Hungarian Soldier, British Bomber
Updated: Jun 18
In a quiet, off-the-beaten-track Hungarian village, some 190 km south-west of Budapest, citizens and dignitaries of Hungary, France, Canada and the United Kingdom yesterday paid homage to the multi-national, eight-man crew who died when their RAF Halifax aircraft, flying on a top-secret mission, was shot down over southern Hungary one summer night seventy-nine years ago.
Photo: A Hungarian soldier stands in the heat of mid-day as part of the guard of honour in Mezőcsokonya for the unveiling of the memorial to the crew of RAF Halifax JP286 FS-S (S for Sugar), downed nearby on a special opration in the early hours of July 4, 1944. Ceremony date: Thursday, 25/05/23
It was getting dark in the evening of July 3rd, 1944 when Squadron Leader Surray Philip Victor Bird pulled back the thottles of his four-engined RAF Halifax to take it and his seven other crew members into the sky from the captured airfield of Brindisi, on the heel of Italy.
Though designed as a strategic bomber, this Halifax mission carried no aviation munitions: Bird was under orders to drop supplies to Yugoslav partisans based in the hills of Fruška Gora*, south of the city of Novi Sad, in German-occupied Serbia. He then had to head north-west into Hungary, cross Lake Balaton, and, near the small town of Herend, 135 km south-west of Budapest, drop an even more valuable cargo: four allied secret agents tasked with organising resistance operations against German-controlled Hungary.
Such solo missions were long, difficult and fraught with danger: navigation over darkened Europe was difficult enough, mechanical failure was not infrequent, aeroplanes might run out of fuel, and, most formidable of all, aircraft faced hostile fire from both ground-based anti-aircraft guns and well-armed night-fighters that could easily out-run, out-maneuver and out-gun any heavy bomber of the day.
Photo source: https://aircrewremembered.com/bird-surray.html
Despite these dangers, Bird's crew, consisting of five other Britons, a Canadian and, unusually, a Frenchman in one turret as an air-gunner*, could take heart: their pilot, though aged only 24, was already a veteran, having joined the RAF in 1937 and fought in the Battle of Britain and in the North African campaigns.
But, some two hours after take-off, things began to go wrong: at Fruška Gora**, they failed to drop the much-needed supplies, quite probably because a German crackdown on partisan activity meant there was nobody on the ground to give the all-clear signal.
Another 60 minutes in the air, and, somewhere near Herend, above the Bakony Hills, at least the four agents leapt into the darkness without harm.
So far, so mixed.
Bird banked his aeroplane and headed south to begin the final, two-and-a-half hour leg back to southern Italy.
In fact, he and his crew only had something like 10 minutes to live.
At around 01.00 hours on July 4th, a twin-engined Messerschmitt ME 110 night fighter, prowling the skies south of Lake Balaton, opened fire with its cannons; the stricken Halifax, attempting a crash landing in a field, broke up and was consumed by fire after hitting a bank. There were no survivors.
The aircraft had come down on the outskirts of the village of Mezőcsokonya, near the town of Kaposvár, in Somogy county, and the authorities were soon out on the crash site, with an armed guard posted to prevent looting. Witnesses speak of food, clothing and munitions spread over a large area, and despite the guards, some locals were reported to be wearing British army clothing after the crash.
The remains of the aircrew, such as they were, were buried in a collective grave, but, given the circumstances and secrecy of the mission, the British military authorities were unable to provide their relatives with any clear news of their loved ones.
Understandably with the material shortages of wartime, most of the wreckage was quickly collected and shipped off for recycling.
After the war, the British authorities located the bodies, and reburied the victims in the British and Commonwealth Military Cemetery in Solymár, on the outskirts of Budapest, and to all intents and purposes, the tragedy was forgotten – except, of course, for the relatives of the deceased.
Until, that is, 1997, when amateur aviation archeologist Gábor Nagy, who had taken to researching Second World War crash sites, visited Mezőcsokonya. Speaking to locals, he became especially intrigued as to what a lone Halifax had been doing over southern Hungary loaded with food and clothing that summer night in 1944.
To be continued.
Please note, I began writing this at about noon today, thinking I'd finish it by mid-afternoon. It's now half past seven.
This first part of the story has been compiled from the writings of (and discussions with) Gábor Nagy, his fellow Hungarian researcher Tamás Derner and, initially separately and later in co-operation with, Hubert Warsmann, a Frenchman who was fascinated by how his fellow countryman would end up as an air gunner* on an RAF Halifax in a squadron charged with special operations. (Hubert's name will be familiar with regular readers of this blog as ace KesterTester sleuth Hubert “Poirot” Warsmann.)
I have tried to estimate the timings of Halifax JP286's flight, given that Gábor states that it took off from Brindisi at 20.11 GMT (which I assume was 21.11 central European time) and the ME 110 shot down the Halifax at around 01.00 local time.
But I admit I thought the flights would be longer, so I may have made a mistake somewhere along the line. More anon. I'll try to write up part 2 this weekend.
* Added 04 June. Robert Collings has kindly written in. Robert has been researching the service record of Ronald Radford, his great-uncle (and the crew's rear gunner), for some years. According to his work, both Kenneth Cran and Frenchman Marcel Tilmont were added to the crew for this flight not as gunners but as specialist despatchers, that is they ensured the supplies were parachuted properly and timely at the designated area.
** Robert has also identified the drop spot in Serbia not as Fruška Gora (which had been a drop zone previously), but further to the south, near the village of Popinci. However, he says that Basil Davidson, the Liaison Officer of Special Operations Executive (SOE - which ran these missions) had been forced to flee from advancing Axis forces - and hence could not give the signal to the Halifax for the drop.