Waffen SS “Totenkopf” tanks in Szomor around a church. (StugIII, Panzer IV, Panzer V) Operation Konrad I.
After the encirclement of Budapest, the German command launched three major offensives code-named Konrad, in an attempt to relieve the capital and recapture the eastern section of the Margit Line. Contrary to popular assumption, the intention was not to rescue the garrison but to move further forces to Budapest. By February 1945 all available reserves – including almost half of all panzer divisions in the east – had been relocated to Hungary for this purpose, and Hitler was desperate to show some success as a result.
By now the oil-fields of western Hungary were the German army’s last remaining source of fuel, and this, together with the need to defend Vienna, greatly increased the importance of the Hungarian theatre of war. Between autumn 1944 and April 1945 – by which time the first Soviet tank was within 60 kilometres of Berlin – every briefing in the Führer’s headquarters began with the Hungarian operations. Gerhard Boldt, one of the adjutants, recalls a mistake he made in February while preparing the maps:
Guderian began his comments on the Hungarian theatre of war. In the middle of his first sentence he stopped to give me a black look. Hitler was staring up at me with an inscrutable expression before leaning back in his chair with a bored gesture. I hastily stammered something incoherent, wishing that the ground would open and swallow me up. The general-staff maps were piled up in front of Hitler exactly in reverse order, with Kurland top and Hungary bottom.
As already noted, Hitler had insisted from the outset on holding Budapest and forbidden any break-out attempt. On 24 December 1944, before the final closure of the encirclement, he had ordered the IV SS Panzer Corps and the 96th and 711th Infantry Divisions – some 200 tanks and 60,000 men – to Hungary, and placed them under the command of SS Obergruppenführer Otto Gille, who had been highly decorated for breaking out of the encirclement of Cherkassy. Himmler cabled Gille that Hitler had chosen him because he had the most extensive experience of being encircled and because his corps had proved the best on the eastern front.
The cost of the relief attempts was soon to become manifest. The transfer of the IV SS Panzer Corps to Transdanubia deprived the Warsaw area of reserves, and on 12 January the Soviet offensive swept away the German front on the Vistula. The tanks of Marshalls Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov and Ivan Stepanovich Konev rolled on until they reached the Oder and even then stopped only because the Soviet command did not press the attacks any further.
The German Army Group South and Guderian disagreed about the use of the regrouped units, but there was general consensus that Budapest should be given up and the break-out approved as soon as possible. This suggestion was made to Hitler almost daily, but in vain.
The choice between two different relief routes was hard to make. An offensive from Székesfehérvár in the south (code-named Paula), given the greater distance, would have required 900 cubic metres more fuel and delayed the arrival of the troops by five days. An offensive from the north (code-named Konrad) involved a shorter distance and offered the element of surprise, but carried greater risks owing to the terrain. Although Guderian preferred Operation Paula, his representative, Colonel-General Walther Wenck, was persuaded by the reasoning of the German Army Group South, and the supreme command finally opted for the swifter Operation Konrad.
The regrouped units began to move into Hungary on 28 December. Hoping that the Soviets had not yet built strong defence positions, the German command gave orders to attack before all the troops had arrived. At that time only 32 per cent of the 5th SS Panzer Division (Wiking), 66 per cent of the 3rd SS Panzer Division (Totenkopf or Death’s Head) and 43 per cent of the 96th Infantry Division was in place, and of the 711th Infantry Division there was no sign. The regroupment was not completed until 8 January. Guderian had arrived in Tata on 7 January to oversee the operation. Károly Beregfy, Minister of Defence in the Szálasi government, offered the participation of Hungarian troops. However, his forces – the 1st Hussar Division, the 2nd Armoured Division and the 23rd Reserve Division – were too exhausted to be used. Lieutenant-General Gyula Kovács, Inspector General of the Honvéd Army, was disappointed to find that Colonel-General Balck had no time to discuss the details of the entry parade into Budapest.
