Warsaw Rising 1944

Bild 146-1989-082-05

Young Polish Home Army Fighters - Warsaw Uprising 1944 (Bundesarchiv)

The Polish Home Army had made preparations for a general uprising against the Germans during the final stages of the war. It was timed to coincide with a German collapse brought about by the onslaught of the Red Army and was to consist of attacks by the entire strength of the Polish Home Army on German garrisons throughout occupied Poland.

In case there were no prospects of an imminent German collapse, the Home Army had made plans, in consultation with the Polish government in London, for another operation given the code name 'Burza' (Tempest). As the Soviet -German front moved west, the Home Army was to engage the German units from the rear in successive zones, as the Germans retreated across Poland.

The general uprising was never launched, however, as the conditions required for it, had not come about. Instead the Home Army put into operation plan 'Tempest'. In 1944, units of the Home Army fought for Vilnius, for Lvov, for Lublin and went into action in many other locations, thus rendering valuable assistance to the Red Army.

When towards the end of July 1944, the Red Army reached the line of the River Vistula and stood at the gates of Warsaw, the Home Army launched an Rising against the Germans to gain control of the Polish capital. Going back in time slightly in mid-July 1944, a great offensive was launched along two Red Army fronts. The 1st Ukrainian front under Marshal Konev and the 1st Belorussian front under Marshal Rokossovsky attacked from Podoyle, Polesye, and Volhynia respectively. The German Army Group North Ukraine, opposing them in south-eastern Poland, was smashed in the initial stages of the offensive, and the German II Army, belonging to Army Group Centre, opposing the Red Army along the axis Warsaw -Brest Litovsk was considerably weakened. -

The southern wing of Marshal Rokossovsky's front advanced at an average of 25 miles per day. Chelm was liberated on July 22nd, 1944, Lublin on July 23rd; and on the 26th the line of the River Vistula was reached between Deblin and Pulawy, south of Warsaw. The line of the River Vistula was only patrolled by the Germans, and the Red Army was thus able to effect crossings without having to force them. On July 28th, 1944, the Red Army established two bridgeheads on the west bank of the River Vistula, near Pulawy and Magnuszew, 35 miles south of Warsaw. Fast moving Soviet units - the 11th Armoured Corps, the 2nd Guard Cavalry Corps and the 2nd Tank Army -passed well to the south of Brest-Litovsk, advancing in an arc in the general direction of Warsaw. The first two veered north-west towards Siedlce and Minsk Mazowiecki, but the tank army established contact with the German bridgehead on the east bank of the River Vistula, around Praga, a suburb of Warsaw. Marshal Rokossovsky 's right flank had been halted by the German garrison of Brest-Litovsk, which was surrounded and destroyed on July 28th. The 2nd Belorussian front, on Marshal Rokossovsky's right flank, north of the River Bug, remained slightly to the rear, fighting to liberate Bialystok, which fell on July 27th.

On July 21st, 1944, Hitler ordered General Heinz Guderian to take over command of the Eastern Front. His task was to re-organise it and to halt the Red Army offensive. The River Vistula, with a bridgehead on the east bank at Praga was adopted as the new line of defence; while Guderian appointed General Vorman to command the sector of the middle Vistula between Jablonna and Deblin. This general had commanded IX Army, which in June, had been almost obliterated in Belorussia, and had later been reinforced by a part of the II Army and by new units. The II Army was to concentrate along the lower reaches of the River Bug, north of the IX Army.

As this re-grouping was taking place, but before the new defensive measures could become effective, the front line was nearing the River Vistula, and all the while the German retreat and evacuations were being accelerated. Between July 21 and July 25, German stores, workshops, civilian institutions and military commands alike left Warsaw. Police and army units also commenced to pull out. Then on July 26th, 1944, the directives of the new commander of the German front began to take effect. German administrative authorities and police returned to Warsaw, while transports bringing the Hermann Goering SS Panzer and Para-troop Division and the SS Viking Panzer Division began to unload south of the city.

