The Battle of Hořovice was a battle in the Invasion of Czechoslovakia on 4 October 1938, which involved Czechoslovak and German tank formations. It was the first major tank battle of World War II, fought between the German XVI Army Corps under General Heinz Guderian and the Czechoslovak 1st Fast Division under General Julius Fišera.
Eve of the battle
Early on the 3 October General Heinz Guderian's XVI Army Corps had broken through the Czechoslovak positions between Blahousty and Štipoklasy northeast of Plzeň and advanced toward the Berounka River. By 14:00 pontoon bridges had been erected over the Berounka near Čivice and Nynice, and at the end of the day over 200 tanks of the 1st Panzer and 1st Light Divisions had rolled over this eye of a needle, as reconnaissance units had reached the villages of Lhota pod Radčem and Františkov, 26 kilometres east of Plzeň. Meanwhile, the units of the 1st Corps were engaged in an often disorderly retreat, after General Sergej Vojcechovský, the commander of the First Army, had ordered the troops of 1st Corps and Border Zone XI to execute a tactical withdrawal toward the two inner fortified defensive lines, the Prague Line and the Vltava Line.
Manwhile, on 1 October general Vojcechovský and his staff officers had been notified of the large German armoured formations north of Plzeň, which they assumed were advancing toward Prague in order to seize the capital in a lightning strike. While a long-lasting defence of western Bohemia was not emphasized in the Czechoslovak defensive plans, Vojcechovský considered a counterattack against the advancing German armour was necessary to delay the advance on Prague and to cover the mobilization of the Czechoslovak Army, which was still ongoing. He asked the Czechoslovak commander-in-chief, general Ludvík Krejčí, to be reinforced with the 1st Fast Division of the General Reserve. Krejčí agreed, and at 13:00 on 2 October the 1st Fast Division, located in the Pacov – Nová Cerekev – Černovice area, was ordered by Vojcechovský to move to the bridges over the Vltava River at Kamyk and Brunšov and then move toward Hořovice.
General Julius Fišera, the commander of the 1st Fast Division, planned to deploy his division's dismounted cavalry and anti-tank guns along the Litavka river between the villages of Zdice, Chodouň, Libomyšl and Lochovice and engage the advancing German armour. While Guderian's forces were entangled with the Czechoslovak defences, the 2nd Light Tank Battalion were advance from Podluhy and Rpety southeast of Hořovice and attack the German right flank. By 20:00 on the 1 October the two motorized infantry battalions of the 1st Motorized Brigade and the 83rd Anti-Tank Company had reached Lochovice and began to dig in along the Zdice – Chodouň – Libomyšl line, as the 2nd Tank Battalion and the 1st Cavalry Brigade was still on the move. By 18:00 on the 2 October both the armour and the cavalry had reached the heavily wooded Brdy hills south of Hořovice.
In theory the Fast Division (rychlá divize) of the Czechoslovak Army contained a cavalry brigade, a motorized brigade and various support units. The cavalry brigade consisted of two dragoon regiments, a bicyle battalion and a horse artillery group. The cavalry was trained to fight like dragoons, travelling by horse but would in combat dismount and fight like regular infantry. The motorized brigade comprised of two motorized infantry regiments, an motorized artillery group and two tank battalions, each with three companies of light tanks. The support units comprised a reconnaissance battalion, consisting of a company of motorcyclists and a company of 12 armoured cars, two companies of 20 mm anti-aircraft guns, two anti-tank gun companies and service units. The fast divisions had a planned mobilization strength of 11,000 men, 2,832 horses, 298 motorcycles, 1,009 trucks and cars, 98 tanks, 12 armoured cars and 68 guns.
However, due to a lack of motor vehicles and deployment changes related to the mobilization, General Julius Fišera's 1st Fast Division had on 1 October a total strength of 8,615 men, 2,526 horses, 72 heavy and 200 light machine guns, 21 anti-tank guns, 23 guns and howitzers, 745 trucks and cars and 186 motorcycles. While the division's 2nd Light Tank Battalion had a total of 38 LT vz. 35 light tanks, the division's 1st Tank Battalion had been transferred to the 2nd Corps' command in northern Bohemia.
The LT vz. 35, with its 37 mm cannon and a maximum armour protection of 25 mm, were superior in both armour and armament compared to the German Pz.Kpfw. I and IIs, which comprised the majority of the German armoured force.
There were questions related to the combat value of the division. The utilization of the fast division's cavalry brigade and motorized units was planned for various combat situations, best suited for each of them, and close combat cooperation between them was not even visaged. The various units trained separately, and the whole division only assembled during the autumn maneuvers, which only happened in 1937.
As the 1st Light Tank Battalion had been transferred to northern Bohemia to support the 2nd Corps, Army High Command had on 29 September ordered the establishment of an improvised tank battalion was formed, the 9th Light Tank Battalion, comprising 24 requisitioned LTP light tanks meant for export to Peru, one ST vz. 39 medium tank prototype and one LT vz. 38 light tank prototype.
