The signing of the Czechoslovak-Soviet Agreement of the 18th of July 1941 created the conditions for the organization on the Soviet territory of independent Czechoslovak military units as a part of the Czechoslovak Army abroad. The town of Buzuluk in the Ural foothills in the Orenburg region was designated as the place for arranging the unit. The basic team of instructors was made up of officers and NCOs who had emigrated from Czechoslovakia after the 15th of March 1939 through Poland and who, in the ranks of the Czech and Slovak Legion, had gone over to the Soviet Union, following the fall of Poland in September 1939. As early as December 1941 Lieutenant Colonel Svoboda took over from General Anders’ Polish army the centres later to be used by Czechoslovak soldiers. On the 17th of January 1942, Soviet Radio broadcast an appeal to Czechoslovak citizens on the territory of the USSR to join the Czechoslovak Army.
The first volunteers came forward at the beginning of February 1942. They came, including women, to Buzuluk from various parts of the Soviet Union. The women were not only emigrants who had fled from the Republic for racial or political reasons, but also those from Czech and Slovak families settled long term on the territory of the USSR. There were girls from Carpathian Ruthenia, who had been arrested by the Soviet authorities and sent to work camps for illegally crossing the border. After the outbreak of the war many Czech families had been expelled from their homes and interned as citizens of a foreign state, and now they applied on mass to join the military unit.
Five centuries after their part in the Hussite armies, Czech women appeared in our army again. Indeed, it was by appeal to the old Hussite tradition that the presence of women in the unit was justified in the press the Czechoslovak unit published for its own needs. The possibility of women serving had not been considered in the army of the First Czechoslovak Republic, but the present war changed the situation and women’s attitude to military service. Some men also changed their views on the legitimacy of having women on active service and bearing arms.
It was in this situation that the three Pišl sisters arrived in Buzuluk with their parents, as well as the three Tobiáš sisters, the two Biněvský sisters, and Matušeks, Ptáčeks, Raichls, Studničkas, Neubauers, Fialas, and others. The first Volhynian Czechs arrived too – members of a Czech community in the Volhynia region that had been deported as politically suspect to Siberia and Central Asia by the Soviets: these were the Valenta sisters, the Perný, Malínský, Olič and other families. Jewish women and their families formed a large group. Many had escaped from the Nazis in dramatic circumstances.
Like the men the girls and women enlisted in military service, which corresponded to the Soviet women who had already been courageously fighting in the Red Army for some months. The Czechoslovak military unit in the USSR was subject to the rules and regulations of our pre-war army, which had not permitted women to serve, but it was war and every healthy person was needed. The commander of the unit Lieutenant Colonel Ludvík Svoboda decided on his own authority to admit Czechoslovak women. The older women were assigned to an alternative force that performed auxiliary services in the kitchen, workshops and stores. The younger women capable of service in the field were assigned to training formations where they underwent basic training and were then assigned to particular services. The training was the same for men and women: orders drill, shooting, grenade throwing, trench digging.
In Battalion order No. 42, Article 2, women assigned to the Czechoslovak unit were granted the rank of private soldier. This is the first record in the history of the Czechoslovak army to confirm the admission of women to military service.
The women in Buzuluk lived in barracks. In the end as many as fifty were accommodated in a room equipped with screens. According to an order of the 28th of February 1942 they got up at 6.00 and started work at 7.00, continuing with a noon break until 18.00. They had time off from 19.00 to 20.00 and only occasionally through the evening until 23.00. Uniform consisted of a military shirt and tie and a military tunic with an upper button that could be left undone, long trousers with clasps and lace-up boots. Hairstyles had to be such as not to upset the appearance of uniform.
