THE ATTACK OF THE FOURTH AND SECOND UKRAINIAN FRONTS AGAINST THE ÁRPÁD-LINE
Having finished the Roumanian operation, the troops of the Second Ukrainian Front reached the line of the Priszlop-pass–Marosvásárhely–the southern sector of Kolozsvár in Northern Transylvania, and the south-western section of the pre-war Roumanian–Hungarian frontier and the Roumanian–Yugoslavian frontier. The length of the front line was 800 km. Before the beginning of the offensive in Hungary, the Second Ukrainian Front got significant reinforcements for the infantry divisions from the reserve of the Supreme Command. Furthermore it was reinforced by additional mechanised cavalry and artillery higher units. The Fortieth Army, the Seventh Guards Army, the Fourth and First Roumanian Army, the Twenty seventh, Fifty third and the Forty sixth Armies, the Sixth Guards Tank Army, the 18th Armoured Corps, two mechanised cavalry groups and the Fifth Air Force Army belonged to the Second Ukrainian Front. It meant altogether 40 infantry divisions, three armoured corps, two mechanised and three cavalry corps, and an armoured brigade. The Front had 750 tanks and assault guns, 10200 guns and mine-throwers, and 1100 planes at their disposal.
On the right of the Second Ukrainian Front, the troops of the Fourth Ukrainian Front reached the border of the Subcarpathian Region, East of the Dukla-Pass, down to the Roumanian frontier 320 km distant. The First Guards Army, the Eightieth Army, the 17th Independent Guards Rifle corps and the 8th Air Force Corps belonged to this front.
On the left of the Second Ukrainian Front the troops of the Third Ukrainian Front in Bulgaria developed on the Yugoslavian frontier, on a 400 km wide front line extending from the Danube bend, south of Orsova down to the Bulgarian-Greek frontier. The troops of the Third Ukrainian Front, with the Bulgarian divisions and with the Yugoslavian People’s Liberation Army began the general offensive in the direction of Belgrad.
The German “South” Army Group faced the Second Ukrainian Front (Heeresgruppe Süd, commander: Colonel General Friessner). The remnants of the Eighth and Sixth German Armies, the Second Hungarian 2. Army and three divisions of the “F” Army Group belonged to it, with 3500 guns, 300 tanks and 550 planes (altogether 29 divisions and five brigades). A part of the First German Tank Army and the First Army faced the Fourth Ukrainian Front. The operational build-up of all armies belonging to the “South” Army Group defending in Hungary had one echelon (with the exception of the Sixth German Army).
“The plan of the German Supreme Command was to keep Hungary in its possession with active combat operations. To attain this goal they wanted to deal two blows on the enemy in the Western regions of Roumania and Transylvania in order to crush the Soviet troops advancing there, to throw them back to the Southern side of the Carpathians, and to protect the roads leading into the Danube-Tisza Interflow. At the same time, the German command decided to withdraw their troops from Greece, Albania and from the southern regions of Yugoslavia, because these territories were endangered by the higher units of the Third Ukrainian front and by the Bulgarian divisions which had advanced to the Bulgarian–Yugoslavian frontier” 97
This statement needs some additional notes. The German military leadership agreed with the conception of the Headquarters of the Hungarian Royal Army on an offensive for closing the southern passes of the Carpathians after the Roumanian crossing. But the harmonization of the operations was not a simple problem because in practice there were hardly any significant effective German forces in the area. The memorandum of Colonel General János Vörös directed to the German military leadership gives a clear picture about these desperate measures.98
“W. M. op.22. IX. –44.
To The Accredited German General.
Re the counter-measures against the Russian offensive on the Great Hungarian Plain.
The Russians have put into action the majority of their forces grouped in southern Transylvania in the valley of the Maros river, having thrown back our Third Army fighting there – this army is composed mainly of auxiliary units representing small combat values and their weaponry is weak - they opened free way towards the Great Hungarian Plain. After the last few days’ heavy fights the majority of the Third Army got into a critical situation. The mainly mechanised and armoured mobile Russian forces dominate the plain territory and outflank the Hungarian forces on both sides. This fight will lead to the collapse of those auxiliary troops with weak combat value. Moreover, air reconnaissance has established the fact that fresh, larger Russian forces are advancing in the Maros valley and on the elevations on both sides of the river, westwards.
It is doubtless that the Third Army will not be able to offer serious and longer resistance against this superior force. If this army collapses the Great Hungarian Plain and the direction of any offensive against Budapest will remain without defence.
In spite of the fact that the German leadership gave verbal and written promises, there are no visible signs that we could count on any serious German support for the closing of the Soviet main offensive direction.
All this considered, the Hungarian military leadership shall issue the following instructions for the defence of the territory of the country and its population, taking full responsibility for this, albeit not willingly, but forced by the situation which developed because of the non-realisation of German help.
In this regard, I issue the following order:
The First Army will take over the command of the 6th Hungarian Division and the 2nd Mountain Fighter Brigade. The front line of the First Army shall without delay be pulled back to, or behind, the thousand year old frontier to the “Árpád” position. Further on, the Army will do its best to pull back as many forces as possible and assemble them behind their left wing.
