SS-Panzergrenadier-Division “Totenkopf” moves out in bleak weather during Operation Konrad II, Hungary 1945.
Operation Konrad II
The setback to their northern offensive compelled the Germans to fall back on the southern option. The command of the German Army Group South decided to try and break through between Székesfehérvár and Mór with new forces (the Breith Group), the objective being not only to recapture the Margit Line but also to surround, jointly with the IV SS Panzer Corps, the Soviet units on the western slopes of the Vértes Hills. On 6 January the army group considered halting or scaling down the attack, but finally chose to go ahead, on the assumption that with the newly arrived 20th Panzer Corps it would be able to hold the front.
Tolbukhin, aware of the German troop movements, reinforced the 20th Guard Rifle Corps in the main trajectory of the attack, which was unleashed on 7 January. The Soviets benefited from the fact that on the preceding day Malinovsky’s 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian fronts had in their turn launched an attack along the Garam river, north of the Danube, so that the two enemies were moving in opposite directions on either side of the river. By 8 January Malinovsky’s units were within 3 kilometres of Komárom, heralding a major encirclement operation. Table below details the strengths of the opposing sides involved in the Konrad II operation.
The attack of the Breith Group – the southern branch of Operation Konrad II – met fierce resistance, and ran out of steam as early as 9 January. On the same day the German 7th Mechanised Corps launched a strike to prevent a Soviet breakthrough, but 57 of its 80 tanks were put out of action. In three days of fighting the fields of Zámoly became a veritable tank cemetery. With great losses on both sides the Germans made no further progress, but their salients remained in place.
After their failure at Bicske, both the German Army Group South and Gille, still hoping to avoid any major relocation, made plans for the IV SS Panzer Corps to breach the Soviet defence near Esztergom and relieve Budapest across the Pilis Hills, in what was to be the northern branch of Operation Konrad II. The increasingly ominous news from the capital made this appear even more urgent.
The new German attack was launched on 9 January from Esztergom, where 200 tonnes of supplies had been collected to be transported to Budapest immediately in the event of success. As a complementary measure, Colonel-General Balck ordered a reinforced battalion under Major Philipp to smash through the Soviet obstacles near the Danube and occupy Szentendre as a refuge for the defenders after their escape. However, everybody in the Wiking Division, including Gille and Philipp, considered the plan unworkable. As the division’s staff officer put it, the Soviets were ‘hardly likely to open the shore road for jaunts’. It is also difficult to see how Balck expected the defenders to continue their withdrawal along the road from Szentendre to Esztergom, which was within the range of the Soviet weapons across the Danube. Fortunately for the Germans, the question did not arise in practice, because the relief unit’s advance soon stalled, although the 711th Infantry Division attacking southeast of it managed to capture Dobogókő.
On 10 January, with one day’s delay because of Hitler’s prohibition, the Panzer Group of the Wiking Division, including the Westland Panzergrenadier Regiment, was deployed to fill the gap. The same staff officer writes: ‘Enemy weak, completely surprised. Difficult mountain terrain of pre-Alpine character. At midnight first reports of success, prisoners mainly baggage-train crews of divisions encircling Budapest. Anti-tank gun and mortar fire. No own losses. Westland making good progress.’
By 11 January the Westland Regiment had crossed the Pilis-nyereg saddle and occupied Pilisszentkereszt, 21 kilometres from Budapest. First to enter the village in his armoured personnel carrier was SS Obersturmbannführer Franz Hack, who had been wounded twice during the preceding days and was awarded the Knight’s Cross for the courage he had shown in this action. Many German vehicles and wounded prisoners were liberated after being held by Soviets in the village for a fortnight. The German Army Group South again requested permission for a break-out, hoping to capture the airfield of Pomáz in order to remove the wounded and provide supplies for the spearheads expected from the capital.
By the evening of 12 January, the advance units of the Wiking Division had reached the Csobánka fork on the road to Pomáz, only 17 kilometres from Budapest, when they were ordered to withdraw, although no outflanking counter-attack by Soviet tanks through the valleys was to be expected and Gille would have had no reason to fear that his units would be cut off in the Pilis Hills by the large Soviet force in their rear at Dorog – at least if the aim of the German offensive had been merely to rescue the defenders, rather than to relieve Budapest. The Soviet 5th Cavalry Corps between Szentendre and Pilisvörösvár, 15 kilometres from the city, would almost certainly have halted a further advance, but a co-ordinated breakout might still have been achieved as the short distance and the bad terrain considerably restricted the Soviets’ ability to resist.
In fact the Soviets actually hoped for a break-out. By this time Malinovsky was very nervous, because the siege had lasted so long. He wanted the Germans to leave the capital as soon as possible, and in order to assist them, he had a 1-kilometre gap in the Buda encirclement opened. His chief concern was the capture of Budapest, and to avert Stalin’s anger over the delay he was prepared to spare the defenders. Ironically it was Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’s and Hitler’s orders that prevented a successful break-out.
From the outset Hitler and Guderian had not expected Operation Konrad II to succeed, and had favoured an offensive from the Székesfehérvár region. On 10 January they had signalled to the German Army Group South that unless there was a radical change within hours Gille’s troops would be regrouped. On 11 January, at the request of the army group, Colonel-General Wenck had spent two hours trying to persuade Hitler to allow the break-out, but ‘all he achieved was the award of the Knight’s Cross to SS Obergruppenführer Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’. The general staff wondered whether by the end of the belated operation there would be anybody or anything to relieve, but Hitler persisted in his original plan and issued the order for Gille’s forces to regroup immediately, even before their new offensive reached its full force.
