When a pair of British-trained Czech and Slovak assassins attacked one of Nazi Germany’s most sinister leaders in Prague in May 1942, they were armed with submachine guns and anti-tank mines. But even these were not enough. To complete Operation Anthropoid and kill Heydrich, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík needed a little help from the SS-Obergruppenführer’s favorite Mercedes convertible and the swarm of microbes in its upholstery.
Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich—that’s the kind of name you get when your father is a composer in love with all things German and Wagner—was not your typical Nazi. Then again, who was? There were vain buffoons like Hermann Göring, bureaucratic sociopaths like Adolf Eichmann and then there was Heydrich, who looked like the love child of Tilda Swinton and an alien predator, and became the head of the Gestapo by the time he reached 30, after some tumultous years as a right-wing teenage vigilante and a womanizing navy man. He was a character both terrifying and mesmerizing, and his numerous nicknames included Himmler’s Brain and the Blonde Angel of Death.
Heydrich was at or near the top of Nazy Germany’s ever-shifting state security and terror services after he signed up with the SS in 1931. After World War II broke out—following a faked Polish attack on German troops organized by Heydrich—he became the head of the Reich Main Security Office, an organization which combined the SS’s intelligence wing, the Gestapo, and all sorts of other departments.
In late 1941, Heydrich was sent to Prague as Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, the industrial part of Czechoslovakia whose factories were vital to the Nazi war effort, producing machinery like tank engines (and, of course, combat snowmobiles). Protector in Heydrich’s case translated into the conductor of a wave of terror, earning him yet another nickname: the Butcher of Prague.
It was around this time that Czechoslovakia’s government in British exile decided to assassinate him. Operation Anthropoid, as the program was codenamed, was an organizational and moral nightmare. The Czechs knew that a successful assassination would result in brutal Nazi retaliation but that it would also mean respect for the Czechs, as no Nazi leader of Heydrich’s stature had ever been targeted. Then there was the small matter of finding and training men for the job. Locals could not be counted on: one of Heydrich’s talents was to infiltrate and deceive, and the Czech resistance was compromised on every level. In an elaborate UK-based training aided by the Special Operations Executive, two soldiers were selected for the job by the exiled Czech intelligence officer František Moravec: the Czech Jan Kubiš and the Slovak Jozef Gabčík.
Kubiš and Gabčík were parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the Royal Air Force in December 1941, aware that it was going to be a one-way trip. In late 1941, Nazi Germany was at the height of its powers and there would be no way out for them. Kubiš and Gabčík were on their own. There was no communication between Prague and the exiled Czech government in London. The months passed until the news came in late May 1942 that Heydrich had been wounded in an attack.
What Kubiš and Gabčík identified in the months between was Heydrich’s hubris. He was so confident in his absolute power over Czechoslovakia that he commuted to his office in Prague Castle in a convertible Mercedes 320 B, accompanied by no entourage of bodyguards. The would-be assassins studied his route and identified a slow corner at a tram stop. On the morning of May 27, 1942, they attacked.
Driven in his convertible Mercedes, Heydrich was first attacked by Gabčík, whose Sten submachine gun jammed. Instead of making a quick escape, Heydrich ordered his driver to stop the car and tried to shoot Gabčík. Kubiš then lobbed an anti-tank mine at the Mercedes, which exploded on impact, hitting both Heydrich and Kubiš with shrapnel. It stopped neither of them. Heydrich climbed out of his car and kept firing at his assassins before he collapsed. His driver then chased Gabčík and Kubiš, who both escaped.
Heydrich’s injuries didn’t appear serious. He was operated on by Heinrich Himmler’s personal doctor, the later war criminal Karl Gebhardt, and looked to be on his way to recovery when he suddenly got worse and lapsed into a coma. It was the Mercedes. Pieces of upholstery had been torn from the car by Kubiš’s anti-tank grenade and these had hit Heydrich, causing widespread bacterial infection. On June 4, the Butcher of Prague was dead, killed by two brave commandos, a car named after the granddaughter of an Austro-Hungarian rabbi, and the politics of Nazi Germany: Ernst Boris Chain, the biochemist who received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1945 for discovering the therapeutic properties of penicillin (which would have cured Heydrich) was a Berlin-born Russian-German Jew who left Germany for Britain after the Nazis came to power.
It wasn’t a happy ending. Thousands were rounded up and killed by the Nazis after Heydrich’s assassination. To the town of Lidice and the village of Ležáky they did what the Roman general Scipio had had done to Carthage: razed them to the ground and killed everyone. Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš escaped to Karel Boromejsky Church in Prague, where they hid for three weeks until betrayed by a fellow Czech paratrooper. After a two-hour firefight with the SS, Kubiš was shot and Gabčík took his cyanide.
Reinhard Heydrich was dead, but his plans weren’t. Four months before his assassination, he chaired a 90-minute meeting in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee—recreated in the 2001 film Conspiracy—which decided on the fate of Europe’s Jews: mass murder. In the terribly hot summer of Heydrich’s death, the first extermination camps in occupied Poland began operating at full capacity. By the time Operation Reinhard—the first phase of the Holocaust—was over in November 1943, two million people had been killed.
Period photos from the Deutsches Bundesarchiv. Painting of Heydrich by Katarzyna P.