Tomáš Lom is one of the very few surviving Czechoslovaks who served in Britain’s RAF during World War II. Born Tomáš Löwenstein into a Jewish family in Prague, he signed up in London the moment he turned 18 and ended up serving as a wireless operator in the Bahamas in the latter period of the conflict.
Mr. Lom and his family had settled in the UK after fleeing Czechoslovakia just days before the Nazi invasion in 1939. Indeed his father Professor Arnold Löwenstein, an ophthalmologist, remained in Scotland after the war.
Tomáš Lom has a ready laugh and is in remarkable shape for “93 and a half”. When we spoke in his home in a leafy district on the outskirts of Prague, he shared the fascinating story of his war years.
“In 1940 I came up to Glasgow and entered Glasgow University on a Bachelor’s course.
“After two years I was 18 years of age and reported to the Czech Embassy for service, because I was very keen on teaching the Germans a lesson.
“I wanted to be in the air force but the Embassy put me into the army depot at Cholmondeley. There I did army service and took every opportunity to demand to be transferred to the air force.”
Why were you so keen to be in the RAF?
“You see, after I had heard what had happened in Austria, in Germany, and probably also in view of very efficient propaganda from Churchill and his party [laughs], I was absolutely keen to teach the Germans a lesson.
“Luckily for me, not for the man who did it, a chap with the same training as me asked if we could exchange assignments.”
“And in the Czech army… doing parades in England just didn’t satisfy me.
“The air force was the only Czech armed force which really fought in those days.
“I had just one opportunity to get away from Cholmondeley.
“It was when I had 24 hours duty at the gate and sometime before sunrise I heard a horde of absolutely drunk soldiers returning to base.
“I knew nobody took that seriously, but I did. I wanted them to tell me the password for the day.
“They told me, Don’t be an ass, the camp commander is with us. I said, I don’t know him – I want to hear the password.
“They got louder and louder and I was adamant too, until the commander of our guard group came out and immediately opened the gate.
“Of course they had to do something with me for being cheeky to the camp commander.
“On the other hand, they didn’t want this to get too much publicity, so they sent me off to the air force.”
When you joined the Czech army, hoping to get into the air force, you had just reached military age. Who were the other Czech men who were around you in the army? I presume that they would have had a different life experience to you, that they would have been older than you?
So were there many 18-year-olds like you?
“Yes, there were lots aged 18 to 20 who were just of military age.”
And when you did get into RAF, what exactly specifically were you doing?
“I’ll take it historically, stage by stage.
“The first month was just learning to parade the English way, with four stamps on about turn and with your arms stretched out as if along a ruler.
“We learned the left side is port, the right side is starboard, that the English ranks are from AC2 to wing commander, things like that [laughs].
“After about a month of these basic necessities, a committee arrived which had to select who was bound for ground crews, who was to be airborne, and among the airborne who was to be a pilot, who was to be a radio man, who was to be a navigator and so on.
“Of course I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but no luck. I was selected for radio service.
“In no time I was sent to Number 1 Radio School, where for about two months or so we did ground Morse code training.
“After that we did exercises in airborne radio stations. Because I had some idea about the theory of radio from my physics training in Scotland.
“We went to a deserted island where I found coconuts on the ground. Or I could climb palm trees and shake them down.”
“I was held on for on-board radio mechanics. That was quite interesting, learning the details of on-board radio stations – although I very much doubt if I could have soldered up a radio station which flak or something had destroyed in the air.”
How well had your training prepared you for the realities of flying missions for the RAF?
“After the Cranwell radio training I got my sergeant’s stripes and the half wing of the signal service in the air.
“Then I had to do another course for air gunners at Barrow-in-Furness. After about a month of that I was sent up to the 311 Squadron, a Czech squadron, at Tain.
“There I arrived just before Christmas in 1944 and was assigned to the crew of [Czech pilot] Simet.
“Luckily for me, not for the man who did it, a chap with the same training as me asked if he could change assignments with me.
