Warsaw Uprisig - a historical outline

          On 1 September 1939 the Nazi forces invaded Poland marking the outbreak of the Second World War. The Polish nation started an uneven fight with much better armed enemy.

          On 17 September the other enemy, the Soviet Russia unexpectedly attacked Poland from the East. On the basis of the secret Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, the Republic of Poland went under the occupation of two powers.

The final pages of the secret pact

Joint council of the German and Soviet officers          Brothers-in-arms   

          After 20 years of independence regained in 1918, after an-over-century-long period of partitions effected by Prussia, Austria and Russia, Poland experienced 6 gloomy years of occupation. None of the countries attacked in World War II remained in a state of war longer than Poland.
          Germany and Russia divided the conquered country into two parts with a border on the Bug river. Hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers and officers were captured. The Nazis released private soldiers after some time, while officers were sent to the POWs. Much worse fate awaited Polish soldiers taken prisoner by the Soviets. Private soldiers, including numerous Polish civilians from the regions occupied by Russia, were transported to the Soviet labour-camps (the so-called gulags) in Siberia and the Far East. Officers were put into the POWs and after some time any contact with them was lost.
          Some Polish soldiers managed to avoid bondage and get through to France and Great Britain, where they resumed struggle with the invader. Some remained in Poland forming the underground resistance army.
          On 22 June 1941 the Germans attacked their previous war ally - the Soviet Russia. Quickly advancing, the German army captured the Polish lands annexed in 1939 by the Soviets. The entire Poland was overrun by Germany.
          The Poles fought the Nazi occupying forces from the very beginning. As the state, Poland never signed the act of capitulation. The Polish government left the country and emerged in England. Military formations were created in France and Great Britain. They recruited soldiers from the September-October 1939 campaign, who crossed the Polish-Romanian border in order to avoid captivity. Many volunteers living abroad upon the outbreak of war joined the Polish army units.
          Russia, attacked by Germany in 1941, joined the anti-Nazi alliance. On the basis of an arrangement between Stalin and the government-in-exile, Polish soldiers were released and allowed to form the Polish army on the territory of Russia. Aware of the soldiers' insufficient military equipment, Stalin allowed the army to move to the Middle East, where it was absorbed into the British military formations. During the Polish army formation in Russia, the issue of missing Polish officers, deported to the Soviet POWs, came to light. Polish diplomats were unable to obtain any meaningful response as regarded their fate.
          In April 1943 the Germans discovered a mass grave in the region of Katyn, Miednoje and Piatichotki. The victims contained in them were identified by the International Red Cross as the Polish officers taken prisoner in the POWs of Kozielsk, Ostaszkov and Starobielsk.

victims of Katyn

          The Katyn grave held ca. 4 500 bodies of the Polish officers. All of them were shot dead in the back of the head.
          The Germans announced that the massacre was carried out by the Soviet NKVD in the spring of 1940, utilising this fact to launch the anti-Russian propaganda in the Polish society.

          Stalin denied the charge and accused the Germans of the atrocity. Pressed by the Polish government-in-exile for the explanations, simply broke any diplomatic relations with them. Only 400 out of over 15 000 captives held in the Soviet POWs were saved from the slaughter.
          The governments of Great Britain and the United States, unwilling to irritate the ally which significantly contributed to the Nazi defeats, did not take a firm stand on the Katyn Forest Massacre. Such situation existed many years after the end of war. Only in 1990 a conspiracy of silence was broken and the Russian government officially acknowledged that the Soviet Russia was responsible for this horrible crime. The fate of some prisoners remains unknown until today.
          In order to fully realise the complicated situation in which Poland found itself in the course of the Second World War, it should be remembered that during the Tehran conference held by the allies in December 1943, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill executed a secret treaty under which the post-war division of Europe was designed, situating Poland in the area of the Soviet influence.

          Great Britain and the United States did not inform about this fact the London-based Polish emigration government. As soon as the Red Army entered the Polish territory after the retreating Germans, Stalin appointed his own competitive Polish government.
          Further decisions concerning the future fate of Poland were made at the Yalta conference in February 1945. The Yalta Agreement brought for Poland the implications lasting dozens of years after the end of the Second World War. Not sooner than at the beginning of the 1990s Poland managed to get free from totalitarian communist dictatorship introduced by the Soviets and after the stationary Red Army troops left became a member of NATO, and in 2004 the European Union. From then on, the Yalta order ceased to be in force.
          The Germans established a network of concentration camps on the conquered territory of Poland already in 1940, supplementing the existing camps in Germany. The biggest camp, the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau, was situated in southern Poland near Oswiecim. Such location was selected for strictly practical reasons since a large junction, enabling transports of prisoners from all over Europe, was located nearby. Between 1940-1945 ca. 1 200 000 people perished in the camp: Jews, Poles, Gypsies, Russian as well as other nations' representatives. The slogan reading "Arbeit macht frei" (Work liberates) placed by the Nazis over the gate of the camp, now transformed into the Auschwitz Museum, may be still viewed there. Such motto becomes particularly cynical and tragic in the place where people made other people's lives hell destroying them through, among others, extremely hard and often aimless work.

