July 20, 1944
Wolfschanze, East Prussia,
20 July 1944, 1132 hours GMT
The sharp-featured Prussian field marshal approached Hitler’s headquarters bunker, trailed by several staff officers. The SS hauptmann standing guard at the door snapped his arm upward in a salute and shouted as a heavy cement truck rolled by.
“Field Marshal Keitel. Der führer is expecting you. Since they are reinforcing the command bunker, the conference will be held in Minister Speer’s barracks.”
“Very well,” the aristocratic commander replied. His face was etched with deep lines, and black circles darkened the skin around his eyes. Keitel turned to one of his accompanying officers and glanced down at the man’s solid briefcase. “Did you bring the information on the Replacement Army?”
Colonel Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg instantly tightened his grip on the satchel’s handle. He stood stiffly, nearly as tall as the field marshal, and was every bit his equal as an aristocrat if not in military rank. Von Stauffenberg was a soldier who had suffered grievously for the Reich. A black path covered his left eye, and his sleeve on the same side was pinched shut at the wrist, hanging empty beside his Wehrmacht colonel’s tunic. He clasped his large briefcase in his right hand, even though he had lost fingers there to the same explosion that had claimed his arm and his eye. “Jawohl,” he replied, indicating the briefcase with a nod. (He was sweating for reasons other than the oppressive heat.)
The colonel glanced over at the footings for the new large command bunker, a symptom of the Soviet advance. A foreman was yelling at his crew; as always, Wolfschanze, the “Wolf’s Lair,” was a beehive of construction activity, with new fortifications being thrown up while the war moved closer and closer.
Keitel noticed Stauffenberg looking at the new command bunker. ’The tide will yet turn in our direction,” the field marshal observed.
Stauffenberg looked at his commander. “Yes, Field Marshal,” he replied. “And perhaps sooner than we think.” His face was carefully expressionless, giving away nothing of his true thoughts. Only the beads of moisture on his forehead betrayed his tension, and those could easily be explained by the heat. He knew Keitel was still loyal to the führer and would be until the end—which would come sooner than the field marshal could possibly imagine.
Minutes before, Stauffenberg had opened the briefcase and reached inside to crush a glass ampule. The subsequent chemical reaction had activated a fuse. By the colonel’s estimate, the bomb in the briefcase would go off in about ten minutes. If all went well, by the end of the day Germany would begin to emerge from the long night of dictatorship and fascism.
Keitel merely nodded, obviously pleased at the patriotic response, as he led his staff toward the barracks. Twice, staff officers offered to carry Stauffenberg’s briefcase, but each time he refused the help. The seconds crept slowly by as they approached the Speer Barracks. This was one of the old wooden structures, built before fortifications at the Wolf’s Lair were deemed necessary. The building looked like a long one-story lodge in the woods, not at all like a sophisticated field headquarters for the mighty military machine that was the Third Reich.
To von Stauffenberg, the change raised a pragmatic concern. He worried that his bomb might not be sufficient for the job, that the open windows would diffuse the blast and reduce the damage it would cause. He suppressed a grimace. Why had Keitel interrupted him before he could get the second bomb from Haeften? But there was nothing to be done about that now.
Inside the conference room more than a dozen uniformed officers stood about in various states of unease while an equal number of stenographers scribbled their notes at writing tables placed haphazardly around the perimeter of the conference bunker. A broad map table filled the center of the room, and the short, dark-haired figure of the führer bent over those sheets, his shoulders and arms tight with barely-concealed tension. He looked up, piercing eyes flashing angrily, as Keitel and Stauffenberg entered.
General Adolf Heusinger was clearly trying to complete his briefing without provoking another Hitler outburst. “The attempts to reform Army Group Center are being met with some…, er, limited success. Zhukov’s armies continue to advance, however. Three days ago some elements of the First Guards Tank Army crossed the Bug River into Poland—although the defenders of Lvov stand heroically firm. In the north, I regret to report, there is a real possibility that Stalin’s horde will reach the Baltic. In that case, our armies in Latvia and Estonia will be lost…unless…or rather, if, they were to make a strategic movement toward the Fatherland—”
“The German army will never withdraw! It will fight and be victorious—or it will die! But it will never retreat.” He was sweating for reasons other than the oppressive heat. Hitler’s voice rose nearly to a shriek, his eyes fastened on the quivering lieutenant general. “How is it that you cowards in the Wehrmacht can’t get that fact through your thick heads? Proceed—but do not mention withdrawal!”
“Jawohl, mein Führer!” Heusinger gulped and mopped his brow, then continued with the dolorous report, trying unsuccessfully to highlight the rare bits of positive news.
Stauffenberg felt some sympathy for the man, knowing that the task of sugarcoating the news was virtually impossible. In truth, Army Group Center—the greatest concentration of men and matériel ever gathered under German command—had been virtually obliterated by the massive Soviet spring offensive. About the best the hapless Heusinger could do was dangle the hope that the sweeping Soviet advance must surely be carrying the Russian tanks far beyond their bases of supply. Also, he emphasized, the bridgehead across the Bug was still small. Of course, none of the unspoken realities would escape any of the experienced army officers here, but these professional soldiers knew to a man that it was nothing short of suicide to confront the führer with truths he did not wish to hear.
Stauffenberg, stepped up to the table as Field Marshal Keitel moved to Hitler’s side. The colonel had asked Major von Freyend to find him a place close to Hitler to compensate for his poor hearing, and von Freyend was happy to oblige. Stauffenberg’s one good eye never blinked as it appeared to consider every detail on the wide map, with its huge expanse of flags and colored lines, the sweeping horde beneath the hammer and sickle closing onto the heart of the Reich. His heart pounded, and anger and despair writhed together as he observed this graphic depiction of national catastrophe. So this is the end to which the führer would lead us. Well, today, right here, the madness stops.
The colonel carefully set his heavy briefcase down underneath the table. Months of stealth, of plotting, of careful recruiting had led to this moment. The explosion would kill most of the people in the barracks, he knew, and not all of them deserved to die, but then so many people had not deserved to die. These deaths, at least, would bring the insanity to an end.
“Herr Oberst—there is a call for you, from Berlin.” Stauffenberg turned to see a messenger whispering at his side. “General Fellgiebel said it was urgent.” Nodding silently, the crippled officer took one last look at Adolf Hitler, führer of the Third Reich, and smiled his tight smile before following the messenger from the conference hut, moving quickly across the compound toward the communications building, following the cue of his coconspirator. He completely forgot his cap and gunbelt.
