………………………..* 7 October 1914
………………………..† 8 October 1940
The son of a carpenter, Josef František was born on 7 October 1914 at Dolní Otaslavice, in the district of Prostějov in the South East of Czechoslovakia. At the time of his birth this area was part of the Austro Hungarian empire.
On leaving school he was apprenticed to a locksmith, but with the frequent overhead flights from the nearby flying school at Prostějov he was soon aspiring to became an airmen. In 1934 he volunteered to join the Czechoslovak Air Training School at Prostějov. In 1936, on completion of his training, he was posted to the 2nd “Dr Eduard Beneš” Regiment of the Czechoslovak Air Force which was based at Olomouc. Here he was assigned to the 5th Observation Flight, flying Aero A-11 and Letov S-328 biplanes. In 1935 he held the rank of a Corporal in 1 Air Regiment and in 1937 returned to 2 Air Regiment with the rank of Sergeant.
During this period František individualistic attitude first showed. He lacked a sense of discipline whilst on the ground and this resulted him to be demoted for numerous indiscretions like fighting, returning late to his unit and other incidents. With these indiscretions František faced the possibility of being discharged from the service but at the same time he was developing into a exceptional talent as a pilot. This talent resulted in him being chosen to join a fighter training course, with the 4th Regiment, and initially he remained with this regiment when his training was complete.
Following fighter pilot training, in June 1938, he posted to the 40th Fighter Flight at based Prague-Kbely. Here he was under the command of Staff Captain Korcak and the pre-war Czechoslovak ‘king of the air’ Lt. František Novak. It was here, under their guidance, that with the guidance of that František honed his undoubted flying and shooting skills whilst flying Avia B-534 and Bk-534 fighters.
On 15 March 1939, when Czechoslovakia was annexed by Germany, many Czechoslovak airmen escaped to Poland, in František’s case this was on 13 June when he and three other former Czechoslovak Air Force pilots, were smuggled over the border, near Szumbark, by train into Poland. They reported to the Czechoslovak Consulate in Krakow and where subsequently sent to the a temporary Czechoslovak camp at nearby Bronowice Małe. There he joined a party of Czech airmen who were due to travel to France and they travelled to Gdynia to board the ‘Kastelholm’. On 29 July 1939, as the group were boarding the ship, they were addressed by a group of Polish officials. The officials were trying to convince the Czech pilots to join the Polish air Force. František and his group of friends made their decision by flipping a Polish coin. It landed ‘tails’ so they remained in Poland. Other Czech airmen boarded the ship and continued their journey to France.
František and his group were taken to the Dęblin airbase where they retrained to use Polish aircraft. He became an instructor with the Observation Training Sqn. at the No 1 Airforce Officers Training Centre on the airbase. Here he flew Potez XXV, Breguet XIX, PWS 26, RWD 8, RWD 14 Czapla, Lublin R XIII biplanes as well as other aircraft, all of which were obsolete when compared to the modern fighters he had flown in the Czechoslovak Air Force.
On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. At 9 am, the following day, the airbase was the target of a large Luftwaffe air raid. During this air raid František was unable to take-off and had to remain in a shelter whilst the Dęblin airbase was reduced to rubble.
After the raid, the serviceable aircraft were flown to the Góra Puławska airfield in South East Poland because of the advancing German forces. On one of these flights, as the airfield was under immediate threat of attack by German tanks, the aircraft of a fellow Czech pilot Sgt. Zdeněk Škavarda, ran out of fuel and had to make a emergency landing in his Breguet XIX and would have been captured by the advancing Wehrmacht. Thinking quickly, František landed his Potez next to Skavarda stricken aircraft, Skavrda got on board and František immediately took off and flew them both to safety.
During the unequal struggle of this campaign František, now based at Sosnowice Wielke airfield, near Parczewo, flew reconnaissance missions in an unarmed RWD-8 and PWS 25 training aircraft. Despite flying an unarmed aircraft this did not prevent him from attacking the advancing German forces and on 19 and 20 September he has dropping hand grenades onto German columns. On 20 September he spotted a German transport near Złoczowska and attacked it. During the attack his aircraft was hit by German ground fire and he and his Polish observer had to force land near the German lines. They were saved from being captured by the daring actions of two Polish pilots, Sergeant Vilém Košař, a naturalised Pole of Czech descent who was a close friend of František, and First Sergeant Józef Zwierzyński, who landed their planes under fire and each taking one of the airmen on their wing and quickly taking-off again.
On 22 September 1939, František’s unit was ordered to to withdraw, with their aircraft to Romania. During this short Polish campaign Josef Balejka, Josef František , Vilém Košař’ and Matěj Pavlovič had been known as ‘Český čtyřlístek’ – the Czech cloverleaf.
