AT THE HEADQUARTERS OF THE FIRST ARMY
It was not the lack of an operational break which caused the fruitless operations of the Fourth Ukrainian Front, as is alleged by Soviet war history. The first breakthrough attempt of the First Ukrainian Front was really made from march column, but it was followed by an operational break. The Soviet troops were already well prepared for the second attempt: an independent front, namely the Fourth Ukrainian Front, was established just for this purpose. In addition, the Hungarian defence was weakened because of the invasion against Southern Transylvania, the Dukla operation of the First Ukrainian Front, where German troops had been withdrawn from the Carpathian front line. The left wing of the Second Ukrainian Front closed up on the Transylvanian valley blocks almost without resistance, but their advance was halted there. The troops of the Fourth Ukrainian Front also had only minor results during the second large operations; they could only close up on the St. László position in the Subcarpathians. In the middle of the third operational period, the defenders began evacuating the Árpád-line, as there was a danger they would be surrounded. The attack of the Fourth Ukrainian Front was only able to develop after these events.
Let us put the events in chronological order:
23rd July–2nd August 1944:
The left wing of the First Ukrainian Front reached the Hunyadi position and closed up on it everywhere, and even pierced it in a few places. However the VI. Hungarian Corps recaptured the lost sections by a rapid attack. Following these events there was a long operational break. During this break, the Fourth Ukrainian Front was established on 5th August. Reinforcements, building up supply lines and regrouping of troops took place in the following days. The Fourth Ukrainian Front had to be prepared for the mountain fight. In the meantime the offensive of the Second Ukrainian Front began against Roumania in the Iasi-Kishinev region on 20th August.
9th-28th September 1944.
The first attack of the Fourth Ukrainian Front resulted an advance of 4-7 kilometres , but the Soviet troops only reached the valley blocks of the Árpád-line in few places. The offensive of the front did not bring any success, and another operational break began. Right from the Fourth Ukrainian Front the offensive of the First Ukrainian Front was halted in the direction of Dukla. The Second Ukrainian Front ran through Roumania rapidly, closing up to the valley blocks of the Székelyföld. The defenders held out heroically there. However, the Soviet troops gained grounds across South Transylvania and reached the southern frontiers of Hungary. The military evacuation of the Székelyföld had to begin. The defenders of the valley blocks of the Székelyföld held out to the last minute and covered the withdrawal.
2nd-17th October 1944.
Nor was the offensive of the Fourth Ukrainian Front able to make headway on this occasion. The Second Ukrainian Front occupied Nagyvárad and was fighting in the vicinity of Debrecen. The “City of the Great Hungarian Plain” Debrecen, also fell on 20th October, the defenders of the Carpathians were threatened by getting into a cul-de-sac. The withdrawal of the front line commenced into the Árpád-line. The combat began to save the Hungarian-German troops from getting surrounded. By the end of October, the First and Second Hungarian Army and the remnants of the Sixth and Eighth German Army got out of the cul-de-sac successfully, and retreated behind the Tisza river. The Soviet troops did not succeed in surrounding any larger army units.
Speaking about military events, we have often quoted the Soviet description. Now let us see who those people were who stopped the flood of the Soviet troops with the aid of the fortifications of the Eastern Carpathians and defended their country for months. Staff Captain László Eszenyi served at the Staff Department of the First Army. Reading his memoirs, we can imagine how this resistance was organised by the officers of the First Army:100
“Following the warnings of Dani Székely, I join quite a strong combat engineer column which was sent for the replacement of those working in the Árpád-position. Part of a signal company came with us; altogether about 150 people assembled in our group.
The road wound around the valley of the Nagyság creek. I admired the beauties of nature which had still not been spoiled by barbarian human hatred. The exception was the road itself! The roadsides torn off by the spring flood were already shored up by our pioneer troops who installed log-bridges at places, and widened the narrow defiles so that traffic could be ensured in both ways. Even so, it was the type of road about which the canny Székely people would say: “I have been on better roads than this, and they were no good”.
A frontier-guard battalion was positioned in the valley leading towards Ökörmező for the support of the fort company which was closing the Toronyai-Pass. We could hear scattered infantry fire from the territory of the enormous forest, but we were not “honoured” by any visit of the partisans.
