Ivan Otto Schwarz – last of the ‘Alsterufer’ aircrew


The Early Years

Ivan Otto Schwarz was born on 11 December 1923 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia – now the capital of the Slovak Republic – but grew up in Veľká Bytča, a district of Bytča, a rural town between Bratislava and Kraków, in an area of outstanding beauty alongside the river Váh. He was the youngest child of Dr Oskar and Anna Schwarz who also had a daughter Katerina, born in 1914.

He had a comfortable childhood, in an affluent middle-class Jewish family. His father was a lawyer and landowner and included amongst his business interests was sheep breeding. In pursuit of his vision to augment the traditional meat and wool trade with dairy produce, he had also rented fields within the estate of Thomas John Wynn, 5th Baron of Newborough in Rhug, North Wales, UK.

The Váh river had a major influence on his formative years in Bytča as swimming, kayaking, rowing and, in particular, water-polo were regular pursuits there, enabling him to develop a very mature physique for his age. His primary schooling was for two years at the village school at Bytč, followed by four years at Grammar School at Spišská Nová Ves and then two years at High School at Žilina. From an early age, he showed a flair for languages and by the time he left Žilina he was already fluent in Slovak, German and Polish. He was also a very proficient swimmer and was usually the person to beat in his region’s youth swimming competitions. However, life was very soon going to change for the family.

Ivan with parents.

The rapid rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in neighbouring Germany during the 1930s brought concerns that another war in Europe could be imminent.To appease Hitler’s demands for the German Sudeten regions of Czechoslovakia to be ceded to Germany, the Munich Agreement was signed in the early hours of 30 September 1938, resulting in the Sudeten regions being handed to Germany. This caused some 150,000 individuals deemed by the Nazis – for either racial or political reasons–- to be enemies of the Third Reich to flee to the remainder of the country. This Agreement provided only a short intermission before Hitler continued with his territorial demands. On 13 March 1939, at the direction of Adolf Hitler, the Slovak Parliament –- declared the ‘independence’ of Slovakia as a prelude to German annexation of the Bohemia and Moravia regions of Czechoslovakia on the following day. The ‘independence’ was, however, largely illusory as Slovakia was, in fact, now merely a Nazi puppet state.

Through the business connections of his father. Ivan’s older sister, Katerina, was already working for Lord Newborough in Wales and mindful of the Jewish persecution in Germany and Austria, and that they were a Jewish family, Dr Schwarz and Anna feared for the future of the Slovak puppet state. The decision was taken to send Ivan to Britain, to join Katerina, so that he could study English and complete his education. However, to leave Slovakia by this time was, however, no longer an easy matter.

To England

Early in 1939 a young British stockbroker Nicholas Winton, instead of packing for his planned holiday to Switzerland, found himself on his way to Prague. Profoundly moved by the wretched plight of the refugees and particularly the children, Nicholas Winton embarked on the life-saving mission of organising the evacuation of endangered children from Czechoslovakia. In the uncertain times between the annexation of the remaining Czech lands and the formation of Slovakia as a puppet state and the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, it was Nicholas Winton’s foresight and determination to help those in need and danger which enabled 669, predominantly Jewish, children to be brought to safety in Britain. Of the some 15,000 endangered children left behind who could no longer be helped, only a tiny fraction were still alive at the end of the war.

Ivan’s father found the way through Nicholas Winton for his son to be sent to safety in Britain. In the case of the Czechoslovakian children, the British Government demanded that individual guarantors be found willing to keep and educate the children up to the age of 17 years before entry permits would be granted. Ivan’s father appealed to his associate in Wales, and Lady Denise Newborough agreed to stand as guarantor for Ivan. Thus in February 1939, aboard one of Winton’s ‘Kinder trains’ from Bratislava, Ivan, aged 14, landed in Harwich, UK, knowing only a few words of English. Here was met there by Katerina and together they travelled to Niwbwrch (Newborough) on the Isle of Anglesey, in North Wales.Here he was to work on the estate farm and gain knowledge about sheep cheese production which Ivan’s father considered could be a farming enterprise that could be brought back to Slovakia in the future.

At first, Ivan’s father was able to send money for his son’s private education at Winchester Public School, but once war broke out, this was no longer possible. Lord Newborough suggestion to overcome this dilemma was for Ivan to come and work at the Newborough Estate where he could help in the kitchen and gardens and complete his education by enrolling into the state school in nearby Caernarvon. Initially, Ivan agreed but soon decided that he wanted to join the war. Although still only 17, he was tall and had a strong physique from his water sporting activities, he was able to persuade the Army recruitment officers that he was over 18 and that he had lost his birth certificate. The truth was, however, soon discovered and Ivan was sent back to school to take his examinations and finish his education!

Ivan, British Army.

