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The defence system of the Hungarian Royal Army in the Eastern Carpathians
The defence system of the Hungarian Royal Army in the Eastern Carpathians : ONLY THE VICTOR’S VOICE IS HEARD

ONLY THE VICTOR’S VOICE IS HEARD

  2008.01.07. 16:43

The book of Colonel-General Grechko A. A., Commander of the First Guards Army: “Across the Carpathians”, gives detailed pictures about the fights of the 4th Ukrainian Front in the Eastern Carpathian Mountains from August to October 1944.

In this way I can introduce the operation of the Árpád-line, this forgotten Hungarian fortification system, from the point of view of the Army Commander who wanted to capture it. Let us see, how general Grechko saw that theatre of war, where he had to attack:

 

“…There are many smaller or larger rivers and streams in the valleys and ravines of the Eastern Carpathians, which divide the mountains in different directions.  Because of these divisions several blocks of mountains came into being, with lengths of 10-12 kilometres.  Although the Carpathian rivers are usually shallow, their large number, their steep banks, and the separate mountain ranges, valleys and ravines made the Carpathian Mountains almost inaccessible for troops and mechanised military equipment.  The majority of the slopes of the mountain ranges and the forests covering the mountains also made the movements and activities of the troops extremely difficult. (Page 65.)

The Carpathian Mountains therefore signified an enormous and complicated natural obstacle for our troops on the routes of advance.  The possibilities of passing them were restricted by the fact that there were comparatively few passes with routes for trucks, coaches, or railway.  The infantry could cross the Carpathians in almost all directions on the mountain paths with its armoury – even with machine-guns and with mine layers transported on pack animals.  But the trucks, jeeps, tanks and artillery were only able to advance on the roadways.  These corps could only advance on other kind of routes in dry weather.  In certain sections the light and medium artillery did not only follow the fighting order of the infantry across the most important passes.  Their units surmounted the natural obstacles of the mountains with the help of the infantry and engineers, advancing on earth roads and on tracks.” (Page 107.)

 

This difficult terrain provided very favourable conditions for the defending side and made the situation of the attacking troops very difficult. The Árpád-line was constructed in the narrow valleys of the Carpathian Mountains, running towards the inner parts of the country.  In 1944, when the Red Army was approaching, two other defence lines were built in the Carpathian submountain region so that the enemy would not close in on the main defence line by an attack from the march column.  In this way the full depth of the defensive system was even 40-50 kilometres at some places.  The Hunyadi post was a chain of strong localities1 and field fortifications built up for infantry troops connected to them.  The St. László post was marked out at the border of the country, it consisted of trenches, dug during World War I, and obstacles.  This was the first defensive line, which should have been broken through from the march column by the left wing of the First Ukrainian Front and by the Fourth Ukrainian Front, which were pursuing the retreating Hungarian-German troops.  They would have had to do it with only those forces and combat equipment at their disposal at that time.  Colonel-General Grechko remembers these events as follows:

 

“As our troops advanced among the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains the resistance of the enemy became stronger and stronger.  The broken terrain helped the enemy’s preparation for a strong defence on the advance routes of the Fourth Ukrainian Front.  But our hard strike forced the enemy to slowly pull back its troops, even in this exceptionally difficult situation, to the Carpathian Mountains between 6th-12th August.  In spite of this the efforts of our troops to continue the advance were not successful between 12th-15th August.  The higher units of the Fourth Ukrainian Front stopped their advance in the terrain sector they had reached by then. (Page 149.)

...By the middle of August the troops of the Fourth Ukrainian Front took up contemporary stationary positions. The operational break was used by the commanders, staffs and political organs to reinforce the staff, the armament, the means of transport and the technical equipment for the execution of the new offensive tasks in the wooded-mountainous terrain conditions.” (Page 83.)

