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Benes Line

With the help of French advisers, the Czechoslovaks began to construct a series of heavy fortifications, which the Germans referred to as the Benes Line. The famous Benes Line was a 300-mile line of fortifications that was equipped with the most advanced guns and equipment fromfamous Czech factories. Since heavy fortifications covered only a small stretch of this position, the term "Benes Line" refers to the whole defensive system.

The Czech hedgehog (rozsochc in Czech language) was a static tank obstacle defense made of angle iron (that is, lengths with an L- or I-shaped cross section) deployed during World War II by various combatants. The hedgehog is very effective in keeping tanks from getting through a line of defense. It maintains its function even when tipped over by a nearby explosion. Although it may provide some scant cover for infantry, infantry forces are generally much less effective against fortified defensive positions than mechanized units.

The name refers to the place of origin. The hedge-hogs were originally used on the CzechGerman border by the Czechoslovak border fortifications - a massive but never-completed fortification system built on the eve of World War II by Czecho-slovakia. The fortification system fell to Germany in 1938 after the occupation of the Sudetenland as a consequence of the Munich Agreement.

After a short peaceful period following bloody World War I, Europe and the world faced an uncertain future due to the policies and actions of military adventurers in Japan, Italy, Soviet Russia, and Nazi Germany. The defense of Czechoslovakia was based on international treaties for mutual military assistance with several European countries, and on well-trained and equipped military forces. The unfortunately long and narrow country, encircled with hostile neighbors, presented an extreme challenge for military defense. To deal with this challenge, the Czechoslovak government built a chain of strong fortifications along the border of the entire country except for a short stretch of border with friendly Romania.

Adolf Hitler's remilitarisation of Germany's Rheinland in 1936 compelled the Czechoslovak government to step up the pace of fortifying the country's shared border. Prague feared that the Germans would launch a surprise assault and overrun the country's defences before there was time to mobilise the Czechoslovak army and reserves. If attacked, Prague thought it could hold the border long enough for France to honor her commitment as an ally and come to the aid of Czechoslovakia.

Even with fortified borders, Czechoslovakia had no chance of defending itself alone. This defensive concept sought to stop and hold the enemy at the borders, gain time to mobilize all country s military forces and resources, and allow France and other potential allies to mobilize and attack Germany.

For both Britain and France, Czechoslovakia may not have been sustainable as a national state over the long run, but in 1938 it formed a significant strategic barrier to German expansion into Eastern Europe. A major failure of British diplomacy during the run-up to Munich was an almost willful disregard of Czechoslovakias formidable military capabilities. During the Czech crisis of September 1938, the German Army fielded 37 divisions (5 of them facing France) to Czechoslovakias 35 divisions (plus 5 fortress divisions).

The Czechs enjoyed three strategic advantages: they were on the defensive, operated along interior lines of communication, and possessed formidable defensive terrain and fortifications along the German-Czech border. In 1938, the formidable Czech army, assisted by Britain and France and by Czech fortifications in armor-unfriendly western Czechoslovakia, probably could have defeated a German invasion of Czechoslovakia. Germanys military leadership was acutely aware of the Third Reichs relative military weakness at the time of Munich. Hitler's army lacked the means of penetrating the Czech fortifications.

The prospect of going to war with Germany came as no surprise to the Czechoslovak government of the 1930s. Prague had, in fact, been preparing for war seriously for years: by some estimates, over half of all government spending from 1936 to 1938 was for military purposes. Much of this went towards the construction of an elaborate system of bunkers and other defences in the Sudetenland, the border region shared with Germany.

The German-Czechoslovakian border was 1545 kilometers long, and after the connection of Austria with Germany in 1938 it even increased to 2103 kilometers. It was decided due to the recommendation of the allied France to build up a gigantic system of fortifications along the German border and inside the country. At the same time it was decided to modernise all armed forces in Czechoslovakia correspondingly. Due to the extreme length of the border and the strategically unfortunate shape of Czechoslovakia an uninterrupted line of heavy fortifications could not be financed.

With the help of French advisers, the Czechoslovaks began to construct a series of heavy fortifications, which the Germans referred to as the Benes Line, after Czechoslovak president Edvard Benes. The Czech-German border was some five times the length of France's shared border with Germany, and the Czechoslovak defences less formidable than the Maginot Line in France regardless, they proved to be just as inconsequential in preventing Nazi agression.

After a couple years of planning and preparations, the first border forts were erected in 1936, and the buildup continued at a fast pace in 1937 and 1938. Unfortunately, the completion of the entire border fortification system was expected in 1949. Both the heavy and light fortification bunkers by Star Mesto pod Snežnkem were built in 1937 and 1938. While the light ropky (pillboxes) were successfully completed, only six of the heavy forts were finished by the time of general mobilization and the subsequent withdrawal of the Czechoslovak forces from the area.

