František Petr recalls his dramatic airbourne escape from France to England in June 1940.
František Petr joined Armée de l’Air 65th Escadrille de Bombment 112 Battalion after initial training, he was posted to 21 Escadrille de Corteau as an operational pilot and was soon in action against the advancing German armour. In May after several missions against the Germans, the French awarded him the Croix de Guerre for attacking a German armoured column near Sedan on 6 May 1940. The unit was based midway between Bordeaux and Agen (70 miles South East of Bordeaux). With the Germans advancing rapidly towards Paris things were getting difficult in France for the Czechs and they were contemplating what to do next. When it was taken out of their hands. The Czechoslovak airmen were summoned to the Escadrille Commander’s office. They were informed that he had received orders that all flying was to be stopped and personnel were to stop where they were. The officer understanding their plight made various suggestions and gave them money to help them. Exit through Spain unofficially. He also said that it would be impossible for him to allow them an aeroplane. Fate was in their hands again.
On leaving the office and thoroughly depressed, they had a brief discussion on what to do next. When one of the party realised that it was near lunchtime and that there were very few personnel situated near the aircraft lined-up. In a flash, they decided to attempt to steal one of the Bloch 210 twin-engined bombers. This aircraft, with a range of 1,700 Km, was capable of reaching England and there was one situated in an ideal area of the airfield for the escape.
As they approached the aircraft they were challenged by a coloured Moroccan soldier on guard of the aircraft. The guard seeing that all the airmen were Sergeants in the Air Force may have been a little nervous. František ordered him to stand to attention. Then three more soldiers arrived and snapped to attention. The soldiers were ordered to go to another area of the airfield. While this was going on the Czechoslovak airmen got on board. They could not believe it when one of them found some bread and wine on board, but most of all that they were full of fuel. František was to be the pilot and started the engines. He did not have time to do his cockpit checks. He taxied straight to the runway that was right in front of him without making a turn.
This was an anxious time for them all and they feared that they would be fired on by the airfield defences. They roared down the runway. At the correct take-off speed, he tried to pull back the controls and nothing happened to his horror, suddenly realising to his horror that in the turmoil, he had forgotten to disconnect the hook that tied the controls to the front panel area. He remembered shouting at the time to his comrades ”for Christ sake do something” `with the runway getting shorter by the second. The request was answered very quickly and a well-aimed kick freed the hook. It smashed the airspeed gauge at the same time. František immediately pulled back on the controls and very narrowly missed some poplar trees just off the runway. Luckily they were not fired on.
Airborne with no maps or charts they flew westward over the coast and out to sea for approximately 25 km. Bohuslav Baumruk set a course for up the coast towards Saint-Nazaire. It was just after this that they were attacked by a seaplane. It made two passes at them firing as he came. Václav Kříž got into the top gun position and replied on both occasions. The German aircraft suddenly gave up the flight and flew off towards the French coast.
They were not sure whether the aircraft had left quickly because there may have been other German fighters in the area, far more effective than a seaplane. So they climbed to a good altitude and they were quite pleased with their progress. By now the weather was getting cloudy and they could not see any coastline.
After quite some time hoping to pass Saint-Nazaire to their right and to go over the Brittany peninsular. The starboard engine began to overheat and progressively got worse. They had to feather the engine for fear of it catching fire. The Bloch 210 was a heavy aircraft and more effort was required from the port engine. This put extra strain on it. They threw overboard every loose item on the aircraft to help the situation. Eventually, the strain began slowly to take effect and they began to lose height. The aircraft was losing approximately 60 metres every 5 minutes. Things appeared to be going against them. Passing through low cloud a coastline was spotted in the distance. Again they didn’t if it was the Loraine area or the Britany peninsular or England they were approaching. There was very little fuel left and they had no option but to try and force-land somewhere. František thought that they were going back to captivity. They crossed the coast at approximately 25 metres.
They managed to fly for a time until a suitable field was found. Then an open area appeared in front of them and down they went, unfortunately, František couldn’t judge his descent because of the damage to his airspeed gauge on take-off. They touched down and ran the full length of the field and towards a hedgerow right in front of them with a small drywall. They crashed into the wall and stopped dead. All the occupants received injuries, cuts and bruises. František received a large cut on his chin, the scar of which he still bears today. Kříž broke his arm badly. They quickly got out of the wreckage. František said there was no fear of fire as there was no fuel.
Not knowing where they were, they stayed not far from the crash site, half expecting Germans or Gendarmes to appear. After a short while, they were approached by a farmer with a double-barrelled shotgun. When they spoke to him, he was not sure if they were Germans or not. He took them to his farm and his daughter phoned the Police. Not being able to converse with the Czechoslovak airmen, the farmer became very wary of them and kept his weapon handy standing over them. The Police arrived, they again were unable to understand that they were Czechoslovaks in French Air Force uniforms.
Kříž was sent to hospital under escort. An Army officer arrived and they were taken to their camp. It was here that they were told to their delight, that they had come down to the east of Exeter in the south of England.
When their stories had been checked out by the military intelligence officers, they were well looked after and after a rest they were sent to RAF Bridgenorth. It was from here, after more checks, the airmen were sent to RAF Innsworth, Glos, then to RAF Cosford. It was there that František started a conversion course to Oxford aircraft. He also went to RAF Wilmslow near Manchester before being posted for operations with the newly formed 311 Sqn flying Wellingtons at RAF Honnington. After a short time, the whole squadron moved to East Wretham a few miles away from Norfolk. It was from there he did 1.5 tours of operations with RAF Bomber Command.
On the night of 20/21st October 1941, ten 311 Sqn Wellingtons took off for a night raid on Bremen, František was co-pilot of Wellington R1046, KX-E, taking off at 18:55. Nothing was heard after take-off until an SOS was received at 22:01 hours. They had dropped their bombs on Bremen but were attacked by a Luftwaffe night-fighter on their return flight. The attack on their Wellington caused damage to one of their engines and the aircraft came down on a sandbank 4½ miles south of Schiermonnikoog in the Frisian Islands. The crew (pilot Sgt Václav Proházka, second pilot Sgt František Petr, navigator P/O Erazim Veselý, and Sgts Josef Sůsa, Bedřich Valner and Jozef Zvolenský) were later picked up and became Prisoners of War.
After internment in several Prisoner of War camps, he was finally liberated in 1945 and repatriated to England. He returned to Czechoslovakia in August 1945, put following the Communist Putsch in February 1948, and the subsequent purge, by the StB – Státní bezpečnost – the State Security Police, on the former RAF airmen, he was forced to escape to the American Zone of Germany and then onto England for his 2nd exile. He rejoined the RAF
He rejoined the RAF and died, aged 83, on 25 February 2002, in Worcestershire, UK.