Josef Bryks was born on 18 March 1916 in Lašťany, now Bělkovice-Lašťany, near Olomouc, in the Moravian region of Czechoslovakia. He was the seventh of the eight children, born to his father František and mother Anna, née Nesvetrové. Only four survived to reach adulthood. František was worked as a farmer on his small farm and the family lived humbly. As a boy helped his father on the farm but his parents realised that he had potential and encouraged him to study at school.
He studied at the Commercial Academy in Olomouc and graduated in June 1935. In October he enlisted in the Czechoslovak Army and started his service with a cavalry regiment at Košice. At the same time he studied at a Academy for cavalry officers, at Pardubice until July 1936. In September 1936 he was promoted to the rank of Corporal. Between October 1936 and August 1937 he studied at the Military Academy at Hranice. Whilst here he resigned from the Army and joined the Air Force. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and was trained as a aerial observer. On completion of his training he was posted to the 5th Observation Squadron of the 2nd Dr Edvard Benes Aviation Regiment who were stationed at Prague. He was stationed here between August and October 1937. In October 1937 he was transferred to the Military Aviation Academy at Prostějov where he re-trained as a pilot. Upon graduation, on 30 September 1938, he was posted to 33rd Fighter Squadron based at Olomouc,
where he flew Avia B-534 aircraft. This period was tense as it was the height of the Munich crises and remained so until the German military completed their occupation of Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939.
The Czechoslovak Air Force was disbanded following this occupation. On 18 April 1939 he married Marie Černá and for temporary employment he worked for his new father in law as a butchers assistant. Marie was pregnant at the time of their marriage and gave birth to a daughter who died two days after being born. In December 1939 he got a job as a civil servant working for the Ministry of the Interior. This lasted for only three weeks when he resigned.
On 20 January 1940 he left his homeland so that he could join the Allied forces. Initially he went to Slovakia and from here he crossed the border into Hungary. On 26 January he was arrested for illegally crossing the border and held in jail at Budapest. He was detained there until 4 April when the Hungarian police extradited him back to Slovakia. He again illegally crossed the border into Hungary and this time he successfully managed to travel through Hungary and cross over the border into Yugoslavia. He reported to the French Consulate, in Belgrade, on 17 April.
From Belgrade he travelled through Greece, Turkey to Syria. From Syria he travelled by boat to France and arrived there on 10 May 1940. He was sent to Agde along with other Czechoslovak military personnel. The German advance was so rapid that there was no time for him to be re-trained to use French Aircraft and on 27 June he boarded an evacuation ship that brought him to England.
Initially he was sent to Cosford where he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve with the rank of Pilot Officer. He was quickly re-trained to fly the Hurricane fighter and was posted, on 4 August, to the newly formed 310 Czechoslovak Fighter Squadron. However more re-training was required and on 17 August, was sent to 6 Operational Training Unit at Sutton Bridge followed by 12 Operational Training Unit, based at Benson on 1 October. He successfully completed all his training, but instead of being posted to a combat unit he was sent, on 11 November, to Head Quarters Ferry Pilots Pool [HQ FPP] which was based at Kemble. Here, he was transporting troops. On 1 January 1941 he was posted to 6th Maintenance Unit based at Brize Norton where his role was a test pilot.
He was an accomplished linguist who had learnt English at secondary school. On 23 April 1941 he was posted to 242 Sqn., a Canadian Squadron based at Stapleford Tawney and flying Hurricane IIb’s. The Squadron had a role as night fighters and initially he was training for night and instrument flying. Shortly after the Squadron moved to North Weald where they participated in offensive operations over occupied Western Europe.
On 17 June 1941, whilst flying operationally on Circus 14, escorting 23 Blenheim bombers on a daylight raid on Lille, the 19 escorting Spitfires and Hurricanes were attacked by a large formation of Messerschmitt Me109’s. The RAF aircraft suffered very badly in the resulting combat. They lost thirteen aircraft to the Germans three. One of the RAF’s casualties was Josef Bryks flying Hurricane IIb Z2508.
Prior to being shot down he successfully managed to shoot down a Me109. He was attacked by three Me 109’s himself and his fuel tank was ruptured by enemy gunfire resulting in a fire starting causing the cockpit to fill with black smoke. He was about 15km West of St Omer, it was 19:38 when he bailed out at about 10,000 feet.
