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The Airmen's Stories - Sgt. J Frantisek

 

No 303 Kosciusko Polish Squadron achieved great fame and the status of the highest scoring squadron in the Battle of Britain: one of its pilots, Sergeant Josef Frantisek (who was in fact a Czech) being the highest scoring individual in the Battle of Britain with 17 ‘kills’ in just 27 days.

Frantisek was a remarkable pilot who flew with a passion that few could match: within the Czech air force, from his earliest days he had been well-known for his exceptional flying and his lack of discipline. Following the seizure of Czechoslovakia in 1938 Frantisek escaped to Poland and became an honorary Pole. He seemed to have nerves of steel when in combat. The Northolt Station Commander, Group Captain S F Vincent, once had to reprimand Frantisek after he had ignored a Messerschmitt on his tail. Frantisek replied: “But he could not fire at me; I was too close on the tail of a bomber.”

Frantisek’s method was to break formation, to proceed on solitary missions to score his ‘kills’, hunting as if by instinct. Once, after pursuing a fleeing German bomber, flight commander Flight Lieutenant Witold Urbanowicz had ordered Frantisek never to break formation again without permission. Two days later Frantisek disobeyed this order, endangering lives and undermining discipline in the squadron. Something had to be done. Squadron Leader Ronald Kellett and Urbanowicz came to a compromise: Frantisek would become a ‘guest’ of the squadron: he was therefore free to do what he was best at. The following day he shot down three more German aircraft.

Unfortunately Frantisek was to be killed in a flying accident on 8 October 1940, and lies buried in Northwood Cemetery. Squadron Leader Ronald Kellett received both the DSO and the DFC for his outstanding leadership during the Battle, as well as the Virtuti Militari, the Polish equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Fellow-pilot Squadron Leader Johnny Kent stated that Frantisek’s death was “a very great loss and a very worrying one.”

Frantisek's decorations included:


Distinguished Flying Medal (British), Croix de Guerre (French), Virtuti Militari (Polish), Krzyz Waleecznych and 3 bars (Polish), and the Czech Military Cross.

Josef Frantisek was born a carpenter's son in Otaslavice near Prostejov on 7 October 1913. After his initial training as a locksmith, Josef volunteered for the air force, and went through the VLU Flying School in Prostejov in 1934-1936. He was then assigned to the 2nd "Dr. Edvard Benes" (named after the then Czech Prime Minister) regiment in Olomouc. He was with the 5th observation flight flying the Aero A-11, and Letov S-328 biplanes. It was during this time Josef's individualistic attitude first showed. He never had a sense of discipline on the ground. Demoted from the rank of Lance Corporal to Private for late returns to his unit, pub fights and other incidents, Frantisek faced the prospect of being released from service. As an exceptionally talented pilot he was chosen for a fighter course with the 4th regiment, and he stayed with this regiment after completing training. In June, 1938 he was assigned to the 40th Fighter Flight in Praha-Kbely. He was under the command of Staff Captain Korcak, and the pre-war Czechoslovak "king of the air" - Lieutenant Frantisek Novak. Frantisek perfected his flying and shooting skills here, flying Avia B-534 and Bk-534 fighters. During the dramatic events of 1938, the 40th flight was dispatched to several airports around Prague to defend the capital.

After the Munich agreement, the flight had to return to Kbely, where it stayed until 15 March 1939, when Czechoslovakia was taken by Germany without a fight. Josef Frantisek wasted no time escaping to neighbouring Poland.

On 29 July 1939, preparing to travel to France, Frantisek received an offer to join the Polish Air Force. He arrived at Deblin airbase, and after retraining with Polish equipment, became an instructor with the Observation Training Squadron under the Air Force Officers Training Centre Nr 1. He flew Potez XXV, Breguet XIX, PWS 26, RWD 8, RWD 14 Czapla, Lublin R XIII and other aircraft. On 2 September 1939, Deblin was the target of a huge Luftwaffe air raid. Frantisek had no time to take off with his Potez XXV among the falling bombs. He saw 88 Heinkel He111's from KG4 "General Wever" turning the largest Polish airbase into a heap of rubble. Frantisek then left for Gora Pulawska airfield, where, under the command of Captain Jan Hryniewicz, he helped fly the remaining aircraft away from the advancing Wehrmacht. On 7 September 1939, Frantisek and some other Czech pilots were assigned to an observation training squadron at the Sosnowice Wielkie airfield near Parczewo. The unit, commanded by Lieutenant Zbigniew Osuchowski, had fifteen RWD 8 and PWS 25 trainers. On 16 September 1939, after further retreat, the unit was assigned to General of Brigade Skuratowicz to defend the city of Luck. On 18-22 September 1939, they flew reconnaissance and communication flights.

