Spremberg-Torgau Offensive Operation

The 'Spremberg-Torgau Offensive Operation' was one of the last Soviet undertakings on the Eastern Front and part of the 'Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation' (19/25 April 1945).

The other four sub-operations were the 'Stettin-Rostock Offensive Operation' (16 April/8 May), the 'Seelow-Berlin Offensive Operation' (16 April/2 May), the 'Cottbus-Potsdam Offensive Operation' (16/27 April) and the 'Brandenburg-Rathenow Offensive Operation' (3/8 May).

On 3 April, a directive of the Soviet supreme command ordered Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front firstly to prepare and implement an offensive to defeat the German grouping in the Cottbus area and to the south of Berlin, capture the line between Beelitz and Wittenberg within 10 to 12 days of the operation, to advance farther along the Elbe river to Dresden, to prepare to follow the capture of Berlin with an advance on Leipzig; and secondly to deliver the main blow with five combined-arms armies and two tank armies from the Triebel region in the general direction of Spremberg and Belzig.

This did not accord with the ambitions of Konev, however, for he wishes to win the laurels of commanding the first Soviet front to lodge itself in Berlin, the capital of Germany, and at the first opportunity he took the chance to divert the right wing of his 1st Ukrainian Front, which included two guards tank armies, to the north-west and Berlin. This left the left wing of the 1st Ukrainian Front, comprising only combined-arms armies, to undertake the drive to the west ordained by the Soviet high command. This division of objectives began on 19 April and led to the 'Cottbus-Potsdam Offensive Operation' toward the north-west and Berlin, and the 'Spremberg-Torgau Offensive Operation' to the west and the Elbe river; the two operations were essentially independent of each other.

The westward advance of General Polkovnik Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army and General Polkovnik Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army was opposed on their start line to the west of Triebel on the Neisse river by a mere three Spremberg-based German divisions of General Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 4th Panzerarmee of Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', which were deeply outflanked by the Soviet forces and ripe for encirclement and destruction if the Soviet forces were successful in crossing the Neisse and then the Spree rivers. The components of the 4th Panzerarmee at this time were General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps, General Georg Jauer’s Panzerkorps 'Grossdeutschland', General Kurt Wäger’s V Corps and General Willi Moser’s Korpsgruppe 'Moser'. During the armour-led offensives across the Spree river to the north of Spremberg, and benefitting from the German focus on events to the south-east of Berlin by Konev’s northern wing, the two Soviet armies in the south seized bridgeheads in the area where there were only minimal German forces between Spremberg and Cottbus. Thus on 19 April the 13th Army swept forward: its 172nd Division of the CII Corps covered 13.67 miles (22 km) in a day, and the 6th Guards Division of the XXVII Corps advanced 12.5 miles (20 km). The 13th Army now found itself between the German forces centred on Cottbus in the north and Spremberg in the south, so Pukhov had to use his other four divisions to cover his army’s flanks.

After crossing the Spree river, the 350th Division of the XXVII Corps turned to the south-west and south with the object of cutting the lines of communication vital to the German forces in the Spremberg area, the 280th Division of the same corps turned to the south in order to protect the army’s left flank, the 117th Guards Division of the CII Corps turned to the north, and the 147th Division was also brought from from the second echelon to provide cover from the Cottbus area. The 13th Army’s XXIV Corps remained on the eastern bank of the Spree river and fought the German forces in the Spremberg area.

The VI Guards Mechanised Corps, which had been detached from the 4th Guards Tank Army, and the 5th Guards Army bypassed Spremberg from the south and by the evening of 19 April had cut most of the roads along which the German forces of the Spremberg grouping could retreat. By 22.00, the gap between the VI Guards Mechanised Corps and the 5th Guards Army’s infantry was only some 1.85 to 3.7 miles (3 to 6 km). The German divisions withdrawn to Spremberg on the eastern bank of the Spree river threatened the rear of the Soviet troops advancing to the west, so one of the front’s highest-priority tasks was the destruction, as early as possible, of the German bridgehead. To prevent the possibility that Spremberg might be turned into a Festung (fortress) holding the communications nexus in the rear of their advance, the Soviets decided to storm Spremberg.

