T-34/85 Model 1943, early production vehicle from a Red Guards battalion, Leningrad sector, February 1944.

Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg trenchantly describes the twelve months from the end of Kursk to the Red Army’ s summer offensive of 1944 as “the forgotten year.” That period featured continuous fighting from Leningrad to the Black Sea, on scales surpassing those of 1941-42 and with losses far larger, especially on the Soviet side. The story of the panzers becomes correspondingly difficult to reconstruct as the divisions bloodied at Kursk were scattered to bolster resistance in a dozen sectors.

The German retreat from Leningrad and the successful, albeit temporary, stabilization of the northern front in the Baltic states owed little yet much to the army’s panzers. They were stretched too thin elsewhere to provide major assistance to the hard-pressed Landser. But the Red Army in the north was still learning its craft. Three Tigers by themselves played a vital role in holding a reestablished defense line around Narva, Estonia. A panzer division that arrived with only three dozen tanks was the spearhead of a counterattack that plugged a critical gap between two German armies. And the buccaneering assault gunners kept appearing where they were most needed, shifting from sector to sector and division to division to shore up infantrymen as outgunned as they were outnumbered. By October one battalion recorded a thousand official kills.

Part of the panzer gap was filled by the Waffen SS. By the end of 1942 the army had essentially decided the small units of foreigners it had managed to raise were more trouble than they were worth. Heinrich Himmler, always on the lookout to enhance the scope of his ramshackle empire within an empire, took them in. In early 1943 he activated III (Germanic) Panzer Corps, to include the Vikings and a new division eventually designated the 11th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Division (Northland).

Had Hitler not intervened its honorific might have been “Varan gian,” a reference to the Scandinavian guard troops of the medieval Byzantine empire and a reflection of Himmler’s desire to base the division on Aryan volunteers. In fact Northland absorbed most of the remaining foreign legions—including, for a while, a 50-man British detachment—and made up its strength with “ethnic Germans” from outside the expanded state and “Reich Germans” from territories annexed during the war. Northland saw its first action and made its first bones in the no-quarter partisan fighting in Yugoslavia. In November the division and III SS Panzer Corps were sent to the Leningrad sector. When it proved impossible to withdraw Viking from the fighting in the south, the corps was fleshed out by the ostensibly Dutch SS Volunteer PanzerGrenadier Brigade Nederland. Despite having only a single tank battalion plus some assault guns, it played an important role in the successful defense of Narva over the winter of 1943-44.

The III SS Panzer Corps is best understood in the context of the far more numerous unmechanized Waffen SS formations also thrown into what Reich propagandists described as “the battle of the European SS.” Some were Belgian, with Flemings and Walloons carefully separated. Others were local: Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians. Interpreted by postwar apologists as participants in a crusade against Bolshevism, they wore SS runes but saw themselves fighting against Russia and for their homelands.

In the war’s final months the Waffen SS would incorporate Bos nian Muslims, Croats, Italians, Frenchmen, and plain criminals into grandiosely styled “brigades” and “divisions” whose only German elements, in the words of one contemptuous Landser, were a few German shepherd watchdogs. Another thing these ragtag formations had in common was that they only saw German tanks by accident. The Waffen SS, in short, was subdividing into an elite fighting core, according to many accounts disproportionately favored in personnel and equipment; and a fringe of increasingly desperate men who, as they felt the ropes tighten around their necks, took little account of their behavior to prisoners and civilians.

Army Group Center’s post-Kursk circumstances were arguably even more perilous than those of Army Group North. When the general Russian offensives began in that sector, 3rd Panzer Army on the far left had not a single armored vehicle under command. Its neighbor, 4th Army, began the battle with 66 assault guns against almost 1,500 Soviet AFVs. The Germans nevertheless executed a fighting retreat into White Russia despite the Red Army’s desperate efforts. Companies were commanded by sergeants; local reserves were nonexistent, and replacements were a forlorn hope. As early as September 8, one army commander reported the total combat strength of his infantry was fewer than 7,000 men. A month later Kluge contacted Hitler directly and pulled no punches informing him that no general could command without men, weapons, and reserves. The Russians had all three.

Things might have become far worse had the Red Army in this sector not regressed to tactics making the Somme and Passchendaele appear sophisticated by comparison. Massed infantry, massed armor, and massed artillery hammered at the same points time after time, until nothing and no one remained to send forward or the Germans gave way.

The German plight was compounded by a well- coordinated partisan uprising in their rear. The army group had been preoccupied with holding its front since 1942. Now it faced an exponentially increasing number of strikes against communications systems and railroads. Security forces responded with large-scale, near-random executions and, as the front receded, scorched earth—when anything remained to scorch. This was no mere torching of villages and looting of houses. It involved the systematic destruction of militarily useful installations. In total war that meant anything. What was not burned was blown up. Thousands of civilians were “evacuated,” a euphemism for being driven west with what they could carry, with the alternative of risking execution as partisans or being shot at random. Files named “Protests” and “Refusals” are conspicuously absent from otherwise well- kept German records. What was important to senior officers was that the devastation be carried out in order and under command. German soldiers were not mere brigands.

The fight of Army Group Center was largely a foot soldier’s affair—with the by-now usual and welcome support of the near-ubiquitous assault guns. At the beginning of October the army group’s order of battle included a single panzer division itself reduced to battle group strength, and two panzer grenadier divisions in no better shape. Those figures remained typical. Yet ironically the panzers’ major contribution to the retreat played a large role in setting the scene for future debacle in the sector.

It began in March 1944 when the Red Army enveloped the city of Gomel and its patchwork garrison of 4,000 men. Gomel was a regional road and rail hub, as much as such existed in White Russia. Hitler declared it a fortress; the High Command supplied it from the air and ordered its immediate relief.

Initial efforts were thwarted by soft ground and the spring thaw. But after 10 days a battle group of SS Viking fought its way into the city. It required 18 hours and cost over 50 percent casualties. The lieutenant commanding received the Knight’s Cross. The hundred-odd surviving panzer grenadiers were welcome. The half-dozen Panthers were vital in holding off Soviet armor while LXVI Panzer Corps put together a relief force from an already worn-down 4th Panzer Division and a battle group built around what remained of Viking’s Panthers. The combination broke the siege on April 5, though it was two weeks before the link to the main front was fully reestablished.

The defense of Gomel solidified Hitler’s conviction that he had found a force multiplier. Gomel was on a small scale. But if larger “fortresses” could be established and garrisoned, under orders to hold to the last, the Soviets would be drawn into siege operations that would dissipate their offensive strength while the panzers and the Luftwaffe assembled enough strength to relieve the position. Army Group Center considered the idea good enough to be the best available alternative. The operational consequences of shifting to this fixed-defense approach would be demonstrated within months.





