Otto Skorzeny (left) and Adrian von Fölkersam (middle) SS-Obersturmführer Walter Girg (right) in Budapest, 16 October 1944.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-680-8283A-30A / Faupel / CC-BY-SA 3.0
The Castle district of Buda, on St. George Square, near the Royal Castle. The photo shows the façade of the Palace of Archduke Joseph August of Austria (earlier Palace of the Counts Teleki). The Palace does not exist any more, as it was severely damaged during the siege of 1944, and completely demolished in the 1960s. Date and time: On 15 or 16 October 1944, when the Arrow Cross Party seized power. Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503. Only Tiger II unit to go to Budapest.
SS soldiers from 22 SS-Freiwilligen-Kavallerie-Division Maria Theresa review captured weapons found in courtyard of Buda Castle, including a Hungarian anti-aircraft tank 40M Nimród (back) and a 40mm 40M anti-tank gun.
In September 1944, SS Jager Bataillon 502 was dissolved and its personnel absorbed into a new battalion, Jagdverband Mitte. While the title of this unit is open to different interpretations, Skorzeny himself preferred ‘Commando Group Centre’. Earlier that summer it was recognised that the expansion of the Brandenburg Regiment into a conventional unit, and the use of its irreplaceable elite troops as line infantry, was a mistake. Therefore the special elements (‘zbv’) were withdrawn and formed into ‘Streif Korps’ which were attached to army corps for use in special operations. It was proposed by Skorzeny and von Foelkersam (a former Brandenburger) that these units be used as the nucleus for four territorial ‘Jagdverband’ and in September 1944 permission was granted to them to recruit Brandenburg volunteers. ‘1,200 were in fact recruited, but only 900 remained after the unfit had been eliminated.’ It is noteworthy that, despite the fact that they were now nominally in Waffen-SS units, several of the former Brandenburgers chose to retain their Wehrmacht ranks:
The Territorial Jagd Verband were separate bns drawn from political and nationalist groups in the countries where they were to operate. Plans for their formation were made by Skorzeny and von Foelkersam in May or June 1944, and the bns were activated in September by order of O/Gruf Juttner, head of the SS Fuehrungs Haupt Amt. A Jagd Verband was to be available to the Armed Forces in each theatre to carry out special tasks in the tradition of the defunct Div Brandenburg. The final aim was to have all units engaged in sabotage behind the enemy lines under a unified command in theatre territory, i.e. the Fuehrungs Stab [Headquarters Staff] of the Territorialen Jagd Verband.
In September 1944, the activation of the SS Jagdverband organisation was confirmed. This consisted of four units in the process of formation, namely Jagdverband Ost, Jagdverband Sued Ost, Jagdverband Sued West and Jagdverband Nord West. Based in Friedenthal was Jagdverband Mitte and the new Jagdverband Fuehrungs Stab. Haupsturmführer Fucker was named commanding officer of Jagdverband Mitte in October 1944.
Also placed under Skorzeny’s command in the new organisation was the reconstituted SS Parachute battalion:
SS Fallshirmjager Btl 500 was commanded by Hauptsturmführer Milius. It had just returned from operations in Yugoslavia, including an unsuccessful parachute attack on Tito’s HQ, where it had been attached to XIII (?) [actually XV] Alpen Korps. It had also been committed for a short time on the Russian front. On Himmler’s orders Skorzeny was put in charge in August or September 1944 and the bn became part of the Jagd Verbande organisation. The Bn was reorganised in Neustrelitz. Its criminal elements were removed, and it was renamed SS Fallschirmjager Bn 600. After unfit personnel were eliminated it had appr. 250 men. New recruits came from the GAF.
Jagdverband Mitte did not have long to wait for its first mission.
