The Slovak National Uprising needed air support. It came in the form of Soviet fighters flown by Czech pilots, formerly of the Royal Air Force, operating inside German lines.
By Radko Vasicek
One of the byproducts of the Munich Agreement of 1938 and the subsequent dismemberment of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany in 1939 was the establishment of an independent Slovakian state under Jósef Tiso. Not surprisingly, Tiso was a loyal Nazi ally, and after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, he committed the Slovak army's Fast Division, armed with Czechoslovakian equipment, to fight alongside them.
By the summer of 1944, fortunes on the Eastern Front had clearly turned against the Germans and the Soviet army had irreversibly taken the offensive. The Slovak Fast Division had suffered mass desertions to the Soviet army's 1st Czechoslovak Army Corps and Russian partisan bands before being driven back with its German allies.
Forming The SNR
Within Slovakia itself, the situation was also deteriorating. The hills teemed with partisan bands, made up of Slovak army deserters and prison-camp escapees. The latter included Yugoslav, Russian and French soldiers, Bulgarian and Romanian deserters, and downed airmen from Russia, Britain and the United States.
Within the Slovak army, many officers -- some of whom were in contact with the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile in London and its president, Edward Benes -- decided to rise up against Tiso's fascist government before the Germans directly occupied their country. In December 1943, the rebellious Slovaks formed a coordinating group called the Slovenská Národná Rada (Slovak National Council), or SNR, and appointed General Ján Golian to take charge of military operations.
There were also interested parties in Moscow; left-wing Czechs and Slovaks wanted to have the principal say in any Slovak revolt, arguing convincingly that the Soviets would be the most likely source of material aid for an uprising. Such support, these leftists reasoned, would also be in the best interests of the Soviets, since an uprising in Slovakia would tie down German forces and free Soviet forces to concentrate on other objectives on the road to Berlin -- Hungary to the south, Poland to the north.
The Uprising Begins
In the spring of 1944, the 22,000 surviving troops of the 1st and 2nd Slovak Army divisions, which had gone over to the Soviets, were withdrawn from Russia and moved to eastern Slovakia, principally to defend Dukla Pass in the Carpathian Mountains. The remaining 10,000 soldiers of the Slovak Rear Army were held in reserve in western Slovakia.
General Golian planned to launch the Slovak National Uprising when the Russians took the Polish city of Krakow, at which point Dukla Pass would be opened to the Soviets and the Rear Army would commence operations against the Germans. Unfortunately, despite SNR entreaties that they lie low, Slovak partisans sharply increased their activities, which reached a peak around August 2, 1944. Seeing its political control eroding, the Tiso government proclaimed martial law on August 12 and gave the German army its consent to occupy the country on August 29. Wasting no time, the Germans sent four Waffen Sturz Staffel divisions into Slovakia: the 85th SS Division from Poland, the 19th SS Division from the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia," the 20th (Estland) SS Division from Austria and the 104th SS Division from Hungary. Overall command was placed in the hands of SS General Gottlieb Berger.
On that same day, Golian, who had anticipated such an eventuality, mobilized his forces, and the general uprising commenced. Before it could truly spread across the country, however, the Germans, moving with astonishing speed, captured and disarmed most of the soldiers in eastern Slovakia and secured Dukla Pass. Only 2,000 troops of the 1st Army Division escaped to join Golian's insurgents in central Slovakia.
The Slovak Air Force fared no better. The only airfield at its disposal was Tri Duby (Three Oaks), a training field near the insurgent headquarters at Bánská Bystrica. From there, the insurgent Combined Squadron operated a mixed bag of German and indigenously built aircraft and did a remarkable amount of damage to the enemy. Its seven aerial victories included the last to be scored by biplanes. On September 2, a Hungarian Junkers Ju-52/m3 flying the mail from Budapest to Krakow was intercepted and brought down by Warrant Officer Frantisek Cyprich, flying a single-seat Avia B-534 biplane. On September 16, an even more bizarre aerial duel was fought between two observation planes, an insurgent Letov S-328, also a biplane, and a more modern and heavily armed Focke-Wulf Fw-189. It ended when a lucky hit by the Slovak observer caused one of the German plane's engines to explode, sending it spiraling earthward.
The Slovak land and air forces around Bánská Bystrica fought valiantly in the desperate hope that the Soviet army would break through and link up with them, but just beyond the Slovak border Soviet forces to the north and south stood in place. They may have been taken completely by surprise by the revolt, but their inactivity equally may have been due to an unwillingness to support a resistance movement over which they had no measure of control.
Although they held their soldiers back, the Soviets did begin airlifting supplies to Tri Duby on September 4, and the next day sent a military mission over to coordinate further aerial logistic support. The most remarkable Soviet support, however, came in the form of an air regiment comprised of two squadrons of Soviet fighters, all flown by Czechoslovakian pilots transferred from the British Royal Air Force.
