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A Drop in the Ocean? – Czechoslovak Troops in the Middle East during WWII

Jiří Plachý's contribution to the Conference dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Tobruk. The event took place in Warsaw, November 22 – 23, 2011. Jiří Plachý is a Czech historian working at the Military History Institute in Prague.

The first foreign Czechoslovak army was established in Krakow, Poland, on the 30th of April 1939, only six weeks after the occupation of the remaining parts of Czechoslovakia. The army comprised six men. Although the group was expanding, the numerical intentions of the foreign Czechoslovak resistance for the following years were clear.

Even though an infantry division was established in France at the beginning of the following year, it was at the expense of mobilising members of the denationalised economic emigration and seasonal Slovak workers whose connection to fighting for the reestablishment of Czechoslovakia was indifferent, if not worse. That was fully demonstrated when France was defeated in June 1940. Only about five thousand Czechoslovak soldiers of the total 13 thousand decided to evacuate to Great Britain.

At the same time, i.e. during the dramatic days of June 1939, the history of Czechoslovak troops in the Middle East began.

When Poland was defeated in September 1939, there was only one long and dangerous way to the foreign army open for refugees from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia: through Slovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey and Syria to Beirut, Lebanon, and then by ship to France.

The last stage of this journey was concluded when Italy joined the war on the 10th of June 1940. In the following three weeks, about two hundred mostly Czech refugees gathered in Beirut. Their personal situation became quite complicated just after the truce, according to which the internment or even release to the Germans was imminent. With the help of the British Consul General, they managed to escape from Lebanon under dramatic circumstances on the 29th of June 1940, and reached the British mandatory territory in Palestine.

The camp at Az-Sumeiriya provided the first shelter and the 4th Czechoslovak Infantry Regiment was formed at the beginning of August 1940.

It soon became clear that the exit of the Czech volunteers from the occupied homeland would be increasingly complicated with time, and that the recruitment of Czechoslovak citizens in Palestine would be difficult. Thus, at the turn of October and November 1940, the existing general regiment was reorganised into the 11th Czechoslovak East Infantry Battalion. As mentioned above, the flow of refugees from the homeland reduced and was completely cut off when the Germans took Yugoslavia in April 1941.

The Battalion was thus only expanded thanks to soldiers of the former Czechoslovak Legion formed in Poland in summer 1939, captured by the Soviets on the 19th of September 1939. The soldiers were released in small groups in spring 1940 and were allowed to go to France and later to the Middle East. In total, about eight hundred Czechoslovak soldiers were in captivity at that time – their small number and minor military significance was probably the reason their fate was so different to their Polish comrades in arms. However, thousands of Czechoslovak citizens, namely from the Carpathian Ruthenia, who were held prisoners in gulags were not released from concentration camps until the Soviet Union was attacked at the beginning of 1942; if they had survived. That confirms the political calculus of the Soviets in relation to the soldiers of the Czechoslovak Legion.

In addition to the Infantry Battalion in Palestine, the Czechoslovak Training Centre was established there and the Czechoslovak Military Mission was active in Jerusalem under the command of Division General Andrej Mezl-Gak.

Karel Klapálek, Infantry Lieutenant Colonel, soon became the commander of the Battalion. With regard to the fact that he was the most prominent representative of the Czechoslovak military presence in the Middle East, and that his name was generally known by the Czech public, it will not be amiss to mention his fate that was so peculiar to many Czech soldiers in the 20th century.

This charismatic officer with a strong influence on his subordinates was born on the 26th of May 1893 in Nové Město nad Metují in East Bohemia. He left a Czech grammar school in Prague in 1911 and worked as a clerk. In June 1915, he joined the Austrian army, went through a reduced school of backup officers, and in August 1915 was sent to the Eastern front. At the beginning of September that year he was captured by the Russians. In the internment camp, he joined the forming Czechoslovak Legions as a private at the beginning of August 1916. He fought at Zborov in July 1917, and a month later was awarded an officer rank. He commanded a company and a battalion during the fights against the Bolsheviks in Siberia. He returned home with the captain rank, and stayed in the army as a professional officer. He went through several garrisons and served in Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia for several years. Before WWII, he obtained the lieutenant colonel rank. He experienced the mobilisation of September 1938 as the commander of the 51st Infantry Regiment. After the occupation of the Czech lands, he was released from the army and was to be transferred to a state administration position. However, he had already been active in the resistance movement, in the military organisation called the Nation’s Defence. He went underground just before his arrest, and managed to escape the country in mid-May 1940. He arrived in Beirut at the end of June 1940 by the “Balkan route” and in Palestine at the beginning of July.

