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The Battle of Königsberg, also known as the Königsberg Offensive, was one of the last operations of the East Prussian Offensive during World War II. In four days of violent urban warfare, Soviet forces of the 1st Baltic Front and the 3rd Belorussian Front captured the city of Königsberg – now Kaliningrad, Russia. The siege started in late January 1945 when the Soviets initially surrounded the city. There was heavy fighting for the overland connection between Königsberg and the port of Pillau, but by March 1945 Königsberg was hundreds of kilometres behind the main front line. The battle finished when the German garrison surrendered to the Soviets on 9 April after a three-day assault made their position untenable.
The East Prussian Offensive was a strategic offensive by the Soviet Red Army against the German Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. It lasted from 13 January to 25 April 1945, though some German units did not surrender until 9 May. The Battle of Königsberg was a major part of the offensive, which ended in victory for the Red Army.
Urban warfare is combat conducted in urban areas such as towns and cities. Urban combat is very different from combat in the open at both the operational and tactical level. Complicating factors in urban warfare include the presence of civilians and the complexity of the urban terrain. Urban combat operations may be conducted in order to capitalize on the strategic or tactical advantages with which possession or control of a particular urban area gives or to deny these advantages to the enemy.
The Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was a socialist state in Eurasia that existed from 1922 to 1991. Nominally a union of multiple national Soviet republics, its government and economy were highly centralized. The country was a one-party state, governed by the Communist Party with Moscow as its capital in its largest republic, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Other major urban centres were Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Alma-Ata, and Novosibirsk. It spanned over 10,000 kilometres east to west across 11 time zones, and over 7,200 kilometres north to south. It had five climate zones: tundra, taiga, steppes, desert and mountains.
The East Prussian Offensive was planned by the Soviet Stavka to prevent flank attacks on the armies rushing towards Berlin. Indeed, East Prussia held numerous troops that could be used for this. During initial Stavka planning, Joseph Stalin ordered Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky to annihilate the Wehrmacht forces trapped there.
The Stavka was the high command of the armed forces in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. In Imperial Russia Stavka refers to the administrative staff, and to the General Headquarters in the late 19th Century Imperial Russian armed forces and subsequently in the Soviet Union. In Western literature it is sometimes written in uppercase (STAVKA), which is incorrect since it is not an acronym. Stavka may refer to its members, as well as to the headquarter location.
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was a Georgian revolutionary and Soviet politician who led the Soviet Union from the mid–1920s until 1953 as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1922–1953) and Premier (1941–1953). Initially presiding over a collective leadership as first among equals, by the 1930s he was the country's de facto dictator. A communist ideologically committed to the Leninist interpretation of Marxism, Stalin formalised these ideas as Marxism–Leninism, while his own policies are known as Stalinism.
Konstantin Konstantinovich (Xaverevich) Rokossovsky was a Soviet and Polish officer who became Marshal of the Soviet Union, Marshal of Poland, and served as Poland's Defence Minister from 1949 until his removal in 1956 during the Polish October. He was among the most prominent Red Army commanders of World War II, especially renowned for his planning and executing of Operation Bagration, one of the most decisive Red Army successes of the war.
On 13 January 1945, almost 1,500,000 troops supported by several thousand tanks and aircraft of the 3rd Belorussian Front (11th Guards, 39th, 43rd, 50th, 1st Air, 3rd Air, 4th Air, and 15th Air Armies) entered East Prussia, which was transformed into a gigantic web of fortifications, defensive lines and minefields. At first, the offensive was almost a failure. Red Army troops only advanced 1.5 kilometers the first day, through only three defensive lines. In five days, taking heavy losses, Soviet troops advanced only 20 kilometers and were still unable to break through German lines into the open.
The 11th Guards Army was a field army of the Red Army, the Soviet Ground Forces, and the Russian Ground Forces, active from 1943 to 1997.
The 39th Army was a Field Army of the Soviet Union's Red Army during World War II and of the Soviet Army during the Cold War.
The 50th Army was a Soviet field army during World War II. It was formed in mid-August, 1941 and deployed on the southwest approaches to Moscow. Partly encircled and destroyed by German Second Panzer Army in the opening stages of Operation Typhoon, enough of the army escaped that it could be reinforced to successfully defend the city of Tula in November. It was at this time that the 50th came under the command of Lt. Gen. Ivan Boldin, who continued in command until February, 1945. During most of its career the army was relatively small and accordingly served in secondary roles. It finished the war in East Prussia, under the command of Lt. Gen. Fyodor Ozerov, as part of 3rd Belorussian Front.
