Fire & Sword:
The War’s Last Winter
At the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1945, two great battles ignited the Western and Eastern fronts. In the Ardennes, a desperate attempt by the Germans to regain ground in Belgium, reach Antwerp and force the Allies to negotiate a separate peace; in Hungary, Stalin’s ambitions to dominate all of Eastern Europe pushed the Soviet armies towards the Danube, where they encircled and ravaged Budapest before charging towards Vienna. Panzer Grenadier has already widely illustrated the Battle of the Bulge through games such as Elsenborn Ridge and others. Ardennes 1944 will soon offer other opportunities on the same theme. On the other hand, Fire & Sword will give the battles in Hungary the same attention in great detail.
While the Battle of the Bulge is well known to the American public for its historical implications, the fighting for and around Budapest generally remains in the shadow of the final, dramatic assault on Berlin. Aside from the winter and the fierce panzer attacks, it’s interesting to try to notice other similarities between the two battlefields. Comparison is not reason, said Raymond Queneau, the French wordsmith. True enough, but even if the terms of a comparison can sometimes seem quite distant, from their juxtaposition can spring a greater understanding of each of them.
The most typical landscape in Hungary is certainly the puszta: the large grassy plain, a kind of mixture between a steppe and a wet heath. The town of Kecskemét, south-east of Budapest, is the center of this landscape and the subject of the Battlegame 1 of Fire & Sword: Operation Budapest. Other smaller puszta regions surround the large Hungarian lakes, the Balaton and Velence, where most of the major armored battles took place in 1944/45. The puszta is not really comparable to the lands of the northern front of the Ardennes because of their relief.
On the contrary, the Pilis, Gerecse and Vértes mountains which dominate Budapest to the northwest, in the great loop of the Danube, form a very wooded region with high hills cut by deep valleys. The roads are few, sunken, steep and muddy in winter. In short, not really a place to drive Tigers or JS2s. And yet, as if by challenge, it is right there that we find them. As in the Ardennes, well-placed roadblocks held by a small group can hold back attackers for several hours and make it possible to blow up a bridge or install the next roadblock in the meantime. The low Hungarian mountains are a kind of replica of the terrain of the northern Ardennes front, through which the 1st, 12th and 9th SS Panzer Divisions launched their Tigers, Panthers and other tanks in December 1944. On the road along the Belgian Amblève river, in front of the small town of Trois-Ponts, Peiper cursed the bridges that were blown up in front of him and the never-ending winding roads: "Damned engineers!" The terrain was also ideal for ambushes. A bazooka or an anti-tank gun firing at point-blank range at the exit of a road bend could immobilize the lead tank, which then blocked the entire column because of the narrowness of the road. In the middle of winter, the Konrad operations (I & II) intended to save Budapest from the Russian encirclement sent these same heavy tanks, those of the 3rd SS Panzer Division (Death’s Head) and the 5th SS Panzer Division (Viking) to clash with the Soviet SU-100s and ISU-122s in the same snowy area. The terrain as well as Allied resistance confirmed the German failure, in both cases.
“Further advance is difficult,” an SS officer wrote on 2 January, during the Konrad I operation. “It leads through mountainous and forested terrain. Tanks can only fight on the roads, which the Russians have secured with roadblocks with as many as 20 antitank guns in position. They can only be bypassed in flank attacks by our Panzergrenadiere. Artillery is hard to use effectively in the rugged mountainous terrain. The enemy attacks our flanks repeatedly in battalion strength. The supporting division has not followed our attacks rapidly enough.”
The paradox is terrible: this kind of terrain creates a surprise – a necessity given the fact the Germans were clearly outnumbered - but it strongly limits speed, also an essential element of their strategy.
The romanticism of despair
In the Belgian Ardennes as well as in front of Budapest, the German offensives failed . . . just barely, some say.
On the banks of the Meuse River in December 1944, deep disappointment awaited the Germans of the 2nd Panzer Division at Celles and Foy-Notre-Dame in front of the British Firefly tanks and the strike force of the 2nd US Armored Division “Hell on Wheels.” Crossing the Meuse was truly impossible. See the recent Campaign Study Britain’s Battle of the Bulge and its first two scenarios.
In Hungary, twice (Konrad II and III), German armored spearheads were stopped on Hitler’s orders at the gates of Budapest. In the Pilis Mountains, on the heights of Pilisszentkereszt, the militiamen of the 5th SS Panzer Division’s Westland Regiment could see the steeples of the Buda churches in the early morning of January 11, just before they turned back. On 26 January, Battle Group Philipp of the 1st Panzer Division was stopped 17 kilometers from the capital. One can imagine the disappointment of the troops. But did Hitler really intend to save Budapest?
