|1st Czechoslovak Partisan Brigade of Jan Žižka|
Lieutenant Ján Ušiak, unit's 1st commander
|Active||25 August 1944–26 May 1945|
|Engagements||Battle of Štiavnik, Battle of Velké Karlovice|
Lieutenant Ján Ušiak|
Captain Dajan Bajanovič Murzin
Lieutenant Ivan Petrovič Stěpanov
The 1st Czechoslovak Partisan Brigade of Jan Žižka (Czech language: 1. československá partizánská brigáda Jana Žižky ), initially known as Ušiak-Murzin Unit, was the largest military unit conducting guerrilla warfare against the German occupation forces in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (modern day Czech Republic) during the Second World War.
The brigade was named after Jan Žižka, the 15th century leader of the Hussite army whose use of innovative techniques, such as the wagon fort and the large scale use of firearms, made him a Czech national hero. During the Second World War, there were two additional partisan formations that separately also used Jan Žižka's name: the Jan Žižka Moravskoslezský (formerly the Bílá Lvice resistance unit), operating further north in the Czech lands, and the Czechoslovak Brigade of Jan Žižka in Yugoslavia, operating in the Balkans.
When compared to the situation in some other occupied countries, conditions in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, at that time occupied by Nazi Germany as the so-called "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia", did not favor guerrilla warfare. For one thing, there was a general shortage of firearms among the population. After Czechoslovakia yielded to British and French pressure and complied with the Munich agreement by surrendering the fortified border areas to Nazi Germany, Poland and Hungary, it withdrew its army away from the new frontiers. In March 1939, the Czechoslovak government yielded to German threats of aerial bombing. The army capitulated and the rest of the Czech lands (Bohemia, Moravia and part of Silesia) were occupied, while in the east the fascist Slovak government declared independence. The armaments of the Czechoslovak army were stored in army warehouses. Compared to other territories where warfare took place, there were very few guns available to the resistance movement, despite the relatively liberal firearms policies in place prior to the occupation. This lack of firearms would also prove critical during preparations for a coup, planned by the anti-Nazi resistance group Obrana národa, and later in the 1945 Prague uprising.
At the same time the Czech lands were highly urbanized, which made the establishment of permanent partisan field camps in woods or mountains impractical. Also, the existence of a (by now thoroughly politicized) ethnic German minority meant that the Nazi state apparatus could enjoy the cooperation of many German-speaking civilians and employ local ethnic Germans in the security forces, including the Gestapo, thereby exploiting their knowledge of the Czech language as well as of the local geography. The Czech lands also had an excellent transport and communications infrastructure which was now at the disposal of the Nazi security apparatus.
The first documented partisan group, the Green Cadre (Czech language: Zelený kádr ), became active in the Hostýn-Vsetín Mountains area at the height of the Nazi Terror, which started in 1942 after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. More common, however, were urban resistance groups, such as White Lioness (Czech language: Bílá lvice ), later known as Jan Žižka moravskoslezský, active in the areas of Silesia around Frýdek and Ostrava.
At the end of 1943, representatives of the London-based Czechoslovak government-in-exile, who were located in Russia (these were mostly communist members of the pre-war Czechoslovak parliament) asked the Soviet government for help with organizing a partisan movement within the Czechoslovak territory. Units for deployment there received training in Sviatoshyn, a district of Kiev. To secure better cooperation with advancing Soviet troops, organizational paratroopers were to be deployed in advance, initially in Carpathian Ruthenia, then in Slovakia and finally also in Moravia.
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History of the Brigade
Formation of the unit
The original unit was formed during training in Sviatoshyn. Members came from varying backgrounds, with most being ethnic Slovaks, in accordance with the initial plans which were to deploy in Slovakia. The majority were former members of the Slovak army. Some of these had served in the Hungarian army and then deserted to join either Soviet partisans or the Red Army. Before joining the partisan school, some of them had fought as partisans in Belarus or in the Crimea/Odessa region. The unit also included seven Soviet members, including Captain Dajan Bajanovič Murzin, second-in-command under the Slovak Lieutenant Ján Ušiak.
