One of the Few
…………….* 19.04.1918. Kostelec nad Orlicí.
…………….† 28.03.1942. English Channel, Cap Gris Nez.
Rudolf Ptáček was born on 19 April 1918 in Kostelec nad Orlici, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, also Rudolf Ptáček, was the proprietor of a shoe and leather goods shop and also the Chairman of the local Sokol movement, an all-age gymnastics organisation in Czechoslovakia whose ethos was “a strong mind in a sound body”. His father died in the mid-1920s and the local Sokol Committee and his father’s friend, Josef Růžička, became Josef’s guardians. On completion of his elementary schooling in Kostelec nad Orlicic, Rudolph moved to Zvolen, in the Slovakia region of Czechoslovakia, to train as a confectioner with Mr Libotovsky, a native of Kostelec who had a well-established confectionery business there. It was to be a short-lived experience as a trainee confectioner as he was required to undertake his two years compulsory Military Service.
For his military service, he was selected to join Military Aviation Academy at Prostějov as a cadet on 1 October 1936 for pilot training, qualifying as an operational pilot on 5 May 1938; of his class of 63 pupils, he graduated in 19th place. He was selected for fighter-pilot training and assigned to a course at Otrokovice airbase. He completed his training on 15 June 1938 and was assigned to 38th Fighter Sqn of the 3rd Air Regiment at Piešťany, Slovakia, who were equipped with Avia B-534 biplane fighter aircraft. At the end of January 1939, now at the rank of svobodník (Corporal), he was posted to the 41st Fighter Sqn at Prague-Kbely airbase. By March 1939 he had 180 hours of flying experience.
After the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, on 15 March 1939, the Czechoslovak Air Force was disbanded by the Germans and all personnel dismissed. Germanisation of Bohemia and Moravia began immediately. But just four days later, on 19 March 1939, former Senior officers of the now-disbanded Czechoslovak military had started to form an underground army, known as Obrana Národa [Defense of the Nation]. Obrana Národa also worked in co-operation with Svaz Letců, the Airman Association of the Czechoslovak Republic. One of their objectives was to assist as many airmen and soldiers to get to neighbouring Poland where they could be formed into military units to fight for the liberation of their homeland. These two organisations provided money, courier and other assistance to enable airmen to escape to Poland. Usually, this was by crossing the border from the Ostrava region into Poland. Rudolf was one of the many Czechoslovak airmen and soldiers who clearly saw it was their duty to go to Poland from where they could participate to achieve the liberation of Czechoslovakia.
With the help of those two organisations, Rudolf, along with Otto Spacek and František Trejtnar, both colleagues from when they served together in the Czechoslovak Air Force, were disguised as hikers. They travelled to Ostrava where, on the night of 17/18 June 1939, they hid aboard a freight train going to Poland. They successfully managed to covertly cross the border into Poland and reported to the Czechoslovak Consulate at Krakow on 27 June and were sent to Maly Bronowice, a former Polish Army barracks on the outskirts of Krakow which was now utilised as a temporary transit camp for the escaped Czechoslovak military.
The Czechoslovak escapees were to find that Poland was not permitting the formation of foreign military units on its territory. However Czechoslovak officials in Poland had been in negotiations with France, a country with which Czechoslovakia had an Alliance Treaty. Under French law, foreign military units could not be formed on its soil during peacetime. The Czechoslovak escapees, however, could be accepted into the French Foreign Legion with the agreement that should war be declared they would be transferred to French military units. The Czechoslovaks would, however, have to enlist with the French Foreign Legion for a five-year term. The alternative was to be returned to occupied Czechoslovakia and face German retribution for escaping – usually imprisonment or execution with further punishment to their families.
On 25 July 1939, Rudolf and other Czechoslovak military escapees, were taken by train to the Baltic port of Gydnia, Poland. The following day they boarded the ‘SS Kastelholm’ and sailed to Calais, France. Part of the voyage down the Baltic Sea was very rough, even to airmen who were used to flying in turbulent conditions, and so the ‘SS Kastelholm’ stop at the Danish port of Frederikshaven to re-supply was a welcome relief for the Czechoslovaks onboard. After a five-day voyage, they arrived in Calais on 31 July 1939.
