World War II and the air raid on Zlín

  • Bohumil Lehár, Dějiny Baťova koncernu (1894-1945), Praha 1960
  • František Vojta, Bombardování města Zlína a Baťových závodů americkým letectvem za druhé světové války, Gottwaldovsko od minulosti k současnosti , 1986, s. 7-36
  • Jaroslav Klepáč, Bombardování zlínských závodů 1944, Gottwaldov 1963

The Second World War posed a serious security risk to the operation of the globally operating Baťa Group, while at the same time, however, the war offered considerable economic potential. Baťa's management, approaching the international political situation pragmatically, considered it important to recognise economic perspectives even in the new situation. However, the unfavourable and even hostile atmosphere in Germany threatened to grow with Nazi expansion into the expropriation and loss of control over individual subsidiaries, or even over the entire group. The Group's active countermeasures in the form of Germanisation and Nazi-isation of the statutory bodies of individual companies, penetration into the country's economic and political power structures, transfers of assets between related financial groups, as well as a sophisticated system of interventions, lobbying and informal contacts, repelled various attacks from outside.
Despite considerable initial risks, Baťa's management, through manoeuvring successfully, managed to reach a close connection with the "integration" core of the Third Reich in the first years of the occupation, which opened up new economic opportunities for the group's business. Some, though perhaps overly extravagant, estimates point to an increase in employment in the Bata world group in connection with World War II, even up to 100,000 employees - most of them in continental Europe controlled by the Nazi regime and its satellites. By the end of 1943 alone, the group companies had absorbed more than 53,000 employees in the Protectorate alone. At the same time, the group's connection to the German economy remained sufficiently flexible, so that at the time of the German defeat, the group's business could as easily break out of its economic and social structures.
From the first days of the occupation, the production programme of the parent plants of Zlín had to cope with the demands and requirements of the Nazi administration. Industries important for the conduct of the war were under the direct control of German commissioners. In the Zlín factories, this mainly concerned engineering production, which was compulsorily involved in deliveries for the German Wehrmacht. In contrast, "civilian" production brought more room for manoeuvre; During the process of compulsory cartelisation of individual sectors, the Baťa management achieved stable positions in the German economic authorities, where it co-created German economic policy through its German representatives.
Over the years, the Group's headquarters in Zlín succeeded in gaining the support of some central and regional administrative German party bodies. It found understanding, for example, in the Reich Protector for Bohemia and Moravia, Konstantin von Neurath, or in Vienna, with the governor for lower Austria Hugo Jury. The Reich Ministry of Economy was especially accommodating. A citizen of the Reich Albrecht Miesbach, invited by the Baťa management to manage Baťa from the position of director and member of the Board of Directors, acted as a confidant of interested parties to their mutual satisfaction. Supervising a major economic entity such as Baťa's plants strengthened the prestige and competitive position with other power, party and administrative centres of the Nazi regime. The Zlín directorate also found support for its needs and specific interests in the German administrative and party bodies.
Until the last phase of World War II, the Protectorate managed to avoid the effects of wartime. Only when the US armies occupied Italian airports, the Red Army launched operations on the Danube, and Anglo-American troops reached the Rhine, did the Allied bombers reach the rim of the Zlín industrial agglomeration. From the spring of 1944 their planes were seen in the sky by Zlín’s inhabitants more and more often. The flights of numerous bombing alliances were related to the destruction of German strategic military targets in industrial Silesia, which had so far been minimally affected thanks to its distant location.
The anticipated liberation from German occupation brought an optimistic mood to the inhabitants of the protectorate towards the end of the war, a mood which was not tainted by the occasional flights of Allied aircraft overhead. They seemed to pose no greater security risk because they were aimed at foreign targets. Although the obligatory evacuation of residents to shelters and safe facilities during the announced air alarms was a pleasant distraction for factory employees and school students, it was not a frivolous exercise. The evacuation of urban areas was perfectly organised, each evacuee knowing the exact procedure and goal of their transfer.
The first harbinger of the catastrophe was the raid on Zlín on October 13, 1944. One of five cruising American planes dropped several bombs on the Letná residential area and the adjacent forest. One bomb hit the factory complex, two the football stadium near the power plant and one landed near a horticulture facility. Of the 68 houses hit, eleven were completely destroyed and twelve severely damaged. Of the industrial buildings, the garage building near Malenovská Street (today Tomáš Baťa Avenue) was the most severely affected. Two people were killed during the raid. Seven people were seriously injured, three of whom later succumbed to their serious injuries. Another three dozen people were moderately injured.
The city and its inhabitants experienced the much more serious consequences of the approaching front on November 20, 1944. Due to low visibility over the main target of the raid, the factory complex in Silesian Blechhammer, two US 15th Air Force units attacked alternative strategic facilities in Moravia and Silesia. Factory complexes and train stations in Opava, Brno, Hodonín, Břeclav, Zlín and Přerov were bombed.
In Zlín, a raid lasting only three minutes (12:35 - 12:38) claimed 24 lives, injured 90 people and caused hundreds of millions in property damage. The bombing hit an area about 1,500 metres long and about 600 metres wide, and consisted of 175 fragmentation bombs and 56 time bombs. The devastating bombing hit public buildings on náměstí Práce and the neighbouring Malenovská Street (the Social House hotel then called Viktoria, the Big Cinema, the Social and Health Institute, and the Tomáš Baťa Memorial).
There was also a significant impact on residential areas in the vicinity of the factory complex. Several burgher family houses on Nádražní Street in the Trávník district were affected. Of the residential districts of Baťa houses, the Nad Ovčírnou and Letná company houses were hit, with the greatest damage being caused to the oldest company structures (houses with mansard roofs and the oldest variations of houses with flat roofs) on Antonínova, Kotěrova, Mostní and Na Vyhlídce streets. 62 residential houses were completely destroyed and condemned for demolition, 54 houses were severely damaged and 312 houses showed minor damage. Hundreds of families of Baťa employees, including dozens of individuals still staying at the hotel, had to seek refuge in rural areas or settle for various makeshift solutions.
Most of the bombs hit the factory premises during the November air raid. The Allied Air Force managed to seriously hit its eastern side. There was a complete paralysis of the shoe production located there. The bombing demolished buildings No. 14, 15, 16 and 26, while most of the remaining buildings in the decimal row and part of the vigesimal row were significantly damaged. It was the oldest development of factory buildings, of which only building no. 13 has been preserved to this day. In addition, the representative building of the shoe warehouse (two blocks of buildings no. 32 and 33) also suffered serious damage. Its northern eleven-storey part (building no. 33), including the connecting annex, were demolished to the foundations, and in the course of 1946, 6 disturbed floors were demolished from the southern ten-storey part (building no. 32). Later, one floor was added, so the resulting building was five storeys high. Furthermore, both of the then industrial schools (buildings no. 2 and 3) had to be put out of use in this sector, and building no. 11, which was already largely filled with administration by then, was also severely hit. Many of these buildings had to be pulled down.
The destruction of buildings 34 and 44 and serious damage to building no. 43, which served as a warehouse for raw materials and chemicals and contained a central mixing chamber, also significantly disrupted rubber production, which was located in rows of buildings with numbers from 30 and 40 onward. The power plant complex supplying the factory and the city suffered similarly heavy losses. In many places, electricity networks, water lines, steam pipes, sewers, cable cars, transporters, and the company's railway sidings were cut off. The local Otrokovice - Vizovice railway line was interrupted at the Zlín railway station. On the other hand, the central and western part of the factory complex remained virtually unaffected, where, in addition to the tyre and hosiery factories, engineering production serving the war purposes of Nazi Germany took place.
After the end of the world's most terrible conflict into which humanity was plunged, history seemed to take a new starting point. In Zlín history began from zero. The ubiquitous destruction caused by the war in the form of an air raid on the factory buildings in the area made it possible to define a new era. Even during the war, shortly after the fires were extinguished, repairs began to the damaged buildings and disrupted infrastructure. Grids were put into operation, surviving parts of buildings were torn down, cracked masonry was replaced, torn roofs covered, and smashed windows were glazed. In the case of seriously damaged but still usable buildings, all load-bearing beams and partly also the ceiling beams were supported with additional masonry from bottom to top. Larger investments came only with the liberation after 1945. In a rapid sequence of two years, factory buildings were built and renovated on the site of the rubble, especially in the decimal row, the oldest part of the factory premises.

