Memories from Fifty Years Ago: Invasion of Czechoslovakia 3.

I returned to the kiosk at five, as requested, and was surprised to be invited by the woman in the kiosk to stay the night at their apartment. So I drove her home, and she must have been a bit surprised at the car, particularly now that before setting off I refilled the clutch hydraulic oil. The leak was now getting rather bad, and there were only so many clutch usages before a refill, and the number was getting smaller. Anyway, we made it to her apartment, where I met the husband. The Heitlegnerov (I apologise if I got the spelling wrong from memory) apartment was compact, but it seemed to have everything I would expect in a modern western apartment. The previous year I had been in Calgary, so I knew what a modern North American apartment looked like, and the Czech one was much better than where I was in England.

This family had a rather bad history. First, they were Jews, and had spent most of WW II hiding in the forests, living in huts with dirt floors. The husband had been part of a resistance to the Germans, and when the war was over, he had actually helped get the communists into government, only to find the communists in Czechoslovakia were also anti-Jewish. Back to mud floor accommodation for a while. Gradually things got better, and when Dubcek came to power, they got up in the world sufficiently to get this apartment. Now they saw it all coming down around their ears. However, by accident, their daughter, Alenka, was in England on a short stay to help her learn English. The parents had discussed this, and they wanted to send a message for her to stay in England, and would I take some family heirlooms and some of her property? Of course I would, with volume restrictions on obviously women’s things.

The following morning it was announced that the road to Linz was open at the border, so I set off early. Somehow, the day seemed grim, and very quiet. For a major city, nothing was happening. The day did not get better, and when I drove through České Budějovice the continued absence of activity maintained the depressing feeling. It was just as I was leaving České Budějovice that I noticed two young Czechs hitch-hiking. Since I had not seen any cars for a long time, their prospects were poor, so I stopped. They first wanted me to smuggle them out, but I pointed out that was impossible. Any cursory search would find them, but I would take them to the border, let them out before it and they would be on their own. I would wait on the other side for a while, in case they made it. Then they wanted me to smuggle something else: a petition to the United Nations, signed by (according to them) half a million identified signatures. I agreed. I had a tall cardboard box in the boot, and for my trip behind the iron curtain I had taken emergency food: canned food, drink, fruit and rye bread. I had kept the waste, including opened cans because I could not find anywhere to dump rubbish. The petition was wrapped in pastic bags and went to the bottom, a piece of a different cardboard box went on top, just in case although that was probably worthless as a deception, the cans went on top, then rotting fruit, then some mouldy bread, then some fruit that was technically still edible, then the remains of the rye bread, then can openers, cutlery, etc.

When I got to the border, the guards were Czech, but they still did a search. When they came to the box, they asked what was that? I pointed out I was just being tidy and tried to look as iunconcerned as I could. They started ferretting but it got increasingly distasteful and they gave up. The barrier went up, and I was in “no-man’s land”. When I got to the Austrian guards, there were the two Czechs, beaming with triumph. They had got throough before me, while I was being searched, and had told the Austrian guards about the petition. They thought this was mission accomplished. I had no option but to hand the petition over, and while the expressions on the faces of the Czech guards was worth seeing, I was thoroughly depressed. I had taken a huge risk, and for what? The Austrian guards would at best destroy the petition; at worst hand it back to the Czech authorities. Austria was never going to annoy Russia. As I headed to Linz I was stopped by a journalist who wanted the story and a picture of me and my beatup Anglia carrying a Czech flag. I have no idea whether it ever got published.

When I got back to England on the first Saturday I went up to London and to the address where Alenka was staying. It was a grey day with light rain, and the family, being orthodox Jews, left me there standing in the rain. Alenka came to the door, I handed over her valuables, and tried to give as cheerful account as I could of her parents and their feelings. I asked her what she wanted to do. Apparently there were a few scholarships being made available to Czechs who could find a place in a University, and I promised to do what I could at Southampton for her. As it happened, I found a Post-doc was treated as staff, and on my recommendation she could go there, but as it happened, somewhere else was found for her (I think East Anglia). However, that did not last, and eventually she got homesick and returned to Czechoslovakia, where things were seemingly improving a little. It would not be helpful for someone in a communist country then to be corresponding with the West so I never heard from her or her parents again. I am naturally curious as to where her life took her, but I guess I shall never know.


