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.
The Siege of ‘Fortress Budapest’
The day following the last wartime Christmas Eve, Soviet troops completely encircled the Hungarian capital. Hitler named SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS und Polizei Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch as commanding officer of what he had earlier declared ‘Fortress Budapest’, which had to be defended at all costs. Besides approximately 800,000 civilian inhabitants and refugees, Budapest was defended by less than 100,000 armed men. To the 51,000 regular Hungarian and 41,000 German soldiers, several hundred policemen, gendarmes and guards, approximately 2,000 men of Arrow Cross special detachments as well as party members can be added, the number being completed by ad hoc defence units formed from the civilian population. Soviet Army commanders trusted with the speedy capture of Budapest seriously inflated the number of defenders, mentioning 188,000 combatants, to better explain to Stalin the reason for the long siege of over two months, and in order to justify the considerable number of civilian citizens taken prisoner, or pressed into forced labour after the fall of Budapest (a total of 138,000 prisoners were reported taken during the fight for Fortress Budapest, exceeding by far the total number of armed men, about half of which died or were wounded during the fighting). The defenders faced a total of approximately 157,000 Soviet and Rumanian soldiers, assembled in the ‘Budapest Group’. Additionally, a similar number of other Red Army troops were also indirectly committed to the assault.
There was a small group of 2,534 Hungarian volunteer soldiers who fought alongside the Soviets in capturing the western district of Budapest. Six hundred additional soldiers joined them later on. These men, mainly former prisoners of war and deserters, were assembled in the ‘Volunteer Regiment of Buda’ – the only Hungarian unit that officially fought alongside the Allies against the Axis – placed under direct command of the Red Army and not the pro-Allied Interim Hungarian government, formed earlier at Debrecen. These Hungarian volunteers, led by former Lieutenant Colonel Oszkár Variházy, suffered appalling losses. Over six hundred men, representing almost one quarter of the regiment’s initial strength, were killed, and many more wounded. Ironically, after the siege of Budapest ended, most of the pro-Soviet survivors were disarmed by the Soviets and transported into the USSR as prisoners of war, along with Budapest’s surviving defenders and captured civilians.
Despite stiff resistance offered to the attackers, failed repeated German counter-attacks from the west and the desperate efforts to supply the Axis troops with ammunition and other supplies via a massive air bridge, the defenders’ situation became desperate by mid-January 1945. The last Axis troops withdrew from Pest to Buda, the capital’s western district, and blew up behind them all standing bridges spanning the Danube river. Soon, most of Buda also fell to the Soviets. On 11 February the survivors finally decided to defy Hitler’s order and tried to break out of the encirclement. The desperate attempt was a complete failure, as communication had either been intercepted, or someone had betrayed the plans to the Soviets, who massacred most of the weakened escapees. Eventually, of the approximately 14,000 German, and 2,000 Hungarian soldiers, along with about 2,500 Arrow Cross members and civilians who attempted to break out, only 785 people managed to escape death or Soviet capture and reach the Axis lines. The actual fight for the Hungarian capital ended on 13 February.
During the fifty-one days the actual operation to capture Budapest lasted, more than half of the capital’s armed defenders were either killed or wounded. Officially, 19,718 inhabitants died during the siege and 32,753 houses were destroyed. The attackers lost an estimated 75–80,000 soldiers.
Officially, Soviet (and contemporary Russian) history, along with a handful of current Hungarian left-leaning politicians and historians, label the fall of Budapest as a ‘liberation’. In fact, for most Hungarians, it was merely an occupation – one occupying force being replaced by another one. However, while the German occupation lasted only one dreadful year, the Soviet occupation of Hungary lasted until 1991.
The territory taken over by the Soviet Army and the so-called Ideiglenes Nemzeti Kormány (INK, Interim National Government), was formed on 22 December in Debrecen, eastern Hungary. The members of the new pro-Soviet government were chosen from leftist politicians, high-ranking officers who had earlier defected to the Soviet side or had been sent by Horthy to negotiate the failed armistice, as well as respected local personalities who were willing to deal with the Soviets. Initially, the communists – some in exile in Moscow for many years – received only second-ranking portfolios. However, they had the real power behind the scenes. General Béla Miklós became the prime minister, General János Vörös the Minister of Defence with Colonel Kálmán Kéri the Chief of Staff, General Gábor Faragho the Minister of Public Affairs, and Ferenc Erdei the Minister of the Interior. In its first public declaration, the INK ascertained legal continuity with Horthy’s deposed old government. The next major step was to declare war on Germany. This bold declaration – most probably made under Soviet pressure – was, in fact, hollow, as the INK did not possess any troops. Moreover, even the so-called ‘democratic Hungary’ was technically still in a state of war with the Allies for a short while, as the official armistice between Moscow and Debrecen was signed only on 20 January 1945. The actual forming of the envisaged new Hungarian armed force, officially known as Magyar Honvédség (thus devoid of the royal appellation) – what the left-wing press called ‘Democratic Honvédség’ – could thus only be started after the armistice became official.
