The Battle of the Airwaves: the extraordinary story of Czechoslovak Radio and the 1945 Prague Uprising

May 1945

Welcome to a special programme to mark the 58th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, a national holiday in the Czech Republic. The anniversary has a special significance in Prague, because it was here that some of the last shots of the war in Europe were fired, long after most European cities had been freed. The liberation of Prague by the Red Army on the 9th May 1945 was preceded by three days of fierce fighting in the streets of the city, and over 3000 people lost their lives fighting for Prague's freedom. In the uprising, the radio and the very building from which we are now broadcasting, was right at the heart of events.

You may have the impression from the recent war in Iraq that the central role the media - and especially the electronic media - in war is something new, but the story of the Prague uprising and the events that preceded it, prove otherwise. With the help of Radio Prague's archives, I'll now tell the story.

"Calling all Czechs..." came an announcement just after 12:30 on the afternoon of 5th May1945 on the airwaves here in Prague. The message called on the people of Prague to take up arms to defend the radio building. It was broadcast by Czech radio journalists who had managed to gain control of the broadcasting house from the Nazi occupier and were barricaded inside. This call marked the beginning of one of the last bloody conflicts of the war in Europe, and over the four days that followed - the radio building at number 12 Vinohradska Street, or Schwerinstrasse as the Germans then called it, was the focus of a ferocious battle.

To understand the role of the radio in the uprising, we need to go back to the time before the war. When Hitler came to power in Germany, Goebbels was well aware of the power of radio as part of the propaganda machine. Germany was keen to destabilize neighbouring Czechoslovakia and stir up mistrust and hatred among the German minority in the Czech border regions, known as the Sudetenland. Radio played a huge role in this process, and the Nazis regularly broadcast to the Czech border regions with fictitious stories of Czech atrocities against the German minority. Through their international broadcasts they were also broadcasting the same claims to the world outside.

Konrad Henlein
At the same time, the Nazi Sudeten German leader here within Czechoslovakia's borders, Konrad Henlein, used the German airwaves to fan anti-Czech passion. Czechoslovak Radio soon realized that it needed to respond to this barrage of false information. Here is a Radio Prague broadcast from 1938, trying to counteract some of the propaganda from Nazi Germany and Hungary.

"Once again tonight we must perform the distasteful task of refuting further invented reports broadcast by the German wireless stations. It is not true that the rectors and deans of the German universities in Prague were forced at the point of a gun to sign a declaration of loyalty to the state. This absurd allegation was denied by the rectors and deans themselves in a statement made today, denying that any pressure whatever was used against them."

The Munich crisis of 1938, when Britain and France succumbed to German pressure and allowed Hitler to annex the Czech borderlands, was a media event in the modern sense. This was one of the first major world crises, where radio reporters could file live from the scene. To listeners in Europe and North America the tension in Central Europe acquired an immediacy previously quite unknown for events so far away. Gordon Skilling was a Canadian journalist working for Radio Prague - then part of the domestic service Radiojournal - at the time. Many years later, he remembered how journalists descended on the city:

"I was fortunate to be employed by Radiojournal, broadcasting in English to North America, and this happened to coincide with the crisis at the time leading up to Munich. I prepared an English bulletin based on Czech news bulletins and the newspapers, and broadcast pretty regularly. When the crisis heightened, before and during Munich, I did some other broadcasts for CBS and NBC. At that time, as you may know, there descended on Prague hordes of international journalists. It was, I think, almost the first occasion of this kind of international broadcasting and very many famous journalists came."

So even before the war radio was at the centre of the political and propaganda battle.

Foto: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-H13160 / CC-BY-SA / Creative Commons 3.0
When the German occupation began on March the 15th 1939, Radio Prague's international broadcasts stopped overnight, and Czechoslovak Radio's domestic broadcasts were immediately turned to the Nazi propaganda machine.

