The Vistula-Oder Offensive was a successful Red Army operation on the Eastern Front in the European Theatre of World War II; it took place between 12 January, 1945 and 2 February, 1945. The offensive took Soviet forces from their start lines on the Vistula river in Poland to the Oder river deep in Germany, about seventy kilometers from the capital Berlin.
In the wake of the successful Operation Bagration the 1st Belorussian Front managed to secure two bridgeheads west of the Vistula river between 27 July and 4 August 1944.The Soviets remained inactive during the failed Warsaw uprising that started on August 1, 1944, though their frontline was not far from the insurgents. The 1st Ukrainian Front captured an additional large bridgehead at Sandomierz (known as the Baranow bridgehead in German accounts) during the Lvov-Sandomierz Offensive.
Preceding the offensive, the Soviets had built up large amounts of materiel and manpower in the three bridgeheads. The Soviets greatly outnumbered the opposing German army in infantry, artillery, and armour. All this was known to German intelligence and General Reinhard Gehlen, head of Fremde Heere Ost passed his assessment to Heinz Guderian. Guderian presented the intelligence results to Adolf Hitler, who refused to believe them, dismissing the apparent Soviet strength as "the greatest imposture since Genghis Khan". Guderian had proposed to evacuate the divisions of Army Group North trapped in the Courland Pocket to the Reich via the Baltic Sea to get the necessary manpower for the defence, but Hitler forbade it. In addition, Hitler commanded that one major operational reserve, the troops of Sepp Dietrich's Sixth SS Panzer Army, were moved to Hungary to support Operation Frühlingserwachen.
Zhukov and Konev had 163 divisions for the operation with a total of:
Soviet forces in this sector were opposed by Army Group A, defending a front which stretched from positions east of Warsaw southwards along the Vistula, almost to the confluence of the San. At that point there was a large Soviet bridgehead over the Vistula in the area of Baranow before the front continued south to Jasło.
There were three Armies in the Group, the Ninth Army deployed around Warsaw, the Fourth Panzer Army opposite the Baranow salient in the Vistula Bend, and the Seventeenth Army to their south. The group had a total of 400,000 troops, 4,100 artillery pieces, and 1,150 tanks. Army Group A was led by Colonel-General Josef Harpe (who was replaced, after the offensive had begun, by Colonel-General Ferdinand Schörner on 20 January).
German intelligence had estimated that the Soviet forces had a 3:1 numerical superiority to the German forces; there was in fact a 5:1 superiority. In the large Baranow / Sandomierz bridgehead, the Fourth Panzer Army was required to defend from 'strongpoints' in some areas, as it lacked the infantry to man a continuous front line. In addition, on Hitler's express orders, the two German defence lines (the Grosskampflinie and Hauptkampflinie) were positioned very close to each other, placing the main defences well within striking range of Soviet artillery.
The offensive commenced in the Baranow bridgehead at 04:35 on January 12 with an intense bombardment by the guns of 1st Ukrainian Front against the positions of Fourth Panzer Army. Concentrated against the divisions of XLVIII Panzer Corps, which had been deployed across the face of the bridgehead, it effectively destroyed their capacity to respond; a battalion commander in the 68th Infantry Division stated that "I began the operation with an understrength battalion [...] after the smoke of the Soviet preparation cleared [...] I had only a platoon of combat effective soldiers left".
The initial barrage was followed by probing attacks and a further heavy bombardment at 10:00. By the time the main armoured exploitation force of the 3rd Guards and 4th Tank Armies moved forward four hours later, Fourth Panzer Army had already lost up to two-thirds of its artillery and a quarter of its troops.
The Soviet units made rapid progress, moving to cut off the defenders at Kielce. The armoured reserves of Fourth Panzer Army's central corps, the XXIV Panzer Corps, were committed, but had suffered serious damage by the time they reached Kielce, and were already being outflanked. XLVIII Panzer Corps, on Fourth Panzer Army's southern flank, had by this time been completely destroyed, along with much of Recknagel's LXII Corps in the north. By January 14 the 1st Ukrainian Front had forced crossings of the Nida river, and began to exploit towards Radomsko and the Warthe. Fourth Panzer Army's last cohesive formation, the XXIV Panzer Corps held on around Kielce until the night of January 16, before its commander, Nehring, made the decision to withdraw.
The 1st Belorussian Front, to Konev's north, opened its attack on the German Ninth Army from the Magnuszew and Puławy bridgeheads at 08:30 on January 14, again commencing with a heavy bombardment. The 33rd and 69th Armies broke out of the Puławy bridgehead to a depth of 30 km, while the 5th Shock and 8th Guards Armies broke out of the Magnuszew bridgehead. The 2nd and 1st Guards Tank Armies were committed after them to exploit the breach. The 69th Army's progress from the Puławy bridgehead was especially successful, with the defending LVI Panzer Corps disintegrating after its line of retreat was cut off. Though the Ninth Army conducted many local counter-attacks, they were all brushed aside; the 69th Army ruptured the last lines of defence and took Radom, while the 2nd Guards Tank Army moved on Sochaczew and the 1st Guards Tank Army was ordered to seize bridgheads over the Pilica and attack towards Łódź. In the meantime, the 47th Army had crossed the Vistula and moved towards Warsaw from the north, while the 61st and 1st Polish Armies encircled the city from the south.
