Passion for Operation Anthropoid has led me to every corner of Prague, says author and tour organiser John Martin

Photo: archive of John Martin

Among the credits in the forthcoming movie Anthropoid is “Man at assassination”. That man is John Martin, a Liverpudlian who was invited to appear as an extra after several years of correspondence on Operation Anthropoid with the film’s director and co-writer Sean Ellis. A stand-up comedian by profession, Martin has for decades had a huge interest in the incredibly daring assassination of Nazi governor Reinhard Heydrich by Czechoslovak parachutists Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík in Prague in 1942. That passion has led him to write a book on the subject – The Mirror Caught the Sun – and to run tours of sites connected to the story for fellow enthusiasts from around the world. I caught up with John Martin this week when he was in Prague for one of those tours.

John Martin,  photo: archive of John Martin
“By profession I’m a stand-up comedian. That’s how I earn my living. I travel the world on cruise ships. And I’ve done some TV and stuff back in the UK.

“But as a kid I read a story in a magazine about these people who’d been parachuted in from Great Britain back to their homeland, the Czech lands, and how they’d assassinated this protector, Reinhard Heydrich, and then hid in a church and were betrayed.

“This story just jumped from the pages of this magazine and fascinated me.

“Even at school when the teachers used to say, What do you want to do? What’s your ambition? I always used to say, My ambition is to see a bend in the road in Prague.

“I had never left England. I didn’t know where it was. I didn’t even know where Prague was, really. But I just had this ambition to see this bend in the road.

“Then in the early 1990s I started coming to Prague. The first time I came I had real difficulty finding the attack scene, which as you know is in Holešovice.

“I’ve been coming ever since and I absolutely love it. So much so that I wrote a book about the assassination.

“The book is called The Mirror Caught the Sun, because some believe, and I believe, that that was part of the signal that Heydrich’s car was approaching – a little hand mirror to catch the rays of the sun. Also they blew a whistle and various things.”

How did you research the book?

“I’m always researching. I’m still researching today and I keep saying I’m going to write a newer version, a bigger version.

“You know, I’m not particularly academic. I spent one year at the equivalent of a university in England, but then I left to become a stand-up comedian.

Photo: archive of John Martin
“So I’m not academic or anything – I’m just passionate about the subject.

“I wrote my book the hard way, just by travelling to see the places, by coming to Prague all the time, going over to Germany, going over to Slovakia – I’m very friendly with the Gabčík family.

“By going to Kubiš’s home in Dolní Vilémovice, going to see where Karel Čurda lived, and just making acquaintances like that.

“I’ve befriended a lot of people who certainly remember or were affected by the attack on Heydrich.

“Possibly the biggest scoop, if you like, that my book has is that I was the first person ever to get Heydrich’s family to agree to talk in public.

“I managed to befriend Heydrich’s son Heider Heydrich, who of course lived in Panenské Břežany.

“I went to stay at his house and he agreed to give an interview and cooperate on my book, which he’d never done before – he’d refused all interviews.

“And I’m still in contact with him now. We still email. He’s become a friend, if you like.

“I’m very friendly with the parachutists’ families. I know Valčik’s family, Bublik’s family. I have friends at the Army Museum.

“But I’ve done it the hard way. I’ve gone round and knocked on doors and badgered people.

“I’m sure there was an easier and better way of doing it. I admire some people who are able to write books from afar, just using archives and without even visiting Prague.

“I admire them because that’s a great way of doing it. But me, I’ve had to do it the hard way over many, many years of literally foot-slogging, every corner, every inch, of the city of Prague and other places as well.”

Heydrich's car after the assassination | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1972-039-44,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC-BY-SA 3.0
Given that the resistance in Prague were warning the exile government in London what would happen, that there would be massacres and terrible retaliation, and they were right, do you think the order to assassinate Heydrich was the right thing to do?

“I think they knew there was the potential for a backlash.

“But certainly the man who was heavily involved in the operation in London, Colonel Moravec, who was in charge of the Czech intelligence organisation in London, he made a speech where he said he was proud.

“Because for years people tried to distance themselves from it and said, I didn’t have anything to do with that, I didn’t realise until it was too late, and this kind of thing.

“But Colonel Moravec stood up and said, I will finally say that I gave the order for Operation Anthropoid. Yes, it cost many, many lives, but it was a glorious page in Czech history, because we fought back. Sadly it did cost lives, it cost many innocent lives, but we fought back.

“And I think that’s something that I think the Czech people can – at a very high cost – be absolutely proud of.

“So yes, absolutely. It’s something that you should be absolutely proud of taking part in – your country fighting back.”

Tell us about the tours you do here in Prague, which you’re doing at the moment.

“My book goes all over the world. We have a Facebook group called The Mirror Caught the Sun and this kind of thing. And people contact me and say, Oh, I’d love to see the places.

