European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

22 September 2014

Dark blue world, little blue book: English for Czech servicemen

Cinema-goers may remember Jan Svěrák’s 2001 film Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět), following the exploits of two Czech pilots, Franta and Karel, who escape to England to fight alongside the RAF in the Second World War. Lacking aircraft on which to practise manoeuvres, they are sent out on bicycles fitted with ‘wings’ to fly in formation until a sudden crash lays them low in a tangled heap of buckled wheels and broken balsa. Further humiliation awaits them in the classroom where, under the stern eye of Anna Massey, they are drilled in the niceties of English grammar and syntax and resort to such schoolboy tricks as passing notes and saucy pictures under the desks. What kind of materials, we may wonder, would have been available to real-life Czechoslovak servicemen undertaking a forced march through the English language?

A recent donation of books from the collections of the late Czech composer Bedřich Bělohlávek  provides a partial answer in the form of a little blue book entitled Vojáci, učte se anglicky! (‘Soldiers, learn English!’). Published by the Czechoslovak war office in London, it bears no date, but the Library of Congress record suggests that it was published in 1941. The limp cover (see picture below)  is adorned with a drawing of a smiling soldier leaning jauntily on his rifle with a tent in the background, belying the terse statement on page 31: ‘This site is too damp’.

Cover of 'Vojáci, učte se anglicky!' with adrawing of a soldier leaning on his rifle

The booklet aims to provide the basics of conversational English with, not surprisingly, a strong emphasis on military vocabulary, equipping the eager student with everything he needs to carry out his duties from basic drill to responding to enemy bombardment. Gas-masks, wire-cutters, sea-planes – nothing is forgotten. There is even a section for the cavalry, with useful terms such as ‘to shoe a horse’, and ‘a good horseman’ (conjuring up a random picture of the Good Horseman Švejk, ambling in search of his regiment on a borrowed nag). It has a briskly optimistic turn of phrase, as in ‘Our barracks have fine washing places’.

Despite the rigours of camp life, however, the anonymous author recognizes the need for rest and relaxation, and it is in the section ‘At a Restaurant’ that things become lively. ‘I should like fish and chips,’ our hero decides, determined to embrace British cuisine at its finest.  Indeed, the bill of fare seems positively lavish for wartime; where, we may ask, did the proprietor come by ‘Frankfurt sausage, pork, mutton…vanilla, strawberry, chocolate ice’? ‘In England, spirits are expensive,’ he sighs, concluding modestly ‘I would rather have a glass of water’. He is advised that ‘the best means of transport in London is the taxi’, and not surprisingly, things soon reach a serious pitch: ‘I cannot pay this bill,’ he prevaricates. ‘I am short of money’, and is reduced to appealing to his friend, ‘I have spent all my money. Can you lend me 10 shillings?’, ending with the sober adage ‘Time is money’.

Soon, however, he is back in funds and applying for three days’ leave, spurred on by the chapter ‘Amusements’ – and what a fun-filled time it is. ‘In the evening we will go for a walk in the park,’ he suggests. ‘We could go to the cinema, to the theatre […] The band plays well. I was at a concert yesterday. I am going to a party tonight.’ Soon, however, he ventures onto dangerous ground: ‘I don’t like cricket, I don’t understand it and it is too slow for me. It is a typically English game.’ Instead, he has another suggestion to make: ‘I think that we could play a football match with you.’ ‘We have some professional footballers here,’ he boasts. ‘They can provide a pretty good team.’ Away they go, but things soon turn nasty: ‘You play too roughly,’ he protests as the centre-forward of Sparta Prague  hits the ground, rolling and wailing. The referee may be short of red and yellow cards, but he has all the vocabulary he could wish, and there is no stopping him: ‘Charge!’ he yells as the two sides surge back and forth. ‘Free-kick! Throw-in! Penalty!’ All ends amicably, though, and our hero beams, ‘Let’s sing!’ promising his hosts, ‘We shall sing you some Czech folk-songs…We shall sing during the march.’ They may well need to keep their spirits up, for the weather seems to be extreme: ‘I am cold. I am wet through. It is freezing. The river is frozen’ – there is obviously no pleasing some people, for on the same page he is heard complaining ‘The sun is shining. It is too hot.’  Better not to ask, perhaps, how the evening ends, for we find him explaining, in the section ‘Washing, mending’, ‘A button came off my trousers and the edges below have got torn.’ He confesses, ‘Also my boots are beginning to wear down at the heels’ (it was a long trudge back to camp in the black-out).

Cartoon of a soldier drinking English tea while dreaming of Czech beer

Furnished with sections on grammar, weights and measures, abbreviations and some charming illustrations, the little book ends with a polite letter of thanks from one Jiří Novák for help received ‘when we first landed on English soil’, and even two jokes, ‘In the Protectorate’ and ‘The Royal Air Force’, painstakingly written out in phonetic spelling to enable Czechoslovak servicemen to entertain their British comrades in flawless Received Pronunciation – no estuary English for Jiří and his chums.

Page with an anecdote in Czech and English, and a drawing of a soldier trying to communicate with a British policeman

Just 65 pages long, the booklet leaves a moving impression of a genuine desire to communicate on both sides, not merely at a basic level but with courtesy and gratitude – to the soldiers and airmen for risking their lives to join the British war effort, and to their hosts for easing their transition in a country suffering scarcity and anxiety under the threat of invasion. One hopes that some of those who used it lived to retain happy memories of their time in Britain, and even of ‘Hampstead, London’s Central European quarter’.     

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech and Slovak


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