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As Adolf Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum (‘living space’) expanded beyond the original boundaries of Germany into the ethnically German Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, and then into Czechoslovakia itself in the late 1930s, thousands of Czechoslovakian soldiers and airmen escaped to foreign countries. They knew that war was inevitable, and they hoped to participate, to assist in the liberation of their country.

Frantisek Perina (pronounced ‘PEAR-zhi-nah’) was typical of those exiled warriors. Like many, once out of Czechoslovakia he offered his services to the French. When France fell, he fought on with the British. A champion competition flier in the Czechoslovakian air force before World War II, he was credited during the Battle of France with 11 aerial victories in less than three weeks–earning the status of ‘ace’ in only two days. He achieved that record at the controls of a Curtiss H-75A, the French designation for the P-36 Hawk, a former mainstay of the U.S. Army Air Corps that had already become outdated by 1939. France had felt compelled to import the American aircraft to make up for a lamentable shortage of its own suitable fighter aircraft.

Despite its obsolescence, the Hawk had a remarkably varied career during World War II, seeing combat with the air forces of France, the United States (scoring the first aerial victory over Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941), Britain, the Netherlands, Thailand, Vichy France and Finland.

Military History senior editor Jon Guttman interviewed Perina shortly before he left the United States to return home to the Czech Republic.

Military History: What was your background prior to taking up a career in aviation?

Perina: I was born on April 8, 1911, in Morkuvky, in southern Moravia. I was brought up a country boy on a small farm–the nearest big city was the provincial capital of Brno, 20 miles from my home. It was not until I was 14 that I actually went to Brno. I had five years of elementary school, followed by three in grammar school, after which I learned a trade at vocational school. At the same time, I trained for three years as an apprentice to be a machinist. I finished my apprenticeship at age 18, but I only worked six or seven months after that.

MH: Why is that?

Perina: About that time, I saw an air show at Brno and liked it so much that when I saw a recruiting advertisement for the Czechoslovakian air force in the newspaper, I went right to the military department to ask for an application for military air school. I started training at Prostejov airfield on October 1, 1929.

MH: What was your training like?

Perina: I started out on the Letov S-10 Sardinka (sardine), which was based on a World War I Austrian design. Many Czech training aircraft were left over from World War I, but more modern indigenous designs were taking their place. I next trained on the Letov S-14 and the Avia S-18 Komar (mosquito), which was a very good trainer.

MH: How long did it take for you to become a qualified pilot?

Perina: I had had only two hours of dual-control flying. My instructors wanted me to solo after my sixth flight. The commander of the base would not let me go earlier, but I learned pretty fast.

MH: Did you suffer any mishaps in training?

Perina: I crashed on my 10th solo flight. The wind had suddenly changed 180 degrees, just as I was performing a dead-stick landing. Aside from a minor knee injury, I was not really hurt.

MH: How long was your overall training?

Perina: Less than two years. Airmen started out by learning military matters, then how to fly. I graduated in July 1931, was given two months leave, then took an oath to the Czechoslovakian air force and was posted to a military establishment with the rank of first class airman. It was two years before I was promoted to sergeant.

MH: Did you have any say in your assignments with the air force?

Perina: Well, if one had the talent for it, he went to fighter school. Early in 1932, I went to fighter school at Cheb in the Sudetenland. There, I trained in the Avia BH-9, BH-10 and BH-11 monoplane fighters. Those Avias were very dangerous planes–they easily went into a spin that was very hard to get out of. Many pilots were injured in them during training. Even then, we still flew French Potez C-4 aircraft in addition to our own. I also flew the Avia Ba-33 biplane. We trained in air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery, as well as aerobatics.

MH: How long did that last?

Perina: After four months, I graduated from the Cheb school; then I was sent back to my original unit before being posted to a fighter squadron, the 34th, at Olomouc.

MH: What kind of first-line fighters did you fly at that time?

Perina: We had S molik S-20 biplanes, which were pretty good for that period–very maneuverable–but they could only do 150 to 180 mph.

MH: How long did you stay with the 34th?

Perina: When the squadron was posted to another station, the commander at Olomouc wanted me to stay, so I was transferred to the 36th Fighter Squadron when it was rotated to the airfield. I was with them during the Sudetenland crisis in 1938.

MH: Didn’t you have an occasion to meet some of your German counterparts before then?

Perina: Yes, the year before. In 1937, I represented the Czechoslovakian air force at the International Air Show at Zürich. We had the Avia B-534. The German team had arrived before us and was equipped with Heinkel He-51 biplanes and the new Messerschmitt Bf-109s. The Germans I met were mostly gentlemen, not Nazis. One of them, the former World War I ace Ernst Udet, offered to fly over the Alps to find a Czechoslovakian pilot who had become lost during the cross-country competition. We later learned that he had landed in Italy.