German Sdkfz convoy with Panthers moving through in the passage of Agostyán. Operation Konrad I.
Operation Konrad I
On the evening of 1 January the IV SS Panzer Corps, only half of which had arrived at Komárom, launched a surprise attack in the Tata–Almásfüzitő region, while the 96th Infantry Division, crossing the Danube from the north by assault boat, established two bridgeheads behind the Soviet troops. The two battalions of the Hungarian Ney SS Combat Group (later Brigade) were deployed for the first time, attached as anti-tank grenadiers to the Wiking and Totenkopf SS Panzer Divisions. The attackers captured the Gerecse Hills, but on 6 January the Soviets stopped their advance near Bicske and Zsámbék.
Two topographical factors weighed against the offensive: first, in the Gerecse and Pilis Hills it was easy for the Soviets to set up roadblocks with anti-tank guns; second, the long and narrow pocket that would have developed alongside the Danube after a breakthrough could have been cut off by the Soviets without much effort. In the event the Soviets were able to slow down the assault of the German tanks and ensure that their reserves had enough room for manoeuvre.
Between 26 and 31 December Tolbukhin and Malinovsky had placed the Soviet units that had so far played the key parts in reserve, leaving one armoured corps, four mechanised corps and three cavalry corps – with 500–600 tanks – at the front to fend off the German relief attempts. Some Soviet troops were relocated from other regions: for example, the 19th Rifle Division took up position at Adony on the Danube after covering a distance of 190 kilometres from the southern shore of Lake Balaton in a day and a half. It was because he had overestimated the strength of the Germans that Tolbukhin had kept so many of his units in reserve until the situation became critical. As a result his forces suffered great losses but, unlike the Germans who had no reserves left, he had preserved his freedom of action. Table below, compares the numbers of tanks and assault guns at the disposal of the German Army Group South and the various units of the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts on New Year’s Day 1945.
On 2 January the Soviet 18th Tank Corps joined the battle, followed on 3 January by three other fast-moving units. In the Bicske region the prime target of the German offensive, the Wiking Division, was confronted on 3 January by one heavy-tank regiment, four assault-gun regiments, three rifle divisions, one mechanised brigade and six technical battalions – two or three times the Germans’ strength. The same happened elsewhere along the breadth of the German onslaught, where by 4 January the Soviet 1st Mechanised Guard Corps had also arrived from Adony. Thus no less than five Soviet mechanised, armoured or cavalry corps had lined up against the main thrust of the relief attempt, blocking any further advance towards Budapest. Only the group attacking in the north was able to capture Esztergom on 6 January and Pilisszentlélek on 8 January. The German and Hungarian losses between 1 and 7 January amounted to some 3500 – almost 10 per cent of the IV SS Panzer Corps’s strength – killed, wounded or missing, and 39 tanks and assault guns destroyed.
Meanwhile, Tolbukhin had also made preparations to prevent a break-out from Budapest. He had erected defensive lines with anti-tank guns facing both the relief forces and the potential escapees, and on 3 January ordered the cessation of attacks on Buda in order to release further forces. On 6 January seven divisions – roughly equal to the whole German and Hungarian garrison in the capital – stood in readiness between Zsámbék and Tinnye. In the event of a break-out the escapees would first have had to breach the encirclement ring round the city and then, after a long march, meet this formidable second formation. The chances of an organised break-out in any direction other than the north were therefore doubtful, and a break-out in the north could have succeeded only if the relief attempts in the Pilis Hills had not been stopped, as they eventually were.
Guderian, unaware of the real situation, planned to include the defenders in the stalled offensive: in addition to holding the capital they were to launch an attack towards the northwest and assist the operations of the relief units. The army group, more realistically, recommended that they either abandon the eastern bridgehead on 9 January and break out northwest or, failing this, fight their way through the ring in separate small combat units. However, this was rejected by Hitler.