It is 10:35am, Prague, 27 May 1942. Two Czech paratroopers, Warrant Officers Josef Gabci’k and Jan Kubis, step into the street as an official German Mercedes Benz 320C with the licence plate ‘SS 3’ slows down for a sharp curve in the V Holesovickach Street. The vehicle is bearing SS Obergiuppenfuhrer (Lieutenant General) Reinhard Heydrich, the German Reichsprotektor of the occupied Czechoslovakian provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. Known as the ‘Blond Beast’ by his colleagues, he represents all that is evil in the German occupation. In the next seconds, the fate of thousands of Czech citizens will be decided.
Gabci’k swings his 9mm Sten submachine-gun into action and pulls the trigger. The weapon jams. Kubis, seeing his partner’s difficulty, lobs a grenade modified with an impact fuse at the car as Heydrich stands up to shoot at the attackers. The grenade strikes the car just behind the passenger seat and explodes, driving metal shrapnel and cloth fragments into the interior of the car, many of which hit Heydrich.
Heydrich stumbles from the car and his driver summons a passing delivery truck to transport him to hospital. In the meantime, Gabci’k and Kubis escape without verifying their target’s status.
On the day of the attack, the Deputy Reichsprotektor SS Gruppenfuhrer (Major-General) Karl Hermann Frank declares a civil emergency and, in consultation with SS Leader Heinrich Himmler in Berlin, decides on retribution. On hearing of the assassination, Himmler responds:
1) I agree with going public.
2) The entire Czech intelligentsia must be arrested among the first 10,000 hostages.
3) The first 100 most important adversaries among the Czech intelligentsia must be shot tonight.
Within days of the attack on Heydrich – code-named Operation Anthropoid by the resistance – the Czechoslovak population began to feel the wrath of the SS. The Germans killed an estimated 5,000 Czechs, at least 3,000 of them Jews, to avenge their comrade.
The exiled Czechoslovakian government’s decision to kill Heydrich has been debated since the assassination. His case serves as an excellent litmus test of whether the targeted killing of enemy leadership can ever be justified in war.
Rise to power
Heydrich was named Acting Reichisprotektor to Bohemia and Moravia in September 1941 as his predecessor Konstantin von Neurath was being eased out of the position, ostensibly for ‘ill health’. Neurath, a career diplomat, had not been able to quell civilian strikes against the occupation, and the Germans needed the protectorate’s industrial capacity to feed its war-machine. Hitler decided he needed to be replaced, and Heydrich was selected to bring order to the troubled region.
A cashicred Navy officer, Heydrich joined the Nazi Party in 1931 and the notorious Schutzstaffel (SS) in 1932. From that point he worked his way up through the hierarchy of the security services. He founded and led the SS Security Service (the Sicherheitsdienst or SI)), assumed responsibility for the Security Police (the SIPO, which included the Gestapo) in 1936, and in 1939 headed the Reich Main Security Office (the RHSA). In this position he was responsible for the suppression of any opposition to the Hitler regime throughout Germany and the occupied territories.
He created the Operational Groups (Einsatzgruppen), which followed the German forces into Eastern Europe as they invaded Poland and Russia. These units systematically eliminated partisan lighters and ‘undesired elements’ such as Jews from the occupied zones. It is estimated that the Einsatzgruppen, numbering only approximately 3,000 men, were responsible for the deaths of around a million people.
When Heydrich moved into Prague’s Czernin Palace, he began to consolidate control immediately. Declaring martial law, he rounded up known members of the opposition and intelligentsia; within five weeks, 300 had been executed. Heydrich made clear his policies on ethnic cleansing by beginning transport of Jews from the Protectorate to concentration camps. He established a Jewish ghetto in the ancient Bohemian town of Terezhi (also known as Theresienstadt), where at least 35,000 Jews would die.
