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"THE EDGE OF WAR"


Two black dots against a salmon pink sky. Passing across the face of a sinking, blood-red sun. Seemingly connected by an invisible and elastic cord, turning together, twisting together.

Closer now ... They are aircraft of some sort. They rise and fall gently in tandem. They scud and skim the puffy, white clouds. Their engines growl like wild cats on the defensive.

Still closer .... Both are the single-seat, biplane fighter known as the Avia B-534 and the red, white and blue segments of the circles on the tailplanes identify them as part of the Czechoslovak Air Force. Compared to the sleek monoplane lines of the Luftwaffe's Messerschmitt Bf 109, they look somewhat anachronistic and certainly they would be seriously underpowered and underarmed in any conflict with their German foes. But the B-534 does have a decent rate of climb - essential to reach operational heights quickly if they are to provide any protection against invasion.

Even closer ... The B-534 has an open cockpit, so the pilots are clearly visible to each other. Though they wear leather helmets and gloves plus goggles, their cheeks quiver against the wind while their bodies shiver against the cold. Whatever these pilots lack in the proficiency of their aircraft, they make up in courage and commitment. Like every man in the Czechoslovak military, they are ready to die defending their fledgling nation.

The lead aircraft is piloted by a Czech, 22 year old Jan Holtzmann. Although his family name is German, he is not one of the three million ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia – one quarter of the total population – most of whom live in the border regions of the Sudetenland. He is descended from German miners, who many centuries ago migrated into rural Bohemia, but lives in the capital Prague.

His wing man is a young Slovak, 19 year old Jozef Sloboda (his family name means 'freedom'). He lives in a border region of Slovakia where the majority of the population are ethnic Hungarians. For six weeks he has been watching Jan's back and he is guarding it now.

But they only look at each other through their peripheral vision. They are scanning the sky – left to right, background to foreground, upwards and downwards - and always remembering the advice which their later RAF colleagues will express as “Beware the Hun in the sun”.

It is the late afternoon of Thursday, 29 September 1938 and the sun is setting on this land in more than one sense as this defensive patrol comes to an end. No German aircraft has been sighted. To all visible intent, everything is normal. Day after day, patrol after patrol has been in the air all around the nation's borders in a massive mobilisation that has engaged every part of this young nation state's military forces.

Jan waggles the wings of his Avia to indicate to Jozef that it time to return to base. He banks tightly to the starboard and his comrade shadows his manoeuvre. Nosing downwards towards their base, together they pass over hamlets, villages, rivers, lakes, forests, fields. This is the 20-year old free and independent state of Czechoslovakia.

**********

It is mid evening. The Czechoslovak pilots have had dinner and are drifting to the squadron's bar. Jan is already there, sitting at a simple wooden table, when Jozef strolls in, nursing a beer and smoking a cigarette. Jan is known to all by his affectionate name Honza.
Ahoj, Honza.”
Dobrý večer. [Good evening] Pivo? [Beer?]”
Ano. [Yes] Ďakujem. [Thanks]”

Honza is speaking Czech, while Jozef is using Slovak, but both men understand each other perfectly. Their respective lands have only recently been united into the new state of Czechoslovakia, yet they are already proud of their country and of its achievements as the only democratic nation in Central Europe.

Honza collects a second glass of beer from the bar and rejoins his friend at the table. He places the beer in front of Jozef and offers a cigarette which is gratefully accepted.

Honza is the more studious and calculating of the two men. He parts his dark hair neatly, his lean face is always closely-shaven, and his uniform is invariably a pride to the air force. Jozef is the more relaxed of the pair: his ruddy, round face is topped by a shock of blond hair and his clothing tends to be like his life – as it comes. They act as a foil to one another. Neither is particularly political, but both men are patriots who care passionately about their embryonic state and crucially, both on the ground and in the air, they trust each other absolutely.

“So, Honza, what's the news from your family?”
“I had a letter from Hannah yesterday. They are good. But worried about me.” He looks pensive. “Silly really - because I'm worried about them.”
“But they are safe in Prague, aren't they?”
“For the moment, yes – but, if the Germans invade ...” His brow frowns with palpable anxiety. “My wife. She's Jewish – and, of course, our two tiny ones are therefore Jewish. Every time I hear about the way the Nazis are treating the Jews in Germany, I fear for my family.”
Jozef tries to reassure his friend: “But the Germans would not dare invade us. We are ready. We will fight. And Britain and France will have to join us.”
“You really think so?” asks Honza plaintively. “I'm not at all sure.”

