St Valentine’s Day 1943
St Valentine’s Day 1943 was remarkable, as the day of my birth. This is what I looked like.
My name at the time of my birth was Vojen Korejs. It would have remained so, had I not realised that at the places I stayed people had all sorts of problems pronouncing such a name properly. Both the "j" letters I had in my first and surname in English are pronounced quite differently than in Czech, making them almost unrecognisable when attempted to pronounce by a native speaker. Being of an altruistic nature, I had suffered greatly while hearing them struggle so much, and had been wondering how I could help them! I pondered over this for quite some time, but in the end the solution came to me, and it turned out to be quite simple. All it took was changing the first "j" into a "y", and the second into an "i". The result: Voyen Koreis, and the problem was solved. No more facial contortions. A clear, crisp pronunciation, by most concerned.
I should have thought of this sooner, at least about changing the surname. It so happened that a branch of my family used to write its name with an "i" for quite some time, almost until the middle of the 20th century; in fact it was my father who changed it and it still remains a mystery to me why he did so. Amongst old papers and documents I have in my possession is a funeral card of my great grandfather, who was the Protector of the Imperial Waterworks in Prague, and he had still been writing his name as Koreis. So was his son, my grandfather, who was the choir master of the cathedral in Zbraslav, an ancient town with the 12th century Cistercian monastery south of Prague, which has now become one of its suburbs. He had altogether 12 children, whom he gave mostly traditional Czech names, rarely seen these days, such as Přemysl, Lumír, Záboj, Milada or Dalibor, my father. The latter followed in the same tradition, if not in number of children he produced, but in naming his only son Vojen, after the fourth member of the Premyslid dynasty, which had ruled Bohemia for at least half a millennium, until the beginning of 14th century. That name is now just about the rarest you could imagine. In my life I had met only one person named as I, and I have only heard or read about three or four others.
As far as the surname Koreis or Korejs is concerned, there are several theories about its origin. It could be of a Celtic origin ─ one large Celtic tribe Boii was established in the central Europe and is mentioned in Roman sources as early as in the 4th century BC. It later has apparently merged with newcomers to Central Europe ─ the Slavs. From the root Boii comes Boiohaenemum, or modern Bohemia. The root boi even now means fighting or war in the Czech language, and the name Boii itself meant "warrior people" ─ this warrior image seems to stick out everywhere, even out of my own first name, as Vojen (boien) means essentially the same thing ─ a warrior, military leader, or general. No wimp, that's for certain! The name Koreis could have nevertheless come from several other sources and places. It's bearers could have come from Latvia or Lithuania, even Greece or, as appears increasingly more likely, they came from Holland. That would have happened most likely during the Thirty Year War, early in the 17th century. Nowadays, one can conduct searches, as most of the records have become digitalised. One of my relatives, who is that way inclined, has recently discovered in an old marriage register from the 17th century that there lived a Koreis in Prague, who was a musician, and who at about the age of 50 had married a young singer, in her early twenties. Good on him! However, if we substitute the "C" for "K", as is common in many languages, we would get names like Corris or Corres. The first could easily adorn some Irishman, while the other has a distinct Spanish flavour to it. Enough speculations, don't you think?
There are several pockets where the name Koreis currently appears. Some are in the south of Bohemia, some in the north-west, many in the capitol Prague, but at least up to recently, their favourite place seems to be the town of Příbram, about 50 km south/west of Prague. This used to be the main mining town of silver, and in the 19th century even held the world record for the deepest mine. But it's significance has faded, and mining is no longer as important as it once was. Members of our family were heavily involved in the silver mining industry, by the look of things, mostly as mining engineers. The other line of interest to them was and still is ─ art (mainly music), but there were to be found among them some painters, sculptors, etc. But let’s move to the time and the place of my birth now.
