Sandomierz-Silesian Offensive Operation

This was the Soviet southern half of the ‘Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation’, whose northern half was the 'Warsaw-Poznań Offensive Operation', by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front (12 January/3 February 1945).

Operating on the left of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, which was to drive straight toward Berlin from the area to the south of Warsaw, the 1st Ukrainian Front was to advance on a westerly axis from the bridgehead and salient between Sandomierz and Baranów Sandomiersk to destroy the German forces in the area to the north of Kielce, in 12 days reach the line linking Radomsk, Czestochowa and Miechow, and then drive on Breslau, the capital of Silesia.

The break-out from the bridgehead was to be made on a narrow 11.75-mile (19-mile) front using the six breakthrough artillery divisions and three armies, namely General Leytenant Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army, General Leytenant Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s 52nd Army and General Leytenant Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army. General Leytenant Dmitri N. Gusev’s 21st Army, General Leytenant Ivan T. Korovnikov’s 59th Army, General Polkovnik Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army and General Leytenant Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 4th Guards Tank Army were to follow in the second echelon. Subsidiary attacks were to be made on the flanks of the primary assault, one to the north of Szydlowiec and Ostrowiec by General Leytenant Vasili N. Gordov’s 3rd Guards Army and General Leytenant Vladimir A. Gluzdovsky’s 6th Army to assist in the attack on Radom, and one to the south on Kraków by General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin’s 60th Army in conjunction with General Polkovnik Kirill S. Moskalenko’s 38th Army of General Ivan Ye. Petrov’s 4th Ukrainian Front.

On 12 January the 1st Ukrainian Front began its offensive from the bridgehead and salient across the Vistula river between Sandomierz and Baranów Sandomierski against General Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 4th Panzerarmee of Generaloberst Josef Harpe’s (from 17 January Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner’s) Heeresgruppe ‘A’. The attacking formations took the German forward defences round the bridgehead by complete tactical and operational surprise.

At 10.00 the artillery began its preparatory bombardment, and this lasted just short of two hours, during which time the German control and communication system broke down. At 11.47 the artillery fire lifted and the assault battalions, some of which were punishment units, attacked with the support of armour and a double artillery barrage. The attack fell on General Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Edelsheim’s XLVIII Panzerkorps of three infantry divisions and General Hermann Recknagel’s XLII Corps of four infantry divisions, neither of which could withstand the Soviet onslaught, all the more so because of the fact that their forward elements were pinned both by Adolf Hitler’s orders and the overwhelming weight of the artillery fire. Part of General Walter Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps, which had been moved close to the front by Hitler’s express order, was drawn into the battle and dispersed by the bombardment.

Adverse weather restricted the Soviet tactical air support to a few hundred sorties, but by the end of the first day the Soviet first-echelon armies had penetrated to a depth of 12.5 miles (20 km). On the following day, however, the German resistance stiffened, particularly in the area between Kielce and Chmielnik, and the pace of the Soviet attack slowed. Konev therefore committed Korovnikov’s 59th Army and a tank corps from his second echelon in a thrust to the south in the direction of Kraków. Progress became faster again on 14 January, and on the next day Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps was finally defeated and the Soviet troops broke through into open country, having advanced more than 60 miles (100 km) in four days.

All German communications had broken down and the troops were in disorder. The partially encircled XLII Corps tried to withdraw, but its headquarters came under attack by tank troops and its commander, Recknagel, was killed. Meanwhile the German shoulders of the breakthrough area had given way. The good weather had so improved the flying conditions that the daily Soviet sorties increased from 300 to 1,700.

On 17 January the Soviet forces crossed the Warthe river, and after six days the Soviet troops had penetrated to a depth of 100 miles (160 km) on a 160-mile (260-km) front. Hitler, currently located at Ziegenberg and attempting to control the ‘Wacht am Rhein’ undertaking in the Ardennes and also to mount the ‘Nordwind’ (iii) offensive into Alsace, could do nothing to remedy the situation, but on 15 January he had resorted to his usual strategy of robbing one sector to reinforce another. This frequently resulted in both sectors going without adequate strength while the reserves were shunted about in railway sidings. Against the advise of Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the Oberkommando des Heeres’s chief-of-staff, Hitler ordered the despatch of General Dietrich von Saucken’s Panzerkorps ‘Grossdeutschland’ from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in East Prussia to Łódź in order to assist in the defence of Kielce, a town which had in fact already been taken by Konev’s forces. When von Saucken’s corps detrained in Łódź, therefore, the town was already under fire and von Saucken was fortunate to be able to fight his way clear to join Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps.

The 1st Ukrainian Front continued its advance to the west against resistance which was effective only on sporadic basis and then for merely a short time, and by the end of the offensive on 3 February the Soviets had approached Breslau (Wrocław in Polish), to the south-east of Berlin, and begun to cross the Oder river.