Talking Point The bombing of Prague : was it a mistake?
On February 14, 1945, the American Air Force carried out an air raid over Prague which ranks as the most futile attack on Czech territory of the Second World War. Sixty years later it is still not clear whether the attack was an accident caused by bad weather conditions and the fact Prague and Dresden looked similar from the air, or whether it was a deliberate attack.
The attack took everyone by surprise. When the air raid siren went off shortly before midday, citizens of the capital did not take it seriously - they were used to such sirens. Allied air forces flew over Prague very often and had never attacked it before. Their target had always been Germany. So on that fateful day, many Prague citizens did not even bother to run to shelters. Others had no time. The attack itself was over in just five minutes.
Sixty flying fortresses of the 8th American Air Force dropped about 152 tons of bombs on many populated parts of Prague: Vysehrad, Zlichov, Karlovo namesti, Nusle, Vinohrady, Vrsovice and Pankrac. About a hundred houses and historical sights were destroyed. All the casualties were civilians, and not one of the city's factories which could have been of use to the Wermacht was damaged. Jan Zdirsky is the director of the Czech Air-Historical Association.
"The Americans used what is known as carpet- bombing. All the cities which were chosen for carpet-bombing were destroyed completely, and no distinction was made between civilian or industrial areas. That day the Allies decided to bomb and destroy Dresden. The American pilots thought they were above Dresden, not Prague, and they dropped bombs all over the city."
The American pilots who took part in the raid claimed afterwards that it had been a terrible mistake. The weather was bad: it was cloudy, with very bad visibility. Their radar system broke down, and a side wind of up to 100 miles per hour carried them off their initial route by about 65 miles.
The city they could hardly see below them was very similar to Dresden, due to its position, railway constructions and residential areas. Their group leader gave the order to attack, despite having some doubts.
"Although some of navigators weren't sure whether this was the right target the deputy commander did not let them talk about their doubts - that would have meant breaking the radio silence. They went off course near Freiberg, from where they started their bombing run. They saw a city with a river flowing from south to east, similar to the Elbe in Dresden, and dense residential areas. After the raid, a few navigators said they thought it was the wrong target. But they did not know until they landed that they had bombed a civilian area of a friendly country."
The pilots were subsequently forbidden to talk about the blind attack. The US Army magazine Stars and Stripes reported that the 398th bombardier group had dropped chaffs, or radar decoys, to interfere with radar systems, along with leaflets. "Those were sure heavy 500 pound leaflets to my recollections." commented later Bill Costanzo, one of the pilots.
Czech officials collaborating with the Nazis at the time used the air raid to stress the importance of the Nazis protection and guidance. A few years later it proved useful again. This time to the communist regime.
"The second chance to use this air raid as propaganda was in the 50s and later, when it was useful to show how bad the Americans were, since they were able to bomb and kill so many civilians. This attitude towards the 14th of February remains the same even today."
Zdenek Podraha is going to be eighty next month. In 1945 he was a young man, and an aircraft buff. He worked in Prague's Aero factory, which made training machines for German pilots. Today, sixty years after the bombing, he recollects his memories.Walking around Vysehrad, he says he is sure that it was not a cloudy day, as was reported by the pilots, but a sunny morning with clear skies. Otherwise he would have not been able to watch the bombers flying above Prague.
"Big groups of aeroplanes were flying over Vysocany heading north, presumably on their way to Dresden. A few planes broke away from the main group and turned back and dropped some bombs here and there. It was not a systematic bombing. Others flew very low above Radlice which was destroyed. We did not know about that then, we only knew what we saw on the horizon. I ran home of course, I was very scared. But Nusle where we used to live was untouched."
Mr. Podraha says he doesn't hold grudges. It was a war and people were dying every day. But as we walk towards the only memorial to the victims of the bombing in Prague he describes the scene with a hint of anger in his voice.
"This used to be a working quarter with small low houses, a brick kiln and two pubs and two farms. Everything apart from the little house on the slope over there was destroyed. You can see the ages of victims on the monument here. The oldest was 87 year-old. The rest were children who were at home with their mothers. A two-year-old, a six-year-old...one child was just one, and another was a month-old baby. All together there were 22. They had nowhere to hide and would have never expected such an attack. This was a remote small village."
In comparison with other capitals like Budapest, Warsaw and Berlin, Prague was spared the worst air attacks and remained mostly untouched. Memories are fading, and apart from a few old people who remember the attack. Today not many people still ask why the American Air Force bombed a nation that despite being occupied was on their own side.
"I think it was not a coincidence, although many people claim it was. The aeroplanes that bombed Prague did not belong to the main group of heavy bombers which presumably flew on to Dresden. There were only a few aeroplanes that turned back and flew from different directions. They might have just wanted to get rid of some bombs. Apart from a little station house nothing of strategic importance was destroyed. It was strange because not all the bombers mistook Prague for Dresden. The main unit flew on and didn't bomb Prague."
The American pilots have voiced their regret many times, and some of them apologised to the relatives of victims personally. But they have always maintained it was a mistake, and that the city which they were meant to destroy was Dresden not Prague.