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This definitive history of one of the fiercest battles of World War II describes the siege of Budapest in unprecedented detail. Both Stalin and Hitler demanded victory at all costs, and the cost was extreme: 80,000 Soviet troops, 38,000 German and Hungarian soldiers, and 38,000 Hungarian civilians perished. The book provides the first full account of this shocking battle.
“As a military history [The Siege of Budapest] is unrivaled. . . . Magisterial.”—John Lukacs, New York Review of Books
“An exceedingly dramatic book, filled with fascinating stories, some of them even humorous, and with heart-rending accounts of suffering, limitless cruelty, and amazing decency.”—István Deák, New Republic
"Ungváry has written a dramatic, gripping history of this siege, filling a gap in WWII history."—Choice
The General Situation in the Carpathian Basin, Autumn 1944
As a result of the successive defeats suffered by the Germans on the eastern front, Italy, Romania, and Hungary had become increasingly reluctant allies. In all three countries political forces demanding a loosening of the alliance were gaining ground. With the front line approaching the Hungarian border early in 1944, the German Wehrmacht occupied Hungary in order to prevent it from following Italy's example in trying to negotiate a ceasefire with the Allies. Because the occupation of Romania planned by the German leadership failed to materialize, Romania was able to deceive the Germans and join the Soviet side. On 23 August 1944 King Michael dismissed the fascist Prime Minister Ion Antonescu, and Romania severed diplomatic relations with Germany. The German front in eastern Romania promptly collapsed and, after large segments of the German South Ukraine Army Group were destroyed, units of the 2nd Ukrainian Front, encountering practically no resistance to their advance through Romania, arrived at Hungary's Transylvanian borderon 25 August. Early in October they also reached the border of the Great Hungarian Plain in the south. On 6 October they began their general offensive with the aim of encircling-together with the 4th Ukrainian Front from the Carpathians-the German and Hungarian troops (roughly 200,000) in Transylvania. The 31 divisions and 293 tanks and assault guns of the German Army Group South in Hungary faced 59 divisions and 825 tanks and assault guns of the 2nd Ukrainian Front. The respective ration strengths were 400,000 and 698,200.
Along the 160-kilometer front between Makó and Nagyvárad, two armored and two mechanized Soviet corps, with 627 tanks and 22 cavalry and infantry divisions, set out north to meet the Hungarian 3rd Army with its 70 tanks and 8 divisions. The Hungarian front, lacking antitank defenses, was soon torn to shreds, and the Soviet troops were ordered to advance toward Debrecen. In the meantime the Germans had also concentrated forces in the region: Operation Zigeunerbaron (Gipsy Baron) was intended to destroy the 2nd Ukrainian Front's units on the Great Hungarian Plain and then, turning south and east, seize the passes in the Carpathians to form an easily defensible battle line. The tank battle of Debrecen took place between 10 and 14 October. Eleven German and Hungarian divisions with 227 tanks and assault guns were outnumbered three times over by 39 Soviet divisions with 773 tanks and assault guns.
Although the Soviet units succeeded in occupying Debrecen on 20 October 1944, they were unable to fulfil their aim of encircling the German 8th Army and the Hungarian 1st and 2nd Armies, stationed in Transylvania and the Carpathians. In addition, the 4th Ukrainian Front under Major-General Ivan Yefremovich Petrov, which should have closed the circle from the north, had made hardly any headway. Thus the German Army Group South succeeded in extricating its troops. After Regent Miklós Horthy's failed attempt of 15 October to break away from Germany and agree to a separate peace with the Soviets, the panzer units that had so far been tied down in the border area added their strength to the German front. By 20 October the Germans had lost only 133 tanks, while the losses of the Soviets amounted to 500-more than 70 percent of their strength. By the end of October the German panzer divisions had encircled General Issa Aleksandrevich Pliev's mechanized cavalry units in the Nyíregyháza region, and the Soviet troops were able to break out only with heavy losses. Even toward the end of the war the Wehrmacht was a formidable force: for each German panzer destroyed, four Soviet tanks were lost. If the Soviet advance had been more deliberate, the Soviet losses would probably have been much smaller.
After the invasion of Hungary, Hitler had appointed Edmund Veesenmayer as his supreme representative in that country. Although Veesenmayer was also obliged to consider the interests of the SS, he essentially determined Hungarian policies. Before the siege of Budapest began, he declared that it did not matter if the city were "destroyed ten times, so long as Vienna could thereby be defended."
Between Baja in the south and Szolnok in the east, only seven exhausted divisions of the Hungarian 3rd Army and 20 tanks of the German 24th Panzer Division were holding their positions against the Soviet 46th Army, as the bulk of the German armored forces had been redeployed to the tank battle of Debrecen. The distance between Budapest and the Soviet lines was only about 100 kilometers. Nevertheless, a Soviet attack was risky, because the German tanks could easily be regrouped to defend the city, while the Soviets no longer had enough armored vehicles to carry out a successful offensive.
