………………………..* 1 January 1911
………………………..† 4 December 1984
Eduard Maximilian Prchal was born 1 January 1911 at Dolní Břežany, near, Prague. His father, František, was at that time a cabinet maker and his mother Božena née Křepelková, a daughter of a peasant. They had two sons.
Prchal attended secondary school at Nové Městě in Prague for six years. On completing his schooling, Prchal joined SCAP, a Prague firm representing several foreign car manufacturers, as a sales representative where he worked for 2½ years. Since completing his second year at college he was proficient in trigonometry and geometry and fluent in English, French as well as Czech. He was also fascinated by flying and aspired to become a pilot. His opportunity came, in October 1930, when he was required to do his Military Service. He applied to join the Czechoslovak Air Force but found the competition was ‘quite stiff’. With the assistance of an uncle, who was an Army Colonel, he managed to get accepted.
Czechoslovak Air Force
Prchal was posted to 41st Aviation Regiment at Prague Kbely airbase for his initial training. On 15 October 1931, having completed his basic flying training, he was posted to 14th Observation Squadron of the 4th Air Regiment based at Hradce Králové.
Even at this early stage in his flying career he was recognised as being a skilled pilot with a ‘cool presence of mind’. This skill was well demonstrated whilst flying an Aero Ap 32 biplane on 24 February 1932. At an altitude of about 1,600 feet, with a Major Lánský as passenger, the propeller broke up, ripping-off part of the engine and damaging the lower part of the wing. Prchal skillfully glided the aircraft to earth and made a forced landing which caused the undercarriage to be torn-off. Both Prchal and Lánský escaped unhurt from the crashed aircraft, which was transported back to the airbase for repair. For the skill he demonstrated in this incident he was presented an award by the Minister of National Defence.
He was promoted to the rank of Corporal on 16 May 1932 and on 1 November 1932 he successfully graduated from his flying training, was awarded his pilots ‘Wings’ and was now a operational military pilot.
At the end of his two years of his Military Service he chose to remain in the Air Force and on 16 July 1933, he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. At this time, he also commenced night flying training which he completed on 1 July 1934.
On 31 August 1934, he was posted to 14th Air Regiment at Olomouc where he served as a pilot. On 16 April 1935 he was posted to the 5 Sqn, 84th Air Regiment, based at Brno, where he remained until 28 May 1937 when his Air Force Service period finished. During this period he had flown Aero 211, Fokker F-IX, Letov Š-16, Marcel Bloch MB 200 and Šmolík Š-328 aircraft. He had achieved 1,040 flying hours of which 300 had been at night. Whilst now a civilian he still remained on ‘Military Reserve’ and was subject to being called up in the event of a military mobilisation.
A few days later, on 1 June, he joined Baťa, as a commercial pilot. They were one of the largest Czechoslovak businesse’s, based at Zlín, but with other production facilities around the world and their own commercial air fleet to service them.
Over the next two years Prchal flew 1,260 hours for Baťa. During this period he was called up, between 29 May to 17 June and 14 September to 25 October in the two mobilisations due to the Munich Crisis of 1938.
Following the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, on 15 March 1939, the Czechoslovak Air Force and civilian airfleets were immediately grounded and shortly after disbanded. The Germans tried to persuade the airman to join the Luftwaffe or their national airline Lufthansa, Only a few accepted. Prchal remained employed by Baťa in a ground based capacity but like many other of his fellow countrymen, was planning to illegally cross the border into Poland. Prchal left Baťa on 22 June, citing the Germans disbanding of the companies airfleet as his reason for leaving. On 26 June 1939 he was in Poland, most probably having crossed the border in the Ostrava to Tešin area. From here Prchal and the others hoped that they would be able to join the Czechoslovak military units they heard were being formed in Poland so that they could fight for the liberation their country. Instead, they found little support from the Polish authorities as at the time, the Polish authorities did not want to further increase the already growing tension between Poland and Nazi Germany. This is why they would not accept foreign military personnel into the Polish military. Instead, the Czechoslovak Legation in Krakow made arrangements with the French Government, for these Czechoslovaks to go to France. Within a few weeks the Polish authorities were to reverse their decision but by then many Czechoslovak airmen had already gone to France. Prchal left Baťa on 22 June ’39 and his stated reason for leaving was the German occupiers had terminated the flying activities of the Baťa airfleet.
With other Czechoslovak airmen, Prchal left Poland, from Gdynia sailing on the ‘Kastelhom’ a Swedish commercial passenger ship that took them to Calais, France, arriving on 30 June. French law did not permit for foreign military units to be formed in France during peacetime. The Czechoslovak airmen had the choice of either signing up with the French Foreign Legion for five years, with the agreement that should war be declared that service would be terminated and they would be allowed to join French units, or be deported back to Czechoslovakia now occupied by the Germans.
Prchal’s reason for going to France was that he saw, in comparison to the Czechoslovak Air Force at that time, that the Polish Air Force was poorly equipped. He felt that in the inevitable German invasion of Poland, they would not be able to withstand the onslaught of the German Luftwaffe and he had no wish to escape again. This was the general consensus amongst the Czechoslovak airmen who were in Poland at that time.
