ELISABETH JUNEK – Queen of the steering wheel

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One of the great Bugatti drivers – perhaps the greatest lady driver of all time – was Elizabeth Junek from Czechoslovakia, who, in a few crowded seasons in the mid 1920s, showed that she had the ability to meet and beat the world’s racing elite.

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Born in 1900, at the dawn of a new century and on the cusp of the commercial age of the automobile, Alzbeta Junkova would grow up to become arguably the greatest female driver in motor racing history.

Čeněk Junek

Eliska, as she liked to be called, was born in the Moravian town of Olomouc, in a sleepy corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the daughter of a blacksmith and the sixth of eight children, though only four lived to reach adulthood. From an early age, the slight girl nicknamed “smisek” for her ever-present smile dreamt of traveling the world. She loved to study foreign languages and by the age of 16, spoke fluent German and passable English, skills which helped her land a job in the Olomouc branch of a mortgage bank after high school. It was in the Olomouc bank that she met Vincenc “Cenek” Junek, an ambitious young man who had been discharged from the army after being shot in the hand and was then charged with getting the branch up and running. Both headstrong, they initially gave each other a wide berth. But when Cenek moved to Brno to open yet another branch of the bank, he took his employee Eliska along. In Brno, Eliska began formally studying foreign languages. Over the next six months, romance also began to blossom and Eliska and again followed Cenek when he was reassigned to Prague. There she sat for the state exams in English and began studying French.

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Married picture – Eliška and Čeněk

 

She decided to immerse herself in the language, and went to France to work in a garden nursery, putting off Cenek’s offers of marriage. Eliska also dreamt of world travel. Her plan was to see the deserts of North Africa and then head for Ceylon, today known as Sri Lanka. She made her way towards Gibraltar; when Spanish customs officers wouldn’t let her embark for the Mahgreb, she joined the kitchen staff of a British ship heading that way, but was denied a visa in London, and so returned to France.

Cenek came to meet his beloved Eliska in Paris – but not under the Eiffel Tower or on the romantic banks of the River Seine. After a long separation, they met in an auto salon. Cenek had done well for himself during the early years of the Czechoslovak First Republic and by 1921 he was sufficiently wealthy to indulge his passion for fast cars.

Eliska Junkova later recalled thinking: “If he is going to be the love of my life, then I better learn to love these damned engines.” But before long she too became smitten with the beauty of the racing cars on show, especially the Italian-designed, French-made Bugattis.

On returning to Prague, she took driving courses in secret and got her driver’s license. Meanwhile, Cenek’ had started racing in earnest. In 1922, he won the Zbraslav-Jiloviste race, now Europe’s oldest uphill course and finally married his Eliska.

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Before long, the Juneks began competing in local racing events as a husband-and-wife team; because of his wartime injury, Cenek had trouble shifting gears and so Eliska, then the riding mechanic, took over. They bought a state-of-the-art Mercedes and in the autumn of 1922, an Italian-made Bugatti Type 30, a cigar-shaped racer which Cenek gave his wife after a tough win in 1923. It would become Eliska’s trademark.

Ettore Bugatti grew up in a household of artists, surrounded by poets, painters, sculptors and architects. He took this rich artistic heritage and melded it with his love for the automobile to create a legendary marque. At its peak, the Bugatti not only produced the most luxurious, sought-after — and expensive — cars on earth, but also a series of racers that defeated all comers.

According to the book “The Amazing Bugattis,” in April 1924 Ettore wrote to his friend and faithful customer Cenek in Prague, sending him the sketch of what the 1924 car was to look like. “Springs and so on are completely within the body works,” he wrote. “The under part of the car is completely straight, only the cooling ribs project through. The front axle is a mechanical masterpiece. It is a hollow axle of quite new construction.”

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Bugatti later explained that he had abandoned the thick aerofoil body used on the tank cars “in spite of its technical advantages, simply with the object of obtaining a more elegant shape, to facilitate sales.”

The Bugatti race cars were some of the most beautiful cars ever built but suffered from inadequate brakes. After being criticized over the design of his brakes, Ettore Bugatti reportedly quipped: “I build my cars to go, not stop.” The flamboyant Italian also became a lifelong friend to Eliska — and mourned with her when she lost her husband.