On July 27th, 1944, the Luftwaffe General Reiner Stahel took over the military command of Warsaw. The German civilian authorities announced the city would be defended and called upon the Polish population of the capital to co-operate, and through the street public address system and through wall posters, they commanded that 100, 000 men come forward to put up fortifications round the city. Guards at German institutions were strengthened, assault guns were placed at main street intersections, police and tank patrols in the city were increased. Units of the German 73rd Infantry Division began arriving on the outskirts of Warsaw.

During the night of July 28th, and on the days that followed, the people in Warsaw could hear the sounds of a battle fought for the town of Wolomin between the German 39th Panzer Corps and the Soviet 2nd Tank Army. A little bit earlier on July 21st, the Communist National Council set up a 'Committee of National Liberation,' which it intended to foist upon the country as a political authority. When two days later on July 23rd, Moscow radio published a manifesto to the Polish nation issued by this Committee, it described the Polish government in London and its organs in Poland as usurpers.

These moves seemed to indicate that, without regard to the Polish government in London, the Soviet Union was going to try to impose its will upon Poland through this 'Committee of National Liberation.' On July 29th, the Soviet radio station 'Kosciuszko' broadcast the following message in Polish:

' For Warsaw, which never capitulated and never gave up the struggle, the hour of action has struck. By fighting in the streets of Warsaw, in houses, factories and stores, we shall bring nearer the moment of ultimate liberation and we shall preserve the country's wealth and the lives of our brothers.'

During the following days this appeal to the people of Warsaw was repeated in different versions: 'People of Warsaw, to arms.' Attack the Germans! Help the Red Army to cross the Vistula. Transmit information, show the way.

On July 30th, the Polish Prime Minister, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk arrived in Moscow from London. On the 31st he had his first contact with Soviet Foreign Secretary Molotov, on how to co-ordinate the campaign against the Germans in Poland. According to the appraisal of the situation arrived at by the Home Army Headquarters, the defeat suffered by the German armies in Belorussia in June and July 1944, when they lost 25 divisions and were pushed back 300 miles in three weeks, combined with their lack of reserves, would not enable them to regain the initiative on the Eastern Front.

The state of the German armies and the numerical superiority and speed of advance of the Red Army seemed to indicate that the latter was capable of crossing the River Vistula and holding its west bank in preparation for an advance on the Warta and the Oder. An illustration of Soviet superiority along the middle course of the Vistula is provided by a look at the forces engaged on both sides. Marshal Rokossovsky's 1st Belorussian Front comprised nine armies - including one Polish army, one tank army, two tank corps, three cavalry corps, one motorised corps, and two air armies. On the German side, the opposition consisted of the II Army of four Panzer divisions and one of infantry, and of the IX Army, comprising of two divisions and two brigades of infantry. In terms of infantry numbers the Red Army enjoyed a superiority of 3 to 1, and in armour and artillery of 5 to 1.

As the Home Army Headquarters saw it, there were two possible lines of action for the Germans. Either they would abandon the line of the Vistula and Warsaw without a fight, or they would master the situation and defend the line of the River Vistula, leading to a battle for the city. The Commander-in -Chief of the Home Army, General Tadeusz Komorowski (code -named 'Bor.') had reached the decision that in either case the Home Army would, at an opportune moment, attack the German forces in Warsaw, as in one case this would shorten the fight for the control of the city and minimise losses, and in any case would enable the Home Army to meet the entering Red Army as hosts and as masters of their own house.

General Bor estimated that a rapid capture of Warsaw lay in Soviet interests: politically, since it was the capital, and militarily, since it was the largest and most convenient communications centre on the Vistula from which to launch a further advance west. On July 25th, General Bor obtained the agreement of the London - appointed Polish Deputy Prime Minister and Government Delegate for Poland, Mr. J.S. Jankowski, to the decision in principle to engage in a battle for Warsaw, and together they presented this decision to the presidium of the Polish Underground parliament, and obtained its agreement . The Commander -in -Chief informed the Commander of the Warsaw District, Colonel Antoni Chrusciel (code-named ' Monter.') of this decision and gave the order to get the district ready for action. The action itself was to follow the plan of the general uprising for which the units of the district had been preparing for three years.

