Legendary Czech intelligence chief to be reburied in home town

František Moravec (first from left), Edvard Beneš (third from left)

After decades of exile both in life and death, the remains of Czechoslovakia’s wartime intelligence chief, Brigadier General František Moravec are being returned to the Czech Republic next Tuesday. The Czechoslovak legionary-turned-spy was one of the few Czechs to have actively served in all three forms of the 20th century's Czechoslovak resistance movements. His legacy in the Czech security community remains strong until this day.

Czech Defence Minister Jana Černochová made headlines this week as she departed for her visit to the United States, where she met with Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss closer bilateral defence ties and the possibility of securing more military helicopters from the US Army. However, she also had symbolic reasons for traveling to Washington D.C., namely to pick up the remains of Czechoslovakia’s World War II chief of intelligence František Moravec who is to be reburied in his home town of Čáslav on Tuesday, April 26.

“We are bringing back General Moravec on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Operation Anthropoid, an operation of which he was one of the architects.”

Jakub Fajnor from the Czech Defence Ministry’s Press Department highlighted that Czechoslovakia’s old spy chief will be brought back home on the anniversary of perhaps the most famous operation he took part in planning – the assassination of acting Reichsprotektor of occupied Bohemia and Moravia Reinhard Heydrich.

“The idea to bring him back to his homeland was initiated by his descendants in 2020. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it took more time to execute than was initially expected. On the other hand, thanks to that coincidence, we are bringing back General Moravec on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Operation Anthropoid, an operation of which he was one of the architects.”

From legionary to intelligence officer

František Moravec  (first from right) | Photo: Military History Institute

Moravec was born in Čáslav on July 23, 1895. He was the oldest of ten children in a family of a local official in what was then still Austria-Hungary. Known as a bright young man, Moravec began taking courses in philology at Charles University in 1913, focusing on French and Latin, before being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army following the outbreak of World War I.  After being sent to the Eastern Front in January 1916, Moravec crossed the frontline to switch sides, says historian Prokop Tomek from the Military History Institute in Prague.

“Moravec had a long career in the First World War resistance movement [to Austria-Hungary of which the Czech lands were then part of]. He first became a member of the Serbian legion in Odessa in 1916. He fought on the battlefields of Romania and Macedonia. In 1918, he was sent to the Czechoslovak legion in France and, in that same year, also to the legion in Italy. Moravec finished his active combat role in Slovakia in 1919, following operations against Hungary.”

By this time, Moravec was an experienced soldier with four years of active combat behind his belt. He chose not to pursue his studies further and instead to serve in the newly formed Czechoslovak Republic’s armed forces as an officer.

“The Munich Agreement completely ruined all Czechoslovak defence plans as well as ruining all of the previous intelligence efforts that Moravec was involved in.”

It was only towards end of the 1920s, that Moravec became an intelligence officer, says Prokop Tomek.

“František Moravec’s journey to becoming the head of his country’s military intelligence service was quite long. He joined the service in 1929 after studying at the War College in Prague, so he had acquired quite some experience ahead of this posting.”

Interestingly, Moravec’s entry into the service came three years after the exit of his unrelated namesake Emanuel Moravec, who would later become the chief collaborator with the Nazi occupiers during the Second World War. František Moravec recalls encountering the legacy his namesake left on the Czechoslovak military intelligence department in his memoir Master of Spies, which was penned by him in later life:

“Studying the cash book, I found numerous entries of payments to informants marked X-14, Y-34, V-19 and so on, but I could find no reports from these informants. Further investigation showed that the receipts were falsified by the head of the section who preceded Major Havel. He was Major Emanuel Moravec, whose surname was identical to mine. The discovery was the first in a series of unpleasant contacts I was to experience with this future quisling of Czechoslovakia.”

The blow of Munich

Munich Agreement - Benito Mussolini,  Adolf Hitler,  Edouard Daladier | Photo: Heinrich Hoffmann,  Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1971-041-31,  CC BY-SA 3.0

František Moravec was active in the Czechoslovak military intelligence service throughout the 1930s and, together with his team, seems to have achieved several successes in obtaining information about Nazi Germany’s future plans. Czechoslovakia’s most famous informant during that time was Agent A-54 to whom Moravec dedicates an entire chapter in his autobiography. Moravec was first introduced to this intelligence source in 1937 when he received a fat blue envelope in his office containing an offer to supply a wide range of German defence and mobilisation plans, as he recalls in his memoir.

“On the face of it, here was an offer to deliver a number of vital secrets of the Reich which our organisation was trying strenuously to ferret out, in many cases with meagre results. The scale of the offer was unprecedented. If the information was in fact delivered as listed it would be a fantastic Intelligence coup. On the other hand it looked too good to be true.”

Historian Prokop Tomek says that it is still unclear how useful the intelligence provided by this informant was overall.

“A-54 is a legend. His real name was Paul Thümmel. He offered his services to Czechoslovak military intelligence in 1936. He had joined the Nazi party before then. Since 1933, he was also a member of the German counter-intelligence service (Abwehr) and was acting against Czechoslovakia. His motivations for cooperating with the Czechoslovak intelligence services is unclear. It was probably money and, allegedly, he lost his belief in the Nazi regime.

“However, his overall benefit to the Czechoslovak side is contradictory, because the information that he provided was a mix of valuable pieces of intelligence as well as lies and fictions. Several times he didn’t inform about important threats to Czechoslovakia. During the war he was revealed by the Nazis, investigated and jailed in Terezin until the end of the war. He was finally executed during the last days of the war. I think that he was basically a double-agent.”

