Budapest Strategic Offensive Operation

This was the Soviet general offensive designed to expel the Germans and their allies from western Hungary (29 October 1944/13 February 1945).

After taking Romania in the ‘Iaşi-Chişinău Offensive Operation’ during the summer of 1944, the Soviets continued their push deeper into the Balkans and then central Europe. The Soviets occupied Bucharest, the capital of Romania, on 31 August and then swept to the west across the Carpathian mountains into Hungary and to the south into Bulgaria. In the process, the Soviet forces drew German reserves away from the primary Soviet axis from Warsaw to Berlin, encircled and destroyed the Germans’ second 6th Army under General Maximilian Fretter-Pico, and compelled General Otto Wöhler’s shattered 8th Army of Generaloberst Johannes Friessner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ (from 23 September Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’) to pull back to the west as best it could into Hungary.

During this time the Soviet high command had come to appreciate that the Axis defences on the Tisza river extended north/south and that these were not well developed but rather a linear trench system lacking in any depth. There were some scattered earthworks on the line of the Danube river, these also running north/south, and a limited effort had been made to create a defensive ring in the eastern outskirts of Budapest. As part of this defensive arrangement German formations were posted on the left of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, against the southern flank of the Carpathian mountains and covering the approaches to Budapest and Czechoslovakia, while the right flank to the south in more open country was the responsibility of Altábornagy József Heszlényi’s very weak Hungarian 3rd Army with Vezérõrnagy Belá Lengyel’s (from 1 December Vezérõrnagy Dr Gyula Hankovszky’s) Hungarian VIII Corps (one armoured and two reserve divisions) and General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps (one German Panzergrenadier division, one Hungarian infantry division and Hungarian cavalry divisions).

Friessner still had no firm contact with Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe ‘F’ farther to the south in Yugoslavia, and his southern flank was very exposed as Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front had already crossed the lower reaches of the Tisza river and had secured much of the Hungarian plain between the Tisza and the Danube.

Still insisting that there should be no unforced withdrawal, Adolf Hitler ordered Friessner to fight for every foot of soil, but Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was soon overwhelmed by events.

Soviet military history divided the ‘Budapest Strategic Offensive Operation’ into five phases.

The first and second of these phases (29 October/3 November 1944 and 7/24 November 1944 respectively) involved the two large offensives by the 2nd Ukrainian Front. The fighting in these two periods was very sanguinary and fierce, the Soviets coming up against strong German resistance. Although the Soviets managed to make considerable territorial gains, they failed to capture Budapest as a result of the combination of German resistance and their own lack of adequate offensive strength.

In the third phase (3/26 December 1944), Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Fedor I. Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front managed to reach the Danube river after its part on the liberation of Belgrade, and thus greatly enhanced the Soviet offensive power in Hungary. Now with adequate forces, both Soviet fronts launched a two-pronged attack to the north and south of Budapest, finally managing to encircle the city and trapping about 190,000 German and Hungarian troops inside the Budapest pocket.

The fourth phase (1/26 January 1945) was characterised by a series of determined counter-offensives launched by German reinforcements in order to relieve the siege of Budapest. Some German units managed to penetrate deep into the environs of the city, the most successful of them getting within 15.5 miles (25 km) of the Hungarian capital. However, the Soviets managed to halt all of the German efforts and thereby maintain their encirclement.

In the fifth and final phase (27 January/13 February 1945), the Soviets concentrated their strength to destroy the main strength German and Hungarian resistance in Budapest. Even so, the German troops still fought for about two more weeks before surrendering on 13 February, in the process bringing to an end some four months of bloody fighting around and finally within Budapest.

