Forgotten Fight: Stronghold: Ternopol, March-April 1944

Once Hitler declared a place a "stronghold," his men had no choice but to fight to the death.

Adolf Hitler had a lot of bad ideas in the course of World War II, but perhaps the worst was his decision to create “strongholds” (feste Plätze) on the Eastern Front: individual towns or cities that he declared to be fortresses, and where, he commanded, German defenders should fight till the death rather than retreat or surrender.

In general, the “stronghold” was Hitler’s response to the dramatic change of fortunes on the Eastern Front after the debacles of Stalingrad and Kursk. By early 1944, powerful Soviet armies were barreling ahead in all sectors, and a tattered Wehrmacht could do little but try to outrun them. Since Stalingrad, the German Landser’s biggest fear was getting encircled and either dying in the trap or being marched off to Siberia, and they tended to fight with one eye over their shoulder.

Hitler’s solution to the problem was not to send reinforcements or more equipment to his beleaguered men, or to promise them more effective Luftwaffe support: none of these things was possible any longer. It was to point to certain sectors of the map—this town or that city—and declare it a stronghold to be held “at all costs”: “koste es, was er wolle.” His theory was that, even if it was encircled, the stronghold would tie up enough Soviet troops and block enough roads to make the loss of men worthwhile. His generals, as they often did, thought this was madness. The last thing in the world Germany needed right now was higher casualties and sacrificed divisions. Hitler had his way, of course, issuing Führer Order Nr. 11 on March 8, 1944. The decree ordered the creation of strongholds at the front: cities, towns, and villages that were to "allow themselves to be encircled and thereby tie up as much enemy strength as possible."

Ternopol (German “Tarnopol,”) a picturesque little town on the banks of the Seret River in Western Ukraine, was the first of these supposed breakwaters. Attacked on March 9 by forces of the Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front and declared a stronghold by Hitler on March 10, the town was ill-equipped for the role. It had no defensive fortifications of any sort; no natural defenses; not even an airstrip for flying in supplies. It did have a sizable German garrison—six battalions of infantry, some 4,600 men—but few heavy weapons, artillery, or anti-tank guns. Basic rations were lacking, and drinking water, especially, was in short supply.

The first commandant, General Hans Schrepffer, took one look at his new command, decided the situation was hopeless, and immediately messaged Hitler to that effect. Actually, he first had to requisition a radio, since the new stronghold lacked a workable communications net. His recalcitrance got him fired, unsurprisingly. His replacement, General Heinrich Kittel, arrived in Ternopol and came to the same conclusion as Schrepffer, requesting permission to evacuate the town. Hitler was having none of that, however, and as the Germans played command roulette, a second series of Soviet attacks surrounded the city on March 23. Kittel did what he could, shaking out his motley band into a perimeter defense, and hunkered down to wait for a relief attempt.

Soviet soldiers advance toward German positions in 1944. Courtesy of the Russian Archives, photo by Dorensky L.

 

The first German response to the Ternopol problem was to dispatch a “resupply truck convoy” under Colonel Werner Friebe, accompanied by a Panzer battalion and two Panzergrenadier battalions, but it collapsed before it even got started. The first problem was getting the trucks and supplies forward. By the time Kampfgruppe (Battlegroup) Friebe was ready to roll, the trucks were still 130 kilometers to the rear, back in the big German supply depot at Lemberg. The tanks set out by themselves anyway on March 25: not to resupply Ternopol, or even to evacuate the unlucky German troops still stuck there. Instead, the operation was a "relief attack," an operation undertaken in the vague hopes of causing the Soviets some undetermined level of damage.

Heavily armed German soldiers on the march in Russia. Courtesy of the German Federal Archives, image 101I-219-0595-05

 

Even by those minimal standards, however, the attack of Kampfgruppe Friebe was a misfire, meeting strong resistance, artillery and anti-tank fire, and heavily mined roads that reduced the forward motion of the Panzers to a crawl. After heavy losses, including the death of a regimental commander and two battalion commanders, Friebe called the whole thing off. It was just as well that the trucks hadn't shown up, he later remarked bitterly—Soviet fire would have torched every last one of them.

Back in Ternopol, the tragedy was playing out predictably. With Soviet artillery emplaced on the high ground around the city and firing over open sights, shells rained down and German losses mounted. By April 1, just over half of the 4,600 defenders had become casualties. The German pocket was shrinking steadily under the pressure of concentric attacks by five Soviet divisions, and General Kittel was dimissed. The new commandant—the third, if you’re keeping score—was General Egon von Neindorff. He came, looked around, and made the same request as his two predecessors: evacuate the town. He also got the same response: “The Führer’s decision: Ternopol is to be held” (“Führerentscheid: Tarnopol ist zu halten.”)

Hitler confers with Wehrmacht leaders. Courtesy of the German Federal Archives, image 183-B24543

 

By now Soviet bombardment was uninterrupted—including mortars, guns of all calibers, and air attacks. The center of Ternopol was an inferno, with the remaining 1,500 German troops compressed into a zone fewer than 1,000 yards across, every inch of which was being combed by Soviet fire. A second and final German relief attempt on April 12, once again by Kampfgruppe Friebe, faltered in the midst of a sudden heavy rainstorm that quickly turned the roads into mud. Friebe got within a few kilometers of the city but no closer, and he had no choice but to surrender Ternopol's defenders to their fate.

A German armored column in Ukraine. Courtesy of the German Federal Archive, image 101I-218-0504-36

 

Losses were total, or about as close as it is possible to get in land warfare. Of the original 4,600 men in the German garrison, 4,545 were listed as casualties, a rate of 99 percent. As Friebe's Panzers churned slowly forward, they came across small groups of shell-shocked, stumbling victims, nearly unrecognizable as German soldiers. Ten men here, another five there, seven more up the road: the 55 men fortunate enough to have broken out of the inferno before Soviet tanks rolled in. They were the lucky one percent.

Ternopol was a tiny battle by eastern front standards, and today is one of the many forgotten battles of World War II. Despite its size, however, the debacle tells us all we need to know about the sorry state of the Wehrmacht by early 1944. Certainly, the Germans could still fight, and they would continue to display their tactical and operational prowess to the bitter end of the war. Their Panzer and mechanized formations were still elite fighting formations, and unit cohesion remained high even in defeat and disaster.

Otherwise, ponder this toxic combination of military attributes: a Supreme Commander who was completely out of touch, out of his depth, and increasingly irrational, a man who clearly thought that declaring a town a “fortress” magically turned it into one; a corps of once savvy staff officers and field commanders who shook their heads at the latest ridiculous order out of Hitler’s HQ at Rastenburg, but usually did what they were told anyway; and finally, millions of ordinary soldiers who were willing to fight for the cause and die at their posts, and who were about to get that chance.

Trapped in a hopeless war, the Wehrmacht was marching to the graveyard.

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Robert Citino, PhD

Robert Citino, PhD, Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy and the Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian...
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