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Western Front1st August 1944

Warsaw uprising begins

Freedom fighters in Warsaw longed for the Red Army to cross the river Vistula
Freedom fighters in Warsaw longed for the Red Army to cross the river Vistula

On 1 August 1944, Zbigniew Wolak and his comrades in the Polish Home Army burst out onto the streets of Nazi occupied Warsaw. ‘Just imagine,’ he says, ‘after four years of occupation we come out on this fragrant August day full of people, the women with children, people going back home from work, and all of a sudden there’s 64 armed insurgents in the street. In a moment they would start dying.’

It was the start of the Warsaw uprising; an attempt by tens of thousands of Polish resistance fighters to liberate their capital from the Germans. They knew, of course, that they could never hold Warsaw on their own against the German army, but they hoped that the advancing soldiers of the Red Army would act swiftly to relieve them once they had started their own offensive.

The Soviets had been broadcasting encouraging messages to the people of Warsaw just before the uprising was launched. On 29 July, for example, Radio Moscow said that ‘the hour of action has already arrived’. But, contrary to later myth, there was no direct and specific call for the inhabitants to rise up at a particular time and moment. Nor, crucially, was there any liaison between the Polish government-in-exile based in London (to whom the Polish Home Army ultimately answered) and the Soviet government over the timing of this major act of resistance.

However, it wasn’t surprising that the Polish government-in-exile didn’t contact Moscow. Stalin had broken off relations with them in the spring of 1943 in the wake of the discovery by the Germans of murdered Polish officers in the forest of Katyn. He had been angry that the Poles hadn’t accepted his explanation that the Germans had committed the murders (in actual fact Stalin and his secret police had been responsible). And as the Red Army entered Poland, in the wake of the successful destruction of Germany Army Group Centre in Operation Bagration, the Soviet NKVD had been disarming members of the Home Army and, in some cases, arresting the officers.

So in the summer of 1944 the leadership of the Polish Home Army felt in an invidious position. Should they wait in Warsaw – passive – for the Red Army to arrive, or should they rise up against the Germans and then present a liberated Warsaw to Stalin’s troops? Ultimately, as events show, they decided to start a fight with the Germans with the Red Army near, but with no promise from Stalin of help. It turned out to be a decision which cost the lives of 220,000 Poles (200,000 of them civilians).

On 30 July, 48 hours before the uprising began, the Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, arrived in Moscow for talks with the Soviet government. He knew the uprising was about to be launched – he himself had authorized the action four days before. Now, he expected to be able to discuss Polish plans with Stalin almost immediately, but the Polish delegation was treated with near contempt by the Soviet authorities. They had to wait five days before Stalin deigned to see them.

Stalin had agreed to see the Poles primarily because Churchill had asked him to. But that didn’t mean that Stalin felt obliged to help the Poles, only that he had to talk to them. And when Stalin did finally talk to them, on the evening of 3 August, he demonstrated his utter disdain for these members of the Polish government-in-exile. The meeting wasn’t helped by Mikolajczyk’s over confident attitude. He tried to talk to Stalin as an equal – wanting the Soviets, for example, to liaise with the Polish government-in-exile about the administration of Soviet occupied parts of Poland. Stalin pointed out that the Soviets had already recognised their own Polish provisional government – known as the ‘Lublin’ Poles, these were a group of unrepresentative pro-Soviet politicians. Stalin asked Mikolajczyk if this delegation from the Polish government-in-exile (the ‘London Poles’), ‘possibly realize the importance of this fact?’i

It was a prime example of Stalin’s brutal understanding of the nature of power. The harsh reality was that the Polish government-in-exile could not make him help the Poles fighting inside Warsaw if he didn’t want to. And he didn’t want to because, as Professor Robert Service puts it, ‘Stalin took the view on the Warsaw uprising that it was being conducted by the worst sort of Poles. They were patriots, they didn’t like the Russians, they didn’t want Communism, so if he rushed the Red Army - which was exhausted, battered and needed a rest - across the River Vistula to Warsaw what would he be doing? He would be liberating Poles who were going to give him trouble. So he cynically took the view that it would be very useful for him to enable the Germans to exterminate what Stalin thought was the worst sort of Polish people.’

And exterminating the Poles inside Warsaw was just what the Germans were trying to do in the summer and autumn of 1944. German forces – including the notorious SS ‘Dirlewanger Brigade’ – perpetrated a series of the most appalling atrocities. On 2 September, for example, Danuta Galkowa, a member of the Polish Home Army, witnessed German auxiliary forces entering a makeshift hospital in the centre of Warsaw and raping and murdering many of the people who were receiving treatment. She herself only escaped because she was able to run from the makeshift hospital when the German auxiliaries set fire to it. In the courtyard outside she saw the ‘terrible sight of executed people – girls without gowns who had been raped and murdered.’

Meantime Churchill was keen that the freedom fighters inside Warsaw should receive help, and the RAF mounted lengthy missions from their bases in Italy to try and drop supplies for them. But it was a dangerous and tortuous mission that stood little chance of keeping the Home Army supplied indefinitely – especially since Stalin refused these planes permission to land on Soviet occupied territory to refuel.

Then, in September 1944, there were two curious actions by the Soviets. First, for a two week period, Soviet planes did drop supplies on Warsaw, but since these supplies were dropped without parachute, most were destroyed on landing; and second, on 14 September, Polish soldiers from the 1st Polish Army who were serving as part of the Red Army crossed the Vistula in the outskirts of Warsaw. But without the support of other Red Army units these Polish soldiers could not hold their position and by the end of September those who still survived retreated back across the river.

The most likely explanation for these actions is that Stalin simply wanted to demonstrate to the Western Allies that he was offering help to the Home Army – whilst not really offering proper help at all. In any event, this limited Soviet assistance came to nothing, and on 2 October General Tadeusz Bor, commander of the Polish Home Army, signed an instrument of surrender with the Germans. The uprising was over.

And Polish bitterness at the lack of effective help from the Red Army lasts to this very day.


i Note on a conversation between M. Mikolajczyk and Marshal Stalin, Moscow, 3 August 1944, GSHI PRM.Z.4/10-12, Documents on Polish-Soviet Relations 1939-1945, vol. 2 1943-1945, General Sikorski Historical Institute