The Soviet high command had ordered Malinovsky to attack north into the area between the Danube and the Tisza in the direction of Budapest using General Leytenant Ivan T. Shlemin’s 46th Army and a number of mechanised corps. On the afternoon of 29 October the Hungarian 3rd Army was scattered near Kecskemet, and the II and IV Mechanised Corps swept rapidly into north-west behind the German 6th Army’s positions on the Tisza. The Soviet troops had learned from their earlier losses near Debrecen and Nyiregyhaza, and their armour and infantry were now operating in well co-ordinated all-arms groupings. Despite determined counterattacks by Generalleutnant Josef von Radowitz’s 23rd Panzerdivision, Generalmajor Gustav-Adolf von Nostitz-Wallwitz’s 24th Panzerdivision and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Fritz Schmedes’s (from 27 November SS-Standartenführer Walter Harzer’s) 4th SS Polizei-Panzergrenadierdivision, the 46th Army fought its way forward to a position only a few miles outside Budapest’s outskirts before it was halted.

The 2nd Ukrainian Front then regrouped, and the withdrawal of the 46th Army from the outskirts of Budapest allowed SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Joachim Rumohr’s 8th SS Kavalleriedivision ‘Florian Geyer’ and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS August Zehender’s 22nd SS Freiwilligen Kavalleriedivision ‘Maria Theresa’ to follow and occupy the trench lines surrounding the Hungarian capital.

This seemed to revive the population of Budapest: shops reopened, public transport started running once again, and much of life returned to normal. It was even possible for the troops to leave their positions and, after a only a short walk, board a tram and travel into the city centre. To his great indignation and disgust, Friessner learned that many Hungarian officers were leaving their troops in the line and going off home to their private houses for the night. Meanwhile 20,000 workers in Miskolc, including many who were employed in armament factories, went on strike, many of the strikers expressing a distinct hostility to German troops: at night Germans were sometimes subjected to small arms fire from factory areas and tenement housing, and the Hungarian police and gendarmerie were entirely passive.

After the 46th Army had been checked in the southern outskirts of the capital, Malinovsky regrouped his forces in preparation for a resumption of the offensive on a much broader front, this time to the north of Budapest, with General Leytenant Mikhail S. Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army, General Leytenant Ivan M. Managarov’s 53rd Army, General Leytenant Sergei G. Trofimenko’s 27th Army and General Leytenant Filipp F. Zhmachenko’s 40th Army. The new attack began on 11 November against Wöhler’s 8th Army and the left flank of Fretter-Pico’s 6th Army, driving them back from the Tisza beyond Miskolc. By 26 November, when Soviet troops were already to the north of Budapest, the attacks became bogged down in the Matra jills to the north-east of the capital, and the offensive was temporarily discontinued.

The Soviets switched their main effort back to the south of Budapest, this time to the west of the Danube. At the beginning of November, Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front, having taken Belgrade some 10 days earlier, crossed the Yugoslav frontier into Hungary with General Leytenant Nikolai A. Gagen’s 57th Army, General Leytenant Georgi F. Zakharov’s 4th Guards Armies and General Major Petr D. Govorunenko’s XVIII Tank Corps, and on 7 November began to cross to the west bank of the Danube near Mohacs, Batina and Apatin. The area was heavily flooded, and Tolbukhin did not reach Lake Balaton, some 60 miles (100 km) to the south-west of Budapest, until 9 December.

Meanwhile Shlemin’s 46th Army had moved to the west across the Danube just to the south of Budapest, suffering heavy losses as it did so, and was transferred from Malinovsky’s to Tolbukhin’s command. It then took up a position on the right of 3rd Ukrainian Front against the ‘Margareten-Linie’ between Balaton and Erd, this being a defensive line being built to prevent the encirclement of Budapest from the south-west.

On 12 December the Stavka issued its directive for the encirclement of the Hungarian capital. Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front with its 39 infantry divisions, two tank corps, two mechanised corps and two cavalry corps, together with 14 Romanian divisions, was to pin the German defenders in Pest on the eastern bank of the river and at the same time continue the encirclement of the capital from the north. Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front with its 31 infantry divisions, one cavalry division, one tank corps and two mechanised corps was to attack to the north in the area between Balaton and Budapest and, leaving the city to its right, link with the 2nd Ukrainian Front about 30 miles (50 km) to the north-west of the capital.

