Operation Solstice

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Operation Solstice
Part of Eastern Front of World War II
Date February 15, 1945 – February 18, 1945
Location Stargard in Pommern, Pomerania, Germany
53°12′00″N 15°01′12″E / 53.20000°N 15.02000°E / 53.20000; 15.02000Coordinates: 53°12′00″N 15°01′12″E / 53.20000°N 15.02000°E / 53.20000; 15.02000
Result Soviet victory
Germans delay Soviet attack on Berlin
Belligerents
 Germany  Soviet Union
Commanders and leaders
Walther Wenck
Felix Steiner
Georgy Zhukov

Operation Solstice (German: Unternehmen Sonnenwende), also known as Unternehmen Husarenritt or the "Stargard tank battle",[1] was one of the last German armoured offensive operations on the Eastern Front in World War II.

It was originally planned as a major offensive but was executed as a limited attack. Though it was repulsed by the Red Army, it led to a decision by the Soviet High Command to postpone the planned attack on Berlin for two months.

Planning[edit]

Soviet operations, January - April 1945. The German Sonnenwende offensive can be seen as a blue arrow pointing to the south in the NW area of the map east of Stettin.

The operation took place in response to the Soviet advance on Berlin early in 1945. Starting January 12, 1945 the Soviet Vistula-Oder Offensive had ripped open a gap hundreds of kilometers long in German defensive lines, and the Soviets had subsequently pushed from the Vistula River to the Oder River. As the Soviet advance to the west reached its farthest point, its apex narrowed, leaving long northern and southern flanks into which retreating German formations had moved and along which the Germans were attempting to reestablish a cohesive defensive line.

General Heinz Guderian had originally planned to execute a major offensive against the 1st Belorussian Front, cutting off the leading elements of Georgy Zhukov's forces east of the Oder. The Soviet forces were to be attacked from Stargard (Pomerania) in the north as well as from Glogau (Silesia) and Guben (Brandenburg) in the south.[2] In order to carry out these plans, he requested that the Courland Pocket be evacuated to make available the divisions trapped there, removed troops from Italy and Norway, and involved Sepp Dietrich's 6th Panzer Army which had been intended for counter-attacks in Hungary. In a meeting with Guderian Hitler insisted that Courland be held and that the army continue with its planned attacks in Hungary; the meeting rapidly degenerated into a heated and farcical argument.[3]

After agreeing on a more limited counter-offensive, Hitler and Guderian then proceeded to have an even more heated argument when Guderian insisted that Walther Wenck direct the offensive rather than Heinrich Himmler (the commander of Army Group Vistula). Hitler despite "almost screaming", according to Guderian's account, gave in on this point.[2][4]

Operational goals[edit]

In its final form, Operation Solstice consisted of a more limited counter-attack than had been originally planned by the three corps of the Eleventh SS Panzer Army, which was being assembled in Pomerania, against the spearheads of the 1st Belorussian Front. The German forces would first attack along a fifty-kilometre front around Stargard south-eastwards towards Arnswalde where a small garrison had been encircled with their ultimate objective being the relief of Küstrin.

The Wehrmacht originally codenamed the operation Husarenritt, but the SS insisted on the name Sonnenwende.[1]

Russian intelligence[edit]

View along the shore of Lake Madü

Zhukov had been made aware of a buildup of German forces opposing his 61st and 2nd Guards Tank Armies, but did not have information as to the exact timing and nature of the attack.[5] The Stavka of the Supreme Main Command had noted with concern that while the Germans had moved thirteen divisions between the main Soviet forces and Berlin, thirty-three divisions had concentrated in Pomerania, lending credence to the possibility of a German strike from Pomerania into the exposed northern flank of the 1st Belorussian Front.[6]

Terrain[edit]

The area of Pomerania in which the battle was fought is flat to very slightly rolling farmland dotted by woodlands and lakes, and cut by streams. Lake Plöne is a large lake about five kilometers (three miles) long, but Lake Madü stretches from north to south for some fifteen kilometers (nine miles). Both lakes were in the attack sector of the XXXIX Panzer Corps. Most settlements were villages or small towns. The predominantly open nature of the country favored mechanized warfare but also offered good fields of fire for defending anti-tank weapons and commanding views for artillery observers. As the weather permitted, the open country would have favored long-range weapons such as the German 8.8 cm KwK 43 and the Soviet 100mm BS-3 field gun, with the Germans holding an edge because of the superior quality of their optical sights.[citation needed]

Deployments[edit]

Wehrmacht[edit]

Over 1,200 tanks were allocated to the offensive, but no trains were available to transport them.[1] In addition, due to serious shortages, only three days' ammunition and fuel were immediately available.[1] German forces had also suffered heavy losses during the January combat in East Prussia and Poland. German sources admitted to 198,000 dead and missing for the first two months of 1945 in the region between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains;[7] Soviet sources claim that operations by the 1st Ukrainian and Belorussian Fronts during the Vistula-Oder Offensive alone resulted in the deaths of 150,000 German troops.[8][note 1] While the Germans were able to make good some of the losses through measures such as the mass mobilization of Volkssturm, the German forces in the east had clearly suffered both significant quantitative and qualitative losses as a result of the two Soviet major offensives in January 1945.

