A Failed Crusade
|Some doomed Polish resistance fighters: Jerzy Tomaszewski - Boy Soldiers Tadeusz Rajszczak ("Maszynka") (wearing the helmet) and two other young soldiers from Batallion Miotła, 2 September 1944.|
The year 1944 was turning out very poorly for Adolf Hitler. The Allies had invaded France from two directions, the Soviets had blasted Army Group Center out of Belorussia, and his U-Boat and V-weapon campaigns were very slow off the mark - though showing faint signs of long-term promise. There were many things going wrong that he couldn't fix.
|A V-2 rocket. The Poles gave the British valuable information about the German secret weapons throughout the war. They also formed some of the best RAF squadrons during the Battle of Britain.|
Some irritations, though, could be handled quite to his ruthless satisfaction. Hitler, for instance, delighted in watching film of the July 20 conspirators swinging from piano wire after quick show trials. He was all-too-happy to rescue and prop up Mussolini in what remained of his Italian possessions despite the fact that Il Duce had virtually no popular support left. Il Duce, too, settled some scores, such as liquidating his son-in-law, Count Ciano.
|Sturmpanzers, or "Brummbar," were nearby during the Warsaw uprising and were used to put down the uprising. These little guys had 5.9 inch (15 cm) guns. Those are big guns! The shells weighed 84 lbs with an 18 lb charge!|
Another solvable problem was the Poles in Warsaw. Warsaw had been on of Hitler's early major conquests, and he felt no love for the Polish people. The Germans had been terrorizing the Poles for five long years and indiscriminately hunting down anyone and anything there that they wanted gone
The Polish people had watched with mounting eagerness as the Soviets had taken Minsk during the hot 1944 summer and driven west at breakneck speed. The Germans were reeling, and within a month the Soviets had almost reached the Vistula, which through Warsaw with much of the old city on the west bank. While the Germans had removed the remaining Jews from their Ghetto in spring 1943, the Polish inhabitants themselves - the non-Jewish ones - remained and had hated the Germans ever since the initial occupation in September 1939.
|Sniper of the SS division "Dirlewanger." Warsaw 1944.|
They had been helping the Allies throughout the war via various underground communications - the Allies learned almost everything they knew about the V-1 and the V-2 from the Polish underground - but they remained subject to brutal German occupation. They also wanted to participate themselves in kicking the Germans out as fast as possible.
|Powstanie warszawskie patrol during the uprising|
The Polish government in exile was beating the drum for Soviet recognition of their legitimacy, and their demands grew louder the closer the Soviets got to Warsaw. The Soviets, though, had their own satellite (meaning Moscow-controlled) government in mind (the 'Lublin Committee'), and were in the midst of negotiations that summer with the London government about who would rule Poland after the war.
|Warsaw, Poland, 1943, A ghetto street.|
The Polish underground forces under London control were inconvenient to the Soviets' post-liberation objectives to say the least. To help establish their own legitimacy, the emigres in London instituted Operation Tempest, partisan occupation of Warsaw.
|This was taken by the German photographer Willi George in the summer of 1941, one of his un-authorized series of photographs showing life in the Ghetto..|
The main objective was to use their contacts with the underground forces in the German-occupied city to drive the invaders out right before the Soviets crossed the river. The idea was not particularly novel, as the same thing was about to take place in Paris - with much better results for the insurgents.
|Women were in it just as much as the men. Warsaw, September 1944.|
The partisans' theory apparently was that possession is 9/10 of the law, and having their own forces take possession before the Soviets arrived would be of immeasurable value in who would wind up controlling Poland after the war (which everyone saw coming before Christmas).
|A girl in the ghetto.|
A similar move was afoot in Paris for later that month. Everyone, seeing the Allies pushing the Wehrmacht back so quickly both in the east and west, figured the Nazis were through.
|Stefan Tomaszewski, 11-years old Polish volunteer soldier during the Warsaw Uprising, August 1944, Warsaw, Poland|
So, on August 1, 1944, the London government gave the signal to the Polish underground to revolt. This was a signal not just from the Poles in London, but also from Moscow radio, so there was all sorts of underlying motives of a mysterious and perhaps sinister nature.
|Anna Zakrzewska was a courier/medical orderly in the Polish underground. Her codename was Hanka Biała (White Hannah). Following training in June/July 1944 in the Wyszkowa forest, she joined the uprising. Anna, 18, perished.|
The Germans were stretched to the limit fighting the Soviets just on the other side of the river in the suburbs, so the Poles quickly took possession of the city center on the west bank. With the Germans so weak, the Poles were confident that the Germans would continue retreating past Warsaw and that the partisans would then be in position to greet the Soviets as they pursued the fleeing Nazis.
