Operation Battle of Königsberg

The 'Battle of Königsberg' was fought between Soviet and German forces for Königsberg in East Prussia as the culmination of the 'Königsberg Offensive Operation' (January/9 April 1945).

This was one of the last stages of the 'East Prussian Strategic Offensive Operation' and in the last four days of urban warfare the forces of the 1st Baltic Front and the 3rd Belorussian Front captured Königsberg, now the Soviet enclave of Kaliningrad within Lithuania. The siege started late in January 1945 when the Soviets initially surrounded the city. Heavy fighting then took place for control of overland connection between Königsberg and the port of Pillau, but by March 1945 Königsberg was a long distance behind the main sectors of the Eastern Front. The battle ended when the German garrison surrendered to the Soviets on 9 April after a three-day assault left their position untenable.

The 'East Prussian Strategic Offensive Operation' had been planned by the Stavka to prevent flank attacks on the armies driving westward toward Berlin, for East Prussia held large numbers of troops which could otherwise have been used for such an undertaking. During the Stavka’s initial planning, Iosif Stalin ordered Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front to destroy the German forces in East Prussia. On 13 January 1945, almost 1.5 million men supported by several thousand tanks and aircraft of General Ivan D. Chenyakovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front (11th Guards Army, 39th Army, 43rd Army, 50th Army, 1st Air Army, 3rd Air Army, 4th Air Air Army and 15th Air Army) plunged into East Prussia, which had been transformed into a gigantic web of fortifications, defensive lines and minefields. The Soviet progress was initially very slow: the armies advanced only 0.93 mile (1.5 km) on the offensive’s first day through only the first three of the many German defensive lines. In five days, taking heavy losses, Soviet troops advanced a mere 12.5 miles (20 km) and were unable to break through German lines into the open.

The initial setback did not last, and on 24 January Soviet advance forces reached the shores of the Vistula Lagoon on the Baltic Sea, cutting off the German forces in East Prussia from a direct connection with the rest of Germany, and thereby forcing the Germans to supply their isolated forces by sea. This operation was accomplished by the 1st Baltic Front under the command of General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan.

On 25 January 1945, in a tacit acknowledgement that German forces in East Prussia and the Kurland Pocket were far behind the new front line, Adolf Hitler renamed three army groups: Heeresgruppe 'Nord' became Heeresgruppe 'Kurland', Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' became Heeresgruppe 'Nord' (this was the army group surrounded in the Königsberg pocket) and Heeresgruppe 'A' became Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'.

The forces of what was now Heeresgruppe 'Nord' were steadily compressed by continued Soviet attacks into three pockets: one around Königsberg, one on the adjacent Sambia Peninsula, and one on the coast of the Vistula Lagoon to the south-west (the Heiligenbeil pocket).

By a time late in January, the 3rd Belorussian Front had surrounded Königsberg on the landward side, severing the road down the Samland peninsula to the port of Pillau, and trapping Generaloberst Erhards Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee and approximately 200,000 civilians in the city. Provisions for the civilian population were so meagre that the civilians were faced with three bleak alternatives: firstly, to remain in the city and starve (during the siege the basic ration was cut to 6.35 oz (180 grams) of bread per day); secondly, to cross the front line and throw themselves on the mercy of the Soviets; and thirdly, to cross the ice of the Vistula Lagoon to Pillau in hope of finding a place on a ship in the 'Hannibal' (iii) evacuation programme. Hundreds chose to cross the front line, but on a daily basis about 2,000 women and children opted to cross the ice on foot to Pillau. On his return from a visit to Berlin, Erich Koch, the Gauleiter of East Prussia, chose to stay in the relative safety of Pillau to organise the evacuation rather than return to Königsberg. The first evacuation steamer from Pillau, carrying 1,800 civilians and 1,200 casualties, reached safety on the 29 January. Throughout February, there was desperate fighting as the Germans tried to maintain the narrow connection between Königsberg and Samland. For a time, Soviet troops were successful in severing that connection and cutting the city off.

However, on 19 February the 3rd Panzerarmee and General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller’s 4th Army attacked from the direction of Pillau, managing to force open a corridor from Pillau to Königsberg. Led by a captured Soviet T-34 medium tank, this attack was spearheaded by Generalleutnant Hans Schittnig’s (from 27 February Generalleutnant Henning von Thadden’s) 1st Division from Königsberg, and was intended to link with General Hans Gollnick’s XXVIII Corps, which held parts of the Samland peninsula, including the vital port of Pillau. Capturing the town of Metgethen, the German formation opened the way for Generalmajor Günther Hoffmann-Schönborn’s 5th Panzerdivision to join with Gollnick’s corps near the town of Gross Heydekrug on the following day. This action solidified the area’s German defence until April, reopening the land route from Königsberg to Pillau and so making it possible for ship-landed supplies to be delivered and for the wounded and refugees to be evacuated. This month-long battle is sometimes called the '1st Siege of Königsberg'.

