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).
During the morning of 24 December 1944, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, arrived at the Adlerhorst headquarters of Adolf Hitler some 10 miles (16 km) to the north-west of Bad Nauheim with the object of asking Hitler to cancel the 'Wacht am Rhein' offensive on the west front and thereby make available men and equipment for transfer to the Eastern Front. During the previous two days it had become certain that the Ardennes operation would not achieve its planned objective, and on the Eastern Front, in the area to the north of the Carpathian mountains, the Soviets had completed their greatest build-up the war. Hitler refused to surrender the initiative on the Western Front and wholly refused to accept the figures of the Oberkommando des Heeres about the strength of he Soviet forces deployed against Generaloberst Jose Harpe’s Heeresgruppe 'A' and Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Hitler had decided that the Soviet build-up was the 'the greatest bluff since Genghis Khan', and therefore refused to consider creating reserves for the Eastern Front by taking formations from the Western Front, Norway or Kurland. The Eastern Front would thus have to rely on the resources currently available to it. At dinner that night, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, who had recently embarked without any experience or skill on a 'military' career as an army group commander on the Western Front, advised Guderian not to be so concerned for, Himmler insisted, the Soviets would not attack and were merely attempting a gigantic bluff. All that Guderian’s visit accomplished was that Hitler waited until the next day, when the chief-of-staff was travelling back to Zossen, outside Berlin, and was therefore out of touch for several hours, to order the transfer of the headquarters of SS-Obergruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Herbert 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 relief of Budapest, the capital of Hungary.
For Germany in the last days of 1944, the situation seemed not to be as serious as it had been in the summer of the same year. The vice which the Western Allies and the USSR had said was closing on Germany was not in fact closing. However, the Ardennes offensive was not about to be the strategic blow that would free the German forces for a blow against the Soviets, although the Germans did possess the strategic initiative, and it would be some time before the Western Allies could resume the offensive into the heart of Germany. To the north of the Carpathians mountains, the Soviet forces had made substantial advance in the course of the last 10 weeks and, after being almost completely destroyed in August, Heeresgruppe 'Süd' was close enough to holding its own in Hungary that the relief of Budapest did not appear impossible. In the Balkans, Heeresgruppe 'E' was in the final stage of its withdrawal from Greece, Albania and southern Yugoslavia, and in Italy, Heeresgruppe 'C' had checked the British 8th Army and US 5th Army in front of the 'Goten-Stellung' ('Gothic Line').
Even so, Hitler’s strategy was bankrupt: the German leader was completely committed to holding everything he still had; he had placed his available military assets into the attempt to bail himself out on the West Front and failed; and he could fight only for time and knew this fact. Late in December Hitler told one of the generals that 'The war will not last as long again as it has lasted. That is absolutely certain. Nobody can endure it; we cannot and the others cannot. The only question is, who will endure longer? It must be he who has everything at stake. We have everything at stake'. Even so, he lacked the time he believed was still available to him: the German capacity to endure was becoming a downward spiral which could not be reversed.
In both the east and the west, Germany’s foes possessed a matériel superiority which Germany could not possible match. German military output from the nation’s war industries had withstood the ravages of the Western Allies' strategic bombing campaign surprisingly well, but was now teetering on the edge of an ever-steepening major decline. Germany’s aircraft factories had produced 3,000 fighters in September 1944, the highest total of the war; in October jet-powered fighters had begun to come off the production lines; and in December fighter production was still greater than in any month before. The manufacture of armoured fighting vehicles (tanks, assault guns and self-propelled guns) reached its wartime peak of 1,854 machines in December 1944, but only largely as a result of the fact that heavy components had long lead times and had therefore been placed in production some months earlier. But the base of German war industry production was falling apart. Heavy bombing of the Ruhr industrial region in December reduced pig iron, crude steel and rolling mill production for that month to about half that of September 1944 and one-third that of January 1944. By a time late in 1944, moreover, the bombing had also damaged the German railway system so seriously that the country was unable to maintain a high level of war production except in the very short term. Industries with short lead times were already suffering. The motor vehicle industry was savagely affected by bomb damage to its factories and by the progressive breakdown of the railway network, locomotives and rolling stock. In October and November 1944 the industry’s assembly factories plants produced trucks by rebuilding all the disabled army trucks which could be located in Germany. In December only 3,300 trucks of the significantly larger requirement were produced, and Hitler earmarked 70% of these for 'Wacht am Rhein'. As a result, in January the truck strengths authorised for Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions had to be reduced by 25%, and the army would be compelled to initiate a programme to mount the Panzergrenadier troops on bicycles. Hitler sought to console himself with the thought that the armoured divisions had been organised on the basis of too many vehicles, that the era of sweeping manoeuvre was over, and that infantry divisions could move more swiftly than the so-called mobile divisions which, Hitler said, only created traffic jams.
