Throughout the summer of 1944, the men of General der Artillerie Maximilian Fretter-Pico’s German Sixth Army were literally fighting for their very existence. The Red Army, pushing ever westward, was nearing the zenith of its strength. Although German soldiers were killing Russian soldiers at a rate of 4.5 to 1, conscripts from newly liberated Soviet territory made good the losses.
Tough, confident generals had long since replaced the inefficient Red Army commanders responsible for the disasters of 1941 and 1942. The commander of the 2nd Ukrainian Front, Marshal Rodion Yakovlevich Malinovsky, was one such general. Born near Odessa in 1898, he joined the Czarist army at age 15 and was wounded in World War I. In 1919, he became a machine-gun instructor in the Red Army.
Malinovsky made his way through the ranks, and by 1942 he was commander of the 66th Army at Stalingrad. In early 1943, he commanded the South Front, followed by command of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, with which he liberated the western Ukraine. By mid-September 1944, Malinovsky found himself in command of the powerful 2nd Ukrainian Front, consisting of four infantry armies (27th, 53rd, 40th and 7th Guards), the First and Fourth Romanian armies, the 6th Guards Tank Army and two combined mechanized cavalry groups commanded by Generals S.I. Gorshkov and I.A. Pliyev. The front also included the independent XVIII Tank Corps. In all, Malinovsky had 42 Soviet rifle divisions, 22 Romanian divisions, 750 tanks and assault guns, and 1,100 aircraft at his disposal.
His opponent, Fretter-Pico, had entered the kaiser’s army three years before Malinovsky joined the Imperial Russian forces. Serving in World War I, he became part of the 100,000-man Reichswehr after hostilities ceased. At the outbreak of World War II he was serving as chief of staff of the XXIV Army Corps, followed by a tour as commander of the 97th Jäger (Light) Division. He later saw bitter fighting in the Crimean campaign as commander of the XXX Army Corps.
In the summer of 1944, he had command of Armeegruppe Fretter-Pico, which was an enlarged version of his previous Sixth Army command. His forces included the Second Hungarian Army (approximately five divisions), the LVII Panzer Corps (parts of three German divisions) and the 8th SS Cavalry Division.
Soviet historians like to call 1944 ‘the Year of 10 Victories.’ It was during September and October of that year that Malinovsky and Fretter-Pico met each other on the battlefields of Southeastern Europe. For the Soviets, a quick victory there would have meant an open gate to Germany from the south. For the Germans, any marginal victory would have given them time to build a defensive line to protect the cities of Central Europe, including Budapest, Vienna and Berlin.
The Germans were certainly in a precarious position, and any kind of victory would be difficult. Starting with Italy in 1943, the nations that had allied themselves with the Reich had begun to desert Adolf Hitler. On September 8, 1944, Bulgaria formally declared war on Germany. Two days later, Finland signed an armistice with the Allies.
The greatest blow, however, came some three weeks before, on August 25, 1944, when Romania’s King Michael declared war on his former ally, following his dismissal of Prime Minister Ion Antonescu. The sudden switch, coupled with a rapid drive into Romania by General Fedor Ivonovich Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front, destroyed any semblance of a solid defensive line for Generaloberst Johannes Friessner’s Heeresgruppe Süd Ukraine.
The Bulgarian and Romanian defections had opened up some 400 miles of Friessner’s front. Tolbukhin, aided by Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front, was able to maul the disorganized German units that were fleeing north toward Hungary. Between August 20 and September 5, Malinovsky and Tolbukhin were reported to have annihilated 13 enemy divisions. They also reported killing 150,000 Germans and taking another 106,000 as prisoners. On September 12, Stalin had both generals promoted to marshal of the Soviet Union in recognition of their success.
While Friessner frantically tried to form a new line, the leader of another of Germany’s allies, Hungarian Admiral Miklós Horthy, had seen the writing on the wall. As German troops fled Romania and Soviet forces advanced on the borders of Hungary, Horthy hoped to conclude a secret peace agreement with Stalin. If this could be arranged, it would only be a matter of weeks before Germany’s entire southern front would collapse under the weight of the Red Army.
While Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front was busy mopping up German resistance in Romania, Malinovsky was ordered to turn his armies north and advance on Hungary. He advanced more slowly than expected, however, giving Friessner time to establish a tenuous line behind the Muresul River.
Friessner’s Heeresgruppe Süd Ukraine, which was redesignated Heeresgruppe Süd on September 24, was a mixed bag of German and Hungarian divisions. To instill a measure of fighting spirit into the shaky Hungarians, the Second Hungarian Army was placed under the command of Fretter-Pico’s Sixth Army, resulting in the creation of Armeegruppe Fretter-Pico. Friessner also had General der Infanterie Otto Wöhler’s weak Eighth Army under his command.
As Malinovsky moved north to engage Friessner, he was reinforced by General L.T. Schlemin’s 46th Army. He also received orders to strike from Cluj toward Debrecen, Miskolc and the Tisza River, opening the way for either an advance on Budapest or a joint effort with the Ukrainian Front, which was attempting a drive into eastern Czechoslovakia.
Friessner, fearing a double envelopment by the 2nd and 4th Ukrainian fronts, flew to Hitler’s headquarters and asked the Führer’s permission to withdraw to the Tisza. He also asked to be given freedom of movement to counter the Soviet attack as it developed. Both requests were quickly refused. Instead, the Führer astonished Friessner by promising him additional divisions for an offensive of his own that would destroy Malinovsky’s 27th and 6th Guards Tank armies. After accomplishing that feat, Friessner was to continue his attack, retaking the Turnu Rosu and Predeal passes in the Transylvanian Alps, thereby cutting Malinovsky’s line of communication.
On September 16, Malinovsky began his assault on Cluj with General P.V. Kravchenko’s 6th Guards Tank and General S.G. Trofimenko’s 27th armies. As this was the very area where Friessner had been ordered to mass troops for his own attack, the Soviets ran into very heavy resistance. For a week, Malinovsky threw his troops against the enemy, only to have each attack repelled with substantial losses.
Realizing the futility of the Cluj assault, Malinovsky called off the attack and began shifting the 6th Guards Tank Army west toward Oradea. He also pushed Groups Pliyev and Gorshkov into the area, creating a formidable striking force for future operations.
Meanwhile, on September 20, Soviet troops had pushed a Hungarian force out of the border town of Arad, on the 2nd Ukrainian Front’s left flank. Repercussions from the loss far outweighed its actual importance. The Hungarian general staff immediately activated the Third Hungarian Army, made up of divisions of young recruits and older reservists. This half-trained, rather dubious fighting force was placed under Friessner’s command. Friessner, while accepting these reinforcements, was under no illusions. It was still clear that Fretter-Pico would bear the brunt of the battle on the Heeresgruppe‘s southern flank.
The Germans were becoming increasingly wary of their Hungarian allies. Inside the Hungarian general staff, pro-German and pro-Allied factions jockeyed for positions of power while Admiral Horthy went ahead with what he perceived to be secret peace negotiations with Moscow. German intelligence, however, had already sent word to Berlin of the talks. In response, some of the reinforcements for Friessner’s attack at Cluj were diverted to Budapest for ‘rest and refitting.’
During the final week in September, both Malinovsky and Friessner received fresh orders regarding future operations. Malinovsky was to form the 46th and 53rd armies and Group Pliyev on a wide front straddling Arad for a drive to take Budapest. Meanwhile, the 6th Guards Tank Army would hit the Axis line near Oradea and head toward Debrecen in a pincer movement, with Group Gorshkov, the 27th Army and the First Romanian Army forming the right pincer of the assault by attacking near Cluj.
Hitler had decided that Friessner’s attack would be mounted by Armeegruppe Fretter-Pico south of Oradea. Two panzer divisions (the 1st and 23rd) had already arrived at the front, and more armored and infantry divisions were on the way. Once through the Soviet line, Fretter-Pico would seize the passes assigned to him and destroy the Russian forces north of the Transylvanian Alps. Winter positions would then be established in the mountains, securing the front until spring.
It was an interesting situation. Both sides were preparing to attack at basically the same time and place, unaware of the other’s intentions. Neither commander had a good idea of the strength of his opponent, and both had been assured that they would be reinforced once the battle was underway.
