The story of W/O Karel Šťastný’s escape from his homeland in 1939 and his road to England, via Poland and France to England where joined the RAF and served as a pilot with 311 Sqn, by M. Vincent:
To Poland Into Exile
Such a crucial decision had not been easy, but doubts no longer assailed him, when, in that Spring of 1939, Karel began furtive preparations to go into exile. The Czechoslovakia, whose being had sprang to life only some few months after his own in 1918; the homeland he had known and loved these twenty years, was irrevocably doomed. German troops were fast infiltrating the land and Karel dare hesitate no longer, if he was to elude them. Whatever his country’s future, his own, as a Captain of the Czechoslovak Air Force, was surely in jeopardy, whereas freedom and the probability of a continuing career as a pilot, seemed to beckon him from neighbouring Poland.
His reception at the border was fax from cordial. Poland herself was a troubled land, internally disrupted by mass Jewish emigration and gripped in tension as to her own territorial fate, such fear and suspicion magnified to an intense degree along her frontiers. Increasing numbers of fleeing Czechs. had become an embarrassing problem for the Polish Authorities and the only sanctuary offered Karel, was admission to a Refugee Camp at Bronovice, on the outskirts of Cracow. It had been an old Axiry Camp, near dereliction, when resurrected, to provide shelter for the sudden influc of Czech fugitives. Here, Karel joined some two hundred of his fellowcountrymen, all servicemen like himself, who had mistakenly assumed Poland might welcome this augmentation to her manpower. Instead, their one salvation seemed to lie in the somewhat desperate measure of enrolment into the French Foreign Legion. This possibility was first mooted by one Czech. Army Officer in their midst, a Colonel Schroeder, who subsequently trained in Russia and was to become the first post-war President of Czechoslovakia. But the negotiations took time. Meanwhile the sparse wooden huts at Bronovice afforded little comfort, nor did the limited and fast-dwindling resources they had brought with them, permit of much escapism outwith the confines of the camp. It was a waiting game, leaving plenty of time for thought.
At last, egress from the doldrums of Bronovice promised fulfilment when Colonel Schroeder’s bargain with the French materialised and forms of enrolment for the Foreign Legion were to hand. Almost without exception, they signed this five-year committal to the precarious life of a legionnaire and were soon on their way, first travelling the length of Poland, from Cracow in the South, to the Baltic port of Gdynia. The ensuing voyage took them out of the Baltic, through Denmark’s Kattegat and Skaggerak, to round on and dock in Calais, from whence they entrained for their final destination, Paris.’ In the French capital, they quartered in a military barracks, situated on the Left Bank of the Sienne, but for meals they had to cross the river to Air Ministry Dining Rooms. They were divided into three groups, the first two of which embarked for Algiers as soon as they had undergone medical examinations and received all pertinent tropical inoculations.
August gave way to September as Karel and his friends in Group 3, completed their preparations – meanwhile Europe was plunging headlong into war. Germany had unleashed her armies on Poland that first day of September and two days later, both Britain and France declared war upon the aggressor. It was fortuitous timing, in that Group 3 were granted reprieve from their North African commitment and instead, transferred into the French Air Force, where their trained skills as aircrew, were of more urgent value.
A small Squadron, numbering forty-one inclusive of groundstaff, Following the fall of Paris, morale crumbled, communications broke down and in haste, the Czech. contingent withdrew to the coast at Bordeaux. Here, in some huts belonging to the French Air Force Karel was overjoyed to find his friend Zdeněk Sichrovský, in the company of three other Czechs., all newly arrived from Arcashon, just outside Bordeaux, where they had been engaged on live target practice until, they too, had decided they must quit France. The quintet were unanimously in favour of negotiating passages to gland and this they accomplished with the co-operation of the Captain of a Polish vessel named “Batory.” The voyage seemed interminable, a devious route taking them far into the North Sea before veering through Scottish coastal waters and entering Liverpool by way of the Irish Sea.
It was at this juncture that Karel made a rather momentous decision, the reason for which cannot be conjectured. He elected to change his surname and the propriety of his choice was surely twofold – not only was it the maiden surname of his mother, but translated from Czech, “Šťastný” means “Happy”. Thus, Karel Šťastný came to Britain.
A Member of the Royal Air Force
Contact with the Royal Air Force was effected when Karel and the group reported to Headquarters in Gloucester, where, individuals and their records were thoroughly vetted and checked. In due course, the French uniforms they still wore, were exchanged for those of the R.A.F., and at Cosford, near Wolverhampton, on 23rd July, 1940, life began anew for 787170 Flight Sergeant K. Šťastný, R.A.F.V.R. [Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve].
The ‘plane they were to fly was the Wellington Bomber and, of necessity, they had to familiarise themselves with its performance. For this training, the group was split up – some, including Sichrovský, went to Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, whereas Karel’s posting was to Honnington in Suffolk. The growing intake of Czech. and Polish recruits (with their attendant language barriers) gave the Air Force cause to establish a Czechoslovak Squadron, affiliated to No. 9 (“mother”) Squadron at Honnington. Consequently No. 311 (Czech.) Squadron was formed and based at East Wretham between Norwich and Bury St. Edmunds – and it was here that Karel, at the end of his two-week Conversion Course, was re-united with Zdeněk Sichrovský, Josef Bernat and his other compatriots.
The Station was in its infancy, so much so, that the crews spent that first winter under canvas. War-time menus left much to be desired, but Karel and Zdeněk devised a means of complementing camp meals, with such delicacies as pheasant, rabbit and trout. Adjacent to the aerodrome lay lush woodlands, teeming with game as well as two lakes abundant in fish. At times, the two men would set off after dark, Zdeněk armed with a flashlight to locate the prey, which stood little chance against Karel’s unerring marksmanship with a self-made catapult.
These forays were rare however, compared to the grim business of retaliation against the enemy. Initially No. 311 Squadron boasted a force of only 9 Wellington bombers, each with a crew consisting of 1st and 2nd Pilots, Navigator, Wireless Operator and two Gunners. These hard-pressed aircraft were airborne almost round the clock. By day, they served to train new crews, but at night-fall, duly re-fuelled and loaded with a full bomb-load, they were manned by their regular crews, on mission to destroy some enemy-held target. As new crews graduated, so the force was increased to a dozen ‘planes, but losses, as there inevitably were, presented great problems.