East Prussian Offensive
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Adolf Hitler, who installed himself at the top of the German military hierarchy, was warned repeatedly by his commanders that a Soviet offensive in the east was coming, but he chose to ignore the advice. Even the Allies gave him signs beginning in late Aug 1944 when British Lancaster bombers dropped over 1,000 tons of bombs on Königsberg, East Prussia, Germany over two nights, immersing the city in a firestorm. Werner Terpitz remembered the flames. "Everything was on fire, our things, our church, our school, and the house of my violin teacher, my violin, even the sack of blackberries, which we had just gathered. Everything I had ever owned was now ashes." In Jan 1945, Heinz Guderian approached Hitler with another warning, explaining that the Soviet forces outnumbered Germans 11 to 1 in manpower. Hitler chose to focus on his Ardennes Offensive in the west instead, calling the Red Army "the greatest bluff since Genghis Khan". Guderian shook his head, knowing that the German defenses in the east was "like a house of cards; if the front is broken through at one point all the rest will collapse".
In Jan 1945, General I. D. Chernyakhovsky's 3rd Byelorussian Front and Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky's 2nd Byelorussian Front marched into East Prussia, overwhelming the German defenders with 1.5 million men. This was the great offensive that Guderian feared. Initially, the Soviets made very slow progress due to the extensive minefields and a web of fortifications. Extremely heavy losses characterized the first 20 days of combat, but by end of Jan 1945, the Soviet troops reached the shores of the Vistula Lagoon, cutting off the city of Königsberg.
The people of East Prussia received no warning, and was caught by surprise when the Soviet troops neared. Even though local German military commanders had, weeks in advance, asked to evacuate the civilian population, Hitler rejected their requests, citing the need for every German to stand ground to defend the fatherland. Gauleiter of Königsberg Erich Koch, even when the Soviets were already in East Prussia, decreed that only people who lived in the east of the province could evacuate, while promising to the others that there was no danger and they should stay put. of course, Koch worked frantically to secure his own of evacuation by ship. When he left the city, he ordered the crew to bar the ship to any other refugee even though the ship had plenty of space to take on many others.
"[T]he Russian advance was characterized by arson, plunder and rape", wrote Isabel Denny. Nazi officials of every town and every village were dragged out to the street and shot, while Soviet aircraft strafed the columns of refugees fleeing west at the last moment. A survivor of one of the eastern town taken by the Soviets early on in the East Prussian Offensive recalled the horror as Soviets came through.
The atrocities committed by the Soviets were not justified, but they were almost expected. First and foremost, Nazi atrocities committed in their homelands were fresh in their minds. Men of the SS slaughtered entire villages without mercy, and some of the Soviet troops sought retribution. On top of that was the effective Soviet propaganda machine, brainwashing the troops that it was in their right to pillage and destroy. Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg stirred the troops by writings such as "crush forever the fascist beast in its den. Break the racial pride of the German woman. Take her as your legitimate booty."
For the residents of Königsberg, there were only two ways to escape. One was from the Baltic port of Pillau just a few kilometers, where the German Navy valiantly ran an entire fleet dedicated to the evacuation of Germans, largely against Hitler's orders. Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz gathered over a thousand ships, 672 civilian and 409 naval, in an effort comparable to the great evacuation at Dunkirk early in the European War. It was estimated that this fleet saved around 2.5 million civilians. The other route of escape was the narrow sandy spit called the Frisches Nehrung that led toward Gotenhafen or Danzig. Long columns of Germans, with as much possessions as they could pile on wagons and sleds, slowly made their escape.
As the Soviet 2nd and 3rd Byelorussian Fronts approached the eastern territories of Germany, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz ordered General Admiral Oskar Kummetz (Naval High Commander of Baltic Sea) and Rear Admiral Konrad Engelhardt (head of naval shipping department) to prepare to evacuate German civilians and military servicemen from Courland, East Prussia, and the Polish Corridor. The Operation Hannibal evacuations began on 23 Jan 1945 at the start of the East Prussian Offensive, and would continue through the end of the war. On 26 Jan, thousands of refugees were killed while waiting for ships to evacuate them as an ammunition depot exploded after Soviet aerial attack. On 30 Jan, passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff was attacked and sunk by a Soviet submarine off Gotenhafen, killing 8,000 of the 9,000 passengers onboard; it was a maritime disaster far worse than the Titanic. On 9 Feb, Soviet submarine S-13 claimed another ship, Steuben, killing 3,000 to 4,000, most of which were military.