Who Is to Have Berlin? I

“This is the brass that did it. Seated are Simpson, Patton (as if you didn’t know), Spaatz, Ike himself, Bradley, Hodges and Gerow. Standing are Stearley, Vandenberg, Smith, Weyland and Nugent.” Ca. 1945. Army. (OWI)
Exact Date Shot Unknown
NARA FILE #: 208-YE-182

One of the attributes most valued in a military commander is calm. It was not one in which Hitler excelled. Rather the contrary, as was illustrated by a Führer Conference in the Berlin Chancellory on 13 February 1945. Before we see what happened there, it should be understood that by January, one month earlier, the Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht had so disposed his armies that the most vulnerable front of all, both militarily and politically, the front in Poland and East Prussia, was in comparative terms the most weakly held, the one least likely to be capable of withstanding the knock it was about to receive. In the west were 76 divisions, in Italy 24, 10 were in Yugoslavia, 17 in Scandinavia – in short, 127 divisions were deployed elsewhere than on the Eastern Front; only a few more, 133, were in the east. In the same month of January 300 divisions and twenty-five tank armies of the Red Army were getting ready to end the war; in the north two groups of armies under Chernyakhovsky and Rokossovsky were to converge on East Prussia; Zhukov’s and Konev’s groups in the centre would aim at Berlin and Upper Silesia; further south two more groups would clear Slovakia, take Budapest and Vienna; finally, Petrov was to reoccupy the Northern Carpathians.

Whereas the Russians with their seemingly limitless resources of men and material could afford to operate over such broad fronts, the number of German divisions facing them was quite inadequate to constitute an effective defence. The vital central area of East Prussia and Poland was some 600 miles wide and here only seventy-five German divisions were deployed. Against them Stalin launched 180 divisions, including four tank armies each of which contained 1,200 tanks, so that it was hardly surprising when Konev’s Army Group rapidly broke out of its bridgehead on the Upper Vistula and heralded a series of disasters which engulfed the Eastern Front. Guderian had warned the Führer that this front was like a house of cards and that if it were broken anywhere it would collapse everywhere. Even so, Guderian, never one to despair, set to work in forming a new Army Group Vistula to stem the Russian advance. Its front would stretch from Poznan to Graudenz, and Guderian intended to give this Army Group all the reserves he was mustering from the west, including Sepp Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army. Intending to direct its operations himself – and it would have been difficult to find any general more qualified or more able to make telling used of it – Guderian proposed von Weichs as a nominal Army Group Commander. But Hitler was so disillusioned by the professional soldiers’ handling of affairs, a disillusionment brought about by virtue of his own unrealistic mishandling of them, that he appointed Himmler, who had never commanded armies in the field and was already contemplating treachery against his master.

Guderian was so appalled by this appointment that on 26 January he suggested to von Ribbentrop1 that the two of them should speak to the Führer and seek his agreement to securing an armistice on one front or the other. Von Ribbentrop lacked either the character or the courage to stand up to Hitler and refused, but was himself aghast when Guderian asked how he would feel when he found that the Russians had reached Berlin in a few weeks’ time. Von Ribbentrop then asked Guderian if he really believed such a thing was possible, and was hardly comforted by the reply that because of Hitler’s leadership it was not just possible, but certain. The conversation was duly reported to Hitler, who in Guderian’s presence referred to it as treason, but the great Panzer Leader never lacked the courage of his convictions and tried to argue the strategic issues there and then. Hitler refused to discuss the matter.

As the first two weeks of February went by, the disagreements between Guderian, still Chief of the Army General Staff, and the Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht concerning the conduct of the war in general and the campaign on the Eastern Front in particular grew ever more bitter and violent. At one point when Guderian counselled withdrawal and Hitler refused to give up an inch of territory, the Führer’s rage and vituperation reached an absolute crescendo. Guderian’s assertion that he was not being obstinate but simply thinking of Germany precipitated a furious bellow from Hitler that his whole life had been a struggle for Germany. It was all he had been fighting for. Guderian’s adjutant was so alarmed by Hitler’s shaking fists that he took hold of his General’s tunic and pulled him back out of range. The whole sorry scene was re-enacted at the 13 February Führer Conference. This time the principal issue concerned the conduct of a counter-attack by Army Group Vistula against Zhukov’s extended and vulnerable right flank. Those present included Hitler himself, Keitel, Jodl, Himmler, still in command of the Army Group, Sepp Dietrich and Wenck, whom Guderian had brought with him. Guderian was insisting that the counter-attack should be launched at once, before the Russians had time to bring up their reserves, and moreover that command should be entrusted to Wenck, not to Himmler. Hitler contested every point made by Guderian, who just as steadily contradicted him and who later recorded what occurred:

And so it went on for two hours. His fists raised, his cheeks flushed with rage, his whole body trembling, the man stood there in front of me, beside himself with fury and having lost all self-control. After each outburst of rage Hitler would stride up and down the carpet edge, then suddenly stop immediately before me and hurl his next accusation in my face. He was almost screaming, his eyes seemed about to pop out of his head and the veins stood out on his temples.

Military decisions are best taken after calmly reviewing the circumstances, weighing the odds, determining the likely enemy action, keeping an eye firmly on the immediate objective and the consequences of attaining it, and then ensuring that the second great strategic rule – that of so disposing resources as to maximize the chances of success – is adhered to. Shrieking, shouting matches between senior commanders, decisions flawed by intrigue, lack of men and material, in short thoroughly bad leadership, were improbable preliminaries to taking the path of glory. They were much more likely to lead to the grave. Despite Hitler’s ravings on 13 February Guderian gained his point. With his most charming smile, the Führer announced that the General Staff had won a battle that day. Guderian’s subsequent comment was that it was the last battle he was to win and that in any case it came too late. The counter-attack, last of all offensives waged by the German army, petered out in failure after a few days. But was Guderian right in predicting to von Ribbentrop that the Russians would reach Berlin in a few weeks’ time? Could the British and American armies have got there first? The answer is almost certainly yes, but for the procrastination of one man – Eisenhower. For it was he who followed the example of so many military commanders before him. He changed his mind.

On 15 September 1944, after the great victory in Normandy, he had sent a letter to his two Army Group commanders, Bradley and Montgomery, in which he outlined his views as to future operations and asked for theirs. At this time it was clear from his letter that he regarded Berlin as a primary objective. Having assumed that the Ruhr, the Saar and Frankfurt would before long be in Allied hands, he then designated Berlin as the main prize. ‘There is no doubt whatsoever, in my mind, that we should concentrate on a rapid thrust to Berlin.’ There would, of course, have to be some coordination with the Russians, but precise objectives could not be selected until later.

