by Bastiaan Willems

The storming of Fortress Königsberg in April 1945 was the finale of a two-month Soviet siege. The city, one of the few triumphs of Hitler’s fortress strategy, had been encircled by late January and lay hundreds of kilometers behind the main front line by the time the Soviets launched their final assault toward the Nazi capital of Berlin. Careful planning, economical use of matériel, and a close coordination during the assault eventually ensured the Soviet victory.

January 1945 had been a tough month for the troops of the Soviet Third Belorussian Front. Commanded by the young Army General Ivan Chernyakhovsky, they had been slogging their way through layer after layer of German positions since the beginning of their East Prussian offensive operations on January 13. Marked by a dogged and bitter German defense, the offensive through Germany’s most eastern province had been painfully slow. The gauleiter (political leader) and Reich Defense Commissar of the province, Erich Koch, had—in line with Hitler’s orders—demanded that every East Prussian village be “defended like a fortress, which the enemy could only take through durchfressen, by letting his blood flow.”
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Casualty rates had indeed been shockingly high, but by late January, two weeks after the beginning of the offensive, the Soviet troops had managed to tear apart the two German armies that weredefending East Prussia. The German Third Panzer Army and Fourth Army, which had been split into three pockets, stood with their backs to the Baltic Sea. One of these pockets—the one most feared by the Soviet Command and at the same time the most prestigious objective—was Fortress Königsberg. Lurking behind a fortress belt, the city, the capital of East Prussia, was considered the cradle of German militarism and fascism.

For centuries Königsberg had been one of the most important cities of Germany. Kings had been crowned there, and the philosopher Immanuel Kant had lived there his entire life. Conquering it would therefore not only be a strategic victory but also a significant setback for German morale. After its conquest, Königsberg would remain in Soviet hands. In November 1943, dur- ing the Tehran Conference, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin had insisted on making the city and the surrounding area part of the Soviet Union. For Chernyakhovsky’s men, however, that prospect still seemed remote that January. Little did they know that it would take over two months to capture the city.