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Czech Republic: The Man Who Brought The Czechoslovak Air Force Home 58 Years Ago

On 13 August 1945, the leader of the British Royal Air Force 310th fighter squadron, Jiri Hartman, brought the Czech Air Force back home to Prague. In an interview with RFE/RL in his home of Portsmouth, England, Hartman looks back at that historic moment, as well as other highlights of his long flying career.

Portsmouth, England; 13 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It is August 2003, and an elderly man is riding his bike on the sea front of the British coast at Portsmouth. No one would suspect that this is Jiri Hartman, one of only nine Czech pilots awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI and the recipient of six Czechoslovak War Crosses.

He is 86, with failing eyesight, and yet he does not look his age. "It is probably my biking, swimming, and windsurfing," he explains with a smile. Then his thoughts turn to the past. "It all happened 58 years ago, but it feels like only yesterday," he sighs.

On 13 August 1945, at the end of World War II, Prague residents were witness to an unusual spectacle. Fifty-four Spitfire fighter planes, comprising the three Czechoslovak fighter squadrons (310th, 312th, and 313th) of the British Royal Air Force (RAF), were coming home.

At the front of the formation was the oldest and most famous of them all, the 310th -- one of the most successful of all the RAF squadrons to participate in the Battle of Britain. And at the very head flew the 310th's squadron leader Jiri Hartman. How did he feel?

"It was the flight which we were looking forward to for the whole of the war; [that we] did not really believe [would] ever come, and -- there it was. As we appeared within a short distance of Prague, and we saw the River Vltava, as it is going zigzag through the town, I am sure that we all had our hearts in our mouths and still did not believe that we were at home. But we were, we landed, the parents of most of us who were still alive were waiting there, and the best day of my life arrived," Hartman said.

Hartman recalled that they could have been home months earlier, were it not for a refusal from the Soviets. "When Americans liberated Pilsen, the Czech headquarters thought it would be a good idea if we could immediately fly to the airfield in Pilsen and lend some support to the uprising in Prague. Everything was arranged, transport planes with the ground crew were under way, and we were supposed to start in the morning. But at about four o'clock in the morning I was told that, because of Russian objections, the whole thing was canceled. So, we had to wait another three months before we eventually were allowed to return home."

Hartman added that the Russians "wanted to liberate Prague themselves for political reasons, and so the uprising was being left without help." It nevertheless succeeded, despite many casualties, and the Russians came to "liberate" a largely free city on 9 May.

After the parades and medals that followed his homecoming, Hartman settled down to life as an air commander in Brno. The future looked bright, he said -- until communist-appointed officers began a period of "political re-education," collecting files on all the officers, promoting pilots who fought on the Eastern front while sidelining those who fought in the West.

After the communist coup in 1948, Hartman was arrested, but managed to escape. He sent his English wife, Joyce -- a former pilot who, according to Hartman, could land Spitfires "better than most men" -- to London, and went into hiding in Pilsen. From there he made a dramatic escape across the mountains to Germany, with border guards in pursuit.

His voice trembling with emotion, he switched into his native Czech: "And so, I was fleeing again, this time over the Sumava [Mountains], and from Germany I got back to England, and back into the English air force, where I subsequently served for some 15 years."

This was Hartman's second escape from Czechoslovakia. The first took place nine years earlier, after Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. That time, he -- like most Czech airmen -- hiked across the mountains into Poland. From there, Hartman says, they traveled to France.

"Fortunately -- for us, anyway -- the war started, and then I and all the other people were transferred to the French Air Force. Some of the Czech pilots went straight away to the front, where, I understand, at least a third or maybe even half of the pilots were Czechs and Poles. I myself was stationed south of Paris, presumably for the defense of Paris, if the Luftwaffe dared to attack it. But, of course, they knew they could take it unharmed, so I did not do much fighting in France," he said.

Hartman added that when the French Front crumbled, the pilots retreated, too, jumping from one airfield to another. Hartman ended up in England -- still wearing his French Air Force lieutenant's uniform. A base commander promptly sent him to an airfield in Wales, to join a French general by the name of de Gaulle.

"When we landed, General de Gaulle was already on the perimeter, and as soon as I got out of the airplane, he made a half-an-hour-long speech about, obviously, 'Vive la France' and so on. Then he kissed me by both cheeks and said I was the first Free French who came to join him to start forming the Free French Air Force. I whispered to him I was a Czech, but I do not think he heard me, because he was a foot or so higher than I am," Hartman said.

Then came the news that the Czechs and Slovaks who escaped from France were about to form their first RAF units, the 310th fighter and the 311th bomber squadrons, and Hartman rushed to join them. But with nearly three times as many pilots in the 310th as necessary, many moved on to serve with English squadrons.

As one of the youngest and least experienced of the pilots, Hartman said he had no hopes of being able to fly soon. But he was eventually put to work test-flying new U.S. Tomahawk planes -- a four-month stint that caused him to "miss" the Battle of Britain, in which 89 Czech pilots participated.

Hartman spent just over a year with the British squadron. He took part in the defense of London, in nighttime "dog-fights," and in attacks over the English Channel.

Then, in 1942, Czech squadrons needed more pilots, having suffered heavy losses over the past two years. Hartman and many of his colleagues transferred back to the 310th squadron.

For the rest of the war, Hartman stayed with the 310th -- which together with the 312th and 313th squadrons made up the independent Czechoslovak wing of the RAF. He participated in bomber escorts, attacks on German airfields, trains, and ships. Hartman vividly recollects one of the most pivotal events in the history of the Czechoslovak wing: the invasion of Normandy -- D-Day, 6 June 1944.

"The spectacle we saw was just unbelievable. Apart from several hundred thousand ground personnel who were placed in the town of Portsmouth, where I live now, there were 2,000 ships. They started from the coast of Ireland, right up through the [English] Channel into the area where the invasion was going to take place. My squadron, the 310th, was on the first shift, so we actually arrived over the beaches at 6 o'clock in the morning and spent an hour and a half there. As I say, although it was a tragic situation, the spectacle was fantastic," he said.

Hartman took part in other sorties on D-Day and the days that followed. The 310th squadron that he eventually led to Prague ended the war with an impressive score of over 9,000 battle missions and nearly 100 enemy planes shot down or damaged. The other Czechoslovak squadrons -- portrayed in Jan Sverak's 2001 film "Dark Blue World" -- had similar records as well.

His career with the RAF continued for more than a decade after his second escape from Czechoslovakia in 1948. He test-flew planes and eventually established the British Search and Rescue Helicopter Service, serving as its squadron leader. After the fall of communism in 1991 -- more than 30 years after his retirement -- he received a general's uniform.

Hartman brushes off suggestions that his career was particularly distinguished. "I am just one of those hundreds of Czechoslovak airmen who have tried to do our job -- in the war and afterwards," he said, waving good-bye.