today, we will have a look at one topic that I was wondering about now for a while. The long article what you are about to read (if you choose so), deals with the question, how Czechoslovak soldiers regarded the Germans and Italians during WW2.
The article came out on valka.cz and I remember reading it some time ago. At first, I thought about translating it, because it might be interesting for others than myself – and I did. After that however, I decided not publish it, since the topic (even though specifically concerning WW2) has little to do with tanks.
Well, this decision lasted until today. The impulse, or perhaps the “last straw” for me was an article about the Sudeten Germans and Austrians denying the fact that Czechs were chased out from occupied nazi territories. Obviously, that’s a nonsense (although the proclamation was probably distorted by the journalists to sound more sensationalist than it was), but the cold hard truth is – there are deniers and revisionists amongst us. Those people, who want to depict the nazi regime as something “not that bad” (here, we can draw a parallel with the communist regimes in Europe – sadly, 20 years after the fall of communism, communist party is on the rise again).
I think it’s very important to remember the past. Take this article as a part of that remembrance. Especially the personal memories and diary excerpts from people “who were there” are valuable. I hope you get to read it.
“The Picture of the Enemy” by PhDr. Ladislav Kudrna, PhD.
National point of view
Of all the nations in Europe, it was the Czech people, who had the dubious honor of being the first to feel the occupation might of the nazi regime. To be correct, we’d have to state that it was in fact Austria, who was the first, being “attached” (SS: “Anschluss”) by the Third Reich a year earlier than Czech lands. But it is prudent to also state that the vast majority of Austrians hysterically welcomed their beloved Führer with open arms, just like the German people in Czech borderlands in October 1938. The Munich treason meant not only the major loss of Czech territory, but also tens of thousands of refugees, arriving to Czech inlands. It was more than two hundred thousand refugees, consisting of Czechs, German anti-fascists and Jews. The two latter groups were not welcomed with open arms however. The reason for that was the nationality of Germans and the language (often German) of Jews.
In these strange times, peaked Czech nationalism started to surface. Most of the Czechs lacked the ability to make differences between German nazis or nazi sympathizers and those Germans, who were persecuted in the borderlands for their political or racial background. This ability did not improve during the war either – on the contrary in fact. We can state that the occupation experience and German terror only strenghtened the Czech resistance to anything German. This is confirmed by the words of RAF veteran, František Loucký:
“Together, we remembered home often and we worried about the fates of our dearest, especially during the Heydrichiad. With fists clenched we listened every evening to the Prague radio news, where then names of the people executed were announced. These news gave us strength to further fight the barbaric enemy.”
(SS: Heydrichiad is a Czech term for the months of terror, following the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich)
Below: Sudeten women in Czech borderlands welcome hysterically their beloved Führer
Simply put, a German was a German. Even the Jews from pre-war Czechoslovakia became victims of bullying in the exile army due to their language (German). This is confirmed by the report from Brigadier General Bedřich Neumann, the commander of the 1st Czechoslovak Brigade from September 1941:
“The news of persecution in our homeland are listened to with continuing interest and the general belief is that this difficult trial, although painful, will – when it comes to foreign politics – help us a lot and it will truly show the greatness of our decision after Munich. At the same time, the hatred towards everything German has risen and one cannot rule out the possibility of some incident, if the Jews continue using German to talk to one another, since Czech soldiers consider it a provocation. ………… The national self-awareness rises. The terms “hitlerism”, “nazism” etc., are genereally being replaced by the word “German”. Instead of former thoughts of punishing the nazis, the vengefulness towards all Germans sets in.”
Seven months later, Neumann reported to the exile Ministry of National Defense that:
“Continuous exodus of handpicked people to the airforce and the influx of newbies with German nationality and upbringing causes more and more tension. Incessant German chatter of these people, that can be heard now in almost every building, could become the reason for open conflict between Czech and German soldiers at any moment – Czech soldiers are being provoked directly by this chatter. These Czech soldiers do not make differences between nazis and Germans, they point towards sad experience with our Germans and they rightfully argue that the national composition of the Czechoslovak brigade does not correspond the spirit of the real Czechoslovak army. Many say that if they knew about this, they would have stayed at home, where the nation is united by the peaked nationalism.”