In January 1944, the exiled Czechoslovakian forces in Britain, seeing the possibility of an uprising in Slovakia, made a proposal to the Soviets to send air units in support of such a revolt. The idea was approved, and on January 31, 21 Czech pilots were released from Royal Air Force (RAF) service to join the Soviet Voyenno-Vozdushny Sili (V-VS). On February 21, they left England aboard the steamship Reina del Pacifico for the British-held air base at Habbaniya, Iraq. From there, they flew by transport plane to Teheran, Iran. After a final consultation with the Soviet ambassador, they proceeded to the Soviet Union in two groups aboard Litvinov Li-2s (Russian-built versions of the Douglas DC-3). The first group left Teheran at 9 a.m. on April 2 and arrived at Moscow at 7 p.m. It consisted of Flight Lts. Frantisek Fajtl and Stanislav Rejthar; Flying Officers Josef Stehlík and Frantisek Chábera; Pilot Officers Jirí Reznicek, Leopold Srom and Pavel Kocfelda; and Warrant Officers Jan Skopal, Ladislav Valousek and Antonín Vendl.
The second group, which made its flight from Teheran to Moscow on April 8, was composed of Flight Lt. Jan Klán; Pilot Officers Frantisek Kruta and Frantisek Sticka; Warrant Officers Stanislav Hlucka, Tomás Motycka, Bohuslav Mráz and Stanislav Tocauer; and Flight Sgt. Frantisek Loucky. Three other pilots who were too ill to accompany the others, Flight Officers Rudolf Borovec and Jirí Sehnal, and Pilot Officer Jirí Vaculík, finally flew up to join them in Moscow on April 13.
The leader of the group, Frantisek Fajtl, was born in Donín near Louny in western Bohemia on August 20, 1912. After graduating from the Business Academy in Teplice, he went to the Aviation Academy and became a lieutenant in the Czechoslovakian Air Force in 1935. After the German occupation of his country, he went to Poland, then to France and finally to England, where he took part in the Battle of Britain. By 1942, he had served successively as the commander of the RAF stations at Ibseley and Skaebrae, although those responsibilities did not curtail his flying activity. In May 1942, he was shot down over France but managed to escape to Spain, where he was interned; eventually he was repatriated to England. In January 1944, he was flying Supermarine Spitfires with No. 313 (Czech) Squadron when he was asked to command the expedition to Russia.
Behind Enemy Lines
In an interview with the author, Fajtl described the unique experience of being a Czech pilot flying with both the RAF and the V-VS -- and flying missions from behind enemy lines in Slovakia: "On April 14, the 21 Czechs began training at the air base at Ivanovo, 300 kilometers (185 miles) northeast of Moscow. Since Flight Officer Sehnal was the only one of us who spoke Russian, the first order of business was for the rest of us to learn the language.
"Ivanovo airfield was part of the 6th Reserve Brigade, commanded by a Colonel Shumov. I learned that in 1942 this very large air base had hosted the French volunteer aircrews of the Normandie Regiment, who in 1943 had participated in the fighting around Kursk.
"In parallel with learning the Russian language, we went through familiarization training on the [Soviet] Lavochkin La-5FN fighter plane, as did the flight mechanics, fitters, armorers, wireless operators and electrical engineers who would have to support our squadrons in the field. The pilots underwent a lot of mathematics and navigational training. Finally, on April 20, the theoretical training ended and we were told that we would get to sharpen our skills behind the controls of the La-5FN with its 1,540-hp Shvetsov M-82FN engine.
"When we at last got our chance to take it up on April 24, we found the "Lavochka" to be very fast, very sensitive at the controls. It had a very high landing speed, but with a maximum speed of close to 647 kilometers per hour [404 mph] at 5,000 meters altitude, that was no wonder. We began flying on May 3, and we were then designated the 128th Czechoslovakian Independent Fighter Squadron.
One Plane Per Pilot
"On May 17, the 6th Reserve Brigade was transferred to Kubinka, southwest of Moscow. There, we flew cross-country orientation flights, held mock dogfights and practiced formation flying. Each pilot was assigned his own plane and flew that one only. That was the way things were done there. On May 30, training ended and the next contingent of 20 pilots of Czech nationality was assigned to Kubinka, having arrived from the fighter school in Vjazniky. Before we left, a concluding 'show' was staged before visiting Soviet generals and other personnel from the Czechoslovakian Air Force Mission."
On June 3, the Czech unit was officially renamed the 1st Czechoslovakian Independent Fighter Aviation Regiment, composed of the 1st and 2nd Czechoslovakian Squadrons. On June 19, the Czechs took off for Bryansk, led by a Petlyakov Pe-2 that carried their Soviet commander and that served as a guide for navigation and landing. The next day, they flew on to Priluky in the Ukraine and, from there, to Proskurov, near Lvov, on June 21. "With that," remarked Fajtl, "we were at the front -- but nobody knew of our arrival. We had to wait there until July 31."
The Czechs were now part of the 8th Air Army of the 4th Ukrainian Front, but there was no fuel for their airplanes. At the end of August, the Slovakian National Uprising broke out and many Slovakian pilots flew their planes into the Russian lines. During that time, too, the 1st Czechoslovakian Regiment was reassigned to the 2nd Air Army, under Col. Gen. S.A. Krasovsky.