The unit, at this stage named after its leaders and known as the "Ušiak-Murzin Unit", initially comprised 21 persons (including a female radio operator) and was divided into two groups. On 21 August 1944 the first group parachuted into the area of Sklabiňa, Slovakia, which was at the time an operational area of the 1st Czechoslovak Partisan Brigade of General Milan Rastislav Štefánik. Unbeknown to the unit, earlier that day the local Resistance had publicly announced the restoration of the Czechoslovak state within the territory under its control. The second group parachuted into the same area on the night of 30 August.
The original orders had been for the unit to cross the Fatra mountain range and begin operations in North-West Slovakia. However this was prevented by the start of the Slovak National Uprising. Initially the unit engaged in reconnaissance, as the German forces initiated a counter-offensive, after which the unit received new orders for redeployment to Moravia. As soon as this became public, the unit was joined by Czech partisans wanting to fight back in their home territory. Most of these were members of the Czech resistance who had moved to Slovakia and joined the partisans in order to avoid capture at home. The unit started its transfer on 6 September 1944, and on that day it became a separate partisan detachment.
Transfer to Moravia
During the transfer to Moravia the unit was joined by more troops, many still wearing Slovak Army uniforms. Although the primary objective was to reach the border undetected, there were two skirmishes before the unit reached Štiavnik, the Slovak border town. Since all the units from Štiavnik, including police, had been deployed further inland due to the Uprising, the unit, now grown to 150 members, established itself around Štiavnik, controlling the small area in the rear of the German forces.
In Štiavnik more troops joined the unit: these were mostly Czechs crossing the border from the Protectorate in order to join the Uprising, but they also included Russian prisoners of war (including former airmen and sailors) who had fled from camps as far away as Saxony, and succeeded in passing through Bohemia and Moravia with help from the local population. It was also while they were in Štiavnik that the decision was taken to rename the unit after Jan Žižka z Trocnova, the 15th century leader of the Hussite army whose fight for religious freedom and use of innovative military techniques, such as the wagon fort and the large scale use of firearms, had made him a Czech national hero, claimed to be one of six commanders in history who never lost a battle.
The border between Moravia, Silesia and Slovakia was guarded exclusively by ethnic Germans. After sending some scouts across, the unit's first experimental attempt to cross the border took place on 25 August 1944 near Velké Karlovice. A skirmish with German border guards ensued, with 20 Germans being wounded. After the arrival of German reinforcements, the unit was forced to pull back to Štiavnik. It was then decided that next time a smaller group should try to cross the border. On 28 August, 60 men under the command of D B Murzin crossed the border, while some 300 others remained in Slovakia, being daily joined by more anti-fascists.
Things took a turn for the worse on 10 October 1944, when a German army moved into Štiavnik. Fighting lasted for about three days with partisan losses estimated at 200 around Štiavnik and in skirmishes with border guards while attempting to cross into Moravia.
Meanwhile, Murzin's group had established itself in the area of Trojačka hill (near Hodslavice). With newcomers and those who successfully crossed the border following the Battle of Štiavnik, the unit was now 130-140 men and women strong.
By now the ethnic mix of the unit had changed, since most of the Slovak members of the original unit had never made it to Moravia: of those from the original air-drop into Sklabiňa, only two Slovaks got through. Murzin's group had originally sought to establish a permanent base in the area of Magurka mountain. There, the unit made contact with members of the Wolfram partisan group. The Wolfram partisans, like the Ušiak-Murzin unit, had been established under the authority of the London-based Czechoslovak Government in exile; but whereas the Ušiak-Murzin unit had originated with exiles trained under Soviet auspices in Ukraine, the originating members of the Wolfram group had been trained in Britain and then arrived back behind German lines by means of an air-drop, initially in Italy, but now transferred to Moravia.
After this the unit was forced to move because of the bombardment of their position by an allied airplane which had probably mistaken them for a German unit. The bombardment would have invited urgent investigation of the position by the occupying German forces, and the unit therefore fled, taking refuge in the Wolfram Group's base at Trojačka.
