Apart from Hitler, perhaps no one typified the evil of Nazism more so than Reinhard Heydrich. Cold, calculating, arrogant and brutal, he is a figure whose hands-on approach to dealing with perceived enemies of Germany made him author of some of the worst crimes ever perpetrated by man.
Tall, slender with smooth blond hair and a somewhat high pitched voice, he joined the SS in the early 1930’s, and quickly rose through the ranks with cutthroat efficiency, running the SS intelligence service, the Sicherheitsdienst or SD. In this office, he helped orchestrate notable events which defined Hitler’s policies by purging suspected political rivals in what became known as The Night Of The Long Knives in 1934, and terrorizing Jews in the Crystal Night pogrom of 1938.
When the war broke out, Heydrich headed the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) of which all security agencies fell under. Per his orders, after German forces swept through Europe the SD and Gestapo carried out the infamous ‘night and fog’ decree, whereby persons suspected of being enemies of the Reich were arrested discretely, never to be heard from again.
It is as an architect of the Holocaust though, where Heydrich’s evil came to the fore.
As early as September1939, he cabled a message to Einsatzgruppen (Special Action Groups) following German forces in Poland on how to round up Jews for Ghetto placement and seizure of their property and businesses. Later, these groups would murder en masse some 2 million Jews as they advanced through Russia.
Just 2 months later, he sent another cable defining how so called ‘Untermenschen’ (subhumans) were to be deported on trains to concentration camps.
His actions in this area culminated in January 1942, when he chaired the Wansee Conference in Berlin, where he defined the specifics of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ by revealing the methods of creating death camps and using gas chambers and crematoria to speed along the process.
Of those not chosen to be gassed, they would be worked to death with estimates given of useful life before replacement.
After the conference, Heydrich returned to his command in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where he had been appointed in September 1941 as head of the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia-land seized and incorporated into the Third Reich in 1939.
From his office in Hradcany Castle in Prague he ruled over a people he despised, using terror and intimidation to suppress resistance movements and get more work from the populace for the German war machine. So ruthless and efficient were his methods that he earned nicknames like ‘The Butcher of Prague, The Hangman, and the Blond Beast.’
Little did he know as he returned from Berlin that snowy day in 1942 that his days were numbered. He had attracted the attention of the Czech government in exile, who made plans to hasten his exit from the scene, not because of his anti-Jewish efforts, but because of his success in crushing rebellion in Czechoslovakia, where signs of hope and a legitimacy were in dire need by a populace under constant strain.
Located in London, the Czech government led by Edvard Benes needed a bold event to occur to inspire support and reassure his people that they were not forgotten and that no Nazi, no matter how powerful, was above being killed in his country. Therefore, he sought planning for Operation Anthropoid from Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.), Britain’s office for running clandestine missions in occupied lands.
Volunteering for the mission were paratroopers and SOE members Warrant Officer Josef Gabcik and Staff Sergeant Karel Svoboda, who was replaced at the last moment due to a head injury by good friend Warrant Officer Jan Kubis, who required additional training and false documents causing a delay in deployment until December 28, 1941.
Their plan was to hit Heydrich at his most vulnerable – on his train, in his car on an isolated road, or during his commute through Prague.
With different safehouses awaiting them after landing, they departed England in an RAF Halifax bomber with 5 other cohorts (wireless and cipher team) assigned with them and two other groups who had different missions. At around 10 P.M. they arrived over Czechoslovakia, where Gabcik told his British dispatcher “Remember, you’ll be hearing from us. We’ll do everything possible.”
He parachuted into the darkness with the others, coming to land in rolling fields east of Prague, 70 miles away from the designated dropzone near the town of Pilson due to pilot error. They quickly oriented themselves and journeyed to Pilson to make contact with allies who provided them with information and lodging.
Settling in amongst the population, they moved to Prague and looked for opportunities to strike over the following months. They built up more information on Heydrich and discovered he was much a creature of habit. He took the same routes to work in his chauffeured car and weather permitting, often rode with the top down.
After positioning themselves twice for an attack the previous months, one at a train station which proved impractical and along a forest road in which Heydrich never showed, an incredible stroke of luck befell them. On May 23, a Czech repairman who worked for the resistance was repairing Heydrich’s antique office clock when he noticed a sheet of paper that contained his itinerary on May 27 1942. He crumpled it up and placed it into a wastebasket in which another resistance member, a cleaning lady, placed it in a sack with other refuse and left the building.
Gabcik and Kubis looked over the itinerary, realizing they had little time left to act. On May 27th, Heydrich was leaving Prague for his next command in Paris, France.