Prchal joined the French Foreign Legion with the rank of Soldat. Following the declaration of war, on 3 September 1939, he was posted, on 2 October 1939, to join l’Armee d’Air at Châtres, Seine-et-Marne, where he took a short conversion course on the Bloch MB 152 fighter aircraft and also operational training. On the same day as this posting he was also promoted to the rank of Corporal-Chef [Staff Sergeant]. Having completed his training on 27 December 1939, he was posted to GC I/8,. The GC I/8 was an operational fighter Squadron based at Hyéres on the Western front using MB-152 aircraft. During the bitter Battle of France Prchal flew 60 operational hours and achieved three ‘kills’. The first two were shared ‘kills’: on 6 June, he shot shown an Me 109E with Robert Thollon, and a Do 17, with Otto Spáček, a fellow Czech pilot. The following day he shot down an Hs 126 unaided.
Escape To England
At the time France capitulated, he was based in Bordeaux. Two days after the capitulation, his Station Commander called Prchal into his office and suggested that he took his MB-152 aircraft and escaped to England. As the MB-152 had insufficient range to reach England, it was suggested that he land at Brest, which may still have been in Free French control. Because French Government had prohibited any escapes from France, it was feared that he would not be permitted to re-fuel and continue his journey. Instead Prchal took a light communication aircraft and flew to Bayonne.
At Bayonne, Prchal and other Czechoslovak military managed to board the ‘Emma Königin’ on 22 June, and two days later, arrived at Plymouth, England. In his own words, England was now “the last bastion of freedom that enabled me to fight for the liberation of my country”.
Battle of Britain Pilot
On arrival in England he joined the RAF VR [Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve]. With the threat of the expected German invasion of Britain, the RAF now needed every trained pilot available. The Czechoslovak pilots, who had escaped from France, were quickly sent for a conversion course on Spitfires and Hurricanes before being posted to operational fighter squadrons. Prchal was sent on quick conversion on Hurricanes, and, on 12 July 1940, with the rank of Sergeant, he was posted to the newly formed 310 Czechoslovak Sqn, based at Duxford, flying Hurricane Mk. I aircraft. The Battle of Britain was just starting and 310 Sqn. was a participant in this battle. Prchal’s first success was a Do 17, on 26 August, which he shot down near North Weald in a Hurricane I, P3157.
At 15:45 , on 26 August 1940, flying a Hurricane I, P3157, his Flight was involved in a patrol at 15,000 feet over the Thames Estuary near Clacton-on-Sea, Essex. They encountered a formation of 15 Do 215 escorted by Me 109’s and He112’s. In the resulting dog-fight, Prchal made several attacks on enemy aircraft, and achieved success with the shooting down of a Do 215, but had used up all his ammunition. He came under attack himself and his Hurricane was hit by canon and machine gun fire from an enemy aircraft. Prchal’s glycol tank, port wing and rudder were damaged. He took evasive action and turned his aircraft steeply to the right. Vapour from the glycol tank filled the cockpit preventing him from seeing his instruments. He decided to fly against the sun, which would lead him west and land as soon as the English coast appeared. He glided down from the clouds and made a belly-landing near a beach about 3½ miles south east of Hornchurch, Essex. Despite being wounded by metal splinters, from his seat, during the incoming enemy gun-fire, he still managed to walk to a nearby farmhouse to get assistance. Here he was also to find that he had had a lucky escape as the beach was mined.
He recovered from these wounds in hospital at Ely and returned to operational flying on 10 September 1940. Five days later, flying Hurricane I V6556 ‘E’, he shared in the destruction of a He 111 at Foulness. Three days later, in Hurricane I P3143 ‘D’, he participated, with Stanislav Janouch, Raimund Půda and Václav Bergman, in the downing of a Ju 88 over the Thames Estuary. For his achievements during the Battle of Britain he was awarded two Czechoslovak War Crosses.
On 1 March 1941, he was promoted in rank to Flight Sergeant but by now, the threat of a German invasion of Britain had passed, and the urgent need for fighter pilots had diminished. He was now 30 years old and considered too old to be a fighter pilot. He was posted from 310 Sqn on 6 March 1941 to 55 Operational Training Unit [OTU], based at Usworth, where his role was as an instructor to trainee fighter pilots. He disliked this non-operational role and volunteered for training to be a night fighter pilot because he felt that his flying experience could be more usefully utilised.
From Fighter Command
On 16 July 1941, he was posted to 54 OTU, at Church Fenton where he was trained with Sgt. Rudolf Husár, a fellow Czech, who was to be his radar operator. Training was completed on 12 August 1941, and they were posted to 255 Sqn, based at Hibaldstow, for training on twin-engined Bristol Beaufighter aircraft. Having completed their training they were posted, on 16 September 1941 to 68 Sqn, a nightfighter squadron, based at High Ercall. There he joined B-flight which already consisted mainly of Czechoslovak airmen. There, on 27 October, whilst landing Beaufighter X7551, an engine lost power but Prchal successfully managed to safely land the aircraft.
