On August 24th 1944, Adolf Hitler declared the city of Breslau (‘Wrocław’ today) a ‘closed military fortress’ to be defended from the advancing Soviet army at all costs. It was a decision that would change the history and complexion of the city forever. With most of its civilian population trapped inside, ‘Festung Breslau’ endured an epic 80-day siege that cost tens of thousands of lives and left the city a smouldering heap of ruins. One of the most savage sieges in modern history, the ‘Battle for Breslau’ ranks among the biggest human tragedies of WWII.
Prior to WWII, Breslau was something of a model Nazi city with a staggering 200,000 of its citizens voting for Hitler’s NSDAP party in the 1933 elections. From that moment on the Nazis cemented their grip on the city launching a campaign of terror, and eventually murder, against Jews and numerous other enemies of the state. Synagogues were burnt to the ground on Kristallnacht - November 9th, 1938 - and the guillotine at Kleczkowska prison saw plenty of action, with the decapitated bodies of political prisoners donated to Breslau’s medical schools. Yet in spite of this sinister background and strict rationing, the citizens of wartime Breslau largely fared better than their compatriots elsewhere in the Reich. Out of range from Allied air raids local denizens were spared the nightmare of British carpet bombings, and the city came to be considered something of a safe haven, its population swelling to over a million people as the conflict raged elsewhere.
However, by the second half of 1944 the doomsday reality of war started to dawn on the local population. Truckloads of the German wounded flooded the city's hospitals, and with the Red Army creeping closer the rumble of artillery could be heard in the distance. On August 24th the city was declared a closed stronghold - ‘Festung Breslau’ - and the citizens braced themselves for the inevitable bloodbath that was to come. Silesian Gauleiter Karl Hanke was appointed commander, and set about the daunting task of turning a picture-book city into a fortress. Two defensive rings were constructed around the city (with some fortifications 20km outside the centre), supplies were stockpiled and troops mobilised. A garrison of some 80,000 men was hurriedly raised in what was projected to become the key defensive element on ‘The Eastern Wall.’ In reality, however, the troops were a chaotic rabble consisting of Hitler Youth, WWI veterans, police officers and retreating regiments. This mixed bag of men and boys were ludicrously ill-equipped to face the full force of the looming Soviet onslaught. As countdown to the impending siege began, Hanke noted he only had two tanks at his disposal, and weaponry that was either outdated or captured from previous campaigns in Poland, Russia and Yugoslavia. Even so, Hanke stubbornly refused to order an evacuation of civilians until January 19, 1945. By this time the majority of transport links had been smashed by Soviet shelling, forcing many evacuees to leave the city on foot. With temperatures sinking to -15˚C, an estimated 100,000 people froze to death during this ill-fated evacuation, with other reports of children trampled to death in the chaos that ensued at the train station. Breslau was in a state of full-blown panic. Defeatism was punished by death and on January 28th the deputy mayor, Dr. Wolfgang Spielhagen, was executed in the main square for this very reason. Execution squads roamed the city, murdering pessimists, looters and anyone found shirking their duty to the Fatherland. Finally, following a rapid advance, the Soviets encircled the city on February 15th, 1945. Breslau’s fate was sealed.
German troop movements, February 1945.