25 July 2022
Geoff Puddefoot describes Hitler’s desperate attempt to hold onto his last asset in the east.
In common with the rest of the world, Hungary during the 1930s had suffered a major financial depression. Its government's response to this crisis was to increase trade with Italy and Germany and these trade deals were followed by political settlements, orchestrated by Germany, which resolved a number of territorial disputes Hungary had with its neighbours, Czechoslovakia and Romania. Almost inevitably, Hungary paid for these successful interventions by an unwilling alliance with the Axis powers and in 1941 her troops participated in the invasions of Yugoslavia (Operation 25) and Russia (Operation Barbarossa).
However, by the beginning of 1944, having sustained nearly 200,000 casualties as a result of Barbarossa and with the Red Army almost on their borders, Hungarians were markedly less enthusiastic about the war. Well aware of this widespread reluctance, Miklós Horthy, the Regent of Hungary and the Prime Minister, Miklós Kállay, began to make tentative advances to the British and Americans about an armistice, even offering to surrender unconditionally when Allied forces reached Hungarian territory.
Left: Skyline of Budapest from Gellért Hill, showing the Chain Bridge and the castle in the background (Jason Halsall/CC-ASA 4.0)
Unfortunately, Hitler somehow became aware of these talks and desperate to retain his sole remaining ally in Europe, he invited Horthy to Salzburg on 12th March 1944, ostensibly for a discussion about their future relations, while on the same day, his troops invaded (Operation Margarethe). As a result of this occupation, Horthy was forced to remove Kállay as Prime Minister and instead appoint a Fascist sympathiser, Döme Sztójay, in his place, who immediately sent large numbers of the remaining Hungarian troops to assist the Wehrmacht against the Red army. He also abandoned armistice negotiations with the Allies and, encouraged by the Nazis, Sztójay and his assistants were responsible for arranging the movement of over 300,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, in a deportation they conducted so enthusiastically that it took barely eight weeks.
Left: A Russian T-34-85, the Red Army’s main battle tank during Barbarossa and the fighting outside Budapest
Hitler had only managed to delay the inevitable, however. By the summer of 1944 it was becoming clear that the destruction of the Third Reich was simply a matter of time, with British and American forces advancing from the west and the rampantly successful Red Army threatening Germany both in the north and from the Romano-Hungarian border in the south. Seeing what the future must inevitably hold, Horthy once again opened secret peace negotiations with the Allies, the terms of which were agreed on 11 October, and in response Hitler, with Austria and Bavaria under threat from the Soviets and a million German troops cut off in the Balkans, invaded Hungary again (Operation Panzerfaust). This time, however, he made no pretence about retaining an unwilling puppet government in power. Horthy was arrested barely minutes after a radio broadcast in which he had declared an armistice with the Soviets, his government replaced by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party and Horthy himself forced to sign a document, renouncing the Soviet agreement and abdicating in favour of the Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szálasi.
Left: Hungarian pro-Nazi Arrow Cross militia and a German Tiger II tank in Budapest during October 1944
With Horthy held prisoner in Bavaria, significant elements of the Red Army, led by Colonel-General Rodion Malinovsky, crossed the border and began to move towards Budapest, with the intention of isolating the Hungarian capital from the remaining Axis forces in the country and gaining control of the main road into Austria, which ran from Budapest to Vienna. Soviet and Romanian troops and tanks entered the eastern suburbs of the capital on 7 November but despite vicious fighting it was not until Fyodor Tolbukhin's men reached the Danube, after liberating Belgrade, that Malinovsky had sufficient troops to launch a two-pronged attack on Budapest from the north and south. This operation began on 19 December and seven days later, on 26 December, the city was completely encircled, trapping about 70,000 German and Hungarian troops inside the pocket the Soviets had formed. The Red Army's culminating operation being to cut that vital road link between Budapest and the Austrian capital. As a result of this encirclement, over 800,000 civilians were also trapped in the city along with the troops.
