Vlasovists during Prague uprising in May 1945. When the war seemed lost, ROA members turned their weapons against the Nazi’s, but communist Czech partisans began arresting ROA soldiers in order to hand them over to the Soviets for execution.
Bunyachenko’s force was still nominally within the Wehrmacht command system but was now disregarding its orders. Nevertheless, at the end of April Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner, the leader of the German Army Group Centre, determined to take charge of the situation. He demanded that the Russians move to the vicinity of Prague, to rendezvous with his group, which was planning a westward retreat towards the city. Major Helmut Schwenninger, a German liaison officer with the Vlasov Division, was uncertain whether this would happen or not. ‘I suspect the plan is to wait in the wings,’ Schwenninger wrote in his journal on 30 April, ‘until the time that a popular uprising breaks out in Czechoslovakia. I anticipate that the insurgents will try to make contact with Bunyachenko in the next couple of days.’
The situation was poised on the edge of a knife. Schwenninger noted that General Vlasov had come to visit the division. Vlasov did not want a complete break with the Germans and on 1 May he persuaded Bunyachenko to stick with the Wehrmacht. Recognising that his divisional commander disliked Schörner’s fanaticism, he suggested that he open talks with more moderate German generals. At this late stage of the war, Vlasov was being pragmatic. He wanted to retain the Russian Liberation Army within the structure of the German armed forces and then negotiate a wholesale surrender to the Americans. He was gambling that this would be the best way of saving his soldiers.
But then Schörner intervened. Losing patience with Bunyachenko’s division, and not really trusting it, on 2 May he ordered that it disband immediately. Bunyachenko was furious. He ignored this command and instead broke off contact with Schörner and all the other German generals too. The Vlasov troops were now on their own.
For Schwenninger, Field Marshal Schörner’s heavy-handed intervention was the main reason the Vlasov Division turned against the Germans. ‘This blunder provoked the First Division of the Russian Liberation Army into joining the side of the insurgents in the Prague uprising,’ Schwenninger said. The German officer was a well-informed witness to these unfolding events. He added:
‘It seemed to me that even at this stage Vlasov and Bunyachenko disagreed and that General Bunyachenko was the driving force behind the decision to support the uprising. Vlasov did not want to break his agreement with the Germans and felt what Bunyachenko was undertaking was too risky. Vlasov himself never renounced the treaty he made with Germany – what followed was confined to Bunyachenko and his own division.’
Schwenninger’s testimony was illuminating. It formed an important part of the story, but there was a further dimension to it.
Bunyachenko was disillusioned with the Germans, but still unsure about taking part in an uprising against them. He knew the rebels would be poorly armed and that they lacked political unity. On 2 May, the same day as Schörner’s ill-fated intervention, a communist group – parachute-dropped into the area a month earlier to encourage rebellion as the Red Army began fighting on Czech territory – opened communication with Bunyachenko’s forces. These men had a number of contacts in the Czech underground in Prague and knew that an uprising was imminent – and they wanted Bunyachenko to join it.
This was a Soviet guerrilla group operating behind German lines. A key member of it, and the one who struck up a rapport with Bunyachenko, was a Czech – Francis Konecny. Over a number of days Konecny met first with Bunyachenko’s chief of staff and then the general himself.
Twenty-six-year-old Konecny had a remarkable personal story. He had begun as a soldier on the side of the Germans, first in the invasion of France and later in the war in Russia, in the Wehrmacht’s 28th Infantry Division. But he became disillusioned by the savagery of the conflict and the atrocities committed against the civilian population. He was captured by the Russians and spent a while in a prison camp, and then joined a force of Czech soldiers – the 1st Czechoslovak Brigade, who were now willing to fight with the Red Army.
Konecny had fought on both sides – and so had Bunyachenko. The two men understood each other.
Another German liaison officer, Lieutenant Colonel Hansen, had said of General Sergei Bunyachenko: ‘A troublesome but remarkably competent officer, who made his career in the Red Army, rising to Chief of Staff to Marshal Timoshenko. He deserted to us by flying over German lines and landing his plane in our rear.’
There were two significant moments in Bunyachenko’s military career in the Second World War. The first was at Mozdok, 50 miles west of Grozny, on 31 August 1942. Bunyachenko was fighting with the Red Army against the Germans. He was ordered to blow up a bridge before the majority of his soldiers had crossed it. He refused, was tried before a military tribunal and sentenced to death. This was commuted to ten years’ penal labour, once the war had finished. Bunyachenko did not wait. Appalled at this willingness to sacrifice the lives of his soldiers, in a way he judged to be unnecessary, callous and incompetent, he deserted – and joined Vlasov’s army as soon as he could.
The second, as has been related, was at Frankfurt-am-Oder on 14 April 1945. Bunyachenko was fighting with the Germans against the Red Army. After five hours of senseless combat, he refused to further endanger the lives of his men. These were two powerful stands on principle – but where could Bunyachenko go now?