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On 22 October 1944, however, it transpired that the unit's new position had been betrayed by a partisan who, unbeknown to his comrades, had joined the group only to avoid conviction on criminal charges. He led a group of 300 German soldiers to the base, then containing 80 partisans (30 of them unarmed). After a brief skirmish, the unit fled again, this time to Čertův Mlýn (cs) (English: Devil's Mill) Mountain. While German units set about destroying any buildings in this part of the Moravian-Silesian Beskids Mountains, the unit established a new, more permanent base, benefiting from the support of local Czech civilians, some of these being members of Obrana Národa resistance group. The local supporters provided the unit with both provisions and information.
Two groups of partisans were sent further South-West, under the command of Ivan Petrovič Stěpanov and Viktor Ševcov-Grekovskij. They made contact with other groups already established in and around Vsetín, including the Pro vlast ("Homeland"), group of the Štramberk Partisans, reconnaissance air drop unit Clay-Eve, Resistance Group 'Commandos' from the Lipták Group and Josef Sousedík's organization from Vsetín. While being joined by other partisans, the groups were gathering clothing and provisions for the winter as well as undertaking raids on police stations (sometimes in cooperation with locally based Czech policemen) in order to secure firearms and ammunition. Attempts were also made to sabotage railways, but the partisans' efforts in this respect were discovered and thwarted.
By 31 October 1944, the unit had grown again to over 200 men and women. These were divided into four sub-groups: one remained at the base while the other three operated more widely in the surrounding area.
Never-ending pursuit of Germans and lack of provisions led to crumbling and to eventual dispersion of our unit. (...) Hungry, exhausted, depleted, and at the same time ceaselessly chased by the German patrols...
—Description of situation after Operation Grouse by a partisan
While German Nazi forces had some limited success in skirmishes with isolated small detachments, they were unable to find the unit's bases. The local Gestapo therefore attempted to lure the unit's leaders into a meeting with agents who presented themselves as leaders of Moravian-Silesian communist resistance groups. Ušiak was unaware that during the years of occupation most of the resistance members, including the communist ones, had been caught and executed: a few survivors now operated only in very isolated cells with no leadership. Ušiak therefore agreed to a meeting on 2 November 1944, in a location not far from the base. Unbeknown to the Gestapo, however, anti-partisan army units were also deployed in the area and by chance turned up at the beginning of the meeting, thus spoiling the Gestapo plans. Both Ušiak and Murzin were wounded in the ensuing gunfight, and fled in different directions. The partisans left their base, leaving behind a small detachment who were killed by German units the next day. Ušiak found refuge with civilians in Čeladná, but was soon tracked down by the Germans. Ušiak spotted them approaching the house, and committed suicide. Meanwhile, Germans captured another partisan who then revealed names of civilians cooperating with the partisans.
Höhere SS- und Polizeiführer (Senior SS and Police Leader) Karl Hermann Frank ordered summary executions of suspected partisans along with those suspected of helping them. In order to increase the intimidation, the bodies of executed suspects were to be hanged in public for 48 hours. At the same time, the German officials prepared a coordinated anti-partisan operation, identified as Operation Grouse (Czech language: Operace Tetřev , German language: Operation Auerhuhn).
|Part of German occupation of Czechoslovakia|
|Commanders and leaders|
|13 059||~ 200|
|Casualties and losses|
|6 men||8 men|
|D.B. Murzin was at the time wounded and not effectively in command, up to 40 civilian suspects were arrested and executed|
Operation Grouse started on 16 November 1944 under the command of Generalleutnant de:Hans Windeck. Some 13,000 German army and occupation personnel took part, surrounding and raiding unit's area of operation. Grouse ended six days later, to be followed by a string of executions.
The unit was now badly weakened, with its commander dead. It had lost its base, provisions and radio communication with allied forces (vital to any possibility for arranging air-drops of ammunition and provisions). Sources nevertheless differ both as to the number of fighters captured and as to the overall effectiveness of the operation, with one authority pointing out that from the German perspective, having deployed massive numbers in the Operation, only 8 partisans had been killed, with between 13 and 40 suspected civilian supporters captured alive, at the cost of 6 Germans soldiers killed-in-action and 3 more wounded. The case has been made that unusually heavy winter snow made it easier for partisans to avoid discovery, and quickly tired out the German troops looking for them. One of the officers involved, SS Standartenführer Georg Attenberger, argued that the German tactical decision to zone the area geographically and comb the countryside and more built-up areas together, rather than starting with the towns and larger villages, where partisans might have been easier to locate quickly, allowed more time for the partisans to find secure hiding places. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of Operation Grouse, records indicate that the Germans concluded that the partisan movement had been totally destroyed.
