Upper Silesian Offensive Operation

The 'Upper Silesian Offensive Operation' was the Soviet companion to the 'Lower Silesian Offensive Operation', and as such one of the pair of Soviet operations undertaken largely by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front to clear the German forces from most of Upper Silesia (15/31 March 1945).

The Soviet offensive was designed to seize the Germans' very considerable industrial and natural resources located in Upper Silesia, and as a result of the importance of the region to them, the Germans provided considerable forces to Generaloberst Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' for its defence, and the Germans were only slowly pushed back to the Czechoslovak border. Fighting for the region had in fact started as early as the middle of January and continued right through to the last day of the war in Europe on 8 May 1945, though the Soviets characterised their offensive, in which the heaviest fighting occurred, as taking place between 15 and 31 March.

The front line in Silesia had been established by the end of the Soviet 'Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation' in January, during which Konev’s troops had forced General Friedrich Schulz’s 17th Army out of the industrial heartland of Upper Silesia in the area round Kattowitz (Katowice in Polish). In the 'Lower Silesian Offensive Operation' of 8/24 February, the northern wing of Konev’s forces had made further gains, closing up to the Neisse river, but this had left a long exposed flank to the south and east in the Sudeten mountains, still held by Schulz’s forces, and this constituted a flanking threat to the proposed Soviet advance on Berlin.

Schörner began to strengthen Schulz’s formation during February for the 'Gemse' (ii) counter-offensive against the spearheads of General Polkovnik Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army, which had reached and taken Lauban during the 'Lower Silesian Offensive Operation'. Positioned near Oppeln, General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps and General Karl Decker’s XXXIX Panzerkorps were grouped under the command of General Walter Nehring’s 4th Panzerarmee, which started a two-pronged attack on 1 March, with Generalmajor Theodor Kretschmer’s 17th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Erich von Hassenstein’s Führer-Grenadierdivision attacking in the north, and Generalmajor Heinrich-Georg Hax’s 8th Panzerdivision in the south. The 3rd Guards Tank Army was initially caught by surprise, though by 3 March the German forces found themselves threatened by Soviet counterattacks from Naumberg. As a result, Nehring decided on a more limited plan of encirclement.

Rybalko’s troops evacuated Lauban to avoid being cut off, and the town was retaken by Generalleutnant Otto-Hermann Brucker’s 6th Volksgrenadierdivision. By 4 March the encirclement had been closed, though large numbers of Soviet troops were able to escape, and within four days the trapped force had been destroyed in vicious combat in which the Germans refused to take prisoners. Despite the extremely limited nature of the victory, the recapture of Lauban was presented as a great success by German propaganda.

Schörner made preparations for a further attack to the south-east at Striegau, and this was launched on 9 March. Though there were not enough forces available for a double envelopment, the Germans were able to penetrate through the Soviet lines and isolate elements of General Polkovnik Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army on the night of 11/12 March: there was panic among the trapped troops, who were massacred by the Germans as they tried to escape.

Schörner then began to organise a more ambitious offensive in the north to relieve the defenders of the besieged city of Breslau, moving Nehring’s divisions north from Lauban by rail, but Konev acted decisively to regain the initiative in Silesia. Shifting General Leytenant Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 4th Tank Army from the northern flank of his front, he redeployed it near Grottkau in order to spearhead a major attack into Upper Silesia, neutralising the threat to the left flank of his forces and taking the area around Ratibor. For the 'Upper Silesian Offensive Operation', the Soviets made use of the southern wing of Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front (Lelyushenko’s 4th Tank Army, General Leytenant Dmitri N. Gusev’s 21st Army, General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin’s 60th Army and General Leytenant Ivan T. Korovnikov’s 59th Army) and the northern wing of General Ivan Ye. Petrov’s 4th Ukrainian Front (General Leytenant Kirill S. Moskalenko’s 38th Army).

The defending German forces comprised the southern flank of Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', more specifically the southern part of Schulz’s 17th Army, General Gotthard Heinrici’s (from 19 March General Walter Nehring’s) 1st Panzerarmee with General Horst von Mellenthin’s (from 19 March General Rudolf Bünau’s) XI Corps, General Carl von Le Suire’s XLIX Gebirgskorps, General Rudolf Koch-Erpach’s LVI Panzerkorps (otherwise the Korpsgruppe 'Schlesien'), and General Georg Ritter von Hengl’s LIX Corps.

Konev launched his primary attack on 15 March. The 4th Tank Army broke through the German lines to the west of Oppeln and drove directly to the south in the direction of Neustadt. A subsidiary attack by the IV Guards Tank Corps fanned out to take Neisse. To the south-east of Oppeln, Korotnikov’s 59th Army and Kurochkin’s 60th Army also broke through, the former swinging westward to link with Lelyushenko’s 4th Tank Army.

The 1st Panzerarmee's XI Corps, holding the line near Oppeln, was now threatened with encirclement.

In the south, Moskalenko’s 38th Army attacked the LIX Corps defending with its back to the highlands of Moravia. By means of a limited tactical withdrawal on 10 March, Heinrici was able to minimise the damage inflicted by the preparatory bombardment, and the German front in this sector remained firm. The LVI Panzerkorps also started to pull back from its positions near Oppeln, but SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der SS Franz Augsberger’s (from 19 March SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der SS Berthold Maack’s) 20th SS Waffen-Grenadierdivision (estnisch Nr 1) and Generalleutnant Werner Schmidt-Hammer’s 168th Division found themselves trapped by the advance of Lelyushenko’s 4th Tank Army and Korotnikov’s 59th Army, which met near Neustadt. By 22 March the 59th and 21st Armies had succeeded in reducing the Oppeln 'cauldron', and claimed to have killed 15,000 and captured another 15,000 of the German troops trapped there.

Konev launched further attacks on 24 March, and by 31 March, when Ratibor and Katscher were taken, was able to declare the offensive complete at the cost of 40,000 German soldiers killed and 14,000 taken prisoner, according to the Soviets, who themselves admitted to the loss of 66,800 men, including 15,875 who were irrecoverable, out of a starting strength of 408,000 men. The 'Upper Silesian Offensive Operation' thus succeeded in stabilising Konev’s left flank in preparation for the advance on Berlin, and removed the threat of any counter-offensive by Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'.

The lines in Silesia remained largely unchanged but at times heavily contested until the end of the war, when Schörner’s forces surrendered.