Monday, April 28, 2014

We have it so easy today . . .

When I look at some of the challenges my father's generation had to overcome - the Great Depression, World War II, and everything that followed - it seems sometimes that we have it awfully easy compared to them.  I was reminded of that by the obituary of the late Colonel Miloslav Bitton.  The Telegraph reports:

Colonel Miloslav Bitton, who has died aged 94, ran escape lines out of Czechoslovakia in the Second World War before serving with the Desert Rats in the Eighth Army and then as an RAF fighter pilot in bombing raids over Germany.

In 1939 Bitton had just begun his second year at the Commercial Academy in Bratislava when the Germans completed their occupation of Czechoslovakia. They were dealing harshly with men in the Army and Air Force, many of whom had gone into hiding. As Bitton spoke Hungarian, he was asked by several bank managers if he would help them organise an escape route, taking small groups by train and on foot to within a quarter of a mile of the Hungarian border.

Sometimes the escapees suffered from exhaustion and frostbitten feet as they made their winter crossing. Bitton’s mother, however, made white capes to hide the men from the border guards.

After security was tightened, escaping Czechs started to be caught and so Bitton had to cross the border with them, help buy them railway tickets and teach them a few words of Hungarian. The penalties for aiding escapees were severe. Slovak nationalists and zealous policemen were the main hazards and Bitton’s clandestine work placed him in increasing danger.

. . .

Bitton was warned that he could be arrested by the police at any moment and so, in February 1940, he crossed the border into Hungary under the cover of a blizzard. He had to bribe a farmer to provide a horse-drawn sledge to take him within walking distance of a railway station. Although his train was searched twice he arrived safely in Budapest. In the city he made his way to a “safe house” only to learn that his contact had been arrested by the secret police and the place was under surveillance.

Bitton set up a new escape route in Budapest. This time onwards to Yugoslavia. He would take between 10 to14 Czechs at a time, pretending that he was in charge of a group of sportsmen. He held their tickets and did all the talking to the conductor on the train to Nagykanizsa, in south-west Hungary. There he handed them over to another guide who arranged for them to be ferried across the River Drava to Yugoslavia.

About 100 Czechs were imprisoned in the Citadel of Budapest and rumours circulated that they would be handed over to the Gestapo. There were plans for a mass breakout in which Bitton’s role was to arrange for lorries and taxis to enable them to get away. The secret police had, however, found one of the safe-houses and roughed up the owner who subsequently betrayed Bitton’s hiding place. He was arrested. On the way to the interrogation centre, he tried to bribe the driver of the police car with his watch, a ploy which failed.

On arrival he was put in an iron cage measuring about 10ft by 12ft – along with 40 or so other detainees. When he was interrogated, he denied any knowledge of Hungarian, claiming that he wanted to get to Yugoslavia and then Paris. He was beaten so severely that he passed out twice.

After being transferred to a civilian jail, in April he was released and expelled to eastern Slovakia. He made his way back to Budapest, however, and used his own escape route to reach the River Drava. He and his companions hid in bushes on the river bank watching the guards’ patrol boat plying up and down, its searchlight sweeping over them. They waited for nightfall and, choosing their moment carefully, piled into their boat and crossed into Yugoslavia by moonlight.

. . .

After his escape to Yugoslavia in 1940, he acted as a liaison officer between the Czechoslovak military mission and the Yugoslav civil and military authorities. His job was to interrogate escapees and furnish them with travel documents for their onward journey.

In June, supplied with documents from the French Consulate, he travelled to Syria and then to a camp near Acre, Palestine. After a move to a transit camp at Gedera, west of Jerusalem, he and his companions were issued with uniforms and arms by the British.

By December, when they were in Jericho, their small force numbered about 400. There were, he wrote afterwards “hot and dusty winds by day, freezing temperatures at night, scorpions and tarantulas everywhere, insects and malaria – we had to cope with everything.”

In May 1941 they were ready for frontline duty and moved, as the Czechoslovak Infantry Battalion, to the Western Desert. Active service took Bitton to Egypt and then to Libya where he took part in the defence of Tobruk.

In 1942, requests came for more airmen to join the existing Czech squadrons in England and in October he boarded a ship bound for England. On New Year’s Day 1943 he joined the RAF Voluntary Reserve. Basic training in England was followed by advanced flying in Canada.

He won his wings in March 1944 and in January 1945 was posted to No 310 Squadron. His first assignment was to help provide fighter cover for 150 Lancaster bombers during a raid on Dortmund. He married, in April 1945, Joan Bitton, whom he met at a dance in Manchester (he took her maiden name in 1953).

A few days before the end of the war, his Spitfire lost power over Sussex and crashed. The aircraft turned over, pinning him to the ground, and caught fire. He was pulled out by farmers in the nick of time. By the time he was classified as fit again that September the war was over.

He rejoined his squadron in Prague and continued his flying career in the Czechoslovak Air Force but after the communists took power, he once again decided to escape. His wife and son were able to leave the country legally but Bitton had to dodge the border guards to cross into the American Zone in Germany.

He and his small group crossed at night but when one of them tripped on the railway line they came under heavy automatic fire. One of them was killed; four others were captured but Bitton reached safety. After a frustrating wait for a visa in a displaced persons’ camp, in June 1948 he was back in England.

There's more at the link.

Just think how many times he escaped enemies and death during those nine years!  The sheer guts, determination and drive he exhibited amazes me.  How many young men in a similar position today would be able to achieve as much?



MrGarabaldi said...

Hey Peter,

I had posted on something like that a while back on my blog involving the CCC and the American Depression, I wondered if such a thing would work today and I came to the conclusion that most of the people today are too soft, they have been conditioned to have the gov't take care of them and make all the heavy decisions. The CCC worked back in the 1930 because it was a different breed of American back then.

Well Seasoned Fool said...

My late uncles who were in the CCC cited the "belly flapping principal" as their motivation for joining the CCC and doing the work.

drjim said...

Brave men in trying times!

Anonymous said...

Quite a few, I think, but all of them are Pakistani or Afghanis training on smuggling people across the Khyber Pass.... I'm sure plenty have stories of escaping the invaders, pretending to speak or not speak the right languages, and living in camps in Syria and Palestine!

Let's not fall into exceptionalism too wholeheartedly, either. Colonel Bitton's accomplishments were extraordinary in his generation. How many members of his class at the Commercial Academy do you think did likewise? How many of the 40 detainees in his cage managed to escape, flee the continent and travel the world as multilingual pilots? How many Spitfire pilots ever survived an inverted crash? All of these add to his legend, but none were typical or expected outcomes at the time.

Anonymous said...

I echo drjim's comment above - just Wow! I don't see many people nowadays voluntarily going back and again into conflict, most would just run away at 1st opportunity.

Have you read the book THE LONG WALK by Slawomir Racwicz ? Pretty good book, describing a Polish soldier's walk away from a Siberian gulag across the country to India. I think they made a movie of it a couple of years back, named THE WAY BACK.