Operation Frühlingserwachen Part I

As was in fact expected by the Soviet command, the German offensive got underway on 6 March 1945 with virtually simultaneous attacks on three directions. The enemy’s first attack came in the sector of the Bulgarian First Army, which was defending along the Drava River. At 1.00, units of the LXXXXI Army Corps quickly forced a crossing of the river in five locations in the Osijek, Valpovo, Donji Miholjac area, drove back the defending elements of the Bulgarian and Yugoslav armies, and by the end of the day established two small bridgeheads on the opposite bank of the Drava. At 6.00, the Second Panzer Army of Army Group South went on the offensive against the 57th Army after an artillery preparation.

However, the main attack came at 8.47, when the Sixth SS Panzer Army and Armeegruppe Balck jumped off between Lakes Velence and Balaton. The attack was preceded by a powerful 30-minute opening artillery barrage. Most of this artillery fire was intended to suppress our troops, which were occupying the primary belt of defenses. As the preparatory artillery fire wound down, it was joined by German tanks and self-propelled guns, which placed rather effective direct fire on targets along the Soviet front line from a range of 800 to 1,000 meters. However, the German indirect artillery fire was less effective: the shells often exploded some distance off-target, and the majority of the Soviet artillery batteries were unaffected by the German barrage. Luftwaffe activity during the preparatory artillery phase and in support of the attack was badly hampered by the low layer of clouds, snowfall and the poor conditions of the German airfields.

With the start of the German artillery preparation, the artillery of the Soviet rifle divisions and of the army artillery groups of the 4th Guards and 26th Armies responded. The Soviet artillery fire targeted previously detected aggregations of German infantry and tanks.

On the boundary between the 4th Guards Army and the 26th Army, the enemy launched an attack with units of Armeegruppe Balck’s 1st Panzer Division and the 356th Infantry Division on both sides of Seregélyes. Simultaneously, up to two regiments of infantry and 30 tanks attacked the positions of the 1st Guards Fortified District and the right flank of the 155th Rifle Division. Soviet artillery fire managed to separate the German infantry from their tanks, while the tanks, lunging ahead, came under fire from the guns of the battalion anti-tank strongpoints of the 155th Rifle Division. Thanks to the tenaciousness of the Soviet defenders and the well-organized system of artillery fire, the German attack here was broken up. In the process, in the sector of the 155th Rifle Division’s 436th Rifle Regiment alone, the Germans left behind 15 tanks and 5 armored personnel carriers that were knocked-out during the failed attack.

However, the situation in the 1st Guards Fortified District’s sector of defenses deteriorated in the very first minutes of the battle. This was connected with the fact that the Fortified District’s command didn’t pay sufficient attention to the organization of artillery fire and observation of the enemy. As a result, during the pause between the end of the German preparatory barrage and the start of the attack, the commanders of the 10th Machine-gun – Artillery Battalion and the 1963rd Destroyer Anti-tank Artillery Regiment decided that the enemy wasn’t going to attack their positions, and gave the order to their troops to stand down. Meanwhile, German infantry with the support of tanks, exploiting the snowfall that had started, unexpectedly attacked one rifle battalion’s positions, and the Soviet infantry fled in disorder through the combat positions of Guards Lieutenant Colonel Polubinsky’s 1963rd Destroyer Anti-tank Artillery Regiment. Left without infantry protection, the artillerymen hastily re-manned their guns and opened fire. They managed to knock out 10 German tanks, but lost almost all of their guns in the fighting. That evening the regiment was withdrawn for refitting.

At 10.15, the Germans managed to break into the northern outskirts of Seregélyes, as a result of which the threat of a breakthrough of the main belt of defenses on the boundary between the 4th Guards Army and the 26th Army emerged. The commander of the 155th Rifle Division hastily pulled his 786th Rifle Regiment back to the area south of Seregélyes, where it took up a defense with its front facing the north along with the 407th Light Artillery Regiment and the 320th Separate Destroyer Anti-tank Artillery Battalion.

The commandant of the 1st Guards Fortified District also threw his reserves into the fighting – a submachine gun company and two batteries of anti-tank guns. In addition, at the order of the commander of the 4th Guards Army, two mortar batteries and two anti-tank gun batteries deployed to the north of Seregélyes, while the 1670th and 338th Destroyer Anti-tank Artillery Regiments took up positions east of the town. In the process, the latter anti-tank regiment immediately joined battle.