At this point, therefore, it was clear that Berlin was the goal. In his reply to Eisenhower Montgomery urged the Supreme Commander to decide there and then what forces were necessary to go to Berlin, and so reach agreement as to both the plan and the objectives. Moreover, these matters had to be agreed at once, not decided on later. Montgomery also stressed that all other considerations must be secondary to the main aim and objective. The trouble was that there was no absolutely clear and clearly understood policy as to what Eisenhower was required to do after crossing the Rhine. Indeed, in spite of his reference to Berlin, Eisenhower’s strategy had consistently been to advance on a broad front with primary and secondary thrusts, and then, having linked up the two advancing forces in the general area of Kassel, make one great thrust to the eastward. But where to? Lack of decision here meant that on crossing the Rhine and moving eastward, the aim of the Allied armies was far from clear.

One of the ironies of the situation was that whatever objectives the Western Allies might care to choose, they were almost certainly attainable, for the German forces in the west – now under Field-Marshal Kesselring – could no longer fight a coordinated defensive battle, however determined individual pockets of resistance might be. Although on paper there were still sixty-five German divisions on the Western Front, for practicable purposes they were only small battle groups and a few headquarter staffs, dispersed and without either proper communications or logistic support. Such penny packets would not be able to resist a firm Allied drive. Eisenhower’s plan, such as it was, laid down that the Ruhr would be encircled by Montgomery’s 21st Army Group plus US 9th Army to the north, while Bradley’s 12th Army Group would break out from the Remagen bridgehead and link up with Montgomery. The whole area east of the Rhine would be occupied and a further advance into Germany would proceed. Montgomery’s orders were for his forces to advance with all speed to the Elbe from Hamburg to Magdeburg, with great emphasis on ‘getting the whips out’ so that fast-moving armoured spearheads could capture airfields to ensure continuous close air support. These orders were given on 27 March, but the following day everything was changed. Eisenhower did an absolute volte-face, abandoned the idea of going for Berlin, and communicated directly with Stalin in order to coordinate his operations with those of the Red Army. Having informed Stalin of his intention to encircle the Ruhr and mop up the enemy there, Eisenhower went on to define his next task as ‘joining hands with your forces’ and suggesting that the junction should be Erfurt–Leipzig–Dresden. Nothing could have been more acceptable to Stalin or unacceptable to Churchill and Montgomery. Indeed, Eisenhower had signalled to Montgomery that the US 9th Army would be removed from him after his joining hands with Bradley in the Kassel–Paderborn area, and that the main Allied thrust would be not to Berlin, but to Leipzig and Dresden. Montgomery’s appeal not to change either the plan or the command arrangements was not heeded. Eisenhower reiterated his intention to divide and destroy the enemy forces and to join hands with the Russian army. He added significantly:

You will see that in none of this do I mention Berlin. So far as I am concerned, that place has become nothing but a geographical location; I have never been interested in those. My purpose is to destroy the enemy forces and his power to resist.

Why did Eisenhower change his mind? Previously he had emphasized that Berlin was the main prize, and that the Allies should concentrate everything on a rapid thrust there no matter how this was to be done. He had repeated that all his plans ultimately boiled down to exactly this – ‘to move on Berlin by the most direct and expeditious route’. Now he was dismissing the city as a mere geographical location. Why? Was it that he regarded its capture as no longer feasible in that whereas 21st Army Group was still 300 miles from Berlin, the Russians on the Oder were a mere forty miles away? Was it that he was fearful that Model’s Army Group in the Ruhr might even now form some formidable defensive front or that the stories about Hitler’s retiring to a National Redoubt in the Bavarian and Austrian mountains, there to conduct some desperate last stand, might have some foundation and involve some further great effort? Doubts of this sort may be comprehended. What is not easy to understand in view of Eisenhower’s insistence on the whole purpose of military operations being in pursuit of political aims, and the undisputed importance of Berlin as a political objective, is that he should suddenly have turned fully 180 degrees about and pronounced it to be of no significance. And the supreme irony of it all in view of Eisenhower’s reiteration that what he was after was the destruction of the enemy’s will to resist is that up to the very last Berlin, leaving aside its weight in the political game, contained the one military objective without whose seizure or demise the enemy’s will to resist would never be broken and the war itself would never end – the person of Adolf Hitler himself. Nor is it easy to understand why Eisenhower should have chucked away the possibility of taking Berlin with his own armies before it had become plain that he could not do it. Subsequent events were to show that he could.

The reaction in Moscow to Eisenhower’s change of plan could hardly have differed more from that in London. Stalin agreed with what Eisenhower had proposed and in his reply made four points: first, he confirmed the Erfurt–Leipzig–Dresden juncture for the two converging armies; second, he maintained that only secondary Soviet forces would be directed on Berlin, which had lost its former strategic importance (Churchill’s comment on this point was that it was not borne out by events); third, that the main Soviet attack would begin in the second half of May (it actually began a month earlier, on 16 April, which had a strong bearing on whether or not the Western Allies could have got to Berlin first); fourth, that the Germans were further reinforcing the Eastern Front. As a result of Stalin’s positive response, Eisenhower issued orders to execute his plan.

In London, Churchill took a very different view of things. As was customary with him, when it came to the big issues, his strategic instinct did not forsake him. In this case it concerned not only the final stages of one great struggle, but the seeds of another. The Russians’ behaviour at Yalta had given him pause when weighing up the likely course of Soviet policy. He was anxious that the Allied armies should do all they could to put the West in the best possible position for subsequent confrontation with the Russians if such circumstances should come about. Churchill signalled to Roosevelt that he was in no doubt that the rapid advance by their armies had both surprised and displeased the Russian leaders, that their joint armies should meet the Russian armies as far east as possible, and that they should enter Berlin. But Roosevelt was a dying man and the American military hierarchy fully supported Eisenhower. There was then a further exchange of messages, Eisenhower attempting to justify his action to Churchill, and Churchill summarizing his misgivings to Roosevelt. Churchill deplored the switch of axis from that which aimed at Berlin to one further south, and also the decision to rob 21st Army Group of the 9th US Army, thus restricting its ability to push beyond the Elbe. Berlin was still of high strategic importance. ‘Nothing will exert a psychological effect of despair upon all German forces or resistance equal to that of the fall of Berlin.’ The Russians would get Vienna in any case. Were they to be allowed to have Berlin too? If Berlin were within the Western armies’ grasp, Churchill concluded, they should take it.

