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Stage 11 – Birmingham and surroundings (23–24 September 2020) and Brookwood (5 October 2020)

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka:

In today’s report I would like to look back on two expeditions — to Birmingham and the surrounding area and soon after that to the military cemetery in Brookwood. We started our journey to the second largest British metropolis in the fading warmth of Indian summer. The sun was still peeking out in Worcester, our first stop, but thickening clouds on the horizon hinted at what was in store for us. At the local cemetery we met Míla Furstová, our compatriot and importantly, I am also happy to mention, a renowned artist, and her husband, the photographer Quentin Lake. By the way, Quentin is also known to the British public. He recently completed a laudable walking tour through Britain (divided into stages, of course), during which he took marvellous photographs. They live in nearby Cheltenham. Together, we honoured with a red rose the memory of Private Karel Gavel, who is buried in the soil here. I remembered having visited Worcester twice in the past. In 2017, I met the then 97-year-old British painter Stan Young, the creator of a large canvas whose theme is the tragedy of Lidice, which we had reconstructed and helped him to get it transported to Lidice after more than fifty years. A year later, this place became the centre of a cruise on the river canal, with which we commemorated, among other things, the centenary of the founding of Czechoslovakia.

And now it was already raining cats and dogs. We had just arrived in Pennfields, a small village near Wolverhampton. This is where Air Force Lieutenant Václav Haňka has his grave. He died in the greatest tragedy of Czechoslovak pilots in Britain, when 14 of our soldiers lost their lives at once when a Wellington plane crashed on 18 October 1942 near the capital. All but one of them were buried at the Brookwood Military Cemetery. Václav Haňka, at the request of his wife, was laid to rest in the country of Staffordshire. Shortly after his death, his daughter, Rosemarie (Růženka), was born, but she died before reaching the age of six. She is buried in the same grave as her father, who unfortunately never laid eyes on her. Her fate is recalled with a black marble slab in the form of an open book. Another airman, Miloslav Bedřich Maňásek, did not complete his anti-submarine patrol mission when the wing of his machine hit a hill near Bold Head airfield when his was returning in a thick fog. His final resting place is in the West Bromwich Churchyard. We laid roses there in the persistent cold rain.

In addition to Czechoslovak war memories, we were also drawn to Birmingham by a very contemporary event. The prestigious IKON Gallery is currently holding a wonderful exhibition by the Czech artist Krištof Kintera, the organization of which our embassy played a significant role. At a working lunch with the director of the gallery and my good friend Jonathan Watkins, we discussed not only the difficulties the coronavirus pandemic has caused for his work, as well as ours, but also the future outlook for cultural exchanges. Jonathan then went with us to the Perry Barr Cemetery, in the north of the city, to look for the memorial to Infantry
Staff Captain Oldřich Martínek. And it was quite an adventure. According to the cemetery plan, his stone is located in a clearing in front of the crematorium. We soon realized that it was not the typical headstone but a slab set in the ground. The Moravian Brothers, for example, buried their dead in a similar way, as we witnessed during a visit to their seat in Fulneck, near Manchester. Here, however, we did not see such a slab in the ground. Only a dense, deep green and water-soaked lawn. We pored over the terrain step by step until we finally found a Czech military stone. We cut a window into the grass, cleared the spot and washed it, leaving the tombstone to breathe. Maybe he was just fine under his green duvet, and no doubt he will find himself back under it with the passage of time. Nonetheless, we left satisfied. Here, too, we fulfilled the mission of our project: that no one should be forgotten.

At the gate of the Jewish cemetery in the Witton district of the city we met with disappointment. Despite having confirmed the opening hours, it was closed. We didn’t get past the gate until the next day, accompanied by Birmingham Rabbi Yossi Jacobs and his wife. The young Jewish Rabbi was enthusiastic about the idea of our initiative. He was not aware that the remains of five Czechoslovak soldiers of Jewish origin lay in the cemetery in his area of his responsibility. Within fifteen minutes he had organized an online memorial service, in which fifty people participated. Psalms were sung, roses were laid along with traditional stones. The participants took a keen interest in the fate of the soldiers and expressed their joy that we were honouring their legacy. We agreed with the rabbi that as soon as the epidemiological situation allows we would meet again, as we discovered a wide range of interesting topics to discuss.

On the last day of the trip we also visited the National Memorial Arboretum. It is perhaps the most important place of reverence for the British Armed Forces and their allies in the United Kingdom. MAFCSV, a volunteer association that cares for and continues the tradition of Czechoslovak veterans in Britain, intends to install its memorial here. Similarly, at the initiative of the embassy a discussion was started this year about the possibility of erecting an official Czech / Czechoslovak monument under government auspices, as in the Polish case, for example. I returned to London with the conviction that we should do everything possible to realize this vision.

We set off to Brookwood on October 5 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the tragic crash of a Liberator plane with 24 Czechoslovak victims on board. They were mainly family members of our soldiers, returning to their homeland after the war. Their memorial and mass grave are located in the civilian part of the cemetery. In the military section, the Czechoslovak parts dominate the central memorial. In modern history, commemorative acts were held here every year in October and May. It seemed that such a widely known place could no longer hold surprises. However, a study of historical sources and a detailed examination of a small memorial complex unexpectedly broadened my horizons. I found out that the memorial was built on the basis of a Czechoslovak–British agreement on the care of war graves, according to a design by the architects Karel Lodr and Jaroslav Kumprecht. Portland limestone was used for its construction, which took place under the supervision of British specialist Ralph Hobday. This is the same kind of stone used, for example, in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. The bronze lion with the Slovak emblem on its chest was cast by the firm H.H. Martyn & Co Ltd of Cheltenham into a plaster mould supplied by the Czechoslovak side.

The structure was built sometime between 1 April 1955 and 31 March 1956. It wasn’t possible to determine exactly what day it was completed. There was never an official unveiling ceremony. One day 65 years ago, the monument simply appeared on the meadow in all its beauty. The “birth certificate” has not been preserved. Its appearance, however, was reflected in the shape of the tombstones for all Czechoslovak war graves in the world. With a little exaggeration, it could be said that this memorial is their mother. In Brookwood itself, the central monument is surrounded by 46 gravestones of the same shape, with three more located in the adjacent area beyond the path. There is no engraved national emblem on 48 of them, which is due to the fact that they surround the central structure (this is not typical for other graves on British territory). An exception is the tombstone of Captain Karel Šeda, which was incorporated into the complex just this year, in 2020. On headstones that were prepared in France, there are several (historical) errors. For example, Flight Lieutenant Antonín Bunzl was not named Antoním, as indicated on the stone. Technical Sergeant Gotzlinger was not named Viliam but Vilém, and Flight Lieutenant František Buliš was actually named Bulis. It is a tax on history that we should know about, rather than trying to rectify the situation today.

Together with the chairwoman of the MAFCSV association of veterans, Gerry Manolas; her deputy, John Polak; the Slovak ambassador, and military representatives of both countries, we honoured the memory of all those buried here with roses. At the same time, we sincerely thanked the technical team of the memorial grounds for their exemplary care of the Czech and Slovak heart of this cherished place of reverence.

London, 11 October 2020, Libor Sečka

For more information about the project, please follow this link.


Gallery Birmingham