Vienna, Alps and Danube Must Be Remembered
Yuriy RUBTSOV | 13.04.2015 | OPINION

Vienna, Alps and Danube Must Be Remembered

April 13, 1945 at 21.00 hours (Moscow time) Moscow saluted with 24 artillery salvoes from 324 guns the gallant troops of the 3rd Ukrainian Front which captured the city of Vienna. 

The Medal "For the liberation of Vienna" was established on June 9, 1945 by decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR to satisfy the petition of the People’s Commissariat for Defense of the Soviet Union to reward the participants of the battles for the capture of the city of Vienna which particularly distinguished themselves in the fighting. 

Over 270 thousand Soviet troops took part on the operation to liberate the Austrian capital. The commanders of the 2d and 3d Ukrainian fronts Marshall Feodor Tolbuhin and Marshall Rodion Malinovsky were decorated with the Victory Order, the highest military decoration awarded for World War II service in the Soviet Union, and one of the rarest orders in the world. The order was awarded only to Generals and Marshals for successfully conducting combat operations. The victory was held as a result of fierce fighting against the enemy, which was on the brink of agony. It made him even more dangerous. The plan of the operation to liberate Vienna had to be changed as German forces delivered a counter-strike in the area of Lake Balaton. It required additional efforts on the part of Soviet forces to repel the attack. The fight for Vienna started on April 5, 1945 after the Soviet troops made it to the border between Austria and Hungary and approached the city suburbs. The 3d Ukrainian Front was to bear the brunt of the fight. Marshall Tolbuhin planned to start an offensive from different directions. Artillery density was of up to 120-150 guns per kilometer of front-line. The Soviet command concentrated over 300 tanks and self-propelled guns, as well as anti-tank 100 mm artillery pieces. 

The enemy was ready to fight to the bitter end. Declared a defensive region, Vienna's defense was commanded by General Rudolf von Bünau, with the II SS Panzer Corps units under the command of SS General Willhelm Bittrich, including the 2d (Das Reich), 3d (the "Death Head’s Division"), the 232d Panzer (Tatar) division and the 6th Panzer divisions with strong infantry support. 128-mm air defense guns were also used against advancing Soviet forces. On April 5, the fighting was especially tough. The Soviet forces had to move across rough terrain. The Fourth Guards Army under General-Lieutenant N. Zahvataev approached the southern and south-western outskirts of the city late on April 6. The street fighting started as Soviet troops moved closer to the arsenal. The 9th Mechanized Corps of the 6th Guards Tank Army under the command of Colonel-General (three stars) A. Kravchenko seized the suburban town of Marienburg. The 9th Guards Army under the command of Colonel-General V. Glagolev was moving north and west making retreat the Germans 1st SS Corps. 

The Soviet command looked for weak points in the enemy’s defenses. At midnight, April 6, it was decided to encircle the enemy from flanks. On April 8, the 5th Tank Corps launched an offensive in the north-eastern direction and approached the Danube. On April 9-10 the Soviet troops were advancing to the heart of Vienna. They had to engage in intense fighting for every block. The battle never stopped. Main forces fought at daytime while reinforced battalions waged combat at night. On April 6, Marshall Tolbuhin addresed the residents of Vienna. He said the Red Army fought the German occupants only. Austrian civilians could quietly engage again in peaceful work. He said the people should prevent the enemy from destroying the city infrastructure. 

In the heat of fighting on April 9 the Soviet government published a statement saying the Soviet Union did not pursue the goal of annexing part of Austrian territory or changing the country’s social system. It would act in accordance with “Declaration of the Four Nations on General Security” Moscow Declaration of October 30, 1943 and respect the Austria’s independence. The Soviet Union would liberate Austria from German occupation and restore democratic system and institutions the country. 

By the end of the day on April 10 the German forces holding Vienna were concentrated in a narrow space from the Danube to the Danube Canal which was 40-60 meter wide and 3 meter deep with 6-7 meter high granite-covered banks. It was a serious obstacle to overcome. The enemy destroyed all the bridges and opened all dyke locks. It continued to offer stubborn resistance. The sappers and first strike units used all means at hand to cross the Canal. They used Molotov cocktails to set fire to buildings held by enemy while repelling the enemy’s counter attacks. The 39th Rifle Corps of the 9th Guards Army failed to cross the Danube and get a stronghold on the northern bank of the river. The offensive launched by the 20th Guards Rifle Corps of the 4th Guards Army has a crucial role to play. It crossed the Danube in the south-eastern part of the city on April 8. The 17th Air Army offered significant support to ground troops. 

