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.
Meanwhile, German counter-attacks failed to retake Kiev but did push the Soviets out of Zhitomir, where the 1 Ungarishe Jabostafel found a new base and celebrated its 100th kill in December 1943. Through long months of intense combat, it had suffered the loss of just 6 pilots (plus 2 missing) from an original 37 airmen, as proof of their great skill and good luck. After New Year’s 1944, they relocated yet again, this time to Khalinovka. During the transfer, Lieutenant Lasl6 Molnar and his wingman, Corporal Erno Kiss, encountered 30 Shturmoviks covered by 10 Lavochkins. Laughing at the 20-to-1 odds against them, the Hungarians dove amid the enemy bombers, shooting down four of them, plus two Red fighters, before completing their flight to Khalinovka.
While battles such as these showcased the Hungarians’ superb combat performance, they nonetheless demonstrated the awful numerical edge overshadowing the Eastern Front in lengthening shades of doom. The sheer mass of man power and materiel now at Stalin’s disposal was sufficient to usually drown any technological superiority the Axis might have possessed, as evidenced by the 2,600 warplanes he assembled for his conquest of Vinnitsa, the Wehrmacht’s own headquarters in Russia, defended by 1,460 Luftwaffe aircraft. The Soviets were nevertheless stymied for more than three months, during which the entire Eastern Front was stabilized, and the Pumas were in the thick of the fighting, scoring more than 50 “kills” in January and February alone.
On March 17,1944, the USAAF for the first time attacked Budapest with 70 B-24s. The Liberators were undeterred by just four Hungarian flown Messerschmitts, all of which were damaged and two shot down by the unescorted heavy-bombers’ defensive fire. The encounter illustrated not only the pitifully inadequate numbers of aircraft available for home defense but lack of proper pilot training. The Americans returned on April 3 to bomb a hospital and other civilian targets as punishment, it was generally believed, for the recent establishment of a new government closer aligned with Germany. In any case, the attack left 1,073 dead and 526 wounded.
During the 13-day interval between these raids, the 1/1 and 2/1 Fighter Squadrons had been reassigned to the capital, and its crews provided a crash course in interception tactics. Even so, 170 P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs prevented most of the two dozen Pumas from approaching their targets. A few that penetrated the escorts’ protective ring destroyed 11 heavy-bombers at the cost of 1 Hungarian flyer. Six more Liberators were brought down by Budapest flak. In another USAAF raid 10 days later, the Mustangs were replaced by Republic P-47s, which failed to score against the Messerschmitts. Instead, two Thunderbolts fell to ground fire, along with four B-17 Flying Fortresses.
Meanwhile, the Hungarian pilots were getting the hang of interception, suffering no casualties for downing eight B-24s and six Lightnings. These losses combined with the mistaken American belief that aircraft manufacturing throughout Hungary had been brought to a halt. In fact, just a small Experimental Institute lost its hangars and workshops, and a Messerschmitt factory was damaged, although soon after restored to full production capacity. USAAF warplanes continued to appear in Hungarian skies over the next two months, but only on their way to targets in Austria or ferrying supplies to the Soviet Union. The Magyar Legierd took full advantage of this lull in enemy raids to upgrade and re-train three, full-strength fighter squadrons, while Budapest’s already formidable anti-aircraft defenses were bolstered.
When the 101. Honi Legvedelmi Vadkszrepiild Osztkly, or 101st “Puma” Fighter Group, was formed on May 1, 1944, Cadet Dezsd Szentgyorgyi transferred to the 101/2 Retek, “Radish” Fighter Squadron, where he would soon become Flight Leader, then, on November 16, Ensign. These rapid promotions were generated by his rapidly rising number of enemy heavy-bombers shot down during the “American Season;’ as the period was referred to by his fellow pilots. Placed in charge of the Home Defense Fighter Wing was Major Aladar Heppes. At 40 years of age, he was the Magyar Legierd’s eldest pilot, known as “the Old Puma;’ a seasoned Eastern Front veteran. For practice, his airmen confronted several hundred USAAF heavy bombers and their escorts droning toward Vienna on May 24. Although four Liberators, a Flying Fortress and one Mustang were destroyed, Major Heppes lost one man killed, and six Messerschmitts were damaged. But the Home Defense Fighter Wing crews learned from their experience, and vowed to do better when the Yanks returned in earnest.
