The Allies pressed on either side of Nazi Germany by January 1945, grimly determined to complete their version of Vernichtungskrieg (“war of annihilation”), or total war, to drive Germans to accept unconditional surrender and evermore foreswear war as an instrument of national policy. A double-invasion of Germany ensued on a scale unimaginable by any party to the war just four or five years before, and certainly not imagined by its instigators now huddled beneath Berlin or dying in vast multitudes along the frontiers of the “Greater German Reich.” Out of the east came the Red Army, engorged with desire for blood revenge for tens of millions of Soviet dead, for destroyed cities and burned out fields, for their own lost youth and ineffable suffering. Millions of heavily armed men with red stars on their caps surged into Germany, bluntly forcing a way across the Oder with blood and brute force, crashing tanks and artillery into cities crowded with the terrified refugee flotsam of broken Nazi ambition for empire. Out of the west came the armies of democracy, pouring through the Westwall and over the Rhine. Their rage was not as great, but all war is cruel and most wanted to kill as many Germans as it took to end the fight and buy their ticket home. And whatever the quality of mercy on the ground for some poor Landser conscript seeking to give himself up, above advancing Western armies roamed enormous fleets of bombers heading out to burn down Germany’s cities and terrorize its civilian population. For even the great democracies of the West had descended into ruthlessness that brooked little resistance and abjured almost no method of destruction that promised to shorten the war. The greatest armies known in the history of war had a singular mission and one destination in 1945: to meet in the center of Germany, astride the fetid corpse of the Nazi idea.
The Soviets had to move millions of men and thousands of war machines hundreds of miles across the devastated eastern half of Europe. The Western Allies moved vast forces in huge armadas that steamed over thousands of miles of ocean, thence by ground through heavily populated and river-crossed terrain in France and the Low Countries. German forces defending against these massive assaults had the classic advantage of interior lines of movement and supply. However, they had few supplies left and limited means of moving what little they had. Matériel production in Germany no longer provided tanks, artillery tubes, or aircraft in any number from January 1945. Even small arms and other ammunition stocks were growing scarce. There was almost no fuel and no mobile reserve left at all: the last sizeable Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions were thrown away by Hitler, the OKH, and OKW in three vain offensives that only accelerated military defeat: the Ardennes offensive in Belgium in December 1944, and the KONRAD and FRÜHLINGSERWACHEN counteroffensives in Hungary in January and March, 1945. German forces were also gravely reduced in quality of arms and men even from just one year earlier. The Wehrmacht still had many highly skilled and experienced veterans in its ranks, but it increasingly filled out its order of battle with weak Volksgrenadier divisions and militarily useless Volkssturm. Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS divisions were all much reduced by the great attritional battles of 1944. They were filled out in 1945 with too many second- and third-rate German recruits, or with Hiwis or scrapings of foreign volunteers. Some divisions comprised pathetic former Soviet prisoners of war, men who fought only for a crust of black bread and to stay alive one more day, coerced soldiers of the Reich with no zeal to fight for cause or country. After the collapse of Hitler’s reckless gamble in the Ardennes there was some question about how hard even veterans would fight against Western armies. It would be learned that Germans fought ferociously in the east to the bitter end, from fear of retribution and out of belief in their own anti-Soviet terror propaganda. It also became clear, once the Rhine barrier was overcome, that there was merely sporadic fight left in formations still standing in the west. Even hard “men of will” in volunteer formations of the Waffen-SS would reach the limits of what flesh could do as the greatest industrialized war in history crossed into the country that had set the world aflame five years before.
No one knew how much fight remained in the “fascist beast,” as Joseph Stalin called Nazi Germany. In Moscow, as in London and Washington, it was thought the war was nearly over. As early as October 1944, the Stavka planned for a two-stage deep battle operation into Germany it predicted would last just 45 days. Stavka planners foresaw a set of cascading operations from the Vistula to the Oder, with more movement through the Baltic States and into East Prussia. Powerful armored spearheads would also plunge into western Poland and Silesia. Reinforced by a second tier advance by additional reserve Fronts, the Soviets would drive to the upper Elbe and thence to Berlin. Although the Nazi beast was severely wounded it was still snarling and dangerous and was now defending its lair. The Stavka plan was nevertheless put into effect as the Vistula-Oder operation, originally intended to be the last Red Army campaign in Europe. It opened on January 12, 1945, while the fight in the Ardennes was still underway. The main Soviet assault was undertaken in the north by 1st Belorussian Front under Marshal Georgi Zhukov, with 1st Ukrainian Front under Marshal Ivan S. Konev moving in tandem farther south. Both Fronts were immense, several times larger than comparable formations in 1941. The speed of the initial advance to the Oder was spectacular, accompanied by attendant collapse of German Army Groups Center and “A.” Remnants of Army Group “A” were hemmed into a series of isolated pockets along the Baltic shore. Parts of Army Group North were crushed and broken off by simultaneous Soviet operations in Pomerania and into East Prussia. But several of the pockets held out, supplied by the Kriegsmarine. The German Baltic fleet was very active throughout the last months of the war, bringing out refugees and wounded from the Courland pocket, Königsberg, and other enclaves. In a series of bloody fights to crush the larger coastal pockets, 3rd Belorussian Front defeated opposing Wehrmacht forces in detail in eastern Pomerania before driving into western Prussia, then turning back to fight through East Prussia. The Insterburg-Konigsberg operation and Mlawa- Elbing operation were over by the end of January. The Heiligenbeil pocket and hold-out remnants of German divisions on the Samland peninsula took longer to reduce. The cost to the Wehrmacht was dozens of divisions and surface warships. The price paid by the attacking Red Army in these operations approached 200,000 lives.