For all their bravery and determination, Polish resistance was coming to an end. On 22 September 1939, the remaining six planes flew from Kamionka Strumilowa airfield to Romania. Three of these machines were flown by Czechs. Frantisek flew General Strzeminski in his machine. They landed at the Ispas airfield, and went on through Cernovici and Jassa to Pipera. They were interned, but escaped on 26 September. They got to Bucharest, obtained documents, and on 3 October 1939 boarded the steamer "Dacia" leaving Constanta for Beirut. They continued to Marseilles on board the "Theophile Gautier", entering France on 20 October 1939.

Frantisek stayed with the Polish Air Force in France, which was part of L'Armee de l'Air. He was retrained at Lyon-Bronand, Clermont-Ferrand, where he reportedly test-flew aircraft after repairs. There are conflicting reports regarding his combat activities. Some witnesses claimed Frantisek shot down 10 or 11 enemy aircraft flying with the French. These published reports have never been disproved; yet official French and Polish documents have neither confirmed the claims. Some witnesses recall that Frantisek changed his name temporarily in April, 1940 to protect his family in Otaslavice from persecution by the Gestapo. His cover name is still unknown. As long as this question remains unanswered, Frantisek's French period cannot be closed.


On 18 June 1940, after the fall of France, Frantisek took a Polish ship from Bordeaux to England. He arrived at Falmouth on 21 June. Frantisek was sent to a Polish aviation depot in Blackpool, and on 2 August 1940 he left for RAF Northolt, where the 303rd Polish Fighter Squadron (also known as Kosciusko) was being formed. The squadron was equipped with Hurricane MkI fighters, coded with the letters "RF". In one of first training flights on 8 August Frantisek belly landed - he forgot to open the gear in his Hurricane before landing. Luckily the pilot was untouched and his fighter (RF-M V7245) got only light damage.


Frantisek scored his first kill under British skies on 2 September 1940. This was very busy day for the 303rd - flying three sorties. In the last one, at 16:35, the Squadron took off with orders to encounter a formation of 'bandits' at 20,000 feet over Dover. In the combat, Frantisek and Sgt. Rogowski scored one confirmed Me109 each. The next day, the Squadron took off (at 14:45) and was vectored to Dover, where Frantisek again shot down an enemy fighter for his second kill in the "Battle of Britain". On 6 September 1940, in heavy combat, the 303rd downed 5 Me109's, but Polish losses this day were serious: both Squadron leaders (Polish - Mjr Krasnodebski, British - S/Ldr Kellett) and 2 other pilots were shot down, Frantisek luckily returning in his damaged fighter to Northolt. Three days later, Frantisek was forced to land with a badly damaged Hurricane. The plane was totally destroyed but Frantisek got out of it unscathed. 15th September 1940, was a great day for the 303rd, when its pilots tallied 16 victories against the Luftwaffe, and Frantisek downed one Me 110 in that action.


Frantisek and the best Polish Fighter’s Scores during the "Battle of Britain"


Pilot Squadron Score Remarks
Sgt. Josef Frantisek                 303 (Polish) 17 - 1 - 0          Czech pilot.
S/Ldr (Lt.) Witold Urbanowicz   303 (Polish) 15 - 1 - 0          Best score on 27 September 1940 -                                                                                        4 victories
Corp. Antoni Glowacki              501 (British) 8 - 1 - 3            Best score on 24 August 1940                                                                                         5 victories
Lt. Zdzislaw Henneberg            303 (Polish) 8 - 1 - 1            KIA on 12 April 1941.
Sec Lt Jan Zumbach                 303 (Polish) 8 - 1 - 0


TOTAL of 5 best pilots 56 - 5 - 4

In only four weeks, from September 2nd through the 30th, Frantisek achieved 17 certain kills and 1 probable. This was a unique achievement in the RAF for this period - bettered only by F/Lt. AA McKellar and W/O ES Lock. Each of them both had 20 victories; sadly both were to be killed during the Battle.


It is often mentioned that Frantisek's excellent results were due to his lack of discipline in the air. He often left the formation and hunted for the enemy on his own. He also waited over the Channel for returning German planes, which were often flying without ammo, with limited fuel, sometimes damaged, and with tired crews. This was a usual tactic for Allied pilots, but only after completing all mission objectives. After Polish pilot mission briefings, Frantisek often disappeared from 303rd formations just after take-off. Despite higher command warnings, for Frantisek these lone-wolf missions were like a drug - and his number of kills grew quickly. As the squadron leader, Witold Urbanowicz was facing an almost insoluble dilemma: either discipline Frantisek (which he attempted several times without success), or have him transferred at the expense of losing squadron pride.
Urbanowicz dealt with this cunningly: unofficially declaring Frantisek a squadron guest, which was acceptable due to his Czech origin. The Poles called his tactics "metoda Frantiszka" (Frantisek Method) while the British spoke of the lone wolf tactics. It is by no means true that Frantisek gained all his victories in individual actions - many kills were scored in group missions.


