The South Flank

Escape to the Carpathians

The summer offensive against Army Groups Center and North Ukraine drove an enormous blunt wedge into the center of the Eastern Front. The flanks, reaching out to the Arctic Ocean and the Black Sea, still held up, but they were stretched taut and ready to snap under the slightest pressure. Though much of the strain was beneath the surface, it was not on that account any the less acute.

Army Group South Ukraine

By 23 July, when Schoerner was called in the early morning hours to take command of Army Group North, Army Group South Ukraine had experienced more than two months of deepening quiet ruffled only by Schoerner's strenuous training and fitness programs. The Russians had taken so many divisions off the front that the OKH directed the army group to do something about tying down those that were left.1

The front had not changed since the Soviet spring offensive had stopped. On the left, in a very rough arc from Kuty to east of Iasi, Armeegruppe Woehler, Eighth Army with Rumanian Fourth Army sandwiched in its middle, held a sector--about half in the eastern Carpathians and half east-west across Moldavia north of Targul Frumos and Iasi. Sixth Army reached from east of Iasi to the Dnestr River below Dubossary and then followed the river to about the center of the Soviet bridgehead below Tiraspol, where it tied in with the left of Rumanian Third Army on the lower river line. Sixth Army and Rumanian Third Army formed the Armeegruppe Dumitrescu under the Commanding General, Rumanian Third Army, Col. Gen. Petre Dumitrescu. (Map 30)

Two large rivers, the Prut and the Siret, cut the army group zone from north to south, and the Russians were across the upper reaches of both. Rugged, wooded terrain in the Targul Frumos-Iasi area partly compensated for that disadvantage, at least as long as the army group retained enough German divisions to backstop the Rumanians. The biggest tactical change during the early summer was Army Group North Ukraine's retreat deep into Poland, which left Army Group South Ukraine virtually stranded east of the Carpathians. Malinovskiy's Second Ukrainian Front opposed Armeegruppe Woehler and Tolbukhin's Third Ukrainian Front, Armeegruppe Dumitrescu.

At the time of the change in command, the Army Group South Ukraine staff's foremost concern was to determine how dangerous were the strains beneath the thin


Map 30
Army Group South Ukraine
19 August-26 September 1944


veneer of the quiet front and what could be done before they reached the breaking point. Two days before he was transferred, Schoerner wrote Hitler that leading personalities in Rumania were wavering and trying to establish contacts with the Allies, and that Antonescu was losing his hold on the country. Schoerner thought a personal interview with Hitler might strengthen Antonescu's position.2 On 25 July the army group staff drafted a report stating that after being forced to transfer 6 panzer divisions, 2 infantry divisions, and 2 self-propelled assault gun brigades in the past month, the army group could no longer hold its front against a full-fledged attack. The staff recommended that the army group be authorized in advance to pull back as soon as such an attack developed. That report was not sent, apparently because the estimate of the new commanding general, Friessner, was more optimistic.3


The most pressing worry for the moment was the internal condition of Rumania. Army Group South Ukraine, although entirely dependent on the Rumanian railroads and forced in large part to subsist off the local economy, had no executive authority in Rumania. Everything had to be decided between Bucharest and Berlin; and the army group staff by late July was convinced that on the most important question, Rumanian loyalty to the alliance, something was seriously out of tune. That Antonescu, on whose personal authority alone the alliance was based, no longer possessed that authority, seemed to be no secret to anyone in Rumania except three persons: the Marshal himself, Manfred Freiherr von Killinger, the German Minister to Rumania, and General der Kavallerie Erik Hansen, the chief of the German military mission. The latter two were the responsible German representatives in Rumania. Both von Killinger, a World War I U-boat commander and long-time Nazi turned diplomat, and Hansen, an energetic but inflexible officer, were blinded by their own faith in Antonescu.4 Consequently, they reinforced the already strong tendency in Hitler's circle to confuse Antonescu's personal loyalty with that of the Rumanian Army and people. The Army Group South Ukraine staff was certain that Antonescu was being kept in power only by his opponents' rapidly diminishing unwillingness to take the risks of an attempt to remove him, and that the country, Antonescu included, was staying in the war solely because its fear of the Russians still slightly exceeded its desire for peace.

On 1 August, anticipating repercussions throughout southeastern Europe when Turkey broke diplomatic relations with Germany, which it did the next day, Friessner ordered each of his two armies to set up a mobile regiment that could be used to counter "possible surprises in Rumanian territory."5 Strangely and, as it later proved, fatefully, the army group concentrated its attention almost exclusively on the dangers which would arise if Rumania defected. It did not pursue the, for it, equally vital question, What, if anything, remained of the Rumanian Army's never very strong will to fight? And the Rumanians held 160


miles of the army group's 392-mile-long front.

In the first week of August, Antonescu went to Rastenburg to talk to Hitler. The two met under a darkening cloud of German reverses in France and the East and in an atmosphere of mutual complaints and suspicions; yet, in the last analysis, neither had any real choice but to tell the other what he wanted to hear. In May, after more or less open negotiations in Cairo with the Americans, British, and Russians, Antonescu had rejected one set of armistice terms. When secret negotiations conducted at the same time in Sweden with the Soviet Union alone had brought a somewhat more lenient offer, he had again not been able to steel himself to take the plunge.6 The report on the conference at Fuehrer headquarters which reached Army Group South Ukraine described the results as "very positive." Hitler had told the Marshal what was being done to restore the German situation, and both parties had promised each other "everything possible." In the transmission, someone had added, "It now remains to be seen how far the promises will be carried out."7