Simultaneously with these initial responses, the command of the 4th Guards Army and of the 26th Army took a number of other measures to strengthen their boundary – artillery and mortar units, as well as rocket launchers, were moved up closer to the front line. The army artillery groups, as well as the artillery of the 21st Guards Rifle Corps that was positioned north of Lake Velence, were also called upon to bring fire down upon the attacking Germans.

As a result of the maneuver of these artillery units, the firepower of the units of the 155th Rifle Division and the 1st Guards Fortified District was significantly enhanced. Meanwhile, the regimental artillery groups and the anti-tank artillery units were rendering substantial assistance to the rifle units in repelling the intensifying German attacks.

The attacking units of Armeegruppe Balck were unable to realize any initial success as a result of the adopted measures, despite the ferocity of their attacks. By the end of day 6 March, the Germans here managed only to make a shallow penetration of 3 to 4 kilometers in a narrow sector of the Soviet front, no wider than 3.5 kilometers. The Armeegruppe headquarters noted that this was insufficient in order to make full use of the 3rd Panzer Division. The latter didn’t take part in the attack on 6 March, because it was unable to move into its jumping-off area in time.

The combat on 6 March did expose the vulnerability of the boundary between the 4th Guards Army’s 1st Guards Fortified District and the 26th Army’s 30th Rifle Corps. Despite the fact that a significant portion of the 26th Army’s artillery had been concentrated in the sector of the 30th Rifle Corps’ 155th and 36th Guards Rifle Divisions, it had proven incapable of helping its neighbor on the right. In addition, the artillery units that were supporting the 1st Guards Fortified District with indirect fire were ineffective because of weak command and control and poorly organized cooperation.

In conjunction with the attack at the boundary between the 4th Guards Army and 26th Army, units of the Sixth SS Panzer Army – its I Cavalry Corps and I SS Panzer Corps (the 3rd and 4th Cavalry Divisions, the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend) assaulted Soviet positions between Lake Velence and the Sárviz Canal. The main attack, which was launched to the south along the Székesfehérvár – Cece highway, struck the positions of the 30th Rifle Corps’ 68th Guards Rifle Division. Here the Germans threw up to four infantry regiments and 60-80 tanks and assault guns into the attack. The tanks advanced in the first echelon, followed by infantry on foot, and behind them came assault guns and infantry mounted in halftracks.

As a result of the fighting, the left-flank 68th Guards Rifle Division wound up isolated from the corps’ remaining units, and had direct contact only with its neighbor on the left – the 135th Rifle Corps’ 233rd Rifle Division. However, thanks to the well-organized system of artillery fire, the German infantry became separated from the leading tanks and the latter wound up in the zone of fire from the anti-tank guns of the battalion anti-tank strong points. During the battle, the guns of the 202nd Guards Rifle Regiment alone accounted for 11 knocked-out enemy tanks.

The German attack in the sector of the 233rd Rifle Division was met with indirect artillery fire on pre-registered areas. However, because of the low light and fog, it was difficult to determine the effectiveness of this fire, so the commander of the 135th Rifle Corps ordered the artillery to switch to placing barrier fire. In addition, the infantry opened fire with rifles, machine guns, and guns that had been deployed to fire over open sights. The first German attack was driven back. Subsequently, having detected the boundaries between the defending regiments, the Germans began to attack these more vulnerable locations.

After 9.00, the ground in the Soponya – Káloz area became blanketed with fog, and visibility didn’t extend beyond 200 meters. Because of this, the effectiveness of the indirect Soviet artillery fire sharply dropped. Taking advantage of this, the German infantry with the support of tanks managed to approach quite close to the Soviet front line, before launching another assault on the positions of the 68th Guards Rifle Division and 233rd Rifle Division. This time the enemy managed to push back the left-flank battalion of the 68th Guards Rifle Division and seized a commanding height in the area.

