The Warsaw Uprising in the Praga District
In August and September of 1944 Warsaw witnessed the battle – unprecedented in the history of the Second World War – between the Polish Underground forces and the German war machine. 63 days of the uprising, including the fighting in the Wola and Stare Maisto districts in August and in the Czerniaków and Mokotów districts in September entered the legend of Polish arms. Less known is the fighting which took place on the right bank of the river Vistula.
The Preparatory Period
In the summer of 1944, the Red Army, fighting the Germans on Polish lands, reached the Vistula line. Because of Stalin’s hostile attitude towards the Polish Underground and Poland’s sovereignty the situation of the underground, including the Home Army, was very difficult. In the spring of 1944 the Home Army became involved in the execution of the plan known as ‘Tempest’. Unfortunately, the plan went awry. The Soviets were creating the Polish administration by force. The establishment of the PKWN (The Polish Committee of National Liberation) in Lublin, towards the end of July 1944, became the symbol of these efforts. Under such circumstances the Home Army Main Command decide to stage the uprising in Warsaw – a step which wasn’t initially taken into consideration. The attempt to capture the city was designed as a signal for the Soviets to recognize an independent Poland and for the Western allies to support the Poles materially and politically.
The task of the Home Army, which consisted of 40,000 soldiers operating in the city inhabited by 900,000 people, was to seize control of Warsaw and to hold it for a few days, until the arrival of the Soviets. In addition, the aim of the whole operation was to enable the establishment of openly Polish administration. At first, however, it was necessary to liberate the city from the Germans. Unfortunately, the Home Army units weren’t sufficiently armed to carry out such an operation – only about 20% of the soldiers had weapons during the first day of fighting. The Home Army’s situation was made worse by the fact that the Germans expected the outbreak of uprising in Warsaw. In the last days of July they brought additional Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS units in order to repel the attack of the Soviets who, on 1 August 1944, reached the area of Marki, Wołomin and Falenica and were approaching Wawer. German desperate attempts to counterattack managed to stop the Soviet divisions at Radzymin and Wołomin for a few days, but it was clear that it wouldn’t be possible for the Wehrmacht to resist the Red Army for long.
The Warsaw Uprising broke out on 1 August 1944. At 5.00 p.m. the capital began to fight. Although the enemy wasn’t taken by surprise and the insurgents were poorly armed, during the first few days the insurgents succeeded in seizing control of the greater parts of the Śródmieście, Stare Miasto, Wola, Żoliborz and Mokotów districts. They also managed to isolate German resistance points. The Germans were also hindered in their efforts to communicate with the Praga district side of the river Vistula. In the Praga district the Uprising took a different course. As in the rest of the city, the Uprising began there on 1 August at 5.00 p.m., forming part of the insurgent military effort. However, the situation on the right bank of the river was more difficult than on the left one – in the last days of July 1944 the district became the foreground area of the front. Columns of troops were moving across the Praga district towards Warsaw, taking up their positions in the Skaryszewski and Praski parks, along 11 Listopada and Waszyngtona streets and around the Railway Station and over the bridge areas. The latter were reinforced with barbed-wire entanglements, machine guns and pieces of artillery.
German units consisted of seasoned, battle-hardened soldiers. Parts of the Hermann Göring Armored Parachute division and the SS ‘Totenkopf’ division were readying themselves to fight the oncoming Red Army. New Germans troops, accompanied by tanks, kept coming in before the ‘W’ hour. Pieces of artillery were deployed in Grochów, Saska Kępa, Śliwice, Bródno and in the Skaryszewski and Praski Parks. The Germans reinforced the troops entrusted with the task of defending railway stations and railway tracks. Two armored trains were guarding the latter. About 20 tanks of the HermanGöring division appeared in the barrack area at 11 Listopada Street. The ‘Totenkopf’ division tank grouping positioned itself on Grochowska Street.
The tasks to be carried out by the Praga district Home Army units were quite serious. The insurgents were expected to seize control of the bridges on the River Vistula, to defeat German front units and to present themselves as district hosts towards the oncoming Red Army. However, the Home Army troops in Praga were too weak to execute such a plan. There wasn’t enough time for the mobilization orders to reach all the insurgents operating in the district. The number of those who were registered as the Praga Home Army soldiers was 8,000 – too few to try to engage the Germans in open battle. To make matters worse, only 6,500 of them had been mobilized by the ‘W’ hour, and they were almost unarmed. The commander of the Praga district received orders to start the uprising on 1 August 1944 at 6.00 p.m. As a result of the rapid mobilization and the difficulties in moving across the city, the units ready to take action at the ‘W’ hour were incomplete. Each platoon had only a few rifles and pistols, a dozen or so hand grenades and a number of incendiary bottles. In addition, many buildings used to store weapons and ammunition were controlled by the Germans. The Poles also failed to recover the 37 mm anti-tank gun and over 80 shells hidden in the Bródno cemetery. The Home Army in the Praga district had at its disposal only 272 rifles, 13 machine guns, 50 machine pistols, several dozen pistols, 1,000 grenades and 600 incendiary bottles. No more than 700 men could be armed with these weapons! Quite telling in this regard is the remark to be found in the memoirs by Lieutenant Colonel Antoni Żurowski alias ‘Pope’, the commander of the Praga district: ‘With what weapons were we to attack fortified buildings, bunkers, bridges and other areas occupied by German infantry and armored divisions? I realized that I was going to order my soldiers to carry out the task in which they couldn’t succeed’.
