The US Army and the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945

Liberation of Plzeň, photo: Czech Television

At the beginning of May 1945 fighting was still going on in Prague. The Czech lands were one of the last places in Europe where people were dying even after the official end of hostilities between the German Army and the Allies on May 8. There was a last-minute uprising in the Czech capital and the US 3rd Army was only some 80 kilometers (or about 50 miles) away, near the western city of Plzeň.

Liberation of Plzeň,  photo: Czech Television
However, even though they sent at least two missions deep into the territory still occupied by Germans, the US generals decided to leave the liberation of Prague to the Soviet Army.

The US Army was not expected to even enter the territory of what was then Czechoslovakia in 1945.

However, General Patton, whose 3rd Army was moving south through Bavaria, needed to secure his flanks. As early as April 19, when the Red Army was still fighting the bloody Battle of Berlin, the Americans crossed the Czechoslovak border.

Czech journalist and officer Zdeněk Vršovský sent the following report to the Czech department of the BBC:

“It is Thursday, 19 April 1945. Today we are going to tread Czechoslovak soil again after six years. We are driving through Bavarian villages and towns. It is a beautiful sunny day and not far ahead of us appear the peaks of the Czech mountains.

“A few kilometers away from headquarters there is a small village in a valley. It is very small and with only German-speaking inhabitants. The Czechoslovak border must be somewhere around here.

“We stop a German with the white sleeve-band of the provisional German police and ask him to show us exactly where the border is.

“He timidly looks at our uniform patches with the name Czechoslovakia, starts to understand and becomes pale. He runs just a few steps back to a white building with an obedient, even subservient complaisance.

“He measures the distance with his steps and stops about 20 metres down the hill. Then he explains: the border is here. We are in Czechoslovakia on this side. And Deutschland is on the other side.

“That man spoke in the present tense, having understood that the time has come to reconcile himself with the existence of the Czechoslovak Republic. On his pale frightened face, I could read a great worry: the Czechs are here. What will happen now?”

The local Germans had a double reason to worry. They had occupied the predominantly German-speaking Sudetenland on the border between Czechoslovakia and the Third Reich back in 1938 and now it was obvious that the region would again come under Czech control after six years of occupation.

The Allied Supreme Commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, first agreed with his Soviet counterpart, General Aleksei I. Antonov, that US forces would stop on the line of the Czech cities of Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) – Plzeň – České Budějovice.

General George Smith Patton | Photo: US national archives,  public domain
General George Smith Patton and his 3rd Army were originally under orders to move to the mountainous region between Bavaria and Austria, where the Germans were expected to make the last stand and try to halt the Allies. Historian Vít Smetana from the Institute of Contemporary History in Prague takes up the story:

“Soon it was clear that the Alpine Fortress was just one big myth and the US troops could quite easily advance to Czechoslovakia. Eisenhower, urged by Churchill, sent another dispatch to General Antonov.

“Unfortunately, he decided to ASK about the possibility of Americans pushing forward to the logical line given by the rivers the Vltava and the Elbe, instead of simply ANNOUNCING that that was going to happen.

“General Antonov replied the next day, May 5, by protesting that the Prague Operation of the Red Army has already started, the US and Soviet armies could accidentally clash with resulting friendly fire, etc.

“However, we now know that he was misleading Eisenhower. Soviet troops were at that time only beginning to take up positions on the move towards Prague around Dresden. In fact, the operation did not start until May 7.”

Meanwhile, the Czechoslovak resistance started a last-minute uprising in the still occupied Prague. They called for help via the airwaves of Czechoslovak Radio in Prague. And the Americans were hesitant, says Vít Smetana.

“Even as late as on May 7 there was a possibility that the Americans could send an armored task force to help the insurgents in Prague.

“But then it was decided that a mission would be sent under the command of Colonel Pratt to the German military headquarters of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia that was located in Eastern Bohemia.

“The main purpose of the mission was to inform the Germans that an armistice had been signed and that all military activity on the part of German troops should cease.

“Twelve vehicles went from Plzeň to Prague and then to Velichovka spa near Hradec Králové. On the night from May 7 to 8 they arrived in Prague and were welcomed as liberators.

“However, this was only a negotiating unit with a single purpose: to make sure that the Germans were aware of the unconditional surrender of the German high command and that there was no need to go on fighting.”

There was at least one other US military mission to Prague, says Igor Lukeš, a professor of history at Boston University:

“The commander of the Czech section of the American intelligence organization OSS ordered two of his men to take a Jeep and drive to Karlovy Vary.

“Lieutenant Eugene Fodor and his deputy, Sergeant Kurt Taub, had orders to go there, find out what was going on in the city and return to Pilsen.

“They accomplished this part of their mission easily, finding out that the city was full of German refugees and soldiers whose only wish was to become American POWs and get away from the Red Army.”

Liberation of Czechoslovakia by Red Army,  photo: Czech Television
But Prague was calling for help over the airwaves and that made the Americans change their plans, says Mr. Lukeš.

“So these three US soldiers decided that instead of going back to Plzeň they would try to get to Prague.

“The trip was a little rough: some of the Czech guerillas decided at the very end of the war to shoot at anything that moved on the roads. They had never seen an American Jeep. They took it to be a German vehicle and sniped at it.

“Nevertheless, the Americans did get to Prague. They drove to Bartolomějská St. in the center and the headquarters of the Prague Uprising.”

There they offered to drive someone from the Czech underground leadership to the American headquarters in Plzeň.

However, the Communists, who were already the dominant force in Prague, preferred to wait for the Red Army, knowing that liberation of the Czech capital city by the Soviets would help to solidify their power in post-war Czechoslovakia.

Even then it was possible that Americans might reach Prague. Historian Vít Smetana again:

“The American commanders were considering a plan to send an armored group to Prague till the very last moment.

“Obviously, the Germans were still shooting and thus did not respect the agreement about unconditional surrender.

“So it was seriously discussed during the night from May 8 to 9 that the Americans would send such a group to help the insurgents in Prague. “But then there were reports of Red Army movements in the Prague suburbs towards the center. And that was that.”

So, in the end, it was the Soviet Army that liberated Prague. There is little doubt that it helped the Communist Party to persuade many Czechs and Slovaks that it made sense to rely mainly on Moscow and not the Western powers.

That, in time, would destroy democracy in Czechoslovakia for more than four decades and become a major factor in establishing the totalitarian government in the country.

Of course, history knows no “ifs”. However, if the American generals had been just a little more resolute in May 1945 two generations of Czechs and Slovaks could have lived in a free world rather than a Soviet satellite.