Hundreds of fortresses and bunkers, which go to make up a mighty fortified line, established in 1936-1938 on the Czech-German border at that time. The Czechoslovak border fortifications consisted of large concrete and steel structures manned with a platoon-size or larger unit, and equipped with machine guns, cannons, grenade throwers, and other weapons. Behind the heavy fortifications were the concrete and steel pillboxes, called ropky, of the light fortification, mostly arranged in two lines and manned depending on type by 4 to 7 men, usually with two machine guns.

As the most frequent element in the fortification system, light installations of the construction type 36 (machine gun bunker with embrasures) and in particular the construction type 37 as the follow-up model were planned, the number of which should increase to the completion of the works in the beginning of the 1950s (!) to 16,000. Until the so-called Sudeten Crisis in September 1938 nearly 10,000 light and 229 heavy installations were completed. Five massive artillery fortifications had been constructionally finished, at five more fortifications constructions were in work, while five other fortifications were still in the phase of planning.

Citing fabricated reports of Czechoslovak oppression, Hitler demanded that Czechoslovakia's German-speaking border regions - the Sudetenland - be annexed to the Third Reich. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain responded: "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is, that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing. It seems still more impossible that a quarrel which is already settled in principle should be the subject of war."

On Friday 23 September 1938 in 22.00 the president of republic issued a decree of mobilization of Czechoslovak military forces. In 22.00 Czechoslovak government declared state of armed readiness with connection with general mobilization (18 years of reservist = 1 250 000 men). Already in 15 minutes the first reservists reported by their mobilization organs. By 48 hours from declaration of mobilization enter a arms 80% of all reservists !!!. 5th day after declaration of mobilization mobilization ended. All already builded frontier fortifications were filled. In our region played role in defence of state border and adjacent zone (10 km to inland) unit of "S.O.S.-Strž obrany sttu" (Guard of defence of state)

At the time of Hitlers meeting with Sir Horace Wilson, Chamberlains personal emissary, on September 27, Chamberlains cabinet was divided over what amounted to a German ultimatum threatening the use of force unless Czechoslovakia accepted animmediate German takeover of the Sudetenland. The Nazi Fuhrer broadcast his warning to Dr. Benes that if the Czechs had not yielded the Sudetenland by October 1, the German army would take the Sudetenland by force. But Hitler purposely invited further negotiation by praising the efforts at European appeasement made by Chamberlain. Indeed, Chamberlain might make another "final effort" if he so desired.

Britain would guarantee that the Sudeten areas were transferred to Germany. Chamberlain's plan also provided for the surrender of the entire Sudetenland, together with the Czech fortifications, and on a time schedule very similar to that of Hitler's Diktat. But Chamberlain went even further. He warned that if the Czechs rejected his new plan and the ant1cipated conflict ensued, even though the "Entente Cordiale" should emerge victorious in association with Czechoslovakia, the Czechs could not expect to have their original frontier restored.

Gamelin warned that the Czech fortifications and the main trunk lines must remain under Czech control, which had been Daladier's principal objective since the beginning of the Sudeten crisis. Bonnet offered Hitler the occupation of all four sides of the Bohemian quadrilateral. The districts comprising the Czech fortifications were also to be occupied, although Czech troops were to remain in the fortificatoins pending further negotiations.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's now infamous words, encapsulating Britain's policy of "appeasement" towards Nazi Germany. Days later, on September 30, 1938, Chamberlain, Hitler, Mussolini and the French Prime Minister Daladier signed the Munich Agreement, which ordered Czechoslovakia to give up the Sudetenland. President Benes, who was not invited to the talks, turned over his country's newly-built system of fortifications without a fight.

Hitler reiterated his assurances that, except for the Sudetenland, he had no further claims on Czechoslovakia and would join in a guarantee of Czechoslovakia's new frontiers. Though Munich was widely hailed in France and Britain as a masterstroke for peace, the democracies, as quickly became apparent, had fatally miscalculated. Hitler's designs was to eliminate the Czech bastion from the French security system. The amputation of Czechoslovakia and the subsequent reorientation of the new Czech Governments, as delineated by the International Commission and as ordained by Messrs. Syrovy, Hacha and Beran, respectively, crushed Czechoslovakia to an extent which even Daladier had not anticipated, despite his earlier warnings to Chamberlain. The frontier originally demanded by Hitler in the Godesberg Memorandum was essentially secured by the Reich. Czechoslovakia's entire system of fortifications was occupied by the Germany army. This not only left Czechoslovakia at the mercy of Germany but it gave German technicians an excellent opportunity to study duplicate fortifications of the French Maginot Line. The only details available of the Czech fortifications are in a wartime German publication, which states that there were no retractable artillery turrets, unlike the Maginot Line.

