A collection of photos of the RAF’s Czechoslovak 312 squadron by the great photographer Ladislav Sitenský has just been published in Prague. The book was meant to come out in 1948 but was pulped, and the new edition has been timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia.
The 312 was one of four Czechoslovak squadrons established within the Royal Air Force. Among those who served in the fighter squadron was Ladislav Sitenský, who later became one of the best-known Czech photographers of the war.
A collection of pictures that Sitenský took of his unit has just been published as Peruť 312 (312 Squadron).
The author of the publication’s foreword, historian Jiří Rajlich, says the photographs are of considerable value.
“The significance is twofold. First, Sitenský’s photographs are important for their documentary value. He was one of the few who took high-quality pictures of 312 squadron. But first and foremost they have artistic value, because he was able to play with light, with clouds, and so on. That’s why today, 70 years later, Sitenský’s photos are still very powerful.”
In 2002, Sitenský, who died seven years later at the age of 80, told me that his air force photography had only been part of his output.
“I've been taking pictures since I was 13. I suppose I am most likely the only photographer who has been taking pictures of everything, whether it were girls, architecture, war or sports – everything which passed by me I've taken pictures of.”
Sitenský was a member of the 312’s ground staff and is known to have not much enjoyed flying. Things might have been different but for the intervention of a senior commander, says historian Rajlich.
“The general inspector of the Czechoslovak air force, General Janoušek, said they had plenty of pilots but very few good photographers. So he cancelled Sitenský's application to pilot school and made him the official photographer of the Czechoslovak air force in the UK.”
“The book was meant to be published at the start of 1948. It had already been printed. But because the Communists came to power the print run was destroyed. Just a few copies were preserved. And this book has been revived and printed up again 70 years later in order to come out, symbolically, on the 70th anniversary of the Communist takeover.”
An exhibition of photos featured in the book runs at Prague’s Galerie Lucerna until March 7.