We stopped at the concrete fortress beside the road. I go there. The commander of the company, a stout, self-confident senior lieutenant, who had learned at the Military Academy, comes to me. Glancing at my collar-patch, he salutes. We go into the fortress together. He explains that they can fire with the armour piercing guns, machine guns and other infantry arms in all directions from the fortresses. The fortress itself even protects against a direct hit from medium range artillery. Of course, I do not remember the exact number of his staff, he says a number between 200 and 300. They are recruited people, their training is excellent, but only a few of them had already been under enemy fire. He is confident that they will weather the front-line baptism without any problem. As strong artillery fire can be heard from the direction of the Hunyadi position from this morning, they might have to weather it any day now.
I would have liked to have an assignment nearer to the combat area. A few days ago I was told that Staff Major Ferenc Adonyi was to get my position, in which case I could have joined a division. I would have liked to get to his position just as much as that of Chief of Staff of Major General Kudriczky. However Adonyi “merged” with Kudriczky very much in the course of the heavy fights, and he called his former chief, János Vörös, Chief of the General Staff, asking him to take over command of the re-filled 24th Infantry Division. I was told that I was needed at the Headquarters of the Army during the reorganisations under way. And anyhow, I am too young to be Chief of Staff of a division - I could have only been an operational officer there. Later I did not regret that I was held back because that way I could get into the centre of the decisive events in October 1944.
The German liaison staff also got a new commander. The headquarters of the Army Group was evidently not pleased by the actions of Staff Colonel Schipp, who often panicked without any reason. So he was replaced by Staff Colonel Schröder, who had an engaging manner and who had been professor of the German Military academy.
The measurement of human and material losses immediately began when the army units, having got hold of the Hunyadi Position, could give reports. Human losses were around 30-50%; they were the largest in the units of the VII. Corps.
The 2200 persons who were still arriving in the last days of July serve as immediate compensation for human losses. The more serious reinforcements, both from the point of view of quality and quantity, come from the disbanded 18th 19th Reserve Divisions and from the 7th Infantry Division. These are battle-tested people who got hardened in the fights of the last weeks.
The reorganisation of the troops, and the establishment of their lost armament and material, and also the requirement of the supplies meant extraordinary work for the Operational Department. Engineer Staff Major Miklós Kengyel deserves merit for the excellent administration of the material part. Luckily, the Russian army units, exhausted in the fights of the Subcarpathian Region, also badly need reinforcement and regrouping. Their offensive is gradually losing its momentum and aggression. That first happens just in front of our northern defence sector, because the further gain of terrain would be the most difficult in the almost pathless, enormous woods over there given such heavy losses. After 10th August the strong attacks against the Tatár-pass also decrease to the level of the customary endeavours of the Soviet army leadership. The Hunyadi position is still firmly in Hungarian hands.
Through replenishment our army units reach 70% of war strength on average, but we can only get partial supplies for the heavy material losses suffered in the foreground of the Carpathians. About 50% of the prescribed armament and material was at our disposal. The staff of the German division is hardly more than that of the Hungarian infantry regiments, but they are much better supplied in arms, especially in light machine-guns and heavy infantry weapons. Again, we have the most acute lack and need of heavy armour-piercing guns (7,5 cm calibre), but the significance of this fact was lessened because of the pathless wood ranges around us which could block any tank attacks.
In the middle of August we began to feel that the forces at our disposal were sufficient to hold up a Soviet offensive, but we could even not think of a larger-scale counter-attack. Even the OKW does not deal with such thoughts because of the total lack of strategic reserves. So the aim of our defence is not victory on the battle fields, but gaining time. According to the German propaganda, we have to make time until the completion of the German wonder weapon.
Three army corps defence sectors were established. The VI. Corps defended on the right wing, in the vicinity of the Tatár-pass, under the experienced leadership of Lieutenant General Ferenc Farkas. Here fought the 27th Light Division, the 10th Infantry division, and our 1st and 2nd Mountain Fighter brigades. The reserve corps was the 25th Infantry Division, its bulk already on the territory of the Árpád-position.
The III. Corps together with the reorganised 24th and 16th Infantry Divisions was in the centre, on the two sides of the Toronyai-Pass. Our 13th Infantry Division defended under the command of the German XLIX Corps between the 100th and 101st German divisions in the North, on the territory of the Uzsoki-Pass and its surroundings. The 20th Division, which had had heavy losses, reorganised and replenished its units in the northern region of Huszt. I took the earliest opportunity to drive there and congratulate Uncle Fritz Vasváry on his extraordinarily smart leadership during the withdrawal. He succeeded in leading back his division according to the directives, pursued by Soviet troops mingled with Germans…
The 6th Division, arrived not long after, and the 2nd Armoured Division, just in the process of being replenished, was placed behind our left wing.