The house where I was born in London
As I have said already, my birth happened on the 14th of February 1943 in London. Had I stayed in England, I would have probably soon discovered that I was a "St Valentine baby", most likely even before I knew what it meant and what were its implications. I were to find that out only years later, on my return to England. In the mostly dull post-war Czechoslovakia, where my parents took me, and where I was to do my growing up, St Valentine Day was not celebrated at all. The Czechs have since finally discovered its commercial potential, and have set it right, as far as the present consumer orientated society is concerned, anyway. Of the house you see in the picture above it can only be said that a savvy Londoner would certainly have declared it "a good address". The house number 12 Pitt Street Kensington London W8, stands only a little over a furlong away from Kensington Palace, the birthplace of the quintessential British ruler, Queen Victoria! Not only that. Prince Charles and Princess Diana had lived there, and so do nowadays even Prince William with his wife Kate, their son George and daughter Charlotte. That's three generations of future kings, all within a stone throw of my birthplace, well ... maybe within a medieval bowman's range! If you absolutely insist on being born into this valley of tears and lamentations, you could do worse than making it happen at Pitt Street, Kensington!
Well, wasn't that a typical British understatement? It proves that I'm British, while all of the above proves that I must be a British man of some pedigree. In my own mind, anyway. If I were to make such an audacious statement in front of a true Englishman it would probably draw a response not unlike the famous "We are not amused" uttered by Queen Victoria. Only, these days it would probably be somewhat stronger. Even members of the Royal Family, I suspect, would utter a four-letter word or two, at least in moments of weakness.
You might well now ask the question: "How come that someone with a demonstrably awful non-British sounding accent could have been born in such a place, teeming with history, ancient and modern?" Well, it's a long story, but at the beginning of it stands a romance that caused it, and it wasn't even a very young one. Still, it fits that St Valentine image rather well. And introduces the first two remarkable people I had met in course of my life.
The year was 1936 and it was summer. A 32 year-old Antonie Jandejsková was travelling on train from Prague to Rjeka in Croatia, from where she was to cross to the island of Krk, where she intended to spend the holiday on its beautiful beaches. Somewhere between Bratislava and Budapest a man of about 40 came into the coupe, which she shared with a female friend. He was tallish, wearing glasses, and of smooth manners. He asked politely if he could join the ladies, and when they agreed he introduced himself as Dalibor Koreis, and he started a conversation. The other lady had discreetly withdrawn when it became obvious that my future father was only interested in chatting up my future mother. Even though she had had a couple of serious and some less serious relationships, she was still unmarried. He had recently overcome the brunt of a rather dramatic marriage split-up, followed by as yet unresolved divorce proceedings, after he had caught his wife in flagranti ─ with the man he had up to that point considered to be his best friend ─ when he returned from a business trip earlier than expected! That, of course, he only disclosed to her much later.
Dalibor had intended to travel somewhere else, but this had proved flexible, and he changed his destination, so that he could also go to Rjeka. He astonished her with his language abilities. Together they spoke in Czech. While they were still in Hungary, he talked with the conductor in his language. When he was buying some refreshments, with the Croatian sellers at the railway station he spoke Croatian, with the Serbians in Serbian, with the Italians, in Italian... He worked at the time for a Yugoslav travel agency, but it was a stop-gap sort of a job. He already had an offer to take over a branch of a travel agency in Brno, another for being a trading partner in Moscow, as he was fluent in Russian, and yet another from the Czech Ministry of Trade as a trade attaché at the embassy in Tirana in Albania. The Albanian language he had learnt when he was stationed there for a few months during the First World War. He didn’t need much time to add another to his impressive collection, which overall counted about a dozen languages.
The romance had blossomed, after a few months the divorce was finally settled, and Father was free to marry again. This they have both agreed upon. Father had left it to Mother to choose where they would be living. She was to make the selection between staying in Czechoslovakia and moving to the capital of Moravia Brno, going to Moscow in the Soviet Russia, or living in Tirana, Albania. The first two possibilities discarded, Albania had won hands down, as out of these places it appeared to be by far the most romantic, at least that’s how my future mother saw it.
The Marriage in Albania
The year was 1938, early spring, and Mother was on her way to Tirana. When she reached the port of Durrés, which lies about 50 km away from the Albanian capital, Father was not there waiting, as previously arranged. He had sent instead one of his colleagues to meet his bride to be. He could not make the journey because of the heavy bout of malaria, which he contracted in the same parts of the world during the First World War campaign. She was worried, and the condition she had found him in was even more worrying, but in her presence he had recovered quickly. Malaria bothered him from time to time, but this was the worst bout for many years. Dalibor was soon fine, and he even managed to put the marriage date forward by several weeks. An opportunity came his way, so that he could one day ask his bride to be:
"How would you like to have a twenty one gunshot salute at our wedding?"
