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LET'S ADD A LITTLE OIL TO THE FIRE - the autobiography of Jaroslav Novák

‘In the middle of the Bay of Biscay, shortly after midnight, we spotted firing on the water in the distance. A little later, the radar operator announced that he could see five blips on his radar screen. We pressed on, not knowing what to expect. I, somewhat bravely, said to Jarda Friedl, “Let’s go and add a little oil to the fire!” When we had approached to a distance of about ten miles, I gave the wireless operator our exact position.

He then put it in code and sent it back to base in case of an emergency, such as to report the presence of the enemy craft or if we were shot down. I darkened my cabin, prepared my bombsight, switched the depth charges to “ready” and directed the pilot towards the target. But the night was too dark. I lay on the bombsight and when we were quite close, perhaps half a mile away and still descending, I asked the mechanic to drop a flare through the flare chute. The flare was usually attached to a small parachute and normally started to burn immediately on leaving the plane to brightly light up the entire scene.

We were at a height of approximately five hundred feet, still in descent and apparently directly over our target, when the flare illuminated the space below us. To our horror, we saw that we were above four German destroyers accompanying a submarine that was protected in their middle. The convoy opened up at us with all its armoury. It was hell, with tracers flying everywhere and exploding shrapnel drumming on the metal body of the Liberator.

Our only reason for surviving was the fact that by then we were too low, in the middle of the formation and that some of the anti-aircraft guns were unable to deflect to such a low angle.’

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ISBN: 978-1-921574-55-9
Format: B5 Paperback
Number of pages:208
Genre: Non Fiction- Autobiography

 

 

Author:  Jaroslav Novák - Translated by Alena Jirasek
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2010
Language: English

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                                                                                                ABOUT THE AUTHOR 
 

This gripping autobiography describes the life story of Col. Jaroslav Novák. Born in 1921 in the then Czechoslovakia, his tertiary studies in Prague were interrupted in the autumn of 1939 by the closure of universities and the brutal persecution of students by the occupying Germans. Like many other young men, Jaroslav then left his home and family, resolved to join the troops fighting against the Nazis. He flees through the winter months across Slovakia, Hungary (where he is caught, convicted and about to be handed to the Gestapo, when he escapes again thanks to the local judge) and then to Yugoslavia.

In Beirut he passes through the barracks of the Foreign Legion and is shipped to France. He is trained as a radio operator and is deployed with the Czechoslovak forces in exile in the final months before the fall of Paris. He then manages to evacuate to Great Britain on one of the last ships to leave occupied France. There he undergoes training as a Royal Air Force navigator and in January 1943 joins the famous No. 311 Bomber Squadron. After twenty months of service and more than 40 dangerous missions against enemy shipping, he transfers to air transport command.

After the war, Jaroslav Novák jubilantly returns to his newly freed homeland. As all former fighters on the Western Front, however, he is now vilified by the Communists. In 1947, he again feels the need to flee, this time to South Africa, where he believes he will be able to start a new life. However, even there he does not find his end stop—difficulties in maintaining a steady livelihood see him migrating to Australia in 1951, where he finally establishes a permanent home. His hard work allows him and his wife to build a network of shops with photographic equipment, the Novak Camera House in Newcastle. Over many years, Jaroslav combines his hobbies of photography and flying by participating in the Tiger Moth air races and round-Australia flying safaris through the Newcastle Aero Club. His written and visual documentation of all these activities is recorded meticulously in his moving memoir.

Introduction

Dear Readers,

It is a great honour for me that you are holding my book. Please accept it as a confession of one of the many combat soldiers and airmen, who served in the ranks of our exile Czechoslovak Army and flew with the British Royal Air Force in the time of the Second World War. Our force in England may have been small in number, nevertheless it was quite significant in terms of its achievements. It took part in every decisive action on the Western front.

Our fighter pilots had already been active and successful in France from the very beginning of the war. One of these, Staff Captain Alois Vašátko, shot down a record of fifteen enemy planes during that time. Another successful fighter pilot was Franta Peřina with thirteen aircraft to his name and a third was Josef František, destroying eleven planes. Of these three aces of the French front, only one survived to war’s end: František Peřina.

Following their evacuation to Britain, five flying squadrons were created within the RAF. Three of these were fighter squadrons, operating mainly on Hurricanes and Spitfires, while our bomber squadron flew on Wellingtons and later Liberators. Our night squadron used mainly Beaufighters.

