60th anniversary of Czechoslovak units in Britain

The oddities of British spelling and pronunciation were brought home to the Czechs over the weekend, when they learned that a place spelled Cholmondeley is actually pronounced 'Chumley'. They also improved their geography, when they learned the place so strangely named is situated in northern England, in Cheshire. History also had a part to play, because Cholmondeley was in the news this weekend as the place where, just 60 years ago, Czechoslovak military units were founded in Britain, units that would play an important role in fighting Nazi Germany and in helping to liberate occupied Czechoslovakia. Olga Szantova takes a closer look at the anniversary.

When Slovakia's fascist regime took over what had been eastern Czechoslovakia and the Germans occupied the Czech part of the country at the beginning of World War II, many young men fled to fight for freedom. They joined Allied armies in a number of places, many of them in France, where they formed a unit and fought the Germans until France itself was occupied. In June 1940 most of them managed to make their way to Britain where they, some 5,000 Czechs and Slovaks in total, were concentrated on the estate of the Marquis of Cholmondeley until November.

The first month was spent screening them. At first, having arrived without any authorization in a country at war, they were disarmed and treated as prisoners of war. But that was soon clarified, with help from the Czechoslovak government in exile, located in London, and the volunteers began forming military units that were soon to play a significant role in the battles of World War II. More than 2,300 men, with some former training, formed three squadrons within the Royal Air Force, just in time to play an active role in the Battle of Britain. One of those men was Alois Siska:

Today Alois Siska is a general, but that distinction came only after the fall of the communist regime, during which men and women who fought against the Nazi occupation of their country on the western front were discriminated against, frequently jailed and many fled the country yet again. But that's a different part of the sad story of ingratitude towards those who volunteered to risk their lives for freedom. 564 Czechs were killed in action in the RAF alone. While a memorial to commemorate them was set up in Prague only 5 years ago, in Cholmondeley it was erected in September 1940. The Czech and Slovak foreign ministers and ministers of defense laid wreaths there on Sunday. The fact that until now most Czechs had never heard of the place that played such an important role in our history makes it more than just a lesson in English spelling, in history and geography. It is also a badly needed lesson in national consciousness.

Author: Olga Szantová
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