Bloody conclusion of WWII in Czech lands

The liberation of Prague in 1945, photo: Karel Hájek, CC BY-SA 3.0

In this week’s edition of Czech History we look at the situation in Bohemia and Moravia in late April and early May 1945 in the run up to commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. We draw on the recollections of US soldiers Czech resistance fighters, and forced labour and concentration camp workers seeking to return home as the hostilities ended.

Liberation of Prague by Red Army | Photo: Karel Hájek,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
It was perhaps a rather bitter irony of history that the Czech lands and Prague were the first territories to be invaded by Nazi Germany and among the last to be liberated. Indeed the last major European battle in WWII is credited as taking place on Czech soil as partisans and Red Army troops tried to catch up with fleeing German units trying to give themselves up to US forces.

Although the war was clearly over by the time US forces in the West and Red Army forces in the East crossed the borders of former Czechoslovakia, the final liberation was far from easy. Several factors contributed to that bloody finale. One was the fact that the border lands were the home of the Sudeten Germans, whose leaders called for a last stand fight in such towns as Cheb and Aš.

The German army itself had left a considerable force in central Bohemia under the command of the dedicated Nazi Field Marshal Ferdinand Schoerner at the end of the war. Some say Adolf Hitler was influenced by the quote sometimes attributed to Bismarck that “he who is master of Bohemia is master of Europe,” although by the Spring of 1945 this was clearly not the case. Still, the Czech lands were a last outpost of the Nazi regime and a considerable amount of war production had been shifted there in the latter war years in the belief that it would not be bombed by the Allies.

And as one of the last outposts of German resistance, Bohemia and Moravia were also the target for tens of thousands of refugees from Nazi concentration and labour camps who were forced to flee by their captors ahead of the advancing Allies. In many cases the evacuations amounted to death marches and transports with no clear final destination in mind. In some tragic cases the columns of prisoners and their guards were mistaken for German troops and strafed by Allied planes. That was the case at Pistov near Mariánské Lázně where a memorial service will be held on Sunday.

US army soldiers | Photo: Czech Television
A final factor which contributed to prolonging the conflict was the decision by the Allied forces to draw a line through Bohemia, the so-called demarcation divide, setting out the areas to be occupied by US and Red Army forces. Thus while US forces arrived in Plzeň by May 6 they refused to push on in force to Prague despite the calls for help. The Red Army was still a few days away from the capital after having already liberated Ostrava, Brno, and of the easternmost towns in Moravia.

This programme largely concentrates on the US army push into West Bohemia because the main event to the east, the Prague uprising and subsequent arrival of the Red Army, has been covered elsewhere. It draws on interviews from the Post Bellum Memory of Nations archive of interviews with those caught up in the turbulent last days of the war.

This is how US tank commander and later liaison officer Harry Feinberg remembered the US army welcome from Czechs and even from some of the German speaking population. “There were people on both sides of the road. They were expecting us I guess, I don’t know. So it’s ‘nazdar, nazdar,’ I will never forget that. Oh the girls, they climbed up on the tanks when we stopped for five minutes or something. They shook hands with us. We kissed them, they kissed us. That was nice. We knew that the war was…that was the end for us. We were in Sušice for two or three days, a week. I remember some of the German people put on a show for us.” The show consisted of people dressing up in traditional costume and showing off how their hand operated fire pump could be used. That welcome contrasted with the sullen welcome and sporadic resistance in much of the Sudetenland.

Feinberg has been present at the liberation of one concentration camp in Germany. But there were many other horrors at the end of the war for all to see. Libuše Hittmanová was sent in 1943 to work at a munitions plant near Nuremberg, Germany and later in the Spring of 1945 sent to a factory at Holýšov. On her way back to her hometown of Zbůch she saw the fate of some caught up in a final settling of accounts: “I was going back by train. At one station there were a series of wagons which had stopped there. There were people from the camps who had been crammed into them. I could just see the heads and to this day I don’t know what was happening to them. In Stod there was a big wooded park where everyone had been shot just to get rid of them.”

Final transports

Auschwitz,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
A large transport of around 4000 prisoners in 50 to 60 wagons had arrived in Stod in mid April. Most of the prisoners came from the Flossenberg concentration camp across the border in Germany. Prisoners were not fed and received sporadic supplies of water. The dead that quickly resulted were piled up in the open wagons. Around 250 bodies were eventually taken from a mass grave there.

Eva Krupičková came from a Jewish family. She was sent to Auschwitz but later transferred for forced labour in Germany, first clearing up bomb damage at a refinery and later at an underground arms factory. In April 1945 she was sent on a one month forced ‘death march’ which eventually ended up near Karlovy Vary when they met US troops. “So I said to the other girls, let’s go and see if the Americans will liberate us. The girls did not understand English. They had been taken from across the whole of the republic [Czechoslovakia]. So we went over there and they stared at us. We were bald, all our hair had been shaved off so we would not get lice. We were there, these women with their shaved heads and US officers and ordinary soldiers who looked at us and asked who we were. One asked ‘’Do you speak English.’ I volunteered that I did. He said ‘What are you? Who are you? And why haven’t you got any hair?’ I said we were heftlinger, that meant prisoners. We were Jews and prisoners of the Germans.”

František Wiendl was part of a resistance group that disarmed the Germans and liberated Klatovy on May 5 before the arrival of the US army. He said that some of the group later heard Prague’s call for help and, armed with captured German arms, wanted to head for the capital in trucks. He describes how they were astonished when US soldiers stopped them from leaving. “So we were waiting in these trucks and we asking ‘Why aren’t we leaving?’ But they did not want to allow us to go. We became angry when we learnt that the Americans would not let us go to Prague. We were really angry and asked them ‘How is it that you are not allowing us?’ Of course, they said that they were the army and that everything had already been arranged by them. Later we found out about the demarcation line and they were ordered to make sure that it was not crossed.”

Demarcation line

But the demarcation line stretching from Karlovy Vary to Rokycany east of Plzeň and down past Pisek and Český Krumlov was porous for US troops who were already looking ahead to the post war period and the likelihood of a face off with the Soviet Union. Harry Jacobs was an intelligence officer in the US Army. He describes how his small unit received orders on May 10 to track down and obtain an archive of German Army intelligence on the Red Army throughout the campaign on the Eastern Front.

The archive was with the German army retreating on the outskirts of Prague. Jacobs takes up the story: “Well we went in there and we told them that we wanted to see their intelligence officer. And they were the last headquarters of the whole German army – I think there were two other headquarters but they were the main one. Whoever it was directed us to a bunch of trailers. And we saw a German colonel and we told him that we had orders to check what they had on the Russians. And we told them we had orders to check with them what they had on the Russians. He was very delighted. He took us to the trailers and they had order of battle information of the Red Army, who they had been fighting, equipment, manpower, all sorts of intelligence, a whole trailer full of stuff. We said that we will take this with us. We can take two people with us. You can go with us and he was delighted.” The information proved a valuable catch as tension between the two main world powers started to escalate as the war in Europe came to a close.

Last battle

The last major confrontation of WWII in Europe is credited as taking place south-east of Příbram on May 11 and 12, three days after most of Western Europe had celebrated the end of the war. Remnants of German Army and SS forces had congregated near the US lines but found that they would not be let through or their surrender accepted. Meanwhile, the around 7,000 strong German forces were being harassed by Czech and other partisans. The situation exploded when Red Army divisions approached from the east on May 10. Fearing Russian captivity the German forces decided to fight both US, Red Army, and partisan forces ranged against them. After two days of fighting they eventually agreed to surrender to be taken prison by Russian forces.