Behind racing wheel

Eliska’s first professional race was in 1923, at Cenek’s side. The following year took the wheel herself and at Lachotin-Tremosna, in Czechoslovakia, won in the category of touring cars. Overnight, she became a national celebrity. Eliska placed first in 1925 at Zbraslav-Jiloviste. The Juneks bought a second Bugatti to celebrate but also because that year riding mechanics were banned on the big-name European circuits, as they had been in America, and the couple had to race separately.

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By 1926, Eliska Junkova was good enough to compete in races throughout Europe against the best male divers of the age.The glamorous Juneks were often in the society pages of a young Czechoslovakia looking for national heroes.

This 1926 magazine dispatch was typical of the adulation they received: “What a beautiful sporting couple; Junek and his wife. His dedicated and excited pupil, in whose slim body is beating the heart of a brave man and whose childlike hands drive her car with unmistakable security and at great speed through tight curves.”

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Targa Florio 1928

 

Also in 1926, Eliska took second place at Klaussenpass in Switzerland and was a remarkable success at the Targa Florio in Sicily, an exceptionally demanding course. She spent a month in Sicily before the event, carefully noting the 1500 corners of the 67-mile-long course. The men mocked her because the Targa was a race that required extraordinary stamina.

But Eliska was a gifted technical driver who used her memory more than her physical strength. She is often credited for being one of the first drivers to walk round a course before an event, noting landmarks and checking out the best line through the corners. Her preparation paid off: At Targa Florio, she was in fourth place until her steering failed and she crashed into a ditch along the rough and muddy course, only narrowly escaping a fall of a cliff.

Shortly after that close shave, she won in the two-liter sports car class at Nurburging, Germany, making her the first woman in history ever to have won a Grand Prix race. A tiny woman, a congratulatory embrace by the husky, overall winner of the event, the German Otto Merz, left her with two broken ribs.

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As her fame spread throughout Europe, Eliska anglicized her name to Elizabeth Junek.

The racing press dubbed her the “Queen of the steering wheel.”

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Targa Florio

With her sights on the 1928 Targa Florio, she bought a new Bugatti Type 35B, but finished fifth.With her sights firmly set on winning the 1928 Targa Florio, she acquired a new Bugatti Type 35B to enable her to be on an equal footing with the top male competitors. At the end of the first lap Junek was fourth behind the famous Louis Chiron in his factory sponsored Bugatti, but on the second lap she took the lead.

bugatti-1On the final lap she ran into trouble and ended up finishing fifth but still beat 25 other top drivers including the likes of Luigi Fagioli, René Dreyfus, Ernesto Maserati and Tazio Nuvolari.eliska1

In July that year at the Grand Prix in Germany, she was sharing the driving with her husband. She had just changed places with Cenek when he veered off course — and was killed instantly.Absolutely devastated, Eliska sold off their cars and gave up racing. She never competed at the Brno Grand Prix, the longest circuit used in Grand Prix racing in the 30’s, and the pride of the new Czechoslovak nation.

Instead, Eliska retuned to travel, her first love before Cenek and racing. She set out for Ceylon and Etton Bugatti himself gave Eliska a flashy new touring car for the journey, and hired her to seek out export opportunities to the sub continent.

Eliska did find love again and remarried shortly after the Second World War. But from 1948 to 1964, the Communist authorities — disapproving of the high-flying, bourgeois lifestyle that“Elizabeth Junek” had lived — refused to allow her to travel abroad.Elizabeth_Junek

But the unflappable, tiny woman lived well into her nineties, long enough for the iron curtain to fall and for the “queen of the steering wheel” to regain pole position in automotive racing history, as the first woman to win a Grand Prix event, and the only Czech woman to do so. In 1989, at the age of 91 and against the advice of her doctor, she attended a Bugatti reunion in the United States, as the guest of honor.

Of her own accomplishments, Eliska wrote in her memoirs:

“I proved that a woman can work her way up to the same level as the best of men. We women sometimes tend to blame our failures on nature. It is far more productive to be less angry and more hardworking. Some handicaps can easily be overcome.”

Eliska Junkova died peacefully in January, 1994, but her spirit lives in Czech composer Jaroslav Jezek’s 1928 jazz classic, “Bugatti Step.”

