“My granny always called them ‘the boys’” – how Kubiš and Gabčík were taken in by England’s Ellison family

Jan Kubiš, Jozef Gabčík, photo: archive of Military History Institute Prague and Eduard Stehlík

Just over 75 years after their deaths, Sunday will see the unveiling of a monument to the Operation Anthropoid heroes Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík in the small English village of Ightfield, where they spent a lot of time prior to their historic mission.

Jan Kubiš,  photo: Public Domain
The memorial will take the form of a stone on the grave of the local Ellison family, who welcomed the young Czechoslovak soldiers into their home and treated them like their own.

Kubiš and Gabčík had got to know the Ellisons through their teenage daughters, Lorna and Edna, who were aged 17 and 15, respectively, at the time.

Ahead of Sunday’s unveiling ceremony at the Church of St John the Baptist in Ightfield, Shropshire, I called up the late Edna Ellison’s son, Neil Ruscoe. He told me he had first become aware of the family’s connection to the WWII heroes as a child.

“I actually grew up in Ightfield with my mother and we were at my granny and granddad’s a lot and people used to call and ask about the soldiers.

“With us being young, we didn’t understand why people were calling at my granny and granddad’s to ask about two Czechoslovak soldiers.

“If you knew my granny and granddad, they were always welcomed in with a cup of tea and a slice of homemade cake, and obviously they’d sit and talk about the two soldiers.

“They told them a lot and they were obviously very, very proud to have known the soldiers.”

Were there a lot of visitors interested in the story? I would have imagined that the story became more well-known after the [2016] Anthropoid movie?

“No, this was earlier. You’d probably get five, six people each year suddenly appearing at the house or at the gate.

“Not all from Britain – some of them had a job to speak English.

“This went on right the way through. My mother moved to [the nearby village of] Calverhall in later life and people were turning up in Calverhall too and asking about them.

“I’m 62 now and I was at my granny and granddad’s when I was 5, 6, 7, 8 and they were appearing then.

“And then a gentleman came called Alan Burgess, who wrote the book Seven Men at Daybreak, and he did a lot of research and that there.

“My grandparents had a son themselves fighting in the war, so they knew what it was like to be a long, long way from home and not really knowing anybody.”

“So yes, all these people were calling in the 1960s.”

What do you know of the circumstances of when your mum Edna and your Aunt Lorna first met Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík [in 1940]?

“My mother and Auntie Lorna had a night out in [the nearby town of] Whitchurch. They went to the local cinema and when they came out Jan was actually sitting on a wall opposite the cinema.

“He got talking to them and they caught the bus home and he arranged to try to meet them there on the following Saturday.

“My gran was a bit concerned about them going to meet them, so she went with them on the coach to meet Jan, and it sort of went from there.

“Then they invited Jan back. Like I said, if you knew my granny and granddad, you could understand why everybody was always welcome.

“They had a son themselves fighting in the war, so they knew what it was like to be a long, long way from home and not really knowing anybody in very tragic times.

“So they invited him back to the house and asked if he had a friend he’d like to bring over with him so he’d have somebody to talk to, and he actually then brought Jozef.

Jozef Gabčík,  photo: Public Domain
“That’s how it really started – basically they became part of the family.”

Were they regular visitors at your grandparents’ house after that?

“While they were at Cholmondeley [Castle, where Czechoslovak soldiers were based], yes, they were there quite often.

“They even had their own bedroom. My granny even gave them their own bedroom, which we called the Blue Room.

“My mother used to tell us stories of how they used to go for bike rides and fishing and just generally wander around.

“They’d come and sit and talk to my grandfather, who had been in World War I, so he knew what war was like.

“They had my Uncle Gordon, their son, who was in the Air Force.

“And they would sit on Sundays and have a natter and Sunday lunch and they became very much part of the family.

“My granny always referred to them as ‘the boys’ – they were part of the family.”

Did your aunt, your mum or your grandparents know what the two men were actually being trained for?

“No, they always said that the two soldiers couldn’t tell them a lot.

“They would always sort of be on guard and when they stopped they had their guns by the side of the table.

“They never liked to get themselves into a position where they were corners-up, or what have you.

“So they [the family] always knew they were sort of special.

“When Operation Anthropoid came up, my mother said Jan was walking around the garden – because Jozef had gone first – and she knew there was something going on, because he was so quiet and walking around the garden.

“Jan said, I’ve been picked for a mission – I can’t tell you what, or I won’t tell you what, but hopefully we’re going to come back alive.”

