english  česky 

Advanced search
Photo: MZV
Article notification Print Decrease font size Increase font size

Stage 12 – Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, Somerset (13 –15 October 2020)

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka:

Each of the excursions on our long and gratifying quest to visit the graves of Czechoslovak soldiers brings not only new experiences but also fresh knowledge. Sometimes there are revelations that supplement our notions about historical events and their interconnectedness; other times there are curious connections to traditions in our current times. From my latest trip, to the south-west of England, I was fascinated to learn that the rivalry between two neighbouring counties, Cornwall and Devon, extends to how to serve the famous scone, which is not so different from the Czech sweet pastry called a vdolek. What will remain in my memory is the escalating dispute at The Falcon Inn, a pub in the picturesque village of St Mawgan. A former field chaplain for the Royal Air Force, Andrew Turner, argued that the only right way to prepare a scone was with jam inside and clotted cream on top, as is customary in Cornwall. The assistant to the head of the air base, Paul Bass, who hails from Devon, insisted that the speciality was best enjoyed with cream in the middle and jam on top. There was no agreement, only scornful remarks. It remains a running dispute and likely will continue to be.

The main topic of discussion around the table, of course, was naturally the participation of Czechoslovak pilots and airmen in World War II military operations as members of the RAF. I was very surprised by the great interest in this common chapter in history from the leadership of the RAF Mawgan station, the only base the RAF still maintains in this part of England, albeit to a limited degree. Its head is Wing Commander (I found in dictionaries that this rank could be compared to a Czech lieutenant colonel) Marshall Kinnear (he notes with a smile that Marshall in this case is merely his first name). He had studied their life stories in detail from available sources and was thrilled by the idea of jointly paying tribute to the Czechoslovak soldiers buried in the region in which he operates. Together we visited the cemetery in Helston, where six members of the Liberator crew are buried. The crew set off from the Predannack base in June 1944 on an anti-submarine mission, crashing shortly after take-off for unknown reasons. Then, at the church in Illogan, we honoured the memory of Captain Miroslav Kredba and Technical Sergeant Stanislav Halama, who both perished during training flights.

In Marshall Kinnear I saw not only a willingness to accommodate the requests of the embassy, perhaps initially motivated mainly by curiosity, but also a growing personal interest and desire to actively participate in our project. I could notice a growing pride in his Czechoslovak predecessors in the RAF and believe that he certainly won’t forget them during subsequent commemorative events. The feeling of long-lasting Czech–British reciprocity seemed to be underscored by the fact that his means of transport was a Škoda Superb similar to ours and that he knew a lot about Škoda cars. After a casual lunch, he then took us to the St Eval Church, which was the only one preserved when the original village gave way to the expanding airfield at the beginning of the war. A strong wind saturated with salt and the relentless cries of seagulls confirmed the proximity of the sea. Father Andrew Turner presented to us the historical standards and insignia of various RAF squadrons. He recalled his visit to the Czech Republic and, with typical English sarcasm, said that the church owed its origins in part to the slave trade, because it was a significant landmark by which passing ships could orient themselves. Its tower also later became an important landmark for aircraft.

Our programme in Cornwall was preceded by stops at cemeteries in Salisbury, Warmwell, Seaton, and two memorial sites in Plymouth. In the captivating atmosphere of the English autumn, we bowed at all these places to the memory of Czechoslovak soldiers and meditated upon their fates. Their lives represent various personal dramas. Perhaps most tragic one is the story of the crew of the Wellington 311th Squadron, which in July 1941 took part in a raid on German ships and facilities in the French port of Cherbourg. On their return from the successful mission, they were accidentally shot down by a British night fighter near the town of Mere (Wiltshire). After hitting the ground, the entire six-member crew burned. Five of the airmen (Lieutenant Richard Hapala, Sergeant Adolf Dolejš, Technical Sergeant Oldřich Helma, Sergeant Jaroslav Petrucha and Technical Sergeant Antonín Plocek) are buried in the Salisbury Cemetery. Their remains rest in the shade and seem to be under the protection of the majestic Lebanese cedars there. The body of the last of the crew member, Sergeant Jaroslav Lančík, was cremated, and his ashes were returned to his homeland after the war to his father, also a member of the Czechoslovak armed forces in Britain. We ended the long day with a tour of the Royal Citadel in Plymouth and a dinner with the leadership of British Army artillery crew located there. The discussion was not only about the past but also about the problems covid -19 is causing for military training.

The final part of our journey led us to the rising landscape of the Devonshire cliffs and rocks. At the local country cemeteries in Heanton Punchardon and Berrynarbor, we found the graves of another six Czechoslovak airmen to be in good condition. The persistent play of the tireless but evanescent October sun playing hide and seek with the dark clouds completed the dramatic backdrop. We then arrived via Taunton to the spa centre of Bath. At the Haycombe Cemetery, Dr George Scott and his wife, Valérie, were waiting for us. Dr Scott, the son of Czechoslovak war veteran Jiří (Šnábel) Scott, has long dedicated himself to wartime history and is the author of a number of well-founded articles on the circumstances and establishment of the Central Memorial in Brookwood, among others. Together we laid a rose at the exemplarily maintained grave of Technical Sergeant Jaroslav Dohnal and then set off for lunch. Already during the meal, George told me that the grave of Sergeant Emil Szeliga, at the Landsdown Burial Ground — the last one on our planned route — would present a completely different example. He warned me about having to take a scythe to even find the grave in the overgrown grass. He spoke of an abandoned, forgotten place, reminiscent of a horror scene. Except for the need for a scythe, he was not exaggerating. The desolate burial grounds were mown, but even that didn’t improve the woeful atmosphere of the place. It is probably the most neglected Czechoslovak war grave in Britain. I will certainly want to talk about its condition and future with representatives of the British Government Commission (CWGC), which is dedicated to the maintenance of these monuments, at our upcoming evaluation meeting.

Accompanied by: Jan Brenk and Maxmilian Škach (cameraman)           

In total, we honoured the memory of 34 Czechoslovak soldiers with a red rose.


London, 25 October 2020, Libor Sečka

For more information about the project, please follow this link.


Gallery Cornwall