Reinhard Heydrich had been the chief of the RSHA since September 1939 and was appointed acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia after replacing Konstantin von Neurath in September 1941. Hitler agreed with Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler and Heydrich that von Neurath’s relatively lenient approach to the Czechs promoted anti-German sentiment, and encouraged anti-German resistance by strikes and sabotage.
Heydrich was assigned to Prague in order to “strengthen policy, carry out countermeasures against resistance”, and keep up production quotas of Czech motors and arms that were “extremely important to the German war effort”. During his role as de facto dictator of Bohemia and Moravia, Heydrich often drove with his chauffeur in a car with an open roof. This was a show of his confidence in the occupation forces and in the effectiveness of his government. Due to his brutal efficiency, Heydrich was nicknamed the Butcher of Prague, the Blond Beast, and the Hangman.
By late 1941, Germany under Hitler controlled almost all of continental Europe, and German forces were approaching Moscow. The Allies deemed Soviet capitulation likely. The exiled government of Czechoslovakia under President Edvard Beneš was under pressure from British intelligence, as there had been very little visible resistance since the occupation of the Sudeten regions of the country in 1938. The takeover of these regions was accepted by the UK and France in the Munich Agreement. Occupation of the whole country had begun in 1939, and the initial betrayal, with the subsequent terror of the German Reich seemed to break the will of the Czechs for a period. The German invasion of the Soviet Union had stimulated acts of sabotage by Czech communists, leading to Heydrich’s appointment. As well as terrorizing the opposition and establishing the Theresienstadt ghetto/concentration camp, he had overseen a progressive policy of good wages (equivalent to those in Germany) for industrial workers and farmers, which had a pacifying effect (acts of sabotage dropped by three-quarters in 6 months), and helped cooperative production of war materials. Heydrich was thought to be scheduled to transfer to occupied northern France and Belgium, with the intent to implement similar policies there.
The resistance was active from the very beginning of occupation in several other countries defeated in open warfare such as Poland, Yugoslavia, and Greece, but the subjugated Czech lands remained relatively calm and produced significant amounts of materiel for Nazi Germany. The exiled government felt that it had to do something that would inspire the Czechoslovaks as well as show the world that the Czechs and Slovaks were allies. In particular, Beneš felt that a dramatic action displaying a Czech contribution to the Allied cause would make it politically harder for the British to forge any possible peace agreement with Germany that would undermine Czech national interests. Reinhard Heydrich was chosen over Karl Hermann Frank as an assassination target due to his status as the acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia as well as his reputation for terrorizing local citizens. The operation was also intended to demonstrate to senior Nazis that they were not beyond the reach of allied forces and the resistance groups they supported.
The operation was instigated by František Moravec, head of the Czechoslovak intelligence services, with the knowledge and approval of Edvard Beneš, head of the Czechoslovak government in exile in Britain, almost as soon as Heydrich was appointed Protector. Moravec personally briefed Brigadier Colin Gubbins, who at the time was the Director of Operations in the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and who had responsibility for the Czech and Polish “country” sections of the organisation. Gubbins readily agreed to help mount the operation, although knowledge of it was restricted to a few of the headquarters and training staff of SOE. The operation was given the codename Anthropoid, Greek for “having the form of a human”, a term usually used in zoology.
Preparation began on 20 October 1941. Moravec had personally selected two dozen of the most promising personnel from among the 2,000 exiled Czechoslovak soldiers based in Britain. They were sent to one of SOE’s commando training centres at Arisaig in Scotland. Warrant Officer Jozef Gabčík (Slovak) and Staff Sergeant Karel Svoboda (Czech) were chosen to carry out the operation on 28 October 1941, Czechoslovakia’s Independence Day, but Svoboda was replaced by Jan Kubiš (Czech) after he received a head injury during training. This caused delays in the mission as Kubiš had not completed training, nor had the necessary false documents been prepared for him.
Gabčík and Kubiš, with seven other soldiers from Czechoslovakia’s army in exile in the United Kingdom in two other groups named Silver A and Silver B (who had different missions), were flown from RAF Tangmere by a Halifax of No. 138 Squadron RAF at 22:00 on 28 December 1941. The groups, along with some supply containers, left the plane by parachute, in drops in three separate areas. The Anthropoid pair landed near Nehvizdy east of Prague. Originally, it had been planned to land near Pilsen, but the aircrew had navigation problems and each of the groups landed in different places than intended. Gabčík and Kubiš then moved to Pilsen to contact their allies, and from there on to Prague, where the attack was planned.
