Eye-witness accounts of the Insurgence

Warsaw Uprising

Andrzej (Andrew) Borowiec, born September 24, 1928,
a.k.a. "Zych"
Senior Rifleman of the Home Army
no. 47489

         Andrew (Andrzej) Borowiec - born in 1928, Warsaw insurgent, soldier of 101st Platoon, a.k.a. "Zych", canal messenger from Śródmieście to Starówka, joined "Radosław" Group in Czerniaków, took part in the fights in the region of Wilanowska Street, evacuated with "Radosław" troops to Mokotów. After the Germans' attack on Mokotów, he was injured twice over one day and was taken captive by the Germans. He was a prisoner in Stalag XIA Altengrabow. After the liberation he served in Władysław Anders Polish II Corps in Italy. Later he moved to Great Britain, where he received a high-school "Matura" certificate. He then received a scholarship and continued his education at the Columbia University. He worked as a journalist for, among others, Associated Press for 13 years (New York, Paris, Algiers, West Africa, Geneva, Vietnam), Washington Star for 9 years as a "traveling correspondent" (Africa, Middle East, Europe, Vietnam), Chicago Sun-Times (mainly Mediterranean area). Currently he works for the American newspaper Washington Times. He is the author of many books, including the book about the Warsaw Uprising published in the USA:
         Destroy Warsaw! Hitler's Punishment, Stalin's Revenge (Praeger, 2001).
         Cyprus A Troubled Island
         Modern Tunisia A Democratic Apprenticeship
         Taming the Sahara Tunisia Shows a Way While Others Falter
         The Mediterranean Feud.
         Yugoslavia after Tito.

         He is a resident of Cyprus, from time to time he lives in the French Alpes.

         This article, containing the elementary facts about Warsaw Uprising, was written by the Author for a Western reader of our website in mind..

History, facts and impressions

         The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 against German occupation was the bloodiest insurgence in the history of Poland and a cruel example of the demise of a million city in the heart of Europe. At least 150 000 people lost their lives, while 90% of the capital city of Poland was left in ruins.

         The tragedy of Warsaw was not a national suicide, but the result of five years of ruthless occupation conducted by Germans and the Soviets' plan to conquer Eastern Europe after the fall of the Third Reich. By withholding the offensive near the walls of Warsaw on the day of the Uprising Outbreak on August 1, 1944, Stalin condemned the city to destruction and, what was left of its residents, to exile. Such policy smoothed the path for Germans to raze the unyielding Polish capital city to the ground, and for the Soviets - to install the pro-Soviet communist government on its rubbles. Warsaw had yet to pay again for its unfortunate geographical location between the two powers struggling to conquest the unruly nation.

         In view of the decisive role of the Soviet Union in the victory of the Allies over German fascism, the West left Stalin to his own devices, not caring entirely about his intentions or the conduct of the Red Army on the territories left by the Germans. From the very moment of their presence on the territory of pre-war Poland, the Soviet forces began to disarm Polish partisans and arrest officers and they often sent whole troops to camps in Russia.

         The command of the Polish underground movement against Germany, which was subordinate to the Polish government-in-exile in London, was convinced that an armed struggle for Warsaw was unavoidable - the nation wanted to fight. Warsaw wished to liberate itself alone, but at the same time it was not aware of geopolitical conditions, the capability of the underground movement of conducting such an action or the degree of German determination to control as long as possible such an important communicative and supply center for the Eastern Front.

         But the enthusiasm and esprit de corps of the insurgents were unstoppable. What failed was lack of weapons and ammunition and also lack of cooperation with the Soviets, the cooperation that from the very beginning was out of the question from the Kremlin's point of view. Although the Moscow radio urged the Warsaw population on "raising up and showing the way for the Red Army", Stalin wished to maintain no contact with the "Polish fascists" and claimed from the very first moment that the Uprising was provoked by the "reactionary emigration circles" in London. Stalin had detailed information about the critical attitude of the Allied powers to Polish emigrants, often accused of undermining Russian war efforts by conducting anti-Soviet propaganda.

         The decision to start the Uprising was in the hands of "Bór" (Tadeusz Komorowski), a pre-war cavalry officer known for his participation in international horse contests, now the commander of the Home Army, in whose ranks the vast majority of the members of the underground movement served and fought. The Polish government in London accepted the plan of the Uprising a few days before its outbreak, and learnt about fierce fights on August 2 through a broadcasting radio station in Warsaw, which still lacked a few parts.

