Czechoslovak Air Force 1918-1970 Part II

Clearly, the French defeat had saved some high-ranking members of the RAF from a potentially embarrassing decision, but events had overtaken them. Edvard Beneš had already written to the new Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, requesting help with the evacuations, adding that the first group of thirty pilots had landed at Hendon on the night of the 17th. So, whether the Air Ministry wanted the Czechoslovak pilots or not, they were already at the door.

Nor were the Czechoslovaks the only contingent to be so coarsely assessed, for the Poles were also to suffer the lash of British xenophobia. Air Cdre Charles Medhurst became rather alarmed at the prospect of so many Poles arriving on British shores. Medhurst would soon be installed as the first director of a new Air Ministry department custom-built for dealing with the European air contingents, the Directorate of Allied Air Co-operation (DAAC). Early in 1941 this department was given a major overhaul and became the Directorate of Allied Air Co-operation and Foreign Liaison (DAFL), though by that time Medhurst had moved on to other duties. When it became clear at the end of June that very large numbers of Czechoslovak and Polish servicemen would shortly be arriving in the country – not by choice or invitation but by force of circumstances – the suspicious attitudes hardened.

With views such as these, it is quite possible that he had been influenced by Landau’s negative report in March – not that such opinions were by any means unusual in the Air Ministry, as we have seen. He went on to suggest that a definite number of Polish squadrons should be decided upon at that moment, thus limiting places and excluding ‘the unskilled and inferior material’ who might be re-trained for service with Army Air Co-operation Units or ferrying duties. He estimated that no more than 40 per cent of the influx would be ‘really good material’, and surplus stock should be handed over to the Polish Army for absorption. Although Medhurst’s comments on the Czechoslovak contingent are not noted, it might reasonably be assumed that he held them in no higher regard.

On the same day that Medhurst was penning his vision of the future, Sholto Douglas received an assessment of the Czechoslovak air strength. In all, 327 flying personnel had arrived from France, of which approximately 50 per cent were officers. A further 177 ground crew had escaped, though their numbers would soon be swollen by another 300 mechanics believed to be in transit. This gave a rough officers-to-men ratio of one to five, and even the Czechoslovaks admitted that this was far too high for comfort. The reason for the imbalance was that the majority of the men who escaped occupied Czechoslovakia were career fliers, and these in the main tended to be officers or flying NCOs. When the agreements with the French allowed for the reconstitution of the Czechoslovak forces on French territory, Czechs and Slovaks who had otherwise settled in France during the 1930s were mobilised. Of these, Slovaks made up by far the greatest proportion of the ground crew in France, and after the French defeat these were the men who stayed behind together with their comrades in the Czechoslovak Army, returning to their families after the Armistice. It has been calculated that only about 14 per cent of the entire Czechoslovak Air Force which fought from Britain during the war were Slovaks, and the majority of these saw service with 311 (Bomber) Squadron, mainly as gunners, radio operators and ground crew. Therefore, although most of the original ‘French’ contingent of 1,000 men chose evacuation, most were Czechs and about 20 per cent were officers, and this gave rise to some serious problems.

This flurry of correspondence on 3 July was due to a minor conference taking place on the same day, the principal item on the agenda being the absorption of the Czechoslovak airmen into the RAF structure. Porri, Kalla, Gen Karel Janoušek and Lt Col Alois Kubita all agreed that each man should, if possible, be employed within ten days, if only to maintain what was described as ‘excellent morale’. It was also agreed that there existed sufficient trained personnel to form one fighter squadron and one light-bomber squadron immediately, but in the first instance the whole cohort would be sent to a flying station, RAF Cosford, for initial assessment. Frank Beaumont, presumably because of his earlier enthusiasm for the Czechoslovaks, was nominated as commanding officer. Four training aircraft would be supplied at once and, in a revival of the earlier scheme, surplus fliers would be transferred to an Operational Training Unit to be readied for long-range bombing raids on enemy locations within the Protectorate. Men still without work after these selections would be trained for ferrying duties, and once fully operational the new bomber unit would be sent to a south-eastern station for raids against targets in France, preferably with its own fighter support to minimise the language difficulties. This last point was rejected by Sholto Douglas when the report reached him. Striking out the proposal, he commented: ‘We cannot have the Czechs conducting separate little operations of their own.’

