In the history of Budapest/Ferihegy aerodrome the Spring and the Summertime of 1944 passed off in the spirit of the war. The British reconnaissance and the American bomber airplanes appeared more and more frequently overhead the aerodrome. During the air attacks befell on the country both parties suffered serious losses both in airmen and as well as in airplanes. Human life often hung by a single hair – to die or to survive. Inhumanity often was accompanied by humanity, which may perhaps be proved also by the following story.
On 2nd July, 1944 in the air-space of Ferihegy at 10h45 the airplane Nr. 43 B-24E Liberator (factory Nr. 42-51151) of the 513th BS 376th Bomber Group exploded, hit by the shell of anti-aircraft gun. Some of the crew members escaped from the plane bailing out. Lt. Earl M. Kesler landed by its chute in the midst of the hail of bombs. He was the navigator of this airplane, who was found by Mr. Arthur Harris, British aviation historian.
Mr Earl M. Kessler letter
Here is my personal recollection of being shot down. It is excerpted from a small diary which I prepared just prior to liberation from German Stalag Luft I in Spring 1945. The flight toward target had been uneventful. There was only one burst of flack in our vicinity as we went on the bombing run. Chernik had asked me to kick him at the instant when the lead ship dropped its bombs so that he could release ours. Immediately after the “kick” we received a direct hit in the midsection. The noise was very loud. The plane seemed to be lifted up, then dropped a bit. Chernik opened the nose wheel doors – our escape route. There was fire under the flight deck. Oberding came out of the nose turret. Chernick glanced back at me; I nudged him; he left. The plane seemed to crumble. Oberding and I were in part of the nose section, tangled in debris, on our backs, with him on top of me. He was struggling and I managed to help push him clear. As he left I noted that his chute was fastened by only one snap. That turned out to be sufficient because he apparently landed unhurt. The section of plane went into a spin with me trapped, unable to get free. Subsequently, it threw me clear. I fell free for some moments, then opened the chute just in time to alight on the roof of a small concrete building. Just as the chute spilled I realized that there were explosions all around me, and one in particular went off very close by. I was hit by shrapnel in both legs. I unsnapped the chute and crawled to a corner of the roof where three rungs of a steel ladder extended downward Somehow I managed to get down to some rubble, take several steps through an open doorway, and get inside. I had to escape those little bombs which were still exploding. I shed heavy flying clothing. The right leg had been perforated (tibial bone) just above the ankle. I tied my handkerchief around it. There was a flesh wound on the inner thigh of the left leg. I waited there until explosions stopped.
Years later, Chernik told me that he opened his chute after leaving the plane and thus had a long slow descent. He said that an enemy fighter aircraft came toward him. The pilot flew close by, as if checking him, then departed. Chernik, nose gunner Oberding, and pilot 2nd Lt were not seriously injured. All were captured and eventually were in German prison camp. Rutherford was still at the controls when the plane exploded. He was blown clear, still in his seat. Fortunately, he was wearing a back pack type parachute. Oberding remained in the Air Force making it his career. After the war, 2nd. It run a business in Missouri, and Chernik flew bush planes in Alaska for a number of years, then lived in Michigan. All three men no are deceased. Copilot Bu1lard was brought to Military Hospital 11 suffering from a broken pelvis and burns on the hands and face. He related that after the plane was hit he grabbed his chest chute, stood up thus pulling off his oxygen mask, and dived through the fire. As he fell he managed to fasten one side of the chute but not the other. The chute opened. When he landed it pulled him sideways thus cracking the pelvis. After 2 months at the Hospital 11 he was well enough to be moved into the regular German prison camp set-up. Bu1lard became an executive for a railroad company after the war. He is now deceased.
After the bombs stopped exploding two Hungarian soldiers came searching for me at the small concrete building. They made me get to my feet and determined that I was not armed. Upon learning that I could not walk on my right foot, they supported me from either side with my arms on their shoulders. After some steps, the wound my left thigh began to bleed. One of them removed his own belt and made a tourniquet to control the blood flow. The belt was a narrow one made of webbing. It stayed with me and was the only one I had until I was liberated a year later. I was taken to a truck and placed on it with some wounded civilians. We were then transported to an aid station. I was placed on a stretcher. There were other wounded all around. Someone pulled my identification tags from around my neck. He got very angry when I tried to indicate that I was supposed to retain one. Someone else railed at me in great anger, he did spit on me. Others were kindly. One who spoke English, asked my name and serial number and my civilian occupation. He said he was a protestant minister. He said or did nothing more. A priest stopped and asked if I was Catholic. I said no. Nevertheless, he paused long enough to say a prayer over me.