After basic training the women were assigned to specialist courses. Marie Ljalková and Vanda Biněvská, who could shoot well, took the course for snipers; Růžena Bihellerová took a signals course. Most of the women, however, were sent to the medical courses to learn first aid in field conditions. Having finished the course some of the women were assigned to the battalion first aid station and served in the Buzuluk military hospital, while others were assigned to individual companies as medical patrols, and went through all the tough march exercises with these companies. With a medical bag adorned with a red cross, a gun across the shoulder, and carrying stretchers, they marched tens of kilometres with the companies in the hot and dusty days of the sub-Ural summer. In the winter, they waded through deep snow drifts in bitter, as much as forty-degree frosts. These were tough tests, but the women passed them and showed that they could be relied on.
Shortly before their departure for the front the women were surprised by an instruction from the London Ministry of National Defence ordering them to stay in the reserve battalion in Buzuluk. Allegedly their deployment at the front would contradict the humane vocation of women. But these women had volunteered for army service and wanted to go to the front precisely because civilization and humanity were lethally threatened by German Nazism. They knew about the atrocities of the Nazis in their homeland, about the massacres at Lidice and Ležáky, and how mercilessly the Nazis were behaving on the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. The most precious values of humanity had to be defended. The women had long months of concentrated training behind them and wanted to fulfil their tasks honourably together with the men. In the end they got their way. On the 30th of January 1943 the women with the other members of the 1st Field Battalion boarded the military train that was to take them from Buzuluk station to the front.
There were 38 of them, those first women in uniform, who left in the military train No. 22 904 from Buzuluk. The further west they went, the more visible the traces of the hurricane of war that had raged here. Their almost three-week journey ended at the Ukrainian station Valujki. The train could go no further because the Germans had destroyed the tracks on their retreat. The soldiers of the 1st Field Battalion had to cover the remaining 350 km to their final destination Kharkov on foot. The ten-day march across the Ukrainian steppe – in fact a ten-night march, since to avoid enemy aircraft attack they moved only at night – in snow, frost and a freezing winds, was a tough test in itself for all the soldiers. A test of whether they would cope in their first battle, the battle with the weather, weariness, kilometres and time. The women who were marching with the companies managed to overcome tiredness and even to look after the soldiers, treating their bruises and grazes and tending the sick. And they still had strength left over to encourage the tired soldiers with a cheering word or just their own example.
They showed an equal perseverance and spirit of sacrifice in the first battle with the enemy by the village of Sokolovo. The girls assigned to the 1st Company under Lieutenant Jaroš – the three Tobiáš sisters and Běla Zlatníková with their commander Malvína Friedmannová – treated the wounded soldiers in burning Sokolovo with the same dedication as the members of the advance battalion first aid station Danuta Čermáková, Jarmila Kaplanová, Rita Nováková and Věra Růžičková. The others too were brave. When the next day during a counter-attack by the 2nd Company our soldiers were crossing the frozen river Mzha, which was under fierce enemy fire, many of our wounded were stuck on the ice, very visible and vulnerable in the light of the German flares. The stretcher bearers of the 2nd Company, Markéta Goldmannová, Marie Pišlová, Markéta Olšanová and Anna Ackermannová dragged the wounded soldiers from the ice to the overgrown bank and went back undaunted for other wounded comrades. Naturally they were afraid. Inwardly they were praying and calling on their mothers. But when the girls heard the wounded screaming, they managed to overcome their fear. Like Anna Ptáčková and Vlasta Pavlánová of the 3rd Company, for example, under the enemy fire they heard wounded Soviet tankists crying for help, and despite the fact the section where the wounded were lying was under direct fire from German mortars, they ran to them and dragged them away from the danger area. But women did not only work as medical staff. Marie Ljalková was assigned to the 2nd Company as a sniper, and the telephonist Růžena Bihellerová was in the signals squad, while each company had its cook, and the staff command was reinforced by Matylda Braunová as a specialist in the education of the public and by Vanda Biněvská as an observer.
There were 16 women among the soldiers decorated, but in fact all the women who had taken part in the Sokolovo Battle won recognition from their fellow fighters, whichever section they had been deployed in. They had shown that they could be relied on and that they were soldiers to be reckoned with in front-line situations. The “Sokolovo women” thus opened the way for others who came to the unit later.