Malinovsky beat the Germans to the draw, attacking on October 6 and slicing through the Third Hungarian Army. The Hungarians, vastly overmatched, simply melted away under the onslaught. By evening, elements of General I.M. Mangarov’s 53rd Army and Group Pliyev had advanced 40 to 50 kilometers. However, Kravchenko’s 6th Guards Tank Army, running headlong into elements of the 1st and 23rd Panzer divisions, became involved in a slugging match that resulted in a gain of only 10 kilometers.
Fretter-Pico reacted quickly, ordering the 76th Infantry Division into the line to hold Oradea and relieve the 23rd Panzer, allowing the tanks to form a mobile force to strike Soviet forces that had broken through the main line. Colonel Günther Pape’s Feldherrnhalle Panzer Grenadier Division, stationed at Mezökövesá, 120 kilometers northwest of Oradea, was ordered to advance southeast and take up positions at Tisza-Füred, to block any Soviet attempt to cross there.
October 7 saw Malinovsky’s left flank continue to drive the remnants of the Third Hungarian Army steadily toward the Tisza River and the capital city of Budapest. By evening, four corps (the IV Guards Cavalry, VI Guards Cavalry, VII Guards Mechanized and IX Guards Mechanized) had created a substantial bulge in the German-Hungarian line. His right flank, however, was still stalled in the Oradea sector.
Bolstered by the arrival of the 76th Division, the 8th and 12th Hungarian reserve divisions, which had been placed under the control of Generalleutnant August Schmidt’s LXXII Army Corps, were able to fend off several attacks at Oradea by General A.I. Semenov’s XXXIII Rifle Corps. Meanwhile, Kravchenko’s 6th Guards Tank Army, under constant counterattacks from the 1st and 23rd Panzer divisions, made little progress as it sought a way to outflank Oradea from the west. The two panzer divisions, under the command of General der Panzertruppe Hermann Brieth’s III Panzer Corps, were even able to retake several villages that had fallen to the enemy the previous day.
In an effort to break the deadlock at Oradea, Malinovsky decided to mount a massive assault using Group Pliyev as the anvil and the 6th Guards Tank Army as the hammer. On October 8, Group Pliyev was ordered to swing toward Debrecen. The Soviet marshal hoped that this new threat would stretch the German defenses to the point that Kravchenko would be able to pierce the Oradea line and force the enemy back, crushing the German troops between Group Pliyev and the 6th Guards Tank Army.
The terrain where the next three weeks’ fighting would take place was crisscrossed with rivers and streams. Swamps dotted the area, and areas that were normally dry land frequently turned into bogs several kilometers wide when it rained, as it frequently did in the fall. The road network consisted of a few major thoroughfares and several minor roads that would also turn into a muddy morass when the rains hit. For the two mechanized forces waging war in the area, there would be little room for error. A continuous front in such conditions was out of the question, and a wrong turn at a crossroads during bad weather could immobilize a badly needed unit for several days.
By shifting his axis of attack, Malinovsky was able to utilize the major highway and rail bed running from Szolnok to Debrecen. Pliyev’s IX Guards Mechanized and VI Guards Cavalry corps advanced rapidly during the day, taking Puspokladany and Kaba. Continuing their northeast run, the Soviets reached the outskirts of Hajduszoboszlo, about 20 kilometers southeast of Debrecen, before running into elements of the 23rd Panzer Division.
Supported by the 5th Air Army, Group Pliyev was able to take the town the next day. Retreating to Debrecen, the 23rd Panzer took up positions southwest of the city just ahead of the pursuing VI Guards and successfully repulsed several attacks.
South of Debrecen, the VI Guards Cavalry and IX Mechanized corps were moving on Oradea from the north, but were slowed by German and Hungarian units defending every crossroads and village with a courage born of desperation. If the Soviet forces succeeded in linking up with the XXXIII Rifle Corps and the 6th Guards Tank Army, which were making a concerted effort to take Oradea from the south, Fretter-Pico’s line would be blown wide open.
On October 10, Fretter-Pico unleashed a surprise of his own. He ordered the 1st Panzer Division to attack in a westerly direction, while the 13th Panzer Division attacked eastward. The two divisions sliced through the flanks of the Debrecen corridor, meeting at Puspokladany and cutting off Group Pliyev’s three corps.
