Friday, 2 December 2011

Heroic Czech Pilots fighting in RAF Bomber Command

Not all the men who fought in Bomber Command from Norfolk were British. A great many came from Empire and Commonwealth countries. Most of these men were at first integrated into the RAF, but later they formed their own squadrons. No.75 Squadron was composed chiefly of New Zealanders, as was 487, while 464 Squadron was recruited in Australia. Of course, these various servicemen were not really considered foreigners in 1939 – the Canadians were especially seen as part of the larger British family. But there were some real foreigners flying in the RAF.

In Norfolk there were two squadrons in particular composed of men who had no duty to fight for the RAF, but whose heroic help was much appreciated. The first of these was 311 Squadron, which was formed on 29 July 1940, moving to East Wretham in September. This squadron was composed exclusively of Czech airmen who had managed to flee that unfortunate country after the German invasion of 1939.

At first these men had been based in France, officially fighting in the armed forces of the Czechoslovak government in exile of President Eduard Benes. When France fell to the Germans, the Czechs hastened to get to Britain as quickly as they could. Those with aircraft flew out – taking as many of their ground crew as they could. Those on foot hijacked trucks and cars to get to western ports where the Royal Navy risked Luftwaffe bombers to take off the Czechs, isolated British units and other refugees.

When 311 Squadron was formed, it was given new Wellington bombers to replace the Bloch 174 and LoirĂ© 451 aircraft in which they had arrived in June 1940. The squadron continued to operate on Wellingtons out of East Wretham until April 1942 when it was transferred to Coastal Command and given the task of patrolling the North Sea to search for German ships and U-boats. In its time with Bomber Command, 311 had flown over a thousand operational sorties in 150 missions, dropping 1,300 tons of bombs on the enemy. The squadron’s airmen were awarded no fewer than 18 DFCs, which was an impressive total given the number of men serving with the unit.

The outstanding figure of 311 Squadron was Squadron Leader Josef Ocelka. As the squadron prepared to transfer to Coastal Command, the station commander was moved to write of him “He has always displayed conspicuous determination and devotion to duty and the recent successes of the squadron are in no small measure due to the high example he has set.”

A typical example of his dedication came on 28 March 1941 when he took off to attack Cologne. Soon after take off the wireless failed. When the wireless operator traced the fault he found that the entire electrical system of the bomber was in danger of failing. Such a fault was grounds for abandoning the mission, but Ocelka refused to be put off. He flew on to reach and bomb Cologne. On the return trip, however, the navigator was unable to keep track of where the aircraft was. After crossing a stretch of open sea that Ocelka hoped was the English Channel, he spotted an airfield. Ocelka warily landed on the runway, but kept his engines running while he sent a crew member to find out where they were. Fortunately they were in England.

Like the Poles, the Czechs gained a well earned reputation for dashing bravery in action. Sadly many of the men of 311 Squadron did not live to return home, being killed in action. Several are buried in the churchyard of East Wretham, in a small corner reserved especially for them. Each year on Remembrance Sunday, the Czech government sends a representative to East Wretham to lay a wreath by their graves.

from RAF BOMBER COMMAND, NORFOLK by Rupert Matthews

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