Prague Uprising: How the last German-held capital fought for freedom

08-05-2019

Paris, Lviv and Prague, over a thousand miles apart yet connected by the fact that they all initiated successful uprisings against their German occupiers during World War II. The Czech capital was the last of the three to do so, but the action arguably preserved the city’s beauty and led to a battle the Czech nation, previously starved of an opportunity to fight, needed. On the date famously named by Winston Churchill as Victory in Europe day, we take the opportunity to explore the story behind the Prague Uprising.

The Reich’s last bastion

Prague Uprising, photo: archive of Czech RadioPrague Uprising, photo: archive of Czech Radio When looking at a map of the final months of World War II in Europe, you may be surprised by the shrivelled strip of German land the Third Reich actually occupied in the north and the wide bulge still under Nazi control in the Czech Basin.

The reasons why the Czech lands were among the last to be liberated are many.

They include the Soviet rush to seize Berlin before the Western allies; Hitler’s deluded hopes of regaining access to the Hungarian oil fields, or the success of the commander of the local army group Ferdinand Schörner, who convinced Hitler that the next Soviet offensive would be aimed at Prague, rather than Berlin.

As a consequence, there was still a sizeable army group composed of around one million German soldiers in the region, with thousands positioned in Prague.

Czechs were therefore in a paradoxical situation – they had been spared of much of the destructive fighting, but were still under German occupation days after Hitler had shot himself and Berlin fell.

Nevertheless, snippets of accurate news, laced with a dose of inaccurate rumour were filtering through to Praguers in April and May 1945.

Those who secretly listened to “The Voice of Free Czechoslovakia”, which was broadcast to the Czechoslovak population via the BBC, knew the US Army had already reached Bohemia.

In late April, it broadcast the following words from the Czech war reporter Zdeněk Vršovský.

“The man spoke in the present tense, because he knew he had to accept the existence of Czechoslovakia. I could see great fear in his eyes. They said: ‘The Czechoslovaks are here. What will happen now?’”

“It is Thursday, April 19th 1945, a day when after six years we will again set foot in Czechoslovakia. We are driving through Bavarian towns and villages. It is a beautiful sunny day and the Czech mountains are appearing on the horizon.

“A few kilometres in front of our HQ lies the village of Vis. A tiny village with a purely German population. The Czechoslovak border must lie somewhere around here. We stop a German, whose white armband shows he is a member of the temporary police and ask him to show us where the border is. Frightened, he looks at our appliques bearing the word Czechoslovakia, turns white, and then understands. He runs to a nearby house and starts measuring out the distance in steps. About 20 meters from the house he stops and says: ‘Here is the border. On this side we are in Czechoslovakia. On the other side is Deutschland.’

“The man spoke in the present tense, because he knew he had to accept the existence of Czechoslovakia. I could see great fear in his eyes. They said: ‘The Czechoslovaks are here. What will happen now?’”

In Prague, years of suppressed national sentiment was now bubbling up to the edge and General Rudolf Toussaint, who led the relatively small German garrison, knew that if the population rose up in a unified manner, his units would not be able to suppress them.

In trams Czech conductors were refusing payment in marks, German signposts were being repainted with Czech place names and out of many a window the Czechoslovak flag could be seen hanging. Protectorate order was breaking down.

May 5th - Prague rises up

Zdeněk Mančal, photo: archive of Czech RadioZdeněk Mančal, photo: archive of Czech Radio The tipping point finally came on May 5th. In the morning hours, radio broadcaster Zdeněk Mančal, who had just started his shift, announced in Czech: “It is sechs a clock.”

The public took it as a message to go into the streets.

A police unit which refused take part in an anti-partisan action around Můstek was cheered. False rumors that American troops were riding towards Prague and already in the vicinity of Ruzyně where echoing through the capital.

There was also news that Emanual Moravec, the most notorious Nazi collaborator had shot himself.

It was during this time, that former Czechoslovak legionary František Slunečko, known under the codename ”Alex”, activated his network of confederates within the police, administration and news services.

At 11 o’clock he issued the order for police units loyal to the resistance to ready themselves and subsequently occupy strategic points across the city.

Meanwhile at the Czechoslovak Radio building on Vinohradská a group of Czech journalists was broadcasting in Czech and refusing their German colleagues entry into the studio.

To re-establish order, the German director of the radio, Ferdinand Thürmer, called in a platoon of SS men to the station. But the Czechoslovak staff quickly removed all of the German name plates and the unit was left wandering the famously complicated corridors of the building.

To re-establish order, the German director of the radio, Ferdinand Thürmer, called in a platoon of SS men to the station. But the Czechoslovak staff quickly removed all of the German name plates and the unit was left wandering the famously complicated corridors of the building.

At 12:33 with machine gun sounds cutting through the music, the now desperate broadcasters issued a call to everyone taking part in the uprising to help.

“Everyone come to Czechoslovak Radio, Czechs are being shot! Come as soon as you can. We are calling on the Czech armed forces, Czech police units. Everyone come to the radio. Help us!”

What followed was a key event in the uprising, known as the “Battle for the Radio”.

Shortly after 12 o’clock a unit of Czech policemen arrived at the building and entered into a firefight with the SS men. The battle would rage on for four days.

While this was going on, many of the strategic points marked down on the map by the Czech National Council, which had united the resistance groups just before the uprising, were successfully seized.

