Journey into the unknown

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F/Sgt Bohumil Ryšánek served as a Navigator in 311 Sqn. In 1939, as a 25 years old, he chose to leave his homeland and take up arms against the German occupiers. His story of his route to England where he joined the RAF is:

Journey into the unknown: Lipník to?

In my Journey into the Unknown I have concentrated mainly on my experiences regarding seeing different countries, the people I’ve met and made friends with.

The war and its incidents affecting me I’ve mentioned only briefly, as they were the same as described in a number of books written by my wartime friends and many others.

The Journey into the Unknown was perhaps triggered off by an incident at the local dance in February 1939 and the subsequent German invasion in March. – After the Sudetenland was `given’ to Germany (in accordance with the Munich agreement) the `old’ local policemen, known to everybody in town, were replaced by the `expelled’ police from Sudetenland. There was the normal exuberance at the dance and the `new’ constable remonstrated with my friend, Pepa Taborský (he was my school friend and member of our soccer team). The result of this confrontation was – the policeman falling through the glass door. The following day, the `new’ Chief of Police, Mr Boda, called me to his office at the Town Hall and asked whether I had seen the constable being pushed through the door. I told him that I had not seen `the incident’, so he, without warning, put me in a cell! This was observed by a town clerk (a friend of mine, L. Wiederman) who `broadcast’ what had happened to me. The Chief, in the meantime, had had second thoughts and came to let me out.

I went to a lawyer to sue him for wrongful arrest; his defence was that he had not locked the cell door, so I could have walked out at any time. There was a suggestion about taking it to the higher court (in Olomouc), which was under German jurisdiction. I decided not to proceed with the case! Meanwhile, the Chief sent a letter to me and my friend to report to a `work camp’ near Ostrava. We took the letter to the County Offices where my friend had an ex-army `buddy’ who was an Admin. Clerk; he told us to forget the Chief’s letter since he had no power to decide who was to go to the camp. We discussed the prevailing situation and thought that there was not much future in the CSR under the current regime i.e. the Germans, with the new local subservient police, so `the journey into the unknown’ was formulated. We had heard rumours that, in Poland, an anti-German group was being formed. I told Taborsky that we should leave home on the last Monday in May. We were to meet at the station and take an early train – he did not turn up! As I learned after the war, he did not join me as arranged because he had been travelling on the train, carrying information for the partisans. He was picked up by the Gestapo, taken off the train and, apparently, killed – his body was never found. This tragedy happened in March 1945, two months before the end of the war, in May.

First Phase

I started the journey alone on the train to Frydek-Mistek, and saw a distant relative, Mr Drbal, owner of a removal company. He changed some crowns for me into Polish zloty. The same evening one of his employees and I cycled to his home in Morovka. Early in the morning, I set off over the mountains (past Ropice, 1082m), 13 miles over the border to Jablunkov (formerly in Moravia but now ‘occupied’ by Poland). From Jablunkov I took the train to Cracow. There was no problem at all; I discovered that this escape route was not being taken by other refugees; there was no guard on the border. On arrival at Cracow I started looking for the CSR Consulate. While I was resting in the park, a plain-clothes policeman, recognising by my white `balloon silk’ coat that I was not a native of Poland, asked me to accompany him to the police station. As it was after office hours, the Magistrate’s Court was not in session so he put me in a cell until the next morning. In the evening a warder brought me a big flask of coffee and rolls (bulky). The warder had been in Prague during the First World War so we had a long chat – incidentally the coffee and rolls were sent to someone else! He told me that there wouldn’t be any problems in the Court and I would be taken to the Consulate. Later that evening he came back and brought with him a young man to keep me company. The fellow introduced himself, saying: “I am Vavrin Surjan from Slovakia.” I was taken aback when he asked if I would mind sharing the cell with him because he was a Slovak. I said jokingly, “You idiot, do I have a choice?” (We later lost touch with each other.)

The following morning I was in Court, the second case. The first case dealt with a young prostitute who had apparently stolen an umbrella. The girl was crying and the Polish Magistrate tried to calm her down, telling her politely, “Please, madam, don’t cry!” – and, in the end, jailed her for seven days! My case was over in a few minutes. I was not considered a threat to the Polish State and policeman took me to the CSR Consulate.

After the usual interrogation and identification I was taken to the ‘refugees’ accommodation at No. 24 Glowny Rynek (Main Square) where I met my many future friends in the Foreign Legion, in the Army in France and England and, finally, in the Air Force. Cracow was, and is, a very interesting historical town on the River Vistula, overlooked by Wawel Castle. About two weeks later, who should arrive but two brothers, Joe and Toni Ocelka, from a village 2 kilometres from my hometown. Joe was a pilot (he later became Wing Commander of our 311 Squadron) and had been in the same Grammar School I was at, only four years earlier. They were both very annoyed with me because I had been talking to them on the Sunday before my departure and I had not told them that I was leaving town – they had had a much more difficult journey to Poland than had I.

