Exactly 75 years ago, on Valentine’s Day 1945 two confused bomber groups of the USAF accidentally bombed Prague. The raid killed hundreds of Czechs and left over a thousand wounded, while also damaging a number of the capital’s historic buildings. It was subsequently used in Nazi and Communist propaganda and remains a painful memory to this day.
Ever since the 1920s and 1930s strategic bombing was identified as an important component of warfare by many leading military theorists, one that could paralyze the enemy’s industry and will to fight, thus bringing about a swifter end to any conflict.
This theory was perhaps followed most closely by the British and American air forces during the Second World War, with hundreds and thousands of tons of bombs being dropped in both day and night raids on German cities at great cost to the lives of both the airmen that undertook them and the civilians who perished in the infernos bellow.
Perhaps the most infamous of these raids was that conducted on the Saxon city of Dresden in February 1945, where tens of thousands are believed to have perished largely thanks to the use of so-called “firebombing”.
Yet few outside the Czech Republic know that some of those bombers headed for Dresden actually bombed Prague instead.
A navigational error caused in part by bad weather caused 62 B-17 flying fortresses to drop 152 tons of bombs on the Czech capital in less than 10 minutes completely destroying or damaging 2,351 houses and killing 701 people according to post war statistics.
As accounts show, some of the pilots were aware that their course was wrong, but chose to stay on their course due to strict orders to keep radio silence.
“Something was falling, rubble and things like that. I know I was suddenly hiding under the table and then in the cabinet. There were dead people everywhere in the streets.”
Some of the victims perished by being buried alive in their cellars hiding from the bombs and were only found decades later in the 1970s, Michal Plavec, the curator of the air collection of the National Technical Museum, told Czech Radio.
“It was only 25 years after the end of the war, during the reconstruction of one of the houses that the bodies of 23 victims of the bombing were discovered.”
While largely forgotten today, the consequences of the bombing did leave a permanent imprint on parts of the city. For example, the famous Dancing House building, constructed during the 1990s, was built in place of a house that was destroyed during the raid. Other famous buildings damaged in the attack included the baroque Faust’s house on Charles Square, or the Synagogue in Vinohrady.
A remembrance act was held for the victims four days later on February 18, 1945 by the Church of Saint Ludmila in Vinohrady. A Czech Radio recording survives from that day.
“All of us here in Prague have sadness in their eyes and hearts. There are tears in our eyes as we see the graves marked with numbers and the names of the victims. We have all brought pain and hopelessness to this square.
“Prague has gathered to say goodbye at this temple with the victims of the terrible attack from the sky. An attack that none of us understand and towards which we can only ask the question: Why?”
Nazi propaganda of course took advantage of the bombing mistake, describing it as an “Anglo-American terrorist raid” through which the enemy discharged their “murderous cynicism” on Prague’s population and buildings.
Even during the communist era, the bombing of Prague remained a useful anti-American propaganda tool.
It was not only the Czech capital that saw Allied bombs fall on their houses during Valentine’s Day 1945. Smaller groups that were headed for Dresden also dropped their loads on Plzen and Karlovy Vary as well as a few other small towns.
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