FLIGHT TO FREEDOM – Karel Šťastný’s airborne escape to England on 14 June 1948:
At the time, late in January, 1948 that the new Government was set up under Communist Leadership, Karel was stationed at Bratislava and thus separated from his wife Anna. In any case, her engrossing involvement with the Communist Party had enhanced an estrangement and Karel accepted that his future plans need not include provision for her.
In March, he was deeply affected by the untimely and mysterious death of his friend Jan Masaryk and this added weight to his growing intolerance of life under the new Establishment. Once again, he felt compelled to quit Czechoslovakia. He had, in fact, been made victim of the inevitable purge which accompanies any new regime – his record of service within Britain’s Royal Air Force giving grounds for suspicion as to his loyalties. Together, with all other ex-R.A.F. colleagues, he was dismissed from the Service and pensioned off on a 2-days’ pay basis, which was quite inadequate to live on.
He moved into the city of Prague and there, met up with several old friends, who, like himself, had been ousted from the Czech. Air Force for security reasons. Some of them had English wives whom they had recently dispatched back home to safety, but there was little or no hope of anyone, not even these bereft husbands, being granted permission to leave the country through normal official channels. A number of their ex-colleagues were known to be languishing in gaol, without hope of trial and fear ran high amongst them, lest they too, be arrested by the increasingly active Secret Police. Moreover, Czech. informants could, in anonymity, lurk in the most apparently innocent circles, motivated by the incentive of personal gain. It had even been established that numerous high-ranking Service officers, including some Generals, had deviously attained their exalted positions, by ingratiating themselves with the Communists. In such an atmosphere, Karel was well aware that the strategem now evolving in his mind, was one which could, all too readily, be labelled ‘treasonous’. On the other hand he had suffered more than his fill of prisons and to him, the risks involved in another freedom bid, were no more fraught with danger than was status quo. Together with two of his closest friends, Josef Bernát and Zdeněk Sichrovský, a committee was formed, to organise the daring plan, which alone, brought hope to these three desperate men.
Total secrecy was imperative in this land where trust could be a folly, even to the exclusion of family, so there must be no farewells. It was on fishing trips, safe from eavesdroppers, that details of the conspiracy were worked out, over a period of three months. Their intention was to ‘borrow’ a ‘plane of the Czech. Air Force and, with a capacity load of passengers, fly out across Europe to England. To secure a dependable aircraft it was necessary for them to negotiate with several trustworthy and willing collaborators from within the Air Force itself. In due course, five passages were bargained, on the solemn undertaking of one officer, two non-commissioned officers and two mechanics that a sound, fuelled Dakota would be prepared by them for the exodus.
After careful screening the passenger list grew to a total of twenty-one persons in all, two of them young boys accompanying their parents. These civilians were virtually on stand-by, braced to a mere hour’s notice of a fateful rendezvous at Kbely Military Air Base. Each person was restricted to one small suitcase. In full awareness of the incalculable hazards which might beset their perilous mission, guns were procured, checked and issued – a machine-gun for each of the two men assigned as guards over the party; the duty officer and duty n.c.o. were to conceal holstered revolvers on their persons and each of the remaining men took two firearms apiece – grim reminders of their united determination to fight to the death, if need be. No-one was under any delusion as to their fate, should they be discovered. The current trial in Prague, against no lesser personage than General Karel Janoušek, Head of the Czech. Air Force during the war and Air Vice-Marshal of the Royal Air Force, who had been apprehended whilst trying to escape from Czechoslovakia, had not yet reached its conclusion, but the outcome would undoubtedly carry the minimum sentence of eighteen years’ imprisonment with the loss of civil rights. Well they knew that, at best, this is what capture would bring each of them and they had no intention of surrender.
At last, late on the evening of June 13 – a Sunday – it was on. Nine taxis were chartered from the city, to take all 21 and their hand-luggage, in a broken convoy, to the lower aerodrome. It was a moonless night and close to midnight, when they began to file up the inclining track round the airfield’s perimeter, towards the upper aerodrome. Without warning, a Military guard stepped from the shrubbery to halt shoot. As the safety catch clicked, he felt an urgent hand upon his arm, then a whispered plea from one of their party, not to shoot the guard, he being a known friend of the man who championed for him. The interloper assured them he had no design other than to wish them luck, but it was a close thing and a relief to all than gun-fire had been averted.
Twenty minutes after setting out on foot, they silently grouped at a point adjacent to where not one, but two Dakota ‘planes stood, barely discernible, on the grass. Consternation broke loose among the five Air Force members, when they realised that the particular Dakota they had secretly readied was now blocked by another. It was known that it too had been serviced that very day and obvious that it had been taxied to its present stance following the subsequent test-flight. A hurried conference was held by those who would form their crew and it was unanimously agreed that there could be no turning back – they would have to take their chances with the foremost aircraft.
The airfield was entirely laid in grass, except for the incomplete concrete runway, which the Germans had started to build before they left, with banks of excavated earth remaining along each side of the ribbon and but one gap in this mound to allow access to the runway. Passage through this solitary access point did nothing to enhance their chances of an unobserved take-off.
These Dakotas were used for transport purposes and thus equipped with box-like metal metal seats fitted like benches to each side of the fuselage. The metal floor could readily reverberate the slightest sound and a pre-arranged signal for the removal of all footware was given, before they were waved on, to board the lead Dakota. There was no need of appeals for silence in this moment of climactic tension.
Joseph Bernát took his place at the controls, followed by Karel, who slipped into the co-pilot’s seat. Luckily both engines fired instantly, but as the instrument needles sprang into action, they noted with alarm, the extent to which the afternoon test-flight had depleted the fuel tank. It would be touch and go, but a bridge to be crossed later. Meantime, they were just thankful to roar down the runway and soar toward Western skies, away from a still inert Kbely.
Once airborne, the experienced wireless operator made contact with Frankfurt, Germany, which base was under American administration and a rather surprised, but helpful American Air Traffic Controller beamed them on course, to that point, before they passed over and tuned in to R.A.F. Station, Manston, Kent, who were even more surprised to learn of their approach. It was no accident that Manston had been chosen as their goal; most of the men who had seen service with the Royal Air Force had been stationed there and knew it well.
In the dank fuselage the cold was intense and the passengers huddled together in an attempt to keep warm. From time to time, a bottle of whisky was passed round to help ward off the chill, its purpose strictly medicinal, for it was much too premature to anticipate a celebration.
On the flight deck anxious eyes were riveted upon the fuel gauge and when they were still only mid-way across the English Channel, the needle registered empty. They positively willed the ‘plane onwards, across the coastline and down on to the far reaches of Manston Aerodrome. No sooner were all wheels on the ground, than the engines cut out, the tanks bone dry.
But no matter that they were unable to obey taxiing instructions to an allotted dispersal point – miraculously they had done it. The months of planning, the last-minute setbacks, the discomfort and suspense of the four-hour long flight, were all now behind them. Relief gave way to exuberance as the two women, two young boys and seventeen men tumbled from the ‘plane with excited cries of “Hooray, freedom. We have arrived,” and “It’s wonderful to be in England.”
Even as they had touched down, a large R.A.F. lorry was on its way to meet them and, in the charge of a somewhat overwhelmed Duty Officer, they were taken to the Mess. There, the first question asked of them was whether they carried any firearms and after a blanket had been spread they gladly surrendered the considerable little arsenal, for which they had no further need. A welcome meal followed, then they slept, tranquil at last, in the certainty that here no intruder might pounce and bring terror to their hearts.
Moving story of desperate men in desperate times.