The early start date of the offensive was prompted by the Germans’ selection of a risky plan for the operation, but it forced the launching of the operation before the forces for it had fully assembled. By the start of the offensive, only 32% (28 of 87 trains) of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking had arrived; 66% (51 of 77 trains) of the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf; and 40% (20 of 46 trains) of the 96th Infantry Division. The 711th Infantry Division hadn’t even started unloading in the designated area. The assembly of all these divisions wasn’t completed until 8 January 1945.
Going over to the offensive before completing the assembly of forces worsened the already less than lustrous condition of the SS formations. Despite the exertions of the Third Reich’s military industry that was tottering on the edge of collapse, Wiking and Totenkopf were experiencing a shortage of the most necessary combat equipment. There was a problem even with machine guns: Of the 1,191 light machine guns according to TO&E [table of organization and equipment], Totenkopf had only 536. Of the authorized 1,011 tracked vehicles, Wiking had 442, and only 658 of the 921 ordinary trucks. This made the panzer grenadier regiments of the divisions more like motorized regiments. According to the system of assessing mobility in the Wehrmacht, as expressed in percentages, Wiking had a relatively low indicator of less than 50%. On its part, Totenkopf had extremely few armored halftracks – much fewer than it had possessed at Kursk.
The preparation of Operation Konrad within a compressed period of time led to the fact that the German panzer forces already present in Hungary were only minimally involved in the first relief attack. In addition to the freshly arriving units of the IV SS Panzer Corps, only Kampfgruppe von Pape, which had been defending in the area within the bend in the Danube, went on the attack. At that moment, its roster included the bulk of the 271st Volksgrenadier Division, the elements of Panzerkorps Feldherrnhalle that remained outside of the Budapest pocket, the 208th Panzer Battalion (31 Pz. IV and 17 JgPz IV/70(A)), which had been sent from the Supreme Command Reserve, and two of the three kampfgruppen (from the 6th and 8th Panzer Divisions) that were available in December. The German kampfgruppen consisted of a panzer battalion, a motorized infantry battalion equipped with halftracks, and the self-propelled howitzers (the Hummel 150mm and Wespe 105mm) of the artillery regiment. They were less vulnerable against artillery blocking fire than soft-skinned vehicles or dismounted infantry, and as a result of this were able to penetrate deeply into the enemy’s defenses.
The bulk of the German panzer divisions already in Hungary had become widely scattered on both sides of the Danube River and were thus unable to be used quickly as a unified force for the relief attack. The main forces of the 3rd and 6th Panzer Divisions were still on the north side of the Danube River, while the 1st and 23rd Panzer Divisions were defending at Székesfehérvár and at Mór.
The haste in putting together the counteroffensive was not simply an idle whim of the German high command, since every hour was working to the favor of the Soviet defenders of the outer ring of encirclement. On the eve of the New Year of 1945, feverish preparations for the next round of battle were being made by both sides. The defensive battle at Balaton was fundamentally different from that at Kursk in the summer of 1943. The Soviet troops literally had only several days for improving their positions on the outer ring of Budapest’s encirclement.
At 19.00 on 30 December 1944, the commander of the Soviet 4th Guards Army G.F. Zakharov gave his subordinate troops both defensive and offensive tasks. A German-held salient had formed in the center of the 4th Guards Army’s front lines at Mór, out of which the Germans might be able to develop an offensive into the rear of the defending Soviet units north and south of that town. General Zakharov issued an order for an attack in the first days of 1945 to pinch off this salient at its base. However, the primary assignment of the Army’s rifle corps was defensive. Before 1 January 1945, the 4th Guards Army went on the defensive on a sector of 160 kilometers (including the bank of Lake Balaton). The 31st Guards Rifle Corps was given a sector of 48 kilometers, the 68th Rifle Corps – 18 kilometers, the 20th Guards Rifle Corps – 24 kilometers, the 135th Rifle Corps – 16 kilometers, and the 21st Guards Rifle Corps – 20 kilometers, as well as approximately 35 kilometers of the southern shoreline of Lake Balaton. The average numerical strength of a rifle division of the 4th Guards Army was 5,386 men. Of the 4th Guards Army’s 14 rifle divisions, 11 had a numerical strength of between 5,000 and 6,000 men, which was barely half of their table strength. Such a situation was typical for the Red Army in 1945. The struggle against the remnants of the defeated German and Hungarian units in the forests of the Vértes Hills was absorbing additional troops and equipment. The Axis remnants were attacking Soviet rear echelon units and even headquarters. This also made the situation in Hungary substantially different from that at Kursk in 1943.
