Operation Anthropoid: 78 Years on.
An act of resistance that changed everything
In 1942, a British-Czech-Slovak joint operation successfully assassinated one of the most fearsome and high-ranking Nazis in the Third Reich. Regarded by many as the darkest figure in the Nazi elite, Reinhard Heydrich died due to injuries sustained in an ambush on his personal vehicle, which was struck by an explosive device on May 27 of that year.
Nicknamed by Hitler as, “The man with the Iron Heart”, Heydrich rose to prominence quickly after impressing Heinrich Himmler in a job interview, and was tasked with setting up an intelligence division within the SS; the SD. Interstingly, he had little knowledge of what it took to run an intelligence unit, but info from some spy books he read as a child was enough to impress the wannabe soildier Himmler. He was ruthlessly efficient at obtaining information on political rivals, and would use this knowledge to blackmail opponents. With the backing of SS forces, the communists were raided and attacked throughout Germany, as Heydrich sought to establish and consolidate Nazi power.
Heydrich not only acted on the political aims of the Nazis, but was also one of the main architects of the Holocaust, the Final Solution to the Jewish question. After the invasion of Poland in September 1939, it was Heydrich who formed the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads tasked with rounding up and executing Polish intellectuals and other potential resistance leaders. During the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1942, Heydrich again unleashed the Einsatzgruppen which murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews.
On the 20th January 1942, Heydrich chaired the Wannsee Conference, where the final plans for the annihilation of the Jews was discussed. It has been noted that during the meeting Heydrich “barely spared a hateful thought for the Jews” and instead concentrated his efforts on the scale of his “supranational task” which was to find a way of removing all 11 million European Jews as quickly as possible. This provides an indication into his efficiency and callousness, even when dealing with human lives.
After being made Reich-protector of Bohemia and Moravia, the modern Czech Republic, he all but destroyed any remaining Czech resistance in Prague, through either mass execution or coercion . In his arrogance, Heydrich abstained from travelling around the city with bodyguards or an armoured car, a mistake which would cost him his life.
The assassination was carried out by Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčik, Czech commandos who had parachuted back into the country in late 1941 after receiving rigorous training in Scotland to carry out their mission. They identified a tight corner on Heydrich’s daily route, between his home and the government building in Prague, where his vehicle would be moving slowly enough for someone to step out onto the road and machine gun down anything in or around the vehicle. After months of scrupulous planning and preparation, on the 27 May 1942, the Sten gun, which Gabčik was meant to use to kill Heydrich, jammed at the vital moment. As the stunned SD officer stood up in the car to shoot Gabčik with his pistol, Jan Kubiš emerged from the shadows, and threw a small homemade bomb at the vehicle which detonated upon impact. In the confusion, Kubiš and Gabčik were able to escape the scene, believing they had failed their mission. Heydrich had in fact suffered severe injuries to his left side, and on the 2nd June, “the Butcher of Prague” died in hospital.
After the assassination, Kubiš, Gabčik and 5 other parachutists were hidden in St Cyril and Methodius Church. However, they were betrayed by a Nazi collaborator within the Czech resistance, Karel Čurda. 750 SS soldiers were sent to the church to capture the parachutists alive, this was so that they could be publicly humiliated and then executed as an example of what happens when you resist German occupation. Jan Kubiš, Adolf Opálka and Josef Bublík, in a remarkable act of defiance and bravery, defended their position in the prayer loft for 2 hours, all 3 were killed in the battle. The remaining survivors Jozef Gabčik, Josef Valčik, Jaroslav švarc and Jan Hruby held out in the underground crypt of the Church for a further 4 hours, resisting repeated attacks by the SS, and an attempt to drown them by flooding the crypt. When the crypt was eventually breached by explosives, the parachutists committed suicide. After 6 hours, the SS had failed to take any of the parachutists alive.
The sheer bravery, courage and selflessness of these men against the odds cannot be truly comprehended. From the assassination of Heydrich, to their final moments in the crypt, their actions were a sacrifice they did not have to make.
Despite the incredible story, the motivations of the British and Czech government in exile to launch this operation are quite blurred. Heydrich once said he did not need bodyguards as no one would risk national suicide in order to kill him. In a way he was right. The risk was taken, but the consequences were abhorrent, and bring into question the reasoning for the assasination. In direct retaliation for the assassination, thousands of men, women and children were indiscriminatly sent to concentration camps and to their deaths. The village of Lidice, on the outskirts of Prague, was raised to the ground, and all men over the age of 16 were executed. It was the people of Czechoslovakia who suffered for Heydrich’s death, not Nazi Germany. It is thought that the Czech government in exile may have ordered the assassination to prove to the British that Czechoslovakia was ready to continue fighting, without thought for the human costs in Nazi retribution.
Ultimately, the debate as to whether Operation Anthropoid was necessary will continue, but as its 76th anniversary approaches, let us remember the heroism of the Czech resistance who kept fighting when all was lost, the 7 parachutists who defied the SS, but also an estimated 5,000 innocent Czechs whose lives were taken. Mothers, fathers, uncles, aunties, sons, daughters, their lives cut needlessly short in direct retaliation by the Nazi’s to the assassination of one of the most ruthless men in modern history.