The Spremberg area was surrounded on three sides by the guns of the Soviet 3rd and 17th Artillery Divisions of the VII Breakthrough Artillery Corps and the 4th Artillery Division of the X Breakthrough Artillery Corps, and this left the Germans an escape corridor to the west. At 10.30 on 20 April, the assault on Spremberg began with a powerful artillery preparation, and 30 minutes later units of the XXXIII Guards Corps went over to the offensive. By the evening, the Soviet forces had taken Spremberg, and this made it possible for the main forces of the 5th Guards Army to concentrate on the advance to the west.

Meanwhile, on 20 April the 13th Army’s forces moved rapidly along the corridor provided by the tank armies and advanced 18.5 miles (30 km) without encountering German resistance of any strength. By the end of the day, the 13th Army had reached the railway linking Berlin and Dresden on the sector between Waltersdorf and Brenitz.

The three German divisions whose remnants had been driven out of Spremberg abandoned active operations and decided to break out of the encirclement through the forested region to the north-west in order to join General Walther Wenck’s 12th Army. This effort began during the morning of 21 April, and by 12.00 the break-out had reached the town of Krausche, which was already in Soviet hands but which the Germans managed to take by the evening of 21 April. On the following morning, the Germans pressed ahead with their passage to the west, passing through meadowland between two villages already occupied by Soviet troops. After breaking through this defile, the remnants of the three divisions ceased to exist as a whole and they scattered into small groups: having learned about the approach of huge Soviet forces to Berlin and the offensive on Dresden, the encircled German troops had no wish to encounter a strong Soviet force and decided to break through to the south, and thus they ceased to be a factor in the 'Spremberg-Torgau Offensive Operation'.

On the extreme left of the Soviet forces committed to the 'Spremberg-Torgau Offensive Operation' was General Leytenant Karol Świerczewski’s Polish 2nd Army, and this was heavily committed in the Battle of Bautzen (Budziszyn in Polish) between 21 and 30 April. The battle was characterised by several days of pitched urban fighting between the 90,000 men of the Polish 2nd Army and at least 20,000 men of General Polkovnik Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s Soviet 52nd Army and General Polkovnik Aleksei S. Zhadov’s Soviet 5th Guards Army on one side and elements of Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in the form of the remnants of Gräser’s 4th Panzerarmee and General Wilhelm Hasse 's 17th Army on the other.

The area in which the battle took place was Bautzen itself and the rural areas to the north-east of this city situated primarily along the line between Bautzen and Niesky (Niska in Polish). The main part of the battle was fought from 21 to 26 April, but isolated engagements continued until 30 April. The Polish 2nd Army suffered heavy losses but, with the aid of Soviet reinforcements, prevented the German forces from breaking through to their rear.

On 17 April, the 2nd Army breached the German defences on the Weisser Schöps and Neisse rivers, and its pursuit of the retreating German forces toward Dresden threatened to isolate other German forces in the Muskauer Forst region. On 18 and 19 April elements of the 2nd Army (8th Division and I Tank Corps) engaged the Germans in the south and drove them back while the army’s other formations (5th Division, 7th Division, 9th Division and 10th Division) drove forward to Dresden, seizing bridgeheads across the Spree river to the north of Bautzen and destroying the German forces trapped in the Muskauer Forst. On the following day Soviet units of the VII Mechanised Corps took parts of Bautzen and secured the line to the south of Niesky, taking Weissenberg and trapping several German formations.

Świerczewski decided to prioritise the seizure of Dresden over securing his southern flank, deviating from the plan he had been by Konev. Meanwhile, Schörner was concentrating his forces as the Gruppe 'Görlitz' in the region of Görlitz (Zgorzelec in Polish) and Reichenbach to undertake a counter-offensive against the 2nd Army’s exposed southern flank. Schörner’s object was to stop the 1st Ukrainian Front’s advance and break through to Berlin to relieve Busse’s trapped 9th Army. For this, the Germans pinned their hopes on the idea that the Soviets might be held off for a time long enough for the city to be surrendered to the Western Allies. The concentration of Schörner’s units went unnoticed by Soviet and Polish reconnaissance.