MH: How did you do in the air meet?

Perina: I took third place in aerobatics and in the climb-and-dive competition–first and second went to two of the Germans. During the cross-country flight, one of the two magnetos in my engine gave out, so I could not go at full throttle while flying over the mountains. Even so, I managed to come in fourth. At the banquet after the show, I sat between Ernst Udet, who would soon become chief of the Luftwaffe’s office of supply and procurement, and Erhard Milch, second-in-command of the Luftwaffe. I also made the acquaintance of the French squadron at Zürich; I didn’t know that I’d later be flying with them under different circumstances.

MH: What were your activities in the wake of the Munich crisis?

Perina: After returning from Zürich, I won air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery competitions in Czechoslovakia. Then I was posted to a military school, to serve as Rotmistr (warrant officer). Following the loss of the Sudetenland to Hitler, the air force began to form new squadrons, and I joined the 52nd Fighter Squadron as its chief pilot.

MH: In March 1939, the Hungarians also occupied some Czechoslovakian territory. Were you involved in the short border war with them?

Perina: Yes, in March 1939 the 52nd Fighter Squadron flew to Viglas airfield in Slovakia, but my commander cautioned me, ‘Frank, we are ordered not to shoot unless attacked.’ In any case, they’started’ things. We operated along the border, but never saw any combat. We saw some Hungarian aircraft, but they quickly flew back over to their side of the frontier.

MH: What were your activities before the German invasion?

Perina: After a few days, the border war ended, with the Hungarians getting most of the territory they wanted. We returned to Olomouc. Not long after that, the Germans occupied the entire country. Meanwhile, I decided to get married. In the air force, commissioned and warrant officers were not allowed to marry until age 28, when their income would be enough to support a wife, and I now was 28. I married Anna Klimesova on June 24, 1939, and left for Poland on June 26. Under the circumstances, I could not take my wife with me. Anna was imprisoned by the Germans for three years–1942 to 1945.

MH: Did you join the Polish air force?

Perina: No, I didn’t like the Poles–they had also grabbed part of my country, along with the Germans and the Hungarians. With several other pilots who had managed to escape before the Czechoslovakian air force was dissolved, I joined the French Foreign Legion. I had been on my way to North Africa when the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. When France then declared war on Germany, the Czechs obtained a contract from the French Air Ministry to transfer from the Foreign Legion to the Armée de l’Air.

MH: Given your past experience, did you need much training to adapt your skills to French aircraft?

Perina: I took a short refresher course at Chartres on the Curtiss H-75A, an export version of the P-36 Hawk. Some other Czech airmen were trained for the French-built Morane-Saulnier MS-406 and Dewoitine D-520 fighters. During air-to-air gunnery training at La Rochelle, I scored 64 hits on a drogue target out of 100 rounds fired–nobody in France had done so well.

MH: To what outfit were you posted from there?

Perina: On December 1, 1939, I was assigned to the 1ère Escadrille of Groupe de Chasse I, Escadre de Chasse 5 (GC I/5), based at Suippes, near Reims. I did some aerobatics over the station, and when I landed, my joy was justified. The squadron had all the French pilots I’d met in Switzerland. Our CO was one of the best in the world–Capitaine Jean Accart, a former merchant seaman who later became an air force general. Accart and my French squadron mates always called me François Renopé, in case I was taken prisoner–the Germans would treat a French prisoner much better than they would an exiled Czech.

MH: When did you first see action with the French?

Perina: We saw few Germans during the winter of 1939 and the spring of 1940. Then came the German invasion on May 10, 1940. I was having breakfast in town and was about to prepare to go on patrol when I heard a loud droning noise in the air–and I knew it was the Germans.

MH: The ‘Phony War’ was over.

Perina: Yes. My CO came up and said, ‘This is it.’ As soon as we took off, we saw some Messerschmitt Bf-110s, but could not get close. A short time later, we saw a Dornier Do-17 and shot him down. Later, another officer from my squadron got another one.

MH: The day was far from over, wasn’t it?

Perina: That evening, we kept two-hour readiness patrols. I kept one with Capitaine Accart from 4 to 6 p.m. Germans flew in from the southwest toward our station just as we took off–more Do-17s at 6,000 feet, with no escort. The Germans had already bombed all the airfields around us, and they were probably overconfident. Accart and I teamed up to shoot down three of those bombers. Accart came from one side, and I attacked from the other. My second kill was the most horrible thing I ever saw–two chaps bailed out safely, but the third opened his parachute too soon and it got caught in the tail as the plane spun down. You could see him. In addition to our aerial successes, an anti-aircraft gunner hit a bomber in the middle of their formation, and it exploded.

MH: The French credited shared victories as whole kills for each of the pilots involved, so that gave you four aerial victories on your first day of combat, right?

Perina: Yes, and on that same day I was promoted to the French rank of sergent-chef. I became an ace the next day, May 11, when we caught some Heinkel He-111s over Reims and I got one, with the help of Accart and Sergent-Chef François Morel. On May 12, I was promoted to adjutant.

MH: The P-36 is not regarded as one of the great fighters of World War II, but you seem to have done well in it. What did you think of the Hawk?

Perina: Only one word: terrific. It was not as fast as the Messerschmitt, but it could outmaneuver any German aircraft. If one got on your tail, in one 360-degree turn you were behind him. To give you an example, on one occasion eight of us were flying over Sedan when we saw 81 German fighters, Messerschmitts, 2,000 or 3,000 feet above us. It was amazing–as soon as we saw them, they saw us. As they came down on us, we came up at them; they passed us, and we got right on their tails. We couldn’t get in any shots at them, though. On the other hand, we lost only one aircraft, whose pilot bailed out–and he was very inexperienced. In the short time we were in action, my unit, GC I/5, downed 117 German aircraft, but only lost four pilots (one of whom died of blood poisoning while in the hospital). We had the best record in the Armée de l’Air.

MH: Who did you consider the outstanding pilots in the escadrille?

Perina: Accart, of course, was extraordinary–a great leader and a great fighter pilot. Our leading ace, however, was Lieutenant Edmond Marin la Meslée. He was very intelligent. He spoke English fluently, as well as some Spanish and Italian. He was a very quiet man, but by June 7 he had claimed about 20 kills, of which 16 were confirmed, the rest probables. I liked him very much; everybody in the squadron did.

MH: What eventually became of him?

Perina: Marin la Meslée later flew Republic P-47 Thunderbolts with the Allies over Italy and southern France. He was supposed to retire in February 1945, but he insisted on going on one last flight. While attacking a bridge on February 4, he was killed when a 40mm anti-aircraft shell exploded right behind him. One piece of shrapnel went right into his neck.

MH: What about you, meanwhile, back in 1940? I assume that you were soon back in action.

Perina: On Sunday, May 12, the Germans occupied Sedan. Junkers Ju-87s were already dive-bombing the airfield at Sedan when we arrived and attacked them. One Stuka was just in front of me; I hardly had to aim. In four minutes I got four of them, one after the other. Two fell in French lines and were confirmed by the confirmation officer, the other two came down in German lines and could only be counted as probables. The newspapers in France made a big deal about my performance, and on May 15 I was promoted to lieutenant. Not bad–I had risen from sergeant to lieutenant in five days! Meanwhile, though, my squadron moved to St. Dizier on the Marne River on May 14. I shared in the destruction of three more He-111s on May 18th, 19th and 26th.

MH: Your squadron commander, Jean Accart, was also credited with 12 victories and three probables during that time, but wasn’t he shot down on June 1, 1940?

Perina: Yes, I was with him at the time. That day, while flying patrol, we were flying northeast when suddenly the radio played the French national anthem and announced 30 Germans flying near the Swiss border, en route to Marseilles. We found nothing, flew to Dijon to refuel, then took off again. We got to the Swiss border just as the Heinkels were flying back, in quite a close formation. On the first pass, Capitaine Accart got one bullet right between the eyes. Somehow, he had enough strength to open his cockpit and bail out–I last saw him parachuting down. I was pretty mad. I attacked, shot down an He-111, then attacked another two, which flew on with their engines damaged. The first was credited as my 11th victory, the other two only as probables.

MH: What happened after you disengaged from the Germans?

Perina: My fuel was low, so I flew back at 6 p.m. When I landed at Dijon, I was out of gas. I had only refueled with 100 liters of gas when there was another air raid warning, so I took off, flew north and landed 20 kilometers short of St. Dizier–out of fuel again. I phoned my groupe commandant and learned that he had already gotten the news about Capitaine Accart.

MH: Weren’t you wounded soon after that?

