today is 17th of November and here in Czech Republic it’s a national holiday: “The day of freedom and fight for democracy”. On 15.11.1939, the funeral of a student by the name of Jan Opletal (killed by nazis during a peaceful anti-nazi meeting) turned into a giant anti-nazi demonstration, giving Adolf Hitler an excuse to close all the Czech universities and to arrest teachers and students alike on 17.11.1939, with 9 students executed and 1200 arrested and dragged to concentration camps. It is also the day the so-called Velvet Revolution started in 1989, but given its “velvet nature”, it is the first event that gives this day the importance, not the second.
I do believe in remembering the war veterans (what the Czech community does about that you will see next week hopefully), but this article is about the specific group of veterans: the Czech pilots in British service, known for their blue uniforms. The article was written by PhDr. Ladislav Kudrna PhD. and its original name is “The Night Falls over the Men in Blue” (well, it sounds better in Czech). The events, described in this article are one of the reasons I hate communists so fiercely and should never be forgotten by us Czechs (and Slovaks of course). I am sure the members of other nations, that later ended behind the Iron Curtain will understand too. And as for the rest: take the Czech airmen as a warning.
The Night Falls over the Men in Blue
Part I – Fears of Home
One of the first people to leave the occupied Czechoslovakia were the Czechoslovak airmen. It was them, who actively fought the very beginning to the end of the terrible conflict, that was World War 2. As many as 487 of them died in RAF service. For almost six years, they had no news of their loved ones. During their stay in Britain, they had to cope with many issues the activated airment faced. Despite that, the exile government was declaring often that although they regretted the numerous sacrifices of the pilots, without which the freedom of their homeland would not be possible, it is the nation back home that suffers much more. Because of that, many pilots, who spent long time abroad were worried when it came to returning home.
An excellent night fighter pilot Josef Hanuš was for example disturbed by the fact that the people at home could accuse the pilots of being “bourgeois”, since they were “safe away” in England, when the nation needed them the most (SS: in slavic languages, specifically Russian – Czech later adopted it, the expression “bourgeois” – while generally meaning the “middle class”, was meant as an insult to those people of non-worker or non-agricultural (‘proletarian’) origin, basically it was a designation of ‘class enemies’ during communism).
“Our chief-in-command and minister of national defense, General Svoboda, sent his congratulations from Prague to General Janoušek and all the airmen in England for all what they have done and the successes they have achieved in the West. That makes me happy and it is definitely a wise move, since as all the exiles, we are very sensitive, when it comes to returning home, since we don’t know the situation we will be returning to. For six years we have not lived as a part of the nation and without close contact with our families back home. As a result of the experience we have gained under conditions possibly very different from those at home, we have lost the ability to sense the pulse of the nation and all the directions the feelings and thoughts of people back home are taking.
We are all aware of the fact that we left as volunteers so that our efforts help to reach the objective that was achieved today. Back then we never have thought that anyone would accuse us of laziness or cowardice in times when we were needed the most back home. Political conditions are another matter. It would be very easy to accuse any of us from being bourgeois. Our lives both here and in France have been quite easy, but I hope noone will forget how many of these lives were lost in combat and how many people were active in our three (SS: in real life four) Squadrons in England in order to keep them alive, how many people were killed, wounded or captured. As for the last category noone can definitely mention easy life and thus it cannot be mentioned for anyone else, who were in danger of being captured during every flight over enemy territory.”
Crowds gather to greet the pilots from England:
The “we suffered at home, while you led an easy life in England” attitude appeared amongst people in France partially. An excellent fighter pilot, Pierre Closterman, was bitter about it:
“The few of us, who survived the previously unheard of efford of four years of war, wanted to return home at any cost, to step on the French soil again, to see their families, to breathe life in the streets of Paris or to sense the calmness of a small French town where we were born… so afterwards everyone returned quickly, confused, desoriented, but not yet bitter.
They were buried in the stories about the Resistance, tales of heroic deeds, they heard the same phrases over and over again: ‘Nevermind you, dear folks, you were lucky to have been in London. But here, we suffered. If you only knew what we risked many times! And against all odds we drove the Germans out…’ or ‘You don’t know what it’s like, you can never understand: that guy was shot, that other guy was tortured and that other guy was deported…’ or even ‘What? You are a Flight Lieutenant already? It seems like the promotions and awards were raining in London from the sky!’
