On popular request this time our article comes only in English, to try and fill a gap in general knowledge about the airborne forces of the Royal Hungarian Army between 1938 and 1945. Our goal is not to go into details regarding the struggles, battles, victories, and tragedies of this unique military organization, as it would take us several hundreds of pages, but to give an overall insight into the history of this outstanding unit, the young, all-volunteer soldiers, NCOs, and officers who fought amongst its ranks. Doing so we are using first hand accounts never published before in English, and works of well-known Hungarian scholars, veterans and researchers of the topic. By publishing this article we are hoping that the collectors and military history enthusiasts will get a better picture of this overlooked, nearly-forgotten, but effective fighting force of a small European country. By our member, David Kiss.
When I have started my research on sources in English, it struck me, that on the internet there are only a handful of articles dealing with the Hungarian airborne forces of WWII. The first one I have found has been written by Mr. Henrik Krog, titled “The Royal Hungarian Paratroopers” from around 2003. Then Mr. Michael M. van Lauesen gave us a very nicely assembled essay on the topic around 2006, but since time has passed, new findings were made, some new sources surfaced.
There are mentions and brief introductions to the Hungarian airborne forces in other works too, like in the 2012 work of Alexander Bagosy “To The Last Huszar – Hungarian General’s Handbook 1939 – 1945”, or in the Osprey book titled “The Royal Hungarian Army in World War II” by Nigel Thomas and Laszlo Szabo, but these were only brief mentions, sporadic informations, or one-page-long summaries of the history of this unit. To comparison: the first complete unit history of the Hungarian paratroopers of WWII published in 1993 is 298 pages long!
There were other mentions, like ones in militaria forums, asking for ID on pictures, collectibles related to the Hungarian paratroopers, and in some cases general information about the unit, to which mostly these two sources were cited mentioned above. Two things became clear after surfing these forums (to name a few: Feldgrau, WWPD, AxisHistory, and the facebook-group called Parachutist Wings) and reading these sources:
a) There is interest in the topic of the history of the Hungarian paratroopers, but there are no reliable and up-to-date English sources around. The collectors are mostly interested in details of the badges worn by the Hungarian paratroopers, and in some cases in special equipment and uniforms. The other highly demanded topic in this really specific field has been dealing with the history of the unit, the organizational structure, combat deployment, and general information of the ways of these soldiers.
b) Because there are no reliable and updated sources around in English, only decade-old essays, and sporadic mentions of the Hungarian paratroopers in other works, legends, misconceptions, and theories are strong around these circles of collectors and enthusiasts. Of course it helps those who would like to spread false information, or even sell their copy, or fantasy-based items as paratrooper relics. There are examples of deliberate lies, and also misunderstandings and misinterpretations due to the lack of information available.
With these two statements in mind I have started to select sources for this work, to try and write a more detailed, clearer, and better structured article on the history of the Hungarian paratroopers of WWII. My sources are all listed at the end of the article. I would like to thank my friend Nigel Wells for English proof-reading, Balázs Berkesi, badges collector and researcher for letting me use his outstanding article in Hungarian on the 1940M Parachutist Badge published before, Major Dr. Tamás Baczoni from the Museum and Institute of Military History for proof-reading the history of the jump badges, and Dr. Zsolt Reszegi, airborne researcher from the Archives of the Museum and Institute of Military History for overall factual checking of this article.
The structure of the article will follow the events before, during, and after WWII. in regards to the Hungarian paratroopers, sometimes told by their own words. Headings will make it easier to separate events and track time. Short biographies of influential commanders, notable paratroopers are incorporated in separate boxes. Short descriptions of paratrooper-related items and equipment are also present in separate boxes. I hope this article will help spread information, knowledge, and facts on the Hungarian paratroopers in WWII. not only to those who were already interested in this topic, but introducing these crack elite all-volunteer soldiers to the broader audience too.
To fly is a several-millennium-long dream of humanity. To ascend from the clouds to fight is a reality only for a century now, as the first Hungarian officer to jump out from a heated balloon was 1st Lieutenant Vitéz Ákos Boksay on the 23rd of March, 1918. His task was to demonstrate that a parachute could be used effectively to transport a soldier from the skies to the ground. His brave contribution to the airborne ideas though has been mostly forgotten (and to be honest a bit blurry too) as the First World War came to a bitter end for the Austro-Hungarian Empire in months, without any massive parachute-drops on any of the fronts, in spite there were American plans to equip a whole division with parachutes and use them as shock troops on the Western Front.
