Battle of Debrecen
|Debrecen Offensive Operation|
|Part of the Eastern Front of World War II|
| Soviet Union
|Commanders and leaders|
| Johannes Friessner
(Army Group South)
Maximilian Fretter-Pico (Sixth Army)
József Heszlényi (Third Army)
| Rodion Malinovsky
(2nd Ukrainian Front)
I.A. Pliyev (Group Pliyev)
|Casualties and losses|
|German: 15,000 men
Hungary: 20,000 men
Total: 35,000 men (including 18,000 POW )
~200 tanks lost
490 guns lost
|Soviet: 84,010 men
Romania: 33,500 men[nb 2]
Total: 117,360 men (including 5,073 POW )
~500 tanks lost
1,656 guns lost  [nb 3]
The Battle of Debrecen, called by the Red Army the Debrecen Offensive Operation, (6–29 October 1944) was conducted by the 2nd Ukrainian Front on the Eastern Front of World War II. It was opposed by Army Group South Ukraine's General Maximilian Fretter-Pico's Sixth Army (II formation) and allied Hungarian VII Army Corps units which were forced to retreat some 160 kilometers, while opposing Marshal Rodion Malinovsky's 2nd Ukrainian Front which had Debrecen, Hungary as its strategic objective.
Crisis in Hungary
In mid August 1944, Generaloberst (Colonel General) Johannes Friessner's Army Group South Ukraine was on the brink of collapse. To the north, the Red Army's Operation Bagration was completing the destruction of Army Group Centre.
On 25 August 1944, Germany's former ally, Romania had switched sides and declared war on Germany and its ally Hungary. The subsequent drive of Soviet General Fedor Tolbukhin's 3rd Ukrainian Front into Romania destroyed any semblance of an organised defensive line.
On 8 September, Bulgaria, another former German ally, also declared war on Germany. By this time, Tolbukhin, aided by the 2nd Ukrainian Front under Malinovsky had annihilated thirteen Axis divisions, taking over 100,000 prisoners. Both Malinovsky and Tolbukhin were promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union for this on 10 and 12 September respectively.
The actions of Bulgaria and Romania had opened up a 650 kilometer gap in Friessner's Army Group. As Friessner desperately struggled to reform a defensive line, news filtered through to Berlin that the Hungarian leader, Admiral Miklós Horthy was preparing to sign a separate peace with the Soviet Union. If this happened, the entire southern front would collapse.
On 24 September 1944, Friessner's Army Group South Ukraine was redesignated Army Group South. General Fretter-Pico's Sixth Army formed the nucleus of Friessner's force. Seeing that the Hungarian allies were suffering from low morale, Friessner attached the Hungarian Second Army to Fretter-Pico's Army. The German-Hungarian force was designated Armeegruppe Fretter-Pico.
Respite - Plans
As Tolbukhin cleared the remaining resistance in Romania, Malinovsky began to move towards Hungary. Fortunately for Friessner, the 2nd Ukrainian Front advance slowed on its own. This delay allowed Friessner time to establish a weak defensive line based on the Mureş River.
In early September 1944, Malinovsky received orders from Stavka to advance from Cluj. He was to advance towards Miskolc, Debrecen, and the Tisza River and then on to the flat expanses of the Hungarian Plain. Once on the plain, Malinovsky could exploit his overwhelming advantage in armour. He could destroy Friessner's Army Group, break through to Budapest, and drive into Slovakia. However, Malinovsky's plan did not take into account the presence of German Panzer reserves that had been ordered into the area by Adolf Hitler. Furthermore, the Soviet forces were worn down by the Iasi-Chisinau Strategic Offensive Operation and the Belgrade Offensive, and also had to contend with logistical difficulties caused by the different railway gauge used in Romania.
Friessner, fearing that his forces might be enveloped by Malinovsky's 2nd Ukrainian Front and by the 4th Ukrainian Front, flew to Hitler's headquarters. He requested permission to withdraw his forces to defensive positions along the Tisza River. Friessner argued that this withdrawal would provide him with some freedom of movement to counter the continuing Soviet attacks. Hitler refused him, but he promised additional forces for Friessner's army group. Hitler also ordered Friessner to start a new offensive. The aim of this offensive was the immediate destruction of two of Malinovsky's Armies. Friessner, desperate for a workable defensive strategy, was instead ordered by Hitler to destroy the 27th Army and Soviet 6th Guards Tank Army. In addition, he was ordered to retake two vital passes in the Southern Carpathians in order to sever Malinovsky's lines of communication. The ordered attack was to be launched from Cluj.
