This was the Soviet strategic offensive to the west from the line of the Vistula river in Poland to the line of the Oder river in eastern Germany just 45 miles (70 km) from Berlin (12 January/3 February 1945).
Comprising the ‘Warsaw Offensive Operation’ of 14 January/3 February and ‘Sandomierz-Silesian Offensive Operation’ of 12 January/3 February, the 'Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation' was one of three great offensives launched by the Soviet forces in the first weeks of 1945: the other two were the 'East Prussian Strategic Offensive Operation' started one day later in the area immediately to the north of the 'Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation', and the 'Western Carpathian Strategic Offensive Operation' begun on the same day but farther to the south.
On 24 December 1944, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s staff, visited Adolf Hitler at the latter’s headquarters in the Taunus mountains, some 10 miles (16 km) to the north-west of Bad Nauheim, from which the German leader was supervising the ‘Wacht am Rhein’ offensive in the Ardennes. The purpose of Guderian’s journey was to request Hitler to call an immediate end to ‘Wacht am Rhein’ and thereby make available sizeable numbers of men and large quantities of equipment for redeployment to the Eastern Front. Guderian’s reasoning was based on the fact that in the previous two days it had become clear that ‘Wacht am Rhein’ would not succeed in meeting the objectives ordained for it, and that at much the same time on the Eastern Front in the area to the north of the Carpathian mountains the Soviets had completed their largest build-up of the war. Hitler refused to surrender the initiative in the west, however, and also refused to admit the validity of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s assessment of the size of the forces which the Soviets had now amassed against Generaloberst Josef Harpe’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. Hitler therefore refused even to consider the creation of reserves for the Eastern Front by taking units from the west, Norway and Kurland. Thus the Eastern Front would have to look to itself. During the evening of the same day, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, embarked on a ‘military’ career since recently being appointed to head the Höheres Kommando ‘Oberrhein’, suggested to Guderian that he need not worry as the Soviets, in Himmler’s belief, were not about to attack and were merely attempting a huge bluff. On the following day, as Guderian made his way back to the Berlin area, Hitler ordered the transfer of the the headquarters of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Herbert Otto Gille’s IV SS Panzerkorps and two Panzergrenadier divisions to Generaloberst Johannes Friessner’s (from 28 December General Otto Wöhler’s) Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ for the attempt to relieve Budapest.
Oddly enough, during the final days of 1944 the situation seemed less acute for Germany than it had in the middle of the same year’s summer. The advances of the Western Allies from the west and Soviets from the east were not closing on Germany as quickly as they had during that period, and while ‘Wacht am Rhein’ would clearly not give Germany the strategic success against the Western Allies which would have allowed Hitler to focus more tightly on the Eastern Front, it had given Germany something of the initiative, and it would be some time before the Western Allies could resume their advance into Germany.
On the Eastern Front, in the area to the north of the Carpathian mountains the Soviets had achieved no major advance in almost three months, and after being almost completely destroyed in August, Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was sufficiently close to holding its own in Hungary that a relief of Budapest seemed possible. Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Heeresgruppe ‘E’ was approaching the end of its withdrawal from Greece, Albania and southern Yugoslavia. In Italy, Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’ had checked the US and British advance on the ‘Gotisch-Linie’.
Even so, the use of unbiased eyes would have revealed that Hitler’s strategy was futile: the German leader still insisted on holding everything the German forces still occupied; he had committed Germany’s last strategic reserves into attempting a reversal of fortune against the Western Allies and had failed; and it was clear that while Germany could still fight for time, the writing was on the wall insofar as the inevitable defeat of Germany was concerned. Even so, Hitler did not possess the time he believed was still in his grasp, for the German capacity to endure was fast collapsing. On both the Western and Eastern Fronts, the Western Allies and the Soviets could now wield a matériel superiority which Germany could not hope to match: German industrial output had withstood the Western Allies’ strategic bombing surprisingly well, but was now on a seesaw which dipped steadily lower, remained down longer and then rose more slowly. Germany’s aircraft factories had delivered 3,000 fighters in September 1944, the greatest total for any month of the war, in October turbojet-powered fighters had started to emerge from the factories, and in December fighter production was still higher than in any month before May 1944. Manufacture of armoured vehicles, including tanks, assault guns, and self-propelled assault guns, reached its wartime peak of 1,854 units in December 1944, but mainly as a result of the fact that their heavy components, requiring long lead times, had been committed to the production process many months earlier. On the other hand, the basic materials on which production of finished weapons depended were declining in quantity. The heavy bombing of the Ruhr industrial region in December had reduced the production of pig iron, crude steel and rolling mill capacity to about half of the figure for September 1944 and one-third of the figure for January 19444. By a time late in 1944, moreover, the Allied bombing had also hit the German railway system so hard that the country could not hope to sustain a high level of war production over any significant period.
Industries with short lead times were already suffering more acutely. The industry producing wheeled vehicles was feeling the effects of bomb damage to its factories and the collapse of the railway system. In October and November 1944 the factories delivered 12,000 trucks, but only by dint of rebuilding all the disabled military trucks which could be located in Germany. In December deliveries totalled only 3,300 of the 6,000 new trucks which were required, and Hitler earmarked 70% of this output for ‘Wacht am Rhein’. This meant that in January the authorised truck strengths of the Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions would have to be reduced by 25%, and the army would have to start sourcing bicycles for its Panzergrenadier units. Always one to look on the bright side, which in fact no longer existed, Hitler consoled himself with the belief that the armoured formations and units actually possessed greater numbers of vehicles than they needed, that the period of sweeping manoeuvre warfare was now over, and that in reality the infantry divisions could move more rapidly than the so-called mobile divisions which, Hitler averred, served only to create traffic jams.
The worst factor, however, was the huge decline in oil production which had started in May 1944. Despite the huge effort committed to the ‘Geilenberg’ programme to disperse, repair and build synthetic oil plants, the output of petroleum products had plummeted during the summer. In September the bombing had prevented all synthetic oil facilities from operating. Deliveries of Romanian oil had ceased at the end of August as the country was overrun and changed sides. In October and November, synthetic oil production had got under way one more, though only at a low rate, but by the end of December renewed bombing had destroyed all but one of the large plants as well as one in five of the small plants. Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ still held the Hungarian oilfields at Nagykanizsa, but as a result of the loss of the refineries in the Budapest region and resistance by the workers, the fuel output was inadequate to meet the needs of just Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’.
In June 1944 the Luftwaffe had used 180,000 metric tons of aviation fuel, but its total supply for the rest of the war was no more than 197,000 metric tons. So while aircraft production remained high to the end of the year, the Luftwaffe lacked the fuel firstly to provide new pilots with adequate training and secondly to use its warplanes effectively. The shortage of motor fuel was almost as difficult, and as a result the army had comparable problems with its armoured vehicle strength.
