Battle of Britain: Remembering the Czech aces among 'The Few'

This week marks the 65th anniversary of the turning point in the "Battle of Britain," when Royal Air Force pilots gunned down 185 German planes in a single day. Ahead of the battle, the Luftwaffe outnumbered the RAF by more than three to one, and Adolf Hitler was expecting a decisive victory that would allow him to mount a full-scale invasion of the British Isles. Among the RAF fighting men who came to be known as "The Few" were almost ninety Czechoslovaks -- including the top scoring pilot of the entire battle.

"The Battle of Britain is about to begin...Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation [...] Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour."

Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in the summer of 1940, bracing the nation for the tremendous battle to come.

The British were starting to get intelligence from intercepting German communications, having cracked the Enigma code system, and had a new invention - radar - that would help direct the RAF fighters to intercept attacking German aircraft. But Britain was greatly outgunned; Churchill could not have known at the time that the heroic young RAF pilots would succeed in downing their enemies, by better than 2 to 1.

The RAF pilots
Nearly three thousand RAF pilots fought in the Battle of Britain. A fifth of them were not British. The top scoring pilot was, in fact, a Czech, Sgt. Josef Frantisek, who recorded 17 victories flying with the Polish 303 Squadron.

British author and amateur historian Roger Darlington:

"He wasn't just 'one of' - [Sgt Josef Frantisek] was the top-scoring pilot of the Battle of Britain... He was a very ill-disciplined pilot; he was inclined to actually endanger his colleagues if they were flying in formation. So the understanding was that he would be allowed, if you like, to 'do his own thing'. So he fought a very individual battle. He was very, very highly motivated, very courageous, and he was indeed the RAF pilot who shot down the most German aircraft in the battle."

Officially, the Battle of Britain began on July 10 and ended on October 31, 1940. Commemorations are held on the nearest Sunday to the 15th of September, the turning point of the battle.

In total, 88 Czechs defended the skies over Britain during those fateful weeks.

In "Fighter", his definitive 1977 account of the Battle of Britain, Len Deighton wrote: "Poles and Czechs were not permitted to participate in the air fighting until they had mastered the rudiments of the English language and flying procedures. When they did start operations, these homeless men, motivated often by a hatred bordering upon despair, fought with a terrible and merciless dedication."

Two full Czech fighter squadrons, the 310th and 312th, took part. By the end of the battle, the 310th alone had claimed 39 German aircraft shot down.

"Both the Czechoslovaks and the Poles who joined the Royal Air Force in time for the Battle of Britain had a very powerful, personal reason for fighting the Germans because both Czechoslovakia and Poland had been occupied [by the Nazis]..."

Karel Kuttelwascher
Roger Darlington, is the author of "Night Hawk", a biography of the father-in-law whom he never met, Czech ace Karel Kuttelwascher, who flew with the British Squadron No.1, and is credited with 18 victories, including his first, in the Battle of Britain.

"The typical British pilot was about nineteen; Karel Kuttelwascher was twenty-four at the time of the Battle of Britain, and they called him 'Old Kut'. You wouldn't think that someone who was twenty-four would be regarded as old, but that extra four or five years meant all the difference to his colleagues."

Like top aces Kuttelwascher and Frantisek (who was killed in an accident towards the end of the battle), many experienced Czech pilots joined regular RAF squadrons, where they gained a reputation for bravery above and beyond the call of duty, and forever earned a place of honour among "The Few."

Winston Churchill: "British fighter aircraft in the Battle of Britain broke the teeth of the German air fleet of odds of seven or eight to one. Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few."