With the Lion in Their Hearts
Almost as soon as Germany invaded and occupied the former Czechoslovakia in 1939, many members of the Czechoslovak military risked death or harsh imprisonment by attempting to leave their homeland and offer their military services to nations that had taken up arms against Germany. Most fled to Poland initially; though many took up combat positions in the Polish military, many others moved on to positions in British, French and Soviet services. Roughly 2,500 Czech airmen joined the ranks of the Royal Air Force.
In June of 2014, the British expatriate communities of the Czech Republic and Slovakia presented permanent monuments in the capitals of both countries in gratitude to the many Czechoslovak pilots who served in the RAF during the Second World War. In November of 2017, placards bearing the names of the Czechoslovak men and women who served in the RAF during World War Two were added to the monument in Prague.
Czechoslovak pilots served in the RAF with distinction from the pivotal Battle of Britain in 1940 to the end of hostilities in 1945. While some remained in Great Britain after the war and continued their RAF careers, others returned to Czechoslovakia where a cruel twist of irony awaited them.
Swept Under the Carpet
In 1948, with the Communist government coming to power in the former Czechoslovakia, any hope for a return to normal life for the pilots who returned to their homeland was brutally dashed.
Initially, they were welcomed home as heroes and began the rebuilding of the nation and their lives in earnest. However; the hero status of these men, along with their exposure to western values, were seen as threats to the authority of the newly established Communist regime of 1948 and they were systematically marginalized in social status, imprisoned or forced into jobs of hard physical labour.
Some managed to escape the new regime and move to Britain or other free nations. For those who were not able to do so, their roles, sacrifices and contributions in WWII were all but erased by the Communist government and hidden from the public.
It would not be until the fall of Socialism in 1989 that the full scope of these pilots’ activities would be released to the populace of the newly democratic Czechoslovakia.
With the increasing awareness among Czechs and Slovaks of the role played by Czechoslovaks in the Allied war effort, the airmen in the RAF particularly, there have been a growing number of memorials placed around both countries in recognition of the risk, sacrifice and heroism of those men and women. Sometimes the memorial is as simple as a placard, though some are quite a bit more elaborate.
An example of one of the more complex monuments can be found in České Budějovice, in the southwest of the Czech Republic. This monument consists of a partial replica of a Supermarine Spitfire fighter with a path leading up to it that contains silhouette images of the different aircraft types flown by the Czechoslovak airmen in their RAF service.
A Story Worth Telling
If you wish to learn more about the Czechoslovak pilots and their exploits in RAF service, and I encourage you to as there are some very compelling stories connected to them, here are some links to follow:
The Free Czechoslovak Air Force blog is a wonderful resource with a wealth of information on the pilots, both collectively and as individuals:
This link will take you to a 2018 interview with the founder of the above website. In the interview, he recounts how his father and other former Czechoslovak RAF pilots committed the world’s fist triple hijacking in order to escape the Communist government that took over Czechoslovakia in 1948:
In this interview from 2001 with General Zdeněk Škarvada (1917-2013), he relates some of his experiences living in post 1948 Czechoslovakia:
Referenced in the above interview is the 2001 film “Dark Blue World”. Written and directed by Czech father and son duo, Jan and Zdeněk Svěrák, it is the compelling story of a former Czechoslovak RAF fighter pilot imprisoned by the Communist regime in the early 1950s. The story travels back and forth between the prison and the war; while fictitious, it is well worth watching and is refreshingly free of the usual bravado seen in war films.
“When Lions Roar” was a booklet published in conjunction with the unveiling of official monuments in Prague and Bratislava dedicated to the 2500 Czechoslovak airmen who served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. It’s a very good primer for anyone wishing to know more on the subject.
Nostalgia and Nibbles
If you happen to be in Brno and have an interest in the Czechoslovak pilots’ contribution to the RAF efforts, you really should make a point of visiting the unique Air Café in the city centre.
In the café, you will be surrounded by display cases filled with photographs, uniforms and flying gear with direct connections to some of the Czechoslovak RAF pilots. You can also take in the multitude of period posters and photographs lining the café walls.
About 30 minutes south-West of Brno, you can find the RAF House restaurant and museum in the small city of Ivančice.
RAF House presents tremendous ambience in both its regular restaurant area and its showcase lounge and museum that is dedicated to the Czechoslovak airmen. The focal point of the lounge is wall mural of a Spitfire fighter which has a wing that extends outward into the room to serve as a dining table.
The restaurants museum is named after General Emil Boček (1923-), the last known surviving of the Czechoslovak airmen who served in the RAF.
Beyond the ambiance of RAF House, you’ll also be rewarded with excellent food and a chance to sample some local wines for making the trip there.