Malinovsky Attacks - Fresh Plans
On 14 September 1944, Malinovsky, in conjunction with the 3rd Ukrainian Front, launched his own Belgrade Offensive. In a stroke of luck, Friessner had been concentrating troops for his own planned offensive, and Malinovsky's 2nd Ukrainian Front ran into heavy resistance from the start. After a week of fruitless attacks, Malinovsky called off his offensive and ordered the exhausted 6th Guards Tank Army, along with Cavalry Mechanized Group commanded by Pliyev (7th Mechanized Corps, 4th Guards Cavalry Corps, and 6th Guards Cavalry Corps, with 389 tanks and assault guns, and Cavalry Tank Group General Major Sergei Ilyich Gorshkov's 5th Guards Cavalry Corps with the 23rd Tank Corps attached (146 tanks and assault guns), to the area near Oradea. Malinovsky planned to use this mobile armoured force as an operational exploitation force in future operations.
On 20 September 1944, Romanian troops captured the Romanian border town of Arad. This action threw the Hungarian General Staff into a panic. They activated the Hungarian Third Army, a force composed of new recruits and reservists, and of limited military value.
At the same time both pro-German and pro-Allied factions in the Hungarian government began working to take control of the country. Hungarian Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy's negotiations for an armistice with the Soviets began in earnest. Friessner was forced to send several of his desperately needed reinforcement units to Budapest to watch the situation. He did this under the premise of providing the units with a period of rest and refit.
By the end of September 1944, both Malinovsky and Friessner had received new orders. Malinovsky was now ordered to attack towards Budapest from the salient to the south around Arad. He was to use the 46th and 1st Romanian Armies with the Cavalry Mechanized Group Pliyev as the exploitation force in case of a successful breakthrough. The remainder of Malinovsky's forces, including the 6th Guards Tank Army, 53rd Army, and Cavalry Tank Group Gorshkov, were to attack from the north, near Oradea, towards Debrecen. The plan was for the two spearheads to link up, encircle the German forces, and annihilate them.
Meanwhile, Friessner's orders included an attack from Oradea with Armeegruppe Fretter-Pico. He was to slice through the Soviet lines and capture the Carpathian passes. He was to hold the passes until the following spring.
This meant that both sides were attacking at the same time and in about the same place. Both sides underestimated the forces opposing them.
The operations begin
The 2nd Ukrainian Front operation began on 6 October 1944, with Malinovsky's southern pincer attacking near Arad, and slicing through the Hungarian Third Army. The Hungarians quickly abandoned their positions. Many divisions simply disappeared in the assault. The spearhead of the southern 2nd Ukrainian Front pincer, followed by the Cavalry Mechanized Group Pliyev, had advanced almost sixty kilometres within the first 24 hours.
The attack by the northern 2nd Ukrainian Front pincer ran into difficulty quickly, colliding with two panzer divisions of the German III Panzer Corps' 1st and 23rd Panzer Divisions. By the end of the day, the northern pincer had advanced only ten kilometres.
Reacting quickly, Fretter-Pico ordered the 76th Infantry Division into the forward line near Oradea. This freed up the 23rd Panzer Division to move south to counter the breakthrough near Arad. The German Panzer Division Feldherrnhalle 1, refitting at Mezőkövesd, was moved into action to guard potential crossing points on the Tisza River against the advancing 2nd Ukrainian Front units.
By the evening of 7 October 1944, the 2nd Ukrainian Front southern pincer had advanced further towards the Tisza River. Meanwhile the northern pincer was still stalled near Oradea. In this area the German-Hungarian forces had managed to halt several flanking attempts by the 6th Guards Tank Army.
Realizing that his northern pincer was halted, Malinovsky decided to turn the southern pincer northwards towards Debrecen in an attempt to pull Axis forces away from Oradea. This action was to allow his northern force to break through and crush the German forces between Cavalry Mechanized Group Pliyev and the 6th Guards Tank Army.
Across the Tisza
By 10 October, Malinovsky's troops occupied several bridgeheads on the western bank of the Tisza River, and elements of the 46th Army and the 18th Tank Corps were driving on Kecskemet, only 70 kilometres from Budapest. Malinovsky, however had to redistribute some of these forces to support the advance of Pliyev's group on the other side of the Tisza. The remaining 2nd Ukrainian Front troops of this spearhead were attacked by the Hungarian cavalry and German anti-aircraft troops and forced to retreat to the Tisza on 11 October. The same day, Hungarian (1st Armored and 23rd Infantry Divisions) counter-attacks against the 2nd Ukrainian Front's 243rd Rifle Division at the Mindszent bridgehead became so dire that the Romanian VII Corps was rushed to Mindszent to reinforce the bridgehead's defense.
