Military Prague


In today’s Special, we look at Military Prague: a few of the key moments in the city’s history, from the first Slavonic settlements, to the founding of Prague Castle and achievements later in the 20th century. Like any major city, Prague’s military history is impossible to separate from other historical developments: technological, economic, and cultural. As a site in the Czech lands it is of course difficult to overstate its importance.

Jiří Bílek is a specialist at Prague’s Military Museum at Žižkov, focusing on the history of Czech warfare and military organisation:

“The Czechs, like the French, can boast a capital whose history goes back to the very foundation of their kingdom. Only Prague and Paris share that. For centuries the capital was naturally home to the largest military force in Bohemia and it was clear that whoever controlled Prague controlled all of the Czech lands.”

Archaeologists have long known that early hill-forts between the 6th and 9th centuriesonce stood in various parts of the future capital, including a site above a cliff-face in the quiet district of Bohnice, overlooking the winding Vltava River. Another notable site was a fort believed to have stood in an area known as Divoká Šárka, today a leafy nature reserve. Historian Ladislav Čepička:

“There is evidence, albeit indirect, that an early Slavonic fort in Šárka served as an important strategic site. Archaeologists uncovered arrowheads, javelin tips, as well as weapon handles, which all suggest inhabitants included a rider caste of warriors who likely formed the retinue for a powerful local leader.”

In the 9th century, following struggles for power, Bořivoj I of the House of Přemyslid emerged as Bohemian prince and lay the foundations for the Czech kingdom. Circa 880 the first foundations for Prague Castle on the hill overlooking the Vltava River were laid, consisting of wooden and earthen ramparts, a stone frontal wall and surrounding ditches. Two hundred and fifty years later the original fortification was replaced by stone Romanesque walls, towers and gates.

Across the river, the fortress of Vyšehrad, was built up in the 10th century rivalling Prague Castle for a time as the seat of Czech kings. But Prague Castle would endure, becoming an increasingly important centre of power and trade, surviving early battles and siege by competing forces. How were such conflicts settled? Ladislav Čepička again:

“Individual leaders had princely retinues of their closest fighters, who depended on the prince’s wealth. They had followers and vassals of their own and of course under the feudal system they could muster armies several thousand strong capable of battle not just at home but also abroad.”

In 1348, Holy Roman Emperor and Czech King Charles IV founded Prague’s New Town and Prague Castle was interconnected with the districts of Hradčany, Malá Strana and the Old and New Towns. Defence would no longer depend on hastily mustered troops, but on fusiliers, archers and cross-bow specialists granted new privileges. The nearby Stag Moat served as a training ground, later replaced by the use of one of Prague’s islands on the Vltava River which still bears the name Střelecký ostrov or Shooters’ Island.

“Charles IV ordered the greater reinforcement of Prague’s fortifications allowing weapons manufacturers to consequently defend the city and granting them certain privileges. They defended not only the New Town but also the older quarters of the Old Town and Malá Strana.”

Skill with firearms would again be important in the period of religious strife later, in the 15th century, when conflict escalated following the burning of Czech preacher Jan Hus. Crusades were launched by Catholic forces against Bohemia. The Hussites, under military leader Jan Žižka, developed innovative tactics that were able to repulsed wave after wave. Lacking classic soldiers as well as funds, the commander built up forces from peasants and farmers, transforming farming implements into weapons such as flails and morning stars They were also the first to successfully use pistols on the battlefield, Ladislav Čepička points out:

“To this day there are two Czech words understood in international languages thanks to the Hussites use of a small firearm that was known as a pištala and a small cannon called the houfnice. The first is the basis for ‘pistol’, the second for ‘howitzer’. The Hussites were extremely innovative under Zizka both with those weapons as well as mobile defence that was effective against heavily-armoured chargers who seemed to belong to another age. They profoundly influenced battlefield tactics in Europe basically up until the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century.”

The mentioned conflict which swept through Europe in various stages after 1618, saw the Czech Estates defeated at the battle of White Mountain in 1620, which would lead to the forced re-Catholicisation of the Czech lands and to three hundred years of continued Habsburg rule. It was at that time that Prague changed to a military site with a permanent garrison. General Albrecht of Wallenstein was its first commander. Countless regiments would serve through the years. Later, military organisation in the Czech lands would undergo major reforms under Maria Theresa and Joseph II, and the Prague garrison would continue to back the Austro-Hungarian monarchy up until the First World War. Things of course changed in 1918. Jiří Bílek, of Prague’s Military Museum at Žižkov:

“The founding of Czechoslovakia is of course closely linked with our military. In the years preceding the end of the war it was our legionnaires in Russia, France, and Italy, who strongly backed the idea of an independent state. Their spirit was crucial before and after, in terms of morale. Defenders of the Habsburg monarchy did not retreat willingly and attempts at reinstating it were there. It wasn’t just Austria but also Hungary at the Slovak border and disagreement with Poland over parts of Silesia, a dispute settled only in the 1940s. In those first years members of the Prague garrison and the military helped provide internal as well as border stability.”