That afternoon, after a powerful artillery preparation, units of the I SS Panzer Corps – up to a regiment of infantry with the support of several dozen tanks and assault guns – again went on the attack, trying to break through to Káloz, on the road toward Cece. The commander of the 68th Guards Rifle Division committed all of his available reserves and all of his artillery into the fighting, including the attached 1966th Destroyer Anti-tank Artillery Regiment, but was unable to stop the German attack. Suffering heavy losses, the division began to fall back, and the bridgehead on the western bank of the Sárviz Canal that it had been holding rapidly shrank in width and depth. In order to strengthen the defense, the commander of the 26th Army transferred his antitank artillery reserve to the 68th Guards Rifle Division – the 1965th Destroyer Anti-tank Artillery Regiment, which had crossed to the western bank of the Sárviz Canal, moved into positions west of Káloz. With the onset of darkness, the German attacks didn’t cease – in the twilight, up to 20 tanks attacked the sector of the 198th Guards Rifle Regiment. In the course of the fighting, a company of enemy infantry and six German tanks reached the position of one of the batteries of the 1966th Destroyer Anti-tank Artillery Regiment. At the order of the battery commander, scouts illuminated the terrain with flares, and simultaneously one gun platoon opened fire at the tanks with armor-piercing shells, while the other opened fire with canister and hurled fragmentation grenades at the infantry. The very first shots managed to disable one tank, and the remaining tanks stopped and with fire from fixed positions began to support the attack of their infantry. After more than an hour of fighting, the German attack in this sector faltered and was driven back. Altogether on 6 March 1945, the artillerymen of the 1966th Destroyer Anti-tank Artillery Regiment disabled or destroyed 11 enemy tanks, without losing a single gun in return.

The attack of the 3rd and 4th Cavalry Divisions against the left flank of the 26th Army ended in failure – units of the 74th and 151st Rifle Divisions threw the enemy back with a counterattack. Documents of the Sixth SS Panzer Army noted, “The cavalry corps was pushed back on both sides of the Siófok – Lepsény road to a point 300 meters in front of the friendly main line of resistance. The enemy had also launched counterattacks out of Enying.”

As concerns the II SS Panzer Corps, because of delays in deploying, it didn’t go on the attack on the Aba – Sárkeresztúr axis until 18.30. Even then, it could only attack with insignificant forces, as a result of which it made practically no headway on 6 March.

Having assessed the situation after the first day of combat, the 3rd Ukrainian Front command took a number of measures to strengthen the defenses on the revealed directions of enemy attacks. For example, two brigades of the 18th Tank Corps (the 110th and 170th Tank Brigades) and the 35th Guards Rifle Corps’ 3rd Guards Airborne Division were moved up into the second belt of defenses east and southeast of Seregélyes. A tank regiment of the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps was sent to a previously prepared line in the Sárkeresztúr area, and south of it the 21st Rifle Division deployed, having been transferred to control of the 30th Rifle Corps from the 26th Army reserve. The 27th Army’s 33rd Rifle Corps received an order to move out to the Dunaföldvár area, and to be ready, depending on the situation, to enter the fighting either east or west of the Sárviz Canal.

In addition, a regrouping of artillery units was conducted – from the left bank of the Danube, two howitzer brigades and a mortar brigade crossed the river and moved into the area of the 30th Rifle Corps’ defense, as well as an artillery regiment, an anti-tank regiment, a mortar regiment and a rocket launcher regiment. One artillery brigade from the Front reserve moved up into the Káloz – Sárkeresztúr area, to the boundary between the 36th and 68th Guards Rifle Divisions.

The German command also didn’t rate the successes of the first day of Operation Frühlingserwachen very highly. For example, the commander of Army Group South General Wöhler reported the following to the General Inspector of Panzer Troops Guderian shortly after midnight on 7 March:

The armored forces could barely be used at all, as ground conditions did not permit crosscountry movement, and the roads were either bad or blocked by minefields and anti-tank obstacles. For these reasons, the attack had to be mainly carried out by infantry.

That would continue to be the case. One could not expect a rapid breakthrough; instead, it was to be a tough infantry fight, and this would also consume more ammunition than we had previously intended.

In general, the enemy was expecting a friendly attack. However, his outposts were surprised by the choice of the time and place ….

On the morning of 7 March, after an artillery preparation and air strikes, the units of Armeegruppe Balck and of the I and II SS Panzer Corps again went on the attack in the direction of Seregélyes, Sárosd and Sárkeresztúr. On 7 March, in the sector of the 26th Army alone, the enemy attacked with up to nine infantry regiments and more than 170 tanks, assault guns and self-propelled artillery. Particularly stubborn fighting developed in the sector of the 155th Rifle Division, where the Germans launched five attacks, one after another. As on the first day of the fighting, the battalion anti-tank strongpoints and anti-tank areas, supported by indirect artillery fire, played the main role in repelling these attacks. Because of the rapidly fluctuating situation, the artillerymen often had to pivot their guns by 90 to 100 degrees in order to fire at attacking tanks.

