Czech veterans stuck in Jersey get a lift to the event in France

Gamma Aviation helped facilitate the transfer of a number of Czech Normandy veterans to the commemorations in France. Picture: JON GUEGAN. (38222426)

A ROYAL Navy crew temporarily stationed in Jersey were drafted in to give a last-minute lift to a group of stranded Czech veterans and military officials on their way to yesterday’s international D-Day commemorations in Normandy.

British and Czech citizen Jirí Pavel (Georg) Kafka, one of the last surviving Czechoslovak RAF veterans and “Winton children”, was among the group of eight travelling to Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer when their private aircraft had a technical failure and was unable to take off.

The veteran, who celebrated his 100th birthday in Prague last month, nearly missed out on attending the 3.30pm ceremony at Omaha Beach, where more than 25 heads of state gathered, including US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

But two Royal Navy Merlin helicopters complete with two four-person crews, who had been stationed at Gama Aviation after dropping personnel off in Caen for the commemorations, were able to give them a lift.

The Czech group had stopped off in Jersey to pick up veteran Charles Strasser, who has lived at Anne Port for 50 years.

In 2021, the now 97-year-old was made an honorary citizen of Kasejovice, a Czech town of 1,300 people, after serving as a dispatch rider with the Czech Independent Armoured Brigade, part of the British Army that liberated the country in 1945.

Gamma Aviation helped facilitate the transfer of a number of Czech Normandy veterans to the commemorations in France after their plane went tech at Jersey airport. The crew of visiting Navy helicopters were alerted to their predicament and, after a number of calls up the chain of command, agreed to transport them. Picture: JON GUEGAN. (38222428)

His convoy was the first Allied unit to enter Kasejovice after six years of German occupation.

Lieutenant-Commander Bob Powell explained how, in a remarkable turn of events, Jersey ended up playing a small but noteworthy part in the D-Day 80th anniversary commemorations.

He said: “We came here overnight because the north of France is so busy at the moment, and Jersey is a short trip away for helicopters, and why wouldn’t you come here?

“When asked if we could do it, morally, yes. We had to make some phone calls, because putting a 97-year-old and a 100-year-old in the back of an aircraft is not normally within our peacetime regulations.”

He explained that the tight security in French airspace meant a change of flight plans was difficult to negotiate.

“Slowly and surely, we’ve been making those phone calls, which all have happened over the last couple of hours. We’ve done all the maths with the timing, and it will work.

“It’s nice to be involved. It’s one of the few little perks of the job, when you’re not just watching it on the news, you’re a part of it.”

Sitting in the Gama Aviation departures terminal, Mr Kafka told the JEP that it was “excellent” to receive a lift from the Navy, saying: “I never expected anything so great as this.”

He said he was “excited” to be invited to the commemorations and, when asked his age by the JEP, he replied to some laughs: “Too old.”

Colonel Robert Speychal, who is specially appointed by the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Defence to look after war veterans, said the crews had agreed to fly them to Normandy for the ceremony and bring them back to the Island in the evening, where Mr Strasser would return home and the rest of the party could transit onward to Prague.

Mr Strasser said he was pleased the Royal Navy had come to his aid and were escorting them.

“They are treating me extremely well,” he said.

Corin Barker, FBO manager at Gama Aviation Jersey, facilitated the ride, saying: “We’ve been speaking to the passengers, and it would have been such a shame if they couldn’t go. I went over to tell them the bad news, turned around and saw the Royal Navy helicopters, and asked if they could give them a lift.

“We do get quite an influx of military aircraft as well as private aircraft, so it’s been lovely to meet these guys and facilitate their journey onward.”

Contacting the JEP after a successful landing, Lt-Cdr Powell said: “They were in good company, all the aircraft for the various heads of state were at the airport too.”

Jirí Pavel Kafka

Jirí Pavel Kafka was born to a Jewish family in Prague on 2 May 1924. At the age of 15, he was one of the 669 “kindertransport” children rescued from occupied Czechoslovakia by Sir Nicholas Winton and others on the eve of the Second World War and taken to safety in Britain.

When he turned 18 in 1942, he joined the army and then the RAF as an on-board radio operator and gunner.

In 1944, he joined the No. 311 Czechoslovak RAF Squadron, whose task was to patrol the Atlantic and deter or destroy enemy ships and submarines.

The squadron also took part in the landing of Allied troops in Normandy on D-Day.

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