A Honvéd column retreats through eastern Transylvania (the so-called Szeklerland), in the vicinity of Sepsiszentgyörgy (in Rumanian Sfântu-Gheorghe) – as indicated by the road sign – in the autumn of 1944. Note the Steyr RSO (Raupenschlepper Ost) towing a 40 mm Bofors flak cannon, at left, and the opportunist bicyclist who grabbed the opportunity for a free ride.
Following the disaster of the Wehrmacht’s Heeresgruppe Mitte in late June 1944, the Hungarian First Army found itself stripped of all German reserve units from its rear areas, units that were hastily thrown into battle further to the north, against the advancing Red Army. On 23 July, the weakened Hungarian First Army was targeted by a local offensive carried out by Soviet units on the left flank of the First Ukrainian Front. The Hungarian lines at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains were overrun on the first day. Within less than a week, the Honvédség units’ resistance collapsed. Soon, the fortified Hunyadi Line was also penetrated at several points. Surviving units withdrew randomly, soldiers occasionally dropping their weapons as they tried to escape the onslaught. Most tanks of the Second Armoured Division had to be abandoned due to lack of fuel. Some semblance of order was to be restored only by public hangings and sporadic summary executions of deserters and panic-mongers.
Because of the defeat of his army, Colonel General Beregfy was removed from command by Chief of the General Staff, Colonel General Vörös, replacing him temporarily with Lieutenant General Ferenc Farkas. Thanks to the commanding presence of Lieutenant General Farkas and his firm stance the situation was soon restored in the last days of July and the retreat of the Honvéds stopped. The troops of the First Army were directed towards Hungary’s so-called ‘millenary border’ spanning the wooded Carpathian Mountains’ peaks and passes in the Kárpátalja Region, at the edge of south-western Ukraine. Once regrouped there, the Hungarians mounted a spirited defence, which surprised Army General Ivan Y. Petrov, the new commanding officer of the Fourth Ukrainian Front, and his staff. Further Soviet attacks carried out in the first days of August were repulsed by the Honvéds, entrenched in the Carpathians, with their back to the Hungarian border. Thanks to their last stand, the Red Army could not cross into Hungary proper – at least not yet.
Having realized his country’s desperate situation, the elderly Horthy started to seriously contemplate exiting the war and asking for an armistice in order to save Hungary from being overrun by the Red Army. Therefore, he decided to remove the pro-German Sztójay and offer the prime minister’s portfolio to Colonel General Géza Lakatos, Horthy’s trusted soldier. Parallel to this move, he intended to assemble a new ‘technocrat’ government. However, the reluctant and politically inexperienced veteran general did not aspire to any political limelight and looked for any excuse to avoid Horthy’s offer. The delicate situation was cleared by Dr Veesenmayer, Hitler’s confidante in Budapest. Because the old-fashioned Horthy wanted to perform the cabinet change openly and gentlemanly, he forwarded the list of his appointees to Berlin. Hitler responded immediately through Veesenmayer, refusing the government’s new restructuring and threatening a new military intervention in the case that the change went through. Hitler’s blunt message and its harsh tone as it was conveyed by Veesenmayer deeply offended the proud Horthy, who contemplated immediate resignation and retirement. However, his advisors eventually convinced him not to resign and to stay in power for the sake of Hungary. Due to Hitler’s blackmail, Sztójay stayed in power and the Hungarian government remained un-restructured. Horthy’s opposition to the Germans materialized in the refusal to name a Wehrmacht officer as Chief of Staff of the Hungarian First Army, a position assigned instead to the trusted young Staff Colonel Kálmán Kéri in July; the assignment of the First Army’s command to one of his trusted older generals, Colonel General Béla Miklós on 1 August, in lieu of the right-wing General Beregfy; and the firm order to stop the deportation of Budapest’s Jews to the Third Reich. The far-right Nyilaskeresztes (Arrow Cross) Movement was banned as well, despite Berlin’s obvious displeasure. These top personnel moves in the First Army, along with changes in the leaderships of the Second Army, were done in line with Horthy’s secret plan of leaving the Axis camp at a proper moment, in order to save his country from the imminent disaster.
