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Eastern Front

The Vistula Front

After the Red Army arrived at the Vistula River in late July 1944, Luftwaffe reconnaissance focused on the river south of Warsaw where three bridgeheads had been established (Map 1). The Soviets used the period between July 1944 and January 1945 to assemble an overwhelmingly superior force in the bridgeheads. By the time the Vistula-Oder Offensive was launched on 12 January, the three armies of Wehrmacht Army Group A faced the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian Fronts with a total of 21 armies.

Analysis of the imagery from multiple Luftwaffe sorties between August 1944 and January 1945 chronicled the steady buildup of Soviet forces in and around the bridgeheads where Soviet armor and artillery units were densely concentrated. For this article, I have selected examples that illustrate Soviet activity in the bridgeheads, including the construction of bridges, significant units, fighting, training, defenses and airfield construction. While coverage of German-controlled areas was much more limited, evidence of both ground and air activity could still be seen.


The Bridges

The Red Army made its first crossing of the Vistula at the town of Baranow on 29 July. By early 1945 there were at least 25 bridges spanning the river (Maps), plus secondary ones on tributaries to the east. Some light pontoon bridges assembled in the early days were replaced by wooden spans of capable of carrying heavy equipment. Examples of these bridge types can be seen at Magnuszew (Graphics). Coverage between August 1944 and January 1945 showed the bridges were in regular use, and all were heavily defended. On 5 September, the Soviets used smoke pots in an attempt to conceal activity at the original crossing site at Baranow (Graphic).

Baranow - Sandomierz Bridgehead

The Red Army established its first Vistula bridgehead at Baranow on 29 July 1944. Despite strong German resistance, analysis of 5 September Luftwaffe aerial reconnaissance imagery showed there were a total of 12 crossing points -- four at Baranow, five near Tarnobrzeg, and three at Sandomierz, 30 km to the northeast (Map). A 13th crossing was set up at Niekurza 10 km southwest of Baranow by 15 August.

The Germans made several attempts to dislodge the Red Army. The first counterattack, on 1 August, was a two-pronged thrust against Baranow crossing from Tarnobrzeg and Mielec (not shown). On 10 August a second attack was launched from Szydlow in the direction of Staszow, but was stopped at the town of Ogledow (Map). On 6 September armored vehicle tracks could be seen leading from Szydlow to the vicinity of Ogledow; two other smaller attacks were evidently made from the town of Kotuszow 5 km to the northeast.

A third attack, this time from Stopnica, took place on 15 and 16 August. Judging from armored vehicle tracks coming from the vicinity of Stopnica and nearby Piestrzec, this attack took place a wider front in the direction of Strezlce, Olesnica and Pacanow. This effort appears to have reached Strezlce, but elsewhere only made it to the vicinity of Kelpie Dolne, Kelpie Gorne, Szczeglin and Wojeczka. A total of at least 11 destroyed armored vehicles could be seen along the armor paths. Most of these were located near the start of the attack at Nowa Wies and Wojecka (Graphic 4). Other vehicle trackage east of Wojeczka indicated a Soviet counterattack and bomb craters were evidence of air support. Two pieces of Soviet armor and other vehicles were in revetments west of Strezlce(Graphic).

Even though Stopnica was regarded to be the primary Wehrmacht stronghold, the area between the nearby villages of Piestrzec and Zborow was very heavily defended, indicating a German troop concentration or command post was located there (Map). At least 12 occupied anti-aircraft sites surrounded a wooded area that held a probable command post (Graphic). The presence of a few armored vehicles and evidence of heavy tracked vehicle activity indicated Piestrzec was a staging area for the 15 August counterattack.

In contrast to the well-defined Soviet defenses, German defenses appeared sketchy along the western side of the bridgehead. A single German artillery battery 4 km north-northwest of Stopnica marked the rear portion of front lines in this area (Graphic). Notably, the guns in this battery were oriented north-northeast in the direction of Szydlow.

Pulawy Bridgehead

The Soviet foothold at Pulawy, 85 km north of Sandomierz contrasted with the larger, better-developed bridgehead to the south (Map 4). At its widest the Pulawy bridgehead was less than one-third as deep as the one at Baranow and it was served by only four bridge crossings. The front lines also appeared to be more static and the German positions in particular, were better-developed. Some Soviet artillery remained deployed on the east bank of the river (Map). Owing to the proximity of the enemy front lines, additional security measures had been taken. Multi-layered wire barriers had been erected across roads to secure the bridge crossing points (Graphic).

Two Soviet armor units, the 9th and 11th Tank Corps (33rd and 69th Army, respectively), are known to have been deployed within the bridgehead. Analysis of the 5 January imagery revealed at least 35 armored vehicles in the vicinity of the village of Oblasy. Track activity indicated there were likely many more (Graphic). Elsewhere, on the east bank of the Vistula, a Soviet armor battalion had just concluded assault training on an improvised 5 km-long range between the villages of Polanowoka and Daborovka (Graphic). Fresh tracks in the snow showed the route of three armor companies to distinct objectives in wooded areas at the north end of the range. Artillery impacts along a defensive trench on one route indicated fire support was used during the exercise. Although it appeared the armor had probably departed the three sites at least 30 other probable armored vehicles could be identified in wooded parking or staging areas.

