|Part of Operation Bagration / Eastern Front|
|Soviet Union||Nazi Germany||Polish Home Army|
|Commanders and leaders|
Dietrich von Saucken
|Casualties and losses|
|?||8,000 killed; 5,000 captured in Vilnius alone (Soviet est)||?|
The Vilnius Offensive (Russian: Вильнюсская наступательная операция) occurred as part of the third phase of Operation Bagration, the great summer offensive by the Red Army against the Wehrmacht in June and July, 1944. The Vilnius Offensive lasted from the 5th to the 13th of July 1944, and ended with a Soviet victory. During the offensive, Soviet forces encircled and captured the city of Vilnius; this phase is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Vilnius. Some three thousand German soldiers of the encircled garrison managed to break out, including their commander, Rainer Stahel. After the offensive, the Vilnius or Wilno Region was liberated from Nazi occupation.
From 23 June 1944, the Red Army conducted a major offensive operation under the code-name Operation Bagration, liberating Belarus, and driving towards the Polish border and the Baltic Sea coast. By the beginning of July the front line had been torn open at the seam of German Army Group Centre and Army Group North, roughly on a line from Vitebsk to Vilnius. While a large part of the Soviet force was employed to reduce the German pocket east of Minsk, following the Minsk Offensive Operation, the Soviet high command decided to exploit the situation along the breach to the north, by turning mobile formations towards the major traffic centre of Vilnius, in eastern Lithuania. For the German high command, it became imperative to hold Vilnius, because without it would become almost impossible to re-establish a sustainable connection between the two German army groups, and to hold the Red Army off outside East Prussia and away from the Baltic Sea shores.
Stavka issued a new order, number 220126, to the troops of the 3rd Belorussian Front on July 4. This required them to develop their offensive towards Maladzyechna and Vilnius, capturing the latter no later than 10 July, and to force crossings of the Neman River. The 33rd Army was transferred from the 2nd Belorussian Front in order to assist these objectives.
The German defenders were still in comparative disarray after the Minsk offensive. Remnants of the Fourth Army that had escaped the encirclement, and units of the 5th Panzer Division (reorganised into an ad hoc Kampfgruppe, later redesignated XXXIX Panzer Corps, under General Dietrich von Saucken) fell back to form a defence before Maladzyechna, an important rail junction; but the 5th Guards Tank Army was able to cut the route between there and Minsk on July 3.
- Southern flank of 3rd Panzer Army (Colonel-General Georg-Hans Reinhardt)
- Remnants of Fourth Army (General Kurt von Tippelskirch)
- 3rd Belorussian Front (General Ivan Chernyakhovsky)
Chernyakhovsky ordered that his main mobile 'exploitation' forces, the 5th Guards Tank Army and 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps continue their advance from Minsk on July 5 in the direction of Vilnius, with the aim of reaching the city by the following day: they were to encircle Vilnius from the south and north respectively. The rifle divisions of 5th Army were ordered to follow and close up to them. To the south, the 39th Army was directed to move on Lida, while the 11th Guards Army would advance in the Front's centre.
Soviet reports suggested that units on their northern flank advanced to schedule, noting some resistance from scattered remnants of the destroyed VI Corps of Third Panzer Army, but stated that the 11th Guards Army in particular encountered strong German resistance and several counter-attacks. The 5th Panzer Division was, however, unable to hold Maladzyechna. The Soviet 5th Army was able to advance to the outskirts of Vilnius by July 8, while the 5th Guards Tank Army encircled the city from the south, trapping the garrison.
Lida, another rail junction, was taken by the 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps on the evening of July 8, after the German defenders (largely from the notorious SS units of Gruppe von Gottberg and the Kaminski Brigade) abandoned their positions in old World War I trench lines, despite reinforcement from Weidling's units. The latter gave up their attempt to hold the city on July 9.
