the military point of view, the Warsaw Uprising was a great achievement, a classic example of urban guerrilla warfare in which well-motivated fighters had held their own against stronger adversaries. Politically, however, it was an unmitigated disaster, if not a scandal. The democratic allies of the Western powers were bled to death with barely a protest from the champions of democracy. Historically, it demonstrates how limited Western influence was in Eastern Europe. Although Nazism was destroyed, another brand of totalitarianism was able to take control of half the continent.
Hanson, Joanna K. M. The Civilian Population and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. New York, 1982.
Zawodny, J. K. Nothing but Honour: The Story of the Warsaw Uprising, 1994. Stanford, Calif., 1978.