In 1938, the 1,500,000-strong Czechoslovak Army was among the largest in Europe, and fairly well-equipped with modern weapons, including locally produced tanks and aircraft.
On November 1st 1938, German troops entered the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia, occupying the entire region with almost no resistance from the Czech forces – only 3rd Battalion of the 8th Border Regiment briefly resisted advancing German troops before being ordered to lay down their weapons by the Czech High Command.
In rapid succession, the Sudetenland was formally ceded to Germany. As had been decided in Munich, a third of Slovakia was ceded to Hungary and Poland occupied the Zaolizie region. Slovakia declared independence under a fascist government, and Ruthenia (part of modern Ukraine) tried to do the same, but was promptly invaded and annexed by Hungary.
The Czechoslovak Armed Forces had been fully mobilised since late September that year, and counted a total of 20 infantry divisions (each with three infantry brigades and one or two artillery regiments), two motorised divisions, and four armoured cavalry divisions, each with one tank and one cavalry brigade (modelled on the “fast divisions” used in the French army at the time. In addition there were a total of 138 battalions manning border fortresses along the borders, split into 12 border sections and seven “defensive regional groups” responsible for securing lines-of-communication behind the border fortresses. A formidable force, on paper.
In March 1939, Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia – essentially the regions of Bohemia and Moravia.
Although the Czechoslovak Army was formally disbanded as part of this process, plenty of army personnel still wanted to fight the Germans. Despite feeling betrayed by the Allies, the only option was to volunteer to fight in one of the Allied armies at the time. Thus, many Czechs made their way to Romania and Poland before borders were closed completely, intending eventually to make their way west to France or UK.
Exile forces in Poland
Of the men that went to Poland, a total of 1,260 sailed west to France, where around 600 eventually joined the Foreign Legion. The men that stayed behind in Poland were organised into the
Czech and Slovak Legion by the Polish Army, approximately 900-strong and posted to the Tarnopol area.
An anti-aircraft unit with 12 machineguns (and no uniforms) was captured by advancing Soviet forces in Racowiec in Eastern Poland, but around 200 Czechs managed to escape to Romania along with retreating Polish forces. Although, most of the captured troops were interned in the Soviet Union.
Exile forces in Soviet Union
During 1940 and 41, Czechs in Soviet internment camps organised themselves into what they called “The Eastern Group of the Czechoslovak Army”, however most of the soldiers connected to this unit eventually made their way to France and the Middle East.
Czech soldiers were historically not unfamiliar with Russia/Soviet Union. In fact, a Czech legion took part in WWI and the Russian civil war, where they had generally given a favourable impression of their fighting abilities.
In February 1942, the Red Army formed the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Field Battalion, which was attached to the 25th Rifle Division in the Voronezh Front. However, at this time only about 100 Czechs were still in the internment camp, so eventually this unit would consist of a mix of volunteers from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland/Ukraine, and Ruthenia. But, they were all classed as “Czechoslovak refugees” by the Soviets and included in the unit. The unit first entered battle around the town of Sokolov in March 1943, and performed well. The battalion was then transferred to the 62nd Guards Rifle Division, in time for the offensive to take Kharkov.
In May 1943, the battalion was enlarged to brigade size, now boasting two full infantry battalions, a tank battalion and an artillery battalion, totalling 3,700 men. The
Czechoslovak Independent Brigade was attached to various divisions in the Ukrainian Front during 1943 and 1944 and took part in strong fighting around Kiev and in the Korsun pocket. The brigade was further enlarged again in April 1944, this time to become the
1st Czechoslovak Independent Army Corps.
This unit now contained two full infantry brigades, one tank brigade, and a small (light) parachute brigade, for a total strength of 17,000 troops.
The Red Army also formed a Czech parachute company which trained to be parachuted into Slovakia to train partisans and conduct sabotage there.
As they had from the beginning, the Soviets had applied the term “Czechoslovak” liberally, and of the 17,000 troops in the army Corps, some 11,000 were actually Ukrainians that had been through “political correction” in the Soviet concentration camps.
