Svatý Kříž, the birthplace of Karel Miloslav Kuttelwascher, is a small Bohemian hamlet near Německý Brod which is about 110km South East of Prague. At the time of his birth this was part of the Austro Hungarian Empire and following end of World War 1 it became part of the newly formed state of Czechoslovakia. During the post World War 2 anti Germanic purges of 1945 in Czechoslovakia, the town was renamed Havlíčkův Brod and the towns German population was expelled.
Karel’s parents, Josef and Kristina, had moved to this area from Bavaria where the Kuttelwascher had for generations been involved in the local brewing industry. By training Joseph was a carpenter but following the family migration to Svatý Kříž, he joined the Czechoslovak State railways as a ticket inspector. Kristina was a house wife who also helped in the fields to supplement the families income.
Karel was born 23 September 1916, the third eldest of six children. He was educated at the local primary and secondary schools prior to attending a commercial school in Německý Brod. When he was 17 years old he left home and went to work as a clerk at a flour mill at Kladno. However from an a early age he had been interested in aircraft and as he found his new job uninspiring he looked to pursue his aspirations with aircraft. One day he returned home with an application form to join the Czechoslovak Air Force, which required the consent of his parents,. His parents were against Karel’s wish to volunteer for this but finally consented to his wish following persuasion from the family.
On 1 October 1934, only just aged 18, Karel enlisted into the Czechoslovak Air Force. Following initial training he joined the flying school at Prostějov and completed his course to receive his fighter pilot wings and having the distinction as being one of the best students of that course. On graduation, in March 1937, he was posted to 4 Flying Regiment, based at Prague Kbely airbase, where he undertook fighter pilot training. He completed this course in May 1938 and was posted to 1 Air Regiment and assigned to 32 stíhlací letka, a fighter squadron, at Hradec Králove some 100 km East of Prague.
The political situation in central Europe was now changing rapidly. Hitler and the Nazi’s in Germany were making territorial demands on the Czechoslovak Government in respect of the Sudetenland border regions. During this period 32 Fighter Squadron were operational in Moravia and Slovakia to defend the countries airspace against intruders. Following the Munich Agreement, when the Sudetenland was ceded to Germany, and Poland and Hungary also took some Czechoslovak territory. About 30% of Czechoslovakian territory had been lost and the new revised German border was now only 20 miles from Prague. 32 Fighter Squadron returned to their base at Hradec Králove without firing a shot.
On 15 March 1939, Germany occupied the remaining regions of Czechoslovakia and claimed that the country was now under the protection of Germany. Czechoslovakia’s military forces immediately ceased to exist in this Reich Protectorate. The following day the Czechoslovak Air Force was disbanded and the airmen were given the opportunity to enlist in the Luftwaffe or join Lufthansa. Only a handful did.
It is estimated that approximately 50% of the airmen who were serving in the Czechoslovak Air Force made the personal choice to go abroad so that they could fight for the freedom of their homeland. Karel Kuttlewascher was one that made that choice and on the night of 13/14 June 1939 he was with a group of six other Czech, including pilots, who were smuggled, by coal train, across the border from Ostrava to Bohumín in Poland. There they reported to the Czechoslovak Consulate in Krakow and on 15 July were taken to the nearby transit camp, a now derelict former army camp from the Austro-Hungarian era, at Bronowice Małe. This was already well occupied with other escaped Czechoslovak military personnel.
At this time the Polish military had little interest in the influx of Czechoslovak military personnel and so the majority made plans to go West to France and offer their services there. Karel and his group travelled North to the port of Kdynia and sailed from Poland on the SS ‘Kastelholm’, a Swedish cargo ship, to Calais, France.
They arrived in Calais, France, on 30 July 1939. By prior agreement, with the French authorities, they were allowed to stay in France on the condition that they enlisted for 5 years with the French Foreign Legion. This was because under peacetime regulations France was not allowed to enlist non French nationals in its domestic military forces. The agreement did allow for the Czechoslovak airmen to be transferred into l’Armée de l’Air , the French Air Force, in the event of war being declared. They were transferred to Sidi-bel-Abbés, Algeria, where the French Foreign Legion were based, and commenced the rigorous trained required by that regiment as well as having to learn French.
When war was declared, the Czechoslovak airmen, as previously agreed, were transferred to l’Armée de l’Air to be re-trained to use French equipment. About 100 Czechoslovak pilots, including Kuttlewascher, were posted to Chartres, the fighter pilots training base. Here he was trained to fly the Morane-Saulnier MS-406C.1 fighter but despite quickly completing this training he had to wait until the Germans invaded France, in May 1940, before he was posted to a operational fighter squadron – Groupe de Chasse III/3. At the time the unit was based at Beauvais-Tille airbase, but following combat at the start of the German Blitzkreig, they moved, on 21 May, to Cormeilles-en-Vexin and were re-equipped with some of the more modern Dewoitine D-520C.1 fighter aircraft. However the French defences were crumbling under the rapid advance of the German advance and the Kuttlewasher’s unit was forced to retreat South to the airbase at Illiers-l’Eveque. But very quickly they had to move to airbases at Germinon, La Chapelle-Vallon, Montargis, Grand Mallerey, Avord, and Perpignan-La Salanque. Finally a fragmented departure, to Algeria, where they re-formed at on 22 June at Realizane airbase, only to be advised that France had capitulated that same day. French archives, understandably incomplete considering the confusion of that quick campaign, record that during the Battle for France, Kuttlewascher achieved 2 confirmed kills and 1 probable, and that he was awarded a Croix de Guerre with Palm leaves, and also a Silver Star.
