Leamington Spa, Heydrich, and the tragedy at Lidice

CLOSE TO WARWICK, there is a town that reminded me both of Brighton on the south coast of England and Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad) in the Czech Republic. The grandiose architecture, mostly neo-classical, of Leamington Spa reminds me of some parts of Brighton and the area around the town’s spa buildings, both new and old, brought faint recollections of visits I made long ago to the Czech spa town to my mind. What I did not know when we visited Leamington Spa was that it does have a not too distant historical relationship with what was once known as ‘Czechoslovakia’.

Czechoslovak memorial in Leamington Spa

SS General Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942) was one of the main ‘architects’ of the Holocaust and in 1942 he was the acting Governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the area now known as the Czech Republic. In January 1942, he was Chairman of the Wannsee Conference at which the terrible fate of the Jewish people was decided. On the 27th of May 1942, Heydrich was shot at while driving through Prague. During this attack, a hand grenade, thrown into his open top vehicle, exploded. Heydrich was rushed to hospital but died of his wounds or sepsis resulting from them early in the morning of the 4th of June. His senior, the Chancellor of Germany, the dictator Adolf Hitler, was furious.

The assassination attack was carried out by Czechoslovak men who had been trained in England and then parachuted into Czechoslovakia. The men were volunteers, who were members of the Free Czechoslovak Forces stationed in the Warwickshire town of Royal Leamington Spa, where there was a training camp for them. It had been there since 1940. Seven of the Czechoslovak men flew from England in December 1941 and parachuted at various paces over their native land. Two of them, Jozef Gabčík (1912-1942) and Jan Kubiš (1913-1942), carried out the attack in Prague that led to the ending of Heydrich’s life. These two men and the others dropped over Czechoslovakia sacrificed their lives in the struggle to free their country from Nazi tyranny.

In November 2021, we paid a brief visit to Leamington Spa. Amongst its attractions is the pleasant Jephson Gardens, which are close to the spa establishments after which the town gets its name. The Park is named after the physician and philanthropist Henry Jephson (1798-1878), who promoted the superior healing powers of the town’s spring water. An attractive circular neo-classical temple containing a statue of Jephson was erected in his honour in 1849. This stands atop a small mound. Close to it there is another monument, also circular.

The other monument was unveiled in 1968, 50 years after the formation of Czechoslovakia out of the ruins of the failed Austro-Hungarian Empire. The memorial is in the form of a circular fountain. A bowl is supported by a single pillar on which the heraldic emblem of Czechoslovakia can be seen in bas-relief. Something, which at first sight resembles a large mushroom, sprouts upwards from the centre of the bowl. Closer examination of this reveals that it is a sculpture depicting a cluster of open parachutes. On each parachute, there is a name of one of the group of volunteers who parachuted into Czechoslovakia. The monument was designed by John French.

According to a noticeboard close to the Czechoslovak volunteers’ memorial, this small fountain also remembers the thousands of Czechoslovak citizens, who were murdered by the Nazis in reprisal for Heydrich’s death. After numerous arrests were made, two Czech villages suspected of having been involved in the assassination plot, Lidice and Ležáky were literally wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis. Their innocent inhabitants were mostly killed, but some were sent to concentration camps. These poor people are remembered in Jephson Park, which is such a lovely place that one would not think that it could possibly be even remotely associated with the human tragedies that followed the death of a monstrous member of the Nazi party.

In memoriam: do not pull it down

TEARING DOWN STATUES or defacing them is nothing new, as some might believe after hearing about dunking Edward Colston’s toppled statue into a river in Bristol.

Violette Szabo

When I visited Albania in 1984, I saw statues of Josef Stalin and the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha prominently placed in public spaces. Neither of these two gentlemen can be seriously considered to be God’s best gifts to humanity. Many of their actions caused great fear and suffering in both the former USSR and in Albania.

