Recollections of W/O Arnošt Zábrš, pilot with 311 Czechoslovak Sqn:
I was born on the 19.4.1912 in Brno (Brunn), Czechoslovakia, son of a man, who died at the end of the World War 1, as a consequence of that war and disease contracted at the time. I remember him very well, although I was only six years of age and I loved my father very much. I had an elder sister Mary who although of not very good health, married and had two sons, who are both alive and well. Herself died after the second world war. My mother, a very strong woman, a farmer’s daughter, re-married later and there are two other children from that marriage.
Although I was a first-class student, my stepfather would not allow me to study and I joined the Airforce in Czechoslovakia in 1930 at the age of 18. I happen to come out as a private of the two years course and was stationed in Prague afterwards. It was then that I started studying English at the English Institute of Victoria College of Prague.
In 1936 I was chosen to visit Rumania and Yugoslavia, to fly in uniform on a friendly visit of those those countries. Also in 1936-37 I was among the crews who were flying modern low-level flying aeroplanes purchased in Russia. Apart from reconnaissance, I have been trained as a light-bomber pilot. At the time of Sudeten crisis, I was allocated to striking force of the front line, in case of war.
When in spring 1939 Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, I was ill and in bed. After recovery from illness, I made arrangements to leave Czechoslovakia illegally, and did so in July 1939 to Poland, where signed for Foreign Legion in Krakov, and reached France on the 1st August 1939. I never went to Africa and after the declaration of war was posted to Pau, Bas Pyrenees and have undergone the training there. The stay in France was nothing much to boast about, and finally, when crises came to a head, I was put in charge of seven other compatriots and we were sent to reach a “d’assault” unit, but the time was too critical and instead of reaching the unit successfully and joining it, it happens to be nothing but chase and confusion. Capitulation of France overtook us when in Limoges. After considerable trouble, I finally reached, with my little group, Port Vendres on the border of France and Spain, Mediterranean. Sucesfully boarded a ship ‘Apapa’ of Elder Dempster Line and reached England on the 5th July 1940. After a short stay in Cosford, near Wolverhapton, was allocated to bomber squadron 311, in the rank of Sergeant pilot. The station was Honington, near Bury St. Edmunds. Later the squadron was posted to East Wretham. It was from this station I flew operational to bomb Berlin, which resulted in forced landing near Leidenschendam.
Berlin mission was on the verge of endurance with the Wellington and if consumption of petrol was not controlled, it could have easily resulted in disaster. Karel Trojáček planned things admirably well and for that reason, I did most of the flying behind controls. It was a long way to Berlin; finally, we reached it. I remember vividly, my eyes widely opened, carrying on to reach the given target. Somehow, although the anti-aircraft shells were dangerous, the spectacle was beautiful, chilling in the spine, but beautiful all the same. The bombs were released by others, I was just flying on course and then a command came to turn back. Again the time seemed very, very long.
Suddenly, inexplicably, things went wrong. The plane started losing height and was difficult to control in direction, I was behind controls at this time, although it was night, at height, there was the beginning of dawn, ground different in colour and decision was made, with Trojáček, to land, the last moments were my own. I saw a black patch on the right in front believing it to be wood, I banked to the right and prepared for landing by lowering flaps and using reflectors. We were extremely lucky, landing on a meadow, next to the railway line and the canal behind which I thought I saw the wood. After a short consultation and decision what must be done, the crew divided into two groups, the respective leaders of which were Karel Trojáček and myself.
Little time was lost and I left the scene of landing with Knotek and Karel Kunka. It was still very dark, and in haphazard choice of direction, we were often falling in water. The immediate preceding circumstances before entering the farm of Mr Wilhelm van Veen, are not remembered by me. The only thing remembered very clearly was that people to whom I spoke were friendly but said very little. I have decided to strip off as much as possible of compromising clothes and replace them with whatever suitable clothes could be found. Having done that, we left the farm and carried on walking, we, reached a nice garden in which a young man worked, he was extremely friendly disposed and did speak some German, which I tried with him.
He could not help truly effectively, but placed us in a garage or similar, brought us some food and drink and instructed us to wait till his master comes. It must have taken some considerable time because all three of us fell asleep. When the gardeners master did come, very calm and composed, speaking English, he asked us to come along, which we did, having come to an opening from his property, the man said, “straight forward” and that was the last we saw of any of them. It was broken daylight by now and as we were afraid of walking along, we hid in the undergrowth and stayed in that spot near the evening.
Than we decided to try our luck elsewhere. We heard chimes of a church-clock and thought perhaps the clergyman will help. When the door of the rectory opened, we were welcomed by a woman, who most probably was the clergyman’s wife, she was of a very friendly disposition, but the clergyman himself did not want to have anything to do with us and send us away. It was dark by now and as we walked, we talked, but suddenly we were passing a gate of some military establishment guarded by Germans. They did not recognise us as military personnel and we passed them safely. Soon we reached an area, what in my opinion was a ‘well to do’ part of the town, large gardens, and we entered one of these and found a stable in the middle of the property.
