The area between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains had been relatively quiet since the end of Operation Bagration late in the summer of 1944. In early January 1945 we find the Soviet armies positioned along the Vistula River to its great bend and then north along the Narew River. Stalin’s armies held several bridgeheads across each––at Serock and Rozan on the Narew and at Pulawy, Magnuszev, and Baranow on the Vistula.
The Soviets had an extremely impressive array of forces confronting the Germans. The 2nd and 3rd Belorussian Fronts (Army Groups) in the north, with 12 armies, faced Army Group Center’s three armies. Their superiority was even more ominous on the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian Fronts opposite Army Group A. There the Soviets had 2,200,000 troops, 6,400 tanks and self-propelled assault guns, and 46,000 indirect-fire weapons. Against these two fronts Army Group A’s Seventeenth, 4th Panzer, and Ninth Armies could muster “only” 400,000 troops, 1,150 tanks, and 4,100 indirect-fire weapons.
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Operation Bagration, the Soviets’ 1944 summer offensive, had suffered logistically in its closing days, but they intended to avoid a similar situation in their next offensive. By January they had completed the most massive logistical buildup of the war. The two fronts––1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian––received 132,000 carloads of supplies. That was more than received by all four fronts before Bagration. Nine million rounds were made available to the two fronts as an initial issue along with 30 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel.In December 1944, the Eastern Intelligence Branch of OKH (German Army High Command) issued a worrying estimate of Soviet intentions and capabilities. It concluded that the main Soviet effort would be delivered against Army Group A by the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian Fronts. In an important revision in January 1945, the OKH concluded that the expected offensive against Army Group Center had the lower Vistula area as its objective, while the drive against Army Group A could go as far as Berlin. The OKH expected the offensive to begin in the middle of January.
General Heinz Guderian, the OKH chief of staff, was very uneasy about the situation in the east. He visited Hitler at the Adlerhorst (temporary Führer headquarters in the Taunus Mountains) on Christmas Eve 1944 to plead for a change in strategy. Guderian wanted Hitler to call off the Ardennes offensive and move all forces that could be spared to the Eastern Front.
Guderian’s pleas were in vain. Hitler called the estimated buildup of Soviet forces in the east “a gigantic bluff” and refused to cancel Operation Wacht-am-Rhein––the planned thrust in the west. He also refused to bring units in from Norway or from the Courland pocket.
Guderian had good reasons to feel gloomy. He was particularly concerned about Army Group A, commanded by General Joseph Harpe. Since the transfer of the Ninth Army to this group in November 1944, it occupied a long front––from the northern border of Hungary to the confluence of the Vistula and Narew. This long front was defended, from south to north, by Group Heinrici (two armies) and the Seventeenth, 4th Panzer, and the Ninth Armies. It was a thinly held front, amounting to little more than a string of strongpoints with hardly any depth.
Guderian visited the Eastern Front in early January. Army Group A’s briefing in Krakow on January 8 was pessimistic––but realistic. It expected the Soviets to cover the distance from the Vistula to Silesia in six days. Guderian tentatively approved a plan involving an adjustment of the front around the Baranow bridgehead that would have shortened the line and made units available as reserves.
Army Group Center, under General Georg-Hans Reinhardt, was responsible for covering the approaches to East Prussia and Danzig. At the beginning of December 1944, this army group was in better shape than all others. Its three armies—3rd Panzer, 4th, and 2nd—had 33 infantry divisions and 12 panzer or Panzergrenadier divisions to defend a 575-kilometer front. But this situation changed radically by the end of the year. Five panzer divisions and two cavalry brigades had been stripped away for transfer to other fronts, and another panzer division was taken away in early January.
Reinhardt proposed to Guderian that Army Group Center be allowed to withdraw from its exposed position on the Narew to the East Prussian border. This would have significantly shortened its
front and made reserves available. Although Guderian agreed, he could not make such a major change without Hitler’s approval. And Hitler almost never approved withdrawals.
An apprehensive Guderian reported to Hitler back at the Adlerhorst on January 9. His main purposes were to seek approval for the proposal made by Army Group Center to withdraw and to argue for reinforcements from the west to go to Army Groups A and Center rather than to Hungary to protect the oil fields. Hitler refused all of Guderian’s requests and recommendations, including the adjustment Guderian had approved for Army Group A.
While Guderian and OKH were deeply worried about the future, the Soviets were full of confidence and optimism. The plans of Soviet High Command (STAVKA) amounted to a quick operation to end the war. It was a two-phase plan. The first phase, expected to last 15 days, involved a drive to the Oder and lower Vistula. The main drive would be executed by the 1st Belorussian Front, under Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov, and the 1st Ukrainian Front, under Marshal Ivan S. Konev, out of their bridgeheads on the Vistula.
Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front was to break out of the Baranow bridgehead and head west to Radomsko. Its right flank units were to assist Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front in destroying the Germans in the area between Radom and Kielce. The drive would continue to Krakow and the industrial region of Upper Silesia before ending along the Oder River.
The 1st Belorussian Front was to break out of the Pulawy and Magnuszev bridgeheads. The front’s right flank would encircle Warsaw while the main force would continue toward the city of Lodz in the south and Kutno west of Warsaw on the road to Poznan. The drive was to continue via Poznan to the Oder in the vicinity of Kuestrin and Frankfurt-an-der-Oder.
The 2nd Belorussian Front, under General Konstantin Rokossovsky, was to break out of the Serock and Rozan bridgeheads on the Narew north of the Vistula bend. Its mission was to drive northwest to the Baltic and clear the lower Vistula area.
At the same time, General Ivan Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front was to drive west from its positions east of the Masurian Lakes toward Königsberg. It was hoped that it would be able to encircle the Fourth German Army in the lake area.
The Soviet plan did not call for a pause along the Oder. They expected that the German defenses would have crumbled and their armies shattered in the initial phase. The 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian Fronts were to continue the drive to Berlin and then to the Elbe River (possibly even the Rhine). This part of the operation was expected to take about 30 days.
The State of the Wehrmacht
Some observers have pointed out that things looked better for the Germans at the beginning of 1945 than they had in September 1944. The Soviets had not made any substantial gains north of the Carpathians. Army Group South had almost regained its balance after being virtually destroyed in August 1944. The Germans were close to completing their withdrawals from Greece and Albania, and the Western Allies were stopped at the Gothic Line in Italy. The Ardennes offensive had not succeeded in its strategic objective, but it had upset the Allied schedule and delayed their advance into the heart of Germany.
These improvements, however, were illusions. The German ability to hold its fronts had been on a downward spiral, and in the next few months that spiral would spin out of control. The first element in this spiral was the lack of trained manpower to keep the space/force ratio from worsening.
By October 1944 German strength on the Eastern Front had fallen to less than 1,800,000 men; about 150,000 of these were Russian auxiliaries. This was a drop in strength of about 400,000 since June 1944.
The replacements arriving in the period from September 1 to December 31, 1944, went primarily to create new units. This resulted in an illusory increase in units but a glaring discrepancy between authorized strength and present for duty strength in existing formations. The Germans “fixed” part of this problem by simply reducing the 1944 table of organization by 700,000 spaces. The fact that a cumulative shortfall of 800,000 unfilled spaces still existed after the change to the table of organization is a telling illustration of the manpower problem.
This self-delusion was carried to great lengths. Artillery units of brigade size were designated “corps,” and groupings of one or two battalions of armor and infantry were designated “brigades.”