Next, I was loaded into an ambulance. Our top turret gunner, Gene Doshier, also was in it. The ride was lengthy. I remember seeing tall city buildings and wide streets; at one time we were on a large bridge. We were taken to Hospital 11.
Doshier was injured severely, having lost parts of his feet, suffered severe burns on his leg, and had mangled hands. He remained critical all during the stay at Hospital 11. I believe he then was in a German prison hospital until liberation. He eventually became a watchmaker after the war and now is retired.
As indicated perviously, I do not know the location of Hospital 11. It was large. I believe the buildings were of stone. We were kept in a large room (ward) on what I think was the second floor of one of the buildings. There were perhaps 35 beds. Wounded Allied airmen were brought in after capture. After they healed they would be moved out, presumably taken to prison camps. A few of us who had more serious conditions remained there for longer times. I think population of the ward averaged 30-35, mostly American but a few British and Russians. The always was an armed guard outside the door of the ward. The guards usually were friendly. Food was brought to us in the ward The officers among us were paid, in keeping with a provision in the Geneva Convention. Some of the guards would take some of the money and go shopping for us, bringing back food such as pastries, peppers, tomatoes. This was shared and it supplemented the bread, stew, etc. Supplied from the hospital kitchen. We ate well until mid-October, when conditions deteriorated and food was limited.
The hospital had a pleasant courtyard, with grass and benches. Occasionally these who could walk were escorted down to the yard to enjoy sunshine and get some exercise. On occasion we would be taken to another section of the hospital for treatment or for baths. In September the Russians began nuisance (and previously announced) air raids on Budapest. They lasted 9 days .During the raids we were allowed to go to an air raid shelter which had been constructed of logs and dirt. I believe that no bombs hit the hospital.
The doctors and nurses who were charged with our care did remarkable jobs. They were kindly and compassionate. Two young doctors had primary responsibility for us. One was Dr. Louis Plaschal, who said he was from Miskolc. His jovial spirit was a boost for us. Dr. Imiry Sukivati worked with us more than did anyone else. He was sincere and dedicated. He obviously was well bred and educated. We were told that he came from a well known Budapest family and that his father was in the parliment. After I had been there for perhaps 2 weeks, the infection in my leg ran rampant. I was very ill, with high fever and got much worse on a Saturday evening. The nurses got me down to a treatment room. Dr. Sukivati came. He was in evening clothes, having been called from a social function. He worked for hours, cut openings in the cast, inserted drainage tubes, administered sulfa drug. After that I began to improve. I owe to him a debt of gratitude. Later that summer Dr. Sukivati was able to use penicillin to save the lives of several other patients. The drug had been obtained from the U. S. military though the Red Cross and because one of our fellow prisoners had the know-how. He advised Hungarian Red Cross officials as to whom to contact on the American side. Dr. Sukivati was proud to be the first of one in Hungary to have penicillin. He planned to write a scientific paper to report it. I hope he did.
(Spelling of names is phonetic, probably not accurate.)
A number of nurses took care of us. In spite of having limited supplies and resources, they did an outstanding job. My impression was that some were from prominent families and were helping out as volunteers. Most were middle aged. Thus there was Sister Elizabeth Pinter, Countess Alice, Countess Pepe, Sister Ildiko, and others.
Professional nurses included Sister Margaret, head nurse, a younger one lionka, and one we called Mamma llona. She remembered receiving American Red Cross Parcels after World War 1. Beneath her gruff exterior lay a heart of gold. We were much indebted to her. There were numerous other nurses. I wish I had their names.
