Monument to the Warsaw Uprising in downtown Warsaw. It is the focal point of pompous celebrations staged there every year on 1 August.



Warsaw Uprising in August - October 1944 was an event in many ways spectacular. It was th greatest battle fought on the Polish territory behind the frontlines. It was the greatest and longest lasting urban uprising during the Second World War in Europe, comparable only to the popular uprisings in the Balkans and Slovakia. That comparison comes out of the scale of engaged forces, materiel, more than two months of duration of intensive combat, as well as above all, persistent and determined course of the fights.

Warsaw Uprising fully focuses the dramatic fates of the Polish nation, against all odds fighting for its freedom and against the genocidal German occupation. Also, beyond underappreciation is its experience in street fights, psychology of urban guerrilla, and population behaviour in extreme situations - all that in the conditions of the battle fought against well-trained, well-equipped, determined, and merciless enemy, which applied all means available to suppress the uprising, including physical liquidation of the civilian populace of the fighting city.

There is however, another side of the story. Warsaw Uprising unfolded on the background of dramatic military operations and political struggle, whose strategic dimensions were about to change the shape of the post-war Europe. Its tragic consequences were huge death toll, exodus of nearly a million of people and total destruction of a large European city - all without an apparent necessity and outcome. Therefore, even nowadays, many years after the fact, pitched polemics unfold around the sense of the Warsaw Uprising, and the problem of political and moral responsibility of the people, who made the decision to stage an armed uprising in Warsaw. Comprehensive documentation of the genesis and the course of the uprising, numerous studies, synthetic essays and monographs, as well as diaries and memoirs of many an authors and participants of the drama build up quite a detailed picture to help making opinions.

Ideas and concepts of an armed uprising against the Germans in the occupied country were born long before August 1944. In fact they had been developed since the very beginning of the occupation and underground armed resistance. They were worked out at the Chief Command of the Union of Armed Struggle, later the Home Army (Armia Krajowa - AK), according to the strategical concepts of the struggle for Poland's independence, drafted by the Polish government in exile and appropriate cells of the General Staff of the Supreme Commander, first in Paris, and later in London.

Yet, those ideas and concepts never foresaw any kind of armed uprising in the capital due to its highly risky nature and incalculable ramifications. This is one of many arguments testifying that the decision concerning the armed uprising in Warsaw was not justified by operational needs, since no such needs had been ever foreseen earlier, but came solely out of political design of the decision-makers. The government in London, its Delegation for Homeland, and the Chief Command of the Home Army had decided to manifest clearly their political stance through an armed action in the capital city of Poland - Warsaw. That decision was their way to respond to the historical developments.

In the summer of 1944, in result of strategic offensive along the entire East front, the Red Army began liberating Polish territories. Along the Red Army fought the 1st Polish Army, and on 21 July it was announced that the Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN) was brought into being in Chelm Lubelski (soon it moved to Lublin). PKWN assumed full political control of all the liberated areas between the Bug and the Vistula. On 1 August a Polish mission with Stanisław Mikołajczyk, the prime-minister of the government in exile (London), arrived in Moscow for political talks. It seems very likely that the uprising in Warsaw was supposed to be an argument in those talks.

The plan of an armed uprising at the time of Germany's military defeat and collapse of its East front had been prepared during the years of occupation, and in the autumn of 1943 acquired the final shape as the operation Burza (Tempest). Although that plan foresaw different options depending on the development of actual situation, in general it dwelt on the experience of the years 1918-1919; it was expected that masses of demoralized German troops would retreat westward in chaos, the Red Army would be too exhausted to mount an efficient pursuit, and the political conditions would be again dictated by the Western Allies. Those assumptions were still considered valid in the summer of 1944, although the experience of the first months of 1944 proved that expectations of prompt collapse of the Third Reich, and automatic decay of the Wehrmacht to the same scale as it happened at the end of the First World War, were vain. The abortive assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944 only confirmed that. The Red Army was not exhausted either; quite contrary - its combat capabilities were steadily growing, and the Soviet Union became the main force of the anti-fascist coalition.

In those political and military conditions official circles of the Western Allies tried to persuade Polish politicians to assume a more realistic programme of dealing with their eastern neighbour. The leaders of the Western democracies, aware of the national interests of the countries they represented, in Polish affairs followed the agreements made in Teheran in November 1943, and accepted the concept of the Polish-Soviet border proposed by Lord George Curzon in 1920. The war was still going on, Germany was still resisting bitterly, and Western democracies had no intention to push towards a conflict with the USSR, especially over foreign interests.

Despite of clear symptoms that showed that the policy of the government in exile was met with mixed response, as early as in November 1943, when the Red Army approached the territories, which in 1921-1939 made a part of Poland, the commander of the Home Army. Gen. Tadeusz Komorowski (Bór) ordered to commence the action Burza (Tempest). Although his order was at variance with the instructions he received from London, he explained his decision as follows:

As can be seen from the order, I have given all commanders and units instructions to emerge into the open after taking part in operations against the retreating Germans. Their task at that moment will be to give evidence of the existence of the Republic of Poland. [Bor-Komorowski T. (1984).]

Furthermore, the commander of the Home Army demanded in his instructions that local commanders, together with representatives of civilian cells of the London authorities, stepped forward before the incoming Soviet troops as legitimate state authorities, and opposed possible incorporation of the Home Army units into the Polish People's Army (under the command of Gen. Zygmunt Berling). When mobilized Home Army units joined the Red Army in the fights for liberation of Volhynia in the winter and spring of 1944, and Vilnius and Lvov in the summer, Soviet commanders spoke with respect and appreciation about their skills and determination. The drama began when local Polish commanders and representatives of the underground civilian administration tried to carry instructions received from London and Warsaw in the operational zone of the Soviet forces. Such acts often ended tragically, as many Home Army commanders were killed or interned.