There was not much going on in Cracow; just waiting for the transport to France. Before leaving, however, we were moved to a small village near Cracow – Bronovice. Apart from keeping fit and exercising, there was very little to do; I played soccer against various local teams and against the top club ‘Wisla Cracow’ to whom we lost, not too badly, I think: 5 -2! I was gaining new friends and acquaintances and had teamed up with some fellows from Brno and Karel Konstain (Kavan) from Kolin.

Finally the day came when a train took us to the port of Gnyna to board a very new luxurious Polish ocean liner, ‘Chrobry’ (sunk by the Germans at the beginning of the Second World War), on our way to Boulogne and the Foreign Legion! After landing at Boulogne we were transported to Lille for a check-up and to sign up for five years in the French Foreign Legion. We were told that if we didn’t sign we would be sent to the German frontier (how serious the threat was, I don’t know). However, there was a proviso in the five-year commitment that, should the war in Europe start, we would be sent to France to form the nucleus of a Czech army. We knew that the war was inevitable even if the top leaders in the West didn’t think so. After all the ‘signings’ the train took us to Marseille. Further check-ups at the old fort by the sea – a transit stop – before sailing to Africa – Oran, here we come!

Second Phase

After landing in Oran, we were marched to the Foreign Legion Barracks, awaiting transport to the main French Foreign Legion Garrison at Sidi Bel Abbès. While waiting there, some of our fellows were ordered (out of spite) by two corporals – German in origin – to shower and clean some pigs. They resented doing this very strongly and swore vengeance when we returned to France through Oran. I was lucky not to attract that kind of attention – the worst I suffered was when a corporal tried to swap his battered, old tin mug for my newly issued one. A former school friend of mine, a quiet, peaceable fellow, sitting next to me, suddenly plunged his fork into the corporal’s hand and swore he’d kill him if he took it.

In the réfectoire (dining room), was a picture of a general with the following (not very encouraging!) quotation:

Vous autres legionnaires
Vous etes soldats pour mourir
Etje vous envie ou l’on meurt
(Général Négrière)

(Sometimes it is better not to admit to knowing the `native’ language (i.e. French).

B. Kerwitzer put a question to the orderly Corporal and, in reply, was told, “Tu as rien a faire; alors to vas faire les cabinets.”)

In the Foreign Legion.

On arrival at Sidi-Bel-Abbès we were fitted out with Foreign Legion uniforms, given our ranks, i.e. ‘Soldat de la Deuxième Classe’ – you couldn’t get any lower, and also our personal number – `matricule’- mine was 85133. When you were called out on parade etc. you answered with your name and ‘matricule’ (and, if you were answering an officer, you added “mon Colonel” or whatever his rank was). Some chaps had difficulty remembering their number in French so some of us had to teach them. There were some rather amusing incidents: on marching exercises the NCO called out the tempo – “Un, deux, trois, quatre…” – a fellow whose name was ‘Makar’ broke rank because he thought that his name had been called – `quatre’ sounding phonetically like ‘Makar’! The military training in Bel Abbés was mainly marching and running: the Reveille at 5 am, after breakfast 3 – 4 hours exercise, back to barracks by 11 am, lunch and siesta until 4 – 5 o’clock. After dinner you could go to town. You had to be `smartly’ dressed; there was a big mirror by the exit gate to check your appearance and the guard sent you back if he thought that you were not smart enough! The pay during training was negligible so you could not purchase very much in town – some beer, cigarettes, soap etc. After the basic training you got your `prim’ – 300 francs – one felt like a millionaire – champagne at 15 Fr. a bottle! Life was very easy for most of us, being fit and healthy, but some recruits, mainly the ex-Spanish Republicans (after the Civil War in Spain) were weak and tired easily. Finally the day came when we were sent to our permanent garrison at Ain-El-Adjar in the mountains, not very far from Saida. As it happened, we (the Czechs) were the largest group (circa 200) so we really dominated the goings-on in the camp. The officer in charge was in Saida most of the time, enjoying himself. The highest rank present was a Sergeant and an old Legionnaire Corporal Chef (Yugoslav in origin), serving his third five-year term in the Legion. The exercises were very easy, the climate hot and dry (no humidity), although one had to run the gauntlet of the garrison stork who would swoop down and `put it about’ with his long beak, whilst the men were exercising in the square!

