World War I
In the First World War, the Czechs served in the Austro-Hungarian army, but mass desertions were widespread. Czechoslovak legions were formed in France, Italy and Russia to fight for Czechoslovak independence from Austria-Hungary. This is why Czech pilots could be found on both sides of the conflict. Many Czech pilots were trained in France due to the activities of M. R. Stefanik – a Slovak scientist, French pilot and one of the founding fathers of Czechoslovakia.
The Creation of Czechoslovak Air Force
In October 1918, former Czech members of Austro-Hungarian squadrons met on the Zofin island in Prague. At that time nobody knew they were founding one of Europe’s distinguished air forces. Many enthusiastic men gathered around sergeant Kostrba, but there were no planes to fly. That’s why it was a matter of high importance to obtain the largest possible number of aircraft for the republic, and find suitable airfields. Several undamaged airplanes were obtained from the former flying school in Cheb. These were flown to a meadow in Strasnice, which became the first Prague airport. Several foreign types were soon added to the original trainers from Cheb.
The new air force was helped significantly by a French donation of 127 aircraft. This help was not quite as unselfish as it looked: France wanted to gain a new market for their military production in newly created Czechoslovakia.
Young Czech experts opposed attempts to make Czechoslovak aviation dependent on France. Especially well-known designers Alois Smolik, Antonin Vlasak, Antonin Husnik, Pavel Benes and Miroslav Hajn had their own ideas for the Czechoslovak air force. These ideas were very specific, because each of them represented an aircraft manufacturer.
This is why the first tests of Czech made aircraft were eagerly awaited. They were supposed to decide the future of the Czechoslovak aviation industry. The test results of Smolik’s S-1 biplane were favorable for the local aircraft development and production. Final decision was taken after S-1 was joined by Aero Ae-02 and Avia BH-1. Local production beat the import.
At this time Czech aircraft were largely unknown and even ignored abroad. The aircraft of WW1 powers prevailed. It is not surprising that the first Prague Aviation Exhibition in 1920 went unnoticed abroad. The Czechs made up for this at the international aviation meeting in Zurich two years later. Alois Jezek, the company pilot of Letov, came in third with his S-3 in the category of precision takeoff and landing. He was also seventh in aerobatics.
Another company – Avia – also made the country famous. Czechoslovakia was among the first countries to start serial production of low-wing fighters. These were Avia BH-3’s, direct successors to the very first low-wing aircraft in the country – Avia BH-1 Experimental. These were followed by the well-known “Boska”: the exceptionally successful Avia BH-5. This type was made famous by doctor Zdenek Lhota with his competition machine marked L-BOSA: thence the nickname of “Boska”.
Doctor Lhota was an aviation enthusiast who quit his successful practice as a lawyer to link his future with the Avia factory. He gained the first trophy for Czechoslovakia in 1923, winning the Brussels International Tourist Aircraft Contest. His skyrocketing career continued until 1926. In that year he flew to Italy to defend the most valued trophy of the day – Coppa d’Italia Cup – which had been held by Avia since Frantisek Fritsch won the contest in 1925. Doctor Lhota flew the BH-11 low-wing monoplane. He disregarded the designers’ instructions and performed headlong flight during the preparations. This caused a crash and Lhota died together with his engineer Volenik. Czechoslovakia won the trophy anyway. Another pair of pilots, Bican and Kinsky, won the contest and defended the valuable trophy for Czechoslovakia.
The aviation of the 1920’s was not just Avia and doctor Lhota. Frantisek Lehky broke the world record at 100 kilometers with standard load on Aero A-12 on September 7, 1924. Karel Fritsch won the above mentioned Coppa d’Italia in Rome in November 1925, and one year later pilot Stanovsky undertook a long distance flight with Aero A-11. This was a trip around Europe across the tip of Africa and Asia Minor.
Captain Malkovsky was among the best Czechoslovak pilots of the late 1920s. He started the tradition of Czech aerobatics. His red Avia BH-21 was the top attraction of most public shows, and he was one of the first pilots in the country to master higher aerobatics. Unfortunately, he got killed at an air show in Karlovy Vary in 1930. Other distinguished personalities of pre-war aerobatics include Hubacek, Novak and Siroky. Frantisek Novak, in particular, is considered the best Czechoslovak aerobatic pilot of all time.
