On Christmas Day 1944, the trams stopped running in Budapest. Cadet Ervin Galantay, a dispatch runner for the recently mustered Hungarian paramilitary Vannay Battalion, was headed for home to partake in holiday celebrations when he saw a throng of civilians surrounding a group of tram conductors in Buda’s central Szell Kalman Square.
He went over to ask what was going on. The conductors’ answer stunned everyone: ‘The Russians are at the Budagyongye Tram Depot.’ Galantay promptly rebuked the conductors for spreading false rumors but joined some gendarmes and soldiers hurrying to investigate. Approaching the grounds of the imposing Janos Hospital, they were surprised by a hail of small-arms fire. In the ensuing chaos a rapidly withdrawing German tank recovery vehicle almost ran Galantay down. It was true; the Soviets had somehow entered the back door into Budapest and were just two miles from the Royal Palace.
So began the Siege of Budapest and the destruction of Central Europe’s ‘Pearl of the Danube.’ Unimaginable to all who lived in Budapest during this unfolding drama was that this first skirmish near the hospital would soon turn into one of the most frightful urban battles of World War II.
Since June 1944, the Axis forces had been steadily pushed back from the southern Ukraine, through Romania, and into central Hungary. The fighting had been bitter and costly. In August, Germany and Hungary’s erstwhile ally, Romania, abruptly changed sides during the devastating Soviet Jassy-Kishenev offensive, which led to the collapse of Army Group South Ukraine in Bessarabia. By mid-September, after a fighting retreat through Transylvania, the Germans and Hungarians managed to cobble together a sufficient armored force to fight the Soviets to a standstill near Debrecen in eastern Hungary.
The rapid buildup of Soviet forces, combined with heavy losses and the chronic German shortage of infantry to hold recaptured ground, however, meant that any defense based in the broad plain east of the centrally located Tisza River was doomed to failure. Additionally, an entire Soviet front, the Third Ukrainian, commanded by Marshal Fedor Ivanovich Tolbukhin, the ‘Liberator of Belgrade,’ appeared from the south after a brilliant wheeling maneuver through the Balkans.By late October, the Soviet offensive slowed as it approached historic Budapest. Bisected by the broad Danube River, this strategically located city had always been an important outpost and trading town within the fertile Danubian basin.
Hilly Buda, on the Danube’s west bank, is key military terrain, especially for defending against forces attacking from the east. Dominated by Castle Hill, site of the imposing Hungarian Royal Palace, Buda is a natural bastion. In contrast, highly urbanized Pest, situated on the Danube’s flat east bank, was exposed through the centuries to a host of invaders from the east — most notably Mongols, Ottomans, Russians, and Romanians. Kati Marton vividly captured how Budapest was then in her book Wallenberg:
Budapest is a dramatic, theatrical kind of place. More than anything else it resembles a stage set. Buda perched on steep hills, her sprawling Royal Palace, and her Citadel carved into jagged cliffs which plunge into the river, craves the attention of the visitor arriving down the Danube from Vienna. Pest on the flat plain that is the continuation of the Puszta, is all business, commerce and intellect, all conversation and art. Fantastic amalgams of Romanesque, Gothic and Byzantine straining to find their Magyar soul face boulevards which are unabashed imitations of both Paris and Vienna. The Parliament, ostentatiously outdoing Westminster, spire for spire, Gothic arch for Gothic arch, faces the dirty gray Danube, the heart of the city.
For Adolf Hitler, Budapest was vital. It was the capital of Germany’s last remaining ally in Europe and the gateway to Vienna and southern Bavaria. In addition, the Axis’ only remaining crude oil plant was in southwest Hungary. Hitler believed that strong counteroffensives in Hungary coupled with a stout defense in Poland would keep the Soviets off-balance and prevent them from massing their forces against Berlin.
Josef Stalin also viewed Hungary’s capital city as a key political prize. The Allied summit at Yalta was just three months away, and the swift seizure of Budapest and Vienna would greatly increase his bargaining power. He ordered Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, a future Soviet minister of defense and commander of the Second Ukrainian Front, which was spread throughout southeast Slovakia and north-central Hungary, to seize Budapest ‘in the shortest possible time — in days even.’
Malinovsky requested a five-day respite to prepare his weary forces, which had since July pushed west through Romania, Transylvania, and eastern Hungary with barely a break. He was curtly rebuffed by Stalin, who told him, ‘I categorically order you to begin the offensive on Budapest tomorrow.’ Therefore, on November 1 Malinovsky attacked from near Kecskemét in central Hungary with several only partially resupplied armies. In one week his troops managed to punch about seventy miles, up to Budapest’s eastern suburbs. The swift and unexpected arrival of numerous dusky-brown Soviet T-34 tanks near the small towns of Vecsés and Soroksár, just fourteen miles from the Royal Palace, threw the city into a panic.
During those dangerous early days of the siege, German and Hungarian reinforcements rode the city trams to battle in Pest’s eastern suburbs. The weakening Soviet offensive, although having reached the Danube to the north and south of Budapest, broke against the hastily built-up Axis bridgehead. Here the Hungarian defense stabilized, heavily reinforced by German soldiers rushed to Budapest from throughout the Eastern theater.
The six weeks between the Soviets’ November arrival in Pest’s eastern suburbs and the Christmas night encirclement of the entire city proved surreal for the capital’s almost one million inhabitants. Although a number had fled into western Hungary, the overwhelming majority of residents remained, including many who gravitated to the capital from the countryside. Conventional wisdom was that the Soviets would rapidly take Budapest and Hungary, and therefore it would be safer and more orderly in the great city. It was generally accepted that in the city, ‘inhabitants will face field marshals while in the villages corporals will govern.’
After the initial panic a strange lull took place. Life returned to a forced normalcy. Shops reopened. Noted coffeehouses such as Gerbeaud and the New York Cafe did a brisk business as citizens prepared for subdued Christmas festivities. In packed cinemas many watched newsreels of the fighting just kilometers away. All this activity went on under the barrels of heavy Soviet artillery, which could already shell much of Budapest.