Meanwhile the 2nd Ukrainian Front’s 40th and 27th Armies, together with General de corp de armatâ Gheorghe Avramescu’s (from 12 January 1945 General de corp de armatâ Nicolae Dascalescu’s) Romanian 4th Army was not to become involved in this battle, but instead was to outflank Budapest from the north and enter Slovakia.

Friessner had redeployed his forces to meet the new threat. On 2 December General Maximilian de Angelis’s 2nd Panzerarmee, a formation of Heeresgruppe ‘F’ in an Oberkommando der Wehrmacht theatre which received its orders through Generaloberst Alfred Jodl and not through Generaloberst Heinz Guderian and the Oberkommando des Heeres, was placed under the tactical control of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, an arrangement which led to difficulties and misunderstandings. The 2nd Panzerarmee held defensive positions covering the area to the south of Lake Balaton, and was responsible primarily for the security of the Hungarian oilfields in the area of Nagykanizsa. Fretter-Pico’s 6th Army held the ‘Margareten-Linie’ from Lake Balaton to Hatvan, some 25 miles (40 km) to the north-east of Budapest, with General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps and General August Schmidt’s (from 1 December General Anton Dostler’s) LXXII Corps, SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Karl von Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’s IX SS Gebirgskorps being inside the capital and Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps on the extreme left. Wöhler’s 8th Army held the area to the north-west of Budapest with General Ulrich Kleemann’s IV Panzerkorps and General Kurt Röpke’s XXIX Corps, with Altábornagy Dezsöo László’s Hungarian 1st Army and General Otto Tiemann’s German XVII Corps on its left flank.

Friessner had the equivalent of 15 German divisions, of which four were Panzer, two Panzergrenadier and two cavalry. The transfer of another three Panzer divisions from other army groups had been ordered, but these formations had yet to reach Friessner’s formation.

On 5 December Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front made a short but powerful attack from the area of Hatvan to the north-east of Budapest, using Kravchenko’s 6th Guards Tank Army and Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army, against the junction of the German 6th Army and 8th Army, and in eight days penetrated to a depth of 60 miles (100 km), outflanking Budapest from the north and creating an excellent start point for the new Soviet offensive.

Hitler demanded not only that Budapest should be defended house by house, but also that a new offensive should be launched to the west of the Danube. It was for this reason he had ordered the transfer to Friessner of three Panzer and two infantry divisions from the army groups in the north.

At this time busily engaged in preparing ‘Wacht am Rhein’ to take place in the Ardennes, Hitler had decided on an armoured counter-offensive in Hungary to be made from the area between Lakes Balaton and Velencze to the south-east in the direction of the Danube. Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein’s 3rd Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Rudolf Freiherr von Waldenfels’s 6th Panzerdivision (under the temporary command of Oberst Friedrich-Wilhelm Jürgens) and Generalmajor Gottfried Frölich’s 8th Panzerdivision, together with two battalions of PzKpfw V Panther battle tanks, had been allotted for the purpose and the offensive was to be mounted by Breith’s III Panzerkorps of the 6th Army.

Much of the ground across which the attack was to be launched, however, was militarily difficult terrain as it was covered by marsh, ditch and canal, and on 14 December Friessner refused the responsibility for ordering such an operation until the arrival of the freezing weather which would harden the ground and make the going suitable for vehicles.

Meanwhile the Soviet offensive by Kravchenko’s 6th Guards Tank Army and Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army to the north of Budapest from the area of Hatvan along the boundary between the 6th Army and 8th Army continued to make progress, and on 14 December took Ipolysag.

