Eighty years ago a German reprisal for the killing of Reinhard Heydrich gives the world a shorthand for Nazi evil

 


The Germans enacted an especially atrocious reprisal for the killing of Reinhard Heydrich on direct orders from Hitler. The target was a mining village with 500 inhabitants, Lidice, near Prague. All the males over 15 were shot by ordinary German policemen; most women and children were sent to concentration camps but a few children were adopted by SS families. The other children were gassed and only about half the women survived. The village was razed to the ground. The evidence that anyone from Lidice was involved in Hydrich's death was tenuous and probably inaccurate, but the Germans wanted a conspicuous deterrent to any support for the resistance. The crime was announced publicly, establishing the name Lidice as a byword for Nazi evil. The transportation of 3,000 Jews to extermination camps in trains marked "AaH" (Attentat auf Heydrich) in revenge for the killing was a matter almost of routine and passed largely unremarked.

Under the overall codename Operation Julius the British launched a two-part atttempt to resupply Malta: Harpoon was a convoy from Gibraltar and Vigorous one from Egypt. Only two ships from Harpoon reached their destination because of heavy Axis air attack which sank four merchantmen. The Royal Navy's ability to provide a surface escort for Vigorous was constrained because the battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth were still out of action after the Italian midget submarine attack in December, so the plan relied on air and submarine attacks on the Italian fleet. One Italian cruiser was sunk but this was not enough and the convoy had to abort its journey. The escorts to both convoys suffered major loss and damage.

The British had hoped that the land battle in the western desert would give them airfields from which to support Vigorous.  The outcome was quite different. Rommel broke out of the Cauldron position and surrounded the defensive Knightsbridge position, held appropriately by the Guards Brigade.  The Axis attackers showed greater skill than the defenders. The entire British defensive line at Gazala was compromised and the Eighth Army was ordered into retreat towards Egypt.

The RAF devised an essentially morale-boosting operation against the German occupiers of Paris. A single Beaufighter of Coastal Command was despatched to attack a daily parade of German soldiers on the Champs-Elysee. Possibly because of a confusion between British and French time, the Beaufighter did not find the parade, but instead shot up the former Marine Ministry on Place de la Concorde that was being used as a German headquarters. It then dropped tricolor flags on the Arc de Triomphe.

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