Warsaw Uprising

I normally have a book review on Thursday, but this week I’m pushing it to Friday. I meant to post this yesterday, but lost track of the date – which, 69 years ago, was the day when the final Polish forces in Warsaw surrendered to the German occupiers, thus ending the Warsaw Uprising.

The Uprising was a tragic episode of the war – the Polish Home Army had been awaiting the advance of Soviet forces to Warsaw, and on August 1st 1944, with Soviet forces only miles from the outskirts of Warsaw (and with Soviet radio broadcasts urging Polish action) they mobilized to revolt against the German occupation of the city. Between 20,000 and 50,000 Poles responded to the call, taking up arms in open warfare with the German garrison. The plan, of course, was for them to be relieved within a few days by the Red Army, as had been the case in other liberated capitals (Paris and Prague, for example). For Warsaw, however, this was not to be. The Soviet forces stopped at the banks of the Vistula, within sight of the city, and did not advance in force until January of 1945 (and proceeded to clear the Germans from the city within days). Why did they stop? Historians still debate this, but it seems sadly likely that Stalin decided to let the anti-Communist Home Army fight the Germans until one side was destroyed. If the Germans were forced out it would ease the Soviet advance, and if the Home Army was wiped out the post-war occupation of Poland would be much simpler.

The fighting in Warsaw was brutal and tragic, with some 200,000 Polish civilians (a quarter of the city’s population) perishing and the vast majority of the city destroyed by the time German forces were finally forced out. Our Polish friend Leszek point us to a few minutes of colorized footage of the Uprising, assembled from both German and Polish sources:

Returning to our theme here of Forgotten Weapons, the video is worth watching closely for glimpses of a surprising number of unusual arms. These include grenade launchers on Mauser rifles, a Hungarian 39M submachine gun, a German 600mm siege mortar, a PIAT, Sturmgewehr, and others.

36 Comments

  1. Stunning footage. It really conveys the terror and ferocity of the fighting that would be lost had there been a History Channel-type voiceover (just my opinion, I find that to be a distraction some times).

    As far as guns, I spotted a Blyskawica, a Beretta Model 38A, and a UD Model 42, the last 2 being carried by Germans.

  2. It is amazing that the people in Warsaw were able to hold out as long as they did. It looked like they were fighting tanks and artillery with rifles and handguns. Amazing.
    Steve

  3. Yes, this event is still debated and probably for good reason. I have seen Warsaw 20 years after, completely rebuilt. All new, but into style before the carnage.

    As far as liberating Prague, it was not that straight forward. Russians were pushing thru Poland towards Berlin. Americans seized western part of country in accordance with previous agreements and stopped there. In much of central area was left out very potent force of Schoerner’s army. On May 5th Czech started Prague uprising, but they could not handle it by themselves. A controversial Vlasov’s army (brigade composed from ex-soviet officers and men fighting alongside Wehrmacht) came to help ‘just in time’ and saved Prague from certain disaster. Red Army showed on scene 2 days after.

  4. Thank you for posting this. Most people are unaware of this battle.
    At the 54 second mark there is some very rare footage of a Sturmmorser Tiger in action. These shot a 344kg (758lb) 380mm (15in) rocket-propelled depth charge.

  5. Hitler’s obsession with Warsaw cost the Wehrmacht and SS their last significant reserves of weapons and ammunition. This is why you see such a diversity of equipment used in the Warsaw fighting; the Germans were ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’. The loss of these stores prevented the Germans from ever again developing a coherent, effective defensive line in the east. The Red Army ground its way to Berlin and German forces had to relentlessly retreat, surrender, or die as they exhausted their few remaining supplies. German civilians, especially women, paid the ultimate price for the destruction of Warsaw.

  6. Very insightful footage. In my opinion, the Warsaw Uprising is one of the less frequently remembered tragedies of the war, of which Poland bore more than their fair share.

  7. Interesting to see the Germans using a PIAT. Perhaps either scraping the barrel for weapons or perhaps because one of the few strengths of the PIAT was it’s ability to be used in urban fighting without giving it’s position away (or incinerating it’s operator) with no back blast?