At that time, the Ostrava region was a key defensive territory for the Czechoslovakian military. A massive system of fortifications was built on the German border with the Ostrava heavy industry sector playing a monumental role in the provision of army supplies. The acceptance of the Munich Treaty and the Polish Ultimatum in the autumn of 1938 meant not only the loss of the Hlucn region acquired two decades prior, but also resulted in the losses of a substantial part of the Ten region, a part of the Koice Bohumn railway (the main connection between the Czech and Slovak nations), a major part of the Opava, Vtkovsko, Odra, Nov Jicn regions, and a number of smaller municipalities populated by Czech citizens that were eventually incorporated into the newly formed Sudetenland.

After taking the Sudetenland in 1938, Hitler boasted: "We now have arms to an extent that the world has never seen".

A pre-war radio announcement by Czechoslovak president Edvard Benes in English and meant for foreign consumption in which he promises the country will not allow territory to be ceded to Nazi Germany without a fight. "Czechoslovakia is prepared to defend her territory and will not voluntarily give up any part of it". But France and Great Britain, looking to appease Hitler and win "peace in our time" signed on to the Munich Agreement, in which they agreed to hand over Czechoslovakia's border fortifications to Nazi Germany.

Winston Churchill, who would succeed Chamberlain just two years later, did not put too much trust into the peace in our time words. He commented on Munich Agreement with prophetical words: England had a choice between shame and warit chose shameit will have the war. After twenty years of incredible growth of democratic values and economic power, Czechoslovakia was stripped by one third of its territory by several strokes of a pen. With German border suddenly only forty kilometers outside of Prague, Czechs found them self without allies, without self confidence and without any chance to fight Germans should they decide to take over the rest of the country. Winston Churchill observed that For almost 20 years [Czech] President [Edward] Benes had been a faithful ally and almost vassal of France, always supportingFrench policies and French interests in the League of Nations and elsewhere. If ever there was a case of solemn obligation, it was here and now. . . . It was a portent of doom when a French government failed to keep the word of France.

Czech hedgehogs were widely used during World War II by the USSR in anti-tank defense. They were produced from any sturdy piece of metal (sometimes even wood), including railroad rails. Czech hedgehogs were especially effective in urban combat, where a single hedgehog could block an entire street. Czech hedgehogs thus became a symbol of "defense at all cost" in the USSR, even obtaining their own monument near Moscow to commemorate the successful defense of the city. Czech hedgehogs were part of the defenses of the Atlantic Wall and are visible in many images of the Normandy invasion.

The attack of Fort Eben Emael by the Germans at the outset of the 1940 western offensive illustrates the value of meticulous training. Once they mastered the general scheme of maneuver, the squads needed real fortifications to train on. Assault Force Granite was provided over 300 miles of the Benes line fortifications, located along the Czechoslovakian border, for casemate assault training. The glidermen trained on attackingcasemates and cupolas with flamethrowers, bangalore torpedoes, standard demolition charges, and small arms. Training ranged from how to get in and out of gliders to piloting them at night in formation, combat loaded, and landing with pinpoint accuracy. Assault troops were instructed in the use of new weapons, most notably the 110 lb shape charge, that were critical to destroying key parts of the fort.

Towards the end of World War II, a heated battle for access to Ostrava took place. The progressing Soviet army and scores of Czechoslovakian soldiers shed much blood fighting off the Germany military in the heavily fortified zone built during the second half of the thirties. Today, a monument in Hrabyne commemorates both the heroism displayed in this battle and the victims who fell fighting in it.

The Czech Army today is cutting costs and plans to sell these fortifications to regional governments and private bidders. Nearly seven decades later, the concrete defences remain entrenched in the Czech countryside, silent witnesses to Czechoslovakia's pre-Munich intention to go down fighting, if need be. It is for this reason the bunkers must be preserved, says Martin Rabon of the Military museum of Kraliky, in northern Bohemia: "Bunkers are witnesses to the time; that the [Czechoslovak] nation was ready to defend the land, and fortifications are the only tangible evidence of that time. It is recent history, but we must be proud of them. It would be a shame, if we started destroying them as a rule. Our offspring would pay a high price."

What is to become of the 200 fortified artillery batteries and 7,000 concrete bunkers that the Czechoslovak government had built is a question of real concern for some Czech military history enthusiasts like Mr Rabon. Others are eagerly awaiting the chance to own their own bunker. In any case, the Czech Army has no money for their upkeep and will transfer ownership of these unused fortifications to regional governments, which can then sell them off to the highest bidder. Mr Rabon says that regional governments can do with these fortifications what they please, as most bunkers and other World War II-era compounds don't enjoy the status of protected or historical landmarks.

"Regions have the advantage that such objects are not always classified as cultural, historical or technical monuments, which is without question what they in fact are. Not all were officially named monuments: a region can tear one down if it prevents the building of a highway, for example. From our point of view, it's a catastrophe. This system of fortifications was built as one. It stretches for tens of kilometres and only preserving it -- as a whole -- makes sense."

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Page last modified: 17-02-2017 19:32:22 ZULU