By August 1944 the sheer weight of men and machines made an Allied victory over Nazi Germany all but inevitable. Freedom loving people across Europe looked forward to the day when the Allied armies would free them from Nazi rule.
In Warsaw the Polish Resistance chose not to wait. Tens of thousands of people would rise up to fight the Nazis and attempt to liberate the city. It was the largest uprising the Nazis had ever faced, and they moved to put it down with the utmost brutality.
When it was over 200,000 people had been killed and one of Europe’s most famous cities had been almost completely razed to the ground.
This list takes a closer look at the bloodiest uprising of World War Two.
10. Stalin wanted the Uprising to Fail
The Poles had been secretly planning their uprising in Warsaw for years. If it was to have any chance of success, then timing was crucial. Move too early and the Germans would crush the rebellion. The plan instead was to wait until the Soviet Red Army was almost upon the city. The Poles would then greet the advancing Russians having already liberated their capital city themselves.
What the Poles didn’t know was that Joseph Stalin, the cold, calculating Soviet dictator, had no intention of allowing this to happen. Stalin already had his eye on the post-war world, and he wanted Poland under his own direct control. This would be much more politically awkward if the Poles could argue that they had liberated their own capital city.
The uprising began on August 1, 1944 with the Soviet Red Army just a few miles from Warsaw. It was here, at the banks of the Vistula River, that the Red Army halted. At the same time Soviet aircraft ceased to fly sorties over the city, clearing the way for Germany’s Luftwaffe to rain down bombs on the inhabitants below.
Britain’s Winston Churchill asked Stalin for permission for British bombers to land on Soviet airfields, which would allow them to drop vital supplies for the Poles. Even this request was refused. The British Royal Air Force did succeed in dropping some supplies into the city from aircraft based in Italy, but these were as likely to fall into German hands as reach the intended recipients.
To all intents and purposes, the Poles were on their own.
9. The Fighting Lasted for 63 Days
The leaders of the Polish Home Army, also known as the AK, expected the uprising to last about a week; they lacked the weapons, ammunition, and supplies for anything much longer than that.
None of the leaders of the revolt had expected the Red Army would halt its advance, and none of them knew that Germany’s General Walter Model had launched a successful counterattack to buy the Nazis a little more time in the east.
With no help coming and the Nazis determined to crush the uprising, what had been intended as a short shock operation turned into a desperate, drawn-out struggle that dragged on for 63 days.
In the early days of the uprising Polish fighters had taken control of much of the city; Polish flags flew openly for the first time in years, and the national anthem blared out from the speaker system installed by the Germans.
As it became clear the Germans intended to fight for the city, deploying tanks, siege artillery, and Luftwaffe aircraft against the lightly-armed resistance fighters, the euphoria of these early victories gradually wore off.
Eventually it became clear no help was coming. The Poles who had fought to liberate their city now fought on without hope of victory, simply because they had no other choice.
8. The Sewers Became a Lifeline
The Nazis cut off Warsaw’s water supply in the early days of the uprising. With hardly a drop of rain falling on the parched city in August 1944, the situation for many of the inhabitants quickly became desperate. However, this did bring one significant advantage for the Poles.
As the water levels fell, the city’s sewers became accessible. They hadn’t featured in the Polish Home Army’s plans for the uprising, but they became a vital network linking districts and used to transport soldiers, civilians, ammunition and supplies.
Engineers cleared blockages, street names were erected to aid navigation, and timetables were even drawn up to avoid congestion in the narrow tunnels, some of which were only two or three feet wide.
Warsaw’s network of sewers were often the only way to travel between districts. When the Old Town fell to the Germans at the end of August, some 4,000 combatants and civilians were evacuated through them to evade capture and continue the struggle elsewhere. Amongst their numbers were some of the leaders of the uprising.
The Germans soon realized what was happening, but they were reluctant to descend into the murky underworld to take on the Poles directly. Instead they resorted to throwing grenades down manholes and even used poison gas to flush the Poles out.
7. The Germans Unleashed one of their Wonder Weapons
The Warsaw Uprising was by no means an even contest. The Poles had no anti-aircraft weapons, very few anti-tank weapons, and a desperate shortage of ammunition of all types. With this meager arsenal they would take on a professional army employing Tiger and Panther tanks, rail guns, dive bombers, and siege mortars.
One of the less well-known weapons deployed by the Germans during the uprising was the Goliath tracked mine. This was effectively a miniature tank, armed with 100 kilograms of high explosives, and capable of being steered towards its target by remote control.
The Goliaths could operate as mine clearance devices, or even as anti-tank weapons. However, during the Warsaw Uprising they were deployed in large numbers to target strongpoints defended by Polish fighters.
While the Goliaths caused considerable destruction, the Poles discovered some substantial weaknesses to these early robotic weapons. Each machine had to be connected by a cable to its operator, and the Poles learned it was possible, albeit dangerous, to dash out, cut the cable, and disable the weapon.
Hitler often spoke of wonder weapons that would turn the tide of the war, but this one was judged a failure and was rarely used after Warsaw.
6. Hitler Ordered the Entire City to be Destroyed
In the west the British and Americans were closing in on Paris, German towns and cities lay in ruins, and Hitler himself had almost been killed in an assassination attempt and was in constant pain. The last thing he wanted was a rebellion which would disrupt his lines of supply in the east and perhaps even spread to other cities.
Himmler, the brutal chief of the SS, saw things differently. He persuaded Hitler that the uprising was a blessing in disguise; it was a chance to completely destroy the city of Warsaw. With the city wiped from the face of the map it would never trouble future generations of Germans.