    • Hi Mike,

      The guys using the PIAT were Poles. The helmets are Polish but look kind of similar to German ones and they were wearing greenish shirts which could be confused for German grey-green. That said, I myself was wondering how likely FF incidents were.

      • Ian H, you are right of course about these people with PIAT. But actually, the helmets and uniforms probably were German: in the first day of uprising, insurgents captured a big SS-depot on Stawki street and some other Wehrmacht and SS – sites. So they got a lot of German helmets, uniforms, shoes etc. and wear it frequently, modified by adding some elements (most popular was white and red stripe).
        Of course there was some misidentification and FF incidents on the both sides.

  8. Damn, you had me going there for a minute saying that the Warsaw Uprising took place in 1944. I thought everybody (or at least everybody with a half-Israeli godson) knew that the Warsaw Uprising was from the 19th of April to the 16th of May, 1943. Then I did some checking and found out that was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when the last of the Jews in the pre-deportation ghetto decided they would rather die on their feet than live on their knees… or die in the chambers if they got on the train the way millions of others had. And despite years in a starvation-menu ghetto and no access to weapons fought the Nazis for damn near a month, until artillery leveled the ghetto. It was a total modern Masada. Just unbelievable bravery against overwhelming odds with captured and handmade weapons. (May have been where the lipstick-casing-as-cartridge-case story came from.) There’s some history if you look under “Ghetto Uprising.”

    Never knew about the 1944 battle. Not surprised; I did my Cold War service with a surprising number of “Skis” whose parents and grandparents were militant Cold Warriors and Nazi fighters. And… between patrols I used to hang out in a Polish social club in Connecticut and the bartender (who had fought with the Free Polish at Normandy and points east) always gave me grief when I got back from a run without nuking either Berlin or Moscow. Either would have suited him fine; both would have made him happy.

    • Yep, I’m quite familiar with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as well – I wrote a grad-level paper in school on the subject of violent Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. Warsaw was just a downright unfortunate place to be living during WWII…

      • Historically and geographically Poland has just always been a convenient place for armies to march back and forth. Makes for a lot of history, and explains why most of the Poles I’ve known had such a weird, morbid sense of humor. Kind of reminds me of a Greek restaurant owner I know who was telling me about WW2. He grew up in Athens but when the US entered the war his mom shipped him and his brothers off to a small island to stay with relatives because she figured that by the time the Germans and the Americans got through Athens was going to be bombed flat. I said yeah but wasn’t (whatever the name of the island was) occupied? He shrugged and said “Yeah, but it was just Italians. You know, sometimes the Greeks occupy Italy, sometimes the Italians occupy Greece… after a few thousand years you get used to it.” That’s a long-view perspective on history that Americans lack.

        • Yeah, I’ve known some Greeks ( and Turks ) who have the same outlook. A great zest for life which, at the same time, is combined with a calm and almost fatalistic acceptance. Who was it who said that we are the products of our history ( and environment )?

  9. Ian’s observation about Stalin’s astute but decidedly Machiavellian and thoroughly cold-blooded decision to hold off from Warsaw on the banks of the Vistula River is one that most respected analysts and historians agree about. He felt that he simply could not lose regardless of the outcome, and unfortunately he was correct in his assessment from a purely politically strategic and tactical military standpoint. But war has, and always will, encompass humanity and the human experience in its entirety, regardless of all other factors, and Stalin’s decision was totally inhuman, to put it mildly. Then again, Uncle Joe was almost never known for compassion, humanity, a conscience ( however fleeting ) or real kindness, so it isn’t too surprising. He tended to think and act in a purely hard-nosed logical fashion within a limited sphere, alloyed by occasional impulsiveness driven by an overwhelming paranoia and, probably, a host of other personal demons.

    • Hi Earl,
      A tempting possibility is that red army was not up to doing both that job, AND then continuing into Germany.

      I know that would let the second most murderous individual in human existence, off the hook somewhat.

      Here’s my reasoning;

      Prior to WWii, the Soviet system had been orientated towards building the workers paradise – mostly by robbing, deporting, starving, shooting and otherwise abusing those workers.

