Operation Frühlingserwachen (ii)

spring awakening

This was the German offensive intended to restore the position on the south-eastern approaches to Vienna with a counter-offensive against Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front (6/15 March 1945).

Otherwise known to history as the Battle of Lake Balaton and to the Soviets as the 'Balaton Defensive Operation', ‘Frühlingserwachen’ (ii) was the last major German offensive of the war, and was a very substantial but desperate effort which achieved no significant results other than the further degradation of Germany’s military capabilities.

On 22 February General Otto Wöhler, commander of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' now operating in south-western Hungary, submitted to Adolf Hitler the outlines of four plans, one of which was to be selected for implementation as ‘Frühlingserwachen’ (ii). This was designed to establish a more substantial buffer between the Soviet forces and the Nagykanizsa oil fields, among the last of these vital strategic assets still available to the Germans. The undertaking required a main thrust to the south-east from the area between Lake Balaton and Lake Velence, but the Soviet forces were at their strongest in the area to the west of Budapest, on the junction of Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front in the south and Marshal Sovetsogo Soyuza Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front in the north, and therefore on the flank and in the rear of any such offensive. For lack of time and forces, Wöhler had from the start to reject the concept which was the soundest in tactical and operational terms, namely the clearance of the area between Budapest, Lake Velence and the Vertes mountains area before striking between Lake Balaton and the Danube river. Wöhler therefore recommended a compromise solution in which a short first phase would create a solid front facing to the north between Lake Velence and the Danube river would be followed by a second phase based on a turn to the south and a thrust in that direction.

At a conference in Berlin on 25 February Hitler decided that the main effort would be made, right from the start, in an attack to the south-east between the Sarviz Canal and the Danube river as this offered the promise of the best opportunity for a rapid and extensive gain.

No one, with the possible exception of the Soviets, with their keen appreciation of the study of past events, seemed to notice that the stage was set for a second iteration of the situation which had led to 'Zitadelle' in the summer of 1943. Again, at the end of a disastrous winter campaign, the Soviet pressure had suddenly eased and Hitler found himself in the possession of an uncommitted reserve. Yet again, Hitler opted to try for a victory which offered as much in prestige as military terms. Once again, the Stavka let Hitler make the next move, for it was in possession of all the most important cards.

The Germans played their part with a shallowness of strategic and operational perception verging on the incredible. Wöhler did call attention to the danger on the northern flank and to the weakness in infantry of SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzerarmee, but no senior German officer questioned the basic sense of undertaking a major offensive to take ground which could, in all probability, not then be held. The operations staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht questioned whether or not, in view of all the other threats and dangers facing Germany, the 6th SS Panzerarmee could justifiably be committed in Hungary until the middle of April at the earliest, but followed its question with an imprecise proposal for a truncated offensive which would have gained nothing, perhaps, but a slight saving in time. This suggestion was immediately dismissed.

While the German military high command was thus opposed to the whole ‘Frühlingserwachen’ (ii) plan, Hitler insisted on its implementation as what what the name suggested would be the springboard to eventual victory in south-eastern Europe, for he believed wholly, though without reason, in triumphant success for ‘Frühlingserwachen’ (ii): this, Hitler believed, would destroy the 3rd Ukrainian Front between the Danube and Drava rivers on each side of Lake Balaton, and thus open the way for the recapture first of Budapest and then of the whole of Hungary, restoring to Germany the Hungarian oil fields at Nagykanizsa that had until very recently supplied more than three-quarters of the petroleum available to the German war machine and the industries which supported it.

Execution of the plan was entrusted to Wöhler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’: the 10 Panzer and five infantry divisions of this army group’s 6th SS Panzerarmee and General Hermann Balck’s 6th Army were thus were to advance in the north from the line between Lakes Velence and Balaton toward the Danube river between Dunapentele and Mohács, and the four infantry divisions of General Maximilian de Angelis’s 2nd Panzerarmee were to push forward from the area to the south of Lake Balaton in an easterly direction toward the Danube river. The northern flank was to be shielded by Altábornagy József Heszlényi’s Hungarian 3rd Army in the area between Esztergom and Bicske. A subsidiary role was allocated to Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Heeresgruppe ‘E’, which was to launch three divisions to the north-east from the area between Marcali and Nagyatad across the Drava river to take Mohács, supported farther to the south by smaller undertakings from Donji Miholjac and Valpovo.

