After World War I, the Allied victors at Versailles met to parcel out 74,971 square miles of Hungarian territory to foreign enemies, stranding nearly half of the Hungarian people under hostile, foreign domination. The Hungarian armed forces were dismantled and military aviation forbidden. Only civilian “aero clubs” were allowed, but they at least preserved some measure of flight instruction over the next two decades.
Hungary began slowly, quietly building an air force in the late 1930s in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles, which forbade Hungary (and Germany) an air force.
Hungary’s right to self-defense was not restored until 1938, when Franco-British politicians planned to enlist Hungary against Germany in the event of war. To be sure, the arch-conservative, anti-Fascist regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy, was inclined to favor the Western Allies, but popular demands loudly voiced by his subjects to reclaim severed territories and displaced fellow countrymen were additionally fueled by dread of neighboring Soviet Russia. Hitler and Mussolini, meanwhile, courted Horthy by selling him military aircraft at discounted prices, and gave him a slice of the dismantled Czechoslovak state inhabited by Hungarians.
On September 1, 1938, the Magyar Kirdlyi Honved Legiero, or Magyar Legiero, the Royal Hungarian Air Force, unfurled its red-white-green chevron insignia for the first time. Its crews did not have to wait very long for their baptism of fire, however. The following March, they flew cover for Hungarian troops occupying Ruthenia, formerly part of eastern Czechoslovakia, where clashes with elements of the Slovenske vzdusne zbrane, the Slovak Air Force, took place. Although the Slovaks’ Avia B.534 biplane was equal to Fiat CR.32s operated by the Magyar Legiero, Hungarian pilots benefited from superior training, shooting down 10 SVZ aircraft at no loss to themselves in what they referred to as the eight-day-long Kis haboru, or “Little War:”
By then, a much larger European conflagration seemed imminent, and Horthy ordered a radical strengthening of his entire armed forces. Impressed by close cooperation exhibited between the German Army and Luftwaffe in their Blitzkrieg conquests of Poland and France, he subordinated the formerly independent Royal Hungarian Air Force to the army high command. Most of the Magyar Legierd’s new aircraft were purchased from Italy. These included 69 Fiat CR.32s, 68 Fiat CR.42s (more antiquated biplanes), and 34 specimens of the Reggiane Re.2000, which Hungarian pilots referred to as the Heja, or “Hawk:” It was a poor copy of the American P-35 produced by the Seversky Aircraft Corporation, structurally deficient and plagued by a temperamental 870-hp Piaggio P.XI RC.40 radial engine.
The Magyar Legiero possessed just 3 examples of the German Heinkel He.112, its only relatively modern fighter, although 34 Junkers Ju86s rejected by the Luftwaffe made up a bomber wing, together with 36 Caproni Bergamaschi Ca.135s more yet substandard Italian aircraft. Hungary’s only indigenous warplanes were the Weiss WM 21 S6lyom and Repiilogepgyar Levente II.
A thoroughly obsolete, open-cockpit biplane design based on that of a 1928 Dutch Fokker, 48 Weiss Falcons equipped Magyar Legiero reconnaissance units, where they were joined by 38 no less doddering, if still rugged German Heinkel He.46 parasol monoplanes and 37 Italian Meridionali Ro.37 Lynxes, which had been already retired from production. These were supplemented by another 13 Luftwaffe castoffs, Heinkel He.111B medium-bombers.
The fragile Repiildgepgyar Levente II was never intended for anything more than the primary training duties for which it had been designed. But the growing exigencies of war on the Eastern Front pressed the spindly little biplane-with its 105-hp Hirth HM 504A-two four cylinder inverted inline piston engine and top speed of 112 mph-into service as a much-needed liaison and communications aircraft. The rest of the Hungarian Air Force was fleshed out by four Savoia-Marchetti SM.75 trimotors used as paratroop transports, plus a variety of German and Italian trainers, which brought Magyar Legiero strength up to 536 aircraft when Horthy permitted German forces to assemble on Hungarian territory for their invasion of Yugoslavia in March 1941.
He belatedly joined the fight on April 11 to recover the Banat and Batschka areas separated from Hungary more than 20 years earlier for the loss of six Fiat fighters and one S6lyom. Two months later, Operation Barbarossa exploded. Hitler had not invited the Hungarians to take part in his crusade against the Soviet Union, because their animosity for his oil-rich Romanian ally jeopardized the campaign. Hungarians themselves went wild for war with the USSR. They regarded the invasion as a historically unique opportunity to simultaneously destroy the Communist colossus towering over their eastern frontier and reclaim all those territories lost after World War I.