Nevertheless, after quickly overcoming the initial difficulties, the Soviet advance gathered steam, and on 24 January Soviet advance forces reached the shores of the Vistula Lagoon (part of the Baltic Sea), cutting off the German forces in East Prussia from a direct connection with Germany, forcing the Germans to supply the surrounded forces by sea. This operation was accomplished by the 1st Baltic Front under the command of General Hovhannes Bagramyan, also known as Ivan Bagramyan.
The Vistula Lagoon is a brackish water lagoon on the Baltic Sea roughly 56 miles (90 km) long, 6 to 15 miles wide, and up to 17 feet deep, separated from Gdańsk Bay by the Vistula Spit. It is now known as the Vistula Bay or Vistula Gulf. The modern German name, Frisches Haff, is derived from an earlier form, Friesisches Haff.
The Baltic Sea is a marginal sea of the Atlantic Ocean, enclosed by Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, northeast Germany, Poland, Russia and the North and Central European Plain.
The First Baltic Front was a major formation of the Red Army during the Second World War. It was commanded by Army General Andrey Yeryomenko, succeeded by Army General Bagramyan. It was formed by renaming the Kalinin Front in October 12, 1943, and took part in several important military operations, most notably Bagration in the summer of 1944. The 1st Baltic Front also assisted in lifting the Siege of Leningrad on January 27, 1944, as well as in Operation Samland, at that time known as the Samland Group, captured Königsberg in April 1945.
On 25 January 1945, in a tacit acknowledgement that German forces in East Prussia and the Courland Pocket were far behind the new front line, Hitler renamed three army groups. Army Group North became Army Group Courland; Army Group Centre (the army group surrounded in the Königsberg pocket) became Army Group North and Army Group A became Army Group Centre.
The Courland Pocket was a group of German forces of Reichskommissariat Ostland on the Courland Peninsula that was cut off and surrounded by the Red Army from July 1944 through May 1945.
Army Group North was a German strategic echelon formation, commanding a grouping of field armies during World War II. The German Army Group was subordinated to the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), the German army high command, and coordinated the operations of attached separate army corps, reserve formations, rear services and logistics, including the Army Group North Rear Area.
Army Group Courland was a German Army Group on the Eastern Front which was created from remnants of the Army Group North, isolated in the Courland Peninsula by the advancing Soviet Army forces during the 1944 Baltic Offensive of the Second World War. The army group remained isolated until the end of World War II in Europe. All units of the Army Group were ordered to surrender by the capitulated Wehrmacht command on 8 May 1945.
Those forces, now redesignated as Army Group North, were compressed by further Soviet attacks into three pockets: one around Königsberg, one on the adjacent Sambia Peninsula, and one on the coast of the Frisches Haff to the south-west (the Heiligenbeil Pocket).
Sambia or Samland or Kaliningrad Peninsula is a peninsula in the Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia, on the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea. The peninsula is bounded by the Curonian Lagoon, the Vistula Lagoon, the Pregel River, and the Deyma River. As Samland is surrounded on all sides by water, it is technically an island. Prior to 1945 it formed an important part of East Prussia.
The Heiligenbeil Pocket or Heiligenbeil Cauldron was the site of a major encirclement battle on the Eastern Front during the closing weeks of World War II, in which the Wehrmacht's 4th Army was almost entirely destroyed during the Soviet Braunsberg Offensive Operation. The pocket was located near Heiligenbeil in East Prussia in eastern Germany, and the battle, part of a broader Soviet offensive into the region of East Prussia, lasted from 26 January until 29 March 1945.
By late January 1945 the 3rd Belorussian Front had surrounded Königsberg on the landward side, severing the road down the Samland peninsula to the port of Pillau, and trapping the 3rd Panzer Army and approximately 200,000 civilians in the city.The civilian provisions were so meagre that civilians were faced with three bleak alternatives:
Hundreds chose to cross the front line, but about 2,000 women and children a day chose to cross the ice on foot to Pillau. On his return from a visit to Berlin, Erich Koch the Gauleiter of East Prussia chose to stay in the relative safety of Pillau to organise the evacuation rather than return to Königsberg. The first evacuation steamer from Pillau carrying 1,800 civilians and 1,200 casualties reached safety on the 29 January.Throughout February, there was desperate fighting as the Germans tried to maintain the narrow connection between Königsberg and Samland. For a time, Soviet troops were successful in severing that connection and cutting the city off completely.