Subsequently, the Romanian 2nd and 4th Infantry Divisions took over 2nd Ukrainian Front bridgeheads on the Tisza below Szolnok. The bridgehead of the 4th Division was attacked on 19 October by the Hungarian 1st Cavalry and 1st Infantry Divisions, which the 4th Division held back until hit on the right flank by the German 24th Panzer Division, 4th SS Panzergrenadier Division, and the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion. The right flank of the Romanian 4th Division caved in and the German armor drove behind the division, cutting it off from the Tisza River and eventually forcing its surrender by 20 October. On 25 October, three Hungarian divisions (1st Cavalry, 1st Infantry and 20th Infantry) attacked the Romanian 2nd Division in its bridgehead. The Romanian 2nd Division panicked and pulled back across the Tisza River. This Hungarian success, however, was not repeated when a third assault was made during 26–29 October against the Romanian 19th Infantry Division's bridgehead at Alpar.
Cavalry Mechanized Group Pliyev's Advance
On 8 October 1944, Cavalry Mechanized Group Pliyev shifted its attack northeastward. Pliyev's group advanced quickly along the major highway between Szolnok to Debrecen. At Hajdúszoboszló, the group's lead units, the 9th Guards Mechanized and the 6th Guards Cavalry Corps, ran into elements of 23rd Panzer Division moving south to halt the southern pincer.
On 9 October 1944, with overwhelming air support from the 5th Air Army, Pliyev's group took the town. The Germans fell back to Debrecen, and began entrenching to the southeast of the city. The Germans were able to repel several heavy Soviet attacks.
Cavalry Mechanized Group Pliyev then shifted its attack southwards again, back towards Oradea. However, its advance was slowed by determined German and Hungarian forces' defence . Despite this defence, it was clear that Pliyev would be able to meet with the 6th Guards Tanks Army, completing encirclement. This meeting could potentially shatter Fretter-Pico's line.
On 10 October, Fretter-Pico ordered the German 1st Panzer Division to attack to the west and the German 13th Panzer Division to attack to the east. This action by Fretter-Pico cut off the three corps of Cavalry Mechanized Group Pliyev. Not expecting this, Pliyev had left his flanks relatively lightly defended. The two veteran panzer units quickly effected a linkup near the town of Püspökladány. What at first looked like a crisis point for the Germans under Fretter-Pico had now been turned into a possible disaster for the Soviets under Malinovsky.
Malinovsky, realising the danger to Pliyev's group, halted his attack in the south and focused all his forces on reaching the trapped mobile group. Fretter-Pico ordered the Feldherrnhalle to Debrecen. The situation on the ground was greatly confused, with neither the Soviets nor the Germans knowing who was surrounding whom.
On 11 October 1944, elements of Pliyev's 4th Guards Cavalry Corps reached the outskirts of Debrecen. Although this corps was cut off from the main Soviet force, Pliyev had managed to avoid encirclement.
Under the 6th Guards Tank Army's ferocious attacks, the front line near Oradea was steadily pushed back, in what historian Earl F. Ziemke described as "one of the wildest tank battles of the war". By 12 October, Pliyev's group had already lost some 200 armored fighting vehicles.
By 14 October 1944, the line had fallen back 14 kilometers, with Oradea finally occupied by Malinovsky's forces. Further to the north, a new crisis threatened Fretter-Pico. The 4th Ukrainian Front had finally attacked, falling on Otto Wöhler's German Eighth Army. The Eighth Army was threatening to collapse under the Soviet onslaught.
On 15 October 1944, Hungarian Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, announced that Hungary had accepted an armistice with the USSR. Reacting quickly, Hitler ordered Otto Skorzeny to launch Operation Panzerfaust.
Malinovsky now linked up with Cavalry Mechanized Group Pliyev. Malinovsky ordered the Soviet advance to continue. His aim was to capture Debrecen. Then he would swing north towards Nyíregyháza. If Malinovsky could capture Nyíregyháza, he would sever the German Eighth Army's line of communications. In response to the Soviet attacks, the German-Hungarian forces of Armeegruppe Fretter-Pico fought tenaciously. They turned each village and crossroads into a defensive position.
Forcing their way through the Axis resistance, during 19–20 October three Romanian divisions (2nd and 3rd Mountain, plus the communist Tudor Vladimirescu) assaulted and seized Debrecen as part of Soviet 27th Army's assault on the right flank of the 6th Guards Tank Army.