Although the decline in the numbers of men available for military service had started earlier than the decline in production, it had been partially offset by a numbers of expedients: by a time late in 1944, most of those which showed promise, and others which did not, had been or were being tried, but could not produce the numbers of men which the army needed to counterbalance its losses. Between June and November 1944, Germany’s irrecoverable losses on all fronts totalled 1.457 million men, of which 903,000 had been lost on the Eastern Front. On 1 October of that year the German strength on the Eastern Front was 1.790138 personnel, of whom about 150,000 were Hiwis (local auxiliaries). This total was about 400,000 persons fewer than in June and nearly 700,000 less than in January 1944, when the western theatre was still seen by the Germans as being almost a reserve. The shortage of manpower affected mostly the older and more experienced divisions, for between 1 September and 31 December about one-third of the replacements for all fronts, to the extent of about 500,000 men, was allocated to new or completely rebuilt divisions. At the end of the same period the older divisions were more than 800,000 men below their establishment strengths despite the fact that the latter had been trimmed by 700,000 men during 1944.
In August Hitler had called on Dr Joseph Goebbels, as the so-called ‘Reich Plenipotentiary for Total War’, to procure an additional 1 million men, without regard for previous draft status, through Nazi party channels for the creation of new divisions. By the end of 1944 Goebbels had found 300,000 new recruits and about 200,000 men transferred from the other services. In October Hitler had activated the Volkssturm (people’s attack) as a home guard under party leadership, and comprising males between the ages of 16 and 60, and otherwise exempted from conscription. The men of the Volkssturm were to be issued with army uniforms if such were available, and if not were to wear the party uniform or civilian clothes. Hitler also authorised the ‘Gneisenau’ and ‘Blücher’ programmes through which some 200,000 men were to be organised into territorial divisions in the eastern military districts. In November, for the first time, Hitler allowed Russian collaborator troops to fight on the Eastern as the long-discussed Russkaya Osvoboditel’naya Armiya (ROA, or Russian Liberation Army) under the command of the renegade General Leytenant Andrei A. Vlasov. Moreover, in his efforts to maintain the army’s notional combat Hitler allowed a number of organisational and numerical sleights of hand: for example, new artillery corps were created at brigade strength, Panzer brigades of two battalions, and Panzerjäger brigades of one battalion. Between August and December, the 1.569 million men called to the colours exceeded, by a small margin, the total decline in field strength for the same period, but of these 956,000 would not reach the field until well after 1 January 1945.
During October and November 1944, the organisational branch of the Oberkommando des Heeres had demanded reports from the army groups and armies of their combat capabilities. Inevitably, all these high-level formations reported that what they most required were larger numbers of replacements. They reported that troop morale had been affected adversely by the recent losses of pre-war German territory in the west and in East Prussia, and by the Allied ‘terror bombing’. The general attitude of the troops was still one of confidence, but for most of the troops this confidence was based wholly on the belief that new weapons would soon be made available and prove effective in halting the Allied bombing and overturn the Western Allies’ and Soviet’s superiority on the ground.
Yet Hitler knew only too well, and certainly better than the troops, that Germany was in dire straits. On 28 December, in an address to the divisional commanders soon to fight ‘Nordwind’ (iii) in Alsace, the German leader admitted that ‘Wacht am Rhein’ had failed and that from this time onward Germany would be fighting for survival. Then Hitler told his audience that ‘I would like to interpose immediately…that when I say that, you should not infer that I am thinking of losing the war even in the slightest. I have never in my life learned the meaning of the word capitulation, and I am one of those men who has worked his way up from nothing. For me, therefore, the circumstances in which we find ourselves today are nothing new. The situation for me was once altogether different and much worse. I say that only so that you can judge why I pursue my goal with such fanaticism and why nothing can break me down. I could be yet so tortured by worries and, as far as I am concerned, my health could be destroyed by worry without it in the slightest changing my decision to fight until, in the end, the balance tips to our side.’
The most interesting thing about Hitler’s homily, which was at the superficial level typical of his rhetoric, is that in similar speeches on earlier occasions, such as that to his generals before the launch of ‘Wacht am Rhein’, there had been a strong political and strategic message: on those occasions Hitler had spoken as a statesman and strategist bringing his will into play for the attainment of supposedly rational objectives. In this latest address, it was his will alone which counted: battles and armies were wholly secondary to the overriding factor of Hitler’s will not to weaken.
In aftermath of its success in ‘Bagration’, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front gained a pair of bridgeheads on the western bank of the Vistula river between 27 July and 4 August 1944, but then remained inactive during ‘Burza’, the failed Warsaw uprising which began on 1 August 1944. Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front secured another large bridgehead at Sandomierz during the ‘Lwów-Sandomierz Offensive Operation’. Before the ‘Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation’, the Soviets established large numbers of men and sizeable quantities of matériel in these three bridgeheads, and thus greatly outnumbered the Germans in armour, artillery, manpower and air power. All this was known to German intelligence and Generalmajor Reinhard Gehlen, head of the Fremde Heere Ost (enemy armies east) intelligence department, fully briefed Guderian, who duly passed the information and associated documentation to Hitler, who refused to believe the data. The problem now facing the Germans, regardless of the size and exact axis of the Soviets’ inevitable late winter offensive was that formations which had been involved in ‘Wacht am Rhein’ could not be transferred quickly enough from the Western Front to the Eastern Front, and that while Guderian had proposed the abandonment of the isolated Kurland peninsula so that the formations of Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ could be evacuated by sea to Germany to boost the strength available for the defence of Germany, Hitler had expressly forbidden this. Moreover, Hitler had ordered that some of the last available reserve formations within Germany to be moved to Hungary for ‘Frühlingserwachen’.
Early in January 1945, the German forces on the Eastern Front comprised five army groups. Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, renamed as Heeresgruppe ‘Kurland’ on 25 January and taken over two days later by Generaloberst Dr Lothar Rendulic, comprised Generaloberst Carl Hilpert’s 16th Army and General Ehrenfried-Oskar Boege’s 18th Army, and henceforth played little significant part in the war. Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, comprising Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee, General Friedrich Hossbach’s 4th Army and Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army, held East Prussia and northern Poland along the Narew river to its junction with the Vistula river in the area to the north of Warsaw. Generaloberst Josef Harpe’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’, comprising General Theodor Busse’s 9th Army, General Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 4th Panzerarmee, General Friedrich Schulz’s 17th Army and Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s 1st Panzerarmee, held a north/south line from north of Warsaw along the middle section of the Vistula river to the Carpathian mountains in Czechoslovakia. General Otto Wöhler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was located in Hungary, and Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe ‘F’ held Germany’s far southern flank.
The planned late winter offensive, which was designed to take the Soviet army in a single great move from the middle section of the Vistula river to the Oder river, only a short distance from Berlin, would descend on the 70 divisions of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘A’, the latter having some 400,000 men, 1,150 armoured fighting vehicles and 4,100 pieces of artillery. At the end of September, Zhukov and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Konstantin K. Rokossovsky, the former at the time overall commander of ‘Bagration’ and the latter commanding the 1st Belorussian Front, had been ordered to Moscow to be questioned about the lack of success of General Major Frants I. Perkhorovich’s 47th Army in attacks immediately to the north of Warsaw. Premier Iosif Stalin was highly concerned, and at first unwilling to agree with the recommendation of Zhukov and Rokossovsky that further offensive action should not be considered until the Soviet forces had been able to regroup. Stalin then decided to bring the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian Fronts directly under his own control. Zhukov gave up his co-ordinating appointment as Stavka representative and was appointed to the command of the 1st Belorussian Front in the middle of November in succession to Rokossovsky, who moved to command the 2nd Belorussian Front, replacing General Polkovnik Georgi F. Zakharov, who assumed command of the 4th Guards Army.
