Undercover agents dropped by parachute into occupied central Europe. The daylight assassination of one of the most-important Nazi leaders. Brutal reprisals and the largest manhunt in the Second World War. A betrayal leading to a final desperate shoot-out in a church.
The plot to kill Reinhard Heydrich, the merciless SS Obergruppenführer in charge of Bohemia and Moravia (today’s Czech Republic), has all the ingredients of a thriller. Not surprisingly, over the years it has been the subject of several dramatic feature films – from the largely fictional wartime production Hangmen Also Die! to Operation Daybreak in 1975 and, more recently, Anthropoid and The Man with the Iron Heart.
What actually happened in Prague in the late spring of 1942?
The Blond Beast
Thirty-eight at the time of his assassination, Reinhard Heydrich was the youngest of the senior Nazis, and also the most feared. His various nicknames – the ‘Butcher’ or ‘Hangman’ of Prague, the ‘Blond Beast’ – bear witness to the chilling reputation he acquired in his nine months as effective dictator of the Czech lands.
Unlike other members of Hitler’s inner circle, the tall, athletic, fair-haired Heydrich resembled the Nazi ideal of Aryan manhood. Yet he was also something of an outsider. As a youth, he was dogged by unfounded claims that he had Jewish ancestry. This was because his grandmother’s second husband had the surname Süss, which was a common Jewish name.
Heydrich came from the insecure German middle-class, which provided the main source of support for the Nazi Party between the wars. His father, a musician, had lost his savings in the hyperinflation which devastated the middle-class after the First World War.
Young Heydrich joined the Navy in search of a secure career, but was dismissed following a scandal. Smarting from the humiliation, he gravitated towards radical right-wing politics, joining the SS in 1931.
He was confirmed in his path by marriage the same year to Lina von Osten, who would prove an ideal Nazi wife, bearing three children, with a fourth on the way at the time of the assassination.
Heydrich’s limitless ambition, administrative efficiency, and utter ruthlessness made him a natural fit for the Nazi Party’s elite organisation. His climb to the top began with his creation of the Sicherheitsdienst or SD, an intelligence agency which maintained surveillance over potential opponents.
The head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, described Heydrich approvingly as a ‘living card index, a brain which held all the threads and wove them together’. In 1939, as Himmler’s No.2, he oversaw the creation of the Reich Main Security Office (RHSA), the core of the Nazi security apparatus.
The genocide state
Yet more sinister tasks punctuated Heydrich’s rise within the police state. With the outbreak of war, he organised the Einsatzgruppen, the travelling murder squads which killed Jews across Eastern Europe.
It was a mark of his prominence that, in January 1942, Heydrich was chosen to preside over the infamous conference at Wannsee, the Berlin suburb where the deportation of Europe’s Jewish population was planned. This was the man commended by Hitler for having ‘an iron heart’.
By this stage, Heydrich had received the appointment that was to lead to his death. In September 1941, he was sent to Bohemia and Moravia to bring the country more firmly under German control. It was important to the war effort because of its production of arms and motor vehicles, and Hitler felt that the current governor, Konstantin von Neurath, was insufficiently harsh.
Within weeks of Heydrich’s arrival, he had stamped his brutal personality on the country. Up to 5,000 people were arrested, 10% of whom were executed.
Getting the most out of the Czech workforce was the beginning of a longer process for Heydrich. His ultimate aim was the Germanisation of the country. He aimed to eliminate Czech culture and, after the war, to exterminate or expel most of the population, opening the country to German settlement. It is not hard to see why he inspired feelings of terror and loathing. But taking effective action against him would not be easy.
Targeting the Butcher
The plan to assassinate Heydrich originated with the Czech government-in-exile, which had established itself in Britain after the Nazi occupation. The exiled leaders were aware that such a move was likely to provoke severe retaliation against the civilian population, but they hoped that it would encourage more active resistance too.
For Czech President Edvard Beneš there were longer-term considerations. He was conscious of his government’s lack of status in the eyes of its British and Soviet allies. There was a danger that the Communists might replace the London Czechs as the official face of resistance. Only a dramatic act, he reasoned, would prove his government’s worth and give it the necessary bargaining power in any post-war settlement.
In organising the mission, the Czech leaders received assistance from Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), established by Winston Churchill in 1940 to ‘set Europe ablaze’ through acts of sabotage and terror against the occupying forces. SOE provided the Czech agents with weapons and training. The obscure code-name ‘Anthropoid’, from a Greek word meaning ‘resembling a human being’, was chosen for the operation.
