Today a celebrated war hero in Hungary, Ferenc Koszorús is famous for one of the most remarkable examples of bravery and courage of the Second World War. His actions commanding the 1st Hungarian Armored Division in July 1944 which stopped the coup-de-tat attempted by the Arrow Cross Party and its extremist allies. His actions delayed the Nazi takeover for 3,5 months which allowed tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews to escape or find refuge.
Vitez Ferenc Koszorús was born on February 3rd 1899 in Débrecen. He grew up in a military family, his father being a Lieutenant Colonel. After graduating from the Military Academy in 1929, he became the commanding officer of the Brigade in Nyíregyháza. From 1937, he became the commanding officer of a Cavalry division before becoming the head of the study group at the Ludovika Military Academy.
In July 1941, Koszorús became the Head of Operations of the Hungarian Air Force Headquarters before taking command of an Armoured Division on the Eastern Front in 1942. As such he fought with his unit in the battles of Korotojak and Uriv Bridge against the Soviet Union. Following this, Koszorus took over command of the First Armoured Division.
In march 1944, Germany occupied Hungary and by June, the Nazis had incarcerated and liquidated most of the Jewish population of Europe. In Budapest, approximately 250,000 Jews remained still alive. Budapest was still under control of the Hungarian police force.
Koszorús, now a colonel in the Hungarian Army in charge of the First Magyar Armoured Division stationed in and around Budapest. He learned that László Baky, Secretary of State and director of all security forces, with the exception of the army, had planned a coup d’état to install a police force government completely subservient to the Nazis. They would see to it that Hungary was purged of all remaining Jews.
With the help of the Gestapo, Baky formed several battalions of “gendarmerie” forces loyal to him. Orders from Regent Horthy to disband the gendarmerie went unheeded. Koszorús controlled the last remaining active army unit in Hungary. At a time when few others would stand up to the Nazi occupation, Koszorús took the initiative to resist.
Realizing the severity of the situation, Koszorús consulted with Regent Horthy and began preparations on his own to stop Baky and the gendarmerie battalions. On July 5, 1944 at 11:30 p.m., Koszorús ordered the units of the 1st Armoured Division to take up positions at strategic points in Budapest, sealing off all roads leading into the city. By 7:00 a.m. on July 6, 1944 all the units were in place and Koszorús informed Baky that if his gendarmerie did not leave and disband, they would be destroyed. On July 7, 1944 Baky capitulated and evacuated his forces.
Koszorús’ unparalleled action was the only case known in which an Axis power used military force for the purpose of preventing the deportation of the Jews. As a result of his extraordinarily brave efforts, taken at great risk in an extremely volatile situation, the eventual takeover of Budapest by the Nazis was delayed by three and a half months. This allowed thousands of Jews to seek safety in Budapest or escape abroad, thereby sparing them from certain death. It also permitted Raoul Wallenberg, who arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944, to coordinate his successful and effective rescue mission.
After blocking the coup, Koszorús was forced to escape the Gestapo and fled to the United States where he would eventually serve his adopted homeland in the US Topographic Command. President Truman asked him to organize Hungarian veterans in exile and train them for the eventual liberation of Hungary. He died on March 8, 1974 in Arlington, Virginia. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Koszorús’s bravery has been recognized in Hungary and a statue of him was raised in in the Castle Hill district at the Tóth Árpád promenade in Budapest in 2015. Koszorús’s bravery and actions truly capture the essence of the Order of Vitez.