Operation Sonnenwende (iv)


'Sonnenwende' (iv) was the German offensive from the area of Stettin and Arnswalde in northern Germany to the south-east in the direction of Pyritz in an effort to throw back the Soviet forces in Pomerania and so halt their advance to the west in the direction of Berlin (15/18 February 1945).

The situation which led to the creation and implementation of 'Sonnenwende' (iv) was the almost totally exhausted end of the Soviet winter offensive of 1944/45 during the third week of February 1945. This end of the Soviet winter offensive was demanded by logistical considerations, but coincided with the development within the Stavka of a measure of unexpected caution, largely on the ground that it felt that the time was not yet quite right for the deliver of the decisive blow against Berlin. The Stavka’s decision to call a halt to its westward offensives now coincided with the Germans' decision to attempt a counter-offensive.

The idea for a two-pronged counter-offensive in the area to the east of the Oder river, designed to pinch off the tip of the Soviet spearhead of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front directed at Berlin, was that of Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the Oberkommando des Heeres’s chief-of-staff. At first glance Guderian’s concept represented an attractive variant of Adolf Hitler’s preferred tactic for checking any breakthrough: hold the tip and shoulders of the offensive and then counterattack the flanks of the breakthrough. In order to carry out his strategic plan, Guderian requested that the forces currently holding the isolated Kurland peninsula in Latvia be brought back by sea to boost the German strength for 'Sonnenwende' (iv), which was to be further increased by divisions from Italy and Norway, as well as SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS 'Sepp' Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzerarmee, intended for counter-offensives in Hungary. Adolf Hitler insisted that Kurland be held, and that the army continue with its planned counter-offensives in Hungary. In a heated argument with Guderian, Hitler adamantly refused to strip the other theatres. Thus, in order to evade the logic of Guderian’s argument that the 6th SS Panzerarmee should be one of the two primary offensive forces, Hitler finally opted for a single-pronged offensive out of the Stargard area.

(It is interesting to note that during the first week of February 1945, part of the headquarters of the 6th SS Panzerarmee moved briefly into the area behind General Theodor Busse’s 9th Army, and Dietrich submitted a basic plan for an attack from the area of Guben-Crossen to link with the Stargard force on the Warthe river at Landsberg to the east of Küstrin. By then the 6th SS Panzerarmee's Panzer divisions were on their way toward Hungary for 'Frühlingserwachen', and an agreed order allocating divisions from the Western Front to the 6th SS Panzerarmee was not issued.)

With the southern half of his offensive now lost, Guderian became absolutely determined to ensure that what was left to him, namely the northern half of the counter-offensive, should succeed. As a result Guderian demanded an assault of a comparatively wide front by three corps, a penetration in considerable depth, and the preparation and commitment of the counter-offensive with extreme rapidity to ensure that the Soviets had the least possible opportunity to plan against it. The counter-offensive, Guderian insisted, had to be prepared and executed with lightning-like speed before the Soviets could establish themselves firmly along the line of the Oder river.

In a remarkable achievement for this period of the war, when Germany was teetering on the brink to total defeat, the Oberkommando des Heeres managed to assemble for 'Sonnenwende' (iv) two corps headquarters and 10 divisions, seven of them Panzer formations, to join one corps already in the designated area. The movement of a force of this size over railways which were operating, if at all, at an efficiency of only about 40% because the locomotives' fire boxes were burning lignite rather than high-grade coal, together with the equipment and supplies of this force, in the face of the disastrous equipment, ammunition and fuel shortages circumscribing the operations of all the German armed forces, would have seemed an insuperable problem. Nonetheless it was achieved, at least in part: by 10 February, the eighth day of the assembly, less than half of the trains loaded had actually arrived in the assembly area in Pomerania.

The headquarters of Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee was instructed to redeploy from Samland to take command, but because this arrived late control of the operation was vested in the newly created headquarters of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s 11th SS Panzerarmee. Under strict orders not to make any premature commitment of any of the forces allocated to 'Sonnenwende' (iii), Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel' found it very difficult to hold the assembly area and, despite its orders, was finally compelled to put several of the new divisions into the line. Inevitably, therefore, the staff of the army group and the Oberkommando des Heeres soon suffered a divergence in their thinking with regard to the operation’s start date, though not its basic nature.

The German forces would first attack along a 30-mile (50-km) front around Stargard in a south-easterly direction toward Arnswalde, where a small German garrison had been encircled, and the ultimate objective was the relief of Küstrin. In this form the offensive was known to the German army as 'Husarenritt' (hussar charge), but the SS insisted on 'Sonnenwende' (iv).

