GERMAN ARTILLERY, 1945.
German Brandenburger commando troops firing at Soviet troops on a bridge over the Oder River with an 8.8 cm Flak anti-aircraft cannon, 1945. Photograph by Heinrich Hoffman.
In early 1945, the Eastern Front was what it had been since the Wehrmacht launched Operation Barbarossa: a German graveyard, the theater that claimed the lion’s share of the army’s divisions and generated the most casualties. The German strategic decision in 1944 to prioritize the Western Front, deal the Anglo-Americans a sharp blow, and then turn back with redoubled fury to the east was also the same thing it had been all along: nonsense. Errors on the strategic level are always the most serious, trumping operational brilliance and tactical acumen. Indeed, strategic errors have a way of being fatal. The Wehrmacht’s dramatic path in 1944 from defeat to catastrophe to rebirth on the Western Front was an epic in its way, but an empty one. By late 1944, the Eastern Front had gone into free fall.
The Red Army had spent the autumn mercilessly gouging into the flanks of the German strategic position. A series of offensives smashed Army Group North—always the weakest and most undersupported of the army groups—and herded its two component armies (the 16th and 18th) into one of the most senseless military positions of all time: the Courland Pocket. The small hump of western Latvia from Libau in the west to Tuckum in the east held over thirty German divisions that were cut off from the rest of the Wehrmacht and from the homeland—a force that had to be supplied by sea. The Soviets launched three great offensives into Courland in 1944, two in October and one in December, and then three more in 1945 (January, February, and March). The German force, renamed Army Group Courland in January 1945, warded off all of them, a masterpiece of defensive positional warfare against a powerful enemy, but in the end these thirty divisions stayed right where the Red Army wanted them: in a self-imposed prison camp. Indeed, the defense of the Courland Pocket benefited from the large number of German divisions packed like sardines into a very tiny front. For once on the Eastern Front, German divisions didn’t have to defend outrageously extended fronts, and under such conditions they gave a good accounting of themselves. From time to time, General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General Staff since July 21, 1944, pleaded with Hitler to evacuate Courland and bring the lost armies home to bolster the defenses of the homeland. Over and over again, Hitler refused, and he could always count on a reliable ally in the argument: Admiral Dönitz. He claimed that keeping a toehold in the Baltic Sea was essential to testing Germany’s new, fully submersible Type XXI U-boats, one of those miracle weapons that Hitler claimed was eventually going to win the war. At any rate, as 1945 dawned, it was unlikely that Germany could have scrounged up enough ships, transport capacity, and fuel to evacuate Army Group Courland—even if Hitler had agreed.
Likewise, in the south, the Red Army spent the autumn leveraging the advantages gained by Romania’s defection. The Soviets overran the Ploesti oil fields, coerced Bulgaria to declare war on Germany, drove into Yugoslavia, and captured Belgrade in October. These successes fatally compromised the position of German forces in Yugoslavia and Greece, and the German occupation force in the southern Balkans, General Alexander Löhr’s Army Group E, received orders to evacuate Greece, southern Albania, and southern Macedonia in October. Löhr brought his force north, with Tito’s Partisan forces nipping at their heels the whole way. Over and over again, German forces had to fight their way out of encirclements, but they could always amass sufficient force against the lighter-armed Partisans to do so. The Wehrmacht was less well equipped to deal with Allied air attacks, however, especially on the twisting mountain roads of central Bosnia, and the entire march north was an exercise in misery.