 

Thus the advance of the troops of the Fourth Ukrainian Front was halted at the Hunyadi posts (they didn’t stop of their own accord! J. J. Sz.), i.e. still at the outer defensive line of Hungary.  Of course, General Grechko, the learned professional army leader, well knew why the Soviet army leadership had stopped the useless offensive efforts of the Red Army.  However, in his book he modestly keeps silent about the facts that the Fourth Ukrainian Front did not have forces enough to overcome the defensive system of the Carpathian Mountains, and in the meantime the Second Ukrainian Front launched the so-called Iasi-Kishinev operation, which led to the outflanking of the Carpathian Mountains. Due to these events, a series of slow, painstaking operations was necessary to contain the Hungarian and German forces fighting in the Eastern Carpathians.  The Red Army had already passed the Eastern Carpathians from the North on the territory of Poland, in the main theatre of the war, so a German strike from the south into the rear of the Soviet armies advancing towards Berlin could have been very unpleasant.  Thus the Fourth Ukrainian Front had a really very important role.  It was not sufficient to launch operations of defensive character only, the Fourth Ukrainian Front had to continue an offensive activity. This was not a simple task, because:

 

“Advancing in the mountainous terrain is one of the most difficult types of any military activity.  The order of battle, extremely restricted and deeply divided, and the extended supply lines, sometimes make the frontal manoeuvres almost impossible, or even totally impossible. The organisation of the signal system,  cooperation and combat safeguarding become very complicated.  The enormous fortifications in the narrow valleys of the mountain rivers rule out frontal attacks.  Continuing the offensive is possible only by outflanking manoeuvres, which avoid the fortified sectors, through pathless regions.” (Page 78.)

 

The reconnaissance data at the disposal of the Red Army about the fortification system constructed on the Hungarian border were quite varied:

 

“At the beginning of our offensive the Carpathian fortification system of the enemy was set up from an advanced defence line running through the northwestern slopes of the foothills, from several internal defence zones constructed for the defence of the most important strategic directions, and from a permanent fortification system positioned on the main range of the Carpathian Mountains.  This last line was the main defence line of the enemy in the Carpathian Mountains.” (Page 79.)

 

In practice, “the most important fortification system on the main range of the Carpathian Mountains” was the so-called St. László position, constructed with the help of the posts remaining from World War I.  This was designed to be only a temporary defensive position, so that there should still be an intermediate line where the retreating troops could wait for a while.  The most important fortification line was the Árpád-line, which was constructed in the narrowing valleys running inside the country roughly 15-25 kilometres from the border.  These valleys were closed by valley blocks.

The valley block created for all-round defence was usually set up from 15-20 reinforced concrete shelters.  The shelters were intentionally built without loopholes, serving only for the safety of the personnel and the armaments.  Trenches led from the shelters, covered by 60-100 cm thick overhead protection to the open firing positions.  The basic cell of the valley block, made up from cell-like parts, was the squad defence post capable of and necessary for independent perpendicular defence. The valley block was defended by the so-called fort companies, which did not differ much from the infantry companies except that they had more automatic weapons, trench mortars and armour-piercing weapons.  The defence sectors of the frontier guard battalions supervising these fort companies were constructed 4-10 kilometres behind the strongholds of the fort companies.

Marauding frontier guard companies held the communications posts on the ridges between the valley blocks.  In the case of war field fortifications, built and defended by infantry troops, the so-called “bastion posts” ran on the ridges.  The frontier guard battalions did not man the rear border of the fortification system alone.  Where necessary mountain fighter troops or infantry units were also prepared to repulse the enemy’s attack.

The troops of the Fourth Ukrainian Front did not reach the Árpád-line in the course of their operations in September-October 1944.  They only captured a part of the passes, the above-mentioned St László positions.