The only major German response came on January 15, when Hitler (against the advice of Guderian) ordered the Panzerkorps Grossdeutschland of Dietrich von Saucken from East Prussia to cover the breach made in the sector of Fourth Panzer Army, but the advance of Zhukov's forces forced it to detrain at Łódź without even reaching its objective. After covering Ninth Army's retreat, it was forced to withdraw south-westwards to the Warthe.
On January 17, Konev was given new objectives: to advance towards Breslau using his mechanised forces, and to use the combined-arms forces of the 60th and 59th Armies to open an attack on the southern flank towards the industrial heartland of Upper Silesia through Kraków. Kraków was secured undamaged on January 19 after an encirclement by the 59th and 60th Armies, in conjunction with the 4th Guards Tank Corps, forced the German defenders to withdraw hurriedly.
The second stage of the 1st Ukrainian Front's objective was far more complex, as they were required to encircle and secure the entire industrial region of Upper Silesia, where they were faced by Schulz's Seventeenth Army. Konev ordered that the 59th and 60th Armies advance frontally, while the 21st Army encircled the area from the north. He then ordered Rybalko's 3rd Guards Tank Army, moving on Breslau, to swing southwards along the upper Oder from January 20, cutting off Seventeenth Army's withdrawal.
In the meantime, the shattered remnants of Fourth Panzer Army were still attempting to reach German lines. By January 18, Nehring and the XXIV Panzer Corps found that their intended route northwards had been blocked, so pulled back to the west, absorbing the remnants of LXII Corps that had escaped encirclement. Much of the remainder of LXII Corps was destroyed after being trapped around Przysucha. Screened by heavy fog, the lead elements of XXIV Panzer Corps reached the Warthe on January 22, and having linked up with von Saucken, were finally able to cross the Oder, some 350km from their positions at the start of the Soviet offensive.
On January 25, Schulz requested that he be allowed to withdraw his 100,000 troops from the developing salient around Katowice / Kattowitz. This was refused, and he repeated the request on January 26. Schoerner eventually permitted Schulz to pull his forces back on the night of January 27, while Konev - who had allowed just enough room for the Seventeenth Army to withdraw without putting up serious resistance - secured the area undamaged.
On Konev's northern flank, the 4th Tank Army had spearheaded an advance to the Oder, where it secured a major bridgehead at Steinau. Troops of the 5th Guards Army established a second bridgehead upstream at Ohlau.
In the northern sector of the offensive, Zhukov's 1st Belorussian Front also made rapid progress, as Ninth Army was no longer able to offer coherent resistance. Its XXXVI Panzer Corps, which was positioned behind Warsaw, was pushed over the Vistula into the neighbouring Second Army sector. Warsaw was taken by January 17, as Army Group A's headquarters issued orders for the city to be abandoned; units of the 2nd Guards and 3rd Shock Armies entering the city were profoundly affected by the devastation wrought by German forces after the Warsaw Uprising. Hitler, on the other hand, was furious at the abandonment of the 'fortress', arresting Colonel Bogislaw von Bonin, head of the Operations Branch of OKH, and sacking both the Ninth Army and XXXVI Panzer Corps commanders, Generals Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz and Walter Fries.
The 2nd Guards Tank Army pressed forward to the Oder, while to the south the 8th Guards Army reached Łódź by January 18, and took it over by January 19. The 1st Guards Tank Army moved to encircle Poznań by January 25, and the 8th Guards Army began to fight its way into the city on the following day, though there was protracted and intense fighting in the Siege of Poznań before the city would finally be taken.
To the north east of Zhukov's 1st Belorussian Front, the lead elements of Marshal Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front taking part in the East Prussian Offensive reached the Baltic coast of the Vistula delta by January 23 and so succeeded in isolating Army Group Centre in East Prussia.
After encircling Poznań, the 1st Guards Tank Army advanced deep into the fortified region around the Obra River against patchy resistance from a variety of Volkssturm and Wehrmacht units. There was heavier resistance, however, on the approaches to the fortress of Küstrin.
The German reorganisation of command structure that resulted in the creation of Army Group Vistula was accompanied by the release of a few extra formations for the defense; the V SS Mountain Corps, with two reserve infantry divisions, was deployed along the Obra and the prewar border fortifications known as the Tierschtigel Riegel, while the Panzergrenadier-Division Kurmark was ordered to reinforce it.
The military historian Earl Ziemke described the advance thus:
The 2nd Guards Tank and 5th Shock Armies reached the Oder almost unopposed; a unit of the 5th Shock Army crossed the river ice and took the town of Kienitz as early as January 31.
Stavka declared the operation complete on February 2. Zhukov had initially hoped to advance directly on Berlin, as the German defences had largely collapsed. However the exposed northern flank of 1st Belorussian Front in Pomerania, along with a German counter-attack (Operation Solstice) against its spearheads, convinced the Soviet command that it was essential to clear German forces from Pomerania in the East Pomeranian Offensive before the Berlin offensive could proceed.
The Vistula-Oder Offensive was a major success for the Soviet military. Within a matter of days the forces involved had advanced hundreds of kilometres, taking much of Poland and striking deep within the borders of the Reich. The offensive broke Army Group A, and much of Germany's remaining capacity for military resistance. However the stubborn resistance of German forces in Silesia and Pomerania, as well as continuing fighting in East Prussia, meant that the final offensive towards Berlin was delayed by several months, by which time the Wehrmacht had once again built up a substantial force on this axis.