The Avia factory was the avant-garde: their low-wing series was very much ahead of its time. On the other hand, these planes had various problems, especially in that they required careful control. Most pilots were used to comfortable flying with stable biplanes, so there were many accidents with Avia monoplanes. This is why the company had to switch to biplanes. The designers did a good job again building the above mentioned biplane Avia BH-21, made famous by captain Malkovsky. Other famous Avia types included the best Czech serial fighter B-534, as well as modern low-wing planes B-35 and B-135. These last two types were built just before WW2, and were still undergoing further development in 1938 when Czechoslovakia was dismembered by Germany. Later, these planes were seized by the Germans, just like the entire country. Avia B-35 was a very promising design. Its prototype was flown with fixed landing gear, and an engine from the B-534 because the gear and engine intended for this plane were not ready yet. In spite of this, the aircraft achieved the speed of 480 kmph and showed excellent handling qualities. After the German takeover its development continued. It resulted in Avia B-135. Twelve of these machines were sold to Bulgaria in 1941 together with the manufacturing license. It is too bad this plane was developed so late and never had the opportunity to oppose the German army. It can be assumed this plane would have been a worthy opponent for the Messerschmitt.
Avia B-534 was an excellent machine, and its only fault was that it was not replaced in time. It was used by many air forces well into the war. The last biplane kill of WW2 was scored by F. Cyprich flying an Avia B-534 on September 2, 1944. This was in the Slovak uprising, and the plane shot down was a German Ju 52/3m in the area of Radvan.
The Letov factory continued with their successful line started by the Letov S-1 biplane. This light bomber had a wooden airframe with canvas cover. The 1926 S-16 model is among the best of Smolik’s designs. This biplane was used by lieutenant-colonel Skala and engineer Taufr for their long distance flight to Japan. The most modern of Smolik’s design was a full-metal two engine bomber S-50. It was also seized by the Nazis.
The Aero company also started with biplanes. The very first Aero design, the Ae-02 fighter, was a success. It was followed by a reconnaissance biplane A-12, and a very interesting high-wing bomber A-42. The 1930 design was the most modern Czech bomber of the day. Due to some of its faults and the lack of understanding in the military administration, this plane stayed a prototype. Aero also attempted a fighter monoplane A-102, but this project was abandoned when Avia came up with a more modern design (B-35). Aero produced the most modern Czech pre-war bombers (with the exception of Avia’s licensed production of the Soviet SB-2 bomber). These bombers were Aero A-300 and A-304. They too were captured by the Nazis.
These lines create the impression that the Czechoslovak aviation industry only consisted of Avia, Letov and Aero. In reality, there were other companies such as Praga, Tatra, Zlin, Benes-Mraz, as well as designers including Jaroslav Slechta, Karel Tomas, Frantisek Novotny, Robert Nebesar and Jaroslav Lonek.
The Czechoslovak air force and aviation industry played a distinguished role between the wars. It was not the fault of Czech pilots or their machines that they never got the chance to stand up to the enemy.
World War II
Many Czechoslovaks had been in France longer than the Poles because Hitler’s coup de grace on the torso of Czechoslovakia had occurred in March 1939, and from that date a steady stream of men managed to escape the country by a variety of routes and offer their services wherever they would be wanted. Unlike the Poles, however, the occupation of Czechoslovakia had taken place without a fight, so the contingent had to rely entirely on promises of valour, rather than proof of it.
