Czechs and Slovaks among “The Few”

Battle of Britain Memorial, Folkestone, photo: David Vaughan

During the EU referendum debate in Britain the presence of so-called “migrant” workers from Central and Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic, was one of the central topics. But we heard rather less about the tens of thousands of Czechs, Slovaks and, above all, Poles, who came to Britain nearly eighty years ago during World War II. In today’s language they might also be categorized as migrants, quite possibly illegal migrants, given the many complex paths that led them to Britain. They came to fight in the British armed forces and their contribution to the Allied war effort was immeasurable. Their role is well recorded in the Czech Radio archives thanks to the preservation of many wartime recordings from London which later found their way to Prague. David Vaughan looks at some of these recordings in the third in his series of special programmes to mark Radio Prague’s 80th birthday.

Battle of Britain Memorial, Folkestone, photo: David Vaughan
Growing up in the English county of Kent, I was always aware of the role the county played in the Battle of Britain. This was the corner of Britain closest to mainland Europe, and it was in its skies that many of the battles were fought out. Atop the cliffs on the edge of the town of Folkestone there is a memorial in the form of a giant Spitfire propeller, with a wall bearing the names of all those who took part. One in five of these names, around three thousand altogether, is of a pilot from outside the United Kingdom. 145 were from Poland and a further 88 from Czechoslovakia, most of whom served in the 310 and 312 Czechoslovak Squadrons.

The role of the Polish, Czech and Slovak airmen remained significant right up to the end of the war, and this is reflected in the Czech Radio archives. There are programmes in English, made in London during the war to remind people in the English-speaking world of the help they were being given by their Central European allies and there are also broadcasts in Czech and Slovak, which people would listen to secretly back home, on penalty of death.

In the course of this programme we hear extracts from four of these programmes. The first is an interview in Czech with a Polish pilot, who learned the language while studying in Prague before the war. The tone of the interview is unusually informal for the time; the pilot speaks with nostalgia about his time at Prague’s Technical University, where he studied civil engineering. He goes on to describe his friendship with the Czech pilots and tells the reporter that he even has relatives in Prague and is looking forward to seeing them again when the war is over. We are not given his name, so we shall probably never know whether he survived and was able to see his Czech family again.

The reporter ends the interview by saying that the Polish officer’s Czech links embody at a personal level the deep friendship between the two countries. In fact, relations between the Polish and Czechoslovak governments in exile were not always warm, primarily because of President Beneš’s conviction that Czechoslovakia’s best interests, post-war, would be served through good relations with Stalin. So perhaps this report was intended to smother rumours back home of growing tensions in London.

In another report, from December 1942, this time in English, a British Station Commander sings the praises of his Czechoslovak colleagues:

Czechoslovak  pilots in RAF, photo: Public Domain
“As their Station Commander, I’m very happy to tell you that I consider this Czech squadron of yours as powerful a team of fighter pilots as could possibly be found in this world today. I am convinced that nowhere in this country could they be beaten and certainly they could not be matched anywhere in the ranks of the German Luftwaffe today. The news, I think, is a little better now. I find your Czech pilots are not easily prone to optimism, but in the last few weeks they have certainly been talking of being home with you back in Czechoslovakia by next Christmas. I certainly hope that that happy day is coming before then. I shall be very sorry to say goodbye to them, but one thing is quite certain – that I will have to come and visit them, when they are back home. Till that day, goodbye, and all the best of luck to you all.”

It was to be a full two-and-a-half years before the liberation of Czechoslovakia was complete and the Czech airmen were to return home.

In the following year, 1943, the BBC made a radio documentary about the Czech and Slovak pilots. Its production standards are exceptionally high; it is full of music and incidental sound. The narrator has an American accent, which makes me think that the report may have been intended for a North American audience. As we hear in the extract I have chosen, this fly-on-the-wall documentary evokes vividly the atmosphere of an offensive sweep over France by the 310 Squadron. We even meet the squadron’s mascot, Dragon the Alsatian, who leads the way to the airfield as the airmen scramble to take off.

It was not just in the Royal Air Force that Czechs and Slovaks played an active role in Britain’s war effort. There were also foot soldiers aplenty. One example was the 1st Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade which was founded in 1943. It was sent to France not long after the D-Day landings to besiege the 15,000 German soldiers still holding out in northern port of Dunkirk. The brigade suffered heavy casualties during the siege and it was not until the very end of the war, on 9th May 1945 that the German garrison finally surrendered to General Alois Liška.

Our archives include a recording made outside Dunkirk in January 1945, when a reporter from the Czechoslovak government’s special broadcasts from London came to visit the Czechoslovak Brigade. They had been joined by over 800 Red Army men, Soviet soldiers who had escaped from German prison and labour camps and had survived in hiding or in the underground resistance in the Netherlands and Belgium until they were liberated. Now they were getting ready to go home, and the Czechoslovak troops in France wanted to thank them for the Red Army’s victories on the Eastern Front and for their role in liberating Czechoslovakia, a process that was still under way.

The celebrations were loud and enthusiastic, with a good deal of singing – all still preserved on the recording.“All are singing,” says the reporter, “and the best dinner they could provide has been laid on, and then later tonight, the brigade will take their Soviet friends back to their camp in Lille.”

Battle of Britain Memorial, Folkestone, photo: David Vaughan
The Battle of Britain Memorial in Folkestone includes the names of all the pilots who took part in the battle, including those who survived. One of the names is of Flight Lieutenant Karel Šeda. I was lucky enough to interview him in Prague in the early 1990s, just a few months before he died. After the war he had served as a pilot in the newly formed Czechoslovak Airline, ČSA. Like most other pilots who had fought in the RAF, he was purged after the communist takeover of 1948 and before long was imprisoned, serving eight years’ hard labour in a uranium mine. He assured me that he felt no bitterness. This was 1991, only a few months after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and he was happy to see Europe reunited after 40 years of division, a Europe for which he had risked his life and many of his comrades had given theirs. We owe a great deal to people like Karel Šeda.