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299 CHAPTER FIFTEEN Battles in the Snow, Winter 1944–1945 THE ARDENNES AND HUNGARY The first shots that led to the Soviet occupation of Poland were actually fired in the Ardennes Forest, 800 kilometers to the west of the Vistula River. On 16 December 1944, Hitler launched a major offensive in the Ardennes region, committing much of his available mechanized forces in an effort to knock the Western Allies out of Europe before the next Soviet blow fell in the East. General von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army and SS-Obergruppenführer “Sepp” Dietrich’s Sixth SS Panzer Army, supported on the flanks by two infantry armies, attempted to rush through the region as they had done in 1940, seizing the Meuse River bridges and ultimately dividing the Allied front. In weeks of desperate fighting, the German offensive fell short of its goal, halted by a combination of skillful armored maneuvers, stubbornly held road junctions , and, when the skies cleared, overwhelming Allied tactical airpower. In the crisis of the Bulge, the Western governments asked Stalin to take the pressure off them by resuming the offensive. As will be described, Stalin responded by launching his next major offensive eight days ahead of schedule . This episode only reinforced the Soviets’ belief that they were carrying the brunt of the war. It is worth noting, however, that the growing concentration of German mechanized forces and logistical support in the West made the Soviet task in the East far easier than it would otherwise have been; after three years of complaints, the Soviets had finally gotten a true “Second Front.” Similarly, continued Soviet operations in Hungary had the desired effect of drawing off German forces from Poland. In late December, Marshal Malinovsky ’s 2nd Ukrainian Front and Marshal Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front had renewed their offensive, penetrating the imposing German Margareithe defenses located between Lake Balaton and the southern outskirts of the capital and thereby encircling three SS divisions, 13th Panzer Division, and numerous Hungarian units in the city itself. These trapped units totaled approximately 50,000 ill-trained Hungarian and 45,000 German troops, with perhaps 500 artillery pieces and 220 tanks and assault guns. Beginning on 29 December, Fourth Air Fleet attempted to resupply the city by air, but even when supplemented by teenagers flying gliders, this operation averaged only 47 tons per day, far less than the requirement.1 300 Chapter Fifteen The task of capturing the city was no mean feat, and the initial Soviet attacks into Budapest vividly demonstrated that seizure of the city would require considerable time and effort. To do so, Malinovsky created an ad hoc group consisting of three rifle corps (the 23rd, 10th Guards, and 37th Guards) of 46th Army to reduce Buda (on the western bank of the Danube ) and 18th Separate Guards Rifle Corps, Romanian 7th Army Corps, and 30th Guards Rifle Corps from 7th Guards Army to seize Pest.2 This divided command structure made little progress in the final days of December. The veterans of city fighting at Stalingrad were few and far between in the Red Army of 1944, and the Germans did their usual systematic job of organizing a defense. Moreover, the commitment of large Soviet forces inside the city weakened the outer encirclement line 40 kilometers west of Buda, thereby providing an opportunity for the Germans to mount a relief effort for their beleaguered garrison. On Christmas Day, Hitler responded to the southern threat by directing the redeployment of IV SS Panzer Corps from the area north of Warsaw to Hungary.3 The full-strength SS divisions Totenkopf and Wiking detrained northwest of Budapest and launched a surprise night attack early on New Year’s Day. They hit 4th Guards Army of Tolbukhin’s front on its vulnerable western flank, just south of the Danube River. This violent attack, which nearly destroyed 18th Tank Corps, finally ground to a halt only 20 kilometers west of Budapest, blocked by redeployed reserves from 46th and 4th Guards Armies. On 6 January, a Stavka-directed counterattack by 6th Guards Tank Army jumped off north of the Danube in an effort to encircle the attackers, but it made little headway. The next day, III Panzer Corps launched a second German attack north of Székesfehérvár. Designed to take advantage of IV SS Panzer Corps’ success in the north, it was halted by 4th Guards Army after only limited gains. This assault did indicate that Soviet defenses...


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