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Stage 3 – Cotswolds – 24 January 2020

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka:

On the second Sunday of January, the sad news about the death of conservative British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton — a man with deep ties to Central and Eastern Europe — reached the general public and his many friends across the European continent. The death of this academic, who had a major impact on Czech and Slovak dissidents, reverberated in the domestic and international press as well as political circles. I decided to pay respect to his memory with my presence at his funeral and also use the trip to visit Czechoslovak war graves in the picturesque English region of Cotswolds. My embassy colleague Ondřej Hovádek accompanied me.      

We made our first stop at the cemetery in the village of Yatesbury. We easily found the grave of Sergeant Vilém Michálek. Already from a distance we could see a small Czechoslovak / Czech flag lying on a pillow of dry leaves at the left foot of the memorial. A wreath in the Czechoslovak national colours, apparently swept away by the wind, shone just a half meter away. We tidied up the site and adorned it with a red rose. Vilém Michálek served as an air radio operator and died during a training flight in April 1942. It was surprising and at the same time heart-warming to see that of the approximately thirty war graves in this tranquil country cemetery only one was marked with a little flag and wreath in national colours. Ours. Just to make the historical record clear, we also noted two more wreaths of red poppies in the cemetery. But nonetheless, the question remained in our minds: Who from this village of perhaps 150 inhabitants or its surroundings so beautifully maintains the monument to a Czechoslovak airman? It must be someone for whom the memory of Czechoslovak–British wartime fellowship still is dear and who can appreciate its value for the present. Let our rose also be an expression of gratitude to this person.

Small, fading Czechoslovak / Czech flags also welcomed us at the grave sites of our pilots at the London Road Cemetery in Chippenham. Four Czechoslovak airmen found their final resting place here: Sergeant Jan Klos, Sergeant Josef Sedláček, Sergeant Antonín Mikoláš and Sergeant František Seďa. All were attendees of the “continuing pilot school” in nearby Hullavington and died in tragic accidents while training at different times during the course of 1941–1942. The tombstones are properly cared for. Together with the light gravestones of comrades from different corners of the world, in this solemn and grey atmosphere they are enhanced by the infrequently appearing sun: They radiate energy and tranquillity. It isn’t entirely true that the Chippenham Cemetery contains the remains of four Czechoslovak pilots: In reality, five are buried here. The last one, Bořivoj Šmíd, died an unfortunate death in 1951 after taking part with other “Western” pilots in the legendary hijacking of three Czechoslovak Airlines Dakota planes to the Bavarian town of Erding in March 1950. He died as a pilot of the British Royal Air Force (RAF). The plaque on his grave corresponds to this.

We hurried to Malmesbury for the funeral of Sir Roger Scruton. The local cathedral, whose foundations were laid in the 12th century, was overflowing with mourners. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán and de facto British Deputy Prime Minister Micheal Gove also attended the funeral. My throat tightened with emotion when I heard the first words and tones of the song “Oh, Love, You Are Not Constant”. Janáček’s arrangement of this folk song, sung by Kristi Bryson, filled the space below the ancient vaults and slowly meandered on. Just like Scruton’s soul. The dignified ceremony proceeded, and I returned to the figure of the philosopher: He learned Czech, he inspired and supported a number of democratically minded personalities in Central and Eastern Europe, he held some positions that could only be called “controversial” .... What was the most touching for me, as the Czech Ambassador to the United Kingdom, was his warm relationship to the Czechs, to the Czech environment, to Czech culture. He acknowledged these sympathies in his last article, published 21 December 2019 in the online version of The Spectator magazine, when reviewing the year that had passed and recalling the award bestowed on him in connection with the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution by the President of the Czech Senate: “The Czechs confer their commemorative medal on a Eurosceptic, namely me, in a touching ceremony that reminds me why, despite the appeal of the Poles, Hungarians, Romanians and many more, it is the shy, cynical Czechs to whom I lost my heart and from whom I have never retrieved it.”

The day gradually was growing long. We had enough time for one more visit to Czechoslovak war graves. We headed towards Cirencester to the Chesterton Cemetery, where two more pilots rest in perpetuity: Sergeant František Doležal and Sergeant Oldřich Fiala, both members of the 4th Ferry Pilots Pool — a section for aircraft transfer flights. They died as a result of their aircraft crashing shortly after take-off at the Kemble (now Cotswold) Airport in February 1941. Their story seems almost unbelievable today. The cause of the accident apparently was that the pilots did not check the fuel level before take-off. Lack of fuel caused the engine to fail and the plane to crash. Both pilots were 21 years old. We cannot view the event through a contemporary filter. We live in a completely different time and have only a distant picture of ​circumstances during the war. But we can still feel the incredible weight of this tragedy. The graves of the young pilots are located at the end of the cemetery to the right of the entrance road. They are in good condition. We replaced the withered roses with fresh ones and then decided to return to London.

One technical note in conclusion: For our journey we used a new hybrid (electricity / petrol) Skoda Superb iV. We drove a total of 365 km, with 155 km, or 43% of the trip, in zero-emission mode. A comfortable, pleasant drive in a car that is more friendly to the environment. We live in a completely different time …

London, 25 January 2020, Libor Sečka

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Gallery Cotswolds