Operation Anthropoid: The Assassination Of The Final Solution's Architect
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Arguably, Reinhard Heydrich was the vilest of Adolph Hitler’s henchmen. Not only did he organize the phony attack on a German radio station that led to the invasion of Poland but was one of the organizers of Kristallnacht. Further, he was a lead architect of the genocide of Jews known as the “Final Solution.” Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Gestapo said of Heydrich that he was "an ideal always to be emulated, but perhaps never again to be achieved." To provide further context on Heydrich’s reputation, Hitler called him the “man with the iron heart.”
This “man with the iron heart” was the subject of one of the most daring assassinations in history called Operation Anthropoid. But the effects of the mission was so great that historians ask if it was worth it.
Heydrich, being the Nazi’s Nazi that he was, was selected to be the Deputy Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. This was the part of Czechoslovakia corresponding roughly to today’s Czech Republic that was formally annexed by Germany. The region was a key producer of coal as well as an important manufacturing center. However, there was a growing resistance movement. From the Nazi viewpoint, the resistance in Czechoslovakia was proof that the Nazis-in-charge had gone soft. Hitler and Himmler sent in Heydrich. "We will Germanize the Czech vermin,” Heydrich told his subordinates after arriving in Prague.
This man with the iron heart was born on March 7, 1904, in Halle an der Salle to a composer and opera singer of anti-Semitic temperament. Heydrich was a capable violin player, fencer, and swimmer. He was also a womanizer. Formerly of the Navy from which he was discharged, Heydrich was recruited by Heinrich Himmler to be head of the SS’s counterintelligence division. In 1934, he became head of the Gestapo. He rose in the cutthroat ranks of the Nazi party. He was a perfect person to crush any dissent in Czechoslovakia.
Meanwhile, in London, Edvard Beneš headed a Czechoslovak government in exile. He was concerned that even if Germany lost the war, the areas of his country ceded to Germany in the 1938 Munich Agreement would still be lost. He needed to prove that his people were fighting against Nazi Germany. To do this, he dispatched many of the finest Czech troops to train with Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) which headed up much of the covert sabotage work abroad. Many of these troops parachuted into Czechoslovakia and conducted missions. But they were one-way trips since there was no way to extract the operatives. They were either captured or remained in hiding until the war’s end.
Reinhard Heydrich’s methods to counter resistance efforts were two-pronged. As might be expected he declared martial law, rounded up Jews and confined them to ghettos as well as showing no mercy to any overt political opposition. In the terror, well over one hundred resistance members were executed and their names published throughout the country which earned him the nickname the “Butcher of Prague.” But Czechoslovakia contained a number of German sympathizers. Heydrich curried favor by increasing wages and rations for workers. Through this means, he brought the situation under control.
With these successes, Beneš feared for the future of his country. It was October 1941 and through that fall he watched the war shift as the United States joined the Allies and Germany became bogged down in the eastern front. He feared for an armistice that would hand over Czechoslovakia to Germany. Benes decided to take things to the next level and plotted the assassination of Heydrich in a mission code-named "Operation Anthropoid." He hoped that success would lead to a general uprising of the Czechs.
Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, exiled soldiers in their twenties were assigned to the mission. They were trained by the SOE in parachuting and explosives. They were airdropped into Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1941.
Originally they were 50 miles from their intended drop zone due to a winter storm, but they managed to contact local resistance groups and get smuggled into Prague with cover stories and documents. In Prague, they assessed the situation and studied Heydrich’s routine which included a regular drive from his home to office. The arrogant Heydrich had no guard.
Meanwhile, other resistance members were studying Gabčík and Kubiš. They came to the conclusion that they were there to assassinate Heydrich. They sent a message to Benes̆ “...we guess, despite their silence, that they're preparing to assassinate H," the resistance leadership messaged. "This assassination would not help the Allies and would bring immense consequences upon our nation."
Benes̆ paid the message no heed. Meanwhile, the Gestapo intercepted the transmission and warned Heydrich to take precautions. He refused a personal guard on the grounds that it would damage “German prestige.”
On the morning of Tuesday, May 26, 1942, Heydrich played with his family which included three children and a pregnant wife before climbing into his open-top Mercedes. He was to fly to meet Hitler that day. As he proceeded he came to a sharp curve. As the vehicle slowed, a conspirator flashed a signal to Gabčík and Kubiš. The two assassins, who had come to the curve on bicycles with hidden briefcases, with other operatives attacked.