Initially, Rudolf and his fellow escapees were transferred to Place Ballard, the Foreign Legion’s recruitment depot at Paris, to undergo medical checks, whilst the necessary documentation was prepared for their enlistment into the Legion pending their transfer to the Legion’s training base at Sidi bel Abbes, Algeria. During this time they attended French classes and any free time was usually spent in Paris exploring the sights and practising their newly learnt French with the girls they met., Before that process could be completed, war was declared and instead Rudolf and the other Czechoslovak airmen were transferred to the l’Armée de l’Air at their recruitment centre at Dugny, near Paris. On 6 October 1939, at the rank of Corporal, he was transferred to Centre d’Instruction de Chasse for re-training on French MS-406c aircraft at Chartres airbase.
On 16 May 1940, after 14 hours of flying, his re-training was completed and he was promoted to the rank of caporal-chef. He was then posted to Patrouille DAT (Groupe de Chasse de Défense), who were equipped with MS-406c fighters and based at Chartres. In the subsequent 18 days, Rudolf managed to achieve four hours of operational flying with l’Armée de l’Air: these proved to be eventful. During that time, he had to make two forced landings due to water contaminating the petrol in his aircraft’s fuel tank. Further flying was curtailed as he was wounded in aerial combat on 3 June when a formation of 15 Do 17 Luftwaffe bombers made an air-raid on Chartres airbase. Rudolf was one of the pilots who managed to get airborne during the air raid and attack the enemy.. During the ensuing aerial combat, his Ms-406c was hit by enemy gunfire; he was wounded in the arm and hand but managed to land safely and was taken to Chartres Hospital for treatment for his injuries during which the small finger on his left hand had to be amputated. When his colleagues commiserated on his loss, his philosophical attitude was: “Don’t worry, it was just a very little finger”.
With the rapid advance of the German blitzkreig he escaped from hospital, on 22 June, with a group of Polish airmen in a truck and drove to St Jean de Luz, a port on the Atlantic coast of France, near the Spanish border. There, on 24 June, they boarded the SS Ettrick which sailed for Plymouth, England, arriving on 26 June 1940.
On arrival to England, he was first taken to the RAF Hospital at Davenport for recuperation from the hand injury that he had received in France. On 14 July 1940, he was discharged from hospital and transferred to the Czechoslovak transit camp at Cholmondeley, Cheshire. After a short while, he was transferred to the Czechoslovak Airmen’s Depot at Cosford where, on 25 July, he was accepted into the RAF Volunteer Reserve at the rank of AC2. On 18 September he was promoted to Sgt, three days later he was posted to 6 OTU at Sutton Bridge for re-training on Hurricanes.
He completed his re-training and on 4 October was posted to 43 (China-British) Sqn at RAF Ushworth, near Sunderland, and equipped with Hurricane Mk Is. With 43 Sqn he participated in the final days of the Battle of Britain but without any combat success. His next posting was on 23 November when he was posted to 615 (County of Surrey) Sqn at RAF Northolt, also equipped with Hurricane Mk Is. On 10 February 1941, he was flying Hurricane Mk I P3811 on Circus 4, escorting Blenheim bombers on a raid to Boulogne. At 12:34, on the return flight back to England, he tried to switch between his reserve fuel to the main fuel tank, but his engine cut out. He successfully made a forced landing, without injury, onto the shingle about 2 miles north-west of Dungeness. Another forced landing had to be made, when flying Hurricane Mk I Z2669, on 17 April, at RAF Kenley airfield. Again he was uninjured but the aircraft suffered category ‘A’ damage to the propeller and radiators.
On 11 June 1941, he was posted to the newly formed 313 (Czechoslovak) Sqn, at RAF Catterick, becoming one of its founding members. They were equipped with Spitfire Mk IIas, He was assigned to ‘A’ Flight for daytime operations. He re-trained on Spitfires, but on 19 June, his maiden Spitfire training flight ended with a mishap. He was flying Spitfire Mk IIa X4163 RY-R, and on his final approach to land at Catterick, his aircraft was caught in a down-current, causing it to clip its undercarriage on a small copse, ripping it off. He had the presence of mind to increase power and was able to make a belly-landing on the airfield, causing category ‘B’ damage.
