The Airmen's Stories - Sgt. J Koukal
Josef Koukal was born on 6th May 1912 in Jenisovice, Czechoslovakia.
He was serving in the Czech Air Force when the Germans took over the country on 15th March 1939. He escaped to Poland and joined the Czech Air Force detachment there. When Poland fell Koukal made his way to France and in late 1939 he joined l’Armee de l'Air. After the French collapse in June 1940, he made his way to England.
He joined 310 Squadron at Duxford in July 1940. On 7th September 1940 he was shot down in Hurricane V7437 at 20,000 feet over the Isle of Sheppey. Cannon shells ignited his fuel tank and damaged one eye.
Unable to open the cockpit, he was then thrown clear by an explosion. His fuel-soaked clothes were alight and he delayed opening his parachute till the last minute hoping that the slipstream would extinguish the flames. This worked but on landing his clothing burst into flames again. Despite the assistance of a local farmer, a Mr.Wright, he suffered 70% burns. The Hurricane came down near Capel Fleet, Harty Marshes.
Koukal was alive but, despite the farmer removing his burning clothes, had suffered burns to 72% of his body.
He was taken to The Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, the specialist burns unit – known as ‘The Guinea Pig Club’ – run by Sir Archibald McIndoe where over the next two years he underwent 22 operations. He was awarded the Czech Military Cross (gazetted 15th July 1941).
It was 1942 before he was fit again and, after refresher training at 5 AFU and 53 OTU, he joined 312 Squadron on 4th May.
His next posting was to No.1 Delivery Flight on 1st August 1943, moving on 8th November 1943 to the Czechoslovak Inspectorate General in London. He remained there until the end of the war, leaving as a Flight Lieutenant.
Above: Koukal (far left) in London on 25th April 1945. Josef Hybler third from left, others unknown.
Above image courtesy of the JE Hybler archive.
He returned to Czechoslovakia and served as test pilot. But after the communist takeover in 1948 he came under suspicion due to his wartime service with the RAF.
When the site of his crash in Sheppey was excavated in 1972 Koukal went to England and met the widow of Mr.Wright, the man who had torn off his burning clothes.
He died in Luze on 23rd February 1980.