Details have emerged of the heroic role played by a British airman in the failed 1944 Warsaw uprising, in which 200,000 Poles were slaughtered by the Nazis after Stalin’s Red Army refused to come to their aid.
Documents released ahead of today’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the start of the uprising reveal how Flight Lieutenant John Ward sent more than 100 messages to London describing the two months of bitter fighting in Warsaw.
Ward, who arrived in Warsaw after escaping from a German prisoner of war camp, urged Winston Churchill to use his influence with Franklin D Roosevelt, the US president, to secure intervention by Stalin. He wanted the Russians to help the Polish resistance, led by the pro-western Home Army.
The officer’s appeals fell on deaf ears. The advancing Soviet army stayed camped on the east bank of the Vistula, watching the slaughter through their binoculars.
Stalin wanted to make Poland part of Moscow’s sphere of influence and, in a letter to his two wartime allies, dismissed the Home Army, which was directed by the Polish government in exile in London, as “a handful of criminals”.
Zofia Korbonska, 90, a former encoder from the Home Army, known as the Armija Krajowa (AK), said Ward played a vital role in alerting the world to events in the city.
“He took it upon himself to contact London to get us help,” she said. “They didn’t believe our reports of Nazi atrocities and that our supposed Soviet allies positioned nearby were letting it happen. John made sure London knew about it.”
Revelations of the part played by Ward came as John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, prepared to join Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, Colin Powell, the American secretary of state, and Polish leaders at a wreath-laying ceremony in Warsaw today. Marek Belka, the Polish prime minister, yesterday urged Britain and Poland’s other wartime allies to apologise for not doing more.
Ward, from the Birmingham suburb of Ward End, joined the RAF in 1937, aged 18, as a wireless operator. Three years later he was shot down and captured by the Germans. He was sent to a camp in occupied Poland.
He finally escaped in April 1941 and while on the run sought out a Polish priest who put him in touch with the AK. Ward became its only British recruit and stayed in Poland for three years. The reports he filed from Warsaw were often at odds with the version given by Stalin to his British and US allies.
“About 40% of the city centre is already completely destroyed,” Ward wrote in one message in August 1944. “The German forces make no difference between civilians and troops of the Home Army.”
In another report he described how 500 Polish women and children were used as human shields in front of a German panzer column.
“Sir, the main things needed are grenades, anti-tank weapons, heavy machineguns, rifles, ammunition of all types,” Ward wrote on August 25.
Abandoning hope of Soviet airdrops from a captured base five minutes’ flying time away, he spoke of the Poles’ “unshakeable faith in Great Britain as their liberator” and urged food and arms be dropped from newly captured areas in Italy.
“Poland is a country which I, as an Englishman, am proud to call an ally,” he wrote on September 4. “She produced no government to co-operate with the Germans . . . To end I would like to make an appeal to the British nation. It is short: HELP FOR WARSAW.”
Only a handful of flights took place, however, and RAF pilots on one run from the Italian port of Brindisi to Warsaw were shot at by the Soviets. High-level telegram exchanges from the time reveal Stalin vetoed the allied use of his airfields.
Starving, wounded and out of ammunition, Ward used one of his last dispatches to warn that the Nazis were planning to destroy the Auschwitz extermination camp to wipe out evidence of the mass killings carried out there.
After 63 days of fighting, the inevitable happened. On October 2 the Poles succumbed to the overwhelming German forces. Some 85% of Warsaw was razed, and its remaining 500,000 people deported.
Ward, who had been ordered back to Britain, managed to slip out of the city and travel to Moscow, where he underwent a 12-hour interrogation by Soviet agents in the British embassy.
He died in 1995, never having spoken publicly about his ordeal. Korbonska said his motivation in staying so long may have been personal as well as political: “He was living with a Polish family: a widow, her daughter and two magnificent dogs he adored. The daughter fell in love with John. There were rumours of marriage.”
More about Lt. John Ward: [ witnessess ]