Jan Vella was born in the Czechoslovakian industrial town of Kladno, west of Prague. By 1924, he was already showing a love of flying when he joined the Czechoslovakian equivalent of the Air Cadets. He became a train driver and later trained as a fighter pilot, remaining in the reserves until Czechoslovakia armed forces were mobilised in October 1938. After escaping the Gestapo in his home country, he had a number of experiences in France, before eventually arriving in England.
Reid, Polak & Duncan (2007) (unpublished work), indicate that after being accepted for RAF training at No.6 O.T.U at Sutton Bridge Jan was posted on 29th October 1940, to 312 Czechoslovak Fighter Squadron at RAF Speke. in April, 1941, he was posted to No.15 MU (Maintenance Unit) at RAF Wroughton where he undertook test pilot duties. In October, 1941, he was posted to No.8 MU, RAF Little Rissington, and then in December 1941 to 22 MU at RAF Silloth in Cumbria where he test flew a large range of damage repaired aircraft.
In Part 1 below, the late George Doughty (Former Aero engine fitter at RAF Silloth) records a heart warming story of the high esteem which was felt toward Jan Vella by the workers at 22MU.
“Vella was a special favourite with the fitters of the 1940 era, and when he became due to be ‘posted’ a collection of cash was arranged in order to buy him a ‘going away’ present.” (George Doughty Archives)
“People from all of the sites were quite generous, a testament to his popularity.
It then came down ‘from above’ to the organisers that such an enterprise would be frowned upon, as it was not the ‘done thing’ . “One simply could not be giving gifts to serving officers“.
This official line was of course supported by the shop foremen, which put a damper on the whole scheme.
At first it was accepted, but in time, the mood changed, and as a full realisation occurred, many questions arose.
‘What was it to do with them? Whose money is it anyway? Who are they to say what we can do with our own money!’.
It was then decided that the men would go ahead as planned. Immediately it became known that the purchase of the gift and subsequent presentation would go ahead, the shop foreman then volunteered his services to go to Carlisle to procure a gold watch, and to have it engraved with a message. Shortly after, the presentation was arranged to take place at the main site. This caused a problem in that many others from various other airfields sites had contributed, but were not invited to the presentation.
Eventually, a gathering took place where the watch was handed over, with a few words being offered by each side.
As the gathering began to disperse, Vella was observed to quietly descend the steps of the air raid shelter, and shed a few quiet tears by himself. To be a ‘foreigner’ and accepted and regarded so highly must have been quite an emotional experience which he needed those few moments to absorb.
Later in the war, ‘Jan Vella’ was involved in an action against the German U boat ‘U-971’ which was under the command of a twenty five year old, ‘Walter Zeplien’. Following an initial attack by a Sunderland aircraft of No 4 O.T.U. which Zeplien was able to repel. Another attack some five days later was carried out by A Wellington of 407 Canadian squadron which was equipped with ‘Leigh light’s’. The pilot, E.H. Foster attacked using depth charges, damaging four of U-971’s bow torpedo tubes. The following day a Sunderland of of British sqdn 228 along with a Halifax of of 502 sqdn also scored hits on the boat. With significant damage to his torpedo tubes Zeplien could no longer comply with orders from above, which required him to proceed to Cherbourg in order to attack the big ships which at the time were engaged in shelling this town. Having been harassed and under repeated attack from air and surface forces Zeplien aborted his patrol, and made for Brest, this is when Jan Vella at the controls of a B24 Liberator of Czech sqdn 311, along with his crew sighted U-971. They pressed home an attack using a combination of rockets and depth charges, also giving homing locations to two destroyers in the area these were the British ship ‘Eskimo’, and the Canadian ship ‘Haida’. with the additional depth charge’s launched from these ship’s U-971 was now in grave peril, and the sub was flooded to knee depth. Zeplien now realised that his vessel was finished, and proceeded to issue the crew with a round of beer, thanking them for their loyalty, he then gave the order to surface the U-971 and scuttle the craft. The allied destroyers were able to rescue fifty two souls including the commander ’Zeplien’, there was only one single German fatality.”
George adds that “After being put forward for the award of a ‘DFC’ Vella, then ranked ‘Flying Officer’. would tragically lose his life as a passenger in an ‘Airspeed Oxford’ aircraft, on Wednesday the 10th of January 1945.”
The name of ‘Jan Vella’ is recorded in perpetuity on the Czech memorial, and he lies at Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey.
Such a tragic end to the life of one who had touched so many of those that had the pleasure of knowing him.” (George Doughty Archives)
What follows describes the story of Jan Vella’s bravery in action. The information is drawn from the unpublished writings of Sandy Reid, Arnost Polak and Linzee Duncan (now Druce) (2007) .