Much of the responsibility for assimilating the Poles and Czechoslovaks was now devolving upon Medhurst, yet he was still to be convinced that the RAF’s new allies were worth having. His principal concern was ‘the anxiety and trouble’ it would cause station commanders who would have to administer the Slavs in the early days. It was deemed impossible to allocate dedicated stations at that point in time, so his remedy was to supply liaison officers, one to each unit, and four or five interpreters, if that many could be found. On 7 July, he called for a full list of personnel from both groups. Armed with this information, he said: ‘we shall be able to pick out the best of the available material and grade the rest for future use if and when we want them.’

Thus Medhurst set out his stall. He had been compelled by adverse military circumstances and political decisions made at the highest level to do something with the thousands of Slav exiles streaming in from the Continent, but he did so with great reluctance and considerable apprehension.

A great deal, therefore, had occurred in thirty-eight days. The period began with some senior members of the Air Ministry holding a strong aversion to the creation of even a token Czechoslovak bomber squadron in Britain, and it ended with the establishment of 310 (Czechoslovak) Fighter Squadron at Duxford in Cambridgeshire on 10 July 1940. This was closely followed by the formation of 311 Bomber Squadron at Honington on 29 July, both units using the best-trained personnel from the Czechoslovak group which had arrived from France. No one in July 1940 had any clear idea of what was to be done with these men, and the criticisms did not stop there, as we shall see.

Repatriation?!

In 1945-46 the two service groups in the RAF from the east, the Czechoslovaks and the Poles, were faced with a serious problem of which each had been aware for some time: the occupation of the home territory at the war’s end by Soviet forces. Yet this was the only mutual element, for the Czechs had a slight advantage in that their troops from Britain had accompanied Patton’s Third Army into Czechoslovakia when it was partially liberated from the north-west. Patton, however, had been forbidden to go further, with the result that Soviet troops had downed tools in the majority of Czechoslovak territory. Even so, the Czechoslovak governmentin-exile under Edvard Beneš had gained a small but significant military foothold when it tried to re-establish its position. But the Polish forces of the west could only watch as Soviet troops swept across their home territory with considerable assistance from the Polish Army of the east.

The long and somewhat tortuous debate over the independence proposals of 1942 threw into stark relief the real relationship between the Air Ministry and the Czechoslovak Air Force in Britain. Yet we must be absolutely clear on one vital point: at no time were the ordinary men and officers of the force implicated in these various disputes during their time in exile. In fact, it has become clear through interviews with veterans that they themselves had no idea that this wrangling and pedantry was going on at the higher level. Even the bitter views of the Air Ministry were primarily directed towards the Czechoslovak High Command and the Beneš government; and as far as the RAF at Group level was concerned, the four squadrons conducted themselves with honour and courage throughout the war. No, these arguments were about two men – Beneš and Ingr – who continually pushed for more even though they knew full well that their chances of success were slight, but in so pushing merely irritated their hosts who for their part believed they had fulfilled all that could be reasonably expected of them.

Besides, in late August 1944 a new crisis had developed, something significant enough to relegate the squabbles over independence to the back of the stage. Acting on instructions received from London, Moscow and local commanders, a force of partisans and state troops in Slovakia turned against German divisions ordered into the country to quell rebel activity. It was a bloody affair that achieved only limited success. Although the rebels managed to hold on to central territories and the Red Army launched a massive offensive along the northern borders, huge German reinforcements crushed the uprising by mid-October at a cost of thousands of lives, both military and civilian.

However, at the start of the uprising, Beneš called for immediate RAF assistance with bombing strategic targets and dropping supplies to the partisans. As with all other communications from the European exiles not of a strictly military nature, the Air Ministry passed the request to the Foreign Office. Early in September, Frank Roberts wrote to the War Cabinet and told it unequivocally that Slovakia was in the Russian zone of the war and any effective help should come from Moscow, not London. This sounded the keynote for the British response: it was always going to be a matter for the Soviets, but how to make this fact plain without alienating the Beneš administration would be the primary task. The Chiefs of Staff replied the following day, aligning themselves with this policy and totally dismissing long-range bombing operations, which, they said, were purely a matter for the Russians. The reactions of the other two major allies were also tentative. The Americans did no more than recognise belligerent rights in Slovakia and assumed that all combatants were under the command of the Czechoslovak government in London. From Moscow, only silence.

