The Prague Rescue Operation

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Part of the convoy out of Prague!

Towards the end of April 1945, Das Reich Division was fragmented as its commanders sought to carry out the conflicting orders being received from Berlin. Deutschland’ Regiment finished the war fighting the Americans in the St Poelten area of Austria. The panzer regiment, the artillery regiment, the Flak, the engineer battalion and the signals battalion, together with the train detachments, moved to Dresden where they were put into action. Der Führer’ Regiment, which was in the Budweis area of Czechoslovakia, was first ordered to march to Bruenn. Then, on 30 April, that order was cancelled and Otto Weidinger, the regimental commander, was directed to report to Obergruppenführer Pückler, the SS Supreme Command, in Prague. He set out with an escort and after a longish but uneventful drive entered Prague and drove to Pückler’s office.

There he learned, among other things, of the evacuation plans drawn up by Princess Stephanie should the situation in the Czech capital deteriorate to a point which threatened the lives of the German population. The senior officers of the Protectorate took pains to point out to Weidinger how calm the city was. The Obersturmbannführer then drove back to his Regiment in southern Czechoslovakia. An O’ Group called to brief his officers on the result of the visit to Prague was a conference overshadowed, by the news that Hitler was dead. Over the following three days the regiment moved steadily closer to the Czech capital and although undoubtedly aware of the hostility which lurked just below the surface of Czech civil life, saw only few obvious signs of that unrest. There was, as yet, no major Czech uprising, probably because columns of German troops were still moving through the country. But those who were able to read the signs would have noted that the soldiers of these columns were not keen fighting troops but the dispirited men of a dying army, whose hopes were to get home safely and to avoid being taken prisoner by the Russians. That sense of imminent defeat was not one which affected the Grenadiers of Der Führer’ Regiment. Even though the man whose title they bore on their cuffs was dead, their allegiance, as Weidinger pointed out, had not died with him. They were still bound by their oath to Germany and it was for her that the Regiment would continue to fight until the war’s end.

During the time that the Regiment waited in its concentration area, Weidinger received two messages. The first of these advised him that there was no chance of his unit reaching Dresden where Das Reich’ was in action and that it was, therefore, placed under the command of Field Marshal Schoerner. The second message was from Schoerner himself, who ordered the regiment to open the road to Prague, put down the insurrection which had broken out within the city, contact General Toussaint, the military commander there, and carry out any orders that he might give. Speed of action was essential.

Weidinger had been in Prague only three days earlier and had been assured the city was calm. Now he was told that revolt of such seriousness had broken out that the German garrison and the government were isolated and almost prisoners. He prepared a battle group for action and in the bright dawn of 6 May, the battalions swung out on to the Prague road, formed column and marched northwards. As the units drove towards the Czech capital the signs of the dissolution of the German Army became more noticeable. One was the increase in the number of Czech flags; signs that power was passing from the German authorities.

A more obvious sign of the loss of authority was the increase in the number of German soldiers, disarmed, so they claimed, by Czech partisans. Another were the roadblocks which were met with greater frequency as the regiment came closer to Prague. In the outer suburbs of the city the column was halted by a huge barricade built of cobbles torn from the streets. It was not possible to by-pass this massive obstruction, nor could it be blown apart. The only solution was to set the grenadiers to dismantling it by hand. The task of creating a gap wide enough for the vehicles to pass through wasted a great many hours. Daylight went and in order that the dismantling work could continue Weidinger had the black-out shields removed from the headlights on the lorries. In the light of the headlamps the grenadiers worked, under fire from partisan snipers. A gap was cleared and the column set off through the night, headlamps blazing and making good speed until at the Troya bridge the advance was again halted, this time by a storm of small-arms fire. Weidinger had a difficult decision to make. Either to force a crossing of the bridge in the dark or of halting his regiment’s advance until daylight. He chose to stop. Shortly after dawn on 7 May, the artillery battalion of the battle group began to fire a barrage, under which the grenadiers stormed forward. A Czech officer reached Weidinger’s TAC HQ and offered to act as an intermediary between the SS and the partisans if only the battle group would break off the fire-fight and withdraw to Leitmeritz. That condition was rejected out of hand but the Obersturmbannführer agreed to a ceasefire only if the partisans did the same.

Hours passed and it was clear that the Czechs were playing for time. Weidinger, furious at the delay, ordered an attack which secured a small perimeter on the far side of the bridge. The battle group, formed up and ready to drive into the city, was delayed by a second Czech officer who offered to negotiate between the partisans and General Toussaint, the German Army commandant of Prague. Weidinger told the new officer of the orders he had received and very firmly expressed his intention of carrying them out. He would prefer to make the advance without interference from the partisans, but, he insisted, his men were willing and ready to fight their way through. An officer of the German Army offered to go with the Czech. Weidinger set a time limit upon the negotiations. If the German officer had not returned by 15.00 hours, he would consider the truce at an end and his artillery would reopen fire. When neither officer arrived back at the appointed time Weidinger, anxious to avoid bloodshed, extended the deadline by another hour. The two officers returned at last with news that an armistice had been agreed between the partisans and the German commanders in the Hradschin palace. During the period that they had been absent patrols from the regiment had collected stores, ammunition and, more importantly, fuel from nearby depots. Also welcome were the reinforcements, German servicemen, who came streaming in from all parts of the city to join the well-armed and resolute battalions.

At a regimental O’ Group it was realized that there were insufficient lorries to carry the numbers of German civilians who were already waiting. Determined that not one person would be left behind it was decided that if necessary the lorries would be overloaded. The destination was Pilsen, where there were units of the American Army. In accordance with the terms of the armistice Czech partisans removed the roadblocks and erected signs to guide the SS convoy through the night. Weidinger’s control of his men was tight and his orders were promptly obeyed. His superiors showed no such understanding of their position. Frank, the Viceroy, was so out of touch with the true situation in the Protectorate that he thought German rule to be still firm, while Toussaint tried to change the destination and to make the convoy head for Austria. Weidinger forced through his plans.

Shortly before the lorried convoy set out a new crisis arose. In the Prague railway sidings there were ambulance trains of wounded German soldiers. The Czech engine drivers had abandoned them. Those men could not be left behind. They would have to be rescued and place found for them in the trucks. Then a group of female SS signallers reported in. They, too, were accommodated. At last, and considerably overdue, the thousand-vehicle convoy left Prague heading for Pilsen, but this was not the end of the problems. During the morning of 9 May, a German general accompanied by a Czech colonel halted the column and demanded that all arms be surrendered.

Weidinger ordered the weapons to be rendered useless before they were thrown away. After a final pay parade and a distribution of canteen goods to the men of the regiment, the column set out again and reached its objective. The civilians and the wounded were unloaded and the column, now wholly military again, set off to drive into captivity. At about 10.00 hours on the morning of 9 May 1945, Weidinger’s battle group made contact with the 2nd US Infantry Division at Rokiczany. In a field in Bohemia the fighting life of Der Führer’ Regiment came to an end. Its last mission had not been a mighty clash of arms but a mercy mission to bring out of danger women and children who would have not survived the insurrection which then flamed throughout the Czech lands.

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