“In any event, Honza, even if the Germans managed to take us over, they would not treat our Jews the way they mistreat theirs. We are a Catholic country. The Pope would speak out for them”.
“I'm not sure of that either” chides Honza. “I'm a Catholic like you – but the Vatican managed to reach an accommodation with Mussolini and so far it's done nothing to upset Hitler.”
Honza ruminates over the dire situation facing them all and then pleads: “I just want this crisis to be over. I just want us to go back to the way we were. I just want to cycle from my home in Prague out to the forest and pick some mushrooms for a special dinner.”
Jozef can see Honza mentally playing this tranquil image in his mind's eye.

“And you, Jozef? What will you do if things return to normal?”
“As soon I get some leave, I'll visit my family in our village and my father and I will go fishing again. There's a river by the Hungarian border where we can usually find some fish for a delicious dinner.” He smiles in contemplation of his father, always trying to catch more fish than his eldest son and never succeeding. “And then I'll take Katka for a stroll in the fields.” He grins again – this time entertaining images of what he will do with his red-headed girlfriend when they reach a hay stack or isolated barn. “In the meanwhile, my friend, how about another beer?”

The bar is now full and becoming quite noisy and very smoky.

The squadron's leader Vojtišek Novák strides over to Honza and Jozef. “Holtzmann. Sloboda. You were the last to land this evening. Did you see anything unusual?”
“No, sir”, answers Honza.
“Maybe the Germans will leave us alone after all?” suggests young Jozef.
“Really, Sloboda? And maybe Herr Hitler will shave off his moustache. And maybe you will learn to shoot straight.”
Novák is a hard but fair leader. It is true that Jozef's shooting is not brilliant, but he is the newest member of the squadron. Novák's father served with the Czechoslovak Legionnaires in Russia during the “big war” which gives him extra kudos with his men.

Left alone by Novák, Honza and Jozef do not immediately resume their conversation but instead scan the room.

There is Pavel, the best-looking of all the pilots and immediately in touch with the local girls whenever they are moved to a new base. He has a fine physique, honed by years of participation in the gymnastic movement Sokol. Then there is Tomáš. His family is well-connected politically and he has an uncle in the government who is close to the President Edvard Beneš. He is trying to engage Antonín in conversation about the political situation, but Antonín is well-known for his greater interest in alcohol. His comrades joke that it's because he's from Pilsen where they brew the famous beer. He walks with a slight limp, sustained from an accident during flight training.

The squadron's pet, a sleek, golden Labrador called Tobiaš, scampers into the bar and proceeds to sniff out each pilot and each table. Honza watches the dog as the Labrador systematically explores the room. Tobiaš clearly hasn't a concern in the world – if only the pilots could be so carefree tonight.

Bohuš is the 'intellectual' of the group. He enjoys writing and keeps a diary of personal and political events. Tonight he sits alone in a corner reading a novel by Karel Čapek who had given the English language its only adoption from Czech ('robot' from the Czech 'robota' meaning 'toil'). Franta comes from a family of railway workers, so he seems to have relatives everywhere. If ever it proves necessary to leave the country clandestinely, this network will be invaluable.

Then there is Jarda who is the accordionist and singer of the outfit and, if his comrades are unlucky, he will play for them after a few more drinks. And there is Mirek whose father is a butcher known for his splendid sausages. He sometimes sends some to his son in the post and, depending on how long it takes for the packet to catch up with the squadron, the aroma has achieved a certain richness.

Tomáš has given up trying to talk politics with Antonín and started up a chess game with his commanding officer. Novák is proving a formidable opponent and Tomáš is giving his moves maximum attention. The board and pieces fill the small table so Tomáš has placed his beer glass carefully on the floor by one of the table legs. Tobiaš has now reached this table and dips his nose in the beer glass but clearly the brew is not to his liking. Instead he turns around, cocks a leg, and, with a well-aimed squirt, pisses in the pot.

Honza and Jozef have witnessed the whole thing and struggle to stifle their laughter so that Tomáš is not aware of the little act of canine relief.
“Shall we tell him?” asks Honza.
“No. He may not notice. And it might even help his game” answers Jozef jovially.
They sit quietly observing the chess until Tomáš reaches down, picks up his glass, and takes a large swig of Pilsen beer and dog piss. He returns his attention to the game, frowns, and licks his lips. It is not clear whether it is the move or the taste that is troubling him.

