Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Liberation of Prague and Czechoslovakia

Soviet and Czech Armour 1945.

The Nazi puppet state in Slovakia sent small ground and air units to fight against the Soviet Union. Formerly a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after World War I Slovakia shared the twists and turns of the history of the Czech state. But during World War II the two provinces were split when a Nazi protectorate was set up in Slovakia under a local priest and fascist leader, Josef Tiso (1887–1947). Slovakia adhered to the Tripartite Pact and Axis alliance on November 23, 1940. In June 1941, it declared war on the Soviet Union. There followed declarations of war against the Western Allies in tandem with the German declarations of December 11, 1941. The Slovak population did not so readily embrace these pro-German policies. At the end of August 1944, the Slovak Uprising broke out. Like the Warsaw Rising in Poland, the Slovak rebellion was savagely crushed by the Germans by the end of October: it was as hard for small powers to leave the Axis at the end of the war as it was to resist annexation at its beginning. Slovakia was defended against the assaulting Red Army by German 1st Panzer Army. That was a misnamed force without any tanks which had no chance against the combat power it faced in Soviet 1st and 4th Ukrainian Fronts. Three Soviet armies broke part way into the Carpathians in September–October during what Russian historians call the “East Carpathian operation.” After a two-month pause, a complimentary “West Carpathian operation” was launched in January–February, 1945. It was temporarily blocked by a stiffened defense by 600,000 Axis troops led by General Ferdinand Schörner . Stalin and the Stavka sacked the original Soviet commander, replacing him with General Andrei Yeremenko . He also had trouble with Slovakia’s terrain: mountain fighting was new to much of the Red Army, while in Slovakia the Soviets faced German and Waffen-SS bitterenders. Yeremenko was reinforced and attacked again from March to May, 1945. His “ Bratislava-Brno operation ” went around the German flanks and up the Danube valley. Bratislava fell on April 4. Brno was taken on the 28th. Tiso was found hiding in a cellar. He was hanged as a traitor in 1947.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill urged the new American President, Harry Truman, to send American forces to take Prague. American 3rd and 7th Armies had advanced through Bavaria against light resistance and reached the border of western Bohemia on April 25, 1945. By Allied agreement, liberation of Prague was left to the Red Army. Citizens of the city had other ideas and rose on May 4, though perhaps more in celebration of expected liberation than in violent determination to liberate themselves. The rising cut off remnants of Army Group Center from escape to the west or back to Germany, so German troops tried to retake Prague. The Red Army arrived five days later, one day after a formal ceasefire and surrender agreement at Reims went into effect across Germany. The Soviets took down the last German resistance after a blistering artillery barrage. There was heavy fighting in other parts of Czechoslovakia by bitterenders in Army Group Center, especially among Waffen-SS units. More famously, there was some fighting with a demoralized division of the Russian Liberation Army that lasted until May 11. All that made Czechoslovakia the first territory invaded by German troops and the last from which they were violently expelled.

When the fighting ended, almost 720,000 Germans were marched off to Soviet POW camps. Most remained in harsh captivity for years, working as forced laborers in the Soviet Union. The Red Army put its losses for nine months of the Czech and Slovak campaigns at 140,000 men. When the Soviets withdrew their armed forces from the country, Beneš returned as president of a restored Czechoslovakia.

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