On Tuesday, 1 August 1944, at 5pm (known by the codename ‘W’ for ‘Wolność’ [freedom]), the Warsaw Uprising erupted. It was one of the most important and, at the same time, the most dramatic events in the history of the city. Though planned to take a few days, it lasted over two months.
The insurgents wanted to liberate the capital from German occupation before the arrival of the Soviet army, and thus ensure Poland’s sovereignty after the end of the war.
Insurgent units, though numerous, lacked proper weapons and fought with a regular, fully militarised German army. Unfortunately, without the help of the Allies, they had no chance of winning. The help they had hoped for never came. Caught between the two powerful Soviet and German armies, the uprising slowly bled out.
The fate of Warsaw, known before the war as the ‘Paris of the East’, was sealed by the order of Heinrich Himmler, which said: “Every inhabitant must be killed, no prisoners are allowed, Warsaw is to be razed to the ground and in this way an intimidating example for the whole of Europe is to be created.”
Nearly 85% of the Polish capital was destroyed, and the population was expelled to transit and prisoner-of-war camps.
Do you know that…?
• the Uprising lasted 63 days
• about 30,000 Home Army soldiers from the Warsaw District took part in the fighting
• only 10 percent of the combatants were armed
• the German side, numbering about 20,000, were fully armed, with armoured front units, artillery and air power at their disposal
• around 18 thousand insurgents died in the Uprising, and 25,000 were injured
• about 150,000 civilians were killed in the Uprising
• after the capitulation, about 500,000 inhabitants were expelled from Warsaw
• the last shot of the Uprising was fired on the evening of 2 October 1944
• the Warsaw Uprising was the largest act of resistance of this type in German-occupied Europe
1 August – the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. At 1.50pm in Żoliborz, nearby pl. Wilsona, the first fighting of the Uprising took place. 5pm – the official start of the Warsaw Uprising.
2 August – insurgents seize strategic points including in the Old Town, Śródmieście, Powiśle and Czerniaków.
5 August – ‘Black Saturday’ – the mass murder of civilians in Wola.
20 August – seizing of the Polish Joint-Stock Telephone Company (the so-called PAST-a) building at 37/39 Zielna street. The insurgents take around 115 German prisoners.
1 September – German assault on the Old Town. The insurgents evacuate through canals to Śródmieście and Żoliborz.
2 September – during the early hours of the morning, tank shells smash Sigismund’s Column. The Germans capture the Old Town. Fighting in other parts of Warsaw continues.
10 September – the Red Army begins an offensive from the Praga bank of the Vistula.
18 September– 107 American B-17s make the biggest airdrop of weapons, ammunition, food and medicine. Unfortunately, the insurgents managed to pick up only 20 percent of what was dropped.
2 October – the Uprising falls. The capitulation order is signed in Ożarów, bringing fighting in Warsaw to an end. The order grants the insurgents full prisoner-of-war status protected under the Geneva Convention, and offers protections to civilians in the city against liability for violating German regulations. During the following days, the insurgents are taken from the city to prisoner-of-war camps. Civilians from Warsaw, on the other hand, are sent to transit camps in Pruszków, Ursus, Włochy and Ożarów. Unfortunately, over 100,000 of them are sent for forced labour in the Reich and another several dozen thousand to concentration camps.
In the footsteps of the Uprising
In and around the Old Town
• Polish Security Printing Works (ul. Sanguszki 1) – for almost a month was the northernmost point of the Old Town defended by the insurgents. The fence around the site bears the scars of battle to this day.
• St. Kazimierz Church of the Sisters of the Holy Sacrament (Rynek Nowego Miasta 2) – an insurgent hospital was located in the church. In one air-raid, over 1000 people died in the church.
• Booby-trap tank – 13 August 1944, the Germans place a ‘Trojan Horse’ among the insurgents. At the barricade where Podwale street joins Castle Square, the Germans placed a Borgward explosive charge carrier. The insurgents initially thought it was a small tank and drove it recklessly around the Old Town. At about 6pm the vehicle exploded killing approx. 500 people. The place of the event is commemorated by a plaque (corner of Podwale and Kilińskiego streets).
• St. John the Baptist Archcathedral (ul. Świętojańska 8) – a fierce battle for the cathedral takes place from 21 to 27 of August. Bombing and a massive attack by German infantry led to the complete destruction of the church. A fragment of tank track is embedded in the cathedral wall along with information that it comes from a ‘Goliath’ (light explosives transporter). However, this is not true. The track probably comes from the booby-trap tank that exploded on ul. Kilińskiego 1.
• Column of Sigismund III Vasa (plac Zamkowy) – the oldest and the highest secular monument, erected in 1644 on the initiative of Władysław IV in honour of Zygmunt III Waza, his father, who moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw. Three hundred years later, the monument was smashed during the German attack on the Old Town. The original column from the 17th century and the one destroyed in the Uprising lie just next to the Royal Castle.
