Navigation error brought Dresden-bound U.S. bombers to Prague
Feb. 14 is the 60th anniversary of the Allied bombing of Prague, an attack that took hundreds of lives and destroyed 93 buildings. Some 190 buildings received heavy damage, including the Benedictine Monastery Na Slovanech on Palackeho namesti, known today simply as “Emauzy.” The 14th-century structure was rebuilt in 1969 with distinctive overlapping spires of concrete capping the building, topped with 1.3 kilograms (2.9 pounds) of gold. Other losses included portions of the Faust House, the legendary home of Goethe’s anti-hero, and the National Theater’s scenery warehouse.
With the end of World War II just months away, Allied pilots celebrated Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14) 1945, while Czech Catholics observed Ash Wednesday and the start of Easter fasting. Prague remained unscathed by the mass devastation wreaked upon other European cities during the war. While it was common to see aircraft overhead, passing over on their way to Germany, the city seemed a safe haven.
Praguers were so used to seeing military aircraft that the ubiquitous air raid sirens barely registered. On this day, however, the 91st and 398th Bomber Groups, which flew with the U.S. Army’s 8th Air Force, made a tragic mistake in navigation. The bombers mistook Prague for Dresden and dropped a three-minute carpet of bombs on the city.
The mission entry for the official chronicle of the 91st Bomber Group mentions rain but is rather vague as to the factors behind the Prague bombing: “… Prague, Czechoslovakia looked more promising for some reason or other, and so they caught hell instead … results were good.”
Following the attack, the Reichsprotectorate listed its casualties at 413 dead, 1,455 wounded and 88 missing. After the war the toll was revised to 701 dead and 1,184 wounded.
Vera Cepkova was a young girl at the time. “The morning of Feb. 14, 1945, began like any other day in the Protectorate,” she recalled recently. “There was no school because of the air attacks but we were all used to this. Instead, we worked on some math and reading homework and had plenty of time to play with the other kids.”
Cepkova’s school was severely damaged in the bombing, however. She remembers hearing the sirens and an explosion. She ran and tried to open the door but was trapped by debris.
“Then I felt pain. My right hand was trapped between the door. I couldn’t move the stuck door a bit,” she said. “I felt like a fox trapped in irons – they say a fox can actually bite its leg off to get free. Then some men forced the door open and took me to a nearby garden.”
While Cepkova was playing in the moments before the bombs fell, Dr. Bohumil Niederle was in surgery, removing a tumor from a patient’s brain. Niederle, who eventually became a university professor, a job he held until he died last month, recalled the operation at a clinic near Karlovo namesti. When the sirens announced an air raid, he had just taken out the biggest tumor he’d ever removed.
“Nobody paid any attention to the sirens. However, soon we heard a different sound, that of a bomber,” he said in November 2004. “The doctors and nurses just managed to cover the hole in the patient’s head when there was an explosion. The ceiling was gone together with the lights and parts of the walls; there were ruins everywhere.
I asked the patient, who was covered by rubble – Mr. Hruska was his name – how he was doing and he said, “Quite a bang, wasn’t it?’ That’s because the operation was done under local anesthetic, so he saw it all happen. And he survived!”
– James Pitkin contributed to this report.