He didn’t forget his briefcase. It remained exactly where he wanted it, under the table, a few feet from the führer’s legs.
Colonel Heinz Brandt moved into the space at the table vacated by Stauffenberg. Brandt, an aide to General Heusinger, was an operations officer on the general staff. He was pondering a disturbing bit of news. Unconfirmed reports from the Balkans had been coming into the OKW headquarters, indicating the possibility of defection by Rumania and Bulgaria. The two nations had never been enthusiastic participants in the epic was against the USSR, and now that the eastern hordes rolled toward them, Brandt’s sources indicated that either or both countries might be preparing to change sides.
Yet how could he bring this up to the führer? Brandt’s idealism and patriotism had been sorely tried these past months. He still revered his führer, but those bursts of temper were coming more and more frequently. And too often they meant disgrace or disaster to the recipient.
His position at the table was awkward, and he realized that his foot was blocked by Stauffenberg’s briefcase. He reached down to move the leather satchel to his right, finding that it was surprisingly heavy. As he started to shove it behind the thick stanchion supporting the table, however, he was possessed by the sudden urge to sneeze. He froze, embarrassed by his awkward stance, tense because of his proximity to Hitler. Struggling to suppress the tickle in his nose—a distraction such as a sneeze, however involuntary, always irritated the führer—Brandt decided that the briefcase could remain where it was. He straightened with careful dignity, ignoring the damnably heavy satchel, relieved that he managed to keep from attracting unwanted attention to himself.
More ominous facts and figures mounted up: the Americans and British continued to reinforce their beachhead in Normandy, which was now six weeks old. The German defenders held their positions with heroic courage, but the Wehrmacht commander in the west, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, had just been critically injured by an Allied air attack. The report sent by his replacement, von Kluge, indicated that his troops were stretched to the breaking point, that the defensive shell must soon crack.
Meanwhile the heavy bombers kept coming, day and night, raining death on Germany’s cities and destruction upon the Third Reich’s industrial capabilities. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s representative reluctantly admitted that the Luftwaffe was horribly depleted, critically short of spare parts, barely able to scrape together enough fighters to harass the thundering fleets of enemy bombers.
Hitler’s eyes again flashed. “And the rigging of the jet bombers? How fares that?”
The unfortunate Luftwaffe officer paused awkwardly. Like every other former combat pilot, he undoubtedly realized the potential of the rocket-fast plane designed by Willy Messerschmidt—the Me-262. Certainly it was glaringly obvious to him, and to everyone else in the Luftwaffe, that the short-ranged aircraft would make a magnificent fighter. Still, Hitler felt a passionate need to strike back at the enemy homeland in revenge for the bombing of Germany, and to that end he had insisted that the aircraft be rigged to carry bombs—a task for which the plane was patently unfit. Thus, the development of a premier weapon had been placed indefinitely on hold. Brandt, an army man more familiar with diplomacy than air power, nevertheless felt sympathy for the flying officer who was now forced to confront his ruler’s irrationality.
The man would never formulate his reply.
The explosion ripped through the confined space with the deafening power of thunder, a blaze of fiery light and a shock-wave that twisted the ground itself. An eruption of smoke and debris choked Brandt, who suddenly found himself lying on his back, staring up at the tattered remnants of the ceiling’s crude wooden paneling. Patches of sky showed through the lumber, a fact that struck him as bizarre.
What had happened? The colonel couldn’t fully grasp the situation. Looking around, blinking the dust of the explosion from his eyes, he saw Field Marshal Keitel stagger past. The tall man’s hair stood on end, and his face was plastered with soot as he knelt beside a shapeless form to Brandt’s left. Other officers groaned or cried for help while two stenographers stumbled toward the door, which hung limply by a single hinge.
Idly, with a sense of curious detachment, Colonel Brandt dropped a hand below his own waist, noticing that his legs were gone. He was dying, he realized, though it was a distant thought. The horrific wound didn’t seem to hurt, a fact that surprised him. He noticed a leather shred, the same color as the heavy briefcase, fluttering in the ruins of the smoke-filled room.
Then he saw Keitel lurch to his feet, the field marshal’s face distorted with a grief so strong that it penetrated even Brandt’s mortal haze. Rubbing a hand across the blasted skin of his face, the chief of staff tried unsuccessfully to conceal his profound distress. His jaw stretched tight by emotion, the field marshal’s words caught in his throat. He looked down again, as if to deny some madness that afflicted his mind. Finally, haltingly, he spoke.
“Der führer ist tot,” Keitel declared, his voice as dull as the echoes of the assassin’s bomb.
* * *
General Erich Fellgiebel, standing outside the Speer Barracks, spun around in alarm as the sound of the explosion echoed through the Wolf’s Lair. For a moment his mind froze in awful, incomprehensible fear. What have we done? The question resounded through his mind until he roughly pushed it aside. We have taken back the Fatherland!
The older general’s mind still churned with the conflict between his military oath and his duty to his country as he saw it. It was a difficult choice, a bitter draught from a cup he’d wished would have passed him by. History might brand him a traitor, an oath breaker, and the thought of his reputation forever stained by betrayal was almost too much to bear. He admired the younger Stauffenberg’s stoicism, his aristocratic certainty that his choice was correct, honorable.
He watched the dust cloud trailing Stauffenberg’s staff car as the colonel and his driver drove away from the Wolf’s Lair without apparent urgency. His coconspirator would board an aircraft for Berlin within a few minutes. Not so long ago he’d thought of the young officer as almost a son. Now, in the end, it seemed as if their roles had reversed. May God be with him…and with the Fatherland.
Fellgiebel knew that he had his own mission to carry out, but now that the time had come the general’s will strangely deserted him. He knew he had only minutes to live.
“Treachery! Murder! Help—bring the surgeon!” The cries came from the destroyed staff building, and several officers stumbled into the sunlight, caked with dust and debris. Was Hitler among them?
Fellgiebel gawked, frozen in place, feeling the pulse pounding in his temples. Had they succeeded? What should he do?
“The führer is slain!” gasped one general, falling to his knees in shock or despair.
