Generalmajor Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski, 1 January 1945 – 8 May 1945
Fighting in the Neiße Area
On 18 March, 1945 elements of the 20th Panzer-Division were in the Neiße area, where the Soviets had advanced to Groß Giesmannsdorf, 5 kilometres west of the city of Neiße. There, elements of the 20th Panzer-Division held on for 3 days, launching hasty counter-attacks that finally forced back the Soviets. The 20th thus gained a defensive front in the line Nowag—Stephansdorf—Bielau.
Three companies of the Panzer regiment of the 20th Panzer-Division, with 10 armoured vehicles, took up a reverse-slope position, with their front facing the nearby pioneer training area. Most of the vehicles were Jagdpanzer. They were front heavy, due to heavy frontal armour, and became bogged down in the soft ground. An attack was launched at 03.00 hours in the early morning of 23 March against Heidersdorf, northwest of Neiße. It ran into a Soviet night attack that had just begun, and did not get through.
In the city of Neiße were Volkssturm, several alarm units, the city police and remnants of the 20th Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (estnische Nr. 1), from the pocket east of Neiße. Early on 24 March, Soviet troops entered Neiße, whereupon the civilian population was exposed to the orgies of rape. The Red soldiers set fire to the city, destroying about 80% of all its structures.
The 19th Panzer-Division had to launch an immediate counter-attack to recapture Neiße. Not all elements of the division made it back in time from other fighting. The attack failed. The division then launched an attack with Panzer-Regiment 27, along with the SPW battalion, forcing the Soviets to fall back. Between 22 and 24 March, the success of 6 to 7 kilometres in depth changed the situation near Neiße, at least south of the city. Large numbers of Soviet soldiers fled the city, offering only weak resistance. The German formations immediately pulled out of the front line again, to shift to Ziegenhals as reserves. The 19th Panzer-Division then engaged in an intermediate action in the area north of Jägerndorf, and then again at Oderberg.
Pilgersdorf, at the foot of the Sudeten, changed hands several times, finally ending up in Soviet hands. Suddenly, Soviet Il–2 ground attack planes attacked the town that was held by their own troops. Regardless of the ground troops’ demands to stop, one plane after another continued the attack.
At that point, at the end of March, the Soviets had less interest in the advance north of the Riesengebirge. Perhaps that was because the German divisions there had behind them the terrain obstacles of the Sudeten, such as Waldenburg in Silesia, Hirschberg in Silesia, and Lauban. The Soviets finally pursued other objectives, using the formations advancing north of Breslau to the west. At the end of March, their actions were restrained in several sectors, probably to redirect troop formations to commitment against Berlin. The capture of Berlin seemed more significant to the Soviets than the westward advance.
Although the fate of Berlin was already looming, in mid-April the Soviets also pushed on over the Lausitzer Neiße and on towards Dresden. That advance, related to the advance from Mährisch-Ostrau in the “Moravian basin”, and on towards Moravia, brought risks with it. The danger was that the 17th Armee, in its positions at the margin of the Riesengebirge, would be cut off if the Soviets advanced via Mährisch-Schönberg to the Glatz basin. Above all else, that would block the escape route for the retreats from central Silesia. The 17th Armee, therefore, pulled its right wing back to Mohrau, and shifted the main line of resistance into the prepared combat position of the Altvatergebirge. The 1st Ski-Jäger-Division was thereby released as a reserve. They were given the mission of shifting to Mährisch-Schönberg, to prevent penetration into the Glatz basin. The enemy spearheads advancing in that area were repulsed. More intensely than at the southern edge of the Altvatergebirge, the Soviets pushed onward in an east-west direction, their north wing against Sternberg. The commitment of troops, in the Olmütz area, was thus directly related to the Soviet effort to advance, south of the Riesengebirge, to the west. Thereby, they would simultaneously cut off the formations at the northern edge of the Riesengebirge.
The great frontal salient of the Altvatergebirge, reaching to Olmütz, could be held almost to the day of capitulation. However, with the loss of locally independent formations of the 49th Gebirgs-Korps being so great, they could not join the breakthrough to Olmütz. Nor could they get further to the west in time.
Defence at the Neiße
The line of defence at the Lausitzer Neiße held for a long time, approximately from 20 February until the new Soviet advance on 16 April. That offensive led in several parallel lines towards Cottbus, Spremberg, Senfenberg and Kamenz. It went past the existing German line of defence north of Bautzen, towards Riesa on the Elbe, and Torgau. The 20th Panzer-Division received no missions as a result of long-term planning in that region. Each time, its commitment was unexpectedly ordered, which placed substantial demands on improvisational ability. In any case, it was no longer able to carry out planned and prepared operations. There was no adequate supply of fuel and ammunition. Nor was there the prospect of any significant amount of renewed logistical support. The elements of the 20th Panzer-Division that were tied up in isolated actions, often had to dispense with the possibility of planned co-operation of their different groups. Repeatedly, they tried to delay the spearheads of the Soviet attacks. In the face of the immense Soviet superiority in personnel and materiel, they could attain no lasting success. Individual companies, indeed individual grenadiers, also the members of other specialist units, including pioneers and Panzer soldiers used as infantry, organised their positions for defence, and held fast. Again and again their self-reliance must, nevertheless, seem astounding.