Professional point of view
Of course, the Czechoslovak airman or infantryman did not love his enemy. On the other hand, during hard fighting, he often recognized his quality and was forced to admit that the Germans know their trade. In newsreels, publications and post-war interviews, the protagonists of these clashes admitted it themselves:
“I don’t like that garbage about Germans being bad pilots, untrained and so on. Those that I have met were great pilots, they were brave and their airplanes were usually better than ours, especially the 190′s”
Those were the words of František Fajtl, who himself was shot down on 5.5.1942 by one Focke-Wulf FW 190.
About the same way (without distortions) was the enemy regarded by some unbiased ground army members on the eastern front, despite the fact the German soldiers were often propagandistically depicted as “cowards”, who were acting tough only when they had battlefield superiority. The legend of foreign resistance, Vilém Sacher, openly wrote in his book called “Krvavé Velikonoce” (Bloody Easter, published only after 1989 “Velvet Revolution”):
“I don’t like to talk about it. I’m being careful, because someone might judge me incorrectly, but from the beginning of Karpaty-Dukla Operation I have studied the enemy and I have learned that the Germans are good soldiers. …….. I was ashamed by some front newspapers articles bashing Germans and making almost cowards out of them.”
About as “shocking” is the evaluation of the enemy in the published book (diary) of Otto Wagner called “S cizineckou legií proti Rommelovi” (With the Foreign Legion against Rommel). As a Legion captain, Wagner took part in, amongst other things, the legendary Battle of Bir Hakeim. He left his memories of the enemy and of the fighting there, tied to 10.6.1942, when Bir Hakeim became encircled by the enemy:
“The commander of the 3rd Platoon, Italian by birth, ordered the men to fix bayonets and to ready hand grenades. He is completely calm, the men like carved from stone. They don’t rush while shooting, they aim carefully. The crew of the heavy machinegun, that will flank the Germans are waiting, they haven’t even taken the camo net off yet. And the Germans go – they don’t yell “urrah”, they walk in cold blood, one can see they are good soldiers. They start to shoot from their submachine guns, they have many more than we do. It’s a complete hailstorm of bullets. The heavy machinegun on the flank has its net down and is starting to shoot. The 2nd platoon machinegun adds to that and both mortars from the aux platoon fire shells on the second row of German advancing line. Heavy machineguns of 5th Company attack the enemy reserves… We’ve held them at bay – many end up lying in front of our trenches, while the guys of 3rd platoon are all okay. It’s a miracle. Such a rain of bullets and noone was wounded. Unfortunately, the guardian angels failed to protect the observation post. The observation post in my absence recieved a direct hit from a 155mm howitzer.”
Czech refugees, leaving for the inland after the Munich treason:
Captain Wagner was one of the few Czechs, who could have on that day, 10.6.1942, repay the Germans the civillian massacre, because that day the village of Lidice was burned to the ground by the German occupants…
Otto Wagner left a number of interesting observations in his diary, debunking many German myths, standing in the eyes of propaganda as one behind their Führer, especially during this part of the war, when the German war machine was winning on all fronts. One of them was:
“At 4 o’clock (5.6.1942), a German Major in a car marked by white flag came to the mine filed area entrance. A legionnaire of German birth served as the entrance guard. He asked the Major rudely in German: ‘What do you want here?’ The German Major replied in English: ‘Is there somebodywho speaks English here?’ The guard commander came and told the Major in English to leave. The Major did take a paper out of his pocket and he did read in English Rommel’s call for surrender. After that, he went back to his car, but when he was turning around, his rear wheel hit a mine. He couldn’t do anything else but get out, take the white flag and walk back to his lines. The German Legionnaire shouted after him: ‘That’s a long walk, nazi, it’s 4 kilometers till you get home!’
Thanks to the effort of another German Legionnaire, Wagner’s men managed to break thru (or rather, cut thru with knives) the German encirclement in the night on 11.6.1942:
“We silently assume the wedge formation. The patrol squad under the sargeant will go first. He’s German by birth. After the squad it’s the commander of the 1st Platoon, with the other platoon squads on his flanks. After that it’s me with the auxilliary platoon, 2nd Platoon is on our right flank, 3rd Platoon on the left.
