František in RAF uniform with "Poland" shoulder flash
7 October 1914|
|Died||8 October 1940
|Service/branch||Czechoslovak Air Force
Polish Air Force
French Foreign Legion
Armée de l'Air
Royal Air Force
|Years of service||1934–40|
|Unit||No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron|
|Awards||Distinguished Flying Medal & Bar
Croix de guerre
Virtuti Militari 5th class
Cross of Valour (3)
Josef František DFM & Bar (7 October 1914 – 8 October 1940) was a Czechoslovak fighter pilot and Second World War flying ace who flew for the air forces of Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, and the United Kingdom. He is famous for being one of the highest scoring Allied aces in the Battle of Britain, with 17 confirmed victories and one probable, all gained in a period of four weeks in September 1940. He was killed in a crash in October 1940 in the final week of the campaign.
Josef František was born in 1913 in Dolní Otaslavice in Moravia, the son of a carpenter. After leaving school he was apprenticed to a locksmith, but in 1934 he joined the Czechoslovak Air Force. He was trained at the Air Training School at Prostějov. In 1935 he was a corporal in 1st Air Regiment. In 1936 he completed training and was posted to the 2nd Air Regiment at Olomouc in Moravia, where he flew Aero A.11 and Letov Š-328 reconnaissance biplanes. By 1937 he was a sergeant.
František got into trouble for fighting, returning late to his unit, and other breaches of discipline. He could have been dishonourably discharged, but he showed an exceptional promise as a pilot, so he was sent to the 4th Air Regiment to train as a fighter pilot. In June 1938 he became a fighter pilot with the 40th Fighter Flight at Prague-Kbely flying Avia B-534 and Bk-534 biplane fighters. Here he developed his flying and combat skills.
After Germany invaded Bohemia and Moravia on 15 March 1939, many Czechoslovak airmen fled to Poland. František was one of a group of four that was smuggled across the border by train at Šumbark on 13 June. The group reported to the Czechoslovak Consulate in Krakow and was accommodated in a Czechoslovak transit camp at Bronowice Małe that had been converted from a disused Austro-Hungarian Army camp.
In July 1939 a party of Czechoslovak airmen including František and another future RAF ace, Karel Kuttelwascher, went to the Port of Gdynia to sail to France. On 29 July they were about to embark on a Swedish cargo steamship, the Kastelholm, when a group of Polish officials tried to persuade them to stay. Many Czechoslovaks, including Kuttelwascher, rejected the Polish offer. But František was in a group of friends that tossed a coin to decide. It landed "tails", so they stayed and joined the Polish Air Force.
František and his group retrained on Polish aircraft at Dęblin airbase in Małopolska. František was made an instructor, flying obsolescent Potez 25, Breguet 19, PWS-26, RWD 8, RWD-14 Czapla and Lublin R-XIII aircraft.
On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, and on the morning of 2 September a Luftwaffe air raid destroyed Dęblin airbase. František's unit evacuated its surviving aircraft to Góra Puławska, further to the southeast. On one patrol from Góra Puławska a fellow Czechoslovak pilot, Zdeněk Škavarda, was flying a Breguet 19 when he ran out of fuel, made a forced landing near German lines and was at risk of capture. František landed nearby and rescued him.
František's unit retreated again, to Sosnowice Wielke airfield near Parczewo. From 7 September he flew reconnaissance missions in unarmed 2-person RWD 8 and PWS-25 training aircraft, carrying an observer. On 19–20 September he attacked enemy columns near Kamionka Strumiłowa, throwing hand grenades at German troops below. On 20 September his aircraft was damaged by enemy fire from the ground so he made a forced landing near Złoczów. Two other pilots, one of whom was another Czechoslovak, landed and rescued František and his Polish observer.
On 22 September František's unit was ordered to withdraw with its remaining aircraft to Romania. The unit flew first to Ispas in Bukovina, and then via various airfields eventually to Pipera near Bucharest, where it was interned by the Romanian authorities. But many interned members of the Polish Air Force escaped. They included a group of four Czechoslovak airmen nicknamed the "Czech Cloverleaf": Josef Balejka, Josef František, Vilém Košař (who was one of the pilots who had landed to rescue František after his forced landing in Poland) and Matěj Pavlovič. The four went to Constanța, whence a Romanian cargo steamship, the Dacia, took them to Beirut.
In Beirut, staff of the Czechoslovak Embassy came to meet them and explained their only options were to either join the French Foreign Legion or be deported back to the German-ruled Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The four airmen joined the legion at the local barracks. A week later the four embarked on a Messageries Maritimes cargo ship, the Theophile Gautier, which landed them at Marseille on 20 October 1939. They continued training at the Foreign Legion base in Marseille. But a Polish sergeant recognised their Polish war decorations and helped to get them released to join the new Free Polish Air Force at le Bourget.
The French Air Force was also forming Free Czechoslovak units. Košař was a naturalized Polish citizen, but Balejka, František and Pavlovič went to see the Czechoslovak Air Attaché to ask to be transferred. But the attaché accused them of deserting the Foreign Legion, so František accused the Czechoslovak Air Force of failing to evacuate its aircraft to Poland when Germany invaded in March 1939, whereupon the attaché called the French police. The police found the trio's Polish military identity documents to be in order and refused to arrest them. Balejka, František and Pavlovič remained with their Free Polish units.
