“Operation Spring Awakening represented Nazi Germany’s last major attack in World War Two. Here are some of history’s other doomed final assaults.”
MANY REMEMBER Adolf Hitler’s December 1944 assault on Allied troops in the Ardennes as the last major German offensive of World War Two.
Seventy years ago today, more than 430,000 Axis troops slammed into the Soviet lines near Lake Balaton in Hungary.
Elements of the 6th SS Panzer Army along with the 1st SS Panzer “Adolf Hitler” Leibstandarte Division spearheaded the March 6, 1945 attack, which was codenamed Operation Spring Awakening.
The objective was simple: blunt the Red Army’s relentless drive into Axis territory and secure the last remaining European oil fields within easy reach of Axis forces.
But with the German war machine running on empty and Allied troops pouring into the Third Reich from both the east and west, Spring Awakening was a futile gesture at best.
Conceived by Hitler himself, the foolhardy gambit was carried out by Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, a 52-year-old SS general and party die-hard who before the war served as the Fuhrer’s personal driver and bodyguard.
Although the assault initially succeeded in penetrating 40 km (25 miles) into Soviet-held territory, the Panzer columns soon met stiffening resistance and were forced to halt their advance amid ever mounting casualties.
Then on March 16, the Red Army hit back.
Within 24 hours of the Soviet counter offensive, Russian troops had recaptured all the territory seized by the Germans; Dietrich’s army was in headlong flight. Days later, all of Hungary would be in communist hands.
Furious that his elite troops had failed in their mission, Hitler ordered the men of the 1St SS Panzer to remove from their uniforms the prestigious cuff-title armbands that bore the Fuhrer’s name.
Operation Spring Awakening represented Nazi Germany’s last major attack in World War Two. Here are some of history’s other doomed final assaults:
Last Gasp of the Confederacy
Like some cornered wild animal, in the final days of the Civil War Joseph E. Johnston‘s 20,000-man Confederate army in North Carolina desperately lashed out at an advancing Union force more than triple its size. The ensuing three-day battle, which began on March 19, 1865 at Bentonville, was fought just three weeks before Lee’s final surrender at Appomattox. The action saw exhausted Rebel troops briefly throw William Tecumseh Sherman’s divisions off balance. But the Yankee commanders quickly regained the initiative and in turn mercilessly hammered Johnston’s withering army. Nearly 3,000 Confederates were killed, wounded or captured in the slaughter. It was the last sizeable Southern offensive of the Civil War.
Bonaparte’s Parting Shot
Mere days before abdicating his throne, Napoleon was personally leading a daring counter-attack against a combined Austro-Russian army just 150 km east of the gates of Paris. It was on March 20, 1814 that a rag-tag army of fewer than 30,000 French soldiers went on the offensive against an enemy force of 43,000 at Arcis-sur-Aube. As the fighting intensified, nearly 40,000 additional Allied troops converged on the area to crush the remnants of the Grande Armée. Bonaparte, who only narrowly avoided being captured by enemy cavalry during the fighting, managed to disentangle his troops and pull back to the French capital. A smaller clash would take place three days later at Saint-Dizier. But on the last day of the month, all resistance was done as soldiers of the Sixth Coalition took possession of Paris. The Emperor soon surrendered and was sent off to exile on Elba. He’d be back within a year to launch perhaps the most famous “last battle” in history – Waterloo.
The IJN’s Suicide Mission
Few would have imagined that a paltry 10-ship Japanese task force and a handful of kamikaze suicide pilots would be able to change the outcome of the Pacific war in April, 1945. But that didn’t stop Tokyo from trying to do just that with Operation Ten Go or “Heaven One”. A small flotilla, which consisted of the famous battleship Yamato, along with eight destroyers and a lone cruiser, sailed with ludicrous orders to drive the massive American armada away from Okinawa or die trying. Eleven U.S. carriers with 380 planes, nearly a dozen cruisers, six battleships and more than 30 destroyers swarmed the meagre Japanese formation on April 7. In a few short hours, the Yamato and five other IJN vessels were in flames at the bottom of the East China Sea and 100 Japanese planes had been blotted from the sky. In all, 3,000 sailors were dead. American casualties were minimal: three ships suffered light damaged with 75 killed. Despite the crushing defeat, Japan’s stubborn resistance flabbergasted American commanders. In fact, the sheer audacity of Operation Ten Go was one of the factors that helped convince Washington that atomic weapons might be the only way to end the war quickly.
The Final Frontier
America’s so-called wild west had long since been tamed when a Chippewa band at Leech Lake, Minnesota launched what is considered to be the final battle of the centuries-long American Indian Wars. The skirmish broke out on Oct. 5, 1898 when troops from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Division descended onto a reservation in Cass County to arrest a tribal leader named Bugonaygeshig for allegedly aiding and abetting bootleggers. The charges were in fact a sham; local officials really wanted to squelch the aging chieftain’s tireless protests against encroaching white loggers. When outraged band members interfered with the serving of the warrant, the federal troops called for reinforcements. Nearly 80 soldiers were dispatched from nearby Fort Snelling to end the standoff. Shots rang out as the column advanced on a native position and a fierce firefight ensued. Seven soldiers were killed and 14 more were wounded before the fusillade subsided. It was a short-lived triumph for the band. Now facing the full might of the U.S. Army, the native warriors lay down their weapons. While the battle marked the last major act of Indian resistance in American history, there was a silver lining: In the aftermath of the clash, Washington dispatched the Indian Affairs Commissioner to meet with tribal chiefs. Charges against Bugonaygeshig were dropped and local tensions eased. As an interesting footnote to the story, a private by the name of Oscar Burkard was later awarded a Medal of Honor for his role in the battle of Leech Lake. The 22-year-old German-born infantryman darted through gunfire to retrieve wounded comrades. Burkard would later serve with the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War One.
Germany’s First ‘Spring Awakening’
In early 1918, Prussian strategist Erich Ludendorff spotted a chance to bring the bloody First World War to a rapid conclusion in Germany’s favour. Following a peace deal with Russia in early March 1918, the Kaiser’s top military mastermind rushed 50 battle-hardened divisions in from the east to roll over the Allied armies in France, in hopes of ending the fighting before fresh troops could arrive from America. The attack, which was dubbed Kaiserschlacht or the “Kaiser’s Battle”, kicked off on March 21. It was preceded by a massive artillery barrage that saw more than 1 million shells fall onto a 150 square mile patch of the Allied lines near the Somme. The bombardment was followed up by a frontal assault from the Sturmtruppen or “stormtroopers”. The specially trained shock battalions quickly blew vast holes in the line through which the main German army easily poured. The attackers cut 60 kilometres (40 miles) into Allied territory creating mass panic. For the first time since 1914, the Germans were threatening Paris; Ludendorff’s units closed to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the French capital. But by June, the attack petered out; the German army was utterly sapped, having lost more than 600,000 men in three months of all out attack. The Allies, strengthened by fresh U.S. troops, were ready to counterattack. By the late summer, the British, French and Americans launched their famous 100 Days Offensive, which led to the final defeat of Germany.