Our boys took part in one of the biggest and bloodiest aerial battles of the entire war, the Battle of Britain, which raged from July—October 1940. In this combat alone, Josef František shot down seventeen German planes. He himself was killed in early October 1940, posthumously receiving a second Distinguished Flying Medal.

Staff Captain Vašátko, hero of the French campaign, later became Commander of the Czechoslovak Wing, comprising the three Nos. 310, 312 and 313 Czechoslovak Squadrons.

On a return trip escorting English bomber planes to a raid on German airfields in France on 23 June 1942, our fighters were attacked by German FW 190. In the subsequent aerial fight between the Czechoslovak and German planes, Staff Captain Vašátko collided with an enemy aircraft and both planes fell into the sea. The German pilot managed to parachute from his plane, Staff Captain Vašátko, however, found his grave in the Atlantic Ocean. These fighter planes were manned single-handedly.

Our No. 311 Bomber Squadron was founded in July 1940 and was one of the first Allied bomber squadrons that took active part in direct attacks against Germany.

On the night of 30 to 31 May 1942, England for the first time sent over a thousand heavy bomber aircraft to Germany on a mission to bomb the city of Cologne in Operation Millenium. Our No. 311 Squadron contributed three Wellingtons and another two Wellington planes were dispatched from our training centre 105. Operational Training Unit. Forty-one of the 1043 bomber planes that took part in this raid were lost. Fortunately, all our Wellingtons returned and we suffered ‘merely’ one casualty, our instructor, pilot Warrant Officer Oldřich Jambor. Jambor had trained pilots on four engine Stirlings at Dumfries aerodrome in Scotland. I knew him very well from that time. Oldřich Jambor and his crew were shot down by a German ‘night intruder’ fighter on the Dutch border with Germany and they are buried in Holland.

In 1942, our No. 311 Squadron was transferred from Bomber Command to Coastal Command and took part in the prolonged, but ultimately successful Battle of the Atlantic. We fought predominantly against German U-boats and surface warships. The Coastal Command did not exclusively guard the English coast, but sometimes flew sorties as far as 2000 kilometres away from England over the Atlantic Ocean. The Battle of the Atlantic was a campaign of vital significance. Had it been lost, Britain could not have continued importing the food, fuel or raw materials necessary for both its survival or for its ability to provide a base for further Allied offensives against Hitler.

Apart from these damages to the enemy submarine fleet, our squadron experienced one of its greatest victories by sinking the German blockade-runner Alsterufer in the winter of 1943, under Wing Commander Vladimír Nedvěd MBE, DFC.

Our night fighter pilots with Nos. 1 and 68 Squadrons were also very effective and one of their best was pilot Karel Kuttelwascher. Karel was an experienced pilot of the Czechoslovak Air Force before Germany had occupied Czechoslovakia. He destroyed eighteen enemy planes during the RAF night time sorties, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross twice within 42 days. No. 1 Squadron’s successful ‘night intrusion’ tactics over foreign bases consisted of targeting slow taxiing enemy aircraft, on departure or arriving exhausted and low on fuel, when they were also less vigilant. These night intrusions were timed a few weeks before and after the full moon, so that maximum visibility was possible.

The twin crews of No. 68 Squadron, on the other hand, could not approach within 20 kilometres of the enemy coastline, lest they be captured with a new secret weapon—radar. Their task instead was to defensively survey the British coast and interior, no matter the weather. They were thus able to detect and prevent many enemy attempts to penetrate domestic defences under the cover of darkness.

And then came the day that changed the course not only of World War II, but of the whole world. On 6 June 1944, coincidentally also my birthday, the Allied armies landed on the European mainland. And so began the decisive battle for Normandy, with three million men, 11,000 planes and 4,000 ships taking part. Our five squadrons were fully deployed in that action. One hundred thousand men lie buried near the Normandy coast. Our airmen came through this battle with a loss of only five planes—one Liberator and four Spitfires—with two of the Spitfire pilots able to bail out alive. Our air force continued to participate in battles until the end of the war and our boys counted successes until the very last day. The entire Czech and Slovak nation can be proud of the achievements of this small, but extremely effective and brave flying unit based in England during the war.