While the Soviet occupation of Hungary was continuing in the region beyond the Tisza River and in the southern part of the Great Hungarian Plain, in Budapest and the western parts of the country the Arrow Cross government was establishing its reign of terror.
The Arrow Cross Party had come into being during the second half of the 1930s, through the merger of several far-right groupings. Its emergence was facilitated by widespread disillusionment with the communist republic of 1919, the surviving feudal structures, and the anti-Semitic traditions of Hungarian society. The party was led by Ferenc Szálasi, a suspended general-staff major. In the 1938 elections the party had proved extremely popular in working-class districts, obtaining about 20 percent of the vote. Its program promised land reform, social reforms for workers and peasants, the complete elimination of Jewish influence and the subsequent deportation of all Jews from Hungary, and the creation under Hungarian leadership of a federal state called the Hungarist Carpathian-Danubian Great Fatherland, which was to comprise Hungary, Slovakia, Vojvódina, Burgenland, Croatia, Dalmatia, Ruthenia, Transylvania, and Bosnia. From the National Socialists it had adopted the Führer and Lebensraum principles: that a nation should unquestionably submit to the absolute rule of its leader and fight to conquer more living space for its expanding population.
Although in reality the fate of Budapest was determined by German military policy, according to the Arrow Cross Party the Hungarian people were now obliged to fight against the violence, looting, and deportation to Siberia that the approaching Soviet army would bring with it. The persecuted Jews saw the advancing Soviet troops as their saviors. The rest of the population, however, had gloomy forebodings. The relative surface calm of Budapest was frequently disturbed as Jews were marched to the ghettos or deported to German camps, columns of refugees left their homes to trek west, and reports of evacuation orders arrived from the Great Hungarian Plain. "We must now be prepared to become a city under siege from one day to the next," the linguist Miklós Kovalovszky noted in his diary, after describing a scene observed in the suburb of Kispest: "The old woman is speaking in tears about the evacuation of Kecskemét. They were able to bring a few pieces of clothing and some food with them, but there wasn't enough time to get the three pigs from the farm. The whole town has become a poorhouse; and what if they have to move on from here as well?"
The Division of Eastern Europe
While the tank battle of Debrecen was raging between the 2nd Ukrainian Front and the German Army Group South, some events that were to prove decisive for Budapest took place in Moscow. From 8 to 18 October 1944 the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was engaged in negotiations in the Soviet capital. The main issue was the interest of the British and the Soviets in the future of eastern Europe. Churchill explicitly suggested to Soviet premier Josef Stalin that it would be useful to divide the whole area into "spheres of influence." According to eyewitnesses he was slightly inebriated when he scribbled the names of some countries on a piece of paper, together with the respective percentages of influence to be allocated to the Soviets and to "the others," the Western Allies:
Romania 90%-10% Bulgaria 75%-25% Hungary 50%-50% Yugoslavia 50%-50% Greece 10%-90%
Without any hesitation Stalin placed a checkmark on the historic document. He had a great deal of experience with spheres of interest, having made an agreement about the same issue in 1939, albeit at that time with Nazi Germany. Churchill, worried in one of his clearer moments about the cavalier way in which the matter had been resolved, said to Stalin: "Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues so fateful to mil- lions of people, in such an offhand manner? Let us burn the paper." But Stalin replied calmly: "No, you keep it."
But the mistrustful dictator was already thinking of breaking the agreement. The British prime minister had proposed before an advance by British and U.S. troops through the Ljubljana Gap, but each time Stalin rejected this plan for fear that the arrival of the Allies would make the bolshevization of the area impossible. When Churchill again brought up his plan for an invasion of the Balkans, Stalin's reaction was typical. In principle, his "security interests" could not have been harmed by the presence of British and U.S. troops in Hungary and Yugoslavia, where he had promised the Allies a 50 percent share, particularly since the Soviets had already taken Belgrade on 14 October and seemed likely to take the whole territory between the Danube and the Tisza within weeks. If Stalin nevertheless tried to get ahead of his allies-even as far as Austria and Bavaria, which had never been mentioned in connection with the Soviet "sphere of interest"-the reason could only be that he did not mean to keep his word.
The Soviet dictator interpreted his "security interests" rather broadly. It is worth comparing the demands made by the Soviet Union on its neighbors with regard to its alleged security interests in 1939-1940 and in 1944, respectively. Stalin's minimal program of 1944 was almost identical to what he had demanded from Hitler through Molotov: the extension of the Soviet "sphere of interest" to Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and the straits between the Mediterranean and Black seas. By 1944 that list had increased to include Yugoslavia and Albania and with the exception of these two shows a surprising similarity to what Karl Marx had regarded as Russia's "natural frontier" a century earlier. For the sake of this minimal program Stalin was prepared to take considerable military risks. Possession of Budapest was necessary to him not only because of the race against the British and U.S. forces but also for the sake of his "timetable" for the bolshevization of Hungary: "The liberation of the capital from the German fascist yoke would have speeded up ... the creation of a democratic government ... and had a favorable effect on some vacillating elements in the bourgeois parties and groupings." The imperialist intentions of the Soviet Union are proven by the significance attributed to the "race" by the Soviets on the one hand and by the British and U.S. leadership on the other. Churchill's Adriatic invasion was the only such operation on the part of the Western Allies, and, unlike Stalin, Churchill sought no revolutionary change of the political situation in the area but only the promised "percentages." For the United States political control over western Europe did not become an issue until much later. The delays to the invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944 and the total inactivity of the British and U.S. armies between October 1944 and March 1945 also indicate that the British and U.S. general staffs did not consider getting ahead of the Soviets to be a strategic objective.
