This Was Russia's Master Plan to Destroy Nazi Germany Forever
While Zhukov took the glory in taking Warsaw, Konev’s forces continued to batter their way westward. Chestochowa was now encircled and was under attack by Colonel Grigorii Polishchuck’s 9th Guards Airborne Division, Colonel Vladimir Komarov’s 13th Guards Division, and Maj. Gen. Vikentii Skryganov’s 14th Guards Rifle Division. The city would fall later that evening. Meanwhile, the 7th Guards Tank Corps and the 31st Tank Corps had bypassed the city and continued to drive west.
At Krakow, Arning’s 75th Infantry Division was barely hanging on north of the city. The 75th was helped by the arrival of Brig. Gen. Georg Kossmala’s 344th Infantry Division. To counter the Germans’ defense, Poluboiarov’s 4th Guards Tank Corps swung southwest around the German line while the 60th Army continued a frontal assault.
In the Kielce sector, the situation became more serious. Nehring’s XXIV Panzer Corps and Recknagel’s XLII Army Corps were surrounded and cut off from each other. They formed “floating pockets” that slowly moved westward, fighting off Russian attacks from all sides. They would eventually link up as they tried to reach the German line.
German 1st Lieutenant Zimmer recalled joining the Nehring pocket: “What was left of my battalion made its way through the [Nehring pocket] line. Some units of the 72nd were still with Recknagel, and some had also made their way here, but we had no cohesion. My battalion was thrown into the line with a unit of the 88th Division on one side and a unit from another division on the other side.”
Nehring was now surrounded by five Russian rifle corps, a cavalry corps, two tank corps, and a mechanized corps. To stay put would mean annihilation, so the pocket continued to move to the west with combat units on the perimeter and service, supply, and medical troops in the middle.
“On the afternoon of the 17th we broke out westward,” Colonel Liebisch recalled. “On the 18th we were fortunate enough to get to an army supply depot where we were able to refuel. After that, we blew up the depot. We formed a moving pocket. How many soldiers were in the pocket I don’t think we will ever be able to find out. There are estimates that more than 100,000 soldiers were in this pocket. The armored personnel carriers of the battalion alone carried at least eight divisional commanders.
One commander was not in that group. The 17th Panzer’s commander, Colonel Brux, was wounded in the Kielce area and was taken prisoner on the 17th. He would not return to Germany until January 1956.
The Soviet advance was going as planned. With the fall of Chestochowa on the evening of the 17th, the infantry could follow the mechanized and armored forces driving toward the Oder.
With little opposition facing them on the ground and no serious threat from the air, Russian supply columns were on the move day and night to keep Konev’s mobile forces going. The tank and mechanized brigades were sometimes operating 50-80 kilometers ahead of the infantry armies, and each of the tank armies required about 300 trucks per day just for fuel supply. Another 300 trucks were required for ammunition. It was truly a tremendous logistics operation.
Although massive fuel dumps were in place at the start of the offensive, the Russians were also able to capture several German dumps as they advanced. Specialists tested the captured fuel to make sure that it had not been sabotaged before it was used by Red Army vehicles. The enemy dumps were important as the front advanced since the supply convoys could only deliver one-third to one-half of the required fuel and ammunition for one day of combat operations. The captured enemy dumps could greatly decrease the time it took for a convoy to reach the front and return.
Food for the troops seems to have been a low priority. Although the Red Army soldiers carried some food, mainly American made Spam, they were expected to live off the land. While liberating Polish towns, cities, and villages, they also liberated anything they could eat, causing even more hardship for the Polish population.
On January 18, German resistance stiffened east of Katowice. To avoid being encircled by the 4th Guards Tank Corps, the units defending positions north of Krakow began withdrawing to the west. Maj. Gen. Friedrich-Carl Rabe von Papenheim’s 97th Jäger (light) Division was filtering units into the line between the positions of the 75th and 712th Infantry Divisions. Elements of Brig. Gen. Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski’s 20th Panzer Division were also arriving on the scene.
In addition to these units, five Volkssturm battalions manned defenses about 30 kilometers north of Katowice in a line running from the town of Myszkow to Wozniki. Unlike their counterparts in the West, most of the Volkssturm units in the East put up a decent fight. It was, perhaps, easier to surrender to the Americans or the British than it was to the Red Army, which was seeking revenge for atrocities committed in its own country.
The Volkssturm was made up of young teenagers, old men, and those who were previously deemed unfit for military service. Armed with a hodgepodge of weapons, they were best used in defensive positions rather than for attacking. In many cases they were defending the very towns that they lived in.
Krakow fell to the 60th Army on the 19th. As the Germans had all but abandoned it, the city remained mostly intact, escaping the fate of many other Polish cities that were destroyed by Soviet artillery and air power.
Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army had by now crossed the Prosna River. Its advance elements were less than 60 kilometers from Breslau and the Oder River and were on the border of Middle Silesia. Gräser ordered Maj. Gen. Hans Wagner’s 269th Infantry Division and Maj. Gen. Heinrich Wosch’s 408th Replacement Division to the western bank of the Oder to take up positions near the towns of Picse and Kepno.