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Baptism of Fire: The First Combat Experiences of the Royal Hungarian Air Force and Slovak Air Force

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Baptism of Fire: The First Combat Experiences of the Royal Hungarian Air Force and Slovak Air Force, March 1939 by Csaba B. Stenge. Helion & Company, 2014, 128 pp.

During 23–24 March 1939, Hungary and Slovakia fought a very short conflict over Sub-Carpathia, a small section of eastern Slovakia that had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary before 1918 but awarded to Czechoslovakia, established by the post–World War I peace settlement. In early October 1938, Hitler annexed the German-inhabited Sudetenland and then annexed the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia on 14 March 1939 and established an “independent” Slovakia. The Hungarian government now sought to annex Sub-Carpathia from a weak Slovakia. The “air campaign” of this short conflict pitted the Royal Hungarian Air Force, which had existed only since 1920, and the newly formed Slovak Air Force, which had existed for only about two weeks. Baptism of Fire provides the history of this very short and little-known air campaign—one that is obscure even in the nations that fought it, virtually unknown outside these two Central European countries in the turbulent interwar period, and completely lost among the greater air campaigns of the much larger European war, which began on 1 September 1939.

Author Csaba B. Stenge is a Hungarian architect and military historian. Born in Pécs, Hungary, in 1975, he received his master’s degree and doctorate in history from the University of Pécs, writing his doctoral dissertation on the Royal Hungarian Air Force during World War II. He has worked in the archives at Tatabánya, Hungary, since 2003 and became its director in 2011. His research interests are in air warfare during World War II, particularly the history of the Hungarian Air Force. Baptism of Fire is Dr. Stenge’s seventh book (his second in English), and he has published 70 articles in four languages.

Despite the relative obscurity of this air campaign, the book does have several merits. First, the governments of the belligerent countries believed that the conflict was important to them. Hungary sought to recover a historic region of the pre-1918 kingdom, arbitrarily taken from it in the postwar peace settlement and, at the same time, to establish a common border with its historic ally Poland. Slovakia, on the other hand, saw the annexation as a sufficient affront to its sovereignty to justify fighting for it. After a two-day conflict, the Hungarian military forces prevailed, and Hungary annexed the area. However, the annexation was short lived because in August 1944, the Soviet Army occupied Hungary, and, after the war, Stalin forced the restored Czechoslovakia to cede this territory to the Soviet Union. It is now a part of Ukraine.

Second, the book documents the two-day air campaign between these two relatively new air forces. The Royal Hungarian Air Force, formed in 1920, consisted originally of Hungarian pilots and ground crews of the former Austro-Hungarian Air Force of World War I. The Slovakian Air Force was even newer and less experienced, consisting of Slovakian pilots and ground crews of the former Czechoslovakian Air Force before the dissolution of “rump” Czechoslovakia, the German annexation of Bohemia and Moravia, and the establishment of an independent Slovakia two weeks before this air campaign. The actual offensive consisted of mainly tactical air operations: Slovak attacks against Hungarian ground forces, Hungarian air strikes against Slovakian airfields, and air-to-air confrontations between aircraft of both air forces. These air arms flew a mixture of Italian and German biplanes and monoplanes of the 1930s. This two-day air campaign was the only combat experience of both air forces before Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, two years and two months later. Perhaps the most interesting facet of this campaign was not about the campaign itself. During Barbarossa, the two air forces—now German allies—participated in the initial air action, and one Slovak pilot, Ján Režňák, fired on a Hungarian pilot, once his enemy but now his “ally.” By the end of the war, Režňák had become the most successful Slovak pilot of the war.

Finally, Baptism of Fire offers a wealth of information and data about both air forces. Since the majority of Hungarian primary materials was destroyed during World War II, the author made a tremendous effort to find the documentation needed to prepare this book. It contains a full and detailed account of the origins and conduct of the conflict, appendices of Slovakian and Hungarian air force ranks, air victories claimed by the Hungarian Air Force fighter squadron, technical details of the major aircraft that fought in the conflict, Hungarian soldiers who received decorations, and short biographies of the Hungarian pilots who fought in the war. Finally, the book includes numerous photographs, many provided by the author, of the pilots and operations of both sides, as well as color prints of the aircraft that fought in this campaign. For readers interested in the history of Central European air forces or European military aviation in the interwar years, Baptism of Fire would be useful and interesting.

Dr. Robert B. Kane
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.

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