When Otto Smik’s body was finally sent home to be buried in Slovakia in 1994, he was accorded a hero’s return – unlike so many other Czechoslovakian airmen who flew for the RAF. SARAH HANNA of the Old Flying Machine Company tells his story; colour illustrations by JIRI HANZL from the excellent feature film Dark Blue World.
For those who returned alive in 1945, their enthusiastic welcome was soon expunged from the history books, and in many cases imprisonment and destitution followed. Under the communist regime the men who had fought so clearly for freedom could only be viewed as a risk, and the subsequent shameful internments speak for themselves. Today there has been almost complete reinstatement. The pilots have had their ranks restored, often exceeded, and there has been a full acknowledgment from their governments of their contribution to the war effort and the liberation of their country.
Otto Smik never lived to suffer such humiliations and triumphs; but I became interested in him as a result of being involved in a film project covering this field. I had been researching the Czecho-slovakian effort for the RAF in the light of the release of the new film Dark Blue World, which deals specifically with this subject (and for which the Old Flying Machine Company (OFMC) acted as aerial co-ordinator).
Films take longer to gestate than many people suppose. The OFMC was first approached to do the aerial co-ordination for the film more than six years ago. The budget was larger, the script different, but the aims have remained true throughout: to show the Czechoslovakian contribution to the air war and to decry the subsequent treatment of those who survived to return to the country they loved in 1945. When the Communists took over control in 1948, all airmen who fought in the RAF and other army units on the Western front were thrown out of the Czechoslovak armed forces, and from Czechoslovak Airlines, too. Many were arrest ed and sent to hard labour camps or the mines.
The RAF’s Czechoslovakian squadrons, 310 and 312, were, famously, based for some time at Duxford. Today, as I look around me at what is now the thriving Imperial War Museum (IWM) base, it is intriguing to try to picture life for these young men fighting in, and for, a foreign land. Where were they billeted; what did they eat; did they frequent the Chequers at Fowlmere or the Red Lion at Whittlesford? And what on earth did the locals make of them? Were they welcomed, or looked upon with introspective suspicion? (Rupert Brooke’s coruscating dissection of Cambridge people in his poem Grantchester springs to mind.)
By all accounts, and in particular a couple of diaries held by the IWM at Duxford, they were received very warmly indeed. All the glamour already attached to RAF fighter pilots was considerably multiplied in these young men, whose background added still more dash. Their uniforms were subtly different, their appearance darker – more obviously European – and their efforts to carry on fighting in whichever country was still free from occupation all contributed to great romantic appeal. Indeed, the diaries recount that their albeit infrequent forays into London were accordingly successful.
As I continued to look for information I discovered the OFMC’s link with Smik. Unlike many of his (marginally older) contemporaries, Smik arrived in Great Britain with no active Service background. While his colleagues broadly came from established military service and could be assimilated that much more quickly, Otto was barely 18 when, after an eventful journey through Hungary to France, he managed to secure a passage to England before the German invasion of France. Undertaking his ab initio training in Canada, his first, brief, operational posting was to 312 Sqn, followed by some time with 310 Sqn. However, his acute ability finally came in to its own on being transferred to 222 (Natal) Sqn in May 1943. The Czechoslovak table of victories can pretty well be divided down the middle, between the specifically nominated Czech squadrons and those where individuals such as Smik were posted, and accumulated their kills, elsewhere.
During this period Smik was awarded his DFC, and we were happy to establish from archivists in the former Czechoslovakia that he flew the OFMC’s Spitfire IX, MH434, while with 222 Sqn. The fifth most successful combatant among the Czechoslovaks fighting for the RAF in the Second World War, he was known to be unrelenting in his quest for improved fighting performance. He was more likely to be found spending leave at a RollsRoyce engine plant, observing technicians performing tests on Merlins, than in pursuing more “recreational” activities.
In the late summer of 1944, while leading B Flight of 312 Sqn, Smik was shot down over Holland. He managed to evade capture, and within two months was safely back in England, courtesy of the Dutch Resistance movement. At this point, at the grand age of 22, he was appointed to command 127 Sqn. Even by the standards of the time he was young for such a responsibility, and he was one of very few foreign nationals to be so distinguished.
Otto Smik’s victories
Smik’s career was to come to an abrupt end, however. On November 28, 1944, he and his Belgian wingman flew into anti-aircraft fire near Zwolle in Holland. Smik was buried under the identity of the wingman, as “Tayman”. He had been carrying his colleague’s passport to avoid the repercussions of being captured as a Czechoslovak. When the country was “annexed”, any national choosing to fight against it was liable to immediate execution upon capture. As Tayman also died that day, the resulting confusion was not resolved until the second Spitfire was found in a canal in 1964, when they were both finally buried under their real names. At Smik’s death, in addition to his DFC, he had been awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Czechoslovakian War Cross with numerous bars.
Finally, all these years on, Smik and his colleagues have been honoured for the part they played. Those who survive are feted, and need no longer fear.
The release of Dark Blue World in Prague late last year raised consciousness of what had been perpetrated upon these men still further, and the film proved to be the most successful ever released across the former Czechoslovakia, outselling even Titanic. This astonishing reversal of fortune is made all the more poignant by the fact that those who have survived are now old men. History, politics and the moment came together in time to make a living acknowledgment – and to let the young, it is hoped, understand and learn.
Dark Blue World was released in the UK on 10 May 2002 and a DVD is now also available.
Reproduced from the July 2002 edition of Aeroplane, with kind permission from the publishers, Kelsey Publishing Group. www.aeroplanemonthly.co.uk