Felix Steiner
Army Corps Division Notes
11th SS Panzer Army
Gen F. Steiner
XXXIX Panzer
Lt Gen K. Decker

On German right
"Holstein" Pz Div
 
[2] 29 Panzer IV at formation; 17 further Panzer IV sent to unit 9 - 11 Feb 1945
10th SS Pz Div
 
[2] 38 Panzer IV, 53 Panther tanks on 8 Feb 1945
4th SS PzG Div
 
[2]
28th SS Inf Div
 
[2] 20 Hetzer at start of Feb 1945
III SS Panzer
Lt Gen M. Unrein

In German center
11th SS PzG Div
 
[2] Elements of 503rd SS Heavy Tank Battalion attached: 12 Tiger II on 27 Jan 1945
23rd SS PzG Div
 
[2] 20 Hetzer on/about 10 Feb 1945
27th SS Inf Div
 
[2] 10 Hetzer at start of Feb 1945
Führer-Begleit PzG Div
 
[2] 15 Panzer IV, 23 Jagdpanzer IV/70(A) on 2 Feb 1945; 30 Panthers sent to unit 8 - 10 Feb 1945
Korpsgruppe Munzel[9]
Maj Gen O. Munzel

On German left
Führer-Grenadier PzG Div
 
[2] 5 Panzer IV, 18 Panther, 13 Jagdpanzer IV/70 on 27 Jan 1945; 10 Jagdpanther and 16 Panther sent to unit 15 - 17 Feb 1945
163rd Inf Div
 
[2] At least 9,000 men still en route to Pomerania from Norway via Denmark on 15 Feb 1945
281st Inf Div
 
[2]
104th Antitank Brig
 
[2]

[10]

Red Army[edit]

While the 1st and 2nd Belorussian Fronts were impressively large formations, the Soviet forces had also suffered serious losses in the Vistula-Oder Offensive. At the beginning of February 1945, the strength of rifle divisions in the 1st BRF averaged around 4,000 troops[11] and those of the 2nd BRF between 3,000 - 4,000.[12] Soviet army strength was further weakened by the need to besiege encircled groups of German soldiers (Festungen - German: "fortress") in Elbing, Poznan, Deutsch-Krone, and Schneidemühl. Armored strength was also weakened by the recent offensive operations; the 2nd BRF fielded only 297 well-worn tanks early in February 1945.[12] During the period January 12 - February 3, 1945, the 1st BRF suffered 77,342 casualties (7.5% of its assigned strength) while during the East Prussian Offensive of January 13 - February 10, 1945, the 2nd BRF took 159,490 casualties (18% of assigned strength).[13] In the same periods, the 1st Belorussian and Ukrainian Fronts lost 1,267 armored fighting vehicles while the 2nd and 3rd Belorussian Fronts lost a staggering 3,525. Gun and mortar losses for the two groups of fronts were 374 and 1,644, respectively.[14] To compound their difficulties, the Soviets faced supply difficulties as well as increased German air activity, resulting in increased unit requests for anti-aircraft weapons.[15]

Marshal Zhukov
Front Army Subordinate
unit
Notes
1st Belorussian Front (-)[16]
Marshal G. Zhukov
2nd Guards Tank
ColGen S. Bogdanov

On Soviet left
9th Gds Tank Corps
 
12th Gds Tank Corps
 
1st Mech Corps
 
61st
LtGen P. Belov

On Soviet right
9th Gds Rifle Corps
 
80th Rifle Corps
 
89th Rifle Corps
 
6th Art Div
 
533rd Antitank Regt
 
47th
Lt Gen F. Perhorovich

Moving west from the
area of Deutsch-Krone
77th Rifle Corps
 
125th Rifle Corps
 
129th Rifle Corps
 
22nd Art Div
 
4th Gds Antitank Brig
 
163rd Antitank Regt
 
3rd Shock
Maj Gen M. Simonyak

Reinforcement; moving
from area of Jastrow
12th Guards Rifle Corps
 
7th Rifle Corps
 
79th Rifle Corps
 
163rd Gds Antitank Regt
 
1st Guards Tank
Col Gen M. Katukov

Reinforcement; moving
from area of
Frankfurt an der Oder
8th Gds Mech Corps
 
11th Gds Tank Corps
 
41st Gds Antitank Brig
 

The offensive[edit]

T-34
Tiger II

Not all of the German units, which had to be reinforced across the bridges at Stettin were ready on the planned start date of February 15. Nevertheless a part of the central corps, the SS Division Nordland, attacked towards Arnswalde that day.[2] Initially the offensive was successful; the opposing forces of 61st Army were taken by surprise and the German spearhead reached the besieged outpost of Arnswalde and relieved its garrison.[2]

