Josef Koukal – the story of a war pilot who refused to give up

Josef Koukal

One of the country’s biggest WWII heroes, pilot Josef Koukal, who fought in the Battle of Britain, last week received the Order of the White Lion, the country’s highest state distinction, in memoriam. The man who served his homeland selflessly in the fight for freedom never lived to see the recognition he deserved.   

Josef Koukal | Photo: Archive of Josef Koukal's family

Josef Koukal was born in 1912 as the eighth of nine children. Technically skilled, Josef served an apprenticeship as a mechanic and later joined the aircraft manufacturer ´Beneš a Mráz´. This job inspired him, at the age of 16, to apply to join the Military Aviation Academy, at Prostějov. After getting elementary training, he went on to get fighter pilot training at the Advanced Flying School at Cheb. Josef graduated from the school, graded as „excellent“ with the rank of Sgt and joined the Czechoslovak Air Force where he remained until 1936.

He worked briefly as a test pilot for light sports aircraft, before getting mobilized as a reservist when Czechoslovakia declared a mobilisation, on May 20 1938. Koukal was deployed as a fighter pilot and  later recalled the high morale of the pilots to defend their homeland.

Photo: Archive of Josef Koukal's family

However the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, and immediately disbanded the Czechoslovak Air Force. Despite his wife being four months pregnant, Josef decided to leave his homeland and go abroad to fight for freedom. His son Josef Koukal Jr. recalls:

“He first escaped to Poland and when Poland was taken he went to France and eventually to the UK where he joined the 310th Czechoslovak squadron and fought in the Battle of Britain.”

In one operation his fuel tank was hit and the cockpit was engulfed in flames. Due to the strong airflow around the diving aircraft, he was unable to slide back the cockpit canopy to bail-out. So he was literally thrown from the cockpit when the plane exploded, his clothes on fire and his right eye damaged by shrapnel. He fell for about 11,000 feet and was only 2,000 feet above ground, when he finally managed to pull the rip-cord and open his parachute.

Josef Koukal Jr. | Photo: Tomáš Vlach,  Czech Radio

A nearby farmer, who saw him fall, called the alarm. Josef was close to death, having suffered severe burns on 72% of his body. But he fought to stay alive and survived against all the odds, going through months of torturous pain.  His son recalls that he had to undergo 22 operations at Queen Victoria Hospital where he was treated.

“His eye-lids had been burnt away and until they could be grafted back six months later they put wet cloths on his eyes to prevent them from drying out. During the first few days, he was placed in a bath of salty water and they would carefully peel away the charred skin from his body.”

Photo: Filip Novotný,  Czech Radio

Despite suffering horrendous injuries, Josef was determined to return to flying. His doctors tried to persuade him to change his mind, but without success. On May 4, 1943 he resumed operational flying.

Photo: Filip Novotný,  Czech Radio

Josef Koukal Jr. recalls that he first saw his father at the age of six, when he came home from the war. Because of his wartime injuries, Josef was invalided out of the Czechoslovak Air Force and was granted a small disability allowance.

Following the Communist take-over in February 1948, like other pilots who served in the RAF, Josef was persecuted by the communist secret police who tried to frame him so they would have reason to arrest him. When these attempts failed Josef and his family was left to live together in one room, without running water or toilet for the next 14 years.

Josef Koukal, a WWII hero recognized abroad but not at home, died of a heart attack in 1980 at the age of 68. He never lived to see his country regain its freedom. After the fall of communism in 1989 Josef finally received the recognition he deserved. He was posthumously rehabilitated, awarded medals of honour and bravery and promoted, in memoriam, to the rank of Colonel. On Czechoslovak Independence Day this year, 36 years after his death, he received the Order of the White Lion, the country’s highest state award from President Miloš Zeman.

Photo: Filip Novotný,  Czech Radio