H.E. Ambassador Michael Peart, His wife and David Holliday on the right hand side
H.E. Ambassador Michael Peart, His wife and David Holliday on the right hand side
© From the personal archive

I have always regarded my appointment as the first Defence Attaché to Lithuania as a reward for effort. I had been working at the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in London and commuting daily by train from Ashford in Kent, a journey of 75 minutes each way. For a year I had been taking a refresher course in Russian in order to requalify as an interpreter and the journey to and from work was an ideal time to study. I passed the exam with flying colours and by chance the results arrived the very same day that my appointment was confirmed by MOD! At that time, of course, Russian was the common language in the Baltic States and as I would have dealings with Latvia and Estonia, it was more useful than Lithuanian at that time. It was a very unusual appointment inasmuch as I retained my MOD appointment. In fact, it turned out to be an ideal arrangement as I was able work on many issues affecting Lithuania with face-to face meetings in London. It worked out that during my two years as DA I spent exactly one third of my time in Lithuania.

I first came to Vilnius in the spring of 1992, but I had been working with Lithuania since February, when Audrius Butkevičius, the very young 32 year-old Minister of National Defence (MND), made an official visit to London and I was appointed to escort him to his programme of meetings at the Foreign Office with Douglas Hogg, Defence Minister Malcolm Rifkind and my own boss, the Chief of Defence Intelligence Air Marshal Sir Johnny Walker. At that time Audrius didn't speak very good English, but he was accompanied by Rasa Ališauskienė, whose English was a little better. Before each meeting he would ask "David, how long do I have? "I would say, "twenty minutes, maximum thirty." He would plan his time very carefully in order to deal with all the topics he wanted to cover and it worked extremely well. He was very impressive and left a very positive impression with everyone and he got most of what he wanted. The main things he asked for was a Defence Attaché and a Royal Navy ships visit in order to confer recognition that Lithuania was a free and independent nation. He also wanted a supply of weapons, which he didn't get. Instead he was offered English language training for the military, which in the long run proved to be very useful for the eventual integration into NATO.

I arrived in Vilnius in the middle of May 92 to take up my post as the Defence Attaché. I took over the suite in the Draugystė (Friendship) hotel, which had recently been occupied by the ambassador, Michael Peart and his wife, before they moved into the new embassy which they had recently purchased on behalf of the British government. He arrived in his Range Rover next morning to pick me up and we drove to the embassy. The same thing happened for the next two days and I thought, "this can't continue! I can't have the ambassador acting as my chauffeur!" I will have to make my own arrangements for transport. So I went to the hotel reception and asked if they knew where I could find a driver to take me around. The young lady said, "Please wait a minute, I'll see if I can find Mr George."

A few minutes later a dapper little man appeared dressed in a suit. At first I thought it was the hotel manager, but it was George. He had a little white Zhiguli and said that he could drive me around town for USD 10 a day. Out of town would be USD 15 plus petrol. The car was old, but reasonably sound and the tires were as smooth as a baby's bottom!

But I soon found out that driving with George was one of the most dangerous things I had ever done. He was, without doubt, the worst driver in the world by a country mile. But he was polite and very punctual. Our relationship survives to this day.

One day, just after I had arrived, we were in the north of the city, close to the hospital complex. George offered to take me to a museum in a stately home which was being refurbished. In Soviet times it had served as an officers' mess, but had been badly vandalized. The museum was closed to visitors, but George managed to talk the curator into giving us a private tour. We walked around for an hour or so, then we were ushered into a large ornate hall with rows of white painted chairs with red velvet seats. At the front of the hall was a white Steinway piano. George beckoned me to a seat in the front, lifted the lid of the piano and sat down to play. And could he play! He was magnificent. He played Mozart, he played Rakmaninov, he played Gerswin. He could play anything! I just sat a listened and tears welled up in my eyes. In real life George was a classical concert pianist, but times were hard and all the orchestras were closed down. Like many at that time, he was just making a living the best way he could, and I was just glad that I could help out.

In June 1992 the new British Embassy held its first Queen's Birthday Party. The embassy building wasn't yet ready, so it was held what used to be in Soviet times the Officers' Club, and is now the Presidential Headquarters. As it was the first QBP, there was a good turnout of the great and the good and it was a great success for the Ambassador. When all the guests had departed he said, "Let's have a sing-song" and asked Donald, his driver, a classical organist, to sit down at the grand piano. Donald walked to the piano, lifted the lid and, lo and behold, it was full of bottles of whiskey, gin, vodka, which the catering staff had stashed away to take home. The ambassador had a quick look, turned to me and said, "David, I'll go away for a few minutes. Sort this out will you!"

In the summer of 1992 Admiral Jon Todd visited Vilnius. He was in the Royal Navy, but holding a senior NATO post. He was accompanied by a couple of British army majors and a snooty MOD civil servant. I took them to meet the Lithuanian Minister of Defence and his senior team. Later we went to the parliament to meet members of the National Security Council. There was a frank and useful exchange of views, but the Lithuanians found some of the admiral's views hard accept. But then I remember Saulius Pečeliūnas saying, "Gentlemen, when you are talking to us, you must remember that we have all grown up in the Soviet Union, and whether we like it or not, we have all inherited the Soviet way of thinking."

When we had finished the day's work we changed out of our uniforms and strolled down Pilies gatvė towards Cathedral Square. There we found a kiosk selling Lithuanian beer. We sat on a low wall and tasted the beer. The admiral, in his most profound observation of the day said, "David, if the beer is as good as this, Lithuania won't have any problems!" And so it turned out.

