Saturday, 12 November 2016

Operation Anthropoid - the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich: my small tribute.

In my novel - To the Devil His Due - I tell the fictional story of a British attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler during World War II. The two protagonists are foreign nationals, one Dutch, the other Czech, who have both fled their homeland to escape the Nazi occupation. 

In choosing the name of the Czech agent - Jan Kubcek - I was quietly - but very deliberately - doffing my cap to the memory of two very brave men who carried out the successful assassination of Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich on the 27th of May 1942. Those two men were Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis - the conflation of their surnames giving me Kubcek (well - approximately). I even went so far as to have Kubcek say that he had been scheduled to go on the operation to kill Heydrich but had broken his ankle during a practice parachute jump, and that the man who had replaced him had been the one who had ultimately cracked under pressure to reveal the whereabouts of the agents after the event. 

Who was Reinhard Heydrich and why did he have to die? 
Effectively third in command of the Nazi hierarchy, Heydrich had been appointed as Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia in September 1941. In the months that followed he became known as the Butcher of Prague as he rounded up more than 5,000 resistance leaders and members of the intelligentsia, many of whom were executed out of hand.  At the same time he drove massive improvements in production by rewarding workers who exceeded targets and punishing those that didn't. The German military machine relied heavily on the output of the Czech weapons and munitions factories to feed their Eastern Front campaign.

Meanwhile the leader of the Czech government in exile (based in London) - Edward Benes - grew increasingly concerned about the gradual assimilation of his country under Nazi rule. As far as he was concerned, bold and unequivocal action was needed. He therefore authorised a scheme, code-named Anthropoid, whose objective was to insert two members of the Free Czech Army (specially trained by Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE)) into Prague with orders to kill Heydrich.

Eventually, on 28 December 1941, Kubis and Gabcik parachuted into Czechoslovakia armed with sten guns and anti-tank grenades. Gabcik injured his foot on landing and it was two months before they were able to move into Prague to begin planning the assassination. They soon worked out that the most suitable option was to attack Heydrich as he made his daily commute from his home in the suburbs to Hradcany Castle where the Nazis had their headquarters. Whether supremely confident or supremely stupid, Heydrich used the same route every day and had no escort other than his driver. Gabcik and Kubis established that there was a point on the journey where the car had to slow to negotiate a 120 degree turn - that would be the spot where they would launch the attack.

On the day, however, not everything went to plan. 
As the car slowed, Gabcik stepped out in front to open fire but his sten gun (notoriously unreliable) jammed. At this point Heydrich made the mistake that would see him killed. He ordered the car to stop and he stood up to fire back at the fleeing agent. At this point, Kubis threw a grenade which exploded beneath the car, showering both men with shrapnel. Heydrick stepped out of the car to get a better aim with his pistol but immediately collapsed, blood spurting from a wound in his side. 

Heydrich did not die of his wounds immediately. Indeed, it seemed at first that he would make a full recovery once he had been operated on. He was actually sitting up in bed at midday on 3rd June when he suddenly went into shock, lapsing into a coma before dying the next morning at 04.30. Blood poisoning caused by fragments of the car upholstery was the most likely cause of death. 

The agents made good their escape but were unable to get out of Prague due to the intensity of the manhunt to find them. Moving from house to house they were eventually taken to the crypt of the Church of St Cyril and Methodius. Pressure was, however, growing. Over 600 people were executed in the immediate aftermath and thousands more arrested on suspicion of aiding the agents. Ultimately one of the wider network of agents cracked and revealed the location of a number of safe houses. One of which was owned by Marie Moravec who had sheltered the agents on their arrival in Prague. 

Marie committed suicide before the Nazis could take her but they did manage to capture her teenage son. He held out for as long as he could but broke when presented with the severed head of his mother, floating in a fish tank. Soon after, 750 SS troops surrounded the church on the morning of 18 June. The ensuing battle lasted for 2 hours before the 7 agents in the crypt (including Kubis and Gabcik) either succumbed to their wounds or committed suicide.

Worse was to follow. So enraged was the Fuhrer that he order massive reprisals the scale of which was beyond belief. The tiny town of Lidice, 30 miles from Prague, was razed to the ground and simply ceased to exist after the Nazis bulldozed the town, removed all the rubble and planted grain instead. Every single man (over 200) was shot, the women sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp and the children either placed with SS families for re-education or were themselves sent to concentration camps too. 

Days later another town, Lezaky, met a similar fate. All 33 adults were shot and 11 of the 13 children died in concentration camps. Just two girls were spared, being selected for Germanisation. Ultimately they survived the war and were able to return to their families.In Prague itself, a further 5,000 or more civilians were slaughtered and many more sent to camps. The Nazis had sent a brutal message: the price of resistance was heavy.