Those lads among us who were Catholic were permitted to go to Mass on Sundays. They were accompanied by a guard or a nurse. For the purpose of warmth, I had been wearing a woolen uniform shirt on July 2. It was part of an officer’s uniform, dark green, handsome. Because they wished to look presentable, one or the other of the Catholic boys would borrow the shirt to wear to Mass (there were no insignia on it). We were asked to stop the practice because some other worshippers felt overshadowed by a prisoner dressed in such finery. We had occasional Protestant worship, in the ward. At different times, two ministers came to lead the service. Many people visited the ward during my stay there. Some were perfonning services. Some probably came out of curiosity. One of our group, Jacques Lepoutre, had relatives in Budapest who came to visit a Hungarian Air Force officer approached us late in the Fall with a plan to fly a group of us out to Italy, but the plan failed to materialize. The aforementioned diary lists a few notable personal dates,
July 2, 1944-Shot down and hospitalized.
August 13-First walk with crutches,
September 25 -cast removed.
October 5- We were moved to a cold, dark room in the hospital.
The weather was gloomy. We were hungry. War news was depressing.
November 9 -Moved back to the nice room. We could hear Russian Artillery.
November 17 -We were evacuated from Hospital 11 by bus, then were loaded onto a passenger train. After 3 days we reached Gyor. There were taken to an empty school building where conditions were not good.
November 25-We were taken over by a small detachment of Germans whose function was to move Allied prisoners into the prison camp set-up. They were garrisoned in a house, we were held on the top floor. They moved small groups out each day, by train. I was in the group which reached the Westlar processing center on December 1. There I was hospitalized for a number of days. I finally reached Stalag Luft I on December 27. We were liberated the following May.
After treatment and surgery, my leg became whole. I have spent a long and active life, much ofit as Professor of Daily Science at Pennsylvania State University. More recently, I’ve helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity.
Earl M Kesler
Target: Vecsés Airfield –
In the course of the development of the Royal Hungarian Air Force (RHAF) and civil aviation, Ferihegy (Vecsés/Csáky-liget) Airfield began construction in 1940. The civilian buildings were erected at the northwestern part of the large oval area, while the military barracks were constructed on the southern section. As the events of the WW II advanced the civilian construction works ceased. In October 1943, Fighter Squadron Nr. 2/1 moved into the semi-finished airfield and provided air defense for Budapest with 18 “Héja” type fighter aircraft (“Re-2000”, built under license in Hungary).
The pilots received an accelerated conversion training for Me-109 G6 type aircraft, which were built at the Győr factory. The Experimental Night-Fighter Squadron, 5/1 also located here, was combat-ready by that time for daylight sorties, as well as the Me-109 fighters and Me-210 destroyer aircraft of the RKI (Repülő Kísérleti Intézet – Aeronautical Experimental Center of the RHAF).
For the US this meant that at Ferihegy there was a division of the “Dunai Repülőgépgyár Rt.”, Danubean Aircraft Factory where considerable manufacturing activities were pursued on orders of Germany. Two huge twin-hangars, three storied buildings, and other more finished or semi-finished, smaller and larger buildings were aerial photographed by reconnaissance aircraft cameras overflying the area. Beyond that already known by the beginning of the year 1944, within the whole area of the airfield approximately one hundred single-engine or twin-engine aircraft were identified from the air. The US must have reached the conclusion from that, that here was a considerable manufacturing and flying activity underway. However, the facts were that RKI, for the purpose of conducting experiments, training and repair, stored some 40-45 airframes at the Southwestern section of the airfield, but less than half of them were combat-ready to perform air-battle.
Manufacturing activities were conducted only within the framework of the Aeronautical Experimental Workshop (RKM) where the experimental airframes were produced and assembled. In the Northwestern section of the airfield, in the vicinity of the semi-finished air terminal and civil hangar, some 30 fighter aircraft of the Squadrons Nr. 2/1 and 5/1 were parked. In addition to those, an unknown number of aircraft wearing the German Luftwaffe’s insignia (markings) were parked nearby the few Bf-110 type aircraft of the Destroyer Training Course (of the RHAF assisted by German instructors).
The first raid.
On Thursday, 13th April 1944 an enormous bomber formation assembled over the Adriatic Sea. A total of 567 bombers and 228 fighter escorts departed towards Hungary. Their objective was to bomb – among other targets – the airfield situated at Vecsés/Ferihegy. Beginning at 12h34, and lasting some 6 – 7 minutes, 121 B-24s from the four bomber groups of the 47th Bomber Wing dropped 185 tons of bombs, nearly ten-thousand 20 pound fragmentation bombs as well as 100 pounds demolition bombs on the airfield.
