Czech Pilots in the RAF

Dark Blue World film poster

One of the most talked about Czech films of the year, Dark Blue World, by Oscar-winning director Jan Sverak, tells the story of Czech pilots who served in the RAF during World War II, when Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Nazis. Well over two thousand Czech airmen joined the RAF to fight the Germans, and many took part in the Battle of Britain. In this week's Talking Point Jan Velinger looks at the story of the Czech pilots who inspired not only a successful film, but a generation of Czechs that has gradually learned of the pilots' sacrifices and bravery.

Dark Blue World film poster
Before the fall of Communism twelve years ago the story of the Czechoslovak pilots was still largely forgotten, the story of well over two thousand Czech airmen who joined the RAF in World War II to fight on the side of the Allies, at a time when Czechoslovakia was taken over by the Nazis. Approximately one thousand regular pilots went into the RAF, while another fifteen hundred from the army joined for retraining as pilots. Many pilots escaped by crossing Czechoslovakia's borders, risking getting shot, or being captured by the Germans. Some who didn't make it were ultimately sent to concentration camps.

The Czech pilots fought with great dedication, many gaining high rank; three of them even gained the honour of leading British flight squadrons, a remarkable, almost unheard of, feat in the RAF. However, in spite of their bravery and heroics in the war, most Czech pilots faced a cruel awakening on their return home. One of the great ironies of the end of WW II was that pilots who were heroes abroad, returned to Czechoslovakia to find themselves slowly discredited, persecuted, imprisoned, by the incoming Communist regime, which seized power in 1948. In all 180 Czech airmen fled successfully back to Britain, with many continuing their RAF careers there. Those who stayed in Czechoslovakia for good would pay a terrible price, though no one at the time guessed just how badly things would turn out.

"The first days and months were quite alright, we were happy the war was over, we survived, and we hoped to start our new lives in new conditions..."

Zdenek Skarvada was one of the pilots who entered the RAF in 1940, at the age of just 23. He had been accepted in a Czechoslovak pilot school five years earlier, before he had even turned 18. After fighting in Poland at the outbreak of the war, he fought for the RAF in Britain, and, when he returned home in 1945, he had high hopes for the future.

"I was happy to be flying again and it was a very satisfying moment when I was chosen for teaching flying, I was a flying teacher, teaching new fighter pilots for this country. Everything seemed to be peaceful but I am sorry to say all these pleasures were rather quickly thinning, and new conditions were born for everyone."

New conditions crushed Mr Skarvada's dreams, as well as the dreams of his colleagues. Because the pilots were heroes who had successfully operated in, and were recognised by, the West, they represented a serious threat for the Communists and were among the first to feel the brunt of the new regime. Almost overnight officers lost their rank, their employment, and many were imprisoned without trial. In relative terms, Mr Skarvada was one of the luckier ones: he was sent into manual labour, transformed from being a pilot into being a coal miner.

"When the moment came that I was dismissed, and kicked-out actually so it was a shock, too true, unfortunately I am just the sort of nature that can bear even hard blows and I couldn't do anything else than start the new life again on the other way. There was a family already, I had two sons, and simply I had to care for the family, doing anything that was offered. There was not much choice really."

The Communists had the judiciary within their grip they passed legislation making it possible for them to imprison any opponents of the regime, imaginary or real. A secret prison camp was set up at Mirov, a prison in Eastern Moravia, where former pilots were jailed, without even the Defence Ministry knowing their whereabouts. Many were beaten and tortured. Associate Professor Tomas Pavlica, who teaches at Ostrava University, says that around 110 pilots were imprisoned at Mirov. He points out that the not all pilots ended up in prison for the reason that it depended on which state institution was doing the persecuting.

"It all depended which state organ was doing the arrests; some pilots were imprisoned without trial for 2 or 3 years, while others were only held for 14 days, like General Mrazek. Still others were thrown out of their jobs, and degraded in rank, and sent into mining or other manual labour."

Like Zdenek Skarvada:

"I wasn't actually in prison because I was sent down to the mines, I was a miner for almost twenty years, and it is a sort of a hard life as you can imagine, because the only re-qualification was: 'there is your shovel and go and dig'. I was excommunicated from the place where I lived, my flat was confiscated, and I got a small one-room flat in Jevicko, and I was moved out from Brno, and there I had to join the first mines, a sort of place for heat-resisting materials near Moravska Trebova. There I spent ten years, and the other ten years I went for coal, and I spent time in coal mines where I lived till these days."