On 22 October 1944, Pliyev's group captured Nyíregyháza. The line of communications of Wöhler's Eighth Army was severed. German Colonel-General Friessner had ordered Wöhler to disengage and fall back northwest of Nyíregyháza and attempt to form a defensive line. This move was already in progress when Cavalry Mechanized Group Pliyev cut Wöhler's lines of communications.
Friessner's Chief of Staff, Major-General Helmuth von Grolman proposed a risky plan. Grolman believed that the first encirclement of Pliyev's group had failed because of the confusion of the German-Hungarian forces and lack of enough forces to effect an encirclement. Grolman argued that the situation had changed and that now such an effort would be possible. Friessner approved the plan.
The German 23rd and 1st Panzer Divisions, led by the King Tigers of the 503rd Heavy Panzer Detachment, would spearhead the attack to the east. Paul Klatt's 3rd Mountain Division (3. Gebirgs-Division), the 15th Infantry Division, and the 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer formed the forces attacking to the west. The Feldherrnhalle, 13th Panzer, and 46th Infantry Divisions would be held back to counter any Soviet breakout attempt.
The attack began on 23 October 1944. It quickly sliced through the infantry corps defending Cavalry Mechanized Group Pliyev's lines of communication.
At 0200 on 24 October 1944, forces of the 23rd Panzer Division reached Nagykálló. Nagykálló was already occupied by the German 3rd Mountain Division. This completed the encirclement of Pliyev's group. As the corps of the cavalry mechanized group launched probing attacks to find an escape route, it quickly became clear that there was no way out. The German-Hungarian forces began closing in on the encircled Soviets.
Malinovsky sent Soviet forces north to break through to Pliyev's group. However, these were met by a determined Axis resistance. Friessner had succeeded. Malinovsky's advance soon stalled.
Retreat of Pliyev's forces
Pliyev realised that the situation was now desperate, and ordered attacks to break the encirclement, but the German-Hungarian lines held. By the evening of 24 October, Pliyev realised that the only hope of escape was if Malinovsky could break through to him.
Malinovsky launched a major assault on 25 October, only to be halted by a fierce counterattack by the 1st Panzer Division and the 128th Panzergrenadier Regiment from the 23rd Panzer Division. On the same day, Cavalry Mechanized Group Pliyev attempted to break through the positions of the 3rd Mountain Division. The mountain troops held their ground against the Soviet armour, inflicting many casualties.
On 26 October, the 23rd Panzer Division recaptured Nyíregyháza. The Soviet forces had carried out widespread atrocities during their occupation, including mass looting, rape and murder of civilians. This steeled the resolve of the German and especially the Hungarian troops. When Malinovsky launched his next assault, he was met by the most ferocious defence yet encountered. Meanwhile, Wöhler began moving his Eighth Army out through the escape route created through Nyíregyháza. By the 28th, Wöhler's army had escaped encirclement, and the circle around Pliyev's group would not be broken. By this time, Pliyev's forces destroyed most of their vehicles and heavy weapons and marched south to reach the Soviet lines. Despite the attempted destruction by German forces, Pliyev's Cavalry-Mechanized Group was back in action by 10 November during the Soviet drive to Szeged.
Three corps of Malinovsky's 2nd Ukrainian Front had sustained significant losses in the fighting. The intended rapid 2nd Ukrainian Front assault on Budapest had been delayed, and Hungarian troops remained in the war as Germany's ally until the end of the war in Europe. The Nyíregyháza counter-attack was the last time that German forces were to defeat a full-strength Red Army force on even terms. By pinching off the breakthrough exploitation group of the 2nd Ukrainian Front offensive, the Germans were able to re-establish a stable front line position, and thus, prevent the 2nd Ukrainian Front's advance from becoming a catastrophe for Wöhler. The German success, was however short-lived as Nyíregyháza was captured by the Red Army on 30 October, and another powerful Red Army offensive opened to the south with Budapest again being its objective, with the Soviets reaching the area of the Hungarian capital on 7 November 1944.
While the 2nd Ukrainian Front was prevented from swiftly seizing the Hungarian capital, the Debrecen operation saw its forces advance anywhere from 60 to 120 miles further west into Hungary, leaving the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts in position to renew the offensive towards Budapest. The tank battle at Debrecen itself had drawn the German Panzer units away from defending the approaches to Budapest. Finally, the Red Army thrust occupied the eastern third of Hungary, clearing the obstacle of the Transylvanian Alps and denying their use as a winter defense position for the Axis forces.
