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War hero who flew Wigan plane to be remembered at RAF milestone event

RAF veterans with a picture of the Wigan and District Spitfire
RAF veterans with a picture of the Wigan and District Spitfire

A military campaigner from the borough is preparing a spectacular milestone event remembering a Wigan plane and its brave pilot.

John Magee, who runs the borough’s branch of National Service RAF, is marking 100 years since the air force was founded with a high-profile celebration at Wigan Cricket Club.

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The focus of the commemoration will be on the Wigan and District Spitfire, a plane built during the Second World War by donations from ordinary people in the borough, and its Czech pilot.

Extensive inquiries are currently being made in central Europe to try to trace any relatives of Rudolf Ptacek, who was killed aged just 23, when his aircraft was shot down off the coast of France in 1942.

And the search might just be bearing fruit, as event organisers have received a letter from the son of his cousin Vladimir, expressing the delight among his remaining relatives that he is being remembered in Britain this year.

The focus on Mr Ptacek’s courage is all the more appropriate, as he would have been 100 this year.

Mr Magee is desperate to raise awareness of what happened in Wigan during the fight against Nazi Germany, saying it has become a forgotten chapter of the war.

He said: “This event will get the message over to the younger generation of Wigan of what their parents and grandparents actually did.

“They put in money out of their wages to raise £7,886 to pay for a Spitfire. That’s the spirit of England: during its rough times people all bonded together to get our aircraft.

“If you did a survey now you would be amazed how many people don’t know what the Wigan Spitfire was.

“In my opinion, Mr Ptacek was a very strong character, and his birthday was around the time of year we are hosting our event.

“He survived one plane crash and made his way back to Britain to carry on fighting.

“He was killed in the August of 1942, aged 23.

“I would like to get any relatives of his over to Wigan if possible, either for this event or for something to commemorate his death later in the year.

“His story shows that people all over Europe didn’t just allow the hostile forces to walk through the continent, they stood and fought.”

Letters sent from the Czech Republic recently have revealed more about the tragically-short life of Mr Ptacek.

His father died before World War Two and the direct family line ended with the death of his mother in 1975. He had a sister Tatana, who married another Czech pilot, but they had no children.

Of his six cousins, two, Jana and Vladimir, are still alive and Vladimir’s son has written of the family’s “great honour” that Rudolf is still recalled in the UK.

The pilot’s diaries, awards and photographs were kept after the war and were given to a top Czech military historian, which means there is a detailed picture of his life.

Born in 1918, he became a cadet in 1936 and qualified as a pilot two years later.

He was already an experienced flyer by the time the Nazis disbanded the Czech air force, but along with a couple of colleagues he escaped on the trains to Poland and from there to France.

He started serving in the French forces, but when the Germans overran the continent in 1940 he joined the retreat and came to Britain.

Later that year he was accepted in the RAF and endured a number of death-defying episodes in the cockpit.

The Wigan Spitfire was shot down over France in 1941, but after returning to duties he was not so lucky second time.

In May 1942 his plane was struck and plunged into the English Channel. His body was never recovered.

Mr Magee is currently pulling out all the stops to remember these heroic escapades, and other missions the RAF has been involved in during its first century.

Artefacts and photographs from the Wigan Spitfire are expected to be on display and a number of dignitaries are being invited.

The event is at Wigan Cricket Club on Tuesday, April 10.