“Jan said, I’ve been picked for a mission – I can’t tell you what, or I won’t tell you what, but hopefully we’re going to come back alive and take you all out to Czechoslovakia to meet our families.

“So yes, they knew they were being trained for things, but no, they never knew what or how important it was.”

The mission was very important indeed. After being dropped by parachute into occupied Bohemia, Kubiš and Gabčík carried out one of the most daring operations of WWII when they assassinated the governor of the Protectorate, senior Nazi Reinhard Heydrich.

Weeks later, on June 18, 1942, they met their deaths after the Germans surrounded Prague’s Church of Ss. Cyril and Methodius, where they and their group were holed up.

Neil Ruscoe says it was some time before his family learned about the terrible fate of “the boys”.

“It actually took a long while for them to find out what had happened. They had said they were going on a mission and if they got back they would take them to Czechoslovakia to meet their families.

“But they never heard anything until one day a soldier turned up at my granny and granddad’s house who’d been with Jan and Jozef at Cholmondeley and said, Have you heard what’s happened to them?

“They obviously said, No, so he said, They’ve been killed.

Church of Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Prague where Kubiš,  Gabčík and their group died,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“So my granny started chasing it up, to try and find out what had happened.

“Then they received a letter from the British Army saying they were coming over to pick up any belongings that they’d left at the house.

“So soldiers turned up at the house with guns and took all the belongings that they’d left there, uniforms and things like that.

“My granny dug in more and found out that Jan and Jozef had done this mission and they’d sadly both died – and the story went from there.

“She picked more up as people called and she started to hear more about Operation Anthropoid.

“Again this gentleman called Alan Burgess was writing his book so he filled them in with a lot.

“But it was quite a while after they’d died before the family found out what had happened and what had gone on.

“Because it was sort of hushed up even after it had happened. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for it, so it was very difficult to find out.

“The two soldiers had become part of the family. They were treated like my Uncle Gordon, their son – they were sort of like brothers and sons to the Ellison family, and they were devastated when they knew what had happened.”

Do your family have any mementoes of the two Anthropoid heroes?

“It was quite a while after they’d died before the family found out what had happened.”

“Yes, my Auntie Lorna had quite a few. I’ve actually got the last message, the last note that Jan Kubiš wrote to my mother and it says: Remember please your Czech friends, who will never forget the nice time spent with you. Yours sincerely, Jan.

“That was his last note as he was leaving to go down to Lemington Spa to train for Anthropoid. That was the last note he gave to my mother.

“I’ve also got two badges, cap badges, that he gave them to keep. When the soldiers came to collect them the two girls said, No, we’re keeping these – these are private things to us.”

The words of Jan Kubiš’s final note to Edna Ellison are included on the new monument to him and Jozef Gabčík that will be unveiled on Sunday afternoon.

The memorial is in very large part the work of Englishman John Martin, who wrote the book The Mirror Caught the Sun about Operation Anthropoid. Martin, who conducts annual tours of Anthropoid-related sites in Prague, fought to secure permission and raised the money for the monument – and says it will help close the circle on this incredible story.

“Just before the men were flown out for Operation Anthropoid they named the Ellison family in their last will and testaments.

Photo: archive of John Martin
“For years and years and years I’ve realised that there’s been an oversight in that nothing was in concrete, there was no plaque or no stone to commemorate this historic friendship.

“Finally it’s going ahead and once this stone is down I’m convinced people will be coming to visit this for the next hundred years.

“I think it’s an important part of the jigsaw of the fabulous life of Gabčík and Kubiš.”

For his part Edna’s son Neil Ruscoe says the erection of the memorial at the Ellison grave will be a huge moment for the entire family.

“It means the world. We’ll never forget Jan and Jozef.

“On the day, there are 27 members of the family coming down. They actually cover three generations and they all know about this story.

“And, I don’t know, it’s just such a wonderful story – the village of Ightfield and our family just took people in and just showed that there was kindness about at the time.

“They didn’t know at the time that the two soldiers were going to do the mission that they were going to do.

“I appreciate what my family did for two young guys who were in a foreign country a long, long way from home in bad times.

“None of us are getting any younger so this story is sort of going to be dying out.

“Even though our family still all know about it a lot of the people in Ightfield didn’t, because people die and fresh people move in.

“We just thought, it’s so nice to remember what my family did and what these two soldiers did.

“Because it’s just too much of an important thing to just let slip away and not be commemorated or not be recognised.

“And now we’ve got a permanent stone or monument for them and my family and the two Czech soldiers will hopefully be remembered for ever.”