Fearing prison in Communist Czechoslovakia, in March 1950 Oldřich Doležal and other ex-RAF aviators simultaneously kidnapped three planes on internal flights and escaped to West Germany. On board one of those planes was Doležal’s son, then just an infant. Today Tom Dolezal runs the Czechoslovak Free Airforce website and is an authority on the Czech and Slovaks who served in the RAF.
When we spoke at the Battle of Britain memorial in Folkstone, overlooking the English Channel, Tom Dolezal first told me about his father’s part in the greatest mission of the RAF’s Czechoslovak 311 bomber squadron: the downing of the German ship the Alsterufer in 1943.
“In the case of the Alsterufer, the ship had actually come from Japan.
“Fortunately at Bletchley Park they had broken the Kriegsmarine’s Enigma code, which was the hardest code.
“They had actually traced the Alsterufer on its voyage from Japan. They didn’t know what was on it, but they were intent that it not arrive into Europe.
“On the morning of December 27, 1943, six of 311 Squadron’s Liberators were instructed to fly out to a particular area, which was effectively the Atlantic approach into the Bay of Biscay.
“They flew in in a fan shape on the basis that one of them at least should stand a chance of locating.
“The weather was atrocious. Mid-flight four of the aircraft were actually called back.
“My father was on the verge of turning back when through a gap in the clouds they saw a ship.
“He started to circle around and the ship started to fire at him, which was normally an indication it was an enemy ship.
“They were now flying at around 3000 feet. They dropped to around 800 feet.
“From that altitude they dived down toward the ship to an altitude of around 500 feet. On the approach to the ship they fired eight rockets.
“Then Zdeněk Hanuš, who was a navigator-cum-bomb aimer, dropped two bombs.
“Five of the rockets hit the ship, three above the water line.
“The 250-pound bomb fell short but the 500-pound bomb exploded and caused havoc.
“One of the engines on the Liberator had been slightly damaged in the attack, so rather than waiting to see the outcome… they could see the ship was aflame and the crew were already starting to abandon ship.
“They flew back. The attack had lasted 30 seconds.
“And when they got back to Beaulieu the squadron was waiting for them – and it was drinks all round.”
I hate to jump so far forward so quickly, but after the war your father returned to Czechoslovakia. Was he, like many of his RAF colleagues, mistreated by the Communists?
“As we start to approach 1950, all those airmen who hadn’t been arrested knew it was only a matter of time. My father realised he would have to escape.”
“After the war he originally returned to Bata to fly [Oldřich Doležal had left Czechoslovakia as the pilot of a plane carrying members of the industrialist family].
“He then met my mother, who was Prague-based, so he then rejoined Czechoslovak Airlines.
“He was actually hijacked on an internal flight in 1948 and flown to Erding [air base] in [West] Germany. Because my mother was pregnant at the time, he returned.
“Even though he was known to have pro-Western views, he wasn’t actually arrested at that time.
“But gradually as we start to approach 1950, all those airmen who hadn’t been arrested knew it was only going to be a matter of time.
“He realised that he would have to escape.
“So in the lead-up to March 1950 my father instigated with two of his pilot colleagues – one was Ladislav Světlík, the other was Vít Angetter – an escape.
“At that time, the Czech authorities wouldn’t allow a whole family to go on to a plane.
“So what had been arranged was that Světlík would fly one of the aircraft from Ostrava, which my mother and I were on, and my father would be flying another plane from Bratislava…”
“Oh, they hijacked them. It’s the world’s first triple-hijack.
“You had a case of where there were eight former RAF airmen amongst the air crews. There was a total of 27 people, including 19 of the passengers.
“Some of them knew about the escape. That’s why they were there.
“There were two others who were, let’s say, opportunists. The fact they landed in Germany, they were going to stay.
“What was particularly tragic was Vít Angetter’s plane. He was flying from Brno to Prague and just flew west to Erding.
“Vít Angetter was the co-pilot in the plane and he took control of it.
“The captain of the plane was Josef Klesnil, who had been planning his own escape.
“But Klesnil realised that with this hijack his chance of his own escape was not going to happen, so he got very upset. That was just unfortunate.
“Because he was married and his wife was also expecting, Klesnil returned to Czechoslovakia and had a very hard time with the StB.
“They actually detained him for about three months. The night he was released he went home, got his wife and they went home and crossed the border.
“But that was the first triple-hijack in the world.”
