Operation Battle of Kolberg

The 'Battle of Kolberg' was the fight for the city of Kolberg (now Kołobrzeg) in Pomerania between Soviet and Polish forces and German forces within the context of the 'East Pomeranian Offensive' (4/18 March 1945).

The Germans succeeded in evacuating many of their military personnel and large number of civilian refugees from the city by sea before the city was taken by the Polish forces on 18 March.

On 4 March 1944 Kolberg, which was a large Baltic seaport in the German province of Pomerania, was designated as a Festung (fortress) by order of Adolf Hitler. The city was one of the key German positions in the 'Pomeranian Wall', seen by the Germans as a vital link between Pomerania and Prussia. The German high command planned to use this port to supply nearby German forces, and hoped that the lure of the stronghold would draw off Soviet forces from their main thrust toward Berlin.

The Soviet 'East Pomeranian Offensive Operation', which was launched on 24 February 1945, managed to cut off and surround the city and its defenders, who were mostly of units belonging to the Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel', which was notionally under the command of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. 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. Command was then assumed by Oberst Gerhard Troschel until 1 March, when the city came under the command of a former Deutsches Afrika Korps officer, Oberst Fritz Fullriede.

The German defence forces were a miscellany of units from the Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel', some of them tasked with defending the fortress and others simply cut off in the Kolberg pocket. The most notable units included elements of Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s (from 10 Märch General Hasso-Eccard von Manteuffel’s) 3rd Panzerarmee: these were parts of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Dr. Gustav Krukenberg’s 33rd Waffen-Grenadierdivision der SS 'Charlemagne' (französische Nr 1) and Oberführer Karl Burk’s 15th Waffen-Grenadierdivision der SS (lettische Nr 1). Estimates of the numerical strength of the German defenders, including local militia and Volkssturm volunteers, range from 8,000 to 15,000, supported by about 60 pieces of artillery, one armoured train, about 18 tanks and a dozen support vehicles of various types. The German units also received some air and sea support, the latter including 280-mm (11.02-in) naval gunfire from the heavy cruisers (ex-'pocket battleships') Lützow and Admiral Scheer.

The Soviet and Polish allied forces of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front attacking the city fought in two waves: Soviet formations from 4 to 7 March, and the Polish 1st Army from 8 to 14 March; some Soviet units took part in the fighting after 8 March. The Soviet main units were the 45th Tank Brigade (engaged from 4 to 7 March) and the 272nd Division (6 to 9 March). The Polish units included the 6th Division (from 7 March), 3rd Division (from 9 March), 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 was led on 4 March by Soviet formations of the 1st Belorussian Front and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front. The first Soviet formations and units entered the city at about 08.00, but were driven back. On the same day, but farther to the east, the nearby city of Köslin (now Koszalin) fell, and the Soviets were thus able to gather reinforcements for the assault on Kolberg.

On 6 March the Soviet high command decided to transfer responsibility for the siege of the city to allied Polish forces. By 8 March the Soviets had received reinforcements in the form of formations and units from General Leytenant Stanisław Popławski’s Polish 1st Army, namely the 6th and 3rd Divisions with the relevant support units. The Polish 1st Army was now tasked with taking the city, but the Poles' first attack was also repulsed. The German forces resisted tenaciously as they protected the continuing evacuation. Given the German land forces' lack of adequate anti-tank weapons, German destroyers used their guns to support the defenders of Kolberg.

On 12 March a new Soviet assault was launched with the support of heavy tanks, additional artillery and the Polish 4th Division. The attack made some gains, but only at the cost of very heavy casualties, and was broken off on 14 March. The Germans refused a proposal to surrender.

On 15 March the fighting resumed and the Germans received reinforcements from Swinemünde (now Świnoujście), but these failed to stop the Polish forces, which took the barracks, part of the railway station and Salt island. By 16 March the Germans had pulled back most of their forces and concentrated on the defence of the port. The destruction of Kolberg’s collegiate church as a result of heavy bombardment by Katyusha rockets allowed the Polish troops to breach the inner city, in which the Polish forces assaulted the railway station, which was defended by the German Panzerzug 72A armoured train that was destroyed on 16 March, the pharmaceutics factory and the horse-riding arena.

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

More than four-fifths of Kolberg had been destroyed in the heavy fighting. The battle was among the most intense examples of urban warfare in which the Poles were involved. Polish casualties were estimated at 1,206 men killed or missing, and 3,000 wounded.

With the Soviet forces approaching in 1945, valuable equipment, most of the inhabitants, and some 70,000 refugees from surrounding areas as well as 40,000 German soldiers had been evacuated from the besieged city by German naval forces in 'Hannibal'. Only about 2,000 men were left on 17 March to cover the last sea transports.