In this time of crisis Friessner visited Generalleutnant Josef Rintelen’s 357th Division and SS-Oberführer Dr Oskar Dirlewanger’s SS Sturmbrigade ‘Dirlewanger’, each of which had given ground. When he arrived at Dirlewanger’s unit, which was the brigade which had been responsible for many of the atrocities as the Germans broke the rising in Warsaw a few months earlier, Friessner was amazed at the situation with which he was confronted. Dirlewanger himself, whom Friessner describes as an arrant adventurer, was calmly sitting at a desk with a monkey on his shoulder. Neither he nor his staff was able to throw light on the battle situation, and according to Friessner the SS troops were no more than an ill-disciplined and unruly mob. On being informed that Dirlewanger proposed to withdraw, Friessner ordered him to stand fast. Later in the evening of the same day, returning from a visit to Generalmajor Gustav-Adolf von Nostitz-Wallwitz’s 24th Panzerdivision, Friessner called again on the SS Sturmbrigade ‘Dirlewanger’ to see that his orders were being carried out, only to discover that the unit had decamped. Friessner himself narrowly escaped falling into Soviet hands.

One of the Panzer divisions earmarked for the offensive in the area of Balaton was committed to the north of Budapest in an effort to check the Soviet offensive, but Friessner then came under continuous and heavy pressure from Guderian, who was little more than Hitler’s mouthpiece in this respect, to begin the III Panzerkorps’ operation to the south of Budapest. Guderian was so persistent that the exchanges became heated, and Friessner flew to Zossen on 18 December to explain personally why the attack should await the arrival of freezing weather. Guderian and Oberst Bronislaw von Bonin, the chief of the army general staff’s operations department, appeared to be in full agreement with him. Friessner also raised the matter of Hitler’s order commanding the house by house defence of Budapest, most of which lay on the eastern bank of the Danube, the defence of this bridgehead requiring no fewer than four divisions. As noted above, the city was not ready for a siege, the shops were open, life went on as usual, with preparations being made for Christmas, and there had been little bombing and shelling. If the city had to be held, the civilian population should, in Friessner’s estimation, be evacuated. Guderian promised to tell Hitler al of this, and Friessner returned to Hungary tolerably satisfied.

On the following day, however, German fortunes declined further. The 8th Panzerdivision’s counterattack on Kravchenko’s 6th Tank Army to the north of Budapest had failed and the men of the SS Sturmbrigade ‘Dirlewanger had either deserted or surrendered. Hitler, Guderian and the Oberkommando des Heeres now assumed tactical command of the battle. The 3rd Panzerdivision and 6th Panzerdivision, both part of Breith’s III Panzerkorps to the south of Budapest, were ordered to leave all their tanks, assault guns, armoured personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery in the Balaton area of the ‘Margareten-Linie’, while the dismounted troops was to be committed, entirely without the support of heavier weapons, to the north of Budapest against the 6th Tank Army. Thus when the 4th Guards Army and 46th Army attacked the III Panzerkorps a few days later, using several infantry formations to cross the wet and ditch-interrupted terrain, they encountered no difficulty in sweeping round the flanks to the rear. Without infantry, the III Panzerkorps could not stop them.

On 20 December the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts resumed their joint offensive to encircle Budapest. On the first day the 6th Guards Tank Army attacked to the north of Budapest and penetrated 20 miles (32 km). Further progress was delayed by German counterattacks between the Ipel river and Hron, but by 24 December the 2nd Ukrainian Front had reached the Danube to the north of Esztergom. To the south-west of Budapest, the 3rd Ukrainian Front had been engaged in heavy fighting against the 6th Army when Fretter-Pico committed his reserves in the area of Szekesfehervar on the second day. The Soviet armoured force, General Major Fyedor G. Katkov’s VII Mechanised Corps and Govorunenko’s XVIII Tank Corps, were committed on this and the following day, and on 23 December achieved a breakthrough 60 miles (100 km) wide. By 26 December XVIII Tank Corps had reached Esztergom and linked with the 2nd Ukrainian Front.

