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Since the front of 4 Army formed a bulge facing east, it was likely that the Soviets would try to encircle 4 Army by mounting a pincer attack, against 3 Panzer Army towards Elbing and against 2 Army towards Königsberg. However, the enemy adopted another plan, namely a frontal attack from the east towards Königsberg. On 16 October, the 3rd White Russian Front with five armies (40 rifle divisions and powerful armoured formations) launched a major offensive between Suvalki and the Memel. At 0400 a hail of fire from all calibres of weapons fell on the battlefield, on gun positions and defensive fortifications. This firestorm was enhanced by the heaviest airstrikes to date. Powerful aerial formations subjected Gumbinnen to a mass bombardment and caused substantial damage. The murderous barrage lasted for two hours. As a precaution, XXVII Corps was ordered to deploy into its main battle positions, and thereby escaped the full crushing force of the bombardment. On the other hand, XXVI Corps, which didn’t have enough time to follow the deployment order, suffered heavily.
The thunder from the front alarmed the whole of East Prussia. Everyone contemplated a Russian invasion with all its attendant horrors. Nothing had been prepared, in accordance with Gauleiter Koch’s orders. He had only taken precautions for himself.
By 0700 on 16 October, 1 Infantry Division had succeeded in driving back the enemy with local counter-attacks. Then a new barrage began, strengthened by air attacks. All wire communications were disrupted, and most radio sets damaged. Dust and smoke obscured vision, until the lights along the front could barely be distinguished. The artillery, without communications from its spotters, could only fire according to its pre-existing fireplan. Russian tanks rolled forward. They and the enemy anti-tank guns fired salvoes at any gun position that fired back. Moving forward along the entire front, the tanks outflanked the grenadiers. Lateral movement was hindered by the deep ditches, with few crossing points. Losses were heavy. The enemy’s massed artillery and aerial bombardment had succeeded in silencing most of the defensive artillery and anti-tank weaponry. The front could only be held while men, weapons and ammunition were available. Fired by the love of their homeland, the grenadiers clung onto their positions. The infantry companies lost perhaps 1/8 of their strength in the first enemy attacks that followed the artillery bombardment. The automatic weapons were so clogged with dust and earth, they had to be cleaned before they could be used. Russian tanks and infantry advanced in waves over the front line. In many places, they isolated infantrymen stood alone against them. Wherever heavy weapons were still available on the battlefield, bitter fighting erupted around these strongpoints. Every gun that could still fire formed a rallying point, a point of resistance. Individual grenadiers, left behind as the battle moved on, rallied at these points and fought on. The artillerymen fired their last rounds and then destroyed their guns. The Russians passed these points of resistance on either side and moved on against the next line of resistance. Only a few units managed to fight their way back to it [the second line].
For 1 Infantry Division, which had suffered heavy losses during the war, this first day of the defensive battle on the East Prussian frontier was hard and costly. There were few who survived to give an account of the foremost line of defence. Most fell in close combat. Nevertheless, a breakthrough eluded the Russians.
With renewed heavy drumfire, the Russians launched a second attack (17 October). They tried to break through to Schirwindt, the cornerstone of the local defences. When a frontal attack failed despite strong supporting fire, they sent heavy armoured units around the town to the north and south. They were able to push past the defender, and attacked the town from the northwest, while other units pushed on towards Schlossberg (Pillkallen). The defenders of Schirwindt fought for every house. The number of defenders declined rapidly. The town couldn’t be held, and by evening had been lost.
Also on the other assaulted fronts further south, the enemy took Wirballen. Against the massed use of artillery, the rolling attacks by ground-attack aircraft and bombers, 4 Army had no answer. The massed Russian tanks were opposed by just a few German StuGs. Since there were no reserves for a counterattack, all that could be done was to withdraw units from less threatened sections. These units filled the gaps, blocked the Russian thrusts, and ensured that the front did not disintegrate. The overall situation for 4 Army, though, substantially deteriorated.
On 18 October Hitler issued a call-up of the Volkssturm. He announced: ‘While the enemy believes that we are approaching the end, we will make a second call on the strength of our people. We will and must succeed, relying on our strength not only to defeat the destructive will of the enemy but to expel them from the Reich in such a way that the future of Germany, of our allies, and therefore of all Europe, is ensured and peace is secured.’
