Ahead of D-Day celebrations, an emotional homecoming for Czech WW II-era pilots

Czech veterans, photo: CTK

Czech veterans of the Second World War who fought alongside the British and who now make their home in the U.K. were flown by special military transport on Tuesday to Prague, ahead of celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Brian Kenety was on the tarmac to meet them and has this report.

Czech veteran Frantisek Elston,  photo: CTK
A guard of honour pays tribute to visiting Czech WWII veterans, fighter pilots and bombardiers, gunners and ground crew. Six decades ago, these men, now mostly in their mid 80s, were the rank and file of the Czechoslovak forces who fought in squadrons under the command of the RAF, the British Royal Air Force.

For the forty-odd years of Communist rule, these airmen were treated with great suspicion in their native Czechoslovakia for having served in the West; many were imprisoned or fled in exile for fear that they would be. On Tuesday, they were welcomed back as national heroes.

For many of the veterans, to sing the national anthem after touching down again on Czech soil was a powerfully emotional experience.

"I'm nearly crying. I can't express it. It's impossible. I can't. Can't talk. I'm sorry. You know, I'm 86, so I'm older than the Czech Republic. And I've been in England now since '48. So, of course, it's like coming home. You feel like kissing the ground."

Czechoslovakia's participation in Operation Overlord, the first wave of D-Day, was almost exclusively limited to the air. The Free Czechoslovak Army's 1st Armoured Brigade did not deploy to Normandy until several weeks after the Allied landing.

Czech veterans,  photo: CTK
But the four Czechoslovak squadrons under RAF command — the 310th, 3llth, 312th and 313th — provided crucial cover in direct support of the British Second Army's landing on and around the beaches of Normandy.

Bomber squadron No. 311 was formed in July 1940 from Czechoslovak Air Force personnel and also infantry who served in the Middle East or fought under French command and then escaped to the U.K. when the Nazis overran France. At first this squadron flew Wellingtons but in April 1942 the squadron was transferred from Bomber Command to Coastal Command and the following year assumed a general-reconnaissance role and began flying Liberators.

Nearly 30 members of the 311th squadron now living in the U.K. were flown to Prague this week as guests of the Czech government. I asked some pilots to recall their D-Day experiences.

RAF pilots
"My name is Marlich, Charles Marlich. I was with the 311th, Coastal Command. And at D-Day we were stationed in Predannack, Cornwall. And at D-Day I came to the squadron and then we were flying in the Channel and the Bay of Biscay. I don't think there was nervousness, I think it was more an elated feeling that something was happening, finally. We took it all in stride, let's put it that way. We took it all in stride."

Born in Ruthenia, now part of Ukraine, Bernard Lebovic served in the Royal Air Force for 3 years during the war — he served another 5 years in the RAF after fleeing Communist Czechoslovakia in 1948. He is now 85 years old and long ago anglicised his name.

"Bernard Peters, flight sergeant, 311th squadron. I was in the air on D-Day. All I remember is that I was at that time of Brest, France, flying in a Liberator near Brest, looking out for subs — submarines. I've flown altogether about 1400 hours on Coastal Command. It's hard to say now what you felt: Fear, excitement? I don't know. You just don't think of it, you know. You just take it as it comes. You had to do it and that was it."