THE LOCAL BRANCHES OF THE FORTIFICATION HEADQUARTERS
Construction of the fortification works was the task of the local branches. Considerable attention was paid to the fortifications because the front was approaching and less and less time was at the disposal of the constructors.
Several articles discussed the fast, but good quality, construction of the fortification works in the Hungarian Military Review from the end of 1942.62 It was usually believed that one year was necessary for marking out the lie of the fortresses, one year for the preparatory works and one more year for the construction. There was no doubt that time for the construction of permanent fortifications would be much less than it had been before the war, but even if it were no longer a question of years for this work, a few months could be ours if we planned well. Good organisation, abundant machinery, and also the application of simplified, standard constructions was indispensable so that the permanent fortification would be adequate for its task even in these circumstances.
One of the pillars of quick and reliable work was the well-organised Fortification Branch. Young, mobile, but already experienced engineer officers were appointed to be their commanders. So that the work could go on continuously, the staff of the branches was not less than 600-1000 people. The accessories of the local Fortification Branches were assembled very carefully.
The accessories of the office were transported by the office-car. There were several designs kept about each construction type in the iron safe of the car so that after the establishment of the place of the construction it could be drawn on a map with a simple survey method. In this way the time-consuming planning and design work was reduced to a minimum. Ironing and shuttering plans were attached to the type-designs. There were writing and drawing utensils, typewriters, lamps, candles, matches, instruments, copying and printing apparatus, a universal instrument, a simple road lay-mark, and a tent among the accessories of the office car.
The instruments, packed on trucks, were selected as follows: instruments for earthwork (including a replacement set) for 900 people, carpenter’s tools for 30 people, masons’ chisels for 45 people, stone-axes for 60 people, and tools for 18 insulators, for 30 reinforced concrete mechanics, and also for 6 blacksmiths and 6 joiners. All these instruments were packed on one larger, 5-6 ton truck and on two smaller, 2-3 ton ones. A bigger tilt was also part of the pack of the trucks, it was suitable for multiple tasks: for the protection of the material during transport; for setting up a tent; and for the protection of the working place against rain during concrete placing.
There was usually one big crushing mill with 90m output, or two smaller ones with a daily 15m output, one concrete mixer with 250-270 litres output or two smaller ones with 150-170 litres output (often missing), two elevators, built together with two prime movers, a power pump, a mechanic pump, water supply line with tubes and detachable water-tanks; three superchargers together with the motors and ventilation shaft; iron cutter, welding equipment, acetylene developer, oxygen bottle in the constructional equipment. Two cars ensured the free movement of the commander of the local branch and of the constructions engineers. A half ton truck transported the food.
For a quick and cheap accommodation solution, each local branch got 3-4 detachable barracks, which could be transported by train so that wasting time building the barracks would be minimised. With the help of this equipment the fortification branches were able to construct 90-100 fortification elements by using 25-30m concrete for each, either for the closing of one valley in depth at several places, or for the closing of 2-3 neighbouring valleys at one place.
The course of work was arranged at each point in such a way that an independent working team worked on 25-30 fortification elements under the leadership of an engineer or master builder. The different brigades of each team always did the same phase of the work and obtained significant practice this way. This method of work organisation produced a working method such as if the fortification elements had been made on a conveyor-belt system. There was only one difference. In this case not the working elements, but the brigades, were moving from place to place. However, they did their best to ensure that quick work should not reduce quality.
This procedure did not always go smoothly. Kálmán Bajor, Major on half pay, who directed the construction of three valley blocks in the valleys of the Nagy-Szamos and Ilva rivers, gave comparatively accurate data about the construction of the valley blocks. He remembered those events as follows:63
“Neither our state nor our army was in a good enough financial state in those days for us to have constructed some kind if Maginot-Line. So first of all the so-called Fortification Headquarters was established, with the assignment of preparing the military and engineering plan of the fortification of the Carpathians. Thus the operational plans and the designs required for the construction work were made parallel to each other.
The Fortification Headquarters itself was a military organisation, which employed civilian employees on a large scale. My workers on the construction were almost exclusively civilians. Only ten of us were serving in the army, and the batmen and the drivers were included in this number.
The Fortification Headquarters got a certain frame allocation to begin the works. At that time our official currency was still the Pengő. I had millions of Pengős at my disposal. We were young and inexperienced but I am convinced that we all gave a good account of ourselves.
The idea of the fortification system emerged in 1940 and in 1941 we had already made the first steps for its construction. During that time I happened to become part of the Fortification Headquarters staff. I was promoted to this job with many other engineer officers serving with the troops. 1941 was spent in planning and experimenting. The construction itself began on a large scale in 1942.
The Chief of Staff at Fortification Headquarters was Ernő Pacor, an intelligent man and excellent soldier. He directed the actual work.