In purely military terms, what hurt Germany’s forces was the catastrophic decline in oil production which had begun in May 1944. Despite the maximum-priority 'Geilenberg' programme to disperse, repair and build synthetic oil plants, output had fallen steadily and dramatically during the summer. In September, because of the bombings, no synthetic oil plants had operated. The flow of Romanian oil to Germany had been lost at the end of August. In October and November synthetic oil production had resumed, albeit at only a low rate, but by the end of December the renewal of heavy bombing had knocked out all but one of the large plants, and one-fifth of the small ones. Heeresgruppe 'Süd' still held the Hungarian fields in the area of Nagykanizsa, but as a result of the loss of the refineries at Budapest and resistance by workers, the petrol output was not enough to meet the army group’s own requirements. In June 1944 the Luftwaffe had burned 180,000 tonnes of aviation fuel, and it total supply for the rest of the war amounted to no more than 197,000 tonnes. Although aircraft production remained high right to end of the year, the Luftwaffe lacked the fuel in needed to provide new pilots adequate training and to use its first-line warplane gainfully. The shortage of motor fuel was almost as stringent, and the army therefore suffered similar problems with its armoured vehicles.
Although the reduction in German military manpower had begun sooner than the decline in production, this loss had been mitigated by the adoption of a umber of palliative measures. By a time late in 1944, most of these measures which showed any promise (and some which did not) had been implemented or were being tried, yet were not yielding men in numbers sufficient to prevent the German army’s losses at the front. Between June and November 1944, Germany’s total of irrecoverable losses on all fronts was 1,457,000 men, and of these 903,000 had been lost on the Eastern Front. On 1 October 1944 the strength of the German army on the Eastern Front was 1,790,138 men, and off these some 150,000 were 'Hiwi' Russian auxiliaries. This total was about 400,000 men less than in June and nearly 700,000 less than in January 1944, when the western theatre could, and indeed was, seen almost as a reserve with which to feed the eastern theatre.
For the most part, the shortage of manpower affected the older and more experienced divisions. In the last four months of 1944, one-third of the replacements for all fronts, totalling some 500,000 men, went to new or completely rebuilt divisions. At the end of the same period the older divisions were more than 800,000 men short of their establishment figures after a 700,000-man reduction in the 1944 tables of organisation.
In August 1944 Hitler had demanded that Dr Joseph Goebbels, in his capacity as the Reichbevollmächtigter für den totalen Kriegseinsatz (Reich Plenipotentiary for the Total War Effort), procure 1,000,000 men through Nazi party channels. This new manpower was to be used in the creation new divisions and were to be called up without regard for previous draft status. By the end of 1944, Goebbels had secured 300,000 new recruits and about 200,000 transfers from one branch of the armed forces to another. In October Hitler had activated the Volkssturm home guard organisation under Nazi party leadership and comprising men aged 16 to 60 otherwise exempt from the draft. The members were to be issued with army uniforms, if and when these were available; if such uniform was not not available, the men were to wear the party uniform or civilian clothes. The 'Gneisenau' and 'Blücher' programmes were also authorised for the use of some 200,000 men in the establishment of territorial divisions within Germany’s eastern military districts. And for the first time, in November Hitler gave this assent to the use of Russian collaborationist troops to fight on the Eastern Front as the long-considered Russische Befreiungsarmee (Russian Liberation Army) with Generalleutnant Andrei A. Vlasov as its commanding officer. In his efforts to maintain the army’s first-line strength, Hitler fudged a number of things, these including artillery corps of brigade strength, Panzer brigades each of two battalions, and Panzerjäger brigades each of one battalion. Between August and December 1944, the number of men drafted into the army, which was 1,569,000, slightly exceeded the total decline in field strength for the same period, but 956,000 of these recruits did not reach the field until a time somewhat later than 1 January 1945.
In October and November 1944, the Oberkommando des Heeres’s organisation branch had called for 'combat condition' reports from the army groups and their armies. As was only to be expected, all of these formations indicated that their greatest need was more replacements. Every formation reported that morale was currently affected adversely by the recent losses of pre-war German territory in the west and in East Prussia, and by 'terror bombing'. In general, the reports added, the overall attitude of the troops was still one of confidence, but that the 'great majority' based its confidence on the appearance, in the immediate future, of new weapons with which to stop the air raids and break the ground superiority of Germany’s opponents.
