Konrad I: A Hasty Surprise Part II

Repulse of the German Counteroffensives Konrad I and II, 1-11 January 1945.

Soviet forces were the first to go on the attack in the new 1945 year. At 11.00 1 January, five rifle divisions in the center of the 4th Guards Army went on the offensive with the aim of seizing Mór. The attackers were met by heavy fire and had no success. Heavy snow began falling that afternoon. Despite the exceptionally poor flying weather, the German Luftwaffe became active. In groups of several aircraft, they bombed targets close behind the Soviet front line in the sector targeted by Operation Konrad. These small groups of 3 to 10 aircraft each became the harbingers of the German offensive. But times had changed, and instead of large swarms of Stukas, now the Germans were operating in small groups of fighter-bombers.

At 22.00 1 January 1945, small groups of German tanks and infantry began to probe the Soviet defenses, but at 2.30 2 January, the main forces of the IV SS Panzer Corps entered the fighting. The defensive positions of the 80th Guards Rifle Division were broken by a powerful blow on a narrow front, and the Germans emerged in the rear of the defending regiments and attacked the division’s headquarters in Agostyán. Command and control over the division’s units became disrupted. Simultaneously, in the time period between 1.00 and 5.00 2 January, a landing party from the 96th Infantry Division crossed the Danube and managed to drive the units of the 4th Guards Rifle Division out of a number of villages on the Danube’s right bank. Soon, the infantry of the river crossing linked up with panzers that were attacking from the west. Part of the 80th Guards Rifle Division and the 18th Tank Corps’ 170th Tank Brigade (27 tanks) became encircled. From the very start of the operation, two directions of enemy attack became clear: along the Danube and through Agostyán. On the former axis of advance, the IV SS Panzer Corps was operating, while Kampfgruppe von Pape was attacking on the latter axis. For a certain amount of time, General Gorba managed to keep the Germans out of Agostyán by holding a narrow pass in the hills. However, the blocking force in the pass, which had held up all day against German tank attacks on 2 January, was outflanked by enemy infantry on the following morning.

The 31st Guards Rifle Corps’ defensive front was swiftly crumbling, and in essence it was necessary to create a new one. The 41st Guards Rifle Division, which was located in Zakharov’s reserve, was 60 kilometers away from the point of the German breakthrough, and it would require no less than a day and a half or even two days before it could move out. In addition, at the start of the German offensive, it still wasn’t clear whether the German attack toward Agostyán was the main attack or just a pinning attack. The 3rd Ukrainian Front commander F.I. Tolbukhin decided to split up the attack grouping that was targeting Mór. The 93rd Rifle Division, which had been attacking on a narrow front, was pulled out of the front line and received an order to make a forced march to Tarján. This would require the division to conduct a march of approximately 45 kilometers. At Tarján, it would block the path of the German advance out of the wooded, hilly area through Bicske onto the plain.

The dismantling of the 4th Guards Army’s attack grouping didn’t stop with the removal of the 93rd Rifle Division. Tolbukhin also pulled the 40th and 62nd Rifle Divisions out of the front line and into the reserve. In addition, General Gorshkov’s 5th Guards Cavalry Corps was taken out of the fighting near Mór. On the evening of 1 January, it had joined the attack on that town, but it had also had no success. Already on the morning of 2 January, it received a fresh order to march to a new area of assembly.

However, it was no longer possible to resurrect a line of defense and extend its right flank to the Danube River with just the forces of the 4th Guards Army alone. This could only be accomplished with additional forces of the 3rd Ukrainian Front. Front commander Tolbukhin decided to create a new line of defense 16-20 kilometers behind the 4th Guards Army’s already ruptured positions as quickly as possible, while delaying the German advance with screening forces. The German axis of advance along the bank of the Danube had been identified as the most dangerous one at the time. Soviet mobile divisions could reach the new line of defense most quickly, so the 18th Tank Corps (minus its 170th Tank Brigade) received an order to move to a blocking position in the path of the German penetration. The 86th Guards Rifle Division and the 46th Army’s 2nd Guards Mechanized Corps moved out toward the same place. Just like the Russian fairy tale, the rifle division and mechanized corps pivoted, with their backside now to the forest (Budapest) and their front facing Ivan Tsarevich (the IV SS Panzer Corps). The orientation of the front of the two formations had flipped 180 degrees, blocking the enemy’s path to Budapest along the bank of the Danube.

Tolbukhin was an artilleryman, and this left a definite imprint on his style of conducting a defensive operation. He ordered Zakharov to move up Katiusha rocket launchers, artillery (including anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery) and mortars, which had passed to his control from the roster of the 18th Tank Corps and the 5th Guards Cavalry Corps, to the new line of defense. It should be noted that the Germans also used this tactic. In the course of defensive battles, they would create combat groups of anti-tank guns and artillery, which had greater mobility than did the infantry, and deploy them on the axis of the enemy advance.

