24 November 2012

Danubian archipelago on fire - archive pictures of the bombing of Hungary, 1944

Busy death is seeking this era... Fortepan.hu, a famous collection of old photographs has just published several pictures, taken from american bombers over Hungary, late summer and autumn in 1944. Dichotomy hides in these pictures. On one hand the Danube is rolling along in bright sunshine. We almost see the bathers on the sandy banks, as they cover their eyes from the sun, watching the approaching bombers in the sky. On the other hand, young american soldiers look down on the countryside, patterns of cities, roads, fields and meadows, like an outstreched map, on which red crosses are indicating the facilities, industries, bridges, railroad junctions to be destroyed. They let loose their deadly load as easy as pushing a button. And when completed their mission, they fly back to Italy, happy to survive the fires of the anti-aircraft batteries. And on one plane, a frightened photographer documents how much they managed to complete from the day's work.

I only selected these pictures, that have something to do with the Danube. Our trip begins in the Hungarian west, and we will go along the Danube, first eastbound, then we turn south in the Danube Bend. 

In the first image the "Hungarian Vacuum Oil Facilities, under the management of the Royal Hungarian Treasury" can bee seen, after the 9th August air raid. This pre-war american company was disassembled by german troops and it's parts were taken to Germany. North from the factory we can study the island development stages on the unregulated Prépost Island. Forest shapes are showing the core of the old island. South from the factory, there is a dry, paleo-holocene Danube river arm.

In the city of Győr, the industrial zone near the downtown is on fire, while the channel side, which now belongs to the Audi assembling facilities is covered by small embryonic smoke-clouds, caused by the fallen bombs. On the top, there is the estuary of the Raba river, flowing into the Mosoni Danube, western river arm of the Szigetköz.

Smoke cloud emerges from the ruins of the Almásfüzitő oil refinery. Looking westward we see both banks of the Danube, belonging to Hungary, since 1938. There is the reunited city of Komárom in the back, with the dark Erzsébet Island. Somewhat downstream the embryonic Szőnyi Island has just emerged from the river. The famous Zsitvatorok (peace treaty of 1606, ending the 15 years war, was signed here) estuary is on the lower side of the picture. It is blackened by the wet forests and grasslands.

Looking down once more on the Almásfüzitő oil refinery. Smoke covers the Prépost Island. The Danube's paleo-holocene side arm embraces the ancient ruins of Brigetio. On the opposite side the stripes of the thin plowed lands of Pat village shows the pre-landscape of the cooperative communist agriculture. This day, 9th August 1944, the water level was 474 cm measured at Vác, and was slowly reducing. The white stripes of sand and pebbles can not bee seen on the banks, because of this relatively high water level. This dismantled factory was flooded by the icy Danube six months later.

On 5th September 1944 the 464th Bombardment Group's bombers are attacking the railway bridge overarching the Ipoly river at Szob. After all, the bridge was left unharmed by the air raid. The water level was reduced by almost 3 meters, so the sand and pebble banks reappeared, outlining the Danube with white stripes. In the background there is the mouth of the Garam (Hron) river, and three small islands, Helembai, Törpe, and the Dédai. In the middle of the river, there are two young sand banks, just emerged after the high water. An ancient Danube side arm hides beneath the agricultural lands of Pilismarót on the left.

Bombers were flying somewhere over the village of Sződ, next to the Danube bend. We are looking down on the burning suburbs of Budapest, possibly Ferencváros. The southern tip of the Szentendre Island appears on the right, while two bright water surface highlights the Csepel Island.

Another view of Budapest, this time from the northwest, Pesthidegkút. All of Budapest's bridges are intact, although 2 months later all were destroyed by German troops. The bomber's primary targets were industrial facilities, freight railway stations, junctions and other supply lines. This time the Óbuda Island was still agricultural land, next to it the Northern Railway Bridge crosses another Island, the Népsziget, which was once planned to hold the Budapest Olimpics. Behind the nearest bomber, we also see the Margaret Island.

Bombs are falling on the narrow strip of the Ráckeve-Danube. Factories and freight stations of Pestszenterzsébet are burning, their smoke covers the two Zsidó Islands.

Hungary's largest munition factory, the Manfred Weiss ironworks, situated in northern Csepel, just south of Budapest was in the hands of the SS in 1944. Bombs are falling on the free port north from the ironworks. White square marks the target on the photo. Some bombs has just missed the target, and fell on the other side of the Danube, destroying the Budafok-Albertfalva railroad.

This picture was taken a few bombs earlier than the previos one. The fields were not perforated by bomb craters and the smoke clouds are somewhat smaller. The blackish water of the free port is not colored by the danubian sediments. 

