Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History
Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History

Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History

Natasha sheldon - November 27, 2017

Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History
The Sacred Band of Thebes. Google Images.

The Sacred Band of Thebes

The Sacred Band of Thebes was an elite infantry unit formed after the liberation of Thebes from Spartan occupation in 378BC. The Theban Commander Gorgidas installed the group initially as a special guard for the Theban citadel. The 300 men were chosen from the cream of the Theban fighting force to ensure the Thebans never lost their fortress again. However, the unit was also unique in another way.

Greek army units usually separated male lovers. However, Gogidas’s citadel guard was composed of 150 pairs of lovers. According to Plutarch, this was because “since the lovers, ashamed to be base in sight of their beloved, and the beloved before their lovers, willingly rush into danger for the relief of one another.” (Life of Pelopidas). In other words, forming it from elite soldiers with a special attachment to each other created a more dedicated, coherent fighting force.

Initially, when the citadel guard was required to fight in open battle, they were dispersed throughout the rest of the infantry. This situation changed in 375 BC when the Sacred Band proved their worth as an elite unit of army assassins during the battle of Tegyra. Under the command of Pelopidas, they were sent out on recognizance with a few cavalries for backup. However, on the way, they encountered Spartan troops who greatly outnumbered them.

However, Pelopidas did not despair. He formed the Sacred Band into a single dense unit, the cavalry behind them and sent them to the Spartans- not to attack the whole force but to pick off the leaders and best fighters. This tactic sent the Spartans into disarray, and they dispersed. According to Plutarch, it was the first time the Spartans were defeated by an enemy force smaller than their own. It was also the occasion that saw the Sacred Band become Thebe’s assassins: a single shock unit sent out into battle to deliberately weaken the enemy by picking off key targets.

Using the Sacred Band and similar tactics, the Thebans were able to defeat the Spartans again in 371 BC at the battle of Leuctra. For the rest of the fourth century BC, the Greek states regarded Thebe’s assassins as undefeatable. However, in 338 BC the band was surrounded and overwhelmed by the forces of Philip II of Macedon at the battle of Chaeronea. The entire unit was wiped out and buried under a gigantic statue of a lion. Excavations under the lion uncovered 254 skeletons laid out in 7 rows- confirmation that the sacred band was indeed buried with honors.

Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History
Stone carving of a Vishkanya. Google Images.

The Vishkanya

Not all assassins were male. The name ‘Visha Kanya’ comes from the Sanskrit for ‘poison girl’ or ‘poison damsel’ – a literal description of the role of the Visha Kanya who were female assassins who killed with poison. The group began between 340 and 293 BC when they were set up by the first Indian Maurya Emperor, Chandragupta. Their utilization by the state was recorded in the Arthashastra, a manual of statecraft written by Chanakya, the prime minister of the emperor.

The Arthashastra recommended that the Emperor needed to maintain a network of agents to monitor and manipulate his enemies. Assassination was a form of covert war, and to that end, the King needed to retain operatives who could deal with specific targets. These agents were not just men. They also included women.

To undermine a ruling oligarchy, make chiefs of the [enemy’s] ruling council infatuated with women possessed of great beauty and youth, ” advised Chanakya, “ When passion is roused in them, they should start quarrels by creating belief (about their love) in one and by going to another.” (Arthashastra 11.1). This is where the Vishakanya came in. However, although noted for their beauty, they were not just deployed to cause fights between love rivals; they killed their potential lovers.

The training of a Vishakanya began as a child. After recruitment, each girl was fed a modulated diet of poison. This practice, known as Mithridatism was designed to render the future assassin immune to the poison they would use on their targets. This meant the Vishakanya could administer poison directly, perhaps even tasting it themselves to divert suspicion before – and after – the kill.

Many girls did not survive the training, as they could not withstand preparatory dosage. Those that did were sent out in their King’s service in the guise of courtesans. So legendary was the skill of the Vishakanya, it was believed their bodily fluids were naturally poisonous so that even a kiss from them was death. In all probability, the girl’s administered the poison in other ways, using alcohol or food as a carrier. This way, they could share the tainted feasts with their targets, safe because of their immunity.

Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History
Hitler’s Werwolves. Google Images.

Hitler’s Werwolves

By 1944, Germany’s war was faltering. So in a last-ditch attempt to turn things around, Henrich Himmler came up with a plan. Himmler had studied Soviet sabotage tactics earlier in the war and was confident that he could now apply them to Germany’s advantage. So he set up squads of young assassins that were sent beyond enemy lines into former German-held territories to erode the Allies’ authority.

