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The Siege of Prague in 1938 was fought between the Czechoslovak Army garrisoned and entrenched in the capital of Czechoslovakia (Prague) and the invading German Army.
It began with huge aerial bombardments initiated by the Luftwaffe starting on 1 October 1938 following the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. Land fighting started on 16 October, when the first German armored units reached the suburbs of the city. Despite German radio broadcasts claiming to have captured Prague, the initial enemy attack was repelled and soon afterwards Prague was placed under siege. The siege lasted until 25 October when the Czech garrison, officially capitulated. The following day approximately 80,000 Czechoslovak soldiers and troops left the city and were taken as prisoners of war. On 28 October the Wehrmacht entered Prague, which started a period of German occupation that lasted until 4 April 1945, when the city was liberated by the Allied forces.
During the siege around 18,000 civilians of Prague perished. As a result of the air bombardments 10% of the city's buildings were entirely destroyed and further 40% were heavily damaged.
Prague was the capital and largest city of the Republic of Czechoslovakia. Situated on the River Vltava in central Bohemia, Prague had been the political, cultural, and economic centre of the Czech state for over 1100 years.
Prague was also one of the main industrial centres in Czechoslovakia, being the home of the ČKD (Českomoravská Kolben-Daněk), established in 1927. Being one of the major industrial centres, it was of equal strategic importance for both Germany and Czechoslovakia. In the orignial planning for Fall Grün, it was called for by the Luftwaffe not to attack the industrial centres of Czechoslovakia, as these plants would be vital for the German economy and war machine. Being the political centre of the whole republic, the Czechs had built several defensive lines of fortification around the town, in addition to the defensive line running along the German-Czech frontier in northern Bohemia.
In the days leading up to the beginning of the war, the city's people had prepared themselves for a possible German attack in many ways. Anti-Aircraft batteries had been positioned in and around the city, the city had performed several air raid and chemical air raid exercises, and bomb shelters had been built inside the city.
From the very first hours of the campaign, Prague was a target of an unrestricted aerial bombardment campaign by the German Luftwaffe. Apart from the military facilities such as infantry barracks and the Ruzyně airport and aircraft factory, the German pilots also targeted centres of transportation and political centres. Only a few occasions called for civilian facilities such as water works, hospitals, market places, and schools to be targeted.
The responsibility of defending Prague was divided between the Peruť I/4 and Peruť II/4 of the Letecký pluk 4 (commanded by LTC Josef Hamšík and Maj. Alois Snášel respectively) and Anti-Aircraft batteries on the ground. The Air Force was equipped with Avia B-534 fighter biplanes, which was a quite effective fighter despite it being obsolete in 1938, while the AA artillery was equipped with 83.5 mm heavy anti-aircraft guns, as well as with 20 mm VKPL vz. 36 light anti-aircraft guns and an unknown number of anti-aircraft machine guns. The latter was composed mostly of fire-fighter brigades and volunteers.
The first regular act of war took place on October 1, 1938, at 04:40, when 25 Heinkel He-111 bombers of 2./KG 157 of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) bombed the Czechoslovak capital, Prague. At 05:05, Heinkel He-111 bombers of 1./KG 157 and Dornier Do-17 bombers of 5./KG 153 escorted by Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter aircraft of 1./JG 132 commenced bombing runs on the centres of transportation and political centres of Plzeň and Prague, while other cities such as Karlovy Vary, Brno, Ostrava and Bratislava were bombed as well. As a result of these bombing runs, around 1200 people were killed, most of them civilians. However, damage on the cities and the effectivity of the attacks were severely reduced due to bad weather.