We could also not forget the sporadic use of parachutes to deploy spies, as the forerunners of the modern day Special Forces airborne capabilities.
Memorial plaque of Faustus Verantius, the Dalmatian-born Hungarian humanist who has invented a type of parachute system in the 17th Century
While history and period politics radicalized the whole of Europe, a new state-empire in the East was born. Soviet-Russia, or as it became known shortly the Soviet Union seek the “liberation of oppressed workers and peasants” (as they have called “conquest” back then) by offensive means, using the latest military novelties, such as parachutes in the process. The main brain-trust behind the use of parachutes has been Marshal Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky, who has developed his theory of “deep battle” and “deep operations”.
Soviet paratroopers on a parade before 1941.
This strategy has relied strongly on the fast moving armored troops, mobile infantry, cavalry, and in taking strategic points and areas like bridges, airports, passes, and the like. In 1928 the first Soviet airborne units have been established. Soon the idea of Tukhachevsky could have been tested during exercises in the early 1930s in front of the eyes of the closely watching military media, representatives of armies like France, Germany, and Italy. In 1935 near Kiev 1200 armed paratroopers have descended from the skies to capture and hold an airfield during an exercise. After the successful parachute drop, transport airplanes landed bringing in artillery and airmobile infantry much to the awe of the skeptic foreign military guests, and to the delight of the Soviet media. A new dimension opened up for warfare as nation after nation started its airborne efforts.
Birth of the Hungarian airborne forces - 1938
The Kingdom of Hungary has been a remnant of its former glory. As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it was a local power in Europe, and considered to be one of the last remaining great empires. Now divided, and torn by a lost world war, an instantly following civil war between the Communists and the “White” nationalist forces, and finally a peace treaty crippling the country, her “peaceful old days” were over. Revisionism became the main goal of Hungarian political and military efforts. The civilian population has been prepared to take back the lost territories, and was eager to do so in the name of “NO – NO – NEVER”, the full and complete denial of the Peace Treaties of Versailles, and Trianon after WWI.
In this atmosphere, after seeing the Soviet successes the leadership of the Royal Hungarian Army decided to establish a special force called the “Grenadiers” in 1936. The mission of this unit was to act as storm-troopers, shock-infantry, and also be ready to be deployed by parachute to act as spies, and saboteurs if necessary. The training after one course has been canceled due to financial problems and by dislike of the new “extra-special” unit by more traditional Hungarian generals.
The second revival of the special units deployed by parachutes came on the 3rd of May 1938, as a selected cadre of volunteers has gathered under the orders from the Chief of Staff Office Nr. VI. “Bureau for Theoretical Issues and Military Politics” (renamed soon Office Nr. 2. for “Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence”). These soldiers were part of the highly secretive clandestine Special Forces unit codenamed “Professional Course for Physical Training”. As it soon became clear to them, all 92 of the trainees were born and lived in areas now part of neighboring countries, once part of Hungary. They had contacts in these areas like family members, friends, and former colleagues, known well the areas in question, and could speak the language of these countries too fluently next to at least one more, like French, or English. Thei commander was staff Captain Valér Stefán, a former WWI. stormtrooper officer, with combat experiences of training and leading assault troops behind enemy lines.
They were instructed in operating radios, using foreign small arms, hand-to-hand combat, map reading, navigation, survival, and also demolition. In means of transportation they had to rely on their knowledge how to drive trucks, cars, rafts, ride bicycles, walk and run, and also they had to learn how to jump out of airplanes. Dr. Győző Csongor, one of the original members, of this unit summed up their mission briefly:
“Long story short: the candidates after the training had to be ready to deploy both on land, and in the air.”
This short-lived unit has been sucked up by the actions of the paramilitary organization called the “Rugged Guard” in the end of 1938 in the area of the Lower Carpathians against the forces of Czechoslovakia, waging a guerilla war in the disintegrating country. Their actions have contributed to the return of the said territory to Hungary after German forces have occupied other parts of the Czechoslovakia. One of the interesting parts of the “Professional Course for Physical Training” is the appearance of Vitéz Árpád Bertalan, then an army captain amongst the candidates training for parachute jumps. As Dr. Csongor recalls:
“This manful veteran has been famous for his innovations. This time he has equipped himself with several different weapons for self-defense, like a revolver, hand grenades, a carbine on his back, led by his firm believe, that a paratrooper by this way can defend himself in the air, and after landing, in ground combat!”
Soon Cpt. Bertalan has disappeared from the unit, and never taken part in the action against Czechoslovakia, as he had other tasks to handle: to raise the Hungarian parachute forces. Let us meet this extraordinary soldier!