I well remember the early days in the MND. The building had only recently been handed over to the Ministry and was in a very poor state of repair. The rooms were sparsely furnished, dimly lit and cold as there was no heating. I remember meeting Povilas Malakauskas, who was responsible for finding military equipment. But there was no money in the budget, so he had to look for equipment that was surplus to requirement in other countries. Even when he found something that was available, there was the problem of transportation, which had to be paid for. His wife Renata was working in Public Relations. Like many in the newly formed MND, they joined from teaching posts at the university in order to help organise the infrastructure required in a newly functioning state. It proved to be a great help that many who held senior positions in the MND spoke good English. They worked hard and put in long hours in difficult conditions for not much money. I admired them greatly for they were building the new Lithuania.

Throughout most of my time as DA, the occupying forces were in the process of withdrawing. One of the important things that I was able to do was to arrange meetings for the ambassador to be able to talk to Russian divisional commanders in Kaunas, Klaipėda and Šiauliai. The aim was to find out how the withdrawal was proceeding and to try to ease any tensions between them and the Lithuanian authorities. In Kaunas we met the commanders of the Special Forces Training Brigade, but they had no problems as they had a prepared base to return to in Russia and their expertise was needed to deal with the ongoing problems in the Caucasus. The same was true at the Air Force base near Šiauliai where the fighter wing was based. Again the commander said that they have a base to go to in Russia and would be flying out very soon.

It was much more difficult when we flew in to Klaipėda in one of Lithuania's newly acquired, but very old AN 2 bi-planes. Klaipėda was the home of the 3rd Coastal Division and occupied what is now part of Klaipėda University. It was this division which had played a major role in trying to supress the push for independence in the west of Lithuania and there was obvious tension between the two sides. It was the 3rd Coastal Division which had threatened to march on Vilnius when their commanding general was arrested and taken to the Lithuanian capital. The general was soon released and went to Russia leaving his second in command, Col Kirskij to continue running the division in Klaipėda. We met him, together with a visiting staff officer from Kaliningrad, in an office not far from the central post office in Klaipėda. The visiting colonel was polite and relaxed, but Kirskij appeared cold and angry, reluctant to talk and almost disrespectful towards the ambassador. The situation was made even more bizarre because, just as the meeting was getting underway, the carillon started to ring out from the post office tower and went on for fifteen minutes. It was very loud and conversing was not easy. Miglė, who is now my wife, was our interpreter as she was for all the early meetings we had in Klaipėda. Michael explained that he just wanted to know if they were having any problems which he might be able to communicate to the Lithuanian leadership. The tense situation gradually eased and we learned that the main problem was that the division didn't know where and when they would be moving and feared that they would be sent back to Russia to a poor location with no proper facilities for the soldiers and their families. Colonel Kirskij's body language became more relaxed as the meeting drew to a close and so Michael invited them to join us for lunch where he would be meeting members of the Klaipėda City council. They accepted and off we went. I can't say that the lunch started well. The Klaipėda hotel at that time was dark and gloomy and totally lacking in atmosphere. Also, Miglė had told us that Lithuanians were not good at small talk, which the English do so well! But the situation was saved, as usual, by generous servings of vodka and frequent toasts to all sides. Towards the end it was going so well that the ambassador wondered if he might invite our Russian guests to the official reception on board the Royal Navy frigate which was due to visit the following week. A discrete phone call was made to Vilnius and the hierarchy agreed, albeit reluctantly, that it might be a good idea. In the event, the ship's visit was a great success and Colonel Kirskij and his deputy attended with their wives. Another diplomatic coup for Michael! The 3 rd Coastal Division finally withdrew from Klaipėda and was disbanded.

One of the most interesting and enjoyable evenings I had in Vilnius was with the Lithuanian army priest Monsignor Alfonsas Svarinskas. The Royal Air Force Chaplain in Chief was about to make a visit to Lithuania and we had to plan his itinerary. We went to a restaurant in the Old Town and began to talk in Russian. He was telling me about the twenty years he has spent as a deportee in Siberia and somehow I learned that he spoke French very well. He said that he leaned French from a fellow exile and so we talked in French, which I could speak better than Russian and with less lubrication! But what was interesting was that he had a very strong Midi accent, which he had learned from whomever was teaching him. Monsignor Alfonsas was a real character and a great dinner companion. But he definitely didn't like Russians!

The Russian withdrawal continued smoothly and they managed it within eighteen months and I would suggest that no western army could have done it in such a short time. MND Minister Audrius Butkevičius worked tirelessly to liaise with the many Russian divisional commanders and spent long hours on the road driving his old Zhiguli at break-neck speed, as he always does. He had great inter-personal skills and I often feel that he never really got the appreciation he deserved from the Lithuanian government for what he achieved for Lithuania.

As we assembled in Parliament Square on the evening of 31 August 1993 to mark the completion of the withdrawal, there was still some doubt as to whether they would meet the deadline to depart. But, just before midnight the word came through that the last train echelon carrying Russian troops and equipment had just crossed the Lithuanian border into Belarus. A huge cheer went up in the Square and there was much hugging and rejoicing. It was only the next morning we learned that there was a sign in the last window of the rear wagon which read "We will return!"

My appointment in Vilnius was to be my last in the Royal Air Force. I took early retirement, married Miglė and stayed in Lithuania. I have never regretted my decision even for one moment and have been extremely happy living in a small village not far from Klaipėda. Life is good.

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