The German force fighting in the battle consisted of the entire XVI Army Corps, commanded by general Heinz Guderian. The unit, part of German Tenth Army, was the strongest Panzer corps in the Wehrmacht and on 30 September 1938 included 737 tanks. The 1st Panzer Division had a total of 448 tanks, comprising 248 Pz.Kpfw. Is, 134 Pz.Kpfw. IIs, 16 Pz.Kpfw. IIIs and 16 Pz.Kpfw. IVs, as well as 34 command tanks. The 1st Light Division had 289 tanks, of which 168 were Pz.Kpfw. Is and 99 Pz.Kpfw. IIs, as well as 22 command tanks. The XVI Corps included also the SS Infantry Regiment Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler.
The German armoured division had an armoured brigade (Panzer-Brigade) with two tank regiments (Panzer-Regimenter). The latter were divided into two tank battalions (Panzer-Abteilungen); each tank battalion had, apart from a staff company, three light companies of 26 tanks and a light company "A" of 22 tanks, including three Pz.Kpfw. III medium tanks and four Pz.Kpfw. IV infantry support tanks. Due to a shortage of these types (mainly due to production delays), the majority of the German tanks were the Pz.Kpfw. I and II.
The light division (leichte Division) were created to placate the still strong cavalry element in the German Army, who feared their scouting and screening roles were being taken over by the Panzerwaffe. The light divisions were envisioned to function like the horse cavalry division, mainly in reconnaissance and pursuit roles. The standard division was organized as follows: one tank battalion, two motorized infantry battalions, one reconnaissance regiment with one armoured reconnaissance battalion and one motorcycle battalion, one motorized engineer battalion, one motorised signals battalion various divisional services. Before the invasion, Lieutenant-General Erich Hoepner's 1st Light Division had been modified to reflect the operational changes for their mission, as his tank strength had been considerably increased by the addition of the 11th Panzer Regiment.
Guderian's forces could count on the air support of Colonel-General Albert Kesselring's 1st Luftwaffengruppenkommando of the Luftwaffe, with some 200 fighter aircraft (mostly Messerschmitt Bf 109s), 600 bomber aircraft and 200 dive bombers (mainly Junkers Ju 87). Guderian could also count on the Henschel Hs 123 ground attack aircraft from Fliger-Gruppe 50. Kesselring's Air Group was tasked to support not only the 10th Army, but also the 2nd and 8th advancing into northern Moravia and northern Bohemia.
On 4 October the 1st Panzer Division raced to seize their first objective, Hořovice, reaching the area by early morning. General Guderian ordered the 1st Panzer and the 1st Light Divisions to concentrate on and secure Hořovice. Noting his lack of fuel and his divisions artillery and infantry support that had not yet caught up with the armour, which made further advances risky, Lieutenant-General Rudolf Schmidt of the 1st Panzer Division decided to halt the division in order to be resupplied. Guderian agreed to a quick halt. Meanwhile, Czech air units concentrated on Guderian's forces, as the I/6th Squadron made two large bombing attacks, one including 12 Avia B-71 bombers, losing four. 40 Messerschmitt Bf 109s of 1st Group, Jagdgeschwader 132 flew 340 sorties that day, claiming 18 Czech aircraft for the loss of four fighters. German anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) claimed another three.
Fišera could only wait to see where the Panzers would concentrate. On his right flank the 1st Training Motorized Battalion had taken up positions between Zdice and Libomyšl, while his left flank between Libomyšl and Lochovice was defended by the 2nd Instruction Motorized Battalion along with two companies of the 1st Dragoon Regiment. The 88th Artillery Detachment was deployed around Lážovice with twelve 100 mm vz. 30 howitzers, while the 84th Artillery Detachment was deployed Křešín with its twelve obsolete 80 mm vz. 5/8 field guns. The 4th Bicycle Battalion was deployed in Hořovice as a screening force. The 9th Tank Battalion was deployed behind Zdice.
At 11:00, Hoepner's 1st Light Division advanced toward Hořovice, where they ran into the Czech covering force. After a short engagement, the Czechs yielded Hořovice without a fight. German forces attempted to outflank the town, unaware of the retreat. Some 50 light Panzers ran into the French strongpoint at Zdice. The Czech defences equipped with eight 37 mm KPÚV vz. 34 anti-tank guns, supported by parts of the 88th Artillery Detachment. The defenders suffered heavy casualties, but managed to hold the line. The Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler attempted to circumvent the defences south of Chodouň, but ran into heavy machine gun and artillery fire and had to retreat.
After regrouping, Guderian ordered the corps to renew their attacks at 13:00. The 1st Panzer Division on the north facing Zdice, the Leibstandarte facing Chodouň and the 1st Light Division facing Libomyšl and Lochovice. The motorized infantry suffered serious losses to air and artillery bombardment, while German motorcyclists followed by armoured cars searched for infiltration points. From about 13:30, the 1st Motorized Brigade signalled some 80 Panzers opposite Zdice, while some 100 south of Libomyšl. The soldiers defended their strong points supported by their anti-tank guns and artillery, but their resistance began to crumple at about 14:30 as German numbers and lack of munitions told.
