Out of the frying pan…

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JOHN RENNISON recounts the heroic deeds of a Czech airman serving with the RAF in World War Two, which were witnessed by his father.

F/Sgt Jack Rennison, centre, with two Czech Air Gunners of 311 Sqn.

Flight Sergeant “Jack” Rennison stood quietly beneath the bulk of the green T’2 hangar, only the tell-tale glow of a cigarette betraying his presence. The chill December air seemed to be alive as the whole airfield vibrated to the racing roar of Hercules engines being warmed up. Now and again a glittering whirlpool would appear as a light was caught by a speeding airscrew. The shadowy figures of the last crew members leaving the crew-truck were just visible, the sound of their banter audible but indistinguishable. The nervous tension in the air was almost tangible, and could not fail to jangle. the emotions of anyone watching. With the slow certainty of an elephant’s gait the first Wellingtons of 311 Czechoslovakian Squadron, RAF, began to move towards the take-off point, their exhausts spitting red flame in the winter blackness.

The peculiar feeling of affection that Jack had for the Czechs was never so strong as at moments such as this. An old-time airman of 1930 vintage, he had wondered how it would work out when he had been posted to the newly-formed Czechoslovakian bomber unit earlier in the year. Within a short while the courage, colour and infectious humour of the Czechs had wrought its magic, and woe betide the man who said the wrong thing as far as “311” was concerned. The Czechs were convinced that the defeat of Nazi Germany was only a matter of time, and that once the job was done they would “go home” to a free country. Until then the struggle for freedom would go on relentlessly, no matter what the price. Tonight would be no exception; the list of those “missing” would grow longer.

The Czech’s road to this dark, tree-lined airfield at East Wretham, in the heart of Norfolk, had been a long and winding one. The way had led via Poland and France, including for many a spell in the Foreign Legion. Jack smiled to himself as he thought of one of the ex-legionaires, Joe Capka. He would undoubtedly be wearing his unwashed violet Legion underwear. Joe donned his exotically coloured and somewhat “aromatic” long-johns with great reverence, before each flight. Any contact with soap, Joe assured all and sundry, would wash the good luck out of them. Another Czech “tradition” was to play a battered record of “Indian Summer” in the mess before each operational flight.

In the cockpit of Wellington “Q-Queen” Sergeant Jan Krivda finished his cockpit drill and blinked his navigation lights, the signal for the chocks to be pulled clear. Slowly the chunky shape of “Q-Queen” began to taxi towards the take off point. She would be, the third aircraft to go.

One after the other the first two aircraft sped across the field and clambered into the air. A preliminary circuit to gain height and then they set course. During the briefing the crews had been told that the raid on that night, December 16/17, 1940, was to be code-named “Operation Abigail,” and that the, target was to be Mannheim. The attack was in retaliation for the Luftwaffe’s raids on Coventry and Southampton.

Disaster

At the start point Jan Krivda saw the green light flash at him. This was it. A brief, almost instinctive, instrument check and Jan opened the throttles. Quickly “Q-Queen” gathered speed; 70 … 75 … 80. At just over 90 she began to lift off. What happened in the next few minutes will never be known with certainty. Those watching saw the aircraft begin to circle over the field at about 100ft. Suddenly “Q-Queen” appeared to collide with some tree tops. She heeled over and crashed. Almost with disbelief Jack kept staring at the spot where the aircraft had been. Then, galvanised into action, he began to run towards some bicycles leaning against the hangar. Others were of like mind, and soon an assortment of vehicles and pedestrians was on its way towards the, site of the crash.

The tree clipped by Q-Queen. Wellington was flying from right to left.

It was with the ominous crackle of flames in his ears that Plt Off Vladimír Nedvěd realised that, miraculously, he was uninjured. The world had suddenly gone topsy-turvy as “Q-Queen” had keeled over, then had come a tremendous jolting crash as she had hit the ground. Vladimír glanced towards the. wireless operator, Josef Doubrava. He had slumped forward half-conscious, and his jacket and helmet were aflame. Grasping Doubrava’s inert body, Nedvěd staggered from the fiercely burning aircraft and dragged his comrade into a slight dip some distance from the wreck. Despite the fact that he had only seconds before the bombs aboard the aircraft began to explode, Nedvěd ran back to the blazing wreckage. By this time the ammunition was starting to explode, •303 rounds firing off with a sharp crackle in all directions.

P/O Vladimír Nedvěd.

Nedvěd fought his way into the cockpit. The heat was tremendous, and in places the structure of the Wellington was glowing red hot. Jan Krivda was dead but the second pilot, Sgt Josef Pavelka, was still alive, although badly hurt. Dragging him from his seat, Nedvěd once more struggled through the wreckage to safety. As he staggered away from the doomed machine with the injured Pavelka he heard a scream from the direction of the rear turret, and despite his exhaustion he began to turn back towards the aircraft.

Crash site of Q-Queen.

At that moment he stumbled under the weight of Pavelka and fell to the ground. It was a fortunate trip indeed, for as both men lay on the ground the bomb load of “Q-Queen” began to explode. The fall had probably saved both their lives. Nedvěd arose and began to make his way back to the aircraft to free the rear gunner, Plt Off Jaromír Toul. The wreck was now a sea of flame, with the 3,500lb bomb load still erupting. The violence of the explosions threw him to the ground several times. With the strength of desperation Vladimír tried to smash the turret and free Toul. Suddenly two 500 lb bombs exploded with mind-numbing force only yards away, hurling Nedvěd to the ground. With grim determination he got to his feet and once more tried to free the gunner, whose legs were trapped. Thankfully the cavalcade of help arrived from the airfield at that moment and the rear gunner was extricated. Unfortunately he was to die later in hospital from his injuries.

Joseph Pavelka was to return to active service after a lengthy stay in hospital. Bohuslav Vaverka was left with a visible reminder of his brush with death, a burn mark on his forehead. He survived the war and many hours of operational flying. Ironically he was killed shortly after the war, when his aircraft crashed while transporting emigre Czechs back to their homeland. Nedvěd himself was badly burnt as a result of his desperate struggles.

Some six months later, on June 24, 1941, the whole squadron was paraded as the. AOC No 3 Group, Bomber Command, Air Vice Marshal J. A. E.. Baldwin, presented the MBE to Vladimír Nedvěd in recognition of his incredible courage. Vladimír survived the war and returned to Czechoslovakia, but when the. communists took over he fled and returned to Britain. He rejoined the RAF at Cardington in August 1948, and when his service career ended he emigrated to Australia.

On another December night in 1978, standing on the edge of what remains of East Wretham airfield, it was very easy to imagine the events of that night nearly 40 years earlier, when a young Czech had risked his life in a selfless display of courage.

Adapted from “The Sky is Our Ocean” by J. P. Rennison.

Article reproduced from the December 1979 edition of Aeroplane Monthly (now called Aeroplane) with kind permission from the publishers, Kelsey Publishing Group. www.aeroplanemonthly.co.uk

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