My dad was ten-and-a-half when the Second World War broke out.
And he was 12-or-thereabouts when his father took him out in the fields near their Warwickshire home and taught him how to load and fire the old rifle hidden behind a coat in the hallway.
The lesson was just in case Grandad wasn’t home when the Germans invaded and Dad needed to defend his mother and sisters and younger brother against the enemy.
It was an extra-ordinary responsibility to place on the shoulders of a lad, who was not yet a teenager.
But those were extra-ordinary times and elsewhere in the UK, at Arisaig, on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands, two other men were also preparing to defend their families and friends against a man so evil even fellow SS officers referred to him as the ‘Blond Beast’.
He was Reinhard Heydrich, SS OberGruppenfuhrer, Reichsprotektor Bohemia and Moravia, and the brains behind the ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish problem.
Hitler called him the man with the iron heart. In Prague he was known as the Hangman.
And Eduard Benes, exiled president of Czechoslovakia, had ordered his execution.
The men chosen to carry out his orders were Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik.
One was a Czech and the other a Slovak and both were British Special Operations Executive trained commandos.
Their mission, Operation Anthropoid, which took place 75 years ago this month, was one of the single most dramatic events of the Second World War with horrific consequences for thousands of innocent people.
It’s a story that has fascinated author Howard Linkskey since he came home from his day job 15 years ago and turned on the History Channel halfway through a documentary on the assassination of Heydrich.
And the more he learned about Kubis and Gabcik, the more determined he became to tell their story.
Hunting the Hangman is his account of their courageous attempt to bring down one of the most powerful men in the Third Reich.
It’s a gripping tale although it’s always difficult to read a novel that is part-fact and part-fiction – for one thing the element of suspense is completely missing.
But Linskey’s research is impeccable and there’s lots of stuff I didn’t know before – like the role of the SOE in the enterprise and that Heydrich lingered for several days after the assassination attempt, eventually dying of blood poisoning.
It’s also interesting to go behind the scenes and to learn something about the men and the rationale behind what was essentially a suicide mission.
‘Make sure they understand,’ Benes orders.
‘That they might not be coming back?’ asks Moravec, head of the Czech secret service in exile. ‘Good men would know that already.’
And Kubis and Gabcik do – although after they have parachuted into Czechoslovakia and begin to make preparations for the assassination, each begins to believe that possibly they just might make it back in one piece.
They’re a remarkable pair although, perhaps inevitably given the magnitude of the task ahead of them, they sometimes seem more like the stars of a classic World War Two thriller than ordinary men in an extra-ordinary true-life story.
Just as well really – Kubis and Gabcik are the heroes of two big-budget Hollywood films, timed to coincide with the anniversary of Operation Anthropoid.
Will the films be a more fitting tribute to their courage and resilience?
I doubt it.
Review by Sue Featherstone.
Available to buy on Amazon.