The Ghosts Of A Conflict – The Bombing Of Szombathely: Nothing But Memories (Part Two)

The American bombing of Szombathely started with the Cathedral, but certainly did not end there. The American war planners had also targeted the train station and railroad yards, the place I had first entered the city that day. Upon my arrival I was blissfully unaware of American bombers striking Szombathely. The ghosts of the conflict had been swept away by reconstruction, denial and historical amnesia. Details could only be discovered by searching through the pages of history books written in a language I could not possibly understand or by delving deep into the memories of people who may or may not not care to recall the traumas they had suffered at the hands of my country. My other hope was that information might be found on the internet which would illuminate that dark day in the history of Szombathely. I did not feel any guilt about American bombers striking the city since their overarching goal was to destroy the Nazis, but it still felt odd to walk upon pavements that had once been blown apart by American military might.

Szombathely Cathedral - after the bombing

Szombathely Cathedral – after the bombing (Credit: Cathedral archives)

Collateral Damage – Those Who Wait
The main targets in Szombathely were the marshaling yards which helped to supply the German Army’s increasingly desperate fight against the Red Army. Bombing the Cathedral was symbolic, but hitting the railroad lines and marshalling yards was crucial to destroying the German war effort. Thus, the American bombers brought the sheer weight of their overwhelming air power to bear on these targets. Because targeting was imprecise and highly dependent on a range of external factors this led to a great deal of collateral damage. That damage was largely caused by three runs made by Bomber Groups after the initial one that struck the cathedral. Less than a half hour after the first bombs struck the cathedral, another twenty-five B-24s unleashed their payloads on the south end of the marshaling yards. Eighteen minutes later, twenty-eight planes took aim once again at the marshaling yards. The final wave occurred just five minutes later as thirty-nine aircraft let loose another three hundred bombs. There were several hits on the main square (Fo ter) and civilian areas during this run.

In less than an hour, over 200 tons of high explosive bombs had been dropped on the city. The attack had come as somewhat of a surprise. Several weeks had passed since the last bombardment. A false sense of security had developed among many of Szombathely’s citizens. Some ignored the air raid sirens, only to run for cover when the bombers descended upon the city. While shelters might protect them from explosions, nothing could protect these people from the dreadful fear that accompanied the lead up to each explosion. There would be a tortuous wait for the next impact, followed by a seismic shift as the ground quivered violently from another impact. Protective walls began to buckle from the sheer force of each explosion. A shelter might just as easily collapse and become a concrete tomb. This was not hell on earth, as much as it was hell under the earth. A living hell that those who survived would never forget. Then suddenly the storm above was over, now a reckoning of the damage would begin.

Bomb damage inside Szombathely Cathedral

Bomb damage inside Szombathely Cathedral (Credit: Cathedral archives)

Shaken To The Core – Searing Images
Smoke billowed up over the city as residents surfaced from shelters, cellars and their other hiding places. They were shaken by the scene before them.  Destruction in the Belvaros (City Center) was widespread. The Cathedral, Town Hall and all the buildings surrounding the Post Office, among many others, were in ruin. Over half a century later, accounts of those who survived the bombing and what they had seen that unforgettable day appeared in Szombathely’s local newspaper, Vas Nepe (Iron People). I discovered translations for several of these articles on the internet. Reading them made it clear that the horrific scenes from that day had become searing memories. There was the man who had been out in the city when the bombing began. By the time he rushed back home, his wife and three daughters had been killed. The person who recalled this story added another tragic detail, no one had ever seen the man smile again after that day. There was the mother with tears in her eyes after the death of her daughter. All that we learn of the girl was that she had been a cashier at a local bookstore. At least we know that much, others knew her as something more. Tragically the girl and her story have been lost to history.

There was the engagement party that turned deadly, as a soon to be bride and her parents were killed by the bombing. The groom was left with nothing but memories, his lost love never to be forgotten, by him or the man who recalled this scene exactly fifty-five years later. A woman remembered how everything her parents had worked to save throughout their lives, a house full of intensely personal possessions, was wiped away in a mere thirty seconds. This same man came across an authority figure in the rubble, not that of a soldier or policeman, but his elementary school principal from childhood. War does not discriminate, the priestly and the powerful were just as likely as the average apartment dweller to have died. Another young man who was working on the latest edition of the soon to be defunct Hungarian military newspaper was reduced to hiding under a typesetting machine. A deluge of glass and soot convinced him to make a sprint to a nearby shelter. While running he could hear the deafening roar of another bombardment in progress. He barely made it to the shelter in time where he encountered people praying, screaming and crying.

The Unsaved – Pulled From The Rubble
These were just a few of the stories concerning the hundreds who lost their lives on a day that started out sunny, celebratory and full of promise. No one in Szombathely could have expected, let alone believed, that terror would rain down from the skies with such swift and sure destruction. By the time citizens began to sift through the carnage a light snow had begun to fall. This provided a natural shroud of death over the hellish scene, just as debris provided an artificial one. Victims were pulled from the rubble and bodies laid out along the sidewalks of Szombathely. The bombers were headed back to their respective bases. In a few days they would do the same thing again to a different city. The war would end soon. Unfortunately, it had not ended soon enough to save Szombathely.

Click here for: A Triumph of Determination – A Cathedral Restored, A People Unreconstructed: The Bombing Of Szombathely (Part 3)

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