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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Courtney Love has admitted using heroin while pregnant with Frances Bean Cobain, her daughter with Kurt Cobain
people
Sport
Murray celebrates reaching the final
tennis
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: NON-CONTENTIOUS (0-2 PQE) - A rare opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Financial Analyst

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Financial Analyst is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Business Support Administrator - Part Time

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the South West'...

Recruitment Genius: Secretary

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This major European Intellectual Propert...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness