OBITUARY : Ivo Tonder

The life-story of Ivo Tonder is typical of that of thousands of citizens in former Czechoslovakia who were in their twenties just before the outbreak of the Second World War; those who fled their country - betrayed in Munich in 1938 and occupied by the Nazis in 1939 - in order to fight abroad for its freedom. An RAF veteran and a Major- General (retired) of the Czech Air Force, he was born in Prague and died in London. He had been condemned to death by the Germans 50 years ago; he had been imprisoned after the war by his fellow countrymen, but had escaped. He lived the last 45 years of his life in Britain, and was 82 when he died.

Tonder volunteered first for the Czechoslovak army corps created in the West and in 1940 became a member of RAF 312 (Fighter) Squadron. On 3 June 1942, he was shot down during an operational flight over occupied France, captured and escorted to an "escape-proof" prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag Luft 3, in the heart of a pine forest at Sagan, in German Silesia.

Two months and one week before the invasion of Normandy, Tonder was among the 76 British prisoners of war who succeeded in a spectacular escape from the camp during one night, via a system of underground tunnels dug secretly over the previous year. This "Operation Escape 200" was in itself a significant military operation: it diverted from the Front an entire German SS Panzer Division, up to 700,000 troops and indirectly some 4 million Germans in the subsequent manhunt.

Tonder made his way to occupied Czechoslovakia but there he was recaptured by the Gestapo and, on 8 January 1945, sentenced to death. The sentence was not carried out only because of the chaos preceding the imminent Nazi defeat and because the prison he was held in was liberated.

Flt Lt Tonder rejoined the RAF, and in October 1945 he was able to return home and, at long last, to start to piece together his shattered life. It seemed to be the perfect happy end.

But it was not to be. In the eyes of the new Communist rulers in post- war Czechoslovakia, Ivo Tonder had fought the Nazis from the wrong geographic direction, i.e. from the capitalist West. This "mistake" was enough to degrade all the veteran members of the Western part of the Czechoslovak armed forces from the rank of freedom fighters to the rank of potential imperialist spies. They were thrown out of the army, unable to find decent jobs, interrogated and persecuted by the secret police, and a number of them imprisoned.

On 31 May 1948, Tonder attempted to leave the country again, but was arrested on the border and sentenced to eight years' imprisonment. In December 1949, however, he was able to stage a one-man version of the "Operation Escape 200" from Stalag Luft 3. He escaped from a Communist prison and in 1950 arrived in Britain.

It took another 39 years and the collapse of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia before this "criminal" was officially rehabilitated and proclaimed a decent citizen. A long-time president of the Free Czechoslovakia Air Force Association based in London, Ivo Tonder was promoted to the rank of Air Force colonel in 1991 and - only three weeks ago - Major-General (retired).

He was due to receive his General's decree from the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, yesterday, during a solemn ceremony at Prague Castle.

But in April Tonder became seriously ill and was hospitalised; it was out of the question for him to travel. It seemed improbable at first that the Czech authorities could be persuaded to change the rules and send the decree signed by the President to London "prematurely". However, the Military Attach at the Czech embassy in London fought a brave battle with Prague red tape and won: Ivo Tonder was presented with the document in his hospital room by the Czech ambassador on Saturday 29 April.

Five days later he was dead.

Karel Kyncl

Ivo Tonder, air force officer: born Prague 16 April 1913; married 1945 Jirina Ascherova (one son, one daughter); died London 4 May 1995.

Comments