Prague Uprising - battle for Czech capital may have helped end war in Europe sooner

Prague Uprising, source: Archive of the National Museum in Prag, CC BY 4.0

The Prague Uprising, which took place during the last days of the Second World War, was arguably the largest Czech combat outing on the territory of their state in the twentieth century. The specific impact of the various forces which took part in it remains a subject of heated discussion until this day. Whatever their role, some historians believe that, had the Czechs not risen up, the war in Europe would have continued for 11 more days.

Prague Uprising, source: Archive of the National Museum in Prag, CC BY 4.0

From regional sparks to a flame in the capital

Tomáš Jakl, photo: Jakub Říšský, Czech Radio
The uprising in Prague was the turning point and main event in the Czech fight against the occupying Nazi forces. However, it was not the first spark. Historian Tomáš Jakl from the Military History Institute Prague says earlier uprisings broke out in several Czech towns.

“The uprisings broke out independently of each other in several places from May 1. The anti-German minded Vlasovs then radicalised the populations of Rakovnik. Other uprisings broke out in Nymburk, Jicin, Sedmihradsko and other places.”

These armed struggles led the main command of the Czech resistance, called Defence of the Nation (Obrana Naroda), under the command of pre-protectorate Czechoslovak General František Slunéčko, to give out the order and initiate an uprising in Prague, setting up their central command centre located in a bombing shelter under Prague’s Bartolomějská street.

Jaroslav Klemeš, photo: Post Bellum
Units of the uprising immediately started seizing strategic points across the city and securing weapons and ammunition. Firefights took place in the building of Czech Radio and radio announcers began calling on the population for help. This call was broadcast across the protectorate and began further uprisings across the country.

“Everyone come to Czechoslovak Radio, Czechs are being shot! Come as soon as you can. We are calling on the Czech armed forces, Czech police units. Everyone come to the radio. Help us!”

Those involved in the fighting included Czechoslovak parachutists who had been dropped into Czechoslovakia during the war. One of them was Jaroslav Klemeš, who volunteered to be parachuted into the country in the beginning of 1945, despite being aware of the risks involved and the many tragic fates of his predecessors.

“Each one of us knew it was going to be dangerous, but we also all thought we would survive it somehow. I too thought I would survive.”

Klemeš was dropped into Eastern Bohemia and helped navigate planes transporting equipment for the Czechoslovak resistance. In the closing stages of the war he moved to Prague, where he served as a radio-telegraphist maintaining a connection with London until the uprising was over.

Prague Uprising, source: Archive of the National Museum in Prag, CC BY 4.0
The fighting went on for several days as both sides tried to wrench control of the city from the other. Trams were hurriedly taken out of their rails and placed across key streets, covered in cobblestones to serve as barricades in order to stop the Germans. Some 1,600 such barricades were built overnight following the call to rise up.

The role of the Vlasov troops

The leaders of the uprising were particularly worried about a large contingent of SS troops who were based around the town of Benešov about 40 kilometers south-east of Prague.

During the evening of May 6, Vlasov troops (units of the Russian Liberation Army which switched sides to fight against the Germans) took part in the fighting and surrounded the airport around Prague’s Ruzyně. Their contribution in the Prague Uprising was relatively short, only about 30 hours, Historian Jindřich Marek told Czech Radio.

Karel Kutlvašr, photo: ČT24
“It is often said that the Vlasovs ‘saved Prague’. That is a ridiculous statement from a military point of view. However, the commander of the Prague Uprising, General Karel Kutlvašr, did clearly say that they helped, especially from a morale point of view, because it raised the spirit of the Czechs and made the Germans worried.”

German surrender

The turning point came on May 7, says historian Tomáš Jakl.

After the uprising began, the Germans gave up on their plans of a defence in the Czech lands. On May 7, they signed an unconditional surrender in Reims, France, with representatives of all leading allied powers present. They tried to move their soldiers who were posted on the Eastern front west. However, General Dwight D. Eisenhower warned them not to do this and refused to take these soldiers on as captives. Instead, he placed them in the hands of the Red Army.

