Lublin-Brest Offensive Operation

This was the Soviet operation within the larger 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation' (‘Bagration’) to clear the German forces from central and eastern Poland (18 July/2 August 1944).

The offensive was executed by the left wing of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front 1 against Generaloberst Josef Harpe’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ and Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.

The operation was undertaken within the context of series of multiple and interlinked Soviet strategic and operational offensives, but in the case of the former most especially the 'Lwów-Sandomierz Strategic Offensive Operation' by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front in the south: both offensives were launched some weeks after the start of the more northerly ‘Bagration’, which cleared the German forces from most of Belorussia. After reaching its initial target objectives, the offensive was continued as the Soviet forces advanced on Warsaw (2 August/30 September 1944) before halting and refusing to aid the Warsaw rising of the Polish Home Army.

On 15 June Haepe’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ comprised three armies in the form of Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s 1st Panzerarmee, General Walther Nehring’s 4th Panzerarmee and Altábornagy Károly Beregfy’s Hungarian 3rd Army; and Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army, General Friedrich Hossbach’s 4th Army, General Nikolaus von Vormann’s 9th Army and Generaloberst Hans-Georg Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee.

After feints on 9/10 July to distract German attentions from the Soviet build-up for the 'Lwów-Sandomierz Offensive Operation', and the success of that offensive from 13 July, Rokossovsky’s front started its own operation as an offensive to the to the west. On 18 July five armies of the 1st Belorussian Front deployed on the front’s left wing to the south of the Pripyet marshes, struck and shattered the defences of the 4th Panzerarmee to the west of Kovel. Within hours, the 2nd Tank Army and several mobile corps had started to exploit this initial success to the west, the Soviet infantry following in their wake. Gusev’s 47th Army and Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army ripped into German defences, and by 21 July the Soviet forces had reached the Bug river.

On the following day, Bogdanov’s 2nd Tank Army began its exploitation toward Lublin and the Vistula river, while the XI Tank Corps and II Guards Cavalry Corps led the drive to the north-west in the direction of Siedlce to cut off the retreat of those of the elements of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ attempting to hold the area around Brest Litovsk and Białystok. Although Bogdanov was wounded on 23 July during the fighting for Lublin and replaced by General Major Aleksei I. Radzievsky, the rapid advance continued, carrying the lead elements of 8th Guards Army and 2nd Tank Army to the eastern bank of the Vistula river on 25 July.

On 24 July Rokossovsky’s forces captured Lublin and pushed on to the west in the direction of the Vistula river in the area to the south of Warsaw. The Stavka ordered Radzievsky to turn his army to the north in the direction of Warsaw to help cut off the lines of retreat for Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.

On 28 July the Soviet forces took Brest Litovsk, and by 2 August, the 1st Belorussian Front’s left-wing armies had seized bridgeheads over the Vistula river at Magnuszew (Gusev’s 47th Army) and Puławy (Kolpakchy’s 69th Army), and then found themselves embroiled in the opening phase of an almost two-month struggle with counterattacking German forces to retain these vital bridgeheads as launching pads for still larger offensives into heart of central Poland and toward Berlin.

General Hans Freiherr von Funck’s XLVI Panzerkorps of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ counterattacked from 8 August to reduce the bridgehead, and Generalleutnant Hans Källner’s 19th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Wilhelm Schmalz’s 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ mounted several assaults during early August, but the Soviet lines remained firm.

Further battles of that period included the battle of Studzianki.

During the offensive bringing the 1st Belorussian Front’s left wing closer to the Vistula river, the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) launched its ‘Burza’ insurrection in Warsaw: the Soviet advance was one of the factors which accelerated the rising as the Poles both counted on Soviet support but wished to secure their capital independently of the Soviets.

Only days before the start of the rising on 1 August, the Stavka instructed Rokossovsky to dispatch his 2nd Tank Army in the direction of Praga, Warsaw’s eastern suburb. By 28 July, Radzievsky’s army, with three corps abreast, engaged Generalmajor Kurt Hähling’s 73rd Division and the 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision some 25 miles (40 km) to the south-east of Warsaw. A race ensued between Radzievsky, who was seeking to seize the routes into Warsaw from the east, and the Germans, who were attempting to keep those routes open and keep their hold on Warsaw.

