Frantisek Perina - Czechoslovakia's ace pilot who made his name in the Battle of France

Frantisek Perina, photo:

Anyone acquainted with Czech military history will likely have heard of ace pilot Frantisek Perina - who fought with distinction for Czechoslovakia in both the Battles of France and Britain during the Second World War. Mr Perina - named to the honorary rank of major general in 2000 - turned 95 just last month - and was honoured by the Czech Army and Air Force. On the occasion of the anniversary of the end of the war, we look back at key moments in Mr Perina's military career - ignored by the Communists for forty years.

Military historians may wrangle over details but almost all agree that in Czech military history there have been few men like Frantisek Perina. Born in Moravia on April 8th, 1911, Perina was among the most prolific of young Czech pilots in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, representing his country in a famous international air show in Zurich prior to the war. Following the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, Perina like so many other Czech airmen - over a thousand - escaped to Poland and later to France - to serve his country abroad. After war was declared in 1939, he was recruited to serve in the French Air Force at Chartre. He learned to fly the American-made Curtiss, and began serving in December 1939. Jiri Rajlich, military historian:

"Perina made his name in the very first days of Germany's western offensive. On May 10th Germany began its assault against France, the Netherlands, and Belgium and on that day - in two separate flights - Perina shot down four planes. The next day he shot down his fifth - earning him the title of "Ace". Perina became the first Czech Ace in the Second World War: a day after that he shot down two additional planes."

Perina's deeds also saw him become the first Czech pilot in the war promoted to officer rank. That was almost unheard of - only very few pilots in Czechoslovakia had ever been promoted to officer rank without training at a military academy. It set quite a precedent and soon the pilot's fame grew throughout France.

"For obvious reasons official propaganda never mentioned pilots' full names, mostly using initials. But, the French press did write a lot about Frantisek Perina. They called him Rinope - more or less an anagram of his name. He was very popular and was photographed a number of times. Later he was helped by those who recognised him to escape from France."

If Frantisek Perina - Rinope - made a name for himself in the first few days of battle, his most daring flight of all took place in June 1940 - when the German Luftwaffe was intensifying its bombing campaigns over Paris. Jiri Rajlich again:

"He and colleagues tried to turn back a German bombing formation - but Perina focused on a fighter escort of some 60 Messerschmitts. He shot one plane down but was himself hit. It took all his strength to land."

How does the pilot himself see that key moment today? On the occasion of his 95th birthday he told reporters that when he recalled his exploits during the war, this was the moment that came to mind.

"I had to gain them some time, and I could think of nothing other than to attack. I had to stop them somehow. I distracted them, and I even managed to shoot one down, but then I myself was hit. My plane took 15 cannon hits, 80 by machine gun. My leg and my arm were injured, although I didn't feel a thing. I knew I probably wasn't going to make it back."

Somehow, Perina survived. Whether by sheer luck or sheer skill or a combination of both is always a question for debate. But, says Jiri Rajlich things are always unpredictable to a degree in the air.

"Perina himself would say that in the air nothing is ever 'lost'. In my research I've come across thousands of cases where pilots escaped by the skin of their teeth. Even in cases where enemy planes collided, pilots sometimes parachuted to safety. As for Perina: he was a master of calculated risk."

In World War Two Franisek Perina shot down at least 14 enemy planes. He took part in the Battle of Britain and trained new pilots in the field. He has said that he took the war as something like "sport" - perhaps one of the keys to survival. It must have been an extremely bitter experience for Perina - when three years after the war, having returned home, he was forced to flee Czechoslovakia again. It was 1948 and Czech Communists were sentencing the country's war heroes to prison and even death. Perina fled with his wife Anna - eventually to the US.

But, many Czechs never forgot his contribution. When Perina and his wife returned home in the 90s many (not least those in the newly-emerging military) greeted him with a 'hero's welcome'. Today the great pilot says that he simply wants to die on home soil. He has said this is the country that he fought for and stressed repeatedly that he loves the countryside here. Historian Jiri Rajlich once more:

"Frantisek Perina was - and is - a true Czech patriot. During all those years when his name was not mentioned here, there were people who never forgot. If there is anything like a Czech living legend now, then Frantisek Perina is it."

Ed. note: Sadly, Major General Frantisek Perina died on Saturday May 6th. This story, including the interview with historian Jiri Rajlich, was pre-taped last week