Thanks to the Polish National Foundation for sponsoring this video.
The Polish are determined to make Poland matter on the world stage, and they will not wait for whatever mercies may come from the Russians. So the Home Army stages their own uprising to liberate Warsaw, and for some 60-odd days, their strongest members, the Grey Ranks, tragically held steadfast.
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*Music by Demetori:
♪ Outro music: “Broad Street Pump” by Sean and Dean Kiner
For five years, execution, torture, and vicious oppression has been the fate of the Poles. But resistance, the will to fight the Nazis who occupy their homeland, has been kept alive. In the face of unspeakable brutality, The Polish Home Army, the volunteer force of resistance fighters secretly living in Poland, has continued to grow. For these fighters, discovery meant instant death. But with sabotage, indirection, and a message of hope for the people, they kept the Germans from ever feeling secure in occupied Poland. And now it was time. Russian shelling could be heard in the streets of Warsaw. Liberation was at hand. But the Home Army wasn't going to wait for the Russians to march into their capital and return to them, whatever portion of their country they felt generous enough to give. The Warsaw Uprising was about to begin. A few months ago, James was invited to Poland to attend one of their massive game jams and observe what they're doing to help grow the games industry there. With any luck, he'll get back there for their game jam in September and I'll be hiding in his luggage to go visit my homeland. Because while in Warsaw, he fell in love with the city and its history. So much so that he worked with the folks running the game jam to help sponsor this special episode so he could talk about one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. So, let's begin. August 1st, 1944. The Allies have landed in Normandy. Rome has fallen. And the Soviets have pushed the German war machine off Russian soil. And in Warsaw, a people oppressed for five long years are about to rise up against their oppressors. But what precipitates this is the approach of the Soviet Army. Because the history between the Soviets and Poland is a fraught one. In 1939, as allies of Hitler, Soviet forces stormed over the Polish border, taking Poland by surprise and collapsing Polish defenses. Up to that point, while not winning the war against Germany, the Polish Army was taking their toll. Slowing down German forces and making them pay for every inch of ground. But to do this, almost all of their forces were sent to the West, never expecting an attack from the supposedly neutral Soviet Union. When Soviet forces poured over the eastern border, it spelt the end for the Polish Army. Two weeks later, Poland would surrender and more than half would be annexed by the Soviet Union until they in turn lost it to the Nazis double-crossing them. And while not as systematically brutal as Nazi occupation, the Soviet domination of Poland was still horrific. They rounded up and shot 22.000 Poles in the Katyn forest. And even when they joined the Allies, they refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Polish government-in-exile. All of which means that many in the Polish resistance believed that the only way they'd have a seat at the table after the war is if they liberated their own country. Which leads us back to the 1st of August. The Russians are a few dozen kilometers away. As their advance continues, The Germans are guaranteed to fall. It's now or never, it's time to rise up. The previous night, a tense meeting had occurred and "W hour", the start of the Polish uprising was declared. The troops had trained for a surprise attack at dawn. But at the last minute, plans changed. The uprising was now set for 5:00 P.M. But it's hard to hide that many people spoiling for a fight and by 5:00 P.M., sporadic engagements had already broken out across the city. The Polish troops were barely armed many without weapons at all. Charging in with homemade submachine guns or captured German rifles. They took the gasworks, the power and water plants, and some vital production facilities, but they were repulsed in key locations as well. The bridges, the airport, the rail line, and the main police station all remained in German hands. Most crucially though, they failed to link up. By night, groups were erecting barricades. The city was now divided and though there would be some coordination and reinforcements, many pockets were now fighting in their own small wars. Then the bombs begin to fall. The Luftwaffe is laying waste to the city. Not differentiating between civilian areas and those controlled by the resistance. The Polish Home Army doesn't have a single anti-aircraft gun and all eyes look for signs of the Soviet air force. But no planes sporting the Red Star of Russia are anywhere to be seen. Four days into the uprising, the true atrocities start. On orders of Heinrich Himmler, German troops begin going house-to-house, shooting every inhabitant they find. The old, the infirm, women, children, all were gunned down. Over the course of a week, tens of thousands of civilians are murdered as they huddled in their homes. But the Polish resistance didn't break. The Home Army ground the Germans to a halt. Though it's strongest battalions were also its most tragic, "The Grey Ranks". They were made up of the boy scouts. Older scouts were frontline troops, better