On September 9, the Soviets finally made a serious effort to help the Slovakian partisans when the Russian Thirty-Eighth Army and the Czechoslovkian Army Corps advanced through Dukla Pass in the Carpathian Mountains. By then, however, the Germans were ready for them and blocked the assault at a cost of 6,000 Allied lives. The Soviet forces were not able to cross the Slovakian border until October 6.
Meanwhile, the Slovak Combined Squadron suffered a terrible blow on what its pilots would call "Black Sunday." At 3:30 p.m. on September 10, 30 German bombers took off from Malacky field and the first wave of six Junkers Ju-87 Stukas attacked the anti-aircraft positions at Tri Duby. A second wave of six Ju-88s and 12 Heinkel He-111s bombed the airfield, followed by six more Stukas, then six Messerschmitt Bf-109s, which strafed the Slovaks with cannons and machine guns. The only Slovak airplane to take off, a Bf-109G-6 flown by Warrant Officer Rudolf Bozík, had no ammunition, but Bozík did his best to break up the German formations before being driven off by the six German Bf-109s. When the Germans departed, the insurgents were left with only four operational aircraft -- one Bf-109G-6, a B-534 and two S-328s -- but they repaired the bomb-damaged runway and fought on with what they had.
On the Russian side of the lines, on September 14, 1944, General Krasovsky finally called Fajtl and his officers to a short conference. "Tomorrow," he told Fajtl, "you will fly to Tri Duby airfield. You must find out what the situation is and immediately come back."
Friends From Peacetime
The next day, at 3:30 p.m. Moscow time, Fajtl took off for Tri Duby, accompanied by Flight Officer Chábera, Flight Lt. Rejthar and Flight Officer Stehlík. Radio silence would be maintained. "The war was only two kilometers from us," Fajtl recalled. "We readied our cannons and lit up our sights, but it was calm all around us. In 20 minutes we were over Bánská Bystrica -- we were home! The rebel flak would protect us as we landed at Tri Duby. Enthusiastic people came from all directions as we got out of our cockpits and introduced ourselves -- everywhere we found friends from peacetime.
"Tri Duby airfield was not good," he continued, "that was clear to us. We were afraid of coming under German attack, for surely they knew about us. Tri Duby's defenses were very weak. We needed another airfield, where the planes could be better concealed."
The insurgent commander recommended that the Czechs drive to Zolná, three kilometers from the town of Zvolen. There, they found what amounted to little more than a meadow, but nevertheless it was a newer airfield with adequate length and harder ground than Tri Duby.
Return To Tri Duby
Fajtl returned to Bánská Bystrica to coordinate with General Golian and the insurgent staff and found everyone in a pessimistic mood. "Their staff offered us coordination on their communication network and said that they had 200,000 liters of low-octane fuel. We declined the offer, unless we should absolutely need that fuel for our planes," Fajtl recalled.
The next day, Fajtl led his La-5FNs back to Krosno, but only three made it. Stehlík was wounded in the leg and had to return to Tri Duby. From Krosno, Fajtl flew to the Soviet headquarters in a Polikarpov Po-2 courier plane and furnished a report on the Slovak situation. He also brought a sample of the Slovak fuel and asked for it to be analyzed to see if it could be used in his regiment's La-5FNs. General Krasovsky then made his decision: "Tomorrow, all units must fly to Tri Duby airfield."
On September 17, Fajtl flew back to Krosno, where preparations were made for both Czech squadrons to fly to Tri Duby. Pilots and the personal numbers of the aircraft assigned them were as follows: 1st Squadron: Flight Officers Josef Stehlík, 88, and Leopold Srom, 17; Flight Lt. Jan Klán, 39; Pilot Officers Antonín Vendl, 23, Stanislav Hlucka, 24, Jan Skopal, 37, Pavel Kocfelda, 13, Stanislav Tocauer, 19, Frantisek Sticka, 12; and Warrant Officers Ludovít Dobrovodsky, unknown; 2nd Squadron: Flight Officer Frantisek Chábera, 02; Pilot Officers Rudolf Borovec, 95, Jiri Vaculík, 74, Tomás Motycka, 20, Frantisek Loucky, 65, Bohuslav Mráz, 23, Ladislav Valousek, 69, Jirí Reznicek, 99, and Frantisek Kruta, 71; Flight Lt. Stanislav Rejthar, 151; and Warrant Officer Anton Matusek, 62.
Fajtl was to be in charge of both squadrons and would not participate in any further action. His intelligence officer and adjutant was Flight Officer Jirí Sehnal.
At 2:10 p.m., the two squadrons of La-5FNs took off from Stubno airfield, accompanied by two Slovakian Bf-109Gs whose pilots had flown into Soviet lines. One was assigned to 1st Squadron and the other to 2nd Squadron. From Stubno, they flew to Krosno, then started out for Zolná. As Fajtl took off on that leg of the flight, he noticed that the oil pressure in his plane was dropping. Cursing, he went back and had a damaged oil pipe repaired before taking off again and flying to Zolná alone. Everyone else had already arrived without incident.
"Czechs...Flying Russian Planes?"
Fajtl soon discovered that his men were not the only Allied airmen to land in Slovakia that day. He remembered: "After a great welcome, we drove to Bánská Bystrica. There, in the dining room, I met an American pilot. There were some 30 American airmen there. They knew about our arrival, but the pilot I met asked, 'Who are you? You speak English very well...but you are Czechs? Flying Russian planes?'
"That pilot had been shot down while flying a bombing mission over Slovakia in a B-17. The Slovaks had hidden him [and kept him] from imprisonment. That pilot and the others were waiting to be flown off to Italy."
On the same day the 1st Czech Regiment arrived, two Boeing B-17Gs of the Fifteenth Air Force, escorted by North American P-51B Mustangs, landed at Tri Duby with an American military mission, headed by a naval officer, Lieutenant James Holt Green. The bombers unloaded bazookas, ammunition and medicine for the insurgents, then left for Italy with 15 of the downed Allied airmen aboard.
On the night of September 18, British aircraft brought in radio transmitters, 20,000 bandages and 5,000 units of anti-tet**** serum. On that same night, 40 Soviet Lisunov Li-2s arrived with fuel and ammunition, as well as mechanics, wireless operators, and three straggling pilots, Flight Officer Sehnal and Pilot Officers Borovec and Sergej Trifonovic Vinogradov.
Light Lieutenant Frantisek Fajtl, who went from flying Supermarine Spitfires to leading the La-5FNs of the 1st Czechoslovakian Fighter Aviation Regiment.
The 1st Czech Regiment was now ready to commence operations. Its first mission, on September 19, was to attack the German airfield at Piestany, which was known to have about 40 Bf-109s, Junkers Ju-87 Stukas, Focke-Wulf Fw-190s, Fieseler Fi-156 Storchs, and other aircraft. Flight Officer Stehlík, who knew that airfield very well from before the war, led Srom, Vendl, Hlucka, Skopal and Dobrovodsky of 1st Squadron on the strafing attack, while two pilots from 2nd Squadron -- Matusek and Mráz -- flew protection. The attackers would fly 100 kilometers in 15 minutes, take 20 minutes to attack, then return within the hour. The attack route would be straight in, straight back.
Of the eight fighters that set out, seven returned in formation. Skopal, shot up in a duel with some experienced German anti-aircraft gunners, came back alone, his Lavochkin straining from the damage but okay. A very lively discussion followed. Srom spoke of the red-nosed Fw-190 that attacked him from behind. Hlucka listened in silence, then pointed to his La-5 and said, "Do you see this red nose? This is your Fw-190!" Mráz's plane had flown so low that his propeller and rudder were damaged. But all the pilots were satisfied. Some 10 Ju-87Ds were claimed destroyed and at least 10 damaged. The Germans acknowledged five planes destroyed. Shocked by the presence of such modern Allied aircraft operating so close to Piestany, they ceased using the field as a base for attacks against the Slovak insurgents.
Sorties And Fatalities
The day had only begun, however. A convoy of German vehicles was reported on the move from Prievidza. At 10:15, Chábera and Vaculík went up in La-5FNs Nos. 02 and 151 with 25-kilogram (55-pound) bombs on their wing racks. They attacked with bombs only, saving their cannon ammunition in the event of an enemy air attack, but no German aircraft turned up, and the convoy never knew what hit it. Five times the pilots attacked cars and soldiers, sending up geysers of clay while the Germans took cover in ditches and fired back with rifles. The results: three vehicles in flames and others damaged.
Immediately afterward, Kocfelda and Dobrovodsky dropped six 25kg bombs in the Prievidza area. That afternoon, Stehlík, Kocfelda, Skopal and Borovec returned to bomb enemy positions near Prievidza. Spotting a Ju-88 heading south, Stehlík attacked it and saw it explode on the ground, still carrying its bombload. An Fi-156 Storch was also shot up on the ground by Skopal. The groundfire was frightful, but both Lavochkas came back, albeit badly damaged.
On September 20, Kruta did not return from a mission. It was later learned that he had bailed out and been captured by the Germans but escaped soon afterward and eventually made his way to Soviet lines. Tocauer belly-landed in a field, but he later returned to his base. After attacking German tanks, Borovec force-landed with holes in his radiator. During an attack on German armored cars in the streets of Vrutky-Kralovany, the La-5FNs destroyed all of them, but Vaculík took a direct hit from a 37mm cannon shell and was killed. After 23 sorties, the 1st Czech Regiment had suffered two fatalities, and half its aircraft were damaged.
During a raid on the munitions storehouse in Ruzomberok on September 21, "Lucky" Loucky was seriously wounded with a bullet in the leg and was sent to the hospital. The next day, the Lavochkas attacked the railroad station in Nemecké Pravno. "Two planes came back looking like a couple of strainers," reported Fajtl. On September 24, heavy rain rendered Zolná's airfield too soft and muddy for air operations, but on the afternoon of the 25th, five La-5s flew against a battery of mine-throwers near Handlová, before it rained again. On the 26th, 27th and 28th, the Czechs flew a total of 26 ground attack sorties. After the 29th, however, fuel shortages limited their activity to staying on alert for enemy air attacks. There were 200,000 liters -- 50,000 gallons -- of Slovakian fuel, but the analysis had not come back from Moscow.
While the Czech fighters were grounded, the Germans were reorganizing their forces in early October for a final bid to shatter organized resistance in Slovakia. Once again the offensive, commanded by SS Obergruppenführer Hermann Hoefle, would come from four directions: the 18th SS Panzergrenadier Division "Horst Wessel" would come from the east, SS Kampfgruppe "Schill" from the south, Panzer Division "Tatra" (a Wehrmacht unit) from the north and SS Sturmbrigade "Dirliwanger" and the 14th SS Panzergrenadier Division "Ukraine" from the west. Tiger tanks, backed up by Stuka dive bombers, began to overwhelm the Slovak insurgents on the ground.
Then, Fajtl said, "On October 4 came salvation! More fuel arrived from Russia -- also more ammunition. But our position at Tri Duby and Zolná was very unsure. The rebel army was retreating. The 2nd Squadron was shifted to the airfield of Brezno."
A New Commander
On October 6, Skopal badly damaged his Lavochka during takeoff and was sent to the hospital. Twenty-four missions were flown on October 7, including an attack on a German infantry column near Klacany. During the return flight, five Stukas were encountered, one of which was shot down by Stehlík. Some hours later, however, Mráz was killed during a strafing attack on a German flak position.
October 7 also saw the return of the Fifteenth Air Force. At noon, five B-17Gs of the 483rd Bomb Group, escorted by 30 North American P-51Bs of the 52nd Fighter Group, landed with weapons and supplies for the insurgents. "In one case," Fajtl remembered, "one of the Americans attacked one of our Lavochkas, but he immediately recognized his mistake and everything was okay. The B-17s landed to take aboard the downed American and British pilots who had found refuge at our airfield. It was a pity that we could not use them to attack the German positions, but they had other tasks, and had to take off for Italy."
On October 7, too, General Ján Golian was relieved of command of the insurgent forces by General Rudolf Viest, who had commanded Czech forces in France in 1940 and who had been sent in to coordinate the uprising.
High And Low
In the midst of impending doom, things improved somewhat for the Czech airmen. The weather was improving, and finally word came from Moscow about the Slovakian fuel. If it was mixed with liquid additives called R-9 and 1-T-S, it could be used for the La-5FN engines. With the additives mixed in, the 1st Squadron resumed operations from Zolná, and the 2nd Squadron continued from Brezno airfield until October 10, when it flew back to Tri Duby.
On October 11, Tocauer was injured in a crash landing, but the main fighting that day was on the ground. The Soviets had committed General Vladimír Prikryl's 2nd Czechoslovakian Parachute Brigade to the fight, but its use was being dictated by the left wing of the Slovakian and Czech resistance movements in Moscow. With insufficient materiel support, the position of the 2nd Paras soon became critical.
On October 12, the 2nd Squadron placed its disabled aircraft, with their engines removed, on the airfield at Tri Duby as a trap for enemy planes. In the morning, Hlucka and Srom attacked five Stukas supporting SS Kampfgruppe Schill near Svaty Kríz, only to be jumped themselves by five Bf-109Gs. Turning on his two attackers, Srom drove one Messerschmitt down in a dive. The Bf-109 pulled up just above the forest and escaped at high speed. Srom dove after him, but his diving speed was so great that the La-5FN began to shake and he had to pull up and break off the action. At noon that same day, Srom and Hlucka were up again, and at about 6,800 feet above Tri Duby, they encountered some Bf-109Gs on a reconnaissance flight. Both of the Czech pilots hit their targets and saw black smoke pouring from the Bf-109G engines, but both Germans managed to escape.
That afternoon, Srom and Kocfelda ran into two more Bf-109Gs over Svaty Kríz. This time both pilots shot down their opponents. During another flight that day, Matusek found the plane of Pilot Officer Mráz, who had disappeared five days earlier.
"The Ring Was Closing"
Meanwhile, the Germans were threatening to overrun Zvolen, but their assault was stopped by the 2nd Czech Parachute Brigade. "By October 15," Fajtl noted, "we were surrounded and the ring was closing. We did not know where the insurgents were and where the Germans were." The 1st Squadron made heavy attacks against Tiger tanks of Panzer Division Tatra, joined in the afternoon by 2nd Squadron. But the Germans had strong anti-aircraft defenses. The leader of the attack, Pilot Officer Motycka, was killed. Reznícek's plane took 25 hits, while Matusek's took 20; Chábera's and Valousek's aircraft were also damaged. The next day, three La-5FNs bombed and strafed SS Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger as it was unloading at the railroad station at Diviaky.
Rain prevented the Czechs from taking off on October 17, but two de Havilland Mosquitos from Italy attacked Piestany airfield. One was shot down by flak, but its Canadian crew, Flight Lts. Stewart May and Jack Ritck, bailed out and were rescued by Slovak partisans, with whom they would operate thereafter. Back at Tri Duby, the Slovak insurgent staff offered the 1st Czech Regiment's pilots a reward of 20,000 crowns for every German tank they destroyed, and 5,000 crowns for every plane shot down. The pilots of the 1st and 2nd squadrons proposed that 75 percent of any such bounty would go to the widows of their dead squadron mates and the remaining 25 percent to the regimental treasury.
Engaging The Enemy
On the morning of October 18, 11 Fw-190s of Krakow-based Schlachtgeschwader 1 attacked Tri Duby airfield. After dropping their bombs and strafing the decoy aircraft the Czechs had placed on the edges of the field, they strafed the airfield itself, killing or wounding several ground personnel, including an American who was wounded while carrying another wounded man to safety. Two La-5FNs went up to oppose the Germans. When three La-5FNs, flown by Srom, Hlucka and Sticka, took off to oppose the Germans, the enemy aircraft flew away, but an hour later they returned. Again, the Lavochkas scrambled up to engage them. During a dogfight at 16,000 feet, Hlucka scored a hit on an Fw-190's wing tanks at 190 yards and saw it catch fire. Its pilot, Unteroffizier Heinz Vieseotte, bailed out and escaped, but the insurgents caught him in the mountains three days later. Hlucka himself was hit and landed with half his rudder shot away. Sticka damaged another Fw-190 before being forced to break off in the face of superior enemy numbers. Reznícek crashed on landing and went to the hospital.
The next day, six Ju-87s attacked Bánská Bystrica. Srom and Dobrovodsky took off, and Srom damaged the tail-end Stuka before their escorts, two Bf-109s, pounced on him. Dobrovodsky drove them off his tail, and when the Messerschmitts disappeared into some nearby clouds, both Czechs waited for them. When they emerged, Srom fired at one and scored a crippling hit on its engine, forcing the German to bail out. The Bf-109 crashed and burned near Handlova. Dobrovodsky's Messerschmitt escaped to the south, but he then spotted an Fw-189. That plane also escaped, but Dobrovodsky encountered a second Fw-189 and attacked it after closing to a distance of 50 meters. Just as pieces were flying from the German's rudder, Dobrovodsky ran out of ammunition, and he watched in frustration as his third would-be victim of the fight dove away.
Mud And Scarce Supplies
After that, bad weather turned the grass fields to mud. On October 22, Zolná airfield was under water. German tanks and armored cars were advancing along the road at Lubeník, Revúca, Muranská and Dihá Luka, but the Czech squadrons were without materiel or fuel. General Viest sent out a message that the insurgents could not hold out. The 1st Czech Regiment also radioed General Krasovsky for more supplies, but he replied that he had nothing more to send.
On October 23, the Lavochkas, using what remained of their fuel and ammunition, attacked the Germans on the roads near Liptovsky Sv. Jan and in the villages of Mythná and Lucenec. At the same time, Fajtl radioed his Soviet superiors, requesting Li-2s to evacuate his wounded men.
Withdrawal To The Mountains
On October 24, the 2nd Czech Para Brigade, under pressure by SS Kampfgruppe Schill, began a withdrawal to the mountains. The 1st Czech Fighter Regiment flew its last seven sorties, strafing a German column in the Detva area and bombing German tanks near Ruzomberok. After that, Fajtl ordered the unit's wireless station destroyed, along with any aircraft and weapons that they could not take with them.
On October 25, the 18th SS Panzergrenadier Division captured Brezno and was poised to advance on Bánská Bystrica, 22 miles to the south. The 16 La-5FNs that could still fly prepared to leave, joined by the remaining Bf-109G-6 of the Slovak insurgent Combined Squadron. The evacuation was conducted in four groups, led by Fajtl, Stehlík, Chábera, and Sticka. Flights were planned to Krosno and Debrecin. A final message came from General Krasovsky, "Is it possible for four La-5s and some Li-2s to land?"
"That is out of the question!" responded Fajtl emphatically.
Last View Of Tri Duby
"We took off at 1:30 p.m.," Fajtl recounted, "myself, Vendl, Kocfelda, Sticka, Hlucka, Chábera, Valousek, Srom, Rejther, Matusek, Dobrovodsky, Kubovic -- the last-mentioned in a Bf-109G. As we circled Tri Duby airfield for the last time, we could see all the grounded aircraft were in flames. Flying above the clouds at an altitude of 4,000 meters in a bright, sunny sky, our main flight landed in Strzychow, Poland. Nobody there could believe that we were Czechs."
The other groups landed at Oradea-Mare, Romania, and at Arad, Hungary. Not all of them made it. Kubovic lost his life when his Bf-109 crashed in flames. One of the La-5FNs was forced to land behind German lines. Its pilot joined a partisan detachment and fought on with them. Tocauer, Loucky, Reznícek and Skipal had already been evacuated to the Soviet Union for medical attention. Borovec, Stehlík and Sehnal remained in Slovakia, where they fought on with the partisans in the mountains. Klán also stayed to serve with the chief of staff of the Slovakian insurgent army.
Remnants Of An Army
On October 26, the 18th SS Panzergrenadier Division occupied Zolná, and SS Kampfgruppe Schill overran Zvolen. Tri Duby airfield also fell to the Germans. Bánská Bystrica was also taken the next day, ending organized resistance. Remnants of the First Czechoslovakian Army, which had lost 5,000 men in the course of the fighting, joined the Slovak insurgents as they withdrew into the mountains to carry on a guerrilla war against the occupying Germans.
Neither of the insurgent commanders remained out of German hands long after the fall of Bánská Bystrica. General Golian was captured during the retreat into the hills. General Viest was captured on November 3. Both were sent to the concentration camp at Flossenburg, where they were executed in January 1945.