Right: A counter-attack by Soviet infantry and MT-34 tanks of the 18th tank corps in the early days of the siege
One eye witness recalled the horrific conditions: ‘The bombing was constant. It was very dangerous to go outside. Many people died while running for water, or just going to the courtyard for a cigarette. We went down into the cellar on December 29 and until the fall of Buda on February 12, we lived a rat’s life... everything was completely destroyed by mines and bullets.’
Hitler refused to authorise a withdrawal, insisting that the city be held to the last man, and he made Waffen SS General Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, the senior German officer in Budapest, responsible for this almost hopeless situation. Stalin was impatient for an ending, too. With the Yalta Conference imminent and needing to show his determination to the Allied leaders, he had ordered Malinovsky to reduce the city without delay and, gambling that the defenders could see how hopeless their position was, the Colonel-General sent two groups of peace emissaries into the city to offer generous terms for a surrender. Wildenbruch met the first group, only to refuse their terms, but on their way back to Soviet lines a landmine and mis-directed mortar fire resulted in the accidental deaths of six of the seven men sent by Malinovsky, although the Soviets have always claimed their killing was deliberate.
Right: Men of the Luftwaffe loading a DFS 230 glider before a supply trip. Many of the pilots who flew this type of glider into Budapest were from the Hitler Youth
Fighting continued in the streets of eastern Pest, the flat, urban complex west of the Danube which, together with Buda, the elevated area on the opposite bank of the river and Óbuda or Old Buda, make up Hungary's capital city. Pest’s wide avenues aided the Soviet advance significantly and the day after the final encirclement, the besiegers captured Ferihegy airport, Budapest's main air terminal. Located 10 miles from the centre of the city it was connected to the capital by a high speed road which had greatly facilitated the movement of supplies into the city. During the same operation, Soviet troops and artillery also occupied some of the high ground on the west bank of the Danube and began shelling Buda from entrenched positions on the hills. The siege seemed destined to become another Stalingrad, fighting going on below ground as well as in the streets of the city, with Soviet and German troops frequently meeting in the sewers, while snipers decimated besiegers and defenders alike. By 1 January Pest’s defenders had been pushed back, street by street to an inner perimeter about five miles from the Danube, although in Buda the defensive lines were still firm, having suffered little from the Soviet shelling.
Left: Destroyed German armour was unsuitable for street fighting
Oberst Uscha von Lindenau, Wildenbruch's chief of staff, wrote of the defence: ‘The number and composition of the troops at our disposal proved unfit for the defence of a large city like Budapest from the very start. After all what could Panzers, anti-tank and cavalry units do in a labyrinth of houses?’
Added to the burden of overwhelming Soviet numbers facing his exhausted men and the unusually cold weather, loss of the airport at Ferihy greatly complicated Wildenbruch’s already difficult supply problem. His garrison alone required 80 tons of provisions every day, without regard to the needs of the civilian population and although some supplies had reached the city before the river froze and the garrison also resorted to landing aircraft, mostly elderly Ju-52s, at a disused racetrack in Pest, food quickly ran short. When the Soviets overran the racetrack airfield on 9 January, the Germans converted the Vérmezö, an eight-hundred-yard-long park directly below Buda’s Castle Hill, into a landing zone and used it to land planes and gliders, despite being under almost constant Soviet artillery fire. By the end of the siege, daily rations were reduced to melted snow, horse meat, and 150 grams of bread. One young man remembered: ‘It was a God-awful time. I was a young teenager at the time and remember spending most of the siege deep in our cellar lit by candles amid food stocks and coal while the city shook itself apart.’
