Neither Britain Nor Russia Could Have Saved the Warsaw Uprising

Roundup: Talking About History

Eve-Ann Prentice, in the Guardian (Aug. 6, 2004):

[Eve-Ann Prentice reported from Poland in the 1980s; she is the author of One Woman's War.]

The commemoration of cataclysmic events of the second world war has become a sorry business. Not just because today's leaders seem to feel the need to apologise - or demand apologies - for unspeakable deeds perpetrated by long-dead compatriots. But also because accounts of the events are distorted by the tunnel vision of time and the demands of modern geopolitics.

In the past week Gerhard Schroder, the German leader, was in Poland acknowledging guilt for the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of Poles during the Warsaw uprising 60 years ago this month, while Polish prime minister Marek Belka has been pressing for a British apology for failing to come to the Poles' aid.

The sweeping impression from the anniversary coverage of the uprising has been that both the western allies and Soviet forces sat on their hands while the Polish resistance was slaughtered by the Nazis. This is simply not true.

Throughout the cold war, western historians and their governments accused Stalin of preventing the Red Army from aiding the uprising. It is true Stalin had no interest in seeing anti-communist rebels take control of Warsaw and refused US and British aircraft the use of Soviet bases to drop supplies, as was the case elsewhere.

But even US historians say that documents released by Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union show that the Red Army initially made every reasonable effort to come to the Poles' assistance and later chose not to largely because this would have required a reorientation of military efforts and a slackening of the main offen sive against German forces.

There was little that the Soviet generals could have done, even if they had wanted to. The west bank of the Vistula in Warsaw is on high ground and gave the Nazis even more of an advantage over any attacker than their military superiority already provided.

The suggestion that the bulk of the Red Army was camped on the east bank of the Vistula is wrong. As William Mackenzie, official historian of Britain's Special Operations Executive, has written, the Polish general Bor-Komorowski was prompted to signal the beginning of the uprising by the appearance of "small Russian forces 10 miles from Warsaw on July 31" - one day before the rebellion began. "These troops were not a spearhead but the extreme left flank of a wide turning movement, dangerously exposed to counter-attack, and . . . there was no strategic justification for an immediate Russian attack on Warsaw".

It is also wrong to suggest that Britain and the western allies did nothing. "From August 1 to the final surrender on October 2 there was unending passionate discussion up to the highest levels," according to Mackenzie, about how to support the rebels. Allied aircrews launched attempts to airdrop supplies but the "rate of loss was far higher than could be borne continuously; there were other resistance movements dependent on the same resources".

Two squadrons of night-flying Liberators flew 54 sorties to Warsaw from Italy on the night of August 13-14, resulting in 23 successful airdrops, but at the cost of 11 aircraft lost and 11 damaged by flak.

Historian Martin Gilbert says that on August 4, 13 British bombers flew from Foggia in Italy to Poland. Five failed to return and only two reached as far as Warsaw, where they dropped 24 containers of ammunition. "Twelve containers fell into the hands of the insurgents; 12 fell into German-controlled parts of the city."...

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Dariusz Kuc - 4/6/2005

I am a Pole, so you can treat my answer as an emotional one but judge yourself.
Yes, right, Norman Davies wrote a book about uprising of 1944.
"Unlike the Warsaw up-rising of 1944 the Jewish participants in 1943 never surrederred"
Another true, but sadly they have no other option. Uprising in April 1943 was lost from the beggining (which is a very sad fact). Situation of Poles which took a part in fights during a 1944 uprising was somewhat different.
Germans were on the run, lost most of their gained territory on the East, continously under pression of Soviet offensive.
The uprising had a political reason, and many of historians say that it was not military justified.
The goal was to free (or at least be a key force in freeing) a capitol of country and thus have a strong political position during post-war restoring of Polish Republic.
It was a very risky assumption that Russians will help to free Warsaw, as they treated Poland as their (in the near future) controlled territory. And they did not want to have ANY opposing force, especially organized military and political force. The russian offensive stopped therefore and waited until Germans did their job (thus helping Russians as they otherwise would have to do it themselves later with possibly a great opposition, almost surely military opposition, of Poles).
If it is about the Russians could take a Warsaw or not the answer is they could. Or at least they could threat Germans from the flanks to bring the relief for fighting Warsaw.
Instead they did something which showed what they really want.
They prohibited Allies to use their airfields to reduce the losses in aircrafts supporting Uprising by air drops. Almost all of Polish partisan forces, coming from the territory controlled already by Russians for the rescue, were taken prison by them by surprise, encircled by Red Army and said to fight or surrender.
Why Polish Prime Minister said what he said?
Because the fact is that by this time of war it was already decided ( by our humble Western allies for whose freedom our soldiers fought and died in thousands ), without asking the Poles, what will happen to them for the next 55 years.

Jim Lynch - 8/17/2004

Thanks for the response. Again, though, I would caution that a little common sense is in order. "Soviet agreement" meant no more, nor less, than Joseph Stalin's spoken word. He could have gave it, in a split second, had he been so inclined. Whether any amount of airlifted material would have accomplished much is another matter.

He was, naturally enough, primarily concerned with a post-war eastern Europe, a Europe under the thumb of his conquered Soviet empire. Not to be overlooked, either (and this pure speculation on my part), is the historical/propoganda eye he surely cast on the great war, and the Red Army's struggle to cast back the invader alone, and (seemingly) unaided. Indeed, I seem to recall Churchill having noted there was but a single instance (Tehran?) where Stalin acknowledged that material aid from the west played a crucial role in the Soviet struggle.

However, it's interesting to speculate that he might have been better served, in the long term, had he permitted an attempt to succor the doomed patriots of Warsaw. Perhaps he may have drawn certain conclusions that would have prevented his folly in blockading Berlin 4 years later.

Ephraim n/a Schulman - 8/16/2004

The Soviets were not against any aid the allies could send but were against the allied use of Soviet bases without prior Soviet agreement. In establishing Soviet bases the allies agreed that those planes that were going to use soviet bases MUST target only targets that the Soviets wanted targeted. there never was any agreement about Polish matters and it was another examplw of the Allies reneging on another agreement with the Soviet Union.
Ephraim Schulman

Jim Lynch - 8/15/2004

If military necessity dictated that the Red Army could not succor the '44 uprising, why on earth did they refuse to permit British and American planes from the attempt?

Prentice should apply a little common sense to the equation. Or perhaps I'm overlooking the obvious. If anyone has any feedback about the Soviet refusal, I'm all ears..

Ephraim n/a Schulman - 8/14/2004

Which Warsaw up-rising are we talking about? It is interesting that Norman Davies practically ignores the Warsaw uprising of April 19, 1943. Which did not receive any aid and in fact did not expect to receive any aid. Unlike the Warsaw up-rising of 1944 the Jewish participants in 1943 never surrederred At the end of 1943 when the remnants of the 1943 uprising requested arms to conduct sabotage against the nazis Bor Komorowski never responded. Norman Davies in writing of the Warsaw 1944 uprising exposes his obvious agenda

Ephraim Schulman