According to his own account, Zhukov remained in effect the senior member of the Stavka in his capacity as Stalin’s main military deputy. During October Zhukov and General Aleksei I. Antonov, head of the Soviet army’s operations directorate, started to plan the new offensive. Zhukov appears to have been preoccupied with the flank threat posed by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ (Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ from 25 January 1945) in East Prussia and blamed Stalin for failing to accept his recommendation that the 2nd Belorussian Front be reinforced with an additional army to eliminate this danger. On 1 or 2 November the plans were presented to Stalin, and by the middle of the month planning was continued in a series of exercises and war games at the headquarters of the two fronts and the armies which were to take part in the offensive. No firm date for the launch of the operation had yet been set, but it had been ordained that the relevant formations should be ready by a time between 15 and 20 January 1945. Zhukov has stressed the difficulties which now faced the Soviet troops, since the railways and other lines of communication ran through Polish territory and for this reason might be vulnerable. There were also greater difficulties than before in securing intelligence from the Germans’ rear areas. The existence of both problems indicates the strained nature of the relationship between the Soviet army and the local Polish population.
Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front and Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front each had 10 armies, including two tank armies and several independent corps, and their joint strength was said to number 163 divisions, 6,400 tanks and self-propelled guns (constituting some 43% of all the Soviet armour on the Eastern Front), 4,700 aircraft, and 2.2 million men. The total assault frontage on both fronts was more than 300 miles (480 km).
The 1st Belorussian Front’s offensive was to consist of three separate operations. In the most northerly of these, Warsaw was to be doubly enveloped by Zakharov’s 47th Army to the north of the capital while General Leytenant Stanisław G. Poplavsky’s 1st Polish Army and General Polkovnik Pavel A. Belov’s 61st Army, attacking from the northern corner of the Magnuszew bridgehead, outflanked the city from the south. The centre operation, also from the Magnuszew bridgehead, was the main thrust to the west direct to Kutno and Łódź and thence to Bydgoszcz (Bromberg in German) and Poznań (Posen), the break-out frontage being less than 10 miles (16 km) wide. This centre thrust was allocated to General Polkovnik Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army and General Polkovnik Vasili I. Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army with General Polkovnik Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army and General Polkovnik Semyon I. Bogdanov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army committed in the second echelon on the flanks. The third operation was a subsidiary thrust from the Puławy bridgehead toward Radom, and was entrusted to General Polkovnik Vyacheslav D. Tsvetayev’s 33rd Army and General Polkovnik Vladimir Ya. Kolpakchy’s 69th Army and three tank corps, co-operating with the right flank of the 1st Ukrainian Front. This front was to advance from the Baranów bridgehead and, after destroying the German forces at Kielce, in 12 days reach the line linking Radomsk, Częstochowa and Miechow. It was then to move on Breslau, the capital of Silesia. The break-out from the Baranów bridgehead was to be made on a 19-mile (30-km) front using the six breakthrough artillery divisions and General Polkovnik Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army, General Polkovnik Konstantin K. Koroteyev’s 52nd Army and General Polkovnik Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army. General Polkovnik 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 Polkovnik Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 4th Guards Tank Army were to follow in the second echelon.
Subsidiary attacks were to be made to the flanks, one to the north of Szydłowiec and Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski by General Polkovnik 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 Polkovnik 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.
Meanwhile, in the ‘East Prussian Strategic Offensive Operation’, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front, in the area to the north-east of Warsaw, was to advance to the north-west and, after clearing the right bank of the Vistula river and taking Marienburg, approach the Baltic Sea near Danzig, so cutting off East Prussia from the rest of Germany and at the same time giving some protection to the right flank of the 1st Belorussian Front.
Although preparations for the offensive had been ready since early December, the Soviet forces remained inactive, leading some Germans to conclude, wrongly, that the delay was a deliberate Soviet ploy to bring pressure on the Western Allies to recognise the Soviet-backed Lublin Committee as the provisional government of Poland. The reality of the situation was that the winter of 1944/45 had started late, and the Soviet high command was not prepared to begin an offensive in the heavy mud of the period as this would make it impossible for the Soviet forces to take maximum advantage of their superiority in armoured and mechanised formations, and as good visibility was needed for the most effective use of two other Soviet advantages, namely their superiority in artillery and in the air. As early as 14 December Stalin had told W. Averell Harriman, the US ambassador to the USSR, that the Soviet forces were awaiting a period of good weather before starting any major action. The more capable German commanders were also not deceived by the Soviet delay, and worked to prepare their formations for the Soviet onslaught they expected as soon as cold weather had arrived and frozen the mud. There also remains the possibility that Stalin delayed the start of the offensive to the time that ‘Wacht am Rhein’ in the Ardennes had failed but before any of the formations that might thus been freed could be diverted to the Eastern Front.
The primary Soviet thrust of the new offensive, based on the size and power of the Soviet tank and mechanised forces, was to advance along the axis from Warsaw to Berlin, and it was here that the Panzer and Panzergrenadier formations were at their weakest: of the 18 Panzer divisions on the Eastern Front, seven were in Hungary, two in Kurland and four in East Prussia, leaving only five available in the centre for the defence of Brandenburg.
On 5 January Guderian travelled by his special command train to visit the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ at Eszterháza in Hungary, and thence to the north across Czechoslovakia to headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ at Kraków in Poland. What he was undertaking was not a straightforward inspection tour, for Guderian was highly concerned by the fact that the Budapest relief operation was taking far longer than it should, and that Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘A’ were both expecting a Soviet offensive, more powerful than any they had yet experienced, to start in the middle of the month.
To the north of the Carpathian mountains, the Eastern Front had not changed significantly since the end of summer. In the last week of the year Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had defeated the third Soviet attempt in three months to break its front. Elsewhere the front had been calm since the first week in November, when a counterattack by General Friedrich Hossbach’s 4th Army had driven the Soviet armies in the sector to the east of Gumbinnen out of East Prussia except for a strip measuring 15.5 by 50 (25 by 80 km).
The outstanding features of the fronts held by Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ were the five bridgeheads which the Soviets had established: these were at Ronan and Serock on the Narew river, and at Magnuszew, Puławy and Baranów on the Vistula river, and were clearly the wedges which the Soviets could exploit to drive forward and shatter the rest of the two army groups’ fronts. In November Heeresgruppe ‘A’ had taken command of General Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 9th Army, and its front then extended from Modlin in the north to the Hungarian border in the south. Heeresgruppe ‘A’ had four major formations under its command, in the form of the 9th Army, General Fritz-Hubert Graeser’s 4th Panzerarmee, General Friedrich Schulz’s 17th Army and Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s Armeegruppe ‘Heinrici’ (Heinrici’s own 1st Panzerarmee and Vezérezredes Dezsöo László’s Hungarian 1st Army). These formations straddled the direct axes of attack into Germany proper. Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte had Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee, Hossbach’s 4th Army and General Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army, and with these covered the area of East Prussia and Danzig.
The months of quiet which were about to end had given the army groups and their subordinate armies the opportunity to build a tight system of field fortifications extending back from the Vistula and Narew rivers in the east to the Oder river in the west, and within this system of defences the major road junctions were ringed with defensive works and designated as fortresses.