Apart from us, the staff was composed of higher-ranked staff officers directed to the Headquarters from different branches of service, mainly the infantry. They completed the detailed marking. The principles for the construction of the fortification line were given by the General Staff of the Hungarian Royal Army but they did not interfere with the details. This was our task. The construction was directed by engineer officers everywhere.
As I mentioned, a significant number of civilians were working on the staff of the Fortification Headquarters. These engineers planned the fortification elements which got into the valley blocks. The wooden barracks for accommodation of the soldiers was also planned by them.
These barracks were already very necessary during the period of construction because the valley blocks were built on quite deserted land and the workers had to sleep somewhere. Later these comfortable barracks became the accommodation places provided for the fortification units.
Three Fortification Groups were established in the frame of the Fortification Headquarters. The Fortification Groups had Fortification Branches, which executed the actual fortification works. I was the commander and construction leader of Fortification Branch Number 9 in the so-called “Neck of Beszterce”.64
The idea was that the valleys had to be fortified by valley blocks. In 1943-1944 this idea was fulfilled by the plan of building a completely uninterrupted defensive line, but it was not our task. Forced labour service units were brought to the spot then and they constructed the field fortifications. I do not now how many of these field fortifications were constructed but their original purpose was to render outflanking the valley blocks more difficult. I met a man after the war who had served in the fort company, he told me that the Russians could pierce the fortification line nowhere. The reason why the whole concept failed was that they had been surrounded. Taking into account the military technique of those days, I do believe that it was a very good defence system and, if the Roumanians had not broken away, the Russians would not have not broken through it. Not because they could not have done it, but because the breakthrough would not have been worth sacrificing the large human and technical resources which would have been necessary to achieve it.
I first arrived at Borsa in 1941. That small village lies north of the Szamos river. At that time construction was already under way. The fortification elements were built by private builders who had arrived from Kolozsvár. Of course, the Fortification Headquarters came to the conclusion very soon that this solution was very complicated and extremely expensive. In those days the private builders had to be well paid too. Besides, these constructions were set up in places which could be approached by transport only with great difficulty, and this fact also increased costs considerably.
All this was very good engineer officer training for me. We had learned geodesy, construction of roads and railways etc. at the Academy, but nothing that would be necessary for our work in the Carpathians. But we met excellent engineers employed by the builders and learned a lot from them.
I was transferred to Nagyilva in the winter of 1941, where I became the head of the branch. There we constructed the valley block without private builders and so at much less cost. All we got from the centre were the designs of the shelters. We also got different type-designs for the construction of the barracks and selected the one which was the most suitable for us, and we ourselves built it up. This system of work was introduced in 1942. It meant that a small military staff directed everything, without builders. We ourselves employed the civilians, engineers and field-workers for the construction.
The Group Headquarters ordered the necessary stocks for the construction: cement, river-sand, reinforcing iron, etc. According to our demand, the Group Headquarters employed the engineers and the experts too. Sometimes officers in reserve also came to us, but not normally.
The Fortification Branch was completely independent, with an extraordinarily large sphere of action. We could decide about call-ups, disarmament, we could hold back the call-up order of anyone who we needed. This was very effective disciplinary means. We also had to pay wages to the civilian employees, and it was not a small amount of money. 6-7 engineers, a building engineer and several hundred workers were usually working with me.
The wages we paid out were quite high then. The hourly wages were 1 Pengő 10 Fillérs or 1 Pengő 30 Fillérs. At that time one could have a complete meal in a restaurant in Pest for 1 Pengő. This was the hourly wage of the simple workers; the foremen and the engineers earned much more. As well as this, they had free accommodation albeit in barracks, but it was perfectly acceptable there in the mountains. We too had lived in the barracks with our families, from springtime to autumn.
There was a large amount of earthwork, so we needed a great number of construction labourers. Recruitment usually took place in the following way: I went down to Békés and Csongrád counties and agreed with some foremen, who undertook the task of starting the work with 15-20 people at the given place and time. 65 They got the wages in one amount and they shared it among themselves.
As most of the terrain was rocky and stony, I employed a demolition expert too. Moreover, we still needed many other kinds of professional workers: reinforced concrete fitters, electricians, carpenters. Their help was indispensable. The ordering of the timber was under my authority, it was not the Group Headquarters who dealt with it.
So this is how the system of the construction of the Árpád-line looked like in outline. I must note that my perceptions refer to what I had seen at those works in which I myself participated. It cannot be excluded that significantly different organisations might have existed elsewhere too.”
In fact other systems did exist. The front arrived at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in 1944. At that time there were already many branches and worker units. In case of emergency, if something had to be built very quickly, they also called for the aid of the local population. The branches of the Fortification Headquarters did not interrupt the work, fortifications were being constructed right to the end. There were no machines or trucks any longer. Dr. István Magó served as a soldier from the rank and file at the fortification branch based in Gyimesközéplok. He remembers the already chaotic situation of those troublesome days as follows:66
“All the schools of the country were closed on 31st March 1944. I was student of the 8th class (the final year) at the Péter András Calvinist High School in Szeghalom. The class exam didn’t take place. I completed my high school studies on 27th April 1944. A few weeks later the call-ups began to arrive for the maintenance works of the airfield of Kunmadaras. We Hungarian citizens thought it unjust. The stepbrother of one of my class-mates (now József Muzsay, pensioner, former head physician of a hospital in Salgótarján), Lieutenant Colonel András Muzsay served at the Fortification Headquarters. My classmate asked for his support and so we managed to get called up straightaway to Gyimesközéplok at the construction place of the 16th Fortification Branch of the III. Fortification Group Headquarters, this being at the end of May 1944.
