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Stage 13 – a round-up of activities in the final two months of 2020 and a bit more

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka:

I don’t like debts. And certainly not debts that extend into the new year. That leaves me with the final 33 hours of 2020 to convey what happened with our Never Forgotten project over the past two months. Tradition means order as well as duty. This summary, which covers several significant activities and events, will not be written chronologically here, but rather against the flow of time.

At the beginning of December, I was planning to go to Leicester to see Benjamin Abeles. We had agreed to record his New Year’s greeting to Czech compatriots in Great Britain. I think we were both looking forward to it. Then came the news that he had suddenly fallen ill. Because of the worsening epidemiological situation, we postponed the visit. In the middle of the month, a second piece of news came, this time about Ben’s death. Since it is no longer possible to record his video message, I have tried to compose from excerpts of our last conversation the message that he had intended to deliver: 1) Success requires perseverance and diligence: “At the age of 14, I started working as a dishwasher at a hotel.” 2) Nothing in life is free: “While the soldiers of the 311th Squadron were playing cards in their barracks in Tain, I was studying for my graduation exams.” 3) On the turbulent waves of life, you need an anchor: “I never forgot how to speak Czech and I never broke my internal ties with the homeland.” His smile and kind sense of humour also endured. Let us honour his memory.

The purpose of this entire project is, among other things, to involve British politicians and public figures in a common remembrance and to show that prior experience is an important predictor of good future cooperation. I was therefore very pleased when Conservative MP and Minister of State for Trade Policy Greg Hands accepted my invitation to a memorial event at the Brompton Cemetery in London in early December. Together with Slovak Ambassador Lubo Rehák, we laid flowers together at the graves of two Czechoslovak soldiers — Josef Kadeřábek and Stanislav Borin. Both served in the Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade. They died as a result of illness (although confirmation of this information is missing in the case of the first soldier). Greg, who has long been a great friend of the Czech Republic and is the only minister of Her Majesty’s Government to speak Czech, did not hesitate to give a speech before the cameras in the Czech language. He is deserving of admiration. Another politician with historical ties to our country, Foreign Minister Dominik Raab, sent a beautiful letter of support, welcoming and appreciating the whole initiative. At the same time, he recalled his family background in Plzeň and Karlovy Vary.

At the beginning of November, I invited two players from the Czech national football team who also play for the London club West Ham United, Tomáš Souček and Vladimír Coufal, along with their families to the Pinner New Cemetery in Harrow to honour the memory of our heroes buried there. Here rest five Wellington aircraft pilots (Captain Jan Veselý, Lieutenant Jaroslav Slabý, Technical Sergeant František Zapletal, Technical Sergeant Jaroslav Matoušek and Technical Sergeant Jaroslav Albrecht), who lost their orientation in bad weather in October 1940 while returning from a mission and collided with defensive barrage balloons. All five men burned in the wreckage of their machine. The other two graves here belong to Captain Josef Strankmüller and First Lieutenant Jaromír Riegl. Both perished tragically during the demanding training for members of special forces. Together with the military representatives of the Czech Embassy, we paid tribute to them. This beautiful gesture by young Czech footballers was warmly received by both the Czech and British public, and their coach, David Moyes, praised them for it on social media.

At the cemetery in the seaside town of Chichester, founded by the Romans, we found a total of seven graves of Czechoslovak pilots (Staff Sergeant František Fanta, First Lieutenant Jan Laška, Sergeant Major Vojtěch Lysický, Staff Sergeant  Miroslav Moravec, Technical Sergeant Vilém Nosek, First Lieutenant Antonín Velebnovský and Technical Sergeant Jan Vlk). They died either as the result of accidents or mistakes during training flights or while returning from combat operations. Together with my colleague Radek Kludka we decorated their graves not only with red roses but also with Czech flags. We had arrived at the place on the eve of the Czech national holiday, October 28. It was raining heavily. An icy wind blew in from the sea. I remembered having visited this place of reverence once before: In June 2019, I accompanied the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, during celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the Allied Normandy landings. The ceremony was held in nearby Portsmouth, and before his departure we visited Chichester. Now, however, chilled to the bone and soaking wet, we quickly viewed the famous cathedral and hurried back to warm up in London.

What to emphasize in this brief recapitulation of the year? Our project could not have been spared by the measures taken by the British Government to prevent the spread of the viral disease. Nevertheless, in various freer moments we managed to visit more than two-thirds of the Czechoslovak war graves in the United Kingdom. We will certainly continue in the new year. We will also continue our efforts to fulfil the idea of building an official Czech / Czechoslovak memorial in the National Memorial Museum. The Czech government is set to deal with this plan in the near future. And thirdly, we will also continue to cooperate with associations of veterans and those who care for the Czech war memorial, whether in Britain or the Czech Republic. Their initiatives certainly complement the project beautifully. The pre-Christmas memorial candle lighting in Brookwood had a magical atmosphere, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

London, 30 December 2020 (6.30 p.m.), Libor Sečka

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


Gallery the end of the year