This Was Russia's Master Plan to Destroy Nazi Germany Forever
Terrain was an important factor in the German defense plans. Most of the area that Konev would have to cross was basically flat with few hills or forests. It was excellent tank country. Besides fortifications placed in front of the Sandomierz bridgehead, there were hastily built defenses along the Nida and Pilica Rivers. Behind them, defensive lines ran along the Warta and Notec Rivers with a further line about 120 kilometers to the west. Most of these fortifications were weak, and few were actually manned due to a shortage of troops.
Konev planned to use his extensive mobile forces to make lightning thrusts and seize crossings along all these lines of defense. Engineers would follow closely behind to build bridges across the rivers. Any built-up urban areas would be bypassed if the first attempt to take them failed. Follow-up troops would be used to surround and destroy any of these areas of resistance.
To accomplish his mission Konev had about 1.1 million men, of which about 750,000 were combat troops. German intelligence estimated that three or four Soviet armies occupied the Sandomierz bridgehead. There were actually six and part of another.
The Russians had brought maskirovka (deception) to a new level to fool the Germans. Because of the terrain inside the bridgehead, units and vehicles were cleverly camouflaged and radio traffic was kept at a minimum. New formations were brought across the Vistula only at night, and evidence of road traffic was quickly covered up.
Konev used Lt. Gen. Pavel Poluboiarov’s 4th Guards Tank Corps to simulate the existence of two tank armies south of the bridgehead on the eastern side of the river. About 500 dummy tanks were also assembled in the area and were filmed by German air reconnaissance. Fake radio traffic added to the deception. With all these measures, the Germans were partially convinced that an attack would come from the south as well as from the bridgehead.
Inside the bridgehead, Konev had most of Lt. Gen. Vladimir Gluzdovskii’s 6th Army (four rifle divisions) occupying about 40 kilometers of its northern sector. Facing west were Col. Gen. Vasilii Gordov’s 3rd Guards Army (nine infantry divisions, three tank brigades, one motorized rifle brigade, and three assault gun regiments), Lt. Gen. Nikolai Pukhov’s 13th Army (nine rifle divisions, three tank regiments, and four assault gun regiments), and Lt. Gen. Dmitri Leliushenko’s 4th Tank Army (five tank brigades, three mechanized brigades, one motorized rifle brigade, five tank regiments, one assault gun brigade, and four assault gun regiments).
South of those units were Col. Gen. Konstantin Koroteev’s 52nd Army (nine rifle divisions and one tank brigade), Col. Gen. Pavel Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army (seven tank brigades, one tank regiment, five mechanized brigades, one motorized rifle brigade, one assault gun brigade, and six assault gun regiments), and Maj. Gen. Georgii Poluektov’s 5th Guards Army (eight rifle divisions, one airborne rifle division, two tank regiments, and eight assault gun regiments). Konev’s flank was occupied by Col. Gen. Pavel Kurochkin’s 60th Army (nine rifle division). On the eastern bank of the Vistula stood Lt. Gen. Dmitrii Gusev’s 21st Army (nine rifle divisions) and Lt. Gen. Ivan Korovnikov’s 59th Army (seven rifle divisions).
The maskirovka at Sandomierz had been brilliant. The Germans estimated that they were outnumbered by about 3.5 to one, while the actual figure was double that. To combat the tanks of the 17th and 18th Panzer Divisions, the 4th Guards Tank Army had about 800 tanks, while the 3rd Guards Tank Army had about 750. At the focal points of the attack, the Soviets would outnumber the Germans by a ratio of 10-15 to one.
“My husband later told me that our intelligence had totally failed us,” wrote Gräser’s widow, Eldegard, in a 1971 letter to the author. “He knew that he was outnumbered, but he had no idea how really bad it was.”
Konev would be covered by an umbrella from the 2nd Air Army. The 2nd had four bomber, 10 fighter, and four air assault divisions. This massive force would hold what was left of the Luftwaffe at bay—although the weather during most of the operation would make for bad flying conditions—while Konev’s armor pushed forward. Usually the Soviets would use their infantry to breach and widen the enemy line. Armor would then exploit the breaches a day or two later. This time, Konev planned to use most of his armor on day one.
At 0500 on January 12, Konev’s artillery opened fire on von Edelsheim’s XLVIII Panzer Corps. An estimated 420 guns per half kilometer rained hell upon the three divisions of the corps for 45 minutes before the barrage suddenly halted. During the lull, hundreds of Red Army infantry platoons swarmed out of the bridgehead and quickly moved toward the German positions. Their objectives were key positions in the bridgehead perimeter, and most of these were captured from the stunned German survivors.
With the preliminary objectives in hand, Konev’s artillery opened up for another 15 minutes, pounding German secondary positions. On the heels of the barrage the Soviet infantry that had captured the bridgehead defenses moved out again. Other infantry battalions were also sent forward to occupy the previously captured positions.
“All the gunners had to do is shoot straight,” Konev wrote in his memoirs. “And they never failed: not once did they get an alarm signal—‘Stop, you are hitting your own men’—from any of the troops attacking along the entire front.”