The 'Lwów-Sandomierz Strategic Offensive Operation' was the Soviet offensive to clear the German and Hungarian forces from north-western Ukraine and south-eastern Poland (13 July/29 August 1944).
This Soviet strategic undertaking comprised three sub-operations, namely the 'Lwów Offensive Operation' (13/27 July), 'Stanisław Offensive Operation' (13/27 July) and 'Sandomierz Offensive Operation' (28 July/29 August). The Soviets achieved their objective in just six weeks, but this classic undertaking has been overshadowed by the concurrent 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation' (otherwise 'Bagration'), which started at a slightly earlier date and encompassed the almost complete destruction of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in Belorussia, the Baltic states and north-eastern Poland. The new Soviet blow fell on the German and allied forces farther to the south in Galicia and south-eastern Poland.
It is worth noting, however, that the greater weight of the Soviets' army and air force resources at this time were allocated not to the Belorussian operations of 'Bagration' but to the the 'Lwów-Sandomierz Strategic Offensive Operation', which was undertaken as a maskirovka (deception] effort. By concentrating the greater part of their strength in south-eastern Poland and north-western Ukraine, the Soviets were able to draw much of the German mobile reserves to the south, leaving Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' more vulnerable to a concentrated assault. When the Soviets launched 'Bagration', therefore, it created a crisis of strategic proportions for Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', and this compelled the Germans to redeploy their powerful armoured forces back to the central part of the Eastern Front, leaving the Soviets free to pursue their objectives in seizing the bridges over the Vistula river and gaining a foothold in Romania.
When General Nikolai F. Vatutin had been mortally wounded in an attack by Ukrainian nationalist guerrillas toward the end of February 1944, he had been replaced in temporary command of the 1st Ukrainian Front by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov. At the conclusion of the successful 'Dniepr-Carpathian Strategic Offensive Operation', Zhukov had been moved to a sector farther to the north in order to co-ordinate General Georgi F. Zakharov’s 2nd Belorussian Front and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front during the 'Bagration' offensive against Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', at the time commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch.
Zhukov was succeeded in command of the 1st Ukrainian Front early in May by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan V. Konev, who came from the 2nd Ukrainian Front, which now came under the command of General (from 10 September Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza) Rodion Ya. Malinovsky of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, and himself replaced by General Fyedor I. Tolbukhin of the 4th Ukrainian Front which, after clearing the last Axis forces from Crimea, became temporarily inoperative and was withdrawn into high command reserve.
By a time early in June 1944, the forces of Heeresgruppe 'Nordukraine', at that time commanded by Model, had been pushed back beyond the Dniepr river and were desperately clinging to the north-western corner of Ukraine. Iosif Stalin ordered the total liberation of Ukraine, and the Stavka set in motion plans which would become the 'Lwów-Sandomierz Strategic Offensive Operation' but, at this early stage, were known as the 'Lwów-Przemyśl Offensive Operation'. The main attacks were to be made by the 1st Ukrainian Front and the left wing of the 1st Belorussian Front, which was to be specially reinforced for the purpose.
As the Stavka was completing the development of its offensive plans for the summer of 1944, Model was succeeded in command of Heeresgrupe 'Nordukraine' by Harpe. At this time the army group included two Panzer armies in the form of Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s 1st Panzerarmee and General Walter Nehring’s 4th Panzerarmee; attached to the 1st Panzerarmee was Altábornagy Károly Beregfy’s (from 25 July Altábornagy Ferenc Farkas’s and from 1 August Altábornagy Béla Miklós von Dalnoki’s) Hungarian 1st Army. Harpe could muster only 420 tanks, assault guns and other assorted armoured vehicles, and the army group totalled something in the order of 900,000 men. The army group was supported by the 700 aircraft of Generaloberst Otto Dessloch’s Luftflotte IV, including the veteran close air support units of General Hans Seidemann’s VIII Fliegerkorps, and between 300 and 400 aircraft of Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim’s nearby Luftflotte VI. As a result of the complicated inter-service chain of command in German formations, however, Harpe could not exercise direct control of any of the Luftwaffe formations and units.
Under Konev’s command, the 1st Ukrainian Front considerably outnumbered Harpe’s Heeresgruppe 'Nordukraine'. The Soviet army group had more than 1.002 million troops, some 2,050 armoured fighting vehicles, about 16,000 pieces of artillery and mortars, and more than 3,250 aircraft of General Polkovnik Stepan A. Kravsovsky’s 2nd Air Army. Moreover, the numerical advantage enjoyed by the Soviets was boosted by the high morale of Konev’s troops following their recent victories in Ukraine. They had been on the offensive for almost a year, and were witnessing the collapse of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to their north.
