Karel Bednarik

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Karel Bednařík

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* 19 December 1920

† 26 February 2011

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Karel Bednařík was born on 19 December 1920, in Holešov in the Moravian region of Czechoslovakia. In 1934, after completing his eight years of compulsory schooling, he left school and trained to be a tinsmith. He then went to work at a armament factory in Továtna. Following the ‘Munich Agreement’, the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939. Very shortly after the armament factory reduced its production and Karel was made redundant. He was now 18½ and had no wish to be a burden to his family so when in April, some older friends suggested that he joins them and go to Germany to work he took the opportunity.

They worked in East Prussia and on 25 July returned home, by train, for a holiday. The train journey from East Prussia to Moravia involved travelling through the Polish Corridor – a strip of Polish land between East Prussia and Germany. Relationships between Poland and Germany were by now already strained and the Germans would not permit any of the passengers to leave the train when the locomotives were changed for the crossing East Prussia into Poland and again when they left Poland to cross back into Germany. The Polish authorities however were less vigilant and as they were leaving Poland, Karel and his companions, noticed a Czech worker climb out of the train and stay on the Polish side of the border. This action inspired Karel and his friends to do the same themselves and between themselves they agreed that on their return journey to East Prussia they would also leave the train and remain in Poland.

On 4 August 1939, at the end of his holiday, Karel said goodbye to his parents and departed with his companions by train back to East Prussia. At Czew station, where the train crossed into Poland they got off the train and made their way to Crakow.

Czechoslovak escapers at Czew, August 1939,
Karel Bednařík kneeling first right

Here they reported to the Czechoslovak military legation who transferred them to Maly Bronowice, where escapees from Czechoslovakia where being assembled to form military units. Due to indifference from the Polish authorities about using these Czechoslovaks in their own military units, arrangements where made, with the French Government, to transfer the Czechoslovaks to France. French law did not allow for foreign nationals to serve in its own armed forces, the agreement was that these Czechoslovaks would have to enlist, for a five year period, in the French Foreign Legion. If and when war broke out they would be transferred back to French units. Karel’s group sailed on 19 August from Gdynia and 3 days later they disembarked in Calais, France.

They were then transported to barracks in Lille, where following a basic medical examination, they signed to join the Foreign Legion, and were sent to Fort Saint Jean, Marseilles to await transportation to Algeria. Whilst on their arrival in France, they were greeted with a large feast, they were always made to feel ‘inferior’ by the French authorities. They were next transported to Oran, Algeria from where they were taken by train to the notorious Legions training camp at Sidi Bel Arbes.

On arrival here they were overjoyed, when catching up on the news, that war had been declared which meant that would be serving in French military units instead of the Foreign Legion. The Czechoslovaks were dispatched back to France to join French military units. In Karel’s case he reported to Agde, which was an assembly camp for the Czechoslovak military personnel. Despite France now being at war with Germany, Karel was disappointed that the French attitude towards the Czechoslovaks had not changed.

At Agde he was initially assigned to the 3 Company, 1st Infantry Regiment and shortly after transferred to 1 Company 1st Infantry regiment. On 16 November Karel requested a transfer to a communications course, he successfully completed the course on 25 January 1940. He was promoted to the rank of Corporal and posted to the 2nd Infantry Regiment as a signalman.

Karel Bednařík, France Spring 1940.

In May 1940, due to the rapid advance of the German forces, the French sent more re-enforcements to the front line. Before Karel’s unit was sent to join the re-enforcements, Karel was transferred to the 4th company of the 2nd Batallion and the unit was sent to defend the left bank of the river Marne at the beginning of June 1940. When the unit arrived at its position on the Marne each soldier was given 8 rounds and ordered to defend the position. With an overwhelming German force attacking and no realistic means of defending, the inevitable retreat followed and the unit was forced to withdraw and they retreated to the southern French port of Sète. France capitulated and the new Vichy Government had pledged to and over all Czechoslovak troops to the Germans. Under those conditions it would have effectively been passing a death sentence to those Czechoslovaks.

