Prague Uprising 1945 I



On the evening of 5/6 May Pückler-Burghaus sent out for reinforcements. Part of the SS Division Das Reich was summoned from northern Bohemia. A battle group of sixty tanks and armoured vehicles was brought in from Milovice (20 miles east of Prague). And the SS Division Wallenstein [1] was mobilised at Benesov, 22 miles south-east of the Czech capital. During the first half of the night all was relatively quiet. At then, at 3.00 a.m. on 6 May, Sticha and his fellow fighters heard the guttural sound of revving engines carrying in the night air form the south of the city. It was a column of tanks. The first armoured SS units were moving towards Prague. General Pückler-Burghaus set out the following order: ‘Our attack begins at dawn. Swastikas are to be displayed on houses as visual markings for the Luftwaffe. We will use incendiary bombs. This nest of vipers will be exterminated.’

At 8.50 a.m. on 6 May the Czech Military Council sent out urgent orders that more barricades be built, blocking off all access to the centre of Prague. Support for the uprising was growing, and fresh combat groups were ordered to go underground and defend the system of sewers and tunnels that ran into Old Town Hall Square from German incursions. Ammunition was arriving – and boxes of Panzerfausts were distributed among the insurgents. But SS units were now converging on the city.

A makeshift hospital was set up in the basement of the Old Town Hall. It contained a small surgery and sixteen mattresses – and within a few hours more than 120 seriously wounded Czech fighters had been brought there. For later that morning SS forces had gathered in sufficient strength to start a major offensive against the rebels.

Shooting began again at about 10.30 a.m. The Czechs had no anti-tank weapons and despite determined resistance were steadily forced back. ‘We swore that we would hold on and keep Prague free,’ said Sticha. ‘There was an incredible resolve amongst our forces.’ But that afternoon groups of German tanks smashed through many of the outer barricades. By the early evening the rebels had been pushed on to a series of makeshift defences in Prague’s city centre. Flames were rising from buildings and streets they had vacated.

‘It was no longer possible to hold our positions,’ said Harak Bohumil. ‘The barricade we held at noon had to be abandoned hours later after three German tanks got behind it. That evening we were on our last defence line.’

And that same evening, it was becoming clear that there would be no help from the Americans. General Omar Bradley sensed that Patton might be ignoring the new stop line. He rang him and did not mince his words, finishing with: ‘You hear me, George, goddammit, halt!’ Patton was firmly told to withdraw his forward reconnaissance units and stay where he was. ‘We will probably never get the chance to do something like this again,’ he told his staff ruefully. His troops felt the same sense of disappointment. ‘After two hours holding the bridge over the Vlatva, south-west of Prague, we expected at any moment to push on into the city,’ said Lieutenant Edward Krusheski of the 69th Armored Infantry Battalion. ‘And then, in the early evening, we were ordered back to Pilsen. It was an incredible let-down.’

However, General Eisenhower’s caution – misjudged earlier on – was now well founded. Early on 5 May the Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Karl Frank, had flown back into Prague after consultation with Admiral Dönitz at Flensburg. Dönitz and Frank had seen an opportunity to create further tension within the Grand Alliance. That morning Frank had radioed Dönitz – and the content of his message, decrypted by the ULTRA system, was then passed on to the Allied Supreme Commander: ‘I suggest to you that Czech Bohemia is the place where we can engineer a disagreement between the western allies and the Soviet Union even more serious than that of Poland.’

At the end of April Karl Frank had threatened to drown any uprising in ‘a sea of blood’. Frank, who succeeded to power in the aftermath of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, had shown the cruelty and ruthlessness necessary to carry out brutal intimidation of the Czech people, wiping the village of Lidice off the face of the earth (killing many of its inhabitants, transporting the rest to Ravensbrück concentration camp and burning the place to the ground) for its supposed connection with the assassins. But now Frank could see which way the wind was blowing. On the morning of 5 May he gained Dönitz’s approval for a bold and surprising political manoeuvre. Frank proposed to dissolve the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, hand power over to the collaborationist Czech government within Prague and invite General Patton’s Third Army into the city. At 11.00 a.m. Frank presented this plan to a Czech delegation led by Richard Bienert, Minister for the Interior, at a meeting in the Cernin Palace.

The uprising brought these proceedings to a halt – and the insurgents arrested Bienert, who promptly swore an oath of allegiance to the exiled Czechoslovak government of President Edvard Benes. At 9.00 p.m. talks resumed – through the mediation of the International Red Cross – between Frank and the Czech National Committee. They ended inconclusively. But the following morning – on his own authority – Frank sent a message to the US Third Army saying there would be no resistance if it entered the city. And at 2.40 p.m. Admiral Dönitz and Field Marshal Keitel issued orders that any American advance on Prague should not be opposed by Wehrmacht troops.

General Eisenhower was sitting on a powder keg. If he moved on the Czech capital he would not just be breaking an agreement over demarcation lines; it might also appear to the Soviet Union that he had entered into an illicit agreement with the Germans. And that would imperil the very future of the Grand Alliance. It was a risk he could not afford to take.