A Great Opportunity Lost
During its time in Slovakia, the 1st Czechoslovakian Fighter Regiment flew a total of 566 hours, of which 383 were in combat. Its pilots were credited with shooting down nine German planes, as well as three probables, and damaging seven. Ground targets destroyed included 10 aircraft, two tanks, three artillery batteries, three mine-thrower batteries, 14 cars, 77 small utility vehicles, four trucks, an armored car, three ammunition magazines and three locomotives. The unit's losses came to nine La-5FNs destroyed, three men dead -- Mráz, Vaculík and Motycka -- plus two men wounded, two injured and one (Kruta) missing. Flying Officer Rudolf Borovec, too, was later killed while fighting with the partisans.
Fought behind enemy lines, the Slovakian National Uprising represented a great opportunity lost -- partly due to the weather and partly, no doubt, to the inconsistency with which the Soviets provided support to a revolt whose principal leadership and control did not emanate from Moscow -- similar in some respects to the way they forsook the uprising in Warsaw by the Polish Armija Krajova at about that same time. General Krasovsky, however, saw to it that the 1st Czechoslovakian Independent Fighter Air Regiment was reconstituted and retained under his command, in which capacity its Russian fighters with their ex-RAF pilots would continue to fly and fight until the final German surrender on May 8, 1945.
La-5FNs of the 1st Czechoslovakian Fighter Aviation Regiment fly a sortie from Ivanovo in May 1944. Leopold Srom is flying aircraft No. 71, normally flown by Frantisek Kruta, while Antonín Vendl flies No. 3. Srom usually flew No. 17, at right.
Veterans retrace their steps in Slovakia's WWII uprising
By Robert Valjent
RICHARD Moulton, third from the left, with members of his B-24 crew and a Slovak doctor during an air raid alert in 1944.
photo: Courtesy of Richard Moulton
IT HAS BEEN 60 years since the Slovak National Uprising against the Nazis and Slovakia's Nazi-allied government during World War II. As it started, ordinary Slovak people and foreign allied soldiers alike found themselves pulled into events that would define the future of the fledgling nation.
As part of the anniversary's celebrations, veterans such as Richard Moulton, one of the first prisoners of war captured in Slovakia during World War II, and John Theodore Zebrowski, who found himself among the Slovak partisans after escaping his burning bomber, revisited the people and places of that time.
Others could make the trip back to Slovakia only on the paths of their memories. One is Eugene Hodge, a member of the US Air force. Another is Maria Gulovich, 83, an elementary school teacher recruited as a young woman by the Slovak underground and later by the US Office of Special Services (OSS). She was brought to the United States after the war and decorated at West Point by General William Donovan, who led the OSS during the war.
These witnesses of the Slovak uprising shared their stories with The Slovak Spectator.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How did you find yourself in the Slovak National Uprising?
Richard Moulton (RM): I was in a B-24 bomber as a nose gunner and shot down by a Slovak fighter pilot, Lieutenant Lang, on June 26, 1944. Of the nine-man crew on our plane, four of us landed near Bratislava and the other five landed in Hungary. We were the first prisoners of war to be captured in Slovakia. Being injured, we were placed in a military hospital on the outskirts of Bratislava for a week or so. More airmen were shot down in early July and all 26 of us were held in a school building until it was decided to move us to Griňava near Pezinok.
Maria Gulovich (MG): During the summer of 1944 I was an underground courier. I travelled to Banská Bystrica, Bratislava, Trenčín, Martin to deliver messages or to pick up a suitcase or, on occasion, a parachutist to take him to a safe house.
John Theodore Zebrowski (JTZ): I was a co-pilot on a B-24 flying out of Italy and I was flying a mission to bomb the railroad yards just outside of Vienna, Austria on December 11, 1944. Our aircraft was hit by flak right after we dropped our bombs. We headed east and our aircraft caught fire and we had to evacuate the aircraft. I landed in the hills and trees just outside of Dobrá Voda. Two young girls came through the woods and they offered to help me. They were about 14 or 15 years old. One was Anna Chmelova. They went home to Dobrá Voda and brought me back a basket of food and directed me to Brezová, where the partisans were located.
Eugene Hodge (EH): Our B-24 Liberator had been mortally damaged by enemy fire over Vienna on December 11, 1944, and we parachuted from our doomed bomber about five kilometres south of Brezová Pod Bradlom. Slovak patriots protected me at the risk of their lives for three and half months until I was captured trying to "break out" to the Russian front in late march of 1945.
TSS: Where exactly were you and when?
RM: We were in this camp under the guard of Slovak soldiers. Life was good and we were allowed to swim with the local people from Pezinok.
On August 29, the date of the Slovak National Uprising revolt in Banská Bystrica, the troops at our camp were ordered to release us to try to make the trip to Banská Bystrica as best we could. Of the 29 prisoners then at the camp, 19 were able to make the journey with only the aid of the Slovak people who assisted them. Four of us got only as far as the small village of Píla near Modra. The people of Píla and two forest rangers fed and hid us in a makeshift cave for two-and-a-half months.
