This was the Czechoslovak special forces mission, also known as ‘Daybreak’, to assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotektor of the Reichsprotektorat Böhmen und Mähren (Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, as the Germans styled occupied western Czechoslovakia) (28 December 1941/27 May 1942).
Heydrich was also head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Main Security Office) and chief planner of the ‘Final Solution’, the Nazi term for the genocide of the Jews. It was in September 1941 that Heydrich was appointed Reichsprotektor, replacing Konstantin von Neurath, whom Adolf Hitler considered too lenient. During his role as de facto dictator of Bohemia and Moravia, Heydrich often drove alone in a car with an open roof as a show of confidence in the occupation forces and the effectiveness of their repressive measures against the local population.
At this time the German forces were approaching Moscow and the Western Allies felt that a Soviet surrender was possible. The Czechoslovak government-in-exile, headed by President Edvard Beneš, was under pressure from British intelligence as there had been very little visible resistance in Czechoslovakia since the start of the full German occupation in March 1939, and Czechoslovak industries were producing significant quantities of matériel for the German military machine.
The government-in-exile felt it had to do something that would inspire the Czechoslovak people and show the world that the Czechoslovaks were useful partners in the Allied grouping. Heydrich was one of the most important men in Germany, and his death would be a huge loss and a profound psychological, if not strategic, victory.
Seven soldiers of the Czechoslovak army in exile in the UK, including Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, were parachuted by the RAF into Czechoslovakia on the night of 28 December 1941. Gabčík and Kubiš came down safely at a point east of Prague, although the plan had been to deliver them to a location near Pilsen, and the two men then made their way to Pilsen to contact their colleagues. The Czechoslovaks then travelled to Prague, where the attack was planned.
In Prague the two men contacted several families and anti-Nazi organisations who helped them during the preparations for the assassination. Gabčík and Kubiš initially planned to kill Heydrich on a train, but soon realised that this was impractical. The two men then came up with second plan, in this instance to assassinate Heydrich on the road in the forest on the way between his residence and his office in Prague, but this plan also came to nothing.
The third scheme was based on an attack actually in Prague. On 27 May Heydrich began the daily journey from his residence in Panenské Břežany to Prague Castle, but was in a hurry and did not wait for the customary police escort. Gabčík and Kubiš were in position beside a tram stop on a bend in the road near Bulovka hospital, and third man, Josef Valčik, was positioned about 110 yards (100 m) farther to the north to inform Gabčík and Kubiš as the car approached. As Heydrich’s open-topped Mercedes vehicle neared the pair, Gabčík is said to have stepped in front of the vehicle, trying to open fire, but his Sten sub-machine gun jammed. Heydrich’s occasional driver, SS-Oberscharführer Klein, stopped the car and tried to shoot Gabčík, but missed.
Kubiš then tossed a grenade (with botulinum toxin in a bottle attached to it, according to some sources) at the vehicle. The grenade failed to enter the car, but its fragments ripped through the car’s right-hand side, embedding fragments and fibres from the upholstery in Heydrich’s body. Heydrich tried to return fire but collapsed.
On being informed of the event, Adolf Hitler immediately sent a team of doctors from Germany to Prague and, as Heydrich had been his protégé, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler also travelled to Prague. The doctors operated on Heydrich in Bulovka hospital, but Heydrich but died of septicaemia on 4 June.
The attackers initially hid with two Prague families but later took refuge in the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Here they were betrayed to the Gestapo by a co-conspirator, probably to prevent reprisals against innocent people. The two assassins were located on 18 June and, after a brief but fierce gun battle in the church, committed suicide to avoid capture. (After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, the traitor Karel Čurda was executed in 1947 for high treason.)
Hitler had already ordered the SS and Gestapo to ‘wade in blood’ throughout Bohemia in their efforts to find Heydrich’s killers. Initially, Hitler wanted to start with brutal, widespread killing of Czechoslovak civilians but, after consultation, reduced his response to ‘only’ some thousands. Czechoslovakia was an important industrial resource for the German military, and it was realised indiscriminate killing would probably reduce the region’s productivity. Even so, more than 1,000 Czechoslovaks were killed in the German reprisals, the most infamous incidents being the complete destruction of the villages of Lidice and Ležáky.
Late in the afternoon of 27 May, SS-Gruppenführer Karl Hermann Frank, Heydrich’s deputy, had proclaimed a state of emergency and a curfew in Prague, and issued an edict to the effect that any person deemed to have helped the assassins was to be executed, together with his or her entire family. There began a major search operation by a force that quickly reached 21,000 men, and 36,000 houses were checked. Reprisal killings soon started, and by 4 June some 157 people had been killed despite the fact that the assassins had not been found and no information had been uncovered.
On 9 June Frank reported that Hitler had ordered any village found to have shielded Heydrich’s killers was to have all its adult males killed, all its females transported to a concentration camp, all the children suitable for 'Aryanisation' to be placed with SS families in Germany, all other children to be brought up in another suitable environment, and the village to be burned and its ruins levelled.
Horst Böhme, the head of the Sicherheitspolizei in Bohemia and Moravia, responded rapidly and ordered men of the Ordnungspolizei and Sicherheitsdienst to surround the village of Lidice, which had been selected as its population was suspected of harbouring members of the local resistance.
All the village’s men were seized, herded to the farm of the Horák family on the edge of the village, and lined up against mattresses piled against the side of the Horáks' barn. The men were shot from 07.00, first in groups of five but the, as Böhme thought the killing was proceeding too slowly, in groups of 10. The dead were left where they fell, and the killing of an eventual 173 men lasted into the afternoon. Eleven more men, not in the village that day, were arrested and executed soon after this, as too were eight men and seven women already under arrest because they had relations serving with the Czechoslovak army in exile.
Some 203 women and 105 children were taken to the school in Lidice, then moved to a school in nearby Kladno, where they were held for three days. Here children were separated from their mothers, and four pregnant women were sent to the hospital in which Heydrich had died. Their fetuses were forcibly aborted and the women sent to different concentration camps. On 12 June, some 184 women were taken to Kladno railway station and loaded onto a special train, which reached Ravensbrück concentration camp two days later. The women were initially isolated in a special block, and compelled to work in leather processing, road building, and textile and ammunition factories.
Some 88 children were transported to the area of a former textile factory in the city of Łódź in occupied Poland, and received no medical care. Officials of the SS’s Central Race and Settlement branch extracted seven children at random for 'Aryanisation', and the few children considered racially suitable for 'Aryanisation' were handed over to SS families. The international outcry about the whole Lidice incident led to a measure of hesitation about the treatment of the remaining children, but late in June Adolf Eichmann ordered that they be killed. On 2 July all of the remaining 81 Lidice children were handed over to the Gestapo in Łódź, and they were transported to the extermination camp at Chełmno, where they were gassed to death. Of the 105 Lidice children, 82 died in Chełmno, six died in the German Lebensborn orphanages, and 17 returned home.
Lidice itself was set on fire and after this the ruins were destroyed with explosives. In total, about 340 of Lidice’s population (192 men, 60 women and 88 children) died in the German reprisal, and just 153 women and 17 children returned after the war. All the animals in the village were also slaughtered.
The small village of Ležáky was also destroyed two weeks after Lidice on the grounds that Gestapo agents had there found the radio transmitter of the 'Silver A' resistance team which had arrived by parachute with Kubiš and Gabčík. The village’s 33 men and women were shot, and 11 children were sent to Chełmno extermination camp, and two children were selected for 'Aryanisation' and survived the war. The overall death toll of the German reprisals has been estimated at more than 1,300, this figure including relatives of the resistance team, their supporters, Czech elites suspected of disloyalty, and random victims such as those from Lidice and Ležáky.
The Nazi propaganda machine openly reported the events in Lidice and Ležáky, unlike other massacres in occupied Europe which were kept secret. The information was instantly picked up by Allied media. Infuriated, Prime Minister Winston Churchill suggested that three German villages should be levelled for every Czechoslovak village the Germans had destroyed. Instead, the Allies stopped planning similar operations to assassinate senior Nazis for fear that similar reprisals would follow.
Two years after the killing of Heydrich, however, they planned one other such attempt, this time targeting Hitler in ‘Foxley’, but ‘Anthropoid’ remained the only successful assassination of a senior Nazi official.