The Story Of An Ambush & The British Sten Gun – A Spectacularly Successful Failure

Anthropoid: “Having the form of a human.”

What would you call the operation to kill the evilest man on the planet? If you are the British Special Operations Executive in late 1941 you call it Operation Anthropoid. The target of this top-secret direct action mission was Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich might not have been the most repugnant human being who ever lived, but he was likely in the top five. Given the rarefied nature of his competition that is a remarkable accomplishment.

Reinhard Heydrich might not have been the most repugnant human being who ever lived, but he was likely in the top five. The Father of the Holocaust, Heydrich was ultimately assassinated by Czech operatives trained by the British SOE.

Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich was an officer in the Nazi Schutzstaffel or SS. The SS arose from Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard and went on to field combat divisions as well as manage the day-to-day operations of the sundry extermination camps. Heydrich was the head of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) and the architect of the Final Solution. Reinhard Heydrich was the father of the Holocaust. Sporting archetypal Aryan features, Heydrich was the Nazi Hitler wished he could have been. As a result of his brutal efficiency, Heydrich was known as the Butcher of Prague, the hangman, and the Blonde Beast.

At the time of his assassination, Heydrich was the acting Reichprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany. Reinhard Heydrich was a psychopath’s psychopath. To Heydrich the mass murder of millions was not an issue of passion but rather of reason. Heydrich tried to exterminate entire people groups because he thought it was the right thing to do. For this, it was determined that he must die.

Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik were selected from among around 2,000 Czech soldiers in exile and aggressively trained in commando techniques by the British. The plan was to attack Heydrich’s convertible Mercedes limousine with Sten submachine guns and antitank grenades. Heydrich rode about occupied Czechoslovakia with an SS driver and typically kept the top down on his automobile to demonstrate his confidence in the German forces under his command. In addition to being a soul-less monster, Heydrich was also terminally arrogant.

The ambush point was a tight curve along a deserted stretch of road that demanded that Heydrich’s driver, Oberscharfuhrer Klein, slow down markedly. When the moment was right Jozef Gabcik stepped into the road, leveled his Sten gun, and squeezed the trigger. The Sten jammed without firing a round.

Jozef Gabcik initiated the ambush of Reinhard Heydrich by stepping out in the roadway and attempting to fire his Sten gun. The weapon jammed at the most inopportune moment and did not fire a round.

At this point, Heydrich could have directed his driver to press on through the kill zone and lived to slaughter another day. Instead, he told Klein to stop the car and proceeded to attempt to shoot Gabcik with his Luger sidearm. At that point Jan Kubis deployed his antitank grenade, detonating it against the outside fender of the vehicle and spraying Heydrich with shrapnel. In the subsequent engagement, Gabcik and Kubis opened fire with their Colt M1903 pistols, hitting Klein twice. The two Czech assassins escaped.

Jan Kubis deployed an antitank grenade against the fender of Heydrich’s armored Mercedes that sprayed the Aryan monster with shrapnel. These wounds ultimately killed him.

Heydrich’s armored Mercedes absorbed most of the blast from Kubis’ antitank grenade. However, fragments from the grenade severely injured Heydrich and eventually led to his death.

Heydrich was evacuated to a local hospital and ultimately received the finest health care available in the world at the time. He had suffered severe injuries to his lung, spleen, and diaphragm from grenade splinters along with a rib fracture. After several surgeries, his condition seemed to be improving. Then, seven days after the attack, Reinhard Heydrich collapsed over a meal, became comatose, and died. The working theory was that horsehair and fragments of upholstery from his car had been pressed into his wounds, suppurated, and killed him. Regardless, Heydrich was finally in hell where he belonged.

Gabcik and Kubis were cornered in a church and besieged by 750 enraged SS troops. Despite being armed solely with handguns and subjected to both tear gas and flooding in an effort to get them out of the building, they killed some 14 SS troopers and injured another 21 before committing suicide. The Germans ultimately massacred around 5,000 Czech civilians in retribution. They also leveled the villages of Lidice and Lezaky, killing their inhabitants regardless of age or gender and spreading salt in the earth where the towns had been. Operation Anthropoid was the only successful government-organized assassination attempt of the war.

The Sten was a crudely made expedient design that was easy to produce in quantity. More than 4 million copies rolled off the lines before production ceased.