The Fremde Heere Ost intelligence department of the Oberkommando des Heeres initially believed that the next Soviet offensives would have as their tasks the seizure of East Prussia, the clearance of the area round the lower reaches of the Vistula river and the capture of Upper Silesia and Vienna in wide pincer movements which would also take Czechoslovakia. During December the Fremde Heere Ost’s assessment changed, and now predicted offensives by Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front against Heeresgruppe ‘A’ on axes to the west and north-west. A simultaneous thrust against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was also probable, possibly with a more limited objective than the full conquest of East Prussia as the Soviet attempts up to this time to destroy Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had failed. By a time early in January it seemed that the Soviets would also attempt the destruction of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, a thrust to the lower reaches of the Vistula, and a deep thrust, possibly as far as Berlin, against Heeresgruppe ‘A’.
Assessment of comparative strengths on the Eastern Front indicated that 160 German formations and units of division or brigade size faced 414 formations and units along the front, 261 in front reserve, and 219 in deeper reserve. Even allowing for the fact that Soviet formations and units were on average some 30% smaller than their German equivalents, and generally 40% below establishment strength (no comparable understrength allowance was made for the German formations and units), the Soviet overall superiority was more than 2.3/1. The actual ratio was in fact considerably greater, and at the crucial points overwhelming. Against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian and General Ivan D. Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front had 1.67 million men, more than 28,000 pieces of artillery and mortars, and 3,300 tanks and pieces self-propelled artillery, which gave them overall superiorities of 2.8/1 in men, 3.4/1 in artillery and 4.7/1 in armour. In their sectors opposite Heeresgruppe ‘A’, Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front had 2.2 million men, 6,400 tanks and pieces of self-propelled artillery, and 46,000 pieces of artillery, heavy mortars and multiple rocket launchers. Against these the 4th Army, 9th Army, 4th Panzerarmee and 17th Army could field about 400,000 men, 1,150 tanks and 4,100 pieces of artillery. At the bridgeheads which were their points of attack, the 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front outnumbered the Germans by ratios of 9/1 in men, 9/1 to 10/1 in artillery, and 10/1 in armour. In the Magnuszew bridgehead alone, the 1st Belorussian Front had 400,000 men, 8,700 pieces of artillery and mortars, and 1,700 tanks.
On 1 January the Germans could commit 1,900 warplanes above the Western Front, and 1,875 above the Eastern Front, so the main German air effort was still concentrated in the west. On the Eastern Front, in the area to the north of the Carpathian mountains, General Kurt Pflugbeil’s Luftflotte I and Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim’s Luftflotte VI had some 1,300 warplanes between them, but the Soviets could commit more than 10,000 warplanes over the battlefield and thus had a superiority of almost 7.7/1 in the air.
The staff of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ had a plan ready to present to Guderian on his arrival in Kraków, but the army group’s outlook was not good. Prompted by the loss in December of two reserve divisions to Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, Generalleutnant Wolfdietrich von Xylander, the army group’s chief-of-staff, had undertaken a map exercise which suggested that the Soviets could break through and reach the Silesian border in six days, and also that it was by no means certain that they could be stopped on the Oder river. Later consideration indicated that the best which the army group could hope to achieve, at best, was to give itself a fighting chance. Its first major switch position, the ‘Hubertus-Linie’, extended parallel with the western front of the Soviets’ Baranów bridgehead and about 5 miles (8 km) to its rear, and then ran in an almost straight line to the north as far as the western tip of the Magnuszew bridgehead. The army group proposed to withdraw to the ‘Hubertus-Linie’ in the two nights before the start of the Soviet offensive in order to relocate the inner flanks of the 4th Panzerarmee and 9th Army out of the probability of encirclement, get the 4th Panzerarmee’s right flank out of the front on the Baranów bridgehead before the Soviet artillery preparation started, shorten the front, and give the army group a reserve. Guderian approved the plan on 8 January, but it was not to be expected that Hitler would also approve it.
After also receiving the proposal of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, which recommended a retirement from the Narew river to the line along the East Prussian border, Guderian on 9 January reported to Hitler who, according to Guderian, refused to believe the intelligence estimates of Soviet strength and told him that the officers who had arrived at the ‘exaggerated’ figures were mad. Hitler also rejected both army groups’ plans.
Hitler clearly wished not to believe it, but the respite on the Eastern Front was over. On 3 January Hitler had formally abandoned the objectives of ‘Wacht am Rhein’, and five days later ordered that the offensive’s spearhead formation, SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzerarmee, pull back into reserve and ready itself to meet any Allied counter-offensive. ‘Nordwind’ (iii) in northern Alsace was still being fought, but possessed at best only a nuisance value.
On 7 January Heeresgruppe ‘A’ detected the movement of fresh Soviet formations and units into the front on the western face of the Baranów bridgehead. In the Puławy and Magnuszew bridgeheads the Soviets were reinforcing their artillery. It was abundantly clear that the Soviets were on the verge of completing their final deployment for the ‘Vistula-Oder was obviously under way.
One of World War II’s greatest strategic operations, the huge Soviet strategic offensive which was now to fall on the German forces was based on two parallel and extremely powerful armoured thrusts, as noted above. Of these, the more southerly was entrusted to the 1st Ukrainian Front from the Baranów bridgehead on the Vistula river in the direction of Breslau in Silesia, and the more northerly to the 1st Belorussian Front from the Puławy and Magnuszew bridgeheads on the Vistula river in the direction of Posen. Beyond Breslau and Posen, the two axes were to converge on Berlin, but the offensive’s primary aim was to reach the Oder river in the north and the Neisse river in the south preparatory to plunging into the heart of Germany and seizing Berlin in the war’s final offensive.
In grand strategic terms, therefore, the Stavka intended nothing less than to bring the war to an end in a two-part undertaking which was to be completed in about 45 days. Following standard staff practice, the detailed plan covered only the initial phase. Its success was considered certain, and no more than 15 days were allotted to it. The second phase would require greater daring and more time, though not much more of either. The Stavka knew that the German centre, held by Heeresgruppe ‘A’, was weak to the extent that it was a danger to the whole of the German position on the Eastern Front. The German flanking formations, and particularly Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in East Prussia, seemed to be stronger in relative terms, but at the worst, from the Soviet point of view, could be effectively immobilised. In the second phase of the grand offensive, for which it allowed 30 days and which would follow the first without a full stop, the Stavka therefore intended that the 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front should drive straight through to Berlin and the Elbe river.
In the four months before the launch of the parallel offensives, the Soviet high command had provided huge logistical backing. The railways of eastern Poland had been converted to the Russian gauge and, at the Vistula river bridgeheads, had been extended across the river. The 1st Belorussian Front had received over 68,000 wagon loads of supplies, only 10% less than had been sent to all four fronts before the start of the ‘Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation’ (otherwise ‘Bagration’) in June 1944 against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. More than 64,000 wagon loads of supplies had been delivered to the 1st Ukrainian Front. In the Magnuszew bridgehead, the 1st Belorussian Front had stockpiled 2.5 million artillery shells and mortar bombs, and in the Puławy bridgehead 1.3 million rounds and bombs. The 1st Belorussian Front’s and 1st Ukrainian Front’s petrol and Diesel oil stocks together amounted to more than 30 million US gallons. Operating in areas off the main road and railway networks, and also entrusted with less critical tasks, the 2nd and 3rd Belorussian Fronts had to be careful with their comparatively smaller fuel and ration allocations, but were supplied with ammunition on a scale not dissimilar to that of the two primary fronts. The two fronts had as initial issues 9 million artillery and mortar rounds, of 40% were to be fired in the opening bombardment.