The command of the Second Hungarian Army will immediately give marching orders to the 2nd Hungarian Armoured Division and the 27th Light Division to Nagyvárad, and will direct these units by railway transport to that town. On arrival I shall act according to the current situation.
I ask Your Excellency to take all this into consideration lest the Hungarian Army Headquarters have any problems with the German higher commands for executing my commands. I also ask you to inform the relevant German headquarters about my instructions.
Dispatched to: the accredited German general, the Governmental Office and to His Excellency the War Minister (by adjutant)
Budapest, 22nd September 1944.
Colonel General János Vörös.”
These were the days when the Hungarian armistice delegation under the leadership of Colonel General Gábor Faraghó started their journey to Moscow. In consideration of the military political situation which had developed on the southern wing of the Soviet–German front line, the Headquarters of the Soviet Supreme Command gave orders to the troops of the Red Army to crush the German–Hungarian Army Group in Hungary. It was clear to the Soviet military leadership that by doing so it would become possible for the Red Army to reach the Western frontiers of Hungary, and then launch an offensive against Vienna and the southern territories of Germany. The Second Ukrainian Front was entrusted with the execution of this task, and the Supreme Command ordered the Fourth Ukrainian Front to support the offensive of the Second Ukrainian Front.
The plan of the Soviet Headquarters was the following: the centre of the Second Ukrainian Front was going to crush the main forces of the “South” Army Group by a main attack from the north-western sector of Arad towards Debrecen and Nyíregyháza, clearing Eastern Hungary of the opposing forces by secondary strikes on the wings, and completing the occupation of the northern part of Transylvania. In the course of these operations the Second Ukrainian Front had to co-operate closely with the neighbouring fronts, especially with the Fourth Ukrainian Front. The latter got the job of breaking through the defence in the Carpathians, of occupying the region of Ungvár and Csap, advancing to the upper course of the Tisza river and “de-liberating” the Subcarpathians completely. The activity of the Fourth and Second Ukrainian Fronts was synchronised by Marshal Timoshenko, representative of the Supreme Headquarters. A very important feature of the Soviet offensive in Hungary differed significantly from the majority of strategic operations in 1944-45: it was prepared during the operation beforehand. Important organisational problems had to be overcome for the successful execution of such a large operation without breaks in operation. The Soviet monographs scarcely mention that the lack of operational breaks also contributed to the initial failures of the Red Army in the Eastern Carpathians.
The aim of the offensive which took place on the territory of Hungary and got the name “tank battle of Debrecen” was to crush the group of the enemy in the Nagyvárad–Debrecen zone, then to develop the offensive towards Nyíregyháza-Csap to help the Fourth Ukrainian Front in the occupation of the region of Ungvár and Munkács. The troops of the Second Ukrainian Front launched their offensive after a short artillery and air-bomb preparation on 6th October. The higher units of the Fifty-third Army and the mechanised cavalry group of Lieutenant General Pliyev broke through the defence of the Third Hungarian Army facing them on the first day of the offensive. By the evening of the third day they had advanced 80-100 kilometres and reached the outskirts of Karcag. Only the attack of the Sixth Guards Tank army was unsuccessful because of few tanks; this army met sturdy resistance and had to stop on the southern communication lines, which were built up to be a strong nest of resistance.
The troops of the Forty-sixth Army cleared the Yugoslavian territories east of the Tisza river and established bridgeheads at Zenta and in the sector of Becse on the left wing of the Front. However, the troops of the right wing of the front made only an insignificant advance: the German-Hungarian resistance was especially strong in the district of Kolozsvár. The Soviet units and higher units had to repel the repeated counterattacks of the defending Hungarian troops, so they had no chance to think of advancing any further.
On 8th October, considering the situation, the commander of the Second Ukrainian Front ordered that the centre of the front be reinforced by troops of the right wing, and that the direction of the main attack of the cavalry-mechanised troops of General Pliyev be changed. These troops should turn to the southeast, and strike against Nagyvárad where the offensive was completely blocked from behind, from the northeastern sector of Karcag. The mechanised cavalry group continued its attack, and occupied Nagyvárad in cooperation with the 33rd Rifle Corps on 12th October. In the meantime the 6th Guards Cavalry Corps of the Pliyev-Group advancing in a northeasterly direction approached Debrecen.
The railway and road line of the Sixth German Army were interrupted because of the successful activity of the central troops of the Second Ukrainian Front. Furthermore, the communications lines of the Eighth German Army and the Second And First Hungarian Armies became also endangered. This situation forced the German command to begin the retreat of its troops fighting against the right wing of the Second Ukrainian Front in a northwesterly direction on October 9th -10th .
