Operation Battle of Bautzen

The 'Battle of Bautzen' was fought between German and Soviet-supported Polish troops as one of the final battles of the Eastern Front during World War II (21/30 April 1945).

The battle was fought on the extreme southern flank of the Soviet 'Spremberg-Torgau Defensive Operation', and involved several days of pitched street fighting between forces of the Polish 2nd Army under elements of the Soviet 52nd Army and 5th Guards Army on one side and elements of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', in the form of the remnants of the 4th Panzerarmee and the 17th Army, on the other.

The battle took place during the drive of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front toward Berlin as part of the 'Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation'. The battle was fought in the town of Bautzen (Budziszyn in Polish) and the rural areas to the north-east situated primarily along the line linking Bautzen and Niesky. Major combat began on 21 April 1945 and continued until 26 April, although isolated engagements continued to take place until 30 April. General Leytenant Karol Świerczewski’s Polish 2nd Army suffered heavy losses but, with the aid of Soviet reinforcements, prevented the German forces from breaking through to their rear.

After the battle both sides claimed victory and modern views as to who won the battle remain contradictory. Because the war was almost over and the battle had no strategic impact on the 'Battle of Berlin', German historians have focused more on its tactical aspects. The German operation recaptured Bautzen and the area surrounding it, which were held until the end of the war.

In the terminal months of World War II, the Polish 2nd Army was involved in the Soviet drive on Berlin as part of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front. The Poles operated in the centre of the front, flanked on the right by General Polkovnik Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army and on the left by General Major Fedor G. Katkov’s VII Mechanised Corps. Opposing these forces was General Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 4th Panzerarmee of Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'.

On 17 April, the 2nd Army breached the German defences on the Weisser Schöps and Neisse rivers, and its subsequent pursuit of the retreating German forces toward Dresden threatened to cut off additional forces in the Muskauer Forst region. On 18 and 19 April elements of the 2nd Army, namely the 8th Division and the I Tank Corps, engaged the Germans in the south and pushed them back while its remaining units, namely the 5th, 7th, 9th and 10th Divisions, continued the advance on Dresden, gaining bridgeheads on the Spree river to the north of Bautzen and destroying German forces in the Muskauer Forst. On the following day, Soviet units of the VII Mechanised Corps captured parts of Bautzen and secured the line to the south of Niesky, taking Weissenberg and trapping several German formations.

Świerczewski decided to prioritise the seizure of Dresden over securing his southern flank, thus deviating from the plan he had been given by Konev. Schörner was meanwhile concentrating his forces as the Gruppe 'Görlitz' in the the areas of Görlitz (Zgorzelec in Polish) and Reichenbach, and planned to launch a counter-offensive against the southern flank of the 2nd Army. Schörner’s object was to stop the 1st Ukrainian Front’s advance and break through to Berlin in order to relieve General Theodor Busse’s trapped 9th Army. The Germans were pinning their hopes on the idea that they might be able to check the Soviets long enough for the city to be surrendered to the Western Allies. The concentration of Schörner’s units was not detected Soviet and Polish reconnaissance element.

The German forces comprised elements of the 4th Panzerarmee commanded by the headquarters of General Georg Jauer’s Panzerkorps 'Grossdeutschland' and General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps. For the forthcoming battle, the Germans had two armoured divisions (Generalmajor Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski’s 20th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Max Lemke’s Fallschirmpanzerdivision 1 'Hermann Göring'), two mechanised divisions (Generalmajor Hermann Schulte-Heuthaus’s Panzergrenadierdivision 'Brandenburg' and Generalmajor Erich Walther’s Fallschirmpanzergrenadierdivision 2 'Hermann Göring'), one infantry division (Generalmajor Max Sachsenheimer’s 17th Division) and one infantry Kampfgruppe (the remnants of Generalmajor Hans-Ernst Kohlsdorfer’s 545th Volksgrenadierdivision). This force comprised some 50,000 men, 300 tanks and 600 pieces of artillery. The supply train of SS-Obersturmbannführer Franz Roestel’s 10th SS Panzerdivision 'Frundsberg' was also in the Bautzen area.

