On September 1, the world remembered the outbreak of the worst conflict in history. For Czechs, however, the war started earlier than September 1939. By the time Nazi troops stormed Poland and France and the UK declared war on Germany, thousands of Czechs had already left their country, ready to join the fight against the Nazis. One of them was Karel Kuttelwascher, who became a famous night fighter with the RAF, and the most successful Czech fighter pilot of the war. Recently his daughters came from England and together with the people of his native town marked the 50th anniversary of Karel Kuttlewascher’s death.
Karel ‘Kut’ Kuttelwascher, like many other Czech pilots and soldiers who were stationed in Great Britain during the war, married an English woman. Their daughters Vera and Marie made it to the Czech Republic a few weeks ago to unveil a memorial plaque on Karel Kuttelwascher’s native house in the village of Svatý Kříž, just outside the town of Havlíčkův Brod, in eastern Bohemia. One of the daughters is Vera Darlington.
“It was very good. It was surprising how many people were there – I think all of Svatý Kříž was there. We were very pleased that pan Sadecký had made the arrangements for the plaque to be put on the wall, and for us to unveil it.”
Zdeněk Sadecký was instrumental in the whole event. He is the director of a police school in the nearby town of Jihlava. But Mr Sadecký is also the founder of the Czech Spitfire Club, a group of people who want to honour the legacy of Czech WWII fighter pilots.
“We are documenting the airmen here in the Vysočina region. We have organized two important events so far – in February, we opened a big exhibition dedicated to the role of Czech and Slovak pilots in the struggle against the Nazis. Some 2,700 people came to see it, which was most pleasing, because it was several times more than we expected. The other event is the visit of Karel Kuttelwascher’s daughters on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his death.”
Karel Kuttelwascher was born in Svatý Kříž in 1916. After school, he enlisted in a military academy in Hradec Králové in order to fulfil his dream of becoming a pilot.
“His family had a farm but his father was a railway man. As far as we know, Karel was always interested in flying, and he took the first opportunity to get to the Military Academy. He started flying before the war, and during the Battle of Britain, he was a little older than the other pilots. That was one of the reasons he actually became a wing commander.”
Before that, he had already flown in the French air force, winning his first victories against the Luftwaffe. Zdeněk Sadecký says the Czech Spitfire Club would like to find out more about this stage of his life.
“Karel and his brother Jan left by train to Poland. They eventually made it to France where they had to join the Foreign Legion because France was not yet at war with Germany. Once the war began, he fought with the French air force – and we are now trying to document his activities at the time, because military records suggest he had two definite and one likely kill. But it looks like there were some more.”
Karel Kuttelwascher’s daughters Vera and Marie were born in England during the war. Although their parents eventually divorced and they went on to live with their mother, they remember the time when the family was together.
“Christmases we remember… We were only 14 when he died, and we did not live with him after we were about six years old, but I remember going to air displays in England… big one called Farnborough Air Display.”
Did you know from early on that he was a famous fighter pilot?
“Not really, did we? No, we knew he was very good in the war, but we just thought he is our father, you know. Not the fame and everything; just that he was very good at killing the Germans.”
In his career in the RAF as a night fighter, he downed 17 enemy aircraft. In 1942, he was transferred to a non-combat unit, and began working for the exile Czechoslovak government. Here is a little sample of his radio work – a broadcast he made in 1945 in which he addressed – in English – American Czechs and Slovaks.
“Dear friends in the United States and Canada. This time, I am speaking to you from the Old War to which I have returned after several months’ stay among you. Here I am not only near my work but also the home country to which all our thoughts are directed in these final days of the world conflict.”
After the war, Kuttelwascher and his family moved to Czechoslovakia, but they only stayed for one year before returning to England. While Mr Sadecký says that Kuttelwascher saw that the communist were soon going to take over – Vera and Marie have a slightly different explanation.
“Really it was our mother who really wanted to go back because when she came over here with three small children, obviously the language barrier was very difficult for her. And she missed her family at home, and for him also, it was safe because of the communists, so they decided to go back all together, and he became a civil pilot.”
Karel Kuttelwascher died in England in 1959. For a long time, his achievements were half forgotten – until Vera’s husband Roger Darlington began investigating his accomplishments.
“When our father died, our brother was living with him because he was working for the same airline. There was a red trunk, and it had all the letters in it and photographs and the log-book and all this documentation. He brought it down to our mother’s for safe-keeping. And that’s where it was when Roger was introduced to the family. He asked our mother if we had any details, so under the sideboard in the dining room, came the red trunk, and voila – everything was there!”
Because of Roger Darlington’s research for the book Night Hawk, the family in England realized that they had relatives in Czechoslovakia, and eventually got in touch.
“It was only when my sister Vera’s husband started writing the book with all the research that he found that we had family. With his research in America and Australia and everywhere, that’s how it all got started. And if it was not for Roger Darlington, we would not have known our family over here.”
When did you first meet the “lost family” in Czechoslovakia?
“I saw them in 1988, I think, and we came over here in 1989, yes, just the two of us. The first visit was with Roger Darlington, my husband, and it was very emotional to meet all the family for the first time. But now, we are in contact forever.”
Back in England in the 1980s, Vera Darlington in fact took Czech lessons. Her teacher was in fact none other than the future Czech foreign minister Jan Kavan who lived in London at the time!
“Bohužel mluvím jen trochu česky, a taky špatně. But my and Roger’s teacher was Jan Kavan. The first words he asked us to say, he asked the question ‘Co je to?’ And we had to say, ‘To je okno.’ Bu the first memories I have of Czech is from when we were little, and my father said to me, ‘Co děláš, Věruško?’ That was perhaps the very first words, but it was interesting to have been taught Czech by Jan Kavan.”
For the Czech Spitfire club and other enthusiasts, the plaque on Karel
Kuttelwascher’s native house in Svatý Kříž is only the beginning.
Zdeněk Sadecký says that with the help of the local authorities and
public, they are hoping to set up a small museum that would keep the legacy
of the great World War II fighter pilot alive for future generations.
Czech researchers develop top-grade respirator for 3D printing
Why Chinese masks destined for Italy were seized (not ‘stolen’) by Czech authorities
A mask-tree as a form of solidarity
Economist Tomáš Sedláček: A positive look at the coronavirus crisis
Government to extend restrictions on movement until April 1st