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With a plot that echoes The Day of the Jackal and The Eagle Has Landed, this thrilling tale of courage, resilience, and betrayal reads like a classic World War II thriller. In 1942 two men, trained by the British SOE, parachuted back into their native Czechoslovakia with one sole objective: to kill the man ruling their homeland. Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik risked everything for their country. Their attempt on Reinhard Heydrich’s life was one of the single most dramatic events of World War II, and had horrific consequences for thousands of innocent people. Heydrich was a man so evil even fellow SS officers referred to him as the "Blond Beast." In Prague, he was known as the Hangman. Hitler, who dubbed him "The Man with the Iron Heart," considered Heydrich his heir, and entrusted him with the implementation of the "Final Solution" to the Jewish "problem:" the systematic murder of 11 million people.
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Howard Linskey is the author of three novels in the David Blake crime series, The Drop, The Damage, and The Dead. He is also the author of No Name Lane, Behind Dead Eyes, and The Search, the first three books in a crime series set in the north east of England featuring journalists Tom Carney & Helen Norton.
Read an Excerpt
'The people need wholesome fear. They want to fear something. They want someone to frighten them and make them shudderingly submissive'
Ernst Röhm, Head of the SA (Hitler's Brown Shirts), Assassinated by the SS on the Night of the Long Knives
Aston Abbotts, Buckinghamshire, Autumn 1941
'So it's murder?' he asked reasonably.
'Not murder, no,' his president answered.
'An assassination then,' Frantiek Moravec held up his hands to indicate he had no objection to this, 'just so we're clear.'
'Call it what you will but never call it murder,' answered Bene, 'an execution perhaps or you could name it war,' the exiled Czech leader told the head of his secret service, 'if you prefer.'
'Let's call it justice?' suggested Moravec but Bene was already tired of this.
'Suppose we simply call it what must be done.'
Moravec seemed happiest with that definition for he had merely been testing his leader's resolve. 'But how to do it?' he mused, as if asking himself this and not Bene.
'How indeed?' said Bene. 'That part I will leave up to you.'
The President looked smaller here with everything hemmed into his office in the old abbey at Aston Abbotts. His desk was an unfeasible clutter of transcripts, memos and telegrams and he seemed reluctant to allow any of them to be filed away. Every available inch of it was covered in paper. A large bookcase was fixed to the wall behind him and it towered above his shoulders but there was no space here for books. It too had been commandeered for the papers of state. They were piled high in horizontal stacks or wedged together vertically, in such close order that their spines had warped under the pressure of the confined space they occupied.
'It won't be easy,' said Moravec.
'You want to send men back to our conquered capital to kill the most senior Nazi in the country,' said Moravec, 'a man with the rank of a general who rules like a king. Heydrich isn't just a Nazi puppet. The man ranks second only to Heinrich Himmler. He is Hitler's personal favourite.'
'I would go further,' said Bene. 'I'd say it is likely Hitler regards Heydrich as his heir.'
'The next generation,' agreed Moravec, 'of the Thousand-YearReich he has promised his people.'
Bene suddenly rose from his seat and crossed the room. It was a restless movement with no specific purpose behind it. He stared out of his window at the garden of his English bolthole. The village of Aston Abbotts was not a new dwelling place; it was mentioned in the Domesday Book but you could walk its entire length in a little over five minutes. There were neat little nineteenth century houses here, tied cottages, a couple of ancient pubs and a Norman church with a stone memorial to an earlier conflict. The former abbey was as good a spot as any for the exiled President's hideaway. Guards patrolled the area discreetly or held back in the shadows provided by the dark grey stone of the house — and at least one would be in permanent occupation of the tiny, picturesque lodge, a thatched and white-washed cottage by the gate. 'Then it would be an even bigger blow,' he told Moravec purposefully, 'one they would feel in Berlin.'
'What about the British?' asked Moravec. 'Are they going to help us?'
'They will,' said Bene firmly and Moravec realised his President had yet to ask Churchill for his blessing. 'I know this is no ordinary mission, Frantiek,' Bene continued, 'our target will be heavily guarded.'
'An army couldn't kill Heydrich,' said Moravec and his President seemed concerned he might have already admitted defeat until he added, 'but two men might.'
'With help from others.'
Bene seemed satisfied Moravec had already been giving the mission serious thought. 'And you could find me such men?' 'There are many who wish for nothing more than the opportunity to continue the struggle against the Nazis, so yes, I can find you two men.' He spoke as if that was the easy part.
'But they must be the right men?' Bene realised what he was getting at.
'We'll only get one chance. Fail and Heydrich won't travel anywhere again without an armoured convoy around him.'
'Thousands came to England to continue the struggle when our country fell,' Bene reasoned, 'there must be exceptional men among them.'
'There are,' Moravec agreed.
'Get them then,' Bene ordered and he turned back to the window to give Moravec his cue. Their meeting was over. The rain that had been threatening for hours finally came and thick droplets padded against the window outside. Moravec made as if to leave.
'Frantiek,' Bene stopped him, 'make sure they understand.'
'That they might not be coming back?' and Bene nodded. 'Good men would know that already,' he assured his President.
