ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2007 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 53, No 4 - Winter 2007
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas

Book Review

Gražina Sviderskytė, The Hurricane Captain. Edited by Joseph Everatt, translated by Fiona Hood. Vilnius: Artseria, 2006, ISBN 9986-716-47-0, 314 pages.

A review of this Lithuanian language translated publication (Gražina Sviderskytė, Uragano kapitonas. Vilnius, Artseria, 2004) about the life and times of Lithuanian Air Force Captain Romualdas Marcinkus would be remiss without first providing a brief introduction to its author. Although Gražina Sviderskytė is virtually unknown in the United States, she is an extremely well-known former newscaster, author, and documentary filmmaker in Lithuania. Not only is she married to the famous Lithuanian flyer Jurgis Kairys, Gražina herself holds a pilot’s license and is passionate about all things related to flying and aviation. She has combined her love of writing, filmmaking, and aviation to produce several documentaries, including “Uragano kapitonas” (Hurricane Captain, 2003) and “Skrydis po tiltu” (Flight beneath the Bridge) for which she won the CNN Reporter Award for 2001. 

The Hurricane Captain takes its title from the famous British World War II fighter plane flown by Lithuanian Captain Romualdas Marcinkus during the heroic days of the Battle of London. As in the case of all biographies, this publication provides a detailed story about the life of this aviation pioneer, prewar soccer star, early skydiving advocate, and unsung World War II hero. The author not only provides a detailed story of Marcinkus’s life, but a history of the early Lithuanian military, its aviation service, prewar Lithuanian civilian life, and the subsequent tragedy of the Soviet and Nazi occupations. There is no question that this publication is a biography with a historical flavor, but it also reads like a mystery novel as the author describes numerous heroic aspects of Marcinkus’s exploits. 

Romualdas grew up in the small Tsarist Russian provincial town of Jurbarkas, located at the confluence of the Nemunas, Mituva, and Imsrė rivers not far from the German border. The town had existed for well over 750 years and was located close to the ancient Teutonic castle of Jourgbhourg. He was raised largely by his mother since his father had been a Tsarist police officer whose duties often resulted in his having to live away from the family. Due to the ethnic makeup of the area, Romualdas not only spoke Lithuanian, but acquired a proficiency in German, Russian, and Polish as well. He even acquired some proficiency in English. The author provides a detailed account of his early life that includes passages of life under the Russian and German occupation during World War I. As a youth he was exposed to football (soccer), which was then new in Lithuania. He soon excelled in the sport and played on several Polish and German football teams. Soccer quickly became his most important youthful activity. 

With the establishment of the Republic of Lithuania in the postwar period the nation’s need for a military force quickly became apparent. The author presents a summary of the founding of the Lithuanian Army and its aviation service. Although independence was won, the nation’s traditional capital, Vilnius, remained occupied by the Poles. In those days many young Lithuanian males were making their way to Kaunas, which had been established as the interim capital due to the Polish occupation of the nation’s historic capital. Although he dreamed of becoming an aviator, that small branch of service had few openings. As a result, in 1926 Marcinkus became a cadet in the nation’s officer’s training academy, from which he graduated in 1929 as a second lieutenant. He soon found the major threats to the nation had been resolved and his military duties dull and monotonous. At this point, Marcinkus again turned to his love of soccer to provide an outlet for his pent up frustrations. He soon found himself not only playing, but starring on various Kaunas football teams. Under his leadership, these teams went on to gain many national and international championship titles. 

While he was achieving fame as soccer player, Marcinkus finally achieved his dream in 1932 when he was transferred to the Lithuanian Army aviation section and selected to attend the reopened Vytauto Didžiojo officers’ Aviation School. He soon made his solo flight and after graduation was assigned as a co-pilot. Although to our generation the rank of co-pilot indicates one subservient to a pilot, in Marcinkus’s day the term was used to identify a bomber crew commander who was not only skilled in flying but in navigation as well. As a flyer, Marcinkus became acquainted with many of the immortals of Lithuanian aviation. The noted aircraft designer, General Antanas Gustaitis, selected Marcinkus to accompany him and co-pilot one of the two Lithuanian aircraft flown in his famous 1934 flight around Europe. This epic journey would catapult the well-known soccer player to a prominent place in Lithuanian aviation. Besides flying, Marcinkus would soon champion the parachute and was, in effect, an early proponent of skydiving. He was soon jumping from aircraft at air shows, relying solely on his parachute, when the risky device was considered to be a last-ditch means, to be used only when all other hope was lost. In 1939, Marcinkus was among the few Lithuanian flyers to be awarded the Lithuanian Steel Wings honor badge for his service to aviation.

The events of 1939 would bring both great joy and terror to Lithuania. With the German and Russian invasion and division of Poland, Lithuania regained its historic capital, Vilnius, after twenty years of foreign occupation. The return of the nation’s capital would be bittersweet, however, because the Soviet Union would quickly occupy and annex the country. Marcinkus was among the many professional soldiers who refused to accept the Lithuanian government decree not to resist the occupation. During these troubled days, Marcinkus mysteriously fled Soviet-occupied Lithuania. There is speculation that his resignation in December 1939 and flight was part of some elaborate scheme for Marcinkus to form a squadron of similarminded Lithuanians in the French Air Force. Virtually nothing is firmly known about his flight; and some have suggested that he had initially sought to join the Finnish freedom struggle and only later traveled to France to continue the fight against the Nazi threat. We know he arrived in Paris and after several months of delay became a pilot in the French Air Force. With the fall of France, Marcinkus was assigned to French North Africa, but he chose to continue his struggle in England. Escaping by small boat to Malta, he eventually joined the British Air Force and took part in the Battle of Britain. 

Upon arriving in England, Marcinkus entered the British Air Force; and after completing combat flight training, he was assigned to the dangerous duty of night-time bomber interception. British records confirm that he downed at least one Nazi plane and probably several others that were not confirmed due to the nature of night-time flight. During the war years, all information concerning British combat losses were considered secret and little was revealed concerning his last mission. Originally, the only information provided indicated that Marcinkus had been lost on a combat mission over the English Channel. 

It is now known that he and three flight members were shot down on February 12, 1942, during an epic attack on the Nazi battleship “Scharnhorst.” Mystery again surrounds how Marcinkus survived this action, but he is subsequently listed as a German prisoner of war. German records confirm Marcinkus’s transfer to several different prison camps, with his last confinement at Stalag Luft 3, a concentration camp. Still, even confinement did not curtail Marcinkus’s struggle for freedom. Due to his language skills, Marcinkus became one of the leaders in the secret X organization, which planned and executed a historic escape from this prison camp. This epic escape was portrayed in the 1963 Oscar winning movie “The Great Escape.” Many have compared Marcinkus to the movie character Flight Lieutenant Hendley, the Scrounger, portrayed by the actor James Garner. Unlike the fictional character Hendley, Marcinkus was among the fifty flyers who were executed upon their capture on the direct orders of Adolph Hitler for the trouble their escape had caused. 

When reading about Marcinkus’s exploits, one finds it hard to believe that one man could have lived such a full life. He was the sole Lithuanian Air Force flyer to take an active part in the great struggles of World War II. Through her Lithuanian and English works and film, Sviderskytė has given life to the story of this forgotten Lithuanian hero. Marcinkus upheld the honor of the Lithuanian Air Force in the struggle against Nazi and Soviet aggression and is a fitting race model for officers of the current service. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons on August 20, 1940, when speaking of such flyers, stated “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” Lithuania owes such a debt of honor to Captain Romualdas Marcinkus, the Hurricane Captain of this work. 

Henry Gaidis