Karel Janoušek is among the most tragic figures of World War II – the heroic Czech airman who played a key role in the pivotal Battle of Britain, only to be imprisoned in his own country after the war. Sabaton’s song Far From the Fame, from 2014’s Heroes, commemorates Janoušek and the sacrifices he made.
Janoušek began his career as a soldier before transferring to the air force in 1924 and qualifying as a pilot two years later, marrying his sweetheart Anna Steinbachová in the interim. A highly intelligent and scholarly man, he took up the study of meteorology in a bid to reduce the impact of bad weather on aircraft (the weather being a leading cause of plane crashes in the early days of aviation), and he was awarded a doctorate in natural sciences. He also showed himself to be a talented tactician early in his air force career, co-authoring a textbook on aerial warfare tactics in 1930. He received many promotions during his time in the air force, eventually reaching the rank of Brigadier General.
After the outbreak of World War II Janoušek, along with a number of key political and military figures who opposed the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, fled first to France and then to the United Kingdom, where they were given shelter in London. During this time, Janoušek became an ally to the UK government, commanding the British Royal Airforce’s (RAF) Czechoslovak units. He brokered the recruitment and training of 88 Czechoslovak fighter pilots just in time for them to take part in the Battle of Britain (Jul-Oct 1940) – the first ever military campaign fought entirely in the air and the first Allied victory over Hitler’s forces. The Sabaton song Aces in Exile specifically mentions the “men from Czechoslovakia” who flew in this battle.
By May of 1941 the RAF had around 1,600 Czechoslovak personnel. Janoušek was celebrated as a hero in Britain and was knighted by King George VI (the highest possible award in the British orders of chivalry), as well as later being promoted to RAF Air Marshal – a three-star officer rank. In his home country, however, his family were to pay the price for his successes, as the Nazis rounded up and imprisoned the families of the exiled Czechoslovak leaders, including Janoušek’s wife Anna.
In 1945, at the end of the deadliest war in history, Janoušek left a grateful and joyful Britain and returned to Czechoslovakia, to the crushing news that Anna and several of their relatives had died in imprisonment: Anna and two of his sisters in Auschwitz and one of his brothers at Buchenwald.
In the years that followed, Janoušek struggled to find his place in a Czechoslovakia that was battling to re-establish itself after the war, with much turmoil between those who supported and opposed Communism. Anti-Communist Janoušek found himself increasingly side-lined and relieved of command within the Czechoslovak Air Force.
In 1948 the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, with support from the Soviet Union, seized control of the government in a coup d’etat, following which Janoušek and several colleagues were was court-martialled, with Janoušek being stripped of his rank and all his titles, then imprisoned. In the years to follow, his sentence was extended a number of times for various alleged offences, before eventually they were reduced once more. Finally he was released in a presidential amnesty in 1960, having spent 12 years in jail.
Janoušek, whose property had been confiscated, took up a clerical job in a state organisation in Prague and worked until he was able to retire at age 74. He lived to see his convictions cancelled by a military tribunal in 1968, and he died three years later. He was not fully acquitted until 18 years after his death, when the 1989 Velvet Revolution ended Communist rule in the country.
In the modern-day Czech Republic, Janoušek’s contribution to the Allied victory is finally recognised, and he has at last reclaimed his place as Czechoslovakia’s pride.