Left: DFS 230 transport glider wrecks on the Vérmező (west from the Castle hill)
Wildenbruch's supply problems seem to have forced Hitler’s hand however, and on 1 January the IV SS Panzer Corps, commanded by the formidable Herbert Otto Gille, attacked from the north-west, breaking through the lines of the Fourth Guards at Tata, 70 miles from Budapest, and driving on towards the city. Four Soviet divisions were deployed to meet the threat and the tanks were stopped on 3 January at Bickse, less then 30km west of the capital, only to be forced to withdraw nine days later (Operation Konrad I). Meanwhile, on 6 January, the Russians launched their own offensive in response to Konrad I, smashing through the Axis lines near Esztergom, north of the Danube, in an attempt to distract the Germans by threatening the main Axis supply terminus at the railway junction of Komárom, although they also failed to reach their objective, becoming stalled in the outskirts of the town on 8 January. While Konrad I was still in progress the Wehrmacht launched a second offensive on 7 January, sending part of the same IV SS Panzer corps, the Wiking division, from the north against the airport at Ferihegy, in a thrust that again ground to an exhausted halt, just 14 miles short of its objective on 12 January, at Pilisszentkereszt.
Right: Halászbástya (Castle hill, at the Matthias church) with German troops
With the failure of these relief efforts, the city was condemned to a long, destructive siege. Desultory fighting had been continuing in Pest during the armoured counter-moves in the north, but on 11 January Malinovsky, goaded by Stalin, reorganised his forces and launched an unstoppable forward push, steamrollering the defensive lines in Pest. Most significantly, the advance saw the capture of Csepel Island, which housed almost all of the German arms factories and, after this success, the Soviets were able to press the garrison of Pest so severely that on 17 January Hitler ordered the remaining troops west of the Danube to withdraw into Buda, destroying all the capital's bridges as they went.
Right: Russian artillery bombarding Germans
One observer described the chaos during that evacuation: ‘The bridges stood constantly under the heaviest fire and, despite this, people flowed confused and unthinkingly over the Danube from Pest to Buda. All who could run, roll or hobble, vehicles of all kinds and civilian wagons covered in canvas with shying horses, wretched mothers, crying wives and children, and many, many wounded soldiers. When the mortar rounds fell in the moving mass of humanity, men and material were thrown from both sides of the bridge into the Danube. ”
Hitler had not given up hope of relieving his forces in Budapest, however. On 18 January, the IV SS Panzer corps was again launched towards Budapest from a region north-west of Lake Balaton. Two days later, German tanks reached the Danube at Dunapentele, tearing the Soviet front apart in the process and, by 26 January, the offensive had reached a point roughly 25km from the capital. Another advance began, but fatigue, supply problems and the weight of Soviet troops opposing them again halted the panzers less than 20km from the city and with the failure of this final relief attempt, Wildenbruch asked permission to attempt to break out of the city. Hitler refused, sealing the fate of Budapest and most of its defenders.
Left: King Tiger from the s.Pz.Abt.503 in the courtyard of Royal Castle
Despite a gallant defence and effective artillery bombardments from guns mounted on the hills overlooking the Red army's positions in Buda, the end was now inevitable. Soviet fighter-bombers continued to strafe and bomb the all-but-helpless defenders, while the Red Army pushed on towards the Buda hill tops. Another significant gain was made in late January when the Soviets captured Margaret Island, which Budapest's defenders had been using for air-drop supplies and as the final approach for aircraft landing at Vérmezö. Capture of the island made further resupply almost impossible and, after the occupation of Eagle Hill on 6 February, the Soviets were able to call down accurate artillery fire on the only remaining defensive positions on Castle and Gellert Hills. Shelled and bombed from all sides, the depleted garrison, doomed by Hitler's intransigence, was finally pushed into an area of less than a square mile, with its back to the Danube.
Left: Russian troops in Budapest
Castle Hill was overrun on 8 February and two days later the final defences on Gellert hill were under siege. With his ammunition gone and Soviet troops only 10 minutes easy walk away from his command post, Wildenbruch directed his men to attempt a breakout at dusk on 11 February.
