|Battle of the Border|
German soldiers storm the Czechoslovak border fortification, October 1, 1938.
|Date||October 1 - October 16, 1938|
|Result||Phyrric German victory|
The Battle of the Border was a series of military engagements between the Republic of Czechoslovakia and Nazi Germany fought between October 1 and 12, 1938 along the German-Czech frontier. The series of battles ended in a costly German victory, as Czech forces were either destroyed or forced to retreat.
Prelude to the Battle
Due to the unfavourable strategic position of Bohemia and Moravia had against Germany, Czechoslovakia could only maintain a defensive strategy, and so they tried to offset this through a system of fortifications in line with the French Maginot Line. Undoubtedly the "front continue" played a role through which they wanted to stop an invasion. The spatial distribution of the Czech arms industry with central points in Plzeň, Prague and Brno demanded a defence strategy, that could put the opponents forces to a halt at the border.
The expansion of the fortifications of the Czech-German border was decided by the Parliament of Czechoslovakia in 1932, and construction began in 1935. The fortifications were to be completed in ten to fifteen years. Like France, ČSR spent a large part on their defence budget on the construction of the border fortifications. It is calculated that until 1938 the actual expenditure of the fortifications had been 2.5 billion Kč. However, this was only a tenth of the sum that France had paid for the construction of the Maginot Line, even though its borders were ten times as long. The Czechoslovak border fortifications and the Maginot Line were in scope, depth and technical equipment incomparable. With the line of deployment at this fortification system, the Czechoslovak General Staff renounced the necessity of an mobile operational doctrine.
On March 20, 1935, the ministry of defence appointed General Karel Husárek as the head of the construction of the Czechoslovak border defences (Ředitelství opevňovacích prací, ŘOP). With significant participation of French experts, the concept of the border fortifications included several lines of fortifications along the country's borders consisting of "Heavy Objects", which were isolated Infantry Blockhouses and Forts inspired by the French Maginot Line, and "Light Objects", designated vz.36 (the so-called French type) and a more modern vz. 37, besides a system of obstacles (barbed wire, Czech hedgehogs, anti-tank ditches, and also natural obstacles). The "Heavy Objects" were armed with cannons and several machine guns, manned by 900 men. The heavy bunkers were armed with 150 artillery pieces, not counting mortars or anti-tank cannons. However, the fortifications could not always be built as the foremost defensive line because of the heavy vegetation. Furthermore, a defensive line had been built around the capital Prague, and a defensive line running west and northwest of Plzeň.
If the invaders succeeded in breaking through the defence lines and into the vastness of space of the relatively flat Bohemia, all three arms centres would be threatened. A fight could, when a timely withdrawal had succeeded, then only be carried out in the mountainous regions of Slovakia, which lacked larger industrial infrastructure.
As the heavy fortifications required one year of planning and three to four years for construction, the development of the entire fortifications in the autumn of 1938 still not completed, and only about 20% of the heavy objects and 70% of the light objects had been completed.
The plan was to construct 1300 heavy fortifications (so called "Heavy Objects") and 16,000 light fortifications. These were to be distributed around the borders Czechoslovakia shared with Germany, Hungary and Poland. Between 1935 to 1938, nine artillery forts, 265 infantry casemates and nearly 9500 light pillboxes had been completely constructed and armed. Of the heavy objects, seven were constructed in southern Moravia against Austria (this was calculated because of the Austrian neutrality in a case of emergency), 11 in the whole of Slovakia and the rest in northern Moravia and Bohemia. Of the light pillboxes, 3003 had been built in Western and Southern Bohemia, 1852 in Northern Bohemia, 1000 in Southern Bohemia, 1195 in Northern Bohemia and 1492 in Slovakia.
Phase 1: Offensive repulsed
Both the Czechoslovak border fortifications and the mountainous terrain in Sudetenland proved to be a real challenge to the German invaders. Despite their technical, operational and numerical superiority, their mobility could not be used in the mountainous border regions, and therefore lost the strategic surprise.
