In December 1942, an esteemed group of Czechoslovakian statesmen and military leaders visited Northern Ireland. The group consisted of M. Jan Masaryk (Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of Czechoslovakia), General Sergej Ingr (Minister of National Defence in Czechoslovakia and Commander in Chief of Czech Forces), Air Vice-Marshal Karel Janousek (General Officer Commanding Czechoslovakian Air Force), Lieutenant Colonel Vaclav Vlcek (Czech Ministry of National Defence), and Captain Frantisek Snabl.
Masaryk, in particular, was seen as a high-profile guest, the son of Thomas Masaryk, the great liberator of Czechoslovakia. This visit marked his first official engagement in Ulster, although he was a regular visitor and a good friend of the Duke of Abercorn.
The visitors landed in Ulster on 9th December 1942. Commander Oscar Henderson representing the Governor of Northern Ireland, and Mr. R. Grandsen (Secretary to the Cabinet) representing the Prime Minister greeted them on arrival. During his time in Northern Ireland, Masaryk hoped to raise awareness of the Czech people by meeting with and speaking to schoolchildren, students, factory workers, and members of council and parliament.
Masaryk and Ingr stayed as guests of the Duke and Duchess of Abercorn at Government House, Hillsborough, Co. Down during their visit. Janousek spent his time at the residence of Air Vice-Marshal A.T. Cole C.B.E., D.S.O.
On his first night in Northern Ireland, Masaryk spoke openly with members of the press gathered at the Grand Central Hotel, Belfast:
I do not acknowledge Munich. Munich was decided without us and against us. I came to you as a representative of Czechoslovakia as she was before Munich. I am not at all opposed to territorial changes, which would lead to better, quieter, and more cost relations between people in Europe.
The end of this war must come in an absolute military victory on German territory. The German must have the experience of finding that having war at home is very unpleasant. He must be taught “Fritz, this does not pay”. Disinfection of Germany must start with absolute disarmament – not one airplane, military or civil; no arms production whatever. Instruments of war should be internationally controlled as poison is controlled at the chemists.
On 10th December, a grand exhibition of Czechoslovakian Art opened at the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery in Stranmillis, Belfast. The exhibition showcased a fine array of art and highlighted links between Britain and the area of Czechoslovakia dating back to the 14th century. It included ancient books, maps, works of art, and illustrations including works by Coubine, Kope, Ruroasovam as well as modern pieces and photographs of Czechs in the Royal Air Force. Among the modern pieces were illustrations by Szobel showing the horrors of Nazi occupation including torture chambers and concentration camps.
Earlier in the day, Masaryk met with Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister Mr. J.M. Andrews at Stormont Castle. They attended a lunch in the Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, presided over by Sir Eugene Ramsden (Vice Chairman of the British Council). Masaryk also addressed a group of students at Royal Belfast Academical Institution where Sir Eugene Ramsden M.P. and Mr. J.H. Grummitt (Headmaster) joined him on the platform.
On 11th December 1942, Masaryk, himself a former metal worker, met with factory workers engaged in the war effort. Thousands of workers welcomed the distinguished guest as he joined them in the canteen for lunch. Speaking to them as a former metal worker, who learned the trade of iron moulding in America, he said:
There is only one message I have for you. All of us must work all out. If we do, we will win the war sooner. If we don’t, it will last longer. We must have a peace which will ensure that workmen will have a decent way of life and that we shall have social legislation such as to give every man an equal chance. I beg you to work fast and work incessantly. Whatever sacrificed we make now is infinitely worthwhile.
I am proud to have visited these great works, and I shall leave Northern Ireland with a feeling of gratitude for the work you are doing and are going to do to the last towards winning the war. The people in overalls in my country are relying on you to produce the weapons that will deliver them from bondage.