'Set Europe ablaze!'
Winston Churchill's instruction to Hugh Dalton, Minister for
Economic Warfare, on the creation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), July 1940
Josef Gabcík was playing at soldiers again. He had just leapt from an imaginary landing craft, an L-shaped jetty yards from a Scottish beach, into an admittedly very real sea and was now wading towards the shore, chest deep in the salty surf.
Using his peripheral vision, he noticed he was at the head of a dozen men who had jumped into the water. There were a few gasps from his comrades, and a number of loud curses at the initial shock of the cold ocean, but the swearing strangely cheered him, coming as it did in his native tongue. He ignored the icy chill of the water, the salt in his eyes and the burn of the pack's straps on his shoulders, and pressed on.
Gabcík held his rifle high above his head with both arms, trying not to stumble on the uneven, shifting surface of the seabed, bending forward to allow for the 40lb pack full of rocks that was strapped to his back. He advanced as quickly as the buffeting of the ocean would allow.
A few more steps and he was pulling himself free from the grip of the water, which tugged at his soaking fatigues, weighing him down, and he became instantly aware of the harsh cries of the two British NCOs waiting on the shingle.
'Move yourselves! Move yourselves!!'
'Get out of there now! This is not a fuckin' tea dance!'
Both men were with the Special Operations Executive and, with the sadistic enthusiasm to which Gabcík had become accustomed, they were hell bent on turning him into a commando. As soon as he was free from the surf, he sprinted across the cove in a stumbling run, feet sinking into the shingle, running like a child trapped in a bad dream who cannot get away fast enough. His lungs heaved under the exertion and the breath caught in his throat, before it was expelled in little clouds of vapour that were immediately left behind him as he powered forward.
Now he was almost there, he could make out the giant shadow of the cliff face in front of him, even though his head was down to avoid the pretend bullets of an imaginary machine gun they were assured was in the cliff tops.
'Diggah! Diggah! Diggah!' screamed the Glaswegian corporal. 'Yer fuckin' deed Kubi!! Unless you get yer bastad heed doon!!'
Like Gabcík, Jan Kubi would barely have understood a word from the Scotsman's mouth but he would have easily picked up the meaning. That's what it was like here; a few half comprehended phrases of command were all they had to cling to. That and a desperate yearning to one day return to their homeland to fight the Germans who occupied it.
Till then their world was a completely foreign place. These defeated Czech soldiers awoke each morning in a Scottish barrack block in Mallaig, to be ordered around by officers, they could just about understand. As for the NCOs, they were a grim bunch of hard soldiers, with varied and unusual communication skills. Everything was barked or yelled in a guttural holler. That was fine, it was the same the world over and Gabcík was a six year veteran of the Czech army, when it had an army, but the few words of English he and his comrades picked up were torn and tortured beyond understanding by these career soldiers. The NCOs were cursing now as some of the men made a slow and unsteady progress across the beach.
'What's wrong with you lot? Are you all pissed or something? Gabcík! You short-arsed little runt! All you've managed to prove is your legs are not long enough to get you where you need to be!'
With these inspiring words of encouragement ringing in his ears, Gabcík finally reached the cliff face at a full sprint, almost slamming into it. As always, he did not let up until he was at the very end of his task.
He leant against the rock gasping for breath, a few of the quicker, fitter men having arrived at roughly the same time. Gabcík was pleased that, at twenty-nine, he was among the first there, could still hold his own. His short frame was stocky and powerful, making him capable of feats of strength that would defeat larger men. Gabcík had a volatile temper that could cause embarrassment in civilian life but served him well during a hail of bullets or shelling. And he had already fought, and killed, Germans.
He had beaten Kubi there by a yard and felt no less respectful of the slightly younger man for it. Jan Kubi was still a fine soldier and theirs a good friendship, forged under the most maddening of circumstances. As the NCOs got the men together he noticed Kubi, like him, was quickly recovering.
'That woken you up?' asked Gabcík.
Kubi was breathless. 'There's nothing like a nice walk along the beach.'
The corporal immediately rounded on him. 'Save your breath, you're gonna need it.'
The Scottish corporal was away again. This time it was an unrelenting rant at their inability to cover the yards of beach-head within the desired time; a limit Gabcík was savvy enough to assume would always be a few seconds quicker than their fastest man, such was training, such was the army.
'Now you are going to redeem yourselves with a nice gentle climb!'
The NCO cajoled the men into one final effort, an eighty-foot vertical ascent of a sheer rock face.
'Make it look good or we will throw you off this course. You can go and dig potatoes with the Land Army girls. I've seen a couple of them up close and they are a fucking sight scarier than you lot. Now move it!'
And so Gabcík climbed, for he knew it was his only way back into the war. With three and a half thousand other Czechs, Jan and Josef had endured a perilous sea journey to England. The Czech Brigade based itself at Leamington Spa and the two veterans had experienced the boredom of army camp life there with no imminent prospect of a return to action. After a year of frustrated inactivity, the request had gone out for volunteers to join the SOE. Neither man hesitated and they were on the move again; to Mallaig and the six week commando course that was more than two thirds through by the time Gabcík found himself stranded half way up the cliff face.
