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Somogy County Village Salutes Fallen Allied Foes, 79 Years On

Analysis

The flight memorial at Mezőcsokonya.

Photo by Kester Eddy

Rather than Budapest’s Fisherman’s Bastion or Heroes’ Square, the focal point of Cyrus Maclean Barnard’s first trip to Hungary was a visit to a village far from any tourist trail to the south of Lake Balaton.

Quiet, peaceful Mezőcsokonya, located on a country road 190 km southwest of Budapest, rarely sees foreigners. This is partly why, perhaps, a crowd of 50 local inhabitants joined a slightly bigger gathering of international and domestic visitors on May 25 to commemorate a largely forgotten event from the dark days of World War II.

In the early hours of July 4, 1944, a Royal Air Force Halifax bomber, ablaze from enemy cannon fire, attempted to land on the outskirts of the village. Fighting in the black of night to control his stricken aircraft, Squadron Leader Surry Bird clipped a row of trees before it slid into a field, overturned, and burst into flames. Bird and his crew of seven (five Britons, a Canadian, and a French air gunner) all died instantly.

By early morning, the Hungarian authorities were at the scene, preventing looting, while local people buried the crew’s remains in a common grave in a nearby churchyard. Within days, the site was largely cleared, and life in Mezőcsokonya returned to its normal agricultural routine.

After hostilities ceased, the British Missing Research and Enquiry Service, established to locate and identify missing airmen, came to the village as part of their normal duties. Finding the grave, they reburied the crew’s remains at the Solymár Military Cemetery on the outskirts of Budapest, giving some gratuities to the villagers who had tended the burial place. Once again, the story seemed closed.

Except for the relatives of the deceased, who, try as they might, could discover next to nothing about the circumstances of the lost bomber and its mission beyond the fact that their loved ones, having not returned to their base in southern Italy, had perished in flight over rural Hungary.

What they were not told was that the four-engined Halifax was not on a bombing raid but on a clandestine mission to parachute in four special agents tasked with setting up a resistance network in the German-controlled country.

Having delivered the agents into the night sky near Herend (130 km southwest of Budapest), the Halifax was 10 minutes into its home run when set upon by a prowling Luftwaffe night fighter, which sealed its fate.

Secret Mission

Apart from the general fog of war and difficulties in identifying the charred bodies among the tens of thousands of missing airmen, it was the secrecy of the mission which lay behind the protracted silence.

And so it remained for more than four decades, until 1997, when Gábor Nagy, a technician who had taken up investigating aviation history as a hobby, paid a visit to Mezőcsokonya in the hope, however faint, of finding someone who remembered the incident, now 53 years in the past.

Nagy struck gold. He discovered several witnesses who remembered that fateful night and the ensuing operation to clear the site. His interest piqued, Nagy, together with friend Tamás Derner, set about researching exactly why a lone Halifax was roaming the skies of Hungary that night in the summer of 1944.

Some years later, Frenchman Hubert Warsmann, a long-time Budapest resident, noticed the grave of Flight Sergeant Marcel Tilmont in the Solymár Military Cemetery. With an interest in military history, he was fascinated as to how his fellow countryman had got himself serving in Britain’s RAF, aged just 24. Before long, captivated by the mysterious French aviator’s untold story, Warsmann too began scouring the military records in his own quest to ascertain what led to Tilmont paying the ultimate sacrifice.

Almost inevitably, the three researchers crossed paths. And as they shared their respective discoveries, including their various contacts with living relatives of the deceased airmen, Warsmann suggested a memorial should be erected in their memory.

“Considering that it had taken us 10 years to put the pieces together, we had to try to organize a memorial somewhere; otherwise, it would not be long until only the Hungarian sky, and that oak tree on the fatal bank [on the crash site] would remember them,” he told the Budapest Business Journal.

And so it was that almost 79 years after Halifax JP286’s final flight, endless hours of research, and thousands of phone calls, letters and emails lobbying and cajoling, a stone memorial was erected in the village. To celebrate this, another round of emails and phone calls were made to ensure everyone concerned should know of the unveiling. The result was a crowd of perhaps 75 guests joining with the 50 locals next to a kindergarten in the leafy center of Mezőcsokonya, at the appropriately named (if far less grand than its Budapest counterpart) Heroes’ Square.

Guard of Honor

With a detachment of the Hungarian army acting as a guard of honor, and several military representatives in attendance, Gábor Nagy told the gathering that “a unique story” had emerged that “has a special place in both the history of the Second World War and Hungary.”

He told of his three-year search with Tamás Derner to re-discover the crash site, now covered with trees and bushes, and how subsequent sweeps with metal detectors had uncovered “wreckage, parts that spoke of the last moments of the plane.”

Early interviews with witnesses to the events meant the story unfolded before him “like a motion picture,” he recounted.

Katalin Sudár, the widow of the former mayor of Mezőcsokonya, whose husband Zoltán had been an ardent supporter of commemorating the fallen airmen, said the memorial should “represent their memory [so that] our children here will grow up to understand why it is here.”

Noting that Marcel Tilmont is the only French serviceman who died in Hungary during WWII, Claire Legras, Ambassador of France to Hungary, said: “Destiny is sometimes cruel: that night, he was not initially set to board the plane, but he was [later] designated as a replacement, and was to help with the delivery of supplies [by parachute] from the plane.”

But perhaps the star speaker, if only in a very modest way, was the great-grandson of Squadron Leader Bird, Cyrus Maclean Barnard, aged 13, who the family elected to speak on their behalf. Referring to the aviators of RAF 148 Squadron on Halifax JP286, he said:

“Their lives were not lost in vain but rather to safeguard the peace we cherish and the privileges we enjoy. The sacrifice they gave changed the world, and that we can stand here quietly and in peace is testament to this.”

Penelope Bird, the pilot’s daughter, said of the ceremony, “I think it’s one of the most moving events I’ve been to. You know, I didn’t know my father. I was only three when he was killed.”

Addendum: The story related here has been compiled from speaking to and reading the writings of Gábor Nagy, Tamás Derner and Hubert Warsmann. Sadly, the four special agents dropped near Herend were captured within 48 hours. The good news is that they were imprisoned by the Luftwaffe (which generally treated Allied airmen decently) and not the SS. Ultimately, however, while two survived the war, the remaining two were killed in “friendly fire” by USAAF bombers during the “Battle of the Bulge” in January 1945.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of June 2, 2023.

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