Parallel to securing his grip on the army, Horthy begun to initiate secret talks with the Allies, even with the mistrusted and feared Russians, in order to obtain acceptable terms for an armistice. His plans were strongly affected by the young Rumanian king’s coup and the unexpected unilateral ceasefire declared by the Rumanian Army against the Allies (including the Soviets) on the night of 23 August 1944. This unforeseen move shifted Hitler’s attention from mistrusted Hungary to his most important East European ally, Rumania, which he thought was a strong supporter in the common fight against Communism.
Horthy immediately realized that the situation had changed dramatically. Following the Rumanians’ ‘betrayal’, the Soviet Army could easily cross the southern Carpathian Mountains – a natural fortress the Hungarian defence strategy was counting on – and invade Hungary from the south-east, through southern Transylvania. He took advantage of the Germans’ weakened position and shift in attention, and forced Veesenmayer to accept the change of government. Accordingly, Colonel General Géza Lakatos, the new prime minister, took office on 29 August. Most of the new ministers were loyal to the Regent, but two were actually German informers, so Veesenmayer was aware of the new cabinet’s every move. Lakatos was an excellent soldier, an honest and straightforward man, but a political novice not suitable for the new high-stakes position during those turbulent times. Initially refusing Horthy’s request, he reluctantly accepted the new position and only to obey his superior’s direct order. In contrast, the new Foreign Minister, retired Colonel General Gusztáv Hennyey, was well suited for the key position and greatly assisted Horthy in planning the armistice. The Hungarians’ plans were accelerated by the successful Rumanian coup d’état and the following dramatic change in the military situation at Hungary’s borders.
From 25 August, Rumanian troops started local attacks against the Hungarian border posts on the Transylvanian border between the two antagonistic countries, although there was no formal declaration of war issued by Bucharest (this happened only on 7 September). This was the date when the ground war actually reached Hungarian territory. Five days later, Rumanian forces firmly occupied the first piece of land in the ceded northern Transylvania, near Barót (Baraolt). The danger of combined Soviet–Rumanian troops advancing from southern Transylvania prompted the Wehrmacht to declare eastern Hungary, including northern Transylvania, a battle zone. The Germans decided to counter-attack and planned to push the new frontline to the Transylvanian Alps (southern Carpathian Mountains) by overrunning the Rumanian-administered southern Transylvania, hoping to build up a strong defence line in the high mountain peaks.
The joint Honvédség–Wehrmacht offensive started from the area of Kolozsvár (Cluj, Klausenburg) on 5 September and initially progressed well against the ineffective Rumanian resistance. However, soon, strong Soviet reinforcements arrived in southern Transylvania, which stopped the Axis advance. A ferocious battle raged in the area of the city of Turda (Torda, Thorenburg), which changed hands several times. Ultimately, the numerically superior Soviet–Rumanian units prevailed and the Hungarian–German troops were pushed back beyond the borderline by 7 October. Nevertheless, the Red Army’s thrust was temporarily stopped, allowing the Axis units to safely evacuate the Székelyföld in eastern Transylvania. The epic battle of Turda, fought mostly by Magyar soldiers, was one of the shining combat feats of the wartime Honvédség.
In the meantime, a separate offensive of the Honvédség in western Transylvania towards Arad started on 9 September 1944. At this point, it involved the IV and VII Corps, as well as the 1st Armoured Division, completed by two replacement field divisions and a replacement Huszár regiment. This force was lead by Lieutenant General vitéz József Heszlényi, commanding officer of IV Corps. The Hungarian Third Army was officially formed only on 19 September 1944, based on the headquarters of IV Corps, led by the same Heszlényi. Despite the initial success of the last independent Hungarian operation of the Second World War, the city of Arad, taken on 13 September, had to be abandoned a week later due to the overwhelming Soviet–Rumanian counter-attack.