Was it within their grasp in April 1945? Before answering the question we may perhaps take a look at the one obstacle to making peace there and then, a peace which so many of the senior Wehrmacht commanders and even the Führer’s henchmen, like Albert Speer, who repeatedly told his master that the war was lost, ardently desired. In other words, we should look at the Supreme War Lord of the Third Reich, which he had both created and destroyed, at genius in the Bunker. On 6 April 1945, a few weeks before the end, Hitler sent for General Wenck and appointed him to command the 12th Army. The various tasks that Wenck was given underlined the absolute absurdity to which Hitler’s conduct of war had deteriorated. First of all Wenck, with just one army, and little more than a phantom army at that, was required to restore the Wehrmacht’s fortunes on the Western Front, which was being overwhelmed by three Allied Army Groups. Then later he was to reverse the inevitable on the Eastern Front and relieve Berlin.

It was clear from the very outset that the first task alone was totally beyond him. His forces were inadequate in every way – in numbers, preparation, cohesion, training, concentration. The divisions theoretically under his command simply did not exist. He had no tanks, no self-propelled assault guns, no anti-aircraft artillery. And with this skeleton of an army Wenck was supposed to do what von Rundstedt and Model had already failed to do with far larger forces – stop the Western Allies from advancing. The whole thing was a non-starter. None the less, Wenck did made a start and tried to slow down the advancing American forces. Except for one small pocket in the Halle–Leipzig area, his army never got west of the Mulde–Elbe line, but by mid-April something became plain to Wenck, something so significant that it made him think again about how to employ his troops. This was that the Americans seemed to be consolidating their positions on the Elbe, without any clear intention of pushing further east. This discovery, together with the Red Army’s attack across the Oder, made up his mind. He would use the 12th Army to assist on the Eastern Front. His decision to do so was powerfully supported by a visit from Field-Marshal Keitel, during one of his extremely rare absences from Hitler’s side, who gave Wenck some dramatic instructions: ‘Free Berlin. Turn and advance with all available strength. Link up with the 9th Army. Rescue the Führer. His fate is Germany’s fate. You, Wenck, have it in your power to save Germany.’ Good stirring stuff, which was almost at once confirmed and reinforced by a message from the Führer himself, calling upon the soldiers of Wenck’s army to turn east and defeat the Bolsheviks in their battle for the German capital, whose defenders had taken heart from the news of Wenck’s fast approach and were fighting doggedly in the belief that the thunder of his guns would soon be heard. ‘The Führer has called you. You have, as in old times, started on the road to victory. Berlin waits for you. Berlin yearns for you here, with warm hearts.’


Who Is to Have Berlin? II

There were not many warm hearts in the Bunker on 20 April when Hitler celebrated his fifty-sixth birthday. To those who attended he presented a picture of a man in the last stages of bodily and mental decay. While the will-power which had exercised so great and enduring an influence on those about him could still be summoned up, while the dull grey-blue eyes, which often now were glazed over with a film of sheer exhaustion, still seemed able to hypnotize, fascinate and compel, the actual physical state of the man was more an object of pity than of fear. The Führer’s shuffling steps, weak handshake, wobbling head, trembling hands and slack left arm were the movements and appearance of a man prematurely senile. Yet his hesitancy and indecisiveness while confirming the completeness of his disintegration were still at odds with the ‘indescribable, flickering glow in his eyes, creating a fearsome and wholly unnatural effect’.

On the following day, 21 April, Hitler was giving orders for making a last stand in Berlin. There was not much time left for, by then, Marshal Zhukov’s armies had got as far as Berlin’s eastern suburbs, while his fellow Marshal, Konev, was nearing Dresden. Nevertheless the Supreme Commander was detailing to Göring’s Chief of Staff, General Koller, an elderly, scrupulous fusspot, exactly which troops would be withdrawn from the north of the city to counter-attack the Russians in the southern suburbs. Every tank, every aircraft that could be mustered, everything and everybody would make an all-out, final, desperate effort to throw back the enemy. Obergruppenführer Steiner of the SS would command the attack. Any commanding officer who did not thrust home would answer for it with his head. It was all in vain. The attack never came off, did not even get under way; withdrawal of units from the north simply allowed the Russians to surge through there and sweep on to the city’s centre. It hardly seemed possible that the military situation could worsen, yet it was just such cold comfort that Hitler was obliged to stomach.

He did not do so lightly. At the military conference the following day, when the facts were presented to him, he completely lost control of himself. One more shrieking, shouting match – a wholly one-sided affair – was duly played out. The Generals and the Staff were then treated to three hours of denunciation. Hitler had been betrayed and deserted. The army had failed him. There was nothing but lies, deceit, cowardly incompetence. It was the end. His great mission, the Third Reich itself, had come to nothing, and indeed nothing was left but for him to stay in Berlin and die. This conference, if conference it could be called, may have left his listeners bewildered and exhausted, yet its effect on Hitler himself was quite different. Decision calmed him. He seemed able to face the future, however limited it might be, serenely. Yet at the very moment of resigning himself to failure and death, he took the unwarranted, unforgivable step of resigning too from that great position which he had so long coveted and relished – command of the German army. He refused to delegate. He gave no orders to his principal military assistants, Field-Marshal Keitel and General Jodl. He simply abdicated all responsibility. From the former position of directing the entire war machine, personally, continuously and arbitrarily, he swung fully about and would have nothing more to do with it. He declared that he would stay in Berlin, lead its defence and then at the last moment shoot himself. His physical state did not allow him to take part in the fight personally and in any case he could not risk falling into enemy hands. It was not until 30 April that Hitler actually shot himself, and by then the Russians were only a few streets away from the Berlin Chancellory and the Bunker. What would have happened if the Western armies had got there first?

On 1 April 1945 Stalin was conferring in Moscow with some of his most senior commanders – Zhukov and Konev, respectively commanding the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukraine fronts, and Antonov and Shtemenko, both of the General Staff. A telegram was read out with the unexpected information that the Anglo-American command was preparing to launch a drive to capture Berlin, the principal spearhead under Montgomery’s direction. The axis would be north of the Ruhr, the shortest route, and the telegram ended by saying that Allied plans were such that they would certainly reach Berlin before the Red Army. It must be assumed that Stalin had fabricated this telegram or that it was a thoroughly bad piece of intelligence. When the Soviet leader then asked his commanders, ‘Who is going to take Berlin, we or the Allies?’ there was unanimous agreement that it would be themselves. The only question was whether Zhukov’s or Konev’s front would be charged with the task. Stalin then instructed the two commanders to prepare their ideas and two days later gave orders that whichever of the two reached a certain line between the river Neisse and the river Spree first would go on to take Berlin.