In the Ardennes, the Germans were surprised to face so many US tank destroyers. Never before had they encountered so many M-36 Jacksons with their highly effective 90mm gun. Coupled with the M-10 and the highly mobile M18 Hellcats, these tanks had indeed replaced the static version of the 3-inch gun. Around Butgenbach and Bullingen, these M-36s met the German Jagdpanthers, the latter handicapped by their weight in a rather muddy and spongy ground. At Rochefort, the Panzer Lehr had its Jagdpanthers intervene in the middle of the city, but most of these tank destroyers could not take the decision. Or at least not fast enough.
Hungary was really a testing ground for the new Russian tank destroyers. The ISU-122, a kind of SP AT-gun version of the JS2, was everywhere and often confused with the JS2 in German after-action reports. The ISU-122’s gun, identical to that of the JS2, gave the panzers a hard time in the puzsta. The SU-100 did not appear in Soviet units until December 1944. A battery of SU-100s included 5 tank destroyers and a company included 4 batteries, an unbeatable force even though these armored vehicles were usually employed in small numbers. Curiously, the literature on WWII armor denies the decisive role played by the SU-100s, citing their late arrival on the battlefield.
However, their firepower and their numbers (about 5000 were built!) made the German attacks in Hungary collapse. At Szomor and Zsámbék, in January 1945 (Konrad I, Battlegame 8 in Fire & Sword), an entire SU-100 unit stopped the Tigers and Panthers of 3rd SS Panzer Division.
It is well known that the SS broke their teeth at the end of December 1944, in the Ardennes. Battle Group Peiper of the 1st SS Panzer Division was isolated at Stoumont and La Gleize in the Amblève valley. Attacked from all sides and without resources, the SS had to abandon their equipment and flee on foot through the forest. Back in the German lines, Peiper was “unavailable” for several weeks, apparently suffering from severe depression following his failure against the Americans.
At the beginning of March 1945, Hitler launched a new operation aimed at regaining ground in Hungary in order to protect the last Axis-held oil fields and delay the now inevitable fatal outcome. Operation Spring Awakening involved the partially-resupplied 1st and 12th SS, southeast of Lake Balaton, and Peiper was again in charge of a breakthrough. At Simontornya, the SS panzers were stopped in front of a river whose bridges had been blown up and behind which the Soviets had installed several batteries of SU-100s covered by M15A1 anti-aircraft halftracks (received via US Lend-Lease). As at Stavelot in the Ardennes, the river crossing was critical and the power of the Panthers, Tigers II and JagdPanthers was not enough to ensure the continuation of the offensive in front of a determined defense.
The US paratroopers distinguished themselves particularly in the battle of the Ardennes. The 101st Airborne, encircled in Bastogne, resisted all the assaults while the 82nd Airborne held against all odds on the Salm river and forced Peiper to abandon the Cheneux bridgehead across the Amblève.
In Hungary, the Szent László Parachute Division (named for St. Ladislas I, 1040-1095, one of the first kings of Hungary) was formed late in October 1944. This elite Hungarian formation, or at least part of it, consisted of the 1st Parachute Regiment (one Para Battalion, one Heavy Weapons Battalion and one Training Battalion), the 2nd Grenadier Regiment (one Royal Guard Infantry Battalion and one Royal Gendarmerie Battalion) and the 3rd Air Force Infantry Regiment (personnel from the Royal Hungarian Air Force). The division also had three motorized artillery battalions and the 1st Rocket Launcher Battalion. The armament of this unit was mainly German. Although the Szent László parachute unit appeared in some Road to Berlin scenarios, it is represented by normal Hungarian infantry. Fire & Sword will provide new game pieces to represent these units.
By mid-December 44, the Soviets were trying to close the northern pincer of the encirclement of Budapest, north of the Danube. To counter these plans, the battle-hardened Hungarian paratroopers were sent to Ipolyszalka on the Ipoly (“Ipel”) river. The unit was often used as a fire brigade, thrown from one bloody battle to another to stop the unstoppable Red Army. They had had only six weeks of training and borrowed German weapons to fight with, but they were motivated, eager to go to war and had been made popular through the newsreels. The unit consisted of veterans of the 1st Parachute Battalion, returning from the Eastern Front, and novice recruits from the Hungarian pre-military youth organization, the Levente Movement. These young, mostly 17- and 18-year-old boys had undergone a rigorous pre-military airborne training, using jump towers, close formation drill, and tons of athletics to get them ready for military service. The youngsters were physically fit, motivated to volunteer for airborne service, and eager to defend the “Ancient Land” as their instructors, and school teachers had told them to do.
They arrived at Ipolyszalka on 19 December 1944, riding a column of public transport busses, exactly like the 101st Airborne paratroopers arriving in Noville, close to Bastogne, and at the same time. On the Ipoly River, the outnumbered Hungarian paratroopers defended themselves like lions, until Christmas (Battlegame 7, Fire & Sword). Without many heavy weapons, the Hungarian paratroopers made a good use of four Nimrods, the Hungarian AA vehicles, in direct fire to block the Soviet assaults. On the Bastogne side, the M16 "Meatchopper" AA halftracks saved the situation, as well. In the end the Soviets called the Hungarian paratroopers “axe robbers” because of their insignia.
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