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Stage 18 – southern Scotland, northern England (14–16 June 2021)

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka

The final stage of our project was definitely among the most colourful. During the three-day journey, we amassed many experiences, had many unique images imprinted in our memories, got to know some lovely secluded corners of Britain and, most importantly, revelled in the joy of new meetings. We spent a total of sixteen hours in the car and covered 1,180 kilometres. It all started with football — like many other things this year. My colleague Michal and I went to the Scottish capital of Glasgow by train on Monday morning. Our goal was the Hampden Park stadium for the opening match of the Group D of the European Championship, known as Euro 2020, between the Czech national team and the Scottish home side. It’s important to add that the sporting event was taking place amid the ongoing Czech–Scottish tensions caused by an alleged racist attack by Slavia defender Ondřej Kúdela against Rangers striker Glen Kamar in March. At times, it seemed as though we were at war with Scotland. So the challenge was utterly clear: to confirm peace. And I think that this was a complete success — not only because of my interview with the elegant Scottish Secretary for Culture, Europe and International Development Jenny Gilruth but also because of the excellent performance by our Czech team. They deservedly won 2:0 after Patrik Schick decorated the match with a magnificent goal from almost midfield. Once again, it was shown that the best way to peace and reconciliation is to convince with quality and, if possible, to win.

In the early evening, we headed south. Our group was joined by driver Lukáš and a friend from Manchester, Marek Němec. We stopped in Ayr and bowed to the memory of Sergeant Jaroslav Kučera and then continued on the road along the west coast to Stranraer. The town formerly served as a port for ferry service to Belfast. However, it lost this function a decade ago and along with it, perhaps, the hope for a more active economic life. A raw wind from the bay was blowing through the deserted streets, and it seemed almost impossible to find an open restaurant. In the end, we succeeded, but we were glad that we didn’t have to spend more than one night in this cheerless place. In the morning, we honoured the memory of three of our air cadets in the local cemetery. The leaden sky hung very low and at times seemed to dissolve into the cold sea. The gloomy atmosphere was not broken even by the ubiquitous guffaw of seagulls. We hurried off. At the village cemetery in Kirkinner, among the tombstones of Canadian and Australian pilots, we found the grave of Flight Lieutenant Václav Jelínek, who died during aviation navigator training when his plane crashed into a cliff at night. We laid a rose and thought back on him.

The town of Castle Douglas was a pleasant surprise for us. Not only for the cosy organic bakery The Earth’s Crust, where we fortified ourselves with some good coffee, but mainly for its cattle market. It was a serendipitous discovery: First, we saw an interesting circular building and then we heard voices inside. We went to investigate. We found out that a sheep auction was taking place there. However, the process itself was more like a theatrical or circus performance than a livestock sale. On one side, groups of sheep ran into the circular enclosure and we kept there for a while before a man behind a podium gradually sang out their prices before they ran out on the other side. The performance had tempo and rhythm. We didn't quite understand everything that was happening, but we were fascinated by how things were playing out. Auctioneer Bruce Walton, with whom we found a kind of natural affinity, later explained to me that it was the oldest “ring market” in Britain. In 165 years of uninterrupted tradition, cattle auctions are held here regularly on Mondays and sheep auctions on Tuesdays. We were lucky to be able to witness this authentic event. The sheep then accompanied us everywhere. On the saturated green slopes of the mountainous landscape near the Scottish–English border, from a distance, they resembled a handful of scattered white beans. Waiting for us at the Troqueer Cemetery in Dumfries was a sympathetic pastor of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, Štěpán Janča, who by agreement with the Church of Scotland now works in nearby Lockerbie. He told us about the lives and troubles of the local farmers, for whom he became the spiritual leader for two years. He was enthusiastic to have the opportunity to join us in honouring the memory of two Czechoslovak pilots — Sergeant Karel Šimon and Fling Officer František Dostál. One peculiarity is that on the other side of the tombstones of our soldiers are the headstones of the German Matthias Schroder and the Italian Maffeo Bonomelli. They seem to be supporting each other. Winners and losers of the war in a final symbolic embrace at a small Scottish cemetery. I don't know if this composition was created intentionally, but its message is very powerful.

Together with the kind-hearted pastor Janča, we placed a red rose next to the graves of Pilot Officer Alois Sedláček and Sergeant František Schejbal at the Catholic cemetery of St Andrew’s in Dumfries and Sergeant Karel Pošva at the cemetery in Annan. All of these airmen died as a result of accidents or training errors, and it took various lengths of time for the sea to yield up their bodies. The names of those who remain missing are engraved on the walls of the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede. In the town of Galashiels, about an hour south-east of Edinburgh and our final stop in Scotland, we met Veronika MacLeod, a candidate to become the new Honorary Consul of the Czech Republic in Scotland, and her supporter Mr Denham Mather. In the undulating and tree-covered terrain of the cemetery, we unmistakably recognized the characteristic shapes of four Czechoslovak war graves in its more distant section. They contain the remains of five members of our armoured brigade. At the right edge of the reverential space, the Scottish flag whipped wildly in the gusting wind, as if to defend the peace of all who rest forever below it. We crossed the Scottish–English border at the shallow Carter Bar pass as the sun was tilting towards the horizon. Feeling satisfied, we slept in the friendly little town of Rothbury.

In the Chevington Cemetery, near the small village of Hadston on the east coast of England north of Newcastle, we were joined in the early morning by a former British military attaché in Prague, Colonel Andrew Shepherd. Together, we bowed to the memory of two of our pilots — Sergeant Ladislav Kocourek and Sergeant Václav Šindelář. Even though our new English friend has already left the civil service and works occasionally as a volunteer at a nearby prison, he has not lost interest in what is happening in the Czech Republic. The discussion was interesting and had it not been for the demanding timetable ahead of us, it probably would have been a long one. We had a hearty breakfast in Morpeth at a bar that we probably will not refer to as anything other than “U Křiklouna” (At the Screamer’s) because of its colourful owner, and we then continued towards Carlisle. It is my duty as rapporteur to inform that my colleague Michal while in the car took part by telephone in a quiz with the well-known singer James Arthur, which was held by Heart Radio in advance of the England–Czech Republic football match. He did not prevail, but he won his spurs. He will next time. At Dalston Road Cemetery in Carlisle, which gives the impression of a carefully maintained French garden, we were fascinated by the name of our soldier: Sergeant Boris Zeman. Coincidentally, it combines parts of the names of leading figures in British and Czech politics today.

We concluded our long pilgrimage to visit war graves of Czechoslovak soldiers in Britain in Silloth, a small seaside resort on the edge of the Solway Firth. The grave of Sergeant Bohumil Votruba was 311th and last in our sequence of visits. The number symbolically coincides with that of the famous No. 311 (Czechoslovak) Bomber Squadron. However, from the surviving records, we can see that the pilot was assigned to the No. 312 Squadron and died during a training flight when his parachute did not open after an emergency ejection from the aircraft. We discussed for a while the tragic tangles of war destinies, then we headed back to our London home with the feeling of having fulfilled our mission. But before that, we stopped in Preston, because the energetic and extraordinary patriot, Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines, would never have forgiven us for passing by without visiting. After a long “Covid” separation, our meeting was filled with great warmth and feeling. Many Czech and British guests arrived from the city and its surroundings, and the improvised stop turned into a proper celebration. Just as it always is whenever I meet with Lady Milena.


London, 21 June 2021                     

Libor Sečka


Never Forgotten Stage 18 CZ southern Scotland, northern England