Hello everyone, on the battlefields of World War 2, M5 Stuart was one of the ubiquitous tanks – but its career did not end there. After the war, it was used by many armies, including (for a short while) by the Czechoslovak one (although not actively). The Czechoslovak Stuarts never fired a shot in anger ever again, but one of them became the hero of one “special” operation after the war. For four decades of oppression between 1948 and 1989, many people tried to cross the border illegally to escape Czechoslovakia, hoping to find freedom in the west. Most of those, who wanted to flee used relatively conventional means – in the beginning, they simply crossed the poorly guarded borders on foot, later they escaped as tourists (simply staying in the destination country for good or travelling further west) or they visited their relatives abroad. There were however cases (although they were relatively rare), when brave people used very unconventional methods to cross the more and more protected border. Several of these included the use of an armored vehicle (some were described in earlier FTR articles). However, there was only a single case where a real combat-worthy tank was used to punch through the borders. This unique event took place in 1949 and the participants were the members of 23rd Tank Brigade. This cheeky plan was initiated and organized by Private Karel Schreiber (*1925). It was not his first escape attempt – he tried to cross the borders once already. On 21.3.1948, he left his unit without permission and in the night, he crossed the border near the village of Zadní Žďár. For unclear reasons however, he changed his mind and in the morning, he returned to Czechoslovakia and went straight to the police station in Svatý Kříž, where he confessed to everything. He was tried by a military court, which, after considering the aggravating circumstances of an active soldier leaving his unit, sentenced him to five months in prison. This life experience convinced Schreiber that this new “country of workers and farmers” is not for him and he started considering escaping again, this time for good. On 9.4.1949, he went to a party, organized by his tank brigade members as a tradition before long military excercises. When the soldiers stopped drinking around midnight, the ranking officer, Captain Kroužel, invited Schreiber to his place. There, he told Schreiber openly that he knows about his past attempt to escape and of the problems it caused Schreiber, which included a career on permanent hold. He also admitted that he knows of internal military proceedings to purge the army of “unreliable individuals”. Captain Křoužel explained all this, because he wasn’t just some random officer. Born in 1920, he escaped the nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia first to Poland and after its fall in 1939 to France, where he entered the Foreign Legion. With it, he saw combat in Africa, he fought to nazis during the Legion retreat to Gibraltar, from where he was evacuated to England. There, he was transferred to the Czechoslovak exile military forces and with them (1st Czechoslovak Independent Brigade), he participated in the siege of Dunkerque in 1944. During his wartime service, he recieved several British and French military awards. After his return to Czechoslovakia in 1945, he continued to serve with the re-estabilished regular Czechoslovak army, but even he was starting to feel the pressure from the communists to leave the army in 1948 (anyone, who fought in the west was considered “unreliable”, the punishment for this in the eyes of the communists terrible offense were ranging from dishonorable discharges followed by years of the inability to find a decent job to years of inprisonment based on false charges, torture and sometimes death). Kroužel openly told Schreiber that he wants to escape as well and made him an offer to go with him, since he managed to do it once already. The Captain suggested using the same route to escape, but wanted extra insurance against the bullets of the border guards: the armor of a tank! At the same time, he warned Schreiber not to trust some members of the units (he called them “regime rats”). The very next day, Schreiber talked about the offer with his friend, Corporal Jaroslav Pekárek (*1925). On 19.4.1948, both soldiers however recieved other news – they would be as “unreliable” transferred to another town and from a combat unit to a working unit (the working units served without arms and were used for hard manual labor, such as quarries, it was practically two – or more – years of slavery). This piece of information became the basic catalyst of the plan to escape abroad. They were inspired by Kroužel’s idea and they planned the theft of a Stuart light tank, that should suffice to protect them on their way to freedom. They however felt the time pressure badly and thus decided to do it themselves, without the Captain. The final decisio was made during the train trip from their old unit to the new one. Instead of joining the new unit they were transferred to, they first bought some maps of the border lands and then, they took a train back to Bečov (their old tank unit was nearby). From there, they continued on foot and snuck to the army base under the cover of the night. They slowly crept towards the barn where one of the tanks, an M5A1 Stuart (No.65925) was kept. A guard was coming, but by the time he reached the barn, they were already inside the vehicle. The guard heard some suspicious sounds from the barn and called another guard to check it out, but they had only flashlights and saw nothing and so they continued their patrol eventually. The peace and calm did not last however. A terrible roar from the barn attracted the attention of pretty much every soldier awake – it was Schreiber starting the engine of the Stuart and revving it. With a load crash, the tank rammed and utterly crushed the gate of the barn, racing as fast as it could towards the road, through which both soldiers planned to escape. The guards immediately called the commander, who ordered pursuit – one jeep and one truck full of soldiers started chasing the runaway tank. By that time, Schreiber and Pekárek did put considerable distance between them and the base and would escape easily, were it not for a cruel twist of fate – the tank engine started coughing and finally stalled. The soldiers were thus forced to disembark the machine between Kladská and Kynžvart in order to attempt to fix the vehicle engine. They managed to Continue reading →

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