Building, training, arming and then engaging in combat, the new army took high priority for the Interim National Government. The Hungarians hoped that by taking an active part in the closing stages of the anti-German war they could obtain favours from the Soviets, and could thus influence the final outcome of the Hungary’s post-war status – particularly her borders. However, Stalin was not interested in a rapid building of a ‘democratic’ Hungarian Army, so the efforts by members of the INK were in vain. Unaware of the Soviet dictator’s intentions, the Hungarian delegations signed the armistice, which stipulated, among other things, the forming of eight heavily equipped infantry divisions. However, this was quite unrealistic, as the chance of enlisting approximately 150,000 men in a war-ravaged country – half of which was still in Axis hands – was virtually impossible. Nevertheless, Vörös, Kéri and other high-ranking officers in charge started fervently to raise the first two divisions (the 1st and the 6th) in early February 1945. Both new divisions were formed at Jászberény, some 120 kilometres west of Debrecen and 70 kilometres east of Budapest. The 1st Infantry Division was placed under command of Colonel Tibor Szalay, while the 6th Infantry Division was commanded by Colonel László Székely. The soldiers came from various prisoner of war camps and local volunteers. Soon, more than 50,000 men had been assembled under the flag of the new Magyar Honvédség. Therefore, the INK started to form two additional divisions. The main problem now was not the manpower, but the armament, supposed to be delivered exclusively by the Red Army. However, deliveries did not arrive, being delayed for various reasons. When some armament finally arrived in March, with further time necessary for training, the first combat-ready units started to deploy to the front, already located in Austria, only in mid-April. By the time the Hungarian soldiers arrived in the actual front zone, the war was over. Therefore, they saw no combat, and thus could not achieve any war merits on behalf of the new ‘democratic’ Hungary.
Parallel to the forming of the new ‘democratic’ Honvédség, the old Royal Honvédség still held under its control the western part of Hungary and kept fighting the intruders. Of the three armies, only two existed in mid-February: the First Army under the command of General Dezső László, deployed in the area north of Danube, in the Felvidék region, and the Third Army, under the command of General József Heszlényi, controlling parts of the Transdanubia (western Hungary). At this stage, the total manpower of the Honvédség stood at less than 210,000 men, down from the over one million soldiers available prior to Horthy’s proclamation of armistice.
Following the fall of Budapest, the increasingly irrelevant Hungarian Parliament sought refuge in Sopron, the last major city in western Hungary, located just a few kilometres from the Third Reich’s borders. The office of the prime minister and the Ministry of Defence relocated to Kőszeg, while the Ministries of the Interior, External Affairs and Finance moved to Szombathely, also close to the German borders. Szálasi set up his quarters at a villa close to Velem village. From there, he regularly toured the remaining areas of Hungary still under Axis control, trying to persuade the soldiers and civilians for continued resistance to the ‘Soviet menace’. Despite these desperate measures, defections among the rank and file were commonplace. Many soldiers, mostly from the First Army, tired of the war, believed the Soviet propaganda and crossed the frontline, in hope of a quick return to their homes. However, despite the Soviets’ promise, most found themselves in closed railway cattle cars on the way to the USSR as prisoners of war.
In the meantime, Hitler decided on a last stand in south-western Hungary in early March. The Axis counter-attack between Lake Velence and Lake Balaton, known as ‘Operation Spring Awakening’, was to be the last large Axis offensive and the last major tank battle of the war. The goal was to secure the vital oilfields in Zala County and cut the Soviet frontline in two. A total of 140,000 German and Hungarian soldiers, supported by an impressive one thousand tanks and assault guns, 3,200 guns and mortars, as well as around 850 aircraft, were amassed for Hitler’s last large-scale offensive. The attack, launched on 6 March, initially surprised the Red Army. However, after a promising start for the Axis, the operation proved to be a failure in less than two weeks. Although an armoured spearhead did reach River Danube at Dunapentele, one of the offensive’s main goals, it could not keep this achievement due to lack of sizeable supporting infantry. After only eleven days, the Germans were driven back to the positions they held initially.
The failed offensive was followed by a hasty retreat beyond the Reich’s borders, into Austria (Ostmark). Hungary’s second largest city, Győr, fell on 28 March. A day earlier, the last Crown Council was held on Hungarian soil. The Minister of Home Defence, Beregfy, was still optimistic, although his troops controlled only a fraction of the country. Next day, Szálasi and his government abandoned the headquarters and moved it into German-held Austria. On 12 April 1945, the last shots were fired in Hungary proper. Hungary was completely overrun by the Red Army.