Newly released documents offer insights into Churchill's plans to avenge a German atrocity against Czechs

01-02-2006

Today we look at fascinating wartime documents that reveal Churchill's plans to destroy German villages in revenge for the Nazi massacre in the Czech village of Lidice. We see behind the scenes into Churchill's war cabinet, and witness how the shockwaves from the Lidice massacre reached as far as the corridors of power in London.

On Radio Prague we have often talked about the wartime destruction of the Czech village of Lidice in June 1942. It was one of the milestones in the history of the Second World War. In later years German atrocities on a far greater scale came to light, but the murder of the entire male population of a very ordinary Czech village far behind the battle lines was the first major Nazi atrocity to come to international attention. The Nazis themselves made no secret of their crime.

The massacre caused outrage among the Allies, and this is where documents now released by Britain's National Archives in London are so interesting. They show how the British War Cabinet responded to the massacre in the days that followed.

The documents in question are notebooks, written by cabinet secretary, Sir Norman Brook, and recording details of War Cabinet meetings from 1942 to 1944. These notebooks give us a fascinating fly-on-the-wall insight into what was going on as ministers discussed everything from military strategy to the question of what to do with Hitler, were he to be captured alive. As far as Lidice is concerned, the crucial meeting was on the 15th June 1942, just five days after the massacre.

In the immediate aftermath, the Czechoslovak President in exile in London, Edvard Benes, reacted with shock and defiance. Here is a recording of the president from the time:

Edvard BenesEdvard Benes "Hundreds of innocent Czechs are dead, among them women and youth under the age of 18. So are all the men who lived in the little village of Lidice. Their wives and sisters are in a concentration camp. But in our own records and in the records of humanity, the name of Lidice will loom large. Lidice will live for ever."

It is very likely that prior to the 15th June cabinet meeting, Churchill had already had a meeting with Benes. From the War Cabinet notebooks we can now see that, like President Benes, Churchill wanted revenge, and we sense his deeply emotional response to the massacre. Stephen Twigge is head of academic services at the National Archives in London:

"We have an entry for the 15th June 1942 when Churchill has been talking to Benes. This is just after the Lidice massacre, and he informs the cabinet that he would be very keen to mount a reprisal attack by British Bomber Command in a ratio of 3:1, taking out German villages to demonstrate Britain's repugnance at this and to act as a deterrent for possible future massacres. This was discussed by the cabinet and the notebooks give in a sense a blow-for-blow account of who said what."

It is fascinating to see the notes of this meeting, as it was at the time top secret, and it is quite exciting today to be a fly on the wall and see what was going on.

"Indeed these notebooks are extremely vivid in their account of what went on in cabinet. The previous material that we had, had been sanitized in a certain way. It gave a bland view of who said what but not in detail. These notebooks which have just been released here give almost a blow-for-blow account of what the Prime Minister said and what the various other members of cabinet said in response.

"We have here Churchill, almost demanding that Bomber Command undertake this raid. He was demanding 100 bombers to fly into Germany and wipe out three German villages. The deputy Prime Minister Attlee was very much against this. He thought that we shouldn't be competing with the Germans for attrocity's sake alone. Bomber Command I think were in many ways with Churchill on this, even though they thought it might be a diversion from the major war effort. There was also discussion from the Home Secretary, who thought in might bring a reprisal attack from Germany onto British villages.

"So there was a great discussion as to whether this should or should not occur. Cabinet was split. There was Churchill, and you can almost see him thumping the table at one point, demanding that this goes ahead, and you see the more reserved members of the cabinet trying to articulate reasons why this is probably not such a good idea."

And presumably there would have been a danger to the bombers as well. A village is a pretty tiny target, isn't it?

"Well, certainly 100 bombers would be required, a low attack, two thirds of them would carry incendiaries and there was the assumption that a number would be destroyed, both going there and coming back. This was one of the reasons why I think the attack never happened, apart from the moral objections that were put forward by Attlee.

And another thing that fascinates me from these documents is that they show there was no grand plan of what to do, how to respond to each situation. Decisions were made ad hoc. There was a lot of emotion, a lot of argument. There wasn't a grand plan.

"No, I think that comes out very well in these documents. What it demonstrates is that Churchill was very much in control of the cabinet but also he would at least bow to the majority view, because what we have are various discussions which take place and at the end of this we get Churchill saying, 'My instinct is very much for this operation,' but at the very end he says, 'I submit unwillingly to the view of the cabinet against.' Once we've got to that, we move on to the next section on the agenda, which is India, then followed by the Levant-Caspian front and a report on public feelings. What we get is Churchill in many ways coming forward. I think he'd had a meeting with Benes, who was obviously distraught about all of this and had demanded that Britain take action, and I think Churchill was very keen to demonstrate that Britain would support the Czechs in this."

So the revenge attacks that Churchill wanted never did take place, but Lidice did come to play a crucial role in the war effort. Villages in the United States, Mexico and Brazil were renamed Lidice, and even children were baptized with the name. The village came to embody and symbolize what the Allies were fighting for.

Reinhard Heydrich, photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1969-054-16 / Hoffmann, Heinrich / CC-BY-SA / Wikimedia Commons 3.0Reinhard Heydrich, photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1969-054-16 / Hoffmann, Heinrich / CC-BY-SA / Wikimedia Commons 3.0 And Churchill himself benefited from the outrage caused by Lidice. The village had been destroyed in response to the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Czechs parachuted from Britain into the occupied Czech lands. Heydrich had recently been put in charge of the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and in that short time had earned the nickname "the Butcher of Prague", but the fact that his assassination had been organized from London had led to some unease in British political circles. Czech military historian Eduard Stehlik:

Eduard StehlikEduard Stehlik "Just after the Heydrich assassination, when it became clear that it had been carried out by members of the Czechoslovak Army in exile, some MPs wanted to bring the issue up in parliament. Rather strangely, they accused Churchill of being willing to take part in contract killings. So when the Germans carried out the appalling massacre in Lidice, Churchill's hands were no longer tied. Suddenly it was clear that whatever might be done against the Nazis was justifiable. I can understand why he wanted to avenge Lidice by destroying three German villages. It would be a warning to the Germans, as no-one knew when they might repeat the atrocity, as indeed they did in the case of the village of Lezaky."

Eduard Stehlik is enthusiastic about the publication of Sir Norman Brook's cabinet notebooks, especially about the insights they give into the way Churchill thought and worked.

"Because Churchill was such a strong and extraordinary person, I find these documents fascinating in giving us a broader picture of his personality, even though there are already a lot of biographies. These are further gems fitting into the mosaic, which makes history interesting and attractive, even for ordinary people."

And you can find the War Cabinet notes on the internet at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk.

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