By the end of February 1945, the Russian armies were poised in two major groupings for the final destruction of the Third Reich. In Germany herself, along the line formed by the Rivers Oder and Neisse, were the 2nd Belorussian Front, 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front, whilst further south, in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, were the 4th, 2nd and 1st Ukrainian Fronts. These last three fronts had advanced from the Carpathian mountains–River Dniestr line on 20 August 1944, and having swept south and then north-west through Rumania, destroying Army Group ‘South Ukraine’ en route, reached a line half-way through Hungary by 31 January 1945. Here the Russian forces had halted to rest and redeploy before pushing on into the rest of Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia.
Guderian, now OKH chief-of-staff, warned Hitler that the Russians’ main thrust, once they resumed their offensive, must come in the northern sector, aimed at Berlin itself. Therefore all the available resources and reserves should be deployed to counter this threat. Hitler, however, with his constant preoccupation with oil, saw a chance for a major counterstroke in Hungary. Army Group ‘South’, commanded by General Otto Woehler, was to strike through the gap between Lakes Balaton and Velencei with the aim of cutting off the part of the 3rd Ukrainian Front between the Rivers Danube and Drava, destroying it, and then swinging north to retake Budapest, cross the River Danube and recapture eastern Hungary.
Further to the south, pinning attacks on the cut-off portion of Marshal of the Soviet Union F. I. Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front were to be made by General M. De Angelis’ 2nd Panzerarmee of Army Group ‘South’ and a corps of three divisions from Colonel-General A. Loehr’s Army Group ‘E’ in Yugoslavia. The success of the whole operation, Hitler was convinced, would safeguard the vital oil supplies Germany was getting from Hungary and Austria. These by now made up some 80 percent of Germany’s oil.
The major element of the offensive, code-named ‘Fruehlingserwachen’ or ‘Spring awakening’, was to be the drive to the Danube from the Lake Balaton–Lake Velencei gap. This was to be the task of a formidable strike force, formed against the strongest protestations from Guderian, who felt that these forces should be deployed against the Russian threat against Berlin. Some 10 Panzer and five infantry divisions from the 6th SS Panzerarmee (Oberstgruppenfuehrer Sepp Dietrich), 6th Army (General H. Balck) and the Hungarian VIII Corps were to drive to the River Danube between Dunapentele in the north and Baja in the south.
Although the German force, totalling 10 Panzer and 12 infantry divisions, appeared strong on paper, its real strength in men and tanks was low. Dietrich’s force, in particular, had been severely handled in the ‘Battle of the Bulge’. The Russian forces, however, were truly formidable. Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front consisted of five armies, with one cavalry, one mechanised and two tank corps, together with 37 Russian and six Bulgarian rifle divisions. In all, Tolbukhin had at his disposal more than 400,000 men, 400 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 1,000 aircraft. The Yugoslav 3rd Army was also co-operating on the Russian’s left flank.
Hitler was so insistent on the offensive that considerations of terrain and weather were not allowed to intervene. The area over which the 6th Army and 6th SS Panzerarmee were to advance was low-lying, swampy and criss-crossed by a multitude of canals and small watercourses. These made progress for the infantry difficult, and for the armoured forces all but impossible. These conditions also made life difficult for the Russians. Although they greatly helped in front-line defence, they made the problem of supply and communications very difficult. The Russians’ problems were exacerbated by the fact that ice flows were still coming down the Danube, threatening to sweep away the pontoon bridges so vital for Russian supplies. The construction of an overhead wire track across the Danube was of great use, as was the pipeline for fuel, the first used by the Russians. Finally the weather, with extremely heavy rain and low temperatures, further reduced the Germans’ chances of success.
The German build-up had not gone unnoticed by the Russians. As the latter were planning a major offensive, Tolbukhin decided not to deploy his forces so as to be able to launch a counterattack, but instead to deploy in depth, allow the Germans to advance, hold them and then launch his own offensive once all his preparations were complete. Confirmation of the German intentions was supplied by deserting Hungarians.
The German offensive opened on 5 March, when Angelis’ four divisions advanced against Lieutenant-General M. N. Sharokhin’s 57th Army, and Loehr’s three divisions against the Bulgarian 1st and Yugoslav 3rd Armies. By the 15th of the month, none of these thrusts had advanced more than 10 miles. Loehr’s and Angelis’ drives were subsidiary, and the main German offensive started on 6 March.
After a 30-minute artillery bombardment, the main German forces pushed forward, the 6th Army on the left against Lieutenant-General N. D. Zakhvataev’s 4th Guards Army, and the 6th SS Panzerarmee on the right against Lieutenant-General N. A. Gagen’s 26th Army. The one factor that might have given the Germans a greater chance of success, tactical air support, was limited by the small number of aircraft available and the appalling weather. Nevertheless the Germans drove forward slowly, making nearly five miles in the first two days and just over 15 by the end of the fourth day. But the German advance was gradually slowed and stopped as Tolbukhin sent in his artillery reserves (Colonel-General N. I. Nedelin) and the 27th Army (Colonel-General S. G. Trofimenko) to plug the gap between the 4th Guards and 26th Armies. Tolbukhin was refused further reinforcements, and when Woehler committed his one reserve Panzer division, the 6th, with some 200 tanks and self-propelled guns, on the 14th, the Russian situation began to look serious. But losses on both sides had been extremely heavy, and the Germans were running out of fuel and momentum. On the 15th they were forced to a halt.
Now it was the turn of the Russians, who planned a general counter-offensive by the 2nd Ukrainian Front (Marshal of the Soviet Union R. Ya. Malinovsky) as well as the 3rd Ukrainian Front. But instead of the drive on Vienna originally envisaged, Marshal of the Soviet Union S. K. Timoshenko, who was co-ordinating the offensive for the Stavka, decided that the 9th Guards Army (Colonel-General V. V. Glagolev) and 6th Guards Tank Army (Colonel-General A. G. Kravchenko) should be allocated to Tolbukhin to cut off and destroy the 6th Army and 6th SS Panzerarmee. The Russian counter-offensive was launched on 16 March, from positions north-west of Lake Velencei. At first all went the Russians’ way, Hitler refusing to sanction the abandonment of Fruehlingserwachen in favour of a flank attack on the Russian advance until it was too late. By the time the Fuehrer consented on the 19th, the German escape corridor to the north-west was narrowing hourly. In some of the bitterest fighting of the war, most of the men of 6th SS Panzerarmee managed to escape. Many retreated without orders, and most of the 6th Army and all the two armies’ heavy equipment was lost. Hitler was infuriated, and ordered that all SS units in the rout be stripped of their armbands. As no defensive preparations behind Lake Balaton had been set in hand, the Germans were unable to make another stand, and fell back in complete disorder. The Battle of Lake Balaton can be said to have ended on 25 March with the fall to the Russians of Papa. Woehler was dismissed from his command, being replaced by Colonel-General L. Rendulic. Meanwhile, the Russian offensive had been extended in the north and south, and by 4 April most of Hungary had been cleared, and the Russians were advancing into Austria.
What of Woehler’s performance? It has to be admitted that he had been presented with an impossible task right from the outset, and that his mission had been made even harder by his lack of resources and the nature of the terrain and weather. Nevertheless, he had fought his offensive battle with considerable skill. Only when the Russians themselves went over to the offensive did his lack of forethought reveal itself in the lack of defensive positions in his rear.