On the morning of 2 August 1944, Rokossovsky went to view the Polish capital and got a good indication of the Polish Home Army’s efforts, recalling:
Together with a group of officers I was visiting the 2nd Tank Army, which was fighting on that sector of the front. From our observation point, which had been set up at the top of a tall factory chimney, we could see Warsaw. The city was covered in clouds of smoke. Here and there houses were burning. Bombs and shells were exploding. Everything indicated that a battle was in progress.
Why did Rokossovsky not try for a bridgehead at Warsaw if the Red Army had established footholds at Magnuszew, Puławy and on the upper Vistula near Sandomierz? To have done so would have been far tougher than in the Radom region, way to the south. Sandomierz had cost them dearly, plus Stalin saw Warsaw as anchoring the Germans’ line on the Narev and Bobr and, in turn, East Prussia and knew they would fight bitterly to defend this. Without the Baltic States secured, Hitler could strike from East Prussia against the flank and rear of the Red Army once it was advancing beyond the Vistula.
Also, by now Rokossovsky was facing twenty-two enemy divisions, this included four security divisions in the Warsaw suburbs, three Hungarian divisions on the Vistula, south of Warsaw, and the remains of six or seven divisions which had escaped from the chaos of Belostok and Brest-Lotovsk. At least eight divisions were identified fighting to the north of Siedlce, amongst them two panzer and three SS panzer or panzergrenadier divisions. Stalin was waiting in the wings with his own Polish government and armed forces.
Marshal Zhukov blamed Polish leader Bor-Komorowski for a lack of co-operation with the Red Army:
As was established later, neither the command of the Front [Rokossovsky] nor that of Poland’s 1st Army [Berling] had been informed in advance by Bor-Komorowski, the leader of the uprising, about forthcoming events in Warsaw. Nor did he make any attempt to co-ordinate the insurgents’ actions with those of the 1st Byelorussian Front. The Soviet Command learned about the uprising after the event from local residents who had crossed the Vistula. The Stavka had not been informed in advance either.
In light of Rokossovsky’s efforts to the north-east and south-east of Warsaw in the face of the tough Waffen-SS, this is largely true.
In Warsaw, General Reiner Stahel’s 12,000-strong garrison included 5,000 regular troops, 4,000 Luftwaffe personnel (over a quarter of whom were manning the air defences) and the 2,000-strong Warsaw security regiment. Wehrmacht forces in the immediate area numbered up to 16,000 men, with another 90,000 further afield. Army Group Centre was to have a limited role in fighting the Warsaw Rising. General Vormann, commanding the 9th Army, sent 1,000 men to Praga to help hold the Poniatowski Bridge. An additional three battalions were also sent to help to assist the Hermann Göring Division in clearing a way through the city to the Kierbedz Bridge.
With the Wehrmacht fully tied up fending off Soviet attacks, it was left to the reviled SS to stamp out the Polish rising, involving military police units and SS troops under SS-Standartenführer Paul Geibel supported by factory and rail guards. Geibel also managed to scrounge four Tiger tanks, a Panther tank, four medium tanks and an assault gun off the 5th SS to strengthen his forces. A motley battle group under SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth, supported by thirty-seven assault guns and a company of heavy tanks, was also assembled to crush the Polish Home Army in Warsaw.
SS reinforcements included SS-Brigadeführer Bratislav Kaminski’s hated Russian National Liberation Army Brigade. Kaminski supported SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger’s Anti-Partisan Brigade. This consisted of two battalions of criminals, three battalions of former Soviet POWs, two companies of gendarmes, a police platoon and an artillery battery. Additionally, Colonel Wilhelm Schmidt supplied men drawn from his 603rd Regiment and a grenadier and police battalion.
All the forces in Warsaw were placed under SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had been overseeing the construction of defences on the Vistula near Gdańsk. He was the nemesis of partisan forces in the east. Von dem Bach-Zelewski was soon to find that both Kaminski and Dirlewanger’s men were atrociously disciplined. Their brutality in Warsaw was to horrify even the battle-hardened SS, and von dem Bach-Zelewski thought they were the lowest of the low, remarking, ‘The fighting value of these Cossacks was, as usual in such a collection of people without a fatherland, very poor. They had a great liking for alcohol and other excesses and had no interest in military discipline.’
On 5 August 1944, Dirlewanger and Kaminski’s troops counter-attacked the brave Polish Home Army. For two days, they ran amok. After the war, the German officers involved disingenuously laid the blame firmly on the shoulders of Kaminski and Dirlewanger.
On 19 August the Polish Home Army’s efforts to fight its way through to those forces trapped in the Old Town came to nothing and it was clear they would have to be evacuated to the city centre and Żoliborz district. About 2,500 fighters withdrew via the sewers, leaving behind their badly wounded. It was now only a matter of time before the SS crushed resistance in the city centre and cleared resistance between the Poniatowski and Kierbedz Bridges.