Gabčík stepped in front of the Mercedes, took aim with his Sten machine gun and squeezed the trigger. It jammed. Heydrich then ordered the driver to stop, stood up, and aimed a pistol at Gabčík. Kubiš then rushed up and threw a grenade at the car. But it hit the side in front of a rear wheel and deflected. Still, it exploded, wounding Heydrich with shrapnel and upholstery fibers. Gabčík was wounded in the face with shrapnel.
The stunned Heydrich and his driver stumbled out of the vehicle. Both of the assassins fired at Heydrich but missed. Gabc̆ik became enmeshed in a shooting match with Heydrich who chased him. But Heydrich soon withdrew due to his wounds, returning to the Mercedes. Ordering his driver to, “Get that bastard!” Kubis̆, who had bicycled away, had a shootout with the driver, wounding him in the leg before he managed to escape.
Heydrich was still alive, so the assassins thought their mission a failure. But they had wounded the Nazi far worse than they originally thought. Aside from a shattered rib and a punctured stomach, horsehair from the car’s upholstery had lodged into his spleen. He would die of infection from these injuries on June 2, 1942.
Hitler’s response to this was swift. He learned of the assassins two hours after the attack and ordered immediate reprisals. He feared more assassinations of high profile Germans would come if he did not act hard. While he publicly mourned Heydrich, Hitler was privately incensed at his lack of sense for going about without a guard in an open car. Hitler said, "Such heroic gestures as driving in an open, unarmored vehicle or walking about the streets unguarded are just damned stupidity, which serves the country, not one whit.” In retribution, Hitler and Himmler ordered 3,000 Jews to be shipped on a train marked “Assassination of Heydrich” to death camps in Poland.
The Nazis also made an example out of the village of Lidice in Bohemia which was suspected of abetting the assassins. On June 10, 1942, all the men over age 15 were rounded up and shot in groups of ten by executioners who came from Heydrich’s hometown. The women were sent to concentration camps. As for the children, 82 were gassed to death and the remainder sent to Nazi schools for reeducation. Of the 503 villagers, 340 were killed. The Nazis filmed the mass burial as a piece of propaganda to warn others to submit to the Third Reich. The Town was burned to the ground and became an outrage to the world. While the suppression was successful, Lidice became a symbol of atrocities and a rallying cry for the Allies. It also guaranteed that if the war ended in the Allies' favor, that the old Munich agreement would be thrown out.
Meanwhile, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš were in hiding in Prague in the catacombs of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius Orthodox Cathedral. They had grown despondent in the aftermath of the assassination and contemplated committing suicide in a public park and hanging signs on their necks claiming responsibility.
By June 13, the search for the assassins grew cold, and the Nazis announced an amnesty and one million marks for any person who would give information about the killers. It was then that Karel Čurda came forward. He had helped plan the assassination and was pressured by his family to betray his comrades. The temptation was too powerful, so Čurda turned himself in.
Čurda gave up the identity of the assassins and safe house locations in Prague. The Gestapo raided these and in questioning one resistance member, got him intoxicated then brought out his mother’s head floating in a fish tank. He cracked and revealed the church.
The SS surrounded the church and upon entering were greeted with grenades. The commandos held out for two hours, exchanging gunfire with the Germans who wished to capture them alive. Finally, three of them, including Kubiš, out of ammunition swallowed cyanide pills and died.
Gabčík and three other operatives remained holed up in the catacombs. The Nazis brought in Čurda to encourage the men to surrender. When he called down into a grate, he was greeted by gunfire. The Germans then tried to flood the catacombs with fire hoses. This did not work nor did gas grenades. A squad of assault troops was sent down, and they were ambushed. They withdrew. Finally, the Germans blew open the grate with explosives. In response, four shots rang out. The rest of the holdouts had shot themselves. Reprisals continued as the families of the operatives and those that aided them were executed.
At the end of the war, Čurda was executed for collaborating with the Germans. When asked why he did it, Čurda purportedly said, "I think you would have done the same for a million marks." As for Gabčík and Kubiš, they have been transformed into Czech national heroes. Yet at the same time, there is a debate as to whether or not the assassination was worth its cost in blood.
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