Chapter Six

1945

On 12 January 1945, the Eastern Front erupted with a massive advance as Konev’s offensive began with the 1st Ukrainian Front, making deep wide-sweeping penetrations against hard-pressed German formations. The Russian offensive was delivered with so much weight and fury, never before experienced on the Eastern Front. The Russians had total numerical superiority over the Germans with seven to one in armour alone. The vast tide of the Red Army soon swallowed up the battlefield and, by the end of the first day of the new offensive, it had torn a huge breach over 20 miles wide in the Vistula front.

On 14 January, Zhukov’s 1st Belorrussian Front began its long awaited drive along the Warsaw–Berlin Axis, striking out from the Vistula south of Warsaw. The city was quickly encircled and fell three days later. The frozen ground ensured rapid movement for the Russian tank crews, but in some areas these massive advances were halted for a time by the skilful dispositions of the Panzerwaffe. Determinedly they held out in small groups of grenadiers supported by Panzers, until they too were annihilated or forced to fall back.

By 25 January, the Russians stood in front of Breslau and two days later the city of Memel fell. As German forces continued to fall back, they tried frantically to prevent the Red Army from bursting across the borders of the Reich and onto the River Oder, which was no more than 50 miles from the Reich capital, Berlin.

Along 200 miles of the defensive front the remaining Panzer divisions had no more than seventy tanks strung out along the front lines and were almost totally unprotected. In spite the overwhelming superiority, German forces prepared their defensive positions along the Oder. However, both the Wehrmacht and their Waffen-SS counterparts had neither the manpower, war plants or transportation to accomplish a proper build-up of forces on the Oder. Commanders could do little to compensate for the deficiencies, and in many sectors of the front they did not have any coherent planning in the event that the defence of the river failed. When the Russians successfully attacked the Oder in mid-April 1945, the hodgepodge force of what was left of the German Army fought out in desperation as the Soviet thrust carved its way across the river, capturing the town of Kustrin, and heading towards the Nazi capital.

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A Sd.Kfz.251 armoured personnel carrier pulls alongside a Sd.Kfz.10/4 on a road somewhere in eastern Germany. The crew of both vehicles have applied extensive foliage over the half-tracks. By the latter half of the war it had become very dangerous for armoured crews to travel by road during daylight hours.

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Waffen-SS troops can be seen standing next to their FlaK gun during a lull in the defensive fighting. In the foreground two Sd.Kfz.10/4 half-tracks can be seen moving along a road flanking a Sd.Kfz.7, towing what appears to be a 150mm s.IG33 howitzer.

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Here in the snow preparing for a fire mission are a number of Panzerwerfer and ammunition wagons. Note the discarded gun tube packages in a heap in the snow. These have been loaded through the vehicle hatches from the wagons in readiness for firing.

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A Sd.Kfz.7 towing an 88mm FlaK 36 or 37 passes a halted Panzerjäger Tiger (P) ‘Ferdinand’. Both vehicles have interesting camouflage schemes comprising of a web type patter effect, which has been created by spraying a lighter colour over the dark sand base colour.

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A rare photograph showing a specially converted half-track with a mounted 37mm FlaK 37 in its elevated position during winter operations. Note the gunner gazing through the tripod-mounted binoculars, trying to deduce the whereabouts of enemy aerial activity.

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A column of Sd.Kfz.251 half-tracks belonging to an unidentified Waffen-SS unit can be seen moving along a road. These vehicles were used extensively during the latter half of the war to transport Panzergrenadiers to the forward edge of the battlefield. Despite being lightly armoured, they could maintain a relatively modest speed and manoeuvre across country and keep up with the fast-moving spearheads.

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Halted next to a lake in Hungary is a line of Sd.Kfz.251/1 Ausf.D. They are all well camouflaged and are painted in a base colour of dark yellow with over sprayed patches and zig-zags of olive green, red and brown.

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A photograph taken the moment a battery of Maultiers open fire against an enemy target during defensive fighting in the latter stages of the war. The last great offensive that brought the Russians their final victory in the East began during the third week of January 1945. The principal objective was to crush the remaining German forces in Poland, East Prussia and the Baltic states.

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An officer converses with a Sd.Kfz.251 crew member during a lull in the fighting during the final months of the war. During these last months it seemed the Germans were being constantly forced to retreat. Many isolated units spent hours or even days fighting a bloody defence.

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Along a typical German defensive position in the latter stages of the war. Here Wehrmacht troops have dug-in and are being defended by armour. In the foreground Sd.Kfz.251 armoured personnel carriers can be seen moving across a field.

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Waffen-SS Sd.Kfz.10/4 mounting a shielded 20mm FlaK gun attempts to cross a river. Alongside the half-track a truck appears to be experiencing some kind of difficulty in the icy water.

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A Sd.Kfz.10 hauling a FlaK gun along a typical muddy road during a defensive withdrawal in the last months of the war. The vehicle is following a horse drawn cart. During the last months of the war, as fuel supplies diminished and losses in armour soared, animal draught became the most predominant way of travelling from one part of the receding front to another.

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On a very muddy road a VW Kübelwagen has halted next to a half-track. Two soldiers are seen conversing. The bad road system in the East had been a constant problem to the German Army throughout the war. As a result of many of the roads being turned into a quagmire, German defensive and offensive operations were often severely affected.

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A Sd.Kfz.10 drives slowly along a very muddy road, more than likely to a medical facility at the rear. By the type of winter uniforms being worn by these soldiers they are attached to a Waffen-SS unit.

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The last battles being fought in front of Berlin and here a pair of Panzergrenadiers, each armed with the Panzerfaust 30, stand next to a camouflaged Sd.Kfz.251 armoured personnel carrier.

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