      Lenin and Trotsky had, however reluctantly, let go of large areas of Belarus to Poland, Bessarabia to Romania, the Baltic Republics and Finland. Certainly the Soviets had decisively repulsed a Japanese advance into mongolia, but that is an exception.

      The Soviet’s non agression pact with Hitler, included supplying Hitler with food and fuel – it was not simply non agression, it was more of an alliance.

      Stalin allowed Hitler’s forces to defeat the Polish forces, I suspect that the reds would have received a similar mauling to the one the Finns gave them during the Winter War, if they’d attempted to enter Poland ahead or at the same time as Hitler’s forces.

      I’ve previously touched on Barbarossa. Mussolini delayed the start by showing up months late, supply lines were stretched, Hitler’s ego wouldn’t allow him to bypass or simply beseige Stalingrad, using the open steppes where there was no cover and tanks, planes and artillery were effective, instead he became entangled in urban warfare long enough for Russia’s greatest weapon to be unleashed – winter.

      Even with the build up of stocks of weapons supplied by Britain and the united state, I don’t think that the conscripted red army of 1944 would have been up to a Stalingrad like confrontation – this time with Hitler’s forces infesting the rubble.

      • Hi Keith

        Isn’t that fun to take it from root, huh?! I read what you say and like most of it. We read, we think, well we try here and there. I like personal testimonies.

        As it is one of points of contentions as what was the soviet (aka Stalin’s) plan to do next, after fortress Europe (with exception of Englaterra) was defeated, there is a concept of thought that CCCP was to jump into game. Double-agent Sorge did his job and confirmed that Japs will not attack at far East at that time (although Stalin did not trust him).

        Now, speaking of personal testimonies or at least opinions of people closer than most of us. I spoke with one educated Russian (engineer actually). He asked me question: “… and why Red Army had so many light tanks with gas powered engines at tat time prepared on its borders?”. That’s tricky to answer, right? He was of firm believe that this was next thing to happed, but Adolphus was quicker.

        Now, back to guns volks!

        • Ah, Richard Sorge and his espionage ring. Now there is a whole, complicated and intriguing piece of history in itself. Sorge really operated on the brink of a very dangerous political and military precipice.

          • Yes, he over-combined a bit and consequently was finished off by Japanese. This case should serve to people who follow on their convictions and forget natural instinct of self-preservation.

      • Keith –

        Poland’s forces facing Stalin in 1939 held fast, thwarting the Red Army until the German forces [at the request of Molotov] went beyond the Molotov-Ribbentrop line and attacked the Polish eastern front from the rear. This has gone virtually unnoticed in the histories of World War II because the focus has been on the German-Polish contest in the west of Poland.

        My best friend’s father fought in the 1939 Polish eastern front forces [he carried a Polish rebuilt M91 Moisin-Nagant to use Russian ammunition, FYI] and described huge slaughters of Red Army soldiers which he believed prompted the Katyn massacre. Stalin did not ‘allow’ Hitler to defeat the Poles, rather the Red Army was – in 1939 – incapable of defeating the Poles (or the Finns, for that matter).

        The Red Army of 1944 was vastly superior to the Red Army of 1939 and was in good condition to proceed beyond the Vistula without delay. The Red Army rapidly developed professional officers to replace the Great Purge victims. Their logistics system was working well, pouring in supplies and fresh troops at a rate which was relentlessly increasing their force structure, And they had just utterly destroyed German Army Group Center, which had been the bulk of the German combat effectives on the Russian front.

        Stalin, against the military advice of Marshall Zhukov, held the Red Army back to allow the Germans time to destroy the Armia Krajowia (AK, Home Army) Poles. The British and the Polish Government in Exile made the mistake of giving Stalin advanced notice of the Warsaw Uprising. Stalin was already manouvering to replace the Polish Government in Exile with the communist Lublin Group. Stalin’s plan is clearly well developed at the Tehran (Eureka) Conference in November 1943 and reflected in the compromises he forced on Churchill and Roosevelt there.

        In Stalin’s mind, all ends were political. Human life – Soviet or other – was never a consideration.

        • John,

          Thankyou – family knowledge from the time and the place. One of the many things I enjoy about Ian’s site and the people who come to comment here, is the breadth and depth of knowledge and the constant willingness to counter the received view when that received view can be shown to be wrong.

