The Great Amos
by Frantisek Fajtl (Squadron Leader F. Fajtl)
from the book "Thanks for the Memory" by Laddie Lucas
"Alois Vaátko (Wing Commander A. Vašátko), known universally as Amos, the first leader of the Czechoslovak Wing in Fighter Command of the Royal Air Force, was killed in aerial combat on the 23 June, 1942. When he died, he had destroyed 17 enemy aircraft and had probably accounted for another three. He had been decorated by his own countrymen as well as the French and British.
I first met Amos in 1938, when we were serving together in the 2nd Air Regiment in Olomouc. He was then 30 and had graduated from the Military Academy as a lieutenant in the artillery seven years earlier. Later, he had transferred to the Air Force and trained as a pilot after first qualifying as an observer. We became close friends.
While he was a great believer in self-discipline and education, he did not at all frown upon the games players and those who enjoyed themselves; he was, in fact, an excellent tennis player. He had great self-confidence and a fantastic memory for detail. He had made a close study of military regulations, and when he encountered rules which he believed to be senseless or unjustified, he was outspoken in his criticism of them and would not accept their validity.
At officers' conferences, he tended to overshadow his contemporaries with his intellect. He quickly became recognised as having the best mind among those whom he served, and yet he was also the least well liked among them. He had been regarded as self-opinionated and obstinate ever since his time at the Military Academy. Although he graduated with the highest marks in the exams and the various tests, he was not awarded the equivalent of the Sword of Honour because he was often quite critical f the Staff if he thought this was justified. His attitude had caused his superiors to enter some caveats in his confidential report.
'Unusually ambitious, often dissatisfied with his lot, and unreasonably critical, he needs a firm hand on him. He has already been warned about his open criticism of conditions at the Academy. He is, however, energetic, smart and determined, and has all the intellect necessary to absorb the technicalities of advanced, modern equipment...'
The qualifications embraced in this report resulted in Amos finishing no higher than sixth in the Order of Merit table for is course.
There was an air of purpose about everything he did. He planned ahead. Thus it was that he used to worry about his periodical medical checks. He was concerned that his eyesight was somewhat suspect and that this might impede the realisation of his ambitions in the Service. It used to be said of him that he would copy out and then memorise the bottom lines of letters on the testing charts so that he might pass the eye tests without difficulty.
His obvious qualities as an officer ensured that Amos would quickly become a flight commander in his unit. this at once gave him the chance to demonstrate his belief that every flight must adhere to a strict programme and purpose. This was reflected in his reaction to a rule which, in those days, required every pilot to complete four flights a month to qualify for flying pay, known then as 'existence' money.
In fact, these special allowances were quite substantial and were not to be lost. Often, in the case of the higher-ranking officers on the Staff, people would come along to the flying units asking to be allowed to do four five-minute flights and circuits before the month was out. But Amos wouldn't have this. He banned the practice in his flight because, he said, it interfered with his programme and schedule. He further issued instructions that all 'existence' flights would be undertaken in strict accordance with his routine training programme and that there would be no exceptions.
It was part of Amos's intellectual armour that he would never admit defeat or give in to adversity. I had a personal experience of this in May 1937, when he and I were flying from Olomouc to Košice, a matter of a few hundred kilometres, in a Zlin XII light communications aircraft.
We encountered three heavy thunderstorms on the way. If I had been captain of the aircraft, I would have turned back rather than risk such turbulence. we had no radio, only a compass and a map. But Amos was navigating, and the captain, and elected to try to go round the storms - the third compelled us to fly dangerously close to the Hungarian frontier, which we were forbidden to cross.
'Sir,' I ventured rather tentatively into the speaking tube, 'might it not be wiser for us to turn back?'
'Lieutenant,' he replied frostily, increasing my apprehension, 'stick to your course. We shall get through. The storms are only local.'
We pressed on through the darkened overcast amid flashes of lightning and considerable turbulence. As I was then flying on instruments, the elements were most distracting. However, when eventually we came out of this hell into clearer weather, Amos calmly gave me a correction to the course. 'In 10 minutes,' he added, 'we'll be there.' And so it proved.
Vaátko felt the German Wehrmacht's occupation of our homeland sharply. One day, when I went to his room, I found him deep in though. There was a long pause before he acknowledged my presence. 'we must never surrender to all of this,' he said, 'even although there, are sadly, so few of us...'
'But how, Amos,' I countered, 'are we going to do that?'
He pursed his lips as if rejecting the bitterness of the regime and the national humiliation it had brought. 'Each man for himself,' he said. ' But each of us must be governed by the conscience of the professional soldier and the duty of a patriot. We must never serve the enemy.' His attitude was exactly the same as mine.
Alois Vaátko and Frantisek Fajtl moved to Poland and thence to France for the short-lived aerial battle. North Africa was the next stop. From there, their gaze was fastened on the UK, the last bastion in the defence against the Nazi juggernaut. For Vaátko, language was going to be the problem. He did not know a single word of English.
Amos [therefore] bought French-English dictionaries and textbooks and distributed them to his friends. He pursued his study of English as energetically and as resolutely as he did everything else that he cared about. Day and night he laboured over the vocabulary and the grammar.
His arrival in England, where he was accepted by the Royal Air Force, was, for him, a revelation. He sensed at once - as his compatriots did with him - the Service's fighting spirit and its organisational strength. He could scarcely credit the British people's attitude to war - their calm courage, their discipline and their dedication, and, above all, their resolve, while standing quite alone, never to surrender to the superior might of the enemy. In such an atmosphere, he literally flung himself into the flying and the fight.
The advance and promotion of such an exceptional character was probably predictable... The Battle of Britain with the newly-formed 312 (Czech) Squadron and its Hurricanes...Fresh victories to add to those he had gained in France...By December 1940, command of a flight in the Squadron and, by the following May, the unit's commanding officer, flying with the Kenley Wing in 11 Group...Vaátko drove his followers as hard as he taxed his own endurance - 53 operational hours he flew in one month...His 17th kill - a Me.109, gained in a sweep over France - was a prelude to his appointment as the first leader of the Czechoslovak Air Force wing in Fighter Command...
Alois Vaátko was now happy and thoroughly contented. He was satisfying his aggression and his earlier yearning to fly Spitfires. But his leadership of the Wing was, sadly, to be short-lived. On that June day in 1942, he was returning from France and, unexpectedly, was engaged near the English coast by a particularly tenacious Luftwaffe pilot in a Fw.190. In a sudden break, Vaátko and the German collided. Both aircraft fell into the sea. Amos did not survive.
Here, then, was an outstanding commander and organiser - a manly fighter of exceptional intellect who commanded respect and popularity without courting it. By his achievements and moral qualities, he earned for himself the premier place in the history of Czechoslovakia's air fighting against the oppressor."