Former CTK journalist recalls fateful day of Warsaw Pact invasion

Einmarsch der Truppen des Warschauer Paktes (Foto: ALDOR46, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Johnny Krcmar was a journalist working for the ctk news agency at the time of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Like millions of others he was woken up in the early hours of August 21st to learn that his country had been invaded by the armies of the Warsaw Pact. He was later forced to emigrate within the secret police operation Asanace. Fifty years after the tragic event Mr. Krcmar visited Radio Prague’s studio to share his memories of that fateful day.

Photo: ALDOR46, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

“It was completely irrational. Nobody knew what was happening. I lived one street above Czechoslovak Radio and I was woken up by my next-door-neighbor who said “The Russians are invading us!” and I thought, she’s an old lady, she probably listened to the radio and God knows what she heard, but then I heard the sound of big airplanes flying right over our house in the direction of the military airport in Kbely and they were coming in two-to-three minute intervals. So I switched on the radio and the first thing I heard was a statement in bad Czech saying that the armies of the Warsaw Pact had come to the assistance of Czechoslovak patriots. And I tuned into another station and heard Czech Radio reading the announcement of the party leadership saying essentially that we’d been invaded and calling for calm. I was working at the Czech news agency CTK at the time, which was just down the road so I got dressed and made my way there.”

Johnny Krcmar, photo: Daniela Lazarová
So you passed the Czechoslovak Radio building…

“I passed it. There were a few people in the streets, but not many. This was about two or three in the morning. Cars were going up and down with lights on and hooting. One knew something was happening, but we didn’t know what. So I got to the Czech news agency which was still closed and the security man said - just go back home and come back at 6 o’clock. So I turned around and went back and from the window of my flat I was able to see down into Italska street and all of a sudden down from the park on the other side of Italska there was a column of trucks with armed soldiers on the back and they were coming down towards the main road and they were clearly going to move up to the radio. At that moment the driver of a bus coming from the other side saw this column and he swerved and blocked the street with his bus in order to stop them. And a lot of people rushed over and turned the bus on its side. And then there was a tram that stopped and they tried to do the same with that in order to create a barricade.”

So by that time people had gathered and were trying to protect the building…

“Yes, it was completely spontaneous. The radio had always been a symbol of resistance, even in 1945, so people were trying to stop them getting into the radio.”

This was at about eight o’clock in the morning, was it?

“No, no, this was still at around 3-4am. After a while I thought I have to go back to work, so I went down, past the radio, which was still empty, and went into the CTK building which by that time had opened and we were working, so that was alright.”

Could you get a free message out to the world still?

Photo: APF ČRo
“Oh, yes, we continued working until at about 10 pm, because the Russians couldn’t find us. What was happening was that people were taking down road signs, all over Prague, all over the country. The Russians had maps, but they couldn’t figure out where they were. So they knew that ctk was somewhere hereabouts but when they asked for directions people sent them in the opposite direction. So we were filing in English, French, Spanish, and Russian and all talking about the invasion. At about nine o’clock the radio was on saying what was happening, they had various messages from leading politicians, there was a report saying that the Russians had occupied the building of the central committee and we don’t know what was happening to our leaders, but one or two were somewhere around and they were giving interviews, and the radio headquarters had linked up with Ostrava, Plsen, you name it, all the regional stations were coming in and saying what was going on at their end. And then at about 9 o’clock Prague radio said we’ve got to stop, the Russians are occupying our building and we have to leave. But, don’t worry we’ll be on the line again soon.”

They were broadcasting later from a secret location…

“Within half an hour or so they were back on air, because there was a system whereby you could use the electric tram lines for radio broadcasts, so they switched onto the tram lines and were broadcasting God knows from where. In the meantime of course the Russians had got to the radio building and there had been a fairly big crowd of people trying to defend the building…”

Unarmed, we should say.

“Unarmed and trying to speak to the Russians. Practically everybody here spoke some Russian because they’d learnt it at school .”

Letting them know they were not welcome …

“Yes, saying what are you doing here, get the hell out of here….and in the meantime they’d managed to set fire to one of the tanks outside the radio, because they’d managed to get rid of the barricade.”

By that time people were being shot?

Photo: APF ČRo
“By that time we’d heard that at least one person had been shot outside the radio station and a tank was on fire.”

When were you stopped from working at the CTK news agency?

