CDG 52 – Hungarian Freedom Fighters, 1956
In 1956, First Secretary of the Soviet Union Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev delivered a “secret speech” to the XX Party Congress denouncing the excesses of the brutal Stalinist regime (1922-53). The speech did much more than merely shake up the attending party delegates; when the substance of it leaked out, it sent a shock wave of rebellion and revolution through all of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. Those subject nations – including Hungary, Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia – had been “liberated” from Nazi Germany’s occupation by the Red Army in the closing months of World War II in 1945, but then the Soviets promptly installed Stalinist puppet governments to enforce Moscow’s rule. The “Soviet Bloc” of Eastern European countries, cut off from democratic Western Europe by what Britain’s Winston Churchill in 1946 famously termed the “Iron Curtain,” chafed under the oppressive, heavy-handed Soviet boot heel.
In Budapest, Hungary’s capital, the tremors emanating from Khrushchev’s speech first prompted a futile attempt by Moscow to re-solidify eroding Soviet rule by changing Hungarian communist leadership. Then in late October 1956, continuing unrest sparked mass anti-Soviet student protests in Budapest’s streets. On October 23, 20,000 Hungarians staged a massive demonstration in the city’s center that devolved into sporadic fighting with pro-Soviet Hungarian security forces. At 2 a.m. on October 24, Moscow sent in the tanks.
Armchair General® takes you back to October 24, 1956, in Budapest, Hungary, where you will play the role of Janos Szabo (all freedom fighter names in this article are fictitious), a 25-year-old university student who has become the leader of a small ad hoc group of what the Free World will soon call “Hungarian freedom fighters.” You have clandestinely gathered these eight men and two women at an empty warehouse near the city’s main railway station to organize them for a mission aimed at knocking out two Soviet T-34/85 armored tanks occupying Ferenciek Tere (Franciscan Square) in the Belváros district of central Budapest. (See map.) Although the tanks have no infantry support for protection, the 26-ton steel monsters each mount an 85 mm main gun and two machine guns. Your freedom fighters, meanwhile, are armed only with a collection of various small arms and homemade gasoline bombs called “Molotov cocktails.”
Your group’s anti-tank action may be only a minor undertaking, but it is highly dangerous. Yet you and your followers believe it is worth the risk. If the mission is a success, it will represent one small step toward Hungary’s freedom, autonomy and escape from the Soviet yoke.
FREEDOM FIGHTERS VS. TANKS
The decision made by Kremlin leaders to send in army tanks to crush what is clearly a citizens’ rebellion demonstrates not only that the Soviets are desperate to end the uprising quickly, but also that the application of brute force remains Moscow’s knee-jerk reaction to any open opposition. Since the opposing forces are clearly mismatched – Hungarian citizens and university students pitted against the might of Russian tanks – Soviet leadership must feel confident that such a show of force will easily and quickly prevail. Khrushchev and his cronies no doubt count on the power of Soviet military might to cow Budapest’s restive crowds; however, they have egregiously misjudged the Hungarians’ thirst for freedom and visceral hatred of Soviet domination.
For weeks, the more militant elements among the Budapest demonstrators have been secretly collecting weapons. This core of committed Hungarian patriots has formed combat-action groups of freedom fighters willing to risk their lives to strike back at the Soviet occupiers. The arms-gathering process was accelerated when the news spread that Russian tanks were entering the streets of Hungary’s capital. Many of the weapons came from Hungarian army arsenals, spirited away by sympathetic soldiers in whom the desire to break the Soviet yoke burned no less fiercely than in the hearts of the thousands of their fellow countrymen demonstrating in the streets. The weapons mainly are a motley collection of various World War II-era Soviet and German small arms, along with modest supplies of ammunition. These arms, however, are useless against armored vehicles, and the freedom fighters have no access to military anti-tank weapons. The only readily available weapons that can potentially knock out tanks are Molotov cocktails.
Opposing the lightly armed Hungarian freedom fighters are formidable Russian army T-34/85 tanks, the up-gunned (85 mm cannon main gun) version of the best mass-produced tank of World War II.
Beginning at 2 o’clock this morning, Soviet tanks rumbled through Budapest’s darkened streets. They quickly took commanding positions at main intersections and in large, open-air public gathering places; parked outside the entrances to important government buildings and mass communications centers; and stationed themselves at locations where they can best reinforce and support Hungarian security forces.
