Poland meets its liberators. A warm welcome to the Soviet troops in the streets of a liberated Polish town.



In June 1944 the Eastern front, stretching over 4 thousand km, ran along the Karelian frontier, north of Leningrad (Petersburg), along River Narva to Pskov, Polotsk, Orsha, Mogilev and Bobruisk, and reached River Pripet in Polesye. There it turned westward to Kovel (in Volhynia), Approached River Bug near Vladimir Volynskiy, crossed River Dniester, ran along the Carpathian Mountains, and from there turned south-eastward to Odessa on the Black Sea.

That frontline had created two big bulges: one in the north of Pripet, in Byelorussia, which blocked an important strategic direction to Poland and East Prussia, and the second in the Ukraine, which hampered manoeuvres of large forces along the front.

As the Soviet command prepared offensive operations in the summer of 1944, it decided to carry out a series of strategic operations, coming one after another, and with mutually bound objectives. They had to bring the complete liberation of the Soviet territories, striking Finland, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary out of the alliance with Germany, and, as the result of strategic advantages on the wings, creation of the basis for further strategic advance in the central direction - in Poland and farther to Berlin.

The manpower, weapons and supplies of the Soviet troops had been growing, despite of the losses suffered in the great strategic operations of 1943 and 1944. On 1 June 1944 the total number of the Soviet troops on the German front was 6,969,000 soldiers and officers; in this the land forces numbered 6,077,000 servicemen; air forces, including long-range bomber aviation - 477,000; navy - 357,000 and airborne troops - 58,000. Within first five months of 1944 the Red Army's manpower increased by 200,000 servicemen; the number of tanks and other combat vehicles grew from 5,628 to 9,985; combat aircraft - from 8,818 to 14,787 and pieces of artillery (without rocket-throwers) - to 90,050.

Along the Red Army also fought formed in the Soviet Union Polish, Czechoslovak, Romanian, Yugoslav and French units, which numbered about 104,000 soldiers, 1220 guns, 163 tanks and 122 aircraft.

At the same time enemy forces numbered about 4,000,000 servicemen, in this 3,200,000 German soldiers, and about 800,000 Finnish, Romanian and Hungarian ones. They possessed 48,635 guns and mortars, 5,250 tanks, and 2,796 aircraft. So, in the beginning of the summer campaign, Soviet forces were clearly superior over the enemy, especially in tanks and air forces.

On 23 June 1944 commenced a great offensive operation in Byelorussia, codenamed Bagration. In that operation took part four Soviet fronts: 1st, 2nd and 3rd Byelorussian, and the 1st Baltic, which commenced its advance already on 22 June. In hard fights Soviet forces had broken German defences, stretched over 500km, in six sectors. They had encircled and destroyed three large German groupings at Vitebsk, Bobruisk and Minsk, and within 12 days had advanced as far as 280km westward. That offensive had created a 400km-wide gap in the German front, which could not be plugged. Before 15 July Soviet forces liberated Vilnius, Baranovichi, Pinsk and many other cities, towns and villages.

The success in Byelorussia allowed to commence the advance in the Ukraine. On 13 July, from Vladimir Volynskiy, Brody and Ternopol the forces of the 1st Ukrainian Front (Marshal Ivan Konev) started offensive on Lvov and Sandomierz. In the mid-July they approached the River Bug and were preparing to enter Poland. According to the directives of the Supreme Command of the Red Army, they had do co-operate with the forces of the 1st Byelorussian Front (Marshal Konstantin Rokossovskiy).

