We Will Remain Faithful

Director:
Jiří Weiss
Year:
1945

About film

The Film Archive of the Army in Exile

The outbreak of World War II introduced an entirely new and unprecedented chapter in the history of cinema. Given the number of propaganda films that were made at this time, we can say without exaggeration that film also went to the war front. Whereas during World War I, world rulers were discovering the potential of the print press as a tool of propaganda, during World War II thein attention was focused on cinema. Film inevitably became an important tool for shaping public opinion – it was intended to prepare citizens for war, motivate them to action, and maintain social morale, among other things.

Some of the best-known films depicting Allied operations include the American cycle Why We Fight (Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak, 1942–1945), which covers the most important events of World War II; the British-American co-production The True Glory (Carol Reed, Garson Kanin, 1945), which documents the Allied victory on the Western Front; and Berlin (Fall of Berlin – 1945; Yuli Raizman, 1945), which follows the advance of Soviet troops from the onslaught at Stalingrad to the conquering of Berlin. These films contributed to the mythologisation of the great Allies, whose struggle against the Axis powers was not only a defence of their own statehood, but also a struggle to liberate weaker nations from Hitler’s oppression.  

Lingering in the shadows of the films dealing with the war operations of the main Allied powers are others that describe the activities of smaller Allies, such as Australia, South Africa, Poland, and the Netherlands, as well as the Czechoslovak resistance. The motivating idea for those who created such productions was aptly described by director Jiří Weiss: “The average Brit is presented with Allied propaganda on a daily basis. Yet how does he perceive the content of those words, or thein importance? […] We should also show him the face of Poland, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia… The nations of the British isle and its Dominions as well as the United States would invest greater effort in industrial production and elsewhere if they saw real stories of the many different nations, which have laid aside their recent quarrels and now stand side by side. Have you seen how the British are redoubling their efforts to supply materials for the needs of our Soviet ally?”[1]

Although this call was only partially heeded, many film crews from individual countries, working in coordination with their respective governments-in-exile and the army, sought to capture on film the fight against the enemy. Films about the war in occupied nations were made primarily with the help of the British studio called the Crown Film Unit and the British Ministry of Information (MOI), however filmmakers with the Kuybyshev Newsreel Studio in the USSR and directors associated with the United States Office of War Information (OWI) and the Canadian National Film Board (NFB) also contributed to the creation of these films.[2]

Many of the productions made during World War II are now publicly available, but there are still other materials in film and military archives that are worth publishing – including footage that depicts the operations of peripheral Allied forces through their own lens. The collection We Will Remain Faithful contains just such material: films that document the Czechoslovak army operating on various fronts of the Second World War. While there are other films from the period that present this topic from the perspective of various Allied nations,[3] this edition focuses on the hitherto marginalised material shot by Czech filmmakers. Like the films of the other Allies, these works also responded to the film propaganda of the Axis states. Yet, as Jiří Weiss stressed, these films place simple soldiers at the centre of the action, and thus, together with other works of the Crown Film Unit, also provided a counterweight to the productions of the film establishment in Hollywood, Billancourt, or Barrandov.[4]

It should be noted that these films only present a narrow portion of the soldiers’ lives, which was, moreover (with the exception of some amateur film footage), extensively staged and “modified” for propagandistic purposes. Therefore, the goal of this edition is not only to present important factual information from Czech history, but also to initiate a consideration about the process of national mythologisation. The films provide examples of how Czechoslovak soldiers were perceived within the context of the worldwide armed conflict. They are a testament to the time of their origin and a sort of historical monument; they immortalise the contributions of Czechoslovak elites operating in the international arena and illustrate the nation’s struggle for freedom.

This edition is structured around the feature documentary Věrni zůstaneme (We Will Remain Faithful) – the first film to summarize the history of Czechoslovakia from the 1938 Munich Conference to the 1944 Allied landings in Normandy, France, with an emphasis on the resistance movement abroad. In addition to the sheer scale of this project, it is also important to note just how much weight was attached to the film’s mission. Years later, director Weiss recalled: “That immense faith, the vision of the future… (…) The crazy hope that film can affect people’s lives, can help change the world. It was the ideal of my generation to draw one’s heart like a sword and use art to fight for one’s convictions”.[5] The filmmaker was so convinced of the power of the documentary’s message that he allegedly organized an airdrop of copies of the film during the Allied deployment in support of the Slovak National Uprising.[6] The official premiere took place on October 12, 1945 in the Blaník cinema in Prague with the President of the newly restored Czechoslovak Republic in attendance. Several period reviews highlight the educational and patriotic value of the work. The journal Filmový přehled (Film Overview) described the documentary as a “living political textbook”, but also commented that it contains too little information about the units of General Ludvík Svoboda in the USSR, presumably due to the unavailability of such material.[7]

Of course, the complexity of the issues surrounding the operations of Czechoslovak units-in-exile demanded that the topic be presented from the broadest possible perspective. Czechoslovak soldiers were not only active on different fronts, on the ground and in the air, but were also subordinated to different political factions. It must be remembered that the discourse about the war had many modes of expression and went through various stages of development; it was nearly just as syncretic and extensive as the war itself. For this reason, the collection represents a diverse range of genres – documentary films, feature propaganda documentaries, newsreels, and amateur films – as well as raw footage from various fronts.