Bryks landed safely but he noticed that he had lost one of his flying boots when he bailed out from the aircraft. His trousers had also been partially burned below the knee. He immediately started to bury his parachute when some Frenchmen, who had seen him descend, ran over to him. Bryks identified himself as a RAF pilot, they gave him a civilian coat and told him to come to a particular house in a nearby hamlet once it got dark. He had landed some 3km from a Luftwaffe airfield at St Omer. With his aircraft crashed nearby and burning, it would only be a short time before German patrols came looking for him, so he hid in a barn.
In escaping from his aircraft, he had also suffered slight burns to his face and ankle which were now causing him some discomfort. After it had got dark he went from the barn to the nearby hamlet to get some help from the locals. He approached a house and asked that they call a local doctor to help him with his wounds. They made a telephone call, but not to the Doctor but the Germans instead. Bryks realised this when he heard the motorised German patrol approaching the hamlet and he quickly left the house. It was now around midnight and there was a curfew. He hid in a nearby garden but he was soon discovered by the Germans searching for him. They proceeded to kick and punch him before he was taken to St Omer for further questioning.
He was concerned about the Germans finding out he was a Czechoslovak national because Czechoslovakia was declared a Reich Protectorate, by the occupying Germans in March 1939. This meant he would have been classed as a traitor to the Reich and would be executed. The British Government had already received reports that Czechoslovak RAF Prisoners of War had received different treatment in captivity than other British POW’s. Bryks was also concerned that his family back in Czechoslovakia would suffer from German reprisals because of his capture.
Under interrogation he claimed that he was a British pilot, named Joseph Ricks, born 17 April 1918 at Cirencester, Gloucestershire. During this questioning the Germans claimed that he was a Polish pilot as he was wearing a lifejacket which had the name F/O Henry Skalsky on it. Skalsky was a Polish pilot who also flew with 242 Sqn.
He was taken to Dulag Luft interrogation camp at Oberusel, near Frankfur am Main. Here he was subjected to further interrogation by a Polish speaking German Officer. He was told that he would be taken to Berlin to be tried by a Military Tribunal for the shooting of a German pilot who was escaping from his aircraft by parachute during the air combat at St Omer on 17 June. The officer claimed this act had been witnessed from St Omer airfield. [Post WW2 examination of German records could find no record of any German pilot shot while descending by parachute for that day. It was most probably a tactic used by the German officer to get Bryks to admit he was a Polish airmen.] His POW card was marked ‘British-Polish?’
He left Dalag Luft on 22 June and was sent to Oflag IX H/A, near Spangenberg where he stayed until until 8 October 1941. On arrival he advised the Senior British Officer [SBO] of the camp of his true identity. The Officer was already aware of the problems that Czechoslovak pilots had as POW’s and supported Bryks in the use of a assumed identity.
Three weeks before he had been shot down, Bryks had met a WAAF, Gertude ‘Trudie’ Dellar, a widow of a RAF pilot. She was now surprised to receive letters, via the International Red Cross in a handwriting she recognised but from a unknown RAF POW named Joseph Ricks.
On 8 October 1941 he was sent to Oflag VIb, a Officers POW camp at Dößel, near Warberg, where again he advised the SBO of his true identity. With the approval of the camps Escape Committee, he and three others dug a 10m tunnel through frozen clay. On the night of 19/20 April 1942 Bryks, two fellow Czechs – F/Lt Otakar Černý and F/Lt Zdeňk Procházka – and three Poles, escaped through this tunnel and slipped away in pairs hoping to reach England. Bryk’s went with Černý and they aimed to reach Switzerland. Initially they headed towards Marburg and things went well, but around midnight of the 28 April, whilst trying to pass a village, Černý was arrested by German militia.
Bryks made his way into a railway marshalling yard hoping to board a train but failed to do so. He carried on walking for another day and night. At a railway station near Giessen, he stole a bicycle and headed for Switzerland via Offenbach and Stuttgart. Here, whilst crossing a bridge a German guard shot at him. Shortly after this, due to lack of food and water, he fell ill with dysentery and on 31 April was captured by some Hitler youth in a wood nr Eberbach South West of Stuttgart.
On 5 May he was taken to Darmstadt and held by the Gestapo before being returned to Oflag VIb. He was admitted to the camps infirmary between 8 May to 10 June. Between 10 June and 20 July he was transferred to Oflag VIa at Soest, near Dortmund.