In Prague, they contacted several families and anti-Nazi organisations who helped them during the preparations for the assassination. Upon learning of the nature of the mission, resistance leaders begged the Czechoslovak government-in-exile to call off the attack, saying that “[a]n attempt against Heydrich’s life… would be of no use to the Allies and its consequences for our people would be immeasurable”.
At 10:30 on 27 May 1942, Heydrich started his daily commute from his home in Panenské Břežany, 14 kilometres (9 mi) north of central Prague, to his headquarters at Prague Castle. He was driven by SS-Oberscharführer Klein. Gabčík and Kubiš waited at the tram stop at the junction between the road then known as Kirchmayerova třída, and V Holešovičkách, in Prague 8-Libeň near Bulovka Hospital. The tight curve here would force the car to slow down as it turned westwards into V Holešovičkách. Josef Valčík (from group Silver A) was positioned about 100 metres (109 yards) north of Gabčík and Kubiš to look out for the approaching car.
Heydrich’s green, open-topped Mercedes 320 Cabriolet B reached the curve two minutes later. As it slowed down and rounded the corner, Gabčík, who concealed his Sten submachine gun under a raincoat, dropped the raincoat and raised the gun, and, at point black range, tried to shoot Heydrich, but the gun jammed. As the car passed, Heydrich made an ultimately fatal error; instead of ordering his driver to accelerate, he stood up and drew his Luger pistol, yelling at the driver to halt. As the car braked in front of him, Kubiš, who wasn’t spotted by Heydrich or Klein, threw a modified anti-tank grenade at the car; he misjudged his throw. Instead of landing inside the Mercedes, it landed against the rear wheel. Nonetheless, the bomb severely wounded Heydrich when it detonated, its fragments ripping through the right rear fender and embedding fragmentation and fibres from the upholstery of the car into Heydrich, causing serious injuries to his left side, with major damage to his diaphragm, spleen and lung, as well as a fractured rib. Kubiš received a minor wound to his face from the shrapnel. The explosion shattered the windows of the tram which had stopped on the opposite side of the road, shrapnel striking terrified passengers. Two SS jackets which had been folded on the back seat of the car were whirled upwards by the blast and draped themselves over the trolley wire.
Heydrich and Klein leapt out of the shattered limousine with drawn pistols; Klein ran towards Kubiš, who had staggered against the railings, while Heydrich went to Gabčík who stood paralyzed, holding the Sten. As Klein came towards him, Kubiš recovered, jumped on his bicycle and pedalled away, scattering passengers spilling from the tram, by firing in the air with his Colt M1903 pistol. Klein tried to fire at him but dazed by the explosion, pressed the magazine release catch and the gun jammed. A staggering Heydrich came towards Gabčík, who dropped his Sten and tried to reach his bicycle. He was forced to abandon this attempt however and took cover behind a telegraph pole, firing at Heydrich with his pistol. Heydrich returned fire and ducked behind the stalled tram. Suddenly, Heydrich doubled over and staggered to the side of the road in pain. He then collapsed against the railings, holding himself up with one hand. As Gabčík took the opportunity to run, Klein returned from his fruitless chase of Kubiš to help his wounded superior. Heydrich, his face pale and contorted in pain, pointed out the fleeing Czech, saying ‘Get that bastard!’. As Klein gave pursuit, Heydrich stumbled along the pavement before collapsing against the bonnet of his wrecked car. Klein chased him into a butcher shop, where Gabčík shot him twice with a pistol, severely wounding him in the leg. Gabčík then escaped in a tram, reaching a local safe house. Gabčík and Kubiš did not know that Heydrich was wounded and thought the attack had failed.
A Czech woman and an off-duty policeman went to Heydrich’s aid and flagged down a delivery van. Heydrich was first placed in the driver’s cab but complained that the truck’s movement was causing him pain. He was then transferred to the back of the truck on his stomach and taken to the emergency room at Bulovka Hospital. A Dr. Slanina packed the chest wound, while Dr. Walter Diek tried to remove the shrapnel splinters.
Professor Hollbaum operated on Heydrich with Diek and Slanina’s assistance. The surgeons reinflated the collapsed left lung, removed the tip of the fractured eleventh rib, sutured the torn diaphragm, inserted several catheters and removed the spleen, which contained a grenade fragment and upholstery. Heydrich’s superior, Heinrich Himmler, sent his personal physician, Karl Gebhardt, who flew to Prague and arrived that evening. After 29 May, Heydrich was entirely in the care of SS physicians. Postoperative care included administration of large amounts of morphine.