In preparing the offensive, the Soviet high command had recast its troop indoctrination programme to reflect the fact that the emphasis was no longer placed on the liberation of Soviet territory but the capture of the erstwhile invader’s land, and here the emphasis was placed on revenge. This theme was spread in meetings, by slogans, on signs raised along roads, and in articles and leaflets written by well-known Soviet literary figures. Political officers harped on the crimes which the Germans had committed on Soviet women and children, and on German looting and destruction in the USSR. Much was also made of accounts by soldiers and officers of what had happened to their own families. Thus the feeling was inculcated in the troops that they had a personal scores to settle with the Germans.
According to the Soviets, the starting date for the two offensives was to have been 20 January, but when on 6 January Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked Stalin if the Soviets could help to lift some of the pressure off the Western Allies, the start day was brought forward to 12 January. During December, with the exception of the comparatively minor operations in the Budapest area, the Eastern Front had been very quiet from the Western Allies’ point of view, In the middle of that month Stalin had informed Harriman, the US ambassador, that a winter offensive was in the final stages of preparation, but provided no further information. On 15 January Stalin talked to Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, currently heading a Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force mission in the USSR to ascertain Soviet intentions,. and explained that the offensive had been delayed by weather conditions, but had then been started earlier than intended, as a result of the Western Allies’ problems in the west, with the object of reaching the line of the Oder river.
German intelligence reports suggest that after mid-December the Stavka had been a waiting a change in the weather. The winter of 1944/45 was colder than that of 1943/44, but snow, fog and clouds interfered with aerial activity and artillery observation. An early start may had had some disadvantages for the Soviets but, with the ‘Argonaut’ inter-Allied conference at Yalta only three weeks distant, it was to Stalin’s advantage to have a major and successful offensive under way, Poland already in Soviet hands with the Soviet-backed Lublin Committee government established in Warsaw, and the Allies in his debt.
On 9 January Antonov instructed Konev that his 1st Ukrainian Front was to begin the offensive on 12 January, with the 1st Belorussian Front following two days later, probably because cold weather was not expected until then in the more northerly sector. Thus on 12 January the 1st Ukrainian Front began the offensive from its Baranów bridgehead, between the Vistula river and the Łysogóry hills, against the 4th Panzerarmee. The attacking troops seized the Germans’ forward defended localities around the Baranów bridgehead by surprise. At 10.00 the preparatory artillery bombardment began, and this lasted for a period of just under two hours, during which the German communications system broke down.
The attack fell on General Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Edelsheim’s XLVIII Panzerkorps of three infantry divisions, and on General Hermann Recknagel’s XLII Corps of four infantry divisions. von Edelsheim’s corps had about one man for each 15 yards of front. Each of the divisions had about 12 self-propelled assault guns, and the corps held about 100 such weapons in reserve. The front line was in fact nothing more than a chain of strongpoints, and some 15.5 miles (25 km) farther to the rear the army’s reserve, General Walter Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps, had deployed two Panzer divisions, with another two Panzer divisions off the bridgehead’s northern face. Facing this German strength, for its break-out the 1st Ukrainian Front had five armies, two tank armies, and more than 1,000 tanks. Both of the German formations were powerless to move their forward formations as they were pinned both by Hitler’s orders and the overwhelming weight of the artillery fire. Part of the XXIV Panzerkorps, which had been moved close up to the front by Hitler’s express order, was now drawn into the battle and dispersed by the bombardment.
In the dark hours of 12 January the temperature was a few degrees above freezing, the roads were still icy and, as had been the case for the last few days, low cloud and fog prevented flight operations. Before the break of day, the massed Soviet artillery, estimated at 420 pieces per mile (260 pieces per km), laid a barrage on the northern two-thirds of the XLVIII Panzerkorps’ 30-mile (50-km) front. After three hours, the Soviet artillery shifted to a strip pattern at 11.47, and the infantry moved forward into the openings, this phase of the undertaking being spearheaded by a number of semi-expendable punishment units. The Germans were caught forward of the main battle line, for they had expected the Soviets to await the arrival of better weather. The Soviet bridgehead accommodated, from north to south, the 4th Tank Army, 3rd Guards Army, 13th Army, 52nd Army and 5th Guards Army, backed by the 21st Army, 3rd Guards Tank Army and 59th Army, of the 1st Ukrainian Front, and during the morning the Soviet infantry drove in deep into the German positions. By 12.00 the Soviet infantry had driven gaps wide enough for the armour to start moving forward. The XLVIII Panzerkorps’ three divisions were effectively destroyed. The XXIV Panzerkorps had been ordered to to counterattack, but its two divisions to the west of the bridgehead were overrun in their assembly areas. On the next day, the 4th Tank Army wheeled to the north-west toward Chęciny, and the 52nd Army and 3rd Guards Tank Army pushed straight to the west past Chmielnik. During the night some of the Soviet armoured spearheads penetrated as far as the Nida river, across which a path, some 40 miles (65 km) wide, lay open to Upper Silesia and the Oder river. On the bridgehead’s northern flank, what survived of the XXIV Panzerkorps dug in around Kielce.
Adverse weather limited to just a few hundred sorties the tactical air support which could be provided by the Soviet air forces, but by the end of the first day the armies in the Soviet first echelon had penetrated up to a depth of about 12.5 miles (20 km). On the next day the German resistance stiffened, however, especially in the area round Kielce and Chmielnik, and the pace of the Soviet attack slowed to the extent that Konev committed Korovnikov’s 59th Army and a tank corps from his second echelon in a thrust to the south in the direction of Kraków. The rate of the Soviet advance increased once more on 14 January, and on the following day the XXIV Panzerkorps was finally defeated, opening the way for the Soviet forces into open country after a four-day advance of more than some 60 miles (100 km). All German communications had broken down and the troops were in disorder. The partially encircled XLII Corps tried to withdraw, but its corps headquarters was attacked by tank troops and Recknagel, the corps commander, was killed. Meanwhile the German shoulders of the Soviet breakthrough area had given way. The advent of better weather also meant that the Soviet air force could become notably more present, with daily sorties increasing from 300 to 1,700. On 17 January the Soviet forces crossed the Warthe river, and after six days Soviet troops had penetrated 100 miles (160 km) on a 160-mile (260-km) front.
Still at Ziegenberg and attempting to control both ‘Wacht am Rhein’ in the Ardennes and ‘Nordwind’ (iii) in Alsace, Hitler could do nothing to remedy the situation, but on 15 January resorted to his usual strategy of robbing one sector to reinforce another: this frequently resulted in both sectors going short of the necessary strength as the switched formation or formations were moved. Against Guderian’s advice, Hitler now ordered General Dietrich von Saucken’s Panzerkorps ‘Grossdeutschland’ from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in East Prussia to Łódź in order to assist in the defence of Kielce, which was already in the process of being taken by Konev’s forces. When von Saucken’s formation started to detrain in Łódź, the city was already under fire and he was fortunate to be able to fight his way out for the Panzerkorps ‘Grossdeutschland’ to join forces with what was left of the XXIV Panzerkorps.