This group of last-minute assassins was known as Hitler’s Werwolves. Himmler recruited them from 5,000 elite volunteers from the Hitler Youth and the Waffen SS. The Werwolves were hastily trained up in covert activities. They were taught to make makeshift explosives, create diversions with arson and move with stealth. They also learned unarmed combat, including how to strangle a target with a piece of string.

The most remarkable and shocking aspect of the Werwolves was that many of them were children- some as young as ten. Indoctrinated with Nazi ideals in the Hitler Youth, these young operatives were easy to manipulate- and had the advantage of blending in smoothly with the general civilian population.

Operation Werewolf, as it was known began in early 1945. Operatives started hiding weapons caches around their regions for future use. They also began to take out critical official targets in Allied-held towns. One of the most famous assassinations was of Franz Oppenhoff; a German lawyer put in charge of the town of Aachen on the German border with Belgium and the Netherlands.

However, overall, the operation was not a success. The assassinations achieved little and Allied forces discovered the weapons caches before the Werwolves could put them to use. The Werwolves were just too little too late. Ill-prepared, poorly trained and too young and inexperienced, they were little more than a last-minute desperate measure by a failing regime.

Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History
The Black Hand Gang. Google Images

The Black Hand Gang

The ‘Union of Death’ or the Black Hand gang formed in 1911 with the single purpose of liberating and unifying Serbia. Army officers, headed by Colonel Dragutin ‘Apis’ Dimitrijevic, formed the gang but by 1914, its ranks had swelled. Membership now numbered around 2500 people, consisting of government officials, intellectuals, and ordinary Serbians.

Members were organized in isolated cells of only 3-5 members to protect the overall structure of the organization, and all swore oaths to kill- and be killed for their cause. These measures were essential as the gang’s campaign of terror was in full swing, and they could not afford to have it brought down. It began by exerting pressure by terrorizing government officials. However, in 1914, the group’s focus was on one, critical target.

Apis had learned that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was planning to offer concessions to the Serbs. If this had gone ahead, the Black Hand Gang’s much longed for Serbian revolution would not occur. So a plan was hatched. Franz Ferdinand was visiting Sarajevo in June of that year. If the gang assassinated him, a war would break out between Serbia and Austria. Russia, Apis believed would side with the Serbs, and the outcome would be a liberated Serbia.

Three young Bosnian members: Gavrilo Princip, Nedjelko Cabrinovic, and Trifko Grabez, were secretly transported into Sarajevo to carry out the assassination. After learning the route of the archduke’s motorcade, the operatives were distributed along its route so that at least one of them would succeed. The authorities, although aware of the plot were unable to apprehend the men beforehand. However, at first, it seemed the assassination would fail as the assassins initially failed to carry out their mission. Yet, as the archduke began the return leg of his journey through Sarajevo, Princep killed both him and the Archduchess.

The assassins were arrested, and the ringleaders identified, and the Austro-Hungarian government demanded the Serbians hand them over to stand trial in Vienna. When the Serbian government refused, Austria declared war. However, after that, the outcome was not quite as the gang had planned. The intricate network of treaties between the various European states meant that more and more countries were drawn into the conflict, resulting in a war that went far beyond the Balkans: the First World War.


Sources For Further Reading:

ThoughtCo – Hashshashin: The Assassins of Persia

Haaretz – The Historic Mixup That Made People Fear Hashish

India TV News – How The Word Assassin Originated From Hashshashin Of Persia

AEON – Samurai, Spy, Commando: Who Were The Real Ninja?

Inside Japan Tour – Ninja Vs. Samurai

ThoughtCo – The Tale of the 47 Ronin

Quora – Is It Possible That Vishkanyas, The Poisonous Maiden Assassins, Actually Existed?

Ancient Origins – The Venomous Visha Kanyas Versus the Thugs: Which Would You Prefer Were Real?

Brewminate – The Theban Defeat of the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra

History Net – Werewolves of Aachen

War History Online – Nazi Werewolves? The Secret Nazi Guerrilla Organization

ThoughtCo – The Black Hand: Serbian Terrorists Spark WWI

History of Yesterday – Why Did the Black Hand of Serbia Want to Kill Franz Ferdinand?

The Washington Post – What Everyone Gets Wrong About The Start Of World War I