organized, better trained, better disciplined, than most of the volunteers. The younger members ran courier duty while the girl scouts served as combat medics, nurses, and munition haulers. And they all swore an oath. "I pledge to you that I shall serve the grey ranks, safeguard the secrets of the organization, obey orders, and not hesitate to sacrifice my life." And they would hold this oath, all the way, unto their death. They fought house-to-house, door-to-door, in the chaotic melee of city fighting. Classmates died side by side, first loves torn apart by machine-gun fire. They referred to each other as bees, because they were a hive. A collective and they would sting the Germans. They fought with the fury only possessed by the young and the righteous and they pushed the Nazis from the burnt-out remains of the Warsaw ghetto. They cut into the German line far enough to liberate one of the concentration camps. 384 Jews who had survived the extermination of the ghetto were still in prison there. And they took up arms to fight against those who had enslaved them, who had murdered everyone they knew. But then, the young fighters of the grey ranks were faced with the unthinkable. Something I don't know as a human being you could face. German tanks rolled forward, but it wasn't the hundred tons of steel and death that stopped the scouts. They had faced tanks before, armed only with rifles and hand grenades. No. It was what was in front of the tanks, because in front of those tanks, were women. Some burned or beaten, all Polish. The Nazis were using them as human shields It was this the scouts couldn't face. So the advance turned to a stalemate and still aid did not come. By the end of August, the undersupplied Polish forces had to withdraw from Warsaw as old town, making their way through the sewers to more easily held points. For nearly a month, the soldiers and many of the civilians had been living off barley from a brewery the grey ranks had captured early in the fighting. Soon even water was scarce, with waterways clogged with corpses and the Germans cutting off remaining water mains as they advanced. At last, on the 15th of September Soviet forces appeared on the far banks of the Vistula. A crossing attempt is made, but Soviet command only sent the lightly armored division of Polish volunteers who had joined them after the fall of Poland to try to relieve Warsaw. Of the 1.600 men, who went more than a thousand fell to German guns. The Soviets decide that a crossing was impractical and no further attempt would be made to aid the Polish partisans. Meanwhile, America finally attempts an airdrop of supplies, but 80% of it is accidentally dropped behind German lines. American forces will not try again. The resistance is shelled day and night, great mortars with shells 2 feet in diameter, rained down on them. Rockets slam into the few remaining upright buildings and tanks hammer away at foxholes for scouts armed with no more than rifles. The Germans advance on the Mokka Tube district. The resistance is pushed back. They enter one of the major hospitals under Polish control and they execute every wounded soldier and all of the hospital's personnel. Again, the resistance flees through the sewers but a 150 of them exit too early and are killed by German troops. The Poles now control only a few square blocks right against the river They were surrounded, starving, outgunned, and outnumbered, and yet they fought not like bees but like wasps. Every house was a stronghold, every doorway a bunker, and they fought within sight of the Soviet Army across the river yet no aid came. They fought with the determination of the damned. They fought and fell. The outcome was inevitable. Surrender had to come. Germans weary of fighting and interested in concentrating on the Soviet threat offered terms. The entire population of Warsaw was to be expelled but no one was to be executed. The terms were accepted. The resistance fighters spent their last days forging documents for the Jewish members among them. 15,000 of the Home Army were taken away as POWs and 500.000 civilians were shipped out of the city. The lucky ones were simply let go with no homes, no food, no jobs. But 60,000 ended up in the death camps and 90.000 more found themselves unloaded at forced labor yards. And after the surrender, Himmler said, "The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth and serve only as a transport station for the fair mocked." "No stone can remain standing, every building must be raised to its foundation" And in one of the last great acts of senseless destruction, perpetrated by the Nazi regime, German engineers took flamethrowers and dynamite and systematically, building by building, block by block, wiped Warsaw off the map. By the time 3 months later, when the Russians finally crossed the Vistula, 85% of the buildings in Warsaw had been leveled. Monuments, schools, libraries, historical sites all reduced to rubble and ash. If you go to the historic district of Warsaw today what you're actually seeing is a reconstruction. An attempt to rebuild based on old photographs and paintings. If you walk the halls of the Royal Castle, you're not seeing a building that's been standing for 400 years. Instead you walk through a palace completed in 1984 and in the rubble of that city, lay 70% of the young people of the grey ranks. But their sacrifice was not forgotten for their nation still stands, long after the thousand-year Reich was wiped from the earth.