Non-Jewish Czech citizens received preferential treatment compared to their Polish and Russian neighbours. This was due to the precision output of Czech factories, especially weapons and ammunition required by the Reich. Nevertheless, Heydrich clearly outlined his intentions for the protectorate when he spoke at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin on 20 January 1942 while serving as Reichsprotektor.
The surviving protocols of that conference establish that Heydrich was given responsibility for the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’. He had already streamlined the process for dealing with the Jews of the protectorate. It is clear that Heydrich intended to use the population of Bohemia and Moravia to fill the needs of the German Reich, and then either assimilate them, move them, or dispose of them altogether.
Time for action
The Czech population’s small-scale demonstrations were quickly quelled. Heydrich penetrated the Czech resistance organisation and eliminated most of its leadership. Most Czech military lighters had left the country, going to France to fight openly at the side of the French and British before being evacuated to Britain where they formed the nucleus of the Czech Army-in-exile.
To that point, the Czech resistance had been principally concerned with gathering intelligence, not direct action against the Germans. Many members of the resistance felt that any armed confrontation would lead to retribution, something they wished to avoid. Perhaps worse, the government in the occupied territory failed to repudiate the Munich Agreement, and even co-operated to a degree with their occupiers.
This was a serious problem for the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile – especially for President-in-exile Edvard Benes, who sought support from France and Britain in anticipation of his eventual return to power in his homeland.
His main difficulty lay in the failure of Britain and France to renounce the 1938 Munich Conference that permitted Germany to annex Bohemia and Moravia – the so-called German Sudetenland- in the first place. As long as that was the case, the exiled Czech government felt that the country would not be allowed return to its pre-agreement borders after the war.
Another complication for Benes was the failure of the Czech government in the occupied territory to resign or to protest the annexation. Without that, the Allies believed Czechoslovakia was not resisting the Germans with the same fervour as other occupied countries, and thus did not warrant support.
A spectacular intervention
Therefore, with his Chief of Intelligence, Colonel Frantisek Moravec, Benes decided to engage the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) to determine a potential assassination target. His hope was that this show of action would demonstrate his people’s resistance to German occupation, possibly influence the war, and cement his role as leader of the Czech people.
While a number of Czech collaborators were considered for assassination, they were rejected because their deaths would not strike at the heart of the enemy. Heydrich ultimately became the logical choice. There is ample evidence that the British leadership, certainly Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was fully apprised of Benes’s intent and the target of the mission.
Selecting the assassins
With SOE assistance, two Czech non-commissioned officers, Josef Gabci’k and Jan Kubis, were assessed, selected, and trained for the mission. Kubis was actually a second choice, replacing Stall-Sergeant Karel Svoboda, who was injured in a parachute-training jump. Gabci’k and Kubis were first trained as parachutists, then sent to SOE-run ‘special training sites’ to receive further training in combatives, marksmanship, map-reading, demolitions, radio communications, and sabotage. The assessment process was rigorous, and a number of candidates – both soldiers and officers – were observed and interviewed.
Those men were told only that they were being considered for a special mission and asked to volunteer. Those who did, were observed in normal training for traits that would serve them as a clandestine operator. Foremost among these was discipline in the area of operational security.
Once the candidate group was reduced to six, one illustrative test was to give each candidate a different snippet of information with the warning not to divulge it to anyone; then the testers waited for rumours to pop up in the training camp. When two of the stories did become common knowledge, the candidates who had been entrusted with the specific details were easily eliminated from the programme.
Gabci’k and Kubis were parachuted from a modified Handley-Page Halifax bomber into a drop-zone about 40km from Prague during the early hours of 29 December 1941. They made contact with members of the resistance who were to give them assistance for the mission. Fortuitously, none of these had been compromised to the Germans and were able to assist. Gabci’k and Kubis then proceeded to Prague where they began to prepare for the mission.