However, the January fighting at Balaton also unquestionably had aspects that made it similar to other Soviet defensive battles of the war. An inability to surmise the enemy’s plans was common for many Soviet defensive operations. The January fighting in Hungary was no exception. The 4th Guards Army was deployed with a greater density of force closer to its left flank, in the area of Székesfehérvár. It was here that the reserve 41st Guards Rifle Division and 7th Mechanized Corps (77 tanks and 25 self-propelled guns) were deployed, together with other reinforcements. The 4th Guards Army’s headquarters was also in Székesfehérvár. Given the terrain, this is unsurprising – a German counterattack in the area of Székesfehérvár appeared more logical. The 31st Guards Rifle Corps was defending on the right flank of the 4th Guards Army. As a consequence of the fact that the forces of the neighboring 2nd Ukrainian Front on the right were somewhat lagging behind the 3rd Ukrainian Front, part of this rifle corps had to be detached in order to defend the banks of the Danube. A regiment of the 4th Guards Rifle Division was positioned here with its front oriented to the north. The 34th and 80th Guards Rifle Divisions were holding the rest of the Corps’ sector with their fronts facing the west. The 80th Guards Rifle Division, which was positioned on the axis of the IV SS Panzer Corps’ main attack, had gone over to the defensive only at 20.00 30 December 1944. The division’s units were unable to dig even one continuous trench line in the rocky soil.
The objective factors, related to the weakness of the Soviet defenders’ positions, were made worse by subjective factors. Afterward, in Order No. 11 of 14 January 1945, the commander of the 4th Guards Army pointed to serious shortcomings in the preparation of the 80th Guards Rifle Division’s defensive set-up: “The Tavares – Agostyán highway, which was thought to have been mined, was in fact not mined; the mines were lying non-emplaced on the roadside, and subsequently they were found and disarmed by the enemy without difficulty.”1 Most likely, the lack of defensive preparations was simply due to the fact that no one believed the enemy would attack and everyone looked upon defensive measures with indifference. Moreover, the Vértes Hills gave natural benefits to any defender.
The presence of the 18th Tank Corps, which had been pulled back into the reserve and which was directly subordinate to Front headquarters, somewhat offset the dangerous situation on the right flank of the 4th Guards Army. This Corps had suffered relatively light losses in the course of the December offensive and had retained its strike capabilities. On 31 December 1944 it numbered 110 T-34 tanks, as well as 18 ISU-122 and 15 SU-85 self-propelled guns. The 18th Tank Corps was in readiness to counter both attempts by the Budapest garrison to break out and any possible German counterattack against the outer encirclement ring. One of its brigades (the 170th Tank Brigade) was still at the front near Dunaalmási at the start of Operation Konrad. It had been left there with the aim of supporting the infantry in the storming of that town.
The 18th Tank Corps was not the only mobile formation at the call of the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s command. General I.N. Russianov’s 1st Guards Mechanized Corps had been sent to Hungary from the Stavka Reserve. This corps started its history as the 100th Rifle Division, which had distinguished itself in the first days of the war in the combat for Minsk and for this reason became the 1st Guards Rifle Division. In 1942 it was re-formed into a mechanized corps. In 1943, the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps took part in the battles for the Donbass, Zaporozh’e and Kirovograd. After this it was withdrawn to Poltava into the Stavka Reserve, where it spent the next 13 months refitting. On 8 December 1944, at a directive from the Red Army’s General Staff the corps began loading aboard trains, which departed for the front one after another. Situated in reserve, the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps was fully staffed with officers and men. By December 1944, this mechanized corps could have been boldly called “Siberian” – 70% of its personnel were Siberians, who had managed to receive excellent tactical training as infantry. In contrast, its tanks had arrived not long before the departure to the front, and there hadn’t been time to conduct joint training with them. The tanks that reached Russianov’s formation were not standard-issue – the corps was equipped with American Sherman tanks that had been received through Lend-Lease. This at first caused certain problems for the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps’ repair teams, which had been trained on T-34 tanks. Russianov’s corps also had three self-propelled artillery regiments equipped with the latest SU-100 tank destroyers. The 1st Guards Mechanized Corps began unloading from the trains on 24 December 1944, the very same day that Hitler ordered the IV SS Panzer Corps to be sent to Budapest. The arrival of the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps and the three SU-100 regiments can be considered as a reaction of the Soviet high command to the German commitment of several panzer divisions into the fighting in Hungary in November – December 1944.
