I live in Axbridge, in north Somerset, a small place which most would call a village; it is, however, a ‘town’, this being decreed by Royal Charter back in 1229. It sits at the foot of the western limits of the Mendip Hills where – on 27 April 1942 – a Spitfire came down through cloud and crashed into a stone outcropping on the Mendips. It was, of course, a total write-off and the pilot was killed. He was a young Czech who belonged to No 312 Sqn, at that time based about 20 minutes flying time away at RAF Fairwood Common on the Gower Peninsula.
The old hands in Axbridge – some of them only children at the time – still remember this sad incident, not only because a young pilot had lost his life, but because he was from another country, one of those who had escaped from Europe to fight again when France collapsed in 1940. The memory remains strong, despite the passing of half a century.
But, sometimes memory falls short – to most of us it will come as a surprise to find that the highest-scoring fighter pilot in Fighter Command in September 1940, when the Battle of Britain was at its height, was another Czech – a sergeant-pilot in the Royal Air Force, Josef František. He was a remarkable man, having left his native country in March 1939 to join the Polish Air Force. Soon after the German attack began in September he scored his first victory, flying a somewhat ancient PZL fighter with fixed landing gear.
After the fall of Poland, František escaped to Rumania, where he was detained in an internment camp. He broke out of there and got to Syria and finally to France, where he enlisted in the Armee de I’Air and resumed his career as a fighter pilot. He had scored 11 victories by the time France fell.
With many others, he came to this country and joined the RAF – he opted to join a Polish squadron (303) where he was ‘taken on strength’ on 2 August 1940. He was a highly individual character who surprised even the Poles with his cavalier to discipline in the air, just breaking off whenever he saw the chance of shooting down an enemy aircraft. They resigned to František’s ways and regarded him as a ‘flying guest’ of the squadron. He shot down his first enemy aircraft on 2 September 1940 and his 17th, and last, on 30 September. This brought his overall total of enemy aircraft destroyed to 28 – higher than anyone else in the RAF at that time.
Sadly. Josef František met his death in an unexplained flying accident on 8 October 1940. His Hurricane crashing at Ewell in Surrey. He had been awarded the Polish VC, the Virtuti Militari, the French Croix de Guerre, the Czech War Cross and thi British Distinguished Flying Medal; he was 27 years old when he died.
There were others – K.M. Kuttlewascher who joined No 1 Sqn RAF on 4 Octobe 1940, went on to become a Flight Lieutenant, an accomplished night fighte and intruder pilot. He was credited with 18 enemy aircraft destroyed and five others damaged for which he was awarded the DFC and bar.
Another notable Czech pilot was Sqn Ldr František Fajtl, the first Czech to be given command of an RAF fighter squadron – No 122, with Spitfires, at Hornchurch. Flying sweeps and bomber escorts, Fajtl was shot down whilst flying escort to Boston bombers attacking Lille on 5 May 1942 – but he became an ‘evader’ and escaped through France and then Spain and got back to the UK within three months – arriving in England on his 30th birthday. He was soon back in the fray and later became CO of No 310 (Czech) Sqn.
There was Edward Prchal, who had joined No 310 (Czech) Sqn RAF upon its formation and shot down several aircraft during the Battle of Britain – he later became a highly respected transport aircraft captain and was the pilot of the Liberator in which General Sikorski, then Polish Prime Minister, was killed at Gibraltar on 4 July 1943. Prchal, then a Flight Lieutenant with No 511 Sqn, was in later life much vilified by, largely, the technically illiterate in both literary and theatre circles, and it is pleasant to record that he eventually obtained heavy redress from those concerned in the early 1970’s.
So much for the individual. The large numbers of Czechs arriving in this country made it possible to form no less than four complete RAF squadrons, wholly Czech manned and, eventually, commanded. Many others served in other RAF and Allied units of all kinds. There is an RAF squadron with a unique distinction – No 68, formed at Catterick on 7 January 1941 – which, when awarded its official badge chose one with a tawny owl’s head (it was a night fighter unit) and the Czech motto Vždy připraven – ‘Always Ready’. This was done because of the preponderance of Czechs among its members including Czech flight commander Sqn Ldr M Mansfield; working up with Blenheims and Beaufighters, it eventually received Mosquitos and was disbanded at the end of the War, only to be reformed in March 1952 with Meteor NF11 jet fighters with which it served until renumbered No 5 Sqn in January 1959.
