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Alfred Goes to War
May - July 1940
The Czechoslovak Army in France - Historical Background
As discussed briefly in Chapter 5, the Republic of Czechoslovakia came to an untimely end in March 1939. On 14th March, the Czechoslovak President and Foreign Minister were summoned to Berlin, where they were informed by the German Führer, Adolf Hitler, that Prague would be immediately destroyed by bombing if Germany were not at once ceded all Czech territories. President Hácha and foreign Minister Chvalkovský had no option but to submit to Hitler's demands. The next day German troops occupied Bohemia and Moravia, declaring it a German 'Protectorate'. Meanwhile the Hungarians took over the rest of the eastern tip of Ruthenia. Finally, on 18th March, Slovakia was allowed to become an independent state under German protection.
Following these traumatic events, many Czechoslovak people in immediate danger of persecution, imprisonment, or worse, began to leave and escape, from their home country, with the able-bodied looking to fight the Nazi domination from abroad. These also included former Czechoslovak leaders who sought refuge in Britain, where they set up a government-in-exile.
This was the situation when war broke out on 3rd September 1939. Meanwhile people were escaping from Bohemia and Moravia by many diverse routes, and my father's was via Poland through Krakóv and Gdynia, and from there through the Baltic and the North Sea to England. This route to Britain and France was probably the easiest and most favoured way, and was certainly ideal for the people of northern Moravia. The other way out of occupied Czechoslovakia was through Bratislava to Budapest, from where there existed a number of options. The shortest of these was to Zagreb in friendly Yugoslavia, from where individuals could make their way through northern Italy to the south of France or Paris. Another route through Yugoslavia, which was used by large numbers of people, was through Belgrade to Split on the Adriatic, from where Marseilles could be reached by sea. Finally, even more tortuous, but quite common routes, were through Athens, or Bucharest, Istanbul and Beirut or Port Said, from where ships could be found to take the escapees to Marseilles.
Following these events, on October 2nd 1939, the French Prime Minister, Edouard Daladier, signed an agreement with Stefan Osuský, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czechoslovak provisional government in Great Britain. This allowed for a Czechoslovak Army to be reformed on French soil under the command of General Ingre, who would be subject to the French High Command.
On November 17th 1939, the French foreign office announced its recognition of the newly formed Czechoslovak National Committee in France under President Beneš as competent to implement the October agreement. On December 1st 1939, Osuský signed an order for the mobilisation from 7th to 21st December 1939, of Czechoslovak residents in France.
Even before the October agreement, Agde Camp near Béziers in the south of France had been made available to the Czechoslovak military commission. It had previously housed refugees from the Spanish Civil War. The camp was in a state of dilapidation as a result of neglect since the refugees' departure. The Commission had it splendidly cleaned and renovated in time for the first administrative officers to move in on 21st September. Two days later came the first big arrival: 58 Czechoslovak officers arriving from North Africa where they had been with the French Colonial Divisions. Many of these would have been among those who had, on Hitler's occupation of Czechoslovakia, escaped into Poland in the mistaken belief that Poland would be the country most likely to help them set up fighting units. In fact, more than 1,200 Czechoslovaks left Poland in the summer of 1939 in order to go to France or North Africa to join the French Colonial Army or the Foreign Legion, to await the outbreak of war.
By 28th September there were sufficient numbers in Agde for the 1st Auxiliary Battalion to be formed followed, the next day, by the 1st Infantry Battalion. The arrival of volunteers was now in full flow, 1,760 men from Paris and 70 men from Beirut by 25th October. By June 1940, the Army consisted of almost 5,000 men.
The 'British' Volunteers in France
So the volunteers from Beaconsfield House, Birchington-on-Sea, (plus some of the remaining men from Montrose Camp and elsewhere) who set off on 7th May to join the Czechoslovak Brigade in southern France were just a few of many Czechoslovakians who had managed to make their way there. From Agde, they intended to do their bit in helping defeat the enemy and, ultimately, to help liberate Czechoslovakia from the Nazis.
Ethel and Heinz had accompanied Alfred and the others to London where everyone had stayed overnight in a small hotel in Bernard Street, off Russell Square, right opposite Russell Square Underground station. They saw them off in coaches the next morning. The war seemed to be going at half throttle at this time, an Allied campaign in Norway having failed to achieve its objectives. There were no signs, however, of any major offensive on the western front by either of the combatants. Alfred and his comrades were consequently departing for an action with a very large question mark hanging over it. Everyone was in good spirits, optimistic, and thoughts of defeat were certainly not on anybody's mind. In the event, what Alfred and his comrades were to achieve there is quite another story.