Perina: Yes, two busy days later. On the morning of June 2, the squadron was sent to a forward airfield–luckily, because St. Dizier was bombed in the night. After I returned to St. Dizier, I reported by phone. I then sat down on the edge of the tarmac, not knowing that I was sitting right over an unexploded bomb, and was so tired I fell asleep. The groupe CO picked me up, and a moment later the bomb went off–right where I had been sitting. The next day, at lunch time, we learned that 150 Germans were flying toward Paris. We quickly went to the airfield. Eight fighters from GC II/5 were already taking off; I, being on the other side of the airfield, followed them. They saw 90 Junkers Ju-88s, Do-17s, and He-111s. Just as they started to attack, I saw 60 Bf-110s above me. The bombers had come escorted this time!

MH: Those are pretty heavy odds. What did you do?

Perina: I didn’t know what to do, so I climbed a bit more–to 3,000 feet–then dived on the Bf-110s, hoping to break up their formation before they could shoot me down. The Germans turned left to form a big circle. I was very pleased to see that my figuring was right, because at least for a while the bombers would be unescorted. I got one of the Bf-110s in flames (though it wasn’t confirmed), but then one of them got me. I got away by spinning down. My Hawk took 15 cannon and 76 machine-gun hits, but I was still flying. I was hit in the forearm. A cannon shell burst in the cockpit, demolishing my radio. I also had 18 fragments in my right leg, but I didn’t feel anything. I thought a Bf-110 was still firing at me, until I looked down and saw that my fingers were still clenched on my own gun triggers–those were my own guns that I had heard!

MH: What then?

Perina: After I landed at the nearest airfield, I was sent to the hospital at Coulomiers, 30 kilometers east of Paris. When the Germans advanced, I escaped from the hospital and went to Paris, then Chartres, looking for an escadrille to join. At one railway station, where all the trains were stopped, an engineer recognized me from the newspapers, unhooked the engine from the train and took me 60 kilometers to another town. I finally found GC I/5 at Carcasonne, but there was no aircraft for me. On June 20, I came to a nearby airfield and found a Curtiss with a flat tailwheel tire. There was nobody around, so, without a parachute or any other safety device, I just took off in it and flew to Algiers, Algeria, in about two hours. To this day, I don’t know whose Curtiss it was.

MH: France was close to being finished by then. Where did you go after leaving Algiers?

Perina: I flew to St. Denis Siq, a small airfield near Oran. There, I was decorated as a Chévalier de la Légion d’Honneur, and was also awarded the Croix de Guerre with six palms. I felt pretty stupid, because I didn’t have a uniform–I had left it behind in France. I bought a new uniform in Oran, then went by train to Casablanca.

MH: Did you have trouble getting out of Casablanca?

Perina: Traffic was going pretty freely both ways at that time. Three ships full of anti-Gaullists wishing to be repatriated came in from England. Czech and Polish airmen wishing to carry on the war against the Germans, including myself, got aboard those same ships when they left for Gibraltar, where we transferred to a cargo ship. It took us 27 days to get to England.

MH: Did you then join up with the Royal Air Force?

Perina: Of course! I joined up in early September 1940. Most of us Czechs went to No. 312 Squadron, which was under the double command of British and Czech COs. The squadron started out with the Hawker Hurricane–a good aircraft, but heavier than the P-36 and, with a higher wing loading, not as easy to handle as a P-36.

MH: Did your unit participate in the Battle of Britain?

Perina: Yes, but we didn’t have much luck. Number 312 Squadron was formed and trained at Duxford, but no patrol I was on ever made contact with any Germans. On top of that, I developed acute appendicitis and had to be taken out of my plane and flown to the hospital in Ely. Number 310 Squadron was more successful, as was the Canadian 242 Squadron, under Douglas Bader.

MH: What about No. 303 Squadron, the Polish outfit whose top ace during the Battle of Britain was Josef Frantisek?

Perina: Oh, yes, I knew Frantisek. He was a reconnaissance pilot at my prewar station. He was so undisciplined that he was nearly kicked out of the Czechoslovakian air force. Later, while going to France, he got into a dispute with an officer, as a result of which he stayed in Poland, later serving in France. I visited a Potez 63 escadrille while I was in France, and Frantisek was in it, flying reconnaissance missions. During the Battle of Britain, he got to fly Hurricanes with the Poles of No. 303 Squadron, but I understand he was just as much a disciplinary problem for them as he had been for us. Still, the records credit him with shooting down 17 German aircraft in September 1940. Frantisek was killed in a crash landing on October 8, 1940, but not before he had finally become known as the lone wolf type of hero that he apparently had always wanted to be.

MH: Did you continue to serve in No. 312 Squadron after that?

