General Lieutenant Frantisek Fajtl (1912-2006)
By Jiri Rajlich (Ph.D) - Translated by Lieutenant Colonel Jaroslav Milek.
Lieutenant General Frantisek Fajtl was and always will be a legend in Czech aviation. His life unfolded with all the drama of a Hollywood movie, including in the years after the Communist takeover of 1948. He may be the most well-known pilot, not only by aviators but also by the Czech public. He wrote about his memories in popular books that were widely read by the public, and it is due to him that not everything about the pilots of the Second World War has been forgotten. His books alone, however, do not account for his fame. He was renowned on the western front as well as the eastern. He fought for the French and the British. He was the first of only three Czechoslovakians to be given the command of a fighter squadron in the RAF. After he was shot down over German-occupied France, he was able to get back to England through fascist Spain, saving himself, he said, for another fight. He was the commander of the 313 Fighter Squadron. In the war, he volunteered for the eastern front, where he commanded the first Czech fighter wing under Soviet authority. At the end of the war, this wing fought uprising in central Slovakia, surrounded by German units. биглион москва
Fajtl was born August 20, 1912 in Donin in the county of Lounsk. After completing grade nine in public school, he attended a business college in Teplice, from which he graduated on July 24, 1932. Under the advice of his English teacher, he travelled with his first earnings through the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and Great Britain. He had a talent for languages, speaking excellent German and English, as well as good Russian, and improved his understanding of French, which later proved very useful. After he received his high school diploma from the business college, he joined officers’ school, where he trained in ground warfare and served in different mountain units in Slovakia. He submitted an application to the military academy, which he finished in 1935 with the rank of new lieutenant of the air forces. During the German occupation, he served at a military base in Prerov. When his squadron commander became sick, he was given the responsibility of transferring planes and other military equipment to the Germans. “We lost the war which we never even started,” he said. “The victors, without losing even one drop of blood, took over our military standards and military hardware.”
He and nine other young officers – the “Group of the Tramps” – escaped from occupied Czechoslovakia. In their backpacks, they carried air force documents, Air Force wings, diplomas, and handguns. They crossed the border to the Polish side at Velky Polom, and in Cracow they formed a military unit to fight Germany. The Swedish ship the Kastelholm took them to France, where they were incorporated into the Foreign Legion.
The real fighting for Fajtl started in May 1940. When the front crumbled under the force of the German advance, he participated in retreat fighting in old fighter planes, logging fifteen operational hours. When Marshal Petain signed the armistice, the Czech fighter squadron returned their beaten-up Morans to the last airport in France in Bergerak, and their commander asked for new orders. “There are none, mon capitaine. Do whatever you want,” he was told. Some got to the harbour of Port Vendres, by the eastern Pyrenees, where everyone was trying to get out of German-occupied France. The French were refusing to allow any British into the harbour, but on July 24, under the guns of a British cruiser, the Czechs were taken onto the decks of two British ships. In England, thousands of people in Liverpool greeted them, happy they had escaped from France and were able to assist the British in their solitary fight against Germany. “We were feeling like victors, despite having been beaten so badly by Germany. It felt as though the British and Scots were boosting our morale and lifting our spirits.”
After a short period of training on British Hurricanes, they started to fly in the Battle of Britain. Britain was fighting for its survival alone against the Germans. Fajtl, a member of the 1st and 17th Squadrons, shot down his first two planes, and seriously damaged a third. He became known for his flying with the 313 Czech Fighter Squadron to which he was assigned in May 1941, and in which he fought for two and a half years. Very soon he became a commander. As a commander, he flew two offensive flights over German-occupied Western Europe, and achieved two additional confirmed hits, also damaging a third. After these achievements, which were followed with decorations and the appointment to higher ranks and higher functions, he became the commander of the British Fighter Squadron on April 27, 1942. However, through bad luck, he was the commander of the 122. Fighter Squadron – the “City of Bombay” – for only one week. After his mission on May 5, 1942, he did not return, and a British intelligence officer noted beside his name, “Missing, presumed killed.”
The armour behind his back, and the wet spring ground on which he force-landed in German-occupied northern France, stopped the fire in his Spitfire. “I had never seen such a dance of planes in a such small place,” he said of the many planes fighting in the sky that day, including an elite squadron from St. Omer which was made up of German aces. “I was there fighting alone, trying to run away, but I had a lot of holes in my wing and the radio was dead. The engine was still working, but about six of them jumped on me and took me between themselves. Two were behind me, and the rest were on the sides, crossing my path. A piece of my wing flew off. Tracer bullets went over my head. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t even swallow, and my heart was in my neck. My veins were pulsating. My engines caught on fire, and my cabin was in flames. I couldn’t use the parachute because I would have had to slow down, and I would have been a sitting duck to the Germans, so I pushed close to the ground and dodged between the trees. My engine went. There was a field in front of me, and I managed to force land there. The wet ground helped put out the flames in the engine, which didn’t explode. I jumped out of the plane, saw the number of holes in the fuselage out of the corner of my eye, and ran away.”
