In Warsaw the opening shots in a planned military revolt had been fired by the underground Polish Home Army on the 1st August. The Germans had been about to order tens of thousands of ordinary citizens to report for working parties – it was intended to march them to the outskirts of the city to build anti-tank ditches. Such a move would now prove impossible, the residents of Warsaw had endured much over the past five years and many now sought their opportunity for revenge as well.
Andrew Borowiec was a fifteen year member of the Polish Home Army who had been involved in the opening skirmishes of the battle. After months practicing with stones in the forests outside Warsaw he suddenly found himself throwing his first grenade at German soldiers that evening. He describes how the military insurrection quickly became a popular Uprising and how the Poles attempted, at first, to fight a battle within the ‘rules of war’:
In the morning we awoke from rough slumber to discover that it was raining slightly, and the citizens of Warsaw had hijacked our Uprising. Their enthusiasm for it was unquestionable.
However badly we had started, there was obviously no going back. The civilians had realized that we controlled the largest part of the city, and during the night they had come on to the streets to ask our sentries where they should build the barricades to defend it.
On a much larger scale it reminded me of what I had seen with Mateczka during the siege of Lwow at the beginning of my war, almost five years earlier. We were becoming a fortress. Deep trenches were dug; pavements were torn up; abandoned tramcars were manhandled into place, then overturned to provide the framework that could be filled with enough earth and rubble to stop a Tiger tank.
Platoon 101 was ordered to help them. And as we worked we had music. Technicians from our propaganda department had been repairing the street loudspeaker system that the Nazis had attached to lamp posts, trees and balconies to tell us their lies, issue their ultimatums and announce their barbaric reprisals.
It had been slightly damaged in the fighting but now suddenly burst into song, and we stood stock still, throats constricting, eyes moistening. For the first time in almost five years we were listening to a public broadcast of our national anthem ‘Jeszcze Polska Nie Zginela‘ — ‘Poland Is Not Yet Lost’.
Later in the day there was another treat. Bor used the system to address his soldiers. ‘After nearly five years of continuous and difficult underground struggle,’ he told us, ‘you now stand openly, weapons in hand, ready to restore freedom to our country and punish the German criminals for the terror atrocities committed on Polish soil.’
Platoon 1O1, not for the moment having any weapons at hand, got on with building barricades. There was almost a holiday mood. Polish flags were unfurled, girls kissed front-line troops in their newly acquired leopard-spotted camouﬂage, housewives brought glasses of cold tea, bakers offered bread.
And all the time the news got better. We had captured the Powisle Power Station on the west bank of the Vistula, and thus ensured that we had the electricity we needed to run our hospitals and arms factories. This was despite a recent strengthening of its defences when SS-Polizei reinforcements had brought the strength of its garrison up to about a hundred.
But twenty-three of the Polish workers at the plant belonged to us and had smuggled in weapons and explosives. They announced W-Hour by exploding a large bomb beneath the guards’ living quarters while, at the same time, their sentry posts came under heavy fire from outside. The surviving SS-Polizei barricaded themselves in.
A fierce fight ensued, in which about twenty men were killed on each side. It ended at noon the next day when seventy-eight Germans, some of them technicians, came out with their hands up.
From the outset the Home Army had decided that, instead of paying the Germans back in kind, we would uphold the Geneva Convention, to which Poland was a signatory, and take prisoners.
Apart from ethical and propaganda considerations there were good tactical reasons for this. The most obvious one was that soldiers who knew their lives would be spared were more likely to surrender a hopeless position and make our victories less costly. Another reason was that it might encourage the enemy to take prisoners too, if only so that exchanges could be arranged.
Even so, as far as most of the Home Army were concerned, this applied only to the ordinary soldiers of the Wehrmacht. Whether or not an SS man was busy in the Totenkopfverbande [SS Death’s-Head Units – responsible for the concentration camps], breaking records in human suffering, or engaged in more military pursuits was immaterial: they were all shot. A private and deadly cycle of daring assassination followed by cold-blooded reprisal had been going on between the SS and the Polish underground for so long now, they knew what to expect.
And yet, at the Powisle Power Station the SS-Polizei — who, in many ways, were the backbone of Nazi counter-insurgency operations against eastern European partisans — had chosen to surrender rather than fight to the death, and their surrender had been accepted. Were we being magnanimous in victory? .