The depth of Germany’s problems was known better by Hitler than the soldiers who still believed in the secret weapons which had been promised. Hitler also knew, and had known for some considerable time, exactly what he was going to do. In the past the German leader had wavered, or at times even lost his nerve, when his fortunes were good but never when they were poor. On 28 December 1944, in an address to the generals of the divisions that were to open the 'Nordwind' (iii) offensive in northern Alsace on 1 January, he admitted that 'Wacht am Rhein' had failed and that Germany would henceforth be fighting for its very existence. He then went on to say that 'I am not 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 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 its in the slightest changing my decision to fight until in the end the balance tips to our side.'
On 5 January 1945, Guderian visited the headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' in Eszterhaza. During the following night he travelled by train to the north across Czechoslovakia to the headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'A' in Kraków. It was not an inspection tour, for Guderian was extremely worried: the 'Konrad' operation to relieve Budapest was taking too long, and both Heeresgruppe 'A' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' were expecting a Soviet offensive, more powerful than any they had experienced, from a time in the middle of the month. In the area to the north of the Carpathian mountains the Eastern Front had not changed in any significant fashion since the end of the summer of 1944. Between 25 December 1944 and 1 January 1945, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' in Kurland had beaten off the third Soviet attempt in three months to break its front. In its other sectors, the Eastern Front had been calm since the first week in November, when a counterattack by General Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 4th Panzerarmee had driven the Soviet armies in the sector to the east of Gumbinnen out of East Prussia with the exception of a single strip measuring 15.5 miles (25 km) by 31 miles (50 km).
The most important feature of the fronts held by Heeresgruppe 'A' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was the Soviet grip on five bridgeheads, namely at Rozan and Serock on the Narew river, and Magnuszew, Puławy and Baranów on the Vistula river. These bridgeheads were of strategic importance as they could be the launch points for Soviet advances that could shatter the Eastern Front. During the course of November, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had assumed control of General Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 9th Army, so extending its frontage from Modlin south to the northern frontier of Hungary. The army group’s major formations were the 9th Army, 4th Panzerarmee, General Friedrich Schulz’s 17th Army and Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s Armeegruppe 'Heinrici', the last comprising Heinrici’s own 1st Panzerarmee and Altábornagy Dezső László's Hungarian 1st Army) straddled the direct routes along which the Soviets could strike into Germany proper. Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee, General Friedrich Hossbach’s 4th Army and Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army, and covered the area of East Prussia and Danzig. The months of quiet had given both of these the army groups time to build a tightly organised network of field fortifications extending westward from the Vistula and Narew rivers to the Oder river, and the major communications junctions were Festungen (fortresses) ringed with defences.
The Fremde Heere Ost (foreign armies east) intelligence branch of the Oberkommando des Heeres initially headed by Generalmajor Reinhard Gehlen, believed that the next Soviet offensives would target the seizure of East Prussia and the clearance of of the lower reaches of the Vistula river and the seizure of Upper Silesia and Vienna in a wide pincer movement which would also swallow Czechoslovakia. In December the estimate changed: the main effort, the Fremde Heer Ost predicted, would be delivered by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 1st 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, because the Soviet efforts to destroy Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had as yet been unsuccessful. By a time early in January it seemed that the Soviets would also opt for a 'big solution' against Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' with a thrust to the lower reaches of the Vistula river and against Heeresgruppe 'A' with a deep thrust perhaps as far as Berlin.
A comparison of strengths shows that opposite 160 German formations of division or brigade size on the whole of the Eastern Front the Soviets had 414 units on the front, 261 in front reserves and 219 in reserves in depth. Even with allowance for the fact that a Soviet formation was 30% smaller than the equivalent German formation and was in general 40% below authorised strength (with no similar understrength allowance for German formations), the Soviet/German superiority was in the order of slightly more than 2.3/1. The actual ratio was in fact higher, and at the crucial points it was overwhelming. Against Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front and General Ivan D. Chernyakovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front had 1,670,000 men, 3,300 tanks and self-propelled guns, more than 28,000 pieces of artillery and mortars, which provided an overall superiority of 2.8/1 in men, 3.4/1 in artillery and 4.7/1 in armour. In their sectors opposite Heeresgruppe 'A', the 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front had a total of 2,200,000 troops, 6,400 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 46,000 pieces of artillery (including heavy mortars and rocket launchers). Against this massive Soviet manpower and matériel strength, the Germans fielded the 9th Army, 4th Panzerarmee and 17rh Army with about 400,000 men, 1,150 armoured fighting vehicles and 4,100 pieces of artillery. At the bridgeheads, which were their points of attack, the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian Front exceeded the Germans by 9/1 in men 10/1 in armour and 9-10/1 in artillery. In just the Magnuszew bridgehead, the 1st Belorussian Front had 400,000 men, 1,700 armoured vehicles and 8,700 pieces of artillery pieces and mortars.