The German reporter Werner Hannemann exclaimed, ‘Budapest is unique among front-line cities!’ He expressed his astonishment and admiration of the residents when he described their life in Budapest:
On the Danube bridges connecting Buda and Pest you encounter a German guard every twenty meters. He bears his weapon ready at the hip, not over his shoulder. Along the Danube quay, where one strolled pleasantly under the lanterns in the pale summer nights in front of the row of world famous hotels — the Ritz, Bristol, Hungaria and Carlton — work detachments prepare for war. The coffee house habitus meet as usual at five p.m. in the Negresco and knot the tablecloth fringes together out of boredom, then move on to the Dubarry or Hungarica Bar around seven to have their customary ‘Flip’ or a good Tocay — while Soviet aircraft indiscriminately drop bombs followed by flares into the city. For dinner, the Soviet long-range artillery sends heavy shells into the city. The waiters serve on, nobody makes a fuss. Each day there are at least four or five air-raid alerts.
More sinister activity, however, was taking place throughout the city. In early December, about seventy thousand of Budapest’s approximately 140,000 Jews were rounded up by Hungarian gendarmes and Arrowcross fascists under Gestapo supervision and herded into a large ghetto in central Pest. Those left behind stayed in hiding or lived precariously in a smaller ‘international ghetto,’ which was in reality less protected than the enclosed central ghetto. It was during this time that the heroic Swedish emissary Raoul Wallenberg made his name by resorting to every means possible — Red Cross and Swedish government passes, real and forged, cajolery, bribery, and reckless courage — to save as many of Budapest’s Jews as possible. What made Budapest unusual was that due to relatively benign Hungarian policies against the Jews preceding the German occupation in March 1944, the city was the only remaining urban area anywhere within Nazi-occupied Europe that had a substantial surviving Jewish population by December 1944.
The Soviets on December 19, after a brief respite and aided by excellent deception — false radio signals and unit designations to conceal the intended breakthrough sector — launched a two-pronged attack against hastily built Axis Magarethe Line fortifications. This tenuous line ran along the enormous Lake Balaton up through the eastern Pest bridgehead and then north along the Danube into Slovakia. The Second Ukrainian Front, roughly the size of a U.S. army with four armies and 625,000 men — including a Romanian corps — first stormed westward just north of the Danube River bend. The Third Ukrainian Front, about 450,000 strong and spread from Yugoslavia to south of Budapest, then attacked from a Danube bridgehead near Lake Balaton with twice the forces the Germans had anticipated. Nine rifle divisions supported by two mobile corps quickly shattered the thin defensive line, and by December 21 they had penetrated deep into the Axis rear.
Just two days later, Soviet forces swept into the strategic city of Székesfehérvár near Lake Balaton. This secured Marshal Tolbukhin’s left flank as his armored spearheads turned north to envelop Budapest. They then severed the main Budapest-Vienna highway at Bicske, eighteen miles west of Budapest, and continued north with the bulk of their forces. By noon of the 26th, forward detachments of the Eighteenth Tank Corps, spearhead of the Soviet Forty-sixth Army, triumphantly capped this double envelopment by linking up with Malinovsky’s forces at the ancient cathedral city of Esztergom at the bend of the Danube River. Budapest now lay within the death grip of two Soviet fronts.
Despite the distant rumble of battle from the south, Budapest’s inhabitants carried on as if in denial of the fast-moving peril enveloping them. Soviet tank units roared in the evening gloom toward unsuspecting, undefended western Buda. Most thought the clatter represented reinforcing German units headed east. By mid-morning on Christmas Day, Soviet armored reconnaissance units were filtering through the Buda hills toward the quiet Castle District.
The Hungarian police were the first units to raise the alarm. Near the Janos Hospital a company of the untrained Hungarian University Storm Battalion scrambled to stop the early Russian probe. The veteran Eighth SS Florian Geyer Cavalry Division, in positions in Vecsés, twelve miles east of the Danube, received a hurried call to drop their Christmas celebrations and redeploy to the western suburbs. Within hours they were crossing the Danube bridges in trucks and taking up battle lines in Buda. The violence of this confused urban engagement heightened as both sides fed troops piecemeal into the fighting.
The earliest firefights swirled from house to house, hill to hill, and boulevard to boulevard, as both sides sought to obtain the most advantageous positions possible. Without enough forces to fully exploit their near coup de main of Budapest, the Soviets went to ground, but not before securing vital positions on Schwabian Hill and at the Janos Hospital, within one and a half miles of the Royal Palace. In turn, the German-Hungarian forces narrowly avoided the Soviets occupying all the tactically significant high ground of Buda behind the bulk of the Axis troops deployed east of the Danube in the Pest lowlands.
The German Ninth SS Mountain Corps, under the command of SS Obergruppenführer (Lt. Gen.) Karl von Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, a police general sent to Hungary in September 1944, was trapped in Budapest. The garrison consisted of roughly seventy thousand German and Hungarian soldiers. Troop quality ranged from excellent to substandard. Comprising the core of the garrison were several first-class German fighting units, including most of the Feldherrnhalle Panzergrenadier Division, the depleted Thirteenth Panzer Division, the Eighth SS Cavalry Division, and the recently formed Twenty-second SS Maria Theresa Cavalry Division.
The German defenders were supplemented by Hungarian army forces, including the Tenth Infantry Division, remnants of the First Tank Division, some armored hussars, and an elite assault gun battalion. Less reliable was the recently conscripted Twelfth Reserve Infantry Division. The Hungarians also fielded numerous ad hoc units, including several well-armed detachments of Arrowcross fascists, two battalions of anti-Bolshevik university students, the tough paramilitary Vannay Battalion, plus numerous police, service, and support elements.
Several dozen tanks, assault guns, and self-propelled howitzers provided credible armored support for the garrison until fuel stocks ran low. The corps’ chief of staff, the highly capable Oberst (Colonel) Uscha von Lindenau, later wrote:
The number and composition of the troops at our disposal proved unfit for the defense 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? The staff of the defense had no independent signals system of its own. We used the public telephone lines of Budapest instead. During the siege this resulted in the paradoxical situation that often the number called was answered not by our people but by the Russians who were already there.
