Descent Into Darkness: The Attempted Breakout – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Seven)

Listen to the audio cast: Descent Into Darkness: The Attempted Breakout – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Eight)

As the fighting moved over to Buda, the cause of the defenders appeared increasingly hopeless. At this point surrender seemed to be their best option. It was only a matter of time before the weight of Russian numbers and supplies would exact a heavy toll. So why did the Germans and Hungarians continue to fight on?

Fighting Out Of Fear
One reason was fear. The possibility of captivity under the Soviets was extremely daunting. German soldiers risked being shot on the spot, especially those who were members of the SS.  The same was true for Arrow Cross members. Even regular enlistees were at the mercy of the Soviet soldier. They were known to be capricious, cruel and erratic. A senseless unpredictability seemed to be the defining trait of the common Soviet soldier.

Even if a Hungarian or German survived first contact with their captors, those held for any length of time would be required to do forced labor service. Often they were marched off to the east, where they would be either worked to death or suffer years of hard labor. If this was what resulted from surrender, than death in battle might be an appealing option. For this reason, no German garrison ever surrendered to the Soviets during the war while they still had a chance of breaking out.

The Royal Palace - hardly recognizable following the siege

The Royal Palace – hardly recognizable following the siege

Sacrificed For the Reich
There was also the slim possibility that German commanders in Budapest might receive word from the Reich that they could attempt a break out. Unfortunately for the defenders this word never arrived. Hitler had declared from the start that Budapest would be a fortress city. It was to hold out at all costs until help arrived. The overarching strategic idea was that the longer Budapest held out, the more German forces could be marshaled to defend Vienna, 100 miles to the west.  In essence, Budapest was sacrificed to protect the German Reich. On three separate occasions, the Germans attempted offensives in an attempt to rescue and resupply the besieged garrison. None of these were successful. The closest any of them came was about 20 kilometers from the city, but then the Russians would send in reinforcements and push back the effort. The last relief attempt failed in late January.

By the final day of January, the German and Hungarian defenders were generally confined to a pocket of land in Buda which included the railway embankment, Gellert Hill, the Buda Castle complex and ended on Margit Korut which runs into Szena square. The defenders were starved, shell shocked and under constant bombardment. The commander of German forces in Budapest, Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, finally decided to attempt a break out, the main thrust of which would try to bust through the Russian lines at Szena square. From there they would try to make their way out of the city into the low hills and forests beyond. They hoped to flee into the nearest German lines which were located anywhere from 15 to 25 kilometers away.

Delusion and Apocalypse
To say this was a suicidal plan might actually be an overstatement. By this point, the Germans and Hungarians were down to just a handful of tanks, armored vehicles and a wide variety of assault guns. They had only a fraction of the firepower with which they had begun the siege. Nonetheless, fanaticism and delusion still gave hope to some Hungarian and German leaders. Arrow Cross officers believed that they would soon be resupplied with super weapons that would destroy the Soviet forces. German Major-General Schmidhuber, one of the highest ranking officers still alive, announced they would breach the Soviet lines, make their way to safety and be enjoying drinks the next day. Schmidhuber would be killed shortly after the attempted breakout began.

The breakout was set for February 11th at 8:00 p.m. It would take place at Szena Square. Chaos and confusion took hold of the great mass of soldiers and civilians who prepared to plunge into a cauldron of flame, shot and shell. For every soldier, there were at least two civilians attempting to escape as well. It was a last, suicidal gasp for the men and women who had somehow survived the siege up to this point.  Lieutenant-Colonel Alajos Vajda described the scene in Szena and Szell Kalman squares as “beyond the wildest flights of imagination. The squares were almost as light as day with the many tracer bullets, flare rockets and searchlights.  Shell after shell exploded. I am not exaggerating a bit if I write that there were mountains of dead bodies everywhere.

Descent Into Darkness
By midnight, only four hours after the breakout had begun, the situation was relatively quiet at Szell Kalman square. The first wave of soldiers and civilians had surprised the Soviets and largely been able to make their way into the forested areas beyond. The second and third waves were not as lucky. They had been devastated by Soviet counter strikes with artillery and rockets.  Those lucky ones who had made it through, were in constant fear of being attacked. In both small and large contingents, quietly desperate, they tried to find their way in the dark labyrinth of the early morning hours.  They were assisted by a thick winter fog that had descended upon the hills. The first soldiers that made it safely to German lines arrived about 24 hours later.

The statue of St. Gellert overlooking war torn Buda

The statue of St. Gellert overlooking war torn Buda

Of the 28,000 soldiers trying to escape, only 700 were fortunate enough to stumble all the way into friendly territory. Many of these men undertook journeys lasting several days. Some spent the final leg of the exhausting trek crawling to safety. Others spent the entire spring and early summer in the forests hiding out until the war came to a definitive end.  As for the estimated 80 – 100,000 civilians fleeing the shattered city, it is thought that five to ten thousand made their way to the hills northwest of Buda and then pushed westward toward Vienna. Hundreds if not thousands were left behind in dead heaps on the busted pavement of Buda, between the burned out ruins of the narrow blocks. Many more were taken prisoner by the Russians. For them the war would continue in labor camps or as part of work details. Some came back home in months, others in years and still many others, not at all.

From a military standpoint the breakout was one of the worst disasters of the entire Second World War. Consider that the German command had 44,000 soldiers prior to the attempt. A mere four days later, over 39,000 of these had been killed or captured while a few thousand more were wandering aimlessly in the woods where they would soon be captured. A soldier had about a one in a hundred chance of making it to safety, but an almost four in ten chance of being killed during the breakout. One of the lucky few that did make it, Lieutenant Helmut Wolff, later said, “I have nightmares every night because I am still alive.

Places to visit: Szena ter and Szell Kalman ter

Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006. Specifically Chapter Five, The Break-Out, pgs. 201 – 256.
Schmidhuber comments from: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 207.
Alajos-Vajda quote from:  The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 212.
Helmut Wolff quote from:  The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 201.

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