- Hans Weber
- February 3, 2023
Barium: One of many operations launched by WWII govt. in exile
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the daring assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the governor of Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia. Operation Anthropoid was one of the most successful acts of anti-Nazi resistance in Europe during the Second World War. However, the Czechoslovak government in exile organized literally dozens of other operations in the territory occupied by the Nazi Third Reich.
The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich provoked an unprecedented wave of arrests and executions in Bohemia and Moravia. It might seem that the spirit of the Czech resistance against the Nazi occupation was tamed, if not completely extinguished. But the real story was different.
Historian Jan Břečka works in the Moravian Museum in Brno. The Czech resistance is one of his specialties. He points out that the Czechoslovak government in exile based in London kept sending more paratroopers trained by the British Special Operations Executive. One of the most successful groups arrived in the spring of 1944:
“The leader of the Barium team and a great personality of the Czech resistance, in general, was Josef Šandera. His deputy was Sergeant Tomáš Býček who was also responsible for the encoding of their dispatches. The third member of the team was radio operator Josef Žižka. He had studied law and philosophy in Prague but could not graduate after the Germans closed all the universities. He was very gifted, could speak 5 languages and what was important he was a deeply religious man and belonged to the Czech Unity of the Brethren protestant church. He had contacts with several members of his Church and parsons and that helped the group after they were airdropped into the country.”
There were some complications at first. Some of the Czech resistance fighters the paratroopers tried to contact were already arrested by the Nazi secret police – the Gestapo. But after a few days the Barium team found their foothold and was able to gradually develop resistance network pf over 380 Czech patriots providing information on economy and military situation in occupied Bohemia. This enabled them to pass valuable dispatches to their commanders in London, including on the V-2 rocket, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile:
“Gradually they started sending valuable and rare information about the development of the V-2 ballistic missiles. The Barium network was able to locate the production of some of the parts located in the Czech territory. Namely in the Junkers factory in Prague-Vysočany and at its branch in Semily, in Goeringswerke plants in Eastern Bohemia. The Barium team was also able to send information about the transport of these parts to the completion sites where V-2 were assembled.”
However, with so many contacts over a large territory, it was only a question of time until the Gestapo was able to infiltrate the resistance networks with its collaborators:
“The Gestapo struck on October 2, 1944. They concentrated on the Hradec Králové apartment of Václav Vachek. He was arrested and literally beaten to death three days later during the interrogation. He did not reveal anything. Nevertheless, more than 100 members of the Barium network were arrested in the following days. However, the Gestapo did not manage to catch the key members of the team: Lieutenant Šandera escaped disguised as a railway worker. He and radio operator Josef Žižka escaped and were hidden by the part of the network that the Germans did not discover around the town of Žamberk. There they were able to establish a new base in the small settlement of Polsko, with their radio again operational under the cover name ‘Marta’.”
By that time the Gestapo was only one step behind the Barium team and the hunt was relentless. In January 1945 an informer led them directly to the house where they were hiding. It was encircled and they were ordered to surrender:
“Lieutenant Šandera saw that their situation was hopeless and shot himself in the head. Sergeant Žižka was captured alive and when the Gestapo found out that Šandera was still alive they transported him immediately to the hospital in Hradec Králové, where he was operated on and given the best possible care. The Germans were hoping to interrogate him and if possible, make him become a double agent. Meanwhile, Sergeant Žižka was transported to Pankrác prison in Prague. He hanged himself in his cell two days later, obviously afraid that the Germans would torture him and make him send false messages to London. Lieutenant Šandera was kept alive in the hospital for quite a long time but never regained full consciousness and died on March 9, 1945.”
Historian Jan Břečka, from the Moravian Museum in Brno. Of course, it is true that the war was decided mainly by invasions, heavy and bloody fighting of armies of millions of men and women, especially on the Eastern Front. Were operations such as Barium brave but actually symbolic with regard to the outcome of the war? I put this question to Tomáš Jakl from the Military History Institute in Prague.
“The parachute groups sent from London were bringing badly needed communication equipment. The domestic resistance fighters were lacking transmitters. They had very few of them and they were not very sophisticated. So the main task of the Czech teams trained and sent by the government in exile was to establish radio communication between the Czech resistance on the ground in the Protectorate and London. Later on, some of the teams had direct diversion and sabotage tasks. Nevertheless, their primary role was in intelligence gathering and coordination between the domestic resistance movement and the government in exile that would help liberation and the restoration of the Czechoslovak Republic.
“And then there was another reason that they were important: They realized the importance of active armed resistance against the Nazi regime. They were very much aware that Czechoslovakia had an army in the form of the Czechoslovak Legions even before it gained independence in 1918. They knew that their struggle and sacrifice had the potential to contribute, and it later really helped to reinstate the independent Czechoslovak Republic after the Nazi occupation.”
That is why operations such as Barium were, and still are, considered a great success, even if they resulted in the deaths of their leaders, arrests, and executions of many in Bohemia and Moravia.