Most of the early escapees headed for Poland, but relations between Poland and Czechoslovakia were ice-cold after the Polish seizure of the Ťšín territory at the time of the Munich vandalism. As a result, many men sought the embrace of Soviet Russia, only to be met with instant internment. However, those who succeeded in crossing Poland’s border discovered that the first obstacle to be overcome was their new national status. For Germany had not merely occupied the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939, she had declared the territory to be a Protectorate of the Reich. This meant that all citizens of the two provinces – mainly Czechs – were henceforth citizens of the Third Reich, and Berlin was well within its rights under international law to demand the repatriation of all such persons who might arrive on foreign soil. Similarly, all Slovaks were under intense diplomatic pressure too. At the time of the occupation of the Czech lands, Slovakia had declared herself to be an independent state, but she automatically fell within the orbit of German influence. Political pressure from the new government in Bratislava might have forced neutral or threatened countries to repatriate all Slovaks too, therefore the target nations for the exiles – principally Poland, Romania and Hungary – all had to take into account the political consequences if they aided Czech and Slovak escapees. To the credit of the Polish authorities, however, they rejected the option of sending the men back, but equally they had no intention of provoking Germany by openly integrating them into their forces. A few Czechoslovaks did see action with the Polish Air Force after the German invasion, but these were mainly men who had Polish connections and had chosen to stay behind after the bulk of the contingent left for France at the beginning of August 1939.
France was the natural destination for the Czechoslovak group because she was legally an ally by treaty. French desires to bolster her potential resistance to the Germans had led her during the interwar years to seek alliances in Eastern Europe, mainly with the small states created at the end of the First World War which were vulnerable to renewed German aggression. It seems to have escaped the wit of French diplomats that by following such a policy they were recreating the same pattern of allied encirclement which so haunted Germany before 1914. Nevertheless, French insecurity drove the policy forwards, so by 1921 she had signed an alliance with Poland, followed by the Treaty of Alliance and Friendship with Czechoslovakia in January 1924. This treaty had outlined the military dimensions only, and merely committed the powers to confer on matters of foreign policy. But after the Locarno Pact of 1925, when it became apparent that Germany’s eastern borders were still negotiable, minds in Paris and Prague were suddenly concentrated on the awful prospect of a resurgent Germany, and hence the full alliance – the Treaty of Mutual Assistance – was signed in October 1925. France also strengthened her relations with Yugoslavia and Romania.
It has been argued in the past that British reluctance to commit herself to French security forced the latter to seek her protection elsewhere. Equally, one could level the charge at France that by unilaterally developing her own security system, she was by implication demonstrating little faith in the capacity of the League of Nations to function as an arbiter of international disputes, and this was hardly encouraging behaviour from so prominent a member. Either way, the alliances were made, and in 1939 both the Poles and the Czechoslovaks threw themselves upon the welcome of their ‘ally’.
The attitude of the French towards the Czechoslovaks was little different to the position they adopted towards the Poles. As the men arrived in France they were told quite bluntly that they would be temporarily enlisted in the Foreign Legion, and that this was not an option – refusal to comply would mean expulsion back to the occupied territory. Some men were also told that they faced deportation to the Reich itself. Furthermore, as with the Poles, the French held the military capabilities of the Czechoslovaks in little regard. A series of derogatory articles had been published in the middle 1930s through the military journal Bulletin des armées étrangères until Gen Faucher, a high-placed sympathiser, had them stopped. When the men arrived in the summer of 1939, a confidential report produced for the Czechoslovak Ministry of National Defence (MNO) suggested that the primary holding camp at Agde was little more than an internment area. Although they had enough food, they suffered from lack of accurate war information and the disdain of French officers to all things Czechoslovak. Ignorance rather than blatant contempt may have been the cause here, however. The Alliance of 1924 had allowed for staff talks between the French and the Czechoslovaks, but there had been little consultation at a practical level. The French, it would seem, placed greater faith in Czechoslovakia’s defensive capabilities than her offensive strength.
By most accounts, Legion life was a grim experience. Units were sent to North Africa for training, much of it characteristically brutal, and some of it, perhaps by dint of malicious irony, under German NCOs. After the fall of Poland, limited active service was offered to both army and air personnel, but as with the Poles, the air contingent was used sparingly, joining combat as part of French Air Force detachments rather than as independent units. One reason was that Czechoslovak airmen, having completed basic Legion training, were posted to French colonial bases well away from the forthcoming front line on the Continent.