The Gun

As I searched for combat anecdotes about the Sten gun the two most prominent, the killing of Reinhard Heydrich and the execution of Benito Mussolini, both involved the Sten gun’s failure to fire at a critical time. Heydrich was killed with an antitank grenade while Mussolini was subsequently finished off with a French MAS 38 submachine gun. Though there were four million copies of the Sten gun produced during its production cycle, they were all hampered by the gun’s flawed double stack, single feed magazine.

The Sten draws its name from the initials of its designers, Major Reginald Shepherd and Harold Turpin, combined with the EN from Enfield. Faced with a critical shortage of small arms after the miraculous evacuation of most of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches at Dunkirk, the Sten was designed to be cheap and quick to manufacture using the simplest of decentralized facilities. The most basic versions had only 47 parts that were subcontracted to small workshops around the country.

The Sten progressed through several Marks. The Mark II included a rotating magazine housing that could be turned such that it occluded the ejection port for storage or portage through filthy spaces. The Mk III was the simplest variant wherein the magazine housing was simply welded in place. The Mk V included a forward handgrip as well as the sights from a No 4 Enfield rifle and a bayonet lug. The Mk IIS was the first sound suppressed submachine gun to see series production. All Marks were selective fire and fired from the open bolt.

The Sten gun went on to arm British and Commonwealth troops in all theaters of World War 2. The gun would break down into smaller components and was air dropped to resistance fighters across Europe.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill pictured with a Sten gun.

The simplest Sten used only 47 parts. Component manufacture was decentralized in small shops around the country.

Buttstocks included a pressed steel loop version, a wooden rifle-like variant, and a miserably cheap T-shaped tubular steel variation that was just wretched to shoot. Sights on the early marks were welded in place and not adjustable in the least. The Mk II Sten broke down readily into either two or three smaller parcels and was subsequently widely used by underground fighters in the occupied territories during World War 2. In 1942 a Sten gun cost the British government about $10. That equates out to around $ 159 today.

All military Sten guns fired from the open bolt via Advanced Primer Ignition.

Sten guns saw limited service in the Vietnam War. A Sten was used to assassinate Indira Gandhi in 1984. Her assassin emptied a full thirty rounds out of his Sten at point blank range, striking her twenty-seven times.

Practical Tactical

The Sten enjoys a remarkably sedate rate of fire, around 500 rounds per minute cyclic, and it is unusually controllable as a result. Particularly in its later Mk V versions with some proper furniture, it is a comfortable and effective close range weapon. Those wretched magazines are a pain to load without a tool and represent the source of the vast majority of the failures of the gun in action, but it is otherwise a well-reasoned combat implement.

The Sten’s sole safety mechanism is a notch that safely locks the bolt to the rear.

The simplest Sten buttstock is this wretched welded steel contraption. It is miserable in practical use.

Despite the relative crudity of the design, the Sten included a select-fire feature. Fire selection was achieved by pressing this button to one side or the other.

The heavy bolt slamming home detracts from accuracy, but the sights are welded in place so it doesn’t really make that much difference. How accurate the gun might be is a function of who was welding the sights on that day. I find it easier to simply sight grossly above the gun and keep my bursts to modest lengths.

Recoil and muzzle climb are unremarkable, and the Sten is exceptionally controllable with only the most rudimentary attention to technique. Magazine housings are typically tight, but the charging handle is easily accessed. The sole safety consists of a notch cut in the bolt raceway that will keep the gun locked open if needed. To reload the piece you lock the bolt back over the sear, swap out magazines, and squeeze.

Mk II Stens featured a rotating magazine housing that could be pivoted around to seal the ejection port against dirt and grime.

The Sten gun’s primary weakness was its sordid double column, single feed magazine. Shown here on the left alongside a double column, double feed Thompson magazine, the Sten magazine was the source of most of the gun’s reliability problems.

The Sten Mk IIS was the world’s first type standardized sound suppressed submachine gun. The famed German commando Otto Skorzeny purportedly emptied a magazine from a captured example on a crowded Berlin street without arousing attention from bystanders. The Sten Mk IIS was the world’s first type standardized sound suppressed submachine gun. The famed German commando Otto Skorzeny purportedly emptied a magazine from a captured example on a crowded Berlin street without arousing attention from bystanders.

