Operation Anthropoid – The Story of Brave Paratroopers
The 80th Anniversary
“Great crises produce great men and great deeds of courage.”
– John F. Kennedy
On the morning of May 27, 1942, around 10:30, two men, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, waited in the sharp bend of a road near the Bulovka hospital in Prague 8. Bicycles parked nearby for an escape, and a long coat concealing a machine gun. These men were waiting to ambush one of the key men of the Third Reich, the butcher of Prague Reinhard Heydrich, in what was to be the first and only successful government-sponsored assassination of a high-ranking Nazi in the course of the entire war.
About Us, Without Us
The events that would bring these men to this moment started on September 29, 1938, with the Munich Agreement or, as it would later be called by the Czechs, the Munich Betrayal (or about us, without us – a source of a lot of our national self-esteem and trust issues). England, France, Italy, and Germany agreed to give a part of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland, adding up to around a fourth of the total area of the country, to Nazi Germany.
The Czechoslovaks were not invited to the negotiation table. In a matter of months following the treaty, Hitler took all of the Czech and Moravian parts of the country with little protest from the rest of the world, while Slovakia went on to become a separate fascist state for the duration of the war.
Who Was Heydrich?
Heydrich’s position as chief of the Reich Security Main Office gave him control over the Gestapo as well as most of the powerful policing organizations of the Nazi government. He was an adviser and friend to Hitler and helped form the “Final Solution”. His power in the party was so great even generals were afraid of him.
In September of 1941, Heydrich would be assigned as the “Protector of Bohemia and Moravia”. His job was to destroy any resistance movement and keep manufacturing in the country at a high level. His violent tactics imprisoned, maimed, and murdered hundreds of Czechs in the following months.
Plotting the Assassination
The idea to assassinate Heydrich originated in England on October 20th, 1941. The Czechoslovak president and around 300 Czechoslovak troops were in exile and living in the UK and the exile government was in a desperate need to put itself and the domestic resistance movement on the map for our western allies to see. The plan was for a few Czech and Slovak soldiers, trained by British Special Forces, to parachute into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (today’s Czech Republic), familiarize themselves with Heydrich’s routine, and assassinate him.
On December 28, 1941, seven soldiers including Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, along with two other groups on different missions, were to be dropped near Pilsen. Due to navigational issues, they have been dropped a distance away and had to travel to the rendezvous point. After making contact with members of the resistance they moved on to Prague.
Originally they had planned to attack a train with Heydrich onboard but realized quickly it was impossible. They then tried the road near the chateau where Heydrich lived before deciding their best chance was in Prague. Heydrich was confident, even cocky, about his power over the Czechs. So confident, in fact, that he had his driver take the same route to work every day. On May 27 he rode his convertible with the top down and no escort. Gabčík and Kubiš waited.
The Deed Itself
As the car slowed in the curve of the road, exactly as the assassins anticipated, Gabčík stepped out in front of the car aiming his machine gun. It jammed. Kubiš threw a grenade that struck the side of the automobile sending shrapnel into Heydrich. Heydrich stood aiming his pistol but collapsed due to his injuries. He commanded his driver to chase down Gabčík who would escape only after wounding the driver with his pistol. Gabčík fled the area to later rendezvous with the others.
A Czech woman and an off-duty policeman came to Heydrich’s aid, flagged down a passing van and had him taken to the nearby Bulovka hospital. His injuries were severe with damage to his diaphragm, spleen, and lung. After surgery he seemed to begin to heal but a week later, while eating lunch, he collapsed and fell into a coma. He never regained consciousness, dying of sepsis around 4:30 the next morning.
The Manhunt and the Price
The manhunt for the soldiers was quick, violent, and overwhelming. 13,000 people were arrested, many tortured. The village of Lidice was falsely accused of helping the assassins and Hitler commanded that the village be “erased from memory.” The men were killed, the women and most of the children were taken to a concentration camp, and 8 children were given to German families to raise.
The village was destroyed, the buildings levelled, and even the landscape altered. The village was also removed from any further printing of maps. Fourteen days later the village of Ležáky met a similar fate.
The Last Stand
Karel Čurda, a member of the resistance movement, turned himself in to the Gestapo and gave the names of other resistance members. Further torture would finally get the location of the men – the Church of Cyril and Methodius in Prague’s New Town.
On June 18 the church was surrounded by 700 soldiers, and a battle ensued. After two hours the Nazis were able to take the upper part of the church where three of the men, Kubiš, Adolf Opalka, and Josef Bublík, had been killed. The remaining four were in the crypt and kept holding off the attacks. Getting impatient, the Nazi soldiers ordered Czech firefighters to come and flood the crypt through its tiny window. Tired from the fight, with a less than desirable fate of being drowned ahead of them, the remaining paratroopers committed suicide with their last bullets.
After the fact, some have questioned if this assassination was worth the thorough Nazi retaliation. This is of course open for discussion but there is no doubt that the original plan of the exile government worked out – its prestige with the western allies did rise considerably, as did our self-confidence. What nobody questions is the bravery and loyalty shown by the seven soldiers and the members of the resistance that gave their lives for their country.
So, What’s On?
Since this year marks the 80th anniversary of the assassination, there have been many commemorative events including re-enactments around Prague as well as the traditional remembrance ceremony at the Lidice memorial in Lidice. If you’re interested, you might want to check out the following:
Museum of Czech and Slovak Legions – a free exhibition with some of the assassins’ paraphernalia and such, running until the end of June 2022
Karolinum – a free exhibition providing an interesting look at Heydrich’s plans for Prague and Bohemia as such, running until August 28th 2022
Náměstí Míru – a photo/infopanel exhibition running until June 18th 2022
Multiple locations – Czech Radio broadcasting reconstructions from the pivotal events regarding the assassinations on their anniversary dates (such as from Karlovo náměstí, within shouting distance of the crypt the assassins died in on June 18th 2022)
There is more, some of it not English-friendly. If you want the full list, check out this link.
I’m not recommending any beer spots this time – it’s a solemn occasion. I hope you’re not disappointed.
June 15, 2022