Ladislav Zadrobilek – Debden Burning aircraft

W/O Ladislav Zadrobílek recalls his fatefull flight on 14 March 1942 with 111 Sqn, when his Spitfire Mk Vb R7192, JU-Y crashed into Spitfire BL429 JU-E flown by his squadron C/O S/Ldr Brotchie :

It was a lovely spring day. Debden airbase was very busy as usual during the war, I would not suspect, that this particular day would will be fatal for me. The whole day was devoted to practise flying in the squadron. This time I was appointed to lead the last section. Squadron Commander S/Ldr Brotchie was always normally leading the first section, but this time was leading the section before me. First section got airbourne, followed by the second one and the third section started to roll. I prepared for take-off and waited for my two numbers to format on me on the runway. When I checked their position, no. 2 Sgt Boyle signalled to me with a thumb, that everything is alright and I may take-off.

S/Ldr Brotchie

Number 2 could see further along the runway than myself, because view ahead from stationary Spitfire is obstructed. That is the procedure done always before, do far there was not a starter on airfields who would give clearance for take-off. I have decided to take-off. When I began to accelerate and the tail was raised, I could see ahead of me and to my horror I realised, that the section in front of me for unknown reason has stopped on the runway ahead. There was not other possibility than to use full power and try to jump over the aircraft ahead. My number 2 and 3 realised from their side positions the obstruction earlier and turned off the runway on the grass.

My aircraft left the ground – actually I pulled it off the ground, but it was not enough to clear the aircraft ahead, so with full power I hit the aircraft. There was a terrible crash and in a moment I was in the middle of a fire-wall. Both aircraft became entangled and my aircraft finished in a vertical position above the number in front. I was lucky, that I was always properly fastened in my seat. I was not therefore thrown ahead and injured. I quickly loosened the straps, opened the cabin and jumped through the flames from the aircraft on the ground an rolled away from the aircraft. My clothing was burning but quickly arrived mechanics extinguishing this fire. I suffered burns on face and neck, but the leader S/Ldr Brotchie in the crash was burned to death. Even now I still see it in fron of me. It was terrible. It was all happening in parts of a seconds. Despite my obvious shock I have managed to action quickly, what was necessary. So I managed to get out of the aircraft probably in two seconds. This was the only possibility in the circumstances to save the life. During these exciting moments and with and with all routine activities I imagined in front of my eyes my own funeral.

After the crash I was immediately transferred to base sick quarters for first aid. Karel Zouhar came to see me there. After first aid treatment I was moved to hospital in Cambridge, where I was treated until 24th March 1942. I was mainly burnt on face around the left eye and partly around the right eye. I was obviously trying to avoid the flames by turning head to right and this resulted in burns even on the neck around the flying helmet. The helmet covered the forehead, ears and hair. Microphone covered the nose, mouth and other parts of the face. Otherwise my burns could have been much worse. Due to heat the helmet tightened on the head and it was difficult to remove it. An English Intelligence Officer visited me in hospital and sadly commented on my bad luck. Czechoslovaks had a good name at 111 squadron.

They cared for me in the hospital very well and smeared me continuously with some yellow ointment. I did not know myself how badly I am burned and how I look. In the next bed was an injured Canadian and after a few days in the hospital I asked him to lend me a mirror. At first he refuse, but later he lent it to me. The burns looked very nasty and the injured parts were oozing. At the airbase, immediately after the crash I could still see, but later I was worried that my eye-sight might be damaged. Three days later small gaps opened between the eye-lids, through which I could see the light again and later even the surroundings. The burns have caused initially heavy swelling, which caused reduced vision, but swelling was slowly disappearing.

On 24th March 1942 I was transferred to the RAF hospital Ely, about 24 km from Cambridge, to a special department for the burnt people. They used for the treatment also a special bath with salted water. They even washed me with this salted water before every treatment. Then followed the treatment with yellow ointment and the new bandage. They apparently experienced, that the airmen burned before jumping by parachute into the sea, have healed earlier.

In the bed next to me was treated for burns Bohous Vavererka, from 311 Czech bomber squadron, who was saved from the burning aircraft and survived the war, only to burn to death with the whole crew of Liberator, which crashed on 5 October 1945 on return to the homeland. Another example of cruel fate of the wartime man, surviving the war but dying tragically on return home. One of his visitors in the hospital was my friend from my Czech village, Franta Buliš, who later on 18 October 1942, burned with 13 members of the crew of Wellington near Northolt airfield.

I stayed in hospital nearly 6 weeks, during which time I saw many patients suffering from light to very complicated burns. Many boys did not survive their burns. A fire in the aircraft was the worst possible experience of the airmen. The burns may be painful, but could be survived. Much worse are usually their consequences.

I was released from the hospital on 27 April 1942. I returned to 111 squadron to a hearty welcome. They were very happy that I have survived and can fly again.

I started flying on 1 May 1942. My first take-offs were rather difficult. I had visions of the terrible crash, which I experienced. Before my eyes was a fire-ball, in which I was. It is very difficult to describe my feelings. During my initial take-off’s, when I was already lined-up for take-off, I turned slightly my aircraft to confirm that runway was clear.

At this time there was still no starter controller at this airfield, who would give permission to take-off on request.

After a few flights I regained my self-confidence, security and internal peace-of-mind. So I continued normal flying with the squadron as necessary. My last flight at 111 squadron was on 8 May 1942.

In May 1942 I was invited to RAF Hornchurch, where I was decorated by President Dr E Beneš with my second War Cross. I met there also my friends from other Czech squadrons – Karel Zouhar, Karel Čap, Ota Hrubý and Stanislav Fejfar, who soon afterwards was missing from a sweep over France.

I was then transferred to 313 squadron at Fairlop near London. Squadron Commander was S/Ldr Karel Mrázek. There I was involved in 5 flights, two of them operational. One was the escort of Hurri-bombers to St Omer and second was a convoy escort. My last flight was on 20 May, a weather test arranged by F/Lt František Vancl.

This entry was posted in 313 Sqd, Autobiography. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ladislav Zadrobilek – Debden Burning aircraft

  1. pickledwings says:

    A great story and a good reminder that the “horrors of war” are not always found in direct combat or even the the presence of an enemy.

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