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Stage 16 – London and its surroundings (30 April–13 May 2021)

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka

The image I wish to paint of this stage is a mosaic of notes about visits to various places around London, which took place in early May of this year. The individual entries follow a chronological timeline. On the last day of April, when fires are traditionally lit and “witches” burned in the evening back home, I was invited to the West Ham United training centre in Rush Green to film a show for IGM Productions called “Road to UEFA Euro 2020” together with Tomáš Souček. We sat on stools in the middle of a lush green lawn on which the junior club plays its matches, talking about life and football. The persistent sun penetrated from behind the clouds, and the optimism of the moment was further underscored by the unplanned, but all the more cordial and spontaneous, meeting with the coach of the “Hammers”, David Moyes.

I had a feeling that my subsequent mission — to find the grave of Private Viktor Schwarz in the nearby Jewish cemetery in East Ham — would be successful. We had visited this place once before, in February of last year, but were not able to find the tombstone of the Czechoslovak soldier amid the forest of closely erected memorials and plaques. An icy rain was falling, and I knew that I would have to return. We were better prepared this time. Using a special application, we were able to quickly identify the sector where the soldier’s remains should be located, and then we focused only on recognizing the unmistakable shape of the tombstone. Success. According to Jewish custom, we decorated with stones the grave of this man who decided to serve his homeland but fell ill and died of tuberculosis.

 At the centre of pilot Josef František’s tombstone, a proud Polish eagle spreads its wings. Even the round shape of the headstone corresponds to the tradition of Polish war graves. This is because the native of Otaslavice in Moravia flew in the 303rd Polish Squadron of the RAF, and with seventeen confirmed shoot-downs he became the most successful “non-British” pilot in the Battle of Britain. Together with the Polish Ambassador, Arkady Rzegocki, we paid tribute to the hero at Northwood Cemetery. We were accompanied by embassy colleagues and military and air attachés from both countries. Journalists, especially from the Polish media represented in the United Kingdom, showed great interest in the event. Both delegations then laid wreaths at the Polish Air Force Memorial in Northolt. On the memorial plaques surrounding the monument, among the hundreds of surnames we found three more Czechoslovak pilots.  They perished while serving in Polish units. The entire celebratory and somehow noble Czech–Polish commemorative event in London closed with lunch on the terrace of the famous pub The Orchard in Ruislip, where, according to legend, war pilots went to drink beer after the end of their combat operations. We all felt that that we were united by more than just the past.

From Ruislip we hurried to the vast Roman Catholic cemetery in Kensal Green. The open, partially undulating space, left to the mercy of nature, slightly recalled the images transmitted from Mars to Earth by the Perseverance rover. In the middle of this forgotten place was a ruin of a tree resembling a figure trying at all costs to walk away, but to no avail. It seemed to be anchored by the weight of its story, which had to be retold every night to the audience from the surrounding graves. The depressing effect was amplified by the lead-grey, low sky and the persistent wind. We saw a small military memorial in a corner of the irregular perimeter wall. Under a cold concrete cross, engraved on plaques are the names of dozens of soldiers from different countries. Among them are seven Czechoslovaks. They all were part of the ground forces and died at various times in London hospitals during the war. Unlike the graves of many of our pilots, we did not see a single sign here that someone visited the place regularly or had been there recently. I was very glad that we had done so.

We capped the day with a visit to the elegant and famous Golders Green Crematorium, where the ashes of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, a native of Příbor, North Moravia, are located, among others. However, our objective was a special military monument at the end of the building. It resembles a small gazebo, whose columns are reflected in the mirror of the adjacent symmetrical lake. The names of two Czechoslovak pilots stand out on the bronze plaques — Stanley John Josef Masek (Stanislav Jan Josef Mašek) and Thomas (Tomáš) Glaser. We honoured their memory with a red rose.

On Victory in Europe Day, May 8, we set out on a cold, rainy morning for Runnymede, the British Air Forces Memorial. In the modern cloister, more than 20,000 names of pilots who did not return from their missions and have no other final resting place are recorded on marble plaques. Among the missing are 149 Czechoslovak airmen. The atmosphere of the memorial site, which lies on a hill above the river Thames, is very impressive. In soggy silence, we laid wreaths together with a Slovak delegation and representatives of our armed forces. Also present was Tom Doležal, the leading figure of one of the two associations dedicated to the legacy of Czechoslovak pilots in Britain (Free Czechoslovak Air Force Associates), who added an expert historical commentary.

The following day, I met representatives of the second association (Memorial Association for Free Czechoslovak Veterans), led by President Gerry Manolas, and the Slovak ambassador, Róbert Ondrejcsák, at the Brookwood Military Cemetery. We arrived there to take part in the traditional May celebrations of the end of World War II, but also the inauguration of a modified tombstone, which, in addition to the name of Flying Officer Zdeněk Sedlák, now bears the name of his wife, Edita Sedláková, who served in the 311th Squadron of the RAF during the war and later died with her husband in a plane crash. After 76 years, she became the first woman of the Czechoslovak military in Britain to receive the deserved honour of having her name immortalized on the tombstone of a war grave, as did many men before. Great thanks go to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) for their cooperation and understanding.

 The last two stops were at two important monuments in central London that pay tribute to the flying forces of the wartime “United Kingdom, Commonwealth and Allied countries”, including Czechoslovakia. The first is the Bomber Command Monument at Piccadilly Street, and the second is the Battle of Britain Memorial on the waterfront at Westminster. These are well-known and celebrated monuments that have become so much a part of the surroundings that we often walk by them without thinking about the messages they convey. With the end of my diplomatic mission approaching, I was glad to have found the time to go the city centre to stop and bow to them. In all, 89 Czechoslovak pilots took part in the Battle of Britain.


16 May 2021                                                                                                          

Libor Sečka


Never Forgotten 16 EN London