The next target in line—and Soviet strategy in this period of the war has all the meticulous sense of purpose of a clerk checking off boxes on an inventory sheet—was Hungary. After the huge losses the Hungarians suffered in the Soviet Union since Stalingrad, the country had clearly been wavering in its allegiance to the Axis. On March 12, 1944, the Germans had carried out Operation Margarethe, occupying the country to prevent an Italian- or Romanian-style defection. By October, Soviet forces had driven deep into Hungary, and fierce armored battles were raging around Debrecen in the Great Hungarian Plain. The Hungarian head of state, Admiral Miklós Horthy, negotiated an armistice with the Soviets. His announcement of the armistice on October 15, 1944, led the Germans to carry out Operation Panzerfaust, a coup by fascist fanatics of the Arrow Cross movement. Horthy was out, and Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szálasi was in. The Germans purchased Horthy’s acquiescence by kidnaping his son, Miklós Jr., beating him senseless, rolling him up in a rug, and transporting him to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Germany (Operation Mickey Mouse): a suitably gangsterish event that tells us all we need to know about the nature of Nazi foreign policy. Keeping Hungary loyal had little impact on the military side, however. After clearing the plain on the eastern bank of the Tisza River, the Soviets stormed toward Budapest. On December 5 they launched an offensive on both sides of the capital and encircled Budapest on Christmas Eve 1944. The siege, with four full German divisions inside the ring, would rage well into 1945.
All of these attacks in the northern and southern sector of the front left the center more or less untouched. Soviet forces still stood where they had since August: along the Vistula River, opposite Warsaw. And for anyone who had been paying attention to Soviet strategy thus far in the war, clearing the flanks could mean only one thing as 1945 began: an offensive along the central Warsaw-Berlin axis and a drive into the heart of Berlin. The end of the fighting back in August had seen Soviet armies seize three great bridgeheads over the Vistula south of Warsaw: at Magnuszew, at Pulawy, and on a long stretch of the Vistula between Baranow and Sandomierz, moving north to south. To the north of Warsaw, the Soviets held three more bridgeheads over the Narew River, two around Pultusk and a third at Lomza. Again, to anyone cognizant in Soviet battle planning, the maintenance of such numerous and expansive bridgeheads was a clear expression of operational intent. Unlike past offensives, the Soviets did not go to great lengths to employ maskirovka or deception. There could be no fooling the Germans as to the site of an attack so monstrous in size, and with German reserves chewed up in the Ardennes and in the fighting in Hungary, it hardly mattered how sly the Soviets tried to be. Most of the massive preparations for the great offensive—the Vistula-Oder operation—took place in the open.
And massive they were: two Soviet fronts bursting with men, tanks, and guns. On the Soviet right, directly opposite and to the south of Warsaw, 1st Byelorussian Front (Marshal G. K. Zhukov) assembled ten armies (eight combined-arms armies for the initial penetration, two tank armies, and two cavalry corps for exploitation along the attack axis) plus an air army. Such a robust force offered unlimited operational possibilities, and Zhukov seemed determined to try them all. He envisioned no fewer than three penetrations: the major one from the Magnuszew bridgehead, a 15-mile-wide by 6-mile-deep bulge over the river just south of Warsaw. Zhukov crammed three armies into Magnuszew, the 8th Guards Army under General V. I. Chuikov (formerly the 62nd Army, the heroes of Stalingrad), 5th Shock Army, and 61st Army. They would make the penetration, setting the stage for the 1st Guards Tank Army and the 2nd Guards Tank Army to launch the exploitation to the west. Zhukov designed a second, smaller penetration north of Warsaw, where 47th Army would take advantage of the general rupturing of the German line to cross the Vistula, loop around Warsaw to the north, and link up with the 61st Army coming up out of Magnuszew to encircle the city. Finally, a third drive would emerge out of Pulawy, in the southern reaches of Zhukov’s sector: 69th Army and 33rd Army would penetrate the German lines and link up with forces coming down out of Magnuszew, creating a series of tactical encirclements.
To the south (left) of Zhukov lay Marshal I. S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front. Here, too, stood ten full armies at the commander’s disposal, eight combined-arms armies and two tank armies. Konev’s plan was the opposite of Zhukov’s, however, and much simpler: while Zhukov was attacking in many places at once, Konev planned on one single great thrust. He jammed no fewer than five of his armies—half the total force—into the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead (the 6th, 13th, 52nd, 3rd Guards, and 5th Guards). Moreover, Konev planned to insert 3rd Guards Tank Army and 4th Guards Tank Army into the breakout from the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead on day one. The assault of Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front might well have been the single greatest concentration of land power in all of World War II.
