During the spring of 1944, the Second World War reached the skies of Hungary as the US 15th Army Air Force started their bombing campaign on the 3rd of April. During that raid, 1500 four-engined heavy US-bombers and 800 fighters attacked Budapest and the so-called American Season had begun. Vastly outnumbered by the overwhelming might of the US Air Force and later the Soviet Red Air Force, the young airmen of the Royal Hungarian Air Force (Magyar Királyi Honvéd Légierő (MKHL), fought a gruesome air war which claimed the lives of many servicemen as well as Hungarian civilians. Much of the backbone of the MKHL however, had been battle hardened on the Eastern front where they had successfully fought the Soviet Red Air Force. Three of these airmen showed an exceptional bravery in the deadly battle against the US Air Force and the Soviets, becoming Hungary’s top scoring fighter aces. The three had many things in common, they all flew Messerschmitt Bf 109 and all served in the 101st Home Air Defence Fighter Wing (101. Honi Légvédelmi Vadászrepülő Osztály), also known as “the Puma Squadron”. Apart from bravery and flying skill, these three airmen had another thing in common, the were all members of Vitézi Rend.
Hungary’s Top Fighter Ace
vitéz Szentgyörgyi Dezső, the man who would become Hungary’s top scoring fighter ace of all time, came from humble origins and had trained to become a locksmith. Born in Kőkút in 1915, he enlisted in the Air Force at the age of 18. With the ambition to become a fighter pilot, he lacked the proper education and was assigned to serve as an aircraft mechanic. To overcome the obstacle, he completed several advanced flight courses from which he graduated with good results in 1938. He took part in the Transcarpathian operations, flying a Fiat CR where he received his baptism of fire. In 1942 he served on the Eastern Front against the Soviets, flying the Italian Reggiane Re.2000 and German Messerschmitt Bf 109 aircraft. Although fighting the Soviet Air Force, Szentgyörgyi’s first aerial victory was German. The reason for this was that a Heinkel He 111 bomber mistook Szentgyörgyi’s aircraft for a Soviet aircraft and opened fire on him. Szentgyörgyi shot the aircraft down and fortunately, the German crew survived. Between July 1942 and August 1943, Szentgyörgyi flew 142 combat missions and shot down 6 Soviet planes.
101st Home Air Defence Fighter Group was founded in May 1944 as an elite fighter-wing and was the most famous and well known of all Hungarian fighter units during the war. Szentgyörgyi joined along with the elite of the Hungarian air force fighter pilots and soon accomplished his first American aerial victory when he shot dowan a P-38 Lightning on the 14th of June 1944. During the remainder of the so called “American Season” he shot down a total of 6 US Air Force planes bringing his total score to 12 aerial victories. With the end of the American air offensive against Hungary, the Hungarian airmen anew faced the Soviet Air Forces. From August 1944 until the end of the war, Szentgyörgyi more than doubled his score, shooting down another 17 Soviet aircraft. He shot down his last enemy aircraft, a Yak-9, on the 16th of April 1945, bringing the total to 29 aerial victories. Szentgyörgyi became Hungary’s greatest scoring fighter ace during the Second World War. His great professional prestige was due not only to his aerial victories, but also to the fact that he flew excellently and never broke a plane from a pilot error. He was one of the few pilots who was never shot down nor hit by a single bullet.
vitéz nemes Molnár László was born on the 1st of May 1921 in Nagykőrös. His forefathers had been soldiers for generations and Molnár had his sights on a military career from an early age. He graduated from Miklos Horthy Flying Academy in 1939 and was enrolled to the Air Force as a lieutenant. Molnár flew his first set of combat missions on the Eastern Front where he quickly showed what a skilled pilot he was. Molnár was the first Hungarian to score five aerial victories, thus becoming the first ace. By December 1943 his tally was 8 enemy aircraft which earned him the nickname “The Lion”. He later received another nickname, Paszulyos, having landed his plane on an abdomen near his airfield with an empty fuel tank. On the 8th of January 1944, Molnár managed to shoot down no less than four Soviet aircraft. This was the only time during the war that a Hungarian pilot won 4 certified victories during a single mission. By the time he left the Eastern Front in March 1944, Molnár had achieved no less than 18 aerial victories in 113 combat missions.
By the time the American Air Offensive started, Molnár served in the well-known Puma Wing. His successes continued and he managed to shoot down a P-38 on the 14th of June 1944 and two B-24 Liberators on the 7th of July 1944. As the American onslaught against targets in Hungary continued, so did Molnár’s successes. During the last week of July 1944, he shot down a P-38, a B-24 on two separate days and another two B-24 four engine bombers on the 30th of July 1944.