“He had friends in Simet’s crew and wanted to do an exchange with me. So I said, If you arrange it, I have no friends here or in any other crew, so I’ll change it.
“That was one of the moments when my guardian angel really kicked me into the right position.
“Because Simet had a very nasty crash and most of his crew were killed on the spot.
“I went to the crew of Hořejší. Unlike Simet, Hořejší was an excellent pilot and when we had an accident in the air and the control wires to the rudder burned and snapped and he had to make the landing without rudder control that was no problem for him.”
What kind of missions were you flying in? And were you involved in many hairy ones?
“Well, there were one or two occasions when the outcome was less than even.
“But as I said, the angel who was in charge of me always kept a hand above me.
“As I said, we had the fire on board. The control wires that snapped were not the elevators but the rudder, the direction control.
“If the elevator control snapped, there would be no possibility of preventing a disaster.
“After some two months we did an operational flight, a sortie, in the region between Norway and Iceland.
“The weather was horrible. We were all air sick. Hořejší was very sensible. He told us not to try to get into the tail gun turret – you wouldn’t be able to hit anything and might even have hit our own plane.
“So we spent that mission at the side windows, which at least meant fresh air.
“I tried to work my radio, or radar, but there was so much interference that I didn’t hear anything in my earphones.
“When we landed, they said, You’re still alive? We thought you’d be drowned by now. You didn’t respond to our ‘mission cancelled, back to base’ call.
“I don’t know if it was me or somebody else who didn’t hear it on the phone [laughs].
“Not long after this the squadron commander called me to tell me that I had to pack up my kitbag and was ordered to No. 111 OTU, operational training unit, at Nassau, Bahamas.”
I was reading about that and I’m really curious – why were you sent to the Bahamas?
“To be quite honest, I wasn’t sure if England liked me as a refugee, although they were quite friendly when I was there only for the duration, an ally.”
“I told the commander I was happy to be in the 311 Squadron and asked if he couldn’t send to the Bahamas somebody else.
“He said, No, that’s an order, I need a man of your profession, of your training, a man who doesn’t need an escort to get him to Nassau, who wouldn’t get lost on the way – So about turn, and get going!”
Were there many Czechs in the Bahamas?
“Yes. In the Bahamas our Czech crews were assigned to the OTU Bahamas, where we did pre-operational training on twin-engined Mitchells.
“The pilot had to get used to the front nose undercarriage and the others were more or less to support his circuit and bumps flying training.
“I had my radio set behind the bomb bay in the Mitchell. In the Mitchell there was a floor window, just in the tail, where I had to lie down and report hits and misses during low-level bombing.
“I was a stupid ass, so I really reported what I saw. That meant that the pilot was quite angry, because he had so many misses.
“So I said I didn’t see any explosion he got rather angry and told me, If you didn’t sleep down there, you’d see it – watch better next time.
“But unluckily I was right, the bomb was still dangling on the support.
“On his escape manoeuvre it dropped down and exploded in the closed bomb bay.
“This destroyed our hydraulic system and we were instructed to do all sorts of manoeuvres to shake the under cart out into landing position.
“In the end we had one gear down, locked in the landing position, and the front nose too. But the left landing gear was dangling down.
“As a matter of fact, the pilot instructor Johnny [Jan] Irving, a Czech who had served more than 1,000 operational flying hours and spent his additional flying service in the Bahamas, circled around us and told our pilot what to do to shake the landing gear out.
“This was of no avail, so when he had used up most of the petrol our pilot just went in for a landing and made a perfect landing on the right wheel and held the left wing up as long as possible.
“But when he lost speed the left wing came down on the ground and we spun around a few times, before coming to a halt.
“Then we got out and we were happy that all of us survived without any injury.”
In those days I’m sure world travel was quite unusual. You’d only been in the UK and here – what was it like going to such an exotic place as the Bahamas?
“Well, when we arrived at New York they carted us off by lorry to a US army camp north of the city.
“There we deposited our English gear and got United States tropical gear instead.
“After a day or two sightseeing in New York we left by train for Florida. It took about two days’ journey – two nights in sleepers which you know from Some Like it Hot. They were exactly those sleeping cars.
