“They gave me a pistol and a hand grenade, and I was in the game.” — Jarosław Piekałkiewicz
In August 1944, the bonds between friends, family members, veterans and even Boy Scout troops were strong enough to bring about an uprising. Jarosław Piekałkiewicz was a young man caught up in the chaos, leading rebels with distinction. Piekałkiewicz, in tandem with the heroism of thousands of other Polish citizens, displayed their bravery for several grueling months.
This week in history, I’d like to focus on the Warsaw Uprising, which ended Oct. 2, 1944.
It was a bloody affair from the very beginning. After Poland fell to the combined Soviet and Nazi invasion in late 1939 — technically last week in history — the Polish government-in-exile fled to London, leaving behind a populace carved up by two new overlords.
Of the innumerable things that can be said about this terrible occupation, one minor positive is that from 1939 to 1941 — ignoring all of the civil conflicts and terrible atrocities occurring across occupied Europe — at least the Polish countryside was free of direct land combat. The borders between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union were rather quiet as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact sealed a shaky peace.
Of course the “peace” between the expanding empires was hardly permanent, and by 1941 Operation Barbarossa — the largest offensive undertaken in human history — began ravaging Polish lands once more.
Ordinary Poles lived a brutal life during this time. Concentration camps, ghettos and military sites plagued the lands once deemed Polish. All the while, the Germans developed new methods to isolate and slaughter the native inhabitants who were now deemed undesirables. On top of that, the German police and military presence proved too immense for any highly organized resistance. It was truly a terrifying reality.
Can we even fathom how dark of a time this was?
I cannot say for certain, but there is no denying that the horrors of the day brought about some of the bravest individuals. Heroes such as Witold Pilecki, Aleksander Kamiński and the aforementioned Jarosław Piekałkiewicz all rose to the occasion and risked everything for the sake of a free Poland.
Pilecki was a truly remarkable individual. He is one of the only known voluntary inmates at Auschwitz and was later
The movement they helped coordinate for a free Poland wouldn’t manifest itself until August 1944, only after several small resistance groups, including left-wing movements such as Gwardia Ludowa, populists such as Bataliony Chłopskie and right-wing movements like the Narodowe Siły Zbrojne (National Armed Forces), set their differences aside and united. The disparate ideologies slowly became unified with a hatred of occupation, and they soon became linked under the broad organization of the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army.
The AK — as the larger movement began to be called — would slowly develop and include hundreds of thousands of members. The bond these members shared was kindled by the idea of Operation Tempest, a massive uprising to liberate Poland.
The timing here was critical. The Soviets were advancing to the East, and while this thinned out German military units and spread the police thin, it also put a free Poland in jeopardy: if the Soviets “liberated” Warsaw first, it would surely be the Red flag rising over the capital, not the Polish.
Using old caches hidden by the Polish army as it retreated in 1939 — many of which were unusable — and preparing groups to occupy schools, armories and government buildings across Warsaw, Białystok, Polesie, Radom and Kielce, Operation Tempest began at varying points depending on the city on Aug. 1, 1944.
From the first shots in the city streets of Warsaw, blood was spilled at a saddening rate. The Polish resistance fighters in the AK held a fierce spirit to overthrow their occupiers, yet they lacked the means to do so without heavy losses. Without ammunition or proper communication, attempts to cast Germans out of key areas in the city were slow and ineffective.
Neither side saw any success in crushing the other amidst the rubble and blood of combat.
However, after heavy fighting at certain points, the Germans began to crack. In one case, an entire school was captured by AK soldiers as the few Germans inside surrendered. The munitions within were invaluable to the uprising.
Likewise, government headquarters were slowly surrounded; while not actually captured, these Germans were effectively trapped. At one point, head of the General Government, Hans Frank, and the German leadership were surrounded within their palace, only able to communicate via radio as the AK had cut communication lines. It almost seemed that the uprising may yet succeed.
Within a few weeks, the AK had captured most of Warsaw west of the Vistula River but failed to push outside of those boundaries, or cross the bridges leading to the eastern half of the city. Likewise, pockets of resistance grew in other cities across the country. Nevertheless, munitions and supplies were dwindling and the AK could not sustain its gains. It must be said that the leaders of the uprising had originally planned with this equipment shortage in mind. Operation Tempest depended on the advance of the Soviet troops in the east.
The Red Army would help finish the work that the uprising had started — that was the goal — and that is what Soviet foreign ministers assured the Polish Government in Exile; however, the Soviet troops halted their advance under order of Stalin. No air support, munitions or supplies would be coming from the Soviets at all. Soon, the faith the AK had in their eastern allies had dwindled; they would be alone in their fight.
Slowly, the gains the AK had initially made were one-by-one reversed by a harsh German response. As a National World War Two Museum article covering the uprising presents it: Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, declared the German intentions in the following horrible words:
“The moment is a difficult one. [But] from the historical point of view, the action of the Poles is a blessing. We shall finish them off…Warsaw will be liquidated; and this city, which is the intellectual capital of a sixteen to seventeen million-strong nation that has blocked our path to the east for seven hundred years, ever since the first battle of Tannenberg, will have ceased to exist.”
The Germans were fulfilling the hidden intentions that Hitler initially had while invading Poland in 1939, in a secret speech he declared: “I have placed my death’s-head formation in readiness…with orders to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women and children of Polish derivation and language.
The AK was slaughtered and the rebellion crumbled. On This Week in History, on Oct. 2, 1944, The Warsaw Uprising ended. Likewise, by the end of the month, Operation Tempest would be canceled entirely. Hundreds of thousands died, and Warsaw was completely destroyed. Jews in hiding were found and killed, mass evictions took place and all the while the Soviets waited intently as the last hopes for a free Poland faded away.
And that dark note concludes This Week in History. The Warsaw Uprising is so incredibly important to remember, so I greatly encourage you to find more information about the heroes involved — some of whom I named — and the consequences of its failure; some in fact, consider it to be the start of the Cold War. See you next week!
Featured illustration from File Illustration/Daily Campus