In some buildings severe damages occurred, but all of them were ruined in a lesser or greater extent. The buildings containing the material testing laboratory and the storerooms were completely destroyed, while the garage located next door as well as the boiler-house were only partly destroyed. When a demolition bomb struck through the roof of the hangar where the experimental airframes were being assembled and exploded inside, the hanger burned away.
Along the grass field and around the hangars nearly 20 aircraft were completely disintegrated and even more were partly damaged. Among the airmen stationed at the airfield 34 were killed in action and in the flash-report after the attack twenty more civilian victims were recovered as fatal casualties of the bombing in the vicinity of Ferihegy airfield.
Assessing the results of the April raid the Americans esteemed having made substantial damage. The buildings were emptied, however a few days later the airfield was put back into operation again, but less movements were observed. RKI and RKM moved out to the countryside, while activity in the airfield workshops slowly ceased. The destroyers were relocated to contingency airfields, while the fighters were concentrated at Veszprém airfield. However, during this time one fact not mentioned in the mission reports of the reconnaissance sorties, was that more and more German units were located at this airfield. Outside of the oval area, located not too far from the main landing area in the Northeastern section, a new concrete taxiway and paved aircraft parking areas were constructed for the use of the twin-engine airplanes. The US reconnaissance aircraft detected traces of the reconstruction work on the buildings in the Southern part of the airfield and because of the observed flying activities the US Air Forces Command gave orders for a repeated bomb attack.
The second raid.
This raid was pre-planned for 27th June, but the formation en-route was ordered to return over the town of Cegléd because of the closed cloud layers covering the target. Making use of the favorable weather conditions the raid then came on 2nd July. The purpose of this mission was decidedly to destroy the airplanes located at the Southern section of the airfield.
According to the command issued on 1st July all of the Bomb Wings available attacked the country with their possible maximum combat-ready forces. The 306th Fighter Wing provided bomber escort duty. The 47th Bomber Wing was given the task to bomb Vecsés/Ferihegy airfield and the 14th Fighter Group provided the escort. The 47th BW consisted of four Bomber Groups. Their “home” bases were as follows: 98th BG, Lecce, 376th BG, San Pancrazio, 449th BG, Grottaglie, 450th BG, Manduria. The aircraft took-off in the early morning hours and assembled into their respective formations. The formations flew on the following sequence; led by the 450th BG, followed by the 376th, then the 98th BG, and finally the 449th BG. The 376th BG with 40 B-24 Liberator aircraft completed the takeoff maneuver by 06h45. At 07h47 flying at 6,000 feet altitude they rendezvous with the 450th BG overhead San Vito and got into position behind them. In front of them the aircraft of three more wings assembled and assumed their formations. Over the Adriatic Sea two aircraft returned after ditching their bombs. After reaching the town of Kecskemét at 10 o’clock one more aircraft had to return. This aircraft, Nr. 29, left the formation due to failure of the priming-cock of the engine(s). The pilot of the aircraft displaying the serial Nr. 4273140 reported by radio that the crewmembers had left the plane. However, by this time they were over Yugoslavia. Emergency calls were received during the subsequent 11 minutes, then the plane crashed. The remaining 37-bomber aircraft overhead Cegléd turned toward Nagykáta. This settlement was the initial fix pinpointed for the raid onto the target. The three attack units of the Bomb Group on a track of 250-280 degrees, covering a length of 2 miles, flew toward their target with a speed of 165 mph between 22,000 feet and 25,000 feet and were divided into flights. They were carrying altogether 84,5 tons of explosives, 8800 fragmentation bombs of M-1 and M-1-A1 types, equipped with 20 pound instantaneous detonators, 40 bunches from which, altogether 240 pieces in six bunches were carried by each of the planes. On their way to the target and return the average number of the crew members was 10 airmen. They spent some 6-7 flying hours in the air, flying approximately 1,000 miles with fuel consumption being 2,700 gallons per airplane. The release of the bombs was commanded by the bomber-officer of the flight lead plane. Based upon his navigation data the units made multiple bomb-drops over the designated area, pinpointing their own targets in sight.
The aircraft formation were slightly delayed and arrived over the target between 10h45 and 10h50, then they returned with a left turn crossing the River Danube on the pre-planned route via Szekszárd – Podgrab to their home-base, where the 36 B-24 airplanes landed at 13h00.
Vecsés/Ferihegy Airfield was attacked by 142-bomber aircraft altogether and they dropped 322 tons of explosives, 31,728 fragmentation bombs. The airplanes of the units flying in close formation were equipped with 10-12 heavy machine-guns (21,7mm) each. With these defensive weapon they could defend themselves, and also each other, with considerable fire-power. The machine-gun’s ammunition belts were fitted with two demolishing bullets, two incendiary bullets, and one tracer bullet, then repeatedly sequencing these five bullets in that order. In spite of that, it was necessary to provide the slower flying bomber aircraft with fighter escort along their entire route over the enemy territory. The fighters’ tasks went beyond this, they had to clear away the enemy airplanes from the airspace over the target area, while letting the bombers perform their duty uninterruptedly.
On 2nd July the bomber aircraft of the 376th BG were escorted by the P-38 fighter aircraft of the 48th Fighter Squadron (FS), the 37th and the 49th FS of the 14th Fighter Group. The faster airplanes took-off between 07h52 and 08h07. Six airplanes out of the 48 soon had to return due to different reasons. The fighter squadrons were led by Lt. Prahler, Major Gaskin and Major Abbot respectively. They met the bombers at 09h26 cruising at 18,000 feet North of Lovas at the River Danube. By this time the whole force of the bombers, flying in a formation consisting of more than 620 four-engine bomber airplanes, with the aim of attacking more different targets in Hungary, also had some 200 fighter escort planes. The planes of the 376th BG flew their entire way until the target – according to the American reports – nearly undisturbed, enemy airplanes came near them only once. In the mission report of the 37th FS it was mentioned that they sighted some 15 Me-109 enemy fighter planes East of Cegléd and that three of them scoured after the enemy, following the Me-109s down to 4,000 feet where those airplanes disappeared. P-51 fighter aircraft flying patrol over the target area assisted the bombing.
On this summer day the weather did not prevent the bombing. En-route to Hungary there was clear skies. Overhead the target the air was misty, 2/10 overcast and above 14,000 feet cumuli-form clouds were reported, but at 20,000 feet there were cirrostratus clouds. On their return flight the amount of clouds were reported 5/10 overcast. The first results of this bombing were summarized based upon the observation made during the raid on the field and with the photos made in the meantime. According to the evaluation of the attack, only the first and the third attacking units dropped their bombs accurately. The second unit dropped 50 percent of the bombs over the northwestern section of the airfield. They destroyed partly or in total four airplanes on the ground. During the release of the bombs they sighted six enemy airplanes far away in the distance. These were identified as being FW-190, Me-109 and JU-88, however those did not attack the bombers. This was not the case however with the air defense. According to the previous spotting in the area of Budapest the number of the heavy anti-aircraft guns was estimated at 128, approximately. The first attacking unit reported only scattered cannon-shots, but the others coming in later, reported directed shots of a moderate fire of heavy anti-aircraft guns. The 40 mm “Bofors” guns of the FLAK sections located for the defense of the airfields and other objects in this area shot the planes flying at lower altitudes. Hungarian anti-aircraft artillery equipped with heavy guns were all around Budapest, – among other locations – on the Csepel Island at the airfield, in the Újpest Cemetery and in Buda at Andor utca. However these weapons were out of range of the aircraft raiding Vecsés.
The German Corps had light four barrel 20 mm machine guns (Vierlings) and also heavy anti-aircraft batteries. One of those took a firing position 1,5 miles West of Ferihegy at Esze Tamás utca, at the very edge of the populated area. There is a high probability that one of the burst of shells shot from here hit Lt. Kesler’s aircraft. The 88mm cannons had a distance range of 10 to 15 miles and they could reach a height of approximately 40,000 feet. The shells left the barrel of the cannons with a muzzle velocity of 1000 m/sec. Such anti-aircraft cannons could fire efficiently on the bombers cruising at 20,000 – 23,000 feet in altitude.
The release of the bombs should have occurred approximately 1-1,5 miles in advance of the target. The actual distance from the target at bomb release point depended on the ground-speed of the aircraft, the velocity, direction of the wind, and the height above the terrain.
