Lions on the wing

When future extraterrestrials wonder which living beings went extinct together with mankind in the 21st century, they will come to the surprising conclusion that several mammals had winged variants, and, although their fossil remains have not survived, representations of them will be easy to find. Altogether, man, cattle and lions have each had winged subspecies, it will be concluded. But the most peculiar mutation had to have been the winged lion with the double tail, either as a result of one of the nuclear accidents that had preceded the destruction of humanity, or as a development along with the wings for aerodynamic balance. In the absence of a fossil skeleton, evidence of this two-tailed winged lion will only exist in the form of a statue on the former Klárov Square of the former Prague, on the bank of the Vltava, next to the Lesser Side bridgehead of the Mánes Bridge.

The statue, erected through the fundraising efforts of the British community in Czechia, commemorates the winged Czech lions who, in the 1940s, protected the ground-going British lions against the attacks of the German eagles.

The air force of the Czechoslovak Republic was established in 1918 and ceased to exist exactly twenty years later, when the invading German army disbanded them and confiscated their planes. The Luftwaffe offered to take the Czech pilots, too, but the vast majority of them preferred to emigrate. Many joined the Polish Air Force, and they fought on their side in September 1939, but then fled the country with the rest of the Polish army, and continued to fight the Germans in the skies above other lands. The statue, erected as a gift from the British community in Czechia, commemorates the 2,500 Czech pilots who defended Britain during the “Battle of England” i.e. the ongoing German air strikes of 1940 and 1941.

Looking at the statue, I recall an earlier encounter with such a lion. It was in northern Scotland, on the banks of Cromarty Firth, in the cemetery of the now-perished village of Kiltearn (in local Gaelic, Cill Tighearna). Lloyd and I turned off the main road onto a dirt road leading to the cemetery right on the beach for the ruins of the medieval church and the tombs of the medieval Scottish lairds. We were very surprised to see, among the tombs of the lairds and burghers, a small plot of military graves from the 1940s, of three Canadians, twelve Poles and one Czech pilot.

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The Czech sergeant, Jaroslav Kalášek was of the same age as the Czechoslovak Air Force: he was born in 1918 and died in 1944. According to the Czech war graves register, he fled to England in 1939, through Hungary and France, that is, together with the Polish army, which, after the coordinated German-Soviet invasion of Poland, was given a free escape route by Hungary, despite the displeasure of the German ally. He served in the coast guard unit of the British Air Force, which defended the industrial centers of Scotland against German airstrikes, thus making that coast a bit of a Czech sea. Their resistance is remembered, in addition to the war graves, by the artificial island in front of the middle pillar of the World Heritage Forth Bridge, with the remains of an air defense battery protecting Scotland’s east coastline.

Those of the Czech winged lions who survived the war were awaited by the damnatio memoriae at home. During the decades of Cold War, it was forbidden to talk about the service of Czech pilots in the British Army. Nevertheless, the regime remembered precisely who took part in this officially non-existent service: they were persecuted, imprisoned as enemies of the system, forced into menial jobs, and denied pensions. They were rehabilitated only after the Velvet Revolution, by a decree of Václav Havel on 29 December 1989, which restored their rank, pension and place in the historical memory of the country.

The erection of the winged two-tailed lion in 2014 also belongs among the gestures of restoring historical memory. However, it does not please everyone. A 2014 issue of Český rozhlas published, under the title “Circus in Klárov”, a legitimate criticism on the various postmodern sculptures spotted in this amorphous square of the Lesser Side, including “the extremely poorly modeled lion by the British sculptor Colin Spofforth, who makes kitschy sculptures exclusively for shopping mails, and whose work was never allowed out in public spaces”.

But Praga has even endured worse statues. This one will also remain as an imprint of our age, or at most a metronome will be put in its place.

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