Military Service

When he finally reached enlistment age, Ivan initially joined the Czechoslovak Army on 20 January 1941, undertaking his basic Army training at Leamington Spa and then was posted to a Signals Section at the rank of vojín. Later that year he volunteered for RAF service and on 4 November, with the rank of AC2, was posted to the Czechoslovak RAF Depot at Wilmslow. After basis RAF training, on 13th February ’42, he was posted for trade training at St Athans, Pembrokshire. Four days later he was sent to No. 1 Signal School at RAF Cranwell for wireless-operator training, completing the course on 17 June and achieving the rank of LAC. After a few days leave, he was posted to No. 8 Air Gunners School at Evanton. On 24 July 1942, now at the rank of Sgt, he commenced operational training when he attended Course No. 10, at 1429 COTF (Czechoslovak Operational Training Flight) at RAF Church Broughton which was run from 1 August to 21 November 1942 and was equipped with twin-engined Wellington bombers. Here, along with Sgt STYBLÍK Miroslav, P/O DOLEŽAL Jiří, Sgt REICH Erich, and Sgt TARANA Ladislav, he was assigned to crew 20 of that course.

At No 8 Air Gunnery School, Evanton.

Having successfully completed his training, Ivan, was posted on 29 November 1942 to 311 Czechoslovak Squadron as a wireless operator/air gunner. At the time the squadron was part of Coastal Command, equipped with Wellington twin-engined aircraft and stationed at Talbenny, Pembrokeshire, South Wales. Their role was to provide protection to Allied convoys from the Nazi U-Boat force, known as the ‘Wolf Packs’ as the German battle plan was to prevent supply ships reaching Britain from North America, and so force Britain to either surrender or be starved into submission. The role of Coastal Command was to protect these vital supply lines to Britain during what is known as the Battle of the Atlantic.

In May 1943, the Squadron relocated to Beaulieu, Hampshire. where they were re-equipped with the newly-arrived American Consolidated B24 Liberator aircraft that were more suited for the long 12 to 14 hour patrols over the Atlantic, particularly the Bay of Biscay area.

Ivan, 311 Sqn Air Gunner.

Ivan was attended the celebrations at Beaulieu aerodrome of the 3rd anniversary of the formation of 311 Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron which took place on 4 August 1943, attended by His Excellency Dr Edvard Beneš – President of the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile and Mrs Benešová, His Excellency Jan Masaryk , Czechoslovak Foreign Minister, and General Ingr, Commander in Chief of the Czech Army. The programme of events included a march past of the Squadron, presentation of Czech decorations, a Sokol Gymnastic display by Czech Army personnel, sporting activities, with the Czech Army Band providing music throughout the day and for dances in the evening. On the 24 August he was promoted to the rank of F/Sgt.

For 311 Sqn, now newly equipped with their four-engined B24 Liberator aircraft, operations, particularly anti-submarine patrols over the Atlantic, continued relentlessly as part of the harsh realities of war. On 29 August 1943 Liberator ‘G’ crashed on take-off from Beaulieu in the New Forest, with no survivors from the crew of eight. The very next day, on 30 August 1943, Liberator ‘L’ also crashed in the vicinity of the airfield whilst carrying out local flying. with the loss of a further six friends and comrades.

The Alsterufer Attack

Undoubtedly, the high-point of Ivan’s WW2 RAF service was his participation in the greatest success of 311 Squadron – the sinking of the German blockade runner Alsterufer, which was transporting strategic supplies of 344 tons of wolfram (tungsten ore) a core element required for the manufacture of ball-bearings from Japan to the French port of Bordeaux and then by train to Nazi Germany.

On 27 December 1943 Ivan was upper-gunner in Liberator BZ796, H for Harry, piloted by P/O Oldřich Doležal with his crew of Sgt Robert Prochazka, co-pilot; F/O Zdeněk Hanuš, navigator and bombardier; F/Sgt. Marcel Ludikar, Wireless Operator/Air Gunner; F/Sgt. Jindřich Hahn, Radar Operator/Air Gunner; and Sgt František Veitl, Flight-Engineer. Earlier that day the Alsterufer had been spotted by a Coastal Command Sunderland approaching the Bay of Biscay. The Alsterufer had been tracked, via radio transmissions decoded by the Enigma machine, since it had left Kobe, and the Allied Navy and Air Forces were intent on providing a suitable ‘reception committee’ as she approached the Bay of Biscay. Canadian Sutherlands were sent to bomb the 2,729 ton ship but failed to sink her. The Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine did not bring relief and at 16.07 H for Harry made its attack. The Liberator dived into a low-level attack, raking the ship with all its machine-guns despite the anti-aircraft fire and wired rockets fired into the air which descended on parachutes with trailing wires. The Liberator fired its rockets and then bombed the Alsterufer with its 250 lb and 500 lb bombs from a height of only 183 m (600 ft). Five of the rockets found their target and hit the Alsterufer below its water-line, the 250lb bomb fell short but the 500 lb hit the stern of the ship, opening up the hold, killing two ratings on the mess deck inexplicably playing chess at the time. The Alsterufer began to burn fiercely and the crew abandoned ship. The vessel did not, however, sink for another four hours and her demise was ultimately hastened by two Liberators of 86 Squadron. Seventy-four survivors were later rescued and without exception praised the ‘fair’ manner in which the combat was conducted and paid grudging respect to the Czech Liberator crew who they said had flown ‘unperturbed through the heaviest barrage’. The Liberator had sustained slight damage to a starboard engine during the engagement and was sounding ragged, but there were no casualties among the crew.

