- James Houser
October 2, 1944 - The Warsaw Uprising
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
October 2, 1944. Shooting finally ceases in the smoking ruins of Warsaw. After 63 days of bitter fighting, massacres, and terror, the Nazis have brutally suppressed the largest military effort undertaken by any resistance movement of World War II. The Warsaw Uprising was one of the bravest and most desperate acts of the 20th Century, and ultimately one of the most tragic. The Nazis did not know the meaning of the word “mercy.”
Warsaw had been occupied by Nazi Germany ever since the initial invasion of 1939 that had kicked off World War II. Ever since then, the Polish people had been the victims of an unapologetically cruel and neglectful campaign of terror and cultural genocide. Within months of the German invasion, the new rulers undertook Operation Tannenberg, an anti-Polish extermination plan that targeted intelligentsia, community leaders and Catholic clergy.
Many Poles were deported into Germany to work as forced labor, while the population as a whole suffered from disease and hunger. This, of course, paled in comparison to the fate of Poland’s Jews. By 1944, almost all of Poland’s three million Jews had died in camps like Treblinka and Belzec, while somewhere around 70,000 still remained in hiding, sheltered by the Poles.
The Poles had fought in vain to prevent the invasion of their country, and they continued to fight even under continuous German occupation. Those Poles who had escaped the invasion for whatever reason often fought for the Allies, and I’ve discussed the Polish Army in Exile in previous posts (such as the tale of Wojtek the Soldier Bear.) Many Poles, however, stayed in their home country whether by choice or not. For them, resistance meant alignment with the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa), the main resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Poland.
The Armia Krajowa was led by General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski, and still held the political alignment of old Poland: a liberal, capitalist society closer to the Western Powers. The Home Army had not forgotten that the Soviet Union helped the Germans in 1939, and they had been outraged to learn of the Katyn Massacre. When Stalin’s troops had invaded Poland in 1939, they had taken large numbers of prisoners from the Polish Army, and at Katyn in 1940 they had executed 22,000 Polish officers and civilian administrators and buried them in shallow graves. When the Germans found the site and (cynically) revealed the crime to the world, Stalin cut off all relations with the Home Army, insisting that this was mere German propaganda. The Home Army was thus on bad terms with the Soviet Union as 1944 dawned, and for reasons that can mostly be blamed on the Soviets.
This became a problem for Bor-Komorowski’s Home Army in mid-1944, when it became apparent that Poland would not be liberated by the Western Allies but by the Soviets. The massive Russian victories in Ukraine and Belorussia had torn huge holes in the German lines, and the front line was slowly being pushed west in the direction of Poland. This put the Home Army on edge. On July 13, 1944, the Red Army crossed the Polish border, and the Home Army faced a difficult decision: either allow the Soviets to “free” them, or take advantage of the German weakness and launch an uprising of their own.
The Germans were not the only ones they had to fear, after all. As Soviet troops advanced into Poland, they were happy to cooperate with resistance movements – until the fighting was over. Then they usually executed the officers and conscripted the lower ranks into the Red Army. It was abundantly clear that Stalin had no intention of letting the Poles rule their country in freedom after the war, and he was already clearing out any opposing power structure that could challenge a future Communist Poland. This didn’t stop the approaching Soviet forces from sending out radio broadcasts urging the Poles to rise up and overthrow the Nazis.
The Polish leaders agonized over their decision, even as the Soviets drew closer. Bor-Komorowski had drawn up a plan called “Operation Tempest” to be put into effect when the Soviets got close enough, but there were still substantial German forces in Warsaw. It was meant to be the linchpin of their new battle line, so they could not afford to lose it. But by July 29, 1944, the inhabitants of the city already heard the sound of Soviet guns to the east. The Polish leaders could no longer wait to decide. Should they be “liberated” – or liberate themselves?
What the Poles did not know – and what Western historians would not find out for a long time in truth – was that the sound of gunfire that compelled the Poles to act was actually deceptive. To the east of Warsaw, the Germans were fighting a desperate battle to stop the Soviet juggernaut, and the man orchestrating this last-ditch effort was our old friend, the “Fuhrer’s fireman” Walter Model. (Model was the man who would crush Operation Market-Garden about two months later.) Model had somehow juggled enough panzer divisions to drive back the Soviet spearheads just miles from Warsaw, and by the first days of August he had crushed a major Soviet army and brought the rest to a halt.
Model had saved the Eastern Front – for now – and in so doing had helped to doom the Warsaw Uprising. Without this knowledge, though, the Polish leaders had decided on July 31 that their moment had come. It was time to rise up, mobilize, and take back Warsaw before the Soviets could enter the city. At 17:00 on August 1, 1944, they would launch their attack.
