The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich

On 27th September 1941, Reinhard Heydrich took up his post as Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. Five days later he announced that the SS intended to "Germanize the Czech vermin." Czech men, women and children were killed in large-scale executions, many staged dramatically in public. These actions resulted in him being nicknamed, the "Butcher of Prague".

In September, 1941, President Eduard Beneš, the head provisional Czechoslovakian government based in London approached Colin Gubbins, the director of operations of Special Operations Executive (SOE) about the possiblity of agents assassinating Heydrich.

Stewart Menzies, the head of MI6 gave permission for Gubbins to organize the assassination of Heydrich. This was the only Nazi leader that the Allies attempted to assassinate. Interestingly, Gubbins did not tell the Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden about the plot. Eden was especially opposed to this kind of action that he described as this "war crimes business".

The Czech secret service in England provided British-trained assassination agents Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabčík. The two-man team, codenamed Anthropoid, parachuted into the Bohemian hills on 29th December 1941. During the time needed to recruit the team they studied Heydrich's movements and habits. He always used the same routes between his country estate at Hradcany Castle and the airport. He always sat in the front seat of his powerful Mercedes car with Klein, the SS driver. Heydrich also did not use a bodyguard or armed escort.

Primary Sources

(Source A) Peter Wilkinson and Joan Bright Astley, Gubbins & SOE (1993)

In September, 1941, Colin Gubbins was informed that President Beneš had sanctioned a terrorist attack on some prominent personality in the Protectorate, possibly on the Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich himself. Colonel Moravec enquired whether SOE would help in this project by providing facilities for training and supplying any special weaponry that was required.... Acts of terrorism fell within SOE's charter and, as a senior official of the Sicherheitsdienst, Heydrich was a legitimate target... Gubbins pointed out to Moravec that an assassination of this sort was a purely political act which, even if unsuccessful, would result in wholesale reprisals.

(Source B) Alexander Dubček, Hope Dies Last (1992)

The need for a spectacular act of anti-Nazi defiance in the so-called Protectorate helped inspire the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in May 1942. Heydrich was the head of the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD, the Nazi secret service, and was sent by Hitler to Prague in early 1942 as the ranking German officer in the occupied Czech lands.

Beneš and his chief of army intelligence in London, General Moravec, chose two noncommissioned officers of the Czechoslovak Army in England to parachute into the Protectorate and execute Heydrich. It was no coincidence that one of them - Jozef Gabčík - was Slovak, and the other, Jan Kubis, Czech. This pairing was meant to symbolize the continuing mutuality of Czech and Slovak national interests.

Adolf Hitler in 1899
(Source C) Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabčík.


(Source D) Mark M. Boatner III, Reinhard Heydrich (1996)

The big break came on 23 May 42, when the Czech underground gave the Anthropoids Heydrich's schedule for 27 May. Meanwhile a perfect place for an ambush had been found. It was in the Holesovice suburb were Heydrich's car would have to slow for a right turn from Kirchmayer Blvd toward Troja Bridge and the center of Prague. With time for working out details of their plan Kubis and Gabčík formed their team. Josef Valcik would be on the boulevard about 100 yards from the turn, and he would flash a pocket mirror (pretending to comb his hair) when the victim came into sight. Rena Fafek, Gabcik's girlfriend, would be driven through the turn ahead of the big Mercedes and signal (by wearing a hat or not) whether the team had to deal with two cars or just one. Adolf Opalka was on the left-hand sidewalk across the street from the hit men; Kubis was on the corner watching Valcik:a few yards from him on the right sidewalk, were Gabcik and three other parachutists, Jaroslt Svarc, Josef Bublik, and Jan Hruby. Everybody was posted by 9 AM.

Heydrich left his country estate just after 10 AM, half an hour behind schedule. His senior warrant officer, Herbert Wagnitz, was driven a few minutes later after handling some final chores. The acting protector, who loved speed ordered Klein to step on it, and Wagnitz had no hope of catching up even if that had been the plan. Just after 10:30 the Anthropoids got the signals: Valcik flashed his mirror, and the lady partisan came through the turn bareheaded. As the unsuspecting Germans followed, a streetcar clanged up from the Troja Bridge to a transfer point on the boulevard. Klein had to slow futher for a couple of indecisive pedestrians, then he slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a man who darted into the street. It was Josef Gabčík who whipped a Sten gun from under his rain coat, leveled it at Heydrich's chest, and calmly pulled the trigger. Nothing happened!

The startled Germans recovered fast, both standing to fire pistols and hit their dumb-founded assailant twice in the leg. As the car began moving on, Jan Kubis lobbed a grenade that exploded against the side of the car behind the front seat, tearing a great halt Heydrich got out clutching his pistol and briefcase, staggered a few steps, and fell. Klein, unscathed, pursued Gabčík, who had thrown down his gun and fled on foot, Kubis, whose face had been hit by slivers of metal, escaped on his bicycle. Valcik had run to the scene of action, being hit there by fragments and escaping with blood on his trousers. All the other partisans also got away.

Heydrich was taken a few hundred yards to the Bulkova hospital, where he was hastily examined before undergoing an emergency operation. The three-inch-deep wound in his side did not appear to be life-threatening, but was full of debris - bits of metal and car upholstery to include cloth, leather, and horsehair near the spleen. Put under heavy guard in the hospital and reported to be recovering well, the Obergruppenfuhrer suddenly developed blood poisoning and died 4 June 42. There is considerable evidence that the powerful little British (SOE) bomb was poisoned, but Heydrich seems to have been done in by septicemia.

