Lacking manpower, materiel, and suitable fortifications, Army Group A cracked apart on the first day of the Soviet offensive (within hours, actually). As always, the Soviets staggered the start. Coordinated front-level offensives on this continental scale require more than a starter’s pistol. Local variations in weather, the ground, and the state of preparations can lead to delays. In previous weeks, the Stavka had been the recipient of urgent requests from the western powers to advance the date of the offensive, scheduled originally for January 16. Stalin had obliged. Indeed, there was nothing he seemed to enjoy more than advancing a starting date on his commanders. The result was a certain amount of last-second scrambling that some commanders handled more smoothly than others:
January 12th 1st Ukrainian Front (Konev)
January 13th 1st Baltic Front (Bagramyan)
2nd Byelorussian Front (Rokossovsky)
3rd Byelorussian Front (Cherniakhovsky)
January 14th 1st Byelorussian Front (Zhukov)
At any rate, staggering the attacks brought a benefit—as the Soviets well knew by now. With German field commanders confused as to the location of the Soviet Schwerpunkt, they were uncertain or tentative in their reactions and often inserted their meager reserves prematurely or into the wrong place. The impact of receiving one massive blow after another also had a paralyzing effect on the High Command, including both Hitler and the OKH alike.
The Vistula-Oder operation, then, began as Marshal Konev’s show, with Zhukov’s front following two days later. Konev’s assault out of the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead married brute force to a sophisticated tactical approach, and it remains a model of modern offensive operations. The offensive opened with a brief but monstrous 15-minute bombardment at 4:45 a.m., with 300 guns per kilometer arranged quite literally hub to hub, targeting 4th Panzer Army opposite the bridgehead. Joining in at 5:00 a.m. were the “forward battalions,” probing the German front for weak spots and driving ahead 600 meters into the German defensive zone over the next few hours, occupying the German frontline trenches and even parts of the second. Most of the defending German infantry thought that they were facing the main attack by now, and they came up from their bunkers, where they’d been waiting out the Soviet bombardment, to engage the Soviet assault troops. That decision was fatal, leaving them open and vulnerable to the big one: an all-guns-at-once, 107-minute plastering of every worth-while target at and behind the German front. Soon the entire battlefield was a seething mass of high explosives, deadly chunks of shrapnel, and clods of frozen dirt, covered in a thick, choking, acrid smoke. A whole series of direct hits destroyed the headquarters of 4th Panzer Army, and the commander, a shaken General Gräser, might as well have been back in Berlin for all the control he was able to exert on the battle. And now, just before noon, it was the turn of the main body of Soviet infantry, moving up in 150-meter-wide sectors deliberately left untouched by the bombardment. Within hours they had penetrated as deep as five miles, and Konev hadn’t even played his trump card: the more than 2,000 tanks of the 3rd Guards and 4th Tank Armies. They came up at 2:00 p.m., passing through their own infantry and driving deep, smashing German defenses beyond hope of repair. By nightfall, they had torn a 25-mile-wide gash and in some sectors had penetrated up to 20 miles deep.
Through it all 4th Panzer Army hadn’t reacted and, indeed, hadn’t been able to react. Like a patient lying on an operating table, the initiative was out of its hands. The formation in the front line, XXXXVIII Panzer Corps, had three divisions stretched very thinly, and the opening Soviet attack had vaporized it. Analysts who have studied German dispositions carefully note that the reserve Panzer formations of 4th Panzer Army (the 16th and 17th Panzer Divisions belonging to General Walther Nehring’s XXIV Panzer Corps) were deployed too close to the front line. The decision belonged to Hitler, suspicious as ever of his commanders’ operational intentions and willingness to retreat. Located just a few thousand yards behind the Hauptkampflinie, however, Nehring’s corps suffered mightily in the opening bombardment, especially in terms of command, control, and radio facilities. Within an hour, Nehring was out of communication with his divisions, and as much as General Gräser, he was commanding blindly for the entire opening sequence. He finally received orders in the late afternoon to close up his two divisions to the town of Kielce—dead center in the path of the onrushing Soviet tank armies. His signal troops had restored communications with his divisions by now, but it hardly mattered: the orders were already obsolete. Soviet armor had already overrun the assembly areas for his Panzers, catching one Tiger tank battalion being refueled out in the open and destroying it completely. The two divisions struggle gamely toward Kielce in disconnected and isolated fragments, and the commander of 17th Panzer Division, Colonel Albert Brux, was wounded in a Soviet bombardment and taken prisoner.