The doors were locked but there was an opening the door large enough to allow one through, we used this facility and made ourselves comfortable, as best as we could, for the night. Due to the fact that we passed the guarded ‘military establishment, we did not dare to show ourselves any more. Early, the following morning, just after dawn, I left the stable and combed the surroundings in search of food. I came, in a wooden shed nearby, across one hen’s egg and nothing else, went back to my friends and it was touching to see us share the one egg, each of us being afraid not to take too much.
We stayed in the stable through the day and towards the evening, I left again in search of food. I came across a house, in the same property; upon knocking on the door, a man, well clad, calm and composed, appeared. As soon as I started speaking English, he calmly said “go away”, but his English sounded so good that I couldn’t and so persisted asking for food.
At this moment, a woman, – I might call, a lady, appeared, speaking very fluent English, sounding so good that she created suspicion in me. Appearing, disappearing, offering milk and food. I got very much afraid, but it was already too late. She must have given, in my opinion, particular instructions to other people in the house to summon German military personnel, who presently arrived, and arrested me. The said woman tried to explain by saying that it was the best course to adopt, wanted to know the address of my mother, etc., she made me sick and I find it very hard to forgive her. I shall always blame her for the death of Kunka.
Knotek and I were brought to some municipal military centre, where we met the remainder of the crew, Trojáček, Prochazka and Kilian, they were taken prisoners about the same time as us. The remainder of the story in Holland is interesting in that since, that we were put into a prison (in solitary confinement), where all the inmates were hooded. I was visited by a Dutch clergyman, who gave me the impression that the end was near. I asked him to give me textbooks to learn Dutch, which I never did. By that time the physical fatigue was such that I fell asleep.
Next morning we were all moved into a place where there were many Dutch people employed, some kind of very large food-making establishment. The food given to us was good and plentiful, all Dutch people were very friendly to us but the language difficulty was the main obstruction. From there we were driven some distance in a vehicle and then we went by train very far. I do not know where to, but it was a military, temporary kind of, prison, where interrogation took place and from there, after several days, we were moved to Berlin Tegel Wehrmachtsuntersuchungs Gefangniss.
Generally spoken, the stay, in spite of being solitary confinement, was not too bad, especially as one of the German guards came from Sudetengau and spoke Czech, my mother tongue. The food was poor, of low grade, lacking many essentials needed for healthy survival, one was hungry all day. The said German guard advised me to buy raw carrots from my money, which was taken away from me after the arrest. I could also buy cigarette-paper and tobacco and was given permission to smoke. I remember meeting a Frenchman on the daily exercise walk, pleading for a cigarette and matches. The poor man tried to smoke grass from the mattress and got very sick after that. I was giving him when I could contact him four to five cigarettes already rolled up, and I think he was the most grateful person I have ever met. I never learned about his fate. Due ‘to the continuous interrogation by the “Reichkriegsunwalt”, my morale was very low, especially as the charges were high-treason, due to my Czech origin.
It was at that time I wrote to my mother, who lived in Prague, to come and see me, believing for the last time. It did not take long before my mother turned up. It was all very sudden and unexpected, I was led downstairs, through corridors I have not remembered having gone through before and there in one room she sat at a table and I was asked to sit opposite her, unable to reach her. We did not really know what t talk about. My mother was very upset and couldn’t help crying. I asked her how everybody was, without mentioning any names and before I realised it, the time was up. We did kiss each other and parted. It was only afterwards that I thought of so many things I wanted to know and never asked. I do not remember the date, but this visit from morals point of view played an important part.
After a period of about three months, I managed to overcome the low spirit by borrowing English books from the prison library. I couldn’t be grateful enough to P.G. Woodhouse, whose books I read and copied word by word on paper, which I bought through prison facilities. When the English library got exhausted, I started reading German books, first without a dictionary, later on, I obtained a Langensheid dictionary Czech-German, German-Czech. As soon as I established a definite routine work, things started looking up. Eventually the day of trial approached, we were summoned and put into a “Black Maria” and waited and waited for hours, locked up in there. Finally, we were removed from this vehicle and put back into cells, solitary confinement all the time.
For several days we were left without any knowledge of what is likely to happen to us. One day, near exercise time, all remaining crew members were summoned and stood in front of the floor Commanding Officer and a statement was read to us in German. I remember clearly the important part, which at the time I did not understand but memorised very well. It ran “Die Hauptverhandlung wurde aufgehoben”. Later on I asked the Czech speaking guard, who explained that the trial was not to be held. No other news was given for months, till one day, rather hastily, we had to pack our few possessions and were driven by a vehicle through Berlin, guarded all the time, to a station and then travelled for a long time.