“In 1939, the restoration of Czechoslovakia was just a dream. František Moravec did a lot for this dream to become a reality.”

The efforts of František Moravec and his intelligence team were dealt a crushing blow in the autumn of 1938 following the so-called Munich Agreement, where Germany, Italy, France and Britain agreed that Czechoslovakia would have cede its western border-regions, commonly referred to as the Sudetenland, to Nazi Germany.

The agreement was seen as a betrayal by the Czechoslovak side as it had a formal alliance with France and its defence plans hinged on the fortifications in had built up precisely in this mountainous region of the country during the 1930s. The decision to give in to the decision of the major European powers was ultimately made by the then president of Czechoslovakia, Edvard Beneš, who was then forced to resign as head of state just days later.

Historian Prokop Tomek says that there is little concrete information regarding Moravec’s personal feelings during the Munich crisis.

“However, it is true that the Munich Agreement completely ruined all Czechoslovak defence plans as well as ruining all of the previous intelligence efforts that Moravec was involved in. Due to German pressure after Munich, changes were made in the Czechoslovak intelligence service and Moravec became the head of the military intelligence department in January 1939.

“In March 1939, Moravec received intelligence about the German threat, perhaps from Paul Thümmel (A-54), but also from other officers serving abroad. He warned the Czechoslovak headquarters before the occupation and tried to push through measures against it.”

Aware of the imminent German invasion, Moravec escaped Czechoslovakia along with several other intelligence officers on board a plane and headed for Britain. The group of spies took many important documents that they had managed to gather through their intelligence activity in the preceding years and also brought a network of valuable contacts.

Leading the exile intelligence effort

Prokop Tomek | Photo: Jana Přinosilová,  Czech Radio

Moravec’s emigration to London was a key step towards the future fight for the continued existence of Czechoslovakia, says Prokop Tomek.

“His mission was in fact the first act in the upcoming war. When he arrived in London he offered his services to the former President of Czechoslovakia Edvard Beneš. At that time, Beneš was just a private individual living in the United States and without any influence. Moravec was his first soldier, so to say. In 1939, the restoration of Czechoslovakia was just a dream. František Moravec did a lot for this dream to become a reality.”

Moravec’s faith in Beneš and his dedication to supporting the so-called ‘Second Resistance’ movement in his home country during the Nazi occupation would later feature as an episode in Czech Television’s 2013 TV series “Czech Century”, which focuses on the preparations that went into Operation Anthropoid – the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich who was the most high-profile Nazi in Bohemia at the time.

František Moravec with his wife | Photo: Archive of Moravec family

“Anthropoid was undoubtedly Moravec’s idea,” says historian Prokop Tomek, pointing out that František Moravec was key in organising both the training and transport of the paratrooper team that carried out the mission. However, he says that Moravec was also the leading man behind the many other paratrooper missions that were secretly carried out in Nazi occupied Bohemia and Moravia during the war.

“There were dozens of paratrooper missions sent to the homeland for the purposes of communicating with the domestic resistance movement, the organisation of an uprising and of a guerrilla fight against the occupiers. Some of the paratroopers in these mission also took part in the fighting during the Prague Uprising in May 1945. His military intelligence service was also collecting valuable information through many missions in [so-called] ‘third’, neutral countries. His activities were therefore very broad and lasted until the end of the war.”

Final exile and “Third Resistance”

After having led the exile government’s wartime intelligence activities, František Moravec returned to Czechoslovakia with the rank of brigadier general in 1945. He had just turned 50 and to an outside observer it may have seemed that he had a bright career in the re-established country’s military administration ahead of him. However, even before their coup in 1948, Czechoslovak communists, supported by the Soviet Union, had most of the effective power in the country and Moravec was largely side-lined.  He left the country a second time in 1948, carrying just a few of his belongings including his medal of the Order of the British Empire and a citation for the American Legion of Merit – for better identification on the Western side.

The spy chief would stay in the United States for a short time before returning to Europe, this time West Germany, in order to lead an intelligence group set up for operations in Czechoslovakia under the sponsorship of the CIA, says historian Prokop Tomek.

“I think that he impersonates Czechoslovakia’s fight for freedom, because he was active in all three of the country’s resistance movements during the 20th century.”

“It was the so-called ‘Third Resistance’, which was aimed at the communists. He led a group of former Czechoslovak military officers who recruited and trained young Czechoslovak refugees and sent them as agents-walkers, or couriers, back into Czechoslovakia. This was done in order to build an intelligence network there and to collect information for the West. Their main aim was not to organise groups that would fight, or to organise some sort of uprising against the communists. It was an intelligence operation.”

Moravec remained active in this role until the mid-1950s after which he definitively moved to the United States. Thereafter, he served as an adviser for the Pentagon until his death in 1966 at the age of 71.

Prokop Tomek says that František Moravec remains a highly regarded figure in his home town of Čáslav, where he will be reburied, as well as in the contemporary Czech intelligence services where he is seen as a role-model for good democratic traditions, patriotism and military service.

“As far as his legacy is concerned, he is a legend. I think that he impersonates Czechoslovakia’s fight for freedom, because he was active in all three of the country’s resistance movements during the 20th century. He also personifies our country’s complicated 20th century history.”