The authors describe how,
“[…] at the beginning of 1943 Vella remained at RAF Silloth but was posted to fly Wellington Mk Ic bombers with No.6 O.T.U undertaking anti-submarine training. In April, 1943, he was posted to 311 Squadron at RAF Talbenny in Wales who were operating Wellington bombers. He made his first operational flight as 2nd Pilot to Squadron Leader V Nedved, MBE on 11th May 1943 and a week later, on 17th May, made his first operational flight as Captain of his own crew, now as Warrant Officer Vella. At the end of May 1943, 311 Sqdn ceased to operate Wellingtons and moved to RAF Beaulieu where, during the month of June they converted to operate B24 Liberators. On 27th August 1943, Vella made his first operational flight on Liberators. Later in 1943 he was Commissioned and became Pilot Officer Vella. The 24th December 1943, saw Pilot Officer Vella take off from Beaulieu to intercept a convoy of 7 naval escort and 2 merchant vessels in the Bay of Biscay. Vella attacked at 0100 hrs on 25th with three 500 lb bombs and one 250 lb GP bomb. It was later discovered that his attack had damaged the vessel, ‘Osorno’, which crippled back to Bordeaux. During the attack his aircraft had encountered heavy AA fire and sustained damage to the bomb bay, causing it to remain open, forcing the aircraft to land at RAF Predannack in Cornwall. On 28th January 1944, during an anti submarine sweep in the Bay of Biscay, Vella sighted a 3000 ton vessel with a U-boat alongside. He released flares and dropped seven depth charges. There is no record of the damage caused.”
Reid, Polak & Duncan (2007) continue to outline Jan’s experiences, noting his continuing bravery.
“In August 1944, 311 Sqdn were on the move again, this time to RAF Tain in the North of Scotland. On 12th October 1944, Vella was flying Liberator, BZ720 on an anti submarine sweep in the North Sea. At the time the weather was described as foul with low cloud, wind gusting up to 50 mph and severe turbulence at 300 metres. Flying by auto pilot was impossible and, assisted by Flt Lt K Lanczik, both pilots struggled with manual controls. One inner engine failed and was unable to be feathered. A short time later the second inner engine also failed with the same result. The resultant drag was considerable and at 1715 hrs an SOS message was transmitted. The aircraft was losing height and it was found to be unsafe to attempt to turn back to base. In order to attempt to gain more height Vella ordered the crew to jettison all depth charges, bombs, parachutes and other equipment with the exception of Mae West lifejackets. By this time the aircraft was flying at a height of 15 metres. Both outer engines were operating on maximum boost and they able to climb to 30 metres. Suddenly the two inner engines responded and he was able to feather both engines allowing them to gain yet more altitude. They received instructions to head for Kirkwall but he considered that landing on a strange airfield under the present conditions was unsafe and decided to make for Tain where they eventually landed safely.”
“Vella made his last operational flight as Captain in November 1944 thereby completing a total of 71 operational flights totalling 817 hours. After a posting to RAF Squires Gate on 1510 BAT (Blind Approach Training) course, Vella returned to 311 Sqdn at RAF Tain as an Instructor and took part in one further operational flight as supernumerary pilot in another Captains crew. It was then promulgated that he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross” (Reid, Polak & Duncan, 2007)
“The Citation read;
This officer has taken part in 66 operational sorties, totalling 767 hours and is about to complete an operational tour. He has been continuously employed on flying duties since the autumn of 1940 and during his tour with Coastal Command he has taken part in the following actions against enemy submarines and surface vessels.
On 24th December 1943, he carried out a night bombing attack against an enemy convoy in the Bay of Biscay. This attack was pressed home against heavy flak.
On 29th January 1944, at night he attacked a vessel believed to be a U-boat in the Bay of Biscay.
Another U-boat was attacked by this Captain against intense flak on the night of March 1944.
On 24th June 1944, he sighted and attacked a U-boat and on the same day another one. Naval forces in the vicinity continued in the attack and one of the U-boats was eventually sunk. The Admiralty Assessment Committee considers that ‘air and surface forces share in this success.’
On 12th October 1944, while on anti submarine patrol, Flying Officer Vella’s aircraft developed engine trouble and finally 2 engines cut out. Flying Officer Vella brought his aircraft home on 2 engines, thus saving his crew and the aircraft.
Flying Officer Vella is an outstanding captain and a pilot of some 18 years flying experience. In spite of this 40 years of age, he has carried out every task allotted to him in a most exemplary manner. He is an officer of the highest personal and moral qualities and has trained one of the best crews of the Squadron.” (Reid, Polak & Duncan, 2007).