As a soccer player I had certain privileges, which meant I didn’t have to use the general shower facility – a real boon as the water was controlled by ‘Soldat de la Première Classe’, shouting the order for the water to go on, off apply soap, rinse. As the water flow was never powerful enough to reach the last cubicle, its reluctant inhabitant always emerged lathered in soap. Those who did not finish, for instance, the morning run, were punished by spending the night in jail without a roof and with a stone bed to sleep on – and the nights were very cold – we had three camel-hair blankets to keep us warm! Before we could properly settle into our mountain `village’ – one shop which sold some grocery and wine – at midnight, on September 3rd, a drunken Corporal Chef came into our dormitory with a lighted candle and shouted, “La guerre a éclatée!” (War has been declared!), called us all murderers and left. A few days later we were marched to Saida where the real training for war started.

In Saida we received our `piqûre’ (inoculation) against all imaginable illnesses and to thin our blood (to withstand the heat) – a jab in the back and that was it. The ‘operation’ was performed by very unskilled orderlies, so after the jab everybody’s back was oozing blood. We were told not to drink any alcohol and those who did became really ill.

Nothing very exciting was happening; we were getting familiar with the old French Hotchkiss heavy machine gun and we were all anxious to be on our way back to France. Finally, in October, our Foreign Legionnaire uniforms were exchanged for French army uniforms and we were off to Oran for the embarkation to France. While waiting at the garrison (the one mentioned when we arrived from France) the two German NCO’s, who had mistreated some of our fellows on our initial arrival there, foolishly started walking through the crowded parade ground (about 600 Czech ex-legionnaires) and received terrible revenge beatings. This was watched by the CO, who let it pass (perhaps also in retaliation for the profiteering he knew they had indulged in re. Army fodder). The same evening we said goodbye to Algeria and sailed to France.

Third Phase

We landed at Sète and were transported to Agde by ‘camions’ (lorries) to our camp, which had previously been ‘home’ to Spanish Republican soldiers after Franco’s victory in Spain, and after which some had stayed as general ‘domestics’.

Accommodated in wooden huts, we settled in and started training and preparing for the next stage of warfare. Coming from the Foreign Legion, we were already in French uniform and the stream of new Czech-Slovak arrivals from France and other continental countries was swelling our ranks. Having been trained to handle the Hotchkiss machine gun, a few of us were being made instructors to the new recruits and NCO’s. The weather of early autumn was very pleasant, quite warm, so there were frequent outings to the beach. (Today Agde is a well-known holiday resort). One of the usual exercises was testing the budding aspirants for promotion, by defending the lighthouse on the hill by the sea. As a joke, someone invented a scenario, which asked of a cadet what he would do if his platoon was being attacked by an infantry regiment – including tanks, bombers. “Well, sir,” said the cadet, after some lengthy consideration, “I’d give an order to my platoon to kneel down and pray!”

One day I received a parcel from ‘Macy’s’ of New York (at that time I did not know who or what Macy’s was). The parcel contained all sorts of goodies – cigarettes, etc. It had been ordered by Mlle Margaret O’Brien who lived with her mother in Paris. Margaret appointed herself my ‘marraine de guerre’ (war godmother). There was also an invitation, arranged by Margaret, to visit the `Cité Universitaire des États Unis’ when on leave in Paris by the Directeur, Mr Lowry. During leave in Paris, we were also invited to the Czechoslovak Embassy, where the Ambassador, after refreshments, made a speech: “You are standing on the free land of Czechoslovakia and for that you should be grateful to me!” The Ambassador, ‘His Excellency’ Mr Osusky (Slovakian) was not on friendly terms with President Beneš, who was in exile in London. After that speech my friend (L Kruml) and I picked up some cigarettes (I did not smoke) and left.

I visited an old army friend of mine who was domiciled in France, married with two daughters – his wife came from the Basque country in SW France. One of his daughters had been married to a war photographer, killed in the Spanish Civil War. Before leaving Paris I also went to see a man who had sent me a letter in Agde. His name was Mr Kocian and he was from my hometown, (Lipnik N/Becvou) and had been with my father in the First World War. Mr Kocian left the CSR and settled in France in Orly, not far from Paris. I took my friend with me and we had a few days of drinking with him in the local bistro – the ‘Rougette de Lille’ (composer of the Marseillaise). On returning to his wife, Mr Kocian was severely castigated by her for leading us youngsters astray! I remember one of his party tricks involved a tame duck, who, on being told that the cockerel had been very naughty and exhorted as to what he was going to do about it, chased it around the room until it caught him by the comb and gave him a thorough shaking!

I did not meet my ‘marraine de guerre’ Margaret, as she and her mother had left for America. Margaret was a ballerina with the Paris and Monte Carlo Operas. Later I learned that her father had been an oil executive in the Pasadena Company. When he died, Margaret and her mother moved to Paris (Margaret’s mother was originally from Holland and had never learned French!).