He clung perilously to the rock; red face pressed against the stone, hissing profanities to himself in Czech. He was about to fail his assignment and would likely be thrown off the course as well, and it was all down to his own stupidity. Had he listened to the instructor when he urged them all to use proper footholds and not just grip the rope with their hands like they always did? The cliff face was too high for that. Gabcík's biceps burned and the small of his back throbbed with the effort required just to stay still. He tightened his grip round the length of grey, wet rope that hung from the upper most point of the crag and rubbed the skin from the palms of his hands.
Moments ago he had admitted to himself he was stuck, unable to go back down and seemingly stranded without the footholds needed to carry him the extra forty feet to the summit. All about him lesser men than Gabcík were making steady if unspectacular progress. The humiliation was too much and it spurred him into action. Rage welled up inside him and it slowly replaced the fear and the doubt; he cast his eyes to the left and spotted an outcrop that was tantalisingly out of reach. If he could just spring from his current spot, he might get enough leverage with the rope to propel himself onto this toehold. Gabcík hesitated for a moment, closing his eyes and summoning up his anger, the storm that had always served him so well in battle. He had to make it and fear of falling must not be allowed to prevent him. If he did not make the jump he could not move higher. If he did not climb higher he would never reach the top and would not then pass out of the commando course, to join the other would-be saboteurs – his only opportunity to engage the Germans and remove the shame he felt at abandoning his country. And so, he jumped.
For a second there was nothing but air around him, then his left foot connected with the rock, his left hand scrabbling for an indent, and it held. He clung there, the rope drawing fresh blood from the base of his thumb, which he contemptuously ignored. Gabcík barely paused. Instead he hauled himself higher and propelled his other hand into the air. He could not see the ledge above him but grasped it firmly and pulled his body upward again, stretching out his right foot till he connected with a large outcrop. And so on it went; Gabcík rising, cursing and rising again, using his self-recrimination to push him on, catching up with the others.
He remembered the last thing the Scottish corporal had told them in the briefing.
'When you reach the top of the cliff I want you to give me a battle cry. Let me hear the roar from each of you. Pretend I'm a Nazi machine gunner. I want you to scare the shit out of me!' Gabcík took him at his word and shot over the edge of the cliff with the most bloodcurdling cry imaginable. Even Corporal Andy Donald was impressed.
Gabcík careered past him at a full sprint, only stopping at the rallying point, which was already beginning to fill up with his fellow Czechs, who sat on the ground next to, or on top of, their packs. One of them was foolish enough to let out a laugh at Gabcík's crazed countenance and they exchanged a handful of insulting words. That was it. Without pausing for a moment, Gabcík whirled on his mocking colleague and smashed a fist squarely into his chin.
Corporal Donald immediately began to shout new orders, to have Gabcík dragged away from his hapless victim. Gabcík was in one of his private worlds, all red mist and hot rage, and Donald had seen him like this before. It could start with something quite trivial, an upended mug of tea or the frustration borne of an inability to complete something; assembling a Sten gun blindfolded perhaps. Corporal Andy Donald was a hard man, scared of nobody, but even he recognised this soldier had a truly awesome temper, the kind that, if harnessed correctly, would take him through any obstacle without a second's hesitation; bullets bouncing around him would go unnoticed. It would take a lot to stop Josef Gabcík if his mind was set.
It took three of Gabcík's comrades to haul him away. That is what happens when you train men to kill but don't let them anywhere near the enemy, thought Donald.
'Alright, that's enough! Enough!!'
Had Gabcík really seen Nazis as he reached the top of the cliff? Probably, knowing him. For a second Corporal Donald almost pitied the poor bloody Germans.
'All is over, silent, mournful, abandoned, recedes into darkness'
Winston Churchill on the invasion of Sudeten Czechoslovakia
'One more please. Please Herr Gruppenführer, just one more, with the big smile, and so! Now perhaps we have Frau Heydrich with little Heider is it? Heider yes! Heider and Klaus, and of course the little Princess Silke. We haven't forgotten you, have we?'
The photographer cooed absurdly at Reinhard Heydrich's baby daughter, shaking his head. 'No, we haven't, no!' – she sensibly chose to ignore him.
Hauptsturmführer Zentner belonged to Goebbels' propaganda division and his mission today was to capture the Heydrichs at home – on film at least. Reinhard had agreed to the photo call weeks ago, aware of the need to project a positive image at all times, and to every section of German society. It was part of his strategy to reach the very top. He had even consented to be photographed out of uniform, in a ridiculous pair of shorts and shirt sleeves, in order to contrast the man at home with the man of state, as Captain Zentner put it.
First, it was full silver/grey SS dress uniform, complete with ceremonial sword, at the foot of the staircase; then behind his desk, again in uniform, black this time, pretending to peruse a blank sheet of paper as his pen hovered above it motionlessly, until the click of the shutter and the flash of the bulb melted him from the frozen image he had assumed.
Excerpted from "Hunting the Hangman"
Copyright © 2017 Howard Linskey.
Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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