Operation Südwind (iv)

south wind

'Südwind' (iv) was a German counter-offensive from the Esztergom bridgehead in Hungary by General Otto Wöhler’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' against Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front (17 January 1945).

By 24 December 1944, in the 'Budapest Strategic Offensive', Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front had reached the Danube river in the area to the north of Esztergom, and to the south-west of Budapest, the 3rd Ukrainian Front was engaged in heavy fighting against General Maximilian Fretter-Pico’s 6th Army, who committed his reserves in the area of Székesfehérvár on the second day. The Soviet armoured forces, namely General Major Fyedor G. Katkov’s VII Mechanised Corps and General Major Piotr D. Govorunenko’s XVIII Tank Corps, were committed on this and the next day, and on 23 December achieved a breakthrough some 60 miles (100 km) miles wide. By 26 December the XVIII Tank Corps had reached Esztergom and met the leading formations of the 2nd Ukrainian Front.

Meanwhile Generaloberst Johannes Friessner had been forbidden to withdraw any of his Heeresgruppe 'Südukraine' troops from Budapest or from General Maximilian de Angelis’s 2nd Panzerarmee for the purpose of restoring his broken front. One Hungarian and four German divisions were trapped inside Budapest. On 21 December Friessner and Fretter-Pico were replaced by Wöhler and General Hermann Balck respectively, and at this time Adolf Hitler ordered the movement of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Herbert Gille’s IV SS Panzerkorps (SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Hellmuth Becker’s 3rd SS Panzerdivision 'Totenkopf', SS-Oberführer Karl Ullrich’s 5th SS Panzerdivision 'Wiking' and Oberst Friedrich-Wilhelm Jürgens’s 6th Panzerdivision) from Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to the area of Budapest. Moving by rail from Bratislava, the corps reached Komarno about 60 miles (100 km) to the north-west of Budapest and, with Generalmajor Hermann Harrendorf’s 96th Division, went straight into action with little artillery support.

On 2 January the German forces drove back General Major Manzakir A. Absaliamov’s XXXI Guards Corps of General Polkovnik Georgii F. Zakharov’s 4th Guards Army over a distance of about 20 miles (32 km). General Polkovnik Mikhail S. Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army and General Polkovnik Andrei G. Kravchenko’s 6th Guards Tank Army counterattacked the IV SS Panzerkorps' flank, but were themselves brought to a halt. Gille finally broke off the attack near Perbal, no more than 15 miles (24 km) from the outskirts of Budapest.

Farther to the south, an attack by General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps from the area of Mor in the direction of Budapest enjoyed little success, and gained only 4 miles (6.4 km) in the course of four days of fighting, in the process losing 68 of its 80 combat-capable tanks.

Meanwhile the IV SS Panzerkorps withdrew and, reaching Komarno once more, entrained and was moved to the west. This appears to have deceived the Soviets, and when a few days later the IV SS Panzerkorps suddenly reappeared about 40 miles (65 km) to the south near Lake Balaton, it was able to fall on General Major Piotr V. Gnidin’s CXXXV Corps under tactically advantageous conditions during the night of 17 January and nearly destroy it.

The SS armoured formations then advanced rapidly to the east, reaching the Danube river at Dunapentele on 19 January and cutting off most of the 3rd Ukrainian Front from its lines of communication and supply. Although the IV SS Panzerkorps was still far from Budapest, Tolbukhin was in a decidedly difficult situation. The IV SS Panzerkorps was yet to improve its position when, turning toward the north, it moved up the western bank of the Danube to reach a position only 12 miles (19.5 km) from the encircled garrison of the Hungarian capital. Had it been ordered to do so, SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Karl von Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’s IX SS Gebirgskorps inside Budapest could have broken out, but this was of no interest to Hitler, who at this time desired only to recapture the capital.

By this time the IV SS Panzerkorps had lost momentum and its flanks were insecure. From 27 January on the Waffen-SS corps came under increasingly severe attack by the formations of the 2nd Ukrainian Front, which had deployed General Leytenant Aleksei O. Akhmanov’s XXIII Tank Corps, General Leytenant Semyon M. Krivoshein’s I Guards Mechanised Corps and General Leytenant Sergei I. Gorshkov’s V Guards Cavalry Corps to cover the south-western approaches to Budapest, and by the formations of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, which had been allocated the headquarters of General Leytenant Lev S. Skvirsky’s 26th Army to collect and control the several scattered formations between Lake Balaton and the Danube river.

On 2 February the 26th Army, now commanded by General Leytenant Nikolai A. Gagen, attacked to the north and restored contact with Zakharov’s 4th Guards Army near Adony in the area to the west of Budapest. By 7 February the IV SS Panzerkorps had withdrawn, its offensive strength completely spent.

By this time all hope for the German formations inside Budapest had disappeared. Some attempt at air supply had been kept up over the period in which they had been trapped, and the German navy had run a supply vessel down the Danube river only to beach it in the shallows. The Hungarians had deserted in large numbers, but the Germans fought grimly on from the buildings and sewers. Since 1 February the food ration had been barely capable of sustaining life, and the Soviet negotiators who came to offer surrender terms were, according to the Soviet account, killed. During the night of 11/12 February a force of about 16,000 Germans, still strong enough to walk and fight, left the wounded with the papal nuncio and attacked to the north-west in the direction of Vienna. They managed to break out of Budapest’s urban area and advance about 12 miles (19.3 km) to the town of Perbal, close to the point at which the IV SS Panzerkorps had been stopped in its first attempt to get into the capital. There the German force was almost totally destroyed, three divisional commanders being among the killed, a mere few hundred men reaching the temporary safety of the German lines.