History Wars World War II

This was one of the greatest assassinations of a Nazi leader

Logan Nye Avatar
nazi leader assassination

Reinhard Heydrich is the kind of man with which any freedom-loving person might have a few bones to pick. He was a fascist, a Nazi, a secret police leader, and the architect of the Holocaust. Also, he’s the one that staged the false flag attack in Germany to manufacture a pretense to invade that country. And so the British Special Operations Executive decided to assassinate the Nazi leader, and they did with a lot of help from Czech commandos.

You guys are making this senior Nazi leader sound really bad

Yes. We are. Before we get going on the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, we just need to press home how much you should be rooting against this dude. Let’s go through some of those crimes we mentioned in the intro.

First, and most importantly, he was one of the lead architects of the Holocaust. As a senior member of the Schutzstaffel, commonly known as the SS, he helped form its security arm. The security arm was the SD, Sicherheitsdienst. Heydrich was also in charge of the Gestapo.

In these roles, he organized the “deployment groups” that invaded Poland just behind frontline units and immediately began kidnapping and murdering Polish Jews and other “undesirables.” He funneled German Jews into Polish ghettos and concentration camps. Soon, he was tasked with organizing the “Final Solution” of the Jewish people. Genocide. He was in charge of genocide.

And also, to boot, he staged the false flag attack at the German town of Gleiwitz. Not quite as important as the genocide thing. But in 1939 when Germany really wanted to play the victim while invading its relatively peaceful neighbor, Heidrich organized a fake attack. They kidnapped a German farmer, put him in a Polish uniform, captured their own radio tower near the border, made a broadcast in Polish, and then killed the farmer on the radio station steps.

Yup, dude was a murderer besides the whole genocide thing. Literally millions of deaths flowed from his actions. It was time to assassinate the Nazi leader.

rienhard heydrich was target of czech commandos
Reinhard Heydrich, the target of Operation Anthropoid, in 1940.

Okay, I’m on board with assassinating the Nazi. How’d the Allies do it?

Well, the whole “worst human ever” resume above was actually a list of good work, according to the Nazis, because, you know, terrible human beings and all that. And so Heydrich was one of the most respected racists in the world at the time. And so he received an appointment as governor of Bohemia and Moravia, both bits of Czechoslovakia that were stolen by the Third Reich.

In that role, he patted himself on the back for improving the economy even as the actual Czech people got increasingly mad at him over the whole “invasion, kidnapping, and murder” thing. When Heydrich and his goons killed a suspected partisan, they even billed the family of the deceased for the cost of the execution. But Heydrich was so sure that he was the good guy that he let his security slip.

Operation Anthropoid

Heydrich’s savage beating of the Czech population was quickly followed by increased rations and other economic and social incentives. Many Czechs embraced the change and even started doing a good job in the factory, increasing the flow of food and weapons to German units from Czech farms and factories.

Czech leaders, eager to prove they were still a valuable part of the Allied Powers, offered their intelligence services in an assassination attempt. The British SOE quickly took them up on the offer. Two Czech noncommissioned officers, Josef Gabcik and Karel Svoboda, got selected to assassinate the Nazi.

Their training went well, but their parachute insertion ran into weather problems. They landed far from their target and Gabcik injured his foot. Svodoba was later injured as well. It took months for Gabcik to heal, and then he began conducting reconnaissance with Jan Kubis.

More months passed, and it became clear that a careful, quiet assassination was likely impossible. The one recurring activity where Heydrich let his guard down was while traveling in his open-air car. When a rumor circulated that Heydrich was soon to be promoted out of Bohemia and Moravia, Kubis and Gabcik decided “Screw it, we’ll just kill him in the open.”

czech commandos assassinated Heydrich
Heydrich’s Typ 320 damaged by the anti-tank grenade.

May 27, 1942

The men learned that Heydrich would likely travel through Liben, a town near Prague, on May 27, 1942. They knew the route Heydrich often took, and they knew it required slow navigation around a sharp corner. They set up a hasty ambush there. Gabcik would fill the car with machinegun fire. If it looked like anything was still alive, Kubis would toss in anti-tank grenades.

But then the minutes ticked by. Heydrich was late. But as the men worried that he may have had a car problem or taken a different route or been called away, he finally crested the nearby hill.

When the car reached the turn. Gabcik pointed the weapon and pulled the trigger, only to find his weapon was jammed. Heydrich saw the failed assassin and pulled his pistol to shoot him down.

Kubis came in clutch, tossing one of his grenades toward the car. It unfortunately fell short, wounding Heydrich but also Gabcik and Kubis. The assassins fled and managed to escape the Nazi bodyguard. But Heydrich was definitely still alive.

The bacteria get their man

Heydrich’s wounds came from shrapnel. The grenade had picked up dirt, horse hair and feces from the ground as well as shard of metal and pieces of glass from the car, and it sent this whole shotgun blast of fairy dust into Heydrich.

The Third Reich, which had never lost a senior leader to assassination, did not handle the news well. They threw a bit of a hissy fit. But since they had control of 100 Czech prisoners and millions of Czech people, their hissy fit included a lot of murder. Over 460 death sentences were quickly carried out.

Eight days after the attack, bacteria finished the job. Tiny microbes proved to be the greatest agents of Heydrich’s death. He died painfully as his blood and organs became septic.

While the assassination was barely successful, it was successful, and Heydrich was the most senior Nazi official to ever die by assassination. Sure, there were lots of executions and a few suicides, but only Heydrich was assassinated. (Lots of people did try to assassinate Hitler, though.)

Unfortunately, another commando on a different mission was cowed by the Nazi reprisals for the assassination. He turned himself in and told the Nazis who the killers were and how to find them.

Kubis and Gabcik, along with other commandos and resistance members, fought for hours against the SS from the catacombs beneath Methodius Church in Prague. When their ammunition ran low, they all killed themselves rather than surrender.

Today, the men are regularly celebrated as the heroes they were, even by the Czech people who suffered reprisals for the Nazi’s assassination.