The first all-Czech squadron to be formed in the RAF was No 310 on 10 July 1940 at Duxford. It began receiving Hurricanes on 18 July and worked up very quickly the Battle of Britain was in full swing – making its first patrol on 18 August and its first combat on 26 August. By the end of September the squadron had claimed the destruction of nearly 40 enemy aircraft. Thereafter, as a member of the Duxford Wing, the squadron went over to the offensive, carrying out fighter sweeps before being posted north in July 1941, where it took over the defence of the Aberdeen area from No 111 Sqn, based at Dyce.
Whilst in Scotland, the Hurricane was replaced by the Spitfire V and at the end of the year the squadron came down to Perranporth in the west country, flying convoy patrols and escorting photographic reconnaissance aircraft to the Brest peninsula. In May 1942 it moved to Exeter, using Redhill as an advanced landing ground, again in the offensive sweep business over France – it received the new Spitfire IX in February 1943 and then – in June – moved north again, this time to Castletown and Sumburgh to defend the naval- base at Scapa for a couple of months. At this time it also operated the high altitude Spitfire VI to counter highflying German reconnaissance aircraft.
In the late summer of 1943 it was decided to make the Czech Fighter Wing, originally composed of two of their squadrons, up to the full three-squadron force, and No 310 flew south to join its compatriots at Ibsley, near Ringwood in Hampshire.
The next Czech squadron to form was No 311, this time a bomber unit in No 3 Group, initially based at Honington. Formation took place on 29 July 1940, and the squadron was equipped with Pegasus-engined Wellingtons, the first of which arrived on 2 August. Training proceeded apace and the first operation – a raid on Deume airfield near Amsterdam – was carried out on the night of 10/11 September. A few days later No 311 transferred to the satellite airfield at East Wretham in Norfolk which was to be its home for the remainder of its stay in Bomber Command. The Czech Training Unit was also based at East Wretham and became No 1429 Flight in January 1942.
No 311 maintained its part of the bombing offensive against Germany, making its first raid on Berlin on 23/24 September 1940, other targets including Mannheim, Wilhelmshaven, the Ruhr Valley, submarine bases on the French Atlantic coast and the battleships Schamhorst and Gneisenau in harbour at Brest, long trips to Italy to bomb Turin, several raids on Bremen and cities such as Essen.
But No 311’s time in Bomber Command was running out – it made its final bombing raid, a short-haul trip to the docks at Dunkirk, on the night of 25/26 April 1942. The desperate need for greater efforts to combat the menace of the U-Boat meant that Coastal Command needed reinforcement, and No 311 was one of the Bomber Command squadrons selected for transfer. During its time with No 3 Group it had flown more than a thousand sorties in 150 operations, during which time it dropped some 1,300 tons of bombs on enemy targets.
Transferring to the Coastal Command base at Aldergrove in Northern Ireland on 28 April 1942, No 311 quickly set about learning the trade’ and made its first operational patrol, an anti-submarine sweep, with five Wellington aircraft on 22 May, and then moved to its new operational base at recently-opened Talbenny near Milford Haven overlooking St Bride’s Bay. It arrived on 12 June, joining with No 304 (Polish) Sqn – which was also a new arrival at the satellite station at Dale – on anti-submarine patrols over the Bay of Biscay area. After being recalled to Bomber Command for the Thousand Bomber raid on Bremen on the night of 25/26 June, No 311 began operations from Talbenny in July. It was a hard period, the obsolescent Pegasus-engined Wellingtons having no useful single-engine performance and the weather proving to be almost as much a hazard as enemy defences.