After the unceasing battles at Sokolovo and the exhausting marches the soldiers of the 1st Field Batallion – men and women – were pulled back to the reserve to the small Ukrainian village of Veseloje. The villagers welcomed them as their own. Here the soldiers rested, recovered and started exercises again.
The following women were at Sokolovo: Private AnnaAckermannová, Private Truda Raweková, Lance Corporal Anna Benešová, Lance Corporal Růžena Bihellerová, Private Valentina Biněvská,Lance Corporal Matylda Braunová,Private Broňa Brücknerová, Private Soňa Bužakerová, Private Danuta Čermáková, Private Ida Davidovičová, Lance Corporal Malvína Friedmannová, Private Adéla Fišlová, Private Markéta Goldmannová, Private Anna Kakutová, Private Jarmila Kaplanová, Private Františka Kleinbergová, Private Margita Kovalová, Lance Corporal Anna Králová, Private Marie Ljalková, Private Jana Malínská, Private Lída Matušková, Lance Corporal Rita Nováková, Private Lydie Obstová, Private Markéta Olšanová, Lance Corporal Vlasta Pavlánová, Private Marie Pišlová, Private Anna Ptáčková, Private Tereza Rufeisenová, Private Věra Růžičková, Private Markéta Singerová, Private Edita Tobiášová, Private Filoména Tobiášová, Private Lydie Tobiášová, Private Halina Vorobcová, Private Sara Weberová, Private Richarda Wechsbergová, Private Truda Witriolová, Private Běla Zlatníková.
Many of the “Sokolovo women” were awarded Czechoslovak and Soviet orders and decorations.
From the poem Sokolovoby Richard Tesařík
...And the guns thunder
The earth is torn
Battle has begun
Death in the flames
Groaning in flames
In the name of the earth
In the spring of 1943, the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Brigade was formed after the reinforcement of the unit by members of the reserve regiment based in Buzuluk. .Most of those who came from the reserve regiment were young men and women from Ruthenia (Sub-Carpathian Ukraine, part of Czechoslovakia in the interwar period). The brigade was sent for training to the small town of Novokhopersk in the plains of the Voronezh region in Central Russia. The “Sokolovo soldiers” arrived here as well from the front after a short period of rest.
After experiences of the first battles the women were assigned – apart from the medical service – to telephonist and radio-operating duties, worked in further education and culture services, in the offices of the staff, and in the kitchen. The most robust were assigned to operating anti-aircraft guns. All of them conscientiously prepared themselves to fulfil all their tasks.
Concentrated training took place in all the sections. The girls were trained from morning till night: specialist training, basic training, training in the field – everyone was kept fully occupied. They had a little relaxation only just before lights-out at 9 p.m. – a brief respite when they could go for a walk to the river, sing together, chat with friends or just with one sweetheart. The next day the drill would start again early, and was ever more concentrated as the departure of the brigade for the front came closer. When the Czechoslovak Military Unit left for the front a second time at the end of September 1943, there were already 82 women in its overall force of 3,200.
At the beginning of November 1943, the First Brigade took part in the battle to liberate Kiev. In the subsequent months it fought alongside soldiers of the 1st Ukrainian Front to liberate Right-Bank Ukraine, at Fastov, Bielaya Cerkva, and elsewhere. In this sector the Nazis put up furious resistance. The women resolutely fulfilled their tasks in all the areas to which they were assigned. They showed great courage and perseverance, especially the girls from Ruthenia.
The fate of the boys and girls from Ruthenia, which before the war had been part of the Czechoslovak Republic, had been very cruel. After the Hungarian occupation in 1939 young men escaped from their homeland so as not to have to join the Hungarian Army. But so did young women and even girls of hardly more than school age, risking the perils of escape from the Hungarian fascists and naively trusting in the Soviet Union where they sought a refuge. They were all to be cruelly disappointed in the USSR, where the authorities arrested them for illegally crossing the border from an enemy country, Hungary, and condemned them to forced labour in work camps all over the Soviet Union, where many did not survive inconceivably harsh conditions.
