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Stage 5 – West Midlands and Liverpool - 6 February 2020

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka:

That was a record! In the fifth stage of our quest to discover the graves and especially the stories of Czechoslovak soldiers in Great Britain, my colleague Ondřej Hovádek and I visited 12 sites and honoured the memory of 17 Czechs and Slovaks who were determined to fight for their homeland. The journey north was long and tiring, but, as has already become the norm, also revelatory. And to be fair: It would not have been successful without the significant contribution of Lukáš Holeček, our driver and increasingly a facilitator with the people and situations we encounter along the way. What I really liked this time is that a number of new protagonists stepped into the story, including British comedian, history buff and expert on Operation Anthropoid John Martin; Neil Ruscoe, the son of Edna Ellison, who was the girlfriend of parachutist Jan Kubiš; Neil’s partner, Maxine Fellows, a patriot and supporter of the social life of the Czech community in Manchester; Marek Němec, a volunteer taking care of war graves at the West Derby Cemetery in Liverpool; Adrian Cork; and the administrator of Liverpool’s Jewish Cemetery, Alaster Burman, who happened to appear just at the moment when we feared that we wouldn’t gain entry. Support for our project and interest in joining it is growing, and that is a very pleasant finding.  

I have neither the time nor space here to cover all the stops in detail and to share my feelings about them, so I have selected the ones that etched themselves most vividly in my memory. The bell tower of the medieval Church of St Cuthbert in Donington was striking half past 8 o’clock when we opened the gate to the cemetery. The sleepy sun still seemed uncertain whether it would finally scale the roof of the church nave and turn the white frosted grass to green. The ice glazed shrubs evoked a Christmassy atmosphere. The air was saturated with a rising cold moisture that gently nipped at the nostrils. An enchanted and forlorn place where the night had long since departed but the day had not yet arrived. Here we found the graves of two young Czechoslovak pilots, Leading Aircraftman Miroslav Drnek and Leading Aircraftman Josef Melena. They did not return from a training flight in July 1941 when, after a technical mistake, their plane crashed into a block of flats in Wolverhampton. Another one of the countless tragedies and lesser-known though equally painful sides of the war. At the grave of Miroslav Drnek we saw a bouquet of artificial carnations in national colours. The night-time frost had taken care to decorate it in preparation for the day’s ceremony. Josef Melena has a small portrait attached to his tombstone, from which tiny strands of drizzling dew created a stunning collage. The souls of our pilots are connected with nature. We left with a sense of gratification.

A detour from the rhythm of visiting graves was our afternoon stop in Cholmondeley, where Czechoslovak troops encamped on the grassy expanses of the castle grounds in the summer of 1940 after their departure from France. Our short time here brought a lot of new information as well as questions. Just as it should be. The first big complication was finding the monument honouring the Czechoslovak Army, which was created in 1940 by the sculptor and soldier Franta Bělský. My two guides, Ondřej Hovádek and Marek Němec, who had visited the site before, were convinced that the monument was situated by the road between the castle and the farmstead. We drove back and forth three times, and except for the grazing and vaguely curious cows, made uneasy only by our presence, we found nothing of note. There was a hypothesis that perhaps the memorial had been moved. In the end, the Czech knack for practical solutions won out, and we went to ask the administrator. He smiled kindly and led us to the monument, behind the chapel. Then we returned together to the chapel, and the administrator explained that this year, to mark the 80th anniversary of the Czechoslovak Army’s encampment here, he intends to supplement the historical photographic overview of the estate with panels from the period. On this occasion, he showed us a banner that he believes to be a remnant of the Czechoslovak military presence in the region. We found that on one side of the banner was the inscription “National Shooting Guard 442” and on the other was written “Underground Movement of the Home Resistance – Faithful Dog”. We were struck by the dates: 1938–1945. By the time of the end date, Czechoslovak troops were no longer in Cholmondeley, so it was clear that the banner reached the chapel by some other route. Its excellent condition did not hint that it could be an 80-year old artefact. The origin of the banner remains unclear, even after our research on the internet.

