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World War 2 History: 1944 Warsaw Uprising-- Why Warsaw Goes Silent Every August 1 For 60 Seconds
Every August 1 since 1994, sirens sound over Warsaw, Poland's capital. Throughout the city, people stop walking, traffic halts, those sitting down rise, some hold small flags, some light flares. All are absolutely silent for one minute as they remember and honor the 200,000 Poles who lost their lives during the abortive Warsaw Uprising against the Germans in 1944.
In the summer of 1944, Soviet armies had entered Poland and were pushing the Germans steadily back toward the Vistula River which ran through Warsaw. Far to the west, the Allies had landed in Normandy. Hitler had just barely survived the attempted assassination in his Wolf's Lair field headquarters. The people of Warsaw saw all this with hope mixed with apprehension. It looked inevitable that the Soviets would very soon liberate the city and the Poles very much wanted to liberate themselves, afraid that the Soviets would install their own puppet government. Commander Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski of the Polish Home Army, the underground force loyal to the Polish government in exile in Britain, deliberated about what to do. There were upwards of 40,000 insurgents within the city, including 4,000 women, with weapons only for 2,500. The German garrison in Warsaw consisted initially of 15,000 soldiers with tanks, artillery and planes.
On July 27, the Germans sent out an order for 100,000 Polish men to report for duty to strengthen Warsaw's fortifications. Warsaw and the Vistula River were the last major defensive positions before Germany proper. Few Poles reported and the Home Army feared retributions. Soviet-controlled radio stations exhorted the Poles in Warsaw to rise up and throw off their oppressors. On July 29, Soviet armor approached the eastern outskirts of Warsaw.
The Uprising Begins
With all this coming together the Polish Home Army decided to rise and attack the Germans within the city as the Soviets attacked from the east. They figured that, with Soviet help, the Germans would be overwhelmed in a week or so and they wanted to have control of their capital before the Soviets did. On August 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising began.
Despite being repelled from bridges, airports and military and police installations, the insurgents captured significant portions of Warsaw west of the Vistula River, as well as food depots and weapons. Then the Soviet Red Army advance stopped about twelve miles from Warsaw's Praga district on the eastern side of the Vistula and the Red Air Force stopped flying over the capital. Without the expected Soviet aid, the rising in Praga was crushed. The Home Army still managed to advance westward for four days even though it was completely alone and surrounded; the skies were controlled by the German Luftwaffe's planes.
On August 5, the reinforced Germans counterattacked. Following SS chief Heinrich Himmler's orders, special SS, police and Wehrmacht units followed the army's advance and went house to house killing everyone they found regardless of age or gender. The bodies were then burned. The army shot captured insurgents on the spot. These policies were meant to crush the rebellion but had the opposite effect as it was clear to the defenders that fighting to the death was preferable to being shot like a dog. Although losing some districts to the Germans, the insurgency stiffened and the Home Army managed to stop the Germans and even take back some areas.
A sort of stalemate was reached during most of the rest of August with neither side making significant advances. The Germans bombarded the Poles with heavy artillery, incendiary rockets and dive bombers. They also used Karl Morsers, giant 600mm mortars, firing gigantic shells every eight minutes into the city.
The Red Army Moves Closer
The Soviets finally resumed their offensive towards Warsaw on September 11 and by September 16 controlled Praga and the east bank of the Vistula River. By then, the German's had blown all the bridges across the river. The Red Army then sent Soviet-controlled Polish First Army units across the river several times to try to link up with the insurgents. These night attacks during the period September 15 to 23 failed as the Germans massacred the Poles trying to cross the river, inflicting more than 5,500 casualties.
Cease-Fire; Warsaw is Emptied of Poles
A cease-fire was finally negotiated whereby the Polish insurgents were to be treated as POWs under the Geneva Conventions and were to be handled by the German Army and not the SS. It was signed on October 2, 1944 and all fighting stopped that evening. About 15,000 Home Army soldiers were sent to POW camps and the entire civilian population of Warsaw, upwards of 550,000 people, was expelled from the city. Of these, about 60,000 were sent to concentration camps and as many as 150,000 went to forced labor camps.
After the population was expelled, the Germans, despite the fact they were fighting a losing battle on two fronts, systematically and methodically went about destroying the city, using flamethrowers and high explosives. Fortunately for them, the Soviets did not begin their assault in the Vistula sector until January 12, 1945. By the end of the war, 85% of the buildings in Warsaw had been destroyed, 60% of them as a result of the uprising. As many as 200,000 Poles were killed during the fighting; the Germans suffered about 25,000 casualties, with 9,000 of them killed.
The Soviets maintained that, though their forces were near the outskirts of the city, this was their furthest position west and, strategically, they had to attend to Axis armies to the north, near the Baltic and especially the south in Romania before launching the offensive further west into Germany. It appears their strategy conveniently brought all of Eastern Europe under their control in addition to letting the Germans erase an armed force that might cause problems for the Soviets in Poland after the war.
The Western Allies weren't all that helpful either, though, as in the beginning of the war, Poland had been nearly beyond their reach. Stalin refused to allow American and British planes to use Soviet airfields and, when Churchill proposed sending planes in anyway, Roosevelt said he didn't want to upset Stalin.
Finally, in late September, the Soviets had allowed some Allied planes to fly from Italy. They managed to drop some supplies, though most fell into German hands. Some Allied planes that strayed into Soviet airspace were fired upon. Because they had to fly over so much enemy territory to make the drops, about 30 of the 297 planes were shot down.