Back at Birchington, all Ethel and Heinz knew was that the men had arrived at le Havre, and that he was on his way south via Paris. This was because he had sent his first letter, a postcard, from Orleans dated 10th May, mentioning in passing that he had failed to see Auntie Nora, Otto's wife (who was living at Paris by that time), as she had not been at home. So they could not have had very long in Paris.
Very soon, however, things began to get difficult, confused in fact - both for the Czechoslovak army volunteers in particular and Europe in general. History records that 10th May was the day the Germans mounted their attack on unprotected, neutral Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. This indeed was now war, Blitzkrieg, the real thing, as the Germans sidestepped the mighty defences of the Maginot Line, which separated France from Germany. The Germans used their air power to good effect. News poured in of German parachute troops and of soldiers dropping from the sky - many, as rumours had it, dressed as nuns, or even as Dutch soldiers. Added to this were stories of Nazi 5th column activities by hitherto disguised peaceful citizens, emerging armed to the teeth from dark corners all over Holland, in particular at Rotterdam.
This was also the time also that King George VI called upon Winston Churchill to become Prime Minister and entrusted him with the formation of a new Government - Neville Chamberlain having at last been persuaded to resign. It was three days later that the new Prime Minister made his first speech to the House of Commons. This turned out to be a pronouncement memorable for all time.
According to Edward Spears, Churchill was quite calm and seemed rather white, but his jaw was set. His preamble was simple and to the point and then, suddenly, he was transformed into an inspired leader - looking up and above the crowded House of Commons he stated slowly and deliberately: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."
There was a short, stunned then a deep murmur of approval from all quarters of the House. Everyone knew that something portentous had happened at that moment, as each one of them took Churchill to themselves as their leader, adopted his doctrine and silently took his vow. And that effect reached out far beyond the confines of the House of Commons as the people of Britain took heart at this dark hour.
The same day, 13th May, the German armies had broken through at Sedan, the northern end of the Maginot Line, and were heading for the heart of France - an event that we now know was the beginning of the fall of France. The German army rapidly advanced through France with, on the face of it, very little in the way of serious resistance from the reputedly mighty French army. The French had concentrated the greater part of their resources in the defensive fortifications of the Maginot Line. No contingency plans had been made for the eventuality of an enemy breakthrough, so confident were the generals - failing to draw on their World War One experience, in which the German army attacked France through neutral Belgium.
The end of this episode, if one can call it that, started with the retreat of the remnants of the British army through Dunkirk. In this epic evacuation, everyone along the south coast of England who had a boat of any kind, steam or sail, put out for Dunkirk on 29th May. Preparations that had fortunately begun a week earlier were then aided by the brilliant improvisation of volunteers on an amazing scale. The numbers arriving at Dunkirk at first were small, but they were the forerunners of nearly one hundred small craft, which were destined to play a vital part by ferrying almost 100,000 men from the open beaches to the off-lying ships, often under fire from enemy aircraft. By 4th June, the final day of this historic evacuation, a total of 338,226 men had landed in England from the Dunkirk beaches and harbour.
The Retreat Through France
The Czechoslovak volunteers from England made their way south to the Czechoslovak Army Camp at Agde. Two Infantry Regiments were forming there, with a total of some 6,000 officers and men: 2,262 in the First Regiment and 2,593 in the Second Regiment. Alfred was attached to the 1st Infantry Regiment on 13th May. On 5th June, two days after the last men of the British Army had been evacuated from Dunkirk, these two regiments were called upon to enter the war in time to join the French Army in its rearguard actions and retreat southwards. Their orders were to attempt to hold the enemy at every major river on the way. The first troops of the 1st Infantry Regiment left Camp Agde on 7th June for Autricort, Côte-d'Or, about 20 kilometres south east of Troyes and 10 kilometres north of Châtillon-sur-Seine. All troops arrived in position by 9th June. On 10th June they were ordered to leave Autricort to join the 23rd (French) Infantry Division on the retreat from the Battle of the Somme and by now of the Aisne. There, the Division was put in reserve, with its Headquarters at Oisser, north of Meaux, Seine-et-Marne, while the rest of the tired, ill-equipped, outnumbered men of the 7th Army took up defensive positions along the Oise, Nonette, Ourcq and Marne.