At the very end of the war a desperate Germany even produced a crude copy of the Sten called the MP3008. This gun fed from the bottom via MP40 magazines.

Ruminations

The Sten magazine is indeed awful, but the rest of the gun is surprisingly efficient. The gun’s focus on economy above combat efficiency is reflective of the utilitarian English constitution in a crisis. The very fact that the world now knew it was possible to build a truly cost-effective submachine gun changed the way that we crafted armaments. The Germans even produced a last-ditch copy of the Sten at the end of the war called the MP3008 that fed from MP40 magazines.

Military weapons typically spare no expense these days, but that was not always the case. It is a tribute to Masters Shepherd and Turpin that they could under such austere circumstances craft a submachine gun that was as effective as the Sten. Crude, cheap, occasionally unreliable, and bug ugly, the Sten gun nevertheless soldiered on for decades. It also played a very small part in ridding the world of one of the evilest men who ever drew breath.

Technical Specifications

  • Sten Mk II
  • Caliber: 9mm
  • Weight: 7.1 lbs
  • Barrel Length: 7.7 in
  • Overall Length: 30 in
  • Feed System: 32-round Box Magazine
  • Sights: Fixed Peep Rear, Post Front
  • Action: Open Bolt Blowback, Selective-Fire

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About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • grifhunter October 17, 2018, 8:14 pm

    Well written, well researched. Great story. Really look forward to these articles with this author.

  • George Burdock October 15, 2018, 2:22 pm

    I am loath to contradict a fellow Ole Miss graduate, but I have a slightly different perspective on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich – who was not killed by the commandos but probably by Heinrich Himmler’s personal physician. Why the British sent the two Czech’s to a certain death was a mystery, especially knowing the war was no longer going in the German’s favor (America and Russia had both entered the war against Germany), not-too-secret rumors of a coup de e’tat being plotted among the German officer corps and the certain knowledge of an extreme revenge to be exacted by the Nazi’s in the event of any assassination. Also, although Heydrich was a nasty individual, he was also the beneficiary of his wife’s connections, who was an early member of the Nazi party and convinced her husband to join the party as well. Heydrich did have the favor of Hitler and was looked upon by Hitler to be Hitler’s successor, much to the consternation of Heinrich Himmler, who was Heydrich’s direct superior and self-presumed successor to Hitler. Heydrich was injured in the assassination attempt, but not critically and was recovering in the hospital when visited by Himmler’s personal physician – Heydrich could hardly refuse such a visitor. Undoubtedly on some pretext of hastening Heydrich’s recovery, the physician is said to have given Heydrich an injection, but instead of a miracle cure, Heydrich was injected with a mixture of lethal bacteria. Heydrich died a few days later of septicemia (a system-wide infection), thus eliminating competitor for Hitler’s affections, but precipitating a vicious revenge on the Czech. I was in Prague a few years ago and visited the corner at which the assassination took place (it was a good choice), but was also reminded that the Czech suffered greatly at what might have been a waste of two brave men for a futile gesture.

  • Edgar October 15, 2018, 12:55 pm

    What a fantastic story ! GunsAmerica should post similar stories along with their regular articles more often. This was a refreshing change. Thank you!

  • Joe Welch October 15, 2018, 10:59 am

    Failure??? He died of his wounds. I would attrubute the issue with natural fear of those carrying out the mission. They worked well enough for them at the end.

  • Josh October 15, 2018, 10:56 am

    The book, “Seven Men at Daybreak” by Alan Burgess is an excellent read about the assassination of Heydrich and the hunt for his killers. I read it in high school and still have my copy.

  • Rick October 15, 2018, 10:22 am

    During the British occupation in the 40s, the Jews made Sten guns in an underground facility because they were fairly simple and easy to manufacture.

  • bjg October 15, 2018, 9:37 am

    I fired a Sten gun back in the 1980’s Found it fun to shoot a quite easy to control, It’s low rate of fire helped quite a bit. Found it more fun the Israeli gun.

  • Thomas Jefferson October 15, 2018, 7:42 am

    2nd Picture down, guy on the center right. I SWEAR that’s CHUCK SHUMER!!!

    • Jacob Sabra October 15, 2018, 12:23 pm

      If it isn’t Schumer, it should be!

