Speech At Tangmere Museum Of Military Aviation History Karel Kuttelwascher's Victories With The RAF Introduction To British Edition Of "Night Hawk Introduction To Czech Edition Of "Night Hawk" Extract From "Night Hawk" (1): Opening Page Extract From "Night Hawk" (2): The 'Triple Kill'
Tangmere - the site of so much history and the scene of so much valour.
This short talk is set in a particularly glorious period of the airfield's history: the three months of April, May and June 1942. It describes a dangerous, but little known, type of operation called night intrusion. At this time and on this operation, one man excelled: a Royal Air Force pilot with the unlikely, and for many unpronounceable, name of Karel Kuttelwascher.
Karel Miloslav Kuttelwascher - or Kut as he was known to all his wartime colleagues - was born on 23 September 1916 in a town now called Havlíčkův Brod in a country now called the Czech Republic.
He joined the Czechoslovak Air Force when he was 18 and clocked up some 2,200 flying hours before the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 and disbanded the Czechoslovak armed forces. Three months after the invasion, he made a daring escape from Czechoslovakia into Poland by hiding in a coal train.
Together with many other Czechoslovak pilots, he was able to make his way from Poland to France where he was drafted into the Foreign Legion to await the imminent outbreak of war.
When war came in 1939, Kut was allowed to join the French Air Force and flew in the fierce but brief Battle of France of 1940. He claimed a number of German aircraft destroyed and damaged, but those were turbulent times and no records survive to verify these claims.
Then, when France fell after just three weeks of fighting, he managed to reach Algeria, escaped to Morocco, and took ship to Britain where he immediately joined the beleaguered Royal Air Force.
During the war, the RAF formed four Czechoslovak squadrons - three fighter and one bomber. However, surprisingly, Kut never served in any of these Czechoslovak squadrons. Instead he was assigned to the RAF's oldest unit, the legendary No. 1 Squadron.
He joined No. 1 on 3 October 1940 in time to earn his place as one of 'The Few'. In fact, the British cannot be reminded often enough that, in the Battle of Britain, no less than one fifth of the RAF's 3,000 pilots were not in fact British. Some 87 were Czechoslovaks including the RAF's top-scoring pilot of the Battle, Josef František.
Kut eventually spent a full two years with No. 1 Squadron. During the early circus operations, in each of the months of April, May and June 1941, he shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 off the French coast - but his score would not remain at three.
Meanwhile No. 1 Squadron experienced more excitement with their involvement in the famous Channel Dash when, on 12 February 1942, the two German battle cruisers 'Scharnhorst' and 'Gneisenau' raced from the French port of Brest and set sail for Norway. In a cannon-blazing attack on three accompanying destroyers, No.1 Squadron lost two aircraft, but Kut saw his shells exploding on the decks of his destroyer and judged the damage to be considerable.
By this time, No. 1 Squadron was based at its ancestral home here at Tangmere where it spent the year July 1941 to July 1942. At the start of November 1941, leadership of the unit was taken over by the charismatic Squadron Leader James MacLachlan, known to all as Mac. He had lost his left arm in an encounter with a 109 over Malta but, with the aid of an artificial limb, he was quickly back on Hurricanes.
Kut - by now a Flight Lieutenant - and Mac - his one-armed Commanding Officer - soon became great friends and, during the night intruder missions that were to follow, keen rivals.
The Hurricanes of No. 1 Squadron commenced night intruder operations some weeks after the Channel Dash episode. Operations commenced on 1 April 1942 and continued until 2 July 1942 when No. 43 Squadron took over the role.
Previously, when German bombers attacked British cities, RAF fighters tackled them in our air space. By dramatic contrast, the idea of night intrusion was to engage the Luftwaffe aircraft over their own bases in France and the Low Countries.
If the bombers could be attacked as they were coming in to land, they were particularly vulnerable, as the crews were tired and unsuspecting and the ammunition was probably used up. The runway navigation lights, combined with the slow speed of the bombers as they descended, all assisted RAF pilots in locating and destroying the enemy.
If the German bombers could be found as they were taking off, again they were vulnerable, but the crews were alert and the ammunition racks full. However, the marvellous advantage of this kind of mission, if successful, was that it destroyed not just the Luftwaffe aircraft but its bomb load, which could not then be dropped on British targets.
