S/Ldr Jiří Hartman DFC was a pre-WW2 member of the Czechoslovak Air Force, after the German occupation in March 1939 he escaped to Poland and then onto France where he served in l’Armee d’Air. When France capitulated in June 1940 he was evacuated to England where he joined the RAF and posted to 310 Sqn.
During WW2 he remained with 310 Sqn and had the honour of leading the formation of 54 Spitfires when 310 Sqn, 312 Sqn and 313 Sqn returned to Ruzyne airport, Prague on 13 August 1945 – the Russian ‘liberators’ had delayed their return for some three months. Five days later a Victory parade was held in Prague for the returning airmen, who paraded through Prague to a packed Staroměstské náměstí for a ceremony headed by President Eduard Beneš. During that parade the airmen were feted as returning heroes by the jubilant crowds that lined along the streets of the parade route. S/Ldr Jiří Hartman lead his squad of airmen in that parade and was one of the senior airmen who was awarded a medal by President Beneš in the Staroměstské náměstí ceremony.
However the euthoria of their triumphant return and rebuilding of their lives back in their homeland was gradually eroded as the Russian ‘liberators’ gradually ensured that it was pro Communists who took up controlling positions in post WW2 Czechoslovakaia.
S/Ldr Jiří Hartman remained in the Czechoslovak Air Force post WW2. Initially he was in command of the 10th Fighter Regiment and shortly after the 8th Fighter Regiment, his recollections of those times and subsequent events and his escape to the West in 1948 after the Communist take-over are:
Before the Communist take-over.
Later that year (1945) my regiment (8th) was moved to Brno, which was to be its permanent base. Brno is the second largest town in Czechoslovakia and was quite well known internationally for the invention and manufacture of the Bren Gun.
The move to Brno caused me a bit of a problem. My wife, who was by then expecting a child, did not speak any Czech and could not be left on her own in Prague. There were plenty of empty houses in Brno, after the evacuation of the Germans, and these were being allocated to deserving applicants by the local Council. According to a Ministerial decree, I had the highest priority, in theory, but practice was different. The Couneil, which was composed of nominated representatives of four political parties, seemed allocate property more in line with their personal interest, and were following in their support of each other regardless of the merit of the applicant. Apart from my priority rating, I had a letter sent by the War Office and Air Ministry, stating that it was urgent and in the national interest that I should be suitably housed in the town, so that I could perform my duties as an officer commanding a fighter regiment. All in vain!
Eventually, one of my officers brought to my attention that there was an empty villa in a residential part of the town and it had been unoccupied since the departure of the German industrialist who was deported at the of the war. My application for this property was promptly turned down as it was reserved for an important person. After making some enquiries I discovered that this villa, as well as a second one, was being kept for the mistress of a prominent Council member, whose claim to fame was that, during the war, in his employment as a Bank clerk, he had fiddled money from the German bank accounts. His mistress could not make up her mind for several months as to which villa she wanted, so both, were kept empty.
This discovery made me furious and I moved into the empty villa, changed the locks and put two airmen on guard. All. this may seen to have been very irregular but although the war had been over for more than a year the situation was still very chaotic and confused. What followed may seem even more unbelievable, but was also a sign of the times.
On hearing of my illegal occupation, the Council held an emergency meeting and voted unanimously to have me evicted, by force if necessary. I was at a conference with some officers at the tine that I was notified of this, and I passed on the information to them. My Chief Administrative officer, who was not exactly noted for his modesty, asked me to let him deal with the matter as it vaguely came under his responsibility. I gladly agreed as I feared that my reaction would be rather aggressive. He took the letter and drove to the town-hall, returning within an hour with a decree stating that the villa was now mine. There was also a permit giving me admittance to the towns stores of confiscated German property so that I could choose what I required to refurbish it. He would not explain how he gained these achievements, but a few days later I found out from a chap at the town hall what had happened.