Perina: After recovering from the appendectomy, yes. The squadron moved to many different stations. While we were based at Ayr, Scotland, in 1941, our Hurricanes were replaced by Supermarine Spitfire Vs. When we left, we were replaced by a newly formed French unit, No. 345 Squadron ‘Berry.’ I didn’t know it until later, but its leader was none other than my old escadrille commander, Jean Accart!

MH: How could that be? Wasn’t he killed back in June 1940 near the Swiss border?

Perina: Somehow he had survived being hit between the eyes, but the doctors could not remove the bullet, because they feared he would go blind if they did. After leaving the hospital, Accart helped people to escape from France via Spain, then eventually made his own way to Britain. I didn’t know he was alive until 1978, when I saw him on television while I was living in Burbank, Calif. I then went to find him in France, where he had continued his career in the French air force, retiring as a general in 1965. He still had the bullet in his head, but he only passed away recently, on August 20, 1992.

MH: Did you have any aerial successes while in the Royal Air Force?

Perina: Not until my last fight, on June 3, 1942. There was a big fight over Cherbourg. We were escorting bombers when we were caught by a formation of Focke-Wulf Fw-190s. We lost quite a few pilots in that scrap. I fought four 190s and downed two of them–one of which was confirmed as my 12th victory of the war. The other two Germans escaped. After that, I was assigned to a gunnery course to serve as sector gunnery officer for one year. I was then posted to Fighter Command as part of the Czech liaison establishment, and served in that capacity until the end of the war on May 8, 1945.

MH: Did you return home after the war?

Perina: Yes, I went back to Czechoslovakia, where I resumed my career in the air force. I was CO of a gunnery school, and became well-known in aerobatics. I was even given my own Bücker Bü-131 Jungmeister aerobatic biplane by the air ministry.

MH: But I take it the euphoria of liberation did not last long.

Perina: After the Communists took over, I got into a big dispute with General Bedrich Reicin, the head of the secret police, right in front of the air ministry. Two days later, December 19, 1948, I got a telegram saying I was kicked out of the air force. Bitter and disgusted, I decided that I wanted out–again. Later, I learned that my decision had been a sensible one. General Reicin had been hanged, as had Vladislav Clementis, the minister of foreign affairs. The Communists were devouring their own!

MH: How were you able to get out this time?

Perina: On April 12, 1949, I managed to get hold of a small sports airplane, and with my wife and a friend, I flew to Germany. In order to escape detection, I flew right down on the deck, across the border, until I ran out of gas and belly-landed in a muddy field near Passau, just eight miles from the Russian zone. My wife was injured in the crash and had to be hospitalized in Wiesbaden, but we’d made it.

MH: Where did you go and what did you do from there?

Perina: I joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) again, for five years. I was over the age of 36, so I could not fly operationally, although I did fly small planes. I was on the RAF rifle team and won a lot of trophies. It was really a good five years for me. Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, who attended one of our rifle competitions, came to me personally and tried to make me stay in the RAF, but I knew that I would not reach a higher rank than squadron leader. I thought I’d do better in civilian life, so I quit my commission and went to Canada. There, I manufactured fiberglass fishing boats for five years. In 1953, I obtained an airline pilot’s license, but could not get a job anywhere, being over 42 years of age.

MH: When did you come to the United States?

Perina: My wife and I applied for American visas back in 1949, while in London, but there was a quota on Czechs, so we had to wait 10 years. Finally, just before Christmas in 1959, we were granted our visas. We went to Los Angeles, where I got a job at the Webber Aircraft Corporation in Burbank starting a plastics division, eventually supervising 347 people. My firm assembled lavatories and kitchens for Boeing 747 airliners. Later, while I was there, the company manufactured them. We got a subcontract for Boeing, Douglas, Lockheed and other airliners, and we also made the seats for Gemini space capsules.

MH: Are you still with Webber?

Perina: No. I retired on March 15, 1979. Anna and I moved to Arizona, to take up hunting and fishing, but it’s one of the hottest places in the United States. As you get older, that heat gets to you. So we moved on to Las Vegas, Nevada.

MH: And now I understand that you plan to return to the Czech Republic?

Perina: Yes. The Communists are gone. So, unfortunately, is Slovakia, broken away to pursue its foolish, separate path. The Czech Republic is no longer the country I’d fought for, but I want to go back anyway. There, I’m somebody. Over here, I’m nobody. I’ve a lot of old wartime friends there. Anyway, my wife prefers the opera and theater in Prague over what passes for entertainment in Las Vegas. I guess the main reason is that I’m still such a stupid patriot. I fought for that land. When I die, I want to have that piece of earth around me near the graves of my family, knowing it will be taken good care of by my niece.

This article was written by Jon Guttman and originally appeared in the October 1995 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!