British troops begin to intervene in Greece

The ELAS communist group of Greek resistance fighters had been the best organised during the occupation - but were now being asked to disarm.
The ELAS communist group of Greek resistance fighters had been the best organised during the occupation – but were now being asked to disarm.

Greece had suffered terribly during the years of German occupation, before the Nazis withdrew in October 1944. An alliance of resistance groups from across the political spectrum had fought a vigorous campaign against the occupiers – but the civilian population had borne the brunt of inevitable reprisals.

Throughout Greece massacres of civilians had been commonplace, even if only the Kondomari, Crete massacre is particularly well remembered because there is a photographic record.

The best organised resistance group had been the communist group ELAS and the left wing EAM – and the British Special Operations Executive had done much to support their operations. Now the British government were wary of the communists and wanted to see them disarmed. Tensions mounted inside Athens as it became apparent that Britain supported the right wing elements of the coalition Greek national government. Regular British troops were now sent to Greece to help maintain order.

At first the British troops found themselves generally welcomed. As individuals many of the troops themselves were sympathetic to the socialist cause:

In my childhood I had always been reading the Classics and the thought of going to Athens was something quite remarkable to me. Something that I thought I should never have been able to take advantage of.

One of the companies that night was placed on the Acropolis itself. Nothing much happened and next morning I said to Signaller Tony Sacco, “How was it, Tony,” and he said, “Nothing else but bloody stones up there and it’s freezing cold” I thought, “Well, that’s the practical view of what the Acropolis was like!

All of the army by that time was pretty well socialist. Everyone was of the view that the Conservatives were to blame for all sorts of ills that we had in the war, the general level of the economy and the way that people felt about the future. So that, by and large, they were all pretty well Labour.

Even though people admired Churchill for his ability to lead the country, his politics were completely suspect – he was a Conservative and was blackened with the rest of the Conservatives.

We felt that what the Government was trying to do in Greece was to restore the monarchy, which we all surmised was really not what the people wanted, but was going to be imposed upon them.

Therefore in the beginning there was a fair amount of favourable feeling towards this insurgency.

Signaller Ronald Elliott, Signal Section, HQ Coy, 16th DLI

‘Maintaining order’ in a civilian population was never going to be an easy task for regular troops who had straight from the battlefields of Italy:

During this early phase the troops were not usually fired on. There had been some sort of shooting incident in the street and there was an angry mob around.

One didn’t know at all what to do, we really had no rules of engagement or anything like that. I determined the only way to deal with it was by a show of strength. So I fell in my platoon, very conspicuously in the street, went into open order and ordered them to fix bayonets. Then we marched briskly down the street to where this mob was and of course everybody just melted into the side lines.

Then there were people there weeping and wailing over a man who’d been shot through the head — it was obviously an assassination of some sort.

Then we were thanked by the people who offered us wine to drink, which turned out to be Retsina which we’d never had before. Retsina’s got a very, very bitter taste of resin – I thought we were being poisoned and I declined to drink it, which was very embarrassing really.

Lieutenant Russell Collins, Carrier Platoon, Support Coy, 16th DLI

See Peter Hart: The Heat of Battle: The 16th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, 1943-45

A recent Observer article analyses the British involvement in Greece at some length.

Men of 'L' Squadron SBS (Special Boat Squadron) investigate the ruins of the Acropolis in Athens, 13-14 October 1944
Men of ‘L’ Squadron SBS (Special Boat Squadron) investigate the ruins of the Acropolis in Athens, 13-14 October 1944

SS and Wehrmacht struggle over Polish prisoners

Polish units preparing to leave Warsaw after the surrender of the Uprising.
Polish units preparing to leave Warsaw after the surrender of the Uprising.
Warsaw - The End of the Rebellion (original Nazi caption): "This is the end of an uprising, which was instigated by men who allowed themselves guided by false national pride and the deceptive promises of Soviet and British "friends": a gray misery army of ragged and mutilated prisoners. "
Warsaw – The End of the Rebellion (original Nazi caption):
“This is the end of an uprising, which was instigated by men who allowed themselves guided by false national pride and the deceptive promises of Soviet and British “friends”: a gray misery army of ragged and mutilated prisoners. “

Following the end of the Warsaw Uprising hundreds of thousands of Poles were at the mercy of the Germans. How they were treated depended very much upon which unit was responsible for guarding them. Civilians were being evicted from the city so that it could be destroyed block by block, on the orders of Hitler.

Former combatants were supposed to be treated as prisoners of war – but the significant factor was whether they fell into the hands of the SS or of the Wehrmacht. This was a portent of things to come for many other people in Europe, including German nationals, as the Nazi regime began to crumble.

Bill Biega had fought in the Uprising and had been married at the height of the fighting before being wounded and eventually taken prisoner. The 11th October found him on a train, after finally being sent out of Warsaw. The wounded had received treatment from a number Polish doctors who now were allowed to accompany them, together with the doctor’s families:

The following morning the train pulled into another siding parallel to a street with street car tracks. It turned out that we were in the outskirts of Lodz, Poland’s second largest city, only 100 miles from Warsaw.

Armed SS troopers in their ominous black uniforms surrounded the train. We were loaded into waiting street cars, which took us through city streets, then out along a cobble stone road in the outskirts. We were forced to alight and enter a field surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence.

Inside the compound stood rows of long wooden huts which were filthy inside; there were no beds, only dirty straw on the floor. This was obviously a concentration camp, not one suitable for wounded soldiers. I was stunned, as were my comrades. So much for honorable surrender and treatment in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

We had been naive to believe the Nazis. We sat outside in despair. Luckily, the weather was sunny and warm, otherwise the situation would have seemed even more tragic. After several hours we were told to get back into the street cars which took us along the same city streets, back to the train.