In that admission Fellgiebel found his strength and darted through the door of the communications center. Idle couriers stared in surprise as the general pulled open a large case, withdrawing several long hand grenades. Holding the fragmentation bombs in one hand, he drew his pistol with the other. the wide-eyed radio operator lurched to his feet, staring at the general in disbelief, which the two operators spun around at the telephone switchboard.
“Back!” snarled the general, gesturing the men away from the signals equipment. Gun in one hand, grenade in the other, he made a formidable picture of persuasion. Stumbling over chairs, the communications staff scrambled toward the doors.
The general ran to the switchboard and picked up the telephone speaker, barking a series of numbers into the phone. In another moment, the line was answered with a curt “Was?”
“Die Brucke ist verbrennt!” barked the panting Fellgeibel, before quickly breaking the connection.
The signal for success—“The bridge is burned!”—would be spread by the conspirators across the Reich, though Fellgiebel now felt a piercing regret at the knowledge that he wouldn’t be alive to see the effect of those momentous words. Arming the grenade, he dropped it behind the bank of the telephone switchboard.
Next the general fired four shots from his Walther into the cabinet-size radio, each slug splintering tubes and wiring. Fellgiebel reached out and pitched the huge radio onto its side before firing more shots from his handgun.
He was still shooting as an SS guard burst through the door. Fellgiebel did not look up as the man’s Schmeisser erupted, stitching a line of bloody holes up the general’s back, knocking him onto the switchboard that would never be used again.
A second later, the grenade behind the telephone switchboard exploded, shredding the panel into lethal shrapnel, simultaneously ripping into the SS guard and tearing away at Fellgiebel’s unfeeling corpse.
* * *
Belorussia, Soviet Union, 1157 hours GMT
“Die Brucke ist verbrennt!” crackled a voice over the radio. Hauptmann Paul Krueger ignored it—obviously some code phrase that had nothing to do with him. He had other things on his mind as he piloted his Messerschmidt through the clear summer skies.
This morning had started out bad and gotten worse. A pitifully few fighters were all that remained of the once mighty Luftwaffe on the Russian front, and most of those were in a sorry state of repair. Some otherwise flyable machines had been stripped for parts to make a few craft airworthy. Ammunition supplies were low, trained pilots were scarce, and the creeping carpet of Slavs kept advancing, like a race of army ants, or perhaps cockroaches. Kill a hundred, and a thousand more crawl out from under rocks.
That was what his fellow pilots, his officer, and especially his maintenance people kept arguing, until his towering fits of rage shut them up. He could see in their eyes they were afraid of him—and rightly so—but their opinions were secretly unchanged. In his mind, that made them effectively Soviet agents and saboteurs, and he would cheerfully have stood them all up against a wall and shot them dead with his own pistol.
His mechanic, Willi, had approached him, trembling. The anger on Krueger’s face was obvious, and when Krueger was angry, no one but Willi would approach him. “Hauptmann—I’m sorry to tell you, but your wingman won’t be flying today.”
His glare was enough to stop Willi in his tracks. “It’s spare parts—like always—I just can’t get enough to keep all the planes in the air. The colonel says you’re not going up today.”
The inner flame rose within Krueger. “Not going up?” he said with deceptive quiet.
“The colonel says…not without a wingman…,” Willi stammered.
The back of Krueger’s hand slashed across the mechanic’s face, leaving an angry welt where his ring hit flesh. He turned and strode to his plane. Knowing better than to argue, the young mechanic hurried behind him, starting the preflight ritual. There would be no excuse for Krueger’s plane not to fly.
Krueger was still angry about the failure. The colonel, the mechanics—they thought they had a good excuse, but they were wrong. There was no excuse, First, Krueger knew better. He was an engineer, and a damned good one—and an even better fighter pilot. He knew what was possible. And second, he was German. He was a member of the master race, and so were the others in his Gruppe. The thought that any number of Slav bastards or their crummy American - made airplanes could stop the German knights of the skies was simply, finally, absolutely unacceptable. But his fellows were weak. He could see it in their eyes. They were defeatist, and if they did not change their attitude, they should be shot.
The führer himself once said, “If the German people despair, they will deserve no better than they get. If they despair, I will not be sorry for them if God lets them down.” He’d written similar statements in Mein Kampf, a book Krueger had read so many times he’d virtually memorized it. The German people through their führer had been given a chance to fulfill their destiny, but if they did not grasp it, they were already doomed.
Krueger loved to fly and loved to kill, and nothing would work out the day’s frustrations like some dead and bleeding Salvs. His anger had dissipated as the ground fell away, and finally there was just himself and his machine, alone in the sky and vigilant on the hunt. And it was not long before the hunter found his game.
Banking his Messerschmidt Bf-109G through a lazy circle, he glared at the long column of Soviet T-34 tanks extending almost to the far horizon. He sat up high in the cockpit, unlike most of his fellow pilots, who crouched low in case on of a stray bullet or piece of flak. He wanted to see, and he wanted the world to understand that he had no fear, not of anything the Reich’s enemies could throw at him.
Nazi artillery fired, and a few bursts of flame, far too few to suit him, illuminated the landscape. In past years, he might have expected to see some Stukas dropping bombs with pin-point accuracy among he crowded vehicles, but the Stukas were gone, along with most of the rest of the Luftwaffe.
He felt a fiery impulse to strafe the column, to shatter Russian bodies with the machine guns and cannon of his deadly fighter, but it was impractical. Few of this his shells would have penetrated the heavy armor of the tanks—and the Soviet’s accurate antiaircraft fire would have almost certainly brought him down. Today, with no wingman, it was even more dangerous. Perhaps if he’d come across a file of the soft-skinned trucks or plies, he’d have taken the chance to shred the target, especially if there were gasoline trucks to explode in balls of smoky flame. But those vehicles would be far to the rear, under skies that had become the undisputed province of the Red Air Force.
They were overbreeding scum, those Slav, threatening the purity of the Aryan homeland only by dint of sheer numbers, and their awful winters. Cockroaches, the lot of them. The führer’s legions would defeat them, thought, and Krueger would carry an avenging torch to purify the land by fire. From his days in the Hitlerjugend, the Hitler Youth, to his earliest commissioning, Krueger had been the most loyal, the most dedicated of Nazis. When weaker men’s faith faltered, Krueger was inspired by thoughts of secret weapons still to be unleashed—though truth be told, he could not completely believe in them until he himself sat at the controls. He was too much the engineer for that, priding himself on knowing his aircraft inside and out.