During the next few days, Malinovsky’s broad assault across the Hungarian plain came to a halt as he pulled in his armies in an attempt to free the trapped corps of Group Pliyev. The VII Mechanized Corps was rushed to the area to reopen the corridor, while the 6th Guards Tank Army and XXXIII Rifle Corps redoubled their efforts to take Oradea.
Meanwhile, Fretter-Pico sent the Feldherrnhalle Panzer Grenadier Division into the fray near Debrecen. As both sides threw more reinforcements into the area, the battle became more confused, with neither side knowing who had really surrounded whom. The IV Guards broke through the 23rd Panzer Division’s positions and entered the northwestern section of Debrecen on the evening of October 11. At the same time, the IV Guards’ rear elements were desperately fighting the Feldherrnhalle Division, trying to prevent the entire corps from being encircled.
It soon became clear to Friessner and Fretter-Pico that the German line was just too thin to perform the many tasks required. By October 12, the trapped Soviet units were managing to disengage from most of the German forces. At the same time, Russian troops had succeeded in fighting their way into Oradea. Infantry, supported by tanks, began to push the 76th Infantry Division back block by block as Malinovsky funneled reserves into the town. A large munitions dump in the town had to be destroyed to keep it from falling into Soviet hands, adding to the confusion. By midday, it was clear to the divisional commander, Generalleutnant Erich Abraham, that the 76th would be annihilated if it continued to remain in Oradea. He finally sent a message to his commanders saying ‘the defense of the town is no longer possible.’ With those words, the 76th abandoned the town, pulling back to new positions some 10 kilometers to the northwest.
As the Russian advance continued, the German commanders fought desperately to create a firm defensive line. The situation was entering a critical phase, with Fretter-Pico’s forces being battered by Malinovsky, and General der Infanterie Otto Wöhler’s Eighth Army, on Fretter-Pico’s left flank, receiving the same kind of harsh punishment from the 4th Ukrainian Front. Friessner had repeatedly asked Hitler for permission to withdraw the Eighth Army to a more defensible line and to pull Fretter-Pico’s forces behind the Tisza River. While Hitler vacillated, the Soviets continued to make inroads, threatening the annihilation of both German armies.
As if the military situation was not bad enough, political events in Hungary took a decidedly nasty turn on October 15. Admiral Horthy had once again been secretly negotiating with the Soviets for a separate peace. This time, Hitler had had enough. He sent SS commando Otto Skorzeny and a handpicked team of men to settle the Horthy question once and for all. On the 15th, Horthy announced that Hungary had accepted an armistice with Russia. By the afternoon of the 16th, Skorzeny had kidnapped Horthy’s son, taken control of the Hungarian seat of government, and blackmailed Horthy into resigning. His successor was Ferenc Szalasi, leader of the pro-German Arrow Cross Party.
All of this uncertainty had a disastrous effect on the already shaky Hungarian military. Colonel General Béla Miklos, commanding the First Hungarian Army, defected to the Soviets with part of his staff on October 16. General Lajos Verres, commanding the Second Hungarian Army, was arrested on Friessner’s orders because it was feared that he would follow Miklos’ example. On the front line, some battalion and regimental commanders turned their units over to the Soviets en masse. For the most part, however, the average Hungarian soldier fought beside his German allies to prevent the Soviets from overrunning his country.
As the political turmoil raged, fighting at the front continued unabated. On the 17th, Malinovsky renewed his drive on Debrecen. If he succeeded in taking the city, he could then strike toward Nyiregyhaza and beyond, making Wöhler’s retreat to the Tisza Line impossible. Once again, Group Pliyev, which had narrowly escaped disaster just days before, would lead the attack.
Since there was no continuous front line, the Germans relied on hedgehog positions in key villages and important crossroads to slow the Russians down. One such position was at Hosszupaly, about 15 kilometers southwest of Debrecen, where Hauptmann Gerhard Fischer of the 23rd Panzer Division commanded a mixed unit of four Panther tanks, one anti-tank gun and 25 men from Feldersatz Battalion 128. At 2 a.m. on the 17th, the Russians attacked Fischer’s position, driving into the southwest corner of the village. By mid-morning, the Soviets had fought their way to the center of the village, only to be hit with a counterattack. Fischer and his men held their positions all day, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy before they were finally ordered to retreat. It was actions like this that prevented a wholesale Soviet breakthrough.
