Retreat Back to Poland Summer 1944 II

“The thrust is the best parry”

Worried by the threatening developments the day before on his front and flanks, Model, early on 23 July, predicted that the Russians would strike via L’vov to the San River, thrust past Lublin to Warsaw, encircle Second Army at Brest, advance on East Prussia across the Bialystok-Grodno line and by way of Kaunas, and attack past the army group left flank via Shaulyay to Memel or Riga. During the day Model’s concern, particularly for his south flank, grew to alarm as the Russians moved north rapidly between the Vistula and the Bug toward Siedlce, the main road junction between Warsaw and Brest. In the late afternoon, after several of his reports had gone unanswered, Model called to tell the Operations Branch, OKH, it was “no use sitting on one’s hands, there could be only one decision and that was to retreat to the Vistula-San line.” The branch chief replied that he agreed, but Guderian wanted to set a different objective. Later the army group chief of staff talked to Guderian, who quickly took up a proposal to create a strong tank force around Siedlce but would not hear of giving up any of the most threatened points. “We must take the offensive everywhere!” he demanded, “To retreat any farther is absolutely not tolerable.”

Before daylight the next morning Guderian had completed a directive which was issued over Hitler’s signature. Army Groups North and North Ukraine were to halt where they were and start attacking to close the gaps. Army Group Center was to create a solid front on the line Kaunas-Bialystok-Brest and assemble strong forces on both its flanks. These would strike north and south to restore contact with the neighboring army groups. All three army groups were promised reinforcements. The directive ended with the aphorism “The thrust is the best parry” (der Hieb ist die beste Parade). After reading the directive Model’s chief of staff told the OKH operations chief it would be seven days before the army groups would get any sizable reinforcements—in that time much could happen.

During the last week in the month the Soviet armies rolled west through the shattered German front. On 24 July First Panzer Army still held L’vov and its front to the south, but behind the panzer army’s flank, 50 miles west of L’vov, First Tank Army, Third Guards Tank Army, and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Baranov had four tank and mechanized corps closing to the San River on the stretch between Jaroslaw and Przemysl. That day Fourth Panzer Army fell back 25 miles to a 40-mile front on the Wieprz River southeast of Lublin; off both its flanks the Russians tore open the front for a distance of 65 miles in the south and 55 miles in the north. Second Army had drawn its three right flank corps back to form a horizontal V with the point at Brest. Behind the army a Second Tank Army spearhead reached the outskirts of Siedlce at nightfall on the 24th, and during the day Forty-seventh and Seventieth Armies had turned in against the south flank.

To defend Siedlce, Warsaw, and the Vistula south to Pulawy, Model, on the 24th, returned Headquarters, Ninth Army, to the front and gave it the Hermann Göring Division, the SS Totenkopf Division, and two infantry divisions, the latter three divisions still in transit. From the long columns coming west across the Vistula, the army began screening out what troops it could. In Warsaw it expected an uprising any day.

The next day Fourth Tank Army crossed the San between Jaroslaw and Przemysl. To try to stop that thrust, Army Group North Ukraine, on orders from the OKH, took two divisions from Fourth Panzer Army and gave the army permission to withdraw to the Vistula. In the Ninth Army sector Rokossovskiy’s armor pierced a thin screening line around the Vistula crossings at Deblin and Pulawy and reached the east bank of the river.

Morning air reconnaissance on the 26th reported 1,400 Soviet trucks and tanks heading north past Deblin on the Warsaw road. At the same time, on the Army Group Center north flank reconnaissance planes located “endless” motorized columns moving west out of Panevezhis behind Third Panzer Army. During the day Second Army declared it could not hold Brest any longer, but Hitler and Guderian refused a decision until after midnight, by which time the corps in and around the city were virtually encircled.

In two more days First Panzer Army lost L’vov and fell back to the southwest toward the Carpathians. Fourth Panzer Army went behind the Vistula and beat off several attempts to carry the pursuit across the river. Ninth Army threw all the forces it could muster east of Warsaw to defend the city, hold Siedlce, and keep open a route to the west for the divisions coming out of Brest. South of Pulawy two Soviet platoons crossed the Vistula and created a bridgehead; Ninth Army noted that the Russians were expert at building on such small beginnings.

