Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Warsaw Uprising

A Failed Crusade

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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.

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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.

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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

A police operation against the Poles in the Lublin Ghetto, December 1940. The police troops descend into one of the secret vaults below the ghetto in search of hidden assets of the Jewish community. This is still the beginning and the Germans are fresh and polished. Note the ceremonial dagger carried by the officer in the foreground. Ceremonial weapons were rarely carried during "Aktionen" (ops against the Jews and other 'undesirables'). (Ang, Federal Archive).

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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 Germans were through.

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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.

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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 Germans.

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German soldiers with a "Goliath". The Goliath tracked mine was a remote controlled German-engineered demolition vehicle, also known as the beetle tank to Allies. Employed by the Wehrmacht during World War II this caterpillar-tracked vehicle carried 75–100 kilograms (170–220 lb) of high explosives and was intended to be used for multiple purposes, such as destroying tanks, disrupting dense infantry formations, and demolition of buildings and bridges. Germans loved to use special weapons when the situation called for them. With troop strength running low and opposition minimal, they came in handy. Warsaw uprising. 1944.

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.

Oskar Direlewanger SS Officer Dirlewanger Brigade Warsaw uprising worldwartwo.filminspector.com
SS-officer Oskar Dirlewanger and his SS-Sonderformation Dirlewanger oppressed the uprising in Warsaw in 1944. The Polish army tried to liberate Warsaw on August 1, 1944. Dirlewanger's troops were instrumental in containing the uprising and ultimately ending it by October. For his services, Dirlewanger received the "Ritterkreuz" and a dinner invitation of Poland Generalgouverneur Hans Frank - and a beating to the death by his Allied guards after his capture.

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 Germans did not just have police-type weapons such as pistols and rifles, but actual combat units such as mobile artillery and tanks.

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Dirlewanger troops wearing masks, quite an unusual sight. By late 1944, the writing was on the wall and his troops took precautions to avoid being identified. Ironically for some of them, the Wehrmacht itself was what they had to fear most at the time, as many ordinary soldiers were horrified by what the Dirlewanger penal troops did and took reprisals after Warsaw. Imagine seeing these brigands coming after you.

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 World War II Germany) Oskar Dirlewanger Attack Group and the Kaminski Brigade.

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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 German! For these guys, it was personal.

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SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Polizei. Höherer SS- und Polizeiführer Erich von dem Bach-Zalewski. He took command of 17,000 men organized into two battle groups to battle the Poles in Warsaw. He was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross by the regime on 30 September 1944. German troops were accused of numerous atrocities under his command. 

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.

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Civilians on the way to Dulag 121 camp in Pruszków.Warsaw Uprising, August 1944. The Germans took all the civilians outside the uprising zone and sent them to camps - that ultimately would be the fate of everyone left in Warsaw. As Hitler would say, "There's a war on, you know." (Leher, Federal Archive).

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 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.

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"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.

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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).

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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 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 Germans 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.

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Clearing out the Jewish ghetto April 1943
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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.

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Nightlife in the German Jewish ghetto, complete with armbands

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A Polish resistance fighter, August 23, 1944

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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.

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An insurgent on a captured German motorcycle. Note the barricades.

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Combatants during the uprising, that is the same man who was on the motorcycle

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Germans with flamethrower equipment, preparing to put down the resistance

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Warsaw insurgents reading a German propaganda leaflet

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September 1944, a girl with a mirror amongst the rubble after a raid on Zlota Street, by Eugeniusz Lokajsk. Life goes on.

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Sd.Kfz. 303 "Goliath" V-Motor, during the Warsaw Uprising, Warsaw, Poland, August 1944. (?, Federal Archive).

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August 1944: Polish civilian incinerated by German rocket fire during the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising.

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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.

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Warsaw Uprising, Oct 1944: This insurgent from Mokotów district, is coming out of sewer manhole and surrendering to the Germans. His fate is most likely execution; the "lucky" break would be concentration camp where he'd probably die of disease or stavation. (Ahrens, Federal Archive).
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The Aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. The Old Town lays in ruins, dead bodies everywhere.
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The Warsaw Ghetto, photographed after being destroyed by the Germans in 1945. The church remained only because it was being used for ammunitions storage.
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Warsaw 1945.



  1. Picture marked as is wrong Execution of some (assumed) rebels during the uprising as it's Bydgoszcz 39 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloody_Sunday_(1939)

    1. Thanks for the ID, Beben Waldemar. I'm always happy to correct things, my only goal is to make things as accurate as possible.