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Airpower and the Warsaw Uprising


I’m plowing through Vincent Orange’s Bomber Champion: The Life of Marshal of the RAF Sir John Slessor. Slessor was a significant player in the organizational development of the RAF after World War I, and an important contributor at Coastal Command and in the Mediterranean during the war. I can’t remember ever reading a biography in which the author displayed more contempt for the subject; Orange is clearly unimpressed with how Trenchard put the RAF together, and even less so with Slessor’s contribution. However, plenty of interesting bits (full review later), including some excellent material on the Warsaw Uprising. A significant portion of the British strategic class was interested in supporting the uprising through whatever means were at hand, but it turned out that airpower was simply insufficient:

Firstly, Bor-Komorowski wanted air raids on certain Warsaw suburbs, and also on Cracow and Lodz. Easily done by the Red Air Force; impossible for Allied bombers operating out of England or Italy, even with Soviet co-operation, which had been rarely, grudgingly and often ineptly provided for any military task during the past three years of ‘alliance’. Secondly, he wanted Polish fighter squadrons to land in the Warsaw area and fight from there. A fantastic notion, for they could not have been kept supplied with fuel, ammunition or necessary servicing. Bor-Komorowski’s third demand, for the Polish Parachute Brigae to be sent from England to Warsaw, was equally unrealistic. The transporting aircraft could not be escorted throughout such a long journey (out and home) and ery few would have survived German flak or fighters. Bor’s fourth demand, for air supply, was ‘the only one that had a chance of being met,’ wrote Slessor, but it was difficult and dangerous. The dropping-zones lay 7-900 miles from Allied bases in Italy- a very long way over rugged country, much of it still held by a well-armed enemy, with no help from ground radio stations or weather information.

Without a strong effort by the Red Army, the Uprising was doomed, and the Red Army had genuinely good reasons for regrouping and recuperating in the summer of 1944. Given the contribution the Poles were making to the war, however, the British still made an effort:

The London Poles refused to see reason, however, and demanded the transfer of crews from 300 (Polish) Squadron in Bomber Command to Italy. Harris protested against what he – and Slessor – regarded as ‘a useless political gesture’. But Sinclair and Portal pressed Slessor to permit flights with volunteer crews. More losses were suffered and few supplies got through. All told, in operations on 22 nights, 31 heavies were lost out of 181 despatched. There was even an equally useless military gesture to send out Short Stirlings, which were significantly inferior to the barely-adequate Halifaxes.

Of course, the one contribution that the Russians really could have made would have been to support Western air operations through allowing the use of bases for air supply and air support. But then the Russians really had little interest in allowing that to happen, and in any case the operation still probably wouldn’t have been cost effective for the Allies.

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