Vladimir Nedved was one of the last survivors, and the last Wing Commander, of the RAF's all-Czechoslovak 311 Bomber Squadron, which played a key role during the Second World War and took many losses. He flew Wellingtons in scores of bombing raids on Germany, including the first "1,000 bomber raids" on Cologne and Essen in late May and early June 1942.
After 311 Squadron was moved from Bomber to Coastal Command in 1942, he flew Wellingtons and B-24 Liberators to attack U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic, ensuring supplies, ammunition and US troops got through. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1943, he became a British citizen and eventually a Czechoslovak hero before emigrating to Australia and taking citizenship.
Around 2,000 Czech airmen flew with the RAF during the war, 480 of whom lost their lives; 273 were from his own 311 Squadron, whose motto was "Never regard their numbers". His closest call, though, was as a navigator, when his armed and fuelled Wellington bomber crashed into trees after take-off from RAF East Wretham, Norfolk in December 1940.
He pulled the injured co-pilot, Flight-Sergeant Joseph Pavelka, from the flames but the first pilot and front-gunner died instantly. Hearing screams from the rear gun turret, he went back to reach the trapped gunner Jaromir Toul, as fuel, bombs and ammunition exploded. "Take my pistol and shoot me, Vlad," Toul shouted. One of the bombs exploded, blowing Nedved away "like a feather". A rescue team freed Toul but he died en route to hospital. Despite shock and burns, Nedved was back in the air a month later and took a pilot's course.
For Nedved, "Vlad" to his compatriots but "Ned" to his British comrades, his war experiences were just part of a dramatic life story. A lieutenant in the Czechoslovak Air Force when the Nazis invaded, he risked his life to get to England. After the war he returned home as a colonel in the Czechoslovak Air Force, but the Communist regime treated those who had fought for the Allies as traitors; Nedved was reduced to Private. Only after Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution" were the war heroes rehabilitated. President Vaclav Havel promoted Nedved to Major-General and he was awarded the country's highest honour, the Order of the White Lion.
In April 1948, with his wife Luisa, his 15-month-old son Jiri and more than a dozen other would-be escapers, he "hijacked" a Czechoslovak Airlines DC-3 after it took off from Prague headed for Bratislava. With the collusion of the pilot, Stanislav Hunacek, a comrade from 311 Squadron, they simulated a fight in the cockpit, landed at a US Air Force base near Munich and were later flown to England, where Nedved rejoined the RAF.
From 1950, Nedved, based at RAF Hendon, was a Flight-Lieutenant in Transport Command, serving in Sudan, Egypt, Kenya, Bulawayo, and around North Africa and the Middle East, flying Vickers Valettas and later Gloster Meteors. He was appointed commander of 78 Squadron in 1953 before being put behind a desk at the Ministry of Aviation in London in 1954 and emigrating to Australia in 1958.
Vladimir Nedved was born in 1917 in Brno in the South Moravia region of what was then Czechoslovakia to devout Christians who sent him to Christian children's camps every summer. "One evening, in the tent when I recited my prayer, I looked up at the night sky and saw a bright beam of light coming from the tops of trees to me. In my mind I knew that God heard my prayer and I felt his presence ... This beautiful and soothing experience never left me for a lifetime."
He joined the Air Force in 1936, qualified as a navigator and reached Flight-Lieutenant. When Germany invaded in March 1939, the Czechs had been ordered not to resist as the Luftwaffe landed at their airbase. "Our officers were lined up on one side of a long row of dining tables opposite the officers of the Luftwaffe," Nedved recalled. "They kicked their heels and bowed to us. We all stood still, we wouldn't bow to them! I knew there and then, that I will have to escape from my homeland to fight the Germans.
Without travel documents, he got through Hungary, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey and Lebanon before reaching Marseilles and linking up with other compatriots of the "Free Czechoslovak Air Force" at an airbase in Agde, southern France. After the Nazi occupation in 1940, he and his compatriots embarked on the MV Apapa to Liverpool. He was assigned as a Pilot Officer in the RAF VR (Volunteer Reserve) and joined 311 Bomber Squadron, based at RAF Honington in Suffolk and later at East Wretham.
"When we arrived in England, very few of us could speak English. This was rather quickly overcome with the kind help of our English girlfriends, who were very understanding and helpful teachers. I think that is the best way to learn any language! During the war, before every operational flight, I read the 23rd Psalm," Nedved wrote in his memoirs. "I knew I was in the hands of Almighty God." As a good luck charm he and his comrades also played a battered record in their mess before every operation – not a patriotic Czechoslovak song, but Frank Sinatra singing "Indian Summer".
After 311 Squadron was transferred from Bomber to Coastal Command in 1942, Nedved fought in the crucial Battle of the Atlantic, fighting U-Boats as well as their "milk cows," other submarines assigned to delivering torpedoes, fuel and supplies. On 29 September 1942, when his plane was attacked by three German JU-88 aircraft over the Bay of Biscay, his gunners shot two of the enemy planes down while Nedved "corkscrewed".
The following year, Nedved found himself in India and the Far East, notably during the Burma Campaign against the Japanese, for which he was awarded Britain's Burma Star for getting supplies to besieged allied troops, often flying in monsoon conditions. In the UK in 1945, he married Luisa Prazakova, a girl from his hometown of Brno who was working in London.
He lived for over half a century in Australia, working for an oil company in Sydney before retiring to the Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane, where he became a Methodist lay preacher. Shortly before he died he wrote: "To our British friends, I like to say this from my heart: it was our privilege to fight Hitler's war machine side by side with you. Fighting the Battle of Britain, fighting the Battle of Atlantic, was also fighting the Battle of Czechoslovakia. Your wonderful country offered us a new home in wartime. It was a great honour and joy to be a part of the best air force in the world – the Royal Air Force."
Vladimir Nedved, pilot: born Brno, Czechoslovakia 27 March 1917; DFC 1943; married 1945 Luisa Prazakova (three sons): died North Buderim, Australia 31 October 2012.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies