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Stage 6 - Manchester, Cambridge - 7 and 8 February 2020

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka:

 “It’s awfully cold there, with a deafening roar and the wind battering you from all sides –but it’s damn beautiful”. This is what I was told to expect when taking of in the famous de Havilland Tiger Moth aircraft by Howard Cook, a flying instructor for historical aircraft. The specimen that friends from the Cambridge Flying Group prepared for me had served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) from July 1939 until the end of 1955. It was given the serial number N6946, and it’s known that at least 14 Czechoslovak war pilots flew or trained on it. This light biplane was used mainly for training purposes, but also for rapid transport, and was part of the No 24 Squadron at the airfield in Hendon, not far from London. In the information sent to us by Andrew Wood, an aviation enthusiast and initiator of the whole event, we saw that instead of bearing a name or number, there is only the abbreviation EI. The author had no doubt that these letters would be understood, because they are used extensively and as a matter of course. This kept running through my mind, so I started searching for an explanation. I finally found one on the internet. The Tiger Moth (N6946 in the RAF) was called Echo India, which also was part of its identification code, G-AOEI. So, up to the grey Cambridge skies I was to be carried by Echo India! 

The weather is favourable. It is windy, but not so much as to endanger the flight. The sun creeps through the cracks in the clouds. “Hurricane Sabina won’t arrive until Sunday, we’re lucky," says my pilot, 77-year-old Ian Glenn, an experienced veteran of the club. We spool our way into the plane. My colleague Colonel George Niedoba and pilot Peter Hughes are doing the same on the second Tiger Moth parked to our right. The ever-present Howard Cook with his black sunglasses and flattering flat cap carries out the necessary checks and then gives the propeller a spin. The engine sputters to a start. After a mandatory two minutes to warm up, both machines weave across the green expanse of ​​the airfield and runway towards our starting position. “Cambridge Transport, Cambridge Transport, G-AOEI is ready for take-off”, I hear in my headphones. “There is no turning back”, I think to myself and close my eyes. The plane starts hurtling forward. For a moment it seems to leap merrily across the grass, and then it soars into the sky. We are flying. Ian quickly asks how I’m feeling. I am not vomiting. Our course is taking us towards the airfield in Duxford. It was here that on 17 August 1940 the famous 310th Czechoslovak Fighter Squadron was recognized as combat-ready. This year we celebrate the 80th anniversary of that event.

At the Cambridge City Cemetery I catch sight of the eroding grave of Flight Lieutenant Bohuslav Eichler. A man who understood my Echo India along with other British aircraft very well. Unfortunately, he died in a crash in January 1945 in a Mosquito B while returning from a night raid on Berlin. We paid our respects to him this morning. As well as to two other airmen, Sergeant Karel Hájek and Warrant Officer František Raška. Cambridge was behind us. The proximity of the second aircraft, which at times strikes me at too close, is making me nervous. We’re flying at an altitude of 2,000 feet (about 610 meters) and at a speed of 80 miles per hour (just over 100 km per hour). Howard Cook was right about everything. The oncoming gusts of wind rock our Tiger Moth but the machine stays on track and bravely proceeds forward. At the airfield in Duxford there is now an aviation museum. Passenger and military historical aircraft are lined up at the edge of the runway, giving the impression of an children’s collection of model planes. I recall the story of two Czechoslovak ground personnel, Leading Aircraftman Jaroslav Zavadil and Aircraftman Second Class Benedikt Pohner, who lost their lives here during the German bombing in February 1941. In the afternoon we head to their graves in the village of Whittlesford, where we also pay homage to Private Samuel Jaďuď, a soldier of Slovak nationality. The pilot of the fellow “yellow butterfly” waves to us and is lets the wind carry him away. Colonel Niedoba disappears alongside him. Finally. We remain alone. Ian points out villages and churches. We’re approaching central Cambridge. The views of the Church of St Mary the Great and King’s College Chapel are breathtaking. It’s too bad we can’t hover for a while here in the air. In a battle with the wind, I attempt some aerial photography. Fortunately, Howard Cook had fastened the camera to my wrist. After twenty minutes in the air, we land happily at the base. The adventure is over. The incredible experience indelibly remains. I was given the opportunity to travel against the tide of time to the era of wartime airmen. It was well worth it.

The festive and elevated mood continues in the meeting of club members and descendants of three Czechoslovak pilots – Vratislav Žežulka, Jaromír Střihavka and František Vindiš – who live in Great Britain. On the agenda today is not only the past but also the present. Our friends note that the Never Forgotten project was joined yesterday by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, Tomáš Petříček, who during his visit to Manchester laid a rose at the grave of Pilot Officer Antonín Škach in the Cheadle and Gatley Cemetery. We added that he was accompanied by a representative of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Vice Lord-Lieutenant of Greater Manchester Paul Griffiths in his elegant dark blue uniform with bright red trim and a sword at his side, with which he sometimes charmingly wrestles. His interest, however, was genuine, as was his moving speech. The commemorative ceremony was attended by a group of compatriots. It is good to remember the past so that we do not become lost in the fog of the future, agreed the participants in the club debate while drinking tea with milk and eating cakes. The time for the Czech beer and Moravian wine we brought would come later, they said. Maybe on the next ambassadorial flight, for which I received multiple heartfelt invitations.

London, 8 February 2020, Libor Sečka

A list of the Czechoslovak soldiers who, according to contemporary flight logs, definitely flew on the N6964: Egon Nezbeda, František Vocetka, Bohuslav Budil, Bohuslav Eichler, Josef Schück, František Altman, Alois Vrecl, Antonín Plocek, Václav Procházka, Svatopluk Štulíř, Jindřich Svoboda, Jindřich Zákravský, Vratislav Žežulka and, after the war, Jaromír Střihavka. 

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


Gallery Manchester, Cambridge