Only after both the defense’s field works had been demolished by hostile enemy artillery fire and air strikes and the Soviet anti-tank artillery had suffered heavy losses did the enemy succeed in taking a few strongpoints south of Seregélyes. In the sector of the 1st Guards Fortified District (which for command convenience was made subordinate to the 27th Army on 7 March, because Lake Velence separated it from the rest of the 4th Guards Army), the Germans also expanded their breakthrough sector in the direction of Lake Velence, but thanks to the timely arrival of Soviet reserves, the Germans were unable to advance further. The enemy advance south of Seregélyes was stopped by the two tank brigades of the 18th Tank Corps that had been thrown into the fighting.

However, the bitterest fighting went on west of the Sárviz Canal, in the Soponya – Káloz sector. At 6.00 on 7 March, units of the I SS Panzer Corps – up to 40 tanks and armored personnel carriers with infantry – attacked the positions of the 1965th Destroyer Anti-tank Artillery Regiment. The tanks went into the attack at high speeds, covered by assault guns that were firing from sheltered positions. The Soviet artillerymen wound up in an extremely difficult situation, since because of the thick fog, visibility was less than 400 meters. The anti-tank batteries had to deal with both enemy tanks and infantry simultaneously. As a result of savage fighting, the 6th Battery knocked out six tanks, but lost all of its guns in the process due to fire from enemy assault guns. The 3rd Battery knocked out another three German armored vehicles, before its guns were overrun by German tanks that were breaking through to the rear. However, a subsequent attempt by the German armor to penetrate across the bridge that spanned the Sárviz Canal was unsuccessful – by the fire of two batteries of 85mm guns of the 974th Anti-aircraft Artillery Regiment that was positioned here, four German tanks were knocked out and the rest were forced to retreat.

However, the Germans didn’t cease their attacks toward Káloz before the day’s end. Batteries of the 1965th Destroyer Anti-tank Artillery Regiment that had remained intact after the morning action fought until they had expended their last shell, and even after their guns were destroyed, the artillerymen continued to fight as infantry. Despite the heroic resistance of the defending Soviet units, however, by the evening of 7 March, the I SS Panzer Corps took possession of Káloz.

North of this village, in the course of the entire day, four batteries of the 1966th Destroyer Antitank Artillery Regiment fought on in semi-encirclement. They managed to repel three German attacks, but having lost all their guns, the artillerymen were forced to retreat.

By the evening of 7 March, the situation on this axis had become so threatening that the commander of the 68th Guards Rifle Division had deployed almost all of the division’s artillery to fire over open sights; with difficulty they were holding back the offensive of the SS tanks and infantry against the bridgehead across the Sárviz Canal, which shrank further to a width of 3-4 kilometers and a depth of just 1.5-2 kilometers. With the onset of darkness, the combat subsided, and the division’s units abandoned the bridgehead and began to retreat across the Sárviz Canal to its eastern bank. Because of the losses it had suffered, on the following day the 68th Guards Rifle Division was pulled back into the 26th Army reserve.

Over two days of fighting, the 1965th and 1966th Anti-tank Artillery Regiments reported the disabling or destruction of 54 enemy tanks, self-propelled guns and halftracks, 7 vehicles, 3 guns and 12 machine guns. Their own losses were placed at 30 guns, 3 vehicles, and 12 men killed, 46 wounded and 23 missing in action. With the six remaining guns, the regiments were withdrawn into the Front reserve for rest and refitting.

Units of the 233rd Rifle Division and the neighboring 74th Rifle Division of the 135th Rifle Corps, under the pressure of units of the I SS Panzer Corps, by the evening of 7 March had fallen back to a new position south of Káloz. By this time the 233rd Rifle Division had 62 guns for a defensive front of 7 kilometers, while the 74th Rifle Division had just 35 guns for a defensive front of 14 kilometers. Despite this, the men of these divisions put up ferocious resistance to the Germans; frequently, the German attacks resulted in hand to hand fighting, after which the Soviet elements would pull back to the next line.

On 8 March, units of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich managed to breach the Soviet defenses between the villages of Sárosd and Aba, having cut the road between them in the vicinity of Hill 159.0. Striving to exploit this success, the Germans launched nine successive attacks. However, having been met by heavy indirect artillery fire, the fire of anti-tank guns, and especially, of the heavy self-propelled artillery firing from ambush positions, they fell back, leaving 24 burned out or disabled tanks and self-propelled guns behind on the battlefield.