Bomb exploding on the Alsterufer during the attack.

The DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) for valour, courage and devotion to duty whilst flying in active operation against the enemy was awarded to the officers of the Liberator crew, pilot Oldřich Dolezal and navigator Zdeněk Hanuš, for their part in the sinking of the Alsterufer. For their part, Ivan and the remaining non-commissioned crew-members, were awarded the Czechoslovak Válečný kříž 1939 [War Cross 1939] on 20 January 1944 at their base at Beaulieu by Air Vice Marshal Karel Janoušek, K.C.B. This medal had been established by edict of the Czechoslovak-Government-in-Exile in London on 20 December 1940 in commemoration of the struggle for the liberation of Czechoslovakia from enemy occupation, and recipients included members of the armed forces who showed outstanding achievement in active operation whilst exposed to danger.

In November ’44, he received his final RAF promotion to the rank of Warrant Officer. The war was in its final stage when Ivan completed his Operational tour of duty with 311 Czechoslovak Sqn, and many of its airmen now being transferred to RAF Transport Command for new roles in the changing war. This command, which had superseded the former Ferry Command, was responsible for all air transport for the RAF and was flying at that time a variety of aircraft including Hudsons, DC3s, and Skymasters. On 11 January ’45, he was posted to the Czechoslovak Air Transport pool as a wireless operator and on 11 March posted to 167 Sqn who were based at Blackbush and equipped with Vickers Warwick, Avro Anson XII and Douglas DC3 and DC4 aircraft. From here they flew personnel or equipment between the UK and newly liberated countries in Europe,

By the time the war in Europe had ceased on 8 May 1945, Ivan had logged some 1,200 operational flying hours during his RAF service. In August that year, the Soviets finally allowed the Czechoslovak RAF men and women to return to their homeland., Ivan was one of those who returned, arriving on 20 August.

Ivan, Czechoslovak Air Force.

Post-WW2 Czechoslovakia

Ivan’s first concern was to help his parents who had been imprisoned during the war years and had later hidden in the mountains during the National Uprising in Slovakia whose centre of operations was at Banska Bystrica, only 67 miles from their hometown of Bytča. The armed insurrection by the Slovak Resistance Movement had begun on 29 August 1944 in an effort to overthrow the collaborationist Slovak State, following an announcement by the Slovak Defence Minister on state radio that Slovakia had been occupied by Nazi Germany. Although the partisans fought valiantly, by 28 October 1944 organised resistance had to be abandoned and the strategy changed to guerrilla warfare. Reprisals by the Nazis were savage and it is estimated that the fighting cost at least 10,000 Slovak lives. It was not until 4 April 1945 that the Soviet Army liberated Bratislava. The hardships which Ivan’s parents had suffered during the war had taken a serious toll on their health, and his father was to die in the 1950s during which time he still ran his law practice. In the immediate post-war period, Czechoslovakia saw severe reprisals and deportations of Sudeten Germans from the country and a mood for the population to distance itself from any Germanic connection. For Ivan’s parents, this meant changing the family name from Schwarz to Šivak as they did not want a Germanic sounding name.

On his return to his homeland, Ivan remained with the Czechoslovak Air Force, at the rank of podporučík (P/O) and was posted to Prague Ruzyně airport. Here, still only 22 years of age, he found himself responsible for military air traffic between Czechoslovakia and foreign countries, and later, while based at Czechoslovak Air Force Headquarters at Dejvice, Prague. for the aviation schools, airports and warehouses which had been abandoned by the Nazis. In October ’45 he was promoted to the rank of nadporučík (F/O). Although he felt these were tasks more suited to a rank of at least a Major-General, he did find himself with a chauffeur-driven Mercedes and an aircraft at his disposal!