“My friend got rather furious and told me, Tom, I shan’t let you do your physics degree with such political ignorance – you’ll have to join the party.”
“When we got to Miami it wasn’t like you know it from today’s films but again it was like in Some Like it Hot.
“In the morning we boarded a steamer, something like our Vltava river boats, and in the morning we disembarked at Nassau.
“There we were assigned to the smaller aerodrome, where there were two-engined Mitchells.
What impression did the place make on you – the nature, the sea, everything?
“That of course was an enormous impression for me.
“When I was free, off duty, I loved to stroll through the harbour where the native fishermen had their sailing boats.
“There I met a Dutch man who was also training to be a radio operator. He offered to take me on a ride on a native sailing boat, so we spent a couple of very exciting outings on this boat.
“We went to a deserted island where I found coconuts on the ground. Or I could climb palm trees and shake them down.
“But I assure you that climbing poles and ropes in the gymnasium is more agreeable than climbing up a palm tree.”
When the war ended you were in your early 20s. Coming back to Czechoslovakia wasn’t your only option, and your father was still in Glasgow. Why and when did you return to Czechoslovakia?
“Although they were quite friendly when I was there only for the duration, or an ally.
“So I had practically no objections when in the Czech air force I was moved to Prague.
“Here I got rid of my uniform as soon as possible and returned to my physics studies at Prague university.”
Many of the Czechoslovaks who served in the RAF were later terribly mistreated by the Communists. They were imprisoned and so on. Did anything like that happen to you?
“When I was studying physics at Charles University in Prague a friend of mine with whom I had very exciting discussions about the future applications of physical principles one day turned the discussion to political questions.
“I told him politics is something like the environment – it’s good to know something about it so you know what you can expect, but there’s no way you can influence it.
“He asked me, What if you had to choose, which party would you choose?
“I said, None of the existing ones – the only party which is to my liking is Hašek’s Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law.
“My friend got rather furious and told me, Tom, I shan’t let you do your physics degree with such political ignorance – you’ll have to join the [Communist] party.
“As I say, I was quite leftish after my stay in England [laughs] and I said, Well, why not?
“So I joined the party and that enabled me to do my physics degree.
“And practically without harm I finished physics and did applied physics and electronics at the Tesla electronics works, down to my pension.”
“By the Nazi laws I am 100 percent Jew. But my grandfather was the founder of the Free Thinkers in Karlovy Vary. My father was absolutely not aware of his Jewish roots and neither was I.”
After the war you changed your family name from Löwenstein to Lom. Why did you change your name?
“To be quite honest, it wasn’t my idea but my brother’s. He said he was fed up telling everybody how to spell Löwenstein and was changing his name to Lom.
“I said, Fine, I’ll join you. So up to 1945 I was Löwenstein and from 1945 I am Lom [laughs].”
But was any part of that an attempt to avoid anti-Semitism?
“Of course, it was mainly an attempt not to be joined to the bloody Germans, bloody Jews and so on…”
But you were Jewish.
“By the German laws, the Nazi laws, I am one hundred percent Jew.
“But my grandfather was the founder of the Free Thinkers in Karlovy Vary. My father was absolutely not aware of his Jewish roots [laughs] and neither was I.
“Just a little aside: When I was at Cosford, some officer had to fill in my identity card, actually a full page.
“He wanted my nationality and I told him, Czechoslovak. He told me, There is no Czechoslovak nationality – you can be a Jew, a German, anything else.
“He asked me, What was your mother tongue? Which maternity school did you attend? I said, German.
“I said, I’m not going to sign this. So I left my questionnaire unsigned [laughs].”
My final question is: Today, so many years later, how do you look back on your years in the RAF, in the war?
“It was very exciting. I got through many adrenalin experiences, when the probability of getting through was under 50 percent.
“So I must say I was as lucky as a pig. Do you say as a pig [laughs]?”
I’m not sure.
“I’m very lucky to have got through it like this [laughs].”