East Prussia, Germany October 16, 1944

In the summer of 1944 Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany was knocked off balance by one-two punches delivered almost simul­ta­neously by the Western Allies’ inva­sion of North­western France, code­named Oper­a­tion Over­lord (June–August 1944), and the Soviet Union’s offen­sive, Oper­a­tion Bagra­tion (June–August 1944), which began with the recon­quest of Belo­russia (Belarus), a Soviet Socialist Republic sand­wiched between Russia and German-occupied Poland. On Octo­ber 1, 1944, Soviet armed forces in the form of the Third Belo­russian Front, under the com­mand of Gen. Ivan Cher­nya­khov­sky, stood on the border between the former Baltic state of Lithu­a­nia and East Prussia (see map below), the first pro­vince of the German homeland to be threatened by an Allied invasion.

The Soviet Union and its predecessor, Czarist Russia, had long regarded East Prussia as the lair of German mili­tarism, the strong­hold of wealthy Prussian Junkers, a mili­tary aris­toc­racy that owned vast estates there. Many of the top com­manders in Kaiser Wil­helm II’s army came from East Prussia and were Junkers (e.g., World War I hero Field Marshal Paul von Hinden­berg), and with the forma­tion of Hitler’s Wehr­macht (unified army, navy, and air force) in 1935, most of the German high com­mand during the inter­war and war years was staffed by Prus­sian mili­tarists; e.g., Adm. Karl Doenitz of the German Kriegs­marine; Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, Supreme Com­mander of the German Army; and Field Marshals Gerd von Rund­stedt and Erich von Man­stein. During the opening salvos of Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa, Hitler’s June 1941 stab-in-the-back attack of his erst­while ally, the Soviet Union, East Prussia was the jumping off point for Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group North’s drive on, and sub­se­quent deadly 872‑day siege and bom­bard­ment of, Lenin­grad, the Soviet Union’s East Baltic port and second largest city.

The capital of East Prussia was the Baltic sea­port of Koenigs­berg (today’s Kalinin­grad, Russia), a city of 372,164 people (1939 census). At the start of October 1944, the Soviets’ Third Belo­russian Front was roughly 130 miles east of Koenigs­berg. By mid-month, after a slow advance of some 30 miles, the time had come to launch Gum­binnen Opera­tion (aka Goldap Opera­tion), the attack on East Prussia. So on this date, Octo­ber 16, 1944, Cher­nya­khov­sky’s army took the offe­nsive, and the next day had pene­trated the German border 34 miles north­west of Gum­binnen (Gusev). Soviet fighter bombers and heavy tanks nearly destroyed the town. East Prussian defenses were unex­pectedly tough, though. Five days later the Soviet advance had come to a stand­still. By early Novem­ber, after a half-dozen major give-and-take clashes by both sides weakened by combat and facing the onset of winter, the opposing forces dug in, the Third Belo­russian Front holding its booty of a 25‑mile-deep by 90‑mile-wide foot­hold within the Reich. Simply put, however, Gumbinnen Opera­tion went down in the records book as a Soviet defeat.

On January 12, 1945, a rejuvenated Third Belo­russian Front re-engaged the enemy. A major part of the new East Prussian offen­sive was the Koenigs­berg Offen­sive, or Battle of Koenigs­berg, which ended on April 9 after a four-day final assault (see photo essay). The offen­sive that destroyed the seat of German mili­tarism and fascism and set the stage for the Battle of Berlin in April 1945 was one of the bloodi­est on German soil. It was fueled on the one hand by the Red Army’s thirst for ven­geance after the Wehr­macht had occupied Mother Russia for three terror-filled years, com­mitting number­less atroc­i­ties against sol­diers and civilians alike (e.g., 1.5 mil­lion killed in Lenin­grad, close to 480,000 in Stalin­grad), and on the other by East Prussian units of the regular armed forces, 5,000 men of the Volks­sturm con­sisting of boys and the elderly, and local Hitler Youth who served them­selves up as cannon fodder in the dying days of the Third Reich.

