THE SCHWEDT BRIDGEHEAD

Here Skorzeny meets with two of his principal commanders in the bridgehead, SS-Obersturmbannführer Siegfried Milius (centre), the commander of SS- Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600, and SS-Obersturmführer Joachim Marcus (right), commander of the battalion’s 3. Kompanie. The location is the Von Humbert Estate in Hohen-Kränig, the command post of SS-Jagdverband Mitte. In the first days of the bridgehead, the supply sergeant of SS-Jagdverband Mitte, SS- Oberscharführer Glas, discovered a depot full of winter camouflage clothing. Confiscating the entire stock, he had it distributed throughout Kampfgruppe Schwedt, making it, in Glas’s words `the unit best equipped with winter clothing on the entire Eastern Front’. Skorzeny is wearing the Winter-Wendetarn-Jacke, a jacket specially insulated for the winter, which could be reversed from splinter-pattern camouflage to plain white.

When Bernickow and Königsberg were lost on February 5, the Germans fell back on the village of Grabow, which was the keystone of the German main line of defence in the bridge- head. The Soviet tanks immediately followed up and in their first attack, despite fierce opposition from the Fallschirmjäger in close combat, managed to drive the Germans out of the village. However, reinforced with newly-arrived assault guns, SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600 managed to recapture it on the 7th and, although it was attacked many times after that, Grabow remained in German hands until the final evacuation of the bridgehead. Here SS-Obersturmführer Marcus (in the long leather motorcycle coat) and some of his men approach one of the T-34/85 tanks of the 49th Guards Tank Brigade that was knocked out or abandoned in Grabow during the fighting on February 5. Note the soldier with the sniper rifle on the right.

Map of the Schwedt bridgehead showing the three German defence lines set up by Kampfgruppe Schwedt and the outpost position at Königsberg. [1] Oder Canal Bridge. [2] Oder River Bridge. [3] Von Humbert Estate. [4] Raduhn Farm.

Schwedt is a small town on the west bank of the Oder. Dating back to the 13th century and featuring a large castle, a hospital and several military barracks, in 1945 it had a population of some 9,000. The Oder in this area is lined by the Friedrichsthal Canal, which runs parallel to the river on its western side, the three-kilometre-wide strip in between being swampy marshland. The road running east out of Schwedt across the swampland crossed a series of six bridges, the two main ones being a long steel bridge over the canal just outside the town and a five- span bridge over the main course of the Oder river just before it reaches the village of Nieder-Kränig (today Krajnik Dolny in Poland) on the east bank.

First orders to create a bridgehead east of Schwedt were issued on January 27. However, they could not be followed up immediately due to a lack of forces. In the early evening of January 30, SS-Obersturmbann- führer Otto Skorzeny – Hitler’s favourite commando officer, famous for his rescue of the Italian Duce Benito Mussolini in September 1943 and his commando operations behind enemy lines during the Ardennes counter-offensive in December 1944 (see The Battle of the Bulge Then and Now) – was sitting in his office in Friedenthal Castle, at Sachsenhausen near Oranienburg 20 kilometres north of Berlin, writing a report when the phone rang. It was Himmler, who ordered Skorzeny to march `at once’ with every soldier he could scrape up to Schwedt and establish a bridgehead east of the river.

The only units immediately available to Skorzeny were his own SS special forces units, notably the SS-Jagdverbände and SS- Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600.

In late 1944, Skorzeny’s various types of commando troops had been organised into five so-called Jagdverbände (Hunter Units), battalion-sized units named after the region of Europe where they were to be deployed (SS-Jagdverband Mitte, Ost, Südost, Süd- west and Nordwest). Home base of the SS- Jagdverbände was Friedenthal, since the spring of 1943 the HQ of Skorzeny’s SS- Sondereinsatz-Abteilung z. b. V. Friedenthal. The only units immediately at hand when Himmler’s call came in were SS-Jagdverband Mitte under SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fucker, and one composite company from SS-Jagdverband Nordwest under SS-Hauptsturmführer Heinrich Hoyer. (The latter unit formally consisted of a 1. Kompanie made up of Danes, Norwegians and Swedes; a 2. Kompanie of Flemish, and a 3. Kompanie of Dutch troops but all three were at such low strength that they were combined into a composite company and put under command of Jagdverband Mitte.) Total strength of the two Jagdverbände was about 680 men.

SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600 was the only parachute unit in the Waffen-SS. Formed in September 1943, and originally known as Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 500, it had been deployed in anti-Partisan operations in Yugoslavia, its most notable operation being Operation `Rösselsprung’, the surprise raid on Marshal Tito’s headquarters in Drvar in May 1944. Commanded since June 1944 by SS-Sturmbannführer Siegfried Milius, and renumbered from 500 to 600 on October 1, on November 10 the battalion was incorporated into the SS-Jagdverbände under Skorzeny’s overall command. Having participated, together with elements of the SS-Jagdverbände, in the Ardennes offensive as part of Skorzeny’s Panzerbrigade 150, by late January the battalion had returned to its barracks at Neustrelitz, 100 kilometres north of Berlin. With 689 men, it was at full strength and fully equipped with modern arms, including Sturmgewehre, machine guns and LG40 7.5cm light artillery guns, and its own transport

Also available to Skorzeny were the SS- Sturm-Kompanie, an armoured reconnaissance company equipped with armoured cars and half-tracks under SS-Obersturmführer Otto Schwerdt; the SS-Scharfschützen-Zug, a sniper platoon of 40 men under SS-Unter- sturmführer Odo Wilscher; and the schwere SS-Infanterie-Geschütz-Kompanie, a bat- tery-sized unit equipped with 15cm sIG 33 heavy infantry guns under SS-Hauptsturm- führer Reiche. All these units at Friedenthal and Neustrelitz were immediately alarmed for deployment to the East.

The first vehicles with Waffen-SS soldiers left Friedenthal at 3 a. m. on January 31 and arrived at Schwedt early in the morning. Skorzeny himself arrived there about 7 a. m. They found the town still in German hands, the six road bridges over the canal and river still intact, and the two waterways and the marshes in between thickly frozen. However, the area was devoid of any German units capable of resisting an enemy attack. The replacement units that had been stationed at Schwedt – Pionier-Ersatz-Bataillon 12 and Panzergrenadier-Ersatz-Bataillone 3, 9 and 83 – had by this time all been sent eastwards to help save the situation after the collapse of Heeresgruppe A. This left the whole area virtually defenceless. The ground crew from the Luftwaffe airfield near Königsberg-Neumark had carried out a slipshod destruction of the airfield and then hastily moved west- wards to avoid the onrushing Red Army. The difficult military situation was made even worse by the flight of local civilian and Nazi Party authorities and by the hundreds of refugees moving in harsh winter conditions in search of safety behind the Oder.

Realising that no Soviet forces had crossed the river in the Schwedt area, Skorzeny set up his command post in the village of Nieder-Kränig on the east bank and promptly began preparations for the inevitable clash. Reconnaissance patrols were sent across the river, sallying out deep into enemy-held territory to seek out and monitor the movement of the Soviet units; take and bring in prisoners for interrogation, and warn the main force of the incoming assault. An immediate evacuation of the civilian population was ordered, a task which Skorzeny delegated to the Stadtkommandant (Town Commandant) of Schwedt, a war-invalided but efficient Oberst, and to the town’s Bürgermeister, Wilhelm Schrader- Rottmers. Stragglers from Wehrmacht units destroyed in the east were gathered and sent to the military barracks in Schwedt, where an assembly point had been set up to re-organise them into so-called Alarm-Einheite (emergency units). In this way, in the days to come, several alarm battalions and companies would be formed, named after their respective commanders, and sent to reinforce the bridgehead.

In the meantime, an Organisation Todt labour unit, OT-Regiment 122 from Stettin – helped by civilian labourers recruited and organised by the NSDAP-Ortsgruppenleiters (Nazi Party Local Group Leaders) of Schwedt and the surrounding villages – got to work on digging trenches, foxholes and machine-gun emplacements. With the help of the major commanding Pionier-Ersatz-Bataillon 12, Skorzeny staked out his bridgehead perimeter. They devised three lines of defence, all running in a semi-arc around the eastern end of the Oder bridge, each one in a wider radius.

