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General Semyon Zolotov´s Account of the Final Military Preparations for the Invasion
Our Source: Navratil, Jaromir.
"The Prague Spring 1968". Hungary: Central European Press, 1998, pp. 373-375
Original Source: “Shli na pomoshch´druz´yam,” Voenno-istoricheskii zhurnal, No. 4 (April 1994), pp. 17-19.
Translated by: Mark Kramer, Joy Moss and Ruth Tosek
Comment: These are the memoirs of Semyon Zolotov from the preparations to the realization of “Operation Danube”.
/.../ It became known at around this time [in early August] that Army-General S. M. Shtemenko had been appointed the new chief of staff of the Joint Armed Forces of the Warsaw Pact member states. He was highly respected in military circles for his outstanding organizational capabilities and for the vast experience he acquired during the Great Patriotic War and in the postwar period. In addition, the new appointment of Sergei Matveevich, who had headed the Operations Directorate of the General Staff during the Great Patriotic War and had thus been involved in planning all the most important wartime operations, made the possibility of conducting large- scale operations within the framework of the Warsaw Pact more likely.
Before long I received orders to return to the army command post. A good deal of work awaited me in acquainting myself with the new units and formations and with the way their combat and political preparations, troop service, and party-political work were organized. In accordance with the orders they had received, the troops remained in their field camps, concentrated in the Transcarpathian region. In addition to the standard formations of the army, there were already divisions from other regions redeployed here. Along with the commander, I ventured out to these formations and spoke to people. Although the officers did not refer directly to a possible thrust into Czechoslovakia, they understood very well why such a large build-up of troops was under way in the Transcarpathian region. Many comrades expressed genuine alarm at the way events were developing in the ČSSR, and they were psychologically ready, it seemed, to take decisive action.
On 12 August the USSR Minister of Defence, Marshal of the Soviet Union A. A. Grechko, the chief of the Main Political Directorate of the Soviet Army and Navy, Army-General A. A. Epishev, and the commander-in-chief of the Ground Forces, Army-General I. G. Pavlovskii, visited our troops. They stopped at the motorized rifle and tank regiments, and met personnel and staff.
On the following day, the leadership of the USSR Defence Ministry met the members of the Military Council and the command-political staff of the army in Uzhgorod. Marshal of the Soviet Union A. A. Grechkospoke about our problems and deficiencies and about our most pressing tasks. In particular, he pointed out the necessity of bringing all equipment up to a combat-ready state as soon as possible; of replenishing the stocks of combat material; of being ready to undertake a lengthy march across forested and mountainous terrain; of paying special attention to the training of the drivers and mechanics of tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and infantry fighting vehicles and the drivers of other cars and trucks; and of ensuring a full complement and suitable replacements in all sections, crews, and detachments. The USSR minister of defence warned that in the very near future we could expect to send our forces to the ČSSR. I recall that one of the officers asked him a question: What should we do if we encounter armed resistance, should we use our weapons?
“Czechoslovakia is a friendly country. We are going to our brothers' homeland to help them defend socialism,” A. A. Grechkostaunchly declared. “On no account must we permit the spilling of blood of Slovaks and Czechs. I am certain that the CzPA will not put up resistance. However, we cannot exclude the possibility that NATO's forces will invade the ČSSR from the West. If that happens, we will have to act in accordance with the situation.”
This meeting left an uneasy impression. It is possible that in August 1968 the world was again left teetering on the verge of a global war.
On Sunday, the 18th of August, we and our families went off to the mountain resort area at Yaremcha for a holiday. However, a policeman met us on the road and gave me a message saying that it was necessary to return immediately. Late that night I got back to Uzhgorod with my colleagues. There we found out that the situation in the ČSSR had deteriorated, and received orders to prepare the troops to move into that country.
It was necessary to ensure great vigilance and combat readiness and not to permit any frivolousness or lapses of discipline. To this end, the political department of the army was unstinting in its efforts to carry out intensive political education work.
