Jan Šanovec

* 1916

  • “It depended on where you landed. The officer corps consisted of young guys who were mostly around 22 years old. The spirit there was high as we used to have a lot of fun and the war was far away. We were constantly outside in the hills. We were going on trips to the Dead sea that was just a short ride from Jordan and so on. We were all too eager to fight the Germans but so far we had only been fighting the Italians. In Palestine we used to go to the beaches in Tel Aviv on the weekends. But I would like to come back to the time I spent in Russia. As we were quartered in Odessa we made a trip to the beach. Usually, there were plenty of girls on the beach but every time they learned that we were “inostranci” they got afraid of us and nobody would dare to come closer then 10 to 15 meters to our group. In Odessa we saw a typical occurrence. An officer that walked on the street and wasn’t greeted (or was greeted improperly) by a passing soldier immediately slapped that soldier in the face. I remember this as a typical exemplification of the prevailing conditions in the Soviet Union. The second place where we were accommodated was a garrison house in Kamenec Podolský. The barracks were really neat and clean. It was well equipped with central heating and all other amenities. The rooms were quite big and light. The only problem was with the bathroom which didn’t work. The more curious of us wanted to find out why it didn’t work. They revealed that the showers and taps were simply implanted into the wall with no underlying plumbing for the water supply.”

  • “We knew that the opposing forces were either Italian or German. When they were Italian, it was acceptable, but when they were German… I tell you it was quite a mess there. When the battlefront moved the side that had the longer supply lines was on the run. And the side with the shorter supply lines won. W had a lot of Italian material and our opponents, the Germans, had a lot of British material. This meant that when you were driving on the road at night and you met somebody you didn’t care at all if it was your ally or your enemy. It was hell at night. You have to consider that it was three thousand kilometers of supply lines. Whoever had the shorter lines had a great advantage. Because if you have a supply line of three thousand kilometers, you’ll soon run out of ammunition, food etc. And as soon as you’re attacked, you run. The positions changed there at least three times. I remember that we hated them. We had old scores to settle with them. Add to that that occasionally we would receive letters saying that there were executions in Czechoslovakia and sometimes a relative of somebody was executed. So this produced a great hatred of the Germans. But I have to say that they fought well.”

  • “We were upset that our general didn’t leave with us. We thought that he has abandoned us. It was General Prchal, he was the commander of the Czechoslovak army in Carpathian Ruthenia. Only later did we realize that it was fortunate for him because he would have landed in a Gulag – he was an enemy for the Soviets. We didn’t make it to Romania because the soviets arrested and detained us. There we saw how the Soviets behaved. We were camping and suddenly there was a car passing nearby, it was two Polish higher officers and their driver. I believe that one was a colonel and the other one was a captain. They were pulled out of the car by Cossacks who led them away into the forest and after a while we heard a few shots. We later found them dead. We learned another lesson about the Soviets in Jarmolice where we were held in a detention camp over the winter of 1939. In 1939 there was a harsh winter. Usually we were held behind the fence but sometimes they sent us to do some work. Once we were sent to the train station to remove snow. A train arrived at the station. We learned that this train was transporting the Polish population that had been deported from the Ukraine. It was predominantly elderly people and children. They were transporting them in huge cattle cars. As they opened the cattle cars we saw that they were carrying away numerous dead bodies of those who didn’t survive the harsh conditions of the transport.”

  • “I have a funny story with Italians. When we were in Agami, nearby Alexandria, the Wavell offensive took place. Wavell captured over a hundred thousand Italian soldiers with one Australian division. They called us to send a unit to accompany the captured Italians to Alexandria. I was put in charge of ten soldiers and sent to the Australian unit. I had a colt with six rounds and each soldier had a rifle with ten rounds. They put us in these tiny cars and dispatched us to the west. When we arrived in the Australian camp I was greeted by the Australian captain. My English was pretty bad at that time and even though he claimed that he spoke French, I guess pretty much all he could say in French was “bonjour”. But after we drank a bottle of whisky we communicated fairly well. The next day he took me to the Italian unit that I was supposed to escort to Alexandria. It was an Italian armed brigade. They had armed cars, cannons and all kinds of things. I said: ´Jesus Maria, what about these guns? Why should I be taking them there? They can do it themselves.´ So I walked to them and the aide spoke French well so we spoke French. I spoke French well because in Alexandria you only spoke French, the city had a European population of about 200 thousand people, mostly Italians, French, English or Greeks. He suddenly found out that I’m a Czechoslovak. He said: ´You’re not English?´ ´No, we’re Czechoslovaks.´ There was a general sitting there who was in charge of the whole unit. He told the general something and suddenly the general jumped up, came to me and started to hug me and tell me, that he has very good experiences with Czechoslovak soldiers from the first war. He said they were great soldiers. He showed me the armed cars. Of course they had ammunition in the cars, the machine guns and the cannons were loaded. So we went to Alexandria. We made a stop and stayed overnight at a camp. A staff sergeant came to me and said: ´Oh my God, they have guns and ammo.´ But I told him not to worry about it and to go sleep. We didn’t even have to guard them. They were guarding themselves. They were singing every evening. The Italians were just happy that they got captured and that they don’t have to fight anymore.”