Vitéz Árpád Bertalan
Lieutenant Colonel of the Airborne Forces (posthumously)
(20th of October 1898. – 12th of April 1941.)
Founder of the Hungarian airborne forces, career army officer.
He was born in Bratislava on the 20th of October 1898. He has completed his military schools in Budapest, then served in WWI. His first unit was the K. u. K. 3rd Bosnian Jäger-Battalion. His daring raids are elevating him in rank quickly, as on his 19th birthday he is a young Lieutenant. His most daring and influential action has occurred on the 24th of October, 1917 on the Italian front, when as part of the operations later known as “Breakout in Caporetto” has started. Bertalan, and his storm-patrol unit of 15 soldiers have captured several hundreds of Italian soldiers, including a staff of an artillery unit, with its guns intact. For his actions on this day he has been awarded the Knight's Cross of the Military Order of Maria Theresia, the highest military award of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy at the time.
After the war he has remained in service, serving in an infantry regiment at Győr, then after being promoted to captain, serving as commander of a combat engineer company. From 1922 he has been a member of the Order of Vitéz. In 1938 he has commandeered the first experimental parachutist unit of Hungary. His volunteer soldiers known him as a fair but rigorous leader, who has been their “father figure” in many ways. Bertalan has been always ready for a conversation or a fistfight with his soldiers. He has treated his soldiers much like his sons, have jumped with them as much as he could, and let them call him by his family name off-duty.
This extraordinary commander has died on the 12th of April 1941 due to a plane crash taking off to the first airborne combat jump of the Hungarian airborne forces. His soldiers mourned his loss so hard, that soon his unit took the name of its first commander, and the city of Pápa, Hungary where the unit has been stationed named the road to the airport after him too.
This strong bond is still present in the Hungarian army, as after 70+ years his name is taken up by the HDF 2nd Vitéz Bertalan Árpád Special Purpose Brigade.
The birth of the Hungarian airborne forces is linked to an airfield at Szombathely, Hungary, used by eleven years old Caproni Ca. 101 bomber airplanes of the Air Force, and inhabited by jolly airmen of the unit. On the 25th of August 1938 a cadre of seven volunteer officers has arrived to this airfield, to test the new theory of parachutists landing behind enemy lines and raising hell. They had no former training. Their instructor was an experienced pilot, who once had to use his parachute during an emergency. They had to pass an exhausting medical check for fitness, similar to the one required for pilots. They were all adventurous sportsmen. One of them was the young Lieutenant Tamás Szokolay:
“We went to Szombathely, and just sit there for around a month. There was no problem, as we have been paid extra for our deployment there, the army paid for our hotels, we have lived like some fortunate sons. We were given double salary too. Every morning we drove to the airfield, but never got permission to jump. One time they have told us that the grass is too wet, the other time that winds are too strong, and we were sent back. For around one month we have endured this. We had money to burn, went to the spa with the girls, partied with Gipsy music, then after a while we have got bored by this. This is not a career. We have volunteered to become paratroopers, not to be playboys! Every morning we have freshly shaved our faces, as we thought that by lunchtime we had to report for duty in front of our Almighty God, and we could not show up unshaven there.”
The upset officers forced the airmen to take off, and the first parachute jump has been conducted on the 2nd of September 1938. Captain Bertalan has been away and only jumped a week later, as he had to struggle with administrative issues of the newly activated “Parachutist Experimental Unit” (PEU). The first jumps have brought to light some acute problems.
Members of the Parachutist Experimental Unit in front of a Caproni Ca. 101 bomber/transport airplane. Captain Bertalan is in the middle. Note the different parachutes worn.
First of all there were problems with the airplanes. The decade-old Caproni Ca-101 airplanes were three-engine, Italian built outdated bombers, able to lift 6-7 paratroopers at once. Rapidly the young paratroopers have re-named them for “flying coffins”. The second problem came from the lack of parachutes, as the jumpers had to use Italian made Salvator, British Irving, and German Heinecke – Schröder parachutes mixed together for their tests as it is seen on their group picture above. The third problem came from the lack of jump equipment, designed specially for paratroopers. During the jumps the paratroopers have used summer pilot coveralls with officers’ boots, which were not supporting the ankles at all. The only head-protection they had were thin canvas or sheepskin flight “Haube” caps, protecting against winds, and branches maybe.
