On the morning of May 27, 1942, the most dangerous man in Nazi Germany went for his last ride.
Reinhard Heydrich was tall, slender, blue-eyed and blond, a perfect specimen of the ideal Nazi man. In his green Mercedes 320 Convertible B that morning, he might have been mistaken for a European playboy, or a rich, spoiled aristocrat.
But SS Obergruppenführer Heydrich was no more romantic than a hangman’s noose or a gas chamber. Ruthless and ambitious, he had risen to become chief of the Reich Main Security Office—second only to Heinrich Himmler in the Nazi security apparatus—and controlled such infamous agencies as the Gestapo. He chaired the Wannsee Conference in 1942 that finalized plans for systematic extermination of European Jews. And to add one more accomplishment to his bloody résumé, in September 1941, he was appointed Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, the Czech provinces that Germany had occupied in 1939.
The Czechs learned soon enough what Heydrich’s “protection” meant. As soon as he arrived in Prague, he sought to make the Czech heartland a productive resource for the Reich. He would accomplish this through sheer terror.
“Within days of his arrival buildings across the Protectorate were splattered with red posters listing the names of people—ninety-two in the first three days of Heydrich’s rule—sentenced to death by newly established summary courts,” writes historian Chad Bryant. “The summary courts allowed only three possible verdicts: the death sentence, shipment to a concentration camp, and release.” By February 1942, five thousand people had been tried.
Resistance against the Nazis had been sporadic. By the spring of 1942, the British had already tried to parachute agents into Czechoslovakia—with dismal results—and there had been a few acts of sabotage. But on that May morning, as Heydrich and his driver traveled from his home on the outskirts of Prague to his office in Prague Castle, it was a measure of his supreme arrogance that he disdained a bodyguard. Heydrich’s wife later said later Heydrich refused to believe that the the Czechs would risk national suicide by killing him. Plans to sheath his Mercedes in armor were never implemented.
Heydrich was wrong. Waiting near a tram stop as Heydrich’s car approach were the instruments of justice.
Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis would be the sword arm of Operation Anthropoid, a Czech-British operation to assassinate Heydrich. Gabcik and Kubis, two soldiers in the Free Czech army in Britain, had been recruited and trained by Britain’s Special Operations Executive, the famous SOE charged by Churchill with “setting Europe ablaze” by supporting sabotage and guerrilla warfare against the Nazi occupiers.
Operation Anthropoid was conceived by former Czech president Edvard Benes. However, Benes may have motivated more by politics than military necessity, according to writer Callum MacDonald’s account of the episode. Benes feared that the British and Soviets would agree to a compromise peace with Hitler that would leave Czechoslovakia under Nazi rule. The Czechs had to commit some spectacular act to show they were not mere pawns on the global chessboard, “even if it had to be paid for with a great many sacrifices,” Benes wrote.
His words proved more prophetic than he could ever realize.
Yet as Gabcik and Kubris parachuted from a British Halifax bomber into the snowy Czech countryside on December 28, 1941, they were worried less about politics than survival. Landing twenty miles from their planned drop point into open country without cover, the two commandos might have been caught but for a quick-thinking Czech gamekeeper, who gave them shelter and put them in touch with an underground group in Prague.
For the next five months, they were moved from safe house to safe house in the midst of the brutally efficient Nazi occupation. They learned that Heydrich would soon be transferred to some restive part of Europe to suppress the local resistance, which would put him beyond the reach of Czech vengeance. But how to kill him before he left? Heydrich’s home and office were too heavily guarded to risk an attack there. However, the commandos knew that he would be in Prague on May 27. As his car approached a sharp curve in the road near a tram stop in a Prague suburb, it would have to slow down, leaving him vulnerable.
Some local Czech resistance leaders opposed the operation, fearing German reprisals. Yet the plan went ahead. On 10:32 a.m. on May 27, running uncharacteristically late after spending the morning with his wife and children, Heydrich and his driver Klein appeared at the bend in the road. Standing on the sidewalk, Gabcik opened his raincoat, pulled out his Sten submachine gun and pulled the trigger.
At that heroic moment, the Sten gun jammed.
“Heydrich then made a fatal error,” MacDonald writes. “Instead of ordering Klein to accelerate out of the ambush, he stood up and drew his pistol, yelling at the driver to stop. Neither he nor Klein had spotted Kubis and believed that they were dealing with a lone assassin. As the car braked in front of him, Kubis stepped out of the shadows and tossed a bomb at the two figures in the front seats.”
The bomb landed outside the Mercedes, from which Heydrich and Klein emerged with pistols drawn. Exchanging shots with their intended victims, Gabcik and Kubis fled, injured yet convinced that their target had survived. But Heydrich suddenly collapsed, badly injured from fragments of car upholstery that the bomb had turned into shrapnel (which never would have happened if the Mercedes had been armored). He was taken to hospital, where Czech doctors tried to save him.
Nazi vengeance began that night. “Throughout the Protectorate blocks of flats, suburbs and villages were randomly cordoned off and searched,” MacDonald writes. “Everyone over fifteen was ordered to register with the police by 30 May. Those who failed to do so were shot along with anyone found guilty of harboring them.” Anyone who failed to report seeing the commandos was to be shot—along with their families. Not that this stopped the Germans from shooting people anyway: 157 Czechs were killed within a week. Naturally, hundreds of Jews in concentration camps were shot because, in Nazi eyes, they somehow must have been responsible for the attack.
Meanwhile, Hitler ordered a Nazi doctor to fly to Prague to attend Heydrich. Yet Heydrich’s condition turned into peritonitis and then septicemia. Himmler now flew in from Berlin to be with his most trusted subordinate. At 4:30 a.m. on June 4, Heydrich died.
Within a few days, trains left Czechoslovakia carrying three thousand Jews to death camps. But killing Jews, who were to be killed anyway, would hardly slake Hitler’s bloodthirstiness.
The real vengeance would be inflicted on the village of Lidice, which the Gestapo believed—on the flimsiest of evidence—to have helped the assassins.
Orders came down from Hitler: “Lidice was to be destroyed. The men were to be shot on the spot and the women sent to a concentration camp. Children worthy of Germanisation were to be handed over to SS families. The village was to be burned to the ground and its remains levelled so that no trace remained."
On June 9, 1942, Lidice was wiped out. The Nazis executed 199 men and deported 195 women to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Of the ninety-five children, eighty-one were gassed at the Chelmno death camp and eight were adopted by German families.
Gabcik and Kubis hid in the crypt of a church along with five other commandos, tormented by the news of Nazi reprisals and without any viable plan for escape. Then another commando, a Czech sergeant, walked into Gestapo headquarters and gave up his comrades.
On June 18, SS troops attempted to storm the crypt, only to meet such fierce fire that they called in the Prague fire brigade to flood the place and drive out the defenders. By the time the echo of the gunfire and grenades had faded, the Germans found Gabcik and Kubis had taken poison, and the other five parachutists were dead. The Nazis mounted their heads on spikes.
Was Operation Anthropoid a success? Was killing a monster like Heydrich worth the lives of several thousand people? There can be no correct answer for that.
What is noteworthy that the Allies didn’t attempt such assassinations again for the remainder of the war.
Image: Reinhard Heydrich’s car after the 1942 assassination attempt in Prague. Wikimedia Commons/Deutsches Bundesarchiv/Public domain