The main reason why you may be able to hold and read this book at leisure today is that, during that all-encompassing and consuming campaign, airmen and soldiers had to lay down their lives for our freedom. Let us, please, not forget about them. I feel that the touching Kohima Battle Epitaph written in a war cemetery in Burma is apt:

‘When you go home, tell them of us and say,

For their tomorrow, we gave our today.’

Four hundred and eighty Czechoslovak airmen lost their lives while serving in the RAF. The heaviest losses, a total of 273 men—as well as 34 of 51 Czechoslovak RAF airmen taken captive—came from No. 311 Bomber Squadron.

I hope that the following reminiscences at least partially repay my debt of honour to my companions, who have fallen or passed away along the way.

It was my great privilege to serve in the Czechoslovak Air Force in Great Britain and to fight for the freedom of my country.


 

1         My Childhood

I was born on 6 June 1921 in the small town of Nové Benátky in Czechoslovakia, situated near Mladá Boleslav, approximately 50 kilometres north-east of Prague. My parents were not overly well-off. My father worked as a tinsmith, while my mother only had a basic education. When they married, they borrowed money in order to purchase a house and moved in. World War I broke out soon after, however, and my father was recruited into the Austro-Hungarian Army. He spent the war years first on the Russian and then on the Italian front. My brother Venda was born to them in 1915 and my sister in 1919.

When I was six years old, my mother enrolled me in the local Sokol group, which was a sporting and a very nationally orientated organisation. I also became a scout when I was ten. I came to love scouting. I was a scout leader in Nové Benátky until the Nazi occupation, when the movement was prohibited.

In 1929, a commemoration of the thousandth anniversary of the assassination of St Wenceslas was held near Nové Benátky, in Stará Boleslav. That year had also heralded the beginning of the Great Depression. My father worked for small landholders and companies. Many of them collapsed and the farmers could not sell their produce and so could not pay my father’s dues. Consequently, he was unable to pay his taxes and we were visited by the bailiffs. They wanted to remove anything of value, which in any case was not that much, and my mother, grandmother and we children all cried. But luckily the matter was somehow resolved and we were able to recover again from this situation.

I worked from an early age, first as a gooseherd and later as my father’s assistant. I was quite rueful seeing my friends in the summer holidays going off to the swimming pool or to play football, while I had to stay at home and work. But such was life and I realised that I was a member of a family in which everyone had to contribute their share of labour in order to survive.

At the age of eleven, I began attending the high school at Česká Lípa, near the Czechoslovak–German border. I boarded with my aunt and uncle in the small village of Hlínoviště and from there commuted to school daily. Hlínoviště lay at the foot of Bezděz Hill, with its ruins of a thirteenth century royal castle on the shore of Máchovo Lake, named after the well-known Czech poet, Karel Hynek Mácha. My aunt and uncle had no children. My uncle worked as a blacksmith and for the railways. They owned a smallholding, two cows, a few pigs and chickens. All of this required much work, however, and my aunt was unable to manage the property on her own. Each day we would cut grass, feed the animals and go to the forest to gather wood, and in the autumn we harvested the grain, beets or potatoes. For that reason not much time remained for my studies. It was not an easy period; indeed most of my life has been full of difficulties.

I attended the school at Česká Lípa for four years, between 1932 and 1936, years that were marked by the ascent of Nazism. The Czechs in Česká Lípa were in the minority and had to look on the marches of the Hitler youth movement with subdued anger. In 1936, my parents took me back home so that I could be closer to them and I continued my high school studies in the town of Mladá Boleslav. Every day I cycled to school 20 kilometres each way. This was OK in fine summer weather, but not as pleasant in the winter months.

On 15 March 1939, German forces invaded Czechoslovakia. As I was cycling to school early that morning, I came across one of their motorised contingents. They were speeding towards Prague on the right-hand side of the road, regardless of the fact that traffic in Czechoslovakia in those days proceeded on the left. That was probably the least important rule that the Germans were to ignore. From then on, the situation in our country deteriorated rapidly day by day.