West of the Sárviz Canal, the I SS Panzer Corps, attacking on a broad front, forced the units of the 233rd and 74th Rifle Divisions to fall back to the second belt of defenses by the evening of 8 March. The 3rd and 4th Cavalry Divisions also managed to make some headway against the Soviet units at Lake Balaton.

On the night of 8-9 March, the 3rd Ukrainian Front command continued to bring up reserves to the sector between Lake Velence and the Sárviz Canal. By the morning of 9 March, additional artillery, howitzer and mortar brigades, four artillery and mortar regiments, a Katiusha battalion and the 1438th, 1453rd, 1821st and 382nd Guards Self-propelled Artillery Regiments had been deployed to the north, east and south of the sector that had been breached by the enemy. As a result of this, the density of the Soviet artillery surrounding the German breakthrough amounted to 65 guns and mortars per kilometer.

German units continued persistent attacks the entire day of 9 March on the 26th Army’s entire sector of defense and in the sector between Lake Velence and Seregélyes. In the sector held by the 1st Guards Fortified District, Armeegruppe Balck succeeded in advancing along the southern shore of Lake Velence as far as Gárdony before it was finally halted. In the fighting on this axis, Colonel Vlasenko’s 24th Destroyer Anti-tank Artillery Brigade, which was occupying a number of anti-tank areas in the sector of the 1st Guards Fortified District on a front of approximately 10 kilometers, played the largest role. In the course of fighting between 6 and 9 March, Vlasenko’s brigade knocked out or destroyed 39 tanks, self-propelled guns and halftracks, while losing 16 of its guns in return.

The II SS Panzer Corps continued its attack toward the southeast. Units of the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen launched a concentrated attack in a sector 1.5-kilometers-wide against elements of the 36th Guards Rifle Division, striving to make a breakthrough in the direction of Aba and Sárkeresztúr. However, with the support of massed artillery fire, the Guards division repulsed all the German attacks on this direction. The SS troops also failed to achieve any substantial results in the sector of the 155th Rifle Division, which in the course of the day repelled nine German tank attacks.

In the sector of the 26th Army’s 135th Rifle Corps, units of the I SS Panzer Corps launched an attack on the night of 8-9 March. The main blow struck the positions of the 233rd Rifle Division in the vicinity of Aranyos. The division’s limited amount of artillery was unable to render the needed support to the infantry. The 135th Rifle Corps’ artillery was also not in the condition to conduct effective massed fire on the breakthrough sector at night. As a result, under the cover of the nighttime darkness, the German tanks managed to penetrate the second defensive belt. True, the situation was somewhat eased by the circumstance that the Germans also acted with uncertainty in the nighttime conditions and thus couldn’t take full advantage of the success of their initial attack. Exploiting this, the units of the 233rd and 236th Rifle Divisions began an organized withdrawal to the south.

The command of the 26th Army back on 8 March had decided to reinforce the 135th Rifle Corps, and gave it the 208th Self-propelled Artillery Brigade out of the Front reserve. Such a powerful and mobile formation (63 SU-100 tank destroyers) was able to make a significant impact on the course of combat operations. However, the Soviet command was plainly late with introducing it into the fighting. The brigade received the order to move two of its regiments into ambush positions on the line Nagyherceg – Dég, and in cooperation with the units of the 233rd and 236th Rifle Divisions supported by the 1008th and 1245th Destroyer Anti-tank Artillery Regiments to prevent a breakthrough by enemy tanks and infantry along the western bank of the Sárviz Canal. Meanwhile, the third tank destroyer regiment of the 208th Self-propelled Artillery Brigade remained in the 26th Army reserve in the Szár area.

The brigade’s regiments were slow to move out; the brigade’s commander had no communications with the rifle divisions operating in front of him, and the reconnoitering of the approach route was poor. As a result, the 1068th Self-propelled Artillery Regiment, moving in column along the Cece – Székesfehérvár highway was unexpectedly attacked by the German tanks that had broken through; having rapidly lost 14 of its 21 SU-100 tank destroyers, the regiment hastily fell back to the Sáregres area.

The enemy’s 23rd Panzer Division that was advancing along the highway was stopped north of Sáregres by units of the 11th Guards Cavalry Division. The attempt by hostile tanks to break though the army-level defensive belt and to seize crossings over the Kapos Canal from the march failed.