After arrival in the Czech unit, the girls had first to regain their physical health, but they were basically hardened and tough, used to heavy work from childhood in their land under the Carpathians, and they soon coped with the difficulties of military life. They started to relax psychologically in the friendly atmosphere as well, and here they showed their moral courage, suppressing their natural feelings of injury and injustice. They fought courageously in our unit against the common foe at the side of the Soviet army, which had done them so much harm. Women who had managed to save their own lives in the brutal conditions of the camps were now willing to lay down their lives in the fight for their country’s freedom.
Women’s service in the anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) was not just very dangerous but extremely physically demanding. It was mostly the girls from Ruthenia who were assigned to it. The tough training in Novokhopersk, from which the following photos come, turned out to be hugely important for real battle.
In the Battle of Bielaya Cerkva our anti-aircraft guns were dug into trenches in the bare fields. The girls were cramped here in the trenches beside their guns in frost, on the bare ground without even straw... During the battle the Soviet units started to move up beyond the Ross River... They were a mere fifty metres from the positions of our anti-aircraft guns when they were attacked by German planes. The girls opened fire. They shot down one enemy aircraft and the others withdrew. The Soviet commander ran up to thank our brave anti-aircraft crew. How surprised he was when instead of the unshaven faces of soldiers he found smiling girls by the guns. (Extract from the book At the Side of Men by Věra Tichá)
In the battles by Ostrozhany on the Ukrainian front our AAA battery got into a difficult situation. Groups of German planes were coming over inexorably at half-hour intervals to dive bomb our main positions. At the same time 10 to 12 heavy German tanks were advancing and bombarding our position in the village of Buzovka. The AAA batteries stood in the path of their main onslaught; the tanks were rolling straight at them. According to one of the gun commanders, the girls were the first to jump out of the trenches and start shooting directly at the enemy tanks. The guns were so hot that the operators burned their hands on them. Margita Doriová leapt up to replace a fallen gunner and made sure the gun went on firing. The enemy’s three-times repeated attack was thrown back.
Women reinforced the ranks of the signalmen in the 1st Brigade. They were trained as telephonists, primarily to serve the field centres, and as radio operators. They worked reliably in the toughest conditions – usually outside, in summer and winter, in trenches and dug-outs, in day and night shifts. In battle conditions they had to stand in for the men too: to build telephone lines, carry heavy drums of cables, and go out to make repairs in the field usually under fire from the enemy.
As the unit grew the medical corps was substantially enlarged. After the experiences of Sokolovo the command decided not to assign women to duties involving getting the wounded from the field. The need for qualified medical workers was increasing, however, and so women deepened their knowledge, trained and acquired specialist qualifications.
The medical corps faced a test of their capacity in the battles of the 1st Brigade in the Ukraine, when following the liberation of Kiev many of our soldiers were wounded in the enemy counter-attack at Ruda and Bielaya Cerkva. In just the last two days of December 1943, several hundred wounded were treated in the village of Krasnolesy where the medical corps had quickly unpacked after a night transfer. Dozens of soldiers underwent surgery in a provisional theatre set up in Krasnolesy school, with some dying on the operating table. Overwhelmed by work, the doctors and nurses had no time even to notice that the New Year had come.
Some women were assigned directly to combat units as medical NCOs supposed to care for the unit’s health and hygiene. In battles they provided first aid at battalion bandaging stations.
