This Was Russia's Master Plan to Destroy Nazi Germany Forever
The floating pocket of Nehring’s corps, now augmented by the survivors of the LVI Panzer Corps that had been able to fight their way through to Nehring, continued to retreat westward with Jauer’s 20th PGD, along with a few attached battalions, forming the rear guard. With the 3rd Guards Army pressing from the south and east and Maj. Gen. Vladimir Kolpakchi’s 69th Army of Zhukov’s front coming down from the north, the pocket turned to the northwest, hoping to link up with the GD Panzer Corps, which had been pushed out of Lodz and was moving southeast.
There were four rifle corps nipping at Nehring’s heels, and Jauer’s rear guard was hard pressed to slow them down. By January 20, elements of the 17th Panzer were able to cross the Pilica River north of Sulejow. The Soviets reacted by hitting the pocket north of Piotkow, about 15 kilometers north of the crossing. Although it was making progress, the wandering pocket was still more than 70 kilometers from von Saucken’s GD Panzer Corps, which was defending an area around Sieradz.
South of the pocket, Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army had reached the Silesian border. The only thing stopping him from accomplishing his objective of driving on Breslau was the hastily constructed defenses of the 269th and 408th Divisions, which were now augmented by 10 Volkssturm battalions. Inside Breslau itself, a mix of army and Luftwaffe battle groups and Volkssturm battalions numbered only about 18,000 men.
Konev was conscious of the rapid westward movement of Zhukov’s front in the north. There was a rivalry between the two men that was encouraged by Soviet Premier Josef Stalin. Both wanted to capture the prize of Berlin, and the January operation was a giant step toward that goal. Although the armies in the northern sector of his front were almost keeping pace with Zhukov, Konev’s southern armies, particularly the 21st, 59th, and 60th, were running into heavier opposition as more German divisions and combat groups arrived from the south to man the line.
To break the German defenses west of Krakow, Konev ordered Rybalko to stop his westward advance and make a 90-degree turn south to strike the rear of the enemy line. In a matter of hours, Rybalko had Maj. Gen. Sergei Ivanov’s 7th Guards Tank Corps racing south to take up new positions along the Oder River south of Oppeln. Novikov’s 6th Guards Tank Corps was directed to an area east of Oppeln, while Sukhov’s 9th Mechanized Corps guarded the army’s left flank. The infantry of the 52nd Army would soon move forward to fill the void left by Rybalko’s maneuver.
Despite repeated Russian attacks on the 21st, von Saucken’s men held onto their positions in the Sieradz area. They had established a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Warthe (Warta) River around one of the few bridges in the area that could support armored vehicles.
Engineers of Colonel Hermann Schulte-Heuthaus’s PGD Brandenburg were preparing the bridge for demolition when von Saucken arrived on the scene. He immediately ordered the demolition charges removed and instead put more men into the bridgehead, hoping that Nehring’s pocket could make contact.
Although the GD Panzer Corps was in serious danger of being surrounded, the Germans held their ground. Units of the 9th Army’s XL Panzer Corps were fighting on the GD’s northern flank, but the forward elements of Leliushenko’s 4th Tank Army had already crossed the Warthe in the south.
Inside the Nehring pocket the fighting raged on all fronts as it made its way toward Sieradz. Casualties mounted as men and equipment were blown apart by Soviet tank and artillery fire. Luckily for the Germans, the weather remained bad, preventing massive attacks from the Red Air Force.
As the 52nd Army moved into Rybalko’s former positions, its units attacked the German line with an artillery barrage before moving to engage the enemy. Colonel Mikhail Puteiko’s 254th Rifle Division pushed the 269th Infantry Division out of Kepno, which brought it about 65 kilometers from Breslau. The rest of Martriosian’s 73rd Rifle Corps followed. Along with the neighboring 78th Rifle Corps, the advancing infantry now set its sights on the city of Öls—only 25 kilometers east of Breslau.
Northwest of Krakow, Rybalko’s march to the south was already having its effect. German units were forced to retreat to avoid being cut off in the rear, and the 59th Army was able to move forward again.
North and east of Katowice, the Germans still held a defensive line. However, these defenders were also being threatened by Rybalko’s forces moving toward them from the northwest. With his forces spread so thin, Rybalko’s men were taking disturbing casualties as they met moderate to heavy resistance. One of those casualties was Maj. Gen. Nikolai Oganesian, the chief of artillery for Rybalko’s army.
The battle for Katowice continued without letup the following day. Forces from the 31st Tank Corps and Lt. Gen. Viktor Kirillovich Baranov’s 1st Guard Cavalry Corps were pushing toward Gleiwitz (Gliwice), about 20 kilometers west of Katowice. Following close behind were Gusev’s 117th and 118th Rifle Corps. The advance threatened the rear of von Edelsheim’s XLVIII Panzer Corps, which was now under the control of the 17th Army, holding out north and west of the city.
North of Breslau the 4th Tank Army was assaulting Rawciz, about 22 kilometers east of the Oder. Directly east of Breslau, the hardpressed 408th Division and some Volkssturm battalions had to give up Namslau (Namyslow), located about 50 kilometers away. New defensive lines were nonexistent, and the only things slowing down the 4th Tank and 52nd Armies were the churned-up terrain and some hastily laid minefields.