The Polish side faced an opponent about equal in terms of combat forces, but overwhelmingly superior in armament and technical facilities, who could also call upon air and armoured support, neither of which the Home Army possessed. The numerical strength of the Home Army units in Warsaw was approximately 38,000 soldiers, including 4,000 women, with another 11,000 approximately based in the vicinity of the capital. These forces and their chain of command were organised in seven urban and one suburban precincts, which in their turn were sub-divided into sectors. The armament consisted of heavy and light infantry weapons and was sufficient for 25% of the effectives and there was sufficient ammunition for seven days' fighting. Deficiencies were to be supplemented by German captured weapons, and supplies of arms were also expected from the Allies in the west, through the usual aerial drops, which had been commonplace during the dark years of occupation.

Besides the units mentioned above there were two organisations in Warsaw not subordinated to the Home Army. They were Narodowe Sily Zbrojne (NSZ), the National Armed Forces, an organisation of a very right-wing and nationalist complexion: and Armia Ludowa (AL), the 'People's Army, a Communist organisation wholly subordinate to Moscow. Each organisation had a few hundred men in the city and their units later joined the fight at the side of the Home Army. The numerical strength of the German garrison was estimated by the Home Army Headquarters at about 40,000. Some units had been pulled out between July 21st and 25th, but every day units were being quartered in or near the capital, and there were reasons to believe that numerically the Polish and German sides were evenly matched.

On July 31st, 1944, at the afternoon briefing of the Inner Headquarters of the Home Army, Colonel Monter, as Commander of the Warsaw District, reported that the German bridgehead on the east bank of the River Vistula had been breached by Soviet armour and that its defence had been disorganised. According to the report, Soviet detachments had taken the suburban localities of Radosc, Milosna, Okuniew and Radzymin.

On the basis of this report, in the presence of Deputy Prime Minister Jankowski, General Bor ordered Colonel Monter to attack the Germans on the following day - August 1st, 1944 -at 5 pm. On the very same day at 6.30 pm, Colonel Monter issued his operational orders to the units under his command - though some of them did not receive these orders until the following morning, as the police curfew delayed their transmission.

However, the military situation round the German bridgehead that day was in fact as follows: Soviet armoured detachments did make a breach, in the southern perimeter of the bridgehead, even capturing the General commanding the 73rd Infantry Division, but the Germans defence had not been disorganised and they were not forced to retreat from the east bank of the River Vistula. At the same time a battle between German and Soviet armour was being fought near Siedlce, further east, and its outcome was still in the balance. The concentration of Home Army units at their assembly points was carried out in the afternoon of August 1st, 1944, without German counter-action, although owing to the difficulties inherent in the secrecy with which the concentration had to be carried out, only 85% of the troops managed to reach the appointed places.

At 5 pm, Polish Home Army launched their attacks at pre-selected objectives. Within minutes the entire city was engulfed in fighting German patrols and troops were attacked in the streets and disarmed, and many objectives were captured. Those which were manned in strength, managed to repulse the initial Home Army assaults. Where the initial attacks were not successful, they were renewed during the night, and those parts of the city cleared of the Germans were occupied by the Home Army.

Throughout the next two days, August 2nd and 3rd, the Home Army renewed its assaults on German strongpoints, but it was not particularly successful for the Home Army lacked the heavy assault weapons necessary to breach pillboxes and other reinforced concrete defences. Both sides suffered heavy casualties in numbers killed and wounded. The Polish Home Army captured a considerable quantity of arms and ammunition, but German resistance proved strong almost everywhere. The intensity of the fighting exacted its toll, and on the Polish side ammunition ran low, despite the quantities captured from the Germans and this, combined with the mounting casualties and the disappointing outcome of the attacks of August 2nd and August 3rd, dampened the momentum of the Home Army offensive operations.  Then to the disappointment of the Poles, the sounds of the battles being waged on the east bank of the River Vistula between the Germans and the Soviet forces - which up to then had been steadily gaining in intensity - grew fainter on August 3, to be followed on the 4th, by a complete lull in the fighting. Soviet fighters disappeared from the sky above Warsaw on August 2nd. Having considered all these factors and after consulting his Commander -in -Chief, Colonel Monter ordered his forces to abandon their offensive tasks and to switch to defence as from August 5th. At the conclusion of this initial stage of the fighting the Polish Home Army controlled three-fifths of the city.