The German forces comprised elements of the 4th Panzerarmee led by the headquarters of Jauer’s Panzerkorps 'Grossdeutschland' and General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps. For the battle, the Germans had two armoured divisions (Generalmajor Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski’s 20th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Max Lemke’s Fallschirm-Panzerdivision 1 'Hermann Göring'), two mechanised divisions (Generalmajor Hermann Schulte Heuthaus’s Panzergrenadierdivision 'Brandenburg' and Generalmajor Erich Walther’s Fallschirm-Panzergrenadierdivision 2 'Hermann Göring'), one infantry division (Generalmajor Max Sachsenheimer’s 17th Division) as well as one Kampfgruppe comprising the remnants of Generalmajor Hans-Ernst Kohlsdorfer’s 545th Volksgrenadierdivision. This force totalled some 50,000 men, 300 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 600 pieces of artillery. The supply train of SS-Obersturmbannführer Franz Roestel’s 10th SS Panzerdivision 'Frundsberg' was also in the area near Bautzen.

The 2nd Army consisted of five infantry divisions (5th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th Divisions), the I Tank Corps and a miscellany of smaller units totalling between 84,000 and 90,000 men, and 500 tanks and self-propelled guns. Many of the Polish soldiers were newly recruited in retaken Polish territory and thus inexperienced in combat. The leadership quality of the Polish army’s officers has also been questioned. One of the major problems facing the Poles was the lack of a substantial cadre of qualified officers: a 1944 estimate showed that the army had only a single officer for each 1,200 men. Many of the officers in the Polish army were Soviet officers of Polish descent.

In overall terms, the German formations and units were smaller than their equivalents in the Polish army, their equipment more worn and their supplies inferior. Polish sources describe the Germans as more experienced, but German sources accentuate their force’s mix of experienced soldiers and inexperienced recruits of Hitlerjugend and Volkssturm elements.

On 21 April, a gap had appeared between the Polish infantry (8th and 9th Divisions) and the Polish armour (I Tank Corps) driving westward in the direction of Dresden, and the Polish units which were securing the Muskauer Forst region. The 7th and 10th Divisions were engaged near Neisse (Nysa in Polish) and the 5th Division and 16th Tank Brigade were in transit in between those two groups. The Polish units were stretched over a distance of some 31 miles (50 km), and the Germans took the opportunity to push into this gap. The battle started on 21 April. In the west, the 20th Panzerdivision started its drive on Bautzen, while in the east the 17th Division advanced on Niesky and Weissenberg, freeing trapped German troops on its way. The Germans drove between the Polish 2nd Army and Soviet 52nd Army around Bautzen, some 25 miles (40 km) to the north-east of Dresden and 16 miles (25 km) to the west of Görlitz, sweeping aside the Soviet infantry of the XLVIII Corps, and driving toward Spremberg. Świerczewski initially continued with his attempt to take Dresden, but this contributed to the growing chaos in the Polish forces, as many of its lines of communication had been cut.

The Germans succeeded in linking with the remnants of their forces in the Muskauer Forst, and threw the local Polish and Soviet forces into total disorder. The 2nd Army lost cohesion and split into four groups, and several of the 2nd Army’s units found themselves surrounded. In particular, the 5th Division and 16th Tank Brigade were struck in the rear, suffering severe losses. The headquarters of the 5th Division, defended only by engineer and training battalions, came under attack, but the command group managed to break through to the 16th Tank Brigade, which was itself soon close to annihilation at Förstgen (Forsiegen): out of some 1,300 men only about 100 survived, and the commander of the 5th Division, Generał brygady Aleksander Waszkiewicz, was killed. In the village of Niederkaina, between 196 and 300 captured Volkssturm men were locked in a barn which was set on fire by retreating Polish or Soviet troops.

By 23 April the German breakthrough reached the Schwarzer Schöps river in the east, and Lohsa, Oppitz and Grossdubrau in the west, and the German main body was located in the forested region around Lohsa. The Germans continued their push toward Königswartha and Hoyerswerda.

Eventually, Świerczewski halted his army’s progress toward Dresden, and ordered it to fall back and secure the breach which had been exploited by the Germans. On 22 April the Polish commander ordered the I Tank Corps to retreat from Dresden and support the centre, and the 8th Division was also recalled while the 9th Division was ordered to remain near Dresden. For a while Świerczewski was out of communication with his superiors, including Konev. The latter sent his chief-of-staff, General Ivan Ye. Petrov, and his chief of operations, General Major Vladimir I. Kostylev, to assess the situation. Petrov managed to re-establish communications, and left Kostylev in command as Świerczewski was briefly relieved of his command for incompetence. To stabilise the situation, Konev ordered eight of the 1st Ukrainian Front’s divisions to reinforce the Poles. The 14th and 95th Guards Divisions, as well as the IV Guards Tank Corps, were ordered to attack toward Kamenz, Königswartha and Sdier to stop the Germans from advancing farther to the north. and General Polkovnik Stepan Ya. Krasovsky’s 2nd Air Army was also assigned to this region.

