Czechs in the Red Army

Ostrava 1945

...At midday the Russians launched an almighty attack on Hrabyne, their air force led the barrage. From over the hills a whole chain of Russian tanks approached. The Germans retaliated with a desperate counter attack. This was the start of a terrible panzer battle, which is impossible to imagine for those who weren't there. The din of anti-tank weaponry, the explosion of grenades and the baying of the tanks' machine guns fused into one. There was a constant explosion of bombs and mines. The battle lasted all afternoon. Several times the Russians retreated only to come back again on the attack...

Hrabyne 1945
This is an extract from a diary, written by a resident of the North Silesian town of Hrabyne, as the Russians advanced on the 20th April, 1945. What ensued was a fierce seven day battle which flattened the town and left thousands of soldiers from both sides dead. Today it is home to one of the largest and most important war memorials in the Czech Republic.

The fight for Hrabyne formed part of the larger battle for the industrial centre of Ostrava. The Czech Republic's third town lies only a few miles from the Polish border. By 1945, it was providing Germany with 35% of its economic potential, and thus was fought for bitterly. Over 20,000 Soviet soldiers, and 1,000 Czechs and Slovaks in the Red Army lost their lives in the fight for its liberation. This makes it the bloodiest battle ever fought on Czech soil.

Particularly famous in the battle for Ostrava was the Red Army's Czechoslovak tank brigade. It was very nearly wiped out at the battle of Hrabyne. On a visit to the town, local historian Jaromir Breuer explained the amount of damage which the brigade sustained:

Ostrava 1945
"When the brigade moved to Poland it was equipped with 65 new tanks. By the end of the battle for Ostrava, only around 7 or 8 of them remained. And then only 3 of them rolled into Prague on the 10th May 1945."

As you have heard, then; by the end of the war, Czechs had organized themselves into a unit of the Red Army. But how had this happened? And where had all these Czechs come from?

In fact, the very beginnings of the Czechoslovak army corps lie in Buzuluk, Russia, where in 1942 an array of prisoners and expatriates gathered to form a brigade.

One of the men present at the inception of the Czechoslovak division of the Red Army was Stepan Lutansky. He, like many of the original members of this brigade, came from Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, a region of the former Czechoslovakia, which is now part of the Ukraine. As war became inevitable he chose to flee to Russia in 1939, for reasons that he writes in his memoirs:

"People would talk about what it was like to live in Russia. They said that every nationality was accepted there, children were taught in their mother tongue at school, and every single person had the right to work. My cousin Ivan had fled to Russia even before the Hungarian invasion, and apparently was doing well there, though he'd sent us no news. "The world is rushing to war and fascism is set to become a way of life. I have to be on the Russian side!"

Lutansky and many other Czechs and Slovaks had fled to Russia with the intention of fighting the Germans, but in many cases it was years before they had the chance to do so. By a tragic irony, on crossing the border many were immediately picked up as illegal immigrants, and shipped to labour camps north of the artic circle. I asked expert Vladimir Bystrov, about life in such camps:

Soviet labour camp
"Soviet labour camps debased the individual. They used people for their strength, and once that was drained dry, they discarded them. An illustration of this is that documents outlining each camp's production would have on them a total sum of the camp's strength. This means that people and animals were counted together. It was all the same, it was strength, it didn't matter if it was human or not."

So when in 1942 the chance came for Czechs working in such labour camps to form their own unit of the Red Army, interest was immense. So immense, in fact, that there were not enough uniforms to go around, and many had to fight in civilian costume.

This Czechoslovak army corps made its debut pushing the Germans out of Russia, and then progressed further west. Historian Jaromir Breuer told me some of its major battles and victories:

"The first battle the corps fought was at Sokolov. At this time, the Czechs just formed a battalion, but gradually they grew into a major army unit. Amongst their most famous battles ranks the liberation of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. After this, they worked their way west. In terms of casualties, their worst battle was at Dukla, in East Slovakia. Most of the army corps then progressed on to Moravia in what is now the easternmost part of the Czech Republic. But the Czech tank brigade was transferred to Poland, and it was from there that they launched the second phase of their advance on the northern Czech town of Ostrava."

...Which brings us back to the battle of Hrabyne in 1945; and the regimented and organized fighting force that the Czechs and Slovaks now formed.

As they had progressed through the Ukraine, Slovakia and today's Czech Republic, more and more recruits had joined the Czechoslovak corps. Around 12 thousand Czechs and Slovaks ended up enrolling all together.

Josef Zeleny lived in what is today Poland, and was witness to the Red Army's advance on his town in 1944. A former partisan, Zeleny joined the Czech division of the Red Army on the spot, and fought with them until the end of the war. Here is what he remembers of the time:

"We advanced upon Slovakia and came to Dukla. The battle there was pretty tough. It was cold and the weather was foul. There was a lot of snow. We had a lot of high quality military equipment, fiats and Studebakers and what have you; but we just had to leave it, along with our provisions and supplies, and go on by horse. And then on that hilly terrain I hadn't expected to encounter even the smallest fortification, but there were bunkers! We progressed across Slovakia, and as we did, more and more Slovaks joined us. Our first and third divisions absolutely filled up with them."

So the Czechoslovak division of the Red army was founded in Russia, and bolstered in its progress across Czechoslovakia by patriots and partisans. It played a role in the liberation of Western Russia and the Ukraine, and sustained its largest casualties on the muddy battlefields of Slovakia and the modern day Czech Republic. It is remembered as a liberating force, but also as the bearer of a new era, which many Czechs regard as an occupation of their country by a foreign might. Attitudes towards Czech that fought in the Red Army are ambivalent to say the least.

There is no doubt, however, that the Czechs and Slovaks fighting in the Red Army underwent a great deal of hardship, which many of them believed they were enduring for the sake of their homeland.