He was sentenced to solitary confinement, between 12 to 17 August 1942. During this time, with the aid of razor blades which had been smuggled into him inside bread, he managed to cut a hole in the wooden floor and dig a tunnel to the German quarters. On the night of the 17 August, using this tunnel, he escaped again wearing only pyjamas, a sweater and a blanket. To fool the guards, he left his clothes in his cell and made his bunk look as if he was asleep.
Despite this strange attire he was not challenged. About 10km South of Frankfurt, he noticed a Luftwaffe airfield where Me 109 nightfighters were based. He devised a plan to get into the airfield at night and steal a aircraft and to fly to England. His attempt was thwarted by the approach of guards with dogs and he had to escape into the woods and wade along a river to evade the dog patrol. He later managed to evade civilian police after stealing some fruit, but, on the night of 8 September, he was captured in Mannheim by German Air defense troops and taken to the Gestapo there.
He was again returned to Oflag VIb and shortly after transferred, with other RAF POW’s to Oflag XXIB Szubin, near Bydgoszcz, about 220km west of Warsaw, Poland. Here the Senior British Officer was W/Cmdr Harry Day to whom Bryks confided his true identity.
On 4 March, he saw an escape opportunity and with the co-operation of Polish workers in the camp, Bryks and Sq/Ldr Morris, made a daring daylight escape. They hid inside the tank of a sewage cart that came into the camp to remove effluence from the camps latrines. With only masks for protection from the effluence, the cart left the camp at 15:00 and within an hour the two officers were being assisted by the Polish underground army – Armia Krajowa – and hidden in a nearby farmhouse.
Here he met up with Otakar Černý who had successfully escaped, by tunnel, from the same camp the previous night. They intended to go to Warsaw and from there to Gdansk and try and board a ship to Sweden. Sq/Ldr Morris however fell ill and it was decided that Bryks and Černý would go to Warsaw. They walked, and some three weeks later, on 6 April, they arrived in Warsaw. They went to the contact address given to them by Armia Krajowa. Both airmen were quickly involved with the Warsaw underground movement. For four weeks, they were given a ‘cover’ of working as stove fitters and chimney sweeps for the Bogumilski company and they went around Warsaw and rural areas in a horse-drawn carriage. In the carriage they transported arms to the resistance groups and when they returned from rural areas they brought food back to the city. During the Warsaw ghetto uprising, between 19 April and 16 May they were taking weapons and food to the Jewish fighters in the ghetto.
They had been free for three months when they were captured. At the time they were being sheltered in a house in a village several kilometers from Warsaw, by a widowed Polish patriot, Mrs. Blaszkiewiczowá. She had two young children. On 2 June, following a ‘tip off’ by a collaborator, the Gestapo surrounded the house at 23:00, and all inside were arrested. They were taken, in chains, to the notorious Pawiak prison in Warsaw. Mrs. Blaszkiewiczowá was hanged for aiding the two enemy pilots. Brks, now known as Joseph Brdnisz, and Černý were interrogated, beaten and threatened with execution. During an interrogation, 5 June 1943, he was beaten on the head and kicked in the stomach by SS Scharführerem Grünnem to and was removed unconsciousness from the interrogation.
After 63 days of such treatment and held in appalling conditions, they were sent to Stalag Luft III at Sagan, now Żagań, in Poland. Stalag Luft III was shortly to become infamous because of ‘The Great Escape’.
Bryks was admitted to the local hospital for treatment for the ruptured intestines and punctured left eardrum he had received during his Gestapo interrogations. A medical report on his condition was sent to the British authorities by G/Cpt. Massey, the camps Senior British Officer.
On 10 October 1943 he was transferred to the British hospital at Stalag VIIIb, at Lamsdorf. He underwent surgery for these injuries, on 7 November, and remained there recuperating until 23 December 1943 when was then returned back to Stalag Luft III.
The ‘Great Escape’ took place on the night of 23-24 March 1944. Bryks actively participated in the preparations for this escape and was due to escape. The escape was discovered by the Germans when the seventy sixth prisoner had emerged from the tunnel. Bryks did not escape himself as he was about the 100th in the escape queue.
On 27 March 1944, with Gp/Cpt Wilson, he escaped again. They were spotted leaving the camp and came under fire from the guards and had no choice but to return to the camp were they were place in ‘solitary confinement’
After three years as ‘Joseph Ricks’ the Germans discovered his true identity. In July 1944, the British mistakenly sent him news of his promotion to Flight Lieutenant. The form they sent had his true name and nationality on it. He was interrogated by the Gestapo. In a second interrogation with the Gestapo, one of whom spoke Czech, he was told that he would be sent to Prague to be executed and that his family had already been arrested.
