This weekend I went to Ightfield. Where? Well, I’d no idea myself. I’d assumed it was a spelling mistake and probably called Lightfield or Nightfield. But it wasn’t. It was Ightfield and it was a village in Shropshire and I’d been invited there. To a church. And to a family grave. And there were almost 200 people there, many in uniform, an MP, at least one Mayor, writers, journalists, historians and , out in front, a stand-up comedian from Liverpool . What on earth was all this about?
I’ve absolutely no idea. I was in the wrong place and the sat nav had sent me here whilst trying to visit an old friend in Church Stretton.
No, that’s not true. In fact it was a major event organised by Liverpool historian John Martin to pay tribute to the Czechoslovakian soldiers Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik who had been dropped by the RAF into occupied Czechoslovakia during World War 2 and had assassinated Hitler’s 3rd in command Reinhard Heydrich, the butcher of Prague and the man who devised the ‘Final Solution’ that condemned 6 million Jews to extermination in concentration camps. Along with 5 Czech comrades the pair subsequently fought to the death in a crypt in that city on June 18th 1942 in a major act of resistance which still lives today in the memory of their compatriots and lovers of freedom everywhere.
Anthropoid- the Shropshire Connection
During the war Czech and Slovak soldiers, who had fled their own countries as the Nazis took over, had regrouped in England to be re-organised as part of the British army to continue the fight against Germany. Many were trained by SOE (Special Operations Exec) to be dropped behind enemy lines to aid the local resistance.
Czechoslovakian soldiers were based at nearby Cholmondely Castle, just over the Cheshire border, and, living in tents, they often spent their free time in the nearby Shropshire town of Whitchurch. In 1941 it was waiting for a bus after a trip to the local cinema that a couple of sisters -Edna and Lorna Ellison (at the time aged 18 and 15) met one of them – Jan Kubis (the man whose bomb actually killed Heydrich) and struck up a friendship which was then extended to his colleague, the Slovak blacksmith Josef Gabcik, and to the whole Ellison family. The International Friendship led to visits to the Ellisons’ Ightfield home, traditional Sunday dinners and delightful times in the English countryside far from the war and the carnage. But , also, far away from their central European homeland.
Striking a Blow for Freedom
But they weren’t to be away from it for long. Even as the new friends whiled away peaceful days in their rural idyll, at Cholmondeley Castle preparations for a dangerous operation to be known as ‘Anthropoid’ were underway. The Czech Government in exile wanted to strike a major blow at the Nazis who occupied their country and no.3 Nazi Heydrich was chosen as the target. Kubis, Gabcik and others signed up for ‘Operation Anthropoid’.
In 2016 a new film ‘Anthropoid’ was released starring top actors Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan as Gabcik and Kubis and the historical adviser was our man John Martin – who also had a walk on part as ‘man at assassination’.
John , stand-up comedian (see here for evidence) who can cite Tarby, Doddy and Bob Monkhousey as not only influences but friends, and author of the 2009 book ‘The Mirror Caught the Sun: Operation Anthropoid 1942’ (see here) – taking it’s name from the signal given to Gabcik and Kubis by their lookout Josef Valcik as Heydrich’s car approached the killing ground, had devoted years to the events that finally came to fruition in Ightfield on July 23rd. To buy the book on Amazon go here. John’s years of historical research, his befriending of the Ellison sisters (he also befriended the Kubis family, the Gabcik family and even interviewed Heydrich’s son) and his organizational skills all came together alongside his engaging ‘people person’ on-stage persona to create the Ightfield Memorial event, attended by Generals, Ambassadors, Mayors, MPs, veterans, big wigs, small wigs, people without wigs…….And me.
Bridgwater’s Czech/Slovak Connection
I was invited to travel up there to take part precisely because of Bridgwater’s importance in the Anglo-Czech links that had been an integral part of the road to our second world war alliance, the memory of Gabcik and Kubis and the rekindling of those links some 50 years later.
On November 17th 1938 a By-Election in Bridgwater was fought on the issue of opposition to the Munich agreement, which had condemned the Czechoslovak state to occupation by the Nazis without a fight. The British Government operated a policy of appeasement and refused to stand up to Hitler. In Bridgwater the anti-appeasement MP Vernon Bartlett was elected in a clear and defiant opposition to the policy that signalled that the British people were no longer prepared to stand by while European allies were sacrificed to the growing fascist threat. Bartlett’s story can be found here.
On November 17th 1989, after years of being part of the post war Soviet bloc that had faced off against the West throughout a long and dangerous Cold War, the Czechs and Slovaks’ ‘Velvet Revolution’ took them out of that world and set them on a course for a reorientation to the West, membership of the EU and NATO and re-establishing old alliances with Britain.
On June 18th 1942, Gabcik and Kubis, along with 5 other Czechoslovakian soldiers fought to death in the Crypt of the Church of St Cyril and Methodius on Resslova street in Prague taking dozens of German SS soldiers with them and uttering their famous last words “We are Czech, we will never surrender”. After the operation, the British Government terminated the Munich agreement and committed themselves to restoring Czech territorial integrity after the war.
On June 18th 1992, Bridgwater became the first British town to twin with a Czech town (Uherske Hradiste) after the Velvet Revolution. The date was chosen to recognise the historical link and to honour the memory of Gabcik and Kubis.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Bridgwater Czechoslovakia twinning and so I was very pleased to have been invited to Ightfield, Shrops to represent the Bridgwater and the link. Only in February of this year I’d taken a group of Bridgwater College students to Prague and we’d not only visited the Crypt on Resslova, the Concentration camp at Terezin and the village of Lidice (destroyed by the Nazis in revenge for the assassination of Heydrich) – as we always do with groups we take to Prague, but we’d also re-enacted the events of Gabcik and Kubis’s ambush on the actual site (now a rather difficult bend on a Prague hillside – which was why it was originally chosen, because Heydrich’s car would have to slow down).
This year is the 25th year we’ve been running groups backwards and forwards between our two countries (well, three since the Slovaks became independent in 1993).
In September 2017 we’re taking musicians from Bridgwater and Uherske Hradiste’s Italian twin town Priverno (near to the sites of Monte Cassino and the Anzio landings) to the Moravian wine festival to celebrate the 25 years of friendship and also the 25 years of the Altech company founded by Antonin Machala who, not only was the co-founder of the Bridgwater-Czech link along with myself, but who was born in Banov the hometown of Josef Bublik, another of the 7 heroic parachutists that died in the Crypt.
In November the Mayor and Czech dignatories will be visiting Bridgwater to take part in our famous Carnival and to sign a re-affirmation of the twinning. Throughout all the years of this friendship link we’ve kept the original ideals in the forefront of what we believe– that nations should work together for peace, that friendships across national boundaries can break down those barriers of hate and mistrust that cause wars and that wherever Fascism rears its head you don’t ignore it, you fight it.