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The Battle of Breslau

breslau oder

Read this abridged version of an article on the Battle of Breslau and answer the comprehension questions below.

In August 1944, Adolf Hitler declared the city of Breslau in Lower Silesia a fortress (Festung), and ordered that it must be defended at all costs. He named Karl Hanke (Gauleiter* / Governor of Lower Silesia since June 1941) the city's "Battle Commander" (Kampfkommandant).

On 19 January 1945, Hanke lifted a ban on the evacuation of women and children and the civilian population began to leave the city. However, with the majority of transport links having been smashed by Soviet shelling, many evacuees had to leave the city on foot and as a result many tens of thousands froze to death in icy snowstorms and −20 °C weather during this makeshift evacuation. Many of those who survived the journey arrived in Dresden only to perish in the bombing of that city a few weeks later.

The German Army (Wehrmacht Heer), aided by the Home Guard (Volkssturm) and slave labourers, then turned the city into a military fortress. Breslau was to be capable of a lengthy defence against the advancing Soviets. A large area of the city centre was demolished and turned into an airfield. Late in January, a regiment of Hitler Youth (Hitler-Jugend) was sent to reinforce the garrison of Festung Breslau. SS regiment "Besslein" (which included volunteers from France and the Netherlands) also took part.

The city was besieged as part of the Lower Silesian Offensive Operation on 13 February 1945, by Soviet troops commanded by Marshal Ivan Koniev, and the encirclement of Breslau was completed the following day. Even approximate estimates vary greatly concerning the number of German troops trapped in Breslau. Some sources claim that there were as many as 150,000 defenders, and others 80,000. The Siege of Breslau consisted of destructive house-to-house street fighting. The city was bombarded to ruin by Soviet artillery, and the destruction caused by the German defenders.

On 15 February, the German Luftwaffe started an airlift to the besieged garrison. For 76 days, until 1 May, the Luftwaffe made more than 2000 sorties with supplies and food. More than 1,638 tons of supplies were delivered. On 22 February, the 6th Army occupied three suburbs of Breslau, and during the next day, Soviet troops were in the southern precincts of the city itself. By 31 March there was heavy artillery fire into the north, south, and west of Breslau suburbs.

Prior to and during the siege what was termed 'defeatism' was punished by death. The deputy mayor, Dr. Wolfgang Spielhagen, was executed in the main square for this very reason. His death was particularly barbaric. He was dragged around The Ring tied to the back of a truck before being shot by the Volkssturm in front of a monument to Friedrich II. A Nazi Party functionary delivered the coup de grace with a shot into Spielhagen's brain. Hanke issued a proclamation with the words "He who fears an honourable death dies in disgrace!" which became the slogan of Festung Breslau. Execution squads roamed the city, murdering pessimists, looters and anyone believed to be failing in their duty to the Fatherland.

breslau ring

Local German communists called for an end to the resistance of the city in flyers. In a pamphlet titled the "Freiheits-Kaempfer" (Freedom fighters) it called for an end to the fighting and told the local population "not to be afraid of the Red Army who came as liberators". Seventeen of the members of the resistance group were executed on Hanke's orders.

On 6 May, after 82 days of siege and shortly before the unconditional surrender of Germany in World War II, General Niehoff surrendered Festung Breslau to the Soviets. During the siege, Soviet forces inflicted approximately 30,000 civilian and military casualties and took more than 40,000 prisoners, while suffering a total of around 60,000 casualties.

Breslau was the last major city in Germany to surrender, only two days before the end of the war in Europe. The garrison in Berlin having surrendered four days earlier than Breslau on the 2 May.

Gauleiter (Governor) Hanke fled just prior to Breslau's surrender and attached himself to the 18th SS-Freiwilligen-Panzer-Grenadier-Division based in Prague. He was captured and killed attempting to escape by Czech partisans on 8 June 1945.

soviet troops breslau

Breslau was transferred to Poland under the terms of the Potsdam Conference and renamed Wrocław. Most of the German inhabitants in Wrocław fled or were forcibly expelled between 1945 and 1949 and moved to the Soviet occupation zone or Allied occupation zones in Germany. 



*A Gauleiter was the party leader of a regional branch of the NSDAP (the Nazi Party) or the head of a Gau or of a Reichsgau. Gauleiter was the second highest Nazi Party paramilitary rank, subordinate only to the higher rank Reichsleiter and to the position of Führer. During World War II, the rank of Gauleiter was obtained only by direct appointment from Adolf Hitler.

Watch a film on the Siege of Breslau

See a collection of pre-war images of Breslau / Wroclaw


Comprehension Questions 

1 - When did Karl Hanke become Gauleiter (Governor) of Lower Silesia?

2 - What is the English word for Festung?

3 - Where did many of the civilian population of Breslau flee to in January 1945?

4 - Why was a large part of the centre of Breslau demolished by those defending the city?

5 - How were people from France and the Netherlands involved?

6 - What role did Marshal Ivan Koniev have in the battle for Breslau?

7 - Who was Wolfgang Spielhagen?

8 - How long did the siege of Breslau last?

9 - How many Soviet troops are believed to have been killed taking the city?

10 - Which city surrendered later - Berlin or Breslau?


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