Anthropoid: Czechoslovakia’s greatest resistance story
Operation Anthropoid was the only successful government-organized assassination of a top-ranking Nazi official. On the occasion of its 80th anniversary, we look back at how it unfolded, and hear voices from a cast of colourful characters, including a now 96-year-old Czech woman who worked at the Heydrich family home north of Prague.
Reinhard Heydrich arrived at Prague Castle on 28 September 1941. He was replacing Konstantin von Neurath, who Hitler and Himmler agreed had been too lenient in his approach to the Czechs as governor of Bohemia and Moravia. The day before, on 27 September 1941, the Czech Press Agency had released the news that Neurath had fallen ill and was being sent away on leave to recuperate, and that Hitler had named Heydrich as his substitute. Officially, Heydrich was Neurath’s deputy, but in reality, he became the de facto leader.
Heydrich’s arrival immediately brought with it a reign of terror. The day after his inauguration at Prague Castle, he proclaimed martial law. Within five days of his arrival, 142 people had been executed.
By early October 1941, Czechoslovak political and military leaders in exile in London had already made the decision to assassinate Heydrich. The Czechoslovak government-in-exile wanted to prove to the world that they were staunch supporters of the Allied cause and the anti-Nazi resistance movement – in comparison to other countries occupied by Nazi Germany such as Poland, Yugoslavia, and Greece, there had so far been relatively little active resistance in Czechoslovakia.
Another reason for the decision was that at the time, the Munich Agreement was still in effect, and the exiled government felt that a dramatic and symbolic action was needed to show that the Czechoslovaks were contributing to the Allied cause. It was thought that this would make it politically more difficult and less likely that the British would forge a peace agreement with Germany that would once again undermine Czech national interests, as they had done in the Munich Agreement, known in Czechoslovakia as the Munich Betrayal.
Preparations for the assassination, codenamed Operation Anthropoid, began in October 1941, in cooperation with the British Special Forces.
Retired biochemist Henrik Chart is in his seventies. He lives in the village of Arisaig on the north-west coast of Scotland.
“It is the most peaceful and tranquil location. It’s peaceful and quiet, when the weather’s like this, and you can see Eigg and Rum and the Isle of Skye. It is absolutely beautiful.”
He volunteers in a small museum there, and the history of the area, linked to World War II, has become his passion. This is the place where Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík spent time being trained by the Scottish Guard at one of the British Special Operations Executive’s training centres. Henrik muses on how they must have felt as they were going through training:
“For them, it must have been such a long long way from home, and such a long long long way away from warfare. And it makes you wonder what the agents would have thought, that in just a matter of a few weeks from now, they would be deployed to occupied Europe, where the whole world was in chaos. So it must have been a very very interesting time for them, but one can only imagine what was going through their minds.”
After their time in Scotland, the pair completed their training in a location near London, and in early December 1941, they received the false documents that would enable them to move through Nazi-occupied Europe. On 28 December, they set off by plane from Sussex in southern England, and were parachuted into the village of Nehvizdy, east of Prague.
From there, they made their way to Pilsen, and then on to Prague, where they got in touch with several people involved with the Czechoslovak resistance. They spent several months planning the attack and scrapped two different permutations of the plan, one involving assassinating Heydrich on a train and the other involving pulling a cable across a forest road to stop Heydrich’s car, before they finally landed on the plan that became a reality: to kill Heydrich on his commute to Prague.
This was made possible by the fact that, in spring 1942, Heydrich moved from his temporary quarters in Prague Castle to a château in Panenské Břežany, 14 km (or 9 miles) north of Prague.
Helena Vovsová was employed at the time as a gardener at the chateau where Heydrich and his family moved to. She is now 96, and lived in Panenské Břežany for 90 years of her life. She recalls the arrival of Heydrich at the chateau.
“We were told that they would be coming after Easter and there would be some kind of welcome event. So I went to the woods to gather some branches for it. I returned with the branches and through the gate I saw two soldiers on horses – it was Heydrich with his aide. They had arrived earlier than we had thought they would.”
Heydrich’s daily commute from the chateau to the castle meant taking a sharp hairpin turn in Prague’s Liben district. Heydrich's driver had to slow down considerably to execute the turn, making it the ideal location for the attack. The other reason that the spot was considered favourable was that there was a tram stop nearby, which provided the assassins with the perfect cover – a reason for loitering on the corner while they waited for Heydrich’s car to pass by.
On the morning of 27 May 1942, Heydrich started his daily commute from Panenské Břežany to his headquarters at Prague Castle.
At approximately 10.35am, Heydrich’s driver, Johannes Klein, began navigating the hairpin turn. As the car slowed down as it rounded the corner, Jozef Gabčík jumped in front of the vehicle, pointing a gun directly at Heydrich.
But the gun failed to fire.
At this point, Heydrich made what ultimately turned out to be his fatal error - instead of ordering his driver to accelerate, he stood up and drew his pistol, yelling at the driver to halt. As Klein braked, Jan Kubiš, without being spotted by Klein or Heydrich, pulled out a grenade and tossed it at the car.
