This was a German trio of operations launched in an unsuccessful attempt to relieve the garrison of Budapest, the capital of Hungary, after it had been invested by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front in the 'Budapest Strategic Offensive Operation' (1/27 January 1945).
‘Konrad I’ was attempted on 1 January by SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Herbert Gille’s IV SS Panzerkorps from Táta, and was halted near Bicske; ‘Konrad II’ was attempted on 7 January again by the IV SS Panzerkorps but this time from Esztergom, and was checked near Budapest airport; and ‘Konrad III’ (designed to encircle 10 Soviet divisions) was attempted on 17 January by the IV SS Panzerkorps and General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps from points to the south of Budapest, but had failed by the following day.
As the northern group of Soviet fronts advanced on Germany in the area to the north of the Carpathian maintains, in the area to the south of these mountains was drawing to a close the tragedy of the siege of Budapest, the capital of Hungary, on the Danube river. Though shorter than the siege of Stalingrad in 1942/43, the siege of Budapest was little inferior in terms of its horror. Almost the whole of the city’s population, usually more than one million persons, was trapped in the city without even the barest means of sustenance, and surviving in cellars against the effects of air and artillery bombardments. In most of the city’s sections, the supply of electricity, gas and water failed in the first days, and the garrison had less in the way of medical services even than that which had remained with Generaloberst Friedrch Paulus’s original 6th Army in Stalingrad. Moreover, faulty staff work by the headquarters of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Karl von Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’s IX SS Gebirgskorps (kroatische), responsible for the defence of Budapest, had led to the loss of its supply stockpile, including 450 tons of ammunition and 300,000 rations, to the Soviets on the day the pocket closed.
On 31 December General Otto Wöhler’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' sent a river boat, laden with 400 tons of supplies, down the Danube river, but this ran aground upstream of Budapest. The German effort to undertake the supply of the city by air was in essence a repetition of most such German efforts on the Eastern Front: the adversities of winter weather, fuel shortages, very limited numbers of transport aircraft and bombers able to undertake the supply role, and a lack of airstrips in the pocket all combined to reduce the flow to a trickle.
As a result, the margin of time for the relief operation was so narrow that Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ began immediately to consider a break-out and evacuation. The apparent pressure of time also strongly influenced the army group’s choice of its approach route. From the front to the south-east of Komárno the distance to Budapest is some 30 miles (48 km), about half of it through the Vértes mountains. To the north-east of Székesfehérvár, though the distance was 10 miles (16 km) greater, the terrain was good for tanks, but the assembly of the requisite forces would have taken five days longer and would have required more fuel. Against strong doubts, the savings in time and fuel prevailed, and at the end of December the army group and the Oberkommando des Heeres agreed to make the relief effort from Komárno. The Oberkommando des Heeres’s directive contemplated a break-out 'in the most extreme case' but, of course, the final decision was reserved to Adolf Hitler.
‘Konrad I’ began on 1 January 1945. During the night an infantry division crossed the ice-choked Danube river at a point 5 miles (8 km) to the west of Esztergom and, pushing behind the Soviets in the area to the south of the river, gave the IV SS Panzer Corps a good start along the road linking Komárno and Budapest. In mountainous terrain a good start was not enough in itself, however, and though on the second day the German prospects appeared good on several occasions, the Soviets always had just enough infantry and anti-tank guns to keep the IV SS Panzerkorps from breaking through. Within 24 hours the Soviets had the defence tightly in hand, and by the time Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, arrived at the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, on 5 January, General Polkovnik Andrei G. Kravchenko’s 6th Guards Tank Army was ready to deliver a counter blow to the north of the Danube river with an advance across the Hron river toward Komárno.
Guderian, nevertheless, had brought with him a set of objectives which served to raise the relief operation, so far not glowingly successful, to the status of a major offensive. Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was first to retake Budapest and the line lining Lake Balaton, Lake Velencze and Ercsi, and then to turn to the south to destroy the Soviets in the area to the west of the Danube river. On 6 January, the day on which Guderian departed, the IV SS Panzer Corps came up against a solid Soviet front, and ‘Konrad I’ had run its course. During this same day, moreover, the 6th Guards Tank Army and General Polkovnik Mikhail S. Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army attacked, advancing more than 8 miles (13 km), and threatened the IV SS Panzerkorps’ rear from the area to the north of the Danube.