Konecny persuaded Bunyachenko to make another brave and principled gesture nonetheless – to come to the aid of the Prague uprising. The general thought this offer over and then consulted with his men. They agreed with his decision. Sometimes in a demoralising situation, a clear course of action can have a galvanising effect, whatever the risks involved. Vlasov soldier Sigismund Diczbalis described the impact:
At Beroun we learnt that we were to advance on the Czech capital and help prevent the insurgents being crushed and the city destroyed by diehard SS units. Information reached us that an entire SS battle group – retreating from the Eastern Front – had been ordered to Prague to help reinforce the garrison. This news brought a surprisingly positive boost to the exhausted, dusty and foot-sore ranks of our soldiers … Not once did I hear any man suggest that this change of tactics was unacceptable. No-one opposed our First Division commander’s decision. Everyone turned to checking their weapons, supplies of ammunition and equipment.
Faced with the threat of extermination by the SS, the Czech National Committee in Prague, although pro-Soviet, had taken the risk of inviting the Vlasov forces to their aid. On the evening of 5 May they had no other choice – it was a battle for survival. But now another dangerously unstable element had been added to the political mix. The Russian Liberation Army was strongly opposed to Bolshevism and had fought against the Red Army. And it had within its ranks the remnants of the notorious Kaminsky Brigade, Russian collaborators with the Wehrmacht who had conducted some of the most brutal anti-partisan operations ever seen within the German-occupied portion of the Soviet Union. For the advancing Red Army, a more incendiary choice of ‘ally’ by the insurgents could hardly be imagined.
The die had been cast. And as General Bunyachenko began to prepare his troops, on the evening of 5 May, he issued a defiant proclamation from his headquarters. It may have been at least partly motivated by expediency, but it carried desperate valour and idealism nonetheless:
Brother Czechs and Russians, Germany is in its death throes. Prague has raised the flag of freedom against National Socialism. We Russian soldiers, inspired by our own nation’s fight against the cruelties of Bolshevism, cannot ignore this rebellion against Nazi atrocity. I thereby order the First Division of our Russian Liberation Army to advance into Prague in support of the Czech forces there.
The time has come for mankind to finally destroy the Nazi menace. I exhort you all – good Czechs and Russians – to fight for this cause.
This is a battle for justice and independence. The cruelty of National Socialist Germany – which has raped nations and killed millions of innocent people – has followed the same path as the bloody consolidation of Bolshevik power in Russia.
Let us wage war against the killers of mankind – Nazis and Bolsheviks alike. Let us fight for freedom!
The following day the 1st Division of the Russian Liberation Army marched on Prague. By the evening, General Bunyachenko had set up his battle headquarters just outside the city and made direct contact with the insurgents. One of his regimental commanders, Major Arkhipov, met with General Kutlvasr, head of the Czech Military Council, to discuss the best way to deploy the troops. And the Russian liberation force had twenty-two tanks and armoured vehicles, which would make a vital difference in the city fighting. The division’s advance units were already in the Czech capital gathering intelligence on German positions. Bunyachenko’s soldiers were about to join the uprising.
In the Czech capital, the rebels were clinging on to their last positions in the centre of the city. The Germans, realising the Vlasov troops were about to enter the fray, attacked at dawn in an effort to finish the insurgents off. At 5.00 a.m. they flung armoured vehicles and infantry into the Old Town Square, breaching the last barricades and breaking into the Old Town Hall itself. The Wehrmacht and the rebels traded shots on the staircases and in the corridors, while the terrified wounded, women and children huddled in the basement. The Luftwaffe joined the battle, its planes flying low over the city, strafing and bombing rebel positions. A column of thirty tanks assembled outside the SS headquarters in the Law Faculty Building to deliver the coup de grâce. The uprising was about to collapse.
The 1st Division of the Russian Liberation Army now made a dramatic appearance. It was equipped with artillery and anti-tank weapons – and its soldiers, realising what was at stake, immediately took the offensive against the SS. General Bunyachenko had planned his intervention with considerable skill. He sent one of his four regiments to seize the airport, to stop its planes bombing the city and prevent more reinforcements reaching the SS. Two more blocked the approach roads to Prague, from the north and south. His remaining regiment joined the rebels on the barricades and fought for control of the city centre.
Sigismund Diczbalis was one of these soldiers. ‘Our men fought with desperate fervour, street by street, house by house,’ Diczbalis said. ‘They threw themselves at the Germans.’
‘I remember a platoon of Vlasov soldiers arrived at our barricade at around 7.00am,’ Antonin Sticha recalled. ‘We were very surprised, because these “reinforcements” were wearing German uniforms, although with a distinctive arm patch. We were reassured by our commander that they were here to help us – and help us they did. They straight away pushed on past our barricade and began attacking a nearby German stronghold.’
‘We were afraid that German armour would simply roll over our position,’ Harak Bohumil added. ‘But early that morning we were reinforced with two companies of Vlasovites. They had two tanks, two self-propelled guns and a mounted machine gun. On 7 May we should have been destroyed. Instead, we were able to stop German tanks from getting through to the city from the south and even launched a counter attack.’
Fighting for Prague’s airport at Ruzne was particularly bloody. Bunyachenko’s men fought with the SS on the runways and brought up their artillery to open fire on the German planes. By evening the airport was in the Russian Liberation Army’s hands. The Germans had been driven out of the Old Town Square and the barricades reinforced.
‘Without the Vlasov forces we would not have held the city,’ said Antonin Sticha. The SS had flung more troops into the fray. But at the end of 7 May – the hardest day of fighting in the uprising – the rebel position held. General Bunyachenko and his men had saved Prague.