For 5 long days it smelled like freedom, but the patriots of Budapest had to fight for every block.
They were fed up with the Communists and they were inspired by the idealism of America. Their insurrection surprised the Soviets and shook the great USSR to its very core. For a time they had the Russians on the run. There were countless acts of sacrifice and courage. They fought against great odds and a better armed enemy, sometimes they were forced to take Russian tanks head on. And estimated 30-35,000 of their best died in the insuing battles.
In the hours following the start of the revolution secret diplomatic communiques flashed between Moscow and Washington. The U.S., for reasons of diplomatic caution, assured the Soviets they would offer “no practical assistance” to the new Hungarian government. In other words, no arms or military assistance would be forth coming nor would any sanctions be imposed to keep the Soviets at bay. This was the [green light] the Russians needed to prepare for an invasion to crush the rebellion.
Hungarian resistance, although a significant crack in the Soviet Iron Curtain was not of the same strategic value as the Suez Canal where another war loomed. A military confrontation with Egypt one side, and Britian, France and Israel on the other, with the USA, the USSR and the United Nations playing major roles in forcing Britain, France and Israel to withdraw. This timing was bad for the Hungarians. They were left to bleed to death in the UN waiting room while the doctors of diplomacy focused on a more important patient….the Suez.
Back in Budapest and aware of the Suez crisis the Hungarians still held out hope for Western intervention. The street fighting raged on, but most of the battles were skirmishes, small hit and run clashes with the AHV (Hungarian State Police or State Protection Authority). Some Russian military units caught trying to escape the fighting.
In the first 48 hours it appeared most of the local Russian elements and the Hungarian police departed without too much resistance. Joseph believes this was because most of the Russians lived among them and they understood the hardships that brought on the fighting. These units sympathized with the revolutionaries.
A large military garrison the edge of Budapest fell on the third day of fighting. The victors claimed a few dated World War II era Russian T-34 tanks and a WWII era, Kartusha, rocket launcher. They also captured a Russian soldier who was wounded in the leg. To support the captured soldiers claim of having empathy for their cause, the slightly wounded soldier showed him and his friends how to operate the rocket launcher. He seemed most compliant and even helped fire it later.
A counter-attack came a few days after the capture of the military garrison. This time a Russian column of tanks and armored personnel carriers was advancing quickly toward their position. At once, Joseph and his friends wheeled the Kartusha into position. The column was just within range when the Kartusha loosed the rockets tipped with high explosives. It was a rapid series of deafening mechanical screams and blinding flashes, followed by smoke trails and then explosions that burst all around the head of the column. The awesome barrage took them by surprise and they stopped and starred in awe at it’s destructive power.
Unfortunately the rockets were mainly for use against ground troops, not armored vehicle. The actual damage to the heavily armored column was light, but the pounding they took inside their steel shelters convinced them this was obviously not the right road into town. The Russians turned tail and made a hasty retreat.
That handful of Hungarians, a wounded Russian and the intimidating Kartusha turned back the probing Soviet column and them something to think about. The perception of a new and well armed Hungarian military presence had been established.
For two weeks this false perception was enough to keep the Russians back, save for a few minor incursions. In reality this was an improvised little army of citizens, lead by a former National Guard General and a Police Captain. They were untrained and armed with little more than bravado. But, for they had stalemated the mighty
Russian Army. More importantly, Budapest was becoming the Alamo for the Hungarians and others trapped behind the Communist wall. It was the last bastion of resistance in eastern Europe after the Polish revolt had been crushed. The people of Budapest were alone.
The two former government run radio stations of Budapest played new music, music that sounded like freedom! The ousted Prime Minister, Imre Nagy, returned and told the people to hold on! “Hold on at all costs, help will soon be on the way.”, was his frequent radio message. He also made desperate radio pleas for aid to the
free nations of Europe and to the United States in particular. They knew the United States would not let them down, they couldn’t it would be too awful to even contemplate.
Hungarians had declared themselves to be a free and independent nation, a neutral among the WARSAW Pact, but without intervention from the West they were doomed. They needed the U.S. to at least make overtures on their behalf to the Soviets, but nothing seemed to happen. Nothing was coming from America, the most admired and powerful friend to the oppressed people of the world!
By the 28th of October, the Russians had amassed huge numbers of armored and infantry forces around the City, mostly these units came from Soviet dominated Mongolia. The Mongolians were well known for their ruthlessness in war and had little or no understanding of what was happening inside Hungary.
They would have no empathy or mercy for the Hungarian revolutionaries. The Russians knew this… they counted on it!
November the 4th, they Soviets launched an all out assault. The block by block, house to house, hand to hand fighting would last about three more weeks before the revolt was put down.