Because Czechoslovakia was a ‘Reich Protectorate’ – German territory – since March 1939, Czechoslovaks were expected to have allegiance to Germany. Those Czechoslovaks who joined Allied forces were considered by the Germans as being traitors as they had taken up arms against Germany.
On 1 September 1944 he arrived at Petschkův Palace, the Gestapo Headquarters in Prague. During this time he was also held at Prague’s Pankrác prison and Loretta military prison. In this period, twenty three other Czechoslovak POW’s who were serving in the RAF were also held in these prisons. After each interrogation they were informed they had violated law § 91a of German Military Law as they had taken up arms against Germany. They were therefore traitors and would be executed.
This information reached the British Government, through the International Red Cross, and was debated in Parliament. They ruled that as the Czechoslovaks were serving in the British Military for the duration of the war, they were deemed to be British subjects and therefore must be treated no differently to any other British POW. Therefore any trial and executions of Czechoslovak RAF POW’s should be held when the war had finished. Winston Churchill also mentioned that the Allies had many Luftwaffe airmen held in POW camps in Canada and should any of the Czechoslovak RAF airmen be executed, the Allies would respond by executing ten Luftwaffe airmen. Through the same intermediaries, this information was passed back to the German High Command.
The Gestapo returned the Czechoslovak RAF prisoners to POW camps, but did not rescind their death sentences. In Bryks case, he was transferred, on 22 September, from the Gestapo to Stalag Luft I, near Barth.
He was brought before a International Medical Board, on 6 November, for proposed repatriation because of the injuries he had received during the numerous Gestapo interegations. This was refused by the Germans as he was to still to stand trial for treason.
On 7 November he was transferred to Oflag IVc – Colditz – where he joined several other Czechoslovak RAF POW’s. There, still with death sentences hanging over them, they waited and hoped that the allies would win the war.
Colditz was liberated on 16 April 1945 by the US Army. During his time as a POW, Bryks had escaped 3 times and also assisted others to also escape.
After being repatriated to England, he was sent to Cosford to recuperate from his captivity. He also learnt that his wife had divorced him whilst he had been in England, remarried and had committed suicide in April 1945. A week after the end of the war he went to meet Trudie Deller at her home and proposed to her. On 18 June 1945 they were married.
In August 1945 he underwent further surgery for the injuries he had received whilst being interrogated by the Gestapo in Germany. In June 1946, he had additional surgery to remove the piece of shrapnel, in the floor of his mouth, which he had sustained when his Hurricane had been shot down.
Bryks and his wife returned to Czechoslovakia on 6 October 1945. He continued to serve in the Czechoslovak Air Force and received several promotions; Captain in September 1945, Staff Captain in December 1945 and Major in May 1946.
He was unable to return to active service because of the injuries he had received as a POW. Instead he was posted to the Military Aviation Academy, at Olomouc, as a teacher of English and also the theory of flying.
In February 1948, the Communists took control of the country and those who had served in the West during WW2 found that they were subjected to a purge to get rid of them. Bryks was deemed to be ‘politically unreliable’ On 9 March he was sent on enforced leave.
Bryks was advised by the British Government, that because of his wartime escapes and the assistance he gave to other escapees, he had been awarded a MBE [Member of the British Empire]. Bryks was refused a Visa, by the Czechoslovak authorities, so that he could go and be awarded his medal at Buckingham Palace, London. The visa application was refused and instead he attended the British Embassy in Prague where it was presented by the British Ambassador.
At 00:10 3 May 1948, the StB went to Bryks home, in Oloumoc, and arrested him on suspicion that he had been involved in a escape to the West by some other ex RAF airmen, one of whom was Karel Janoušek. He was tried by the Supreme Military Court in Prague between 14 and 16 June 1948. He was found innocent and acquitted. The Judge saying his offence was a disciplinary matter. The Court system was not yet under Communist control. The prosecutor appealed against the decision and Bryks was returned to prison to await a re-trial.
This took place at the State Court in Prague on 2 September 1949. The Courts, now under Communist control, found Bryks guilty and sentenced him to ten years hard labour. He was also dismissed from the Czechoslovak Air Force, demoted to the rank of Private and stripped of his Czechoslovak medals.
During this period Trudie and Sonia had returned to England telling the authorities, when she applied for an exit visa, that it was only a short visit to see her parents. Her Visa was granted but she had no intention of returning from this visit.