The task now demanded of Konev was to overcome the forces of Heeresgruppe 'Nordukraine' and overrun both Galicia and south-eastern Poland, and of Rokossovsky to thrust against the left flank of Heeresgruppe 'Nordukraine' into central Poland in the direction of Lublin and Warsaw. The Soviet attack was to have two primary points of attack to encompass a pincer encirclement of Heeresgruppe 'Nordukraine'.
The first axis, aimed initially at Rava-Russkaya, was to be led by General Polkovnik Vasili N. Gordov’s 3rd Guards Army, General Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army and General Polkovnik Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army, while the second, aimed initially at Lwów itself, was to be led by General Polkovnik Pavel A. Kurochkin’s 60th Army, General Polkovnik Kirill S. Moskalenko’s 38th Army, General Polkovnik Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army and General Polkovnik Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 4th Tank Army.
The Soviets furthered their achievement of a massive superiority over the Germans by limiting their offensive to a front just 16 miles (26 km) wide.
Both Heeresgruppe 'Nordukraine' 1 and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' were at this time still under the command of Model, who was extremely energetic as he passed through the battle area, livening up his divisions but frequently leaving disorder behind him, and losing some of the confidence of his subordinates through his tendency to interfere in details which were not properly the concern of an army group commander, let alone a theatre commander.
The Germans and Hungarians were spread comparatively thinly over southern Poland and part of Czechoslovakia and Galicia. In overall terms, Heeresgruppe 'Nordukraine' comprised 31 German divisions, of which four were Panzer formations, and 12 Hungarian light divisions or brigades. The Hungarian 1st Army was perceived as unreliable by the Oberkommando des Heeres, and for this reason was grouped with the 1st Panzerarmee to form the Armeegruppe 'Raus', Generaloberst Erhard Raus having been transferred from command of the 4th Panzerarmee to that of the 1st Panzerarmee during April on the death, in an air crash, of its previous commander, Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube. In turn Raus had been followed in command of the 4th Panzerarmee by Harpe from the 9th Army, but Harpe was at the beginning of July also acting as the deputy commander of the army group. Eventually, at the beginning of August General Hermann Balck, formerly commander of the XLVIII Panzerkorps, became commander of the 4th Panzerarmee.
At the time the 'Lwów-Sandomierz Strategic Offensive Operation' began, however, both Heeresgruppe 'Nordukraine' and the 4th Panzerarmee were controlled by absent commanders, and Harpe’s formations could muster only some 420 tanks, assault guns and other assorted armoured fighting vehicles, as well as about 370,000 men. The only positive factor for the German defence was the presence, as noted above, of the 700 aircraft of Dessloch’s (from 25 August Generalleutnant Alexander Holle’s) Luftflotte IV, which included the experienced air support units of Seidemann’s VIII Fliegerkorps, boosted by elements of von Greim’s nearby Luftflotte VI as and when required.
The Soviets did not start to build-up their forces for the new offensive until after the beginning of 'Bagration' farther to the north, but between 24 June and 7 July half of the infantry divisions and all three tank armies were assembled, the troops having to travel, mainly by night, a distance of about 250 miles (400 km) to their concentration areas, the tank formations by railway, and the artillery and rifle formations by road. In all, the 1st Ukrainian Front had six infantry armies in the first echelon and one infantry army, three tank armies and several independent tank, cavalry and infantry corps in the second echelon. The Soviet force totalled some 80 divisions (including six of cavalry), 10 tank or mechanised corps, and a number of brigades.
The 1st Ukrainian Front was ready for its offensive against Heeresgruppe 'Nordukraine' by 12 July. Starting on the following day, the offensive took the standard Soviet form: one infantry army and all the tank and cavalry formations were held back to be committed as soon as the six infantry armies in the first echelon had achieved some penetration of the front. On the night of 12 July the armies carried out strong fighting reconnaissance and probing attacks at up to battalion strength, and any 'give' in the German unit was followed through by the infantry divisions without any artillery preparation. When the response of any German formation or unit was a strong resistance, on the other hand, a heavy air and artillery bombardment prefaced the assault proper.