Looking over the routes he took that day, it was decided to hit him in suburban Prague, where a road made a hairpin turn on its way to the castle. The car would be at its slowest at this point and the plan called for Gabcik’s girlfriend Rela Fafek to drive her car around the bend preceding Heydrich and wear a hat if he was unescorted by security.
As Heydrich made the turn. Gabcik would step into the road and open fire with a Sten submachine gun, killing Heydrich and the chauffeur. Kubis would then try and snatch his briefcase. For insurance, 2 other gun men would wait at other points near the bend in case the attempt failed. Afterward, they would disperse and try to get way.
As an overcast sky settled over Prague that fateful morning, Gabcik, Kubis and the other gunmen set out for their designated spots. Gabcik readied the Sten to be swept from under his coat while Kubis carried an Anti-Tank grenade in a briefcase for back up.
Minutes passed until 10:31 A.M. when Rela rounded the hairpin wearing a hat. Heydrich was seconds away and Gabcik readied to step onto the road. Around came the shiny black Mercedes, top down, slowing. Heydrich sat in the front seat by the driver.
Gabcik hurried onto the road as the car passed in front. He brought the Sten up, pointing at Heydrich, and pulled the trigger.
He tugged at the bolt. The car stopped. Heydrich and the driver rose pulling their pistols, firing at Gabcik as Kubis’ grenade sailed through the air to land next to back door. It exploded, sending shrapnel through the door and seat. Gabcik and Kubis ran away as Heydrich dropped the pistol and managed to get out. He staggered a few more paces away from the car trying to chase Gabcik before slumping to the ground, as the driver continued the chased before Gabcik turned and shot him in the leg with a pistol. The man limped back to his boss and summoned help.
Both assailants fled into the city convinced the attack had failed.
Heydrich lay on the ground attended by his driver until an ambulance arrived and he was taken to a local hospital. It was discovered his injuries were serious though treatable. Surgery was performed and he was placed into intensive care.
Later that day, Hitler ordered an immediate investigation. Reprisals were carried out in the coming weeks, resulting in over 13,000 arrests and 5,000 killed, including complete eradication of the villages of Lidice and Lezaky which were falsely linked to the attackers.
On June 4th, a recovering Reihard Heydrich sat up in bed to eat and suddenly collapsed dead of cardiac arrest. His body was dressed in the black uniform of the SS and sent to Germany where he was accorded a state funeral, while back in Czechoslovakia the manhunt and killing of innocents continued.
Amidst the carnage unleashed on the populace, Gabcik and Kubis had made their way from the Prague safehouses to take up residence at Saint Cyril’s Orthodox Church with the 5 other parachutists from different teams. There they planned to escape to the mountains and eventually make it back to England. But it was not to be. One of their own soon betrayed them.
Karel Curda, eying the 10,000,000 Crowns (600,000) bounty offered for the perpetrators, walked into Gestapo Headquarters on June 16, and gave them a safehouse where they discovered a 19 year old assistant to a resistance leader. The Nazi’s tortured the boy throughout the 17th, who at last relented after they showed him his mother’s severed head floating in a fish tank, and at 4:10 A.M. on the 18th, SS troops surrounded the church, positioned machine guns on overwatch and prepared to enter.
During their stay, most of the time the 7 hid in the crypt below the main floor, but this morning 3 had decided to stay above in the balcony. When the Germans entered they opened up with submachine guns, killing several before more rushed in to take their place. Both sides exchanged fire for some two hours before shooting seized from the balcony. Rushing up, the Germans found 2 had committed suicide while a 3rd, badly wounded, was rushed to a hospital. The SS wanted him alive but he died on arrival. They had no idea it was Heydrich’s killer, Jan Kubis.
Gabcik and 3 others in the crypt tried to tunnel into the sewers, but the hidden door on the main floor opened and they fired up at the Germans, holding them at bay.
Outside the church the Germans realized a vent led into the crypt and hurled tear gas grenades into the paratroopers midst. Seeing this as ineffective, they brought in fire hoses and water cascaded down around the fighters.
Knowing there was no way out, they put guns to their heads. 4 shots rang out. A red tide rose around their lifeless bodies. A few hours later another entrance to the crypt was blown and the corpses were recovered and laid out on the street where Karel Curda identified them. Here, the last chapter of Operation Anthropoid came to a close.
As an epilogue, regarding ‘The Butcher Of Prague,’ he proved irreplaceable to the Nazi cause. Nevermore would the German security and intelligence services have such an efficient head, able to implement their policies as well. Nevertheless, his legacy proved to be not that of the efficient bureaucrat, but one of pure evil. Wherever he went, death always followed him.
And to this day, no enemy killed by an opposing force has ever had more innocent blood on their hands than Reinhard Heydrich.
(Featured Image: Reinhard Heydrich Photo Album)