On 25 January 1945, in a tacit acknowledgement that German forces in East Prussia and the Courland Pocket were far behind the new front line, Hitler renamed three army groups. Army Group North became Army Group Courland; Army Group Centre (the army group surrounded in the Königsberg pocket) became Army Group North and Army Group A became Army Group Centre.
Those forces, now redesignated as Army Group North, were compressed by further Soviet attacks into three pockets: one around Königsberg, one on the adjacent Samland peninsula, and one on the coast of the Frisches Haff to the south-west (the Heiligenbeil Pocket).
By late January 1945 the 3rd Belorussian Front had surrounded Königsberg on the landward side, severing the road down the Samland peninsula to the port of Pillau, and trapping the 3rd Panzer Army and approximately 200,000 civilians in the city. The civilian provisions were so meagre that civilians were faced with three bleak alternatives:
· Remain in the city and starve – rations were cut during the siege to 180 grams of bread a day
· Cross the front lines and leave themselves at the mercies of the Soviets
· Cross the ice of the Frisches Haff to Pillau in hope of finding a place on an evacuation ship
Hundreds chose to cross the front line, but about 2,000 women and children a day chose to cross the ice on foot to Pillau. On his return from a visit to Berlin, Erich Koch the Gauleiter of East Prussia chose to stay in the relative safety of Pillau to organise the evacuation rather than return to Königsberg. The first evacuation steamer from Pillau carrying 1,800 civilians and 1,200 casualties reached safety on the 29 January. Throughout February, there was desperate fighting as the Germans tried to maintain the narrow connection between Königsberg and Samland. For a time, Soviet troops were successful in severing that connection and cutting the city off completely.
However, on 19 February the 3rd Panzer Army and the 4th Army, attacked from the direction of Pillau, managing to force open a corridor from Königsberg to Pillau. Led by a captured Soviet T-34 tank, this attack was spearheaded by the 1st Infantry Division from Königsberg, intended to link with General Hans Gollnick’s XXVIII Corps, which held parts of the Samland peninsula, including the vital port of Pillau. Capturing the town of Metgethen, the unit opened the way for the 5th Panzer Division to join with Gollnick’s forces near the town of Gross Heydekrug the next day. This action solidified the German defense of the area until April, re-opening the land route from Königsberg to Pillau, through which supplies could be delivered by ship and the wounded and refugees could be evacuated. This month-long battle is sometimes called the First Siege of Königsberg.
In March the situation had stabilized – by now, the main front line had moved hundreds of kilometers to the west, and capturing the city took a much lower priority for the Soviets. Even so, the garrison was intact and showed no signs of surrender. Eventually the Soviet command decided to capture the city by assault rather than a siege.
Assaulting Königsberg was not to be an easy task. Garrisoned inside the city were five full-strength divisions, for a total of 130,000 troops, along with impressive defensive positions constructed in 1888 that included fifteen forts interconnected by tunnels with integrated accommodations for the troops, and designed to withstand the bombardment of super-guns being designed in that era following the Siege of Paris. The Germans still held a narrow land connection to the adjacent German pocket on the Samland peninsula. The capture of the city required that this desperately defended link be severed. The German troops on the peninsula, the so-called Samland group, could be expected to stage counter-attacks to prevent this from happening.
Königsberg was, according to Winston Churchill, “a modernised heavily defended fortress”. Three concentric rings of fortifications surrounded the city: the outer ring of defences reinforced by 12 forts outside the town, the middle ring in the outskirts and the inner city, a single fortress of anti-tank defences, barricades and landmines, along with several other forts.
In order to face such a defensive power, the Soviet command planned to heavily rely on aviation and artillery support, with densities reaching 250 guns per kilometre in some areas. The German troops were also subjected to propaganda, explaining that their resistance was futile, and that the front line was far behind them — that they were trapped in a “pocket” and that it would be best to surrender. However, this propaganda had little to no effect.
After four days of preparatory artillery bombardment, the assault started on 6 April 1945. The assault was planned to be “star-like”. Troops would attack from many points around the perimeter and meet in the center of the city, compartmentalising the remaining defenders into isolated groups incapable of mutual support. There were two main fronts: North (held by the 39th and 43rd Armies (which included the 208th Rifle Division) and South (11th Guards Army). The 50th army was stationed in the northeast part of the front, but took only a limited part in the operation.