With France capitulated, the Czechoslovak airmen were discharged from French military service. To continue the fight there was now only one place to go in Europe – Great Britain. Kuttlewascher’s group went by train to Casablanca, Morocco where all the other Czechoslovak airmen were now assembling. Here, on 9 July they boarded the SS ‘Royal Scotsman’ which took them to Gibraltar. From here they boarded the SS ‘David Livingstone’ which sailed on 19 July and arrived in Cardiff on 5 August.
After a short stay in a transit camp, Kuttlewascher was enlisted, 14 August 1940, into the Royal Air Force with the rank of Sergeant and transferred to the Czechoslovak Depot based at Cosford. The Battle of Britain had already started and all trained fighter pilots were urgently needed to defend Britain from the Luftwaffe. He was quickly transferred to 5 Operational Training Unit (5 OTU), at Aston Down for re-training on Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft. He achieved his first solo flight in this aircraft on his 24th birthday. On 3 October, with the rank of Sgt., he was posted to 1 Sqd. who were based at Northolt and flying Hurricane 1A’s, he was to stay with this unit for nearly 2 years.
Here he participated in the closing stages of the Battle of Britain and also flew sorties over Northern France. He achieved his 1st confirmed killed of a Me 109, near the French coast, on 8 April 1941 and a further 2 were added by the summer. His rank was now a Flt/Lt.
During this time 1 Sqd was involved in the infamous ‘Channel dash’ – the race up the English Channel by the German battle cruisers ‘Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’ as they tried to sail from the French port of Brest to Norway. 1 Sqd. were involved in attacking the escorting German destroyers and lost 2 aircraft, Kuttlewascher attacked one of the destroyers which was damaged with his canon fire.
The squadron, now based at Tangmere, was assigned a new offensive role of night intruder missions over France to attack German bombers as they were taking off or landing at their home bases. These missions were conducted around the full moon period each month, without the benefit of radar and made heavy demands on the pilot’s skill, vision and courage.
For these missions he flew a Hawker Hurricane Mk IIc,. These aircraft were fitted with a 45 gallon auxillary fuel tank mounted under each wing, which enabled flying time of 3 to 3½ hrs, about 900 miles, to be achieved. They were armed with 20mm Hispano cannons, 2 in each wing, each with 91 rounds – only some 9 seconds of firing – which gave little room for error. As a night fighter, his aircraft, JX-E, serial no. BE 581, was painted black and also had a emblem – a yellow scythe with a red banner across it on which ‘Night Reaper’ was written. Within a few weeks the usage of this name was well justified.
He quickly distinguished himself in this new role of a ‘Night Hawk’ with achieving his first ‘kill’, a Ju88, on 1 April 1942 with others quickly following. All aircraft listed below were all destroyed unless otherwise stated:
|02/02/41||II – Z2464||Bf 109 nr Bologne, probable.|
|08/04/41||II – Z3160||Bf 109 nr Cap Gris Nez|
|21/05/41||II – Z3449||Bf 109 between Calais and Dunkirk|
|27/06/41||IIc – BE581||Bf 109 nr Le Touquet|
|01/04/42||IIc – BE581||Ju 88 on night of 1-2nd April, nr Melun.|
|01/04/42||IIc – BE581||Ju 88 on night of 1-2nd April, nr Melun, damaged.|
|16/04/42||IIc – BE581||Do217 on night of 16-17th April, nr St André.|
|26/04/42||IIc – BE581||Do217 on night of 16-17th April, nr Rouen-Boos.|
|26/04/42||IIc – BE581||Ju 88 on night of 16-17th April, nr Rouen-Boo, damaged.|
|30/04/42||IIc – BE581||Do217 on night of 30 April/1st May, nr Rennes.|
|30/04/42||IIc – BE581||He 111 on night of 30 April/1st May, off coast Dinard.|
|04/05/42||IIc – BE581||He III on night of 4-5th May, nr St André.|
|04/05/42||IIc – BE581||He III, 2nd, on night of 4-5th May, nr St André.|
|04/05/42||IIc – BE581||He 111, 3rd, on night of 4-5th May, nr St André.|
|02/06/42||IIc – BE581||Do 217 night of 2-3rd June, off Dunkirk.|
|03/06/42||IIc – BE581||He III on night of 3-4th June, nr St André.|
|03/06/42||IIc – BE581||Do 217 on night of 3-4th June, nr St Andre, damaged.|
|03/06/42||IIc – BE581||Do 217 on night of 3-4th June, nr St André.|
|03/06/42||IIc – BE581||1 He 111 on night of 3-4th June, nr St André.|
|21/06/42||IIc – BE581||Ju 88 on night of 21-22nd June, nr St André.|
|21/06/42||IIc – BE581||Ju 88 on night of 21-22nd June, nr St Andre, damaged.|
|28/06/42||IIc – BE581||Do 217 on night of 28-29th June, nr Trévières.|
|01/07/42||IIc – BE581||Do 217 on night of 1-2nd July, nr Dinard.|