The Soviets’ holiday attack split many families, catching numerous Budapest inhabitants outside the city on Christmas foraging trips. Citizens calling from suddenly occupied western Buda were dumbfounded when inner Budapest residents confirmed, via still intact phone lines, the unimaginable — the dreaded Russians had surrounded and were storming the city. German soldiers rushing to rejoin their units were amazed to see civilians desperately trying to hitch rides back into the dying city. A German military mail truck picked up one young woman who had been shopping near Bicske for food. As the truck rattled toward the capital at dusk, the veteran Germans looked on with foreboding, as did the young lady, at the artillery flashes that lit up the darkening sky, heralding the Russians’ approach.
On December 24, 1944, Hitler, over the heated objections of much of his staff, ordered SS Obergruppenführer (Lt. Gen.) Herbert Gille to immediately prepare his formidable Fourth SS Panzer Corps, then refitting in the Warsaw area, for deployment to Hungary to relieve the encircled German corps in Budapest. Thus began the disproportionate buildup of German panzer forces in Hungary during a period of extreme peril on both the Eastern and Western fronts. By March 1945 six elite Waffen SS panzer divisions and a quarter of all available Wehrmacht panzer divisions would be committed to Hungary, ostensibly to retain the Reich’s last remaining strategic oil reserves.
In January 1945, while German forces were gathering, Soviet armies were poised on the Vistula River, preparing to thrust into eastern Prussia and the heart of Germany, and Allied forces, having stopped the Ardennes offensive, were preparing to cross the Rhine into Germany’s vitals.
The first week of the siege was characterized by a series of uncoordinated, violent Soviet attacks from several directions while the defenders contracted their lines in eastern Pest and stabilized the precarious situation in Buda. The Eighth SS Cavalry Division deployed its three regiments in a rough semicircle from an elevated railway embankment south of Gellert Hill to opposite Margit Island, a thousand-yard-long park in the middle of the Danube. The key terrain features of Eagle Hill, Farkasreti Cemetery, Schwabian Hill, and Rose Hill down to the Danube were all turned into urban strongpoints. Interspersed between these strongpoints were a mix of Hungarian and German combat groups that would help shore up the inevitable gaps. In Pest, the extended defenses in the eastern suburbs were pulled back to free up more troops for Buda and to tighten the perimeter. The shortened German battle line still covered most of Pest, roughly following a heightened railway embankment that ringed the eastern half of the city and extended south through Csepel Island. Margit Island was defended by a mixed battle group.
On December 29, Marshal Malinovsky, impatient to complete the capture of Budapest and continue his drive on Vienna, sent two officers, Miklos Steinmetz and Ilya Ostapenko, to offer surrender terms. They were curtly dismissed by the Germans and were killed during an unfortunate accident on their return to Russian lines. Subsequent investigations revealed that one of the ill-fated emissaries drove over a land mine, and the other was hit by random mortar fire. The Soviets blamed the Germans for wantonly killing the officers and whipped up their propaganda machine, thereby inflaming emotions in the increasingly bloody battle.
In Pest, the Soviets pressed their attack through the eastern suburbs along several avenues of approach, mainly from the north- and southeast. Their assault groups, supported by armor, assault guns, and several Lend-Lease Sherman tanks, slowly swept past the forward Axis strongpoints. Reluctant to become decisively engaged so far from Budapest’s urban heart, the enemy gradually gave ground, inflicting enough casualties to slow the Soviet advance to a crawl.
By January 1, 1945, Pest’s defenders had fallen back to an inner perimeter about five miles from the Danube, while defensive lines in Buda had barely budged. On this day the stakes for Budapest dramatically heightened.
Since Budapest’s encirclement, intense German planning had concentrated on how to best punch through the hardening Soviet outer and inner lines into the beleaguered city. Options evolved into northern and southern solutions. The northern option focused on a quick but difficult attack over hilly, heavily wooded terrain directly toward Budapest. The southern option seemed more promising; German forces would drive east from between Lake Balaton and Lake Velence, seize Székesfehérvár, and wheel northeast toward Budapest over relatively flat terrain. A successful offensive along this axis would not only break into Budapest but also split Tolbukhin’s front in half. Pressed for time and plagued by serious misgivings, the German high command chose the more direct, but more difficult, northern option, calling it Operation Konrad.
On New Year’s Day the lead elements of the newly arrived Third SS Totenkopf (Death’s Head) and Fifth SS Wiking (Viking) Panzer Divisions, advancing in column and without initial artillery preparation, crashed into the overextended Soviet Fourth Guards Army near Táta. Although Soviet Intelligence was aware that Gille’s corps had recently redeployed into Hungary from Poland, it had lost track of the two elite SS divisions, mainly because they used different radio security procedures than the more numerous Wehrmacht units. The Soviet failure to track these dangerous units enabled the Germans to achieve full tactical surprise and a quick breakthrough.
This attack from the northwest heralded an extraordinary month of maneuver warfare, coupled with strikes and counterstrikes in western Hungary, with Székesfehérvár and Bicske as the hubs and Budapest always the prize. Although strategically the war was clearly lost, January 1945 would be the last month of the war during which the Germans fought the Soviets with some possibility of securing any sort of tactical victory.
By January 3, Marshal Tolbukhin, commanding the outer encirclement ring, was forced to acknowledge the severity of the threat bearing down from the west and northwest. In three days Gille’s panzer spearheads had driven twenty-five to thirty miles over rugged terrain, half the distance to Budapest. In response Tolbukhin rushed four additional corps — each one averaging fifteen thousand to twenty-five thousand men — north from the Székesfehérvár area to buttress his crumbling line. At the same time, Malinovsky, commanding the inner encirclement ring and responsible for reducing Budapest, pulled a rifle corps out of the developing siege battle and reoriented it to the west. This shift of Soviet forces barely managed to stop the German counteroffensive at Bicske, just eighteen miles from Budapest.
