This Was Russia's Master Plan to Destroy Nazi Germany Forever
Konev was also driving on Krakow. His 59th Army, protected on the left by the 60th Army, was bearing down on the city. Von Edelsheim’s XLVIII Panzer Corps, consisting of the shattered 68th and 168th Infantry Divisions and the reduced 304th Infantry Division, was transferred to Schulz’s 17th Army. To try to stop the Soviets, Harpe ordered a regimental group of the 10th PGD to take up positions at Walbrom, about 14 kilometers north of Krakow. He also sent Brig. Gen. Karl Arning’s 75th Infantry Division to an area south of Walbrom.
On January 15, the 3rd Guards Tank Army crossed the Pilica River, bypassing the positions of a combat group of the 10th PGD at Koniecpol, about 30 kilometers east of Chestochowa. While the Soviets ferried more troops and supplies across the river, the Germans set up a hasty defensive position in front of the city, using whatever troops were on hand.
North of Krakow, Poluboiarov’s 4th Guards Tank Corps, followed by the 59th Army’s 43rd and 115th Rifle Corps, broke through the 75th Infantry Division’s line north of Krakow and continued its drive westward. To counter the advance, Harpe ordered Maj. Gen. Hans Wagner’s 269th Infantry Division into an area about 24 kilometers northwest of Krakow.
Inside the Kielce area the situation was desperate. The 16th Panzer had managed to break clear of the encirclement, but 17th Panzer was still in dire straits. The remaining elements of the division attempted to get out of the cauldron but hit a heavily defended blocking position in the early morning of January 15. Antitank guns raked the Germans, and the few remaining vehicles finally fought their way to meet the rear guard of the 16th Panzer.
“After three days of battle the battalion, together with what remained of other battle groups, particularly the 2nd Panzer Battalion, had broken through several ranks of enveloping enemy elements and had finally made contact with elements of the 16th Panzer,” Liebisch recalled. “No uniform command and control had existed in these operations. The will to break through had induced us to joint action. The 17th Panzer was no longer.”
The survivors of both panzer divisions were reformed into a combat group commanded by General Dietrich von Müller, the commander of the 16th. Soviet units were already inside Kielce, and the city was ablaze in several areas. Combat Group von Müller, unable to stop the Soviet flood, hooked up with some German infantry units and moved westward to attempt to establish a new defensive line.
While Russian troops battled at Kielce, Rybakov’s 3rd Guards Tank Army, supported by the 31st Tank Corps, bore down on Chestochowa. There were a few rear elements on the German side that put up a fight, but there was little real opposition to the Soviet advance.
To the southeast Poluboiarov’s Independent 4th Guards Tank Corps was at the forefront of Korovnikov’s 59th Army as it drove on Krakow. Arning’s 75th Infantry Division put up a desperate fight, but the Soviets pierced its lines in several places, forcing it into a fighting withdrawal. The hard-pressed 17th Army was able to send only a few small units to man positions north of the city, where they were momentarily able to slow the Russians.
In Berlin, the Chief of the General Staff of the Army, General Heinz Guderian, was pleading for more troops to be sent to the Eastern Front. As early as January 9, he had telephoned Hitler’s western headquarters, where Hitler was overseeing the Ardennes Offensive, to make the Führer aware of the tremendous danger poised in the East. After laying out his case for switching troops from the West to the East, Guderian was met with a few seconds of silence.
“The Eastern Front must make do with what it’s got,” Hitler finally responded.
Hitler did, however, order General Dietrich von Saucken’s Panzer Corps Grossdeutschland (GD) to move from its positions in East Prussia south to the Lodz area—a move that infuriated Guderian. The corps was one of the key units in the East Prussian defenses, and its absence would make the dangerous situation in that sector even more perilous. Nevertheless, the corps arrived piecemeal at Lodz and would not be fully organized until the 18th.
By the end of January 16, Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front was encircling Warsaw. Harpe ordered German troops out of the city just before the encirclement was complete, saving most of the XLVI Panzer Corps. The city fell to the Soviets the following day. Radom also fell on the 16th.
Farther south the fighting continued to rage around Kielce. Shattered units hovered around Nehring’s XXIV Panzer Corps. The majority of the units were encircled in an area northwest of the city and had formed hedgehog positions to keep from being overrun. The fighting was savage, but luckily for the Germans most of the Soviet armor and mechanized forces were still pushing westward.
At the end of the day, Novikov’s’s 6th Guards Tank Corps was at the outskirts of Radomsko with Latyshev’s 78th Rifle Corps guarding its southern flank. The 31st Tank Corps, with the accompanying 33rd and 34th Guards Rifle Corps, was also within a few kilometers of Chestochowa, and Soviet artillery was already shelling German positions east of the city.
Warsaw fell to Zhukov’s troops on the 17th. As Soviet and Polish forces entered the devastated city, few of its inhabitants were on hand to greet them. It was estimated that of the 1,310,000 people that resided in the city in 1939, fewer than 100,000 were left when it was liberated.