The Germans sent a unit to look for him, but he succeeded in getting through the patrolling soldiers at night, and navigated by the stars in a southward direction. After eight days, and a lot of luck, he finished his journey in occupied Paris on May 14 at the home of a Czech family he knew. He recuperated there for two weeks, and got ready to continue his trip: first through unoccupied-France, which was under the Petain government, and from there to neutral Spain. In spite of being wounded, he succeeded in crossing the Pyrenees. He was captured by Frankist soldiers, and spent a few months in a Spanish jail and in concentrations camps until he was picked up by the British consul in Madrid, which sent him back to England through Gibraltar.
“After I reported to the headquarters of intelligence, I was greeted by the commander, Fighter Command Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who offered me a place as the commander of one of the airports in Canada. I sent him the answer that I would rather stay and take another squadron for sweeps against the Germans.” After some time performing different functions, such as liaison officer and commander of the airport, he finally started to fly, and from September 1943 to the end of January 1944 was fighting as a commander of 313 Squadron.
Months later, he left Great Britain in the same way as he first arrived. With twenty other volunteers, he shipped to the Soviet Union, where he was a commander of the first Czech fighting wing until the end of the war. After the uprising in Slovakia, they fought for Ostrava City. By some strange fate, he flew his last combat flight in the same place as where he first left for his six-year-long fight against the Germans.
After the war, he graduated from the Military War Academy for high-ranking officers, and his next career grew. After graduating, he was named the first deputy commander of the 1st Air Force Division. He was active in the Czechoslovak Association of Airmen, which started to function again in 1945, and of which he became president. He was its president until February 1948, the year of the communists putsch.
The following year, he was declared to be politically untrustworthy and dismissed by the military. After seventeen years in the military, he suddenly had to decide what to do next with his life. He had promised his parents never to leave the Czech Republic, and so decided to stay with his young family – he had a wife and daughter – and not to go into exile abroad. He got a job for a few weeks as an assistant in the archives. In the early morning of January 10, 1950, he was in his Prague apartment when he was taken by secret police and put into a forced labour camp, where he spent sixteen months. His military achievements were, of course, taken from him, and he was demoted to the rank of private. His wife Hana and his six-month-old daughter were forced out of Prague. When Fajtl was released from the labour camp, there were no jobs for him other than in non-skilled labour, but he later managed to find work as a book-keeper. In 1964, he was partially rehabilitated by the state, and he was given a job in the state aviation inspection as an inspector for the investigation of airplane crashes.
In November 1989, with the fall of Communism, there was moral satisfaction for Fajtl and for every aviator in the world. In 1990, he was the first of three to be given the rank of Major General, and twelve years later he was made Lieutenant General. To his fifteen Czech, French, British, Soviet, Romanian, and Yugoslavian decorations, was added, in 1994, the French Order of the Honourary Legion, and ten years later, the highest military Order of the White Lion for Victory by the Czech Republic. In his life after the war, excluding the 1950s and part of the 1960s when he had yet to be rehabilitated by the state, he became famous for his literary work in magazines and books, thanks to which he is known by the non-military population. For some time, he was essentially the only pilot from the western front who was able, in Communist Czechoslovakia, to be published, probably because he was considered trustworthy, having fought on the eastern front and received Soviet decorations.
His first book was published in England in 1944, and was reprinted in Czech in 1946 and again in 1991. More than a dozen of his books are on sale, and so he was not only one of the best pilots in the war, but also a very successful writer.
Order of the White Lion Second Class for Victory
4 x Czech War Cross
2 x Czech Medal for Bravery
Czech Medal First Class for Merit
Czech Military Memorial Medal with shields for fighting in France, Great Britain, and the U.S.S.R.
Order of the Slovakian Uprising First Class
Red Army Order of the Red Star
Red Army Order of the Red Banner
The French Croix de Guerre avec palme
The French Légion d’honneur – Chevalier
The British Distinguished Flying Cross
The British 1939-1945 Star with Battle of Britain Clasp
The British Air Crew Europe Star
The Soviet Medal for Victory Over Germany
The Romanian Corona Romana
The Yugoslavian Order of the Red Partisans’ Star
By Jiri Rajlich (Ph.D)
Freely translated by Lieutenant Colonel Jaroslav Milek, firstname.lastname@example.org