Soviet IS-2 in Stargard, 19 March 1945
The Vistula-Oder campaign had ended almost as suddenly as it had begun. As Zhukov’s 1st Byelorussian Front and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front hurtled toward the Oder, they encountered stiffening resistance on their flanks. For Konev, the threat came from his left (southern) flank, from German forces in Silesia; for Zhukov, it came from Pomerania on his right (northern) flank. In the first weeks of February, German garrisons were resisting Zhukov’s advance stubbornly inside a number of older fortresses like Thorn (Toruń), Schneidemühl (Pila), Deutsch Krone (Wałcz), and Arnswalde (Choszczno). As always, Soviet fronts attempting to fight deep battle weakened a bit more each day, as each forward bound took them farther from their base of supply. Konev, too, found the going much slower the more deeply he advanced into the urban and industrial districts of Silesia.
Moreover, a new German army group appeared on Zhukov’s maps: Army Group Vistula, assembled in Pomerania on January 24. The new formation was a typical late-war creation, made up of broken units from the Vistula Front (remnants of General Busse’s 9th Army), as well as from East Prussia (the 2nd Army of General Walther Weiss), along with a newly formed 11th SS Panzer Army under SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner. All these formations were thrown together hastily and were vastly understrength, and the entire army group barely possessed the fighting strength of a corps. Guderian and Hitler wrangled over the commander, with Guderian recommending Field Marshal Maximilian Weichs. The Wehrmacht currently had two army group staffs in the Balkans (Weichs’s Army Group F and General Alexander Löhr’s Army Group E), and Weichs seemed the logical choice—a man with “soldierly” qualities who was “clever, upright, and brave,” as Guderian put it. “If anyone could master the situation, Weichs could.” Being soldierly was the last thing Hitler cared about by this point in the war, and he instead proposed Himmler, then commanding Army Group Upper Rhine in the wind-down phase of Operation Nordwind. Weichs, the Führer said, “made a tired impression” and “didn’t appear up to the mission,” which was how he felt about the entire officer corps by now. Himmler was hopeless as a commander, but just as in Alsace, he was able to terrorize enough officials and civilians to fill the ranks and to scrounge up scarce supplies, even if he hadn’t the faintest idea of what to do with either one.
At any rate, Soviet reconnaissance patrols detected increasing activity out of Pomerania, and Zhukov had to detach troops from his forward drive to protect his northern flank. That task had originally been the mission of his neighbor to the right, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Byelorussian Front. Tough fighting in East Prussia had diverted Rokossovsky to the north, however, leaving Zhukov’s long flank open and vulnerable. On February 15, 1st SS Panzer Army actually launched a counteroffensive south from the Stargard region. Operation Sonnenwende (“Solstice”) looked impressive enough on the map—a three-pronged advance with every division and mechanized formation that the Germans could scrounge. The quality was mixed, including the 281st Infantry Division, a converted security formation just evacuated from Courland, and the 4th SS Polizei Panzergrenadier Division, which despite its name had almost no heavy weapons. Much of the army’s fighting strength lay with the III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps under General Martin Unrein. The corps consisted of three non-German volunteer divisions of the Waffen-SS, recruited from nationalities that were acceptably “Aryan,” according to National Socialism’s bogus racial theories:
11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland—Norwegian and Danish
23rd SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nederland—Dutch
27th SS Volunteer Division Langemarck—Flemish
Another of the participating formations, XXXIX Panzer Corps, contained a foreign volunteer division, the 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonien, consisting of French-speaking Belgians, or Walloons. Commanded by the Belgian Rexiste leader Léon Degrelle, this “division” was never larger than a brigade and perhaps less than that in Sonnenwende.
Despite the disparate nature of the manpower, the planning was solid enough. Guderian had won a point with Hitler in the prebattle planning stage, urging the Führer to appoint Himmler’s chief of staff, General Walther Wenck, as the actual field commander (Feldkommando) for the offensive. Where Himmler was uncertain and indolent, Wenck was energetic and capable and, at forty-four years old, the youngest general in the German army. He launched the attack on a 30-mile front, with XXXIX Panzer on the right, III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps in the center, and the ad hoc Korpsgruppe named for General Oskar Munzel providing flank protection on the left. The timing and precise location of the attack caught forward units of the Soviet 61st Army by surprise. With its assortment of Danes, Norwegians, and Flemings in the lead, Sonnenwende drove south seven miles and actually managed to relieve the besieged German garrison of Arnswalde. But this relatively impressive opening soon petered out into tough positional fighting over the next two days—the last thing the Wehrmacht could afford. The infantry component—German and non-German alike—was half-trained, and the precious Panzers suffered heavy and irreplaceable losses to Soviet antitank guns, mines, and artillery. Bad luck also played a role. After briefing Hitler personally on February 17, Wenck was driving back to headquarters. His exhausted driver had been on duty for two days straight, so Wenck took over, promptly fell asleep at the wheel, and slammed into a bridge. He spent the next few weeks convalescing in a hospital, and Sonnenwende never did get restarted. Whether Wenck’s presence would have made difference is an open question, but losing a good commander days into an operation is rarely a positive.
Failure or not, the counterstroke had an impact. Sonnenwende gave both Zhukov and the Stavka a case of the nerves. Final victory was in sight, so this was no time to be courting senseless risk. With a major river (the Oder) in front of Zhukov and unknown troubles brewing on his flanks, the time had come to halt. Konev’s front, as well, was going to be needed for the drive on Berlin, and he could hardly fight in Berlin and Silesia at the same time. Put simply, before the two Soviet fronts could strike at Berlin they had housecleaning duties to tend to on their flanks. Zhukov, along with Rokossovsky’s 2nd Byelorussian Front, spent the next two months squashing the remains of German resistance in eastern Pomerania (Hinterpommern—“Pomerania east of the Oder”). The campaign featured a tricky degree of interfront cooperation, with Zhukov’s right wing and Rokossovsky’s left wing doing most of the fighting. At first, the two fronts drove straight north, heading toward Kolberg and Köslin. After reaching the Baltic coast and splitting the province in two, Zhukov wheeled left toward Stettin and the mouth of the Oder, while Rokossovsky wheeled right toward Danzig and the Gotenhafen fortifications. By now, the German civilian population in this region was on the move, with hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes, desperate to evade rampaging Soviet tank columns. All the German military formations in Pomerania took in immense masses of civilians. Indeed, helping civilians flee to the west became the army’s unofficial raison d’être for continuing the war to the bitter end.
While Zhukov reduced Pomerania, Konev fought a bitter campaign to reduce German resistance in Silesia. On February 8, 1st Ukrainian Front launched a vast, two-pronged operation out of the Steinau and Ohlau bridgeheads (the Lower Silesian Operation). Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner of Army Group Center had two understrength “armies” under his command in Silesia: 17th Army standing opposite the Ohlau bridgehead and 4th Panzer Army guarding Steinau. Both were the remnants of German forces smashed on the Vistula, however, and Schörner had “only about as many field divisions as Konev had armies,” in the words of one analyst. Both German forces gave way within hours, and Konev’s tank armies were motoring 40 miles past their starting line by the end of the first day. Rather than push west toward Germany, however, Konev decided first to encircle Breslau, diverting 1st Guards Tank Army from its original westward axis, wheeling it 180 degrees to the east, and looping it around Breslau from the south. Breslau was encircled (and would withstand a siege and assault for three full months, until May 6—outliving even Hitler himself). But Konev’s decision gave the Germans just enough time for elements of 4th Panzer Army to firm up their defenses along the Neisse River (Lausitzer Neisse, or “Lusatian Neisse”). Konev’s attempts to establish bridgeheads over the Neisse led to fierce fighting against the six German divisions on the western bank and resulted in a bare sliver of a lodgment between Forst in the south and Guben in the north.
Konev now faced a German army immediately to his west (4th Panzer) and a second immediately to his south (17th) and was, for the moment, “contained inside a right angle of German forces.” He had pushed up to the Neisse on a 60-mile front and encircled Breslau, but German forces were still in the field and still active, launching a pair of small but vigorous counterattacks at Lauban (March 2) and at Striegau (March 9) that, although failing to achieve lasting success, served notice to Konev that the front was still active. Moreover, activity on his deep-left flank seemed threatening. Here lay Armeegruppe Heinrici (later, 1st Panzer Army), and once again Konev couldn’t concentrate on the Berlin axis far to the west when a threat lay this deep on his opposite flank. He now decided to redeploy 4th Tank Army from the Neisse front and insert it into battle 100 miles to the southeast in Upper Silesia. On March 15, he launched another massive offensive (the Upper Silesian Operation), both sides battling away in the mountains and industrial districts north of Mährisch-Ostrau (Moravska Ostrava). The initial breakthroughs managed to encircle the German LVI Panzer Corps southwest of Oppeln. The corps managed to break out of the ring—just in time for 4th Ukrainian Front to join the offensive on March 22—launching an attack on 1st Panzer Army from the east. Heinrici parried both thrusts, and the Soviets called off their offensive on March 31. They had pushed back, but not destroyed, 1st Panzer Army, and that may be all they wanted to do in the first place. Konev had neutralized the threat from Silesia, but it had taken him nearly two months, almost exactly the time Zhukov needed to overrun Pomerania.