From nurses to snipers - The story of the Czechoslovak women who served in World War II
From nurses to snipers - The story of the Czechoslovak women who served in World War II
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The story of Czechoslovak military involvement in World War Two is often told with a focus on a few heroic figures and pivotal events. However, one aspect that has gone largely overlooked in popular memory is the role of women in the fight against Nazism. This despite the fact that over a thousand women served in Czechoslovak Army units on the Eastern Front. Czechoslovak women also took on a variety of tasks in the female branches of the British military.
Deployment on the Eastern Front
In January 1942, Soviet radio broadcast a call for Czechoslovak citizens in the USSR to enlist in a new Czechoslovak Army unit, which was being formed in Buzuluk, in southern Russia. Volunteers, including women, soon began arriving in Buzuluk from all parts of the Soviet Union. Between 1942 and 1945, more than 60,000 people joined the Czechoslovak military units on the Eastern Front. The historians Alena Flimelová and Roman Štér have devoted years of research to uncovering the stories of the female volunteers. Ms Flimelová says that it is still unclear how many women exactly joined the force:
“During our research, we have found the names of 1,151 women that served with the Czechoslovak forces on the Eastern Front. However, we don’t consider this to be the final number since some of the names in the available databases may overlap. Some of the ladies would have gotten married and changed their names, which would cause them to be counted twice.”
Many of the women that arrived in Buzuluk had already emigrated to the Soviet Union following the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany in 1939. Early volunteers were either Jewish or Subcarpathian Ruthenian Czechoslovaks that had been imprisoned in Soviet forced-labour camps or gulags. In 1942, they were released by Soviet authorities and allowed to enlist in the Czechoslovak unit. Members of Czech-speaking communities that had historically settled on Russian territory, such as the Volhynian Czechs, also made up a significant part of the Czechoslovak forces.
The women who joined the Czechoslovak unit were generally very eager to volunteer, even if it meant putting themselves into harm’s way. Historian Roman Štér told Czech Radio about their most common reasons for enlisting.
“One of the main motives, especially for the Volhynian Czechs, was patriotism. Others were wanting to get revenge or to contribute to the defeat of fascism, which they saw as the greatest evil possible. Of course, there were also romantic reasons, such as falling in love with one of the male soldiers. Many of the women were attracted by newspaper photos of their peers in uniform. Some of them joined without really thinking it through or even reading their entry documents. On the other hand, others had a clear motivation for entering the unit. For instance, Lieutenant-Colonel Irena Malínská told me she joined so that she could care for injured servicemen.”
Throughout 1942, the volunteers at Buzuluk undertook basic training and prepared to enter combat alongside the Red Army. The Soviet military had first allowed women to enlist in its ranks in 1941, as the German Wehrmacht made rapid advances across Western Russia. Servicewomen in the Red Army took on a variety of posts, serving as anti-aircraft gunners, snipers, machine-gun operators, pilots, or even tank-drivers. Alena Flimelová explains that, by contrast, Czechoslovak commanders on the Eastern Front did not initially expect women to take on major combat roles.
“When the Czechoslovak Army formation in the USSR was formed in 1942, it was established in accordance with pre-war Czechoslovak legislation, which did not allow for women to join any military unit. At the same time, more and more women were arriving at Buzuluk wanting to enlist. It became clear that the Czechoslovak command would somehow have to deal with this situation. So, women began to be enlisted spontaneously on the personal responsibility of Ludvík Svoboda, the commander of the formation. The women were trained mainly in supporting roles, most frequently as nurses or cooks. Two girls also undertook sniper training.”
The two female snipers mentioned by Ms Flimelová were Vanda Biněvská and Marie Ljalková. Both top sharpshooters, they went on to become two of the most famous female veterans of the Czechoslovak unit. Ljalková is said to have amassed over thirty battlefield kills. Alena Flimelová explains how the two young girls became snipers.
“It was really a coincidence because Marie Ljalková was born a Ukrainian and married a Subcarpathian Ruthenian who was fleeing to the Soviet Union in 1939. Through this marriage, she received Czechoslovak citizenship and then entered the Czechoslovak unit. She was originally training to be a nurse. But the nurses also had to undertake shooting training. The officer in charge saw that Ljalková excelled in the training and placed her in the sniper’s course. It was the same story with Vanda Biněvská. The girls were required to hit a target at least once in three tries. They both hit the bulls-eye three times in a row and were thus chosen for sniper training.”
In 1943, the Czechoslovak troops entered combat for the first time. At the Battle of Sokolovo, they confronted German units advancing on the nearby city Kharkiv. As the Czechoslovak unit fought to delay the German onslaught, its nurses worked tirelessly to rescue injured soldiers who came under enemy fire. Many of the women received medals for their efforts. Alena Flimelová explains that, after Sokolovo, the Czechoslovak unit changed its approach to deploying women in battle.
“The Battle of Sokolovo was the first combat deployment of the Czechoslovak units, including the women. It is important to note that, at Sokolovo, the Czechoslovak Army command had not really decided yet on how it wanted to use the female section. During the battle, nurses were allowed to operate on the frontline. Although only one was injured and none were killed, the command still decided afterwards that this type of deployment was too risky. So, after Sokolovo, women were no longer allowed to go up to the frontlines.”