Forlorn Battles: East Prussia 1944–1945

East Prussia offensive: Map of former East Prussia

Above: East Prussia (German, Ostpreussen) was the heart of the old Prussian king­dom of Brandenburg-Prussia. The bound­aries of this pro­vince remained unchanged until World War I. Its area was then 14,284 sq. miles, and its popu­la­tion in 1910 was 2,064,175 and largely (83 per­cent) Lutheran. After World War II, East Prussia was par­ti­tioned between Poland (the southern part) and the Soviet Union (the northern part). With the excep­tion of the Klai­pėda (Memel) terri­tory, which was rein­cor­po­rated into Lith­u­ania, the northern half of East Prussia, an area about half the size of Belgium, was offi­cially incor­po­rated into the Soviet Union in July 1946 and col­o­nized by Russians beginning the same year. Koenigs­berg became Kali­nin­grad. In the southern half about 400,000 indig­e­nous Poles remained, and immi­grants from pre­war Poland replaced ethnic Germans, who were either killed in the con­flict, had fled or perished in advance of the Red Army in the harsh winter of 1944–1945, or were expelled in an action euphe­mis­tically referred to as “popu­la­tion trans­fer” several years after com­bat ended in May 1945. Expul­sion was the better option, for the occupying Red Army, in an echo of what the people of Lenin­grad had had to endure when the Germans besieged their city, made no attempt to supply the German sur­vi­vors with pro­visions. The denizens of Koenigs­berg lived on the verge of star­va­tion and privation of every kind, amid unburied corpses, nonexistent sanitation, polluted water, and disease.

East Prussia offensive: Soviet troops on East Prussian border, late August 1944East Prussia offensive: Two German soldiers man a tank gun defending Koenigsberg, December 1944

Left: At the close of Operation Bagration in late August 1944 the Red Army had reached the Lithuanian-East Prussian border, ready to bring the ground war to the first pro­vince in Germany proper. There soldiers erected a large signboard that read: “That’s it, damn Germany.”

Right: Defiant German soldiers in the company of a tank wait for the Soviet on­slaught, late December 1944 in East Prussia. The sign on their log bunker reads: “We will hold Koenigs­berg.” The truth was, the defending Army Group Center (renamed Army Group North) was out­num­bered three-to-one by the Red Army, which was well-armed and -equipped, with plen­ti­ful tanks, an over­whelming artil­lery arm con­sisting of small-caliber to self-propelled 122mm, 203mm and 305mm guns, and complete control of the skies.

Refugees at Pillau port seek escape, East Prussia, early 1945German refugees flee west by wagon and foot, East Prussia, 1945

Above: Refugees from East Prussia fleeing west before the advancing Red Army in 1945. They fled, a good 450,000 between January and April 1945 by ship or small boats as seen in the left frame from the sea­port of Pillau, which is now the Russian port of Baltiysk. Still others fled on foot or by wagon, some traversing an ice sheet, in appalling winter weather, with little or no food and no shelter except what they could find along the way. Thou­sands died from expo­sure or were killed during the evacu­a­tion. When Festung Koenigs­berg’s garri­son sur­rendered, mili­tary and civil­ian dead in the city were esti­mated at 42,000, with the Red Army claiming over 90,000 pri­soners. About 120,000 sur­vi­vors remained in the ruins of the devas­tated city. Com­prising mostly women, chil­dren, and the elderly, plus a few others who had returned imme­di­ately after the fighting ceased, these survi­vors were held as slave laborers until 1949. The vast majority of German civil­ians remaining in Koenigs­berg after 1945 died from dis­ease or star­va­tion, or in revenge-driven eth­nic cleansing. The remaining 20,000 German residents were expelled by Soviet authorities in 1949–1950.

East Prussia offensive: Koenigsberg street scene, April 1945East Prussia offensive: German POWs, April 1945

Left: By January 28, 1945, the first Red Army troops had reached the out­skirts of Koenigs­berg, over­powering local forti­fi­ca­tions. At month’s end the fortress city was encircled, weighed down by 300,000 refugees. Still the garri­son held off all Soviet assaults until April 6, when Soviet loud­speakers and the heaviest artil­lery, rocket, and aerial bom­bard­ment German soldiers on the Eastern Front had yet encountered began pounding in the last nails in the doomed fortress’s coffin. A pall of smoke and doom enveloped the city, whose population had been reduced to 130,000.

Right: Having already stormed parts of the city, by the night of April 8 Soviet fighters had captured one strong­point after another till they held three-quarters of the city. The Koenigs­berg garri­son, by now hun­dreds of miles to the rear of the main front line in the east, surrendered just before mid­night the next day, April 9, after a siege of over two months. Tens of thou­sands of German sol­diers like those shown in this photo­graph were marched to Soviet POW camps. Iso­lated German pockets held out along the Baltic coast—most would succumb by April 25—but East Prussia had already devolved into a minor theater of war, its place overtaken in mid-April by the climactic Battle of Berlin.

Soviet Assault on East Prussia, October 1944 to April 1945

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