On 10 Feb, Soviet command decided that even though the offensive was costly in terms of casualties, the German defenses were not going to put up a strong defense, and Rokossovsky's troops were diverted to the fighting in the Pomerania region instead. The German defenses, however weak compared to their Soviet foes, took the opportunity and organized a counterattack. On 19 Feb, led by a captured Soviet T-34 tank, the German 1st Infantry Division spearheaded the 3rd Panzer Army and the Fourth Army in breaking the Soviet lines and opened a corridor between Königsberg and Pillau. They would hold this corridor until beginning of Apr, when the Battle of Königsberg would began.
As the German troops held the corridor they had just opened, they witnessed further atrocities committed by the Soviet troops. At the suburb town of Metgehen, a witness saw
General Otto Lasch led the German Königsberg garrison which had entrenched its 5 divisions of about 130,000 men in the city's fortifications. Although inexperienced young boys and fragile old men made up a bulk of the defensive force (only about 35,000 men were regulars in Königsberg), 15 forts in outermost of three concentric rings supported by pillboxes and foxholes in the inner rings presented a difficult challenge for the Soviet troops.
In early Mar, pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, three destroyers, and torpedo boat T-36 held a position near the town of Wollin at the mouth of the Dziwna River, near the pre-war border of Germany and Poland. While the warships guarded the region, 75,000 troops and civilians were successfully evacuated.
Between 1 Apr and 6 Apr 1945, Königsberg was subjected to heavy artillery bombardment. It was to soften the defenses for a Soviet attack. On 4 Apr, Königsberg lost electric power. During the night of 4 and 5 Apr, 30,000 were evacuated from the Oksywie Heights near Gotenhafen, Germany (now Gdynia, Poland). On 5 Apr, the fog that troubled Soviet pilots in the previous few days were lifted, and the aircraft joined in on the bombardment. Hans von Lehndorff noticed that there were little or no anti-aircraft action from the city; "[w]e felt as if we were sailing on an ocean in an sinking ship". It was estimated that more than 100 Soviet aircraft were dropping bombs and strafing the city at any given time during that day.
On 6 Apr, the Soviet assault began. The 137,000 troops who had been drilled in urban warfare in the previous few weeks rushed into the city, supported by 530 tanks and 2,400 aircraft, which represented a third of the entire Red Air Force. On the southern front, initial German resistance was fierce, but the lines quickly fell as Soviet commanders called in the reserves. In the north, the first defensive line fell by noon, and fort number 5 was surrounded. On 7 Apr, German forces regrouped and attempted to counterattack, which inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviets, but they ultimately failed. Forts number 5 and number 8 surrendered after two days of bitter fighting, sometimes in close quarters, while German positions at the rail station in city center were lost. Lasch radioed Hitler for permission to surrender, but it was denied as expected.
On 8 Apr, German troops attempted to break out of the encirclement, but Soviet aircraft were decisive in foiling German plans. As the Soviets cleared out one section of the city at a time, entire German companies were buried as Soviet artillery took down one key building after another. The young boys and old men of the Volkssturm fought frantically to save their home city, but with vintage WW1 rifles in hand, they knew defeat was inevitable. At 0200 in the early hours of 9 Apr, Nazi Party authorities announced that the city was about to fall, and swarms of civilians rushed onto all the major roads. The Soviets noticed and fired upon the crowds mercilessly. During the day on 9 Apr, the Soviets knew the battle was nearly over, and the first line of troops devoted as much time ransacking the city as they did fighting. It was unofficially agreed upon that the first Soviet troops into Königsberg got the watches, the second line got the women, and troops entering afterwards were only entitled to the leftovers. Writer Arno Surminski who lived in East Prussia at the time recalled young Asiatic Soviet soldiers with rows of watches up their arms. Many of them had never seen the wealth of a major city, and they pillaged in a wild frenzy.