On August 1st, 1944, the increased traffic in the streets and the reports from their agents alerted the German security forces which used various means at their disposal to increase the general watchfulness of the garrison. But it was not until 4 pm. that General Reiner Stahel ordered a state of general alert. This order failed to reach many German positions and smaller units before 5 pm. and failed completely to notify the various units in transit. Thus although the German command was not taken by surprise, the lateness of the alert, that the garrison were not all ready, and the Polish Home Army attacks did catch many units unprepared.

But when reports of the outbreak of the fighting reached Hitler and Himmler, their reaction was instantaneous. On August 2nd, 1944, Adolf Hitler appointed a new commander for the units engaged against the Rising - SS- Obergruppenführer and General of Police Forces Erich von Dem Bach Zelewski, a specialist in fighting Partisan movements behind the front-lines and possessing a specialised staff experienced in this type of warfare.  

Heinrich Himmler's reaction was to rush reinforcements by both road and rail to Warsaw and these arrived in the city, during the first week in August, and were somewhat of a motley array, under the command of Bach Zelewsky and his chief of Operations, SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth:

SS RONA Brigade from the Russian National Liberation Army under Brigadeführer Bronislav Kaminski - an advance party of 2,000 men

SS Dirlewanger Brigade commanded by SS-SS- Oberführer  Oskar Dirlewanger - two battalions of 3,381 men including the 11th Azerbaijani Regiment

Cossack Battalions 572nd and 580th

Special Defence Battalion 608th under Colonel Willy Schmidt from Breslau

Militarised Police Battalion from Posen

Luftwaffe Guard Regiment

Reserve Battalion of the Herman Goering Panzer -Parachute Division

In addition to the manpower Bach -Zelewski received heavy artillery in the shape in the grossly over-sized siege guns such as the 60cm 'Karl' howitzer and the long range 'Bertha' cannon guns, as well as Tiger tanks and the Hetzer self-propelled guns. The Home Army in contrast had only army rifles, small arms, hand grenades and petrol bombs.

reinefarth -warsaw 1944

Heinz Reinefarh (middle of photo) at his command post in Warsaw in August 1944 (Bundesarchiv)

The Polish Home Army attacks had split up the German forces inside the city into a few isolated pockets cut off from one another. One of the largest of these was in the Bruhl Palace in Plac Teatralny, where General Stahel had his Headquarters and which was manned by a considerable number of the SS and Police. The Germans retained control of the suburb of Praga, where Home Army units were crushed after two days of fighting. They also held the Warsaw Citadel, the airfields at Okecie and at Bielany, and the wireless transmitters at Boernerowo.

After the first four days of fighting, the areas controlled by the two sides became stabilised and both the Home Army and the Germans built barricades round their perimeters. Besides a number of fortified strongpoints within the Polish lines, the Germans also controlled wedges of territory which probed deep into the city and divided the quarters in Polish hands, so that they became three separate centres for fighting. In the south of the city were Mokotow and Czerniakow, then, centrally placed was the City Centre proper with Powisle, on the low-lying river bank and in the north was the Old Town, with Zoliborz separate from it, but maintaining contact with Home Army units in the Forest of Kampinos, not far away.

Colonel Monter found that exercising direct command over these separate perimeters from his own HQ in the City Centre was difficult so, on August 6, he reorganised the structure of command to reflect the realities of the situation. He nominated Colonel S. Kamisky (code-named 'Daniel' ) to command Mokotow and Czerniakow; Colonel E. Pfeiffer (code-named 'Radwan') to command the City Centre and Powisle; Colonel K. Ziemski (code-named 'Wachnowski') to command the Old Town with Zoliborz and the Forest of Kampinos also subordinated to him - the whole being designated ' Group North.' The tasks set for these commanders were to maintain their perimeters and overcome nests of German resistance still operating within the Polish lines.