However, we learned some other things. On 23 July 1940 a revolt took place at the Czechoslovak soldiers’ camp. Experts know about it, but there is little public awareness. A contingent of soldiers refused to obey their officers. There were certainly a number of reasons for this, and it is now up to historians to bring clarity and evaluation to the matter. Rather than a rebellion in the true sense of the word, there was a large group of soldiers who wanted to express disagreement with conditions in the army. In any case, not even did the presence of President Edvard Beneš smooth the situation, and on 29 July a group of 539 soldiers were expelled from the Czechoslovak Army and handed over to the British side. It is not without interest that, according to data from the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, 350 of them, or 65%, were said to be of Jewish origin (Lidovky.cz news server – 1 October 2010). And it is here with this subgroup that I wish to pause. Among the expelled were Vlado Clementis – who later became minister of foreign affairs in the Communist government of Klement Gottwald and was executed as part of the show trial of Rudolf Slánský – and also a young man called Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch or Abraham Leib Hoch. He was born in the village of Slatinské Doly in Subcarpathian Ruthenia, and at the time of the so-called revolt he was only 17 years old. Ján Ludvík Hoch, who then served with British combat units and secret services, eventually became a media magnate known as Robert Maxwell, who died in 1991. And that is just a step away from the present. His youngest daughter, Ghislaine, is the person who supposedly acquainted a member of the British royal family, Prince Andrew, with the American millionaire Jeffrey Epstein, accused of sexually abusing minors. Epstein was said to have committed suicide in a New York prison, and Prince Andrew temporarily resigned his royal duties in connection with the case. The bizarre circle of historical circumstances thus ranged from the rebellion in Cholmondeley all the way to the present difficulties of the British ruling family.

Let’s stay a while longer on the topic of Czechoslovak soldiers of so-called Jewish origin. I was fascinated by the story of Sergeant Robert Alt, who joined the Czechoslovak Army in France in September 1939, when he was already 58 years old. In his application, he explicitly stated that he wanted to fight for his country despite his age. I admire him and can empathize with his feelings, because we are connected through time by our equally long life experience. Unfortunately, Robert Alt died of prostate cancer quite soon after he arrived in Great Britain aboard the SS Mohamed Ali El-Kebir. He is buried at the Broad Green Jewish Cemetery in Liverpool, and the extraordinary thing is that his grave is not decorated with the typical Czechoslovak war headstone, but with a black plaque with the Star of David and inscriptions in English and Hebrew. However, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists it as a war grave. The cemetery administrator, Alaster Burman, with a blue yarmulke on his head, was very pleased by our visit and interest. He had previously decorated the grave with a metal poppy and promised to try to keep our rose fresh for as long as possible. 

Visited places: Donington, cemetery at the Church of St Cuthbert – graves of Leading Aircraftman Miroslav Drenek and Leading Aircraftman Josef Melena; Wellington General Cemetery, Shropshire – graves of Sergeant Josef Klváček and Flying Officer Josef Kloboučník; Stoke upon Tern, Shropshire – grave of Sergeant Miroslav Čáp; Market Drayton Cemetery – graves of Sergeant Josef Martinec and Sergeant Oldřich Kestler; Ightfield, St John the Baptist, Whitchurch – memorial stone honouring the Ellison family, who supported Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš; Whitchurch Cemetery – grave of Private Walter Hirsch; Cholmondeley Castle Park – memorial to Czechoslovak troops by Franta Bělský; Chester, Overleigh Cemetery – graves of Private Karel Müller, Corporal Antonín Umlauf and Corporal Rudolf Mikurčík; Hawarden Cemetery, Flintshire – grave of Sergeant Jan Machálek; Holywell Cemetery, Flintshire – grave of Flying Officer František Naxera; Liverpool Broad Green Jewish Cemetery – grave of Sergeant Robert Alt; Liverpool West Derby Cemetery – grave of Staff Captain Josef Kocman and the joint grave of two pilots, Flying Officer Jindřich Bartoš and Sergeant Otto Hanzlíček (total of 12 memorial sites, 16 graves and two monuments).

London, 10 February 2020, Libor Sečka

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Gallery West Midlands