Because many of the individual points to be discussed arose out of its presence on Rumanian territory and because the time appeared ripe for raising fundamental questions, the army group had sent its operations officer to Fuehrer headquarters while Antonescu was there. Friessner had sent along a letter for Hitler in which he stated that the army group could hold its front if it did not lose any more divisions but had to be prepared for all eventualities. He recommended giving the army group control of all German military activities in Rumania and the appointment of a single, responsible political agency with which the army group could collaborate. The operations officer, on Friessner's instructions, told Guderian that the OKH would have to reconcile itself to permitting the army group to go back to a line on the Carpathians and lower Danube if the army group had to give up more divisions or if the Rumanians became unreliable. After talking to Hitler, Guderian replied that he "hoped" if events took such a turn to be able "to give the necessary order in time."8 The prospect that such an order would be given, however, faded after the talks with Antonescu revealed that, even though he had argued in the spring for going back to the Carpathians-Danube line, he had in the meantime convinced himself that for Rumania to sacrifice any more territory would be fatal.9

To Keitel the army group operations officer broached the question of having Friessner named Armed Forces commander in Rumania and proposed replacing Hansen with an officer "who would represent the German interest more emphatically." Keitel appeared impressed at first but, after the talks with Antonescu, said he saw no need for any changes because Rumania would stand by Germany "through thick and


thin."10 In sum, the tottering alliance was patched together for a last time at Army Group South Ukraine's expense.

The Offensive Begins

On 8 August air reconnaissance for the first time detected Soviet troop movements east of the Prut. Heavy traffic toward and light traffic away from the front confirmed that the troops were coming in, not going out. On the 13th the OKH took another division from the army group, bringing the total transfers since June to eleven divisions and the overall strength reduction to nearly one-third--much more, almost three-fourths, in terms of panzer divisions. On that day, too, a rumor that Antonescu had been overthrown touched off a spell of confusion and near panic in the army group rear area.

Armeegruppe Woehler reported on the 16th that the Russians would be ready to attack in a day or two, probably west of Iasi, to drive a wedge between Iasi and Targul Frumos. The Rumanians, the Armeegruppe declared, were "completely confident." (See Map 30.) By the afternoon of the 19th, after Second Ukrainian Front, Malinovskiy commanding, had launched artillery-supported probing attacks along the Armeegruppe Woehler front, the army group expected to be hit heavily the next day west of Iasi and predicted a secondary attack south of Tiraspol.11

The day dawned hot and sunny on 20 August 1944. The Soviet artillery laid down heavy barrages on two fairly narrow sectors, one northwest of Iasi, the other south of Tiraspol. By the time the infantry of Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts jumped off, several Rumanian divisions were about to collapse.

Two of Armeegruppe Woehler's Rumanian divisions protecting Iasi abandoned their positions without a fight. On the west side of the gap left by the Rumanians, German reserves threw up a screening line, but on the east the Russians continued south, turning into Iasi in the afternoon. South of Tiraspol the attack struck the Sixth Army-Rumanian Third Army boundary. Sixth Army's right flank corps, the hardest hit, held its ground, but the Rumanian division tying in on the boundary collapsed, carrying with it its neighbor on the south. By day's end Friessner realized that the Rumanian's performance would fall below even their customary low standard. How far below he had yet to learn.

The two Ukrainian fronts--Marshal Timoshenko co-ordinating for the Stavka--had, according to the Soviet figures, superiorities of slightly less than 2:1 in troops, better than 2:1 in artillery and aircraft, and better than 3:1 in tanks and self-propelled artillery. All together Malinovskiy and Tolbukhin had 90 divisions and 6 tank and mechanized corps, 929,000 men.

The main effort, by Sixth Tank Army and Twenty-seventh, Fifty-second, and Fifty-third Armies, was in Malinovskiy's sector northwest of Iasi. There Sixth Tank Army went in on the first afternoon, and by nightfall it and Twenty-seventh Army were driving for an operational breakthrough. On the right, north of Targul Frumos, Seventh Guards Army and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were poised for a thrust south along the Siret. Tolbukhin had the Thirty-seventh and Fifty-


seventh Armies and two mechanized corps charging out of the Tiraspol bridgehead. On their left Forty-sixth Army had split its forces to envelop Rumanian III Corps on the lower Dnestr.12

On the morning of the second day Friessner still thought the battle would develop about as had been expected. Although he did not have a clear picture of enemy strength, the army group's intelligence seemed to confirm that the build-up had not been up to the previous Soviet level for an all-out offensive. Furthermore, the main effort was against Armeegruppe Woehler and there the second line, the TRAJAN position on the heights behind Iasi, was considered exceptionally good.

When Antonescu arrived at the army group headquarters in midmorning, Friessner told him that he would close the front below Tiraspol and, taking everything he could from Armeegruppe Dumitrescu, strengthen the north front enough to prevent a sweep behind the Prut. The Russians, he thought, could not bring as much strength to bear against Dumitrescu as they could against Woehler and, having gone deeper the day before than expected, would probably have to pause to regroup. Antonescu, formerly always the advocate of a flexible defense, insisted that the front, including Iasi, absolutely had to be held. He declared that he was personally answerable for every piece of ground lost and it was not the fate of Bessarabia that was being decided but the fate of the whole Rumanian people "forever."13

During the day every report from the front brought more alarming news than the last. In the north Iasi was lost and the offensive expanded west to Targul Frumos. Tanks of Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov drove through the TRAJAN position at a point near Targul Frumos, and tank-supported infantry drew up to it along most of the stretch west of the Prut. Armeegruppe Woehler reported that five of its Rumanian divisions had fallen apart completely. South of Tiraspol a 20-mile gap opened between Sixth Army and Rumanian Third Army.