Colonel General Lajos Veress, commanding officer of the Hungarian Second Army – the principal Honvédség force in Transylvania – despite his personal feelings as a native of Transylvania, being aware of his enemies’ superiority, ordered a general retreat. Kolozsvár, Transylvania’s historical capital, was evacuated by the Honvédség without a fight on 10 October, to avoid its destruction. Even before Kolozsvár fell, the first Soviet troops had advanced beyond Hungary’s pre-war borders on 24 September. In early October, the Red Army engaged the defenders in the puszta (Hungarian plain), planning a speedy occupation of the whole of eastern Hungary and targeting the capital itself, which they planned to capture ‘on-the-go’. However, the Soviets did not succeed in quickly overrunning eastern Hungary and taking Budapest swiftly, as originally planned. The task given by Stalin to Marshal Rodion Y. Malinovsky, to capture Budapest by the end of October and thus open the road to Vienna, proved to be a total failure. He actually needed another three and a half months to achieve that goal.
The Soviet Army’s advance into Hungary proper prompted Horthy to speed up his effort to take his country out of the war. The 76-year-old Regent had realized a while ago that the war was lost and the only way to save his country being used as a theatre of war by both the Germans and the Soviets, who would plunder and destroy it in trying to achieve their own respective goals without paying much attention to the Hungarians themselves, was to achieve a separate armistice with the Allies. Therefore, despite what certain post-war Hungarian sources claim, the real power behind the movement to take Hungary out of war was the elderly Regent. To achieve this he was ready to talk even to the loathed Soviets, as he realized that the Danube Basin was to be a Soviet zone of influence and he could not rely on the support of the Western Allies. Horthy planned to achieve a truce with the Soviets, declare an armistice, and then persuade the Germans to leave Hungary voluntarily, transferring the country into a transition zone for the Soviet Army rather than into a battlefield. His plans were obviously naïve, out of touch with reality.
To achieve these steps, first he tasked Colonel General in Reserve vitéz István Náday, known for his pro-British views, to clandestinely fly aboard a German-marked Heinkel He 111H transport to Italy and initiate peace talks with them. The aircraft took off from Csákvár secondary landing ground on 22 September. After the pilot failed to locate an airport where he could safely land, he eventually belly landed in darkness, near Termoli, in Foggia province. However, the mission failed, as the Allies refused direct talks, and directed Budapest towards Moscow. When this situation became known to Horthy, he clandestinely sent a delegation led by vitéz Gábor Faragho, Inspector of the Police and Gendarmerie, to the Soviet Union. The freshly promoted Colonel General and his small team arrived in Moscow, via Slovakia, on 1 October. The Soviets welcomed the Hungarian truce delegation, but did not accept their peace offer, modelled after the Finnish armistice. Instead, the Soviets insisted on the Rumanian model, which had more severe terms. This model did not assure neutrality for Hungary, as requested by Horthy, but rather an instant change of sides and immediately fighting the Germans alongside the Red Army. Moreover, Stalin made it clear that all recent territorial changes would be reversed, although he left a minor hope for the Hungarians by declaring that ‘all Transylvania, or a larger part of it, shall be returned to Rumania’. Indeed, Stalin was not interested in keeping the Hungarian ruling elite in power, as he wanted radical change and a different social order. He was also primarily interested in reaching Austria as soon as possible through Hungary, so that the Red Army could occupy that country before the Allies. A secondary goal was to secure a sizeable port on the Adriatic Sea. Therefore, he intended to use the Hungarian troops only as cannon fodder against the Germans, without actually guaranteeing anything in the so-called peace offer. Small wonder Budapest was reluctant to accept these unfavourable terms.