I learned later that there had been a major altercation between some Army officers and the SS. We never learned what exactly happened, but, fortunately for us the Army won.

Among the conditions for the surrender of Warsaw was the stipulation that: “ .. control, transportation, housing and guarding of the prisoners of war shall be solely under the jurisdiction of the Deutsche Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces).” (Paragraph H.(9) of the agreement)”

The news of our presence had spread quickly through the city. Lodz had been incorporated into the Third Reich shortly after the occupation of Poland and many Poles had been banished to the General Government. However a large part of the Polish population had been allowed to stay to work in the textile mills, so vital to the German war effort.

During the return trip from the camp, people ran along the streets throwing packages containing bread, fruit and vegetables through the open windows of the street cars with little interference by the police. At the train the SS guards had been replaced with Army soldiers in their familiar gray-green uniforms.

Beyond the cordon of sentries small groups of local people were standing, who had also brought food packages. Some of the more severely wounded had never been unloaded from the train as no suitable transportation had been made available. The train stood at the siding all night; finally, early in the morning it moved off westward.

We traveled slowly through the provinces of Silesia and Saxony, standing often for hours in sidings while other trains carrying troops and freight passed us. On the train we were well fed, that is we received the same rations that German soldiers would have received.

Our orderly heated the food for us and dished it out on enameled metal plates. Presumably, the same was happening in the other cars of the train. Several of the critically wounded died during this journey which lasted three days. Finally, we pulled into a siding next to a pine forest.

We had arrived at Stalag IVB, located near the small German village of Zeithain, a few miles east of the river Elbe, about halfway between Dresden and Leipzig.

Our welcoming party included the camp commander Stachel in the rank of Oberst Arzt, which translates as Colonel Doctor. He was a typical Prussian army officer, slim, erect, dressed in an impeccable uniform, shining riding boots and carrying what looked like a riding crop. When he saw the doctors’ families alighting from the train complete with children, cats and pet birds, he turned around and left in disgust. This was too much for a proper, German professional army officer.

See Bill C Biega: Thirteen is My Lucky Number: The Dramatic True Story of a Polish Resistance Fighter. His website Bill Biega has further extracts from the memoir, much more about his subsequent life in Britain and the USA and a section on the Polish Home Army.

Warsaw Uprising: Evacuation of people from Mokotów district
Warsaw Uprising: Evacuation of people from Mokotów district
The distribution of bread to starving civilians by the Polish Red Cross.
The distribution of bread to starving civilians by the Polish Red Cross.

Warsaw combatants treated as prisoners of war

Wounded members of the Polish home Army after the surrender.
Wounded members of the Polish Home Army after the surrender.
eopleof Wola district leaving the city after the failed Uprising, while Polish nuns distribute water. Photo takes from the corner of Staszica and Wolska Streets looking East on Wolska street.
People of Wola district leaving the city after the failed Uprising, while Polish nuns distribute water. Photo takes from the corner of Staszica and Wolska Streets looking East on Wolska street.

The early stages of the Warsaw Uprising had seen appalling savagery on the part of the SS and their auxiliary troops. As more regular troops from the Wehrmacht became involved in the conflict attitudes had adjusted somewhat – even though the Polish Home Army had been fighting in improvised uniforms, much of it taken from the Germans, they began to be treated as regular combatants when they were taken prisoner.

When surrender came to be negotiated the treatment of prisoners was a key consideration. Andew Borowiec describes the agreement that was eventually reached:

Most surprisingly of all, SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski had also agreed that our guards would be the German Wehrmacht. There was to be no question of us falling into the hands of the Ukrainian, Cossack and other non-German renegades who had been recruited as SS auxiliaries.

Von dem Bach praised our bravery and related how he had personally persuaded Hitler to treat us as soldiers rather than terrorists. Presumably he had convinced his Fuhrer that it would otherwise take weeks to winkle the last of us out of the ruins of Warsaw, and this might somehow tempt the Russians into making a crossing.

The treatment of prisoners nevertheless varied greatly. Undoubtedly it was a great deal better than would have been the case had the SS taken direct charge.

Hitler’s vengeance had only just been contained. He wanted the whole of Warsaw razed to the ground and the remaining civilian population, some half a million people, were evicted to allow this to take place. Significant numbers were sent to concentration camps or sent as forced labour to the Reich but most were left to find new homes elsewhere in Poland.

For Andew Borowiec, who had been captured on the 27th September, his treatment as a wounded combatant was relatively good, even before the formal surrender was signed:

The treatment of Home Army prisoners being transported to various Stalags varied greatly and often depended on the whim of quite junior ofiicers. Some were pummelled with rifle butts as they were packed, Without food or water, into cattle trucks with standing room only and not even a bucket for bodily functions.

My own treatment, together with the other wounded combatants from Mokotow, was very different. First we were taken by rail to Skierniewice, a town some forty kilometres west of Warsaw, once famous for a railway station that was supposed to be one of the gems of the old Warsaw—Vienna line. The German 9th Army’s headquarters had been there for the last three months, ever since the Red Army had pushed them back to the Vistula.

We arrived at a transit camp, where we were taken on stretchers into a large barracks and laid with other wounded men in rows on the floor. It was there that we learned for the first time that both the northern suburb of Zoliborz and the city centre had surrendered, and the Uprising was over. I don’t think any of us expected it to end like this, and I remember none of us wanted to talk about it. I think we were quite numbed by the news: all that effort, all that sacrifice.

Prisoner-of-war doctors, mostly Russian and French, examined our wounds in a somewhat cursory fashion before we were loaded into freight wagons equipped with wooden cots and lavatories. Our Wehrmacht guards did not prevent Polish civilians reaching the train and handing us baskets filled with food. There was one guard to each wagon; as well as carrying rifles they each had a couple of stick grenades thrust into their belts.