The outer one started some four kilometres north of the Schwedt bridges at the confluence of the Oder with the small Rörike river, followed the wooded south bank of the latter stream south-east to Wachholderberge, passing north of the Krimo-See (a small lake) to cross the Grabow (today Grabowo) to Königsberg road, continuing on to Hills 42 and 40 where it turned south-west towards Hill 62.9, and from there across Hills 83.6 and 98.2 and via the Amalienhof Farm to the Elisenhöhe Farm where it crossed the Raduhn Farm to the Hohen-Kränig road, running through the flat fields to pass south of the village of Nieder-Saathen and then back to the Oder.

The inner line started at the Oder some two kilometres north of the Schwedt bridges, ran due east along the southern edge of the Peetzig/Röderbeck Forest, then veered south to cross the Nieder-Kränig to Grabow road west of the latter town, turning south-west to pass in front of the village of Hohen-Kränig (Krajnik Gorny), cross the road between that village and the Raduhn Farm, and run on to Hill 99.4 where it turned due west to reach the Oder again near the so-called Thal der Liebe.

The third and innermost line ran in a semi- arc of about one kilometre around the east- ern end of the Oder bridge, defending the crossing and the village of Nieder-Kränig. The lines were well sited and made the bridgehead difficult to attack, because the northern part was covered by dense forests and the line of the Rörike river, while the southern part had trenches located on hills overlooking open ground.

The Oder river and canal, thickly frozen as they were, offered little in the way of an obstacle to an advancing enemy but the engineer major had his men blow gaps in the ice, reinstating the flow and thus creating a proper hindrance.

As it turned out, Skorzeny’s men had five days – from January 31 to February 4 – to prepare for the coming battle, assemble forces and gather weapons. Initially, Kampfgruppe Schwedt, as it was now called, had only five main infantry components: in addition to SS-Fallschirmjäger Bataillon 600 and SS-Jagdverband Mitte with its supporting units, there were three Volkssturm (home guard) battalions. One was from Schwedt, raised locally and commanded by the town’s Bürgermeister Schrader-Rottmers; the second was from Königsberg, led by its Bürgermeister Kurt Flöter; and the third strangely enough, came all the way from Hamburg, 400 kilometres away. Sent east to reinforce the Oder front it arrived in the sector on February 4. Nearly 600 strong, it was a remarkably tough unit, comprising sturdy stevedores and dockworkers from the ocean port, well equipped and fully armed with rifles and Panzerfäuste.

In addition to infantry, Skorzeny needed heavy weapons. He had brought his six 15cm heavy infantry guns with him but he definitely needed more. Told that no anti-tank guns were available, Skorzeny’s supply officer, SS-Hauptsturmführer Reinhard Ger- hard, scoured the region looking for means to bolster up the force’s firepower. From the Ardelt-Werke, an armaments factory in Eberswalde 50 kilometres to the south, which had been evacuated because of the approach of the Russians, he collected a dozen 7.5cm PaK 40 anti-tank guns and ammunition. From a dump near Frankfurt- an-der-Oder his men got a large number of brand-new MG42 machine guns plus ammo. Two home-defence Flak battalions arrived with 32 heavy 8.8cm and 10.5cm Flak guns. A number of 2cm Flak guns arrived from the Königsberg airfield. Ten of the big guns were deployed inside the bridgehead, the others were set up on the west side of the river.

Thus Kampfgruppe Schwedt took shape. Later on many other units would be assigned to it, often only temporarily, including several of the alarm units. In all, German strength added up to approximately 4,000-5,000 men. However, many of them were poorly armed and their fighting ability was low.

Skorzeny positioned his forces in the bridgehead as follows. Occupying the outer line was SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600, with the 1. Kompanie under SS-Obersturm- führer Fritz Leifheit holding the southern sector in front of Nieder-Saathen (Zaton Dolna), and the 2. Kompanie under SS- Obersturmführer Walter Scheu defending the village of Grabow in the centre. To delay the enemy attack that was certain to come, an outpost position was set up in the town of Königsberg, some 13 kilometres further east (and 17 kilometres from the Oder), held by the 3. Kompanie under SS-Obersturmführer Joachim Marcus, some 50 men strong, rein- forced by the Volkssturm battalions from Königsberg and Hamburg. The northern part of the outer line, running along the Rörike river, was manned by the first of the new alarm units, Bataillon Jacobs (863 men strong). Manning the inner lines were the SS hunter units, with SS-Jagdverband Mitte concentrating its forces around Nieder- Kränig and the composite company from SS- Jagdverband Nordwest defending the imme- diate area around the Oder bridges.

The Germans had organised their defence in the nick of time for already the enemy was advancing on the bridgehead. The Soviet 1st Mechanised Corps, part of the Second Guards Tank Army, was moving toward Königsberg from the area of Küstrin. Its mis- sion was to capture the town, reach the Oder bridge at Nieder-Kränig and clear the east bank of German forces. The first encounters with reconnaissance patrols from Skorzeny’s force occurred on February 1 at the small town of Bad Schönfliess (today Trzcinsko- Zdroj), eight kilometres east of Königsberg and 25 kilometres from Schwedt.

It was in the early morning of the 4th, returning to his command post after a night at the front, that Skorzeny bumped into Königsberg’s burgomaster, Kurt Flöter, who excitedly told him he had been waiting all night to report that all was lost in Königsberg. Judging that the man had deserted the troops under his command in the face of the enemy – which had caused the Königsberg Volkssturm to crumble and flee in panic – Skorzeny promptly had him arrested. Put before an SS court-martial chaired by Skorzeny himself, Flöter was publicly hanged from a tree on Schlossfreiheit, the park boulevard in front of the town castle, a sign hung around his neck declaring `I, Kurt Flöter, am hanging here because I deserted my town’. The corpse was left dangling for five days and was seen by all of the troops passing through the town en route for the bridgehead. (The incident produced a furious reaction from Martin Bormann, the Nazi Party secretary, who sent Gauleiter Emil Stürtz of Gau Mark-Brandenburg to tell Skorzeny that senior Party members could only be tried by a Party tribunal. Skorzeny retorted: `We tried your man not as a Party official but as a soldier – but are not cowardice and desertion punishable in Party leaders too?’) In all, during the bridgehead fighting, Skorzeny had at least a dozen men – both soldiers and civilians – hanged for defeatism or desertion.

On the late afternoon of February 4, just as darkness was falling, T-34/85 tanks from the 49th Guards Tank Brigade (temporarily subordinated to the 1st Mechanised Corps) clashed with the SS paratroopers at Bernickow (Barnkowo), a village just two kilometres east of Königsberg. The first assault was repulsed but the Soviets soon resumed their attacks. In the meantime, the Hamburg Volkssturm battalion, defending Königsberg itself, faced another attack of Soviet tanks, this time by Shermans (supplied to the Soviets under the Lend Lease programme) from the 219th Tank Brigade advancing south from Uchtdorf (Lisie Pole). Seven tanks from the brigade stormed into the town but five of them were destroyed with Panzerfäuste whereupon the remaining ones retreated. In all, the two Russian tank brigades lost ten tanks between them.

Despite their initial successes, the defenders of Bernickow and Königsberg were soon outnumbered and outgunned. They fell back to the centre of town, behind the medieval walls, but they managed to withstand only till 5 a. m. on February 5 when they pulled back to the bridgehead proper, taking up positions in the outer trench line. Following the Soviet capture of the town, the German citizens – those that had not fled or been evacuated by Marcus’ company – suffered a terrible ordeal. They were robbed, murdered and driven out from their homes, and many women and girls were raped.

The Soviet tank forces pushed on towards the Oder bridge but were stopped in Grabow by the SS paratroopers. Dodging behind buildings, fences and hedgerows, the Fallschirmjäger stalked the Soviet tanks with Panzerfäuste and engaged the infantry with small-arms fire. One of those who fell during this battle was Lieutenant Oleg Matvejev, later awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. Time and again the Soviets renewed their attacks until finally the Germans were thrown out of the village, falling back to the bridgehead’s inner trench line. A small force from the 219th Tank Brigade even managed to break through to within sight of the Oder bridge but, after losing one Sherman, had to pull back towards Reichenfelde (Garnowo). The Soviet advance came to standstill.

The short lull in the fighting gave the Germans time to reinforce Kampfgruppe Schwedt with two batteries of assault guns from Sturmgeschütz-Brigade 210 (Major Dietrich Langel) and with Fallschirm-Panzer- Jagd-Bataillon 54, a paratrooper anti-tank unit 285 men strong. These new forces enabled them to regain the terrain just lost. On February 7, three German battalions – SS-Jagdverband Mitte, SS-Fallschirmjäger- Bataillon 600 and Fallschirm-Panzer-Jagd- Bataillon 54 – supported by the newly- arrived StuGs stormed Grabow. The village was defended by elements of the 35th Mechanised Brigade and 219th Tank Brigade. German superiority in guns and numbers left the Soviets no chance to withstand this assault. Immediately after the recapture of the village, the German force split into two, one group moving south-east to capture the important crossroads of the Grabow-Königsberg and Reichenfelde-Hanseberg roads, while the other attacked toward Hanseberg (Krzymow) and forced elements of the 37th Mechanised Brigade to withdraw from that village. A large quantity of very useful mortars, anti-tank guns, heavy machine guns and ammunition was captured.

It was on this day, immediately after the recapture of Grabow, that the Kampfgruppe received an unexpected visitor. While the battle was still in full swing, Skorzeny received a signal at his advanced command post that Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring, the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, was in Schwedt, waiting to see him. Göring’s grand estate Carinhall was only some 40 kilometres from the Oder and, from the first, Göring had shown a benevolent interest in the bridgehead, frequently telephoning Skorzeny to ask how it was going. After one of these calls, he had even sent Fallschirm-Panzer-Jagd- Bataillon 54 to reinforce the position. Now the Reichsmarshall himself had come to visit the bridgehead. Clad in plain field-grey, without any medals, he went with Skorzeny almost up to the front line near Nieder- Kränig, doling out cigarettes and brandy, and showing a particular interest in the knocked- out Soviet tanks that stood around still burning. He made a point of visiting one of his 8.8cm Flak guns that were being used in an anti-tank role, congratulating the crew on their achievements. He also visited the command post of SS-Fallschirm-Bataillon 600 at Hohen-Kränig and it was well after dark when he departed.

Two days after the recapture of Grabow, on February 9, the SS paratroopers, supported by the assault guns, moved even further and retook the forester’s lodge near the Tanger-See lake. It was around this time that the Germans managed to bring in more of the alarm units to man the outer line, the sec- tor to the south of Grabow being occupied by Bataillon Zapf (767 strong), and the southern end of the bridgehead being taken over by Bataillon Aschenbach (486 strong). SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600 now held the centre part of the line, from the Krimo- See to Hill 62.9, while SS-Jagdverband Mitte went into reserve around Nieder-Kränig.

The Soviets quickly recovered from the surprisingly strong German counter-strokes, hastened reinforcements forward and in turn counter-attacked the following day, February 10. Heavy fights raged along the Grabow-Königsberg road and on Hill 62.9. The Germans suffered heavy losses, particularly SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600. Two company commanders – SS-Obersturmführer Joachim Marcus of the 3. Kompanie, and SS-Obersturmführer Wilhelm Schmiedl of the 2. Kompanie – fell in battle and the 3. Kompanie, which took the brunt of the assault, had only 30 men standing by the end of the day.

That same day, the 37th Mechanised Brigade, with support of SU-122 assault guns from the 347th Guards Heavy Assault Gun Regiment, was sent to recapture Hanseberg. The Germans held on to it until the following day when the village fell to the Red Army. On the night of February 11/12 the 1st Mechanised Corps moved north and was replaced by units of the 8th Guards Mechanised Corps: the 20th and 21st Guards Mechanised Brigade (the latter supported by the 294th Penal Company). Both fresh, they immediately resumed the attacks on the bridgehead but the German resisted with determination and the line was not penetrated.

On February 13 there were fierce fights on the flanks of the bridgehead. At the northern end, a reconnaissance company from the 20th Guards Mechanised Brigade assaulted and captured the hamlet of Nipperwiese (Ognica), the weak Luftwaffe company there being no match for the Soviet infantry. Meanwhile, at the bridgehead’s southern end a Soviet infantry company supported by ten T-34 tanks from the 21st Guards Mechanised Brigade was sent to capture the hamlet of Raduhn (Radun). The German outpost there was soon forced to withdraw. Perhaps even worse, Kampfgruppe Schwedt’s offensive capabilities were considerably weakened on this day by the withdrawal of the two assault gun batteries from the bridgehead.

At 4 p. m. – right in the middle of these desperate battles – Skorzeny received a signal from Heeresgruppe Weichsel, ordering him to report to Himmler right away. He decided to stay with his men until the Soviet attacks had been halted and only arrived at Himmler’s command post (code-named SS-Kommandostelle `Birkenwald’) at Birkenhain in the woods outside Prenzlau, 50 kilometres north of Berlin, at 8.30 p. m. Himmler was furious and began berating him for being late and having disobeyed an order, but particularly for having refused to relieve a Luftwaffe officer who had given up Nipper- wiese and withdrawn to the inner line. Skorzeny explained that he himself had ordered the officer to do so. Thereupon Himmler simmered down and invited Skorzeny, who had arrived dirty and in combat uniform, to dinner. Skorzeny sat through the meal and then quickly returned to the bridgehead, disgusted but having secured from Himmler a promise to send him another assault gun unit. (It difficult to accurately date this episode, if it really happened at all. The I. Batterie of StuG-Brigade 210 was in the bridgehead from February 10 till the end, and the II. and III. Batterie were there from February 6 till the 13th. It could be that the order had originally called for all three batteries to be pulled out and that Skorzeny’s visit to Himmler caused the I. Batterie not so much to return but to be allowed to stay.)

On February 16, the German counter- offensive in Pomerania, already announced by Himmler in his initial telephone order to Skorzeny on January 31, finally got under way. Code-named Operation `Sonnenwende’, it was the last hope for the Germans to strike a massive blow at the Red Army and stop it before the final assault on Berlin.

The original idea for the offensive, designed by Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, was to have a strong two-pronged attack by two armies. The 11. SS-Panzer-Armee in Pomera- nia would strike south from the Stettin area while the 6. SS-Panzer-Armee, freshly trans- ferred from the Ardennes front, would launch a northward attack from the Gluben-Glogau area. Both armies were each to cover a distance of 70 kilometres but, if they succeeded in linking up, they would cut off the forward formations of the First Byelorussian Front. However, in early February Hitler dismissed the plan for a double envelopment, deciding instead to use the 6. SS-Panzer-Armee in an operation to relieve Budapest.

He now opted for a `small solution’, a single-prong attack, whereby the 11. SS- Panzer-Armee would strike south from Pomerania with two corps from the region of Stargard and link up with the Oder bridge- heads. On the left, the III. SS-Panzerkorps would drive south via Arnswalde all the way to Küstrin and on the right the XXXIX. Panzerkorps would drive from south of Stargard via Pyritz towards Schwedt, linking up with troops driving up from Skorzeny’s bridgehead. This would entail a drive of 70 kilometres, half the distance compared to the original plan. If it succeeded, it would relieve several besieged cities, result in the destruction of all Soviet troops west of the drive, and considerably shorten the German front line.

However, after the first few days it was already clear that the offensive had failed. The attacking forces only managed to get to the surrounded towns of Arnswalde, Pyritz and Bahn – a penetration of a mere ten kilometres at the deepest – but they were too weak to penetrate toward Küstrin and turn the tide of war on the Eastern Front. On February 19, Himmler stopped the offensive, a decision confirmed by a formal Hitler directive on the 21st. With this outcome of `Sonnenwende`, all reason for holding on to the Schwedt bridgehead disappeared. How- ever, Heeresgruppe Weichsel must have considered a continued German presence on the Oder’s east bank still of some value for it did not give orders for its evacuation.

