Peter Sharpe and Chris John examine the brief but fiery career of the top-scoring Battle of Britain pilot.
AMONG HIS CZECH countrymen, known for their sober and mannerly temperament, Josef František was the exception who proved the rule. He should perhaps have been a Hussar in Napoleonic times, or a swordsman duellist a century earlier, or even a Knight at the time of the Crusades. Josef František was a massively courageous man, a man with the will to fight and fight no matter what the odds stacked against him.
Born at Otaslavice in Czechoslovakia on October 7, 1913, to a close and respectable family, young Josef wanted to fly from as soon as he could read. Tales of the air aces of the Great War captivated his young mind – soaring over the mud and death of trench warfare. He joined the Czechoslovak Air Force on October 1, 1933, and was posted to 2 Squadron as a Private (pilot under training). Recognised as a gifted flyer, he qualified two years later as a fighter pilot, achieving his boyhood ambition.
Flying ancient-looking bi-plane fighters reminiscent of those flown by the air aces he had idolised as a young man, he was soon to be promoted to the rank of Corporal Pilot in 1937. Promoted to Sergeant Pilot in the following year, he joined 1 Squadron at Prague before Hitler made his September 12, 1938, speech to the Sudeten Germans which was to cause massive civil unrest. Czech forces mobilised on September 23, 1938; a week before the Munich Agreement. The Germans made their move in the following month and annexed the part of Czechoslovakia, known as the Sudetenland – the remainder was split into three republics called Bohemia-Moravia, Ruthenia and Slovakia – while Poland was able to snatch and briefly hold the long-disputed Teschen area. In November 1938 Hungary took over Ruthenia, and in March 1939 Germany swallowed up all of what remained.
As the German Wehrmacht moved into Czechoslovakia, František was one of many Czech servicemen unwilling to accept the fate of their own country. He disregarded his orders and flew off towards Poland, flat out at tree-top level, and machine gunning columns of German troops marching towards Prague as he went. Not unexpectedly, the Polish Air Force was delighted to accept Polish-speaking František as a Sergeant First Class with over 340 flying hours in his logbook.
Again a fighter pilot, Josef František was soon to master the Polish PZL fighter, and on September 1, 1939, when the Germans invaded he was soon into action. The odds were massive, immense fleets of technically superior aircraft filled the skies. The tiny Polish Air Force did its country justice and more, fighting with tremendous courage – one of its fighter pilots accounting for four of the faster and more heavily armed Messerschmitt Bf 109s; that man was, of course, František.
After the retreat to Zaleszczyki, Josef František and his fellow airmen began to plan for their continued fight, and flew across the Romanian border on September 22, 1939. They flew from Krenimonce to Jassy and on to Bucharest where their aircraft were confiscated and they were interned by the pro-German regime.
It is not known how František managed to obtain a new Czech passport, nor how he managed to escape from internment, suffice it to say that he did, and determined to fight he boarded the SS Gdansk on October 2, 1939, bound for France via the Balkans and Syria. The young Czech pilot disembarked at Marseilles in France on October 21, 1939, and immediately travelled by train to Paris where he enlisted alongside the Poles as aircrew in the French Armee de l’Air four days later. He was soon familiar with French fighters and was ready when the inevitable Blitzkrieg began again.
On May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries in devastating fashion, and as massive Panzer columns thrust forwards, the skies grew dark with Goering’s fleets of bombers. Within a short time, Josef František was again in action. Day after day he flew beside the Poles and French fighter pilots combating the hordes of Ju 87 Stukas and heavy bombers with their escorts of Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighters. A Polish account of his activities during this frantic time credits the “superb pilot and magnificent destroyer of Germans” with ten or 11 aerial victories during the three weeks he was flying. (It is now believed that these victories should, in fact, be credited to František Peřina, a Czech pilot who flew with GCI/5, claiming a number of German aircraft whilst flying a Curtiss H75A.)
With the Battle for France over, and the Battle of Britain about to begin Josef František and the Polish fighter pilots journeyed the hazardous route to Bordeaux and gained passage on a freighter bound for Britain, from where they would continue to fight the Germans. In June 1940 he volunteered for the Royal Air Force, which having suffered the loss of a great many pilots, was finding it impossible to make up the numbers by training from scratch. The RAF recruiters were pleased to accept any pilots, and especially experienced fighter pilots – and so young František became 793451 Sergeant Pilot Josef František, RAFVR. The number of Polish volunteers keen to get back into the fight enabled the RAF to form 303 Squadron on August 2, 1940, at RAF Northolt, it was here that Josef František rejoined them after a familiarisation period with the Hurricane fighter.
The Polish Squadron was non-operational at the time, the RAF would not accept their Allies as operational until they could speak enough English and fly in formation to RAF standards. Frustration was massive, fighter pilots were needed badly and yet they couldn’t take part in the fighting. After a chance encounter with the Luftwaffe whilst on a training mission, the Operational Classification was at last granted. Josef František and the Poles declared ‘Open Season’ on the Luftwaffe and began their very personal war from another land against those who had stolen their own.
