Zemland Offensive Operation

This was a Soviet offensive operation in Samland (13/25 April 1945).

In the ‘East Prussian Strategic Offensive Operation’, which had started on 13 January 1945, the Soviet forces had cleared the German forces from much of East Prussia, the defenders being driven into a series of pockets on the Baltic coast and in the city of Königsberg. On 22 February Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, who had assumed command of the 3rd Belorussian Front earlier in the same month, took over supervision of General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front, which thereupon became the Zemland Army Group (otherwise the Samland Front).

Bagramyan’s forces initially laid siege to Königsberg, which was stormed on 9 April, and were then allocated the task of overcoming the substantial German force still remaining in Sambia (the Samland area). The German defence effort had focused largely on the port of Pillau at the tip of the peninsula, which was the main evacuation point for casualties and East Prussian civilians. Throughout the siege of Königsberg, Sambia had been defended by General Hans Gollnick’s Armeeabteilung ‘Samland’, which attempted to maintain a German-held corridor between Königsberg and Pillau.

On 7 April the remnants of General Dietrich von Saucken’s 2nd Army and General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller’s 4th Army, which had both been effectively destroyed as cohesive fighting formations in encirclements at Danzig and Heiligenbeil respectively, were combined as von Saucken’s Armee ‘Ostpreussen’ with the task of defending Sambia, the delta of the Vistula river and the Hel peninsula. Most of the formations of the Armee ‘Ostpreussen’ were little more than remnants, and the whole army was very poorly supplied. During the battle for Sambia, its officers were outraged to discover that the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine had maintained large underground depots full of stores and fuel in the woods of the peninsula, and that these supplies had to be destroyed in the retreat.

For the 'Zemland Offensive Operation', Bagramyan’s Zemland Front deployed General Polkovnik Porfiri G. Chanchibadze’s 2nd Guards Army, General Polkovnik Kuzma N. Galitsky’s 11th Guard Army, General Polkovnik Nikolai I. Krylov’s 5th Army, General Leytenant Ivan T. Grishin’s 49th Army and General Polkovnik Afanasi P. Beloborodov’s 43rd Army. On the other side of the line were elements of von Saucken’s Armee ‘Ostpreussen’ in the form of General Gerhard Matzky’s XXVI Corps 1, Generalleutnant Kurt Chill’s LV Corps, and the garrison of the Festung ‘Pillau’ 2, General Rolf Wuthmann’s (from 20 April Generalleutnant Hermann Hohn’s) IX Corps 3, and the 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung and 505th schwere Panzerabteilung.

The Soviet plan called for the 5th Army and 39th Army to break through toward Fischhausen as the main strike force, with the 11th Guards Army in reserve. The 2nd Guards Army would attack in the north, and the 43rd Army was to break through on the southern flank. There would also be amphibious landings in the south of Sambia. The 3rd Belorussian Front’s intelligence chief suggested that the Soviets faced as many as 100,000 troops, but by shortening the frontage of each unit the attackers were able to achieve a superiority of 2/1 in men and 3/1 in artillery.

Bagramyan issued a call for the Germans to surrender in exchange for fair treatment and medical assistance for the wounded, but this summons remained unanswered, and the Soviet offensive began with an artillery barrage and air attacks on 13 April. The initial attack scattered many of the remaining German forces, some of which fell back toward Pillau. The 115th Division broke through and cleared the 551st Volksgrenadierdivision from Rauschen on the north-western tip of Samland, and the German forces in the north of the peninsula, including the 95th Division and parts of the 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung, were driven to the south into Palmnicken and destroyed.

By 16 April the Soviet forces had broken through near Fischhausen, and parts of the XXVI Corps, including the 5th Panzerdivision and 28th Jägerdivision, had been isolated on the peninsula at Peyse and lost. A defensive switch line, the ‘Tenkitten-Riegel’, had been improvised across the narrow strip of land leading to Pillau, and to break the German resistance on this line the 11th Guards Army was committed on 20 April. Fighting intensified at Tenkitten, where the commander of the XVI Guards Corps, General Major Stepan S. Guryev, was killed by a shell fragment on 22 April. The German defensive perimeter was pushed back toward Pillau, which was defended by elements of the 1st Division, 21st Division and 58th Division as well as other infantry remnants as the remaining German troops were evacuated to the Frische Nehrung.

Pillau had been heavily fortified, being described by Bagramyan as a ‘Königsberg in miniature’, and was supported by the fire of warships and coastal batteries. After a stubborn defence, however, the city was eventually stormed by units of 11th Guards Army, including the 31st Guards Division, on 25 April 25, and was cleared in about 12 hours. The last German position to fall was a battery commanded by Generalmajor Karl Henke, which was overrun by the XVI Guards Corps on 27 April.

The Soviets claimed to have killed or taken prisoner 80,000 German troops during the operations in Sambia. The remnants of the IX Corps resisted on the Frische Nehrung to the end of the war, though the corps staff was removed to the island of Bornholm.

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These were the remnants of Generalleutnant Curt Siewert’s 58th Division, Generalmajor Henning von Thadden’s 1st Division, Generalmajor Karl Kötz’s 21st Division, Oberst Hans Herzog’s 5th Panzerdivision, Oberst Hans Tempelhoff’s 28th Jägerdivision and Oberst Becker’s 561st Volksgrenadierdivision.
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These were the remnants of Generalmajor Kurt Domansky’s 50th Division, Generalmajor Emmo von Roden’s 286th Division and Generalleutnant Werner von Bercken’s 558th Volksgrenadierdivision.
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These were the remnants of Generalmajor Joachim-Friedrich Lang’s 95th Division, Generalmajor Kurt Domansky’s 93rd Division, Generalmajor Werner Schulze’s 14th Division, Generalleutnant Siegfried Verhein’s 551st Volksgrenadierdivision and Generalmajor Hellmuth Mäder’s Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’.