         In the beginning Bór did not try to make contact with the incoming Soviet armies commanded by Marshal Rokossowski. He made attempts at contacting the Russians later, but they did not respond.

         For the insurgents the outbreak of the Uprising was intoxicating, like a dream concealed for five bitter years of occupation suddenly coming true. We did not think about dangers and consequences. And after just a few first hours it turned out that the Uprising was not only an undertaking of "rebellious children", but it became a driving force of the majority of Warsaw civilians, who plunged themselves into work to help the partisans, building barricades etc. Accusations, disillusionment and despair came only later, when Warsaw was literally turning to dust, day by day, street by street, house by house, for 63 days. At this moment there were those among the inhabitants who had lost everything and called us the "arsonists of Warsaw".

         But this is August 1, a sunny day of Warsaw summer, early afternoon. On Aleje Jerozolimskie, one of the main arteries of the city, opposite Soldanteneheim (a soldiers' house), on the pavement cordoned off by barbed wire, there are Germans from different formations, sitting, drinking beer and observing the street life. They pay no attention to rushing young people, carrying large bundles wrapped in thick paper - these are backpacks hidden from view in this tricky way! Also frequent German patrols of up to ten soldiers are watching this contraband with equal indifference. From time to time some heavy tanks pass by, manned by soldiers wearing black uniforms of special panzer division of Hermann Goëring. They are heading to the bridges on the Vistula river. Nobody yet realizes that these tanks, unexpected by the command of the Home Army, will contribute to first heavy losses in the Uprising.

         The conspirators (average age from 16 to 25, though there were of course younger and older soldiers) were organized into platoons numbering 60 people at maximum, which were then grouped into companies and larger troops directly before the fights began. For example, platoon 101 (where I belonged), made of boys from the scout organization, was joined with platoon 116 into one company, which included both older youth and people who had served in army before the war. The conspiracy permeated all layers of society. The conspirators tried to recruit new volunteers mostly from their own environments, but the differences quickly faded away during fights. There were altogether 700 platoons in Warsaw, including special platoons, such as: telephone, radio, mine, medical and military police platoons.

         The training (excluding elite forces), very elementary in its nature, would take place at meetings in private apartments, or even in some empty school or factory buildings, as well as during Sunday trips to the wooded areas near Warsaw. At these meetings we learnt what was the meaning of patrol, point man, vanguard and picket, how to disassemble and reassemble our weapon, and to sing the anthem of the Polish Underground State.

         Go on, into the fray, soldiers of Underground Poland, pick up your weapon! The divine powers are guarding us, and the Nation is extending its hand!

         The conspiratorial scout movement also distributed the underground press and painted patriotic slogans on the walls of Warsaw - such actions were threatened with a concentration camp or capital punishment. Special subversive troops performed executions, to which "underground" courts sentenced some members of the occupational authorities or Polish traitors.

         The majority of insurgents fired first shots in their life only after the operation began. The officers constituted mainly pre-war soldiers who had been lucky enough to avoid capture after the failure of the Polish Army in 1939. The underground organization also trained young candidates for officers and non-commissioned officers, who in general passed their final exams in the action.

         This throng of people - from 45 000 to 48 000 men and women - received orders mainly in writing. The orders were delivered to the so called "post boxes" assigned to almost every section of 6 people. It is estimated that on August 1 in the morning the orders were being delivered to the concentration by ca. 6000 messengers, by tram, by bike or on foot. Contact by phone was generally avoided due to the fact that telephone switchboards were in the hands of the occupational authorities and constant monitoring was in progress.

         A few days before the concentration we found in our "post boxes" red-and-white armbands with the number of a platoon, letters WP standing for "Wojsko Polskie" (Polish Army) and an eagle - the ensign of Poland. My squad belonged to the troops mobilized as early as on July 28 in the city center, where the Uprising was assumed to begin that night. The concentration was called off, but some parts of the mobilized troops stayed in their so called "waiting quarters". At that time everyone was very edgy and excited - we also realized we had very little ammunition and weapon at our disposal. However, this did not dampen our enthusiasm at all. They will send supplies from England, and the rest we will take from the Germans - we would say to each other.