Moscow, however, has made a serious tactical blunder – it sent no Soviet infantry to accompany the tanks. Thus they are vulnerable to an opposing ground force getting close enough to throw gasoline bombs at the T-34’s only weak spot, its upper rear deck engine compartment. As the tanks sit menacingly at Budapest’s key locations, groups of Hungarian freedom fighters clandestinely meet to plan just such attacks.
BUDAPEST’S CENTRAL RAILWAY STATION WAREHOUSE
Through word of mouth, the call has gone out for those willing to mount an armed resistance against the Soviets to gather at a virtually abandoned warehouse near Budapest’s central railway station. By noon on October 24, you and 10 others have assembled inside the warehouse. Soon, you are unanimously elected as the leader of this ad hoc group, and the freedom fighters all agree to follow your orders.
Before discussing what action you have in mind to oppose the Soviet invasion, you pass out different types of weapons and ammunition that you and some Hungarian army sympathizers have surreptitiously collected over the past several hours. These include two Tokarev TT33 pistols, two Soviet PPSh-41 submachine guns, two Soviet Degtyaryov DP light machine guns, two German 98K rifles left over from captured World War II stocks, and a couple of Molotov cocktails you made by filling one-liter glass bottles with gasoline and inserting gas-soaked cloth wicks.
As the men and women become familiar with their newly issued weapons, you decide it is time to share your ideas for attacking the Soviet tanks. “We are going to strike a blow for Hungary’s freedom,” you begin, “and show the entire world that our country will endure Soviet tyranny no longer. We will attack and destroy the Russian tanks now arrogantly occupying Ferenciek Tere. The smoldering hulks of these two burned-out behemoths will put Moscow – and the world – on notice that Hungary must be and will be freed from Soviet oppression.
“I am considering three possible courses of action for our attack. Since each plan places all of you at great personal risk, I want you to speak freely and give me your frank opinion of these options.”
COURSE OF ACTION ONE:
TWO-TEAM DIRECT ASSAULT
“The first course of action,” you explain, “entails splitting our group into two five-person teams, one targeting each tank, and then launching a simultaneous direct assault. Each team will include a fighter armed with a PPSh submachine gun, one with a DP light machine gun, one carrying a German 98K rifle, and a two-person Molotov cocktail section consisting of a gasoline-bomb thrower assisted by a fighter armed with a Tokarev pistol. On my signal, both teams will quickly surround their respective targets and attack simultaneously. Those fighters armed with the submachine gun, light machine gun and rifle will pour heavy fire at the tanks to keep their crews buttoned up inside and to draw attention away from the Molotov cocktail sections – which must approach from behind the tanks to target their only vulnerable spots, the rear engine compartments. When the gasoline bombs explode, that will be the signal for everyone to break off the attack and quickly retire, rendezvousing back here at the warehouse for further orders.”
Eva, a brilliant and promising university medical student armed with a Tokarev pistol, immediately speaks up. “Janos, I know nothing of military tactics – or anything at all about war, for that matter – but by attacking the tanks while they are in the square, aren’t we giving an advantage to those damned Russians? To approach the tanks, we will have to move through the square’s open area, where they can shoot us down with their huge cannon and machine guns before we even get close enough to throw the gasoline bombs.”
Bela, who finished his obligatory two-year Hungarian army military service before entering university last year, gives Eva a condescending look and says, “What you are describing is a tank’s ‘field of fire’ – the area that can be effectively covered by its main gun and machine guns. But those guns can only fire in the direction the tank is facing, or whichever way its main gun is actually pointing. We can move faster than a tank can shift its position or move its turret to aim at us. In fact, you and your Molotov cocktail thrower should be the safest of all of us if you are careful to approach the tank only from its rear. Based on my military training, I can tell you that this plan will work.”
COURSE OF ACTION TWO:
FOUR-TEAM DECOY AND AMBUSH
“The next course of action,” you continue, “is to organize into four teams – a decoy team and an ambush team assigned to each tank – with the intent of luring the tanks into a prepared ambush in the narrow confines of the city streets surrounding the square. Attacking both tanks simultaneously, the decoy teams, each consisting of a fighter armed with a PPSh submachine gun and another carrying a 98K rifle, will suddenly emerge from the side streets to attract the attention of the tank crews, begin firing at the tanks, and then appear to flee back down the streets from whence they came. The tanks will almost certainly take the bait and pursue, thereby moving directly into the ambush teams’ kill zones.