Memories from Fifty Years Ago: Invasion of Czechoslovakia 2.

In my last post, I had managed to get my rather aged Ford Anglia up the side of a bank from a riverbed, the bridge having been taken out. I drove through a belt of trees, and found myself at the back of a Russian military camp. There was nothing for it. Fortunately, I realised that whatever else I did, I must not stop, and I must not look sideways, but equally I must not ignore those on the side of the road. I tried to look as if I were supposed to be there, and drove on at about 20 mph, and tried to give puzzled expressions or a “bored look”. This must have been weird for them. A beat-up right hand drive car coming from the base of their camp carrying a Czech flag, with the road definitely cut behind it. What I was hoping was that the ordinary soldiers there would think it must be something concocted up by authority, and one thing I noticed at this time was that Russian military discipline was good. More on this later.

Anyway, I drove through the camp unhindered, and on towards Praha, but keeping a good look at my rear vision. When nothing seemed to be following I accelerated up to a reasonable cruising speed.

As I entered Praha, great relief: there was a petrol station selling petrol. I joined the queue. It may have been rationed, but the person at the pump saw my flag and enthusiastically filled up my tank. That was a big worry off my shoulders, and I unloaded more crowns there.

As I was to rejoin the highway, I noticed tanks driving up. I darted onto the road, on the basis that I knew what a Division looked like in size, and while I had no idea how much of one was being deployed, why take risks? So there I was, with a T54/55 right behind me. (I could not tell the difference between the two options, which, as an aside, are rather modest, but I knew they were the main battle tanks of the Soviets.) Then, as this odd little convoy entered Praha, people were lined up on both sides of the road. They saw me and cheered, then jeered at the tank. I discovered that a T54/55 loses power on its cruising speed at about 22 mph, but the next gear down roars at about 23 mph. It was one awkward speed zone, so I oscillated in it, keeping a clear look at what the tanks was doing. The T54/55 had a crash box, and the driver’s double clutching technique left a little to be desired, and not helped by the huge difference in engine revolutions for the two gears at the same speed. Accordingly, there were a number of satisfying crunches from the tank’s gearbox, which brought loud cheers. I even had some flowers thrown my way. It was one of the weirder experiences of my life, and I will never have anything like it again.

Eventually I reached somewhere near the centre, and I knew this had to stop, so I turned off to find somewhere to park, have lunch, and another Czech beer. Then I went for a bit of a walk around central Praha, hoping to find information. Two chilling memories of the time. The first was from back in Olomouc. I remember looking down a side street where a wedding must have been going on. The bride came out, looked around, and burst into tears. Back on my walk down a street in Praha, the number of people out walking were few, but when I heard a burst of machine gun firing, everybody dived towards the walls of the buildings, and looked at me as if I were mad for just continuing walking. I could tell the guns and bullets were not in this street, but just in case my cover was going to be the gutter at the edge of the street. Only thing was, I did not want to take such cover until I had to, because diving onto concrete can hurt, and gutters are dirty.

Then, I found what I needed: an information kiosk. I asked for information, and what I found was not exactly what I needed: the borders were all closed. One might reopen tomorrow. So, was there somewhere where I could spend the night? Come back at 5.00. So I could be a tourist for the afternoon. It was not long before I noticed a protest march, so I “joined/followed” it as it went into Wenceslas Square. That was ominous. Across the middle of the square the Russian military had painted a yellow line. Some meters back was a row of Russian soldiers with machine guns. The protest stopped, and it was clear that they could do what they liked their side of the line, but that line was not to be crossed. Gradually the noise became louder and I sensed this was a good time to be somewhere else, preferably with stone/concrete between me and what was going to happen. I got around the corner of a building, and the machine guns opened up. One of the odder moments of my life was ten years ago, when I was washing dishes while listening to the radio, and I recognised this pattern of lmg firing. There had been no announcement as to what it was, but I told Claire it would be about 2.30 pm, August 24, Wenceslas Square. Of course I don’t know whether it was for sure, but I felt confident. The sound was an introduction to a program marking the 40th anniversary, and they never said when and where the recording was made, but it seemed just what I heard that day.

