Part 1 - the "Freedom tank"
In order to undestand the situation of certain people, we have to go way back, to the last days of the Second world war. Nazi war machine was broken, German soldiers were giving up all over the place and the freed nations of Europe rejoiced. Some people however saw even then that the it's not all roses and rainbows, seeing the Soviet tanks rolling thru Prague.
After the war ended, most of Czechoslovakia was "liberated" by the Soviets, apart from the western Bohemia, which was under American supervision. This was caused by the American-Soviet deal, according to which the Americans stopped in Pilsen and left Prague for the Soviets to liberate two days later than could have.
And so, the reformed Czechoslovakia was left in Soviet influence. This naturally boosted the communist party influence and the political left generally (conservative politicians were pictured - mostly truthfully - as collaborators and the biggest pre-war conservative party practically ceased to exist). The communist influence grew and in February 1948, a coup d'etat (allowed by by then very weak president Beneš) finally gave them the power they desired.
One of the effects of the "new order" was - apart from the persecution, imprisonment and sometimes murdering of "unreliable" people (priests, farmers, small business owners, former soldiers who fought in the west and many others) was closing of the borders. Just like in other communist countries, the communist regime was concerned (and rightfully so) that the elite of the nation and many young people would try to emmigrate, seeing what's happening in the country. Since 1948 it was not only legally impossible to travel out of the country without permission, the borders were also physically guarded by soldiers.
At first (during the first two years after the coup), it was not that difficult to cross the borders in general - this was the time of the "Kings of Böhmerwald" - mostly old pre-war smugglers who knew the border region and (for a price) guided people over the mountains and forests to Bavaria. Some did it out of hate for communists, but most did it for the money. That doesn't mean however they were not in danger - some fought to the death when discovered by the border guards.
However, in the early 50's, such escapes became too big a risk. In 1949, an official Border Guard unit was formed from "reliable" people (often fanatical communists), the borders were barred with kilometers of barbed wire (which was also electrified) and whole regions were covered with anti-personell and sometimes even anti-tank mines. This fearsome system was dismantled only in mid 60's and replaced with guarded signal towers and signal tripwires.
Of course, the persecuted people from the groups mentioned above tried to escape by various means. Some used airplanes, hot air balloons, a train or - in two cases this article is a about - an armored vehicle.
The story of Mr.Uhlík's daring escape begins in 1948. Mr.František Uhlík was a car mechanic. He owned a small car repair shop near Pilsen. He had a wife and two kids and was just an ordinary man, until the coup. In the months that followed, his car shop was "nationalized" (as all the other small businesses were) and Mr.Uhlík was forced to work as a truck driver, hauling timber in the western Bohemia hills. That was when he started considering an illegal escape.
Around 1950, by coincidence, his wife Marta met Mrs. Libuše Cloud. "Cloud" is obviously not a Czech name - what happened was Mrs.Cloud (born as "Hrdonková") met an American soldier by the name of Leonard Cloud. They met shortly after the war, but he was ordered back to America. He returned in 1948 however on travel visa and married Mrs.Cloud - after that however, his presence was undesirable to communists and he was forced to leave the country, leaving Mrs.Cloud behind (she was not allowed to leave). When Mrs.Cloud heard of Mr.Uhlík's wishes to escape, she joined the attempt.
The first try happened in 1950. Mr.Uhlík, his family and Mrs.Cloud stole a heavy truck and planned to use it to simply drive thru the border. However, upon reaching it, they found out the border is guarded much heavier than it was in previous years and that there is a wooden roadblock, guarded by soldiers in the way. They realized they need something much heavier to break thru the border and they returned (they managed to avoid suspicion by returning the truck too).
Mr.Uhlík thought hard about how he would do it, but couldn't find a way. But he got lucky: during one of his timber hauls, he found a burned out wreck of a tracked vehicle in the forest. Some sources claim it was a Bren Carrier, but it in fact was an Austrian Saurer RR-7 armored tractor, known under the German designation of Sdkfz 254.
It was an interesting vehicle. For one, it had the wheel-cum-track system, designed to allow the vehicle to reach high speeds on the road with wheels and also to reach places where only a tracked vehicle could tread.
This particular Saurer was nearly completely destroyed, but Mr.Uhlík saw an opportunity in it - an opportunity to build an armored escape vehicle. He took the wreck home and worked on it openly, telling everyone the vehicle would be great for hauling wood. The repair took a long time however. In 1951, he got another helper tho, Mr.Waltr Hora. Hora was born in the nearby village and know Mr.Uhlík and his family well. At the time of the escape, he was a conscript pressed into service and was stationed nearby. He helped Mr.Uhlík build the vehicle even while he was wearing the uniform. The original superstructure was destroyed, so Mr.Uhlík made a new one from thin armor plates he got somewhere. The crew compartment also got armored and he put two crude benches in it for his family to sit on.
The repairs were nearly ready in summer 1951 and the vehicle got thoroughly tested in terrain (Mr.Uhlík actually really used it to haul timber). The escape took months of preparation and mapping and the whole plan was finally ready in October 1952. That day, Mr.Uhlík, his family, Mrs.Cloud and Mr.Hora (who escaped the garrison while stealing a submachine gun to defend the vehicle with) waited for the night, boarded the vehicle and started to drive towards the borders. In the beginning it went all well, but when they neared the borders, the old engine started to overheat and refused to work on one particularily nasty slope. Luck was with Mr.Uhlík again however, as he managed to field-repair the vehicle, turned around and he and his crew made it safely home (Waltr Hora returned to the garrison with the gun, which he did put back in place).
