Ambassador Nick Archer on the British servicemen who helped the Prague Uprising, security issues and the ties that bind us
This week the British Embassy unveiled a plaque in memory of two British servicemen who took part in the Prague Uprising in 1945 and who saved many lives by their incredibly brave action. On the occasion of VE day the British ambassador to Prague, Nick Archer, granted Czech Radio an interview about the incredible feat of the two British servicemen, the ties that bind us and the security challenges of the present day. Jakub Lucký first asked him to tell the story of how Sargent Thomas Vokes and Private William Grieg devised a ploy that brought about the surrender of a German unit which posed a grave danger to the resistance fighters at the Czechoslovak Radio building.
“It was an extraordinary story. These two escaped prisoners of war met a handful of Czechs as they were heading south out of Germany and ended up in Prague at that critical moment. When it looked as if there would be a deadly assault on the building, they spoke to the resistance leaders and secured their permission to effectively try and bluff the Germans. And they did so by alleging that they were the advanced guard of a much bigger force and by very strongly advising the German commander that he shouldn’t carry on with the assault on the building. Because if he did, allied troops would be arriving imminently, and his side would suffer in the battle that would definitely follow. And, miraculously, for whatever reason, maybe German morale was quite low at that stage, the commander believed the story and ordered his men to stop firing. And that was the small but critical part they played. What fascinated us when we discovered the story by chance, was that it had largely been forgotten.”
And do we know anything about the soldiers? Because in the sources that I looked at there was very little about them, only their names and ranks – one was a private and the other a sergeant, I believe. Do we know something more about them? Because they obviously had a big impact and were then suddenly forgotten.
“Well, as they say in English, ‘Victory has many fathers’. I suspect that they moved on. Their principal concern was to get back to their home country. And I imagine there were plenty of people who also played genuinely heroic roles in the liberation of Prague whose stories were then very naturally heard. So it doesn’t surprise me in a way that they went back to obscurity. The answer to your question is that we know of one family and one soldier who had an ‘afterlife’. The others seem to have completely disappeared from the record. As you know, we have made contact with the family of the soldier whom we do know about. So we’ve been able to find out a little more from the family.”
I know that they received commendations here in the Czech Republic. Was there something similar on the side of the British Army?
“No, because I don’t think that anyone in the British Army knew it had happened.”
So the whole story suddenly erupted when the revelation was made here?
“Yes, I mean what we do at the embassy is we spend our lives trying to find interesting connections between our two countries. Diplomats talk a lot about bilateral relations, which doesn’t mean anything for most people. But it comes alive when you can tell stories. And a colleague of mine at the embassy was thinking about whether there was any British angle on the 5th of May anniversary. And she did her research, she came out with this story, which we have of course since validated with Czech historians. Because it’s a lovely story for us, but we do want it to be true. And yes, it turns out that it’s absolutely true, and there are records that testify to that.”
Do we have any idea how many British soldiers there were, for example, in Prague? Because I assume that those weren’t the only two British soldiers in Prague on that day. Are there any more stories coming up?
“No, sadly we haven’t yet uncovered a new story. Because I think the answer is that there were very few British soldiers here. The two who were involved in the uprising were prisoners of war who had escaped from a prison camp in southern Germany and were looking for the easiest way home I think. There were certainly other prisoners of war, individuals that you would find in these circumstances in different places in this country. We were not part of the liberation of Czechoslovakia, so there were no organized formations, and I suspect that it was really a small number. One day, I hope that we will find out that they did something spectacular in Pardubice or Brno. But we haven’t yet.”
I would like to put this into a broader context, because one of the biggest issues of the Prague Uprising was the lack of guns and ammunition before weapons could be secured from German soldiers. Part of the reason for the lack of guns and munitions was that there was no airdrop from the Allies. From what I’ve been able to gather from historical sources, there was actually an airdrop planned and a loaded plane was ready. In the end, the drop was cancelled. This was probably caused by pressure from the Soviet Union, which tried to stop it in order to cement Prague as part of its own sphere of influence. What I want to transition to is whether today is in a sense similar in that Russia is trying to expand its sphere of influence here, not through guns but with vaccines and nuclear technology. Is there some similarity there, especially in light of recent events? “What a fascinating comparison. It was certainly the case that in 1945 the Allies had to accept all kinds of uncomfortable trade-offs. In many cases, we didn’t see clearly what the medium to long-term historical consequences of those trade-offs would be. That was, as you suggest, perhaps most of all true in relation to those which actually determined the route of the Iron Curtain a few years later. All greatly to be regretted. But all were, I suppose, the consequences of strategic decisions that mattered hugely to the war leaders at the time. Because, of course, all the decisions were being made while the war was still being fought. Today I hadn’t seen - and I will reflect on it- the parallel. "What’s fascinating, even in this age, when we talk about cyber threats and digital battlefields, if you like, geography is still so important. And the legacy of that old division of Europe is, obviously, still important. And one bumps up against it in unexpected places. We’ve seen this extraordinary story of death and destruction caused by Russian agents, who subsequently went to our country and caused death. What that says to me is that still, in a different way, Britain and the Czech Republic are allies. It says to me that we face some common threats, and we can address those threats more effectively by building up that alliance, recognizing our common interests, managing divergences of opinion or position when they emerge. But falling back always on that commonality, which is that we are democracies, we treat our citizens with respect, we accord them their full human rights. None of these things can be taken for granted in a world where very powerful countries are autocracies.”