 

“ The main defence line of the enemy, which was facing the Fourth Ukrainian Front, ran on the state border alongside the main range of the Carpathian Mountains.   The mountainous terrain made it possible to construct a system of permanent lines of fort fire emplacements and tank obstacles, reinforced by field-type accessories. All mountain passes usable for advance of the troops were closed off by defensive posts.   The antitank obstacles, pits and ditches, barriers, bars, the creation of strong defences on the mountains slopes beside the roads, on the river flats and in the river beds, the dense mine belts on the approaching routes, the artillery and machine gun fire of the permanent equipment, all made the fortified sectors inaccessible for frontal assaults.  The so-called Árpád-line could be broken through only by outflanking manoeuvres.” (Page 81.)

 

Colonel-General Grechko also describes why the oft-mentioned outflanking manoeuvres were necessary.  He believed that the Árpád-line was a strong defensive system, in spite of the fact that it was only a torso.  There were hardly any fortifications on the mountain ridges between the valley blocks, and there were not enough Hungarian troops to close all the gaps.

 

“The enemy set up altogether 99 strongholds, 759 permanent reinforced constructions, 394 earth covered structures, 439 open firing posts, 400 kilometres of trenches and ditches, 135 kilometre long antitank and anti-infantry obstacles (ditches, mounds and dug-outs, barricades).  The weak side of the enemy’s Carpathian defence was that the cuttings of positions were missing and there were interim sectors without fortification alongside the main mountain range, between certain important directions”

 

Out of General Grechko’s detailed reports let me stress only one, the 17th Guards Infantry Corps, which, being independently active as regards direction on the left wing of the Fourth Ukrainian Front, pushed forward across the Tatár pass towards Kőrösmező-Rahó-Máramarossziget.  So, besides the pass, the corps had to occupy or outflank the valley blockades of Kőrösmező and Rahó as well.

 

“The Soviet combat forces had to breach the defence stronghold of Kőrösmező, which was one of the strongest mountain fortifications of the Árpád-line.  The locality named Kőrösmező lies alongside the White Tisza and the Black Tisza rivers.  Three roads lead to the village from Mikulichin, Brustura and Vorochta… The enemy left this locality out of its defence line and built only four pillboxes to control the road.  The defence junction was organised at the southern edge of Kőrösmező, where the terrain was narrow, and there was only one road leading into Radó.

The defence junction of Kőrösmező was set up from 19 strong points lined up without interruption just beside each other.  Each of them consisted of two or three open firing posts and reinforced concrete and log pillboxes.   Besides all these, many strong posts had also battery emplacements and tactical headquarters.  All strong points were made suitable for perpendicular defence, defiled entrenchment connected the accessories, and open trenches assured a connection with the neighbouring posts.  The fire system was also organised perpendicularly, the barbed wire entanglements followed the lines of the strong point.  Each stronghold had mutual connection with the neighbouring posts, and they ensured that the roads approaching the forward edge of the battle area would be kept under fire in front of the obstacles.  Furthermore, the positions also received fire-support from mine throwers.  The posts of the mine throwers were set up as follows: the first post was alongside the railway, the second was eastward from the first, behind the opposite slope of the foothills, and the third was on the right bank of the Tisza river in the flood area.

A cart track led through the territory of the Kőrösmező junction, which lay on the left bank of the Tisza river. Bridges were built to connect with the right bank of the river across the flood area and across the river.

There were also barbed wire entanglements in the other sections of the defensive line.  They formed a tent-like net fixed to two rows of stakes.  Our advance forces even found live wires.  There were bare wires stretched between reinforced concrete columns insulated with rubber.  The defenders placed here two high-powered generators and fed 3000 volts into the wires”. (Page 166.)

 

Reading Colonel-General Grechko”s book we can obtain information on the successful advance of the Soviet troops, about repulsing the enemy’s counter-strikes, and also about energetic attacks, about the bitter, obstinate resistance of the enemy.  Even so we get an astonishing result if we pay more attention to the list of the localities and topographic points liberated, captured and then re-captured by the enemy, re-establishing by this the original situation after a contemporary pullback. It is not necessary to do any counting because the author always summarises the results of the battles and also his experiences. Thus:

 

“The most important result of the 18 days’ (9th-28th September) offensive of the First Guards Army, of the Eighteenth Army and of the 17th Guards Infantry Corps was that their troops crossed the main range of Carpathian Mountains and occupied the zone of the passes.  The troops of the two armies advanced to a depth of 4-7 kilometres.  In the course of their advance they used the few mountain tracks and they often had to build new roads using the forces and equipment at their disposal.” (Page 218.)

