The Battle of Breslau
Breslau’s destruction was always going to happen as the Red Army reached Poland. The winds of war had turned on Hitler’s dream of a 1000-year Reich. While German forces were more than a match for the Red Army, even in a reduced state, there simply were not enough German forces to man the front lines.
As Russian forces reached Poland in January, 1945, alarm bells went off wherever German formations were and in cities where garrisons sat. The Russian juggernaut had started its Upper and Lower Silesia offensives to clear Poland and beyond and it did this much like a steamroller. Whatever resistance was put up and held for awhile by German half strength divisions, the mathematical numbers just prevailed like a Tsunami. As January wore on, Hitler started to demand certain cities become a Festung or fortress and held at all costs to no avail.
Eventually, Breslau would be one of them. It would become Hitler’s Stalingrad in every sense of the word, just as did the Russian city of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942, which would end up costing the loss of the German 6th Army.
News of the coming Red menace arrived as early as January 14th in Breslau. The Russian forces were still off in the distance but the reality of the German line collapse was hard to keep secret as civilians began to panic. Breslau had not felt the horrors of war up to now. It had been too far away for American bombers to reach and the Russian Air Force had not bothered it. So, everything was intact in this beautiful, old, German city of 600,000. It was Hitler’s favorite manufacturing site for weapons. Its population fully supported him in a devout manner. However, there was also a dark side because within a close proximity of the city, the Germans had created nine labor and concentration camps that employed via forced labor over 50,000 Jews and POW’s by industrial giants like Junkers, FAMO, Siemen, Krupp, and Rheinmetall. There was also a secret bio-weapons lab nearby creating deadly Tabun and Sarin nerve gas just 40 km away at Dyernfurth (now Brzeg Dolny).
The Potential Use of Chemical Warfare
The plant, built in 1940, covered an area 1.5 by 0.5 miles and was completely self-contained, synthesizing all chemicals as well as the final product, Tabun. The facility had an underground plant for filling munitions, which were then stored at Krappitz (now Krapowice) in Upper Silesia. The plant had 3000 German workers equipped with respirators and rubber\cloth clothing. Tabun was so lethal, over 300 serious casualties happened before actual production in large amounts. Of these, 10 died. Unsuspecting pipe fitters had it touch them, another worker had the liquid drop onto his body (he died in two minutes), and seven others were hit in their mask with a Tabun stream that soaked through PPE.
As if the production of Tabun was not deadly enough, Sarin, was also created at the plant (used in 1988 on the Kurds by Iraq). Some 10 tons of Sarin was actually produced, while by January 1945, 12,000 tons of Tabun had been produced. Of this amount, 2000 tons were loaded into artillery shells and 10,000 tons into aircraft bombs! All just awaiting Hitler to approve of their use. These were stored at Krappitz and in mine shafts in Lausitz and Bavaria.
Hitler never did approve of their use probably fearing some sort of Allied reprisal. But the fact was, had it been used at Breslau or elsewhere, none of the Allies had any sort of defense against it. It would’ve changed the battlefield immensely in German favor (assuming its deployment went well!). Thus, in the game option, the Tabun rule exists because it easily could have been used..
The Allies claimed they knew nothing about it until April 1945 when an ammo dump was found with Tabun shells. Actually, in May of 1943, the British captured a German chemist who worked at the CW research in Spandau. They were told everything about Tabun (codename was Trilon 83). This interview was compiled by MI9 intelligence in July, 1943.
By August 1944, as the Red Army approached Silesia, the Germans began destroying documentation of the research on and the manufacture of both CW agents. In January 1945, Dyernfurth was abandoned and tons of liquid nerve agents were simply poured into the Oder! The plant was rigged for demolition, but the Russians arrived before it could be destroyed. The Luftwaffe was then ordered to bomb the plant, but they also failed to destroy it. The Soviets did capture both the full-scale production Tabun plant and the pilot Sarin plant intact. They had also captured another full-scale Sarin plant at Falkenhagen. In 1946, the Russians began production at Dyernfurth just as the Allied operation called, Davy Jone’s Locker began. Ironically, to dispose of the 30-40,000 tons of Chemical Warfare Agents found in Germany after the war using 11 ships that were sunk in the Skagerrak Strait near the Baltic Sea and North Sea!
The Russians Arrive
Even before the Red Army had actually reached Breslau environs, the city of 600,000 went into a semi-panic around January 14th with thousands trying to get out by rail. For some reason, city police refused to allow any to evacuate until the 20th and even then, it was restricted to women and children first. While the trains were full, many took a chance to flee in -10C temps on foot. At least 60,000 tried to reach safer areas on foot. Many would not make it in such cold as some 40 bodies came back frozen and the graveyards filled rapidly with a further 18,000 dead. The mass exodus of civilians went in all directions when the Russian Army neared. Women and girls feared being raped. In total, the exodus in such horrid temps would cost 90,000 lives. But many did escape only to buy time for their lives. By the time the Russians did arrive, some 200,000 civilians remained inside the city.
The Russians reached the town of Oies (Olesnica today) on January 27th, just 19 miles from Breslau after a brief battle with their 73rd Corps. These were from the Russian 6th Army, which were further supported by the 5th Guards Army and 7th Guards Mechanized Corps. The 4th Guards Tank Corps also was approaching the city. The general plan was to surround the city with both corps from both directions and meet at Kanth (Katy Wroclawskie today) 14 miles southwest of Breslau.
Being the city had not yet been surrounded, German troops retreating through the city took refuge from battle. Even then, the available men and weapons were being gathered to defend the city from teenagers to old men. Some of the shattered German divisions moving through would be detained to bolster the defenses during a brief pause the Russians took to refit and replenish. The man in charge in the city’s defense was a Hitler devotee, Hanke.
The opening salvoes of the Russian offensive once again rolled on February 8th and faced immediate resistance from the now reduced 57th Panzer Corps with fierce counterattacks from its 19th Panzer Division from the Ratibor (now Raciborz) area and the 20th Panzer Division from Jauer (now Jawor) and Striegau (now Strzegom). By now, each division had only 35-40 tanks and were greatly outnumbered as they fought withdrawing. These formations were, at best, half strength but did an amazing job preventing a tsunami. While at Breslau, Hanke’s evacuation for civilians continued on with its exodus and horrid results. However, the full weight of the Russian 3rd Tank Army, some 418 AFVs, would overwhelm whatever German forces opposed them.
The breaking point was reached on February 12th and 13th, as the 8th Panzer (40 tanks) and 19th Panzer held a line from Kostenblut to Kanth. The 19th Panzer desperately tried to preserve the only link to Breslau so that the 17th Pz (30-40 tanks) and the 269th Division KG escape out of Breslau, which was already nearly surrounded. The 17th Panzer did escape but the 269th failed their breakout towards Tinz to meet the beleaguered 19th Panzer holding the door open due to the stiff opposition from the Russian 7th Guards Tank Corps on the 14th. This unit comprised of the 54, 55, 56 Tank brigades, 23rd Mechanized Brigade. After intense fighting, the Russian unit closed the ring around the city.
The battlefield was rampaging in chaos, the Russian High Command had decided simply to bypass the city with the most of the 3rd Guards Tank Army. The army in charge of taking Breslau was its 6th Army, where the average division had 5000 men. The Russians goal was to reach and take Lauben and Goerlitz and this nearly happened. By the 17th, Breslau was in the rear, while the 6th Guards Tank Corps with just 50 tanks left reached the Noidorf -Goerlitz road, while the 7th Guards Tank Corps (55 tanks) was near Lauben, The 9th Guards Mechanized Corps (48 tanks) was spread out from Bunzlau to Lowenberg. It was the quick fast reaction of the German Army that moved the 8th Panzer Division, 6th VolksGrenadier division to Lauben that halted further Russian advance. More German units arrived near Lowenberg comprising of the 10th PG KG, 408 Division, 103 Panzer Brigade (4 Pz IV, 17 PzV, 12 Assault Guns). The 6th VG had been reinforced with new recruits and 19 PzJg38, 3 88mm, 12 PzIV, 3 PzV. The 17th Panzer had also withdrawn towards Lauben (about 30km from Breslau).