František flew General Strzemiński’s adjutant in his aircraft. They went to Ispas airfield, and then onto Pipera via Cernovici and Jassa. Here he was interned and he, like many other Polish airmen, escaped. They then travelled to Constanta, the largest Romanian port where, on 2 October, they boarded the small cargo ship‚ Dacia‘ which also carried a few passengers. The ship then sailed through the Bosporus to Istanbul, down through the Dardanelles to Athens, Alexandria, Haifa to Beruit and travelled to reach Beruit.
At Beruit harbour their ship was met by representatives of the Czechoslovak Embassy, who were expecting them. They advised František, Josef Balejka, Matěj Pavlovič and Vilém Košař that unless they agreed to join the French Foreign Legion they would be deported back to the German Protectorate of Czechoslovakia. All agreed to join the Legion and were transferred to the nearby barracks of the French Foreign Legion. Here they received uniforms are were assigned to training units. A week later they boarded “Theophile Gautier”, a French cargo ship, which landed them at Marseille on 20 October 1940 where they continued their basic military training.
Initially in France, he was at the French Foreign Legion base at Marseille. Fortunately, very shortly after their arrival a Polish sergeant recognised their Polish decorations from the and helped arranged for them to be released from the Foreign Legion to the newly forming Polish Air Force in France. They were then transported to billets at Le Bourge airbase and after the usual procedures were admitted into the French Air Force as Polish airmen.
Balejka, František and Pavlovič however wanted to join the proposed Czechoslovak Air Force units which were supposed to being formed in France. They went, in civilian clothes, to see the Czechoslovak Air Attache who descredited them by calling them deserteres from the French Foreign Legion. Hearing this, Josef František lost his temper with the Attache pointing out that the Occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Germans in March 1939 had been well known by the Czechoslovak authorities for three days before it had actually happened. Yet they had done nothing to save the modern aircraft of the Czechoslovak Air Force which could have been used in the defense of Poland. The Attache resorted to calling the French police, who checked their papers, confirmed that the three airmen had legitimate Polish military ID cards and refused to arrest them. Because of this incident, František, Balejka and Pavlovič refused to serve in Czechoslovak Air Force, preferring to remain with the Polish Squadrons.
Initially, František was posted to the Polish airbase at Clermont Ferand as a mechanic where he established a reputation for trying to fly as many types of French aircraft as he could and also for being AWOL [absent without leave] on several occasions.
The position is unclear as to his combat flying during the French campaign of 1940 as there are no supporting official Polish or French documents available in those military archives. His personal record in the l’Armee de l’Air is known to have been destroyed during the war. Witnesses claim that he shot down 9 German aircraft and destroyed further 2 on the ground. It is possible that he, like many other Czech and Polish airman, was flying under an assumed name to protect their families back home under German occupation but as yet his assumed name is still unknown. There are also no records to confirm that he was awarded a Croix de Guerre for shooting down his first German aircraft during this period. In the Josef František museum in Otaslavice, his medals are on display. They include his Croix de Guerre.
When France capitulated, František along with many other Czech and Polish airmen, managed to get to Britain. Again he chose to fly with Polish forces and on 2 August 1940 joined 303 Polish Squadron of the RAF which were based at Northolt and flying Hawker Hurricanes. Despite the Polish airmen already having considerable combat experience against the Germans, they were having to retrain to ensure that they met the standards of the RAF. On 8 August 1940, following a training flight, František, being used to flying fixed undercarriages aircraft, landed his Hurricane Mk1, V7245, with it’s undercarriage up. He was unhurt, the aircraft suffered only repairable damage. This was the first mishap for the Squadron.
This re-training resulted in the Squadron only seeing combat in the later stages of the Battle of Britain. František’s first combat success was on 2 September 1940 and in the subsequent 28 days succeeded in shooting down 17 German aircraft, making him the highest scoring allied pilot of that battle. On 20 September 1940 he was the first foreign pilot to be awarded the DFM and this was presented by the King George VI, on 1 October 1940, at Northolt.