In 1991, Albania’s long (1944-1991) Communist regime crumbled ignominiously. In February 1991, citizens of Albania’s capital, Tirana, attached cables to a huge statue of Enver Hoxha, an admirer of Stalin, and pulled it down. Many of the police guarding the huge monument to repression assisted the people to cause this bronze statue to topple to the ground.

Years later, in 2016, we visited Albania. In the centre of Tirana, there is a national museum of art, which was present when I visited the city in 1984. Back then, and even in 2016, there was a good collection of fine works created in the Social Realism style, so popular amongst Communist regimes. After seeing the gallery in 2016, we happened to bump into one of the museum’s curators. I showed him a picture of a sculpture I had taken in 1984 and asked him if he recognised it. Without answering, he invited us to follow him to a yard at the rear of the gallery.

There, in the yard, stood the sculpture I had photographed in 1984. More interestingly, it was not alone. It stood next to a giant statue of Lenin and another one of Stalin and another large object wrapped in cloth tied down with ropes. The curator explained that these statues, although they depicted people whose ideas and actions had done much harm to the Albanian people, were valuable works of art, not simply because of their great scrap metal value but, more importantly, they helped record the country’s history. In addition, he explained that they were fine examples of their genre. The bundled-up object standing in that yard was, he explained, too sensitive to uncover as it would upset many people viewing it. It was part of an enormous statue of Enver Hoxha, who had not yet been forgiven by many Albanians. Clearly, Lenin and Stalin were thought to be less disturbing as they were not covered up, but sufficiently upsetting to be confined to a relatively unvisited yard behind the gallery open to the public.

Both Trafalgar and Parliament Squares in London contain statues that might cause offense to those whose knowledge of history is more than superficial, yet their actions have not always been 100% reprehensible. Fortunately for these monuments, many of the kind of people who might be inclined to topple statues do not usually read much detailed history.

There are some statues or monuments, which remember people, whose actions cannot rationally be called into question. One of these is that of Edward Jenner (1749-1823), whose work formed the foundation of something on which we are currently becoming extremely dependent: vaccination. Only someone out of his or her mind would consider pulling down or defacing his statue.

Recently, when strolling along an embankment, I spotted a monument close to the River Thames outside Lambeth Palace. Erected in 2009, it commemorates the Special Operations Executive (‘SOE’), whose covert activities in no little way helped to bring about the defeat of Nazi Germany’s forces during WW2. The plinth with metal commemorative plaques is topped with the head of a woman with high cheekbones, a serious, determined face, and luxuriant curly hair, tied back. She stares out across the River Thames toward the Houses of Parliament. The bust depicts Violette Reine Elizabeth Szabo (1921-1945), whose actions behind enemy lines in France were designed to sabotage German military activity. She was one of many women including Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944), of Indian aristocratic heritage, who risked and lost their lives to assist in the defeat of a repressive regime.

SOE was staffed by both men and women of many nationalities, and their bravery is recorded on this simple memorial outside Lambeth Palace.  Although simple in design, the expression depicted in the face of Violette Szabo gave me a feeling of the great determination of those brave souls who gave up their lives in horrific circumstances. They did so in the hope, fulfilled, that we could enjoy life in Britain and elsewhere without having to bear the burden of inhumane dictatorial rule.  

Unlike Stalin and Hoxha, statues of the purely benevolent such as Jenner and Szabo should be allowed to stand undisturbed for ever, well, at least, so long as they can survive London’s ever-changing weather conditions and pollution.

She died for the Empire

I HAVE MISLAID my copy of “Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan” by Jean Overton Fuller (1915 -2009), first published in 1952. Jean was born in England, the only child of an officer in the British Indian Army. She was a friend of the Inayat Khan family, one of whom was Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan (1914-1944). At the end of WW2, Jean travelled around Europe interviewing people who had been connected with Noor’s activities during WW2.

