Arie de Jong, who pulled this British Spitfire out of a canal in Holland.
photo: Courtesy Drahoslav Machala
When the Germans arrived at Smik's crash site, they were puzzled. Smik carried a fake passport issued in the name of Taymans - to prevent himself from being charged with treason back home - but he looked different than the face in the photo. The Germans thus buried him as an unknown soldier.
Later, Taymans's fiancee reburied Smik under the name Taymans in Belgium. Only in 1964, when the Netherlanders uncovered the mystery of the second aircraft, was Smik finally buried under his real name at a Canadian military cemetery in Belgium. And in 1994 he flew for the last time - back to his homeland.
Otto Smik, appointed major-general in memoriam, would have celebrated his 80th birthday on January 20 this year. He is buried at the Bratislava cemetery in Slávičie údolie, next to Ján Ambruš, another Slovak legend who fought in the British air force during WWII. However, while Ambruš joined the RAF as an experienced pilot, Smik's career was just starting during the three years he served there.
"Otto Smik is a significant Slovak personality and a legend in the British air force," said Pavol Šimunič, director of the Military Historical Institute in Bratislava. "In his youth he understood need to go and fight fascism, and in a short time he managed to make his way up to air ace."
Between 1940 and 1943, Smik shot down nine German Messerschmidts and Fockewulfs, and three V-1 rockets, making him the fifth most successful combatant among the Czechoslovaks fighting in the West in WWII.
Smik in Canada with girlfriend.
photo: Courtesy Drahoslav Machala
Smik was one of 250 Slovaks who joined the British air force after 1939, when Slovakia became an independent state. They were determined to continue fighting against Adolf Hitler from abroad, following in the footsteps of their idol Milan Rastislav Štefánik, who devoted his life to liberating the Slovak nation and who died in 1919 in a plane crash.
"Smik was young and full of ideals," said Drahomír Machala, who wrote a book about Smik and initiated the transport of his body back to Slovakia in 1994. "He always dreamed of becoming a pilot. He left his country because he wanted to be like Štefánik and fight for democracy and freedom, which was not possible in the Slovak state back then."
Born in 1922 in a Georgian town near Tbilisi, where his father was imprisoned during WWI, Smik's family returned to Slovakia in 1934. Sensitive to the political changes in the country, Smik left six years later in March during the celebration of Slovak independence. He crossed the Hungarian border and reached France through the then still independent Yugoslavia. Soon after, when the Germans took France, Smik sailed to England. On the boat he met a Czech officer who later helped him meet British pilots.
"The British officers first wondered what this young guy wanted," Machala said. "But when he got into a plane, they could tell that he was very talented. They sent him on an eight-month training course to Canada. When he returned, he immediately shot down two Messerschmitts.
"While other pilots were chasing the local women, Smik sat for hours at the Rolls-Royce firm where they produced the British Spitfires. He watched the technicians testing the motors. He saw that when they wanted to test a motor at twice normal speed, they pressed the flaps and held them in that position for a certain time, but not too long, otherwise the motor would seize. He then used this trick in the sky and flew twice as fast as the German Messerschmitts."
In 1994, a year after the Czechoslovak divorce, the speaker of the British parliament, Betty Boothroyd, thanked Slovak soldiers for fighting for British freedom. Machala was touched.
"It was unbelievable," said Machala. "After all that time, while they had been saying it was us who were liberated, suddenly somebody thanked us for helping to liberate their country. Only then did I realise how much we, Slovaks, lack self-confidence.
"These people are heroes who should become idols for our younger generations."
4. Feb 2002 at 0:00 | Zuzana Habšudová