To RAF Transport Command
He received his commission, on 19 December 1941, and was promoted to the rank of Pilot Officer with a further promotion to Flying Officer on 10 January 1942. He remained with 68 Sqn. until 23 April 1942, when his requested transfer to Transport Command came through. During his time with 68 Sqn he did not achieve any further aerial victories. With Transport Command, he was posted was to 116 Sqn, based at Heston, where he remained until 3 June 1942.
His next posting was to 1425 Flight, later to become 511 Sqn, a Transport Command Squadron based at Portreath, Cornwall, where he flew twin-engined Hudson aircraft. The squadron’s role was to fly, military personnel from Portreath to Gibraltar, about 2,100 km away. After refuelling and a brief rest, they would continue the night flight for a further 1,700 km and land at Malta. Between 17 June and 30 December 1942, Prchal made 12 return flights to Gibraltar and 14 return flights to Malta amounting to 183.20 flying hours. These flights were all at night in unarmed Hudson aircraft and with the constant threat of attack by Luftwaffe night fighters.
Even at Gibraltar, there was danger from Italian air raids. His first flight was to Luqa airfield, Malta. On the return flight, on the night of 28/29 June 1942, Prchal landed at Gibraltar. Whilst his Hudson Mk III aircraft, was parked, the airfield was subjected to an air raid by the Italian Air Force and Prchal’s aircraft was destroyed.
On 22 December 1942 he was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and transferred to 511 Sqn’s home base at Lyneham. The squadron’s role was to fly supplies into Malta or to ferry aircraft from Canada to England as well as to the Middle and Far East.
With 511 Sqn, his role was to fly VIP passengers to the Middle and Far East using four-engined B24 Liberator aircraft. His exceptional flying skills and exemplary discipline were quickly recognised by his VIP passengers who would often request that Prchal be their pilot on these long and hazardous flights. One of these VIP’s was General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Polish Military leader in the Western Allies.
Prchal used a distinctive take-off procedure when flying B24 Liberators. This involved an initial rapid climb, followed by a levelling-off to gain airspeed and then climbing again until cruising altitude was achieved.
The Fateful Trip
In the wake of the discovery of the bodies of 15,000 Polish officers in a mass grave at Katyn Forest , Gen. Sikorski, who was the Prime Minister of the Polish Government in Exile in London as well as the Polish Commander-in-Chief refused to accept the Soviet explanation of this incident. On 16 April, he requested an investigation by the International Red Cross which resulted in the Soviets accusing the Polish Government in Exile of co-operating with Nazi Germany and breaking off diplomatic relations.
On 24 May 1943 Gen. Sikorski flew, with his entourage to Cairo to commence his inspection of the Polish forces in the Middle East, and also to quell any unease they may have about the Katyn massacre. Prchal was the pilot of the B24 Liberator, used for outward flight of this visit and it was the first time that he had flown Gen. Sikorski. On arrival to Cairo, Gen. Sikorski requested, from the British Authorities, that Prchal and his crew also fly him for his return journey to England. This request was granted and the aircrew remained in Cairo until Gen. Sikorski had completed his Middle East inspection. On the second day of their wait in Cairo, Prchal received a message from Cairo HQ that he was to swop his aircraft with another aircrew. They would take his Liberator onto India while he would fly their Liberator, AL523, back to England as a maintenance inspection would be due after another 20 hours of flying.
Whilst in Cairo, Gen. Sikorski had arranged for a silver cigarette case to be procured and engraved ‘Sikorski, General, Cairo, May 31st 1943’. This he presented to Prchal, as a mark of his esteem, during the flight, on 3 July, between Cairo and Gibraltar on their return journey to England.
They landed at Gibraltar, at about 16:30, where they had a short rest, with Gen. Sikorski staying at the Governors, Lt. General Sir Noel Mason-MacFarlane’s, residence at Gibraltar. They resumed their journey on the night of 4 July. On board was Gen. Sikorski, and his entourage of six, which included his daughter, Zofia Leśniowska, Chief of the Polish Women’s Auxiliary, British officials and the six crew-members of the aircraft – a total of 17 people.
Prchal took-off at 23:07 and used the standard Liberator take-off technique. But just 16 seconds after take-off, having achieved an altitude of only about 150 feet, the aircraft crashed into the sea, about ¾ mile off the eastern end of the runway. All but one on board were killed. The lucky survivor was Prchal who was picked out of the sea by three local airmen who saw the aircraft go down into the sea and had run to the shore, grabbed a rescue dinghy, and rowed out the plane. They could see a wing-tip protruding out of the sea but the ‘plane sank in about seven minutes. By the time the rescue-dinghy had reached the scene there was crash debris floating on the sea including some bodies. They managed to pull four bodies from the sea, one of whom was Prchal’s. He was still breathing. By this time, some 15 to 20 minutes after the crash, high-speed Air/Sea Rescue boats had arrived from the west side of the Rock of Gibraltar.
The force of the impact had thrown him through the cockpit windscreen into the sea. He was found floating partially in an inflatable life jacket and amongst some debris. Prchal was unconscious with his uniform in shreds, his right leg was visibly broken, he had internal injuries, and also the left side of his face had been badly injured. He customarily preferred to have the life jacket draped over the back of his seat rather than wearing it during a flight and may have instinctively grabbed it as he closed the engines throttles prior to impact. After he had been rescued by the airmen a British Air/Sea rescue launch reached the crash scene to search for any other survivors.