He first commanded a battalion in the Middle East and later a Czechoslovak regiment from spring 1942. When he arrived in Great Britain, he became the Deputy Commander of the Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade. In March 1944, President Beneš appointed him Brigade General and he became the Superintendant of the 1st Division of the Ministry of National Defence in London. He volunteered to join the Czechoslovak troops on the Eastern front and flew to the Soviet Union in August 1944. From the 19th of September 1944, he commanded the 3rd Brigade of the Czechoslovak corps during the Dukla fights and during the liberation of Slovakia. At the beginning of April 1945, he became the commander of the entire armed forces. After the war, he held several high offices. In April 1946 he obtained the army general rank. During the communist coup d’état in 1948, his opinions were, although not quite accurately, interpreted as an expression of support for the new power. He even joined the Communist Party in summer 1948, but was forced to retire at the beginning of February 1951 and was arrested on the 20th of November 1952 and sentenced to six years in prison in a staged political process. He was released at the personal request of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev in 1956, and partially rehabilitated. He then lived as a pensioner in Prague where he died on the 18th of November 1984.

Let’s return to the Czechoslovak troops in the Middle East. As I have already mentioned, numbers increased at the turn of 1940 and 1941 namely thanks to the arrival of soldiers released from captivity in the Soviet Union. At the beginning of 1941, the Battalion only had 304 members. Three months later, its number grew to 432, then 550 at the beginning of May, and at month-end 763 soldiers. In this situation, the British headquarters considered the deployment of the Czechoslovak Battalion, especially when our soldiers had proved to be of at least the same quality as the British in two tactical exercises at the beginning of 1941. In March 1941, the Battalion received its first, though not combat, task where Czechoslovak soldiers cooperated with the Polish: guarding an internment camp in Agami, in the outskirts of Egyptian Alexandria.

On the last day of May 1941, the Czechoslovak Battalion left for an area near the front in the West Desert. At the beginning they were assigned as a secondary unit. Before they could join combat, the 23rd British Brigade, on whose basis they were incorporated, was withdrawn and transferred to Palestine to fight against the units of the Vichy France in Syria. The Czechoslovak Battalion joined combat from the 1st to the 12th July 1941 and suffered its first losses. When the truce was concluded, Czechoslovak soldiers participated in the military administration of the country. They remained until the beginning of October 1941. From the 7th to the 12th of October 1941, the Czechoslovak soldiers in Syria were replaced by Australians and sent to Egypt. On the 21st of October 1941, they set off for the most famous battlefield that Czechoslovak troops fought at under British command during WWII: the besieged port of Tobruk in North Libya.

In Tobruk, the Czechoslovak Battalion was incorporated in the system of the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade that operated from mid-August 1941. In the following days, Czechoslovak soldiers took over the defence in the northern part of the front perimeter from the Polish and British troops. The objective of this contribution is not to discuss the individual combat actions or deeds of the Czechoslovak soldiers. The Battalion stayed there until the Tobruk blockade was broken on the 10th of December 1941. The journey of the Czechoslovak Battalion and the Polish Brigade then split up. While the Polish continued to pursue the enemy, our soldiers stayed in Tobruk.

The situation of the British army forces in the Middle East in 1941 was such that even a small Czechoslovak troop had an indisputable significance. What was the contribution of other exile formations operating at the same time? As Polish troop numbers were much larger and thus more important, we could compare our troops with the formations of the Yugoslavian Royal Exile Army that had similar numbers. However, the 1st Yugoslav Guard Battalion formed in Egypt was never deployed to the front due to its complete permanent internal disintegration, and it was basically only used for promotion purposes. Similarly, the much larger Greek exile formations fought in the second battle of El-Alamein in 1942, but they were completely disrupted by the communist propaganda in April 1944 and had to be dismissed by the Brits and the soldiers were interned. Only a small number continued combat with Italy.

In spring 1942, the long delayed mobilisation of Czechoslovak citizens in Palestine, namely emigrants of Jewish origin, took place. Thanks to that, the 200th Czechoslovak Light Antiaircraft East Regiment was formed. It participated in the antiaircraft defence of the Middle East (including Tobruk). However, at the beginning of 1943, the Ministry of National Defence in London decided to withdraw all Czechoslovak troops and enforce the existing formations in Great Britain that chronically lacked new soldiers. Thus, at the turn of June and July 1943, the main forces of the Czechoslovak contingent left the Middle East for the British Isles.

About two and a half thousand soldiers went through the service in the Czechoslovak troops in the Middle East during the three years of its existence. In total, more than half were Jewish refugees. As for the national aspect, about 78% of the troops were Czech and 18% were Slovaks during the deployment in Tobruk. Other nationalities were represented by individuals. In the following months, the proportion of Czechs slightly decreased as more soldiers declared to be Jewish, even though the Czechs still represented two thirds.

In Great Britain, the Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade was founded at the beginning of September 1943, being deployed a year later during the siege of Dunkerque, a port in northern France, which it commanded until its capitulation on the 9th of May 1945.

Thank you for your attention.