Did they use violence? How did they actually take the planes?
“There was no violence. Unfortunately, with social media, there is a lot of misinformation put out about that escape.
“It was the first triple-hijack in the world.”
“What is alleged to have happened is that Angetter held a gun to Klesnil’s head. That wasn’t the case.
“The story, if you believe what you read on the internet, is that Klesnil flew the plane from Brno to Erding and had a gun to his head the whole time.
“But what actually happened was that two of the crew, because the Dakota aircraft had a crew of four, were known to be Communists.
“Klesnil, who knew he was going to go back, was concerned that if he came over as being cooperative in the escape he was going to have a hard time.
“So whilst the other two were being tied up in the back, Angetter was holding a gun to Klesnil’s head.
“But once the two were tied up and out of the way there were no more guns involved.
“On the Ostrava plane it was a case whereby the captain was Ladislav Světlík and among the passengers he had Viktor Popelka, who was also in on the conspiracy.
“Shortly after takeoff Světlík left the cockpit to go to the toilet at the back of the plane and winked at Popelka.
“Popelka, who also flew for Czechoslovak Airlines, went up the cockpit where there were two other former RAF people, so it wasn’t unusual.
“Popelka sat in the captain’s seat. Mečislav Kozák was in the co-pilot’s seat, effectively flying the plane at the time.
“Světlík came back and disposed of the other two airmen, again by tying them up. And then they put Kozák back there as well.
“And in the case of my father’s plane [which took off from Bratislava], all four of the crew were involved in the escape so all they did was lock the cabin door to ensure that no-one could come through.
“That was it. There was no violence as such.”
When did you first learn about it as a child or as a teenager? And what did your parents tell you about it?
“And occasionally you’d listen to bits and pieces of what they were saying and you’d hear about them walking over the border and taking aircrafts and that.
“I know my father was particularly concerned about flying anywhere near what was the Iron Curtain then, because there was always the risk of hijack.
“There were also numerous stories of people having escaped and being kidnapped back.
“You began to think, This is a little odd, other people haven’t got this.
“And slowly over the years the story came out.
“But it was a story my father didn’t really want to say too much about, because it was a very bitter story.”
I suppose that it wasn’t really until after 1989 that the Czech airmen got due recognition in Czechoslovakia. How do you view the level of respect that’s afforded to them today? Are they sufficiently recognised for what they achieved, do you think?
“I think that happened in 1991, on September 13, with the rehabilitation ceremony was long overdue.
“That was basically where the airmen were rehabilitated back into Czechoslovak life.
“Some of the descendants in the West very much take the attitude that it was the Czech authorities that needed rehabilitating.
“But it was certainly a gesture. It was certainly a case of the authorities in 1991 trying to make amends for it.
“For many it was too late: they’d already died and had never returned to their homeland.
“What was quite nice as well was that many of them received promotions at the time.
“But what is a little bizarre is the practice of subsequent promotions.
“The classic example I tend to give to people is… we talked early today about Josef František. During the RAF he was a sergeant and post-1991 he was promoted to colonel.
“He achieved 17 aircrafts during the Battle of Britain and was the most recognised Battle of Britain pilot for that.
“At Brookwood [cemetery] one man’s headstone has written across it ‘colonel in the Czech Air Force’.
“His rank in the RAF was actually LAC 2, which is the second lowest rank. But he’s a colonel now.
“For a youngster coming to inquire about the RAF now, they have two men, both of whom were colonels in the Czech air force – and the contribution both have made is quite different.
“So this aspect to it doesn’t go down well in some cases.”
Generally how do you view the actions of your father’s generation? I know the Americans call them “the greatest generation”. What’s your view of what they achieved?
“All those Czechoslovaks who were here in the RAF and the army left their homeland voluntarily.”“All those Czechoslovaks who were here in the RAF and the army, they left their homeland voluntarily. War was never declared between Czechoslovakia and Germany.
“When for instance France capitulated, Holland, Belgium, Poland – all those military forces were leaving as military units.
“But the Czechs were leaving as individuals. So you must take into account what type of person would actually go and do that.
“They weren’t under orders, they were leaving voluntarily.
“You must give them a lot of respect for actually doing that, because there were many who didn’t.
“Many paid the final price for it.
“But you have to give them special recognition for voluntarily going for this.
“And because of that valour and patriotism in 1948 they were prosecuted and imprisoned and suffered.”