De herdenking vond plaats op de militaire begraafplaats van de Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Bergen op Zoom. De toespraak is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.
Thank you mister Bukva, secretary Černochová and secretary Nad’ for your memorable words.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen. And a special welcome to the relatives of the 6 heroes.
In the night of 22 to 23 June 1941, shortly after one o’clock in the morning, 6 young Czech RAF aircrew were returning from a mission in Bremen. With a group of 70 aircraft, they had bombed the Hanseatic city, as part of the war against Nazi Germany. On that same day, the German Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union. A German defeat appeared still far off.
In that crystal-clear night, first pilot Vilém Bufka and second pilot Alois ‘Lozja’ Rozum had set a direct course for their base at East-Wretham airfield, on the east coast of England. Also on board were rear gunner Karel Valach, front gunner Jan Hejna [Jan Hejna], wireless operator Leonard Smrcek and navigator Vilém Konstacky.
Following the invasion of Czechoslovakia, these 6 ordinary men had fled to France, each following their own different route. When France also capitulated to the Nazis, they fled further to England. For them, giving up was not an option.
All six were still young men. The 28 year-old second pilot Lozja Rozum was the oldest of the group. In their past lives they had been policemen, car mechanics or bank clerks. That life was far behind them. By now, they were hardened airmen and fully determined to liberate their motherland and the rest of Europe.
On board, the 6 were counting the hours until their safe return to England. All were quiet, and dreaming of a warm bed. Jokily, the first pilot Vilém Bufka asked his fellow crew members whether they were sleeping in the back of the aircraft. This turned out to be the calm before the storm.
At around 2 a.m., all hell broke loose. The aircraft was picked up by the German radar in Medemblik, near the IJsselmeer. The radar station zeroed in a fighter aircraft that launched an attack on the RAF bomber. In a short but deadly dogfight, the Wellington T2990 was hit between the fuselage and the left-hand engine.
Second pilot Lozja called out over the on-board radio system: ‘The steering no longer works. It’s over!’ At high speed, the aircraft went into a vertical dive and embedded itself in a field, in the village of Nieuwe Niedorp, some 60 kilometres above Amsterdam.
Only Vilém Bufka succeeded in bailing out with his parachute. Upon landing, he was captured by the Germans. He ended up as a prisoner of war in the infamous Colditz Castle. After the war, he recorded his memories of this tragedy in a book.
The great playwright and politician Václav Havel once wrote: ‘Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.’
And that is precisely what Vilém Bufka, Lozja Rozum, Karel Valach, Jan Hejna, Leonard Smrcek and Vilém Konstacky did. Without knowing whether they would succeed, they chose to do the right thing. Five of them paid the ultimate price.
They are not the only Czechoslovaks who suffered this fate. No less than 82 Czechoslovak aircrew were shot down in the skies above our country. 48 of them lost their lives.
Today, the five from Wellington T2990 at last find their final resting place, here at the Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery. Among their comrades who just like them, far from home, fought for freedom. As a veteran of the war in Afghanistan myself, I appreciate their sacrifice, all the more.
The sacrifice of these men reminds us that freedom and democracy must never be taken for granted. They must be fought for. Today we once again see the truth of this statement, with the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine.
These heroes were never forgotten. At the crash site, in Nieuwe Niedorp, a monument was erected, that has always been cared for by the people of the village. Every year, a ceremony of remembrance was held to mark the tragedy, in the presence of family members.
3 Dutch members of parliament made this a national issue. Stieneke van der Graaf, Harry van der Molen and Wybren van Haga launched an initiative for a national recovery programme with the aim of tracing and subsequently burying the mortal remains of as many missing aircrew as possible.
It was, in their own words, a matter which they had ‘taken very much to heart’. It means that we are able to do their aircrew the honour they deserve, and to do justice to the wishes of their next of kin. At last, they are able to achieve closure regarding the loss of their brother, father, grandfather or uncle.
We perform this vital work together with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence, the affected municipalities, the Dutch Study Group Air War 1939-1945 and our partners abroad.
It is for that reason that I express my gratitude to Minister Jana Černochová, Minister Jaroslav Ned’, Attaché Colonel Mark Maddick and Director Claire Horton from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, for their assistance, dedication and commitment.
Today, we are burying the five aircrew from Wellington T2990. Tomorrow, the search will continue for their still missing comrades in arms.
In closing, I will return to the words of Václav Havel. His call to do good is an appeal to us all. We are all needed to protect democracy, each in our own way. On a peacekeeping mission, at home, in the street, at work or at school. By listening to each other, by seeking the ties that bind us together and by bridging our differences.
Let us therefore all do the right thing, and fight for our democracy. Shoulder to shoulder, day in day out. So that the sacrifice of these brave men was worthwhile.