Simultaneously, on January 6 Malinovsky’s premier armor formation, the Sixth Guards Tank Army, with more than 250 tanks, smashed a ten-mile-wide hole through the German/Hungarian positions north of the Danube near Esztergom in a well-timed counterstroke. During the next three days it knifed fifty miles toward the rail junction at Komárom, which was the main Axis supply terminus for much of the Hungarian campaign. By January 8, the attack had stalled in Komárom’s outskirts, much as Gille’s panzer corps was blocked at the Bicske road junction. There was an extraordinary symmetry between these two offensives; the Germans advanced east along the southern bank of the Danube while an equally strong Soviet offensive advanced west along the northern bank.
Meanwhile, the tenacious General Gille would not give up. He pulled his Wiking Division out of the line and within three days it reappeared just south of Esztergom near the Danube bend. In miserable weather the battle-hardened Wiking Division advanced south toward Budapest along the narrow roads and tracks of the Ardennes-like Pilis Mountains. By January 12, the SS Westland Regiment, comprised mostly of Scandinavian volunteers, reached Pilisszentkereszt, just fourteen miles from northern Buda. That morning German soldiers spotted the church spires and turrets of the distinctive Budapest skyline poking through the morning fog from the highlands near Dobogoko. Despite its success, the German relief force, overextended and vulnerable, was unable to exploit this small breakthrough and was eventually ordered to pull back and regroup.
In Budapest, hopes of relief ran high. The garrison could both see and hear the approaching fighting, the sound of which was magnified by heavy cloud cover, while the relief troops heard the city’s haunting air-raid sirens. At night the relief force and the defenders communicated with each other using flares. Heeding Hitler’s directive that Budapest remain a fortress city, the garrison did not attempt to battle out of the pocket, a prospect that at this juncture had some prospect of success.
The situation in the beleaguered city became increasingly serious, however. While the Soviets chipped away at Buda, they also concentrated on reducing Pest. With three rifle corps on line, supported by heavy assault guns, armor, artillery, and combat engineers, the Soviet forces relentlessly ground down the outnumbered defenders. A German war correspondent dramatically reported:
The sky gleams in red and violet colors over the Hungarian capital. The thud of shots and the clatter of machine guns mingle with the muffled rumbling of the aircraft circling over Budapest. Cowering behind quickly erected barricades, moving with exemplary tenacity from cellar to cellar, SS-men, tank grenadiers of the army, Hungarian parachutists, supported by German tanks encounter the Soviet storm troops again and again. Every defender of Budapest knows the necessity of this battle. Therefore the defiant perseverance, the repeated thrusts into the masses of the enemy. In the heart of Budapest the German garrison defends itself with fanatical bravery. Daily it inflicts tremendous losses on the Soviets. Its obstinate perseverance is not in vain. It is giving the German command precious time to take extensive countermeasures in the Hungarian theater of war.
By this time the bulk of Budapest’s almost one million civilians huddled in cellars, ground-floor apartments, and tunnels throughout the city. On Castle Hill thousands were crammed into several miles of tunnels bored into the surrounding natural limestone formations. Several German and Hungarian field hospitals operated in this dank, fetid environment. The German weekly Die Zeit graphically described these conditions:
At first the girls, women and men of Budapest worked on. They wore fur coats and built barricades under the orders of the SS. In the beginning, they cowered together when a round exploded nearby. For a while they tried to carry on. But at last they disappeared in the cellars and sat or lay down with their hunger. Like the people of Budapest — this city that crumbles more on all sides with each passing day — like these people sitting down there in the cellars, the women in fur coats and silk stockings sheer as breath, the girls who mechanically reached for their lipstick and compact now and then, as if they had to pretty themselves up in the usual big city manner for Death the Cavalier, the confused peasant girls in colorful headscarves and, in between, the children with long, lowered eyelashes, none of them had anything left to eat, yet nobody felt the hunger anymore…. Yes, it was not easy to bear the sight of it. Civilian corpses already lay in the streets.
With the loss of Budapest’s main airport on December 27, the supply situation became critical. Eighty tons of provisions per day were needed to supply the garrison alone. The Germans threw everything they could into the support of Budapest. A racetrack in Pest was hurriedly converted into a makeshift airport where venerable Junkers Ju-52s flew in rations, ammunition, and gasoline and evacuated the seriously wounded, including the son of German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. When Soviet tanks overran the racetrack on January 9, the Germans converted the Vérmezö, an eight-hundred-yard-long park directly below Castle Hill, into a last-ditch landing zone. This narrow park, appropriately called the Blutwiese (bloody meadow), drew constant fire as light aircraft, frequently gliders piloted by daredevil teenage Hitler Youth members drawn from junior flying clubs across Germany, continued to recklessly land by night.
Resupply did not come only by air. As the Danube flows north to south, the Germans attempted early during the siege to float supplies by motor launch and barge from the recaptured Esztergom area into Budapest. On one occasion, a barge with four thousand tons of ammunition hit a sandbar about fifteen miles north of the city. Despite this setback, the Germans successfully brought its cargo down to Budapest under cover of fog and darkness. By mid-January the tightening Soviet noose had cut off this vital river artery, which shortly thereafter froze almost completely over.
Rations within the city were primarily horseflesh and thin soup. Though some of the cavalry horses were led out of Buda-pest before the encirclement, more than twenty thousand animals remained within the perimeter and provided a ready source of meat for the garrison. The miserable mounts could be seen everywhere in lower Buda standing inside shops, inner gardens, and narrow streets. Their stripped carcasses littered the streets.
Many of the more affluent Budapest citizens, particularly in the wealthy Buda villas, had large larders well provisioned with food and alcohol, making each a valued mini-objective. Fierce firefights broke out among these villas. A favored German tactic was to allow the Soviets to seize one stocked with wine and spirits, wait a few hours until early morning, and then counterattack the groggy and besotted enemy.