In the afternoon Friessner decided to take Armeegruppe Dumitrescu behind the Prut and try to free enough German troops to reinforce Armeegruppe Woehler. The army group and the Operations Branch, OKH, agreed that would be only a first step in a withdrawal which could not end forward of the Carpathians-Danube line. Hitler, after being assured that Antonescu was now "letting himself be guided solely by military considerations" and therefore had no objections, gave his approval during the night. By then an order was out to Sixth Army to get everything it could behind the Prut immediately. The Sixth Army staff was among the first elements to go, because Russian tanks were already closing in on its headquarters at Komrat.

For the next two days the battle continued as it had begun. The Rumanians, even the supposedly elite Rumanian Armored Division, refused to fight. The Russians moved south fast behind the Prut and through the torn-open center of Armeegruppe Dumitrescu without the Germans being able to commit anything against them. Behind the Prut the Soviet tank points reached Barlad and Husi on the 23d. Third Ukrainian Front's advance west carried past Komrat nearly to the Prut, and


Forty-sixth Army turned its left flank southeast and on its right attacked across the Dnestr Liman to encircle Rumanian III Corps and one German division. The main body of German troops, the whole front from the Prut east of Iasi to Tiraspol, was falling back to the southwest fast but not fast enough to outrace the Soviet pincers closing behind it.

Rumania Surrenders

In the early evening on 23 August army group headquarters heard that Antonescu had been called to an audience with the King in the afternoon; the government had been dissolved, and Antonescu and its members arrested. Later the chief of staff talked to von Killinger, who had returned from the palace where the King had informed him that a new government had been formed and it intended to sign an armistice. One condition that would not be accepted, the King had assured him, was that Rumania should take up arms against the Germans.14 But the King's broadcast that night was less reassuring. In it he stated that Rumania would join the United Nations against the common enemy--Germany--and, in what practically amounted to a declaration of war against Hungary, that Rumania denounced the Treaty of Vienna of 30 August 1940 which had awarded the Szekler Strip in Transylvania to Hungary.15

The contradiction in the King's statements apparently arose from the existence of two sets of armistice terms. Although the Rumanian Government in the public statement accepted the more stringent terms which had been offered by the three powers--the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union--at the negotiations which began that night in Cairo, the Rumanian delegation was instructed to secure amendments which would include the concessions the Soviet Union had offered in secret. The latter would have allowed Rumania to declare itself neutral in the conflict with Germany and, of much greater moment to the Rumanians, proposed arrangements which would assure the continued existence of an independent Rumanian state.16

Shortly before midnight on the 23d, Friessner telephoned Hitler an account of the Rumanian coup and told him he had taken command of all Wehrmacht elements in Rumania and was going to take the front back to the Carpathians-Danube line. At midnight the Operations Branch, OKH, relayed an order from Hitler to smash the "Putsch," arrest the King and "the court camarilla," and turn the government over either to Antonescu or, if he were "no longer available," to a pro-German general. On learning that von Killinger, Hansen, and the commanding general of the German air units in Rumania, General der Flieger Alfred Gerstenberg, were being held under guard in the legation, Friessner turned Hitler's assignment over to an SS


general whom he located in one of the installations outside Bucharest. The SS general reported at 0300 that troops would arrive from Ploeşti in an hour and a half and would then move into the city.

Before dawn Hansen called to tell Friessner that the Rumanian War Minister had declared that if the German measures against the new government were not stopped within air hour the Rumanian Army would turn its weapons against the German Army. Hansen added that he and the others with him were convinced the German forces were not strong enough to take Bucharest. When Friessner asked whether he was under restraint, Hansen replied that he was.

Friessner transmitted a résumé of the conversation to the Fuehrer headquarters along with a reminder that the King had allegedly promised not to fight the Germans. A few minutes later Jodl called to say that Hansen was not making a free decision, anyway the whole affair was bound to go awry sooner or later, so it was best to make a clean sweep right away. Almost simultaneously, a call came in from Gerstenberg, whom the Rumanians had released thinking he would attempt to stop the impending German action. He described the new Rumanian Government as a small, frightened clique, protected only by a thin screen of troops around the capital. Friessner thereupon gave him command in the Bucharest area.

At 0730 6,000 German troops began to march on the capital. Ten minutes later they met sharp resistance and were stopped. Shortly before noon, Gerstenberg admitted that so far he had not been able to get past the outlying suburbs. He had taken the radio station but nothing else worth mentioning. In the meantime, Friessner had learned that not a single Rumanian general was willing to go along with the Germans.

In the afternoon, on Hitler's orders, Fourth Air Force bombed the royal palace and government buildings in Bucharest. The bombing not only gave the government an excuse for a complete, open breach with Germany, which it would probably have effected anyway, but also united national sentiment against the Germans. As the day ended, the deadlock around the capital continued while Gerstenberg waited for reinforcements from the Southeastern Theater. Friessner had asked for troops from Hungary as well, but the OKW had replied that it was also "getting strange reports" from that country.

Sixth Army Destroyed

The 24th and 25th were days of unmitigated disaster for Army Group South Ukraine. On the 24th the armored spearheads of Second Ukrainian Front took Bacau on the Siret River and crossed the Barladul downstream from Barlad. Sixth Army, all of it except service troops, was drawing together south and east of Husi. Parts of two corps were west of the Prut, but the main body was still east of the river. The army headquarters, which from its location in Focsani only had intermittent radio contact with its corps, wanted to command the whole force to turn south and try to escape across the lower Prut or the Danube. Friessner, assuming that the Russians would close the crossings before Sixth Army could reach them, ordered a breakthrough west past Bacau to the Carpathians.

On the 25th, when Rumania declared war, the destruction of the army group was



nearly complete. It did not know what was happening to Sixth Army or what would happen to the numerous German units and installations in Rumania. Friessner told the OKH that what was left would have to retreat into Hungary and close the passes through the Carpathians and the Transylvanian Alps.

