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Stage 9 – North Weald, Oxfordshire - 12 and 13 July 2020

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka:

Nations seek out and celebrate their heroes in order to bolster themselves. Honouring our heroes brings a sense of belonging, increases national pride and self-esteem. Heroes emerge especially at historical turning points. World War II was undoubtedly one of them. At such extraordinary moments in time, brave men and women  demonstrate their courage and will, and not infrequently put their lives on the line, in the struggle for a great ideal (whether it is the homeland, freedom or democracy). We return periodically to their names, deeds and memories. They offer our lives direction and certainty even today. However, the shining light of these individuals inadvertently pushes into the shadows those who also played a role but, for whatever reason, could not complete the mission they had set out to do. Unfortunate circumstances, their own miscalculations, technical problems or mother nature caused them to became victims before they could distinguish themselves as heroes. We find many such stories in Czechoslovakia’s wartime history in Britain. And I would like to devote most of my attention to them now.

 The story of Lieutenant Tomáš Kozák is almost emblematic. It points to the depth of tragedy and the terrible absurdity of war. The Czechoslovak pilot took off in June 1941 on a night-time training flight from the Stapleford Tawney airfield in Essex. On his return to the base, however, he was blinded by headlights above the Duxford Airfield, lost control of the aircraft, and his Hurricane crashed and burned on the landing field. He was not even 25 years old. Today, his remains lie in a quiet cemetery behind St Andrew’s Church in North Weald, at the north-east edge of Greater London. My colleagues and I from the embassy cycling team decided to honour his memory with a 100-kilometre commemorative ride. The weather was fine, and our stop at the grave of our soldier, which we decorated with a red rose, was a welcome highlight in a long string of rewarding sporting achievements. From a nearby military airport the roar of an plane motor echoed, painting irregular circles of white around the white tombstone. It was a beautiful Sunday, and Tomáš was not alone today.

On Monday the 13th, I set off with Markéta and Honza Brenk to visit graves in Oxford County. At the first cemetery, in Botley, we paid tribute to a Czechoslovak pilot of Slovak nationality, Julius Šofránek. We also found a flower on the spot, which had been laid there the previous Friday by my friend Lubo Rehák, the Slovak ambassador in London. Hundreds of light-coloured monuments with a slender cross in the middle were aligned in an almost perfect geometric formation. The precision of the array was broken only by some sprightly bushes of low-lying red and yellow roses. Apart from the soothing symmetry and refreshing contrast with the deep green lawn, I was fascinated by one more thing in the overall composition. In the lower left corner of the complex I found a group of 33 unusual tombstones. They reminded me of a flock of hesitant sheep. Their front sides were turned against the prevailing tide of all the others. I learned that they were the graves of German soldiers who most likely died in prison camps. Wherever the name was missing, it merely says: “Ein deutscher Soldat”. Their rows were connected with tended flowerbeds. In the space one can feel an atmosphere of humility and dignity. I thought back on recent Czech debates about the need to define in more precise terms historical wartime periods and come to terms with their symbols.

We quickly found the grave of Sergeant Václav Kříž in the village of Black Bourton. From behind the small stone wall of St Mary’s Church it seemed to be  peering cheerfully into the street. The military graves here are arranged under a large blossoming linden tree that offers both perfume and protection. The Czechoslovak pilot collided with another aircraft during a training flight. This happened in May 1941. The year 1941, incidentally, is the year when the greatest number of accidents and fatalities of our pilots occurred in the British Isles. For lunch we rode to Burford, the gateway to the Cotswolds nature reserve. I really like this place, and every time I’m in the area I stop here not just to take in the view of the cascade of sloping historical houses, but also to buy smoked trout, which is among the renowned delicacies of the area. Unfortunately, it was Monday. And that’s the day the butcher’s shop / delicatessen is closed. The salad with smoked chicken at the neighbouring bistro wasn’t a bad substitute.

Even though the cemetery in Watchfield is called the Watchfield Military Cemetery, you’ll find few military graves in the area behind the church. The ground here is arid, and the graves seem oddly scattershot. The handful of gravestones don’t form a mosaic but are far apart and disconnected. Just as forgotten and forsaken as the entire place is the grave of Technical Sergeant Rudolf Tesárek, and nothing is helped by the mud-covered kitschy baroque cherub at its lower edge. I searched in vain for traces of something that might improve the pervasive bleak atmosphere. Perhaps for the first time I was really saddened by the cheerless surroundings. Just as sad was the fate of the pilot, who executed a forbidden tailspin in his Tiger Moth aircraft equipped with a bomb rack. Unfortunately, for the last time. Coincidentally, it was the same model of plane I flew in with aficionados of historical aircraft in Cambridge in February. Fortunately, we had no bomb rack nor did we try to do a tailspin. Even though some might have wished to do so …

  On the way to Benson, where we were heading to honour the memory of Technical Sergeant Otakar Odstrčílek, I tried by phone to prepare all the necessary steps to maximally ensure the health and life of a little Czech boy, 8-month-old Kristián. He was born without a thymus, an organ important for building immunity in children. The Great Ormond Street Hospital in London had offered the possibility of a transplant. Our task, in accordance with the wishes of doctors from Prague’s Motol Hospital, was to help ease the most risky part of the journey, the passage through the airport and transport to the medical facility. Allow me tell the reader straight away how it all turned out the next day: Despite all the seemingly successful measures, we once again came up against the notorious arrogance, insensitivity and snobbery of the British border control. After unnecessary delays we finally transported Kristián to the hospital. We keep our fingers crossed for him and hope that it will turn out well. And now back to our pilots. Otakar Odstrčílek had terrible misfortune. His engine broke down during his very first solo flight, and he crashed near the town of Streatley.     

We made our last stop in the small village of Stoke Row near the River Thames, where Sergeant Rudolf Scholz found his final resting place in the garden of the St John the Evangelist Church. He died when the plane in which he had taken off on an anti-submarine mission crashed. His grave, adorned with memorial pebbles, is hidden behind a thicket of hazel and hawthorn at the cemetery’s side gate. If you open the gate and cross a small asphalt road, it leads to a primary school. How many of the students or teachers know that a Czechoslovak soldier is located five metres from the entrance to their school? And why he is lying there? And where Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic and Slovakia are? I think they would appreciate it if we helped them to answer these questions. In September, after the holidays, we will definitely come here again. 

London, 14 July 2020, Libor Sečka

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