Hanička artillery fort was one of many fortifications we were to visit that formed part of a defensive chain to protect the then Czechoslovakia against Nazi Germany. Construction began in 1936 with a planned completion date of 1942. By 1938 264 heavy defences such as forts and casemates were complete as were an astonishing 10,000 light defences such as pillboxes. Many of the other structures were near completion although few of the heavy armaments had been installed. The largest fortresses (like the grand ouvrages of the Maginot Line) were known as tvrzi (strongholds) and consist of a heavily defended entrance block, linked by deep underground tunnels to five or six ‘fighting’ blocks or casemates. Of these casemates, one or two would have typically housed artillery pieces (cannon and howitzers) and the others light and heavy machine guns and observation posts.
Named after the nearby village (literally ‘Little Hannah‘), the fort was constructed between 1936 and 1938 by the Bedřich Hlava Company of Prague. It was to have been garrisoned by 426 soldiers but the site was handed over to the Germans without a shot being fired on 10 October 1938 after thethe Munich Agreement. This agreement (referred to by Czechs as the Munich betrayal or diktat) involved France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom and is famously recalled in Chamberlain’s return to London clutching the agreement and claiming ‘peace for our time’. The agreement, signed on September 30 1938 allowed Germany to occupy Sudetenland on the basis that this would be the limit of their territorial demands. Czechoslovakia thus lost almost all of its border defences as well as the majority of its power and iron and steel production and was left with no real option but to accede to the agreement. Of course Hitler’s subsequent invasions made the Munich Agreement an empty promise.
If completed, the fort‘s armaments would have included one artillery casemate, one artillery turret and three infantry (machine gun) casemates. Post war, the site was used to supply drinking water to the nearby town of Rokytnice. In the 1950s much of the remaining metal, incuding turrets, was removed by the Kovošrot scrap metal company, apparently without authorisation. A brief period followed when the site was used as a vegetable store but difficult access in winter made this impractical. Another unusual use was for testing a communication system for the Prague Metro system. In 1969 for a period the fort was opened to the public but this came to an end in 1975 when the site was requisitioned by the Czech Interior Ministry.
Modifications to the site began in 1979 to turn the fort into a nuclear bunker, designated as the command post for the Department for Home Affairs – broadly equivalent to the UK Government HQ beneath Corsham Codenamed Objekt Kahan ( ‘Burner‘), other nearby sites would have provided backup and communications support. The surface buildings were secured and shafts blocked off while the underground corridors and chambers were re-equipped with modern plant and accommodation facilities Work continued until 1993 when works stopped; the bunker still unfinished despite the expenditure of hundreds of millions of Koruna Now the property of the local town, the fort now operates as a museum with surface exhibits and guided tours.
Entering a surface compound, we had time to look round a collection of vehicles and artefacts before the tour began. These included a rare cupola (most were scrapped) or, as termed by the Czech military, an ‘offensive cloche’. Other exhibits included a ‘Lizard’ anti-aircraft gun, a T34 tank and an OT810 half-track Armoured Personnel Carrier. A surface building had been added in the Cold War and this rather shoddily built addition now houses an exhibition including some superb models of the fort at 1:35 scale. Our journey underground then began, descending 98 steps to the communication corridor. Side passages off the corridor held three 1980s generators, with diesel storage adjacent. There were also tanks for drinking water and sewage holding tanks. The rest of the side passages (originally grenade stores for the howitzer) held a decontamination suite, a technical control post and air handling plant. Unfortunately, visitors are only allowed to view these from the main tunnel.
Moving on down the tunnel from the plant area, we passed through gas-tight doors. After around 300 metres we reached the barrack area or caserne. All signs of the World War II narrow gauge railway had been concreted over. The distance from the entrance to the barrack area is generally slightly longer than in the Maginot forts whereas the distance to the fighting casemates is a little shorter. The barrack side passages had again been modified in the Cold War but had been partially stripped out. The forward machine gun ammunition store had become a dining room and small hospital which still retained some medical equipment. Dormitories complete with bunks and smaller rooms for officers were alongside and a toilet block was also still in place. We continued along the main corridor for perhaps another 350 metres to reach one of the infantry blocks. This involved another lengthy stairway up to the surface. No guns were in place but the firing points could be seen – the ladders up to the turrets had all been removed. The casemate was surrounded by a dry moat and grenade tubes were still in place that would have offered a defence against close quarter attackers.
Exiting to the fresh air, we admired the outside of casemate R-S 76. This is arguably the best preserved in the Czech Republic and retains embrasures and cupolas for both light and heavy machine guns. There is also an observation cupola for the nearby artillery casemate. A small ventilation cupola completes the set up. The positions had the highest level of resistance when built – designated class IV. This includes walls of 3.5 metres of reinforced concrete and cupolas of 30cm of high quality steel; each cupola weighed around 56 tonnes. Photography over, we ambled back to our entrance point. En route we passed one of the other turrets which would have held a 10mmm howitzer but the turret here was long gone.