On 3 January, the firmness of the new line of defense was tested by attacks by German panzer formations. The reserves that had moved up at Tolbukhin’s and Zakharov’s orders entered the fighting. Units of the IV SS Panzer Corps that were attacking along the right bank of the Danube collided with the defenses of the 86th Guards Rifle Division and the 18th Tank Corps, which had been reinforced with anti-tank artillery. Fierce tank battles developed for control of the Bajna road hub. Hours literally decided everything. The 110th Tank Brigade and the 363rd Self-propelled Artillery Regiment equipped with ISU-122s entered Bajna at 5.30 on 3 January and immediately ran into the leading units of the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf. They managed to drive back the Germans and keep possession of this important road junction. That afternoon, the SS troops launched furious but unsuccessful attacks on Bajna from the north, and then from the west and east. The outflanking maneuvers of the Germans were anticipated and parried.

The activity of the Luftwaffe, according to the standards of 1945, was rather high on the day of 3 January. Altogether, the Germans conducted approximately 350 individual combat sorties. Groups of 15-20 fighter-bombers almost continuously hung in the air above the combat positions of elements of the 18th Tank Corps in Bajna. In the course of the day, 6 T-34 tanks and 2 ISU-122 self-propelled guns of the 110th Tank Brigade were left burned out after their attacks. The 181st Tank Brigade lost 5 more T-34 tanks and had an additional 3 rendered immobile.

The actions of the Soviet reserves that had hurried up to confront Kampfgruppe von Pape and the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking were less successful. The successful advance of the attackers created a salient in the Soviet line, the perimeter of which was longer than the initial front of the defense, thereby requiring additional Soviet units to hold it. In the process, the attacker had the possibility to choose the next axis of attack with the creation of a local superiority of force at the selected point of the attack.

On the second day of the operation, the German units that had been moving through Agostyán from the west to the east altered their axis of attack. Now their path of advance ran almost directly from north to south through Tarján toward Bicske, toward an exit from the hilly, wooded terrain. Forward units of the 93rd Rifle Division managed to reach Tarján on 3 January, but lacked the time to build a continuous line of defense. In the middle of the day, they were enveloped from both flanks and compelled to retreat.

Both sides made changes in their plans due to the results of the fighting on 3 January. The strong blocking force across the road to Budapest, created by the units of the 46th Army and the 18th Tank Corps that had been moved from that city, forced the Germans to search for reserves in order to strengthen the attack grouping. For this purpose, the main forces of the 6th Panzer Division returned from the northern bank of the Danube. Now it was to rejoin its armored grouping (that was part of Kampfgruppe von Pape).

On its part the Soviet command, recognizing the shakiness of the newly created line of defense, strove to reinforce it as much as possible. The 7th Mechanized Corps was still sitting in reserve in Székesfehérvár. However, an unusual combat group under the leadership of the deputy commander of the 4th Guards Army Major General Filippovsky was detached from it and sent to repel the enemy attack. It consisted of the 16th Mechanized Brigade, the 78th Guards Heavy Tank Regiment, and the 1289th Self-propelled Artillery Regiment (a total of 16 T-34, 12 IS-2, 4 SU-85, 7 SU-76, 8 armored halftracks, and 20 85mm guns). Filippovsky was also given control of the 41st Guards Rifle Division and the 152nd Howitzer, the 222nd and 127th Cannon Artillery Regiments, as well as the 205th Mortar Regiment. In addition to Group Filippovsky, a significant amount of rocket artillery was moved up to the approaches to Bicske. Already by the morning of 4 January, 13 M-13 rocket artillery battalions and 1 M-31 battalion were positioned here – which represented a large portion of the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s Katiusha rocket launchers. The so-called “Guards mortars” mounted on trucks were always one of the Soviet command’s most maneuverable reserves. The Katiusha rocket launchers could be assembled on a selected axis much more quickly than regular artillery, especially heavy artillery.

The German counteroffensive also compelled an urgent crossing of the freshly arrived 1st Guards Mechanized Corps to the western bank of the Danube. According to plan, it was to cross using a 60-ton pontoon bridge. However, the bridge had been swept away by drifting ice (a large amount of floating ice was moving down the Danube at the time), and as a result the crossing was organized by two ferry boats towing armored launches. Naturally, this significantly slowed the pace of the river crossing. By 6.00 4 January, only the combat elements, without their rear services and a majority of the vehicles, had crossed the Danube. The motorized riflemen moved up to the front line on foot. A group of 59 SU-100 from three self-propelled artillery regiments under the command of the deputy artillery commander of the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps Colonel Sveshnikov had been moved out in advance of the infantry. By 8.00 4 January, it had already assembled in the Bicske area.