Hitler had spoken of destroying cities before, but this was the first time he’d attempted it. Artillery and dive bombers pounded the city, killing thousands of civilians and reducing buildings to rubble. Once a region had been cleared of Polish fighters, and anything of value had been looted, demolition teams moved in to flatten anything that remained.
More than 80% of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed, and 30% of these were demolished after the uprising had already been defeated. For the Nazi war effort this was counterproductive. The German Army could have used Warsaw as a strongpoint against the advancing Soviets, instead, and at great effort, the city was all but destroyed before the Red Army arrived.
5. The Germans sent their most Brutal Commanders
The crimes committed by the Nazis in their efforts to destroy Warsaw were amongst the worst of the war. In order to ensure that no mercy would be shown, Himmler turned to some of the most sadistic and ruthless commanders in the entire SS.
One of the most notorious was a personal friend of Himmler’s named Oskar Dirlewanger. A convicted rapist described in a police report as a violent, mentally unstable alcoholic, his methods were so brutal even some senior Nazis complained about him. The Dirlewanger Brigade he commanded contained large numbers of violent criminals, who had been released from prison on the condition they fight for Germany.
Dirlewanger’s men were thugs in uniform rather than a disciplined fighting force, and they were unleashed to rape, murder, and loot their way through the civilian population of Warsaw. Dirlewanger had 40,000 people rounded up and shot in the Wola massacre, burned down hospitals with the patients still inside, and his men even impaled babies on bayonets.
For his crimes in Warsaw the Nazis awarded him the Iron Cross, Germany’s highest award for valour. A few months later he went into hiding only to be captured by the victorious Allied powers. His death certificate claims he died of natural causes; other rumours suggest he was beaten to death by his guards.
4. Thousands Survived in the Rubble
Towards the end of September, the leaders of the uprising reluctantly concluded they had no choice but to sue for peace. Their soldiers were exhausted, their ammunition spent, most of the city was back in German hands, and the civilian inhabitants of Warsaw were starving to death.
That the Germans were willing to negotiate at all indicates a change in thinking amongst some of the leading Nazis. Himmler had planned to murder the survivors, but it had begun to dawn on him that the Allies might just win the war. Bizarrely he thought the Nazi party might survive, with him at its head as Germany’s new leader. He did at least have enough awareness to realize that slaughtering the inhabitants of an entire city would count against him in these ambitions.
The Poles were able to extract a promise that the civilians would not be harmed and that Polish fighters would be accorded the rights of prisoners of war. Representatives of the Polish Home Army were even permitted to view the proposed labor camps.
On October 2, 1944 the Poles officially surrendered, and 150,000 civilians began to be loaded onto trains bound for labor camps deeper in the Reich. Thousands more, especially the city’s few surviving Jews, didn’t trust the Nazis to keep their promises and chose to remain hidden in the ruins of the city until the Red Army finally arrived in January 1945.
3. Operation Tempest
While the French Resistance is probably the most famous of the World War Two resistance movements, the Polish Home Army was Europe’s largest and best-equipped underground force.
It was led by the Polish Government in exile, which was based in London and had never surrendered to Nazi Germany. With around 300,000 men and women in its ranks, the Polish Home Army fought an ongoing guerrilla war against the occupying German forces.
The Polish Home Army’s attempt to liberate Warsaw was its most ambitious move, but it was just part of a wider series of rebellions planned under the auspices of Operation Tempest.
Initially the plan was to coordinate the revolts with Stalin’s Red Army. However, in August 1943 the Polish Government in exile had cut diplomatic ties with Stalin’s government when it emerged that the Soviet Union had massacred 20,000 Poles in 1940.
Unfortunately, Operation Tempest had limited success. This was largely due to Stalin’s hostility. As the Red Army advanced it disarmed and even imprisoned Polish soldiers.
2. Himmler Tried to Recruit the Survivors
The Poles put up a heroic fight in Warsaw. The Nazis defeated them through superior numbers, weapons, and extreme brutality, but they lost 20,000 men in the process.
Even after the death and destruction Himmler had brought upon the city, he believed he might be able to convince the Polish Home Army to join the Nazis in the fight against the Soviets. General Bor, the leader of the uprising, was imprisoned in Colditz castle where Nazi officials attempted to gain his backing for an anti-Soviet alliance. Bor refused. Nazi attempts to recruit survivors from Warsaw were similarly unsuccessful.
Almost every nation overrun by the Nazis produced its share of quislings, collaborators, and sympathizers. Even Himmler’s supposedly racially pure SS fielded units from the Soviet Union, France, Belgium, and even India. Partly due to the brutality with which the Poles were treated, there was very little collaboration with the Nazis in Poland.
1. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 was the largest revolt against the Nazis in any occupied city. However, it wasn’t the first time the people of Warsaw had fought back against the Germans.
In 1939 Warsaw had the second largest population of Jews of any European city, which was one of the reasons it was hated so much by Hitler and Himmler. Following Poland’s defeat some 460,000 Jews were segregated and sealed off from the rest of the population into the notorious Warsaw Ghetto.
Tens of thousands of people died of starvation and disease, but even worse was to follow. In July of 1942 the Nazis began to dissolve the ghetto, transporting the inhabitants to be murdered at the death camp of Treblinka.
By April 1943 only around 50,000 Jews remained, but rather than go quietly to their fate they rose up to fight back against the Germans.
It was an even more desperate struggle than that of 1944; the rebels lacked training, weapons, ammunition, and had no hope of victory. None the less they fought bravely, and a few managed to escape from the ghetto. Some of these, such as Simcha Rotem, would fight against the Germans again in the 1944 uprising.