The battle for Vilnius
During the battle for the city itself, the Soviet 5th Army and 5th Guards Tank Army engaged the German garrison of Fester Platz Vilnius (consisting of Grenadier Regiment 399 and Artillery Regiment 240 of the 170th Infantry Division, Grenadier Regiment 1067, a battalion from the 16th Parachute (Fallschirmjäger) Regiment, the anti-tank battalion of the 256th Infantry Division and other units) under the command of Luftwaffe Major-General Rainer Stahel. The Soviet 35th Guards Tank Brigade initially took the airport, defended by the battalion of paratroopers; intense street-by-street fighting then commenced as the Soviets attempted to reduce the defence.
The breakout attempt
On 12 July, the garrison's parent formation, Third Panzer Army, counter-attacked. 6th Panzer Division, organised into two groups (Pössl and Stahl) attacked eastwards from outside the encirclement (the divisional commander and Colonel-General Reinhardt personally accompanied the advance group). The opposing Soviet forces, taken by surprise and hampered by extended lines of supply, were not able to hold the cordon and 6th Panzer's forces were able to advance some 50 km to link up with forward elements from the Vilnius garrison. A fierce battle on the banks of the Neris ensued as men of the Polish Home Army unsuccessfully attempted to stop the relief troops. In the city itself, a Soviet attack on the morning of 13 July managed to split the German forces into two pockets centred around the prison and the observatory; around 3,000 Germans escaped through the corridor opened by the 6th Panzer Division before Soviet forces closed the gap. Even so, 12-13,000 German troops were lost in the city, which was finally liberated towards the evening of 13 July.
Despite the Soviet forces' success, Rotmistrov's commitment of a tank corps in costly urban fighting (along with earlier disagreements with his Front commander, Ivan Chernyakhovsky) led to his replacement as commander of 5th Guards Tank Army.
Contribution by the Polish Home Army
The battle was also marked by an uprising under the code-name Operation Ostra Brama by the Polish Home Army, in expectation of the arrival of the Red Army, as part of Operation Tempest. The accounts of the battle given by the Home Army differ from the official Soviet account, particularly with regard to the date of Soviet entry into Vilnius.
While the German aim of holding Vilnius as a Fester Platz or fortress was not achieved, the tenacious defence made a contribution in stopping the Red Army's drive west for a few precious days: most importantly, it tied down the 5th Guards Tank Army, which had been instrumental in the initial successes of the Red Army during Operation Bagration. This delay gave German forces a chance to re-establish something resembling a continuous defence line further to the west. Hitler recognised this achievement by awarding Stahel the 76th set of Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross awarded during the war. Nevertheless, the outcome fell far short of what the German command had hoped for, and the continuous frontline that was established only held for a short time. Without the traffic network based on Vilnius, the German position in the southern Baltics was untenable. By the end of July, the 3rd Belorussian Front was ordered to conduct the Kaunas Offensive Operation to further extend the gains of Operation Bagration.
Most of the few remaining Jewish residents of Vilnius, who had been afforded some measure of protection in the HKP 562 forced labor camp by the actions of a Wehrmacht officer, Karl Plagge, were murdered by the SS as Soviet forces approached the city. Plagge was however able to issue a coded warning which resulted in around 250 lives being saved.
- Operation Bagration, the strategic offensive of which this action was a part
- Karl Plagge
- Roza Shanina, Soviet sniper who fought in the battle for Vilnius
- Theodor Tolsdorff, German officer decorated for his role in the battle
- Glantz, p.154
- Dunn, p.158
- Glantz, p.155
- Glantz, p.158
- Official Soviet accounts, and later accounts based on them, speak of a very large number of German troops being parachuted into the city several days into the siege before being wiped out as they landed. German orders of battle do not show such troops. It is possible the accounts are in fact referring to the small number of troops from the 16th Parachute Regiment participating in the defence; other elements of the same unit were present in the relief force.
- Glantz, p.160
- Dunn, W. Soviet Blitzkrieg: The Battle for White Russia, 1944, Lynne Riener, 2000, ISBN 978-1-55587-880-1
- Glantz, D. (ed.) Belorussia 1944 - the Soviet General Staff Study
- Liberation of Vilna Soviet footage of the battle at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
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