One group of works contains films made on various front-lines of battle (including the Western and Eastern Fronts, as well as fighting in Africa). The research for this project revealed that the collection of the Czech Národní filmový archiv (National Film Archive – NFA) are primarily dominated by materials about the operations of Czechoslovak troops on the Western Front. One of the reasons for this is the aforementioned Jiří Weiss, who was the most active Czech exile filmmaker during the war and later donated a collection of his films to the NFA. In addition to the documentary that lends its name to this collection, the extras include other film material shot by Weiss: the newsreel footage for Čechoslováci u Dunkerku, březen 1945 (Czechoslovaks at Dunkirk, March 1945) and Generál Liška hovoří o významu Dunkerku pro Československo 9. dubna 1945 (General Liška Speaks About the Significance of Dunkirk for Czechoslovakia on April 9, 1945) as well as the short documentary about the 311th Czechoslovak Squadron Night and Day (1945). From a film-historical point of view, the film The Czechoslovaks March On (1943), directed by Karel Lamač, also provides a remarkable portrait of Czechoslovak soldiers on the Western Front. This documentary stands out among the standard film propaganda of the time due to director’s subtle use of irony and the distance he maintains from his subject. It is worth noting that this film (like the documentary Night and Day) was produced by the Czechoslovak Film Unit. Although no detailed information has yet been found to this effect, it can be assumed that the film was created thanks to the financial support of then Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk.[8]

The situation of Czechoslovak airmen in England is also captured in the film material of 310. stíhací peruť (310th Fighter Squadron, 1940–1943) – one of the few examples of amateur footage in colour from the period, shot by military doctor Zdeněk Vítek on Eastman Kodak stock. The authentic atmosphere of the recorded moments is enhanced by the cameraman’s personal affiliation with the airmen and ground staff, who are filmed as they carry out their daily duties, engage in lemure activities, and participate in ceremonies and visits by representatives of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile (e.g. Jan Masaryk). The amateur footage consists of essentially continuous shots of individual events, which have barely been modified by subsequent editing and which are not even arranged chronologically in the preserved print. Given this lack of structure in the archived footage, the editors of this collection have decided to present this material in two edited fragments that illustrate as clearly as possible the diversity of the whole content.

In addition to the films made on the Western Front, the collection also includes the Soviet documentary Chekhoslovatskaya  voynskaya  chasť v  SSSR (Czechoslovak Military Unit in the USSR; dir. A. Kiryukhina, 1942) – the only original film about Czechoslovak soldiers in the East maintained in NFA collection, whose footage was included in many compilation documentaries in the past.[9] Unlike the other extras, this film was shot by a Russian crew. After the war, the film was given to the Československý filmový ústav (Czechoslovak Film Institute), as well as to the Vojenská půjčovna filmů (Army Film Rental Service), which used some of its sequences in their own propaganda documentaries, which were subsequently censored after February 1948 in order to remove images of then politically undesirable officers. This Soviet documentary is complemented by the newsreel segment Slavnostní přísaha a předání bojového praporu 2. čs. samostatné brigádě (Ceremonial Oath and Handover of the Standard to the 2nd Czechoslovak Independent Brigade), which presents unassembled footage depicting the 2nd Czechoslovak Independent Parachute Brigade in the Soviet Union in 1944.

Another topic concerns the actions of Czechoslovak troops in North Africa. Extensive research has shown that the unassembled amateur film Československá jednotka v severní Africe (Czechoslovak Unit in North Africa, 1941–1943) preserved in the NFA collection is one of the few surviving films dealing with this topic. Due to the critical condition of the film material and the low technical quality of the image, we have decided to supplement the film with period photographs from the Vojenský ústřední archiv (Military Central Archive) and from Jaroslav Čvančara’s priváte collection.

Another part of the edition focuses on important moments associated with the return of Czechoslovak troops to their homeland in 1945. The film Cesta domů (The Journey Home, 1945) documents a Czechoslovak brigade as it goes through training, transport to France, fierce fighting near Dunkirk, and finally the return trip to Prague. Miroslav Tiller, who was officially responsible for film activity in the brigade, had no formal film education and shot this film with a staff of amateur cameramen. The only professional filmmaker among the soldiers of the Czechoslovak army on the Western Front at that time was Kurt Goldberger, who had a signifiant influence on the final form of this work.

An essential component of the end of the war and the liberation of the state were the military parades of the liberators. Thus, the edition includes segments from post-war newsreels depicting soldiers from the Eastern and Western Fronts being welcomed as heroes. Several military parades took place in 1945 and included such figures as General Patton, General Harmon, Field Marshal Montgomery, and, among the distinguished Czechoslovaks, General Alois Liška. Footage from these events also shows the ceremonial, yet also relaxed and joyful atmosphere as the Red Army was welcomed to Prague, as well as the last public presentations of Czechoslovak troops from the West for many years to come.

As a whole, this edition seeks to introduce a new voice to the ever-present debate about the role of Czechoslovakia in World War II. The film materials it contains should serve not only historians concerned with the image of exile army forces, but also researchers working on the topic of national memory and the politicisation of history. The collection is also intended for the general public, especially those who have an interest in depictions of combat activities in Europe.

Iwona Łyko Plos


Notes:

[1] Quoted in: James Chapman, The British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda. London: IB Tauris 1998, pp. 216–217.

[2] See United Nations: United Nations Day in Great Britain (Ministry of Information, Crown Film Unit, 1942), Parad polskoy chasti (Parade of the Polish Unit; Kuybyshevske studio film-chroniky, 1942), Brazil at War (US Office of War Information, 1943), Fighting Norway (Sydney Newman, National Film Board, 1943).

[3] See Czech Army in England (Gerry Massey-Collier, 1940), Fighting Allies: Czechoslovaks in Britain (Louise Birt, 1941), Liberated Czechoslovakia (Osvobozhdennaya Chekhoslovakiya; Ilja Kopalin, 1945).

[4] See A. J. Liehm, Ostře sledované filmy. Československá zkušenost. Praha: Národní filmový archiv 2001, p. 96.

[5] Jiří Weiss, interview by Elmar Klos, April 8, 1984, Národní filmový archiv, Oral history collection. See also A. J. Liehm, Ostře sledované filmy, p. 97.