         The first shots were fired in chaotic conditions at many points in the city before 17.00 hours, when the Uprising was supposed to begin (W-Hour). The Polish command was convinced that the peak hour in traffic would be favorable for the surprise of the Uprising outbreak. Still, some insurgent troops were attacked by Germans when they were arming themselves, others began to shoot on sight when they saw German military formations or the police. A few small trucks transporting weaponry fell into the German hands. As early as on this first day of the Uprising the SS tanks were introduced into the fights in the northern district, Żoliborz, when they were passing through the city.

         My company belonged to the group which was ordered to take over "Arbeitsamt", i.e. employment agency, the building of the pre-war bank (Land Credit Society), where the Germans assigned people to force labor in Germany. Our security posts opened fire around 16:00 hours when they saw German military police disembarking trucks on Dąbrowski Square. When the first shots were fired, my platoon (35 boys) was standing by in two rows with backpacks on the first floor of the large room of the Central Welfare Council, the organization which dealt with refugees from different areas of Poland and which also served as a meeting place of the conspiracy.

         Our reaction was interesting: in the first seconds we all "en masse" stepped back from the windows to the kitchen, and a moment later, also without any orders, those who were armed made a dash back towards the windows and commenced fire. Our platoon was armed with two submachine guns and ten or so pistols. A several dozen of us also had grenades, the rest was empty-handed. When the Germans retreated, there were only a damaged armored car and two dead enemy bodies left on the square (in the middle of the night the insurgents took their shoes!).

         "Bartkiewicz" group, which consisted among others of our "mixed" company and "Rygiel" company, had already been engaged in the attack on Arbeitsamt, on the other side of the complex of the buildings and backyards stretching up to Mazowiecka Street. I remember Lt. Bohun, the commander of the company, ordering me to follow him up the ladder put against a window of the apartment on the first floor of the building, with a perfect view on the goal of our attack. The first person I saw when I got there was a priest kneeling at an injured person. I stood on the floor covered with broken glass near the window, from which an insurgent wearing a beret was shooting an English Sten submachine gun. I was dazed with my metamorphosis: from a boy living with his family I turned into a soldier in the middle of the escalating shooting. After a while somebody shouted "Throw a grenade!". I unlocked it (like I was trained to do) and threw it down into the backyard below us. I was terrified with the commotion it made. Looking through the window I spotted a few Germans in helmets and with large backpacks running across the backyard. A few minutes later we heard a yell from the ground floor: "Guys, Arbeitsamt is ours!" Among many objects defended by the Germans, this building was but one of few taken over that first night.

         The Warsaw residents started to leave the cellars - one lady treated me to cherry compote. An elegant man with gray hair was assuring a group of women: "I am just coming back from the general staff, the news is excellent".

         Over the night the sultry sunny August turned into a gray, nearly autumnal day. It was raining. From our position at the window (partly barricaded by stacks of books) with a view on Dąbrowski Square and Marszałkowska Street (the main street crossing the city from north to south), we could observe the high telephone building of PASTA (Polish Telephone Joint-Stock Company) with an enormous German flag. Three German assault guns on caterpillar tracks passed down the street, not attacked by anyone. On the other side of the street there were some people running with armbands around their arms, carrying pistols in their hands. Shots from machine guns and small arms could be heard. Suddenly, we heard some strange raspy noises coming from a megaphone hanging in the corner of the street, which so far had been used by the occupational authorities to broadcast war announcements. After a while, the strange noises were replaced with the melody of the national anthem, unheard for five years! For many of us this was the most emotional moment in the Uprising.

         Although the weapon we had was in a catastrophic condition, the Uprising was not called off, despite the fact that five out of ten officers had pronounced against the action on a decisive meeting of the command on July 27. Bór was of the opinion that the boycott of the German order forcing men to dig up fortifications for the incoming front might result in repressions and mass round-ups, which could in turn paralyze the whole underground movement.

         The insurgents launched an attack on a German garrison of 20 000 well-armed and disciplined soldiers from Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, SS, SA paramilitary units and military police, being themselves armed with 4000 pistols, 2600 rifles, almost 700 sub-machine guns, 30 flamethrowers, 200 light and heavy machine guns and 44 000 hand grenades, the majority of the underground production.