On 13 July the northern attack toward Rava-Russkaya started. The Soviet forces were able to push through near Horokhiv without any difficulty. The defence, in the form of Recknagel’s weakened XLII Corps, managed to withdraw relatively intact with the aid of strong rearguard actions, but by the fall of night the 13th Army had penetrated the German lines to depth of 12.5 miles (20 km) in the area to the north of Hauffe’s XIII Corps. On the following day the assault toward Lwów was launched, to the south of the XIII Corps, stationed near the town of Brody. Soviet units had punched through the line near Horokhiv in the north and at Nusche in the south, leaving the XIII Corps dangerously exposed in a salient.
The northern pincer toward Rava-Russkaya now began to split and several units of the 13th Army wheeled to the south, in an attempt to encircle the XIII Corps. The northern forces soon encountered weak elements of Finger’s 291st Division and Beutler’s 340th Division, and quickly swept these aside.
On 15 July Harpe, realising that his 4th Panzerarmee was in jeopardy, ordered his two reserve divisions, Back’s 16th Panzerdivision and von der Meden’s 17th Panzerdivision, to counterattack near Horokhiv and Druzhkopil in an attempt to halt the Soviets' northern assault. The two divisions could muster only 43 armoured fighting vehicles between them and despite their best efforts, the attack soon bogged down. The massively superior Soviet forces soon forced the 16th Panzerdivision and 17th Panzerdivision to join the retreating infantry divisions.
Konev ordered General Leytenant Viktor K. Baranov’s Mobile Group 'Baranov' into the breach to help exploit the breakthrough. Under an umbrella of air support, the Mobile Group 'Baranov' advanced quickly and over the next three days managed to capture the town of Kaminka Strumilova as well as to seize and hold a bridgehead on the western bank of the Bug river, cutting the XIII Corps' line of communication and line of retreat.
To the south, the major Soviet assault aimed at the juncture of the 1st Panzerarmee and 4th Panzerarmee had been successfully repulsed on 14 July by Lange’s division-sized Korpsabteilung 'C'. The Soviets shifted the weight of their attack farther to the south, and after immense artillery and air bombardments, concentrated on two already weak formations, Lasch’s 349th Division and Holm’s 357th Division. The former collapsed under the assault, its survivors falling back in disarray.
By the fall of night on 15 July the Soviet thrust had been deepened by a few more miles, in the process enveloping the left flank of the XIII Corps in the south, and a Soviet mechanised cavalry group drove into the German rear, in the process dispersing Fries’s 20th Panzergrenadierdivision, and reaching the line of the Bug river bear Kamenka-Strumilovskaya, some 25 miles (40 km) from Lwów, which was the headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'Nordukrain'.
However, the progress of this thrust was still uncertain. On 13 July Kurochkin’s 60th Army and Moskalenko’s 38th Army had taken up the offensive in the centre, to the south of the XIII Corps, and after two days of fighting had progressed a mere 10 miles (16 km) in the face of counterattacks by the two Panzer divisions which were the reserve of XLVIII Panzerkorps. On 15 July Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army and Lelyushenko’s 4th Tank Army were committed, in support of the 60th and 38th Armies, with instructions to drive their own way through the German defences. Near Koltov on the next day the two fresh Soviet armies punctured a narrow corridor, less than 3 miles (4.8 km) wide and 10 miles (16 km) long, and through this poured a column of men and vehicles as the two tank armies emerged into the open country behind the German defences. Part of the 3rd Guards Tank Army turned to the north to meet the mechanised cavalry group south of Kamenka-Strumilovskaya, so encircling the XIII Corps near Brody.
Meanwhile the other Soviet forces, together with the 4th Tank Army, neared Lwów on 18 July, the same day that Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front attacked from Kovel in the direction of Lublin. As a result of the actions of Lange’s Korpsabteilung 'C' and Holm’s 357th Division, however, the Soviet breakthrough was only some 2.5 miles (4 km) wide through 10 miles (16 km) deep. Despite this, the Soviets continued to advance toward the towns of Zolochiv and Sasiv, driving a wedge between the XIII Corps and the neighbouring XLVIII Panzerkorps. German artillery from both corps began saturating the narrow salient, dubbed the 'Koltiv corridor'. A hasty counterattack by Marcks’s 1st Panzerdivision, Friebe’s (from 21 July Frölich’s) 8th Panzerdivision and Freitag’s 14th Grenadierdivision now took place. While the 14th SS Grenadierdivision and 1st Panzerdivision fought well, the 8th Panzerdivision took a wrong turn and found itself in the area of the XIII Corps, cut off from the XLVIII Panzerkorps and the 1st Panzerdivision, and so unable to take part in the counterattack.