The idea of any country taking its bravest, most proven individuals and turning them into criminals and common labourers is preposterous, after all these men had already risked everything in the battle for their country, how much more could they be expected to give? Criminalised by a criminal regime, it was an unimaginable fall from the glory days when the Czech pilots had had their own fighter and bomber squadrons in England. Looking at photographs from the period, one examines the airmen proudly standing by the Spitfires or Hurricanes that they flew against the enemy, and can only wonder why things turned out the way they did. The Czechs were members of the 310th, 311th, 312th, 313th and 68th squadrons, squadrons with their own Czech official seals, that Associate Professor Pavlica says were formalised by the king himself.

"All British squadrons created seals which symbolised their missions, seals which were approved by the royal herald of the Chester family, signed by the king of England. The Czech squadrons were the same in this: the 311th had Hussite weapons in their seal, the 312th had a stork, the 313th had a hawk, and the 68th, an owl, representing keen eyesight."

But the Communists took such honours and threw them in the dustbin, destroying countless lives in the process. Although some rehabilitation began in the 1960s, most Czech pilots would have to wait for after the Velvet Revolution, in the 1990s, for their deeds to be recognised, and the wrongs against them to be addressed. Associate Professor Pavlica:

Shot from film Dark Blue World
"Full rehabilitation began in 1990. 39 pilots were promoted to the rank of General, though some only in memoriam. Financial compensation is still being debated, especially in the case of pilots who were imprisoned. Now the country is doing a lot, but there is no question it could be doing more, especially concerning the finances."

On the other hand, can any form of compensation ever be enough, for what the pilots suffered at the hands of the former regime? Pilot Zdenek Skarvada, who is now 84, was promoted to the rank of General by President Vaclav Havel two years ago, and though there is no question he carries the rank with pride, General Skarvada makes it clear that it is only a small step, indeed, a limited gesture.

"Forty years can never be put back, and if I am promoted to General these days, it doesn't mean I have to be satisfied with everything, because the effect on the family, my boys weren't able to do what they wanted, my wife wasn't able to do what she wanted, I wasn't able to do what I wanted, but anyhow, we survived. And if I look back, it's a pity we missed those forty years, and it doesn't mean anything today, as I said, if I was promoted to General, that everything has been washed off, and that you can draw a line between all that life, ah well, it's hard to talk about it...It's pretty hard for me to describe my feelings these days. It's like a film that I have to review those forty years..."

Like a film, perhaps not unlike Jan Sverak's Dark Blue World, released in the Spring this year, dealing with the tragedy of the pilots' return to Czechoslovakia. It was in discussing this project that General Skarvada regained the colour in his voice, as he mulled over a famous scene from the film, which one pilot saves his downed countryman, by pulling him into the cockpit of his Spitfire.

"I have seen Sverak's film 2 or 3 times and I am glad that I have seen it more than once, because one gets a new feeling for it. I am proud of the work, although I do not agree with all the details in it. For example, seeing the two boys in one Spitfire, there was not room enough for myself, so how could I get anyone else in it?"

General Skarvada, who flew in more than 50 different types of planes in his career said that such a feat could only be managed in a Hurricane and not a Spitfire at all. On the other hand, he adds:

"I highly pride the intention of both Sveraks to present our ideas and our goals: what we wanted to do, and what we have actually done: there was our promise to defend the country wherever possible..."

And so they did. As our conversation drew to an end, General Zdenek Skarvada reminisced on how he first 'tasted the skies of England in a legendary Tiger Moth, just to get a feel for the country'. In many ways it seems this pilot never gave up his passion for flying, even under the worst pressure of the Communist regime. To hear him tell it now, is to hear a young man at heart: imagine that four years ago, when he was eighty, General Skarvada took the controls of a small twin engine Morava plane at the invitation of a former student, which seems to indicate that though the Communists made his life incredibly hard, they were unable to break his spirit. Is it surprising, after all? General Skarvada served as a member of the 310th squadron, which had the emblem of the Czech Lion in front of a sword, and that squadron's motto was "We fight to rebuild". Once again, the general's friend Associate Professor Tomas Pavlica:

"The Czech airmen in the RAF had truly great physical and moral fibre: above all, they were patriots. If they had to do it all again, you can be sure, that they would."