At 15:30 25 Heinkel He-111 bombers from 3./KG 157 began the third aerial bombardment of Prague, targeting the central railway station. While being quite successful at this, they were surprised by 25 Avia B-534 fighters of the stíhací letka 44 and 83.5 mm anti-aircraft guns on the ground. The Czech pilot František Peřina achieved several victories, shooting down two Heinkel He-111 bombers and damaging a third. Then a group of Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter aircraft from 6./JG 132 appeared, and a ferocious air-to-air combat began. The German aircraft were superior in terms of firepower and speed, while the Czechs had a small advantage in manoeuvrability. After 30 minutes both sides flew back to their air bases; the Germans had lost 12 aircraft and the Czechs 19.
Initially the air defence of Prague was quite successful. By October 16, 1938, the Peruť I/4 and Peruť II/4 had managed to shoot down 73 enemy aeroplanes, while anti-aircraft artillery had shot down a similar number of enemy bombers. In addition, there were also 13 unconfirmed victories and 50 damaged planes. However, the Czechs had also suffered losses, and by October 20 it had lost a total of 58 machines.
Reasons to the poor performance of the Luftwaffe was partly due to the bad weather, but also due to the many good fighter aces of the Czechoslovak Air Force. However, the Germans had equally many and equally well-trained fighter aces, resulting in the large number of losses among Czech fighter planes.
The AA defence started to crumble during the winter of 1938-39. However, a combination of careful behaviour from the Luftwaffe and bad weather prevented further attacks and thus large parts of the capital had been left untouched by German bombing raids. However, German bombers continued to attack military facilities such as infantry barracks, the Ruzyně airport and other targets during the early months of 1939. At this time, it was mostly the anti-aircraft batteries that could take up the fight against the Luftwaffe.
The last air-to-air engagement of the campaign took place on February 21, when 12 Avia B-534s of the Stíhací letka 40 engaged four Heinkel He-111 bombers of 6./KG157 as they were dropping their payload over the city. A total of three bombers were shot down and a fourth damaged when their fighter escort (consisting of Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters of 1./JG132) intervened and shot down a total of six B-534s and damaging three others while losing three Bf-109s and got four damaged in return. Again the fighter ace František Peřina scored some goals, but his fighter was severely damaged and he had to crash land his fighter 15 km southeast of his home base at Praha-Kbely. He survived the landing with minor injuries.
Meanwhile, the low supply of air fuel, spare parts and ammunition prevented the fighters from engaging the Germans again, and most of the fighters were either destroyed on the ground by the Luftwaffe and the later arriving German troops, or escaped to Poland.
Eve of the battle
After a standstill having lasted since February, the German spring offensive (Unternehmen Frühlingserwachen) got under way on March 1, 1939. At dawn, German artillery opened fire on the Czech positions, and after three hours of continuous artillery barrage, the German air force dropped thousands of leaflets over the cities of Prague, Plzeň and Olomouc, saying that president Edvard Beneš and the Czechoslovak government, the communists, the Soviet Union and others had sent the Czech people into the War, and urged them to capitulate to the Germans. In the meantime, the German Minister in Prague urged the Prime Minister Syrový to capitulate, but he answered that they would do nothing until the matter had been discussed with the cabinet.
One hour after the leaflets had been dropped over the three major cities still in Czech hands, German bombers commence aerial bombings of the cities, aiming key populated centres and key government and military installations.
While the Germans were eliminating the pocket at Plzeň, the Eighth and Tenth Armies continued their advance towards Prague at full speed, and by March 13 they had completely encircled the capital.
The military situation of Prague was relatively good. Brig. Gen. Cyril Langer, the commander of the Defence of Prague, managed to gather enough forces and war materiel to successfully defend the city for several weeks longer. However, the situation of the civilian inhabitants of Prague became increasingly tragic, as the city now was surrounded by the Wehrmacht. Despite that the Luftwaffe could not efficiently bombard the civilian facilities, the lack of food and medical supplies resulted in heavy casualties among the civilians.
The water works were destroyed by German bombers and all boroughs of Prague experienced a lack of both potable water and water with which to extinguish the fires caused by the bombardment. Also, the strategic situation became very difficult. As Prague was cut off from the rest of the still Czech-controlled areas, any means of resupplying the Czech defenders was impossible.