    • Hi Earl

      nothing is as complex as interpretations of history, more specifically history of conflict this being a culmination of politics (quote from Bismarck). Main reason is that none of us were there. most of us are just parroting what we read somewhere or heard; they are just half-stories.

      Now, before we jump into another simplistic interpretation of Germany-Poland-Russia triangle. It is well known that not ‘all’ Poles were anti-Soviet, just like in any nation during critical times. Here is portrait of man who commanded 2.Polish army during battle of Bautzen which was prelude to battle of Berlin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karol_%C5%9Awierczewski. This man by the way is credited for liberating the town where I lived.

      And Uncle Joe story? Leave it to the birds. Just to say this: my father spoke couple of words with Russian POW (risky act by itself). Father asked him: “..and what Stalin is doing?”. Answer: “Stalin is wise and good!” Now, you pick it over! I’ll leave it there; interpretations of history are the most complex ones – ever.

      • Hi, Denny :

        I definitely agree that human relations, along with their political and socio-economic concomitants, are extremely complex, with no black or white, just an infinite variety of shades of grey ( like humanity itself ). What is more, this complexity is never constant, but always dynamic and forever evolving, which makes things even more complicated.

        I guess I should have added something to this effect when I made my previous comment about Stalin, and that I was referring specifically to a well-documented particular side of his persona.

        • You have exceptional scope of knowledge, Earl. I definitely have no right to be in position of tutor; I just try to pitch in if I can. Personally, I do not like simplistic views of Stalin; this is NOT to say I am his fan by any measure.

          • And your input is always very much appreciated, Denny. I think that’s how we all learn and grow as individuals, and as part of a community — by listening to and understanding a combination of similar and different viewpoints ( and everything in between, too ). Sorry, now I’m the one who sounds like a tutor :)!

    • Hi, Nick :

      I took a look at the links for Sabaton and I have to agree with you. I viewed “Warsaw Uprising”, “The Price Of A Mile”, “Gallipoli”, “Stalingrad” and “Panzerkampf”.

      A couple of things that struck me were how even-handed and humanistic Sabaton’s presentations were, and how rare and starkly vivid archival imagery was used. For example, “Gallipoli” contained combat footage from the Turkish side, and photographs of Turkish graves and memorials, something one doesn’t get to see too often.

      Ultimately, I think Sabaton, does a very good job of getting the point across that war ( and its consequences ) is the most wasteful and painful activity humankind could possibly engage in. The videos, like the music, are reflections of harsh reality, stripped of propaganda and pretense, that grieve for both the living and the dead.

      Thanks very much for adding another dimension to our appreciation of humanity and history.

      • Welcome, I’m not sure if they’re responsible for all the music video’s made for they’re song, but they are incredibly even handed in their portrayals of soldiers on all sides of conflict (especially WWII, too many to list), they’re also great at bringing to attention lessor known campaigns such as Greece (Coat of Arms) and combatants (Aces in Exile), it’s not often you get to enjoy some great metal and learn history at the same time

        • Thanks, Nick. I think I know what I’ll be looking at on-line later today after work ( apart from FW and The Firearm Blog ).

  10. Hi, Ian :

    I know this is a bit outside the scope of this article, but the fact that it was written as a commemoration of the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising reminds me that legendary military strategist and Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap passed away today, October 4th 2013, at the age of 102. While his background and military exploits are very well-documented, his story as a human being and responsible leader who bore a terrible burden on his shoulders, and who was forced by circumstances and duty to often make decisions that would haunt him until his dying day, are less well-known, as is his advocacy in recent decades in the “new’ Vietnam for environmental conservation and the right to dissent and free association, all against the erstwhile government that would not be in place today if it were not for him and his contemporaries. Surprising, isn’t it? Perhaps we could do an article related to Giap and any of the past conflicts in Indo-China as a sort of commemorative event, as in a Vintage Saturday post?

    • I read it Earl

      and thanks for reminder. I have great respect for gen. Giap. He was very worthy opponent and as you write later also advocate for more free and responsible society. RIP

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