On 1 January 1945, the Germans had 1,900 aircraft on the Western Front and and 1,875 on the Eastern Front, indicating the fact that the German primary effort was still on the Western Front. In the regions to the north of the Carpathian mountains, General Kort Pflugbeil’s Luftflotte I and Generalfeldmarschall Robert Ritter von Greim’s Luftflotte VI had some 1,300 warplanes. The Soviets had more than 10,000 aircraft.
The staff of Heeresgruppe 'A' had a plan ready for Guderian’s arrival. No matter what the army group did, its future looked bleak. In December, prompted by the loss of two reserve divisions to Heeresgruppe 'Süd', Generalleutnant Wolf-Dietrich von Xylander, the army group’s chief-of-staff, had organised a war game which showed that the Soviets could break through and reach the Silesian border in six days and that they could be stopped on the Oder river was uncertain. A subsequent study showed that the most the army group could do was to provide itself with what might possibly be a fighting chance. The first major switch position, the so-called 'Hubertus-Linie', extended parallel with the western face of the Soviet Baranów bridgehead about 5 miles (8 km) to its rear, and then ran in an almost straight line to the north and the western tip of the Soviet Magnuszew bridgehead. The army group proposed to pull back to the 'Hubertus-Linie' in the pair of nights before the offensive began: this would extract the inner flanks of the 4th Panzerarmee and the 9th Army out of probable encirclement, pull back the right flank of the 4th Panzerarmee from the front on the Baranów bridgehead before the Soviet artillery preparation started, shorten the front, and give the army group some reserves. Guderian approved the plan on 8 January, but that Hitler would do likewise was always highly improbable.
On 9 January, a date by which he had received a proposal by Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to withdraw from the line of the Narew river to the line of the East Prussian border, Guderian reported to Hitler who, according to Guderian, refused to believe the intelligence estimates of Soviet strength and told him that the officer responsible them was worthy of committal to an asylum. Inevitably, the German leader also rejected the proposals of both army groups. In the course of the night after Guderian’s departure, Hitler was still thinking of arguments against any acceptance of the intelligence figures. The Soviets needed a 3/1 numerical superiority in tanks, he said, just to stay even; the Soviets could not have as many guns as Guderian claimed; and even if they did have the guns, these could fire only 10 or 12 rounds per piece.
Whether or not Hitler wanted to believe it or not, the respite was over. On 3 January he had officially abandoned the objectives of 'Wacht am Rhein'; on 8 January he had ordered the offensive’s spearhead formation, SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS 'Sepp' Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzerarmee to pull back to a reserve capable of meeting Allied counter-offensives. 'Nordwind' (iii) in northern Alsace was still active but was little more than a pinprick. On 7 January Heeresgruppe 'A' detected fresh Soviet formations reaching the front on the western face of the Baranów bridgehead, and in the Puławy and Magnuszew bridgeheads a reinforcement of the Soviet artillery. The final deployment was clearly approaching completion.
On the other side of the front line, the Stavka had been busy with the preparation of two offensives, operationally related but geographically separated by the course of the Vistula river in the area to the west of Warsaw. The stronger of the two planed offensives was to be opened between Warsaw and the Carpathian mountains by Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front supported on the left by General Andrei I. Eremenko’s 4th Ukrainian Front. The 1st Belorussian Front was to strike from the Puławy bridgehead toward Łódź , from the Magnuszew bridgehead surge forward toward Kutno, and on its right flank encircle Warsaw. The 1st Ukrainian Front was to pour out of the Baranów bridgehead to the west in the direction of Radomsko, turning one part of its strength to the north-west in order to collaborate with the 1st Belorussian Front’s left flank in destroying the Germans in the area of Kielce and Radom, and the other part to the south-west in the direction of Kraków and the Upper Silesian industrial area. Both fronts were then to advance abreast of each other to the west and northwest in the direction of the Oder river. To the north of the Vistula river bend, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front was to break out of the Serock and Rozan bridgeheads, advance to the north-west and reach the Baltic coast, cut off East Prussia, and clear the line of the lower Vistula river. On Rokossovsky’s right, Chernyakovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front was to attack straight to the west in the area south of the Pregel river toward Königsberg, divide split Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee from the main strength of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and envelop Hossbach’s 4th Army in and to the west of the Masurian lakes.
