Saturday, 2 April 2011

Karel Kuttelwascher, "The Czech Night Hawk" - PART 1

Karel Kuttelwascher was born on 23 September 1916 in Svaty Kritz. The town had been for a long time part of the Austro Hungarian Empire and became parte of the newly formed Czechoslovakia following the end of WW1. Karel's parents, Josef and Kristina,  had Bavarian origins and gave birth to six children, Karel being their third. He left home at 17 and went to work as a clerk in a mill, in Kladno; he was however fascinated by planes, and as soon as he turned 18 joined the Czechoslovak Air Force.
The young Karel went to a hard infantry boot camp before being posted to Prostejov's flying school. He graduated in 1937 as one of the best students in his course, and was subsequently detached to the 4th Flying Regiment at Prague-Kbely, where he received fighter pilot training. After having completed his fighter course Kuttelwascher was posted to 1 Air Regiment, 32nd Fighter Squadron.

Avia B-534s photopraphed at Kbely
In 1938, the political situation in Central Europe was hot: Austria had been annexed to the Reich in March, and Hitler's Germany was claiming territorial rights over the Sudetendland, Czechoslovakia's border regions. The area was ceded to Germany after the Munich Agreement: Czechoslovakia lost about 30% of its territory and the German border was now only 20 miles off Prague. On 15 March 1939, the Germans occupied  the remaining regions of the country: Czechoslovakia had been sacrificed by Prime Minister Nevile Chamberlain and has ceased to exist. The Army and the Air Force were disbanded; the pilots were given the opportunity to either join the Luftwaffe or the Lufthansa. 
Approximately half of the Czech pilots and soldiers choose to go abroad rather than serve the Germans; Karel Kuttelwascher was one of them, and on the night of 13/14 June 1939 he smuggled in a train car, together with other five comrades, and escaped to Poland. They reported to the consulate in Krakow and sent to Male Bronowice, were escaped members of the armed forces were gathered. 
The Polish government had unfortunately little interest in the Czechs, therefore they had to go to France to find a country willing to accept them in its armed forces. Kuttelwascher travelled to the port of Gdynia and leaved Poland aboard SS Kastelholm, a Swedish cargo, reaching Calais on 30 July.
Kuttelwascher and all the other Czechs were enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, since under peace time regulations France was not allowed to accept any foreign soldiers within its armed forces. The agreement made with the French allowed them to join the French army as soon as the war would have broke out. The pilots were therefore sent to the 1st Foreign Legion Regiment in Sidi-bel-Abbées in Algeria, and underwent a rigorous infantry training. When the war was declared in 1939 about 100 Czech pilots were transferred to l'Armée de l'Air and posted to Centre d'Instruction de Chasse No 6 at Chartres, where they were trained onto the Morane-Saulnier MS-406C.
Czech pilots remained far from the frontline during the Phoney War, but the situation changed dramatically in  May 1940, when the Wermacht launched the Blitzkrieg campaign against France and  the Low Countries. Kuttelwascher was posted to Groupe de Chasse III/3, based at Beauvais-Tille. The unit fought desperatly against the unstoppable Panzer Division, supported by the powerful Luftwaffe. On 21 May the unit the squadron was pulled out from the frontline and sent to Cormeilles-en-Vein for requipment with the Dewoitane D-520C.
The situation was nevertheless desperate, French defenses had collapsed, the British Expeditionary Force had  been evacuated from Dunkerque during Operation Dynamo, and the defeat was inevitable. GC III/3 was forced to retreat deep inside the country, and finally left France reaching Algeria on 22 June.
France surrendered to the Germans, the new French prime minister Philippe Petain asked for a truce and formed a collaborationist government. The Czechs were discharged; there was only an option for them, to reach Great Britain and join the Royal Air Force. Kuttelwascher and other Czech pilots took a train Casablanca, where they boarded SS Royal Scotsman and reached Gibraltar. There, they sailed aboard SS David Livingstone on 19 July and arrived in Cardiff on 5 August.
1940's French archives are incomplete, but it is widely believed that Kuttelwascher scored 2 confirmed victories and 1 probable, as well as receiving a Croix de Guerre with Palm Leaves and a Silver Star.
D-520, GC III/6eme Escadrille, 1940

CLICK HERE for GC III/3's victories, losses, movements and commanders + Kuttelwascher's Kills (in French).

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