Ingr wrote directly to the War Cabinet on 27 September and all but pleaded for allied reinforcements. He said that an uprising in the Protectorate was now imminent and would begin on a signal from London, therefore he needed arms for 10,000 men to be despatched within six nights and the further preparation of supplies for another 50,000–60,000 men within two weeks after the action began, all with the appropriate ammunition, food and medical stores. Eight days later, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke, curtly replied that it was still a matter for the Russians, that all air operations should be carried out by them, and the implication was that future supplies should be a Russian problem also.

A day later, the views of the Special Operations Executive were expressed. It maintained that hitherto the Czechoslovak government had offered ‘little co-operation’ in SOE’s attempts to organise an effective resistance group in Bohemia and Moravia, but now that the war had progressed favourably for the allies, the Beneš administration suddenly wished to ‘pursue the task of promoting such an organisation . . . to avoid the unenviable position of being the one nation which was not internally prepared for liberation’. The report dismissed the claim that the Slovakian action had happened ‘at the behest’ of the Czechoslovak government, and insisted that responsibility rested with the Russians alone. One crumb of comfort for Ingr, however, lay in SOE’s belief that the people of Bohemia and Moravia would nevertheless look to the West for help ‘and expect their arms and assistance to be delivered by us and not the Russians’. The Chiefs of Staff Committee minuted in response that all risings must be supported by advancing allied forces, and since the west was not in a position to assist, all material aid must come from the Russians. The final official decision was that it was a matter for the Soviets to provide active aid, and that the West would continue to encourage the Czechoslovaks by supplying small-scale sabotage groups in the Protectorate.

An exasperated Beneš tackled Nichols about this wall of intransigence, and the latter wrote to Roberts on 23 October, who then passed the letter to the War Cabinet. Beneš was disinterested in the argument that all risings should be supported by advancing Russian troops, but he made it clear that there was a political dimension to the problem which was being virtually ignored:

The President seemed inclined to allow it to be inferred that he would draw his own conclusions from our attitude on this subject; i.e. that we were content to see Czechoslovakia pass within the political sphere of the Soviet Union. He rehearsed, once again, the reasons why his policy had always been, and would always be, to seek assistance and support from both the east and the west, and why it was in the interests of [Britain] that this should be Czechoslovakia’s policy. I replied with some warmth that if he were to draw the conclusion that we were disinterested in Czechoslovakia’s future and that we were quite content to see her enter definitely and permanently into the Soviet sphere of political influence, he was completely mistaken.

One can see from this why Beneš was so aggrieved, and see also how he came to the opinions that he held. He had received not one particle of evidence to suggest that Nichols was as good as his word, and the constant insistence that it was a Soviet matter must surely have convinced him the Britain was finally washing her hands of the entire Czechoslovak ‘problem’.

Only one hope remained for Beneš – the immediate transfer of his total air strength to the zone of operations. Perhaps wisely, he enlisted the help of his Inspector-General. Janoušek approached the Air Ministry with caution, acknowledging that any decision ‘would largely be governed by the reply from the USSR’. But still he asked for at least minimal preparations to begin at once, these being the placing on standby of enough ground personnel to keep the squadrons operational, and the provision of sufficient supplies for a month’s hard fighting. But time was running out for the rebels in Slovakia. Janoušek’s plea was only received at the DAFL on 23 October, and by that time the German reinforcements were spreading havoc across the land.

The Red Army continued to maintain a desperate front in the Carpathian Mountains, and although the uprising itself had been suppressed, the Soviets still needed all the help they could get. In mid-November, Masaryk again asked for the return of the squadrons, and he claimed that the Russians had promised material support and given their full consent to the transfer. It seems unlikely that Masaryk was lying, though no substantiating document has yet come to light to prove the case either way. If he was lying, then he laid himself open to a charge of serious misrepresentation. Given the nervousness felt by the British regarding Soviet attitudes, the result would have been the complete destruction of his credibility. Sinclair was brought up to speed on the matter by Portal, and Sinclair himself wrote to Masaryk with his rejection, arguing that the squadrons were ‘playing an important part in our theatre of the war and we should not be able quickly to replace them’. On the date of this letter, 310 and 313 Fighter Squadrons were both at North Weald, while 312 was at Bradwell Bay. During the month of November, 310 and 313 flew eleven escort missions for bombing raids on Germany, while 312 flew twelve. Apart from training, the rest of the period was largely idle. In other words, they were hardly racing across Europe in support of the liberating armies, so it is difficult to accept that they were somehow indispensable and could not be released given the will to do so.