At the royal and ancient Polish city of Poznan, which had been annexed by the Third Reich, our wagons were shunted into a siding when another ambulance train, replete with red crosses, drew up alongside us. We could see bandaged German soldiers inside, and they could see us, because the walking wounded, like myself, had been allowed to gather at the open door to get a breath of fresh air.

For a while we examined each other with evident curiosity, perhaps more on their part than on ours because, in the main, we were wearing an odd assortment of civilian clothes.

Then one of the Germans asked where we were from. ‘Aus Warschau,’ we said. ‘ Wir sind auch aus Warschau ’ So now it was established. They were also from Warsaw, and we were each living proof of the other’s combat skills.

There was some fraternization. ‘Czerniakéw?’ they asked. ‘ Und die Altstadt,’ some of us replied. The Germans threw a couple of packs of cigarettes and what appeared to be a small bottle of schnapps over to us. Then their train started to pull out. Some of us wished each other goodbye and good luck, and then they were gone.

See Warsaw Boy

Even if they had not been wounded most surviving members of the Home Army were in a bad way.
Even if they had not been wounded most surviving members of the Home Army were in a bad way.
The remaining civilian population was evicted as Hitler ordered the systematic destruction of the city.
The remaining civilian population was evicted as Hitler ordered the systematic destruction of the city.

Warsaw Uprising – surrender ends the bitter struggle

Germans shelling Town Hall and Blank Palace from 7.5-cm-Pak 40.
Germans shelling Town Hall and Blank Palace from 7.5-cm-Pak 40.
 Firing of 32-35 cm ammunition into Wurfgerät 42 "Nebelwerfer". Photo of 201st Stellungswerfer Regiment bombing Old Town and North Śródmieście district from Żelazna and Żytnia street intersection.
Firing of 32-35 cm ammunition into Wurfgerät 42 “Nebelwerfer”. Photo of 201st Stellungswerfer Regiment bombing Old Town and North Śródmieście district from Żelazna and Żytnia street intersection.
In the occupied areas of Warsaw, German soldiers set all buildings on fire to decrease the chances of the AK (Home Army) using them in the future.
In the occupied areas of Warsaw, German soldiers set all buildings on fire to decrease the chances of the AK (Home Army) using them in the future.

The Warsaw Uprising had been planned as a brief insurgency by the underground Polish Home Army, intended to last for a few days before the Red Army Army joined them in sweeping the Germans out of Poland. It had turned out very differently. The Poles were on their own, Stalin did not want to help them, content to see independent Polish spirit and leadership wiped out before he imposed a communist regime. The battle had not been confined to the Home Army but had included all the residents of the city, thousands of whom had died in the struggle – either murdered out of hand or killed in the relentless bombing and shelling.

Despite holding greatly superior forces for two months the ground held by the Poles had been slowly whittled down as their circumstances became ever more desperate. Julian Kulski was one of the combatants, a 15 year old boy, he was eventually able to record the final hours of the Uprising:

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 30

It is now Saturday. At nine o’clock this morning the enemy managed to set the second and third floors of our building on fire. We had to stand at our posts, deafened by exploding shells, our eyes smarting from the smoke.

It was so dark that none of us knew what was happening, and the groans of the wounded were making us more and more despondent. It was now clearly impossible to hold Zoliborz any longer, and shortly after ten o’clock Colonel ‘Zywiciel’ ordered the companies to withdraw in the direction of the Vistula. We were to cross the river at night and join the Russians.

Our company, which by that time was reduced to less than half its full strength, was again to be the last one to leave its position. The Commandos were always first to attack and last to leave. That was our job. However, at noon the order came from Lieutenant ‘Szeliga,’ and under cover of smoke we started to withdraw. Creeping through ruined houses, we reached a building on Mickiewicz Street. The remnants of our division gathered here while the Germans found themselves at last in possession of almost the whole of Zoliborz.

The rows of tanks standing on Wilson Square and lining Slowacki Street fired a stream of shells at us. The Germans had thrown an entire armored division into an area the size of a postage stamp. The Fire Brigade Building was blown to smithereens by an attack from Goliath robot tanks.

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, AFTERNOON

We had hoped to remain here until nightfall and then, after breaking through the German positions by the river, to reach the Russian boats that were supposed to be waiting for us.

The tanks were causing heavy damage, and I received an order to fire at them from my PIAT antitank missile thrower. It was now almost beyond my strength even to lift it; the fever had made me so weak that I was falling down every few meters. In order to ready the PIAT for action, I had to lie on my back to pull its spring.

I took a position in the ruins opposite a large Tiger tank, and my first missile hit the right tread of the tank, immobilizing it. I saw the huge gun slowly turning, finally pointing straight at me. I knew I had to get him this time. The second shell blew a large hole in the center, and flames shot from the tank. The hatch opened, and a black-uniformed crew started to jump out. The first man was cut down by our machine-gun fire. The second was killed as he was attempting to leave through the hatch. As he fell back, he grabbed the open hatch door, closing it. Nobody else left the steel trap.

My PIAT hit several tanks as we moved among the ruins. For once, there was an ample supply of missiles, and they were being handed to me one by one. Finally, I could no longer pull the spring and collapsed, utterly exhausted.

The holes in the walls and roof made an awful impression on me and the thought nagged at my mind, Where is Marysia now? Is she still alive?

I lurched back down the stairs like a lunatic and met my startled companions. One of them shouted, “What the hell are you doing wandering around these ruins? Are you mad?”

I sank down on the steps near my fellow soldiers. The whole situation looked quite hopeless. We had to face a fact we had always known – had always known, even if not admitting it – that at some time we would have to be prepared for capture or death.