         Although some units were massacred either by tanks or during attacks on reinforced German positions, the insurgents were able to take over large parts of the city, where the residents started to hang out white-and-red Polish flags. The casualties on the first day counted 500 dead German soldiers and 1500 killed insurgents. Demoralized by heavy losses, about 5000 insurgents from the north (Żoliborz) and south (Mokotów) districts left the capital and hid in the nearby forests. The majority of them came back within the next few days, when the situation in the Uprising begin to stabilize.

         The outbreak in Warsaw alarmed the highest German officials in Berlin and Munich, including Rastenberg in East Prussia, where the main headquarters for the Eastern Front was located - and where Hitler was staying at that time. The Führer initially gave an order to mobilize the whole air force in the east to bombard Warsaw, but then the Nazis realized that, besides the troops, there were ca. 23 000 other Germans still living in the city. These included the personnel of the occupational administration and the so called Volksdeutsche, Polish citizens who had chosen the status of "ethnic Germans" and collaborated with the occupant. To destroy Warsaw, Hitler decided to send there a specially formed unit to do the job. Its commander was SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski. During the post-war Nuremberg trials he stated that he had been raised in Pomerania "in Polish tradition". But during the Uprising he did not use the "Zelewski" part of his name.

         When the first shots of the Uprising were fired, the Soviet patrols were already approaching the eastern suburbs of Warsaw - Saska Kępa. However, they quickly retreated, assuring insurgents they met on their way that they would soon be back. This "comeback" took place as late as September 12, when the Red Army took over the right bank of the Vistula, and the Uprising on the left bank was in death-agony.

         The fact that the Home Army had taken over large areas of Warsaw to some degree made it easier for German heavy artillery to shell large stretches of land and for German planes to bombard the city in an unrestricted way. The majority of Warsaw population hid in the cellars, though some districts - in the north and south - were spared, at least in the beginning.

         Von dem Bach's plan first envisaged opening the way to the bridges on the Vistula and then a gradual conquer of Warsaw, district by district, until the revolt was stifled. This was accompanied by ruthless treatment of the civil population, which was driven out of their homes and often used as "human shield" for attacking tanks and infantry. Many men were executed by a firing squad. At the beginning of October, when Bór entered into negotiations about "surrendering with honor", the insurgents had still been fighting only in Śródmieście, having food provisions for three more days. The basements were full of the wounded, but bandages and medicines were in short supply.

         When the Uprising broke out, its command expected to receive considerable support from the Allied forces, including the Polish Independent Parachute Brigade from England and Polish Royal Air Force squadrons to protect the capital. These hopes were too high, however, for the distance separating Warsaw from English and American bases was too large. In any case, Polish troops in the West were subordinate tactically to higher British commanders and the Polish general staff had no say in their assignments. On his side, Stalin categorically turned down London's request to use Soviet airfields in order to drop weaponry from Britain and Italy to Polish insurgents. Over August and September a series of night air drop actions for Warsaw (with the participation of Polish, English and South African aircrews) were organized from airfields in Italy. The supplies were dropped from low altitudes on the positions marked with light signals in different districts of the city. However, the Allied flights to Warsaw were characterized by high losses in planes, and the containers often fell into German territories. In the end, the air drops ceased. In mid-September small Soviet planes, the so called Kukuruzniks, appeared over some districts of Warsaw. They flew just over the roof tops, dropping weaponry, ammunition and food - without the parachutes. On September 18, 1944 at daylight a large air drop was conducted from high altitude. Over 100 American bombers and several dozen fighters were flying over Warsaw. They took off in England and used Soviet airfields for landing. Yet only a small part of these air drops fell into the hands of the insurgents.

         Bór, as the commander of the Home Army, and Col. Monter (Antoni Chruściel), commander of Warsaw region, had asked the Soviets for help on several occasions - through London and directly by radio or by sending messengers, who would cross the Vistula river to reach the Soviet forces. Most of these requests were turned down, however.