The military newspaper Naše vojsko v SSSR (Our Army in the USSR) came out daily in the 1st Czechoslovak Unit, carrying articles in Czech, Slovak and Ukrainian. In an article about the Ruthenian girls, written in Ukrainian, we read about Nasťa Kurinová, a medic with a battalion of heavy-calibre machine guns: When rescuing the wounded at Bielaya Cerkva Nasťa went right onto enemy ground where our wounded soldiers were lying. With rifle fire she drove away the fascists whose heavy fire had been preventing her bandaging the wounded and dragging them to safety. Although wounded herself, she continued in her work until her friend Anna Maděrová came to her aid.
Women also worked in the information service of our military unit – listening to the news, as editors and writers. Matylda Braunová, who came to Buzuluk with a hugely valuable object, her own typewriter with a Czech keyboard, was the architect of our military press, first the Denní zpravodaj (Daily Bulletin), and then Naše vojsko v SSSR (Our Army in the USSR). She was already using her typewriter on the road to Sokolovo to write reports for soldiers. During the unit’s withdrawal, however, when it was loaded on a sledge, it sank in the flooded Donec River.
JThe unit also had its military band, founded in Buzuluk. When the composer NCO Vít Nejedlý started to direct it, he included symphonies and choral classical performances as well as brass band music. Many of the songs were written by members of the band, for example the song Směr Praha (Direction Prague), which accompanied and encouraged the soldiers all the way from Buzuluk to Prague.
People who joined the Czechoslovak Military Unit had often brought children or parents with them. While the fathers and some mothers were fulfilling their military tasks, their closest social department, under the patronage of the Czechoslovak Red Cross that had been set up at the reserve regiment in Buzuluk, took over care of their family members. Many children of marriages made at the front were born and grew up here. The first child born in Buzuluk was Tomáš Kolský, whose father fought at Sokolovo. Others included the son of the tankist Lieutenant Jiří Lízálek, who fell on the 6th of April 1945 in fighting in the area of Moravian Ostrava. The unopened letter from his wife telling him about the birth of little Jiřík was found in his pocket. More fortunate children’s parents were spared.
A children’s home was set up for all the children. They were well looked after here – they had priority in the allocation of food, clothes were made for them out of Czechoslovak uniforms, and they went to the local Soviet schools. They were also taught in Czech.
While the elderly remained in Buzuluk almost to the end of the war, the children’s home was transferred to the reserve regiment in Yefremov. About 40 children lived in it for various periods.
Some children reached our army when it was already in Slovakia: they had escaped from Nazi camps or came with their parents from partisan groups and hiding places where they had taken refuge from the fascists.
Karel Kachyňa’s film Práče (Child Fighter) tells one such story.
Girls also mastered one of the toughest of military branches – parachuting. These were the very first Czechoslovak women to jump from training balloons and aircraft and parachute down with weapons in their hands. Just like the men they were frightened of the first jump but managed to overcome their fear.
Training took place with the 2nd Parachutist Brigade in Yefremov. The brigade was largely composed of Slovak soldiers who had deserted to the Red Army from the army of the Slovak State and had later been released to join the Czechoslovak unit. A reserve regiment also moved from Buzuluk to Yefremov. After brief deployment in the battles in Dukla, the 2nd Brigade was airlifted across the front to resistance-held territory in Slovakia, where it was immediately deployed in actions in the Slovak National Uprising. 15 women took part in the battles of the 2nd Brigade in the Slovak National Uprising. They were Jana Tůmová, Vlasta Kadaňková, Lydie Studničková, Valentina Biněvská, Margita Novosadová, Marie Steinerová, Marie Ljachová, Ruth Rosická, Jelena Maletová, Olena Sotáková, Anna Hricáková, Marie Kozubašová, Natalie Novická, Vilma Kafková, and Jana Lošťáková.
All the women held their own in the terribly tough military and natural conditions. Scattered in smaller groups of partisans they finally got across the front and returned to the 1st Czechoslovak Army Corps. One who returned with the partisan group Mstitel (Avenger) was Marie Ljachová, who had been wounded on the 28th of September 1944 in the retreat to Donovaly. Unable to march further, she had been left with supplies of food by her comrades in an abandoned bunker, where she spent two months by herself until she had recovered and could join the partisans. After the war Valentina Biněvská, too, came back from Slovaka, where she had been captured by the Germans but had escaped with the help of local people.