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, NIGHT

The news came through, striking like lightning. The message was starkly brief. Surrender! The word itself brought forth a furious barrage of oaths from all sides: “Lies!” “Impossible!” Still, all the companies were ordered to line up. We did so, not yet able to believe what was happening.

Lieutenant ‘Szeliga’ stood before our company. I had to struggle to stand to attention and to concentrate as he took a paper from his breast pocket and began to read aloud the order from Colonel ‘Zywiciel’:

Soldiers!
I thank you, my dear comrades, for everything you have accomplished during these two months of fighting with the enemy, for your efforts, pain, and courage.

I am proud that I had the honor to command such soldiers as you. Remain such in the future and show the world what a Polish soldier is, he who will sacrifice every-thing for his country.

Soldiers!
An hour ago, as ordered by the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, General Bor-Komorowski, I signed the surrender document of our group. . . . We are surrendering to the Wehrmacht as a regular army, and we will be treated according to the Geneva Convention.

I thank you once more for everything. God be with you!

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, MIDNIGHT

After that, everything went like a nightmarish dream. Hardly realizing it, we began to fall into military formation. It was nearly midnight as we started our slow march uphill from the Glass House along Mickiewicz Street toward Wilson Square.

We all made one last effort and marched in an even, measured step, as on parade, our rifles on our shoulders. We had to remind the Germans what kind of soldiers they had been fighting during the last two months.

With officers at our flanks, we advanced toward Wilson Square, solidly lined with tanks, where the Germans were waiting for us. When we were about ten meters from a gate leading into the courtyard of a large building, the command came: “Kompania Stoj!” (Company Halt!). Our commander exchanged words in German with the officer-in-charge. Then we entered the courtyard.

A thrill of terror shook me as I saw the faces and uniforms of the hated enemy at such close range. The Germans at once surrounded us and confiscated our short arms, field glasses, and so on. Then we marched in company formation through the courtyard; passing the tanks standing at the entrance to Slowacki Street, we found ourselves in the middle of Wilson Square, illuminated by the flames of burning Zoliborz. Here, we had to lay down the rest of our weapons.

I had nothing left to give up.

See Julian Engeniusz Kulski: Dying, we live: The personal chronicle of a young freedom fighter in Warsaw (1939-1945). YouTube has a short interview with Julian E. Kulski, now a U.S. citizen, on his views on the importance of the Uprising.

Polish POWs on Opaczewska Street at the intersection with Grójecka Street. Judging by the uniforms the prisoners are likely to be from one of the units of General Berling Army which crossed the Vistula river and joined the Uprising.
Polish POWs on Opaczewska Street at the intersection with Grójecka Street. Judging by the uniforms the prisoners are likely to be from one of the units of General Berling Army which crossed the Vistula river and joined the Uprising.
Sick and starved people emerge from basements and sewers in Warsaw, two months after the start of the Warsaw Uprising against the occupying German forces. As a result, thousands of the city's inhabitants were killed or sent to concentration camps, and the city destroyed.
Sick and starved people emerge from basements and sewers in Warsaw, two months after the start of the Warsaw Uprising against the occupying German forces. As a result, thousands of the city’s inhabitants were killed or sent to concentration camps, and the city destroyed.

Polish Home Army trapped in the Warsaw sewers

The Home Army propaganda poster calling for the efficient use of ammunition by the insurgents. The exact translation reads - 'One bullet, one German'.
The Home Army propaganda poster calling for the efficient use of ammunition by the insurgents. The exact translation reads – ‘One bullet, one German’.
Exhausted soldier of the Polish Home Army emerging from a sewer after escaping from German encirclement. One of his fellow soldiers pulls out his submachine gun of the sewer hatch.
Exhausted soldier of the Polish Home Army emerging from a sewer after escaping from German encirclement. One of his fellow soldiers pulls out his submachine gun of the sewer hatch.

The battle in Warsaw had now been grinding on for almost two months. Gradually the German forces were were reducing the areas held by the Polish Home Army to isolated pockets. There was no way to get around the city except by going underground – into the sewers. Soon the Germans were aware of this and began trying to block the sewers or force people out with gas.

For one anonymous fighter the sewers that were the only possible means of escape soon turned into a deadly trap. He was trying to evacuate a badly wounded female fighter along with two companions, it was a desperate business and it soon became more desperate:

It was 26 September. For the last fortnight I and my radio group had been in Mokotow, where the situation was critical, not to say hopeless, just as it had been in the Old Town a month earlier.

We were on a narrow strip of territory like an island, with the Germans all round. We carried her in turns, stumbling over corpses, knapsacks and arms. It was horrible. Ewa’s demented howling mingled with other unearthly screams. She was not the only one. I felt my strength ebbing away. At one point I lost my footing and fell heavily. My companions, Oko and Geniek, helped to put me on my feet again.

We set Ewa down and covered her with overcoats; we had to rest. She sat, propped against the side wall of the sewer, no longer screaming, and with glassy eyes. A procession of ghastly phantoms kept filing past us, some of them howling as Ewa did only a short time ago. Those screams, multiplied by echoes, were about as much as one could stand.

Then a new party approached. I wanted to warn them that we were resting, but before I could do so one of them had fallen, and the others, no longer aware of what they were doing, went over him, trampling him down into the bottom of the sewer — automatically, quite unconscious of the fact that he was still alive. In the same way they would have walked over us.

When they had passed we got up. Ewa no longer gave any sign of life, nor did the man who had been trampled on. We walked on. We passed a barricade put across the sewer by the Germans. After some time we caught up with the group which had passed us. Then we came to another barricade. This one was well built and was a real obstacle. There was no way through here. I turned back with my group, and some of the others followed. When we came to the first barricade, the one we had just passed, we met a party of people who told us feverishly that the sewer beyond the barricade in the direction of Mokotow was flooded. So we should never get to the top! .

A despairing argument took place between the two groups, the one that had brought the news of the flooding and the one that had come up against the impenetrable barricade. By then people had lost their senses; they were shouting in their fury and anguish.

Some remnant of judgment indicated a return to Mokotow. It was not very likely to succeed, but it was the only way of keeping alive — no matter for how long; the only thing that mattered was not to die in the sewer.

The gas was affecting our eyes more and more the whole time. I felt just as if I had sand under my eyelids; my head, too, was rolling to one side in a queer way. The mass of people all round were still arguing how to save themselves. From time to time a hideous bubbling was heard, as one more person whose strength had gone slipped into the foul liquid. But even more unbearable would be the voice of some woman pulling him out: “Look, he’s alive, he’s smiling! My darling, you’ll soon be on top again!” Oh God, not to see it, not to hear it!

I realized during my increasingly rarer spells of clarity that I was beginning to lose consciousness. I held on to one thought: to get back to the surface. I did not want someone else to hear the splash and the bubbling which my ears would not hear. I shouted then, at the top of my voice: “Make way, I’ll lead you out!” But the angry yells which met me on all sides were the worst thing yet. “Who said that? Fifth columnist! Shoot him!”

This shouting, like a sharp lash, spurred me to an extra effort. I escaped. I had enough sense left to realize that at such a moment what they threatened could well happen. Edging sideways close to the wall, my group and I crossed the barricade unnoticed by the rest. We were over on the other side. We were going back, come what might.

At once we were deep in it. After a few steps we could no longer feel the bottom, but with the help of planks, knapsacks and abandoned bundles, we managed to keep our heads above the surface. After a short time we again felt the ground under our feet. The cold water and the absence of the blasted gas helped to clear our heads, and, holding each other’s hands, we crawled slowly forward. Forward, that was what mattered. I knew that by following that sewer we were bound to come out in Dworkowa Street. We had to make it. ”

At 4 p.m., seventeen hours after we first went down into the sewers, we were pulled out of them by S.S. men in Dworkowa Street.

This account first appeared in: The Unseen and Silent: Adventures from the Underground Movement Narrated By Paratroops of the Polish Home Army.

Soldiers of the Home Army watching out for the enemy, hidden behind a street barricade. Note that two of them are armed with handguns only.
Soldiers of the Home Army watching out for the enemy, hidden behind a street barricade. Note that two of them are armed with handguns only.

Red Army Poles join the Warsaw Uprising

Armia Krajowa soldiers fighting during the Warsaw Uprising. One man is armed with Błyskawica machine pistol.
Armia Krajowa soldiers fighting during the Warsaw Uprising. One man is armed with Błyskawica machine pistol.

The battle inside Warsaw continued. Everyone remaining in the city was at the mercy of German bombs and artillery. Gradually they were wearing down the resistance of the Polish Home Army, whose pockets of resistance were shrinking. Broadcasting on the independent Polish Radio Blyskawica was escaped PoW, RAF Flight Lieutenant John Ward:

On every conceivable little piece of open ground are graves of civilians and soldiers. Worst of all, however, is the smell of rotting bodies which pervades the whole centre of the city. Thousands of people are buried under ruins; it is at the moment impossible to evacuate them and give them a normal burial.

Soldiers fighting to defend their battered barricades are an awful sight. Mostly they are dirty, hungry and ragged. There are very few who have not received some sort of wound. And on and on, through a city of ruins, suffering and dead. The morale of the soldiers is also going down in most cases.

A limited amount of supplies had been parachuted in by the RAF, flying from Italy, and finally Stalin had begun to offer some direct assistance. Small crop duster planes were being used to drop packages of arms and food to the besieged Home Army. Then on the 14th September 300 men from the Soviet Army’s 1st Polish Army Corp crossed the Vistula and joined the fight. These were men from General Zygmunt Berling’s forces, originally from the Polish Army of 1939, who had decided to join the communists rather than continue the fight with British. Andrew Borowiec watched them establish themselves in the ruined building that was his outpost:

Meanwhile, one of our ofiicers led a heavy-machine-gun crew to a first-floor firing point. They took up position behind a sandbagged window that I was manning with some of the squad. Their weapon was the Red Army’s famous belt-fed Maxim mounted on a small pair of wheels.

Eager to avenge the casualties they had incurred, and to show What they could do, they immediately placed a handy table against the window sill and set the Maxim up on it. One of their number went outside and returned with some house bricks that he placed behind the wheels, to stop the gun sliding about.

A soldier who looked to be no more than a year or so older than myself asked me to indicate the enemy’s position. At this stage, this wasn’t all that easy to identify. The tank we could hear being revved up sounded close by, but we had no idea exactly where it was.

We knew for certain that there had been some Germans in a house on a slight rise about 400 metres away, perhaps closer. It was a difficult rifle shot but easily within range of their Maxim. I pointed the house out to him. He crouched behind the gun and started to fire long and, in that confined space, enormously noisy bursts. Whatever his other merits as a machine-gunner, conserving ammunition was not one of them.

But it seemed to have the desired effect. Frantic figures were seen fleeing the vicinity, and we assumed that others were no longer so mobile. The gunner grinned at his handiwork and fired at the runners. Our sandbags began to take some incoming fire.

The gunner gave whatever was out there another long burst. I noticed he had these frothy red bubbles on his lips. For a moment I wondered what he was eating. Then he collapsed on to his back and was dragged away. Either a sniper had worked out which window he was in, or it was just a lucky shot.

