Josef Frantisek - Born to fight

By Willie Bodenstein

Czechoslovakian, Josef František, the son of a carpenter, was born in 1914 in Dolní Otaslavice in Moravia. After leaving school he was apprenticed to a locksmith, but in 1934 he joined the Czechoslovak Air Force and on 1st October started his training.

Eight months later he finished the theoretical part of the course and started flying training. In 1936, he completed training and was posted to the 2nd Air Regiment at Olomouc in Moravia, where he flew Aero A.11 and Letov Š-328 reconnaissance biplanes. By 1937 he was a sergeant.

A brilliant pilot, František however frequently got into trouble for fighting, returning late to his unit and other breaches of discipline. It was only his exceptional promise that saved him from being dishonorably discharged, instead he was sent to the 4th Air Regiment to train as a fighter pilot where flying Avia B-534 and Bk-534 biplane fighters he developed his flying and combat skills.

War clouds filled the European skies and on 30 September 1938, Germany annexed the Sudetenland and on 15 March 1939 Germany occupied the remainder of Bohemia and Moravia. It imposed a Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia with a puppet government that it ordered to dissolve its armed forces.

Against the occupation of their homeland, many Czechoslovak airmen, Frantisek among them, fled to Poland where they stayed and joined the Polish Air Force based at Deblin Airfield. On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and the next day the base was virtually destroyed in a Luftwaffe attack. František's unit managed to evacuate its surviving obsolescent Potez 25, Breguet 19, PWS-26, RWD 8, RWD-14 Czapla and Lublin R-XIII aircraft to Góra Pulawska.

Fighting a rear-guard action Góra Pulawska was soon overran by Nazi forces and František's unit retreated again this time to Sosnowice Wielke airfield from where he flew reconnaissance missions in unarmed RWD 8 and PWS-25 training aircraft, carrying an observer. On 19-20 September he attacked enemy columns near Kamionka Strumilowa, dropping hand grenades on the massed German troops who returned fire, damaging his aircraft. František made a forced landing near Zloczów close to the German lines where two other pilots, one of whom was another Czechoslovak, landed and rescued him and his Polish observer.

For his Polish service, František was awarded the Virtuti Militari 5th class and received the Cross of Valour four times.

By then Poland was virtually overran by German forces and on 22 September František's unit was ordered to withdraw with its remaining aircraft to Romania. Landing at Pipera near Bucharest, they were interned by the Romanian authorities. However, many of the interned members escaped to Constanta, where a Romanian cargo steamship took them to French ruled Lebanon.

In Beirut, the four Czechoslovakians had an option; they could either join the French Foreign Legion or be deported back to the German-ruled Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Needless to say, they joined and on 20 October 1939, they landed at Marseille where a Polish sergeant recognised their Polish war decorations and helped to get them released to join the new Free Polish Air Force at le Bourget.

František was posted to a Polish airbase at Clermont-Ferrand where he served as a mechanic and where he tried to learn to fly as many types of French aircraft as he could. There are no official French records to confirm he flew combat missions during the Battle of France, though some older sources credit him with 11 victories. In his home town of Otaslavice, there is a museum in his memory and its collection of his medals includes a Croix de Guerre.

The surrender of France forced František to again flee and with Europe now almost completely under German control, Britain was his only option from which he would be able to carry on his personal vendetta against the Nazi's. Crossing the channel, he joined the RAF and on 2 August was assigned to Polish No. 303 Squadron, based at RAF Northolt, flying Hawker Hurricane fighters. The low wing, retractable gear Hurricane was to František, who was used to obsolescent aircraft with fixed landing gear, a revelation, one that he soon mastered.

František's first confirmed victory was the shooting down of a Messerschmitt Bf 109E fighter on 2 September 1940. Four days later on the 6 September he shot down his 5th German, a Bf 109E of III/Jg 52. František's Hurricane was damaged so badly that he had to make a forced landing.

Always a very unruly pilot for whom rules and regulations and instruction meant little, so much so that he was seen by his commanding officers as a danger to his colleagues when flying in formation. He was offered a transfer to the Czech squadron but declined. The attrition rate of pilots during the Battle of Britain was high and being a brilliant fighter František was kept on at the squadron as a guest who flew as and when he wanted too. As a lone wolf he, between 2 and 30 September, shot down 17 German aircraft and 1 probable, including nine Bf 109 fighters, six Heinkel He 111 bombers and one Junkers Ju 88 bomber.

This made him one of the top scoring Allied fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain and on 20 September, HM King George VI decorated him with the Distinguished Flying Medal. A bar was later added to his DFM.

His final confirmed victory was a Bf 109 near Brooklands in Surrey on 30 September 1940. On 8 October, on returning from a lone wolf patrol, he crashed in Ewell, Surrey. František did not survive. The reason for the crash has never been formally established. However, what is certain is that František is without a doubt the greatest of all Czechoslovak pilots and one of the greatest fighters of all time.

Honours and awards

Virtuti Militari Ribbon.png Virtuti Militari Silver Cross (Poland)
POL Krzyz Walecznych 4r BAR.svg Cross of Valour 4 times (Poland)
Croix de guerre 1939-1945 with palm (France) - ribbon bar.png Croix de guerre with palm leaf (France)
DFM w Bar ribbon.svg Distinguished Flying Medal and bar (United Kingdom)
1939-45 Star & Battle of Britain clasp.png 1939-1945 Star with Battle of Britain clasp
Czechoslovak War Cross 1939-1945 Bar.png Czechoslovak War Cross 1939-1945
Czechoslovak Medal for Bravery before the Enemy Rib.png Ceskoslovenská medaile Za chrabrost pred neprítelem ("Bravery in Face of the Enemy")
TCH CS Voj Med Za Zasluhy ribbon.svg Ceskoslovenská medaile za zásluhy, 2. stupne ("Medal of Merit, Second Class")

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