Hundreds of thousands of poorer or displaced civilians were not as fortunate, often prowling the streets after dark foraging for scraps of food. Thirst was also a major problem, and many inhabitants were killed as they crept to the Danube to fill containers of water. An eyewitness described the chaos:
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. Apart from the windows, it’s a miracle our flat remained intact. In our immediate neighborhood everything was completely destroyed by mines and bullets.
The Hungarian units generally fared better than the Germans, as the populace gave them what support they could. The Waffen SS cavalry units were also well treated due to their high percentage of conscripted ethnic Germans who were native-born Hungarians. As the siege lengthened and supplies diminished, hunger and sickness affected almost all the defenders.
Both sides recognized that the Battle of Budapest was developing into the bloodiest and most sustained siege since Stalingrad. Consequently, psychological warfare increased as the battle intensified. Through loudspeakers and airdropped leaflets, the Soviet chipped away at the morale of the garrison. While Gille told the beleaguered garrison, ‘Hang on, we’re coming!’ the Soviets broadcasted, ‘Gille kommt aber kille [sic] Gille‘ (Gille’s coming but we’re going to kill him). Another leaflet read, ‘Die Schwarzen Raben fliegen aus Stalingrad‘ (The black ravens are flying from Stalingrad). The Germans generally were unfazed by these psychological operations, whereas Hungarian units, especially those formed from recently mustered recruits, suffered heavily from desertion.
Adding to the combatants’ woes was the fact that the winter of 1944-1945 was unusually cold. Most troops lived in buildings and large apartment blocks. However, those who manned positions in parks and large open areas suffered badly from the cold, particularly in daylight, when the ubiquitous Soviet snipers pinned them down. In Buda, Soviet marksmen on the rooftop of the Janos Hospital, just eight hundred yards to their front, plagued defenders deployed across Városmajor Park. Some were deadly accurate Siberian riflemen.
Not only did snipers unnerve the garrison. The Soviets, masters at infiltration and small-unit patrolling, were sometimes able to penetrate behind the urban defense lines to acquire intelligence, snatch prisoners, and kill officers. For example, a six-man patrol of Soviet marines was able to penetrate deep behind German defenses near Buda’s Royal Palace by slithering through a narrow sewer main. They emerged and waited for hours in the shadows, letting several German soldiers pass by. Their patience was eventually rewarded when they were able to surprise two German officers, killing one and dragging the other back through the sewers to Soviet lines.
The subterranean war in Budapest worked both ways, however. Although the subway tunnels were blocked early in the siege, the city was laced with countless sewer mains, maintenance tunnels, and passages. The Hungarian paramilitary Vannay Battalion, which was made up of municipal workers who knew the city’s underground well, worked deep in the city’s bowels to counter the Soviets. They emerged phantom-like in captured buildings’ cellars to query cooperative Hungarian civilians as to the Soviets’ whereabouts.
When uncertain if the enemy were lurking at the other end of a dark tunnel, they would throw a urine-soaked tennis ball down the passageway and release dogs trained to fetch them. In theory the dogs would bark or draw enemy fire if they encountered any Soviets. On one occasion Vannay members infiltrated Soviet lines near Janos Hospital and carved up several Hungarian defectors, who were broadcasting propaganda over Soviet-provided loudspeakers.
On January 11, Malinovsky, pressed by Stalin, who was clearly irritated by the sluggish nature of the assault, ordered a reorganization of Soviet forces. A special combat group equipped with flamethrowers, heavy weapons, and sappers commanded by Maj. Gen. Ivan M. Afonyin was formed. Budapest would be reduced by brute force. Rifle divisions were assigned attack sectors between four hundred and eight hundred yards wide, with regiments pushing on 150- to 300-yard-wide fronts, several soldiers advancing per yard. Heavy artillery, including 122mm, 152mm, and 203mm guns, was brought up to support this steamroller with direct fire.
The German battle group defending Csepel Island, Budapest’s industrial heart, was forced out after a bloody fight through its many factories and machine shops. The munitions factories founded by the great Hungarian Jewish industrial magnate Manfred Weiss, the ‘Hungarian Krupp,’ continued to fabricate artillery rounds, small arms ammunition, and Panzerfausts for the defense of Budapest until literally the last moment.
The pressure on Pest intensified as the Soviets closed in on the contracting German and Hungarian positions. Varosliget Park and Millennium Square, the last wide-open area in northwest Pest, fell on January 12 after bitter fighting. From the park, the tempo of the Soviet advance quickened, passing the many embassies and ornate villas on the broad Andrassy Boulevard. By January 14, Hungarian infantry and assault guns were locked in mortal combat for the Eastern Railway Station with most of General Nicholae Sova’s Seventh Romanian Rifle Corps. Whereas in most instances Hungarian units had fought halfheartedly during the Battle of Budapest, here — faced with their Romanian arch-nemesis — they fought savagely.
The fighting traveled from track to track, through the rolling stock, and into the station. By January 16, the outnumbered defenders were bludgeoned in close-quarter fighting amid the rubble of the shattered station, and the exhausted attackers stood close to the Elizabeth Ring Road, a short distance from the Danube. Sova’s corps, already having suffered eleven thousand casualties out of its thirty-six-thousand-man force, was pulled out by Malinovsky, who was incensed by the Romanian tendency to whip up frenzied resistance among previously demoralized Hungarian troops.
A similar episode occurred at the Western Railway Station (in Pest), where another furious fight ensued. After the station was captured on January 16, the Soviets were just a thousand yards from the Danube bridges, threatening to split the hard-pressed Pest garrison in half. Faced with the annihilation of the entire Pest group, Hitler finally consented to giving up the eastern bridgehead and consolidating the garrison’s defense in Buda.
Consequently, on January 17 the Chain and Elizabeth bridges into Buda were jammed. One observer recounted the horrendous chaos:
The bridges stood constantly under the heaviest fire, and despite this 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.’
Flying low along the river, Soviet fighter-bombers raked the exposed columns. From Buda’s heights German anti-aircraft artillery attempted to shoot down the low-flying Shturmoviks, which resulted in extensive damage across the river to the row of buildings lining Pest’s waterfront. Despite the protestations of General Ivan Hindy, the senior Hungarian commander, German sappers blew up the magnificent Chain and Elizabeth bridges into the Danube in the early dawn hours of the 18th.
