WW2 Treasure Hunters has given us a lot of surprises – not least the revelation that that bloke off Madness is quite the history geek. Also: incredibly important things have occasionally happened in Belgium.
Take episode three where Suggs and his partner-in-excavation, military boffin Stephen Taylor, venture to Belgium on the trail of a downed Mark IX Spitfire. It’s a search that highlights the key strategic role Belgium had in the war, and also reveals how crucial the Mark IX was to the RAF. (To sum it up, it was developed specifically to take on the German’s Focke-Wulf FW 190 fighter plane, which had been kicking the backsides of the RAF’s previous Mark V Spitfire.)
This particular Mark IX, shot down in Belgium, happened to have a Czech pilot who’d been fighting as part of the RAF. And he was far, far from the only one. As Suggs and Stephen discover, numerous brave Czechs and Poles travelled far from their homelands to fly in the defence of Britain during the darkest days of the war.
Even the snorting, snobby RAF bigwigs who initially dismissed the new recruits were later forced to eat their words. As one top official later put it, 'Had it not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry… I hesitate to say that the outcome of the Battle of Britain would have been the same.'
Hitler’s forces invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, setting the stage for the war which would officially begin with the invasion of Poland in September. Numerous Czechs and Poles audaciously escaped westwards, to France and ultimately England. This was easier said than done. Some had to smuggle themselves across borders on coal trains, others went from France to England via North Africa.
'These homeless men, motivated often by a hatred bordering upon despair, fought with a terrible and merciless dedication.'
There was also the small matter of the language barrier, and training the new pilots up on RAF planes and tactics. Eastern European recruits even had to practice by equipping tricycles with radios and compasses, and ride them around in flying formations. One rather miffed Polish pilot wrote, 'The British were wasting so much of our time with their childish exercises when all of us had already won their wings'.
But it was all worth it. As the author, Len Deighton would dramatically put it, 'When they did start operations, these homeless men, motivated often by a hatred bordering upon despair, fought with a terrible and merciless dedication'.
Take Joseph Frantisek, who’d escaped Czechoslovakia and had a 'deadly hatred' for the Nazis. His daredevil exploits became legendary – one of his tricks was to fly low enough in his plane to drop grenades on the enemy by hand. In fact, his maddening habit of flying dangerously ahead and taking on the Germans as a lone wolf was even given a name by his fellow pilots: 'Frantisek’s method'.
Unable to tame him, the British were forced to officially support the 'method' as a legitimate strategy, meaning he was basically allowed to fight a personal, private vendetta against any Luftwaffe pilots unfortunate enough to cross his path.
Another Czech giant was Karel Kuttelwascher, who became known as the 'Night Reaper' for his swashbuckling nighttime raids on enemy bases. His Hawker Hurricane even had its own scythe insignia, just to remind everyone to be terrified of him. The Poles had their share of stars too, including Antoni Glowacki, who shot down five German planes on one day alone during the Battle of Britain.
Indeed, Poles, in particular, became celebrities among ordinary Brits. Newspapers wrote glowing accounts of these gallant new foreign recruits to the British cause, with one visiting American journalist dubbing the Poles 'the real Glamor Boys of England'. One tongue-in-cheek article even suggested that British RAF pilots realised the best way to pick up girls was to say 'I am a Polish aviator. Please have a drink with me. I am very lonely'
Yet, despite their dashing heroism during the war, the aftermath of victory wasn’t as sweet for the pilots. With Czechoslovakia and Poland becoming Communist regimes in the years after the war, many of the hero pilots who flew for Britain were derided as corrupt, imperialist tools of the West. Their exploits were suppressed rather than celebrated, and some were even imprisoned as spies. Even Sir Karel Janousek, who’d become an RAF Air Marshal and knighted by George VI, was jailed for 12 years.
In February 1948, the Communists staged a political coup in Czechoslovakia and took over control of the government and the other instruments of state. As far as the new regime was concerned, anyone who fought with the western allies was at best suspect and at worst a traitor. Within days of the coup, leading figures were arrested and tried. The head of the Czechoslovak Inspectorate for the wartime RAF Karel Janousek spent 15 years in jail.
Poignantly, Janousek summed up the wartime experiences of the Eastern Europeans with a farewell broadcast he gave on the BBC after the Nazis fell:
'Although we are leaving you, we all hope most sincerely that the bonds of friendship forged between our two nations as a result of our association with the Royal Air Force, which will always be one of our most treasured memories, will not only remain a solid link unifying our two peoples but will strengthen even further in the days of peace.'
Watch WW2 Treaasure Hunters Mondays at 9pm