Czech Zlin Bestmann evokes mixed emotions

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bestermann-compositionPhoto: Fantasy of Flight’s rare Czech-manufactured Zlin “Bestmann” in a display hangar and co-author Susan Gale. (Credit: John Stemple)

Updated December 27, 2013 — Co-author Susan Gale recently viewed the rare Czech-manufactured Zlin “Bestmann” (“Best Man” in English), painted in German livery, that Fantasy of Flight maintains and displays. The two-seat Zlin Z.381 was a Bü 181D Bestmann built under license.

The Bestmann flying. Photo: John Stemple

The Bestmann flying.
Photo: John Stemple

Zlin 381s entered production just prior to the end of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1945. This type was the last of the Bücker airplanes to come off the Zlinska Letecka Spolecnost assembly line at Zlin-Otrokovice, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). A contemporary of the four-seat German Messerschmitt Bf 108 “Taifun” (“Typhoon” in English), the Luftwaffe (German air force) utilized Bestmanns for utility and liaison missions, flying training and glider towing. Some carried a rocket-propelled, armor-piercing projectile designed for use against tanks.

In addition to stimulating her interest in the excellent Czech flying machine, the Luftwaffe markings simultaneously produced conflicting feelings within Ms. Gale. This uneasiness was a result of first-hand accounts of the siege and oppressive annexation of Prague during World War II. Susan interviewed several relatives about their recollections of events. They summarily indicated that Prague suffered before, during, and after the Nazi occupation.

The Zlin Bestmann making a pass. Photo: John Stemple

The Zlin Bestmann making a pass.
Photo: John Stemple

The Web page “Siege of Prague (Fall Grün) – Alternative History” contains a general narrative of the action that took place before the surrender of the Czech capital. Germany wanted Prague because it was an industrial center that, among other products, produced armaments of high quality. Jaroslava, Ms. Gale’s grandmother, added, “It was believed that their plan was to repatriate Germans living inside the German-Czechoslovakia border by extending the borders of the Reich. Another goal was to eventually exterminate Czechs, who Hitler accused of persecuting Germans inside Czechoslovakia.”

The Zlin Bestmann climbs sharply. Photo: John Stemple

The Zlin Bestmann climbs sharply.
Photo: John Stemple

Jaroslava vividly recalled the bombings of Prague, and pointed out that, in the days prior the German attack, the beautiful metropolis prepared defenses and activated military and civilian forces. Anti-aircraft batteries sprang up around the metropolitan area. Additionally, a number of air raid and chemical defense exercises took place and preparation of bomb shelters was a priority. Adding to fears, a rumor spread that a German in Prague was cutting off the ears of his Czech victims.

On October 1, 1938, Luftwaffe Heinkel 111 bombers and escorting Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters began the campaign of aerial bombardment. A fairly large number of civilians died on this day. The dreaded fight for survival had begun.

The Zlin Bestmann approaching. Photo: John Stemple

The Zlin Bestmann approaching.
Photo: John Stemple

It was not desirable to provide aiming points for German bombardiers. When the German airplanes were overhead at night, sirens around the city would wail, lights darkened and blinds closed. The attacks created eerie conditions. Anti-aircraft guns began to fire. Flares flickered in the black sky as they descended toward the ground, and beams of light emanated from unseen bombers. Jaroslava and her neighbors felt vulnerable and somewhat helpless as they fearfully sat in the sanctuaries.

Despite the citizenry’s’ best efforts, the Luftwaffe had little difficulty in picking out targets because the aircraft carried parachute flares and spotlights for illumination of ground structures. Residents in Jaroslava’s area sought shelter in the relative safety of the basement of nearby City Hall. This was not easy in the dark and confusion. More than once Jaroslava stumbled upon entering or exiting.

During one particularly intense bombing, bombs hit Jaroslava’s apartment. All that remained was a pile of rubble and ashes. The only possession salvageable was a metal suitcase containing a few small paintings of Prague circa 1938 and a couple of photo albums. Afterward, the homeless woman took up residence in an apartment not far from the destroyed flat. This residence came furnished with bullet holes in the walls from machine gun fire.

Over the ensuing weeks, the Czech air force fought back as best it could. Its Avia B-534 biplane fighters rose whenever possible to intercept the formations pummeling targets in the city and surrounding areas. The Avias were obsolete in comparison to the faster monoplane Messerschmitts. Yet, the pilots behind the controls of the slower and less heavily armed, but more maneuverable, Avias downed a respectable number of the enemy. The last Czech interception of Luftwaffe planes took place in February 1939. By March the sheer weight of German arms began to wear down the resistance, and the city’s water sources became insufficient. On March 15, 1939, Wehrmacht troops entered the weary city.

The Germans sent a ruthless man named Reinhard Heydrich, a leader in the SS, to oversee the process of cleansing the populace. Two members of the Czech resistance trained in England to assassinate Heydrick as part of Operation Anthropoid. After returning to their country, they located the hated official. The duo tossed an explosive device, on May 27, 1942, into a car in which the officer was sitting. Jaroslava recalled that, although the explosive detonated, the wounded man did not die immediately. He eventually expired as a result of infection resulting from shrapnel and bristles from the car seating entering his body. Fleeing the scene, the two attackers hid in a church crypt. Later, when confronted with capture, they committed suicide rather than risk capture and torture. In retaliation for the brazen killing of a high-ranking Nazi, German troops reportedly killed all the men and boys in the town of Lidice.

Jaroslava, Bohuslav, who is Susan’s father, and Jitka, who is her mother, additionally recall that about an hour north of Prague the Germans established a concentration camp at the fortress city of Terezín. This ghetto served as a collection center for political prisoners, Jews and others considered to be a threat or undesirable. Terezín thereby supplied the Germans with Jewish slave labor. Also, from this location, some prisoners went north to death camps such as Auschwitz. The occupiers often showed propaganda films that purported to show the good conditions and treatment within the center. Of course, these movies were blatantly false. In fact, many of the 80,000 Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust died at Terezín.

Prague’s woes continued. On February 14, 1945, it was not the Germans who dropped projectiles on Prague; B-17 Flying Fortresses of the U.S. Army Air Force’s 398th and 91st Bombardment Groups did the deed. Due to navigational errors, the American aircraft mistook Prague for Dresden, Germany. Utilizing radar bombing because of cloud cover, the B-17s dropped errant loads. Ironically, the pilot of the lead Flying Fortress was a Czech national by the name of Harold Van Opdorp. After the bombs began falling, he shockingly discovered that it was Prague beneath their wings. Tragically, casualties were reportedly over 700. As fate would have it, two of the dead were members of Lt. Opdorp’s family.

Bohuslav, born during the war, recalls the Russian liberation of the city in 1945. He said, “The Russian soldiers shot German SS troops on the spot. The Soviets simply stood them against a wall and shot them.” Subsequently, burials took place in local wheat and rye fields. Bohuslav remarked, “The wheat would always grow taller in the areas in which the SS men were buried.” He remembers a woman who was plowing her garden plot and unearthed a dismembered hand. Evidence of the occupation remained even 5-6 years after the end of fighting. Bohuslav saw hundreds of German helmets, gas masks (some in containers), bayonets, and an innumerable amount of ammunition along the roads in ditches and forests.

When the Soviets arrived as “liberators,” they took firm control of Prague. Jitka further related that life did not improve under the Russians. The stifling iron fist of Stalin’s communism and terrorism replaced the boot of Hitler’s national socialism.

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Primary author John Stemple wishes to thank Ms. Gale and her relatives for assisting with this article.

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