The first regular act of war took place on October 1, 1938, at 06:15, when German field artillery opened fire on the Czechoslovak fortifications, artillery emplacements and garrisons along the Czech-German frontier. The artillery barrage proved to be quite accurate, and around 45% of the Czech artillery positioned along the border and 17% of the border fortifications were destroyed. Communication centres and civilian population centres were also targeted, resulting in high numbers of Czech as well as Sudeten German civilian casualties. The artillery bombardment continued for another two hours while the ground forces prepared for crossing the border.
At the same time the artillery began shelling the Czech defences, elements of the German Army crossed the border and took control of several strategically important border crossings, in order to remove any road blocks which could delay for the main invasion force. However, the Luftwaffe was hampered by in its initial strikes on morning of October 1 due to heavy fog and mist. They had warned the German High Command of the problems regarding the bad weather the day before, and informed them that all air force operations would be partially or completely delayed until the mist lifted at around 8 to 11 A.M. at the earliest. Thus, the German ground offensive would be unprotected by air support for the first hours of the invasion. During the whole campaign the Luftwaffe would be partially hampered of conducting aerial operations due to rain, fog, mist, heavy cloud and “variable weather, followed by snow and frost in the winter months. Due to the heavy morning fog the aircraft could first take off at around noon, and when the ground had become wet from rain the airplanes would be immobilized and had to wait for it to dry before being able to take off. If it rained again just as the ground had dried out, the aircraft could remain immobilized for longer periods of time. It was first on October 5 that the weather broke so that relatively good weather prevailed over all of Czechoslovakia for most of the day, but this only lasted until October 8, after which the weather again was dominated by variable weather of heavy clouds, rain and fog.
At 08:00, German troops of the Second, Eight, Tenth and Fourteenth armies, still without a formal declaration of war issued, crossed the Czech-German frontier. Within two hours they had managed of securing several Sudeten villages and towns, including Aš (Asch) and Teplice (Teplitz). However, the Germans now had to assault the Czechoslovak border fortifications, a very difficult task that the German units severely underestimated.
The Fourteenth Army led off the assault on the fortified positions at 11:00 A.M. After securing the border stations without facing any resistance, they continued their advance into southern Moravia at 8:00. After engineers had cleared the way through the barbed wire and anti-tank obstacles by detonating massive explosive charges, the German 2. Panzer-Division and the 29. Infanterie-Division (mot.) lead of the attack, but the German tank attacks were poorly co-ordinated with the accompanying infantry; a reflection of the novelty of massed tank operations and the difficulty of putting the new doctrine into practice. While the Czech soldiers occupying the trench systems, bunkers and casemates slaughtered the German infantry with small arms and heavy machine gun fire supported by field artillery, the German tanks were destroyed by the Czech anti-tank cannons and field artillery. After two hours of fighting and only moving a few km into Czech territory the Germans retreated to regroup. Another attempt to attack the line at 1600 hours following preliminary barrages carried out by Junkers Ju 87 Stukas of the Luftwaffe and heavy artillery also failed. By the end of the day, the 2. Panzer-Division had lost 86 tanks and AFVs while the 29. Infanterie-Division as well as elements of the 2. and 3. Gebirgs-Division had suffered a total of 700 casualties.
The Second Army began their assault on the fortified defences at noon. Following a powerful artillery barrage and aerial attacks of Luftwaffe bombers, the 3. Panzer-Division and the 3., 4., 12., 18., 24. and the 28. Infanterie-Divisions led off the attack, but the offensive bugged down after an hour due to poor co-ordination between the Panzer Division's mechanised infantry and the tanks while the German infantry divisions had not the strength or equipment to break through the defences. After three hours of fighting with no gains made the Germans retreated to regroup, and GenObst. Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of the Second Army, decided to halt operations for the rest of the day in order to let his men regroup while artillery and bombers would soften the defences. The Second Army also suffered heavy casualties: the 3. Panzer-Division had lost 51 tanks and AFVs while the six infantry divisions had lost a total of 900 men. After four days of heavy fighting, the 3. Infanterie-Division finally broke through the lines where the fortifications were limited, after the defences had been softened with artillery shelling, and thus began its advance towards Ostrava. However, due to heavy casualties, they were ordered only to secure the town and then wait until the remaining elements of the Second Army had broken through the Czech lines.
The Eighth Army began their offensive without facing any resistance, and was greeted enthusiastically by the Sudeten German population as the German soldiers entered the Sudeten villages. But after a few km they ran into the border fortifications, and after a futile attempt to assault it at noon the five infantry divisions (14., 19., 20. (mot.), 23. and the 31. Infanterie-Division) was forced to a halt. As a result, the Commander of the Eight Army, GenObst. Fedor von Bock, ordered his men to dig in along the line, waiting for the artillery to do their job.
In the first two weeks of the campaign, they only gained a few tactical victories in the well-fortified border regions of northern Bohemia and in southern and northern Moravia, and therefore did not manage to obtain a major breakthrough, mostly due to lack of coordination between the infantry and the armoured units. While the Germans struggled to break through the defensive lines, the Sudetendeutsche Freikorps sabotaged bridges, positions and when possible, performed guerrilla raids on Czech soldiers.
Despite several Czech tactical victories, the Czech forces defending the border fortifications were exhausted by a week of continuous fighting, and were soon forced to retreat, as the Germans was breaking through the defensive lines.
Their first major breakthrough was achieved on October 14. At 8:00, a massive artillery barrage by 105 and 150 mm howitzers, supported by Junkers Ju-87 Stukas, bombarded the Czech fortifications, destroying several of the bunkers completely. The saturation lasted for almost two hours. At 10:30, infantry, supported by assault engineers and tanks attacked the line at a wide front, while the artillery hindered reinforcements to reaching the defensive line. While the Pz.Kpfw. IV infantry tanks broke holes in the bunkers, soldiers and pioneers armed with flamethrowers poured into the bunkers, and after two hours of ferocious fighting they got their first breakthrough: the men of the Panzer-Regiment 3 of the 2. Panzer-Division finally eliminated the last bunker at 12:05, and now the tanks began pouring into the Czech hinterland, creating confusion and panic among the retreating soldiers. The other units of the Fourteenth Army soon followed in suit, breaking through the line at different locations within that hour. The soldiers stationed at the defensive line, seeing that they now were being outflanked, were forced to retreat in order to regroup with the other Czech units farther inland.
Following the breakthrough in southern Moravia, the German Second Army broke through the Czech lines on October 15 and then headed for their target city of Olomouc. Later that day the Eighth Army broke through the lines in northern Bohemia, after the Czechs had retreated southwards and taken up positions around Prague and other secondary strongholds such as Mladá Boleslav.
In southern Bohemia, the Twelfth Army had managed to advance 15 km in the first five days of the invasion, but ran then into the fortifications, and several attempts were made in order to break through it, but without success. On October 16, a breakthrough was finally achieved when the 1. Gebirgs-Division and the 27. Infanterie-Division broke through southwest of České Budějovice. As the Germans began to break through at other points as well, the Czech border guard units were ordered to fall back to České Budějovice or other positions in southern Bohemia.
The breakthrough came as a shock to the Czech high command and as a blessing to the German high command. The defensive line had held the Germans out for a longer period of time than the Czech high command had anticipated, but now they had to deal with the multiple breakthrough through their lines, and all reserves were ordered to the most critical sectors of operations.
By October 16, the Czech forces were in retreat and General of the Army Ludvík Krejčí ordered all the troops to fall back to the secondary lines of defences.
The battle was expensive on both sides, but mainly for the Germans, who tried to break through over and over again without success. The number of German soldiers killed in action has never been determined.
The Czech border fortifications proved to be a real challenge to the German troops, who suffered severely from it, and the the defensive line had held the Germans out for a longer period of time than the Czech high command had anticipated, something that continued the war for months to come.
|Invasion of Czechoslovakia|
| Battle of the Border|
(Opava • Operation Freudenthal • Šatov • Znojmo • České Budějovice)