Facing this understrength and poorly supplied force, totalling some 540,000 men and as many as 1,900 armoured fighting vehicles or, according to other sources, 431,000 men and 700 armoured fighting vehicles, was the full strength of the 3rd Ukrainian Front. This battle-hardened and now well-equipped formation 1 numbered some 865,000 men and 700 armoured fighting vehicles in 37 infantry divisions, two tank corps, one mechanised corps and one cavalry corps, supported in the air by 1,000 warplanes and on its southern land flank by General Leytenant Vladimir D. Stoychev’s Bulgarian 1st Army of six infantry divisions and General Kosta Nad’s Yugoslav 3rd Army.

In overall terms, therefore, the offensive of Balck’s 6th Army, Vezérõrnagy Gyula Hankovzsky’s Hungarian VIII Corps and Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzerarmee between Lakes Balaton and Velence was to split the 3rd Ukrainian Front into two parts. The four infantry divisions of the 2nd Panzerarmee were to attack eastward from positions south of Lake Balaton while three divisions of Heeresgruppe ‘E’ crossed the Drava river from the south.

The 3rd Ukrainian Front’s formations were disposed in great depth, and had recently been reinforced with additional artillery, anti-tank artillery and aircraft. Tolbukhin created a broad belt of minefields and artillery-supported defensive positions between Lake Balaton and the Danube river. Tolbukhin knew from Soviet intelligence sources that a major German offensive was imminent in the area to the south-west of Budapest, and this was confirmed by Hungarian deserters at the beginning of March.

The Soviet high command’s intention was to allow the German offensive to exhaust itself before the 3rd Ukrainian Front itself went over to the offensive, and for this reason the Soviet forces were ordered to hold and not initially to counterattack. Even so, the 3rd Ukrainian Front was in some difficulty as a result of the low-lying ground it currently occupied, with networks of rivers and canals to its front and rear. Moreover the Danube river formed a great obstacle right across the Soviet lines of communication. In the forward area these water obstacles were of assistance in defence, but in the rear they complicated the problems of movement and supply. The weather was warm, and the winter snow had melted. The land flanking the main routes was difficult to cross as a result of its muddy softness, and the roads themselves were mined and covered by the Soviet anti-tank artillery. However, elaborate security measures could not wholly conceal a build-up which had lasted more than one month.

The Danube river was full of floes from the melting of river ice farther upstream, and this threatened the eight pontoon bridges and ferry points, some of which had capacities of up to 60 tons, in service below Budapest. To overcome this difficulty an overhead cable track had been constructed at Baja, on the structural basis of the surviving supports of a bridge which had been blown, and this was capable of delivering between 600 and 1,200 tons of stores daily across the river, while for the first time in the Soviet army in a forward area a pipeline had been laid for the delivery of vehicle fuel.

At 24.00 on the night of 5/6 March the Germans launched ‘Frühlingserwachen’ (ii) as elements of Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe 'F', in the far south-east of the offensive’s area, took bridgeheads across the Drava river opposite Donji Miholjac and and Valpovo against the Bulgarian 1st Army. Heeresgruppe ‘E’ also launched its own slightly larger effort against the Bulgarian 1st Army and Yugoslav 3rd Army across the Drava river, while the 2nd Panzerarmee attacked General Leytenant Mikhail N. Sharokhin’s 57th Army toward Kaposvar in the area to the south of Lake Balaton.

These attacks were only subsidiary undertakings, however, and the main offensive was committed on the following day between Lakes Balaton and Velence, with the 6th SS Panzerarmee on the left and the 6th Army on the right, their attacks falling on the 4th Guards Army and the 26th Army respectively. The German offensive was preceded by just a 30-minute artillery barrage, but air support was restricted by the very limited numbers of warplanes available, fuel shortages and the poor flying weather.

The 6th SS Panzerarmee was operating in conditions of mud and driving snow. The army had reported that it was fully ready to begin its part of the offensive, but as the time approached only its I SS Panzerkorps 'Leibstandarte', under the command of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Hermann Priess, was in fact ready on the western side of the Sarviz Canal. The II SS Panzerkorps, under the command of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Bittrich, was in fact unready in the crucial sector to the east of the canal, and did not begin to move until the next day.