After the liberation of the Western Ukraine in the spring of 1944 our unit moved to Volhynia, to the area of Rovno and Luck. The surrounding villages were inhabited by the descendants of Czech colonists who had preserved the Czech language, culture and love for their old homeland for many generations here.
Approximately 12,000 Volhynian Czechs applied to he 1st Czechoslovak Corps. They also included women. For these women, most of whom had lived their lives on the family farm in a village among relatives and neighbours, it was no easy decision to leave home, take on a uniform and set off to war. Yet very large numbers took that decision! They voluntarily went to fight for the freedom of a distant homeland that most of them, especially the younger, knew only from books or the stories of their parents. Their decision to participate in the fight against German Nazism was strongly influenced by their own experience: on the 13th of July 1943 the Nazis had fired the Volhynian village of Český Malín and bestially murdered 400 of its inhabitants – men, women and children. The Volhynian Czechs had experienced punitive raids on their other villages as well, the liquidation of the Jews and the forced deportation of young people to work in Germany. Some of them were also influenced by the justified fear that the traditional way of life – private farming – by which the Volhynian Czechs had maintained a good standard of living, would not be allowed to continue in the Soviet system and they were facing an uncertain future. They therefore identified their own prospects in life with the future of the Czechoslovak Republic, for whose freedom they decided to fight.
The newcomers from Volhynia, men and women, greatly enlarged the ranks of the Czechoslovak Unit. On the 10th of April 1944 the decision was therefore taken to organize the 1st Czechoslovak Army Corps. The 2nd and 3rd Brigades were formed, new artillery units were established, and an engineering, signals and medical battalion. The new soldiers all had to be put through concentrated basic and specialist training.
On the 25th of April 1944 the Czechoslovak Unit left Volhynia and was moved by rail to Kamenec Podolsky, after which it headed closer to the Carpathians, to the Chernovice area. Individual units of the corps took up positions in the surrounding forests, by the villages of Stecov, Sadagura and Snjatyn. They lived mainly in the forests, in bunkers, while they underwent intensive exercises and training.
The Volhynian girls were assigned to the medical and signals service and the anti-aircraft detachments. Among the instructors chosen from the ranks of the 1st Brigade were women who already had experience at the front and could pass this on to the new girls. Many women were also employed in the administration, stores, tailoring workshops, and in field bakeries and laundries.
Once again whole families came to the recruitment commission of the Czechoslovak Military Unit in Volhynia – sisters and brothers, daughters and fathers, and young married couples. The girls applied individually or in groups with friends.
Some of the girls were assigned to a medical course run directly at the unit, while others were sent to a nursing school in Kiev.
Quite a number of Volhynian women were trained in the signals course as operators of field telephone exchanges and radio stations. Some were then assigned as telephonists and radio operators to the artillery detachments of the 1st and 3rd Brigades and other signals companies.
Naturally the young people at the front formed relationships reinforced by shared experiences and hopes. Military marriages were not uncommon. In the time of relative quiet, especially in the summer of 1944, several military marriages were celebrated in the training centre by Sadagura.Danuta Čermáková, married name Drnková, recalles her artillery wedding: I would never in my life have been able to fit out such a wedding; no-one had ever seen such a wedding. The whole detachment, in fact the whole regiment organized it... We came out of the church where we expected the car which had driven us here to be waiting for us. Instead of that car there was a decorated mine thrower drawn by six horses in harness, with officers on horseback lining the way. They said that the parents and witnesses should have a car, but the six-harness was for us. And so we rode into the village of Potůček on a trench mortar and there a celebration was held; we feasted and drank, sang and joked. Only soldiers who are facing battle the next day, and maybe nothing after that, can create such a merry, happy scene.What was the fate of the marriages of those who survived? As in ordinary life, too, some wartime marriages failed. But most were happy. People who had tested their bonds in the hardest moments of war knew how to respect and appreciate each other. And so former frontline soldiers eventually became fathers and mothers, and later happy grandfathers and grandmothers.
