Operation Anthropoid was the code name for the targeted killing of top German SS leader Reinhard Heydrich. He was the chief of the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or RSHA), the acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, and a chief planner of the Final Solution, the Nazi German programme for the genocide of the Jews of Europe.
By late 1941, Hitler controlled almost all continental Europe, and German forces were approaching Moscow.5 The Allies deemed Soviet capitulation likely. The exiled government of Czechoslovakia, under President Edvard Beneš, was under pressure from British intelligence, as there had been very little visible resistance since the occupation of the Sudeten regions of the country in 1938 (occupation of the whole country began in 1939). The takeover of these regions that was enforced by the Munich Agreement and the subsequent terror of the German Reich broke the will of the Czechs for a period.
While in several other countries defeated in open warfare (e.g. Poland, Yugoslavia and Greece) the resistance was active from the very beginning of occupation, the subdued Czech lands remained relatively calm, simultaneously producing significant amounts of military material for the Third Reich. The exiled government felt it had to do something that would inspire the Czechs, as well as show the world the Czechs were allies.
The status of Reinhard Heydrich as the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia as well as his reputation for terrorizing local citizens led to him being chosen over Karl Hermann Frank as an assassination target. The operation was also meant to prove to the Nazis that they were not untouchable
The operation was given the codename “Anthropoid”. With the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), preparation began on October 20, 1941. Warrant Officer Jozef Gabčík and Staff Sergeant Karel Svoboda were chosen to carry out the operation on October 28, 1941 (Czechoslovakia’s Independence Day). Svoboda was replaced with Jan Kubiš after a head injury during training, causing delays in the mission, as Kubiš had not completed training nor had the necessary false documents been prepared for him.
Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš were airlifted along with seven soldiers from Czechoslovakia’s army-in-exile in the United Kingdom and two other groups named Silver A and Silver B (who had different missions) by a Royal Air Force Halifax of No. 138 Squadron into Czechoslovakia at 10pm on December 28, 1941. Gabčík and Kubiš landed near Nehvizdy east of Prague; although the plan was to land near Pilsen, the pilots had problems with orientation. The soldiers then moved to Pilsen to contact their allies, and from there on to Prague, where the attack was planned.
In Prague, they contacted several families and anti-Nazi organisations who helped them during the preparations for the targeted kill. Gabčík and Kubiš initially planned to kill Heydrich on a train, but after examination of the logistics, they realised that this was not possible. The second plan was to kill him on the road in the forest on the way from Heydrich’s seat to Prague. They planned to pull a cable across the road that would stop Heydrich’s car but, after waiting several hours, their commander, Lt. Adolf Opálka (from the group Out Distance), came to bring them back to Prague. The third plan was to kill Heydrich in Prague.
On May 27, 1942, at 10:30 AM, Heydrich proceeded on his daily commute from his home in Panenské Břežany to Prague Castle. Gabčík and Kubiš waited at the tram stop on the curve near Bulovka Hospital in Prague 8-Libeň. Valčik was positioned about 100 metres north of Gabčík and Kubiš as lookout for the approaching car. As Heydrich’s open-topped Mercedes-Benz neared the pair, Gabčík stepped in front of the vehicle, trying to open fire, but his Sten gun jammed. Heydrich ordered his driver, SS-Oberscharführer Klein, to stop the car. When Heydrich stood up to try to shoot Gabčík, Kubiš threw a modified anti-tank grenade at the vehicle, and its fragments ripped through the car’s right-rear fender, embedding shrapnel and fibres from the upholstery into Heydrich’s body, even though the grenade failed to enter the car. Kubiš was also injured by the shrapnel. Heydrich, apparently unaware of his shrapnel injuries, got out of the car, returned fire and tried to chase Gabčík but soon collapsed. Klein returned from his abortive attempt to chase Kubiš, and Heydrich ordered him to chase Gabčík. Klein was shot twice by Gabčík (who was now using his revolver) and wounded in the pursuit. The soldiers were initially convinced that the attack had failed.
Heydrich was taken to Bulovka Hospital, 250 m away. There he was operated on by Professor Hollbaum, a Silesian German who was chairman of surgery at Charles University in Prague, assisted by Dr. W. Dick, the Sudeten German chief of surgery at the hospital.12 The surgeons reinflated the collapsed left lung, removed the tip of the fractured eleventh rib, sutured the torn diaphragm, inserted several catheters and removed the spleen, which contained a grenade fragment and upholstery material. The surgery lasted an hour and went uneventfully. Heydrich’s direct superior, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, sent his personal physician, Karl Gebhardt, who arrived that evening. After May 29, Heydrich was entirely in the care of SS physicians. Postoperative care included administration of large amounts of morphine. There are contradictory accounts concerning whether sulfanilamides were given, but Gebhardt testified at his 1947 war crimes trial that they were not. The patient developed a fever of 38-39 °C and wound drainage. After seven days, his condition appeared to be improving when, while sitting up eating a noon meal, he collapsed and went into shock, dying the next morning. Himmler’s physicians officially described the cause of death as septicaemia, meaning infection of the bloodstream. One of the theories was that some of the horsehair used in the upholstery of Heydrich’s car was forced into his body by the blast of the grenade, causing a systemic infection. It has also been suggested that he died of a cerebral or pulmonary embolism.
Hitler ordered the SS and Gestapo to “wade in blood” throughout Bohemia to find Heydrich’s killers. Hitler wanted to start with brutal, widespread killing of the Czech people but, after consultation, he reduced his directive to only several thousand. The Czech lands were an important industrial zone for the German military and indiscriminate killing could reduce the productivity of the region.
More than 13,000 people were ultimately arrested, including the girlfriend of Jan Kubiš, Anna Malinová, who died at Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. First Lieutenant Adolf Opálka’s aunt, Marie Opálková, was executed in Mauthausen on 24 October 1942. His father, Viktor Jarolím, was also killed.
The most notorious incident was in the village of Lidice, which was destroyed on June 9, 1942: 199 men were executed, 95 children taken, 8 of whom were taken for adoption by German families, and 195 women arrested.
The possibility that the Germans would apply the principle of “collective responsibility” on this scale in avenging Heydrich’s assassination was either not foreseen by the Czech government-in-exile or else was deemed an acceptable cost to pay for eliminating Heydrich and provoking reprisals that would reduce Czech acquiescence to the German administration.
Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill, infuriated, suggested leveling three German villages for every Czech village the Nazis destroyed. Two years after Heydrich’s death they planned one more attempt, this time targeting Hitler in Operation Foxley, but failed to obtain approval. Operation Anthropoid remains the only targeted killing of a top-ranking Nazi, although the Polish underground killed two senior SS officers in the General government (see Operation Kutschera and Operation Bürkl) and General-Kommissar of Belarus Wilhelm Kube was killed by a Belarusian woman.