THE TÖLGYESI-DEFILE AND THE MAROS VALLEY
The memoirs of István Ivás, former corporal, squad commander.116
“After the turn of events in Roumania on 23rd August 1944, our unit, the 2nd Székely Frontier Guard Battalion of Gyergyószentmiklós, where I served as squad commander with the rank of corporal, was transferred to the Hungarian-Roumanian frontier at Gyergyóbékás. Only Székelys, older than 45 or younger than 20 (18-19 years old) fulfilled their duty in this unit. First of all 90 Székelys from the Szászrégen district were recruited and trained for six months before getting their assignment there. The task of these Székely frontier guard battalions was not to guard the frontier but to reinforce.
The frontier was guarded by regular frontier guard units, regular soldiers. The duty of the frontier guard was fulfilled by the units of the 21st Mountain Frontier Guard Battalion stationed in Gyergyótölgyes on the section from Bélbor to the zone of Gyimes. The frontier zone of Gyimes was guarded by the first company of the above-mentioned battalion. When the Soviet-Roumanian armistice was signed and the Roumanian army turned against the Germans, the Roumanian frontier guards were pulled back from the frontier. The Hungarian regular frontier guards were pulled back too, and they were settled into the forts constructed in the lower zones of the Békási-defile.
In this way the experienced Soviet troops, arriving with overwhelming force, reached our hastily constructed defensive positions without any resistance within a few days.
The rapid advance of the Soviet army was made easier because of the Germans’ weak resistance caused by the Roumanians’ turning against them. So the Germans retreated without stopping to the Hungarian-Roumanian frontier line, which was running in the Eastern Carpathians. Theyonly moved into defensive positions here, on the right of our defensive position.
Our unit, the whole 2nd Battalion, about 600 people, moved into a defensive position on MountKecskés. The first company was the outpost, placed on to a peak protruding towards the East. Only 19-20 year old soldiers served in my company, which was commanded by Senior Lieutenant András Márton. Our position was on the left side of the outpost, on the fringe of a forest.
The first battle took place in the last days of August 1944. The first shells of the Russian trench mortars smashed into our section at about 2pm. but soon we could also hear the rattling of the Russian 72 shooter submachine-guns with cartridge-discs, when the Russian soldiers approached our outposts. Up there a fairly heavy, protracted battle then developed. Although the younger and older Székely soldiers fighting there – i.e. us - had only ancient rifles used in World War I, we resisted for quite a long time, about 3-4 hours. However, the wooded terrain helped the assaulting troops to get near to the defenders who were forced to retreat in order to avoid being surrounded. When they got into the same line as our defensive lines, they stopped. They drew up in battle array again, moved into new defensive positions, waiting for the next assault of the Russians who forced them to retreat. Much to our surprise, the Russians did not advamce. Darkness was setting in, and for a time the enemy did not appear or harass us. So we stayed on an alert footing the whole night.
The fact that the troops which assaulted on the previous day did not follow our retreating units might have meant that the attacking Russian troops might have been a smaller reconnaissance group, and that the Russians were waiting for the bulk of their troops to continue the advance with them. This supposition came to pass on the following day.
The second day after the battle passed in silence. Then our commanders decided that the combat situation should be cleared up, and the outpost positions abandoned a day before they were to be recaptured. 50 young soldiers were selected for this task, including myself. We set off under the command of two officers and three NCO’s up to the high mountain where the outpost company had maintained its position the day before. What I put down here, might seem strange, even incredible, but it happened just as I tell it. It transpired that while we were climbing in single file up a forest-path among pine and beech trees, looking continuously left and right up to the abandoned positions, we did not observe any movements and managed to reach the peak without any hindrance. There was also a small clearing on the peak.
All the equipment of the retreating troops from the day before – ammunition and even the tins – were untouched. Just then we could not grasp how it could have happened. We will see later that it was only a trap. Seeing that there were no Russians anywhere we rested a bit, then we picked up the objects found there and turned back. However, when returning, not all of us climbed down on the road used to come up, but some of our troops selected a road on the other side of the slope. My group went the former route.
