When Stalin and Churchill met face-to-face in October 1944, Stalin told Churchill that the lack of Soviet support was a direct result of a major reverse in the Vistula sector in August, which had to be kept secret for strategic reasons. All contemporary German sources assumed that the Soviets were trying to link up with the insurgents, and they believed it was their defense that prevented the Soviet advance rather than a reluctance to advance on the part of the Soviets. Nevertheless, as part of their strategy the Germans published propaganda accusing both the British and Soviets of abandoning the Poles.
According to David Glantz, the Red Army was simply unable to extend effective support to the uprising, which began too early, regardless of Stalin’s political intentions.
The continued difficulty in accessing the Soviet documents of the time presently located in the Russian archives makes it difficult for historians to answer this question with any degree of certainty.
American military historian David M. Glantz notes that while the Soviets could have taken Warsaw and aided the insurgents, from a purely military standpoint this would have required diverting efforts from attempts to secure bridgeheads south and north of Warsaw, involved the Soviets in costly city fighting and gained them less optimal positions for further offensives; this, coupled with political factors meant that the Soviet decision not to aid the Warsaw Uprising was based not only on political, but also on military considerations.
Political considerations and motivations aside, an objective consideration of combat in the Warsaw region indicates that, prior to early September, German resistance was sufficient to halt any Soviet assistance to the Poles in Warsaw, were it intended. Thereafter, it would have required a major reorientation of military efforts from Magnuszew in the south or, more realistically, from the Bug and Narew River axis in the north in order to muster sufficient force to break into Warsaw. And once broken into, Warsaw would have been a costly city to clear of Germans and an unsuitable location from which to launch a new offensive.
Glantz, David: The Soviet-German War 1941-1945: Myths and Realities: A Survey Essay
The following quotes are not directly related to the Warsaw uprising or the Lublin-Brest offensive, but nonetheless I think they can provide us with insight into the Stavka’s inner learning process where her previous mistakes and blunders served as an invaluable tool in planning future strategic operations. In short, we’re talking about a gradual understanding that an exceptional importance had to be placed on the concept of securing ones flanks which are to be used to circumvent fortified enemy positions. The primary lesson behind this doctrine-shift is not only visible in the form of minimized casualties, but is also evidently confirmed by the efficacy and speed in achieving the established military goals.
The Soviet Winter Campaign [December 1941-April 1942; Ed.], like its component Moscow offensives, was an immense and complicated endeavor. While the principal Soviet operations drove the Germans back from the immediate approaches to Moscow, they did not achieve their ultimate aim of destroying German Army Group Center. They did not, in part, because of failures on the flanks, which either produced no operational results and, hence, had no strategic impact, or which dissipated the striking power of the Red Army on the main (Moscow) axis. For these reasons, the ignored flank operations are important.
We can compare that to the Lyuban Offensive Operation (7 January – 30 April 1942):
Quote from a recent Russian documentary adapted for the History Channel (Soviet Storm – WW2 in the East – Leningrad):
in their haste to raise the siege, the Stavka High Command ordered attacks that were not properly planned and lacked proper artillery support … the survivors had to return to their starting positions
Review of the strategic situation:
– 22 June – 19 August 1944 – Operation Bagration
– 24 July 1944 – the liberation of Lublin
2nd guards tank army (comprised of the 3rd, 8th and 16th tank corps) receives orders to advance north of Lublin and intercept the retreat of the remains of German Army Group Center (pockets of resistance around Brest and Bialystok). It was accompanied by the 47th infantry army and the 2nd guards cavalry corps, which were, quite naturally, lagging several days behind. About 40 km SE from Warsaw, 2gta made contact with the German 73rd infantry division and the “Hermann Goering” panzer division.
This clash ultimately resulted in the Battle at Radzymin (1 – 10 August 1944), which turned out to be the biggest tank battle on the Russian front in 1944. In total, five panzer divisions (“Hermann Goering” pz-division, 19th pz-division, the 3rd SS pz-division “Totenkopf”, the 4th pz-division and the 5th SS pz-division “Wiking”) managed to encircle and destroy the 3rd tank corps. Trying to reach them, the 16th tank corps was hopelessly blocked by the German 73rd infantry division. 8th and 16th tank corps survived but suffered severe losses. Until 5th of August, the 47th army (comprised of three infantry corps with around ten divisions) finally arrives to relieve the battered 2nd guards tank army which retreats behind the front line to recuperate (maximum range achieved before the retreat was about 15-20 km away from Warsaw). The newly arrived 47th army had no other choice but to single-handedly hold a stretch of over 80 km of front line (just a reminder, Soviet divisions during the war were often half the actual size of their German counterparts). The result of this over-extension was the inevitable loss of operative initiative and the formation of defensive positions.
