Extracts from Chapter 38 of A Chance Kill
Thursday 18th June 1942
The gas stove on the floor below gave a constant hiss and a low light but only a hint of warmth. Josef Gabčík reached his hand up from under the blanket and ran it across the curved, granulated stone twenty centimetres above his eyes. Grit fell onto his face. There had been consequences beyond comprehension.
All 173 of the village men had been killed.
All women and children were carted away, to wither and die in a camp.
The village had been burned to the ground. They had dug up each and every tombstone and coffin in the cemetery. They even uprooted every tree. Life was extinguished from the present, the past and the future.
He wiped moisture from his eyes with the back of each hand.
How could this possibly be worth it? Lidice was gone – would Žižkov be next? Liběna and her whole family, Aunt Marie’s family and so many more… But why stop there? Would Heydrich’s death equate to the whole of Prague on the scales in Hitler’s unbalanced mind? If the two assassins were found dead, surely that would end the reprisals? Or could it lead to more?
The newspapers were full of eulogies to Heydrich and details of the ceremonial funeral which had brought Prague to a Nazisaluting standstill. Then his coffin was transported to Berlin for another elaborate showpiece. The papers proudly announced how the treacherous villagers of Lidice had received just punishment. But why Lidice? Not one of the paratroopers had ever been to Lidice.
The newspapers had publicised that the Nazis had set today, June 18th, as the end of their amnesty period for information about Heydrich’s assassins. Nobody would risk coming forward after that. Survive today, and tomorrow promised deliverance. The Americans and Russians would win the war. The promise of a better life beckoned, a peaceful life with Liběna and the baby.
Footsteps shuffled along the street outside.
Gabčík shimmied his arms and head out of his recess, and dropped his palms to the stone floor of the crypt. Whether they survived today or not, he would lie inside a coffin tomorrow. A mass funeral was to be held for some of the victims of recent Nazi atrocities. The coffins would be driven away from the church, ostensibly for burial. But seven coffins would be taken far out of the city and into the Moravian Mountains. From there, an aeroplane would take them to England.
Then it began.
A rap of gunfire pattered down from the church above.
A long ten minutes passed before a blur of a fireman’s uniform rushed by the window. To use up bullets on oppressed Czechs, even those aiding the Nazis, was not the objective. A hose dropped through the window, and within seconds water gushed across the room. Valčík and Švarc launched the ladder at the hose and battled to force it back through the window. Heavy machine gun fire shot the top of the ladder into splinters, and bullets zinged around the stonework, forcing the paratroopers to press against the wall under the window for cover. It was time for a change of policy. Any movement back at the window would now receive a volley of gunfire.
It was wet and cold. Gabčík crouched behind a square stone tunnel that ran to the base of the steps which lead up to the hidden entrance under the altar. He crouched by a ladder in the main body of the crypt and rested his pistol on his lap. Valčík watched the crypt’s high window, which was up at street level, and stepped up the rungs to peek out into the tinge of dawn. He edged back the blackout curtain.
Valčík jumped back from the wall. Deafening fire outside brought a hail of glass crashing down onto the pavement beyond the window. They were pummelling the church galleries with heavy gunfire from surrounding rooftops.
Gabčík’s palm sweated on the plastic grip of his hammerless Colt. Silhouetted by the sudden onset of a searchlight, a shadow sliced at the window. The glass smashed to the floor of the crypt, taking the curtain with it. Valčík and Gabčík pointed their pistols at the floodlit window. A grenade came hurling through it, jumping around the stone floor, hissing and steaming.
The waiting and baiting endured. The waist-high water chilled Gabčík’s balls. He called to Valčík to check if he was hurt. ‘Never been better,’ came the reply. ‘But I’m down to my last clip.’
The heavy machine gun resumed from the opening under the altar with a roaring rapidity of fire. A minute later it stopped. A pair of black boots rushed down the upper steps of the staircase, before Švarc arrowed a round into one foot and then the other, and the SS hauled their soldier away.
Švarc and Hrubý took the cue to cut back through the water to join him where the crypt widened out. Gabčík turned to the broader room of the crypt and found Valčík right next to him in the mouth of the passageway: there was nowhere left to hide. The enemy machine gun fire from across the street thundered on.
Then came a pause in the gunfire. Shadows constricted the shaft of sunlight at the window. Valčík was poised to fire his pistol, but Gabčík held his palm up and both stepped back out of sight from the street. Machine gun fire streaked through the window frame
and ricocheted around the crypt. The four paratroopers darted for cover before the firing stopped. The futility of seeking to protect oneself seemed almost laughable. There wasn’t going to be a wife, a son, a life after war.
At the window, a sun-dazzled soldier peered down into the darkened cell. Gabčík aimed his pistol at the soldier’s face and pulled the trigger. The gun clicked empty.
Stillness. Not a single gunshot.
Liběna. A prayer for her freedom. Let her live unharmed. Let their baby be born. Let a part of its father live on. Let there be life after death.
Gabčík loaded his last half magazine and handed Švarc a spare pocket Colt he had saved with just three bullets in it.
The four paratroopers drew together at the back of the crypt. They were each down to their last few rounds.
The church clock began to chime midday. Gabčík looked at each man in turn, and each man held his stare and nodded.
The twelfth chime hung in the air.
Each man would make each bullet count.
And each man would count down to his final bullet.
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