Many of the staff were dismissed, and some faced a worse fate: by the entrance of Czech Radio today stands a list of radio staff who were killed in the Nazi camps, for political reasons, or simply because they were Jewish. Among those who died were staff who worked here for the foreign broadcasts, such as the well-known pre-war announcer, Zdenka Wallo. You can find her photograph in the history of Radio Prague that we published for our 65th anniversary two years ago.

Five months after the occupation began the war itself broke out when Hitler invaded Poland, and many Czechs turned to the Czech broadcasts of the BBC for their news, with their famous call: "Vola Londyn: London Calling!" Of course, it was strictly forbidden to listen. After the huge success of a campaign initiated by the BBC's Czech broadcasts, calling on people to show their disagreement with the occupation by not buying newspapers for one day, it was obvious to the occupier that Czechs were listening to London in great numbers. The Nazi response was to clamp down brutally, not hesitating to shoot anyone found in possession of an illegal radio - or Churchillka (spelt "Cercilka" in Czech) - as they were nicknamed after Winston Churchill.

Meanwhile the radio broadcasts of the Nazi protectorate became a tool of oppression and terror. After the assassination of the Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and one of the architects of the Final Solution, Reinhard Heydrich, the official Nazi radio issued regular, chilling broadcasts, aimed at intimidating the populace with lists of Czechs, shot in retaliation.

"This is the station Bohemia from the radio group Bohemia and Moravia. The military court in Prague has condemned the following people to death by shooting, in a sentence passed on the 2nd June 1942: Beneda, Karel, born of the 14.7.1911, place of residence, Prague 11; Svoboda, Vladimir, dr., lawyer, born on the 30.5.1900, place of residence Budweis [Ceske Budejovice]..."

It was also through the radio that many people heard the appalling news of the Nazis' destruction of the village of Lidice on the 10th June 1942

"The buildings of the village have been destroyed and the name of the village has been wiped off the map..."

went the unforgettable last sentence of the Nazi announcement.

Instead of using propaganda to hide their crimes, the Nazis broadcast all the details of their atrocities, to show the lengths to which they were prepared to go, to cow the Czech populace into obedience.

But as time went on the tide of the war turned. On the 6th June 1944, the BBC announced the Normandy landings:

"Under the command of General Eisenhower Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France."

By April 1945 General Patten's 8th army was approaching Prague from the west and the Red Army from the East. By the end of the month Prague was one of the last cities still under German control. But at his stage Patten halted the advance from the west. A year earlier Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin had agreed it was the Russians who would liberate Prague, and so the Americans waited for the Red Army to arrive. Prague was left in limbo - the people knew that the war was as good as won - but the Germans still remained in control. It was in this extraordinary situation that the Prague uprising broke out.

At six AM on the 5th May the usual morning radio broadcast began in a rather strange way:

"Je sechs hodin"

It is six o'clock - announced presenter Zdenek Mancal - but what was strange was the bizarre mixture of Czech and German in the announcement. He continued just in Czech - an act of open defiance under a regime where the Czech language was always relegated to second place. The most dramatic day in Czech radio history had begun.

Ever since 1944 groups of Czech patriots in the radio had been preparing for the uprising, secretly moving equipment out of the building to set up clandestine transmitters, and in April 1945 they had started preparations in earnest.

At the beginning of May, the Nazis stepped up security at the radio building, placing armed SS guards inside. Their job was made difficult by the fact that they got totally lost in the labyrinth of the building - all the German signs had suddenly mysteriously disappeared. On May 4th, security was stepped up still further, with barbed wire placed round the entrance, flanked by two mounted machine-guns.

But the announcer Zdenek Mancal had stayed inside the building overnight, and he didn't need to pass through the barbed wire. Radio staff began to enter the building secretly from the back or from upper floors under the protection of loyal Czech police officers. By the time the German radio director, Ferdinand Thurmer arrived - at around midday - along with 70 armed troops, radio staff were barricaded into the main broadcasting studio, and the Czechoslovak and American flags were flying from the roof. The Soviet and British flags would have been raised too, but for a hail of bullets that came from the machine guns below.