On February 17, Division Schwedt, as it was now called, launched an assault on the Amalienhof Farm (Krzymowek). Thanks to support provided by the battery from Sturmgeschütz-Brigade 210, two Soviet tanks, two anti-tank guns and six mortars fell prey to the Germans. There was also activity on the northern flank where the newly-arrived III. Bataillon of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 26 (Major Hans-Heinrich Hacker) re-occupied Nipperwiese, which had been abandoned by the Soviets.

At this time another change of forces occurred on the Soviet side, the 8th Guards Mechanised Corps being withdrawn and its positions taken over by the 132nd Rifle Division (comprising the 498th, 605th and 712th Rifle Regiments) and the 143rd Rifle Division (487th, 635th and 800th Rifle Regiments) from the 129th Rifle Corps. Over the next few days both sides went over to the defence, limiting themselves to reconnaissance patrols. With all quiet on the front, snipers came to the fore, the marksmen of the SS-Scharfschützen-Zug claiming 260 confirmed kills by February 24. They operated in no man’s land and also from camouflaged positions on the large ice-floes that were floating down the Oder river, thaw having set in on February 12.

On February 24, the III. Bataillon of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 26 was relieved at Nipperwiese in the northern sector by a company from Bataillon Aschenbach. (The paratroopers were later sent to Breslau to help defend the encircled and besieged city.)

Two days later, on February 26, the Soviets launched their final offensive to liquidate the bridgehead. In the south, the 605th Rifle Regiment, supported by ISU-122 assault guns from the 334th Guards Heavy Assault Gun Regiment, attacked towards Hills 66.4, 99.4, Hohen-Kränig and Hill 81.5. The fights raged all day but all the Soviets could gain was Hill 81.5. In the centre, following an artillery preparation, two battalions from the 487th Rifle Regiment and one from the 800th Rifle Regiment launched an attack on Grabow supported by four IS-2 tanks from the 70th Guards Heavy Tank Regiment. The Soviets met stiff opposition and did not break through the German lines. The only important gain was in the north where two companies of the 635th Rifle Regiment, supported by four SU-76 assault guns from the 1416th Assault Gun Regiment, recaptured Nipperwiese. To sum up, the attacks of both divisions proved to be only minimally successful.

On that day, February 26, Skorzeny handed over command of his Kampfgruppe to SS- Obersturmbannführer Hans Kempin, previously in command of the 547. Volksgrenadier- Division. Skorzeny had already been relieved of his duties on the 21st but had stayed on another five days before effecting it.

The next day, February 27, Division Schwedt received orders to prepare evacuation of the bridgehead. According to the scheme the first to leave were the artillery and heavy flak, then on the night of March 1/2 the infantry, armour and covering units. Before the last German troops left, all the disabled tanks were mined, and buildings booby-trapped. The retreat went well and was unnoticed by the Soviets. The last unit leaving the Oder’s east bank was SS- Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 600. Due to a lack of explosives, the bridge at Nieder-Kränig was only partially destroyed.

For their actions in the bridgehead, three SS officers were awarded the Deutsche Kreuz in Gold: SS-Hauptsturmführer Werner Hunke (the Kampfgruppe’s operations officer), SS-Hauptsturmführer Siegfried Milius and, posthumously, SS-Obersturmführer Joachim Marcus. The battles that had raged for the Schwedt bridgehead for nearly a month had been very costly for both sides. Soviet casualties amounted to around 700 men killed and 1,400 to 2,000 wounded. Soviet losses in armour are hard to determine but are assumed to be between 30 and 40 tanks and assault guns. German casualty figures were also high, some 800 men having been killed and wounded. Practically every town and village in the bridgehead was reduced to rubble, Königsberg losing 75 per cent of its buildings and Grabow 60 per cent.

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