Prague – the city of 1,000 spires – has no shortage of incredible churches. But only one possesses a vault pockmarked with bullets that draws more visitors than its Baroque edifice above.
The killing of Heydrich was one of the greatest acts of wartime resistance in occupied Europe
A short walk from the city’s largest square, Karlovo Náměstí, on Resslova Street stands the Cathedral Church of Sts Cyril and Methodius, known informally by locals as the Parachutists Church. Its significance might easily be missed were it not for the memorial plaque on which a priest and a paratrooper flank the names of those who gave their lives here as part of an extraordinary act of heroic defiance against the brutal Nazi regime. Having lived in Prague for almost a decade, I have visited most of its famous monuments and religious spaces. But I invariably bring visiting friends and family here and never fail to find it a deeply humbling experience.
It is more than 75 years since 18 June 1942, when seven Czech and Slovak airmen involved in Operation Anthropoid – the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and the third highest-ranking Nazi – made their last stand in the eerie basement. The killing of Heydrich, a key architect of the Final Solution, was to be one of the greatest acts of wartime resistance in occupied Europe.
Today, the National Monument to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, as the church’s basement is now known, attracts 60,000 visitors annually. The crypt, located behind a huge metal door that divides it from the main exhibition space, is much as it would have been when the young Czech and Slovak soldiers sought refuge here. It’s a setting that will be familiar to history buffs who have come across this remarkable story thanks to recent film adaptations such as Anthropoid and The Man with the Iron Heart, adapted from Lauren Binet’s Prix Goncourt winning novel HHhH.
The gun battle began in the church above, which the SS attempted to storm in the early hours of the morning. They had been tipped off by Karel Čurda, a fellow British-trained Czechoslovak parachutist who collaborated with the Gestapo in exchange for a new identity and one million Reichsmarks. Today the church functions primarily as a place of worship and is only open to tourists at weekends: the task of commemorating Operation Anthropoid is left to the museum and crypt below.
Downstairs, the atmosphere is sombre. Bronze busts of the seven men who gave their lives stand near the deep stone shafts cut into the wall to hold coffins. It was in this crypt that the paratroopers who remained alive after the initial shootout in the church above entrenched themselves. They managed to hold out for hours against 700 Waffen SS and Gestapo troops who had the building surrounded; in desperation, the Nazis resorted to flooding the basement with fire hoses. Low on ammunition and with the water level rising, the Czech soldiers took their own lives rather than face capture; some shot themselves, others took cyanide.
This moving chapter in the nation’s history is of great importance to Czechs today, explained museum curator, Petr Hampl. “Czechs, primarily because of the Munich Agreement [an international treaty signed in 1938 that allowed Hitler to annex significant chunks of Czechoslovak territory], didn’t have the opportunity to fight against the Nazis directly, so it has a huge symbolic significance. It shows that we fought, despite the fact our country was occupied, and we never sided with the Nazis,” he said.
Heydrich had been sent to Prague in September 1941 as governor of the Czech territory, as it was felt his predecessor, Konstantin von Neurath, had been too lenient. The bloody crackdown Heydrich instigated earned him the fearsome moniker ‘The Hangman’.
We fought, despite the fact our country was occupied, and we never sided with the Nazis
It wasn’t long before the Czechoslovak government-in-exile began plotting Heydrich’s assassination in revenge for his brutality. Josef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš were selected to carry out the vital mission. Both had fled to Britain to join the Czechoslovak army-in-exile and were subsequently trained by the Special Operations Executive: the so-called ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ charged with conducting espionage and sabotage in occupied Europe. On 29 December 1941, the pair were parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the RAF.
But for their daring undertaking to succeed, Gabčík and Kubiš needed support on the ground. They had the help of five other British-trained Czechoslovak paratroopers – Josef Bublík, Jan Hruby, Josef Valčík, Jaroslav Švarc and Adolf Opálka – with whom they would eventually make their legendary last stand. Although none of these other men wielded a weapon directly at the Reichprotector themselves, they all played an essential role in the operation along with the equally heroic Czech resistance networks.
On 27 May 1942, Gabčík and Kubiš ambushed Heydrich’s car in the Prague suburb of Kobylisy as the governor’s vehicle was forced to slow down at a hairpin bend in the road. Gabčík stepped out in front of the black Mercedes convertible and attempted to open fire, but his Sten sub-machine gun jammed. Heydrich ordered his driver to stop, then stood up and returned fire. Kubiš took the opportunity to throw a modified anti-tank grenade at the vehicle, which exploded, blowing off a door. It was the shrapnel injuries sustained in this explosion that triggered the septicaemia that eventually killed Heydrich eight days later.
Gabčík, Kubiš and Valčík, who had been appointed lookout, fled the scene and eventually made their way to a hideout in the basement of the Cathedral Church of Sts Cyril and Methodius organised by the Czech underground in co-operation with Bishop Gorazd, the church’s Orthodox priest. They were concealed there for three weeks. By the time the huge Nazi-led manhunt reached its conclusion, they had been joined by the other British-trained Czech paratroopers who had supported the operation, until the commandos totalled seven in number.
The abundant handwritten notes left in various languages at the crypt’s entrance demonstrate how the parachutists’ heroism still has the power to move even the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who fought in World War II. I saw copious red paper poppies, a British symbol of wartime sacrifice, bouquets of fresh flowers and candles with messages like ‘Kluci děkujeme! Nikdy se navzdame!’ (Thanks boys! We will never surrender!). One unsigned note in English read simply: ‘Your courage is beyond what I can imagine.’
Your courage is beyond what I can imagine
Heydrich’s assassination changed history, causing the Allies to immediately revoke the Munich Agreement and ensuring that the Sudetenland, the Czechoslovak borderlands annexed by Hitler in 1938, would be returned following the German defeat. It also provoked terrible reprisals – including the destruction of the villages of Lidice and Ležáky – that bolstered sympathy to the Czech cause across the globe. Thousands worldwide named their daughters Lidice as an act of solidarity, ensuring those massacred would never been forgotten.
“Awareness abroad is not small,” Hampl observed. “The bravery of the paratroopers and their helpers creates a very powerful story that visitors are interested in, regardless of which country it took place in.”
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.