And then at 12:33 the following announcement that came from the besieged studio:

"Calling all Czechs. Come to our help at once. Calling all Czechs."

At that moment there the bottom three floors of the building - up to the level of today's Radio Prague offices - were still occupied by SS troops. The broadcast continued.

"Calling all who call themselves Czechs. Come and defend Czech Radio. The SS are murdering Czech people here. Come and help us. You can still get in through the Balbinova Street entrance."

Fighting went on throughout the afternoon, until the Nazi troops in the building were forced to surrender.

An extraordinary recording survives in Czech Radio archives, where you can hear both a patriotic march - which is going out on the air - and the shooting going on all around. This was what listeners in Prague were hearing on their radios on the afternoon of 5th May 1945.

The broadcasts from the besieged studio could be heard on the frequency: 415.5 metres - a frequency that became legendary in the course of the uprising, known as the "wave of freedom".

And these broadcasts were not just in Czech. With American, British and Russian troops just a few miles from the city, there were also passionate appeals on the morning of Sunday 6th May in English and Russian for military help.

"Govorit Praga! Praga govorit! Prague calling the Red Army. We need your help!"

"Here is Prague! Here is Prague! Americans and English - help us! We need guns. There are too many Germans!"

There was growing frustration that the Allied troops weren't coming to the rescue. One of the appeals was read by an escaped Scottish prisoner of war, who had joined the uprising:

"Prague is in great danger. The Germans are attacking with tanks and planes. We are calling urgently our allies to help. Send immediately tanks and aircraft. Help us defend Prague. At present we are broadcasting from the broadcasting station, and outside there is a battle raging."

The identity of the speaker remains unknown. We do not even know if he survived the uprising.

May 1945
Throughout Sunday German troops continued the assault on the radio building, and resorted to bombing it from the air. At 5:40 in the afternoon, a bomb caused such serious damage that broadcasts were interrupted, only to be re-launched 80 minutes later from a secret location in the suburb of Strasnice:

"Our brothers, fellow fighters, Czechoslovak Army! Hold out! Hold out! Every minute of resistance is our future victory, a victory which draws closer every moment. Machine guns and flame throwers are being fired against us, we are defending the places from where we are talking to you now with rifles. As we speak, Czechoslovak tanks are stopping the enemy from cutting through our radio cables. The radio buildings are being defended by Czech hands. We are defending Prague, we will defend Prague. Prague is, and will remain free!"

Technicians even managed to set up two short wave transmitters and for a while Prague could even be heard abroad.

On the fourth day the fighting at the radio building continued as fiercely as ever, and on the morning of the 8th May, Jaroslav Zaruba, who had been leading the defence of the radio since the uprising began, was killed by a German bullet. The siege only ended when, in the early morning of the 9th May, Soviet tanks rolled into the city. A radio car was sent out to drive into the centre with them and this was how the presenter, Alfred Technik, euphorically described the moment of liberation - with the sound of Soviet tanks in the background:

"I am speaking from a radio car of Czechoslovak Radio, Prague. We have just driven down the winding road from the Belvedere. On the left is Klarov, Prague Castle is on the right, and beneath us is the panorama of a city whose glory touches the stars. At this moment the Red Army has liberated Prague."

By the evening, Czechoslovak Radio was broadcasting again from here at Vinohradska 12, the building battered, but still standing, and programmes strated with the opening words: "Czechoslovak Radio greets our President Edvard Benes." A concert of Smetana's Bartered Bride followed, broadcast - symbolically - partly from Prague and partly from the BBC in London.

The radio had played a central role in the uprising. Not only had it broadcast the call that launched the revolt, but it also managed to keep broadcasting almost uninterrupted as the dramatic events in the city developed, including advice to the people of Prague about where to set up barricades and where the enemy was to be found. In the course of the battle for the building in which I am now sitting, 79 people were killed, and over 3000 lost their lives liberating the city.

Tragically, only 23 years later, in August 1968, this same building became the scene of further fighting and bloodshed, ironically as Soviet tanks once again rolled into Prague. But that will be the subject for a future programme.