Meanwhile, the German advance to the south-east of Bautzen was still succeeding. The 294th Division was encircled at Weissenberg by the Panzergrenadierdivision 'Brandenburg', and its break-out on 24 April large parts of it were destroyed. At the same time at Bautzen the 20th Panzerdivision was able to make contact from the south with units trapped in the town. von Oppeln-Bronikowski then ordered an immediate German attack into Bautzen and, co-ordinating with the trapped troops, was able to break into the town. A hastily assembled Polish counterattack failed and most of Bautzen was then recaptured by German forces after several days of bloody house-to-house combat. Several remaining pockets of resistance in the town were cleared during the next few days. Outside the town the German advance stalled, as its vehicles were running short of fuel. The recapture of Bautzen was one of the last German tactical victories on the Eastern Front.

By 25 April, Polish units were able to stabilize a defence on the line linking Kamenz and Heideanger via Kuckau, north Bautzen, Spree and Spreewiese. On the same day, Adolf Hitler congratulated Schörner on his 'victory'. The Polish 7th and 10th Divisions were ordered to advance toward Sdier-Heideanger, and the two formations advanced slowly, with the 10th Division reaching the area to the north of Spreefurt. With the Soviet units on their right flank, the Polish formations also secured the road to Königswartha.

The 9th Division had now found itself alone at the spearhead of the abandoned Polish push toward Dresden, and on 26 April was ordered to retreat. Attempting to withdraw quickly and to rejoin the main Polish forces, it was intercepted by the Germans and sustained heavy losses as its unit were moving with insufficient security on the assumption that the line of retreat was safe; at the same time the Germans captured Polish orders with details of their planned withdrawal routes. Co-ordination between the withdrawing units was also deficient. the 9th Division’s 26th Regiment suffered losses of up to 75% in the so-called 'valley of death' around Panschwitz-Kuckau and Crostwitz. A Polish military hospital convoy from the same division was ambushed near Horka, most of its personnel and wounded then being killed (about 300 men). As a result of these losses, the 9th Division ceased to be an effective force, and its remaining personnel were merged into the 19th Guards Division.

According to some sources, 26 April marked the end of the battle, although a number of less severe, isolated clashes continued until 30 April. Other sources note that heavy fighting still took place on 27 April, and that the German advance was brought to a complete halt only on 28 April. By the end of the month, the 2nd Army and the Soviet forces had repelled the German attack, forming a line toward Kamenz, Doberschütz and Dauban, and were readying an offensive toward Prague.

Both sides suffered heavy casualties, and those of the Poles were particularly severe. In a relatively short time the 2nd Army lost more than 22% of its personnel and 57% of its armoured vehicles (about 200 machines). Official estimates admitted about 18,000 casualties including almost 5,000 dead, but other estimates suggest Polish casualties in the order of 25,000 men.

The German losses were significant, but less than those of the Poles and Soviets. Polish sources of the time estimated German losses at 6,500 men, but this figure was an exaggeration. The German forces failed in their objective of breaking through the 1st Ukrainian Front and coming to the aid of Berlin. They managed, however, to inflict very serious casualties on the local Polish and Soviet formations and units, and stopped the Polish drive on Dresden, which was still in German hands at the time of the surrender of 9 May. The recapture of Bautzen, Weissenberg and surroundings was one of the last successful German armoured counterattacks of the war, and the Bautzen area remained in German hands until the capitulation. Although the battle had no strategic impact on the Battle of Berlin, it allowed most of the participating German formations and units, as well as numerous refugees from the east, to escape to the west in order to surrender to the Western Allies.

Away to the west, the Soviet forces continued to stream through toward the Elbe river against only the most sporadic resistance, and at 13.40 on 25 April, in the sector of the 5th Guards Army, in the Strehla area to the south of Torgau on the Elbe river, units of the 58th Guards Division met a reconnaissance group of the 69th Division of the US 1st Army’s V Corps. On the same day, again in the Torgau area, the leading battalion of the 173rd Guards Regiment of the 58th Guards Division met with another reconnaissance group of the US 69th Division.