The Corps saw significant fighting during the Slovak uprising, where they fought at the Dukla Pass, and also in Southern Poland, Silesia, and in the liberation of Slovakia and Moravia.
In January 1945, now firmly in Czechoslovak territory, the unit was reorganised once again, and became the 1st Czechoslovak Army, although the fighting strength did not increase significantly, and the unit ended the war with around 20,000 men under its banner.
Exile forces in France and Britain
Many of the Czech soldiers (and civilians) that had managed to escape from Czechoslovakia when Germany invaded, decided not to stay in Poland and made their way to France instead.
In October 1939, France and Czechoslovakia (through the government-in-exile in London) signed a Treaty of cooperation, and consequently the
1st Czechoslovak Infantry Division was formed and included in the French OOB on January 1st 1940.
The Division had two infantry regiments, with a combined strength of 5,000 men. However, the Division had no artillery, only a handful of mortars (81mm) and only two anti-air guns (25mm), rendering its combat usefulness limited.
During the campaign for France in 1940, the unit was involved in heavy fighting against the German 16th Panzer Division and steadily driven back, until most of its personnel were evacuated to Britain when France was collapsing in June 1940.
The British reformed the approximately 3,300 remaining Czechs into the 1st Czechoslovak Mixed Brigade Group in July 1940.
This brigade consisted of two infantry battalions, one artillery battalion, as well as smaller specialist units (communication, engineers etc).
The British also organised the 200th Czechoslovak Light AA Regiment, with some 1,500 men (see section on forces in the Middle East).
A Czech soldier training in England in 1941
In September 1943 the two units were merged to become the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade, with around 4,000 men operational strength.
The brigade had two armoured battalions, a motorised infantry battalion, an artillery regiment, an anti-tank battalion, and a reconnaissance battalion.
The 1st Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade was transferred to Normandy during the summer of 1944, and attached to the 1st Canadian Army. It was immediately assigned to besiege the 15,000 German soldiers holding out in Dunkirk and remained there until the German surrender in 1945. The brigade would suffer over 10% casualties in the fighting for Dunkirk, some 660 men killed in all.
The fortress of Dunkirk, commanded by Admiral Friedrich Frisius, eventually surrendered unconditionally to Brigade General Alois Liška, the commander of the
1st Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade, on 9th May 1945.
The brigade was steadily reinforced as Czechs that had been left behind in France and the Low Countries in 1940, rallied and signed up as volunteers. It eventually reached the strength of 5,900 soldiers, allowing it to add a third armoured battalion, an extra motorised infantry company, and a third artillery battalion.
A company of some 150 men were sent to take part in the US 3rd Army’s liberation of Czechoslovakian soil, raising the Czechoslovak flag in the city of Cheb of 1st May 1945.
Once Dunkirk surrendered in May 1945, the brigade moved to Prague, reaching the city a week later than the 1st Czechoslovak Army that was part of the Red Army.
Exile forces in the Middle East
A large group of Czech refugees had made their way through Romania, across the Balkans and ended up in French territory in the Middle East.
Some 200 Czechs were in Beirut, waiting to be transferred to mainland France to join the 1st Czechoslovak Infantry Division, when France surrendered in 1940.
When the French forces in Syria and Lebanon declared allegiance to the Vichy regime, the Czechs rapidly moved to the British-held Jerusalem to escape internment. In total around 290 Czechs gathered in Jerusalem, where their officers organised them as the
4th Free French Infantry Regiment.
Originally, the intention had been to include the regiment in the 1st Czechoslovak infantry Division in France, but as this had been evacuated to Britain in disarray, this became impractical. The Regiment had two infantry companies and two cadre companies, as well as a HQ and support staff.
The new situation led to discussions between the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London, which led to the establishment of a unit in Britain (see section on units in France and Britain), and in the Middle East, the Czech Regiment was renamed
Czechoslovak Contingent – Middle East, with the only fighting formation being the
11th Czechoslovak Infantry Battalion.
