From autumn 1939 to spring 1940, the 1st Czechoslovak Division was formed in southern France of Protectorate refugees and mobilized Czechs and Slovaks living in France. It consisted of about 10,000 soldiers, 1,800 horses, 100 cannon and mortars and 900 motor vehicles. Its two infantry regiments fought during the French retreat in group with the 14th Corps of the 7th Army from the lost battle on the Marne, Seine, Loire and the Grand Morin.
The division managed to evacuate to Great Britain about 3500 soldiers, without weapons and vehicles, of which the 1st Czechoslovak Mixed Brigade was formed in Cheshire, England, in the autumn of 1940. The brigade was placed on the sections of the coast where the Hitler’s invasion was expected. The Czechoslovaks performed guard duty on the coast and were trying to get used to British conditions.
In the autumn of 1943, the brigade was supplemented by Czech soldiers from the Middle East, i.e. from the 200th Czechoslovak Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, numbering about 2,000 men. The unit was reorganized as the Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade and was incorporated into the 21st Army Group of Marshal Montgomery, intended to invade Europe. The brigade consisted of 4,600 soldiers, 200 tanks, 180 armoured cars and troop carriers, 70 cannons and mortars, and 1,150 other motor vehicles. Strenuous training was carried out in the field, the modernization of the weaponry, tanks and vehicles took place. Brigade still did not have sufficient number of soldiers for both combat operations as well as to compensate possible losses. Many soldiers also left as volunteers to Czech squadrons in the RAF for their completion.
Therefore, the brigade reached combat readiness at the end of June 1944, but due to a great storm, which damaged artificial harbours in Normandy during this period, the new headquarters determined the order of priority of transporting troops and supplies across the English Channel. The Czech brigade’s turn came at the end of August 1944. By that time, it had given almost all its tanks in exchange for new ones and, in addition, 40 officers had to leave to strengthen the Czech unit in the USSR.
Disembarking of the brigade took place artificial harbour at Arromanches Mulbery between 31 August and 9 September 1945. The brigade underwent further training in the area of Calais for about four weeks. In early October 1944, the brigade was ordered to move into the area of Dunkirk to replace the 1st Canadian Army and to guard the German garrison besieged in the port of Dunkirk. The garrison consisted of about 12,000 men, 2,000 of whom were the SS and partly the Navy, under the supervision of Admiral Frisius. The section was 26 km long and 8 km wide, mostly artificially flooded. Our unit, under the leadership General Liška, had 4,259 soldiers and 167 tanks and it was not able to threaten seriously the enemy with these forces, but it was able to prevent the enemy’s possible incursions from the fortified port. However, there were several clashes on both sides bringing even loss of life. Until the surrender of the German garrison on 9 May 1945, 184 Czechoslovak soldiers were killed in this section; they are buried in cemeteries in La Targette and Adinkerke.
Throughout the siege the unit headquarters, headed by General Liška, was asking the commanding bodies (including Marshal Montgomery) for transfer to the U.S. troops approaching the Czechoslovak borders, but to no avail. The main obstacles were in different vehicles, tanks and weaponry as well as the impossibility of compensating potential losses. Yet on 24 April 1945, a symbolic unit commanded by Lieutenant Colonel A. Sítek, numbered about 140 men, was released and incorporated into a special combined unit that was allocated to the 3rd Army of General Patton.
On 30 April, it crossed the border near Pomezí and joined the 18th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division of the U.S. army in Cheb. They helped the Americans to rebuild the city’s operation. On 7 May 1945, the combined unit arrived to Pilsen and was located in the village of Kyšice after an agreement with the American headquarters. The combined unit drove into Prague on 11 May. The unit passed, as the first part of Czechoslovak foreign army, through Košíře, Smíchov, across the bridge of the Legions, along Národní Street, Wenceslas Square, Ječná Street, Charles Square, Reslova Street and along the Vltava waterfront back to Košíře. However, the next day, on 12 May 1945, the combined unit had to return to Kyšice; later it relocated to Bezděkovec near Nepomuk and Strašín near Sušice. In late May, the whole Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade moved to the mother country, specifically via Pilsen to Klatovy and Rabí near Sušice. On 30 May, it performed a celebratory parade in Prague. Subsequent history of the brigade unfolded as directed by the Communists; the brigade was disbanded, the officers and soldiers later persecuted and the brigade’s activities belittled. Part of the men had to go into exile again, some were even executed, and most of them were imprisoned.
Fortunately, there are enough fans in the clubs of military history, military clubs as well as individuals who will not have this history of our western troops forgotten again.