The Strategypage is a comprehensive summary of military news and affairs.
June 3, 2023

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SHARPER THAN A SERPENTS TOOTH: Biotoxins as An Assasin's Weapons

Poison has a long and rich tradition as an assassin's weapon. Very few famous and infamous persons have died suddenly without someone raising the charge of poisoning.  At the same time there is little question that it has been used to eliminate those who for reasons of state (or personal revenge) needed to be removed from the scene in a discreet and/or sure manner.

The debut of botulism as a weapon of war was not in the elimination or wholesale disabling of a population.   But, in assuring the death of one man on May 27, 1941 on a street corner in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

In addition to the anthrax bomb, Porton Down was working on BTX, the botulin toxins. Botulism, as described earlier, generally appears as a particularly virulent form of food poisoning, with an average mortality rate of 60%.   It can also appear as "wound botulism" -- a rare complication that occurs when a puncture wound becomes infected with botulinum spores and heals partially, creating an anaerobic chamber the organism can live in.   If the toxin is introduced directly into the bloodstream the course of the disease is exactly the same as if the victim had ingested contaminated food.

The British Secret Service turned to Paul Fildes, director of Porton Down's research for help when, in October 1941 they began to plan Operation Anthropoid. Its object was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

Heydrich had already acquired a fearsome reputation as the ruthless head of the Sicherheitdienst (SD), the Nazi Security Service. Hitler's personal choice as the man to succeed him as Fuhrer, Heydrich was appointed Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia in September 1941.

Despite his reputation for ruthless suppression, or possibly because of it, Heydrich was very successful in his new role. By means of both the carrot and the stick he turned the Protectorate, with its extensive arms industries, into an important component in the German war economy. After only one season, the Reichsprotektor's charges were eating better and working shorter hours -- while being more productive -- than any other area in the Greater Reich. The British decided he had to go. Operation Anthropoid was launched.

In December 1941 seven Czech assassins were parachuted in semi-moonlight near the small Bohemian town of Lidice. They carried British arms, radio and cipher equipment. Two weapons were handled with extreme care. They were British No. 73 Hand anti-tank grenades. Normally the grenades were 9.5 inches long and weighed 4 pounds.   The grenades the Czechs carried were special conversions, consisting of the top third of the grenade, with adhesive tape thickly binding the open end. The grenades each weighed just over 1 pound. They had been personally prepared by Fildes at Porton Down and given, perhaps personally by Fildes to the Czechs there.

The assassins, led by Jan Kubis and Josef Gabick, went into hiding with the help of the Czech underground. Over the next five months they built up a detailed picture of Heydrich's movements. On the 27th of May, having found out precisely where he would be, they struck.

Precise details as to what happened differ but there were six assassins -- four men armed with submachine guns and grenades, one with a mirror to flash a signal when Heydrich's car rounded the hairpin bend near the Troja Bridge in a suburb of Prague, and Rela Fafek, Gabick's girl friend.   She would precede Heydrich's car, signaling whether he had a military escort or not. Surprisingly for such a high-ranking Nazi, he rarely traveled with an armed escort, today was no different.

Heydrich's open topped green Mercedes rounded the bend, where Gabick was standing in the middle of the road with a submachine gun.   Gabick's gun jammed.   Heydrich screamed at the chauffeur to put his foot on the accelerator but the driver, a last minute replacement, kept slamming on the brakes. Jan Kubis, the other leader, threw one of Fildes' grenades at the car.

It missed but the explosion tore off the door. Splinters embedded themselves in Heydrich's body.   Heydrich leapt into the road, cursing and screaming, then suddenly dropped his service revolver.   Clutching his right hip he staggered backwards and collapsed. The gunmen fled.

Heydrich, in considerable pain and bleeding from his back was driven, fully conscious, to the nearby Bulovka Hospital. Examined by physicians, he had several serious wounds. A splinter of either the grenade or car body was in the chest wall near the spleen, a rib was broken and the diaphragm had been pierced. The wounds were not a cause for alarm nor were they considered mortal. An operation was performed to removed the splinters from the wound which was about three inches deep.

A day later Heyrich's condition unexpectedly deteriorated.   By the end of the day he was in a coma.   On June 4th he died.   His general degradation was accompanied by symptoms consistent with botulin poisoning --extreme weakness, malaise, dry skin, dilated and unresponsive pupils, dry coated tongue and mouth. These were accompanied by a progressive muscular weakness with facial paralysis and weakness of arms, legs and respiratory muscles.  His death, according to the Czech doctor who initially examined him, was "totally unexpected."

The heads of the German Institute of Pathology and the German Institute of Forensic Medicine, drew up a joint report on the cause of Heydrich's death. They stated that death occurred as a consequence of lesion in the [vital] organs cause by bacteria and possibly poisons carried into them by the bomb splinters."

There is no written evidence of Fildes' involvement in Heydrich's death. The files on the entire operation are still sealed. There is only the circumstantial evidence of the grenades, the suspicious nature of Heydrich's demise, and the claims of Fildes himself.  To Alvin Pappenheimer, then a young American biologist and later a Professor of Microbiology at Harvard, Fildes bragged that Heydrich's murder "was the first notch on my pistol."


A Man and an Umbrella

If the cause of Heydrich's death is unclear, that of Georgi Ivanov Markov is not. Markov had been a successful Bulgarian playwright in Sofia.  As comrade of artists, actresses and performers in the state theaters, he came in close contact with the leaders of the Communist party and government officials who mixed with the performers, partied with them and conducted furtive affairs. In 1969 Markov defected. He soon found a job with the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), covering the cultural affairs of Eastern Europe.  In his off-hours he wrote and broadcast political commentary for Radio Free Europe.

Corruption was his favorite target and he used his experience in the theater scene to portray a vivid picture of aparatchikluxury amidst the general poverty in Bulgaria.  He recounted his personal memories of senior party leaders including descriptions of their intimate behavior and occasionally giving the names of their mistresses.

On September 7, 1978 Markov was returning from lunch when he felt a sharp sudden pain in the back of his right thigh.  It was the point of an umbrella.  A powerfully built man had poked him as he passed.

That evening Markov became ill. His health deteriorated rapidly and on September 11th he died.   During the autopsy the pathologists noticed what they took to be a tiny metal pinhead in Markov's right thigh.  They summoned the British Anti- Terrorist Squad who took the tiny pellet to Porton Down.

The pellet turned out to a 1.52 millimeter spherical jeweler's watch bearing. Two holes had been drilled through it at right angles to each other producing an X-shaped hollow in the pellet.  The holes were empty.

Two week earlier, on August 26th, Vladimir Kostov had suffered a similar stinging sensation in his back while leaving the Metro station under the Arc de Triomphe. Kostov, another Bulgarian defector developed a raging fever, but recovered. Acting on a hunch the British examined an X-ray of Kostov's back and discovered a pellet identical to that which had been taken from Markov's thigh.  Kostov was called to the hospital and the pellet removed.

Because Kostov had been wearing a bulky sweater at the time of his encounter, the pellet had not penetrated as deeply as Markov's.   A coating of wax, intended to melt at body temperature had only partly melted and only a portion of the 450 micrograms of the pellets contents had entered Kostov. Chemical analysis of the remainder was clear.  The contents were ricin.  The ancient Gypsy poison was still being used in the Twentieth Century.

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