Zhukov was already aware of the build-up of the German forces opposing General Leytenant Pavel A. Belov’s 61st Army and General Leytenant Semyon I. Bogdanov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army, but did not have any information about the timing and nature of the German offensive. The Germans mustered some 1,200 armoured fighting vehicles for the offensive, but were so short of other essential supplies that there were stocks of fuel and ammunition for just three days of combat by the 11th SS Panzerarmee, which comprised Generalleutnant Karl Decker’s XXXIX Panzerkorps, Generalleutnant Martin Unrein’s III (germanisches) SS Panzerkorps, and Generalleutnant Günther Krappe’s X SS Corps. The elements of Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front involved were Belov’s 61st Army, General Leytenant Frants I. Perkhorovich’s 47th Army, General Leytenant Vasili S. Popov’s 70th Army, General Major Nikolai P. Simoniak’s 3rd Shock Army, General Leytenant Mikhail E. Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army and Bogdanov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army. Not all of the German units, which had to be reinforced across the bridges at Stettin, were ready on the planned start date of 15 February.

Speaking with Himmler on 9 February in a purposefully offhand manner designed to spur a decision, Guderian remarked that he expected the offensive would be under way by 16 February. Himmler’s response was that he was not yet ready to commit himself to a specific date and wanted to await developments over the next few days before fixing the start date. Himmler’s obvious lack of qualifications for army group command rendered his judgement open to question even when it appeared sound, and Guderian, whose own judgement had sometimes be found wanting, came to the belief that Himmler was delaying merely to conceal his incompetence. This belief was not improbable as Himmler, ever since moving his headquarters behind the Oder river, had then refused to approach anywhere near the front, and thus revealed a timidity which contrasted strongly with his altogether bolder statements in utterances behind the front. On 13 February Guderian stage-managed a showdown and, in Hitler’s presence, insisted that his deputy, General Walter Wenck, previously the 6th Army's chief-of-staff, then head of the quartermaster branch of the Oberkommando des Heeres and now chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s command group, be given command of 'Sonnenwende' (iv). Finally Hitler informed Wenck that he was to go to Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel' with a 'special mandate', though the precise nature of Wenck’s authority was not specified. Thus while the power of final decision had been removed from Himmler it had not been given specifically to Wenck. This was probably was Guderian desired, for he seems to have wished to use Wenck to force Guderian’s thinking on the army group.

On reaching Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel', Wenck paid his respects to Himmler and crossed the Oder river to inspect the 11th SS Panzerarmee's preparations: this was an excellent idea as Himmler had not done so and the 11th SS Panzerarmee's staff was merely the upgraded staff of what had been Unrein’s III SS Panzerkorps and thus lacked the capacity for the conduct of a major undertaking.

After establishing the fact that the formations and units earmarked for 'Sonnenwende' (iv) were in fact neither fully assembled nor equipped, Wenck resorted to the unpromising alternative of starting the offensive in a piecemeal, apparently to satisfy Guderian. On the night of 14/15 February, the 11th SS Panzerarmee reported that the current German situation on the Eastern Front indicated that an attack, even if it was only small, was urgently required, and that it thus intended to start a drive toward Arnswalde, some 7 miles (11.25 km) distant, on the morning of the following day. This attack, by a force comprising only SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Joachim Ziegler’s 11th SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Nordland', which was part of Unrein’s III SS Panzerkorps, in fact took the Soviet 61st Army by surprise, and the divisional vanguard reached Arnswalde early in the afternoon. It would have taken rational thinking of a quality more than Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel' and the Oberkommando des Heeres possessed between them for so tempting a start to be ignored, and the army group ordered the commitment of the whole of 'Sonnenwende' (iv) on the next day.

Both ill-prepared and inexperienced, the 11th SS Panzerarmee wasted 16 February in efforts to feel out the Soviet strengths and dispositions, and it was not until the afternoon of this day that the army’s command was prepared to decide, and then only tentatively, at which point to concentrate its effort. Even so, as the rest of 'Sonnenwende' (iv) got under way, it again gained initial but limited success in the form of further penetrations of the Soviet lines by the flanking German corps, while the central corridor to Arnswalde was widened. The German progress soon slowed, however, in the face of strong Soviet resistance and a thaw which created muddy conditions in which the German heavy tanks performed poorly and were confined to the roads whereas the ubiquitous and very capable Soviet T-34 medium tanks could manoeuvre across country. By then, even though Steiner insisted that his forces could start to make a decisive advance within two days, the offensive had become literally and metaphorically bogged down. Adding to the problems faced by the Germans, moreover, during the night which followed, on his way back to his headquarters from a conference with Hitler, Wenck took the wheel from his driver, who had been on duty for 48 hours, and then himself fell asleep at the wheel and was badly injured in the resulting crash. Wenck was replaced by General Hans Krebs, the deputy chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando der Heeres, but command initiative had already been lost. Guderian later and perhaps inevitably claimed that Wenck could have in fact salvaged 'Sonnenwende' (iv), but this is very doubtful.

