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Commando fliers step in to ensure Czech veterans reach D-Day event

Published: 11 Jun 2024

Naval aviators stepped in to ensure two D-Day veterans attended events in Normandy when they were stranded in the Channel Islands.

Commando Merlins from 845 Naval Air Squadron flew Czech veterans Charles Strasser and Jirí Pavel Kafka when the pair and their entourage became stuck in Jersey.

The two WW2 survivors were due to attend the international commemorations at Omaha Beach. But the civilian aircraft which landed in Jersey carrying the party to pick up 97-year-old Mr Strasser, who settled in the Channel Islands after the war, suffered a minor technical issue and was stuck on the tarmac.

Enter the two Merlins (Navy 750 and 751) of Commando Helicopter Force, which were using Jersey as a ‘forward base’ while supporting 80th anniversary events just a few miles away.

The question the Czechs posed: “Could you take our VIPs to Caen for us to get them there in time for their commemoration event at Omaha Beach?” 

The message was passed on by one of the Merlin crew to Lieutenant Commander Bob Powell, aircraft commander of Navy 751, who said: “Our thinking was: Can we do it? Yes – and morally we must do!”

Normally, beyond some quickly-arranged UK and diplomatic clearances, the 80-mile flight from Jersey airport to Caen would be a relatively simple affair.

But with world leaders converging on Normandy, security was at its highest possible level and the airspace over the region was declared a restricted zone.

Thanks to the efforts of both crews, in particular Lieutenant Commander Edwin Adams and Lieutenant Charlie George especially,their higher staffs, and all those controlling the activity in France, the Merlins received permission for the special flight.

The flight itself was uneventful – until the helicopters arrived at Caen, where they found the normally-quiet provincial airport a buzz of activity: the German Chancellor’s aircraft was landing, while Air Force One, the Royal Flight and Ukrainian president’s jet were already on the ground.

Mr Strasser served as a dispatch rider with the Czech Independent Armoured Brigade which went on to liberate his homeland in 1945.

Fellow veteran Mr Kafka, aged 100, was one of 669 children rescued from occupied Czechoslovakia by Sir Nicholas Winton and others on the eve of World War 2.

As a Jew he would almost certainly have perished in the Holocaust had he not left Prague. He joined up aged 18 and become a radio operator/gunner with the RAF.

Assigned to 311 (Czech) Squadron, he flew in Liberator bombers providing cover against U-boats and German surface craft to protect the invasion fleet.

They and their travelling companions - two Czech Generals, a Colonel and five civilians – reached the event at Omaha in time before the Merlins returned back to their home base at RNAS Yeovilton. 

“It was an entire team effort by the eight aircrew involved as well as the support provided by our two higher headquarters to get permissions quickly in place,” Lt Cdr Powell added.”

 “It was an absolute honour to be able to support the veterans get to Normandy for the 80th anniversary of D-Day and to be a part of the international commemorations.”

“We owe their generation so much and it meant not only so much to us to be a part of it, but also to our friends and colleagues who have thanked us since then for doing it. As a Junglie, it was an incredibly rewarding, albeit unexpected, sortie to be involved in.”

For the record, the 845 good eggs were:

Navy 750: Lt Cdr Edwin (Ed) Adams RN, Lt Charles (Charlie) George RN, Sgt Jack Warwick RM, POACMN James (Edders) Edworthy RN.

Navy 751: Lt Cdr Robert (Bob) Powell RN, Lt Josh (Galli) Gallimore RN, CPOACMN Simon (Crash) Evans, LACMN Jamie Keirle RN.

Pictures courtesy of Jon Guegan/Jersey Evening Post



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