On 7 and 8 March the I SS Panzerkorps drove through a succession of Soviet defensive lines on the western side of the Sarviz Canal and gained nearly 20 miles (32 km). By then Tolbukhin had committed his second echelon, Trofimenko’s 27th Army, and almost all of his reserves (three infantry corps, one tank corps, one mechanised corps and one guards cavalry corps) but, as he had spread his armour somewhat thinly, he could not seek to gain the initiative at any point. On the fourth day of the German offensive he asked for the strategic reserve, Glagolev’s 9th Guards Army, which had recently been moved into the Kecskemet area as a precaution, but the Stavka refused the request as it had decided that this army should be reserved intact for its own offensive, which began on 13 March.

On 10 March, in snow and rain, the I SS Panzerkorps closed on the Sio Canal, and during the following night seized a pair of small bridgeheads.

The advance revealed the full extent to which the Soviets had prepared their defences, and in the face of these defences the II SS Panzerkorps on the eastern side of the Sarviz Canal managed to advance only 5 miles (8 km) by 12 February.

By 13 March Tolbukhin had concentrated his armour and counterattacked on each side of the Sarviz Canal. In an effort to keep the initiative, Wöhler proposed to take out of the line the II SS Panzerkorps, which was bearing the main weight of the Soviet counterattacks, and thus be in a position to concentrate both of the SS Panzer corps in the area to the east of the canal, where the sandy ground would provide easier going for the Waffen-SS formations' armour. Hitler withheld his approval until late on the night of 15 March as he suspected, quite correctly, that the II SS Panzerkorps would have to be diverted to meet the forthcoming Soviet offensive.

Thus the German offensive was slowed and finally halted, after the I SS Panzerkorps had taken Simontornya, by the reserves of artillery deployed under General Polkovnik Mitrofan I. Nedelin, commanding the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s artillery, and by the arrival of 27th Army formations to plug the gap in the Soviet front line.

Casualties had been very heavy on each side. By 10 March Tolbukhin had become anxious about the situation, as most of the Soviet reserves had been committed, and it was for this reason that he had asked to be allotted the 9th Guards Army, which was still to the east of the Danube and held as part of the high command reserve. As noted above, this request was refused as by 13 March the German offensive was clearly losing momentum.

On 14 March Wöhler committed his remaining armoured reserve, based on Generalleutnant Rudolf Freiherr von Waldenfels’s 6th Panzerdivision, and a mixed grouping of 200 tanks and assault guns continued to tackle the 27th Army over the next few days.

The axis of the 2nd Panzerarmee’s attack to the south of Lake Balaton was changed on several occasions, but the formation was effectively pinned by the weight of the artillery fire with which it was deluged by the 57th Army, and the Bulgarian and Yugoslav forces on the Drava river, with some assistance by Soviet troops, successfully contained the German bridgeheads.

When it was obvious to the Soviet high command that the Germans had exhausted themselves, it launched its counter-offensive on 16 March. Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front, on the right of Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front, had taken no part in the battle and the 9th Guards Army was still uncommitted in reserve. The counter-offensive was to be made by the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts, co-ordinated by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko as the representative of the Stavka, but whereas it had originally been intended that the 2nd Ukrainian Front should make the main thrust toward Vienna, the Stavka changed its concept on 9 March by earmarking General Polkovnik Andrei G. Kravchenko’s 6th Guards Tank Army for Tolbukhin, in order that he should use it to envelop and destroy both the 6th Army and the 6th SS Panzerarmee between Lakes Velence and Balaton.

On 16 March the 4th Army and 9th Guards Army, with the 6th Guards Tank Army in reserve, attacked the left flank of the 6th Army in the area to the north-west of Lake Velence, and struck to the south-west to seize the area between Lakes Velence and Balaton, and so cut off part of the 6th Army and the whole of the 6th SS Panzerarmee, which the 26th and 27th Armies were to pin frontally.

Wöhler’s suggestion that Dietrich’s formation should be used offensively against the Soviet flank was refused by Hitler until some days later, by which time it was too late. The Waffen-SS troops started to withdraw, sometimes without the benefit of any orders to do so, and an enraged Hitler repudiated the former pride of the party by ordering a personal representative to Hungary to ensure that the members of the SS, including the men of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Otto Kumm’s 1st SS Panzerdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’, were stripped of their honour armbands.

