The Usworth Gestapo Spy
When researching The History of RAF Usworth I came across the extraordinary story of Czechoslovakian pilot, Augustin Preucil, stationed at Usworth in World War Two, who was a spy for the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo. The British press, including the Yorkshire Post, reported in 1947 that his widow, Muriel née Kirby, had been informed that the Czechoslovakian authorities had executed him.
Preucil was born in Bohemia in 1915 and learnt to fly in 1935. He was conscripted as a military airman in the Czechoslovakian Air Force, but captured by the Germans after they invaded his country in 1938. That’s when the Gestapo recruited him. They deployed him by assisting his ‘escape’ through Poland.
He joined the French Air Force but was one of many pilots who fled to Britain when France fell. He joined the Czechoslovak squadron of the RAF. Researchers believe he underplayed his flying skills so that he wouldn’t be sent to the front line, and would be assigned to background roles in order to gather intelligence. In 1940 he was posted to Usworth as a flying instructor. He met and married 18 year old Muriel Kirby of Sunderland in July 1941.
Just three months later on 18 September he took off in a Hurricane (the 'personal' aircraft of the Training Unit's officer-in-charge, possibly from RAF Ouston) to practise aerial combat with a Polish trainee, but feigned aircraft problems and was thought to have crashed into the North Sea. He had however flown on to land in occupied Belgium. He was ‘rescued’ by resistance fighters, but betrayed them when he crossed over to the Germans, who were delighted with the capture of an intact Hurricane. (There’s no evidence he shot down the Polish trainee as all the press reported in 1947). Back in Sunderland he was commemorated in the Echo, and Muriel received a war widow’s pension.
His life of betrayal continued in his native Bohemia where he acted as a captured RAF pilot to infiltrate POWs and possibly take part in their interrogations. He was captured days after the War ended, tried by the Czechoslovakian authorities, found guilty of treason and executed on 14 April 1947.
The damage he caused must have been immense, as he was the only Nazi spy known to have infiltrated the RAF, though it is speculated he might have had a UK-based handler. As well as the individuals he betrayed, many RAF airmen must have died following what the Germans found out about the Hurricane.
Muriel remarried in 1952, and a wartime photograph of his aircraft, Hawker Hurricane MK1 W9147, is in the German Aviation Museum. It was thought to have been destroyed during an Allied bombing raid.
Both the British and Czechoslovak authorities expunged him from their commemorative records, but interest in his story was reawakened by the work of aviation researchers in 2003, leading to a flurry of articles and a Czech book titled "Prototype Betrayal".
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“Hero pilot unmasked as Hitler's spy in the RAF”, the Guardian 23 June 2003