The recollections of an unknown Czechoslovak airman.
The Czechoslovak airmen signed on with the French Foreign Legion at Marseilles. At their training camp things were very hard for them. Each legionaire signed on for five years. Learning the French language was one of many things that they had to be dealt with, rifle drill and other army activities.
After a short time they were sent to Algeria to the Legion’s training fort at Sidi-bel-Abbes. There they were assembled in the Companie d’Instruction Cadre (C.I.C.) They were there for a period of time while the Czechoslovak government in exile were negotiating a transfer for their airmen to join Armée de l’Air, the French Air Force. As senior airman in one group, Karel Trojáček was repeatedly asked to write to the Czechoslovak Embassy in Paris and put their case to them.
When the reply came, it informed them yet again that it was being looked into. So they had to carry on with the hard training in the Legion.
On parade one morning, at the beginning of September 1939, the Czechoslovak airmen were called out of a line and informed that they were to be transferred to Armée de l’Air.
They were split into groups, bomber pilots to Istres, about 60 km from Marseille. The Commanding Officer at Istres Flying School was Cdr Dechaux. Here they were taught to fly twin-engined Bloch 200’s (Flying Coffin) bomber aircraft. Fighter pilots to Chartres, about 75km South West of Paris. Navigators, bomb aimers and air-gunners were sent to Tours, about 600 km away in North West France.
At a later stage they were posted to various Armée de l’Air units for operations. After a time. all flying operations were stopped, it became quite obvious to them that the end was coming for the French. It was at this time Vesely was chosen from one of the groups as spokesman, he was to ask permission to be allowed to join the Czech Air Force, which was reforming at Bordeaux. The Armée de l’Air Commander told them that they had received orders to stay and stay they will. It became quite clear that they were all to be handed over the advancing German army on their arrival.
The Czechoslovaks had meetings and decided to leave and escape from the Germans. Their plans were hurried along when one day a German Dornier 217 crashed nearby and again Vesely was chosen to talk to the pilot, he was to act as interpreter for the French. When he reported back to the Czechoslovak airmen it was clear that they would have to move fast and that the Germans were on their doorstep. So they left for Bordeaux and re-grouped with other Czechs at Mérignac, in South West France.
On their arrival through various clashes with French officials they were united with fellow Czechoslovaks who had served in Armée de l’Air bomber and fighter units. They all had one aim – to reach England.
The Commander of the fighter unit was Major Alexander Hess who had arrived from Chartres. “Sasha” Hess was a famous pilot in Czechoslovakia before the war. He was 45 years old.
The harbour at Bordeaux is at the head of the estuary of the Gironde. There were two small boats provided for them, one was a Dutch vessel the ‘Ary Schaffer’.
Before they went on board they were told to get as much food as they could buy. When onboard, Major Hess and a Polish Colonel sorted out the accommodation as there were a few wives of Polish airmen with them. Early that afternoon the two vessels moved slowly up the estuary towards the sea. They moved slowly because it had been reported that the Germans had mined the estuary. On arrival at the mouth, both vessels anchored for a long time, knowing full well that they could be attacked at any moment. That night Bordeaux was attacked and this started things happening and they set sail and went West, into the Atlantic, to keep away from shipping routes and avoid German aircraft. Then they turned East for an uneventful voyage to England.
On the 24 June 1940, they arrived in British waters off Falmouth after a five-day journey. After a time they were given permission to enter Falmouth harbour, where they were met by Czechoslovak and Polish officials. After a good clean-up, change of underwear, and a good meal, they felt like new men. They were given 5 shillings back pay. The following day lorries arrived and they were taken to Falmouth railway station, from there by train to Wolverhampton, put on lorries and taken to RAF Cosford, just outside Albrighton, Staffordshire.
They were greeted by other Czechoslovaks who had arrived before them from Canada and by various other means.
The interpreters at Cosford informed them that negotiations were going on with the RAF and the Czechoslovak authorities in exile about them serving in the RAF VR. Finally, they were told that they had been accepted into the RAF. Officers above the rank of Czech rank of Kapitán would become Pilot Officers and below Kapitán would become Sergeants. The Czechs were allocated two squadrons.
310 Sqn fighters C/O S/L Alexander ‘Sasha” Hess posted to RAF Duxford near Cambridge.
311 Sqn bombers C/O W/Cmdr Mareš posted to RAF Honington, near Bury St Edmund. Josef Schejbal and Josef Ocelka were appointed the squadrons Flight Commanders.