 

Noor 4

A few days ago, during a pleasant walk in London’s West End, we stopped near Hyde Park Corner to look at the memorial to those citizens of the Indian subcontinent who had fought for the British Empire during the two World Wars. Part of the memorial is a small pavilion that looks Indian in design. The ceiling of this structure is inscribed with the names of those who were awarded the prestigious George Cross and Victoria Cross awards during the two Wars. We looked up at the names, not expecting to see any that we would recognise, but were both surprised and pleased to see that one of the names is ‘Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan’, who was awarded the George Cross, posthumously. Noor and her family were not people we knew, but her story was familiar to us.

Noor was born on the first day of 1914 in Moscow, where her father had arrived (from Baroda, now in Gujarat) in 1913 to promote Sufism in the ‘West’. Her father’s family were Muslim nobility, her father’s mother was a descendant of the great Tipu Sultan, who died in 1799, fighting the British. Her mother was an American of European origin.  Shortly after Noor’s birth, her family shifted to London, where Noor attended a nursery in Notting Hill. By 1920, the family had moved to Paris. At the outbreak of WW2, the family fled to England, landing at Falmouth in Cornwall.

During WW2, after joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (‘WAAF’), she soon became a member of Special Operations Executive (‘SOE’), where she underwent tough training. Already a trained wireless operator, she had an advantage over other women who were to be ‘courier’s, who worked behind the enemy lines helping to support those resisting the Nazis. Her fluency in French was another advantage that Noor had over many of the other couriers. Also, her appearance was such that it could easily have been considered European.

Noor was flown from Britain to Europe on the night of 16th /17th June 1943 and landed in northern France. Her courageous exploits have been well-described in a detailed book by Shrabani Basu, “Spy Princess”, published in 2006. Sadly, her presence in France was betrayed (by one of two Frenchmen), and she was first arrested by the Gestapo on about the 13th of October 1943. After intense interrogation, during which she revealed nothing of use to the Germans and nothing that compromised her comrades,  she was shot at dawn in the Dachau concentration camp near Munich in September 1944. In addition to being awarded the George Cross, Noor was also a posthumous recipient of the French Croix-de-Guerre. A commemorative blue plaque on her last home in London, 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury, was the first to be put up in honour of a woman of Indian origin.

Michael Richard Daniell (‘MRD’) Foot (1919-2012, the historian and former member of SOE, wrote in his introduction to Basu’s book:

“Holders of the George Cross are out of the common run; Noor Inayat Khan was even farther out of it than most.”

The memorial near Wellington’s triumphal arch at Hyde Park Corner was inaugurated in 2002. In addition to recording Noor’s name, there are over seventy other names of those awarded either the VC or the GC. Many of them have Indian sounding names, such as Noor’s, but a few have names that sound English, such as FC Booth and ECT Wilson. The Indian names suggest a fair mix of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh recipients of these medals. Of the Indian recipients, or those who have Indian sounding names, of the two honours, the VC and the GC, awarded during WW2, the only one who was involved in behind-the-lines espionage and resistance activities was the young Noor Inayat Khan.

Noor was in favour of Britain giving India her freedom, ending its status as a colony within the British Empire. However, unlike some of the fighters for Indian independence like Subhas Chandra Bose, who favoured an alliance with the enemies of Britain during WW2, she was, to quote Basu:

“… convinced that Indian leaders should not press for independence when Britain had its hands full of fighting the war. She felt that if the Indians backed Britain and won gallantry medals it would create a sense of confidence in them, and the British would readily grant independence to India after the war…”

After WW1, there were 22 Indian recipients of VC and GC, but Britain did not relieve its domination of India. Instead, it began to tighten its grip. Noor and the other awardees of the high honours for bravery as recorded in the monument near Hyde Park Corner demonstrated the gallantry of people from the Indian sub-continent, but I am sure that this was not part of the reason that Britain released its long hold on its prize colonial possession in 1947.

I am sorry that I cannot find my copy of Overton Fuller’s biography of Noor. It is the source of some of the information in Basu’s book, which contains much material that Overton Fuller did not have access to when she wrote her book. When I find it eventually, it will be interesting to compare what the earlier author wrote about Noor with what Basu wrote 54 years later.