In the gap between Army Groups Center and North, Bagramyan’s motorized columns passed through Shaulyay, turned north, covered the fifty miles to Jelgava, and cut the last rail line to Army Group North. In a desperate attempt to slow that advance, Third Panzer Army dispatched one panzer division on a thrust toward Panevezhis. Hitler wanted two more divisions put in, but they could only have come from the front on the Neman, where the army was already losing its struggle to hold Kaunas.

The 29th brought Army Group Center fresh troubles. Nine rifle divisions and two guards tank corps hit the Third Panzer Army right flank on the Neman front south of Kaunas. Rokossovsky’s armor drove north past Warsaw, cutting the road and rail connections between the Ninth and Second Armies and setting the stage for converging attacks on Warsaw from the southeast, east, and north.

On the 30th the Third Panzer Army flank collapsed, the Russians advanced to Mariampol, twenty miles from the East Prussian border, and could have gone even farther had they so desired. Between Mariampol and Kaunas the front was shattered. In Kaunas and in the World War I fortifications east of the city two divisions were in danger of being ground to pieces as the enemy swung in behind them from the south. Model told Reinhardt that the army group could not grant permission to give up the city and it was useless to ask the OKH. Reinhardt replied, “Very well, if that is how things stand, I will save my troops”; at ten minutes after midnight he ordered the corps holding Kaunas to retreat to the Nevayazha River ten miles to the west.

On the Warsaw approaches during the day Second Tank Army came within seven miles of the city on the southeast and took Wolomin eight miles to the northeast. In the city shooting erupted in numerous places. In the San-Vistula triangle First Tank Army stabbed past Fourth Army and headed northwest toward an open stretch of the Vistula on both sides of Baranow. Off the tank army’s south flank the OKH gave the Headquarters, Seventeenth Army, command of two and a half divisions to try to plug the gap between Fourth Army and First Panzer Army.

On the last day of the month elements of a guards mechanized corps reached the Gulf of Riga west of Riga. Forty miles south of Warsaw Eighth Guards Army took a small bridgehead near Magnuszew. Between the Fourth and Seventeenth Armies, First Tank Army began taking its armor across the Vistula at Baranow. That day, too, for the first time, the offensive faltered: Bagramyan did not move to expand his handhold on the Baltic; apparently short of gasoline, the tanks attacking toward Warsaw suddenly slowed almost to a stop; a German counterattack west from Siedlce began to make progress; and General Ivan Danilovich Chernyakovsky did not take advantage of the opening between Mariampol and Kaunas.

At midnight on 31 July Hitler reviewed the total German situation in a long, erratic, monologue delivered to Jodl and a handful of other officers. The news from the West was also grim: there the Allies were breaking out of the Cotentin Peninsula, and on the 31st U.S. First Army had passed Avranches. Nevertheless, the most immediate danger, Hitler said, was in the East, because if the fighting reached into Upper Silesia or East Prussia, the psychological effects in Germany would be severe. As it was, the retreat was arousing apprehension in Finland and the Balkan countries, and Turkey was on the verge of abandoning its neutrality. What was needed was to stabilize the front and, possibly, win a battle or two to restore German prestige.

The deeper problem, as Hitler saw it, was “this human, this moral crisis,” in other words, the recently revealed officers’ conspiracy against him; he went on:

“In the final analysis, what can we expect of a front . . . . if one now sees that in the rear the most important posts were occupied by downright destructionists, not defeatists but destructionists. One does not even know how long they have been conspiring with the enemy or with those people over there [Seydlitz’s League of German Officers]. In a year or two the Russians have not become that much better; we have become worse because we have that outfit over there constantly spreading poison by means of the General Staff, the Quartermaster General, the Chief of Communications, and so on. If we overcome this moral crisis . . . in my opinion we will be able to set things right in the East.”

Fifteen new grenadier divisions and ten panzer brigades being set up, he predicted, would be enough to stabilize the Eastern Front. Being pushed into a relatively narrow space, he thought, was not entirely bad; it reduced the Army’s need for manpower-consuming service and support organizations.

The Recovery

In predicting that the front could be stabilized, Hitler came close to the mark. In fact, even his expressed wish for a victory or two was about to be partially gratified. Model was keeping his forces in hand, and he was gradually gaining strength. Having advanced, in some instances more than 150 miles, the Soviet armies were again getting ahead of their supplies. The flood had reached its crest. It would do more damage; but in places it could also be dammed and diverted.