František was posted to a Polish airbase at Clermont-Ferrand where he served as a mechanic. He tried to learn to fly as many types of French aircraft as he could. He also got into trouble several times for going absent without leave. There are no official French records to confirm he flew combat missions during the Battle of France, though some older sources credit him with 11 victories: nine in the air and two on the ground. In his home town of Otaslavice there is a museum in his memory, and its collection of his medals includes a Croix de Guerre. But his French Air Force records are known to have been destroyed, so there is no official confirmation of whether or why the cross was awarded to him.
After France surrendered, František fled to Britain and after training on 2 August was assigned to No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron based at RAF Northolt, flying Hawker Hurricane fighters. František was used to obsolescent aircraft with fixed landing gear. On 8 August at the end of a training flight, he forgot that to lower his Hurricane's retractable undercarriage and accidentally made a belly landing. He was unhurt, and the aircraft was repairable.
The squadron entered action in the last phase of the Battle of Britain. František's first confirmed victory was shooting down a Messerschmitt Bf 109E fighter on 2 September 1940. His fifth victory nearly cost him his life. On 6 September he shot down a Bf 109E of III/Jg 52 near Sevenoaks in Kent, but František's Hurricane was damaged so badly that he had to make a forced landing near Falmer.
A very unruly pilot, he was seen by his commanding officers as a danger to his colleagues when flying in formation. His British CO, Squadron Leader RG Kellett, offered to get František transferred to a Czech squadron. František, perhaps due to his clash with the Czechoslovak air attaché in Paris, chose to stay with his Polish colleagues.
As all pilots were valuable, a compromise was reached whereby František was allotted a "spare" aircraft so he could fly as a "guest" of the Squadron as and when he wanted. Thus František fought his own private war – accompanying the squadron into the air, but peeling off to fly a lone patrol over Kent, patrolling in the area through which he knew the German aircraft being intercepted would fly on their way back to base, possibly damaged and low on fuel and ammunition.
Between 2 and 30 September he shot down 17 German aircraft and 1 probable, including nine Bf 109 fighters, six Heinkel He 111 bombers and one Junkers Ju 88 bomber. This made him one of the top scoring Allied fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain, and on 20 September HM King George VI decorated him with the Distinguished Flying Medal. A bar was later added to his DFM. His final confirmed victory was a Bf 109 near Brooklands in Surrey on 30 September 1940.
On 8 October 1940 František's Hurricane crashed in Ewell, Surrey on return from a patrol. The cause is not known. It has been suggested that he may have been making aerobatic figures to impress his girlfriend, who lived nearby, or it might have been a result of battle fatigue and physical exhaustion. František is buried in the military section of Northwood cemetery in Middlesex, with a Polish headstone and alongside Polish and British RAF colleagues.
Monuments and memorial events
In Otaslavice there is a museum in his memory, a monument outside the František family home, and a plaque outside the local primary school. A street in the Černý Most suburb of Prague is named "Františkova" after him. The centenary of his birth was commemorated in Otaslavice on 4 October 2014. On 6 October 2015 the Polish Institute in Prague commemorated the 75th anniversary of František's death. Wreaths and floral tributes continue to be laid on his birthday each year at the monument outside the family home in Otaslavice.
Honours and awards
- Virtuti Militari Silver Cross (Poland)
- Cross of Valour 4 times (Poland)
- Croix de guerre with palm leaf (France)
- Distinguished Flying Medal and bar (United Kingdom)
- 1939–1945 Star with Battle of Britain clasp
- Czechoslovak War Cross 1939–1945
- Československá medaile Za chrabrost před nepřítelem ("Bravery in Face of the Enemy")
- Československá medaile za zásluhy, 2. stupně ("Medal of Merit, Second Class")
- "Josef František – One of the Few". Free Czechoslovak Air Force. 24 July 2010. Retrieved 20 October 2017.
- "Sedmnáct sestřelů za měsíc. Slavný stíhač František by se dožil stovky". iDNES.cz (in Czech). 7 August 2014.
- Kenety, Brian (20 September 2005). "Battle of Britain: Remembering the Czech aces among 'The Few'". Radio Prague.
- "František, Josef". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 20 October 2017.
- "Josef František – 100th Anniversary Ceremony". Free Czechoslovak Air Force. 8 October 2014. Retrieved 20 October 2017.
- "Josef František – 100th Anniversary". Free Czechoslovak Air Force. 13 September 2014. Retrieved 20 October 2017.
- "Poland Remembers Josef František". Free Czechoslovak Air Force. 7 October 2015. Retrieved 20 October 2017.
- "Josef František remembered – Otaslavice 2015". Free Czechoslovak Air Force. 17 October 2015. Retrieved 20 October 2017.
- Brown, Alan (2000). Airmen in Exile, The Allied Air Forces in WWII. Stroud: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-2012-2.
- Rajlich, Jiří. "Josef František". Lotnictwo Wojskowe (in Polish) (2/1999).
- "Sgt. J Frantisek". The Airmen's Stories. The Battle of Britain London Monument.
- "Sergeant Josef Frantisek – The Battle of Britain Hero". CS HQ.
- Biography – Sgt FRANTISEK Josef (archived)
- "Josef František Otaslavický "císař" vzduchu" (in Czech).