Spring Awakening

Hitler’s last offensive

German vehicles passing through a Hungarian village during the operation
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

A quick trivia question: do you know where and when Nazi Germany launched its last major offensive against the Allies?
 
If your answer was “in December 1944, in the Ardennes, leading to the Battle of the Bulge,” then you’re wrong. That battle is the best-known of Nazi Germany’s final attempts to turn the tide of the war, largely because it involved many American soldiers; but it was not the last one. That distinction goes to Operation Spring Awakening (“Unternehmen Frühlingserwachen”), which played out months later, in March 1945, in Hungary on the Eastern Front, near Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe. The battle, while far less known than the one that played out on the Western Front, was of a similar scope, with 465,000 Soviet and allied soldiers fighting to hold back the offensive of 260,000 Germans and Hungarians. (For comparison, the Battle of the Bulge involved around 500,000 German soldiers and 80,000 Allied ones at the beginning, though the ranks of the latter multiplied by the end.) This year’s March 6 was the 79th anniversary of the beginning of Hitler’s last offensive.

A Soviet artillery crew firing at a suspected German location at night
(Photo: Russian military)

On January 12, 1945, while the Battle of the Bulge was still going on, Hitler received news that the Red Army began a massive offensive in Poland that threatened to roll all the way into Germany. This was far from the only bad news: to the south of Poland, the German-controlled Hungarian capital of Budapest was already under siege by Soviet forces. Its fall would not only force Germany to fall back, but would also open up the path to a prize Hitler considered even more important than Berlin itself: the oil fields of West Hungary, Germany’s last significant source of oil since the fall of Romania.

Oil well in Western Hungary, 1940
(Photo: sulinet.hu)

The only way to slow down, let alone stop, the Soviet advance, was the launch of a major Axis offensive on the Eastern Front. Hitler ordered several units to be withdrawn from the Battle of the Bulge and rapidly shipped to Hungary, with refits on the go. The units taken off the line included the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, which gained notoriety in Belgium with the massacres committed by Joachim Peiper’s unit. (Read our earlier article) The impossible deadline for the refit was January 30, which was not going to be held.
 
Even as the reshuffling and refitting was going on, Hitler ordered an attempt to relieve Budapest. Operation Konrad III launched on January 18, and while it was ultimately unsuccessful, it did prove that Germany still had plenty of fight in it. The attack achieved complete surprise, overran an entire Soviet army in two days, destroyed hundreds of Soviet tanks, and recaptured 154 square miles (400 square km, similar to what the German Army took in the first phase of the Battle of the Bulge) in nine days of fierce fighting. The relief effort got within 15.5 miles (25 km) of the trapped Axis forces inside Budapest, but the offensive was eventually exhausted without quite reaching its goal. Much of the gained ground was lost again as Axis forces were pushed back to the region to the north of Lake Balaton, 45 miles (72 km) to the southwest of the capital. On February 11, 28,000 German and Hungarian soldiers (the city was originally defended by a force of 71,000) tried to break out from the Soviet encirclement and escort thousands of civilians to safety. While achieving momentary surprise, the evacuation ran into Soviet positions within the city. Five to then thousand people made it to the forested hills outside Budapest, but only 600-700 soldiers reached German lines. The remaining defenders capitulated to Soviet forces two days later, even as preparations for Spring Awakening were going on.

Soviet infantry and T-34s during Operation Konrad III
(Photo: Soviet photo reporter)

By mid-February, the Soviets had established a bridgehead across the River Hron (“Garam” in Hungarian) to the northwest of Budapest and to the north of the German positions. This was a threat to the Axis forces, as they could have been trapped between the Soviets to the north and Lake Balaton to the south. Operation South Wind (“Unternehmen Südwind")
was launched on February 17 to eliminate the bridgehead. Two Panzerkorps, one including Peiper’s combat group, managed to do so by February 24. With the immediate threat of a Soviet attack removed, the stage seemed set for the big push, Operation Spring Awakening. (It should be noted that German units were severely understrength and undersupplied by this point. A total of 11 Panzer divisions took part in the operation, but by the fifth day of the battle, the actual number of tanks would have only been enough for 1.7 divisions at full strength.

A German Sdkfz 251 armed with machine guns during Operation South Wind
(Photo: U.S. Army)

The divisions participating in the upcoming operation were smuggled into the country under the greatest secrecy. Various forces were referred to by code names such as “Higher Pioneer Leader Hungary” and “SS training group North” to hide their true identities. Insignia on uniforms and vehicles as well as license plates had to be covered at all times. Soldiers of the 1st SS Panzer Division was ordered to remove their distinctive cuff titles. Movement was only done at night or under overcast skies to avoid aerial detection. Scouts were not operating in forward areas to avoid being spotted, and situation maps did not show actual units. Security breaches were punished by death.

A German Panther passing a knocked-out Soviet T-34 in a Hungarian village
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

And yet, the Soviets, themselves preparing for a westward offensive towards Vienna, grew aware that something was brewing. Operation South Wind was performed by Panzer divisions, and the Soviets knew that those were only used for offensive, not defensive purposes. Their presence in the country meant that the Germans were preparing an offensive. The Third Ukrainian Front (the Soviet term for an army group) was in the most vulnerable position. It had already crossed the Danube River, which was now behind their backs, making a speedy withdrawal impossible. To their north, they had natural barriers: Lake Balaton and the Sió channel, which connected the lake with the Danube. Further away to their south were the hills of Southwest Hungary and the Drava River, with German units on its far side. Directly to their west were some of the German forces.