Krueger’s fighter growled along nearly two thousand meters above the level steppe as he contemplated the column. But the tanks were hardly a new sight. He’d observed nearly as many surrounding Stalingrad during the disastrous winter of ’42, and at Kursk, only a year ago—though it seemed now in the distant past—he’d seen an even greater number. Though he’d destroyed many, sending their occupants to hell where they belonged, there were always more.
A flash of movement darted through his peripheral vision, and Krueger’s attention immediately focused. Two airplanes flew low, past the front of the T-34 column, toward a clump of woods that lay in the Red Army’s path. Flames blasted from the pointed noses of the aircraft, and a series of explosions walked their way into the grove. Abruptly a jet of red fire shot from the treetops. The German tank lurking there—an old Panzer III, to judge from the turret that tumbled across the ground—had been destroyed.
Krueger dipped his 109 into a shallow dive. The telltale flashes confirmed his identification—the Soviet aircraft were American-made Bell P-39 Airacobras. The planes were heavily armored and, though slow in a climb, possessed a 37-mm cannon that fired through the hollow prop shaft and had proved ideal for destroying German tanks. Too, they were very fast at low altitude—he’d need all the speed of his dive to catch them.
But catch them, and kill them, he would. Make them pay, make them die in flames. They had no idea who they were up against, and they would not know until it was far too late for it to mater. He’d killed many, so very many, and he was not done yet.
The descending Messerschmidt accelerated quickly, dropping toward the tail of the trailing Airacobra as the Soviet attack planes continued in their search for enemy armor—so intently that neither pilot noticed the checkered nose of Krueger’s aircraft growing larger to the rear. At this rocketing speed the 109 was hard to control, forcing Krueger to wrestle the stick with both hands, fighting the buffeting pressure of the air as the ailerons grew stiff, and he closed the distance rapidly. Finally he dropped his flaps to slow down while he prepared to fire. With an idle tickle of surprise he noted the unusually square shape of the P-39’s rudder as it filled his sights.
The 109’s cannon also fired through the prop shaft, and it erupted when the Luftwaffe pilot pressed the trigger. His eyes followed the tracers into the right wing of the Airacobra. Immediately the Soviet pilot pulled his machine into a hard turn to the left, skimming a hundred feet above the ground. The German followed him inexorably, cannon fire hammering across the length of the wing, up the side of the fuselage, and finally into the cockpit.
Armored glass surrounded the pilot, but it couldn’t stand up to this kind of punishment. Flashes of flame marked the impact of Krueger’s shells, and as the windshield exploded into fragments the Airacobra wobbled through a roll and quickly plunged, upside down, into a marsh. Smoke and water billowed into the air at the moment of impact, but Krueger’s Messerschmidt was already pulling away, wheeling and climbing as his unblinking stare covered the expanse of sky.
Steadily gaining altitude, the whine of his engine rising to a shriek, the German ace scanned the horizon until he saw a flash of movement. The second Airacobra had wheeled around, and it too climbed—into the skies over the vast Russian horde. A quick look behind and above showed Krueger that his tail remained free of Soviet fighters, so he turned after the ground attack craft.
The old Daimler-Benz engine cranked out every one of its nearly fifteen hundred horsepower, pistons pounding, spinning the three blades of the propeller and lifting the German fighter through the air. The sound of the motor remained throaty and strong, thought a quick check showed Krueger that the temperature began to rise uncomfortably. Yet, even as he soared upward, the Luftwaffe pilot watched with astonishment as the Soviet fighter climbed away. Always before, these stub-winged airplanes had proved easy prey once they tired to gain altitude, but now this machine rose beyond the range of his guns with arrogant ease. Curiously, there was a telltale stream of brown in the ’cobra’s exhaust—a sign of water injection, which he had never before seen in a P-39.
Cursing, Krueger pressed his throttle, all the pounding on his control panel in his effort to increase the speed of his desperate pursuit, when the confidence of the Soviet pilot was demonstrated still further. The Airacobra wheeled tightly and dived back toward the Messerschmidt!
Lips clenched over his teeth in a tight smile, Krueger fixed his sights on the diving Bell. The flashing guns on the Soviet fighter winked first, the tracers falling below the 109 as the Luftwaffe pilot steadied his aim. Finally, a few seconds before collision, he pinched off a quick, deadly burst. His shells exploded at the nose of the Airacobra, and flames immediately burst from the fuselage. As the stubby plane screamed into its final dive, Krueger again got a look at that squared, geometrical rudder, noticeably different from the P-39s he’d fought before.
A form tumbled away from the wreck as flames and smoke billowed into the air, and in another second the canopy of a parachute snapped into view. Bastard thinks he’s safe now, does he? The Messerschmidt curled into a dive, and Krueger watched the Soviet pilot wriggle helplessly as the 109 roared closer. The German snapped off a few rounds from his machine guns, observing with grim satisfaction as the bullets shredded the Russian’s jerking body, then left him hanging limply in the harness of his chute.
Flaming tracers of near misses arced past Krueger, and a dim voice in the pilot’s brain told him that this was ground fire. Now he pulled back on the stick and the 109 clawed its way upward, away from the annoying antiaircraft into the tenuous safety of the sky. Other speaks appeared to the east, buzzing closer like angry hornets. At least two dozen fighters of the Red Air Force swarmed toward Krueger, their pilots undoubtedly bent on vengeance. The German shrugged away the prospect of the unequal match, banking toward the west and leveling his flight, knowing that if he held full throttle he should outrun the heavy Ilyushins—unless they, too, had suddenly gained some magical impetus of speed, he thought sourly. He recalled an intelligence report he’d read a month or two earlier. Supposedly the Americans had developed an improved version of the P-39, dubbed the P-63 Kingcobra. The more he thought, the more Krueger became convinced he’d faced two of these new models. It was reportedly much speedier than the older machine, and when he remembered the brown exhaust the pilot suspected the American designers had in fact added water injection to the engine. And when will we get new models? he thought angrily. More incompetence, more cowardice. If I were in charge of production, there would be no excuses, he thought with a grim smile.
Only then did the Luftwaffe pilot look down at the temperature gauge, noting calmly that the needle was creeping toward the red. He veered toward the northwest, toward friendly lines and his airbase. Since he could see or feel no sign that the airplane had been damaged, he suspected that the worn pistons had finally begun to score the cylinders. By the time he crossed into Poland and approached his field, the power plant was gasping and sputtering like a dying man.