Later in the afternoon, I wandered onto the Charles Bridge to look at the Vltava, and Russian soldiers camping on the riverbank. Interestingly, it appeared that at least some were not issued with socks, and they wrapped their feet in rags before putting on their boots. Anyway, while I was watching this, a Russian officer came up and stood beside me to look down at the river. Apparently, he wanted to talk, which was a problem because the only common language was German and neither of us were proficient. Judging by his epaulette, I guessed Major or Lieutenant Colonel, but I was not familiar with Russian ranks and emblems. Anyway, what I managed to gather was that the Russian soldiers were quite perplexed. They thought they were here at the request of the Czech people, and all they got were protests, insults, and there was no cooperation. I tried to point out they thought this was an occupation, and I added I had seen tanks with Okkupanti and swastikas painted on them. (Yes, spray paint cans were in full use). He agreed, which surprised me. It also turned out that the protests of one town really hurt them because there was no protest. Everybody was subdued and extraordinarily obedient. The town was Lidice. We talked for a while, and I realised that the average Russian officer was not exactly happy about this invasion, but orders were orders. They thought they were going to do good things for the citizens and they did not like what they saw, and the whole situation was bad for both sides. They were not really well supplied, and expected the Czechs would help with food, but all the food got hidden away.

Interestingly, as far as I could tell, the Russians did not pillage. Instead, they tightened their belts, arranged for more supplies, and as far as I could tell, the ordinary soldiers behaved well. The Czech citizens were respected as long as they did not “cross a line”, and while I suspect there would be incidents of soldiers doing what they should not have, by and large that did not happen. Russian military discipline was good.

All of which was all well and good, but I was still there. Time to go back to the information kiosk, and what happened next, I am afraid, is for yet another post, next week.

Meanwhile, you may be interested in

I found this article interesting, but it is not entirely representative. The most obvious difference is the black and white photos give the impression of overall grimness, but actually the weather was absolutely clear, and yes, there were plenty of protests, but they were not that grim looking. All the Czech flags being waved actually gave a colourful impression. The photos give the impression of chaos, destruction and rubbish everywhere, but that was not the case either. What you see there are isolated incidents. There is a photo of a tank burning, but that would be exceptional. There were protests, insulting graffiti on tanks, but by and large all protests were peaceful. There would be mistakes. The photo of a young man shot while trying to put a Czech flag on a Russian tank may well have arisen because there are no obvious places to place such a flag. Had the man tried to open something, the tankers would have to assume something dangerous, such as a Molotov cocktail, could be thrown in, and they would shoot. There would be damaged buildings. You cannot fire all that ordnance and not do damage, but by and large that was atypical, and concentrated around key parts of Praha. It said there were food queues. I had no difficulty buying food. The photos would be real, but exceptional and not really representative of what was happening at large.

Memories from Fifty Years Ago: Invasion of Czechoslovakia 1.

This post is to remind myself that fifty years ago (1968) my little Ford Anglia and I did a road tour behind some of the old Iron Curtain. I was something of an oddity, and I was sometimes referred to as a “stupid Bulgarian” for putting the GB sticker on back to front. The cobbled roads of Poland did not do a lot of favours for the car, since driving towards Krakow on August 22 the clutch mechanism began leaking hydraulic oil, and finding somewhere to get spare oil was a nightmare. Fixing it was impossible; getting the appropriate parts for a very aged British car behind the Iron Curtain was not going to happen. Interestingly, when I stopped at probably the only garage between Gdansk and Krakow, the Poles there refused to speak German. Germans could go to hell! When I managed to get through to them that I was English (OK, I wasn’t, but why a New Zealander was driving a British car would be to much) they suddenly became very helpful. Memories of the Third Reich had not died down.

Back on the road, and before long I overtook what I assume was a motor rifle Division. Trucks carrying soldiers, tanks, artillery, it seemed to take a lot of the afternoon passing it, with me driving on the left hand side of the road, which, of course, felt like usual driving. It seemed a little ominous because I had one more day on my Polish visa, and if you look at a map, options were limited. Interestingly, when I got into my car the following morning in Krakow, the usual black-market currency trader came up to me, and when he found I was going to Czechoslovakia, he immediately offered Czech crown at a huge discount. Even stranger, he would take zloty instead of the usual hard currency. I emptied out my zloty previously bought at a big discount in exchange for some D-mark, and which I could not find anything to spend them on, and got a big fistful of crowns.

