Jiri Hartman – My D-Day

S/Ldr Jiří Hartman DFC

S/Ldr Jiří Hartman DFC was, at that time a F/Lt with 310 Sqn, and was ‘A’ Flight Commander (Red 1) at the time of D-Day – the Allied invasion of Europe on 6 June 1944. At that time all three Czechoslovak fighter squadrons; 310 Sqn, 312 Sqn and 313 Sqn – the Czechoslovak Wing – were deployed at RAF Apuldram, near Chichester, Sussex. His recollections of that time are:

In early Spring 1944 all the signs pointed to an early invasion of Europe. The fighter squadrons were being concentrated in the South of the country facing the relatively near French coast. Our three squadrons were placed on an emergency air-strip right on the coast, South of Chichester. A nearby hamlet gave it it’s name of ‘Apuldram’. It was a large field on which a wire netting provided a reasonable landing surface. We were accommodated in tents. Everything seemed to be pointing to an early trip across the Channel.

Tented accomodation at Apuldram, June 1944.

Our flying schedule was quite hectic. Apart from the usual escort and cover of bombing missions we were engaged in so-called softening up of German defences. It took several forms, according to the purpose of the target. For example, when attacking communication targets like bridges, railways, stations etc, we carried a single bomb attached under the fuselage which was released in a steep dive. We were briefed that the French population was warned of these attacks and were to1d. not to move about by road or rail during daylight hours in the coastal areas. But in one of these attacks a most tragic accident occurred, for which I had to take responsibility as I was leading the Squadron. We were cruising at about 12,000 feet just inland of the French Coast and looking for targets. I spotted what appeared to be an armoured carrier with a platoon of soldiers. This was one of the usual targets and I ordered the Squadron to prepare for bombing. We began to dive, one section followed the others at short intervals. During the dive, aim was taken by using our normal gun sights, which did to give a clear picture of the target, especially at that height. When reaching 4,OOO feet the bomb was released and our pull out of the dive began. This brought the aircraft much closer to the ground and not using the sights any more the pilot could observe the target. On this occasion, when pulling out of the dive, with bomb already released I realised to my horror that the target was not a German column but a funeral procession. I did not observe the result of the attack but feel there must have been some casualties.

I am sure a lot of similar tragic mistakes happened during the war but to be involved personally gave me a 1ot of sleepless nights despite being assured by everybody that I was not at fault in any way. During similar attacks on railway stations and trains there must have also been innocent casualties although not so obvious.

Another form of attack was low 1evel strafing of targets, such as trains motor transport and German airfields. We flew across the Channel at sea-leve1, hoping to minimise the effectiveness of German defences. One day when the target was an airfield in Normandy I crossed the coast without being shot at and this made me believe I was still undetected. However when over the target and having just opened fire on some dispersed aircraft on the airfield, the German gunners sprang into action and I was flying thru a hail of tracer bullets, which was 1ike flying through coloured rain.

Subconsciously I pushed the throttle forward to go, faster with such force that after landing back at our base my mechanic ca11ed me to show me what he had done to it. The thick steel bar of the throttle was bent and had to be taken to the workshop to be hammered straight. It is amazing how fear can increase one’s strength beyond what is humanly possibility.

These intensive operations had, of course, to be paid for with considerable losses. The three Czech Squadrons had originally only Czech Pilots but by now there were no more Czechs to replace those who were lost and British pilots had to fill the vacancies. There were a few Czechs who were training from scratch in Canada and Rhodesia and these were mainly selected from Czech army personnel but were not sufficient to cover our losses.

Towards the end of May, we had a visit from the Commander-in-Chief of All Forces, General Eisenhower. He delivered a short blood and thunder speech promising nothing but sweat, blood, and casualties. However, I remember him mostly for his strong grip when he shook hands with me on departing. When returning to the camp after an evening out I had a puncture and pulled out the spare wheel from the boot of the car, a piece of coiled wire sprung out and cut my eye. The Squadron doctor advised me next morning to show an eye specialist and arranged an appointment with one at RAF Halton Hospital. There was an airfield adjoining the Hospital so I flew over and saw the doctor who assured me that the injury was not serious and sprayed some liquid in the eye. I returned right away to my aircraft and took off for the return journey. When airborne I suddenly realised that I had little vision in my injured eye and that the other was becoming tired and was closing despite my efforts to keep it open. After a while, I could not open it more than a fraction of a second. Flying practically blind was not easy and I had to recover the aircraft from some unusual positions during the moments when I could see. Fortunately, I spotted a disused airfield below and managed to make a hair-raising landing. When the plane came to a stop after several hefty bumps I sat in it for a few minutes with my eyes shut until I recovered vision in my uninjured eye. I then taxied to the edge of the field and managed to phone my Squadron for transport and a pilot to fly the Spitfire back. The Squadron doctor explained later that the liquid that had been put in my eye was Atrophine which blurred my vision in the injured eye and that the other got tired. On the ground, it presented no difficulties. He proved to be right when he assured me that the injured eye would be healed within two or three days.