Old equipment and not much of that, he thought. Control of the air, he knew, was critical to turning the tide of battle. We are still Germans. We are still supreme. If we have the will as a people, we cannot be stopped.
He throttled back as his plane descended toward the dirt landing strip. He could see people waving, the colonel striding angrily over to him to berate him for disobeying orders. But Krueger was not worried. The colonel tended to back off when Krueger was truly angry. And if this time he didn’t, well, Krueger had totaled up the numbers. With the two downed aircraft today, he’d scored his 150th kill.
Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), London, England, 1215 GMT
General Omar Bradley, commander of the United States First Army, nodded to the secretary outside the supreme Allied commander’s door. “Go right in, General,” she said. “He’s ready for you.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower, five-star general, put down his half-eaten sandwich and smiled. “Welcome back to England, Brad.” he said, standing up and offering his hand.
“Thanks Ike,” Bradley replied. “Sorry to interrupt your lunch. I’m just passing through, thought. I go back across the Channel tomorrow.”
“I’ll be over there soon enough myself,” Eisenhower said. “But there’s all this to get through first—” he indicated a maze of paper. “I’ve been in so many meetings lately that my keister is qualified for the Purple Heart.”
Bradley laughed and settled into a chair.
”So what’s new that isn’t already in these reports?” Eisenhower asked. He had often voiced his frustration to Bradley about being shut off from firsthand experience so much of the time; he had to put together his knowledge from other people’s accounts to make sense of the myriad reports that piled up before him. And there were few people he trusted as much as Omar Bradley, who had been a classmate of Eisenhower’s at West Point.
“We’re opening the Cherbourg port tomorrow; all the German demolition damage is just about corrected. That means we’ll be able to bring in tanks and troops through a regular port and not through the artificial ports. Monty’s got his hands full with German armor but keeps talking about a breakthrough. At least we’re getting more troops and more equipment across every day, and that’s going very well.” Bradley’s quiet and calm demeanor was a contrast to the often bombastic and too frequently self-serving or political rhetoric Eisenhower got from his other generals. Especially his two chief prima donnas—Monty, the British field marshal Bernard Montgomery, who had been commander of ground forces in the D-Day landings, and General George Patton, the brilliant but egotistical tank commander who had been sidelined during D-Day in a huge and successful bluff to convinced the Germans that the attack would come elsewhere than Normandy.
“We’re making progress, Ike. Not as fast as we’d like, of course, but we’ve rocked the Krauts back on their heels along the whole line. It’s a hell of an accomplishment since D-Day.”
Eisenhower nodded in grim agreement. The risk and the carnage of the D-Day landings—only six weeks past!—was still fresh in everyone’s mind. The situation on the ground in Normandy was much more fluid and dangerous than the Allied command wanted.
“And Operations Cobra?” asked the supreme commander, referring to the military plan for the Allied breakout from the Normandy peninsula into France.
“On track. We’ll start the final briefing soon. With luck, Cobra should get us out of those damned hedgerows and heading through France.”
“There’s a long road ahead of us still,” Eisenhower observed.
Bradley nodded. “But we’ll win. There’s no doubt left, really.” Coming from the imperturbable Bradley, the statement was unassailable.
“Did you hear about Rommel?“ Eisenhower asked. “Three days ago he got shot up by a British fighter—Canadian, excuse me. We thought he was dead, but he’s in the hospital. Pretty badly wounded, by all accounts. Looks like his war is over.”
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the famous Desert Fox who had fought so brilliantly in North Africa, had commanded the defense of the D-Day beaches, in places nearly driving the Allies back into the sea. In the end it might have been only Hitler’s refusal to believe that the Normandy invasion was real that had saved the attack. The führer had refused to allow Rommel to counterattack with his panzer divisions, forcing the German tanks out of action until the Allies had a secure foothold on the shore.
“It’s good we don’t have to fight him any more in Normandy,” Bradley mused.
“Well, I wanted another crack at the son of a bitch!” The voice of George Patton, his characteristically high-pitched squeak, came from the officer door as the general strode into the room.
“George,” Bradley acknowledged, standing to shake Patton’s hand. He noted that even here he wore his twin ivory-handled revolvers in their belt holsters. Despite his voice, the general, in his immaculate tunic and shiny cavalry boots, demanded respect, even from his superior officers. Bradley studied him, wondering where Patton’s volatile personality was going to take them today.
“So, Ike, Brad?” Patton said with easy familiarity, though he made no move to join Bradley in sitting down. “When do I get my army?”
“I wouldn’t be taking anything for granted if I were you,” Bradley snapped. “But yes, we’re going to activate Third Army. It looks like you’ll take over about the first of August—if you don’t make an ass out of yourself before then.” Once personally close—Patton had been Bradley’s commanding officer—the two had an increasingly tendentious relationship.
For a second the bombastic front fell away and Patton grinned like an enthusiastic child. Then he was serious again. “You won’t regret this, either of you. Just turn me loose over there! And I don’t care if it’s Rommel or Old Scratch himself on the other side!”
Eisenhower nodded, satisfied. “Though now it looks like von Kluge is in charge of the front.” He turned back to Bradley. “Does that make any real change in your plans?”
“Not really. Kluge is competent; hell, they all are. But he’s going to have to deal with Hitler and all kinds of directives that are going to mess up any smart strategy. The Germans are going to be troublesome all through France, but I don’t think they’ll be able to do much once we break out all the way, at least until we hit the German border.”
“I agree. Sometimes I think Hitler’s one of the best military allies we’ve got. He’s tying the hands of his generals in ways we can only dream about.” The three men laughed. “So, Brad, you’ve got your new units in place?”
Bradley stole a look at Patton and wished that the army commander wasn’t here, not right now. But he went ahead anyway.
“Just wanted to review the final status of the Nineteenth Armored Division, which I’m activating and shipping over this week. I’ve got Jack King in command with Henry Wakefield as his executive officer.”
“King’s aggressive as hell. George, you’ll like him. But you’re pairing him with Henry Wakefield?” Eisenhower put his hand on his chin. “So, Henry finally got away from training commands, hmm?” The supreme commander himself had been a tank instructor, with Henry Wakefield as a contemporary. “Yep,” replied Bradley, with another glance at the scowling Patton. “You know why he didn’t go to Africa or Italy.”
Eisenhower nodded. He remembered the pivotal meeting at the Command and General Staff College, where Henry Wakefield and George Patton had butted heads. It was loud and explosive. The doctrinal points were important, though perhaps not as crucial as the two men believed—Patton tended to believe anyone who didn’t see the future of armor the way he did was a blind idiot, and Wakefield had his own insights into tank warfare. When Patton became operational commander in North Africa, any chance Wakefield had of getting an armored command of his own evaporated. But now that the Allies had landed in Europe, there was too much need.
“I guess you have in mind that Henry will keep Jack from getting too far ahead of himself,” Ike mused.
“That’s right,” replied Bradley. “And Henry deserves a chance. He’s a good man; he just came out on the losing end of a headquarters fight.”
Patton couldn’t keep quiet. “You ask me, he doesn’t belong on a battlefield.”
“George, I didn’t ask you!”
Eisenhower cut them off. “Listen, George, let me finish up with Brad. I’ll see you at the map in the situation room—ten minutes.”
“Yessir!” Patton agreed, once again relaxing into that boyish grin. He turned and stalked out the door, and Bradley could easily imagine the clerks and secretaries scattering out of his path. He turned back to Eisenhower as the supreme commander spoke again.
“Who’s Jack got to head up his combat commands?”
“Two colonels, both blooded. Colonel Bob Jackson…and Colonel James Pulaski.”
Eisenhower’s eyebrows raised. Bradley knew he considered Jackson to be a good and stable choice. “Pulaski?”
“I know, Ike. He’s a Patton man through and through, and he’s a hothead to boot. You know and I know that his Silver Star is partly for luck, but luck isn’t such a bad characteristic for a tank leader. And I think this is a good assignment. He’ll get along well with King, and with any luck, Wakefield will pound a little sense into his head in the process.”
Bradley was familiar with the young officer’s being sound. In the North Africa campaign, Pulaski, then a newly-minded major, had led five tanks into what turned out to be a German trap, but then had fought his way out with the loss of only one of his own tanks, while crippling four panzers, and had been awarded the Silver Star. Eisenhower had groused about the stupidity of getting trapped in the first place, but then the handsome young officer had gotten his picture in the paper and become a brief celebrity. Patton liked him, and he’d been made a major.
A minor wound had returned him Stateside for a few months. Then he’d struggled to get back into the war, but Patton’s assignment to run the semi-imaginary First U. S. Army Group, the bluff operation to make the Germans believe the invasion was coming into Pas de Calais, had made him unable to support his erstwhile protégé. This Pulaski’s chance to return as a freshly made colonel.
Eisenhower shook his head. “Brad, this is your show. I hope to hell you know what you’re doing, mixing fire and gasoline like that.”
“If it works, that mixture will get a lot done,” Bradley said.
“If it works,” emphasized Eisenhower. “So, what other surprises can we expect?”
“With Hitler, who can tell?” replied Bradley.
* * *
Templehof Airport, Berlin, Germany, 1340 hours GMT
The speedy twin-engine Heinkel He-111 bomber descended toward the runway from the west, providing its two passengers with a splendid view of the German capital. The plane was far faster than the lumbering Junkers Ju-52 transport plane that had brought the conspirators to their fateful meeting with Hitler. “The capital of a new Germany,” Colonel von Stauffenberg shouted over the engines. “A Germany without Hitler, free from its Nazi masters!”
Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, the colonel’s aide, was fidgeting in visible agitation. It wasn’t done yet, not nearly, and he was still coming to grips with the irrevocable enormity of their action. Although a loyal member of the conspiracy—he had carried the second bomb, in case it had been needed—it was hard for him to grasp that the deed had actually been done. A Germany without the führer was a truly alien concept. He felt as if he’d killed a deity, a national father figure. Was he a parricide or a hero? Or both?
As the bomber taxied to a halt, he followed Stauffenberg to the waiting staff car and settled in the back.
“Bendlerstrasse, and quickly,” Stauffenberg commanded the driver. As the staff car raced toward the War Ministry building, he let some of the tension in his face relax.
“Now the difficult work begins,” Stauffenberg said with a dangerous smile.
Haeften knew he was being teased for his obvious nervousness. “And what would you call what we have just done?”
“Merely a prelude, my dear Werner,” the colonel said. “There is so much more to accomplish, and so little time. Operation Valkyrie must be turned into a reality. General Olbricht has approached General Fromm to put his influence and the power of the Replacement Army behind the coup. The reserve force should have—must have—begun to muster by now. We have a lot of work to do—Himmler needs to be neutralized, and Göring eased into command so that he can negotiate a surrender. We have accomplished the beginning, but our comrades in the conspiracy also have important roles to play.”
Haeften had joined the plotters early, in those difficult and dangerous days in which even the attempt to sound out officers to find those who might be sympathetic could easily lead to betrayal, torture, and death. Years of plotting, including two failed attempts on Hitler just this month—and only now coming to fruition. “But the führer in dead!” he said triumphantly.
Stauffenberg smiled. “Finally, after all these years, it seems almost too good to be true. The fuse worked soundlessly, just as our British friends had promised.”
* * *
Nearly running through the doors of the huge War Ministry building in Bendlerstrasse, where Stauffenberg served as chief of staff to General From, the two successful plotters entered Stauffenberg’s office. It was crowded with the gathering conspirators, men sitting and smoking, or pacing anxiously. Stauffenberg was first struck with the lack of action, the lack of initiative among his fellow conspirators. It gave him an immediate pang of concern.
“Claus—thank God you’ve made it back!” Olbricht was the first to speak, rising to his feet and clasping the count’s hand warmly.
“Success!” cried Stauffenberg. “He’s dead! Now, how fares the coup?”
He noticed Beck, then, looking vaguely out of the place in his uniform—the uniform he had not worn in six years. The old officer, venerable survivor of the pre-Hitler general staff, who had resigned in protest against Hitler’s plans to invade Czechoslovakia, clasped Stauffenberg’s hand warmly. Beck’s face was flushed, his eyes watering. He was obviously moved, and more than a little disturbed by the actions of the men in this room.
Gradually the colonel realized that no one had answered his question. “The telephones?” He gestured to the dozen or so instruments in the room, none of which were in use. “Have you put through the calls to Vienna…Munich? Has Stulpnagel acted in Paris?”