|01/07/42||IIc – BE581||Do 217 on night of 1-2nd July, nr Dinard, damaged.|
|01/07/42||IIc – BE581||Do 217, 2nd, on night of 1-2nd July, nr Dinard.|
In three months of night intruder missions, 1 Sqd, achieved 21 Luftwaffe aircraft being shot down. Kuttlewascher’s contribution to this tally was significant – 15 shot down and another 5 damaged! In one memorable night he achieved the destruction of 3 He III aircraft in a mere 4 minutes! For these outstanding achievements he was awarded the DFC and later a bar within a time scale of 42 days. The wartime media dubbed him ‘the Czech Night Hawk’
Kuttlewascher was posted to 23 Sqd., based at Ford, on 8 July 1942 where he continued flying night intruder missions but now flying de Havilland Mosquito Mk II’s equipped with radar. Despite having more sophisticated equipment he did not manage to achieve any more ‘kills’. In October 1942 he was transferred from combat flying and posted to the Czechoslovak Air Inspectorate in London where initially he had a desk bound role.
In June 1943 he was sent for a six month assignment to the USA and Canada. Primarily the purpose was to encourage some of the Czechoslovak expatriate community there to enlist to join the Free Czechoslovak forces based in England. Due to the attrition suffered by the Czechoslovak RAF Squadrons, replacements were always needed but difficult to find. He also spent time lecturing the Air Forces in these 2 coutries about the air war in Europe. He returned to England on 12 December and was posted to 32 Maintenance Unit, based at St Athan. Here his role was to test fly a variety of bombers and he remained until the war ended.
In 1942 he had married Beryl Ruby Thomas, who he had met at a dance in Ruislip a year earlier. By the end of the war they had now a son and two 2 daughters. Karel returned to Czechoslovakia in August 1945 and shortly after Ruby and the children followed. He was promoted to the rank of Staff Captain in the Czechoslovak Air Force and posted to Ruzyně airfield at Prague. A month later he was posted as a instructor at the Military Airforce Academy in Hradec Kralové.
However the problems of adapting to a new life in a foreign land combined with Karel’s military service and personal domestic unrest caused Ruby to return to England at the end of January 1946. By now Karel was also concerned about the rapidly changing political situation in his homeland, as the Communists began to take control, and applied for a visa to return to England. After a long delay it was finally granted, he resigned from the Czechoslovak Air Force and 5 days later, on 26 May 1946, returned to England. After a short delay, which he spent maintaining his flying skills in light aircraft, he joined British European Airways as a First Officer, a position he held for the next five years. Ironically, despite this rank he was often the most experienced, and decorated, pilot on the aircraft. In His marriage to Ruby was dissolved in 1951. He became a naturalized British subject on 25 January 1956 and in the same year he was promoted to a Captain. His flying commitments as well as managing a greengrocery business, he had started the previous year, kept his busy life occupied. His sparse free time was invariably spent with his plants in his garden where he could relax.
On 13 August 1959, whilst on holiday at St Austell, Cornwall, he suffered a heart attack. He was admitted to the local hospital and whilst there, during the night of 17 August, he suffered a 2nd heart attack which was fatal. Karel was only 42 years old, he had died as he had fought – alone. He is buried at Uxbridge, Middx., England.
A quiet and solitary man whose tenacity in the air elevated him to become the RAF’s most successful Czechoslovak pilot, their 6th most successful night fighter and their most successful night intruder pilot. All of which was achieved without the assistance of radar.
The following medals had been awarded to him:
5 x Československý válečný kříž 1939 [Czechoslovak War Cross]
4 x Medaile ‘Za statečnost’ [Bravery Medal]
Medaile ‘Za zásluhy 1. stupně’ [1st class Merits Medal and 2 Bars]
Pamětní medaile československé armadý v zahraničí se štítkem F a VB [Memorial Medal of Czechoslovak Foreign Army with France and Great Britain Bars]
Distinguished Flying Cross & Bar
The 1939 – 1945 Star with Battle of Britain clasp
Air Crew Europe Star
Croix de Guerre with one palm and one Silver Star
He is also commemorated on the London Battle of Britain Memorial.
The assistance of Roger Darlington with this article is very much appreciated.
Article last updated: 31 December 2011