|A thousand years of the Hungarian art of war|
HUNGARIAN TROOPS ON THE EASTERN FRONT, 1941
One of the hardest problems a historian may face is to write an objective account of Hungary's involvement in the Second World War. Although many documents are open to the researcher, closed, unpublished collections still exist. Many people now a1ive played more or less important roles in the decision-making process and pub1ished their diaries and memoirs. The practical problem for the historian is to decide whom to believe. Today, the following interpretations are well known and accepted as "facts":
a) When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, the Hungarian regime, convinced that Germany would win the war, hurriedly offered its services to secure Hitler's good will./1/
b) Hungary declared war on the Soviet Union because of the unprovoked attack of the Soviet air force on the Hungarian city of Kassa,/2/
c) Hungary's participation in the war against the Soviet Union was forced by Hitler, who demanded Hungarian participation./3/
A review of the available documentary material reveals an interesting situation: if we disregard the chronological order concerning the evolution of the whole final decision and we use on1y some of the documents out of context, each interpretation appears to be p1ausib1e, but only because of omissions.
The entire story of the war declaration by Hungary actually starts in Germany with Hitler's directives on December 18, 1940 (No. 21) for "Operation Barbarossa."/4/ In the directives, Hitler ordered the German Armed Forces to prepare "to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign." (italics added) The preparations were to be completed by May 15, 1941. Hitler expected the active participation of Finland and Romania in the war./5/ The beginning of the operation against the Soviet Union had to be postponed because Mussolini's unfortunate campaign in Albania and Greece needed German aid to avoid a disaster. Thus Operation Barbarossa remained in a preparatory stage in the spring of 1941.
German-Hungarian relations began to deteriorate in 1939 because of Hungarian hesitancy to fulfill German economic demands. Germany was to pay with arms deliveries, but the developments in the Balkans created urgency for them to arm the Romanian Army first. Thus, the Hungarian Army was short of airplanes, tanks, and heavy artillery pieces./6/
In 1940, Hungarian-German relations worsened because of Pal Teleki's cautious neutral policy and because of the Second Vienna Award (August 31, 1940), which disappointed the Hungarians since Hitler trimmed their territorial claims in Transylvania./7/
In March 1941, Teleki strongly objected to Hungarian participation in the invasion of Yugoslavia./8/
No wonder that Hungary was not trusted by Germany and was excluded from the top-secret preparations of the Barbarossa plan: "Hungary, in the period of preparation for Barbarossa, is not to be counted as an ally beyond the present status ..." Furthermore, German troops were not to cross Hungarian territories, and Hungarian airfields were not to be used by the Luftwaffe, according to the new directives of the High Command on March 22, 1941./9/ On April 3, 1941, Teleki committed suicide. His successor, Laszlo Bardossy, as Minister-President also kept the portfolio of Foreign Minister for himself. Although a good Hungarian patriot, he a1ways opposed Teleki's cautious policy. While jealously rejecting German meddling in Hungary's domestic policy, Bardossy foresaw a better future for Hungary only in close cooperation with the Axis Powers./10/ The Chief of Staff of the Hungarian Army, General Henrik Werth, anxious to accommodate the Germans in every respect, whole-heartedly supported this new, one-sided German foreign policy. His overwhelming pro-German bias and firm belief that Germany would win the coming war influenced his judgments and decisions, sometimes at the expense of Hungary./11/ Supported in his convictions by Karoly Bartha, Minister of Defense, Werth did his best to convince the Hungarian government to prepare for war against the Soviet Union on the side of Germany./12/ On June 14, 1941, in a long memorandum, Werth renewed his request of May 31, 1941 for full authorization to negotiate with the German military authorities concerning Hungary's participation in the upcoming war against the Soviet Union. In the memorandum,/13/ Werth listed the following arguments for such preparations: the war will be short, but it may extend over harvest time so immediate preparations should be taken to avoid harvesting problems; a German victory over the Soviet Union would secure the territorial integrity of Hungary and
its social and economic order; to push Russia back from the frontiers would be in Hungary's national interest; the Christian worldview of Hungary demands participation in a war against communism; it would be political1y profitable to side openly with the Axis Powers; and, the future territorial growth (revisionist aims) may depend on such participation.
