War veterans, diplomats and members of the public gathered in the French port of Dunkerque and the Belgian town of De Panne over the weekend to pay homage to the soldiers who lost their lives in the heroic siege of Dunkerque and the liberation of the French-Belgian border areas. Among the heroes of Dunkerque are members of the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade which, although heavily outnumbered, fought to contain German units within the fortress up until their surrender in May, 1945.
The 1st Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade under the command of Major General Alois Liška was a unit of Czechoslovak expats organised and equipped by the United Kingdom. The motorised infantry battalion of the brigade traced its lineage back to Czechoslovak units that fought in Libya and Lebanon, notably the 11th Infantry Battalion which took part in the defence of Tobruk. The brigade, formed in 1943, trained in the UK until the summer of 1944 when, with some 4,000 troops under Liška’s command, it moved to Normandy and advanced to the besieged German-held “fortress” of Dunkerque. It was given the task of keeping the approximately 12, 000 German troops in the port. Major General Liška was named head of the Dunkerque forces and for seven months the Czechoslovak brigade, together with British, Canadian and French units fought valiantly to fulfil this mission, alternately attacking and being attacked by the German garrison, until Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 9, 1945.
A plaque unveiled at a commemorative ceremony near Dunkerque on Sunday recalls the brigade’s heroic struggle in which 200 Czechoslovak soldiers lost their lives. Among those present at the ceremony were surviving war veterans from the Dunkerque siege, Czech Ambassador to France Petr Drulák and Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Armed Forces Josef Bečvář.
The municipality of De Panne with the village of Adinkerke in the westernmost part of Belgium also paid homage to Czechoslovak troops who lost their lives in the liberation effort in the last days of the war. Forty of them are buried at the local cemetery.
The town’s deputy mayor Christophe Delrive says the annual procession and commemorative ceremony have a special significance.
“It is a long tradition that we keep here in De Panne. It is more than 70 years since De Panne was liberated by Czechoslovak troops from the Germans and we think it is very important to let young people know that so many of them lost their lives here and are buried in the town of De Panne and Adinkerke.”
Jaroslav Kurfurst, the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Belgium, thanked the town’s representatives for keeping the lessons of history alive.
“The graves of our fallen soldiers are the memorials of heroes, but also the strongest imperative and warning addressed to us and the generations to come: freedom must be defended against any dictatorship, be it Nazism or Communism, against any effort to redraw the maps by force or undermine democracy. Today Czechia and Slovakia, together with Belgium and other democracies, are proud members of a strong defence community, NATO, and proud members of the European Union. Both organizations were born to prevent a repetition of the horrors of WWII and we need to stand united behind our common, peaceful, democratic values. As poppies blossom in the fields of Flanders, let us think about our fallen soldiers and their ultimate sacrifice. And let us remember the simple, but vitally important truth : it is always easier to loose one’s freedom than to win it back.”
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