In just five weeks of bitter fighting during the summer of 1944, Rokossovsky’s troops stormed over 450 miles and were within reach of Warsaw. The Polish capital looked a tempting prize for Stalin as a culmination of Operation Bagration’s remarkable success, but his summer offensive was beginning to lose momentum. Rokossovsky’s 1st Byelorussian Front was at the very limit of its supply lines; ammunition and rations were exhausted, as were his men.
Rokossovsky, at this stage, enjoyed a 3:1 superiority in infantry and 5:1 in armour and artillery. He had at his disposal nine armies: one tank army, two tank corps, three cavalry corps, one motorised corps and two air armies. Against this, Field Marshal Walter Model’s 2nd Army could muster barely five under-strength panzer divisions and one infantry division, while the battered 9th Army had just two divisions and two brigades of infantry.
In many ways, Hitler’s defence of Warsaw echoed that of Minsk. The eastern approaches of the Polish capital were protected by a 50-mile ring of strongpoints. The only difference was that, this time, Model had sufficient mobile reserves with which to parry Rokossovsky’s armoured thrusts. He had gathered his wits and, more importantly, sufficient men with which to thwart Rokossovsky’s oncoming tide. Model’s defences coalesced around his panzer divisions with around 450 tanks and self-propelled guns. Over the next week, things would start to go badly wrong for Rokossovsky and his men would experience their first major setback.
Rokossovsky’s Lublin–Brest Offensive was conducted from 18 July to 2 August 1944 as a follow-up to Bagration and to support General I.S. Konev’s Lvov–Sandomierz Offensive by tying down German forces in central eastern Poland. It culminated in the major tank Battle of Radzymin. To the north of Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front, Rokossovsky’s 8th Guards, 47th and 69th Armies supported by the 2nd Tank Army, and the Polish 1st Army struck from the Kovel area toward Lublin and Warsaw, thereby making Army Group North Ukraine’s position untenable.
It seemed appropriate to Stalin that eastern Poland should be liberated as part of Byelorussia, as that is how Hitler had treated it. For administrative purposes, parts of German-occupied Poland had been lumped in with western Byelorussia. When Hitler divided prostrate Poland with Stalin in 1939, he also annexed the region south-west of East Prussia (Wartheland) to the Reich, while the Reichkommissariate of ‘Ostland’ (an area incorporating Minsk and the Baltic States) and ‘Ukraine’ governed parts of eastern Poland, and the ‘rump’ in the middle was run as the Generalgouvernement.
In mid-1944 north of Warsaw, Model turned to Heinrich Himmler’s Waffen-SS for assistance in stabilising the front. The remnants of the 1st SS and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions had been shipped west after their mauling in the Kamenets–Podolsk pocket to re-equip and prepare for the anticipated Anglo-American landings in France. However, the tough 3rd SS and 5th SS Panzer Divisions remained in Romania and Poland rearming.
The 3rd SS was notified to move north as early as 25 June, but the disruption to the rail networks and roads meant that it took two weeks to get to north-eastern Poland. Arriving on 7 July, it found the Red Amy was already striking toward the Polish city of Grodno, threatening the southern flank of Army Group Centre’s 4th Army and the northern flank of the 2nd Army.
Deployed to Grodno, the 3rd SS were given the task of creating a defensive line for the 4th Army to retire behind. Spectacularly, the division held off 400 Soviet tanks for eleven days before withdrawing south-west toward Warsaw. Joined by the Hermann Göring Panzer Division at Siedlce, 50 miles east of the Polish capital, they held the Red Army for almost a week from 24 July, keeping open an escape corridor for the 2nd Army as it fled toward the Vistula. Three days later, the Red Army threw almost 500 tanks to the south and by 29 July it was at the very suburbs of Warsaw.
The 5th SS arrived in western Warsaw on 27 July and trundled through the troubled city to take up positions to the east. The next day, Stalin ordered Rokossovsky to occupy Praga, Warsaw’s suburbs on the eastern bank of the Vistula, during 5–8 August, and to establish a number of bridgeheads over the river to the south of the city.
As instructed, the Soviet 2nd Tank Army and 8th Tank Corps attacked westward along the Warsaw–Lublin road toward Praga. About 40 miles south-east of Warsaw, in the Garwolin area, the 2nd Tank was opposed by two advanced battalions of Genera Fritz Franek’s 10,800-strong 73rd Infantry Division. Holding the north bank of the Swidra River, they were backed up by the Hermann Göring Panzer Division 12 miles east of Praga.