Crosscurrents

On 1 August Third Panzer Army, not yet recovered from the beating it had taken between Kaunas and Mariampol, shifted the right half of its front into the East Prussia defense position. Third Belorussian Front, following close, cut through this last line forward of German territory in three places and took Vilkavishkis, ten miles east of the border. The general commanding the corps in the weakened sector warned that the Russians could be in East Prussia in another day.

The panzer army staff, set up in Schlossberg on the west side of the border, found being in an “orderly little German city almost incomprehensible after three years on Soviet soil.” But Reinhardt was shaken, almost horrified, when he discovered that the Gauleiter of East Prussia, Erich Koch, who was also civil defense commissioner for East Prussia, had not so much as established a plan for evacuating women and children from the areas closest to the front. The army group chief of staff said that he had been protesting daily and had been ignored; apparently Koch was carrying out a Führer directive.

In Warsaw on 1 August the Polish Armia Krajowa (Home Army), under General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski, staged an insurrection. The Poles were trained and well-armed. They moved quickly to take over the heart of the city and the through streets, but the key points the insurgents needed to establish contact with the Russians, the four Vistula bridges and Praga, the suburb on the east bank, stayed in German hands. Worse yet for the insurgents, south of Wolomin the Hermann Göring Division, 19th Panzer Division, and SS Wiking Division closed in behind the III Tank Corps, which after sweeping north past Warsaw had slowed to a near stop on 31 July. In the next two or three days, while the German divisions set about destroying III Tank Corps, Second Tank Army shifted its effort away from Warsaw and began to concentrate on enlarging the bridgehead at Magnuszew, thirty-five miles to the south.

Stalin was obviously not interested in helping the insurgents achieve their objectives: a share in liberating the Polish capital and, based on that, a claim to a stronger voice in the post-war settlement for Premier Stanislaw Mikolajczyk’s British-and-American-supported exile government. On 22 July the Soviet Union had established in Lublin the hand-picked Polish Committee of National Liberation, which as one of its first official acts came out wholeheartedly in favor of the Soviet-proposed border on the old Curzon Line, the main point of contention between the Soviet Union and the Mikolajczyk government. That Mikolajczyk was then in Moscow (he had arrived on 30 July) negotiating for a free and independent Poland added urgency to the revolt but at the same time reduced the insurgents in Soviet eyes to the status of inconvenient political pawns.

Army Group North Ukraine on 1 August was in the second day of a counterattack, which had originally aimed at clearing the entire San-Vistula triangle, but which had been reduced before it started to an attempt to cut off the First Tank Army elements that had crossed the Vistula at Baranow. Although Seventeenth Army and Fourth Panzer Army both gained ground, they did not slow or, for that matter, much disturb Konev’s thrust across the Vistula. A dozen large pontoon ferries, capable of floating up to sixty tons, were transporting troops, tanks, equipment, and supplies of Third Guards Tank and Thirteenth Armies across the river. By the end of the day Fourth Panzer Army had gone as far as it could. The next afternoon the army group had to call a halt altogether. The divisions were needed west of the river where First Tank Army, backed by Third Guards Tank Army and Thirteenth Army, had forces strong enough to strike, if it chose, north toward Radom or southwest toward Krakow.

On the night of 3 August Model sent Hitler a cautiously optimistic report. Army Group Center, he said, had set up a continuous front from south of Shaulyay to the right boundary on the Vistula near Pulawy. It was thin—on the 420 miles of front thirty-nine German divisions and brigades faced an estimated third of the total Soviet strength—but it seemed that the time had come when the army group could hold its own, react deliberately, and start planning to take the initiative itself. Model proposed to take the 19th Panzer Division and the Hermann Göring Division behind the Vistula to seal off the Magnuszew bridgehead, to move a panzer division into the Tilsit area to support the Army Group North flank, and to use the Grossdeutschland Division, coming from Army Group South Ukraine, to counterattack at Vilkavishkis. He planned to free two panzer divisions by letting Second Army and the right flank of Fourth Army withdraw toward the Narew River. With luck, he thought, these missions could be completed by 15 August. After that, he could assemble six panzer divisions on the north flank and attack to regain contact with Army Group North.

