Previously unseen aerial pics of Warsaw Uprising reveal fascinating new details of doomed campaign

Fully digitalized and available online, the images captured by a Soviet aircraft on September 18th 1944 have been described as a “rich source of information.” Michał Zajączkowski / Warsaw Uprising Museum

A unique set of aerial photographs depicting Warsaw at the height of the 1944 insurgency that would ultimately leave Poland’s capital in ruins has been acquired by the Warsaw Rising Museum.  

Shot on the 18th September, 1944, the images were captured by a Soviet aircraft belonging to the 72nd Independent Aviation Reconnaissance Regiment of the 16th Air Army.

“These are very important pictures,” says Joanna Lang of The Rising Museum. “Not only are they the first original aerial photographs in our possession, but because they were taken at around noon on a clear day they offer a rich source of information for both military historians and those interested in the story of the city.”

In one, battlefield smoke is visible as is the National Museum.Michał Zajączkowski / Warsaw Uprising Museum 

Flying from the south to the north, the aircraft’s photographic sequence began over the village of Opacz before concluding over Łomianki.

Taken at an angle, and at the relatively modest height of 1,200 metres, these factors have enabled historians to gather a more accurate picture of the events of that time.

“These are a valid military document,” Lang tells TFN. “Marked in red and black ink, you can make out strategic points such as bridges, trenches, defences, anti-aircraft batteries, artillery positions and suchlike.

Bielany with the Italian cemetery visible and gun emplacements marked in red.Michał Zajączkowski / Warsaw Uprising Museum/

“With these photographs, you realize not just how close the Red Army was, but also how much awareness they must have had of the overall situation.”

According to Lang, the images are of equal importance to those studying the city’s destruction and general post-war development.

“We can see which buildings were already destroyed and which were still standing, like for instance the Saski and Bruhl Palaces,” she says, “we can also note just how sparsely populated areas such as Ursynów and Kabaty were in those days.”

Flying from the south to the north, the aircraft’s photographic sequence began over the village of Opacz before concluding over Łomianki. Pictured, the Sielce district, reads the Russian inscription and in the top left you can see the horse racking track. Michał Zajączkowski / Warsaw Uprising Museum 

Of interest, the date itself on which the photographs were taken was also key in the over-arching story of the Uprising. 

On this date, the 49th day of fighting, the American and British Allies flew their biggest mission of this particular campaign with 107 B17 Flying Fortresses dropping 1,170 containers of supplies to the Insurgents down below – of these, only 228 are known to have reached their intended target.

Taken at an angle, and at the relatively modest height of 1,200 metres, these factors have enabled historians to gather a more accurate picture of the events of that time. Pictured, two destroyed bridges and in the distance the destroyed ghetto. Michał Zajączkowski / Warsaw Uprising Museum

Simultaneously, a unit from the so-called Berling Army – a Soviet-backed Polish formation – was involved in heavy fighting around the Czerniaków bridgehead having crossed the River Wisła over the course of the night.

However, the 2.5 kilometre area in which they were active on that date was overlooked by those taking photographs from the plane – quite why has mystified researchers.

“Maybe the overriding conditions were too difficult to take photos or maybe the area was omitted on purpose,” speculates Lang.

Appearing on sale on the popular trading site Allegro in April, the seller was “from the Wrocław area.” Michał Zajączkowski / Warsaw Uprising Museum 

Due to the oblique angle at which the images were captured, rich details have become apparent that would not have been so vivid were they shot directly from bottom-down: sunken boats sitting stranded in the river; the razed Ghetto; the main train station; and landmarks such as the National Museum and the main Post Office can all be deciphered – even an anti-aircraft gun positioned by Bielany’s Italian war cemetery.

“Previously,” says Lang, “we’ve had to work with photocopies of aerial images and these just don’t show things as clearly.”

On the day the photos were taken, the American and British Allies dropped 1,170 containers of supplies to the Insurgents below – of these, only 228 are known to have reached their intended target. Pictured, the ruins of the Old Town with red ink marking trenches. Michał Zajączkowski / Warsaw Uprising Museum 

Each measuring twenty-two by sixteen-and-a-half centimetres (aside from a final, fragmented photograph), the collection comprises thirty-three pictures in all.

Meticulously restored, the process involved cleaning the reverse sides with a scalpel, treating rips with appropriate tape and then coating the items with a gelatine solution. Despite the attention to detail that was required, Lang maintains they were generally in a good condition.

Joanna Lang from the Rising Museum said: “With these photographs, you realize not just how close the Red Army was, but also how much awareness they must have had of the overall situation.” Pictured are Saski palace and Saski park defences on the Wisla and Pl. Pilsudski marked in red. Michał Zajączkowski / Warsaw Uprising Museum

This perhaps is one of the biggest surprises given the provenance of the documents.

Appearing on sale on the popular trading site Allegro in April, the museum was alerted to their availability and sought to add them to their wealth of existing artefacts.

“Unfortunately, this was the height of the lockdown and our budget had been frozen,” says Lang, “so we’re grateful that one of the museum’s sponsors, Fundacja PGZ, was able to step in and donate them to us.”

Wilanow with Wilanow Palace and bomb craters clearly visible. Michał Zajączkowski / Warsaw Uprising Museum 

How they survived relatively intact over the decades remains, however, another mystery.

“We know that the seller was from the Wrocław area,” says Lang, “and it’s our belief that the documents were kept in the post-war years in Oleśnica where the Soviet Air Force had a strong presence until 1993. 

The photos have now been meticulously restored, the process involved cleaning the reverse sides with a scalpel, treating rips with appropriate tape and then coating the items with a gelatine solution. Michał Zajączkowski / Warsaw Uprising Museum 

“When the Russians eventually left, we think they were either left behind and kept by someone or just sold on to a local.”

Regardless of this missing link, neither the authenticity nor the relevance of the documents has been brought into question by researchers.