  • “I also had a conversation once with General Svoboda. This was in connection with my effort to make the Americans hand over all the cars and everything to us and not to them. They didn’t have any interest in anything, like the Russians. As they were in an allied country they were paying for everything. They paid for the flats, for example, where the U.S. soldiers stayed. They were paying with these vouchers that were supposed to be reimbursed by the bank. But the banks did not reimburse the vouchers because they didn’t get the instruction to do so. So I visited the Ministry of Finances where I knew a guy who served with me in the Middle East. I asked him to give the banks the instruction to reimburse the vouchers. But he told me that this lies outside of the scope of his power. So I went to see General Svoboda and told him about the problem. He said that he couldn’t do anything about it and advised me to see the prime minister. So I went to see Fierlinger. Fierlinger, of course, started to argue with me. He told me that I was collaborating with the Germans and that the Americans were promoting the Germans and all sorts of other crap. I told him: ´Mr. prime minister, I remember that you were the Czechoslovak ambassador to the Soviet Union at the time when we were being held there by the Soviets. You did nothing for us. You didn’t even come to see us in the detention camp.´ This infuriated him and he told me that he wouldn’t talk with me anymore and he left. His secretary stayed behind and told me that what I said was the right thing to do. So eventually I visited Honza Masaryk (the Czechoslovak Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Masaryk – note by the translator). I used to know him a bit from England. There was an exhibition of girls that were assistants with the Navy. It was just girls, the very elite. We had just arrived from the Middle East so we were admiring them, we stood there holding our breath. Suddenly a guy appeared and told us: ´Well guys, I guess you had a lot of girls there as well, right?´ Then I learned that it was Honza Masaryk. So I talked to him and explained the situation to him. And he said: ´You know, you are…what’s your name?´ ´I’m Honza, just like you.´ ´You’re serving with Harmon, right?´ I said: ´Yes.´ ´Be glad that you’re with the Americans. And I can only recommend you one thing. Let it be, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t change it.´"

  • “In the year 1948, JUDr. Preiss was appointed police director. He summoned me into his office and said: ´Honza, look what I have about you.´ He pulled out a sheet of paper and read aloud. There stood that I was trying to persuade everybody to work against the Soviet Union and to band together with the Americans against the USSR, that I was promising to supply them with weapons and tons of other crap. I told him that it’s all complete nonsense, that it was all lies. He said: ´You fool, today, it doesn’t matter if something is a lie or a truth, what matters is what is put to paper. And now look what I’m gonna do with it.´ And he threw it into the stove. This meant that when they arrested me in the fall they didn’t have any compromising material about my person. They were trying hard to find some evidence against me but were largely unsuccessful. I spent some six or seven months in solitary confinement in Mladá Boleslav. They were interrogating but didn’t have much material about me so they sent me off to Mírov. This prison in Mírov was a really bad place. We only found this out afterwards. It was a so-called extermination camp for former army officers who served on the western front. These were people who were extremely uncomfortable for the Communists and the regime wanted them disappear. They were planning to make them disappear in the Soviet Gulags later on. We were saved by chance. The thing was that we were guarded by State Police agents and not by regular prison warders. We were completely cut off from the outside world, with no contacts to our families. Completely isolated, nobody knew what happened to us or where we were located. There were about 340 of us and by pure luck one of us, who was being held in a prison with lower levels of guard, managed to escape from this prison. It was Buršík, a hero of the Soviet Union. Somehow he was able to persuade them to relocate him to a hospital in Olomouc and from there he fled. He had all the information about what was going on here. And he managed to inform the western media – the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Radio Free Europe. So it was all out there – the west learned about us. This meant that the regime couldn’t send us to the Soviet Union anymore. The situation was heating up in 1950 already.”

