A number of ceremonies in Prague this week paid tribute to the 2,500 Czechoslovak pilots who flew with the RAF in WWII. Close to 500 of them died in action. Those who came home received a hero’s welcome, but the nation’s gratitude was short-lived. When the communists came to power in 1948 they were portrayed as enemies of the state, jailed and persecuted.
In August of 1945 the mood in liberated Prague was euphoric and hundreds of thousands of people came out to greet the country’s war heroes. A makeshift tribune was set up on Old Town Square where a celebratory parade took place and President Edvard Beneš, voiced the nation’s gratitude, opening his speech in English.
One of the last remaining Czech RAF veterans General Emil Boček recalls that the Czech contingent in the RAF had originally envisaged a very different return home.
“When the war was over we were all looking forward to coming home. Prague was calling for help and we thought we would fly out in aid of Prague. But the decision kept getting put off until it was too late. Obviously, the Russians didn’t want us here.”
It was a harbinger of things to come. When the communists came to power in 1948, Czechoslovakia’s RAF pilots were portrayed as enemies of the state. Those who did not flee the country were jailed and persecuted as were their families. Michal Plavec from the National Technical Museum says it is obvious why they were a thorn in the side of the communists.
“They were the elite of the nation. Their way of thinking was different and it was clear that the vast majority of them would never support communist ideology.”
It was not until the fall of communism in 1989 that Czechoslovakia’s RAF pilots received proper recognition and state awards from the hands of then president Vaclav Havel. There was a flurry of interest in their stories from the media, institutions documenting the memory of the nation and schools. They inspired a post-1989 Czech film called Dark Blue World by the Oscar-winning director Jan Svěrák. But for many of them the recognition came too late. The forty years of communism had destroyed their lives and their hopes of a very different world. Michal Plavec again:
“The political significance of their deeds is unquestionable. Their bravery in the Battle of Britain and throughout the war won them great respect, respect that later helped Czechoslovakia’s exiled President Benes to negotiate with the allied governments and contributed to the fact that Czechoslovakia was recognized as a legitimate successor of interwar democratic Czechoslovakia.”