March 13 marked a week since the Germans launched what was to be their final offensive. The weather improved, and the roads began to dry out. Despite this, the Germans were unable to make any significant progress. There were two noteworthy exceptions. First, the 23rd Panzer Division captured Sar Egres. Second, the 1st SS Panzer Division occupied Simontornya. A change occurred in the nature of the fighting when the Soviet forces, which up to that point in the German offensive had only used self-propelled guns, introduced tanks to the battle.
The Soviets continued to hold their defensive lines, though Tolbukhin withdrew one division that had the potential to be encircled. The IV SS Panzer Corps reported increased enemy troop movement. If the enemy counterattacked, Dietrich believed his veterans would have sufficient time to establish strong defensive positions. German intelligence at the army and army group levels misinterpreted this activity in the 2nd Ukrainian Front as local reinforcement movement and not as preparation for a major offensive.
Stavka transferred Maj. Gen. A.G. Kravchenko’s crack 6th Guards Tank Army, which had approximately 500 tanks, and the 9th Guards Army from their positions near Budapest to the rear of the 4th Guards Army. The Germans did not detect the arrival of Kravchenko’s armored units.
On March 14, the German panzer forces were able to maneuver better than in previous days due to the arrival of better weather. But by that time, the panzer force divisions participating in the offensive had shrunk to 50 percent strength.
With the sun peeking out from behind the clouds, the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division received orders to spearhead an attack that day, which only made limited progress in the face of heavy artillery fire from the Soviet 57th Army. Dietrich watched helplessly as his cavalry divisions lost all offensive capability. Although his panzer divisions were still able to make small gains against the enemy, it became increasingly apparent that there would be no armored break- through. Bittich’s II SS Panzer Corps held its ground in bitter fighting near Sarkeresztur. At that point Dietrich was greatly concerned about his flanks, which were vulnerable to enemy counterattack. Reports flooded into his headquarters about increased Soviet vehicle activity, particularly in the passes of the Vertes Mountains northwest of Lake Velencze.
Balck responded by frantically organizing every possible reserve unit to bolster the German and Hungarian forces in his sector of the battlefront. He reluctantly committed his last reserve, the 6th Panzer Division, to the battle. After making some initial headway, its attack was easily contained by the reinforced Soviet XVIII Tank Corps. Even the most optimistic of the German commanders realized by that time that the offensive had ground to a halt. Although they also were exhausted, the Russians sensed that they had won the battle. At that point, the armies of the 3rd Ukrainian Front began making preparations to resume offensive operations. Tolbukhin’s subordinate commanders ordered their units to move into the staging areas for the drive on Vienna.
The good weather held on March 15. The Second Panzer Army resumed its advance. To the north the Sixth Panzer Army and the III Panzer Corps of the Sixth Army tried to gain new ground on their respective fronts, but they had nothing appreciable to show for the blood spilled that day. The II SS Panzer Corps remained on the defensive. The only positive developments for the Germans were that the 1st SS Panzer Division slightly expanded its bridgehead and the 44th Grenadier Division erected a pair of pontoon bridges capable of handling tanks. Hitler and his advisers debated the merits of reorganizing their forces for a new direction of attack.
Unwilling to abandon his objectives, Hitler allowed the reorganization to proceed after an entire day was squandered in the debate. The upshot was that the lengthy delay put some of the units of the I SS Panzer Corps in greater danger from the looming Soviet assault than they would have been if they had received permission to adjust their positions.
March 16 dawned much like the previous 10 days. Heavy fighting occurred the length of the battlefront. Taking advantage of the good weather, the Soviet Air Force stepped up its operations flying numerous sorties against the Sixth Panzer Army and Sixth Army. On the southern end of the battlefront, the Russians attacked Army Group E’s bridgeheads. As for the Second Panzer Army, it only made negligible gains. Elsewhere, the I Cavalry Corps and II SS Panzer Corps remained on the defensive. The momentum had shifted by that point, and even the best plans for reorganization were nullified by the Red Army’s resumption of offensive operations. Both Ukrainian Fronts attacked in force on March 16. The 4th Guards Army and the 9th Guards Army, with the 6th Guards Tank Army and 46th Army following in reserve, struck the left flank of Balck’s Sixth Army northwest of Lake Velencze.
The Soviets targeted the Hungarian divisions, which were the weakest of the enemy’s units. In heavy fighting on the second day of the offensive, the Soviet 46th Army overran the 1st Hungarian Cavalry Division. Wohler responded by cancelling all offensive operations. The Germans had completely abandoned the Drava bridgeheads by March 20. The panzer troops fought tenaciously against the advancing Russians to protect a narrow escape corridor and avoid being surrounded and cut off. The fighting grew in intensity in the following days, and during that time the German retreat corridor narrowed to no more than two miles in width. Speed was of the essence, and the retreating German units abandoned their equipment and supplies as necessary to ensure their escape.
Some of the SS panzer divisions fell back without orders. Hitler threw a tantrum. He immediately dispatched a representative to Hungary to summarily strip the SS troops of their armbands, which had been bestowed upon them to signify that they were elite troops of the Third Reich.
As the Germans withdrew, low-flying Russian Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik ground attack planes pounded their columns from above and Russian tanks and tank destroyers pursued them on the ground. Dietrich’s and Balck’s panzer divisions fell back as quickly as possible given the conditions. Elements of Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army fought for a short time on the outskirts of Vienna, but the weight of the Russian attack forced them to retreat to avoid being encircled. On April 2, the Soviet 57th Army and 1st Bulgarian Army captured the Nagykaniscza oilfields.
The Germans suffered 14,800 casualties compared to 33,000 Russian casualties. Malinovsky captured Bratislava on April 4, and Tolbukhin secured Vienna on April 13 after an 11-day battle.
In the final analysis, Hitler would have done well to heed Guderian’s advice to commit the Sixth Panzer Army to the defense of the Oder line to slow the Russian advance on Berlin. Georg Maier, deputy chief of staff for operations for the Sixth Panzer Army, offered a fitting summation of the failed offensive. “Time, pressure, poor weather, extremely difficult terrain conditions, [and] Hitler’s impatience joined forces with the well-prepared enemy defense to form a combined front,” he wrote.
This article by John E. Spindler originally appeared on Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons