A hero in his own right
Tom Lom, as he calls himself now, was born Tomáš Lowenstein in Prague in 1924, to the Jewish family of an optician. His father remarried before life with his second wife Anna and their boys was interrupted by the rise of Nazism. Three days before the Nazis entered and occupied Prague, Tom and his family arrived in London, their new home and also their asylum. There, eighteen-year-old Tom embarked on a journey which would take him to the the air force, various places around England, the belly of a Liberator with the 311st Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron, cosmopolitan New York, Florida, the sunny beaches of Bahamas, and back where it all started – Prague, as postwar events and then the Communist takeover unfolded. He was extremely lucky on his incredible journey, which took an exciting new turn when he took on the role of educator and he and his friends gave talks around the country’s schools, telling kids about his sometimes unbelievable exploits.
Let me show you just how unbelievable his life’s journey is.
He is one of just three surviving members of the Czechoslovak Air Force in exile – the others are General Emil Boček, fighter pilot, member of the former 310th RAF Czechoslovak Fighter Squadron, and Tom´s colleague Lt. Col. Jiří F. Kafka, who was also a radio operator and gunner with the 311th RAF Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron.
Tom’s family left Czechoslovakia just before Nazi Germany took over the country. His father chose to settle in Scotland, and Tom went to Glasgow University to study physics. He was well aware of the situation in the world, and more acutely, in his homeland Czechoslovakia. So, as a true patriot, the second he turned eighteen, he went to London and joined the Czechoslovak Army in Exile. Although he wanted to be a pilot, he had to serve on the ground first. His journey to the Air Force was not straightforward, but after a few glitches, he finally got there. However, he was not chosen for the job he really wanted – pilot. Instead, he became a navigator/radio operator. In some documents, you may find another term for this position – wireless operator. These operators had the important job of keeping in touch with the base during long missions over enemy territory and later over the sea. When Tom entered service with the 311th, the squadron was operating the American-made B-24 Liberators GR.V, which were huge four-engined bombers with a lot of anti-shipping and anti-submarine warfare on board – such as radar, deep-dive torpedoes and depth charges. Some of the first machines were equipped with eight rockets placed at the nose of the aircraft. Our bomber crews worked tirelessly to add to the war effort, and they scored some amazing victories during their three-year service with RAF Coastal Command.
Tom enjoyed his military career, which was graced with moments of sheer luck. For instance, he and his fellow crew survived an accident when one of the gunners tried to throw out a flare (a special rocket to light up the target under the plane), messing it up horribly. The flare was to be thrown out of the plane through a special tube, and the soldier put the flare into the tube upside down – with the little chute first. Of course, the flare got stuck and set the plane on fire. Only the excellent skills of the pilot saved the crew! Tom’s life then took another turn – he was chosen to head to the Bahamas, where he would help train more radio operators. He was not exactly excited, but he was a true soldier, so he followed the orders given to him to the letter. The Bahamas provided another load of exciting moments – for instance when the plane he was on had to perform an emergency landing after a bomb exploded prematurely inside the bomb bay! Again, Tom was lucky to have an excellent pilot, who managed to land the plane safely so that no-one was hurt. He says that it was entirely the work of the guardian angel he realized he had long before that happened.
The service in the Bahamas brought some good moments too. We all know the Bahamas are lovely islands with plenty of sunshine, paradise-like nature and a tropical climate. Tom took full advantage of these, adding a lot of pleasant memories as he travelled around, climbed palm trees, and drank coconut milk and a couple of cocktails as well.
When the war ended in 1945, Tom was barely twenty years old, but he was not entirely sure he wanted to stay in the UK. Although his father stayed in Glasgow, Tom moved back to Czechoslovakia with the 311th. He served for a little while after the war, but he soon put the uniform away and began to study physics at Charles University.
However, the sudden change of political course in Czechoslovakia in 1948 put Tom in extreme danger. Again, he was quite lucky – he was fairly young, he was not in the army, and he had the right friends. One day, he decided to join the Communist Party, a decision based purely on survival. “Politics is like the environment,” he says. “It’s good to know it, so you know what to expect, but you can’t influence it in any way.” However, if given a choice of parties to join, he joked that he would join the party of mild progress within the limitations of the law, as penned by famous Czechoslovak writer Jaroslav Hašek. There was no choice in 1948, as there was only one party to consider … Miraculously, he avoided prosecution, unlike hundreds of his friends and fellows from the army and and the air force.
It is time for a brief intermezzo. Let’s leave Tom for a while and look at the situation in which all soldiers who had returned from the UK three years earlier found themselves in 1948. The regime had decided long before that these people were dangerous for the future of the new Czechoslovakia, and hundreds of them ended up in prisons, work camps or internal exile, pushed to the fringes of society, where they lived the rest of their lives poor, under constant secret police surveillance and denied the respect they had earned. For example, Air Marshall Karel Janoušek, the commander of the Czechoslovak Air Force in Exile, died alone, poor and forgotten, after a long imprisonment. Josef Bryks, a fighter pilot, who had been a POW, was arrested and imprisoned soon after the coup of February 1948; he died a horrible death as an enforced labourer at the infamous uranium mine in Jáchymov, despised by the regime and forgotten by everyone. He managed to send to his family to England, but he didn’t make it. Only in 2009 was his wife allowed to properly bury her beloved husband! The regime stopped at nothing to remove anyone who stood in its way. Anyone even remotely connected with this cruel dictatorship and its secret police should be properly punished and immediately removed from public office. We owe this to all those who died for us and suffered at the hands of their fellow countrymen.
Back to Tom’s story, though. Safely out of the regime’s sight, he finished his studies and joined the Tesla company, where he worked in applied physics and electronics until his retirement. However, in 1968, after the Prague Spring was followed by Normalization, his luck seemed to run out. His political profile did not fit the new requirements, and he was expelled from the party. As he puts it today: “Luckily. My angel was back!” He laughs about it now. He was demoted in the company, but he stayed on as a normal scientist and made a successful career. When he retired, he started to enjoy family life.
Our life doesn’t always take the course we wish it to, however. When Tom was ninety, his wife passed away, and he did not see his future too brightly. But a guardian angel does not give up, even after 93 years. Tom met Hana Bergmannová, his neighbour and a wonderful person, who befriended him and introduced him to people who wished to hear about his life. She even wrote a book about Czech men and women in the UK during the war, aimed specifically at children as young as five! The book is called The Adventures of Mr Wellington, and it’s a MUST if you have kids. Quite frankly, I bought it as well, even though I only have a little nephew. But I am ready for the future!
Tom is now 93-and-a-half, as he says, and he is very active in public life. He visits schools to talk about his life and the past everybody should know about, he goes to air shows and meets new people from the aerospace world, and his life now has new motivation. Here is his answer to a question I will never dare ask, even though, and maybe because, I have personal experience in this matter. He was once asked by a journalist if he had ever met his enemy, i.e. a Luftwaffe (German Air Force during the Second World War) pilot. “I have not,” he replied. “But if I did, I would shake his hand and take him for a beer or two. War is a terrible thing, where wretched politicians make ordinary men fight each other!” I fully agree.
So thank you, Mr Lom, for your service. And cheers! You are the kind of hero we need to listen to these days. And happy birthday in advance, sir!