František flew in his squadron’s first combat at full strength on Monday September 2, 1940. At 1750 hours at 19,000ft (5,790m) over Dover, he shot a Bf 109 off the tail of Flying Officer Henneberg, firing repeatedly into it until it crashed. On the second patrol the next day he broke formation and just below the clouds found a solitary Bf 109 which he raked with devastating bursts of .303 machine gun fire, causing it to dive into the sea. On Thursday, flying as Blue 2, Josef František shot down a ‘109 that he believed was about to machine gun an RAF pilot in his parachute, and then claimed a Ju 88 bomber before his Hurricane was riddled by machine gun fire.
The very next morning, again airborne from Northolt, he was in combat with the biggest formation encountered to date and claimed another ‘109 before being shot up by the German’s wingman – he returned to base, his aircraft full of bullet holes. On his safe landing the squadron commander made a recommendation that he be awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal, the wing commander noting his “great gallantry in attacking vastly superior numbers of enemy aircraft’.
On Monday, September 9, information as Green 2 František was again in battle with a massive Luftwaffe formation near Beachy Head. During a dogfight, he fired a long burst into the cockpit of a 109 killing the pilot. Immediately in front of him he saw Flight Sergeant Wunsche DFM bale out of his shot up Hurricane, and leaving his Polish friend protected by a Spitfire, František caught a Heinkel He 111 bomber which he raked with his eight.303s. The bomber crashed in flames. Directly afterwards, he was ‘jumped’ from above by a Staffel of ‘109s and four big holes were punched in his Hurricane by cannon shells – stopped only by his armoured seat. Spitfires saved him and the Czech made a crash landing in a field of cabbages at Falmer near Brighton. He walked to the station and caught the express to London carrying his parachute.
Josef František’s most successful day in combat was September 11, 1940, in the Horsham area when he shot down a He 111 bomber and two ‘109s. Scrambled at 1530 hours, the squadron was attacked by German fighters before they could reach the bombers. František, flying as Blue 2, turned sharply on the tail of a ‘109 and opened fire – it burst into flames. Diving out of the clouds, he then found a straggling He 111 bomber which he shot down. Turning for home, dangerously low on fuel and almost out of ammunition, František met another ‘109 which he riddled with gunfire and was forced to leave smoking as he reckoned that he must have been flying ‘on fumes’. He was sure the German was bound to crash at sea.
Reprimands for his ‘flying fury’ left the Czech unmoved – he could not be persuaded to hold formation, one sight of the enemy and he would break and engage. He often sustained combat damage dogfighting as he had in France and would only turn for base when his ammunition was exhausted, normally with a ‘kill’ under his belt. František flew with passion and a real determination to destroy as many Germans as he was able.
On Sunday, September 15, 1940, 303 Squadron tangled with a formation of about 80 German aircraft over. South London. Josef František came screaming in to attack two twin-engined Messerschmitt Bf 11 Os and shot chunks off one aircraft, leaving it to go down in flames. Three days later, flying near West Mailing at 17,000ft (5,180m) František saw a single ‘109 heading for the South Coast as his fellow pilots attacked a Dornier 215 on a photo-recce sortie. He closed in on the battle-damaged fighter and slammed two vicious bursts into the cockpit. The fighter turned over and plunged into the sea.
The Polish leader, General Sikorski, visited 303 Squadron on September 20,1940, awarding several Polish gallantry medals – Sgt František received the highly-prized Virtuti Militari. His Majesty King George VI inspected the Polish fighter squadron on September 26, 1940, and presented the awards made by the RAF to their Polish airmen, on this occasion Josef František received a well-earned DFM for his bravery.
The order to scramble interrupted the King’s visit at 1630 hours and the Squadron was airborne from Northolt in minutes. A running battle ensued at 16,000ft (4,880m) over Portsmouth, across the Channel and continued over French soil. František claimed two He 111 bombers. Early next morning he downed another ‘One-Eleven’ and a Bf 110. After his first burst of fire the bomber’s starboard engine caught fire, another burst set the port engine ablaze. Heading for home, the Czech Sergeant found a formation of Bf 110’s and he closed to 100 yards (90m) before opening fire, damaging a ‘110 which made as if to surrender. At tree-top height, the German pilot appeared to change his mind and opened his throttles wide in a bid to escape. František hacked the aircraft from the sky with a savage burst – the ‘110 hit the ground and exploded in a sheet of flames.
Back at Northolt the CO, Sqn Ldr Kellett recommended František for a further award, a Bar to his DFM stating “he is the outstanding pilot of the squadron and appears fearless in his task -the destruction of the enemy”. The Air Officer Commanding noted, “even in this squadron of fearless fighters, this sergeant pilot has been outstanding, his quiet cool personality hides a born and ruthless fighter”. Again Air Chief Marshal Dowding gave his strong support, and the award was confirmed.