The escaping defenders left in three waves, a heavy fog allowing most of the first group to pass through the Soviet forward positions and into Buda’s maze of streets and alleys. Unfortunately, here their luck ran out. Thousands were shot by the light of flares sent up by the Soviets, although many did break through the besieger’s lines and escape. Warned by the actions of this group, the Soviets responded by ruthlessly shelling the second and third waves, who desperately tried to leave the city via Buda’s extensively wooded northern suburbs. Over 10,000 got away by this route, although many thousands more were left dead or wounded, huge numbers of these survivors being rounded up subsequently by the jubilant victors.
Right: Russians attacking as the final resistance crumbled
Dawn on 12 February saw thousands of escaping German and Hungarian troops desperately slogging over the hills north of Budapest towards their own lines. Unfortunately, the Soviets were able to quickly seal most of these escape routes, while sending trucks to patrol the Buda hills offering good treatment by loudspeaker to anyone who surrendered. Many accepted the Soviet offer and hundreds of them, mostly Germans, were summarily executed and dumped into mass graves. A Hungarian poet described the slaughter: ‘They dug two graves: In one they threw the Hungarians, in the other the Germans and the dead horses.’
The siege was over by 14 February and of the 30,000 involved in the attempted breakout, only 785 German and Hungarian troops finally reached German lines and safety while, in the city, Soviet soldiers settled down to an extended occupation. Final estimates suggest that the various Soviet armies sustained between 100,000 and 160,000 casualties, with German and Hungarian losses estimated at almost all of the 70,000 troops trapped in the pocket as well as over 35,000 men killed or wounded as part of the three relief attempts. Civilian deaths are thought to have been around 40,000 during the siege, with a similar number dead from ill treatment in POW or labour camps.
Left: Tabán - view from east with the Serbian church and left the Gellért hill
For the Fuhrer, the defence of Budapest was vital. It was the capital of Germany’s last remaining ally in Europe, gateway to Vienna and southern Bavaria and, more importantly, Hungary contained his only remaining crude oil plant. Hitler believed that strong counter-offensives in Hungary coupled with a rigorous defence in Poland would deflect the Soviets and prevent them from massing their forces against Berlin, although none of his generals agreed with him and the resulting débâcle only proves how poor a strategist the Fuhrer really was. The Budapest relief operations also had a significance which was not confined to the siege, since the forces deployed there represented over a quarter of all the Wehrmacht's Panzer reserves, tanks which might actually have been effective in stemming the Red Army’s drive on Berlin from Poland and Prussia and which Hitler insisted should be used, and ultimately wasted, in the unsuitable conditions around the Hungarian capital. He really had no chance of defending or subsequently relieving Budapaest in view of the massive Soviet forces arrayed against his troops and his insistence upon the defenders dying to the last man deprived him of over 70,000 troops whose presence in and around Berlin might have delayed the inevitable, although it is doubtful if any force left in Germany during those last days could have prevented the final outcome.
Can't get to the newsagents for your copy of The Armourer? Order it online (now with free postage!) or take out a subscription and avoid the general public for the next 12 months entirely. And if you're confined to quarters, stock up on some bookazines to keep you entertained.
Buy the latest copy or any back issues, either in print or digital editions by clicking on The Armourer.
It's our latest bookazine, Tanks of WWII, a 164-page guide to the tanks, commanders and battles of WWII. With over 170 tank prototypes, variants, models from the Axis and Allied nations, plus blueprints, rare photos and 3D illustrations. This collector's bookazine can be yours for just £9.99. Click here for your copy.
Discover the story of The Blitz in WWII with this 132-page guide that covers all the military and human aspects of the Blitz. It doesn’t just look at London, it looks at all the UK cities attacked. It looks at the aircraft used, the losses and the heroic stories. It uses hundreds of original images which have been colourised to bring them to life. It costs £9.99, click here to buy your copy.
Celebrate the heroes of the Battle of Britain with a commemorative bookazine, with colour images throughout, for £8.99. Get your 164 page copy here.
Buy a copy of Aircraft of the RAF, featuring 595 flying machines, for £7.99 by clicking here.
Or how about a copy of the Collecting German Militaria bookazine for £7.99? Click here to buy this.