Apparently, a Council meeting was interrupted by a highly excited Air Force officer who burst into the chamber and, banging his fist on the table, demanded and immediate reversal of their previous decision in my case. Appears he implied that a flight of Spitfires, fully armed with bombs was ready to raise the town to the ground, if his demands were not met. In any event the demands were met and at last, I had a place to live and a place to bring my wife to.
Despite the shortage of nearly all commodities, life was not too bad. My English wife managed to get all the necessary provisions fairly easily. As long as she established the fact that she was English and not German because of the language difficulties most of the shopkeepers were extremely helpful. “Munich” by now was forqotten.
Because of the shortage of aviation fuel our flying was very restricted. We still had only the Spitfires. The promised Russian fighter planes had not arrived and the few score of old German Messerschmitts, which had been left on the airfield at Brno, proved to be useless. Probably, acts of sabotage, during their manufacture, by forced labour, made them unsafe to fly. A memorial to a large number of German pilots, who had been killed during training, supported. this view.
During the summer months we took part in flying displays. The airforce was very popular and every major town in the country organised ‘Air Days’ with our Spitfires being the stars of the show.
We also often had foreign dignitaries, mainly from Eastern Europe, sent to us to be entertained and to show off our flying skills. I recall one of these visits in particular, as it struck me by its blatant hypocrisy. After an afternoon on the airfield, where our Spitfires were greatly admired, the Yugoslav delegation was meeting the workers from the towns factories in the lobby of an hotel. Speeches were made declaring the solidarity of the proletariat and we had tears in our eyes, watching the workers delegations bring gifts -bought fron their own pockets – to the visitors. A lot of champagne was consumed but not by the workers. The audition finished, the guests were bundled into a fleet of waiting limousines and driven to a castle in the country, where a sumptuous banquet was laid on. Along the way, which was mainly through narrow country roads, the limousines passed the peasants who were returning from their daily toil the fields. They were unceremoniously pushed off the road by the fast moving cavalcade of cars. I saw one woman, who was carrying a bundle of hay on her back, brushed off the road into a ditch by one of the car. After he rhetoric of a few minutes earlier, it left a nasty taste in my mouth.
In the sunmer I flew to England to take part in the victory parade. Otherwise my life became fairly uneventful, apart fronn a few skirmishes with the political officers in my unit. Copying the Russian system, the Air Ministry had introduced to all units the post of ‘Educational Officer’, who held daily lectures, which had to be attended by all airmen. The men who filled these posts were, purely and simply, propagandists, for Communism. Occasionally, I attended these morning sessions and invariably clashed with the lecturer, mainly when he talked with an unbelievable Russian bias about the recent war. The senior members of these ‘Education Officers’ were, very likely, also members of the Communist controlled Secret Service. I do not doubt that, the one in my regiment built up quite a dossier on on me to be used in the future. In the meantime I was fairly safe. The usual excuse for removing unwanted people was the accusation of collaboration with the Germans, and this could hardly be used against me!
My Second Exile From Czechoslovakia.
By 1947 the memories of war had receded into the background and politics again became the main topic of conversation. The Czechs are very politically minded, and talk politics as the English talk about the weather. There was a lot to talk about. The Communist controlled departments, especially the Home Office and the War Office, were systematically weeding out all non-Communist elements, Despite being in a minority of three to one in the government, they disregarded the more and more vigorous protests of the representatives of the other political parties. The character of the Czech was not suited to the Communist ideas or way of life, and it was practically certain that in the forthcoming elections the party would gain only negligible representation in Parliament. The Russians, although Slavs like the Czechs, were never particularly popuLar. Our country’s ties had, for centuries, been with the West. The elections were due in the spring of 1948, but they never took place, not free elections, anyway. Shortly beforehand, the non-Communist members of the government resigned in protest against the replacement of Prague’s Chief of Police by a Communist nominee. This was the opportunity io bring into action a well prepared plan. All the leading non-Communist political figures were arrested during a night swoop. The Police being a ‘tool’ in the hands of the Party. The armed forces were in the hands of sympathisers and had no access to ammunition anyway. An assortment of so called ‘defence squads’, from the factories, had been specially picked and armed and were sent around the streets of Prague to march and shout demands for a totally Communist government. The only person who could have inspired resistance, President Beneš was gravely ill in Prague Castle and was being guarded by the Police. So, the ‘take over’ was carried out with a minimum of fuss and hardly any opposition. The Czechs having suffered six years of German occupation had had their spirit broken and the big Russian ‘Bear’ even if not in evidence, was lurking in the background.
