The 3rd Ukrainian Front had approximately 406,000 soldiers and 407 tanks, assault guns, and tank destroyers. In addition, the Soviet 17th Air Army had 965 aircraft available to support the ground troops.
The 4th Guards Army held the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s right flank. The army comprised three rifle corps, each of which had three rifle divisions. The 4th Guards’ main task was to defend Szekesfehvar. Deployed on its right flank was the XXIII Tank Corps, which functioned as a mobile reserve.
To the left of the 4th Guards was Lt. Gen. Nikolai Gagan’s 26th Army, deployed directly in the path of the advancing Sixth Panzer Army. Gagan’s army was responsible for the area from Seregelyes to Lake Balaton. Because of the likelihood that it would be hit hard, the XXX Rifle Corps had half of the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s artillery and ample anti-tank guns.
The XVIII Tank Corps, another of Tolbuknin’s mobile reserves, was stationed in the Sarosd area where it could either assist the 4th Guards or the 26th Army as the situation developed. The I Guards Mechanized Corps also was deployed directly behind the 26th Army.
The 57th Army was deployed to the south of Gagan’s 26th Army. Comprising two rifle corps, its task was to guard a section of the front that stretched from the shores of Lake Balaton south to the Drava River. Although it had only six infantry divisions, each division had slightly more men than those in the other Soviet armies. It was deployed in the path of the Second Panzer Army. The V Guards Cavalry Corps was situated in the northeast area of the 57th Army in such a way that it might assist either the 57th Army or the 26th Army.
Stationed along the northern banks of the Drava River south of the 57th Army were the six infantry divisions that constituted the First Bulgarian Army. Although the Bulgarian divisions had a strength that was twice that of a Soviet division in numbers, its men had less combat experience. Stavka believed that a major enemy advance in the sector held by the Bulgarians was unlikely because of the difficulty the Germans would have striking across the Drava. Still, Tolbukhin was prepared to send elements of the 57th Army south to assist the Bulgarians if the need should arise. To the Bulgarians’ left was the XII Army Corps from the Third Yugoslavian Army, which was not part of Tolbuknin’s front.
Tolbukhin entrusted the 27th Army with his second line of defense. The 27th Army consisted of three Guards infantry corps, yet all of its divisions were significantly weaker in men and equipment than the 26th Army. The 27th Army held a section of the front from Lake Valence to the Danube River.
While it seemed as if the Red Army had an extraordinarily large number of troops in this sector, a typical Soviet unit was small in comparison to its German counterpart; for example, a Red Army tank corps in terms of men and equipment was equivalent to a German panzer division.
Tolbukhin also had other units in his sector which, under orders from Stavka, he was forbidden to use. One of these units was the 9th Guards Army, which was slated for the drive on Vienna. Even if the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s situation grew critical, Tolbukhin knew from past experience that his request to use such units was likely to be rejected.
Overall, German intelligence had accurately estimated the number of Soviet armies, corps, and divisions against which the German forces would be attacking. But it failed to detect the guards mechanized and guards cavalry corps positioned in the assault route of the Sixth Panzer Army, failed to determine the location of two corps of the 27th Army, and failed to accurately assess the strength and disposition of the Soviets units.
Although the German intelligence omissions were important, they were nothing in comparison to other factors that would influence the Germans before and during the offensive. The security measures that the Germans employed in an effort to deceive the enemy, which in the end were futile, prevented orders from reaching anyone below corps level. This had a detrimental effect on final preparations for the offensive. In addition, some assembly positions were up to 20 kilometers from the actual starting points. To make matters worse, commanders were not allowed to conduct their own reconnaissance of enemy positions to their immediate front.
Dietrich and the staff of the Sixth Panzer Army had considerable concerns about the location chosen for the attack. In addition to being vulnerable to a Soviet thrust north of Szekesfehervar, several waterways and canals crossed the lanes of attack and threatened to slow the German advance. Moreover, only two of the roads were paved, and the dirt roads shown on the maps the Germans would be using were in reality no more than narrow paths.
Last but not least, the weather at that time of year was apt to hinder the movement of the tracked vehicles of the German panzer divisions. An early thaw in the spring of 1945 had turned the entire area into a morass. The region’s canals and drainage ditches had been unable to contain the runoff. During the first days of the offensive, the SS panzer divisions lost vehicles due to the saturated condition of the terrain. German tanks often sank in mud up to their turrets. The situation was particularly problematic for the King Tigers. Commanders of some units participating in the offensive requested a postponement of offensive operations until either the temperatures dropped low enough to freeze the mud or climbed high enough to dry the ground. Hitler and his advisers refused all such requests.
The effects of the bad weather delayed the II SS Panzer Corps to the extent that by March 5 some of its units still had not reached their starting points. Hitler was adamant that the attack begin on time, even if all participating units were not in place. The headquarters of Army Group South had experience with these conditions but still did little to assist with the requests. Rather than help those under his command, Balck echoed the orders coming from Berlin. Throughout the war he had always been overly optimistic about an operation’s potential outcome, and this operation proved no different than before. But Balck also had a tendency to blame others for shortcomings that ultimately were his responsibility. The situation was exacerbated by Balck’s disdain for SS officers due to previous experiences in the war. Specifically, Balck harbored a grudge against Bittrich for the failed relief of the Ukrainian city of Tarnopol in April 1944.
German corps commanders participating in Operation Spring Awakening distributed orders to their division commanders on the evening of March 5. With herculean efforts, most units had by that time slogged their way through the mud to their respective starting points. Hungarian liaison officers had warned the Germans not to underestimate the mud season in their homeland, but their advice fell on deaf ears.
The II SS Panzer Corps, though, had not managed to reach its staging area. Bittrich made multiple pleas to have the offensive delayed until his divisions reached their starting points, but his superiors flatly rejected his repeated requests.
At 1 AM on March 6, Army Group E’s three divisions surged across the Drava in five places. Throughout the course of the day, the Germans consolidated their five small bridgeheads into two larger bridgeheads near Valpovo and Donati Miholjac. Not surprisingly, the Bulgarians were unable to repulse the Germans. Three hours later, the Second Panzer Army’s four divisions attacked eastward in a drive to encircle Nagybajom. Thirty minutes after that the 1st SS Panzer Division began a preplanned artillery barrage at 4:30 AM.
Other German units opened fire shortly afterward. Although the indirect fire did not have the results hoped for by the German commanders, German tanks and assault guns employed direct fire with good effect against the Soviet forces in the area. The I Cavalry Corps gained ground at the outset but was pushed back by the Russians.
Like the divisions of I Cavalry Corps, the 12th SS Panzer Division stalled after marginal advances, but it managed to hold onto its gains. The 1st SS Panzer Division made noteworthy progress when it exploited some weak spots in the Soviet defense; however, its gains were only two to four kilometers deep. As for the II SS Panzer Corps, its advance elements did not attack until evening and made negligible progress.
In concert with the Second Panzer Army, the Sixth Army established a bridgehead across the Hadas Ditch, which empties into Lake Valence. On either side of Seregelyes, the 1st Panzer Division and the 356th Infantry Division managed to advance only to the north end of the village by nightfall. The 3rd Panzer Division was unable to bring its full weight to bear as some of its units had not yet reached their jump-off positions.
By day’s end the attackers had advanced only three to four kilometers on a 3.5-kilometer front. It was fortunate for Tolbukhin that the damage was not more severe because III Panzer Corps had struck the seam between the 4th Guards and the 26th Armies. German air support was restricted on the first day due to inclement weather.