The workplace was at Gyimesközéplok, on the righthand bank of the Hidegség river, just at the mound of the Tatros river, next to the main road and the railway. Its commander was Engineer Ensign Gyula Lázár, his deputy was Ede Fodor, sergeant selected for promotion. The managers of the construction were Kaiser and Benkő, master builders. The chief engineer was called Szép. The workers’ group was assembled from ground-men from Csongrád, and from forced labourer gypsies – mainly from Csenger, a few of them from Középlok and Hidegség. We also had an officer in charge of live demolition.
My friend’s task was to check the daily personnel records and my job was the handling and recording of the work materials. I had to deal with food, fodder, explosive materials, (paxit) and construction materials (cement, reinforcing steel). We bought the timber from the LOMÁS sawmill.
The construction area extended from the upper end of Középlok to the rocky territory under the railway viaduct of Felsőlok. Our basic task was to build field fortifications, i.e. an entangled trench system with prefabricated pillboxes in it, suitable for the emplacement of heavy or light machine-guns.
We also built reinforced concrete constructions with thick walls, armour piercing posts for the operating personnel, battery and ammunition. Shelters for the infantry of the barrier task force and a first-aid station with medical instruments and bandages were also constructed. At the first aid station there were about 10 bunk beds. We also made a shark fin tank obstacle system, a wire entanglement with 4-6 rows and bent steel columns placed in concrete. We also built the retaining walls on the flanks of the tank obstacles.
A so-called “Serb barrier” was made of railway metals and rolled steel at the crossroads of the second barrier line of Felsőlok and the main road. It was possible to open and close it, and it was wide enough to take one line (one truck).
The meal portions arrived once or twice a week:
- Army ration bread,67 1 piece for one person for two days,
- Coffee cube, 0,5 cube for 1 person/day (3,5 cubes/week
- Smoked bacon,
- Smoked pork ribs
The “armament” of the branch was two 9mm calibre pistols.
A fort company of the 32nd Frontier Guard Battalion and a gendarme outpost were stationed in the Gyimesi-defile, at Középlok.
There was no connection - at least not on my assignment level - with the university students’ work camp. They were camping in Finnish wooden barracks between the two fortification lines. The working camp belonged to the headquarters of the fort company. The commander was Captain József Papp.
The inspector and controller of our construction branch was Captain Makai at Tusnádfürdő, and Érchegyi Lieutenant Colonel at Gyergyószentmiklós.
We could only unload the carriages at the Gyimesfelsőfok railway station, as there was no ramp at Középlok. Cement, pressed straw and barbed wire rolls were usually delivered. Transport comprised 22 units of the “national means of communication” (cart + two horses), mobilised from the neighbouring villages.
At the time of the Roumanian defection the work preparations were as follows: the inner tank obstacle row had not yet been closed, and compressed rock works for the reinforced concrete constructions were going on under the railway viaduct of Felsőlok.
We witnessed the approaching front, the night bombing of the Ploesti oil refiner, the rattling windows and the lights, which we could easily see behind the mountains at night. The railway traffic increased, the most up-to-date armoured vehicles, assault guns and trucks were going out; nothing came back.
Confusion arose in the transport of materials. Only pressed straw arrived instead of food and cement. We also got armaments: Mauser revolvers made in 1943 and ammunition. We were always hearing rumours about the dangers from partisans, but we hardly ever saw any.
The constructions were going on. The largest problem was the damming of the Tardos and the Hidegség, two fast-flowing rivers, with shark fin tank obstacle elements.
The Roumanians defected on 23rd August. We had to leave the constructions, marching on to the fortification group in Gyergyószentmiklós.”
62 Kázmér Veress: Állandó erődítési munkálatok. (Permanent fortification works) MKSz, 1942, 12, 486-493.
63 The memoirs of Kálmán Bajor are in the possession of the author, both on tape and in manuscript
64 The salient point of the frontier at Kosna was so named as the town Beszterce was the first large location nearby.
65 A special system developed in Hungary during the large river-regulations and railway constructions in the 19th century. The construction workers living on the Great Hungarian Plain organised groups, so-called “bands”, and entered into service for day-labour together. The “bands” of the ground-men got their wages in one sum.
66 The copy of the memoirs of Dr. István Mágó was placed at my disposal with the courtesy of Dr. István Ravasz.
67 Army ration bread, baked in the camp bakery