Later in the day, Queen’s University, Belfast awarded Masaryk with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree presented by Professor Macbeath (Acting Dean of the Faculty of Law). Also present were many prominent members of the Allied Forces and the Belfast Corporation. Speaking after receiving his honorary degree, Masaryk stated:
Either we shall forge forward towards a world fit for educated human beings to live in or we shall crawl into the dark caves of a mechanical Stone Age, where a few brutal dictators would rule over the few equally oppressed but select ones, whilst the rest of us would become dejected slaves and beasts of burden.
On the morning of 12th December 1942, Masaryk, Ingr, and Janousek met with General Officer Commanding Lieutenant-General H.E. Franklyn at the Headquarters of British Troops in Northern Ireland. Later that day, they visited the Headquarters of the U.S.A. Forces in Northern Ireland where General Officer Commanding Brigadier General LeRoy P. Collins received the visitors before General Ingr inspected a guard of honour. Collins presented his staff before Masaryk gave a short address referring to his American mother:
I was in the United States when you came into this war. I knew that you were coming in. I have been in America lately and I was astounded by the pep with which you people had got hold of things. Being half American, I feel confident that when war is over, the United States will play a worthy role and will play it with all her material and spiritual resources. I have known your President for many years. He is one of the greatest men who have occupied the White House.
Ingr also addressed the assembled Americans:
In this new World War for civilisation and against barbarism, we are fighting shoulder to shoulder. We won the first war, and we are going to win the second.
Following the official addresses, Masaryk and Ingr inspected an American artillery unit, while Janousek paid a visit to a United States Army Air Force unit. Following the military inspections, the Czech visitors joined Brigadier General Collins for dinner in the Grand Central Hotel, Belfast.
That evening, Masaryk launched “The Friends of Czechoslovakia in Northern Ireland” group in the Carlton Hall, Belfast. Its President would be Mr. D. Lindsay Keir, Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast. Mr. Z.D. Sochor of 4 Cleaver Gardens, Belfast fulfilled the role of Secretary. The aim of the organisation:
The cultivation of understanding and friendship between our two peoples.
Masaryk gave short speeches both in English and Czech, referring to the plight of those in Czechoslovakia and expressing appreciation of the warm welcome given by the people of Ulster to Czech natives. Around 250 people attended the meeting and Managing Director of the Carlton Hall, Mrs. Helen McComb and her team provided a buffet tea.
On 13th December 1942, the day began with Masaryk attending a coffee party hosted by the Belfast P.E.N. Centre at the Union Hotel. He spoke informally about great Czech writers and his hope that such creative people would help shape post-war Europe. Chairman Sir Orme Rowan-Hamilton and Mr. Richard Hayward welcomed the Czech Deputy Prime Minister.
That afternoon, Deputy Prime Minister Masaryk attended a ceremony at The Cenotaph at Belfast City Hall. Also present was General Ingr, a veteran of The Great War. Ingr carried out an inspection of British troops before laying a wreath on behalf of the Czechoslovakian Army and Air Force. It bore the inscription:
In memory of the glorious dead from the Czechoslovakian Army and Air Force.
Also in attendance at The Cenotaph were Alderman D. Lyle Hall (Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast), Alderman T. Henderson M.P. (High Sheriff of Belfast), Mr. J.F. McKinstry (Acting Town Clerk), members of the Belfast City Council, and British and American troops. The short ceremony ended with a Czechoslovakian Army Band playing both the Czech and British national anthems.
In the evening, the Czech guests visited Overseas House, Belfast, There, Mr. J. Milne Barbour (President of the Ulster Branch of the Overseas League) received the guests. Masaryk spoke of the great work done by the Overseas League. He also noted that he had eaten turkey twice since arriving in Ulster and hoped to be having turkey in Prague in a couple of years’ time.
Meanwhile, in the Ritz Cinema, Belfast, Lieutenant-General H.E. Franklyn, Brigadier P. Hansen V.C., and Air Commodore Kirby were among the members of the forces enjoying a performance by the Czechoslovakian Army Band.
Masaryk, Ingr, and Janousek left Government House, Hillsborough, Co. Down on 15th December 1942 to continue their official duties outside of Northern Ireland.