Battle of the Dukla Pass: Historian and Veteran Visit
C-RS New Jersey Chapter
By Susyn Mihalasky (C-RS, Blairstown, NJ)
(New Rusyn Times, May/June
On Saturday, May 13, the Carpatho-Rusyn Society’s New Jersey
Chapter hosted historian Bill Tarkulich’s
(C-RS, Lexington, MA) fascinating and detailed history of one of the largest
World War II battles fought on Rusyn territory, the Battle of the Dukla
Pass. A veteran of that battle,
83-year-old John Kulhan, was also on hand to provide his own eyewitness account
of the battle.
This 1944 Soviet campaign to wrest control of a key
Carpathian mountain pass away from the German Army, resulted in the deaths of
over 138,000 combatants. The
fighting occurred in a region populated largely by Carpatho-Rusyn villages;
Carpatho-Rusyns were heavily represented among civilian casualties. Tarkulich provided a broad overview the
battle, the events that precipitated it and its impact on the lands and people. Over fifty people were in attendance.
Tarkulich began his talk with a few notes about
himself. A 26-year veteran of the
computer industry, he first became interested in history when he began root
searching in 1998. Of mixed Rusyn
and German ancestry, Tarkulich began to study the history of his ancestors’
homeland and was surprised to discover that the large and bloody Dukla Pass
battle was so little known in the west.
The battle resulted in the largest number of casualties on Slovak soil,
138,000 combatants and civilians in 50 days (by comparison, Tarkulich pointed
out, the Battle of the Bulge cost 160,000 lives in 40 days).
The Dukla Pass held a great deal of geostrategic
significance for both the Soviet and Nazi German armies because it was a
relatively low-altitude area (1,300-1,600 ft) that allowed for easier north-south
passage between Poland on the one side and northwestern Slovakia and the
Hungarian plains on the other.
Indeed, the Pass was fought over by the warring Russian and Austrian
armies during World War I, with the Russians taking it in September 1914 and
the Austrians reclaiming it in December.
The story of the Dukla Pass battle is essentially the story
of misjudgment and of careful planning gone awry. With the Nazis suffering increasing setbacks in 1944, the
Soviet plan in April 1944 had originally been to push across the flat Polish
plains to Berlin and Vienna. The
Dukla region was to be bypassed because it was in a mountainous region at the
time strongly fortified with German heavy armaments, land mines and bunkers.
Approximately 20,000 Germans with 200 artillery pieces controlled the Dukla
region. The Germans had cut the forests to further enhance their visual
advantage over the battlefield.
In June, the Allies landed at Normandy and anti-Nazi
underground partisan resistance intensified among Slovaks and Hungarians. Hoping to aid and cooperate with the
partisans, the Soviets and their Czech military allies revised their plans in
September 1944 to come through the Dukla Pass. They expected little resistance and anticipated that the
battle would conclude within a week.
Within the first days of the early September offensive, however, both
the Soviet and Czech armies became bogged down in German defenses around the
Dukla Pass. Unknown to the
Soviets, the Germans had successfully repressed the Slovak resistance and had
refortified the area with their own troops in anticipation of a Soviet
attack. Soviet intelligence
discovered their error only on the second day of the battle.
The Rusyns’ role in this quickly-developing quagmire was to
provide intelligence, protection, provisions and mountain guides to lead Soviet
and Czech troops safely across the mountains. Their contributions were critical to the Soviet effort. Numerous civilians died because the
battle took place among still-unevacuated villages. Some villagers were able to flee into the woods, or hid in
root cellars and in deep holes they dug in the ground. The Germans were not deliberately
targeting or burning villages, Tarkulich said. Burning villages would have allowed the Soviets to see the
precise location of German soldiers.
Villagers returning home from forest hideouts at the conclusion of
battles often found scattered human and animal corpses, homesteads damaged
beyond repair, hidden food supplies broken into and depleted or soldiers living
in their homes.
Tarkulich’s presentation included historic photos,
quotations and some statistics that effectively brought home the extent of the
bloodshed and destruction. In the
village of Snina, for example, 918 homesteads were destroyed and 2,000 heavily
damaged. In the region around
Snina, 11 villages were 90% destroyed, 250 cows were killed and 180 were
injured by landmines. Svidnyk was
virtually destroyed. The Soviets
took 31,000 prisoners.
October 6th, the day the Soviet and Czech armies
retook the Pass, is still commemorated today in Slovakia as “Liberation Day”
(formerly “Czechoslovak Army Day”).
This battle victory was not the end of the campaign, however. The worst tank battles took place at
the end of October in the “Valley of Death” (Rus.: Dolyna Smerty) around the villages of Nyžnja Pysana and
Kapišova. The Soviets and Czechs
reached Prešov on January 19, 1945, four months “late.” The battle that had
been expected to last six days instead stretched out to a brutal three months.
Also in January 1945, Auschwitz was liberated and in May, Berlin fell.
After the war, Tarkulich said, poverty and unemployment
remained high in the region. No infrastructure was in place to provide housing,
health services or schooling for children. As a result, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and diphtheria
contributed to a high infant mortality rate. Refugees were still living in tents as late as five years
after the war. One-quarter of the
population remained illiterate.
Paramilitaries and violent criminals continued to rove the woods for
years after the battles, occasionally emerging to kill villagers.
Following Tarkulich’s presentation, Dukla Pass veteran John
Kulhan spoke about his memories.
Born in 1922 in Dolný Síleš, Czechoslovakia (today Dolný Vinodol,
Slovakia), John was the second oldest son of 11 children. John was drafted into the Slovak army
in 1939 at the start of Operation Barbarossa. Following a brief stint as a prisoner of war, John played a
critical role in the Battle for the Dukla Pass, helping to destroy Poland’s oil
fields in the Krosno region and then leading his soldiers on to the Dukla
Pass. He was awarded the Order of
the White Eagle for heroism and today has the additional distinction of being
the last known living survivor of the battle.
Note: Bill Tarkulich maintains an excellent web page
devoted to the Dukla Pass battle: http://www.iabsi.com/gen/public/Military_dukla_pass.htm
Czechoslovak soldiers plant the state symbol of
Czechoslovakia at the border with Poland at the Dukla Pass.
A map of the Dukla Pass region; the pass is near the center,
between Barvinok/Barwinek, Poland, and V ŷšnij Komarnyk/Vyšný Komárnik,
A Soviet Army unit in battle at the Dukla Pass.
General Ludvík Svoboda, commander of the Czechoslovak Army
Corps, with Rusyn villagers in Vŷšnij Komarnyk after the battle.
John Kulhan as a Czechoslovak Army soldier.
The monument to those lost in the Carpathian-Dukla
Operation, above V ŷšnij Komarnyk.