The battalion had a strength of around 430 men when it was created, but it was then transferred to Egypt and slowly reinforced as refugees trickled in, so that by December 1940 it was a full battalion of 750 men.
It was organised into four infantry companies as well as an HQ with support staff. The Czech battalion was initially assigned to the British 23rd Brigade, 6th Infantry Division in Egypt.
In 1941, the battalion was transferred back to Palestine, where it took part in Operation Exporter, the British offensive to take control of Vichy Syria and Lebanon in June-July 1941. Upon completion of the campaign, the entire 23rd Infantry Brigade, including the Czech battalion was assigned to guard the border between Syria and Turkey.
In August 1941, the Czechoslovak government-in-exile requested that the battalion be transferred to Britain, in order to merge all the Czechoslovak forces into a new unit. The request was denied by Britain, but the battalion was transferred from Syria to reinforce the Polish Independent Carpathian Infantry Brigade, which at the time was besieged in Tobruk in Libya together with other allied forces.
The 11th Czechoslovak Infantry Battalion stayed in Tobruk a total of 23 weeks, of which 51 days were spent in combat with German and Italian forces. The Czechs suffered 95 casualties, corresponding to about 15% of the combat strength. During its time in Tobruk, the battalion was transferred to the 38th Indian Infantry Brigade.
In March 1942, the battalion was withdrawn from Tobruk, to be reorganised, reinforced, and eventually renamed – to 200th Czechoslovak Light AA Regiment, with strength of 1,600 men.
The AA Regiment contained three anti-aircraft batteries and was assigned to defend the port of Haifa in Israel, as well as the port of Beirut in Lebanon. Organisationally it was subordinate to the British 17th Infantry Brigade until it was transferred back to Britain in May 1943 to join the forces there and become the
1st Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade. Most of the “Middle East Czechs” served in the transport units connected with the armoured brigade, but some also saw action in the motorised infantry.
Czechoslovak Air units in exile
When Czechoslovakia collapsed in 1939, some 200 pilots enlisted to fly for the Polish air Force, whereas another 100 or so joined the French Air Force before June 1940.
Once both Poland and France had fallen, a number of Czechoslovak pilots made their way to Britain, where eventually 4 Czechoslovak squadrons would be organised by the RAF;
The 310th Squadron initially flew Hurricanes, but were re-equipped with Spitfires in October 1941. The squadron served with distinction during the Battle of Britain and later in Europe, and was only disbanded in 1946.
The 311th Squadron was a bomber unit, flying Wellingtons initially, before being equipped with Liberators in 1943. This squadron was also disbanded in 1946.
The 312th Squadron flew Hurricanes as well, until being re-equipped with Spitfires at the same time as the 310th in 1941. This Squadron was transferred to the new Czechoslovak air Force in 1946, and took in a number of pilots from the disbanded 310th and 311th Squadrons.
The 313th Squadron was established in May 1941 and flew Spitfires the entire war, before being transferred to the Czechoslovak Air Force in 1946.
All in all, 87 Czech pilots took part in the Battle of Britain, of which 8 were killed. The Czech pilot Josef Frantisek became one of the top Allied aces of the Battle of Britain, although not actually flying with any of the Czech squadrons.
Czech pilots also made their way to the Soviet Union, and joined the Soviet Air Force after being released from internment camps.
In 1944, the 1st Independent Air Regiment was formed with Czech pilots, the Soviets also here using the same liberal interpretation of “Czech”, and placed under the command of the
1st Czechoslovak Army Corps. The Regiment flew combat missions during the support for the Slovak uprising, taking almost 40% losses in the process.
Czech pilots of the 310th Squadron resting between missions during the Battle of Britain
Czechoslovak exile units saw action on most of the major fronts of WW2 and generally performed very well. They earned the respect and admiration of other Allied nations and units and their sacrifices were crowned when they could return home to a free Czechoslovakia in 1945, though now as part of the Soviet bloc in Europe.