 

A 4-7 kilometre advance in a month.  One cannot say it was a really energetic offensive operation.  And the attacks were led not only for appearance.  The Soviet troops were well prepared for the combats in the mountains. Their supply lines were also very well organised, during operational breaks the troops were reinforced and brought up to full strength.  It was not an exhausted and battle-weary army which could not get across the front line of the defending troops of the First (Hungarian) Army.  Then why were the Soviet troops not able to get inside Hungary from East-Northeast?  General Grechko answers this question also by keeping modestly silent about the successes of the Second Ukrainian Front in the Roumanian direction.  He only betrayed himself in the summaries sometimes. So it happened in this case:

 

“The enemy got exhausted during the hard fights in the sectors westward and southward of Kőrösmező.  They suffered heavy losses, therefore they could not hold the fortified sector of Kőrösmező.  Due to these facts and to the successful operations of the troops of the Second Ukrainian Front – their troops outflanked the First Hungarian Army from the South – the enemy was forced to pull back its troops from the sector of Kőrösmező towards Rahó and further on, towards Máramarossziget.  The units of the 17th Guards Infantry Corps began to pursue the enemy by 15th October… On 18th October, in the course of pursuing the enemy, the 17th Guards Infantry Corps seized Máramarossziget lying on the bank of the Tisza river (in Northern Transylvania).  It happened in this sector that 17th Guards Corps got into immediate contact with its neighbours, with the right wing troops of the Second Ukrainian Front.” (Page 218.)

 

Before these events the centre of the Second Ukrainian front had already even occupied Debrecen, and its left wing had reached the Danube river at Baja.  So even General Grechko admitted that the Hungarian and German troops, the defenders of the Árpád-line in the Carpathian Mountains, had retreated only when the Second Ukrainian front threatened them with being surrounded from the South.  Earlier the offensive of the Fourth Ukrainian Front could not develop and did not gain ground.  In other words, the Fourth Ukrainian front could not break through the Árpád-line; they only occupied it following the retreat of the First Hungarian Army because of the danger of being surrounded.

It happened during the rearguard fights of the troops retreating from the valley block and from the strong posts of the Árpád-line that the Hungarian Home Defence Forces began to disintegrate.  The Hungarian troops became really demoralised by the unsuccessful attempt of the breakaway with the Germans, by the successful coup d’état of the Hungarian Nazi Party, by the loss of a significant part of the Hungarian lands, and by the fact that the Hungarian troops got subordinated to German command. “The 4th Volume of “The History of the Great Patriotic War, 1941-19452 – this monograph cannot be accused of any bias towards the Hungarians – summarises the Carpathian operations in the autumn of 1944 as follows:

 

“The Fourth Ukrainian Front and the Second Ukrainian Front closely co-operated in the period of the Debrecen operation.  The troops of the Fourth Ukrainian front began the Carpathian-Ungvár operation on 9th September. Having reached the Soviet-Czechoslovakian border they occupied the Radnai-Pass and the Orosz- (Russian) Pass by the end of the month and then they continued their offensive.  The task of the troops for October was to cross the Carpathian Mountains, and reach the sector of Ungvár and Munkács.

