Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw
James R. Thompson
By Norman Davies . London: Penguin, 2006. xxix + 752 pages. Index, maps. ISBN 0-14- 303540-1. Paper. $18.00.
The book is a carefully researched and argued indictment of the Churchill government concerning its treatment of the Poles during the Warsaw Rising against the Germans by the Armia Krajowa (Home Army). The generally accepted view of historians is that the uprising was an ill-conceived, romantic exercise of the Polish commander General Bór-Komorowski. The truth is something dramatically different.
Those expecting a page-turning account of the Rising itself should look elsewhere (the old Wajda movie Kanal is not a bad choice). This is not a book of military history. This is a historical, almost a legal, brief. Davies demonstrates that the Rising was not some hairbrained scheme, hastily and poorly planned. Rather, it was consistent with the policy of the Polish government, in exile and underground, to oppose the German occupation of Poland. No other occupied nation was as active in underground acts of resistance against the Nazis. No other nation suffered such retribution for its acts of resistance. And it is most important to note that the Warsaw Rising was planned in coordination with the Allied attacks on the Reich.
The strategic mistake of the Poles was to trust their British allies to support a rising that ostensibly had the full backing of Churchill and about which the British had full knowledge in all stages of planning. In Texas we have an old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” In this regard only, shame on the Armia Krajowa, shame on the Polish government in exile, and shame on General Bór. Before the Second World War, the Poles had rejected the German invitation to join in a general invasion of the USSR. Unlike the Hungarians, the Italians, the Bulgarians, the Romanians, the Slovaks, the Chetniks, the Croats, and numerous others, the Poles had made a moral commitment not to shake hands with the Nazi devil come what may. The Soviets were bad, as bad as the Nazis. But the Poles determined to go against Machiavellian realpolitik and do the decent thing. In this case, doing the decent thing was to make an alliance with the British and the French. They assumed that their allies would also do the decent thing. That their allies would sit on their hands during the September 1939 invasion of Poland by both the Germans and the Russians was simply beyond the comprehension of the leaders of what Chamberlain had called “this virile race.” During the invasion of Poland, the Western Front was an empty shell manned by veterans of the First World War. The plan, agreed upon with the British and French, was that while German strength was being expended on the Eastern Front, the British and French would attack Germany from the west. It did not happen. No British soldier died fighting the Germans during the entire blitzkrieg of Poland. The Polish leadership, one would have thought, might have learned something from this sorry fact.
The strategic mistake of the Poles was to trust their British allies to support a rising that ostensibly had the full backing of Churchill and about which the British had full knowledge in all stages of planning.
The Poles, stabbed in the back by the Soviet Russian invasion of 17 September 1939, determined to fight on. Thousands escaped to France, following a torturous course through Romania. Many thousand others left the gulags, on sufferance from Stalin, to exit through Iran, joining the fight in North Africa, Italy, and France. The Polish 303 squadron, as acknowledged by British Air Marshall Dowding, might well have made the difference in the Battle of Britain. Poles, after the British, the Americans, and the Soviets, furnished the largest number of combatants in the fight against Hitler. (Not bad for an occupied country.) As allies, the Poles were beyond steadfast.
General De Gaulle had insisted on independent French control of French forces stationed anywhere. De Gaulle had learned from the evacuation command, “Anglais, à droite. Français, à gauche” at Dunkirk. The much larger Polish force put 240,000 seasoned soldiers directly under British command. An exception to this was the First Independent Parachute Brigade of General Stanislaw Sosabowski. This was a rapid deployment force to be used only in support of a rising in Poland and only on Polish soil. Instead, it was dropped into Arnhem in broad daylight, three days into Montgomery’s hairbrained Operation Market Garden, without artillery. They were used as a diversionary sacrifice to allow evacuation of the trapped British First Parachute Division.
All this was in the middle of the Warsaw Rising, precisely the event for which Sosabowski’s force had been created in the first place. Of course, Sosabowski demanded to have his brigade dropped into a staging area near Warsaw. But, “It simply isn’t on, Old Boy.” And “Monty really is counting on you chaps in Arnhem.” And, the inevitable, “It is, after all, the same war. The quicker Germany is defeated, the quicker Poland will be free. You must fight where you are needed most.” All this while the SS were slaughtering Warsawians at rates sometimes as high as 20,000 per day. And the KGB were preparing death lists for the Armia Krajowa against that day they found it convenient to cross the Vistula.
Why were the Poles so pliable in doing the bidding of the British? No one can say for sure. But the fact is that the Polish government in London exile felt comfortable with their British hosts. As so many others, the Poles were easily coopted by the tweedy fox-hunting squirearchy of England. Carton de Wiart, the British legate to Poland during the 1920 Bolshevik War, had been more Polish than any Pole, incredibly brave, incredibly noble, a true szlachcic in spirit. Poles judged him to be a prototype of the British governmental aristocracy. The Poles were mistaken. They might have done well to have had a chat with their Australian and New Zealand colleagues concerning the Churchill prototype, much the more typical of British statecraft. Churchill showed himself, as he had at Gallipoli in the First World War, to be willing to fight to the last ally, be it ANZAC, South African, Sikh, Ghurka, Canadian, American, or Pole (here Davies would also include Welshmen, Scots, and Irishmen, whom he rightly categorizes as members of the British Near Abroad). Allies were to be expended as needed, with the British Empire being the worthy beneficiary of their sacrifices.
