The mortal wounding of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague
By late 1941 the decision had been made to assassinate Heydrich, even thought it was obvious that the German reaction would be brutal. As the Special Operations Unit task force was Churchill’s initiative, he sat with power of veto at the top of the chain of command, so it seems highly likely that he would have given the project the go ahead too.
The two volunteers required to do the job were selected from the Free Czech Forces training in Scotland. The men had formed a close friendship and they volunteered together. Both were former non-commissioned officers in the Czech Army, who had fled to France following the imposition of the Munich Agreement. They had fought in the Battle for France before escaping to Britain to join the Free Czech Units. Jan Kubiš was a shy and reserved man from Moravia, and a soldier before Munich. He had been decorated for heroism during the Battle for France. Jozef Gabčík from Slovakia was a career soldier. Although hot tempered he had an open and honest character and was popular with the men of his infantry company. During the fighting in France, Gabčík had earned the Czechoslovak War Cross and French Croix de Guerre. Both men were patriots and determined to reverse the shame of Munich and secure freedom for their country. It was their burning sense of mission which had driven them across frontiers and brought them to Britain to continue the fight. They symbolised the nation that Heydrich was trying to destroy. Although warned they were unlikely to survive, they volunteered for the mission without hesitation.
The final entry in Kubiš’s diary read: “I have been chosen for a special mission. I will carry it out come what may.”
From the start, the plan was to attack Heydrich’s car on his daily journey to the office. If necessary, one of the agents was to throw himself at the vehicle with a suitcase holding 30lbs of plastic explosives. On the evening of the 28th of December 1941, Kubiš and Gabčík were loaded into a long-range Halifax bomber, flown by Squadron Leader Ron Hockey and his crew. They shared the craft with two other Czech parachute groups, codenamed Silver A and Silver B, whose task was to re-establish radio communications with London. The lone bomber flew across enemy territory, evading anti-aircraft fire and roving enemy night fighters on its perilous journey. Visibility over the Protectorate was hampered by low cloud and heavy snow. Before jumping into the winter night, Gabčík gripped the dispatcher by the arm. His last words were, “Remember, you’ll be hearing from us, we will do everything possible.” As their parachutes opened the agents did not know they had been dropped 70km off target, landing in a frozen field just outside Nehvizdy, a village outside Prague, where Gabčík injured his foot landing on the hard ground. It was an ominous beginning to a dangerous mission. The country was in the grip of a harsh winter. Despite the cold, Czechs were expected to contribute warm clothing to the German troops on the icy plains outside Moscow. The programme was promoted by the Third Reich under the title “Winter Help.”
The Czech resistance had no knowledge of Kubiš and Gabčík being sent, but luckily the first person they met was a member of the organisation. He managed to get news of their arrival to the main resistance group in Prague led by Ladislav Vaněk, and after a few days living in the countryside it was decided to move them to the capital. They were put in the charge of Jan Zelenka, codename Hajský – a leading resistance worker, and hidden in a house belonging to Marie Moravec, one of whose sons was serving with the RAF. Hajský put them in touch with a carpenter working at Hradčany Castle, the HQ of the Nazi administration. With his information, they began monitoring Heydrich’s daily routine in order to construct their plan of attack. This they did without revealing their secret orders.
Sudeten Czech, Karl Hermann Frank was left in charge while Heydrich travelled throughout occupied Europe promoting and instigating the Final Solution. While waiting for the right moment, Gabčík and Kubiš took time to visit ice hockey matches and an anti-Soviet propaganda exhibition; they also flirted and danced with girls in the cafes and dance halls of the city. In the spring of 1942, a wave of new parachute groups was sent from London to conduct sabotage, but none were successful. Many parachutists were killed soon after landing or lost their equipment and fled to Prague, where six of them were hidden by the resistance. As a result of this activity Heydrich called for increased Police vigilance. And there were rumours of a new round of SS terror. Some members of the Czech resistance had guessed what Gabčík and Kubiš were up to and feared terrible reprisals. Urgent radio messages were sent to London requesting the operation be called off. In an operation directed against the Silver A group, the Gestapo intercepted one of these warnings on May the 12th 1942:
“From the preparations that Ota and Zdeněk are working on and the place where it is happening, we guess, despite their silence, that they’re preparing to assassinate H. This assassination would not help the Allies and would bring immense consequences upon our nation… we ask you to give an order through SILVER not to carry out the assassination. There is a danger of delay, issue the order immediately. If necessary, for international reasons, assassinate a local Quisling… the first choice would be EM.”