- Battle of Debrecen order of battle
- Hungary during World War II
- Romania during World War II
- Eastern Front (World War II)
- Topographic map of the Debrecen area
- During the course of the battle, the Soviets advanced some 100 miles (160 kilometers) northward and seized the key transportation hub of Debrecen. When viewed purely in terms of ground lost or gained, the Battle of Debrecen was a Soviet victory. The German counter-attack at Nyíregyháza allowed an orderly withdrawal of Axis forces in the area, the formation of a solid front line, and the prevention of a Soviet eruption into the rear areas of Army Group Wöhler. Thus, while the Soviets advanced, their goal of cutting off Group Wöhler was frustrated. The casualty rates of both sides were of a similar order of magnitude, also indicating there was no clear victor in the battle.
- This figure for Romanian losses is apparently a subtraction of the 84,010 Soviet losses mentioned in When Titans Clashed from the figure for overall Soviet and Romanian losses of 117,360 mentioned in Volume 8 of Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg. The figures from this volume appear to be taken from Ungváry's A magyar honvédség a második világháborúban (2005). Apart from the fact that Ungváry's work represents a Hungarian view of the battle, it is also of interest that total Romanian losses for operations in Hungary during the period 8 October 1944 - 15 January 1945 (a considerably longer period than the Debrecen Operation itself) are given as 42,700 in Axworthy's The Romanian Army of World War 2 (p. 23).
- Casualty estimates vary greatly by source. The 1978 Soviet official history (as translated into German by Horst Giertz for the German Democratic Republic (German title: Geschichte des Zweiten Welt Krieges) official translation of 1981, p. 239) states 10 Axis divisions were destroyed, 42,000 Axis POW's taken, 915 Axis armored vehicles destroyed and a further 138 captured, 856 Axis guns captured, 793 mortars destroyed and a further 681 captured, 428 half-tracks and other light armored vehicles destroyed, 416 Axis aircraft destroyed and a further 386 captured, 8 Axis armored trains and over 3,000 Axis motor vehicles destroyed. As with all Second World War historical works produced under the direction of totalitarian regimes, the reader is urged to bear in mind this material's source and that it may represent information that was distorted for the purpose of disseminating propaganda. The work of individual authors who were veterans of this conflict may likewise suffer from serious bias and contribute to the perpetuation of historical myths or propaganda. Soviet losses are not stated in the Soviet official history. The German official history (Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, printed 2007), Volume 8 (p. 876), states casualties (including wounded) as 15,000 Germans, 20,000 Hungarians, and 117,360 Soviet troops and Romanians, while noting that 18,000 Axis troops and 5,073 Soviet and Romanian troops were taken POW. Armored losses are estimated as 200 (Axis) and 500 (Soviet), and artillery losses are given as 490 Axis pieces and 1,656 Soviet and Romanian pieces.
- Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg (German official history, Volume 8), p. 876
- The figures for Axis losses may be understated. An article by Pat Mc Taggart in World War II Magazine in March 1997, noted: 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.
- When Titans Clashed, p. 299: 19,713 killed or missing and 64,297 wounded
- The infobox figures for Axis losses are drawn from the German official history, 2007, p. 876
- Stalingrad to Berlin, p. 362
- German official history, p. 822
- Oradea is also known in German as Großwardein and in Hungarian as Nagyvárad.
- On 16 September 1944, Hungarian Third Army's OOB included IV Corps with the 20th Infantry and 1st Armored Divisions, VII Corps with the 12th Replacement Division and the Lakatos Brigade, VIII Corps with the 5th and 8th Replacement Divisions, plus the 4th and 6th Replacement Divisions under control of army headquarters. Source for this OOB is Niehorster, p. 204.
- German official history, p. 874
- Third Axis Fourth Ally, p. 201
- Third Axis Fourth Ally, p. 202
- German official history, p. 873
- Otto Wöhler, 1894-1987, commanded the I Army Corps in 1943, Eighth Army in 1943-44, and Army Group South 1944-45. Retired in March 1945. Imprisoned postwar for six years because wartime command included responsibility for criminal acts committed by SS units.
- Third Axis Fourth Ally, pp. 200-201
- Helmuth von Grolman, 1898-1977, commanded the 1st Panzer Regiment in 1943 and the 4th Cavalry Division in 1945. Postwar, served as the Lower Saxony minister for refugees, and later in a staff position for the Bundestag.
- Paul Klatt, 1896-1973, commanded the 83rd Mountain Pioneer Battalion in 1938-39, the 138th Jäger Regiment in 1941-44, and the 3rd Mountain Division in 1944-45.
- Glantz, When Titans Clashed, p. 223
- The Road to Berlin, p. 397
- German official history, p. 875
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- Biographies website for World War II generals