The first operational task the German side set itself was to pierce routes from the west to the bridgehead at Praga. This task was given to two groups , one attacking from the south-west along the axis Aleje Jerozolimskie / Poniatowski Bridge, and the other from the west, along the axis Wola / Kierbedzia Bridge. The attacking forces had the support of an artillery barrage and support from the air was provided by the German Luftflotte V which bombed the Polish positions and the city at large using fragmentation and incendiary bombs, thus causing waves of fire. The original aim - to overcome the Polish Home Army by setting the whole city alight and 'smoking it out,' was abandoned, as it was feared that the pockets of German resistance within the Polish lines would also be wiped out in the conflagration.

The German attempt to establish a permanent route to the Poniatowski Bridge failed. A part of the XIX Panzer Division did fight its way across it from Praga to the west on August 4th, but later the Home Army effectively blocked the route between the Central Railway Station and the Ulica Bracka. By August 8th, the Germans managed to establish the other route - Wola / Kierbedzia Bridge - after bitter fighting and tank attacks, but even then a few sectors of this route remained permanently exposed to Polish fire.

It was during this stage of the fighting the Germans carried out mass executions of Polish Home Army forces and civilians, men women and children, and these crimes rank among the worst atrocities carried out by the Germans and their associated forces. On August 5th Dirlewanger's SS convicts advanced about 1,000 yards. In every single street in Wola recaptured by the Germans, even far behind the battle lines, the inhabitants were ordered to leave their homes, induced by promises of 'evacuation.' As soon as large groups of civilians assembled on the streets, they were not taken to evacuation points, but were herded together in cemeteries, gardens, back-yards, factory forecourts or squares. Soldiers then fired machine-gun bursts into the human mass, until there were no signs of life. The soldiers piled the corpses in large heaps, poured petrol over them and set them on fire.

Hospitals in the Wola and Ochota areas suffered worst of all that day. The 'good fellows' as Himmler called them, with Dirlewanger at their head, stormed into the wards, shot the sick and wounded where they lay. Nurses, nuns, helpers and doctors suffered the same fate. Even these atrocities were mild compared with those perpetrated in the Curie- Skiodowska Radium Institute, Kaminski's soldiers occupied the hospital around 11 am. The Institute contained only women suffering from cancer. Lying in their beds, they and their nurses were raped and then shot by the drunken mercenaries. The Russians in German uniforms ran amok. They murdered, pillaged and collected rings and jewels, watches and gold. Finally, it must be emphasised that the responsibility for these atrocities did not rest with the RONA forces and Dirlewanger's convict troops alone. Regular SS and Police units made up some of the execution squads which played their part in this dance of death, that became infamous as 'Black Friday.'


SS-Dirlewanger Troops fighting in the Warsaw Uprising (Bundesarchiv)

On August 5th, the 'Zoska' battalion of the Polish Home Army liberated the Warsaw Concentration Camp, more commonly known locally as Gesoiwka, because it stood at 45 Ulica Gesia, which was near the infamous Umschlagplatz, where the deportation trains left for the Treblinka death camp during 1942 and 1943. After fierce fighting the Home Army liberated 350 Jewish prisoners, including some 24 women who had been transferred there from the nearby Pawiak Prison on July 31st. The vast majority of the liberated prisoners volunteered to fight against the Germans in the Uprising.

The next objective of the Germans after blasting their way to Kierbedzia Bridge was to capture the Old Town. On August 12th they launched their assault against it, using three groups attacking from the south and west, and the north, supported by an artillery barrage, flamethrowers, 'Goliaths' - explosive miniature tanks, steered by cables from German lines - and by aerial bombardment. The Polish forces by then completely surrounded and deprived of regular supplies from outside, were losing ground every day. Through night attacks some of the ground lost during the day was regained, but the ceaseless artillery and aerial bombardment inflicted a mounting toll of casualties on the civilians, many of whom were buried under collapsed buildings. Nevertheless the attitude of the population was as unflinching as that of the Home Army garrison.

