“We felt that we were already dead men,” wrote former Captain Albrecht Wüstenhagen in a May 1988 letter to the author of his time in the fortress garrison of Küstrin. In 1945, Wüstenhagen found himself in command of an infantry gun company, part of the garrison, estimated at between 9,000 and 16,000 men and boys, in the small town on the eastern bank of the Oder River, some 70 kilometers east of Berlin. On January 25, by order of Adolf Hitler, Küstrin had been made a Fortress Town, meaning that it was to be held to the last man and last bullet. The penalty for retreat was death.
Küstrin was settled by Slavic tribesmen in the 10th century. The Knights Templar claimed the settlement in the 13th century, establishing a market there and receiving a charter as a city, creating a soon to be flourishing community. In the mid-1500s a castle and fortress were constructed, and other fortifications were gradually added. The primary fortifications were located in the Altstadt (Old Town) on a peninsula at the confluence of the Oder and Warthe Rivers.
In 1758 the town was besieged by the Russians. The surrounding wooden buildings were destroyed, but the fortress held firm. Half a century later the French were luckier, and the town was garrisoned by Napoleon’s forces from 1806-1814. In 1857 the construction of a railroad line was completed, making Küstrin an important railway hub, and a Neustadt (New Town) grew on the eastern side of the Altstadt.
With the unification of Germany, Küstrin acquired a new artillery barracks, which was finished in 1903 on an island across from the Altstadt railway station. That was followed by the construction of an engineer barracks in 1913. After the defeat in World War I, many of the town’s fortifications were ordered destroyed under the provisions of the Versailles Treaty.
ollowing the rise of Hitler, Küstrin found a new prosperity after the devastating Great Depression. By 1939 its population stood at about 21,500. That figure diminished as the war took more and more young men into the Wehrmacht. However, even by late 1944 the war seemed far away on the eastern side of the Vistula River, and the people led relatively normal lives. That would change in January 1945.
Hitler had been repeatedly warned about an impending Soviet offensive. His intelligence officers for the Eastern Front reported a massive buildup of men and matériel, which was ridiculed by the Führer. He was convinced that the Russians had bled themselves dry, and he was more focused on the Allied threat in the West. When confronted by General Heinz Guderian, his Army chief of staff, Hitler flew into a rage as he was presented with the intelligence estimates on one sector of the Vistula Front on January 9.
“He declared them to be completely idiotic,” Guderian wrote in his memoirs. Hitler also ordered the man who compiled the report locked up in an insane asylum.
Guderian did not back down. “The Eastern Front is like a house of cards,” he replied. “If the front is broken through at one point all the rest will collapse, for 12 and a half divisions are far too small for so extended a front.”
“The Eastern Font must help itself and make do with what it’s got,” was Hitler’s final word. Three days later, the Soviets attacked.
Guderian’s “house of cards” collapsed on January 12, when the Russians unleashed the Vistula-Oder Operation. At 04:35 Soviet artillery, amounting to 230 guns per kilometer, opened a devastating barrage on General Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Edelsheim’s XLVIII Panzer Korps, which was trying to contain Soviet forces inside the Baranov Bridgehead in Poland. It was a Panzer Korps in name only, consisting of only three weak infantry divisions, the 68th, 168th, and 304th.
Following the barrage Red Army tanks and infantry of the 3rd Guards Army and 4th Tank Army from Marshal Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front surged forward. Von Edelsheim’s defenses were shattered. In a 1981 letter to the author he wrote: “There was absolutely nothing to be done. The Soviet barrage was astounding and our infantry simply disappeared. By noon my three divisions no longer existed and those that survived were fleeing for their lives. We were simply swept aside or destroyed.”
That was only the beginning. The entire German line was torn asunder as more Soviet fronts joined the offensive in the next few days. Warsaw fell to Marshal Georgi Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front on the 17th, while Konev continued the drive on his left.
The Russian offensive exploded on most sectors of the Eastern Front as Soviet forces hit everything from East Prussia to the Slovak border. German troops were fighting for their lives in Königsburg and Budapest, while Soviet forces pushed their way into the industrial region of Silesia.