His arguments were weak and unacceptable from the Hungarian point of view. National self-interest dictated a policy of neutrality. Werth's arguments are even more objectionable in light of the condition of the Hungarian Army./14/ His memorandum contains a paragraph which gives a strange reason for his urging of Hungary to participate in the war against the Soviet Union. He wrote that if Hungary would not participate in the war, the Carpathian Mountains would represent a gap between the German troops attacking from Poland and the German-Romanian troops attacking from Romania. Such a wide gap in the German front would be dangerous and "may put in jeopardy the German victory."/15/
On June l5, Joachim Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, advised the Hungarian government to strengthen the security of Hungary's eastern borders because of growing tension between Germany and the Soviet Union./16/ On June 21, Hitler notified Horthy about his decision to start a war against the Soviet Union the next day, but stressed that he did not request the participation of Hungarian troops in the offensive./17/ On June 22, Otto Erdmannsdorff, German Ambassador to Hungary, asked the German Foreign Ministry about the statement of General Kurt Himer, Liaison Officer of the German High Command at Budapest, concerning Germany's desire to see Hungary enter the war against the Soviet Union./18/ General Himer denied such a statement, and expressed his conviction that Henrik Werth had misunderstood him. He claimed to express only the German view that while Germany would not demand participation in the war, "every Hungarian contribution offered voluntarily will be gratefully accepted."/19/
By now the Werth-influenced pro-German general staff officers were openly demanding Hungary's participation in the war,/20/ and Horthy could not resist the pressure. Already on June 21, the day before the German "clarification" arrived, the Hungarian cabinet meeting decided to break off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Ironically, on the very same day Molotov assured the Hungarian Ambassador to Moscow that the Soviet Union had no claims or aggressive plans against Hungary, and explored the Hungarian position: will it remain neutral, or will participation in the war be the ultimate resu1ts?/21/ Still, breaking off diplomatic
relations did not satisfy the pro-German faction of the Hungarian military and political leadership. On June 26, General Dome Sztojay, Hungarian Ambassador to Berlin, warned the Hungarian government that since Slovakia and Romania were participating in the war, when the new European order was established Hungary might be handicapped by virtue of nonparticipation./22/
June 26, 1941 also became a day of historical importance because of the (supposedly Soviet) aerial bombardment of the city of Kassa. Damage and loss in human life was not really great, so the incident could have been handled through diplomatic channels. But hysterical reaction from the press, as well as aggressive demands for retaliation on the part of the military prevented the government from investigating details and arriving at an objective decision. Instead, on the basis of insufficient information, the Hungarian government decided to retaliate at once by bombing Stanislaw, and the same day, June 27, 1941declared war on the Soviet Union./23/
Those are the facts concerning Hungary's entry into the Second World War. This story belongs in the pages of military history because it illustrates the sometimes tragic consequences when generals have too strong influence on the grand strategy of a nation. Such decisions should be reached objectively by the political leadership. The bombardment of Kassa was only an excuse, - a poor excuse - for those who feared neutrality would handicap Hungary on the advent of the "new European order." But while condemning the militaristic politicians and generals, we should not fall into the trap of generalization. Many Hungarian leaders faithfully served Hungarian interests, many generals opposed the declaration of war and later did their utmost to preserve Hungarian blood in a war that was somewhat less than popular with the Hungarian population.
Historians who today condemn Hungary for her participation in the war against the Soviet Union regard the Hungarian declaration of war solely from the Allied point of view. They cite the events described above and find Hungary guilty of being too eager, too anxious to faithfully serve German interests. In order to place these condemnations in broader perspective it is necessary to recall European conditions at the time of Hungary's decision. Was Hungary really eager to enter the war, or does the argument that Horthy was forced to declare war on the Soviet Union a1so have some merit? Did Germany force Hungary to enter the war? As shown by the facts, not directly or openly. To understand Hungary's decision, we have to answer the question: what lessons did Hungary learn from the events preceding the war?