In a short while, we can hear “Halt, wer da?” (hold, who’s there?) The sargeant replies swiftly: “Halts Maul, du Trottel!” (shut up, you idiot). We hear muffled voices. Three Germans have knives stuck in their bodies. The formation gets a bit more dense. I feel like I am in the middle of a wolfpack…
The mist has regularily dissipated after 9 o’clock. Now it’s noon and it still keeps on protecting us. Does the God have time to take care of 79 men, who fought their way out of hell? If only fut, they actually cut their way out!”
Otto Wagner as the Foreign Legion captain:
Shortly before that, in the night on 29.5.1942, Wagner’s men managed to capture 11 more Germans. The captured officer was sent with escort to the Batallion command, the soldiers were sent to the POW pens. Wagner managed to convince one German driver to stay with his company, in which several German Legionnaires served, to teach them to handle diesel engines, so they could use captured German cars. A day later, Wagner wrote in his diary:
“That captured German driver is already wearing our uniform and acts like the diesel engine instructor. Unfortunately he speaks only German. I attached four German Legionnaires to him, so they can communicate. I just hope he won’t make a run for it in the night. The boys are guarding him inconspicuously, they even go to toilet with him, but that’s however pretty conspicuous already.”
Otto Wagner learned himself that not every German is alike.
Death of a friend did always hurt and further increased the hatred towards the enemy. On the other hand, brutal death of a hated enemy shook even an experienced fighter pilot, as Stanislav Fejfar, who shot down a Dornier Do-17 on 15.9.1940 states:
“The crew bailed out, but one unfortunate soul’s parachute got stuck on the aircraft’s tail. It was terrible. He was just swinging on his chute, ripping his belts and straps, but he couldn’t break free. I’d have liked to help him. After that, I wanted to shoot him not to prolong his suffering, but in the end, I just flew away so I didn’t have to watch it. I felt sorry for him. The fate shouldn’t treat even an enemy so cruelly.”
Personal experience point of view
Our soldiers had the possibility to get to know the enemy during the war personally – from two different points of view. One was that of the guards, the other was that of the prisoners. At first they met larger amounts of captured enemies in North Africa. Bohumír Krézek, a Tobruk campaign veteran and later a member of the Canadian air force, left us a memory in his memoirs of meeting Italian and German prisoners in Spring 1941.
“In Alexandria, near a great Arabian cemetery, there was a large POW camp. There were roughly 15 thousand Italians and one thousand Germans in it from what would later become a vanguard of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. These prisoners were handed to us by the British and apart from that, we also guarded the port. …… Italian soldiers were, as they say, “natural born prisoners”. Their war was over by them getting captured and as it seemed, they never really cared that much about Mussolini. They liked to improve the POW camp, they did various jobs, they sang and they surely didn’t look like they were suffering by the fact they can’t wage war anymore. Italian officers were a strange sort of people. For them, the captivity was a pleasant change and they didn’t want to relinquish the comfort, in which they lived in the city itself. The British and of course us too later marveled at the luxury, that followed them during their desert campaign. The Germans were quite the opposite. They considered the captivity as temporary, they were defiant, always the Prussian soldiers, the only thing to make them flinch was the big CZECHOSLOVAKIA on our soliders’ sleeves. And we all were happy to give them plenty of opportunity to get to know this surprising reality.”
The schematic division of the enemy – drill-trained and obedient German soldier versus the Italian bohemian “cool guy”, who didn’t care about the war – surprisingly survived to these days. It is strange, how few veterans were willing to admit the similiar military qualities to the Italian soldiers, despite the fact it was Italian units, who clashed hard with them during the siege of Tobruk. The use of Czechoslovak infantry batallion in Tobruk became a symbol of foreign resistance success. Until then, the exile government in London could only rely upon the awesome successes of our pilots. Otto Wagner was a rare breed, being able to recognize the combat qualities of Italian soldier:
“Finally a patrol nears. I call to them. We approach carefully. And a guy is lying down there – he’s dead already. He has no documents, he’s an NCO from Italian engineer recon. We follow his footsteps. He dug out a few mines and then he dug them in again carefully. He was probably interested in the type of mines we use. We reached the border of our sector, but his car is still nowhere to be seen. He must have come from the mine field sector in front of the Senegalese troops. I ordered the boys to bury him and I returned home. Just as I was arriving, the Senegalese platoon commander called me that his guys have found an Italian motorcycle and that its rider went on the border of the minefield towards my sector. He was really tough! To ride alone in a desert on a motorcycle to the rear of the enemy – that is brave. May he rest in piece.”