At the eve of the new offensive the situation in the sector of the 1st Byelorussian Front was as follows: right wing and the centre of the Soviet grouping, having four armies (48th, 65th, 28th and 61st) in the first line, a rapid group (4th Cavalry Corps of Guards, 1st Mechanized Corps, and 9th Armoured Corps) in the second line, and the 46th Army Corps in reserve, on 17 July reached the line Jalowka - Hajnowka - Biala Podlaska - Janow Podlaski. At the same time the left wing, having four armies (70th, 47th, 8th and 69th) in the first line, 1st Polish Army, 2nd Tank Army, and the 2nd and 7th Cavalry Corps of Guards in the second line, and the 11th Armoured Corps in reserve, since 6 July had been waging fights along the Tursky Canal (Ratno, Dalsk and Turichany), and preparing for a new offensive in that sector.

By the decision of Marshal Rokossovskiy, forces of the right wing of the 1st Byelorussian Front, supported by the 16th Air Army, had to continue advance in two parallel directions: on Bielsk Podlaski and Stawy, and on Brest and Siedlce. The left wing had to strike in three directions: on Brest and Wlodawa, on Lukow and Siedlce, and on Chelm and Warsaw. Those operations had to envelope a strong German grouping, holding Brest, from north and south, and crushing German forces concentrated around Brest and Lublin. On the axis of the main strike, in the sector Brest - Lublin, was operating the 47th Army (Lt.-Gen. Nikolay Gusev), 8th Army of Guards (Col.-Gen. Vasiliy Chuikov), and 69th Army (Col.-Gen. Vladimir Kolpakchi). Altogether the left wing of the front in the mid-July numbered 416 thousand troops, 7,600 pieces of artillery, 1,650 tanks and armoured gun-carriers, and 1,500 combat planes.

In the reserves there was kept the 1st Polish Army, which comprised four infantry divisions, one cavalry brigade, one armoured brigade, one engineers' brigade, two air regiments, and auxiliary units - together about 78 thousand men, 851 pieces of artillery, 130 tanks, and 440 aircraft.

The left wing of the 1st Byelorussian Front, in the 110km-long sector between Lake Oryekhovskoye and Verba, was opposed by nine German infantry divisions and three armoured artillery brigades from the 4th Army. In front of the right wing, between Lake Oryekhovskoye and Jalowka (140km), were concentrated units of the previously crushed 9th Army and the bulk forces of the 2nd Army - altogether 11 infantry divisions, an army corps, an armoured division, 5 armoured artillery brigades and other units. Two armoured divisions, two Hungarian infantry divisions and an army corps formed the reserves. Despite of huge losses, suffered in previous fights, the German grouping still represented a serious force, and beating it required concentration of substantial human and material resources.

The Soviet success in Byelorussia, and substantial weakening of the Army Group Southern Ukraine, part of whose forces was shifted to Byelorussia, had created favourable conditions for offensive operations in the Western Ukraine and southern Poland. That task was assigned to the 1st Ukrainian Front, which initially comprised seven armies, three tank armies, one air army (since 16 July - two air armies), three independent tank corps, two cavalry corps, a Czechoslovak army corps and other units. Altogether those forces numbered about 1.2 million soldiers, 13,900 pieces of artillery, more than 2,200 tanks armoured fighting vehicles, and 2,800 aircraft.

The Germans, however, had created a strongly fortified and elaborated system of defences in front of the 1st Ukrainian Front. The Army Group Northern Ukraine numbered 600 thousand soldiers, 6,300 pieces of artillery, 900 armoured fighting vehicles, and 700 planes. Their deployment in the easy-to-defend terrain compensated for the Soviet superiority.

At the same time another two Soviet fronts - 2nd Byelorussian (Gen. Ivan Zakharov) and 3rd Byelorussian (Gen. Ivan Chernyakhovskiy) were about to enter Poland in the north-east.