It was not until the outbreak of war with Germany that France drew on this manpower, but by then it was far too late to successfully integrate air crews who had been lightly trained on outdated equipment. Of approximately 1,000 airmen in France, one estimate places only eighty-five in combat roles, with the others ‘kept well behind the lines’. This conflicts with the official Czechoslovak tally of 123, but this figure also includes men who flew either individually or in small groups with French squadrons. Whichever figure is correct, it is clear that action was seen by very few. In itself, this would have been a grave disappointment to the Czechoslovaks. In a report drafted early in 1940, optimism for a fully independent force with at least one fighter squadron and two bomber squadrons ran high. Prestige was a major motivating factor, for the Czechoslovaks felt able to compete with the best the French Air Force could muster, but they were not to have that chance. Although a Franco-Czechoslovak military agreement was signed in early May 1940, it was little more than window-dressing, and actual usage remained at the levels outlined above.
The undignified scramble which attended the defeat of France in June 1940 ultimately brought these men, and the remainder of the Polish group, to England. One might suppose, not unreasonably, that the British would have undergone a rapid change of tune towards both contingents now that their Continental ally was busily engaged in making a separate peace and an invasion of the British Isles seemed more than a distinct possibility, but it should come as no surprise to discover that very little changed at all. The sudden prospect of many thousands of Slavs fetching up on British shores greatly alarmed those men of influence who had pushed back the earlier commitments to the Poles, and they continued to resist even though there was, quite literally, nowhere else for them to go. Indeed, it is tempting to speculate what would have happened if the energies of one man had not been applied to a programme of assimilation. For it was Churchill who insisted that all of the displaced allies be made welcome – a brave policy for a man whose position as Prime Minister was by no means secure. Many of the people he pointedly directed to facilitate the evacuation and absorption of the allied groups had an intense distrust and dislike of their new ‘allies’, and it will be seen that resistance continued for some time.
The headlong retreat from the Continent after the fall of France was caught by a combined naval operation sometimes referred to as Operation Aerial, though in practice this is an umbrella term for many small, independently arranged sailings ranging from Cherbourg in the north of France down to the Bay of Biscay. While neither as large nor as famous as the Dunkirk evacuations a month earlier, Aerial rescued what remained of the British forces in France and the many tens of thousands of foreign personnel who, actively or otherwise, had been in the service of the French. The figures are impressive: a total of 163,225 men and women during mid-summer 1940, rescued by a flotilla of ships flying the whole range of allied flags, plus some Egyptian and Swedish vessels which were in French ports at the time. In addition to the naval operations, the call went out to innumerable pilots and air crews to fly their machines – or any aircraft available – to Britain. Many of them made the crossing successfully, though there were reports of some French officials disabling planes or refusing to allow allied pilots access to them. The terms of the Armistice dictated by the Germans led to many such ugly scenes as former allies turned against one another, and men of all nationalities have recalled personal moments of anxiety as they desperately tried to get away, only to be hampered by over-zealous Frenchmen, glad that their war was finally over.
In Britain, the War Cabinet watched developments with increasing alarm. On 18 June, Eden drew to the attention of his colleagues that 12,000 Czechoslovak troops were in or near Marseilles, information supplied to him by the Czechoslovak National Committee in London. The following day, Sikorski told Churchill that many thousands of Polish personnel were also in dire need of assistance if they were to reach safety. Eden declared that he had spoken to the Admiralty on both counts, and embarkation plans now existed for Bordeaux and Marseilles. Even so, although he said that he was prepared ‘to take off any Czechoslovak troops who wished to leave’, he added that he ‘would much prefer to embark Polish troops’. This indicates that rescue from French beaches was not entirely conducted under a blanket policy, and that if the situation became desperate, Polish forces would have been given preferential treatment. It has also been claimed that the British were going to give priority to Polish airmen.
The most interesting part of Eden’s speech is the comment about those Czechoslovak troops ‘who wished to leave’. This begs the question, why should they not? In fact, a sizeable proportion did stay behind. Accurate figures for Czechoslovak casualties during the German offensive are difficult to establish due to the immense confusion, but one report estimated that the tally in May and June stood at 20 killed, of which8 died in combat, the others having perished in flying accidents or from unknown causes, and a further 12 unaccounted for. One writer has estimated that fully two-thirds of the Czechoslovak forces stayed in France after the Armistice, many of them choosing voluntary demobilisation, most of them other ranks.
