Festung Breslau – Fortress Wroclaw


Breslau Rathaus
Breslau Rathaus

Founded in the 10th century, Wroclaw grew as a trade center on the route between southern Europe and the Baltic Sea. In the 12th century, it served as the capital of Silesia, and from 1335 until 1526, it was ruled by Bohemia. A Habsburg possession from 1526 until 1741, it was then ruled by Prussia and Germany. Wroclaw was incorporated into Poland in 1945.

On January 27th of 1945, after battle for Olesnica (Oels in Schlesien) units of 73rd Infantry Corps began their advance towards Festung (Fortress) Breslau (Wroclaw). Units of the Gluzdovsky’s 6th Army and 5th Guards Army supported by 7th Guards Motorized Corps and 4th Guards Tank Corps were to encircle the city attacking from bridgeheads on the river Oder towards the town of Katy Wroclawskie (Canth).

Soviet attack began on February 8th of 1945 and since the beginning encountered heavy resistance from LVII Panzer Korps as well as counterattacks from 19th Panzer Division from the direction of Raciborz (Ratibor) and 20th Panzer Division from Jawor (Jauer) and Strzegom (Striegau). At the same time, Germans on Hanke’s order from January 19th, evacuated civilian population in an ill-fated rescue operation, which resulted in death of some 90000 civilians due to the lack of transport and very cold weather. Large number of people evacuated from Breslau were killed during thebombing of Dresden.

The high point of the battle was on February 13th when 19th Panzer Division desperately defended Autobahn in the area of Kostomloty, the only link between encircled city and the remainder of the German forces. At the same time, 17th and 269th Infantry Divisions were ordered to breakout of the city to join other formations in the area. In the night of 13/14th February, tanks from 7th Guards Tank Corps closed the ring around the city with the garrison of 80000 men.

In early March of 1945, German High Command attempted to break the encirclement by concentrating in the area of Zgorzelec (Gorlitz) seven divisions including four panzer divisions. German attack began on March 3rd and its main force fell on weakened 3rd Guards Tank Army. After heavy fighting, German attack was stopped and both sides suffered heavy losses.

To strengthen the encirclement General Vladimir Gluzdovsky’s 6th Army with attached single division from 52nd Army was moved into the area.The city was by-passed by the main Soviet offensive by the 1st Ukrainian and Soviets decided take it by storm after encirclement.

Breslau was an important communication and industrial center for the German war machine as it housed numerous industrial plants along with forced labor camps (e.g. Brugweide) and nearby Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Until the last days of the war, the city didn’t suffer any damage as it was out of range of allied bombers and was known as "the air shelter of the Reich". Many government and civil offices were moved to the city from bombed Western and Northern German cities. First time Breslau suffered an air attack was in Fall of 1944 by Soviet bombers, when Soviets reached river Vistula in central Poland. 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.Early work on fortifying the city began as early as June of 1944, but it was not until September when serious work began. City was to be fortified by creating to two defensive rings and stockpiling supplies for long term encirclement. Numerous fortifications were build around the city in addition to two defensive rings. The defenses ran as far 20km from the center of the city. The work was done by forced laborers, volunteers, women, children and old men.

The 80000 strong garrison under Gauleiter Karl Hanke and City Commandant General Krause (who was fired by Hanke because he wanted to evacuate civilian population) and from February, City Commandant General Niehoff was composed of variety of units. They included newly formed 609th Infantry Division, elements of 269th Infantry Division, school and reserve units, improvised SS regiment (SS Festung Abteilung "Besselein"), 38 Volkssturm battalions (each 400 men strong), Hitlerjugend, Police, Luftwaffe ground units and remnants of destroyed combat formations. The defenders had 32 artillery batteries equipped with mixture of old German and captured Soviet, Polish, Yugoslav and Italian artillery pieces. The garrison didn’t have any tanks except for company of 15 various assault guns. In January of 1945, 50 Leichte Ladungsträger Goliath demolition vehicles were delivered along with two batteries of 75mm Pak 40 guns and 18 88mm Flak 36 guns.The garrison was supplied by air with supplies by the German Army and Red Cross and was even reinforced with Fallschirm-Jäger-Regiment 25 from9th Fallschirmjaeger Division in February of 1945. In mid April of 1945, Hanke reported that his forces have only two Tigers to face enemy attacks. The two Tigers were repaired at the FAMO plant, before being committed into battle.Defense of Breslau was under overall command of the Field Marshal Schoerner of Army Group Centre.

On February 16th, direct attack on the city from the south and then from the west began. It soon turned into bloody and savage fight for each house. The heaviest fighting took place in the area of the airbase and industrial district of the city.During the first 3 days of the battle, Soviets lost 76 tanks and at least 100 in next 2 weeks due to the wrong strategy – they used tanks supported by assault groups in the street fighting. Soon, Soviets began using artillery to destroy enemy positions and engineers along with Marines to clear the enemy from the city.In late March the fate of city was sealed as last strong German formations southeast of Opeln (Opole) were destroyed. Fighting in the city continued as Soviets pushed German defenders deeper into the city, who in turned destroyed every house and city block behind them to slowdown the advancing Soviets. After the loss of the airbase on April 1st, Germans used Kaisserstrasse as an airstrip and began to build a new one in the central part of the city. In order to do so they leveled the area using forced laborers. Large open space and construction work was soon discovered by the Soviets, who in turn began shelling the area using heavy artillery. The new airbase was never finished and never used.

On May 6th of 1945, four days after Berlin, City Commandant Hermann Niehoff signed an act of conditional surrender with the commander of the Soviet 6th Army General Gluzdowski, but none of the conditions were kept by the Soviets.

Gauleiter Hanke escaped day before (on May 5th) by specially prepared Fiesler Storch airplane as he was named by Hitlerto be the new German Police Chief and Reichsfuehrer SS in place of Himmler on April 29th of 1945.It is reported that he escaped to Czechoslovakia (Sudetenland), where he fought and died with the SS unit. He was never found and pressumed dead. Some sources claim that he was killed by the Czech partisants or that he escaped to the South America.

Until the surrender of the city on May 6th of 1945, 21600 out of 30000 buildings were destroyed. Following the surrender, the city was in ruins as only 32% of the city was almost usable. 6000 German soldiers and 170000 civilians were killed, while 45000 were taken prisoner. German military losses were higher as numerous rescue planes were shotdown and many evacuated wounded died behind the frontlines. Soviet losses were over 8000 soldiers killed, including some 800 officers. At the end, the defense of the city tied down seven Soviet divisions. On May 9th of 1945 the city was taken over by the Polish City Council and on August 2nd, it became part of Polandby decision of the Potsdam Conference.


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