She was puzzled, naturally, but had no objections, hardly any bride would have. It so happened that the Albanian king Zog was to marry a Hungarian countess on the 27th April 1938, and no Albanians were allowed to hold any marriage ceremonies on that day. The trick was that such a ban had not applied to foreigners, so the relevant authorities had even asked Father, if he wanted to have their marriage on the same day. The morning ceremonies have therefore been conducted with the sound of guns in the background, with the wedding feast being held on the embassy grounds in the afternoon. Father's witness was Major Vaculný, who was repaying the same favour to him, rendered a few months before. The Major was to marry a Montenegrin beauty named Milica. However, it was not to be a straight forward proposition. In the mountain village where she came from and where both Czechs now went, Father was to become a witness to a veritable spectacle! The hitch was that the Major had lived together with Milica in Tirana for some months before the intended wedding, and the village spies had discovered that. Under normal circumstances, the young lady would be disgraced and no consent would be coming from her parents, who would become outcasts in their village. However, think about how many Montenegrin village girls, even as beautiful as Milica, would catch a foreign army major for a husband? An urgent meeting of the village elders was called, who have eventually come up with a compromise. They had allowed an exception to the strict code of morals, which was held sacred by them, and the girl would be allowed to marry her suitor. However, the Major had to first ask all inhabitants of the village for forgiveness, and do so publicly on the village green. Not only that ─ he had to do it while kneeling down! Only when this condition was met, he would be able to take his black-haired stunner to the altar. The Major was very much in love with his chosen one, so he consented. He took Father with him to be his best man, because he trusted him not to tell anyone what he had witnessed ─ the kneeling Major in the village high in the mountains begging for forgiveness. Though Father was sworn to secrecy, the circumstances of the Major‘s marriage had still somehow leaked. It seems that it must have been the Major himself, who in a moment of weakness, perhaps under the influence of alcohol, had told some of his companions. How else would I be able to write about it some eighty years later? My father was a man of his word, and he certainly would never have told anyone! But, isn‘t it good to know that not so long ago, even within the reach of a human memory, there was a different world, with different morals, and different customs? But was it any better than the world we know now? I doubt it. The decade that was to come, proved to be one of the worst in the human history...
Only a few short months remained of peace in their little world, and Mother liked to talk about those times very much. They would often have what we in Australia would call barbecue, but which would be a luxury in Europe in those days. They would roast a lamb on an open fire outdoors. They would travel to the mountains, all the way to Lake Ohrid on the border with Macedonia. But there could be no doubt that the war was just around the corner. When the Munich Agreement came, which had foreshadowed the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Hitler's troops, Father received via the German embassy in Tirana an offer of collaboration, which he flatly refused. The invasion of Albania by Italian troops was also expected to happen at any time. In January 1939 both my parents made a short visit to Prague, so Mother would see her sister Maria, who was about to die of tuberculosis for the last time. Father, meantime, was leading negotiations about possible closure of the embassy in Albania, with himself taking over as a Consul. Nevertheless, in the end it did not happen, and all remained the same.
At the time, Father had begun to work against the Germans and particularly the Italians, who were quite obviously making preparations to an invasion to Albania. Under the pretention that he was buying some rare wood, he made trips to the south of Albania, so that he could follow the movements of the Italian troops in the Otranto Straight, which joins the Adriatic Sea with the Ionian Sea. Whatever he found out he handed over to his friend the French Consul Sorlot, who sent it farther. When the Italian troops had indeed invaded Albania, Father noticed that they were moving their men to south, near the border with Greece. He told Sorlot, and soon there were English military vessels near the island of Corfu. The intelligence channels had obviously worked. The invasion of Greece was postponed by about two years, and when Mussolini finally invaded that country, the results were not exactly in his favour...
Here I'm going to digress slightly. Only very recently had I been able to finally take a look at some documents found in the most secret section of the British Secret Service. I had to get a special permit based on the Freedom of Information Act. One condition to be met was that the person in question would now be over one hundred years old, which was easily the case with my father. I found out that Father was being checked out by the Secret Service in 1940, particularly because of the information regarding the situation in Albania and his knowledge of some officials who might have been useful to the British side in the war. I found out for instance, that Father had been recommending some people, while rejecting others that the British would have otherwise wanted to contact. That included the king of Albania, whom they wanted to use for propaganda purposes, while he was in exile in England. The British, with their well-known loyalty towards their Royals, seemed to have assumed that the ordinary Albanians would be like the British and feel the same way. Father, who had had enough time to judge the strength or otherwise of the ordinary Albanians' feelings towards their king, dissuaded them and did so successfully. What happened even before the end of the war, when a communist regime was installed after the end of Italian occupation, as early as in 1944, and when King Zog had to again seek exile, have proved Father right unequivocally! The Communists had continued to rule that country until 1992.