Horthy nonetheless hung back, as he had in Yugoslavia, until his hand was forced on June 26, when Red Air Force Tupolev SB-2 bombers struck Kaschau, Muncas, and Raho, towns in northern Hungary, where several dozen civilians were killed and injured. Magyar Legiero retribution was swift and far ahead of the Hungarian army, as a mixed formation of 51 Junkers and Caproni bombers protected by 9 Fiat CR.32s raided Stanislav, Strij, and other targets east of the Carpathian Mountains over the next three days. Seven Tupolevs returned on the 29th to strike the Csap railroad station, but three were shot down by Fiat CR.32s in this first aerial confrontation over Hungary.
By mid-summer, the German Xlth Army laid siege to Nikolayev, a strategic Black Sea port that received supplies across a mile-and-a-quarter-long bridge spanning the Bug River. The vital structure, heavily defended by massed anti-aircraft guns and a squadron of Polykarpov I-16s, was targeted on August 10 by six Hungarian Capronis escorted by as many Fiat CR.32s, plus five Hejas. One of the bombers scored repeated hits on the bridge, which collapsed along its entire length, and additionally claimed an attacking Rata. Although the formation commander’s Ca.135 lost its port engine to ground fire, Senior Lieutenant Istvan Szakonyi’s skilled gunners succeeded in shooting down three enemy interceptors. Another five were destroyed by the Fiats, for the loss of a single Reggiane.
Six days later, Nikolayev fell with the capture of 60,000 Soviet troops, and Luftwaffe Colonel-General Alexander Lohr presented the Hungarian flight crews with their decorations at Sutyska airfield. By the following month, however, after having flown 1,454 sorties, the Magyar Legier6 on the Eastern Front was exhausted and needed to be withdrawn. Most of its equipment was older and patently inferior to enemy aircraft, suffering disproportionate attrition. Thirty Soviet warplanes had been shot down, but the Hungarians lost 56 of their own. The aircrews would not return until July 13, 1942, after extensive training and re-equipping, with the arrival of the 1/1 Fighter Squadron at Ilovskoje airfield outside the Don River. An obvious change was replacement of the old tricolor chevron insignia on wings and fuselage with a white cross in a black square, while vertical stabilizers were covered in red, white, and green bands.
Although their Fiat biplanes had been left at home to more properly serve as trainers, MKHL pilots were still saddled with the disappointing Re.2000. Only a superior maneuverability enabled the Heja to overcome its deficiencies in speed and fire power against better Migs and Lavochkins. The Hungarians got off to a prestigious start on August 4, however, when their first success was achieved by the heir to the throne, now First Lieutenant Istvan Horthy. His Reggiane hit a LaGG-3 that caught fire and disappeared into a cloud. It was not a confirmed “kill;’ but seemed to foreshadow greater things to come. Indeed, that same day, two Polikarpov Ratas were downed by a single Heja pilot.
Over the next several days, misfortune dogged the 1/1 Fighter Squadron. Major Kalman Csukas mistook a German Heinkel bomber for a Russian Petlyakov and shot it down, injuring two crew members, to whom he later made a personal apology. Ongoing mechanical difficulties grounded all but three Reggianes, and one of these was forced to abort its mission shortly after take-off with engine trouble. The other two survived an unsuccessful attack against Soviet bombers. More Re.2000s arrived with 2/1 Fighter Squadron, but their machineguns jammed during another fruitless encounter, and the humiliated commander of the First Air Division admitted he was unable to protect Hungarian ground forces by asking the Germans for help. Mechanics, referred to by their pilots as “the black men” for their dirty job, worked furiously night and day to get six Hejas airborne on August 9.
The two lead pilots breezed passed a formation of Shturmoviks and LaGG-3s, assuming they were Luftwaffe fighters, and the remaining 4 Reggianes were left to confront more than 30 enemy warplanes. Outnumbered, the Hungarians destroyed four of the superior LaGG-3s for a single wounded Heja pilot, who survived by crash-landing behind his own lines.
Thanks to the untiring ministrations of the “black men;’ their Re.2000s were kept flying, mostly on patrols over the Don River, where Red armored vehicles were observed and reported to Wehrmacht headquarters. Luftwaffe dive-bombers obliterated the tanks, while the Hungarians provided cover.
