The First Royal Hungarian University Assault Battalion in the siege of Budapest.
High-ranking Arrow Cross Party members with Nazi officers. Budapest, Hungary, fall 1944. — Magyar Nemzeti Muzeum Torteneti Fenykeptar
Army Group South. 29 October-30 December 1944
On 29 October 1944, the Red Army started its offensive against the city. More than 1,000,000 men, split into two operating maneuver groups, advanced. The plan was to cut Budapest off from the rest of the German and Hungarian forces. On 7 November 1944, Soviet and Romanian troops entered the eastern suburbs, 20 kilometers from the old town. The Red Army, after a much-needed pause in hostilities, resumed its offensive on 19 December. On 26 December, a road linking Budapest to Vienna was seized by Soviet troops, thereby completing the encirclement. The “Leader of the Nation” (Nemzetvezető), Ferenc Szálasi, had already fled on 9 December.
As a result of the Soviet link-up, nearly 33,000 German and 37,000 Hungarian soldiers, as well as over 800,000 civilians, became trapped within the city. Refusing to authorize a withdrawal, German dictator Adolf Hitler had declared Budapest a fortress city (Festung Budapest), which had to be defended to the last man. Waffen SS General Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, the commander of the IX Waffen SS Alpine Corps, was put in charge of the city’s defences.
Budapest was a major target for Joseph Stalin. The Yalta Conference was approaching and Stalin wanted to display his full strength to Churchill and Roosevelt. He therefore ordered General Rodion Malinovsky to seize the city without delay.
On 29 December 1944, Malinovsky sent two emissaries to negotiate the city’s capitulation. They never returned. This particular point is widely disputed by the Soviet Union, with some German and Hungarian historians arguing that the emissaries were deliberately shot by the Soviets. Others believe that they were in fact shot by mistake on their way back to the Soviet lines. In any case, Soviet commanders considered this act a refusal and ordered the attack.
Hitler and the OKH were determined to hold Hungary within the Axis. Hitler was personally fixated on the oil fields at Nagykanizsa, and he was in any case committed to a Haltebefehl strategy in the east in 1944. Operation MARGARETHE thus brought German forces into Hungary on March 19, while the Red Army was still advancing through Ukraine. The main results of this operation were to bring Hungary’s 400,000 Jews within reach of the Schutzstaffel (SS) and to ensure that Hungary would become a battleground that fall and over the next winter. Adolf Eichmann personally led a new Einsatzgruppen that entered the country and began deporting Jews to Auschwitz . As the Red Army approached Budapest, Eichmann hoarded transport and men to ship Hungarian Jews to the great death camp in Poland. When that ceased to be possible, he took tens of thousands on death marches into western Hungary.
Meanwhile, another Hungarian Army was destroyed during Operation BAGRATION in June–August, 1944. As the center of the Eastern Front collapsed and the Red Army moved into Rumania and Bulgaria that summer and fall, Hungary sought unsuccessfully to negotiate a separate peace with Moscow. In the “Debrecen offensive operation,” Soviet forces penetrated to the Pustyna plain starting on October 6, 1944. The Red Army penetrated nearly 80 miles in two weeks, against strong opposition. On the 11th a secret ceasefire was agreed. Horthy announced publicly on the 15th that he was seeking a permanent armistice with Moscow. That provoked a coup by the domestic fascist organization Arrow Cross, which was supported by German special forces. The internal conflict briefly threatened to split apart the 25-division strong Hungarian Army. One commander went over to the Soviet side, but his officers did not follow. Most Hungarian troops continued to fight alongside the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS against the Red Army. In part, loyalty to the Axis was sustained by the fact that an ancient enemy, the Rumanian Army, had already switched sides and sent troops into Hungary in the company of the Soviets.
A hard and bitter winter of fighting resulted, lasting into late March 1945. The Soviets struck out for Budapest on October 28, 1944, but were blocked. Two more tries in December were also stymied, for Hitler unaccountably strongly reinforced the Hungarian Army and Army Group South with 2nd Panzer Army, and with the third (and weakest) incarnation of German 6th Army. He even ordered a counterattack in force in January 1945, reinforced with more Panzer divisions moved in from Belgium after his Ardennes offensive failed. Joseph Stalin and the Stavka more sensibly regarded Hungary as a theater useful to draw German reserves away from their main line of advance to Berlin. Budapest was encircled by Christmas, but Hitler issued a Haltebefehl order that the city must be held. Because the Hungarian capital bestrode the main avenues of advance into Austria and Bohemia, the Red Army could not circumvent it as it had done in other deep battle operations around Smolensk, Minsk, Warsaw, and other major cities. An advance bombardment by massed artillery and bombers announced the start of a siege.
HALTEBEFEHL ORDERS “stand fast.” A series of infamous “no retreat” orders issued to the Wehrmacht at various times by Adolf Hitler, with the first and most important issued to stop panic spreading through the Wehrmacht during the Moscow offensive operation (1941–1942). Hitler was not always inflexible. In the immediate aftermath of the loss of 6th Army at Stalingrad, he permitted German armies to pull back from the Crimea and from Rostov in Operation DON in the south, and from Demiansk in the north during Operation POLAR STAR (February 1943). But late in the war Haltebefehl orders became more and more his preferred tactic.
Waffen-SS panzer divisions started concentrating in Hungary in December 1944, after a Soviet offensive had pushed deep into the country and surrounded its capital, Budapest. SS- Obergruppenfūhrer Karl von Pfeffer-Wildrenbruch and a combined force of 70,000 German and Hungarian troops were trapped in the city. What followed was depressingly predictable: a rescue force was organized; after it fought its way to within a few kilometres of the trapped garrison, Hitler refused to allow it to break out. In the end only a few hundred men were able to escape from the city.
By Christmas Day 1944, the city was surrounded. In response, Hitler ordered IV SS Panzer Corps to be moved from Poland to spearhead the rescue mission with the Totenkopf and Wiking Divisions. SS-Obergruppenfūhrer Herbert Gille’s men spent four days on freezing trains moving down to Komorno on the River Danube. They unloaded their 100 tanks and headed east to intercept Russian spearheads advancing westwards along the south bank of the Danube. Operation Konrad got under way with a night attack on New Year’s Day, which initially caught the Soviet XXXI Rifle Corps by surprise. The Waffen-SS Panthers and Panzer IVs crashed through the unprepared Russians and drove eastwards for almost 48km (30 miles), knocking out 200 enemy tanks as they did so.
KONRAD (JANUARY 1945) “Conrad.” Code name for the German counteroffensive in Hungary mounted on January 1, 1945, by 4th Panzer Corps. It goal was to relieve a siege of four German and two Hungarian divisions fighting desperately in surrounded Budapest. The transfer of an entire Panzer corps to Hungary from Army Group Center seriously weakened Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS forces defending against the Soviet Vistula-Oder operation launched 11 days later. KONRAD failed, as did a belated breakout attempt by the garrison. The last resistance in Buda ended on February 13.