Following a few days of indecision, General Faragho eventually signed the Soviet-dictated armistice at the Kremlin, on 11 October, after being reluctantly accepted by the Hungarian Crown Council the day before. Horthy had no choice but to accept all terms, as formulated by Moscow. He actually planned to carry out all terms, except for one – an immediate attack on German troops. The old-fashioned Horthy, with his gentlemanly manners and way of thinking rooted in the nineteenth century, could not accept the betrayal of his comrades-in-arms, despite the many disappointments they caused. He still hoped for a solution by persuading the Germans to leave Hungary without a fight, based on a gentlemen’s agreement, despite his personal contempt against Hitler and, generally, the Nazis. He was also well aware that his troops would not fight their German allies even if ordered by him, in contrast to what the Rumanian soldiers did following their king’s call. His emissaries established contact also with the leftist opposition, united in the so-called Hungarian Front, asking for their active support. Horthy even planned to cede powers to new people, more suitable for a radically changed situation, realising that his time as a ruler under any circumstances was now over.
However, by early October, Berlin became aware of the Hungarians’ intentions to bail out. To counteract a possible repetition of the Rumanian betrayal, the German headquarters drew up a plan, code named Operation Panzerfaust (Armoured Fist). In planning this operation, the Germans relied not only on their own men, but on several key Hungarian figures as well, most notably General Károly Beregfy, the deposed commander of First Army, and Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the extremist Arrow Cross movement (officially called Nyilaskeresztes Párt–Hungarista Mozgalom, or Arrow Cross Party–Hungarist Movement). After establishing general details of the plan to counteract the Hungarian escape from the Axis camp, the Germans decided to wait for the Regent’s next step.
In the meantime, Horthy proceeded with his own plan. He ordered several Honvédség units he believed could trust to the capital, placed on alert the few huszár elements available in the country (the division was returning from Poland), and told the palace bodyguards and the Danube Flotilla – the only notable force stationed in the capital – to be prepared for any eventuality. It has to be noted that of these forces, only the bodyguards could be realistically counted on, but their meagre number was far from sufficient for such a large scale plan. These actions did not escape Berlin’s attention, however. They made steps so Operation Panzerfaust could be started at any moment. Parallel to this, the Arrow Cross party members also started to organise. The party’s second in command, retired Major Emil Kovarcz, mobilized and armed party members, ready to counteract any attempts to take Hungary out of the war. By mid-October, all three sides were ready to act, or counter-act.
The apparent but tensioned lull was dispersed by the first act preceding the Hungarian coup attempt on 15 October – which happened to be a pleasant autumn Sunday. At 8:30 in the morning, the Gestapo’s civilian-clad secret agents, supervised by a certain ‘Dr Wolff ’, a pseudonym of the famous SS-Hauptsturmannführer Otto Skorzeny, kidnapped Miklós Horthy jr (Operation Micky Maus), the Regent’s sole surviving son. He was the political leader of the forces preparing the change and the commander of the army corps stationed in Budapest, instrumental in Horthy’s plans. This way, the Germans could also blackmail ‘Micky’s’ elderly father. An hour later, General Vörös arrived at the palace with the ultimatum signed by Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, Chief of Staff of OKH (Oberkommando des Heeres). Guderian declared the whole territory of Hungary as a combat area, where only the German Army headquarters was allowed to issue orders to military units, including the Honvédség. Regardless of these ominous facts, Horthy stuck to his plan. At 11:00, he declared his intention to exit the war and ask for an armistice in front of the Supreme Crown Council. All his ministers individually agreed to Horthy’s plan. Later, he ordered the Prime Minister, General Lakatos, to carry out his orders.
