Headley Heath and the Nazi assassination
Today Headley Heath is an area of peaceful natural beauty. Yet it was from here that the assassination of the highest-ranking Nazi official in the Second World War was launched.
Today Headley Heath is an area of peaceful natural beauty. Yet it was from here that the assassination of a high-ranking Nazi official in the Second World War was launched.
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was established in 1940 to support resistance movements in occupied Europe. It requisitioned Bellasis (later renamed Bellasis House), an elegant country residence on the edge of Headley Heath, as a training school with the codename STS 2. The surrounding woods, valleys and hills provided the perfect terrain for trainee secret agents.
Practice became reality when, in 1941 the SOE was asked to help with Operation Anthropoid, the daring assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, personally appointed by Hitler.
Reinhard Heydrich – the man with the heart of iron
A gifted violinist, Reinhard Heydrich was born into a family of musicians and teachers whose wealth had been destroyed in the economic turmoil of the Weimar Republic. A German nationalist, he followed a career in the SS, gaining rapid promotion. His senior roles included Chief of Police and the Chief of Security, which included the Gestapo.
In January 1942 he chaired the Wannsee Conference of senior Nazi and SS leaders about the Jewish question. In the course of the meeting, Heydrich outlined how, in what was termed ‘the Final Solution, European Jews in occupied territories would be transported to extermination camps. Hitler described him as ‘The man with the heart of iron.
On his appointment to Prague, Heydrich instigated a programme of ‘Germanisation’, suppressing the Czechoslovak people and culture. Supremely confident of his powerful position and invincibility, he was renowned for driving around in his open-topped Mercedes-Benz with just his chauffeur.
The assassination mission – codename Operation Anthropoid
Back in STS2, two agents finished their training to undertake Anthropoid. Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš were soldiers of the Czechoslovak army-in-exile who had fled Czechoslovakia to first fight in France with the French Foreign Legion and had then come to Britain to train as paratroopers.
Gabčik and Kubiš were flown back to Czechoslovakia on the night of 28/29 December 1941, together with five other Czech agents who were parachuting into different areas. The operation was flown by an RAF Halifax bomber and despite being dropped some 70 miles off target, Gabčik and Kubiš made contact with the local resistance to plan the final elements of the operation.
In May rumours circulated that Heydrich was to be recalled; the agents had to act. On 27 May 1942 at 10.30 am Heydrich was, as usual, driven to Prague Castle. Gabčik and Kubiš were waiting by a tram stop, and as the Mercedes slowed around a bend, Gabčik stepped out and squeezed the trigger of his Sten submachine gun. It jammed. Heydrich ordered his driver to stop, standing up to shoot with a revolver. Kubiš threw an anti-tank grenade, which exploded at the nearside rear wheel. Heydrich staggered out, collapsing in the street. While Kubiš fled the scene by bicycle, the chauffeur pursued Gabčik on foot, but the latter shot and wounded the driver. Convinced that the plot had failed, Gabčik leapt onto a passing tram to also escape.
Heydrich was taken to hospital severely wounded by shrapnel. Despite medical care from Himmler’s personal physicians, he died of septicaemia on 4 June 1942, his blood contaminated by the horsehair used in the upholstery of his car. Hitler immediately ordered reprisals and the Czech village of Lidice was destroyed on 9 June 1942. Another village, Ležáky, later suffered a similar fate, on 24 June 1942.
On 18 June 1942 Gabčik and Kubiš, together with five other Czechoslovak parachutists trained by SOE, were betrayed, cornered and besieged by overwhelming enemy forces in the Saint Karel Boromeo church, now the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, in Prague. Some 75 Waffen-SS troops, armed with submachine guns and grenades, stormed the church. Kubiš and two colleagues, armed only with pistols, fought a two-hour gun battle from the prayer loft. Kubiš, already mortally wounded by grenade shrapnel and unconscious, died shortly after being taken to hospital, his two companions died at the church. Gabčik, and three other agents in the crypt, withstood the enemy’s assault before, seeing no escape as ammunition ran out, they took their own lives rather than surrender.
Among the thousands who died in reprisals for Operation Anthropoid, relatives of Kubiš and another of the paratroopers were deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp and executed in October 1942.
In Prague today there is a memorial and a museum at the church dedicated to Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčik as national heroes.