Remembering Frantisek Fajtl, legendary fighter pilot

General Frantisek Fajtl, photo: CTK

Many Czechs were saddened to learn on Wednesday that Frantisek Fajtl, one of the country's most respected and famous WW II-era fighter pilots had died in Prague at the age of 94. For many, Mr Fajtl was a hero and not only for his feats in battle, but also for his work as a writer, his memoirs often naming Czech airmen who might otherwise have been forgotten. Jan Velinger has more on the pilot's life.

General Frantisek Fajtl,  photo: CTK
General Frantisek Fajtl - a man of irrepressible charm, instantly recognisable for his trademark goatee - was without question one of the most respected of Czech WW II-era pilots. Like many of his compatriots, Mr Fajtl fled Bohemia occupied by the Nazis, making his way to Poland and later to the west. But, his aim was never to give up. Eventually he would fight on many different fronts: over England, France, and Russia. He even took part in the liberation of Slovakia. He was also only the second foreign national to command a RAF fighter squadron, earning him a great deal of respect. Earlier I spoke with military historian Jiri Rajlich, who told me more about Frantisek Fajtl - fighter pilot.

"It really was an honour that he was chosen to lead a squadron in the RAF - I think that it meant a lot. As an officer, Frantisek Fajtl was careful - all officers by definition have to be - but he was of course a fighter. He experienced many battles and was hit. When he was downed in France, he showed incredible determination and ingenuity managing to escape from behind enemy lines. Eventually made his way through the Pyrenees, then to Gibraltar, and eventually, back to England. He never smoked, drank little, and was in excellent shape. Even so, his escape was a remarkable feat."

In the Battle of Britain, Fajtl shot down the first two of an eventual four enemy planes. After the war he and fellow airmen returned to Czechoslovakia as heroes. But, the euphoria didn't last. Soon Czechoslovakia descended into one of the darkest periods in its history, the country's emerging Communist regime paradoxically persecuting former airmen and condemning many of them to hard labour in labour camps. There, perhaps even more than in battle, it took courage to survive. Historian Jiri Rajlich once again:

"He didn't look back that badly on the war, but what he was most bitter about was the Mirov labour camp. When they brought him there in 1949 he could see prisoners looking out of the windows. These prisoners were former SS officers. Suddenly, he was jailed together with the very people he had fought against. This was the bitterest betrayal, one he considered below the belt."

Fajtl spent over a year in the camp and was partially rehabilitated in 1964. But, for full rehabilitation he waited until after the fall of communism in 1989. It was then that he received the honorary rank of general. It was also then - when all former Czech airmen were officially rehabilitated and fully recognised for their valour - that Mr Fajtl put on his uniform again. In 2003, he received the Czech Republic's highest honour, the Order of the White Lion.

Frantisek Fajtl will be missed. General Stanislav Hlucka was a fellow pilot, who served under his command.

"He called me 'Small' and he saw me as a born fighter, an acrobat, and we had good ties. We saw a lot of each other, even here. We airmen meet on the first Wednesday of every month, and he would come too, along with his wife, who was always very supportive.

"As for our time in the war, there were lighter moments too, playing football, grabbing beers. But, then it was back to duty. At five in the morning it was back in line and you had to be ready. But, it was okay, because we knew why we were fighting."