Having been major participants in the fall - and liberation – of Berlin, Marshal Konev and the Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front were ordered to head southwest towards Czechoslovakia and on to Prague.
In support of Konev’s forces were Marshal Malinowsky’s 2nd Ukrainian and General Eremenko’s 4th Ukrainian fronts, advancing towards the southern and eastern borders of Czechoslovakia. This combined Soviet force of over two million men was opposed by around half that number of soldiers from the German Army Group Centre, commanded by the staunch Hitler loyalist, Field Marshal Schörner.
Before the Soviet advance had reached Czechoslovakia, Prague’s citizens spontaneously rose up against the Germans on 5 May – ahead of a planned operation by the Czech Resistance. German signs were ripped down and Czech flags raised. Radio Prague broadcast requests for Allied assistance, but although General Patton’s forces were closer to the capital than the Red Army, they were prevented from advancing by General Eisenhower.
Once German reinforcements arrived from Army Centre North, the reaction to the uprising was wholehearted and vicious. Help for the Czechs came from an unlikely source when, on 6 May, a division of the Russian Liberation Army (ROA) arrived. This anti-communist army – known as “Vlasov’s Army” after its commander, General Andrey Vlasov – had been fighting for the Nazis, but changed sides in a desperate attempt to save its own skin.
The Soviets arrive
Although the German unconditional surrender was signed on 7 May, a short period had been granted for ongoing offensives to be terminated. The SS in Prague used this time to wreak as much murderous havoc as possible. In one instance, they massacred around fifty resistance fighters who had surrendered. Although the ROA proved effective at thwarting some German progress, by the 8 May its troops had abandoned the city to surrender to the Americans. German troops were similarly reluctant to fall into the hands of the Soviets and fought on before an agreement was brokered with the Resistance. This allowed most of the Germans to evacuate westwards on the morning of 9 May before the arrival of the Red Army’s 3rd and 4th Guards Tank Armies – the first Soviet troops to enter the city. The precise casualty figures of the uprising remain unknown: an estimated 1700 Czechs were killed and around the same number wounded; the Germans lost around 900 men; troops from the ROA about 300; while Red Army casualties in Prague were no more than thirty.
Over the next two days, Soviet forces to the east of Prague battled against the remaining Wehrmacht troops in the Protectorate, taking about 600,000 as prisoners-of-war. On 11 May the Soviets met up with elements of the US Third Army near Pilsen. While the war in Europe was officially over, hostilities continued against Sudeten Germans and Czech collaborators, violent attacks that were encouraged by Beneš and the Soviets. Thousands were killed and even more – perhaps as many as 2.5 million – were forcibly expelled from the country.
Prague and around sites
National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror (in St Cyril and St Methodius Cathedral)
Built for Catholic worship in the 18th century, this building became the cathedral of Czech Orthodox Christians in the 1930s. It was the only church to give refuge to the escaping Operation Anthropoid agents after their assassination of Heydrich in 1942. A section of the crypt contains an exhibition outlining the events, with memorial busts and brief biographies of the seven paratroopers who took part. Outside, on the bullet-marked south wall, is a plaque that commemorates those who died. A separate memorial in the Libeň district, on the actual site of the attack, is near a very busy road intersection and difficult to access.
Vojensky hrbitov (Military cemetery)
Part of the vast Olšany cemetery, created in 1680 for plague victims, the military cemetery is within the northeastern section, 200m along Jana Želivského. Its centrepiece is the monument to the 436 Soviet soldiers killed during the liberation of Prague and its aftermath. There is also a mass grave containing two generals and 187 soldiers of the Russian Liberation Army who aided the Czechs during the Prague Uprising, and the graves of 256 British and Commonwealth soldiers gathered from across the Czech Republic.
In 1941, the population of Terezín was ejected and the garrison town turned into a Jewish ghetto and transit camp. Today, some of it functions as a museum, memorializing those who lived and died here. Made up of two fortresses, the larger is laid out in a grid plan. Near the main square are the remains of the railway siding where prisoners arrived and departed. The ghetto museum, housed in a large neo-classical building, outlines the history of the ghetto and its place in the “Final Solution”. The Magdeburg Barracks site, south of the museum, was where the self-governing Jewish council was located. The displays here focus on the camp’s remarkable cultural life, but there is also a reconstructed women’s dormitory – the three-tier bunks, luggage and belongings conveying some idea of the cramped conditions. The smaller fortress, just across the River Ohře, was built as a prison and used by the Gestapo to intern around 32,000 prisoners – mostly non-Jews active in the Resistance.
The massacre at Lidice – ordered as a reprisal for Operation Anthropoid – so horrified world opinion that several places were renamed after the village so that its name wouldn’t disappear. During the attack, 173 men were shot; the same number of women were sent to Ravensbrück; and 82 children were gassed at Chełmno extermination camp. The village itself was rebuilt nearby in 1945 and the site of the old village turned into a memorial and a museum. There’s a paved “reverent” area and mausoleum close to the museum, but much of the site is a green open space dotted with sculptures, including a poignant bronze group of the 82 murdered children. The museum uses archive material and film to evoke the everyday existence of those who lived here. Recently, one of the houses in the new village opened as a museum, continuing the Lidice story after the war, when 143 of its original female inhabitants returned.
Top image: Lidice Memorial for the massacre at Lidice