By February 20th or so, the Russian units in the attack were needing replenishment and repair. The 3rd Tank Army comprising of the 6th, 7th Guards Tank Corps together had around 100 tanks remaining fit. Its 9th Mechanized Corps had another 48 tanks. Most of their tank brigades had 15-20 tanks left. They were nearing the end of their logistical rope after two successful and bloody offensives. On the 22nd, the Russian army received the 254th Division from 57th Army and assigned to 6th Gd. Tk Corps. The train station in Lauben was also taken by the Russians from the 6th VG and 17th Pz. Lauben would become the spark for the last German successful counterattack called Operation Gemse.
In September of 1944, Hitler declared Breslau to be a fortress - Festung Breslau, which was to be the part of so-called "Eastern Wall" on river Oder. Numerous fortifications were built in and around the city some were 20 km away. The garrison totaled 80,000 men and boys under Karl Hanke and General Niehoff. The core elements were the newly formed 609th Division, the remains of the 269th Division, and SS regiment Besselein. Of the 38th Volksturm battalions, eight were construction units and barely armed, there were two Hitler Youth battalions (which fought well), and most were in regiments called Hochen, Wolank, Franke, Hirsch. Other regiments were Wehl, Sauer, Mohr, Hemp, five engineer battalions, two Festung Battalions. For artillery, they had a wide assortment for Russian, Polish, and Italian artillery guns in 32 batteries. These were in 3048,3049,3075,3076,3081,3082, 28 Hvy, 859 Hvy. Their 18 88mm guns were in 570, 137, and on the Porsel Armor Train. For AFVs, they had a total of 15 , even two repaired Tigers, a few Panzer II, and several assault guns. They had two 75mm PAK 40 antitank batteries (8 guns) and at least 50 remote controlled Goliath mini tanks that could be packed with 150 lbs. of explosives.
The Russians Knock On The Door
As much of the Russian forces bypassed Breslau towards Lauben and Gorlitz, the crux of the taking this fortress fell upon the Russian 6th Army. It had two infantry corps, the 22nd and 74th, each with three divisions (218, 309, 273, 181, 359, 294) each with 5000 combat effective men. Initially, the army was also supported by the 22nd and 25th flamethrower battalions, 159th Artillery Brigade, 563, 1248 Tank Destroyer battalions, 62nd Engineer Bn, and 531 Mortar Brigade. Also, the 7th Gds. Mechanized Corps (24, 25, 25 Mech. Brigades, 57th Tank) was attached to the army until March.
On February 16th, the army made a direct attack from the south and then from the west. It proved to be a savage and bloody fight for each house. Gains were in yards or blocks. The heaviest fighting took place around Gandau airbase and industrial complex of the city known as FAMO. In the first week of the battle, the Russians lost 76 tanks and another 100 in the next two weeks! Clearly, they were underestimating German resistance. The use of armor in an urban built up area proved to be the wrong strategy. By March, the 6th Army received additional units: 46th Flamethrower Bn, 187th, 191, 51 mortar, 36 Gd. Mortar, 349th Heavy tank (IS-152), 240 Engineer, 1194, 1196, 1198 Assault Gun Bns.
In March, Russian tactics changed and began using artillery to destroy enemy positions first, and then engineers along with Marines or infantry came to clear the enemy from the buildings. This was an exhaustive and time consuming affair block after block after block of buildings. Despite the fighting, the Germans were able to land the 2nd Bn\25th Parachute Reg.\9th Parachute division in late February. The unit landed during a firefight at night and was placed under Regiment Hanf. Its landing, as well as the 3rd Bn\26th Regiment\9th Parachute (which landed in mid-March), is unique. The men were landed in DFS 230 gliders towed by Ju 52’s flying at 10,000 ft. When the approach was ready, the gliders were released where they were steered to their landing zone. At 800 ft. the gliders leveled out and used retro rockets to slow and shorten the landing. The 2nd Battalion landed in the Gandau airfield area, while the 3rd Battalion landed on the newly widened Kaiserstrasse Ave, not far from the city center. This new landing strip was ready on March 7. The strip was not that effective as an alternative, but for air supply drops.
As the opposing forces fought bitterly, German workers were busily putting together an amor train called Porsel. It was being built in the FAMO industrial area and was ready by March 20. When it debuted against a Russian counterattack for the area, it was a shock. The train had four 88mm guns, one 37mm, four 20mm. The crew amount to 100. The Russians, not expecting this much firepower, were repelled despite repeated attempts. However, the train now became the target of Russian airpower. It would eventually be destroyed before the May.
Fighting in the city continued as the Russians pushed German defenders deeper into the city. The Germans razed everything into rubble and every house and city block behind them to slowdown any progress. To this, the Germans were very successful. The elevated railroad also created a difficult barrier to overcome in battle. Luckily, most of this barrier was on the industrial side of Breslau.
When April arrived, so did more Russian units for 6th Army: 112 Division, 40th and 315 Artillery, 15, 18, 32, 23 Mortar Brigades, 87 Heavy Tank, 222 Tank Regiment, 47th Flamethrower Bn, 1988,2002,2006,2010 AA regiments. On April 1 and 2, the Russian 6th Bomber Corps lit up the city of Breslau with up to 150 bombers mostly in the FAMO industrial area. For the Germans below, it was likened to “hell opening up” with a furnace of fire. The Germans lost Gandau airbase then and tried to switch to Kaiserstrasse, which was unable to land aircraft safely due to debris.
As the month wore on, food and ammunitions were constantly in short supply. The dire situation just continued to worsen as the Russians grinded slowly towards the center of the city. Still, morale remained high and every airlift of supplies brought a hope of survival.
Ammo From the Sky
Little has been written about the incredible supply airlift the German Luftwaffe managed to do in face of such adversity to keep the garrison supplied with ammunitions. With the Russian airforce dominating the skies in the battle area, somehow, the airlift delivered over 1600 tons of mostly ammo from Feb. 15th to April 27. It boggles the mind.
Immediately after Breslau was cutoff, the Germans prepared for airlifting supplies to the garrison. In most cases, it was ammo because the garrison was on thin ice even at this time when it came to ammunition for its wide variety of weapons.
The Luftwaffe put all of their transport groups on alert and to give airlift to Breslau top priority over other garrisons. These transport groups were located in Juterbog and Dresden-Klotsche airbases where the Ju-52s were, and at Konniggratz for their He 111 aircraft. The supply aircraft used comprised of Ju-52, He 111, and some Ju 352.
The units involved were:
I\KG4, III\KG4- He111, I, II, III\TG3, I\TG1, I, II, III\TG2
All of the Transport Group (TG) flew Ju 52 and some limited Ju 352. All KG bomber units flew He111. The load capacity for the He111, while it was a bomber, was limited to 2.5 tons at most, while the Ju 52, was maxed out at 1.5. The huge Ju 352, which was very limited to not more than 10, at best, carried up to 4 tons. The number of sorties to Breslau varied a great, at times, three squadrons were able to fly in a day, then no more for the week. However, the brunt of the resupply fell upon the II and III\TG2 and supplemented with the two squadrons of He 111. In total, some 566 missions were flown with Ju52 losses of 50%.
Most of the air supply missions were airdrops over Gandau (until Russians seized the AB), the Friessenwiese (near Jahrhundhalle), and at Kaiserstrasse, after March 7. Some Ju52’s were able to land and take off here, but most did not dare it due to building debris from widening the road. The road was used to land additional troops from DFS 230 and Go-242 gliders.
The last Ju 52 landed on the Kaiserstrasse on April 7, unloading mostly needed ammunitions. The last airlift was on the 27th. On a weekly basis, the average drop was around 160-170 tons of mostly ammunition, which helped the garrison last as long as it did.
On May 6th of 1945, four days after Berlin fell, City Commandant Hermann Niehoff signed an act of conditional surrender. Gauleiter Hanke (Breslau) escaped on the 5th via an airplane. It is reported that he flew to Czechoslovakia, where he fought and died. His body was never found.
As for the remains of Breslau, 21,600 out of 30,000 buildings were destroyed. Only 35% of the city was still viable. Some 6000 German soldiers and 17,0000 civilians were killed, while another 45,000 were taken prisoner by the Russians. Russian losses were over 9,000 soldiers killed. in the end, the defense of the city tied down a whole Russian army and numerous other units. However, like the other Stalingrad on the Volga River in 1942, it was in vain and needless in 1945.