Adolf Hitler in 1899
(Source E) Stamp issued in Nazi Germany after the death of Reinhard Heydrich.

(Source F) Jacques Delarue, The Gestapo (1962)

Heydrich's death was the signal for the most bloody reprisals. More than three thousand arrests were carried out, and courts-martial at Prague and Brno pronounced 1,350 death sentences. The section leaders of the R.S.H.A., Nebe and Schellenberg, arrived in Prague on the evening of May 27 to start an inquiry. They were able to reconstitute the mechanism of the bomb, a remarkable weapon of British origin, which could be regulated according to the distance it was required to roll. It had been set for a distance of eight yards and had functioned with great precision.

The authors of the attempt had found asylum in the Church of Saint-Charles of Borromeo, where more than a hundred members of the Czech Resistance Movement were in hiding, The Gestapo discovered the existence of this hideout, and the S.S., after besieging the church, killed everyone inside, including the killers.

The inquiry petered out, probably because nobody wanted to go more deeply into the matter. The outrage was used as a pretext to track down the Resistance networks. The day of the assassination 150 Jews were executed in Berlin by way of reprisals.

Schirach, Gauleirer and Reich Governor in Vienna, seized without doubt by a feeling of solidarity with his opposite number in Prague, wrote to Bormann asking him to have a British town of cultural interest bombed by way of reprisals, since the bomb was of British manufacture.

A gigantic operation was unleashed against the Resistance and the Czech populace. An area of 15,000 square kilometers and 5,000 communes was searched and 657 persons shot on the spot. Finally it was decided to punish two villages suspected of having sheltered the authors of the crime-the communes of Lidice and Lezaki.

On the morning of June 9 a detachment of the S.S. Division "Prinz Eugen," commanded by S.S. Haupfsturmfuehrer Max Rostock, invested the hamlet of Lidice about thirty kilometers from Prague. The population was confined to the village and forbidden to leave; the men and youths of more than sixteen years old were then locked up in the barns and stables while the women and children were imprisoned in the school. The following morning the men were taken out in groups of ten into the garden behind Gorak's, the mayor of Lidice, farm and shot. By four o'clock in the afternoon 172 men of the village had been killed. Nineteen men of Lidice who worked in the neighboring mines of Kladno, or as woodcutters in the neighboring forests, were taken to Prague and shot, as were seven women from Lidice. The other 195 women of the village were deported to Ravensbruck. The newborn and babies were torn from their mothers and had their throats slit. The other infants, numbering about ninety, were sent to the Gneisenau concentration camp in Poland. Seventeen of them, placed in German families, were discovered in 1947. Finally the village itself was razed to the ground. The houses were set on fire and dynamited and the entire village demolished...

In this manner reprisals carried out on a peaceful peasant hamlet were brought to the knowledge of the German people, without the slightest protest being raised. This action had been ordered by State Secretary Karl Hermann Frank, subsequently known as the "Butcher of Lidice."

After the death of Heydrich the executions were just as savage. The arrests continued at an accelerated rate. People were murdered even in the prisons. In the Pankrac prison of Prague 1,700 Czechs were killed and 1,300 more in Koumic College at Brno, which had been transformed into a prison.

Until the end the Nazis harassed the Czech people without ever managing to break their resistance. It had been calculated that 200,000 people passed through the prison of Brno alone, of whom only 50,000 were liberated, the others having been killed or sent to the slow death of the concentration camps.

In all, 305,000 Czechs were deported to the camps; only 75,000 emerged alive, another 23,000 being so seriously affected that their chances of survival were very faint. The executions carried out until 1943 often received considerable publicity. After 1943 they took place almost in secret. An average of a hundred persons a month continued to be shot. By the time the Nazis had to evacuate Czechoslovakia they had claimed 360,000 victims.

(Source G) Der Nerse Tag (11th June, 1942)

In the course of the search for the murderer of Obengruppenfuehrer S.S. it was found that the population of the village of Lidice near Kladno had helped and cooperated with the perpetrators of the crime. This has been proved, although the villagers denied that they had cooperated. The attitude of the population with regard to the crime has also manifested itself by other acts hostile to the Reich. For example, underground literature, stocks of weapons and ammunition have been found as well as the existence of a transmitting set, and an illegal depot containing large quantities of rationed food. All the men of the village have been shot. The women have been deported to concentration camps and the children sent to appropriate houses for their education. All the buildings of this village have been razed to the ground and the name of the village removed from the land registers.


Question 1. According to Source A, what was Colin Gubbins asked to do in September 1941? What reason did Gubbins give about the possible problem with the operation?

Question 2: Read Source B. Why did Alexander Dubček support the operation referred to in Source A? Why was it important to carefully select the two men (Source C) for the operation?

Question 3: Read Source D and then answer the following questions: (i) What role did Josef Valcik and Rena Fafek play in the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich? (ii) What went wrong with the plan? (iii) Why is there some disagreement about why Heydrich died?

Question 4: Study Source E. Why do you think the German government published this stamp in 1942?

Question 5: Describe in your own words the actions that the German government took after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

Question 6: Does the information in Source G support the information in Source F. Comment of the reliability of this source.

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