The way to Czechoslovakia was closed to my parents, when on the 15th of March 1939 Hitler took over their country. The Italians marched into Tirana about three weeks later, and the ground became too hot for my parents. Father, meanwhile, had another offer of collaboration, this time an even more serious one, from the Germans. According to Mother, they offered him 500,000 marks and a German passport. That seems to be a lot of money to me, some 200 thousand dollars, according to the conversion rates, which was quite a fortune at the time, and which would have been very tempting. The Germans made certain that he understood that if he refused, and he got into their hands, he would be in trouble, especially for being a reserve army officer.
The Flight from Occupied Albania
My parents intended to leave Albania by the end of July, as Father was still trying to finalise all that could be done. On the 13th of July they went to see the French Consul Sorlot, who was a good friend of my father. While walking there an officer of the city council accosted them, who told them he was on his way to see them. He took them aside and told them that he had in his hand a joint German-Italian arrest warrant for both of them, which would have meant deportation to the Lipari Islands, from where no one returned. He said that he was going to hold the warrant back until noon the next day, but that by this time they must be gone out of Tirana. When asked why he was doing this for them, he said that when Albania was to be invaded, Father had enlisted as a Captain in reserve for the defence of Albania, and Mother was listed as nurse. As it turned out, there was no organised defence, but he said that he was the one who had received their offers of help, and because of that he is now glad to be able to repay them at least in this way. They thanked him and went to Sorlots, where the Consul took away their passports and came back to them in the evening, bearing the Greek visa. They hired a car, and in the small hours they left Tirana with an Alsatian dog named Lenka and only a few belongings in a couple of trunks, pretending to be going on holidays. In the evening they reached Korce, where they shared the hotel room with bedbugs, in the morning they went to the military headquarters to gain the permission to leave Albania. When the Italian officer had left the building and walked towards the town, probably to ring Tirana, as there was no telephone in the building, Father began to worry. It didn't look good for them.
Father knew he had to do something and do it quickly. As soon as the Italian officer disappeared behind the horizon, he went back, where he had run into an Albanian officer, who naturally had no authority and was probably there only as an interpreter. He'd begun to converse with him in Albanian. The native officer was chaffed, and even more so when it turned out that Father knew his uncle, whom he met when they were stationed nearby during the World War One. He told Father:
"You Czechs are in the same boat as we are; both our countries are being occupied. I'm going to give you that stamp and I'm going to deal with that Italian somehow. Knowing him, he's going to be drunk anyway, it should be easy."
So they could now jump into the car and drive to the border as fast as they could. Thanks to the brave Albanian, God bless him, there was a small window of time presented to them, which they had to use quickly. However, when they reached the border there was a thorough inspection awaiting them. Quite obviously no one had been crossing the border on the day, so the Italian soldiers on the Albanian site were quite diligent in their searches. Mother had some cheques in French currency hidden in a toothpaste tube, and when the customs officers together with the Italians were getting near her, Father just hissed to her:
"Stand on Lenka's tail!"
Mother did that, and the dog that had thus far been
laying on the floor got up with a loud bark. The soldier baulked; asked
if she was vicious, and Father naturally nodded his head. Mother had
helpfully taken her out on a leash, and no one noticed that she took
her handbag with her. In the end they let them go; the customs officers
on the Greek side were amazed that the Italians had let anyone go. They
eventually reached Thesaloniki, where the next day they found a ship
going through the Aegean Sea to Pireas. Up till now theirs was a near
miraculous escape, but in this most frequented Greek port everything
had come to a halt.