While the fate of my country was being decided in the capital, I was on a skiing holiday, oblivious of what was happening. The small ski resort, in the eastern part of Czechoslovakia, was practically cut off from the rest the country. The ‘coup d’etat’ was a complete surprise to everyone. Even a relative, whom I had spoken to a few days previously obviously had no idea of what was coming, and he was a prominent member of a party which according to general expectations was to win the forthcoming elections. He in turn had expected to have a government post. I learnt after my return, that he too was arrested on the night of the ‘coup’ and I believe that he spent the rest of his days in jail. I realised that my time at liberty was also limited but hoped against hope that things would somehow get sorted out. After all I had only recently returned after six years of war and was reluctant to follow the same path again. Leaving would be even more poignant now as my mother was dying and my farther was so much older.
However events have to take their course and I was duly detained by order of the Secret Police and, fortunately for me put into a military jail, where a Court was sitting to hear military trials. The jail, a centuries old building, was on a hill and from the window of my cell I could see my wife, not far away in the villa, which was on another hill in the town. As all the personnel, including the Judges, were all military people I was well treated for the eight days that I spent there. In the understandable chaos after the ‘coup’ it was not uncommon for somebody to walk out of jail and into a prominent position in the new administration or vice versa.
After eight days I managed to get out. The situation was still very confused and I considered that it would be a day or two before a search made for me. My first thought was to try to get my wife and baby son out of the country, My wife had an English passport but was considered Czech nationality through marriage, and therefore needed an exit visa. I decided to try to bluff my way out of the difficulties. I put on my uniform and, acting as if I was one of those favoured by the new regime I succeeded in obtaining the necessary papers. I then drove my family to Prague airport and by the same trick managed to get them on the first available flight to London. A lot of English born wives who were also trying to leave had to go through stringent formalities and had most of their personal possessions, including jewellery, confiscated before being allowed to leave. Lucky my wife was not hindered at all.
During my brief spell of freedom I spoke to a number of friends and learnt that most of them were thinking of leaving Czechoslovakia and were making plans to escape. I also, contrived a plan of how to get out, but I thought that I still had time to drive to Plzeň to say goodbye to my parents. However, the delay nearly proved disastrous and ruined my chances of proceeding with my carefully worked ouf arrangements.
I got to Plzeň at mid-morning and, after parking the car in front of the house I went inside. My mother was waiting in the hall and somehow I had the feeling something was wrong. As I was entering the house I had subconsciously. noticed a man who seemed to be loitering in the street. As my mother began to greet me I looked out into the street and saw the man suddenly spring into life. He stubbed his cigarette out on the pavement and began to walk smartly away. In a few moments he entered a house on the other side of the street, where a neighbour was one of the few residents to have a telephone.
I told my mother, who was still standing with me in the hall, that I had to check up on something and said that I would be back shortly. I ran across the street and entered the house where the man had entered just a few moments earlier. Fortunately, I knew the layout of the house and walked into the room which was next to the one with the telephone. He was telling someone that I had just arrived and was now inside the house; he then requested that they com to pick me up, straight away. In answer to a question from the person on the other end of the line he assured then that I couLd not get away, as he was watching through the windows and he had his eyes on the only entrance to the house. I wonder what his superiors told him when they found on arrival, that I was not in the house. However, the irony of the situation did not amuse me at the time, as I was clearly in a very difficult situation. My car, where I had assembled an emergency escape kit, (maps, change of clothing, foreign currency etc) was now lost to me as I could not risk going near it. The first thing to do was to get away from the area as quickly as possible. I quietLy opened a window which overlooked the garden at the back of the house and stepped out whilst the man on the ‘phone was still talking. The house was on the outskirts of the town and I made my way across fields to the opposite side of the town. During the long walk I managed to regain my composure and began to consider my options. I had a lot of friends in the town but I still had to be careful about who to approach for help. Even someone who I thought to be a friend might ‘turn me in’ for material advantage or get into trouble for helping me. Eventually, I decidcd to approach an older friend who was less likely to favour the new regime. I approached his house carefully and was enthusiastically received but the enthusiasm cooled of appreciably when I explained my predicament. My first priority was to obtain some civilian clothing and this I was offered instantly but my further request, to be taken out of the town in his car was refused on the grounds that he did not want to endanger his family by involving himself in my affairs. I thanked. him for the clothing and refreshment and I left his house. I could understand his attitude which the same of others whom I subsequently called on for help. I was offered money, food, petrol coupons etc, but not the actual help to get out of town.