Meanwhile Friessner had been forbidden to withdraw troops, either from Budapest or from the 2nd Panzerarmee, with which to restore his broken line. Generalmajor Gerhard Schmidhuber’s 13th Panzerdivision, Generalmajor Günther Pape’s Panzerdivision ‘Feldherrnhalle’, Rumohr’s 8th SS Kavalleriedivision ‘Florian Geyer’ and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS August Zehender’s 22nd SS Kavalleriedivision ‘Maria Theresa’, together with one Hungarian division, were now trapped inside Budapest.

On 21 December Friessner and Fretter-Pico were relieved of their commands and replaced by Wöhler and General Hermann Balck respectively. Hitler then ordered the movement of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Herbert Gille’s IV SS Panzerkorps from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to Budapest.

The junction of the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts to the west of Budapest on 26 December trapped almost 33,000 German and 37,000 Hungarian soldiers, as well as over 800,000 civilians, within the city.

From the Soviet perspective, Budapest was a major target for Iosif Stalin as, with the ‘Argonaut’ inter-Allied conference at Yalta approaching, the Soviet leader wished to display the full strength of the USSR to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was for this reason that Stalin instructed Malinovsky to ensure that the city was now seized without delay. The Soviet offensive began in the eastern suburbs, advancing through Pest, making good use of the large central avenues to speed progress. The German and Hungarian defenders sought to trade space for time and thus slow the Soviet advance, but soon had to pull back in order to shorten their lines, hoping to take advantage of the hilly nature of Buda. Meanwhile, urban warfare in Budapest increased savagely in intensity. Resupply became a decisive factor because of the loss of Ferihegy airport just before the start of the siege, on 27 December.

Gille’s corps, arriving by rail from Bratislava, detrained near Komarno about 60 miles (100 km) to the north-west of Budapest on 1 January and, together with Generalmajor Hermann Harrendorf’s 96th Division, went straight into action in ‘Konrad I’ with little artillery support, but on 2 January drove the XXXI Guards Rifle Corps of the 4th Guards Army back about 20 miles (32 km). Simultaneously, Waffen-SS forces struck from an area to the west of Budapest in an effort to gain a tactical advantage. Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army and Kravchenko’s 6th Guards Tank Army counterattacked the SS corps’ flank but were themselves checked, and on 3 January the Soviets committed four more divisions to meet the threat, and this halted ‘Konrad I’ near Bicske and Perbal, less than 12.5 miles (20 km) to the west of Budapest. The Germans were forced to withdraw on 12 January.

The Germans then launched ‘Konrad II’ on 7 January. The IV SS Panzerkorps attacked from Esztergom toward Budapest airport in an effort to take this and open the way for the air delivery of supplies, but this offensive was halted near the airport. Farther to the south an attack by Breith’s III Panzerkorps from the area of Mor toward Budapest had little success and advanced only 4 miles (6.5 km) in four days of fighting, Breith losing 68 of his 80 tanks. Meanwhile the IV SS Panzerkorps withdrew, and after falling back to Komarno entrained once more and moved to the west. This seemed to have deceived the Soviet reconnaissance effort, and when a few days later the III Panzerkorps and IV SS Panzerkorps suddenly reappeared about 40 miles (65 km) to the south near Lake Balaton, they fell on the CXXXV Corps in ‘Konrad III’ on the night of 17 January and nearly destroyed it. The SS tank formations then advanced rapidly to the east, reaching the Danube at Dunapentele on 19 January and cutting off most of the 3rd Ukrainian Front from its logistical support.

In Budapest, until 9 January the Germans were able to use some of the main avenues as well as the park next to Buda Castle as landing zones for aircraft and gliders, although these areas were under constant artillery fire from the Soviets. Before the Danube froze, some supplies could also be sent down the river on barges, under the cover of darkness and fog. Nevertheless the shortage of food became ever more acute, and soldiers had to rely on finding their own sources, including the consumption of their horses.