To maintain communications, to evacuate the lightly wounded and to bring in supplies of ammunition, routes were established during mid-August with the City Centre and Zoliborz via the sewers. They were difficult to negotiate, but skilled guides, many of them women, kept them serviceable throughout. After reinforcing the garrison of Zoliborz with a battalion brought from the Forest of Kampinos, the commander of Group North made two attempts to break the German ring surrounding the Old Town. An attack launched from Zoliborz on the Dworzec Gdanski, a railway station, during the night of August 19th, was unsuccessful, and during the following night the same railway station was attacked from two sides, from Zoliborz and the Old Town. Once again, the attacks failed to break the German ring.  One of the most significant victories of the Polish Home Army was the capture of the PAST central telephone complex located on Zielna 37-39, on August 20, 1944.

To relieve the garrison in the Old Town and to open a way out for them to the south, Colonel Monter ordered a two-pronged attack on Ogrod Saski, a public park separating the Old Town from the City Centre. During the night of August 30th, all the forces in the Old Town and about three battalions from the City Centre launched their attack on Ogrod Saski, and kept up the assault until dawn - but it failed in its main objective. Only a group of 59 men managed to fight their way through to the City Centre.

During the following night the garrison of the Old Town carried out Colonel Monter's new order to evacuate the City Centre. Approximately 1,500 men and 300 lightly wounded made their way out through the sewers, without alerting the Germans, while 800 more withdrew to Zoliborz in the same way, and so the German attack launched the next morning found very little. However, those members of the Home Army who were badly injured and impossible to evacuate through the sewers were murdered by the German forces; most of them were soaked in petrol and burned alive.   

While the fight for the Old Town was going on, other sectors remained relatively quiet. In the City Centre the Home Army took a few isolated buildings which had been in German hands, and which were stubbornly defended floor by floor. Having taken the Old Town, the Germans commanded a wide stretch of Warsaw separating the City Centre from Zoliborz. The latter now became a separate centre for fighting, Group North as such having ceased to exist and its commander, Colonel 'Wachnowski,' having become Colonel Monter's deputy on reaching the City Centre.

The Warsaw Rising entered its third stage - resistance to the utmost. The defenders were kept going by the hope that they would last out until the time came when the Germans unable to resist Red Army pressure, would be forced to retreat from the city. The Home Army now finally gave up all offensive operations in favour of intensified defence of the positions held.

Counting on the possibility that the Red Army would eliminate their bridgehead at Praga, and that the Polish Home Army would then have direct contact across the River Vistula with it, the Germans set out to throw back the Polish Home Army units occupying the river bank between the two bridges of Poniatowski and Kierbedzia. After three days of fighting, beginning on September 4th, the Germans were the masters of the river front and had pushed back the Polish forces into the City Centre.

Beginning on September 8th, the Germans concentrated their attacks on the City Centre, trying at several points to drive wedges into the Polish perimeter, but repeated attacks along Aleje Jerozolimskie, one of the original east/west axes, achieved only minor breaches in the Polish positions. The fighting was now entering its sixth week and as hopes of Soviet assistance waned and as the suffering of the civilian population increased, the political sections of the Resistance asked the Home Army Headquarters to explore with the German command whether there existed the possibility of a negotiated surrender. On September 7th, an opportunity of direct talks with the Germans arose through the intermediary of the Polish Red Cross. Representatives of the latter obtained a cease fire of a few hours' duration along some sectors of the perimeter, and on September 8th and 9th several thousand women, children, and old people and lightly wounded left Warsaw. Only a small proportion of the civilian population chose to be evacuated in this way, about a quarter of a million opting to remain in the City Centre, rather than give themselves up voluntarily into the hands of the Germans. The inhabitants of the capital felt they would stay as long as the fight continued and they could render help to the Home Army, especially as they felt the Uprising was a fight involving the whole city and not just the troops.