         The Uprising was dragging out without any help from outside. The Allied planes with British, Polish, Canadians, South African and, in the end, American crews dropped weapons, ammunition and medicines, which had to be often retrieved from the enemy territories. In the districts controlled by the Uprising, the insurgents administration managed food distribution and fire extinguishing and organized rescuing operations to save people buried in the explosions of bombs and artillery shells. Many Home Army units, including my own, took part in these actions. We were still lacking weapons and ammunition and the situation was dramatic, except for the so called "assault" troops. We used to print posters showing a skull wearing a German helmet with the inscription saying: "One bullet, one German". In intervals between actions, such as reconnaissance actions or defense against mass attacks, the weapon was used mainly on the barricades, and the soldiers handed it over to the next shift.

         Boys and girls, who had started the Uprising, unaccustomed to constant explosions, blood and dead bodies, were gradually "hardening off". Teenage girls were leading whole processions of people through the canals, which were used more and more often. In this way a few thousands of healthy and injured people left the Old Town, which surrendered after three weeks of fights. The intensity of the fights demonstrated itself in the report given by von dem Bach of August 28, in which he asked for sending "a complete experienced division" for back-up, claiming that "the final victory may be achieved only by infantry and sapper troops fighting in deep cellars and among ruins of buildings... Our toll amounts to 150 people daily in the fights over the Old Town."

         At the dawn of September 16, the troops of the 9th regiment of the 3rd division of the Polish People's Army commanded by Gen. Zygmunt Berling began to cross the Vistula onto Czerniaków territory. This was a rescue so long awaited by dying Warsaw.

         The "Berlingers" had been mobilized in the territories of Eastern Poland after the arrival of the Red Army. A lot of them spoke Belorussian, the majority had never before seen a large city - and now they gazed upon its debris. Their commander, Maj. Lotyszonok, spoke Russian. The artillery observers, who had come with them, were sending radiograms, asking for support, but the influx of troops from Saska Kępa ceased under the German shelling. The soldiers in Polish uniforms, armed to teeth with Soviet weapons, were not trained for street fights. Many were stunned. In comparison with them, we, the Home Army, considered ourselves as veterans (at that time I belonged to Radosław Group, among the ranks of what remained of scout Zośka Battalion, to which my 10 friends from 101 Platoon and I had volunteered. Only four of us survived the fights in Czerniaków).

         The arrival of "The Berling Army" to reinforce the Uprising had a completely improvisatorial character. There was no elementary reconnaissance or preparation. The Berlingers simply crossed the river - only to find themselves in the Czerniaków hell. Within a week of fights in the confined space they lost 500 people - killed or wounded. The rest were taken into captivity. Radosław assessed the situation as hopeless and in an effort to avoid surrender, 200 soldiers (half of them wounded) escaped through the canals to Mokotów, the southern part of the city. Four days later, the Germans opened a drum fire and launched an attack on Mokotów from a few directions at the same time. Those lucky to survive the violent attacks were taken into custody or reached Śródmieście after a gruesome 14-hour march through the canals. For the first time in the Uprising, the Home Army soldiers taken captive in Mokotów were treated as POWs in accordance with the Geneva Convention, the right taken by the Home Army by force. This was the only underground movement in Europe treated in this way.

         Still during the war it turned out that the landing of the troops on the left bank of the Vistula, where the Uprising was dying, had served as a camouflage of Soviet true intentions than a practical effort to come to the rescue of Warsaw. When the fights in Czerniaków were still ongoing, the First Polish Army under the Soviet command received an order to defend but stand still. The sacrifice of Berling's soldiers did not really matter. Such policy satisfied the West, especially England, which stopped accusing Moscow of inactivity. In his address to the House of Commons on October 5, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated that the Russians could not do more because of German fortifications on the Vistula. These fortifications were built by the Germans only after the fall of Warsaw. In the new world order the British and Americans counted Poland among the countries belonging to the "Soviet zone".

         After Mokotów the next in turn to fall was Żoliborz in the north, and in the end Śródmieście district, where the insurgents were taken captive in serried lines. In a transit camp in Skierniewice the insurgents from Mokotów marched to railway cars taking them to German stalags not as a defeated army, but chanting "AK (Home Army) hurrah!" After the war the communist authorities accused the Home Army of choosing captivity rather than crossing the Vistula and joining the Soviet forces, which in reality was unfeasible.

Andrew Borowiec


Andrew Borowiec at work
(interview with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tunisia)
- present-day photo

elaborated by Wojciech Włodarczyk

translation: Beata Murzyn

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