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The Bullet-Scarred ‘Operation Anthropoid’ Church in Prague

The Saints Cyril and Methodius Church on Resslova Street, in Prague, may look like any other Baroque church in the Czech capital, but turn round the corner and you’ll see a bronze memorial plaque just above a small, now covered-up, window. The concrete wall around the window is fractured and there are bullet holes around it. This is the church where the paratroopers involved in Operation Anthropoid went into hiding after their assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. It was here where a fierce gun battle took place and it was here where the seven paratroopers met their heroic deaths.

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Bullet-scarred window of the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Prague where the attackers were cornered. Photo credit: Robert Montgomery/Flickr

Reinhard Heydrich was the main architect of the so-called “Final Solution”—the killing of all Jewish people in German occupied Europe—which today we know as the Holocaust. He was a ruthless Nazi whom Hitler himself described as "the man with the iron heart". Heydrich’s bloody crackdown on the Jewish population had earned him many fearful monikers such as “The Hangman” and “The Butcher of Prague”.

In 1941, Reinhard became the Deputy Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the part of Czechoslovakia incorporated into the Reich. Immediately after assuming power, Heydrich began terrorizing the Czech population in a bid to crush the clandestine anti-German resistance movement that was gaining ground. Thousands of people were arrested and executed. Others were sent to concentration camps. His eventual goal was to deport up to two-thirds of the Czechs to regions in Russia or exterminate them. Heydrich cracked down on all Czech cultural and patriotic organizations, and almost all avenues by which Czechs could express the Czech culture in public were closed. His brutal policies practically paralyzed the Czech resistance.

It wasn’t long before the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London began plotting for Heydrich’s assassination. The operation was codenamed “Anthropoid”. Two specially trained Czech resistance fighters, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, along with seven more were flown in from the UK and parachuted into the Protectorate. The plan was to ambush Heydrich while he commuted to work in his open-topped Mercedes convertible.

On 27 May 1942, as Heydrich proceeded on his daily commute, Gabčík stepped out in front of the vehicle and attempted to open fire, but his Sten sub-machine gun jammed. Instead of speeding away, Heydrich ordered his driver to stop, stood up and returned fire. Kubiš managed to intervene by throwing a modified anti-tank grenade at the car, which exploded wounding Heydrich. Despite being injured, Heydrich staggered out of the vehicle and gave his attackers chase, continuing to return fire.

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Heydrich's car after the attack

Kubiš and Gabčík fled from the scene convinced the assassination had failed. Heydrich almost recovered from his injuries, but a late infection incurred as a result of the shrapnel wounds eventually took his life.

The assassination of a top-level Nazi triggered a violent reprisal. Thousands of suspected traitors and sympathizers were arrested, hundreds of them executed without trial. The worst hit was the village of Lidice, which, on a false report of hiding the assassinators, was wiped off the map and all inhabitants either killed or deported. A touching memorial to the murdered children of Lidice still stands there.

Meanwhile in Prague, the paratroopers were holding out in a secret hideout in the basement of the Cathedral Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. They were concealed there for three weeks, until one of their own associates betrayed them.

On the morning of 18 June, 1942, Gestapo soldiers cordoned off the area around the church and started their attack. The gun battle lasted for several hours but they were unable to take the paratroopers alive. At one point they even tried to flood the crypt with water in an attempt to force them out. In the end, with ammunition running low and water level rising, the Czech paratroopers took their own lives rather than face capture.

The events of Operation Anthropoid were beautifully portrayed in the British movie “Anthropoid” starring Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, that came out in 2016. If you haven’t already watched it, I suggest you do.

Today, the Cyril and Methodius Cathedral is colloquially known as the Parachutist Church or the Operation Anthropoid church. The crypt where the paratroopers sought refugee now contains bronze busts of the men who gave their lives there. Outside, above the window through which SS troops forced water hoses to flood the basement, a memorial plaque was fixed. The bullet holes were never repaired.

Following the success of Operation Anthropoid, the Munich Agreement was revoked, and both UK and France, who originally signed the agreement, agreed that the annexed territory should be restored to Czechoslovakia, which happened as planned after the War ended.

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SS troops attempting to flood the basement of the church. Photo credit: www.pozary.cz

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The two main heroes of Operation Anthropoid, Jozef Gabčík on the left and Jan Kubiš on right.

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The Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Photo credit: Ludek/Wikimedia

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Photo credit: Mark Healey/Flickr

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Photo credit: Blanicky/Wikimedia

Sources: Wikipedia / Dark Tourism / BBC / Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. Agreed, the movie was great, must see viewing for any student of World War 2. Brave men and women who took on a great evil at a terrible cost.

    ReplyDelete

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