In addition, four panzer divisions (3rd SS, 5th SS, 4th and 19th Panzer) which were poised to counter-attack now defended the approaches to the Polish capital. The men of 19th Panzer were veterans of the Eastern Front, having fought on the central and southern sectors from June 1941 to June 1944, before being shipped to the Netherlands for a refit. Hasso Krappe, an officer with 19th Panzer, recalled the fighting around Warsaw, ‘Over the next two weeks the battles centred on the region north of Warsaw [between the Bug, Narev and Vistula], and on the Varka, which has gone down in military history as the “Magnushev Bridgehead”.’
Franek’s division had endured a rough time during its career, having taken part in the invasions of Poland, the Low Countries, France and Greece before entering the Soviet Union via Romania. It fought at Nikolayev, Cherson, Sevastopol and the Kuban bridgehead. Suffering heavy losses near Melitopol, the 73rd Infantry was withdrawn only to be trapped by the Red Army in Sevastopol in May 1944 and re-formed in June in Hungary under Franek.
Franek’s men and the Hermann Göring bore the brunt of the powerful attacks launched by two Soviet Tank Corps. Garwolin was partially captured during the night of 27/28 July and the 73rd fell back. Despite the presence of elements of 19th Panzer and the Hermann Göring, by noon on 29 July the Soviet 8th Tank Corps had secured Kołbiel and Siennica. About 26 miles from Warsaw at Minsk Mazowiecki, Lieutenant General N.D. Vedeneev’s 3rd Tank Corps broke the German defences, and at Zielonka, General Franek and some of his staff were captured.
Brest-Litovsk fell to Rokossovsky on 28 July and with his troops at Garwolin, three German divisions tried to escape toward Siedlce, south-east of Warsaw. They were surrounded between Biała and the river and crushed, with 15,000 killed and just 2,000 captured. In Moscow, Stalin and his commanders were very pleased with Rokossovsky’s efforts and on 29 July he was nominated a Marshal of the Soviet Union.
Captured German documents showed that the 5th SS Reconnaissance Unit was deployed near Minsk Mazowiecki; units of the Hermann Göring and the 73rd Infantry were holding the Cechowa and Otwock sector of Warsaw’s outer defences; 19th Panzer was defending the approaches to Praga and the 3rd SS were in the Okuniew and Pustelnik suburban areas.
When the 2nd Tank Army’s 16th Tank Corps struck toward Otwock along the Lublin road, the 19th Panzer counter-attacked with forty panzers and an infantry regiment but were unable to hold, and by the evening the Soviets were a mere 15 miles from Warsaw. They were now poised to assault the key defences of Okuniew. The 8th Tank Corps opened the attack, only to be stalled by determined German air and artillery fire.
In the meantime Vedeneev, bypassing German defences, drove them from Wołomin and Radzymin, just 12 miles north-east of Warsaw, where he took up defensive positions along the Dluga River. Having outstretched his supply lines and outrun the rest of the Soviet 2nd Tank Army, Vedeneev was in a dangerously exposed position. The 39th Panzer Corps was in the area and the panzer divisions were coming together in the direction of Radzymin-Wołomin.
Rokossovsky’s forces were quick to react to this threat and attempted to alleviate the pressure on Vedeneev with a diversionary attack. At dawn on 31 July, followed by heavy air and artillery bombardment, the Soviet 8th Tank Corps threw themselves at the Germans who fell back toward Okuniew. The 5th SS counter-attacked in a westerly direction with fifty panzers from Stanislawów, in an effort to link up with the Hermann Göring and 19th Panzer, who were fighting a tank battle with the Soviets at Okuniew and Ossow.
The 5th SS were repulsed and on the evening of 31 July the Soviets took Okuniew, but could not budge the enemy from their strongpoint at Osos. North of the Soviet 8th Tank Corps, the 3rd Tank remained unsupported and, like the 16th Corps, endured a day of heavy attacks from German armour, artillery and infantry. The commander of the Soviet 2nd Army was in an impossible position; his units were enduring heavy casualties; he was short of supplies and his rear was under threat.