Now back to Agde… When the course for the newly promoted NCO’s finished, my company was moved to Castelno des Guers on the River Hérolt, not very far from Agde. A very nice little village – picturesque – it is dominated by an old fort, dating from the days when the south coast of France was raided by pirates. We had a never-ending supply of wine, which we had ‘liberated’ from the Co-Operative Store on the riverbank. All good things must come to an end so, one day an order came to board the train and move north to the ‘Front’. The Germans had broken through Belgium and bypassed the Maginot line, moving towards Paris (or so we heard). The train took us to Coulomiers (east of Paris), which was to be our base. That night, after the Italians occupied Monaco, Monte Carlo and part of southern France, the French Prime Minister Renaud broadcast from Paris, saying, “La France ne peut pas mourir!” When I heard that, I said to V Lehar, who was in charge of our platoon (awaiting the delivery of `cannon anti-char’ – anti-tank cannon we never saw), “Let’s go home!” i.e. back to Agde.

After a few days we were on the way back to the south. The chaos on the road was unbelievable – the French civilians were leaving their homes and farms in all types of vehicles; some were pushing carts filled with families with children etc. The farm animals were running loose, cows desperate to be milked, and nobody was around. Chateaux were lying abandoned and we could raid vintage cellars, bathe in champagne and fall onto four-posters with our boots on. To the tune of “En arriere, en avant / Nous vaincrons en buvant!” we filled our ‘bidons’ (two-litre field flasks) with wine from the cellars and smashed what we could to prevent the Germans, so close behind us, from enjoying what we had. Yet for all that, with some of my colleagues taking full advantage of the opportunity of looting from the deserted shops – jewellery, everything – my total sum of war booty was a towel I took on impulse because I needed one!

In one little town the road was completely blocked by the retreating French artillery units – nobody moved (all this has been documented by the historians of WW2). We eventually got as far as Montereau on the River Seine, marching still in ‘proper’ military formation with horses pulling the carts with machine guns etc. Approaching the river bridge, guarded by the Senegalese soldiers on the opposite bank, the bridge was bombed by Stuka’s and blown up!. In the chaos that followed, some of us took the initiative to cross the river in rowing boats and eventually reached Agde. The surviving part of our ‘army’ arrived a few days later. There was a lot of argument and recrimination – that those who had arrived earlier than the main body of the army had, in effect, deserted from the front, although in actual fact there was no Front to speak of. All that was sorted out and we were moved to Sète to board the ship for Gibralter.

Czechoslovaks soldiers being evacuated from Sète

By an irony of fate, the coal ship to Gibraltar was the ‘North Moor” belonging to Lord Runciman, who was on a fact-finding mission in the Sudetenland, to see how the Czechs were oppressing the ‘poor’ Germans, referring and describing all the ‘atrocities’ to the Prime Minister Chamberlain!

On arrival at Gibraltar we were transferred onto a rather nice ocean liner. While waiting at the port, we noticed British warships sailing towards Oran to prevent the French warships from falling into German hands.

Our journey and accommodation on the ship was quite luxurious – compared to the ‘coal boat’. We sailed deep into the Atlantic, perhaps to avoid an attack by German bombers based on the west coast of France. During the journey we started English lessons. I’d remembered quite a few English words and some grammar (taught by my Jewish friend back at home). When we eventually landed in Liverpool, I could muster a few ‘important’ sentences i.e. how to get to the nearest pub, dance hall, ask for a cup of tea etc, which did not help very much, as I couldn’t understand the reply to any of my questions! We disembarked at Liverpool (at night) and were put on a train going to? There was a blackout and I wondered why every station was called ‘Bovril’ – I learned later that all the names of the railway stations were covered, and that Bovril was a popular English meat paste. We arrived in Nantwich (Cheshire) still in the dark and then marched to our allocated camp in the grounds of Cholmondeley Castle. The tents were ready for us, and our ‘new life’ in England started in the glorious summer of 1940.

Czechoslovaks arriving at Liverpool after escaping from France 1940.

Czechoslovaks at Cholmondeley 1940.

Newly arrived Czechoslovak soldiers at Cholmondeley 1940.

Under canvas at Cholmondeley 1940.

Shortly after arriving at Cholmondeley, Bohumil Ryšánek voluntered to join the RAF.

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This entry was posted in 311 Sqd, Biography, France, Into exile, Poland. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Journey into the unknown

  1. Vera Zima says:

    I am in tears while reading the sgt. Rysanek’s journey, the very same trip my father, sgt Josef Hejzlar experienced. Thank you.

  2. George Zizka says:

    I am very curious to know if the above F/Sgt Bohumil Ryšánek was also known as “Bob Rysanek” who after the war settled in Ruislip London and ran a Post Office. Any information would be appreciated. Thank you.

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