Usually intruder activity took place during the two weeks around the full moon - known by the pilots involved as "the moon period" - since the moon assisted flying as well as location of enemy bombers. During No. 1 Squadron's three month period of night intrusion, there were four full moons: 1 April, 30 April, 30 May and 28 June.
So the night intruder operation was a specialist exercise requiring a pilot with keen eyesight, cool nerves, and the ability to seize a chance that would only last seconds.
Clearly it required a particular kind of aircraft and fortunately such an aircraft was to hand in the Hurricane.
At the time of its intruder operations, No. 1 Squadron was equipped with the Hawker Hurricane IIC. This mark entered service in the late spring of 1941 and, of all Hurricane versions, it was the one built in greatest numbers. This Hurricane was powered by a Rolls Royce Merlin XX engine and it had a maximum speed of about 330 miles per hour.
There were three features which particularly distinguished intruder Hurricanes from the ones flown by the Squadron in the Battle of Britain and later: armament, fuel and colour.
The IIC was fitted with four 20 mm Hispano cannon, two in either wing, in place of the 8 or 12 Browning machine guns on earlier marks, so there was much more power in the punch. However, each of the four cannon had only 91 rounds which was merely enough for about nine seconds firing. So every second had to count and, in Kut's case, it most certainly did.
The intruder missions over the continent required plenty of fuel and so No. 1 Squadron's Hurricane lICs were fitted with two 45 gallon drop tanks, one under each wing. This took the total fuel load to 184 gallons which, at a normal consumption rate, provided a range of some 900 miles enabling an operation of 3-3.5 hours.
Many intruder Hurricanes did not have the normal green and grey camouflage scheme. Instead they were painted matt black all over in order to make it harder to detect them in the night sky. This matt finish tended to increase drag and therefore reduce top speed, but the intruder - unlike the interceptor - depended more on concealment than speed.
Kut's particular Hurricane had the RAF code JX:E - the designation of his aircraft since June 1941 - and the manufacturer's serial number BE 581. According to many accounts, an emblem was painted on the starboard side of the engine cowling. It depicted a scythe in yellow and across it a banner in red carrying the name "Night Reaper", a gruesome image which reflected the Czech's acute sense of vengeance.
No. 1 Squadron's night intruder operations started on the night of 1 April 1942, appropriately enough the official birthday of the Royal Air Force. The timing was no coincidence: the moon was at its fullest and brightest. For Kut at least, it was a baptism of fire.
He found a Junkers Ju 88 taking off at Melun, south of Paris. Closing to only 100 yards, he raked it with cannon fire and it dived into the ground. Then he saw a similar aircraft still on the runway and damaged it in a strafing attack.
Two weeks later, he knocked out his first Dornier Do 217 above St. André.
Then, on the night of 26-27 April 1942, Kut made a sortie that almost proved his last. Near Rouen, he dispatched a Dornier with an ease which proved deceptive until a stream of tracer bullets flew a mere ten feet above his cockpit. It was a Ju 88 night fighter on his tail and, in a quick and violent evasive manoeuvre, the Czech was able to reverse the roles and damage the Junkers before losing it in the darkness.
It was on the night of 4-5 May 1942 that Kut achieved his greatest intruder success with a stunning triple kill at St. André. Six Heinkel He 111 bombers were coming into land. Operating from dead astern, he blasted one Luftwaffe aircraft, then another, and then a third - three bombers destroyed in just four minutes, a feat unsurpassed on night intruder operations.
For the next month, Kut's score remained static but then he achieved victories on successive nights. On 2-3 June 1942, he shot down another Dornier and the following night in rapid succession he destroyed a Heinkel, damaged one Dornier and destroyed another.
The last of No. 1 Squadron's night intruder missions took place on the night of 1-2 July 1942. Over Dinard, Kut found a couple of Dorniers and destroyed one and damaged the other. Remaining on the scene, he managed to locate yet another Do 217 and, using his last few seconds of ammunition, he dispatched it into a wood.
It was a flaming finale to the intruder operations of No. 1 Squadron. In the course of just three months, a total of 22 enemy aircraft had been destroyed and a further 13 damaged.