  • “It was terribly depressive. I really hated the French at that point for letting us down. They really gave the impulse for it all. I was almost at the verge of turning my weapon against them. But I cooled down after a while. At that time I was very upset that we didn’t fight but later I changed my mind and concluded that it would have been absolutely nonsensical. I commanded a battery of the 30th reserve battalion. We were initially deployed in the region of Hodonín in southern Moravia. Subsequently we were transferred to Slovakia where we were withdrawing from the advancing Slovak Hungarians that were seizing a part of Slovak territory. By that time we already had to release all Hungarians from military service. The Germans had walked away even earlier. The battery was reduced to half – instead of four guns we only had two. I think that we might have beaten the Hungarians but we had no chance against the Germans. I had three reserve officers at my disposal. One was a lieutenant. It was an older man, close to forty, a teacher by profession. He knew nothing of military affairs and his greatest worry was his family that lived in the Sudetenland. This meant that he was absolutely unreliable and there was no point in counting on him. The remaining two lieutenants were young guys who were constantly after some girls or drinking in pubs. They weren’t much of a help either. This meant that I was actually running the battery on my own with only the help of my assistant, a sergeant, who was German and virtually commanded the battery while I was visiting the advance lookout posts. So this German sergeant actually was in command of this battery. As soon as the occupation was under way, the Germans deserted. But I have to say that they didn’t steal any of the expensive devices that served the direction of artillery fire. They left everything in its place and some of them later even turned in their uniforms. But I doubt that we could have successfully fought the Germans under these circumstances.”

  • “We crossed the border on the fifth of May. I had a great commander at that time. It was a colonel. He insisted on putting me into an American uniform. Of course, I didn’t want that. I had a battle-dress with an inscription. Then I found out that my door in the car was jammed and I couldn’t get out. I could only get out after the driver had gotten out after we reached our final destination - Pilsen. Then, I learned from the driver that he had acted on an order from the colonel. The order was not to let me get out of the car. I learned that the colonel ordered this because he was afraid that I might have gotten shot accidentally by his own men because of the uniform I was wearing. This colonel Coverly was a very educated man. In his civilian life he had been a university professor. He greatly admired European culture. I asked him why he gave that order. He said: ´Look, there’s a lot of partisans out there who wear all kinds of clothes. You too look different from our soldiers. You might have gotten shot by our own men and I didn’t want to be responsible for that.´ I was in a good mood because we were supposed to advance on Prague the next day. I thought that it was a bad idea to advance on the main road from Pilsen to Prague via Ruzyně because there were a lot of barracks on that route. It would be much better to turn at Ořech and cross the river in Zbraslav. From there we would be able to advance to Prague on the right bank of the Vltava River. This would be much more convenient then to go via Ruzyně. Because I knew about all the garrisons around Ruzyně. In the times of the first republic the fifth infantry regiment was garrisoned there. Eventually, however, the advance to Prague was halted.”

  • Full recordings
  • 1

    místo a autor natáčení nejsou t. č. známy, 01.02.2002

    duration: 01:26:16
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
Full recordings are available only for logged users.

“War is a dirty business but unfortunately, it’s necessary sometimes.”

Jan Šanovec
Jan Šanovec
photo: Pamět Národa - Archiv

Jan Šanovec was born in Prague. Even before the outbreak of the war, he studied at the War College. During the mobilization of the Czechoslovak army he commanded a battery of the 30th reserve regiment. After the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the German army, he crossed the border to Poland. However, after the German attack on Poland he fled to Romania. He was caught by the Soviets on the run. Afterwards, he was supposed to continue to France but instead he headed to the Middle East where he fought in Syria, Lebanon and Tobruk. Later, he sailed on a ship around Africa to England where he became a cryptographer in the intelligence group of František Moravec. He re-entered Czechoslovakia on May 5, 1945, as a soldier of the 2nd infantry division of the U.S. army. He saw the end of the war in Pilsen. After the war, he went to the Military Academy and became an army intelligence officer. Later he served with the Battalion command in Pilsen. In 1948, he was dismissed from army service for alleged “anti-Soviet activities” during the war and shortly afterwards arrested and imprisoned. He was kept in solitary confinement in a prison in Mladá Boleslav for half a year. From Mladá Boleslav, he was transferred to Mírov. Due to a lack of evidence, he was only sentenced to two years of forced-labor camp in 1950. After his release from the camp he worked in a paper mill. He was rehabilitated in 1968 and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.