Rokossovsky simply could not fulfil his orders to break though the German defences and enter Praga by 8 August – it was simply not possible. On 1 August, at 1610 hrs he ordered the attack to be broken off just as Model launched his major counter-attack. On 2 August, all Red Army forces that were assaulting Warsaw were redirected. The 28th, 47th and 65th Armies were sent northwards to seize the undefended town of Wyszków and the Liwiec River Line. Crucially, this left the 2nd Tank Army without infantry support. This situation was compounded when the 69th Army was ordered to halt while the 8th Guards Army under Vasily Chuikov ceased the assault, to await a German attack from the direction of Garwolin.
Model began to probe the weak spot in Rokossovsky’s line between Praga and Siedlce. His intention was to hit the Soviets in the flank and the rear, and soon, to the north-east of Warsaw, the 39th Panzer Corps was counter-attacking the 3rd Tank Corps and forcing it back to Wołomin. The 3rd SS, Hermann Göring and 4th and 19th Panzer Divisions struck south into the exposed Soviet columns.
The Hermann Göring’s 1st Armoured Paratroop Regiment launched their attack from Praga toward Wołomin on 31 July, heralding the much larger effort to halt the Red Army in its steps before Warsaw. From the south-west, along the Warsaw–Wyszków road attacking toward Radzymin, came the 19th Panzer, while from Wyszków the 4th Panzer acted in support.
The next day, from Węgrów pushing toward Wołomin, came the panzers of the 5th SS. At the same time the 3rd SS was launched into the fray from Siedlce toward Stanislawów with the intention of trapping those Soviet units on the north-eastern bank of the Dluga. General Nikolaus von Vormann, appointed by Guderian to command the 9th Army and bringing up reinforcements from the 2nd Army’s reserves, also launched a counter-attack. Using men of the 5th SS and 3rd SS attacking from the forests to the east of Michałów, he drove the Soviet 8th Tank Corps from Okuniew at 2100 hrs on 1 August and linked up with 39th Panzer Corps from the west.
By 2 August, the 19th followed by 4th Panzer were in Radzymin and the Soviet 3rd Tank Corps was thrown back toward Wołomin. The following day, the Hermann Göring Panzer Division rolled into Wołomin. Pressed into the area of Wołomin, Vedeneev was completely trapped. Attempts by the 8th Guards Tank Corps and the 16th Tank Corps to reach him failed with the former suffering serious casualties in the attempt.
After a week of heavy fighting, the Soviet 3rd Tank Corps was surrounded; 3,000 men were killed and another 6,000 captured. The Red Army also lost 425 of the 808 tanks and self-propelled guns they had begun the battle with on 18 July. By noon on 5 August the Germans had ceased their counter-attack and the battle for the Praga approaches had come to an end. Two German divisions had to be transferred south to deal with the Soviet threat there.
Vedeneev’s corps was destroyed and the 8th Guards Tank Corps and the 16th Tank Corps had taken heavy losses. The exhausted Soviet 2nd Tank Army handed over its positions and withdrew to lick its wounds.
Post-war Communist propagandists cited the Battle of Radzymin as evidence that the German counter-attack prevented the Red Army from helping the Warsaw Uprising. Stalin clearly did not hold Vedeneev responsible. He remained in charge and the 3rd Tank Corps was honoured by being designated the 9th Guards Tank Corps in November 1944. It was not until 25 August that Rokossovsky would inform Stalin that he was ready to have another go at Warsaw.
After such heavy fighting north-east of the Polish capital, it is easy to see why Stalin saw the Polish Home Army’s Warsaw Rising as of little consequence to the overall strategic scheme of things. General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowsky, commander of the underground Polish Home Army, ordered his men to rise up against the German occupation of Warsaw on 1 August. Two days later, Stanislaus Mikołajczyk, who had been appointed prime minister by the exiled Polish government in London, gained an audience with Stalin in the hope of getting help for the Warsaw Rising. Stalin showed little faith in the Home Army’s fighting capabilities:
What is an army without artillery, tanks and an air force? They are even short of riles. In modern warfare such an army is of little use. They are small partisan units, not a regular army. I was told that the Polish government has ordered these units to drive the Germans out of Warsaw. I wonder how they could possibly do this, their forces are not up to that task.
Rokossovsky was ordered to go over to the defensive and watched the Germans systemically crush the Poles for two whole months. Likewise, the Red Air Force, which was just 100 miles away, did very little. At Kraków, the capital of the Generalgouvernement, the Wehrmacht garrison was 30,000 strong, twice that of Warsaw, which had a much bigger population. In addition, there were some 10,000 armed German administrators in the city. As a result, there was no secondary Home Army rising in Kraków.