By 16 March the Axis forces had lost 12,358 men killed, wounded or missing, while the Soviets and their allies had lost 8,492 men killed or missing, and 24,407 men wounded or sick.

At the beginning of the Soviet offensive, the 3rd Ukrainian Front was said to be down to one and a half lines of ammunition, although this presumably could not have applied to the 6th Guards Tank Army, which was freshly arrived from the 2nd Ukrainian Front. With heavy air support from General Stepan A. Kravsovsky’s 17th Air Army and General Aleksandr Ye. Golovanov’s 18th Air Army, the 4th Army and 9th Guards Army fought their way slowly forward against bitter resistance as the Germans strove to keep their line of withdrawal open. It was only on 19 March that the 6th Guards Tank Army was committed. The German escape corridor was eventually reduced to a width of less than 2 miles (3.2 km), and through this gap most of the German troops managed to escape, although only by leaving much of their heavy equipment behind them.

The operation developed into a pursuit as the Germans retreated in disorder to the west through the Bakony forest, unable to make a stand since no intermediate defensive positions had been prepared. On 25 March Pápa fell, and Soviet armoured formations began to move to the north-west in the direction of the Raab river and the Austrian border. On this day Wöhler was replaced as commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ by Generaloberst Dr Lothar Rendulic, considered by Hitler to be an expert in defensive warfare.

Meanwhile the 2nd Ukrainian Front in the north had cleared Esztergom and the Hron river valley, and was moving on Bratislava, which it took on 4 April.

German resistance in Hungary was at an end. General Hans Kreysing’s 8th Army in the north fell back rapidly before the 2nd Ukrainian Front into Austria. Elements of the 6th Army and 6th SS Panzerarmee made some effort to defend the line of the Raab river, but were bypassed by the 3rd Ukrainian Front, which swept on into Austria. On the southern flank the 57th Army and Bulgarian 1st Army had, after the hardest of fighting against the 2nd Panzerarmee, taken the oil-producing region of Nagykanizsa on 2 April. As the Soviet forces reached Austrian border, the Hungarians, whose morale and enthusiasm for the Axis cause had never been anything more than lukewarm, began to surrender in large numbers, no fewer than 45,000 yielding in the two days before the end of the month. By this time the Germans had lost about 120,350 men killed, wounded and taken prisoner, while the Soviets had suffered the loss of some 78,500 men killed and 424,700 men wounded or taken ill.

By 4 April, the 6th SS Panzerarmee was already in the area of Vienna and began with desperation to organise the defence of the city against the anticipated Soviet 'Vienna Offensive Operation'. Nearing and encircling the Austrian capital were the 4th Guards Tank Army, 6th Guards Tank Army, 9th Guards Army and 46th Army, and their 'Vienna Offensive Operation' ended with the fall of the city on 13 April. By 15 April the remnants of the 6th Panzerarmee had fallen back into the area lying to the north of Vienna, facing the 9th Guards Tank Army and 46th Army.

By 15 April, the remnants of the 6th Army had fallen back into the area north of Graz, facing the 26th and 27th Armies. The remnants of the 2nd Panzerarmee were in the area to the south of Graz in the vicinity of Maribor and facing the 57th Army and the Bulgarian 1st Army. Between 25 April and 4 May, the 2nd Panzerarmee was attacked near Nagykanizsa during the 'Nagykanizsa-Körmend Offensive Operation'.

Some Hungarian units survived the fall of Budapest and the destruction which followed as the Soviets launched their counter-offensive: Vezérõrnagy Zoltán Szügyi’s 'Szent László' Division, for instance, was still attached to the 2nd Panzerarmee as late as 30 April. Between 16 and 25 April, the Hungarian 3rd Army was destroyed about 25 miles (40 km) to the west of Budapest by the forces of the 46th Army, which was advancing toward Bratislava and the area of Vienna.

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This front comprised General Leytenant Nikanor D. Zakhvatayev’s 4th Guards Army, General Polkovnik Vasili V. Glagolev’s 9th Guards Army, General Polkovnik Sergei G. Trofimenko’s 27th Army, General Leytenant Nikolai A. Gagen’s 26th Army and General Leytenant Mikhail N. Sharokhin’s 57th Army.