[6] Weiss most likely speaks about the version of the film that did not yet include a filmed statement by Minister Hubert Ripka at the beginning.

[7] Věrni zůstaneme. Filmová kartotéka, 1946, no. 6, p. 5. The text by Alena Šlingerová addresses the film in more detail.

[8] Jiří Weiss, interview by Zdeněk Štábla, Pavel Taussig, Václav Merhaut, June 11, 1983. Národní filmový archiv, Oral history collection.

[9] For example, in the Czechoslovak documentary Generál Svoboda (General Svoboda, 1968) and the Russian newsreel Sovremennik (Modernist).

Filmographic data

director:
Jiří Weiss

screenwriter:
Jiří Weiss

cinematography:
Raymond Elton,
Peter Henessy,
Charles Marlborough,
George Rottner,
Geoffrey Williams

music:
Vilém Tauský

editor:
Jiří Weiss

The Information Service at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Government of Czechoslovakia in London, 82 min

Videos

Texts

Documentary Films About the Western Resistence in Post-War Cinemas

After 1945, cinematic depictions of the Czechoslovak resistance during World War II underwent various modifications, which were particularly dependent on political developments. The origins of these depictions need to be traced back to the war years, when some filmmakers in exile documented the foreign resistance and thereby strengthened the perception of Czechoslovak identity in the international consciousness. During the war, several Czech filmmakers continued thein career in Great Britain, including directors Karel Lamač and Jiří Weiss, cinematographer Otto Heller, and later important documentary filmmaker Kurt Goldberger. In addition to producing Unixe professional and amateur films, the work of Czechoslovak military units and diplomacy abroad also represents an important chapter in the history of exile culture.

Filmmakers in exile were employed by various film companies, including the Crown Film Unit at the British Ministry of Information. Of course, the Czechoslovak government-in-exile was also interested in the work they were doing. In addition to creating feature films and a large amount of anonymous newsreel footage, they also made their own documentaries, mostly in short format. According to testimonies from the period, these films were a vital part of cultural activity.[1] Premiere screenings took place at the Czechoslovak Institute (founded in 1941) with representatives of Czechoslovak and British political and social life in attendance; these events also provided a platform for film am[1]ateurs from among the ranks of soldiers.[2] The exile press, including the government-run Čechoslovák (The Czechoslovak), reported on film news. With the end of the war approach[1]ing, the work of exile filmmakers began to focus more on addressing future audiences in their homeland, as in the case of the feature film We Will Remain Faithful (1945) by Jiří Weiss and the medium-length film The Journey Home (1945) by Miroslav Tiller.

After emigrating to Great Britain, Jiří Weiss soon followed up on his pre-war work, specifically on the compilation documentary Dvacet let svobody (Twenty Years of Freedom), with which he commemorated the birth of the Czechoslovak Republic on October 28, 1918, and symbolically said farewell to his homeland.[3] Although this film remained unfinished, Weiss took up work on another project in the same spirit immediately after emigrating. Using archival materials from the first twenty years of the Czechoslovak Republic that he brought with him to Great Britain, he completed his first exile film in 1939, The Rape of Czechoslovakia.[4] This documentary, which had the support of Jan Masaryk and voice-over commentary in English written by poet Cecil Day-Lewis, presents a picture of the modern Czechoslovak state based on democratic and moral principles, clearly affirming its place in the post-war world order. Weiss went on to create a number of films in a similar style aimed at non-Czech audiences, including Eternal Prague (1940). As a volunteer in the army, Weiss made several direct reportages and filmed reconstructions with members of the Royal Air Force, including the portrait of the 311th Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron Night and Day (1945). In 1944, with the support of the exiled Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs and several foreign institutions and individual collaborators, he created the documentary We Will Remain Faithful using a combination of archival material and newly shot footage. Although the surviving prints feature an introduction by Hubert Ripka aimed at audiences in liberated Czechoslovakia, the film itself was made before the end of the war. At the time of its premiere in October 1945, it was certainly one of the most comprehensive sources of information on the activities of the Czechoslovak resistance abroad even though Weiss’s filmic style often eschews factual clarity in favour of suggestive expression and narrative dynamics.

A deserted chateau in Lány and motionless wheels in factories – it is the autumn of 1937, a moment of transition after the death of former president T. G. Masaryk. It was at Masaryk’s funeral that his successor, Edvard Beneš, made the promise: “We will remain faithful to the legacy you have placed in our hands, President Liberator”. Weiss immediately recalls Masaryk’s legacy with an edited sequence composed of archival footage. This recapitulation of the Republic’s democratic principles formulated in the wake of World War I does not have the character of a propaganda film such as The Rape of Czechoslovakia. It presents instead a familiar and intimate portrait of the state, with lyrical shots of the rough life in Carpathian Ruthenia and depictions of the First Republic’s progressive social system. It also includes historic milestones such as the 10th Rally of the Sokol gymnastics movement and the army mobilisation of 1938. These monumental manifestations of national self-confidence are contrasted with the first images of evil – the deeds of the Sudeten-Germans and the arrival of the German occupying army on March 15, 1939.

The film’s depiction of the war years was dependent on the sources of film material available to Weiss. In addition to footage he shot himself, he also utilised material from Allied organizations and Nazi propaganda. From these sources he extracted sometimes more, sometimes less concrete images of key turning points in the war, including the invasion of Poland, the surrender of France, the Battle of Britain, the Battle of Stalingrad, the fighting in North Africa, guerrilla activity, and the opening of the Second Front. The final rapid montage of shots showing the advance of the Western and Eastern Allies creates the impression of pincers that will inevitably crush the enemy. The participation of Czechoslovaks in all of these developments and their recognition by friendly forces is continuously foregrounded: Edvard Beneš and Jan Masaryk negotiate in the West and in the USSR; ranks of volunteer forces take part in the fighting in Europe, on the Eastern Front, and in North Africa; the Czechoslovak Red Cross is also active; and the tragedy of Lidice elicits a worldwide response. With his editing and soundtrack work, Weiss constructs a coherent story of a strong, respected, and united Czechoslovak resistance abroad.

