Poland’s Soviet general

Zygmunt Berling was a Polish politician and general. In the early twentieth century, he fought for Poland's independence. Berling was a co-founder and commander of the First Polish Army, which fought on the Eastern Front under overall Soviet control during the Second World War.

After being imprisoned by the Soviets after the Invasion of Poland in 1939, Berling had been eventually released and remained in the Soviet Union.

He became involved in efforts to establish a Polish division in the Soviet Union, initially within the Soviet Red Army. In September 1942 and the months that followed, he and left-wing journalist Wanda Wasilewska petitioned Joseph Stalin for permission to establish the Polish division, which eventually led to the formation of a new Polish army on the 8th April 1943.


With the new communist-led Polish People's Army now established under Soviet control, Stalin appointed Berling as commander of the army's first unit, the 1st Tadeusz Kociuszko Infantry Division, and promoted him to general. He was appointed as the overall deputy commander of the Polish Army on the Eastern Front.

The Warsaw Uprising

After years of Nazi occupation, the Poles – supported by the Polish government-in-exile in London – had risen up and attempted to wrest control of the Polish capital Warsaw, from their German overlords. Weeks of bitter fighting followed as the fortunes of either side ebbed and flowed - the death and destruction was enormous.

Despite early successes, there would be little chance that the Polish insurgents in Warsaw – an island of resistance in German territory and with Nazi reinforcements steadily flowing in – could hold out indefinitely without outside support.

A Polish insurgent hurling a grenade at German soldiers during the Warsaw Uprising. Note the damaged buildings around him, a sign of the severe destruction the city suffered.

Rare photos from the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 - Rare Historical Photos


The most obvious saviours should have been the Soviet Union, whose own powerful army was making its own steady, inexorable progress, steadily grinding down the German forces opposing it and day by day drawing closer towards Germany itself.

By August 1944, it had already made significant inroads into occupied Poland and its forces were now only Kilometres from Warsaw itself. With the Western armies so far away in comparison, the Poles rested their hopes on the Soviets reaching Warsaw and liberating the city.

Russian troops on the attack, Poland, 1944.

World War II in Color (worldhistory.biz)

Stalin’s influence

However, Stalin the Russian Leader had other ideas. He had - for his own, mainly political reasons – provided little in the way of support for the Warsaw Uprising, being opposed to it from the start and seeing the successes of the Polish Home Army as a threat to his own, future plans for Poland once the war was over.

He envisaged a Poland shaped and influenced by Soviet Russia, not the Western Allies and saw no place for the Polish government-in-exile in his future plans for the country.

He had also proved to be uncooperative and at times, obstructive, to any attempts by the Western allies to support the Polish insurgents themselves and even after international pressure, any concessions on his part were made reluctantly.

Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, who offered little n the way of support to the Warsaw Uprising, despite his forces being only a few kilometres from the city centre.

Joseph Stalin in the Kremlin, Moscow, 1932 | И. В. Сталин,… | Flickr

Soviet advances

With the Warsaw Uprising in full swing, on August 26, Soviet attacks on the 4th SS Panzer Corps east of Warsaw were renewed, forcing the Germans to retreat into Praga.

In mid-September, the Soviet army led by Konstantin Rokossovsky captured Praga and arrived on the Vistula's east bank.

By 13th September, the Germans had destroyed the remaining Vistula bridges, signalling that they were abandoning all positions east of the river. In the Praga area, Polish units led by General Zygmunt Berling (nicknamed "the Berling men") fought on the Soviet side. By now Berling and his Polish troops would have begun to realise both of the precarious situation in Warsaw and the apparent reluctance of the Soviet forces to intervene.

A still from the film "City of Ruins," the ruins of bridges on the Vistula River are seen in Warsaw in 1944 after the uprising.

AP Photos

Birlings attack

On the night of 14th to the 15th of September, three patrols of his First Polish Army (1 Armia Wojska Polskiego) landed in the Czerniaków and Powile areas and made contact with Home Army insuregents. The Soviet artillery and air support were unable to effectively counter enemy machine-gun fire as the Poles crossed the river, and the landing troops suffered heavy losses. Only a few of the main units made it ashore: I and III battalions of 9th infantry regiment, 3rd Infantry Division.

The limited landings of the 1st Polish Army were the only external ground force to arrive to physically support the uprising, and even they were limited by the Soviet High Command due to the losses they sustained.

Soldiers of the Polish Army in a street battle in Warsaw. September 1944.

The Germans increased their attacks on Home Army positions near the river to prevent further landings, but they were unable to make any significant advances for several days as Polish forces held those critical positions in preparation for a new wave of Soviet landings.

Polish units from the eastern shore attempted several more landings and suffered heavy losses from the 15th until the 23rd of September. (including the destruction of all their landing boats and most of their other river crossing equipment).

The Red Army's assistance was severely lacking. Following the failure of the 1st Polish Army's repeated attempts to link up with the resistance, the Soviets limited their assistance to sporadic artillery and air support.

A private and his feline friend in the Polish 1st Army, 1944.


Anatoly Arkhipov

Conditions that made it difficult for the Germans to dislodge the resistance also made it difficult for the Poles to dislodge the Germans. Plans for a river crossing were halted "for at least 4 months" because operations against the 9th Army's five panzer divisions were problematic at the time, and General Berling, commander of the 1st Polish Army, was relieved of his duties by his Soviet superiors.

Volkswagen (Porsche) Type 166 "Schwimmwagen" with Panzer V "Panther" & mittlere SPW Sd Kfz 251 in the background; 5.SS-Panzer-Division "Wiking", part of the German 9th Army, in Poland, 1944.

After no further attempts from the other side of the river were made and the promised evacuation of wounded did not occur, Home Army soldiers and landed elements of the 1st Polish Army were forced to begin a retreat from their positions on the river's bank on the night of 19th September.


Only a handful of the approximately 900 men who made it ashore returned to the Vistula's eastern shore. Berling's Polish Army suffered 5,660 casualties in its attempt to aid the Uprising.

From this point forward, the Warsaw Uprising can be viewed as either a one-sided war of attrition or a fight for acceptable surrender terms.

Soldiers of the 1st Polish Army (the Berling Army), being marched into captivity after the unsuccesful operation to hold the bridgehead in Czerniaków district on the western bank of the Vistula river. Photograph taken on Opaczewska Street.

THE WARSAW UPRISING, AUGUST-OCTOBER 1944 | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)

Further reading