Tragically, Jan’s life ended, as the writings of George Doughty and Reid, Polak & Duncan (2007) indicate, when his plane crashed on ‘Beinn a‘Bhuird’ (3924 ft / 1196 m) in the Scottish Mountains on January 10th 1945, killing all on board.
- Squadron Leader Karel Kvapil – Pilot
- Flying Officer Leo Linhart – Pilot
- Flying Officer Jan Vella – Pilot
- Flying Officer Valter Kauders – Wireless Operator/Air Gunner
- Warrant Officer Rudolph Jelen – Pilot
The plane, Oxford PH404, had taken off at 1045 hrs from RAF Tain on the North East Coast bound for RAF Hornchurch near London. The weather locally was reported to have been good, however, the MET office forecast actually predicted adverse weather conditions.
Linzee Druce indicates that the flight was not an operational one, and it was believed Vella was travelling to London to receive a DFC Award for bravery. The aircraft didn’t arrive in Hornchurch, and it was believed it must have crashed in the sea since no trace had been found.
Reid, Polak & Duncan (2007) indicate that the crash site on the mountain and the bodies of the men on board lay undiscovered for seven months. On August 19th 1945, two hill walkers, Dr James Bain, a teacher in Elgin, and Flight Lieutenant Archie Pennie discovered the remains of the plane and the bodies of the five men. However, because of the difficult terrain, it took ten days to bring the bodies of the airmen down from the mountain. In the end, mules had to be borrowed from an Indian regiment based at Braemar to help in the recovery. At long last, on September 3rd,1945, the bodies of the men were given a dignified burial in the Czechoslovak section of the Brookwood Military Cemetery near Woking in Surrey.
The authors, Reid, Polak & Duncan (2007) indicate that the Mountain Rescue Team burnt the remains of the wreckage at the crash site to avoid it being mistaken for any other lost aircraft in the future. Only the engines and a few other small parts of the aircraft were not burnt. It was a gruelling operation for all the men involved.
Unbeknown to George Doughty and others in Silloth, Jan’s watch, which was so lovingly presented to him by the civilian workers in Silloth, had begun a new chapter in the Jan Vella story.
In 1973, 28 years after Jan and his colleagues were killed on the Scottish mountains, a young hillwalker named Philip Kammer, came across the crash site while climbing Beinn a’Bhuird. Philip caught sight of the debris and stopped to rest. While shifting the gravel about with his foot, he suddenly uncovered the remains of the gold watch that had been presented to Jan by the civilian workers at Silloth 22MU.
After being buried on the mountain for almost three decades, the inscription was still clear
“Presented to F/Sgt Pilot J. Vella by the workers of 22 MU RAF Station Silloth Cumbd, 24th December 1942.”
Philip tried to trace the owner of the watch through the Royal Air Force, but they were unable to help at the time and he placed it in a drawer, where it lay for several more decades, almost forgotten.
Linzee Druce, on her webpage, explains that in 2002, Czech researcher, Pavel Vancata, asked if someone from the area around Tain could visit the crash site of Oxford PH404 to take some photographs of the crash site. Linzee, who had been writing about her grandfather, Archie, who was killed in 1942 while flying in the RAF, offered to climb Beinn a’Bhuird and take some photographs. The climb is described on her webpage, where there are a number of photographs.
In total, Linzee and her companion spent 10 hours on the mountain and covered 26 miles.
Several years later, in 2005, a former RAF pilot, Squadron leader Reid, RAFVR(T) and Chairman of the Aberdeen and NE Wing Air Cadets, was shown some of the photographs of the crash site and set some cadets the task of finding out more about the crash and the crew who had been killed. During those investigations, he made contact with Linzee Duncan. In addition, he made contact with Lt Col Arnost Polak, Secretary of the Free Czech Air Force Association and former member of 311 Squadron, formerly based at RAF Tain.
A dedication ceremony was organised on 18th September 2005, to honour all RAF and allied aircrew who perished in the Cairngorms. Funds were raised for a granite plaque to be fixed to a large boulder.
A further service was held at the War Memorial in Braemar, involving the cadets of the Aberdeen and NE Wing, Lord Lieutenant and Wing Commander Lawson, Officer Commanding, Aberdeen & NE Wing ATC, also the Royal British Legion, the Royal Air Force and the Free Czechoslovakian Air Force Association. A lament was played on the bagpipes by Wing Commander Lawson’s personal piper. As a result of these ceremonies, a strong bond formed between the cadets and the Free Czechoslovakian Air Force Association in London.