In 1938 Czechos1ovakia failed to resist Hitler, in accord with the wishes of the Western Powers, and Czechoslovakia disappeared from the map of Europe. In 1939 Poland fought against the Nazi invaders, lost thousands and thousands of lives, and also disappeared from the map. By 1941 Albania, Greece and Yugoslavia were also under Nazi occupation and Romania had become Hitler's ally. To avoid the great risk of German occupation should Hungary resist, and to preserve her sovereign rights at least in domestic affairs, Hungary decided to "please Hitler." From a strictly moral point of view, Hungary can be condemned for her opportunistic policy. But who has the right to pass such a moral judgment? Neither France nor England resisted Hitler when he directly threatened their basic national interests during the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the annexation of Austria and the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. Even the Soviet Union cooperated with Hitler in the war against Poland. The Allies looked only to their immediate self-interest; Hungary did the same.
As to the Hungarian art of war, Hungarian generals and troops provide us with excellent examples of skill in leadership, dutiful execution of orders, and shining courage. The following excerpts will prove our judgment. The fact that these examples stem from a war where Hungary not only fought on the "wrong side" but lost the war as well, does not to decrease their value! Hungary should be proud of the Hungarian soldiers, even though they fought according to German strategic demands.
Hungarian public opinion and that of the officer corps was divided on the issue of war. Ardent patriots argued that, to save Hungarian blood, the Hungarian Army (war or not) should not cross the Carpathian frontiers. On the other hand, those who had been mesmerized by the initial successes of the German Army, those who sympathized with the Nazi regime and those who craved a major role for Hungary in the "reordering of Europe" advocated participation in the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Regent Horthy and the government had made the decision on June 26 and Par1iament was informed the next day. Neither Minister-President Bardossy, nor Horthy rea1ized that their declaration of war and the decision to participate in the invasion of the Soviet Union were illegal according to Hungarian law./244/ A strike force was then assembled by the general staff consisting of a mountain brigade, a border guard brigade and a mechanized corps. The commander of this "Karpat group" was Lieutenant Genera1 Ferenc Szombathelyi.
The most "modern" and best-equipped unit of the Hungarian Army was the Gyorshadtest ("Fast moving army corps"). We may call it mechanized army corps. It was only relatively "mechanized."/25/ Each of the two motorized brigades of this mechanized corps had a "reconnaissance battalion" with small and medium tanks (useless against modern antitank weapons); two motorized infantry battalions, two bicycle battalions, one mediumcalibre howitzer division, and one antiaircraft battery. The necessary engineering, communication and supply troops enabled the brigades to perform as independent tactical units.
One cavalry brigade (not only in name but actually on horseback) had two cavalry regiments, a reconnaissance battalion, two bicycle battalions and horsedrawn as well as motorized artillery units, engineering, communication and supply troops.
Directly subordinate to the corps commander were two bicycle battalions, medium artillery divisions, antiaircraft divisions, additional communication, engineering and supply troops, and one air force regiment.
The mechanized corps looked impressive on paper as a strategic unit. No doubt it included the most modern, best-equipped troops of the Hungarian Army, numbering about 25,000 soldiers and officers./26/ In reality, it was less than a match for a Soviet motorized or tank corps. Because of the military leadership's wish to see the Hungarian troops in action as soon as possible, the mechanized corps was ordered to begin its march-up before completing mobilization. Therefore, the effective force was only 75-80 per cent of projected strength./27/ Cars and trucks requisitioned for military operations failed to arrive on time at the mobilization stations. The horses requisitioned for the cavalry were untrained for military service.
The tanks of the armored units, small Italian (Ansaldo) vehicles, provided protection against arrows and lances in the Ethiopian War but were useless against modern antitank guns. The aircraft outdated German and Italian machineswere no match for Soviet fighter planes.
The poorly equipped, poorly supplied (but well trained and well disciplined) Karpat group (with an effective force of 44,444) was to attack and repel the 12th Soviet Army confronting the Hungarian troops with no less than eight divisions (about 56,000 strong) on a front close to 180 miles wide.