Prchal was taken to the Military Hospital at Gibraltar, initially, the medical personnel considered that he would not survive and only did a cursory ‘patch up’ job on him. Whilst the Padre was giving him his Last Rites, Prchal came around from his unconsciousness. He was then placed under sedation for the next four days. Shortly after he came out of sedation, with his right leg in a plaster cast, he tried to walk to the bathroom. When he put weight on his left leg he was in great pain. He told the Doctor that he thought his left leg was also broken and that it should also be X-rayed. The Doctor’s response was that he was talking nonsense. When Prchal asked him if his left leg had been X-rayed the dismissive response was; ‘that when he was brought into the hospital he was in no fit state to have all parts of his body X-rayed. Shortly after Prchal insisted on being taken to the X-Ray theatre where he talked the X-ray technician to take an X-Ray of his left leg and show him the results. The X-ray showed that the bone had been broken, but had now already started to heal itself, but slightly misaligned.
Whilst recovering Prchal asked about the passengers and his crew and only evasive answers from the hospital staff were forthcoming. Only when Josef Rechka, a fellow Czech 246 Sqn pilot and also a former comrade from his 310 Sqn and l’Arme d’Air days, visited him did he learn that he had been the only survivor. Rechka had also been at Gibralter the evening of the crash and had spent a few hours with Prchal the evening of the fateful flight. He had heard Prchal’s Liberator take-off and the sudden ominous silencing of its engines. The following morning Rechka continued his own flight to Algeria in the belief that Prchal had been killed in the crash. On his homeward flight from Algeria, Rechka again stopped at Gibratar to be told that his friend Prchal was still alive.
During this time, the British, whose underwater team was lead by Commander Lionel “Buster” Crabb, were making frantic efforts to recover all documents that had been carried on the Liberator. It was now lying on its back, in 30 feet of water, with major structural damage. The cockpit had broken-off from the main fuselage; the wings with the main wing-spar intact and a portion of the fuselage to the front of the navigators seat had also separated and flipped upon impact, pushing the landing gear out; and the tail section had broken-off and was lying slightly to the left of the main fuselage centerline. Amongst the items recovered from the wreckage debris, on the sea bed, was the engraved cigarette case, now damaged, that Gen. Sikorski had presented to Prchal during the flight to Gibraltar. This was later returned to Prchal.
Italian naval frogmen were known to be based at La Línea and Algeciras in nearby ‘neutral’ Spain, and they were also keen to recover these documents. All but four of the bodies were recovered from the underwater Liberator. These four, including Sikorski’s daughter, and S/Ldr Herring, the co-pilot, were never found.
Using Royal Navy salvage vessels, the aircraft’s wreckage was recovered from the sea-bed and examined by accident investigators, at Gibraltar, to try to establish the cause of the crash. Sabotage theories were prolific with the Germans, Soviets, British and the Poles all considered as possible culprits depending on the source of the theory.
Prchal’s own recollection of events was that having made the usual external examination of the aircraft and finding everything in order, he boarded the aircraft at around 22:40. Whilst attending to pre-flight checks, the Flight Engineer checked that all the passengers were seated; six in the fuselage and six in the bomb bay. The all up weight was approximately 52,000 lbs. Prchal started the engines, warmed them up and then taxied the Liberator to the western end of the runway where he carried out final cockpit checks. ‘Everything was satisfactory’ he recalls. At 23:10 he saw the green signal from the control tower and commenced his take-off. On reaching 130 mph he was airborne and when he reached an altitude of 150 feet, he adopted his usual Liberator take-off technique and eased the control stick forward to gain speed. When the speed had built up to 165 mph he tried to pull back the control column to resume the climb. He found he could not do so as the control column was ‘frozen’ in position.
He shouted over the intercom to S/Ldr Herring to “check over the controls quickly” whilst he applied some trim in order to gain some height; at the same time he was pulling back on the control column, “but nothing happened” and no reply was received from Herring. Prchal saw that they were about to hit the sea, at about 160 mph, and shouted out “crash” whilst closing the throttles to all engines. After the aircraft hit the water he had no more recollections. The flight had lasted just 2½ minutes.
The enquiry into the accident concluded that that the accident was caused by the aircraft’s elevator controls jamming. It was inconclusive as to what caused them to become jammed. One possibility was that passenger baggage had shifted upon takeoff and had jammed in the exposed control cables, but the Court of Inquiry could find no evidence of sabotage. A mail-bag was found on the runway that had apparently fallen out of the plane upon take-off; this is what lead to the theory that baggage may have shifted and also implied that a cargo panel may have been left open. In any case, Prchal was questioned during the enquiry and was exonerated of any blame for the accident.
Since his initial experience with the hospital staff, Prchal had little confidence with the Gibraltar medical facilities and took the first opportunity to return to England for further rehabilitation from his crash injuries. Prchal returned to his unit on 14 September 1943 and resumed his role of flying VIP’s.
Return To Flying
A new crew was allocated to him and, mindful that they were aware of his Gibraltar crash, he gathered them together before their first flight and said to them that “If one or all of you have no confidence in my ability, please do not hesitate to say so, you are free to ask for a replacement” None of the new crew requested a transfer and this crew was to fly with Prchal until the end of the war.