• Arsenal (ul. Długa 52) – during the Uprising, the Arsenal was of strategic importance as it defended access to the Old Town from the west. More than a year before the Uprising, another historical event took place here. Operation Arsenal, during which over 20 prisoners were freed who were being transported from the Gestapo headquarters on Szucha to Pawiak. On 23 August 1944, the building was bombed by the Germans. Rebuilt after the war using surviving fragments that bear the scars of the battle, it now houses the State Archaeological Museum.
• Holy Cross Church (ul. Krakowskie Przedmieście 3) – on 6 September, the Germans sent two ‘goliaths’ inside. As a result of the explosion, the vault of the church collapsed and the figure of Christ standing on the steps outside bearing a cross with the inscription ‘Sursum corda’ (Lift up your hearts) fell.
• Fencing of the children’s hospital (ul. Kopernika 43) – in 1944, a Home Army field hospital operated here. The Sisters of Charity gave help to both insurgents and German soldiers. The hospital fence riddled with bullet holes is a memorial to the Uprising.
• Wedel Shop (ul. Szpitalna 8) – housed in the building of pre-war chocolate producer Emil Wedel. During the Uprising, many local residents found shelter in the building’s basement. A radio station also operated from here. Today, just like before the outbreak of the war, there is a stylish company store and chocolate cafe.
• Palladium (ul. Złota 7/9) – the cinema opened in 1937, survived the war and continued as a cinema up to 2000. During the occupation, the Germans changed its name to Helgoland. When the insurgents captured the cinema, they screened news films titled Warsaw is Fighting. Currently, a music club and theatre operate here.
• Prudential (pl. Powstańców Warszawy 9) – before the war it was the tallest building in Poland and one of the tallest in Europe. On 1 August , it was captured by the insurgents, and a Polish flag sewn from a sheet and a red pillowcase was hung from its roof. Severely damaged during the battle, it was rebuilt in a socialist-realist style. Currently, a hotel operates in the building.
• Building of the Polish Joint-Stock Telephone Company – PAST (ul. Zielna 37) – during the Uprising, due to its location and height (the second highest in pre-war Warsaw), the building was of strategic importance. Up to 20 August 1944, it was in the hands of the Germans, who could easily observe and shell northern areas of the city centre. After fierce fighting, the insurgents finally managed to capture the building. It was one of the greatest military successes of the Uprising. In memory of those events, the ‘Fighting Poland’ anchor symbol was placed on the roof.
Other interesting locations
• Gdansk Railway Station (ul. Zygmunta Słomińskiego 6) – the fighting for Gdansk station is considered to be the bloodiest of the Uprising. During two nights from 20 to 22 of August nearly 500 Home Army soldiers were killed in assaults carried out by the insurgents. Today, the events of those days are commemorated by a sculpture depicting a young woman bending over an insurgent grave.
• Zieleniak (ul. Grójecka 95) – at the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising, at the marketplace around today’s Banacha Hall, the Germans organised a collection point for people from Ochota who were expelled from their homes. After a few days of waiting for transport to Pruszków, prisoners began to die of hunger and exhaustion.
• Aleja Niepodległości 227/233 – from 21 August 1943, the outstanding composer and pianist Władysław Szpilman hid
in this building. Then he moved to the attic of the house at ul. Sędziowska 2, where he spent the next three months, until 17 January 1945. He survived thanks to the help of the German officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. It was based on these events that Roman Polański made his film The Pianist.
Let us not forget
Warsaw Rising Museum
The museum housed in a former power station for the tram network was opened on the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of fighting in Warsaw.
It is a homage to the people of Warsaw who fought and died for free Poland and its capital. The exhibition reflects the atmosphere of Warsaw during the Uprising, and shows not only the military events of the 63 days of fighting, but also the daily life of civilians. One of the museum’s many attractions is a replica of a Liberator B-24J bomber.
ul. Grzybowska 79
Mound of the Warsaw Uprising
It has a height of about 120 m and was built in 1946-1950 from the debris of Warsaw. The hill became a Warsaw pantheon because the remains of those who died in the Uprising ended up there along with the debris. On the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising (in 1994), former soldiers of the Home Army placed a 15-metre ‘Fighting Poland’ anchor sign at the top. The Uprising mound has the longest set of stairs in Warsaw, numbering 400 steps and 40 landings.
Monument to the Heroes of the Uprising
The monument commemorates the thousands of heroes of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. It consists of two parts. The first one depicts insurgents running under a bridge support, while the other shows them entering the sewers. On Krasińskich square, there is an entry hole into the sewer, which insurgent units and residents of the Old Town used to flee from the Germans.
Monument to the Little Insurgent
The sculpture of a young boy in a big helmet commemorates the heroic children who took part in the Warsaw Uprising. The monument was unveiled by scout insurgent and later cardiologist Dr. J. Świderski, who during the Uprising as a 14-year-old was a liaison runner known as ‘Lubicz’ in the Home Army Battalion ‘Gustaw’.
Contemporary artists pay tribute to the Insurgents also through modern art, which is why it is worth visiting the Rose Garden at the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. There, you can see works by artists such as Wilhelm Sasnal and Henryk Chmielewski, more popularly known as Papcio Chmiel. Others murals have been painted, for example on the wall of the presbytery of the church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the New Town, and on the wall of the Polonia football stadium on Konwiktorska street.