Warsaw Airlift I

American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft leaving Warsaw and heading East after air drops on September 18.
(Wisła river visible as well as Wilanów Palace gardens in upper left part of image).

Air routes used for the airlift.
Black: Allied flights from Italy.
Black broken line: Later egress routes used back to Italy.
Blue: USAAF route

The Warsaw Airlift of 1944 is one of the great unsung sagas of the Second World War. In theory it had three participants – the Soviets, Americans, and British. In reality, only the British and their partners made a significant contribution. Soviet warplanes, which had been flying over Warsaw in late July, disappeared from the skies after the outbreak of the Rising and failed to reappear for the best part of six weeks. American planes, which were supposed to fly out from England in August, did not manage to take off until mid-September, and then only once. As a result, it was RAF squadrons operating from Italy which assumed the overwhelming brunt of the missions. They did so at a juncture when RAF Bomber Command was regularly pounding targets on the Baltic coast not far from Warsaw. On two nights at the end of August, for example, nearly 200 Lancasters from Britain attacked Königsberg, suffering only 7.5 per cent losses.

Warsaw lay 1,311km (815 miles) from the RAF base at Brindisi in Apulia. The chosen route to Poland took the form of an elongated lozenge with Brindisi at the southern end and Warsaw at the northern tip. The planes took off in the evening over the Adriatic, crossed the Croatian coast in the last rays of the setting sun, overflew the Danube in Hungary in darkness, and climbed north-east over the Carpathians before approaching Warsaw from the east over Soviet-held territory. The return journey, which brought the fliers back to Brindisi in midmorning after twelve to fourteen hours in the air, was spent in large part over Germany and Austria. It descended from the Austrian Alps into full daylight over Italy.

The airmen faced manifold dangers. They had no fighter escort, and had nothing but their own guns to ward off German planes sent up in ground-controlled interception areas. They were fully visible crossing the Adriatic coast in both directions, and a Luftwaffe night-fighter training centre near Cracow presented a constant hazard. Visibility over Warsaw was severely limited by clouds of smoke, whilst their approach run, which was made at only 45 metres (150 feet) and at a mere 200kmh (125 mph), made them specially vulnerable to ground fire. Electric storms were a common summer occurrence over the Alps and Carpathians. Pilots frequently reported instances of St Elmo’s fire, when blue flames trailed from wingtips and propeller blades.

The aircraft most usually employed in the Warsaw Airlift was the Consolidated B24 Liberator. It had more speed and payload than the Boeing B17 Flying Fortress and a greater range than the Avro Lancaster. Its four Pratt and Whitney double-banked radial engines were boosted by a super-charger. They permitted a payload of 51/2 tons and a cruising speed of 210 mph. Fully loaded with 2,300 gallons of fuel and with twelve parachute-controlled containers in the bomb racks, take-off had to be undertaken overweight. The modern electronic equipment included a GEE box (a navigational radio-triangulation system) and a radio altimeter. Armament consisted of ten 0.5 in heavy machine guns. There was a crew of ten.

205 Group RAF in Italy, commanded by Maj.Gen. Durrant, consisted of five wings: three RAF and two South African Air Force. In the summer of 1944, the RAF’s 334 Special Operations Wing was attached to the newly formed ‘Balkan Airforce’, whose principal task was liaison with Yugoslavia. It included 148 and 624 Squadrons RAF, each equipped with fourteen Halifaxes, and the independent (Polish) 1586 Special Duties Flight with ten aircrews flying a mixture of Halifaxes and Liberators. 2 Wing of the SAAF consisted of 24, 31, and 34 Squadrons, all equipped with Liberators.

The first flight to Warsaw had been undertaken on 4–5 August by 1586 SDF accompanied by seven Halifaxes of 148 Squadron. It provided a grim warning of things to come. The orders mentioned drops in the Kampinos and Kabaty forests; and senior officers were unaware that four Polish crews had secretly volunteered to fly directly over Warsaw. On return, one Polish Liberator made a miraculous crash-landing on two engines with no undercarriage, stopping ten yards short of the sea. But five RAF planes were lost, and only two successful drops were made. Senior RAF commanders intervened, and flights were suspended.