He remained with 313 Sqn, without making any operational flights, until 5 July 1941, when he was unexpectedly posted to 222 (Natal) Sqn. This was an unpopular decision, with him and his fellow Czechoslovak pilots. That squadron was deployed at RAF Manston and was equipped with Spitfire Mk IIa and IIbs. The squadron moved to RAF North Weald in August 1941. He achieved combat success on 12 August 1941 when during an offensive sweep over northern France he shot down a Me 109f near St Omer.
It was around this time an RAF Intelligence Officer visited the squadron and gave them a lecture on escape and evasion in the event of being shot down over German-occupied France. This was to be most fortuitous for Rudolf, as a few days later, on the 19 August, he was shot down. That day, the North Weald Wing, consisting of 222 Sqn, 111 Sqn, and 71 Eagle Sqn, participated in Circus 82, providing close escort for six Blenheim bombers, from 107 Sqn, on a raid on the marshalling yard at Hazebrouck, France, about 25 miles south of Dunkirk. Other RAF fighter squadrons providing top cover for the bombers. The raid took place at 19:30, but little damage was done on the target. Luftwaffe Me 109s from Stab/JG26 intercepted the Allied aircraft in the vicinity of the target. In the ensuing aerial combat, eight RAF fighters were lost either over the target or on the return journey to England. Two pilots were killed, two were captured and four managed to evade capture and return to the UK. Rudolf was one of those who was shot down.
He was about 6 miles north-east of St Omer when it happened. His Spitfire Mk IIb P8244 ZD-G “Wigan and District’ was in a dogfight at 12,000 feet with a Me 109, from Stab/JG26, flown by Oblt Johannes Schmid which he shot down at 18:25. He was then attacked himself by another Me 109, flown by Oblt Johannes Schmid, also from Stab/JG26.
“I was attacked by three Me 109’s (after myself attacking four). A cannon bullet hit my engine and I made a forced landing about 18:30 at Rubrouck about 10 km North-Wast of St Omer. I came down in a cornfield and was uninjured. After pressing the IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) button, destroying that set, I made a fire with dry corn under the engine and ran off nearby into hiding. I was able to see that the fire stopped when the corn had burnt out, but could not go back, as two German soldiers appeared.”
“I threw away all my uniform except my trousers and shirt so as to make myself look as much like a peasant as possible. A boy of about 14 then appeared and lent me a bicycle. I cycled for about half a mile and was overtaken by a peasant who told me to follow him to his farm. There I was given civilian clothing, cigarettes and biscuits and told to come back after dark. During that interval I was away, I was seen by some German officers and soldiers but they did not suspect what I was. On my return to the farm, I was given a meal and some more clothing and was taken away on a bicycle by another farmer to a village about 4 miles away, where I was given a French identity card. Next day (20th August) I was taken to St Omer, where I met the nurse who W/Cdr Bader in his unsuccessful escape. I bought a railway ticket and went to Lille (I had no difficulty in this, as I speak fluent French). “
From the escape and evasion lecture he had attended just a few days before, he recalled about a ‘safe house’ at the hairdressers at 1 rue de Turenne, Lille and a lady named Janine there. “On arrival in Lille, I went to that address but was told to go away. I returned there, however, half an hour later, and was allowed to rest there till closing time. Janine said that next time she would not take anyone in who did not know the password (De la part de Jacque ?). Later two French officers in civilian clothes then arrived and questioned me for three-quarters of an hour, at the end of which I succeeded, with some difficulty, in satisfying them that I was not a German.”
Rudolf remained at this address until 31 August, when a member of the resistance arrived with arrangements for him to leave Lille the following day. Rudolf, under the assumed name of Johnny Love, to disguise that he was a Czechoslovak, with fellow evaders F/Lt Crowley-Milling DFC, 610 Sqn and Sgt Adolf Pietrasiak, 308 Sqn also shot down in Circus 82, managed to evade capture as they were passed down the ‘Pat O’Leary’ escape line. They travelled through France – Béthune, Abbeville, Paris, Noyers, over the demarcation line into Vichy France, then onto Valençay, Châteauroux, Toulouse, Marseille, Narbonne, Perpignan to La Rocque which was near the Spanish border. On the night of 6/7th September, over the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. He was arrested on 8 September by Spanish authorities at Figueras, and detained there for one day before being moved to Barcelona where he was held from 10th to 13th, then moved to Saragosa where he was held from 13th to 15th. He was then transferred to the notorious Miranda del Ebro internment camp, being held there until 31 October whilst the British authorities negotiated his release and arranged for him to go to Madrid. He was then taken to Gibraltar, reaching there on 1 December. From there, on 30 December, he boarded the SS Batory, a former Polish ocean liner, now converted to operate as a troopship, which brought him to Gourock, Scotland, arriving on 5 January 1942.
