Seventy-four years ago on August 1, Polish resistance fighters rose up against their Nazi invaders in the capital of Warsaw. What followed was 63 days of heavy fighting as German military police units, and later regular army units, planes, and tanks smashed building after building and systematically annihilated the resistance. The fighting ranged in every room, and even in sewers that the Polish resistance used to move throughout the city. It is important to remember the sacrifice of free Polish fighters. The Russians have been cast as villains for stopping outside of the city but it is also important to reconsider their role in the conflict.
By late July, the Red army had come within miles of Warsaw. Seeing them close on the city, the Polish goal was to regain control and greet the Russians as masters of their own fate in order to forestall the installation of a pro- Communist government. For example, John Radzilizi suggested that the Soviet forces inexplicably stopped because they wanted to harm the Polish resistance and provided a typical condemnation of Russian decisions: “As the city fought desperately and the Germans began to bring in reinforcements, the reaction of the Soviets was silence… As the people of Warsaw fought and died amid the rubble, the Soviets stood by. Stalin was content to let his former ally, Hitler, get rid of the non-Communist resistance movement. The Western Allies, who had already secretly agreed to Soviet hegemony over eastern Europe, saw the naked lust for power of their Soviet ‘comrades.’ Although in public, they maintained a façade of good relations, for many Western leaders Stalin’s promises and his good will could no longer be trusted. In the eyes of many historians, the struggle for Warsaw was the first battle of the Cold War.”
Yet this account discounts the operational realities and difficulties of Russian military operations. As the Germans found out in 1941, being a dozen miles from a capital (such as Moscow in their case) actually meant they faced the most difficult part of the enemies’ defenses. The Russian concept of Deep Battle, their version of Blitzkrieg, meant that their mobile armored units often penetrated deeply into the rear of the enemy. Their job was to move as quickly as they could, often bypassing enemy resistance in order to seize key road and rail junctions or river crossings. Once they reached the end of their logistical capabilities to plunge into enemy defenses, they had to pause to rest and refit. The tanks often literally ran out of gas, many were damaged or destroyed in the swift operations, and the infantry and support elements had to destroy the pockets of remaining resistance and catch up with the advanced units before those elements were overwhelmed by enemy counter-attacks.
The Russians repeated this process many times throughout the war and they reached the limit of this operation just outside of Warsaw. As the Russians made their way West they shortened the German defensive lines, meaning the Germans had more operational depth and shorter logistical lines (in better condition) to resist Russian advances. Conversely, the Russians had less room to maneuver and their logistical lines were longer, especially considering the Russians relocated many of their factories to Siberia early in the war to prevent their capture. The Russians sometimes needed as much as 6 weeks to prepare for the next offensive, and the Polish resistance started the day the Russian operation had reached its conclusion.
Given those operational realities, the Russians are often unfairly cast as villains that left the Polish to die. That being said, Stalin didn’t mind having the Germans remove a potential thorn in his side. Stalin didn’t actively aid allied resupply, and actually prevented Russian air bases from being used by allied powers trying to supply the resistance. But even then, the Russian war machine had limited air capacity and airfields, especially in forward areas that were just recaptured from the Germans and often damaged in the fighting or destroyed by fleeing forces. In short, they had limited logistical capabilities that were already stressed by Russian operations and they were suddenly being asked to open up their airfields to allied operations in what they saw as a hopeless (not to mention inconvenient) cause. That might sound like a terrible excuse for a dastardly deed, but keep in mind that the Western allies gave a similar excuse in defense of their not bombing train lines to concentration camps. Their air power was already pressed with current military operations, and while it was admirable to try and stop German efforts towards the final solution, military analysts concluded the best way to save the most people was to defeat the German military as quickly as possible and end the war.
The Russians have been a frequent and favorite enemy, Cold War foe, and bad actor for the last one hundred years. As a result, their contribution to World War II as an ally of the United States is often forgotten. The biased accounts from Russian historians during the Cold War harmed their cause, as did their closed archives. But the Russians had absolutely sound and valid military reasons for being unable to help the Polish resistance. Their political calculations obviously played a part but their military couldn’t have captured Warsaw in early August even if Stalin ordered it. They had reached the end of their operational leap and couldn’t charge into the teeth of German defense until they properly prepared for the next operation.