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The Siege of Budapest also known as the Battle of Budapest refers to the Soviet Union's capture of the Hungarian capital city of Budapest towards the end of World War II in Europe. Part of the broader Budapest Offensive, the siege began when Budapest, defended by Hungarian and German troops, was first encircled on 29 December 1944 by the Red Army and the Romanian Army. The siege ended when the city unconditionally surrendered on 13 February 1945. It was a strategic victory for the Allies in their push towards Berlin.
Suffering from nearly 200,000 deaths in three years fighting the Soviet Union, and with the front lines approaching its own cities, by early 1944 Hungary was ready to exit the war. As political forces within Hungary pushed for an end to the fighting, on 19 March 1944, Germany preemptively launched Operation Margarethe and entered Hungary.
In October 1944, after successive Allied victories at Normandy and Falaise, and after the collapse of the Eastern Front following the stunning success of the Russian summer offensive, Bagration, Horthy again attempted to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies. Upon hearing of Horthy's efforts, Hitler launched Operation Panzerfaust to keep Hungary on the Axis side, and forced Horthy to abdicate. Horthy and his government were replaced by "Hungarist" Ferenc Szálasi, led by the far-right National Socialist Arrow Cross Party. As the new right-wing government and its German allies prepared the defense of the capital, IX SS Mountain Corps, consisting of two Waffen SS divisions, was sent to Budapest to strengthen the city's defense.
The besieging Soviet forces were part of Rodion Malinovsky's 2nd Ukrainian Front. Formations that actually took part in the fighting appear to have included the 53rd Army, 7th Guards Army, portions of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, including the 46th Army, and the Romanian 7th Army Corps.
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.
As a result of the Soviet link-up, nearly 33,000 German and 37,000 Hungarian soldiers, as well as over 800,000 civilians, became trapped within the city. Refusing to authorize a withdrawal, German dictator Adolf Hitler had declared Budapest a fortress city (Festung Budapest), which had to be defended to the last man. Waffen SS General Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, the commander of the IX Waffen SS Alpine Corps, was put in charge of the city's defences.
Budapest was a major target for Joseph Stalin. The Yalta Conference was approaching and Stalin wanted to display his full strength to Churchill and Roosevelt. He therefore ordered General Rodion Malinovsky to seize the city without delay.
During the night of 28 December 1944, the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Front contacted the besieged Germans by radios and loudspeakers and told them about a negotiation for the city's capitulation. The Soviets promised to provide humane surrender conditions and not to mistreat the German and Hungarian prisoners. They also promised that the emissaries' groups would not bring weapons and would appear in cars with white flags.
The next day, two groups of Soviet emissaries appeared as expected. The first one, belonging to the 3rd Ukrainian Front, arrived at 10:00 AM in the Budafok sector and was taken to the headquarters of General Karl Pfeffer von Wildenbruch. Their negotiating effort was a failure, though, as General Wildenbruch refused the surrender conditions and sent the Soviet agents back to the battlefield. When the emissaries were on the way back to their camps, the Germans suddenly opened fire, killing Captain I. A. Ostapenko. Lieutenant N. F. Orlov and Sergeant Ye. T. Gorbatyuk jumped into the trench in a timely manner and narrowly escaped. Due to heavy German fire, only during the night of 29 December did the Soviets manage to retrieve Ostapenko's body. He was buried at Budafok with full military honors.
The second group of emissaries belonged to the 2nd Ukrainian Front and arrived at 11:00 AM in the Kispest sector. They had an even less fortunate fate as, when the emissaries arrived, the German garrison fired at them. The leader of the emissaries, Captain Miklós Steinmetz, appealed for a negotiation, but to no avail. He was killed together with his two subordinates when the German fire struck the Soviet car.
The Soviet offensive began in the eastern suburbs, advancing through Pest, making good use of the large central avenues to speed-up their progress. The German and Hungarian defenders, overwhelmed, tried to trade space for time to slow down the Soviet advance. They ultimately withdrew to shorten their lines, hoping to take advantage of the hilly nature of Buda.
In January 1945, the Germans launched a three part counter-offensive codenamed Operation Konrad. Operation Konrad was a joint German-Hungarian effort to relieve the encircled garrison of Budapest.
Operation Konrad I was launched on 1 January. The German IV SS Panzer Corps attacked from Tata through hilly terrain north of Budapest in an effort to break the siege. Simultaneously, Waffen-SS forces struck from the west of Budapest in an effort to gain a tactical advantage. On 3 January, the Soviet command sent four more divisions to meet the threat. This Soviet action stopped the offensive near Bicske, less than 20 kilometers west of Budapest. The Germans were forced to withdraw on 12 January.
They then launched Operation Konrad II on 7 January. The IV SS Panzer Corps attacked from Esztergom towards Budapest Airport. They tried to capture it in order to improve supplying the city by air. This offensive was halted near the airport.
On 17 January, Operation Konrad III was launched. The IV SS Panzer Corps and the III Panzer Corps attacked from the south of Budapest and attempted to encircle ten Soviet divisions. This encirclement attempt failed.
Meanwhile, urban warfare in Budapest increased in intensity. Re-supply became a decisive factor because of the loss of the Ferihegy airport just before the start of the siege, on 27 December 1944. Until 9 January 1945, German troops were able to use some of the main avenues as well as the park next to Buda Castle as landing zones for planes and gliders, although they were under constant artillery fire from the Soviets. Before the Danube froze, some supplies could be sent on barges, under the cover of darkness and fog.
Nevertheless, food shortages were more and more common and soldiers had to rely on finding their own sources of sustenance, some even resorting to eating their own horses. The extreme temperatures also affected German and Hungarian troops.
Soviet troops quickly found themselves in the same situation as the Germans had in 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. Six Soviet marines even managed to get to Castle Hill and capture a German officer before returning to their own lines – still underground. But such feats were rare because of ambushes in the sewers set up by the Axis troops using local inhabitants as guides.
In mid-January, Csepel Island was taken, along with its military factories, which were still producing Panzerfausts and shells, even under Soviet fire. Meanwhile in Pest, the situation for the Axis forces deteriorated, with the garrison facing the risk of being cut in half by the advancing Soviet troops.
On 17 January 1945, Hitler agreed to withdraw 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.
On 20 January 1945, German troops launched their second major offensive, this time south of the city, blasting a 20 km hole in the Soviet lines and advancing to the Danube, threatening Soviet supply lines.
Stalin ordered his troops to hold their ground at all costs, and two Army Corps that were dispatched to assault Budapest were hastily moved to the south of the city to counter the German offensive. Nevertheless, German troops who got to less than 20 kilometres from the city were unable to maintain their impetus due to fatigue and supply problems.[dubious ] Budapest's defenders asked permission to leave the city and escape the encirclement. Hitler refused.
On 28 January 1945, German troops could no longer hold their ground and were forced to withdraw. The fate of the defenders of Budapest was sealed.
Unlike Pest, which is built on flat terrain, Buda is built on hills. This allowed the defenders to site artillery and fortifications above the attackers, greatly slowing the Soviet advance. The main citadel, (Gellért Hill), was defended by elite Waffen-SS troops who successfully repelled several Soviet assaults. Nearby, Soviet and German forces were fighting for the city cemetery amongst shell-opened tombs; it would last for several days.
The fighting on Margaret Island, in the middle of the Danube, was particularly merciless. The island was still attached to the rest of the city by the remaining half of the Margaret Bridge and was used as a parachute drop zone as well as for covering improvised airstrips set up in the city center. The 25th Guards Rifle Division operated from the Soviet side in combat on the island (for losses see below).
On 11 February 1945, Gellért Hill finally fell after six weeks of fighting when the Soviets launched a heavy attack from three directions simultaneously. Soviet artillery was able to dominate the entire city and to shell the remaining Axis defenders, who were concentrated in less than two square kilometres and suffering from malnutrition and disease.
