World War II began with the 1939 invasion of Poland by Germany shortly followed by a Soviet attack across the eastern Polish border. Although overwhelmed within a month, the Polish army fought ferociously, setting a standard which no other German-conquered nation was to equal.
In the subsequent wartime years the Poles showed great determination in continuing the struggle. No other nation suffered as much at the hands of its occupiers as did Poland. No occupied nation resisted as tenaciously as Poland. The Polish government, made up of centrist political figures and excluding Communists, re-constituted itself in London, where it raised a very large and tough army from Poles abroad.
Within occupied Poland, a secret underground army was also created. Known as the “Home army” (Armia Krajowa or AK), it eventually grew to a strength of almost 400,000 persons. This clandestine force, gathered in the face of a horrifying German occupation, was larger than that of any other occupied country.
Recognizing that the AK was too lightly armed to succeed in a general uprising, the exiled Polish government decided to husband its underground army and to await the moment when it could strike most effectively. By mid-summer 1944 it appeared that the moment was arriving. That moment, together with its prologue and its painful aftermath, is the subject of Norman Davies’ “Rising ‘44.”
Allied armies had landed at Normandy and the Soviet army was driving the German invaders out of Russia. The end of Hitlerite Germany was clearly only a matter of months away.
However, the Polish government did not believe that a German defeat would necessarily restore their nation’s independence. It was obvious that the Red army could soon occupy Poland as it crashed through into Germany. The Polish government foresaw
that the USSR would take over and hold onto the eastern third of Poland, which it had seized in 1939.
It was anticipated that the Soviets intended to install their own Polish puppet government and transform the nation into a docile satellite Communist state, to serve as a military barrier against any future resurgent Germany. That is what the Polish government feared, and this was not simply Polish paranoia. It was precisely what Joseph Stalin intended to do.
The Polish government-in-exile looked to the Western Allies, and especially Britain, to protect them against the Soviet menace. They believed that their significant contributions to the anti-Hitlerite cause merited them special consideration from those whose staunch friends they had, indeed, proved themselves to be.
But at the same time the Poles were fully determined to do everything possible in their own defense. Polish military planners developed a scheme by which Poland could both strike at the German enemy as well as preserve its own independence from Soviet takeover.
This plan, named “Operation Tempest,” called for the AK to rise up and attack the rear echelons of the German army as they battled the Soviet forces advancing into Poland. It predicted that the German defense would thereupon collapse and that the Red army, moving forward, would find that the Poles had quickly and firmly reestablished themselves as the sovereign government and military commanders in the region. The Poles would not allow themselves to be displaced in these roles by the Soviets, and would use force of arms if necessary.
Clearly, the “Tempest” plan required almost perfect timing. If the AK insurrection began too soon then the more heavily armed Germans might crush it before the Red army could break through the front. The chance for “Tempest” to work (if it would work at all) pretty much depended on it taking place in large cities where the AK was strongest.
Warsaw, the Polish capital, obviously offered the greatest chance of success. The Home army forces in Warsaw totaled about 50,000 men and women. Additional AK fighters were making their way to the city from outlying areas.
In the last week of July 1944 the Soviet armies were deep into Poland. They had come very far and fast against a German army front which appeared to be on the point of collapsing.
Red army patrols were probing into a suburb located just across the Vistula River from Warsaw. Inside the city the German occupiers were burning their papers and evacuating their dependents. Radio messages, in Polish, were being broadcast from Moscow urging the population to rise up.
The commander of the AK determined that the moment had arrived for the Warsaw uprising to begin. On his order the insurrection began at 5 p.m. on August 1.
Author Norman Davies is a respected British scholar who has published frequently on Polish historical subjects. Mr. Davies tells the story of the uprising, which lasted an incredible 63 days, even though the AK commander had believed that he had resources for less than a week of fighting and that within that time the Red army would surely burst into the city.
The AK performed magnificently, throwing up barricades across streets and seizing a very large part of the city. The Poles armed themselves mostly with captured German weapons, even including 10 tanks in working order.
By smashing out the walls of adjoining cellars and creeping through the city sewers, the Poles were able to move supplies, withdraw dead and wounded, and pop up to fight from strong points constructed in half-demolished buildings.
In the end the AK could not prevail against the German suppression forces. Out of a population of 1 million, about 200,000 Warsaw civilians and AK soldiers had died. But it was also a very costly experience for the Germans who, to end the insurrection, agreed to recognize the Home army soldiers as legitimate combatants with full prisoner-of-war rights.
The AK capitulated on October 3. Its survivors, about 12,000, formed ranks and in farewell paraded past their commanders. Then they surrendered their arms and were marched off into POW stockades. The Germans cleared the city of its inhabitants and put it to the flamethrower torch. Those structures which did not burn were blown up.
The job took three months. The entire city became a low ocean of rubble. Most people visiting Warsaw now do not realize that almost every single building they see was built after the war.
The Soviets never came to the Home army’s rescue — they refused to assist in Allied air drops or to provide artillery support. They maintained almost no communication with the AK and mostly denied to the world that an insurrection was taking place in Warsaw.
It is generally accepted that the Soviets were pleased simply to wait it out on the far side of the Vistula until the Germans had killed off the people who would presumably be their postwar enemies. This uncomplicated view is not absolutely accurate, as Mr. Davies relates, but it is surely close enough.
Rejecting British and American objections, Stalin quickly established a repressive Polish Communist regime and annexed the eastern third of Poland. The surviving officers of the AK were arrested and imprisoned as “bandits” or “fascists.” AK soldiers were immediately conscripted into the Red army.
Mr. Davies tells of the complex situation that led the Western Allies to deny Poland the support that nation believed it deserved. The problem, in essence, was that the Poles expected too much from Britain and the United States.
Those countries, on the other hand, probably gave too little. They knew that Poland was very important to Russia and were not prepared to have a confrontational showdown with Stalin over it. There were too many other issues that required Stalin’s cooperation.
Mr. Davies also deals with the troubling question as to whether this devastating and ultimately fruitless uprising should ever have been commenced.
The 1944 uprising is frequently confused with the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto revolt. Taking nothing away from the heroism of the Jewish rising, it is a fact that the ‘44 insurrection was a much larger event. Some historians regard it as the initial episode of the Cold War.
Interspersed throughout “Rising ‘44” are a number of “capsules” containing accounts by uprising participants. Included among them is a segment of a thoughtful diary kept by Capt. Wilm Hosenfeld, the German officer who saved Wladyslaw Szpilman, the subject of the recent film “The Pianist.” Thirty-five appendices at the end of the book provide valuable maps, documents and amplifying data.
This lengthy book will find its principal readership among those with a particular interest in World War II history, especially readers wanting to learn about the Polish wartime struggle and its bitter epilogue. It is the definitive history to date of the ‘44 Warsaw insurrection.
Richard M. Watt’s books of European history include “Bitter Glory: Poland and Its Fate 1918-1939.”