The German High Command ordered the Karpat group to repel the Russian troops from the Carpathian Mountains and to pursue the enemy to the Dniester River, thereby denying them the
opportunity to launch a counterattack against the right flank of the fast-advancing 17th German Army (Plan 9).
The attack began in the morning hours of July 1, 1941. By July 9 the Karpat group, paying a price in heavy losses, pushed the stoutly-resisting, superior Russian forces back and penetrated Russian territory to a depth of 60-70 miles.
The two infantry brigades (mountain and border guard) were unable to follow such a speedy advance on foot. Colonel-Genera1 Werth, the Hungarian Chief of Staff, then dissolved the Karpat group. He used the infantry brigades for policing and administrative duties on the occupied territory while placing the mechanized corps at the disposal of the German Southern Army Group under the command of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt.
The extraordinarily heroic participation of this Hungarian mechanized corps in the German advance p1ayed a decisive role in several great battles. However, their victories cost them dearly and the retreating Russian forces still did not suffer a strategic defeat. Neither did the Germans gain strategic victories. Although by the end of July the German army groups were approaching Leningrad, Kiev and Smolensk, "the Soviet armies, far from dissolving, were growing stronger."/28/
Aware of the general situation, Horthy and the Hungarian political leadership tried to gain the re1ease of the Hungarian troops./29/ Henrik Werth, the pro-German Chief of Staff, was rep1aced on September 5, 1941 by Colonel-General Ferenc Szombathelyi, who held the conviction (a "selfish view" according to the Germans) that the Hungarian troops should be employed only for the defense of Hungarian frontiers. He did not hesitate to communicate this view to the Germans./30/ To force the Germans to release the mechanized corps, Szombathelyi neglected to replace either the armored vehicles or the personal carriers and trucks the corps had lost during the campaign./31/ But the Germans still continued to uti1ize the weak mechanized corps until November 24, 1941.
The Hungarian mechanized corps in the Soviet Union proved only one point: the sense of duty, discipline, comradeship and extraordinary courage of the Hungarian officer corps and soldiers could prevail over a much better equipped enemy commanding superior forces.
Upon only one occasion did the commander of the mechanized corps, Major General Bela Dalnoki-Miklos, have the opportunity to make an independent decision/32/ (at the same time refusing to obey the instructions of Runstedt). After the Battle of Kiev on October 19, the commander of the German 17th army ordered the
mechanized corps (melted down to the strength of six batta1ions) to break through the Russian defenses, which had once before successfully repelled the attack of forty German battalions. General Dalnoki-Miklos, instead of a breakthrough, planned and performed a maneuver which led to the encirclement of the superior Soviet forces and opened up the road for the continuation of the German advance.
The German general staff had high praise for the outstanding achievements and tactical victories of the mechanized corps which had fought for five months in a long campaign over 1,000 miles of territory. Yet these victories were too costly not only to the mechanized corps itself but also to the whole Hungarian nation. The losses were tremendous:/33/ over 200 officers and 2,500 of the rank and file, dead; 1,500 missing in action; and 7,500 wounded. Material losses: 1,200 personnel carriers, 30 airplanes, 28 artillery pieces, 100 per cent of the Ansaldo light tanks, 80 per cent of the medium tanks, 90 per cent of the armored cars.
The withdrawal of the mechanized corps did not mean the end of Hungarian participation and sacrifice in the war. On September 7, 1941, at Hitler's invitation, Horthy visited German headquarters accompanied by Minister-President Bardossy, General Szombathelyi and Counselor to the Hungarian Embassy in Berlin, Andor Szentmiklosy./34/ During negotiations the Germans confronted the Hungarian visitors with the surprising statement that the released Chief of Staff, General Werth, had promised to send additional Hungarian troops to the front./35/ Horthy could gain Hitler's consent to the withdrawal of the mechanized corps only in exchange for dispatching so-called "occupational divisions" to the rear of the German front in order to secure their communication and transportation lines against the fast-growing partisan activity.