The streets of Warsaw erupted at the designated time, as between 20,000 and 50,000 members of the Home Army went on the attack. Due to the scarcity of resources, only about 3,000 firearms were in their possession, and one of the chief targets of the initial attack was the German arsenal. Once this had been broken into and the arms distributed, the fighting quickly spread across the city. Soon the main post office, the power station, and the City Center and Old Town were in Polish hands. The German garrison of Warsaw numbered about 11,000 men since most of the men with any fighting ability were at the frontlines holding back the Soviets.
The initial Polish attack, which went on for several days, was crucial in establishing the battle lines for the rest of the fight. The Poles were mostly resistance fighters drawn from civilian life, with minimal military training and no uniform except red-and-white armbands symbolizing the Polish flag. They had few heavy weapons and a shaky command structure. Yet they fought fiercely, with the full knowledge that they were fighting both for their country and their own survival. By August 4, the majority of the city was in Polish hands, but the Germans still held several strongpoints – including all the airfields and the critical east bank suburb of Praga, which was supposed to provide the linkup with the incoming Soviet forces.
The Soviets, of course, were not coming. While they had already been halted in front of the city by the German counterattack, Stalin was not in a hurry to help the Warsaw Uprising – after all, they were in direct opposition to his future plans for Poland. There is to this day a long historical debate on whether Stalin deliberately halted the Red Army outside of Warsaw. No one smart ever bet on Stalin’s empathy, but at the same time the Red Army units in eastern Poland HAD been fighting for three months and were at the limits of endurance. This did not stop one Soviet commander from filtering in about 5,000 armed ethnic Poles from Red Army ranks into the city, and some of the generals and marshals shipped in weapons and supplies on the down-low. But Stalin and the Soviet Union made no real effort to assist the Warsaw Uprising when their support would have made all the difference. Whether it was outright malevolence or simple neglect, Stalin left the heroes in Warsaw to die.
The Polish Home Army, which had counted on Soviet tanks being in the city by August 2 or 3, soon realized that no help was coming. By August 4, they had reached their maximum level of control over the city – but the Germans were recovering fast. Reinforcements were being shipped in, and SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski was placed in immediate command of the forces being assembled to counter the uprising. On August 5 he launched his first major attack, and the Home Army began to feel the true weight of the Wehrmacht.
The Germans, indeed, were planning to crush the uprising with the kind of indiscriminate cruelty that only they could inflict. With all the regular combat units EXTREMELY busy either trying to stop the Allies in the west or the Soviets in the east, the Nazis had to rely on some of their bottom-rank units to suppress the Warsaw Uprising. Hitler, predictably furious at the Poles’ temerity, placed none other than Heinrich Himmler – head of the SS - in charge of efforts to suppress the Uprising. Himmler reported “My Fuhrer, the timing is unfortunate, but from a historical perspective what the Poles are doing is a blessing. Warsaw will be extinguished. After this the Polish problem will no longer be a great historical problem for our children…”
Himmler’s orders to Bach-Zelewski’s troops were in line with his statement to Hitler. Special SS, Police, and Wehrmacht detachments fanned out behind the advance units. They went house to house and massacred anyone they found, regardless of age or gender or actual participation in the Uprising. The German suppression of the Warsaw Uprising had turned into an ethnic cleansing of Warsaw itself, as these death squads roamed the streets of the city.
The main perpetrator of most of these acts was an SS Penal unit known as the Dirlewanger Brigade. I rarely use the term “evil” in these posts, but it fits. Dirlewanger was a mentally unstable alcoholic and sexual sadist. He had been imprisoned for the rape of a teenager during the early years of Hitler’s rise to power, but Himmler’s intercession had gained him a pardon and assignment to the SS. He was soon promoted to the rank of Colonel and given license to raise a unit of former criminals who would seek “redemption” for their crimes by serving the Fatherland. Dirlewanger’s Brigade consisted of mental asylum patients, convicted criminals, former concentration camp inmates and Soviet POWs.
Dirlewanger’s later atrocities spanned all of Eastern Europe, characterized by drug and alcohol abuse, looting, rape, murder, and torture. His brigade killed at least 30,000 Belorussian civilians in 1942, for which he was awarded the German Cross in Gold. While doing occupation duty in central Poland, his forces terrorized the Lublin ghetto, and often kidnapped young Jewish women to inject them with strychnine and watch them convulse to death while he and his friends sat drinking. Dirlewanger was the worst of the worst, easily top ten of the most repulsive men to ever exist – and the Nazi system not only encouraged his behavior but promoted him. Now it turned him loose on Warsaw.
Pitched battles raged throughout Warsaw, as the Home Army converted the whole city into a battlefield. They freed some of the remaining Jews in a local concentration camp, and the surviving Jews of Warsaw took up arms to join them. The German advance used tanks with local Polish civilians tied to the front as human shields, but even so the initial attacks foundered on the barricades and obstacles that the Home Army had built. The bloody stalemate was compared by Himmler to Stalingrad. Faced with tanks, heavy artillery, and airstrikes, the outnumbered Poles were reduced to the tunnels and sewers for movement during the day. The Germans were totally dismissive of the laws of war, bombing clearly marked hospitals. If Dirlewanger’s men got their hands on a hospital…well.