The impactful voiceover concretises the images, but even more often it interacts with the images as a  parallel, poetic text. It freely offers fragmentary quotations, such as verses from František Halas’ poem “Zpěv úzkosti” (Song of Anxiety)[5] or a paraphrase of “Písně otroka” (Songs of the Slave) by Svatopluk Čech.[6] The musical accompaniment, which significantly influences the meaning of the scenes, was composed for the film by Vilém Tauský,[7] who also conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra for the recording of the score. The musical motif introduced at the beginning of the film ended up estab[1]lishing a sort of symbolic link with Weiss’s subsequent films, where it was used again: in Dopis z Prahy (Letter from Prague; 1945) about the consequences of the Nazi occupation, and in Slavný den (Glorious Day; 1945) about the first session of the Prozatímní Národní shromáždění (Provisional National Assembly).

The soundtrack also adds a certain level of self-reflexivity to the film, which cannot hide the fact that it consists of fragments of various origins, including material from the enemy camp. The voiceover, however, directly draws attention to this fact and elaborates on it: for example, when it interprets German footage from factories with the following commentary: “Nazi propaganda sought to tell the world that the cooperation of European workers was voluntary, but the Germans are exposed as liars by their own films. The world saw the faces of the workers, workers in German slavery”. The ironically distorted depic[1]tion of Nazi greetings in a sequence of a meeting between Wilhelm Keitel and Jozef Tiso is meant to show that Nazi propaganda is not only deceptive, but is also ridiculous.

We Will Remain Faithful had its ceremonial premiere on October 12, 1945.[8] The film firmly established itself as part of the newly emerging film culture, which involved screenings of films made by Western and Eastern Allies or productions of a weekly newsreel Týden ve filmu (The Week in Film), which replaced the discredited Aktualita (Actuality) and became a herald of victory and post war renewal. Some press reviews saw a lack of catharsis in Weiss’s film since he did not shoot additional footage depicting the liberated republic, but, in general, the film received a warm response. There are reports of releases abroad, as well as comparisons with formally related foreign documentaries, such as the American series Why We Fight (Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak, 1942–1945), whose first episode went into Czechoslovak distribution on July 6, 1945. Period reviews described We Will Remain Faithful as “a record of facts, woven together by the hands of a film poet”, which contains neither “the precise factual accounts of the US Department of War documentary nor the drastic narrative style of Soviet films”.[9] The Communist newspaper Rudé právo (Red Justice) expressed great reservations about the film due to its perceived excessive emphasis on the Western resistance, but even its reviewer ultimately admitted that it is a “positive contribution to Czech cinema”.[10]

The documentary The Journey Home about the Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade Group and its dramatic return from Great Britain via France serves as a  sort of imaginary counterpart to Weiss’s film. It is de facto a series of individual reportages shot by the film group that worked for the exiled Ministry of National Defence. Miroslav Tiller is often mentioned as the director of The Journey Home and his name is mentioned first among the cameramen. However, like most members of the film group, he was not a professional filmmaker. Another cameraman and young documentary filmmaker, Kurt Goldberger, was, at least according to his own account, the person responsible for the ultimate conception of the film.[11]

The composition of The Journey Home derives from the original footage and perspective of the soldiers, and therefore has more of a reportage style and technical character than Weiss’s film. It also has a more literal conclusion in the form of a soldiers’ reunion with President Beneš and cheering crowds in the streets of Prague after the war. A common feature of both films is the important role of music. The score for The Journey Home was written by young film composer Jiří Šust[12] and recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Vilém Tauský. The abrupt alternation between various original musical motifs and paraphrases corresponds to the development of the film, whereby we can hear the tension between the expected clash near the port of Dunkirk and the awareness of the impending victory and return home.

The Journey Home also reached the cinema screens of the liberated homeland. It was shown, for example, on October 26, 1946 on the occasion of the second anniversary of the most spectacular action of Czechoslovak soldiers at Dunkirk on October 28, 1944,[13] but did not enter wider distribution until March 1947. The delayed premiere seemed to have harmed the film’s reception, at least judging by the minimal response from film critics. Its release was also controversial due to being put on a double program with the thematically unrelated American feature documentary The Forgotten Village (Herbert Kline, Alexander Hackenschmied, 1941).[14]

During the post-war Third Czechoslovak Republic, non-fiction films were already dealing with the theme of resistance from a quite different perspective than those made in Western exile. Although the domestic resistance primarily appears as the subject of feature films, it is also presented in various documentaries such as Včera a dnes (Yesterday and Today; Josef Vácha, 1946), about the history of the Communist press, or Rozhodující generace (The Decisive Generation; Antonín Görlich et al., 1946), a stylized portrait of a teen[1]ager during the war. As the doctrines of communist cultural policy rose in prominence, the remembrance of the resistance movement in the West was pushed out of the public consciousness and its political component reinterpreted as servility towards the Western powers in the effort to re-establish the “exploitative” system of the capitalist republic. Notably, compilation documentaries made in the years after February 1948 rely primarily on depictions of the enemy and national martyrdom in addition to the standard images of the liberating Red Army and occasionally the resistance movement that operated alongside it. Typical examples are films such as Mnichované (Munichers; Jiří Papoušek, 1951) or Svědectví (Testimony; Pavel Háša, Ivo Toman, 1961). The approach of such films could not be further removed from the work of the military filmmakers in exile, which emphasised heroic figures and the positive values they represented in the confusing turmoil of the war. Although such images of the resistance abroad featured for only a brief period of time after the war, they are an undisputed part of Czech documentary film history.