|02/09/40||17:50||RF-U, P3975||1 Bf 109E, 5km East from Dover|
|03/09/40||15:40||RF-U, P3975||1 Bf 109E, mid Channel off Dover, mistakenly reported as a HE113|
|05/09/40||15:05||RF-R, R4175||1 Ju 88|
|05/09/40||15:10||RF-R, R4175||1 Bf 109E|
|06/09/40||09:00||RF-R, R4175||1 Bf 109E, nr Sevenoaks 1 Bf 109E (WNr 1138), pilot Oblt Albert Waller of 3./JG52, became POW. Heavy damage to Frantisek’s Hurricane causing him to crash land on a field nr Falmer.|
|09/09/40||18:00||RF-U, P3975||1 Bf 109E, nr Horsham|
|09/09/40||18:05||RF-U, P3975||1 He 111H-2, Beachy Head. WNr 5548 A1+DS of III/KG53, crashed on French coast|
|11/09/40||16:00||RF-S, V7289||2 Bf 109E, Horsham|
|11/09/40||16:05||RF-S, V7289||1 He 111, Horsham|
|15/09/40||12:00||RF-P, P3089||1 Bf 109, Hastings|
|18/09/40||13:15||RF-V, V7465||1 He 111, West Malling|
|26/09/40||16:30||RF-R, V4175||1 He 111, Portsmouth|
|26/09/40||16:35||RF-R, V4175||1 He 111, S/E Portsmouth|
|27/09/40||09:20||RF-R, V4175||1 He 111, Horsham|
|27/09/40||09:20||RF-O, L2099||1 Bf 110D, Gatwick, pilot Oblt Ulrich Freiherr von Grafenreuth WNr 3147 L1+BL of 15./LG1|
|30/09/40||16:50||RF-R, V4175||1 Bf 109E, Brooklands, pilot Lt Herbert Schmid WNr 3895 of 6./JG27, became POW|
|30/09/40||16:55||RF-R, V4175||1 Bf 109E, Brooklands, probable|
These number of success’s can be attributed to František’s individualistic, but unorthodox and undisciplined, style which also caused much exasperation for the British and Polish authorities as to how to handle this outstanding pilot. Eventually a compromise was reached in that František was invited to fly as a guest of 303 Sqn. Clearly he enjoyed this new status as the following day, 11 September 1940, he shot down 3 German aircraft!
“metoda Frantiszka” [František’s method] was how the Poles called his tactics whilst the British referred to them as ‘lone wolf’ but regardless of the name they achieved the destruction of many German aircraft. František’s method often was to break away from the formation after take off and proceed on his own hunting mission in pursuit of German aircraft. This often meant patrolling along the Channel Channel and waiting for German planes trying to return to France after their mission over England. In the actual attack he, like many of the other pilots of 303 Sqn. where noted for getting very close to the enemy aircraft before firing their guns. František had exceptional flying and shooting abilities which enabled him to master a technique which permitted him to shoot from from almost any angle and at very close proximity to the enemy aircraft. Often he would be shooting at distances of less than 150 metres and often at distances of less than 100 metres to the point of sometimes risking collision and firing from only 10 metres away.
Tragically, on 8 October 1940, František’s Hurricane, RF-R R4175, whilst on a patrol, crashed, after clipping his wing tip on a tree, near Ewell, Surrey. The exact cause of the crash is unclear but battle fatigue and exhaustion, or a flying error whilst performing aerobatics to impress his girlfriend, who lived nearby, or a combination of these two have been suggested as possibilities.
He is buried at the Polish Military Cemetery at Northwood, Middlesex.
Despite this short flying period in World War 2, his bravery and tenacity did not go unnoticed and he was awarded numerous bravery medals from the 4 countries whose Air Forces he flew in:
Válečný kříž 1939 [Czechoslovak War Cross, 15/07/41]
Za chrabrost před nepřítelem [Bravery in Face of the Enemy]
Za zásluhy 1. stupně [Merits Medal Grade I]
Pamětní medaile československé armadý v zahraničí F a VB [Memorial Medal of Czechoslovak Foreign Army with France and Great Britain Bars]
Order Virtuti Militari [War Order of Virtuti Militari, 23/12/40]
3 x Krzyż Walecznych [Cross of Valour, 1939, 21/09/39, 18/09/40 and 01/02/41]
Distinguished Flying Medal & Bar [11/9/40 and 4/10/40]
The 1939 – 1945 Star with Battle of Britain clasp
Croix de Guerre avec palme
His Medals are displayed in an exhibition at Otaslavice:
He is commemorated, along with the other 2937 Battle of Britain pilots, on the Christopher Foxley-Norris Memorial Wall at the National Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, Kent.
He is also commemorated on the London Battle of Britain Memorial.
Plaque outside Otaslavice primary school commemorating Josef František:
Memorial outside the former family home of Josef František:
In the Černý Most District of Prague 9, a street is named in his honour:
Annually Otaslavice remembers its most famous son with a ceremony to commemorate his untimely death. The 70th Anniversary ceremony, held on 10 October 2010 is here
On 28 October 2015, Czech National Day, he was posthumously awarded the Řád bílého lva [Order of the White Lion], the highest award of the Czech Republic.
For further reading on Josef František click here
Article last updated 30 October 2015