In any case, Sinclair gently placed most of the emphasis on the problems of supply and maintenance in his letter to Masaryk, but Portal was far more frank. He told Sinclair that the Czechs barely had enough men to run one-and-a-half squadrons by themselves if the British personnel were removed. He also doubted the plan in itself, seeing ‘no sound military case’ for the transfer. He then ended in a vein which is sadly reminiscent of the tone used by the DAFL in 1943:

If the Czechs are set upon transferring their forces then it seems to me that the proper course is to transfer the responsibility of maintaining them from the RAF to the Russians. It would be up to the Russians to provide aircraft and all the other things needed to maintain the squadrons; on the other hand, we should be rid of the commitment at the cost of finding three squadrons’ worth of pilots and 11/2 squadrons’ worth of ground personnel, which would be difficult but not impossible. [Either they] stay where they are or [go] over lock, stock and barrel to the Russians. I do not expect that the Czechs would welcome this alternative since in practice it would probably lead to the virtual disappearance of the Czech Air Force for a considerable time. They would probably be well advised to continue the present arrangements which at least keep the Czech flag flying at no very great cost to themselves.

It seems that Portal was sorely tempted ‘to be rid of the commitment’, but although his views seem to indicate an utter indifference to the fate of the Czechoslovak Air Force, or even the military situation in Slovakia, in essence his was a realistic view at the time. But there is still this impression of ‘the tolerated guest’ about the Air Ministry’s dealings with the Czechoslovak air contingent. Yes, it would have been acceptable if the British had not been inclined to trouble themselves overmuch about a very small force and its limited role in a gigantic war effort; but the language employed and the tone of its delivery frequently conveys the sense of irritation at having to deal with them at all, as if they should sit patiently on the south coast and wait until the end of the war before kicking up any more fuss.

The denouement came in two notes, one from Sinclair to Masaryk, much distilled, which highlighted the problems with the maintenance of communications, and the other from Nichols to Eden, which recorded the former’s conversations with Masaryk and his reaction to the news that Britain was not going to grant any requests whatsoever:

He heard me in silence and his manner betrayed that the answer we had returned was not unexpected. He showed that he appreciated the arguments even if he could not share the conclusions.

With this, the Beneš government’s first attempt to get its air force home came to an end, and it has to be said that, in the

main, the attitude adopted by the British government and the Air Ministry was a reasonable one, given the practicalities of the time. It was perfectly true that the Russians were in the best position to assist the Slovak rising, and even if three squadrons of Spitfires had been flown to that zone, maintaining them would have been almost impossible. To rely on men who had worked on the machines would have meant that only one or, at best, two squadrons would have functioned in any effective sense, and even these would have been totally dependent on spares flown through uncertain communications routes from Italian bases.

Yet it is also possible to see these admittedly valid reasons as little more than smoke to obscure the truth of the matter: that the Air Ministry simply did not wish to incur the extra work at a time when the war was entering its final phase. To transfer the whole contingent to the Russian zone would have meant a complex and laborious demobilisation on the British side, but to send the units east as a detachment of the RAF to fight with the Soviet armies would have raised numerous political complications far in excess of the potential benefit to the war effort. It was therefore easier to do nothing and use logistics as the basis of a negative argument. But one thing of great importance emerges from this episode: the attitude of the British regarding the return of the Czechoslovak Air Force to the Slovakian theatre sent all the wrong signals to Beneš and his government. By continually advising them to seek aid and permission from the Russians, the British were, at this late stage in 1944, making a rod for their own backs. For when less than a year later they were falling over themselves to give assistance to the Czechoslovaks, the latter effectively snubbed them in favour of their Russian allies.

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