Squadron Leader James MacLachian had downed five aircraft and damaged a further three, collecting a Distinguished Service Order for his magnificent leadership. But it was his Czech Flight Lieutenant who accounted for no less than 15 of the kills and five of the aircraft damaged. In the process, Kut was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice in a mere 42 days.
Sadly, however, No. 1 Squadron's success had its price: the Czech Vlastimil Machaček, the Czech Josef Dygrýn, and the Canadian Gerry Scott were all killed on intruder missions in this period. Kut made it look almost easy, but in truth night intrusion was a lonely and immensely dangerous exercise.
At the conclusion of intruder operations, No. 1 Squadron went north to Acklington to convert to Hawker Typhoons, but Kut stayed in the south and moved down the road from Tangmere to Ford. Here he joined No. 23 Squadron where he flew further intruder missions on the de Havilland Mosquito but, in total contrast to his uncanny success at No. 1, he never even sighted a German aircraft.
The rest of the war was much less eventful for Kut - mainly special duties with the Czechoslovak Inspectorate General, involving six months in North America, and then service with No. 32 Maintenance Unit at St Athan near Cardiff, where he test flew a variety of bombers.
At the end of the war, he returned briefly to Czechoslovakia but in 1946, on the day the communists effectively took control of his homeland, he flew back to Britain where he became a Captain with British European Airways. His premature death came on 17 August 1959 after a heart attack while on holiday in Cornwall. He was only 42.
It is possible that Kut's story would never have been written but for an accident of fate which led me - more than 20 years after his death - to marry one of his twin daughters and gain access to his personal records. For three years, I researched his life, contacting some 150 individuals and organisations in 12 countries.
Then, in 1985, Kut's biography was published by William Kimber under the title "Night Hawk", the name given to him by a war-time comic. The English version is now out of print, but "Night Hawk" has since been translated into Czech and this new edition will be published in the Czech Republic later this year.
To summarise and to conclude: notwithstanding his German surname, Karel Kuttelwascher was a Czech who became the scourge of the Luftwaffe bombers operating from France and the Low Countries in 1942. His destruction of 15 aircraft in just three months made him the RAF's greatest night intruder ace. Every one of his intruder missions took place while he was based here at Tangmere. It is a story which deserves to be remembered and I am delighted to have had the opportunity to share it with you.
Early in 2005, the Royal Air Force's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, based at Coningsby in Lincolnshire, England, painted its Hawker Hurricane IIC PZ865 in the colour scheme of BE581 'Night Reaper'. The scheme includes 11 swastika kill markings under the cockpit sill on the port side (as seen in a contemporary newspaper photograph) as BE581 might have appeared the morning after 'Kut's' triple kill on 5 May 1942. The BBMF aircraft will wear this scheme for the next few years as it performs at air displays around the country.
Tangmere Military Aviation Museum click here
RAF's No 1 Squadron click here
Battle of Britain Memorial Flight lick here
Karel Kuttelwascher's biographical details click here
Karel Kuttelwascher's Victories With The RAF Date Aircraft Status Place 2 February 1941 Messerschmitt Bf 109 Probable Boulogne 8 April 1941 Messerschmitt Bf 109 Destroyed Near Cap Gris Nez 21 May 1941 Messerschmitt Bf 109 Destroyed Between Calais and Dunkirk 27 June 1941 Messerschmitt Bf 109 Destroyed Le Touquet 1/2 April 1942 Junkers Ju 88 Destroyed Melun 1/2 April 1942 Junkers Ju 88 Damaged Melun 16/17 April 1942 Dornier Do 217 Destroyed St André 26/27 April 1942 Dornier Do 217 Destroyed Rouen-Boos 26/27 April 1942 Junkers Ju 88 Damaged Rouen-Boos 30 April/1 May 1942 Dornier Do 217 Destroyed Rennes 30 April/1 May 1942 Heinkel He 111 Destroyed Dinard-coast 4/5 May 1942 Heinkel He 111 Destroyed St André 4/5 May 1942 Heinkel He 111 Destroyed St André 4/5 May 1942 Heinkel He 111 Destroyed St André 2/3 June 1942 Dornier Do 217 Destroyed Off Dunkirk 3/4 June 1942 Heinkel He 111 Destroyed St André 3/4 June 1942 Dornier Do 217 Damaged St André 3/4 June 1942 Dornier Do 217 Destroyed St André 21/22 June 1942 Junkers Ju 88 Destroyed St André 21/22 June 1942 Junkers Ju 88 Damaged St André 28/29 June 1942 Dornier Do 217 Destroyed Near Trévières 1/2 July 1942 Dornier Do 217 Destroyed Near Dinard 1/2 July 1942 Dornier Do 217 Damaged Near Dinard 1/2 July 1942 Dornier Do 217 Destroyed Near Dinard
It was an autumn evening in West Sussex more than forty years after the Battle of Britain was fought in the blue skies above that part of the country. We had finished some Sunday afternoon tea and conversation turned to the war-time exploits of the Czech night intruder ace Flight Lieutenant Karel Kuttelwascher, or ‘Kut’ as he was usually known to his Royal Air Force colleagues.