On the 26th Tolbukhin's troops took Kagul, completing the ring around Sixth Army, and Malinovskiy's forces began turning southwest across the lower Siret. From the right flank of the 3d Mountain Division in the mountains west of Targu Neamt to the mouth of the Danube 250 miles to the southeast, Army Group South Ukraine had no semblance of a front anywhere. In that fantastic situation Hitler intervened with an order to hold the line of the Carpathians, Focsani, Galatz, and the lower Danube.

The next day Malinovskiy's spearhead across the Siret took Focsani. Headquarters, Sixth Army, after trying briefly to hold a line between Focsani and Galatz with rear echelon troops, fell back toward Buzau. Fragmentary radio reports from the army's encircled divisions indicated that two pockets had formed, one, the larger (10 divisions), stationary on the east bank of the Prut east of Husi, the other (8 divisions) moving west slowly south of Husi. North of Bucharest the Rumanians had the German attack force surrounded. At Ploeşti the 5th Flak Division had lost the oil refineries and


half of the city. Eighth Army, going back from the Siret, had barely enough troops to organize blocking detachments in the Oitoz Pass and the passes to the north. The mountains offered cover, but the deep flank, 190 miles in the Transylvanian Alps from the southeastern tip of Hungary to the Iron Gate, was entirely unprotected. The planes of Fourth Air Force were using their last gas to fly into eastern Hungary. On the south the Bulgarians, not officially at war with the Soviet Union and looking desperately for a way to keep the Soviet Army off their territory, were disarming and interning all Army Group South Ukraine troops who crossed the border.

Retreat to the Carpathians

During the night of 29 August OKH ordered Army Group South Ukraine to establish a solid front along the spine of the Transylvanian Alps and the Carpathians tying in with the Southeastern Theater at the Iron Gate and Army Group North Ukraine on the Polish border. Hungarian Second Army, forming in eastern Hungary, was placed under Friessner's command.

The mountains, in fact, afforded the best defense line, provided that Friessner could muster enough strength to take and hold the passes on Rumanian territory in the Transylvanian Alps. How difficult that would be became clear the next day when he reported that of Sixth Army not a single complete division had escaped. What was left, the headquarters and service troops with some 5,000 vehicles, was jammed into the Buzaul Valley and was as yet by no means out of the Russians' reach.

The army group had, all told, four full divisions; three had been on the left flank and not hit by the offensive and one had been on its way out of the army group zone and was returned after the offensive began. All the army group actually held was an intermittent front in the Carpathians. If the Russians decided to make a fast thrust north through the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes, the army group chief of staff added, "The jig will be up out here."

On 30 August, Malinovskiy's troops took Ploeşti and the next day marched to Bucharest.17 In carrying out Stavka's orders, Malinovskiy, on 29 August, had split his forces. He had sent the Sixth Tank, Twenty-seventh, and Fifty-third Armies between the Danube and the Carpathians to clear southern Rumania to Turnu Severin. With the smaller half he undertook to force the Germans out of the eastern Carpathians. Fortieth Army moved against the relatively intact Eighth Army left flank. Seventh Guards Army and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were to force the Oitoz Pass and push across the mountains toward Sibiu and Cluj.18

When the Russians began to move west south of the mountains, Friessner decided he might yet have a chance to close at least the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes. (The Southeastern Theater Command had assumed responsibility for the Iron Gate.) The remaining pass, the Vulcan, was at the moment out of reach of both the Southeastern Theater and Army Group South Ukraine. At the same time, considering the chances of getting the passes slight, Friessner ordered the armies to reconnoiter a line on the Muresul River across the western end of the Szekler Strip.

On 5 September Hungarian Second


Army attacked south from the vicinity of Cluj to close the Turnu Rosu Pass. The day before, air reconnaissance had picked up signs that Second Ukrainian Front was beginning to turn north, and Friessner had alerted the armies to get ready, if ordered, to act fast and get behind the Muresul in one leap. For the moment the order did not have to be given. Hungarian Second Army gained ground rapidly against feeble resistance by the hastily reconstituted Rumanian Fourth Army. (Rumanian First and Fourth Armies went under Malinovskiy's command on 6 September.)19

During the day Sixth Army brought its last troops out of the Buzaul Valley. But that and the Hungarians' success were only minor bright spots on a predominantly dismal scene. After hearing nothing for several days, the army group was forced to write off as lost the five corps staffs and eighteen divisions in the two pockets. The Russians going west reached Turnu Severin, ten miles southeast of the Iron Gate, during the day. By evening Friessner had concluded he would have to take Sixth Army and Eighth Army behind the Muresul but decided to wait a day or two--long enough to mitigate the unfortunate contrast of German troops retreating while their Hungarian allies were advancing.20

The Front Rebuilt

Retreat to the Muresul--Crisis in Hungary

Hungarian Second Army advanced again on 6 September, but not as fast as it had the day before. Sixth Army, which had taken command of Eighth Army's right flank corps, reported that the Russians were in the Oitoz Pass and, off the army's south front, were already through the Predeal Pass and assembling at Brasov. Friessner authorized the army to start back during the night if the pressure became too great. He told Guderian that the Hungarians could not be expected to reach the Turnu Rosu Pass; the Rumanians had asked for Russian help. He had talked to the Hungarians and they were agreed on going back to a shorter line.

