If you had seen the movie “Casablanca”, you might remember the scene in the cafe where the German officers start singing a German song. To hush them down, the brave Czechoslovak resistance leader, husband of the Scandinavian bombshell Ilsa (played by Ingrid Bergman) starts singing the Marsellaise. Right after that, everyone else joins in.
The film was made in 1942 and one of the most heroic characters there, is a Czechoslovak resistance fighter who is trying to smuggle himself out of Nazi-controlled territories in order to continue his struggle. This guy was a fictional character, however the year 1942 was also the setting of probably the most daring act of resistance during the entire war. And this was real!
The act was codenamed Operation Anthropoid and resulted in the assassination of one of the most-feared Nazi leaders, Reinhard Heydrich. This was the guy who organized the Final Solution and planned the extermination of all the Jews from Europe.
Just like the movie, the heroes of this story were Czechoslovak resistance fighters.
The scene is this: Hitler is on a roll. His armies have crushed all opposition and control most of continental Europe. The German armies are going from one victory to another in the East against the Soviets and an invasion of Britain is imminent.
In the middle of the continent lies the city of Prague, formerly the capital of the Czechoslovak Republic, the only democracy in Central Europe before the war, and now the seat of the government of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, completely controlled by the Nazis.
Before the War, Czechoslovakia was one of the continent’s economic powerhouses and had a very strong military industry, especially producing heavy machinery and tanks. It was sacrificed by the UK and France in order to appease Hitler, but that just made him even stronger.
By occupying the country, he took over its military equipment and added it to his own army (almost half the German tanks that attacked France in 1940 were formerly from the Czechoslovak army).
Many Czechoslovak military personnel escaped the country and installed themselves in places like the UK, France or the Soviet Union, in order to fight the Nazis and free their country. The Czechoslovak government-in-exile was located in London and so were much of the forces of the Czechoslovak army-in-exile.
However the situation in their homeland was dire. The country was occupied by the Nazis, who were crushing any forms of opposition. The exile authorities were determined to shake things up.
Striking at the heart of the Nazi machine, at one of its leaders, could galvanize the population and wake up the resistance, which was losing any hope of success at this point. After a long discussion, it was decided that the target of this operation would be Heydrich, one of the most feared men in the Nazi Reich.
Heydrich was serving as the Chief Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, but also had other duties in the Nazi regime. In order to oversee the Protectorate, he moved his residence to Prague, an ancient and beautiful city.
After an initial period of training, the two guys chosen to carry out the assassination, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, together with a number of other paratroopers who were to carry out other acts of sabotage, were airlifted over Bohemia and parachuted down.
Unfortunately, due to navigational errors, they were dropped down about 100 kilometers away from where they were supposed to have landed. They had to make their way through treacherous terrain in order to get to their initial destination, to meet their contacts and get their fake documents, as well as weapons.
After that, they went to Prague and made contact with local resistance groups. The work on planning the actual assassination could now start.
They spent some time observing their target, his daily routines and his weak points. After a period of observation, it was decided that a spot on his daily ride to work would be the best place to hit him. There was a curve on a street next to some tram tracks that seemed perfect.
They picked a date, the 27th of May 1942.
On that date, like every morning, Heydrich was riding to work in his open-air Mercedes, without any other escort, except for his driver.
Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik called in another paratrooper, Josef Valcik, to help them out. He was to serve as a lookout for them and give them a signal when the car was approaching their position and whether it had an SS escort with it.
The operation was proceeding according to plan. Heydrich’s car was rounding the bend, when Gabcik threw down his coat and revealed his Sten MKII submachine gun. He aimed it at Heydrich, but it jammed!
It was a common complaint among many soldiers that this British-made weapon was prone to jamming. Unfortunately this now happened at the most innoportune moment.
Gabcik became fully exposed and without a way to fire at Heydrich. Heydrich could now have gotten away quickly. Fortunately, he made a fatal error. He told the driver to stop the car as he stood up from his seat and started firing his pistol at the resistance fighter.
This gave enough time to Jan Kubis, who was standing to the side of Gabcik, to throw a grenade into the open car. The grenade exploded and wounded Heydrich.
Even though wounded, Heydrich could still move. The two Czechoslovak resistance fighters, also stunned from the bomb blast, took out their pistols and started firing at Heydrich and his driver, but missed.
At that moment, Heydrich staggered out of his car and together with his driver started chasing Gabcik and Kubis. Both resistance fighters managed to escape, but were convinced that their attack had failed.
It seemed that Heydrich had survived their attack. After the incident he was transported to a Prague hospital, where he was looked at by specialists. His injuries were graver than they initially seemed. It was decided to operate on him, but he died from complications the next day.
This was not the end however. In order to retaliate for this assassination, the Nazis began a veritable reign of terror. They hauled in thousands of people for questioning, many of them dying under brutal interrogation. They also decided to raze two villages, Lidice and Lezaky, down to the ground and kill all their inhabitants. This was to serve as a grotesque example of what will happen if someone resists.
The two Operation Anthropoid operatives, Gabcik and Kubis, together with Valcik and four other paratroopers, hid themselves in the Eastern Orthodox Church of St. Cyril and Methodius. There, they were determined to ride things out and then slip out of Prague unnoticed. In this, they were being aided by Bishop Gorazd and others.
These were not the only paratroopers present on the territory of the Protectorate. There were several other groups of fighters that had been dropped down in order to carry out different acts of sabotage and several of the members of these groups were also hiding out in various places.
As the terror began to get worse and worse, two of them snapped. First, one paratrooper, Viliam Gerik turned himself into the Gestapo and told them the names and addresses of many of the people who were helping him out.
However, what proved to be crucial was the betrayal of Karel Curda from the group codenamed “Out Distance”. The commander of that group, Adolf Opalka, was one of the paratroopers hiding out in the church.
After spending several scary days and nights in hiding, Karel Curda also turned himself in to the Gestapo and gave up the names and addresses of many people in the Resistance. One address that he gave was that of the Moravec family.
The Gestapo raided their house. The mother managed to committ suicide as the Nazis came into the house, but the father and the son were arrested. After brutal torture, the son finally gave up the location where the paratroopers were hiding.
I won’t go into detail on what happened next. This is an entire tale in itself, but a short summary will suffice for now.
The Nazis surrounded the church and tried several ways of trying to flush the paratroopers out or to raid the church and kill them. Many of these proved unsuccessful and only after hours of heroic fighting were all the paratroopers killed.
Memory of Heroism
This proved to be one of the most legendary acts of resistance during WW2. Never before or after was there a successful assassination of such a high-ranking Nazi functionnary.
In 2016, a movie on this operation called “Operation Anthropoid” will come out, starring Mr. Grey Jamie Dornan himself as Jan Kubis and Cilian Murphy as Jozef Gabcik.
The heroic acts that were committed by these brave men and the people that helped them, have passed into legend. Their memory lives on, as example of people who saw a greater cause than themselves, who risked their lives and ended up paying the ultimate price.
Their acts were not in vain, as their nation shook off the chains of the Nazis and once again became free.