In grand strategic terms, the Stavka intended a huge stroke to end the war in an operation of about 45 days. The detailed plan covered only the initial phase, whose success was considered certain, and no more than 15 days were allotted to it. The second phase would require a little more enterprise and little more time. The Stavka knew that the German centre, in the region held by Heeresgruppe 'A', was signally weak, while the forces on each flank, especially Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in East Prussia, seemed comparatively stronger but were nonetheless capable of immobilisation even in the least favourable situation. In the second phase, therefore, for which 30 days were allocated and which would follow the first with only the slightest possible pause, the Stavka intended to drive the 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front straight through to Berlin and the Elbe river.
During the four months between September 1944 and January 1945, the Soviet high command provided truly massive logistical support for the planned 'Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation', which included the subsidiary 'Warsaw-Poznan Offensive Operation' and 'Sandomierz-Silesian Offensive Operation'. The rail network in eastern Poland were converted to the Russian gauge and, at the Vistula river bridgeheads, were extended across the river. Over this network the 1st Belorussian Front received more than 68,000 wagon loads of supplies, only 10% less than had been sent to all four fronts in preparation for the 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation' ('Bagration') of June 1944 against Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. More than 64,000 wagon loads went to the 1st Ukrainian Front. In the Magnuszew bridgehead, the 1st Belorussian Front stockpiled 2.5 million artillery and mortar rounds, and in the Puławy bridgehead 1.3 million rounds. By comparison, in the whole of the 'Uran' operation to retake Stalingrad, the Don Front had fired fewer than one million artillery and mortar rounds. The petrol and Diesel fuel stocks for the 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front exceeded 36 million gallons. The 2nd and 3rd Belorussian Fronts, situated away from the main road and railway networks and having less crucial missions, had to limit themselves in terms of fuel and rations, but not on ammunition. Together the two fronts had as initial issues 9 million artillery and mortar rounds, of which 40% were allocated to their opening barrages.
In preparing for the offensive, the Soviet high command had revised the indoctrination for the troops: for the last 12 months or more, the central theme had been the liberation of Soviet territory, but henceforth the Soviet armies everywhere would be fighting on foreign soil, and the 'buzzword' switched from 'liberation' to 'vengeance'. The new concept was spread widely in meetings, by slogans, on roadside signs, and in articles and leaflets written by prominent Soviet literary figures. Political officers recounted stories of crimes the Germans had committed against Soviet women and children, and of German looting and destruction in the USSR. Officers and men recounted what had happened to their own families.
The Soviets had initially planned that the 'Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation' would be launched on 20 January, but following the 6 January request of Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, to increase pressure on the Germans and thereby ease the situation on the Western Front, Stalin ordered moved the schedule forward for a start date of 12 January. During December the Allies felt that, with the exception of operations round Budapest, the Eastern Front, was singularly passive. In the middle of the month, Stalin had told W. Averell Harrison, the US ambassador in Moscow, that a winter offensive would be launched but offered no precise information. On 15 January Stalin spoke with Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, heading a mission sent by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces to learn Soviet intentions. Stalin explained that the offensive had been delayed by the weather, but had been started earlier than intended because of the Western Allies' difficulties, and was intended to reach the line of the Oder river.
The winter of 1944/45 was certainly colder than that of 1943/44, but snow, fog and heavy cloud interfered with air activity and artillery observation. A start earlier than had been initially planned clearly cost the Soviets something, but with the 'Argonaut' inter-Allied meeting at Yalta fast approaching, Stalin clearly saw the political advantage of having the Soviet offensive already under way and Poland in Soviet hands.
In overall terms, Zhukov and Konev had 163 divisions with a total of 2,203,000 infantry, 4,529 tanks, 2,513 self-propelled assault guns, 13,763 pieces of field artillery in calibres upward from 76 mm (3 in), 14,812 mortars, 4,936 anti-tank guns, 2,198 'Katyusha' multiple rocket launchers and 5,000 aircraft.
The 1st Belorussian Front controlled General Major (from 27 January General Leytenant) Frants I. Perkhorovich’s 7th Army, General Major Stanislav G. Poplavsky’s 1st Polish Army, General Leytenant Nikolai P. Simoniak’s 3rd Shock Army, General Polkovnik Pavel A. Belov’s 61st Army, General Polkovnik Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army, General Polkovnik Semyon I. Bogdanov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army, General Leytenant Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army and General Polkovnik Vasili I. Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army in the Magnuszew bridgehead, and General Polkovnik Vladimir Ya. Kolpakchy’s 69th Army and General Polkovnik Vyacheslav D. Tsvetsayev’s 33rd Army in the Puławy bridgehead.
