East-European Vets Persecuted for Years
The recent death of Major-General Alois Siska, a Czech veteran and Bomber Command war hero, revived sad memories of the horrific treatment of Allied veterans by Eastern Block communist nations after the Second World War.
Among the smoking ruins of Europe in 1945, Poland and Czechoslovakia were swallowed into the communist empire and their heroes humiliated and persecuted. For these heroes, there was no victory parade to cap the five years of bloody warfare and personal sacrifice.
After the collapse of Soviet communism, General Stanislaw Sikorski, the Leader of the Free Poland Forces, was given a state funeral and his Czech counterpart, Major General Alois Siska, was recently honoured with a full military funeral in Prague, in Sept 2003.
Siska was typical of those who fought alongside British, American, Australian and Canadian allies against the Axis, and who met bitter disappointment at the war’s end.
“Lou” Siska raided Wilhelmshaven docks on December 28th, 1941, as a pilot with the RAFs all-Czech 311 Squadron, but lost an engine of his Wellington bomber, and crashed into the North Sea, floating for days before capture by the Nazis.
With gangrenous frostbitten legs, Siska faced amputation, but an opportune heart attack triggered alternative methods of treatment, and he partially recovered.
As a Czech, whose nation had been incorporated into the Reich, he was charged with high treason and confined in high security Colditz Castle awaiting court marshal. The Red Cross managed to intervene and identify him as “British” and subject to traditional POW treatment.
Siska was transferred to another camp, where circumstances conspired to engineer his escape. In the chaos, he obtained weapons from a German guard house, and used them to capture a swag of enemy soldiers.
He greeted liberating American tanks with a fluttering white sheet, propped up by his crutches.
By his 31st birthday, Siska had spent two years in Sir Archibald McIndoe’s famous burns and plastic surgery unit at Queen Victoria Hospital and he achieved partial use of his legs as a result. But he arrived home only to find a ban on news about Czech pilots in the RAF, and he was forbidden by the government to return to England to continue his treatment.
The communists took direct power in 1948, and Siska was dismissed from the air force as an undesirable, jailed, then exiled. His wife was expelled from university, and both were exiled from Prague to a remote collective farm.
In 1963, Siska was a witness at the trial of Nazi lawyer Hans Globke, who had charged him with treason in 1944. The trial helped spotlight the plight of Czech pilots, and led to restrictions being eased. In the spring of 1968, he was reinstated in the Czech airforce, but the Soviet invasion led to his dismissal again, and he fled again, finally returning in 1989 after the Red regime had collapsed.
Siska got proper recognition only as recently as 2001 when he was promoted major-general, and a Czech fighter squadron was named in his honour.
He came to fly for the RAF after a torturous escape through Slovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Lebanon where he joined the French Foreign Legion.
His airforce experience got him a commission in the newly-formed Czech air unit in France. But with the fall of France, he escaped again, this time on a Danish cargo ship bound for England.
He flew half-a-dozen missions against Channel targets before his capture.
Siska’s treatment after the war typified that of Czech and Poles serving in Allied units in the West. The Czechs escaped the savagery dished out to Polish officers by the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin, whose secret police systematically executed the officers as a potential threat to the future communist masters.
Poles had a much longer escape route to join the Allied forces fighting Hitler, but escape they did.
Poles relieved Australians at Tobruk; fought valiantly in Normandy as part of the 1st Canadian Army; cracked the critical fortress of Casino in Italy; supported British Airborn troops at Arnhem; and by 1940 before France’s fall, had assembled an army of 100,000 men in France under the Polish hero, General Stanislaw Sikorski. After much negotiation by the Allies and pressure from Sikorski, some 75000 Polish soldiers were freed by the Soviets to help fight the Axis in the Middle East.
The treatment of eastern European volunteers who had served in Allied Armies in the West was a reflection of the Soviet dictator’s paranoia which saw enemies and threats to his power everywhere, and had been responsible for the “Ukraine Genocide” of 1932-34 (and later genocides ending in the infamous Gullag) when millions of farmers and their families were deliberately starved to death. This year, Ukranian patriots remember the 70th anniversary of that horror.
Unfortunately for Sikorski, he was killed at Gibraltar in 1943 under mysterious circumstances, some actually suggested he had been assassinated. His recent repatriation and late recognition gave due honour to one of Poland’s great wartime heros.
Donald Sisson is FrontLine’s East Asia Correspondent.
© FrontLine Defence 2004