The enemy continued to launch continuous attacks against 1 Infantry Division against Schlossberg. Despite this, Schlossberg remained in German hands. Although the enemy, using his huge superiority, drove the division back some 25 km, a breakthrough was not achieved. This was only due to the preparations of the German grenadiers, and the effective use of their artillery and StuGs. 127 enemy tanks and assault guns, 130 field guns, 10 howitzers, a Stalin organ, 24 grenade launchers, and 209 machine-guns were destroyed. On 28 October, the Russians deployed their masses in an attack between Goldap and the Memel against the German defenders. Here, their offensive strength was broken. The Russian forces that had broken through to Goldap were screened with only a few units, and remained a threat. Again, a pincer attack from north and south by 4 Army was planned, with a view to annihilating the Russian forces in and around Goldap, and reducing the bulge in the front. For the southern thrust, VI Corps released 50 Infantry Division to General Hossbach, and the northern thrust was formed by 5 Panzer Division from its positions near Grosswaltersdorf.
This breakthrough [to the Frische Haff southwest of Königsberg between Brandenburg and Maulen] resulted in the separation of the elements of 3 Pz.Army south of the Pregel, Korpsgruppe Blaurock, from the rest of the army. These elements were forced to retreat south to the Preussisch Eylau - Zinten area and into 4 Army's area. They were driven back Only a few elements reached Königsberg; the staff of 1 Inf.Div. with the remnants of Gren.Reg.1 and Fus.Reg.22 without heavy weapons, as well as parts of Gren.Reg. 171 and 192 from 56 Inf.Div, and finally the scattered remnants of 349 and 549 VG.Divs, which had fought their way back from the area south of Schlossberg.
As well as looking after the excellent 5 Pz.Div, my particular concern was to return the reliable East Prussian 1 Inf.Div, held as 'fortress reserve', to combat readiness as soon as possible. I had a particular bond to this division, having served for many years as commander of Gren.Reg.43. This, too, was achieved by mid-February.
On about 17 February, I received the following order from Army Group during the evacuation of the staff of 3 Pz.Army from the isolated Armee-Abteilung Samland under the command of General Gollnick: 'The Samland divisions will attack on 19 February to relieve Königsberg. To this end, Fortress Königsberg is to attempt a breakout towards the Salmand divisions on the same day. It is to use parts of 5 Pz.Div. and 1 Inf.Div.'
After I had discussed in detail the required arrangements for this operation with my chief of staff, I came to the following conclusion: considering the previous unsuccessful attempted attacks of the Samland divisions, which always came up against a stubborn enemy in superior strength, such a breakout in conjunction with the Samland forces could only succeed if it was carried out with a strong, sudden thrust as deep as possible into the enemy front towards the West. For this, the divisions nominated by Army Group would not suffice. I therefore concluded that as well as 1 Inf.Div and all of 5 Pz.Div, 561 VG.Div should be deployed for the planned breakout. In this case, 5 Pz.Div, which held a sector of the front in the southern part of the Fortress, would first have to be withdrawn. This required that that the already weakened 69 Inf.Div. would also have to take over 5 Pz.Div's sector, and would thus be able to maintain its entire sector only as a series of strongpoints. Moreover, it was necessary to extract 561 VG.Div. which was deployed on the eastern side of the Fortress, so that it would be available for use in the event of a successful penetration of the enemy front, to further exploit any success. The large hole in the front that resulted from the withdrawal of 561 VG.Div. had to be filled with police and Volkssturm. It was very clear to me that these measures represented an extraordinary risk and that one could only hope that things would go badly for the enemy, and that the Russians did not have any plans for attacks against the eastern or southern fronts. The risk was great, but with hindsight this was the last and only possibility of restoring contact between Königsberg and the rest of the workd and thus once more creating the possibility of evacuating the larger part of the civil populace through Pillau to the Reich. It would also allow the already weak Königsberg divisions, further weakened in the last round of fighting, to link up with their scattered formations and for them to receive essential weapons, munitions and materiel.