The events of 4 January demonstrated the correctness of the decisions that had been made by Tolbukhin and Zakharov. It was Group Filippovsky, which had been created at their order that prevented the Germans from reaching operational space on this day. Having bypassed the 93rd Rifle Division in Tarján and driven the 12th Guards Cavalry Division from its positions, Wiking’s tanks had lunged on to the south toward Bicske, and penetrated to the village of Mány, which lay just 4.5 kilometers to the north of Bicske. From there, it would take only one more bound in order to break out of the hilly and wooded area onto the plain west of Budapest. However, on the afternoon of 4 January, the mobile units of Group Filippovsky that had come hurrying up struck the southward attacking German units in the flank. Threatened with encirclement, the German units that had been advancing at a heady pace that morning were compelled to recoil in retreat. By evening, Group Filippovsky’s rifle units had moved into position, and the defenses on the approaches to Bicske became sufficiently solid to withstand an enemy panzer attack.

In the northern sector of the offensive on 4 January, the Germans again used the method of crossing the Danube, which allowed them to outflank the 86th Guards Rifle Division and shove it back to the east. Here, the two infantry divisions of Gille’s IV SS Panzer Corps were continuing the offensive along the course of the Danube River. However, the Soviet defenses had in the interim been bolstered by the 2nd Guards Mechanized Corps, which stopped the enemy advance.

In the meantime, Totenkopf was stubbornly assaulting Bajna. On the night of 3 January, the village had been attacked by German panzer grenadiers equipped with panzerfausts. Bajna increasingly took on the semblance of a mousetrap, as Wiking’s advance had pushed far beyond the defenders’ left flank. On the morning of 4 January, the 110th Tank Brigade and the regiment of ISU-122s were pulled out of Bajna to the south of the village, where they took up concealed positions on hilltops behind a stream. However, here the Soviet tanks and self-propelled guns that were deployed in ambush were pounced upon by German fighter-bombers. According to the list of the 18th Tank Corps’ irrecoverable losses for the day 4 January, 5 (!!!) heavy ISU-122 self-propelled guns were knocked out or destroyed by German bombs in the vicinity of the village of Bajna. In addition to these losses, on 3-4 January 15 T-34 tanks had been destroyed by German artillery fire in the Bajna area. However, the outcome of the fighting for Bajna was decided by Wiking’s attack west of Bajna, which penetrated to the village of Mány. Although this breakthrough couldn’t be exploited by the Germans, the units of the 18th Tank Corps in the Bajna area were now in danger of being encircled. By the morning of 5 January, they had been withdrawn to the line Mány – Zsámbék, where they tied in with the defenses of Bicske. By this time, the 110th Tank Brigade and the 363rd Self-propelled Artillery Regiment had been reduced to 15 T-34 tanks and 8 ISU-122 self-propelled guns (of the 37 T-34 and 19 ISU-122 they had possessed on 1 January).

Since the defensive battle was being prolonged, it no longer made sense to leave the “breakwaters” of encircled units in the enemy rear. On the night of 3 January, the 80th Guards Rifle Division and the 170th Tank Brigade at the order of the commander of the 4th Guards Army broke out of their encirclement along the hilly, forested roads. Approximately 100 vehicles, as well as 11 T-34s and 11 SU-85s managed to return to friendly lines. The tankers even managed to bring out their wounded.

While the divisions that had received the initial enemy attack were bringing themselves back to order, the newly constructed defensive line was subjected to the next series of panzer attacks by Kampfgruppe von Pape and Wiking. However, with the arrival of the 40th and 41st Guards Rifle Divisions on the approaches to Bicske, the defensive front stiffened to the necessary degree. Even the main forces of the 6th Panzer Division which were added to the German attack grouping on 6 January didn’t alter the situation. All of the German attacks on Bicske were repulsed. For the role he played in the several days of defensive fighting, Colonel M.F. Malyshev, the commander of the 16th Mechanized Brigade that had most distinguished itself in the combat, was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.

Having pulled alongside the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf was also unable to overcome the 18th Tank Corps’ defenses on the approaches to Zsámbék. The Soviet tank corps’ combat ranks had been fleshed out with the arrival of the 49th Guards Rifle Division from Budapest. This axis was also reinforced with the three self-propelled SU-100 artillery regiments from the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps. They had been shifted from the Bicske area and placed under the operational control of the commander of the 18th Tank Corps. Since it wasn’t clear where the Germans would strike next, the group of three SU-100 regiments had to extend their front significantly. It was at Számbék where the latest Soviet self-propelled tank destroyers had their first baptism by fire.

On the morning of 7 January, the Germans went on the attack toward Számbék. Blocking their path was the 382nd Guards Self-propelled Artillery Regiment of SU-100s. Under the enemy onslaught, the infantry of the 49th Guards Rifle Division fell back and left the SU-100 tank destroyers alone to face the attacking German units. The Germans threw infantry against the self-propelled guns. In the course of it they employed anti-tank grenades and Molotov cocktails, while the crews of the self-propelled guns, which lacked machine guns, fought back with whatever infantry weapons they had at hand. Over the day of combat the regiment lost half of its strength – 9 self-propelled guns were left burning, and 2 were knocked out. However, there was no German breakthrough on this axis. By 8 January 1945, the first German offensive with the aim of freeing Budapest, now known as Operation Konrad I, had been stopped.

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