The Polish 2nd Army comprised five infantry divisions: (5th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th), the I Tank Corps and a number of smaller units) totallong about 84,000 to 00,000 men and 500 tanks. Many of the men were new recruits, incorporated from the recently retaken Polish territories, and were both poorly trained and lacking in combat experience. The quality of the officer corps was also poor. One of the major problems facing the Polish army was its lack of a qualified cadre: a 1944 estimate showed that the army had one officer for each 1,200 soldiers. Many of the officers in the 2nd Army were Soviets of Polish ancestry.

In overall terms, the German units were smaller than those of their Polish opponents, their equipment was more worn and their supplies inferior. Polish sources describe the Germans as more experienced, but German sources accentuate their forces' mixture of experienced soldiers and inexperienced recruits of the Hitlerjugend and Volkssturm units.

On 21 April, a gap had developed between the Polish infantry units (8th and 9th Divisions) and the I Tank Corps pushing toward Dresden, and the Polish units which were securing the Muskauer Forst region. The 7th and 10th Divisions were engaged near Neisse and the 5th Division and 16th Tank Brigade were in transit between those two groups. The Polish units were stretched over 31 miles (50 km). The Germans took the opportunity to push into this gap in a battle which began on 21 April. In the west, the 20th Panzerdivision started its drive on Bautzen, while in the east the 17th Division advanced on Niesky and Weissenberg, relieving trapped German troops on its way. The Germans drove between the 2nd Army and the Soviet 52nd Army around Bautzen, some 25 miles (40 km) to the north-east of Dresden and 16 miles (25 km) to the west of Görlitz, sweeping aside the Soviet XLVIII Corps, and driving toward Spremberg. General Major Mikhail K. Puteiko, commander of the 52nd Army’s 254th Division of the LXXIII Corps was mortally wounded around Bautzen. Świerczewski initially continued with his attempt to take Dresden, and this contributed to the growing chaos in the Polish forces, as many communication lines were cut.

The Germans succeeded in linking with the remnants of their forces in the Muskauer Forst and also throwing the local Polish and Soviet forces into disorder. The 2nd Army lost cohesion and split into four groups. Several 2nd Army units found themselves surrounded. In particular, the Polish 5th Division and 16th Tank Brigade were struck in the rear, suffering severe losses. The headquarters of the 5th Division, defended only by engineer and training battalions, came under attack. The command group managed to break through to the 16th Tank Brigade, but that unit itself was almost annihilated at Förstgen (Forsiegen): only about 100 of the 1,300 men survived. The commander of the Polish 5th Division, Generał brygady Aleksander Waszkiewicz, was killed. In the village of Niederkaina between 196 and 300 captured Germans, all members of the Volkssturm, were locked in a barn which was then set on fire by retreating Polish or Soviet troops.

By 23 April the German breakthrough reached the Schwarzer Schöps river in the east, and Lohsa, Oppitz and Grossdubrau in the west. The main body of the German force was located in the forested region around Lohsa, and the Germans continued their push toward Königswartha and Hoyerswerda.[11]

Świerczewski eventually halted his force’s advance on Dresden, and ordered it to pull back and secure the breach. On 22 April he ordered the I Tank Corps to retreat from Dresden and support the centre. The 8th Division was also recalled, but the 9th Division remained near Dresden. For a while Świerczewski was out of communication with his superiors, including Konev, who sent his chief-of-staff, General Polkovnik Ivan Ye. Petrov, and his chief of operations, Leytenant General Vladimir I. Kostylev, to investigate the situation. Petrov managed to re-establish communications, and left Kostylev in charge. Świerczewski was briefly relieved of his command for incompetence. To stabilise the situation, Konev ordered eight of the 1st Ukrainian Front’s divisions to reinforce the Polish positions. The Soviet 14th and 95th Guards Divisions, as well as the IV Guards Tank Corps, were ordered to attack toward Kamenz, Königswartha and Sdier to stop the Germans from advancing farther to the north. The 2nd Air Army was also assigned to this theatre.