The Home Army’s position in the Praga district was further exacerbated by the fact that, just as in the capital’s left bank area, armed clashes with the Germans began to break out earlier than planned. In these tense hours, some insurgents, in order to capture weapon, attacked German patrols before 5.00 p.m. The Germans also grew alarmed by a chance clash between the insurgents and German policemen which took place at 4.30 p.m. on Ząbkowska Street. The district command even raised some doubts as to whether it was advisable to start fighting under such circumstances. However, the order given by ‘Monter’, the district commander, had to be followed.
The Praga district 6 was divided into six areas: the first encompassed Nowe Bródno, the second – Bródno and Targówek, the third – Grochów and Saska Kępa, the fourth – Michałów and Nowa Praga and the sixth – Praga Centralna. According to Monter’sguidelines, the insurgents were to seize control of the whole district, including everything from the bridge access roads and military barracks between Modlińska, Ratuszowa and 11 Listopada Streets to railway stations, police stations, telephone exchange, industrial plants, school buildings occupied by German units and many other objects.
The Collapse of the Uprising
Battle began in Praga at 5.00 p.m. The Germans were prepared and a wall of fire thundered down on insurgents, decimating their ranks. In the Bródno area, however, the Poles managed to capture the school compound at Białołęcka Street and the police station at Oszmiańska Street. After repelling the insurgent attack, groups of German soldiers moved along Św. Wincentego Street, shooting dozens of men whom they encountered, throwing grenades into the apartments and setting fire to the houses they were passing. The Warszawa-Praga railway station was attacked, but the Germans’ superiority in fire-power and the use of the armored train forced the insurgents to retreat. The sappers’ attempt to destroy the railway bridge on the ŻerańskiCanal resulted in the annihilation of their unit. The Germans also managed to repulse the attacks the insurgents launched on the Golędzin military barracks, the railway viaduct at Modlińska Street and the Technical School building at Białołęcka Street.
In Targówek 750 insurgents who went into battle were poorly armed. The attacks on the Bródno cemetery management building and the ‘Agril’ farm were repelled by the Germans. Insurgents, who suffered heavy losses, withdrew to Targówek and, relying on the inhabitants’ help, sought to erect barricades and block the Radzymin road. A small group of insurgents pelted the armored train on the rail tracks of the Industrial Targówek with bottles of fuel. However, surrounded by the Germans, they were all killed, and so were men from the surrounding houses. The Germans kept the situation under control, firing at the houses from their tanks and murdering the men. The latter (civilians) were, for example, herded into the grounds of the Gley factory and murdered. Enraged, the Germans set fire to a few houses at Ziemowita and Hutnicza streets, killing the men whom they had captured.
In Szmulowizna the main target – the railway viaduct over Radzymińska Street – was seized by the insurgents in the second attack. They held it until 2 August 1944, but as the Soviets, for whom they were waiting, didn’t arrive they retreated.
In Grochów and Saska Kępa the insurgents’ situation was even more difficult. They were short of weapons and there were lots of German units from the Poniatowski bridge to Wawer. The Poles were foiled in their attempts to take control of the military barracks at Boremlowska Street and the abutment of the Poniatowski bridge and the attack on the positions of German artillery on Waszyngtona Street failed under heavy fire from the enemy posted on Waszyngtona street and in the Skaryszewski Park. Almost all the insurgents who took part in the attack perished, including the unit of the Praga sappers. Those who survived attempted to escape in the direction of Saska Kępa.The insurgents briefly remained in control of the marshalling yard area between Olszynka Grochowska and Wiatraczna and did some damage to the railway tracks there, but it wasn’t long before they were forced to retreat, and the Germans managed to repair the tracks still on the same day.
The insurgents launched an attack on the military barracks on 11 Listopada Street. However, coming under heavy fire from the HermanGöring division tanks, the armored train and machine guns, they were massacred, and the Germans killed everyone they captured.
A little more successful were the insurgents led by Major ‘Ludwig’ and operating in the very center of the Praga district. To capture there were the following: the Kierbedź bridge abutment, railway stations, the State Railway Directorate building, the telephone exchange at Ząbkowska Street, the slaughterhouse, the police station at Targowa Street, the Spirits Monopoly and the Post Office. For two hours the insurgents were in control of the Wileński Railway Station. Moving along Brzeska Street, they reached the Eastern Railway Station and kept firing on it until they ran out of the ammunition. The attack on the police station on Targowa Street ended in failure. These failures were taken advantage of by groups of Germans who, moving around Jagiellońska, Wileńska, Targowa and Zygmuntowska Streets, were shooting at people’s houses. Men were pulled out of the courtyards and basements. Many of them were shot by the Germans in the middle of Cyryla i Metodego Street. The corpses of the dead were lying on the street for a few days. The men captured in the shelter of the Orthodox Church near the Wileński Railway Station were also executed.