I then went to a railway station, thinking that, perhaps, a train might the answer, but I could see that the police were checking identity cards at the entrance. While walking along the perimeter of the town I noticed that at all the exit roads the cars were being stopped, and checked by soldiers. I thought of finding a hiding place and waiting until things quietened but this was not a very simple solution and so I decided to have a last attempt find someone to help me on my way to the frontier. I approached an lady whom I had known as a young girl before the war. To my amazement she agreed to drive me out of the town, towards the frontier. The problem was how to get through the checkpoints? Eventually, we decided that I would squeeze into the boot of the car, for the first part of the journey. That we carried out and, she, being a very attractive girl, had no trouble at getting through the checkpoints without the car being searched.
We set off towards the mountainous border with Bavaria, which was near the frontier with Germany. However, the border zone, of some twenty kilometres could only be entered by people living there, who had special residents passes. My mother came from one of the villages on the edge of this zone and we had some relatives in the district.
Towards the end of the afternoon my friend dropped me off near that village and after wishing me good luck, set of back to Plzeň. I knew, vaguely where one of our distant relatives lived, but thought it wise to wait until after dark, before going there. I found the house and was accepted with open arms; I was offered food and assured that it would be no problem to get me across the frontier. I was told that a lot of people were escaping this way, and some of the locals, who in any event were always involved in smuggling, were making some money by leading escape parties across the mountains and woods to the border.
A little while later I was having a meal when there was a sharp knock on door. My relative went to answer it and promptly came back visibly shaken. Apparently, a local policeman had cycled over to him that a search was on its way from a nearby town. to look for me. Later I learned that my mother had been interrogated by the police she had given them the name and addresses of out relatives near the border. She purposely omitted the one who lived nearest the frontier, assuming that I would be aiming to go there. However, I had assumed that it would be that particular address that they would go to, so I had chosen the other, which was further from the border.
After a short discussion I was whisked to a house about two hundred yards away and hidden in a loft. For the following several days I was constantly moved, from one house to another as search parties kept arriving in the village to look for me. They seemed to know I was hiding there because the local police always warned me in time to move on.
I was quite well known in the village and all the locals kept assuring me that I was in safe hands; but someone must have been betraying my hideout. Despite all the assurances of being safe after a few days I was a bundle of nerves and desperate to move on regardless of the risks. Some of the villagers worked on building sites in Prague and through them I managed to obtain a few essential items, ( maps, compass, revolver) for my attempt to get to Germany on my own. Still, I was pressed to wait. Apparently a convicted murderer had escaped from a nearby prison and troops were drafted in seal of his escape routes to the border. I was told that as soon as things returned to normal I would be taken by car to the frontier where the guards this side were co-operating with the organisers of the escape parties. I was also told that there was only one Communist in the village; he was a Councillor, the rest of the population was on my side. I came to the conclusion that they hoped in their naive way, that once I was out of the country I would somehow help them to be delivered from Communism, and their Russian masters.
After a few more nerve racking days I was to1d, at, last, that I would be across that evening. I was to go for a drink in the local inn and at 10 exactly, there would be a car waiting outside. I did as instructed and as I sat in the car I got the fright of my life. The driver was the only Communist in the village. However, he quickly assured me that it was only a cover and that he was, in fact, the leader of the local organisation to help people to escape.