The next day the Hungarian offensive came to a standstill. The effect of its first two days' success could be observed farther south. Soviet Sixth Tank Army, which had been going toward the Iron Gate, had stopped and turned north. One of its mobile corps was crossing the Turnu Rosu Pass, another was heading into the Vulcan Pass. By noon the lead elements were through the Turnu Rosu and in Sibiu, forty miles from the Hungarian front Friessner then decided to stop Hungarian Second Army, take it into a defensive line, and back it up with all the German antitank weapons that could be scraped together. Orders went out to Eighth and Sixth Armies to start withdrawing that night. During the night the Operations Branch, OKH, tried to interpose an order from Hitler forbidding the withdrawal. When the army group answered that it had already begun, the Operations Branch replied that Hitler "had taken notice" of the withdrawal to the first phase line but reserved all subsequent decisions to himself.21

Five days earlier Hitler had personally



instructed Friessner to get ready to fall back some forty miles farther west than the proposed line on the Muresul River. In the meantime he had changed his mind, because he was determined to hold onto his last legitimate ally, Hungary, and because he was arriving at a new and novel estimate of Soviet strategy.

The first reason was the more immediate. Hungary, never a pillar of strength in the German coalition, had since Rumania capitulated been in a state of acute internal political tension. Horthy had dissolved all political parties and had declared his loyalty to Germany. His first impulse had seemed to be to seize the opportunity to annex the Rumanian parts of Transylvania, to which Hitler was only too happy to agree after Rumania declared war. But by 24 August the internal condition of Hungary appeared so uncertain that the OKW moved two SS divisions in close to the capital to be ready to put down an anti-German coup.

The events of the next few days, however, were at least superficially reassuring. The military in particular, appearing to be loyal to the alliance, set about mobilizing their forces for the war against their ancient enemy Rumania with, under the circumstances, surprising energy. The appointment on 30 August of Col. Gen. Geza Lakatos as Minister President to replace Sztojay, who was sick, and the appointments to his Cabinet preserved the hold inside the Hungarian Government which the Germans had established in the spring.


On the other hand Horthy kept out representatives of the radical rightist, fanatically pro-German Arrow-Cross Party.

The first overt alarm was raised on 7 September when, in a flash of panic touched off by a false report that the Russians were in Arad on the undefended south border 140 miles from Budapest, the Hungarian Crown Council met in secret and later, through the Chief of Staff, presented an ultimatum to the OKH: if Germany did not send five panzer divisions within twenty-four hours Hungary would reserve the right to act as its interests might require. Guderian called it extortion but gave his word to defend Hungary as if it were part of Germany and announced that he would send a panzer corps headquarters and one panzer division. Later he added two panzer brigades and two SS divisions, bringing the total to roughly the five divisions demanded.22 Because Hungary was in so shaky a condition Hitler refused to sacrifice the Szekler Strip even though Friessner and the German Military Plenipotentiary in Budapest assured him that the Hungarians were reconciled to losing the territory.

On 9 September Friessner went to Budapest where he persuaded Horthy to put his agreement to the withdrawal in writing. The impressions he received from talking to Horthy, Lakatos, and the military leaders were so disturbing that he decided to report on them to Hitler in person the next day. At Fuehrer headquarters Friessner learned the second reason why Hitler did not want to give up the Szekler Strip. He had concluded that having broken into the Balkans (Third Ukrainian Front had crossed into Bulgaria on 8 September), the Soviet Union would put its old ambitions--political hegemony in southeastern Europe and control of the Dardenelles--ahead of the drive toward Germany. In doing so, it would infringe on British interests and the war would turn in Germany's favor because the British would realize they needed Germany as a buffer against the Soviet Union.23 Since the withdrawal had started, he agreed by the end of the interview to let the army group go to the Muresul on the conditions that the line be adjusted to take in the manganese mines at Vatra Dornei and that it be the winter line. He also decided, after hearing Friessner's report, to "invite" the Hungarian Chief of Staff for a talk the next day.24

In Budapest on the 10th Horthy conferred with a select group of prominent politicians, and a day later informed the Cabinet that he was about to ask for an armistice and desired to know which of its members were willing to share the responsibility for that step. The vote went heavily against him--according to the account the Germans received at the time all but one against and, according to his own later statement, three for him. The Cabinet then demanded his resignation. He refused; or, as he put it in his Memoirs, he


decided not to dismiss the Cabinet.25

Either way, when the Hungarian Chief of Staff went to Fuehrer headquarters on the 12th he went as an ally. The day's delay had mightily aroused Hitler's suspicion, and he told the Hungarian military attaché that he had no further confidence in the Hungarian Government. The Chief of Staff's visit went off, as Antonescu's had in August, in mutual complaints and recriminations that were finally obscured by a thick fog of more or less empty promises. On his departure Guderian gave him a new Mercedes limousine, which came in handy a few weeks later when he went over to the Russians.

Hitler Plans a Counteroffensive

Army Group South Ukraine completed the withdrawal to the Muresul on 15 September. Tolbukhin's armies were temporarily out of the way in Bulgaria, and Malinovskiy's advance from the south was developing more slowly than had been expected. His tanks and trucks had taken a mechanical beating on the trip through the passes. On the other hand, a new threat was emerging on the north where Fourth Ukrainian Front on 9 September had begun an attempt to break through First Panzer Army and into the Dukla Pass in the Beskides of eastern Czechoslovakia and toward Uzhgorod. Behind that sector of the front the Germans were at the same time having trouble with an uprising in Slovakia in which the Minister of War and the one-division Slovakian Army had gone over to the partisans.

While Friessner was at Fuehrer headquarters Hitler had instructed him to use offensively the new divisions being sent. He wanted them assembled around Cluj for an attack to the south to smash Sixth Tank and Twenty-seventh Armies and retake the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes. Friessner issued the directive on 15 September, but the prospects of an early start were not good. Hitler had some of the reinforcements stop at Budapest, in readiness for a political crisis there.