The Soviets troops, though, were tired. They had blasted hundred of miles in one huge leap. While the Germans hadn't offered much resistance, it took a lot of troops to re-occupy their own territory and guard the hundreds of thousands of German POWs. Tank treads always need replacing after driving hundreds of miles or less, and troops who have walked hundreds of miles are loathe to commit themselves to further immediate action. Petrol, food, ammunition, roads, railways - all were in short supply or needed repair by August 1944. The Germans also almost ritualistically throughout the war retreated to large rivers and then held there. The Vistula was just such a river, and one had only to glance at the map to see that the Germans would make a stand there.
The Soviets reached the river, but then faced some determined German counterattacks on the east bank. The Poles in Warsaw began to see more and more German troops appear in and around the city who were there to form the usual German river defense line. The Nazis did not just have police-type weapons such as pistols and rifles, but actual combat units such as mobile artillery and tanks.
All those troops were handy for the suppression of the Warsaw uprising, which the Germans saw as more of a nuisance to their defense of the river than an actual military threat. The German troops brought in included some of the most notoriously brutal punishment troops in the world. These included the brutal (even for Nazi Germany) Oskar Dirlewanger Attack Group and the Kaminski Brigade.
|Dirlewanger troops in action. These types of photos, which caused them to be identifiable, led them to don masks later (Schremmer, Federal Archive).|
These were not ordinary Wehrmacht troops, but criminals released from German prisons, Russian turncoats who knew only death awaited them after German defeat, and the like. The "soldiers" had absolutely no scruples or compunction about any rules of war - just the types of minions that Adolf Hitler liked. Dirlewanger himself, for instance, was so universally hated that he was beaten to death by his guards after the war, and Kaminski's brigade was so lawless that Bronislav Kaminski was shot for their crimes by the Gestapo - his own side! They were too out-there in terms of brutality even for the Nazis! For these guys, it was personal.
The uprising under the command of General Count Tadeusz Komorowski (Bor-Komorowski was a code name for him and is what most people remember) went well for a few days. Even at the beginning, though, the few Germans in the city put up fierce resistance, which was not unusual for German cities behind the lines attacked by surprise. The German plan was to separate the area controlled by the rebels from the Vistula, which even if the Soviets stood directly on the other side of the river (which they didn't yet) would mean the resistance would be completely isolated with no hope of supply (very little was likely anyway). This was accomplished quickly, though some limited reinforcements did arrive for the Poles from across the river during August.
|Surrender of the rebels, 5 October 1944.|
After that, the Germans simply tightened the noose. According to SS boss Heinrich Himmler, the street fighting inside Warsaw was "the fiercest of our battles since the start of the war," but that seems a little much, a bit of Nazi Nietzschean rhetorical overkill. The Poles included some combat troops, but it was also composed of whoever was around - boys and women. The Soviets regrouped in the East and took the east bank of the Vistula by mid-September, but actually crossing over was a bridge too far at that point. This did, though, give the Germans the motivation to wipe the Poles out quickly before the Soviets could assemble the forces to mount a river crossing and link up with the resistance fighters.
