Küstrin: The Last Stand of the Nazi Fortress Guarding Berlin From Stalin

Training area of the Stülpnagel barracks Küstrin, Training of recruits (1944)
January 25, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Battle Of BerlinWorld War IIEastern FrontSoviet UnionHitler

Küstrin: The Last Stand of the Nazi Fortress Guarding Berlin From Stalin

It was the end of the line for the Hitler regime.

Close quarter fighting in the Neustadt went on from March 9 to 12. The trapped German forces occupied strongpoints such as the infantry barracks and had to be blasted out by Soviet artillery and engineers. Because of the closeness of the attacking and defending forces and fears of hitting their own men, German artillery was extremely limited in its effectiveness. At the same time, much of the Red Army artillery shifted its bombardment to the Altstadt and Kietz.

The final battle in the Neustadt centered around the infantry barracks and another strongpoint, the Neues Werke, both of which were on the northeast side of the sector. On March 12 they were both taken, and Lt. Gen. Berzarin declared the area secure. The Russians reported taking 2,774 prisoners and claimed another 3,000 Germans killed.

In Moscow, plans for the final assault on Berlin were being finalized. Zhukov had already met with Stalin in November 1944, when a preliminary plan was discussed. At that time Stalin seemed to agree that the 1st Belorussian Front would be picked to capture the German capital.  However, as was his nature, he would later play Zhukov against Konev and his 1st Ukrainian Front for the honor of taking the city.

Zhukov was determined that he would arrive in Berlin first. To do that he needed to head down the highway that led from Küstrin to Berlin. A strong bridgehead would have to be established on the west bank of the Oder along the highway from which he could speed men and machines to the heart of the Reich. To do that, he needed to reduce the rest of Fortress Küstrin quickly.

A day after the Neustadt fell, Zhukov issued orders to take the Altstadt without delay.  Zherebin’s 32nd Rifle Corps was to attack the Altstadt while Chuikov attacked the Kietz defenders with Lt. Gen. Vasili A. Glazunov’s 4th Guards Rifle Corps (35th, 47th, and 57th Guards Rifle Divisions). Both attacks failed to make any headway. 

For the next nine days, Kietz and the Altstadt came under constant bombardment. Attacks by the 5th Shock and 8th Guards Armies, looking for weak points in the enemy defenses, also took place against German forces holding the narrow supply corridor.

On March 22, the Soviet infantry and supporting armor struck under the cover of massive artillery fire, with Zerebin attacking from the north with most of his corps, which had been sent to the bridgehead north of Küstrin, and Glazunov attacking from the south. Their goal was to cut the corridor in half, meeting just outside the village of Gorgast. 

They would use the Soviet double envelopment tactic, which had been so successful at Stalingrad and in later battles. An inner ring would be formed midway between Kietz and Gorgast to trap enemy forces inside the picket with an outer ring formed east of Gorgast to fend off enemy attacks from the outside.

Manning the defenses in the intended area of the attack were elements of the “Doberitz” and “Muncheburg” Divisions. Under cover of the Red Army artillery, Dzhakhua’s 60th Guards Rifle Division hit the German defenses around Genschmar, a town northwest of Kietz. To Dzhakhua’s left, Dorofeev’s 295th Rifle Division punched through the enemy line and headed toward Golzow, a village west of Gogast. Along the Oder the 1373rd Regiment of Syzranov’s 416th Rifle Division worked its way behind elements of the 2nd Regiment “Muncheburg.”

On the southern flank of the corridor, Maj. Gen. Vasili M. Shugaev’s 47th Guards Rifle Division also pierced the German line and headed to meet Dorofeev’s division to create the outer ring. His left flank was protected by Colonel Petr I. Zalizivik’s 57th Guards Rifle Division. To his right, the 35th Guards Rifle Division pushed forward to hook up with the 1373rd, which would then form the inner ring of the encirclement.

After heavy fighting during which the Germans claimed 116 Soviet tanks destroyed, the outer pincers of the encirclement were closed that afternoon. Fighting continued on the 23rd as the Russians consolidated their newly won positions.

German counterattacks were thrown back with considerable loss to both sides during the next few days. In what remained of the Küstrin garrison, casualties mounted as the Red artillery continued to hammer the Altstadt and the Oder Island, which was nestled between the Oder River and the Vorlut Canal, and several German artillery positions were destroyed.

“The Altstadt was being pulverized,” Wüstenhagen recalled. “There were few buildings left standing and my gun company had taken several casualties.”

