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Svitak, Otakar (General of the Technical Ordnance Service of Aviation In Memoriam)

Author : 🕔17.11.2012 📕14.765
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Otakar Sviták at his brother Zdeněk's wedding, 1932
Otakar Svitak at his brother Zdeněk's wedding, 1932

Otakar Sviták was born on 3 March 1894 in Kopřivnice, Moravia, in the house "u Novosada", which was located next to the Moravie Hotel. His parents were Leopold Sviták and Jenovéfa Svitáková. Leopold Sviták later built the first automobile in Central Europe and thus laid the foundations for TATRA automobile production. Otakar Sviták studied for 4 years at the Provincial Higher School in Příbor and then in mechanical engineering at the Czech State Higher School of Industry in Brno, where he graduated with "all votes".

When the First World War broke out, Otakar was only 20 years old. He was conscripted on 20 June 1915 and did not see his parents and relatives until a very long 7 years later. The army assigned him to the 100th Infantry Regiment and Sviták became a one-year volunteer. On October 7 of that year, he was promoted to the rank of lance corporal and from October 7 to December 17, 1915, he attended a course for reserve officers in Opava. Half a month later (January 4) he became a machine gun platoon commander there. On March 1, 1916, he was transferred to the 56th Infantry Regiment, which was in the field on the Eastern Front.

On July 12, 1916, Svitak was captured by Russian troops at the Battle of Piotrkow, who handed him over to the officer prison camp in Bolchow, as he already held the rank of second lieutenant at that time. In the prison camp, he was a member of the prisoner of war committee.

Lost application form

Svitak was not going to accept being a mere prisoner of war, so on 1 December 1916, he applied to join the Czechoslovak Legion. However, the application was lost, and Sviták had to submit a second application on 14 June 1917, along with 65 other future legionnaires. This action was debated for a long time after the war because Sviták wanted to include the time from the first application in his legionary service - not from the second one. After his Capt. Rydl, Capt. Krautstengel and Mjr. Hošek confirmed that he had indeed sent in the first application, he was granted the time. However, he was not assigned until September 8, 1917, to the 8th Rifle Regiment "Silesian", where he immediately entered the officers' school, which was assigned to the headquarters of the 5th Rifle Regiment of T. G. Masaryk in Borispol. But he did not stay there long either and on 1 January 1918, he was assigned to the 1st Czechoslovak "Hussite" Regiment as an instructor to the 12th Company in Zhytomyr.

On May 29, 1918, he was wounded in the fighting for Pemza. In his personal file it is written on this date: "Wounded in the left arm. The index finger in the first and second articles is completely paralyzed. Middle finger in first and second joints partially paralyzed. Otherwise well." He was later awarded the French Medal for this injury. On 20 September 1918, he was appointed commander of the machine gun company of the 9th Rifle Regiment of Karel Havlicek Borovsky, which was formed from the 1st Reserve Regiment. Here he also met Jaroslav Hašek - the father of the Good Soldier Švejk. He had a very bad opinion of this legionnaire, but especially of the alcoholic and three-time deserter - as did all the legionnaires who met him.

Legion photo
Legion photo

Otakar Svitak in the rank of second lieutenant of the Czechoslovak Legions, 1917
Otakar Svitak at the rank of second lieutenant of the Czechoslovak Legions, 1917

In 1918, Sviták took part in the fighting at Samara and was wounded there for the second time. In 1918-1920, he underwent anabasis of troops fighting their way through Siberia. Next, Svitak fought in the battle for Buzuluk or Norilsk. Svitak was also awarded the Order of the Sokol with Swords (decree number 1095) for the Battle of Buzuluk. In January 1919, Sviták was appointed commander of the sixth train with a machine gun company and a regimental storehouse. On 8 June 1920, the regiment fought its way to Vladivostok, from which Sviták and other legionnaires left for British Columbia, Canada, where they were taken by the ship "Protesilaus". They then travelled by train to Québec and then again by boat to Europe - specifically to Hamburg. Also in the legions was his great friend Josef Mašín, whom he describes in his diary as "brother."

First Republican Air Force

He did not return to his homeland until 2 August 1920, and his first stop was in Most. On 2 November 1920, Sviták was assigned to the 2nd Aviation Regiment in Olomouc, where he worked as a foreman in the main aeroplane workshops. In 1921 (according to the qualification list) he received the Allied Medal, the Revolutionary Medal and the War Cross with 2 lime branches. On 21 October 1922, he married Jarmila Pospíšilová, who was the sister of Staff Captain Vítězslav Pospíšil, who commanded an auxiliary company of the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the 1st Czechoslovak Division during the Battle of France. Sviták also had two children - Otakar (born 28 April 1925 in Olomouc) and Jarmila (born 28 April 1929). It is also interesting to note that Sviták was a Hussite and knew both German and Russian.

The 1922 qualification document describes Svitak as "a steady character, earnest, active, industrious and most conscientious. Qualified for extraordinary promotion." Sviták was at that time a member of the qualification committee that issued and created these documents. On March 1, 1923, he was promoted to staff captain. However, on April 1, 1924, he was replaced as chief by Lieutenant Colonel Augustin Daňek. A quote from a letter of recall from General František Kolařík dated 14 March 1924, marked CONFIDENTIAL: "By M.N.O. Decree No. j. 404 of the Ex. 1924, Lt. Col. Aug. Danek was appointed commander of the main flight workshops. ... Since the beginning of your assignment, I have closely followed your activities as Commander of the Main Air Works. You have taken up this responsible and difficult position with great initiative and diligence." In 1924 he completed a 7-week technical internship in France.

His parents and other relatives lived in a villa in the Moravian town of Hukvaldy. Because it was within range of airplanes, Sviták often flew over his hometown of Kopřivnice, but also just over Hukvaldy. During his overflights, he created amazing aerial photographs of the town, the castle, and the surrounding countryside. The academic painter Sládek likes to recall these flights in his memoirs. By the decree of the Ministry of National Defence No. 15263/III - I. section, he was appointed as of 30 September 1929 the head of the III. aeronautical and economic department of the III. department - aeronautical - of the Ministry of National Defence, which was located in Prague, and was promoted to lieutenant colonel (effective from 18 December 1929). He moved to Prague with his family and they all lived in an apartment in Dejvice, Velvarská 24.

Passport photo, here already at the rank of colonel
Passport photo, here already at the rank of colonel

Clouds are retracting

In 1936, there was a major reorganization of the Czechoslovak MNO. This also affected Otakar Svitak's department. His department was renamed "IV. On 1 December 1936 he was appointed vice-chairman of the administrative board of the LETOV aviation company. And on January 1, 1937 he was promoted to colonel of the technical armament aviation service. Qualification certificate of 1936: "Has a very developed sense of duty, impeccable conduct on and off duty. He has a good general education. He is careful of his appearance."

At that time, he met a lot of important people - for example, Alexander Hess. Alexander Hess remembers him in a letter dated 24 June 1971 as follows. "He was the head of the department at the MNO and was very often a member of the committees at our various aircraft factories such as Letov, Avia, Aero, when we received new or repaired aircraft from them. I myself served as a test pilot in these commissions." In fact, in 1929-1935 he was "a technical member in the commission for testing new and repaired aircraft". His niece remembers Svitak: "He always borrowed money from us and went to Yugoslavia with his wife. We didn't have much money after that, so we only went around Czechoslovakia. He also always wore a uniform, I don't think I ever saw him in civilian clothes."

In 1937, he attended the funeral of the first Czechoslovak president Tomáš G. Masaryk. "I remember watching the funeral of T. G. Masaryk with my uncle at the Queen Anne's Letohrádek. Soon afterwards, my uncle took us to try on gas masks in the gas chamber at the General Staff," Ivan Sviták recalled of his uncle in his notes. In 1938, Otakar Sviták was determined, like many other soldiers, to defend Czechoslovakia at any cost. Ivan Sviták again recalls in his notes, "I saw him and my father crying at the radio announcement of some conference in Munich that crippled more than the map of Czechoslovakia. From my uncle's conversations with my father, I formed the conviction that we wanted to fight, but that we had been betrayed by sweet France and proud Albion, states that had swung the bell of betrayal."

The Last Year of Freedom

With the occupation of the Sudetenland by the German Wehrmacht, a new and more important mission awaited Svitak. He organized the removal of pilots and aircraft mechanics from the encircled and later occupied Czechoslovakia. It was a large-scale military action that was organized by an illegal military resistance group, Obrana naroda, which operated from autumn 1938 to spring 1939 as part of the Central Leadership of the Domestic Resistance (ÚVOD). The commander of this organization was General Josef Bílý and Sviták was a member of his "general staff."

The first route of the airmen's removal from the republic led via Moravian Ostrava to the Polish Krakow, from where the removal to other countries was organized by the Czechoslovak military attaché in Warsaw, Lieutenant Colonel Kalina. Václav Vuk recounts in his book Against the Odds that several young men with leather coats and large airplane bracelets travelled on each train from Prague to Ostrava, which did not contribute much to their inconspicuousness. They had to cross the Polish border on foot, and at the same time, they had to watch out for patrolling German soldiers.

The second removal journey, however, was much more difficult. It went through the Balkans and the airmen had to cross more borders. The destination was either Belgrade in Yugoslavia or Bucharest in Romania. From there, Chief of General Staff Heliodor Píka organised another move to France via Beirut. The airmen, therefore, had to pass through Slovakia and Hungary, where unfortunately many of them were detained. The Gestapo investigation reports show that Sviták organised the removal with several others. Perhaps he was chosen for this action because he was from Kopřivnice and had contacts there, so it was easier to transfer the airmen across the border.

He also carried out industrial espionage in various industrial enterprises throughout the Protectorate. Ivan Sviták recalls Sviták's last days in freedom: "Otakar Sviták then went to Hukvaldy for the holidays. To be more precise, he was organizing another route for the removal via Radhošt', and I had no idea that behind the inconspicuous trip we made from Hukvaldy every year, there was an important mission. My uncle was silent, we waited for him for a long time in the Maměnka Hotel because he had gone to talk to a friend of his and I heard something about arrests in Prague. Then I took a picture at Radhošt' by the Radegast statue - the last picture of Uncle Ota."

Two years in prison

A few days later, on 27 July 1940, Otakar Sviták was arrested in front of the "Stoupa" department store in Jindřišská Street in Prague. Around noon, two plain-clothes Gestapo officers took him to Pečkárna - Petschek's Palace, which was the Gestapo headquarters at the time. While a huge air battle for England was taking place in the skies over England between the RAF on one side and the Italian air force with the Luftwaffe on the other, Sviták was subjected to horrific interrogations and torture by the notorious Gestapo commissar Fleischer. In early 1941, he was transferred from police custody in Prague to a regular prison in Dresden.

On March 3, 1941 (about three-quarters of a year after his arrest), he was allowed to visit his wife Jarmila and brother Jaroslav. Marie Inka Svitáková describes this in her memoirs as follows. He had almost all his teeth knocked out, was almost deaf and was always using his hand to his ear to help him hear Jarka. They were sitting at a long narrow table, with Aunt Jara at the head and Oto opposite. On the long side, on one side was Papa, opposite him an SS man. Aunt Jara was not allowed to approach Oto and they tried in vain to shake hands. A gloomy room with a barred, high-set window, the sounds of heavy footsteps of armed guards, patrolling with Prussian precision. At first, Ota could not even speak, opening his mouth as if with an effort, moving his lips soundlessly, but then he spoke, still asking questions. About the children, about the financial situation of his family, about the old woman and about all of us. He said that he had got the investigation over with, the worst of it and that he was waiting with confidence and the court verdict, and after serving his sentence to return home. Both papa and poor Jarka were glad to believe this, and the whole visit was concluded by their leaving Dresden encouraged by poor Ota. They also believed it because the investigating judge, who had a select demeanour, was willing to accept a bribe, I don't know how much, and indicated that he was convinced that the sentence would be light. The return home was therefore full of optimism, even though the idea of the impoverished Ota was cruel. But he lived, and we believed he would return among us."

Unfortunately, immediately after this visit, it dawned on Commissar Fleischar of Prague that the essence of Svitak's resistance activities was not just industrial espionage, but something more significant. He, therefore, went to Dresden to subject Sviták to another series of cruel interrogations, during which he almost tortured him to death. In this state, he was taken to the Baltic fortress of Gollnow, where he awaited trial. Fellow prisoners who survived said that Sviták influenced the other prisoners with his wisdom of life during his walks and justified why the ultimate personal sacrifice was necessary if the nation was to live. Also preserved from Gollnow is the last portrait of Svitak painted by a fellow prisoner - a portrait of a man waiting to die. In early 1942, Sviták was transferred to Berlin, to the Plötzensee prison.

Heydrichiad

On March 18, 1942, the court handed down an unequivocal verdict - the death penalty. The Berlin attorney Horst Pelckmann filed an application for clemency on behalf of his wife Jarmila Sviták, and Otakar's brother, engineer Jaroslav Sviták, attempted to intervene through his former colleague from Kopřivnice Tatra, the German director Hans Ledwinka. Jaroslav also tried through Pelckmann to obtain a stay of execution by bribes but was only successful in buying photocopies of the Gestapo investigation reports that were part of the indictment file. After the sentence, the convict had 90 days to live according to the law. Perhaps the sentence would have been postponed if the dramatic event of the Heydrichiad had not intervened again. After the sentence, the family was allowed only two visits - on April 23, 1942 and July 7, 1942. On both occasions, he was visited by his wife Jarmila and brother Jaroslav.

Marie Inka recalls, "Otto's term was getting shorter, death was getting closer and closer. Jarka was looking for money to bribe, Daddy for connections. But Heydrich prevented any intervention, monetary or otherwise. Father's fate was sealed. The last visit was set for June 7, 1942. The journey to Berlin was a martyrdom. And yet Jarka resolved that she believed in Otto's pardon, in his return, and that she would convince him of it too. I was with Papa and Jarka at the station. They were both very depressed, my aunt was as pale as death and looked as if she would faint at any moment. We didn't speak. Two people looked at me from the window of the express train to Berlin, filled with the fear of a sad reunion." They stayed at the Hotel Excelsior in Berlin. The hotel receipt says: "Grösstes Hotel des Kontinents, 600 Zimmer, 750 Betten, Zimmer Nr. 109, Zimmerpreis RM 18. Juli 1942."

Portrét „Otakara Svitáka čekajícího na smrt“ namalován spoluvězněm, 1942
Portrait of "Otakar Svitak waiting for death" painted by a fellow prisoner, 1942

From Berlin, they also sent a postcard. "Berlin, July 8, 1942. We have arrived well and are dragging ourselves like flies in the local heat. I am glad that tomorrow we will be able to start from here again. I shall be home on Friday morning and look forward to seeing you again." Ivan Sviták recalls August 1942: "In August 1942 we were at the old woman's house in Hukvaldy. I think it was on the night of August 26, when Milada ran to us in the attic, terrified, to rush into the old woman's bedroom, saying that the Pendlovka were beating and beating. Bozenka stood in front of the clock and counted: 50, 51, 52, up to a hundred - and then an ominous silence. Then the clock continued ticking, regularly and quietly, even the next day it did not make any mistake in the number of blows. The old woman said it was a bad omen. She herself knew neither of Otto's condemnation nor of Ada's (Adolf Pítr-Barton) arrest, but it rang in our ears. When Daddy went to get the newspaper in the morning, he learned on the way that Otto's name was listed in the "They were executed" section. He died under the executioner's axe on the night the clock struck that fateful hundred strokes."

Otakar Svitak was told in the evening that he would die at 4:26. He began to write the last note to his family and surely remembered his mother, who had prayed for him constantly. She was 81 years old. She accepted the news of Svitak's death bravely. After a short time, his wife Jarmila received Father's clothes and a beautiful letter written in the shadow of the execution. The last letter to the family read: "I have always tried to be a good soldier and officer, and I must also be prepared for the end. I am ready to accept what fate has imposed on me and I am at peace. I am writing at night and this is my last letter, for this morning I will say goodbye to you and the children forever. I have a few hours left, which I spend in remembering you, the children and all those who were dear to me. It is these memories that strengthen me to remain calm. I wrote to you recently that I have never been a coward and I will never be one, and I am not one now, in the last moments of my life. This morning, at the early hour of 4.26, I will say goodbye to my life."

In memoriam

In 1946, Sviták was awarded the Czechoslovak War Cross 1939 in memoriam and was promoted to the rank of general in memoriam. In 1947, the Legionary Community in Vinohrady held a ceremony in which it was renamed the General Svitak Unity. However, it had to be renamed back after February 1948 and Sviták fell into oblivion for many years. Otakar Svitak's body was never properly buried, but it is at least symbolically buried in the Hukvaldy cemetery.

Symbolic grave at Hukvaldy
Symbolic grave at Hukvaldy

Literature, sources:
Military Historical Archive
Archive of Ivan Svitak and his heirs
Sviták, I: The Unknown Hero of the Battle of Britain: Air Force General Otakar Sviták

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Author : 🕔17.11.2012 📕14.765