The 25th Panzergrenadier Division, whose fighting strength had been reduced to 5,196 men by 17 March, had been withdrawn to rest and refit near the village of Friedersdorf on the Seelow Heights. Hitler had come up with the unrealistic idea of using this and three other experienced divisions to attack northwards from Frankfurt, where the Germans still had a bridgehead on the east bank, in order to cut off the Soviet Reitwein-Lebus bridgehead and eventually relieve Küstrin. This operation, which depended upon getting four divisions across the only bridge, was to be achieved within three days commencing on 24 March. On the first day of the operation there was to be a big surprise attack that would methodically destroy the enemy bridges between Frankfurt and Küstrin. However, the Soviets forestalled this plan by attacking on 22 March before it could be implemented, and the 25th Panzergrenadiers had to be thrust back into line in considerable haste.
That same day Colonel General Gotthardt Heinrici, until then commander of the 1st Panzer Army, reported in Zossen to the Chief of the General Staff, Colonel General Heinz Guderian, who had surprised him in Upper Silesia with a telephone call announcing that he was Heinrich Himmler’s successor as commander-in-chief of Army Group ‘Weichsel’. Guderian briefed him on his area of responsibility, which extended from the Baltic to the mouth of the Neisse river, and his forces, which consisted of the 3rd Panzer Army in the north and the 9th Army in the south. Guderian especially stressed the critical situation at Küstrin.
That evening Heinrici arrived at the Army Group Headquarters near Prenzlau, where Himmler received him in front of a portrait of Frederick the Great, saying that his relief was due to some important tasks that Hitler had given him. He then gave a widely rambling account of his leadership since January. Then came an important telephone call. The commander-in-chief of the 9th Army reported that a Soviet attack to combine the two bridgeheads, cutting off Küstrin, had occurred. Himmler handed the telephone to Heinrici saying: ‘You now command the army group.’
In detail, the Soviet attack by about four rifle divisions from the south and two from the north was launched at 0715 hours, and the leading elements of both Soviet armies met at the Förster Bridge over the Alte Oder north-west of Gorgast that afternoon. Successful as the operation had been, it had only been achieved at considerable cost. Captain Horst Zobel’s 1st Battalion of the ‘Müncheberg’ Panzer Regiment claimed the destruction of 59 Soviet tanks that day, not counting damaged or immobilised ones, and the 9th Army’s overall claim was 116 Soviet tanks.
The 25th Panzergrenadier Division moved off eastwards from Werbig at about 1800 hours to launch a counterattack along both sides of Reichsstrasse 1 and the Berlin–Küstrin railway line with the ‘Müncheberg’ Panzer Division on its left flank. By dusk the Alt Tuchenow–Golzow railway line had been reached and Golzow railway station retaken. The German formations, now supported by Army Flak Battalion 292, went over to the defence.
Meanwhile the inner sweep of the Soviet attack had successfully bottled up the ‘corridor’ defenders with those of the fortress garrison west of the Vorflut Canal. The ‘corridor’ elements included the 303rd Fusilier Battalion, a mixed armoured company of self-propelled guns and Mark IV tanks of Captain Zobel’s battalion that had become cut off in the fighting for Gorgast, and the 2nd Battalion of the 1st ‘Müncheberg’ Panzergrenadier Regiment.
Officer Cadet Corporal Fritz Kohlase recalled how it began:
The second Russian offensive on Küstrin began with an artillery preparation on the morning of Thursday, 22 March 1945. The whole front line as far as our horizon, the southern and northwestern parts of the corridor position lay under heavy artillery fire, but no shells fell on us. We had orders to hold our fire. The central part of the corridor was to remain as quiet as possible, but barely 2 kilometres from us was a frightful wall of fire, steel and earth.
As passive spectators, we had to look on as the barrage began to move. Then came the Soviet infantry and, behind the storm troops, enormous columns, including panje wagons.
The self-propelled gun commander sought me out to complain strongly about our battalion commander. Despite orders to the contrary, he had begged Major Quetz for permission to open fire, and having been refused, he said: ‘We will never have the Russians so concentrated in front of us. What losses we could inflict upon them now! All those that we don’t put out of action today we will have to defend ourselves against tomorrow under worse conditions of increased superiority. Apart from that, we would be supporting our comrades on the main front line!’
The sounds of heavy infantry and cannon fire came from Gorgast and the Schäferei that seemed to move a little and then increase into a strong cannonade. Towards noon it changed to short, raging infantry fire, then became weaker and finally ended with a dull explosion.
