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Heydrich: The slaying of a Nazi monster, 1942

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EIGHTY years ago today – May 27, 1942 – the bloodsoaked reign of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard ‘Hangman’ Heydrich came to a sudden end on a suburban street in Prague. 

The 38-year-old ruler of German-occupied Czechoslovakia was travelling in an unescorted open-top Mercedes when his driver, Oberscharführer Johannes Klein, slowed to negotiate a tight bend near a tram stop.  

As the car reduced speed, two men were watching intently on either side of the road. Wearing suits and carrying briefcases, 29-year-old Jan Kubiš and 30-year-old Jozef Gabčík looked like everyday commuters. But they were staff sergeants in the exiled Czech Army, and they had been sent from Britain to kill Heydrich. 

With the Mercedes nearing him, Gabčík stepped into the road and aimed a Sten sub-machine gun at the Nazi despot in the front passenger seat. But as he squeezed the trigger, the weapon jammed. Instead of ordering Klein to speed away to safety, a maddened Heydrich shouted at him to stop the car and drew his pistol to confront Gabčík. 

It was a fatal mistake. As the Mercedes braked, Kubiš stepped forward and threw a bomb made from an anti-tank grenade at the vehicle. It exploded near the right-hand rear wheel, spraying Heydrich with shrapnel as he scrambled out of the car. 

Although dazed by the blast, Kubiš managed to escape on a bicycle. Meanwhile, after a brief gun battle with Gabčík – who had now drawn his own pistol – Heydrich collapsed in agony from his shrapnel wounds. Gabčík escaped on foot after shooting and wounding a pursuing Klein. 

Rushed to hospital, Heydrich seemed to have no life-threatening injuries. But eight days later, on June 4, he died from blood poisoning, probably caused by horsehair fragments from the car’s upholstery embedded in his body by the explosion. 

The world was well rid of Heydrich, a monstrously evil disciple of the Nazi creed and one of the chief architects of the Final Solution. His name had been a byword for ruthlessness even among the ungodly legions of the SS, who knew him as the ‘Blond Beast’. Hitler called him ‘the man with the iron heart’ and he was seen as a possible successor to the Fuhrer. 

After a career as a naval officer, which ended in disgrace, Heydrich joined the Nazi Party in 1931. Under the eye of his superior, Heinrich Himmler, he rose to head the Reich Security Main Office, the SS and police agency most concerned with implementing the Holocaust. 

In September 1941, he was also appointed acting Protector, or governor, of Bohemia and Moravia. These were the Czech lands that remained after Slovakia, under pressure from Germany, had split from Czechoslovakia following the notorious 1938 Munich Agreement. 

Heydrich was swiftly dubbed ‘The Butcher of Prague’ as he declared martial law, executed hundreds of suspected resistance members and deported thousands of Jews. However, knowing that Czech armaments production was vital to the German war effort, he also brought in higher wages and benefits packages for workers in an attempt to ‘pacify’ the population.  

But this seemingly accommodating approach was a cynical ruse. Heydrich regarded the Czechs as ‘vermin’ and planned to erase Bohemia and Moravia from history once Germany had won the war. Any Czechs deemed suitable for ‘Germanisation’ would be spared. The rest would be deported or exterminated. 

Yet even as the murderous overlord bestrode his captive kingdom, his downfall was being plotted in Britain. Soon after Heydrich was appointed Protector, President Edvard Beneš, head of the Czech government in exile, agreed a plan for his assassination. 

The reasons were many. While Heydrich simply deserved to die, the Czechs also needed to boost their legitimacy among the Allies by confirming that the spirit of freedom was alive in their subjugated country.  

The killing of the cold-eyed Nazi would achieve that, and would hopefully inspire resistance in Czechoslovakia. It would also show that no one in the upper echelons of the Third Reich was safe. 

Another factor was that Czechoslovakia’s existence as a state could be in the balance. Despite the war, the Munich Agreement – which in 1938 had given Hitler the Sudetenland, the Czech border region mainly populated by ethnic Germans – was technically still valid.  Beneš feared it might remain in place if the war ended in a compromise peace, leaving his country dismembered.  

Britain and France, whose governments had imposed the hated deal to appease Hitler, now had to be persuaded by a decisive, aggressive Czech action to repudiate it and restore the country to its pre-1938 borders.  

