Arnswalde-Kolberg Offensive Operation

One of the four sub-operations of the Soviet 'East Pomeranian Strategic Offensive Operation', whose other three were the 'Konitz-Köslin Offensive Operation' (10 February/6 March), the 'Danzig Offensive Operation' (7/31 March) and the 'Altdamm Offensive Operation' (18 March/4 April 1945), this undertaking was designed to take Arnswalde and Kolberg areas (1/18 March 1945).

Otherwise known as the Battle of Kolberg, this Soviet offensive had as its objective was the seizure of Kolberg, now the Polish city of Kołobrzeg. Between 4 and 18 March, there was major urban fighting between Soviet-led forces and the German army. The Germans succeeded in evacuating by sea most of their military personnel and many refugees from the city before it was taken by the Poles on 18 March.

On 4 March Kolberg, a large Baltic city ad port in the province of Pomerania, was designated by Adolf Hitler as the Festung 'Kolberg'. Kolberg was one of the key German positions in the 'Pomeranian wall', which was the vital link between Pomerania and Prussia. The German high command planned to use the port facilities for the logistical supply of nearby German forces, and hoped that the presence of this stronghold would lure Soviet forces away from the main thrust toward Berlin.

The 'East Pomeranian Strategic Offensive Operation', starting on 24 February, cut off and surrounded the city and its defenders, most of them part of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler’s (from 21 March Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel'. The first commander of the Festung 'Kolberg' was an elderly officer, General Paul Hermann, but as a result of illness he was transferred in February to a less demanding post, and the new commander was Oberst Gerhard Troschel until he was succeeded on 1 March by Oberst Fritz Fullriede.

The German defence force was drawn from a number of formations of Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel': some of the defenders were tasked with the defence of the fortress itself, and others were simply men who happened to be in the area when it was cut off by the Soviets. The most notable elements included elements of Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s (from 10 March General Hasso-Eccard von Manteuffel’s) 3rd Panzerarmee, SS-Brigadeführer Dr Gustav Krukenberg’s 33rd Waffen-Grenadierdivision 'Charlemagne' (franzosische Nr 1) and SS-Oberführer Karl Burk’s 15th Waffen-Grenadierdivision (lettische Nr1). Estimates of the German defenders, including local militia and volunteers Volkssturm, range between 8,000 and 15,000 men, and these were supported by about 60 pieces of artillery, an armored train and about 18 armoured fighting vehicles, and some 12 support vehicles of various types. The German units also received some air and sea support (including artillery fire from the heavy cruisers Lützow and Admiral Scheer.

The Soviets and their subordinate Polish forces attacking the city can be divided into two waves: first, formations and units of the Soviet army from 4 to 7 March; and second formations of General Major Stanislac G. Poplavsky’s Polish 1st Army of Marshal Sovetsogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, from 8 to 13 March; some Soviet units took part in the fighting after 8 March. The Soviet main units were the 45th Tank Brigade (4/7 March) and the 272nd Division (6/9 March). The Polish units included the Polish 6th Division from 7 March, Polish 3rd Division from 9 March, Polish 4th Division from 12 March, and a number of support units. The Polish formations and units totalled more than 28,000 men.

The first attack on 4 March was led by Soviet units of Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Marshal Sovetsogo Soyuza Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front. The first Soviet units entered the city at about 08.00 but were beaten back. On the same day, the nearby city of Köslin (Koszalin in Polish), farther to the east, fell and the Soviets were able to start gathering more substantial forces for the assault to take Kolberg.

On March 6 the Soviet high command decided to switch responsibility for the siege of the city from the Soviet forces to their Polish allies. By 8 March the Soviets were therefore receiving reinforcement in the form of formations and units of the Polish 1st Army: these were the Polish 6th Division, 3rd Division and support units. The Polish 1st Army was now tasked with the seizure of Kolberg, but its first attack was, like that of the Soviets, repulsed. The German forces held stubbornly to the city as they shielded the ongoing evacuation. The German land forces lacked anti-tank weapons, so German destroyers and torpedo boats used their guns to support the defenders of Kolberg.

On 12 March a fresh assault was launched with the support of heavy tanks, additional artillery units and the Polish 4th Division. The attack made some progress, though only at the expense of very heavy casualties, and was broken off on 14 March, and on this day the Germans refused a proposal to surrender.

On 15 March the fighting resumed and the Germans received reinforcements from Swinemünde (Świnoujście in Polish). These failed to stop the Polish forces, which took the barracks, part of the railway station and the Salt island. By 16 March the Germans had pulled back most of their forces in order to concentrate their efforts on the defense of the port area. The destruction of the collegiate church in Kolberg after heavy artillery shelling by 'Katyusha' multi-launch rocket systems allowed the Polish troops to breach the inner city. Polish forces assaulted the railway station, which was defended by the German Panzerzug 72A armored that was destroyed 16 March, the pharmaceutical factory and the horse-riding arena.

On 17 March the Germans abandoned most of their existing defensive lines, leaving only a small number of troops to cover their retreat, and started to evacuate their main body of forces from the city. Polish forces took the railway station and reached the port, but most of the German troops managed to evacuate to Swinemünde. The last German stronghold was in the fort built near today’s lighthouse on the coast.

More than four-fifths of Kolberg was destroyed in the operation’s very heavy fighting. Polish casualties were estimated at 1,206 men killed and missing, and 3,000 men wounded.

With the approach of the Soviet forces early in 1945, valuable equipment, most of the civilian inhabitants and as many as 70,000 refugees from surrounding areas, as well as 40,000 German soldiers, were evacuated from the besieged city by German naval forces within 'Hannibal' (iii). Only about 2,000 soldiers were left on 17 March to cover the loading and departure of the final last sea transports.