Wings of Courage, Nerves of Steel

Where I live in England, there is an old airfield. Some bits of the runway still remain but the most noticeable feature are the bunkers that housed the planes. These look from the road like grass-covered mounds and I’m not sure how many there are but I can state there is more than one.

Pilots that took off from this airfield called RAF Harrowbeer were not just British. There were Czechoslovakians and Poles as well, perhaps other nationalities that I do not know about. These ‘internationals’ served not only as pilots, but in other capacities within the RAF as well. RAF Harrowbeer was located approximately nine miles NNE of the city of Plymouth and approximately six miles south of Tavistock, and also sits within the boundary of Dartmoor National Park. Although sited near the village of Yelverton, it was called ‘Harrowbeer’ in order to distinguish it from the similar-sounding RNAS Yeovilton. The airfield was under the control of ’10 Group’ and was never assigned a station badge. It opened in May 1941 and closed following the end of World War II.


I am currently in Prague and I try to read the Prague Post, a local English language newspaper when I am here. While perusing the December 1 – 7, 2010 issue of this newspaper I came across an article that relates to these non-British pilots that flew with the Royal Air Force (hereafter known as RAF). Being a bit of a history fanatic, I contacted the author of the article, Cat Contiguglia, staff writer for the Prague Post and requested permission to do a reprint.

Jan Wiener dies at age 90

Former RAF flyer turned professor fled Czechoslovakia to fight the Nazis in WWII

Jan Wiener, who fought for the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force (RAF) in World War II after fleeing the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, died after a long illness Nov. 24th. He was 90 years old.

Wiener, one of the last surviving veterans of the Czechoslovak 311th bombing wing of the RAF, died at Prague’s Military Hospital, where he was a patient since suffering a stroke early last year.

“For him, history was a personal issue; he had no excuses, and he would accept no excuses,” said Jan Urban, a journalist, co-founder of the Civic Forum and professor alongside Wiener at New York University in Prague.

“His life was about ‘I am part of history, I am co-responsible for everything.’ That was his lifelong attitude,” Urban said.

Born into a Jewish family in Hamburg, Germany, in 1920, Wiener and his family fled in 1933 to Prague as Adolf Hitler too power. The ensuing decades would prove tumultuous ones.

The Prague Post sat down with Wiener in 2000 for a lengthy discussion (“Jan Wiener’s coming of age,” Prague Profile, May 17 – 23).

As a student in Prague, Wiener encountered the beginnings of Nazi repression at school, where benches separated Jews and Gentiles, and he wasn’t allowed to apply for university. His mother and father separated, and his father and a second wife fled to Hungary. Wiener followed shortly after in 1940.

Still on the move in 1941 in Yugoslavia, Hitler invaded, and Wiener’s father and stepmother committed suicide by taking poison pills.

“She died first,” Wiener told The Prague Post in 2000. “When he stopped breathing, I jumped out the window, cut across a cornfield and hopped a freight train to Ljubljana.”

His mother would die in 1942 at the Terezin concentration camp.

He escaped through fascist Italy to join the RAF, where he served as a radio navigator for the duration of the war.

In August 1945, Wiener returned to Czechoslovakia. It was here he won his real victory, he told The Prague Post, when he encountered a Czech Nazi collaborator named Havránek who had been one of his past tormentors.

“I left there with a white flame of hatred burning within me which made me want to live to kill him after the war,” Wiener said.

But when he finally had the opportunity, gun drawn and all, he didn’t.

“A huge weight lifted from me. I would not have to live the rest of my life with such a foul deed on my conscience. And that was when the war ended for me,” Wiener said.

When the communists took over in 1948, he did five years’ hard labor at Kladno steelworks as an enemy of the state for fighting the Nazis alongside a Western government. In 1964, he settled in Washington, D.C., where he became a professor of history at American University. He was also a forest guide with his third wife, Zuzana, in Massachusetts and Arizona.

A dedicated life

Still, Czechoslovakia was never far from Wiener’s heart, and he worked with the Civic Forum, which was instrumental in bringing down the communist regime.

Wiener frequently returned to post-1989 Prague and eventually settled back for good as a lecturer at Charles University and New York University’s campus in Prague.

“I think his lectures were the most popular we had at NYU,” said Jiří Pehe, the director of NYU in Prague who first met Wiener in the 1990s. “He was a joy to work with because he was very knowledgeable, engaging and entertaining but at the same time tough in his opinions and principles. He would not compromise on that.”

His life’s story has been depicted in movies, including Čtyři páry bot (Four Pairs of Shoes) in 1998 and Fighter, an American documentary that premiered in 2000. He also wrote several history books and was awarded a medal of merit by then President Václav Havel in 2001.

Through it all, Wiener remained a man with a sense of humor and “gallantry,” Urban said.

“Just watching him talking or teaching with young people was beauty itself,” he added.

During the last months in the hospital, Urban said Wiener had a picture of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of an independent Czechoslovakia, whom he referred to as “Good Tomáš,” near his bed.

“He believed in and symbolized the values that Czechoslovakia was built on, and that made life worth living,” Urban said. “He would never acknowledge it, but my feeling was always that he wanted to serve as a symbol of those comrades of his who had fallen in the past, the political prisoners and most of all the Czech servicemen in the Royal Air Force in World War II and his family.”

Wiener is survived by his wife, Zuzana, a son and a daughter.

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to both Cat Contiguglia and her editor for granting me permission to reprint this article.
I would also like my followers to know that I take no credit for the quoted article. Full credit goes to Cat Contiguglia and The Prague Post. The article can also be found on The Prague Post‘s website by clicking here.

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