I noticed nobody was in a hurry to take over his weapon. His friends were tearing his clothes off and trying to apply a field dressing of some kind, though I doubt there was much point. In the end, they carried him as gently as they could down the stairs to the cellar.

When they had gone we saw an army paybook of some kind and a letter in an envelope. Both were splattered with blood. They must have fallen out of his pockets when his comrades were trying to get at the wound. The paybook showed he was seventeen, born in 1927.

The letter was written in the Cyrillic alphabet used by the east- ern Polish minorities living among the Ukrainians, who had long known fluctuating fortunes and shifting frontiers.

See Warsaw Boy

Free French mop up last German opposition

A member of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) uses a truck for cover during gun battles with German snipers in Dreux. During this period several French towns were liberated by the FFI in advance of Allied forces.
A member of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) uses a truck for cover during gun battles with German snipers in Dreux. During this period several French towns were liberated by the FFI in advance of Allied forces.
A White scout car and other command vehicles enter the town of Lannoy in France, 6 September 1944.
A White scout car and other command vehicles enter the town of Lannoy in France, 6 September 1944.

It was a time of violent emotions in France. Huge joy and relief at being liberated were mixed with recriminations against those who had collaborated. The last remaining Germans were in a fearful position. It was to take along time for the country to come to terms with the effects of the occupation.

Bill Bellamy was tank troop commander whose letter from today paints a vivid picture of the situation:

7 September 1944

Dear Fred

Don’t think I am going soft using pink paper, but I think the ex- owner must have used it for writing to his fraulein — he won’t need it now so I am using it up for him. I am very well and in pretty good spirits. We are at present still in France but quite close to the Belgium frontier. Where we go from here I don’t know and I don’t particularly care if we never move. We led the way here across the Seine and the Somme after those day and night drives you read about, and we were first into this place which is a mining town.

The push here was tiring but very little opposition, but the welcome we received and are still receiving is terrific. You just had to stop for fear of running over people and, just like on films, we were showered with flowers, apples, pears, given wine, eggs, bread, in fact I think everything that they can possibly spare.

At this moment, I am sitting in a miner’s kitchen writing this letter and with my smattering of French, my little dictionary and plenty of patience on their part I get along OK. Every half hour or so a cup of coffee is produced and then the cognac, carefully hoarded for nearly five years for just this day.

The help given us since the break through by the FFI is really amazing. They are armed with all sorts of weapons, old French arms, captured or stolen German arms, hand grenades, bottles, anything in fact, and their enthusiasm and real hatred of the Germans amazes the unenthusiastic British soldier.

In this small place alone, six FFI have been killed in the last few days rounding up stragglers, as they are doing most of this work for us, and the Jerries, especially the SS are dead scared to surrender to them, not without reason I think. Three SS were thrown off the top of one of the slag heaps here just before we arrived and they still have 30 SS and two collaborators down one of the shafts, 400 feet down and they have been there eight days, but what they have suffered seems to me to justify their attitude: seventeen women and children, eyes gouged out and hands cut off publicly for reprisal against the FFI and I myself saw the results of the massacre of a farmer and his family of seven for refusing food. The mentality of these maniacs is beyond my comprehension.

Yesterday was another celebration — 35 women became hairless for consorting with the German soldiers, one of them the wife of a French PoW with a little Boche around the house. It seems to me a rotten way to treat women but I suppose it’s a different mental make-up from the French.

‘This is the third day we have been here now and there are still crowds around the tanks. It gets a bit monotonous but I suppose this is a great time for all of them, but you just can’t move without a crowd of kids at your heels, screaming ‘Cigarette for papa,’ ‘bully beef,’ ‘biscuit,’ ‘bon bon’ and ‘chocolate’. Papa has cost me about 300 fags from my stock and all my chocolate ration so far, it’s got to the stage where you smoke a pipe in self defence — but it’s still worth it to see people so happy again.

All along the roads up here it was the same, cheering people and loads of flowers, and I discovered why the French always prefer wine — their beer is terrible.

The roads here are littered with battered Jerry kit, a tribute to the air force; the worst part was to see all the horses lying dead. The amount of horse transport they must have been compelled to use is amazing, showing that Bomber Command attacks on the oil industry has been worth it.

Prisoners testify that they have to account for every litre and one told us that they have plenty of fighters in Germany but they have no petrol for them. Most prisoners seem to have reconciled themselves to the fact that they have lost the war, but blame their officers for deserting them, and the FFI stabbing them in the back, but some of the young ones still think they will win, on what other grounds than Goebbels they base their assumption, I don’t know.

It was lovely weather until last night, then the weather broke and it is cold and now at 1.30pm it still hasn’t stopped raining and outside is the legendary French mud. All over this area you see signs of the last war, old trenches and names with towns and dates cut in trees which have doubled their size since the letters were cut.

See Bill Bellamy: Troop Leader: A Tank Commander’s Story

French women help British troops to peel potatoes near St Pol in France, 3 September 1944.
French women help British troops to peel potatoes near St Pol in France, 3 September 1944.
Formal group portrait of members of the Maquis (3rd Section, Compagnie Louis) posing with weapons and banners at Luzy, France. Kenneth Mackenzie and David Sillitoe of SOE are in the centre.
Formal group portrait of members of the Maquis (3rd Section, Compagnie Louis) posing with weapons and banners at Luzy, France. Kenneth Mackenzie and David Sillitoe of SOE are in the centre.

Warsaw Uprising – women and children suffer

Warsaw Uprisng - Stuka dive bombers over the Old town, August 1944
Warsaw Uprisng – Stuka dive bombers over the Old town, August 1944

After a month of fighting the Polish Home Army continued to hold out in their desperate battle against the Nazi occupiers. There was still no prospect of Stalin’s troops advancing any further to assist them – and Britain and the U.S. struggled to find the means by which to offer substantial support.