Farther to the north, the 9th Army had been expecting the Soviet attacks out of the Puławy and Magnuszew bridgeheads, which contained the 33rd Army and 5th Shock Army respectively of the 1st Belorussian Front. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front attacked from these two bridgeheads on 14 January. The Magnuszew bridgehead was only 15 miles (24 km) wide by about 7 miles (11.25 km) deep and, according to the Soviet account, on the day the offensive began contained no fewer than 400,000 men and 1,700 armoured fighting vehicles, but by that time the Soviet front commanders hardly bothered to conceal their actions or intentions. The weather was as poor at first as it had been farther to the south, and reliance was therefore placed not so much on aircraft as on artillery and tanks for fire support. The assault battalions attacked after a relatively short artillery bombardment against General Johannes Block’s LVI Panzerkorps and General Walter Hartmann’s VIII Corps, both part of the 9th Army comprising only seven infantry divisions and the Warsaw garrison. The Soviet success was immediate and both of these corps were scattered, the two divisions of General Siegfried Henrici’s XL Panzerkorps, held in 9th Army reserve, then suffering the same fate.
Still farther to the north, on 15 January the 47th Army on the right flank of the 1st Belorussian Front broke through to the north of Warsaw and advanced toward to Modlin, and on the Soviet left the 38th Army, the right-flank army of the 4th Ukrainian Front, began to push to the west in the direction of Kraków. During this same day the 13th Army, 4th Tank Army and 3rd Guards Army pushed the XXIV Panzerkorps out of Kielce, thereby removing the admittedly insignificant threat to the 1st Ukrainian Front’s flank.
On 13 January Hitler had ordered the transfer of two infantry divisions from the Western Front and, on the next day, in a move which was to prove of greater disadvantage to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, itself under attack, than of benefit to Heeresgruppe ‘A’, also ordered the former to transfer von Saucken’s Panzerkorps ‘Grossdeutschland’ and its two divisions to the latter. On 15 January Hitler ordered Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ to despatch two Panzer divisions to Heeresgruppe ‘A’.
On 15 January the Soviet forces forced the Pilica river and Radom fell on 16 January. Marshal Sergei I. Rudenko’s 16th Air Army, supporting Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, now had good weather in which to operate, and flew 3,400 sorties against a reported figure of just 42 sorties by the Germans. On the 1st Belorussian Front’s right flank Warsaw was being steadily enveloped from the north and the south, the main weight of the attack coming from the southern pincer (Bogdanov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army and Belov’s 61st Army). General Martin Fries’s XLVI Panzerkorps, which had been allocated the thankless task of trying to block the Soviet line of advance, was itself compelled to fall back to the west from the Warsaw area to avoid the closing arms of the Soviet pincer, but such was the pressure of the 2nd Guards Tank Army from the south that the XLVI Panzerkorps was forced back to the north across the Vistula river, so leaving the axis to Posen and the Oder river uncovered. By 17 January Warsaw, designated as a fortress by Hitler, had been evacuated by the Germans and occupied by the Polish 1st Army.
On the second and third days of the Soviet offensive, Guderian sent two situation estimates to Hitler’s headquarters: both reports urged that the German position on the Eastern Front could not survive without reinforcement from the Western Front; and that the current offensive effort of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ must be halted and its armoured divisions sent to Heeresgruppe ‘A’. The intelligence estimate of 15 January stated flatly that the offensive against Heeresgruppe ‘A’ could not be halted by the forces currently deployed on the Eastern Front. Typically, however, Hitler refused either to halt Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ or to redeploy additional strength from the Western Front.
On the night of 15/16 January Hitler moved his headquarters from the Adlerhorst in the Taurus mountains to the Reich chancellory in Berlin. Only minutes before Hitler departed, Guderian telephoned to ‘request urgently that everything be thrown east’. On the following day, when he spoke to Guderian in Berlin, Hitler said that he was about to send SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzerarmee’s two corps, which the most readily available reserves in the western theatre, to the Eastern Front, but to Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ in Hungary rather than to Heeresgruppe ‘A’ in Poland, for Hitler had decided that the war’s outcome would be decided by German retention of the Hungarian oilfields rather than by events in Poland. Undeterred by the ruin of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and the plight of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, with terrifying consequences for huge numbers of German civilians, Hitler therefore sent the greater part of the forces being removed from the Ardennes to Hungary to protect that country’s oilfields and refineries.
Hitler was nonetheless furious about the evacuation of Warsaw against his orders, and the German leader occupied himself over the following few days with an inquiry and the arrest of a number of general staff officers as he now took personal command of the situation on the Eastern Front. On 16 January the German leader replaced Harpe as commander of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ by Schörner, whose position at the head of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ then passed to Generaloberst Dr Lothar Rendulic, whose command of the 20th Gebirgsarmee in Norway then passed to General Franz Böhme. During the day, apparently before Hitler’s arrival in Berlin, the Oberkommando des Heeres had issued a directive giving the hard-pressed Heeresgruppe ‘A’ freedom of decision in the great bend of the Vistula river, this including authority to evacuate Warsaw. On seeing this directive, Hitler ordered a new directive to supersede it: Heeresgruppe ‘A’ was to halt on, or to regain, a line between a location to the east of Kraków to one to the west of Radomsko, and thence along the Pilica river to the Warsaw area, and to hold Warsaw and the line of the Vistula river to Modlin. Heeresgruppe ‘A’ was also informed that the two Panzer divisions from Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ would be the last reinforcement it received for two weeks but, at the same time, was permitted to allow the 17th Army and Armeegruppe ‘Heinrici’ to fall back in the Carpathian mountains as far as necessary to release one or two divisions for redeployment.
Despite being one of Hitler’s favourites, and possessing a reputation for unequalled skill in defensive warfare, Schörner rapidly found that he could do nothing to sway the course of events. The replacements he received from Himmler’s Ersatzheer (replacement army) in Germany were few in number, very poorly trained and only partially equipped, and comprised Volksgrenadier divisions, the staff and students of military schools, and some police and SS.
Meanwhile the troops of the 1st Ukrainian Front and 1st Belorussian Front continued to stream to the west in a pursuit which continued relentlessly by day and night with the armoured and mechanised formation in the lead against increasingly weak opposition. On 17 January the Soviets completed the break-out phase of their offensive. The 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front had cleared the entire line of the Vistula river between a point to the east of Kraków to another to the west of Modlin. On that day the XXIV Panzerkorps, which was the last element of resistance between the two fronts, managed to break away to the north-west of Kielce, and then began to zigzag its way across Poland as it fought its way to the west in the direction of the Pilica river. Konev’s spearheads were meanwhile already across the Pilica river and and had reached Częstochowa and Radomsko. The 1st Belorussian Front took Warsaw. The Stavka now ordered Zhukov and Konev to accelerate their thrusts toward the Oder river and instructed Konev to use his second echelon, mostly infantry which had not yet been in action, and his left-flank formations to take Krakow and the industrial region of Upper Silesia.