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Night Reaper – Karel “Kut” Kuttelwascher

Flying ace considered RAF’s best night intruder and 6th best night fighter

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Karel Miloslav Kuttelwascher – or Kut as he was known to all his wartime colleagues – was born on 23 September 1916 in a town now called Havlíčkův Brod in a country now called the Czech Republic. He joined the Czechoslovak Air Force when he was 18 and clocked up some 2,200 flying hours before the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 and disbanded the Czechoslovak armed forces. Three months after the invasion, he made a daring escape from Czechoslovakia into Poland by hiding in a coal train.

Together with many other Czechoslovak pilots, he was able to make his way from Poland to France where he was drafted into the Foreign Legion to await the imminent outbreak of war. When war came in 1939, Kut was allowed to join the French Air Force and flew in the fierce but brief Battle of France of 1940. He claimed a number of German aircraft destroyed and damaged, but those were turbulent times and no records survive to verify these claims.

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Then, when France fell after just three weeks of fighting, he managed to reach Algeria, escaped to Morocco, and took ship to Britain where he immediately joined the beleaguered Royal Air Force. During the war, the RAF formed four Czechoslovak squadrons – three fighter and one bomber. However, surprisingly, Kut never served in any of these Czechoslovak squadrons. Instead he was assigned to the RAF’s oldest unit, the legendary No. 1 Squadron.

He joined No. 1 on 3 October 1940 in time to earn his place as one of ‘The Few’. In fact, the British cannot be reminded often enough that, in the Battle of Britain, no less than one fifth of the RAF’s 3,000 pilots were not in fact British. Some 87 were Czechoslovaks including the RAF’s top-scoring pilot of the Battle, Josef František.

Night fighter

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Kut eventually spent a full two years with No. 1 Squadron. During the early circus operations, in each of the months of April, May and June 1941, he shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 off the French coast – but his score would not remain at three. Meanwhile No. 1 Squadron experienced more excitement with their involvement in the famous Channel Dash when, on 12 February 1942, the two German battle cruisers ‘Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’ raced from the French port of Brest and set sail for Norway. In a cannon-blazing attack on three accompanying destroyers, No.1 Squadron lost two aircraft, but Kut saw his shells exploding on the decks of his destroyer and judged the damage to be considerable.

By this time, No. 1 Squadron was based at its ancestral home here at Tangmere where it spent the year July 1941 to July 1942. At the start of November 1941, leadership of the unit was taken over by the charismatic Squadron Leader James MacLachlan, known to all as Mac. He had lost his left arm in an encounter with a 109 over Malta but, with the aid of an artificial limb, he was quickly back on Hurricanes. Kut – by now a Flight Lieutenant – and Mac – his one-armed Commanding Officer – soon became great friends and, during the night intruder missions that were to follow, keen rivals.

Previously, when German bombers attacked British cities, RAF fighters tackled them in our air space. By dramatic contrast, the idea of night intrusion was to engage the Luftwaffe aircraft over their own bases in France and the Low Countries. If the bombers could be attacked as they were coming in to land, they were particularly vulnerable, as the crews were tired and unsuspecting and the ammunition was probably used up. The runway navigation lights, combined with the slow speed of the bombers as they descended, all assisted RAF pilots in locating and destroying the enemy.

If the German bombers could be found as they were taking off, again they were vulnerable, but the crews were alert and the ammunition racks full. However, the marvellous advantage of this kind of mission, if successful, was that it destroyed not just the Luftwaffe aircraft but its bomb load, which could not then be dropped on British targets.

Usually intruder activity took place during the two weeks around the full moon – known by the pilots involved as “the moon period” – since the moon assisted flying as well as location of enemy bombers. During No. 1 Squadron’s three month period of night intrusion, there were four full moons: 1 April, 30 April, 30 May and 28 June. So the night intruder operation was a specialist exercise requiring a pilot with keen eyesight, cool nerves, and the ability to seize a chance that would only last seconds. Clearly it required a particular kind of aircraft and fortunately such an aircraft was to hand in the Hurricane. At the time of its intruder operations, No. 1 Squadron was equipped with the Hawker Hurricane IIC. This mark entered service in the late spring of 1941 and, of all Hurricane versions, it was the one built in greatest numbers. This Hurricane was powered by a Rolls Royce Merlin XX engine and it had a maximum speed of about 330 miles per hour.