Despite the lack of supplies, the Axis troops refused to surrender and defended every street and house. By this time, some captured Hungarian soldiers defected and fought on the Soviet side. They were known collectively as the "Volunteer Regiment of Buda."
After capturing the southern railway station during a two-day bloodbath, Soviet troops advanced to Castle Hill. On 10 February, after a violent assault, Soviet marines established a bridgehead on Castle Hill, while almost cutting the remaining garrison in half.
Hitler still forbade the German commander, Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, to abandon Budapest or to attempt a breakout. But the glider flights (DFS 230) bringing in supplies had ended a few days earlier and parachute drops had also been discontinued.
In desperation, Pfeffer-Wildenbruch decided to lead the remnants of his troops out of Budapest. The German commander did not typically consult the Hungarian commander of the city. However, Pfeffer-Wildenbruch now uncharacteristically included General Iván Hindy, in this last desperate breakout attempt.
On the night of 11 February, some 28,000 German and Hungarian troops began to stream north-westwards away from Castle Hill. They moved in three waves. Thousands of civilians were with each wave. Entire families, pushing prams, trudged through the snow and ice. Unfortunately for the would-be escapees, the Soviets awaited them in prepared positions around the Széll Kálmán tér area.
Troops, along with the civilians, used heavy fog to their advantage. The first wave managed to surprise the waiting Soviet soldiers and artillery; their sheer numbers allowed many to escape. The second and third waves were less fortunate. Soviet artillery and rocket batteries bracketed the escape area, with deadly results. Despite heavy losses, five to ten thousand people managed to reach the wooded hills northwest of Budapest and escape towards Vienna. 600–700 German soldiers reached the main German lines from Budapest. Roughly a third of these soldiers belonged to the "Feldhernhalle" Panzergrenadier Division, and 170 to the Waffen-SS. The number of Hungarian escapees was around 80 (44 civilians, 25 Arrow Cross Party militiamen, and 11 men in military uniform (including three students and one policeman).
The majority of the escapees were killed, wounded, or captured by the Soviet troops. Pfeffer-Wildenbruch and Hindy were captured by waiting Soviet troops as they emerged from an underground tunnel running from the Castle District.
The remaining defenders finally surrendered on 13 February 1945. German and Hungarian military losses were high, with entire divisions wiped out. The Germans lost all or most of the 13th Panzer Division, 60th Panzergrenadier Division Feldherrnhalle, 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer and the 22nd SS Volunteer Cavalry Division Maria Theresa. The Hungarian I Corps was virtually annihilated. Hungarian formations destroyed included the 10th and 12th Infantry Divisions and the 1st Armored Division.
The Soviet forces experienced from 100,000 to 160,000 casualties. The Soviets claimed that that they had trapped 180,000 German and Hungarian 'fighters' in the pocket and declared they had captured 110,000 of these soldiers. However, immediately after the siege, they rounded up thousands of Hungarian civilians and added them to the prisoner of war count, allowing the Soviets to validate their previously inflated figures.
Budapest lay in ruins, with more than 80 percent of its buildings destroyed or damaged, with historical buildings like the Hungarian Parliament Building and the Castle among them. All five bridges spanning the Danube were destroyed.
In January 1945, 32,000 ethnic Germans from within Hungary were arrested and transported to the Soviet Union as forced laborers. In some villages, the entire adult population were taken to labor camps in the Donets Basin.:21 Many died there as a result of hardship and ill-treatment. Overall, more than 500,000 Hungarians were transported to the Soviet Union (including between 100,000 and 170,000 Hungarian ethnic Germans) .:38
With the exception of Operation Spring Awakening (Unternehmen Frühlingserwachen), which was launched in March 1945, the siege of Budapest was the last major operation on the southern front for the Germans. The siege further depleted the Wehrmacht and especially the Waffen-SS. For the Soviet troops, the Siege of Budapest was a final rehearsal before the Battle of Berlin. It also allowed the Soviets to launch the Vienna Offensive. On 13 April 1945, exactly two months after the Budapest surrender, Vienna fell.