Several routine sorties followed, and on return from an early morning patrol on October 8, 1940, a 303 Squadron Hurricane, serial number R4175, crashed suddenly and unexplainedly beside a golf course at Cuddington Way, Ewell, Surrey. Sergeant Josef František was killed instantly in the burning wreck.
The award of a Bar to the DFM had been confirmed on the previous day. František had received the DFM and Bar from the British, the Croix de Guerre from the French, a Virtuti Militari from the Polish, who also posthumously awarded him the Krzyż Walecznych (KW) and three Bars (on February 1, 1941) and the Válečný kříž 1939 by his own country, posthumously on July 15, 1941. Josef František was buried with full military honours in the Polish Air Force cemetery at Northwood in Middlesex.
The crash, still unexplained to this day, had succeeded where the might of the Luftwaffe had failed. Bearing in mind that he was attributed with four ‘kills’ during the few days he fought in Poland and 17 ‘kills’ in one month of the Battle of Britain, one can only speculate at how many more he would have claimed had he survived until the end of the war. Seventeen kills made him the unchallenged top-scoring fighter pilot of The Few and his total of 17 aerial victories make František one of the top-scoring aces of the Allied forces during World War Two.
The claims listed below are only for the period of service with the Royal Air Force, all were achieved whilst flying Hurricanes with 303 Squadron.
|02/09/40||17:50||RF-U, P3975||1 Bf 109E, 5km East from Dover|
|03/09/40||15:40||RF-U, P3975||1 Bf 109E, mid Channel off Dover, mistakenly reported as a HE113|
|05/09/40||15:05||RF-R, R4175||1 Ju 88|
|05/09/40||15:10||RF-R, R4175||1 Bf 109E|
|06/09/40||09:00||RF-R, R4175||1 Bf 109E, nr Sevenoaks 1 Bf 109E (WNr 1138), pilot Oblt Albert Waller of 3./JG52, became POW. Heavy damage to Frantisek’s Hurricane causing him to crash land on a field nr Falmer.|
|09/09/40||18:00||RF-U, P3975||1 Bf 109E, nr Horsham|
|09/09/40||18:05||RF-U, P3975||1 He 111H-2, Beachy Head. WNr 5548 A1+DS of III/KG53, crashed on French coast|
|11/09/40||16:00||RF-S, V7289||2 Bf 109E, Horsham|
|11/09/40||16:05||RF-S, V7289||1 He 111, Horsham|
|15/09/40||12:00||RF-P, P3089||1 Bf 109, Hastings|
|18/09/40||13:15||RF-V, V7465||1 He 111, West Malling|
|26/09/40||16:30||RF-R, V4175||1 He 111, Portsmouth|
|26/09/40||16:35||RF-R, V4175||1 He 111, S/E Portsmouth|
|27/09/40||09:20||RF-R, V4175||1 He 111, Horsham|
|27/09/40||09:20||RF-O, L2099||1 Bf 110D, Gatwick, pilot Oblt Ulrich Freiherr von Grafenreuth WNr 3147 L1+BL of 15./LG1|
|30/09/40||16:50||RF-R, V4175||1 Bf 109E, Brooklands, pilot Lt Herbert Schmid WNr 3895 of 6./JG27, became POW|
|30/09/40||16:55||RF-R, V4175||1 Bf 109E, Brooklands, probable|
In the short space of 30 days, Josef František had claimed 17 enemy aircraft destroyed and one probable. It is interesting. to note that NO damage claims were made.
Of the Hurricanes he flew whilst achieving this Battle of Britain record…
Moved to Admiralty control March 1941.
listed as 601 Squadron and crashed in forced landing at Middle Wallop, June 1, 1940. Repaired and returned to service?
Hit by a bomb at Northolt October 6 1940.
Shot down by Bf 109 over Surrey September 27 1940.
Went on to serve with 229 Sqn, 56 OTU and 55 OTU until struck-off charge May 27 1944.
© Flypast March 1995
Regarding: “Josef František and his fellow airmen […] flew across the Romanian border on September 22, 1939. They flew from Krenimonce to Jassy and on to Bucharest where their aircraft were confiscated and they were interned by the pro-German regime.”
In that moment the Romanian government was NOT pro-German, it was the opposite. The acting Romanian prime-minster Armand Călinescu was assassinated in the center of Bucharest only three (3) days before, by agents of Germany, exactly because that Romanian government was following an anti-German stance.
It is standard practice for ALL neutral countries to confiscate the airplanes that are landing on their territory, if they are coming from countries involved in war. It is also standard practice for ALL neutral countries to intern the pilots who brought these airplanes.
All Polish pilots could leave Romania if they wanted and they arrived to the UK to fight another day, including this brave Czech pilot. That Romanian government also allowed the Polish gold (the treasury) to be evacuated through Romania.
A truly fantastic and awesome fighter pilot, who desrves to behonoured in every way imaginable. Without him and his tenacious Polish comrades, I doubt if the RAF would have been likely to have won the ‘Battle of Britain’