January 12, 1943 marks one of the most gruesome days in Hungarian history: 76 years ago, during World War II, Hungarian soldiers stationed along the River Don, and while waiting for reinforcements, they were almost all killed by the Red Army. The Hungarian force was put in a hopeless situation from the beginning.
Before briefly summarising the main events of the Don disaster, the situation of the Hungarian Second Army needs to be cleared up.
At the beginning of the Second Great War, the Hungarian military force was made up of three units: the Hungarian First Army, the Hungarian Second Army and the Hungarian Third Army. Even though the Second Army, formed in March 1940, was the best equipped in the beginning,
by the time they got stationed along the River Don in September 1942, they were the most under-equipped group among the German and Italian forces.
This was because they had suffered heavy casualties, losing 84% of their fighting force at the Battle of Stalingrad in August 1942, and also because their equipment was outdated.
Their situation at the front only worsened with the onset of the cruel winter. Their supplies were practically cut – as the German situation was becoming worse and worse in Stalingrad, reinforcements were taken there, the transportation line collapsed and supplies were cut. This meant that no food, no heating fuel and no warm, winter clothing got to them, as their equipment was getting worn out. At the same time, the Soviets found American arms and tinned food, and their supply line was working just fine, so while the Hungarians were growing weak with each day, the enemy line did not face hardship.
The frontline that the Hungarians were supposed to protect – the 8th Italian Army’s Northern-flank between Novoya Pokrovka and Rossosh on the River Don – was too long for their numbers.
The Hungarians numbered 80-90 thousand men, while the front was 200 kilometres long.
Because of this, some parts of the frontline were barely watched over, let alone guarded by a strong enough force.
It comes as no surprise that, because of the under-equipment, scarce supplies and being too few to perform their tasks as well as with having spent too much time fighting, moral decline spread like wildfire among the Hungarian soldiers. This only worsened when the Hungarian military leadership decided to put higher ranking officers on rotation so that they would not have to be on the front for too long periods. Since they were mostly unaccustomed to the harsh conditions on the front and were not well-acquainted with the rest of the officers, disappointment grew.
The decision to send reinforcements was made in December and was supposed to take place between 13-20 January.
Hungarians were seriously outnumbered too:
In December 1942, some of the Italian troops withdrew, which meant that Germans had to pull back a few kilometres to avoid getting butchered. The consequence of this was a broken front line that was even harder to guard and presented more opportunity for the Red Army stationed on the west of the Don to break through.
The battle day-by-day:
The Red Army began their advance on January 12, 1943, breaking through the North and destroying most of the Hungarian troops.
Hungarians sent word for the Cramer group to be deployed, but the German leaders brushed this request off, stating that the real fight has not started yet.
Still, they have sent old, outdated T-38 tanks, which could not actually get to the Hungarians in time because of the snow-bound roads.
The Hungarian defence was completely broken through on January 13; the Second Army pulled back.
On January 14, however, the Red Army got behind the Hungarian Second Army (or what remained of it), laying destruction to them: out of the 36 tanks, only three managed to escape. The German order stated that the Hungarians are not allowed to retreat, yet they would still not deploy the Cramer group.
On the next day, January 15, General von Witzleben told Colonel General Vitéz Gusztáv Jány, the Hungarian leader, that the Hungarians are allowed to retreat if he sees it fit because Jány is not a German officer.
Yet Jány forbade withdrawal, even though the neighbouring Italian and German troops were pulling back.
Due to the unbreakable Soviet advance, there were no Hungarian troops standing at the banks of the River Don by January 18, except for surrounded troops. They were mostly encircled, killed or forced to survive in the open (the winter cold reached -30°C, -40°C).
On top of all of this, those Hungarians who managed to run away were mistreated by the German soldiers; they were not allowed to use the roads and to dwell in the villages. Hungarian soldiers had to resort to warming up by the burning ruins of destroyed villages and to eat the flesh of frozen horses.
featured image: MTI