“Their job was straightforward but perilous: assassinate top Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, right-hand man to Hitler, architect of the Holocaust and the Butcher of Prague.
But as Czechoslovak patriots Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis made final preparations for their mission in 1942 their minds would have turned to the teenage sweethearts they’d left behind in Britain.
Two years earlier the brothers-in-arms had fallen for Shropshire sisters Lorna and Edna Ellison who lived close to where they were stationed before training for Operation Anthropoid.
When they realised how dangerous the task was, Jozef, 28, and Jan, 26, wrote new wills.
Naturally, they remembered their families but the only others mentioned were their English roses.
Their incredible bravery is at the centre of much-anticipated new movie Anthropoid with Fifty Shades of Grey’s Jamie Dornan and Peaky Blinders’ Cillian Murphy playing the doomed pair.
But cinema-goers will be unaware of the British love story behind it all which makes their ultimate sacrifice all the more poignant.
Diana Hilson, daughter of Lorna, who was romantically involved with Jozef, said: “They assumed both would be coming back. And if they had I could have been half Czech.
“Jan and Jozef couldn’t tell them what they were doing. They just said they had a secret mission.
“They knew it was something serious because they slept with guns under their pillows even in a small village. But my mum and aunt didn’t think they were going to their deaths.”
Soldiers Jan and Jozef fled to Britain after Germany invaded their homeland in 1939.
The following year the Czech government, in exile in London, and Britain’s Special Operations Executive devised a plan to kill “Blond Beast” Heydrich who was bringing terror to the Czech capital.
They began training a team of paratroopers, including Jan and Jozef, for what was to become a suicide mission.
The team was based at Cholmondeley Castle, near Whitchurch, Shrops – a few miles from the village of Ightfield where the Ellison sisters lived.
In 2008 Lorna opened up for the first time about their relationship to John Martin, author of a history of Operation Anthropoid, called The Mirror Caught the Sun.
She said: “Edna and I had been to the cinema in Whitchurch.
“We passed a soldier who was also waiting for a bus to take him back to Cholmondeley Castle.
“He asked to meet us tomorrow and we agreed. His name was Jan Kubis.
“The next time we agreed to meet mum came with us and this time mum invited him to our home.
“Jan became a very regular visitor to our home and after a few weeks mum asked him to bring a friend if he wanted to. He brought along Jozef Gabcik.”
Diana, from Romford, Essex, says: “My mum and aunt must have thought ‘Cor, they’re a bit of all right!’ There weren’t a lot of young men around because they’d all gone to war. A man in uniform really stood out.
“My mum was very beautiful too with thick, black, curly hair. She said the boys were very polite and kind but had a twinkle in their eyes.”
Edna and Lorna’s parents, Jessie and Albert, took such a shine to the soldiers that over the next year they stayed regularly, both sleeping in the same room.
They didn’t mind when they started going to the cinema and taking bike rides in the countryside, even though Lorna was just 15 and Edna was 17.
Gran Diana says: “Girls started to court and get married early back then.
“They went out quite a bit. My mum said they used to go to the pictures together but my grandparents insisted they had to be back by a certain time.”
With Edna being the elder, her relationship with Jan progressed further.
Diana says: “They had a bit more going on, those two. Jan gave Edna a ring.
“Now what this ring meant or what happened to it, I’m not certain. But it could have been an engagement ring.”
There was an emotional farewell when the men left the UK.
Though heartbroken, the one silver lining was the knowledge that, by the time they returned, both girls would be closer to marrying age.
On December 28, 1941 Jan and Jozef’s nine-man unit parachuted into
The resistance hid them in Prague until May 27, 1942, when they attacked Heydrich.
The 38-year-old was the virtual Nazi dictator of Bohemia and Moravia, branded the Butcher of Prague for the merciless way he crushed any resistance.
He had chaired the Wannsee Conference which formalised plans to exterminate Europe’s Jews and even Hitler called him “the man with the iron heart”.
Jan and Jozef targeted Heydrich on his daily commute in a chauffeur- driven, open-roofed Mercedes to his Prague Castle headquarters.
As his car slowed on a bend Jozef tried to fire a sub-machine gun but it jammed.
Then, as he stood up to fire his pistol, Jan threw an anti-tank grenade but it failed to kill Heydrich.
The pair fled and hid for three weeks but were finally cornered in a city church.
Troops pummelled the building with grenades and bullets. The attack killed Jan but Jozef refused to surrender even when they filled the crypt with water and tear gas. With no escape, he killed himself.
Back in Ightfield Lorna and Edna were still expecting the pair to return.
John Martin, who is trying to erect a plaque to the men in the village, said: “The girls had no idea Jan and Jozef would be facing certain death.
“The chances are that, up until the last few days, Jan and Jozef didn’t realise that there wasn’t an exit strategy.
“I think they hoped to return to the sisters after the war because they left some of their possessions in the Ellison’s family home.
“It’s quite telling, however, that when they thought they might face death they included Lorna and Edna in their wills.”