“We’re out here at the moment and we do a three-day tour, very full days, 9 am to 6 pm, full on.

“I’ve brought 20-people here, most of whom I’ve never met before, I’ve only been contacted by them on Facebook or a website that I have.

Reinhard Heydrich,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1969-054-16 / Hoffmann,  Heinrich / CC-BY-SA 3.0
“Also I give many lectures about Operation Anthropoid and people come up and say, I’d love to see the places and I say, Well, I do this tour.

“So we collect names and then we come out and have three full days in this magnificent city, which we literally crisscross.

“We start off at Nehvizdy – people will know that’s where Gabčík and Kubiš landed. By mistake, but they still landed there.

“The mayor comes out and they’re so proud of their association there – and I’ve made great friends there over the years, they’ve been very good to me.

“So we start off at Nehvizdy. And they put a buffet on for us and welcome us – and out comes the slivovice at 9 o’clock in the morning [laughs].

“They’re proud and they make us so welcome.

“Then we try and follow the trail, as much as we can fit in in three days. We go to Panenské Břežany. We go to Kobylisy. To Holešovice. To the Bulovka hospital, where Heydrich died.

“We go down Zenklova, to see where the Novák family and their daughter Jindřiška were.

“Then we go down over to Žižkov to see where Jan Zelenka and the Moravec family lived, and other safe houses in that area.

“We go to the Army Museum, who are great. I have a friend, Zdeněk Špitálník, who’s one of the historians there. He’s also the historical advisor to the new movie that’s coming out, Anthropoid.

“And then the next day we go out to Lidice and Kladno, to Kladno gymnazium. Then we the Petschek Palace and various addresses that hid the parachutists.

“Then we go to Pankrác prison and obviously St. Cyril’s in Resslova St., a big part of the story – not just to the crypt, we take time and go all the way around the church, outside and inside.

“And of course we end up in Ďáblice cemetery, where it’s thought that the bodies are, in an unmarked grave.

Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš,  photo: Public Domain
“You know, we start where Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš landed by parachute and then on the last day we finish where it’s believed the bodies are resting.

“The sad thing is that in Ďáblice there’s no marker, though there is a memorial there now.

“It’s believed that these Czechoslovak heroes are in the same unmarked grave as Karl Hermann Frank and Karel Čurda, and other people like that.

“I only wish that there was some way that, I don’t know, the Czech government or the Ministry of Defence could dig up these graves and do some kind of DNA tests and separate them.

“Maybe that’s just me being an old romantic [laughs]. But it’d be a great thing if that could ever happen.”

You mentioned the movie Anthropoid. Before we started recording you showed me a photo of yourself and the man who played Heydrich in the film.

“Absolutely. The producer-director of this new movie Anthropoid, Sean Ellis, has been working on the story many years, certainly for a number of years before production of the movie started.

“I think he contacted me maybe even four years before the first scene was filmed.

“He was researching the story and he’d heard about me. He contacted me and got my book and kept emailing me, asking me various questions, and I tried to help where I could.

“Then he invited me to be an extra, in the background of the movie. I’m in a couple of scenes, I think.

“I saw the movie last week at a private screening. I’m in it for a nanosecond but I’m on the credits as ‘man at assassination’.

Operation Anthropoid memorial,  photo: Miloš Turek
“At the assassination scene, to be fair, he did call me over and ask for my advice about the positioning of certain players in the movie.

“It’s a great honour to be associated with Anthropoid the movie, and even more so with Operation Anthropoid.

“He’s certainly done a lot of homework, has Sean Ellis, no matter what people think of the movie. I think it’s great.

“I don’t know what the reviews are going to be like when it comes out, but you can’t fault him for his background work and the research that he’s done. I hope it’ll be a blockbuster.”

Do you expect there’ll be more interest in the whole story, and perhaps in your tours, because of the film?

“Forget my tours. I think the main thing is that these people, not just the parachutists who came back from England but also the civilians, many of them whose names we’ll never know, who hid them, who supplied information, supplied clothes, supplied food…

“I think the greatest thing is that there will be more publicity for this amazing act of bravery that Prague and the Czech Republic should be absolutely as proud as punch about taking part in. And of course Jozef Gabčík was from Slovakia.

“These people put everything on the line. There’s all this talk, this or that guy is a patriot… These were absolute patriots, put everything on the line for their country.

“You know, even when I first started coming to Prague, the Czech people didn’t necessarily know about Anthropoid. They may have known [earlier film] Attentat, or something like that

“But generally speaking they couldn’t point me in the direction of safe houses or even where the attack happened.

“And if you go to Britain and speak to British people, it doesn’t mean anything. No-one knows what it is.

“So anything that puts these people and their act of bravery on the map is fantastic, I think.”