During the first week of April 1945, therefore, we have the spectacle of two Russian Army Group commanders planning how they would take Berlin, while on the Allied side Eisenhower is being pressed by the British to do so and resisting this pressure with the aid of his own countrymen. Bradley, for example, always hostile to and a rival of Montgomery, made the extraordinary estimate, quite unsupported by military considerations, that an advance from the Elbe to Berlin would cost them 100,000 men, which he regarded as too high a price to pay for a ‘prestige objective’. He could not have been unaware that any such drive would be conducted by Montgomery’s Army Group rather than his own, purely because of their respective deployment. He echoed Eisenhower by declaiming that postwar political alignments were less important than destroying what remained of the German army. He eschewed the idea of complicating matters with political foresight and what he called non-military objectives. Yet what are military operations for but to determine political circumstances? And it has always to be borne in mind that the German army and indeed the German people as a whole, given the option, would have infinitely preferred occupation of their country by the Anglo-American armies than the Russians.

Yet Eisenhower received further support from the US Chiefs of Staff. Speaking on their behalf, General Marshall reiterated Bradley’s contention that any political or psychological advantages resulting from the capture of Berlin ahead of the Russians should not override the imperative military consideration of the dismemberment of Germany’s armed forces. In reply Eisenhower, while adhering to the orders he had already given, and insisting that there would be no drive on Berlin until he had joined forces with the Russians, as already agreed, none the less commented:

I am the first to admit that a war is waged in pursuance of political aims, and if the Combined Chiefs of Staff should decide that the Allied effort to take Berlin outweighs military considerations in this theatre, I would cheerfully readjust my plans.

This signal to Marshall was dated 7 April. If the Combined Chiefs of Staff had decided to order Eisenhower to go full steam ahead for Berlin there and then, could he have got there first? On the very next day, 8 April, we find Eisenhower telling Montgomery: ‘If I get an opportunity to capture Berlin cheaply, I will take it.’ He was hardly as good as his word. Even Bradley, finding three days later that his armies had secured a bridgehead over the Elbe at Magdeburg and were only fifty miles from Berlin, admitted: ‘At that time we could probably have pushed on to Berlin had we been willing to take the casualties Berlin would have cost us. Zhukov had not yet crossed the Oder and Berlin now lay about midway between our forces.’

Chester Wilmot was in no doubt. He pointed out that there were no prepared defences to prevent Eisenhower reaching Berlin first, no serious obstacles, ‘nor any resistance that could not be brusquely swept aside by the 60 divisions available for his next offensive’. What is more, there were no logistic objections.

Politically, too, the way was clear for, though the German capital lay in the centre of that area which was to be occupied by the Soviet Union after the war, it had never been suggested that the military forces of one power should not enter the occupation zone of another in pursuit of the common enemy.

Indeed, there had been no discussion between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, still less an agreement, as to who was to take Berlin. At Yalta the question did not arise. Certainly there was no understanding that the city was to be reserved for the Red Army. Since Yalta the relative freedom of movement by the two converging armies had changed dramatically. Formerly the Allies had been bogged down, the Russians advancing everywhere. Now, in April 1945, the position was reversed: the Red Army halted, Eisenhower’s armies free to advance. Leaving aside for a moment whether these latter armies could have reached Berlin first, if they had attempted to do so from mid-April onwards, would the German commanders in the field – notwithstanding anything the Führer or OKW might have had to say, for their orders were negligible – have allowed the Western armies to have made their way to the capital virtually unopposed? There might have been fanatical and scattered resistance from ill-organized groups, but if a decision of this sort had been left to such men as Guderian, Wenck, Busse, Kesselring, Manteuffel, Speer, Dönitz – even Himmler – the answer would in all likelihood have been yes.

Bearing in mind now that the Russian offensive across the Oder did not start until 16 April and that five days later the armies of Zhukov’s front reached the outskirts of the city, any Allied attempt to take Berlin would have had to succeed before this. Given that Montgomery’s Army Group, having reached the Elbe during the first weeks of April was then charged with so many tasks – to clear Schleswig-Holstein, take Wismar, Lübeck, Emden, Wilhelmshaven, Cuxhaven and Bremen – that it had to be reinforced by a US Airborne Corps, it would have been impossible for Montgomery’s forces to have got to Berlin before the Russians. On Bradley’s front, however, it was a different story. His elimination of Model’s group of armies in the Ruhr encirclement had been so successful that by 10 April the German soldiers were surrendering en masse. A total of 320,000 were captured with all their weapons and equipment, a significant pointer to what might have happened on the road to Berlin. Bradley had been instructed to seize bridgeheads over the Elbe and be prepared to continue the advance. On 11 April Simpson’s 9th US Army reached the Elbe astride Magdeburg and was across it the following day. On the same day, 12 April, it reached Tangemünde, just over fifty miles from Berlin. Everywhere the US armies were advancing rapidly, and by 15 April Hodges’ 1st Army reached the Mulde and Patton’s 3rd Army had got to Plauen, Hof and Bayreuth. On that very day Simpson proposed to Bradley that his army should expand its Elbe bridgehead and push on in force and with all speed to Berlin: this, it must be noted, on the day before the Red Army’s attack began.

Eisenhower vetoed the suggestion. We may hazard a guess that had Patton been there instead of Simpson he would have pushed on anyway and asked for permission later. That Simpson could have got on seems more or less certain for in the whole of his advance up to the Elbe, his army had suffered very few casualties. Indeed, all that had opposed him – ill-equipped and unpractised divisions of Wenck’s 12th Army, which had no air support at all – had been scattered. Wenck’s own comment on it all was: ‘If the Americans launch a major attack they’ll crack our positions with ease. After all what’s to stop them? There’s nothing between here and Berlin.’ If we assume therefore that on 15 April Simpson had despatched powerful armoured columns down the Autobahn to Berlin, with motorized infantry, artillery and engineers in support, and the Allies’ unchallenged air supremacy to deal with any pockets of resistance, we may suppose that the American armies could have reached and occupied Berlin on 15 and 16 April, so anticipating the arrival of the Russians by several days. Of one thing we may be sure. They would have been welcomed by the Berliners with the most profound relief.

