01/12 – The Vistula-Oder Offensive

A Polish crowd welcomes a Soviet ISU-152 tank to Warsaw. Their enthusiasm was likely short-lived. (Twitter.com)

On this day in 1945, units of the Soviet Red Army launched the Vistula-Oder Offensive, an effort to capture strategic Polish population centres including Warsaw and Kraków near the end of WWII. Under the command of Soviet Marshals Georgy Zhukov and Ivan Konev – who had gained hard-fought combat experience at Khalkhin Gol and Stalingrad – elements of the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian Fronts began assaulting Kraków under cover of a heavy artillery bombardment. Soon, the offensive (named for the rivers its men would have to cross) was underway and the Fronts were sweeping through the destroyed streets of Poland’s cities. By February 2nd, much of Poland was under Soviet control – including the infamous concentration camp Auschwitz, where over 1 million people had been killed – and surviving elements of German Army Group A were on the run.

A map of Red Army positions in the final months of WWII. (US Army)

The Vistula-Oder Offensive was a decisive victory for the Red Army on the Eastern Front, but for the newly “liberated” Poles, it proved a mixed blessing. When the Soviet Fronts had arrived in the Vistula Sector in August, the massive and well-prepared Polish Home Army began its long-awaited uprising, expecting immediate help from Zhukov and Konev. Soviet air support was only 5 minutes away, but for the following 63 days, Polish fighters waged the Warsaw Uprising alone. As the Red Army watched, over 15,000 Poles were massacred by German units in the city, and the uprising – the largest act of resistance in Europe – failed.

Furious Poles insist to this day that the Red Army waited for the destruction of the Polish Home Army so future Soviet dominance would not be challenged. In the ensuing months, they were proven correct as Poland was swiftly incorporated into the Soviet Union, well behind the Iron Curtain. For survivors of the liberated camps like Auschwitz, too, their newfound freedom may have been a bitter pill to swallow knowing that their liberation could have come much, much sooner if the Red Army had advanced during the summer of 1944 – instead of waiting for the new year.

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