Budapest, Hungary · January 4, 1945

In March 1944 Adolf Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) to occupy his wavering Axis ally Hun­gary, whose Nagy­kanizsa (German, Gross­kirchen) oil reserves and fuel storage tanks south­west of the capi­tal Buda­pest in the Lake Balaton (German, Plattensee) area had grown stra­te­gi­cally more impor­tant to the Ger­man war ma­chine—this following pun­ishing Allied air attacks on the Roma­nian oil refining cen­ter at Ploesti (Ploiești) in 1943 and 1944.

On this date in 1945 Ger­man troops drawn from the Eastern Front on Christ­mas Day 1944 failed to break the Red Army’s siege of Buda­pest begun six days earlier, on Decem­ber 29, 1944, the day the pro­vi­sional Hun­gar­ian leader­ship declared war on Ger­many. Hun­gar­ian resis­tance fighters added pres­sure to Hitler’s struggle to avoid losing his ally to the Soviets.

Ger­man troops, finding their retreat north across the River Danube blocked as the last bridges were blown up, managed to hold out until mid-Febru­ary 1945, when fighting ended with the cap­ture of 35,000 Ger­man soldiers, as well as 37,000 Hun­gar­ian supporters. Days earlier more than 15,000 Ger­mans were killed trying to escape the capi­tal. In the mean­time repre­sen­ta­tives of a pro­vi­sional Hun­gar­ian govern­ment signed an armis­tice in Mos­cow, one of the stepping stones to landing Hun­gary under a com­munist dic­ta­tor­ship in the post­war years.

Early in March the Germans launched their last major offen­sives of the war, Platten­see­offen­sive, a series of three offensives aimed at the des­truction of the Red Army in Hun­gary before it could reach Aus­tria, the Reich’s south­ern flank. The offen­sives took the Red Army by sur­prise and made an im­pres­sive advance at this late date in the war. On March 19 Soviet troops took all of 24 hours to re­cap­ture the terri­tory lost during the 13‑day Axis offen­sive. Joseph “Sepp” Dietrich, com­man­der of the Sixth SS Panzer Army tasked with defending the last sources of petro­leum con­trolled by the Germans (Oper­a­tion Spring Awak­ening, part of Platten­see­offen­sive), joked that “6th Panzer Army is well named—we have just six tanks left.”

On April 2 Nagy­kanizsa fell into Soviet hands, leaving Hitler no alter­native but to rely on syn­thetic oil pro­duc­tion in Ger­many, whose facil­i­ties lay vul­ner­able and largely pro­strate to wave after wave of U.S. and RAF bombers from airfields in Britain and liberated Europe.

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Hungary, 1944–1945: Hitler’s Endgame on the Southeastern Front

German Plattensee offensive, March 6–16, 1945

Above: Map of Germany’s planned three-part offensive in Hungary in March 1945 (Platten­see­offen­sive). The largest of the three was Unter­nehmen Fruehlings­er­wachen (Operation Spring Awakening) around Lake Balaton. The unsuccessful offensive lasted from March 6 to the beginning of the Soviet counteroffensive on March 16, 1945. The Germans and their Hungarian allies suffered 47,000 dead, the Soviets 80,000. Civilian deaths were put at 38,000.

Hungarian soldiers man antitank gun, Budapest 1944Red Army soldiers advance street by street, Budapest 1945

Left: Hungarian soldiers are shown manning an antitank gun in a Budapest suburb, protecting it against a Soviet attack, November 1944.

Right: The Battle (or Siege) of Budapest (December 29, 1944, to February 13, 1945) was characterized by urban warfare similar to that which the combatants had experienced in the protracted Battle of Stalin­grad (August 23, 1942, to February 2, 1943) and would relive weeks later in the Battle of Berlin (April 16 to May 2, 1945). The Red Army was able to take advantage of Budapest’s urban terrain (hilly in Buda and flat in Pest) by relying heavily on snipers and sappers to advance. Fighting broke out in the sewers, as both sides used them for troop movements. Disease, food shortages, and extreme cold, ice, and snow adversely affected German and Hungarian troops. Glider flights and parachute drops helped for a time to bring supplies to the defending forces.

German soldiers surrender to Soviets, Budapest 1945Two Soviet soldiers hoist the Red Flag on Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, May 1945

Left: On the night of February 11, 1945, some 28,000 German and Hungarian troops began to stream northwestwards away from their last stronghold on Buda’s Castle Hill. Soviet artillery and rocket batteries bracketed their escape route. The majority of the escapees were killed, wounded, or captured by the Soviet troops. The remaining defenders finally surrendered to the Soviets on February 13, 1945. German and Hungarian military losses were high with entire divisions wiped out. Between 99,000 and 150,000 German and Hungarian soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. Soviet forces suffered 100,000–160,000 casualties. More than 500,000 Hungarians were transported to the Soviet Union, to labor and POW camps, including between 100,000 and 170,000 Hungarian ethnic Germans.

Right: The Soviet siege of the Hungarian capital depleted the German war machine. For the Soviet troops, the siege was a final rehearsal before the Battle of Berlin. It also allowed the Soviets to breach Austria’s borders on March 30, 1945, during their Vienna Offensive. On April 13, exactly two months after Budapest’s surrender, the Austrian capital fell. Within three weeks, the Red Army was able to fly its flag from atop the Branden­burg Gate in the heart of Nazism, Berlin.

Soviet Invasion of Hungary and the Siege of Budapest, 1944–1945