You’ve actually touched on my next question there. Have recent events, the revelation that GRU agents caused an explosion in Vrbětice, brought the Czech Republic and the UK a bit closer together? Common enemies helping us make friends, so to say?
“Well, I won’t speak for the Czech side, how could I. I think that, regrettably, there is nothing like a challenge of this kind to remind you that, at the most basic level, you have to stick together. And we’ve been very clear that we are sticking with and sticking up for the Czech Republic. There’s going to be an interesting period as we get closer to the end of May and the downsizing of the Russian embassy here in Prague. There is going to be a very challenging process for all of us that have been identified as unfriendly on that Russian list in relation to how we sustain and keep going our embassies in Moscow. I feel pretty close to this country right now as we wrestle with the same threats together.”
What kind of further cooperation and support can we expect? There was a much appreciated word of support from the UK through NATO and the British Foreign Ministry. Especially as we are investigating the same people, is there any cooperation going on behind the scenes?
“I think that what you can expect is that the effective cooperation that we both need will largely not be talked about. It doesn’t make it better to talk in public about how you can best do this. So I worry a bit that some people in this country will think that they are not doing anything. But the assurance I would offer is that facing the particular two challenges I have mentioned, and others which will no doubt pop up, we have the capacity, experience, and expertise. For example, in responding to the Skripal challenge, we have learned lessons on how to mobilize the international community in our support and how to deal with overly large embassies. And all that expertise is, of course, absolutely at the disposal of this Czech government. And I think that that discussion will continue because these next few weeks will be very challenging. We are both in new territory.”
To put bluntly what you have said, is it safe to assume that there is some cooperation going on between the two countries’ secret services? Not going into details.
“We just don’t talk about secret service matters. What I will say is that I am talking to your ministry of foreign affairs.”
There were a lot of expulsions of diplomats from the Baltic countries and Slovakia, but a lack of that type of action from Western countries. Should we expect expulsions of Russian diplomats from Britain?
“Again, I’m not sure if I should talk about what we are planning. We are looking at everything we can possibly do to support the Czech Republic. I would say that Britain is in an unusual position after Skripal, when you’ll remember that we expelled quite a lot of people. But I am also confident that the Czech government recognizes that you don’t show that you are the best friend by expelling the most agents. I know they understand it’s a bit more complicated than that.”
Is this British response influenced by the fact that we have this polarity in Czech politics? We have some politicians here who are lessening this strong Czech response with their words. We have a president who says that there are two different investigation scenarios, and the same was repeated by our minister of justice. The prime minister called the explosion an “attack on goods”. Does this influence the response we as the Czech Republic are getting from our allies?
“What I would say, including to the government that I am helping advise – that is the government of the UK – is judge people by their actions. After Skripal, there was a very strong Czech response. There have been moments since Skripal, in relation to extradition, I think it was a couple of years ago, where the Czech government has shown absolute solidarity with the West. And to expel 18 intelligence officers ten days ago was a brave thing to do. That matters more than how people may want to describe it. Internal politics are not my business. Looking at what is actually done is very much my business. And I have been impressed.”
The interesting thing is that on the same day, there were two different statements. One calling for solidarity from our allies, and the other one saying that maybe nothing all that much happened. That’s where I see a strong dissonance. As you mentioned, 18 diplomats were expelled. Great Britain has a lot of experience with sudden changes in its relationship with Russia. After the Skripal poisoning, I believe there were 23 diplomats expelled.
“Sorry, not diplomats, this is actually very important, we expelled intelligence officers. We don’t expel diplomats actually. We don’t do it.”
Right, so 23 intelligence officers were expelled. As with us, that caused a big change in the relationship with Russia. The embassies started to look very different, and the tone of diplomatic communication also changed quickly. Is there anything that we can learn from the UK experience there, after three years?
“I think the critical point, and I know that this is a perception we share, is diplomatic relations don’t exist for themselves. They exist because countries have interests. Countries are a bit like people. Except I would say countries are sometimes more selfish than people. So we have interests, and diplomats, people like myself, are there to pursue those interests to benefit our country. So the whole business of how big an embassy is should really be about what our interests in this country are, how are we going to pursue them, and how many people we need to do that. We have some particular interests with Russia that the Czech Republic does not have. Principally as a permanent member of the Security Council, which obliges us to take a global view and consult about what happens in New York on problems in every area of the world. So it is in our interest, in both partners’ interest, and, indeed, in the world’s interest that we sustain a dialogue. And that can be done whilst in other areas there may be problems. "The other thing that I would say very strongly, and I think this applies to both our countries, is that neither country has a problem with the Russian people. We try to pursue cultural exchanges, people-to-people contacts, and we talk about all kinds of non-political issues in which we can learn from each other. But then there are sometimes these small but important areas of sharp divergence. We have identified Russia as a threat to the UK in our so-called integrated review of our global security interests. What I am describing therefore is a nuanced view. It is about where our interests lie, where the threats are, and our relationship will be run accordingly. And I am sure that the Czech government is thinking that through as well.”
What I am thinking is whether this kind of approach is really possible with a country like Russia, which is essentially hampering some areas, like commerce, based on other political issues. I am interested in how this has impacted Britain in the last three years.
“You know, I have never worried about a lack of export markets for Czech products. I don’t worry much about our own either. If you have a good product, you will sell it somewhere. We have all experienced periods when, for a whole range of reasons, markets have closed and others have opened up. There is a short-term impact, and there is an impact on certain companies. Governments can play a role in mitigating that impact. But, I hope this doesn’t sound complacent, I have never seen the Czech export challenge as being an absence of markets for so many great products.”