Before this could happen, Britain and the Free French managed to organise ships to evacuate the Czechoslovaks and have them transported to England via Gibralter. In Karel’s case, his unit was evacuated on the Egyptian ship ‘Rod el Farag‘ on 28 July 1940 and 2 weeks later the ship reached Liverpool. From there, the Czechoslovak troops were transferred to Cholmodeley Park at Chester where they where initially based whilst new Czechoslovak units were formed within the British military forces. Karel always had had an interest in aircraft and when there was a call for volunteers to join the RAF he quickly applied. His application was accepted and he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as a trainee wireless operator.

In Spring 1941 he had succefully completed a course as a air gunner and because he had achieved high results in night vision tests he was selected for night fighters. On 14 May he was posted to 96 Sqn., a night fighter squadron based at RAF Cranage, at Middlewich, Cheshire, flying Boulton Paul Defiant’s Mk 1. Here he crewed up with another Czech, Sgt František Chábera who was to be his pilot. During this period they had a unconfirmed ‘kill’ of a He 111.

Karel Bednařík, England 1941.

In September 1941, the two were transferred to the newly formed Czechoslovak Flight in 68 Sqn., a nightfighter squadron, bassed at High Ercall, Shropshire, flying Bristol Beaufighter Mk IF’s. In the Sumer of 1942, Chábera’s tour of duty finished, Karel’s new pilot was Jan Šerhant. Karel’s own operationial tour of duty finished in February 1943., he had flown 386 hrs 55 m during this tour. He was promoted to the rank of Warrant Officer and, following some leave, was posted to RAF Unsworth for training as a as a navigatior/radar operator instructor. He successfully completed this training and was posted to the OTU at Winfield and later at Charter Hall.

In October 1943, Karel started a new operation tour and was posted to RAF Cranfield where he joined his new pilot P/O Miroslav Štandera, also a Czech. They rejoined 68 Sqn on 1 March 1944 now based at Fairwood Common, South Wales, and flying Bristol Beaufighter VIf’s, They had an ominous start to this tour with two crash landings within a few days of each other. The first was on 18 April after the start of a night flight in V8740 (WM-Z). Just after take-off, at an altitude of only 6 mtrs, the starboard engine failed and they made a belly landing in a clearing about 1km away from the airfield. Neither of the crew were injured in the crash.

A few days later, on 27 April, during take-off in V8592 (WM-E) at 17:05 for a test flight, a tyre burst. They had to spend the next 80 minutes circling the airfield until the last of the day fighters had returned from a sweep over northern France. Štandera then made a belly landing at the airfield and again both crew escaped uninjured.

68 Sqn was actively flying sorties in support of the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944. In July 1944 the Squadron retrained to use the de-Havilland Mosquito. They now undertook a new role of trying to destroy the new threat of V1 missiles before they hit their targets in London. Due to the rapid Allied advance in Europe, the requirements for night fighter squadrons over England declined. On 20 April 1945 68 Sqn. was disbanded and on 2 May, Karel, now a Sergeant, was posted to the Czechoslovak Depot at RAF Cosford.

Karel returned to his homeland in August 1945 aboard a Liberator bomber from 311 Sqn. Initially he remained with the new Czechoslovak Air Force. On 1 January 1946 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant but he chose to be demobilised which happened on 13 March 1946. He returned to his native Holešov and was employed as the manager of a cinema. He had a good job and was planning to get married.

His plans were dramatically changed following the Communist coup of February 1948. On 27 February 1948, the President of the Workers Union came to Karel at the cinema and told him that this was his last day of work at the cinema. About an hour later the President returned and said that he would be permitted to continue working until his replacement had been trained. Bednařík refused and immediately left his job. He quickly got himself a job as a sales representative for a local textile company. Bednařík realized that under the new regime there was little chance for those who had fought in the West, for the liberation of their homeland, and decided to go into exile again.