By October 1944 Germany’s eastern front was not so much crumbling as collapsing. Like Romania, Germany’s European allies began deserting her to avoid destruction. On 3 September, a new government of Bulgaria was appointed and declared neutrality. On 8 September, the Russians moved in and the new government declared war on Germany. A pro-Soviet government took power, although the Bulgarian Army took some time before it could commence operations against the Germans. On 4 September the Finnish government signed an armistice with Russia, and a Finnish delegation in Moscow soon accepted peace terms which included loss of territory, huge reparations and the internment of all German personnel in Finland. In fact, the Finns allowed the eight divisions of the German Twentieth Army to withdraw to Norway, but the withdrawing Germans adopted a stringent ‘scorched earth’ policy which caused serious damage to Finnish infrastructure and industry. Clashes between German and Finnish forces escalated into full-scale confrontation, and when three Soviet armies drove into Finland in October, they were supported by several Finnish divisions. The Russians took the opportunity to continue into Norway and seize the main German base at Kirkenes. Further south, a Russian offensive through the Baltic states trapped the thirty divisions of the German Army Group North in Latvia.
Germany’s concerns as to the loyalty of Hungary were amply demonstrated in March 1944 when eleven Wehrmacht divisions were sent across the border to begin an effective German occupation of the country. In their wake followed over 500 SS and SD personnel under the overall command of SS-Obergruppenführer Otto Winkelmann; these included a ‘Sonder Einsatzkommando’ led by the infamous SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann. The strongly pro-German Dome Sztojay was appointed prime minister, and SS-Brigadeführer Dr Edmund Veesenmayer as Hitler’s ambassador, playing a pivotal role in the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’ in Hungary. Eichmann quickly set about organising the eviction of the Hungarian Jews from their homes and their concentration into ghettoes, and in May began sending thousands of Jews on trains to the death camp at Auschwitz. By early July, Veesenmayer announced that 437,403 Jews had been sent to Auschwitz. By August, however, it was obvious that German victory was doubtful; Admiral Horthy, the Hungarian regent, replaced Sztojay and called a halt to the deportation of Jews. Since early that summer, Niklas Horthy (Admiral Horthy’s son) was secretly negotiating with the Soviets via two of Marshal Tito’s agents, negotiations which came to the notice of SS-Obergruppenführer Winkelmann. The stakes for Germany were high; Hungary’s defection to Russia would cut off seventy German divisions fighting in the Carpathian mountains and would bring the Red Army to the borders of Austria. At 10 a.m. on the sunny Sunday morning of 15 October, Horthy’s son, accompanied by a friend, parked his car outside an office building in Budapest. A canvas-covered truck parked behind him, carrying three armed Hungarian Army officers acting as a bodyguard, while two more officers began strolling nearby. Just in case, there was a Hungarian Army battalion based nearby, with soldiers stationed in buildings around the square, including a unit in the house next door. Niklas Horthy and his friend proceeded into the office building and upstairs where Tito’s agents were awaiting them on the second floor. Shortly afterwards, another civilian car pulled up in front of Horthy’s, parking almost bumper to bumper. One of the Hungarian officers in the truck jerked back the canvas cover and watched as the car’s owner, a particularly big man, opened the bonnet and began to fiddle with the engine. He was not challenged; had he been, he could have produced documentation identifying himself as ‘Dr Wolff’ from Cologne. The big man was in fact a heavily disguised Otto Skorzeny. Sitting on a park bench nearby, unobtrusively reading newspapers, were an officer and two NCOs of Jagdverband Mitte, and hiding in a nearby street were thirty more men of the unit, led by von Foelkersam. Winkelmann had taken the precaution of placing agents on the third floor of the office building above where the meeting was taking place.
The catalyst for an explosion was provided by two of Winkelmann’s SS men who strolled by Skorzeny and dashed for the entrance of the office building. Niklas’ bodyguard reacted like lightning; the Hungarian officers opened fire with submachine guns, killing one ‘policeman’ and wounding the other. Skorzeny’s men on the park bench rushed to his assistance, one of them receiving a leg wound, and the little group fought their corner until von Foelkersam’s unit came running to their aid. The Jagdverband Mitte assault group swept through the square, firing at doors and windows where Hungarian troops were appearing. An explosive charge was set off in the doorway of the building containing the nearest Hungarian unit, trapping them inside.
