On this day in 1945: the Vistula-Oder Offensive

Build-up to the Offensive

On this day in 1945, the Red Army begins the Vistula–Oder Offensive.

 

The Soviet high command (Stavka) had amassed massive numbers along the Vistula during December ’44 and early January ’45. Both the 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front had over 1 million soldiers each. The two Fronts were deployed from the area around Warsaw to a sector at Sandomierz, where a bridgehead had been established during the earlier Lvov-Sandomierz offensive. Needless to say, the Red Army enjoyed a massive advantage in number of troops, but the superiority did not end there. The two Fronts combined had over 7042 tanks and assault guns (a type of self-propelled artillery), and no less than 13 763 artillery pieces and 14 812 mortars were also part of the Fronts. The Soviet contribution was so massive that they completely dwarfed the collected German resources along the entire Eastern Front.

The Vistula river

Along the sector where the Soviet attack would come, there were only 1014 German tanks and assault guns, and a mere 1573 artillery pieces. With such an overwhelming advantage, the Soviet assault could not fail. The offensive was planned to concentrate large amounts of forces along the Vistula bridgeheads, at Sandomierz and at Magnuszew. The Germans could not perform similar concentrations, as the Vistula was not an insurmountable obstacle. Attacks could very well come from directly across the river, in fact it could be just as likely as an attack from a bridgehead. Because of this, the Germans were forced to deploy their defenses all along the river, giving the German defense no depth whatsoever. The resources available did not allow for creating a significant strength along the front, as well as keeping significant reserves and deployment of several defensive fallback lines.

 

The push begins

 

The offensive began on the morning of 12 January. A few days later, it stood clear that the offensive was about to enter a new phase. The German defense had been wrecked, and breached, both at Sandomierz, and at Magnuzsew. These results were hardly surprising. At the Sandomierz bridgehead, 7 German divisions had been forced to defend almost 20 kilometers each. By comparison, 6 (SIX) Soviet Armies were deployed along that same front. Breaching the German defenses allowed the Soviets to punch through with the tank divisions, who swiftly pushed West. On the evening of 17 January, Soviet divisions had advanced nearly 130 kilometers, roughly 26 kilometers a day. The offensive did not stop at the two bridgeheads across Vistula. The river, coursing through the Polish heartland, was crossed at several other locations, including north of Warsaw, leading to the encirclement of that city.

Soldiers of the 1st Polish Army marching through Warsaw

The main target, however, was further West, as hinted by the name of the Offensive. It began at Vistula and would not stop until it had reached Oder. The distance between these two rivers varies, around 200 kilometers from the southern end of the area of operations, up to 500 kilometers. At this point, the German defenses were so disorganized that the Soviet tank divisions encountered no serious resistance. The push to the west northwestern direction, performed by the 1st and 2nd Guards Tank Army, however, was deeper than earlier Soviet offensives, and thus demanded much from the supply lines, in particular in regard to oil. Nevertheless, weak German defenses allowed the offensive to push to Poznan and beyond by 25 January. Then the offensive slowed down, but by early February, Soviet forces had reached the Oder at Küstrin and further south.

 

Aftermath

 

The offensive to Oder had cost the two Soviet fronts almost 200 000 soldiers and 1267 tanks. Compared to other Soviet offensives during the Second World War, these casualties are to be considered mild, especially when you consider the immense gains the offensive managed to achieve. German losses are very difficult to estimate, since the reports in 1945 did not include the corrections that earlier defeats had. Take for example the defeat in Belarus during the Summer of 1944. After that defeat, the German casualty-report system worked to determine the number of dead, wounded and captured and this work was not finished until November 1944. In 1945, no time existed for such reports and investigations. The end of the Soviet offensive meant that the Red Army stood less than 80 kilometers from Berlin, putting the German capital in immediate danger.

Residents of Łódź greeting Soviet tanks entering the city in 1945

 

As a final curiosity, one might wonder why the Red Army began their military offensive in January of all months. The reason was simple: the Germans began their gamble in the Ardennes (the Battle of Bulge) a few weeks earlier, leaving the Eastern Front dangerously underequipped and undermanned. Even so, it was the personal appeal of Sir Winston Churchill to Joseph Stalin that caused the Red Army to start their 1945 offensive earlier than planned, as alluded to by Churchill;

 

“At this time Eisenhower and his staff were of course acutely anxious to know whether the Russians could do anything from their side to take off some of the pressure against us in the West. All efforts through the liaison officers in Moscow had failed to obtain any reply from their opposite numbers. In order to put the case to the Soviet Chiefs of Staff in the most effective manner Eisenhower had sent his Deputy, Air Marshal Tedder, with a special mission. They were considerably delayed by the weather. As soon as I heard of this I said to Eisenhower, ‘You may find many delays at the staff level, but I expect Stalin would tell me if I asked him. Shall I try?’ He asked me to do so, and I therefore send the following message:

Prime Minister to Marshal Stalin 6 Jan. 45

The battle in the west is very heavy and at any time large decisions may be called for from the Supreme Command. You know yourself from your own experience how very anxious the position is when a very broad front has to be defended after the temporary loss of the initiative. It is Eisenhower’s great desire and need to know in outline what you plan to do, as this obviously affects all his and our major decisions. Our envoy, Air Chief Marshal Tedder, was last night reported weather-bound in Cairo. His journey has been much delayed through no fault of yours. In case he has not reached you yet, I shall be grateful if you can tell me whether we can count on a major Russian offensive on the Vistula front, or elsewhere during January, with any other points you may care to mention. I shall not pass this most secret information to anyone except Field-Marshal Brooke and General Eisenhower, and only under the conditions of the utmost secrecy. I regard the matter as urgent.

Marshal Stalin to Prime Minister 7 Jan. 45

I received your message of January 6, 1945, on the evening of January 7.

Unfortunately Air Marshal Tedder has not yet arrived in Moscow.

It is most important that we should be able to take advantage of our supremacy over the Germans in artillery and in the air. This demands clear flying weather and an absence of low mists, which hinder aimed artillery fire. We are preparing an offensive, but the weather is at present unfavourable. Nevertheless, taking into account the position of our Allies on the Western Front, G.H.Q. of the Supreme Command has decided to accelerate the completion of our preparation, and, regardless of the weather, to commence large-scale offensive operations against the Germans along the whole Central Front not later than the second half of January. You may rest assured that we shall do everything possible to render assistance to the glorious forces of our Allies.”

– Winston S. Churchill, ‘Triumph and Tragedy’, pages 278-279

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