Although Poles had proven to be master cryptographers, having cracked the German Enigma code, they never bothered to encrypt their plans against British snooping. Not the thing to do among allies, Old Boy. Thus the British had clear knowledge of Polish plans at all times. The Poles had no clear knowledge of what the British were up to and never really demanded it. They assumed that what they were being fed by the Brits was the whole truth. Worse, the British were frequently taking Polish battle messages and editing them as they were being passed back and forth from London to Poland on British transmitters.
A major argument of Davies’ book would appear to be that, assuming the British were good allies, the Armia Krajowa plans for the Warsaw Rising were quite reasonable. The Poles knew full well that the Soviets, who had been a major part of the invasion (into Poland) force in 1939, were treacherous in the extreme. But for this very reason, it was essential that the world see Poles playing a major role in the liberation of Warsaw. What was the consequence of Anglo-American liberation of Paris? Simply that the French took over their country from the Germans. What was the consequence of a Russian “liberation” of Warsaw? A replacement of the Germans by the Soviets. A substitution for the Gestapo by the KGB.
Of course, it was to be expected that Stalin would deny refueling rights to Allied aircraft supporting the Armia Krajowa in Warsaw. A rather easy bluff to call. Were the Russians really going to seize American and British aircraft and their crews at that stage of the war? Unlikely. Even if the embargo were genuine, the Allies were bombing Königsberg, roughly the same round trip distance from the southeast of England. From Brindisi, Italy, the round trip was 1,600 miles. South Africans, Polish, and British crews did successfully make such relief flights when they were permitted by the Allied High Command to do so. The fact is that Churchill did not want to expend resources to support the Poles fighting in Warsaw. Just let them charge the enemy unsupported the way the Australians and New Zealanders had done thirty years earlier at Gallipoli.
If the British knew they were not going to provide logistical support to the Poles (and they did); if they thought the Russians might reasonably stall their crossing of the Vistula until the Germans had wiped out the Armia Krajowa fighters (and they did); if they knew that even Sosabowski’s force was to be denied the right to drop into Warsaw (and they did), then why did they not tell the Poles so that the rising could be called off? What is worse than an ally who tells you to count on him and then sits on his hands while you are being slaughtered?
The AK had already developed a contingency plan that involved the underground not participating in the assault on Nazi positions, but saving their powder for the power struggle that was expected to occur once the Germans had been defeated. Churchill actually eliminated this possibility as effectively as if he had purposefully been doing Stalin a favor. When the resistance against the Soviets did start up, it did so deprived of the best and the brightest of the AK. Furthermore, the AK members who survived the Rising had revealed themselves, by their participation in the Rising, as KGB targets for transport to the gulags.
So this is the gist of Davies’ argument: the Warsaw Rising was a risky but necessary and reasonable venture if the Poles could count on their British allies. Should we castigate General Bór and the AK for their naivete? Davies is inclined to say not. Poles have never played the part of the totally isolated and totally hostile group such as ETA or Hamas. They more or less had to trust the Allies. It was the only game in town. Davies does have harsh words for those in the Polish government in London exile who allowed themselves to be charmed, coopted, and intimidated by their British hosts. In retrospect, the AK fighters of Warsaw are to be honored for fighting even when, finally, there was nothing but honor for which they could fight.
As for Roosevelt, he was essentially a very sick and not-very-well-informed individual surrounded by some people who held the Soviets in high esteem. But for Churchill, there can be no excuse. He knew what he was doing, what the consequences would be, and he did it anyway. What Churchill did was one of the great moral crimes of the twentieth century, and his reputation should never have survived it.
In the course of researching materials, I read some twenty reviews of Davies’ book. Most of the reviewers “didn’t get it” or possibly “did not want to get it.” There was some castigation of Davies for not writing a time-indexed history of the Rising itself. Then there were those who wanted to accept the notion that Churchill was simply being realistic and that General Bór and the AK were hopeless romantics who destroyed the youth of their nation in a futile revolt. There were others who showed thinly veiled Schadenfreude over the destruction of so many Polish lives. The Poles were decried as anti-Semites who had not spent enough of their copious Second-World-War leisure time trying to save Jews from the Nazis. One sometimes wonders what fraction of book reviewers feel compelled to read the books they review when it is possible to simply fall back on old stereotypes.
But Norman Davies, who is probably the greatest historian of Poland ever, has laid out a brief of bravery and betrayal that all Polish statesmen might well heed. “Whom can we trust to defend Ireland?” asked the Irish bard. “We ourselves (sinn fein).
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