“We—we wanted to make sure, to hear from you yourself,” General Olbricht explained, somewhat sheepishly. Though he outranked the colonel, his manner clearly indicate who the conspirators valued as leader. “The message came—Die Brucke ist Verbrennt—but we wanted to make sure it wasn’t some kind of trick.”
Precious minutes wasted. Damn it! Stauffenberg flared with anger. How can they just sit there like that? “It’s not trick! He’s dead, I tell you! Quickly, to the phones—spread the word! Where’s Fromm—will he go along with us?”
Again there came that awkward silence. “He—he wouldn’t command the Replacement Army to revolt,” Olbricht explained again. “I’m afraid we’ve shuttled him into a closet.”
“What about Remer? Has the Ninth Regiment surrounded the Ministry of Propaganda?”
“Oh, yes,” Olbricht said, obviously relieved at having good news. “Yes, he is awaiting further orders. And, by the way, I’m ready to initiate command of Operation Valkyrie.”
“But surely that operation has already begun?” the count demanded, increasingly frustrated. One could not select one’s coup partners, he realized, nor simply court-martial or transfer them if they did not work out. Years of subservience to Hitler had made lapdogs out of many of the generals. He supposed he should not be surprised at their lack of initiative now, when it was needed most.
Olbricht nearly stammered in his eagerness to justify himself. “Of course—well, the orders are prepared, in any event. We weren’t sure whether to send them in clear or encode them.”
In order words, you have done nothing, he thought, but forced aside his frustration to consider the question. A clear message would be received almost immediately by all units of the Wehrmacht—but also by the many listening posts of the Allies. He recalled the ominous words of Roosevelt—unconditional surrender. Would they take advantage of the chaos to launch attacks? Almost assuredly.
“Send the announcement in code!” he declared, deciding that the extra time required for individual copies, for decoding, would be worth the added security.
Only later would he realize the enormity of his mistake.
* * *
Normandy, France, 1345 hours GMT
The sight of the D-Day beaches shocked any potential comment right out of Colonel James Pulaski’s vocabulary. As the flat-bottomed tank transport churned toward Utah Beach, he was stunned to silence by the swath of rusting carcasses scattered across the shallows and the flat landscape beyond. Unconsciously he touched the silver crucifix he wore just below his throat, and he wondered at the savagery that had rocked this coast.
Mangled LCTs rested on the shoals, while the burned-out hulks of several tanks settled into the soft sand to form a strange sort of sculpture, as exotic and memorable in its size as Stonehenge, or the heads of Easter Island. Burial details had long since cleared the beaches of the thousands of bodies, but the machinery stood like statuary, or the violent aftermath of giant children’s sandbox battles, marking the battlefield’s violence and horror. It was a strange and moving memorial.
Around and through this rusting sculpture garden the machinery of war progressed at a pace of steady frenzy. Trucks and tanks rolled from the bellies of high, blocky LSTs, the ships having pulled right up to shore before their bow doors lowered to burp out their gasoline- and diesel-powered cargo. Cranes lifted other cargoes clear, while army engineers drove bulldozers back and forth and military policemen keep a wary eye on the chaos of organization.
Pulaski, six feet tall, blond hair and blue eyes, a handsome officer with the solid build of a natural athlete, wore his new colonel’s wings with pride, still not quite able to believe where he was. He put his hands on his hips as he surveyed the scene. “Jesus Christ, what a fight this must have been,” he whispered, his voice betraying awe at the wreckage of war still scattered everywhere, though the invasion had occurred nearly six weeks earlier.
“They say it was even worse over there,” observed Major General Jack King, pointing east. “At Omaha Beach the First Division almost got pushed back into channel.” General King, new commanding officer of the Nineteenth Armored Division, also wore fresh insignia, his second star gleaming silver. A thin, angular, man with wavy silver, hair, uniform crisp and spotless even in a combat zone, he looked almost as if Central Casting had sent him over for the job.
Pulaski realized that General King was as impressed—even awed—as he was. He knew the general had much more combat experience than he, even though Pulaski himself had served with distinction in North Africa, winning a Silver Star for his heroism. Still, it was hard for either man not to react to the scene in front of him.
“Well, they made it ashore—and now here we are to finish the job,” announced Pulaski with barely contained anticipation. “I sure hope Hitler’s got a few Krauts left!”
“Wouldn’t worry about that,” the general replied as the two men climbed down the landing ramp and headed toward the already debarked tanks.
“They look ready for anything, don’t they?” Pulaski stared with unconcealed pride at the row of M4 Sherman tanks gathered at the base of one of the long causeways that connected this isolated beach to the mainland of Normandy and the rest of France.
These were his tanks, members of the lead company of his combat command. The eighteen humpbacked armored vehicles of Company B, 38th Tank Battalion of the Nineteenth Armored Division had been unloaded form the LST earlier in the day. Their crewmen had been reunited with their tanks, and each had been started and warmed up. Now they simply waited for the command to move off of the beach. The rest of the three battalions in Pulaski’s combat command were still aboard the nearly LSTs but were due for debarkation in the next twelve hours.
“When’s the rest of the division come in” inquired Pulaski. He was impatient, ready to drive toward the war immediately.
King looked unconsciously across the still waters of the English Channel. “Tomorrow p.m., supposedly,” he replied. “At least, that’s when Bob Jackson and his HQ company land. But we want you up to the bivouac tonight.” He looked at the younger officer affectionately, an elder to a bright youngster who had the potential to turn into something fine. Pulaski was a little annoyed at the implied patronization—hell, I’m thirty-three years old— but General King had a fine combat record, and he was entitled to his opinion. Pulaski might be a trifle unseasoned in his new command role, but the experience would happen soon enough, once they encountered Germans. He could hardly wait.
“Fair enough—just tell me when to go,” declared Pulaski. He returned King’s look with an unabashed grin, unable to conceal his nervous energy.
“Believe me, when we jump off you’ll be leading the way,” the general declared. “You know I’m counting on Combat Command A.”
The younger officer reached out to pump the general’s hand.
“And you know how much this command means to me, sir,” he said, his voice thickened by gratitude. “I won’t let you down.”
“Hell, call me Jack—in private, at least. We’re going to be working together a lot, you and I,” replied King with a wide grin, teeth glistening. “You’re going to make a first-rate tank officer. Find the chinks in the German defenses, push through, and open the gaps to crack the enemy into little pieces.”