Working under the control of No 19 Group, No 311 kept up a steady pattern of Biscay patrols and achieved their first success on 27 July 1942, when Sqn Ldr Stransky and his crew attacked and severely damaged the Type IX-B U-Boat U106, which had to abandon its patrol and return to base for repairs. Several other Uboats were found and attacked and these efforts culminated in the sinking of U-578, a Type VII-C boat, by Flying Officer Nyvlt and crew on 10 August. There were also antishipping strikes, and all operations were carried out against increasingly heavy enemy air activity over the Bay, which inflicted losses on No 311 crews.
The second anniversary of the squadron’s formation was marked by a visit to Talbenny by the Czech Foreign Minister, the Minister for Defence and the deputy Prime Minister. Operations proceeded, but the Wellington Ic was beginning to demonstrate its unsuitability for such intensive flying and in May 1943 the squadron was taken off operations.
Transferring to Beaulieu in the New Forest area on 26 May 1943, No 311 began training on the new Liberator V aircraft with a detachment from No 1 (Coastal) OTU, receiving its first squadron Liberator on 14 July. The Liberator V had provision for long range tanks and centimetric ASV (Air-toSurface Vessel) radar – the latter equipment generally mounted in a ‘Dumbo’ fairing under the forward nose of the aircraft. The long range fuel system comprised outer auxiliary wing tanks and provision for further auxiliary tanks in the bomb-bay.
With these new and greatly improved aircraft, No 311 began operations from Beaulieu on 21 August but sadly this resulted in the loss of the Commanding Officer, Wg Cdr J Breitcetl; there were other losses suffered in flying accident, but the new CO Wg Cdr V Nedved took over and morale began to rise again as the squadron’s anti-submarine and shipping strikes began to bear fruit. The squadron now had a formidable armament with which to carry out its operations, including rocket projectiles mounted on stub wings or ‘sponsons’. These were used when a No 311 Sqn aircraft piloted by P/Off O Doležal, DFC attacked and disabled the German blockade-running ship ‘Alsterufer’ on 27 December 1943, when the latter was trying to reach safe harbour in Bordeaux.
In February 1944 No 311 moved to Predannack in Cornwall, and later began to fly ‘Cork’ patrols in an effort to deny the English Channel and the Irish Sea to the Uboat. As the German Navy withdrew U-boat bases from France to more northern areas, the squadron was again transferred, this time to Tain, a bleak station on the Domoch Firth, where it joined with the Liberators of No 86 Sqn to carry out antisubmarine patrols off the Norwegian coast and over the North Sea, combining these with anti-shipping strikes.
When the war in Europe came to an end, No 311 Sqn had taken part in the sinking of five U-boats and had damaged another, as well as damaging and sinking many German vessels. In June 1945 the squadron was transferred to Transport Command and began to assist in the repatriation of prisoners of war from Belgian and French airfields. In August 1945 it set up base at Manston, where the Spitfires of the Czech fighter wing were already in residence. No 311 then began to repatriate Czech personnel to their homeland, using both Manston and Blackbushe as UK bases, and finally made it back to Prague, where it remained based until its eventual disbandment as an RAF unit in February 1946.
The third Czech squadron was No 312, formed at Duxford on 29 August 1940 with Hurricane fighters and within less than a month transferred to Speke, where it formed part of the RAF force defending Liverpool. No 312 became operational on 2 October and six days later scored its first victory – a Junkers Ju 88 – which came down on the banks of the Mersey. As the Battle of Britain died down, the squadron switched to convoy patrols and, after brief stays at Valley and Jurby, joined No 11 Group at Kenley to begin fighter sweeps and bomber escort missions before going to Martlesham Heath and then north to Ayr, where it became non-operational whilst converting to Spitfires.
In January 1942 the squadron moved to Fairwood Common, flying convoy patrols, with the added duty of working-up on ground attack exercises in conjunction with the Army. Transferring to Harrowbeer near Yelverton in Devon, No 312 went back on the offensive, escorting Hurricane fighterbombers and carrying out sweeps, Rhubarb and Ramrod sorties. The squadron went to Redhill in August to take part, with its sister squadron No 310 in the air cover for the Dieppe landing – Operation Jubilee, then returned to Harrowbeer before joining No 313 Sqn to form, for the first time, the Czech Fighter Wing at Culmhead (also known as Church Stanton) near Wellington, Somerset.