Alena Šlingerová

Notes:

[1] See for example: Čs. filmové zprávy. Čechoslovák 3, 1941, no. 7 (14. 2.), p. 5; jlh. [Jiří Lanstein Hronek], Odboj ve filmu. Čechoslovák 3, 1941, no. 8 (21. 2.), p. 7; and Život naší jednotky ve Vel. Britanii. Filmy o čs. samostatné brigádě. Čechoslovák 5, 1943, no. 37 (10. 9.), p. 6.

[2] See Bořivoj Srba, Múzy v exilu. Brno: Masarykova univerzita 2003, p. 368.

[3] Due to the events following the Munich Agreement, the film was released in an incom[3]plete form under the title Naše země (Our Land, 1938)

[4] Jiří Weiss, Bílý mercedes. Praha: Victoria Publishing 1995, pp. 40–41.

[5] The poem “Zpěv úzkosti” comes from Halas’ collection Torso naděje (Fragment of Hope), which was published in 1938 as an immediate reaction to the Munich Agreement and the failed mobilization. František Halas, Torso naděje. Praha: Melantrich 1938.

[6] An allegorical composition on the theme of servitude and the will to freedom, “Písně otroka” was first published in 1895 in an atmosphere of political and social tension in then Austria-Hungary. Svatopluk Čech, Písně otroka. Praha: F. Topič 1895.

[7] Like Weiss, Tauský was also part of the wave of emigration from the Czech lands in 1939. Thanks to his exceptional talents and pre-war reputation, he quickly became a conductor and piano virtuoso in exile. See B. Srba, c. d., pp. 329–331.

[8] Karel Plicka’s folkloric documentary Věčná píseň (Eternal Song, 1941) re-entered dis[8]tribution as a supporting film to be screened before We Will Remain Faithful.

[9] O. [Oldřich] Kautský, Věrni zůstaneme! Filmová práce 1, 1945, no. 22 (19. 10.), p. 5

[10] –rt–, Premiéra prvního českého filmu našeho odboje. Rudé právo 25, 1945, no. 132 (12. 10.), p. 3.

[11] Jana Hádková, Rozhovor s Kurtem Goldbergrem. Iluminace 3, 1991, no. 2, pp. 117–118.

[12] iří Šust did not go into exile, but remained in the Protectorate, where he took part in the domestic resistance.

[13] B. Milčan, K druhému výročí bojů o Dunkerque. Za svobodné Československo 3, 1946, no. 248 (27. 10.), p. 7.

[14] See, for example, O. Kautský, Krátké filmy do šuplíku? Kino 2, 1947, no. 17 (25. 4.), p. 322.

Czechoslovak Military Units-in-Exile During World War II

The struggle of Czechoslovak soldiers during World War II is one of the most significant chapters of the national history, and not only of the twentieth century, but overall. Czechoslovak troops, alongside Allied forces, took part in combat operations on several major fronts, and despite their modest means, their contribution helped defeat the common adversary.

Knowing the further course of historical events as we do today, we cannot even fully appreciate the courage and determination with which Czechoslovaks went abroad, many of them well before the outbreak of war. At a time when it seemed that Hitler’s rise would continue indefinitely, they must have reckoned with the fact that they would remain in exile permanently, with no hope of returning. Initially, they endured the hardships of primitive living conditions and accommodations – difficulties already faced in the first months after their escape, when their time in exile was of a highly improvisational nature. Whether in Poland, France, Great Britain, Palestine, or elsewhere, they were tolerated with discontent rather than regarded as future allies.

It was these first volunteers that formed the solid core of the future units. A significant number of them were young officers and military airmen, who were led by experienced senior commanders that had for the most part been selected by the domestic resistance and sent directly abroad. Not surprisingly, these leaders were almost without exception former legionnaires from the First World War,[1] proven patriots who had already demonstrated their willingness to fight for the freedom of their homeland in distant foreign lands. Now their experience was required once again.

At first, the officers and regular soldiers had to endure repeated setbacks that haunted them for many months. Less than six months after the tragic experience of Munich came the occupation. After several more months of anticipating war, events finally culminated in the lightning-fast defeat of Poland, which forced those who had escaped there to flee again before they could even form an actionable unit. Over and over again, the soldiers were compelled to continue their flight before the advance of the seemingly invincible German armies. France, the European superpower on which the hopes of Czechoslovak exile forces were focused, also fell in June 1940. Yet another retreat followed, this time to Britain, which at that time stood completely alone against Germany, the last undefeated member of the once sizeable Allied coalition.

The first official military resistance unit abroad was the Czechoslovak Legion (Legion Čechů a  Slováků), established by a decree from the Polish President on September 3, 1939.[2] The legion was established on the basis of a military group that had been semi-legally forming in Poland since the spring of 1939. The volunteers who had come to Poland were originally intended to be sent onwards to France, but with the immediate danger of the war came the decision to organize Czechoslovak military units on Polish soil. General Lev Prchala, an important representative of the interwar Czechoslovak army, became the high commander of the Legion, while responsibility for direct command of the unit went to then Lieutenant Colonel Ludvík Svoboda.[3] In its first phase, the Legion was to consist of an infantry battalion, an artillery battery, and a reserve company, and there were plans to expand it into a full brigade. Shortly before the outbreak of war, the Poles also allowed some Czechoslovak specialists to enlist directly into the Polish army; among others, a group of about 190 airmen took this opportunity. However, due to the rapid turn of events, they were only able make a few flights on obsolete training machines. In total, there were about one thousand Czechoslovak troops in Poland.

Due to the rapid defeat of the Polish army, Czechoslovak soldiers did not manage to take part in the fighting in any significant way. Some retreated to Romania, but most were captured by the Red Army, which was advancing into the eastern parts of what was then Poland. A long internment awaited these men. Most were gradually released to the West, while the rest became the basis of later Czechoslovak military units in the Soviet Union.