Plans and Preparations
After the departure of the Allied delegations, Stalin, with his "security interests" in mind, asked his general staff whether there was a realistic prospect of immediately capturing Budapest. A little earlier he had received a report from Colonel-General Lev Zakharovich Mehlis, Stalin's former secretary and the political representative of the 4th Ukrainian Front's commander. Mehlis, whose overoptimistic reports had resulted in military disasters on several occasions, including the ill-fated Crimean operation in 1942, had told Stalin: "The units of the Hungarian 1st Army facing our front are disintegrating and demoralized. Day by day our troops capture 1,000 to 2,000 men, sometimes even more.... The enemy soldiers are wandering in small groups in the forests, some armed, others without arms, many in civilian clothes."
As to Stalin's question about the immediate capture of Budapest, Colonel-General Sergei Shtemenko, the first deputy of the Red Army's chief of staff, later recalled: "Without suspecting anything, we replied that it would be most practical to attack from the well-established bridgehead in the Great Hungarian Plain which had been captured by the left wing of the 2nd Ukrainian Front. This would not involve crossing the river, and the enemy had fewer troops here than elsewhere." Stalin ordered an immediate attack, ignoring the reservations of General Aleksei Innokentevich Antonov, chief of the Red Army's general staff, who explained that Mehlis's reports applied only to the Hungarian 1st Army and not to the situation as a whole. On 28 October at 10 p.m. the following telephone conversation took place between Stalin and Rodion Malinovsky, the commander of the 2nd Ukrainian Front:
STALIN: Budapest ... must be taken as soon as possible, to be more precise, in the next few days. This is absolutely essential. Can you do it?
MALINOVSKY: The job can be done within five days, when the 4th Mechanized Guard Corps arrives to join the 46th Army ...
S: The supreme command can't give you five days. You must understand that for political reasons we have to take Budapest as quickly as possible.
M: If you give me five days I will take Budapest in another five days. If we start the offensive right now, the 46th Army-lacking sufficient forces-won't be able to bring it to a speedy conclusion and will inevitably be bogged down in lengthy battles on the access roads to the Hungarian capital. In other words, it won't be able to take Budapest.
S: There's no point in being so stubborn. You obviously don't understand the political necessity of an immediate strike against Budapest.
M: I am fully aware of the political importance of the capture of Budapest, and that is why I am asking for five days.
S: I expressly order you to begin the offensive against Budapest tomorrow!
Stalin then put down the receiver without saying another word.
Experts disagree about whether Stalin made the right decision. When the order to attack was given, the 23rd Rifle Corps, which had been promised as a reinforcement, was still on its way. The 2nd Mechanized Guard Corps did not join Malinovsky, who had no other armored units, until the next day, and the 4th Ukrainian Front, which should have taken part in the encirclement of Budapest, was unable to reach the Great Hungarian Plain.
The German army command, recognizing the Soviet threat, had already begun to redeploy its troops on 26 October. By 1 November the 23rd and 24th Armored Divisions had been moved to the Kecskemét region, and the redeployment of the 13th Panzer Division, the Feldherrnhalle Panzergrenadier Division, and the Florian Geyer 8th SS Cavalry Division had also begun. With these forces, the commander of the German Army Group South, Colonel-General Hans Friessner, was planning to regain the Great Hungarian Plain and establish a solid defensive position along the Tisza. (Continues...)
Excerpted from THE SIEGE OF BUDAPEST by Krisztián Ungváry Copyright © 2005 by Krisztián Ungváry. Excerpted by permission.
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|3||The siege, 26 December 1944-11 February 1945||111|
|6||The siege and the population||257|
Posted April 27, 2009
Picked up this book because of my interest in military history; particularly WWII. Haven't seen much on this particular late war battle and so it caught my attention. In general - it was OK - but didn't really meet expectations.
1. English does not appear to be the translator's native language. It is not uncommon for a string of sentences to miss conceptual connections and wander off into a meaningless end. I gradually became accustomed to this - but it did take away from the flow of the read.
2. The subject keeps switching abruptly from very intimate personal encounters to grand tactical issues - often with no transition. I often had to pause just to figure out where in the flow of time and space the story line was taking place. Very hard to make sense of the battle.
3. There are a number of maps - but the images are too small for the details that they include and are just about worthless as reference material.
All said though, there is little published in English about this battle and the book does give you do get a reasonably complete picture as to the various factions in the battle and the horrific events that went on. For a serious military historian referance - this probably doesn't cut it. For a casual reader interested in a relatively undocumented (in English) late war battle - it is reasonable.