IT WAS ONE OF the cruelest and stupidest of the many thousands of cruel and stupid mistakes that made the Second World War into the global massacre Americans still insist on calling “the Good War.” On February 14, 1945 sixty-two B-17 Flying Fortresses assigned to the US Army Air Force's 398th Bomb Group got lost on their way to the firebombing of Dresden and erroneously released their payloads over the Nazi-occupied Czech capital, Prague. At precisely 12:35 p.m., 152 tons of high explosives rained down on the central city and two suburbs, destroying around a hundred houses and many historical monuments. Another two hundred buildings were heavily damaged. Ironically, the destroyed monuments included one of Prague’s main synagogues. The raid killed 701 civilians and injured 1,184. 11,000 people were left homeless. No military or industrial targets of any kind were hit.
Map showing impact sites in Prague
The raid lasted just five minutes, but the horror has echoed for decades. The exhibit’s organizers tell of a terrible discovery that some Czech workers made during a building project in 1970:
[W]hen the building was excavated, workers discovered another cellar… only this one just happened to have 23 human skeletons incarcerated inside. They were all that remained of these survivors of the bombing itself. Only silent marks of desperation scratched into the basement walls bear witness to the endless night of their wait for rescue. Tragically the light and hope brought by rescuers never penetrated those walls; it was a wait that was in vain.
How could such a mistake occur? According to Jan Zdirsky of the Czech Air-Historical Association, “Although some of navigators weren’t sure whether this was the right target the deputy commander did not let them talk about their doubts - that would have meant breaking the radio silence. They went off course near Freiberg [Saxony], from where they started their bombing run. They saw a city with a river flowing from south to east, similar to the Elbe in Dresden, and dense residential areas. After the raid, a few navigators said they thought it was the wrong target. But they did not know until they landed that they had bombed a civilian area of a friendly country.”
One reason why the casualty figures were so high was that Prague residents never expected to be bombed and thus failed to take the air raid warnings seriously and head for shelter. After all, Prague had survived the war almost completely intact so far and neither its central city nor its outlying residential areas possessed any strategic value for the Allies. The carpet bombing left many bad feelings in the city, which the later communist regime exploited for all they were worth.
Today the city opened an exhibit at its New Town Hall showcasing hundreds of previously unseen photos by photographer Stanislav Maršál that had been preserved at the Military History Institute. Maršál reached for his camera immediately after the attack and shot some of the most vivid pictures of this tragic event.
The 398th Bomb Group returned the next day and finally performed its appointed task in the three-day Dresden firestorm. (You can learn more about the 398th’s mission by clicking here.)
It is cruelly ironic that the pilot of the lead plane on “Ugly Wednesday” turned out to be a Prague native who had escaped to the US following the Nazi occupation of his country in 1938. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, so it goes.
The photo exhibit at Prague’s New Town Hall will run from February 17 to March 14 before it goes on the road to various locations throughout the Czech Republic.