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.
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was established in 1940 to support the resistance movement in occupied Europe. It requisitioned Bellasis House, an elegant country residence on the Heath, as the headquarters and training school for the Czech section with the codename STS2. The surrounding woods, valleys and hills provided the perfect terrain for drilling recruits.
Practice became reality when, in 1941 the SOE was asked to help with 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 military career 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 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 Czech 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 were selected to lead the assignment: Josef Gabcik, who had fled Czechoslovakia to train as a paratrooper in Britain, and Jan Kubis, a professional soldier who had left Czechoslovakia to serve in the French Foreign Legion, earning the Croix de Guerre, before arriving in Britain.
Together with seven other Czech soldiers, they were dropped into Czechoslovakia at 10pm on November 28 1941 from an RAF Halifax bomber. They connected 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 May 27 1942 at 10.30 am Heydrich was, as usual, driven to Prague Castle. Gabcik and Kubis were waiting at a tram stop, and as the Mercedes slowed around a bend, Gabcik stepped out and opened fire with his Sten submachine gun. It jammed. Heydrich ordered his driver to stop, standing up to return fire. Kubis lobbed an anti-tank grenade, which exploded at the nearside rear wheel. Heydrich staggered out, collapsing in the street. The driver ran in pursuit but was shot by the agents who, convinced that the plot had failed, leapt onto a passing tram to escape.
Hitler immediately ordered reprisals and two Czech villages suspected of involvement, were destroyed. Heydrich was taken to hospital severely wounded by shrapnel. Despite top-class medical care from Himmler’s personal physicians, he died of septicaemia on June 4, his blood contaminated by the horsehair used in the upholstery.
The assailants went into hiding in the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Prague. However after a couple of weeks a Nazi collaborator betrayed them and on 18 June 75 Waffen-SS troops armed with submachine guns and grenades stormed the building. Kubis and two colleagues armed only with pistols fought a two-hour gun battle from the prayer loft before dying. Gabcik, and three other agents in the crypt, withstood tear gas and water cannon attacks before, seeing no escape, they decided to commit suicide rather than surrender.
The relatives of Kubis and Gabcik 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 Kubis and Josef Gabcik as national heroes.
After the war, Bellasis House was restored to its owners as a private residence. There is no public access to the property.