The terrible consequence was that Prague seemed now to be left to its fate. But in this desperate situation for the Czech insurgents, help now arrived from a most unexpected quarter – General Andrei Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army. For after days of secret negotiations with members of the Czech undergound, this army’s 1st Division – a well-equipped force of over 15,000 men – was prepared to turn against its German masters and support the rebels in Prague. And it was stationed less than 20 miles from the Czech capital. The Vlasovites could join forces with the Czech insurgents in a matter of hours.

On 14 November 1944 Prague Castle had been chosen for the launch of General Andrei Vlasov’s army. Himmler sent a letter of encouragement but excused himself from attending. Hitler acted as if he was entirely unaware that the event was happening at all. But most of the prominent civil and military figures in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia were there. General Vlasov made a speech to this assembly, setting out the patriotic manifesto of his new army, which was dedicated to the overthrow of Bolshevism. It had been decided that this anti-communist force was to start serious military training and would then fight alongside the Wehrmacht.

It was a supreme irony that a force created with such ceremony in Prague to reinforce the Wehrmacht would some six months later be fighting the Germans for possession of the Czech capital. Veterans of the Russian Liberation Army recalled the birth of their army with emotion and pride. And yet, General Vlasov had surrendered to the Germans in June 1942. It had taken his masters more than two years to respond to his invitation to raise an anti-Bolshevik army and they had only done so now – with the war going hopelessly against them – out of dire necessity.

The Wehrmacht did not really trust the formation of a Russian Liberation Army and allowed it only with reluctance. Vlasov was now forced to recruit his troops from Russian POWs or slave labourers held on German soil. Some of these men were motivated by genuine patriotism and a detestation of communism. But others were joining simply to ameliorate their squalid living conditions. And German atrocities against the Russian people were now common knowledge.

Nevertheless, two divisions were quickly formed. The first came into being on 10 February 1945, when it was reviewed by General Vlasov and its commander, General Sergei Bunyachenko, at Muensingen in Germany. By April it had taken up battle positions against Soviet troops on the Oder front. It would now have to fight against its own countrymen.

Things quickly went wrong for the Vlasov force. In the latter half of April Bunyachenko pulled his men out of combat on the Oder and withdrew them farther south. At the beginning of May the 1st Division of the Russian Liberation Army was at Beroun, 16 miles south-west of Prague. And it had become utterly disaffected with its German ally.

The reason for this lay in a bitter disagreement between General Bunyachenko and the German High Command. The Wehrmacht had insisted upon an attack plan despite Bunyachenko’s strong opposition to it. On 14 April 1945 the Vlasov Division had been ordered to go into battle against an extremely well-defended Red Army position at Frankfurt-am-Oder. There were political reasons for this order, which was given only two days before the Red Army’s own Berlin offensive – a desire to demonstrate the reliability of this new formation to the Wehrmacht by ‘blooding’ them in combat against their compatriots. Bunyachenko vigorously protested – to no avail.

On one side was German unease at employing Russian troops as an independent fighting formation. On the other was Russian distaste at having to fight against their own countrymen. The planned battle engagement resulted in a dismal failure.

The Red Army defences were held by Major General Likhov’s 119th Armoured Brigade. Likhov’s bridgehead on the western bank of the Oder was strongly fortified, with machine guns and mortars covering all its approaches. It was further protected by the flooded fields in front of its position – which created a swamp about a mile wide and in places 6 feet deep. On the eastern bank of the river, Likhov had an artillery regiment ready to give supporting fire to the defenders.

Sigismund Diczbalis, a soldier with Bunyachenko’s division, described the offensive: ‘A hail of bullets and mortar fragments swathed into our troops. Some sunk slowly into the marsh and drowned. A furious barrage of fire reduced the remaining force to platoon strength, with men being cut to pieces by eight machine guns from a Red Army reserve detachment that had appeared as if from nowhere. It was clear that the attack could go no further.’

After five hours of senseless slaughter General Bunyachenko withdrew his troops and then shepherded them away from the German lines. He had lost more than 350 men; the Red Army a mere 13. The division moved south.

[1] 44. Waffen-SS Panzergrenadier Division Wallenstein
Graf von Pückler-Burghaus, Waffen-SS Commander for the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia, supposedly proposed the creation of a scratch SS division to be named Wallenstein. This “division” supposedly had four components – Kampfgruppen Klein, Jöchel, Reimann and Milowicz, each supposedly named after the CO. The unit is supposed to have participated in defending against the citizen’s uprising against Prague in May 1945 and possibly in helping evacuate the volksdeutsche citizens of the city either alongside or as part of the 2nd SS Das Reich division.
There is evidence that this unit may have existed, although calling it a “division” is a major stretch. SS-Staf. Jöchel did command “SS-Junkerschule Prag” in March 1945. A “SS-Reit und Fahrschule” did exist at Milowitz in March 1945. (perhaps the kampgruppe was named after the location of the fahrschule instead of an officer) Prague’s citizens did stage an uprising, did wreak havoc on the volksdeutsche population, and the Das Reich division did lead a civilian convoy out of the city in literally the last hours of the war. The US 5th Infantry Division newspaper of May 10, 1945 does mention SS-Kampfgruppen Klein and Jöchel.
The Wallenstein (which incidentally is also the name of a city) unit was most likely an ad-hoc scratch band of SS troops that operated in the vicinity of Prague during the last week of the war.

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