The Soviets quickly found themselves in the much the same type of situation as that which the Germans had encountered during their initial advance into Stalingrad. Their men were nonetheless able to take advantage of the urban terrain by relying heavily on snipers and sappers to advance. Fighting broke out in the sewers, as both sides used them for troop movements. In mid-January the Soviets took Csepel island and its military factories, which were still producing anti-tank rockets and artillery shells even under Soviet fire.

Meanwhile in Pest, the Axis situation continued to deteriorate, with the garrison facing the risk of being cut in half by the advancing Soviet troops. On 17 January Hitler agreed to the withdrawal of the remaining troops from Pest to try to defend Buda. All five bridges spanning the Danube were clogged with traffic, evacuating troops and civilians. German troops destroyed the bridges on 18 January, despite protests from Hungarian officers.

Although the IV SS Panzerkorps in was still some way from Budapest in ‘Konrad III’, Tolbukhin’s front was in a serious situation. The IV SS Panzerkorps was still able to improve its position when, turning to the north, it moved up the western bank of the Danube to reach a point only 12.5 miles (20 km) from the encircled garrison. Had he been authorised to do so, von Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, commanding the IX SS Gebirgskorps inside Budapest, could have order his forces to break out, but this solution was of no interest to Hitler, who wanted only to recapture the whole of the Hungarian capital.

The arrival of the ‘Konrad III’ offensive on severely threatened the Soviet supply lines. Stalin ordered his troops to hold their ground at all costs, and two corps dispatched to assault Budapest were hastily moved to the south of the city to counter the German offensive, whose momentum could not long be maintained as a result of fatigue and supply problems. No longer able to advance, and with its flanks unsecured, the IV SS Panzerkorps was attacked from 27 January by the 2nd Ukrainian Front, which had deployed the XXIII Tank Corps, I Guards Mechanised Corps and V Guards Cavalry Corps covering the south-western approaches to Budapest, and by the 3rd Ukrainian Front which had been given the headquarters of General Leytenant Lev S. Skvirsky’s 26th Army to concentrate and command the various scattered formations between Lake Balaton and the Danube.

On 2 February the 26th Army, now commanded by Gagen, attacked to the north and restored contact with the 4th Guards Army near Adony to the west of Budapest. By 7 February the IV SS Panzerkorps had withdrawn.

All hope of relief had now gone for the German force inside the capital. Some attempt at air supply had been maintained during the period of the encirclement, and the Kriegsmarine had run a supply vessel down the Danube only to beach it in the shallows. The Hungarians had deserted in large numbers but the Germans fought grimly on from the buildings and sewers.

From 1 February the daily ration was down to 2.6 oz (75 gr) of bread, and Soviet emissaries who arrived to offer surrender terms were apparently shot.

On the night of 11 February a force of about 16,000 Germans who were still fit to fight and walk left their wounded in the care of the the papal nuncio, and attacked to the north-west toward Vienna. Making some progress, they emerged from the built-up area and advanced about 12 miles (20 km), reaching Perbal. There the German force was almost totally destroyed, three divisional commanders being among those killed. Only a few hundred men reached the safety of the German lines.

The last defenders finally surrendered on 13 February. German and Hungarian military losses were very high with entire divisions, including the 13th Panzerdivision, Panzerdivision ‘Feldherrnhalle’, 8th SS Kavalleriedivision and 22nd SS Kavalleriedivision, wholly destroyed. Altábornagy Iván Hindy’s Hungarian I Corps was virtually annihilated, and the Hungarian formations destroyed included Ezredes Sándor András’s 10th Division, Vezérõrnagy István Baumann’s 12th Division and Ezredes Vértessy’s 1st Armoured Division. Budapest lay in ruins, with more than 80% of its buildings destroyed or damaged, and all five bridges across the Danube had been destroyed.