Taken together, the two Soviet fronts amassed shocking numbers for the upcoming offensive. Konev and Zhukov had no fewer than 134 rifle divisions, 33,000 guns, 7,000 tanks, and 4,700 aircraft. In all, they commanded 2.25 million men. The two fronts contained about one-third of all infantry formations on the entire front and almost one-half of all the tanks. One authority calls the Soviet advantage “both absolute and awesome, fivefold in manpower, fivefold in armor, over sevenfold in artillery, and seventeen times the German strength in the air.” As always, the prelude to deep battle was concentration of massive force on extremely narrow fronts, and the Vistula-Oder operation was no different. The Soviets were able to lay on 220–250 guns per kilometer of front, a (theoretical) artillery piece every 4 meters, along with 21–25 tanks. It was a devastating concentration of offensive power, beyond anything the Soviets had yet achieved, even in their megavictory in Byelorussia the previous summer. A five-to-one advantage in armor across the entire front can easily become a superiority of ten- or even twenty-to-one in certain chosen assault sectors.
Moreover, the Soviet Stavka constructed this behemoth force while simultaneously planning another two-front offensive against East Prussia. The 2nd Byelorussian (Marshal K. K. Rokossovsky) and 3rd Byelorussian (General I. D. Cherniakhovsky) Fronts would launch a vast concentric operation against the exposed province. The operational scheme was essentially that of the Tannenberg campaign in 1914. Cherniakhovsky’s force would launch a frontal blast due west, driving on a direct route through Gumbinnen and Insterburg toward Königsberg. Once he had pinned German forces in place, Rokossovsky would come up from the south though Osterode and Allenstein, head toward the Baltic Sea at Elbing, and drive into the deep flank and rear of the German defenders. German forces in the province belonged to Army Group Center, under the command of General Georg-Hans Reinhardt. He had three weak armies (from left to right: 3rd Panzer, 4th, and 2nd) and a badly distended position, with 4th Army occupying a lazy, indefensible bulge looping out toward the east. The initial Soviet attacks intended to Kessel 4th Army by smashing the two armies on its flanks. Launching two vast offensives at once, the Soviet Union had become a military superpower by 1945, the purveyor of strategic land power par excellence.
And what of the German force defending the Vistula line? Here stood Army Group A (formerly Army Group North Ukraine, renamed after its brusque eviction from Ukrainian soil in July 1944), under the same officer who had commanded it during that previous catastrophe: General Joseph Harpe. Army Group A contained four relatively threadbare armies stretched over a 420-mile front and deployed along a more or less straight line stretching from north to south:
9th Army (General Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz)
—opposite the Magnuszew and Pulawy bridgeheads
4th Panzer Army (General Fritz-Hubert Gräser)
—opposite the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead
17th Army (General Friedrich Schulz)
—south of the Vistula to the Beskid Range in the Carpathians
Armeegruppe Heinrici: 1st Panzer Army and 1st Hungarian Army
(both under the command of General Gotthard Heinrici)
—holding the army group’s right wing in the Carpathians.
Altogether, Harpe’s army group could call upon a mere twenty-five divisions on line to hold this long front (standing against 134 Soviet divisions), along with 1,300 tanks (against 6,500). Twelve panzer divisions stood in reserve, but few were at full strength and fuel was in short supply—the Wehrmacht’s “new normal” since the loss of the Ploesti fields. Air support for the front, courtesy of VIII Fliegerkorps flying out of Kraków, was minimal. The Fliegerkorps could barely put 300 aircraft into the air (against 4,700), and those that were theoretically available to fly often didn’t, due again to serious fuel constraints. Army Group A also suffered from a serious shortage of munitions of all sorts, and many of Harpe’s units in January 1945 had an ammunition load for only two or three days of high-intensity combat.