On August 11, 1st Lieutenant Pal Iranyi shot his way out of an ambush by five LaGG-3s, downing one of them and escaping to Ilovskoje. Then, just when Magyar Legiero luck appeared to be changing for the better, Istvan Horthy died at the controls of his aircraft when it stalled and crashed shortly after takeoff on August 18, as he set out with a pair of fellow Hejas assigned to escort a reconnaissance mission. All Hungary went into mourning, and an elaborate state funeral for the royal heir attracted international attention.
Shortly thereafter, pilots of the Magyar Legierd on the Eastern Front began to make a name for themselves as effective hunters of the Red Air Force’s formidable ground-attack plane, the Ilyushin 11-2, by aiming for its vulnerable radiator mounted above the engine. While such an approach promised the best prospects for success, it was the most dangerous, exposing the attacker to concentrated fire from every rear gunner in a formation. An alternative tactic called for closing in on the target from beneath, as the Shturmovik’s oversized radiator was also vulnerable from this angle. Other Hungarian pilots followed the German preference for aiming directly at the enemy pilot during a steep dive.
The skilled Iranyi and his wingman, Sergeant Zoltan Raposa, each brought down a Shturmovik on September 2, when a 20-mm round tore off two fingers on the right hand of Cadet Lajos Molnar, who was flying cover for the attack. But the 11-2 “expert” was 1st Lieutenant Imre Panczel, who knocked out three “Flying Tanks” in the last three days of October. He and Ensign Kovas-Nagy shot down a pair of Ilyushins out of a flight of 22 on the 31st.
Earlier that same month, Panczel revealed himself as one the most aggressive airmen on the Eastern Front, when he and three other Heja pilots intercepted three times as many enemy bombers and fighters targeting the railway line between Podgarnoje and Kemenka. He promptly destroyed three warplanes, plus two more shot down by his comrades, all within 22 minutes, at no loss to themselves. The surviving Soviet pilots aborted their attack and fled back into the East.
In early fall 1942, the overworked, outdated Italian-made machines finally made way for the Magyar Legierd’s first modern aircraft. Goering had been impressed by the Hungarians’ achievements with substandard equipment, and believed they could do better with German aircraft. Accordingly, he replaced the Capronis with a squadron each of 51 Junkers Ju-88 medium-bombers and Junkers Ju-87 dive-bombers. He then ordered the formation of 1 Ungarishe Jabostaffel, the “1st Hungarian Fighter-Bomber Squadron;’ composed entirely of Messerschmitt Me109 F-4/13s, fitted with 550-pound bombs. These Friedrichs initially operated out of Urasovo, blasting Red Army tanks, supply convoys, and trains in the fighting against the Italian 8th Army. In fact, the Hungarians flew a joint mission with Italian and German fighter units hunting enemy armor concealed in forested regions between Buturlinovka and Koslovka on October 29, the 20th anniversary of the March on Rome that brought Benito Mussolini to power in 1922.
Adverse weather grounded most flights throughout the following month and into the first half of next, until the Shturmovik “expert;’ Lieutenant Panczel-now the 1 Ungarishe Jabostafel’s commanding officer single-handedly knocked out a Red Army flak battery, destroyed 17 trucks, and blew up 3 locomotives with cannon shells and bombs during just 4 days in early December. On the morning of the 16th, he shot down two IL-2s and another pair that afternoon to become World War II’s first Hungarian ace. Panczel was prevented from committing further mayhem only by the return of white-out conditions that rendered flying impossible for the rest of 1942.
The year concluded with 140 sorties undertaken by the 1st Hungarian Fighter-Bomber Squadron, mostly against ground targets. So far, remarkably, none of its crews had been lost to the enemy. All that was to change after the New Year, however. As the debacle at Stalingrad reached its climax, air combat intensified, and Imra Panczel, the Hungarians’ own Achilles, fell on January 11, 1943. Three days later, the Squadron’s base at Urasovo stood in the way of a Red Army offensive sweeping all before it. After every airplane that could fly was evacuated to Novy-Oskol, the airfield’s defense consisted only of several 40-mm flak guns, together with various small arms carried by 750 pilots and ground personnel. Lieutenant-Colonel Kalman Csukas ordered all cannons and machineguns stripped from the remaining aircraft and remounted on flatbed trucks or artillery stands to confront whatever was to come.
Not the enemy, but some 3,000 routed German, Italian, and Hungarian troops showed up with more than 800 wounded and frostbitten men on January 17. Their arrival had been preceded by the incessant thunder of heavy artillery growing ever louder in the East. Before nightfall, overcrowded Urasovo was completely surrounded by Soviet forces, and Csukas was ordered by radio to hold them off until outside relief could be dispatched. It appeared during the 19th in the form of the German 26th Westfalen Infantry Division, the rear guard of which broke through to Urasovo and rescued its haggard defenders, who trudged into Novy-Oskol four days later.
The 1 Ungarishe jabostafel, re-equipped with the latest Messerschmitt Me-109Gs, was now based in Kiev, with airfields at Ilovskoje and Poltava. After a brief period of recuperation, the Hungarians were patrolling over the battlefield again, carrying out numerous, low-level strafing runs against transport convoys and troop concentrations in support of Wehrmacht counter-attacks aimed at recapturing Kharkov. It was here that the unit was based in late February, when German forces took the city once more.
With spring 1943 came the first appearance in large numbers of American-made aircraft wearing Red Star insignia. Sergeant Tarnay made the first kill of a Douglas A-20 light-bomber on the morning of April 29, when six of the rugged, agile Bostons escorted by a much larger force of fighters attacked Kharkov-Osnava airfield. U.S. aid was also evident on the ground, as more Ford trucks and Grant tanks joined a growing inventory of enemy equipment destroyed by the 1st Hungarian Fighter-Bomber Squadron.
The greatest air armadas in military history clashed from early to late July over the pivotal struggle for Kursk, during which the “Pumas;’ as the Magyar Legier6 fighter pilots were now known, flew up to five missions each day. They shot down only 33 enemy aircraft, because the Hungarians were assigned mostly ground-attack duties, as one may gather from the 153 vehicles of all types they destroyed, unknown thousands of Red Army troops strafed, and eight pieces of field artillery knocked out. All to no avail. In early August, soon after the Soviets’ victory at Kursk, they over-ran all opposition, taking Belgorod and threatening Kharkov. Aerial encounters reached unparalleled levels of ferocity, as the Pumas flew in excess of 20 missions per day.
They were joined by 13 Hungarian-flown Stukas of the 102/2 Dive bomber Squadron, also known as the “Coconut Squadron:” More Ju.87 Doras, led by Captain Gyozo Levay, soon after arrived. Although both fighters and bombers excelled at their tasks, they were re-stationed at Poltava when Kharkov could no longer be held. They had by then established a particular reputation among their opponents, as Lieutenant Kalman Szeverenyi learned, when he was tailing a Lavochkin on October 7. Before Szeverenyi could open fire, the Russian pilot bailed out, parachuting near the wreckage of his own fighter.
The next day was an occasion for celebration at the 102/2nd, whose airmen had just completed their 1,000th mission. Before relocating back to Kolozsvar two weeks later, they would execute another 200 sorties, having dropped more than 800 tons of bombs on the enemy since their debut on the Eastern Front three months earlier. The Hungarian Stuka crews additionally accounted for a P-39 Aircobra.
“We form up and I set a homebound course;’ recalled Lieutenant Tibor Tobak. “Suddenly, a lone Cobra appears and heads toward the point of our formation. According to Russian custom, he tries to attack the leader. I am not excited a bit. As soon as he enters our field of fire, he is a dead man. When he comes into range, eight twin-barreled MGs open up on him. Sixteen tubes pour deadly eight-mm slugs at him. As I glance back, I can see that the tracers end up exactly in the Cobra’s fuselage. Sarkady pumps it right behind the cockpit, where the engine is. `Well done, Lali!’ I shout `I think you got him!”‘
“Ivan miscalculated his move. He came in too steep to get under our formation, but he had to pass through our field of fire … The Cobra is now ahead of me by some one hundred meters, and I can see its engine smoking. I can see the pilot bailing out. The abandoned aircraft topples and begins its final spiral descent towards the ground. The parachute blossoms into a big, white flower. We did it, we got the guy! I feel satisfied; we can finally paint our first Red Star on the tail of our airplane:’
According to Tobak, “The 37-mm gun of the Cobra is a killer. A single hit can disable the venerable Stuka. Our 151/twenty-mm is just a popgun compared to that, but my boys have practiced formation flying a bit in Kolozsvar. If jumped, German staffels usually break formation and disperse, but we keep a close formation to concentrate our firepower instead”‘
Two Lavochkin La-5 fighters were also shot down by Tobak’s men, remarkable achievements for the sluggish, under-defended dive-bomber they flew. In fact, no Coconut Squadron Stukas were lost to enemy interceptors. The Squadron had not gone unscathed, however, and its surviving machines-either four or six not claimed by flak-were transferred to the Luftwaffe after the Hungarians returned to their homeland for training new crews and rebuilding the unit.