Operation Anthropoid, a secret plan to kill one of the Nazis' most brutal leaders, was the only successful assassination of a top Nazi officer during WWII.
The word Anthropoid is Greek for “having the form of a human.”
During the entirety of World War II there was only one assassination of a senior Nazi leader. The target was Reinhard Heydrich and the secret mission was called Operation Anthropoid.
Operation Anthropoid was set out by the British organization known as the Special Operations Executive (SOE) which specialized in espionage and sabotage. The operation was approved by the Czechoslovak government, called the Provisional Government of Czechoslovakia, which was considered the legitimate government of Czechoslovakia during World War II.
Heydrich was very important and powerful to the Nazi regime. He was appointed the chief of the political department for the Munich police force in 1933. He rose through the ranks and by 1939, he was in charge of all security and secret police in the Third Reich.
Ultimately, in 1941, Heydrich was placed in charge of the “Final Solution.” This made him the main man in organizing the steps needed to ensure the extermination of all the Jews in Europe.
He was also the de facto dictator of German-occupied Czechoslovakia and referred to as “the man with the iron heart” by Hitler himself.
Operation Anthropoid was a risky one to undertake. But the Czechoslovaks were determined to pay retribution to Heydrich’s harsh rule. They also wanted to legitimize their government under its leader, Edward Benes.
Knowledge of Operation Anthropoid was limited to very few people and preparation for the plan began on Oct. 20, 1941. Twenty-four personnel out of the 2,000 Czech soldiers stationed in Britain were chosen. They went to train at an SOE commando training center in Scotland.
While Operation Anthropoid was meant to go down on Oct 28, 1941, a few accidents set it off course.
Firstly one of the two men assigned to carry out the assassination, Staff Sergeant Karel Svoboda, got a head injury during training. He was replaced by Jan Kubis. But the mission was delayed because Kubis hadn’t received all the proper training yet.
The second man on the mission was Warrant Officer Jozek Gabcik.
On Dec. 28, 1941, Kubis and Gabcik landed in Czechoslovakia, but due to navigation problems, they didn’t drop in the area they were meant to.
The mission was a team effort. Once they finally reached Prague, the soldiers got in touch with their allies. These were anti-Nazi organizations and families who helped with the assassination preparations.
Several plans to carry out the assassination were developed.
The first plan was to kill Heydrich on a train. But the logistics proved that wouldn’t work.
The second plan was to kill him on the road that led from Heydrich’s home to his headquarters in Prague. Gabcik and Kubis pulled a cable across the road that would stop Heydrich’s car. But after several hours of futile waiting, their commander Adolf Opalka removed them.
The third and final plan was to kill Heydrich in Prague.
On May 27, 1942, the two assassins positioned themselves at a steep turn in the road on Heydrich’s commute to his headquarters, where his car was forced to slow down.
As Heydrich drove along the bend, Gabcik stepped in front of his open convertible and tried to fire with his submachine gun. But, alas, another problem: the weapon jammed.
Heydrich’s driver stopped the car and Heydrich tried to shoot Gabcik with his pistol.
Kubis, waiting nearby, had something hiding in his briefcase. It was an anti-tank grenade, a device used to defeat heavily armored targets from short distances.
Kubris threw the grenade at the car. Although the grenade failed to actually enter the car, the detonation caused the fragments to rip through it. In the process, shrapnel came up through the upholstery and got embedded in Heydrich’s body.
Kubris and Gabcik then fired at Heydrich with pistols but missed him due to the shock of the explosion.
Heydrich didn’t know about the shrapnel that was inside him. He exited the car and began to chase and shoot at the two men, but collapsed instead.
“Get that bastard!” Heydrich reportedly yelled out to his driver from the ground.
Kubris and Gabcik had already fled, and unaware that Heydrich was injured, they were sure Operation Anthropoid was a failure.
Meanwhile, Heydrich was taken to the emergency room at Bulovka Hospital with a high fever and wound drainage. He was given treatment and seemed to be on the mend. However, seven days later while at lunch, he collapsed and went into shock and then a coma. He died early the following morning.
Heydrich’s cause of death was septicemia, or blood poisoning.
In the aftermath of Operation Anthropoid, reprisals by the Germans were harsh and immediate. Around 13,000 people were arrested.
An intense manhunt for Gabcik and Kubis was initiated.
On June 18, 1942, after a three-week search, the men were found hiding along with four comrades in a church crypt. They were subsequently surrounded and a gun battle took place for several hours.
Kubis was wounded during the battle and died soon after he arrived at the hospital.
Gabcik committed suicide on the spot before the Nazis could take him alive.
The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich was monumental.
The U.K. and France agreed that after the Nazis were defeated, territory that was previously annexed would be restored to Czechoslovakia.
Heydrich’s replacements would continue to carry out his plans for the death camps and the extermination of the Jews.
But the belief is that if Heydrich had lived, the losses suffered would be have been much greater than they were.
After learning about Operation Anthropoid and the assassination of Reinhard Heydric, you may also want to read about special operations conducted by British spies. Then, read about how the United States thwarted a Nazi plot against the Hoover Dam.