This Was Russia's Master Plan to Destroy Nazi Germany Forever
The discovery did not generate much interest at the time. Majdanek concentration camp had been liberated on July 23, when the Russians took Lublin, so the existence of such camps was already known. Western newspapers had published photos of the camp, and they were too busy following events on the Western Front to find much time to report on the Auschwitz camp. The enormity of the crimes perpetrated at Auschwitz would only become known later.
Konev received reports about the camp, but he did not visit the scene. “It was not that I did not want to see that death camp with my own eyes,” he wrote. “I simply made up my mind not to see it. The combat operations were in full swing, and to command them was such a strain that I could find neither time nor justification for abandoning myself to my emotions. During the war I did not belong to myself.”
The final days of January proved Konev right in stopping Rybalko’s drive to the south. German forces in the Katowice area retreated through the corridor left open to them, and the 59th and 60th Armies captured the industrial area east of the Oder largely intact. Martirosian’s 73rd Rifle Corps had pushed the Germans out of their bridgehead east of Breslau, and the entire eastern bank of the river was now in the 1st Ukrainian Front’s sector.
In the north the forward elements of Nehring’s pocket finally reached safety near Glogau. During the final push to the Oder, General Block was killed on the 26th, making him the second corps commander in the 4th Panzer Army to become a casualty since the offensive began. As more units crossed the Oder, Nehring received orders to strike south along the western bank. Von Saucken was also ordered to strike south along the eastern bank of the river and hit the Soviets consolidating their positions in the area.
Lacking the panzers and personnel, it was an impossible order to fulfill. Although both generals complied, Russian strength was just too much to overcome. On February 2, the remnants of the GD Panzer Corps were able to cross the Oder on a pontoon bridge constructed by Nehring’s troops and join their comrades on the western bank.
That same day, the Soviets declared the Vistula-Oder operation completed. There were still pockets of German troops trapped on the eastern side of the Oder, but they were soon mopped up. Although still fighting the Germans south of the Silesian industrial area, Konev had achieved his primary goals. His troops had advanced up to 600 kilometers in 21 days, smashing the 4th Panzer Army and a good part of the 17th Army, and his forces were now moving to encircle Breslau. He had also saved much of the industrial infrastructure in eastern Silesia from destruction.
The Germans had lost tens of thousands killed and wounded. Entire divisions had been decimated and would never be rebuilt, while others were reduced to little more that reinforced battalions. Liebisch stated that his battalion of the 17th Panzer Division was reduced to about one third of its original strength. The battleworthiness of both the 16th and 17th Panzer Divisions was rated low after the operation was finally over.
Konev’s losses were placed at 26,219 killed and 89,567 sick and wounded. His average daily losses were 5,034 soldiers. The 1st Ukrainian Front had lost about 10 percent of its total force, but many of those losses could be replaced.
With the conclusion of the Vistula-Oder operation, the Soviets were within striking distance of Berlin. Reinforcements, supplies, and equipment would have to be brought up for the Russian armies on the Oder before they were ready to strike out again. There were also German forces in Hungary, East Prussia, northern Poland, and on the Baltic coast that would have to be taken care of.
Although the war was not yet over, the end of the Third Reich was only a little more than three months away.
Pat McTaggart is an expert on World War II on the Eastern Front and a frequent contributor to WWII History. He resides in Elkader, Iowa.
This article originally appeared on Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Cezary Piwowarski