He had only driven about two miles when we met two military vehicles, full of soldiers. As soon as they were out of sight my driver stopped and told me that he had to go back. He said that the soldiers were probably on the way to the village to look for me and his absence would seen suspicious. He suggested that we should go back and and we could try again the following night, but I had had enough of waiting and told him that I would go on by myself and that I felt confident of getting across the frontier with the help of my compass and a map.
When he realised that I would not be persuaded to wait another day he offered me an alternative plan. Two of his men were taking a party of escapees and they were due to pass through the woods, near to us, within the next few minutes. I was to join them, after he had, advised. the leader of my presence. This sounded reasonable to me and sure enough, a crocodile of some twelve to fourteen people approached almost immediately from a path in the forest. After a few words with one of the men the party moved on with me following at a shorL distance. My driver, presumably, returned to the village to welcome the search party. The night was moonless and I could not see who the members of the party were, but they were making enough noise to make me distance myself from them, in case they were discovered. I had learned, before we set off that it would take us about three to four hour brisk walk to reach the frontier post, where arrangements were made for us to cross unhindered. The march was not too bad as we were following a narrow but fairly good path through the woods.
It was about the estimated tine for arrival when the column came to a stand still. I went forward carefully to see what was happening. The news was not good. A man had been sent to stop us approaching the frontier post as the guards had been changed. It appeared that the ‘old’ guard had themselves, crossed the frontier when it was discovered that they had been helping escapers. After a short discussion one of the leaders told me that we would have to back- track some distance and make our way to another place where the crossing could be made safely, without any help from the frontier guards. He would not commit himself to the distance, but said it was not far. It turned out to be another six hours and the march became a nightmare. We were going up and down rocky hills, wading through icy cold streams and pushing our way through thick forest. I knew that the frontier area was closely guarded to prevent people escaping from this Communist heaven!
Every mile or so, just inside the border, there were small units of soldiers in temporary huts and they had observation towers built to help them to see and cover the clearings with their automatic weapons. As our party became more and more noisy clattering over the stones, falling over in the stream or breaking branches off trees, I was certain that we would be caught. I dropped further and further back, so as to have a chance of escape if my fears proved correct. At one stage, still in the semi-dark, the column passed right near a guards hut. I spotted a soldier standing outside with a cigarette cupped in his hand. He did not move at all although he must have heard or even seen thc party going by. I stopped dead in my tracks and waited to see what would happen next. To my amazement as soon as the body was out of sight the soldier leisurely finished his cigarette, stubbed the end into the ground and went inside.
All the same, I made a wide detour of the hut and then tried to speed up to catch up with the party again, but by then they were too far ahead of me and I could not hear them anymore. I was dead tired, but made an effort to jog ahead and eventually caught up again.
Not long afterwards the party stopped on the edge of a forest. I crept forward again to join them and to see what was happening. The two leaders who were as I could now see simply smugglers carrying sacks of sugar, told us that this was as far as they were taking us and pointing across a clearing in the woods said that on the other side we would be in Bavaria. They proceeded to collect their fee, which I assumed, had been agreed before. They would not, however take anything from me. I had quite a large sum of Czech money on me and offered to pay but they refused to accept anything. Then they left us. For the first time, I was now able to see who composed the rest of the party as they lay exhausted, unable to speak or move. There were about a dozen of then, mostly elderly couples, apart from two young girls. How they had all managed to survive the ten hour march was beyond me. I was young and fit but even I was absolutely all in, and where were old people, looking totally unathletic and women in high heel shoes. Everyone was carrying a bag, presumably carrying their most precious possessions. Here again I saw that in emergency the endurance of human beings exceeds all expectations. At the moment they all looked as if they could not care less whether they lived or died.