The 1st Ukrainian Front controlled General Polkovnik Dmitri N. Gusev’s 21st Army, General Leytenant Vladimir A. Gluzdovsky’s 6th Army, General Polkovnik Vasili N. Gordov’s 3rd Guards Army, General Polkovnik Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army, General Polkovnik Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 4th Tank Army, General Polkovnik Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army, General Polkovnik Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s 52nd Army, General Polkovnik Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army, General Leytenant Ivan Korotnikov’s 59th Army and General Polkovnik Pavel A. Kurochkin’s 60th Army.
The Soviet forces in this sector faced Heeresgruppe 'A', which held a front stretching from positions to the east of Warsaw southward up the Vistula river almost to its confluence with the San river. At that point there was a large Soviet bridgehead over the Vistula river in the area of Baranów before the front continued to the south as far as Jasło. The army group comprised three armies: the 9th Army around Warsaw, the 4th Panzerarmee opposite the Baranów salient in the bend of the Vistula river, and the 17th Army to the south. Heeresgruppe 'A' had some 450,000 soldiers, 4,100 pieces of artillery and 1,150 armoured vehicles. The army group was commanded by Harpe until 17 January, when he was replaced by Generaloberst Ferdinand Schörner.
Commanded by von Lüttwitz until his replacement on 19 January by General Theodor Busse, the 9th Army comprised General Johannes Block’s LVI Panzerkorps, General Walter Fries’s XLVI Panzerkorps, and General Walter Hartmann’s VIII Corps. Commanded by Gräser, the 4th Panzerarmee comprised General Hermann Recknagel’s XLII Corps, General Walther Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps and General Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Edelsheim’s XLVIII Panzerkorps. Commanded by Schulz, the 17th Army comprised General Edgar Röhricht’s LIX Corps, General Rudolf von Bünau’s XI Corps and SS-Obergruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Matthias Kleinheisterkamp’s XI SS Panzerkorps.
German intelligence reckoned that the Soviet possessed a 3/1 numerical superiority over the German forces, whereas the real ratio was 5/1 in the Soviets' superiority. In the large Baranów and Sandomierz bridgehead, the 4th Panzerarmee was faced with the problem of creating a defence based on 'strongpoints' as in in some areas it lacked the infantry to hold a continuous front line. Moreover, on Hitler’s specific orders, the German Grosskampflinie and Hauptkampflinie defence lines were sited in close proximity to each other, placing the main defences well within bombardment range of the overwhelmingly potent Soviet artillery.
On the western face of the Baranów bridgehead, between the Vistula river and the Łysogóry mountain range, von Edelsheim’s XLVIII Panzerkorps had three divisions and was extended across its front (little more than a chain of strongpoints) at the rate of one man for each 15 yards (13.75 m). The divisions each had about 12 self-propelled assault guns, and the corps held about 100 such weapons in reserve. Some 15 miles (24 km) farther back, the reserve was Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps, which had deployed two Panzer divisions in direct support, and located another two such divisions off the northern face of the bridgehead. To make its break-out from this bridgehead, the 1st Ukrainian Front had five armies, two tank armies, and more than 1,000 armoured vehicles.
In the early hours of 12 January the temperature was slightly above freezing point. The roads were icy, and the presence of low-lying cloud and fog would, as in the last few days, keep aircraft grounded. The Soviet offensive began in the Baranów bridgehead at 04.35 on this day with an intense bombardment by the artillery of the 1st Ukrainian Front against the positions of the 4th Panzerarmee. Concentrated against the XLVIII Panzerkorps, whose divisions had been deployed across the face of the bridgehead, the bombardment effectively destroyed the German capacity to respond: as one battalion commander in Generalleutnant Paul Scheuerpflug’s 68th Division later stated that 'I began the operation with an understrength battalion [but] after the smoke of the Soviet preparation cleared…I had only a platoon of combat effective soldiers.'
The initial Soviet barrage was followed by probing attacks and a further heavy bombardment at 10.00. By the time the main armoured exploitation force of Gordov’s 3rd Guards Army and Lelyushenko’s 4th Tank Army moved forward four hours later, Gräser’s 4th Panzerarmee had already lost as much as 67% of its artillery and 25% of its men.