The envisaged attempt at exploratory talks with the Germans was not pursued, as on September 10th, Red Army units, including one Polish Division, launched an assault on the German bridgehead in Praga. After five days the German troops had been driven out and the east bank of the River Vistula opposite the Polish positions in Zoliborz, Solec and Czerniakow was in the hands of the Red Army, so that contact with it across the river was now possible.

However, without letting up their pressure against the City Centre, and while maintaining a harassing artillery fire and aerial bombardment of Zoliborz and Mokotow, even launching diversionary attacks against them, the Germans now set about pushing the Home Army back altogether from the banks of the River Vistula. They carried this out in three phases.

During the period September 14th to September 16th, the freshly-arrived XXV Panzer Division, supported by air attacks, pushed Home Army units in Zoliborz about half a mile back from the river where they managed to hold out in new defensive positions. At the same time in the south of the city, in Czerniakow, a German attack carried out along the river also captured the river bank, pushing back the Polish defenders. The Polish side now only held a narrow strip of the river bank south of the Poniatowski Bridge and north of Czerniakow. It was defended by units of the local precinct, reinforced by elite troops withdrawn there from the Old Town and commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Jan Mazurkiewicz (code-named 'Radoslaw'). On September 11th, overwhelming German forces launched an attack on the area. An extremely stubborn battle, fought during the day and the night in a very restricted space, followed: individual buildings changed hands several times in repeated attacks and counterattacks, and there was almost continuous hand-to-hand fighting. Here too, the Germans spared no one, carrying out mass executions of captured troops, of the wounded in hospitals and of civilians.

warsaw 1944 -rockets

German Forces Launch Rocket Attacks in Warsaw (Bundesarchiv)

The garrison of the City Centre carried out several attacks in the direction of the escarpment dominating the low-lying battlefield on the River Vistula bank in an attempt to link up with the units there, and it scored some initial successes- but could not maintain them in the face of powerful German counterattacks. The link-up attempt failed. On September 19th, after eight days and nights of continuous fighting, the battle reached crisis-point. The Polish Home Army defenders, surrounded in an area 500 yards long by 500 yards across, were down to their last rounds of ammunition and had exhausted their food and medical dressings. They had no water supplies, other than the river, and had reached the limits of physical endurance.  Lieutenant-Colonel Jan Mazurkiewicz (code-named 'Radoslaw') therefore decided to withdraw part of his forces through the sewers to Mokotow, while another part was to cover the withdrawal of the seriously wounded across the River Vistula to the Soviet side. Facing terrific German fire, the latter units held out for two more days, covering the evacuation carried out by boat at night. It was possible to evacuate only a small proportion of the wounded in this way, and on September 23rd, the Germans overran the Polish positions. The entire length of the river bank was now in German hands.

While the Home Army was fighting to maintain its hold on the west bank, the Soviet-formed Polish 1st Army found itself on the opposite bank, as part of Marshal Rokossovsky's forces. Units of this army made a number of attempts to cross to the west bank, and on the nights of September 16th and September 17th, some detachments of the 6th Infantry Regiment crossed over to Zoliborz - by that time the Home Army garrison had been driven off the riverbank - to be decimated there by German forces.

On the nights of September 15th and 16th two battalions and the regimental HQ of the 9th Infantry Regiment crossed over to Czerniakow, where they were joined by forces under Lieutenant-Colonel Jan Mazurkiewicz (code-named 'Radoslaw'). At the same time the 8th Infantry Regiment made an unsuccessful attempt to get a foothold on the west bank near Poniatowski Bridge, and the 1st Cavalry Brigade made just as unsuccessful attempt at the Kierbedzia Bridge.

Next came the turn of Mokotow. After an artillery barrage and aerial bombardment lasting some days and after reinforcing their troops there with the XIX Panzer Division, on September 24th, the Germans launched attacks on Mokotow simultaneously from the south and the west. After a three day battle the Polish Home Army forces were compressed into a small area with little chance of defence. During the night of September 26th, a part of the garrison of Mokotow entered the sewers to withdraw to the City Centre. The Germans however, expecting this, had obstructed the sewers and kept throwing gas grenades into them, creating panic and causing heavy losses. Many brave men and women perished in the sewers, and only approximately 600 managed to reach the City Centre. The remainder of the garrison in Mokotow, about 2,000 strong laid down their arms at noon on the 27th, further defence being no longer possible.