In these circumstances, to which added the lack of training, the first parachute jump of the Hungarian airborne forces, conducted by 4 paratroopers have concluded in 50% injury-caused casualties, as two of the jumpers have broken their legs upon landing. Both of them left the unit without a word.
Paratrooper exiting the Caproni Ca. 101.
Bertalan returned with good news, as he has started selecting senior enlisted soldiers for the unit. His first jump has occurred on the 9th of September, 1938, at the age of 39, while his officers were in their twenties. His first experiences with parachute jumps led him to suggest two things immediately: first of all every jumping member of his unit is a volunteer, and free to leave whenever he wants without further explanations, as a paratrooper have to make the jump out of his free will, could not be forced to do so. Secondly it is mandatory for every member of the unit to wear ankle support in form of bandages to avoid leg injuries.
With the 20 selected enlisted soldiers, and the five remaining officers the unit was at full strength. They have started experimenting with not only parachute jumping formations, but also with ground combat after the jump itself. The main nature of these exercises have been heavily supported by the frontline experiences of Captain Bertalan, thus the paratroopers have been trained in stormtrooper tactics. They have used hand-to-hand tactics in close combat, and a rain of hand grenades while charging the (assumed) enemy positions. They have also retained the iconic trench knife of WWI. the 1917M fighting knife as their utility knife.
The first memorable jump has been conducted by Lance Corporal Károly Csordás, who upon exiting the plane tried to light a cigarette, unaware of the condition of his malfunctioning main parachute. When he has realized his situation, he has opened his reserve parachute, which has saved his life. His comrades ran to him, only to discover that he is sitting in the middle of his canopies, still trying to light his cigarette angrily. For this show of courage Bertalan personally awarded his soldier a sum of money equal to ten days salary of a farm worker.
The end of the year has been marked by the tensions between Hungary and Yugoslavia, as mentioned above, and blocked the paratroopers from jumping, as their workhorses, the Caproni bombers were ordered to field airbases in preparation of an all-out war. In this break of training the paratroopers have worked on their ground combat abilities.
Most of the soldiers have got a drivers license for driving cars and trucks, and a detachment learned how to drive locomotive engines. The instructors have also taught the paratroopers how to disable easily these machines in case of sabotage. The unit has got permission to demolish a smaller decommissioned railway bridge, and to set an other, bigger bridge for demolition, this time only with dummy charges. Of course these costly exercises were supported half-heartedly by the army, as for some high ranking officers the whole experience with paratroopers have seemed to be only an over-expensive fantasy without any actual combat jumps to support the idea. Captain Bertalan had to defend his idea of a parachute unit time to time, as his soldiers were using up more and more ammunition, equipment, and parachutes.
New unit, new parachute – birth of the 39M H. Gy. parachute system
Problems with the existing parachutes mounted, as the paratroopers jumped round after round. In the beginning there were only 15 of these parachutes of mixed origin around, and as the unit grew to 25 soldiers, it was simply not enough. Soon two of the parachutes have been destroyed, and the remaining 13 were in bad shape too, with patches and repairs all over the canopies. The situation had to be solved, and to buy new parachutes from abroad was off-limits. Prices were high, maintenance had to be done in the factories abroad to guarantee quality work, and in some cases the manufacturers were unwilling to sell at all.
This was the case with Germany, whose airborne forces were under construction since the successful Soviet exercises. The Hungarian military diplomacy tried several times to contact the German partners in terms of joint airborne training, but the Reich kept its elite airmobile forces a military secret in every aspects. Italy had similar conditions, except they were willing to sell some outdated military hardware to Hungary, but no training at all. Thus the Hungarian paratroopers had to figure out how to train themselves, and soon had to find out what to use to jump out of planes safely.
The solution came from an Air Force Captain by the name of Ákos Hehs. Captain Hehs has been interested by the aerodynamics of parachutes since the early 1930s, and worked on upgrading the existing designs. His experiments led to the birth of the pilot chute, a smaller canopy over the main parachute canopy, helping its safe opening, and smooth landing. He has called his invention the “fékernyős rendszer”, or the “brake-chute-system”. His prototype parachutes were tested first on wooden dolls, after then by Captain Bertalan himself, who has immediately visited Captain Hehs after the news of a Hungarian built parachute reached him.
The Hehs-system has consisted of two parachutes, one on the back of the jumper, while another reserve parachute on the chest for emergencies. The main parachute was designed for static line jumps, when the troopers hooked up a line (a rope) inside the airplane before jumping out, pulling out the canopy from its bag by using their bodyweight, and it was also capable for manual opening, when the jumper had to pull a handle on the harness, releasing the main canopy. The reserve parachute has been hand-releasable only.
