Europe

The 'Winged Lion' thanks Czech and Slovak WW2 airmen

  • 18 June 2014
  • From the section Europe
Czechoslovak war veteran Imrich Gablech, 98, poses in front of the monument in memory of Czechoslovak WW2 pilots in the British Royal Air Force (RAF), in Prague, 17 June 2014 Image copyright AP
Image caption The Winged Lion honours the Czechoslovak pilots, including Imrich Gablech, 98, who contributed to victory in World War Two

The grandson of British wartime leader Winston Churchill has unveiled a statue in the Czech capital Prague dedicated to the 2,500 Czech and Slovak airmen who fought in Britain's Royal Air Force.

The monument, called the Winged Lion, is a gift from Prague's British expatriate community in gratitude for the airmen's contribution during World War Two.

Pavel Vransky's story sounds like the plot of a DC Thomson comic: flight to Poland in 1939, arrest by the Red Army, internment in the Soviet Union, deployment as an infantryman in the Western Desert.

Combat at Tobruk. Enrolment in the Royal Air Force. Service in the RAF Coastal Command. Return to liberated Czechoslovakia. Demobilisation. Persecution by the Communists as an "imperialist". Two years' hard labour.

But at least, he points out, he's still alive, unlike many of his erstwhile comrades.

'Sacrificed for freedom'

"It's a big honour for us. But we're here to remember those who are not here, you see?

"They are not with us. We are still alive, but they sacrificed their lives for freedom," Mr Vransky, now 93, told the BBC shortly before the unveiling.

The ceremony was attended by just nine RAF veterans. Their number is dwindling.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Many war veterans suffered under Communist rule after WW2

Pavel Vransky served in 311 Squadron, one of four dedicated Czechoslovak squadrons in the RAF.

Some 2,460 Czechs and Slovaks joined up; 1,336 of them served as air crew.

A total of 493 lost their lives in combat or training - young men like Pavel, who was 18 when he fled his homeland.

"The Winged Lion statue, a gift of the British community, is a very, very splendid memorial to what those people did," Sir Nicholas Soames MP - Winston Churchill's grandson - told the BBC, after pulling the cord on the white sheet covering the statue.

"Not only did they escape from here during the war, they ended up fighting in the Allied cause in the Battle of Britain, and then came back here to find that the country they fought to free was under the Communist heel," he went on.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The statue has support from many politicians, but has encountered opposition from the heritage department

"The statue is a heartfelt gift from the people here, and I think [my grandfather] would have been moved, pleased and admiring of the effort," Sir Nicholas said.

Later a Spitfire - painted in the livery of the Czechoslovak 312 Squadron - swooped low over the bridges spanning the River Vltava.

Onlookers shielded their eyes from the sun as the iconic plane - glinting in the hazy evening light - banked and turned before finally disappearing from view.

'Part of history'

But the Winged Lion memorial hasn't all been smooth flying for the group of British expatriates in Prague who commissioned and raised money for the project.

An initial request to place the statue at Prague Castle was turned down; even its current location, a small area of grass called Klarov, may not prove to be permanent.

The cultural heritage department of the city council has complained the project was fast-tracked by politicians without the department's consultation, and point out that Klarov is already home to one wartime memorial.

They have lodged a formal complaint; if they're successful, the two-metre (7ft) bronze lion - by UK sculptor Colin Spofforth - may have to be moved.

Image caption UK expatriates in Prague raised funds for the project

"In one way it has been a tough battle, in another it hasn't," said Euan Edworthy, who led the group of UK expats behind the campaign.

"It took us four months to raise £100,000. From what I understand, most of the establishment support it.

"Most importantly, most of the general public support it - I've received thousands of emails. So we'll see how it unfolds," he told the BBC.

"I just hope for the veterans' sake the monument remains here at Klarov," he added.

The chairman of the lower house of parliament, Jan Hamacek, agrees.

"It's sad that those who were ready to fight and die for our freedom were treated in such a harsh way [after the Communists came to power in 1948]," he said.

"I think it's something the country should remember. It's something we should teach to our children. I hope that school groups that come so often to Prague will stop here and learn about our history, that part of history written by those brave men."

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