The Warsaw Uprising was one of the fiercest urban battles of the 20th Century. A vastly under-equipped, outnumbered, untrained civilian population resisted one of the most legendary military machines of World War II with everything it had. The sacrifice on the part of Warsaw’s residents was enormous and catastrophic. Outside of German massacres, the million inhabitants of Warsaw itself suffered greatly from the bombing and shelling as well as the crossfire. Food and potable water were soon seriously scarce, and the main pumping station was in German hands. Bor-Komorowski even had the population digging public wells in their backyards.
Nevertheless, most of the population assisted, if not outright joined the fighters. Polish Boy and Girl Scouts served as couriers, running messages to different units at great risk to their lives. Teenage girls and boys joined the fight, and due to the shortage of weapons many of them were armed only with pistols or even knives. The Poles of Warsaw did their best to restore normal life to their city during the siege. Cultural life, so long suppressed by the Nazis, sprang up almost immediately, with theaters opening up for performances and newspapers being published. It was as if the citizens knew were seizing the last chance they would have to be Polish again before the Nazis and then the Soviets dropped the curtain of oppression back on them for once again. For these few days, in the bombed-out bloody ruins of their capital, they were free.
The Dirlewanger Brigade continued its reign of terror in the rear areas. The SS rejects drank, raped, and murdered their way through the streets, lighting hospitals on fire with flamethrowers and whipping the captured nurses. Dirlewanger’s unit utterly dissolved when it ran into actual fighting, with his demonic recruits finding helpless women and wounded fighters as much more pleasing sport. The performance of the brigade was not just sickening, but ineffective and actually harmful since the atrocities only stiffened Polish resistance. Bach-Zelewski eventually had to remove Dirlewanger from the frontlines since he was more of a hindrance than a help.
At this point, in early September, the Germans began taking prisoners and offering terms of surrender rather than their previous murderous behavior – not out of mercy but out of desperation. The Western Allies had woken up to the Uprising, and Churchill in particular was going out of his way to try and drop weapons and supplies to the beleaguered Poles. Though Stalin emphatically refused to assist the effort, a trickle of supply was making it into the city. The Germans realized that if they did not lance this boil before the Soviets attacked again, it would be a critical problem for their defense of the Reich’s eastern borders.
By late September, the Poles were gradually being pushed back, and despite all their effort Bor-Komorowski knew the cause was fruitless. The Soviets were not coming. The Allies could not save them. The Warsaw Uprising had failed, and the most he could do for his people was to secure good terms. Thanks to the fight that the Home Army had put up in the shell of their country, Bach-Zelewski was prepared to offer lenient terms to get the Poles to capitulate. On October 2, 1944, all fighting finally ceased in the ruins of Warsaw. The Home Army soldiers would be treated as POWs in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and the civilian population would be treated humanely.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the Germans respected these terms – to a point. The Home Army men mostly survived captivity, and the civilians were at first spared. But they were not to remain in Warsaw. The Germans deported every Polish civilian from the city, with over 500,000 being expelled and sent to various concentration or labor camps, or even just forced into the countryside. With the civilians gone, Himmler gave the orders to completely destroy the remnants of the Polish capital. Landmarks, historical buildings, archives, libraries, and monuments were deliberately targeted. It was the Nazi intention to wipe Warsaw from the map.
By January 1945, when the Soviets finally did take Warsaw, it was a ghost town, a shell. 85% of the buildings had been destroyed in the course of World War II – of these, 60% had occurred during or immediately after the Warsaw Uprising. The cultural heritage of Warsaw had been utterly obliterated by Himmler’s SS men – in addition to the 250,000 civilians and 20,000 resistance fighters who had died in the siege of the city. The Germans lost around 20,000 men.
The Warsaw Uprising’s memory was suppressed by the new Communist government of Poland, but after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 it became a prominent symbol of Polish patriotism. The Home Army had made a valiant but doomed stand, a last attempt to liberate their nation in the face of two conquering authoritarian regimes. Today August 1 is a celebrated anniversary in Poland, and merely suggesting that the Uprising was useless has caused a firestorm of controversy as recently as this decade. The Poles are committed to their vision of their last great stand against Nazi Germany – and they deserve to be. For everything the Poles have suffered in the last 100 years, they deserve a point of light in that sea of darkness. Warsaw did not go gentle into that dark night.
As a postscript, Oskar Dirlewanger was captured by French troops in southern Germany on June 1, 1945. Originally in a civilian disguise, he was identified by a former Jewish prisoner of his. Once he was identified, Dirlewanger “mysteriously” died in a prison cell on June 7.
Pure accident, of course. No one asked too many questions.