On 7 January, in an attempt to catch the Soviets off guard, General Gustav Harteneck’s I Kavalleriekorps broke into their line to the north-west of Székesfehérvár. The momentary surprise was not enough, for General Georgi F. Zakharov’s 4th Guards Army reacted with considerable speed and before the fall of night was fighting the Germans for every yard of ground. The day was bad for Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, for each of its attacks had been halted.
In the meantime, at Budapest in the first week of January the Soviets had smashed the old bridgehead front around Pest, the half of the city lying to the east of the Danube river. In the house-to-house fighting which followed, the wounded could not be treated, fires could not be put out, and the dead buried. In many places, where they had driven deep into the city, the Soviets used loudspeakers, whenever the noise of battle ebbed, to announce where the next artillery salvoes and air attacks would fall, and to call on the Germans and Hungarians to surrender while the opportunity was still there.
On 7 January the garrison of Budapest appeared to be approaching the very end of its strength. Driving snow and low clouds kept German supply aircraft on the ground, ammunition for artillery and small arms was almost exhausted, the city’s population was hostile, and the Hungarians were deserting. In these circumstances Balck believed the order to break out would have to be given within 24 hours. Wöhler decided to take his chances in the area to the north of the Danube river, let the operations of the IV SS Panzerkorps and I Kavalleriekorps continue for another day, and attempt a quick infantry thrust through the Pilis mountains, off the northern flank of the IV SS Panzerkorps, which might at least give the break-out an improved chance of success.
On the following day Hitler refused to approve a break-out. This left the army group no alternative but to drive through the front. Wöhler then began to prepare what he called ‘a hussars’ ride’, namely a rapid thrust right to Budapest by a motorised battalion. It might, for a few hours, open a corridor through which supplies could be sent into the city or through which the garrison could escape if Hitler changed his mind.
The passage of a relief column through to Budapest was the army group’s first objective, while Hitler’s primary and perhaps only objective was to push the front out to the Danube river. On 9 January he talked about shifting the IV SS Panzerkorps farther to the south for a effort between Lake Balaton and Lake Velence. On the following day, the ‘Konrad II’ counterattack to the north of the river eliminated the threat to Komárno, but the ‘hussars’ ride’ failed. On 11 January Hitler again insisted that Pfeffer-Wildenbruch must continue to hold Budapest, and on the morning of the following day he ordered Wöhler to relocate the IV SS Panzerkorps farther to the south.
In five days, over mountain roads and through snowdrifts, the IV SS Panzerkorps moved 70 miles (112.5 km) to the northern tip of Lake Balaton. On 17/18 January the relocated corps jumped off to the east in ‘Konrad III’, and by the fall of night on 19 January had advanced some 40 miles (65 km) to the Danube river at Dunapentele. It seemed to the Germans that they had recovered their winning touch, and the staff of the IV SS Panzerkorps anticipated a fast push to Budapest even though 3rd Ukrainian Front had put in a tank corps and had two guards mechanised corps still uncommitted.
Elsewhere, the day’s developments were less encouraging. In the area to the north of the Danube river, the last elements of two Panzer divisions being transferred to Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ departed, leaving the front to the east of Komarno to be held by a single infantry division. In the Budapest pocket, during the night and early morning hours, Pfeffer-Wildenbruch had evacuated Pest, a move that was long overdue in purely military terms but for which he had received Hitler’s permission only the day before. In crossing the bridges across the Danube river, which were raked the whole time by Soviet fire, the troops from Pest suffered heavy losses. Nevertheless, the bridges saw the movement of a tide of humanity, civilian as well as military with all manner of vehicles from hand carts to trucks, until a time just before the break of day, the demolition charges were set off to shatter the river’s elegant bridges, which had been the pride of Budapest.