Nevertheless, Malinovsky kept the pressure on, gradually forcing the Germans back. Although the attack had not gone exactly according to plan, Group Pliyev was able to take Debrecen on the 20th. With renewed confidence, Malinovsky ordered Pliyev to continue his drive northward. The general obeyed, disregarding his flank protection and taking Nyiregyhaza on October 22, cutting Wöhler’s main line of communications.
Luckily for the Germans, Wöhler was already in the process of disengaging from the 4th Ukrainian Front. Friessner claimed after the war that he had personally given the order to disengage, because the vacillating Hitler had been unable to decide what to do. At any rate, Friessner intended to pull his armies back north and west of Nyiregyhaza and form a solid line to meet the Soviet attack.
His chief of staff, Generalmajor Helmuth Grolman, had different plans. He saw an opportunity not only to disrupt Malinovsky’s advance but also to cut off and destroy a large part of the Russian spearhead. Grolman believed that the attempt to do so two weeks before had failed because of the disorganization of the German and Hungarian forces, coupled with a lack of sufficient units to guarantee an encirclement.
Grolman’s plan called for an operation that shone with the daring and resourcefulness of the blitzkrieg days of old. Instead of a wholesale retreat, Wöhler would countermarch his right flank, striking west at the Soviets between Nyiregyhaza and Debrecen. At the same time, Fretter-Pico’s armored forces would launch an attack eastward, cutting through the Russian infantry trying to secure Pliyev’s left flank, and link up with Wöhler’s troops. After hours of discussion, Grolman won Friessner’s approval.
Generalmajor Josef von Radowitz’s 23rd Panzer Division, which would spearhead Fretter-Pico’s attack, would be supported by the 1st Panzer Division. The 13th Panzer Division, the Feldherrnhalle Division and the 46th Infantry Division were to be used as a buffer force to counter any Russian attempt to break the encirclement. On October 23, Fretter-Pico’s divisions began their attack.
The panzers sliced through the infantry corps of General Trofimenko’s 27th Army and rolled eastward toward Nagykalló, where they were to meet elements of Wöhler’s Eighth Army. With the 1st Panzer guarding its southern flank, the 23rd Panzer rolled up hastily prepared Soviet defenses. The Russian infantry had no choice but to retreat to the south as the German attack continued.
The eastern pincer of Friessner’s attack was led by the 3rd Mountain Division, commanded by Generalmajor Paul Klatt. Klatt, who had served in the army since 1914, was a commander who led by example. Wounded three times in World War I, he had been severely wounded in December 1942 while commanding his regiment.
At Fretter-Pico’s panzers pushed east, Klatt’s division fought its way west, supported by the 15th Infantry Division, the 8th SS Cavalry Division and the IX Hungarian Infantry Corps. The 3rd Mountain Division, which had already been on the move during Wöhler’s retreat, reached the outskirts of Nagykalló at 2 a.m. on October 24. The mountain troopers had served their general well, marching 125 kilometers in 52 hours while pushing aside any Russian resistance met on the way.
Leading elements of the 23rd Panzer rolled into Nagykalló soon after the arrival of Klatt’s men. The well-designed trap was now sprung, and the three corps of Group Pliyev (the IV and V Guards Cavalry and the XXIII Tank) were in the snare. The trapped Soviet corps immediately began probing attacks to find weak points in the German line, but they were unable to find a way out.
While Malinovsky hastily sent reinforcements to break the stranglehold on Group Pliyev, German and Hungarian forces tightened the noose around the beleaguered corps. Fighting grew in intensity as Soviet cavalry and mechanized units threw themselves against the Axis ring of steel. As Pliyev’s casualties mounted, it became clear that the fate of his corps rested with Malinovsky and the units trying to reach them.
On the other hand, German morale was bolstered by the fighting. The commander of the III Panzer Corps noted on the evening of the 24th that ‘another glorious day is behind us.’ He also noted that the 23rd Panzer Division had smashed the 30th Soviet Cavalry Division and that elements of the 13th Panzer Division had destroyed 21 artillery pieces and 37 anti-tank guns.
