Reinhard Heydrich was one of Hitler’s favored young Nazi leaders. In 1942 at the age of 38 he was a picture perfect National Socialist: tall, blond, courageous, arrogant, intelligent, and utterly ruthless. In his youth, he was an uncompromising street thug, and quickly rose through the Nazi ranks. He betrayed the SA during the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934 when he saw that Himmler and the SS were Hitler’s personal favorites. He personally sent thousands of Jews to concentration camps four years later during Kristallnacht, or “The Night of the Broken Glass”. He masterminded the fake border attack that gave Germany the pretext to invade Poland in 1939 when he was head of the combined SD (Nazi Party Intelligence), Gestapo, and Criminal Police. In 1940, he ordered the SS and occupying troops to collect Jews and other “undesirables” into ghettos in the newly occupied territories to make their eventual extermination easier. Soon after, he formed the first Einsatzgruppen to follow behind the the German invasion of the Soviet Union and massacre “Enemies of the Reich”. He chaired the infamous Wannsee Conference where the logistical and practical details of the Final Solution were worked out in cold detail. In late 1941, Heydrich was made the military governor of Bohemia and Moravia (roughly the modern Czech Republic). Heydrich ensured the brutal and iron grip of National Socialism was absolute.
Details of Heydrich’s inhuman rule made it to London, and the Czech government-in-exile decided to act. They approved Operation Anthropoid, the mission to assassinate Heydrich. In cooperation with Britain’s Special Operation Executive (SOE), the forerunner of MI6 and the organization responsible for wartime espionage and sabotage on the Continent, six Czech agents were parachuted into the Bohemia from an RAF bomber. Over several months, they slowly made their way into Prague. Once there, they were surprised to find that Heydrich’s control of the city was so complete, that he arrogantly rode in the back of an open topped black Mercedes marked by several small Nazi flags from his opulent home to work every morning along the same route.
On the morning of 27 May, 1942, two of the agents ambushed Heydrich at a sharp turn which forced his driver to slow down. One of the agent’s weapons malfunctioned, and a shootout on the street ensued. Heydrich was eventually fatally wounded by a grenade thrown by the other agent. He was rushed to the hospital but would die several days later.
Even before his death, the reprisals began. 21,000 police and soldiers descended upon Prague to search for the agents. A cordon was laid around the city permitting no one to leave. In the next few days, 3000 were arrested and 1357 were summarily executed. 637 more would die under Gestapo interrogation in the coming weeks. When Heydrich died on 2 June, Hitler personally ordered the extermination of an entire Czech village in response. SD agents and German soldiers surrounded the nearby town of Lidice, shot all 172 men and boys over 10, and sent the women and children to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Lidice was then razed to the ground.
Despite the reprisals, it took the Germans three weeks to find the actual killers. They were hiding in the basement of the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in the city. On 18 June, the SS surrounded the church and attempted to storm it. But the six agents fought for over two hours before they ran out of ammunition. In the exchange, the SS took almost forty casualties. When the SS finally overran the crypt, they found nothing but corpses: the Czech agents used the last remaining bullets to kill themselves rather than be captured.