This is a guest post written by Sharon Odegaard. All photos are Sharon’s and used with permission.
Prague’s beautiful old town today is what draws so many to visit. It escaped damage during WWII, so what we see strolling along the lanes and in the town square are genuinely historic shops and churches and restaurants, rather than new versions made to look old. People flock to Prague to experience history in its pure form. So many of the cities in Europe suffered from bombing, one of the closest to Prague being lovely Dresden, which lay in ruins after the war. Some cities were rebuilt in the original style, such as Dresden and Nuremberg, and others chose to start over with modern structures of glass and chrome, like Berlin.
How was Prague spared destruction? The leaders chose to surrender rather than lose their city during WWII. This is well explained on the excellent WWII in Prague tour. And we also learned about the resistance here. These men and women did not accept surrender and fought to sabotage the German war effort. The group was small and suffered from a lack of radios and contact with the Allies, but they claimed one amazing feat – the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the third most powerful Nazi leader.
Heydrich, Nazi SS Obergruppenführer and General of Police, was in charge of Prague at this time. He was ruthless in pursuit of disloyal townspeople. He earned the nickname, “The Butcher of Prague,” due to relentless arrests and murders of the locals. He was also a leading architect of “The Final Solution,” recommending that all Jews be killed. After the Jews would come the citizens of Prague, according to the master plan. Taking Heydrich out would be a serious blow to the Nazi cause and would possibly save many lives in Prague.
The story of the assassination is more dramatic than fiction. The Czechs who killed Heydrich are memorialized at the place of their last stand against the Germans. Seven brave men held out against the Germans where they had been hiding, at the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Today, you can visit the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror in the crypt of this church.
The crypt is quite small and is kept just as it was after this battle. Standing underground in the musty basement of the church, you can imagine what went on there.
You’ll want to know about Anthropoid before you visit the memorial. The assassination plot, devised in England in 1941 and code-named Operation Anthropoid, called for two young Czechs in exile there to parachute back into Prague and shoot Heydrich. So Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis jumped from a plane in the dead of winter, off course due to poor weather, with Gabcik suffering a foot injury on landing. From December 1941 to May 1942, Gabcik and Kubis lived with a resistance family while Gabcik’s foot healed. They met with resistance members in Prague and maintained radio silence with England, as ordered. The mission was discussed with others, but the target of Operation Anthropoid was kept secret from the resistance. The plan to assassinate such a high-ranking Nazi official would be thought crazy and certain suicide. Gabcik and Kubis committed to the mission and did not back down.
On June 4, 1942, the plan went into motion. The Czechs would shoot Heydrich as his open-top Mercedes limousine came around a sharp corner, then run. The mission didn’t go as planned. When Gabcik jumped in front of Heydrich’s car and pointed his Sten gun, the gun jammed. Heydrich, realizing what was happening, jumped from the car to chase Gabcik. Kubis went into action with the backup plan and threw a grenade at the car. He missed Heydrich but hit a corner of the car. The paratroopers ran away through the smoke and went into hiding, knowing that Heydrich was wounded but survived, and they had failed.
The Germans reacted immediately with reprisals. Then, Heydrich died from his wounds. The Germans offered a hefty sum for any information on the young men. After three weeks, a fellow resistance member betrayed them. But Gabcik and Kubis were moved to the Saints Cyril and Methodius Church and hid in the crypt there with others who assisted in the assassination. The woman who had hidden the parachutists was killed and her son tortured until he gave away the location of the church hiding place.
The Germans invaded the church and a long battle ensued. Eventually, the Czechs in the main part of the church were killed or committed suicide. Intending to try to take the paratroopers alive, the Germans tried to shoot their way into the crypt. When that failed, they flooded the crypt from city fire hoses to flush out the men. At that point, the paratroopers knew they couldn’t escape, so rather than be captured, they all committed suicide.
Operation Anthropoid resulted in extensive reprisals, including the slaughter of the entire village of Lidice. Many lost their lives. But even those who survived the war in Prague have spoken out to honor the men who struck a blow at the highest levels of Nazi leadership. One far-reaching consequence was that Winston Churchill reacted by declaring the Munich Pact void and England embraced the Czechs as Allies for the first time. It’s interesting, too, that England didn’t claim any part of the operation but gave full credit to the Czechs.
The crypt today shows clear signs of the battle. Bullet holes pepper the walls. When you stand in the crypt, you feel how small and claustrophobic it is, just a small basement in a neighborhood church. But the bravery that took place here was beyond measure.
Thank you notes lay scattered about, tributes to these young men who gave themselves in hopes of saving others. Groups of school children and tourists come here to learn about this story of Czech resistance to evil.
The tiny museum outside the crypt tells the story of Operation Anthropoid. On display are items like Jan Kubis’ shoe and one of the guns used in the battle.
The crypt of this church tells the story of seven men who held off the German war machine in a local church for six hours. The paratroopers and those who aided and hid them gave their lives to cut off a leader who randomly and methodically killed innocents.
It’s well worth a visit and leaves you with much to mull over.
Want to know more about Operation Anthropoid? The excellent 2016 movie Anthropoid is a gripping dramatization and well worth seeing.
Questions? Comments? You can reach Sharon Odegaard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Would you like to read more from Sharon? Visit her website, Exploring Our World.