The Poles suffered ruthless brutality from both the Nazis and the Soviets, who were bent on stamping out Polish identity and culture. The Nazi Einsatzgruppen (mobile death squads) left a trail of murder across the country, and a network of concentration and extermination camps were established. By 1945, more than 6 million were dead, 3 million of whom were Jews. Only 10% of Poland’s Jews survived.
The Soviets also had a proclivity for terror, mass deportations and wholesale murder, the most notorious such incident being the spring 1940 Katyn massacre, in which 22,000 officers and intelligentsia perished.
the Poles organised an Underground State unique in its size and sophistication
“Although initially most Jews preferred Soviet to German occupation, it was not long before the Soviets’ heavy hand ground them down”, Baruch Milch, a Jewish doctor, wrote in his diary.
The invaders faced fierce civilian resistance from the very beginning, and soon after Poland’s defeat, in the words of one activist, “secret societies were springing up all over the place, like mushrooms after the rain”. The Polish insurrectionary spirit, the legacy of historical partitions and revolts, burned bright throughout the very darkest days of the occupation.
Throughout the war, the Poles organised an Underground State unique in its size and sophistication. As historian Paul Latawski states, “If the threat to Poland was without precedent, then so too was the comprehensiveness of resistance to preserve and restore national life. In an age of total war, the Poles responded with a model of total resistance”.
Major Henryk “Hubal” Dobrzański, dubbed the “Crazy Major” by the Germans, with Polish soldiers. “We are not making heroes of ourselves [...] we keep the soldier’s oath and fulfil our duty”, he once wrote.
The Underground State
The strategy of the Polish resistance was informed by the German response to the “Post-September” resisters, military personnel who had refused to accept defeat. The most famous was Major Henryk “Hubal” Dobrzański, dubbed the “Crazy Major” by the Germans. Hubal led 50 men into the Holy Cross Mountains in central Poland, destroying a Wehrmacht infantry battalion in March 1940. “We are not making heroes of ourselves [...] we keep the soldier’s oath and fulfil our duty”, Hubal wrote in his journal that month. His unit was eventually wiped out on 30 April 1940.
The Nazi response was brutal, burning villages and murdering hundreds. Appalled, the burgeoning resistance decided that all armed actions should be selective and centrally controlled, organising clandestine networks and preparing for an opportune moment for insurrection.
The Nazi response was brutal, burning villages and murdering hundreds.
In the years that followed, the Polish resistance assembled the structures of an entire Underground State, the purpose of which was to safeguard Polish society and culture whilst preparing for the uprising.
Swearing allegiance to the Polish government-in-exile under General Władysław Sikorski (and under Stanisław Mikołajczyk from July 1943), the Poles established shadow “departments”, including educational, judicial, welfare and propaganda wings, and even an underground parliament, ensuring unity within the resistance. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were active in the civil and military activities of the Underground State.
The logo of the Home Army
The Home Army
The Armia Krajowa (Home Army – AK), the armed wing of the Underground State, dominated militant resistance in Poland. The AK was commanded by Colonel Stefan Rowecki (AKA Grot), a brilliant leader well studied in urban guerrilla warfare. Upon his 1943 arrest and subsequent execution, General Tadeusz Komorowski (AKA Bór), assumed leadership.
The force quickly recruited large numbers, boasting 400,000 combatants by 1944. As Bór wrote:
"...a country completely overrun by two invaders and torn in half had decided to fight. No dictator, no leader, no party and no class had inspired this decision. The nation had made it spontaneously and unanimously."
The AK carried out numerous sabotage operations against German communications and transport.
a country...torn in half had decided to fight
For example, in the Wachlarz initiative, 1,000 highly trained troops disrupted German operations on the Eastern Front, attacking military granaries and stealing ammunition. AK sabotage rattled German security. As a Commandant in Warsaw reported in 1943:
"Since the beginning of April there has been not one peaceful day or night. This is not about singular actions either, but about more systematic attempts on the lives and property of Germans, representing the German government. The number of sabotage actions from 1st January to 31st May 1943 is 1858, with 178 people dead as a result and another 240 severely wounded. It comes to mind that the German authorities are not controlling the situation."
As the tide of war turned against the Germans, and Nazi violence against civilians increased, AK partisans upped their armed activity, using Poland’s forests and mountains to their advantage. For example, Jan Piwnik (AKA Ponury), a “Cichociemni” – an elite, UK-trained resistance fighter who was parachuted into Poland – was renowned. After organising the first Warchlarz group, and successfully liberating the German prison in Pinsk in January 1942, he led a large partisan unit, making expert use of the terrain of the Holy Cross Mountains to score a series of successful attacks, including a July 1943 ambush that took out a general and 200 German troops. Piwnik was eventually killed in action in June 1944.
Poland's Intelligence Network
Perhaps the crowning achievement of the Polish Underground State was its intelligence network, boasting agents across Europe, including deep into Germany, and around the globe. Relaying information to the British through couriers and secret radio stations, the Poles scored some of the most significant intelligence victories of the conflict.