It showed the situation between the two governments, and Hitler’s constant distrust of the Hungarians, that SS armoured divisions remain in the country for political reasons, the behaviour of Hitler’s soldiers shock the Hungarian nation, and in the meantime we are throwing in our last reserves for the defence of Transylvania.
On 1st September the Supreme National Defence Council decides to launch the offensive, and the Second Hungarian Army begins its advance southward with great initial success.
We knew practically nothing of the events after the Roumanian breakaway. Kéri Kálmán puts up questions to the leader of the liaison staff, Staff Colonel Röder; he pretends to be uninformed, but we are convinced that he knows much more than we do. We can deduce the measures of the Roumanian catastrophe only based on the urgent transport of the army units transferred from us.
What happened to our army in the Subcarpathian Region in Ukraine, is repeated here. We are standing steadfast in the calm before the storm, but when the Soviet attack ensued, the majority of our army units had already been transferred to those places where the problems were even more serious: into Transylvania and for the defence of the Duklai-Pass.
The German Supreme Command has no reserves of note. It becomes a rule that army units are transferred from the more quiet front line sectors into the more endangered ones. In addition to all this, our defence sector is extended northwards, where a heavier attack is expected in the region of the First German Tank Army. The 1st German mountain jaeger division with excellent fighting expertise, the 25th Infantry Division, the 27th Light Division and the 2nd Armoured Division go into Transylvania. The German Army Corps Headquarters and the 100th and 101st Divisions are transferred elsewhere from the North. When the 6th Division standing behind our left wing and the 20th Division standing behind our centre, in the process of reorganisation and reinforcement, also get to the Third Army which was fighting on the Great Hungarian Plain, only seven Hungarian army corps remain in our extended defence sector. And we are still standing in the outer defence line, in the Hunyadi position. The German Supreme Headquarters do not give permission for withdrawal into the shorter and better-fortified Árpád-positions. It makes my blood boil even now when I think of the humiliating behaviour of the German Supreme Command towards us. They swept our suggestions and the measures of our Supreme Command off the table altogether.
The Chief of the General Staff informed the commander of our army and our chief of Staff in Debrecen, on 2nd September. Kálmán Kéri gave a briefing to the staff of the army the following day. The first time we got to know about the catastrophic situation on the eastern theatre of war was from his sincere, quiet and unexaggerated information. He counted with the possibility that they would soon go across the southern passes held by the Roumanians and also occupy the northern part of Transylvania. Moreover they would advance with large armoured forces northwards on the Great Hungarian Plain and only a small number of Hungarian forces would be able to face them in time. It was our immediate problem that at the same time they would, with this offensive, attempt to break through the Dukla-pass and try to surround the Hungarian and German forces fighting in the Carpathians.
After the briefing Dan Székely invites me into his office. We are standing in front of the 1:200 000 scaled map, unfolded on the large table in front of the window. Frank Kovács had already drawn on the map what we had heard about the eastern theatre of war and also about the plans of the National Supreme Command in the briefing. He measures carefully the roads leading to the southern passes with a pair of compasses, then standing straight, he states, rolling his r’s a bit as it is his custom:” those blockheads up there have gone completely out of their minds”. Most probably the Second Army will not have reached the northern slopes of the Southern Carpathians yet, and even if they have the passes and the defiles will already be in Soviet hands.”
I made a remark also: ”This is the smaller problem. The greater current danger is that a Soviet offensive through the Great Hungarian Plain might cut off a safe withdrawal into the hinterland for our troops who are far advanced into Transylvania. It is a classic example showing that a tactical success on a wrongly selected place can only lead to a strategic defeat.” He agrees with me.
The lack of mutual understanding between the German and Hungarian Supreme Commands placed unnecessary burdens on our headquarters in a more and more complicated situation. We were subordinated to the German Headquarters through higher German commands in operational questions, but after the worsening of the situation the Chief of the Hungarian General Staff also gave directives to the fighting Hungarian army units without asking for permission from the Germans. For example he gave an order to Colonel General Miklós on 2nd September to pull back the right wing of his army, firstly to the St. László-position and then into the Árpád-position, because of the unstable situation which might develop in Transylvania. This operation would also mean saving forces which he could use for the support of his endangered left wing. Guderian refused the unrequested interference of János Vörös into the higher leadership in a rude telegram. We would have had huge problems because of the differences between the two high commanders had it not been for Kálmán Kéri, who ordered an operation which led to a situation satisfactory for everybody. Taking into account the fact that Vörös’ instruction was proper in all respects, he ordered our operational departments to work out the possible execution of the instruction in detail, then he informed the commanders of the corps and divisions of the orders for the details of the operation with the remark that these orders could only be executed after getting a password. This working method of our staff made it possible for us to begin the retreat into the St. László positions, then into the Árpád-position by the night of 22nd-23rd September, and we were able to finish his movement by 27th September without any greater confusion, according to the abovementioned order of the Chief of the General staff.
