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Czechoslovak Women in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF)

Written by Ivan Procházka

At the end of the 1930’s, the British War Office began to implement previously developed plans for reinforcing British defences due to fears concerning the start of another military conflict. One of these points was to reinstate the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Detachments were activated on 28th June 1939 and were soon incorporated into the British Air Force. After two years of successful operation, British authorities awarded WAAF members the status of members of the armed forces and gave them the same rank as men. During the war, they served in Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa or the Far East and their number rose to as many as 180,000 individuals half way through the war.

The volunteers occupied a range of professions in the Air Force: they worked in offices, kitchens, workshops, stockrooms and hospitals. They worked as drivers for many types of vehicles or as operators for a wide range of modern equipment in the departments of photography, meteorology, mapping and code breaking. They were also integrated into anti-aircraft defence and were able to replace men who left for combat units in war areas without serious problem.

As of the second half of 1941, female foreign nationals also found employment in the WAAF detachments. More than 160 women from former Czechoslovakia or foreign wives of Czechoslovak soldiers worked there among women from Belgium, Germany, Palestine, Greece and elsewhere.

As of 1941, the pertinent authorities were already discussing the possibility of creating an independent female Czechoslovak unit within the national foreign armed forces, but, in the end, they did not recommended its formation for various reasons. After an arrangement with the British, they agreed to let them remain in the WAAF. The service of female volunteers from Czechoslovakia has thus become part of British military tradition, while it still has not been fully appreciated in the volunteers’ native country.