Raoul Wallenberg, Sweden's special envoy in Budapest between July and December 1944, had issued protective passports and sheltered Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory, saving tens of thousands of lives. On January 17, 1945, Wallenberg was detained by Soviet authorities on suspicion of espionage and subsequently disappeared.
After the city's surrender, occupying troops forcibly conscripted all able-bodied Hungarian men and youth to build pontoon bridges across the Danube River. For weeks afterward, especially after the spring thaw, bloated bodies piled up against these same pontoons and bridge pylons.
According to researcher and author Krisztián Ungváry, some 38,000 civilians were killed during the siege: about 13,000 from military action and 25,000 from starvation, disease and other causes. Included in the latter figure are about 15,000 Jews, largely victims of executions by Hungarian Arrow Cross Party militia. When the Soviets finally claimed victory, they initiated an orgy of violence, including the wholesale theft of anything they could lay their hands on, random executions and mass rape. An estimated 50,000 women and girls were raped,:348–350[notes 1] although estimates vary from 5,000 to 200,000.:129 Hungarian girls were kidnapped and taken to Red Army quarters, where they were imprisoned, repeatedly raped and sometimes murdered.:70–71
The events in the Naphegy and Krisztinaváros neighborhoods of Budapest are told in a few surviving diaries and memoirs. Charles Farkas (Farkas Karoly) was born in 1926 and includes his experience during the siege in his recently published memoir Vanished by the Danube; Peace, War, Revolution, and Flight to the West. László Deseő, a 15 year old boy in 1944, lived at 32 Mészáros Street with his family. This area was heavily attacked because of its proximity to the Southern Railway Station (Déli pályaudvar) and the strategic importance of the hill. Deseő kept a diary throughout the siege. The memoirs of András Németh also describe the siege and the bombing of the empty school buildings which he and his fellow soldiers used as an observation post.
The memoirs of Heinz Landau, Goodbye Transylvania, present a German soldier's view of the battle. Pinball Games: Arts of Survival in Nazi and Communist Eras, written by George F. Eber, a richly detailed account of a 20-year-old Hungarian and his family living through the siege, was published posthumously in 2010. It chronicles the clever strategies employed for survival and outlined the boredom and terror of a family that was trapped, but would not capitulate. Eber, who had become an internationally-known architect, included sketches with the memoir. One of them depicts a Russian soldier silhouetted against a Budapest wall on the first night the Germans were driven out of his neighborhood. The memoir also includes an account of World War II and the post-war transition of the country into Soviet-style Communism.
The memoirs of the 14 year-old dispatch runner of the Vannay Volunteer Battalion, Ervin Y. Galantay, give an insight into the battle and urban combat. The diary of the young runner describes day-to-day life and survival of both civilians and soldiers. It was published in English by the Militaria press in Budapest in 2005, under the title Boy Soldier.
Joseph Szentkiralyi, who had worked in the United States prior to World War II, had been deported back to Hungary after war broke out. During the siege, he and his family endured constant artillery bombardment and street-by-street tank and infantry battles between the Germans, the remnants of the Royal Hungarian Army, and the attacking Romanian, Ukrainian and Russian forces. Szentkiralyi, wanted for questioning by Hungarian army officers, hid on the upper floors of buildings during bombing raids to avoid capture. To prevent starvation and help keep their families alive, Szentkiralyi and others risked their lives to leave their bomb shelters at night and butcher frozen horse carcasses they found in the streets. At the end, daily rations consisted of melted snow, horse meat, and 150 grams of bread. Szentkiralyi worked for the Allies after the war ended. Learning that he faced imminent arrest, he fled to Switzerland to avoid detention and likely execution by the Soviets.
Festung Budapest (2012) is a table-top war game simulation of parts of the siege using the Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) system. The module is noted for attention to historical accuracy and detail including Orders of Battle, maps and battles.