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Stage 4 – Surrey, Sussex – 28 January 2020

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka:

Czechoslovak war graves in the United Kingdom are important not only in terms of the history and symbolism of Czech–British relations but also hold great significance for the development of Czech–Slovak relations today, at least here in the British Isles. They point to a common desire of Czechs and Slovaks to fight for the freedom of their homeland and to make great sacrifices, often their very lives, for the ideal of ​​democracy. The topic of our joint struggle against Nazism is still very much alive in the Czech and Slovak communities in Great Britain, and it connects these two groups that have never stopped being one big family. That’s among the reasons that I invited the Slovak ambassador, my good friend Luba Rehák, to join me on another trip to visit Czechoslovak war graves, which led us to Surrey and Sussex counties.

And it was an interesting, useful, exciting, and also revelatory, expedition. We spent almost the whole day together and discussed a range of topics. In addition to current work-related issues, also linguistic ones. Slovak is melodious to the Czech ear, certainly to mine. It seems to flow in more delicate tones, reflect a greater connection with nature and is like a breath of fresh air. And those similar yet sometimes mysterious words! Where do they come from? We explored, for example, the Slovak expression for cemetery, cintorín, which sounds like someone strumming the strings of a guitar. In the end, we agreed that the root must be somewhere in the Latin “cimiterium” – a cemetery. Talk of linguistics continued as we were approaching our first stop, the cemetery near St Luke’s Church in Whyteleafe, on the southernmost reaches of Greater London.

The broad and intertwining crowns of mature trees formed a vault above our heads, through which the rays of the awakening January sun penetrated only slowly and sporadically. The gradually increasing diffuse light evoked the atmosphere typical of the century-old railway station halls in some British cities. We found the graves of our airmen, František Běhal and Albín Nasswetter, among other war graves in the centre of the cemetery. Pilot Officer František Běhal did not return from a night-time operational flight in May 1941, when, together with others, he faced one of the biggest Luftwaffe raids on London. He managed to shoot down a German He 111 bomber and dispatch a report about it. Then his Hurricane crashed. It is likely that he was hit in error by a British night fighter. Sergeant Nasswetter and his fighter aircraft participated on 17 June 1941 in the search and rescue mission for six British pilots shot down the previous day. During the mission over the English Channel, he and his comrades collided with a German group. His plane was hit. The pilot bailed out, but subsequently died from burns. We honoured their memory with a flower: the Slovak ambassador with an orange rose, and I with my traditional red one. We lit a candle and dedicated to them a moment of silence.

The name of another cemetery, Redstone, in the village of Reigate, evoked for my Slovak friend an association with the “Red Stone” (Červený Kameň) Castle in his native country. I do not know whether they would have anything else in common, perhaps a sharp winter wind, but in any case, the spectacular influx of sunlight gave the vast open space an optimistic mood. Everything was bright, illuminated, ready to welcome spring. However, we were preparing to encounter the grave and story of Flight Lieutenant Bohumil Horák. A native of Komárno, a small village in the foothills of the Beskid Mountains, his plane crashed on the night of 29 June 1941 during a transfer flight from Redhill Airfield to Gatwick Airfield, to where he was transporting cartridges for starting aircraft motors. One possible explanation for his crash is that a box of cartridges may have fallen into the flap controls?. His tombstone, in the front row of war graves and right beside the path, is in good condition.

The third stop was in Haywards Heath, Sussex County, where in the Western Road Cemetery lie the remains of Sergeant Michal Padalík, who served in the 2nd Infantry Battalion of the Czechoslovak Brigade. After being released from military service due to illness, he worked as an official of the Czechoslovak government in exile in London. He died in September 1942 as a result of a brain tumour operation. As midday approached, the inhabitants of the cemetery, which felt more like a lively park, were busy. Right from the gate we were accompanied by the song of blackbirds, while a woodpecker worked tirelessly in the tall trees near the grave of our soldier. We recognized the grave not only because of the typical shape of the tombstone, but also because it was decorated with a crumbling wreath of distinctive red poppies. We laid roses. It was noon, time for lunch. We fortified ourselves with classic English chicken and ham pies and – naturally – Spitfire brand beer in the pleasant atmosphere of the Red Lion pub on the way to Withyham.          

On the hill around the Church of St Michael and All Angels is a charming rural cemetery. The graves are scattered, in the English manner, with crosses tilting in all directions. The deep green carpet was scattered here and there with snowdrops. I had the feeling that the place must have been arranged by the angels themselves. From the church there was a breath-taking view of a pond and the undulating, luminous landscape. A few meters from the main entrance is the tombstone of a Czechoslovak soldier, Private Josef Smolka. Just before Christmas of 1945 he committed suicide when his unit secured the gradual repatriation of Czechoslovak troops back to Czechoslovakia. His military records state that he was quiet in nature, disciplined, reliable, fair. The proper site was found for his final resting place. While tidying the gravesite, we found that the cast concrete was beginning to crack at its lower edge. We had noted the same condition at the previous cemetery in Haywards Heath.

We didn’t quite want to leave this magical region yet, so we stopped for a while in Hartfield, where we were drawn by the Church of St Mary the Virgin with the high pyramidal roof of its main tower. We pushed the door lightly. It was open. We entered. As I was gazing at the stained-glass windows, I heard the lid of the piano keyboard being lifted. I looked up to see Ambassador Luba sitting at the instrument. The church filled with the notes of Ave Maria, which was composed by Charles Gounod on Bach's Prelude. Spellbound, I sat down on a pew. And Lubo played: Ave Maria, gratia plena. Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus … He played for me and for all Czechoslovak soldiers who did not return to their homeland and who remain with us on the British Isles today.       

London, a few short hours after Great Britain left the EU, 31 January 2020

Libor Sečka

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Gallery Surrey, Sussex