That sovereignty would ultimately be crushed just 20 years later during the Munich Agreement where leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy allowed Czechoslovakia's German-speaking border regions to be handed to Nazi Germany. Czech forces which had been mobilised against the Nazi threat were crushed.

“There was an enormous will to fight and defend the country. When the soldiers learned that they would have to leave, many cried. They couldn’t believe it. Others left but only on strict orders from commanding officers. Some committed suicide rather than ‘capitulate’.”

March 15,  1939
Disappointment and disillusionment led many loyal to Czechoslovakia to escape the country to continue the fight abroad. Among them was one of the country’s most famous airmen, the late Frantíšek Peřina. It is his story that we turn to for the rest of this programme dedicated to the military this day.

Historians may wrangle over details but almost all agree that in Czech military history there have been few men like Frantíšek Peřina. Born in Moravia on April 8, 1911, Peřina was among the most prolific of young Czech pilots in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, representing his country in a famous international air show in Zurich prior to the war. Following the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, Peřina like so many other Czech airmen - over a thousand - escaped to Poland and later to France - to serve his country abroad. After war was declared in 1939, he was recruited to serve in the French Air Force at Chartre. He learned to fly the American-made Curtiss, and began serving in December 1939. Historian Jiří Rajlich:

"Peřina made his name in the very first days of Germany's western offensive. On May 10th Germany began its assault against France, the Netherlands, and Belgium and on that day - in two separate flights - Peřina shot down four planes. The next day he shot down his fifth - earning him the title of "Ace". Peřina became the first Czech Ace in the Second World War: a day after that he shot down two additional planes."

Peřina's deeds also saw him become the first Czech pilot in the war promoted to officer rank. That was almost unheard of - only very few pilots in Czechoslovakia had ever been promoted to officer rank without training at a military academy. It set quite a precedent and soon the pilot's fame grew throughout France.

"For obvious reasons official propaganda never mentioned pilots' full names, mostly using initials. But, the French press did write a lot about Frantíšek Peřina. They called him Rinope - more or less an anagram of his name. He was very popular and was photographed a number of times. Later he was helped by those who recognised him to escape from France."

If František Peřina - Rinope - made a name for himself in the first few days of battle, his most daring flight of all took place in June 1940 - when the German Luftwaffe was intensifying its bombing campaigns over Paris. Jiří Rajlich again:

"He and colleagues tried to turn back a German bombing formation - but Peřina focused on a fighter escort of some 60 Messerschmitts. He shot one plane down but was himself hit. It took all his strength to land."

Shortly before his death in 2006, František Peřina said this was the moment he most recalled from his time in the war:

"I had to gain them some time, and I could think of nothing other than to attack. I had to stop them somehow. I distracted them, and I even managed to shoot one down, but then I myself was hit. My plane took 15 cannon hits, 80 by machine gun. My leg and my arm were injured, although I didn't feel a thing. I knew I probably wasn't going to make it back." Somehow, Peřina survived. Whether by sheer luck or sheer skill or a combination of both is always a question for debate. But, says Jiří Rajlich things are always unpredictable to a degree in the air.

"Peřina himself used to say that in the air nothing is ever 'lost'. In my research I've come across thousands of cases where pilots escaped by the skin of their teeth. Even in cases where enemy planes collided, pilots sometimes parachuted to safety. As for Peřina: he was a master of calculated risk."

In World War Two, the pilot shot down 14 enemy planes. He took part in the Battle of Britain and trained new pilots in the field. He has said that he took the war as something like "sport" - perhaps one of the keys to survival. It must have been an extremely bitter experience for Peřina - when three years after the war, having returned home, he was forced to flee Czechoslovakia again. It was 1948 and the Communists were sentencing the country's war heroes to prison and even death. Peřina fled with his wife Anna - eventually to the US.

But, many Czechs never forgot his contribution. When Peřina and his wife returned home in the 90s many (not least those in the newly-emerging military) gave him with a 'hero's welcome'.