On 13 July the 1st Ukrainian Front commenced its offensive from the area of Vladimir Volynskiy, Brody and Ternopol. Exploiting its success in the south, the left wing of 1st Byelorussian Front on 18 July started its operations in the sector between Brest and Lublin. At the end of the third day of the offensive, Soviet forces, which included also artillery units from the Polish 1st Army, reached River Bug in the vicinity of Dorohusk. At night from 20 to 21 July forces of the 8th Army of Guards, 47th Army and 69th Army crossed the river, broke through the German defences on the western bank, and continued advance on the Polish soil, liberating Dorohusk. As the main forces of the 1st Byelorussian Front crossed the Bug, its armies continued pursuit to the west and north-west, seeking encirclement of the enemy groupings around Lublin and Brest, as well as reaching Vistula and seizing bridgeheads on its western bank. On 20 July the right wing of the front commenced its offensive, and together with the forces of the 2nd Byelorussian Front entered Poland in the area of Czeremcha and Kleszczele.

On 22 July the units of the right wing of the 1st Byelorussian Front (7th Cavalry Corps and elements of the 2nd Tank Army) in the course of several-hours' fights liberated the first major Polish city - Chelm. It became the first seat of the new Polish authority - the Polish Committee of National Liberation (Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego - PKWN). On the same day the PKWN made public its first document - the manifesto to the Polish people, outlining the political programme for the new Polish state.

At the same time the 2nd Tank Army (Col.-Gen. Semyon Bogdanov) and elements of the 8th Army of Guards continued pursuit towards Lublin. The city was held by 4,000 German troops prepared for long defence. However, they did not stand the assault driven from three sides, with the bulk of the forces of the 2nd Tank Army and elements of the 8th Army of Guards. After heavy fights on 23 and 24 July Lublin was liberated, and the Germans' desperate attempts to break through the encirclement ring were frustrated. Survivors of the German garrison, with its commandant Gen. Hilmar Moser, marched into captivity. Apart from the Soviet troops, on 24 July also the first units of the Polish army entered the city. There they were greeted cordially and enthusiastically by the people, and soon reinforced by the partisan units from the underground People's Army (Armia Ludowa - AL).

Beginning of 2 August, Lublin became the temporary seat of PKWN and other state institutions, which moved from Chelm. Lublin served as the temporary capital city of the Polish state till February 1945, when the state authorities moved to Warsaw.

After the liberation of Lublin, the 2nd Tank Army continued pursuit westwards, striking against Deblin and Pulawy with the bulk of its forces. On 26 July units from the 3rd Armoured Corps of Guards and the 37th Infantry Division of Guards from the 8th Army took Pulawy, and the units of the 16th Armoured Corps in heavy fights seized Deblin. On 27 July the Polish 1st Army took part in the fights - it assumed defence of a 30km-long sector of the eastern bank of the Vistula between Deblin and Pulawy (between the 8th Army of Guards and the 69th Army). The Poles started preparations for crossing the river and seizing bridgeheads on its western bank.

And as the 2nd Tank Army continued liberation of the province of Lublin, units of the 11th Armoured Corps and 2nd Cavalry Corps of Guards (making the Mechanized Cavalry Group of the 1st Byelorussian Front) on 22 July with concentric thrusts liberated Parczew, and joined with the group of about 1,000 partisans of the People's Army operating in that area under the command of Lt.-Col. Grzegorz Korczyński.

On 23 July units of the 11th Corps liberated Radzyn Podlaski - an important node in the German defences in the direction of Warsaw. On the same day they liberated Lukow and took an airfield in Marynin, and began heavy fights for Siedlce, which were liberated in course of fights on 24 to 31 July. In the battle for Siedlce were also engaged left-wing units of the 47th Army.

At the same time the main forces of the 47th Army fought in the area Miedzyrzec - Biala Podlaska; on 26 July the 4th Cavalry Division of Guards liberated Miedzyrzec, and on the next day Biala Podlaska was liberated by the units of the right-wing 125th Army Corps.

