Walter Bonnwetsch

Oct. 10, 1912, Saratov (Russia) - February 11, 1945, Budapest

Walter Bonnwetsch, born on 10 October 1912 in the Volga city of Saratov, Tsarist Russia, and died on 11 February 1945 in Budapest, was the son of a medical doctor. The family had migrated in 1828 and spent long years in Tbilisi, Georgia. When the First World War broke out, the family met great hardships in repatriating to Germany. Bonnwetsch joined the SA in 1933, but did no more than attend three armed practice sessions. He began his military service on 4 April 1934 as a regular non-commissioned officer. In August 1939 he was placed in the 4th armoured regiment in the Vienna/Sankt Pölten district, to be taken on as a regular officer.

His younger brother Erwin died in the summer of 1941 in the Soviet Union.

Bonnwetsch took part in the Polish, French and Soviet campaigns, but his military career ended in 1942. He was promoted a captain and given regular good reports, but his staff transfer never arrived. His superiors appreciated his drill work, but found his theoretical knowledge deficient.

Arriving on the Hungarian front in autumn 1944, Bonnwetsch was made second in command of the 4/II brigade of the 13th armoured division. He was awarded the Iron Cross first and second class in 1940 and 1942, then a sword knighthood of Hungary’s Order of Merit by Ferenc Szálasi on 27 January 1945.

Bonnwetsch's activities under the Siege are hardly known. Some of the remaining tanks of the 4/2 armoured division in the fenced city were largely doomed to inaction. SS General Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, Commander-in-Chief of the Budapest ordered the destruction of heavy weaponry before the breakout. This fate would have waited for the tanks. Bonnwetsch and his boss, Captain Herbert Mittasch, decided otherwise. Since two of their operational Panther tanks were stationed near Széna tér, they attempted to break through the front. Their decision proved fatal for both of them.

Bonnwetsch and Mittasch broke through the first line at the end of Retek utca, but met an armoured-car mine at the corner of Dékán utca. Meanwhile they shot a German machine gunner nearby. The commander’s car was blown up straight away at the junction of Retek utca. There is no evidence of any occupant surviving the destruction of the cars. Luckily several photographs of the incident remain. One taken by a Soviet soldier shows the first armoured car on the corner of Széll Kálmán tér in the early morning of 12 February 1945, when nearby fighting resumed. The car can be seen to be smoking. Other sources have the defending Soviet 180th artillery division placing armoured-car mines there and at the entrance to Széna tér. Nor can it be ruled out that a Soviet anti-tank weapon shot at the armoured car from outside the building in Fény utca now housing Auguszt the confectioner, or at the armed artillery vehicle emerging beside it. Huge piles of ordnance lay in the street. Refuse on the north side of Fény utca covered remnants of a German Maultier transport vehicle.

Another photograph shows the site from the south-east. Here the destroyed artillery vehicle can also be seen, and that Párduc Tower has been hit. Nor have the neighbouring houses escaped damage – many windows show remaining smoke signs of fire inside the building. Towards Széna tér it can be seen that the houses on the south side of Retek utca have been shot to pieces.

The third and fourth shots show the Széna tér/Retek utca junction, where the other command vehicle was hit. However, it was not wholly destroyed. It was soon towed away and reappeared against the Germans in Transdanubia in March 1945. The photo must have been taken right after the emergence. It is dramatically apparent on the street sign. Meanwhile the houses on the north side have hardly been touched. The explanation is that there were Soviet defenders placed on the south side, and not wishing to fire at their fellows, they had left the north side empty. Still visible in the street are scattered pieces of furniture thrown out as a barricade.

The photos betray human tragedies as well. An idea of the siege of Budapest appears in the ward-room damage of the 4/II armoured brigade seen in the pictures. There were still 21 officers in the unit when the siege closed up. Of these, only four (19%) survived it. It is not known where any of the 17 missing are buried, nor have any of their identification documents survived. Their bones will certainly be in an unknown mass grave in the Pilis Hills, Perbál Valley or Buda Hills, or even inside the capital. Only in two cases can the death be confirmed. So in the case of 15, no witness remained to say how their last hours were spent, which means the destruction affected the rank and file, not just their officers. The lack of information is all the stranger in view of the vast energy expended by post-war West German organizations, revealing the fate of almost three million soldiers. Folders with photographs of the missing persons were compiled for a hundred camp post offices, while civilians kept records in their homes. All those returning were shown the folders and asked to add what information they could. This had yielded detail on almost a million people by the 1960s, including 111 persons missing from the 4th armoured division...