Just 12.5 miles south of Warsaw, Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army crossed the Vistula on 1 August at Magnuszew. He held onto his tiny bridgehead despite determined counter-attacks. By the 8th, the bridgehead contained three Soviet corps. Holding the northern shoulder of the bridgehead and preventing the Soviets from expanding it was a Volksgrenadier Brigade and a battalion of panzers, while to the south were the 17th Infantry Division.
General Zygmunt Berling’s Soviet-trained Polish 1st Army had reinforced Rokossovsky during the spring of 1944. This was, in fact, the second Polish army to be formed in the Soviet Union and was the military wing of the so-called Union of Polish Patriots, which had come into being with Stalin’s approval in 1943. The earlier army of General Władysław Anders had managed to slip Stalin’s grasp in 1942, getting itself redeployed to fight with the British in the Middle East and Italy.
Berling was ordered to cross the Vistula at Puławy on 31 July on a wide front to support other elements of the Soviet 69th and 8th Guards Armies crossing near Magnuszew. Two Polish divisions gained the west bank on 1 and 2 August, but by the 4th they had suffered 1,000 casualties and were ordered to withdraw. They were then assigned to protect the northern part of the Magnuszew bridgehead.
When Berling joined Rokossovsky he had 104,000 men under arms, comprising five infantry divisions, a tank brigade, four artillery brigades and an air wing. Many recruits who were former POWs from 1939 saw it as a way of getting home, although Stalin kept them on a tight political leash. Berling, like Rokossovsky, was a career soldier having served with the Austrian and Polish armies. The fact that Stalin had spared him and that he had not stayed with Anders made him appear a turncoat to many of his countrymen. Berling was also given the onerous task of endorsing Stalin’s lie that Hitler had perpetrated the massacre of Polish officers in Katyn Forest.
When Poland was partitioned by Stalin and Hitler under the Non-Aggression Pact, 130,000 Polish officers and men immediately fell into the hands of the Red Army (although, in total, some 250,000 soldiers were eventually moved into the Soviet Union as POWs). Stalin had a long memory and a score to settle with the Poles (in 1920 they had defeated the Red Army), and he also wanted to destroy the basis for any future opposition to the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland, which would act as a buffer against post-war Germany. Stalin had acted swiftly and brutally.
He rounded up every Polish officer in his part of pre-war Poland (now the western Ukraine and western Belorussia) and in early 1940 he ruthlessly organised their slaughter. In April–May 1940, 15,000 Polish officers and policemen were evacuated from camps at Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostachkov and turned over to the NKVD in the Smolensk, Kharkov and Kalinin regions. With Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the Polish government in exile signed an agreement with Moscow – the provisions included raising a Polish army in the Soviet Union. However, of the 15,000 Polish officers held by the Soviets, only 350–400 reported for duty. Like the kulaks and Red Army officers before them, the Polish officer class had been ruthlessly butchered.
Stalin’s duplicity in his treatment of Poland and the Polish Army knew no bounds. In December 1941, Generals Wladyslaw Sikorski and Anders plus the Polish ambassador met with Stalin to discuss the whereabouts of approximately 4,000 named Polish officers who had been deported to Soviet prisons and labour camps. Stalin initially claimed rather disingenuously that they had escaped to Manchuria. He then changed tack, suggesting they had been released, adding, ‘I want you to know that the Soviet government has not the slightest reason to retain even one Pole’. What he meant was ‘even one living Pole’.
Hitler announced that he had found the mass grave of up to 4,000 Polish officers in the forest of Katyn, near Smolensk, in April 1943. The Germans continued to dig, unearthing an estimated 10,000 bodies, and Hitler set up a Committee of Inquiry which ‘proved’ the Poles had been shot in 1940 by Stalin’s NKVD. The Soviets dismissed the claim as propaganda, calling it ‘revolting and slanderous fabrications’.
Hitler’s discovery had strained Soviet–Polish relations even further, allowing Stalin to undermine the validity of the Polish government in exile in London as a prelude to establishing a Communist government in Warsaw. As far as Stalin was concerned, Poland came within his sphere of influence and he had every intention of it remaining so. On retaking Smolensk, Stalin set up his own commission which stated categorically that the men had been killed in 1941 while road-building for the Germans.