Offensive on 16 April
On 16 April the Soviets started their offensive. After preparing for three defensive missions, from 15 to 17 April, the 20th Panzer-Division found itself on the move again, but by night. During the day the vehicles had to be camouflaged against enemy observation planes. On 18 and 19 April, elements of the division fought Soviet forces surging into the Odernitz—Niesky—Wilhelminental– Kodersdorf area. Before the start of the German attack on 19 April, shells from a Soviet tank struck amidst a discussion group, instantly killing two of the participating pioneers and wounding several others.
The next day, on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday, came orders to mark the main line of resistance with swastika flags. The troops got around that order by indeed, hanging out flags, but making sure that they could not be seen by any Red soldier from his position, let alone by any of their planes.
Soviet Advance on Cottbus
On 21 April the Soviets launched new attacks in the Muskau area. They broke through the German blocking positions and advanced on Spremberg and Cottbus. Warned during the night, elements of the 20th Panzer-Division moved out towards Görlitz. Due to the lack of fuel, the elements of the division brought most of their vehicles in tow, especially petrol driven vehicles. On 22 April they arrived at Landskrone, south of Görlitz. At that time the Soviets were on a broad front, stretching via Königshain, Niesky and Altmannsdorf to Bautzen. Görlitz itself proved to be free of the enemy. The artillery fired sudden concentrations on the location of the penetration point north of Görlitz. For that purpose, 10 stationary Flak batteries with abundant ammunition were attached to Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 92. They provided the grenadiers with good breathing space. The German counter-attack gained ground and closed off the Soviets at the point of the penetration. However, the civilian population suffered heavy losses as they had not evacuated houses directly in the combat zone, and thus were drawn into the fighting. As soon as they left the cellars of their houses, to flee to the west, both friendly and hostile fire fell on them
Further north, there were still German defensive forces such as the 24th and 40th Panzer-Korps. They crossed the Neiße to the west and south of Guben, and initially covered the area as far as the Spree River, staying until about 22 April. However, the 4th Panzer-Armee was responsible for the larger sector between Cottbus and Bautzen. It seemed out of the question to build a line of defence there as forces were lacking. Soviet forces, largely Polish, pushed forward to the west, thanks to good motor vehicles. They were supported by armoured formations. The artillery of the 20th Panzer-Division, in the Altmannsdorf area, had to fire to the west, while the Flak continued to engage the site of the penetration north of Görlitz. The Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung of the 20th Panzer-Division cleared Königshain and Niesky of enemy forces. They were then bogged down facing the next village. Its occupation required a difficult night march through shattered villages and woods and past the north side of Löbau. The Soviets attacked Altmannsdorf from the north and west. Friendly artillery fire worked over the margins of the woods so that the Soviets fell back. That also limited their Stalin Organ fire to the built up area and the firing positions, until Soviet ground-attack planes joined in at daybreak. The Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung of the 20th Panzer-Division attacked westward with 25 Panthers and broke through, followed by the artillery. The guns aimed direct fire into the enemy marching columns. Apparently that was a new experience for the Poles. They surrendered in droves. The Soviet 5th Tank Army encircled Bautzen, while the Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung of the 20th Panzer-Division held on east of Bautzen, and the garrison of the city held fast.
Battle for Bautzen
While advancing on the Löbauer Straße, the Panzer-Brigade knocked out over 20 T–34s that were approaching from the right at extremely short range. Troops occupying the city had made themselves at home in the empty houses. It was not only the Red Army soldiers. The Poles, too, had raged fearsomely among the populace. Almost all the houses around the Bautzen fortress were ablaze. The place had to be liberated in hand-to-hand combat with drunken Poles. The Poles drove German women in front of them as living shields against bullets.
The German relief force first fought their way to the fortress, whose German garrison still held on. At that point the north part of Bautzen was still in enemy hands. The attack on the fortress was to start at 09.00 hours on 24 April. However, the assembly position was hit by a strong air attack, putting their attack on hold. A Soviet bombing attack followed. At 14.00 hours the motorcycle troops of the 20th Panzer-Division, attacking from the north, reached the fortress and established contact with its defenders, liberating over 10,000 soldiers and civilians.
Another Schwerpunkt of the battle developed northeast of Hochkirch, southeast of Bautzen. There an entire series of T–34s, in serviceable condition, fell into German hands, along with numerous trucks. An entire Panzer company could thus be activated, but there was not enough fuel to take everything with them. For the same reason, the command stopped the progress of a successful attack and pursuit of the beaten Soviets east of Elstra, between Bautzen and Kamenz. There was no fuel. Indeed, the question was where the fuel had come from for the movements of the motorised forces up to that point. Search detachments had been formed, to pump what was left from the tanks of destroyed filling stations.