The patient developed a fever of 38–39 °C and wound drainage, and he was in great pain. Despite the fever, Heydrich’s recovery appeared to progress well. On 2 June, during a visit by Himmler, Heydrich recited a part of one of his father’s operas.
Heydrich slipped into a coma after Himmler’s visit and never regained consciousness. He died on 4 June around 04:30 in the morning. An autopsy concluded he died of sepsis. Heydrich’s facial expression as he died betrayed an “uncanny spirituality and entirely perverted beauty, like a renaissance Cardinal” according to Bernhard Wehner, a Kripo police official who investigated the assassination.
One of the theories was that some of the horsehair in the upholstery of Heydrich’s car was forced into his body by the blast of the grenade, causing a systemic infection. It has also been suggested that he died of a massive pulmonary embolism. In support of the latter possibility, particles of fat and blood clots were found at autopsy in the right ventricle and pulmonary artery and severe oedema was noted in the upper lobes of the lungs, while the lower lobes were collapsed.
The authors of A Higher Form of Killing claim that Heydrich died from botulism (botulinum poisoning). According to this theory, based on statements made by Paul Fildes, a Porton Down botulism researcher, the No. 73 anti-tank hand grenade used in the attack had been modified to contain botulinum toxin. The authors say that there is only circumstantial evidence to support this allegation; the records of the SOE for the period have remained sealed and few medical records of Heydrich’s condition and treatment have been preserved.
The evidence cited to support the theory includes the modifications made to the No. 73 grenade: the bottom two thirds of this weapon had been removed, and the open end and sides wrapped up with adhesive tape. The modification of the weapon could indicate an attached toxic or biological agent. Heydrich received excellent medical care by the standards of the time. His post-mortem showed none of the usual signs of sepsis, although infection of the wound and areas surrounding the lungs and heart was reported. A German wartime report on the incident stated, “Death occurred as a consequence of lesions in the vital parenchymatous organs caused by bacteria and possibly by poisons carried into them by bomb splinters”.
Heydrich’s condition while hospitalized was not documented in detail but he was not noted to have developed any of the distinctive symptoms associated with botulism, which have a gradual onset, invariably including paralysis, with death generally resulting from respiratory failure. Two others were also wounded by fragments of the same grenade – Kubiš, the Czech soldier who threw the grenade, and a bystander – but neither was reported to have shown any sign of poisoning.
The botulinum toxin theory has not found widespread acceptance among scholars. Fildes had a reputation for “extravagant boasts” and the grenade modifications could have been aimed at making the 4.4 lb (2 kg) weapon lighter. Two of the six original modified grenades are kept by the Military History Institute in Prague.
Hitler ordered an investigation and reprisals on the day of the assassination attempt, suggesting that Himmler send SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski to Prague. According to Karl Hermann Frank’s postwar testimony, Hitler knew Zelewski to be even harsher than Heydrich. Hitler favoured killing 10,000 politically unreliable Czechs but after he consulted Himmler, the idea was dropped because Czech territory was an important industrial zone for the German military and indiscriminate killing could reduce the productivity of the region.
More than 13,000 people were arrested, including Jan Kubiš’ girlfriend Anna Malinová, who died in the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. First Lieutenant Adolf Opálka’s aunt Marie Opálková was executed in the Mauthausen camp on 24 October 1942; his father Viktor Jarolím was also killed. According to one estimate, 5,000 people were murdered in the reprisals.
Intelligence falsely linked the assassins to the village of Lidice. A Gestapo report suggested Lidice was the hiding place of the assassins, since several Czech army officers exiled in England were known to have come from there. On 9 June 1942, the Germans committed the Lidice massacre; 199 men were killed, 195 women were deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp and 95 children taken prisoner. Of the children, 81 were later killed in gas vans at the Chełmno extermination camp, while eight were adopted by German families. The Czech village of Ležáky was also destroyed, because a radio transmitter belonging to the Silver A team was found there. The men and women of Ležáky were murdered, both villages were burned and the ruins of Lidice levelled.
