As a history buff, especially World War II history, one of my favorite things to do when traveling is to check out historic sites. Eastern Europe has an incredibly rich history and there are countless places that will take you back in time. This is the story of one of my favorites.
Operation Anthropoid is considered the most important event in the history of Czechoslovakia. The events surrounding that time in history came to a violent conclusion in a bloody siege at The Czech Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Cyril and Methodius in Prague.
Operation Anthropoid was the code name for the plan to carry out an assassination attempt against what some consider to be one of the most ruthless of all Nazis, Reinhard Heydrich, and the plan was carried out on May 27, 1942.
It’s impossible to tell the story of the church without some background on that particular time in history, so my apologies if this is a little long.
Heydrich had been sent by Adolf Hitler to keep up production quotas on arms and motors being manufactured in German occupied Czechoslovakia.
He was also considered by many to be one of the main architects of the Holocaust, and was tasked with beating back mounting Czech resistance to the Nazis. Upon his arrival in Prague, Heydrich left little doubt about his intentions when he executed 142 members of the Czech resistance.
The Czech government, which was in exile in London, England, decided that Heydrich needed to be eliminated.
On December 28, 1941 Czechoslovakian paratroopers Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, along with 7 others, parachuted into Czechoslovakia from a British Royal Air Force plane.
The men stayed with families that were part of the Czech resistance, and then on May 27th, against the urging of local resistance leaders who feared retaliation, they carried out their plan.
After months of planning, the men knew that Heydrich traveled in his convertible with the top down, as an obvious show of arrogance, and was driven daily in his chauffeured Mercedes from his home in Prague to his office at Prague Castle.
The ambush was setup at a hairpin turn, where they knew the Mercedes would need to slow down to make the turn.
The soldiers arrived at the spot on borrowed bicycles and waited. At 10:35am, as the car reached the turn, and slowed down, Gabcik stepped in front of the car and took aim at Heydrich, but his submachine gun jammed and failed to fire.
Instead of speeding away, Heydrich ordered his driver to stop and confront the assassins. As the car stopped, Kubis threw a bomb at the back of the car, causing a tremendous explosion.
Both Heydrich and Kubis were wounded in the explosion, but Heydrich managed to chase after Kubis for a short distance before collapsing. Kubis was able to escape. Meanwhile, the driver of the car Johannes Klein, was ordered to chase down Gabcik. Gabcik was cornered in a butcher shop, but was able to wound Klein, and also escaped.
“The Butcher of Prague” died in the hospital eight days later from his wounds on June 4th.
Upon receiving the news, within 2 hours, Hitler ordered immediate and powerful reprisals, and announced a substantial reward for the capture of the assassins.
This is only part of this incredible story, and you can read a much more detailed account of the planning, execution, and horrific aftermath here, but at this point in time we get to the subject of this post, the church where the men were hidden.
The Czech Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Cyril and Methodius
A short walk from the river Vltava, in New Town Prague, is the church where all but one of the paratroopers were hidden from the Nazis.
The other member of the group managed to escape to his family’s home outside the city, but after many innocent citizens were murdered in retaliation for the assassination, he succumbed to his family’s pressure, and turned himself in, and also revealed information that led the Nazis to the church.
Soon after the betrayal, the church was under siege and a fierce fire fight ensued.
The few brave men were able to fight off the siege of hundreds of Waffen SS soldiers for 6 hours before the last of them committed suicide rather than be taken by the Nazis.
Near the sidewalk, on the wall of the church, you can witness for yourself, under a memorial to the two men, numerous bullet holes in the wall surrounding a small opening that was used as a lookout. The Nazis used this hole to pump in, from equipment taken from the Prague Fire Department, thousands of gallons of water, essentially flooding the crypt.
Today the church crypt houses a museum by the name of “The National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror”. It tells the story in great detail of the events of that fateful time. The entrance to the crypt is somewhat surreal, and at the same time powerful, and to walk through and see where these men spent their final heroic days is quite amazing.
The story of Operation Anthropoid, and the killing of one of the most brutal men to ever live, is much more complicated and dramatic than I could ever describe here, but if you are in Prague, I definitely recommend you stop by the historic site, The Czech Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Cyril and Methodius, and learn more about this incredible time in Prague’s and the world’s history.