New buildings 14 and 15, designed by architect Jiří Voženílek, became a hallmark of post-war restoration. He was one of the most progressive post-war architects, employed in the Construction Department of the Baťa company from 1937. Voženílk's concept testifies to the creative ability to incorporate new elements into the existing overall masterplan elaborated by František Lýdie Gahura so that the previous style, based on a reinforced concrete skeleton, flat, cardboard-covered roofs and face brick infills between columns alternating with massive glass windows consisting of more than half of the facades, was not disturbed, but complemented and further developed. Voženílek had to abandon the existing obligatory Baťa construction standard based on a span of 6.15 × 6.15 m, mainly for operational reasons. During the renovation of the building, he enlarged both outermost fields. This created a dimension of 7.85 × 6.15 × 7.85 m, and hygienic equipment and air-conditioning engine rooms could then be inserted into the outermost fields. A new design type of factory building, built symbolically on the site of the very first two-storey factory building, set a new standard that could be used in other variations.

On November 20, 1944, a raid on Zlín which lasted only a few minutes categorically changed the face of the Baťa factory complex and adjacent residential districts. Post-war construction brought verticality to the most destroyed eastern parts of the plant, where the horizontal distribution of buildings had so far prevailed. It is all the more valuable, as the buildings in this part of the factory are prominent in the city's silhouette and distant views from the city centre.
With the exception of building no.13, the oldest buildings of factory premises from the beginning of the twentieth century all disappeared. Their construction rested on the perimeter load-bearing walls supplemented by a grid of wooden (later steel) columns, and whose face brick side surfaces were filled with massive arched windows. In such vacated places, buildings using a new construction model based on the extension of both outermost fields, which was theoretically developed already during the war, could be placed. The destroyed double block of the central shoe warehouse in the central part of the complex, which undoubtedly represented the peak of the creative abilities of interwar Baťa engineering in 1939 before construction of the 21st "administrative" building (skyscraper), was replaced by the equally impressive building of the central warehouse No. 34, unique with its robust volumes.
Despite the extraordinary post-war work, however, it took many years for the consequences of the bombing to be healed in the factory complex. In the non-manufacturing sector, the recovery was even slower, and in the Letná district the effects of the bomb damage are still recognisable today.

Martin Marek