What about Hitler himself? Would he still have committed suicide when the information was brought to him that the American forces were in Berlin? There could presumably be no surrender, conditional or unconditional, while he still lived. Would he still have married Eva Braun, who arrived in the Bunker on 15 April? There would just have been time. Whom would the Führer have nominated as his successor? Would it still have been Dönitz? There are innumerable questions of this sort. But having assumed that Simpson’s 9th Army, rapidly reinforced by elements from the US 1st, 3rd and 15th Armies, did reach, occupy and even extend eastwards beyond Berlin, we may allow ourselves further speculation. Once it was known that Hitler was dead, his nominated successor, provided it were someone like Dönitz, and not Göring, Himmler, Goebbels or Keitel, would have initiated some approach to the Western Allies to negotiate a cessation of hostilities. In view of the proximity of the Red Army, the Western negotiators would have insisted that the Soviet Union be involved in the surrender conditions. There would have to be a newly agreed junction between the two converging armies, possibly the arterial roads to the east of Berlin or the broadly defined eastern outskirts of the city. It must be assumed here too that the Red Army has been ordered not to contest occupation of Berlin.

Who would have been the principal negotiator on behalf of the Western Allies? Eisenhower, as Supreme Allied Commander, might have been a candidate, provided he were furnished with the necessary political guidance from Truman and Churchill. But such delegated authority would have been limited to surrender terms, and would not have changed what had been agreed at Yalta in February. We may be sure that at least three men would have wanted to make their presence known when it came to detailed discussions with Stalin: Truman, Churchill and de Gaulle. One other man would somehow or other have contrived not only to be involved himself, but to ensure a substantial role for the soldiers he commanded: Field-Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery. How he would have longed to organize some sort of victory parade or celebration in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium! If Churchill had been given the chance, he would no doubt have arranged for his quarters to have been at Frederick the Great’s Potsdam palace, Sans Souci, and indeed had there been a Potsdam conference in April 1945, instead of July, with the Western Allies in a far more powerful bargaining position than was in reality the case, Churchill might never have experienced his subsequent disappointment and dismay as to what actually emerged in July, when he was out of power:

The line of the Oder and the Eastern Neisse had already been recognized as the Polish compensation for retiring to the Curzon Line, but the overrunning by the Russian armies of the territory up to and even beyond the Western Neisse was never and never would have been agreed to by any Government of which I was the head . . .

The real time to deal with these issues was . . . when the fronts of the mighty Allies faced each other in the field, and before the Americans, and to a lesser extent, the British, made their vast retirement on a 400-mile front to a depth in some places of 120 miles, thus giving the heart and a great mass of Germany over to the Russians . . .

The heart: what if Churchill had had his way earlier and the Western armies had met the Russians not on the line of the Elbe–Mulde rivers, but on the Oder–Neisse line, with Berlin in their own hands? What then? How different a Potsdam conference might have been. Churchill’s fundamental antipathy towards allowing the Russians to occupy great chunks of Central Europe was that he could see no future for these areas unless it was acceptable to – that is, controlled by – the Soviet Government. And that to him was no future at all. Yet all this apart, the American view, at a time when American counsels carried great weight, was that the Western Allies were committed to a definite line of occupation and that this commitment must be honoured. Churchill, too, was in favour of honouring commitments provided all of them were equally honoured, in other words, provided the Western Allies could be satisfied that the entire European future was being properly settled. At Potsdam in July 1945 American support for such a notion was not to hand. Would the situation have differed if Potsdam had instead taken place in April, with Berlin occupied by American and British forces and the Red Army still some way off to the east? We may be sure that Churchill, still at that point wielding much influence and power, would have moved mountains to reach a satisfactory solution.

As for Berlin itself, there would still have been quadripartite control of the city, but how different might have been its initial occupation. We have to recall that in April 1945 Berlin was kaputt, a bombed ruin of a city, as described by a correspondent of the Red Army, Lieutenant-Colonel Troyanovsky, who saw for himself what happened between 21 and 25 April as the battle raged:

From one end of the horizon to the other stretched houses, gardens, factory buildings, and many churches. Volumes of smoke arose from all quarters and hung like a pall over the city. The German capital was burning. The thunder of the artillery bombardment shook the air, the houses and the ground. And Berlin replied with thousands of shells and bombs. It seemed as though we were confronted not by a town, but by a nightmare of fire and steel. Every house appeared to have been converted into a fortress. There were no squares, but only gun positions for artillery and mine throwers. From house to house and street to street, from one district to another, mowing their way through gun fire and hot steel, went our infantrymen, artillery, sappers and tanks. On 25 April the German capital was completely encircled and cut off from the rest of the country. At the height of the street fighting Berlin was without water, without light, without landing fields, without radio stations. The city ceased to resemble Berlin.

‘How pitiful is their Berlin!’ observed Zhukov.

How pitiful too was the plight of the Berliners, particularly the women. The Red Army ran riot. Rape, looting, burning and murder were rife. Hitler’s very last War Directive of 15 April had made it clear what fate threatened a defeated Germany: ‘While the old men and children will be murdered, the women and girls will be reduced to barrack-room whores.’ Antony Beevor, while doing his research into the fall of Berlin, was shocked by what he discovered about the depravity of the Russian soldiers. This research, says a newspaper report, ‘revealed that the Russians raped hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Germans; the troops even raped the Russian and Polish women prisoners they freed from German camps. In some towns every female, young and old, was violated.’

The British and Americans would have behaved better. There might have been seduction, even barter, for cigarettes were treasured currency then, but rape would have been rare. When the British did enter Berlin later, they were greeted as liberators rather than conquerors. What must have been the consequence if Berlin had initially been wholly occupied by the Western armies, before its division into the four sectors, British, American, French and Russian? Is it not possible that as soon as the boundaries were made known and before the barriers and barbed wire went up, every Berliner able to do so would have quitted the Russian zone to find refuge in one of the other three? Even as things were, Germans who found themselves in the Soviet-controlled part of the former Third Reich and in East Berlin flocked to the west in their thousands until the Berlin Wall and the boundary minefields deterred such abundant emigration and denied those seeking refuge from the oppressor’s wrong, the whips and scorns of uniformed bullies, the spurns of the unworthy, the insolence of jack-booted officials, the chance to do so.

It had all been brought about by one man, whom Speer called ‘a demonic figure’, whose ‘person determined the fate of a nation. He alone placed it, and kept it, upon the path which has led to this dreadful ending. The nation was spellbound by him as a people has rarely been in the whole of history.’ Was it all by chance?