Not that it mattered. Soviet armored spearheads had already taken Kielce. Nehring’s corps never did manage to launch a counterattack. Rather, it found itself fighting for its life against superior forces from the start. Soon, 4th Panzer Army had ceased to exist as a military formation. It had degenerated into an onrushing stream of men and vehicles, along with thousands of ethnic German refugees, all heading west and northwest, desperately trying to get to safety. This almost always meant off-road movement, however, since Soviet armor was prowling all the good highways. In the course of the first few days, small groups of survivors from the neighboring XXXXII Corps and XXXXVIII Panzer Corps coalesced around the remnants of Nehring’s Panzer corps to form Gruppe Nehring—all that was left of the army.
Nehring was a tested commander and managed to form the motley command into a “roving Kessel” (wandernden Kessel). Surrounded on all sides by Soviet units heading west at top speed and barely thinking it worthwhile to stop and fight a pitched battle with German forces who were already obviously defeated, under constant air attack, and low on supplies and ammunition, Nehring’s little band (fewer than 10,000 men all told) managed to thread the needle again and again over the next ten days. Unbeknownst to him, he had hit the seam between the two Soviet fronts, Zhukov to his north and Konev to his south. Moving mainly by night, hiding the tanks and vehicles among the houses and barns of this rural land, Nehring avoided Soviet concentrations, launching the occasional attack only when absolutely necessary and crashing through roadblocks. Kielce to Piotrków, Lask to the crossing over the Warthe River at Sieradz, and finally crossing the Oder River to safety at Glogau: Gruppe Nehring had traveled nearly 200 miles to safety. Like the Rückkämpfer of 1944, Nehring had beaten the odds—but his saga is impressive only within the context of yet another miserable German operational collapse.
On January 14, Zhukov’s 1st Byelorussian Front joined in the offensive. Coming out of the Magnuszew bridgehead, Zhukov meted out the same punishment to German 9th Army as Konev had to 4th Panzer. Here, too, the Soviet commander displayed finesse along with crushing strength. He opened with a furious 25-minute barrage and followed it up with a massive reconnaissance actions. It was of such size, scope, and ferocity (thirty-two reinforced rifle battalions and twenty-five additional rifle companies to reduce German strongpoints) that most of the German defenders believed once again that the main attack had begun. Soon they were falling back, abandoning the front line and then the second. A simultaneous attack out of the Pulawy bridgehead had equal success, and by the end of the day Zhukov’s armor was 20 miles inside the German defenses. The commander of 9th Army, General Lüttwitz, inserted his Panzer reserves with impressive dispatch, and 19th and 25th Panzer Divisions duly entered the fray on the first day. Given the collapse of the defenses in front of both bridgeheads, however, Lüttwitz had no choice but to split the divisions, directing 19th Panzer toward the Pulawy bridgehead and the 25th against Magnuszew. Here, too, the impression was not so much of being defeated as simply being swallowed up, and both Panzer divisions were soon reeling back with heavy losses. The next day, Zhukov directed 47th Army to begin its envelopment of Warsaw from the north, while 61st Army and 1st Polish Army drove up from the south. A few days of fighting and it was over: German troops evacuated Warsaw on January 17, and the victorious Polish formations were parading through their liberated capital.
