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Last Updated: Monday, 2 August, 2004, 12:00 GMT 13:00 UK
Warsaw's failed uprising still divides
Poland has marked the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. The BBC's Jan Repa looks back on one of the most controversial episodes of World War II.

Polish Home Army
Poland had a large resistance force - but the uprising was brutally crushed
"The Germans are continuing to set fire to the city. Wilcza, Krucza and Wspolna streets have been attacked with flamethrowers and heavy artillery.

"Yesterday Home Army units conducted a series of offensive actions, including the storming of the German police headquarters.

"German resistance was fierce and stubborn. Our troops displayed unparalleled bravura, destroying two tanks and releasing 50 hostages."

By then, Nazi Germany's impending defeat in World War II was in little doubt.

On 20 July, a group of German officers had come close to assassinating Adolf Hitler. A week later, the advancing Soviet army was on the outskirts of Warsaw. Paris was only weeks from liberation.

In December 1943, at a summit meeting with the Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, the leaders of America and Britain had already secretly agreed that their ally Poland would become part of a post-war Soviet "sphere of influence".

The Soviet army's advance into Nazi-occupied Poland was accompanied by large-scale roundups, arrests and deportations.

Fateful decision

Unnerved by the lack of Western reaction, Polish leaders took the fateful decision to liberate Warsaw ahead of the Soviets - so hopefully strengthening their hand in any international bargaining over Poland's post-war status.

The Polish Home Army was one of Europe's largest resistance movements. Its core consisted of professional army officers. But many of the fighters were young volunteers, like 18-year-old Zbigniew Pelczynski.

They were supposed to give us the status of soldiers and put us under the protection of the rules of war. In fact, the Germans shot all prisoners
Zbigniew Pelczynski
Teenaged volunteer
"We filed into a small park nearby," he said. "A pretty blonde girl came along with a bundle of white-red armbands.

"Under some international convention, they were supposed to give us the status of soldiers and put us under the protection of the rules of war. In fact, the Germans shot all prisoners.

"Only much later, when the British threatened reprisals, did the Wehrmacht change their policy."

The task of crushing the uprising was given to SS General Erich von dem Bach - the Nazis' chief of "Anti-Bandit Operations".

His troops - a mixed force of German SS troops, Russians, Cossacks, Azeris and Ukrainians, backed by German regular army units - committed countless atrocities - killing up to 40,000 civilians in the first two days alone.

The Warsaw 1944 Uprising monument
Thousands died and the city was devastated
The BBC, at the time, interviewed a Polish airman, just back from a mission to drop British arms to the insurgents.

"Warsaw itself was visible for miles - blazing with flames and sending sky-high clouds of black smoke," he said. "We came down to about 600 feet above the rooftops. As soon as we approached, searchlights started to look for us. Soon every gun around was firing."

Forced to make a round trip of 300km from bases in southern Italy - and shot at by their Soviet allies if they strayed over the front line - British, Polish and South African airmen suffered heavy losses, and the missions were called off.

The Germans relied heavily on aerial bombardment and long-range artillery, which produced mountains of rubble - and an ideal environment for urban guerrilla warfare.

Soon exasperated German commanders were drawing comparisons with the Battle of Stalingrad, two years earlier.

Only this time, there would be no rescuing army.

Stalin ordered Soviet forces to wait on the opposite bank of the Vistula - a kilometre from the fighting - until the job was done.

After 63 days, the Home Army negotiated a surrender. Warsaw's surviving civilian inhabitants were despatched to Nazi concentration and forced labour camps - and what was left of the city was systematically blown up.

On 17 January 1945, nearly six months after the start of the uprising, the Soviet army finally entered the deserted wasteland.

Ongoing debate

The Warsaw Uprising remains controversial in Poland.

Was it an act of political irresponsibility? Or a statement that moral imperatives are not measured by temporal success?

For the Soviets and their Communist proteges in Poland, the Home Army was a demon, which had to be exorcised.

After the war, its former officers were hunted down, killed or imprisoned.

Zbigniew Pelczynski - who later became Professor of Political Science at Oxford University and taught the future US President Bill Clinton - was one of many young people who would not be welcome in the new Poland.

The BBC's Paul Anstiss
"Gerhard Schroeder expressed regret at the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis"

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