“Meanwhile, the ambush teams, each consisting of a Molotov cocktail thrower assisted by a fighter armed with a Tokarev pistol and supported by a DP light machine gunner, will occupy upper floor windows overlooking the side streets, with the Molotov cocktail sections on one side of the street and the DP submachine gunners directly opposite. When the tanks enter the kill zones, the DP gunners will open rapid fire to keep the crews buttoned up and distracted while the Molotov cocktail throwers toss the gasoline bombs down onto the tanks’ vulnerable rear engine compartments. Again, the explosions will be the signal to break off our attacks, quickly leave the area and rendezvous back here.”
Miklos, a university law student, seems enthusiastic about this plan. “Yes, Janos,” he says, “ I think this is a better option. It restricts the tanks’ maneuver space and fields of fire. But most important, it gives our Molotov cocktail throwers a much better angle for tossing their bombs onto the rear engine compartments. Given our fighters’ positions, they can hardly miss their targets. I like this plan.”
Karoly, a working-class auto mechanic who seems somewhat out of place in this group dominated by university students, ventures, “If you want my opinion, Janos, this plan seems too complicated: multiple decoy teams and ambush teams; timing for all four teams that must be just right; relying on the Soviet tanks to take the bait and chase our decoys; our ambush teams having to ensure they are in just the right position to engage the tanks. Too many things can go wrong. I say let’s forget convoluted plans and just go at the tanks and blow them up!”
COURSE OF ACTION THREE:
MASS NIGHT ATTACK
“The final plan I am considering,” you explain, “is to enlist the cover of darkness as our ally tonight by launching a mass night attack against the tanks using all of our fighters. This will allow us to get close to the tanks before the crews can see us. Six fighters armed with submachine guns, DP light machine guns and 98K rifles will swarm around each tank, firing rapidly to keep the crews buttoned up and distracted, which will enable our Molotov cocktail throwers and their armed assistants to get close enough to the rear of the tanks to toss the gasoline bombs at the engine compartments. Once the Molotov cocktails have exploded, we will quickly withdraw and return to our rendezvous here.”
Somewhat encouraged that the university students in the group did not mock his earlier comments, Karoly speaks up again. “I think this is the best of all three plans. It seems the simplest and the easiest to organize. Just wait for darkness and go at them with all we’ve got. Rush them while they can’t see us coming and blow them up!”
Bela, however, has a different opinion. “Karoly,” he says, “conducting a successful night attack is one of the most difficult operations that can be undertaken, even for a trained military force. Except for me, no one in this group has any military experience at all. Although darkness will obscure us from the Russians’ sight, it will cause confusion for the attackers as well. We will have a hard enough time accurately aiming our weapons and gasoline bombs in the daylight, let alone at night when we can’t see the enemy. I’m afraid that if we follow this course of action, we’ll spend most of our time shooting each other. In my opinion, a mass night attack is a potential disaster.”
The whole warehouse suddenly erupts in a babble of voices as each fighter tries to get in the last word. After a few moments of this bedlam, you step forward and silence everyone by shouting, “Stop it!” As the racket dies down and all eyes turn to you, you calmly tell the group, “As your leader, I will make the final decision as to what course of action we’ll use for our attack. Within the hour I will tell you which plan we will use. In the meantime, continue to familiarize yourselves with your weapons, ensuring you know how to load, fire and reload them. Bela, as a trained soldier, you can help with this. Now, everyone get yourselves mentally prepared for the great task at hand.”
Once you are alone with your thoughts, you consider the group’s comments about your proposed courses of action. You know what must be done, but how will you accomplish it?
What is your decision, group leader Szabo?
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Command Decision Game #52, "Hungarian Freedom Fighters, 1956," written by Andrew H. Hershey, appears in the September 2012 edition of Armchair General® magazine, where you’ll also find additional interactive articles based on Revolutionary War riflemen, 1777, and Russia vs. Germany, 1914. On newsstands now.
Find earlier Command Decision Games by clicking here.
About the Author
Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the “USMC Gazette” and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.