As Franta Knotek and myself were non-commissioned officers, we were separated from Trojáček, Prochazka and Killian and went to different destinations. They went to Stalag Luft I in Sagan and us to Army prisoner of war camp in Silesia. I do not remember the name of the camp anymore, there happen to be quite a few Royal Air Force personnel in the camp, but also many others, including Russians.
Only after a few days stay in this camp, I was searched and put into a solitary confinement again. This time for thirty days only, as I had a punishment for the Germans having found on me some objects, which they classed as tools for escape. It was in this camp where I have gone through my hardest time in captivity. There were no Red Cross parcels for at least a period of four months. The winter was extremely severe, the German armies were losing the war in Russia and food given to us by them was not adequate and plentiful to sustain a healthy life. Instead of moving, we stayed in beds, wrapped in blankets, did not wash often and had lice. Consequently we had to be de-loused, and in the process of this many people died from gas-poisoning, as we were left in the clothes we wore, I think it was at this time that I contracted tuberculosis.
But gradually the conditions changed. At the beginning of this change they were cases like eight of us sharing a tin of pilchards; in the good English way. The tin of pilchards was cut for by cards, the winner had a good meal and the rest was playing Bridge like before. It could be tedious to mention all details of life in this camp but a fact worth mentioning is the way the Russians were treated at this time. They were huddled together like a herd of cattle, no protection overhead, they slept in the severe frost of around 20° below zero centigrade in the open and when counted in the morning they stood their frozen comrades and held them to be counted as alive, to get more food. I do not know their final fate, but will never forget their singing, which was as sinister as their life, monotonous and very sad.
It was before the time of the ‘Great Escape’ that myself, Knotek and some other Czech Airforce prisoners of war, were moved to Sagan, Stalag Luft III. The life in this camp was much easier than in any other institution I have gone through so far. There were orderly times for meals, regular issue of Red-Cross parcels, incomming mail, libraries, various clubs for people of same interest, even regular dental appointments. I learned in, this camp that the release from military prison Berlin Tegel was due to the work of Wing Commander Day, I do not remember having met him ever but would like to express my gratitude to him for the release.
In Sagan there were distinctly two camps, commissioned and noncommissioned officers. The non-commissioned officers part was eventually moved to Stalag Luft Barth, near the Baltic Sea. It was in this camp that I went through the most normal life, there was a fairly strong Czech community there, dramatic society, football club, arts and crafts exhibitions, regular sports meetings etc. There also happen to be in the neighbourhood a strong, about three thousand, American prisoner of war camp. English rugby matches took place there, and it was a real pleasure and relaxation to watch these. I was a member of the dramatic society and took part in the play “The man, who came to dinner”, playing the old professor with cockroaches, and as today, I had a moustache, grown for the occassion, and was nick-named “the man behind the bush”. I also took part in one of the sport-meetings, running a mile. I could not understand at the time, why I finished last, very nearly 1½ round behind the winner, I was so exhausted that I felt like dying, but the applaus, which accompanied my finishing against these odds, pleased me very much.
Later in the evening of the same day whilst playing bridge, I had a haemorage and was put into the sick-bay and on milkdiet and to my delight started putting on weight. The doctor in charge was a Scot, called Nichols, a very pleasant and knowledgeable man, a brain surgeon by profession. We became friendly, he showing off how much he knew about Russian and Czech grammer and I helping him here and there to cope with his job in emergencies, like making tools to operate with. Once I was delighted to learn from him that a life of an American prisoner was saved, after burst apendix.
It was thought that I could be re-patriated, but after some extensive X-Raying, the German doctors thought differently. Eventually Dr. Nichols managed to transfer me to a hospital in Saxon Hohenstein Ernsthal. It was a very long journey by train. There was so little attention paid to me that many escape ideas went through my head, but the war was getting towards the end and nothing came of it.
In this hospital were English, French and also some Polish women prisoners of war. I was given a job of clerk to a T.B. Spcialist Dr. Kochrane. It was a very pleasant stay, sedimentary tests of my blood were approaching normal, I felt very well and started of my own initiative, to be a newsman to all personel. Once, when reading good news, I was caught in the act by a German Corporal, who was very nasty about it. In about-a fortnight after this incident, we were liberated by the American Force. Somehow the Americans learned about the incident and brought the corporal in front of me, I forgave him,- although it should be said, he behaved very cowardly.
Shortly after liberation I was moved to Erfurt and asked by Major Fenix to be an interpretor,’ to-handle ex prisoners of-war French,- Polish Czechoslovakian and similar.
A driver with a jeep was allocated to me and I remember this. part of stay in Germany as the most pleasant. Once, as I was bringing some ex-prisoners to an airfield, I came across some small training planes, all damaged in some way. I had a good look at them and eventually managed to put one of them together and tested it for flight the following day. On return to Efurt, I found a cable from the Air Ministry, ordering me to return to England without delay. So the little plane was not flown after all.