Sunday 31 December 2017

Christmas in the "City of a Thousand Spires": Prague (2017)

An enriching Christmas holiday in the Bohemian city of Prague which is abundant in culture, architecture and history.

The “City of a Thousand Spires” is immersed in the legend of Wenceslas (or Vaclav the Good), the martyred Duke of Bohemia and exhibits a distinct Christmas culture that reflects its Central European heritage.

It has a charisma of its own.

There is the mystique of the Charles Bridge and the powerful life force of the River Vlatava, which was of course immortalised by the composer Bedrich Smetana. In the Old Town is the Astronomical clock and a monument dedicated to Jan Hus, the religious leader whose refusal at the Council of Constance to renounce his ideas concerning reformation of the Catholic Church led to his being burnt at the stake as a heretic on July 6th, 1415. That form of Czech courage and stubborness is reflected in the memorials dedicated to the British-trained participants in Operation Anthropoid, the successful mission of assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, the Acting Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia in 1942.

The miniature street known as Golden Lane encompasses the magic of Prague while the Hradcany complex - home of the Bohemian kings, presidents, Communist Party dictators, and, for a brief historical interlude, Nazi Reich Protectors of Bohemia and Moravia- exemplifies the grandeur of Prague and its towering achievements in architecture.

Jewish culture and heritage is found in the Jesofov (or Jewish Quarter) where the Old Jewish Cemetery is, and the treasures and the tragedies of European Jewry are encapsulated respectively in the Spanish and Pinkas Synagogues.

The distinctiveness of a Czech Christmas was underscored by the tradition of celebrating Christmas Eve as Christmas Day. The Christmas Markets were quaintly attractive and the native Czech dishes exotic and filling.

A great city to visit and highly recommended.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2017)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

Friday 29 December 2017

Operation Anthropoid: Prague's Memorials to Heydrich's Assassins

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.

Sunday 10 December 2017

Commentary: Rigondeaux Gave Away His Heart

Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux

Last night’s clash between Ukrainian world super-featherweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux, the Cuban-born super-bantamweight champion was a long awaited date of this year’s boxing calendar. Although it was not contracted as a “catchweight” contest so as to narrow the disparities in both men’s weights, it was eagerly anticipated by aficionados of the fight game because they are two of the greatest amateur boxers in recent history. Each man won two consecutive Olympic gold medals and each had well over 300 amateur contests with Lomachenko losing only once and Rigondeaux on twelve occasions. So while ever mindful of the boxing maxim that a “Good big ‘un always beats a good little ‘un”, many felt that the level of skill possessed by the smaller man would diminish the significance of weight and make it an even contest of sorts. However, what transpired was a stunningly one-sided contest which ended with Rigondeaux quitting on his stool.

I thought that many ‘neutral’ people would be for Guillermo Rigondeaux in the lead up to his clash with Vasyl Lomachenko. What not to root for in a man who was punished for attempting to defect from Castro’s Cuba only to make good his escape in a subsequent effort and begin a professional career in the United States?

But in America, he fell foul of his despotic promoter Bob Arum, and even though he became a multiple champion, he was avoided by scared opponents who used the innovative excuse that he was “too boring”. Getting on in age and acutely aware of the need for a payday, Rigondeaux chased Lomachenko for a marketable fight between two of the most talented figures in the history of amateur boxing who as professionals are feared champions.

However, instead of a catchweight contest, Lomachenko -guided by a shrewd and unforgiving Arum- insisted that Rigondeaux jump two weight divisions and recieve the lower end of the available purse monies: Rigondeaux is reputed to have earned $400,000 to Lomachenko’s $1.5 million. To compound things, the WBA announced that Rigondeaux would lose his title if he lost to Lomachenko even though the fight was not scheduled for that weight.

As Virgil Hunter, the trainer of Andre Ward, said, “it’s borderline criminal”.

This is why I would have expected most to have been rooting for “Rigo”. While the odds continued to be stacked against him, many felt that by fighting at his efficient weight and utilising his slick skills, Rigondeaux might have had enough to neutralise Lomchenko’s split-second changes in ‘angles’ with his own brand of athletic agility and that his explosive one-hit power could be as effective against a bigger opponent.

Yet, while the disadvantages of weight, age, as well as Rigondeaux’s comparative lack of bouts over the past few years must be factored in to explain his poor showing,  many onlookers are convinced that Lomachenko’s unique brand of boxing skills which utilises a complex geometry of foot movement and a high punch rate was the decisive factor in Rigondeaux’s physical and psychological unravelling. He succeeded in forcing Rigondeaux to quit much in the manner that Sugar Ray Leonard outboxed Roberto Duran into saying the notorious words: “No Mas”. It is unlikely that any x-ray slides or photographs purporting to corroborate Rigondeaux’s alleged hand injury would displace this opinion.

Teddy Brenner, a legendary matchmaker at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, once said of the great Nigerian boxer Dick Tiger as he fought in his twilight years having moved up to the light heavyweight division: “He always gives away height, weight and reach, but he never gives away heart”.

I thought that was going to be a fitting accolade to Rigondeaux’s challenge to Lomachenko, but apart from the fact that Rigondeaux had a reach advantage over his taller, heavier opponent, it appears that Lomachenko took away his heart.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2017)

Adeyinka Makinde is the author of DICK TIGER: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal and JERSEY BOY: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula