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)

The French rise up in Paris

A German Panzer by the Arc de Triomphe in 1944, there was only a relatively small garrison there by August.
A German Panzer by the Arc de Triomphe in 1944, there was only a relatively small garrison there by August.
Dietrich von Choltitz, the German commander in Paris, disobeyed Hitler and avoided the destruction of the city.
Dietrich von Choltitz, the German commander in Paris, disobeyed Hitler and avoided the destruction of the city.

In Paris, with the Allies approaching rapidly, the German commander Dietrich von Choltitz was under increasing pressure to crack down on the popular uprising that had broken out on the 20th August.

The disparate members of French Forces of the Interior had sunk their various differences and started an insurrection. Just as in Warsaw they were poorly armed but determined, and they had been enthusiastically supported by the citizens of Paris, who took to the barricades. The circumstances were very different from Warsaw, here the Allies were very much intent on taking the city and the local German forces weaker and less enthusiastic in turning on the native population.

Choltitz received orders to “brutally” suppress the uprising. “The battle must be conducted mercilessly and the city’s bridges are to be blown up.” On the 22nd August Hitler personally weighed in:

Paris is to become a heap of rubble. The commanding general is to defend the city to the last man, and if necessary, to go down with the city.

With an eye to the future Choltitz was not especially enthusiastic about burning down Paris and was being evasive with the SS and the Luftwaffe who might have come to his assistance. Nevertheless, aware that his family in Germany were vulnerable if he openly defied Hitler, he was promising Berlin that he would deliver.

Meanwhile a huge weight of expectation was building up in France. At midday the BBC news carried a report from French journalist Daniel Melville from ‘somewhere in France’:

The advanced American patrols have reached the Seine. We can see the same river that runs through Paris and this renews the strength of the soldiers who have fought non-stop since the breakout at Cotentin. All our weaponry is involved in this massive race.

As we pass through towns and villages, we always hear the same question: “Are the Allies in Paris?” For everyone, the coming liberation of the capital will symbolise the liberation of the whole country.

This morning, a peasant said to me as he watched massive lorries full of ammunition thunder past his door: “I think the liberation of Paris will affect me even more than the liberation of my own village, because France will once again have a capital.

In the Paris itself it was increasingly unclear who was in charge. Dr. Toni Scheelkopf, a German war correspondent went to find out for himself:

As the front drew steadily nearer to Paris at the beginning of this week, and when we heard the news that conditions in the city itself had considerably deteriorated, we went in again on Tuesday (22 August) to get an idea of the situation.

We knew that the garrisons of the strong-points remaining behind in Paris had to fight in every part of the town in ceaseless skirmishes, against the followers of de Gaulle on the one hand and against the Bolshevist-controlled Resistance on the other.

We saw barricades in the side-streets, sandbags piled high, vehicles driven into one another, pieces of furniture heaped together to form barriers . . . somewhere a machine-gun chattered from time to time . . . but we came through unchallenged to the well-defended German strong-points and reached the Champs Elysées.

Here the change which had come over this city was even more noticeable. It was a little after midday. But this street, usually crowded at this time of day with people and vehicles, was empty. On the way from the obelisk to the Arc de Triomphe we counted just over fifty people.

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

Contemporary British newsreel with scenes of the Paris uprising before the liberation:

The French enthusiastically took to the barricades again.
The French enthusiastically took to the barricades again.

Poles seek help as they battle on in Warsaw

Bombs falling on the centre of Warsaw, August 1944.
Bombs falling on the centre of Warsaw, August 1944.

While the Polish Armoured Division fought a desperate battle in Normandy, in their home country the battle being being fought by their compatriots against their Nazi occupiers was no less fierce.

The Warsaw Uprising had been intended as a short sharp insurrection which would, if wholly successful, see off the last of the retreating Germans and allow the Poles themselves to welcome the advancing Red Army into the city. At the very least the underground Home Army – Armia Krajowa – would be able to assist the Russian to take the city.

Neither scenario had come about. On Stalin’s orders Soviet forces had halted some distance from Warsaw and were doing little to assist. Meanwhile the Germans had shown a determination not only to to cling on to the city but fight back with a relentless savagery, sparing none of Warsaw’s civilians.

