Even in the dark days of March 1945, when the Third Reich was on the brink of collapse, its troops managed to exhibit that grim humor that enables frontline soldiers to endure the horrors of battle. As the panzer crews of mighty Tiger II tanks rumbled forward in the last German offensive of World War II in eastern Hungary, they joked about the difficulties they were having coming to grips with the enemy. A few of the 68-ton King Tigers sank up to their turrets in the mud produced by an early spring thaw. Making light of the situation, tank commanders quipped that they were steering tanks, not U-boats.
The Soviet forces gathering on the Oder River in early 1945 seemed not to bother Adolf Hitler. The German leader became fixed on the need to protect the Hungarian oilfields from Red Army tank and rifle units that had encircled Budapest in late December 1944. Hitler had sent the IV SS Panzer Corps against the forces threatening Budapest in three consecutive counterattacks in January 1945 that were known collectively as the Konrad Offensives. But the tenacious Soviet forces had repulsed each assault. On February 13, the city fell to the soldiers of Marshal Rodion Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front.
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The Hungarian oilfields at Nagykaniscza constituted the last major petroleum resources available to Germany. By early 1945, the Austrian and Hungarian oilfields furnished 80 percent of the oil for the German armed forces. Despite the setbacks of January, Hitler devised a new offensive called Operation Fruhlingserwachen (Spring Awakening) that had both economic and military objectives. Hitler wanted to stem the Soviet tide in Hungary. He envisioned a larger offensive that would roll back the gains of Marshal Fyodor Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front in Hungary. If all went according to plan, the Germans would inflict severe distress on the Russian marshal and his forces in the upcoming campaign. Hitler hoped that his panzer forces would be able to establish bridgeheads over the Danube River and perhaps even retake Budapest. In so doing, the Germans would secure the oil resources needed to feed their war machine.
Although Operation Spring Awakening officially began on March 6, 1945, the planning began as early as January. The Supreme High Command of the German Army issued orders on January 16 to SS-Oberfruppenfuhrer Sepp Dietrich to bring his Sixth Panzer Army back to Germany from the Ardennes region to rest and refit for a new operation. Although Dietrich’s command is commonly referred to as the Sixth SS Panzer Army, it was not officially known as such until it was transferred to the Waffen SS on April 2, 1945.
Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army comprised Generalleutnant Hermann Preiss’s I SS Panzer Corps and Generalleutnant Willi Bittrich’s II SS Panzer Corps. Preiss’s corps was composed of the 1st SS and 12th SS Panzer Divisions, and Bittrich’s corps was composed of the 2nd SS and 9th SS Panzer Divisions. To bring these battered units up to standard strength for an SS panzer division, the commanders filled the depleted ranks with raw recruits and support personnel from the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. Unfortunately, time and fuel were in short supply, so the replacement personnel received no combat training. Nevertheless, the four panzer divisions did receive nearly all of the arms and vehicle production they needed to build up their tank, assault gun, and tank destroyer requirements. In the end, the Germans amassed 240,000 troops, 500 tanks, 173 assault guns, and 900 combat aircraft for the offensive.
Hitler and his advisers planned to make the main attack for Operation Spring Awakening with General Otto Wohler’s Army Group South. Wohler would have plenty of hitting power. His command would consist of General Hermann Balck’s Sixth Army, Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army, and the Hungarian 8th Corps. Wohler had a total of 10 panzer and five infantry divisions to hurl against the 3rd Ukrainian Front.
While Army Group South advanced south toward the Soviet forces between Lake Balaton and Lake Velencze to the east, other German armies would strike east against Tolbukhin’s left flank. Wohler’s attack would be supported by a secondary attack by Generaloberst Alexander Loehr’s Army Group E in Yugoslavia, as well as another minor attack by General Maximilian de Angelis’s Second Panzer Army.