The Czechoslovak exile leadership was initially focused on building up an army in France.[4] French law, however, did not permit the organization of a foreign army during peacetime, so volunteers had to sign a commitment to serve in the French Foreign Legion; several hundred of them also underwent rigorous training in the Sahara Desert. They were relying on France’s verbal promise that in the event of an outbreak of war, it would allow the formation of independent Czechoslovak military units, a promise which was fulfilled by the French command in September 1939, immediately after France declared war on Germany.[5] By the spring of 1940, more volunteers from the occupied homeland were gradually arriving to France via a difficult journey through the Balkans and the French mandate territories in Syria and Lebanon. In December 1939, the French authorities also allowed the general mobilisation of Czechoslovak compatriots on French territory. This step led to a significant increase in the number of units, but also brought many new difficulties. Most problematic was the fact that new soldiers were arriving gradually, which made a unified training program difficult. Furthermore, various factors resulted in a number of disputes among the soldiers and between the soldiers and the high command, for example: differing levels of health as well as contrasting life experiences, ethnic compositions, political orientations, family backgrounds, and motivations to join the army.

Despite the range of challenges they brought with them, the addition of new troops enabled the establishment of the 1st Czechoslovak Division (1. československá divize) in January 1940. After German armies launched their attack on the West on May 10, 1940, the Division became more of a training formation. In the critical moment at the beginning of June, however, a portion of the troops departed for the front in the vain attempt to halt the enemy’s advance. In addition, there were also Czechoslovak airmen who took part in the fighting in France. Their training and deployment was limited by the material shortages of the French Air Force, and thus only a small number of them were deployed directly to the front. Nevertheless, some Czechoslovak airmen ranked among the top French Air Force fighters in terms of the number of enemy planes shot down.[6] Overall, the Czechoslovak army in France reached a total of about twelve thousand soldiers, of which nearly a thou[1]sand belonged to the Air Force. Ultimately, though, as in Poland, the organizational efforts of the Czechoslovak resistance in France were thwarted once again when France capitulated to Germany in June 1940.

Those soldiers who wanted to continue the fight were quickly evacuated to Great Britain, where the military-in-exile was only then finding the necessary time to train and form an army. In Great Britain, the refugee Czechoslovak political leadership succeeded in gaining official recognition in the form of a  provisional, and later fully valid government-in-exile under the leadership of President Edvard Beneš. This raised the Czechoslovak foreign resistance to a new, higher level. General Sergěj Jan Ingr, who had led the military resistance in France, became the Minister of National Defence (and later, from September 1944, the Commander-in-Chief of the Czechoslovak Armed Forces).

Czechoslovak airmen, many of whom had fresh combat experience from France, took part in the legendary Battle of Britain, helping to break the dominance of the German Luftwaffe and inflict the first strategic defeat on Germany since the beginning of the war. General Karel Janoušek, who had been appointed the inspector of the Czechoslovak air force, was most responsible for the organisation and incorporation of Czechoslovak airmen into the British Royal Air Force. They ultimately formed three fighter squadrons (the 310th, 312th, and 313rd) and one bomber squadron (the 311th). In addition, there were several other combat, training, and transport units; and many Czechoslovak airmen also fought directly in the British squadrons. Significant changes occurred in the spring of 1942, when the fighter squadrons were concentrated into an independent fighter group (a “wing”) and the 311th Bomber Squadron joined the Coastal Command, where it faced challenging tasks in the ongoing Battle of the Atlantic. Czechoslovak squadrons participated in many actions of the Royal Air Force: for example, bombing raids on occupied Europe and Germany itself, providing cover for the airborne operation at Dieppe and the invasion of Normandy, escorting ship convoys, searching for German submarines, and guarding the skies over the British Isles against unmanned V-1 rockets. In total, about two and a half thousand Czechoslovaks served in the ranks of the air force in Britain.[7]

Only a small portion of the ground troops managed to evacuate to Great Britain, and the subsequent low number of soldiers limited the possibilities of the Czechoslovak army’s development until almost the end of the war. In August 1940, the ground troops numbered just over three thousand soldiers, which only allowed the creation of a small Czechoslovak Independent Brigade Group (Československá samostatná brigáda) that was in the end more of a symbolic formation. It was not until September 1943, when a unit arrived to Britain from the Middle East, that the Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade Group (Československá samostatná obrněná brigáda) could be formed under the command of General Alois Liška. This was a modern unit equipped with a relatively large number of tanks, which was able to join other Allied forces for the invasion of the European continent. From the ranks of the ground forces, many men enlisted in the Air Force, while other select individuals were given the extremely weighty task of coordinating with the domestic resistance back home – more than a hundred Czechoslovak soldiers were thus deployed behind enemy lines. Their most well-known mission was the assassination of the deputy Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich.

The history of the Czechoslovak unit in the Middle East began in the summer of 1940, at the same time as France was collapsing and the remnants of the Czechoslovak troops there were seeking refuge in the British Isles.[8] Here, too, the core of the unit consisted of volunteers, who had left the occupied homeland with the intention of taking up arms abroad in the fight for freedom. However, when the Axis powers occupied the entire Balkan peninsula in the spring of 1941, the possibility of escaping the enemy declined dramatically. The small unit was reinforced by other soldiers, primarily those who had been released from internment in the Soviet Union (former members of the Czechoslovak Legion in Poland) as well as Czechoslovaks of Jewish origin who had emigrated to Palestine to escape racial persecution by the Nazis. By the spring of 1941, they had successfully formed the Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion – East (Čs. pěší prapor 11 – Východní ), which, among other things, took part in the fighting against Vichy forces in Syria, and later, at the end of October 1941, joined the defence of the besieged port of Tobruk. After being withdrawn and replenished in the spring of 1942, the unit reorganized into the 200th Czechoslovak Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment – East (Čs. lehký protiletadlový pluk 200 – Východní). This regiment participated in the defence of Allied ports, being deployed again to Tobruk in the first half of 1943. Throughout its existence, the unit was commanded by Lt. Col. (later General) Karel Klapálek. After the defeat of Axis troops in Africa, Czechoslovak soldiers from the Middle East relocated to Britain, where they were absorbed into local formations. Some specialists and officers remained in the Middle East and joined the British service, while others went to the Soviet Union, to reinforce the small troop command corps there.