As the battle continued for much longer than first expected, the Home Army appealed to the Polish government in exile in Britain to approach the Allies for direct assistance:

Gentlemen, we are approaching you for the second time. For the past three weeks, we have been carrying on a bloody fight completely alone, insufficiently supplied with weapons and ammunition, and without air assistance.

At the same time, all reports that reach us from Polish territory occupied by the Soviets, from territories that are disputed by the Soviet Union and those that are not, inform us that the Soviet authorities intern, arrest, or detain in Camp Majdanek, Armia Krajowa civilian administrators.

This is the AK that so successfully assisted them in fighting the German forces. In this way, after five years of incessant and bloody resistance against the Germans, the Polish nation is being cruelly enslaved by one of its allies. Is it true that the great nations of the United States of America, and Great Britain can passively watch this new tragedy overtaking Poland…their ally?

Is it true that even the Polish Air Force under British command is not allowed to come to the assistance of dying Warsaw? Is it true that Poland is going to be a victim of partition based on spheres of interest?

We are declaring in the most solemn manner that we are fighting on the ruins of burning Warsaw, and we shall fight…for independence, and…defend that independence against any sort of imperialist.

In this fight we have united peasants, workers, and intelligentsia. The Polish nation, seeing the passivity of both great allies toward dying Warsaw, and also their silent approval of the outrages committed under the Soviet occupation, cannot understand and is reacting with bitter disappointment.

As Roosevelt and Churchill argued with Stalin and struggled to find a way to fly munitions into Warsaw, the Uprising continued on the streets.

Zbigniew Czajkowski was a seventeen year old volunteer with the Home Army, now hiding in a hole on the streets of Warsaw, close to the front line with the Germans.

21 August 1944

The mortar bombs, which rain down constantly onto the Krasinski Palace and the surrounding areas, occasionally fall short and explode nearby. Shrapnel whistles close by overhead, so I set about improving my position.

I dig down into the rubble with my bare hands, Irving to make sure the bricks I dig up don’t alter the outward appearance of my position. I have to be very quiet, and pause every time a rocket flies overhead, so it’s nearly dawn bv the time I have provided myself with reasonable protection.

My foxhole is now over half a metre deep, with an entrance invisible from the front, and a comfortable firing position facing the enemy lines. I benefit from my hard work almost immediately, when a few salvos of mortar fire land one after another among our positions. The dust and smoke is so thick it feels as if the rubble itself is on fire.

At precisely 8 o’clock, four Stuka dive bombers pay us their first visit of the day. From where I am, there is also a splendid view of the Old Town. I watch, the aeroplanes circling over the rooftops looking for a target. Then, one after another, they climb into the sky before diving onto their chosen objective. Once above a building they release a long bomb, then with a shriek of engines, climb back into the sky. Now, after a slow count to six, the explosions start.

Black pillars of smoke spoilt from the bombarded area gradually dispersed by the wind. The aeroplanes return, having circled around for a while, this time each dropping two smaller bombs. Again the ground heaves and more smoke rises above the unfortunate buildings. Even so, that’s not enough for these bastards. They circle around for a third time, when they open up with their machine guns. At that moment I think of the people who were sheltering in those houses escaping out into the open, with shrapnel from the fragmentation bombs dropping on them.

The aeroplanes fly away, but it’s not long before they return. I check my watch with each attack. There is always at least forty-five minutes between each raid, the difference rarely more than a few minutes. That’s how long it takes them to fly to the aerodrome, reload with fuel and ammunition, and return. I memorise the numbers and letters on the fuselage of each aeroplane. They are always the same. I lie on mv back and observe how they manoeuvre. The attacks are precise and clinical in their destruction.

I feel quite safe where I am, but my blood runs cold at the thought all those people must be going through not more than 200 or 300 metres away from me.

Lying here I distinctly feel the earth rocking beneath me with each explosion. Were I to stand upright, it would be a struggle to stay on my feet. There is an unpleasant moment when the aeroplanes start flying around directly above us. I can see every menacing detail: the grey/green bombs hanging underneath, the barrel of the machine gun protruding from the propeller boss. I catch a glimpse of the pilot’s face through his glass canopy. I get the feeling as though he was looking directly at me.