Diana says: “When the letters came through saying they’d been killed mum and Edna were devastated.
“It took them years to get over it. Throughout her life, my mum would always get very upset whenever she talked about Jan and Jozef.”
The sisters eventually went on to find new love, both marrying in the late 1940s.
Edna, who died in 1992 aged 68, had two children and Lorna, who died in 2008 aged 81, had three.
A few years before Lorna passed away she made an emotional trip to Prague with Diana and John Martin.
She visited the spot where the men landed, the attack site, the church where Jan and Jozef died and the cemetery where it is believed they are buried.
Their deaths, though tragic, were not in vain. Although he was not killed instantly, Heydrich died of his injuries eight days after the attack.
Hitler was so angry he ordered the villages of Lidice and Lezaky, wrongly linked with the assassins, levelled. An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 villagers were murdered.
Back in Shropshire, Jan and Jozef’s sacrifice was a source of sorrow for two sisters – but also of lifelong pride.” (Credit: Daily Mirror)
Extract from Wikipedia:
“Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš were airlifted along with seven soldiers from Czechoslovak army-in-exile in the United Kingdom and two other groups named Silver A and Silver B (who had different missions) by a Royal Air Force Halifax of No. 138 Squadron into Czechoslovakia at 10 pm on 28 December 1941. In Prague, they contacted several families and anti-Nazi organisations who helped them during the preparations for the assassination.
On 27 May 1942, at 10:30 am, Heydrich proceeded on his daily commute from his home in Panenské Břežany to Prague Castle. Gabčík and Kubiš waited at the tram stop on the curve near Bulovka Hospital in Prague 8-Libeň. As Heydrich’s open-topped Mercedes-Benz neared the pair, Gabčík, who concealed his Sten gun under a raincoat, dropped the raincoat and raised the gun, and, at point black range, tried to shoot Heydrich, but the gun jammed. Heydrich ordered his driver, SS-Oberscharführer Klein, to stop the car. As the car braked in front of him, Kubiš threw a modified anti-tank grenade (concealed in a briefcase) at the vehicle; he misjudged his throw. Instead of landing inside the Mercedes, it landed against the rear wheel. Nonetheless, the bomb severely wounded Heydrich when it detonated, its fragments ripping through the right rear fender and embedding shrapnel from the upholstery of the car into Heydrich, causing serious injuries to his left side, with major damage to his diaphragm, spleen and lung, as well as a fractured rib. Kubiš received a minor wound to his face from the shrapnel. Heydrich and Klein leapt out of the shattered limousine with drawn pistols; Klein ran towards Kubiš, who had staggered against the railings, while Heydrich went to Gabčík who stood paralyzed, holding the sten. Kubiš recovered and, jumped on his bicycle and pedaled away, scattering passengers spilling from the tram, by firing in the air with his Colt M1903 pistol. Klein tried to fire at him but dazed by the explosion, pressed the magazine release catch and the gun jammed. A staggering Heydrich came towards Gabčík, who dropped his sten and tried to reach his bicycle. He was forced to abandon this attempt, however and took cover behind a telegraph pole, firing at Heydrich with his pistol. Heydrich returned fire and ducked behind the stalled tram. Suddenly, Heydrich doubled over and staggered to the side of the road in pain. He then collapsed against the railings, holding himself up with one hand. As Gabčík took the opportunity to run, Klein returned from his fruitless chase of Kubiš to help his wounded superior. Heydrich, his face pale and contorted in pain, pointed out the fleeing Czech, saying “Get that bastard!”. As Klein gave pursuit, Heydrich stumbled along the pavement before collapsing against the bonnet of his wrecked car. Gabčík fled into a butcher shop, where the owner, a man named Brauer, who was a Nazi sympathiser and had a brother who worked for the Gestapo, ignored Gabčík’s request for help, and ran out into the roadway, attracting Klein’s attention by shouting and pointing. Klein, whose gun was still jammed and useless, rushed into the shop and collided with Gabčík in the doorway. In the confusion, Gabčík shot him twice, severely wounding him in the leg. Gabčík then escaped in a tram, reaching a local safe house. The assassins were initially convinced that the attack had failed. Heydrich was rushed to Bulovka Hospital, where it was discovered that he was suffering from blood poisoning. There Heydrich went into shock, dying on the morning of 4 June 1942.”
Jozef Gabčík is portrayed in four films about the assassination of Heydrich:
The town of Gabčíkovo in southern Slovakia is named after Gabčík, and one of the biggest dams on the Danube next to the village is named after the town. Jozef Gabčík’s name was also given to the 5. pluk špeciálneho určenia (“5th special operations regiment of Jozef Gabčík”) part of the Armed Forces of the Slovak Republic, based in Žilina.
With the aim of commemorating the heroes of the Czech and Slovak Resistance, the Slovak National Museum in May 2007 opened an exhibition presenting one of the most important resistance actions in the whole Nazi-occupied Europe.
