An evaluation of Tadeusz ‘Bór’ Komorowski’s decisions during the Warsaw Uprising
The options for any military commander are often few and dangerous, with one living or dying by the results. The Warsaw Uprising, 1 August – 2 October 1944, saw the Polish Underground Army, the Armia Krajowa (AK), rise against the occupying German forces in Warsaw in a bid to gain Polish freedom by Polish fighters. In the Poles most valiant fight of the Second World War, Lieutenant General Tadeusz ‘Bór’ Komorowski, the Commander-in-Chief of the AK, was responsible for making the crucial decisions: to begin, to continue and to surrender.
An agreement between Poland’s top civilian and military officials concluded that an armed rising in Warsaw would not occur until the Soviet Army were in the Eastern suburbs of the Polish capital. On the 31st July 1944, a report reached Bór stating that the Germans were retreating from East Warsaw, away from the Soviet Army. Bór turned to those around him and announced that the AK would rise the next day. Less than an hour later, an intelligence update reported that the Germans were preparing to fight, not retreat – it is not entirely clear why Bór’s order to begin was not recalled.
Less than half of the AK began the Uprising with access to rifles or light machine guns. As the battle continued, supplies of arms, ammunition and food dwindled. Bór was forced to consider surrender negotiations with the Germans. As these began, the sounds of Soviet artillery resonated throughout Warsaw and Bór broke off the negotiations – the AK continued their fight. However, the Soviet artillery barrages ended almost as soon as they had begun. Bór was again faced with the choice to continue the fight or to surrender. The final surrender agreement with the Germans was signed on the 2nd of October 1944, after sixty-three days of brutal fighting.
The right decisions?
Hindsight has made it clear that there were a number of errors in the timing of the decisions Bór made. The Germans were not retreating from the Soviets, and it soon became apparent that the Soviet Army was not on the outskirts of Warsaw. The AK had nowhere near enough arms to equip all of her soldiers and received no practical foreign help because of communication and political issues between Poland, the Soviet Union and the Western Allies.
The prize for a successful Uprising was self-liberation, but the gamble Bór made was with the population and the city of Warsaw. Approximately 22,000 AK soldiers and 250,000 civilians were killed, wounded or listed as missing during the Uprising, while Warsaw was destroyed.
Upon Bór’s insistence, the final surrender agreement contained clauses for the safeguarding of the remainder of the Poles in Warsaw – civilians were to be evacuated westward and the AK was to be assured combatant rights and sent to POW camps. These clauses were observed by the Germans post-surrender however, they were not observed by Poland’s ‘ally’, the Soviet Union, who sent AK soldiers and civilians alike to Siberian gulags.
Every military decision is questioned. Historians have constantly laid the blame for the Warsaw Uprising’s failure squarely on Bór’s shoulders; however in 1944, Bór found himself in a position of ‘damned if he did and damned if he didn’t’. He knew the risks and gains Poland faced if he did or did not launch an Uprising in Warsaw. Bór believed that Polish freedom by Polish fighters was something that worthy of the risks and worth fighting for. Trading German occupation for Soviet ‘liberation’ could not be considered an option for Poland: the Poles had suffered horrendously under both German and Soviet hands during the war. Was Bór wrong to launch the Uprising? No. Bór’s decisions were made for honourable causes; hindsight, however, has shown that timing issues and factors outside Bór’s control (e.g. the aims of the Soviet Union during the war) ultimately led to the failure of the Uprising.
Perhaps the best way to evaluate military decisions is to look at whether or not they were followed. The men, women and children of the AK shared Bór’s belief that Polish freedom was a worthy cause and fought courageously throughout the Uprising and the Second World War for such freedom. This sentiment is best conveyed in a final statement broadcast from Warsaw in October 1944:
“Your heroes are the soldiers whose only weapons against tanks, planes and guns were their revolvers and bottles filled with petrol. Your heroes are the women who tended the wounded, and carried messages under fire, who cooked in bombed and ruined cellars to feed children and adults, and who soothed and comforted the dying… These are the people of Warsaw. Immortal is the nation that can muster such universal heroism. For those who have died have conquered, and those who live on will fight on, will conquer and again bear witness that Poland has not yet perished so long as we still live”. (Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland, II, 2005, p.358.)