The 46th Army became one more actor in the pending drama, though it was still lurking offstage. The main forces of General Shlemin’s army were besieging Buda; however, a number of its formations had been pulled out of the front line and in the process they effectively became a reserve for the defense of the outer ring of encirclement. Its 86th Guards Rifle Division was in a defensive posture south of Esztergom [called Gran by the Germans] with its front facing the east. In the event of a breakout by the Germans and Hungarians from Budapest, it was to block their path. In addition, the 46th Army’s 2nd Guards Mechanized Corps (31 tanks and 13 self-propelled guns) was also now in reserve. It had also received the assignment to block any breakout from Budapest, if such an event took place. Finally, the 49th Guards Rifle Division was engaged in mopping up the forests lying to the west of the encircled Hungarian capital. These three formations hadn’t been drawn into the assault on Budapest, which meant it wasn’t necessary to lose time to disengage them from combat.
By the second half of the war, a so-called “air army”, which included fighters, ground attack aircraft, reconnaissance aircraft, artillery observation airplanes and bombers that operated in support of one or another front, had become standard in the Red Army. Accordingly, in addition to the all-arms armies, an air army was subordinate to each front’s headquarters, but its precise composition varied according to the importance and nature of the tasks facing the ground troops. The composition of the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s 17th Air Army as of 1 January 1945 was characterized by the following numbers (the figure to the left of the slash shows operational aircraft, while the number to the right of it shows aircraft under repair at the time):
La-5 fighters: 79/15
Iak-3 and Iak-9 fighters: 202/13
Il-2 ground attack aircraft: 345/27
B-3 (A-20 Boston) bombers: 98/13
Po-2 night bombers: 94/3
Pe-2 reconnaissance aircraft: 12/2
Iak-9 reconnaissance aircraft: 2/6
Il-2 artillery spotters: 17/4
Iak-9 artillery spotters: 12/0
Thus, the 17th Air Army as of 1 January 1945 had a total of 861 operational aircraft.
According to both its numbers and composition, the 17th Air Army could be characterized as an air army designated for operations on a secondary axis. Air armies on key directions had two or three times the number of aircraft. In addition, the 17th Air Army had no Pe-2 dive bombers at all, not to mention any of the powerful Tu-2 twin-engine bombers, which were comparable to the German Ju-88. Domestically-produced bombers were partially replaced by Lend-Lease Bostons. These weren’t bad aircraft, but they were unable to dive bomb.
The comparatively small 17th Air Army becomes even more lackluster when compared to the enemy’s air force. Despite the attention that Hitler had focused on Hungary, the German Luftflotte [Air Fleet] 4 that was operational on the German southern flank was not the largest. On 10 January 1945, of the four Luftwaffe air fleets in the east (1, 4, 5 and 6), the numerically largest was Luftlotte 6, which was operating in Poland and East Prussia. It numbered 822 combat aircraft. However, according to the data for 10 January 1945, Luftflotte 4 in Hungary stood in a respectable second place with 588 combat aircraft (78 single-engine fighters, 56 bombers, 199 ground attack aircraft, 101 night attack aircraft, 38 long-range reconnaissance aircraft, 67 short-range reconnaissance aircraft, and 49 transport aircraft). In addition to the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s 17th Air Army, Luftflotte 4 also faced the 2nd Ukrainian Front’s 5th Air Army, which had 642 operational combat aircraft on 1 January 1945, also with A-20 Bostons in place of Pe-2s. However, all the same the correlation of forces in the air here was worse for the Soviet side than on other directions of advance in this period.
In view of the swift regrouping of Gille’s IV SS Panzer Corps from the Warsaw area to Hungary, Soviet intelligence didn’t manage to acquire reliable evidence of the arrival of fresh enemy formations before the start of Konrad. In its intelligence summary produced at 22.00 1 January 1945, that is, just several hours before the launching of the enemy offensive, the headquarters of the 4th Guards Army came to the following conclusion: “The enemy is striving to hold its present positions with all its forces; on separate sectors of the front, the adversary is undertaking attacks for reconnaissance purposes and with the aim of improving local positions.” At that moment, it had relatively solid intelligence about the arrival of Wiking at the front from prisoners. Yet it simply had no information at all about Totenkopf. It isn’t surprising, given such attitudes, that the anti-tank mines had been stacked on the side of the roads instead of being emplaced.