This picture was taken right over the replenished bay of Lágymányos, once a broad river bed of the Danube. The river swallows many bombs next to the Southern Railway bridge. The replenishing was still in progress that time, we can clearly see the lines of the gradual filling of construction waste, litter and soil. Bombs fell also on the northern Csepel Island fields, but the flood gate remained intact.

Lancasters fly over the giant smoke cloud emerged from the burning oil tanks of Csepel haven, and the industrial zones of Gubacs. Like a mighty volcano just risen over the city of Budapest.

An overview of Szigetszentmiklós, Taksony and Dunaharaszti. Since the Kvassay floodgate was built 20 years ago, the water almost disappeared from the Ráckeve side arm. The dark outline next to the narrow river marks the once flooded, wider pre-regulation river bed. The large Közönséges Island of Taksony is almost agglutinated with the left bank. Meanwhile the airplane assemby facilities of Szigetszentmiklós are completely destroyed by the american bombers.

It is hard to recongnize this part of the Danube, but fortunately the dark half moon of the Beliczay Island of Érd gives us a good reference as a landmark. The relatively dry lands of Transdanubia are much brighter than the wet island forests. A small part of the Háros Island can also be seen on the right edge of the picure, but its smaller kin, the Small Háros Island has not yet emerged from the Danube. This time the american bombers attack the Tököl military airport, situated on the Csepel Island.

Bombing of the Baja bridge is an odd-one-out image. It was not taken from the Fortepan.hu, like the others, but from here.

Újvidék (Нови Сад / Novi Sad) was part of Hungary between 1941 and 1944. We are looking down on the city from the south. The Danube has many abandoned river arms east from this city, embracing the Hadi Island (above the somoke on the river). The Kapitány Island and the Felber Island of Kács are also amalgamed with the northern banks, just like the blackis Kamanci Island.

The cloudy sight southwards from the bombers. We say goodbye to the Danube with the serbian landscape of the Szerémség (croatian: Srijem, serbian: Срем / Srem), and it's fortified city Pétervárad (Петроварадин / Petrovaradin) at the river bend. Újvidék is covered by white smoke. 

I only managed to identify one attacking bomber division: the Lancasters of the 464th Bombardment Group. These bombers were taken off at Pantanella Air Base in Italy, then they flew across Yugoslavia entering the Hungarian airspace. I did not wanted to analyze the air raid's military history, that would take too long.

In the end I have chosen Miklós Radnóti's poem, which he wrote one of these days, 1944. (

How Others See

How others see this region, I cannot understand:
to me, this little country is menaced motherland
with flames around, the world of my childhood swaying far,
and I am grown from this land as tender branches are
from trees. And may my body sink into this soil in the end.
When plants reach out towards me, I greet them as a friend
and know their names and flowers. I am at home here, knowing
the people on the road and why and where they are going-
and how I know the meaning when by a summer lane
the sunset paints the walls with a liquid flame of pain!
The pilot can’t help seeing a war map from the sky,
can’t tell below the home of Vörösmarty Mihály;
what can he identify there? grim barracks and factories,
but I see steeples,oxen, farms, grasshoppers and bees;
his lens spies out the vital production plants, the fields,
but I can see the worker, afraid below, who shields
his labour, a singing orchard, a vinyard and a wood,
among the graves a granny mourning her widowhood,
and what may seem a plant or rail line that must be wrecked
is just a signalhouse with the keeper standing erect
and waving his red flag, lots of children around the guard,
a shepherd dog might roll in the dust in a factory yard,
and there’s the park with the footprints of past loves
and the flavour
of childhood kisses- the honey, the cranberry I still savour;
and on my way to school, by the kerbside to postpone
a spot-test one certain morning, I stepped upon a stone:
look! there’s the stone whose magic the pilot cannot see,
no instrument would merge it in his topography.

True, guilty are we all here, our people as the rest,
we know our faults, we know how and when we have
but there are blameless lives here of toil and poetry and passion,
and infants also, with growing capacity for compassion-
they will protect its glow while in gloomy shelters till
once more our land is marked by the finger of peace:
then they will
respond to our muffled words with new voices fresh and bright.

Spread your great wings above us, protective cloud of night.

January 17, 1944


  1. Interesting article but you got the bombers wrong they are USAF B-24 Liberators and not RAF Lancasters!

  2. All of them are liberators? These pictures weren't taken on the same day.

  3. Most of them, yes, are B-24s. As it can best seen on the picture with a close shot, the plane just finishing a bombing run above the hospital in Szőny, where I was born one and a half decades later.But the aircraftz on the last picture is different: it is a B-17G Flying Fortress.