Samland Offensive Operation

The 'Samland Offensive Operation' was the Soviet undertaking as the sixth and final sub-operation of the 'East Prussian Strategic Offensive Operation' to clear the Samland area of East Prussia (13/25 April 1945).

The other sub-operations were the 'Insterburg-Königsberg Offensive Operation' (14/26 January), the 'Milau-Elbing Offensive Operation' (14/26 January), the 'Rastenburg-Heilsberg Offensive Operation' (27 January/12 February), the 'Braunsberg Offensive Operation' (13/22 March) and the 'Königsberg Offensive Operation' (6/9 April).

The 'East Prussian Strategic Offensive Operation', which had begun on 13 January 1945, had seen the Soviet forces' defeat of the German forces from much of East Prussia. The surviving defenders had been driven into a series of pockets on the coast of the Baltic Sea and in the city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), in which they were besieged.

Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, who had taken command of the 3rd Belorussian Front on 20 February, incorporated General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front into his command on 22 February and redesignated it as the Zemland Army Group (or Samland Front). It was Bagramyan’s forces which first laid siege to Königsberg, which fell on 9 April, and the Zemland Army Group was then ordered to destroy the substantial German forces still remaining in Sambia.

Sambia (or Samland) is a peninsula to the north-west of Königsberg on the south-eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. The peninsula is bounded by the Curonian Lagoon to the north-east, the Vistula Lagoon on the south-west, the Pregel river on the south and the Deyma river on the east. As Samland is surrounded on all sides by water, it is technically an island.

The German defence efforts in this region had been generally focussed on the port of Pillau at the tip of the peninsula, which was the main evacuation point for casualties and East Prussian civilians. Throughout the Battle of Königsberg, Sambia had been defended by Armeeabteilung 'Samland' under the command of General Hans Gollnick, who had sought to maintain a corridor between Königsberg and Pillau.

On 7 April, the remnants of General Dietrich von Saucken’s 2nd Army and General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller’s (from 16 April General Kurt von Tippelskirch’s 4th Army, both of which had been effectively destroyed in encirclements at Danzig and Heiligenbeil respectively, were combined as the Armee 'Ostpreussen' to hold Sambia, the Vistula river delta and the Hel peninsula. Gollnick’s formation was incorporated into the Armee 'Ostpreussen'.

Most of the units of Armee 'Ostpreussen' were little more than remnants of previous Soviet offensives, and the entire formation lacked much equipment and was very poorly supplied. During the battle for Sambia, German officers were outraged to discover that the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine had maintained large underground depots full of stores and fuel in the woods of the peninsula, and these had to be destroyed in the retreat into the peninsula.

For the 'Samland Offensive Operation', Bagramyan’s Zeland Group of Forces comprised General Leytenant Porfiri G. Chanchibadze’s 2nd Guards Army, General Polkovnik Kuzma N. Galitsky’s 11th Guards Army, General Polkovnik Nikolai I. Krylov’s 5th Army, General Leytenant Ivan T. Grishin’s 49th Army and General Leytenant Afanasi P. Beloborodov’s 43rd Army.

The German forces comprised elements of von Saucken’s Armee 'Ostpreussen' including General Gerhard Matzky’s XXVI Corps (remnants of 58th Division, 1st Division, 21st Division, 5th Panzerdivision, 28th Jägerdivision and 561st Volksgrenadierdivision); Generalleutnant Kurt Chill’s LV Corps (otherwise the Festung 'Pillau' (remnants of the 50th Division, 286th Division and 558th Volksgrenadierdivision); General Rolf Wuthmann’s (from 20 April Generalleutnant Hermann Hohn’s) IX Corps (remnants of the 95th Division, 93rd Division, 14th Division, 551st Volksgrenadierdivision and Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland'); and elements of the 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung and 505th schwere Panzerabteilung.

The Soviet plan for the offensive called for the 5th Army and 39th Army to break through toward Fischhausen as the main strike force with the 11th Guards Army in reserve. The 2nd Guards Army was to attack in the north, with the 43rd Army breaking through on the southern flank. There would also be amphibious landings in the south of Sambia. The head of the 3rd Belorussian Front’s intelligence staff suggested that the Soviet forces faced up to 100,000 German troops, but by shortening the frontage of each unit the attackers were able to achieve a superiority of 2/1 in men and 5/1 in artillery.

Bagramyan urged the defenders to surrender in exchange for fair treatment and medical assistance for the wounded, but this went unanswered, and the offensive therefore started on 13 April with what was now the standard Soviet practice of an initial artillery barrage and air attacks.

This initial assault scattered many of the remaining German forces, some of which fell back toward Pillau. The Soviet 115th Division broke through and cleared Generalleutnant Siegfried Verhein’s 551st Volksgrenadierdivision from Rauschen on the north-western tip of Sambia, and the German formations in the north of the peninsula, including Generalmajor Joachim-Friedrich Lang’s 95th Division and parts of the 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung, were pushed to the south into Palmnicken and destroyed.

By 16 April the Soviet forces had broken through near Fischhausen, and parts of the XXVI Corps, including Oberst Hans Herzog’s 5th Panzerdivision and Oberst Hans Tempelhoff’s 28th Jägerdivision, were isolated on the peninsula at Peyse, and were then destroyed. A defence line, the Tenkitten-Riegel, had been improvised across the narrow land strip leading to Pillau, and to break the German resistance here, the 11th Guards Army was committed on 20 April. Fighting intensified at Tenkitten, where the commander of the XVI Guards Corps, General Major Stepan S. Gurev, was killed by a shell fragment on 22 April.

The German defensive perimeter was pushed steadily back toward Pillau, which was defended by elements of Oberst i.G. Henning von Thadden’s 1st Division, Generalmajor Karl Koetz’s 21st Division, Generalleutnant Curt Siewert’s 58th Division and other divisions. The remaining German troops were evacuated to the Frische Nehrung. Pillau had been heavily fortified, being described by Bagramyan as 'Königsberg in miniature', and its defence was supported by fire from naval artillery and coastal batteries. After a stubborn defence, the city was finally stormed by units of 11th Guards Army, including the 31st Guards Division, on 25 April. The city was cleared of its defenders in about 12 hours. The last German position to fall was a battery commanded by Generalmajor Karl Henke, which was overrun by the XVI Guards Corps on 27 April.

The Soviet record claimed the killing of capture of of 80,000 German troops during the operations in Sambia.

The remnants of the IX Corps held out on the Frische Nehrung to the end of the war, though just before this the corps staff was removed to Bornholm, a German-occupied Danish island in the Baltic Sea.