Lady Luisa Abrahams, née Kramerová (1910-2006) Pavla Šamšulová, née Ederová (1914-2000).
Lady Luisa Abrahams, née Kramerová (1910−2006). Before the war, she actively dedicated herself to sports and successfully participated in a number of international competitions as the member of a golf club. In 1938, she won the Czechoslovak International Championship. Shortly before the war, she left for Britain. On the basis of an appeal to foreign nationals, she voluntarily enrolled in the army in 1941 and entered active service with the WAAF units in Britain on 28th April 1941. She served as a radio operator and office worker. After the war, she lived in Britain. She devoted herself to her family, business, charitable activities and golf. In January 1970, she and her husband were conferred titles of nobility. She died in London. Pavla Šamšulová, née Ederová (1914−2000). As of February 1939, she worked as a maid in a household in the British Isles. After recruitment in the British Army was announced for foreign nationals, she voluntarily enrolled for service in the WAAF units. She entered active service on 21st October 1941. After completing both a basic and a specialized course, she worked as a chef and a butcher at the Ruislip Air Base. For personal reasons, she was discharged from service on 29th June 1942. She subsequently married Josef Šamšula, an armorer in the Czechoslovak Air Force in Britain. After the war, she lived in Moravia and worked in mostly blue-collar professions. She died in Brno.
Jirina Tonderová, née Ascherová (1919-2009). Ellen Boxhornová, née Raphael (b. 1915).
Jirina Tonderová, née Ascherová (1919−2009). A keen sportswoman and exceptional skier, Jirina was competing in ski tournament when Hitler invaded. This was lucky as her father was Jewish. She made her way to England and worked as a journalist for the Gov. in exile, until an obituary of Ivo Tonder, with whom she had just fallen in love, was placed on her desk, prompting her to join the WRAF. On completing radar training she served on the Isle of Mann, in Aberdeen, Sopley, Hastings, and Dundee. Ivo’s obituary was premature, and on his return in 1945, they married and returned to Prague. The uncomfortable political situation encouraged them to move away, and they bought a farm above Marienbad. However, pressure from the Communist party followed them, and after the February coup it was clear that they would have to leave the country again. Unfortunately Jirina was expecting their second child, delayed departure until after the birth, and the escape attempt failed. Many more attempts were made. Eventually they had to escape separately, and from England they succeeded in arranging for the children to be smuggled out. In June 1951 the family was reunited in London. Ellen Boxhornová, née Raphael (b. 1915). She studied at an industrial arts school in Dortmund, Germany. In January 1934, she married a Czechoslovak national and thus acquired his nationality. Afterward, she left for Prague in the face of Nazi persecution. Half way through 1939, she moved to the British Isles. Here, she completed a nursing course and a course for social workers. Later, she worked in the health care industry; moreover, after work, she went to help as a volunteer nurse for the Czechoslovak Red Cross at the Kensington Women’s Welfare Centre. At the end of 1942, she voluntarily enrolled in the WAAF detachments and entered active service within the next year. During May 1944, she worked at the Wratting Common Air Base.
Truda Freundová, née Türklová (1919−1948). After the events in Munich, she left with her brother for Great Britain. Their parents remained in their home country and died in a concentration camp during the course of 1942. Her brother also died in the same year; he served in the Czechoslovak Air Force. Subsequently, Truda enrolled in the army and then entered service with the WAAF units in Britain. Among other things, she served at the Melksham Air Base. After the war, she worked as a secretary, married and lived for a short time in Venezuela.
Edita Sedláková, née Hermannová (1926-1945). Dolores Prchalová, née Šperková (1915-1990).
Edita Sedláková, née Hermannová (1926−1945). On account of racial persecution, her family enrolled her in a foster care program organized by Nicholas Winton shortly before the outbreak of war. In July 1939, she abandoned her country and left for Britain. There, she lived with a British family and worked as a seamstress after finishing her education. Shortly after reaching recruitment age, she enrolled in the army. She began active service with the WAAF units on 11th October 1943. She served at a number of air bases. During her stay at Manston, she met her future husband, Zdenek Sedlák of the 311 (Czechoslovak) Squadron. They married on 14th May 1945. With the help of her husband, she decided to secretly fly to her native country the month before her discharge; however, the plane crashed shortly after takeoff on 5th October 1945, and all persons on board died. Dolores Prchalová, née Šperková (1915−1990). Before the war, she worked as an editor in the Melantrich Publishing House. She was politically active in the Czechoslovak National Socialist Party, where she worked in the Women’s Central Secretariat. Soon after the German occupation, she abandoned the Protectorate for political reasons and left for Poland. There, she joined the Czechoslovak resistance in Kraków and worked in the local Czech consulate from April to June 1939. Afterward, she left Poland for Great Britain, where she actively participated in putting together and publishing the significant exile periodical Cechoslovák. In the second half of 1941, she voluntarily enrolled in the WAAF units. In 1941, she entered active service on the Czechoslovak national holiday of 28th October. She completed basic and specialized training and, after a few months, was enrolled in a course for officers. Later, she worked in the 2nd Department of the Inspectorate of the Czechoslovak Air Force in London. During her time in the army, she met the pilot Eduard Prchal, whom she married in 1944. She was released from service for family reasons in January 1945. After the war, she returned to Czechoslovakia and lived in Prague. She left her country for the second time at the end of September 1950 due to political changes in the Republic and because of fears of being followed. She returned to Britain and, from there, eventually moved to the USA.
Hanna Müllerová, née Hönigová (b. 1916). Marie Ida Šumová, née Sudická (1914-1992).
Hanna Müllerová, née Hönigová (b. 1916). After the occupation of her country, she escaped to Palestine. Half way through July 1944, she entered active service with the WAAF in Palestine. She worked at the air base in Ismailia with the meteorological service. Her military service formally ended on 25th April 1946. After discharge, she returned to her country. Because she was unable to find any surviving relatives, she returned to Egypt at the beginning of 1947. Marie Ida Šumová, née Sudická (1914−1992). Before the war, she studied at the Faculty of Law at Charles University in Prague. After taking exams in 1938, she interrupted her studies and left to perfect her English in the British Isles. However, the outbreak of a world war one year later prevented her from returning to her country. In the meantime, she completed a Red Cross nursing course in Britain and began to work as a nurse in the Metropolitan War Emergency Hospital in Walon on Thames. She worked here until the end of 1941, when she left the hospital for health reasons. She entered active service with the WAAF units on 28th January 1943. After training, she worked for the meteorological service at the air base in Beaulieu, among other things. She met mechanic Josef Šuma of the 311 (Czechoslovak) Squadron and married him in February 1944. She left the army for family reasons on 28th September 1944. After the war, she returned to her country and lived with her family in Benešov nad Ploucnicí.
Deborah Schlesingerová (b. 1922). Not long before the outbreak of the Second World War, she had to interrupt her studies for reasons of race. Afterward, she travelled from Slovakia across Hungary and Turkey to Palestine, where she registered with the Czechoslovak authorities. At the end of 1942, she submitted an application to the ATS units. At the insistence of her family, however, she applied for a deferment and finished her studies in Tel Aviv within a few months. Afterward, she re-enrolled in the army. At the end of September or beginning of October 1943, she entered service in the WAAF units in Palestine. She completed basic training at the base in Lydda and was then transferred to the Ismailia airfield. Shortly after arriving, however, she became the victim of a motor vehicle accident and suffered serious injuries. At the end of November 1944, they released her from the hospital into home care after a year of treatment. She returned to Czechoslovakia in 1946.

Curated by Filip Procházka living history group 276th Sqdn. (reenacted) RAF