However, the Fourth Ukrainian Front had only insignificant successes in the first half of October.  The enemy offered hard resistance, taking advantage of the wooded, mountainous terrain, and of the strong obstacles on the passes.  The First Guards Army (commander: Colonel General Grechko) was forced to abandon the offensive on 18th October.  Meanwhile the right wing corps of the Eighteenth Army, advancing in the centre of the front-line (commander: Lieutenant General Zhuravljov) outflanked the Uzsoki-Pass and by dealing a blow to Stavnoje it cut the road to the pass and forced the enemy to retreat.  The left wing corps of the army occupied the Verecke-Pass and advanced a few kilometres south.  The independent 17th Guards Infantry Corps (commander: Major General Gastilovich) fought without success on the left wing of the front, in the sector of Kőrösmező, until 14th October.   However, the troops of the Second Ukrainian Front reached the region of Debrecen and Nyíregyháza and this fact seriously endangered the supply basis of the first Hungarian Army.   So the enemy began to pull back its troops the on 15th October.

The 17th Guards Infantry Corps and later also the left wing corps of the Eighteenth Army began to pursue the retreating enemy.  The operational situation significantly changed on the front line of the Fourth Ukrainian Front.   On 16th October Colonel General Béla Miklós, the Commander of the First Hungarian Army, escaped to the Red Army and summoned his officers and soldiers to follow his example in a declaration.   For this reason the German Headquarters accelerated the withdrawal of this army.” (Pages 213-218.)

 

Yes.  It is true that the Hungarian Royal Army was already on the brink of disintegration.  The soldiers fighting on the front did not sense either the political vibrations or the sudden changes of direction.  Everything went on normally while commands were unambiguous.  They hardly knew anything about the attempt of the Hungarian government to flee from the alliance with the Germans.  Even if they were aware of it, they waited for the command for execution.  And so did the generals!!  But such a command never arrived, they got only the summons to continue the fight and the news about the terror of the Hungarian Nazis.  Many soldiers saw and felt that the war was lost.  There was no more strength and faith in them to go on with the combat.  The Armed Forces were pulled forward or rather backward by inertia, because of the constraints of the Germans and of the fear of the Soviets.  The Hungarian soldiers’ running of the gauntlet for life began.

One can raise the question why the fact is important for us that the Árpád-line was the only fortification system in Europe not to be broken through in World War II.  The fortifications expert does not pose such a question, he only studies the problem with interest and draws conclusions from it.  The “old-timer” Communist veteran, with a class-struggle-minded view of history, does not want to believe the whole story, nor does he understand at all why he had to fight against the heroic liberators.  Why was it necessary to build fortifications at all?  Anybody can solve this problem as he likes.  I use the opportunity to quote the words of Hárosy Teofil, Colonel of the Engineer Corps, the dreamer and creator of the Árpád-line:3

 

“It is beyond dispute that defence only postpones the decision, even in the best case.  Victory, in other words forcing our will on the enemy, is possible only by attack.   Even so, it is an ancient tradition that the defender sets up fortifications.   If he becomes a loser, it happens not because of his construction of fortifications.   He is in a defensive position because he feels he is weak.   Without the defender’s fortifications the task of the invader is even easier.  Only the voice of the victor is heard following a settled combat, and nobody will wrestle with the problem of  how much effort was necessary for him to attain his victory.” 4



1 The localities designed for defence were surrounded by trenches, antitank ditches, mine fields, and by barbed wire entanglements constructed against infantry.  The houses and their cellars were reinforced and prepared for local combat.  Infantry troops trained for perpendicular defence were based in these localities.

2 Zrínyi Military Publishing House, Budapest, 1966.

3 Vitéz Teofil Hárosy (8th December, 1893, Cajla – 27th June, 1966, Budapest). Military High School, Sopron, Technische Militarakademie, Mödling. 1914: 5. Imperial and Royal Field Engineering Battalion, Komárom, lieutenantWorld War I: engineering company commander, Premysl. Prisoner of war in Russia: March 1915 – May 1918. From 1923: Ludovica Staff Academy, teacher of Science of Fortification. From 1st September, 1941: colonel. 1942-44: National Commander of Fortifications. He worked as engineer after World War II in Budapest, until his death on 27th June 1966.

4 Magyar Katonai Szemle (Hungarian Military Review) {further on: MKSZ}, 1941/11, 289.

 
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