Magnuszew Bridgehead

The bridgehead around Magnuszew, only 60 km south of Warsaw, was relatively deep (17 km) and was served by eight bridge crossings. The front lines were well-defined, especially on the northern flank where the Germans had formidable defenses along the Pillica River (Map). As with the other bridgeheads, large concentrations of artillery could be seen throughout, but heavy 203mm B4 howitzers deployed in the vicinity of Lipinki indicated the presence of units of the Supreme High Command (RVGK). Original Russian sources indicate these belonged to the 124th Heavy Artillery Battalion, 6th Artillery Division.

Magnuszew was unique among the three bridgeheads in having the first major Soviet airfield west of the Vistula (Graphic). Trzebien airfield was already serviceable on 20 August, when landing and parking areas had been prepared by rolling and leveling grass fields. By 27 October the landing area had been rendered temporarily unserviceable during the construction new defensive perimeter around the area. Coverage on 5 January revealed the airfield was again serviceable and the addition of 35 parking revetments indicated it was ready for use. Some of the revetments appeared to be covered with netting that usually preceded the arrival of aircraft; at the time, however, it did not appear that aircraft were present. Anti-aircraft defenses around Trzebien had increased. By 5 January, the area around Trzebien airfield had become a strongpoint defended by a number of tanks, which were otherwise not much in evidence in the bridgehead. Eleven of the vehicles were deployed outside the defensive perimeter in a pattern suggesting they were blocking an entrance (Graphic).

The Germans occupied strong, well-developed defenses along the Pillica which were clearly occupied on 5 January (Map, Graphic). They also controlled eight river crossings with intact bridges (one actually built after August 1944). All of the crossings were defended by anti-aircraft positions.

The front between Magnuszew and Warsaw extended to the junction of the Vistula and Narew River where it swung to the northeast. Coverage along the Vistula from October 1944 and January 1945 showed relatively little evidence of a Soviet presence, but this changed at the town of Legionowo where German lines could be seen between the Vistula and Narew and Soviet artillery was deployed (Map). From there, Soviets appeared to occupy a 60 km-long bridgehead along the north bank of the Narew. Otherwise, the front generally followed the Narew to the vicinity of Tykocin where it turned northeast, running through marshy areas and farmland.

The Warsaw Area and Narew River Front

While no major troop concentrations or equipment deployments were noted east of Warsaw, on 15 December German photo interpreters identified a major Soviet deployment 50 km east of the city. According to original Soviet sources, Ceglow was the site of, the main command post of the 1st Belorussian Front (Zhukov). The site was heavily defended and served by an improvised landing area with two Po-2 courier aircraft. (Graphic). Ceglow was situated near an important airfield at Minsk-Mazowiecki, which was demolished by the Germans, but was operational on 18 December.

Soviet and German Airfield Activity

By 5 January 1945 imagery analysis could account for more 100 airfields constructed for or available to the VVS behind the Vistula and Narew fronts. (Maps). Many were crude strips with rolled grass landing surfaces, but some --like the one at Trzbeien-- were afforded parking areas with dispersed revetments. Most were located within 50 km and broke out in groups equating to the three fronts. An analysis of 75 airfields in the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian Front operational areas revealed one-third were in use and most were occupied on average with more than 40 aircraft. Ten of 40 airfields in the 2nd Belorussian Front area were in use.

Even though in August 1944 Trzebien airfield was the main Soviet airfield on the West Bank of the Vistula, at least one more had been laid down within the Baranow bridgehead by mid-September. The field at Malkowice was only 10 km from the front lines. Three other fields were constructed in Baranow somewhat later; two of these, at Grzybow and Koniemolty, were in use in January 1945.

The airfield at Kurow, 14 km east of Pulawy serves as an excellent example of Soviet field airstrips (Graphic). The airfield was already fully operational on 20 August when it was occupied by attack and fighter regiments (28 IL-2 & 26 fighters). A single SB bomber was also present. For a base so close to the front line, Kurow was notable for not having parking revetments and being only lightly defended.

As they retreated, the Germans usually tried to render airfields unusable by plowing landing areas, cratering runways and demolishing facilities. Sometimes this was not successful and the Soviets were able to quickly put a few back in service. Fields near the Vistula like Deblin West were demolished by at least August and the major base at Grojec, 25 km west of the Vistula, had been abandoned by early September.

Of eight Luftwaffe airfields within 150 km of the Vistula, six were in use through at least August 1944. Excellent coverage of a landing area at Dzierzanow, 135 km west-southwest of Warsaw on 22 July 1944 gave some insight into the state of the Luftwaffe on the Vistula front (Graphic) Of 45 Luftwaffe airfield parked at the airfield on that day, 30 were Ju 87 bombers--nearly enough to comprise a full Gruppe. All of the aircraft were gone by 16 August, strongly suggesting that the deployment did not constitute an operational unit. Instead, it is more likely the Ju 87's were from the third Gruppe of Schlachtgeschwader 1 (1st Fliegerdivision), which transitioned to Fw 190's earlier that year. Number three Gruppe operated from Warsaw Okiecie from 22 July to sometime in August. Okiecie, as well as three other major airfields in the area --Grojec, Radom and Lodz-- was still occupied and operational on 22 July.

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