Battle of Poznan – 25th of January, 68th anniversary – I. Short history of the Battle and introduction

On my shelf there is a pile of machine-typed letters I “inherited” in 2009. They  were passed on to me by a member of the association of former “Poznan Fighters” (Verband der ehemaligen Posenkämpfer) and were written by former Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe soldiers between 1964 and 2004, soldiers that fought in the Battle of Poznan in 1945.

The association, which disbanded in 2008, was special, Its sole purpose was to keep the memory of the battle alive and by collecting and evaluating as many eye-witness reports as possible, to locate the graves and final resting places of the comrades that went missing in February 1945. At its peak it had about 500 active members most of which supplied reports of their experiences in the battle to the associations archivist. It is these letters, all neatly copied by typewriter which now lie in front of me. They give a fascinating insight about what happened in these two fateful days within the Fortress of Poznan.

This month and the next I will start to translate a selection of them to post them on my site. They have never been published before and I hope you will find them as fascinating as I do. The tales of the ordinary german soldier, tales of combat, death, survival, fear and comradeship. I will try to publish one or two letters each week, depending on how much spare time I have. 

There is very little photographs of the battle so please excuse the lack of them within the short history published here. I have been in a rush when writing this history and it is only a rough account on what happened, just to give all readers a basis when I publish the first letters. Further information can be found in these books;

  • Maciej Karalus und Michał Krzyżaniak: Poznań 1945. Bitwa o Poznań w fotografii i dokumentach. Der Kampf um Posen in Bild und Dokument. Battle for Poznan in the photograph and documents (= Festung Posen 1945). Verlag Vesper, Poznań 2010
  • Manfried Müller: Posen 1945., Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutsche Feldpost 1939-1945 e.V.
  • Baumann, Günther. Posen ’45, Düsseldorf: Hilfsgemeinschaft ehemaliger Posenkämpfer, 1995.
  • Duffy, Christopher. Red Storm on the Reich, New York: Athenum Press, 1991
  • Szumowski, Zbigniew. Boje o Poznań 1945, Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 1985

Poznan Town Hall after the battle.

“I have been quiet for more than 50 years, always waiting for someone to ask me for the truth. The few that came were grown up men asking me if Mattern got a Knights-Cross and what types of tanks we had in the city. Can you believe that?
For the last 50 years I have been thinking about the men I led against a soviet machine-gun position after breaking out from Fort Grolmann, their bodies lying stiff in the red snow around them. These images haunt me and up until now I have never spoken about it..” –  extract from a letter written by WILHELM BECKMANN, Leutnant a.D., Schule V für Fahnenjunker der Infanterie Posen, 1997

The Battle of Poznan was fought in World War 2 as part of the Vistula-Oder-Operation of the Red Army. It began on the 25th of January 1945 after the german forces had been encircled and locked into the city and ended after heavy and brutal fighting on the 23rd of February 1945. About 15000 people were killed in the fighting and about 80% of the city were destroyed.

Between the 12th and 15th of January 1945 with a huge offensive in an area spanning from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathians the Red Army started what became known here in Germany as the “Endkampf im Osten“, the final Battle in the East. Within a few days, far superior soviet forces surging forward from their bridgeheads at the Vistula and Narev had forced large operational breakthroughs. These not only resulted in the flight and evacuation of millions of german civilians, but also in the complete destruction of Heeresgruppe A (Army Group A) positioned in the fore-field of the Warthegau. By the end of January 1945 the first soviet units had reached Küstrin. From there only 60 kilometers separated them from Berlin.

On the 18th of January Arthur Greiser, Gauleiter of the Warthegau, who only a few weeks earlier had declared that in his Gau “not a single meter of ground” would be given to the soviets had grudgingly given his permission to evacuate women and children from the eastern part of the Warthegau and its capital Poznan. By then most of the ethnic germans living in the area had already fled west. By the 23rd of January 1945 about 70000 germans had been evacuated from the city, many of  them fleeing on their own, without support, defence and proper equipment. The majority of the polish population (an estimated 150.000 from a total 200.000) stayed inside the city.

flucht

Greiser himself had already evacuated himself and his staff on the 20th of January. Before that the city had been declared a “fortress” and its defenders had been informed that Poznan had to be held “at all costs”. Command of the “fortress” was given to Generalmajor Ernst Mattern, former commander of the Poznan garrison.

The precise number and names of the units defending Poznan have been hotly debated for years and many educated (and uneducated) guesses have been made. Looking at the Defenders a problem arises. Whereas as it’s quite clear what units were garrisoned in and around Poznan before the battle, the situation is very different once the it had started. There are no documents what units were actually used in the defence, which units were withdrawn from the fighting or which units evacuated/fled west. Add to this the fact that from January 1945 Poznan had been a beacon for scattered Waffen-SS and Army personnel and units fleeing west and that many of these were at once integrated into the defending forces.

In 1975 the polish historian Stanisław Okęcki estimated that there were around 32.500 defenders within the city whereas Zbigniew Szumowski speaks of more than 61.000 (basing his numbers on russian army sources dating from WW2). These numbers  belong to the realm of fantasy. Generalmajor Mattern himself estimated that he had around 12.000 men under his command. Looking at the numbers published by the Asscociation of former Posen fighters (Bund der ehemaligen Posenkämpfer), the defenders numbered between 12.000 up to 15.000 men and personally I am inclined to trust these sources.

The “elite” core of the defending units was made up by 1.500 pupils of the Schule V für Fahnenjunker der Infanterie Posen (School V for infantry officer candidates Posen). The “pupils” were Wehrmacht NCOs who had earned their rights to become officers by distinguished service, bravery and/or their experience. In it grizzled Veterans shared rooms and benches with Junkers half their age. A mixed bunch, but being experienced and motivated a fundamental core of the defenders. Just before the battle all pupils were promoted to the rank of Leutnant (Lieutenant). During the battle they were put in command of companies, platoons and squads. Others acted as tactical advisors and were a welcome addition to the cities military command structure. Due to its fighting capacity Kampfgruppe (Battlegroup) Lenzer was another pillar of Poznans defences. Named after its commander Obersturmbannführer Wilhelm Lenzer is was made up from various Waffen-SS units that were inside the city when it was declared a fortress. Heavy firepower was provided by eight Flak batteries that were stationed inside the city. The reminder was made up by scattered elements of regular army formations, Policemen, five batallions of Landesschützen, a Volkssturm Batallion, Railway workers, Firemen and other service branches.

Posen2

This colorful mix of units had access to up to (actual number is unkown) 30 StuG assault guns (StuG IIIs and StuG IVs destined to be delivered to Sturmgeschütz-Ersatz-und Ausbildungs-Abteilung 500),  two Panthers (Panzer V) and one Tiger (Panzer VI) and a unknown number of self propelled Flak guns (mostly dual or quad 20mm guns). Artillery support was provided by eight batteries of Fortress artillery.

As I said, the actual number of Sturmgeschütze is unknown the only thing I know for sure is that there was at least one battery of SP Guns (StuG) of Sturmgeschütz-Ersatz-und Ausbildungs-Abteilung 500 operating close to and within the city (One Batterie = 10 assault guns).

The list below compiled by the Association of former Posen fighters is probably the closest we can get to the truth.