A 24-hour tug-of-war began between Gille and the army supreme command. Hitler’s order was delivered to Gille at 8.20pm on 11 January. Three hours later Gille cabled that the offensive was making progress. Gille’s superiors passed his cable to Hitler without comment. When Hitler repeated the order Gille appealed to Himmler, but in vain. As his troops had shown no spectacular results since the capture of Pilisszentkereszt he had lost his last trump card, and at 8pm on 12 January he ordered the retreat. By the evening of 14 January the Soviets had reoccupied the Dobogókő area and Pilisszentkereszt.
The cessation of the offensive has provoked heated arguments in memoirs and historical studies. In the unanimous opinion of the combatants, Hitler’s order deprived them of certain success. However, several military historians argue that the Soviets would have cut off the Germans if they had continued their advance. The debate is rooted in diametrically opposed interpretations of Hitler’s objectives. Gille and his officers were convinced that the relief attempts were intended as a rescue mission. In their view, their offensive could have opened a corridor for the defenders to escape, but could not have maintained a link over a longer period. Hitler and his generals, who were not sufficiently familiar with the situation, hoped that their limited forces would be able to restore the pre-Christmas status quo. For them, abandoning Budapest was out of the question.
By 1944–5 there were fewer and fewer individuals in the top echelons of the Third Reich who could have confronted Hitler with the reality, and as a result, more and more absurd operational objectives came into being. The battles in Hungary from January to March 1945, in which new panzer units were continually being deployed while the strategic aims remained unchanged, reveal a total lack of co-ordination between different tactical assignments. Had these units been deployed simultaneously, their attacks would have had a real chance of success.
Time was working in favour of the Soviets, whose tanks had reached the edge of the Little Hungarian Plain on 8 January and were threatening Bratislava and Vienna. The German Army Group South would therefore have preferred to stop the relief attempts and regroup north of the Danube, which would necessarily have involved permission for the Budapest garrison to break out rather than being destroyed in a futile struggle. Hitler, however, preferred to gamble on the Soviet attack along the northern bank of the Danube stalling before Komárom. Events initially seemed to prove him right when the hastily regrouped tanks of the 20th Panzer Division pushed the 6th Armoured Guard Army back almost 50 kilometres, but even when the Soviets launched their grand offensive of 12 January on the Polish front and there were no significant German forces stationed between them and Berlin, he stubbornly ignored the general staff’s advocacy of immediately abandoning the attempts to relieve Budapest and regrouping as the only possible way of preventing disaster at home.
Operation Konrad III
On 18 January the IV SS Panzer Corps, whose relocation to the region between Lake Balaton and Székesfehérvár had been completed in utmost secrecy on the previous day, was thrown into battle. Tanks with infrared sights for nocturnal operations were used for the first time. Table below shows the Soviet and German strengths engaged in Operation Konrad III.
According to Soviet authors, ‘the reconnaissance section of the 4th Guard Army’s staff did not have the situation under control’ – the German offensive had taken their generals by surprise. Gille’s tanks crushed the Soviet 7th Mechanised Corps’s counter-attack, separating the 133rd Rifle Corps and the 18th Tank Corps from their rear lines. Only the lack of German infantry enabled the encircled Soviet units to break out of the ring. On 19 January the German tanks reached the Danube at Dunapentele, tearing the Soviet Transdanubian front apart. At the Danube crossings, in chaotic conditions, the Soviets moved more than 40,000 soldiers and large quantities of equipment to the east bank within a few days, although they were constantly being bombed by the Luftwaffe.
On 22 January the Soviets lost Székesfehérvár after heavy street fighting. First to enter the city was the Ney Combat Group, which had by then reached division strength, although one quarter of its members was dead, wounded or missing. On 24 January the Totenkopf Division captured the southern section of Baracska, 30 kilometres from Budapest. Tolbukhin’s troops developed a firm defence along the Váli-viz river, whose icy banks the German tanks could scale only with great difficulty, but by 26 January the offensive had reached a point roughly 25 kilometres from the ring around the capital.
Towards the end of the war, Stalin was no longer inclined to take any major risks because he knew that his troops would soon be facing the British and US soldiers. Earlier his inflexible orders to persevere had sent millions into captivity or death, but now he contemplated evacuating southern Transdanubia and gave Tolbukhin a free hand, even though the equipment and supplies of two armies would have had to be left behind.
On 21 January the nervous Soviet command had blown up its own pontoon bridges near Dunapentele and Dunaföldvár, halting supplies to the units still in action. Tolbukhin now chose a more courageous option: he decided to hold the bridgehead because he believed that it would be pointless to give up the occupied territories in the hope of a smooth second crossing of the Danube. On 27 January – having taken charge of the 104th Rifle Corps and the 23rd Tank Corps, which had been concentrated near south Buda to prevent a break-out, and the 30th Rifle Corps, which had been sent to southern Transdanubia as a reinforcement – he began a counter-attack.
The German spearheads that had reached the Danube could at any time be cut off by Soviet divisions from Lake Velence in the north and Simontornya in the south. Recognising this advantage, Tolbukhin attacked from both directions. Although the Germans destroyed 122 Soviet tanks on the first day, they had to abandon many of the occupied territories, with the notable exception of Székesfehérvár. Near the village of Vereb alone, the wrecks of 70 tanks and 35 assault guns bore witness to the heavy fighting. Eventually the relentlessly counter-attacking Soviet forces invaded northern Székesfehérvár, and by the beginning of February the Germans were obliged to give up most of their territorial gains.
On 28 January Hitler decided to send his last reserves – the 6th Panzer Army, in the process of replenishment since the Ardennes offensive – to Hungary to make one more relief attempt, code-named Frühlingserwachen (Spring Awakening). However, by 13 February, when this offensive began, there was nothing left to relieve because all of Buda was in Soviet hands.