The recollections of S/Ldr Jiří Hartman DFC of his escape from German occupied Czechoslovakia to Poland on 15 June 1939.
As the Nazis became more and more oppressive; arresting and torturing any suspected of anti-German views, the initial reluctant acceptance of German rule, turned again to hate. The Munich betrayal was excused as being a of weakness, more than anything else, and, as everybody still believed that war with Germany was unavoidable, the desire to take part in the coming conflict began to emerge. This was manly felt by ex-Service personnel, none more so than the ex-Air Force flying personnel.
An underground organisation – Obrana Národa [Defense of the Nation] – sprang up to assist would-be escapees. Somehow I was involved and given the minor role of briefing and directing the defectors from my area to the next contact. One of my clients compromised me by following me to a meeting with my superior within the organisation. I, subsequently, received a warning, which may or may not have been true, that I was going to be arrested by the Gestapo and so should escape forthwith. Another ex-Air Force Officer was with me when the warning came, and, deciding to heed the advice, I invited my companion to come with me. We arranged to meet in half-an-hour time. I shoved a few things into my briefcase and was on my way out of building when I met my mother on the s tairs. With a brief few words and “See you later”, I ran out. The “later” turned out to be more than six years!
I knew where the next contact was to be and I was not short of money, so as soon as I met my friend we hired a taxi to take us 200 miles to the mining town of Moravská Ostrava, near the Polish border, where I knew the next contact point was to be found. At that time this was the only way to go to eventually reach France, our erstwhile ally.
We had a bit of a scare on the way, when our taxi knocked down a woman who was pushing a pram. It was her fault, but the last thing that we wanted was a police investigation. Luckily, the pram only contained some shopping and the woman was not hurt I gave her a couple of hundred Koruna (Czech money) and told her to keep mouth shut.
We arrived at Moravská Ostrava in the evening, booked in at a small hotel, without registering, and then spent the rest of the evening in a cinema. We had to wait until 6 pm the next day before our next contact could be made. All day we avoided the busy centre of town, spending most of the time in small cafes in the suburbs. As directed we arrived at a small tavern at the appointed time. We ordered beer add sat down at a small table in corner of the room, trying to look inconspicuous. Within the next few minutes, three more pairs of young men entered the tavern, ordered beer and sat at tables in the other corners of the bar. All of them were behaving like us and talking in subdued voices. As I stole a glance at the others I saw that they all looked similar to us, with Air Force briefcases and a raincoat on nearby empty chair. All were wearing the very distinctive Air Force watches.
I felt like at least trying to push our two briefcases under the table, but on second thoughts, realised the futility of this and resigned myself to whatever was going to happen.
After a few minutes a man came in and wandered nonchalantly across to our table. He sat down and then in a low voice to to wait exactly 20 minutes and then to leave the tavern and walk a short distance a round the corner, where two taxis would be waiting . He then proceeded to to each of the other three tables in turn, where he presumably gave the same instructions. We were also told not to attract attention! The whole scene would have been hilarious in a theatrical farce, but in our situation with the Germans were on the lookout for the likes of us, it was not so funny.
I sat next to the driver of the first car and anxiously surveyed the sparsely populated country side as we drove through it. There was no traffic to going anywhere and I began to feel a little more comfortable.
After about a twenty minutes drive we pulled off into the forecourt of what looked like a large farmhouse. From the sign outside I could see that it was an inn, presumably used by the local farmers and their labourers.
As I stepped out of the taxi the door of the inn opened and out filed a noisy group of German soldiers, all armed with rifles. I immediately jumped back into the taxi shouted to the driver to drive away as fast as he could. Fortunately, nobody else had had got out of the taxis and the engines were still running so we made a quick exit from the courtyard. I just had time to notice that the Germans were climbing into two lorries, which had been parked in the corner but had escaped my notice when we had driven in.
There was then considerable panic in our car, (and probably in the second one also). We thought that Germans would give chase, and although we had a start on them I thought that they would pass on some message so that we would be intercepted on the way. I decided to leave the taxi and hide in the fields, and perhaps proceeding on foot. I told my plan to my companions. The other two decided to stay in the taxi, but my friend and I jumped out of the taxi and ran into a cornfield and laid down. I never found out what happened to the others, or even who they were.
(When later, I was in a camp in Poland, I enquired if any of the new arrivals had been involved in our little adventure but without success.)
To our amazement there was no sign of pursuit and after a while we convinced ourselves that this had just been an unfortunate coincidence to have met them at the inn, and that probably could not have cared about us at all.
All the same. I felt that we hard been wise to leave the taxi and not to go on to meet the guides at that particular time.
As we lay in the field we decided that we would not move until it was dark despite the fact that there was nothing to be seen in the vicinity. Then began to consider our options. Return to the tavern was ruled out. (The contact would have left by now, anyway). Recalling the stories we had heard at home of hair raising escapes through disused mines, or being covered by coal goods wagons etc., we came to the conclusion that trying to escape across border on our own was not advisable. The common frontier with Poland, only a few miles away, was obviously well-guarded otherwise these methods of crossing the border would not have to be used. I had no other contact that I could make.
In the end we returned to the town of Moravska Ostrava, and when we got th we were both so hungry, thirsty and tired that we simply did not care anymore. We had a meal in a nice restaurant, a few beers and then ended up there for the evening.
There, by an extraordinary piece of luck, my friend met an old acquaintance. She came and sat with us and told us that she was now married and living in town, but that her husband was away. I did not quite believe all her story she did not behave like a married woman. (We were not yet in the permissive era.) Anyway, we drank and danced and then my friend, despite my warning, told her about our intentions and failure to escape. This did not seem to surprise her at all. She said that the town was full of people like us, and, not to worry, she would arrange everything for us the next day. She was, by then quite intoxicated and I suspected that she was being rather optimistic about being able to help.
Altogether, I was not very happy to have her around. The whole situation spelt danger. All the same we both ended up in her flat.
In the morning, or about lunchtime, when we got up and had consumed large amount of black coffee, we sat down to seriously consider what to do. I soon changed my opinion of the young lady. Now sober, she was a different person and without making any sweeping statements she offered to go and try to find somebody reliable to help us escape. She invited us to remain in the flat – an offer we gladly accepted.
On returning, she told us that in the evening we would all go for a meal in a certain restaurant in the town, and there, perhaps, we would meet somebody with some useful information.
It was a pleasant summer evening and we ate our meal in a garden, where, from dining we also participated in a game of nine-pin bowls with the locals. Our lady seemed to be engaged in serious conversations with a number of guides but without any word of progress to us. Only after we got back to the flat did she announce that everything was arranged and then proceeded to explain the plan.
The next day we were to purchase two small tents, casual clothing, rucksacks, cooking utensils and food to supply us for a few days. The following day we were to be joined by two girls and together we would pretend to be students on holiday, and would go camping in the woods near the Polish border and wait for an opportune moment to cross. Apparently, the girls had done the same before and it had all gone smoothly.
The plan was approved and carried out two days later saw us with our two companions, setting up tents in a wooded area less than a mile from the border. I could see it was quite easy to cross across to Poland, and I believed that it had, indeed, gone smoothly before.
However, this time there was a snag. Since the girls had been there before, the Germans, now preparing for the invasion of Poland had moved more troops into that particular section of frontier. There were small groups of soldiers camped every half mile or along and near to the border.
I was all for abandoning the whole exercise going back to Ostrava but the others persuaded me to stay for one night as it might look suspicious if we were to leave right away. So we stayed and cooked our evening meal, then as one of the girls had brought her guitar we had song. We were soon joined by soldiers from the camps on both sides of us not only joined in by humming along to the music, but actually contributed drinks from their stores.
In the morning we decided that nothing, could be lost if we stayed on for a days, as our credentials as students had, apparently, been accepted. After a couple of days, having carried out some reconnaissance during the daytime, we agreed that it might be possible to slip across, provided we picked the right moment. On a chosen day, as dawn began to break at about 3 am, the decision was made to make a dash for it.
The girls insisted on making the crossing with us, saying that in the wooded, slightly hilly area we might inadvertently cross back, and they to know the area very well. They were certain that they would have no problem in getting back. It was the fourth morning since our arrival that we made way very quietly and carefully towards the frontier.
All went well for most of the way until we were practically on the border when we came across a German soldier on guard. He was well concealed and probably dozing off when, by bad luck we almost stepped right on him. We all bolted, running fast to the border, which we believed to be only a short distance away. There was a clearing ahead and beyond it, safety. The guard took a few moments to gather his wits before starting to fire his rifle.
He was either a very bad shot or simply did not want to kill the people that he had been singing and drinking with just a short while before.
From a mixture of tiredness and fear we all fell down half way across the clearing and took cover in the low shrubs. The firing had woken up the other Germans, who had now joined their comrade. Then they started spraying the clearing with much more serious fire. (I recall the old saying that one German is fine but in a group they become soldiers without compunction.)
I dont know how my companions felt but I was frightened to death, having the first time in my life bullets whistling past my ears and hitting the ground near me. I was flat on my stomach and if the ground had been soft it would have held an impression of my body. Inch by inch I crawled to to the far end of the clearing where I felt that the trees and undergrowth would provide adequate shelter and safety. I could hear the heavy breathing somebody near me but could not see which of my companions it was.
After what seemed to be ages but was probably only a few minutes I reached the at the end of the clearing . I walked a little distance and, waited for the others. They all soon appeared one after the other, miraculously unharmed. We began to walk in order to put more distance between us and the firing soon began to die down.
The girls assured us that we were now in Poland and gave us rough directions on how to locate the nearest community. Then we began say our good-byes. They insisted that they would be alright and would go back after they had rested a while and told us that they would take an alternative route.
My friend and I, understandably, felt greatly indebted to the girls but could do little to show our gratitude. I had started the journey less than a week previously with quite a large amount of money, but the expenses had been considerable and so, by now, I had very little left. However, we both emptied our pockets and made the girls take what we had, to buy a souvenir to remember us by. They were reluctant to accept but we insisted that the money would now be useless to us, (which was not quite true).
After the war, I tried to trace the girls and eventually located their parents and learned from them, that they had both been executed by the Germans after being caught red-handed, helping other escapees, some time after they had helped us.
After this successful escape to Poland, Jiří Hartman was one of the many Czechoslovak airmen, who left Poland in the Summer of 1939 to France. There they were required to join the French Foreign Legion pending declaration of war. Once war was declared,they were then transferred to l’Armée de l’Air. Jiří was initially at Tours for re-training, and when France capitulated in June 1940, was evacuated to England where he joined the RAF.
After RAF re-training he was posted, at the rank of F/O to 312 (Czechoslovak) Sqn in August 1941 before re-posted to 310 (Czechoslovak) Sqn where he remained until the end of the war, reaching the rank of S/Ldr.
He returned to Czechoslovakia, leading the 54 Czechoslovak Spitfires from England, landing at Ruzyně airport on 13 August 1945.
More information here about S/Ldr Jiří Hartmann here and here