I could see that the invasion was imminent. The whole of the South of England was teaming with troops of all nationalities but mainly British and American. Two days before the invasion began we were deployed for convoy duties in the Channel off the Cornish coast. A large fleet of vessels of all sizes and shapes was stretching for miles towards Ireland. There was apparently a days postponement because of bad weather but on the 6th June it was only a litt1e better. Low cloud stretched across the Channel but the visibility was not too bad. (On the evening of the 5th June we had sat outside our tents watching the constant stream of aircraft flying overhead towards France, there were bombers, transport aircraft with paratroops and gliders. Now the show was going ahead.

Our Squadron’s first sortie was to provide cover over the beaches where the British troops were landing. The time was 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. which coincided with the first landing of the British. The Americans began at 6.30 am. About one hour before we were due to take off Group Captain “Sailor” Malan one of the top scoring fighter pilot’s came to visit us. As the overall Commander of several fighter Wings, he was too valuable to risk and was forbidden to f1y on operational sorties. He was however desperately keen to come with us on the first patrol. Knowing of the ban I could not accept his plans but when he apparently made arrangements with the Sergeant and was to fly as my number 2, I turned a blind eye. It did not turn out to be a very clever move on my part, The Group Captain was so determined to see everything that instead. of flying close to me as he was supposed to do he kept on darting away in all directions, I then had to follow him with the who1e squadron in case he ran into some trouble, knowing well that if he got shot down I would be called upon to explain how he happened to be there in the first place.

310 Sqn D-Day Spitfire.

There was very little activity in the air, we had a large number of our planes circling around but there were no German ones in sight.

However, on land and in the sea things were really happening. Our British troops got ashore comparatively easily but on the adjoining sector, I could see the carnage on the beaches. In the sea, there were a number of ships ablaze hit mostly by ground defenses. The spectacle despite its tragic reality was tremendous. Our patrol completed we returned to base and I sighed with relief as I escorted the Group Captain to his car and saw him drive away. I did several more sorties on that and the following day as I didn’t want to miss anything of this momentous operation for which we had waited so long. After the last flight on the second day, I walked over to my tent to wash before going for a late supper. I sat down on my bed and they woke me up the following evening, nearly 24 hours later. I think I was exhausted more mentally than physically.

A few days after D-Day my squadron was detailed to assist the ground for in the British sector by dive bombing a German battery close to their position. As we arrived over the area, the RAF Liaison Officer on the ground, who was to direct us by radio to the target. advised us of the difficulty he had in pinpointing the battery and requested that we land for a detailed briefing. A landing strip was already prepared. We were told by radio that it was about 8OO yards long but due to a heavy shower just before our arrival, part of it was flooded. This left only some 5OO yards on which to land a Spitfire, which was loaded with a bomb and still had nearly all its fuel. Not a task one would undertake every day but in war, things had to be done which normally would seem foolish. Anyway, we all managed to get down safely. Some of the planes ended in a field past the strip but they were undamaged. After several hours of deliberation and still no exact position of the offending battery available – the Germans having craftily stopped firing from it – we were requested to stay the night and try again the next day. Not that we were all that thrilled by the idea. War in the air can be very costly but always seemed to be rather gentlemanly. One does not hear the shooting and does not normally see the dead and injured. So here practically still on the beaches, it was very frightening. From time to time the shells were exploding all around apparently from some distant batteries. Also, the noise of mortar and small-arms fire was deafening. I approached a British Army officer who was sitting on a stool and puffing at his pipe. I asked if there were any trenches for cover as I believed that we ought to be there as we pilots were precious personnel not easily replaceable. Without showing much concern about us and I must admit not even for himself, he pointed to a short distance ahead and said: “I should wait a while before you go there – a mortar just hit the trench and they are clearing out the dead and wounded”. I decided I might just as well be killed in the tents, which had been assigned to us. The small coastal area which was in Allied hands contained a village the name of which I forget. I decided. to explore it and with a few of my fellow pilots we set out to see if we could get some French food and wine. We found the local inn easily but the proprietor was not at all helpful. The British had eaten and drunk everything. My French was still quite fluent in those days and I tried to take advantage of the fact. After a few minutes chatting and having mentioned my service with the French Air Force and being with General De Gaulle in England the patron became much friendlier. On his face I could see the way his conscience was battling – should he safeguard his remaining supplies or show gratitude to an old French pilot. His good nature won in the end. He took; me to his now completely bare cellar but opening a hidden door we entered. another room where a considerable quantity of wine, spirits and some food were stored. I decided not to be greedy and took only enough for our immediate needs but adopted two bottles of old Napoleon brandy to which I was always partial. I offered to pay as in our survival packets we carried some French money. The offer was refused. and the patron, probably regretting his generosity by now, bade me goodbye and good luck with a slightly sad look on his face. I guess he was afraid that I would tell about his cache – but I did not.