However, the area around the headquarters of General Toussaint, Dejvice, the Old Town, the Castle, Letna and the Černín Palace were too strong to be seized.

The Germans still posed a formidable threat in the city, possessing much better equipment that the resistance.

Out of the 10,000 or so Czech fighters at the beginning of the uprising, only a half was equipped with pistols and rifles.

Furthermore, resistance leaders were well aware that the Germans had formidable forces in the Bohemian region and would detach some of them to regain control of the city.

Building of barricade in front of Czech Radio building, photo: archive of Czech RadioBuilding of barricade in front of Czech Radio building, photo: archive of Czech Radio The city was important to the Germans, because it was the nerve centre of Bohemia. Its bridges and communication lines could be used to go west and escape the advancing Red Army.

They had all the reason to fight desperately and dedicate their efforts to regaining control in order to reach the American lines.

To slow down any German attack, the resistance command issued orders via the radio, which was still under their control.

“We call on Czechoslovak citizens to build barricades against tanks all around the outer areas of Prague, particularly around Braník.”

By the end of the night, 1,600 barricades had been constructed across the city, blocking streets and providing defensive positions.

A spell of good news also came from an unexpected source. After being persuaded by the resistance leaders, the 1st Division of the Russian Liberation Army, a German armed forces unit made up of Soviet POWs, defected and was marching towards Prague on May 5th.

They arrived in the city from the south a day later and started engaging German troops in Petřín and several other locations in the city.

Earlier that day, there was hope of liberation coming from the west as a Czechoslovak Radio broadcaster excitedly reported on the advance of the General Patton’s 3rd Army.

“A few minutes ago the first Anglo-American tanks drove through Plzeň! Plzeň is occupied and British and American tanks are advancing towards Prague!”

But the US high command issued an order to halt. After consultation with the Soviets, the Americans had advanced as far as Plzeň to cover the left flank of its forces invading Austria. But they were wary of going further east and breaking the occupation lines agreed upon at the Yalta Conference.

Winston Churchill’s urgings to Harry Truman that US troops should take Prague were dismissed. In fact, the resistance fighters were about to face the main German attack on the city.

May 7th – Climax

The next day, on May 7th, freshly arrived Wehrmacht and Waffen SS units started attacking from the North and east of the city.

Out of the 10,000 or so Czech fighters at the beginning of the uprising, only a half was equipped with pistols and rifles.

They faced a Czechoslovak resistance which was running increasingly short on ammunition.

Furthermore, the Germans apparently used women as human shields in front of their advancing tanks.

Some of the most intense fighting took place in Strašnice, just east of Žižkov.

The district was important because it housed the reserve radio station, to which the Czechoslovak broadcasters were forced to move after a 500kg bomb dropped by a German jet-fighter had destroyed their equipment in the main building of Czechoslovak Radio.

Luckily a resistance unit had managed to capture some Hetzer tank destroyers and keep the Germans away from the radio station.

Despite the success, the resistance forces were pushed hard that day and had to retreat deeper into the city.

While all this was going on, German leaders accepted the inevitability of unconditional surrender, on May 7th.

The next day, an official signing ceremony was to take place in Berlin with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel leading the German delegation.

A call came out on the radio wave.

“Prague is calling all listeners! Germany has capitulated unconditionally, the Czechoslovak News Agency in London announced at 15:22 hours today on the 8th of May.

The announcement was followed by the Lví silou (With lion's strenghth) march of the Sokol movement.

The last echoes of struggle

The thirst for vengeance on both sides also brought about much cruelty on the German and Czechoslovak civilian populations.

The German troops, desperate to escape Soviet captivity by surrendering to the Americans, now made a truce with the resistance leaders on May 8th, where both sides agreed on a ceasefire with the Germans exiting the city and heading west.

However, some SS units continued the fight until the next day around Pankrác and Dejvice, but they were easily pacified by the now arriving Red Army.

It was time to count the dead. Around 1,700 Czechoslovaks died in the fighting and nearly 3,000 were injured.

The Russian Liberation Army troops lost around 300 troops. However, rest was in for a worse fate. The western allies, to whom they surrendered, agreed to hand them back over to the Soviets, who saw them as traitors.

The Germans lost around 1,000 men and the Soviets, who arrived in the closing phase of the uprising, a few dozen.

The thirst for vengeance on both sides also brought about much cruelty on the German and Czechoslovak civilian populations.

May 16th - Beneš arrives in Prague

Edvard Beneš, photo: Czech TelevisionEdvard Beneš, photo: Czech Television A week later, Edvard Beneš, arrived in Prague.

Nearly seven years earlier, in October 1938 he had left the country after accepting the Munich agreement. For many at that time he was seen as the villain who gave away Czechoslovakia without a fight.

Now he returned as a hero, who effectively led the Czechoslovak exile government throughout the war.

He was also a changed man: one who believed in close friendship with the Soviet Union and a homogenising Czechoslovak society, with all the horrors that the latter meant.

While these were all decisions that would later cause problems for the state, they were not important on that day.

Czechoslovakia was free and the war was over.

Prague had also been saved from German plans to make it a fortress city. Her bridges were to have been blown up, key strategic points mined and the industry picked apart.

And as the national anthem started playing in front of an emotional crowd welcoming the president the feeling of freedom and national pride was all that mattered.

08-05-2019

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