The (pilots) couldn’t understand. They did everything what was in their power. They didn’t want flowers, they didn’t want celebrations, they didn’t want rewards, they just wanted to go home, yet they found their homes often in rubble. They thought it best to keep silent, but in their hearts a feeling of grave injustice was gnawing at them. What could have happened to them? They didn’t risk anything, apart from possibly burning alive, from finding death in their Spitfires, to see the earth closing in on them in a mortal dance, while the condemned in the narrow metal coffin of the fighter cabin the canopy of which got stuck counts down the remaining seconds of his life… four, three, two, one… while the others…”
The celebrating parade of the airmen in Prague, cheered at by the citizens – 21.8.1945, Prague
Furthermore, this brave Frenchman did mention a fact, that was just as well valid for the Czechoslovak Air Force in Great Britain: “For months they risked their necks three times a day their lives facing the raging Flak, lives that resisted, lives that didn’t want to lost, day after day they barely made it, day after day they waited for their final hour …. it was the same people flying day after day only for France to be a part of the skies above Europe.”
General Janoušek leading “his men” in the parade:
Most men, who weren’t professional soldiers, served as a part of our only bomber squadron founded in Great Britain. The return to Czechoslovakia worried them and – as they later found out – their worries were not unfounded. These soldiers were determined to return to their former pre-war occupation or studies after their demobilization. They sent a memorandum in January 1945 to president Beneš. In it – amongst other things – they have shown their disappointment:
“We all, who serve here and now as soldiers, without being professional soldiers, were torn from our environment and were forced to leave our jobs, have no guarantees whatsoever when it comes to our future and we don’t know what we can expect from the new situation. The questions of unemployment, income security and social equality are the most important for us.”
They didn’t want to get any bonuses after their return to their homeland. They wanted only the same possibilities and opportunities to become a part of the newly built society. After all, they did see England preparing their soldiers for transfer from military to civillian life and making it easier for them, while they heard the same song over and over:
“(The pilots) point out all the time their uncertain future at home, but in fact this is not true for the professional soldiers, respectively those who want to remain in military service and for the civillians active in state service in London. Education courses, possibilities of requalification and preparation for future employment is possible for both abovementioned classes.”
The pilots then replied politely but firmly:
“We fully understand the problems and needs of the state, but we do not consider the usual argument ‘people at home are suffering more’ to be a solution”
This memorandum was influenced by the American and British preparations to return their veterans to civillian life. However, the reality in post-war Czechoslovakia was completely different. Even as late as 1946, the parliament reports, ministry of defense reports and the press were mentioning the fact that many former soldiers were facing grave problems in their lives. The situation of the western pilots was also influenced by the fact that they were the last ones to return to their country. Furthermore, the demobilization subsidy couldn’t match the one the British soldiers recieved. In 1945, this subsidy for a Czechoslovak pilot was cca 60 pounds, while a British lieutenant with three years of service (not overseas) recieved 109 pounds, 14 shilling and 8 pence and could also recieve the so-called “resettlement grant”, which was basically a gift of 150 pounds, allowing him to start his own small business for example.
Part II – Warmed by the Sun
The summer months of 1945 did put a strong psychic strain on the Czechoslovak airmen. The war in Europe was over since 8.5.1945, but it was already July and they were still stuck on the British Isles. They had no news of their loved ones and of home they haven’t seen for six long years. That fact of course was reflected in their morale. General Karel Janoušek was sending one urgent letter after another from London to Prague, requesting the permission for his men to return home. The British were sympathetic to their plight and did not complicate the release of Czechoslovak from the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve obligations. The obstacle proved to be the government in Prague, led by pro-Soviet social democrat and later a member of the Communist party leadership, Zdeněk Fierlinger. This permission was mostly affected by the willingness of Soviet military administration to approve such permission, but the fact that the 311th Squadron was scouring the seas, looking for surrendering German submarines and the fact the Czechoslovak government was negotiating with the British about the purchase of the British warplanes also played a role. By the end of July 1945 a brief telegram arrived from Prague to London, permitting the airmen to return to Czechoslovakia.