However, on 19 February the 3rd Panzer Army and the 4th Army attacked from the direction of Pillau, managing to force open a corridor from Königsberg to Pillau.Led by a captured Soviet T-34 tank, this attack was spearheaded by the 1st Infantry Division from Königsberg, intended to link with General Hans Gollnick's XXVIII Corps, which held parts of the Samland peninsula, including the vital port of Pillau. Capturing the town of Metgethen, the unit opened the way for the 5th Panzer Division to join with Gollnick's forces near the town of Gross Heydekrug the next day. This action solidified the German defense of the area until April, re-opening the land route from Königsberg to Pillau, through which supplies could be delivered by ship and the wounded and refugees could be evacuated. This month-long battle is sometimes called the First Siege of Königsberg.
In March the situation had stabilized – by now, the main front line had moved hundreds of kilometers to the west, and capturing the city took a much lower priority for the Soviets. Even so, the garrison was intact and showed no signs of surrender. Eventually the Soviet command decided to capture the city by assault rather than a siege.
Assaulting Königsberg was not to be an easy task. Garrisoned inside the city were five full-strength divisions, for a total of 130,000 troops, along with impressive defensive positions constructed in 1888 that included fifteen forts interconnected by tunnels with integrated accommodations for the troops, and designed to withstand the bombardment of super-guns being designed in that era following the Siege of Paris (1870–1871). The Germans still held a narrow land connection to the adjacent German pocket on the Samland peninsula. The capture of the city necessitated this frantically shielded connection be separated. The German troops on the peninsula, the so-called Samland Group, could be expected to stage counter-attacks to prevent this from happening.
Königsberg was, according to Winston Churchill, "a modernised heavily defended fortress".[ citation needed ] Three concentric rings of fortifications surrounded the city: the outer ring of defences reinforced by 12 forts outside the town, the middle ring in the outskirts and the inner city, a single fortress of anti-tank defences, barricades and landmines, along with several other forts.
In order to face such defensive power, the Soviet command planned to heavily rely on aviation and artillery support, with densities reaching 250 guns per kilometre in some areas. The German troops were also subjected to propaganda, explaining that their resistance was futile, and that the front line was far behind them — that they were trapped in a "pocket" and that it would be best to surrender. However, this propaganda had little to no effect.
After four days of preparatory artillery bombardment, the assault started on 6 April 1945. The assault was planned to be "star-like". Troops would attack from many points around the perimeter and meet in the center of the city, compartmentalising the remaining defenders into isolated groups incapable of mutual support. There were two main fronts: North (held by the 39th and 43rd Armies which included the 208th Rifle Division) and South (11th Guards Army). The 50th Army was stationed in the northeast part of the front. One corps was to hold the line while two corps with a total of six rifle divisions, plus artillery, armor and engineer reinforcements, took part in the attack.
In the southern piece of the front, the assault began at sunrise by extreme ordnance shelling, enduring three hours, trailed by the primary assault wave. The Soviet rifle divisions quickly went through the first defense line, because its defenders had been largely eliminated and the remainder were demoralized by several days of intense bombing. By noon, the Soviet leading regiments reached the second defensive line, where its progression was halted by a stronger opposition, forcing Soviet commanders to use their reserve forces. Three hours later, the second defense line was overrun in several places.
An especially bitter fight raged in the vicinity of Fort Eight. Built at the end of the 19th century and modernized since, the fort had thick walls, considerable firepower and was surrounded by a deep moat, making a frontal assault almost impossible. Despite heavy artillery fire, its defenders prevented any attempt to approach the walls. Only at dusk were Soviet forces able to reach the moat and start using explosives to try to breach the walls.
In the main attack axis at the north, the attack started at the same time. By noon, the first defense line had fallen and the second line was badly shaken and broken in several places. In the afternoon, however, progress became increasingly slow, especially on the right flank, where German forces stationed in the western outskirts of the city (the so-called Samland Group) attempted several flanking attacks.
Fort Five, claimed to be the best fortification of the entire Königsberg position, formed a strong resistance point. In front of such a situation, Soviet commanders decided to surround it and leave it behind, leaving the rear guard troops time to prepare a new assault.
At dusk the battle stalled, allowing both sides to consolidate their lines, regroup their forces and bring reserves to the front line. This first day had mixed results, since Soviet progress was not as good as expected. However, both city defenses and the defenders' morale were seriously shaken, and troops, including officers, began to surrender periodically.