Meanwhile, in preparation for imminent Soviet invasion of their country, the “Coconut” Stuka crews were recalled from Eastern Front duty to serve on Hungarian soil. Their 102/2nd dive-bomber squadron was redesignated the 102/1st fighter-bomber squadron, indicating the transition training they undertook to Focke-Wulf FW-190F-8s at Borgond airfield.
On the morning of June 14, 600 USAAF heavy-bombers and 200 escorts went after nitrogen plants and oil refineries outside Budapest, while P-38 Lightnings made low-level strafing runs on a Luftwaffe squadron of Messerschmitt Me.323 Gigant transports at Kecskemet airfield. The defenders were joined by a quartet of German fighters, which made two “kills:’ Eight more were claimed by the 32 Hungarian pilots, who lost one of their own. The city’s anti-aircraft defenses once again proved their worth, shooting down 11 enemy intruders.
Only 28 Home Defense interceptors were serviceable 48 hours later to oppose 650 heavy-bombers ringed by 290 Lightnings and Mustangs that filled the skies over Lake Balaton. Despite the excessive odds confronting them, the Pumas broke through the thick ranks of protective American fighters, claiming a dozen of them to destroy four Liberators. A remarkable set of “kills” was accomplished by Corporal Matyas Lorincz during this, his first operational flight. Hot in pursuit of four P-38s, he was unable to prevent them from shooting down Lieutenant Kohalmy. A moment later, Lorincz was in firing range, and the two Lightnings he set afire collided with and brought down a third. Lieutenant Lajos Toth, Hungary’s third highest-ranking ace with 26 “kills, was forced to take to his parachute, landing not far from the U.S. pilot he had himself shot down a few minutes before. Aviation engineer Gyorgy Punka, recorded how “they chatted until the American was picked up by a Hungarian Army patrol”‘
Relations between opponents were not invariably cordial, however, “with the American pilots deliberately firing on Hungarian airmen who had saved themselves by parachute, or strafing crash-landed aircraft;’ according to Neulen. “One of the victims was Senior Lieutenant Jozef Bognar, who was killed by an American pilot while hanging helplessly beneath his parachute”‘
The June 16 air battle had cost the Home Defense Fighter Wing the lives of five pilots, including two more wounded. Six Gustav Messerschmitts were destroyed, and seven damaged. These losses were immediately made good by fresh recruits and replacement planes, as the struggle against the bombers began to reach a crescendo on the 30th. This time, the Pumas were aided by 12 Messerschmitt Me-110 Destroyers and Me-410 Hornets, plus 5 Gustavs from the Luftwaffe’s 8th Jagddivision. The Germans and Hungarians claimed 11 “kills” between them, while the ferocity of their interception forced a formation of 27 bombers to turn back short of the capital; the remaining 412 diverted into the northwest.
The next USAAF attempt to strike Budapest’s area oil refineries on July 2 was similarly spoiled by just 18 Pumas, together with a like number of Luftwaffe Messerschmitts. As their colleagues in Germany had already learned, it was not necessary to destroy an entire flight of enemy bombers to make them miss their target. Among the most successful interceptions undertaken by the Magyar Legier6 fighters was carried out against 800 U.S. warplanes on July 7. A mere 10 Messerschmitts led by Major Heppes, the Old Puma himself, accounted for as many Liberators falling in flames from the sky, together with another 15 brought down by flak. One Gustav was lost, its pilot parachuting safely to earth.
The American aerial offensive pressed on throughout the summer and into fall of 1944 on an almost daily basis and in growing numbers. The Home Defense Fighter Wing continued to score “kills” and deflect bomber missions, until its men and machines were withdrawn from around Budapest in mid-October on more immediately pressing business: the invasion of their country. The previous six months of stiff Axis resistance had slowed, but could not halt the Red Army juggernaut, which now reached the foot of the Carpathian Mountains at the Hungarian frontier.