Ivan’s proposal to update transport systems in accordance with those he was familiar with in Britain found no favour with the Commanding Officers who had served on the Eastern front. Ivan sensed Communist ideas infiltrating more and more throughout the armed forces, and saw his country turning away from the West and embracing the Soviet Union. He was told openly that as a member of the armed forces who had fought in the West he could not be trusted. He was not interested in politics but wanted to live in a society where he could make a meaningful contribution. He was greatly disappointed by this news, and following his demobilisation from the Czechoslovak Air Force at Kbely airbase on 26 September 1946, Ivan felt compelled to leave his homeland for the 2nd time. This time with his new fiancé Jaroslava Bendlová he returned to Britain.

Post-WW2 Britain

Life in immediate post-war Britain was also not easy, they were austere times and wartime rationing was still in place. By now, with his demobilisation pay and some savings from his RAF service he had managed to save fifty pounds. A chance meeting with Arnošt Polák, a former 311 Sqn colleague, in the Autumn of 1946, resulted in them going into business together and International Marketers (London) Ltd was formed that December. They began importing costume jewellery and Christmas decorations from a Czechoslovak company but, as import restrictions were in place, creativity on the import documentation was often required. The Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in February 1948 caused further trading complications and so new products and markets were sought: the supply of equipment for the construction industry. This partnership did not turn out successfully and so they went their separate ways.

Jaroslava and Ivan were married in London in 1947. In January 1948, Ivan obtained British nationality and in 1950 their daughter, Christine, was born. After his father died, Ivan’s mother moved to England in 1962. Sister Katerina had married Karel Pospichal, who, as a pilot, had also served in 311 Sqn during the war.

Ivan identified that the building industry and railways as areas within war-torn Europe where priority re-construction would occur. To this end, he became the sole European representative for the machine supply company Excavators, later working with Edwards Rockwell selling armatures used within the construction of nuclear power plants. He had initially renewed his studies, but had to abandon these as his business enterprises began to dominate his time and energy. The main enterprises included Ferrotrack Engineering Ltd which he formed in November 1959, whose activities were the maintenance of railway equipment and plant and which assisted in the modernisation of the British railway system. In January 1979, he formed KB Finishing Ltd, who manufactured fabricated metal products for Ivan’s companies; later, in August 1991, Ivan formed BSTO (Baker Street Trading Overseas Ltd), with prestigious offices in Knightsbridge, London, which specialised in the sale of heavy machinery for the construction industry. His area of operation was the former eastern bloc countries, primarily Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. However his activities there, and in the UK, were under the watchful eye of the StB–- Státní bezpečnost, the Czechoslovak state secret service – who had allocated him the code-named of ‘Bravo’! Jaroslava pre-deceased him in 2010 and only in 2012, his 88th year, did Ivan retire from his London-based company, BSTO ltd which had, by then, a Slovak Branch.

On 1 May 1995, at the time of the 50th anniversary of the cessation of hostilities in Europe and the liberation of Czechoslovakia, Ivan was awarded the honorary rank of Major-General in the Slovak Air Force. In 2008, he was one of the privileged few to be received by Queen Elizabeth II in Bratislava during her visit to the Slovak Republic on 23 and 24 October.

With Queen Elizabeth II, in Bratislava.

On 23 May 2015, the Bytča Municipal Council awarded him Honorary Citizenship of the town.

For his WW2 RAF service he had been awarded several medals:

Czechoslovak:

Válečný kříž 1939 [Czechoslovak War Cross 1939] -–20/01/44
Za chrabrost před nepřítelem [For gallantry against the enemy] – 22/02/44
Za zásluhy I. stupeň [Medal of Merit 1st Class] – 06/03/46</span?

British:

1939–1945 Star – 18/01/45
Atlantic Star with Air Crew Europe clasp
Defence Medal
War Medal 1939 – 1945

During his later years, Ivan was awarded numerous other decorations in recognition for his WW2 service, from the Czech Republic (on behalf of former Czechoslovakia) and also from the Slovak Republic: the most notable of these are described below.

On the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII, Ivan was presented on 8 May 2005 with the Order of the White Double Cross Class III by Slovak President, Ivan Gašparovič, for “extraordinary merit in the fight against fascism during World War II and for meritorious service to the Slovak Republic”.

In August 2005, to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising, Iveta Radičová’ the Slovak Prime Minister, awarded him the Radu Bieleho dvojkríža III triedy (Order of the White Double Cross, grade III), the highest state decoration of the Republic of Slovakia.

In August 2010 he was awarded the Slovak M. R. Štefánik Commemorative Medal grade I.

The last of these awards were received in June 2017 when he was awarded the Za hrdinství – For Heroism – from Czech President, Miloš Zeman, who came to London for an official visit.

He passed away peacefully, aged 94, at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, London on 4 January 2018 and was interred, with a military funeral, at the family grave in the post-WW2 Czechoslovak ex-Servicemen’s section at Brookwood, Surrey.

Brookwood, 2 February 2018.




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