At the front, the Hungarians, who had not done badly against the Rumanians, were disinclined toward becoming earnestly embroiled with the Russians. To give them some stiffening, the Army group merged Hungarian Second Army with Sixth Army to form the Armeegruppe Fretter-Pico under the Commanding General, Sixth Army, Fretter-Pico. On the 17th Fretter-Pico reported that Second Army was in a "catastrophic" state and that one mountain brigade had run away.

Tank Battle at Debrecen

At mid-month the Stavka also gave new orders. It directed Tolbukhin, still occupied in Bulgaria, to give Forty-sixth Army to Malinovskiy, and it transferred the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev from First Ukrainian Front. It instructed Malinovskiy to send his main thrust northwest from Cluj toward Debrecen, the Tisza River, and Miskolc, expecting him thereby both to benefit from and assist Fourth Ukrainian Front's advance toward Uzhgorod. For a week, beginning on 16 September, Sixth Tank and Twenty-seventh Armies tried unsuccessfully to take Cluj, which, because of


Hitler's plan, was exactly the place Army Group South Ukraine was most determined to hold.26

Friessner was far short of the strength both to fight the battle at Cluj and establish a front west of there. On 20 September a minor Russian onslaught threw back to Arad the Hungarians covering his flank on the west, and the following day they gave up the city without a fight. Thereafter the Hungarian General Staff activated a new army, the Third, composed mostly of recruits and recently recalled reservists, to hold a front on both sides of Arad. Reluctantly, it agreed to put the army under Army Group South Ukraine.

Losing Arad sent another wave of panic through Budapest even though the army group (redesignated Army Group South at midnight on 23 September) was certain that Malinovskiy did not yet have enough strength at Arad to attempt to strike out for Budapest. The German Military Plenipotentiary in Budapest reported on the 23d that the Hungarian command had completely lost nerve. It had pulled First Army back to the border, it intended to move two divisions of Second Army west, and it wanted to withdraw Third Army to the Tisza River. The OKH promptly whipped the Hungarians into line and had their orders rescinded. "In view of the Hungarian attitude," Guderian then sent several strong panzer units to "rest and refit" just outside Budapest.27

The Hungarians' nervousness was premature, but not by much. Malinovskiv was shifting his main force west to the Arad-Oradea area, and Army Group South had too few German troops to keep pace. On the 24th, when Friessner called for reinforcements, the Operations Branch, OKH, replied that it recognized the need the reason the army group had not been given any so far was that Hitler was still convinced the Soviet Union would first attempt to settle affairs in the Balkans on its own terms.

On the 25th elements of Sixth Tank Army, shifted west from Cluj, began closing in on Oradea. Friessner informed Hitler that the next attack would come across the line Szeged-Oradea, either northwest toward Budapest or north along the Tisza to meet Fourth Ukrainian Front's thrust through the Beskides. He could not stop it without more armor and infantry. Operations Branch, OKH, replied that Hitler intended to assemble a striking force of four panzer divisions around Debrecen for an attack south, but that could not be done before 10 October. Until then Friessner would have to deploy the forces he had in trying to check the Russians in the Szeged-Oradea area.

By the end of the month Hitler had fleshed out his plan for the proposed striking force. The attack would go south past Oradea and then wheel west along the rim of the Transylvanian Alps to trap the Russians north of the mountains. After mopping up, Army Group South could establish an easily defensible winter line in the mountains. For a while it appeared that he might have time enough to put the striking force together. After taking Oradea on 26 September and losing it two days later when the Germans counterattacked, Second Ukrainian Front reverted to aimless skirmishing.28


Map 31
Army Group South
5-29 October 1944

The Stavka was also looking for a quick and sweeping solution. (Map 31) On its orders, Malinovskiy deployed Forty-sixth Army, Fifty-third Army, and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev on a broad front north and south of Arad for a thrust across the Tisza to Budapest. To their right Sixth Tank Army, now a guards tank army, was to strike past Oradea toward


Debrecen, the Tisza, and Miskolc, there to meet a Fourth Ukrainian Front spearhead that would come through the Dukla Pass and by way of Uzhgorod. The pincers, when they closed, would trap Army Group South and First Panzer and Hungarian First Armies. Twenty-seventh Army, Rumanian First Army, and Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were to attack toward Debrecen from the vicinity of Cluj. Timoshenko co-ordinated for the Stavka.29

The plan was ambitious, too ambitious. Men and matériel for an extensive build-up were not to be had at this late stage of the general summer offensive; both fronts were feeling the effects of combat and long marches; and their supply lines were overextended. Because of the difference in gauges, the Rumanian railroads, if anything, were serving the Russians less well than they had the Germans, and Second Ukrainian Front had to rely mainly on motor transport west of the Dnestr. Malinovskiy's broad-front deployment gave him only about half the ratio of troops to frontage usual for a Soviet offensive.30 As a prerequisite for the larger operation Fourth Ukrainian Front's progress through the Dukla Pass was not encouraging; it had been slow from the start and at the end of the month the offensive was almost at a standstill.

After the turn of the month the Soviet attack into the Dukla Pass began to make headway, partly because Hitler had taken out a panzer division there for his striking force, and on 6 October the Russians took the pass. That morning Malinovskiy's armies attacked. Hungarian Third Army melted away fast. At Oradea, however, Sixth Guards Tank Army met Germans and was stopped.

On the 8th, as his left flank was closing to the Tisza, Malinovskiy turned Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev around and had it strike southeast behind Oradea. That broke the German hold.31 By nightfall a tank corps and a cavalry corps stood west of Debrecen, and Friessner, over Hitler's protests, ordered the Armeegruppe Woehler to start back from the Muresul line.32

The army group still had one panzer division stationed near Budapest and another, the first of the proposed striking force, at Debrecen. On 10 October the divisions attacked east and west below Debrecen into the flanks of the Soviet spearhead. Late that night their points met. They had cut off three Soviet corps. The army group envisioned "another Cannae," and Hitler ordered Armeegruppe Woehler to stop on the next phase line.