“Lt Col Arnost Polak secretary of the Free Czechoslovak Air Force Association, on behalf of the Czech Ambassador, invited Sandy Reid, and a cadet to represent the Wing at the Freedom Day of the former Czechoslovakian Republic held on Sunday 30th October 2005 at the cemetery in Brookwood. There they laid wreaths and the cadet also laid 5 sprigs of heather bound in the MacRobert family tartan on the graves of each of the five aircrew who perished onboard Oxford PH404. These acts were received with great emotion by those present. There followed a reception and a luncheon, provided by the Czech and Slovak Embassies, where the guests were presented with an album and DVDs taken of the expedition and services.” (Reid, Polak & Duncan, 2007)
As a result of all the publicity generated by the ceremonies, Philip Kammer, the Hill walker who had found the remains of the gold watch 32 years earlier, became aware that Jan was one of the airmen who was being honoured. Philip contacted Linzee Duncan, who subsequently contacted Lt Col Polak, who in turn began to conduct intensive investigations in Czechoslovakia in an effort to trace descendents of the personnel killed in the crash. At this time, Philip Kammer handed the watch over to the care of S/Ldr Sandy Reid, who had it mounted in a small presentation box ready to be returned.
Soon afterwards, according to Reid, Polak and Duncan (2007), Lt Col Polak heard that Jan’s daughter, Blazina Husakova, had been found and was living in Prague. She was immediately invited to the UK, but ill health prevented the visit. It was also discovered at this time that her father’s DFC had been stolen during the communist regime in Czecholslovakia. Because of the fear of reprisals, the theft hadn’t been reported.
Lt Col Polak and Squadron leader Reid together made an appeal for a new DFC, which was granted and sent to the British Embassy in Prague for investiture. Reid, Polak & Duncan (2007) describe what happened next, as follows:
“On Monday 10th October, 2006, Linzee Duncan, Philip Kammer, Arnost Polak and Sandy Reid travelled to Prague where, on the following day, they attended the investiture and presentation of the DFC to Blazena Husakova, Jan Vellas daughter, by the British Ambassador HMA Linda Duffield. Philip Kammer then presented the watch which he had found in 1973 and Sandy Reid gave her a photograph album covering the whole project with relevant photographs which had been translated into Czechoslovakian by Arnost Polak, who also presented Vella’s granddaughter with a framed photo of her grandfather with a miniature DFC. It was a very moving and emotional event for all concerned.”
“The following day, the party, with the addition of Mr Pavel Vancata, the Aviation Historian from Prague who had been closely involved in the research, travelled to Jan Vella’s home town of Kladno where they were guests of the Mayor for the day. A small reception was held at the Town Hall in Kladno at which the Mayor announced that a ceremony would take place at the end of October 2006 in which a posthumous award of Freedom of the Town of Kladno to the memory of Jan Vella would be made. The reception was followed by a tour of the Kladno which included a visit to the street named after Jan Vella in 1996, and trip to see the house from where he had made his escape from the Germans in 1938.”
As the authors of this amazing story, Reid, Polak & Duncan (2007), remark,
“Jan Vella made his mark on the people he knew and met during his lifetime and 60 years after his death he continues to do so and his memory will live on.”
To summarise the events, the gold watch presented in 1942 to Jan Vella by the workers at 22MU, Silloth Airfield, to show him their great respect, was lost in 1945, when Jan and the others travelling in Oxford DH404 perished in the Scottish Mountains. The remains of the watch remained undiscovered on the remote Beinn a’Bhuird for almost 30 years, until found by Philip Kammer in 1973. After the story of Jan’s brave deeds gradually unfolded, thanks to the efforts of Linzee Druce, Sandy Reid, Arnost Polak and others, the watch and a re-struck DFC were taken to Prague in 2006, and presented to Jan’s daughter, Blazina Husakova.
So after a remarkable journey, the gold watch, inscribed with words indicating the high regard and affection the workers at Silloth 22MU felt towards Jan, was presented to his daughter in Prague 64 years after it was originally presented to him in a simple ceremony at Silloth Aerodrome, Cumberland, England.
It almost goes without saying that F/Sgt Pilot Jan Vella would have been very happy.
This amazing story illustrates the great respect and love that still surrounds Jan Vella, whose legacy has forged deep bonds between all involved. Jan’s charm in life continues long after his death.
Thanks to Pam Coates for permission to use the writings of her father, the late George Doughty. To my knowledge, the people in Silloth were unaware of the story about the return of the watch until it was told here. Many thanks to Linzee Druce and her co-authors, Arnost Polak and Sandy Reid for the story recounted in Parts 2 and 3. Much gratitude also to Pavel Vancata for sending additional information and granting use of photos.
This version of the story has been summarised by Anna Malina (2015), while co-ordinating the Silloth Airfield Project (2014-2015).
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