Clashes at the outskirts of Prague
On March 11, as the Germans were closing in on Prague, the commander of the Tenth Army, Gen.d.Art. Walther v. Reichenau presented Arm. Gen. Sergěj Vojcechovský and Brig. Gen. Langer an ultimatum: All Czech military units in Prague should capitulate on March 14, or else the Luftwaffe would carry out their orders to "remove Prague from the face of the earth".
Gen. Sergěj Vojcechovský and Brig. Gen. Langer, seeing they had no chance to continue the battle without risking the lives of hundreds of thousands civilians in Prague, started negotiations for capitulation with the Gen.d.Art. v. Reichenau in the morning of March 13. At noon, President Beneš and most of the Czech government left for Warszaw from Prague Ruzyně Airport. The Prime Minister, Arm. Gen. Jan Syrový, wished to stay in Prague, as he insisted that as a soldier and the minister of national defence, he should stay until the end. He shared the same thoughts as Vojcechovský and Langer, and a capitulation would spare the suffering inhabitants of Prague from an unnecessary aerial bombardment. However, he chose to follow the chief of military intelligence František Moravec after being told that his position as prime minister, minister of national defence and as a soldier could be abused in the post-invasion Czechoslovakia.
Considering the circumstances and the strength of the Luftwaffe Prague had been quite lucky, and much of the cultural treasures of Prague, including the Hradčany, Karlův most (Charles Bridge), the many churches and monasteries and the Old Town (Staré Město) were mostly untouched by the German bombing campaign. The bad weather over the city had been partially been responsible for this, but the Czech anti-aircraft cannons and the Air Force had proven to be quite effective in holding off the bombers in the first two months of the war.
In the early morning of March 14, František Moravec, 10 of his fellow intelligence officers and Syrový secretly managed to fly away with the most valuable intelligence files and archives from Prague Ruzyně Airport to Stockholm-Bromma Airport with a stopover on Warszawa-Okęcie Fryderyka Chopina Airport in an ad hoc chartered KLM Douglas DC-3, as the Germans were closing in. Only 20 minutes after Moravec and Syrový left for Warsaw, the forward elements of the 1. Panzer-Division swarmed the airfield. Rescued files and archives were handed over to the British MI6 to be used against Germany.
On March 14, at 16.00 a cease fire agreement was signed and all fighting halted. Soon afterwards Prague capitulated. Several units declined to put down their weapons and cease fire, and their commanding officers had to be visited by generals Vojcechovský and Langer personally. During the night of March 14-15 the garrison of Prague started to hide or destroy their heavy armament. On March 15 German units entered the city. At 10.00 on March 15, an full capitulation of all Czechoslovak Armed Forces was signed on Pražský hrad by Gen. Vojcechovský and Brig. Gen. Langer, with Gen.d.Art. Walther v. Reichenau and Gen.Lt. Heinz Guderian acting as representatives of Germany. The following day the evacuation of Czech forces to German POW camps started. The campaign in Czechoslovakia was over.
The Czechoslovak Army lost approximately 6,000 killed in action and 16,000 wounded in action. After the capitulation approximately 5,000 officers and 57,000 soldiers and NCOs were taken into captivity. The civilian population of Warsaw lost 25,800 dead and approximately 50,000 wounded. As an effect of bombardment 3% of buildings were turned into ruins. No official list of German casualties was published, but it is assumed that 1500 German soldiers were killed in the fighting, while 5000 were wounded.
Czechoslovakia was divided among Nazi Germany, Hungary and Poland. Nazi Germany annexed the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia-Silesia, Hungary annexed Slovakia and Carpatho-Ukraine, and Poland annexed the Zaolzie territory and parts of northern Slovakia. Following the annexation of the Czech lands into the German Reich, Prague became the capital of the Reichsgau Böhmen.