Suddenly Kut’s former wife, Ruby, amazed us all by pulling out from under an antique sideboard a large red trunk from which she withdrew Kut’s leather-bound RAF flight log containing a brief note on every one of his sorties. Tucked in the back of the log were thrilling combat reports for a number of his most successful operations. Also in the trunk were a whole collection of photographs and a substantial batch of cuttings from British and American newspapers for the war period, while later we found over 100 items of correspondence.
No one in the room had ever studied these absolutely fascinating records. From that evening, 29 November 1981, I was consumed by a relentless desire to research and record the life of a man who had been dead over twenty years before I met and subsequently married one of his daughters. Ruby died of cancer shortly afterwards but, using all this material, I started to write about Kut with an article in the monthly journal of the trade union for which I work as a national official. The October 1982 issue carried a piece of just under 1,000 words – but that started the endeavour.
A matter of days after publication of the article, a member of the union called Stan Greenwood telephoned me to say that he had read the article with great interest because he had actually served with Kut in No 1 Squadron in 1942. I now blame him for this book because he named other contacts for me who in turn named others; each made valuable suggestions for further sources of information; and so it went on. Eventually my researches brought me into contact with over 150 individuals and organisations in twelve countries. I visited places like the former airfield of Tangmere where all No 1 Squadron’s intruder operations were flown. I was pleased to be allowed to visit the present home of No 1 Squadron at RAF Wittering and honoured to be permitted to attend a squadron reunion at the RAF Club in London.
Karel Kuttelwascher was one of the RAF’s greatest fighter aces and arguably its most brilliant night fighter pilot. During the war, he was a well-known hero but his name has subsequently been almost forgotten. Now, for the first time, this is his full story.
So many biographies of World War II fighter pilots are written like novels, full of conversations that could not possibly have been recorded, still less remembered. It might enliven the narrative, but it makes it difficult to know what is verifiable fact and what is essentially fiction. “Night Hawk” eschews such a style. Kut’s story is sufficiently exciting not to require artificial embellishment, so everything in this book – to the best of my efforts as a researcher – is fact and every quote is authentic. I have chosen not to quote combat reports since the texts are stylised and dated, but the reader can be assured that every date and time, every reference to the weather, every burst of fire has a documentary source.
Essentially, “Night Hawk” is a biography of one extraordinary man. However, it outlines as well the tremendous contribution to the war effort made by Czech airmen as a whole, a story not yet fully told anywhere in the English language. Also it describes an aspect of the last war – night intruder operations – which has previously received too little examination and appreciation.
It is a story that needs to be told. Even those who knew Kut and are interested in aviation history have not appreciated the full nature of his exploits. For instance, Wing Commander Pat Hancock, who knew Kut briefly at No 1 Squadron and is now Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association, wrote to me: “In truth I had not realised just how famous Kut had become”. Also, it is a story which really had to be written in the 1980s before too much source material was lost, too many memories had irretrievably faded, and too many of those personally involved reach the end of their fascinating lives. As one of Kut’s wartime colleagues put it, many of his contemporaries are now “flying with angels”.
It is clear from a letter quoted in the text that Kut had thought of writing a book about the exploits of himself and his fellow Czechs in the RAF. Indeed his wife Ruby helped him to prepare a lengthy article which was published in 1943, but their subsequent divorce precluded any further such efforts. Now, more than 40 years later, Kut’s dream of a permanent record has come true.