In the midst of this crisis, Admiral Horthy lost his nerve and attempted to capitulate to the Soviets. But the Germans learned of it in time, and placed him in protective custody for the rest of the war. News of his dethronement was met with a mix of indifference and acclaim, because the Hungarian people, who remembered all too well the Communist tyranny and terror they experienced during the 1920s, preferred resistance to submission. The Red Army was stopped at the Eastern Carpathian Mountains by German-Hungarian forces, but they could not simultaneously contain a veritable deluge of Red Army troops that overran Transylvania.
Their attack on Budapest began in early December, although the capital was not easily taken. Russian losses over the previous three-and-a-half years were becoming apparent in the declining quality of personnel on the ground and in the air. When, for example, a formation of Heinkel He.111 medium-bombers escorted by Hungarian pilots of the 101/2 Fighter Squadron was about to sortie against Soviet troops crossing the Danube on December 21, an out-numbering group of Lavochkins scattered and fled without a fight. Clearly, Stalin was relying on the dead weight of numbers more than ever before to achieve his objectives.
On January 2,1945, a joint German-Hungarian effort known as Operation Konrad I was launched to break the siege of Budapest. Although significant gains were made early and the Pumas wracked up more “kills;’ high winds kept flying to a frustrating minimum and destroyed more of their aircraft than Soviet pilots. After three days, the attempt to liberate the capital bogged down. Undaunted, reserves pushed onward with Operation Konrad II. During a rare stretch of clear weather on the 8th, Hungarian crews of the 102 Fast Bomber Group celebrated their 2,000th sortie by pummeling Red Army positions. The return of dense fog grounded further flights, however, and Operation Konrad II was abandoned the next day, mostly for lack of air support.
A third and final Operation Konrad appeared to succeed where its predecessors had failed. The Vlth German Army kicked it off on January 18, and 35 miles of territory were recaptured in the first 48 hours of the attack. The mighty Soviet 17th Air Army stumbled backward across the Danube, which advancing Axis troops reached on the 20th. Two days later, the Russians evacuated Szakesfehervar. These successes on the ground were importantly aided by airmen such as Ensign Dezso Szentgyorgyi, the Magyar Legier’s leading ace, who scored 14 victories alone in the fighting for Budapest. His and the rest of the Pumas’s chief targets were Shturmovik ground-attack planes, together with enemy armored vehicles and troops.
A few survivors of the 102/2 Dive-bomber “Coconut” Squadron most of its Ju-87Ds had been destroyed on the ground at Bdrgond the previous October 12 by low-flying P-51s of the American 15th Air Force-pounded Red Army positions and knocked out T-34 tanks. Their vital sorties were abruptly curtailed from January 23 by heavy snowfall, just when Soviet reserves began entering the battle area, and more than 300 German tanks were destroyed. Three days later, Operation Konrad III had to be canceled. During these repeated, all-out efforts to liberate Budapest, the three participating Magyar Legiero squadrons had flown some 150 combined missions to win 69 aerial victories for the loss of 6 pilots during 20 days of flight allowed by the weather. The “Coconut” Squadron was finished, having flown 1,500 sorties, dropped 750 tons of bombs, for the loss of half of their commissioned officer pilots and 40 percent of noncommissioned pilots.
An even-more ambitious attempt than Operation Konrad to regain the initiative got underway on March 6 with Operation Fruhlingserwachsen (“Spring Awakening”) in the Lake Balaton area of Transdanubia. Forces included the German 6th SS Panzer Army, the 1.SS Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, German 2nd Panzer Army, Army Group Balck, elements of German Army Group E, and the Hungarian Third Army. Objectives included saving the last oil reserves still available to the Axis and routing the Red Army long enough to recapture Budapest. Combined Luftwaffe and Magyar Legiero forces amounted to 850 aircraft opposed by 965 Soviet warplanes.
Odds against the Axis on the ground were far more loaded in their opponents’ favor, with seven infantry armies and a tank army. The combined 101/1 and 101/3 Fighter Squadrons strove to stave off massed flights of Bostons and Shturmoviks savaging Axis armored units and troop concentrations. High numbers of either type were shot down, together with several Yak-9s, on March 9, when the Pumas completed 56 sorties, to gain temporary air superiority above the German 6th SS Panzer Army, enabling it to advance. Despite early, impressive gains such as these, Germany’s last offensive could not prevail against the enemy’s overwhelming numerical advantage, and Axis troops were compelled to fall back to their prepared positions in Hungary, where they were soon overrun.