  • Schule V für Fahnenjunker der Infanterie Posen
  • Sturmgeschütz-Ersatz-und Ausbildungs-Abteilung 500
  • SS-Kampfgruppe des Obersturmbannführers Lenzer
  • Landesschützenbataillon 312
  • Landesschützenbataillon 475
  • Landesschützenbataillon 647
  • Landesschützen-Ers.- und Ausb.-Bataillon 21
  • Standort-Bataillon z.B.V. Posen
  • Festungs-Infanterie-Bataillon 1446
  • Festungs-MG-Bataillon 82
  • Parts of MG-Bataillon 83 (Hptm. Krack)
  • Füsilier-Kp. Wehrkreis III
  • 1.-12. Versprengten-Kp. (12 coys of scattered soldiers)
  • Festungs-Artillerie Gruppe West
  • Festungs-Artillerie Gruppe Ost
  • Festungs-Pionier-Kompanie 66
  • Festungs-Pak-Abteilung 102
  • Pak-Aufstellungsstab Lippolt
  • Teile Festungs-Flak-Abteilung 829 (Heer)
  • Flak-Abteilung Stüwe (Luftwaffe)
  • Weitere Flak-Einheiten (various Flak units)
  • Dolmetscher-Ers.-und Ausb.-Abteilung XXI
  • Five Alarm Batallions:
  • Flieger-Ers.-u.Ausb.-Bataillon 1 Posen
  • Flieger-Bewährungs-Btl., Auffangstab Luftwaffe
  • Polizeiverbände Posen, incl. Feuerschutzpolizei
  • 1 Volkssturm-Bataillon (Götze), 2 Nachschub-Kompanien
  • Werkschutz Fokke-Wulf, Werkschutz DWM, Teile Stalag (Factory Industrial Security, Focke Wulf Works)
  • 1 techn. Kompanie, Sammel San-Park, Zentral-Ambulanz
  • Wehrmacht-Übernachtungsheim und weitere Splittereinheiten (Wehrmachts Hostel personnel)
  • Bewaffnete Eisenbahnerverbände (armed railway workers)
  • Flak-Untergruppe Kurth, Adj. Schulz
  • Schw.Fflak, Abt. 216/2 Hptm. Küster

The defenders made use of some of the surviving Festung Posen fortifications that had been built during Prussian rule in the 19th century. The Fort Winiary citadel stood on a hill to the north of the city centre. Around the perimeter of the city were 18 massively built forts, spaced at intervals of about 2 kilometres in a ring with a radius of about 5 kilometres. General Chuikov described the forts as

. . . underground structures each with several storeys, the whole projecting above the surrounding terrain. Only a mound was visible above ground — the layer of earth covering the rest. Each fort was ringed by a ditch ten metres wide and eight metres deep, with walls revetted with brickwork. Across the ditch was a bridge, leading to one of the upper storeys. Among the forts, to the rear, there were one-storey brick bunkers. These were clad in concrete almost a full metre thick, and were used as stores. The upper works of the forts were sufficiently strong to provide reliable protection against heavy artillery fire. . . . the enemy would be able to direct fire of all kinds against us both on the approaches to the forts and within them, on the rampart. The embrasures were such that flanking fire from rifles and machine-guns could be directed from them.

Even if that sounds quite impressive, By 1945 most of the defensive works in the city had become obsolete and gave only minimal defence to the firepower of the age. Only 30 years before they had already been classed as indefensible by Paul von Hindenburg.

Poznań lay on the main route between Warsaw and Berlin, and in German hands, was a serious obstacle to Soviet resupply efforts between Poznań and Berlin. Thus, the Red Army would have to clear the city of German troops before the final assaults designed to capture Berlin and end the war could begin.

On 21 January 1945 the Soviet 1st Guards Tank Army forced a crossing of the Warta River north of the city, but by 24 January these bridgeheads had been abandoned in favor of better bridgeheads south of Poznań. Meanwhile, Red Army tank units had swept north and south of the city, capturing hundreds of German aircraft in the process. Moving further west, the Soviet tank units left the capture of the city to other Red Army forces.

By 25 January, the Soviet 8th Guards Army had arrived and began a systematic reduction of the fortress. The following day, two of Poznań’s forts in the south fell to a hasty assault conducted by the 27th and 74th Guards Rifle Divisions. This initial success allowed Chuikov’s troops to penetrate the ring of forts and attack other forts from inside the city.

On 28 January, the German high command relieved Generalmajor Ernst Mattern as the fortress commander and replaced him with a dedicated Nazi, Generalmajor Ernst Gonell. Gonell imposed draconian discipline on the German garrison. In some instances, German troops attempting to surrender were shot by their own side.

Ultimately, the reduction of Festung Posen would consume the efforts of four divisions from Chuikov’s army and two divisions of Colonel-General V. Ia. Kolpakchi’s 69th Army. The 117th and 312th Rifle Divisions of the 91st Rifle Corps (69th Army) were deployed on the east side of the city. To the north, the 39th Guards Rifle Division of Chuikov’s 28th Guards Rifle Corps, and to the south, Chuikov’s 29th Guards Rifle Corps composed of the 27th, 74th, and 82nd Guards Rifle Divisions were arrayed against theFestung. By the southwestern suburb of Junikowo, the 11th Guards Tank Corps took up positions to block any German attempt at retreat.