With both 4th Panzer and 9th Armies in tatters, and both Soviet fronts pushing hard, the Vistula-Oder Offensive entered its travelogue phase. Warsaw began the parade, and now the cities and towns fell in a rush: Kraków and Czeţstochowa to Konev, Łódź to Zhukov. While there was the occasional skirmish, this was top-speed movement, limited only by logistical constraints and supply, ammunition, and fuel. By January 31, the two Soviet fronts had overrun the entire vast Posen Bulge, known as the Reichsgau Wartheland or Warthegau during Nazi occupation. On January 12—the very night that Soviet forces had smashed the German 4th Panzer Army—the provincial Gauleiter, Arthur Greiser, had promised the local population that victory was certain, that “the Bolshevist flood would bleed itself to death on the borders of the Warthegau,” and that “the Bolshevist marauders (Soldateska) would not set a single foot on our land.” But these had been empty words, and Greiser knew it. Sitting on a flat, featureless plain, he had done nothing to fortify the Warthegau, and only very late in the game, on January 20, did he approve an evacuation of the civilian population. While desperate families—women, children, and the elderly—loaded themselves and their possessions onto wagons and sleighs and scurried in the freezing cold, Greiser had a berth on a safe private train to Frankfurt on the Oder, one of many despicable flights carried out by party officials in those last days. Fighting an overmatched military and an utterly negligent civilian authority, the Soviet campaign had been one of the most successful and dramatic in history. Elements of the 1st Tank Army, part of Zhukov’s front, were already on the Oder River near Küstrin and Frankfurt, having lunged nearly 250 miles in just over two weeks. Konev’s spearheads likewise had driven deep into Silesia, reaching the Oder and seizing sizable bridgeheads on the left bank of the river at Steinau and Ohlau, northwest and southeast of the provincial capital, Breslau. Silesia, Prussia’s ur-conquest from two hundred years before, now stood under threat. The Wehrmacht’s losses in all this had been colossal: no fewer than 300,000 men. “The catastrophe at the front was coming down on us like an avalanche,” as Guderian put it.
Under Guderian’s continual urging, Hitler did finally order reinforcements to the front: five divisions and a corps headquarters from the Courland Pocket, the Grossdeutschland Panzer Corps from East Prussia. The former involved evacuation by sea and would take time, if it happened at all. The latter had minimal impact. Grossdeutschland began to detrain at Łódź on January 16 and immediately sent one of its divisions, the Hermann Göring Fallschirmjäger Panzer Division, into action east of the city. But the division had massive Soviet forces hurtling at it from all directions and had no choice but to fall back. Łódź itself fell to elements of Chuikov’s 8th Army—largely consisting of infantry but moving just as rapidly as the tank armies—on January 19. Subsequent Soviet attacks caught the German trains carrying much of the Grossdeutschland Corps’s equipment and destroyed them. Within days of arriving at the front, the corps commander, General Dietrich von Saucken, saw his force reduced to the size of a battlegroup. And like Nehring, he sound found himself surrounded and in command of a wandering cauldron (Gruppe Saucken), heading south and west toward the Warthe. Nehring’s group was all that was left of 4th Panzer Army, Saucken’s the remnant of the 9th.
While the front disintegrated, not just between the Vistula and the Oder but in East Prussia as well, business as usual went on at Führer Headquarters. The same interminable situation conferences took place. Guderian and Hitler continued to argue over the same trivial particulars of operations, administration, and personnel, all of which the general describes in detail in his memoirs. They even redesignated their army groups, hardly the most pressing need at the moment:
Old Army Group (Oder Front) =======> New Army Group Center
Army Group Center (East Prussia) =======> Army Group North
Army Group North (Courland Pocket) =======> Army Group Courland
And in his by now traditional response to disaster at the front, Hitler fired his generals in droves. General Harpe, the commander of Army Group A, got the axe first, followed by General Lüttwitz, commander of 9th Army. The ostensible reason was the hasty evacuation of Warsaw—yet another fallen city that Hitler had ordered held to the last man. After the fall of the fortress complex of Lötzen in East Prussia on January 23 essentially without a fight, the dismissals gained momentum. General Reinhardt, commanding Army Group Center, went next, followed by General Hossbach of 4th Army. The new army group commanders were Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner, perhaps Hitler’s most fanatic servant, at Army Group A (now redesignated Army Group Center) and General Lothar Rendulic for Army Group Center (now Army Group North).
Their appointments continued a long-standing devolution within Hitler’s marshalate. Like Field Marshal Model in the west, neither Schörner nor Rendulic could make a claim to any particular operational brilliance or innovative style of leadership. Both were loyal to the core, however. Schörner, in particular, viewed terrorizing the men underneath him as a legitimate tool of National Socialist command, executed thousands of his own soldiers to keep the others in the line, and would remain with his command until the end of the war. Rendulic managed to touch all the command bases: Army Group Courland, Army Group North, back to Courland, and then Army Group South until the end of the war (with one last redesignation at Army Group Ostmark), all in the course of four months. They were men upon whom the Führer could rely: ruthless, grim commanders who were determined to throw their men into the fire by the hundreds of thousands for as long as Hitler felt they should.