To je život [That's life]” proclaims Honza philosophically.
Život je pes [Life's a bitch]” responds Jozef, rather proud of his punning.

Other members of the squadron are enjoying their drinks.

Milan is a burly, jovial soul who loves his knedlíky [dumplings] and is known as the 'Good Soldier Svejk' of the squadron. Nobody has fathomed whether he is really rather simple or putting on an act to excuse his lack of enthusiasm for discipline and order. What everyone appreciates though is that Milan is the butt of more jokes than the others. At the moment, he is dozing - whether from fatigue or alcohol consumption. Otto is the joker in the pack. He was once in Germany and returned to announce that, whatever else was going on, they had good roads.

Otto notices that Milan is sleeping, bends down and crawls over to his friend's table where he unties his boot laces gently and then reties them to each other. Pavel, standing at the bar and observing the scene, shouts out: “Ahoj, Milane! Here's your beer.” Milan snaps awake, sees the free beer, and simultaneously stands up and reaches forward – before falling flat on his face. All the other squadron members roar with laughter. It's just the light relief they need tonight of all nights. Poor Milan – his pride is bruised more than his face.

Honza has had enough pivo and suggests to Jozef that they move on to the Becherovka [a bitter, herbal alcoholic drink]. After imbibing a suitable quantity, they return to the spectre in the room, indeed the spectre in every room in the country tonight, as they wait to learn the fate of the nation.

The younger man asks his comrade: “What do you hear about what's happening?”
“I only know what I read in the papers and hear on the wireless”, Honza replies.
“Hitler and Mussolini are meeting with Chamberlain and Daladier in Munich, presumably to discuss again what was considered at Berchtesgaden and Godesberg which I fear is the break-up and betrayal of our country. According to the news, they started about mid-day and are still in negotiations.”

He pauses and then proceeds: “I don't know if we can rely on the British. You must have heard what Chamberlain is reported to have said of our problems with Germany. 'A quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.' But we should be able to look to France for support. After all, they signed a treaty with us years ago pledging mutual defence. But neither of them stopped the re-occupation of the Rhineland or the annexation of Austria, so who knows? Our mobilisation in May deterred Hitler. Maybe he'll back off again.”

Jozef doesn't know what to say in response to such a brief and bleak, but honest, analysis. After an interval, he offers a concise assessment that makes up in observational accuracy what it lacks in conversational sophistication: “As you Czechs would put it: Hovno se klouže.” [“Shit happens.”]

The evening is coming to an end. The mood is resigned and yet determined, anxious and yet proud. One nation at least is prepared to stand fast against the Nazi juggernaut. Each of these young men is prepared to die for his country – and many will. But not yet, not yet.

As they leave the bar together, Honza declares: “Dobrou noc. [Good night.]” He adds: “Spi dobře [Sleep well]".
Jozef responds simply: “Ty tiež [You too]”.

**********

In the early hours of that morning, the Munich Agreement was signed and, as Czechs and Slovaks started a new day, they learned the terms of the text.

The entire Sudetenland was granted to Germany. This included the mountains and special underground fortifications, which were intended to be the defence against a German invasion, plus the Skoda arms works. The nearest part of Germany to the Czechoslovak capital of Prague was now a mere 20 miles away.

Later a portion of southern Slovakia, comprising some one third of Slovak territory, was occupied by Hungary and the area of Zaolzie on the northern border was taken by Poland. In all, Czechoslovakia lost over a quarter of its entire territory and about a third of its population.

This was a consequence of an agreement between Germany and Italy on the one hand and Britain and France on the other. No representative of Czechoslovakia was present.

**********

A mere six months later, in March 1939, the Germans occupied the remainder of Bohemia and Moravia, turning it into a 'protectorate', while declaring Slovakia to be 'independent'. The Munich Agreement had ensured that the Czechoslovaks would not be able to defend themselves and neither Britain nor France came to their aid. Another six months later, Germany invaded Poland. This time Britain and France declared war on the Nazis.

And the rest, as they say, is history.


ROGER DARLINGTON

Published on 7 August 2009

Note: This story was published in the August/September 2011 issue of the "British Czech Slovak Review".

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