All these numbers were indicative of the Soviet strategic edge: resources, industrial capacity, and increases in productivity, of course. They were also a product of German decision-making over the last six months. Hitler and the OKW had made a particularly fateful choice the previous fall when they decided to form a new army (the 6th SS Panzer Army under SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Sepp Dietrich) rather than transfer newly raised units to strengthen German armies already holding the line against the Soviets. We might say the same for their decision to deploy that new army in the west for the Ardennes offensive. That choice meant that German defenses in the east would lack a reserve army that Harpe or the General Staff and the OKH could insert to smash a Soviet breakthrough with a bold Panzer counterstroke. Finally, once it was clear that Wacht am Rhein was finished, Hitler and the OKW decided to transfer the 6th SS Panzer Army not to the east, as originally promised, but rather to the southeast, to Hungary, where it launched a series of three failed relief offensives to break the Soviet siege of Budapest (Operations Konrad I–III). All of these choices meant starving Army Group A and the other German forces currently defending the long line from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains. And yet, we cannot merely label these decisions “wrong.” However Hitler or anyone else shuffled them, there simply were not enough German divisions, corps, or armies to do all that needed to be done. Whether 6th SS Panzer Army fought in Budapest or on the Baranow bridgehead line was hardly going to change the ultimate verdict of the war—not at this late date.
We could say the same thing about the operational scheme mooted by Harpe’s chief of staff, the young and energetic General Wolfdietrich Ritter von Xylander. In the current conformation of the front, the Baranow and Magnuszew bridgeheads jutted into German-held territory. German forces deployed on that sector of the front, therefore, were in a salient pointing east, nearly encircled even before the start of the fighting. Xylander devised a plan he dubbed Schlittenfahrt (“Sleighride,” named, incidentally, for the signature maneuver of the Great Elector of Brandenburg in the Winter Campaign of 1678–1679). Just before the offensive, German forces would evacuate the bulge, moving back in three stages to the previously prepared Hubertus Line. The immense Soviet bombardment would therefore strike air—and so would the irresistible momentum of the initial Soviet attack. They would still come forward, but without their usual power. German forces would be standing in good order on a well-prepared, fortified line and be able either to hold the Soviet drive or even to strike a counterblow if conditions were favorable. Moreover, Xylander calculated that Schlittenfahrt would free up, at a minimum, four divisions, which he could use to form a strategic reserve for the army group.
Guderian presented Schlittenfahrt to Hitler at a conference at the Eyrie on January 9, along with a demand for reinforcements from the west and the by now obligatory demand for the evacuation of the Courland Pocket. While the scheme seems sensible enough, the Führer wasn’t having it. The proposed operation was just another retreat, he said, just another refusal to follow his orders to hold the line. Manuever wasn’t important to the outcome of the upcoming battle. Determination and strength of will: those were the keys. Hitler responded to Guderian’s presentation of the dire situation at the front with all the contempt he had built up for years against the generals, their propensity to “operate,” their constant demands for retreat. He didn’t believe Guderian’s intelligence estimates on Soviet tanks and guns, labeling them “completely idiotic.” Guderian responded that they came from the intelligence service, particularly from General Reinhard Gehlen in the Fremde Heere Ost (Foreign Armies East) office. “If you think he belongs in a madhouse, then lock me up, too!” Even though the rage on both sides subsided, and the discussion returned to a more civil space, the entire experience “was extremely unpleasant,” Guderian wrote. Hitler had reverted to an “ostrich strategy.” Meanwhile, the Eastern Front had become “a house of cards. If the front is penetrated at any point, the whole thing would fall apart.” Hitler’s response had all the charm of a funeral bell tolling: “The East must rely on itself and survive on what it has.”
Guderian’s account of the January meeting has become the accepted narrative, and no indications that he was lying, or even exaggerating, have ever come to light. Indeed, in a nighttime conference after the Chief of the General Staff departed, Hitler expanded on his skepticism of the reports he had heard earlier that day:
I looked at the numbers today, and we have 3,000 tanks and assault guns in the east. Since we usually shoot up enemy tanks at a 3–1 ratio, the Soviets need 9,000 tanks to destroy us. They need a 3–1 superiority. But they don’t have 9,000 tanks, not at the moment.
And here: if we look at the whole front, they’re supposed to have 150 guns every kilometer. That’s 1,500 guns on a ten-kilometer front. There is no way that can be true! That would mean 15,000 guns on a 100-kilometer front, and 20,000 guns on a 150-kilometer front. The Russians aren’t made of artillery!