With the 3d Ukrainian Front advancing to the heart of the city the bridge over the Danube became the prime objective. The northern, north-eastern and eastern railway bridges were demolished by Germans on April 9. Only Floridsdorf and Empire bridges were left. The latter led to Leopoldstadt and Donaustadt districts on the other side of the Danube. It was an objective of special importance linking the two groups of German forces divided by the river. Besides, the control over the bridge opened the way to the heart of the city. The 4th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps were approaching. The Empire bridge could have been destroyed to greatly impede the advance of Soviet forces. In a coup de main on 13 April, the Danube Flotilla landed troops of the 80th Guards Rifle Division of the 4th Guards Army and 7th Guards Airborne Division on both sides of the bridge, cutting demolition cables and securing the position. The two landing craft were supported by eight gunboats with mortars that had to make it through the debris left by demolished eastern railway station. They could do it only in daytime. The bold operation started at eleven o’clock on April 11. The landing craft passed by the demolished bridge. Their appearance in the center of the city took Germans by surprise. Protected by smoke screens the boats with landing troops moved to the banks. The landing operation took place at the distance of 50 meters from the bridge. The objective was captured and the explosive devices were taken away. The landed troops held the bridge for two days, no matter the enemy’s fierce attacks never stopped. The Danube Canal crossing and the seizure of the Empire bridge broke the defensive lines of the II SS Tank Corps. On April 12, the SS Death's Head Division was encircled, the survivors of the Reich division retreated to the Floridsdorf bridge in the northern part of the city. For some time Germans kept a small bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Danube under never ending strikes of the 46th Army of the 2d Ukrainian Front. By 1400 o’clock on April 13 Vienna was actually liberated from German forces. 

It’s a pity the Austrian anti-Nazi resistance movement failed to carry out its plans and start an uprising. The Austrian 17th mobilized Corps in Vienna was responsible for preparation of reservists for the front. On April 2, 1945 it sent its envoys to the 9th Guards Army to tell the servicemen and city residents were preparing an anti-fascist uprising under the command of Major Carl Szokoll. He soon crossed the line of front to tell the Soviet command that he was the head of underground organization “Austria, Wake Up”. The Soviet command instructed the group to seize the bridges across the Danube and its tributaries, put them under guard, destroy the German military command posts, Nazi party leadership locations and police stations coordinating activities with the Soviet forces. The insurgents had to wait for a signal. The signal was given at 12.30 on April 6 but there was no visible activity to follow. Army General S. Shtemenko recalled that Hitlerites traced Szokoll and arrested the organization’s leaders. They were convicted under the military law (Standrecht), and publicly hanged on April 8, 1945 in Vienna. Deprived of its leadership the organization failed to start an insurgency and take control over the city. Giving the Austrian patriots their due it should be noted that Western historians try to say that Szokoll and the group he led made a special contribution into the liberation of Vienna. These affirmations are groundless. The Soviet historians should be corrected too. True, some leaders of the group were executed but Szokoll made an escape and gave an order to start an armed rebellion. The plan was called Operation Radetsky. It was partly carried out, but one should not exaggerate its significance. 

The Soviet casualties were 168 thousand men (death toll - 38661). The Soviet War Memorial in Vienna, more formally known as the Heldendenkmal der Roten Armee (English: Heroes' Monument of the Red Army), is located at Schwarzenbergplatz. The semi-circular white marble colonnade partially enclosing a twelve-metre figure of a Red Army Soldier was unveiled in August 1945. The Heroes' Monument of the Red Army in Vienna was built to commemorate 17,000 Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle for Vienna. The memorial is still in place and kept in good condition. 

Austria is not in a hurry to revise the history. The memory erosion has hit the West like a contagious disease. It forgets about the great victory and the victors – the soldiers and commanders of Red Army. But this phenomenon exerts much less influence on Austria. For instance, Austria has a much more reasonable approach to the issue of anti-Russia sanctions. “I believe it is a false and even damaging point of view that the sanctions can be toughened to the extent, when Russia is weak,” said Austrian President Heinz Fischer. The Austrian President does not agree with those who put all the blame for Ukrainian crisis on Russia. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann struck a cautionary note on the issue. 

If the memory of liberation from Nazi Germany by Red Army influences the position of Vienna, this fact should be welcomed with great satisfaction. According to the Chancellor’s press-service, Werner Faymann sent a letter to President Putin expressing his respect for the memory of millions of Soviet people who lost lives in WWII and the contribution of the Soviet Union into liberation of Vienna and restoration of independent and democratic Austria. But at that the Chancellor declined an invitation to come to Moscow and take part in military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of Great Victory. 

Tags: Austria  Germany  Russia  USSR 

RELATED ARTICLES