The 2nd Tank Army was to be protected on the right by the II Guards Cavalry Corps and the 47th Army, but the tank army reached the region to the east of Warsaw on 29 July before the slower 47th Army could provide support as this formation and the II Guards Cavalry Corps were engaged in the battle around Siedlce, some 30 miles (50 km) farther to the east. The Germans counterattacked, in what became known as the Battle of Radzymin, with General Dietrich von Saucken’s XXXIX Panzerkorps and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Nikolaus Heilmann’s (from 6 August SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Herbert Otto Gille’s) IV SS Panzerkorps.

On 29 July Radzievsky dispatched General Leytenant Aleksei F. Popov’s VIII Guards Tank Corps and General Major Nikolai D. Vedeneyev’s III Tank Corps to the north in an attempt to swing to the north-east of Warsaw and turn the German defence’s left flank, while General Major Ivan V. Dubovoi’s XVI Tank Corps continued to fight on the south-eastern approaches to the city’s suburbs. Although the VIII Guards Tank Corps successfully fought its way to a point 12.5 miles (20 km) to the east of the city, the III Tank Corps ran into a series of Panzer counterattacks.

Starting from an area to the south of Mińsk Mazowiecki, Vedeneyev’s IIId Tank Corps thrust to the north-west through Okuniew and Wołomin to Radzymin, reaching an area only 3.25 km (5 km) from the strategically important bridge over the Narew river at Zegrze.

In response to Vedeneyev’s thrust, the Germans started a tactical countermove near Radzymin on 31 July. The counterattack by four understrength Panzer divisions was intended to secure the approaches to Warsaw and the crossings of the Vistula river from the east, and was to destroy the three tank corps of the 2nd Tank Army in detail. Under Model’s overall supervision, Schmalz’s 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision, Källner’s 19th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Clemens Betzel’s 4th Panzerdivision and SS-Oberführer und Generalmajor Eduard Deisenhofer’s (soon SS-Standartenführer und Oberst der Waffen-SS Johannes Mühlenkamp’s) 5th SS Panzerdivision ‘Wiking’ were concentrated from different areas and reached the area of Wołomin between 31 July 31 and 1 August. Although the III Tank Corps initially managed to hold the first assaults of the 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision and 19th Panzerdivision, the arrival of the 4th Panzerdivision and 5th SS Panzerdivision spelled the effective end of the isolated and outnumbered Soviet formation.

On 1 August the leading elements of the 19th Panzerdivision and 5th SS Panzerdivision, closing from the west and east respectively, linked at Okuniew, cutting off the III Tank Corps from the other formations of the 2nd Tank Army. Pressed into the area of Wołomin, the III Tank Corps was compressed every more tightly and destroyed on 3 August. Attempts to reach the III Tank Corps by the VIII Guards Tank Corps and the XVI Tank Corps failed, the VIII Guards Tank Corps suffering major losses in the attempt.

Although Model had planned to attack the VIII Guards Tank Corps next, the withdrawal of the 19th Panzerdivision and 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision to bolster the German defences around the Magnuszew bridgehead forced the remaining German forces around Okuniew to go on the defensive.

For reasons which are still disputed, on 2 August all the Soviet armies which were to have assaulted Warsaw received revised orders. The 28th, 47th and 65th Armies were now instructed to turn to the north and seize the undefended town of Wyszków and the line of the Liwiec river. The 2nd Tank Army was left where it was and had to fight the Germans alone, without support of any infantry formations. The 69th Army was also ordered to halt, while the 8th Guards Army was instructed to pause and prepare to meet a German counterattack from the direction of Garwolin.

Fighting continued until 10 August, when the Germans finally withdrew. The Soviet losses had been heavy, but not severe enough to affect the overall course of the Soviet thrust to the vicinity of Warsaw. The III Tank Corps had been destroyed, the VIII Guards Tank Corps had sustained heavy losses, and the XVI Tank Corps had suffered lesser but nonetheless significant losses. In overall terms, the 2nd Tank Army’s losses were significant enough that it had been withdrawn from the front by 5 August.