Polish agents provided eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to the Allies
Polish agents, operating at immense risk, were able to provide the Allies tens of thousands of reports, detailing fortifications, bases and transport systems, the state of German industry and military production, and the effect of Allied bombings, alongside much else. These feats were achieved despite the best efforts of the Gestapo. Polish agents Jan Karski and Witold Pilecki also provided some of the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to the Allies.
The Deputy Chief of American military intelligence, General Kroner, claimed: “the Polish Army has the best intelligence in the world. Its value for us is beyond compare. Regretfully there is little we can offer in return.”
The Free Press and Operation N
The Underground State also established the Department of Information and Press to counter German propaganda and inform Poles about the war. Working to this end was the Secret Military Publishing House (TWZW), which was to become the largest underground printing institution in all of occupied Europe. By June 1942, 150 different publications had been established, with names such as Poland is Alive and Free Poland.
Working in parallel was “Operation N”, a black propaganda scheme spearheaded by Captain Tadeusz Żenczykowski (AKA Kania), which produced studied forgeries of German publications, complete with regional dialects and party jargon, subtly interweaving subversive messages to damage German morale.
One hoax succeeded in stalling 37 works in Warsaw
According to historian David G. Williamson, N’s tactics included overstating the incompetence and disloyalty of Axis nations, exaggerating conflicts between German military personnel and political forces, and suggesting widespread anti-Nazi opposition within the Werhmacht. Publications reported on the miseries of war inflicted on German families, and gave expert advice on how to convincingly fake illness and avoid duty on the Eastern Front.
By June 1942, N-produced material reached a circulation of 25,000 – 30,000 copies per month, reaching into Germany as well as to the Eastern Front. As one observer wrote:
"The soldiers show great interest in the literature: they pass on copies from hand to hand, they take care that no uncalled person should lay his hands upon it, and even – if possible – try to read it in groups."
Operation N also sent forged official letters to German homes. One hoax involved “informing” over 200 factories that 2 May would be a fully paid public holiday. This ploy succeeded in stalling 37 works in Warsaw, and 9,000 railway repair labourers took the day off to celebrate in the town of Pruszków.
Resistance Through Education
Part of the Nazis brutal onslaught on Polish culture was the banning of education beyond “the teaching of counting (no higher than up to 500), the writing of one’s name, and the teaching that God’s commandment means obedience to the Germans”. The Nazis and the Soviets both murdered intellectuals en masse.
The Nazis and the Soviets both murdered intellectuals en masse
In response, Polish teachers assembled the Secret Teaching Organisation in October 1939, which coordinated closely with the Underground State, especially the Department of Education and Culture, from January 1941. Thousands of teachers risked death to prepare curriculums and exams, and held lectures and seminars across the country, establishing faculties for numerous prohibited subjects.
Over a million children received education through this incredible network, 100,000 at a secondary level. 10,000 Poles were also enrolled in a secret university programme, hundreds of them completing their degrees in the midst of the war.
Sadly, the prejudices of pre-war Poland persisted within sections of the resistance. Whilst AK membership included people of all regions and social classes of Poland, there were few Jews in its ranks, and there are numerous examples of cruel and sometimes deadly antisemitism from AK troops. According to Professor Nechama Tec, “Depending on the political policy of an AK subgroup, a Jew who wished to join its ranks could be accepted, rejected, or murdered”. Jews were especially at risk in northeastern Poland, where they were often accused of being pro-Soviet.
However, alongside such criminals, others indefatigably worked to save Jews. As Joshua D. Zimmerman outlines in The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945, the AK was an “umbrella organisation representing Polish society as a whole, including socialists, liberals, peasants and nationalists”, and therefore contained a wide diversity of attitudes towards Jews.
Heroic examples include AK lieutenant Kazimierz Wojtowicz, who sanctioned the creation of a Jewish self- defence unit under AK command, and supplied it with arms and training. He also ordered the population of Przemyślany to hide Jews when deportations began. 250 Jews in the area received protection due to Wojtowicz’s actions. He was recognised by Yad Vashem as a “Righteous Among the Nations” (a person who risked their own life to save Jews), alongside 7,000 other Poles.
The Warsaw Uprising - Timeline
On this day, “W-hour” – the start time of the Warsaw Uprising – is decided. The Home Army (AK) hopes to recapture the city within a week, before the Red Army can seize it, thereby boosting the legitimacy of the Polish government-in-exile. Polish intelligence reports that Soviet tanks have arrived in the Praga suburbs. Believing that the Red Army is poised to storm the city, AK General Bór orders the uprising to launch the following day. Years of preparation are about to culminate, and the city is frantic with underground activity.