Barbarossa – Soviet Air Force

After graduation from the Red Army Military Academy (1921–1924) Alksnis was appointed the head of logistics service of Red Air Forces; in 1926 deputy commander of Red Air Forces. In 1929 he received wings of a fighter pilot at the Kacha pilot’s school in Crimea and was later known to fly nearly every day. Defector Alexander Barmine described Alksnis as “a strict disciplinarian with high standards of efficiency. He would himself personally inspect flying officers… not that he was fussy or took the slightest interest in smartness for its own sake, but, as he explained to me, flying demands constant attention to detail… Headstrong he may have been, but he was a man of method and brought a wholly new spirit into Soviet aviation. It is chiefly owing to him that the Air Force is the powerful weapon it is today.” According to Barmine, Alksnis was instrumental in making parachute jumping a sport for the masses. He was influenced by one of his subordinates who has seen parachutists entertaining public in the United States, at the time when Soviet pilots regarded parachutes “almost a clinical instrument”.

In the same year he was involved in establishing one of the first sharashkas – an aircraft design bureau staffed by prisoners of Butyrki prison, including Nikolai Polikarpov and Dmitry Grigorovich. In 1930–1931 the sharashka, now based on Khodynka Field, produced the prototype for the successful Polikarpov I-5. In June 1931 Alksnis was promoted to the Commander of Red Air Forces, while Polikarpov and some of his staff were released on amnesty terms. In 1935, Red Air Forces under Alksnis possessed world’s largest bomber force; aircraft production reached 8,000 in 1936.

The first Five-Year Plans triggered a massive buildup of Soviet aviation, including many airplanes of indigenous design. Among them were maneuverable fighter biplanes, such as the Polikarpov I-15 and I-15 bis; the first cantilever monoplane with retractable landing gear to enter squadron service, the Polikarpov I-16; and a variety of bombers, including the Tupolev TB-7, SB-2/SB-3, and DB-3.Yet the Soviets failed to develop a reliable long-range bomber force. The established Soviet concept of air warfare envisioned the use of airpower predominantly in close support missions and under operational control of the ground forces command.

The Red Army Air Force under the command of Yakov Alksnis during 1931–1937 developed into a semi-independent military service with a combat potential, good training, and a logistics infrastructure spreading from European Russia into Central Asia and the Far East. Still, the Red Army Air Force exhibited marked deficiencies in several local conflicts (e.g., against the Chinese in 1929 and in the Spanish civil war, 1936–1939). In contrast, during the 1937–1939 air conflicts with Japan (China, Lake Khasan, Khalkin Gol) the Soviets effectively challenged the Japanese air domination and provided decisive close air support in the campaigns on Soviet and Mongolian borders. During the Winter War with Finland (1939–1940), however, the Red Air Force suffered heavy losses due to inflexibility of organization, its command- and-control structure, poor training of personnel, and deficiency of equipment.

The failures in Soviet airpower were reinforced by the terror of Stalinist purges. About 75 percent of the senior officers were imprisoned or executed, and some 40 percent of the officer corps was purged. The result was the critical decline of experience, initiative, and responsibility within the command of the air force and its combat personnel.

The main reason for the large aircraft losses in the initial period of war with Germany was not the lack of modern tactics, but the lack of experienced pilots and ground support crews, the destruction of many aircraft on the runways due to command failure to disperse them, and the rapid advance of the Wehrmacht ground troops, forcing the Soviet pilots on the defensive during Operation Barbarossa, while being confronted with more modern German aircraft. In the first few days of Operation Barbarossa the Luftwaffe destroyed some 2000 Soviet aircraft, most of them on the ground, at a loss of only 35 aircraft (of which 15 were non-combat-related). Many of these were obsolete types, such as the Polikarpov I-16, and they would be replaced by much more advanced aircraft as a result of both Lend-Lease and the miraculous transfer of the Soviet aviation industry eastward from European Russia to the Ural Mountains. The sporadic Soviet retaliatory strikes were poorly coordinated and led to devastating losses in aircraft and combat personnel.

World War II caught Soviet aviation unawares—more than 1,200 aircraft were lost on the first day of the Nazis’ June 1941 invasion. For the next 6–8 months, aircraft and other factories were shifted eastward to the Urals and Siberia, a huge undertaking largely completed by early 1942. Relocation made transport of finished aircraft to the fronts more difficult, but by late 1942 and in 1943 Soviet aircraft began to appear in huge numbers. Germany’s output was exceeded in 1943. Fighters such as the Yak-3 and Yak-9 (more than 16,000 of the latter), Lavochkin La-5 (10,000), and La-7 (nearly 6,000) began to take a toll on German air strength. The Ilyushin Il-2 attack plane was the most-produced plane in the war (1,000 made every month after 1942 for total of over 36,000), and the later Il-10 reached production numbers of 5,000.

Luftwaffe reconnaissance units worked frantically to plot troop concentration, supply dumps, and airfields, and mark them for destruction. The Luftwaffe’s task was to neutralize the Soviet Air Force. This was not achieved in the first days of operations, despite the Soviets having concentrated aircraft in huge groups on the permanent airfields rather than dispersing them on field landing strips, making them ideal targets. The Luftwaffe claimed to have destroyed 1,489 aircraft on the first day of operations. Hermann Göring — Chief of the Luftwaffe — distrusted the reports and ordered the figure checked. Picking through the wreckages of Soviet airfields, the Luftwaffe’s figures proved conservative, as over 2,000 destroyed Soviet aircraft were found. The Luftwaffe lost 35 aircraft on the first day of combat. The Germans claimed to have destroyed only 3,100 Soviet aircraft in the first three days. In fact Soviet losses were far higher: some 3,922 Soviet machines had been lost (according to Russian Historian Viktor Kulikov).The Luftwaffe had achieved air superiority over all three sectors of the front, and would maintain it until the close of the year. The Luftwaffe could now devote large numbers of its Geschwader to support the ground forces.

Soviet Air Force 1941/1942 – Defeat & Recovery

The Il-10


This aircraft was the true successor to the Il-2 in Soviet service. Although sometimes lumped in together with the Il-2 under the rubric of `Shturmovik’, the Il- 10 was a completely new aeroplane, incorporating lessons learned during the Il- 2’s service. It was constructed completely of metal, and except for steel armour and the fabric-covered control surfaces, was covered by a stressed-skin aluminium alloy. It was a smaller and better streamlined aeroplane than the Il-2, incorporating fully retractable main landing gear that rotated through 86 degrees to retract into the wings and a partially retractable tail wheel, as with the larger Il-8 (second version). It carried the more powerful AM-42 engine, a development of the Il-2’s AM-38, capable of generating 2,000 hp at take-off. These changes made the Il-10 some 85 to 90 mph (137 to 145 kph) faster than the Il-2, with a top speed of 340 mph (547 kph). In addition, its smaller size gave it a manoeuvrability approaching that of single-seat fighters, especially in the horizontal plane.