General view of the camp

the main gate of the camp                                Crematorium              

          The 60th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation by the Soviet soldiers of the 60th Army of the I Ukrainian Front was celebrated on 27 January 2004. The liberators found just several thousands ill and emaciated prisoners.
          On the Polish territory the Nazis executed a cruel and large-scale undertaking called Endlösung (the Final Solution) aimed at the annihilation of the Jewish nation. The invader created in various regions of Poland the so-called ghettoes where the Jews were gathered and subsequently exterminated. Some of them died due to inhuman conditions existing in the ghettoes (famine and diseases), other were murdered in the extermination camps, such as Majdanek, Treblinka, Auschwitz.
          One of the biggest ghettoes was established in November 1940 in Warsaw. Hundreds of Warsaw citizens, joined by other Jews from the entire territory Poland, were contained in one section of the city surrounded with a high wall. Later, they were transported to the death camps from the railway siding situated on Umschlagplatz (literally "transhipment square"). By the end of 1942 ca. 300 000 Jews were taken away. In the spring of 1943 the Nazis decided to solve the "Jewish problem" in Warsaw ultimately. Around 70 000 Jews remained at that time in the Warsaw ghetto. In April 1943 the first SS forces entered the ghetto to begin its final liquidation.

          On 19 April 1943 several hundreds fighters led by ŻOB (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa - Jewish Fighting Organisation) took an uneven fight. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out. Jewish fighters knew they had no chances. They simply wanted to die with dignity. Before the beginning of the Uprising, the Polish underground organisation, the Home Army provided ŻOB with weapons, grenades and explosives. Selected Home Army units endeavoured to support the Jewish insurgents from the outside, trying to blow the ghetto walls up in several places and attacking the German guards. The Uprising lasted until 24 May 1943.


          After its suppression, the Nazis butchered the remaining Jews and turned the entire ghetto into ruins.

          As it was mentioned earlier, the Polish nation never gave up resistance. Polish officers who avoided captivity and arrests by Gestapo (the Nazi state police) formed the first conspirative organisations already in the autumn of 1939. Simultaneously, a globally unique underground structure was being developed. London-based government set up its Polish representation and the secret administrative structures and underground courts of justice were created. Since the invader closed all the institutions apart from the primary and vocational schools, people organised clandestine schools covering levels from secondary schools to universities. The Underground Poland came into life.

          At the same time the underground army structure flourished. Multiple conspirative organisations formed at the beginning of the invasion, including the biggest of them, ZWZ (Związek Walki Zbrojnej - Association of Armed Struggle) joined forces to build the Home Army (AK), subject to the London-based government.

Home Army Eagle

          There existed also such independent organisations as the Peasants' Battalions (Bataliony Chłopskie) or the National Armed Forces (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne) (however, some of their structures became part of AK).
          Relatively few communist secret organisations, such as GL (Gwardia Ludowa - People's Guard, incorporated by the Polish People's Army - AL), subordinated to the competitive communist government appointed by Stalin, operated in central Poland.
          The activity of the underground resistance movement was a reaction to the Nazi regime. Situation of people in the occupied countries of the Eastern Europe was different than in France, Belgium or Holland. The Poles and the Russians were treated as the "under-people" (Untermenschen). Mass roundups were carried out in the Polish cities. Caught people were sent to the concentration camps or shot in the street executions, which were one of the forms of suppressing any resistance attempts and creating the feeling of constant threat and terror. The entire families, including women and children, were murdered for hiding and supporting Jews. However, thousands of Poles were unable to remain indifferent to the tragedy of their Jewish neighbours. The representatives of the Polish intelligence: priests, students, university graduates and lecturers were systematically identified and killed. Hundreds of thousands were sent to forced labour in the Third Reich.
          In such situation the Poles' determination and mass participation in the resistance groups cannot wonder.
          Members of the Home Army operated throughout the country. In rural and forested regions, they formed tightly-knit uniformed partisan groups which launched armed and sabotage actions.

Partisan group marching

          Numerous reconnaissance, intelligence, propaganda and sometimes sabotage and diversionary operations were carried out in the municipal areas - eliminating confidents and Gestapo agents sentenced to death by the underground courts of justice, capturing weapons and obtaining funds. At the same time the Polish underground forces conducted the intelligence operations, providing the allies with the information on the weaponry, moves and transfers of the German troops. One of such spectacular successes was obtaining technical details concerning the German Wunderwaffe V-2 rocket and the transfer of its essential parts to London.
          The Home Army, with ca. 500 000 members, constituted the most numerous underground army of conquered Europe. Poland was divided into districts controlled by the individual Home Army formations. As the Russian offensive approached, the Polish fighters were preparing for the Operation Tempest aimed at co-participation in the liberation of Poland by AK groups and seizure of power in the liberated regions by the Underground State structures.
          The underground leaders were unaware, that these activities had no chance to prove successful in view of the Yalta Agreement. After the Red Army entry onto the Polish territory, NKVD started to successively surround and disarm the Home Office units whose members were either incorporated into the Soviet-controlled Polish Army or sent to gulags. Some AK soldiers returned to conspiracy in the areas "liberated" by the Soviets. Gradually a decision decision about the Uprising against the Nazi enemy was taking shape.
          In June 1944 British and American airborne troops landed in Normandy. The Polish marines and pilots, joined later by the 1st Polish Armoured Division under General Maczek took part in this operation.

