Heil 15 März, or Hail the fifteenth of March, was the cipher key used by SS signal regiments in the field in 1937. The Nazis entered Prague, taking control of Bohemia and Moravia on that day in 1939. Was it a coincidence that this date was already in the mind of the German high command some two years earlier? Who can know for sure? But what we do know is that the Czechoslovakian government had ample warning of the probable invasion of their country because the code was given by a German double-agent to the Czech intelligence service in December 1937.
What came next was the Munich Agreement. The greatest effort to avoid a world war or the greatest betrayal of a sovereign state? It depends whose side you were on. Two men had no illusions about what they thought would happen. One was the Czech president, Edvard Beneš and the other was Churchill. Beneš had been instrumental in negotiating the setting up of Czechoslovakia after the First World War and had been president since 1935. Hitler loathed him and frequently mentioned him in his speeches as the embodiment of cowardice. He challenged the Czech president to hand over the Sudetenland to Germany but Beneš refused. He tried everything in his power to accommodate the Sudeten Germans wishes in order to avoid war but on one subject, the free expression of Nazi doctrine on Czech soil, he would not back down. Many thought that he had offered too many concessions but, as his biographer wrote later, it was beyond the courage of any man to take responsibility for throwing the world into war.
Hitler was never going to be satisfied with anything Beneš offered him in the way of concessions. He needed not just the Sudetenland but the whole of Czechoslovakia and for two reasons: one was a matter of geography. Czechoslovakia jutted deeply into German territory and with its military strength it had been the keystone of the post-war French alliance in the east. And with the German plans of expansion announced in Mein Kampf the country stood in the way. Secondly, by the late 1930s Czechoslovakia had developed heavy industry with an enviable record of workers’ rights including an eight hour day; sickness and employment insurance, government aid for housing and more besides. Hitler would have a ready-made highly skilled work force to boot. A French writer and politician saw this all too clearly in 1938 writing in Époque: ‘Bohemia and Slovakia are a bastion, a great junction that commands all the roads of Europe. With Czechoslovakia under her rule, Germany will be able to encircle Poland and Hungary, and gain an outlet to the reserves of oil and wheat in Rumania and Russia. If Hitler takes Prague, he will, in fact, have become master of Europe.’
Churchill saw this too. He was implacably opposed to appeasement and made no secret of his fear of the dire consequences of Chamberlain’s plans to negotiate with Hitler using Czechoslovakia as a bargaining chip. On 21st September 1938, a full eight days before the Munich Agreement was signed, Churchill wrote: ‘It is not Czechoslovakia alone which is menaced, but also the freedom and the democracy of all nations. The belief that security can be obtained by throwing a small nation to the wolves is a fatal delusion.’
After the agreement was signed he was even more gloomy. He stood up in the House of Commons and predicted a terrible fate for Europe. He bemoaned the lack of preparation, particularly in the field of air defence. He said: ‘We have been reduced in those five years from a position of security so overwhelming and so unchallengeable that we never cared to think about it. We have been reduced from a position where the very word ‘war’ was considered one which would only be used by persons qualifying for a lunatic asylum.’
Czech Intelligence had been feeding the British secret services with information about the build up of Goering’s Luftwaffe for years. They had nurtured two German spies who produced valuable and accurate information from the early nineteen thirties. The first agent, known as A52, was Major Selm. He was deeply in debt and needed large amounts of money to fund his lavish life-style. He turned double agent and for his information on numbers of planes of the various fighter and bomber types, on the nature and training of pilots and their support crews as well as battle tactics he was paid 2 million Czech crowns, worth about £6,000,000 today ($8 million). In 1936 he was rumbled by German counter-espionage, caught and beheaded. The second agent, A54, was even more valuable to the Czechs and the British. His identity was not known by the Allies until a decade after the war but his information was of the highest calibre. It turned out that he was a high-ranking Abwehr officer and a member of the Nazi party who, for unexplained reasons, was disillusioned with the regime and he betrayed many secrets that were highly damaging to Germany, including details about Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.
In 1937 A54 gave the head of Czech Intelligence, General František Moravec, the cipher keys Heil 15 März and fifteen months later, at the beginning of March 1939, he appeared in person in Prague to warn Moravec and his team about the proposed invasion. Moravec wrote later how ‘the master spy stood facing me, stiff and erect. We were all standing – almost to attention – as we listed to A54’s report, which made it perfectly clear that in exactly eleven days our country would cease to exist.’ When Moravec warned the Czech Parliament of the impending invasion the following day he was dismissed and told to go and ‘bring us better news in the future’. It was the most humiliating experience of his life.
On the evening of 14 March Moravec and ten of his closest intelligence colleagues flew out of Prague with their most valuable files. The following morning, 15 March 1939, the Germans made their move and, as A54 predicted, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. A tragic anniversary but one to be marked, nonetheless. It is one of many stories told in Our Uninvited Guests.