From Greece to France (1939)
To get safely to France, they had to find a ship that would not be Italian, that would not berth at any Italian port, and that they could afford with the low state of their finances. It was not going to be easy. Almost three weeks passed before the waves of the Mediterranean Sea delivered such a vessel to them. It was Egyptian, it was going to sail from Pireas straight to Marseilles. After some bargaining the Captain consented to taking aboard the three pilgrims, and for the amount that represented all their ready cash. All they had left was the cheques, which would not be of any use to them until they reached France. They boarded the ship and prepared to go hungry for several days.
They got unexpected help to overcome the famine. While still in the Aegean Sea, there came a storm that made them both so sick that it had sent away any thought of food they might have harboured. However, when the weather got clear again in a day or two, they walked onto the deck, only to see their dog Lenka, the fourth-class passenger, lay on the boards surrounded by meat cutlets that the sailors did not like for some reason. She had obviously devoured quite a few already and could not eat any more. While they were hatching plans to get to the cutlets without being observed, another storm had arrived, which had made the sight of unconsumed cutlets less appealing to them.
My parents reached Marseilles on the 2nd of August 1939 at 10 pm, without any money, with a dog, two suitcases and a parcel. They stood on the pier, wandering what to do. A taxi arrived, Father explained the situation to the driver ─ at least he was good with the French language. The man threw a quick glance at the leather suitcases, which looked quite impressive even after the journey they have just undertaken, and took them to some small hotel whose proprietor he obviously knew. The owner agreed to take their baggage as collateral, and gave them a room. They slept there, still hungry, but in the morning Father went to the bank, came back with a glowing smile in his face, and invited Mother to a banquet. They paid the hotel owner and the taxi driver, and by the evening they were on the train to Paris. Upon reaching the French capital, they found a room to rent in the Latin quarter, as was recommended to them.
Father, being a Captain in reserve, had immediately enlisted with the Czechoslovak Army Abroad, which was just being formed. Mother did the same as a nurse. Soon they were required to carry gas masks on their person ─ by then Hitler had invaded Poland. At the beginning of October, Father was in charge of the first transport of the Czechoslovak troops, formed mostly of volunteers who happened to be in France when the war had begun. They were from then on going to have their headquarters at Agde in southern France ─ the wives of the soldiers had joined them a few days later. Several of them had rented a house; Father became the battalion Commander, at least until some regular army officers arrived. After that he became the Commander of the Staff Company, but basically he was the most exposed amongst the Czechoslovak Army officers. His ability to speak French and English was invaluable to them, and he had to be practically at all meetings, to also act as an interpreter.
From France to England (1940)
When France capitulated in June 1940 and signed the truce with Germany ─ under very humiliating conditions to the French, it looked as though the Czechoslovak troops might be handed over to the Germans. Churchill reacted swiftly and decisively, when he sent British Navy to the shore of southern France, from where they picked up the Czechs and Slovaks marooned there. A convoy of several ships guarded by destroyers took about two weeks to reach Liverpool, because it took an evasive course against the German submarines. One of the submarines had still found them, but was sunk by the destroyers. Mother told me how anxious the atmosphere was on the ship she was on ─ they had no idea where they were going; for some time they even thought it might be America. One young Czech mother, in a bout of madness, had thrown her four-year-old daughter overboard and tried to follow her, but was restricted by people around her. The girl was lost, the mother was sent to psychological care in England, where her husband, who was a pilot, had met her, that's all my mother knew... It sends shivers down my spine even writing about it.
An ID card of the British Army, in the name of Major Dalibor Korejs
Research reveals that all the ships they had been transported on were sunken during the war. That included the ones my parents used to sail to Pireas and to Marseilles. The transporter Mohamed Ali el-Kebir, which took them to England, stayed afloat only several days after it delivered them to Liverpool ─ then it was sunk by a German submarine near the coast of Ireland, with the loss of 120 people. SS Britania, which carried the dog Lenka (who had left a souvenir in France in the form of seven puppies), went to the bottom of the sea under similar circumstances about six months later. About half of the 484 people on board have survived on life boats, after the captain of the German destroyer left the survivors to their fate. It was a bad war!
In Liverpool my parents became separated. The soldiers were sent to a military camp and the civilians went to London. Lenka had to go into quarantine at Croydon, where she had to stay for six months, and Father managed to go to see her once. After she was released she became a kind of mascot to the troops, going everywhere with them. Unfortunately, a couple of years later she died, of some unidentified disease.
In London Mother lived on Tottenham Court Road, not far from the Euston Railway Station ─ Father complained when he first came to visit her there that he is supposedly going to the largest city in the world (which London was at the time), and finds his wife right behind the first corner. To think of it now, it couldn't have been very safe, living so near one of the three main railway stations, which must have been prime targets for the German Luftwafe and their bombers! The famous Battle of Britain had begun at about this time, and they were staying in the underground shelters more often than in their flats.
Things happened at the time, which affected several lives. In 1941 my sister Živana was born, but her name, which means "lively" proved a misnomer, as she lived only a day or so. She had some breathing problems ─ in present times and with proper care she would no doubt have survived, but wartime London was not a place for an ill newborn. A wife of one of the soldiers in Father's regiment had an accident at the same time, when a dressing gown caught fire on her from a gas heater. She was in the hospital, and in a very bad state. She had recently born a son, Lumír, who was only a few weeks old. Mother, who had lost her child recently, took Lumír and nursed him. His mother Táňa, who was in the hospital half-way between life and death, found out about it and had always insisted that this was the turning point had that lead to her recovery. Both families have become close to each other, and years later we even shared a large flat in Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad). When I met again with Lumír ─ who became an architect ─ in the 1990's, he told me that he had recently visited my Mother's grave in Zbraslav.
Father marching in front of his regiment during a military parade.
Father was in several campaigns during the war. I don't know a great deal about the mission that took him to Northern Africa, I'm not even sure if he was at Tobruk, but it is possible. When in England, they were stationed in the Midlands, in the camp near a village Morton Morrell. Soon after my birth, it was decided that we would be safer if we too moved to the Midlands, where the German planes were nowhere near as active as they were in and around London. Mother with me as a tiny baby had moved several times, between Warwick, Leamington Spa and for a time we even stayed at Stratford Upon Avon, the supposed birthplace of William Shakespeare. But it was at Morton Morrell from where I have my first remembrance. Remarkably, it came to me only many years later, when I went to high school. I woke up from a vivid dream, in which I saw myself as a baby, being carried by my mother. Around us were green pastures with a lot of sheep grazing ─ I have never seen such a place anywhere, so it must have been England. I even remembered the colour of Mother's coat, rather unusual one, beige with some pink flavour, so that I could describe it to her, also the texture of the fabric. I was able to tell her enough and supply details, so that she was able to identify the place I was dreaming about. There was no question about my being correct, but we had lived there only about three months in 1944, and I could not have been older than about fifteen months. This makes it quite remarkable, but there is no other explanation, somehow I must have had a flash of remembrance of the time we lived at Morton Morrell!
With a group of Czech soldiers somewhere in Northern Africa
(left), Jan Kubiš (with the flag)
Father (left), Jan Kubiš (with the flag)
About a year or so later, Kubiš was to become the
key man in the resistance against the German occupation of their
country. Together with another man, also from Father’s regiment, Jozef
Gabčík, they had made the assassination attempt on the chief of the
German command Reinhard Heydrich in the occupied country. They were
selected from the pool of volunteers, and had undergone training in
Scotland lead by the British experts. With several others they had
parachuted to Czechoslovakia, and on the 27th of May 1942 they attacked
the car Reinhard Heydrich was travelling in. Kubiš was the man who
actually threw the grenade that did the damage, after Gabčík's riffle
had jammed. Heydrich was only wounded, but he died several days later.
The assassins had managed to flee, but were soon betrayed by one of
their helpers and eventually they were killed in their hiding place in
a church’s underground crypt in Prague, after a siege by the Germans.
There were heavy repercussions, and many Czechs were executed by the
Germans in an act of revenge, including the entire population of a
small town of Lidice ─ one of the most outrageous and horrific events
in the entire Second World War.
About a year or so later, Kubiš was to become the key man in the resistance against the German occupation of their country. Together with another man, also from Father’s regiment, Jozef Gabčík, they had made the assassination attempt on the chief of the German command Reinhard Heydrich in the occupied country. They were selected from the pool of volunteers, and had undergone training in Scotland lead by the British experts. With several others they had parachuted to Czechoslovakia, and on the 27th of May 1942 they attacked the car Reinhard Heydrich was travelling in. Kubiš was the man who actually threw the grenade that did the damage, after Gabčík's riffle had jammed. Heydrich was only wounded, but he died several days later. The assassins had managed to flee, but were soon betrayed by one of their helpers and eventually they were killed in their hiding place in a church’s underground crypt in Prague, after a siege by the Germans. There were heavy repercussions, and many Czechs were executed by the Germans in an act of revenge, including the entire population of a small town of Lidice ─ one of the most outrageous and horrific events in the entire Second World War.