In Küstrin, the people went about their daily business. The war had taken most of the men of military age, and those on the streets were mostly children, women, and the elderly. On the radio Nazi propaganda touted the invincible “Eastern Wall,” and if anyone doubted that claim they kept it to themselves. Then the refugees started coming. At first it was just a trickle, but it soon turned into a flood.
The first ones were from the west, fleeing the devastating Allied air attacks on major German cities. For most of them Küstrin was just a stopover on their way to other destinations. Things started changing as the flow reversed and refugees began coming in from the east. The first wave was composed of Nazi officials and their families. They were followed by civilians using whatever transportation they could get, and they brought troubling stories of Russian advances and Wehrmacht retreats.
People started to get nervous and that feeling grew as the local Volkssturm battalion, composed mostly of teenage boys and those men who were either unfit or too old for military service, was mobilized on January 24. There was now little doubt that something was going very wrong to the east.
Just how wrong became evident on January 25, when the Führer Order declared Küstrin a fortress with Maj. Gen. Adolf Raegener as its commander. The grandiose title “Fortress Küstrin” was almost laughable. There was a scattering of engineers and artillery units in the town, as well as some infantry units consisting of trainees or men convalescing from their wounds. Defensive positions were negligible, as most had been neglected or destroyed in the preceding years, and the frozen ground made digging earthworks difficult. Moreover, the Soviets were reported to be only about 70 kilometers away.
During the final days of January, the garrison of Fortress Küstrin began to grow as a variety of small units, of which Wüstenhagen’s was one, started to arrive in the town. The fortress’s antitank weapons, of which there were few, were strengthened by the arrival of a few Panther tank turrets. Sporting 75mm guns, the turrets were embedded in strongpoints along likely avenues of attack.
As more units trickled in, the defense force became a little more organized under Raegener’s direction. It was also very diverse.
“There were some Luftwaffe personnel from flak units, some of which no longer had their flak pieces,” Wüstenhagen recalled. “We also had an Einsatz (action) battalion made up mostly of Turkomans, a Moslem people, as well as one made up mostly of troops from the Caucasus. There were Hitler Youth, Volkssturm, some Hungarians, and even some members of the Waffen SS. Some men were individuals who had been separated from their units and had been stopped by the Kettenhunde (literally chain dogs—soldiers’ slang for the German Field Police that referred to the metal gorgets they wore on their chests) and forced into serving with the garrison. It seemed that this mix of units would be able to do little against the Russians, but General Raegener, and later SS General Heinz Reinefarth, worked hard to turn us into a real fighting force.”
While the Germans went about trying to strengthen meager defenses, the Soviets kept moving westward. After taking Warsaw, Zhukov’s front had advanced another 120-130 kilometers in the period January 20-22. By the 25th, Col. Gen. Vasili I. Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army, following in the wake of Col. Gen. Mikhail E. Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army, had the 60,000 men of Fortress Posen (present day Poznan) surrounded. Leaving parts of both armies to besiege the city, Zhukov ordered both commands to keep moving westward.
Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front was a powerful force. Besides Katukov’s and Chuikov’s armies, he had the 2nd Guards Tank Army (Col. Gen. Semen I. Bogdanov), 3rd Shock Army (Lt. Gen. Tikhon K. Simoniak), 5th Shock Army (Lt. Gen. Nikolai E. Bezarin), 33rd Army (Col. Gen. Viacheslav D. Tsvetrev), 47th Army (Lt. Gen. Frants I. Perkhorovich), 61st Army (Col. Gen. Pavel A. Belov), 69th Army (Lt. Gen. Vladimir I. Kolpakchi), and Lt. Gen. Zygmunt Berling’s 1st Polish Army.
Chuikov and Katukov were the tip of this massive spear. Zhukov wanted them to reach the Oder quickly and establish bridgeheads on the western bank. The following forces would eliminate German strongpoints, such as Posen, and then spread out along with Katukov and Chuikov to consolidate positions on the eastern bank to prepare for the final drive on Berlin.