During the last half of 1944, the Wehrmacht in the east had been forced to cede just about everything it had conquered since the beginning of the war against the Soviet Union in June 1941. Suffering appalling losses, German forces were compelled to abandon the Ukraine and most of the land in the Baltic States. By the end of the year, Soviet troops had knocked Bulgaria and Romania out of the war, and Finland had also sued for peace. The Soviets had also occupied a large area of Hungary and Poland and were standing inside the border of East Prussia.
In the sector occupied by General Josef Harpe’s Army Group A, German troops manned fortifications behind the Vistula River in Poland. However, the Vistula line was not impregnable. Before ceasing operations to resupply, the Soviets had seized three bridgeheads on the west bank of the river.
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About 36 kilometers south of Warsaw, Marshal Georgii Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front occupied a bridgehead that was about 10 kilometers deep and 12 to 16 kilometers wide near the town of Magnuszen. A second bridgehead about 35 kilometers to the southeast was centered near Pulawy and measured about 10 kilometers deep by 18 kilometers wide.
The bridgehead occupied by elements of Marshal Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front was by far the largest. Located about 130 kilometers southeast of Warsaw in the Sandomierz area, it measured about 60 kilometers wide and was about 42 kilometers at its greatest depth. It was from this bridgehead that Konev planned to continue his offensive once the order was given.
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Born into a peasant family on December 28, 1897, Konev was one of the best commanders the Soviets had. Called into the Army in April 1916, he experienced little fighting before the czar’s forces disintegrated. During the Russian Civil War he saw action on the Eastern Front, becoming Commissar of the 17th Maritime Corps. He attended the Frunze Military Academy and rose through the ranks to command a regiment, division, and the 57th Special Corps in Mongolia and eventually the 2nd Separate Red Banner Army.
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By June 1941, Konev was commanding the 19th Army and had risen to the rank of colonel general while fighting the bloody battles in the opening stages of the war. In September 1941, he was appointed commander of the Western Front. Within a month the front was practically destroyed as five of its armies were annihilated in the Vyazma encirclement. It was only through the intervention of Zhukov that Konev was saved from being executed.
As Soviet fortunes turned during the middle part of the war, Konev commanded a succession of fronts that helped drive the Germans from the Motherland. After the destruction of the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket in early 1944, he was promoted to the rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union. Now, in the opening days of 1945, he was ready to strike again.
Both Konev and Zhukov had similar orders. They were to smash the German forces along the Vistula and drive to the banks of the Oder River in preparation for the final assault on Berlin. In the process, Zhukov would capture the key cities of Warsaw, Radom, Lodz, and Poznan. Konev’s route would take him through Kielce, Czestochowa, Krakow, and Katowice and into the heartland of Silesia’s industrial area.
General Fritz-Hubert Gräser would be Konev’s main opponent as he covered the 500-600 kilometers from the Vistula to the Oder. Gräser was born in Frankfurt on March 11, 1888, and entered the Kaiser’s army as an officer candidate in February 1907. He fought in World War I and retired from the Army in October 1933.
Rejoining the German Army in October 1935, he was promoted to colonel in October 1938 and led Infantry Regiment 29 of the 3rd Infantry (later Panzergrenadier) Division (PGD) during the opening phase of the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Gräser was wounded while commanding the regiment, and after his recovery he took command of the division in March 1943. He commanded the XXIV Panzer Corps in 1944 and took over as commander of the 4th Panzer Army in September of that year.
Although designated as a panzer army, the 4th was woefully short of armor. General Johannes Block’s LVI Panzer Corps consisted of two German (17th and 214th) and one Hungarian (5th Reserve) infantry divisions. General Hermann Recknagel’s XLII Army Corps had four infantry divisions (72nd, 88th, 291st, and 342nd), and General Maximilian Freiherr von Edelsheim’s XLVIII Panzer Corps had three infantry divisions (68th, 168th, and 304th).
The Army Reserve consisted of General Walther Nehring’s XXIV Panzer Corps, which had two panzer divisions—the 16th and 17th. Brig. Gen. Dietrich von Müller’s 16th had a depleted strength of nine obsolete PzKpfw. IIIs, 13 outgunned PzKpfw. IVs, and 62 PzKpfw. V Panther tanks. Colonel Albert Brux’s 17th had a strength of 65 PzKpfw. IVs and 19 PzKpfw. IV/70 tank destroyers. Most of the crews, however, were hastily trained and would see combat for the first time. Brig. Gen. Karl-Richard Kossmann’s 10th PGD and Brig. Gen. Georg Jauer’s 20th PGD were also in the army’s area of operations.