Winkelmann’s agents inside the building arrested the four conspirators, rolling a carpet around Niklas Horthy in the process. The prisoners were taken from the building and placed aboard an SS truck that drew up outside, and within seconds were being driven to Budapest airport. Von Foelkersam and his men began discreetly withdrawing, leaving Skorzeny to negotiate with the commander of the Hungarian battalion which had just arrived at the scene. Having delayed the Hungarians long enough to allow von Foelkersam’s men to escape, Skorzeny drove at speed to the airport and arrived in time to witness the aircraft carrying the younger Horthy and his companion taking off.
Admiral Horthy’s reaction was not long in coming. The seat of his administration rested in the Bergburg (Castle Hill), a fortification three kilometres long by 600 metres wide, towering above the Danube. The garrison was reinforced to over 2,000 troops, and with the news of his son’s kidnapping, Horthy ordered all the Bergburg’s gates to be closed and barricaded. Since the German embassy was situated in the Bergburg, this trapped several German diplomats and officials, including SS-Brigadeführer Dr Edmund Veesenmayer and SS-Gruppenführer Karl von Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, the senior Waffen-SS officer in Hungary.
At 2 p.m. Admiral Horthy made a radio broadcast in which he declared that Germany had lost the war and called for a separate peace between Hungary and Russia. It was a critical situation for the Germans, made worse by the news that Horthy’s commander-in-chief had already defected to the Russians. Failure to take decisive action could result in Horthy surrendering Hungary to the Russians with disastrous consequences for Germany. Excessive force, however, could anger the Hungarians enough to take the Russian side anyway. In fact, present in Budapest at this time was a keen advocate of brute force in the form of SS-Obergruppenführer von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had brought with him the 60 cm Karl-Gerät “Ziu”mortar with which he had devastated Warsaw and was now willing to use to level the Bergburg. Skorzeny, however, had prepared his own plan (Operation Panzerfaust) as an alternative to a suicidal airborne assault that the German high command had proposed, but which he had ruled out having covertly reconnoitred the Bergburg in the guise of ‘Dr Wolff’. For this operation, Skorzeny was provided with a small but high quality force, organised in Vienna and now ready for action in Budapest. This force consisted of four companies of officer cadets from the prestigious Theresian military academy in Wiener-Neustadt, 700 men in all.
Also available was a composite battalion-sized force of Fallschirmjager, originally intended for the proposed airborne assault. This comprised a reinforced company of 250 men of the SS-Fallshirmjager Battalion 600, under the temporary command of SS-Obersturmführer Marcus. The Luftwaffe’s own special operations unit (KG 200) had its own battalion of Fallschirmjager, and two companies of this were placed at Skorzeny’s disposal.
No. 1 Company of Jagdverband Mitte was reinforced from its normal strength of 175 to 250 men and was placed under the temporary command of Obersturmführer Manns. Hauptsturmführer ‘Chinese’ Hunke was also present and taking part in the operation.
At 3 a.m. on 16 October 1944, Skorzeny assembled his officers and gave his orders. The battalion of officer cadets were to attack the Bergburg from the south, blowing up an iron fence there and pinning down the Hungarian troops within. The paratroops would attack from the east through an underground tunnel that led from a quay on the Danube to the war ministry building within the fortress, breaching several armoured doors in the process. The most important part of the assault would be carried out by Jagdverband Mitte. A detachment under the command of Hunke would enter over the western wall and attack the front of Horthy’s palace before the arrival of the main force. Skorzeny would lead No. 1 Company himself through the Vienna Gate, accompanied by four panzers (Tiger IIs of Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503) that had been ‘borrowed’ on the way to the front, and a platoon of Goliaths. The latter were tiny tank-like vehicles filled with explosives and directed to their targets by remote control.