The Soviet formations made rapid progress, moving to cut off the defenders of Kielce. The armoured reserves of the 4th Panzerarmee's central corps, Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps, were committed, but had already suffered heavily before they reached Kielce, and were already being outflanked. von Edelsheim’s XLVIII Panzerkorps, on southern flank of the 4th Panzerarmee, had by this time been wholly destroyed together with much of Recknagel’s XLII Corps in the north. (Recknagel was himself was to be killed by Polish partisans on 23 January and was replaced by Generalmajor Artur Finger.) By 14 January, the 1st Ukrainian Front had forced crossings of the Nida river, and began its exploitation in the direction of Radomsko and the Warthe river. The 4th Panzerarmee's last cohesive formation, the XXIV Panzerkorps held around Kielce until the night of 16 January, when Nehring decided to pull back.
The 1st Belorussian Front, to the north of the 1st Ukrainian Front, began its assault on the 9th Army from the Magnuszew and Puławy bridgeheads at 08.30, again commencing with a heavy artillery bombardment. Tsvetayev’s 33rd Army and Kolpakchy’s 69th Army surged out of the Puławy bridgehead to a depth of 18.5 miles (30 km, while Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army and Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army broke out of the Magnuszew bridgehead. Bogdanov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army and Katukov.s 1st Guards Tank Army were committed after them to exploit the breach which had been created. The 69th Army’s progress from the Puławy bridgehead was especially successful, with Block’s LVI Panzerkorps disintegrating after its line of retreat had been severed. The 9th Army attempted a large number of local counterattacks, but these were all brushed aside by the rampant Soviet forces. The 69th Army ruptured the last German lines of defence and took Radom, while the 2nd Guards Tank Army advanced on Sochaczew and the 1st Guards Tank Army was instructed to seize bridgeheads over the Pilica river and drive on Łódź. In the meantime, Perkhorovich’s 47th Army had crossed the Vistula river and moved towards Warsaw from the north, while Belov’s 61st Army and Poplavsky’s 1st Polish Army encircled the city from the south.
The only major German response to this mass of Soviet undertakings came on 15 January, when Hitler refused to accept Guderian’s advice ordered General Dietrich von Saucken’s Panzerkorps 'Grossdeutschland' to move forward from East Prussia with the object of covering the breach made in the sector of the 4th Panzerarmee, but the advance of Zhukov’s formations forced it to detrain at Łódź without even reaching its objective. After covering the 9th Army's retreat, the Panzerkorps 'Grossdeutschland' was compelled to withdraw south-west toward the Warthe river.
On 17 January, Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front was given new objectives: to advance toward Breslau with its mechanised forces, and to use the combined-arms forces of the 60th Army and 59th Army to open an attack on the southern flank towards the industrial heartland of Upper Silesia through Kraków. Kraków was secured on 19 January after suffering little damage following its encirclement by the 59th and 60th Armies, together with the IV Guards Tank Corps, which forced the German defenders to withdraw hurriedly.
The second stage of the 1st Ukrainian Front’s objective was considerably more complex, as the front was required to encircle and secure the entire industrial region of Upper Silesia, where it was opposed by Schulz’s 17th Army. For this 'Sandomierz-Silesian Offensive Operation', Konev ordered the 59th Army and 60th Army to advance frontally, while the 21st Army encircled the area from the north. Konev then ordered Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army, moving on Breslau, to veer to the south along the upper reaches of the Oder river from 20 January, cutting the 17th Army's line of retreat.
Meanwhile the remnants of the shattered 4th Panzerarmee were still seeking to reach the German lines. By 18 January, Nehring and the XXIV Panzerkorps found that their intended route to the north had been blocked, and therefore switched direction for a withdrawal to the west, in the process absorbing the remnants of the XLII Corps that had escaped encirclement. Much of the XLII Corps' surviving elements were destroyed after being trapped around Przysucha. Screened by heavy fog, the leading elements of the XXIV Panzerkorps reached the Warthe river on 22 January, and after linking with the Panzerkorps 'Grossdeutschland' were finally able to cross the Oder river, some 22 miles (350 km) from their positions when the Soviets launched their 'Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation'.
On 25 January, Schulz requested permission to pull back the 100,000 men of his 17th Army from the salient which was now developing in the area Kattowitz (now Katowice). This request was refused, and Schulz repeated it on 26 January. Schörner eventually permitted Schulz to pull his forces back on the night of 27/28 January, thereby making it possible for Konev, who had allowed just enough room for the 17th Army to pull back without putting up serious resistance, secured the region essentially undamaged.