The next day, when Sixth Guards Tank Army put up a violent fight to get the corps out, who had trapped whom began to become unclear. The flat Hungarian plain became the scene of one of the wildest tank battles of the war. Malinovskiy reined in on his other armies. By the 12th the Russians in the pocket were shaking themselves loose, and Friessner ordered Armeegruppe Woehler to start back again. On the 14th the Russians were clearing the pocket, and Army Group South began concentrating on getting a front strong enough to keep them from going north once more. In the Beskides Fourth Ukrainian Front was moving


slowly again south of the Dukla Pass and trying to get through some of the smaller passes farther east.33

Horthy Asks for an Armistice

During the battle at Debrecen the Germans were aware that they were, as someone in OKH put it, "dancing on a volcano." They sensed that in Budapest a break might come any day, almost any hour. Their suspicion was well founded. In late September Horthy had sent representatives to Moscow to negotiate an armistice, and on 11 October they had a draft agreement completed and initialed without a fixed date. To be ready for any sudden moves, Hitler had sent in two "specialists," SS General von dem Bach-Zelewski and SS Col. Otto Skorzeny. Von dem Bach had long experience in handling uprisings, most recently at Warsaw. Skorzeny commanded the daredevil outfit that had rescued Mussolini.

The crisis in Hungary resolved itself less violently than the Germans expected. As Hungarian head of state for a generation, Horthy had accumulated tremendous personal prestige, but his authority had declined, and his political position was badly undermined. In the Parliament during the first week of October the parties of the right formed a prowar, pro-German majority coalition against him. The Army was split; some of the generals and many of the senior staff officers wanted to keep on fighting. On 8 October the Gestapo arrested the Budapest garrison commander, one of Horthy's most faithful and potentially most effective supporters, and, on the 15th, it arrested Horthy's son, who had played a leading role in the attempt to get an armistice.

The Soviet Union demanded that Hungary accept the armistice terms by 16 October. In the afternoon of the 15th Radio Budapest broadcast Horthy's announcement that he had accepted. By then he was acting alone. The Lakatos Cabinet had resigned on the grounds that it could not approve an armistice and Parliament had not been consulted on the negotiations.

The next morning, to the accompaniment of scattered shooting, the Germans took the royal palace and persuaded Horthy to "request" asylum in Germany. In his last official act, under German "protection," Horthy appointed Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the Arrow-Cross Party, as his successor. Szalasi, whose chief claim to distinction until then had been his incoherence both in speech and in writing, subsequently had himself named "Nador" (leader), with all the rights and duties of the Prince Regent.34

On 17 October Guderian, in an order declaring the political battle in Hungary won, announced that the next step would be to bring all of the German and Hungarian strength to bear at the front. How that was to be accomplished he did not say. In terms of the military situation the victory was one only by comparison with the immediate, total dissolution that would have come if Horthy's attempt to get an armistice had succeeded. Morale in the Hungarian Army hit bottom. Some officers,


including the Chief of Staff, some whole units, and many individuals deserted to the Russians, who encouraged others to do the same by letting the men return home if they lived in the areas under Soviet control.

To the Tisza

On the night of 16 October Hitler ordered Army Group South to see the battle through at Debrecen but also to start taking Armeegruppe Woehler back toward the Tisza. Meanwhile, Malinovskiy had reassembled his armor, the two cavalry-mechanized groups and Sixth Guards Tank Army, south of Debrecen. On the 10th the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev broke through past Debrecen, and two days later it took Nyiregyhaza, astride Armeegruppe Woehler's main line of communications.35

The Armeegruppe, which had also taken command of Hungarian First Army, its neighbor on the left, held a bow-shaped line that at its center was eighty miles east of Nyiregyhaza. Friessner's first thought was to pull the Armeegruppe north and west to skirt Nyiregyhaza. His chief of staff persuaded him to try a more daring maneuver, namely, to have Woehler's right flank do an about-face and push due west between Debrecen and Nyiregyhaza while Sixth Army's panzer divisions, in the corner between Nyiregyhaza and the Tisza, struck eastward into the Russian flank.36

The maneuver worked with the flair and precision of the blitzkrieg days. On the 23rd the two forces met and cut off three Soviet corps at Nyiregyhaza. Before Russians could break loose, almost the whole Armeegruppe Woehler bore down on them from the east. In three days the Germans retook Nyiregyhaza. On the 29th the survivors in the pocket abandoned their tanks, vehicles, and heavy weapons and fled to the south.

On that day, too, for the first time in two months, Army Group South had a continuous front. On the north it bent east of the Tisza around Nyiregyhaza and then followed the middle Tisza to below Szolnok, where it angled away from the river past Kecskemet to the Danube near Mohacs and tied in with Army Group F at the mouth of the Drava. But it was not a front that could stand long. The Tisza, flowing through flat country, afforded no defensive advantages--the Russians had easily driven Hungarian Third Army out of better positions than those it held on the open plain between the Tisza and the Danube.37


Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (XV) * Next Chapter (XVII)


1. Ob. Kdo. H. Gr. Suedukraine, Ia Kriegstagebuch, Band 3, Teil 10, 24 Jul 44, H. Gr. A 75126/30 file.

2. Ibid., 21 Jul 44.

3. Ibid., 25 Jul 44.

4. Ion Georghe, Rumaeniens Weg zum Satellitenstadt (Heidelberg, 1952), pp. 125ff.

5. Obkdo. H. Gr. Suedukraine, Ia Kriegstagebuch, Band 3, Teil 11, 1 Aug 44, H. Gr. A 75126/31 file.

6. Andreas Hillgruber, Hitler, Koenig Carol und Marschall Antonescu, Die Deutsch-Rumaenischen Beziehungen, 1938-1944 (Wiesbaden, 1954), pp. 195-99.

7. Obkdo. d. H. Gr. Suedukraine, Ia Kriegstagebuch, Band 3, Teil 11, 6 Aug 44, H. Gr. A 75126/31 file.

8. Ibid., 8 Aug 44.

9. Georghe, Rumaeniens Weg Zum Satellitenstadt, p. 403. Guderian in his memoirs (Erinnerungen eines Soldaten, page 330) states that Antonescu offered to let the front be taken back, but Antonescu's statement to Friessner later (see below, p. 351 ) makes it appear unlikely that he would have done so.

10. Obkdo. H. Gr. Suedukraine, Ia Kriegstagebuch, Band 3, Teil 11, 8 Aug 44, H. Gr. A 75126/31 file.

11. Ibid., 8-19 Aug 44.

12. IVOV (R), IV, 263-67.

13. O.B. d. H. Gr. Suedukraine, Niederschrift ueber die Besprechung des Oberbefehlshabers mit Marschall Antonescu am 21.8.44 Vorm. in Slanic, H. Gr. A 75127/9 file.

14. Obkdo. d. H. Gr. Suedukraine, Ia Kriegstagebuch, Band 4, Teil 1, 20-23 Aug 44, H. Gr. A 75126/32 file.

15. New York Times, August 24, 1944.

16. Hillgruber, Hitler, Koenig Carol und Marschall Antonescu, die deutsch-Rumaenischen Beziehungen, 1938-44, pp. 196-97, 217. With a crushing victory in the making, the Russians were not inclined to compromise and the negotiations dragged out until 12 September when, probably as much because they were trapped by their own double dealing as for any other reason, they agreed to reduced reparations, the return of the ceded territory in Transylvania to Rumania, and Rumanian civil administration of the areas outside the combat zone in compensation for placing the Rumanian armed forces under Soviet command in the war against Germany.

17. Obkdo. d. H. Gr. Suedukraine, Ia Kriegstagebuch, Band 4, Teil 1, 24-31 Aug 44, H. Gr. A 75126/32 file.

18. IVOV (R), IV, 281.

19. Ibid., p. 282.

20. Obkdo. d. H. Gr. Suedukraine, Ia Kriegstagebuch, Band 4, Teil 1, 31 Aug-5 Sep 44, H. Gr. A 75126/32 file.

21. H. Gr. Suedukraine, Kriegstagebuch, Band 4, Teil 2, 6, 7 Sep 44, H. Gr. A 75126/33 file.

22. OKW, WFSt, Kriegstagebuch, Die Ereignisse in Ungarn von Anfang April bis zu beginn der Schlacht um Budapest und zur engueltigen Legalisierung des, politisehen Umschwungs, pp. 15-21, OKW/206 file.

23. At a time when a split between the Soviet Union and the Western Powers, remote as the possibility might be, was the brightest of Germany's remaining prospects, such reasoning was not easy to refute. Friessner stated after the war that he assumed that Hitler was talking from knowledge, not merely spinning empty theories. Hans Friessner, Verratene Schlachten (Hamburg, 1956), pp. 121-24.

24. Obkdo. d. H. Gr. Suedukraine, Ia Kriegstagebuch, Band 4, Teil 2, 9 and 10 Sep 44, H. Gr. A 75126/33 file.

25. OKW, WFSt, Kriegstagebuch, Die Ereignisse in Ungarn von Anfang April bis zu beginn der Schlacht um Budapest und zur endgueltigen Legalisierung des politischen Umschwungs, p. 21, OKW/206 file; Admiral Nicholas Horthy, Memoirs (London, 1956), p. 224.

26. IVOV (R), IV, 282-83.

27. Okdo. d. H. Gr. Suedukraine, Ia Kriegstagebuch, Band 4, Teil 2, 15-23 Sep 44, H. Gr. A. 75126/33 file.

28. Obkdo. d. H. Gr. Suedukraine, Ia Kriegstagebuch, Band 4, Teil 2, 24-30 Sep 44, H. Gr. A 75126/33 file; Obkdo. d. H. Gr. Sued, Ia Kriegstagebuch, Band 4, Teil 3, 1-5 Oct 44, H. Gr. A 75126/34 file.

29. Zhilin, ed., Vazhneyshiye Operatsii Otechestvennoy Voyny, IV, 382.

30. Ibid., p. 383.

31. Ibid., p. 383.

32. Armeegruppe Fretter-Pico had taken command of Hungarian Third Army after it was formed and had transferred Hungarian Second Army to Headquarters, Eighth Army, as Armeegruppe Woehler.

33. Obkdo. d. H. Gr. Sued, Ia Kriegstagebuch, Band 4, Teil 3, 6-14 Oct 44, H. Gr. A 75126/34 file.

34. OKW, WFSt, Kriegstagebuch, Die Ereignisse in Ungarn von Anfang April bis zu beginn der Schlacht um Budapest and zur endgueltigen Legalisierung des politischen Umschwungs, pp. 27-39, OKW/206 file; Horthy, Memoirs, pp. 232-38.

35. IVOV (R), IV, 384.

36. Obkdo. d. H. Gr. Sued, Ia K.T.B. Notiz ueber entschiedene Fuehrungsentschluesse in der Schlacht 6-28.10.44. H. Gr. A. 75126/37a file.

37. Friessner, Verratene Schlachten, pp. 150-53; Obkdo. d. H. Gr. Sued, Ia Kriegstagebuch, Band 4, Teil 3, 24-29 Oct 44, H. Gr. A. 75126/35 file.

Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation