Miloslav Kratochvil Bitton: Military officer who fought as one of "The Rats of Tobruk" and went on to fly Spitfires protecting Lancaster bombers


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The Independent Online

Miloslav Kratochvil Bitton was a hero several times over. First, while still only 19, he was involved in a network to help his Czechoslovak compatriots flee the 1939 Nazi occupation. Then he fought for the allies in North Africa, where he became one of the "Rats of Tobruk" – mostly Australian troops but backed by Czechoslovak, Polish and Indian forces – who were besieged by Rommel and his Italian allies in the Libyan port city for most of 1941. ("The Rats of Tobruk" was a nickname distinct from the better-known British "Desert Rats" of Montgomery's 7th Armoured Division.)

He then volunteered for the RAF, trained in South Wales, Manchester and Canada and, as a flight-sergeant, flew Spitfires protecting Lancaster bombers over Berlin during the last year of the war. He suffered spinal injures and burns after his engine cut out and he crash-landed in a field at Fernhurst near Haslemere, West Sussex, returning from a mission on 2 May 1945. Labourers on Upperfold Farm hauled him from the smouldering wreckage of his Spitfire.

"The field, farm, potato fields, 150 metres, on the one side the forest, on the other side the poplars," he recalled. "I flew between the poplars, which chopped off one wing. I buried myself upside down into the ground. Praise God, the ground was not hard. I was upset down, left arm out. I was unconscious for about a minute, then came three or four farm workers pulling with bare hands. I screamed like a baboon."

After four months in hospital in Uxbridge he came out to find the war over. He married an English girl, Joan Bitton, and took her to his homeland, where he became a First-Lieutenant in the Czechoslovak Air Force. But again he was forced to flee – this time from the pro-Soviet communist régime which took over in 1948 and persecuted those who had fought for the western allies, and particularly those who had married English women. And so, surviving gunfire from his communist compatriots at the border, he found his way back to the UK, where he settled in the Manchester suburb of Burnage, gained UK citizenship in 1951, and worked in catering.

He opened a café, the Grey Parrot in Altrincham near his home, one of the North-west's first coffee bars to compete with the traditional tea rooms, and eventually settled in Knutsford, Cheshire. He became best-known to locals as Milo Bitton, changing his surname by deed poll to his wife's maiden name because it was easier to pronounce.

After Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution" in 1989, he was able to visit his homeland regularly, often for reunions of ex-RAF pilots. He was promoted by Vaclav Havel, president of what was then still Czechoslovakia, to the honorary title of Plukovnik, or Colonel, a rank he retained in the new Czech Republic.

The youngest of six children, he was born in, 1919, in Aleksandrovka, a Ukrainian village inhabited by protestant Czech Brethren refugees near the Black Sea in an area which had just become part of "Soviet" Russia. Having trained as a shop assistant, he was forced by the Nazi division of Czechoslovakia to move to Bratislava to study at the College of Commerce. There, he used his knowledge of languages, including Hungarian, as well as his contacts on the border and at the French consulate in Budapest, to help Czechoslovaks get past Nazi lines to western Europe.

By February 1940 the Gestapo had uncovered his network and he fled to Hungary, where he was caught and sent to the notorious prison Toloncz Haz. While being deported back to Bratislava, he escaped again, this time via Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, where he met other Czechoslovak refugees determined to fight the Nazis.

They joined the makeshift 11th Czechoslovak Infantry Battalion (East), commanded by the legendary Czech Lt-Col Karel Klapalek, fighting alongside the allies in Syria before being posted to Tobruk in 1941. There, they helped the 9th Australian Division defend a 5.7km perimeter against Rommel's siege.

It was then that the Nazi radio propagandist Lord Haw Haw branded them "the Rats of Tobruk", a title they took as a compliment and which remains renowned in Australia, where there is a Rats of Tobruk Association with the motto "No Surrender." (Britain's 7th Armoured Division had previously adopted the name "Desert Rats", but the "Rats of Tobruk" refers to those who defended the Libyan port.) An award-winning 2008 Czech film, Tobruk (not to be confused with several earlier Hollywood films) told the story of volunteer Czechoslovak soldiers such as Kratochvil, initially somewhat looked down upon by their Aussie comrades until they showed their courage under fire.

After Tobruk, Kratochvil volunteered for the RAF, arriving by ship in Liverpool on New Year's Day 1943. He gained his wings in 1944 and was posted to the RAF's all-Czechoslovak 310 Squadron, which had made its mark during the Battle of Britain. During the last months of the war he flew his Spitfire as escort to RAF bombers over Germany. By then the Luftwaffe had become a lesser threat but Nazi anti-aircraft guns were as lethal as ever.

Kratochvil's wife Joan predeceased him, as did a son. He had been living in a retirement home.

Miloslav Kratochvil Bitton: born Aleksandrovka, Russia 14 October 1919: married 1945 Joan Bitton (deceased; one son, and one son deceased); died Macclesfield 25 February 2014.