Instead of landing inside the Mercedes, it landed against the rear wheel. The bomb went off and the fragments ripped through the car’s right fender, embedding shrapnel in Heydrich’s body and severely wounding him. Heydrich and Klein both leapt out of the car with pistols drawn. Klein ran towards Kubiš, who had staggered against the railings, while Heydrich tried to chase Gabčík.
Kubiš, despite also having been mildly injured by the shrapnel, managed to jump on his bicycle and pedal away, scattering passengers exiting from the tram by firing in the air with his pistol. Klein tried to shoot at him, but dazed by the explosion, he pressed the magazine release catch and the gun jammed.
Meanwhile, Heydrich staggered towards Gabčík, who tried but failed to reach his bicycle. He took cover behind a telegraph pole, firing at Heydrich with his pistol. Heydrich returned fire but then suddenly doubled over in pain, staggered to the side of the road, and collapsed. Gabčík took the opportunity to run.
Klein returned from his failed attempt to chase Kubiš, and Heydrich ordered him to chase Gabčík in his stead. Gabčík fled into a butcher shop, where the owner, who was a Nazi sympathizer, ignored Gabčík's request for help, instead running out into the street to attract Klein's attention. Klein, whose gun was still jammed, ran into the shop and collided with Gabčík in the doorway. In the confusion, Gabčík shot him twice, severely wounding him in the leg. Gabčík finally managed to escape in a tram, reaching a local safe house.
At this point, neither Gabčík nor Kubiš knew that Heydrich was wounded – they both thought that the attack had failed.
Heydrich was taken to Bulovka Hospital, near the site of the attack, where he was operated on.
Helena Vovsová, the gardener at the chateau, recalls how the staff at the chateau found out about the attack.
“Around 10 there was such a loud cry from the village that even we could hear it, and there was a group of soldiers gathered. We were trying to guess what was going on - then it became quiet. I was doing something in the greenhouse and Heydrich’s stableboy, Hans, appeared. He came to me and said that an assassination attempt had been made on Heydrich. I asked, “Is he dead?” and he said, “Not yet.”
Heydrich was in hospital for a week, and despite developing a fever and being in great pain, he appeared to be recovering. By 3rd June he was able to sit up to eat his lunch. But then his condition suddenly deteriorated – he collapsed, went into shock, and slipped into a coma from which he never recovered. He died in the early hours of June 4.
Vovsová recalls the moment Lina Heydrich found out about her husband’s death.
“She was standing there and was looking out of the window at the courtyard. I greeted her and she turned around slightly – I don’t know if she answered me or not – but I saw that she was crying.”
In the meantime, the Nazis had been on a rampage trying to find the assailants. On the day of the attack, Hitler ordered an investigation and reprisals, and Karl Hermann Frank, chief of police in the protectorate, declared a state of civil emergency. Posters appeared in the streets offering a reward for information on the perpetrators.
More than 13,000 people were arrested and several thousand were killed in the reprisals. The Czech villages of Lidice and Ležáky were burned and razed to the ground. The men were killed, the women were transported to concentration camps, and the children were either taken prisoner, gassed to death, or adopted by German families if they were deemed “Aryan” enough.
Eventually, the paratroopers’ luck ran out – a fellow Anthropoid team member, Karel Čurda, gave up the names and locations of the paratroopers and those who had helped them to the Gestapo.
Kubiš and Gabčik had been hiding in a series of safe houses, before finally taking refuge in the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius with five other paratroopers from the mission. Orthodox priest Václav Ježek ministers at the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius today.
“They didn’t have any other option - that was the reason why they came here. Because the problem is that they were looking for various hideouts around Prague but unfortunately they didn’t find any people who would be willing to help them. They even asked other churches, different priests from other churches around the area. But the only ones who offered them a hideout were the Orthodox people that were from this church.”
On June 18 1942, the church was surrounded by German troops. The men in the church only had pistols, while the Germans had machine guns, submachine guns, and hand grenades. Despite this, the seven paratroopers put up a heroic fight. After a gun battle lasting several hours, two of the men were dead, and Kubiš died shortly after from his injuries. As the remaining four men, one of whom was Gabčík, ran out of ammunition, they chose to end their lives rather than be captured.
The assassination of Heydrich did in some ways have the desired effect – it led to the immediate dissolution of the Munich Agreement, with the UK and France agreeing that after the Nazis were defeated, the annexed Sudeten territory would be restored to Czechoslovakia, which did indeed happen. But, as Henrik back in Scotland says, the Czechoslovaks paid a heavy price for the act.
“I think it’s debatable how valuable it was, because clearly the assassination of Heydrich was vital, but at the same time the Czech people paid a huge price for that assassination, and that’s not for me to comment on, but I think everyone agrees that, very very sadly, the Czech people paid a very high price for that situation.”