It was at this time the Czech 2nd Tank Battalion emerged from the Brdy forests along the axis Hvozdec – Podluhy – Rpety and advanced to the left and right of Hořovice supported by a regiment of dragoons and artillery. The 65th Panzer Detachment of the 1st Light Division faced an attack by Czech armour, and both sides clashed while on the offensive. From 15:00 to 15:48 the 65th Panzer Detachment issued repeated, urgent calls for anti-tank units and the Luftwaffe to deal with Czech tanks. The 1st Panzer Division, still opposite Zdice, suddenly found itself attacked in the flank and rear by "superior" Czech armoured forces. The 65th Panzer Detachment war diary recorded the 15 minutes during which they stood alone.
Seeing that the right flank of the entire corps was now dangerously exposed, Schmidt ordered the 1st Panzer Division's 2nd Panzer-Regiment back to his right. The Panzers were numerically superior and could be seen moving in large formations while the Czechs operated in small groups and fired more slowly. The Germans forced the Czech tanks to retreat, bringing the fight before Hořovice to a successful conclusion at about 16:00. The Germans had suffered heavy losses, however, as the Czechs were successful in destroying 27 tanks and 14 armoured cars, with the loss of only fifteen tanks. While Schmidt redirected the 2nd Panzer-Regiment toward Hořovice, the Czech 9th Tank Battalion attacked the 1st Panzer-Regiment near Zdice at 15:00. The 9th Tank Battalion managed to destroy 11 tanks and 8 armoured cars with the loss of four tanks, forcing the 1st Panzer-Regiment to fall back to Žebrák. As the riflemen took up defensive positions, the Panzers put out an urgent call for 20 and 37 mm ammunition.
At 16:30 the 1st Light Division renewed the attacks Libomyšl and Lochovice, and the defences began to crumple shortly thereafter. As the Czech artillery opened fire and German artillery responded, the Czechs pushed armour into the abandoned towns of Chlustina and Sedlec in an attempt to circumvent the Germans. The German tanks decided to bypass the towns around its left flank, but this exposed the German infantry who were forced to give ground against encroaching Czech armour. The Panzers quickly did a u-turn and engaged the Czechs in the open. Initially the Czechs held the advantage due to their superior armour and firepower, but German tactics of schwerpunkt, concentrating their armour on the vital point, began to tell. The Czech armour, seeing they were about to be encircled, retreated toward Zdice, losing an additional nine tanks. The Germans lost an additional eleven tanks. The 1st Panzer Regiment went on the offensive, again attacking the Czech positions in Zdice, which fell by 18:00. While the Czech defenders had been pushed further toward Beroun, their had not been broken.
Farther south, the 1st Light Division had broken through and reached Hostomice and Neumětely by 18:00. Having already evacuated the motorized artillery in Lážovice to Mnísek due to the eminent breakthrough, Fišera ordered a retreat. The remnants of the 9th Tank Battalion and the 1st Motorized Brigade retreated toward Revnice and Beroun, crossing the bridges over the Berounka river later that evening. The Cavalry Brigade and the 2nd Tank Battalion retreated to Mníšek pod Brdy, crossing the Vltava River near Zbraslav during the night of 4–5 October.
The German Pz.Kpfw. III and IV were the only German tanks that could outmatch the LT vz. 35 in battle. While the LT vz. 35 was considered to be of better quality than the majority of the German tanks, German tactics proved superior; by using radio to coordinate manoeuvre, the Germans outwitted the Czechs who were limited to rigid, static positioning. Several of the Czech tanks lacked radio equipment tanks and thus could not communicate with such fluidity or rapidity. The German tanks also had more crew members, so the commander could concentrate on command tasks while Czech tank commanders had to act as gunner and assistant gunner. Lack of coordination between the Czech tanks and the infantry was also a contributing factor to the Czech defeat.
While the Panzers and motorized infantry were being resupplied, Guderian decided to pursuit the retreating Czechs, ordering the reconnaissance units of the 1st Panzer and 1st Light Divisions to advance on Beroun and Revnice, respectively. By midnight the armoured cars and motorcycles had reached Králův Dvůr and Nesvačily before halting.
The losses on both sides were quite high. The Germans lost approximately 710 men (310 killed and 400 wounded), and between 80 AFVs (at least 58 of them tanks). The Czech division suffered 340 killed and 516 wounded, as well as 300 horses and several guns. A total of 34 tanks had been destroyed, disabled or abandoned, of which at least 20 were lost to enemy tanks. While the Czech tank formations had inflicted heavy losses on the German Panzers, there were too few Czech tanks and they could not prevent the Germans from breaking through the lines.