Coinciding with the release of the 2016 film Anthropoid, campaigners called for Gabčík’s and Kubiš’s bodies to be exhumed from the mass-grave at the cemetery in Ďáblice, northern Prague, and to be given a dignified burial fitting “the heroes of anti-Nazi resistance”.
“Shropshire sisters Lorna and Edna Ellison they could not know that the soldiers they had befriended from a nearby camp were to become assassins hand-picked for one of the most daring missions of the Second World War.
Czechoslovak patriots Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis were destined to embark on a top secret mission to kill one of Hitler’s key right hand men, Nazi SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the brutal Nazi “protector” of Czechoslovakia and an architect of the Holocaust.
And now a blockbuster movie, Anthropoid, being launched in Britain on Friday is to tell the story of their heroic and ultimately tragic exploits.
The Shropshire back-story has led an author and historian to campaign for some sort of memorial plaque in honour of the heroic pair in the village of Ightfield, near Whitchurch.
John Martin researched Operation Anthropoid, as the mission was called, for a book, including that close friendship that developed between two soldiers far from home and the two young sisters in the village.
“My campaign for a historical plaque in Ightfield has so far been unsuccessful but I certainly haven’t given up hope,” said John.
“The new movie, called Anthropoid, tells the story of these two brave soldiers and their heroic mission. I have had a small input, both in supplying historical information and even being invited to be an extra. It was filmed in Prague.”
The movie stars Cillian Murphy as Gabcik, and Jamie Dornan as Kubis. The Shropshire sisters and their role do not feature, but author John appears in the credits as “Man at Assassination”.
Kubis and Gabcik fled to Britain after the German invasion of their homeland, and while stationed in the grounds of Cholmondeley Castle on the Shropshire border in 1940 they became friendly with the Ellison family in nearby Ightfield.
“The Ellison family had two teenage daughters living at home, Edna and Lorna. The parents were Albert and Jessie,” said John who, as part of his researches, interviewed and befriended the late Lorna.
In his book, she described their first meeting with the soldiers: “My elder sister Edna and I had been to the cinema in Whitchurch. In those days, especially with the war being on, there wasn’t much else to do.
“We passed a soldier in uniform who was also waiting for a bus to take him back to Cholmondeley Castle. He asked to meet us tomorrow and we agreed.
“The next day we went to a cafe that sold tea in Whitchurch and met the soldier. His name was Jan Kubis. The next time we agreed to meet, mum came with us and this time mum invited him to our home, Sunnyside Cottage in Ightfield.
“As we all got off the bus in our home village of Ightfield a strange thing happened. There were two white gates to our garden and Jan Kubis suddenly stopped. ‘It is just like home,’ he said, and had to fight back the tears.
“After that Jan Kubis became a very regular visitor to our home and after a few weeks mum asked him to bring a friend if he wanted to as well as himself. He brought Josef Gabcik, who was from Slovakia.”
The soldiers developed a close friendship with the family, staying with them while on leave or at weekends, and remained in touch after they left the area – and began specialist training for their mission.
Lorna’s daughter Diana Hilson said: “There weren’t a lot of young men around because they’d all gone to war. A man in uniform really stood out.
“My mum was very beautiful too with thick, black curly hair. She said the boys were very polite and kind but had a twinkle in their eyes.”
Lorna was 15, but with Edna being 17 it seems her relationship with Jan was a bit more serious.
Diana, from Romford, Essex, said: “They had a bit more going on, those two. Jan gave Edna a ring. Now what this ring meant or what happened to it, I’m not certain. But it could have been an engagement ring.”
They never told the Ellison family of their secret orders to assassinate Heydrich, only that they were being flown back to their homeland to help the Resistance.
John said: “Lorna described the last meeting as very tearful and Jan Kubis reminded the Ellison family of a promise he and Josef Gabcik had made, that once the war was over Jan and Josef would take the Ellison family to Prague to show them just how beautiful it was.
“Clearly, the men were planning on returning to Ightfield and the Ellison family as they left uniforms and personal items in the wardrobe – items that were eventually taken by the Army after the end of the war.”
The pair were parachuted into Czechoslovakia in December 1941 and the climax came in Prague in May 1942 when they ambushed Heydrich’s open-topped car.
Heydrich was injured but survived, and at first it seemed the mission had failed, but days later his condition deteriorated and he died.
The Nazi retribution was terrible. In the village of Lezaky, all men and women were killed. In the village of Lidice, all the men were murdered and the village was razed to the ground. Some estimates say that about 5,000 in all died in reprisals.
A huge reward was offered for information about the attack team. They were betrayed for the money and, holed up in a Prague church, the seven of them held off SS troops, but all died, either in the firefight or by committing suicide.
Kubis was mortally wounded and died in hospital and Gabcik was one of the last four who staged a desperate last stand in the crypt, during which they made an attempt to tunnel to safety. They shot themselves when their ammunition was nearly exhausted.” (Credit: Shropshire Star)