“Each citizen has to be killed, we shall take no prisoners. Warsaw shall be erased from the face of the Earth and served as a deterrent for the whole Europe.”
These are the words of Adolf Hitler after he had been told about the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, which began on August 1, 1944. What happened next was best described by Europe’s executioner, Himmler, one of the most notorious war criminals, who summed up the Uprising as, “…the toughest battle we had to fight since the beginning of war.”
The first few days of the Uprising brought mass killings of the inhabitants of Wola, one of Warsaw’s districts. 20,000 people were shot in one day, which at that time was the bloodiest day of World War II. The climax of the battle was the few days between August 5-7, 1944, when between 38,000-65,000 Polish men, women and children were killed.
In total during the fighting, as a result of air raids, shelling, dire living conditions and at hands of the Germans, between 150,000 to 200,000 civilians living in Warsaw were killed.
Two months of heavy fighting brought Warsaw enormous material loss. 25% of the left side of the city was completely destroyed, while 100% of the Old Town was lost. After the capitulation on October 2, 1944 Reichsführer-SS ordered German troops to take all valuables from the city before annihilating it. His order clearly reads, “This city has to be erased from the face of the Earth and serve only as a handling point for Wehrmacht transport. Nothing shall be spread. All buildings shall be tiered down.”
Until today there have been discussions going on in Poland as to whether the Uprising made sense, but these discussions take place between historians and other experts who did not live during the war. Everyone who survived the German occupation says without a hesitation that Poles had enough of life in an occupied country, under the most severe control in Europe. For every German soldier killed, one hundred Poles were shot or hung; for helping or hiding Jews, an entire family faced the death penalty.
During five years of occupation in Warsaw, street executions and roundups were a part of everyday life. Poles were treated as an inferior nation. When, in 1944, the Eastern Front with the Red Army was approaching Warsaw from the East, it seemed like a good opportunity to rise against the German occupiers. It was also clear that Poland couldn’t count on the Allies to be freed. It was the Red Army or nobody. That, on the other hand, meant a big political change and the possibility of losing the integrity of the Polish land and, in consequence, its independence.
Poles wanted to free their capital themselves. The country had the biggest underground state in Europe with its own resistance. The basic form of fighting was sabotage, diversion, intelligence, propaganda and guerrilla warfare.
In May, 1942 an undercover Organization for Special Combat was set up as a part of the Home Army. Its goal was to perform executions on those members of the Nazi police, prison and administration personnel who were notorious for their cruelty, as well as on German spies and high officials. Unfortunately, it was all too little to combat the then-struggling invaders without any help.
At that time Hitler, without thinking about the military consequences of fighting on two fronts, ordered the Germans to end the Uprising by sending to Warsaw the best units of Wehrmacht, SS, police and the Ukrainian nationalists. In total about 50,000 men, including air force, artillery and armored cars were sent to Warsaw.
At that time, Warsaw citizens had only hand guns, no anti-tank weapons, to defend themselves. The latter were replaced with petrol bombs (Molotov cocktails), anti-tank grenades and a few RPGs. Even though the morale and the willingness to fight and win were tremendous, the Uprising lasted for just 63 days of an uneven fight that ended in a fall.
When it was clear that the Warsaw Uprising wouldn’t finish very quickly, and its leaders supported the Allies, Stalin’s army became hostile. Although they were waiting at the gates of city from the end of July, it wasn’t until 14 September when the Red Army and the First Polish Army liberated Praga, situated on the eastern bank, that hadn’t taken part in the upraising.
The Soviet command allowed only smaller sub-units of the First Polish Army to be sent to battle, which in no way changed the fate of the Uprising. The Uprising Headquarters counted on air support from the West for weapon supplies and provisioning. On August 3, the President of the Polish Republic in exile, Wladyslaw Raczkiwicz, asked Churchill about it.
That very same day, the Mediterranean Allied Air Force stationed in Brindisi received a telegram from London ordering an air attack to the Poles fighting Warsaw. In the beginning, the aid provided only air drops in forests near Warsaw. However, the order was broken by Polish airmen from 1586 Special Duty Flight, who, during the night of August 4, flew over Warsaw.
The next day brought a total ban on flights over the city due to heavy losses in the initial missions. It took a lot of intervention from the side of the Polish Government in exile to allow Polish crews from 1586 Special Duty Flight to take part in “voluntary hazardous to Warsaw,” and everybody signed up.
On August 12, British and South African units were also allowed to take part in air-dropping provisions. For this mission, the 205 Group was chosen. It consisted of the 1586 Special Duty Flight, 178 and 148 squadrons of the Royal Air Force and 31 and 34 squadrons of the South African Air Force. The whole operation was more difficult due to the fact that Allied planes couldn’t land on the Soviet airfields on the right bank of the Vistula.
Those missions turned out to be one of the hardest missions in the history of Air Force. The Italian allied air bases in Brindisi were 1,500km from the Polish capital. Flights took, on average, 14 hours and at night, often in difficult weather conditions. The Special Duty Flight lost 11 planes with 59 soldiers during those missions, which constituted 150% of the total numbers.
The other squadrons lost 19 planes. 39 British, 37 South African and 12 American pilots were killed in what constituted 25% of losses. It wasn’t until September 10 that Stalin agreed to allow American and British planes to land in the areas controlled by the Red Army.
Thanks to that decision, on 18 September, the 8th American Air Force organized a mission over Warsaw during which 107 “Flying Fortresses” dropped nearly 1,250 pods with supplies (Operation Frantic 7). In the face of wide criticism though, the mission couldn’t end successfully, of course, or improve the dire situation.
The Warsaw Uprising, although controversial, was inevitable. People en masse had been waiting impatiently to be able to fight in retaliation for five years of brutal occupation, and they fought a lonely fight for 63 days against the overwhelming forces of the German Army. The fight ended on October 3, 1994.
The Warsaw Uprising was one of the most important events in the modern history of Poland, and its consequences were far-reaching and they are still echoing today – the destruction of a significant part of the city, its historical sights, its infrastructure and, above all, the loss of thousands of young, educated people who gave their lives for their country.
Everyone who was in Warsaw on 1 August at 5 pm stopped for a minute, listened to the sirens and thanked the heroes.
Thanks for listening
(Photos Courtesy: Author’s Private Collection)