The Czechoslovak Legion, established in September 1939 in Poland, was captured by the Soviets. After the Allies recognized the Edvard Beneš group in exile as the official government-in-exile in July 1940, the Czechs contacted the Soviet embassy in London requesting the release of Col. Svoboda’s soldiers interned in the USSR. The fact that the British also consulted with Moscow at that time undoubtedly facilitated the talks. As a result of complex negotiations, the gradual evacuation of small groups of Czechoslovak soldiers was approved. At the end of summer 1940, the Soviets released two groups, who managed to reach Istanbul by way of Odessa.
by Andrzej Krawczyk
How did the Czechs and Slovaks reach Palestine?
While all the above was taking place, a camp was established for Czech and Slovak volunteers in Mandatory Palestine near Tel Aviv. With London’s consent, they were to form the Czechoslovak armed forces in exile. Several refugees from the Protectorate were sent there; a group of Czech and Slovak Jews already in Palestine joined too. In addition, several dozen soldiers from the Svoboda legion arrived, many of whom had escaped Poland through Romania in September 1939. Several volunteers undertook an extraordinary journey as they made their way to the Middle East. It caused quite a sensation when a group of over a hundred Jews, on a ship obtained in Bratislava, sailed as far as the Danube estuary in the Black Sea and made it to Turkey by staying a few kilometers off the coast. Fortunately, the weather was good, and the sea was calm.
A group of Czech expats from Iran who worked in the oil industry also reached the camp. Among the volunteers from Poland was an unexpectedly large group of Polish citizens members of the Czech minority in Volhynia. Some of them served in the Polish Army before the war; hence there were as many as 18 Polish reservists. One curiosity was an application of a half-Germanized aristocrat from Bohemia. Prince Lobkovitz was an ideological opponent of Nazism who came to Palestine from South America and was admitted to the army under a pseudonym. One camp anecdote says that one of the latrines built in the camp had a sign “Only for people with a prince title”. It’s worth noting that there was also a group of people in the unit who spoke German better than Czech – they were Czech Jews and part of the Zionist emigration to Palestine.
The Czech-Slovak unit created in Palestine was initially called the 4th Eastern Regiment. However, there was an obvious lack of soldiers to fill a regiment, so a new structure was established as the 11th Czechoslovakian Eastern Battalion after some time. Its commander was Lt. Col. Karel Klapálek, who led the reserve regiment in České Budějovice in 1938, and was demobilized from the army and sent to work in the administration in July 1939. In May 1940, Klapálek was threatened with arrest by the Gestapo for his complicity in creating resistance structures, so he fled through Slovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Another lieutenant colonel, Karel Střelka, aged 44, escaped from the Protectorate relatively late in May 1940. He illegally crossed the border to Yugoslavia and joined the army at the still functioning Czechoslovak embassy in Belgrade. With the help of British intelligence, he was transferred to the Middle East, and there, he was appointed deputy battalion commander.
After the end of the Libyan campaign, the government-in-exile in London decided to send Střelka to the Soviet Union. He reached Russia in a British plane and became the commander of the 1st regiment in the Czechoslovakian unit, which was expanded to the size of a brigade. When it was reformed into a corps, he was appointed to lead one of the brigades, which he commanded in the fall of 1944 during the fights in the Dukla Pass.
At the beginning of 1941, the battalion was assigned its first task: to guard a POW camp for Italian soldiers near Alexandria. In May 1941, when the battalion numbered 763 soldiers, it was included in the British 23rd Brigade and assigned to guard and provide airport security in Western Egypt.
Anabasis continued: Syria and then… to Libya
At the end of June, the entire 23rd Brigade was moved to Syria, where it took over the barracks of French units loyal to the Vichy government and disarmed them. More than once, fire was exchanged. By chance, there was a large group of Czechoslovak citizens in one of the disarmed units, the 6th Regiment of the Foreign Legion. Their compatriots had been evacuated in 1939 through Gdynia. Dozens of them decided to join the battalion.