Some frontline loves were, however, to be tragically blighted by war events. Women had to have great mental strength to endure the loss of children or siblings. Can anyone imagine the grief of corporal Amalie Lancerová, who lost two of her three sons in just a few hours during the Battle of Sokolovo?
It was also hard for Ludmila Matušková and Anna Ptáčková, who managed to save their wounded comrades but were helpless to prevent the deaths of their own brothers. At Dukla, Helena Albrechtová, a soldier of the 3rd Brigade, received the cruel news of the bestial murder of her father and uncle. Jan Albrecht and two of his neighbours from the village of Podhájce had been risking their lives supplying the Czechoslovak Unit in Volhynia. Ukrainian terrorists, collaborating with the Nazis during the war, took vengeance for this, cutting out their tongues, gouging out their eyes and throwing them live into a well.
After the outbreak of the Slovak National Uprising, the Czechoslovak government asked the Soviet leadership for direct military aid. The Red Army changed its original plans and on the basis of the Czechoslovak request decided on an attack through the Carpathians and the Dukla Pass. The 1st Czechoslovak Army Corps was to be a part of this operation. In the mountainous Carpathian terrain the Germans rapidly built up strong defensive positions – and the hardest and most bloody phase of the battles for liberation ensued, not just for the Red Army, but for Czechoslovak soldiers, men and women.
During the battles at Dukla around 6,500 soldiers were treated by the medical battalions of the 1st and 3rd Brigades. The doctors and nurses worked in the surgical and medical departments for nights and days, and were literally collapsing with exhaustion.
From the frontline diary of twenty-year old radio operator Jiřina Švermová
11th September 1944
We are in a forest, and of course the mortars are flying round us. I’m always sitting in a hole at the radio. Our wounded are coming back from the front along the way in an unbroken stream – there are terribly many of them. The people in the treatment centre are in despair at the numbers. Mrázková is dead, seriously injured yesterday, such a sensible, pretty girl. And there’s a story at the staff that I’m dead and buried too.
Damn Germans, they’re hanging on for dear life. This is a tough terrain for attack, all hills and forests. We’re in a kind of corridor here, they’re shooting at us from all sides.
22nd September 1944
God, that was a night – I shall never forget it. Our forces set out ahead, and we were moved. We are spending the night in the forest. We get lost. The sky over the front is all flashes, in one red glow; there’s constant gunfire, every shot making it hard to breathe. We were driving here and there and establishing signals connections. Now towards morning we’re finally staying in one place, a completely abandoned and destroyed village, Teodorówka. We’re under fire every moment, and the worst part of it is – from vanushkas, six-bored mortar throwers. At the front you just hear noises over your head. Mortars have exploded a little way away from us – what will happen next?
28th September 1944
In the morning we arrived under the slope of the hill, in front of the hamlet Tylyava, completely smashed up. And no soon as we had arrived than we hear the crack of one mortar and then another. They are flying after us one after another. We were lucky that they didn’t get us along the road; the Germans keep throwing them here. Here it's hard to dig covers - nothing but stone and hard earth...
Extract from a poem Carpathian Requiem by Jan Mareš...
Life is bought
Victory by blood.
The victory of life.
They paid the tax of blood
In the snow of the steppe,
In the dust of the road,
In the furrows of the Ukraine,
On the jutting Carpathian ridges.
The two and a half months of fighting in the Dukla ravines took a bloody toll:around 18,000 dead and 60,000 wounded in the Red Army, while 1,800 Czechoslovak soldiers fell and 4,500 were wounded. Every war is cruel. In one week of fighting in the Prague Uprising, for example, more than 2,000 Czechs lost their lives.