At this point, the Warsaw Rising forced itself onto the agenda of Allied planners who were meeting at Naples to discuss the landings on the French Riviera:

The Polish Question was on [Churchill’s mind] as he contemplated the beauty of Naples Bay and the slopes of Vesuvius from his quarters at the Villa Rivalta . . . He was expecting Marshal Tito for discussions on the situation in Yugoslavia. It was 12 August, and Churchill must have sensed that Warsaw could expect no help from Moscow. He agreed with Field Marshal Smuts that the airlift was of little military value. Gen. Mark Clark of the US Fifth Army in Italy could not understand the reasoning of the Combined Chiefs in supporting the operation, and Churchill wondered whether the latest news from Warsaw could mean much in the long run. Nonetheless, he sent off another signal to Stalin . . .

Churchill discussed the matter again with Air Marshal Slessor. The RAF commander reiterated his conviction that the Russians would not drop supplies in Warsaw. The only feasible way to assist the AK adequately was for the US Eighth Airforce to fly the aircraft from Britain. The planes would have to land at Russian bases to refuel, as had been arranged for their bomber offensive. But the Polish appeal, of course, had been made to the British, not to the Americans. Churchill weighed the matter up carefully, knowing that the Russians would not help, and came to a painful decision. Help must be sent, he declared, even at the risk of heavy losses.

As a result, 205 Group was ordered to maintain a regular supply line to Warsaw. In actual fact, 1586 SDF, 148 and 178 Squadrons RAF, and 31 Squadron SAAF had already made several extra flights to Poland, presumably on their own account, or on their local commander’s responsibility. In all, they took off from Brindisi for Warsaw on 4, 8, 11–18, and 20–28 August, on a total of nineteen nights.

The supplies which reached the Home Army were not inconsiderable. Early in September, General Boor acknowledged receipt of 250 PIAT antitank weapons, 1,000 Sten guns, 19,000 grenades, and 2 million rounds of ammunition.

But the losses were horrendous. Air Marshal Slessor calculated that one bomber was lost for every ton of supplies delivered. The sacrifices of 1586 SDF were particularly severe. On 1 August they had just completed a tour of duty and were due for a period of rest. Only five aircraft and five air crews were available. By the end of the month, only of those five crews survived.

Appeals were equally directed to the USAAF, and the possibility of using high-flying American B-17 Flying Fortresses based in Ukraine was under discussion for several weeks. After many delays, an inter-Allied system code-named Frantic had begun to operate in June 1944, Stalin having been sweetened with the gift of a top-secret Norden bombsight. Using Poltava, Mirogrod and a nearby fighter base, massive fleets of up to 200 US planes were able to shuttle back and forward between the USSR and either Italy or Britain. On each leg, they dropped huge bomb-loads on pre-arranged targets in the Reich or in German-held territory. In July and August 1944, their main destinations were in Romania, though two were in Germany, and three were in German-occupied Poland.

A report about one of these flights appeared in The Times on 8 August:

Heavy bombers of the 8th Air Force from England have attacked a German aircraft plant at Rahmel, 10 miles NW of Gdynia in Poland, and have landed safely at American bases in the Soviet Union. The bombers were escorted throughout by P51 Mustangs . . . No airplane was lost . . . Today’s attack was the twentieth operation in which Eastern Command bases have figured.

The headline ran ‘Poland Bombed by U.S. Airforce’. It would have been read in conjunction with another piece immediately below headed ‘Furious Fighting in Warsaw: More Ground Gained by Patriots’. Ordinary readers must have drawn the obvious conclusion. If the Allies were bombing Gdynia, the bombing of German positions in Warsaw could not be far behind.

During these operations, the Americans frequently reported incidents of ‘friendly fire’. It was assumed that Soviet anti-aircraft gunners had standing orders to fire on any unauthorized flights. But that was only part of the explanation. On 15–16 June, Soviet Yak fighters had attacked two American F-5 reconnaissance planes, damaging one and destroying the other.

On 18 September 1944, a huge fleet of Flying Fortresses of the US 8th Army Air Force flew from Britain to supply Warsaw, and continued on to the Soviet base at Poltava. It was the first and last time that Western supplies reached Warsaw on this route. A later TASS report described the shuttle flight as ‘one of the largest ever to land in Russia.’ When the Flying Fortresses passed over Warsaw around 2 p.m., they certainly created a grand spectacle. They were accompanied by sixty fighter escorts. The sky was a perfect blue. The planes were in wide-spaced formation, flying at a great height ‘as if on parade’. The silver fuselages glinted in the sun. The engines left multistranded spirals of white vapour trails. A rhythmic roar shook the buildings far below, punctuated by the popping of AA guns. Suddenly, the sky was filled with a mass of multicoloured parachutes, slowly descending, swaying in the breeze. On either side of the barricades, German troops and insurgents watched in amazement. The American report was optimistic:

Three combat wings (110 B-17s) dispatched to drop supplies at Warsaw. Three a/c returned early. All formations dropped on Primary [target] visually. Approximately 1284 containers dropped with fair to excellent results. 105 a/c landed at Russian bases. Flak: moderate. E/A Opposition: nil. Claims: nil. Losses: 2 B-17s, cause unknown.

In reality, over 80 per cent of the 1,284 containers fell into German-controlled districts. There were no parachutists. And there were no more Frantic missions to Warsaw.

Meanwhile, the RAF flights from Italy continued. They had been grounded in early September by bad weather and by tests on a new bombsight that would be effective from a much higher altitude. Twenty aircraft were ready to take off from Amendola and Brindisi on 10 September:

A sense of duty kept the Polish crews going. They were an extraordinary collection of men of all types and ages . . . One flyer who came from Balkan Airforce HQ was RAF Air Commodore [Raiski]. . . . [He] had fought against the Bolsheviks as a young pilot in 1919[–20]. Now he was on the same flight as a Group, who had been deputy commander of the Polish Bomber Brigade in September 1939. They all shared the hazards of the Warsaw flights with a former airline pilot, an assistant professor of psychology from Warsaw University, a high school teacher, an Argentinian and a Canadian of Polish origin. One inexperienced navigator . . . was briefed for his first trip to Warsaw, neatly packed his few belongings, wrote a letter to his parents in Poland, drafted a will, took off, and never returned. One gunner on a Polish Liberator had been released from a maximum security prison at the outbreak of the war. On a homeward flight over the Balkans, he leaned out of a gun turret entrance, joking with the rest of the crew, and inadvertently touched the traversing switch. The turret swung round and broke his neck.

Throughout August, Churchill and to a lesser extent Roosevelt strove to persuade Stalin to give landing rights in the USSR to Allied flights heading for Warsaw. Stalin’s responses were uniformly hostile. Roosevelt’s interest was, at best, lukewarm. Churchill’s message to Moscow on 12 August was phrased in strong language:

We have practically no news from you, no information on the political situation, no advice and no instruction. Have you discussed in Moscow help for Warsaw? I repeat emphatically that without immediate support, consisting of drops of arms and ammunition, bombing of objectives held by the enemy, and air landing, our fight will collapse in a few days . . . I expect from you the greatest effort in this respect.

This was countered by the extraordinary dressing-down of the US Ambassador in Moscow mentioned earlier. But Churchill persisted. On the 18th, he told Eden to check out the technical feasibility of the overflights, and he appealed to Roosevelt for joint action. Their message to Stalin, which Roosevelt drafted, was deliberately mild in tone. It started: ‘We are thinking of world opinion’. And it ended, ‘The time element is of the greatest importance.’ It did not evoke a definite reply. What was worse, at the next round Roosevelt casually told Churchill: ‘I do not see what further steps we can take at the present time which promise results.’ Churchill was roused to undisguised anger. He proposed a draft message which commented less than diplomatically on Stalin’s earlier replies. ‘Our sympathies are aroused for these “almost unarmed people” whose special faith has led them to attack German tanks, guns and planes,’ he said; also ‘the [Warsaw] Rising was certainly called for repeatedly by Moscow Radio’; and ‘we propose to send the aircraft unless you directly forbid it.’ This time, the President refused to join in. September arrived; and the question of using the Frantic system was unresolved.