As with Kut, the background of my parents involves a mid-European upbringing and service in the RAF. My mother is Italian and lived in Italy until 1947 before her marriage to my father who was there with the RAF. Trained as a fighter pilot, after the war he continued to fly – mainly at weekends – with the RAFVR. His regular usage of the call “Roger and out” led him to the selection of my christian name and his time with the RAFVR provided me with my first opportunity to sit in an aircraft cockpit. This family background created in me a tremendous interest in aircraft in general and fighter aces of the last war in particular. In 1981, this long established interest of mine came together with the personal records of Karel Kuttelwascher. Out of that combination has come “Night Hawk”.
The writing of "Night Hawk" changed the lives of myself and my wife, Karel Kuttelwascher's daughter. When her parents divorced, sadly my wife lost all trace of her Czech relatives and it was only towards the end of my three years' work on the book that she managed to renew contact with them. We are now in regular communication with no fewer than 24 Czech members of the family.
At the time that I wrote "Night Hawk", I had never visited Czechoslovakia but, in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, I made many visits and I made many friends. The more I visited the country and talked to people about Karel Kuttelwascher, the more I wanted to make Kut's story available to Czech people in their own language.
It is now eight years since I completed the English edition of "Night Hawk". Even then, I hoped that one day the book would become available in the Czech language and in fact the dedication at the beginning of the English edition was deliberately in both English and Czech.
When the original edition of "Night Hawk" was published in 1985, it was difficult to make it available to relatives and friends in Czechoslovakia. I sent copies through the post but often they did not arrive. My first visit to Czechoslovakia was in 1988 and therefore before the revolution. On that occasion, I smuggled into the country copies of "Night Hawk" and material for the dissident movement.
When the book was published in Britain, I explored the possibility of publishing it in Czechoslovakia, but I was told that I would have to make a series of cuts to make the text politically acceptable to the Communist authorities then in control of the country. I decided not to publish an edited version of the book but to wait until I could have the whole work published.
The revolution of 1989 made that possible and I am delighted that a Czech edition of the book is now available. I did my best to make the English edition of "Night Hawk" a first class piece of research and writing, but in fact I believe the Czech edition is an improvement: some minor inaccuracies have been corrected, some new information has been added, many more photographs have been included, and this time a map is supplied.
I owe a major debt of thanks to some Czech friends who have worked hard to make it possible to produce this Czech edition: to Bohumil Kocourek for translating the English text into Czech, to Zdeněk Hurt for checking the whole work for technical accuracy, to Milan Beneš for drawing the map, to Vlastimil Suchý for designing the cover, and to Arnost Moucha for publishing and promoting the book.
Link: biographical details of Karel Kuttelwascher in Czech click here
Opening Page, 1/2 April 1942
“Earlier on that spring day in 1942, the young pilots of the famed No 1 Squadron had celebrated the official birthday of the Royal Air Force. Now the cold white light of a full moon bathed a camouflaged Hawker Hurricane night fighter in an ethereal glow as it squatted on the field at Tangmere ready for take-off. A lone pilot who would later be dubbed the ‘Czech Night Hawk’ strode out to the aircraft with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. He settled himself into the ample cockpit and quickly brought to life the controls and the machine. Tonight was the first occasion of night intrusion for No 1 Squadron. Yet for this particular pilot it was to be a baptism of cannon fire and, by the end of the squadron’s three months on night intrusion, he would have turned it into almost an art form.
The Hurricane accelerated down the runway and – ponderous with the extra fuel in drop tanks – clawed its way up and into the blackness of the night. The pilot handled the controls with a deftness which came from years of the best of training, followed by more years of tough combat experience, all combined with an inborn instinct for flying and fighting. Leaving behind the tranquillity and safety of the Sussex countryside, the Czech ventured out across the English coast and over the Channel. Above him, a brilliant moon hung suspended in a jewelled sky, while below the reflection of a million stars shimmered on the calm sea.
Once over France, he penetrated deep into the enemy’s lair, constantly scanning the sky and searching the ground for evidence of the Luftwaffe. At last he came across an enemy base but there were no bombers to break the stillness. Resolutely he pressed further into the slight haze and eventually found that for which he had come so far. There beneath him the flarepath of a German airfield exhibited a bright collection of colours which could not fail to attract his ever-roaming vision. A new kind of tension crept over him, but it was controlled: he was trained, he was ready, he knew what to do.