On 15 March he was in Prague and visited his friend Josef Machek, together they discussed the possibilities of escaping to the West and started to make their escape plan. Machek then travelled to Aš, a town near Chleb, Czechoslovakia which was close to the German border. His inquiries there found that there were possibilities to covertly cross the border to Germany.

Machek returned to Prague and Karel and he decided that they would try to cross the border on 25th March 1948 and invited a 3 close friends to join them. Karel married his fiance Anděla Hajniková on 23rd March 1948 and the following day the seven members of the escape group – Karel with his wife, Machek with his wife Vlasta, Miloslav Kratochvíl, ex-310 Sqn Pilot with his Jaroslav and Fr. Vojtěch Rygal – travelled to Aš. On arrival there, they contacted the man who was due to help them cross the border. He advised them that he had been tipped off that he was due to be arrested by the StB for facilitating illegal border crossings to the West and that they would be better to cross the border on their own.

They then approached the Chairman of the local Sokol group for help. He suggested they contact two German women but unbeknown to the escape group the two women were working for the StB. The escape group, led by two women, left that night and started to make their way towards the border but were led into a trap where the StB were waiting. Initially Karek and Anděla managed to hide in a hedge to avoid capture, but the StB men knew that seven people were in the escape group an searched till they found them in hiding. All the escape group had been arrested. Bednarik spent the next three months in jail in Aš and Chleb, the jail was overcrowded with twenty people being held in a cell meant for only four prisoners. Anděla was held in jail for a month. Fortunately for them, Klement Gottwald, the newly elected Communist President of Czechoslovakia, announced an amnesty for some political prisoners, and Karel was released in June 1948. However he was still kept under investigation by the StB and he was reduced to the rank of Private in a Engineering Regiment. He was only permitted to do menial work whilst Anděla found she was ‘unemployable’.

In the Spring of 1951, Karel was summoned to Court charged with ‘anti-state activities’ and the judges were intent on passing a severe sentence on him. In the trial the prosecutor conceded that the claimed law breaking activities by Karel had not been proven and he was sentenced to prison for the period he had already spent in detention at the time of his arrest in 1948. He was however ordered to work in the mines but because he was suffering from chronical bronchil inflammation the mines Doctor would not even permit working in a surface mine. Instead he worked at Stavomontáže a contruction company in Zlín. The authorities also tried to pressurise him into renouncing his RAF decorations but he refused and retained these medals.

At the beginning of 1963. Karel was visited at home by a stranger who identified himself as a member of the StB. He was ordered to get dressed and go with him to be questioned. During the interrogation they wanted to know why he went to England in 1939, the names of people who he was in contact with in the ‘Society of Friends of Great Britain and the USA’ (a post WW2 society in Prague comprising manly of Czechoslovaks who had served in the West during the war). Karel named three known Communists to which one of the StB men said “We know that you don’t like Communists” to which Karel replied: “Why should I not like Communists, I like all decent people.”

They then tried to pressurise Karel to become a StB informer saying that “People know you and have confidence in you.” Karel refused saying that “I would make an awful informer, I move amongst the ordinary people and I could not have it on my conscience that someone would imprisoned because of a silly joke.”

Karel was released but expected this incident to have dire consequences for him, but instead he remained just like all the others who were disliked by the Communists following the February 1948 ‘putsch’, he lived on the edge of the society, with miserable salary, kept under constant StB surveillance and in isolation from the other RAF members.

Following the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in 1989, he along with his former Czech RAF colleagues were Politically Rehabilitated on 13 September 1991 in Prague. Karel was promotd to the rank of Colonel (retd.) in the Czechoslovak Air Force.

He died in his native Holešov on 26 February 2011, aged 91.

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The assistance of Milan Votava with this article is very much appreciated.

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Article last updated 8 September 2011

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This entry was posted in 68 Sqd, Biography, France, Into exile, Poland, Victim of Communism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Karel Bednarik

  1. nikotev01 says:

    Very good blog with interesting content! Nick

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