On Konev’s northern flank, the 4th Tank Army had spearheaded the advance to the Oder river, where it secured a major bridgehead at Steinau. Men of the 5th Guards Army established a second bridgehead upstream at Ohlau.
In the northern sector of the 'Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation', the 1st Belorussian Front also made rapid progress, as the 9th Army was no longer capable of offering any form of coherent resistance. Its XXXVI Panzerkorps, which was positioned behind Warsaw, was pushed over the Vistula river into the sector of Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s adjacent 2nd Army of Reinhardt’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Warsaw fell to the Soviets on 17 January as the headquarters of Harpe’s (from 17 January Schörner’s) Heeresgruppe 'A' ordered the city’s abandonment. Elements of the 2nd Guards Tank Army and 3rd Shock Army entering the city were astounded by their first sight of the devastation wrought by the Germans after the 'Burza' Warsaw uprising. Hitler, on the other hand, was furious at the abandonment of the 'fortress', ordering the arrest of Oberst Bogislaw von Bonin, head of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s operations branch. It was on 16 January that von Bonin had given Heeresgruppe 'A' permission to retreat from Warsaw in defiance of Hitler’s direct 'hold fast' order: three days later von Bonin was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned first at Flossenbürg concentration camp and then Dachau concentration camp before eventually being liberated along with other prisoners in South Tyrol by the US Army in May 1945. At the same time, Hitler dismissed both von Lüttwitz and Fries, the commanders of the 9th Army and the XLVI Panzerkorps respectively.
The 2nd Guards Tank Army pressed forward to the Oder river, while farther to the south the 8th Guards Army reached Łódź by 18 January and took it on the following day. The 1st Guards Tank Army moved to encircle Poznań by 25 January in the 'Warsaw-Poznan Offensive Operation', and the 8th Guards Army began to fight its way into the city on the following day, though there was protracted and intense fighting in the siege of Poznań before the city was finally taken on 3 February.
To the north-east of the 1st Belorussian Front, the leading elements of Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front in the 'East Prussian Strategic Offensive Operation' had reached the coast of the Baltic Sea in the area of the Vistula river delta by' 24 January and so succeeded in isolating Heeresgruppe 'A' in East Prussia. On 27 January, the abandoned Wolfsschanze, Hitler’s former headquarters on the Eastern Front, was captured.
After encircling Poznań, the 1st Guards Tank Army advanced deep into the fortified region around the Obra river against the sketchy resistance offered by a variety of Volkssturm and army units. There was heavier resistance, however, on the approaches to the fortress of Küstrin.
The German reorganisation of command structure that resulted in the creation of Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel' marked the release of a few extra formations for the German defensive effort on the Eastern Front: SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger’s V SS Gebirgskorps, with two reserve infantry divisions, was deployed along the Obra river and the pre-war border fortifications, known as the Tierschtigel Riegel, with the Panzergrenadierdivision 'Kurmark' ordered to reinforce it. On 25 January, Hitler renamed three army groups: Heeresgruppe 'Nord' became Heeresgruppe 'Kurland', Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' became Heeresgruppe 'Nord', and Heeresgruppe 'A' became Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'.
The 2nd Guards Tank Army and 5th Shock Army reached the Oder river without meeting anything but the slightest opposition, and a unit of the 5th Shock Army then crossed the icebound river and took Kienitz on 31 January.
On 2 February the Stavka declared that the 'Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation' had been completed. Zhukov had initially hoped that the operation could be developed into a direct advance on Berlin as the German defences had largely collapsed. However, the combination of the 1st Belorussian Front’s exposed northern flank in Pomerania and the German 'Sonnenwende' counterattack against its spearheads persuaded the Soviet high command that it was essential first to clear the German forces from Pomerania in the 'East Pomeranian Strategic Offensive Operation' before the Soviet forces could be committed to the 'Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation'.
The 'Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation' was a huge Soviet victory. Within a matter of days the forces involved had made great territorial advances, taking much of Poland and striking deeply behind Germany’s pre-war eastern borders. The offensive shattered Heeresgruppe 'A' and much of Germany’s remaining capacity for military resistance. Even so, the stubborn resistance of the German forces in Silesia and Pomerania, as well as continuing fighting in East Prussia, meant that the 'Berlin Strategic Offensive Offensive' was delayed by two months, allowing the Germany army once again to build a substantial force on this axis.
On 31 January, the Soviets halted their offensive despite the fact that the German capital was essentially undefended and a mere 45 miles (70 km) to the west of the Soviet bridgeheads across the Oder river. The operation was followed by an interval in which the Soviets mopped up and consolidated; hard fighting also continued in pockets in the north.