SEVENTY-FIVE years ago a foreign airman was desperately hoping to reach Brighton. In the fading light, the 26-year-old was nursing his badly shot up plane over the Channel.
He knew only a few words of English, but he knew his engine was about to explode. If it did, it would kill him.
He needed to make those final watery yards – back to his new home.
For Josef František, who had landed in England only a few weeks earlier, was fighting for Britain in its most important battle of the Second World War.
In August and September 1940 Nazi Germany was making an all-out effort to smash the RAF ahead of a planned invasion of England.
The Battle of Britain was at its peak, and the young Czech was helping.
In an exhausting and exhilarating week, František had shot down five Luftwaffe planes.
On 9 September, he had recorded his sixth and seventh victories, before coming unstuck over the Channel.
After passing over the barbed wire and invasion obstacles on the shore, he crash-landed his Hurricane north of Brighton. He then took a train back to his squadron at RAF Northolt, north of London.
Except there was more to it than that. During my research for a book on František’s life, new evidence has emerged about his time in Brighton.
František was the finest fighter pilot many colleagues had seen, but he was impulsive.
That night, perhaps with his nerves frayed by another brush with death, he ended up brawling in a city pub. He was arrested and thrown into the cells.
A short while earlier he had shot down two enemy aircraft, more than most RAF pilots.
Now, he was languishing in Brighton police station with a sore head.
How did this maverick Czech wind up on the South Coast and what can his exploits tell us about his extraordinary times? Readers of The Argus may have the answers.
By the time Josef František arrived in Cornwall on June 21 1940, he had already defied Nazi Germany in three countries.
On the Nazi’s partition of Czechoslovakia in 1938, he had smuggled himself into Poland to join its air force. On Poland’s collapse in 1939, he escaped from a prisoner of war camp to enlist with the dogged Poles in France.
Following France’s fall in June 1940 Frantisek landed in the last European country to oppose the Nazis. Britain.
Adolf Hitler hoped to send 170,000 troops streaming over the Channel in September. His plans included a raid on Brighton backed up by an airborne landing on the South Downs.
The RAF was sceptical of foreign airmen, but it was running out of pilots. František’s unit, 303 (Polish) Squadron, was sent into action on August 31 and proved itself time and again.
On September 9 1940, its planes were among 100 Spitfires and Hurricanes which clashed with 56 Heinkel bombers and 80 Messerschmitt fighters heading to bomb Farnborough airport.
František downed a Messerschmitt 109 – the fastest German plane – over Horsham and an He 111 near the Channel.
František came under fire from another 109 and he hid in clouds and flew towards France.
The moment he emerged, the Messerschmitt pumped four shells into his Hurricane.
One thumped into the port wing, another through the radiator and a third through the left petrol tank. The fourth blasted into the pilot’s seat.
Two Spitfires then downed the Me 109.
František had had three lucky escapes: the petrol tank had not caught fire, armour-plating behind his seat had halted the shell and Spitfires had shot down his assailant. Now was the time for his fourth.
His plane was over the Channel and his engine temperature was mounting. He did not want to bale out. Even in summer, the cold of the Channel quickly killed pilots. But if his engine exploded he would be killed.
He needed to reach the coast.
He did it – just. Two miles inland, he put down his Hurricane in a cabbage field near the Downs Hotel, a mile north of Woodingdean.
In his combat report, written later, František recounted the police had arrived, anchored his Hurricane and shut off the petrol.
A policeman stood guard over the plane while the pilot was taken by car to Brighton. František concluded his report: “I returned to Northolt by train… At the railway station the people were very kind to me, girls gave me chocolate, and people photographed me. I am very grateful for the kindness which shown me by everybody.”
He did not mention his night out in Brighton.
But, while sorting through his late father’s belongings, a Bristol pensioner, Stuart Wren, found a postcard with a picture. On the back was written: “Czech pilot attached to Polish squadron shot down in air battle over Brighton (September 1940). Had previously shot down a German Heinkel and a Messerschmitt. Is responsible for destruction of 29 [sic] aeroplanes to this date. This pilot was piloting a Hurricane which he landed intact in a field of cabbages.”
In the picture, an airman – unmistakeably František – is surrounded by police officers beside a sandbagged entrance.
Mr Wren remembered his policeman father, Geoffrey Wren, telling him how he had been called to a stand-off at a Brighton pub in September 1940.
A foreign airman was at one end of the bar and the rest of the pub huddled together at the other. The airman fought all the way back to the police station, then in the basement of Brighton town hall.
Losing patience, the policeman pushed him down the steps and he tumbled down through the double doors, landing in a heap in front of the duty sergeant. The following day, the police released the ace from the police station ¬ after he posed for a picture.
František was credited with shooting down another 10 German planes. When the Battle of Britain ended in October, 303 (Polish) Squadron was the highest-scoring of all RAF squadrons, despite being operational for only one month – and František was its highest-scoring pilot.
He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal with Bar.
What happened to him? He died in a flying accident during a routine patrol on October 8 1940. He had lived for another 29 days after his night out in Brighton. The life of a Battle of Britain pilot was hazardous, nerve-wracking and frequently brief.
Do you know anything about Josef František in Brighton on September 9 1940? Perhaps you or a relative were a drinker in the pub, or were one of the girls who waved him off at the railway station, or took his photograph? Contact Martin Hickman at email@example.com