The Soviet capture of Pest was welcomed by at least one large element of its population: the tens of thousands of Jews caught up in the fury of Pest’s defense. When not enduring the constant shelling and bombing, they were ravaged daily by the depredations of Arrowcross thugs, who forced their way into the ghetto and committed unspeakable acts of brutality. George Lang, a young Hungarian Jew who survived Budapest’s dangerous streets by using guile and luck, later wrote:
It was a time when God was arranging our lives with his left hand. It was a time of deliberate cultivation of evil. The city was shivering and it was not only the exceptionally cold weather. Buildings, under the Russian artillery and machine-gun fire from low-flying planes fell like tree leaves while human shaped creatures terrorized the city. Most people just tried to survive with obscene indifference towards others while fourteen-year-old Hungarian fascists, probably neighbors I played soccer with — shot the helpless thousands of Jews, but first removing their gold teeth before pushing them into the indifferent Danube. For the rest of my life I will never understand why God did not repeat his Biblical flood trick to end all that horror.
While the defense of Pest collapsed, the Germans were surreptitiously disengaging Gille’s bloodied but still dangerous corps from the northern sector and stealthily redeploying it south by rail. Although weakened from the failure of their northern option they now planned a belated execution of the southern option.
Once again, Soviet signal intercepts failed to track the SS corps. Four panzer divisions, including those comprising the veteran Third Panzer Corps, flattened the unprepared Soviet 135th Rifle Corps, rending a fifteen mile hole in the Soviet line. German armor rampaged through the enemy positions, gaining a dozen miles the first day. By January 20, in the last great German panzer raid of the war, lead elements of the Third Panzer Division pushed almost seventy miles into the Soviet rear, reaching the Danube near Dunapentele, where they shot up enemy river traffic. The storied First Panzer Division, with its infantry augmented by the Hungarian SS Regiment Ney, retook the key city of Székesfehérvár on the 23rd, unhinging the entire Soviet sector.
This was the last serious Soviet military crisis of the war. Within five days the German attack had split Tolbukhin’s front, pinning it against the Danube. Advancing German spearheads were just miles from the Soviets’ main supply routes crossing the river and were just one bound from Budapest. Marshal Tolbukhin perceived the threat to be grave enough that he requested to withdraw his forces back across the Danube, which would have meant success for the German southern option and temporary relief of the garrison. For a moment Stalin almost relented, but then ordered the Soviet marshal to hold his ground.
Soviet countermeasures were swift once the magnitude of the crisis revealed itself. Two rifle corps slated for the final reduction of Buda were hurriedly redirected south. The Fifth Guard Cavalry Corps rode sixty-five miles in twenty-four hours, arriving with the other redeployed corps in the nick of time to blunt the increasingly attenuated German advance. On the 24th, the Germans conducted a last-gasp attack that approached to within thirteen or fourteen miles of Buda’s southern suburbs. The garrison managed to make radio contact with the fading German spearhead, greeting it with the words, ‘Warm wishes towards your success and our liberation, ten thousand of our wounded await you.’
Once again Pfeffer-Wildenbruch requested to break out, and once again Hitler ordered the wavering garrison to remain in place. Faced with fresh Soviet forces to their front and the erosion of their dangerously extended southern flank, the German relief force was forced to postpone the offensive on January 28, thereby sealing Budapest’s fate.
In the capital, the progress of the offensive was closely monitored. Once again the starving garrison could hear the sounds of approaching battle, this time from the southwest. Once again their hopes for relief were dashed, this time permanently, when word spread that the relief operation had been repulsed. Morale sank among the defenders though not their capacity to fight.
The garrison was now engaged in a battle of attrition that it could not hope to survive. Two full rifle corps exerted relentless pressure against the defenders in the Kelenfold district in southern Buda and the bleeding German line defending the valleys, saddles, and hilltops facing west. Assault after assault was beaten back by Kampfgruppe Portugall, which defended Eagle Hill overlooking the entire German defense of Buda. Below, in Farkasreti Cemetery, Soviet and German soldiers fought a macabre battle among its gravestones and crypts.
In this grim environment, the sight of an elegant Hungarian woman in her mink coat, calmly walking her dog in the midst of the carnage, bemused both sides. During a seesaw struggle for the adjoining Little Schwabian Hill, Hungarian Zrinyi assault guns, in tandem with troopers from the Eighth SS, retook the height and held it until February 6. Nearby, a group of university students fought viciously for the heights of Rose Hill. In one counterattack, several German Hummel 150mm self-propelled artillery pieces led the young students’ charge. During this intense bombardment, General Afonyin, the Soviet group commander, was severely wounded.
An unusual battle for Margit Island, once Budapest’s playground and site of several well-known cafes and baths, continued throughout January. Defended by a mixed Hungarian and German garrison, this narrow, 250-yard-wide strip of earth, linked to Buda by the intact half of the Margit Bridge, was the site of a pure infantry battle, complete with extensive trench lines and river landing attempts on the defenders’ flanks. The Germans defended Margit Island because of its importance as an excellent site to airdrop supplies and as a final approach for any aircraft trying to land on the Vérmezö.
By now daily rations were down to melted snow, horsemeat, and 150 grams of bread. Most of the garrison suffered from diarrhea and were infested with lice. There was a real fear of typhus breaking out in the crowded, makeshift hospital in the tunnels and catacombs of Castle Hill where thousands of Buda civilians were sheltered from the fighting. Archbishop Gennaro Verolino, then a young assistant to the Papal Nuncio in Budapest, Father Angelo Rotta, vividly described the nightmare scene:
We had only to cross Disz Square, which already separated the non-existent building of the Nunciature from the Royal Palace. A short walk but what a walk! The building next to the Nunciature, that of the Foreign Ministry, was in flames. The Ministry of Defense, on the opposite side of the square, was aflame, too. Flames rose towards the sky from several places in the Palace itself. And in the square there were bomb craters, trenches, wreckage…there were only the flames to light our way. Then inside the palace we had to descend lower and lower. Wherever we passed, in every hall, corridor, there were wounded, operations were in progress on ordinary tables, we heard cries and wailing everywhere…. Hell itself.