For a change, fortune half-favored the Germans. The Hermann Göring Division and the 15th Panzer Division boxed in the Magnuszew bridgehead. Against the promise of a replacement in a week or so, Model gave up the panzer division he had expected to station near Tilsit. The division went to Army Group North Ukraine where Konev, after relinquishing the left half of his front to the reconstituted Headquarters, Fourth Ukrainian Front, under General Polkovnik Ivan Y. Petrov, was now also pushing Fourth Tank Army into the Baranow bridgehead. The bridgehead continued to expand like a growing boil but not as rapidly as might have been expected considering the inequality of the opposing forces.

In the second week of the month three grenadier divisions and two panzer brigades arrived at Army Group Center. On 9 August the Grossdeutschland Division attacked south of Vilkavishkis. Through their agents the Russians were forewarned. They were ready with heavy air support and two fresh divisions. This opposition blunted the German attack somewhat, but the Grossdeutschland Division took Vilkavishkis, even though it could not completely eliminate the salient north of the town before it was taken out and sent north on 10 August.

A Corridor to Army Group North

In the first week of August the most urgent question was whether help could be brought to Army Group North before it collapsed completely. On 6 August Schörner told Hitler that his front would hold until Army Group Center had restored contact, provided “not too much time elapsed” in the interval; his troops were exhausted, and the Russians were relentlessly driving them back by pouring in troops, often 14-year-old boys and old men, at every weak point on the long, thickly forested front. To Guderian he said that if Army Group Center could not attack soon, all that was left was to retreat south and go back to a line Riga-Shaulyay-Kaunas, and even that was becoming more difficult every day.

On 10 August Third Baltic and Second Baltic Fronts launched massive air and artillery-supported assaults against Eighteenth Army below Pskov Lake and north of the Dvina. They broke through in both places on the first day. Having no reserves worth mentioning, Schörner applied his talent for wringing the last drop of effort out of the troops. To one of the division commanders he sent the message: “Generalleutnant Charles de Beaulieu is to be told that he is to restore his own and his division’s honor by a courageous deed or I will chase him out in disgrace. Furthermore, he is to report by 2100 which commanders he has had shot or is having shot for cowardice.” From the Commanding General, Eighteenth Army, he demanded “Draconian intervention” and “ruthlessness to the point of brutality.”

To boost morale in Schörner’s command, the Air Force sent the Stuka squadron commanded by Major Hans Rudel, the famous Panzerknacker (tank cracker), who a few days before had chalked up his 300th Soviet tank destroyed by dive bombing. Hitler sent word on the 12th that Army Group Center would attack two days earlier than planned. From Königsberg the OKH had a grenadier division airlifted to Eighteenth Army.

Army Group Center began the relief operation on 16 August. Two panzer corps, neither fully assembled, jumped off west and north of Shaulyay. Simultaneously, Third Belorussian Front threw the Fifth, Thirty-third, and Eleventh Guards Armies against Third Panzer Army’s right flank and retook Vilkavishkis. During the day Model received an order appointing him to command the Western Theater. Reinhardt, the senior army commander, took command of the army group, and Generaloberst Erhard Raus replaced him as Commanding General, Third Panzer Army.

The next day, while the offensive on the north flank rolled ahead, Chernyakovsky’s thrust reached the East Prussian border northwest of Vilkavishkis. One platoon, wiped out before the day’s end, crossed the border and for the first time carried the war to German soil. In the next two days the Russians came perilously close to breaking into East Prussia.

On the extreme north flank of Third Panzer Army two panzer brigades, with artillery support from the cruiser Prinz Eugen standing offshore in the Gulf of Riga, on the 10th took Tukums and made contact with Army Group North. On orders from the OKH, the brigades were immediately put aboard trains in Riga and dispatched to the front below Lake Peipus. The next day Third Panzer Army took a firmer foothold along the coast from Tukums east and dispatched a truck column with supplies for Army Group North. On the East Prussian border the army’s front was weak and beginning to waver, but the Russians were by then concentrating entirely on the north and did not make the bid to enter German territory. Reinhardt told Guderian during the day that to expand the corridor and get control of the railroad to Army Group North through Jelgava would take too long. He recommended evacuating Army Group North. Guderian replied that he himself agreed but that Hitler refused on political grounds. The offensive continued through 27 August, when Hitler ordered a panzer division transferred to Army Group North.