Although the unit that came into being in the Soviet Union at the beginning of 1942 was the last one to be formed, over the three years of its existence, it grew into the largest portion of the Czechoslovak military-in-exile. Its creation was made possible by a Soviet-Czechoslovak military agreement from September 1941. Then Colonel of the General Staff (and later General) Heliodor Píka, who had been appointed Chief of the Czechoslovak military mission to the Soviet Union, played a key role in negotiating this agreement. Over the course of the following year, the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Field Battalion (1. čs. samostatný polní prapor) was organised and trained in the Ural town of Buzuluk before taking part in the Battle of Sokolovo in March 1943.[9] The ranks of the units in the Soviet Union were reinforced by the gradual influx of new personnel, primarily Ruthenians, Ukrainians, and other inhabitants of Carpathian Ruthenia, thousands of whom sought salvation by fleeing to the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1941. Most of them were initially sent to labour camps (gulags) by the Soviets, until they were liberated – those who survived – by the aforementioned military agreement. The influx of these troops enabled the creation of the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Brigade in the USSR (1. čs. samostatná brigáda v SSSR), which participated in the liberation of Kiev and other battles in Ukraine from the autumn of 1943 on. Another abundant source of reinforcements were soldiers of the German-allied Slovak army that had been deployed on the Eastern Front, who enlisted in the Czechoslovak foreign forces after being captured by the Soviets. They became the basis of the 2nd Czechoslovak Independent Parachute Brigade in the USSR (2. čs. samostatná paradesantní brigáda v SSSR ), which was employed in airborne operations in the eastern regions of Czechoslovakia under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Vladimír Přikryl. The brigade was also involved in the important military and political plans of the government-in-exile, but its assistance to the Slovak National Uprising in September and October 1944 came too late and in insufficient numbers.[10]

Troop numbers in the Soviet Union were reinforced again in March 1944 by the recruitment of Volhynian Czechs and the enlisting of other volunteers from prison camps. This led to the creation of the 1st Czechoslovak Army Corps in the USSR (1. čs. armádní sbor v SSSR) in the spring of 1944. By September of that year the ranks of the Corps reached sixteen thousand troops. Starting in October 1944, its members fulfilled the dream of all Czechoslovak soldiers: to fight the enemy directly on the soil of the homeland.[11]

In this respect, the end of the summer of 1944 became a turning point for the entire military-in-exile. After extensive preparation and training, the 1st Czechoslovak Army Corps in the USSR, the British-organized Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade Group, and Czechoslovak air forces were all deployed to the front. In addition, a quite unique intervention of foreign troops far beyond the front line occurred when a fighter regiment and a parachute brigade consisting of Czechoslovak troops from the Eastern Front were sent to aid the Slovak National Uprising.

From this point on, Czechoslovak soldiers fought on the front lines without interruption until the end of the war. The Army Corps, along with the Red Army, marched through all of Slovakia into Moravia, while the Armoured Brigade Group in the West secured strategic supply lines for Allied troops by blockading the besieged German garrison in the northern French port of Dunkirk.[12] Czechoslovak general Alois Liška commanded the multinational group there – a number of British, Canadian, and French units fell under his command.

By the end of the war, the Czechoslovak army had grown into a significant force. There were about 60,000 soldiers in units on the Eastern Front and another 10,000 in the West, all of which were equipped with modern weapons, including tanks and aircraft. On the basis of these troops, a large and relatively well-outfitted army emerged relatively quickly in the liberated homeland. Yet, the exile troops played an even more important role in revitalizing the national pride and sense of identity as well as establishing a source of new traditions for the renewed army.

Today, the Czechoslovak army-in-exile during World War II is rightly a subject of our admiration and one of the most important sources of tradition for the contemporary military, nation, and state. However, it is impossible to ignore or conceal a number of problematic issues associated with these forces, which they contended with throughout their existence and which significantly marked and predetermined their image for a long time into the post-war period.

As one of the most effective means of achieving political goals, the army became the object and subject of a political struggle between the individual centres of Czechoslovak exile, which were oriented towards different Allied states. These clashes often occurred on a personal level, due to animosity between individual leaders, but for the most part they were linked to the search for and promotion of broader political orientation and anchoring. While the tragic defeats of Poland and France paradoxically helped the group around former President Edvard Beneš gain unequivocal dominance,[13] the Communist exile group in Moscow was in turn bolstered by the successes of the Red Army on the Eastern Front. In the last years of the war, the Communists gained more and more influence, which was subsequently confirmed by the formation of a new government in Košice in April 1945 and the adoption of the so-called “Košice Program” (Košický vládní program).[14]

In addition to its broader political associations, the exile army also faced acute internal problems. Even though the above-mentioned group of conscious patriots, who fled across the border shortly after the occupation with the goal of armed struggle, formed the core of the army in terms of ideas, organization, and command, their total number was no more than several thousand. During the war years, the majority of the soldiers consisted of volunteers with other origins, who were often people of different, sometimes directly contrasting personal destinies; social, national, and ethnic roots; political and ideological views; motivations for going abroad; military skills; and combat morale. There were many sources of tension, disagreements, and clashes within the army itself from the very beginning – the most acute being the question of nationality. Patriotism, which had become extremely charged as a result of the Munich agreement and subsequent occupation, sometimes manifested in expressions of chauvinism, especially against soldiers of German nationality.[15] The hatred of Germans also extended to the ranks of volunteers of Jewish descent whose mother tongue was German. Although there were some examples of anti-Semitism, most of the animosity against Jews was rooted in their perceived German nationality.[16]

