Otto Hanzlíček: Life Before Britain

Introduction

Otto Hanzlíček is one of the three Merseyside Few who are clearly not from Liverpool or Wirral. He is buried in West Derby Cemetery, section 11 RC grave 392 with a compatriot, Jindřich Bartoš.

West Derby Cemetery, in Lower House Lane, Croxteth [Google map], is a sprawling mass of graves, some well maintained and some not. The cemetery was opened in January 1884 and consecrated six months later on 28 June. It has been used for both Church of England and Roman Catholic burials and a number of its buildings have been accorded Grade II listed status.

Just inside the entrance is one of those signs showing a map of the cemetery and its sections. These things are never easy to follow as the sections themselves are not marked at all. It turned out that Hanzlíček’s grave was about as far from the cemetery gates as you can get but I was pleased to see it was well maintained.

So who was Otto Hanzlíček and how did he come to be buried on Merseyside?

Background – Early Life

Otto Hanzlíček was born on 18 June 1911 at 21 Straße Sandhöhe / Ktinigshtihe in Ústí nad Labem [Google map], an ethnically German and Czech city in Austria-Hungary. He was the eldest of two children, his sister Jirana being three years younger than him.

Ústí nad Labem is in the region of Bohemia, about 80km north of Prague close to the border with Germany (also known as the Sudetenland, its majority population being ethnic Germans). After World War I, Bohemia became the core of the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia. Under its first president, Tomas Masaryk, the country was a liberal democratic republic.

However, serious issues were emerging around the Czechoslovakian people’s relationship with the native Germans. These issues would come to a head in the most brutal fashion in 1938.

Otto Hanzlíček trained as a mechanic but always maintained an interest in aviation. This led to him volunteering for the Czechoslovak Air Force in 1930. He attended the Military Aviation School in Prostejov [Google map] where he trained with 15th Squadron 4th Aviation Regiment. His graduation was confirmed on 7 January 1932.

In 1934 he was transferred to Aviation Regiment No 3 in Vajnory, near Bratislava [Google map]. After completion of fighter pilot training and promotion to Seargent in August 1935 he flew fighters for 37th Fighter Squadron at Piestany [Google map].

Escaping the Nazi Occupation of Czechoslovakia

Banner of the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia

The gathering storm clouds of war cast a shadow over Czechoslovakia and on 10 October 1938 it was incorporated directly into the Reich when the country was forced by Nazi Germany to accept the terms of the Munich Agreement.

The remnants of Bohemia and Moravia were then annexed by Germany in 1939. From 1939 to 1945 Bohemia and Moravia formed the German Reichsprotektorat Bohmen und Mahren (Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia). Any open opposition to German occupation was brutally suppressed by the Nazi authorities and many Czechoslovakian patriots were executed as a result.

Stamp from the Reichsprotektorat of Bohemia-Moravia

Clearly this was no place for Otto Hanzlíček so he flew to Prague where he had been included in the National Research Institute of Aviation in the Letňany district having amassed a total flying time of 812 hours 28 minutes.

He stayed with his sister Jirana who had fled occupied Ústí nad Labem with the rest of his family after the Nazis had begun searching out families of Czechoslovak airmen for deportation.

Hanzlíček had clearly made plans to escape the Nazi occupation of his homeland. With two friends he headed for Ostrava [Google map], which was close to the Polish border, and on 8 June 1939 managed to cross into Poland.

From Kraków he made his way to Gdynia [Google map] on the south coast of the Baltic Sea. On 25 July, just 8 weeks before the Germans occupied the city, he caught a ship to France where he landed at Calais on 31 July 1939. From here he was transferred to Paris.

The Battle of France

As France was not yet at war with Germany, Hanzlíček was given a passport and, with other immigrants, expected to join the French Foreign Legion. Refusal to do this would have led to repatriation to Czechoslovakia. Once war was declared he was transferred to the Armee de l’Air.

After retraining on French aircraft at the fighter school at Chartres, south-west of Paris [Google map], he was posted to Groupe de Chasse II/5 at Toul Croix-de-Metz near the German border [Google map] in December 1939. Initially flying Curtiss Hawk 75 – an American-built fighter, contemporaneous with the Hawker Hurricane and Messerschmitt Bf109 – he started off on fighter escort missions for bombers. His first recorded kill was a Dornier Do17P on 24 April 1940.

Otto Hanzlíček(left), in France with Czechoslovak comrades

On 10 May 1940 Hitler commenced Operation Fall Gelb, his anticipated assault on Western Europe.

On 11 May 1940 Hanzlíček shared a Heinkel He111H of 2/Kampfgeschwader 53 (the infamous Condor Legion) bringing it down at Bois de Chene, 100km east of Toul on the German border [Google map].

Luftwaffe ace Günther Rall

Then on 18 May 1940 he shared a Bf109 with French pilot Lt G Ruchouxem. Immediately Hanzlíček himself was attacked by another Bf109. The pilot of this particular Messerschmitt was none other than Luftwaffe ace Günther Rall of 8/JG 52, who would end the war with 275 confirmed victories.

Rall blasted Hanzlíček’s plane causing it to burst into flames. Hanzlíček was forced to bail out and was fortunate to parachute to safety. The loss of his plane is reported to be Günther Rall first recorded kill.

Otto Hanzlíček made 113 flights totalling over 100 hours for the Armee l’Air for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Silver Star and bar and the Czechoslovak War Cross.

On 18 June 1940 Winston Churchill told the British Parliament, “What General Weygard called The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin”. Otto Hanzlíček having fought in the first battle was about to join the second.

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