At 0930 on 9 Apr, after communications completely cut off therefore the defenses were becoming uncoordinated and overwhelmed, Lasch surrendered; the fighting ceased by midnight. Hitler was furious, denouncing Lasch a traitor of Germany and sentenced him to death, but there were no one to enforce his order as the 150,000 Germans in Königsberg, civilian and military, were now under Soviet control.
At the end of the battle for Königsberg, eighty to ninety percent of the city was destroyed. The Soviet occupation troops conducted a terror campaign aimed at completely breaking the spirits of the residents. As Denny described, Soviet soldiers "plundered the city, burned, robbed, drank and raped". Significant number of Germans chose to commit suicide rather than facing Soviet cruelty.
On 15 Apr, four German liners and other smaller ships evacuated 20,000 servicemen and civilians. On 16 Apr, the liner Goya was torpedoed by Russian submarine L-3, killing 6,000.
The German garrison at Pillau was assaulted immediately after the fall of Königsberg. The 20,000 German troops there fought fiercely until 26 Apr 1945, inflicting enormous damage to the Soviets but in the end had no choice but to surrender. The Operation Hannibal evacuation effort by the German Navy in the Königsberg region waned after the city's capture, but elsewhere in East Prussia it continued on with full steam. During the month of Apr 1945, ships participating in Operation Hannibal evacuated 265,000 from Danzig and the surrounding region. Between 1 and 8 May, over 150,000 civilians and servicemen were evacuated from the beaches of Hela. On the last day of the European War, 8 May, 92 ships of various sizes departed from Libau, Latvia with 18,000 on board. Although Operation Hannibal was officially ended on 8 May, evacuations continued for about another week until the terms of the German surrender prohibited such movements. During the operation, the 494 to 1,080 civilian and military vessels of all sizes rescued somewhere between 800,000 to 900,000 civilians and 350,000 military personnel from this region to Germany and Denmark.
As East Prussia was secured by Soviet forces, over 28,000 Germans were sent to labor camps in the Soviet Union, the little machinery left were broken apart and sent to Russian factories, and even herds of cattle were driven back east. In Jul 1946, Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad, and Russification of the region began. Names of German towns and villages were changed, German landmarks were destroyed, and Russian settlers were brought in to settle the land.
Isabel Denny, The Fall of Hitler's Fortress City
East Prussian Offensive Timeline
|13 Jan 1945||1st Byelorussian Front advanced toward Pillkallen, Germany (now Dobrovolsk, Russia), meeting heavy resistance from the German 3rd Panzer Army.|
|14 Jan 1945||Soviet 2nd Byelorussian Front launched its winter offensive from the Narev bridgehead toward Elbing, Germany (now Elblag, Poland).|
|21 Jan 1945||Red Army units captured Tannenburg, East Prussia, Germany (now Stebark, Poland), but only after the Germans destroyed the monument memorializing the 1914 German victory over the Soviets.|
|22 Jan 1945||Soviet forces captured Allenstein and Insterburg in Ostpreußen (East Prussia), Germany.|
|23 Jan 1945||Kriegsmarine units began the evacuation of German civilians from Ostpreußen (East Prussia) and Danzig (Operation Hannibal). Meanwhile, Soviet troops reached Elbing, Danzig-Westpreußen, Germany (now Elblag) on the Baltic coast.|
|25 Jan 1945||Germany announced the biggest evacuation in military history when the first of what would grow to be up to two million troops were withdrawn by ship through the Baltic from Preußen (Prussia) and Pommern (Pomerania). The evacuation continued until the end of the European War.|
|26 Jan 1945||Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler was put in command of Armeegruppe Weichsel, or Army Group Vistula, as Soviet troops broke through the Gulf of Danzig and isolated three German armies in East Prussia, Germany. Soviet forces were now within 95 miles of Berlin, Germany. Meanwhile, thousands of German refugees were killed while waiting for ships to evacuate them from East Prussia when a nearby ammunition depot was detonated by a Soviet aerial attack.|
