Prague. May 27, 1942. Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík – two young members of the Czech resistance – had been nervously waiting at a tram stop for over two hours. The location was perfect. A corner in the road would force the target’s car to slow down. Under their cloaks, they carried a British made Sten gun and anti tank grenades. They were ready. The operation, code-named Anthropoid, had been planned out down to the tiniest detail. However, their target was 5 minutes late…
The target was Reinard Heydrich. The SS-Obergruppenfuhrer had replaced Konstantin von Neurath as Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia on 27 September 1941. Formally von Neurath remained Reichsprotektor and Heydrich was his Deputy. However, Hitler found von Neurath’s approach towards the Czech resistance ‘too soft’. He was subsequently sent on ‘leave’. On being appointed, Heydrich is to have said ‘we will Germanize the Czech vermin’.
Heydrich, whose nicknames included ‘The Hangman’, ‘The Butcher of Prague’, ‘The Blond Beast’ and ‘Himmler’s Evil Genius’ was exceptionally ruthless in dealing with the Czech resistance and had a considerable role as an architect of the Holocaust. He chaired the Wannsee Conference in 1941 which led to the implementation of the Endlösung der Judenfrage. As the founding head of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) (the Secret Police), he dealt with putting down anti-Nazi sentiments, rounding up Jews and had an important role during Kristallnacht.
Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, paratroopers who had volunteered for secret service, had been chosen by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London to lead the mission to assassinate Reinard Heydrich. Having received training in the United Kingdom they parachuted into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in the end of 1941. It was a mission far behind enemy lines. By the end of 1941, most of continental Europe was under Nazi control. The Halifax of No. 138 Squadron RAF carrying the paratroopers had navigation problems and missed the intended drop zone. By chance, they linked up with the local resistance and set out to perform the assassination on May 27, 1942.
May 27, 1942. 10:35 AM. The Mercedes arrived at the corner where Kubiš and Gabčík had been waiting. The car slowed down and Gabčík pulled out the Sten gun and opened fire. Or at least, that is what should have happened. The gun jammed. Heidrich’s driver In stead of fleeing the scene, Heydrich ordered his driver to stop the car to confront the assailants. Quickly Kubiš pulled one of the bombs out of his briefcase and flung it at the car. The explosion damaged the car extensively, blowing out the right door and sending small parts of the vehicle’s frame through the backrest of the seat consequently puncturing Heydrich’s chest (and wounding himself). Heydrich, wounded, got out of the car firing his pistol at the fleeing assailants before collapsing. He was rushed to the nearest hospital.
Reinhard Heydrich had a reputation for seeking frontline action. Despite being a high-ranking Nazi official in 1939, he volunteered as a combat pilot during the invasion of Poland, serving as a rear gunner. He found it important to experience front line action, reportedly saying ‘if you constantly decide over life and death, you must look death in the eyes yourself’. After flying almost 100 combat missions he was shot down behind enemy lines on the Eastern front in 1942. After surviving the crash, he evaded capture by a Soviet patrol and made it back to the German lines. Hitler forbade him from ever flying combat missions again.
Heydrich had not been killed. At the hospital, he refused to be operated by a non-German doctor. His wounds initially seemed superficial. Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer-SS, visited him on June 2nd and he was expected to make a full recovery. However, in the days after Himmler’s visit his health started deteriorating quickly. The backseat of the car had been stuffed with horse hair which had entered his body along the parts of the car. He slipped into a coma and died on June 4, 1942, at 7:30 of Sepsis – eight days after the attack. He could have been saved by Penicillin, but at the time the US had world production in hands.
Standoff in Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral
After the assassination attempt, Kubiš and Gabčík found refuge in the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, a Serbian Orthodox Church. Five surviving parachutists from other groups were hiding here as well. One of the parachutists – Karel Čurda – had fled the Church and sought refuge at his mothers home. On the 16th of June – in fear of reprisals from the Nazis with regard to his family – Karel Čurda walked into the Gestapo headquarters and betrayed the Czech resistance. He did not know the exact hiding place of Kubiš, Gabčík and the other parachutists, but gave the SS the addresses of resistance safe houses used in the preparation of the assassination. The next morning the Gestapo raided the locations provided by Čurda and captured resistance fighters who had aided Kubiš and Gabčík. After extensive torture, the Gestapo extracted the location of the Church.
At 4.10 AM on 18th of June 1942, the SS cordoned off the area around the Church. After a two hour battle, they defeated the parachutists who had been keeping watch in the Church. They wanted the parachutists hiding in the Crypt alive, but could not get to them. The SS tossed tear gas inside and summoned the Prague fire brigade. They were ordered to flood the crypt. During the battle that unfolded the traitor, Karel Čurdan was sent out to talk them into surrendering in exchange for clemency. He was fired upon. Exhausted and out of ammunition the situation became hopeless. In stead of being captured, the parachutists ended their own lives with their last bullets.
The assassination led to the brutal Nazi reprisals. Hitler initially ordered to round up and kill 10.000 random Czechs but was persuaded to refocus his revenge on eradicating all Czech resistance. The complete villages of Lidice and Ležáky were massacred and burned to the ground. Many of the people who helped the assassins were killed, including Father Petrek of the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral. Others, including Jan Kubiš’ girlfriend, Anna Malinova were arrested and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp.
Until the end of the war the traitor Karel Čurda, who had received 1,000,000 RM (approx. $6,200,000 in 2017) for his betrayal, worked as a German agent. He was caught, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. He was hanged on 29 April 1947.