The German failure to hold Warsaw had major repercussions in Berlin. Heeresgruppe ‘A’ reported that the revised directive ordered by Hitler had reached it too late for implementation as the garrison of Warsaw had destroyed its supplies and was already on its way out of the city by the time the directive arrived. Hitler suspected what was in effect sabotage: the original Oberkommando des Heeres’s directive was not one which any officer who knew Hitler would have expected him to authorise. On 18 January Hitler ordered the arrest of the three senior officers in the operations branch of the Oberkommando des Heeres. On the following day the German leader signed an order which removed the last shreds of discretion left to field commanders, and from this time onward each army group, army, corps and division commander was to be deemed personally responsible for ensuring that every decision for an operational movement, whether attack or withdrawal, was reported in time for a counter-order to be issued. The first principle in combat would be to keep the channels of communication open, and any attempt to gloss over the facts would be met with severe punishment.
As always, Schörner made his presence felt from the moment he assumed command. One of his first acts was to dismiss von Lüttwitz, commander of the 9th Army, on the grounds that on the day on which Warsaw was lost his conduct of operations had not been sufficiently clear and rigorous. Command of the 9th Army was now entrusted to Busse. By this time Schörner had given the army group the first taste of his ability to act ruthlessly, a trait which was already well known, and others right down the chain of command were soon to experience this ruthlessness for themselves. Also typical of Schörner’s command style, the reports and orders emerging from the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ began to exude an aura of confidence: for example, the daily report of 18 January stated that the mission of defending the industrial area of Upper Silesia could be accomplished if the two Panzer divisions coming from Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ arrived without delay, and that the Soviet thrust toward Posen, entering the gap between the 4th Panzerarmee and the 9th Army, would require a rapid development of new forces to check the Soviet advance and pave the way for German counterattacks on its flanks. What Schörner’s report did not indicate, of course, was where the army group was to find the new forces which were required.
On the following day, Schörner allocated to the 17th Army the task of holding Upper Silesia, ordered the 4th Panzerarmee to halt the Soviet forces in the area to the west of Częstochowa and on the Soviet axis of advance toward Breslau, and instructed the 9th Army to hold in the area between Lódz and the Vistula river and at the same time counterattack to the south off its right flank. If the tasks allocated to the 17th Army and the 9th Army possessed at least a semblance of theoretical substance, that given to the 4th Panzerarmee bore only the slightest relationship to reality, for this formation had nothing left to it but parts of two divisions and one or two brigades: the XXIV Panzerkorps and the remnants of the army’s left-flank divisions were still encircled and fighting their way to the north-west into the sector of the 9th Army.
On 19 January, only seven days after the start of the offensive, Soviet troops crossed the 1938 Polish/German frontier in the area to the east of Breslau in Silesia, and the approach to the Oder river developed into a race. The remnants of the 4th Panzerarmee and 9th Army had been left in the wake of the Soviet torrent as a great pocket moving slowly westward in the direction of Głogów (Glogau in German) on the Oder river. Only Schulz’s 17th Army, which had not been closely engaged, had managed to retire in some semblance of order, giving up Kraków on 19 January and falling back to the upper part of the Oder river in south-eastern Silesia.
By 19 January the ‘Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation’ against Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and the ‘East Prussian Strategic Offensive Operation’ against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ were each advancing at high speed. The two German army groups had lost contact with each other, and in the area of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ wide gaps had opened between the 9th Army and 4th Panzerarmee, and between the 4th Panzerarmee and 17th Army. In the area to the south of Lódz, the 9th Army’s XL Panzerkorps and the Panzerkorps ‘Grossdeutschland’ were trying to hold a short line until the XXIV Panzerkorps (now reduced to the so-called Gruppe ‘Nehring’) could cross the Pilica river. To the east of Breslau the 4th Panzerarmee was being driven back to the Polish/German border, and at Namslau and to the east of Oppeln the Soviets were indeed already across the border. The 17th Army had a nearly continuous 40-mile (65-km) front on the eastern border of the Upper Silesian industrial area, but lost Kraków on 19 January.
The Soviet armies moved in columns along the roads, the tank armies averaging 25 to 30 miles (40 to 50 km) per day and the infantry armies 18.5 miles (30 km) per day. The 1st Belorussian Front’s main strength struck past Lódz toward Posen, and the 1st Ukrainian Front’s main strength toward Breslau while its infantry turned off the flank toward Upper Silesia. By this stage of the offensive the weather had cleared, and the overwhelming Soviet air superiority which now became available heaped extra offensive weight onto the Germans. The Luftwaffe had started to relocate fighter and ground support warplanes to the east after 14 January, but the German aircraft losses, mostly of machines captured or destroyed on the ground when their airstrips were overrun, outnumbered the new arrivals. Adding to the German burden, the aircraft repair facilities and assembly factories which had been dispersed into Poland to escape the ravages of Allied bombing were now falling into Soviet hands.
Behind the German front, vehicles of every type and all descriptions clogged the roads leading into Germany. In the associated mass of persons fleeing to the west were large numbers of civilian refugees, party and administrative personnel, and significant numbers of stragglers from combat units, but Heeresgruppe ‘A’ lacked sufficient numbers of military police even to make a start on sieving out the last. The fleeing family groups, long familiar as sights on the Eastern Front, were now for the first time of German civilians. For the first time, too, the refugees needed no urging to escape as rapidly as they could, for their main stimulus was terror. The Soviet vengeance on German civilians was swift, personal, pitiless and generally brutal.
By this time the industrial cities of Upper Silesia had taken over from the Ruhr, now largely bombed into ruins, as Germany’s primary source of coal and basic metals. At the end of the third week in January the factories and mines were still working at full capacity. To the east, the 17th Army’s left flank still shielded the area, but to the north it was exposed as the 4th Panzerarmee was pushed back to the west in the direction of the Oder river. On 21 January Konev turned his 3rd Guards Tank Army at Namslau and sent it doubling back to the south-east along the Oder river behind the 17th Army’s flank.
On 22 January the XXIV Panzerkorps established contact with the Panzerkorps ‘Grossdeutschland’ on the Warthe river near Sieradz (Schieratz in German). Caught in the flood of Soviet forces driving to the west, both of the corps continued to drift in the same direction. On the same day the left flank of the 1st Ukrainian Front reached the Oder river, and in the course of the next three days Konev’s armies closed on this river along a 140-mile (225-km) stretch between Cosel and Głogów. At Breslau the 4th Panzerarmee held a bridgehead, both upstream and downstream of this city the Soviets had crossed the river in several places. Schörner ordered counterattacks, but his armies were in no position to execute any such efforts.
On 25 January the 1st Belorussian Front’s main force passed Posen heading directly to the west in the direction of Küstrin on the Oder river. The front’s advance was now taking it away at a right angle from that of the 2nd Belorussian Front, which had turned to the north along the eastern bank of the Vistula river. On the lengthening front between the Vistula and Oder rivers, Hitler now committed the newly created Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’ under the politically correct but militarily incompetent leadership of Himmler. Guderian had wished to bring von Weichs and his headquarters from Yugoslavia to command the new army group, but Hitler countered and prevailed with the assertion that Himmler had revealed military skill in his handling of the Höhere Kommando ‘Oberrhein’. Hitler entrusted Himmler with the tasks of closing the gap between Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘A’, preventing Soviet breakthroughs to Danzig and Posen, and holding open a corridor into East Prussia. Hitler also gave Himmler the further responsibility of organising the national defence behind the entirety of the Eastern Front.