In August 1941, the Czechoslovak government in exile asked the British authorities to transfer the Czechoslovak battalion to the British Isles. The British command, experiencing a dramatic shortage of soldiers in North Africa, decided that it would be more rational to use it in the place where it was already located. Appeals of the Australians that their units in Tobruk were at the end of their rope and had to be relieved were a significant factor. The Czech battalion was included in the Polish brigade, and it was decided to send them to Tobruk.
In October, to get there, the Czechoslovakians boarded two destroyers in Alexandria: the British “Hasty” and the Australian “Napier.”. Although the water was calm, it was a hard experience for Czechs and Slovaks. Some of them had never seen the sea before; almost all fell ill and went ashore in poor condition (over 300 soldiers were crammed into each destroyer).
Flood in the desert
On 23 October, orders came down that the battalion would become a part of the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade, which co-defended Tobruk in August 1941. Poles, along with the British 70th Division, gradually replaced the exhausted Australian 9th Division. Out of around 30,000 defenders of Tobruk, the Polish Brigade with its 6,000 soldiers was responsible for approx. ¼ of the defense line from the West. Among the soldiers of the Polish Brigade, there was a Czechoslovak battalion, numbering between 643 and 785 people (about 11% of the unit’s roll). The commander of the Polish brigade, General Stanisław Kopański, issued the Operational Order No. 9, specifying the battalion’s location and assigning tasks. It was given a section adjacent to the exit road from Tobruk to the city of Derna, strengthened with a Polish machine gun company and a platoon of anti-tank guns, and ordered to take over 16.”resistance nests.” The “nests” were incidentally former defense posts of the Italians. About 20-30 soldiers manned each strongpoint. The distance between the “nests” was 400 meters on average and between 80 and 800 meters from the enemy trenches.
There were rarely any straightforward battles, and the main problem was regular mortar fire and frequent air raids. The battlefront also featured numerous minefields on both sides. Soldiers suffered from daytime heat and cold nights (temperatures could drop to 4 degrees Celsius, while most of their uniforms were designed for the tropics). In addition, there were frequent sandstorms with zero visibility.
Czech soldiers discovered four large-caliber mortars produced at the Skoda plant in Plzeň (Pilsen) that Italians had abandoned during the retreat. They knew how to handle them perfectly. General Kopański sent two guns to the battalion with Polish crews and ordered the creation of a “Czechoslovak-Polish artillery battery,” the only unit of its kind during the Second World War.
At night, soldiers often made reconnaissance raids beyond the front lines. The Czechoslovak battalion reported 88 such attacks. Opposite the Czechs were mainly Italian units of the “Brescia” division, fortunately not characterized by a very strong fighting spirit. However, there were groups of German soldiers from Afrika Korps between them. German propaganda tried to weaken the defenders’ morale by broadcasting through megaphones, also in Polish and Czech, the cries of “come out, rats.” Defenders took it with pride and began to call themselves “Rats of Tobruk,” a tradition that continues among the veterans of the siege to this day.
There were also unexpected events, such as unusually high tides, which on 17 November rapidly flooded one of the ravines, destroying tents and forward ammunition stores there. During the flood, two soldiers from the Czech battalion drowned.
On 28 November, General Kopański moved Czech soldiers to defend the shore against a possible landing. Together with Polish soldiers, the Czechs defended the city for 41 days, and 14 Czech soldiers lost their lives. The cooperation between the soldiers of both nations (or three, because we have to consider the Slovaks) was excellent. After the war, the veterans remembered each other with affection and respect. Poles often talked about the technical abilities of Czech soldiers. For example, there was a belief among Polish soldiers that the Czechs would be able to assemble any car from wrecks lying in the desert. The Czechs, in turn, admired the Polish military elegance and sense of honor. After the end of the Libyan campaign, Polish soldiers in Palestine were visited on 17 July 1942 by the Czechoslovak-émigré Minister of Defense, General Sergěj Ingr, who presented the Poles with 19 Czechoslovak decorations.