At noon, the Regent called Veesenmayer to his office and informed him of his intentions, including the denunciation of the alliance with the Third Reich and declaration of a ceasefire with the Soviet Army. The German plenipotentiary was not expecting Horthy to make a deal with the Soviets and asked him to reconsider his action. Horthy refused and at 13:10 he delivered a speech on the national radio station. He declared on the airwaves that the war was lost, demanded that the Wehrmacht leave the country and asked for an armistice with the Soviets. Even before the last sentence was aired, the Germans initiated Operation Panzerfaust. They closed all transmission points in an attempt to hinder the transfer of Horthy’s instructions to Honvédség units throughout the country. The orders were nevertheless aired through the second broadcast of the Regent’s proclamation to his nation. However, at this stage Horthy’s plan stalled. Many Honvédség officers were outraged that they now had to deal with the loathed Soviet Army. Several key officers ordered their men not to put down their arms, but to wait for further orders. Chaos and confusion reigned in the ranks of the Honvédség and all over Hungary. A key role in the confusion was played by General Vörös who, having second thoughts, aired on the radio a further proclamation at 17:20, explaining that Horthy’s proclamation could not be regarded as capitulation and ordering his subordinates to wait for further instructions. Prime Minister Lakatos also hesitated to carry out Horthy’s orders. The contradictory information, rumours and the lack of further firm orders for action confused even the soldiers loyal to the Supreme Commander. The country’s population also reacted with apathy. There were no demonstrations or any mass movements. The leftist leaders did not take the workers out to the streets, as promised. Everybody was waiting passively for events to unfold.
In parallel with the Hungarians’ inactivity, the Germans and their extremist Hungarian allies acted swiftly according to their own plans. Shortly after 16:00, a small joint German/Arrow Cross detachment occupied the main radio station building without a single shot being fired. Party members took over power in several key points of the capital. Soon, they read their own proclamation to the country, announcing that the Arrow Cross movement had taken over power in Hungary. Several pro-Arrow Cross officers arrested their superiors and took over command. Even the trusted Danube Flotilla decided not to lay down arms and continued to fight against the Soviets. Their pro-British commander, Horthy’s former aide, Vezérfőkapitány (Captain-General of the River Forces, equivalent to Vice-Admiral) Dr vitéz nemes Kálmán Hardy, was arrested by his own men. Acting according to the plans of ‘Operation Trojan Horse’, aimed at swiftly occupying Budapest, German tanks, supported by elite troops, mostly Waffen-SS men, took over key positions and aimed their guns on the Citadel’s gates where Horthy was trapped.
Horthy was isolated from the outside world. He was not aware of what was going on in the capital, or the countryside. Due to lack of the expected response from his army and people, he became insecure. His position was worsened by an ultimatum issued by Marshal Malinovsky, commander of Second Ukrainian Front, in which he requested that the Honvédség start attacking the Germans immediately. The tone of the Soviet ultimatum convinced even Horthy and his most faithful men that such a prompt order could not be carried out and that there was only one choice he had left – to negotiate with the Germans. At dawn on 16 October, Horthy was persuaded by Veesenmayer to withdraw his earlier proclamation and reluctantly handed over power to the Arrow Cross party leader Ferenc Szálasi, freshly released from the Citadel prison. Later, the Parliament was informed – without actual proof – that Horthy had resigned and had ordered the Honvédség to continue the fight against the Red Army. Horthy was then ‘invited’ to SS headquarters, where he was kept under ‘honour guard’ until events unfolded according to the Germans’ plans. On 17 October, at 17:00, Miklós Horthy, his family and entourage, boarded a train and headed into German internment in the Hirschberg Castle in Bavaria. With this final act, the elderly Regent’s active involvement in Hungary’s destiny came to an end. Horthy’s son was never released from German captivity and spent the rest of the war in the concentration camp at Dachau until liberation.
Horthy’s ill-conceived and poorly executed plan to step out of war and spare his country further destruction failed less than twelve hours after his proclamation was aired on the radio. As a consequence, Hungary faced a further eight months of Total War and wanton destruction.
The failure of the Hungarian leaders to leave the Axis camp had also a noted effect on the behaviour of the Red Army soldiers in Hungary and their attitude towards the Hungarians, regarding them as the ‘fascist enemy’, similar to the Germans, and dealt with them accordingly.