On August 23, 1968, I crossed the border at Cieszyn into Czechoslovakia, as it was then known. Unbeknown to me, the Russian army had crossed the previous night. Getting across the border was interesting, but my expiring Polish visa meant there was nowhere else to go, and I had a legitimate visa for getting into Czechoslovakia. The border guards gave way to a military officer, and when I said I was trying to get to Vienna, he let me through. I stopped at an open square in Frydek-Mystek and bought myself a beer and some lunch. I was glad to taste Czech beer, which was far better than Polish beer, and looked out to see a tank on the other side of the square, and a number of soldiers. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the soldiers seemed to be dozing, while the people ignored them. Someone wanted to put a Czech flag on the aerial of my car, so I let them. Then it occurred to me that the person who let me through the border probably had a Russian uniform. Oops! The next bit of news was all the borders were closed.

So, where to go? The next step was fairly obvious: Olomouc. From there, roads went to Brno or Praha. Brno is near the border with the route to Vienna, but there were likely to be far more westerners in Praha, which meant that with more options, it was more likely a border would open soon. It was also reasonably obvious that I would have to stay the night somewhere, so that somewhere might as well be Olomouc. When I got there, all was not well because it was late afternoon. I tried the odd hotel, and met someone who would make a cameo appearance in one of my novels: he spoke 13 languages, so he claimed, but none were English, French or German. So, on the road again. I took the road towards Praha (and I cannot recall whether this was a decision or accidental) and nothing much happened except it started to get darker, then it was clearly night. I was going at about 60 mph, and came over a hill when I saw a small fire to the left and something not right. Emergency avoidance! I swerved left and went into a four-wheel drift, sending a shower of stones towards some clearly frightened soldiers (they would see a ton of steel heading their way). Fortunately, my youthful time spent doing drifts on gravel roads came to my assistance as I held the car and carefully made it back onto the road. (Hint – returning to the road is the most dangerous part as it is easy to overcompensate and start rolling.) Going left was pure instinct. Nevertheless, I had avoided colliding with a tank parked in the centre of the road and covered with camouflage netting to hide its shape. All the same, I decided I had better stop driving soon.

I came to a little village where the road turned right, but there was a further road going left and straight ahead. The road signs had been switched, directing traffic to Praha straight ahead. I stopped, and the Czech flag did a good thing – it brought someone who spoke English. He told me the obvious, but I said I really needed somewhere to stop. He took me to a hotel down to the left, and I found it was illegal to be moving. My guide said he would burn down the hotel if the manager didn’t accept me. Would I permit him to register me from the day before? Of course. Everyone was happy. After ensuring my belongings were in the room, I went back to the cross-roads where part of a Division was passing through. There was a Czech out there indicating the false road, where the sign was pointing but the soldiers were not to be fooled. There was a gap in the traffic, and I approached my new friend, and suggested he get the Czech on the road to point the right way: the drivers would not believe a Czech was trying to be helpful. So when the next part of the Division arrived, the Czech was ignored and the trucks started going down the wrong way. This went on for about half an hour, when a driver was almost going down the wrong way but he realised his mistake and hit the brakes. Everybody stopped behind him. He flung his truck into reverse and shot backwards, furious at the agitated crowd. What he forgot was he had a trailer with an artillery piece on the back, the barrel of which smashed the following truck’s window and the driver only just evaded. The crowd roared. Eventually, this was sorted and what was left of the Division went the correct way. I later learned that a Polish Division was split into five parts that night and it took three days or so to get them all back together. My small contribution to military history!

Next morning I was off to Hradec Kralove, where I found a garage. They could not sell petrol, but I did get a litre of hydraulic oil. They refused payment; it was illegal to sell anything under the occupation. My Czech flag was working! I took the road to Praha and all was well on another gorgeous morning. I passed a detour sign, but I knew better. (I had passed lots of them before.) I kept driving and I must have been fairly close to Praha when there was a minor disaster in the making. There was a dry riverbed, but no bridge. On the other side the road went behind a belt of trees. The last detour sign appeared to be true, but I had only two gallons of petrol left and there was no way I could make it around the detour. I took something of a deep breath, put the car in second gear and went down the bank to the streambed and floored the accelerator. I got up to about 45 mph by the other side, sustaining ferocious bouncing, then up the other side. I had just enough momentum to get over the lip and onto the road. Joy! Through the belt of trees and . . . Oops. I was at the back of a Russian military camp. This Czech flag may not be working in my favour now . . .

More next week for those interested.