During the Second World War the Il-10 carried the same fixed armament as the Il-2, comprised of two ShKAS 7.62-mm (30-calibre) machine guns, and two VYa- 23 23-mm cannons. For defence it retained the UBT 12.7-mm (50-calibre) machine gun, although with the Il-10 the gunner was in a completely enclosed position, and was protected by the front fuselage’s armour shell on the sides, back, and bottom of the aircraft. The bomb load of 1,333 lb (600 kg) remained the same as the Il-2’s. It could also carry four rockets under the wing, as with the two seater Il-2s, although it was not normally so equipped. Some commentators on the Il-2 have noted the relatively light ordnance load and short-range of the Il-2 as being drawbacks to its design. It’s interesting that not only did the wartime Il-10s have the exact same gun fit (two ShKAS and two VYa-23s in the wing, and a UBT for defence), but they also had the exact same disposable ordnance load of 1,333 lb. Obviously, this armament, including the disposable ordnance load, was considered sufficient (although the gun armament was made more powerful in post-war Il-10’s; see below). In addition, the range of the Il-10 was only a little more than the Il-2-around 500 miles (805 km) as opposed to around 450 miles (724 km) for the Il-2. If the ordnance load and range had been considered major drawbacks, these would have been changed in the Il-10, which was a completely different design from the Il-2.

The Il-10 continued to be produced long after the war. From 1947 onwards, heavier armament in the form of four NS-23 23-mm cannons was fitted, and the rear gunner was provided with a flexible Berezin B-20 20-mm cannon. The last Il- 10 was the Il-10M, a heavily modified version that was constructed in small numbers in the Soviet Union from 1952 to 1954. The Il-10M featured a longer fuselage and a completely redesigned, more angular and stronger wing. In addition to the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia produced and exported its own version, under the designation of B-33, which featured the heavier post-war armament, although using the shorter fuselage and the wing of the Great Patriotic War Il-10.

As with the Il-2, some Il-10s were produced as trainer versions, with the instructor sitting in the aft position, the same as the Il-2Us. These training versions were known collectively as the UIl-10 (or CB-33 if they were of Czechoslovakian manufacture). Some of these trainers were provided to the foreign air forces which used the Il-10 after the war. The Il-10 saw service during the last month of the Great Patriotic War alongside the Il-2, and during the Manchurian campaign. It was also used during the Korean War by the North Koreans and by the Chinese against the Taiwanese during the 1950s, and against the Tibetans during the early 1960s. It continued in service with the Chinese until the early 1970s.

Soviet Use

The Il-10 first entered service trials for the Soviet Union in October 1944 on the Eastern Front. Like most new aircraft, it suffered its fair share of teething problems, and its service entrance was not without problems; for example, the AM-42 engine had a tendency to catch fire-a rather considerable problem that was eventually solved. There were also problems with the landing gear, as the tyres were suited more for unprepared fields than concrete runways, and had a limited life. The landing gear were also less rugged than the Il-2’s, and the wings were weaker and more susceptible to damage.

Its first combat action during the Great Patriotic War took place during 15 April 1945. Only three Il-10 regiments took part in the Great Patriotic War: the 571st ShAP, the 108th GvShAP, and the 118th GvShAP. It was the 571st ShAP that saw the most action, and indeed was the first Il-10 unit to see action.

The Il-10 began to replace the Il-2 in shturmovik regiments during the Second World War, with some twelve regiments having converted, but total replacement took some time, and was not completed until after the war in the late 1940s.

As of 1 January 1955, there were nineteen Soviet attack air regiments, with a total of over 1,800 aircraft. Of those some 1,700 were Il-10s and the much revised Il-10M, with 130 MiG-15bis fighter bombers. The Il-10s were withdrawn from service by the Soviet Union in 1956, with their place being taken by jet-powered fighter bombers, such as the MiG-15bis.

Foreign Users of the Il-10


Some Il-10s may have been sent to this country, but the record is unclear on this.


Bulgaria used both second-hand Soviet-built Il-10s and Czechoslovakian B-33s. It is unclear from the record when Bulgaria retired its Il-10s.


This country received its first Il-10s from the Soviet Union in August of 1950. This Soviet Bloc country not only utilised the Il-10, it produced it indigenously as the Avia B-33 and the CB-33 trainer version with over 1,000 being produced until 1955, some of which were exported to other countries, such as Bulgaria, Poland, and Yemen. The B-33 had the later armament of four NS-23 23-mm cannons in the wings, and a B-20 20-mm cannon for rear defence. The last B-33s were withdrawn from service in September 1960.


The first Soviet-supplied Il-10s were sent to Hungary in September 1949. These were second-hand aircraft, which had been used by Soviet regiments. Hungary also operated some UIl-10s. Hungary retired its Il-10s in 1956.


Second-hand Polish B-33s (Czechoslovakian-built Il-10s) were sent to this country in 1957, but they were rejected for use as being unsuitable.

North Korea

North Korea used the Il-10 extensively during the Korean War. These were evidently Il-10s from the Second World War, with the lighter gun armament. Although in its own way it was as good of a ground attack aircraft as the famous A-1 (AD) Skyraider, it did not have sufficient fighter air cover and as a consequence suffered heavy casualties. I’ve often wondered that, if their places had been changed, the Il-10 wouldn’t have achieved the same fame and success as the A-1 Skyraider. The North Korean Il-10s may have served until 1956.

People’s Republic of China

China was the last user of the Il-10, with some remaining in service into the early 1970s; one source states that they were not retired until 1972. China actually used its Il-10s in anger, first against Taiwan in the 1950s, then against the Tibetans in the 1960s. They were by far the last users of the Il-10. Some of their Il- 10s still exist as hulks, and a few have been properly preserved/restored.


Poland first received its Soviet-supplied Il-10s as early as February 1949. Poland also used the B-33, the Czechoslovakian-built version of the Il-10. The Il-10 was not finally withdrawn from service until 1961. At least one Polish Il-10 has been preserved.


Although not a user of the Il-2, Romania did make use of its successor. Romania did not receive its first Il-10s until March 1953 when thirty second-hand Soviet examples were sent. Romania was also sent new B-33s from Czechoslovakia. The last Il-10s (B-33s) in service were retired in 1960.


Twenty-four brand-new B-33s were delivered to Yemen in 1957. These saw use in the Yemeni Civil War as late as 1962. It is not clear when they were retired from use.

Konrad I: A Hasty Surprise Part I

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.

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.