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Stage 15 – Peterborough (16 April 2021) and Norfolk and Suffolk (21 April 2021)

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka

For many ambassadors, honorary consuls provide important support in their work. The majority of them are personalities who excel in some societal or business sector and have strong ties to the Czech Republic. This bond is often so strong that they have ended up providing services to Czech citizens free of charge, regardless of the expense or time involved, and looked after our interests in the districts where they live and work. At the moment I took up my posting, we had three honorary consuls in Britain: Mrs Eva Ross in Manchester, Mr Jan Mládek in Belfast and Mr Paul Millar in Edinburgh. The Honorary Consulate in Manchester ended after we opened a Consulate General in the city in March 2019, led by career diplomat Ivo Losman. Honorary consulates in Scotland and Northern Ireland have recently ended their activities as their leaders were both approaching the age of 90. Mr Mládek responsibly helped his former homeland for 15 long years in Belfast, and Mr Millar even extended his two decades of dedicated service. Both deserve our respect and gratitude. Replacing them definitely will not be easy.

The Czech Embassy in London is now systematically devoting energy to finding suitable candidates for these positions. In July 2016, we managed to launch an honorary consulate in Gibraltar, which is headed by Mr Stanislav Čech. Our latest success in this direction is the establishment of a new Honorary Consulate in Peterborough, in the county of Cambridgeshire. It is headed by Mr Petr Torák, the very first Czech honorary consul of Roma origin. The opening of his office presented a good opportunity to visit the graves of four Czechoslovak pilots (Sergeant František Koukol, Pilot Officer Jaroslav Skutil, Pilot Officer Josef Slovák and Sergeant Oskar Valošek) whose remains are resting in the Eastfield Cemetery in Peterborough. They all died tragically on 1 October 1940 when a fire broke out on their machine during a training flight. We honoured their memory together with Member of Parliament Paul Bristow of the British Conservative Party, to whose constituency Peterborough belongs. The young politician showed extraordinary interest in this illustrious chapter of our history and he subsequently enthusiastically posted on social media about the significance of Czechoslovak pilots joining the Royal Air Force in the fight against fascism.

A few days later, I set off early on a frosty April morning with my colleagues Radek and Michal to the county of Norfolk and then to Suffolk to commemorate brave Czechoslovak pilots buried there. The first stop on our journey was the Scottow Village Cemetery near the Coltishall Airfield. The long, narrow green strip bordered by a hedgerow in the middle of a vast meadow was more reminiscent of a path or an endless runway, certainly not a place that belongs only to stories from the past. The sun, together with a thrashing wind imbued with the energy of the nearby sea, tore the clouds apart, creating an illusion of peace and freedom in the open space. The graves of eight Czechoslovak pilots in a group of other war tombstones shone like beacons in the landscape. They all died as a result of technical problems, weather conditions or mistakes during training flights in the period 1942–1943. We honoured their memory with the traditional red rose.

The archives did not tell us much bout the cause of the death of Pilot Officer František Horký, whose grave we found in the nearby port town of Lowestoft. He served as a radio operator and gunner with the 311th Squadron. He was later transferred and died tragically while serving in the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade. Seagulls circled over his solitary grave, crying out something from a safe distance about the sanctity of the secrets of this place.

After lunch in Thetford, which, due to limited local options, took the form of the classic British delicacy fish and chips, we headed to the garden of St Ethelbert Church in the village of East Wretham. In a tidy configuration of four rows, twelve tombstones of Czechoslovak pilots, supplemented by two Polish ones, recall a laudably arrayed unit waiting for their daily orders. Six of them (Sergeant Alois Keda, Sergeant Rudolf Grimm, Sergeant Jindřich Hořínek, Flight Sergeant Jan Stanovský, Pilot Officer Jan Štefek and Sergeant Rudolf Vokůrka) died when their Wellington plane, after taking off on an orientation flight from a nearby base, crashed into a mountain close to the Bryn-Uchaf settlement in Wales when both engines failed. Another four (Sergeant František Dušek, Sergeant Milan Štoček, Pilot Officer Stanislav Zeinert and Pilot Officer Miloslav Švic) lost their lives in the crash of a different Wellington. Ldg. Aircraftman Jaroslav Bambůšek died in a motorcycle accident. Sergeant František Binder distinguished himself as a rear gunner who fended off enemy attacks during an operation over the Dutch town of Terschelling in March 1942. While returning to Britain, however, he succumbed to fatal injuries. In the silence of the cemetery garden, we talked about their fates with Czech Radio editor Jaromír Marek, who had joined us there.

Together we then visited the picturesque cemetery of All Saints Church in Honington, were seven Czechoslovak members of the 311th Squadron of the Royal Air Force (RAF) found their final resting place. Their tombstones are set side by side in one slightly undulating row. If you squint your eyes, you get the impression of seeing soldiers with their arms around one another’s shoulders. Five of them laid down their lives as a result of combat missions, two during difficult training. It was as if Spring itself also wanted to contribute to our small memorial ceremony, because it literally covered the cemetery with flowers. On the way back to London, we also looked for the grave of Flying Officer Alois Mžourek in the wide open space of the cemetery in Bury St Edmunds, and the crew of a Whitley aircraft that crashed in March 1942. Three of its Czechoslovak members (Sergeant Ladislav Fornůsek, Sergeant Jan Janek and Flying Officer Václav Jelínek ) are buried in the dignified Haverhill Cemetery. Interestingly, the aircraft, which belonged to the 138th Squadron designated for special assignments, was piloted by Boris Romanoff, an officer of Russian origin and a relative of the last Russian tsar.

The introduction dedicated to our deserving honorary consuls within the context of our military traditions in the United Kingdom was not by accident. I wanted to publicly thank them, because in their service to their homeland they have discharged their duties just as well as our soldiers did in their time.


London, 29 April 2021                                                                                          

Libor Sečka


Never Forgotten Stage 15 EN Suffolk, Norfolk