From the escape and evasion lecture he had attended, just a few days before, he recalled about a ‘safe house’ at the hairdressers at 1 rue de Turenne, Lille and a lady named Janine there. The following day, he made his way to that address but the lady there turned him away, he returned later in the day and this time she took him in. Rudolf stayed there until 30 August. With the aid of the French resistance, Rudolf, under the assumed name of Johnny Love, to disguise that he was a Czechoslovak, with fellow evaders F/Lt Crowley-Milling DFC, 610 Sqn and Sgt Adolf Pietrasiak, 308 Sqn also shot down in Circus 82, managed to evade capture as they were passed down the ‘Pat O’Leary’ escape line. They travelled through France – Béthune, Abbeville, Paris, Noyers, over the demarcation line into Vichy France, then onto Valençay, Châteauroux, Toulouse, Marseille, Narbonne, Perpignan to La Rocque which was near the Spanish border. On the night of 6/7th September, over the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. There he was initially detained at the notorious Miranda del Ebro internment camp, before the British authorities negotiated his release and arranged for him to go to Madrid and then onto Gibraltar, reaching there on 1 December 1941. From there, on 4 January 1942, he boarded the SS Batory, a former Polish ocean liner, now converted to operate as a troopship, which brought him to Gourock, Scotland.
On his return, he volunteered to return to operational duties and on 8 January 1942, was posted to 602 (City of Glasgow) Sqn, commanded by the legendary S/Ldr Al Deere, DFC. They were deployed at RAF Redhill, Surrey, and equipped with Spitfire Mk Vbs. However, his five-month absence from flying showed, resulting in him being posted, on 16 January, to 61 OTU, at RAF Heston, west of London, for a refresher course. He was promoted to the rank of Warrant Officer on 3 February 1942, the same day returning to 602 Sqn.
He was killed on 28 March 1942 whilst on a ‘Rodeo’ fighter sweep (Allied fighter sweep over enemy-occupied territory to tempt Luftwaffe fighters to engage with them so that they could be destroyed in aerial combat), in the Pas de Calais region. The Allied squadrons participating in the sweep were 602 Sqn, 457 RAAF and 485 Sqn RNZAF and were lead by G/Capt F.V. Beamish DSO & bar, DFC, AFC. The squadrons rendezvoused at 17:05, local time, and set course for Cap Gris Nez, St. Inglevert and Ambleteuse. The Luftwaffe responded in force, with about 60 Fw190’s and Me 109’s, from Stab/JG26, sent up to intercept the Allied fighters. Flying at 19,000 feet, just south of Calais, G/Capt Beamish saw the approaching Luftwaffe fighters and led the Allied fighters to engage them. Rudolf was flying Spitfire Mk Vb BM148 and in the ensuing combat was shot down into the English Channel, off Cap Gris Nez between 18:50 and 19:00, local time. Rudolf’s body was never recovered. The same fate fell to G/Capt F.V. Beamish was also killed in that engagement.
W/O Rudolf Ptáček is commemorated on panel 73 at Runnymede Memorial, he was 23 years old.
1939 – 45 Star with Battle of Britain clasp
Air Crew Europe Star
Válečný kříž and 2 bars (Czechoslovak War Cross 1939 with 2 bars)
Za zásluhy I. stupňa
Pamětní medaile československé armadý v zahraničí F i VB
He is commemorated, along with the other 2938 Battle of Britain aircrew, on the Christopher Foxley-Norris Memorial Wall at the National Battle of Britain Memorial, Capel-le-Ferne, Kent :
London Battle of Britain Memorial:
Czechoslovak Airmens Memorial, Dejvice, Prague:
Winged Lion Monument, Klárov, Prague:
Rudolf Ptáček is comemorated in the Remembrance book at St Clements Danes Church, London and St Vitus Cathedral, Prague.