Beneš knew that killing Heydrich would bring reprisals, but he did not guess how savage German vengeance would be. The assassination mission, codenamed Operation Anthropoid, was planned with the help of Britain’s sabotage and espionage organisation, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Gabčík and Kubiš were trained specifically to kill Heydrich, while several more Czech Army soldiers were designated to carry out other missions in Czechoslovakia.  

On the night of December 28, 1941, the whole group parachuted into their snowbound homeland and made for their various targets. When Gabčík and Kubiš reached Prague, they were hidden in safe houses by the Czech underground. The two kept the object of their mission secret, but painstakingly built a picture of Heydrich’s routine and movements. 

On January 20, 1942, the Protector was absent from the Czech capital. He had travelled to Berlin to convene the infamous Wannsee Conference of leading Nazis, where the Final Solution – the deportation and murder of millions of Jews – was put in motion.  

As 1942 drew on, resistance members realised what the mission of the two parachutists was. Dreading the consequences, they asked the Beneš administration in London to cancel Anthropoid, but were refused. Gabčík and Kubiš also turned down direct pleas from their Prague comrades not to go ahead, and on May 27, they set out to kill the Blond Beast. 

As feared, a torrent of Nazi vengeance was unleashed in the wake of the assassination. Hitler demanded that 10,000 Czechs be killed, relenting only when told such slaughter would harm industrial production. The eventual toll would still be hideous. Hours after the attack on Heydrich, executions began. Hundreds, then thousands, more Czechs would die in the coming weeks.  

On June 10, 173 boys and men in Lidice, 30 miles north-west of Prague, were shot dead by German security police and the village’s women and children sent to concentration camps. A further 26 residents were killed later. Lidice, whose inhabitants were wrongly suspected of involvement in the assassination plot, was razed and all trace of it eliminated, but not before the Germans had filmed and publicised the destruction. 

Despite a massive manhunt, the assassins could not be found – until they were sold out by a traitor named Karel Čurda. He was a Czech soldier who had parachuted into Czechoslovakia in March 1942 as part of an abortive sabotage mission before joining Anthropoid. On June 16, he walked into Gestapo headquarters in Prague and betrayed the safe house network for a reward of a million Reichsmarks. 

Two days later, Gabčík, Kubiš and five other British-trained Czech parachutists were traced to their hideout in a Prague church. After a fierce gun battle against Waffen-SS troops in the choir loft, Kubiš was severely wounded and two of his comrades, Josef Bublík and Adolf Opálka, took suicide pills. Kubiš died soon after.  

Gabčík and the three others, Josef Valčík, Jaroslav Švarc and Jan Hrubý, who were besieged in the crypt, shot themselves rather than face Nazi vengeance. 

Thus ended the most dramatic event of wartime Czechoslovakia. The aftermath, especially the destruction and massacre of Lidice and that of a smaller village, Ležáky, triggered worldwide outrage and sympathy.  

Britain and France duly nullified the Munich Agreement and after the war, Czechoslovakia was restored to its original borders. From 1945 to 1948, some 2.5million Sudeten Germans were stripped of Czech citizenship and expelled to Germany. 

However, while Gabčík, Kubiš and their comrades were honoured as heroes, controversy simmered in some quarters over whether Anthropoid had been worth the price paid in blood.  

The assassination did not ignite a wave of Czech resistance and industrial production carried on much as before, until the country was liberated by US and Soviet forces in 1945. 

Estimates vary on how many Czechs were murdered in the German reprisals. The total is generally thought to be around 5,000, but may have been much higher.  

The debate over the merits or otherwise of Anthropoid continues to this day. In a BBC interview on the 70th anniversary of the assassination in 2012, a Czech resistance veteran named Alois Denemarek, a boyhood friend of Jan Kubiš, gave his verdict. 

In 1942, Alois’s family were sheltering a wounded parachutist, František Pospíšil, in their farmhouse home 95 miles south-east of Prague.  

Soon after the Heydrich killing, Alois met Kubiš in the Czech capital to work out what to do next with Pospíšil. Kubiš advised him not to risk bringing him to Prague, saying: ‘Look, things are a bit tense here at the moment.’ 

Several months later, the Denemareks’ home was raided by the Gestapo after the family were betrayed. Alois’s brother Karel and František Pospíšil were executed and his parents died later in concentration camps. 

Despite his personal tragedy, Alois said: ‘Of course it was worth it, killing Heydrich, even though it cost the lives of my family, my brother, my mother, my father and hundreds, thousands of other people. But as I always say, that’s nothing compared to the losses we would have suffered if Heydrich had been allowed to live.’ 

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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