The airplane Nr. 43, when it was hit by the shell, still had quite a number of bunches of fragmentation bombs and some 1,600 US gallons of fuel onboard when it exploded at 1,000 feet above the ground. The debris of the aircraft, with the tail section remaining in one piece, fell into the buildings of RKI near where Lt. Kesler landed.
As a result of the track taken and the direction of the upper winds, the other airman who bailed out earlier may have landed at Vecsés, Ecser, Maglód, Gyömrő or Üllő settlements (villages). Of the ten crew members of the B-24 airplane six survived. The hospital mentioned by Lt. Kesler, where the allied airmen were hospitalized was near to the Southern Railway Station. The Nr.11 Budapest Military Hospital stood at Nr.25 of the ex-Gömbös Gyula út. The British had laid mines into the River Danube, so their crews whose airplanes had been shot down were also brought here, to this location. The five storied hospital building that was erected before the WW I was destroyed during the American air attack of 19/20 September 1944 and this caused some of the wounded Allied airmen their death. The buildings, which were ruined after the fighting on Buda, were demolished later on. Today, in the place of Hospital Nr.11, is the block-building of Nr. 21-23 of Alkotás út. The four-crew members who lost their lives were buried and an American Grave Registration Team discovered their graves. In addition to locating graves, the mission of this team was the establishment of an American War Cemetery and the re-burial of the remains of the airmen once they had been discovered and identified by the team. The four airmen of this aircraft were re-buried into the graves Nr. A-11-121, -122, -123 and -124 respectively. At the end of the year 1946 all of the re-buried war dead remains were interred at the American Cemetery near Strasbourg, France.
The fighters escorting the bombers returned to their home base without losses (casualties), but one of the P-51s of another unit was seen falling with white smoke trailing behind. The pilot bailed out, but his parachute got tangled and did not successful deploy. The fighters observed the loss of two B-24s within the target area. One aircraft belonging to the 449th BG went down in flames at 10h30. At 10h45 the other aircraft exploded near the ground and crashed. The fighters did not see anyone leaving either of these airplanes. In the morning of 2nd July, according to the data of the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie, the crew of the crashed American bomber aircraft was captured.
The crews of these crashed airplanes were generally captured in the countryside, usually by the Gendarmerie or by Army units, and then handed over, as soon as possible, to the District Command Post of the Army. The wounded personnel were sent to hospitals. The interrogations were carried out by the 31st Section of the MoD and/or by the “D” (defensive) Section of Division Nr.2 (Vkf.2) of the General Staff. The POWs were kept in Budapest at several locations and since there were no POW Camps established in the country, they were sooner or later transported to Germany.
In another report on the shoot-down of the two aircraft around Ferihegy airfield included a reference that the three crew members who parachuted were captured, and that three others died in the burning planes. One of these aircraft was presumably the airplane of the 449th BG, but which one, it did not specify from the documents available to us.
On 3rd July, at 14h50, one aircraft of the 682nd Reconnaissance Squadron flew over Ferihegy airfield and took four pictures. When these pictures were evaluated it was found that there had been many buildings damaged, but also traces of repair work could be seen; six airplanes had been destroyed completely.
They found no data regarding the casualties and/or losses of the German troops stationed here. Also, bombs may have hit the airplanes of the Destroyer Training Course. The splintering effects of the fragmentation bombs usually resulted in the airframes remaining in one piece but they looked like Swiss cheese after.
On 2nd July 1944, during the repeated bombing attacks that had continued over several months, the Allied Forces had launched their heaviest attacks up to this time over Hungary. Due to anti-aircraft fire or by fighter aircraft, a total of twenty aircraft were loss to the US Air Forces over the country, 13 of these were four-engine bomber aircraft.
-Documents of the 47th BW – 376th BG;
-Pataki – Rozsos – Sárhidai: “Air War over Hungary”. Volumes I. -II. Published by: Zrinyi, Budapest 1992-1993;
-MRT Conference Document. Z. Jánkfalvi: “Discovery of the Graves of US Airmen in Hungary 1945 –1949”;
Shots taken by 1st Lt. J. Pécsi of the RHAF Air Arsenal;