The significance of Tobruk
The battle for Tobruk was crucial for the course of operations in North Africa. Due to a lack of roads through the desert, the possession of the port of Tobruk was the only chance to supply dispersed units, especially with petrol. Whoever got hold of Tobruk ruled over the heart of North Africa. No wonder that in 1941-1942 this port and city were besieged four times, twice by both sides. When, in January 1941, the Italian offensive from Libya to Egypt ended in failure, and the British captured Tobruk for the first time, Hitler sent General Erwin Rommel, considered one of the best German commanders, to Africa. He was ordered to bring the situation in Libya under control and later to conquer Egypt. To this day, there are disputes among military historians about what was more important for the course of the war; stopping the march towards Egypt and the Suez Canal or the German attack on the Volga and Stalingrad.
The Polish Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief, General Władysław Sikorski, arrived in Africa on 14 November 1941 and visited units on the front lines. It was of great moral importance. General Sikorski was the only commander of such high rank (and political leader) who visited the besieged city.
On 18 November 1941, the British Army launched Operation Crusader to move the front west of Tobruk and unlock the besieged fortress. Between 5 and 10 December 1941, units of the British 8th Army broke through to Tobruk and broke the siege line. The Polish brigade supported the actions of the British by attacking the besiegers from within.
From the desert to Cheb
After breaking the siege of Tobruk on 11 December 1941, the Polish brigade and the Czechoslovak battalion went their separate ways. The brigade quickly left Tobruk while the battalion remained there until April 1942, after which it returned to Palestine. The Poles found themselves in Palestine a little later; Anders’ army, meaning those who had managed to evacuate from the Soviet Union via Iran, joined the “Rats of Tobruk”, meaning those who had managed to evacuate from the Soviet Union via Iran. The brigade began to be expanded into a division – the future 3rd Carpathian Division, which was included in the 2nd Corps of General Władysław Anders.
The Czechs, meanwhile, mobilized all over the Middle East and grouped all available soldiers into one camp. They appealed, among others, to the Czech patriotism of Jewish settlers from Bohemia in Palestine. Approximately 1,250 people were gathered. They formed the Czechoslovakian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment No. 200 (unit numbers were part of the camouflage), which was divided into three parts and sent to different places in the Middle East: No. 500 protected the Haifa port and No. 501 defended the skies over Beirut.
On 31 December 1942, the regiment returned entirely to Tobruk to defend the port against the German bomber raids from Crete. The anti-aircraft artillery created a mainly psychological barrier to the incoming German pilots. However, on 20 January 1943, during a raid, the regiment’s battery shot down a Junkers Ju 88 bomber.
In July 1943, the soldiers of the anti-aircraft regiment embarked on a ship in Alexandria, and, on 12 August, they unloaded in the port of Liverpool, where President Edvard Beneš received a solemn parade on the quay. The purpose of this redeployment was to create a Czechoslovak brigade in England.
It is worth adding that in the last days of the war, in the second half of April 1945, when General Patton’s 3rd US Army was approaching the borders of Czechoslovakia, at the request of the government-in-exile in London, some Czechoslovak soldiers were immediately withdrawn from besieging the Germans at the port of Dunkirk. This 140-strong mechanized unit was transferred to Bavaria so that it could symbolically enter Czechoslovakia with the first American soldiers. On 1 May 1945, cars with Czechoslovak licenses entered Cheb in West Bohemia. Among the Czechoslovak soldiers, there were 80 veterans from Tobruk.
In 2008, Czech director Václav Marhoul made the film “Tobruk” about Czechoslovak soldiers in 1941. As part of the documentation, Marhoul interviewed 35 veterans of this battle who were still alive.
As Czech historians have calculated, a total of 2,489 soldiers, including 402 Slovaks, passed through the Czechoslovak troops in the Middle East. In Tobruk, Czechoslovak soldiers, apart from the airmen in the Battle of Britain, fought against the Germans for the first time. It was a historic moment that will forever remain in the annals of Czech history. Poles are proud of the fact that it happened within the framework of a Polish group and together with Polish soldiers.
Author: Dr. Andrzej Krawczyk – Polish historian, and diplomat. He was Under-Secretary of State in the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland Lech Kaczyński (2005–2007), ambassador to Czech Republic (2001–2005), Slovakia (2009–2012), and Bosnia and Herzegovina (2013–2018).
Translation: Mikołaj Sekrecki