When we got to a more gently sloping part of the mountainside, where the forest was denser, suddenly fierce shooting began. An unexpected attack had been launched against us. We jumped right, where the terrain was more wooded and bushy, and began to shoot into the direction of those who were firing at us, but we did not even know where the fire was coming from. Only after another round did we we notice that the shooters were Russian submachine-gunners who had climbed up the trees and fastened themselves with their waist-belts to the trees to fire at us that way. Quite a heavy skirmish began within a few minutes. In the meantime we observed that there were also Russians on the ground among the trees, and that they were firing at us with light machine-guns. We were also firing back, but without much success. Firing from a lying position I noticed that about 100 metres in front of us two Russians wanted to cut off our route and capture us. Then in the course of a round of fire I cried: right, right, into the brushwood! And so we went to the right. Not far from there the slope was quite severe and covered with young trees, and this made it possible for us to avoid being shot or captured.
We had been forging ahead in the thicket for half an hour before we got to the edge of the forest, to a clearing, much farther away from our starting point. I will never know how many soldiers returned from the reconnaissance group, because we were not from the same unit, and in the meantime it was getting dark and we had to move into our former defensive positions. We were standing guard there until next morning, but observed no movement. We had realised then - and later too - that Russians would not attack in forests at night, they only executed reconnaissance-harassing actions. Even so, not that night but at dusk, the real first battle began with a general Russian assault against our defensive line. First, with the aim of orientation the submachine-gunners came forward, but when they came into range, and our heavy and light machine-guns also began to fire, and the Russians discovered the position of our heavy infantry armament positions, they began to fire mine throwers at our defensive positions. But, as we were hidden in our foxholes, they did not do any damage to us. However, they soon scored direct hits on the machine-gun nest nearest to us.
After these events, the Russian advance began. Our resistance was ineffective and without sense against such overwhelming force from the enemy. Fortunately, our good old commanders, whose names I put down here, evaluated this situation well: Senior Lieutenant Ferenc Rávó, commander of the battalion, Senior Lieutenant Ágoston Molnár, commander of the 4th Company, Senior Lieutenant András Márton, commander of my company, as well as others whose names I cannot remember. Seeing such an intolerable situation, they ordered a rapid retreat before we were completely crushed or captured. So we descended to the valley, to the path connecting Békás and Tölgyes, parallel with the frontier of the country. We retreated towards Tölgyes quite quickly, almost running. The Russians, seeing that there was no resistance, did not follow us at any speed. The distance between us increased quite a lot and it became possible for us to march back more slowly.
However, we had hardly gone a few kilometres when Major Győző Adolf, commander of the 21st Frontier Guard Battalion, came towards us on a motor-bicycle, a submachine-gun in his hand. He stopped our troop and gave the command that we should move into a firing position and fire back at the Russians because we had to defend our homeland at just this point. We pretended to fulfil his command. A few of us moved into the small corn fields on the lefthand side of the road. Meanwhile the two armour piercing guns of our unit arrived, each of them drawn by a pair of horses. They were posted into a firing emplacement there on the roadside, and fired once or twice at random. Before they could fire for the second time the Russians had fired back with trench mortar; they hit directly, killing two horses harnessed to one of the guns and the two gun-operators. This event took place in the presence of the major. Then he also admitted that it was not possible to hold the Russians back with such force as we had, and he gave the command for the withdrawal. He, himself turned back, and returned to his own unit. As we observed that the Russians only attacked and fired at us when we fired back, we did not fire back any more, we just marched forward hurriedly. Sometimes they threw mines after us, to the left and to the right side of the road. After walking several kilometres we arrived at the dividing ridge named Balázs, not at the peak, but at the so-called “neck of Balázs”. Then we stopped and rest was ordered. Later we got some kind of cooked meal - maybe bean-goulash. Here I must mention that during our retreat, not long after the return of Major Adolf to his own battalion, we met a well-equipped unit of the 21st Frontier Guards which relieved us, and as we discovered later, they were able to halt the Russian advance temporarily.
