Playing cat-and-mouse with the Soviets to keep on air

August 1968

In the days immediately after the Soviet invasion in August 1968, staff at Czechoslovak Radio played a cat-and-mouse game with the occupying forces. For the first couple of days, they managed to continue broadcasting directly from the radio headquarters, despite the presence of tanks outside.

August 1968
Again and again, they repeated the government and party leadership’s appeal for calm. Above all, they stressed the message from the country’s leaders that the occupation was unwanted and illegal. But the Soviets were already hard at work to silence the radio. The chairman of the Central Board for Communications Karel Hoffmann was a political hardliner and in collaboration with the invaders, gave the order that all medium wave transmitters be shut off. Thirty-five years later, in 2003, Hoffmann was the only former communist functionary to go to prison for his role in helping the Soviet invasion. Despite his efforts, broadcasts continued:

“All the transmitters which we had at our disposal have been gradually forced out of operation, and we do not even know how many of you, our listeners, can hear us. But we shall try to stay in touch with you, even though some of our phone lines are cut and since two in the morning, foreign aircraft have been circling above the Czechoslovak Radio building.”

Once the radio building was occupied, radio staff went to great lengths to keep on the air, taking risks and improvising at every step:

“Dear listeners… We must now leave you, as the army of occupation is on its way, but we hope that shortly we’ll be able to start broadcasting again from another private apartment…”

In the following days Radio Prague - which then as now served as the radio’s international service - was to play a central role:

“This is Radio Prague, Czechoslovakia, broadcasting continuously in English, French, German and Italian, as well as Czech and bringing you the latest news bulletins and reports as we receive them about the situation here in occupied Czechoslovakia.”

Karel Hoffmann in 2004, photo: CTK
Radio Prague became the voice of free Czechoslovakia to the world, broadcasting on an improvised schedule coordinated by staff member Oldřich Číp, through its shortwave transmitter in Litomyšl. Medium wave domestic broadcasts were possible through mobile transmitters, which ironically, had originally been provided by the Soviets. Radio Prague could be heard loud and clear throughout Europe.

“We are transmitting in the 49-metre band on 6.055 megacycles. However, since this frequency is being jammed, please tune us in by turning slightly to the right or left of this position on your radio dial.”

Radio Prague brought the latest developments, almost literally as they happened.

“I beg you to excuse any possible slips of the tongue, but I am translating straight from a slip of a Czech text. According to information of eye-witnesses, the chairman of the Czechoslovak government, Mr Oldřich Černík, was taken in a Soviet armed transporting vehicle at about 17 hours this afternoon to an unknown destination.”

On August 27, the father of the Prague Spring reforms Alexander Dubček returned from his forced stay in Moscow, having been bullied into signing the so-called Moscow Protocol that legitimized the invasion. From that moment on, the days were numbered for free radio broadcasts from Czechoslovakia.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on February 19, 2009.

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