To the front line by tram: from the fall of Ujpest to the siege of Budapest
Seventy seven years ago, in 1944, I don’t think any war reports ever mentioned the Hungarian city of Ujpest. It was a small, poor, insignificant suburb of Budapest.
Its houses were up to two storeys high and the main attraction was a long street named after the historic figure of Arpad. The rest of the city consisted of low buildings with a string of ground-floor flats, which had a kitchen and one room but no sanitation.
I spent a month there from the middle of December 1944. I knew that by then Budapest was encircled by the Red Army, but the siege had not yet started. The Russians were well established at Fot, a couple of miles from Ujpest. The German Army apparently had no plans to defend Ujpest. The Russians could take it whenever they pleased.
One day, a few weeks later, they came. We heard about it from the boy next door who was a little younger than I. He came into the courtyard early in the morning and shouted: “The Russians are here. They are on Arpad Street.” So I got dressed and rushed out to the main street. I have never seen anything like it and don’t expect to again.
It was a column of carts drawn by horses, one behind the other, extending as far as the eye could see, perhaps several hundred of them. In the front of each cart the drivers were elderly men in army uniform, with enormous fur caps unknown in Hungary. I noticed that the carts and horses were much smaller than those on the streets of Budapest. The carts were half-laden, covered by some kind of rough blankets. They must have been carrying food and ammunition. The drivers were unarmed. They did not look as though they could ever hurt anyone.
When I got there the column was no longer moving. There were Hungarians surrounding them, especially children. They were trying to communicate. The subject was, apparently, age. In the nearest cart a Russian raised and lowered his open palms five times indicating that he was fifty years old. In response I showed one palm raised three times. Actually, I was not fifteen as yet, but did not think the exact figure would matter. Some other Russians in the column tried to convey some more nuanced information, namely the number and gender of their children (or was it grandchildren?).
I soon lost interest and would have returned to our flat, had not a tram turned up. It consisted of a single carriage, the type that had engines at both ends. Trams in general had a driver and a conductor. This time the driver was on his own. I presume he believed that if he turned up for work then he would be paid as usual, and saw no reason not to turn up. The presence of the tram indicated clearly that the electricity supply was on, from which I concluded that the siege must be over.
I walked to the stop where the tram was waiting for passengers. “Where are you going?” I asked the driver. “To the Western,” he replied. (That was short for the Western Railway Station in Budapest.) I decided to take a look at the capital, to see how much had been destroyed by the siege. I got on the tram. “A ticket please to the Western,” I said. “I don’t have a ticket,” said the driver, “the conductor did not turn up but you can give me the money.” I was in two minds about paying him. On the one hand I knew that he would put the money in his own pocket; on the other, the cost of the ticket was so insignificant that it was not worth quarrelling about. I decided to pay him.
We waited for passengers. None turned up. After about twenty minutes I told the driver that he should start moving, because I had to be back by lunchtime. He accepted the argument, and we headed off. Very soon we encountered our first problem. One of the Russian carts was blocking the rails. Trams in the Budapest area had quite powerful bells at the time. The driver did what he always did in a situation like that. He sounded his bell. The driver of the cart looked up. Would he be defiant as the proud conqueror or would he kindly move out of our way? He moved the cart.
There were no passengers in sight at the next stop or at any of the others. Nevertheless the driver stopped at each one of them. I proposed that we should move on without the useless gesture of stopping. He did not reply. He was not going to take instructions from a boy of 14. To sit on a tram from Ujpest to the Western in Budapest was never an exhilarating experience. I got bored. I tried to engage the driver in conversation. He was in no mood to talk, probably offended by my criticism of his stopping strategy.
After three or four further stops, maybe a mile from the Western, the tram suddenly came to a halt. I nearly lost my balance. The driver had seen what I could now see. Three Russian soldiers brandishing Kalashnikovs ran towards the tram. They were quite different from the placid cart drivers I saw in the morning. They might have thought that our vehicle was the latest German “miracle weapon”, or Wunderwaffe, a big tank disguised as a tram. When they noticed me on the tram they lowered their submachine guns. I wanted to ask them whether Pest had fallen because in that case we should continue our journey. Unfortunately, I spoke no Russian, and was afraid that hand signals might be misunderstood. So I just stared at them. They stared back.
The driver immediately realised that the best option was to return to Ujpest. Very bravely he stepped off the tram into the midst of the three soldiers and signalled with his hand that we were changing direction, that there was an engine at the other end of the tram and that we would be off in a few moments. I doubt that he was understood. One of the Russian soldiers got impatient and released a series of shots in the air, but the other two just indicated that we should clear off. Miraculously, the electricity was still working and so did the engine at the other side of the carriage. In a few minutes we were quite far away.
The journey back was uneventful. I thought this shared adventure would create some sort of rapprochement between the driver and myself. It didn’t. He blamed me for bringing him into such a dangerous situation. The Hungarian language is rich in swear words. He had an impressive vocabulary. He used them all. I did not dare to point out that it was his original idea to drive the tram to the Western Station. I found out later that the place we had stopped at was in fact the front line. Pest fell about a week later. For Buda it took another month. Public transport only resumed three months later.
Our contribution to military history was never acknowledged. I feel certain that the driver and myself must have been the only people ever to arrive at a front line – by tram. The only similar thing I am aware of occurred during the First Battle of the Marne in 1914, when six thousand French soldiers, in a desperate hurry, were brought to the front line in requisitioned Parisian taxis to stop the German offensive.