Listen to the audio cast: An Ocean of Flames (Fighting at The Chain Bridge) – Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Six)
Let us now turn our attention back to the battle which was raging throughout the city. The siege officially began when the Soviets had completely surrounded Budapest on Christmas Eve. Fighting in the streets of Pest quickly turned into classic urban warfare. Snipers picked off both soldiers and civilians, mortar and artillery fire shattered apartment blocks and tanks rumbled down the Great Boulevard blasting away at the smoldering ruins. House to house gun battles resulted in vicious firefights taking place from one floor to the next. In some of these the Soviets would occupy the bottom floor for several days before they were finally able to dislodge resisters with everything from flamethrowers to multiple grenade attacks. By the end of the siege, approximately 75% of the city’s buildings had either been totally destroyed or heavily damaged. The ruins were transformed into crumbling fortresses that prolonged the defense.
A City Lit Only By Fire
By the evening of January 17th the defending Hungarian and German forces were on the verge of being totally pushed out of Pest. If they were to continue the fight over in the hills of Buda, they would have to cross the Danube immediately. By this time, only two bridges over the river were still intact, the famous Szechenyi Chain Bridge and further south, the Erszebet Bridge.
Hungarian and German forces were ordered to evacuate troops across these two bridges. Ironically, while Hungarian civilians were attempting to escape into Buda, many Hungarian soldiers in Pest had totally given up the battle as lost and placidly awaited their Soviet captors. General staff Captain Ferenc Kovacs tried to rally the Hungarian troops, but said “everywhere they were waiting for the Russians and had no desire to go to Buda. In one of the cellars an air force officer told us with an insolent grin that for him the war was over. There was nothing we could do for him.”
Meanwhile, the frantic escape through the streets of Pest gained in chaos and intensity. Lieutenant-Colonel Alajos-Vajda witnessed, “total panic which increased when we had to walk past a burning palace in a narrow street. We no longer knew where we were….Heat was pouring out of the blazing buildings, with window frames and other wooden parts showering the motor vehicles….Here and there shells and mines began to strike at steep angles. The terrible detonations were accompanied by submachine gun salvos….As if by a miracle we somehow reached the square in front of the Chain Bridge. There we were met by a veritable firework display. It was almost daylight in the middle of the night….Through huge gaping holes in the bridge we could see the water. The rear of a German military car, which had somehow been caught up in one of the holes, pointed toward the sky.”
An Ocean of Flames
Meanwhile, Soviet planes circled overhead, dropping a relentless barrage of bombs. A huge crowd developed in front of the bridge. One officer wrote, “Imagine the logjam in front of the bridge, vehicles on top of vehicles, and then the circus started. The huge blocks of flats were burning like torches, the streets full of wrecks, bodies and collapsed walls.” Throughout the night and into the early hours of morning hundreds attempted to make their way across the damaged bridge.
Finally at 7:00 a.m., just 25 minutes before sunrise, the Bridge was blown up. There were still evacuees left on the structure when it sank into the icy waters of the Danube. Only the pillars remained intact. Beginning with the November 4th accidental detonation that irreparably damaged the Margit Bridge, it had taken the Germans just seventy-three days to render all the Budapest bridges across the Danube unusable. It would not be until 1963 that the bridges were fully repaired and carrying traffic again.
From the Buda side, looking back across the Danube, one young Hungarian soldier saw, “an ocean of flames….It looked as if all life had perished over there and only the raging fires were left to rule over the ruins. I didn’t dare to think of my loved ones who lived there.” The heart of the battle now moved across the river. Buda’s hilly terrain was more easily defensible, but no less deadly. The noose would continue to tighten around the Hungarian and German forces.
Place To Visit: Szechenyi Chain Bridge (Pest side in Szechenyi Istvan ter)
Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006, Yale University Press, 2006
Ferenc Kovacs quote from: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 148.
Alajos-Vajda quote from: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 149-50.
Hungarian soldier’s quote from: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 152.