Leamington Spa, Heydrich, and the tragedy at Lidice

CLOSE TO WARWICK, there is a town that reminded me both of Brighton on the south coast of England and Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad) in the Czech Republic. The grandiose architecture, mostly neo-classical, of Leamington Spa reminds me of some parts of Brighton and the area around the town’s spa buildings, both new and old, brought faint recollections of visits I made long ago to the Czech spa town to my mind. What I did not know when we visited Leamington Spa was that it does have a not too distant historical relationship with what was once known as ‘Czechoslovakia’.

Czechoslovak memorial in Leamington Spa

SS General Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942) was one of the main ‘architects’ of the Holocaust and in 1942 he was the acting Governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the area now known as the Czech Republic. In January 1942, he was Chairman of the Wannsee Conference at which the terrible fate of the Jewish people was decided. On the 27th of May 1942, Heydrich was shot at while driving through Prague. During this attack, a hand grenade, thrown into his open top vehicle, exploded. Heydrich was rushed to hospital but died of his wounds or sepsis resulting from them early in the morning of the 4th of June. His senior, the Chancellor of Germany, the dictator Adolf Hitler, was furious.

The assassination attack was carried out by Czechoslovak men who had been trained in England and then parachuted into Czechoslovakia. The men were volunteers, who were members of the Free Czechoslovak Forces stationed in the Warwickshire town of Royal Leamington Spa, where there was a training camp for them. It had been there since 1940. Seven of the Czechoslovak men flew from England in December 1941 and parachuted at various paces over their native land. Two of them, Jozef Gabčík (1912-1942) and Jan Kubiš (1913-1942), carried out the attack in Prague that led to the ending of Heydrich’s life. These two men and the others dropped over Czechoslovakia sacrificed their lives in the struggle to free their country from Nazi tyranny.

In November 2021, we paid a brief visit to Leamington Spa. Amongst its attractions is the pleasant Jephson Gardens, which are close to the spa establishments after which the town gets its name. The Park is named after the physician and philanthropist Henry Jephson (1798-1878), who promoted the superior healing powers of the town’s spring water. An attractive circular neo-classical temple containing a statue of Jephson was erected in his honour in 1849. This stands atop a small mound. Close to it there is another monument, also circular.

The other monument was unveiled in 1968, 50 years after the formation of Czechoslovakia out of the ruins of the failed Austro-Hungarian Empire. The memorial is in the form of a circular fountain. A bowl is supported by a single pillar on which the heraldic emblem of Czechoslovakia can be seen in bas-relief. Something, which at first sight resembles a large mushroom, sprouts upwards from the centre of the bowl. Closer examination of this reveals that it is a sculpture depicting a cluster of open parachutes. On each parachute, there is a name of one of the group of volunteers who parachuted into Czechoslovakia. The monument was designed by John French.

According to a noticeboard close to the Czechoslovak volunteers’ memorial, this small fountain also remembers the thousands of Czechoslovak citizens, who were murdered by the Nazis in reprisal for Heydrich’s death. After numerous arrests were made, two Czech villages suspected of having been involved in the assassination plot, Lidice and Ležáky were literally wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis. Their innocent inhabitants were mostly killed, but some were sent to concentration camps. These poor people are remembered in Jephson Park, which is such a lovely place that one would not think that it could possibly be even remotely associated with the human tragedies that followed the death of a monstrous member of the Nazi party.