The German High Command misjudged the strength of the communist system in the Soviet Union. Peacetime reconnaissance of Soviet conditions was almost impossib1e. The repeated purges, directed by Sta1in and reported during and after the sensational window-case trials, created the impression that without the terrorizing tactics of the Communist security police (consecutively named CSEKA, GUP, NKVD), the system would immediately collapse. During the first weeks of the war, the attacking German armies found the Russian soldiers to be less than spirited, well-trained, well-equipped fighters. The number of P.O.W.s taken by the Germans ran into the hundreds of thousands. The populations of Soviet-occupied Poland and the Ukraine greeted the German armies as liberators.
Hitler expected to win a Blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union as he had against Poland, France, Yugoslavia and Greece, but the Blitzkrieg failed against the Soviets.
By the fall of 1941 the German general staff realized their failure and recommended preparation for a long war. High-ranking officers, judging the situation hopeless, began to conspire to end the war, if necessary by assassinating Hitler./36/ Finally Hitler admitted failure (but blamed the surprisingly early and severe winter). At the beginning of December he ordered his armies to "abandon immediately all major offensive operations" and to "go over to the defensive."/37/
What went wrong in the German calculations? First, the Germans failed to realize that the majority of the Russian people did not find the communist system unbearable as they had lived under similar conditions for centuries. For example, the communal farms (Kolhoz) which made the Soviet occupation unpopular among the Polish, Ukrainian and Baltic peasants were (in the eyes of the Russian peasants) merely the continuation of the mir (village communities) in which their ancestors had lived for generations./38/
The new generation of Russians, born during World War I and the Russian Revolution, had no memory of pre-Bolshevik times. Separated from Western culture, civilization and ideas, strongly indoctrinated in school, through the news media and cultural and literary works, this young generation of Russians really believed the Soviet Union to be worth fighting and dying for./39/ Stalin strengthened this conviction. In his speech of November 7, 1941 he appealed to the patriotism of the Russian soldiers and invoked their tsarist ancestors as examples to inspire their fight in defense of the fatherland./40/
The preceding reasons explain why the Russian troops, although defeated in battle, did not lose their will to fight. The German armies broke through the Russian lines and, according to the principles of the Blitzkrieg penetrated the depths of Soviet defenses, surrounding entire armies. But they did not pay any attention to the defeated, disorganized but sti1l armed, small groups of soldiers. These soldiers, under the leadership of Soviet officers, took refuge in the great forests and marshes far behind the advancing front lines, left unattended and unguarded by the Germans. Still, these isolated Soviet groups never would have survived without the active help of the local population, so definitely hostile to them in the beginning.
Then Hitler came to their 'aid' by defining the aim of German policy for the occupied territories: "Exploitation and mobilization of raw materials, German settlements in certain regions, no
artificial education of the population toward intellectualism, but the preservation of their labor strength . . ."/41/ He entrusted the SS to execute these orders. They interpreted his orders in popular slogans like: "Slavs should be kept as ignorant as possible"; "Colonials who should be whipped like niggers."/42/ The arrests, deportations, unlimited requisition of the population's properties, living quarters, foodstuff, and the arrogant cruelties and atrocities of the SS turned the people against the Germans in favor of the Soviet partisans. By the end of l941 these partisan troops caused many problems for the German High Command. They destroyed railroads and supply lines, threatening communications and travel. They sometimes attacked small garrisons, forcing the Germans into the cities and into the use of guarded convoys between cities.
According to the agreement between the Hungarian general staff and the German High Command, Hungarian divisions took over guarding the rear of the German middle front./43/ The territorv they had to secure against partisan activity was 60-70 miles wide and 250-300 miles deep, at a distance of 60-70 miles behind the front lines./44/ The forces assigned to this duty in 1943 were socalled "light" divisions. Each comprised two infantry regiments, one arti11ery division, one signal corps company, one engineering company, and logistic units with a stronger medical corps unit./45/ With outdated armament they suffered also from manpower shortages. The vast territory assigned to them compelled each division to operate as an independent unit. Divided into smaller garrisons at crucial points, they bui1t fortified bases; sometimes only a platoon, sometimes battalion strength. Under such conditions the central command of the "Hungarian Occupational Group" in Kiev could not provide effective leadership. Still, the Hungarian troops fulfilled their duties and stood fast against the partisan attacks.