The Soviets finally managed to halt the German attack, which initially made useful gains, with the help of their air forces, which dropped 17,200 bombs on the attackers. The absence of the 8th Panzerdivision meant that the attack was doomed to fail. The commander of the 8th Panzerdivision had ignored explicit orders, and attempted to lead his force on a short cut. Instead, the division was strung out on the Zolochiv/Zborov corridor and suffered major losses from Soviet attack aircraft. Despite this, the southern wing of the Soviet attack was slowing.
On 16 July, Konev took a great risk and committed the 3rd Guards Tank Army to the southern assault. This required the army to travel through the narrow 'Koltiv corridor', constantly under artillery fire and fierce German counterattacks. The arrival of the 3rd Guards Tank Army tilted the balance, and soon the Soviet advance resumed, despite several desperate attacks by the exhausted and understrength forces of the XLVIII Panzerkorps and XXIV Panzerkorps. The Soviet cordon continued to tighten, and the XIII Corps now realised that it had to retreat to avoid encirclement. The order was given for all corps units to fall back to the 'Prinz Eugen-Stellung', unmanned defensive positions built in June 1944. Strong Soviet attacks throughout 17 July managed to capture parts of the 'Prinz Eugen-Stellung'.
The SS division went into action attempting to recapture these points, but after meeting with some success ran into a unit of Soviet IS-2 heavy tanks, which put an end to the Ukrainians' advance. Despite repeated warnings from his subordinates, the corps commander did not order further withdrawal, condemning the eight divisions in the Brody salient to their fate.
On 18 July, renewed Soviet attacks resulted in a breakthrough for the southern wing. Late in the day, the Soviet spearheads met near the town of Busk. The encirclement was complete. Some 45,000 men of XIII Corps were trapped around Brody, and a 125-mile (200-km) hole had been torn in the defence of Heeresgruppe 'Nordukraine'. Inside the Brody pocket the XIII Corps comprised Lasch’s 349th Division, Lindemann’s 361st Division, Nedtwig’s 454th Sicherungsdivision, the SS Grenadierdivision, and the Korpsabteilung 'C', this last consisting of the remnants of Lange’s own 183rd Division, Poppe’s 217th Division and the 339th Division, all of them so reduced by casualties that they were in fact mere Divisionsgruppen (cadre divisions). The SS division was by now little more than an armed rabble which, although well armed and equipped, was poorly trained and had suffered heavily in its first engagements. Lange’s formation, like the other so-called Korpsabteilungen (corps formations), had a real combat capability of a single infantry division, the retention of all the divisional titles within the formation being, in part at least, a measure designed to deceive the Soviet high command that there were more divisions in the German order of battle than in fact there were.
The order for the XIII Corps to break out to the south and join the XLVIII Panzerkorps was not given until the afternoon of 18 July, and the other half of the plan was for the 1st Panzerdivision and 8th Panzerdivision to attack to the north and meet the XIII Corps as it broke out to the south. The two groups of German forces were at this time separated by the Zapadnyi Bug river and some 20 miles (32 km) of swamp and woodland. The XIII Corps could expect to be attacked from the front and on each flank as it moved, and for this reason the two German infantry divisions were placed on the flanks. Lange’s and Lasch’s formations were both entrusted with the break-out while the SS formation brought up the rear.
The pocket was already becoming squeezed. Lange later admitted that it would have been more sensible to abandon all of the corps' impedimenta, including vehicles and other transport, but at the time the corps was intent on salvaging all that it could. With Lange’s and Lasch’s formations in the lead, the pocket started to move with its wounded, transport and baggage. The Soviet reaction was immediate, and heavy armour and infantry attacks were directed at the moving flanks. Lange had formed an armoured infantry group from his assault gun brigade and a company of captured T-34 medium tanks, on which he mounted all the remaining men of his engineer battalions as supporting infantry. This force, together with the marching infantry, made slow but steady progress, knocking out some Soviet tanks and capturing intact some US-supplied tank destroyers which were added to the armoured group.