Immediately after this surrender the Germans moved the XIX Panzer Division north of the city, and on the following day, their forces facing the garrison of Zoliborz, began their assault on the Polish lines. After two days of stubborn fighting, during which the defenders had to yield ground, their position worsened but their commander Lieutenant-Colonel M. Niedzielski (code-named 'Zywciel'), rejected a German proposal to capitulate. But by this time, the Polish Home Army Headquarters itself was considering surrendering - provided the German conditions were acceptable. Further resistance in Zoliborz was deemed pointless, and on September 30th, following an order from the Home Army Commander-in-Chief, its garrison numbering about 1,500 troops, laid down their arms.

At the same time as the operations against Mokotow and Zoliborz, the Germans set out to dislodge the Polish Home Army from the Forest of Kampinos. These Polish forces consisting of two infantry regiments and two cavalry squadrons, approximately 2,500 men in all, were commanded by Major A. Kotowski (code-named 'Okon'). They acted in an auxiliary capacity to the Rising, receiving aerial drops from the Western Allies and transporting them to Zoliborz, and harassing German communications from the rear. A special group, detached from the German IX Army, designated Sterschuppe, began operations against the forest on September 27th. Major Okon had recognised the German build-up and moved his troops to the southern edge of the forest, intending to break his way out to the south. The German attack thus missed its target and met only the rearguards. Major Okon's column moved south from the forest until it came upon the Skierniewice - Zyrardow railway line, where at noon on the 29th, an armoured train barred its way. Detachments of German tanks then caught up with it and dispersed it, and only one cavalry squadron, approximately 100 troopers strong, managed to fight its way through to the Kielce province.

Towards the end of September the situation of the insurgents was becoming more critical with every day that passed. They had lost control of the River Vistula bank, the outlying bastions of Mokotow and Zoliborz had fallen, and the Forest of Kampinos was in German hands. Ammunition was running out and the same for water and medical supplies. From September 20th, on, barley and sugar were their only sustenance. The troops had no warm clothing and instances of soldiers fainting on the barricades from exhaustion, were becoming more frequent.

All attempts by the Polish Home Army Headquarters to establish operational contact with the Red Army failed, and finally any hope of a Red Army attack on Warsaw was abandoned. After consultation with the civilian Resistance leaders, the Home Army Headquarters accepted that to continue fighting would not bring the aims of the Rising any nearer, though it would prolong the suffering and losses of the population. Bach-Zelewski's invitation to enter into negotiations, made through the Polish Red Cross was therefore accepted. A cease -fire was agreed upon as from October 2, 1944, and on the same day a Polish delegation signed an act of surrender at the German Headquarters at Ozarow.

After more than two months of fighting the Polish troops laid down their arms. The Germans evacuated the entire remaining population of the city and proceeded to a systematic destruction of whatever was still left standing. Any moveable's worth taking were shipped to the Reich. It is impossible to arrive at an estimate of civilian losses with any accuracy, but the figure of 150,000 may be close to reality. German losses, according to Bach-Zelewski, amounted to 26,000.

Refusal to come to the aid of Warsaw finally unmasked Soviet intentions towards Poland. The Polish people saw it as a vile betrayal of an ally, while the civilised world saw its duplicity and were shocked. The Warsaw Rising of 1944, the greatest action in Poland since the 1939 campaign, was an expression of the will to fight any oppressor who threatened the country's freedom.


Colonel Iranek -Osmecki, History Of The Second World War - Volume 5 - Purnell London 1966.

Norman Davies, Rising '44, Macmillan, London 2003

Gunther Deschner, Warsaw Rising, Pan Ballentine, London 1972

Photographs Bundesarchiv

© Holocaust Historical Society 2018