The last decade of July past in heavy fights in the sector between the upper Narew and middle Bug. North to Brest fought the right-wing grouping of the 1st Byelorussian Front. The 65th Army pushed towards Drohiczyn and Siemiatycze, which was liberated on 22 July. This way it menaced the left wing of the German forces holding Brest. Reserve units from the German 2nd and 9th Armies counter-attacked vehemently, chiefly against the rears of the most advanced 65th Army. German tanks managed seize previously liberated Czeremcha, but soon the Russians took the situation under their control. After two days of stubborn defence and relentless counter-attacks, the 65th Army restored itself to the previous positions. After that forces of the right-wing grouping of the 1st Byelorussian Front broke through the German defences on the Bug, surrounded Brest and liberated it on 27 July; on 28 July they liberated Terespol on the Polish bank of the river. The battle for Brest had eliminated substantial German forces from further fights: it claimed 15,000 soldiers killed, and 2,000 taken prisoners.

Liberation of the south-eastern regions of Poland became the task of the 1st Ukrainian Front. Already on 13 July it launched so-called Lvov-Sandomierz operation, aimed at liberation of the Soviet territories still under the German occupation and advancing into south-eastern Poland. Seizure of bridgeheads on the left bank of the Vistula, and reaching the foot-hills of the Bieszczady and the Low Beskids Mountains was designed to create convenient initial positions for further advance in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

During the second stage of that operation, on 19-27 July, main forces of the 1st Ukrainian Front encircled and annihilated 6 enemy divisions at Brody, after heavy fights liberated Lvov, crossed the Bug and unfolded pursuit after the enemy troops retreating towards the Vistula. On 21 July the right-wing 3rd Army of Guards entered Poland in the south of Hrubieszow, and liberated a number of Polish hamlets. The same army, together with the Front's Mechanized Cavalry Group (31st Armoured Corps and 6th Cavalry Corps of Guards) continued advance across the southern part of Lublin region. On 23 July Soviet forces liberated Hrubieszow, on 24 July - Bilgoraj, on 25 July - Zamosc and Krasnystaw, and on 27 July - Janow Lubelski and Krasnik. During the fights for Janow Lubelski the 6th Cavalry Corps co-operated with the AL Brigade Wanda Wasilewska (Capt. Stanisław Szelest) and a Soviet partisan group Semyon Budyonny (1st Lt. Ivan Yakovlev).

In the end of July the 3rd Army of Guards reached the Vistula on a broad front and started protracted and bloody fights for bridgeheads on the western bank of the river. At the same time the 13th Army, 1st Tank Army of Guards, elements of the 3rd Tank Army and the Mechanized Cavalry Group (25th Armoured Corps and 1st Cavalry Corps) advanced from Rava-Russkaya and Lubaczow to Jaroslaw and Przemysl. Advanced units of the 1st Tank Army reached the San on 23 July, crossed the river and seized bridgeheads in the north and south of Jaroslaw. Simultaneously the 60th and the 38th Armies were advancing on Rzeszow and Sanok. Jaroslaw and Przemysl were liberated on 27 July, Sanok on 30 July, and Rzeszow on 2 August.

On 30 July the main forces of the 13th Army reached the Vistula in the vicinity of Baranow. Particularly heavy fights were fought on the bridgehead at Sandomierz, where a strong reserve grouping of 30 German divisions (in this six armoured and one motorized), supported by air forces, undertook several attempts to dislodge Soviet troops. Those counter-attacks had failed, but nevertheless, Sandomierz was taken after heavy fights on 16 to 18 August. In the north of the city elements of the 1st Tank Army of Guards, 13th Army and 3rd Army of Guards surrounded a big group of German troops. The Germans lost there 12,000 soldiers killed and 1,700 taken prisoners.

After the debacle of the main forces of the Army Group Centre and the 100-thousand-strong enemy grouping east of Minsk, the emerging situation allowed to continue liberation of the north-eastern Poland. That became the task of the 2nd Byelorussian Front and elements of the 3rd Byelorussian Front, which were advancing on the broad front stretching from Kaunas to Suwalki, to Grodno and Bialystok. Opposing forces included elements of the left wing of the 2nd Army and the right-wing units of the 4th Army. The main forces of the 4th Army operated in the approaches to the River Niemen, between Riga and Kaunas. They were reinforced by 20 divisions of infantry and tanks pulled out of the Army Groups North and Northern Ukraine, as well as strategic reserve of the German high command of the land forces (OKH).

On 19 July forces of the 2nd Byelorussian Front started advancing towards Bialystok. Their spearhead 3rd Army fought its way across the Knyszyn Forest, and on 24 July was within 8 to 10 km from Bialystok. Advanced divisions on 26 July started storming the city, where they encountered a fierce resistance. The city was liberated after a whole day of fights.

At the same time when the 3rd Army fought for Bialystok, right-wing forces of the 2nd Byelorussian Front continued pursuit in the directions of Rajgrod and Osowiec. Till the end of July units and elements of the 49th and 50th Armies liberated dozens of villages and hamlets, including an important node of roads in Sokolka. Whereas the 3rd Army, after the liberation of Bialystok, continued its advance on Zambrow. On 4 August it reached River Narew and seized bridgeheads near Lapy. Then came the lull in the operations.

On 7 August detached units of the 3rd Army crossed the Narew and after the whole day of fights liberated Lapy and Knyszyn. On 10 August the bulk of the forces of the 2nd Byelorussian Front resumed the offensive, and on 13 August liberated Wysokie Mazowieckie and Goniadz. On 14 August forces of the 50th Army liberated Osowiec.

At the same time the 3rd Byelorussian Front, advancing across Lithuania, entered Poland. On 30 July advanced units of the 31st Army fought the enemy forces concentrated around Suwalki. By 4 August they liberated 100 villages and hamlets, and assumed defence along the line Szypiliszki - Nowa Wies - Lake Wigry - River Czarna Hancza. Behind that line the bulk of the Soviet forces was began concentration for the pending strike against East Prussia.

In general, between the mid-July and mid-August, the Soviet offensive brought nearly complete liberation of the Polish territories between Bug and Vistula. The province of Lublin was liberated completely; Soviet forces liberated most of the provinces of Bialystok and Rzeszow, and right-bank counties of the provinces of Warsaw, Sandomierz and Kielce. The liberated territories were measured by 78 thousand square kilometres and 6.5 million people. It was more or less 25% of the territory of Poland, and 25% of its population. Important bridgeheads were grasped on the Vistula, while in the north the Narew was forced, and convenient defence positions were assumed along its banks. The Red Army covered hundreds of kilometres of terrain in incessant fights, until it exhausted its offensive capacities and had to stop for loss recovery, organization of the rears, and concentration of the troops and reserves for the next offensive. All that required months of efforts. To accomplish that task, Soviet forces had to assume defence in most sectors of the front, and limit offensive operations to locally important efforts to strengthen the bridgeheads on the western banks of the Vistula, and rectify the frontlines to gain better initial positions for the new offensive.

During the fights in Poland Soviet soldiers showed excellence in combat and unusual heroism. On 26 July during the fights for village Harasimowicze in the province of Bialystok, Lance Corporal Grigoriy Kunavin threw himself onto a German pill-box to silence a German machine-gun and allow his unit to advance. Lieutenant Vasiliy Gamayun, whose ground-attack plane was shot down over the target, dove into the thick of the German troops. On 25 July, during the fights for Hajnowka, a surrounded anti-tank battery repelled 18 enemy attacks before it exhausted all its ammunition. Then the commander of the battery, 2nd Lieutenant Alexei Florenko, with a bundle of anti-tank grenades flung himself under a German tank. As many as 1,667 Soviet soldiers and officers were distinguished with the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union for their exploits during the fights in Poland.

Everywhere Polish people welcomed advancing Soviet troops with the utmost enthusiasm and gratitude. Crowds of villagers and citizens greeted them to the flowers, food and drinks; in Lublin, Pulawy and Garwolin spontaneous gatherings turned into festivities.