Since the assault that had gone past us that morning we had seen no one, either Russian or German. At dusk a wounded SS man came towards us unimpeded across the open fields. He belonged to the Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’ and reported the destruction of his battalion. He now wanted to join the other Leibstandarte battalion that should be somewhere near Berlin. When he realised that he was in an encirclement and had also been heading east, he asked for some bread and water and went back the way he had come.
Later that evening the battalion was redeployed to cover the farm from the south-west. One section took up position every 100 to 150 metres. I had to dig in with my men about 75 metres from the 88mm gun with no communications trench to the rear. The company commander personally gave me my orders: ‘This position is to be held to the last man. Evacuation only on orders!’
Towards midnight Sergeant Hoffmann and I made a reconnaissance towards the railway line. We went forward about a kilometre without seeing or hearing anyone on this dark night. Only from Küstrin was there occasional artillery fire and burning fires.
Officer Cadet Corporal Hans Dahlmanns takes up the story in Küstrin:
It must have been one or two days later [after 20 March] that ground-assault aircraft attacked the Court House with heavy bombs. I was about to leave on my messenger rounds, but stayed in the cellar with my back to some steel air-raid shelter doors as both neighbouring cellars had been partly destroyed by direct hits. The company command post was in one of them. When the clouds of dust subsided, the steel doors were completely buckled and two men pulled the company commander out into the open.
The company command post was then established in an earth-covered bunker that was about in line with the Court House, but further north-west near the railway line in quite thick undergrowth. That afternoon or the next day, I was given the task of reconnoitring the area and trenches to the south-east. These stretched from behind the Court House, parallel to the Warthe, to the road leading to the Neustadt, where Soviet troops were expected soon. In an earth bunker I found a Russian soldier who had been wounded in the foot. I ordered him to come with me, but finally I had to put his arm around my neck and support him.
I took him to the wooden bunker and we tried to carry him between four of us to the field hospital, but this did not work, as the Friedrichstrasse that we had to cross was under heavy shellfire and we had to turn back. When we returned to the bunker, the order to retreat arrived together with the news that the railway and road bridges would be blown up behind us.
An NCO saw the wounded man and said: ‘In a fortnight he will be fighting against us again.’ He handed me his pistol and went on: ‘Take him outside and shoot him!’ I refused, as did the others, until the company cook took the pistol, led the wounded man outside and shot him. The whole scene took place in the presence of the company commander, Lieutenant Schröder, who said nothing, as if he was not in charge. I have long thought that I should have left the young Russian soldier in his hole. He would have been in safety next day, and I am convinced that his foot would have taken the rest of the war to heal.
Sapper Ernst Müller remembered:
On 22 March we moved our battalion command post from the Law Courts to the Oder Malt Factory, which was not far from the Artillery Barracks on the west bank of the Oder. As I knew the town well, I had to go back over the Oder bridges into the Altstadt. The road bridge had already suffered considerable damage in the meantime. It was often difficult taking messages to the Altstadt.
Once I had to find out at night in complete darkness whether the Warthe bridges had been completely destroyed. This was not the case with the road bridge. For this task I had an escort of several men, one of whom was lost. Upon our return to the command post I had to take some bitter words from his friend.
It must have been on 22 March that Soviet bombs hit the casemate in the Friedrichstrasse. The event was devastating for us. Among those platoon commanders gathered there for a conference were Lieutenant Hagen, Second-Lieutenant Behr, Battalion Sergeant Major Gleiche, and Staff Sergeants Tewes and Kukei.
On or about 20 March the fortress commandant, SS-Gruppenführer and Lieutenant-General of the Waffen-SS Reinefarth, moved his command post out of the Altstadt to the Artillery Barracks. About five days later he gave over command of the fortress to Captain Fischer, who mockingly said: ‘So a little captain will now take over the fortress.’ This fact has not been noted in any book to appear so far. However, I had this from the mouth of Captain Fischer himself!
The Wehrmacht Report of 23 March pulled a veil over the fatal development at Küstrin with the fable that a Soviet attack on the flanks of the bridgehead had been checked by ‘the effective defensive fire of our Oder defences after a minimal initial success’.
The Soviets resumed their attack to the west with new forces. The XXXIXth Panzer Corps commanded by General Karl Decker, with the ‘Döberitz’ Infantry Division on the right, the 25th Panzergrenadiers in the centre and ‘Müncheberg’ Panzer Division on the left, had to withstand the heaviest pressure all day long, the focal point being in the centre astride Reichsstrasse 1, but they were able to hold all their important positions or regain them by counterattack.