After a short rest I began to take stock of the situation. At first I thought we were in some sort of no man’s land. The distance to the other side looked quite small. On one side of the clearing I could see a watch tower with a machine gun barrel sticking out of it. This was a nasty surprise. The smugglers had fooled us after all. I estimated the clearing to be 100 metres wide, and covered with sparse undergrowth and a few, very small trees. I felt certain thta the wood on the other side was actually in Bavaria and that there we would find safety. There was only one way to get across, and that was to crawl on our bellies, press our bodies to the ground and pray. My first thought was to go on, on my own, but then I decided that I just could not leave the rest of the party to their own devices. None of them looked like1y to know what to do or where to go. I left them resting for about a couple of hours and then explained my plan. I doubted, however, if any of then took any heed of my warnings. They were too past caring; very tired and very hungry. Still there was nothing else for it but to try whilst we still had some strength left. Waiting for night would have meant staying there another ten or eleven hours and as they had searchlights on the towers it made no difference anyway.
I set off ahead, the others following behind in a line. After crawling about thirty yards my clothing was torn, my hands scratched and bleeding. I wondered how the rest were managing and looked back carefully, without lifting my head. To my horror I saw that most of them were moving on their knees or simply bending down; plainly visible from the tower. There followed a few very anxious minutes, but nothing happened and we all reached the safety of the forest on the other side of the clearing. The guards, whoever they were, obviously did not have the heart for the job. As had happened several times before during my escape, I realised that an awful lot of people had either helped or simply turned a blind eye.
After another rest, I consulted my map and with the aid of a compass decided on which direction to proceed. The line of the frontier was rather uneven at this point and there was a danger of crossing back into Czechoslovakia. We nearly did make that mistake, but a lone woodcutter whom we met pointed us to the nearest village in Bavaria.
Approaching the first house, we were met by the village policeman who seemed to be quite used to the haggard figures of escapees and implied that he would escort us to the village police station, where we were to wait until he had consulted his superiors. I had been warned whilst I was hiding on the other side, not to trust the police close to the frontier. I do not know if the story was true, but it was said that some people had actually been returned to Czechoslovakia. In any event I was not taking any chances at that stage and so, by nonchalantly waving my revolver I managed to be taken, instead, to the nearest American military post, which I knew had to be somewhere near the border.
As it happened, two American intelligence officers were occupying a house in the village and that and that was where we were taken. As we trundled into the courtyard the two Anericans came out and told us to stay where we were and wait. We were obviously not the first escapers that they had seen, obviously. After a while one of them came out and pointed to the two girls, telling them to come inside. Everybody else collapsed. and lay on the ground.
After about an hour, when nothing had happened, I decided to go inside the house and ask if we could at least have some water as ww were all very thirsty. I do not know exactly .what was going on inside but my intrusion was not welcome and I was promptly ordered out. Shortly afterwards one of the officers came out and ordered me into his jeep and drove me to some reception centre in Regensburg. He never asked me who I was and any attempt at conversation was cut off abruptly. I did not seem to be very popular with him. I do not know what happened to the rest of the party, or even who they where. I never saw then again.
At the reception centre there were already a nunber of refugees and appeared to be a very mixed bunch. I spent a night there and the next day about fifty of us were loaded into two lorries and taken to a so-called ‘Displaced Persons Camp’. I learned later that as a senior officer I should have been taken to be de-briefed at Frankfurt, but the little episode earlier had put paid to that. Instead, I was to spend a few of the most horrible weeks of my life in a camp that had been one of the most hated concentration camps under the Nazis. It now housed some two thousand refugees. They were a strange collection; people of all ages from newly-born babies to sone very old men and women. There was a multitude of nationalities, amongst them a number of recently escaped Czechs, like myself. The acconodation consisted of wooden huts and inside the bunks were so closely packed on top of one another that no corpulent body could have reposed in them. There was no fear, of course, of any corpulence among either past or present occupants.
There was complete anarchy in the camp, as nobody seemed to be responsible for the administration. An American officer came in occasionally and spent five minutes looking around, then drove away again with no apparent evidence of his inspection; not whilst I was there anyway.