The two men who were to carry out the assassination were selected from a small force of exiled soldiers who were undergoing training as parachutists. They were in their late twenties and were friends. Warrant Officer Jozef Gabcˇik was a Slovak, and Staff Sergeant Jan Kubiš was Czech, symbolising the political unity of the homeland they sought to liberate. Both were under no illusions as to the dangers they faced, and it was made clear to them at the start that they were free to withdraw.
The agents were to be dropped by night into the countryside near Prague. After that, they were left very largely to their own devices as to how to carry out their mission. It would be impossible to rescue them afterwards, since no RAF plane with the necessary range could land in the area where the assassination would take place. In short, the agents’ chances of getting out alive were virtually nil. Gabcˇik and Kubiš were driven by an unflinching commitment to the cause and possessed phenomenal courage.
The agents were flown out of RAF Tangmere, close to the Sussex coast, in a Handley Page Halifax bomber, a few days after Christmas 1941. The journey had to take place on a long winter night so that the aircraft could fly out and home again without being intercepted.
The mission did not, however, get off to an auspicious start. Navigational problems meant that the parachutists landed some 20 miles east of Prague. Gabcˇik injured his foot on landing, and for some time was unable to walk without assistance.
Fortunately, the vulnerable parachutists fell in with sympathisers in the countryside, who helped them to reach a safe house in the capital. In spring 1942, they found shelter in the suburban flat of the Moravec family. Marie Moravec was part of the Resistance network, although her railwayman husband knew nothing of her activities. With them lived their 21-year-old son, Ata.
The Czech exiles had not coordinated the mission with the local Resistance beforehand, since they believed that it had been infiltrated by the Gestapo. When Gabcˇik and Kubiš explained their purpose, the underground leaders were dismayed, arguing that the terrible consequences for the innocent population outweighed any possible gains from killing Heydrich. But when it became clear that the agents were not prepared to call off the mission, they gave loyal support.
The best chance of success was when Heydrich was making his daily journey from his country residence, nine miles north of the city, to his headquarters in Prague. Despite warnings about his security, he habitually had himself driven in an open-top Mercedes limousine without an escort.
This reflected his arrogant belief that the Czechs would not dare to attack him. He accepted proposals for the installation of armour plate in the bodywork and seat- backs of his car, but, crucially, this had not been done by the time that Gabcˇik and Kubiš made their move.
They were under pressure to act by 27 May at the latest, since it was reported that Heydrich was due to travel to Berlin the following day. It was possible that he would be promoted to a broader European security role and would not return to Prague. This was likely to be their last opportunity to strike.
Initially, the agents had considered ambushing Heydrich closer to his home, stretching a steel cable across the road to bring his car to a halt, but they decided against this because escape would have been impossible in open country. Instead, they decided to attack in the suburbs, waiting at a tram stop on a sharp bend where the vehicle would have to slow down.
Gabcˇik had a Sten submachine-gun hidden under an overcoat, while Kubiš carried a briefcase containing a grenade as back-up. Another parachutist, Joseph Valcˇik, acted as look-out further up the road.
As Heydrich’s car came into view, Gabcˇik stepped forward and raised his Sten gun, only for it to jam at the critical moment. Instead of urging his driver to accelerate away from the scene, Heydrich ordered him to stop and stood up to open fire with his Luger pistol.
Kubiš then threw his grenade, which exploded at the rear of the car, causing extensive damage. The two Germans exchanged shots with their attackers, but Kubiš fled on a borrowed bicycle. So shocked were both parties that neither scored a hit.
Heydrich collapsed at the roadside as his driver gave chase to Gabcˇik, catching up with him in a butcher’s shop. The agent shot him in the leg and made his escape to a safe house.
At this stage, it seemed to the disappointed parachutists that their mission had failed. Heydrich had in fact been seriously injured. He suffered a broken rib, one of his lungs had collapsed, and fragments of the car’s upholstery had penetrated his body.
Bystanders, initially shocked by the explosion, commandeered a van to take him to hospital, where surgeons worked frantically on him.
Hitler’s first reaction to the attack was to demand the immediate killing of 10,000 Czechs, but he was talked out of this on the grounds that it would harm industrial output. Instead, the occupiers initially adopted a more selective policy of terror.
A reward was offered for information, and the population were warned that anyone who failed to tell the police what they knew would be executed, along with their families. In spite of these measures, combined with street-by-street searches, arrests, and executions, the Nazis found no worthwhile leads.
For a while it seemed that Heydrich might recover, but a week after the attack he suffered a relapse and on 4 June he died. It seems most likely that the cause of death was sepsis, caused by splinters entering the bloodstream.
Hitler organised a lavish funeral for his fallen henchman, but privately blamed him for not taking adequate security precautions, raging that men like Heydrich were being constantly ‘stalked like game’ by their enemies.
The repression now intensified. Five days after Heydrich’s death, there occurred one of the most-notorious crimes of the occupation. The village of Lidice, 14 miles north-west of Prague, was wrongly linked to the assassination on the basis that some exiled Czech officers had come from there. There was in fact no connection at all with Anthropoid.
Security police moved into the village. They shot the men in groups of ten, standing them against mattresses to prevent ricochets from hitting the executioners. The women were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp and most of the children to Chełmno extermination camp. The village was burned and bulldozed, obliterating all signs of human habitation.
By this stage, Gabcˇik, Kubiš, and Valcˇik had been moved from their safe houses to the shelter of an Eastern Orthodox church, dedicated to St Cyril and St Methodius, in central Prague. They were joined by four parachutists who had been dropped to carry out other missions: Adolf Opálka, Josef Bublik, Jan Hruby, and Jaroslav Švarc.
They noticed, however, that another surviving agent, Karel Cˇurda, was not with them. He had somehow managed to get around the roadblocks surrounding the city, to find refuge with his family to the south. On this individual’s decisions now rested the fate of the other parachutists.
The final act
It is not certain why Karel Cˇurda decided to betray his comrades. Apprehended after the war and condemned to death for treason, he stated that he had done it for financial gain. But it is also possible that he saw this as the only way to save himself and his family.
On 16 June, he entered the Gestapo headquarters in Prague and revealed what he knew. He did not know where Gabcˇik, Kubiš, and the others were hiding, but his information led the Gestapo to the Moravec household. Police raided their flat early the next morning. Mrs Moravec managed to take a cyanide capsule, but her husband and son were taken away for questioning.
The young man, Ata Moravec, withstood prolonged torture until, in a uniquely grisly twist, his captors showed him his mother’s head floating in a fish tank, and told him that his father would be next. Under unimaginable pressure, he now named the church as a possible hiding place.
The next day, more than 700 SS troops were brought in to lay siege to the building. Kubiš, Bublik, and Opálka, who had been keeping watch in the choir loft, kept the attacking force at bay, lobbing grenades and firing down on them in the nave below.
Even after the SS had forced their way up the narrow staircase which gave access to the loft, the battle continued. They found Bublik and Opálka already dead, and Kubiš died later of his wounds.
Attention then shifted to the crypt, where the other four, including Gabcˇik, were holding out. Cˇurda, who was with the besieging force, appealed to them to surrender, but they fired up at him defiantly.
In their attempts to force the men to give up, the Germans enlisted the help of the Prague fire brigade to flood the hiding place with water, and used tear gas. When the SS finally took the vault, they found that the parachutists had used their last bullets to commit suicide rather than be taken alive.
The bodies were carried up to the street where they were identified by Cˇurda. It is estimated that the seven agents had accounted for 21 Nazis killed and a further 14 wounded, during a heroic six-hour action.
The balance sheet
Operation Anthropoid showed that even senior Nazis were not immune from punishment for their crimes, and Allied propaganda at the time made much of the success of the mission. The British Government extended increased recognition to the Beneš Government, and to its satisfaction repudiated the 1938 Munich Agreement which had seen the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia handed to Hitler.
At the same time, the scale of the Nazi reprisals caused widespread shock. An estimated 5,000 people were killed; the Orthodox Church was banned for its part in the concealment of the parachutists; and a second village, Ležáky, suffered the fate of Lidice.
The Czech Resistance movement was broken and did not recover until Soviet forces were on the brink of entering the country, more than two years later.
It is surely significant that the Allies did not sponsor any more attempted assassinations of leading Nazis. There was a feeling that the human cost was too high.
But many survivors disagreed with this analysis. They, and those who have come after them, take pride in the bravery of the young men who sacrificed themselves to kill a tyrant, and consider that their selfless actions saved the Czechs from a worse fate at his hands.
27 September – Heydrich appointed acting protector of Bohemia and Moravia
21 October – Planning and preparation for Operation Anthropoid begins
28 December – Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš depart RAF Tangmere, Sussex
27 May – Gabčik and Kubiš ambush Heydrich in Prague
4 June – Heydrich dies of injuries
9 June – Nazis destroy village of Lidice in retaliation
16 June – Traitor Karel Čurda betrays attackers to Gestapo
18 June – Siege of Church of St Cyril and St Methodius, Prague
24 June – Nazis massacre inhabitants of village of Ležáky
24 October – Parachutists’ families executed at Mauthausen
Dr Graham Goodlad is a regular contributor to MHM and teaches History and Politics at St John’s College, Southsea.
Callum MacDonald (2007) The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (Birlinn).
Michal Burian (2002) Assassination: Operation Anthropoid 1941-1942 (Ministry of Defence of the Czech Republic, available online).