To ward off a wider encircling movement by the Red Army to the north, Model deployed the 4th SS Panzer Corps with the 3rd SS and 5th SS moving into blocking positions. From 14 August, the Soviets attacked for a week but the SS successfully held off fifteen rifle divisions and two tank corps. Also in mid-August, Model relinquished his command of Army Group Centre and hastened to France to take charge from Günther von Kluge in a vain attempt to avert the unfolding German defeat in Normandy.
Stalin’s great offensive that had commenced in Byelorussia on 23 June 1944 had all but ended by 29 August. By the 26th, the 3rd SS had been forced back to Praga, but a counter-attack by them on 11 September thwarted another attempt to link up with the Polish Home Army. It was the 3rd SS and 5th SS who had the dubious honour, along with Stalin, of consigning Warsaw to two months of bloody agony.
From 13 September, the Red Air Force spent two weeks conducting 2,000 supply sorties to the insurgents. The supplies were modest, including 505 anti-tank rifles, nearly 1,500 sub-machine guns and 130 tons of food, medicine and explosives. By the time Berling’s Polish 1st Army was committed for the battle for Praga, time was running out, with Żoliborz under attack by elements of the 25th Panzer Division and just 400 insurgents left holding a narrow strip of the river.
Berling recklessly threw his men over the river at Czerniaków, but tragically could make no headway against determined German resistance. He landed three groups on the banks of the Czerniaków and Powiśle areas and made contacts with Home Army forces on the night of 14/15 September. His men on the eastern shore attempted several more landings over the next four days, but during 15–23 September those who had got over suffered heavy casualties and lost their boats and river-crossing equipment.
On 22 September, Berling’s men were ordered back across the Vistula for a second time. There was hardly any Red Army support and out of the 3,000 men who made it across just 900 got back to the eastern shores, two-thirds of whom were seriously wounded. In total, Berling’s Polish 1st Army losses amounted to 5,660 killed, missing or wounded, trying to aid the Warsaw Uprising.
After sixty-two days of fighting, and having lost 15,000 dead and 25,000 wounded, the Polish Home Army surrendered in Warsaw on 2 October. Up to 200,000 civilians had been killed in the needless orgy of destruction. After the surrender, 15,000 members of the Home Army were disarmed and sent to POW camps in Germany, while up to 6,000 fighters slipped back into the population with the intention of continuing the fight. However, the vengeful Himmler expelled the rest of the civilian population and ordered the city be flattened.
Crushing the Poles had been a pointless exercise which cost Hitler 10,000 dead, 9,000 wounded and 7,000 missing. It was clear from the fatalities outnumbering the wounded that no quarter had been given. However, German morale was given a much-needed boost, which had them believing their feat of arms, rather than Stalin, had halted Rokossovsky at the very gates of Warsaw.
Rokossovsky would not occupy the Polish capital for another six weeks, leaving Hitler triumphant before Warsaw. It was to be his last real victory of the war.
At the height of the fighting on the Eastern Front in 1944, 63 per cent of Hitler’s divisions and 70 per cent of his manpower were tied up fighting Stalin’s Red Army. It also accounted for 57 per cent of all his panzers and assault guns, 71 per cent of all guns and mortars and 51 per cent of all operational aircraft. The other two active fronts in France and Italy accounted for just 30–35 per cent of Hitler’s total combat strength.
Despite holding the Red Army before Warsaw and crushing the Polish rising, it was hard to see how Hitler’s Wehrmacht could survive the twin calamities of Byelorussia and Normandy. The enormous loss of manpower urgently needed addressing. While German industry worked wonders reconstituting the shattered panzer formations thanks to Albert Speer’s weapons factories, new infantry divisions were also desperately required. In autumn 1944, Hitler ordered the creation of almost eighty Volksgrenadier divisions. These had fewer infantry battalions and heavy weapons than regular infantry divisions, but issuing them with more sub-machine guns and assault rifles than usual compensated for this.
Initially thirty-five skeleton divisions were refitted and another fifteen new ones created. To the OKW’s displeasure, for propaganda purposes Hitler insisted on naming them Volksgrenadiers (People’s Grenadiers) and placing them under the auspices of the SS. The German Replacement Army was soon gathering men from disbanded army units and convalescing in hospitals, as well as surplus Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine personnel. Old men and teenagers previously considered unsuitable were also rapidly conscripted.
There was constant competition between the army, Waffen-SS and Luftwaffe for resources that created a wholly unnecessary duplication of effort. The OKW would have preferred that all available men were used as combat replacements for existing army units, rather than creating new ones. The army had struggled to gain control of Göring’s twenty-two weak Luftwaffe field divisions in late 1943. By which time the damage was done, as they were standing units and the men could not be transferred. Himmler’s Waffen-SS controlled another thirty-eight elite divisions, which operated outside the army’s chain of command.
The creation of the Volksgrenadier units caused Allied intelligence some confusion, as Hitler’s home guard was known as the Volkssturm. This resulted in the firepower of the Volksgrenadier divisions being greatly underestimated. They were sent to fight on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. However, fifteen divisions were assigned to Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive. Guderian would rather have seen them and the re-formed panzer divisions all sent east to hold the Oder, but it was not to be.