A memorial plaque featuring the images of a paratrooper and a priest on an outside wall of St. Cyril and Methodius Church in Prague [PHOTO: Adeyinka Makinde]
In a society that lives by moral rules, assassination cannot be morally justified. But when a nation is enslaved by murderers and fanatics, assassination may be the only means of destroying evil. - Frantisek Moravec, wartime head of Czechoslovakian military intelligence.
The 1942 assassination of Nazi figure Reinhard Heydrich in Prague while he was acting Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia is often described as one of the most daring missions of the Second World War. Conceived in Britain and executed in Prague by Czechoslovakian commandos, Operation Anthropoid was the work of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the so-called ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’, that had been charged by Prime Minister Winston Churchill with the responsibility for setting Nazi-occupied Europe “ablaze”.
Espionage and sabotage was to be its raison d’etre.
But killing a high-level official such as Heydrich was not an easy decision to make. Indeed, both Allied and Axis forces refrained from specifically targeting chiefs of state for assassination. The killing of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto by the United States is the only other comparable act, although a successful completion of Operation Flipper by British commandos which had the unstated aim of killing Field Marshal Erwin Rommel would have rivaled that and the Heydrich action.
The key factor which would have exercised the minds of the decision-makers, among them the president of the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile, Edvard Benes, was the inevitable reprisals that would follow.
The Nazis had shown no compunction in employing brutal methods of retaliation aimed at civilian populations in response to partisan acts of sabotage and insurrection, and this would be true in the aftermath of Heydrich’s death. The destruction of the village of Lidice amply testified to this. The fate of Roman civilians in the Ardeatine caves after an ambush of an SS police regiment on Via Rasella in 1944 would later provide a reminder of this form of bloodlust.
Reprisals of this nature, although contrary to existing rules of international law, were part of the culture of fascism. The Italian Blackshirts insisted on the standard three-day orgy of bloody revenge against defenceless civilians in Addis Ababa following the assassination attempt by insurgents on the Mussolini’s viceroy, Rudolfo Graziani.
But the British were insistent that the mission be carried out and the exiled Czechoslovak leadership, conscious of the largely successful pacification of the Czechlands by Heydrich’s ‘carrot and stick’ methods, and keen to be seen to be pro-actively contributing to the resistance effort, were firmly for striking at the reichsprotektor.
Both Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik, the former an ethnic Czech and the latter of Slovakian origin were selected because of their impressive credentials as soldiers. Both had been decorated for bravery during the Battle for France. They were warned that they were unlikely to survive the mission, but accepted without hesitation.
As is the case with special forces commandos, they were chosen because of their intelligence and ability to think on their feet: Their primary order was to kill Heydrich, but it was left to them to formulate a plan of action. After several months of planning, they devised it. They noted the lightly protected Heydrich’s unvaried route into Prague involved traveling through Kobylisy in the city’s northern suburbs where a sharp bend forced Heydrich’s chauffeur to slow down. At this point, Gabcik was to rush onto the street and aim for Heydrich with a Sten sub-machine gun. A nearby tram stop would provide suitable cover while they waited for the signal of a third soldier, Josef Valcik.
When Heydrich’s Mercedes Benz convertible finally approached the bend, Gabcik positioned himself in front of the car but found his gun jammed. After ordering his driver to stop, Heydrich raised himself to full height in the car and aimed his pistol at Gabcik. But Kubis threw a bomb at the car, a modified anti-tank grenade, which exploded and incapacitated Heydrich.
Both men fled the scene in different directions.
They did so under the impression that they had failed. However, Heydrich, who had been rushed to the nearby Bukova Hospital, succumbed eight days later to the septicaemia caused by shrapnel, seat-spring splinters and fragments of the horse-hair used to cushion the car’s upholstery.
Gabcik, Kubis, Valcik and four other paratroopers eventually found refuge in the crypt of the St. Cyril and Methodius church on Resslova Street in the New Town part of Prague. But the hideaway was discovered by the Gestapo from a trail of leads provided a Karel Kurda, a fellow paratrooper who lost his nerve and opted to collect the 10 million Krona-reward offered by the German authorities.
The church was surrounded by hundreds of SS troops and when it was eventually stormed, three of the paratroopers, including Kubis, who were on night watch on the choir loft, engaged the Germans in a two-hour gun battle that left them dead.
The German attempts to enter the crypt were futile as were Kurda’s efforts to make them give up. They made good on their retort that they would never surrender by ending their lives with their last bullets and poison.
Although the story was retold in a number of books and films such as Atentat (1964) and Operation Daybreak (1975) provided rousing reconstructions of the events including the use of the site of the assassination and the church, it is only in recent years that memorials have been officially sanctioned. The crypt of the church now functions as a museum, the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, while the site of the ambush now has a plaque and a statue.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2017)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.
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