We split up when we left the cave on November 11 and three of us were captured in Trnava on November 17, 1944. We were sent to Vienna and turned over to the Gestapo. I spent two months in prison there. While in the prison in Vienna, I did happen to meet a member of the Office of Strategic Services group captured in the mountains near Banská Bystrica.
JTZ: On the outskirts of Brezová, I was taken in by a family whose son was living in Chicago. They contacted the partisans and after a few days I was taken to one home after another until I was turned over to the partisans, who took me to their camp at U Kravdrikov. This was their main camp. This camp was overrun by 700 Nazis on January 6, 1945 one or two days after we left and went to another camp at Židovské and spent two or three days there and then to various families in and around Bukovec and Štverník. We were given guns and ammunition at the first camp and were taught how to take apart the guns, how to clean the guns, and also to shoot them to defend the camp.
TSS: Could you share with our readers any unusual or interesting stories linked to the SNP?
JTZ: The underground in Brezová. The Simek family hid me for a week. Their apartment was located directly above the German Headquarters. As I was confined to the apartment, we became bored and Vlasta Simek asked me if I wanted to go to the movies. I was worried, but she said I would dress up like a Slovak and just not talk to anyone. We made it to the movie and went upstairs to the balcony to sit and watch. Just before the movie started, three German officers came in and sat down about three or four rows below us. I was really nervous but we watched the entire movie (an American film) and waited until the German officers left and went back home.
TSS: What were your contacts with the Slovak population? Are you still maintaining any of them?
RM: I had many contacts with the great people of Slovakia and I owe my life to them. They took care of us at the risk of their lives as well as their families' lives. I returned to Píla in August 1948 to see my friends there. In 1998, I again returned to Modra and Píla. I had the opportunity to present a plaque to the Mayor of Modra giving thanks for all the aid given to us in 1944.
I was again in Modra in 2002 to visit and see old friends. Unfortunately most have died, as it was 58 years after our time there. I have a good and dear Slovak friend, Hans Taubinger of Modra, who found me in America and made my book happen. He was my translator while on my two visits to your country. He was four years old in 1944. He now lives in Germany near Munich.
JTZ: I met many families in Slovakia as they kept moving us around to avoid capture by the Germans who were looking for us. In late March of 1998 I returned to visit the families who helped us along with other crewmembers. We kept in contact with a number of the families for a number of years and we will be staying with the family of the young girl who first directed me to the partisans back on December 11, 1944. Štefan Jorík of Prietrž helped write a book about us during our stay in Slovakia before being captured by the Germans in late February of 1945.
EH: Since the war I have made two visits back to see these dear Slovak patriots. I have maintained contacts with several of my Slovak benefactors for many years, and I count them among my best friends.
TSS: Have the places in Slovakia that you have visited recently changed a lot? Have you noticed any major changes in Slovakia in general?
RM: Slovakia was not well treated by the Russians and I was very sad to see the country so poor in 1998. Things seem to be on the upgrade since 1993.
MG: In 1989 and 1994 I visited places where we were hiding and villages where people helped us. Places like Dolná Lehota, Mýto pod Ďumbierom, Polomka, Donovaly, Veľký Bok, and the rebuilt chalet where the OSS group was captured. The change was mainly that the trees got a lot taller. I did not stay long enough to notice any major changes: a new hotel in Banská Bystrica, road improvements, and better bus connections were things I noticed.
JTZ: We visited Slovakia in late March of 1998. We visited many of the places that we stayed at during 1944 - 1945. We failed to go to the crash site of our B-24 but we plan on going there during this stay. Some of the places in the countryside had changed very little in 1998 but some of the larger towns and cities grew in size and were very modernised, like Brezová and Senica.
TSS: What importance do you attribute to the Slovak National Uprising? Do US citizens know about it?
RM: The Slovak National Uprising revolt was a grand example of how much the Slovaks cared about freedom. It is very sad that it was in vain.
People in the USA know very little about your great country and nothing about the uprising. I have spoken many times to various groups in this country, including Czech and Slovak groups. It is too bad the vast majority of Americans know little of your country. Most think it is part of Yugoslavia.
MG: The uprising erased the image of Slovaks as devoted lackeys of Berlin. People who are of Slovak, Rusyn, and Czech origin know about the uprising - the rest don't!
JTZ: What is important is that Slovakia is a free country just like the US. The Slovak people deserve to be out from under the yoke of Russia. There are many Slovaks in this country - Chicago has a large Slovak population.
My neighbour, Stan Ponca, left Slovakia with his family during World War II, leaving his home saying he was going on a short vacation and eventually ended up in the US. His brother is still in Slovakia. Many others in the US are not aware that Slovakia exists but slowly and surely, as many of us spread the word about how great and good the people in Slovakia are, you see more stories about Slovakia in the newspaper, especially in Washington, DC newspapers.
A minority of US citizens are familiar with Slovakia but little by little the word is being spread and mention of Slovakia is becoming more common. Our local Syracuse paper will write up my visit, for example.
EH: I believe the Slovak uprising showed the world how brave citizens, even in a small country, can affect the outcome of a fight against tyranny. But sadly not many US citizens know much about it.