Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 1944: the last resistance fighters of the Warsaw Uprising surrendered

On October 2, 1944, after two months of heavy fighting during which the Polish capital was almost entirely destroyed, the last Polish resistance fighters of the Warsaw Uprising were forced to surrender.

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.

But after forcing the German troops from Eastern Poland. Stalin established the Polish Committee of National Liberation in Lublin as the executive governing authority in Poland, opposed to the London-based government.

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 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 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 new On this Day series.