There was no food to speak of. Once a day, a barrel of water was boiled with scraps of potato peelings and a cup of this horrible liquid which was issued to those who were interested. At regular intervals some German organisation sent in a few loaves of bread; two slices being given to each person. The bread was ‘ersatz’ – nearly all wood. There was no restriction on movement and so most of the able-bodied men foraged in the vicinity for food. We got fruit that was in season; turnips and potatoes were dug at night from nearby fields and any animal which could be killed.
There was, of course, no discipline in the camp but some self-appointed committee occasionally administered justic. When a suspected spy infiltrated the camp, a summary execution was carried out. I couLd not understand why anyone stayed there for any length of time but then realised that they had nowhere else to go. Some were waiting patiently to be selected for immigration to countries like Australia, Canada and South Africa and a few who were young and healthy enough sometimes did get accepted. Some, who had relatives in the West were hoping to get visas for France, England or USA. However, the majority, mostly the older ones, just sat about waiting, without hope, of anything except a merciful end.
Not surprisingly, I did not intend to stay there a day longer than I had to. I knew that I had a valid visa to England at the British Embassy in Prague, (I was allowed to keep a valid visa for my Czech Air Force business). I felt that if I could get to a British Consulate and explain the position, a telephone call – or a telex could transfer my visa to Germany. As the nearest Consulate was in Frankfurt I set out to get there. I walked part of the way and then got on a local train to Stuttgart. There I learned that there would be a train leaving the next day for Frankfurt. The main railway station had been heavily bombed during the war and was still completely in ruins. The shells of the buildings which were still standing served as a shelter to a multitude of people during the night.
There were some three to four million foreigners in Germany, who had worked as slave labour under the Nazis. There were still a large number of them left; mostly those who nere afraid to go back to their own country, or those who simply could not go because there was no transportation. Anyway, as the night fell there must have been some thousand bodies littering the remnants of the buildings. All of them were in rags and looked hungry and generally gave the impression of being dangerous. I decided to spend the night walking about. When I returned to station early next morning, I just caught a glimpse of two German police vehicles which were taking away the few who had ‘died’ in the night. I understood that there were often fights over food, when someone had managed to acquire some and others wanted it.
When the train eventually appeared it consisted of a few carriages with half of them reserved for Allied Service Personnel and high ranking German officers. The rest of the carriages were quickly filled. In fact, when the train set off there were people on the roof of the carriages as well as on the outside steps and the bumpers between the coaches – simpIy anywhere one could hang on. It looked like a human beehive on rails. I managed to fight my way onto the platform of one of the coaches but spent a few hours of the journey standing on one foot, as there was no room to put the other one down.
After all this my mission was a near total failure. The Consulate was besieged by refugees, and there was no way that I could speak to the Consul or anyone of any significance. I was given a form to fill in and then told to go back to the camp and wait to be contacted, if and when a visa was granted.
I returned to the camp thoroughly miserable and depressed. The weather was now turning quite warm and so I spent most of my time walking about the countryside, even sleeping outside, as it was impossible to even breathe in the huts. All the inmates, both male and female, were now walking about practically nude. Everyone was saving their few bits of decent clothes for the day – they hoped – when they would be able to leave. Among all those people in the camp I discovered just one man that I knew; a Professor, who had taught me at college and had been in the camp some considerable time. He had been accused of collaborating with the Germans and was imprisoned soon after the end of the war. I understood that his crime had been being promoted to Headmaster of a school, over the head of a senior lecturer, opportunity for the lecturer to gain revenge was, apparently, too good to miss, and if you join the ‘party’ your story was always believed. I had been quite friendly with him in the old days, when I was at college as he was that much older than me and was also interested in sport. We now spent a lot of time together, talking about the ‘old times’. He did not have much chance of legally leaving the canp but I heard that some time after I left that he had entered France illegally and eventually gained French citizenship. I was, of course, still hoping to leave for England as soon as possible, I managed to write a letter to my wife and, in due course, received a reply. The letter told me that my visa had been granted in London and was on it way to Germany. I also received, in the letter an airline ticket from Frankfurt to London, with an open date. Even writing and sending letters was a major problem, but having sold my watch to a local German I had just raised enough money for this and a few telephone calls to the Consulate in Frankfurt. Although it was nearly three years since the war had ended there was still a great shortage of everything in Germany. Even in the mainly agricultural area the food was strictly rationed. Of course, if one had money, like anywhere else you could obtain almost anything. I still had quite a large sum of Czech money which I had acquired prior to my escape, believing it would be useful in certain circumstances, to smooth the path of my progress. In the end I did not need it, but in any event it now proved its use, as nobod.y wanted it, and it could not be exchanged for any other currency. However, by an extraordinary chance I managed to use some, to get some food.
