This Was Russia's Master Plan to Destroy Nazi Germany Forever
By now, the Nehring pocket had broken up into several groups, each battling its way to freedom. On January 22, the battle group that Liebisch’s battalion was attached to made contact with elements of the Brandenburg Division after breaking through the Russian defenses. It gave only partial relief, since the survivors of the battle group found out that Soviet forces were already west of Sieradz, which meant more heavy fighting before they reached the Oder River line.
Although many units of the Nehring pocket were now making contact with von Saucken’s corps, more troops trying to escape were still spread out and cut off. About 65 kilometers east of Sieradz a trapped combat group containing part of the XLII Army Corps fought a desperate battle with second echelon troops of the 3rd Guards Army around the town of Petrikau (Piotrkow). The combat group was finally overcome, with some of the men taken prisoner. Most of the Germans were killed, including General Recknagel, commander of the corps.
Around Katowice, the Germans still held out north and east of the city. Stretched to the limit, Maj. Gen. Ernst Seiler’s 304th Infantry Division defended the area north of Gleiwitz against assaults from the 31st Guards Tank Corps. Seiler had just assumed command of the division after its previous commander, Brig. Gen. Ulrich Liss, had been wounded and taken prisoner the day before. On Seiler’s left flank Colonel Hans Kreppel’s 100th Jäger Division held off forces of the 1st Guards Cavalry Corps about six kilometers east of the Oder.
Konev’s forces reached the Oder on the 23rd, and Soviet engineers and assault units immediately set to work. The engineers of Pushkarov’s 6th Guards Mechanized Corps crossed the river followed by some motorized rifle forces and established a small bridgehead about 50 kilometers northwest of Breslau. In the 5th Guards Army sector, Rodmistev’s 32nd Guards Rifle Corps sent assault troops across the river around Ohlau (Olawa) and Brieg (Brzeg) between 25-35 kilometers southeast of the city. In many cases the Germans remained unaware of these crossings, allowing the Soviets to establish the jump-off points for future operations.
For the next two days the battle around Katowicz grew in intensity. The 1st Guards Cavalry Corps succeeded in wresting Gleiwitz from the 30th Infantry Division and the 20th Panzer Division, and the 118th Rifle Corps was advancing into the western suburbs of Katowice itself. Southeast of the city, Kurochkin’s 60th Army was pressing hard against Niehoff’s 371st and Arndt’s 359th Infantry Divisions, which were defending positions in front of the Polish town of Oswiecim, which was known to the Germans as Auschwitz.
The bridgeheads across the Oder were reinforced, and supplies began to be ferried across the river in anticipation of the assault on Breslau. Leliushenko’s 4th Tank Army was already pushing westward north of the city and was advancing on Steinau, which was only defended by a Volkssturm battalion and a couple of ad hoc combat groups.
To the north the floating pocket continued its westward flight. Bypassing Soviet concentrations around Ostrova, units of the pocket were able to destroy some Soviet supply columns as they fought their way to the Oder. By now Nehring’s pocket had moved ahead of von Saucken’s GD Panzer Corps, which was conducting a strong rearguard defense. Both groups hoped to reach the Oder near Glogau.
By the 26th, Konev’s armies had occupied the eastern bank of the Oder in an area 20 kilometers north of Steinau to Kossel (Kozle), about 90 kilometers south of Breslau. The only exception was a German bridgehead east and northeast of Breslau, which was occupied by the 269th Infantry Division and a mixed bag of combat groups that faced Martirosian’s 73rd Rifle Corps.
Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army had pushed German forces west of Katowice farther south, threatening at least three corps of the 17th Army with encirclement. Surprisingly, this presented Konev with a dilemma. His primary objective was to take the Silesian industrial area intact. A prolonged German defense of the area would be costly for the 1st Ukrainian Front and would more than likely destroy most of the industrial centers in the area, which was 110 kilometers long and 70 kilometers wide.
“I admit I was experiencing an inner conflict,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Several days earlier … I had issued orders for an encirclement.”
The opportunity to destroy approximately 100,000 enemy troops was very tempting. However, the close house-to-house fighting would cause frightening casualties. With the war’s end in sight, the losses would be a heavy burden for any commander. “As a result of my meditations I finally decided not to encircle the Nazis, but to leave a free corridor for their exit from the Silesian area and finish them off later, when they came out into the field,” he wrote.
To accomplish the plan, Konev ordered Rybalko to stop moving south and to make another 90-degree turn for an advance on Ratibor (Raciborz). He also ordered the 59th and 60th Armies to increase pressure on the Germans in the Katowice area.
On January 27, Colonel Fedor Krasavin’s 100th, Maj. Gen. Petr Zubov’s 322nd, Maj. Gen. Mikhail Grishin’s 286th, and Colonel Vasilii Petrenko’s 107th Rifle Divisions fought their way into Oswiecim. As the Germans retreated the Soviet troops came upon the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp complex. During the previous months the Germans had tried to destroy as much as possible within the camps and had evacuated most of the camp prisoners, but there were still about 9,000 left at the facilities.