Monday, 10 July 2017

Prague Moments #11 - Operation Anthropoid

This year marks the anniversary of Operation Anthropoid - one of the most extraordinary resistance operations in the whole of the Second World War. Anthropoid was a series of activities organised by the Special Operations Executive and exiled Czechoslovakian government in the UK, of which the most significant effort was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

In this post, I'll provide a précis of the story and some pointers of where you can visit some of the places associated with the more recent history of Prague.

Heydrich, the so-called "butcher of Prague" was a highly placed Nazi official, with overall responsibility for the "Final Solution". Many historians consider that he would have succeeded Hitler, but what is certain, is that he was one of the most brutal members of the SS.

As part of Operation Anthropoid, a number of Czechs were parachuted back into their homeland on 28th December 1941. Among them were Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčik who were charged with carrying out the assassination. After months of planning, they carried out the attack on 27th May, 1942.

The site of the attack was by a tram stop near the intersection of V Holešovičkách and what is now Kubišova street (Libeň, in Prague 8), on tight curve in the road. This was the route from Heydrich's home to Prague Castle and the location was carefully chosen as the car would have to slow down. The area has subsequently been redeveloped and the road is a major route into the city.

The assassination appeared to have been botched when Gabčik's sten gun jammed. Kubiš lobbed an anti-tank grenade into the car before the two made their escape pursued by the driver. They were unaware that Heydrich had been wounded in the explosion. Heydrich was taken to the nearby Bulovka hospital and died seven days later - officially from septicaemia.

The memorial and ventilation shaft to the crypt of  St Cyril and Methodius
The two primary assassins and their helpers became the subjects of a massive manhunt across Czechoslovakia. The repercussions were fast and brutal, even by Nazi standards. On the day of the assassination and the subsequent days, over 13,000 people were arrested and it has been estimated that 5,000 were murdered in the reprisals. The villages of Lidice and Ležàky were destroyed after their populations had largely been massacred or deported to concentration camps.

Initially the paratroopers, including other members of the mission found refuge in safe houses in Prague, and ultimately made their way to the Church of St Cyril and St Methodius on Resslova. From vantage points in the gallery three of them held out against 750 SS troops before they were killed. The remaining four men were isolated in the crypt and ultimately took their own lives after repeated attacks using tear gas and and flooding to lure them out.

The crypt now houses the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, and it is an extraordinary place to visit once you have become familiar with the whole story. In 2016 the film Anthropoid was released post dating the 1975 film I was familiar with, called Operation Daybreak. I defy anyone who has seen the films or read the histories not to be touched by a sense of dread and despair in that place. In the Anthropoid film, mockups of the cathedral and crypt were created on the sound stages of the Barrandov studios in Prague - the actors claimed that the sets were so good, they could barely tell they weren't in the real locations they had previously visited.

The Memorial to the Czech and Slovak paratroopers
The other key location still visible in Prague is the Gestapo Headquarters, the Petschek Palace. This former bank (once owned by the Jewish Petschek family) was taken over by the Gestapo in 1939. Over 37,000 went through the basement of the palace, many of them associated with Operation Anthropoid, for systematic 'processing' which involved incarceration, interrogation and torture, usually, sooner or later, with a singular outcome.

Petschek Palace today
The building is now the home of the Czech Ministry of Trade and is located at the top of Politických vězňů which runs parallel to Václavské náměstí. The basement houses a museum but is not open without prior arrangement. A memorial to the victims who were murdered inside now stands on the corner of the building.

For more reading about Operation Anthropoid there are a number of books including "The Assination of Reinhard Heydrich" and "HHhH" which I can highly recommend.

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