lądowanie aliantów w Normandii

          The Polish Parachute Brigade of Major General Sosabowski participated in the Battle of Arnhem

          The Red Army was several hundred kilometres east from Warsaw. The Germans were retreating. Expecting the Soviets' arrival, the Home Army command decided to execute the Operation Tempest. On 1 August 1944 the Warsaw Uprising was started. Fifty thousand soldiers of the Home Army Warsaw District, supported by all the political organisations and civilians took up fight for the capital.


a barricade

          The insurgents armed only with the insufficient amount of rifles and pistols for 63 days resisted in a heroic combat the German-led forces composed of 55 000 trained for the street fights Wehrmacht soldiers as well as SS and police forces equipped with artillery, air force, sapper's equipment, armoured trains and gunboats. German forces were supported by RONA units (Russians and Ukrainians in the Nazi military service) as well as the Azerbaijani collaborates.
          In spite of such huge military superiority, German troops suffered extensive losses amounting to 50%: 10 000 killed in action, 7 000 missing in action, 9 000 wounded. The insurgents' losses: 16 000 to 18 000 killed in action, 26 000 wounded, around 150 000 killed and murdered civilians. Following the Warsaw Uprising collapse on 2 October 1944, the Nazis for 3 months destroyed the remnants of Warsaw in the act of revenge.


          More than 85% of the city was razed to the ground. The Germans plundered the capital stealing numerous invaluable achievements of the Polish culture.
          Following the capitulation, around 15 000 insurgents were transported to the German POWs. About 650 000 Warsaw civilians were taken away to the transitional camp in Pruszkow, out of whom 150 000 were sent to forced labour in Germany, and 50 000 to the concentration camps.
          Red Army, which arrived at the Vistula line on 13 September 1944, impassively observed Warsaw death from the opposite side of the river which divides the city from south to north into two parts. Only the 1st Polish Army, subordinated to the Soviets, took in September an attempt at crossing the river and helping the insurgents, however, without success.
          On 17 January 1945 the Red and the Polish Army entered the dead and totally demolished town left by the Nazis.
          The 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis was the biggest armed struggle in the modern history of Europe.
          Polish armed forces fought the Nazi invader in France between 1939 - 1940, in the Middle East between 1940-1942, and in Great Britain's air-force defence between 1942-1944. They also participated in the operations carried out by the Allies in northern Africa, in Italy and in the landings from the United Kingdom via Channel La Manche, followed by the final assault on Berlin between 1944-1945.
          In January 1945 the Red Army launched its offensive aimed at the final defeat of the Nazis and conquering Berlin. On 2 February the 1st Polish Army fighting alongside the Read Army commenced battles at Wał Pomorski (Pommernstellung), the final defensive emplacement which reached back towards the outskirts of Berlin. On 16 April the Russian and the Polish troops crossed the Oder and the Neisse.
          The Polish army units took part in the so-called Berlin operation. USSR and Polish flags were flown over the Brandenburg Gate where on 2 May 1945 the historical Polish-Russian treaty on the elimination of the last centre of the resistance movement in Berlin was signed. On 8 May 1945 the Third Reich capitulated.
          Poland, apart from the Soviet Russia, suffered the biggest losses in people in Europe. In total 6 850000 Polish citizens, i.e. 20% of the overall population, perished in the Second World War.
          Poland's future was prearranged already before the end of the war. On 28 March 1945 NKVD deceitfully arrested in Pruszkow near Warsaw 16 commanders of the Underground State. They were transported to Moscow and following a fictitious trial of 21 June 1945 sentenced to many years of imprisonment. Some of them died in Soviet prisons.
          The new Polish borders were determined at the Potsdam conference in August 1945. Poland lost its eastern territory, marked by the so-called Curzon Line, in favour of the Soviet Russia, receiving in exchange pre-war German territory with western border running along the line of the Oder and Neisse Rivers. Nevertheless, Poland emerged from the war reduced by around 76 000 km2 (388 634 km2 before the war, 312 685 km2 after), gaining a 500 km-long access to the Baltic Sea as well as the industrialised western terrains (the so-called Recovered Territories). Millions of Poles were forced to migrate westwards, while the Germans were being expelled from Polish territory.
          Following the Potsdam conference the Western allies ceased to recognise the London-based Polish government-in-exile, considering instead, in accordance with the earlier agreement with Stalin, the communist government installed upon his consent and dependent on the Soviet Russia to be the legal representation of Poland. For almost 50 years, practically until 1989, Poland remained under the influence of the USSR, with all of its consequences.

Edited by Maciej Janaszek-Seydlitz,
Consulted with Bronisław Troński
Translated by Joanna Olędzka

Copyright © 2005 SPPW1944. All rights reserved.