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The final stage: up in the air and on the water – Guernsey (8–11 July 2021)

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka

I thought that our book was complete. The previous 18 chapters gave testimony about our visits to the grave sites of all 308 Czechoslovak soldiers buried in Great Britain. Our mission was fulfilled. There was nothing more to add. After visiting the island of Guernsey, however, I changed my mind. I was drawn to this place thanks to the enormous interest and enthusiasm of a group of volunteers, supported by official circles, who wish to highlight the historical events associated with this locale. I later understood that the broader context of their effort is to create and solidify a new identity for this small island community. The goal is to change its image as a former “tax haven” to one of an equal partner whose present and future are based on progressive traditions, symbols, quality services in line with European standards, as well as education and culture. I was pleased that the stories of two Czechoslovak pilots, Flying Officer Jaroslav Novák and Flight Sergeant Josef Bláha, play a very important role in the local effort to elevate new heroes.

The driving force behind the new face of the island is the Art for Guernsey association, together with the local Chamber of Commerce as its greatest ally. The idea factory and beating heart of this interconnected organism is David Ummels, a visionary and esteemed fellow resident, whom the locals call “the soft-spoken Belgian”. It was with this man, on my first visit to the island two years ago, that I gave my imagination free reign to consider all that we could possibly accomplish together. After that, we met several more times: in London, in Prague and again in London, and our dreams gradually became a reality. David quickly realized that the stories of heroism from the Second World War could both bolster national pride and at also strengthen international ties today. He began collecting and studying information about the life and tragic end of Jaroslav Novák, a member of the 312th Czechoslovak Squadron of the RAF, who was shot down in his Spitfire on 14 May 1942 while attacking German ships off Saint Peter Port. The sea never yielded up his body.

With the idea of bringing the whole story into the consciousness of the wider public and also local schools, he commissioned the promising painter Sally Ede-Golightly to create a portrait of the Czechoslovak pilot. The artist wonderfully accomplished this not-so-easy task. The painting, which reflects a sense of deep tragedy but at the same time radiates determination and hope, was admired by my wife, Sabrina, and a small group of compatriots at a reception on the first day of our visit. On this occasion, Guernsey Chief Minister, Deputy Peter Ferbrache told me that he was hearing about this for the very first time. He was surprised and moved. The legend of the Czechoslovak soldier, whom the locals dubbed “Yardeskie” (Jarda — the short form of Jaroslav — of the Sky), gradually won the hearts of the inhabitants of this island of sixty thousand. Therefore, it was not a wonder that the memorial ceremony the following day enjoyed plentiful attention from the local media and politicians. And it wouldn’t have sprung from the mind of David Ummels if it didn’t take an original form.

At nine o’clock in the morning we set sail on a slender white yacht called Briviba (which means freedom in Latvian) from Saint Peter Port towards the place where an aircraft with a Czechoslovak pilot disappeared forever 79 years ago. The sky remained dark, as if there was meant to be no dawn on that day. Soon, however, a sharp wind began to blow, carry the risk of rain to a safe distance. At the same time, the domestic and Czech flags fluttered wildly over our heads. They seemed ready to break off and take flight at any second. The sea, however, remained placid. After an hour’s journey, the ship came to a stop near Bréhon Tower. On the bow, a quartet of musicians led by violinist Max Wong offered melodies of Dvořák to the audience for this unique sea concert. The portrait of the pilot also looked on silently. At sea, they played for “Jarda of the Sky”, forever in the sea. It was a moment as exceptional as it was dignified. Afterward, when everything fell completely silent, even the wind and the swish of the water below us, Max began to play the Czech national anthem. It seemed more beautiful to me than ever before …

This extraordinary celebration of heroism was documented. A film about the Czechoslovak soldier and the connection between the Czech Republic and Guernsey during this memorial ceremony will be screened in schools on the island. It will become part of an ongoing project to foster cultural cooperation. The organizers did not forget about the second of the Czechoslovak pilots: Josef Bláha, from the 313rd Czechoslovak Squadron of the RAF, who died in the icy waters off the island on 15 January 1943, when during a combat operation his plane collided with another Allied aircraft. To this point, it has not been possible to ascertain any further details about his life and story. But work in the archives continues. The names of both pilots are engraved on the new Allied Aircrew Memorial, which has been decorating the area in front of the island airport since 2015.

Of course, we also used our expedition to the second largest of the Channel Islands to discuss possibilities for further cooperation with the Czech Republic. The picturesque local landscape inspired Pierre-Auguste Renoir in 1883. In the spring of next year, two important Czech contemporary artists should get a similar opportunity during their study stays. Space for a fruitful exchange of know-how and experiences should also appear in other areas, such as the creation and management of integrated rescue systems, higher education, etc. And given that this was our last trip to the island as diplomats of the Czech Republic to Great Britain, our friends decided to delight us with an spectacular gift. They lent us a beautiful veteran car: an elegant, pale blue MGA 1600 Mk II sports car from 1962. I knew that driving it would be both wonderful and challenging. It was raining outside, so it was also raining inside the car. Foggy windows with wipers the size of a fountain pen. Manual transmission on the left and a turn indicator that had to be held in position. No power steering. We set off and became fast friends. It was a return to the era in which I was born and at the same time an amazing joy ride. Just like the past five and a half years in Britain.


London, 22 July 2021                                                                                          

Libor Sečka    


Never Forgotten Stage 19 EN Guernsey