Sensing the kill, the Soviets intensified their attacks through Farkasreti Cemetery and Schwabian Hill. The stout defense of the cemetery was finally overcome and the defenders, lacking the strength to counterattack, grudgingly fell back in an attempt to hold the old Taban quarter between Gellert Hill and Castle Hill.
On February 6, the Soviets, attacking from three sides, finally took Eagle Hill after six weeks of continuous fighting. The defense of Budapest was fatally compromised with the Soviet seizure of this key tactical height. From Eagle Hill’s summit, Soviet artillery spotters were able to call in accurate fire on the garrison’s positions below them on Castle and Gellert Hills. The improvised landing strip on the Vérmezö became untenable. German counterbattery fire was negligible and was unable to answer the torrent of Soviet shellfire. The doomed garrison was relentlessly pressed against the Danube into an area of approximately one and a half miles by seven hundred yards. Critical shortages in artillery, ammunition, and gasoline limited the garrison’s ability to respond to any crisis.
Despite the realization that further defense of Buda was pointless and that there would be no relief, the Germans and Hungarians hung grimly on for another six days. The Vannay Battalion, a bare memory of its former self, and an Arrowcross detachment counterattacked and drove a Soviet combat group back to the upper floors of the huge castlelike Buda Postal ‘Palace’ on the northwest corner of Szell Kalman Square. They then made a determined stand on the lower floors of the recaptured building, thereby keeping open a key potential breakout route to the northwest.
South of the Gellert Hotel, the exhausted defenders fought determinedly against Soviet infantry and tank forces released to the besieging forces after the relief threat from Gille had subsided. For two days, heavy fighting raged around the Southern Railway Station, the last major structure in front of Castle Hill itself. When it finally fell, the Soviets pressed on and up the southern and western sides of Gellert Hill. On February 10, the Soviets’ Eighty-third Marine Brigade stormed the heights, managing to carve out a foothold near the summit in the area of the Japanese and Swiss residences. At the same time, fighting raged from villa to villa below and other detachments infiltrated the Orthodox Church in the Taban district, almost splitting the defense. Peter Zwack, Sr., recalled:
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. At night a young German soldier named Gunther — he was just a few years older than I — would come and stay with us. My mother and aunt tried to console him as he wept about missing his family and that he didn’t want to die alone in Budapest. One day he didn’t come back.
We lost track of time. Early on my father would go over sometimes to play cards at the Swedish legation directly across the street — Wallenberg would occasionally join in when not in Pest confronting the Arrowcross. My mother, high strung at the best of times, suffered near nervous breakdowns when the heavy ‘ack-ack’ just above us in the Citadel opened up on the Soviet bombers, which hit us several times daily. In retrospect I guess we were rather lucky as we lived with two unexploded bombs in the house, which my aunt nicknamed Rosza and Zizi.
One day the sound of fighting grew closer and German soldiers, I remember they were very young, took up positions in our house and told us to stay in the cellar. Shortly afterwards there was a terrible noise upstairs, the sounds of yelling and gunfire, heavy boots clomping back and forth. Finally the cellar door crashed open and Mongol-looking Soviets, Siberians probably, padded down our stairs into the cellar with tommy guns raised. We really thought it was the end. My father, uncle, and I sat on a big feather mattress with my mother and aunt’s daughter Zsuszi stuffed inside, as we feared they would be raped. Aunt Mitzi’s son was being led away when she threw herself at the senior Soviet in charge, wrapped her arms around his knees and begged for his life. They let him go but then proceeded to ransack the house while we sat still. They drank our cologne and bayoneted our books and dictionaries. Out the window we could see a dead German in our garden. Later I was rounded up by a Soviet work crew and rolled barrels to the Danube to build pontoons in place of the wrecked bridges.
With all hope of relief gone, ammunition depleted, and the Soviets only a ten-minute climb from his headquarters under the Royal Palace, Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, against Hitler’s orders, directed a breakout to commence at dark on February 11. At eight o’clock that night, while President Franklin D. Roosevelt was dining with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Stalin at Yalta, the garrison began its breakout attempt.
The defenders, broken down into three assault waves, managed to use heavy fog to momentarily surprise the Soviets by infiltrating their forward positions opposite Széna square and the Vérmezö with Russian-speaking soldiers. They then poured out of the constricted streets and alleys traversing the broad Attila Street, Vérmezö, Szell Kalman, and Széna squares and pushed through to the streets beyond. Many were shot down here as they were silhouetted by flares and fires in the open parks and boulevards while the few accompanying armored vehicles were knocked out. Other soldiers, stricken by terror, remained prone, too frightened to move. Small groups advanced using coordinated assault techniques, others just ran pell-mell toward the Soviet positions. Herd psychology overtook most, and the sheer forward momentum of the thousands of desperate soldiers overwhelmed the lead Soviet positions in savage, close-quarter fighting.
The Soviets initially responded sluggishly, but within an hour they were bombarding the second and third waves, many of whom were still pinned down in firefights or lying in terror or exhaustion on the exposed Budapest streets. Despite horrific losses, the surviving defenders, with almost all their small-arms ammunition expended, made a desperate rush for the concealment of the hilly, wooded terrain in Buda’s northwestern suburbs. More than ten thousand of them somehow found their way out of Buda’s charnel house. The fleeing soldiers left thousands of dead strewn in heaps in their wake, while most of the others — those wounded, exhausted, frozen, or in shock — meandered aimlessly around until rounded up by the victors.
