The Wild Last Days Of World War Two In Czechoslovakia
Nazi Czechoslovakia through the eyes of my great-grandfather
‘ The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. ‘
— Martin Luther King Jr.
Resistance fighters, ‘Revolutionary Guards,’ partisans, guerrillas are all names associated with the thousands of men and women who revolted against Nazi tyranny in Czechoslovakia at the end of the Second World War.
As discussed in my previous article, the Third Reich forced my great-grandfather, Miroslav Jeřábek (20 October 1920–23 April 1989) to work in Germany. There, his survival was his only priority.
But once he returned home to Czechoslovakia, joining the partisans resembled an ideal opportunity for him and other Czechs to achieve what had been denied to them during their oppression — to resist the Nazis and reclaim their country.
The legacy of Czech partisans has come under scrutiny since the end of the War. Both Czechs and Germans alike have questioned the moral integrity of this movement and the controversial actions its members carried out under the banner of patriotism.
This article acknowledges the offences perpetrated by certain partisans (it would be wrong not to). However, it is less concerned with those who disrupted the Bohemian borderlands with their indiscriminate persecution and displacement of thousands of Sudeten Germans. This period is referred to as the ‘wild expulsion’, a contentious topic that has already been well-documented elsewhere.
Rather, the focus here is to chronicle the experiences of ordinary Czechs such as Miroslav Jeřábek who did their small part to restore their country’s solidarity.
Rise Of The Václavík Guerrilla Division
Nazi Germany annexed Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939. Czechoslovakia then became known as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and remained a puppet fascist state until its liberation on 9 May 1945.
Opportunities for resistance were limited and amounted to only a handful of brave acts. The Czech people had to wait until the War was over to seek justice against their oppressors.
One partisan division that emerged in late 1944 was the Václavík Guerrilla Division. This group would represent a significant paramilitary force within the Orlické Mountains region in northeastern Bohemia. By May 1945, it exceeded 5,000 members and boasted an impressive arsenal consisting of 20 motorcycles, 20 passenger cars, 50-60 trucks, one 75mm artillery cannon, and an improvised armoured train called the ‘Spark of Freedom.’
Its founder was a man named Jan Ptáčník, codename ‘Václavík’ (17 May 1909–8 October 1987). He owned the Kord liqueur distillery located in Kukleny, a suburb of the city of Hradec Králové, (neighbouring Miroslav Jeřábek’s village of Stěžery).
On 14 May 1945, Ptáčník attended a private meeting in Prague with Communist politician and Minister of the Interior, Václav Nosek (26 September 1892–22 July 1955) and Minister of National Security, Ludvík Svoboda (25 November 1895–20 September 1979), later the eighth President of Czechoslovakia.
Both men allegedly instructed Ptáčník to retake northeastern Bohemia from any remaining SA, SS, Volkssturm (a Nazi militia), and NSDAP/AO members (the Nazi Party’s foreign branch). The division executed these orders with surprising efficiency.
These territories made up the former Sudetenland, a historic province with a dominant German minority that rallied behind Hitler during the War. The Nazis occupied the Sudetenland in October 1938 in response to the Munich Agreement, the Allied-German pact which ceded this Czech territory to Nazi Germany on 30 September 1938.
The Hýbl-Brodecký Partisan Brigade
The Václavík Division incorporated several smaller partisan brigades into its ranks. One of the most notable was the Hýbl-Brodecký Brigade from Hradec Králové, commanded by Lieutenant Josef Hýbl, codename ‘Brodecký’ (7 July 1911–27 August 1953). This group first mobilized in March or April 1945 and joined the Václavík Division shortly after the May Revolution.
The Hýbl-Brodecký Brigade initiated the first of the so-called ‘Peoples’ Courts in the town of Lanškroun on the Bohemian-Moravian border. These illegal courts publicly tried suspected Gestapo members along with other Nazi collaborators, informants, and sympathizers.
Although figures vary, the Lanškroun tribunal is believed to have sentenced 20 ethnic Germans to death between 17–18 May. Often accusations were based on limited or arbitrary evidence. Similar massacres also occurred in the towns of Mladkov, Žamberk, and Králíky.
Miroslav Jeřábek began his partisan journey by joining a local platoon called the četa Rival in May 1945. He assisted the group as a driver/chauffeur, running supplies including grenades to partisan encampments such as the one based in the woodland near the village of Horní Přím, a stone’s throw away from his village of Stěžery.