|"Ziu" German 600mm caliber mortar of type "Karl" used for bombing of Warsaw Old Town from Sowiński Park in Wola district. Warsaw Uprising, 1944-08-18 - 1944-09-21 (Leher, Federal Archive).|
Food and ammunition ran short for the Poles. The Allies wanted to send bombers on shuttle missions to supply the rebels with airdrops, and Warsaw was easy to find due to the huge fires burning there. However, the Soviets at first - when it counted - refused to grant permission for the shuttle flights, greatly limiting the effectiveness of Allied bombers who thus had to carry more fuel and less food to make round trips to and from England. Also, many Allied bombers were lost because they had to fly all the way over Germany and back to reach Warsaw - which means that many American and British airmen lost their lives unnecessarily. In addition, the western bombers were easy targets for German air raids at the eastern terminus of Poltava, an airfield that the Luftwaffe knew all about; and many Allied bombers were destroyed on the ground there due to indifferent Soviet air defense. Eventually, the Soviets relented in mid-September and became a bit more accomodating to the shuttle flights, but by then it was too late - the Polish-controlled areas in Warsaw had become too small for even pinpoint airdrops, and the Germans wound up with many of the dropped supplies. The Soviets, though, were careful to keep encouraging the Poles to fight to the death to the end.
|German Soldiers Hide Near Opera House Warsaw 1944, street car in the distance. The entire city became a battleground.|
By October it was all over. The capitulation order was given on October 2, 1944. While some partisans blended into the general population, 15,000 were rounded up for prisoner camps. The Germans, realizing the end was near for them, too, probably treated the prisoners about as well as anyone else they were capturing at that point, though the Poles certainly didn't think so (and still don't).
|Szpitalna Street in Warsaw on or about 20 November 1944|
In any event, that was just the beginning for the city. The Germans had decided long before to destroy Warsaw, and the uprising provided a wake-up call to get on with it:
"The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth and serve only as a transport station for the Wehrmacht. No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation." – SS chief Heinrich Himmler, 17 October, SS officers conference.Hitler always wanted to destroy captured cities that were slipping from his grasp; he had ordered the burning of Paris earlier that year, though the order was not carried out. The Nazi demolition squads went to work, spurred on both by the irritation of the Polish resistance and the nearness of the Soviets, who were watching them (literally) from the other side of the river (it is said that the Germans and the Soviets literally went swimming in the river and sunbathed within sight of each other during this period, such was the degree of amicability between the troops). By the time Warsaw was finally captured by the Soviets on 17 January 1945, the Nazis had razed 85% of the city, leaving only piles of silent rubble.
Warsaw died during World War II. First, the Germans bombed it in September 1939, then they removed the Jews in 1943, then they intentionally razed vast portions of it in 1944 and deported the remaining civilians. Finally, in 1945, the Soviets damaged it further while taking it from the Germans. Only upon its ashes was a new city - and nation - built.
|Clearing out the Jewish ghetto April 1943|
|Eight-foot high concrete wall encircling Jewish ghetto in German occupied Warsaw, Poland, during World War II. Enclosing 500,000 Jews, the wall surrounded more than 100 city blocks. 1940. After the 1944 uprising, this area was razed to the ground.|
|Nightlife in the German Jewish ghetto, complete with armbands|
|A Polish resistance fighter, August 23, 1944|
|The Germans had all sorts of technologically advanced weapons by this point in the war and they weren't chary about using them on civilians. Here, a wurfrahmen 40 rocket launcher fires on rebels, August 1944. Note the destruction already present.|
|An insurgent on a captured German motorcycle. Note the barricades.|
|Combatants during the uprising, that is the same man who was on the motorcycle|
|Germans with flamethrower equipment, preparing to put down the resistance|
|Warsaw insurgents reading a German propaganda leaflet|
|September 1944, a girl with a mirror amongst the rubble after a raid on Zlota Street, by Eugeniusz Lokajsk. Life goes on.|
|Sd.Kfz. 303 "Goliath" V-Motor, during the Warsaw Uprising, Warsaw, Poland, August 1944. (?, Federal Archive).|
|August 1944: Polish civilian incinerated by German rocket fire during the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising.|
|News of the 1944 uprising in Warsaw was censored in the West. The devastation led to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Intensive bombing occurred in an area less than a square mile.|
|The Aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. The Old Town lays in ruins, dead bodies everywhere.|
|The Warsaw Ghetto, photographed after being destroyed by the Germans in 1945. The church remained only because it was being used for ammunitions storage.|