Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Prague 8: Seven Men at Daybreak

"Seven Men at Daybreak" is the title of a book by Alan Burgess. It tells the story of a group of Czech resistance fighters who were parachuted into then German occupied Czechoslovakia to kill Reinhard Heydrich, the SS officer who commanded occupied Czechoslovakia. A film "Operation Daybreak" was based on the book.

The mission to kill Heydrich was, as I have understood it, an operation initiated by the leaders of the Czech government in exile in London, headed be Edvard Benese. In part at least, their motiviation was to enhance their own standing in relation to the allied powers by bringing off a high profile assassination. The British trained the fighters involved and parachuted them into Czechoslovakia - I suspect they were willing to support a mission that would cause problems for the Germans in occupied Europe. I can't help but be a little cynical about the pragmatism of Benese's decision, and this has been reinforced by reading Vaclav Havel's account (follow the link from this page)of Benese's stance with regard to both the Nazi's before the Second World War and the communists afterwards.

At the time of the mission, Czechoslovakia was one of the most docile of the territories occupied by the Germans, something the British were quite keen to see change. This made it a difficult mission, as the parachutists could not rely on support except from the most determined Czechs in Prague and the nearby area. After Heydrich's death, and the German retaliations against the Czech population, there was a wave of support for the Czechoslovak people and a strengthening of anti-German feeling in the world at large. The Western powers repudiated the Munich accords, which had ceded part of Czechoslovakia to Germany, something that no doubt delighted the Czech government in exile.

The attempt on Heydrich's life in a Prague street did not go to plan. A Sten gun jammed at the key moment, and it was the back up of hand grenade thrown into his car which eventually killed him. Heydrich died three days later, of blood poisoning caused by fragments driven into his body from the exploding hand grenade. The German retaliation is estimated to have killed some five thousand Czechoslovak citizens, in Prague and elsewhere. The most notorious part of this massacre was the destruction of the village of Lidice - burnt to the ground, and its citizens either executed or sent to concentration camps.

The parachutists were eventually cornered in the crypt of the Orthodox church of St Cyril and Methodius on Resslova street. They fought to the end of their ammunition, and then killed themselves rather than be captured by the Germans.

This crypt is now a museum and memorial to all those who died in the German retaliation after the death of Reinhard Heydrich. The memorial below is in the wall of the crypt, above an opening through which the Germans pumped water and smoke in attempts to force the Czech fighters to surrender.

Inside the crypt itself, we saw a number of small wreaths and crosses left in memory of those who died there. The parachutists are still seen very much as heroes who died for the freedom of their country.

Note: the above account is based on memories of reading "Seven Men at Daybreak" (many years ago) and on the content of the displays in the museum at the crypt.

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