More white rockets fly from the German lines. I’m suddenly filled with terror, completely uncovered as I am from the air. I throw handfuls of dust over my uniform to try and blend into mv surroundings. They fly past. I breathe a sigh of relief, until the next sound of engines coming closer. I look out: four aeroplanes are flying in formation straight towards us. I close my eyes and press myself down into the rubble.

The clatter of engines and a whistle just above us … this is it! Silence. The aeroplanes fly over. I’m still counting. Five … six … nothing. Ten … eleven … nothing. Thev didn’t drop their bombs! I open my eyes. Six white rockets are flying across the sky simultaneously. They’ve come from the German positions but are also right above us. Probably the pilots could not figure out where the target was.

There were six air raids before midday, after that I stopped counting. The smoke from the buildings burning all over the Old Town blends into one. Sometimes, it even blocks out the sun.

See Zbigniew Czajkowski: Warsaw 1944: An Insurgent’s Journal of the Uprising

Barricade with a flag at Marszałkowska street, Warsaw 1944.
Barricade with a flag at Marszałkowska street, Warsaw 1944.

Married with brass curtain rings in burning Warsaw

Captured German Sd.Kfz. 251 from the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, and pressed into service with the 8-th "Krybar" Regiment. The soldier holding a MP 40 submachine gun is commander Adam Dewicz "Gray Wolf", 14 August 1944
Captured German Sd.Kfz. 251 from the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, and pressed into service with the 8-th “Krybar” Regiment. The soldier holding a MP 40 submachine gun is commander Adam Dewicz “Gray Wolf”, 14 August 1944

Almost a fortnight after the Polish underground Home Army had launched their insurgency and the residents had joined the Warsaw Uprising, the Poles were still controlling sections of the city and holding their own against the German counter-attacks. Thousands of women and children had been murdered by Nazi death squads as they sought to regain control of the city. The insurgents were under no illusions that it would be a bitter fight – but it still did not seem possible that they would have to fight alone. The Red Army was not very far away, they were slow coming, but surely they would take advantage of the situation and join the battle?

Bill C. Biega whose Home Army identity was ‘Pałąk’ was a member of the ‘Kilinski Battalion’. He had been wounded in the early fighting and lay in the Home Army’s improvised hospital. The wounded had time to reflect on the situation:

The failure of the Soviets to maintain their offensive and come to our assistance was ominous. Even Soviet planes had vanished from the air space over the city. True, none of us considered the Bolsheviks (as we continued to call them) to be our friends. But they were allies of our Allies, and common sense seemed to indicate that political differences should not prevent them from taking advantage of the bridgehead we had created on the west bank of the Vistula. We still felt sure that any day their offensive would resume, but nagging doubts disturbed us.

It was this lurking doubt that things might not end well that prompted a conversation with his fellow wounded friend ‘Frasza’ about his long term girlfriend Lili:

Several days later we were both making good progress. I had even been able to walk with Lili’s assistance to the PKO for my arm to be X-rayed. When I returned, and Lili had gone back to the Post Office, ‘Frasza’ asked me, “I’ve watched you two for some time. You’re both obviously very much in love, why don’t you get married?”

“Yes, I love Lili and she loves me,” I answered. “We talked about getting married many times during the last weeks, but it just wasn’t a very practical thing to do in these difficult times. We plan to as soon as this is all over – if we both survive.”
He asked, “Why don’t you do it now?”
“How could it be done?” I responded.
“I will ask the Battalion Adjutant.”

He proceeded to write a note which he sent with one of the couriers. Early the following afternoon a messenger brought him a note. He read it, smiled and said, “The arrangements have been made, your wedding will be tomorrow morning in the paper shop upstairs. I have sent a messenger to Lili to tell her!”

Rysia Vitali, the doctor’s wife and constant assistant, made arrangements to get me a suitable uniform for the ceremony. Lili was in a stage of shock when she received the totally unexpected message, but her friends rallied to help her, gave her a clean blouse and skirt. My father came by visit me (his office in the Government Secretariat was only a few blocks away on Mazowiecka Street). When I told him the news he was vehemently opposed.

He said, “This a ridiculous thing to do, you have no home, no job, no way of supporting a family …” and more in the same vein. All the usual parental objections.

Patiently, I explained, “Dad, you know that we’ve been in love for years. Tomorrow we might all be dead, so all the old rules don’t mean anything. At least we’ll be together as long as we can. Perhaps we’ll survive somehow, let’s hope and pray we do. Then we’ll figure things out together.”

He went away quite angry, but after reflection he realized that I was right. In the morning, he came to the ceremony and gave us his blessing.

Thirteen was still lucky for me. That was the date of our wedding day – August 13. A field altar was set up on bales of paper in the store upstairs. The borrowed uniform was pushed and pulled onto me over the plaster dressing of my left arm. Finally, I was ready just as Lili arrived with an honor guard composed of six of her girls, holding a bouquet of rather wilted gladiolus in her hand. An attack on our positions had occurred that morning so none of my colleagues, not even the best man, Stas Nestrypke, could come to the ceremony.

However, the Propaganda Section, which was quartered in the night club Adria, just across the street, sent over a film unit. The entire ceremony was filmed, to the annoyance of the Battalion Chaplain, who disliked the bright lights and noise. Lili saw the whole film, two days after the ceremony, in the Cinema Palladium, which at that time was still operating. […]

Bill and Lili's wedding was filmed by a Polish Propaganda unit and featured in Allied publicity about the Uprising.
Bill and Lili’s wedding was filmed by a Polish Propaganda unit and featured in Allied publicity about the Uprising.

[…] We exchanged wedding rings, not gold but brass curtain rings. After the brief ceremony the Chaplain wrote up the marriage certificate using our assumed names of ‘Pałąk’ and ‘Jarmuz’. My father had the presence of mind to say that the time of secrecy had passed, the document must be in our real names, otherwise later on we would have serious problems proving we were legally married. A new document was typed up and signed by Chaplain ‘Corda’2. Then, all the participants and the other patients enjoyed a wedding breakfast composed of French sardines and paté on biscuits captured from the stores of the German garrison in the Post Office. The obligatory toasts were made in vodka.

The attack had been beaten back. Lili and I ducked behind the barricades, which were under constant sniper fire, to the Company command post, where another party had been prepared in the luxurious suite of the (pre-war) chief postmaster. More toasts were drunk, then we ducked back past the barricades to the hospital.

My bed was already in use! “Biega, if you are well enough to get married, we don’t have room for you! We need your bed for the more seriously wounded.”

Once more we returned past the barricades, with our heads low to avoid sniper fire, to the Post Office. We spent our wedding night on the floor of the ante-chamber to the office of the chief postmaster. Our nuptial bed was a mattress on the floor. We did not have much privacy; all night long, messengers tiptoed past our bed into the suite which was the company command post, but this did not bother us. I was in pain so I did not feel very amorous and we contented ourselves by cuddling together, shortly we fell into an exhausted sleep.

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.

Home Army soldier armed with Błyskawica submachine gun defending a barricade in Powiśle District of Warsaw during the Uprising, August 1944
Home Army soldier armed with Błyskawica submachine gun defending a barricade in Powiśle District of Warsaw during the Uprising, August 1944

Warsaw insurrection becomes a popular Uprising

Polish civilians preparing sand bags in the courtyard of townhouse at Moniuszki street. August 1944
Polish civilians preparing sand bags in the courtyard of townhouse at Moniuszki street. August 1944

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? .

See Warsaw Boy: A Memoir of a Wartime Childhood.

The Polish Home Army breaks into the open

Patrol of Lieut. Stanisław Jankowski ("Agaton") from Batalion Pięść, 1 August 1944: "W-hour" (17:00)
Patrol of Lieut. Stanisław Jankowski (“Agaton”) from Batalion Pięść, 1 August 1944: “W-hour” (17:00)

As the Red Army marched into Poland from the east, putting the Germans on readiness for retreat everywhere, it seemed that the long agony that the country had endured since September 1939 must soon be at an end.

There were tense deliberations with the underground Home Army about how soon they should join the attack. Many were eager to begin the final battle with the Germans and demonstrate that Poland had not been completely cowed by the occupation. Others, knowing how weakly armed the Army was compared with Wehrmacht were more cautious.

It was over a year since the Jewish uprising in Warsaw had ended badly. Now it seemed that the Red Army could only be a week or more away, it was time for Poles to get their vengeance in first.

Like many others in the city Michael Zylberberg, a jewish survivor living a precarious existence in Warsaw, sensed that something was at hand:

I stepped out to find Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street in a turmoil. Crowds were milling around, all on the run. German police and soldiers were lined up in front of the government buildings, guns in hands. I did not hurry; I simply wondered where to go. Perhaps the best thing would be to go back to Mokotow and stay with my Polish police neighbour. He was afraid and so was I. We had that in common, at least.

I got as far as Krolewska Street but could get no further. I was in the front line and there was shooting on all sides. German soldiers were lying on the pavements, firing up at buildings that had been taken over by the Polish fighters. All the houses and shops were tightly shuttered and I just stood there with nowhere to hide. To walk on to Mokotow was out of the question. I had to try to get back to the Old City.

There at least I had an old friend, Ignacy Pulawski. Now I could return to him without being afraid of informers. Bent double, I ran through Pilsudzki Square, rechristened Hitler Square. It was lined with armed Germans. Apart from myself there was no other civilian to be seen. The Germans smiled at my distress.

In Senatorska Street, hard by Dr. Fischer’s residence, a motor bicycle drew up with two Germans. Suddenly, Poles appeared in all doorways and hurled grenades. The cycle and the two Germans were blown to pieces.

It was about five o’clock, zero hour according to my informant in the restaurant. I got to Nowiniarska Street, and saw columns of German cars driving along by the walls of the Warsaw ghetto. They were being shot at from various side streets but offered no return-fire.

At the corner of Franciscan and Nowiniarska Streets, I saw a small hunchback holding a sub-machine gun and firing steadily at the German file of cars. The bullets bounded off the ghetto walls. When he saw me, he held out the machine gun and said, “Citizen, you fire a salvo. It is high time you had a go.”

I wondered what he meant; did he really know who I was? I gladly fired a round of bullets, however. I felt that I had been accorded the greatest honour possible.

Standing in front of Pulawski’s shop at 88, Nowiniarska Street, I saw a young man of about twenty in civilian clothes with the Polish national emblem, an eagle, on his hat. He held a revolver. He stopped beside me and said, saluting, “Sir, the arsenal is at your disposal.” At first I was bewildered, but quickly realised that he thought I was Pulawski. The shop next door sold stationery but I had noted that it was open only one day in three.

Pulawski had told me confidentially that in the cellar below the stationer’s there was a secret arsenal. Now I understood. The young man was in a hurry to join his unit, and so was handing it over, to Pulawski as he thought. I smiled and took over the arsenal.

Joyfully I went into Pulawski’s office and told him the news.

All was gay and happy at Pulawski’s, as if it were all over. A group of Polish friends were toasting the day’s events in vodka. I thought it was premature but was afraid of showing my fears, and said nothing of what I had seen and done in the last few hours.

Pulawski welcomed me with open arms. He was delighted to see me and have me with him. We stayed together for a month, and I relived some experiences that reminded me vividly of my last days in the ghetto.

After the first night there, everyone quickly realised that the end was still a long way off. A German tank came down the street, stopped at the corner of Franciscan and Nowiniarska Streets, and proceeded to fire at all the houses. The bombardment was fierce and marked the beginning of a new battle that was to continue for over two months.

See A Warsaw Diary (Library of Holocaust Testimonies)

See Julian Engeniusz Kulski: Dying, we live: The personal chronicle of a young freedom fighter in Warsaw (1939-1945). For more on Julian Kulski see Warsaw Uprising.

RAF pilot lies low with the French

An RAF Typhoon landing at a forward airstrip, as supply lorries pass in the foreground, 26 July 1944.
An RAF Typhoon landing at a forward airstrip, as supply lorries pass in the foreground, 26 July 1944.
A French family returns to their village, Buron, near Caen, which was completely wrecked during the fighting, Normandy, 18 July 1944.
A French family returns to their village, Buron, near Caen, which was completely wrecked during the fighting, Normandy, 18 July 1944.

RAF Typhoon Pilot Frank ‘Dutch’ Holland had had the misfortune to be shot down on 7th June whilst over Normandy. He had gone on the run to evade capture and had been helped by the French.

Eventually he had moved to a farmhouse and adopted the identity of a French farm labourer, complete with false papers, assisted by his ability to speak French. He was therefore in a unique position to see the German occupation of France:

Throughout most of July, we were at most only 30 miles from the front and you could often hear the artillery further north. Also, of course, there were frequent overflights by British and American aircraft and German ones. Overall it was clear that the Allies had primary control over the skies, even if they didn’t on the ground.

There were, however, a number of dogfights that we saw. But only once did I see one of our aircraft shot down. The fights usually ended with the Huns as the losers, either shot down or fleeing. When I saw one of these kills, I had to restrain myself and never show my feelings about it, certainly not shout anything, as I had outside my barn in Lion d’Or, since there were often German soldiers around witnessing the same events.

But I silently rejoiced every time an enemy plane was shot down. In the Lair household, we kept up with the news by means of an old crystal set hidden in the chimney, which we took out from its hiding place and listened to at least once every day, usually at night, around the kitchen table. The sound was fairly terrible — you literally had to bring two crystals together to get the transmission — but it was good enough to get the gist of what was happening in the war.

It was on this radio set that I first heard about “doodle-bugs” being used to bomb London. The French term was “avion sans pilote”. Hearing about these reminded me immediately of course about our earlier attacks on the V1 installations. Using this set, however, was not without risk because of the German soldiers who were camped out in the village.

They all felt free to enter the house without much more than a quick knock, or not even that, to ask for an egg to be cooked or the like. If any of them had caught us listening to the crystal set, the least that would have happened would have been confiscation of the radio. But there might have been punishment of some kind as well. Still, we were never caught.

So, it was the secret broadcasts that were our main source of news from the front. And it continued to be disappointing. Progress was being made on the Cotentin peninsula and the fighting around Cherbourg, mostly involving American troops, was pretty fierce before the Allies broke through enemy lines. The Germans were clearly fighting back strongly, especially around Caen. It was apparent, four and more weeks after the start of the invasion, that Normandy was not being taken by the Allies in a walk, not by a long shot.

Patton’s army had come south from the Cotentin peninsula and was now coming around the back of Caen, as it were. But the city was still held by the enemy and the progress of the American and British forces seemed agonisingly slow. Yet, it was also clear that the Germans were taking some heavy punishment and that this was beginning to take its toll on their morale.

One day, two Germans, driving two large wagons, stopped in front of the farmhouse, got out and demanded cider and eggs. André questioned them and learned that one lorry was filled with ammunition, the other with petrol. They were taking both of these loads to the front at Caen. They admitted that they didn’t like doing this job in the daylight because they felt they were sitting ducks for the “Tommies” of the RAF. (To many of the Germans, all British servicemen were “Tommies”, not just those serving in the Army.)

In fact, they said they would rather have the Tommies machine-gun their trucks from the air well before they got to the front rather than at the front, where the fighting was so intense. In a way, I was surprised to hear this from them, that they would be so candid about their fears to French civilians (plus one Brit in Frenchman’s clothing!) in occupied France. In telling us this, did they really think we would be sympathetic to their plight? Or were they just getting it off their chests, thinking that it didn’t matter really what we thought. (Probably the latter.) Of course, we tried to look poker- faced at this, and certainly didn’t say anything unsympathetic. But in incidents like these, you could get a glimpse of German morale beginning to crack.

To my great satisfaction, they got their wish. Four miles down the road, this two wagon convoy was strafed by Spitfires and the vehicles were turned into wizard flamers. The two drivers, however, escaped since they abandoned their lorries at the first sign of the Spitfires. This incident was seen by several Frenchmen, who expressed their pleasure later that evening.

In fact, the German fear of strafing of their vehicles was quite general. Many of the vehicles had a soldier stationed on the running board, whose job was to look out for approaching British or American aircraft. If any were spotted before the aircraft saw them, the lookout would immediately tell the driver and he would quickly try to conceal his vehicle.