“In Prague, which the Germans had been trying to retake since May 5 and reinstate as a centre of communications for Army Group Centre, the battle lost any sense on May 8. German troops therefore capitulated to the Czech National Council and moved west towards the American lines around Rokycany. Thereafter, Czech resistance units began seizing buildings previously occupied by the Germans and at 4am on the morning of May 9, the first Red Army tanks began arriving in Prague.”

Questions surrounding the role of the Red Army

Klárov, photo: Archive of Václav Vlk
The sight of Red Army’s tanks entering into Prague was eagerly broadcast by Czech Radio.

“At this moment Prague has been liberated by the Red Army! One can see in Klarov, on the square the last defeated German tanks. The glorious Red Army took them out quickly and effectively. The tanks are on fire.”

The role of the Red Army in the liberation of Prague, a question that is currently hotly debated in the country on the backdrop of the recent removal of the commander of the respective Soviet army group, Marshal Ivan Konev. However, according to Tomáš Jakl, the Soviet role was actually counterproductive.

General Eisenhower, photo: Library of Congress, Public Domain
“The Red Army played a negative role in the liberation of Prague. The American 3rd Army had been advancing into Bohemia from the west. Its agreed line of advance was towards Karlovy Vary, Plzeň and České Budějovice. When General Eisenhower saw that the circumstances made it possible to move the line to the Vltava river he asked the Red Army general staff if he could move the line of advance this far. However, the Red Army general staff insisted it would be the Soviets who would take Prague and thus prevented the chance to get allied troops into the Czech capital earlier, sometime around May 7. Such an advance was within the capabilities of the US army located in Western Bohemia.”

Prague Uprising, source: Archive of the National Museum in Prag, CC BY 4.0
It is necessary to say however, that Prague lies far to the west of what was then Czechoslovakia, and the first of the pre-1939 state’s territories were retaken from the Germans by Red Army troops in Slovakia in 1944.

Did the uprising help end the war sooner?

While Prague may have become free a few days earlier, it would have likely had to wait for its liberation much longer had the citizens not risen up, extending the war in Europe by nearly two weeks, the historian says.

“German plans for the defence of the Bohemian-Moravian regions counted on a fighting retreat towards the west. The Germans expected to be able to carry on the fight until somewhere between May 18-20. The Red Army’s plans for moving into Prague counted on roughly the same dates. The fact that the Prague Uprising broke out and the Germans subsequently capitulated on May 7 nullified these plans. Instead of fighting the German troops through the Czech lands, the Red Army basically pursued fleeing German units and took them into custody in front of the American lines.”

Edvard Beneš, photo: Czech Radio
Had no uprising taken place, the grandiose entrance of Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš into the city on May 16 would have had to wait. It would also have likely been a different Czechoslovak capital. The Germans had planned to make it a fortress city, blowing up bridges and picking apart Czech industry.

Military History Institute exhibit traces Prague Uprising

On the occasion of the 75 anniversary of the end of war, the Military History Institute Prague has created a special exhibit depicting the Prague and wider Czech uprising. It will be available for viewers online, says Tomáš Jakl.

Special exhibit depicting the Prague and wider Czech uprising, photo: Archive of the Military History Institute
“The exhibition was intended to be displayed in front of the building of the general staff on Prague’s Victory Square. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, we decided to put it online. It can be found on the website of the Military History Institute Prague. Viewers can see the digitised panels detailing the history of the uprising, as well as the combat on surrounding fronts and the wider Czech territory. There is also a PDF brochure which summarises the exhibit.”

The Prague Uprising involved some 30,000 Czechs and 18,000 Vlasov troops fighting against around 40,000 Wehrmacht and Waffen SS men.

Around 1,700 Czechoslovaks died in the fighting and nearly 3,000 were injured. The Russian Liberation Army troops lost around 300 troops.

The Germans lost around 1,000 men and the Soviets, who arrived in the closing phase of the uprising, a few dozen.