303 Squadron had 126 confirmed kills in the Battle of Britain - the most successful record for a RAF squadron in this period. Frantisek, with his 17 kills was not only the best pilot of the squadron, but also among the elite of the RAF.

Frantisek's sudden death in an 8 October 1940 accident remains incomprehensible, as is the case with some other excellent pilots. 303 Squadron was flying a routine patrol that morning. Frantisek's machine disappeared from the view of his fellow pilots, and he was never again seen alive. At 9:40 a.m. his Hurricane MkI R4175 (RF-R) crashed on Cuddington Way in Ewell, Surrey. Frantisek was thrown from the cockpit and his body was found in a hedge nearby. At first glance he had only scratches on his face, and his uniform was slightly charred. But Frantisek's neck had been broken in the impact and he died immediately. There has been no definitive cause in the crash of his plane. Some sources say he misjudged an aerobatic manoeuvre in front of his girlfriend's house. Other witnesses mention his absolute exhaustion from previous fighting, and I would certainly ascribe Frantisek’s death to this cause. A combination of these two factors is, of course, another possibility.


His Polish friends buried Frantisek at the Polish Air Force Cemetery at Northwood, Middlesex, on October 10, 1940, where he is still resting. He stayed with the Poles forever.


Frantisek's 17 kills rank him second among the best Czech aces, right after Karel Miroslav Kuttelwascher's 20 victories.


Josef Frantisek's ‘kill-board’
Date Time Used Hurricane Place Enemy shot down Remarks
02.09.1940 17:50 P3975 / RF-U 5km East from Dover 1 Bf 109E
03.09.1940 15:40 P3975 / RF-U Over Channel near Dover 1 Bf 109E mistakenly reported as He 113
05.09.1940 15:05 R4175 / RF-R 1 Ju 88
05.09.1940 15:10 R4175 / RF-R 1 Bf 109E
06.09.1940 09:00 R4175 / RF-R Sevenoaks 1 Bf 109E WNr 1138 of 3./JG52, piloted Oblt Waller fell POW, Frantisek's Hurricane was heavily damaged
09.09.1940 18:00 P3975 / RF-U Horsham 1 Bf 109E-4 WNr 1617 of 7./JG27, pilot Uffz Karl Born was KIA
09.09.1940 18:05 P3975 / RF-U Beachy Head 1 He 111H-2 WNr 5548 A1+DS of III/KG53, crashed on French coast
11.09.1940 16:00 V7289 / RF-S Horsham 2 Bf 109E
11.09.1940 16:00 V7289 / RF-S Horsham 1 He 111
15.09.1940 12:00 P3089 / RF-P Hastings 1 Bf 110
18.09.1940 13:15 V7465 / RF-V West Mailing 1 Bf 109
26.09.1940 16:30 R4175 / RF-R Portsmouth 1 He 111
26.09.1940 16:35 R4175 / RF-R S/E of Portsmouth 1 He 111
27.09.1940 09:20 R4175 / RF-R Horsham 1 He 111
27.09.1940 09:25 R4175 / RF-R Gatwick 1 Bf 110D-0 WNr 3147 L1+BL of 15./LG1, piloted by Oblt Ulrich Freiherr von Grafenreuth
30.09.1940 16:50 L2099 / RF-O Brooklands 1 Bf 109E-1 WNr 3895 of 6./JG27, pilot Lt Herbert Schmidt fell POW
30.09.1940 16:55 L2099 / RF-O Brooklands 1 Bf 109E
probable
Source: "Lotnictwo Wojskowe" 2/99, Jiri Railich "Josef Frantisek"


No 303 Kosciusko Squadron, pictured at RAF Northolt, September 1940.
Sergeant Josef Frantisek wearing his medals is, almost symbolically, seated alone on the ground in the centre of the front row: the lone hunter.

With special thanks to Radek Ademec from the Czech Republic. Most of the above information is sourced from his superb site. To learn more about Czech and Slovak wartime pilots please see his site: http://www.pcv.cz/home/adamec/toc.html


©Sgt Mark Bristow, Station Historian, RAF Northolt

 

 
 

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