Major of the Air Forces
(30th of January 1904 – 25th of September 1994.)
Engineer of the first Hungarian military parachutes. Born on the 30th of January 1904. in Arad, Kingdom of Hungary he has completed his academic studies at the Royal Hungarian Ludovika Military Academy, and at the Budapest University of Technology with degrees as an engineer an aeronautics engineer. He has served as a military flight engineer starting at the 1st of October 1929. He has served at the Airplane Repair Factory at Székesfehérvár, Hungary. In 1944 he was in the rank of Major in the same position. After the war he has moved to the USA, where he has lived until his death in Birmingham, Alabama on the 25th of September 1994.
Ákos Hehs was an influential engineer in the fields of aeronautical engineering, and also parachute engineering. His most famous project was the creation of the independent Hungarian combat parachute system, adopted in 1939 by the military. His dual parachute system consisted of a main parachute, and a reserve chute, and could be opened by static line, or by the jumper using the release on the harness, making this parachute useful during mass combat jumps, and free-fall insertions too, and pre-dated the other parachute designs of its age, like the German, British, or American parachutes. After the war Mr. Hehs lived and worked in the USA, helping the space-race by constructing parachutes for the space modules returning to the Earth.
The new parachute has been tested immediately before an army and air force committee to decide whether it will be mass-produced, or left behind. The paratrooper officers of the demonstration have used different available parachutes to show the different mechanics and physics of the systems in use. Both of the parachutes were factory new re-packed, and issued to the jumpers just prior the experiment. The most successful one was the new Hungarian design, after a near-fatal accident with an exploding Italian parachute canopy. The demonstration persuaded the committee to start mass production of the Hungarian parachutes under the name of 1939M “Hehs” Kettős Gyakorló Ejtőernyő or “1939M Hehs Double Practice Parachute”, to conceal the real nature of the system as an offensive combat parachute. The new parachutes soon were available in the needed quantity, with the necessary industrial background for repairs and updates on the system.
Hungarian paratroopers with the new parachute system before jump. Note the Italian made protective helmets.
Golden age of the Hungarian paratroopers - From 1939 to 1941
The parachutist unit has proven its worth. They were aggressive, fast, and flexible during a series of exercises, not to mention the international situation on the field of airborne forces, which gave the Hungarian paratroopers a push too. The German Fallschirmjäger and their expressive demonstrations were in the focus of interest in the Hungarian military journals on the eve of the new world war. In the September 1939 issue of the NCO Journal Sgt. Mihály Vadas introduces the German airborne forces, and states that he is in a difficult situation going into details, as the only information about these units are pictures from popular magazines with no further information. This short article demonstrates the difficulties of obtaining any formal information from the secretive German partners of the Hungarian military.
At the same time the September 1939 issue of the Hungarian Military Review published two articles of paratrooper officers of the new unit.
One of them was Lieutenant Ferenc Makray, member of the original PEU, who have introduced an interesting method of deployment in his article titled “Paratroopers – a Hungarian point of view” through detailed report on a fictional mission:
„The mission is to neutralize a highly important command post. As all of the higher commands are defended by strong anti-aircraft systems, it is impossible to deploy from low altitude. The combat patrol has to jump from high altitude (6 000 meters), as by this way the airplane could not be seen or heard by the enemy. The jumpers open their chutes 2 – 300 meters above the ground (…)”
This method, called “zuhanóugrás” or “free fall jump” by the paratroopers described above is known today as the HALO (High Altitude – Low Opening) parachute jump, conducted by US Special Forces since the 1960’s. Though there are no solid evidences of these techniques used by the Hungarian paratroopers in action, it is a fact, that for a paratrooper to finish his training it was mandatory to take part at least in one free fall jump, and also there were experiments on insertion of special units via parachute as early, as 1938 in Hungary, as mentioned above.
These experimental airborne special units were called “ejtőernyős vadászok” or “parachutist hunter units”. Lt. Makray introduces this unit as an integrated part of a paratrooper company, used “only when they have got a mission especially fit for them”. Members of this unit had to be fit for the physical challenges of the free fall jump. He also states that these ideas are mostly theoretical, based on the existing knowledge around Hungarian airborne circles – meaning roughly a company of volunteers.
Lt. Makray would also like to dismiss the accusations and fears of non-airborne officers in his article, writing on the mental setting of an ideal paratrooper, cited below:
„I would like to write about those, whose conviction, bravery, confidence, and frames of life make them fit for this career (…) the qualities, which have to be found in every single soldier to a certain extent, are present in them to a greater extent. In their case there is no presence of fear to the level that would block their will to take actions. Based on this I would state that this type (of soldier) is the good paratrooper. There are many seeing this as recklessness. To address their fault I can only say that: between bravery and blind fearlessness the only difference is the lack of blindness, which could not occur in our case.”
His statements were supported by the article of Lt. Szokolay, mentioned before, titled “Parachute jumping – the most militaristic sport of the future”, and had one simple goal: to introduce this method as a useful tool in military training. As he writes, in his article:
“I would like to prove that parachute jumping is not a way of neck-breaking acrobatics, nor the paratroopers are suicidal maniacs, as I can hear it frequently seen still to this day.”
These two articles are the proof that the newly formed airborne forces of Hungary had to face open distrust, intolerance, and some times envy during their pioneer work. Nonetheless, due to their hard work on every field, on the 1st of October 1939 the PEU officially became the Royal Hungarian 1st Honvéd Parachute Company, and dislocated to Pápa, Hungary, to the former Hussar Garrison, inheriting a nearby airfield. Their era of dependence came to an end under the command of the Royal Hungarian Air Force, but being fitted with equipment by the Army, reflecting on the dual role of the new unit.
In this year, after they have got their brand new domestic-made parachutes, the paratroopers could leave behind their used, faded and destroyed flight suits too, as the company got new jumpsuits, designed for them.
The 1939M one-piece jumpsuit
The uniform has been introduced in 1939 in mind with the special needs of the paratroopers. It has been intended to be worn above the regular wool uniform, but pictorial evidence supports that it has been used with the lighter twill training uniforms instead. Design of the jumpsuit followed the cut of the summer flight uniform, a one-piece coverall, made in “light green” color by its specifications. In fact its color could have been closer to the US OD 3 shade. Studying original pictures it is clear that there is a great variation in shades and tones from suit to suit, depending on the age and wear of the jumpsuits.
The suit had a folded collar, and used zip-closures extensively. The leg parts of the jumpsuit both had zipper openings making it easier to pull it over wearing boots. Two deep thigh pockets were introduced too for storing grenades, first aid equipment, and other small pieces of equipment. The jumpsuit had an other pocket on the right breast section, for smaller personal items (e.g. cigarette case, or flask, or paybook, etc.) or maps. At the ankles, and wrists the jumpsuit had tightening closed by buttons, or buckles to avoid the suit to catch into parts of the airplane during jumps, or to get stuck on tree branches, and the like during landing, and fit better for ground combat.
It is visible that paratroopers also utilized leather gloves for protection of their hands.
The jumpsuit was fit for parachute jumps, but deemed unpractical during ground use due to its limited cargo capacity, its lack of camo painting, and its overall cut. To be fair at this time other great airborne forces, like the Soviets, the Americans, or even the Germans were using similar designs, modeled after their flight suits.
It is important to note that in spite of the impractical nature of this suit the paratroopers liked it so much, that they have used it not only for jump training, but worn it during honor guard duties, while taking part in parades, as this distinct uniform marked their elite status.
The headwear for the uniform consisted of a modified canvas flight cover, without parts for installing radio headphones. Its primary goal was too protect the ears and head of the wearer during jumps against winds, and during landing against branches, and thorns. The headwear had a leather support loop for securing the band of the flight goggles worn sometimes by paratroopers. The system has been secured by an elastic chinstrap under the chin of the paratrooper crossed to the left side, then back to the right, where it could be secured by a D-ring and a hook. By photographic evidences it is clear that prior boarding airplanes, and in ground combat the paratroopers forded the sides of these “haubes” up and secured on top of their heads for better hearing and view, as the headgear could block both when worn all the way down as intended.
With the outbreak of the Second World War the theory of parachute drop as part of a fast and devastating offensive became a reality. The Parachute Company with 200 soldiers has been on the way of rapid evolution.
The new garrison at Pápa had more than enough space to accommodate the paratroopers. The former Hussar Garrison has been emptied by its former residents, but the paratroopers started to work on assembling beds, tables, filling mattresses, working together to build up their new base. They have also constructed the first parachute training devices, like the so-called “gallows”, the 10 meter (by other sources and contemporary pictures it could have been 14 meters!) high device has been constructed to be able to pull up one trooper secured by ropes around his waist then being dropped to the ground to simulate hitting the ground. The device has been used manually, as the other recruits pulled their comrade up by hand.
Paratrooper pulled up on one of the gallows
There were also 4-5 meters high jump benches, also used to simulate hitting the ground from a lower level, and of course an obstacle course for ground combat training with barbed wire to crawl under, plank wall to jump over, and other man-built or natural obstacles to test the candidates in ground combat skills.
In terms of live fire exercises the nearby combat firing range offered a unique opportunity. The range had a rugged terrain, ideal for simulated combat shooting drills dictated not by the regulations, but by actual combat experiences of Captain Bertalan, soon to be promoted to Major. The paratroopers had an opportunity to use a bit more ammunition, and some more hand grenades during their exercises than other regular units due to their elite status, and they have used it wisely. It was common practice to order half of the paratroopers to scatter between the targets on the field, as the other half fired on then, to make them familiar with small arms fire. It was also mandatory for the paratroopers to run through the smoke of their detonated grenades, to use the immediate shock after the explosion, and also get used to the feeling, smell, and nature of explosions up close.
Paratrooper on live fire exercise with his trusty 31M Mannlicher Stutzen slung around his neck
Weaponry of the paratroopers has been identical to the ones used by other army units. They had straight pull Mannlicher 31M stutzen carbines ideal for parachute jumps due to their short design, and 37M Frommer service pistols for every single member of the company as a self-defense device during jumps. The 36M Solothurn light machine guns and 36M Solothurn heavy rifles for anti-tank roles, were both packed in drop canisters, and dropped separately. The only special weapon the paratroopers had access to has been their first machine gun, the German built MP35 “Bergmann”.
The MP35 Bergmann machine pistol
At the end of World War I. the German Army has introduced a new weapon designed for trench warfare. It has combined the firepower of the machine guns, with the portability of the rifles and carbines of the era, thus the new weapon, the machine pistol has been born, designated as MP18, designed by Hugo Schmeisser, and Theodor Bergmann, and manufactured in the BergmannWaffenfabrik, in Germany. Its design made it ideal for trench warfare. The short barrel made it easy to use in short distances, and to maneuver in the trenches where longer rifles could get stuck. Its side-mounted, detachable magazine let its user to go prone, or even lay down easily during a charge across an open field. The wooden stock was ideal for hand-to-hand combat, while its firing mechanism utilized a bullet-storm of around 500 rounds per minute.
The late descendant of this popular and successful design has been the MP35 Bergmann submachine gun, designed by the son of Theodor Bergmann. The most unique detail of this weapon is the cocking handle, similar to the one utilized on rifles and carbines of the era, making it easier to use for soldiers primarily trained for rifles, like the Hungarian paratroopers. Its 24 or 32 round detachable box magazine has been inserted from the right side, making it also an unusual design choice in the era.
The first Bergmann MP35 submachine guns were purchased by Hungary in 1940, and these were instantly loved by the Hungarian paratroopers as an ideal assault weapon small enough to jump with. Unfortunately the first 50 pieces had to be divided between the Chief of Staff Office Nr. 2. for “Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence” and the paratrooper unit, as both special units needed a modern fully automatic weapon for special missions. A larger shipment of 380 pieces arrived in the summer of 1941, giving enough firepower for the paratroopers to overwhelm a numerically superior enemy if needed. The paratroopers have also modified their MP35s by adding an extra sling loop to make it easier to carry around their neck during jumps.
The Bergmann MP35 has been also used by police units, seen combat use on the Eastern Front in the hands of a war correspondent and propaganda company, and has been the main weapon of the University Volunteer Storm-Battalion Nr. I. and II. of the encircled Budapest in 1944 – 1945.
The year 1940 has seen the Paratrooper Company as the year of challenges and rapid evolution. The young Hungarian paratroopers have witnessed the victories of their German counterparts in the Netherlands, and Belgium, which has silenced the last stubborn criticisms towards the airborne concept in the army, and helped the Parachute Company to get extended to become a Parachute Battalion with three parachute companies.
Paratroopers of these days have became instant heroes in the eyes of the civilians, making front pages of the magazines, featured in newsreels, and the young Hungarian boys started to idolize them. As one of them, a future paratrooper himself remembered:
“In these times, flying and parachuting has not been amongst everyday things. In the modern world maybe the astronauts have got the attention of the people similar to the one towards the paratroopers of those days. (…) Back in our day this unit has moved the fantasy of the youth, as it seemed to be an extra thing. Maybe because it was a very dangerous and adventurous way of life, maybe because only a few selected people could have been part of it. The daily war reports have stressed the successes of these specially trained units in every single action they were involved in. (…) These heroic victories we have read about day by day had an elementary impact on the youngsters, who have dreamt about joining some day one of these privileged military units.”