When Himmler arrived on 23 January, one of his tasks had already been rendered obsolete, inasmuch as the 2nd Army had broken away from the flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and the Soviets were closing on the coast of the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the Vistula river: Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was thus cut off. The 2nd Army had a front along the lower reaches of the Vistula river, but to the west of this river all the way back to the Oder river there was nothing. By 25 January another of Himmler’s tasks was impossible, for on that day the Soviets passed Posen.
Himmler had travelled to the east in his special train, which doubled as the mobile command post from which he could control his entire fiefdom: in addition to Himmler and his personal staff, the train also carried skeleton staffs for his functions as the Reichsführer-SS, minister of the interior, chief of the German police, commander of the Ersatzheer and a number of other appointments. What the train lacked, however, was anything appropriate to the command and control of an army group. There were no means of communications with front-line formations, no staff, almost no troops, and no vehicles. For several days, therefore, Himmler possessed no more contact with the war than he could obtain from the occasional, and often obsolete, situation report. The first of Himmler’s military staff to arrive was the operations officer, Oberst Hans-Georg Eismann, an army officer who had made the trip from Berlin by car. It was only several days later that there arrived the army group’s chief-of-staff, SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Heinz Lammerding, who possessed no staff experience.
On 26 January Hitler renamed Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ as Heeresgruppe ‘Kurland’, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ as Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and Heeresgruppe ‘A’ as Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. On the following day Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’ assumed command of the 9th Army, thereby extending its zone to the south as far as to Glogau on the Oder river. Insofar as it could be called a front in any real sense of the word, the front of Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’ followed the Vistula river from its mouth to the south as far as Kulm, then angled to the west in the area to the north of the Netze river until it turned to the south once more on the Tirschtiegel switch position, which, following a chain of lakes, was about 50 miles (80 km) to the east of Küstrin in the north, and at its southern end met the Oder river above Glogau. Though numerous in the army group’s zone, the rivers and lakes provided no defensive advantages, for almost all of them were frozen deep enough to bear the weight of heavy tanks.
On 27 January, for the defence of the 160-mile (260-km) line to the north of the Netze and the Tirschtiegel switch position, Himmler could call on two improvised Waffen-SS corps headquarters, one provisional corps headquarters, three divisions (one of them a newly formed Latvian SS division) and a miscellany of 9th Army remnants, Volkssturm and anything else which could be gathered locally or to the west of the Oder river. Away from the current front line, two divisions were encircled in the ‘fortress’ of Toruń (Thorn in German) and a force of about the same strength in Posen. The headquarters of the 9th Army brought with it one corps headquarters and little more than the staffs of three divisions. TheXXIV Panzerkorps and Panzerkorps ‘Grossdeutschland’, which were still fighting their way out, were now allocated to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.
German reinforcements were starting to move to the east in the form of ‘Gneisenau’ Kampfgruppen created by the Ersatzheer, and battalions comprising the personnel of training centres, non-commissioned officer schools, and weapons schools. Hitler had refused Guderian’s repeated requests to evacuate all the forces isolated in Kurland, but on 17 January did order out of Kurland one Panzer division and two infantry divisions, and then on 22 January one Waffen-SS Corps headquarters and two Waffen-SS divisions. The corps headquarters and the five divisions from Kurland were earmarked for Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’, but by 25 January only one of the divisions had reached Gdynia. Three days earlier, Hitler had ordered the western theatre to transfer the 6th SS Panzerarmee and one additional Panzer corps, together totalling six Panzer divisions, one Volksgrenadier division, two brigades, and several Volks artillery corps, but nonetheless still intended to despatch the greater part of this strength, in the form of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Hermann Priess’s I SS Panzerkorps ‘Leibstandarte’ and SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Willi Bittrich’s II SS Panzerkorps, to Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’.
By 27 January four of 4th Ukrainian Front’s armies had closed on and almost encircled the industrial area of Upper Silesia. The 3rd Guards Tank Army, approaching from the north-west, deliberately left open the pocket’s southern end so that the Germans could escape, and thereby avoid the need for a last-ditch battle that would have destroyed the mines and factories. Between 28 and 30 January the 17th Army was thus able to retreat from the semi-pocket: as a result of his ruthless nature, Schörner could sometimes order retreats which Hitler would have forbidden to any other general. Meanwhile, the Armeegruppe ‘Heinrici’ had started to pull back in Czechoslovakia to the area behind the mountains of the High Tatra.
On 27 and 28 January a blizzard raged across central Europe, piling deep snowdrifts on the roads in the operational areas of Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and then over the turn of the month the temperature rose rapidly, the snow melted and the frozen ground started to thaw. On 1 February Himmler wrote to Guderian that the thaw was a gift to the Germans, whose forces had the benefits of good road and railway communications, whereas the Soviets were operating at the end of very lengthy and indifferent lines of communication and having to bring forward all they required by truck over poor roads, or even by air. Himmler therefore believed that the thaw would provide Germany with the time to bring forward and deploy reinforcements, and at the same time slow the Soviet armour, and might even afford the Germans the opportunity to counterattack. Coming when it did, the thaw was in fact something of a gift of fate. Zhukov was starting to become concerned about his lengthening northern flank, and his men had advanced more than 250 miles (400 km) without a pause. Konev’s right flank had driven forward almost as far. On the Oder river, Schörner was cobbling together something like a homogeneous front. The thrust toward Berlin between the Oder river and the Pomeranian front of Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’ was becoming narrower than the Soviets desired.
After placing in most of its second-echelon and reserve forces on its northern flank, the 1st Belorussian Front had reached the Oder river in the area to the north of Küstrin on 31 January, and by 3 February had closed to the Oder river from the area of Zehden south to its left-hand boundary, but then halted. At Küstrin and Frankfurt-an-der-Oder the Soviets were now just 40 miles (65 km) from Berlin. The Germans held bridgeheads at both places, while the Soviets had established their own bridgeheads to the north of Küstrin and to the south of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder.
On 4 February, Schörner was able to inform Hitler that the first drive of the great Soviet offensive against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had been substantially blunted, and that while the front was still under pressure in many places, in others local counterattacks were being made. By this time the semblance of a front was also beginning to take shape in the area of Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’.
The ‘Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation’ had been a major success for the Soviets, for in just less than three weeks their forces had advanced hundreds of miles, taking much of Poland and striking deep into the eastern border regions of Germany. The offensive had broken Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and with it much of Germany’s remaining capacity for military resistance. However, the stubborn resistance of German forces in Silesia and Pomerania, as well as continuing fighting in East Prussia, meant that the final offensive towards Berlin was delayed by two months, by which time the Germans had rebuilt a substantial force on this axis.
By 31 January, the Soviets were bringing their offensive to an end, though some fighting lasted to 3 February, despite the fact that Berlin was undefended and only some 43.5 miles (70 km) from the Soviet bridgeheads across the Oder river. After the war there was considerable debate, mainly between Zhukov and Chuikov as to whether or not it had been wise to stop the offensive: Chuikov argued that Berlin should have been taken then, while Zhukov defended the decision to halt.
There followed a period of several weeks of Soviet mopping up and consolidation, as well as continuing hard fighting for the pockets in the north. On April 16 the Soviets moved forward again from the lines of the Oder and Neisse rivers in the opening phase of the Battle of Berlin, which proved to be the culminating offensive of the war on the Eastern Front.