Between 1 and 10 August, the 2nd Tank Army had lost 409 men killed in action, 1,271 wounded and 589 missing, and had also lost 284 tanks and self-propelled guns, of which 40% were not recoverable, amounting to 113 armoured vehicles lost permanently, out of 679 available to the army on 30 July.

The Soviets did not blame Vedeneyev for the encirclement and destruction of the III Tank Corps, for he survived the battle and remained in command, and the III Tank Corps was honoured by being designated as the IX Guards Tank Corps in November 1944.

In the larger scheme of things, from 30 July to 5 August the German forces succeeded in pushing back the Soviet vanguards, inflicting heavy losses on them in the process. By 5 August the 47th Army’s forces had arrived in the area, and the 2nd Tank Army was withdrawn for rest and refitting. The three infantry corps of the 47th Army were stretched along a front of more than 50 miles (80 km) from a point to the south of Warsaw to Siedlce, and were unable to undertake any immediately renewal of the drive on Warsaw or to the Narew river with the strength and speed available to the tank units.

The eastward lines of communication to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had therefore been damaged but not cut.

After this setback, throughout the entire period up to 20 August the 1st Belorussian Front’s 47th Army remained the only major Soviet formation deployed across the Vistula river opposite Warsaw. The Soviets made no attempt to aid the uprising, concentrating on securing the western bank of the Vistula river and not even providing the insurgents with artillery support. At the time, the bulk of the 1st Belorussian Front’s centre and right wing were struggling to overcome the German defences to the north of Siedlce on the approaches to the Narew river and, according to Soviet accounts, were unable to support any action to aid Warsaw directly. Western and contemporary Polish accounts claim that Iosif Stalin deliberately withheld support for the Polish Home Army as he wanted this Polish force, which supported the Polish government-in-exile and was thus a rival to the pro-Soviet Polish Committee of National Liberation, to be destroyed.

On 20 August Berling’s Polish 1st Army joined the 47th Army. The Soviet forces to the north of Warsaw finally advanced across the Bug river on 3 September, closed up to the Narew river on the next day, and fought their way into bridgeheads across the Narew river on 6 September. The leading elements of two divisions of the Polish 1st Army finally delivered an assault crossing of the Vistula river into Warsaw on 13 September, but made little progress and were evacuated back across the river 10 days later. The insurgents in Warsaw surrendered on 2 October, and the Soviets finally took Warsaw without a major battle during their advance early in 1945.

The bridgeheads at Serock, at the confluence of the Bug and Narew rivers, had been established by the 65th Army at the end of the 'Lublin-Brest Offensive Operation' against General Rudolf Freiherr von Roman’s XX Corps of the 2nd Army. On 3 October elements of Generalleutnant Franz Westhoven’s 3rd Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Oskar Audörsch’s 25th Panzerdivision, supported by Generalleutnant Melzer’s 252nd Division, were committed in an attempt to eliminate the 65th Army’s positions in the bridgehead. On the southern face, German units reached the bank of the Narew river by 5 October. An attack on the northern part of the bridgehead was planned for 8 October with the 19th Panzerdivision and 5th SS Panzerdivision, but the gains made were eliminated by a Soviet counterattack on 14 October.

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The front’s components included General Polkovnik Vasili I. Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army, General Leytenant Aleksander A. Luchinsky’s 28th Army, General Leytenant Nikolai I. Gusev’s 47th Army, General Polkovnik Pavel A. Belov’s 61st Army, General Polkovnik Pavel A. Batov’s 65th Army, General Leytenant Vladimir I. Kolpakchy’s 69th Army, General Polkovnik Vasili S. Popov’s 70th Army, General Leytenant Semyon I. Bogdanov’s 2nd Tank Army, General Leytenant Zygmunt Berling’s Polish 1st Army, General Leytenant Fyedor P. Polynin’s 6th Air Army, General Polkovnik Sergei I. Rudenko’s 16th Air Army, Major General Ivan I. Yushchuk’s XI Tank Corps, General Leytenant Vladimir V. Kryukov’s II Guards Cavalry Corps and General Leytenant Mikhail P. Konstantinov’s VII Guards Cavalry Corps.