The new crew’s resolve was put to test on their first flight together. They flew, a Liberator, to India and on the return journey they made a brief stop at Gibraltar. At about 21:00 on 21 September 1943 they took-off but immediately the aircraft became airborne, the port outer engine developed a “runaway propeller” [Propeller runaway can occur if the speed governor function is lost and the overall prop/engine failure mode prevents the propellor from safely feathering into wind; this can cause the propeller to break up], they were forced to make an emergency landing back onto the Gibraltar runway. At that time the runway was only 1,600 yds long with open sea at either end. The Liberator was fully loaded and also carrying a full fuel load. As it was only able to make a quick circuit of Gibraltar the aircraft was operating at close to it’s maximum permitted all-up weight [the maximum weight an aircraft can be loaded to, on the ground] and there was no ability to jettison the fuel. Under these difficult conditions Prchal executed a perfect emergency landing stopping the Liberator just a couple of yards from the end of the runway!
From 10 February to 9 May 1944 he was posted to the RAF’s Atlantic Transport Group, based at Dorval, Canada. Their role was to fly Liberator and DC3/C47 aircraft to North Africa, via the Bahama’s and the Azores and sometimes onto Karachi in India (now Parkistan). During this period he added another 232 flying hours of which 103 hours had been night flying.
On 3 September 1943, at Paddington, London, Eduard Maximilian Prchal married F/O Dolores ‘Dolly’ Šperková, whom he had met during 1942. Dolores was also a Czechoslovak who had escaped from her homeland in 1938. Initially, on arriving in England, she had worked for the Czechoslovak Information Department, in London, for President Beneš. She later was commissioned in the British WAAF and served as a Press Relations officer at the Czechoslovak Air Force headquarters.
To 24 Sqn.
On 18 May 1944, Prchal was posted to 24 Sqn where he remained until the end of the war. Usually piloting DC3’s he initially flew mainly to Italy and Corsica via the Azores, and after D-Day also to Belgium and France. During 1945 and until the war ended he also flew long haul flights to India, Ceylon, and Burma. During his posting to 24 Sqn, he had flown 270 sorties totaling 1511 flying hours. Of the Czechoslovak pilots flying with this squadron, Prchal was probably the most experienced.
Return to Czechoslovakia
After WW2 had ended, Czechoslovak RAF personnel were able to return to their homeland in August 1945. Prchal returned with his wife and two month old daughter, Kejka. He found that despite his family being Roman Catholic, his parents, brother and other relatives, had not survived the German occupation.
He remained in the Czechoslovak Air Force, with the rank of Nadporučík [F/O] serving with the Air Transport Group until his demobilisation, on 16 January 1946. He was promoted to the rank of Kpt. Let., and retained on the military reserve He joined Československé Státní Aerolinie [ČSA], the Czechoslovak National Airline, where, due to his considerable flying experience, he was appointed chief pilot, test pilot and also instructor.
In this post-war period, ČSA were rapidly rebuilding their airline and routes as well as establishing new international routes. Prchal was actively involved with establishing these new operational routes. Despite the undercurrent of pro-Communism in post war Czechoslovakia, Prchal was openly ‘pro-Western’ in his views. At the beginning of February 1948, he went on a business trip to India on behalf of ČSA, and whilst he was away the Communist take-over of Czechoslovakia took place. At the end of the trip, he returned to Prague, and his wife, Dolores, was there waiting for him at the airport. On meeting him she whispered to him “You have returned? I was afraid that you would choose freedom”.
However, with his known ‘pro-Western’ views, it was only going to be a matter of time before Prchal would be investigated by the new Communist regime.
On 26 December 1949, Prchal came under the scrutiny of the Okresní výbor akční výbor Národní fronty [District Action Commitee of the National Front – a regional Communist Committee who decided the ‘political reliability’ of citizens in its region] for the Prague XII District. They deemed that Prchal was “an admirer of Western democracy,” whose “actions before February 1948 were such as to suggest that he does not offer full guarantee of reliability and dedication to this establishment.”
Under these circumstances it would be only a matter of time before he would be arrested by the Communist authorities so that they could ensure his ‘pro-western attitude’ was corrected. However Prchal, like many of his fellow ex-RAF airmen, was already planning to escape to the West.
Escape to the West
After some months of careful planning, along with Josef Řechka and Jan Kaucký, both former 310 Sqn pilots who had also fought in the Battle of Britain, managed to escape with their families in a daring aircraft flight on 30 September 1950. They had been planning their escape for nearly a year, with several aborted attempts, before conditions were finally favourable. Because of constant surveillance, their various meetings had to be arranged by ‘coded’ telephone calls to mislead the telephone tappers who they knew were listening in.
Their plan was based on Jan Kaucký being the chief test pilot for ČSA at Ruzyně airport, Prague, a post which would allow them the best opportunity of taking an aircraft without supervision. The plan also required an isolated landing ground in close proximity to Prague. After numerous abortive surveys for a suitable landing strip, including one which nearly resulted in their discovery, they found somewhere suitable. They had to bring their escape plan forward when Kaucký, was ‘tipped off’ that he was going to be replaced, the following Monday, as the company test pilot. During this period, Prchal, aware that he would be limited as to what he would be able to take with him, destroyed all personal documentation that was not essential for their escape and new life in the West.