However, there would be no response from London. As far as Czechoslovakian exiles in Britain were concerned, large scale collaboration in the Protectorate was embarrassing. It did not help that on the 20th of April puppet President Emil Hácha presented Heydrich with a complete Hospital Train for the Russian Front as a birthday gift for the Führer from “all the citizens of the Protectorate.” It was a sycophantic gesture which the Third Reich propaganda machine promoted throughout the world. The sense of disproportion was ridiculed at home and abroad as a joke began to circulate about Hitler’s health – saying how ill he must be to need an entire train! The Czechoslovak Government-in-exile could see their beloved democracy becoming a Nazi state through the carrot and stick policies being implemented by Heydrich, the servility its leaders displayed towards their Nazi occupiers and the enthusiastic acceptance of Nazism by some of its former national heroes.
Most disturbing of all was the support shown for Nazi policies by the aforementioned Emanuel Moravec, the former legionnaire and later General Staff Colonel, and a professor of war history and strategy at the University of War Studies in Prague. Prior to the signing of the Munich Agreement, Moravec was a most fervent advocate for the fight against Nazi Germany. But on January the 19th, 1942, a new Protectorate Government was formed, based on Heydrich’s ideas. One of the most significant developments in its establishment was the propagandist department, the Office for People’s Enlightenment. The entire affairs of the press, theatre, literature, art, film, and foreign tourism were subordinate to this office. And all of it was subordinate to the Minister for Education, Emanuel Moravec. A man millions of Czechs trusted prior to 1938 had become a symbol of complete collaboration. Moravec was in the perfect position for turning fellow Czechs into the Allies’ enemies. This was no doubt how Edvard Beneš viewed events in early 1942.
Spring 1942, and Gabčík and Kubiš were now stalking their target. Through their contacts they knew that Heydrich travelled about twelve miles every day from his heavily guarded private residence at Panenské Břežany to Hradčany Castle, in an open top Mercedes Cabriolet, driven by SS-Oberscharführer Klein. Contemptuous of the Czechs and convinced that they were thoroughly cowardly Heydrich would travel without an escort and rarely varied his route. Perhaps he enjoyed the openness of the road and its uncrowded nature which meant he could be driven fast, which he liked. The agents decided that their mission should take place at a hair pin bend in the suburb of Libeň, at the junction of the streets Kirchmayerova třída and V Holešovičkách, below a school in Kobylisy, where Heydrich’s car had to slow to a walking pace to take it safely. The corner also had a tram stop just across the road, meaning the assassins could loiter without attracting suspicion. During the spring, a third British trained agent, Josef Valčík, was parachuted in to help with the plan, and the three began to rehearse it.
A sense of urgency took hold of the agents upon hearing news that Heydrich would soon be leaving Prague for an extended period. On the 27th of May, Gabčík, Kubiš and Valčík assumed their positions at the tram stop at Libeň at 9am, ready to execute their mission. It was 10.30am before Valčík finally spotted Heydrich’s Mercedes approaching. He was over an hour late. Quickly he signalled to the other two, and Gabčík and Kubiš braced themselves for the attack. 10.32 am and the Mercedes decelerated to a slow walking speed as it approached the corner. As it slowed into a crawl in order to take the bend, Gabčík jumped out onto the road and aimed his STEN-gun at Heydrich. He pressed the trigger to kill the man, but the gun would only jam. Spotting him, Heydrich stood up and fumbled for his pistol. All the time, Klein, the chauffeur, failed to accelerate away. Kubiš, taking advantage of this, stepped forward and lobbed his home-made hand grenade at the car. It exploded and Heydrich took the full force of its blast in his side.
Heydrich managed to stagger out of the car and started shouting and shooting at the agents. Followed by Klein, he started firing at Kubiš, who dropped his briefcase, grabbed his bicycle, and rode off into the city. Gabčík too abandoned his sub-machine gun and raced away. He ducked into a butcher’s shop, but Klein continued after him, until Gabčík managed to shoot him down, severely wounding him. He then escaped by boarding a tram heading into the city. Once the agents had fled the scene and the adrenalin rush had subsided, Heydrich collapsed and was rushed by ambulance to hospital. He had sustained severe internal injuries from the bomb splinters and the fibres of car upholstery which had become embedded in his abdomen. Prague was at once sealed off and a curfew imposed. Heydrich was operated upon immediately but fragments from the grenade had pierced his spleen. Soon blood poisoning would set in, and he would go into a coma from which he would not recover.
Images Jaroslav Cvancara