Political propaganda also had a presence in the army, both right-wing and left-wing, although the communist-influenced leftist strain was much more prevalent. Communist propaganda portrayed the command staff in particular as “minions of the bourgeoisie” and even attacked them for alleged tendencies towards fascism. Of course, this did not contribute to the unification of the army. On the contrary, the proclaimed unity of the resistence began to split apart already during the war as imaginary trenches formed between political and military factions, between officers and regular soldiers, and between the units formed “in the West” and those formed “in the East”. These trenches deepened further after the war and resulted in the mass persecution of entire groups of former resistance fighters and former members of the same foreign army.

Within the massive clash of armies from the major world powers, which numbered in multiple millions, it was simply not possible for Czechoslovak units abroad to play any significant role, nor did they manage to become an independent force able to pursue their own political goals by military means. However, their importance cannot be completely ignored. The very existence of these foreign troop formations had an incalculable political, propagandistic, and moral significance – not to mention the military significance. Their involvement in the common struggle – whereby they shared the same risks, successes, defeats, and losses – put the Czechoslovak soldiers on the same level as other Allied forces and their contribution is still gratefully appreciated by the armies, government officials, and general public of Great Britain, the United States, France, and Russia.

Zdenko Maršálek

Notes:

[1] The so called “Czechoslovak legions” were military volunteer units formed by Czechs and Slovaks who had fled Austria-Hungary to fight alongside the armies of the Triple Entente powers.

[2] For more on the resistance in Poland and the organization of the Czechoslovak Legion, see: Jiří Friedl, Na jedné frontě. Vztahy československé a polské armády za druhé světové války. Praha: ÚSD AV ČR 2005.

[3] The names of some important commanders, who can be seen in the films and accompanying footage in this collection, are highlighted in bold.

[4] On the beginnings of the resistance in France and Great Britain and the establishment of exile government see: Jan Kuklík, Vznik Československého národního výboru a prozatímního státního zřízení ČSR v emigraci v letech 1939–1940. Praha: Karolinum 1996.

[5] For more on the gradual formation of Czechoslovak units and a detailed breakdown of the persons involved, see: Zdenko Maršálek, „Česká“, nebo „československá“ armáda? Národnostní složení československých vojenských jednotek v  zahraničí v  letech 1939–1945. Praha: Academia 2017, especially pp. 107–195.

[6] A detailed description of the combat engagements of Czechoslovak airmen in France can be found in: Jiří Rajlich, Na nebi sladké Francie. Válečný deník československých letců ve službách francouzského letectva 1939–1940. Praha: ARES 1998.

[7] On the activities of Czechoslovak airmen in Great Britain, see: Jiří Rajlich, Na nebi hrdého Albionu. Válečný deník československých letců ve službách britského letectva 1940–1945. 1. – 7. část. Praha: ARES 1999, 2. – 7. část Cheb: Svět křídel 2000–2005.

[8] A brief, yet complex and thus far unrivaled overview of the activities of Czechoslovak soldiers in the Middle East can be found in: Toman Brod, Tobrucké krysy. Praha: Naše vojsko – Svaz protifašistických bojovníků 1967.

[9] A description of the military involvement of Czechoslovak units on the Eastern Front is provided in: Ludvík Svoboda, Z Buzuluku do Prahy. Praha: Mladá fronta 1960. However, the book bear the strong ideological stamp of the period in which it was written, which applies to all of its reprintings up until 1989.

[10] A summary of the Brigade’s activities can be found in: Jiří Šolc, Padáky nad Slovenskem. 2. československá samostatná paradesantní brigáda v SSSR. Praha: ARES 1997.

[11] Czechoslovak soldiers entered the territory of pre-war Czechoslovakia on October 6, 1944, at the Dukla Pass.

[12] For a detailed description of Czechoslovak involvement in Siege of Dunkirk, see: Ivan Procházka, Dunkerque. Válečný deník Československé samostatné obrněné brigády (říjen 1944 – květen 1945). Praha: AVIS 2006.

[13] For more on the struggle for dominance within the foreign resistance and the gradual victory of the circle around Beneš, see: Jan Kuklík – Jan Němeček, Proti Benešovi! Česká a slovenská protibenešovská opozice v Londýně 1939–1945. Praha: Karolinum 2004.

[14] For an excellent summary of the changes in the policies of the government-in-exile as it moved closer to the orbit of the Soviet Union, see the relevant chapters in: Jaroslav Hrbek – Vít Smetana et al., Draze zaplacená svoboda. Osvobození Československa 1944–1945. Praha – Litomyšl: Paseka 2009. Some reflections on military issues and political developments can be found in: Stanislav Kokoška et al., Nultá hodina? Československo na jaře 1945 ve strategických souvislostech. Praha: Euroslavica 2011.

[15] For a detailed analysis of the personnel that comprised the Czechoslovak foreign units see Maršálek, „Česká“, nebo „československá“ armáda?

[16] The subject of Jewish soldiers in the foreign resistance was first explored at length in Czech by Erich Kulka in the books: Židé v československé Svobodově armádě. Naše vojsko, Praha 1990; and Židé v československém vojsku na Západě. Praha: Naše vojsko 1992.

Visuals

We Will Remain Faithful

We Will Remain Faithful

We Will Remain Faithful

We Will Remain Faithful

Czechoslovaks at Dunkirk

The Return of Our Airmen From England

General Liška

General Patton

Film poster