This Was Russia's Master Plan to Destroy Nazi Germany Forever
Major General Paul Scheuerpflug’s 68th Infantry Division felt the full fury of Poluektov’s 5th Guards Army as the 32nd (Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Rodimstev), 33rd (Lt. Gen. Nikita Lebedenko), and 34th (Maj. Gen. Gleb Baklanov) Guards Rifle Corps drove forward. Scheuerpflug’s left flank was also hit by the 52nd Army’s 73rd (Maj. Gen. Sarko Martirosian) and 78th (Maj. Gen. Georgii Latyshev) Rifle Corps.
To Scheuerpflug’s right, Maj. Gen. Ernst Seiler’s 304th Infantry Division was attacked by Maj. Gen. Petr Tertyshnyi’s 15th Rifle Corps and Maj. Gen. Mikhail Ozimin’s 28th Rifle Corps of the 60th Army. Their job was to drive a wedge between the 4th Panzer Army and General Friedrich Schulz’s 17th Army in preparation for a drive on Krakow. The other division of Edelsheim’s corps, Colonel Maximilian Rosskopf’s 168th, was hit by the 3rd Guards Army’s 21st (Maj. Gen. Aleksei Iamanov) and 76th (Lt. Gen. Mikhail Glukhov) Rifle Corps and the 13th Army’s 102nd (Maj. Gen. Ivan Puzikov) and 27th (Maj. Gen. Filipp Cherokmanov) Rifle Corps.
With such a concentrated force attacking them, the 68th and 168th Infantry Divisions simply disappeared. Scattered groups tried to make their way westward, but for the most part they were overwhelmed by masses of brown-uniformed troops. By the end of the day, most of the regiments in those divisions had been reduced to an understrength battalion or worse. Recknagel’s corps was in much the same position.
Seeing the disintegration of the German lines, Konev unleashed his armored and mechanized forces. The 4th Tank Army and 3rd Guards Tank Army weaved their way through the advancing infantry to spread out ahead of them. This forced Gräser to prematurely commit the 16th and 17th Panzer Divisions, as there was little or no resistance from the shattered German infantry. He also ordered Brig. Gen. Hermann Hohn to form his 72nd Infantry Division into three battle groups and move south to hit the flank of the Soviet penetration.
As the panzer divisions began arriving on the scene, they were initially engaged by the advancing Soviet armor. With the inexperience of the panzer crews, the Germans suffered extensive losses. After the first engagements, the Soviets continued to move to the west, bypassing the disorganized German armor. By the end of the first day of battle, the Soviet tank and mechanized forces had penetrated 20-25 kilometers behind the German line with the Red Army infantry about 10-15 kilometers behind them.
The rapid Soviet advance coupled with the devastating artillery barrage totally disrupted the German communications network. “There was total chaos,” Frau Gräser recalled her husband saying. “Most of von Edelsheim’s and Recknagel’s corps were no longer there. The divisions were just gone.”
On the 13th the situation grew even more chaotic for the Germans. The 17th Panzer Division had been bypassed on its northern flank by the 4th Tank Army’s 10th Guards Tank Corps and Maj. Gen. Sergei Pushkarev’s 6th Guards Mechanized Corps. Maj. Gen. Vasilii Novikov’s 6th Guards Tank Corps and Lt. Gen. Ivan Sukhov’s 9th Mechanized Corps bypassed the division’s southern flank. Its position around the town of Chmielnik, about 32 kilometers south of Kielce, was growing more and more hopeless as the infantry of the 13th and 52nd Armies advanced.
A yawning gap of 40-50 kilometers separated the 17th from Sieler’s 304th Infantry Division, the only one of Recknagel’s divisions that showed any form of cohesion in retreating from the Soviet onslaught. Gräser’s parent headquarters, General Josef Harpe’s Army Group A, was only able to scrape up one regiment of Brig. Gen. Georg Kossmala’s 344th Infantry Division from its reserves to try to close the gap. It was soon pushed aside by Lebedenko’s 33rd and Baklanov’s 34th Guards Rifle Corps.
Harpe also ordered a combat group of Jauer’s 20th PGD to aid the combat groups of the 72nd Infantry Division. It was stopped cold by Soviet infantry that was following hard on the heels of the 4th Tank Army. The battle groups of the 72nd met the same fate as they ran into the infantry of the 3rd Guards Army.
First Lieutenant Karl Zimmer was the leader of the II/Gren. Rgt. 105 of the 72nd. He recalled the events of the 13th in a 1984 letter to the author:
“We could see the Russians in the distance advancing toward us. Their artillery fire quickly forced us into defensive positions. Our own artillery responded weakly. We met the Russians with defensive fire, but they continued to come at us, pushing us back again and again.”
While Gräser’s troops were fighting for their lives, the Soviets made matters worse on the 14th when Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front burst out of its bridgeheads at Magnuszew and Pulawy after an exceedingly heavy bombardment against the defenses of General Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 9th Army. As had happened in Gräser’s sector only two days earlier, the German forces that survived the barrage were thrown back in disarray.
There seemed little the Germans could do to stem the Russian tide. The situation of the 4th Panzer Army grew more critical as Soviet mechanized forces continued to push west. Elements of Maj. Gen. Vasilii Grigorev’s 31st Tank Corps (directly subordinated to the 1st Ukrainian Front) were within 10 kilometers of the Pilica River by the end of the day with largely undefended positions in front of them.
South of Kielce, the 16th and 17th Panzer Divisions were almost encircled. “My battalion, with the remaining elements of the 2nd Panzer Battalion/Pz. Rgt. 30, was located about 12-15 kilometers south of Kielce in open terrain,” recalled Major (later colonel in the Bundeswehr) Hans-Günther Liebisch, commander of the I/Pz. Gren. Rgt. 40/17th Pz. Div. “We suffered from heavy attacks from fighter ground attack aircraft, but these were discontinued due to the defensive fire of the mechanized infantry fighting vehicles.”