A “sea of blue uniforms” on Old Town Square, Prague
Thousands of citizens of Prague gathered on 13.8.1945 around the Ruzyně Airport, where 54 Spitfires LF Mk.IXE of the former Czechoslovak fighter wing (310. Sq, 312. Sq and 313 Sq.) and 10 Liberators from the 311 Sq. were landing. 12 more Spitfires landed in Ruzyně on 24.8. and 4 more on 8.9.1945. Shortly after the first landings (21.8.), a celebrating parade of Czechoslovak pilots was held in Prague, with general Janoušek leading them. The march was ended by a parade in front of a tribune, built on Old Town Square. President Beneš had a speech and after him, the national defense minister, General Ludvík Svoboda. None of the aviators realited at that moment that this speech would be their swan song. As colonel Uruba stated:
“The welcome in Prague, that was awesome. Everyone loved us! Who could have realized what would come in three years?”
Div.General Alois Vicherek:
As early as 29.5.1945, General Alois Vicherek was appointed as the head of the Czechoslovak Air Force. Important posts were given to Col.Josef Hanuš (who spent a part of the war in a concentration camp) and Lt.Col.František Rypl, former member of the 310.Sq. in England and between 1944-1945 a senior navigator in the Czechoslovak Air Division in Soviet Union. Both of them entered the Communist party after the war and were amongst the most fanatical haters of the Czechoslovak pilots in Britain. Hanuš became a general soon and as the (officially) second man of the Air Force (after Vicherek) started to take strong steps towards the persecution of former RAF pilots. General Janoušek was sidelined, but the pilots who served both in Britain and in Soviet Union recieved appropriate postings in most cases.
Div.Gen.Josef Hanuš, in 1950 he replaced Vicherek as the chief of the air force
After the demobilization, 444 former RAF pilots remained with the Czechoslovak Air Force. In 1947, the air force composition was as follows: 58,7 percent of its members came from “local” sources. They were called “naftalíni” (“mothballs”) – pilots who didn’t participate in the war neither in the East, nor in the West. Some of them however did participate in Czechoslovak resistance (SS: most of Czechoslovak pro-western resistance was wiped out early in the war, most late war resistance members were communists). 30,7 percent were the former RAF members and 10,6 percent were the veterans from the East.
In 1945, most of the commanders of the flight regiments were former RAF members. Of 24 flight regiments in total, 21 were under their command. The only exception was Slovakia, where Slovak pilots, serving during wartime in the fascist “Slovenský Štát” (State of Slovakia) air force or later in the east as a part of the Czechoslovak Mixed Division, were appointed as regimental commanders. In Bohemia however, former RAF members “controlled” all 20 regiments deployed here. However, the flight division commanders were (with two exceptions – 1st and 6th Division) all “mothballers” – an ominous sign of things to come.
On 1.12.1946, the air force organization structure was changed. The air force was split into 4 regions. Individual regional commands consisted of one division each (with the exception of Region 2, which had 2 divisions) and the flight regiments. By now, former RAF pilots led 4 divisions out of 5. Out of 14 new regiments, 9 were under former RAF pilot command. However, soon after their return, the former RAF pilots became the object of Military Counterintelligence’s interest (led by the infamous Bedřich Reicin).
Part III – Nightfall
The communists were not exactly happy that important army posts were held by former western pilots. They were however irreplaceable, when it came to training new generation of pilots. Despite that fact, soon after the February 1948 (SS: communist coup), there were purges amongst the ranks of the former RAF pilots – and they were quite brutal. In March 1948, 63 pilots (mostly high-ranking officers) were sent “on vacation”.
The key role in the persecution was played by Rudolf Slánský, back then a chairman of the Defense Committee of the temporary parliament and other members of the Army Advisor Committee (General Reicin and General Svoboda amongst them) (SS: both were fanatical and loyal communists, ironically, Rudolf Slánský was arrested and executed years later after a fake trial as a result of the communist power struggle). Military Counterintelligence (MCI) also strongly influenced these decisions.
