Thame Local History
Jack Howland

One of only a handful of British Army regulars to have fought a guerrilla war in Eastern Europe in WW2 as a member of a Red Army backed partisan brigade was born in Thame.

Jack Howland was born into a life of rural poverty and hardship at 42 Wellington Street, in 1915. The death of his father, killed in action on the Somme in 1916, plunged the family further into poverty. Jack supplemented the larder with crayfish (from Cuttle Brook) and rabbits and game 'liberated' from surrounding estates and farms.

In 1933, to escape the grinding rural poverty, Jack joined the Oxon Bucks Light Infantry and threw himself in the business of soldiering. The army, recognising his sharp mind, ready wit and leadership qualities soon had him earmarked for promotion. By 1939, Jack was one of the youngest sergeants in the British army.

While fighting a rearguard action covering the British Expeditionary Force's retreat to Dunkirk in 1940, Jack was captured near Arras, and spent the next four and a half years in southern Poland's coal mines, quarries and forests.

Jack Howland and Jimmy Flett
Jack Howland and Jimmy Flett

In late 1944 Jack made his third (and successful) escape bid taking with him Jimmy Flett, a sergeant in the Argylls. Walking by night and laying-up by day, they headed east through the Tatra Mountains and into Czechoslovakia where their fortunes took an unexpected twist - ambushed by Soviet-backed partisans who took them to be Gestapo spies.

Two scouts from the Red Army-backed 1st Czechoslovak Partisan Brigade -"Jana Zizki', staged the ambush: Jan Zubiczek and the Brigade's formidable Intelligence Officer, Cestmir Podzemny.

The Brigade took the name Jana Zizka in veneration of the revered Czech patriot and Bohemian Hussite nobleman, Jana (or John) Zizka, born in 1370. Zizka fought alongside the English at Agincourt (1415) and though blinded at the battle of Raby (1421) lead his followers, the Taborites, to eventual religious freedom.

Jan Zubiczek takes up the ambush story.

"It happened at night about 11 o'clock. We were walking along a road by a field when we saw two figures on the horizon. Keeping silence, we decided to capture the two persons and we laid down on the ground on both sides of the road. We did not see any guns. As they passed by us, Cestmir Podzemny shouted in German... 'hende hoch' (hands up) and he approached the two men while I covered him with my machine pistol. Both men put up their hands and we could see they were wearing some kind of uniform, though we could not see exactly what it was. Cescmir spoke in German and one of the men spoke it too. We took the two men to our base for further questioning."

In later years, Jack Howland recalled the interrogation, believing at the time that he and Jimmy were to be summarily executed as Gestapo agents,

"It was a bloody tense time, I can tell you. Me and Jimmy thought we'd had it. They didn't believe we were on the run. But I think my tattoo with Eileen's name (Jack's wife) and that Jimmy was really pissed off with the partisans referring to him as English, finally persuaded them we were genuine escapees. We had nothing else to do, so we joined the partisans."

Jack and Jimmy were assigned to the Brigade's, Belgian Strike Group. "We greeted them warmly, in the fight to destroy Fascism." Jan Zubiezek told me.

On the morning of 3rd May 1945, Brigade scouts made contact with advancing Red Army units. Later that day, the Brigade's commander, Major Dajun Murzin marched the Jana Zizka Brigade victoriously into the town of Zlin - their partisan war over. On May 8th Nazi Germany officially surrendered.

In addition to the carrying out over 600 attacks on SS Barracks, police stations, SS Special Purpose Kommando Bases, railway marshalling yards, the Jana Zizka Brigade killed 756 German soldiers and NCO's, 16 Special Forces officers and security policemen; 39 Hungarian soldiers and 25 members of General Vlasov's renegade army. They captured the commander of the 16th SS Tank Division and accounted for the Gestapo's top agent in Moravia and Bohemia, Frantisek Smid, who was shot dead at close quarters by Cestmir Podzemny. The Jana Zizka Brigade lost 608 men.

In 1945 Dr Benes personally decorated Major Murzin with the 1939 War Cross at a special ceremony held ironically, in Prague's Hracadny Castle, the former headquarters of the infamous Reinhardt Heydrich, Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia. (Assassinated in 1942, by SOE-trained Free Czech agents). On 22nd April 1946, Dr Eduarde Benes, collectively decorated the 1st Czechoslovak Partisan Brigade -"Jana Zirka," with the (Czechoslovak) 1939 War Cross.

Cestmir Podremny who rose to the rank of Colonel in the Post-War Czech army, died in Prague last year. Jan Zubiezek lives quietly in Vstetin. Major Murzin lives in Russia and regularly corresponds with the author. Sgt Jimmy Flett's whereabouts are unknown, but was last heard of in Elgin and Aberdeen. Jack Rowland stayed in the army after the war, rising to the rank of Major (QM) in a distinguished thirty-six year career. He died in 1996.

Peter Ross

First published in Round&About (Thame & Watlington) May 2001.

Reproduced with kind permission.

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