Listen to the audio cast: What Lies Beneath: The Labyrinth – Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Eight)
Much of the fighting at the end of the siege took place on Castle Hill in Buda. Today bullet holes from the final stages of battle still pockmark the facade of the former Military Ministry building which stands equidistant between Buda Castle and the Matthias Church. Such battle scars have been left as a physical reminder of the ferocious fighting throughout this area just before the siege’s end. The building could now be easily repaired, unlike the damage that was done to the bodies and psyches of thousands left in the city as the siege neared its end. Many of those who stayed behind, spent their final days in the ground directly beneath the Castle District.
What Lies Beneath
The Buda Castle district contains over six miles of underground passageways, known as the Labyrinth. During the war these were used by approximately 20,000 German and Hungarian soldiers as shelter from the constant bombardment of the Soviet Air Force and artillery. As the circle around the defenders continued to close, this area became as much a tomb as it was a shelter. The Castle complex was one of the last areas to surrender.
Following the failed breakout attempt on February 11th, those left behind included about 5,000 Hungarian soldiers. Many of them lay among the thousands of badly wounded, unable to leave makeshift, underground field hospitals. The Hospital in the Rock – which can be visited today – was one of several subterranean areas beneath the hills of Buda, that held the wounded, infirm and those brought to the very edge of sanity by the siege.
Even the magisterial grandeur of Buda Castle, had become a house of horrors. In its cellars lay a couple of thousand wounded. These included many who had been wounded in the failed break out attempt only a day earlier. One medical officer, Werner Hubner, described the scene as where “sheer madness ruled. The weeks of encirclement had driven everybody to the brink of insanity….Pistols were going off in every corner of the huge underground infirmary: nobody wanted to be captured by the Russians in a wounded state.”
Soon the infirm and starving were roused and consequently enraged by the discovery of large amounts of food that had been withheld from them by their commanders in the underground chambers. One non-commissioned officer happened upon the now vacant bunker of the German commander Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, found his uniform and decided to wear it. He was soon shot dead by a furious soldier who had mistaken him for the commander. And where was Pfeffer-Wildenbruch? This “leader” who had neither the courage to disobey Hitler’s futile orders to holdout or the bravery to lead the breakout, was busy on the morning of February 13th surrendering himself to the comparative safety of the Russians. As a commander he would be held as a prize of war, his soldiers would not be so lucky.
Meanwhile, the situation in the cellars continued to devolve into a morass of suicide, death and despair. By the time of the surrender, it was too late for many. For days afterward, those left intact in body or mind witnessed scenes that are even now hard to fathom. Medics were reduced to doing surgeries in an underground hospital that contained a large store of ammunition. A shootout took place among two combatants who made their way into the makeshift hospital. The discharges from their firearms set the place ablaze. The fire spread rapidly, as shells and grenades began exploding. Flames engulfed everything in the hospital, including the patient’s straw beds. This tragic incident was one of many that were all too common in the final days of the siege.
Places to visit: Castle District, Hospital In the Rock
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.
Hubner quote from: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 242.
Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’s uniform story from The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 243.
Shootout in underground hospital from The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 244.