No contact was made with the XLVIII Panzerkorps, however, for this latter had made little progress as a result of Soviet air attacks and a number of accidents. All radio communications finally failed between the XIII Corps and XLVIII Panzerkorps, and also between the XIII Corps' headquarters and the divisional formations, leaving liaison officers and runners as the only means of communication. Losses and the difficulties of the going soon reduced the armoured group’s vehicle strength, but at 12.00 on 21 July the men of the group, by then on foot, together with elements of Lange’s 217th Divisionsgruppe, had fought their way to the south and met the 1st Panzerdivision.
The communications failure meant that Hauffe, Lange and the rest of the pocket’s troops knew nothing of this. The Soviet attacks on the pocket were by now so heavy that the pocket was now tightly compressed, and immediate action was required to complete the break-out. Finding corps' headquarters totally dejected, Lange issued orders for his command to break out to the south after the fall of darkness that night. Lange and Lasch, with much of Korpsabteilung 'C' and the 349th Division, fought their way determinedly through to the south and over the railway linking Lwów and Tarnopol.
There was now no hope for the rest of the XIII Corps. Hauffe believed that the odds were too great and that the position was hopeless, although a break-out might be attempted again on the next night. During that afternoon Soviet bombers and fighter-bombers kept up a steady assault from the air, and a deluge of shells poured in from all sides. The German artillery had long been silent and no German aircraft were to be seen, and in the pocket ammunition stocks were exploding and petrol burning everywhere as a result of the Soviet bombardment, which was so intense that a number of the XIII Corps' men committed suicide. Hauffe surrendered in the evening. About 25,000 Germans lay dead and another 17,000 men, including Nedtwig and Lindemann, were taken prisoner.
The scattered survivors broke up into small groups and attempted to break out. Few regained the German line, but among them were 2,000 Ukrainian volunteers out of the 14th SS Waffen-Grenadierdivision's pre-battle strength of 15,000 men.
Konev was elated at the unexpected success of the operation. Harpe’s army group was falling back, the 4th Panzerarmee to the Vistula river and the 1st Panzerarmee and Hungarian 1st Army to the area around Karpaty. The city of Lwów itself was captured by the Polish partisans of the Armia Krajowa in what is called the Lwów Rising, a part of 'Burza'. The city was liberated in four days, after which the Soviet forces entered it.
The Germans had been forced from northern Ukraine. Seeing this success, the Stavka issued new orders on 28 July. Konev was to attack across the Vistula river and to capture the city of Sandomierz in south-eastern Poland. The renewed Soviet offensive got under way on 29 July, with Konev’s spearheads quickly reaching the Vistula river and establishing a strong bridgehead near Baranów. Major German counterattacks near Sandomierz then halted the expansion of the Soviet bridgehead. Early in August, Harpe gained some respite as five divisions, including one Panzerdivision, were transferred from Generaloberst Johannes Friessner’s Heeresgruppe 'Südukraine'. These were immediately thrown into action around Sandomierz. Soon after this, another five German divisions, three Hungarian divisions, six assault gun brigades and the 501st schwere Panzerabteilung (equipped with PzKpfw VI Tiger II heavy tanks) were placed under Harpe’s command. Large German counterattacks were launched in an attempt to throw the Soviets back across the Vistula river.
Using the towns of Mielec and Tarnobrzeg on the eastern bank of the river as bases, these attacks caused heavy casualties to the Soviet forces. By a time in the middle of August, Konev’s spearhead, the 6th Guards Tank Army, had only 67 tanks remaining. The Germans launched a fierce counterattack with the 501st schwere Panzerabteilung and Generalleutnant Dietrich von Müller’s 16th Panzerdivision, totalling around 140 armoured fighting vehicles including 20 Tiger II heavy tanks. Despite being outnumbered, the 6th Guards Tank Army held the bridgehead, knocking out 10 Tiger II tanks. By 16 August the German counterattacks were starting to lose momentum, and Rybalko, commanding the bridgehead, was able to expand the Soviet-controlled area to a depth of 75 miles (120 km), capturing the city of Sandomierz.
With both sides now totally exhausted, the fighting died down and the Soviet offensive was deemed completed. The Germans, who had started with some 900,000 men, 900 armoured fighting vehicles and 6,300 guns, lost some 55,000 men killed, missing and taken prisoner, 81,860 men wounded and 520 armoured fighting vehicles destroyed, while the Soviets, who had started with some 1.002 million men, 1,979 armoured fighting vehicles and 11,265 guns, lost some 65,0001 men killed, missing or taken prisoner, 224,295 men wounded, 1,269 armoured fighting vehicles and 289 aircraft.