The Hýbl-Brodecký Brigade absorbed this platoon, after which time Miroslav Jeřábek was most likely assigned to the 1st Hradec Králové Company, comprised of 190 men.
Hýbl deployed his men to partisan barracks located in the towns of Těchonín, Lanškroun, and Moravský Karlov in East Bohemia from 17 May to 17 June 1945, the date the brigade disbanded. Company rosters of the Václavík Division confirm that Miroslav Jeřábek, along with four other men from his village of Stěžery, was stationed at the Těchonín garrison.
One of these men was named Josef Matějovič, a friend and neighbour of Miroslav Jeřábek. Speaking with his daughter, she recalled a near-fatal incident that her father encountered while working with the partisans. His unit was tasked with guarding the ‘Spark of Freedom’ train in the city of Hradec Králové.
One day as the train departed the station, sparks from the chimney set alight a carriage loaded with grenades. The fire would have ignited the explosive cargo onboard were it not for the heroic intervention of these partisans who subdued the flames. Josef Matějovič received a medal for his bravery. Miroslav Jeřábek was not present for this event.
Post-War Responses To The Partisans
In the autumn of 1951, the SNB (state police, 1945–1991) interviewed Miroslav Jeřábek as a witness in an unrelated investigation. Although the StB (secret police, 1945–1990) eventually dismissed the case, the written statement Miroslav Jeřábek submitted to the investigating authorities is particularly insightful for this article. Within this, he produced the following passage:
‘ I was not illegally active and during the (May) Revolution I went to the “Václavík Rival” platoon in Damníkov near Lanškroun as a driver/chauffeur. However, I was not a partisan and I have no documents. ‘
His express desire not to be associated with the Václavík Division and its criminal activities stands out most. Yet, his final assertion that he does not possess any documents which could link him with the partisans is somewhat problematic.
The Václavík Division awarded the following certificate to Miroslav Jeřábek in recognition of his partisan service.
The text translates as:
‘ Commander of the Partisan Division Václavík,
Awarded in memory of guerrilla fighting in the northeastern Bohemia,
Honourable Division Badge. ’
The Václavík Division had dissolved by mid–July 1945 at the behest of the Central Authorities, hence the certificate’s posthumous issue on 28 June 1947.
There is a logical explanation for why he withheld this information from his testimony.
Miroslav Jeřábek’s interview happened to succeed a wider post-War investigation into the conduct of the Václavík Division. Spearheaded by the Regional Security Headquarters in Hradec Králové in conjunction with the StB Headquarters in Prague, this investigation concluded on 19 February 1951.
Although, it is worth noting that the State did not sanction this investigation based on moral or judicial reasons. It did so to conceal its own involvement in anti-German atrocities.
The Václavík Division frequently collaborated with MNVs, municipal committees that helped the partisans to round up ethnic Germans for public trials in their respective communities. Partisans also turned over suspected Nazis to the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, 1934–1946), the secret police of the Soviet Union.
The Red Army oversaw partisan trials and the forced evictions of ethnic Germans. Even more disturbingly, Soviet soldiers perpetrated these heinous crimes themselves.
The Communist regime in Czechoslovakia was eager to silence the partisans, who they feared would expose their criminal behaviour or resist their authority as they had done the Nazis. His concern of punishment by association with the criminal element of the partisans may have motivated Miroslav Jeřábek to keep these documents from the authorities.
Miroslav Jeřábek’s partisan superiors were among those now targeted by the Communist authorities, despite having cooperated with Soviet forces fighting against the Nazis during the War. Jan Ptáčník, a private capitalist, was shunned from public life and later died a poor, embittered man. The regime accused Josef Hýbl of possessing anti-Communist sympathies. He died under suspicious circumstances in 1953.
After spending almost two months in the Hýbl-Brodecký Brigade, Miroslav Jeřábek and his partner relocated to the town of Broumov on the Bohemian border with Poland in September 1945. My late great-grandmother recalled how they slept with a loaded gun beside their bed here due to the rogue fascists still at large in the surrounding woodland.
Not long after this, Miroslav Jeřábek left to complete his National Service. This only lasted five months instead of the customary two years, in consideration for his tenure as a forced labourer in Nazi Germany.
- Jiří Padevět, a Czech writer and director of the publishing house, Academia since 2006.
- Security Services Archive / Archivu bezpečnostních složek.
- Central Military Archives / Vojenský ústřední archiv.