On August 1, 1944, the Polish resistance launched an uprising to free Warsaw from German occupation in the largest underground military operation of World War II.
By the summer of 1944, Poland had been occupied by Nazi Germany for almost five years during which the principal Polish authority in the country was the Polish Underground State, a network of organizations loyal to the Polish government-in-exile based in London.
From the very beginning of its existence, the Polish Underground State, and its armed wing, the Home Army, had been planning a national uprising against the German forces. But by 1943, it had become apparent that the allied invasion of Europe would not come in time, and that in all probability, the Red Army would be the ones to reach the pre-war borders of Poland first.
While the Home Army and the Soviets were fighting a common enemy, the already bitter relations between the two historic foes took a turn for the worse in April 1943 when the Germans announced the discovery of mass graves of Polish officers in the Katyń forest, causing a diplomatic rift between the Polish government-in-exile and the Soviet Union, which denied responsibility.
Stalin broke off Polish–Soviet relations, and the Polish government-in-exile issued instructions to the effect that, if diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union were not resumed before the Soviet entry into Poland, Home Army forces were to remain underground pending further instructions.
In the summer of 1944, the Soviets launched Operation Bagration into Belarus and forced German troops from Eastern Poland. Uniting politicians of various communist and leftist parties, Stalin established the Polish Committee of National Liberation in Lublin as the executive governing authority in Poland, opposed to the London-based government-in-exile.
The Warsaw Uprising
As the Red Army approached Warsaw, the Home Army, hoping to liberate the Polish capital before the Soviet-backed Committee of National Liberation could assume control, approved a plan for an uprising in Warsaw, intended both as a political manifestation of Polish sovereignty and as a direct operation against the German occupiers.
On July 29, the first Soviet armoured units reached the outskirts of Warsaw and two days later, the 50,000-strong Warsaw corps, commanded by General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, attacked the relatively weak German force garrisoned in Warsaw. Within three days, the Home Army had liberated most of the Polish capital on the left bank of the Vistula.
Early in the Warsaw Uprising, the “Zośka” battalion of the Home Army’s Radosław Group, led by Ryszard Białous and Eugeniusz Stasiecki, liberated the Gęsiówka concentration camp, which had been built on the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto. Rescued from certain death, the 348 Jewish prisoners joined the ranks of the insurgents. Most of them were killed in the uprising.
But the advancing Red Army temporarily halted combat operations, enabling the Germans to regroup and send in reinforcements and forcing the Poles into a defensive position. This led to allegations that Stalin tactically halted his forces to allow the Polish Committee of National Liberation, rather than the Polish government-in-exile, to gain control of Poland.
The Wola massacre
Following direct orders from Heinrich Himmler, German battle groups started their advance toward the city centre from the western outskirts of the Wola district, systematically murdering tens of thousands of Polish civilians along with captured resistance fighters. No distinction was made between insurrectionists and civilians as Himmler’s orders explicitly stated that Warsaw was to be destroyed and that the civilian population was to be exterminated.
The majority of the atrocities were committed by Bronislav Kaminski’s Russian militia and Oskar Dirlewanger’s infamous Black Hunters, an SS penal unit consisting of convicted foreign criminals. In Wola, Kaminski’s and Dirlewanger’s men were given a free hand to rape, loot, torture and butcher, indiscriminately murdering civilian men, women and children, including all hospital patients and staff and a daycare-full of young children. Hundreds of women were raped.
The SS also formed groups of men from the Wola district into the so-called Verbrennungskommando (“burning detachment”), who were forced to hide evidence of the massacre by burning the victims’ bodies and homes. Most of the men put to work were later executed. After a week, the order was given to stop the indiscriminate killing and to deport all captured civilians from the city.
The Germans hoped that the atrocities would crush the insurrectionists’ will to fight and put the uprising to a swift end, but the ruthless violence only stiffened Polish resistance, and it took another two months of heavy fighting for the Germans to regain control of the city.
The end of the Warsaw Uprising
After pleading with Stalin and Roosevelt to help Britain’s Polish allies, to no avail, Winston Churchill sent over 200 low-level supply drops without Soviet air clearance, in an operation known as the Warsaw Airlift. But without Allied support, the Home Army split into small, disconnected units and the the Germans took back the city district by district, killing swaths of civilians in reprisal until the Polish resistance was forced to surrender on October 2.
Bór-Komorowski and his forces were taken prisoner and the Germans destroyed the city in retaliation. The demolition squads used flamethrowers and explosives to methodically destroy house after house. By January 1945, 85% of the buildings were destroyed. Although the exact number of casualties is unknown, it is estimated that about 150,000 Polish civilians died, mostly from mass executions.
The uprising’s failure allowed the pro-Soviet Polish administration to gain control of Poland. In December 1944, the Polish Committee of National Liberation was reconstituted as the Provisional Government of the Republic of Poland, which was formally recognized by the Soviet Union, while the government-in-exile retained for the time being the recognition of the United States and the United Kingdom.
Journalist Arthur Koestler called the Soviet attitude “one of the major infamies of this war.”
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.