When World War II ended Joseph had discovered an abandoned Russian tommy gun. He had hidden his booty safely away, despite a law that made ownership of any weapons an extremely serious offense. Joseph kept the machine gun stashed away in the basement of their apartment complex for nearly eleven years. When Joseph finally dug it up and unpacked the weapon he found that it was badly rusted. He carried it for awhile, but he could never get it to work right. Sadly, the prize that he risked imprisonment for was eventually tossed away as a piece of junk. The local police sub-station, (now abandoned) provided an old bolt action rifle of Russian origin. But, at least it worked. Such were the weapons of the Hungarian freedom fighters, WWII junk, bolt action rifles, a mix of automatic military weapons and very few heavy guns.
When the Soviet forces made their move on Nov. 4th, Joseph and his older brother Steven, and some local “kids” were patrolling an area several miles to the south of city center. This was not far from where the main Soviet force was forming. Their improvised squad of kids to men, carried only small arms, rifles and pistols. Ammo
was very scare. The Soviets made sure that all ammunition for sporting rifles was in short supply before this revolt ever took place.
Around 4 a.m. the patrol was working their way through the city flanked by railroad tracks of an industrial area on one side and a sprawling urban area on the other. They walked along knowing this was one of the more likely routes for Russians probing the defenses. They spread out over several blocks, but they kept close enough to watch each other. By 5 a.m. all was quiet, they had seen nothing worth reporting.
Outside the community, the Russians controlled everything. The city was like a small island in a sea of Soviet military might. An attack could come from any direction and at any time.
Joseph recalled that it seemed futile to try and construct fortified positions with so few troops and defensive weapons. So, they braced for an attack with plans to hit back as hard as they could, then fall back to the next position while reinforcements raced to get to them.
They patrolled and they waited. In was now 5:30 a.m. still quiet. The night air was still and very cold. It would soon be dawn and the Russians would be less likely to make a daylight assault. The sky was overcast and it blocked out most of the stars. A dusting of snow stuck to the corners of windows and to the edges of buildings. But, the Hungarian winter was yet to come. Of course the city power had been out since the very beginning and the total absence of any light and no movement, except for the patrol, made this night seem especially lonely and surreal. Except for occasional shot that always seemed far away, it was very tranquil. The darkness would be to their advantage Joseph thought if they had to fight and run, he tried imagine the fight that was sure to happen, to plan, but against what, planes, troops, tanks and from where? After all they were surrounded on all sides, attack could come from any direction!
The clanking of metal was growing louder and mixed with the roar of big diesel engines, there was no doubts now, tanks were coming. Someone yelled out but his words were so filled with panic Joseph wasn’t sure what he said? Perhaps it was a warning, but by now this was unnecessary as they knew the familiar sounds of metal tracked tanks… German tanks, Russian tanks, they all sounded the same, it was an ugly, threatening rumble mixed with a clanking sound as the steel tracks pounded down on the paving stones.
Joseph and the others scrambled for cover. Behind bushes, next to buildings, behind brick walls and few hid behind trees. They took aim from about 200 yards where the street disappeared into the night and where the Russians should soon be coming into view. The noise grew louder, the tanks were close now, any moment… there, there they were! Two main battle tanks emerged from the darkness and lumbered across the seemingly deserted intersection. They were barely 50 yards away when the night was suddenly illuminated by “Molotov Cocktails” ( glass bottles filled with petrol and corked with soaked rags ). Gunfire erupted from both sides. The two advanced scout tanks were charged by five or six young men who were hurling their deadly torches almost point blank at the enemy.
The bottles shattered against the tank turents and the hull. The gasoline burst into a fireball of flames. Some of the petrol leaked into the crew compartments as fire was seen flickering behind one of the firing ports. More deadly cocktails hit the tanks from all sides. The tanks were knocked out in less than a minute. The
screams of the burning tank crews were drowned out by the heaving weapons now firing from the rest of the armored column as it continued the advance. The tanks spun their turents around looking for targets, machine guns laid down a raking fire, clearing the way.
(Shown left – Soviet tanks enter Budapest) The Mongol troops followed close behind the tanks. Joseph and the others were retreating to better positions when one of the burning tanks suffered a series of devastating blasts from exploding ammo. Now tanks three, four and five advanced. Shadows of men with rifles right behind them. Joseph ran about a half blocked looked back at destroyed tanks and in that instant a bullet struck his leg in the flesh part of his right calf. Most of the bullet’s energy was spent and it barely penetrated his muscle. A friend later dug it out and cleaned up the wound with a shot of Vodka.
Joseph was still running, putting as much distance between them and the tanks the foot soldiers as they could. The tanks were firing wildly at anything that moved. Bullets zinged overhead and thumps and thuds rained down, but it was obvious they didn’t have any clear targets, the shots were often fired randomly. Just as they were about to be beyond the range of the tank gunners, Joseph looked around for his older brother Steven. Steven was about a half block behind. Joseph watched from behind a parked car as Steven dashed behind a wooden fence, trailed by machine gun bullets that blasted apart the pickets behind him as he ran. Much to Joseph’s surprise and delight his brother emerged at the end of a long line of shattered pickets totally unscathed. Steven looked toward Joseph and had a big grin on his face as he ducked behind a building and disappeared safely into their old neighborhood.