World War II fighter ace Frantisek Perina honoured on occasion of 95th birthday

Frantisek Perina, photo:

This week is a special one for the Czech military and Czechs remembering the events of the Second World War: Frantisek Perina celebrates his 95th birthday on April 8th. One of the most famous Czech fighter pilots, Frantisek Perina fought for his country in both France and England.

Frantisek Perina is without a doubt one of the Czech Republic's greatest war heroes, a veritable legend. Named the honorary rank of Major General in 2000 - he shot down 12 enemy planes in the Second World War. Those were "kills" that were confirmed, though he almost certainly shot down more. He himself survived insurmountable odds in his most famous sortie - described at a special ceremony at Chief of Staff headquarters in Prague this week:

"Eight of my friends in fighters had taken off to deal with approaching bombers, but they didn't see the additional escort of 60 Messerschmitts (Bf 110s, long-range strategic fighters). I had to help them, so I took off, to gain them some time, and I could think of nothing other than to attack. I had to stop them somehow. So, I attacked and as a result the leader banked left and the others followed, protecting each other. I told myself 'enough', I had distracted them, and I even managed to shoot one down, but then I too was hit. My plane took 15 cannon hits, and around 80 hits by machine gun.

I got 18 fragments in my leg from a cannon shell, and my arm was also injured, although I didn't feel a thing. I knew I probably wasn't going to make it back. But, I managed to land and I was later hospitalised in a facility run by nuns from the local convent."

On Wednesday the general was awarded not only a medal to add to his many honours, he also received an "unexpected gift" from the army's Chief of Staff, Major General Pavel Stefka, who gave him a replica model Spitfire, reflecting his days in England:

"I know you have a lot of models, but I believe this is the very plane that you once flew. Complete to the last detail."

Mr Perina's sacrifice for his country was considerable but his wife Anna - who stayed behind in Czechoslovakia - also suffered, spending most of the war in a Nazi prison. To add grievous insult to injury: after the war, her husband was thrown out of the Air Force by the Communists and eventually forced to flee to the West with Anna to escape the wrath of Czechoslovakia's incoming totalitarian regime. World War II heroes were being sentenced to years of hard labour and even death. But, Perina left in a fashion typical of a fighter ace: in the cockpit of a small sports plane he and his wife secretly flew to Germany.

But, after 1989 after many years in the US and after Communism fell - the Czech war hero and his wife eventually returned home. Even now, Perina says he still feels only the deepest ties to the country of his birth.

"I was born in the countryside while my wife was born in the city. She never knew life in the country like me. I love the country soil, the earth. We never had any children, so the only roots I have are here and nowhere else."