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Days of Adversity: The Warsaw Uprising 1944

Evan McGilvray
This book deals with the uprising in Warsaw in August and September of 1944 when the Polish Underground tried to seize control of the city from the Nazis. The book is more a political than a military history, dealing with the underlying reasons why the rising happened and why it was ultimately defeated. It’s clear that the author is more comfortable with the political rather than the military focus, leaving intriguing questions like how the extremely poorly equipped insurgents managed to hold off the well-equipped German army for so long only partially answered.

Poland, in its then current form had only existed since 1918 and had been destroyed by its two traditional enemies, Germany and Russia in 1939. Since 1941, Poland had been occupied by one of those enemies, Germany, while the second was steadily advancing towards the Polish borders as it steamrollered over the Wehrmacht. The Polish Government-in-Exile had few illusions about Stalin's intentions, accurately foreseeing that Poland would become a client state of Russia.

Poland, although militarily defeated in 1939, still had appreciable forces fighting the Nazi’s. Some were based in Europe, some the Middle East, but they were beholden to the UK and the US for equipment and logistic support. Although of significant fighting value, they were too few in number to be a major force on the battlefield. A third Polish army, the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) or AK, was essentially an underground movement that by that stage of the war controlled large tracts of the countryside of little value to the Nazis while the Wehrmacht kept a firm grip on the lines of communication and the cities.

The uprising was an attempt to seize control of Poland before the Russians arrived, the hope of the Polish Government-in-Exile being that they could maintain some degree of independence by liberating large sections of the country and presenting the advancing Russians with a fait accompli. The uprising was doomed to failure because the two nearest powers, Germany and Russia had their own reasons for wanting the uprising crushed, while the two powers who could potentially have supported the uprising, Britain and America, were too far away to make any significant intervention without Russian help.

The uprising started on the 1st August 1944 in Warsaw but got off to a poor start – the Poles being too lightly armed and too poorly coordinated to inflict a significant defeat on the German forces in the city. They did seize substantial parts of the city but over the following weeks were steadily ground down by German tanks, artillery and air power.

The Russians, having encouraged the uprising, halted within striking distance of the city. Partially it was because they had outrun their supply lines, but a larger factor was that Stalin was happy for the Germans to destroy the AK, removing a significant obstacle to Soviet domination of Poland after the war. Stalin’s obstruction went further. Any AK soldiers falling into Russian hands were ruthlessly dealt with, the soldiers being conscripted in the Russian army while the officers were shot. Neither would he allow the RAF or USAAF to use Russian airbases to drop supplies into Warsaw.

The UK and US were effectively powerless to help. Attempts to drop supplies from long range aircraft only succeeded in delivering a fraction of the supplies needed, while casualty rates topped 25%. Stalin eventually allowed one massed USAAF daylight drop using Russian airfields but that was too little too late. All the Government-in Exile could do was rage impotently at the British and American governments while Hitler and Stalin colluded in the destruction of this doomed attempt to maintain Polish independence.

The political aspect of this story is well described, the author tracing its roots back to the mid-1920s when a short-lived Polish government was overthrown by a military dictatorship. The dictatorship did not prove particularly competent and was responsible for leaving Poland with a weak military that did not deter the Germans and the Russians. The same dictatorship became the foundation of the Polish Government-in-Exile whose strategic miscalculations led to the doomed uprising.

The author is on far less sure ground when he comes to describe the military actions. Too often we learn things like “Cadet Officer Firlej with four soldiers beat this attack off: it left the enemy with four dead and one wounded”. In effect, the military sections of the book describe a series of small unit actions with little attempt to fit them into the overall picture. In many ways this is a pity, for the Poles managed to hold off strong German attacks for two months armed with a tiny quantity of small arms, barricades and Molotov cocktails. It would have been interesting to have a clearer picture of how they achieved that.

This is a book written primarily to explain the background to the Warsaw uprising and why it failed. As such the focus is more on the politics of what happened rather than the military aspects. It’s an interesting read if you like to understand the ‘behind the scenes’ factors that caused events to happen; if you are looking for a purely military history of the uprising you may be disappointed.

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