The following day, 30 September 1950, the 12th Anniversary of the Munich Agreement, was a fine day with a blue sky. Řechka, reported for duty, at Ruzyně airport, for his scheduled flight to Brussels, but feigned an acute illness and telephoned ČSA officials that he would have to see the airports medical officer as he was about to collapse. He then quickly left Ruzyně airport in his car, collected his and Kaucky’s families and then drove to a pre-arranged location to meet Prchal.
The Morning Of The Escape
Prchal was off duty that day as his passport had not yet been returned from the Italian Consulate where it had been sent for a Visa for a special flight on 2 October. However, that morning, the Prchal’s were to have a discomforting start to their day.
About 08:00, their door bell rang loudly and outside were standing two men in long leather coats – the usual attire of StB agents – and carrying attaché cases under their arms. Prchal thought they had come to arrest him!. One of the men said that they “were collecting money for war veterans in North Korea and how much would he like to contribute”
Prchal was relieved, and reached into his pocket but there was only small change. He apologised for only being able to contribute small change and was assured that ‘it was not the amount that mattered but the goodwill of the donor”. [Those who refused to contribute to a Communist cause were reported as ‘being unreliable”] Having accepted his ‘goodwill’ the two men left. Prchal then left their flat and went to a house in Prague where he had previously hidden the personal luggage that they would be escaping with.
Shortly after, Dolores, left the flat with their daughter, telling the concierge of their apartment that they were going shopping. The concierge was a Communist and one of her duties was to question anyone who left as to where they were going and what time they would be back. She also questioned people coming to visit any residents of the apartment.
Near their flat they caught a taxi and went to another location. From there they caught another taxi to another part of town and then walked a short distance to where Prchal was waiting for them in his car. It was now 09:00, they drove North out of Prague and waited at a pre-arranged meeting-place for Řechka to arrive in his own car with his wife, his young son Josef, Řechka’s brother Jiři, and also Kaucký’s wife and son Josef. The two cars were then driven near to the chosen landing ground.
That day Kaucký was due to take Dakota DC3 [C47] OK-WAA, a cargo aircraft, ostensibly for a scheduled test flight. However, prior to take-off he discreetly had the aircraft fuelled with 2,300 litres (500 gallons) of fuel. At Ruzyně airport a visit by a VIP Soviet delegation was now in progress. Kaucký seized this unexpected opportunity and sent his crew to watch the parade. Once they were away from the aircraft, with no other crew or the usual Security Police on board, he closed the cargo door, went to the cockpit, started the engines, and requested take-off clearance. He received clearance and took off around 10:00 a.m. Once airborne, he made a customary circuit of the airport and then set off on a pre-planned route. Every few minutes he transmitted, as he was required to, reports about his location. In reality he sent reports which indicated a false flight path.
A few kilometres from Ruzyně, the cars of Prchal and Řechka were parked and the occupants were watching the sky above the airport for the aircraft. When the aircraft was sighted, these hopeful escapers drove their cars to an abandoned, former WW2, airstrip at Kralupy nad Vltavou, about 15 km from Prague, which had been previously reconnoitered as a suitable landing site.
The aircraft approached the airstrip, circled it and Kaucký waggled the aircraft wings – a pre-arranged signal to the ground party that he was alone in the aircraft and no Security Police were on board.
The ground party placed a white pillow case, on the roof of one of the car’s, to acknowledge Kaucký’s signal and also as a pre-arranged signal to advise him that the ground party was also alone and that it was safe to land. Kaucký lowered the undercarriage, as if to simulate a forced landing, and made a perfect landing on the bumpy airstrip. As he was landing a man drove past the airstrip on a motorcycle and the ground party were terrified that he would report what he had seen.
Kaucký managed to land using only half the available length of runway. He then taxied slowly towards a pre-arranged corner of the airstrip. Whilst he was doing so the ground party drove to that same corner to meet the aircraft, the cars careening across the ground. Whilst the aircraft was still taxiing, Kaucký ran to the back of the aircraft, opened the cargo door and dropped down the boarding ladder.
Kaucký had no wish to stop and get the aircraft stuck in this ground. The ground party reached the slowly moving aircraft, got out of the cars and taking their few items of personal luggage, rushed to the aircraft. The two children were literally thrown onto the aircraft first, followed by the few items of luggage and then the adults boarded. Once Prchal was on board he ran to the cockpit whilst calling out for all the passengers to go to the front of the cargo area. Kaucký, now back in the cockpit was joined by Prchal and immediately started to take-off. After some 300 yards the aircraft was airborne but in the cargo compartment Řechka was still trying to close the rear cargo door.
At the far end of the airstrip were some tall trees, and Kaucky , took the aircraft into a steep climb to avoid them. At this point, the passengers were not even halfway to the front of the cargo area when the aircraft went into this steep climb. They fell to the floor and, as there were with no seats or anything to grab hold off, slid down the aircraft floor towards the tail; a frightening experience for all especially as they slid past the open cargo door and could see the ground outside! Řechka had been struggling to close the door of the moving aircraft and only accomplished this once the aircraft was airborne, This had been the most difficult part of the escape and had taken only about 90 seconds.
After take-off, Prchal, took-over the aircrafts control, turned the aircraft course to 330° and flew at ground hugging height, to evade radar and patrolling Czechoslovak- assembled Me109G fighter aircraft. He headed towards the Russian Zone of Germany and onto the American Zone in Germany. Kaucký broke wireless silence and called Ruzyně control tower and reported the aircrafts position as 15 miles east of Prague. In his next radio contact he said he was south of the airfield.
Even so, the 20 minute flight to the Czechoslovak border, was nerve racking for all on board. As they crossed the border, Kaucký made a final call to Ruzyně control tower requesting permission to land – which was given. They now had just about 10 minutes to cross the Russian Zone of Germany before any scrambled Russian fighter aircraft would be close enough to intercept them. Although the Russian security forces did scramble two fighters it was too late to intercept the escape attempt; they safely crossed into the American Zone of Germany, with no Russian fighter aircraft being encountered. Ruzyně was still unaware of the escape attempt and had not reported the aircraft as missing.
They were now flying over the American Zone of Germany and in relative safety. Near Frankfurt, they were spotted by some patrolling American fighter aircraft, who came to investigate them. Satisfied that the Czechoslovak DC3 was not a threat, they escorted them for about five minutes as they were heading towards Brussels. From Brussels they set course for England where they hoped to land at the RAF airbase at Manston, Kent.
Within 3½ hours of the aircraft leaving Prague, they were now contacting RAF Manston for permission to land. On the radio they called “Hullo Manston tower, this is OK-WAA calling. How do you read?”
Manston responded and the aircraft sent the message: “This is a escape flight from Czechoslovakia. Repeat an escape flight from Czechoslovakia. Please give us instructions for landing” When they landed the first person to meet the escapers was the station commander, Group Captain Rankin, who fortunately had been a RAF colleague of Prchal during the war.
The escapers were kept at Manston for four days in complete secrecy whilst they were vetted by officials. They were then cleared by immigration officials and permitted to go to the Free Czechoslovak Club, at Hampstead, London, whilst arrangements for their new lives in exile where made.
‘Why We Escaped
At this temporary accommodation, they were interviewed by the Press, during which Dolly Prchalová, utilising her WAAF learnt skills as a Press Relations officer, acted as a spokesperson for the group. She said: “The escape had been planned for many months and we had been waiting for favourable conditions. In the present “Red” paradise of Czechoslovakia there was no chance for us. As civilian airline pilots flying abroad, the men could simply fail to return home, but there was the question of families, mainly the children and what would happen to them.”
“Airline crews, especially those that had fought with the British during the war, had been the No 1 priority on the ‘enemy list’ of the secret police. The most severe reprisals against families of those pilots who chose to remained abroad was one of the most effective weapons against the fliers. On Saturday, the 12th anniversary of Munich, fate was kind to us. Capt. Kaucký, a former RAF pilot succeeded in overcoming difficulties which people in a free country cannot understand.”
“This was the first escape of its kind. No other aircraft had escaped by making an unauthorised landing in Czechoslovakia and taking passengers abroad. Failure would have meant the death penalty for the men”.
“The Czechoslovak Government and its so-called peoples’ tribunals are quite generous in distributing death penalties to all citizens of the ‘free’ country who have a different political view and who are not willing to serve Stalin the Great. Probably 90% of the population did not agree with the present regime, she said but they were helpless against the well armed police whose highly skilled methods seemed derived from Russian and Nazi experience. Even the Communists themselves did not feel safe.”
The three former RAF pilots now hoped to rejoin the RAF.
Life in the West
Unfortunately, this was not to be. In Britain, for some time now the RAF were no longer readily accepting their former Czechoslovak comrades back into the RAF. In the post WW2 years there was also an abundance of former RAF pilots many of who of whom were now employed by commercial civilian aviation companies.
Prchal, now 39, then tried to join British European Airways, the British National airline serving Europe and the Middle East. He found that, despite his extensive flying experience and Czechoslovak civil flying qualifications, these were not acceptable to the UK Civil Aviation Authority [CAA], and that he would have to re-qualify before they would grant him a commercial pilot license.
With a young family to support combined with having to make a fresh start in a new country, it was logistically not feasible to also include the required study needed to pass the exams to enable him to obtain his CAA pilots license. Initially he worked for the BBC assisting in the production of Czech language radio programmes which were broadcast to his former homeland. Life in post-war England was austere with food rationing still in place, Prchal still sought to return to flying “I can fly just about anything they have with wings on”. The family then decided to seek better prospects in the USA where Eduard hoped to join the US Air Force.
With the assistance of the US-based International Rescue Committee, the Prchal family departed from Southampton, on 19 April 1952, on the SS Ryndam bound for New York, arriving on 30 April 1952 as refugees. Despite the assistance of this Committee, Prchal, as a non-US national, found he was unable to join the US military, despite his extensive flying experience. Employment in the US aeronautical industry was also limited due to Congressional acts that restricted the employment of non-US citizens.
