In early March 1943, the first action of the Czechoslovak foreign contingent on the Eastern Front during the Second World War took place around the Ukrainian village of Sokolovo. Still today, one can see depictions of the action in memorials and names, such as in the West Bohemian town of Sokolov, Prague’s Sokolovská street or in the mosaics in Florenc metro station. Most of these memorials are the result of Communist propaganda after the war. However, this does not take away from the courage of the men and women who fought in the battle. Many of them recalled their experiences in interviews with Czech Radio.
Some made their way westwards while others crossed through Carpathian Ruthenia into the USSR, or into Poland where they volunteered to fight the Germans after they invaded the country in September 1939.
One of those who chose this latter option was major general in retirement Oldřich Kvapil. He and 27 other of his compatriots were accepted by the Polish army’s “Czechoslovak Legion” and sent to the city of Ternopil (in today’s western Ukraine).
As the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact came into effect and the Soviets began occupying eastern Poland, Kvapil and his unit started moving southwards, with hopes of crossing into Romania but then they encountered the Red Army.
“We were about 10km from Ternopil when we were encircled by a massive group of Soviet tanks. Luckily our commander, the Slovak lieutenant Styk, was a professor who taught Russian at university. He told them that we were Czechoslovaks. They took our weapons and ammunition and sent us back to Ternopil.”
Germany and the Soviet Union were partners at that time and the eagerness to fight was not welcomed by the Red Army officers who encountered the Czechoslovak troops. The men, as many other Czechoslovaks who crossed the border from Carpathian Ruthenia were sent into Soviet internment camps.
Historian Eduard Stehlík explained the details to Czech Radio.
“There was basically one group which fell into Soviet incarceration during the occupation of Poland on September 18, 1939. Another group were Czechoslovaks who fled Carpathian Ruthenia, after it was occupied by the Hungarians.
“These people were incarcerated for illegal border crossing and sentenced to many years in Gulag labour camps. Those who survived started being offered the chance to fight in a Czechoslovak military contingent during 1942.”
When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa into an unsuspecting Soviet Union on June 22, 1941,, some of those Czechoslovaks were excited, they would now perhaps finally get the chance to fight.
A Czechoslovak military contingent started being formed. Eventually it would grow to the size of a corps, but at this stage it was just around a battalion numbering three companies. They were finally sent into action in the final days of the Third Battle of Kharkiv in March 1943.
The battle took place on the backdrop of a successful counteroffensive launched by the Germans. It took advantage of the overextended Red Army lines as the Soviets pushed west into the Ukraine after their victory at Stalingrad earlier that year. The battle would also result in forming the Kursk salient that would see what has until recently been regarded as the largest tank battle in history.
Major General in retirement Miroslav Šmoldas was part of the Czechoslovak battalion at that time, shared his memories with Czech Radio.
“We travelled by train for something like three weeks. The front kept extending further away from us as the Soviets advanced, until we stopped somewhere near Kharkiv. Then we marched for 10 nights, something like 350km until we reached the city.”
The Czechoslovaks would only see action in the closing stage of the battle, when they were sent in to plug one of the holes that had formed in the Red Army front line. As so many battles in the east it would turn out to be a bloody engagement.
The unit eventually received the order to take position around the village of Sokolovo which lies south of Kharkiv.
Miroslav Šmoldas again.
“The terrain was quite flat, Ukraine is like that. There were a few small woods around. Sokolovo lay in a sort of depression around the river with the land rising to our rear lines in the north and to the side of the Germans in the South.
“It was a typical village as any around there. It was relatively untouched by war, but the civilians disappeared as soon as the fighting commenced.”
The troops felt they would have to prove themselves to show their worth. They were the only foreign unit on the Eastern Front fighting on the Soviet side at the time. The Soviet press and radio had reported on their deployment to the front.
Furthermore, as they arrived they received news of an heroic stand of a platoon of the Red Army’s 78. Guards Rifle Regiment. This put all the more pressure on them.
“In front of us stood a village held by the 79th Guards Regiment of Colonel Bylutin. That regiment had 70 soldiers and a few tanks. They held that village called Taranovka for several days and gave us the chance to prepare our defences.
“The Germans eventually drove them out of Taranovka and our first contact came when they clashed with our reconnaissance. They came back and told us what we were facing. They were SS Divisions, Totenkopf I think, and Leibstandarte Adolph Hitler [SS Panzer divisions] and some other division, very experienced troops.”
The Czechoslovaks waited for the inevitable attack. Then around mid-day some 35 tanks came out of the wood on the horizon, while to the left of the Czechoslovak positions a platoon of infantry advanced towards them. The village soon turned to flames and the battle commenced.
The commander of the Czechoslovak battalion, Ludvik Svoboda, who would later become president, wanted to send in Soviet tanks to help the defenders. However, the ice had turned to a wet sludge and the tanks could not cross the terrain. Instead a 42 man platoon under the leadership of Sergeant Hynek Voráč moved in to support their compatriots in the village.