By the start of Operation Spring Awakening, nearly 40 percent of the German Army’s heavy combat fighting vehicles in use on the Eastern Front were in Hungary. Under the strictest security measures, additional units made their way there. Col. Gen. Heinz Guderian, the German Army’s Inspector General of Armored Troops, disapproved of Hitler’s decision to send the Sixth Panzer Army into Hungary. Guderian believed its strength would be better employed behind the Oder River to slow the Red Army’s drive on Berlin. Hitler overruled Guderian, and the Hungarian offensive went forward as planned.
Hitler approved the final plan for Operation Spring Awakening on February 23. As part of the final preparations, he reinforced Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army with the I Cavalry Corps, comprising the 3rd and 4th Cavalry Divisions, and Generalleutnant Joseph von Radowitz’s 23rd Panzer Division. Radowitz’s troops would serve as a ready reserve to be committed at the most opportune time.
Dietrich assigned Preiss’s I SS Panzer Corps the center position, which stretched from Lake Balaton to a point west of Seregelyes. Bittrich’s II SS Panzer Corps took up a position on its left, and the I Cavalry Corps deployed on its right. Flank protection would be provided by the 44th Grenadier and 25th Hungarian Infantry Divisions. Dietrich’s first objective was to secure a crossing over the Sio Canal and capture the city of Dunafoldvar.
General Hermann Breith’s III Panzer Corps of Balck’s Sixth Army was to attack north of the Sixth Panzer Army from Seregelyes to Lake Valence. Its objective was to capture the area between Lake Valence and the Danube River. Two heavy tank battalions with King Tigers provided extra firepower for the III Panzer Corps and the Sixth Panzer Army. Generalleutnant Rudolf Freiherr von Waldenfels’ 6th Panzer Division would follow behind.
Guarding the left flank of the III Panzer Corps were the 3rd and 5th SS Panzer Divisions of SS- Obergruppenführer Herbert Otto Gille’s IV SS Panzer Corps. The IV SS Panzer Corps was badly depleted from the Konrad Offensives, but it would be sent into action anyway.
To the south, the Second Panzer Army held the front line south of Lake Balafon. By the time of the offensive, though, it could hardly be described as a panzer army. It consisted of four divisions equipped not with tanks, but with assault guns. Its best division was the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division. The Second Panzer Army’s objective was to capture Kaposvar. Army Group E was deployed south of the Second Panzer Army along the Drava River. Its objective was to establish a large bridgehead across the Drava near Donati Miholjac with its three divisions.
Although the Germans had employed strict security measures to disguise the transfer to Hungary, the Red Army knew a German offensive was brewing. As early as February 12, the Western Allies passed along intercepted communications regarding troop movements. Any doubt the Red Army commanders might have had was eliminated near the end of February when the last successful Waffen SS operation, known as Operation Southwind, went forward against the Soviet forces in Slovakia. In that offensive, the I SS Panzer Corps eliminated a Red Army bridgehead over the Gran River.
Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front would receive the brunt of the German attack. Created in October 1943, the units that constituted the front had participated in various Soviet offensives that had liberated Ukraine and Moldova from German occupation by August 1944. In the following months, the 3rd Ukrainian Front had invaded Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. Tolbukhin’s Red Army troops liberated Belgrade in October. Afterward, Stavka, the Soviet high command, shifted the front north to Hungary where it assisted Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front in besieging Budapest and helped repulse German attempts to relieve the city.
While the Germans were clearing the Gran bridgehead, Stavka issued directives to Tolbukhin and Malinovsky to prepare for fresh offensives to capture Vienna and Bratislava, respectively. Soviet Premier Josef Stalin set March 15 as the start date for these offensives. Thus, Tolbukhin not only had to prepare for the upcoming offensive, but also establish a defensive plan for the forthcoming German attack.
Tolbukhin created a multilayered defense that stressed antitank obstacles and killing zones. Each layer had multiple fortified belts. The first two layers typically had two or more lines of trenches. Altogether, Tolbukhin had a defense in depth that stretched for 30 kilometers. But since the defenses were created in a short time, the soldiers only strung barbed wire in a few places and had not had time to construct concrete pillboxes.