On the eve of the introduction of the allied troops into the territory of the ČSSR, meetings and gatherings took place in the units and formations. The personnel were informed about a TASS statement, which said that party and state officials in the ČSSR had appealed to the Soviet Union and other allied states with a request that they provide urgent help, including the help of armed forces, to the fraternal Czechoslovak people. The statement said that this appeal had been prompted by the threat to the existing socialist order in Czechoslovakia and to the established constitutional state on the part of counterrevolutionary forces who had joined in a conspiracy with external forces hostile to socialism. The TASS statement was published in the Soviet press on 21 August 1968.
Soviet soldiers were informed that the introduction of allied troops into the territory of the ČSSR was prompted by the necessity of defending the fraternal. Czechoslovak people against the intrigues of internal and external counterrevolution. No doubt, from today's standpoint the Czechoslovak events are regarded quite differently. But at that time, we perceived what was going on in the ČSSR in precisely the terms described in the TASS statement. My fellow officers and I saw the approaching operation as an unavoidable and appropriate response to the threat that had arisen. We believed that we were marching in to help our friends. /.../
At 1:00 A.M. on 21 August 1968 the units and formations of the army crossed the state border of the ČSSR. A huge procession of troops fitted out with modem equipment and weapons moved to the west. Until 3:00 A.M., the commander and I monitored the advance of tanks and vehicles, and then I moved ahead to the command post. There was no resistance at all from the Czechoslovak side. The front-line units marched forward intently. They crossed 250-300 kilometers within eight to ten hours. The motorized rifle division of Major-General G. P. Yashkin crossed 120 kilometres in four hours.
At first the march proceeded calmly. The local residents assumed that the large columns of our vehicles were moving to an ordinary exercise. Only when the radio and television of the ČSSR featured a broadcast about the violation of Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty by allied troops did we sense that the nationalist sentiments of the Czechs and Slovaks had been affected. Crowds of agitated people now began meeting us on the roads. They were screaming and throwing things at us. Derogatory graffiti appeared on the streets and fences.
By the end of 21 August, the troops of the army had completed the tasks set out for them and had moved expeditiously into the territory of Slovakia and southern Moravia.
In a number of centers, Soviet troops took under their protection the most important facilities in local garrisons: staffs, command posts, lines of communisation, air bases, combat vehicle depots, stocks of military equipment and weapons, ammunition, storage facilities for fuel and other materials, etc. We set up operative communications with the local authorities and the command of the CzPA. At the behest of Lt. Gen. Maiorov, the staff and field command of the army took up quarters in the city of Trenčín in the Central Slovak province, quartering in the same place as the staff of the CzPA's eastern military district. Despite the frictions and discord that arose at the outset, the commander of the eastern military district's troops, Lt. Gen. S. Kodaj, took the necessary measures to accommodate our troops and staffs on the territory of the district's military bases." As stipulated in the directives of the ČSSR president and the minister of national defence, he ordered his troops not to oppose the Soviet soldiers and to help them in fulfilling their designated tasks. He was supported by the district's chief of staff, Major-General J. Pašek, and the head of the Political Directorate, Colonel J. Kovačík.
/.../ On the first day of our march along the roads of the ČSSR, a tragedy occurred. En route between the cities of Prešov and Poprad, the path of a tank column was blocked by a group of women and children. As was later revealed, they bad been planted there by extremists, who were hoping to provoke an incident involving a huge loss of human life. To avoid running over the people, the mechanic-driver of the vehicle at the head of the column swerved sharply to the side. The tank overturned from the sudden movement and, having fallen on its turret, caught on fire. Two soldiers serving in the tank received severe injuries, and one of them died as a result.
All told, our army lost 12 soldiers during the march into Czechoslovakia in August 1968, and 76 suffered wounds of varying intensity.
Seven combat vehicles were damaged, and more than 300 automobiles were damaged to one degree or another. These statistics were cited by Lt. Gen. Maiorov at a meeting on 23 August. At the same time he demanded that the soldiers exercise maximum restraint and that they avoid responding to provocations at all costs. Soviet soldiers did indeed abide by this code of behaviour, as is evident from the fact that there was not a single instance in which the servicemen of the army used their weapons, despite the situations that arose in which the nerves of even combat-hardened veterans might have given way.