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Anthony Tucker-Jones
This is another book in the extensive “Images of War” series by the publisher Pen and Sword. It’s very interesting because it tells the story of a battle that not many of us have heard of, since most us of are more familiar with the more famous encounters at Stalingrad, Kaliningrad and other places on the Eastern Front that were reported on while they occurred and have often featured in many other publications (and even movies).

Although the book is, by definition, a pictorial document of the Battle of Budapest, there’s also a lot of information around the event – with the introduction doing a fine job of setting the initial scene and also explaining the extent of the staggering losses inflicted on the German Army by the Soviets in their advance towards Germany and Austria. Succeeding chapters also present an ongoing description of the conflict as it unfolded. Because of that, and in spite of the pictorial nature of the book, I believe it would have profited enormously from at least three maps: one depicting the area on a larger scale to allow readers to place the many cities, towns and topographical features, troop movements and counter-moves mentioned in the book in their correct locations and to give a better idea of why the battle was necessary in the first place (and just how chillingly close the Soviets were to Berlin at that stage of the war). A further map could have shown the pincer movements carried out by the Soviet Army to completely enclose Budapest, and a third map could have displayed the defensive and offensive positions of the opposing forces once the encirclement was completed. All that would have placed the powerful pictures in the book in their correct context and given a much better idea of the respective strengths and weaknesses on each side.

The battle became necessary after Romania collapsed as an Axis ally and Hungary was on the brink of doing so – which was pre-empted by Hitler occupying the country. It opened up the way to Vienna, Berlin and the Romanian oil-fields, which had to be defended at all costs. It also meant that Hitler had to commit far more troops on the Eastern Front than he could realistically afford – given that at that time (late 1944) the Allies had already landed in Normandy and were in the process of rolling up the western front.

Once it became clear that many thousands of troops (along with around 800,000 inhabitants) were trapped in the city with no hope of escape, the eastern part of Budapest (Pest) was abandoned due to its very flat terrain and the difficulty of defending it against Soviet tank attacks. The western part of the city (Buda), with its hilly terrain, was much easier to defend for the badly outnumbered German and Hungarian troops pitted against many divisions of the Soviet Army. The Germans made three attempts to relieve Budapest, but all of them were thrown back and resulted in even more catastrophic losses of men and materiel that they could ill afford and couldn’t replace. Even their attempts to re-supply the beleaguered troops with parachute drops and gliders weren’t successful and most of the supplies fell into Soviet hands, or landed in no-man’s-land where they couldn’t be reached by the defenders.

The many pictures in the book give a very good idea of the adverse winter conditions under which the battle for Budapest took place and also dramatically show the destruction wrought by both sides. The text accompanying the many pictures gives a lot of detailed and very useful information about the tactical and strategic moves on both sides and I found that having a map of Eastern Europe to hand helped a lot in understanding the situation.

On 11 February 1945, the Germans decided to try a break-out. It was a total disaster and they ran into machine-guns, flak-batteries and RPGs being fired at them at close range. Shortly after that, the Battle for Budapest was virtually over, with the Soviets losing 80,000 killed and 200,000 wounded or otherwise incapacitated (by frostbite, etc), while the Axis powers lost 48,000 men. Something like 20,000 civilians also lost their lives. The way to Vienna was now open, but the Germans had another trick up their sleeve three weeks later to the south-west of Budapest.

The German counter-attack at Lake Balaton also turned into a disaster. The frost-hardened terrain that they expected turned out to be a marshy bog which massively hindered their tank formations, with numerous Panzer IIs sinking in up to their turrets. What the Germans didn’t know was that Hungarian deserters had already alerted the Soviets to the plan and they were ready and well dug-in when it happened. It was more or less the last counter-attack on the eastern front and what remained of the force was pulled back to try and defend Vienna. A month or so later, the war was over.

It’s a highly enlightening book, with both the pictures and the excellent text giving a vivid account of the fierce fighting and subsequent destruction that occurred, in addition to explaining the tactics and strategies involved. It’s very readable and I highly recommend it.

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