At the end, the contact with Army Group North was still restricted to an 18-mile-wide coastal corridor. For the time being that was enough. On the last day of the month the Second and Third Baltic Fronts suddenly went over to the defensive.

The Battle Subsides

Throughout the zones of Army Groups Center and North Ukraine, the Soviet offensive, as the month ended, trailed off into random swirls and eddies. After taking Sandomierz on 18 August First Ukrainian Front gradually shifted to the defensive even though it had four full armies, three of them tank armies, jammed into its Vistula bridgehead. North of Warsaw First Belorussian Front had harried Second Army mercilessly as it withdrew toward the Narew, and in the first week of September, when the army went behind the river, took sizable bridgeheads at Serock and Rozan. But for more than two weeks Rokossovsky evinced no interest in the bridgehead around Warsaw, which Ninth Army was left holding after Second Army withdrew.

In Warsaw at the turn of the month the uprising seemed to be nearing its end. One reason why the insurgents had held out as long as they did was that the Germans had been unable and unwilling to employ regular troops in the house-to-house fighting. They had brought up various remote-controlled demolition vehicles, rocket projectors, and artillery—including a 24-inch howitzer—and had turned the operations against the insurgents over to General von dem Bach-Zelewski and SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth. The units engaged were mostly SS and police and included such oddments as the Kaminski Brigade and the Dirlewanger Brigade. As a consequence, the fighting was carried on at an unprecedented level of viciousness without commensurate tactical results.

On 2 September Polish resistance in the city center collapsed and 50,000 civilians passed through the German lines. On the 9th Bor-Komorowski sent out two officer parliamentaries, and the Germans offered prisoner of war treatment for the members of the Armia Krajowa. The next day, in a lukewarm effort to keep the uprising alive, the Soviet Forty-seventh Army attacked the Warsaw bridgehead, and the Poles did not reply to the German offer. Under the attack, the 73d Infantry Division, a hastily rebuilt Crimea division, collapsed and in another two days Ninth Army had to give up the bridgehead, evacuate Praga, and destroy the Vistula bridges. The success apparently was bigger than the Stavka had wanted; on the 14th, even though 100 U.S. 4-motored bombers flew a support mission for the insurgents, the fighting subsided. Until 10 September the Soviet Government had refused to open its airfields to American planes flying supplies to the insurgents. On 18 September American planes flew a shuttle mission, but the areas under insurgent control were by then too small for accurate drops and a second planned mission had to be canceled.

During the night of 16-17 September Polish First Army, its Soviet support limited to artillery fire from the east bank, staged crossings into Warsaw. The Soviet account claims that half a dozen battalions of a planned three-division force were put across. The German estimates put the strength at no more than a few companies, and Ninth Army observed that the whole operation became dormant on the second day. The Poles who had crossed were evacuated on 23 September. On the 26th Bor-Komorowski sent parliamentaries a second time, and on 2 October his representatives signed the capitulation.

The psychological reverberations of the summer’s disasters continued after the battles died down. In September Reinhardt wrote Guderian that rumors in Germany concerning Busch’s alleged disgrace, demotion, suicide, and even desertion were undermining the nation’s confidence in Army Group Center. He asked that Busch be given some sort of public token of the Führer’s continuing esteem. In the first week of October, Busch was permitted to give an address at the funeral of Hitler’s chief adjutant, Schmundt, who had died of wounds he received on 20 July. If that restored public confidence, it was certainly no mark of Hitler’s renewed faith either in Busch or in the generals as a class. He had already placed Busch on the select list of generals who were not to be considered for future assignments as army or army group commanders. After most of the eighteen generals captured by the Russians during the retreat joined the Soviet-sponsored League of German Officers, Hitler also decreed that henceforth none of the higher decorations were to be awarded to Army Group Center officers.

Where Hitler saw treason in high places, others saw more widespread, more virulent, more disabling maladies: the fear of being encircled and captured and the fear of being wounded and abandoned. The German soldier was being pursued by the specters of Stalingrad, Cherkassy, and the Crimea. Once, he could not even imagine the ultimate disaster—now he expected it.

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