One of the Czech legends of the Battle of Britain, Josef Balejka died on Wednesday at the age of 87. As a pilot he served throughout the war, after an extraordinary escape to England. David Vaughan looks back at the life of an exceptional man who knew both adventure and tragedy.
Josef Balejka died in his beloved home town of Valasske Klobouky in the rolling hills on the Czech-Slovak border. Before the war he was one of just a few hundred Czechoslovak pilots trained to fly the most up-to-date fighter planes. When Hitler occupied the Czech Lands in March 1939, Balejka escaped to Poland with three of his fellow pilots, determined to fight for their homeland. He described his departure as the only "romantic escape from Czechoslovakia", because he had got across the border guided by a young girl, and they fooled the border patrols by pretending to be lovers.
When Poland fell, the four men escaped, along with a Polish general, to Romania, then on to Beirut, to France, and eventually to England. Because of their link to Poland, they joined the 303 Polish fighter squadron. Zdenek Zvonek has made a documentary film about Balejka:
"They were four friends, who had all escaped together - one of them was Frantisek Josef, one of most famous of all Battle of Britain pilots, who shot down 17 planes in three weeks. But in the end, Balejka was the only one to survive. To the end of his life, he would always ask: why was it me, and not they that survived?"
After the war, Josef Balejka returned home with his English wife, but he left again with the communist take-over of 1948, spending the next forty years in Britain and Latin America. He moved back to Valasske Kloubouky at the time of "perestroika", when the borders began to open, and for the last fifteen years of his life, he was amazingly active in serving his local community. He was also a passionate inventor, as Zdenek Zvonek remembers:
"One thing I remember he invented was a kind of scooter or skateboard that you could put under the wheel of your car if you had a puncture. It was a very simple idea, and one of - I think - over 70 patents that he had to his name. He was even given an award by the British Trade and Industry Minister for his inventions."
Josef Balejka - pilot, war-hero and inventor - will be remembered as one of the last of an extraordinary generation of Czech patriots.
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