This estimate is firmed up by a Chiefs of Staff report which was submitted to the War Cabinet on 26 July, placing the number of Czechoslovak servicemen then in Britain at a little under 4,000.40 Of these, the bulk were army personnel, but of the 1,000 airmen who had been encamped at Merignac, about three-quarters made their escape. Most of these men were officers or senior flying NCOs, a factor which was to plague the Czechoslovak Air Force throughout its time in Britain as it struggled endlessly against a shortage of ground crew. Furthermore, a good number of Poles chose not to leave France either. The Polish military had a total cohort of some 83,000 men in France at the time of the German attack. It has been calculated that over 27,000 reached England in the main wave; 16,000 were captured, and a further 54,000 remained in France, sought alternative escape routes through Spain, or were stranded in Switzerland with a French corps, this latter figure being placed at 11,000. This left 29,000 men still in France or trying to reach England, and by no means that amount reached Britain later in the summer.
It can be seen from these data that a higher proportion of the Czechoslovak group remained in France, roughly 66 per cent. Even if we allow for all of the 29,000 Poles to have stayed behind, this only accounts for 35 per cent of the total. The issue is clouded further by contemporary figures, for the Chiefs of Staff report placed the number of Poles then in Britain at 14,000 (not 27,000) and the Swiss contingent at 25,000 (not 11,000). Curiously, these figures almost balance each other out, and it is unlikely that we shall ever know the true statistics. What we can be certain of, however, is that the signals received by the British regarding the Czechoslovak numbers were not encouraging. If two-thirds chose to stay and seek reasonable treatment at the hands of the occupying powers, what did this say about the commitment of the Czechoslovaks to continue the fight? This explains Eden’s remark, and his thoughts may well have been informed by earlier prejudices.
For example, in late May 1940, the Czechoslovak Air Attaché in London wrote to the Air Ministry with a feasible scheme to utilise Czechoslovak bomber crews, at that moment entirely redundant in France even though the battle was in full flood. The Attaché, Lt Col Josef Kalla, argued quite strongly for the formation of at least one bomber unit on British soil which could then be sent on specialised missions to attack enemy locations in the Protectorate. Kalla insisted that the men could be hand-picked for their geographical knowledge, and in forwarding the proposal to Boyle on 28 May, Wg Cdr Porri agreed that it would be wrong to ‘leave such potentially useful war personnel idle at this moment’. Fleshing out the idea, he suggested that seventy or eighty pilots could be absorbed into long-distance squadrons as second pilots or observers, but the reply from Boyle was unequivocal:
I very much doubt if this is worth pursuing. We don’t know (1) if there are any pilots worthy of the name and if they are available; (2) their integrity (I am doubtful of many Czechs); (3) whether their terms of agreement with the French makes them available.
Here again we see a senior British officer casting considerable doubt upon the efficiency and trustworthiness of men engaged in the common fight, with scarcely a shred of evidence upon which to base his judgement. Note also that he found it convenient to throw the responsibility back onto the French once more. Even so, he advised Porri to canvass Kalla on the availability of the men, and to explore the possibilities of incorporating those trained on fighters into home squadrons; and it is clear from later correspondence that he intended to pass the whole matter on to a higher power.
Boyle was clearly uneasy about dealing with the Poles and the Czechoslovaks, but Porri acted swiftly and interviewed Kalla, who assured him that the men were fully trained and experienced personnel with total commitment to the war effort. On 10 June Porri replied to Boyle and suggested that perhaps only thirty of the best pilots and an equivalent number of wireless operators and observers should be selected for service ‘after their integrity has been certified by the Czech Legation.’ To support his case, he enlisted the help of the former British Air Attaché to Prague, Gp Capt Frank Beaumont. This officer drafted a truly glowing tribute to the legend of Czechoslovak gallantry, to their ‘fibre, efficiency and indomitable spirit’, but we cannot know if these sentiments had any effect on the opinions held at the Directorate of Intelligence because by this time the French surrender was imminent. A quick response from Boyle merely stated that the matter had been forwarded to Sholto Douglas for a policy decision; and a further note on 17 June effectively shelved the issue altogether, drawing attention to the impending collapse of French resistance and suggesting instead that thoughts should now turn to evacuating all the Czechoslovak personnel from French territory.