Colonel in retirement of Ruthenian descent Nikolay Kibaritsch, was an ordinary soldier and member of Voráč’s platoon at the time.
“Suddenly I heard Voráč shout: ‘At the double!’ We crossed a stream and suddenly machine gun fire. I didn’t know whether I should shoot, because I could not see anyone.
“We were about 100 meters from Sokolovo and suddenly we see the Germans through the flames. We keep running and a friend of mine falls. I start shooting and don’t stop and help him, because you must keep going forward.
“Then we reached Sokolovo. Now a soldier is trained to keep fighting if they lose sight of their commander. I could not find Voráč, but I kept going. I reached the village church and saw German armored vehicles with openings from which flame throwers stuck out and were shooting out fire.”
The company which was holding Sokolovo, was led by First Lieutannt Otakar Jaroš, who led around 300 men. He held the village throughout the day. As the evening hours approached and it began to get dark, battalion commander Ludvík Svoboda gave him the order to retreat from the village. Jaroš kept on fighting and was eventually killed in action.
According to eyewitness accounts, the commander, wounded on his chest and head ran out of a building, gun in hand, and was driven over by a German tank. He would posthumously receive the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, the first foreign soldier to receive the highest Russian commendation.
Nikolay Kubaritsch, managed to survive, his wounded leg being a ticket out of the thick of battle.
“I could not keep advancing. I could hear German all around me and did not want to be surrounded, so I thought I’d go back the same way we entered the village. However, that was impossible, because the Germans were there too.
“My leg was all swollen and bloody and it was getting dark. Suddenly, I ran into an officer who asked: ‘Where are you going? Are you wounded?’ I said: ‘Yes I am sir.’ He asked me which company I was from and directed me to where my comrades were.”
He was treated by the Czechoslovak female nurses who were part of the battalion. Four men of the 42 in his platoon survived the battle. Sergant Voráč was not among them. The retreat continued throughout the night, accompanied by heavy fighting. The main task of the Czechoslovak contingent was to prevent the Germans from crossing the Mzha River around the village. However, German orders were limited to taking Sokolovo until another nearby village was taken.
One of the nurses who were part of the Czechoslovak battalion was the then 22-year-old Volhynian Czech Marie Kvapilová-Pyšlová. Speaking to Czech Radio, she described her experiences of the counterattack on the village that took place a few days later on March 9th.
“On the 9th we got the order to attack Sokolovo with the support of the Soviets and the 3rd company. We went over the river, in wide formation. When we got close to Sokolovo, we encountered very heavy fire from the defenders.
“There was nowhere to hide on that frozen river. The first of our soldiers started to get wounded and we got the order to retreat. We started grabbing the wounded and moving them out of the crossfire and retreated back to our village Artyukhovka.
“I saw one of my comrades Greta crying. I asked: ‘What is it?’ She said: ‘My husband stayed there.’ Another was also in tears: ‘My brother stayed there.’ It was very hard. We had a lot of wounded and we retreated back to our Artyukhovka.”
The attack was not completely in vain. The Germans also suffered losses.
Two days later, Czechoslovak radio operators listening in on German communications found out they were planning an attack, which was prevented by subsequent Russian artillery fire.
Nevertheless, German breakthroughs south of Kharkiv were now threatening to cut off the Czechoslovak battalion and orders therefore came for a tactical retreat.
There was little prospect of survival if they were to be captured. As citizens of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia they would likely be shot for treason. This was the fate of the wounded Czechoslovaks who were being treated in Kharkiv after the city was captured on March 14.
Despite the forced retreat, the Czechoslovak battalion had fulfilled its mission not to let a single tank through. A few weeks’ later members of the unit were invited to Moscow. Marie Kvapilová-Pyšlová was one of them.
“When we arrived to Moscow our general Svoboda was waiting there for us. He told me: ‘Listen, it’s good that you’re alive, because I’d be locked up somewhere if you weren’t. I vowed to get all our girls through this’.
“I remember they promoted me there. They could not find the right epaulet, but one of them said that there are these chairs at a nearby hotel with things that could pass as rank insignia, so he got these items somehow, put them on my shoulder and, hey, I was a private.”
The unit was soon transferred to Novokhopyorsk in Southern Russia and expanded to a brigade, receiving tanks, armored cars and artillery.
In October it was sent to Kiev, to take part in the operation recapturing the city as the Soviets advanced following the victory at Kursk. It was just one in many battles the Czechoslovaks would fight as the Red Army front moved ever closer westwards, eventually culminating for them in the Battle of Dukla Pass, as they moved into Slovakia in late 1944.
While they would repeatedly prove their worth, Sokolovo was the battle where they initially showed their mettle, ensuring continued existence and expansion into what was the largest Czechoslovak exile forces contingent in World War Two.
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