Operation Gemse (ii)

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This was a German counter-offensive after the Soviet success of the ‘Lower Silesian Offensive Operation’ by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front in February 1945 (1/12 March 1945).

The development of this offensive to the west had seen the northern wing of Konev’s forces make further gains, closing up to the Neisse river. This had left a long exposed flank to the south and east in the Sudeten mountains, still held by the forces of General Friedrich Schulz’s 17th Army, which could be a threat to the proposed Soviet advance on Berlin.

Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner, commanding Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, began to reinforce Schulz’s formation during February for a counterattack against the spearheads of General Polkovnik Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army, which had reached and taken Lauban during the ‘Lower Silesian Offensive Operation’. General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps and General Karl Decker’s XXXIX Panzerkorps were now grouped under the command of General Walter Nehring’s 4th Panzerarmee, which started a two-pronged attack on 1 March, with Generalmajor Theodor Kretschmer’s 17th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Erich von Hassenstein’s Führer-Grenadierdivision attacking in the north, and Generalmajor Heinrich-Georg Hax’s 8th Panzerdivision in the south.

The 3rd Guards Tank Army was initially caught by surprise, though by 3 March the German forces found themselves threatened by Soviet counterattacks from Naumberg. As a result, Nehring decided on a more limited plan of encirclement.

To avoid being cut off, Rybalko’s troops evacuated Lauban, which was retaken by Generalleutnant Otto-Hermann Brucker’s 6th Volksgrenadierdivision. By 4 March the encirclement had been closed, though large numbers of Soviet troops were able to escape, and within four days the trapped force had been destroyed in no-quarter fighting as the Germans refused to take prisoners. Despite the extremely limited nature of the victory, the recapture of Lauban was presented as a great success by German propaganda.

Schörner made preparations for a further attack to the south-east at Striegau, and this was launched on 9 March. Though there were not enough forces available for a double envelopment, the Germans were able to penetrate through the Soviet lines and cut off elements of General Polkovnik Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army on the night of 11/12 March: there was panic among the trapped troops, who were massacred by the Germans as they tried to escape. Schörner began to organise a more ambitious offensive in the north to relieve the defenders of the besieged city of Breslau, moving Nehring’s divisions to the north from Lauban by rail, but Konev acted decisively to regain the initiative in Silesia.

Shifting General Polkovnik Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 4th Tank Army from the northern flank of his front, he redeployed it near Grottkau in order to spearhead a major attack into Upper Silesia, neutralising the threat to the left flank of his forces and taking the area around Ratibor.