In the now fully encircled fortress, the worsening of the now critical situation became noticeable. A new line of defence had to be drawn straight across the ‘corridor’ near Bleyen, and the forces thrown back in this encirclement were now having to fight facing west.
Ground-attack aircraft attacked the Kommandantenstrasse leading from the Marktplatz to the fire brigade depot, where a group of armoured personnel carriers was standing. Within minutes these vehicles, condemned to immobility by the rubble-strewn streets, were in flames under a hail of bombs and explosive shells. A platoon of Volkssturm just released from the front line was surprised by this attack, only a few of the men being able to reach cover in time.
For the first time there were no night convoys, but food reserves gave no reason for concern and there was enough ammunition left for several days, as hardly any of the heavy weapons were still serviceable. But the closure would have a disastrous effect on the main dressing station as now no serious cases could be evacuated to the hinterland and the number of casualties was mounting by the hour.
Officer-Cadet Corporal Fritz Kohlase described the Soviet advance:
The Russians attacked us on Friday afternoon without any preliminary reconnaissance, artillery or armoured support. They came from the direction of the Gorgast–Kietz railway line in line abreast, widely spaced out and several metres apart, holding rifles or sub-machine guns in their hands. The first row was followed by a second, this by a third, then the fourth, fifth and sixth. Despite orders to the contrary, the two machine guns behind us opened fire at 800 metres and all the other weapons joined in. The Soviet infantry then advanced in bounds as our artillery in the Seelow area joined in the battle. They merely dug themselves in before us as they came under direct fire from the 88mm gun. This position was the turning point of the Russian attack. West of us the attackers stormed further northwards, thus thrusting eastwards and digging in 100 to 200 metres from the heavy machine guns and the rifle trenches west of the farm. This attack was a difficult but precisely executed manoeuvre, assisted by the inaccuracy of the German defensive fire.
Shortly after midnight on 23 March the 25th Panzergrenadier Division attacked along the Golzow–Gorgast road to reach the Alte Oder. By daybreak it had penetrated Gorgast, where bitter fighting broke out, but later overwhelming Soviet forces forced a withdrawal to the starting point.
Both sides were preparing for big operations to decide the Küstrin situation. The 9th Army was planning a relief attack for Küstrin that would include the ‘Führer’ Grenadier Division under Major General Otto-Ernst Remer. The 8th Guards Army was preparing to attack the Altstadt fortress. Meanwhile the commander-in-chief of the 1st Byelorussian Front, Marshal Zhukov, had been summoned to Moscow for consultations about the forthcoming Berlin Operation. Before leaving, recalling the false report of 12 March on the taking of the fortress, he asked the commander of the 8th Guards Army when he thought he could take it. Chuikov riposted that it lay in the attack path of Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army, which had already claimed to have taken it. Zhukov said that when mistakes occurred they had to be corrected. Chuikov promised to take Küstrin before Zhukov met Stalin. The attack was fixed for 29 March and would be led by divisions on both banks of the Oder. Heavy batteries were dug into the dykes to provide direct fire on the bastions. Soviet units had already worked their way forward into the corner between the Oder and Warthe rivers at the Kietzerbusch railway halt and skirmishing no longer died down at night.
Officer-Cadet Corporal Fritz Kohlase again:
During the night leading to Saturday [24 March] more fires flamed in Küstrin. In the south-west German troops sought to break out of the encirclement. They forced the Soviet front back with strong artillery fire and started fighting for Gorgast in the depths of the night. However, they were brought to a halt and shortly afterwards were driven back to the west by the Red Army.
For my comrades and me this failure was a great disappointment. With my section I had marked the south-westerly point of the Küstrin encirclement and seen the fire of our relieving troops about 3 kilometres away.
The noise of combat came from Küstrin all day long. At night, when it was quiet, fires lit up the town. The Russians also shot a building within the farm area into flames practically every night, making the delivery of ammunition and food difficult. Sometimes it took more than two hours for the few hundred metres to be covered, and once it succeeded only at the second attempt. Every night the ‘Orderly Sergeant’, an armoured Soviet biplane, appeared and would switch off its engine near its target then glide over it dropping small shrapnel bombs. During the day several German aircraft flew over Küstrin and dropped supply containers by parachute.