Lieutenant ‘Bolek’s’ battalion managed to seize control of the building that housed the State Railway Directorate at Targowa Street. From this building, until August 2, the insurgents attempted to block the Radzymin road and the intersection at the Wileński Railway station. The Post Office was captured and so was the telephone exchange at Ząbkowska Street. The fighting over the latter was very fierce and continued the whole night. The Poles also attacked the Spirits Monopoly building and seized control of one of its parts, and for a few hours both the slaughterhouse at Jagiellońska Street and the school at Gocławska Street remained in their hands.
On the evening of 1 August Lieutenant Colonel Władysław Żurowski – who was in command of the Home Army Praga district – was already aware of the helplessness of the insurgents’ position. The communication with the city’s left bank area and the Home Army Headquarters was disrupted. Decimated insurgents were in the State Railway Directorate building, the city slaughterhouse, the houses at Ząbkowska and Floriańska Streets and in Saska Kępa.The Germans had the situation under control and the insurgent units were running out of their ammunition. There was no Soviet advance. The district command had no knowledge of the situation on the left bank area. However, liaison soldiers got across the River Vistula and brought word from the Praga district.
On 2 August groups of insurgents were rounded up from the buildings in which they had taken their positions. The fire from the tanks moving along the Radzymin road forced the insurgents to withdraw from the State Railway Directorate building. Armored vehicles operating along Targowa, Grochowska and Św. Wincentego streets made the erection of barricades impossible. Lieutenant Colonel Żurowski was aware of both the military failure and the danger facing the civilian population. Many civilians were killed already on 1 August 1944 and nothing could prevent ruthless repression to which they were going to be subjected.
On 2 August 1944 the fighting in the district died down and the insurgents began to pull off the white-red armbands they were wearing, trying to blend in with the civilians. The Germans were striving to capture all the insurgents hiding in the district. The executions of male civilians continued. Some of these executions were carried out in the area of the Bródno cemetery.
On 3 August Lieutenant Colonel Żurowski ordered the insurgents who weren’t armed to disperse and hide. Those who were armed were told to get to the left bank of the River Vistula or to hide their weapons and to go underground. During the nights that followed groups of insurgents (over 200 people in total) escaped north and forded the River Vistula to join the troops operating in the Kampinos Forest.
On 4 August the district commander ordered his men to go underground and remain on standby. The insurgent activity came to an end on 6 August. The Germans had the entire district to themselves. Curfew was imposed, as were some restrictions on the people’s movement during the day. In mid-August larger groups of men were brought out of Targówek for work. In the following weeks the same took place in other parts of the Praga district. These actions were accompanied by waves of looting and murders committed by individual soldiers, for example, in Saska Kępa.
After the Fighting
The persecution of civilian population continued until mid-September 1944. However, there were several hospitals and first-aid points, including at St. Florian’s Church and on Siennicka and Saska streets, which continued to treat civilians and hide insurgents even before the arrival of the Soviet and Polish troops. Throughout August the Home Army nurses worked at Lord’s Transfiguration Hospital and in many private apartments in Praga and Targówek, taking care of the injured insurgents. At that time the Home Army soldiers, still involved in some small-scale reconnaissance activity, sought to survive in hiding for as long as they could. Towards the end of August about 400 soldiers from Praga, Bródno and Targówek were concentrated in Gocław.In the course of a few nights they crossed the River Vistula and, evading German positions in Augustówka, joined the insurgents in Lower Mokotów with the goal of continuing their struggle. Thus, this little known episode in the history of the Warsaw Uprising was brought to its symbolic conclusion.
On the right bank area the Home Army continued fighting until mid-Spetember 1944. After the battle which took place on 10-15 September the Praga district was seized by the troops of the 47th Red Army and the 1st Polish Army. Acting on orders from the district commander, the Home Army soldiers made themselves known to General Bolesław Kieniewicz, the Warszawa-Praga garrison commander, and some of the former insurgents became part of the Polish Army subordinate to the Soviets. At the same time the communist authorities began arrests, forcing Lieutenant Colonel Żurowski to go into hiding. He was arrested in November 1944 (in the summer of 1945 he was freed from the prison transport). In the years that followed the former Home Army commander of the Praga district stayed in hiding. He used false names until his acquittal in 1958. The German repression in the Praga district was replaced with the Soviet terror, with the NKWD prison at Strzelecka Street becoming its symbol.
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Kossowski Hubert, Janczewski Władysław, Kulbicki Tadeusz, Warszawska Praga w latach 1939–1945. Fakty i wspomnienia z czasów terroru, Warsaw 2008.
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Sławomir Kosim – a historian, graduate of the Warsaw University. He works at the Royal Castle. In addition to his articles that appeared in ‘Focus Historia’ and ‘Uważam Rze’, he has authored several books published by the Bellona Publishing House.