From early January 1942 until the day of the assassination in late May, little is known of Gabci’k’s and Kubis’s activities. It is known that they stayed with relatives and members of the resistance, and made contact with teams of Czech special operators who had been parachuted into the country for other missions. They also developed at least two other plans for killing Heydrich, including an ambush outside Prague and an attempt on a train. Both were scrubbed in favour of the V Holesovickach Street site.
On 27 May, Gabci’k and Kubis made their move. Although the Sten failed, a back-up grenade successfully made its impression on Heydrich, whose wounds would prove fatal. With this act, the fate of thousands of Czechs was sealed. When the news reached Hitler, lie instructed SS Reichsfuhrer Himmler that the SS should ‘wade in blood’ to avenge Heydrich. This they did.
Deputy Reichsprotektor Frank immediately declared a state of civil emergency and arrests, most of them arbitrary, began. Anyone in illegal possession of amis was subject to be shot. A number of people were summarily executed on vague denunciations or distorted information within hours of the attack on Heydrich. But, despite threats of further violence over the course of the following days, the killers were not found. Himmler assigned SS Obergruppenfuhrer Kurt Dalucge to replace Heydrich, and him and Frank devised a plan to exact revenge.
Using information that erroneously led them to Lidice, a small village about 20km outside Prague, an SS detachment was sent to eradicate any trace of its inhabitants. On 9 June, the SS surrounded Lidice. The men of the village were executed and the women and children sent to concentration camps. The buildings were all burned and the remnants ploughed under. The killers were still not turned in.
A second village, Lezaky, in southwestern Bohemia met with the same fate. By the end of June, the SS was no closer to finding the perpetrators and had no loads. Finally, Karcl Curda, a paratrooper from one of the other teams who knew the location of the Anthropoid team, succumbed to his fears and turned himself in to the Gestapo.
Using Curda’s information, the Germans were able locate the team along with two other resistance members in the crypts of the Church of St Cyril and Methodius in downtown Prague. The church was surrounded and a gunfight ensued that only ended with the suicide deaths of the Czech resistance fighters.
After the war, at the Nuremberg Trials, General Daluege admitted that 1,331 Czechs (201 of them women) had been executed in reprisal for the assassination, along with 3,000 prisoners from Terezfn concentration camp.
Was the assassination of Heydrich worth this price? There is little doubt that President-in-Exile Benes knew that there would be massive reprisals. Colonel Moravec had received a secret message in mid-May from the resistance pleading that the operation be cancelled because of this very danger. Moravec and Benes must have decided that the consequences would be outweighed by the need for Britain and France to repudiate the Munich Agreement.
The killing of Heydrich can be nominally justified, if not as self-defence or part of the Just War Theory, then as an act against an unjust aggressor. Had Heydrich not been killed, he would no doubt have continued to perpetrate crimes against humanity. He was one of Hider’s brightest followers and Himmler’s probable replacement, so one can only conjecture as to his impact on history had he survived.
The assassination was also meant to be a call to arms for the population of the occupied territories. As Winston Churchill commented, ‘The only way to mobilize popular support for secret armies of resistance fighters during the war was to stage such dramatic acts of terrorism against the German occupying forces.’
In this regard, the mission was a failure, as the SS and the Gestapo had already crippled what was left of the resistance.
The Czech underground would not pose a substantial threat to German occupation for the remainder of the war.
The cold, simple fact is that the assassination of Heydrich served a purpose. Benes had resigned as President of Czechoslovakia on 5 October 1938 after the Munich Agreement was reached. His efforts in London as head of the government-in-exile were oriented on one overarching goal: renunciation of the agreement and restoration of the Czechoslovakian state to its pre-war form following the defeat of Germany.
On 5 August 1942, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden sent a letter to his Czechoslovak colleague stating that in light of the German depredations in the occupied territories, Britain revoked the Munich Agreement. Two months later, France followed suit.
The goal of Operation Anthropoid was nothing less than to secure the repudiation of the Munich Agreement. In this, but at a terrible cost, Warrant Officers Josef Gabci’k and Jan Kubis accomplished their mission.