Newly released documents show that Churchill wanted to bomb German villages in revenge for the destruction of the Czech village of Lidice


Fascinating wartime documents have just been released in Britain that shed light on one of the dark moments of Czech history. On a June morning in 1942 people in the Nazi occupied Czech Lands woke up to a chilling radio announcement. In ice-cold tones a voice in German said that the village of Lidice not far from Prague had been wiped off the map, and all the men shot. This was in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler's man in charge of the Czech lands, who was killed a few weeks before by Czech parachutists sent from London. The Lidice massacre sent shockwaves round the world, and the archives that have been released in London, reveal how the British cabinet reacted in the immediate aftermath of the atrocity. David Vaughan reports.

Britain's Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was incensed by the Lidice massacre and he wanted the Royal Air Force to wipe out German villages in retaliation. This sense of fury and shock is palpable in cabinet meeting notes that have now been released by the National Archives {and were taken by the then deputy cabinet secretary Sir Norman Brook.} Churchill called for German villages to be destroyed on a three-to-one basis, but other cabinet members were more cautious. They pointed to the potential danger that air crews would come under, and Clement Attlee, then a minister, but later to succeed Churchill as prime minister, spoke of the dangers of escalation. He warned against entering a "competition in frightfulness with the Germans". It is clear from the notes that cabinet members must have had quite a job to calm the furious Churchill, but in the end, on June 15th he conceded, as he put it "submitting unwillingly to the view of the cabinet" against his own instinct. The revenge air-raids never took place.

The Czech military historian Eduard Stehlik, points to another aspect of the moment. The fact that Reinhard Heydrich, nicknamed the "Butcher of Prague", had been assassinated by parachutists sent from London, had been far from universally welcomed in British political circles:

Eduard Stehlik
"Just after the Heydrich assassination, when it became clear that the assassination had been carried out by members of the Czechoslovak Army in exile, some members of parliament wanted to bring the issue up in the house, and confront Churchill with the somewhat strange question whether His Majesty's Government was really willing to take part in contract killings. So when the Germans carried out the appalling massacre in Lidice, Churchill's hands were freed. Suddenly it was clear that whatever might be done against the Nazis was justifiable. I can understand why he responded in the way he did."

Lidice is just one small part of the broader picture revealed by the newly released cabinet documents. They also include Churchill's plans to borrow an electric chair from the United States and use it for Hitler, should he ever fall into British hands, and another subject that is closer to the Czech Republic is raised in March 1945, when the cabinet discussed whether or not to allow Poles, who had fought in large numbers alongside the British, to apply for citizenship after the war. Interestingly - and rather disturbingly - one of the arguments that emerges from the meeting, is that it might be unwise because of a sudden increase in the Jewish population. There were many Jewish Poles who had fought in Britain, and Britain's interior ministry - or Home Office - argued that there could be anti-Jewish civil disturbance.

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