The Polish Resistance established the Armia Krajowa (AK, Home Army), which became the largest underground movement in Europe with 400,000 fighters. Above are some of the AK’s weapons.
Polish resistance to the German occupation developed rapidly. In Warsaw, the leading underground organization was called Service for the Victory of Poland and was led by General Michal Tokarzewski-Karasiewicz, who maintained communications with the government in exile based in France. In January 1940, General Władysław Sikorski, head of the exile government, ordered the creation of an underground army, the Union for Armed Struggle (Związek Walki Zbrojnej, or ZWZ), which absorbed Service for the Victory of Poland. Many Polish officers were involved in the ZWZ, which mounted acts of sabotage against the Germans. ZWZ operatives also played a crucial role in gathering intelligence for the Western allies. The underground also created a Committee for Aid to Jews, and it was active in preserving the Polish educational and cultural activities the Germans had sought to eradicate. On February 14, 1942, the ZWZ became the Armia Krajowa, the Polish Home Army, its activities increasingly coordinated by the Polish government in exile in cooperation with British Special Operations Executive.
After the Soviets reached the Vistula and Narew, the Polish front stabilized for another five months. In that time the Soviets proved they came to Poland as liberators and occupiers rolled into one.
Much controversy therefore attends the decision to pause on the eastern side of the Vistula while the Germans crushed the Warsaw Rising over 63 days. A balanced view must take into account that the various Red Army Fronts on the eastern bank were at the end of a long campaign and needed to rest and refit: on August 29 the Stavka ordered a shift to the “strict defense” along the Vistula while operations were conducted in Rumania and the Baltic States. There is some evidence that a Soviet relief effort was attempted at Warsaw. Russian historians have argued that the Red Army made real attempts to assist, but that real operational and logistics problems did not allow this. Most importantly, the Soviets were defending their bridgeheads, only newly established, and building up forces for another deep battle operation to be fought in western Poland. It was not their objective to liberate Warsaw as an end in itself, just as Western Allied commanders originally intended to bypass Paris that August but were drawn in by a rising of its citizens. Once Polish units serving with the Red Army arrived on scene, a strong attempt was made to cross the Vistula and break into the city, but it was repulsed. Many Polish and western historians nevertheless accuse Stalin of deliberate, cynical delay over the 63 days of the Warsaw Uprising, during which the city was systematically ruined and the main force of the Armia Krajowa crushed by the Nazis with utter ruthlessness. And it is true that other Polish patriots were already being arrested and killed in Soviet rear areas by the NKVD.
The Warsaw Rising, sometimes called the Second Warsaw Uprising to distinguish it from the earlier Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, was part of Operation Tempest, a planned resistance by the Polish Home Army against the German occupiers. The rising began on August 1, 1944, and was projected as a 10-day action, but it endured for 63 days. The hope was not only to defeat the Germans in the capital city, but also to obtain control of Warsaw to prevent the Soviets from seizing the city when they “liberated” it.
The rising was commanded by Home Army general Antoni Chrusciel and involved about 37,600 Polish insurgents, most of whom were Polish Home Army troops. In the initial stage of the uprising, fewer than 14 percent of the insurgents were armed (equipment included 20 heavy machine guns, 98 light machine guns, 844 submachine guns, 1,386 rifles, and 2,665 handguns), but more arms and ammunition came from western Allied and Soviet air drops or were captured from the Germans. In any case, much of the combat took place with hand grenades and Molotov cocktails.
Initially, most of the city quickly fell to the insurgents, although they failed to capture the principal arteries and railway stations. The insurgents continued to fight, however, in the expectation of reinforcements from the Western Allies or the Soviets. There was also a strong possibility, they felt, that Germany would soon collapse. This hope was dashed on August 20, when 21,300 German troops (including Oskar Dirlewanger’s so-called SS-Sonderbatallion “Dirlewanger”, a unit of convicted variegated criminals in the German service) stormed through the city streets. Heinrich Himmler had ordered the soldiers to shoot all Poles on sight, whether insurgents or not. In this way, 40,000 citizens of Warsaw were cut down before Lt. Gen. Erich von dem Bach- Zelewski, commander in charge of the operation, ordered the indiscriminate killings to cease. On August 25, Bach-Zelewski began his organized counterattack. It was a bitter street-by-street battle. In the meantime, the Red Army was stopped by a German counteroffensive just outside of Warsaw, and Joseph Stalin refused to order a renewal of the Soviet offensive; therefore, no relief would come to the fighters in the city. Almost certainly, Stalin intended for the Germans to kill as many members of the Home Army as possible, because he saw these men as obstacles to ultimate Soviet control of Poland.
Under siege, the insurgents organized soup kitchens, dug wells, and provided shelter and medical care for Warsaw’s residents during the fighting. But slowly, the Germans regained control of the city. On October 1, Polish Home Army general Tadeusz Komorowski surrendered, having secured from the Germans a pledge that the insurgents would be treated as regular combatants and that all surviving civilians would be evacuated from Warsaw.
The toll of the Warsaw Rising was 15,000 insurgents killed, along with 250,000 civilians— out of a total population of 1,000,000. German losses may have been as high as 17,000 dead and missing. After the evacuation, the Germans deliberately and systematically leveled more than 80 percent of Warsaw.
The liberation of Warsaw and the rest of Poland from the Nazis waited for five agonizing months. It did not begin until January 1945, with the start of the Red Army’s Vistula-Oder operation . After Warsaw was liberated by Polish 1st Army, attached to Soviet forces, the NKVD arrested or kill as many Armia Krajowa personnel as it could locate in the liberated areas. Several hundred krasnoarmeets were killed as Armia Krajowa men fought back. Representatives of the London Poles were arrested in secret, and Polish soldiers were arrested and held in Soviet camps. By October 1945, there were 30,000 Poles in NKVD holding camps.