Initially he went to Pankrác prison and on 17 August 1950 was transferred to Bory prison, near Plzeň. Whilst in Bory, documents were found by the prison authorities which implicated Bryks in an prison coup involving some other prisoners as well as some guards. The alleged offenders were tried on 11 May 1950. Bryks was found guilty and sentenced to an additional twenty years hard labour and a fine of 20,000 Kčs. A written appeal for clemency was sent by Trudie, to the Czechoslovak Authorities. It went unanswered.
He was held at Opava prison from 6 November 1950 but was insubordinate and resistive towards the Communist authorities. On 18 June 1952 he was sent to Leopold prison – prisoner number 868 – he continued in his behaviour towards the prison authorities, but was also careless as he made indiscrete references about escaping which came to the notice of the prison authorities. He was moved to Jáchymov uranium mines at Ostrov nad Ohří in North West Czechoslovakia.
Here prisoners were paid a small amount of money for the work they did. He worked hard, exceeding the quotas required from him and sent the money he earned to support his ill father and also Trudie and Sonia in England. In December 1955, the Communists refused him further permission to send any more money to help support his family. They claimed changes in regulations no longer permitted money to be sent to close relatives and certainly not to capitalists living abroad. As a result, Bryks returned to resistance but his health declined.
He died, in the prison hospital, at 23:00 on 11 August 1957 of a massive heart attack. He was only 41 years old and had spent 13 years of his life in prison – 4 years as a POW because he had fought for to free his homeland and 9 years as a consequence of fighting for his homeland.
In England, Trudie, who had not heard from Bryks for two years, just received a brief telephone call from Czechoslovakia to inform her of his death but no further details.
His remains were not released to his family. Research, following the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in 1989, discovered that Bryks had been interred in a unknown Prague cemetry in 1965.
The money he had earned for his work in Jáchymov was kept by the Communist authorities.
In 2002 the Archives of the Municipal Court in Prague, were affected by the floods. Bryks file was damaged in these floods, currently held in a frozen state it is estimated that it may take ten to fifteen years before the file can be reconstructed but there is a real possibility that the damage may be unrecoverable.
He was awarded numerous medals and posthumous honours.
MBE [Member of the Order of the British Empire]
Air Crew Europe Star
War Medal 1939-1945
3 x Czechoslovak War Cross 1939–1945.
2 x Československá medaile Za chrabrost před nepřítelem [Czechoslovak Medal For Bravery in the Face of the Enemy]
Československá medaile Za zásluhy I. stupně [Czechoslovak Military Medal for Merit, 1st class]
Pamětní medaile čs. zahraniční armády with bars of France and Great Britain [Commemorative Medal of the Czechoslovak Army Abroad]
He also received several posthumous honours:
On 29 May 1991, he was posthumously promoted to the military rank of Colonel.
On 4 June 1994, a memorial plaque was unveiled at his birthplace in Bělkovice-Lašťany:
n 2004, he was awarded with the ‘Award of the City of Olomouc’ for “bravery and courage during the 2 World War”. A plaque was placed at 5 Hanáckého pluku, Olomouc, the house where he lived at the time of his arrest in 1948.
The translated inscription reads: Here lived war pilot Col. Josef Bryks, a member of the RAF. He was prisoned by Nazis and by Communists. He died at the age of 41 in the uranium mines at Jáchymov in 1957.
Confederation of Political Prisoners.
On 28 October 2006, he was awarded the highest order of the Czech Republic, Class II Řád bilého lva [Military Group], the Order of the White Lion, Military Division, 2nd class.
In 2007, The Czech television made a documentary film ‘Muž, který přecenil českou duši aneb Útěky Josefa Brykse‘, English: A Man Who Overestimated the Czech Soul or Escapes of Josef Bryks.
This documentary contains interviews in English with Trudie Bryks and includes period film and some re-enactment.
Two streets, one in the Černý Most district of Prague 9 and the other in the Slavonín district of Olomouc-were named after him.
In 2008 he was again promoted, this time to the rank of Brigadier General.
In 2009 during research, historians Antonín Kýr and Alena Kafková, discovered that the urn with his ashes had been secretly interred by the Communists at the Prague-Motol cemetery in 1965 – 8 years after his death. With this information, his widow was able to visit his grave for the first time, 52 years after his death
A Forum 2000 conference in English, where Trudie gives her story is here. [go down the page to the white button marked ‘Forum 2000 Trudie Bryksová’]
Article last updated 17 March 2016.