Just like the Allies had their elite units, so did the Italians. Especially the Italian elite armored divisions – Ariete, Littorio and Centauro – have earned awesome reputation and respect during the African campaign. Captain Wagner also had the possibility to meet captured German soldiers during his retreat from Bir Hakeim. It was during the time of Rommel’s triumphs in North Africa, with his Afrika Korps advancing to the gates of Egypt:
“They say that the enemy is in El Daba already. We pass a POW camp. Captured Germans are whistling and yelling at us, that we are running from Rommel! It’s really easy to yell when there’s the Geneva convention protecting you. And so I remember, how some of ours, who got out of Bir Hakeim after it was captured by the Germans said, that on that fateful day the Germans strolled thru our abandoned positions and occasionally, a pistol shot was heard… it could be assumed they were finishing off the wounded. And here, they just relax behind the wires and yell at us! Oh well, we’ll see where the last shell of this war will land. I wonder, when will it be?”
During the war, 52 Czechoslovak pilots were captured over the western front. At first, the Germans treated them roughly, but after the intervention of British government, they were treated as RAF members (situation changed in Summer 1944). Our pilots had the possibility to get to know the German soldiers as guards and before, when they were being captured. Some (especially those trying to flee after being shot down) weren’t treated nicely (for example the 1stLt. Josef Bryks). However, when they were kicking him around, they didn’t know they were kicking a Czech officer, as he had the RAF uniform on.
On the other hand, Corporal Václav Bauman, who was shot down and seriously injured (later, he was repatriated to Britain due to his injuries), recieved a different “welcome”:
“I woke up only as I have hit the ground. It was some potato field somewhere west from St.Omer and the French were with me in a short while. Immediately after that however shots were fired and they disappeared. Instead of them, five German soldiers came. They saw me as I descended. That’s when I found out that not all the Germans felt fanatical hatred towards us Czechs. This German officer leaned to me and asked me: “Who are you? English, Canadian, American…?” I reply “I am Czech” in German and add my name and number. He replies: “So you know that even the German soldier is a friend in the field!” He picked me up from the ground and carried me in his arms to the road, where an ambulance was waiting. They took me to St.Omer hospital, where an old German doctor operated me.”
In the POW camps, the Germans already knew about the Czechoslovaks. In other words about the traitors, because the Germans refused to apply Geneva conventions on captured Czechs, as they considered them to be the members of the Protektorat Böhmen und Mähren, falling under the Reich jurisdiction. While some of the guards showed their disgust with Czech “dogs”, others treated them relatively well. A lot depended on the fact, whether the pilot ended up in a camp belonging under Wehrmacht, or under Luftwaffe. In general, the “Luftwaffe” camps were considered better in all respects. The guard behavior was also understandeably influenced by the wartime situation. Especially after the Stalingrad catastrophy, many of them started thinking “just in case”:
“In the beginning the prisoners were treated quite badly. According to captain Grocott, two years ago the Germans treated the captives badly and brutally. After Stalingrad, everything changed. 50 percent of the Germans allegedly await invasion. However, these Germans were nazis just like the rest, only now when the war is lost, they see the invasion as the redemption from war.”
When the war was almost over, some of the members of the Czechoslovak independent armored brigade, operating in December 1944 near the flooded Dunkerque were also captured. They actually became the captives of other captives. Ensign Bohuslav Šulc remembers this fateful day of his life:
“Suddenly the door opened and three Germans came out, they were just as surprised as I was. First of them crossed my way with loud “Hands up, you are our prisoner!”. I could do nothing else but agree. When they found out I have no weapon, they gestured to follow them and the ranking officer ordered me to move a couple of blankets. When I refused, pointing at the fact I am an officer, he responded by typical heelclick and with an apology: “Entschuldigen Sie, Herr Leutnant!””
Šulc was captured on 9.4.1945, but he got back to his unit on 18.4.1945 during a large prisoner exchange, along with 24 other captured brigade members. Most of them stated that the Germans treated them well and that medical aid was offered to the wounded. It certainly however was attributed to the fact that the Czechoslovak soldiers were those, who encircled the German garrison.