Budapest, Hungary January 4, 1945

In March 1944 Adolf Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) to occupy his wavering Axis ally Hun­gary, whose oil reserves and fuel storage tanks at Nagy­kanizsa (German, Gross­kirchen) 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, January 4, 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 ground and air forces, supported by six Bul­garian divi­sions and a corps of Tito (Yugo­sla­vian) par­ti­sans, took all of 24 hours to re­cap­ture the terri­tory lost during the 13‑day Axis offen­sive. SS-Ober­gruppen­fuehrer (Gen.) Joseph “Sepp” Dietrich, com­man­der of the Sixth Panzer Army tasked with defending the last Hun­garian 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, 1945, Nagykanizsa, the invaluable center of the Hungarian oil indus­try, fell into Soviet hands. (In early 1945, Hun­garian and, to a lesser extent, Austrian oil­fields supplied 80 per­cent of the oil used by the Wehr­macht.) Nagyka­nizsa’s loss left Hitler few alter­na­tives 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. As it turned out, the Platten­see­offen­sive had delayed the Red Army’s drive on Austria, the scene of Hitler’s first con­quest in 1938, by a mere two weeks.

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). (Pz. A. = Panzer Army; Hr.Gr. = Heeres­gruppe, or Army Group.) The largest of the three offen­sives was Unter­nehmen Fruehlings­er­wachen (Oper­a­tion Spring Awak­en­ing) around Lake Balaton. The objec­tive of Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army was to fore­stall a Soviet take­over of the oil­fields in the area and perhaps even retake Buda­pest. The unsuc­cess­ful German offen­sive lasted from March 6 to the begin­ning of the Soviet-led counter­offen­sive (Bala­ton Defen­sive Oper­a­tion) on March 16, 1945, which pushed Axis forces back to their starting point. The Germans and their Hun­garian allies suffered upward of 47,000 dead (though prob­a­bly half that figure is more accu­rate), the Soviets and their allies over 33,000 dead, wounded, or missing. Civilian deaths were put at 38,000.

Hungarian soldiers man antitank gun, Battle of Budapest 1944Red Army soldiers advance street by street, Battle of 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, Battle of 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.

Film Clips of the Siege of Budapest, 1944–1945 (No dialog)