At Dukla five of our women fell and several dozen were wounded. We shall mention two of the dead. Private Kristina Griegorová was born in 1918 close to Chust in Carpathian Ruthenia and worked there on the family farm with her parents. In 1940 she fled from the Hungarian fascists into the USSR, where she was imprisoned for illegally crossing the border and sent to a work camp in Karaganda in the Dzhambul region. In July 1944 she was released to join the Czechoslovak Corps and was assigned to the anti-aircraft artillery.
Private Marie Tymkovičová was born in 1924 in the Svaljava District in Carpathian Ruthenia. She also worked with her parents on a farm. At seventeen she escaped from the Hungarian fascists into the USSR where she was imprisoned for crossing the frontier illegally and sent to a work camp. She joined the 1st Czechoslovak Army Corps in the spring of 1944.Both girls were assigned to the 2nd Anti-Aircraft Detachment of the 3rd Brigade. On the 9th of September 1944, their battery came under concentrated enemy fire in Wrocanka.
The front newspaper wrote: Avenge Them!
It happened under Wrocanka. Lieutenant Fleišman’s Brigade was given a special assignment – to fire direct on the enemy infantry. The enemy identified the location of the battery because anti-aircraft guns are high and there was no time to dig them in. The battery was subjected to concentrated enemy mortar fire. But the guns did not fall silent. Privates Kristina Griegorová and Tymkovičová conducted themselves with special heroism. Even at time when the enemy fire was at its most furious, they stayed at their posts by the guns and continued to fulfil their task. Their behaviour and bravery encouraged the other gunners.
But an enemy mortar fell directly in the hide-out where Griegorová and Tymkovičová had retreated on special orders, and it tore them from our midst. The soldiers of the battery have promised that they will have their revenge on the Germans for the death of their two comrades in battle.
An army is not just its field units. The fighters need bread, and they need their boots mended and their linen laundered. The army had reached the front across scorched earth, and had to provide for its needs by itself. Dozens of women served in its bakeries, stores and tailoring workshops. This was tough work, especially in the brigade field laundries. With their unobtrusive service these women did much to satisfy the needs of soldiers in the line of combat.
The women in the field laundries did not usually look as neat and tidy as they do in the wartime photographs. With their hair twisted back under headscarves and in aprons that they had made themselves from uniform remnants they hand-laundered the soldiers’ linen – dirty, muddy and often bloodstained, in wooden troughs. They laundered in large tents, full of steam and draughty. With hands blistered to the point of bleeding they washed the linen in the autumn sleet of the Carpathians in the icy water of mountain streams and in range of enemy artillery.
The hard and bloody battles in the Carpathians ended only towards the end of 1944 when the units of the Czechoslovak Army Corps moved to defensive positions on the River Ondava.
The enemy refused to give up and more difficult battles awaited our units in Slovakia and near Moravian Ostrava. Women were involved in all these battles, and at this period their numbers increased as women from the liberated territories and the partisan groups joined the main Czechoslovak Army Corps.
Women from the anti-aircraft artillery detachments served with distinction in the battles at Liptovský Mikuláš. They were firing on the enemy directly and so covering the actions of infantry battalions. Women medical staff from the recently formed 4th Brigade also proved their worth in the harsh mountain terrain. At an advanced first-aid station at more than 800 metres above sea level they provided first aid to more than 1,200 wounded soldiers and then transferred them to the brigade treatment centre. In this period Soviet tank regiments were advancing into Moravian Ostrava together with the Czechoslovak troops. There were 40 women – medics, signals operators and administrative personnel – in the ranks of our tankists. After the bitter resistance of the Nazis in Slovakia and Moravia had been overcome, the way was at last open for our units to get through Moravia to Bohemia.
The end of the war meant an end to much misery and a gradual return to ordinary life. And that ordinary life brought success and failure, joy and grief, recognition and indifference, ingratitude. Wartime experiences became no more than memories to point up the value of life in peacetime.