Air Marshal Slessor received orders that flights to Warsaw must not stop. So on 21/22 September, a mixed group of RAF and SAAF tried once more. This time, exceptionally, they all returned safely to base. But the cloud cover over Warsaw was so thick that the pilots could not find their targets. No confirmation of success was received. Then the dead-moon period set in. Flying was off. Slessor did not receive replacement aircraft.

The loss of an aircraft was always a dramatic event. In the last couple of months, the Varsovians had seen several crashes. One Liberator came down in the City Centre, killing the Canadian crew. Another came down in the lake in the Paderewski Park in Praga. The sole survivor was taken prisoner by the Soviets.

Yet the aircrews’ lonely ordeals were something which only they themselves could witness:

Capt. Erich Endler [SAAF] had used more fuel than his inexperienced crew had allowed for. He had made his drop, and was already over the northern border of Yugoslavia before he was aware of his dangerously low fuel level . . . There was no hope of putting a big aircraft down in the dark safely. There was nothing to do but to bail out, and the pilot gave the order. The co-pilot, Lt. Chapman and RAF Pilot Officer Crook jumped, landed safely, and fell into enemy hands. From the ground, they saw their aircraft, its engine dying, rapidly lose height and crash into the towering crags of the Alps.

Air force losses are calculated in various ways. But one calculation reckoned that 306 planes departed from Britain or Italy for Warsaw, and that forty-one were lost: two US, seventeen Polish, and twenty-two RAF and SAAF. Losses totalled 13.3 per cent. Losses on the run from Italy to Warsaw reached 31 out of 186 aircraft, or 16.7 per cent. This compares with the raid on Nuremberg on 30/31 March 1944, which is sometimes claimed to have been the RAF’s ‘darkest hour’, where losses totalled 11.8 per cent.

Allied aircraft dropped a total of 370 tons of supplies in the course of the two months of operations, but the airlift proved to be ineffective and could not provide sufficient supplies to sustain the Polish resistance, which finally succumbed on 2 October 1944. An estimated 360 airmen and forty-one British, Polish, South African and American aircraft were lost during the `Warsaw Airlift’.

 Soviet missions

Of course, one has to wonder whether Stalin ever saw one hundredth part of the mountains of paper that were addressed to him. But even if he did see these reports, it is difficult to imagine what possible use he could have made of them. For he had created a vast informational machine, which produced such an indigestible macédoine of fantasies, falsehood, and occasional facts that it was quite incapable of rendering a recognizable picture of outside reality. No one who read Telegin-style summaries could conceivably have been moved to recommend active support for ‘the Londoners’. For which reason, the last paragraph of the last page of Telegin’s report of 25 September was underlined by someone in Moscow in thick pencil:

Please give instructions on the following question. To what extent, in the coming days, is it a necessity to render assistance to the insurgents with arms, ammunition, and food-stuffs. The position of the insurgents is really acute, and they cannot reckon on any aid from anyone other than the Red Army. In order to supply the aid within maximum limits, it is necessary for the Front to release 500 tons of B-70 aviation fuel and 2,000 freight parachutes and to transport ex-enemy weapons from our central stores including rifles, machine-guns, and rocket-launchers . .

On the night of 13 September 1944, Soviet aircraft commenced their own re-supply missions, dropping arms, medicines and food supplies. Initially these supplies were dropped in canisters without parachutes which lead to damage and loss of the contents – also, a large number of canisters fell into German hands. Over the following two weeks, the Soviet Air Forces flew 2,535 re-supply sorties with small bi-plane Polikarpov Po-2’s, delivering a total of 156 50-mm mortars, 505 anti-tank rifles, 1,478 sub-machine guns, 520 rifles, 669 carbines, 41,780 hand grenades, 37,216 mortar shells, over 3 million cartridges, 131.2 tons of food and 515 kg of medicine.