The underequipped, undermanned light divisions faced an enemy which was unexpectedly strong. Over and above the mere call of duty, the Hungarian divisions searched out, attacked and annihilated the most dangerous and strongest partisan bases. These bases were well fortified, supplied by air, and settled in thick, unapproachable forests or marshes. Their effective forces often outnumbered the Hungarian units.
An excellent and striking example of the high military skill and morale of the light divisions was the "Mop-up operations at Reumentarovka" where, on December 21, 1941, a light division encircled and eliminated the partisan group of General Orlenko. The partisans lost over 1,000 men, dead or wounded. The captured armament, heavy equipment and ammunition stockpile filled 32 railroad wagons, besides the significant stockpile of food supplies./46/
Our limited space does not permit us to pay tribute to the entire range of combat which proved the superior value of the Hungarian soldiers, but the above example is characteristic of the operations Of the occupational divisions behind the front lines between 1941 and 1944.
Although the Hungarian general staff constantly urged and demanded that the German High Command (after the decisive breakthrough of Soviet forces in January, 1943) withdraw the light divisions and thus prevent their possible involvement in battle with the Russian front-line troops, the Germans delayed action. Consequently, some of the occupational divisions became involved in actual combat with the victoriously advancing Soviet divisions. By September some of the divisions (after reorganization and rearmament) continued to fight as regular combat divisions against the Soviet Army.
The occupational divisions, renamed as reserve divisions, in 1944 were organized into an army corps. Since the Soviets had by now advanced to the vicinity of the Carpathian Mountains, the German military leadership consented to the withdrawal of Hungarian forces into Hungarian territory. The last unit, the 5th Reserve Division, reached Hungary in December l944, thus ending the operations of the Hungarian occupational forces.
The German Army, with victory still out of sight, dug in for the winter in November 1942 in a line stretching 2,000 miles from Leningrad to the Sea of Azov. Such a long line consumed the German forces so that a renewed general attack became impossible. The argument between Hitler and the Army concerning the direction of an offensive which would win the war the next year was settled in Hitler's favor and Colonel-General Walter Brauchitsch was dismissed (December 19, 1941)./47/ Hitler assumed personal command of the Army, trusting his intuition more than the skill of his generals.
German forces now fought on the Soviet front as well as in Africa, Norway and the Balkans. Hitler, not having any sense of proportion, put an additional burden on the shoulders of the German war machine: on December I 1, 1941 he declared war on the United States. As a result, the Lend-Lease Act (March 11, l941), which originally was designed to help Britain, was extended to include the Soviet Union./48/ Thus Hitler, by declaring war, made it possible for the Soviet Union to replenish its arsenals./49/ At the same time he added a new front: the Atlantic coastline./50/ To defend it, utilizing a considerable part of his reserves, he almost
completely exhausted his manpower. Even factory workers were released from their jobs (replaced by Russian prisoners and civilians) and sent to the front./51/
Still, Hitler planned the "final offensive" for the summer of 1942. He expected his comrades-in-arms (Romania, Slovakia, Italy, Spain and Hungary) to place additional forces at his disposal.
Ribbentrop, during his visit to Hungary on January 9, 1942, was able to obtain only a general promise from the Hungarian government concerning Hungarian participation in the war "with larger forces than before."/52/ Ribbentrop interpreted this promise. to mean the participation of two-thirds of the Hungarian armed forces./53/ But when details were negotiated by Colonel-General Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the German High Command, with the Hungarian general staff in a "not too friendly conversation," Hungarian participation was limited to three army corps, "one strong mechanized unit," and, later on, one more light division. Keitel assured the Hungarians that the newly-organized Hungarian Army would be equipped with modern German armament./54/
Nazi Germany, to increase its participation, put additional political pressure on Hungary. The government was forced to give its consent to the recruitment into the Waffen /55/ of a maximum of 20,000 ethnic Germans living in Hungary./56/
|A thousand years of the Hungarian art of war|