‘We were impressed by the absence of flak on the bomb run.’
– Howard Pinner, Pilot, 603rd Bomb Squadron, USAAF –
During our recent trip to Prague last week we had the opportunity to visit a very interesting air-raid shelter, part of a guided tour itinerary about the Second World War in the Bohemian capital led by World War II in Prague.
The city, occupied by the Nazis from March 1939 (six months before the war started), was raided just four times during the fighting with devastating effects, all by the Allied air forces being the first one in October 1941.
The shelter is located on a shallow underground floor, not very deep and is accessed via stone stairs. Seeing the type of construction, it is actually a basement or room, possibly dating from the 12th-century that was used during the war to protect the nearby citizens during bombing alarms. The walls and floor are made of stone as well as the vaulted ceilings and there are a couple of ventilation portholes that make visible the interior from the street. Nowadays, there is a brewery upstairs (named U Kunstatu - Řetězová street 222/3) where you can also taste many local craft and traditional Czech beers.
The heaviest and deadliest bombing which suffered the city of Prague was on February 14, 1945, following a terrible mistake, which left 701 dead and around 2,600 houses destroyed or damaged. On that day the US Eighth Air Force sent nearly 500 B-17G heavy bombers to raid a marshalling yard in Dresden, part of the combined Anglo-American small air campaign to destroy the enemy’s concentration at the German city and to help the Soviet advance to Berlin. Prague is nearly 150 kms from Dresden, and heavy clouds and a malfunctioning radar unit (both lead and deputy Gee and H2X failed) made the lead bombardier of the 398th Bomb (Heavy) Group to mistake the Czech city and its river for Dresden and the Elbe. The confusion was started when several navigation errors due to heavy winds blew away 115 bombers of the 1st Bomb Wing from the formation on a southern path missing some route checkpoints. The 398th Group, led by Colonel Lewis P. Ensign, followed by two squadrons of the 91st Group (62 bombers in total) dropped 152 t of bombs (414 HE bombs) from 25,000 feet around 12.35 pm over the built up area hitting the centre of the city on residential areas. Fortunately the rest of the formation, realizing they were far off course bombed targets of opportunity.
[Fortress 44-8771, a lead PFF ship from the 398th Bomb Group (Heavy), 1st CW, was captured in colour film on the return flight after bombing Prague on February 14th. Note the ‘Mickey’ H2X radar unit instead of the usual ball turret. This bomber led the Higher Squadron during the raid and was piloted on that mission by Lt R.E. Steele.]
The official USAAF chronology describes Mission 830 with primary target being Dresden on that day: “461 B-17s are dispatched to hit the marshalling yard at Dresden (311); targets of opportunity are Prague (62), Brux (25) and Pilsen (12) in Czechoslovakia and other (25); they claim 1-0-0 aircraft; 5 B-17s are lost, 3 damaged beyond repair and 54 damaged; 4 airmen are KIA, 15 WIA and 49 MIA.” Curiously, the report refers to Prague as “target of opportunity” as well as other cities like Pilsen or Brux.
Another raid was made by Fifteenth Air Force bombers based in Italy on March 25, 1945, when about 650 bombers attacked the ČKD factories (where Hetzer light tank destroyers among other military vehicles were built until the last day of the war) on the northeastern side of Prague and several nearby airfields. This bombing left 235 dead and 417 injured.
The Dancing House - 14 February 1945
Several important buildings in Prague were destroyed during these two air bombardments, some were later rebuilt others were not so lucky. Among several monasteries, synagogues and residential houses (such as the 14th-century Emmaus Monastery in Vyšehrad and the 17th-century Faust House), stands out Jiráskovo náměstí no. 1981 in the New Town. Here, 50 years later it was built the Dancing House, one of the most famous modern landmarks of the Czech capital due to its unusual shape where a 14th-century house that originally stood before the raid was totally destroyed by American bombs. This modern building, also known as the Nationale-Nederlanden, was designed in a deconstructivist style by architects Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry in 1992 (former ruins were finally cleared in the 1960s) and finally completed in 1996.
[The smoking ruins of the original building on the corner of Rašínova nábřeží and Jiráskova náměstí, destroyed by bombs during the accidental US air bombing on February 14, 1945, today this spot is where the famous Dancing House stands. A few metres to the left beyond view is the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, another WW2 spot where the Czech commandos who killed chief of the Reich Main Security Office Reinhard Heydrich in 1942 were hidden and finally committed suicide after being surrounded by SS troops.]
[This closer view of the post-strike moments shows also that the next block was also hit by the bombing on the same day, in this case No. 1969 at the corner of Resslova and Gorazdova streets. Badly damaged, it had to be demolished two years later and in 1956 a new house was built here. Note in the foreground the damaged street-clock equipped with an air-raid alarm on its top.]
In 2000 a visit to the Czech city was made by some veterans of the US 398th Bomb Group Tour and Pryor Englehardt of the Emauzy Monastery welcomed the American group to Prague with the following reconciling words: “No need to apologize,” he said, “our church building suffered more from 40 years of Russian occupation than from your bombs.”
- 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association. 398th Combat Mission 14 February 1945
Target: Prague, Czechoslovakia <https://398th.org/Missions/Dates/1945/February/MIS_450214.html>
- Allen Ostrom. Dresden-Prague Mission Examined <https://398th.org/FlakNews/Articles/Mission_14Feb1945/14Feb1945_Examined_Ostrom.html>
- Freeman, Roger. The Mighty Eighth: A History of the Units, Men and Machines of the US 8th Air Force. Cassell, 2007.
- LivingPrague. Prague World War Two Bombings <https://livingprague.com/politics-and-history/prague-world-war-two-bombings/>
- McKillop, Jack. Combat Chronology of the USAAF. United States Air Force <http://paul.rutgers.edu/~mcgrew/wwii/usaf/html/>
- Pinner. Howard. Dresden-Prague Mission Recollections - 14 February 1945. 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association <https://398th.org/FlakNews/Articles/Mission_14Feb1945/14Feb1945_Pinner.html>
- Prague Institute of Planning and Development. Air Raids on Prague in 1944-45. <http://en.iprpraha.cz/airraidsonprague>
- Uhlíř, Jan. Bomby na Prahu. Prostor, 2011.