As he swung his Hurricane round over the inviting target, he saw a Luftwaffe aircraft climbing heavily from the runway and heading into the protection of the night before it set course for England where it would rain its bombload on families asleep in some English town. He opened the throttle and boosted the power from his Merlin engine to bring him closer to the enemy craft and positioned his Hurricane snugly behind the bomber. As he pulled still nearer to the German, his right thumb found the red button at the top of the control column and gently he started to squeeze the device that would unleash an explosive hail of blazing cannon fire. It was as if all his life had been but a prelude and a preparation for just this moment".
The 'Triple Kill', 4/5 May 1942
“Just 40 minutes before midnight, the Czech took off from Tangmere and headed south across the Channel. The moon was waning, so that the golden orb looked as if a segment had been chopped off by an astral axeman. Kut crossed the French coast south of Fécamp at an altitude of 2,000 feet. Three searchlight came up at him from the town but, showing considerable presence of mind, he flashed his navigation lights on and off twice and to his relief the ploy succeeded and the searchlights were doused, those manning them clearly assuming that he was ‘friendly’.
There was a slight haze and some cloud away to the east, but otherwise visibility over France was good that night. Below the canopy of stars, Kut made for his first target, the German airfield at Evreux, about 70 miles inland. Over this target, he orbited for ten minutes but he could see no light or activity. Disappointed, he flew on a little further south to St André-de-l’Eure, where he had shot down a Dornier less than three weeks before.
Reaching St André at 0050 hours, he circled the blacked-out base for ten minutes. Then the airfield lit up with a double flare path east to west and there, ready to land, was a gaggle of no less than six enemy aircraft. He immediately identified them as Heinkel bombers, probably on their way back from a destructive mission over Cowes, their crews relieved to be in sight of the sanctuary of their base. All six showed white tail lights. They were orbiting at 1,500-2,000 feet ready to touch down and therefore vulnerable to Kut’s cannon. For two minutes he circled outside the Heinkels, cautiously stalking his prey, carefully positioning himself for a kill.
He closed the Hurricane in behind one of the Germans and took a precise aim. He fired a two-second burst from about 100 yards dead astern but slightly below. Four streams of cannon fire converged into a cone of destruction and at its apex the starboard engine of the Heinkel caught fire. The German aircraft twisted grotesquely and dived to the ground north-east of the airfield. Immediately, he was able to repeat the same tactics on a second machine. A one-second burst of uncompromising accuracy caused the hit Heinkel to plunge downwards, flickering flames consuming it as it crashed into a wood east of the airfield.
Astonishingly, the remaining four Germans still seemed to be unaware of his presence so, quickly pressing on the attack, Kut lined up behind yet a third Heinkel. Ruthlessly he fired a two-second burst of ammunition from dead astern and saw his shells slam into the target. The enemy aircraft dived down steeply from 1,500 feet and then Kut lost sight of it, initially unsure whether he had secured a third kill. But 30 seconds later, sweeping round on orbit, he saw three separate fires burning on the ground. The lurid flames licked the black night. There could be no doubt about it: three bombers had been totally destroyed in a matter of just four minutes. He had only used 200 rounds of ammunition and he had certainly made them count.
At this point, airfield lighting went out and machine gun fire started. Kut later told a radio interviewer: ‘They opened all the anti-aircraft fire on me and I had to fly through it. It was like going through hell’. He had no choice but to depart this malign environment. The time was 1.05 am – he had been over the airfield for only fifteen minutes but he had done enormous damage.
Yet the sortie was not finished. He flew on to his third enemy base of the night – Dreux – but he could find no activity there. So he turned north for home at last. North of Evreux, four searchlights illuminated him. He tried to repeat his earlier technique and flashed his navigation lights, but this time it did not work. The searchlights remained on him, so he had to dive steeply and to one side before he managed to escape them. Kut re-crossed the Channel at 3,000 feet. At 2.05 am – almost three hours after leaving base – he touched down at Tangmere to report his astonishing achievement to his ecstatic colleagues.”