By the 25th, Malinovsky had marshaled his forces for an all-out attack to rescue Group Pliyev. Trofimenko’s 27th Army hit the 1st Panzer Division at Ujfeherto with a strong infantry attack. The assault was smashed with the help of a counterattack by the 23rd Panzer’s Panzer Grenadier Regiment 128, which was the designated corps reserve.
Meanwhile, the VII Mechanized and VI Guards Cavalry corps made a vain attempt to break through the positions of Klatt’s 3rd Mountain Division. They were met with withering fire from anti-tank, artillery and assault-gun units. Soviet officers and NCOs paid a particularly heavy toll as they were picked off by the crack sharpshooters of the Gebirgs Division. Snipers such as Leopold Meirer, who would have 180 kills to his credit before being killed in Slovakia, and Josef Roth, who would be credited with 200 kills, made life hell for the Russian soldier who carelessly stuck his neck or anything else out. Another sharpshooter, 19-year-old Matthäus Hewtzenauer, would end the war with 347 confirmed kills, the highest in the German army.
On October 26, after some particularly savage fighting, the 23rd Panzer recaptured Nyiregyhaza, dealing a crippling blow to Group Pliyev. In Friessner’s memoirs, he describes the scene that greeted the Germans as they entered the town: ‘Women of all ages were raped, and sometimes murdered. Parents were nailed to doorposts, while their children were mutilated.’
The Soviet conduct at Nyiregyhaza soon spread from unit to unit, and it is possible that the stories stiffened the resolve of the common soldier in Hungary to prevent the Russians from entering Germany. Whatever the reason, German troops in Hungary now began to put up the most desperate resistance yet encountered by the Red Army. Fretter-Pico’s forces worked in concert with Wöhler’s, defending against Malinovsky’s attacks while attacking the surrounded Group Pliyev. As the fighting raged, Wöhler was able to successfully withdraw his other corps to positions on the west bank of the Tisza, getting them out of the trap that would have meant the annihilation of the Eighth Army.
On hearing of Wöhler’s escape, Malinovsky ordered the surviving elements of Group Pliyev to mount an attack to the south, hoping that they could link up with the 27th Army. Losses on both sides were heavy, but the German-Hungarian line held, preventing a mass exodus from the pocket. The German armored and motorized divisions were still holding their own, but with ever dwindling numbers.
By October 29, it was clear that Group Pliyev’s position was untenable. The surviving units, after destroying their vehicles and heavy weapons, were ordered to reach the Russian line by any means possible. As the battle ended, the Germans estimated that Group Pliyev had lost 6,255 confirmed dead, 11,900 estimated killed and 6,662 prisoners–a total of about 25,000 men. They also claimed 358 tanks, 310 artillery pieces, 600 anti-tank guns, 247 mortars and 1,954 other vehicles captured or destroyed.
Fretter-Pico’s Sixth Army did not end the fighting unscathed. At the end of October, his four panzer divisions (the 1st, 3rd, 13th and 24th), two panzer grenadier divisions (the 4th SS and Feldherrnhalle) and the 76th Infantry Division had a combined strength of 8,450 men fit for combat. Materiel strength was listed as 67 tanks, 58 assault guns, 62 heavy anti-tank guns and 176 artillery pieces.
The battles around Debrecen and Nyiregyhaza were important because they slowed what would have been a lightning thrust by the Soviets to capture Budapest, knocking Hungary out of the war and opening the southern approaches to the Reich. It was also a classic example of what war on the Eastern Front was all about–maneuver, attack, counterattack and encirclement.
Although the Red Army eventually reached the gates of Budapest by the end of 1944, it did so at a moderate pace, allowing German and Hungarian fighting units to retreat in an orderly fashion. After the Debrecen and Nyiregyhaza battles, Axis forces were able to form a continuous line for the first time since the Red Army had set foot in Hungary.
It was, however, also the last time that the Wehrmacht was able to meet an up-to-strength Soviet force on even terms and defeat it. Clearly, it was now only a matter of time before the Third Reich would be overrun, and the panzer success at Debrecen and Nyiregyhaza would be relegated to a final victorious footnote in Adolf Hitler’s doomed cause.
This article was written by Pat McTaggart and originally appeared in the March 1997 issue of World War II magazine.