1 - 2 AUGUST
The uprising is triggered at 17:00. What follows will be the largest urban insurrection of any WWII resistance movement, including some 40,000 AK combatants. That evening, hundreds of AK companies move to their assembly points, and numerous attacks on strategic targets are launched. Whilst many are repelled, by 20:00, the city’s tallest building, the Prudential, is captured, and the Polish flag proudly raised above it. By 2 August, AK forces have liberated a number of key areas and targets, including Old Town, City Centre, and the Powiśle power station.
17 - 23 AUGUST
The Germans make headway into Old Town, air attacks setting the streets ablaze. With the water supply cut, Poles are unable to put out the blazes. Civilians dig wells to combat the water shortage. On 20 August, the AK launch an audacious attempt to retake Old Town. The Gdansk railway station is attacked from the north, but the Germans are well prepared and gun down the attackers; the same happens the following night. The AK is forced to accept that Old Town is lost. The Poles seize the PAST skyscraper, sneaking into the basement through a secret passage and capturing over a hundred soldiers. The Polish flag is hoisted above its 11 stories.
24 AUGUST - 2 SEPTEMBER
The bitter conflict for Old Town rages on, with 2,000 AK troops and 35,000 civilians caught between German forces. On 1 September, AK combatants evacuate Old Town through the sewers into City Centre and Żoliborz. One unit, disguised in Nazi uniforms, marches to City Centre right through enemy lines. On 2 September, the Germans seize Old Town, and many of the remaining civilians and wounded AK are slaughtered.
3 - 10 SEPTEMBER
The Germans continue to execute civilians in captured areas, causing many Poles to flee to the City Centre. The area comes under heavy attack, including mortar shelling and bombing. Bór is authorised by the Polish government-in-exile to surrender at a moment the AK leadership sees fit.
3 - 4 AUGUST
The AK continues to hold the initiative, despite being heavily outgunned and suffering casualties. Erecting barricades across the streets and fortifying buildings, the AK compels the Germans to fight house-by-house, and are thus able to control large sections of the city.
5 - 7 AUGUST
The German counterattack begins. Himmler hopes to erase the city, and German troops, including the notorious Dirlewanger Brigade, murder 30,000- 40,000 civilians in the Wola district within days. Hospitals containing patients are burned to the ground, and civilians are used as human shields. The atrocities strengthen the Polish resolve to fight, in what becomes a gruelling urban conflict.
8 - 16 AUGUST
The ferocious German offensive pushes AK combatants back to the key areas of Żoliborz, Old Town, City Centre, Mokotów and Czerniaków. The battle for Old Town rages fiercely, with daily German attacks repelled by snipers, grenades and Molotov cocktails. AK forces begin using the sewers as transport lines, but the system also becomes a battlefield. The Western Allies increase airdrops, although the desperately struggling insurgents view this support as woefully inadequate.
11 - 23 SEPTEMBER
The Red Army finally resumes its offensive, seizing key German posts east of the Vistula River. This emboldens the Poles to hang on. The German troops are determined to seize AK-controlled bridgeheads, fearing that the Red Army will push into the rest of the city, and bloody fighting for these areas continues. However, the Red Army does not attempt to cross the river.
24 - 30 SEPTEMBER
The situation for the Poles is dire. Warsaw is on the verge of starvation, and there is no sign of help from the Allies on the scale required to turn the tide. On 24 September, the Germans attack Mokotów, seizing the area on the 27th. Soon followed an offensive on Żoliborz, with heavy civilian casualties. The fall of Żoliborz on the 30th signals the end of the Warsaw Uprising. AK forces are trapped, and massively outgunned.
2 - 5 OCTOBER
The Poles surrender on 2 October, after 63 days of desperate combat. Between 200,000 and 250,000 Poles have died, and much of the city has been reduced to rubble. The terms of the surrender guarantees humane Geneva Convention treatment for POWs. The Warsaw AK forces and command are taken into captivity.
Warsaw Uprising: members of the Radosław Regiment of the Polish Armia Krajowa (Home Army), after marching through sewers from Krasiński Square to Warecka Street in the Śródmieście district, on 2 September 1944.
Photo: Jerzy Tomaszewski
The End Of WWII
From the beginning of 1944, as the Red Army approached, the AK fought numerous battles against the Germans, sometimes cooperating with Soviet troops, other times alone. However, battles were often followed by Soviet troops disarming or turning their guns against the AK, recognising them as an obstacle in their own plans.
Of course, the plight of the Poles did not end with the fall of the Third Reich. Shattered by the failure at Warsaw, the Home Army formally dissolved in January 1945 and its remnants were quickly swept aside by the Soviets.
many of the greatest heroes of the resistance were executed by the Soviets
Exhausted from years of warfare and bereft of Allied support, the Polish resistance could do little to stop the Soviet juggernaut. The leaders of the Polish Underground State were arrested, and many of the greatest heroes of the resistance were executed, both in secret and in show trials.
However, the Warsaw defeat should not overshadow the major achievements of the Polish resistance in the face of extensive Nazi terror. The Home Army and the Polish Underground State was, in the words of Latowski, “an apogee of wartime resistance in Europe”.