Dresden and Poznan: Two different ways to wage war

The Liberation of Poznan by the Soviet Union

The Liberation of Poznan by the Soviet Red Army

By YURIY RUBTSOV

The Red Army and British-American forces had one enemy – the German Wehrmacht – but quite often they waged different wars. The liberation of the Polish city Poznan by the Red Army and the bombing of Dresden by [other Allied countries] – one event following one week after the other – 70 years ago in February 1945. These two examples provide a good illustration of this.

The liberation of Poznan by the Soviet Union

During the Vistula-Oder Offensive, the 1st Belarussian Front under the command of Marshal Georgi Zhukov, the “Hero of the Soviet Union,” managed to secure two bridgeheads west of the Vistula River between July 27 and August 4, 1944, opening the way to Berlin. The concentration of German forces were left blocked but not defeated at Schneidemüh and Poznan. With the main forces continuing to advance in a westerly direction, it took time and effort to rout the German grouping at Poznan.

General Vasily Chuikov, the commander of the 8th Army (who later became Marshall of the Soviet Union), was responsible for the operation planned to smash the enemy forces there. In his memoirs he said the German-built fortifications were classic Vauban-style fortresses… The design envisioned the construction of underground forts in the center and citadels at the junctures to accommodate a large garrison.

In Poznan the city and fortifications were strongly defended and integrated into a single defence plan to coordinate fire. The Fort Winiary citadel stood on a hill to the north of the city centre. Around the perimeter of the city were 18 massive 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 – a 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 an upper storey. Among the forts, to the rear, were one-storey brick bunkers. These were clad in concrete almost a full metre thick, and were used as storehouses. 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.” Together with Volkssturm (a German national militia of the last months of World War II), Poznan was defended by the 60,000-strong garrison.

Liberation of Poland by the Red Army.

Liberation of Poland by the Red Army.

The offensive started early in the morning on January 26. The first strike was delivered from the south. It was unexpected by the enemy. Two southern forts were seized on the Warta River’s western bank. As a result, the troops and tanks penetrated the ring of forts to attack the enemy from behind. The attack from the north produced little result. The Soviet troops did not attack from the west. Chuikov remembers that a way out was left on purpose to allow the enemy to withdraw from the city-fortress. But Germans did not leave. A long hard battle lay ahead. On January 28, another attack was launched. Chuikov addressed the surrounded German troops in Poznan [and issued] an ultimatum. It read: “Officers and soldiers of the Poznan garrison. You are surrounded. There is no way you can leave the city. I, General Chuikov, offer you to immediately lay down your arms and surrender. I guarantee life and return home after the war is over. Otherwise you’ll be wiped out. The death of civilians in Poznan will be your responsibility. Do not hesitate. Raise white flags and come to our side. General Chuikov.”

But the garrison had no intention of surrendering. Soviet aviation and artillery strikes delivered on fortifications tried to avoid damage to the buildings inside the city and casualties among civilians. The Fort Winiary citadel was ruined. The soldiers hid underground.

By February 5 the assault teams had fully liberated the residential areas. After February 12 the Fort became the main target. As the Soviet troops approached, the resistance grew. The 5-8 metre high brick walls protected the enemy, preventing tanks from advancing. Heavy artillery pieces were moved closer to fire at the Fort from a distance of 300 metres. But even 203 mm projectiles did not inflict much damage to the thick walls.

At that time, the 1st Belarus Front forces moved to the west reaching the Oder. The general assault started on February 18 and lasted without stop for four days. Having built an assault bridge, Red Army tanks and assault guns of the 259th and 34th crossed into the main grounds of the citadel at 3 am on February 22 commencing the final struggle for the old fortress. The groups of 20-200 men started to surrender. Only 12,000 troops remained of the 60,000-strong garrison. The bloody fighting ended on February 23, 1945, the 17th anniversary of the Red Army. Two hundred and twenty-four artillery pieces fired 20 salvos to salute the victory.

The bombing of Dresden by the Allies

Aftermath of the 1945 bombing of Dresden, Germany by Allied forces

Aftermath of the 1945 bombing of Dresden, Germany by Allied forces

Here is an example of the war waged by the allies. On February 13-15, they delivered air strikes against Dresden which inflicted damage comparable to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks.

Americans called the operation “Thunderstrike.” Who was it targeted against?

The city had no significant defence industry facilities and was flooded with refugees.

A Royal Air Force (RAF) memo issued to airmen on the night of the attack said: “Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany and not much smaller than Manchester is also the largest unbombed builtup area the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westward and troops to be rested, roofs are at a premium, not only to give shelter to workers, refugees, and troops alike, but to house the administrative services displaced from other areas.” Why raze to the ground a city that had no substantial importance for the war effort? The very same memo was rather cynical about it. It read: “The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front… and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.” That’s what the Royal Air Force really did by bombing from a safe altitude a city flooded with demoralized people.

As the end of war was approaching British-American aviation started to deliver more frequently politically motivated strikes, destroying cities of no significance for the German war effort that were soon to be liberated by the Red Army, for instance Prague, Sofia etc. Dresden is the brightest example of how this vicious tactic was employed. The devastated area in Dresden exceeded by four times the devastated area of Nagasaki. Fifteen-hundred degree heat hit the larger part of the city. People running to reach the city’s outskirts fell into melting asphalt. Smoke was 45 metres high. At least 25,000 died. Some experts say the death toll was as high as 135,000.

Günter Wilhelm Grass, a German writer and recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature, called the bombing a war crime. This point of view is supported by many.

Dr. Gregory Stanton, president of Genocide Watch, expressed himself more bluntly saying the Allied firebombing of Dresden and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes and also acts of genocide.


Source: Strategic Culture Foundation, February 26, 2015. Edited slightly for grammar.

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