The Battle of Britain’s Greatest Ace: RAF Legend Josef František

From Czechoslovakia to the Skies of Britain

Josef František’s journey from a Czechoslovakian airman to an RAF legend is a tale of resilience and skill. Joining the Czechoslovakian air force in 1934, his career was nearly derailed by disciplinary issues. Yet, his undeniable talent as a pilot kept him in the skies. As Europe plunged into war and Czechoslovakia fell to Germany, František’s path led him through multiple air forces – each a step closer to his destiny.

Fleeing his disbanded Czech unit, František joined the Polish Air Force, only to be pushed out by the German invasion. Undeterred, he moved to France, and then, as the war’s tide turned, to England. Joining the RAF was a pivotal moment. Britain, facing the Luftwaffe’s onslaught, was in dire need of skilled pilots. František arrived just as the Battle of Britain commenced, a moment where his skills would shine the brightest.

Josef František DFM & Bar
Josef František DFM & Bar

A Rocky Start in the RAF

Training in the RAF posed unique challenges for František. Accustomed to flying outdated planes with fixed landing gear, the advanced Hawker Hurricane was a significant upgrade. His early mishap – a belly landing due to forgotten landing gear – was a humble beginning for what would be an extraordinary combat record. Quickly overcoming these initial hurdles, he was soon ready for combat, just as the Battle of Britain intensified.

A Hawker Hurricane Mk I based at RAF Northolt, where František served in Polish No. 303 Squadron
A Hawker Hurricane Mk I based at RAF Northolt, where František served in Polish No. 303 Squadron

Sky-High Valor and Unconventional Tactics

František’s combat record is nothing short of remarkable. Within days of entering the fray, he downed several enemy aircraft, proving his mettle in the skies. However, his unorthodox methods and disregard for strict military discipline painted him as a maverick. His tendency to ignore rules and orders could have been his undoing, but his exceptional skill as a fighter pilot was undeniable. 

His superiors, recognizing his unique talents, eventually allowed František to operate independently. This freedom led to a surge in his success rate. Hunting alone, he exploited the weaknesses of German aircraft returning from missions, low on ammunition and fuel. This strategy significantly boosted his tally, making him the highest-scoring foreign pilot in the Battle of Britain.

A Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter. František shot down nine Bf 109s in September 1940
A Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter. František shot down nine Bf 109s in September 1940

A Hero’s Tragic End

Despite his aerial triumphs, Josef František’s story ends in tragedy. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his extraordinary efforts, his life was cut short in a mysterious crash in October 1940. The cause remains unknown, with speculation ranging from exhaustion to a stunt gone wrong. What remains certain is his lasting legacy as an inspirational fighter pilot who relentlessly pursued his passion for flying, ultimately playing a crucial role in one of the most significant battles of World War II.

Josef František’s journey is a testament to determination and skill. He adapted to numerous setbacks and challenges, always finding a way to return to the skies. His story is about perseverance, adapting to change, and excelling under pressure. František’s legacy as an ace pilot transcends his national origins and wartime allegiances, firmly placing him among the most celebrated heroes of the Battle of Britain.

RAF pilot Josef Frantisek memorial stone in Otaslavice, Czechia
RAF pilot Josef František memorial stone in Otaslavice, Czechia Photo: Jedelak