Meanwhile, the German advance to the south-east of Bautzen was successful. The Soviet 294th Division was encircled at Weissenberg by the Panzergrenadierdivision 'Brandenburg'. In its subsequent break-out on 24 April, large parts of it were destroyed. At the same time, at Bautzen the 20th Panzerdivision was able to make contact from the south with the units trapped in the town. Bronikowski then lost no time and immediately ordered a German attack into Bautzen and, co-ordinating with the trapped troops, was able to break into the town. A hastily assembled Polish counterattack failed and most of Bautzen was then recaptured by German forces after several days of bloody house-to-house combat. Several remaining pockets of resistance in the town were cleared during the next days. Outside the town the German advance stalled as the units were running short of fuel. The recapture of Bautzen was one of the last German tactical victories on the Eastern Front.

By 25 April, Polish units were able to stabilise a defence on the line linking Kamenz, Kuckau, north Bautzen, Spree, Spreewiese and Heideanger. On this day, Adolf Hitler congratulated Schörner on his 'victory'. The Polish 7th and 10th Divisions were ordered to advance toward Sdier-Heideanger, and the two divisions slowly advanced, with the 10th Division reaching an area to the north of Spreefurt. With the Soviet units on their right flank, the Poles also secured a road to Königswartha.

The 9th Division found itself alone at the spearhead of the abandoned Polish push toward Dresden. It received orders to retreat on 26 April and, attempting to withdraw quickly and rejoin the main forces, was intercepted by the Germans and sustained heavy losses. The units were moving with inadequate security, on the assumption that the line of retreat was safe; at the same time the Germans captured Polish orders with details of their planned withdrawal routes. Co-ordination between the units was also lacking. The 26th Regiment of the 9th Division took very heavy casualties, in the order of 75%, in the 'valley of death' around Panschwitz-Kuckau and Crostwitz. A Polish military hospital convoy from the same division was ambushed near Horka, with most of its personnel and wounded executed. There was only one survivor, a chaplain named Jan Rdzanek, and the divisional commander, Colonel Aleksander Łaski, was taken prisoner. As a result of these losses, the 9th Division ceased to be an effective force, its remaining personnel being merged into the Soviet 19th Guards Division.

According to some sources, 26 April marked the end of this battle, although less severe and isolated clashes continued to 30 April. Other sources note that there was still heavy fighting on 27 April, and that the German advance was brought to a complete halt only on 28 April. By the end of the month, the Polish 2nd Army and the Soviet forces had repelled the German attack, forming a line toward Kamenz, Doberschütz and Dauban, and were preparing to launch an offensive toward Prague.

Both sides suffered heavy casualties. The Polish casualties were particularly severe. In a relatively short time the Polish 2nd Army lost more than 22% of its men and 57% of its tanks and other armoured vehicles (about 200 total). Official estimates admitted about 18,000 casualties including almost 5,000 dead. Some other estimates give the Polish casualties as up to 25,000 men in what was the bloodiest battle that the Polish army had fought since the 'Battle of the Bzura' in 1939.

German casualties were significant, but less than those of the Polish and Soviet forces: contemporary Polish sources estimated German losses at 6,500 men, which is now seen as an inflated estimate. The German forces failed in their objective of breaking through the 1st Ukrainian Front and coming to the aid of Berlin. They managed to inflict very serious casualties on the local Polish and Soviet forces, however, and stopped the Polish drive on Dresden. which remained in German hands up to the time of the German capitulation on 9 May. The recapture of Bautzen, Weissenberg and surrounding areas is called one of the last successful German armoured counterattacks of the war. Bautzen and its surroundings remained in German hands until Germany’s surrender. Although the battle had no strategic impact on the 'Battle of Berlin'. it did allow most of the participating German units as well as numerous refugees from the east to escape to the west, surrendering to the Western Allies.