For the next three days the Soviet forces fought hard to hold a front flanking both sides of Lake Velence. The Panzer divisions slowly edged their way through, taking Székesfehérvár and reaching the Vali river on 22 January, but by then they had lost almost all of their momentum. Wöhler and Balck had meanwhile become aware that the headquarters of the IV SS Panzerkorps, despite this formation’s good performance on 18 January, lacked the skills to supervise any large-scale offensive. Gille, the corps’ commander, was a well-intentioned but mediocre officer who spent most of his time at the front, and SS-Obersturmbannführer Manfred Schönfelder, the corps’ chief-of-staff disregarded organisational considerations to the extent that on 22 January Balck had to travel to the corps’ headquarters to find out where the front was. Wöhler decided to keep Gille, who was at least something of a morale builder, and get rid of Schönfelder.
On this same day Guderian urged Wöhler to consider whether he could clear the whole western side of the Danube river with his own forces aided by formations provided by Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Südost’, from the area farther to the south. The success so far had whetted Hitler’s appetite for a victory, if such was ever needed, and Guderian was obviously worried about having to divert more forces to the south. The question was very serious, and Guderian dis not divulge what he knew by then, namely that Hitler intended to send the two SS corps of SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzerarmee into Austria behind Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’.
The IV SS Panzerkorps wasted 23 January in regrouping its formations and units in the area to the east of Székesfehérvár. On the next day the corps closed to the Vali river on a broad front, but could not cross this waterway. Wöhler proposed that General Maximilian de Angelis’s 2nd Panzerarmee should attack toward Kaposvár from the area to the south of Lake Balaton to draw some of the Soviet strength away from the IV SS Panzerkorps, but was ordered by the Oberkommando des Heeres not to do so on the grounds that Hitler was nervous about the oilfields of the area and was concerned that the 2nd Panzerarmee would run in major difficulties.
After a probing attack upstream along the Vali river on 25 January had failed to create any opening, Wöhler reported on the next day that a fast breakthrough to Budapest was impossible as the Soviets had reinforced every point at which a realistic attack might be made. Guderian then proposed turning the IV SS Panzerkorps to the south to join the 2nd Panzerarmee in an offensive between Lake Balaton and the Danube river. Wöhler then asked, as in that case the advance toward Budapest would have to be stopped, whether or not the order to break out of Budapest should not be given.
The answer came on 27 January, when Hitler reiterated his order that the IX SS Gebirgskorps hold Budapest until it was relieved. The pocket was then about 4 miles (6.4 km) long and 3 miles (4.8 km) wide, and contained 34,000 German and Hungarian troops, 10,000 wounded, and 300,000 Hungarian civilians.
On their side of the front, over the last few days Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front and Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front had undertaken something of a major reorganisation, and this boded ill for the Germans. Malinovsky had taken the 6th Guards Tank Army out of the Hron river bridgehead. Just to this army’s north, General Leytenant Issa A. Pliyev’s 1st Guards Cavalry-Mechanised Group (otherwise the Cavalry-Mechanised Group ‘Pliyev’) had been relieved by Bulgarian divisions: German intelligence had lost track of both the tank army and the cavalry-mechanised group. To the north-east of Székesfehérvár and north-west of Dunaföldvár, Tolbukhin had made strong reinforcements to his armoured forces.
On 27 January about 12 infantry divisions, strongly supported by armour, assaulted the south-eastern face of the IV SS Panzerkorps’ salient between Dunapentele and the Sarviz Canal. When Guderian brought in the first reports of this event that afternoon, Hitler ordered the relief of Budapest to be halted as it no longer made sense. Ignoring Guderian’s remarks about the garrison, he asked whether the 6th SS Panzerarmee’s two corps were moving, snow and fuel shortages having delayed their departure from the Ardennes and movement back to the railheads after ‘Wacht am Rhein’. Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, the chief of the operations staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, said that one corps would reach Vienna in 14 days and the other four or five days later, whereupon Hitler responded that ‘They will arrive just in time; the next crisis will be down there.’