The Wing operated from here for eight months, carrying out offensive patrols and, later, countering the Luftwaffe’s `hit-and-run’ fighter-bomber attacks. Then, in June 1943, the Wing was split up with No 312 going north to Skeabrae, a somewhat desolate airfield in the Orkney Islands, from where it took part in the Scapa Flow Defences. After three months, the squadron came south to Ibsley in Hampshire, where it joined with the other two Czech fighter squadrons to form the revitalised full Czech Fighter Wing.
The fourth and last Czech squadron was No 313, a fighter unit equipped with Spitfires which formed at Catterick on 10 May 1941. The squadron was declared operational the following month and was transferred to Leconfield before going to No 10 Group, Fighter Command at Portreath, Cornwall, where it joined No 130 Sqn on convoy patrols and offensive sweeps. In December 1941 it was transferred to No 11 Group and became part of the Hornchurch Wing alongside Nos 64 and 411 Sqns; full offensive operations began in February 1942 and the wing suffered steadily-rising casualty rates. In April No 313 moved to the Hornchurch satellite at Fairlop and then, in June 1942, went to Culmhead where the arrival of No 312 Sqn in October saw the formation of the first Czech Fighter Wing.
As with the other two Czech squadrons, No 313 went north in June 1943 to assist with the defence of the naval base at Scapa Row, being equipped whilst at Peterhead with high altitude Spitfire VIs before going south again to Hawkinge and, on 18 September 1943, to lbsley where, as mentioned above, the full Czech Wing was formed with all three squadrons’ taking part. From here offensive sweeps and bomber escort missions were carried out until the station was handed over to the USAAF. The Czech Wing then resumed operations from Mendlesham near Stowmarket, and – equipped by now with Spitfire IXs – worked up in the fighter-bomber role in addition to bomber escort and Ramrod – operations. nce again the base had to be given up to the Americans, and the Wing moved to Appledram, in Sussex, where it became No 134 Airfield in No 84 Group, part of the 2nd Tactical Air Force – the cumbersome term ‘airfield’ was generally replaced by’ Wing’.
Sweeps were resumed, as were bomber escorts and attacks on No-Ball (flying bomb) sites, the Wing flying standing patrols over the beachhead in Normandy, during the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944. The threat of V1 flying bombs became so from 2nd TAF to ADGB (Air Defence of Great Britain, previously Fighter Command) and went to Tangmere on 22 June 1944. Spending a couple of days at B10 Plumetot, an airfield in the Caen area, the Wing left its aircraft and designation there (No 134 Wing was taken over by the Lympne Wing comprising Nos 66, 331 and 332 Sqns) whilst the Czechs came back to Lympne. From here the wing split up with No 310 going to Digby in Lincolnshire, No 312 to Coltishall in Norfolk and No 313 to Skeabrae in the Orkneys.
In August 1944 Nos 310 and 312 Sqns returned to the south, arriving at North Weald late in August 1944, where they were joined by No 313 Sqn in October. From here they began operating again, as the Bradwell Bay (Essex) Wing, replacing the previous Wing (Nos 64, 126 and 611 Sqns) and then moving on to Manston – after the War had ended – in August 1945.
As has been mentioned, the Spitfires of the Czech fighter squadrons were joined by the Liberators of No 311 Sqn and preparation were made for the return to their homeland. The Spitfires went back to Prague, arriving there on 24 August after a dogleg flight via Hildesheim, and the Liberators began taking their men home.
It had been a long and wearing war for pressing that the Wing was transferred these gallant Czechs – sadly, for many of them, it was to be a troubled time in their own country. For we British, from the little Somerset town in Axbridge to the outermost reaches of the British Isles – we shall remember them with gratitude, – honour and affection.
Article by James D. Oughton. Originally published in the Royal Air Force Yearbook 1993. Reproduced here with kind of permission of the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust Enterprises Publishing Ltd.