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The “Gun”

The Mk.IIC was fitted with four 20 mm Hispano cannon, two in either wing, in place of the 8 or 12 Browning machine guns on earlier marks, so there was much more power in the punch. However, each of the four cannon had only 91 rounds which was merely enough for about nine seconds firing. So every second had to count and, in Kut’s case, it most certainly did.

The intruder missions over the continent required plenty of fuel and so No. 1 Squadron’s Hurricane lICs were fitted with two 45 gallon drop tanks, one under each wing. This took the total fuel load to 184 gallons which, at a normal consumption rate, provided a range of some 900 miles enabling an operation of 3-3.5 hours.  Many intruder Hurricanes did not have the normal green and grey camouflage scheme. Instead they were painted matt black all over in order to make it harder to detect them in the night sky. This matt finish tended to increase drag and therefore reduce top speed, but the intruder – unlike the interceptor – depended more on concealment than speed.

Kut’s particular Hurricane had the RAF code JX:E – the designation of his aircraft since June 1941 – and the manufacturer’s serial number BE 581. According to many accounts, an emblem was painted on the starboard side of the engine cowling. It depicted a scythe in yellow and across it a banner in red carrying the name “Night Reaper”, a gruesome image which reflected the Czech’s acute sense of vengeance.

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No. 1 Squadron’s night intruder operations started on the night of 1 April 1942, appropriately enough the official birthday of the Royal Air Force. The timing was no coincidence: the moon was at its fullest and brightest. For Kut at least, it was a baptism of fire. He found a Junkers Ju 88 taking off at Melun, south of Paris. Closing to only 100 yards, he raked it with cannon fire and it dived into the ground. Then he saw a similar aircraft still on the runway and damaged it in a strafing attack. Two weeks later, he knocked out his first Dornier Do 217 above St. André.

73477_427597007321681_1627922627_n        karelkuttelwascher_legieThen, on the night of 26-27 April 1942, Kut made a sortie that almost proved his last. Near Rouen, he dispatched a Dornier with an ease which proved deceptive until a stream of tracer bullets flew a mere ten feet above his cockpit. It was a Ju 88 night fighter on his tail and, in a quick and violent evasive manoeuvre, the Czech was able to reverse the roles and damage the Junkers before losing it in the darkness.

It was on the night of 4-5 May 1942 that Kut achieved his greatest intruder success with a stunning triple kill at St. André. Six Heinkel He 111 bombers were coming into land. Operating from dead astern, he blasted one Luftwaffe aircraft, then another, and then a third – three bombers destroyed in just four minutes, a feat unsurpassed on night intruder operations.

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For the next month, Kut’s score remained static but then he achieved victories on successive nights. On 2-3 June 1942, he shot down another Dornier and the following night in rapid succession he destroyed a Heinkel, damaged one Dornier and destroyed another. The last of No. 1 Squadron’s night intruder missions took place on the night of 1-2 July 1942. Over Dinard, Kut found a couple of Dorniers and destroyed one and damaged the other. Remaining on the scene, he managed to locate yet another Do 217 and, using his last few seconds of ammunition, he dispatched it into a wood.

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Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIC JX-E

 

It was a flaming finale to the intruder operations of No. 1 Squadron. In the course of just three months, a total of 22 enemy aircraft had been destroyed and a further 13 damaged.

Squadron Leader James MacLachian had downed five aircraft and damaged a further three, collecting a Distinguished Service Order for his magnificent leadership. But it was his Czech Flight Lieutenant who accounted for no less than 15 of the kills and five of the aircraft damaged. In the process, Kut was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice in a mere 42 days.

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Kut – 1944

The rest of the war was much less eventful for Kut – mainly special duties with the Czechoslovak Inspectorate General, involving six months in North America, and then service with No. 32 Maintenance Unit at St Athan near Cardiff, where he test flew a variety of bombers.

At the end of the war, he returned briefly to Czechoslovakia but in 1946, on the day the communists effectively took control of his homeland, he flew back to Britain where he became a Captain with British European Airways. His premature death came on 17 August 1959 after a heart attack while on holiday in Cornwall. He was only 42.

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