When Nazi Germany occupied Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939, many Czech and Slovak professional soldiers and airmen decided to escape from the country, rather than hand over arms to the Germans. Six months later war broke out and many of them joined the French armed forces. When France was occupied, they escaped to Britain. This was how the Royal Air Force’s 310 and 312 Czechoslovak Fighter Squadrons came to be set up in July and August 1940, and they went on to play an important role in the Battle of Britain. They were also joined by the 311 Bomber Squadron. Just before Christmas in 1942, the BBC’s Czech service broadcast a special programme featuring the airmen and their British and Polish colleagues to help raise morale back home.
“As their Station Commander I am very happy to tell you that I consider this Czech squadron of yours as powerful a team of fighter pilots as could possibly be found in this world today. They have not been diluted by expansion and new blood, as have our English squadrons, and I am convinced that nowhere in this country could they be beaten, and certainly they could not be matched anywhere in the ranks of the German Luftwaffe today. The news, I think, is a little better now, and I find your Czech pilots are not easily prone to optimism, but in the last few weeks they have certainly been talking of being home with you back in Czechoslovakia by next Christmas. I certainly hope that that happy day is coming before then. I shall be very sorry to say goodbye to them, but one thing is quite certain: that I shall have to come and visit them, when they are back with you at home. Till that day, goodbye, and all the best of luck to you all.”
In fact, the Czech and Slovak pilots’ lack of optimism was well placed. It was to be another two-and-a-half years before those who survived – against odds that were little short of suicidal - were to see their homeland again.
The same broadcast, from December 12 1942, includes a rather touching interview in Czech with a Polish pilot. He reminisces with affection about his days as a student at Prague’s Technical University, and talks about his close friendship with the Czech pilots. He goes on to explain his connection to Prague. To the delight of the interviewer, he says that his mother is Czech.
The officer remains anonymous, but I would like to think that he survived the war and was able to see his Prague relatives again. Casualties among the Czechoslovak and Polish pilots were high. Of the 2,000 Czechoslovak airmen who served in the Royal Air Force, 480 gave their lives.
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