By Piper Bayard
There are many men and women around the world who risk their lives daily to bring us the news that isn’t published on CNN or Wikileaks. Some are stationed undercover overseas, some are scientists and engineers who devote their lives to developing the technology that protects our soldiers, and some are the retired servicemen and women who manage the local grocery stores, teach at community colleges, or tend to this year’s corn harvest until they are called up to serve in the Reserves — regular people doing their best to help keep our country safe.
That’s why I’m proposing a new holiday, Love A Spook Day, to recognize these regular people who sometimes do extraordinary things in service to their country.
It seems most appropriate to kick off the First Annual Love a Spook Day by honoring two regular paratroopers, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik, who became immortal in the world of espionage by accomplishing one of the most daring and consequential feats in history — the assassination of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich.
Reinhard Heydrich was known as the Butcher of Prague, the Blond Beast, and the Hangman. His entire resume of ruthless deeds is too long for this forum, but notably, he concocted the idea of the Einsatzgruppen, the death squads of the S.S. Their main mission was to eliminate all sources of resistance to German domination — to kill all “undesirable” people, including Jews, Slavs, Polish intelligentsia, communists, Roma (“Gypsies”), homosexuals, and the disabled. He is the man who brought you the Holocaust.
In 1941, Heydrich became the governor of the Nazi-occupied territory between Germany and Russia. He ran his pseudo-kingdom from Prague, where he executed 300 Czechs within the first five weeks and imprisoned thousands more.
Enter Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik. Jan and Jozef were in a Czechoslovakian infantry brigade exiled to the United Kingdom. Jan was an electrician, and Jozef was a mechanic. They both fought in France in 1940 and were continuing their military service doing parachute training under British instruction. Personality-wise, they were good friends. Jan was the straight man, and Jozef was the funny guy, known for his good cheer.
They weren’t officers or Oxford grads or prominent rich people. They were two regular guys doing their best to serve their country, who just happened to be called on to take down one of the most powerful, evil men in history.
After extensive training in commando tactics and, for Jan, riding a bicycle, the men parachuted into Czechoslovakia. Their instructions were to assassinate Heydrich and escape south to Slovakia. According to some sources, they were instructed that under no circumstances were they to contact anyone in the Underground. They were undercover, in Nazi-occupied territory, targeting a genocidal titan with nothing but guns, a small bomb, and their cyanide pills as a last resort should they fail.
Fortunately for Jan and Jozef, as well as for the rest of the world, Heydrich was cocky. Not only did he like to ride in an open car, he kept the same routine, travelling the same roads on a regular basis. After six weeks of hiding out near Prague, Jan and Jozef took their chance. On the morning of May 27, 1942, at a sharp curve on the road into Prague, Jan covered with a machine gun, and Jozef threw a grenade into Heydrich’s car. Then, they made their escape across the St. Nicholas bridge on bicycles. Heydrich, fatally wounded by shrapnel that imbedded the stuffing from his car seat deep in his spleen, developed septicemia and died in agony a week later.
Himmler, himself, led the search for the assassins. For twenty days, mass arrests and mass executions were the rule, punctuated with massacres. He arbitrarily leveled the town of Lidice and plowed it into the ground, shooting two hundred men and boys, driving the women to concentration camps, and shipping the children off to Germany. Still no trace of the assassins. He repeated this with the hamlet of Lezaky in southwestern Bohemia. After a month, he offered 1,000,000 marks for information and said that, in 48 hours, he would decimate Prague. At that, a man came forward, Alois Kral, who had served with Jan and Jozef in the U.K.
On Kral’s information, the Gestapo surrounded St. Bartholomeus Orthodox Church, where Jan and Josef hid in the cellar. By coincidence, two other Czech patriots were with them, Lt. Opalka and Josef Valcik. Some sources say there were seven men all together. There are some discrepancies depending upon the source. What is not in question is that the men fought with machine guns and pistols as long as their ammunition held out. Then, the Germans flooded the cellar. Jan, Jozef, and the others committed suicide to avoid capture.
The Nazis continued their retribution killings, totaling over 5,000 deaths in retaliation for Heydrich’s assassination. Some would say his assassination wasn’t worth it. However, many would respond that Heydrich was the mastermind behind the slaughter of millions, and, at thirty-eight, he was just getting warmed up.
Like most extraordinary men, Jan and Jozef were regular men made outstanding by their circumstances. So keep that in mind this first Spook Appreciation Day. As you’re passing out candy to all of the little ghosts who come to your door, spare a thought and a thank you to all of those men and women who work in the shadows to keep our country safe from the would-be Heydrichs who are born in every generation.
Holocaust Education & Archive Team Research Team WordPress Blog, The Killing of Reinhard Heydrich
Cinema Free Europe, Lidice Lives Again