Three German division commanders lay among the fallen. Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Joachim Boosfeld was in the initial Eighth SS attack. Hit in the leg by mortar shrapnel in mid-January, he credited his survival to his servant, Ricard, who had never left his side and had found him a special pair of Hungarian boots for his damaged leg. Boosfeld related: ‘All around us people were falling — bodies lay everywhere. Ricard was hit in the head. I pulled him in and treated his face as best I could, my hands shook so much I had difficulty binding the wound.’ They then joined the attack that overran the Soviet positions opposite Szell Kalman Square, rushed through a factory, and hobbled their way into the Buda hills. Boosfeld evaded the subsequent Soviet manhunt, reaching German lines on February 14; Ricard was captured.
By dawn on the twelfth, thousands of Germans and Hungarians were swarming through the wooded hills north and northwest of Budapest, even outnumbering the Soviets in some areas. In a desperate race against time, the exhausted survivors slogged through the snow, forest, hills, and finally into the exposed plains toward German lines, receiving occasional Luftwaffe support as the Soviets intensified their efforts to round them up. Within a day the Soviets managed to seal off most escape routes and set up an extensive manhunt. Trucks patrolled the edge of the Buda hills, offering safe conduct to those who surrendered.
Many did, and hundreds of them, mostly Germans, were summarily executed and dumped later into mass graves. Arpad Goncz, the current president of Hungary and a Cold War-era dissident and poet, composed ‘The Mass Grave,’ capturing his memories of this frightful slaughter’s aftermath: ‘They dug two graves: In one they threw the Hungarians, in the other the Germans and the dead horses. The Germans and Hungarians were usually barefooted: in those days they paid due reverence to soled footwear.’
One Hungarian lieutenant led a group of eleven Hungarian and four Waffen SS soldiers out of the cauldron along a railway up and over Schwabian Hill. This was the same general route used by the largest group of German survivors, several hundred Feldherrnhalle troopers led by Oberstleutnant (Lt. Col.) Helmut Wolff, who managed to reach German lines on the 14th. The lieutenant’s group, however, was not as lucky. Concealed Soviet infantry ambushed and captured the small group. The four SS soldiers were immediately stripped naked and shot, while the Hungarians barely escaped with their lives by promising to help the Soviets with the roundup.
By February 14, the siege and breakout was over. Of the approximately thirty thousand souls participating in the breakout only 785 German and Hungarian soldiers managed to evade the relentless Soviet pursuit and reach German lines. Pfeffer-Wildenbruch and his command group never made it; they were surrounded and captured in a Buda villa after emerging from a sewer main a kilometer behind Soviet lines. Malinovsky reportedly told the German commander, ‘If I didn’t have a direct order from Stalin himself, I’d hang you in the main square of Buda castle for all the trouble you caused us.’
Haupsturmführer Kurt Portugall, commander of the German battle group that defended Eagle Hill, also failed to escape the cauldron. Captured on Rose Hill, he expected immediate execution when his winter smock was torn open, revealing his SS runes and combat decorations. As he could speak some Russian he was taken to a tall, distinguished major who told him:
I have a lot of respect for the combat soldiers of the Waffen SS. You will shortly be transported behind our lines. In our rear area there are as many swine as in your rear area. I’m telling you, leave your SS runes and your decorations here; it will be better for your future health. I will not keep your decorations nor will any of my soldiers because we are Guards soldiers, the Russian Waffen SS!
A brief orgy of horror and violence ensued in Buda after its capture. An estimated two thousand wounded were burned or suffocated to death in fires that broke out in the catacombs under the Royal Palace. Soviet soldiers plundered, looted, and raped the populace. Occupation troops rounded up all able-bodied Hungarian men and youth and sent them down to the Danube to build pontoon bridges across the river. For weeks afterward, especially after the spring thaw, bloated bodies piled up against these same pontoons and bridge pylons.
The fate of Raoul Wallenberg remains unknown. Picked up by the Soviets after Pest’s capture, ostensibly to meet Marshal Malinovsky in Debrecen, he forever disappeared. His fate remains one of the great mysteries of World War II.
Budapest lay in ruins. Thousands of structures were destroyed or damaged. The distinctive Parliament building and Royal Palace were gutted, and all five of the city’s unique and graceful bridges lay broken in the Danube. Almost forty thousand Hungarian civilians, about half of whom were Jewish, died in the carnage. Sandor Marai, noted Hungarian novelist and poet, later wrote:
Beware, now your feet will sink in blood, here at the mud dazed Bulwark, the scattered dead yet gaze at the Heavens. Smoke signals swirl up from the depths to the firmament. For somewhere below Krisztina town blazes. All traces of zither and Gypsy have been blown from the ‘Broadaxe,’ filled now by shadows and stench alone. And side by side in the castle church lie corpses of dead princes and slaughtered horses…. This used to be the bridge. You rode out here in full moon. Halfway across the hansom cab put on the brakes. It was built by Adam Clark in the Age of Reform. Above the arches seagulls used to oscillate. Then so many suicidal leant against the railings. Now the suicidal lie below water with the balustrade. A cold wind cuts through the Tunnel and its fingers stroke the hair of the dead.
The cost of the campaign to the Soviets has never been confirmed, although estimates range from one hundred thousand to as high as 160,000 casualties. Postwar Soviet statistics claim that more than 180,000 German and Hungarian ‘fighters’ were trapped in the pocket, of which 110,000 were captured. Immediately after the siege, thousands of Hungarian civilians were rounded up and added to the prisoner of war count, allowing the Soviets to validate their previously inflated figures.
There is an epilogue to Budapest’s fall. Hitler committed significant reserves to Hungary, including the battered Sixth SS Panzer Army fresh from the Ardennes counteroffensive. Consisting of four of the most battle-hardened Waffen SS Panzer units, including the dreaded Leibstandarte and Das Reich divisions, this formidable force was squandered in early March during an ill-conceived panzer ‘death ride’ into waiting and well-prepared Soviet anti-tank defenses near Lake Balaton.
Handily defeated by the now highly proficient Soviets, this reverse of Hitler’s best divisions finally broke German resistance in Hungary. Within a month Vienna had fallen. The war in Europe ended three weeks later.
This article was written by Peter B. Zwack and originally published in the Winter 1999 edition of MHQ.
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