The Russians penetrated a gap in the positions between us and the 3rd Company, and occupied an isolated farm. From there a gun brought us under such uncomfortably direct fire that the battalion’s assault platoon received orders to regain the farm. The badly led attack in the dark, without the support of heavy weapons, failed.
One evening I had a stupid altercation with the 88mm battery commander. He inspected the flak position and then came to my section under cover of darkness. A steel helmet protected the head of this officer. After I had made my report, he told me off for wearing a field cap in the front line. When I told him that we only wore steel helmets under certain conditions, and that my company commander also wore a field cap, the altercation became louder until in the end I had to give way, if only for a few minutes, until he had disappeared in the direction of the manor farm.
The battalion lay under heavy fire on the Saturday and Sunday from infantry weapons, Stalin-Organs and guns. The worst were the often hour-long attacks by ground-attack aircraft, which concentrated on the infantry guns but failed to put them out of action. The battalion’s losses increased, but my section was lucky so far.
The Küstrin garrison’s fighting capacity rapidly diminished. All movement by day outside the foxholes, bunkers and casemates was unthinkable. The Soviet artillery observers had virtually every bit of the remaining fortress within view of their binoculars, even in the Altstadt, whether over heaps of rubble or through the skeletons of burnt-out buildings, and even their infantry weapons could reach almost everywhere. Ground-attack aircraft tackled systematically every street that showed signs of life. The police station on the Marktplatz collapsed under their bombs. Those units not deployed in the front line kept within the hollow spaces of the old fortifications. Numerous stable cellars had been destroyed in the previous days, shattered or burnt out.
Officer-Cadet Corporal Fritz Kohlase recalled:
On Saturday [24 March] the 3rd Company on our left was thrown out of its positions. Their counterattack on Sunday failed because of the company commander having a nervous breakdown. The immediate enemy response thrust into the company’s departure line, occupied it and closed up to the south-eastern corner of the manor farm complex.
Officer Cadet Corporal Hans Kirchhof was wounded at about this time:
In March I received orders to build and occupy a new position, also on the Oder dyke, but about 100 metres from the infantry bunker. This put us about 500 metres from the Bienenhof, lying on a mound where once a pub had stood. From here I could fire towards the Sonnenburger Chaussee. Far off to the south-west, south and south-east we could sometimes see enemy vehicles, but did not fire at them. Sometimes when we had permission to open fire, we fired at targets on the west bank of the Oder.
In the course of the offensive on the Altstadt we too came under strong artillery fire. The dugout in which I was received two direct hits, causing the entrance to collapse and making a hole in one of the walls. At least the latter served me well, for I was able to crawl out through the hole. The cause of this was a Soviet anti-tank gun on the west bank of the Oder.
My right eye had been hit and was falling out. In addition one nostril had been pierced through and a large wooden splinter was stuck in my upper lip. One of my men suffered a bruised groin from the same shell-burst. There were no other casualties as at the beginning of the barrage the men had spread out so that a direct hit would only get one man. I said good-bye to my men and went back to the Altstadt alone. There were no communication trenches from our position to the rear, only individual foxholes. My route was along the foot of the dyke across the Oder levels, followed for a long time by bursts of enemy machine-gun fire, fortunately too high or too far away.
Because of my sudden reduction to one eye, my progress was uncertain and not very fast. To avoid the enemy fire, I crossed the dyke and went on along the Chaussee. Here, however, the Russian rifle positions were closer, so I crossed back to the Oder levels, where I soon reached the dead angle.
Our company command post was in a casemate near the Kietz Gate, right on the road and a bit north of the big road junction. There was also an infantry command post here, a room for the Panther turret crew and the replacement crew for my gun. I sought out the latter first and was bandaged for the first time. The infantry company commander had me brief him on the events at the Bienenhof. I was able to stop Wolfgang Paul from going forward with his men for the moment, as it made no sense to do so, and also avoided unnecessary injuries.
As the Altstadt was under strong artillery fire, I remained in the casemate. Only at nightfall did the firing reduce to harassing fire. When comrades took me to the Schloss the streets were still burning right and left. The field hospital was in a cellar with the rooms for patients laid out with mattresses. I did not receive the attention of a doctor until the following day, because, in my opinion, the only doctor was expecting many acute cases of badly wounded soldiers. When I asked the doctor about the condition of my eye, he replied that I would have to get used to it for a long time.
How long I was in the field hospital in the Schloss cellars, I do not know. The weak lighting was the same day and night. There was plenty of coming and going, but I lost all sense of time. I lay on my mattress and dozed.