The speed of the main Vistula-Oder operation surprised the Soviets and stunned the Germans, but it also meant that the second part of the Stavka plan had to be shelved. The axis of attack by Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front-fighting on Zhukov’s right flank-had swiveled north to cut off East Prussia from Pomerania during operations in January. That movement opened a gap that left Zhukov’s advanced positions uncovered on the right. Fortunately, Zhukov faced newly formed “Army Group Vistula,” a much weaker force briefly headed by no less a Nazi personage but military incompetent than SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler . Stavka planners later explained that Phase II was canceled because moving past dangerous German pockets in Poznan, Königsberg, and the old Polish corridor posed too great a threat to the exposed flanks of advancing spearheads. There is support for that conclusion in the German SONNENWENDE counteroffensive assayed by “Army Group Vistula” from February 15-18, into the flank of 1st Belorussian Front in Pomerania. SONNENWENDE was tactically insignificant and was beaten off in just a few days, but it probably influenced the Stavka operational decision to now pause along the Oder. Some western historians believe that the plan was simply implemented too soon, possibly to take advantage of the Wehrmacht’s failure in the Ardennes or out of fear that the German defeat in Belgium might permit the Western Allies to bounce the Rhine and get to Berlin first.
In either case, bypassing still dangerous German coastal pockets meant that the tips of the Soviet spearheads were weakened by growing need to strip away assault troops to protect the flanks of the advance. The Red Army was also, and for the first time, fighting beyond the reach of reliable intelligence previously supplied to it by anti-German partisans. That failing was not compensated for by parachuting in teams of Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland (NKFD) and German Communist Party guerrillas. The intelligence blackout meant the Stavka did not realize how weak the Wehrmacht order of battle actually was. In addition, the VVS flew from muddy and improvised forward strips, while the Luftwaffe took off on paved airfields in central Germany, reversing the situation of the two air forces in late 1941. Natural obstacles of local terrain and dozens of blown bridges slowed supply to forward Red Army units that had already raced hundreds of miles ahead of schedule in just three weeks. All these factors likely conditioned the pause order sent to Zhukov by the Stavka. Konev pushed to the Western Neisse farther south and then also stopped. In mid-February the Stavka decided to secure the flanks of its great advance before striking out for Berlin. Zhukov therefore pivoted his left flank due north, taking Stargard on March 4 and attacking into the outskirts of Stettin. By March 21 he secured a section of the Baltic coast east of the Oder. Zhukov’s right flank armies, together with Rokossovsky’s left flank armies, reached the coast at another point farther east. Trapped in the newly formed pocket these Soviet movements created were broken and ghost divisions of 3rd Panzer Army. Rokossovsky next turned due east and drove hard into the former Polish corridor. Danzig fell on March 30. Thousands of German soldiers and civilians took pathetic refuge from the enemy on two large sand spits off the coast, where they would remain in miserable conditions and under constant harassing fi re until the final surrender in May.
Farther south, Konev’s left flank had penetrated Upper Silesia in January. Katowice fell on January 28, and most of German 17th Army pulled back. From February 8-24 Konev conducted the “Lower Silesian offensive operation,” an action that drove large numbers of ethnic German and other refugees westward. Many completed their journey crowded into the key transportation hub city of Dresden. Tens of thousands died during the Dresden raid by RAF Bomber Command carried out on February 13-15, in part to flood the Wehrmacht rear areas with terrified refugees to aid the advance of the Red Army. Some 100,000 civilians remained in Breslau after Hitler declared that city a “Festung” or fortress. They and the city garrison were besieged by the Red Army from February 13 to May 6. While the enemy at the gates pounded the city from without, the population was terrorized from within by a fanatic SS Gauleiter, Karl Hanke. Konev began the “Upper Silesian offensive operation” in mid-March, sending four armies to overwhelm the defenders of the rail town of Oppeln before occupying the rest of that rich province. A key decision was then made by Stalin and the Stavka to deliberately refuse to set a clear demarcation line between the advances of the two major Fronts in northern Germany, while leaving the target of Berlin available to both commanders. That set Konev and Zhukov against each other in a competitive race to be the first into the Nazi capital.