One of the greatest sensations of this year was the return of Northern Transylvania to the Kingdom of Hungary on the 30th of August 1940, granted by the Second Vienna Award. The Award has been overseen by the Fascist Italy, and the Nazi Germany, and aimed to resolve the growing tensions between the Kingdoms of Hungary and Romania, by granting a territorial gain to the former.
This peaceful way of gaining territories has marked the height of the rule of Regent Horthy, the leader of Hungary, and has been praised highly by his fellow countrymen, and by the inhabitants of the newly returned parts alike. Fitting the size of the event and the customs of the era a grandiose military parade has been organized to commemorate the historical award. The young paratrooper force of Hungary has been picked to take part in the parades from the 1st of September, to the 20th of September with a company-sized unit.
Hungarian paratrooper parade during the return of Northern Transylvania
Though the paratroopers have suffered a lot because of their uncomfortable jumpsuits, worn over their wool service uniforms, they have marched proudly under the Italian and German flags, amidst the cheering, crying and laughing sounds of joy of their newly returned brothers and sisters. Of course this peaceful and happy reunion has been overshadowed by the future German demands, based upon the help provided by the Reich, but at the time the young paratroopers had not a single reason to feel uncomfortable. Those who have taken part in the parades have been also awarded the Commemorative Medal for the Liberation of North Transylvania.
The year 1940 has not only marked great victories for the Hungarian paratroopers, but also some tragic accidents, as the parachutist training have been continued. In the year 1940, this dangerous service has claimed the lives of four young paratroopers in six months. Amongst the dead there were novice jumpers, and seasoned, founding members of the unit alike, showing the survivors the true nature of the airborne service. It has to be noted, that Major Bertalan has been there during all of the tragedies, to conduct an investigation, and comfort his soldiers. If he has decided that the accident has been not occurred because of a faulty parachute, he would simply put on the parachute of the dead soldier, and jumped with it, to calm his men. The personal bravery of this officer has helped lots of his paratroopers to overcome their superstitious fear and jump after witnessing a tragedy.
Hungarian paratrooper killed during training jump. His pilot chute is clearly visible entangled on his left leg.
The danger of the paratrooper service has been compensated not only by a monthly extra pay of 25 Pengő, (which is roughly ten-day-worth of salary of a day laborer of the era), after completing the fourth parachute jump, but by the introduction of a new badge too.
The 1940M Parachutist Badge
The introduction of a distinctive badge for the paratroopers has emerged in 1938 amongst the members of the Parachutist Experimental Unit, then by becoming a company-sized unit, in official documents too. The first request for the introduction of a parachutist badge, dated May, 1939 clarifies why it is necessary to award the service of these volunteers:
“The para. service demands fearless, completely reliable Hungarian warriors, who can bring to the fore their sense of duty, and intend to fight a merciless fight, behind enemy lines to their last breath without a hope of return. These individuals have to be treated in a distinguished manner. (…) ”
The parachutist badges were finally introduced in 1940, featuring a parachute canopy behind a winged skull. The controversial skull design has been originated from the assault troops of the First World War, where Major Bertalan has served as one of the most highly decorated officers of these units. The skull symbolized the deadly and dangerous nature of the service, while the wings and the parachute canopy were symbols of the air mobility of these soldiers. The parachutist badges were unanimously embraced by the soldiers, and were worn with pride above their right breast pocket or on the sleeve of their longcoat.
Embroidered variants in silver, for NCOs, and in gold for officers were also introduced, and worn by higher ranking members of the paratrooper units.
Another variant has been the newly introduced Master Parachutist Badge, awarded after 25 parachute jumps to the members of the unit. It had a similar design, put in a wreath, and worn in the middle of the right breast pocket.
The new badges, and the new, fully accepted status of the paratroopers made them local, and national celebrities. They have started to socialize in the small rural city of Pápa, and take part in the everyday life of the community, by attending church together, playing football with the local club, and during disasters, like floods, or house fire, they were there to help. Naturally these close relations with the young and athletic paratroopers ended in numerous weddings in the town, bonding the young soldiers and the locals more and more.
Paratrooper, with his jump badge visible on the sleeve of his coat, posing for a picture while a local girl awaits him impatiently.
Of course these times were not about peace, but war. The German “Blitzkrieg”, conquering Poland, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands has now turned to the Balkans. The year was 1941, and the Hungarian paratroopers were ready for action.