A general attack opened the following day.[2] The central corridor to Arnswalde was widened by the III SS Panzer Corps, pushing part of the Soviet front eight to twelve kilometers back.[17] However, the attack by the XXXIX Panzer Corps was unable to reach the Plöne Lake due to resistance by the Soviet 2nd Guards Tank Army,[9] stalling some 70 kilometers from Küstrin after pushing the Russians out of Sallenthin and Muscherin, reoccupying some land on the eastern shore of Lake Madü,[18] and recapturing Pyritz.[19] Gruppe Munzel pushed some four kilometers to Liebenow, while the III SS Panzer Corps advanced about a kilometer to Reetz. Numbers of Soviet tanks and antitank guns were destroyed by German Tiger II heavy tanks, but the German heavy tanks also took losses.[20] In general, German progress was hindered because of strong Soviet resistance[2] and a thaw that created muddy conditions in which the heavy German tanks performed poorly. Soviet T-34s, on the other hand, with up to twenty-five percent lower ground pressure, had excellent mobility even in those conditions.

On February 17, General Wenck, commander of the offensive, was seriously injured in a car accident. While being driven back from a briefing in Berlin, he took over driving from his driver (who had been on duty for 48 hours) and then himself fell asleep at the wheel.[2] He was replaced by Hans Krebs, but command initiative had already been lost.[2][21] Later that day, Zhukov threw the 3rd Shock Army, which had redeployed from the area of Jastrow, into a counter-attack and the German offensive stalled.

Army Group Vistula halted Sonnenwende on February 18.[2] On February 19, Zhukov initiated a counter-offensive aimed at the capture of Stettin using the 61st and the 2nd Guards Tank Armies as well as the 7th Guards Cavalry Corps. However it stalled in the heavy street fighting during the re-capture of Arnswalde.[22] There was no immediate German withdrawal, but the German command decided on February 21 to withdraw the headquarters of the XXXIX Panzer Corps as well as the Führer-Grenadier, Führer-Begleit, Holstein, and 10th SS Panzer Divisions westward behind Army Group Center, practically ensuring that eastern Pomerania would fall to the Soviets.[9] Zhukov's commitment of the 70th Army into an attack on February 23 spurred a retreat with the German forces losing or abandoning many tanks. On February 24, Marshal Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front renewed the offensive into Pomerania, opening a 60-kilometer (37 mi) wide gap in German lines west of Grudziądz and moving almost fifty kilometers (30 miles) forward, further reducing the cohesion of German defenses.[23]

Outcome[edit]

Despite the initial gains the operation was, in tactical terms, a complete failure. German forces failed to penetrate towards Küstrin and suffered major losses of heavy equipment in the subsequent retreat. However, the Germans gained some unexpected strategic profit as the operation convinced Zhukov and Joseph Stalin that the northern flank of the Soviet advance on Berlin was vulnerable, and therefore the attack on Berlin was postponedby some two months while Pomerania was cleared in the East Pomeranian Offensive.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

Notes
  1. ^ In Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg, author Rüdiger Overmans estimates overall German military deaths in January 1945 were 451,742 (p. 239) and believes up to 2/3 of these losses (some 300,000) occurred in combat on the eastern front (p. 265).
Citations
  1. ^ a b c d Beevor, p.91
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Le Tissier, p.101
  3. ^ Beevor, p.89
  4. ^ Duffy, p.181-82
  5. ^ Duffy, p.183
  6. ^ Erickson, p. 518
  7. ^ Lakowski, p. 559
  8. ^ "26 Января 1945 - От Советского Информбюро" (in Russian). 9may.ru. 
  9. ^ a b c Lakowski, p. 554
  10. ^ Mainly Jentz, pp. 226-228, but 503. SS Heavy Tank Battalion from lexicon-der-wehrmacht.de; note on 23. SS Division from Stoves, p. 313; note on 27. SS Division from Stoves, p. 320; note on 28th SS Division from Stoves, p. 317; note on 163rd Division from Schramm, p. 1097.
  11. ^ Erickson, p. 476
  12. ^ a b Erickson, p. 517
  13. ^ Krivosheev, pages 153 and 155
  14. ^ Krivosheev, p. 263
  15. ^ Erickson, pp. 474-475
  16. ^ Detail on Soviet organization from Боевой состав Советской Армии на 1 февраля 1945 г. (Soviet general staff official order of battle for 1 February 1945)
  17. ^ Ustinov, p. 174
  18. ^ Lakowski, map on p. 602
  19. ^ Erickson, p. 520
  20. ^ Panzer-Regiment 6 (in German), lexicon-der-wehrmacht.de 
  21. ^ Duffy, p.185
  22. ^ Le Tissier, p.102
  23. ^ Erickson, p. 522

References[edit]

External links[edit]