In fact, we can say that they were made of artillery. Hitler’s departure from reality—born either of ignorance or of willful self-deception—is striking. The time had long passed when the Führer’s intuition and amateurish luck could lead to positive battlefield outcomes. His “unprofessional and defective” decisions were leading them all to doom, and they were directly responsible for the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands of German soldiers.
But in the interests of historical accuracy and fairness, let us note that Xylander’s plan was no more realistic than Hitler’s. The notion that the proposed Schlittenfahrt or any similar operational stratagem could ward off the dark fate awaiting Army Group A on the Vistula belongs to the realm of fantasy. Consider the words of the German official history. The controversy over Schlittenfahrt was “irrelevant,” the author argues:
Plans of this sort could not replace the German army’s losses in materiel and personnel or reduce the opponent’s superiority, neither on the Vistula nor weeks later on the Oder.
On the basis of the numbers alone, the outcome of the upcoming offensive was not in doubt. For the Wehrmacht of the Third Reich, the time for brilliant maneuver was over, since space was lacking. The depth required [for a war of maneuver] lay to the east, not west, of the Vistula. Each retreat brought the eastern opponent to the borders of the Reich. The danger loomed of ground operations on the soil of the homeland.
Indeed, like Model and Rundstedt pressing their point with Hitler and Jodl for the “small solution” during the 1944 Ardennes planning cycle, Xylander, Harpe, and Guderian were declaring allegiance to a way of war they had learned in the War Academy and then tested in the field in the early days of World War II: that war consists above all of a series of cleverly designed and boldly executed military operations, devoid of context, politics, or economics.
Handed impossible orders to hold out to the last man but lacking enough men to do so, Guderian attempted to compensate by digging a series of fortified positions on and behind the Vistula line. Hundreds of thousand of civilians, both German and Polish, as well as prisoners of war, went to work digging trenches and artillery emplacements, felling trees for roadblocks, and protecting the major towns and cities with all-around fortifications. The system was impressive enough on paper, including a Hauptkampflinie (main battle line) backstopped by no fewer than four lines (designated “a” through “d”) extending to a depth of 150 miles, with intermediate positions between them. A final barrier, the Nibelungen-Stellung (Nibelung Position), stretched from Bratislava in the south to the Stettin on the Baltic Sea coast. East Prussia, too, had an impressive system of prepared defenses. Many of them, like the Lötzen Triangle in the lakes district, were of great antiquity but still useful as defensive force multipliers within the dark forests of the province.67 Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht lacked many of the necessary materiel to build and hold a modern fortified line, including concrete, construction tools, fuel for the tractors, and, above all, artillery to place in the new bunkers; the works remained inadequate and incomplete on the eve of the Soviet offensive.
Mobilizing civilian labor was a double-edged sword for the army, moreover, since it brought the civil administration into play. As they had with the formation of the Volkssturm, the Gauleiters sensed that that their moment had come. They could see that fortification-building and civilian mobilization meant access to greater power and funding. Nazi officials in the eastern provinces soon began to intervene in the process of fortification building. The results were catastrophic. Arguments over jurisdiction and precedence arose between the army and the civilian authorities, resulting in confusion, waste, and redundancy of effort. Erich Koch, for example, former Gauleiter of occupied Ukraine and now holding the same office in East Prussia, was an energetic fellow—in all the worst ways. While he knew nothing of fortification or military affairs in general, he was certain that he “was smarter than a trained commander.” East Prussia wound up with a haphazard gaggle of poorly placed bunkers, trenches that meandered off into nowhere, and observation posts without a line of sight through the forest. Koch also came up with one of the war’s most absurd inventions: a concrete tube two feet in diameter, sunk into the earth so it could allow enemy tanks to pass; a man would then open its lid to spray enemy infantry with machine-gun fire. The test of battle soon showed the problems: the man inside the tube was terrified, he had no real contact with the outside world once he’d gone underground, and any sort of artillery strike on his position led to shattered concrete and the grisliest wounds imaginable. The infantry called it the Koch-Topf (“cooking pot”).