Skorzeny’s column was drawn up in convoy below the Bergburg in the pre-dawn twilight at 5.30 a.m., thirty minutes before the expiration of an ultimatum in which the Germans demanded that Horthy open the Bergburg and retract his peace offer to the Russians. Waiting in the trucks, some of the Jagdverband Mitte commandos took the opportunity to catch a few minutes’ sleep while others kept watch. These troops (which included James Brady) were liberally equipped with Panzerfaust rocket launchers and at least some were carrying the Sturmgewehr 44, the revolutionary new German assault rifle. Skorzeny took his place in the command vehicle at the head of the convoy, along with von Foelkersam and five NCOs who had accompanied him on the raid on the Gran Sasso. When 6 a.m. arrived with no visible compliance with the ultimatum, Skorzeny stood up in his vehicle and gave a signal. The engines of the trucks and tanks roared to life and the sleeping commandos jerked awake. As dawn broke, the convoy rumbled up the hill to the Vienna Gate; to Skorzeny’s relief, the road was not mined and the barricade at the gate had been opened in an apparent show of good faith. The Hungarian sentries stared in surprise as the convoy passed, Skorzeny and the tank commanders saluting smartly as they passed. The convoy still had to cover a kilometre to Horthy’s palace, during which the non-armoured vehicles were dangerously exposed to the machine guns of the garrison. Had the Hungarians received definite orders to fight the Germans, a bloodbath would have ensued. In the event, as at Gran Sasso, fortune was to favour the bold. Minutes before the expiration of the ultimatum, Admiral Horthy had travelled to the house of Gruppenführer von Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, one of the more aristocratic types of Waffen-SS officer, having sought his protection. He had not given his garrison commander any orders for the defence of the Bergburg. The convoy divided into two, Skorzeny’s own group driving by the German embassy, then the war ministry, where two loud explosions announced that the Fallschirmjager were forcing their way through the tunnel.
Having reached the front of the palace, where one of his tanks smashed through a barricade, Skorzeny encountered three Hungarian tanks and six anti-tank guns which fortunately held their fire. While a small group of his NCOs took position at the front of the building with Panzerfausts pointing at the entrances, Skorzeny dashed into the palace, grabbed a Hungarian officer and demanded to see the garrison commander. As small arms fire broke out in the palace gardens and ‘Chinese’ Hunke reported the capture of the war ministry, radio station and the Bergburg’s entrances, Skorzeny demanded and received the garrison’s surrender. Liaison groups were dispatched to spread word of the ceasefire and a few Panzerfausts were fired to dissuade the last Hungarians still fighting in the palace gardens.
Peace was restored by 6.30 a.m. Operation Panzerfaust had prevented the defection of Hungary to the Russians at the cost of four German dead and twelve wounded, mostly sustained by the officer cadets. Hungarian casualties were three dead and fourteen wounded. Admiral Horthy was transported out of Hungary aboard his own special train, escorted by Jagdverband Mitte. James Brady recalled: ‘We took Horthy to Munich where he was met by the Deputy of the German Foreign Minister.’ Horthy was subsequently brought to the secure Hirschberg Castle in Upper Bavaria.
Alone among her allies, Hungary would remain shackled to Nazi Germany and would share its death agonies. Although Skorzeny’s action was a surgical operation which cost a minimum of lives, he was ultimately the servitor of an evil regime. This was amply demonstrated shortly afterwards when one of Budapest’s remaining Jews encountered SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann who cheerfully informed him: ‘I’m back again.’ The following month, Eichmann sent thousands of Jews from Budapest on a death march to Germany, hundreds dying on the roadside from cold and exhaustion. After a protest by a group of senior SS officers (chiefly SS-Ober-stgruppenführer Hans Juttner) who witnessed the barbaric treatment meted out to the Jews involved, the marches were suspended. Much to the discomfort of some senior SS officers who were chiefly concerned as to their culpability in the event of Germany’s defeat, Eichmann ordered the death marches to continue. Budapest’s stay of execution was a short one. That December, the city was devastated by the artillery of the advancing Red Army.