During the Autumn of 1944 the Russian Red Army continued its advance towards Germany. Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, the Baltic states, Eastern Hungary and large parts of Poland were all taken from German hands.
After the great winter-summer Russian offensives the Germans were pushed out of Russian territory and into Eastern Europe. When the Soviets took Romania and Eastern Poland they had the opportunity to strike in the Balkans and Central Europe. In the North, after the successful Novgorod-Leningrad operation and the subsequent defeat of Finland the Soviets were in a position to take the Baltic states.
When the Warsaw insurgents surrendered, another uprising in Eastern Europe was also in the process of being brutally crushed by the Germans. Resistance elements in the puppet state of Slovakia had contacts and sympathizers in the Slovak armed forces. They were preparing a coup to shift Slovakia to the Allied side, open the door to the Red Army, and begin the return of Czechoslovakia to independent status. After an initial success, the German and Slovak collaborationists forces managed to crush the uprising.
Bulgaria had thought it wise to join Germany in the war, first against Greece and Yugoslavia, then against Britain and the United States. The Bulgarian government, which had carefully avoided joining the Axis war against the Soviet Union, had carried out some soundings with the Western Allies. But the Bulgarians had refused to surrender to the Allies when they still had the chance. Their effort to pull out of the war now was far too late. The Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria, and the Third Ukrainian Front crossed the border. On the same day Bulgaria declared war on Germany.
In Hungary, the approach of the Red Army to the Carpathians earlier in the year had stimulated both projects to leave the war, and reinforcement of the army. The events in Romania were of special importance in both directions. On the one hand, the Hungarian army now fought more vigorously and effectively than before. The Russian army was at the gates and the Romanian army was fighting alongside it. Especially in the new front being built up in Transylvania, the Hungarian army fought hard, and at first managed, to halt and even throw back the invaders.
Hitler was assembling panzer forces for a major counterattack to trap Soviet forces north of the Transylvanian Alps. But Marshal Malinovsky’s Second Ukrainian Front struck first. Initially, the Soviets made significant gains, but a German counterattack by two panzer divisions trapped three Soviet corps near Debrecen. However, most of the Soviets soon escaped by breaking out.
The Hungarian faction hoping for peace planned to pull out of the Axis, but botched the operation about as effectively as the Italians had in the preceding year. The Germans seized the leader, Admiral Horthy, and took over the capital. There they instituted a new regime under Ferenc Szâlasi, the leader of the Hungarian Arrow Cross movement. This was a lunatic fringe organization of the right whose chief was seriously thought to be a lunatic himself by many.
Russian forces pushed forward to the outskirts of Budapest, surrounding it. But the Germans had succeeded in their holding operation
in three important ways. They had built up a new front in the wake of their disaster in Romania and Bulgaria, they had kept Hungary from
changing sides, and they had contributed to the slowing down of the advancing Red Army. Hungarian formations contributed only a small part of this effort, as Szâlasi admitted when he saw Hitler. The siege of Budapest would last 50 days and result in heavy casualties for the German defenders. Budapest itself suffered extensive damage and many Hungarian civilians died during the siege.
The Red Army concentrated on building up its bridgeheads across the Vistula and Narew rivers in preparation for future offensives. The spearheads aimed toward Warsaw had been halted, and the Russians observed the agony of Warsaw from a safe distance. While at Hitler's orders the city was, in effect, razed to the ground, the Red Army in that sector remained quiet. The key concerns for it were the four bridgeheads across the Vistula, several of which were expanded slightly in heavy fighting after earlier German attempts to eliminate them had failed.
The surviving remnants of the AK, the Polish home Army, and the Underground Government clearly needed to redefine their plans. Both General Leopold Okulicki and the government delegate, Jankowski, knew that Operation Burza had failed. The Underground Government was now in Kraków. Reports reaching the AK command from all over Soviet-occupied Poland indicated that, the Soviets were making widespread arrests of all members of the Polish civilian and military underground. The days of the AK in its existing form appeared to be numbered. The Polish Government in London thought, however, that it was still possible for the AK to act as hosts for the Soviet armies.
In liberated ‘Poland proper’, the Lublin Committee began to recreate the organs of local government and administration and to put its own policies into effect. The new administration was dominated by the communists. The Lublin Committee worked quickly to restore some semblance of normal life after five years of occupation, the deaths of many pre-war administrators and the void left by the departure of the Germans. It also worked to advance its own agenda and to prepare Poland for the eventual Communist takeover. The Lublin Committee virtually ruled by terror.
The Lublin Committee was able to enforce terror because of the presence of the Red Army. There were nearly 2,000,000 Red Army soldiers on Polish territory. Working alongside them was the NKVD. An NKVD division was established in Poland of 11,000 well-equipped troops, under the command of General Ivan Serov. By the end of the year, this division alone had arrested nearly 17,000 people. The AK could not hope to battle such a large and well organised force.
The repercussions of the collapse of the German position in Romania on the situation in Greece and related parts of South and Southeast Europe were equally dramatic but less destructive. With Soviet troops in Romania and Bulgaria, Hitler made the decision to gradually withdraw his troops from Greece so that they would not be cut off there. Thus the 3 years occupation of Greece ended. The Germans removed a substantial portion of German forces, but only because the Soviets focused on reaching Budapest instead of cutting German escape routes through Macedonia.
After the success in Romania, the 3rd Ukrainian Front, despite having advanced 400 km in ten days, actually speeded up, crossing 320 km to the Yugoslav border in the next six days. Marshal Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front marched on Belgrade, aided by Marshal Tito’s Yugoslav partisans, taking it. Thus the German occupation of Yugoslavia ended.
Army Group North still held most of Estonia, much of Latvia, and the western quarter of Lithuania. Their situation on this portion of the front, like that at the southern end, had however been made extremely tenuous by the Soviet victory in the central sector. And where the Germans had reopened a corridor to their Army Group North just west of Riga, the troops of General Ivan Bagramian's First Baltic Front were less than 30 km from the Baltic Sea. The Red Army would launch a massive offensive that would enable them to take the Baltic states from the Germans. The remaining German units were cut off in the Courland area of Latvia.
The possibility of direct communication by sea across the Baltic made it easier to contact, resupply, or pull out troops from the Courland area than either of the other territories evacuated in the fall. This difference facilitated rather than caused the different decisions made about them. The Japanese urged Hitler to try and make peace with the Russians so that they could concentrate on the western front. But Hitler decide to launch a massive land offensive in the West in order to force a peace agreement with the Allies. This land offensive would be doubled by a U-Boat campaign. For the submarine campaign the ports to the Baltic were vital.
The German armies had suffered catastrophic defeats, and these defeats were accompanied by huge losses. It is not possible to give exact figures, but the killed, captured, and missing (most of whom were either dead or prisoners) were in excess of one million and are likely to
have been over one and a half million. Besides manpower the Germans also suffered disastrous losses in war material. If Germany's military situation in the broader sense looked hopeless, her diplomatic position appeared to be even worse. Her European allies had been knocked out of the war one by one. With it’s long supply lines, the USSR had simply run out of steam and had to regroup.