In the days following Lidice, no leads were found for those responsible for Heydrich’s death. A deadline was issued to the military and the people of Czechoslovakia for the assassins to be apprehended by 18 June 1942. If they were not caught by then, the Germans threatened to spill far more blood, believing that this threat would be enough to force a potential informant to sell out the culprits. Many civilians were indeed wary and fearful of further reprisals, making it increasingly difficult to hide information much longer. The assailants initially hid with two Prague families and later took refuge in Karel Boromejsky Church, an Eastern Orthodox church dedicated to Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Prague. The Germans were unable to locate the attackers until Karel Čurda of the “Out Distance” sabotage group turned himself in to the Gestapo and gave them the names of the team’s local contacts for the bounty of one million Reichsmarks.
Čurda betrayed several safe houses provided by the Jindra group, including that of the Moravec family in Žižkov. At 05:00 on 17 June, the Moravec flat was raided. The family was made to stand in the hallway while the Gestapo searched their flat. Marie Moravec was allowed to go to the toilet, where she bit into a cyanide capsule and killed herself. Alois Moravec was unaware of his family’s involvement with the resistance; he was taken to the Petschek Palace together with his 17-year-old son Vlastimil “Ata”, who was tortured throughout the day but refused to talk. The youth was stupefied with brandy, shown his mother’s severed head in a fish tank, and warned that, if he did not talk, his father would be next and Ata gave in. Ata Moravec was executed by the Nazis in Mauthausen on 24 October 1942, the same day as his father, his fiancée, her mother and her brother.
Waffen-SS troops laid siege to the church the following day but they were unable to take the paratroopers alive, despite the best efforts of 750 SS soldiers under the command of SS-Gruppenführer Karl Fischer von Treuenfeld. Kubiš, Adolf Opálka and Josef Bublík were killed in the prayer loft after a two-hour gun battle. Gabčík, Josef Valcik, Jaroslav Svarc and Jan Hruby killed themselves in the crypt after repeated SS attacks, attempts to force them out with tear gas and Prague fire brigade trucks brought in to try to flood the crypt. The SS report about the fight mentioned five wounded SS soldiers. The men in the church had only pistols, while the attackers had machine guns, submachine guns and hand grenades. After the battle, Čurda confirmed the identity of the dead Czech resistance fighters, including Kubiš and Gabčík.
Bishop Gorazd took the blame for the actions in the church, to minimize the reprisals among his flock and even wrote letters to the Nazi authorities, who arrested him on 27 June 1942 and tortured him. On 4 September 1942, the bishop, the church’s priests and senior lay leaders were taken to Kobylisy Shooting Range in a northern suburb of Prague and shot. For his actions, Bishop Gorazd was later glorified as a martyr by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Two large funeral ceremonies were held for Heydrich as one of the most important Nazi leaders: first in Prague, where the way to Prague Castle was lined by thousands of SS men with torches and then in Berlin attended by all leading Nazi figures, including Hitler, who placed the German Order and Blood Order medals on the funeral pillow. The assassination of Heydrich was one of the most significant moments of the resistance in Czechoslovakia. The act led to the immediate dissolution of the Munich Agreement (called the “Munich Diktat” or “Munich Treason” by the Czechs) signed by the United Kingdom, France and Italy. The UK and France agreed that, after the Nazis were defeated, the annexed territory (Sudetenland) would be restored to Czechoslovakia. The traitor Karel Čurda was hanged for high treason in 1947, after attempting suicide.
It is likely that neither the Czech government-in-exile nor the British SOE foresaw the possibility that the Germans would apply the principle of Sippenhaft (collective responsibility) on the scale they did in avenging Heydrich’s assassination. Moreover decisions about whether to conduct assassinations of this kind are resistant to a rational choice process, as it is inherently difficult to compute the probability of success or the likely benefits and costs involved, and even if it were possible, the benefits (in this case, the diplomatic value of British repudiation of the Munich Agreement) are not in a form that Beneš could readily compare against the nature of the costs (the loss of Czech civilian lives). Winston Churchill was infuriated enough by the scale of reprisals to suggest levelling three German villages for every Czech village that the Nazis destroyed. Two years after Heydrich’s death, Operation Foxley, a similar assassination plan, was drawn up against Hitler but not implemented.
Operation Anthropoid was the only successful government-organized assassination of a top-ranking Nazi. The Polish underground killed two senior SS officers in the General government in Operation Kutschera and Operation Bürkl; Wilhelm Kube, the General-Kommissar of Belarus, was killed in Operation Blowup by Soviet partisan Yelena Mazanik, a Belarusian woman who had managed to find employment in his household to kill him.