Apart from the two snipers, servicewomen were therefore pulled from direct combat after this baptism of fire for the Czechoslovak units on the Eastern Front. However, women still came under deadly fire at the Battle of the Dukla Pass in 1944. During this major clash on the north-eastern border of today’s Slovakia, the whole Czechoslovak unit came under German mortar attack. Five women, including three signallers and two anti-aircraft gunners, died from wounds inflicted by shrapnel. These are the only documented combat deaths of Czechoslovak women in World War Two.
Women in the British auxiliary corps
The situation of the Czechoslovak servicewomen in Britain was more complicated, as the London-based Czechoslovak government-in-exile did not allow women to join the Czechoslovak units formed in Britain. Historian Karolína Stegurová explains that Czechoslovak women wanting to get involved in the war effort in Britain had to do so in the auxiliary corps of the British military.
“Faced with insufficient recruitment numbers, the Brits began allowing foreign citizens to join the auxiliary corps of the British military in 1941. The women’s conditions of entry were always negotiated with the respective governments in exile. The foreign volunteers could either serve directly with the British military, or they could form their own national units that would eventually become independent of the British. The latter happened for example in the cases of France, Poland, or Norway.”
“By contrast, the Czechoslovak Army only agreed with the Brits about the conditions on which Czechoslovak women could enter the British auxiliary corps. However, it did not concern itself with the matter much after that. While it agreed to create an independent national formation if enough women volunteered, no effort was made to keep any evidence of how many volunteers signed up.”
Why didn’t the Czechoslovak Army allow women to join its ranks? The official reason given by the government was that letting females enlist would require amending pre-war legislation, which only permitted men to join the force. In reality, Czechoslovak generals wanted to free up support roles for males who weren’t physically fit enough to serve in combat.
The failure of Czechoslovak authorities to keep track of the women that served with the British makes it hard to determine how many there were. Karolína Stegurová estimates their number to be over 200. In the British Army and Royal Airforce, they took up a variety of posts, most often as drivers, interpreters, or meteorologists. The Czechoslovak servicewoman Ruth Tosková recalled her experience working for RAF’s signals intelligence.
“We eavesdropped on the communication of the Luftwaffe, which was directed from stations on the ground. At first, we had to learn German codes, because everything was broadcast in codes which were then deciphered by other branches of the air force. It wasn’t difficult since the code was limited to some 200 or 300 words.”
A further 119 Czechoslovak women are estimated to have served with the British Army in the Middle East. Many of them were Jewish and had emigrated to British Palestine shortly before or after the war broke out. A contingent of about 30 Czechoslovak women was stationed at Tell El Kebir, a dessert camp about 110 kilometres northeast of Cairo. Karolína Stegurová told Czech Radio more about the British base.
“The camp was a melting pot of different nationalities. Besides Czechoslovaks, these included Greeks, Cypriots, Persian men, Arabs, and Jews. There were also problems with discipline. From the army journals of Tell El Kebir we know that thefts of mosquito nets and tyres were very frequent. Simply put, there was always drama going on. But the archives also show that the Brits saw the Czechs as the hardest-working group, along with the Greeks.”
The Czechoslovak women at Tell El Kebir mostly served as office workers, car mechanics, or drivers. The platoon of drivers was tasked with transporting material from ports on the Red Sea to the front. It was commanded by captain Edita Zochovicová. Originally from Slovakia and of Jewish origin, Zochovicová was the first Czechoslovak woman to become a military officer during World War Two. After the war, she received several medals for her service.
The fact that the Czechoslovak women served directly under the British military delayed their return home once the war ended, as Karolína Stegurová explains.
“The British Army had a commitment to stay deployed until the war ended around the world, which happened in September 1945. So the Czechoslovak women stayed in the Middle East until the end of 1945. They then began to be processed by Czechoslovak repatriation authorities and only returned home in March 1946.”
The post-war years in Czechoslovakia brought hardships for many male and female veterans alike. The communist regime that was established in 1948 saw Britain as an enemy and set out to persecute those who had served in western forces. Although the lack of a comprehensive list of Czechoslovaks that had served in the British auxiliary corps may have limited the scope of the repression, known servicewomen were targeted for state-sanctioned harassment. For instance, Edita Zochovicová was dismissed from a job at the Czechoslovak foreign ministry and forced to take up a series of unqualified jobs. She emigrated to Switzerland in 1968. Some veterans were even sentenced to forced labour in the Jáchymov uranium mines. Although they may have served on the “right side”, the situation was not much better for many women returning from the Soviet Union. Those that had been in gulags were seen as potential political opponents and were also persecuted.
The story of Czechoslovak women that served in the Second World War was for a long time largely unexamined by historians. Published in 2021 by Alena Flimelová and Roman Štér, the book “In the Shadow of Men: Women in the Czechoslovak Units on the Eastern Front in the years 1942-1945” is the first comprehensive monography of its kind. Meanwhile, the role of Czechoslovak servicewomen in Britain and the Middle East was recently mapped by Karolína Stegurová in her book “Women also Wanted to Fight: Czechoslovak Women in the British Auxiliary".