For the Nazis the whole city was regarded as simply a battlefield to be be smashed apart with no regard to occupants, be they Polish Home Army soldiers or ordinary civilians. Julian E. Kulski had grown up with the war, now still only 15 years old, he was one of hundreds of teenagers fighting with the Home Army. He kept a journal of events during the uprising, including 31st August:

Zoliborz is under unrelenting bombardment. On this sunny afternoon, countless enemy Stuka dive-bombers flew over our positions and over Wilson Square. As they were not fired upon, they swooped low over the roofs of the apartment houses, and one could easily see the huge bombs attached to their fuselages. I saw them dive over the lower part of Mickiewicz Street.

After a few minutes, a dreadful explosion shook Zoliborz, and a terrible sight met my eyes. Wall after wall of the enormous apartment building at 34- 36 Mickiewicz Street began to fall down. The front wall of the building slipped out at the base, as a result of the well-aimed bombs, exposing all the interior floors.

After a while, a curtain of dust began to descend over the whole building. My heart sank – it was the building in which Marysia lived. My first thought was to run over there to help. But I was not allowed to leave our quarters. Later, though, an order from our commandant sent us off: “Detachment to dig up the ruins, at the double.”

He did not have to tell us twice!

I started first, and forgetting military discipline, I left my detachment behind. Fear of what might have happened to my friend made my heart thump even faster than the exertion did.

Fortunately, the wing of the building where Marysia lived was still reasonably intact, but the entire middle part had collapsed onto the cellar in which the inhabitants of the building were gathered. The bombs had been dropped aslant and exploded nearly at the foot of the building.

Some rescue squads were already at the place, together with Colonel ‘Zywiciel’ and our Company Commander Lieutenant ‘Szeliga.’ Along with the others, I began to dig under the rubble. We could hear the groans of the victims buried under the broken bricks and glass.

After an hour, we succeeded in digging out a middle-aged woman whose legs were smashed and twisted. Before she lost consciousness, she whispered through pale, blood-covered lips that about ten other people had been with her before the bombs fell.

Now we began to notice a head, a leg, or an arm under the debris — a sign that we were coming to more bodies. The next to be uncovered was a man, but he was already dead, his body damaged almost beyond recognition.

After three hours of intense digging, we found a woman holding a baby in her arms. The baby wailed like a wounded bird, and its mother, though injured herself, clasped her child tightly. She lay in a very difficult position, so it took a long time to free her.

Soon after that we had to stop, and went round to what had been the back of the building to have a breather. The whole garden was full of corpses — there they all lay — men, women, children, and infants. Then, among the civilians standing in a dazed huddle, I noticed Marysia — miraculously, she was not even scratched. The scene made many of us who had never cried before, do so now — particularly because the dead were mostly women and children.

See Dying, we live: The personal chronicle of a young freedom fighter in Warsaw, 1939-1945. YouTube has a short interview with Julian E. Kulski, now a U.S. citizen, on his views on the importance of the Uprising.

Young members of the Polish Home Army in Warsaw during the uprising.
Young members of the Polish Home Army in Warsaw during the uprising.

‘Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated!’

 Near the Opera, German officers taken prisoner at the nearby Kommandantur.  Paris. 25 August 1944. Cartier-Bresson
Near the Opera, German officers taken prisoner at the nearby Kommandantur. Paris. 25 August 1944. Cartier-Bresson

Although the Germans had not yet surrendered the crowds were out early on the streets of Paris in anticipation of the final liberation. Squadron Leader John Pudney was travelling as a liaison officer with the French 2nd Division as they entered the city:

As the sun came through the mist and there was more confidence in the light, more people gathered with more flags. They threw flowers and flags: they threw themselves. They clung to the car: they tried to climb on top.

The FFI youth leapt upon the mudguards. While they screamed the words ‘Royal Air Force’ and sang the ‘Marseillaise’ and ‘Tipperary’, we managed to keep moving, juggernaut fashion. The only time we stopped we had to be dug out by twenty gendarmes.

Suddenly I recognised boulevard Montparnasse over the heads of the crowd. We were at Gare Montparnasse! Gunfire, cheers, whistles, shots, tears, kisses, champagne, poured in at the driving window, through the roof.

‘We have waited so long… Thank you for coming… RAF, RAF, RAF… I am English… My brother went to join the Royal Air Force… Kiss me, please… You must drink this: I kept it for the first Englishman I met …’

That pillow fight of goodwill begins my Paris memory?

So many more people were to describe the hugely emotional scenes that followed, as hundreds of thousands of Parisians thronged onto the streets even as further tank battles took place in the heart of the city. The last die hard Germans snipers would not give up for at least another couple of days.

The German commander von Choltitz finally surrendered to the French 2nd Division later that day, preferring them to the the irregular forces of the French Forces of the Interior.

Later de Gaulle arrived. His formal position was Defence Minister for the French Republic of 1940. He now sought to establish that that legitimate government had never ceased to exist, simply continued in exile in London. There would be no revolution as the communist dominated Resistance movement had hoped. France would now just carry on as before.

General De Gaulle with General Leclerc and other French officers at Montparnasse railway station in Paris, 25 August 1944.
General De Gaulle with General Leclerc and other French officers at Montparnasse railway station in Paris, 25 August 1944.

His task now was to rebuild France and the spirit of France. It was a Franco-centric world view, and he had little scope to mention anyone else, when he made his first radio address that day:

Why do you wish us to hide the emotion which seizes us all, men and women, who are here, at home, in Paris that stood up to liberate itself and that succeeded in doing this with its own hands?