I would finish my story here, when our battalion arrived at the Balázs-peak retreating from Békás if I only wanted to tell the story of the first battle. But as our defensive combat was not finished here, our first battle was succeeded by a second, and by many more. I think it is right to tell the more interesting special stories, the events of the other battles here.
So, having rested for a few hours on the Balázs-peak our battalion was sent out to the very high mountain named Hegyes, east of the centre of Tölgyes village and straight into the first line, where we repelled the Russian attacks several times a day at least for about ten days, in spite of our poor equipment and in spite of heavy losses from furious battles. In order to avoid any misunderstanding I should mention that the ten day resistance at this front section, the so-called Tölgyesi-defile, was only possible because the German and Hungarian headquarters concentrated all the military forces at their disposal there. These were the remnants of the German troops who had pulled back from the territory of Moldavia (infantry troops and strong heavy armament), and one of the units of the well trained and well equipped 21st Frontier Guard Battalion, which had moved into the fortresses constructed much earlier on the two sides of the road. Also, the 1st and 2nd Székely Frontier Guard Battalions, and other Hungarian military units I didn’t know, had taken up positions on the right and left sides of the defile.
So when the headquarters of the Soviet front facing us realised that they could not break through this front section- and especially not through the defile - they used their usual well-known trick - the outflanking method. For this reason a Soviet light cavalry unit with 100-150 solders climbed up in a valley on the forest-paths among the mountains to the peaks with the help of (Roumanian) civilians who knew the terrain well. This way they reached Borszék, 20-22 kilometres from Tölgyes. The Hungarian army units, having been informed about the appearance of the Russians there but not knowing how strong they were, had abandoned the fortifications there and retreated to Marosszék. When the headquarters of the Hungarian and German army units stationed in Tölgyes realised that the road westward was closed at Borszék, they gave the command for a general withdrawal in order to avoid being surrounded completely.
However, as it was already impossible to go westward on the road leading to Borszék, they ordered the retreat towards Ditró, or across any other valleys passable on foot. Two days after the command for the withdrawal we arrived at the last defile of the Maros river, the tunnel of Szalárd where fortifications built into the rocks, like the ones in Tölgyes but even stronger, awaited us. Tank obstacles made of concrete blocks were fixed in the Maros river. Having retreated from the above-mentioned front section, the military units moved into defensive positions on the mountains of the Kelemen and Görgényi-Alps, in the beech- and pine-woods. Then we held on steadfastly in these enormous forests because, as with the front section before, the Russian military forces could not break through the road section which was the only one passable for vehicles (tanks, trucks, etc). So, with heavy losses it is true, we held on for three weeks until the general withdrawal was ordered on the 9th October.
When our unit arrived from the above-mentioned last defensive position, the Szalárd zone, into the vicinity of my native village, Magyaró on the left bank of the Maros river, a few comrades from my village and from the neighbouring villages who had lagged behind our unit went home under cover of night. This was the end of the battles for me, battles which had lasted for forty days from the onset of the fighting”.
The Maros valley was one of the most vulnerable directions of the Carpathian defence. If large enemy forces were able to get into the Transylvanian basin across that valley, the whole defensive system would collapse, because that was also the only direction easily passable for tanks. A strong defensive system was constructed there: beside the usual two valley blocks defending one after the other, a third one was installed into the defile of the Maros river, between Palotailva-Szalárdtelep. Then the attacker could be lured into a cul-de-sac. The two outposts, the valley blocks of Gyergyótögyes and Borszék, had to be given up after a relatively short fight because their wings were opened and they could easily be outflanked. There was neither time nor resources to close the gap between the valley blocks after the Roumanian defection. István Ivás could not have been informed about the successes of the Second Ukrainian Front there and then, he had realised only that they had to retreat. However, it is certain that these troops never retreated without command. The valley block of Szalárdtelep had a key role in the military evacuation of the Székelyföld. The defenders of this valley block held on successfully as far as was necessary. In this way the Russian fast groups could not prevent their organised withdrawal.
116 Hargita Népe, 22nd August 1995.