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The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s Hangman

“I am telling you that acceptance of this mission is almost certainly acceptance of death…” – Gen. Frantisek Moravec to Jozef Gabčík and Sergeant Jan Kubiš

Unlike other nations in occupied Europe, since the outbreak of World War II in 1939 there had been little or no resistance activity in Czechoslovakia (today the two separate nations of the Czech Republic and Slovakia). In fact, according to regular reviews conducted by British intelligence, since September 1941 Czechoslovakia ranked last on the resistance activity list. Edvard Beneš, the president of Czechoslovakia’s government-in-exile in London, was worried that if that situation didn’t change the Allies would give short shrift to any Czech post-war claims – particularly the return of the Sudetenland, which had been annexed to Germany in the 1938 Munich Agreement. In a meeting with his intelligence chief, Gen. Frantisek Moravec, Beneš stated that they must organize a bold Czech commando strike inside Czechoslovakia that would elevate Czech prestige with the Allies and, hopefully, inspire fellow Czechs in the occupied territory to actively participate in the resistance. After some deliberation the mission and its objective were identified: the assassination of the Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich.

The Location of the Heydrich Assassination

The site of Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination immediately after the attack. This photo shows the tight turn that forced Heydrich’s car to slow down and allowed the Czech assassins to strike. Bundesarchive photo

Next to Adolf Hitler, Heydrich was the most hated – and feared – Nazi. Upon joining the Nazi party in 1931, Heydrich’s combination of brilliance and brutality saw him rise steadily up the Nazi ranks. By 1939 SS general (Obergruppenführer) Heydrich had become the head of Reich security (SS-Reichssicherheitshauptamt – RSHA). When he became Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in September 1941 at age 37, he so thoroughly crushed Czech resistance activity that he was able to openly drive through the protectorate in a Mercedes convertible with its top down and no escort.

The mission to execute Heydrich had two code names. Organized by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) under the code-name Operation Anthropoid, it was carried out by Czechs, who code-named it Operation Salmon. Leading the volunteer team of nine men were Warrant Officer Jozef Gabčík and Sgt. Jan Kubiš, who agreed to assassinate Heydrich.

The team was airlifted into Czechoslovakia on the night of Dec. 28, 1941. Gabčík and Kubiš then linked up with Czech underground members who hid them and assisted the two in their preparations. The assassination attempt proved more difficult than expected, and it was not until the end of May 1942 that they were able to bring their plan to fruition.

Gabčík and Kubiš sprang their trap on May 27, 1942, ambushing Heydrich as his Mercedes slowed to negotiate a hairpin turn in the Prague suburb of Libeň. Accounts vary in specifics, but it’s generally agreed that Gabčík leaped out and tried to stop the Mercedes with his STEN submachine gun, which jammed. Instead of speeding away, Heydrich’s car stopped. Kubiš then threw a modified grenade at the car that exploded, wounding both Heydrich and Kubiš. Heydrich, pistol in hand, emerged from the wreckage and gave chase for about a block, before collapsing. Gabčík and Kubiš escaped. Heydrich was taken to a hospital. He died on June 4, officially of sepsis. Unconfirmed claims state that Kubiš’s grenade was a biological warfare weapon filled with botuilism germs and that Heydrich actually died of botulism poisoning. It’s worth noting that Kubiš, though wounded by the grenade as well, did not contract the disease.

Lidice Massacre

German soldiers standing by corpses after a mass execution in Lidice, Czechoslovakia, in June of 1942. In all, some 340 people from Lidice died because of the German reprisal – 192 men, 60 women and 88 children. The village was set on fire, the rubble was bulldozed, and Lidice was erased from the map. Bundesarchive photo

Heydrich was given two state funerals, the first in Prague and the second in Berlin. His assailants took refuge at Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral in Prague. Betrayed by a member of the Czech underground, all were either killed or committed suicide on June 24 following a siege by SS troops.

A furious Hitler, meanwhile, had struck back at the Czechs. The towns of Lidice and Ležáky were mistakenly implicated in the assassination. All adult males were killed and the survivors deported or imprisoned. Both towns were burned and Lidice was completely razed.

For Beneš, the mission proved a mixed blessing. On the plus side, the success of the mission caused Britain and France to renounce the Munich Agreement and state that upon Germany’s defeat the Sudetenland would return to Czechoslovakia. But Czechs did not rally to the resistance as he hoped, and the country remained among the most passive of all the occupied nations during the war.

YouTube contains a number of film clips about Heydrich. One, titled “The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich – 1,” with German narration, includes reenactments and historical black and white and color film footage. Another, titled “killing heydrich part1,” (sic) includes photos and film footage of Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik. And there is a Nazi film clip of Heydrich’s funeral in Prague, with German narration and English subtitles.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...