12-16 July 1940
At Duxford, the largest and best equipped RAF station in No. 12 Group, the Czechs arrived. A new fighter squadron was to be formed entirely with foreign personnel; the bleeding Royal Air Force needed as many trained aircrew as it could muster.
No. 310 (Czechoslovak) Squadron, as the new unit was to be called, was to be the first RAF fighter squadron to be manned entirely by foreign nationals. A British commander was appointed, Squadron Leader George Douglas Blackwood. In civilian life, Douglas Blackwood was en Etonian and son in a wealthy family of publishers Blackwood & Sons, who opted for service with the RAF rather than brilliant career within the family business, which happened to be one of the leading literary publishing firms in pre-war Britain. No. 310 was to be his first assignment as Commanding Officer.
In this role he was to be doubled by a Czech counterpart, appointed by the Czechoslovak authorities in exile, Sqn/Ldr Alexander Hess. He was to remain Blackwood’s apprentice until himself sufficiently familiar with RAF procedures to take command of the unit. As a side note, this “double-banking” system, similar in all subsequent foreign units, has had an interesting effect on the historians – to the Birtish, Blackwood was the CO, while in the Czech literature, Alexander Hess has always been considered to be their first commander…
The initial contingent of twenty-four Czech and Slovak pilots arrived on 12 July. Station records noted that few of the men could speak English, although some were quite good in French or German. The officer pilots all carried French uniforms with Czechoslovak insignia on them, and so did the majority of other Czechoslovak personnel although the state of their garments sometimes left much to be desired. They were greeted by Duxford’s Station Commander who made his best to speak slowly and clearly, without knowing if he was being understood. Then the personnel was shown, with some reserve, to their quarters. Duxford was to be their new home.
The first contingent of Czechoslovak pilots to reach Britain landed in an RAF aircraft at Hendon on 17 June 1940. Next day, the Czech President-in-exile Eduard Benes wrote to Sir Archibald Sinclair, Secretary of State for Air, pleading that a special effort be made to bring the remaining Czech airmen out of France and over to Britain in order that they could continue fighting. In a true “Beaverbrook spirit” (although Sinclair would heartily dislike such comparison), the request was granted at once and the Government acted quickly. Organisation of two Czechoslovak squadrons, one fighter and one bomber, was approved before any formal agreement covering the status of Czech military personnel in Britain was even outlined.
Other groups of Czechoslovak pilots and personnel kept arriving to Duxford in the following days.
The challenges of training an entirely foreign squadron were immense. To begin with, there was a language barrier, which, despite crash lectures in English which were provided to the foreigners, could not be overcome quickly. On the other hand, with the air defence system depending heavily on radio communications and direction from the ground, the British insisted that basic English skills and proper R/T procedures were a prerequisite for any fighter operations. Beside that, the Czechs were to undergo training in RAF organisation and command, formation flying, RAF fighter tactics and then finally flight training on Hurricanes. Not to mention a plethora of “King’s Regulations” which made the RAF so different from service in their own country or in France and which amounted for a good deal of daily irritations and inadvertent insubordination among the group.
There were some formalities to be done. All Czechoslovak personnel was enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR). Originally all officers, irrespective of their Czechoslovak rank, were commissioned in the rank of pilot officer, the lowest commissioned rank in the RAF. The only exceptions made were in the case of flight and squadron commanders who were necessarily granted the appropriate acting ranks.
Soon, Duxford’s first Hurricanes arrived. The site had been a Spitfire base since the latter’s introduction into service back in 1938 and hadn’t had Hawker fighters previously. To provide room for new squadron and aircraft, No. 19 Squadron relocated with their Spitfires to Fowlmere, giving up the comfort of Duxford to a more primitive conditions of a windy and wet makeshift airfield.
From the outset, the Czechs and Slovaks were desperately eager to fight. They displayed hatred to the Germans but also marked reserve to the British. Munich was still fresh in memory, and having lived through disappointments of this and subsequent German occupation of their country, Poland and France, they were initially very suspicious about Britain’s will to fight. Britain had not been the Ally of their choice – France was.
Also, Czechoslovak pilots showed little understanding for the necessity of any excessive training. They have “been there, done that” in previous campaigns, with known results. Some were disillusioned, cynical or refused to follow flight training procedures. All that could really put an end to their anxiety was fighting against the Germans.
In contrast, Douglas Blackwood appeared as Etonianly aloof and slightly shy man, but he was a well-seasoned officer who rose up to the challenge. He quickly recognised that the value of the Czechs’ combat experience in France exceeded that of a formal training. From the outset, he developed a good working relationship with Hess. Together they used the most experienced pilots to train the others, and incredibly, the Czechoslovak squadron became operational in only a month.
Staying in Duxford as part of 12 Group, No. 310 was to become involved in the Battle of Britain as part of the famous Duxford ‘Big Wing’ under Douglas Bader.
Blackwood remained true to his Czechoslovak apprentices for the remainder of the war, ending it as Wing Commander of the Czech Fighter Wing in the RAF 2nd Tactical Air Force on the continent.
Then, decomissioned from the RAF, he returned to take care of his family business which the five years of war brought to the the verge of bankruptcy.
Douglas Blackwood was decorated with the Czech War Cross and Czech Military Medal and was presented with the Czech Medal of George in 1993.