Yet, in spite of those experiences, operation Burza was to be continued in the west of the Bug in attempt to initiate an all-country uprising. Warsaw, so far excluded from that plan, now became its focal point. And, unlike in case of similar actions in Italy and France, Western Allies' support for such operations in Poland was out of question, since Poland was in the operational zone of the Red Army. Proposals to use the 1st Autonomous Airborne Brigade to reinforce the uprising were rejected, since they were unrealistic, and the British command had different plans to deploy airborne troops. Any larger air operations over Germany and Poland were brushed aside too, and that was explicitly told to the Polish representative at the Combined Allied Staff in Washington, Col.Dipl. Leon Mitkiewicz-Żołłtek.

It is also characteristic that the Polish political and military leadership in London had no uniform opinion about sense, purpose, possibilities, and above all - successful outcome of such an uprising. Even the Supreme Commander, Colonel-General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, was against it. However, the decision to launch the uprising was not his, but belonged solely to the Council of Ministers. And the Council of Ministers had authorized the commander of the Home Army to chose appropriate day and time for uprising in Warsaw. For that he had to consult only the attached delegate for Homeland.

Komorowski's decision was influenced by many factors, rather political than military ones, but above all it was too optimistic evaluation of the political and military situation. Contrary to opinions spread after the war by the members of the Chief Command of the Home Army, that on the last days of July the Wehrmacht had collapsed on the East front in general, and in the sector of Warsaw in particular, the real picture was different:
  1. The wave of panic and uncontrolled retreat was over; by 25 July the Germans recreated and consolidated their defences.
  2. Several armoured divisions were pulled out of Italy and strategic reserve to plug gaps in the menaced sectors of the front.
  3. For immediate counter-attacks the Germans had concentrated strong armoured groupings in the area of Kleszczele and Kuznica (19th Amd.Div.), Mezenin (541st Gren.Div. and 3rd Cav.Bde.), and in the north-eastern approaches of Warsaw, where the fresh II SS Armoured Corps stopped the operational pursuit of the Soviet 2nd Tank Army of Guards.
German forces in and around Warsaw were reinforced as well. There were deployed units of the Airborne Armoured Division Hermann Göring and the 17th Infantry Division. The command of the Home Army also ignored the fact that on 27 July Hitler personally made Lt.-Gen. Reiner Stahel, former commandant of Rome and Vilnius, the commandant of Warsaw with unlimited authority. The Germans sensed that something was brewing in Warsaw. All the day 30 July units of the Army Group Centre reported growing unrest in Warsaw and frequent shootings.

So, the Chief Command of the Home Army overestimated the degree of the German defeat and the speed of the Soviet offensive in the direction of Warsaw. Thus it calculated that insurgent forces would be able to take control of the city and hold it for three days until the arrival of the Soviet troops. The Chief Command of the Home Army ignored several cardinal factors of crucial importance to the success or defeat of the uprising:
  1. German forces concentrated in the Warsaw sector, reinforced and consolidated according to Hitler's order to hold Warsaw, an important communication node and operational base, whatever the cost.
  2. Lack of communication with the Allies, and with the Soviet command in particular, especially so that the uprising had to take place in the operational zone of the Red Army. That was the imperative for any serious consideration of success, and thereto experiences of the operation Tempest clearly called for realistic approach. And the realities were such that they determined the critical, if not negative, stance of the Western Allies towards the uprising.
  3. Realization of the plan of uprising took place in political and military conditions completely different from those assumed originally; even such a detail like the starting hour of the uprising (the W-hour) was changed from morning to afternoon (17:00). Insurgent forces did not achieve full readiness before the W-hour, while on 1 August 1944 the Germans built up security measures in Warsaw.
  4. Means and forces that Warsaw possessed against the means and forces of the Wehrmacht, SS and police.
Analysis of the AK cadres confirms the opinion that they were adequate, and well-prepared, especially on the lower levels of the chain of command. Combat operations had proved that beyond any doubt. Officers of the battalion, company and platoon level, as well as junior officers and NCO's were disciplined and masters of their profession. Their tragic problem was in poor equipment. It is enough to tell that they had one pistol for 33 soldiers, one rifle for 53 soldiers, and one sub-machine gun for 183 soldiers... Situation with heavy arms was even worse: one machine-gun for 500 soldiers and one heavy machine-gun for 4,000 soldiers. There were only enough grenades to give one to each insurgent.

Meanwhile the Germans possessed regular army, SS and police troops armed and equipped according to wartime establishments. The operation group of SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski engaged more than 20,000 troops directly in the fights in the city, apart from the 9th Army, which was supporting them. Gen. Antoni Chruściel (Monter) in July estimated the German forces in the district of Warsaw for 38,000 troops (army, SS and police); at the end of July they were reinforced by the Airborne Armoured Division Hermann Göring, 5th SS Armoured Division Wiking and 73rd Infantry Division.

Despite of such an exact data testifying to the enemy's overwhelming superiority, the Chief Command of the Home Army decided to launch the uprising on the day when the enemy was becoming stronger than a week before. Therefore, tasks and objectives outlined in the plan of uprising could not be realized with the forces remaining at the disposal of the insurgent command.