On 24th September the Commander of our Army Group, Colonel General Von Harpe flew out to Huszt. It was a pleasant surprise that the German general, who had been intimidating Beregfy not long ago, not only agreed with the order for the withdrawal, but established an immediate telephone contact with General Wenck, the deputy of Guderian, who was in Budapest then, and he was able to get the subsequent approval of the German Supreme Command.
We had serious difficulties due to the lack of forces due to the successive transfers of troops away from us and the commanders of the corps could only solve these difficulties through emergency measures. First of all, leaving behind strong observation sentry units, they drew back the majority of the troops in advance. There was an army unit – as far as I remember, it must have been the 27th Light Division – where voluntary Ukrainian partisans were fulfilling the thankless task of advance sentries, proving the usefulness of peaceful co-operation with them. The Soviet troops, vigorously following our retreating troops on the territory of the Verecke-pass, could only be held back by a desperate counter-attack from the parachutists and the training battalion of the gendarmes while the majority of our troops moved into in the preliminarily prepared new positions. The gendarme unit, which was not equipped with heavy infantry weapons, paid an enormous human sacrifice for its heroic resistance.
The situation after the changes in relations of subordination and command in the Árpád-line in the first days of October was as follows:
Left wing defensive sector: (Uzsoki-Pass) III. Corps. Commander: Lieutenant General ‘vitéz’ László Hollósí-Kuthy. Subordinated: 2nd Mountain Fighter Brigade and the 6th Division.
Central defensive sector: (Toronyai-Pass) The V. Corps under the command of Major General Zoltán Álgya-Papp replaced the former Markóczy group.
Right wing defensive sector (Tatár-pass): Lieutenant General ‘vitéz’ kisbarnaki Ferenc Farkas, the former units of the VI. Corps were supplied by the 21st Division.
The backbone of the defence was the line of concrete forts described above; there were field fortifications behind them, divided in depth and excellently constructed. Our troops in the Hunyadi-position were exposed without interruption to Soviet sorties of various strength. They advanced with incredible stoicism in those wooded valleys we had long held firm, where we had no refuge between the summits, and sometimes caused panic by flooding our positions with fire from their mine throwers which they carried from the outflanks and sometimes even from the rear. The number of their sorties against the new defence sectors decreased significantly. Because of our retreat, the woody ridges of the Carpathian Mountains, with only a few - very bad - routes, came between their troops and their supply bases. There were places where the Soviet troops could only carry supplies on foot or on beasts of burden climbing on the bending paths of the ravines. This situation restricted the measure and frequency of their endeavours, which never ceased to exist. The sudden ceasefire which came into being in the middle of October had political reasons.
Getting the news of the Roumanian passing over, Hitler stamped with rage. Instead of considering the tragic situation of his armies soberly and quietly, he immediately resorts to retorting counter-measures in his rage. He orders all the air forces at his disposal to throw bombs on Roumanian cities and gives orders to the mainly air defence artillery forces protecting the Ploesti oil-fields to seize Bucharest and chase away the new government. His hasty measures seal the fate of his army corps fighting in Roumania. In other words, in spite of the contract made with the Soviets, the Roumanian government tacitly agreed with the exit of the German troops from their country.
Had Hitler grasped this lifeline thrown towards him, he could have pulled back considerable forces for the closing of the Eastern and southern passes of the Carpathians. However, the news about the terror bombing spread like wildfire in the country. After this, not only the government but also the Roumanian people did everything to hinder the movements of the former German allies. So it happened that only two and a half exhausted divisions of the Eighth German Army fighting under the command of Infantry General Otto Wöhler could get across the eastern passes held by the Hungarian frontier-defence forces. Artillery General Maximillan Fretter Pico’s Sixth Army was surrounded by the Soviet-Roumanian forces on 25th-26th August, and only one division could break out of this pocket, even then with heavy losses.”
100 Military Archives, Tgy. 3092, No. 607, 615-629.