Taking the opportunity of the withdrawal of the German–Hungarian troops the left wing troops of the Second Ukrainian Front began pursuit. They captured Kolozsvár, the administrative centre of Transylvania on 11th October, and reached the Óradna-Beszterce-Kolozsvár sector by 12th October. The left wing troops of the front were fighting for the widening of the bridgeheads on the Tisza river on an 80 kilometre sector from Szeged to Becej and captured Szeged on 11th October. So the troops of the Second Ukrainian Front achieved great success by 12th October. They gained significant grounds in the direction of Debrecen and Szeged, and cleaned up the left bank of the Tisza river south of Debrecen. The fight of the Soviet troops developed even more successfully in the following days. The changing situation on the line of the Second Ukrainian Front made it possible for the Commander of the Front to make a decision again. They covered the western wing of the Front by the Fifty-third and Forty-sixth Armies, and turned the Mechanised Cavalry Group of General Pliyev from the neighbourhood of Nagyvárad towards the North, into the direction of Nyíregyháza–Csap, to support the advance of the troops of the Fourth Ukrainian Front into the region of Ungvár-Munkács. The mechanised cavalry troop of General Gorshkov got the task of striking from the eastern sector of Nagyvárad towards Nagykároly-Szatmárnémeti “ to stop the withdrawal of the Kolozsvár-Máramarossziget enemy group” and together with the right wing troops of the Front “to surround and annihilate the enemy’s army group”
Desperate fights took place in the direction of the main thrust, between Nagyvárad and Debrecen, from 13th October to 20th October. The German–Hungarian divisions staunchly held the line South of Debrecen, stopped further advance of the Soviet troops northward and held the main communications centres of the Carpathian and Transylvanian army groups. (Debrecen, Nyíregyháza and Csap). This way they ensured the retreat of the Eighth German Army and the First and Second Hungarian armies. In the meantime, the unsuccessful attempt in the breakaway of Hungary from Germany and the putsch of the Hungarian Nazis took place. The events swept away the politicians together with their decisions, but the soldiers had to fight on.
The troops of the two Soviet Cavalry-Mechanised Groups had heavy fights against the Germans and Hungarians, and only on 19th October were they able to break into Debrecen in co-operation with the Sixth Guards Tank Army and the 33rd Infantry Corps. The town fell by the morning of 20th October. Following the retreating Hungarian-German troops, the Soviet Fortieth and Twenty-seventh Armies, and the Fourth Roumanian Army reached the terrain section of Máramarossziget-Margitta on the right wing on 20th October, and established immediate contact with the right wing troops fighting in the Debrecen-Nyíregyháza direction. On the same day, the troops of the 46th Army crossed the Hungarian-Yugoslavian frontier southeast from Baja.
What was happening on the northern wing of the front line, in the Eastern Carpathians, in the meantime? This section of the front line is interesting for us, because it turned out that just there all the large amounts of money and energy were being spent on the construction of the Árpád-line.
The Second and Fourth Ukrainian Fronts co-operated closely during the Debrecen operations. The troops of the Fourth Ukrainian Front, which began the Carpathian-Ungvár operations on 9 September, got to the Soviet-Czechoslovakian frontier at the end of September. According to their assignment, they had to cross the Carpathians and get into the sector of Ungvár and Munkács in October. However, the Fourth Ukrainian Front had only minor successes in the first half of October. The German-Hungarian troops well utilised the wooded ranges and the strong mechanised structures, and held their defence lines staunchly. The First Guards Army, fighting on the right wing, was forced to stop its advance. Meanwhile the right wing of the Eighteenth Army, fighting in the centre, outflanked the Uzsoki-Pass, its left wing corps occupied the Verecke-Pass, and advanced a few kilometres to the south. However, it could not close onto the valley blocks of the Árpád-line. The 17th Independent Guards Rifle Corps fought without success in the district of Kőrösmező on the left wing of the Front. After the unsuccessful Hungarian breakaway from the German alliance on 15th October the withdrawal of the Hungarian-German troops began, as the troops of the Second Ukrainian Front reached the region of Debrecen-Nyíregyháza and this fact seriously endangered the supply lines of the First Army.
The pursuit of the retreating Hungarian-German troops began by the 17th Guards Rifle Corps and then by the left wing corps of the Eighteenth Army. Advancing alongside the northern bank of the Tisza river, having occupied Huszt on 23 October, they reached the Ilosva-Nagyszőllős terrain-section on 25 October. So decisive events took place on the left wing of the Fourth Ukrainian Front. The Soviet troops endangered the logistic supply of the First German Tank Army facing the right wing of the Fourth Ukrainian Front.
“Continuing the pursuit of the enemy, the corps of the Eighteenth Army liberated Munkács by 26th October, and Ungvár, the administrative centre of the Subcarpathians, by the following day. The divisions of the 17th Guard Rifle Corps occupied Csop on 28th October.
By the time the Debrecen operation of the Second Ukrainian Front was completed the troops of the Fourth Ukrainian Front had also finished the Carpathians-Ungvár operation and reached the Sztarina-Ungvár- Csap terrain section. The success of the Fourth Ukrainian Army was mainly due to the outcome of the main attack of the Second Ukrainian Front from the northwestern sector of Arad on Debrecen, outflanking Nagyvárad.” 99
97 A Nagy Honvédő Háború története. 1941-45 (The History Of the Great Patriotic War. 1941-45), 4. Budapest, 1966, 213-218.
99 A Nagy Honvédő Háború Története (The History of the Great Patriotic War). 1941-1945. Volume 4., 213-218.