A pilot who married a Wearside woman just six years before being sentenced to death as a German spy is the focus of a new book.
Czech-born Augustin Preucil, a flying instructor at RAF Usworth, had been hailed as a hero after fighting to defeat Hitler’s Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.
Indeed, the 27-year-old was believed to have died a hero’s death on September 18, 1941 – when his Hurricane was seen spiralling “out of control” after a practice dog-fight over the North Sea.
But, on April 17, 1947, Preucil’s “widow” Muriel was informed that her missing husband had been sentenced to death by the People’s Court in Prague – as a Gestapo agent.
“My father and I are writing a book about the pilot Augustin Preucil, his life and his betrayal,” said Daniela Nemeckova, a PhD student at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.
“We would very much like to talk to anyone who knew Preucil, or has any information about him during the time he spent in Sunderland. Any details would be most welcome.”
Born in 1914 near Benesov, central Bohemia, Preucil served as a reconnaissance pilot in the Czechoslovak Air Force. He then volunteered for the Luftwaffe in 1939, but was rejected on the grounds he wasn’t German.
Later that year he tried to leave for South America, but was arrested by the Gestapo. It was at this point Preucil was recruited by German intelligence, who sent him to spy in Europe.
“He spent time in Poland and France before making his way to Britain, where he joined the RAF. He apparently proved popular among his colleagues at RAF Usworth,” said Daniela.
The Battle of Britain hero obviously settled down well on Wearside, as he spent 12 months courting optician worker Muriel Kirby before the couple married in the summer of 1941.
Just weeks after their wedding, however, Preucil disappeared during a training mission. He was presumed dead and, after being told the news, Muriel heard nothing more for five years.
“Then in 1946, when I was able to write letters to Czechoslovakia, I wrote to his parents to tell them he was dead,” Muriel, of Hill View Gardens, later told the Echo. “I had my first shock when their answer came.
“It said my husband was alive, but detained in prison as an ‘English’ agent. Now comes the terrible news that he is to die – and I just cannot believe the allegations against him.
“Newspapers say he shot a Polish pilot in another plane and fled to Belgium; but my family say this Pole came back to this country and visited friends at Roker.”
Investigations have since revealed that, rather than dying in a crash, Preucil flew his stolen RAF Hurricane to Belgium - where he was helped by a farmer he later betrayed to the Gestapo.
He went on to infiltrate Theresienstadt concentration camp on behalf of the Gestapo, where he informed on Czech political prisoners, and also spied on American prisoners of war.
Once the war ended, however, Preucil was arrested for treason and betrayal. He was sentenced to death by the People’s Court and hanged at Pankrac Prison on April 14, 1947.
Detail’s of Preucil’s treachery made headlines for a second time in 2003, after photos came to light showing his Hurricane on show at the German National Aviation Museum in Berlin in 1941.
“An article in a Czech newspaper in May 1947 stated that Muriel, then 25, remained convinced her husband was innocent and that she would do everything possible to clear his name,” said Daniela.
“I know that she went on to marry again, to Bryan Vincent in 1952, and I would be most interested in talking to her for my book. She was one of the few people who would have known Augustin best.”
l Do you have any information on Augustin Preucil? Daniela can be contacted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org Alternatively, write to Sarah Stoner, Sunderland Echo, 2nd Floor, Alexander House, Rainton Bridge, Houghton, DH4 5RA.