On the 7th of August 1944, Molnár took off with 17 other Hungarian fighters. Their mission was to escort German fighters from I. Gruppe Jagdgeschwader 302. The German fighters where equipped with heavy cannons in order to shot down the American heavy bombers. Molnár intercepted American P-51 Mustangs, 8000 meters above the Rába River. Trying to warn the German fighters, Molnár’s Messerschmitt Bf 109 G6 was attacked by a Mustang that severely damaged his plane. He tried to pull out of the fight by making a steep dive but when he straightened his Messerschmitt out again, he was again attacked by a Mustang that was on his tail. Managing to escape from his damaged plane, Molnár was shot and killed in his parachute by the American pilot flying the Mustang that had shot down his plane. vitéz nemes Molnár László fell for his country for which he had fought so bravely and proudly, only 23 years old. He was buried a week later at the Military Cemetary of Sopronbánfalva where his grave can be found to this day. He had shot down a total of 25 enemy aircraft.
The Boy Scout Who Dreamt of Flying
vitéz Debrődy György was born in 1921 in Lajoskomárom. From an early age he was a keen boy-schout and was very interested in flying. Following his graduation from high school, he continued his studies at the Military Flying Academy in Kassa. Debrődy entered frontline service on the Eastern Front in December 1942, serving with the 5/I Fighter Group’s 5/2. Fighter Squadron. Initially he flew fighter-bombing missions and didn’t meet Soviet fighters in combat. During the battle of Kursk however, Debrődy claimed 6 Soviet aircraft, earning him the status of an ace.
On the 25th of September 1943, he was himself shot down by a Soviet Yak-9, 15 kilometers behind enemy lines. Debrődy managed to make an emergency landing next to a Soviet anti-aircraft battery. After an adventurous escape, the next day he swam the River Dniepr and reached the German lines. This happened again on the 1st of February 1944 over the Korsun Pocket, when Debrődy had do make a second emergency landing behind enemy lines. His Messerschmitt had badly been damaged by a Soviet La-5 and the engine failed. Debrődy managed to belly land his plane. This time his close friend, 2nd Lt. Miklós Kenyeres, managed to shoot down Debrődy’s attacker and proceeded to land on an icy field nearby. As some Soviet soldiers advanced towards the two Hungarian aircraft, Debrődy climbed into his friend’s plane and the two took off.
As the American attacks against Hungary began, the Hungarian Military High Command ordered home parts of their air force units to the Home Front. Debrődy was relocated to the 101/3. “Puma” Squadron based in Veszprém. During the summer of 1944, he managed to shoot down 6 American planes, including three four engine bombers.
On the 16th of November 1944, he took off his last combat mission. as a squadron commander. The 101/3. Squadron attacked some Soviet La-5’s southeast of Jászberény. and Debrődy downed one Lavochkin. Later he made a frontal attack against a Soviet Yak-9, north of Nagykáta. His series hit the Soviet plane and the Yak exploded, but meanwhile some of the Yak’s bullet hit Debrődy’s Messerschmitt. Debrődy was seriously wounded as a 20 mm shell punched through his stomach near his spine. Despite the serious wound he managed to make an emergency landing. He was later awarded Hungary’s highest decoration, the Tiszti Arany Vitézségi Érem. He went through a long recovery from his wounds and was never able to fly in combat again. His total amount of aerial victories during the war was 26. Debrődy ended the war in a POW camp in Austria.
After the war, Szentgyörgyi, returned home but like some many surviving airmen, he continued to pursue a career in the air. He became a pilot for the Hungarian-Soviet airlines, Maszovlet, in 1946 until he four years later was arrested and spent several years in Communist prisons. This did not keep Szentgyörgyi from doing following his call and he returned to flying upon his release in 1956, logging 12,334 flight hours and covering more than 5 million kilometres in the air as a pilot for Malév airlines.
Having survived the war without a single accident or crash, Szentgyörgyis luck ran out and he died in a crash near Copenhagen while flying an Ilyushin Il-18 (HA-MOC) on the 28th of August 1971. He was due to retire in less than three weeks. The memory of Hungary’s top ace lives, not least through the MH 59th “Szentgyörgyi Dezső” Air Base of the Hungarian Air Force in Kecskemét (equipped with MiG-29 and JAS 39 Gripen fighters), which is named in his honour.
Unlike Szentgyörgi, Debrődy decided to leave Hungary after the Second World War. Being only 24 years of age in 1945, the young knight of the sky emigrated first to Spain and later to Canada before settling in the USA in 1968. Debrődy pursued a civilian career after the war as a technical designer but he was constantly reminded of the war, not least from the serious war wounds he received. In 1967 for example, he underwent surgery during which doctors removed a Soviet 12,7 mm bullet launched near his spine. On the 2nd of Febraury 1984, Debrődy passed away from lung cancer in Cortland, New York.
Today, the memory of the three fighter aces v. Szentgyörgyi, v. Molnár and v. Debrődy live on within the Order of Vitéz. We honour their bravery and sacrifice for their country. Their actions and achievements capture the true essence of the Order of Vitéz. They will never be forgotten.
Article written by Max Thimmig