Fortunes of war

The 50s and 60s saw a plethora of books published in the UK about wartime exploits, many of which were soon turned into feature films. I grew up with many of these books: the life of the French resistance heroine Violette Szabo Carve her name with pride, RAF memoirs such as The Dambusters and Reach for the sky, and Alan Burgess' story of the operation to assassinate Hitler's favourite henchman Reinhardt Heydrich Seven men at daybreak.

Some of the books were rather better than others. Most were pretty factual - as far as they could be with some operational information still covered by the Official Secrets Act, while other material was hidden in archives behind the Iron Curtain. Many of the books were not as blunt about the violence of war as a comparable book would be now; and some verged on the overly sentimental.

Burgess' Seven men at daybreak is occasionally over-sentimental; and verges occasionally on the fictional. There are odd personal moments in the life of the assassins when you realise that actually there is no way that the author can know any of this. This is putting a fictional spin on real events. Is this a problem? Perhaps slightly in that it can make you doubt how accurate the author is elsewhere; I believe however that generally the work is a fairly faithful retelling of what happened, as it was known at the time.

Jan Kubis and Joszef  Gabcik were parachuted into occupied Czechoslovakia with the job of killing the feared Reichsprotector Reinhardt Heydrich. A particularly nasty member of the Nazi hierarchy - even Himmler was reputedly scared of him - Heydrich was one of the major drivers in proposing "The final solution".

When Kubis and Gabcik parachuted into their homeland, there were fears among the Czech government in exile that the Czechs were about to come to an accommodation with the Nazis. Assassinating Heydrich would be both a blow to Nazi power, and would reinforce the view of the Czechs as a subject but still fighting people.

What struck me the most reading this extraordinarily sad story was the innocence of those involved. They had no concept of the slaughter that would be unleashed following the assassination. And this is understandable, before there was full knowledge of the death camps, who would believe that an innocent village, Lidice, would be erased from the map in revenge? Or that the sheer terror that the Nazis could evoke would turn patriots into traitors?

For all that this is a bleak tale there is much to admire too. Courage, self-sacrifice and love remain constant even in the worst conditions. The story of the 7 men who died in a small church in Prague tells of the worst that man can do; but it's also testament to the best in the human spirit.


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