During my walks in the area, I discovered that a long-distance train, which ran daily from Prague to Paris, ran quite near to the camp. There was a sharp bend on the route, as it got near to the area, and the train had to slow down, almost to a walking pace. On one occasion a cook from the dining car was leaning out of the window and I did sone quick bartering with him and obtained a few loaves of bread. The price was rather exorbitant, but I was very pleased, all the same. On a few subsequent occasions I managed to obtain some eggs, butter and other food stuffs, plus some cigarettes, However, by now my stomach had shrunk so much that I require very little food for myself and so I distributed it, mainly among the women who were nursing recently born babies. I bartered some of the food for my own sake, to obtain some local currency and even a few dollars, which I anticipated that I may need before I reached England.
Every two or three days I walked over to the nearest village to telephone the Consulate in Frankfurt, but the answer was always the same: “Nothing here; we will let you know”. I knew that I could not rely on this promised Mail reaching the camp regularly, but I was sure that not all of it ever reached the people to whom it was addressed. After an interval of several days, I decided to make another visit to the Consulate, To my great surprise I was able to see the Consul. He listened to my story with apparent sympathy, but assured me that he was unable to do anything, until my visa arrived from England. Again I was advised to go back to the camp and wait. On my way out I stopped for a chat with a young typist. It so happened that it was she who was also dealing with the incoming mail and I tried to enlist her help to let me know at once, should my visa arrive. On hearing my name she believed that my visa had already arrived a few days previously. There then followed a few more hours of anxious waiting but eventually I left the Consulate with my provisional passport duly stamped with the precious visa to England. I made my way, directly to an airline office, where an unpleasant surprise awaited me. There were no seats available on a flight to England for three weeks. I was told that there was no point in waiting for cancellations, as there never were any. For various reasons the overland journey was out of the question. In desperation I decided to try my luck at the nearby American Air Force base, as there surely must be frequent flights to Britain from there. Amazingly I was able to wander onto the airfield and into the Officer’s Mess, where after a while I got into conversation with an Air Force Captain. He was quite friendly and when I told him of my dilemma he offered to help. After having found out from the air traffic control that there was a B-29 flying to London later that day he contacted the pilot and persuaded him to take me with him. This made up a little, I thought, for the little episode with the Americans near the frontier.
We duly took off from Frankfurt later that afternoon, but the flight nearly ended in disaster. The weather deteriorated over England and the pilot – an American Colonel was refused permission to land anywhere near London. He then decided to try to land at R.A.F. Manston, on the coast of Kent, an airfield that I knew very well, having flown from there for several months at the end of the war. I had often had to land there in very bad weather conditions and I believe that this experience of mine that helped us to get down safely, after a few hair-raising moments. In this way I thought I had paid for the lift.
My return to England was not exactly glorious. I was dressed in an old, crumpled suit and a handkerchief was my sole possession, after I had been through Customs. I did have a small case with a shaving kit which I had bought from the American P.X. store, with my last three dollars, However the case was new and as I did not have the money to pay the duty it was confiscated, still I did receive a friendly welcome on the airfield.
In the Officer’s Mess I was given a meal and found a bed for the night and the following day was loaned the train fare to Cirencester, where my wife and son were staying with her parents.
He was accepted back into the RAF where he was able to resume his flying career, serving in 247 Sqn flying Vampire jets, then as an instructor on Meteor jets and finally on helicopters with 275 Sqn before his retirement.
This excerpt from Jiří Hartman autobiography published with the kind permission of Mrs Jennifer Hartman.