After this attempt, it was clear that the old engine wouldn't cut it. Despite this setback, Mr.Uhlík wouldn't give up on his dream of freedom for him and his family. In Spring 1953 he managed to procure a new engine of unknown type (it is speculated it belonged to an old heavy track from Mr.Uhlík's job). In the meanwhile, the armor was strengthened (after an attempt to shoot the original plates with a revolver, the bullet went straight thru, much to the crew's dismay) and new tyres were also installed. The crew got bigger too: the attempt to escape was joined by Václav Krejčeřík (W.Hora's friend from the army) and J.Pisařík, an old ex-farmer, whose farm got "nationalized", he was arrested in 1948 (as many farmers, so called "kulaks" were) and spent several years in prison for being "the enemy of the people".
The second escape attempt began in the night on 24th July, 1953. Using the wheels, the vehicle with its crew travelled fast thru the sleeping villages without being seen and reached the borders at dawn. About 250 meters from the border it was spotted by guards, at which point Mr.Uhlík dropped the vehicle on tracks and closed all the hatches. The guards, mouths open with surprise just stood there and watched as the vehicle drove off-road. With the engine roaring, it ripped thru the barbed wire and slammed into the wooden barriers behind it, tearing them to splinters. Moments later, it was on the other side and drove away. The guards were so surprised they didn't even manage to fire a warning shot. Afterwards, some of the guards were punished by prison for this incident.
And what happened to the crew? Mr.Uhlík drove the vehicle 30 kilometers into Germany. Soon, he encountered US Army patrols and asked for asylum. This was made a lot easier by the presence of Mrs.Cloud, who spoke fluent English. Upon discovering she was married to a US citizen, the whole crew was taken to the German town of Cham, where it was treated with respect and debriefed by CIC. The asylum for them all was granted.
The whole incident was heavily publicized by western press and the vehicle was dubbed "Freedom tank". The fates of the crew separated in December 1953 in New York, after which they followed their own lives and never saw each other again. Mr.Uhlík lived until his death in 70's in Fresno (California) and worked as a driver, he had two more kids with his wife in the USA.
Mrs.Cloud was reunited with her husband in Sioux City and she lived there until her death in the 90's (she was the only adult crew member to see the fall of communism). The ex-farmer Josef Pisařík worked as a gardener in Springfield until his death in the 60's. Waltr Hora worked until pension i a Chevrolet factory and so did his friend Krejčeřík, who moved to an unknown place after some time.
Václav Uhlík (the man in the back) with his family
The "freedom tank" was shown as a curiosity for a while and spent a few decades in the Ford museum in the USA. Later it was acquired by a private collector from Michigan, who has it until today.
Part II - "Hrušecký tank"
Sometimes, the picture above surfaces on forums and it is often said that it is some sort of a secret Czechoslovak anti.aircraft project or something like that. The truth however is much simple, though no less interesting.
It is an improvised armored vehicle, built in 1970 by a family to escape the tough normalisation years. Now, for most people reading this blog, the word "normalisation" means the shell angle correction mechanism in WoT. In Czech however, this word has a completely different meaning.
After the terror of the 1950's, the situation seemed to improve in the 60's. That time was called the era of "reformed socialism", with more emphasis being put on consumer products. It was still communism of course - but the situation eased up a bit. Foreign movies and music made it to Czechoslovakia for example and it all seemed like a respite from the grim 50's. That however all ended with the Soviet 1968 invasion. Percieving this (partial) freedom trend as a threat, the Soviets installed a hardline communist government and got rid of the reformists from the 60's. This post-invasion era is called "normalisation", because the relationship between Czechoslovakia and Soviet union was "normalised" again. While not as tough as the 50's, times were still tough for many people (a lot of people who were supporting the reforms got fired from their jobs, got transferred etc.) and as a result, many chose to escape.
While the most common way to escape at that point was to go on a foreign vacation (which was allowed under certain circumstances) and never to return, this was rarely possible for the whole family. Alternative means were sought.
The strange "armored vehicle" depicted above was one of them. It was not really a "tank" - it didn't have tracks, the whole chassis was built on a Wartburg 311 car frame. The armor was made of 4 layers of cca 1,5mm thick metal. The "turret" was fake and so was the barrel, the vehicle was unarmed.
It was handbuilt in a home garage by Mr. Beneš near Břeclav, who wanted to escape the oppression along with his family to Austria. He built it completely inside the garage and designed it to fit his wife and two children inside. It was powered by two different engines, but everything was very rudimentary. It is now known how long it took to build, but it was ready on 19.5.1970. While technically sound and well-made, it was never tested un the day it was supposed to carry the family to Austria - and that proved to be its downfall.
After the nightfall, the entire family stuffed themselves under the armored hood of the "tank" and Mr.Beneš drove the vehicle straight thru the wall (the garage door was too narrow to fit) - there was no turning back now. Without anyone noticing it passed the sleeping village and was headed towards the borders.
Its trip was however short-lived. For reasons unknown (it is speculated that the electroinstallation got wet after driving into a deep water-filled hole in the road), the electrical recharge systems failed and the vehicle was riding "on battery only". It was clear to Mr.Beneš that he wouldnt make it to the borders, so he parked the vehicle under a nearby bridge, got his family home and then alone took a bicycle and crossed the borders to Austria, leaving his family behind.
As you can imagine, this had severe consequences for them. The vehicle was discovered under the bridge in the morning and it didn't take too much effort for the police to find out who it belonged to. The wife was arrested and informed that her husband is dead - he however escaped and allegedly later managed to get his family out to Austria, how - that however is not known.
As for the vehicle itself, it was seized by the police and resides to this day in the Czech police museum.