On March 27, the Germans launched a desperate counterattack to reopen the corridor.  Unlike the previous efforts, this was to be a coordinated attack. General Theodor Busse, commander of the 9th Army, had been ordered by Berlin to gather a force that could break through to the Küstrin garrison. Under the nominal command of General Karl Decker, the force consisted of Burmeister’s 25th PGD and Colonel Georg Schulze’s 20th Panzergrenadier Division, Mummert’s “Munchenburg” Panzer Division, Brig. Gen. Hellmuth Mader’s “Führer-Grenadier-Division,” SS Lt. Col. Kurt Hartrampf’s Schwere Panzer Abteilung (schw. Pz. Abt.—heavy tank (Tiger) detachment about the size of a battalion), and a combat group under the command of Lt. Col. Gustav-Adolf Blanchbois, consisting of about 500 infantry and almost 50 “Hetzer” self-propelled antitank guns, that was named “1001 Nights.”

At 0400 the German forces moved forward. They ran into trouble almost immediately.  During the previous three days Russian engineers were busy laying extensive minefields in front of their positions. In the north the “Muncheburg” Panzer, with “1001 Nights” on its right flank, headed toward Genschmar, which was defended by the 60th Guards Rifle Division. Under intense Soviet fire, the spearhead made it to the outskirts of the town before being driven back with heavy losses. The “1001 Nights” lost about two-thirds of its men either killed, wounded, or missing and half its Hetzers.

The center attacking force (“Führer-Grenadier-Division and a panzer and panzergrenadier battalion from the 20th PGD) broke through the lines of the 295th Rifle Division and headed toward the German forces trapped on the west bank of the Oder. They were also forced to turn back after receiving heavy artillery fire and a strong counterattack. 

To the south, part of the 90th Panzergrenadier Rgt./20th PGD, Hartrampf’s Tigers, and the 25th PGD hit the 47th Guards Rifle Division. Their goal was Gorgast, but minefields and strong Soviet defensive positions at the main line stopped them cold. The experiences of schw. Pz. 502 were documented in Wolfgang Schneider’s book Tigers in Combat II.

“Shortly after crossing the line of departure, the 1./schw. Pz. Abt. 502 is stopped in a minefield. Three Tigers are immobilized. The same thing occurs in the attack sector of the 3./schw. Pz. Abt. 502, which is advancing on the right side of the main road (from) Manchnow to Kietz. One panzer, Tiger 321, is immobilized after running over a mine. It then knocks out two Soviet tanks before it is knocked out by a captured Panzerfaust.”

Accompanying engineers cleared a path through the minefield before sunrise, allowing the 1st and 2nd Companies to continue the attack. The Tigers destroyed four Soviet tanks before they were ordered to halt because they had lost contact with their accompanying infantry protection.

There were also other concerns. The 2nd Company’s acting commander, SS 2nd Lt. Schroif, was not up to the task. Schneider’s documented account continued: “The new commander of the 2./schw. Pz. Abt. 502 is unfit for the stress of combat and gets on the nerves of tank commanders by constantly issuing nonsensical orders. His tank gets stuck in a large bomb crater during a withdrawal movement. One after another, five Tigers are hit and are immobilized. After darkness falls the battalion moves back to Seelow. The operational panzers of the battalion assemble in Neu Tucheband. Operational panzers; 13.”

The failure of the attack had far-reaching consequences. Hitler was furious, and on the afternoon of March 28 he vented his anger on the unfortunate Busse, blaming him personally for the failure. While Hitler was berating Busse, General Guderian jumped to his defense.

“Permit me to interrupt you,” he said to Hitler. Barely controlling his own volatile anger he continued, “I explained to you yesterday thoroughly, both verbally and in writing, that General Busse is not to blame for the failure of the Küstrin attack. Ninth Army used the ammunition that had been allotted it. The troops did their duty. The unusually high casualty figures prove that. I therefore ask you not to make any accusations against Gerneral Busse.”

After the outburst, Hitler ordered the room to be cleared. Only Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and Guderian remained behind. Hitler then ordered Guderian to take a six-week convalescent leave. Guderian would never see Hitler again.

The fate of Küstrin now seemed to be sealed. As the defenders around Kietz, on the island, and in the Altstadt heard the firing fade away to the west, groups of soldiers decided to take matters in their own hands and prepared to break out.

“When I heard about my men wanting to get out, I initially refused to let them go,” Wüstenhagen recalled. “We had received no such orders from our superiors, and our current orders were to hold at all costs. In later years I realized how idiotic that sounded. The next day (March 29) I came to my senses. We had no chance of holding the area, and an attempt to break out was preferable to a Soviet prison camp.”