Saturday, October 31, 2015

What was the bloodiest battle in WW2?


Everytime you think that you know everything important about WW2, someone comes up with a seriously interesting discovery or question.  What i never quite understood and never thought to ask was just how hard the German forces fought in the last three months of the war.

Of course, i was fooled because we only had western sources that focused on the collapsing german front in the south allowing the allies to largely occupy southern Germany.  Yet there was a nasty fight in the north and this informs us of the very nasty fight around Budapest.

At the end of the War most remaining German forces had been largely consumed in the fighting, but real heavy fighting was taking place to the bitter end and actual surrender.

And yes, i would have thought Stalingrad or Kursk.  The Germans went all in on both and lost horribly.

What was the bloodiest battle in WW2?

Many people will say Stalingrad or the Battle of Berlin, and it's possible the Battle of Berlin was the worst, depending upon when you consider the battle started, but I think we should also consider the Battle for Budapest. The Battle of Budapest went on for quite some time, and it actually drew off many of the forces that would have opposed the Russians in Berlin. 

Hitler was faced with two very real problems, one was the impending invasion of the Russians in Berlin; the second was the lack of gasoline and refined oils that the Reich desperately needed to continue fighting. Albert Speer had thoughtfully stockpiled raw materials to continue fighting through all of 1945, but oil and gasoline was in desperately short supply. The Russians had taken or were about take most of the oil fields in Hungary and to keep fighting, Hitler absolutely had to have them. 

Even though the Americans and the British had bombed them into the earth, the wily Germans were still able to pump and refine oil within the still smoking ruins using scaled down and damaged equipment. Hitler also did not believe his intelligence officer, Gehlen's assessment of the Russian armies and equipment, which happened to be spot on. Both he and Goering believed the Russians outside Berlin were a paper army and would be incapable of actually taking Berlin. As a result, he drew off the only intact Panzer divisions protecting Berlin and moved them by rail to Vienna where the German 6th Army had been reconstituted for Operation Spring Awakening.

In the meantime, Hungary was soon to capitulate in the face of strong Russian attacks and turn on the Germans. During the early part of 1945 the Russians encircled Budapest, which is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, cut by a river. Within the city were two crack German divisions and the elements of many burned out German and Hungarian forces. Unlike Stalingrad, civilians were not allowed to leave the city. The Russians pounded the city relentlessly. As part of the operation to secure the oil fields, Hitler planned to relieve the garrison in the city. No quarter was given by either side and the fighting was brutal and bloody. Civilians were caught in the crossfire and the suffering was horrific.  As time went on, the Germans did their best to keep the city supplied by air. It was extremely reminiscent of Stalingrad and was a preview of what the battle for Berlin would look like.

The Hungarians capitulated and turned on the Germans who suddenly had the additional task of fighting their former allies who were armed with German equipment. It was very hard all around because there were many Hungarian units who hated the Russians and still were loyal to the Germans. It made formulating battle plans very tricky. Germans could never trust the Hungarians and never knew when they were going to be stabbed in the back and in fact, many turncoats killed Germans in their barracks or lead Russians through the sewers to assault the Germans from behind. At the same time there were a large number of Jews imprisoned in Budapest and used as slave labor. Much is said about the brutality of the Germans, but the Hungarians were worse. At one point, the leader of the Jewish prisoners actually appealed to the Germans for relief from the Hungarians. 

As spring arrived, the Germans completed their battle plans and attacked strong Russian positions. The weather worked against the Germans and despite superhuman efforts, the first attack failed. The Russians stepped up their attacks on the city while inside the German defenders waited for relief that would never come. The city was in flames, people were eating their pets, water was drawn directly from the river for drinking and firefighting as the water mains were destroyed. The Germans launched a second attack. This time the terrain was even worse, the snow had melted and everything was mud. The Germans were forced to use roads already registered by Russian artillery. The second biggest tank battle in history was fought outside the city, but the Germans, short of artillery support, air support and gasoline, had to retreat once again. 

The German high command appealed to Berlin, stating that it was fruitless and that they could not continue. Hitler ordered another attack. The German 6th Army made one more valiant attempt and got within about 12 miles of the city before being stopped. The defenders could hear the furious fighting outside the city and organized for a breakout, but the relief attack failed yet again. The Germans had to pull back behind Lake Balaton. The commander of the German garrison in Budapest radioed Berlin that the ability to continue the defense of the city was no longer possible, and then he shot himself. A few strong German units assembled and tried to fight their way out of the city. They were all killed or captured within a few days. The 6th Army was broken, and without the city as a block against the Russians had to fall back quickly to keep from disintegrating. The Russians followed up with sharp, vicious attacks as the Germans retreated into Vienna, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The civilian population up to this point had been largely ignorant of the scale of the drama occurring not far from them, and had escaped the destruction and privation experienced elsewhere in the Reich, and so it was with a major shock that they suddenly found themselves on the front lines. The Russians moved into what they saw as German territory with expected viciousness. The Germans divided Vienna into defensive quarters and planned to make a last stand, but before the final Gotterdamerung, the war ended and the 6th Army surrendered for the third and final time in 3 years. Four hundred and fifty thousand men were marched into captivity. Less than half would ever come home. 

In the West we don't hear much about the Battle for Budapest because the Russians were very stingy with that kind of information after the war, and there are very few books on the subject. Only recently has significant information about the battle become available, and the scale of death and destruction visited by both sides, with an entire urban population caught in the crossfire. The Battle for Berlin reflects the worst of Stalingrad and Budapest with more casualties, but it was for a shorter period of time. It's true that Berlin may have been the most horrific and bloodiest battle of all time, but the tragedy surrounding Budapest should not be forgotten.

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