The Russian defences in the Metgethen area were extraordinarily strong. The Russian high command was obviously of the opinion that an attempt to restore contact between Königsberg and Pillau was likely. An order of 15 Feb 1945 stated that the defence of the Klein Holstein - Metgethen - Amalienhof - Kragau - Kobbelbude area was to be reinforced in expectation of a German attack. Formations of 39 Army, commanded by Generalleutnant Dadikov, were in this area, including 192, 292, 338 Rifle Divs. Documents captured during the attack show that an assessment of the combat-readiness [of these units] showed considerable sloppiness. Discipline was lacking, lower commanders busied themselves with alcohol and plunder, and the vehicles were laden with loot. An order of 7 Feb to the Ia of Rifle Reg. 950, a Lieutenant Colonel Landsov, speaks of 5 days' house arrest and 50% pay deduction of the regiment commander, Lieutenant Colonel Zubchenkov, for drunkenness. An order of 10 February required civilians to be moved 20km behind the combat zone, and forbade the arbitrary wearing of captured German uniforms.
The Russian leadership this had its own worries. But against the atrocities committed against civilians in the looted villages, in the spirit of Ilya Ehrenburg's proclamation, there was no intervention. By their obvious nature, these occurrences must of course also have been known to the Russian commanders, but they deemed matters of combat-readiness as more important than humanitarian considerations.
The 3-week pause was used not only by Königsberg's defenders, but also by the Russians to improve their defences, so that it was anticipated that hard and costly fighting lay ahead. The measures required for the attack were undertaken with the greatest care for camouflage, and were reported to Armee-Abteilung Samland on 18 Feb. In a telephone conversation with the commander of Armee-Abteilung Samland during the course of 18 Feb, I was told that he was unhappy that contrary to his instructions I had positioned the whole of 5 Pz.Div. and 561 VG.Div. too for the planned attack. The commander advised me that I would have to answer for these measures myself. I explained that only events could judge me and that I was ready to answer for everything, as success or failure of this attack meant life or death for the entire garrison and civil population.
19 Feb dawned. In a remorseless attack, though also with the toughest fighting against powerful enemy resistance with, regretfully, considerable casualties, the brave East Prussian soldiers of 1 Inf.Div. pushed into the key position of Metgethen and penetrated to the trenches beyond. In the school at Metgethen alone, a position with 25 anti-tank guns was seized in an unopposed attack. Hauptmann Schröder, of Div.Füs.Btl.1 reported the heavy fighting:
'The battalion stood ready for the attack in the HKL from 2300. The right front was 1 Schwadron under Rittmeister von Saucken, left was 2 Schwadron under Oberleutnant von Lüttwitz. 3 Schwadron was held ready as a reserve on the high ground with HQ and was intended for deployment on the left flank against a dense wooded area, to guard against surprise attacks from there.
1 Schwadron had to cross a stream at the commencement of firing, break into a set of positions just south of the girls' school, and roll up the posiiton in the girls' school from its flank. A mine clearance troop was subordinated to help cross the stream. 2 Schwadron was tasked with crossing relatively open ground with only a few ruined houses in the southeast part of Metgethen, to break into the Russian trenches, and to take the fire station as its first objective.
The heavy 4 Schwadron was to support the attack from previously reconnoitred firing positions by firing on predetermined targets, and to move forwards to new positions after a successful penetration. Careful registering fire by the heavy mortars was successfully carried out on 17 and 18 Feb. With the exception of heavy harrassing fire on the preparation area of 1 Schwadron, resulting in a few casualties, everything went according to plan and, contrary to expectations, without fuss.
Heavy sounds of fighting from the attack by the left neighbouring formation, 15 minutes before the commencement of the attack, fortunately resulted in only minimal alertness in the Russian positions. This premature attack could have jeopardised the desired surprise [of our attack]. For the [Russian] commander of the sector in question, it had a further unhappy consequence. After a rapid move from the preparation area, 1 Schwadron in particular succeeded after hard fighting in penetrating the first trenches of the deep Russian defensive system. Numerous dug-in anti-tank guns and automatic flamethrower barriers as well as the strongest defence around the girls' school threatened to fragment the fighting. By prudent concentration of forces, the commander succeeded in taking one defensive position after another and broke through the defences after very tough and costly fighting, and threw the Russians back.
The attack by Füs.Reg.22's Kampfgruppe, commanded by Hauptman Malotka, was - thanks to the mass of tanks deployed in this flank and further to the right - able to advance quickly. In a swift pursuit through the town, the battalion won through to the western exit from Metgethen, with its open left flank secured by 3 Schwadron.'
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