August 1, 1944: The Doomed Warsaw Uprising

August 1, 1944: The Doomed Warsaw Uprising

August 1, 1944, 75 years ago, was a day of hope and heroism in Poland.

It was the day the underground Polish Home Army in Warsaw rose up against Nazi occupiers to take back the city, in what is remembered as the Warsaw Uprising.

What Happened?

After enduring nearly five years of murderous Nazi occupation, the Home Army, joined by ordinary citizens of Warsaw, fought to throw off the Nazi yoke and re-establish their republic, under the Polish government-in-exile in London.

Instead, 63 days later, the Home Army, broken and abandoned by the Allies, surrendered Warsaw to the Nazis, a battered prize claimed by the Soviet Union when the German Army finally left town months later.

Royal Castle Clocktower viewed from Old Town Warsaw Photo: Joanna Millick

The reconstructed Royal Castle Clocktower, risen from the ashes of Warsaw
Photo credit: Joanna Millick

How Did It Happen?

For 123 years, Poland had not even existed as a country. It was torn apart and devoured by the monarchies of Russia, Germany, and Austria in 1795, and did not reappear until the Treaty of Versailles dissolved those monarchies at the end of the First World War.

Sign over the country’s newly-recovered independence to Germany or the Soviet Union? Not without a fight.

Symbol of the Warsaw Uprising, this <i>"P"</i> and <i>"W"</i> translate as: "Poland is still fighting!" <br>Photo credit: David W. Allen

Symbol of the Warsaw Uprising, this “P” and “W” translate as: “Poland is still fighting!”
Photo credit: David W. Allen

“Poland Fights”

The anchor emblem, the Kotwica, appeared all over the occupied city, graffitied in the middle of the night by kids, soldiers and citizens who risked their lives to paint it. The “P” and “W” formed into an anchor stood for Polska Walczaca, “Poland Fights,” and it became the symbol of the resistance movement. It always appeared near scenes of sabotage, signaling that the underground Polish Army was at work.

The Plan

German forces were retreating as the Red Army approached from the east. Encouraged by a radio broadcast from Moscow, and by the advancing Red Army, the Polish Home Army gave the command. The insurgents attacked the retreating Germans at 5:00 PM, “W (Fight) Hour.” Their goal was not only to drive the Germans from Warsaw, but to secure the capital in the name of the legitimate government-in-exile.

A nearly ground-level black line encircles this reconstructed Warsaw fortification, marking its 1944 remains<br>Photo credit: David W. Allen

A nearly ground-level black line encircles this reconstructed Warsaw fortification, marking its 1944 remains
Photo credit: David W. Allen

Early on, the Poles won most of central Warsaw, but as the Red Army halted its advance in the Warsaw suburbs, the Nazis realized that no help was coming to bolster the poorly-armed resistance fighters.

The Plan Goes Bad

Stalin wanted control over Poland. Indeed, he had been promised as much at the 1943 Tehran conference among Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. His armies stood back and watched as the Nazis returned to the city, fighting house to house with tanks and weapons that the insurgents had never possessed. The Red Army refused landing rights to British and U.S. planes who could have flown in supplies to the Poles.

It took 63 days to subdue the crippled Home Army, which finally surrendered on October 2, 1944. The Germans followed Hitler’s orders and razed the city to the ground, killing or expelling hundreds of thousands of citizens as the Soviets sat on the other side of the Vistula River. When the Nazis finally abandoned the city, 90 percent of central Warsaw was in ruins. The Red Army marched in to no opposition at all.

Warsaw's Royal Palace was reconstructed in the 1970s, funded by Polish émigrés  in the U.S. and Canada <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

The Royal Palace was reconstructed in the 1970s, funded in part by Polish émigrés in the U.S. and Canada
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

The City Stands Still

Today this gallant and tragic piece of Poland’s history is commemorated every year at 5:00 PM, August 1. Sirens pierce the air, and the entire city – vehicles, pedestrians, shoppers – freezes for 60 seconds to remember the heroic fight of those who joined the uprising, and to mourn the destruction of Warsaw.

Warsaw's Old Town was completely demolished on the right side; only facades remained on the left side <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Warsaw’s Old Town was completely demolished on the right side; only facades remained on the left
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Museums and Memorials

To honor the struggle, the “Monument to the Warsaw Uprising” was dedicated on the 45th anniversary in 1989. The moving memorial shows ragged insurgents struggling up from the sewers, which they used as underground highways, and dodging a falling building to fight for their freedom.

The Warsaw Uprising Museum, one of the best museums in the country, opened in 2004 in a hundred-year-old former tramway power station. Inside, visitors can experience a slice of life under Nazi rule, learn about the youngest insurgents, and watch as Warsaw is destroyed.

This section of "Monument to the Warsaw Uprising" depicts insurgents fighting under a collapsing building <br>Photo credit: David W. Allen

This section of the “Monument to the Warsaw Uprising” shows insurgents escaping a collapsing building
Photo credit: David W. Allen

Polish resisters climb up from sewer holes, used for fighting and escaping during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising <br>Photo credit: David W. Allen

Polish Home Army members climb up from the sewers, used for moving from place to place during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising
Photo credit: David W. Allen

Travel to Poland with MIR

Little over two decades after regaining its independence, Poland has become one of the powerhouses of Europe. Visit the gracious capital of Warsaw and lovely Krakow, stroll the beaches of the Mazury Lake District, hike the trails of the spectacular Tatra Mountains, talk to the local people and you will agree with us.

MIR has over two decades of travel experience to Poland, with on-the-ground support, and tour managers that clients rave about. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

MIR’s wintery small group tour to Poland, Christmas Traditions of Poland, is perfect for travelers of any age. Celebrate the heartfelt holiday traditions of Poland, wandering Krakow’s brilliant Christmas Market and joining a Polish family in their Warsaw home for the intimate Christmas Eve feast called Wigilia, where you can sample 12 different traditional dishes.

Or, opt to travel to Poland any time of the year on our Essential Poland independent journey or on a custom private journey.

MIR specializes in personalized, private journeys, and we love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip tailored especially for you. Travel wherever, however, and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance. Contact us to find out more about our custom and private travel expertise – each trip handcrafted to your interests, dates and pace.

Contact MIR today at or 1-800-424-7289.


(Top photo credit: David W. Allen – Monument to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising)

PUBLISHED: July 26, 2016

Related Posts

Share your thoughts