On the partisan side, many who escaped Grouse and systematic German follow-up raids into the mountains also came to see Operation Grouse as a German success, unit members now having no base and no effective communication links with other members and resistance groups. Moreover, the Nazis' brutal terror against the civilian population led to the loss of many trusted and determined supporters, exacerbated by reluctance on the part of survivors to provide the food supplies and the intelligence on which the partisans' activities depended. To make matters even worse, the fate of the unit's commanders remained unknown for a long time. During the battle on 2 November, Murzin was shot in leg, fell and rolled down a hill slope. After regaining consciousness, he managed to leave the scene and was found, badly injured, by a forester. Murzin then spent three weeks in the forest alone in a dugout barely large enough to hide himself, covered by branches and snow: two families, in turns, provided him with food and medicine. Partisans then took another two weeks to transport him to their new operational area, the Hostýn-Vsetín Mountains, moving slowly both because of Murzin's injuries and to avoid the ongoing searches of the area by German anti-partisan units. Meanwhile, the Wolfram unit moved further South, while many Slovaks and escaped POWs headed to Slovakia and Czechs moved closer to their hometowns, often setting up independent partisan units.
Formation of the Brigade
Fortunately, Stěpanov's and Ševcov-Grekovskij's groups, which had been sent further away from the base, managed to establish themselves in the Hostýn-Vsetín Mountains which was outside the area blockaded by Operation Grouse. After being transported there, Murzin, still only 23 years old, assumed command. The unit was quickly restructured and its tactical approach transformed. It was divided into smaller groups which were spread over a wider area, and never stayed in one place for too long.
The evolution of the unit into brigade was a gradual process that took place during the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1945. The initial brigade was joined not only by individuals, but also by other partisan units that had previously been operating independently. Sources regarding its composition and precise structure vary. According to Hrošová, by April 1945 the brigade consisted of 5 battalions. These were further divided into companies, platoons and squadrons. Most command positions were taken by Soviets (mainly escaped POWs) whose military experience was relatively extensive. By the end of the war the command structure was largely decentralized and the brigade was operating in a large area in eastern and central Moravia. Nevertheless, strict military discipline was maintained and orders transmitted using messengers.
With brigade membership rising, it was decided to restrict the number of partisans accepted into the forest units. It was not possible to provision unlimited numbers in the forests, and moreover many new recruits were arriving unarmed. Preference was given to escaped POWs and to Czech resistance members whom the Germans were known to have identified for capture and were escaping arrest. Members denied entry to the brigade's forest units were instructed to start their own partisan units in the urban areas. Where members remained in the mountain regions, many continued with their family lives and day jobs, joining the partisans only for night raids.
Apart from securing provisions, arming of new partisans posed another challenge. Most guns were taken from German security forces during raids. In February 1945, a number of guns and a significant quantity of ammunition were obtained when a group of 11 Belgian members of Technische Nothilfe, entrusted with protection of an arms factory in Jablunkov, deserted and joined the Brigade, bringing with them a stockpile from their armory.
On 11 January 1945, Murzin was again wounded in a skirmish with German anti-partisan unit and was out of action till 3 February 1945. Command of the unit was temporarily entrusted to Ivan Petrovič Stěpanov (who would be killed-in-action on 10 April 1945).
According to Murzin's post-war report, the brigade consisted of 1,533 persons by the end of the war, of which 304 were killed-in-action and 208 wounded. Many nationalities were represented. On 5 May 1945, the brigade included 927 Czechoslovaks, 257 Soviets (mainly Russians, but also Ukrainians, Belorussians, Armenians, Azerbaijanians, Georgians, Kazakhs, Tadjiks) and 48 of other nationalities, including German anti-fascists, an Austrian deserter, the Belgians, a Croat, Hungarians and Romanians. 1,126 members of the Brigade were decorated for partisan operations by the Czechoslovak government. That was more decorations than were awarded to members of any other Czechoslovak partisan brigade (by way of comparison, 203 partisans of the Jan Kozina Brigade and 155 partisans of the Mistr Jan Hus Brigade were decorated).
