Timewatch: Battle for Warsaw

Updated Tuesday 11th April 2006

For two months, men, woman and children fought back the Nazis. Relive the bravery of the Warsaw Uprising.

Young man in battle for Warsaw Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 was the greatest and bloodiest military operation undertaken by any resistance movement in the Second World War.

There were two uprisings in Warsaw and they are often confused.  The first was the largest Jewish uprising of the war. In the spring of 1943 hundreds of Jewish fighters ferociously fought the German army in a desperate attempt to stop the final deportation of the remaining 60,000 Polish Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to the extermination camps.

The second uprising - and the subject of this programme - mobilised thousands of Polish freedom fighters against the Nazis to liberate their capital city in the summer of 1944.

The battle lasted two months and the Germans were soon saying they had seen nothing like it since Stalingrad. But at Stalingrad the Germans had faced a professional army with air support. In Warsaw they were confronted by an underground army – the Armia Krajowa - some 40,000 irregular volunteers led by a handful of professional soldiers, supported by children and civilians. Himmler called it the hardest battle he ever fought. It has also been described as the single largest atrocity of the war. At its end, around 200,000 men, women and children of Warsaw were dead and more than 80% of the city was destroyed.

From the start of the war, the Nazis had plans for Warsaw. These were part of the Generalplan Ost which proposed large scale ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe – the relocation and extermination of whole populations in the cause of creating living space for the Herrenvolk, the German “master race”. Plans drawn up in 1940 (of which details survive) show that the Polish capital was to be transformed into a new model town for Aryans - “Die Neue Deutsche Stadt Warschau”. This would require the population to be reduced by half, the existing city to be destroyed and rebuilt as model residential district for Germans; with a settlement for a rump Polish labour force across the Vistula River in the eastern suburb. Although, like Nazi reconstruction of Berlin, the New German Warsaw was never built, tragically the Nazis did succeed in destroying the city and slaughtering a vast proportion of its population.

The Poles had resisted from the start. A vast network of clandestine organisations soon sprung up along with an underground army whose activities ranged from sabotage to intelligence (the Polish contribution to allied intelligence gathering was massive). These liaised with the Polish government exiled in London.

In the summer of 1944 the tide of war turned and the Germans were in retreat on all fronts. The Soviet Red Army advanced into Poland and was fast approaching the outskirts of Warsaw. They called on the Poles to rise. The Germans ordered all males in Warsaw between the ages of 16 and 60 to report to build defences. The time seemed ripe for the Poles to act and the Polish underground army command gave the order for the uprising to begin at 17.00 on the first of August 1944.

'Battle for Warsaw' traces the fateful 63 days when, abandoned by their allies, the Poles fought on alone.

 

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