With the Lion in Their Hearts
Almost as soon as Germany invaded and occupied the former Czechoslovakia in 1939, many members of the Czechoslovak military risked death or harsh imprisonment by attempting to leave their homeland and offer their military services to nations that had taken up arms against Germany. Most fled to Poland initially; though many took up combat positions in the Polish military, many others moved on to positions in British, French and Soviet services. Roughly 2,500 Czech airmen joined the ranks of the Royal Air Force.
On June 17 and June 18 of 2014; the British expatriate communities of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, after much hard work and campaigning, presented permanent monuments in the capitals of both countries in gratitude to the many Czechoslovak pilots who served in the RAF during the Second World War.
Czechoslovak pilots served in the RAF with distinction from the pivotal Battle of Britain in 1940 to the end of hostilities in 1945. While some remained in Great Britain after the war and continued their RAF careers, others returned to Czechoslovakia where a cruel twist of irony awaited them.
Swept Under the Carpet
In 1948, with the Communist government coming to power in the former Czechoslovakia, any hope for a return to normal life for the pilots who returned to their homeland was brutally dashed.
Initially, they were welcomed home as heroes and began the rebuilding of the nation and their lives in earnest. However; the hero status of these men, along with their exposure to western values, were seen as threats to the authority of the newly established Communist regime of 1948 and they were systematically marginalized in social status, imprisoned or forced into jobs of hard physical labour.
Some managed to escape the new regime and move to Britain or other free nations. For those who were not able to do so, their roles, sacrifices and contributions in WWII were all but erased by the Communist government and hidden from the public.
It would not be until the fall of Socialism in 1989 that the full scope of these pilots’ activities would be released to the populace of the newly democratic Czechoslovakia.
A Story Worth Telling
If you wish to learn more about the Czechoslovak pilots and their exploits in RAF service, and I encourage you to as there are some very compelling stories connected to them, here are some links to follow:
The Free Czechoslovak Air Force blog is a wonderful resource with a wealth of information on the pilots, both collectively and as individuals:
This is a quite good interview from 2001 with General Zdeněk Škarvada (1917-2013) in which he relates some of his experiences living in post 1948 Czechoslovakia:
Referenced in the above interview is the 2001 film “Dark Blue World”. Written and directed by Czech father and son duo, Jan and Zdeněk Svěrák, it is the compelling story of a former Czechoslovak RAF fighter pilot imprisoned by the Communist regime in the early 1950s. The story travels back and forth between the prison and the war; while fictitious, it is well worth watching and is refreshingly free of the usual bravado seen in war films.
“When Lions Roar” was a booklet published in conjunction with the unveiling of official monuments in Prague and Bratislava dedicated to the 2500 Czechoslovak airmen who served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. It’s a very good primer for anyone wishing to know more on the subject.
The book can be purchased through the Shakespeare & Sons bookshop in Prague: