The 2002 film ‘Dark Blue World’ celebrated the Czech air aces who fought in the Battle of Britain. In Prague I met some of the last survivors of that era, and found as soon as the Communists took over their homeland, they were treated as traitors instead of heroes
Among the candy-coloured Austro-Hungarian edifices and designer shops of Prague’s miraculously well-preserved old town, it is easy to forget that communism ever held sway in the Czech capital. Not, though, if you are staying at the Hotel Duo.
The hotel, once a hostel for Vietnamese migrant workers, is in the drab concrete belt which surrounds Prague’s Disneyesque heart. Here it looks as though communism never went away: it is only when you meet some of the people who run the establishment that you understand the violent complexity of recent Czech history.
In charge of the hotel is Jan Horal, an urbane 80-year-old who flew a Typhoon fighter in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Horal is one of several war veterans who advised the makers of Dark Blue World, Jan Sverak’s new film about the exploits of Czech pilots who fought for Britain.
The film, shot almost entirely in the Czech Republic, stars Charles Dance, Anna Massey and Tara Fitzgerald, whose character is wooed by Franta and Karel, two Czech airmen. (My late mother-in-law could testify to their charm: she was engaged to a Czech pilot who was killed in a training accident.) The scenes of aerial combat, using a combination of new footage, computer effects and out-takes from the 1969 film Battle of Britain are thrilling, but what stops Dark Blue World from being just another in the recent wave of Second World War movies is its intercutting between the war and its aftermath.
The pilots who fought in the RAF were welcomed back to Czechoslovakia as heroes, but after the Communist takeover of 1948 they suddenly found themselves considered “enemies of the people” who had fought for capitalism. In the film Franta is thrown into a labour camp; in Prague I met some of the former pilots on whom his story is based.
Horal, a trained engineer, gained political asylum in Sweden, where he made a fortune through canny marketing of his own inventions. Since the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Iron Curtain, he has gone into the hotel business back home, and uses it to help fellow ex-pilots. “I was lucky,” he says. “Others stayed, and had their lives destroyed. I want to make it up to them.”
One of the 10 former flyers on Horal’s staff is Jaroslav Vyhnis, now 83, who watches over the sports centre. He is proud of being the first Czech pilot to engage the Germans in combat – his soon-to-be- published memoirs are entitled I Began World War Two – though since he was in a Polish biplane whose guns had jammed, all he could do was run for his life. Later he joined the RAF, and flew everything from Hurricanes to Mustangs. But after 1948 he was jailed, then sent to the coal mines before ending up driving a bus. “I’m sorry about my English,” he says. “For years I couldn’t speak it to anyone. We old pilots were not allowed to associate with each other under the Communists.”
After winning an Oscar with his previous movie, Kolya, Jan Sverak had the freedom to film whatever he wanted, and chose to tell the story of men like Vyhnis. With the return of democracy the survivors among the 600 Czechs who flew in the RAF at last received recognition, but Dark Blue World, the biggest-grossing Czech film ever, has brought them celebrity status.
Horal has paid for a new memorial to Czech flyers in Prague, and is helping the veterans make up for lost time. His hotel is the venue for frequent reunions, sometimes with former comrades from Britain too.
When Frantisek Perina recently turned 91, Tony Blair took time out during a visit to Prague to sing “Happy Birthday” to him. The diminutive Perina looks inoffensive with his walking stick and mournful moustache, but he is a killer – the highest-scoring Czech air ace still alive. A prizewinner for aerobatics and aerial gunnery before the war, he joined the French air force when Czechoslovakia was occupied, and was credited with 11 aerial victories in just three weeks. When France fell, he swiped a plane and flew off to join the RAF. “I loved the war,” he admits. “There was never a dull moment.”
In 1948, disgusted with the Communist coup, Mr Perina helped himself to another aircraft to fly with his wife and a friend to Germany. He ended up in the aerospace business in the US before retiring in Las Vegas. Nine years ago he came home, “to die – but I’m still waiting”. Perhaps it is his new-found fame which helps to keep him alive. “Young people weren’t allowed to learn about us before, but now they ask me to give talks in schools,” he says.
Just before I left Prague, Horal held a dinner at the hotel for the RAF veterans. The old pilots, their wives and several widows of former comrades filed past a British tour party. They didn’t get a second glance from the rugby-shirted beer drinkers, who were unaware that this small group of old men were fighting for Britain long before they were born. Will Dark Blue World remind us of what Mr Perina and his fellow Czechs went through?