He resigned himself to the prospect that his flying career was now over and sought alternative employment. During his flying career he had flown 120 different types of aircraft and had flown 7,867 hours of which 1,200 hours were at night.
Later that year, Prchal obtained employment with DeKalb Clock Corp, in New York, where he remained until 1955. In 1956 he was offered employment at the Defense Language Institute at Monterey, California., to teach Czech.
At the time Prchal was uncertain as to the long term prospects of this job, and Dolly had a good job in New York and their daughter was now at school. After careful discussion, he accepted the new job and moved to an small apartment in Monterey, whilst his wife and daughter continued to live in New York.
After a year, he decided to continue his employment at the Defense Language Institute and his family left New York to join him in California, living at Pacific Grove.
Between 1957 and 1958, the family became naturalised US citizens. After three years at Monterey, Dolly was offered an excellent career opportunity in San Francisco Bay Area which offered long-term secure employment. After careful consideration the family decision was to accept this opportunity and move.
This re-location meant Prchal leaving the Defense Language Institute. Shortly after the re-location, he secured employment at the San Jose State College Library where he remained until his retirement in 1978.
On their retirement, Eduard and Dolly moved to Calistoga, in Napa Valley, the heart of California’s wine region. In their retirement years they spent some of their time travelling on numerous trips in the US. Tourist trips to Western Europe, were also undertaken, but with the Communists still in control of Czechoslovakia, they were never able to return to their homeland. When not travelling Prchal would enjoy working with his hands and followed his interests in stained glass work and astronomy. To help develop his astronomy interest he built from scratch a 10” reflector telescope.
The Sikorski Crash Saga Continues
Since the death of Gen Sikorski in 1943, the Gibraltar crash had been the subject of considerable discussion. Conspiracy theories about a possible sabotage depending on the source, citing the Germans, Soviets, Britain and even the Poles themselves as the suspects. In 1967, Rolf Hochhuth, a German playwright, included one such theory in his play ‘Soldiers: An Obituary for Geneva’. The theory was that the ‘accident’ had been initiated by Winston Churchill who had instructed the British Secret Service to make the necessary arrangements. In the play Prchal was accused of participating in this plot. Unfortunately, Hochhuth was not aware that Prchal was still alive and a libel case resulted. The case was held in the London Courts, who found in favour of Prchal and awarded him substantial damages and costs.
However, this judgment would transpire to be little more than a moral vindication of Prchal’s name. Without paying any of the awarded damages or costs, Hochhuth moved to Switzerland, which was not a party to the International Monetary Recovery Act. (However, within the last few years, after publically stating in Austria that the Holocaust never happened, Hochhuth was found guilty of Holocaust denial and sentenced to several years in prison in Austria.)
On 10 March 1968, a Toronto TV station included a piece on the Sikorski crash during one of its current affairs program. Interviewed in that program were Prchal and David Irving, the controversial British historian who had recently published ‘Accident’, his study into that crash. A lively discussion resulted.
The two were invited to appear on ‘Frost on Friday; a popular current affairs British TV program, hosted by David Frost, to be broadcast live on on 20 December 1968. They were to be interviewed about the Gibraltar crash. Invited guests, including the grandson of Winston Churchill, were to participate in the live program. What was planned as a short discussion, at the beginning of the TV program, became so ‘heated’ that it was extended to the end of the program – and also continued for the full program the following night. Even by 2010, the suspicions about the Sikorsk accident have still not gone away.
From his humble beginnings, Eduard Prchal developed into a modest but determined man of exacting standards with meticulous attention to detail. These attributes were reflected in his professional and his personal life. He was a very private man, who shunned personal attention. Despite his extensive and eventful flying career, he would rarely talk about the war or his experiences under Communism.
Eduard Prchal died on 4 December 1984 at St Helena, California aged 73. At his request his ashes were scattered partly over the English Channel and partly interred at the Czechoslovak ex-Servicemen’s plot at Brookwood cemetery, England.
About a year later, the silver cigarette case presented to Prchal in Cairo by Gen. Sikorski, was donated by Prchal’s family to the SIkorski Institute in London.
At the RAF Rehabilitation Ceremony, held in Prague on 13 September 1991, he was promoted, in memoriam to the rank of Plukovníka – Group Captain – in the Czechoslovak Air Force.
3 Československý válečný kříž 1939 [Czechoslovak War Cross]
Za chrabrost před nepřítelem [Gallantry facing the enemy medal]
Za zásluhy I st. [Merits medal]
Pamětní medaile československé armadý v zahraničí F a VB [Memorial Medal of Czechoslovak Foreign Army with France and Great Britain bars]
1939-1945 Star with Battle of Britain Clasp
Air Crew Europe Star
Croix de Guerre avec deux palmes et etoile de vermeil
He is commemorated, along with the other 2936 Battle of Britain pilots, on the Christopher Foxley-Norris Memorial Wall at the National Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, Kent:
He is also commemorated on the London Battle of Britain Memorial.
Further details on his 1950 escape is here
The assistance of Kejka Prchal and PhDr. Jiří Rajlich with this article is very much appreciated.
Article last updated 27 November 2012