Heydrich’s car after the attack.
The Night Parachute Drop to Yugoslavia
In 1944 Father went to a mission of which Mother knew very little. It was top secret. It's not even known how he came to be sent as the leader of a battalion of paratroopers to Yugoslavia. He may have volunteered or he could have been ordered to do it, who knows? There is the possibility, of course, that he might have had some other tasks to fulfil, connected with his probable cooperation, if not downright affiliation, with the British Secret Service. In any case, he did not talk about it at all before, and had said very little when he returned after several months. Obviously, it remained a secret, even after the mission was over. That something was going to happen, that Father was being sent onto some mission, Mother knew or rather guessed, and that it was going to be something dangerous she knew too, as he took longer to say his goodbye and did so more solemnly.
It turned out eventually that Father was being sent, together with a battalion of British paratroopers, as their Commander. The destination: Yugoslavia, the mission: linking up with the partisans and assisting them in their fight. The main reason for his being made the commander must have been the fact that he was fluent in the languages needed to be able to communicate with Tito himself and his Serbian and Croatian partisans. Tito’s partisans were the most successful ones of all resistance groups in causing problems to the Germans. Even in 1944, Josip Broz Tito was generally expected to lead the post-war regime in his country, and for this reason the British had decided to support him. The mission was an important one, so important in fact that Winston Churchill himself was overseeing it personally. That's about all that Mother knew about this, and that she could tell me. Many years later however, I was able to add some to it, having gained information from completely different sources.
Father had no previous experience with parachuting, so he had to undergo basic training. As it was a night-time drop that awaited them, it had to be a pretty tough one. After I realised that I might be able to squeeze some information under the Freedom of Information Act from the British sources, as Father's name was on the list of SOE (Special Operations Executive) Agents, I was hoping that some light might be thrown onto this dark episode. Nevertheless, all I was able to find concerned with the period of about 1940, when Father was still being tested by the Secret Service. I had little doubt that he was accepted and played some role during the war (otherwise, why would he be on that list?), and almost certainly even after the end of it, but whatever is there remains hidden, and it might need a super-human effort to find out. I felt I lacked the necessary strength to successfully accomplish such a monumental task. Perhaps even the motivation; after all, what good would it serve now if I was to learn about the details? But, as it often happens, some information, some circumstantial evidence, I might say, was to come from unexpected sources.
Quite amazingly, I had found out that my Father almost certainly knew one of my favourite English writers, Evelyn Waugh! I knew about Waugh since my early twenties, when I read the only book available in translation in Czechoslovakia, The Loved One. I had read more of his titles only after I learnt English. I doubt that Mother even knew that Waugh existed, how could she? During the war, unlike his older brother Alec, as a writer Evelyn was still quite unknown and his books were not translated into Czech until much later. So it is only circumstantial evidence that supports this theory of mine, however, it is a strong one; virtually watertight. That Waugh and my father must have known each other had dawned upon me when I had read, only several years ago, the detailed biography of this author. Consider this: They were both on the same mission to meet the Tito's partisans. They were both ranked as Captains before the mission. They both became Majors, and at the same time, presumably during or immediately after the mission. They both undertook training as paratroopers, early in 1944. In fact, Waugh broke his leg during training and had to take three months off, during which time he wrote the novel Brideshead Revisited, which is my favourite. Waugh returned to the service only shortly before commencement of the mission, when Winston Churchill also flew to the island of Vas, where the Allied Forces had their airbase and where the planes with the paratroopers had flown for the night drops. And, of course, they both met Churchill (who was very much taken in by Waugh, apparently) and they both met Tito. Father had mentioned his meeting with Tito, but only in passing, as it was probably still a classified area. Waugh wasn't particularly taken in by the communist Tito either. And finally: Churchill, Tito, and Waugh, they all would have needed my Father's skills as fluid speaker of English and Serbo-Croatian. Almost certainly, on the British side, he would have been the highest ranked officer who could be relied upon in this way.
To Father and to Mother I will return individually in the later chapters.