Sunday, 19 September 2010

Aces High - Battle of Britain Day

It's still (just) Battle of Britain day, so I thought a few words about the top scoring Battle of Britain pilot are in order. For all the valiant efforts of British and Commonwealth airmen, the pilot who downed the most enemy planes in the battle was a Czech - Sergeant Josef František. 

František's achievements during one intense month of air combat with the RAF were all the more remarakable, considering that they followed a desperate journey across wartime Europe, fighting and fleeing the Nazi advance all the way.

František was born on 7 October 1914, in Otaslavice, Moravia.. He joined the Czechoslovak Air Force in 1934 and became a fighter pilot. After the German occupation in March 1939, he escaped to Poland and joined the Polish Air Force.

After the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, he flew reconnaissance missions in an unarmed aircraft and attacked the Germans with hand grenades tossed from his plane. He was shot down, but was rescued by Polish aircrew who landed nearby.

When Poland collapsed, František's unit was ordered to withdraw with their remaining aircraft to Romania. František escaped from an internment camp in Romania and reached France via North Africa in October.

In France, František flew alongside escaped Polish pilots. He may have fought in  the Battle of France and may have shot down several German planes, but the records from that time are unclear, contradictory or lost (according to one theory, he may have temporarily been flying under an assumed name in order to protect his family from Gestapo persecution).

After the fall of France, in June, František fled to Britain, trained with the RAF and, in August 1940. joined No. 303 (Polish) Squadron flying Hawker Hurricanes from Northolt.

Although often reprimanded for being undisciplined (both in the air and on the ground), František was a skilled and determined pilot. Within the space of one month, between 2nd September and 30th September he destroyed 17 German aircraft and 1 probable (including 9 Messerschmidt Bf 109s).

Josef František died on 8 October 1940, when his Hurricane crashed in Surrey. The cause of the crash is unknown, although battle fatigue and / or an aerobatic manoeuvre that went wrong have been suggested.

There's more info on the Battle of Britain's top ace here.