In March the situation had stabilised, though by now the main front had moved still farther to the west, and the capture of Königsberg was of lower priority for the Soviets. Even so, the garrison was intact and showed no signs of surrender, and eventually the Soviet command decided to capture the city by assault rather than by siege.

The assault on Königsberg was not to be easy. Garrisoned inside the city were five divisions (Generalmajor Kaspar Völker’s 69th Division, Generalleutnant Hermann Hähnle’s 367th Division, Generalmajor Erich Sudau’s 548th Volksgrenadierdivision and Oberst Becker’s 561st Volksgrenadierdivision) for a total of 130,000 men together with impressive defensive positions constructed in 1888. These latter included 15 forts interconnected by tunnels with integrated accommodation for the troops, and designed to withstand the bombardment of super-heavy artillery being designed in that era following the siege of Paris (1870/71). The Germans still held a narrow land connection to the adjacent German pocket on the Samland peninsula. The capture of the city necessitated this frantically shielded connection be separated. The German troops on the peninsula, Gollnick’s so-called Armeeabteilung 'Samland', could be expected to launch counterattacks to prevent this from happening.

The physical defence of Königsberg was based on a trio of concentric rings of fortifications surrounding the city: the outer ring reinforced by 12 forts outside the town, the middle ring in the outskirts and the inner city, a single fortress of anti-tank defences, barricades and landmines, along with several other forts.

In order to face such defensive power, the Soviet command planned to place great reliance on air power and artillery support, with densities reaching some 250 pieces of artillery per kilometre in some areas. The German troops were also subjected to propaganda, explaining that their resistance was futile, and that the front line was far behind them, and that they were in fact trapped in a pocket and thus that it would be best to surrender. However, this propaganda had little or no effect.

After four days of preparatory artillery bombardment, the assault started on 6 April 1945. The attack had been planned to be 'star-like': formations and units were to attack from many points around the perimeter and meet in the centre of the city, compartmentalising the remaining defenders into isolated groups incapable of mutual support. There were two main fronts: the north-west front held by General Polkovnik Ivan I. Lyudnikov’s 39th Army and General Leytenant Afanasi P. Beloborodov’s 43rd Army which included the 208th Division, and the south front held by General Polkovnik Kuzma N. Galitsky’s 11th Guards Army. General Polkovnik Ivan V. Boldin’s 50th Army was stationed in the north-eastern part of the front. One corps was to hold the line while two corps with a total of six rifle divisions, plus artillery, armour and engineer reinforcements, took part in the attack.

In the southern sector, the assault began at sunrise with a heavy artillery bombardment lasting three hours, followed by the primary assault wave. The Soviet infantry divisions quickly penetrated through the outer defense line as its defenders had been largely eliminated and the remainder had been demoralised by several days of intense bombing. By 12.00, the leading Soviet regiments had reached the intermediate defensive line, where their advance was halted by stronger opposition, forcing the Soviet commanders to use their reserve forces. Three hours later, the intermediate defense line had been penetrated in several places. An especially bitter fight raged in the vicinity of Fort Eight. Built toward the end of the 19th century and since modernised, the fort had thick walls and considerable firepower, and was surrounded by a deep moat, making a frontal assault almost impossible. Despite their receipt of heavy artillery fire, its defenders prevented any attempt to approach the walls. Only at dusk were Soviet forces able to reach the moat and start using explosives in an effort to breach the walls.

In the main attack axis in the north, the attack started at the same time, and by 12.00 the first defense line had fallen and the intermediate line had been badly shaken and broken in several places. In the afternoon, however, the Soviet progress became increasingly slow, especially on its right flank, where elements of the Armeeabteilung 'Samland' stationed in the western outskirts of the city attempted several flanking attacks.

Fort Five, claimed to be the best fortification of the entire Königsberg position, constituted a strong resistance point and the Soviet commanders therefore decided to surround and bypass it, leaving rearguard troops who had the time to prepare a new assault. At dusk the battle stalled, allowing both sides to consolidate, regroup their forces and bring forward their reserves. Thus the first day ended with mixed results, since Soviet progress was not as far or as fast as had been expected. However, both the city defences and the defenders' morale had also been seriously shaken, and troops, including officers, began to surrender periodically.

During this first day of assault, bad weather prevented the Soviet troops from using precision bombing with as much effect as they would have liked. Additionally, even fortified, the terrain taken by the Soviets during this day was not as densely populated as the central city, reducing problems associated with urban warfare.

During the night of 6/7 April, the Germans attempted several counterattacks, using their last reserves. Despite the bitter engagements and heavy losses on both sides, the counterattacks were driven off. The most active part of the front was still that facing the Armeeabteilung 'Samland', where a dozen such counterattacks were attempted.

On 7 April, the arrival of better weather conditions allowed the Soviets to make good use of daylight precision bombing. Several hundred bombers of the 1st, 3rd and 15th Air Armies, supported by the formations of the Baltic Fleet’s air arm, bombed the the centre of the German defensive arrangement as well as the bridgeheads of the [a]Armeeabteilung 'Samland'.

Meanwhile, Fort Eight, besieged by the Soviet forces, was still a strong pocket of German resistance. After several unsuccessful attacks, a more cunning plan was developed. Using smoke screens to conceal their approach and flamethrowers to weaken the defence positions, several hundred men managed to cross the moat and enter the fortress, where bitter close combat began. Once the outer defences had been weakened, a massive frontal assault was launched, and finally the assault succeeded and the remainder of the garrison surrendered.

During the day, the 11th Guards Army sought to reach the Pregel river, eliminating all resistance on its southern side. However, the army’s advance was slowed in the central area of the city, where every building had literally to be taken apart along with its defenders. A particularly bitter engagement took place in the main railway station and on its platforms, where almost every carriage and wagon had been transformed into a firing point, and Soviet troops had to use armour and artillery support to make advance possible, and then only at the cost of heavy losses. Only by dusk had the area been completely neutralised, making it possible the attackers to approach the inner defence perimeter, protecting the entrance to the city centre itself.

In the north, Fort Five also proved to be a strong pocket of resistance. Soviet engineers finally managed to place explosives at the base of the walls, breaching them and allowing for a direct assault. As with the assault on Fort Eight, bitter close combat began in the fort, lasting all night and ceasing only in the morning when the last troops surrendered.

At the end of the day, seeing that further resistance was pointless, General Otto Lasch, the city’s commandant, radioed Hitler’s headquarters and requested authorisation to surrender: inevitably, Hitler’s response was that the garrison was to 'fight to the last soldier'.

During the night of 7/8 April, During the night, the Pregel river was crossed by the 11th Guards Army and, despite heavy German fire, by dawn on 8 April a substantial bridgehead had been established on the river’s northern bank. Continuing their advance to the north, the Soviet forces of the 11th Guards Army linked with the northern troops, completing the encirclement and finally severing the Armeeabteilung 'Samland' from the city.

In the afternoon, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, commander of the 3rd Belorussian Front following Chernyakovsky’s death on 1 February, once again asked the defenders to surrender. This offer was again refused and the German forces attempted to break out of the encirclement, attacking both from the city centre and the Samland bridgehead. The latter managed to advance some distance before being stopped. Although another attack was prepared, the Germans' lack of air defences allowed the Soviets to deploy swarms of Ilyushin Il-2 single-engined ground-attack aircraft to destroy a large number of troops. During this campaign, Soviet aviation generally proved very effective.

By the end of the day, it was clear that any attempt by the Samland group to break out of the encirclement would be pointless. However, Soviet victory was nowhere near, as almost 40,000 Germans were still holding the city centre, which was regularly subjected to heavy shelling.

On 9 April, the last day of the battle, the besieged German defenders were finally overwhelmed and the co-ordination of the defence collapsed. Having been comprehensively defeated, and in the realisation that further resistance was futile, Lasch decided on his own initiative to send emissaries to negotiate the surrender. At 18.00, the German emissaries arrived at the Soviet lines, and a delegation was sent to Lasch’s bunker. Shortly before 00.00, the surrender was acknowledged.

Almost four-fifths of the city had been destroyed in the war, firstly, by Royal Air Force heavy bombers in August 1944, and then by Soviet shelling in April 1945. During the 'Battle of Königsberg' the main strength of the German forces in East Prussia had been destroyed, leaving only the Armeeabteilung 'Samland' as a useful operational formation, but this too had been annihilated by 25 April in the Soviets' 'Samland Offensive Operation'.

The 'Battle of Königsberg' was a major success for the Soviets as a result of their comparatively low losses during the capture of the heavily fortified stronghold. The capture was celebrated in Moscow with a salvo by 324 pieces of artillery each firing 24 rounds.

After the war, following the transfer of northern half of East Prussia to the USSR, Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad, and revised demographically by the influx of predominantly Russian (and, to a lesser extent Belorussian and Ukrainian) settlers from other areas of the USSR.