Poznan was a major transportation hub lying close to the soviet route from Warsaw to Berlin. As long as the city was in german hands it was a major threat to the soviet lines of supply and because of that the soviets needed to take it. By the 25th of January the city was encircled, its defenders were trapped. On the same day Poznan was declared to be a Festung (Fortress) by Heinrich Himmler who also send a radio message promising the defenders, whose fate was already sealed, not to abandon them. The german army did not have the forces to relieve the besieged defenders and Himmler aswell has Hitler denied them any kind of help. On the 28th of January the soviet air force began a massive bombardment of the city while in the meantime soviet infantry began to move in, fighting its way forward from house to house. The ring around the defenders was tightening.

On the 30th of January Generalmajor Mattern was relieved of his command and exchanged with Generalmajor Ernst Gonell. Gonnel had been in command of the Fortress section “EAST” before that and had been in charge of the Officers cadet school V (Fahnenjunkerschule) before the Battle. Highly energetic and experienced he was everything that Mattern was not. According to period reports Gonell was sure that help was on the way and that the defenders would be relieved soon.
In the night from the 30th to the 31st of January 1945 around 1200 soldiers garrisoned inside Fort Grolmann (Fort VIII), now completely cut off and surrounded, received the order to break out. In small groups they tried reaching the german lines in the west. While that was going on the fighting inside the city continued. By then six soviet divisions (Four of 8th Guard Army and two of 69th Army) were fighting inside and around the city.
On the 5th of February they managed to take the provisional airfield “Zeppelinwiese” in the district of Weinern close to the citadel. A severe blow to the defenders as this airfield had been used by the planes of Luftflotte 6 to fly in supplies. Up until then 110 tons of ammunition and cables had been flown into the fortress and 277 wounded and an unknown number of women and children had been flown out of it.

By the time the airfield had been taken the soviets were already in control of a large part of Poznan. On the 11th of February Generalmajor Gonell (he only had been promoted two days before) sent a message to the Führers Headquarters that his troops were “weary and tired of battle and were slowly becoming apathetic as there was no hope of relief”
One day later most of the surviving defenders had fallen back to around and into the Citadel, the old prussian fortress, were the battle was reach its brutal crescendo. The german soldiers (around 2000 men) trapped and cut off east of the river Warta were more lucky. Having no chance to reach the Citadel they were allowed to try the breakout.

On the 18th of February the soviets began the assault on the citadel, the attackers crossing the citadels moat balancing on overturned ladders. When crossing they were taken under constant fire from the citadels redoubts.  After three days of heavy fighting with flamethrowers and explosives the redoubts were silenced.  On this day the defenders sent their last radio message telling the outside world that the citadel was about to fall. One day later, on the 23rd of February 1945 at 0300h Generalmajor Gonnel gave the order to cease-fire and to capitulate. Only a small number of german soldiers managed to slip through the soviet lines to escape. The reminder, the ones not killed at once, went into soviet captivity. Gonnel himself shot himself soon afterwards.

The Germans held out in Poznań for almost a month. Doubtlessly, their possession of the city complicated Soviet resupply efforts, but other influences had also convinced the Stavka to pause the Red Army advance at the Oder River instead of attempting to push on to Berlin in February 1945.

The battle left over half (90% in the city center) of Poznań severely damaged by artillery fire and the effects of infantry combat in the city blocks.
Over 5,000 German troopers who fell in the battle are buried at Milostowo cemetery. Many others were killed by soviet soldiers after being taken prisoner. Many of them buried where they fell, months after the battle.  An estimated 400-600 wounded soldiers were killed inside the cellars under the citadel by soviet flamethrower teams. Hundreds of the soldiers that managed to break out of the besieged city were never seen again, missing up this day. The Soviets are estimated to have lost over 12,000 men by the battle’s midpoint around 3 February 1945. The total number of soviet dead up the end of the battle is still unknown and realistic numbers were never made available.

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5 thoughts on “Battle of Poznan – 25th of January, 68th anniversary – I. Short history of the Battle and introduction

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