  • 4starrguy October 15, 2018, 7:15 am

    This story was way over simplified The retaliation was typical of the German Nazi response to killing of German shoulders all over Europe.
    The info about the STEN was very informative and accurate I have fired a STEN and because it fires from an open bolt it is difficult to aim It takes a certain amount of Kentucky windage to be consistent in semi-auto and both eyes open in full. It’s soft recoil and slow rate of fire makes it fairly easy for an untrained individual to handle the weapon after only a couple of magazines worth of practice Also to become more reliable the mags needed to be well used I’m not sure why but I think the ears of the mag needed to be a bit worn.
    I like Dr. Dabs bio What a man, and thank you for your service. Funny how we never heard anything like that back in ’69.
    BTW Heydrich was in considerable pain during the last days of his life

  • greg hampton October 15, 2018, 7:02 am

    Must point out an error. Author stated,”Operation Anthropoid was the only successful government-organized assassination attempt of the war.”

    This is incorrect.

    Operation Vengeance was the American military operation to kill Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto of the Imperial Japanese Navy on April 18, 1943, during the Solomon Islands campaign in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy, was killed on Bougainville Island when his transport bomber aircraft was shot down by United States Army Air Forces fighter aircraft operating from Kukum Field on Guadalcanal.

    The mission of the U.S. aircraft was specifically to kill Yamamoto and was based on United States Navy intelligence on Yamamoto’s itinerary in the Solomon Islands area. The death of Yamamoto reportedly damaged the morale of Japanese naval personnel, raised the morale of the Allied forces, and was intended as revenge by U.S. leaders, approved by President Roosevelt, who blamed Yamamoto for the attack on Pearl Harbor which initiated the formal state of war between Imperial Japan and the United States.

    The U.S. pilots claimed to have shot down three twin-engined bombers and two fighters during the mission, but Japanese sources show only two bombers were shot down. There is a controversy over which pilot shot down Yamamoto’s plane, but two American Army Air Corps pilots shot down both Betty bombers carrying Yamamoto and his staff.

  • Eugene Kaptur October 15, 2018, 6:00 am

    Having carried two M3A1 .45 caliber submachine guns in Vietnam for two years, one with an Ithica silencer, I NEVER had a misfire, failure to fire or failure to feed during those two years no matter how dirty or rusty they became in that climate! With one mag in the weapon and a carrier carrying 9 mags I carried a combat load of 300 rounds, heavy YES, effective YES, especially in double canopy where it cut tunnels in the undergrowth when fired! Both were most likely former Lend Lease weapons given to the French in their fight against the Viet Minh, captured from the French later given to the Viet Cong and captured by my Vietnamese Counterparts who gave them to me….yes quite a story they could tell, if they could talk!

  • Commando October 15, 2018, 5:48 am

    A Thompson would have been way too quick and kind.
    I think God chose the Sten Gun so Heydrich would suffer to the max by the grenade and know what and who killed him, before he was summarily sent to Hell. Nazi Bastard.

  • REM1875 October 15, 2018, 4:47 am

    Heydrich was no coward despite being evil….he had also worked to get extra rations for the Czechs, administer justice against both German and Czech black marketers equally and allowed a certain amount of autonomy ……. So this attack which changed all that was not overwhelmingly popular and at the end of the war may have cost the govt in exile to be less welcome when it returned and the communist took advantage of that……
    Was heydrich a serious evil demon???……..without a doubt……..
    Why the Brits used weapons that stood out when a German or Czech weapon would have been wiser can only be chalked up the ‘British attitude’ …….

    • srsquidizen October 15, 2018, 7:28 am

      What made National Socialist Heydrich so evil was not that everything he did was bad. He was evil because he so arrogantly believed that he knew what was best for society as he would like it to be–and he was willing to use whatever tactics necessary, bar none, to achieve that. As we have seen recently, he actually had a lot in common with certain socialist elements in this country…they just don’t (yet) have authority to liquidate anyone who gets in their way.

  • Robert Smith October 12, 2018, 12:52 am

    Thanks to Dr. Dabbs for writing about Kubis and Gabcik. They were heros who should be remembered. Why would the British choose to arm them with an unreliable weapon? It’s not like they couldn’t have found a couple of Thompsons or come up with two captured German MP38s. Given how the attack played out, maybe sniper rifles or a roadside mine would have been more effective. They were lucky got Heydrich in the end.

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