At the same time, fierce fighting is taking place on the flanks for the control of vital bridgeheads on the rivers Vistula (south and west) and on the Bug-Narew axis (north, north-east). Without them, the liberation of Warsaw would imply a frontal assault with extremely high number of needless casualties, which were already at that time significant (after three years of total war). Forceful German counteroffensives on Warsaw’s eastern approaches and on the bridgeheads around it clearly demonstrated the priority and desire of the German General Staff to contain the Red Army on the eastern bank of the Vistula, the last major natural obstacle before the river Oder and the final Soviet push towards Berlin.
– 1 August 1944 – start of the Warsaw uprising. Despite considerable (taking into account the disproportion of strength) but random successes, the rebels are not able to take the most important strategic junctures – the bridges and the eastern suburbs.
– 20 August – the arrival of the 1st Polish army (operating under the command of the Red Army).
– 13 September – advanced units of the 47th army fought their way through to the eastern suburban area of Praga.
– 16 September – fragments of two Polish divisions crossed the Vistula and entered the western part of the city but already by the 23rd of September they are forced to retreat.
– 2 October – the Germans finally manage to suppress the uprising.
– 17 January 1945 – Warsaw is finally liberated, almost without a fight, since the HQ of the Army Group A previously issued an order of evacuation, despite Hitler’s intention to keep the “fortress” manned. This directive was probably inspired by the unsustainable situation for the Germans developing on their flanks (on which the Soviets by that point had enough time to build up their forces and amass the sufficient material means required to start a fresh offensive). This new reality would most certainly lead to the swift encirclement of the city and the annihilation of any units which dared linger in it.
Next major issue which we have to keep in mind is the fact that, for the second half of 1944, the major operational activities were to be conducted against Germany’s allies – Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and the occupied countries of central and south-eastern Europe. Especially if we take into consideration the aforementioned concentration of German divisions in their desperate attempt to defend the Polish corridor, this so-called southern re-shifting proved, from a Soviet perspective, to be the most sensible option at the time. This thesis is further confirmed by the almost effortless liberation of Warsaw after three months of extensive preparations at the flanks of the city.
The third issue is endlessly being repeated by the most virulent and rabid anti-Soviet authors (and, in a more subtle way, by their so-called moderate liberal rivals) as the exclusive and indisputable one by which, due to the prevalent political climate, this manages to remain the most widely accepted view. It’s summarized in the notion that the Warsaw uprising was somehow betrayed by Stalin who saw the anti-Nazi rebels as a mere instrument of the Polish government-in-exile and as a threat to the post-war establishment of a socialist Poland. This thesis is thoroughly unfounded and is based purely on rumors and propaganda. It is a prime example of fabricating and, most of all, of ignoring historical facts. If this accusation was directed at anyone else besides the USSR, it would’ve been discarded with contempt as a mere conspiracy theory since we are yet to see a single shred of evidence which would support these claims. Further more, during the Soviet advance into occupied Europe, there were anti-Nazi uprisings in other cities as well and not all of these people were communists. Yugoslavia, for example, was still formally a monarchy, with a government-in-exile. If Stalin wanted to simply kill-off every non-communist in these countries, why would he advocate so strongly the internationalist line of establishing popular fronts (where ALL antifascists would work together against a common foe)? Those are spurious allegations at best so let us return to facts which we can evaluate with much greater certainty.
Despite the usual explanation which is force-fed to every man, woman and child in the Western world, the Red Army DID NOT simply rest in front of Warsaw, waiting for the Germans to exterminate the Polish rebels. At that time and place the Red Army was doing whatever it could to break through the German line of defense. The simple fact that the Germans proved more than capable of holding the Soviet forces at bay and conducting fierce counteroffensives was reflected and exacerbated by the fact that the Red Army was reaching the very limits of its logistical capabilities. We need to remind ourselves that the start of the Warsaw uprising coincided almost perfectly with the end of the greatest strategic offensive of 1944, the Bagration operation, in which vast territories of Belorussia, parts of Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states were liberated.
Even in these circumstances, the fact remains that at least three different Soviet armies tried to break through the German defensive lines and link up with the Polish rebels. These were the 2nd guards tank army, the 47th infantry army and the 1st Polish army. An entire (3rd) tank corps was annihilated in these battles whilst the other two (8th and 16th) suffered huge losses for which they had to be pulled away from the front line to recuperate.
The fact also remains that every modern military textbook suggests flanking as the most reasonable alternative to the outdated concept of chivalrous frontal charge (as seen in the trenches of WW1). Using flanks simply means to avoid the enemy at his strongest point and to try and find his weak spots.
During the Warsaw uprising, these battles for the establishment of the flanks (or more precisely, for the bridgeheads which would serve as staging areas for potential flanking maneuvers) were only just starting. But the fate of a future Soviet offensive (in the direction from Vistula to Oder) depended exactly on defending and preserving these advantageous positions. Diverting forces from these bridgeheads towards a premature suicidal frontal assault on Warsaw would be absurd, by anyone’s standards.
To conclude, the goal of this war was not the liberation of this-or-that city but of whole of Europe. In other words, the goal of the war was to break Nazi Germany, as quickly and as efficiently as possible.