“We were broadcasting in four languages the whole day – and the Russian service, they were broadcasting straight to TASS in Moscow, so Moscow knew exactly what was going on, because they were getting the same reports from CTK’s Russian service as were Reuters, UPI, DPA and so on.

“In the meantime we were saying – well, what’s going to happen? They are going to find us, they are going to occupy us…we were told what had happened here overnight that the former director of CTK Sulek had come into the building, gone up to the foreign desk and tried to order the editor-in-chief of the foreign desk to publish a letter of invitation, begging for help, signed by about twenty prominent very, very conservative communists such as Indra, Bilak and I don’t know who else…and the editor threw him out. And we learned later that Pravda and Izvestia in Moscow were published two hours at least later because they waited for the letter which never came.”

And what happened when you were actually occupied?

“At about 9 o’clock there was cannon fire, the Russians were firing at the National Museum building because there was a bunch of people on the ramp of the museum, but they were actually shooting over their heads, it was more or less over. So there was a terrible row, we could hear it, but nothing had happened to us so far. One of our colleagues was on a lower floor looking out into Opletalova street and he said when something happens I’ll call you.

“In the meantime, we had agreed with the editor in charge of the whole export that we would prepare two reports – one saying that the Russians were entering the building and the second saying this is the last transmission by the ctk news agency. So we had that on telex-tape –because at that time everything was on telex, on paper tape. So I had written both those reports in English, signed off and was just waiting to send them. And then at about 10 pm our colleague from downstairs said OK they are outside, they are coming in. So I pressed the button and started transmitting. The first report, that the Russians are entering the building went out. And the second, saying this is the last message from the free ctk news agency, was running on the tape next to me when all of a sudden the door opens and in comes a small figure with a helmet right down to his eyes, a coat all the way to his feet, with a machine gun and he just stood there, probably just as scared as we were. He was followed by two men in civilian clothes who were saying in Russian “Stop everything, STOP, STOP, STOP”. And the second message was still going out and one of them came and tried to stop the transmitter and failed, so he just tore the tape off. So the second message only went out in part.

“So we sat there wondering what was going to happen and then some officer came in, looked around and said –in Russian of course – stay calm, don’t do anything, and went off again. So we started talking to these guys, saying “What’s going on? What are you doing? Why are you here?” and they said we’ve been told that there’s a counter-revolution and God knows what’s going on. So we said, look, nothing is happening. Our president, who is a hero of the Soviet Union even, said that you’ve got nothing to do here.

Photo: FORTEPAN / Konok Tamás id, CC BY-SA 3.0
“By that time two or three of them were standing in the doorway and we were talking when suddenly one of them turned to us and said –go away and sit down, sit down. So we sat down and in comes the officer again, looked around, said “everything OK?” and walked out. And when he’d gone the soldier said, OK, we can start talking again. So this went on until about midnight when he came in again and said “ OK, go home” and we said, “wait a minute we can’t go home just like that, they’ve been shooting outside, its midnight…” but he insisted we go and they ushered us out of the building.

“So we walked to Wenceslas Square which was stinking of cordite from the shooting before and we got to the bottom of the radio station and there it smelt of burnt tanks and burnt vehicles and there were Russian soldiers milling around. So we skirted around using the side-streets, got to my house and that was it.”

In the days that followed, when would you say that the mood changed from the first resistance, defiance and efforts to talk to the soldiers to the realization that there was nothing to be done and they were her to stay?

“Actually, this was a strange thing…in the first days the shops were open, they were reasonably well-supplied, the place was saturated with illegal publications, all the big publications were publishing on small leaflet-types and this resistance continued more or less up to the days when the announcement came that they had signed the Moscow Protocol a week later.

“But for that one week people were resisting, they were not talking to the Russians, they were isolating them, they were isolating even let’s say people who were known to have collaborated. They were warning people – for instance editors or journalists – look don’t go home, somebody’s been trying to get hold of you, but don’t worry, we’ll look after you. This feeling of total solidarity was there virtually until they came back from Moscow when they heard this speech by Dubček where he almost broke down as he was saying what had happened. It was only after that that we started realizing that the Russians were here to stay or that they would be here for an awfully long time and we’d have to try and adapt somehow – and everybody knew that things were going to change back to where they were before 1968 but nobody knew exactly what was going to happen.”