Russian freiwillige from the S.S. Sturmbrigade R.O.N.A. (Russian National Liberation Army) during the Warsaw Uprising, August 1944.
Captured German Sd.Kfz. 251 from the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, and pressed into service with the 8-th “Krybar” Regiment. The soldier holding a MP 40 submachine gun is commander Adam Dewicz “Gray Wolf”, 14 August 1944.
Polish Home Army positions, outlined in red, on day 4 (4 August 1944).
Forward elements of Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front advanced north along the east bank of the Vistula toward Warsaw in July 1944. On July 29, the Stavka ordered all offensive operations in eastern Poland to stop, while ordering new offensives into Rumania and the Baltic States. Yet, on the same day, Red Army radio called upon the Polish Armia Krajowa or “Home Army” to rise in revolt and harry the Germans in advance of liberation-which the French Resistance would do in Paris a few weeks later. Acting on orders from “General Bor” (Tadeusz Komorowski), the Armia Krajowa seized most of Warsaw. The Germans moved in reinforcements to systematically destroy Warsaw and crush resistance by thousands of lightly armed Armia Krajowa fighters, men and women. Special Schutzstaffel (SS) units of criminals and non-German turncoats organized by Heinrich Himmler to man the infamous and murderous “Dirlewanger” and “Kaminski” brigades. Enthusiastic about receiving the appointment from his Führer, Himmler declared: “Warsaw will be liquidated.” Despite pleas from Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and from the Polish fighters in Warsaw and others serving with the Red Army, the Soviets remained on the east bank of the Vistula as the Germans defeated the Armia Krajowa and leveled the city. For 63 days the Uprising continued, from August 1 to October 2. Some 200,000 Polish civilians died, many butchered by the SS.
Waiting across the Vistula by the Red Army is often portrayed as a cynical betrayal of the first order, and it smolders still in Polish national memory. Polish and Western historians often blame Stalin for deliberately allowing elimination of the only local force which might resist imposition of Moscow’s authority over Poland. Russian historians have argued that the Red Army made several attempts to assist, including air drops, but that real operational problems did not allow it to do more. Certain events and some captured Wehrmacht documents appear to at least partially support the Soviet contention that they could not, rather than would not, come to the aid of the Poles. Other facts leave room for doubt. The leading historian of modern Polish history, Norman Davies, also blames the Western Allies for failing across the board with regard to Poland in 1944. He argues that the Western powers were focused on unconditional surrender of Germany, deep argument over the DRAGOON landings in southern France, and ongoing operations of the breakout from Normandy. In consequence, they believed that the war would be over soon. Davies claims that only the British made a real effort to assist the rebels. Flying from Italy, the RAF tried to supply the Armia Krajowa with weapons and medical supplies, and took heavy losses as a result. RAF efforts were limited by Soviet refusal to permit landing and transit rights behind the Red Army’s frontline, forcing British aircraft to run the German air defense gauntlet in both directions. Davies thus concludes that “the tragedy of the Warsaw Uprising resulted from a systemic breakdown of the Grand Alliance.”
Did the Soviets deliberately allow the Germans to crush the Warsaw Uprising? More important to the question is the fact that the leaders of the Armia Krajowa did not rebel because the Soviets asked them to: they did it to lay claim to liberation of Warsaw themselves. In that ambition, their timing-unlike that of the French in Paris later in August-was fatally in error. It is also possible, and even likely, that Stalin and the Stavka misjudged how hard the Germans would fight for Warsaw. They did so for reasons of sheer hate for the Poles, but also because the city lay along the main approaches to Germany itself. What happened in the fields around Warsaw while fighting was underway within it? On July 28, Soviet 2nd Tank Army engaged German 73rd Infantry Division and the “Hermann Göring” Panzer Division 40 km south of Warsaw, principally fighting for control of routes leading into the city along which the Red Army wanted to advance and the Wehrmacht needed to retreat. The next day, Rokossovsky sent 3rd Tank Corps and 8th Guards Army northeast of Warsaw, while 16th Tank Corps advanced toward its eastern suburbs. While some Soviet units closed to within 20 km of the city others were repeatedly and successfully counterattacked by elements of Army Group Center, then under the command and skilled leadership of Field Marshal Walter Model. After three days of fierce fighting with two SS-Panzer divisions, Soviet tank forces were badly beaten and seem to have exhausted their combat power. That left a single Soviet infantry army stretched over a front of 80 km in front of Warsaw until August 20, when 1st Polish Army, an all-Polish formation within the Red Army, came up to join it.
It is less clear why a greater ground effort was not made to reach the city in late August, after the arrival of 1st Polish Army, or why the VVS did not do more to help the Poles inside the city. By September 6 the Red Army finally fought a way over the Narew. Two divisions of Polish troops from 1st Army made a heavily opposed assault across the Vistula on September 13, while the VVS finally made major supply drops into the city. The Polish divisions became bogged down on the western side of the river. Despite their fierce desire to remain, they had to be evacuated on the 23rd. None of those facts are wholly dispositive of Soviet command motivations, especially as they do not penetrate the miasma that was the mind of Joseph Stalin, a man certainly capable of approving air supply only to further waste the men and assets of the Armia Krajowa in an already lost cause: Stalin would later brush off the Warsaw rebels as “a gang of criminals.” But nor is it certain that a dark political conspiracy existed to destroy the Armia Krajowa and Polish resistance. Moreover, a premature parallel rising in Slovakia, from August 29 to October 27, was also crushed by the Wehrmacht and SS without receiving Red Army aid. On the other hand, there is no doubt that once the Red Army was firmly established in Poland, the NKVD was unleashed to hunt down and destroy all members of the Armia Krajowa, and other potential leaders of an anti-Communist Polish government and military.
Suggested Reading: Norman Davies, “Rising ’44”: Betraying Warsaw (2004).