On May 27, 1942, the British-trained Slovak and Czech operatives Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš ambushed the car of the notorious “Butcher of Prague” Reinhard Heydrich, who died of his wounds a few days later. Known as Operation Anthropoid, it was the only successful government-organized assassination of a top-ranking Nazi officer during World War II.
Following the Anschluss of Austria in March 1938, the conquest of Czechoslovakia, and particularly the annexation the Sudetenland, a region with a high ethnic German population, became Adolf Hitler’s next ambition. And in September 1938, the governments of both France and Britain, intent on avoiding war, acquiesced to the Führer’s demands in Munich.
Six months later, after Slovakia declared its independence and became a client state of Nazi Germany, Hitler ordered the invasion of the remaining Czech territories, forcing the Czechoslovak President Emil Hácha to accept the occupation of the Czech rump state and its re-organisation into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, with Konstantin von Neurath as Reichsprotektor.
Soon after his arrival at Prague Castle, Konstantin von Neurath instituted harsh press censorship and banned political parties and trade unions. He ordered a harsh crackdown on protesting students and supervised the persecution of Jews. But as draconian as these measures were, the German occupation of Czechoslovakia was arguably less harsh than in other Slavic nations with Neurath notably trying to restrain the excesses of his police chief.
Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich
The German occupation nonetheless fuelled a strong anti-German sentiment among the Czech population and led to the the emergence of a resistance network under the leadership of Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš, who together with the head of Czechoslovak military intelligence, František Moravec, coordinated resistance activity while in exile in London.
By September 1941, Hitler decided that Neurath’s rule was too lenient and stripped him of his day-to-day powers. The high ranking SS officer Reinhard Heydrich, notorious for having orchestrated the mass murder of the Polish intelligentsia during the first years of the war, was named as his deputy, assuming de facto control of the territory.
Reinhard Heydrich came to Prague to fight the growing Czech resistance and keep up production quotas of Czech motors and arms that were extremely important to the German war effort. Condemning the Czech resistance’s as stabs in the back, Reinhard Heydrich notoriously told his aides: “We will Germanize the Czech vermin”.
The “Butcher of Prague”
Within five days of his arrival in Prague, Heydrich proclaimed martial law and 142 people were executed. Their names appeared on posters throughout the occupied country. Most of them were the members of the resistance that had previously been captured. Thousands more were arrested and sent to Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, where most of them were murdered.
By March 1942, further sweeps against Czech cultural and patriotic organisations, the military, and the intelligentsia had resulted in the practical paralysis of the London-based Czech resistance. And although small disorganised cells survived, only the communist resistance was able to function in a coordinated manner. Due to his brutal efficiency, Heydrich was soon nicknamed the Butcher of Prague.
During that time, the Czech government-in-exile started to feel that it had to do something that would not only inspire the Czechoslovaks but also show the world that the Czechs and Slovaks were allies. In addition, Beneš felt that a dramatic action displaying a Czech contribution to the Allied cause would make it politically harder for the British to forge any possible peace agreement with Germany that would undermine Czech national interests.
Reinhard Heydrich was chosen as an assassination target and “Operation Anthropoid” was instigated by František Moravec with the knowledge and approval of Edvard Beneš, almost as soon as Heydrich was appointed Protector. In London, Moravec approached the Director of Operations in the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), Brigadier Colin Gubbins, who readily agreed to help mount the secret operation.
Preparation for Operation Anthropoid began in October 1941. Out of the 2,000 exiled Czechoslovak soldiers based in Britain, the Slovak Jozef Gabčík and the Czech Jan Kubiš were chosen to carry out the operation and sent to one of SOE’s commando training centres in Scotland. On December 28, 1941, the pair were flown out of Britain and paradropped just east of Prague, where the attack was planned.
In Prague, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš contacted several families and resistance organisations who helped them during the preparations for the assassination. Upon learning of the nature of the mission, resistance leaders begged the Czechoslovak government-in-exile to call off the attack, fearing the consequences of an attempt against Heydrich’s life. But Beneš personally insisted that Operation Anthropoid go forward.
May 27, 1942
At 10:30 on May 27, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich set off to Berlin by car for a meeting with Hitler. Gabčík and Kubiš waited at the tram stop at a junction near Bulovka Hospital where the tight curve would force Heydrich’s open-topped Mercedes Cabriolet to slow down. As the car rounded the corner, Gabčík took aim with a Sten submachine gun, but it jammed and failed to fire.
After spotting the Slovak soldier, Heydrich stood up and drew his Luger pistol, yelling at the driver to halt. But as the Mercedes braked, Kubiš, who had not been spotted by Heydrich or his driver, threw a modified anti-tank grenade at the car. The detonation severely wounded Heydrich, causing serious injuries to his left side, with major damage to his diaphragm, spleen and lung, as well as a fractured rib.
After a brief shootout around the shattered Mercedes, Gabčík and Kubiš managed to escape with only minor injuries, leaving Heydrich wounded and thinking Operation Anthropoid had failed. Heydrich was taken to the emergency room at Bulovka Hospital where a splenectomy was performed. He died of his wounds a few days later.
Infuriated by Heydrich’s death, Hitler ordered brutal reprisals and Nazi intelligence falsely linked the Czech and Slovak soldiers and resistance partisans to the villages of Lidice and Ležáky. Both villages were razed, all men and boys over the age of 16 were shot, and all but a handful of the women and children were deported and killed in Nazi concentration camps.
Meanwhile, Gabčík and Kubiš hid in safe houses and eventually took refuge in the Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral in Prague. But a traitor in the Czech resistance betrayed their location and the church was surrounded by SS and Gestapo forces, who attempted to flush the men out with gunfire, tear gas, and by flooding the crypt. Rather than surrender, Gabčík and Kubiš killed themselves in the crypt on June 18.
After Heydrich’s death, the formalised plans for the “Final Solution”, of which Heydrich had been the principal architect, began to be implemented in German-occupied Europe, as the first three true death camps were built at Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełżec. The project was named Operation Reinhard, after the man many historians now regard as one of the darkest figures of the Nazi regime.
Operation Anthropoid was one of the most significant moments of the resistance in Czechoslovakia and was the only successful government-organized assassination of a top-ranking Nazi officer during World War II.
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