No! We will not hide this deep and sacred emotion. These are minutes which go beyond each of our poor lives. Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!

Well! Since the enemy which held Paris has capitulated into our hands, France returns to Paris, to her home. She returns bloody, but quite resolute. She returns there enlightened by the immense lesson, but more certain than ever of her duties and of her rights.

I speak of her duties first, and I will sum them all up by saying that for now, it is a matter of the duties of war. The enemy is staggering, but he is not beaten yet. He remains on our soil.

It will not even be enough that we have, with the help of our dear and admirable Allies, chased him from our home for us to consider ourselves satisfied after what has happened. We want to enter his territory as is fitting, as victors.

This is why the French vanguard has entered Paris with guns blazing. This is why the great French army from Italy has landed in the south and is advancing rapidly up the Rhône valley. This is why our brave and dear Forces of the interior will arm themselves with modern weapons. It is for this revenge, this vengeance and justice, that we will keep fighting until the final day, until the day of total and complete victory.

This duty of war, all the men who are here and all those who hear us in France know that it demands national unity. We, who have lived the greatest hours of our History, we have nothing else to wish than to show ourselves, up to the end, worthy of France. Long live France!

The quotations come from Matthew Cobb: Eleven Days in August: The Liberation of Paris in 1944

Contemporary newsreel of the liberation of Paris:

Brimming with anger, a French man attacks a German soldier being marched through the streets of Paris following his capture by members of the French Resistance. After the entry of the French 2nd Armored Division of the Free French Forces and the U.S. Third Army (United States Army Central), numerous pockets of German snipers who refused to surrender had to be rooted out in street fighting. Paris, Île-de-France, France. 25 August 1944. Image taken by Robert Capa.
Brimming with anger, a French man attacks a German soldier being marched through the streets of Paris following his capture by members of the French Resistance. After the entry of the French 2nd Armored Division of the Free French Forces and the U.S. Third Army (United States Army Central), numerous pockets of German snipers who refused to surrender had to be rooted out in street fighting. Paris, Île-de-France, France. 25 August 1944. Image taken by Robert Capa.

Paris in turmoil as liberation approaches

Gendarmes and a French resistance fighter keep an eye on the Seine during the Battle for Paris(AFP)
Gendarmes and a French resistance fighter keep an eye on the Seine during the Battle for Paris(AFP)

With the collapse of German forces in Normandy it seemed inevitable that the liberation of Paris must come soon. Within the city the French Forces of the Interior had broken out into open insurrection.

It remained unclear how far the remaining German forces in the capital would resist, there some elements who were determined to fight to the last – and there were snipers on the rooftops. Yet the German commander of the Paris garrison, von Choltitz, was playing out the last few days – telling Hitler that he was ready to blow up the city while at the same time negotiating with the FFI through intermediaries.

In a symbolic gesture the Allies had decided to allow the 2nd French Armoured Division led by General Le Clerc to lead the liberation of the city, closely supported by troops from Patton’s 3rd Army.

Matthew Halton was a Canadian reporter travelling with General Le Clerc’s tanks that were approaching Paris. During the day he was to broadcast.

Wherever we drive, in the areas west and south-west of the capital, people shout: “Look, they are going to Paris! ” But then we run into pockets of resistance here or there and are forced to turn back. It’s clear that we are seeing the disintegration of the German Army — but we never know when we are going to be shot at.

There are still some units of the German Army, fanatical men of the SS or armoured divisions, who are willing to fight to the last man. They are moving here and there all over this area, trying to coalesce into strong fighting forces…

The people everywhere are tense with emotion. Their love of freedom is so very deep, and a nightmare is lifting from their lives; and history races down the roads towards Paris.

When the first of the French tanks arrived in the capital at 11 o’clock at night it became clear that the following day would see full liberation of the city

Pierre Crénesse than made a dramatic broadcast on the newly liberated French public radio declaring:

Tomorrow morning will be the dawn of a new day for the capital. Tomorrow morning, Paris will be liberated, Paris will have finally rediscovered its true face.

Four years of struggle, four years that have been, for many people, years of prison, years of pain, of torture and, for many more, a slow death in the Nazi concentration camps, murder; but that’s all over…

For several hours, here in the centre of Paris, in the Cité, we have been living unforgettable moments. At the Préfecture, my comrades have explained to you that they are waiting for the commanding officers of the Leclerc Division and the American and French authorities.

Similarly, at the Hotel de Ville the Conseil National de la Résistance has been meeting for several hours. They are awaiting the French authorities. Meetings will take place, meetings which will be extremely symbolic, either there or in the Prefecture de Police — we don’t yet know where.

For German officer Walter Dreizner it was an unnerving experience as he kept watch over the city. Many of his fellow officers had dined particularly well that night and were now sleeping it off. Some expected that that would be their last meal, none expected to enjoy the delights of Paris for much longer:

All the bells of Paris are ringing. They send their eerie call into the dark summer night. It goes chillingly down your spine. If only you could turn them off. Yet the sounds pitilessly press themselves against your ear…

Heavily, eerily, the bells send their call out into the dark night like the verdict of a higher court… The voice of history, the voice of the nation, sounds from the heart of the city, from the Ile de la Cité… Seconds of silence hang over Paris.

And then the spell is broken: thousands and thousands of voices cry out. The hurricane of voices does not stop. At one stroke, the sky above eastern Paris becomes lighter and lighter. The excited population is setting off fire- works. Paris is in joyous delirium. Paris is in its element.

The quotations come from Matthew Cobb: Eleven Days in August: The Liberation of Paris in 1944

Members of the Free French Forces fight from inside the Paris Prefecture (police headquarters)(Getty)
Members of the Free French Forces fight from inside the Paris Prefecture (police headquarters)(Getty)