By 12th June, Alfred's 1st Infantry Regiment retreated to the Coulommiers area, owing to developments elsewhere. The following day, two battalions were positioned at Coulommiers to defend the Grand Morin river, with one battalion being kept back in reserve. This was their first encounter with the enemy, whom they resisted all day until being obliged to retreat late in the evening.
From then on the pattern was set with re-positioning and retreats for the next 10 days, until they reached Nontron, in the Dordogne on 23rd June - that is nearly one week after the French surrender and the establishment of the Vichy puppet government on 17th June. However, their luck, for what it was, held out and at Nontron they went by train to Narbonne, from where they covered the last 65 kilometres to Agde and Sčte by foot. They were eventually evacuated on 27th June on some of the last boats to leave for England - a tortuous journey via the Middle East and Gibraltar, arriving at last at Liverpool on 13th July.
More details of the Czechoslovak regiments' campaign are summarised in Appendix 3, and does not require further comment here at this stage. What is of interest, however, is Alfred's experience during this campaign. In an attempt to get a further insight into that, we can only refer to the few surviving letters which Ethel received from him during this period, together with my own, inadequate, recollections of him after his return to England.
That first postcard, as mentioned earlier, was sent from Orleans on 10th May. It said simply (in English): "The voyage is very agreeable and I am satisfied, it is beautiful." This sentiment was clearly repeated in his message written on 16th June in which he again mentions "I am satisfied ... and likely ... to remain so ... this time it is not like the last war; one knows why and for what purpose one is here." He was very conscious of having volunteered for this military service, a new experience for an old, convinced, pacifist. In his writings there is no indication of any regrets, it was what he had to do and he was "satisfied" with what he had done. Even the discomforts of flat feet and 41 years of age caused him little concern. He was, however, desperately anxious to keep in touch with his family and the non-arrival of any mail from home will have made him most unhappy. He never received the postcard Ethel sent him on 9th June. The postal markings on the card clearly show numerous routings through France and even went through Madrid, dated 11th December 1940 arriving back at Marple, probably, early in 1941 - six months after being posted.
Back in England
Having landed in Liverpool on 13th July, the Czechoslovak Army re-assembled in a camp set up in Cholmondeley Park near Malpas in Cheshire, which was very convenient as Marple was little more than 40 miles away. This enabled him to come home with a minimum of delay. On his return he seemed fine on the face of it, but he spoke little about his retreat through France, though it had clearly been a horrendous experience for him. That final walk to catch the last boat for England out of Vichy France had clearly taken it out of him. He was worn out physically, but also no less so mentally. His 'nerves' had never been too free and easy, but now he was different, far worse.
This feeling came to a head on one particular occasion when, as a light relief, we all took the number 28 bus and had a day out in Manchester - a rare thrill for me, and indeed, my mother. We went into Lewis's at the top of Market Street. This was one of the biggest department stores in the country at the time (now sadly diminished in stature) and it was full of shoppers. We had not been there many minutes when Alfred could not bear it and had an uncontrollable urge to get out of the building and into the street. At the time we put this down to his 'nerves' and no more was said about it. It was some time later, however, before he was able to confide his problem to us.He admitted that he was overcome with a feeling of terror, envisaging the carnage that could have resulted from an air attack and a bomb on Lewis's. Pictures were brought back to him of dense crowds of countless refugees on the roads of France, being bombed and machine-gunned from the air by German Stukas - the Junkers 87B dive-bombers. Now, even the remote thought of an air attack, here in busy Manchester, was too terrible for him to contemplate. He had seen too much - and this was well before there had been any serious air raids on this country. He could not rid himself of the sight ingrained on his brain of those helpless hordes of French refugees, fleeing from the advances of the German armies, jamming the roads in France with their meagre belongings and being machine-gunned by German aircraft.
However, here he was, alive and in one piece and that was all that mattered to us. Alfred and the remnants of the Czechoslovak Army in France were now peacefully installed in England and would be given time to recuperate, re-form and re-arm before being called once more to return to the mainland of Europe to liberate Czechoslovakia.
Ostrava: A Brief History
The Vogel Family
The Slatner Family
The Times of Peace
The Shadows of War
A Polish Interlude
A 'Transient' Refuge in England
Alfred Goes to War
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