During this first day of assault, bad weather prevented the Soviet troops from using precision bombing with as much effect as they would have liked. Additionally, even fortified, the terrain conquered by the Soviet troops during this day was not so densely populated as the central city would be, reducing problems associated with urban warfare.
During the night, the German troops attempted several counterattacks, using their last reserves. Despite the bitter engagements and heavy losses on both sides, the counterattacks were driven off. The worst part of the front was still the one facing the Samland group, where a dozen such counterattacks were attempted.
The better weather conditions allowed the Red Army to make a profitable use of daylight precision bombing. Several hundred bombers belonging to 1st, 3rd and 15th Air Armies, supported with Baltic Fleet aviation, bombarded the downtown and the Samland group's bridgeheads.
Meanwhile, Fort Eight, blocked by Soviet troops, was still a strong pocket of resistance. After several unsuccessful attacks, a more cunning plan was developed. Using smoke screens to conceal their approach and flamethrowers to weaken the defense positions, several hundred men managed to cross the moat and enter the fortress, where bitter close combat began. Once the outer defenses were weakened, a massive frontal assault began. Finally, the assault succeeded and the remainder of the garrison surrendered.
During the day, the 11th Guards Army sought to reach the Pregel river, eliminating all resistance on the southern side. However, their advance was slowed in the central area of the city, where every building had to be literally taken apart along with its defenders. A particularly bitter skirmish took place in the main railway station and its platforms, where almost every railcar was transformed into a firing point, and Soviet troops had to use armor and gun support to advance, taking heavy losses. Only by dusk was the territory completely neutralized, allowing the attackers to approach the third inner defence perimeter, protecting the entrance to the city centre itself.
In the north, Fort Five proved to be a strong pocket of resistance as well. Soviet sappers finally managed to place explosives at the base of the walls, breaching them and allowing for a direct assault. As with the assault on Fort Eight, bitter close combat began in the fort, lasting all night and ceasing only in the morning when the last troops surrendered.
At the end of the day, seeing that further resistance was pointless, General Otto Lasch radioed Adolf Hitler's headquarters and asked for permission to surrender. Hitler's answer was "fight to the last soldier".[ citation needed ]
During the night, the Pregel was crossed by the 11th Guards Army and despite enemy fire by dawn a full bridgehead was established on the opposite bank. Continuing their advance northwards, they linked up with the northern troops, completing the encirclement and cutting off the Samland group from the city.
In the afternoon, Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky once again asked the defenders to surrender. This offer was refused and the German forces attempted to break out of the encirclement, attacking both from the city centre and the Samland bridgehead. The latter managed to advance several kilometres before being stopped. Although another attack was prepared, the Germans' lack of air defenses allowed Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 ground attack aircraft to destroy a large number of troops. During this campaign, Soviet aviation generally proved very effective.
By the end of the day, it was clear that any attempt by the Samland group to break out of the encirclement would be pointless. However, victory was nowhere near, as almost 40,000 men were garrisoned in the city centre, which was regularly subjected to heavy shelling.
During the last day of the battle, the besieged German defenders were overwhelmed and the defence coordination fell apart. Having been comprehensively defeated, and in the realisation that further resistance was futile, Otto Lasch decided on his own initiative to send emissaries to negotiate the surrender. At 18:00, the emissaries arrived at the Soviet lines, and a delegation was sent to Lasch's bunker. Shortly before midnight, the surrender was acknowledged.
Almost 80% of the city was destroyed; first by the Royal Air Force in August 1944, and then by Soviet shelling in April 1945. Almost all German residents who remained at the end of the war, an estimated 200,000 out of the city's prewar population of 316,000, were expelled from the city.
During the operation the main forces of German East Prussia group were destroyed. Only the Army Detachment Samland remained, but was annihilated by 25 April.
The operation itself was considered a major success for the Soviet Army due to the comparatively low casualties suffered during the capture of the heavily fortified stronghold. The capture was celebrated in Moscow with an artillery salvo by 324 cannons firing 24 shells each. A Medal "For the Capture of Königsberg" was established and 98 military units were named after the Königsberg operation.
After the war, following the transfer of northern half of East Prussia to the Russian SFSR, Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad, and was installed with predominantly Russian (and, to a lesser extent, Belarusian and Ukrainian) settlers from other areas of the Soviet Union. This area is now known as the Kaliningrad Oblast.
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