In March or April 1948, MCI sent an urgent message to the Army Advisor Committee (AAC), designating 43 air force officers, all former RAF members, suggesting “sending them on a vacation”, from which they would never return. All of these officers had one thing in common: they married an Englishwoman – a citizen of a foreign enemy country. Quoting the message:
“In general it can be stated that none of the officers or NCO’s, who married Englishwomen, can be vouched for (SS: regarding their loyalty), since the women live their own lives with their families and in public on their own, the education of children is done without the influence of their husbands, who have, as our experience confirmed, de facto no influence on their wives whatosever – in fact, they act under the influence of their wives, taking their ideas as their own. These women have not adapted to the Czech society, they will always consider themselves to be English and they will act upon it”
Former RAF lower officers (roughly to the rank of Captain) and those men, who didn’t have an English wife the army kept temporarily. There was noone who could replace them. For now.
Bedřich Reicin, one of the most active communists. Like Slánský, he was later executed (on 3.12.1952)
By the end of April 1948, 106 former RAF airmen were kicked out from the army. The following year proved to be fateful for them. On 15.1.1949, General Vicherek sent an infamous letter to General Reicin (at that time the Deputy for personal matters of the Minister of Defence). In it, he stated that the ongoing existence of “westerners” in Czechoslovak Air Force is “unthinkable”. He stated that in case of a conflict with the west, these officers were absolutely unreliable, a fact that was proved by their continuous escapes over the border to the west. Reicin, in his reply from 28.1.1949, personally designated 137 airmen (all of them “westerners”), who were to be removed from the service in the “usual way” (starting from 1.2.1949, they were first sent on 3 month vacation and after that they were forcibly retired). After their “retirement”, they faced the “inclusion into work process”, where these professional pilots were in a majority of cases transferred to forced unqualified hard manual labor. By 20.10.1950, there were 96 former RAF members left in the Air Force. Then there was one last purge and by 1960, only 18 remained. At this point I’d like to thank you for reading about the fate of the Czech pilots by posting one key for M3 Stuart, courtesy of Gavlo. You can find it here.
Where the original article by Dr. Kudrna ended, the trouble of the former RAF pilots only began. As mentioned above, most were forced to practically work as slaves (in communist regime from 1948 to 1989, being unemployed was illegal and the state had the final say on what you were to do) in mines and quarries. Some were tranferred to the infamous uranium mines in Jáchymov (all the uranium from there went to Russia as a part of the “brotherly help”), which were in fact concentration camps where people were sent to die from radiation posioning (many “enemies of the regime” found their death there).
Others were sentenced for made-up charges and put to prison, usually facing harsher treatment than common criminals. Such was the fate of the former RAF Czechoslovak force commander, Karel Janoušek, who was arrested during an “escape attempt” from Czechoslovakia and sentenced to 18 (later increased to 19) years of the hardest prison. In 1950, he was sentenced for life for a made-up “escape attempt” from prison. He survived several prisons (including Leopoldov, the prison where people were sent to disappear, according to personal accounts of several survivors worse than Gestapo torture chambers) until 1960, when (during the “regime thawing”) he was pardoned and released. His health was however forever damaged by the ordeal. In 1968 he was officially rehabilitated. He started to write his memoirs, but never finished them, dying on 20.10.1971 in Prague. He was fully exonerated only in 1989. In 1991, he was promoted to the highest Czechoslovak rank of “army general” in memoriam. Currently, one of the two Airbus army transport planes is named after him. But many other pilots weren’t so lucky to survive that long.
As was also mentioned above, those, who orchestrated the downfall of Czechoslovak pilots did not escape their fate.
Bedřich Reicin, a brutal communist monster, much like the people who worked for Gestapo, who – as a head of the Military Intelligence – helped to estabilish torture chambers for the opponents of the regime, lost his fight for power. He was stripped of his rank, arrested and faced the same torture he helped to estabilish. He was executed in 1952.
Rudolf Slánský, a prominent communist leader of the 40′s, also lost his fight for power and in 1951, he was arrested for an alleged conspiracy (there was a heavy anti-semitic element involved, most of the arrested were of Jewish origin). He was tortured and after what became the best known Czechoslovak political trial of history, he was sentenced to death and hanged in 1952.
Alois Vicherek – the former RAF pilot and general who turned on the RAF pilots – was also persecuted. In 1950 he was forcibly retired and forced to become a manual worker. He died in 1956.