|30 Jan 1945||German passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff was attacked and sunk by a Soviet submarine off Gotenhafen, East Prussia, Germany (now Gdynia, Poland), killing 8,000 of the 9,000 passengers onboard.|
|7 Feb 1945||Kriegsmarine cruisers assisted with naval gunfire to halt Soviet attacks near Königsberg, Germany.|
|9 Feb 1945||Soviet submarine S-13 sank the German ship Steuben, killing 3,000 to 4,000, most of which were military personnel being evacuated from East Prussia, Germany.|
|10 Feb 1945||Fierce German counter attacks near Neustettin, Germany (now Szczecinek, Poland) halted the advance of the Soviet 2nd Byelorussian Front. Nevertheless, some of the troops of the Soviet 2nd Byelorussian Front were withdrawn from the East Prussian Offensive and diverted to the fighting in Pomerania, Germany.|
|18 Feb 1945||Soviet troops encircled Graudenz, East Prussia, Germany (now Grudziadz, Poland).|
|19 Feb 1945||German 1st Infantry Division, 3rd Panzer Army, and 4th Army launched a counter attack in East Prussia, Germany, which was spearheaded by a captured Soviet T-34 tank. It opened a corridor between Königsberg and Pillau. The troops would hold this corridor open until early Apr, allowing thousands of civilians to be evacuated by German Navy ships.|
|28 Feb 1945||Soviet 2nd Byelorussian Front captured Neustettin, Germany (now Szczecinek, Poland).|
|5 Mar 1945||Fortress Graudenz was captrued by Soviet 2nd Byelorussian Front. At the Oksywie Heights near Gotenhafen, East Prussia, Germany (now Gdynia, Poland), 30,000 people were evacuated by ships on the previous day and this date.|
|11 Mar 1945||Lavrentiy Beria reported to Joseph Stalin that suicides, especially among women, were becoming common in Soviet-occupied East Prussia, Germany.|
|14 Mar 1945||A new pocket of German troops was formed near Braunsberg, East Prussia, Germany (now Braniewo, Poland).|
|21 Mar 1945||Soviet forces captured Braunsberg near Königsberg in East Prussia, Germany.|
|1 Apr 1945||Soviet artillery began a 6-day artillery bombardment against Königsberg, East Prussia, Germany.|
|4 Apr 1945||On the fourth day of the Soviet artillery bombardment, Königsberg, East Prussia, Germany lost electric power.|
|5 Apr 1945||On the fifth day of the Soviet artillery bombardmen on Königsberg, East Prussia, Germany, a break in the weather allowed Soviet aircraft to join in on the attack. By this point, German defenses could offer little opposition to enemy aircraft.|
|6 Apr 1945||After six days of artillery and aerial bombardment on Königsberg, East Prussia, Germany, the ground offensive began. 137,000 Soviet troops of the 3rd Byelorussian Front rushed into the city, supported by 530 tanks and 2,400 aircraft.|
|7 Apr 1945||German forces at Königsberg, East Prussia, Germany attempted a counterattack. Although it inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviets, it ultimately failed.|
|8 Apr 1945||Defensive forts number 5 and 8 at Königsberg, East Prussia, Germany surrendered to Soviet forces. German forces attempted another counterattack, but it failed at the face of Soviet air superiority. On this date, Soviet aircraft dropped 1,500 tons of bombs on Königsberg.|
|9 Apr 1945||General Otto Lasch surrendered the city of Königsberg, East Prussia, Germany to the Soviet forces. The surrender caused a massive panic among the civilians of the city. As the roads were crowded with refugees, Soviet forces attacked, killing many civilians. Fighting ceased by midnight as Soviet forces eliminated all remaining German resistance. 80% to 90% of the city lay in ruin by this time.|
|15 Apr 1945||German ships evacuated 20,000 people from East Prussia, Germany.|
|16 Apr 1945||Soviet submarine L-3 sank German passenger liner Goya with a torpedo, killing 6,220 people being evacuated from East Prussia, Germany, most of whom were civilian refugees.|
|26 Apr 1945||20,000 German troops at Pillau, East Prussia, Germany (now Baltiysk, Russia) surrendered after two weeks of heavy fighting.|
|8 May 1945||92 German ships of various sizes departed Libau, Latvia with 18,000 German refugees onboard, sailing for Denmark and Germany. It would be the final convoy out of Latvia.|
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Winston Churchill, 1935