Marshal Fyodor Tolbukhin, commander of the 3rd Ukrainian Front
(Photo: Russian military)

Marshal Fyodor Tolbukhin, the commander of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, decided to dig in and wait for the attack. The preparations were similar to the ones before the Battle of Kursk (Read our earlier article), albeit on a smaller scale. Multiple lines of trenches were dug to house anti-tank weapons, while earthworks protected infantry and artillery, with the defenses being 6-18 miles (10-30 km) deep, their purpose being not to stop the Germans dead, but to slow them down and make them exhaust themselves. Like the Germans, the Soviets were still reeling from losses suffered during the winter; any counterattacks were to be small in scope to avoid large losses of life and equipment. Temporary bridges and pipelines were built across the Danube to ensure a steady supply of reinforcements and fuel.

Soviet SU-76M self-propelled guns in the Russian counterattack after Operation Spring Awakening
(Photo: Russian military)

One particular tactic the Red Army put to good use was the pakfront, something they learned from Germany in the early stages of the war in Russia. The named after “PaK,” the German abbreviation for anti-tank guns (“Panzerabwehrkanone”), the original pakfront was a group of up to 10 such guns under the command of a single officer. Once Russian armor wandered into the front’s killing field, the officer coordinated fire so that each gun targeted a different tank, maximizing German losses to the first volley. The Soviet adaptation was different in that the officer in charge had all the guns concentrate on a single target, thus being able to take down even a heavily armored Tiger tank rapidly.

A Soviet pakfront in an open field
(Photo: Russian military)

Spring Awakening was slated to begin on March 5, and comprised three simultaneous thrusts from different directions. The main thrust, named Frühlingserwachen just like the overall operation, involved the 6th SS Panzer Army and the 6th Army, located to the north of Lake Balaton. They would push east until they reached the Danube. There, the force was to split in two. One part would turn south and drive a wedge between the 3rd Ukrainian Front and the river, while the northern part would advance on and recapture the capital city. Meanwhile, the 2nd Panzer Army, comprising the Eisbrecher (“Icebreaker”) thrust, would advance eastward from its position near the oil fields; it would push east along the southern shores of Balaton, directly into the Soviet forces. The third thrust, Waldteufel (“Forest Devil”) was by Army Group E, located to the south. They would cross the Drava River and push north. Army Group South, incorporating the Third Hungarian Army, stayed behind in a defensive position. If all went as planned, Tolbukhin’s army group would be surrounded on all sides, cut off from reinforcements, and destroyed.

The German plan
(Image: modified version of work by Gerald Kainberger / Wikipedia)

Things did not go as planned, starting from the very first day. A sudden warm spell caused the snow and ice on the ground to thaw, turning large areas into almost-impassable mud. Bogged down, some German forces did not reach their jump-off points, and the offensive had to be delayed by a day. Even on the 6th, some units began their attacks at 4:00 a.m., while others could only get underway at 6:30 p.m. A cold wave and fresh snowfall re-froze the mud, but only in a thin surface layer, and vehicles and men kept breaking through the ice and getting trapped as soon as they left the roads. Some tanks sank into the mud up to their turrets, forcing infantry to advance into the Soviet defenses without armored cover.

German soldiers wading through mud during the operation
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Despite the difficulties, the Germans saw some initial success. The 6th Panzer Army captured Székesfehérvár, the medieval capital of Hungary, and pressed on south another 30 miles; while the other prongs of attacks also made some headway, threatening Soviet rear lines on occasion. The apex of the advance was on the 9th – on this day, Tolbukhin requested the release of a reserve army to his command, but Moscow refused, keeping reserves in preparation for the imminent push towards Vienna. Tolbukhin had to make do with what he had, and he even received orders to prepare a counterattack.

Soviet soldiers inspecting German tanks and self-propelled guns left behind in Székesfehérvár after running out of fuel
(Photo: Russian military)

After some further advancement, the Germans eventually ran out of momentum on March 12. The 6th SS Panzer Army enjoyed the greatest relative success, but even they were far from their goals. The 2nd Panzer Army, advancing on the opposite side of Lake Balaton, made less headway. Army Group E, coming up from the south, was stopped by the fierce resistance of the Bulgarian First Army, and Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavian partizans, who were fighting on the Soviet side.
 
The weather warmed on the 14th, drying the ground and allowing the Soviet counteroffensive to bring in tanks on the 16th. Even as German forces were reorganizing for a new offensive, a numerically superior Soviet force, reinforced with fresh troops from near Budapest, pushed them back behind their initial lines, sweeping them all the way to Vienna, which fell in April. The 6th SS Panzer Army briefly fell back to defending the last German, controlled oil sources in Hungary, before continuing to fall back. Its commander, Sepp Dietrich, joked “6th Panzer Army is well named—we have just six tanks left.”

A German Tiger II (“King Tiger”) tank after hitting a mine and driving into a ditch during the battle
(Photo: topwar.ru)

The Germans' last offensive during World War II, and the hopes of securing the Balaton oil fields, were lost. Hitler, always prone to drawing up unrealistically ambitious plans and blaming the inevitable failure on others, ordered Dietrich to punish the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler by removing their treasured cuff titles as a mark of disgrace. Dietrich did not pass the order down. He felt there was no need for humiliation beyond the fact of failure; also, most soldiers had already removed them as part of the secrecy measures surrounding the preparations.

German POWs marching past a destroyed Soviet IS-2 tank during the operation
(Photo: Russian military)

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The Medals of Honor of different branches of the U.S. armed forces
(Photo: public domain)
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