I matriculated in Mladá Boleslav on the day of my birthday in 1939 and decided to go to university in Prague. I enrolled at the electrical engineering faculty in Karlovo Náměstí and, together with an older student, found lodgings with a widow at Smíchov. The war had started just before the university year commenced. On 28 October—Czechoslovakia’s National Day—students in Prague had organised a peaceful demonstration against the banning of any celebrations to observe the National Day by the Germans. By then, Prague was host to an SS division that had already been victorious in Poland. The peaceful demonstration quickly turned violent. One student, Jan Opletal, was fatally injured and died later in hospital (MUC Jan Opletal, born 31.12.1914 in Lhota u Litovle, died 11.11.1939).

At this stage, it should be mentioned that the students’ hatred of the Germans was increasing daily. Just before the war, not only the feelings of students, but also of most Czechoslovaks, were not very favourable towards England and France. A bitterness remained that Czechoslovakia had been sacrificed by these superpowers (and until then, allies) during their conciliation with Hitler in Munich and had simply stood by when, despite all declarations to the contrary, the Germans shortly after walked in and broke up Czechoslovakia. Instead, a so-called Protectorate of Bohemia–Moravia was established. Our allies also looked on as even Hungary appropriated both southern Slovakia and Sub-Carpathian Russia, while the Poles took the Moravian border region. When Germany later occupied Poland, we thought that England and France would also not go to war over this and, as young students, we hoped instead that it would be Russia that would eventually come and liberate us from the Germans. But our idealism was again shattered. As the Germans were occupying Poland from the west, Russia took possession of a great part of Poland from the east. A number of Czechoslovaks had in fact escaped to Poland shortly before the outbreak of the war, hoping that they would be able to fight against the Germans alongside the Poles. But the speed of the German blitzkrieg was such that neither they nor the Poles had enough time to organise themselves. Those who were unable to flee to France were forced to retreat east towards the Russians and were captured by them. They were interned until the Russians too found themselves at war with Germany. Only then were they allowed to join the Czechoslovak Army that was forming in the Soviet Union, and those Czechs, Slovaks and Sub-Carpathian Russians who had previously served in the air force were permitted to go to England and strengthen the Czechoslovak squadrons there.

But that is just in passing. The main thing was that after Germany occupied Poland and the Western military powers entered the conflict, the Czechoslovak attitude towards our former allies started to change and we again began to fan the cinders of hope and trust in our hearts in the West—a trust whose core strength sprang from the ever-growing hatred of the German occupiers. The students proclaimed the day of Jan Opletal’s funeral as a ‘day of mourning’ and organised, once more against SS orders, a massive march through the streets of Prague. There were clashes with the local and German police and several students were arrested. However, the day appeared to finish calmly and on the following day studies continued as usual. Of course many stories and rumours circulated and even trophies, such as SS caps and parts of German uniforms obtained in the previous day’s scuffles, were on show at the university!

But the whole situation changed dramatically only one day later. German troops invaded all the universities and colleges during the night and shot nine student leaders: PhD Josef Matoušek (born 13.1.1906 in Hořice), JUDr Jaroslav Klíma (born 8.5.1913 in Prague), MUC Jan Černý (born 20.11.1914 in Žamberk), JUDr František Skorkovský (born 1.10.1906 in Trieste, Italy), JUC Josef Adadmec (born 18.12.1909 in Prague), Ing. Marcel Frauwirth (born 8.12.1919 in Zakopanie, Poland), JUC Bedřich Koula (born 1.3.1913 in Prague), Professor Jan Weinert (born 18.12.1914 in Prague) and Václav Šafránek (born 11.12.1920). It was also said that some 2,000 students had been dragged off to gaols, later ending up in concentration camps.

Early that morning, as usual hurrying to the university on foot as I could not afford the tram fare, I met a policeman on one of the bridges crossing the Vltava River. He knew me from my daily walks and urged me to turn back, considering what had happened. Nevertheless, I proceeded to Karlovo Náměstí. As I got close, I saw for myself the SS flags flying from the university building and fully armed troops standing with machine guns at every entrance. I came across a few fellow students and we decided to get in touch with a professor who had his office off campus. The professor advised us to leave Prague immediately, but not to depart from the main Masaryk or Wilson’s railway stations, as these were apparently heavily guarded by German troops scanning for more university students. I returned quickly to Smíchov and hurriedly packed all my possessions. I then took a tram to the outskirts of Prague and from there caught a train, reaching my hometown late in the evening. In the meantime, notices naming the nine students shot and announcing the immediate closure of all universities for an indefinite period had been posted in every imaginable place all over the country.

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