Everything was against the 11th SS Panzerarmee, and on 18 February minefields and potent anti-tank defences brought 'Sonnenwende' (iv) to an inevitable and wholly unsuccessful end. The 11th SS Panzerarmee had gained 2 to 3 miles (3.2 to 4.8 km) at by the fall of darkness on 18 February, when Himmler’s 'directive for regrouping' stopped the German effort after 'Sonnenwende' (iv) had failed to achieve any significant penetration toward Küstrin. As far as the Germans could tell, the offensive had caused not even the slightest disturbance behind the Soviet front. The 9th Army reported on 19 February that the Oder river sector was notably quiet, and all the available indications suggested that the 1st Belorussian Front would attack toward Berlin within the next few days. The 9th Army predicted that, off its right flank, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front would start to cross the Neisse river within one day. On 21 February, in conjunction with the directive issued to Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel' and Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', on its left flank, Hitler officially brought 'Sonnenwende' (iv) to an end and ordered Himmler to transfer a corps headquarters and three of the divisions to Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. There was no immediate German withdrawal, but Zhukov committed Popov’s 70th Army into the attack on 23 February and this led the Germans into an almost immediate retreat in which they lost or abandoned many armoured fighting vehicles. The 3rd Panzerarmee assumed command of the divisions which were left, and Steiner and his staff, now out of favour with Himmler, moved back to the west across the Oder river to act as a central collecting organisation for stragglers.

However, and completely unknown to the Germans, 'Sonnenwende' (iv) had in fact achieved an impact on the Soviets altogether out of proportion to the semi-chaos which had typified 'Sonnenwende' (iv) since its conception. A complete tactical and operational failure on the ground, the German operation had struck exactly the most critical aspect of the Soviets' overall plan, which was the the need for a certain amount of daring in the second phase of the winter/spring offensive. In the middle of February, 1st Belorussian Front and the 1st Ukrainian Front were fully deployed for the grand offensive toward Berlin. As the Germans noted, 'Sonnenwende' (iv) in no way disturbed the Soviet physical deployment, but on 17 February the Stavka unexpectedly scrapped the original strategic plan in its entirety and ordered Zhukov to turn north and join Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front in an offensive against Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel'. Four days later, Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front halted on the line of the Neisse river.

From the German perspective, therefore, 'Sonnenwende' (iv) had served to convince Premier Iosif Stalin that the northern flank of the Soviet advance on Berlin was vulnerable, and therefore that it was necessary to postpone the Berlin offensive by some two months while Pomerania was cleared in the 'East Pomeranian Strategic Offensive Operation'.

It is worth noting that before 'Sonnenwende' (iv) had been attempted, toward the other end of the Eastern Front General Ferdinand Wöhler’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had been involved in a final effort to delay the Soviet advance toward Bratislava and Vienna when, on 10 February, Wöhler had returned from a meeting with Hitler in Berlin with authorisation to employ SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Hermann Priess’s I SS Panzerkorps in a small offensive against the Soviet bridgehead across the Hron river, a left-hand tributary of the Danube river in Slovakia. The opportunity seemed too promising to ignore, especially as much of the Soviet armoured strength had been withdrawn for refitting.

Hitler in the meantime had all but forgotten Budapest, the virtually encircled capital of Hungary. The pocket in Buda, comprising the government buildings and the royal castle, and protected on the east by the river, had shown itself to be a strong fortress. The population had become apathetic, and what internal disturbance there was the result of the depredations of the Arrow-Cross party’s armed groupings, which avoided combat and devoted themselves to murder and plundering. The morale of the German troops had remained comparatively, at least for the time that relief appeared to have even the barest chance of succeeding. Rations for the fighting troops had necessarily been reduced to horse meat soup and 5.3 oz (150 g) of bread per day, and the wounded in the cellars of the royal castle received only thin soup. On 29 January, Himmler had sent what was announced a special additional ration which, after the airdrop containers had been opened, was found to be canned horse meat, biscuits and cigarettes.

By 10 February the German garrison was down to its last ammunition and rations, and had been split into two pockets, each too small to receive any further airdrop. On the morning of 11 February the defending commander, SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, ordered a break-out to the west, and during the night which followed defenders had attempted to force their way out along the Italian Boulevard, while the staffs used an approximately parallel route through an underground drainage canal. Many were killed coming out of the castle gates, and few managed to get as far as the city’s suburbs. Of some 30,000 Germans and Hungarians who tried to escape (10,600 wounded had been abandoned), fewer than 700 reached the German lines.

The Hron river bridgehead offensive began on 17 February and achieved total tactical and operational surprise. In a week the Germans pushed the front far to the east to the river, possibly as the Soviets, after being caught off guard, may have deliberately sacrificed the bridgehead rather than disrupt the refitting of their armoured formations. Wöhler was sufficiently encouraged to resume planning on 21 February, for a major offensive in the triangle bounded by Lake Balaton, the Drava river and the Danube river.

Under its original concept of taking some mild risks on the flanks, the Stavka had intended to sent the 2nd Ukrainian Front toward Brno and Vienna in the wake of Zhukov’s and Konev’s main thrusts toward Berlin. On 17 February, the day the Berlin operation was cancelled and the Germans attacked the Hron river bridgehead, a new order went out to Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko, the chairman of the high command and currently co-ordinating the Soviet operations in the area, instructing him to plan and co-ordinate an independent offensive by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front against the German southern flank.

The Germans having shown some willingness to fight back, the Soviets had decided to bide their time, at least temporarily.