The Brigade was demobilized on 26 May 1945, having been deployed in the days immediately after the war as a security force, involved primarily in searching for German soldiers hiding in the Moravian mountain forests.
The extent of brigade operations was constrained by availability of armaments. Following Operation Grouse, members of the brigade found themselves separated from each other. More importantly they had lost most of their ammunition and explosives. Therefore, December 1944 was more about consolidation and acquiring more arms, with fighting operations gradually increasing from January. Direct encounters with larger German units were avoided where possible, and the brigade's operations concentrated on demolition of railways, bridges, telecommunications and factory power-lines.
The German occupation forces reacted by redeploying to the area a Waffen SS platoon, the 31st Special Operations Group, along with their 20th SS Police Regiment. Having previous experience with fighting partisans in Yugoslavia, these reinforcements intensified the German hunt for partisans, and introduced a new level of savagery.
German counter-intelligence also employed a fake "partisan unit" consisting of 16 Vlasov army soldiers led by an ethnic German with perfect knowledge of Czech. These came into the brigade's area claiming to be a partisan unit that had to leave its place of operation some 150 km to the west. They were, however, uncovered, and failed to infiltrate the brigade.
Nevertheless, German units continued their pursuit, conducting summary executions of civilians suspected of supporting the partisans. Killings included the gruesome beating to death of pregnant women as well as burning suspects alive.
The brigade's most important operations relied on use of improvised explosive devices. Most of the explosives were either seized from the German forces or from civilian applications. For example, 600 kg (1,300 lb) originally intended for a quarry was acquired in January 1945. The explosives experts were mostly Czech civilians who joined the brigade, such as electro-technician Karel Bartoněk and Antonín Kopřiva.
During the early months of 1945, many retreating German and Hungarian units passed through or were stationed in the brigade's operational area. This led to the acquisition of a large number of guns from raids on German soldiers, while demoralized Hungarian soldiers would often trade their weapons for food or drink.
By March 1945 the brigade was conducting guerrilla-style raids on daily basis. One of its most celebrated operations was the capture of Generalleutnant Dietrich von Müller, the commanding officer of Germany's 16th Panzer Division on 19 April 1945.
When the front-line reached brigade's operational area on 26 April 1945, partisans took part in the front-line operations, for instance in the Battle of Korytná. Many then joined the army units in their campaigning further west, being used mostly as armed intelligence personnel. They were then re-deployed back to the brigade, before its demobilization on 26 May 1945.
Apart from disruption of the German rear, the brigade's other strategic objective was the gathering of intelligence. Effectiveness of intelligence support to the allied war effort was much reduced early on, with the loss of radio communication on 12 November 1944. By the end of December the brigade's staff were back in contact with the Soviet Army, using the radio of the Luč intelligence unit which had recently been parachuted to the area. The communications disruption also necessitated a period of confidence rebuilding, since during the weeks of radio silence the allied commanders had believed the unit lost.
It wasn't until 2 March 1945 that the brigade could restore regular contact with the Soviet Army. By then, there was a very strong rivalry as regarded intelligence-gathering, between the brigade and the intelligence group of the 1st Ukrainian Front's staff.
Detailed intelligence gathering focused on the positions, armaments and strength of German units, the locations of armories and warehouses, the position of fortifications, status reports concerning airfields, movements and transportation of German units. Information was also provided on ethnic Germans, Czech traitors and confidants, as well as on the fighting operations of the brigade itself and on its civilian supporters.
Much important intelligence came from Czech policemen, some of whom were even actively fighting and assisting with diversions, alongside of partisans. However, the brigade's most valuable intelligence source was the commander of the German barracks in Holešov, Major Josef Hübner. Hübner used his personal driver, an anti-fascist called Hans Kocher, to pass top priority information on matters including planned raids and the uncovering of resistance members.
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