See D-Day Plus One: Shot Down and on the Run in France

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Sir Bernard Montgomery gather with troops in Caen on 22 July 1944 who took part in the D-Day landings.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Sir Bernard Montgomery gather with troops in Caen on 22 July 1944 who took part in the D-Day landings.
German prisoners being issued with rations, 26 July 1944
German prisoners being issued with rations, 26 July 1944

Polish partisans watch the German retreat

A German anti-partisan operation earlier in 1943.
A German anti-partisan operation earlier in 1943.
Military police in 'Partisan territory'.
Military police in ‘Partisan territory’.

The great forests of eastern Poland and western Ukraine had been contested territory for much of the war. It was here that groups of ‘partisans’ with different allegiances sought to evade the German occupation. Here there were nationalist groups, communist groups, a few jewish groups and not a few opportunists. Later as more weapons became available they took the fight to the Germans. The Germans met this threat to their rear with huge armed sweeps through the area and savage reprisals against the local villagers who were simply assumed to be supporting the partisans, which was not always true.

By late July 1944 the forests had become crowded places with more and more people fleeing, both to avoid the repercussions of the German collapse, and also to join in the insurrection that was expected as the Soviet forces approached. Frank Blaichman, a leader of a Jewish partisan group, describes these final days:

At around 10 a.m., our lookouts on top of the windmill reported seeing four Germans on horseback approaching the village. We woke everyone up and told them to go into the fields where there was good cover and to trench in and take up defensive positions.

An hour later, we heard a low rumble, like thunder. The ground began to tremble. Through my binoculars I saw a column of German tanks coming straight toward us from the village. I was dug in alongside Gruber, Chiel, and Dworecki. We told our men to be ready, but not to open fire until ordered.

I saw the column turn left onto a field road that ran parallel to our position; the Germans were now only about a hundred yards from us. We became alarmed because it looked as though they were on their way to engage us in battle.

With our weapons and numbers, we could not possibly engage a column of tanks. My mind was racing: how could we escape? We sent out scouts behind our positions to find a way out. I looked through my binoculars again and saw that the Germans were not combat-ready; instead, they were sitting on top of their tanks.

At this moment, our scouts returned to report that all the roads behind us were filled with German trucks, tanks, and horse—drawn wagons moving west. They weren’t coming after us; they were trying to get away from the Russian Army as fast as they could.

What I was looking at was the Nazi war machine in retreat. We could not move. There was nowhere to go. Hiding in the fields, trenched in, we heard the decisive battles for our area. The forest was full of Russian partisans. When they saw the Germans moving out on all the roads, they called on their air force to bomb and strafe the columns.

When the Germans tried to take cover in the forest, the partisans cut them down with their heavy machine guns. Then the Germans called in the Luftwaffe, and we watched the dogfights above the forest off to the east.

It took hours for the tank columns to pass our positions. Our men later said that some of the Germans riding on the tanks must have spotted us, but just looked the other way. To this day, I can’t imagine how we managed to keep cool in a situation like this, when we could all have been killed and our only defense was in lying low and waiting it out. We had become a tightly disciplined group. Nobody made a false move.

About half an hour after the last tank passed, we heard a huge explosion and saw flames and smoke maybe a thousand feet behind us. We later learned that one of the German tanks had broken down; the Germans blew it up, not wanting to leave it behind for the Russians.

When night fell, the roads were still crowded with thousands upon thousands of German foot soldiers riding on trucks, wagons, and horses. It was this congestion that had forced the tanks to take to the smaller roads through fields and forests.

We had not eaten since the previous day. The tension was wearing on us. We began to move out from our positions through the high grasses and swamps on the margins of a meadow, trying to find a break in the German encirclement.

See Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II

A group of suspected Partisans are led off by German troops in 1942.
A group of suspected Partisans are led off by German troops in 1942.
The results of an anti partisan operation earlier in 1943. Such exhibitions were intended to have a deterrent effect.
The results of an anti partisan operation earlier in 1943. Such exhibitions were intended to have a deterrent effect.