Recollections of W/O Pavel Svoboda, Air Gunner with 311 Czechoslovak Sqn:-
I was born on 28 June 1916 at Bohuslavice u Kyjova, Hodonín, Czechoslovakia.
In 1939, I was studying at the Law Faculty of Masaryk University, Brno, Czechoslovakia. I was arrested by the Gestapo on the 17th November 1939 in the Kaunic Hall of Residence. Together with 500 students from Brno taken to Prague to join 673 university students from Prague, and under military escort taken to Sacheenhausen Concentration Camp nr. Oranienburg. (On the train for 36 hours without water or food).
Treatment and life in the camp was very hard. Through Hitler’s amnesty for Christmas 1939 I was released together with 24 other students from Prague and Brno Universities. Reached home (Bohuslavice) on the 24th December and on the 31st December crossed illegally into Hungary and later to Yugoslavia. From there, with the help from the French Authorities, I made my journey through Greece and Turkey to Beirut.
From there by ship to Marseille and to the Czech Military Depot at Agde. After the French capitulation evacuated from Port Vendre (nr. Perpignon) by the Royal Navy to Gibraltar. From Gibraltar in convoy to Liverpool and set foot on British Soil for the first time Sunday afternoon (warm and sunny) 10th July 1940.
Within a few days joined the Royal Air Force at Gloucester (my number:787399) and was sent to our Depot at Cosford. From Cosford to air-gunner course at Dumfries – from Dumfries to Honington to join 311 Bomber Squadron. From Honington was transferred with 311 to satelite airfield at East Wretham.
From there I flew, as a Air Gunner, on 37 operations over Germany and Italy and was shot down over Bremen on the 28th December 1941. Our Wellington aircraft, KX-B, T2553, crewed by Sgt Alois Šiška pilot, Sgt Josef Tománek, pilot, F/O Josef Mohr, Navigator, F/O Josef Ščerba, Wireless Operator, Sgt Rudolf Skalický, Rear Gunner, and myself, as as Front Gunner.
The aircraft was hit by flack over the target but we hoped to make it back to base. Over the North Sea, about 60 miles from the German coast the port engine caught fire, the propeller broke off, got embedded in the fuselage and cut the controlling links – we went into a spin at 24.000 feet and miraculously managed to hit the water nose down.
We were shaken and slightly hurt, the aircraft was rapidly filling with water, but five of the crew managed with great struggle to reach the dinghy. Mohr and myself opened the astro-hatch and got out. We saw both our pilots standing on the wing, but Josef Ščerba and Rudolf Skalický were missing. I went back to the astro-hatch and started reaching down, the water was practically to the top of the fuselage and as I was searching in the water I caught J.Scerba floating but still partly concious. With the help of J.Mohr we dragged him out. We then tried again to find Skalický but in vain. All five of us settled in the dinghy, our aircraft disappeared under the waves and we started our long sea journey to land (60 miles away).
The night was cold and the sea even colder within our dinghy. We had managed to send SOS messages and to give our position and we felt very confident that the air-sea rescue would pick us up in the morning. But for two days we had low cloud with flurries of snow, but on the 31st December the visibility improved and in the early afternoon we saw Lockheed Hudson RB P (Wireless Operator Bill Palmers) from Cannock, Staffs. on patrol about a mile away. They saw our distress signal and came low overhead; they dropped us a parcel about 10 yards from our dinghy but we could not reach it. They stayed with us for about 20 minutes, waved to us and flew west to England.
Next day we waited hopefully but nobody came. We had been in the water – icy seas with the spray breaking over our dinghy – for four days and our hopes were fading. During the night Tomanek died and in the morning we committed his body to the sea. Mohr died mid-day on the 2nd January and Ščerba was losing consciousness. Šiška tried to help me with the committal of Mohr’s body, but was too weak – so the body was left in the dinghy.
During the night of 3nd – 4rd January Šiška fell asleep and I was not able to wake him. In the early morning of 3rd January it seemed to me that I could see something moving not far away to the East of us. I watched for about one hour before I was sure that behind the distant haze was a very faint line of coast. In great excitement I tried to share my good news with my friends. I shook Scerba for about 10 minutes but there was no response. I then started calling and shaking Šiška and after a few minutes he opened his eyes. After a lot of shouting and shaking he woke up. Gradually he took in what I was saying and he answered. He was staring in the direction I was pointing and said: “You are right, we will make it”.
By noon we came through the minefield, bumping into mines and expecting to be blown up – but nothing happened. About a mile away we saw german soldiers manning gun positions on the coast. They waited for us until we landed, took us to their barracks and called the doctor. He gave us first-aid and – to our surprise – saved Ščerba’s life.
For two weeks we were kept in the naval hospital at Alkmaar, most of the time delirious due to very high temperatures. When our temperatures returned to normal we were handed over to the Luftwaffe Lazeret in Amsterdam. After 8 weeks there with threatened amputations we were still not able to stand and were sent as stretcher cases to the rehabilitation hospital in Hohemark nr. Frankfurt. We stayed there to the end of June and I finished as a prisoner of war – still using two walking sticks – in Stalag VIII B. Lamsdorf. Ščerba went to Offlag III and Šiška was sent on crutches to a new re-habilitation centre.
I spent 2 years in the airforce compound of Stalag VIII B with 3 attempted escapes:
First escape in September 1942 with a mass break out of 26 Air Force and Army P.O.W. About half of us managed to crawl through the barbed wire fences when we were spotted by the guard patrolling the fences on the outside. I was about 25 yards from the fence when I heard “Halt” and gunfire from the guards and machine guns from the perimeter towers, and then there were searchlights and dogs. We were rounded up, taken to the camp prison, stripped and beaten (by Corp.Kysela) and locked up in solitary confinement for 28 days. We were then returned to our compound.
My second attempt to escape took place in July 1943 from a working party in a sawmill near Niesse in Upper Silesia. Unfortunately I was re-captured and returned to Stalag VIII B for punishment – the usual 28 days of solitary confinement. The third attempt to escape took-place at the end of September 1944, from a working party in a stone quarry near Sponau. I planned the escape with great care together with my friend Vernon Bastable from Winnipeg, Canada. The change over and arrangements for the escape which took place in the quarry were slow and and risky, but in the end with help from local workers our escape was successful. After a long march of 28 hours without stopping we reached the part of Moravia where I was born; I found many friends and joined the local partitsan group – Carbon – was supplied with military material through a Czech parachutist Major Frank Bogataj.
Just before Easter 1945, with another Czech officer, I was trapped and re-captured by the military police, handed over to the Gestapo and taken to their Head Quarters in Brno and held in the Kaunic Students Hall of Residence where I originally started my fight for freedom. Since 1940 this Student’s Hall of Residence had been used as a Gestapo prison where hundreds of Czech citizens were executed.
After about a week of interrogation I was taken to the main hall for transport to Germany, but in the chaos of evacuation I escaped and contacted a second group of partisans led by General Luza where I took part in actions and stayed until the liberation of my country on the 12 May 1945.