Next morning, when I walked to our Spitfires, which were parked on the edge of the landing strip, I was astonished to find them covered with sand. The Germans must have made efforts to destroy them as the vicinity was full of shrapnel holes. However, the sand neutralised the explosive and none of the planes got a direct hit. We brushed the aircraft clean of sand, took-off, carried out our bombarding and returned to England. There we were met on the airstrip by a welcoming party consisting of our Commander-in-Chief, an Air Vice-Marshall and his staff. Apparently, we had been the first Allied squadron to land in France and were being congratulated.

I had to sacrifice my brandy on several rounds of toasts which took place in my tent, after which the Air Vice-Marshall left, on slightly unsteady feet, got in his car and was driven away, back to London. It seems that people in London were not used to drinking genuine, French Napoleon brandy. I must mention another incident which happened about this time. One of the Squadron Commanders, known generally as ‘Hugo’ had been shot down a few days before D-Day and crash-landed in a field, not far from the coast. He managed to avoid being; caught and was hiding on a farm, owned by a friendly Frenchman. A few days after the invasion the farmer assured him that the area was already liberated and Hugo, with his new girlfriend – the farmer’s daughter began marching towards the coast, hoping to find Allied troops and get back to Eng1and. Whilst walking through a small hamlet he encountered a squad of German soldiers who were marching in the opposite direction. Certain that he was in Allied-held territory, he cheerfully ordered the Germans to lay down their arms, saying that it was all- over for them. The Germans obeyed without hesitation and Hugo began to march them in the direction in which he was going. Not long afterwards they met another group of Germans, led by an officer, and during a heated discussion amongst the two parties of Germans, Hugo realised that he was still in enemy occupied territory. In the ensuing confusion, he made himself scarce and, eventually, reached the Allied area and was soon shipped back to England. He came to see us soon afterwards and told us this story which, knowing him well, I believed. In any event, he still had the French girl with him, so parts of his story were true.

During the invasion, our Wing was operating as part of the Tactical Air Command, and was supposed to provide close support from airfields in Europe when the Allied forces had advanced sufficiently inland. For some reason, which was probably political, the Wing was withdrawn from this task and transferred to Strategical Command,. This meant that we had to revert to our previous role of escorting Allied bombers on their daylight raids, deep into enemy territory. This also necessitated our move from the forward airstrip, so a few weeks after D-Day we were on the move again. After a few days on an airfield at Lympne, Kent, then a few weeks at Digby, Lincolnshire, we eventually settled at Bradwell Bay which was to be our home for a few months, at least.

Whilst in Kent our squadron, whilst not on escort duties took part in aiding defense against the V-1 flyinq-bonbs. Our patrols were quite successful and in the short period that we were at Lydd as we managed to shoot down a few of the raiders over the Channel. However, there was also a tragic incident when one of the flying bombs was damaged by one of our pilots but still flew on for a short distance, eventually crashing in the camp killing one airman and injuring several others. I did not agree with the criticism from some of the ground personne1 who said that the pilot should have left it to fly on inland. Maybe it would have caused much more damage if it had reached London.

The stay at Digby was rather uneventful, apart from a slight misunderstanding with the WAAF personnel in the operations room. The building in which it was housed had a flat roof and in the warm summer days, the young ladies who were off-duty used to sunbathe there; dressed very scantily, if at all. As the house was on the approach to the runway a lot of flying was going on which was much lower than necessary. I had to have strong words with my pilots, to avoid complaints from the shy maidens – At that time, the permissive society was not yet with us.

This excerpt from S/Ldr Jiří Hartman DFC autobiography published with the kind permission of Mrs Jennifer Hartman.

This entry was posted in 310 Sqd, 312 Sqd, 313 Sqd, Autobiography, Not Forgotton. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Jiri Hartman – My D-Day

  1. Frank Brejcha says:

    What a wonderful insight into the events around D-Day with this first hand series of stories, enough to full an Annual of exciting moments, but seemingly all in a days work for the brave pilots from the Czech squadrons. Stories that seem hardly believable and yet I have no doubt they happened. Thank you for sharing these brave experiences with us, fantastic.

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