“I’ve arranged for you to get the first of the division’s 76-mm guns,” King added, as Pulaski again took in the row of his immaculate Shermans. Four of the tanks were armed with cannons that were significantly longer than the guns of the rest of the stubby vehicles. These big barrels were also distinguished by a hollow flash guard at the terminus of the gun.
“You think it’s true what they say about the German tanks—that a 75-mm armor-piercing round will bounce right off the turret?” asked Pulaski skeptically. “Well had those same 75s on the Lees in Tunisia, and I’ve seen their AP rounds punch right through enemy armor."
“That was in ’43, and things change. From what I hear, the Panther is damned tough,” King replied. He and his colonel had seen the same intelligence reports. “And the Tiger is a real monster, but they don’t have too many of them on the front.”
The colonel turned to watch as the components of Combat Command A continued to roll off of several ships. He knew a thrill of pride at the thought that he was in charge of a third of the division’s firepower—its lead strike force. The combat command included full battalions of tanks and armored infantry in half-tracks, as well as a recon company, assault-gun company, and the eighteen big guns of a self-propelled artillery battalion. All in all, they would move out with out with more than five hundred vehicles and ten times that many men.
“Whatever you come up against, Ski, I know Combat Command A of the Nineteenth Armored will make a real name for itself.”
“Thank you, General. I’ll do my best.” He touched his new shoulder patch. The Nineteenth Division’s insignia was a white star on a badge of crimson.
“I know you will,” replied King with a grin.
“Excuse me—General King?” A military policeman approached them through the grassy sand. He saluted casually as he reached the two officers. “I’m to take you up to Carentan tonight. Is your first battalion ready to go?”
King looked at Pulaski, who nodded enthusiastically. "Ready and willing," the colonel replied. “But what about that traffic jam?”
“We take our places at the back,” said the MP with a shrug. “Don’t worry, sir—we might get up to three or four MPH once we’re off the causeway.”
“What about the rest of the division?” asked King.
They’ll be met tomorrow, General—you can wait here if you want to or come up to Carentan with the Thirty-eighth.”
“Guess I’ll hitch a ride, Ski,” the general said. “After all, I can’t let my junior commanders get the best rooms in the hotel!”
“Sergeant Dawson!” Pulaski called his headquarters sergeant over. Dawson, a sturdy man with an advanced age somewhere in his mid-thirties, trotted over and saluted. He had the bulk of a radiophone slung over his shoulder. “Have you seen any sign of Captain Miller?”
“Eyeing up the causeway, Colonel. He’ll be back in a flash.”
Miller was the captain of B Company, and he did appear a few minutes later. He had planned ahead, so his company was ready to roll.
The vehicles of the headquarters platoon were nearby. Together with Sergeant Dawson and the MP, King and Pulaski climbed into the nearest half-track. Pulaski’s driver—a wiry farm kid from Georgia named Keefer—eased in the clutch. The colonel and Dawson climbed up into the cab while the MP and King chose to ride in the back, seated in the lurching hull. The smells of gasoline exhaust rose around them. It was an honest odor, signifying powerful combustion and capable machinery.
The eighteen tanks and two jeeps of company B joined, in file, the column of vehicles crawling over the narrow causeway and onto the constricted roads beyond. Broken into small plots by tall, tangled hedgerows, each field was a potential fortress to a defender. This bocage country, as Normandy was often described, had exacted a grim and bloody toll from the American troops who had wrested it from tenacious German defenders. Each hedge was a mound of earth, often six feet or more in height, with a bristling barrier of shrubbery growing form the crest. The bocage was perfect for defensive concealment and hell on maneuver—two grave liabilities for tank operations.
The column passed the shells of houses and barns in the darkness, the run is looming like ghostly tombs to either side of the road. Often Pulaski had the impression of hedges pressing close to either side of the road, and it seemed in the eerie night that the half-track might have been rumbling down a long, narrow tunnel.
“You’re up in the Eight Corps area, General,” shouted the MP, speaking over the throaty rumble of the engine. “Under General Bradley’s command, First Army.”
“That’s what I’ve been told—so show me the way,” replied King, shouting in return.
“Say—I hear that before too long Old Blood and Guts his self might be coming over here to take over a field command!” the MP shouted, trying to make conversation.
“Patton? Goddamn right he is—and then we’re heading straight for Berlin!” The general grinned in a sharp line of gleaming straight white teeth, and Pulaski couldn’t help but believe him.
The MP proved an enthusiastic escort, pointing out the route, talking about some of the firefights that had pocked the buildings and cratered the ground. Occasionally he brandished a written sheet of orders to the other MPs manning the check-points that frequently blocked the way. By the time Company B pulled into the trampled field of their bivouac site, they had come a dozen miles and passed a thousand or more individual proofs of war’s fury.
The glow of sunset still brightened the western sky mere hours after Pulaski’s landing on the beach at Normandy. As the tank engines died they were replaced by an equally persistent growl, a thunder that rumbled from beyond the horizon to the south. He knew immediately the true import of the sound. It was an artillery barrage—batteries of heavy 155-mm guns steadily pounding the Germans at their front.
“Well, Ski,” the general commented, “it sounds like we found the war.”
Wehrmacht Hospital, Vesinet, France, 15000 hours GMT
A fly…no, two flies…they buzzed past his ear to thunk repeatedly, loudly against something hollow and close beside him…a lampshade, perhaps. The injured man seized on that the darkness might be parting before him.
Rising through that small opening was pain, a pure agony that was utterly marvelous for the fact that it confirmed his vitality. The left side of his face was a mass of broken, burning flesh, and he vaguely recalled that he had been thrown from the car. And before the crash there had been the bullets from the sky, tearing into his body. He remembered that a tree beside the road had exploded, ripped apart by cannon shells. Wounds throbbed in his torso and his leg, his head was racked by a monstrous aching, and through all the sensations the most important thing was that his body was whole, would have at least a chance to heal.
And he would live.
Then the darkness crept upward again. Physical suffering waned, but now his mind was torn by nightmare…roaring, whining, lethal aircraft…deadly Hurricanes and Typhoons, murderous Spitfires and Thunderbolts flying everywhere, bringing flames and death to his brave men and his magnificent panzers.
The darkness was a river, and her slipped backward…back to 1914, to the first time he’d come under fire. His guts ached form remembered food poisoning and still he led a patrol, so tired and so sick he could barely remain in the saddle. Shots rang out of the fog…he halted the platoon, and went on with three men. The new lieutenant followed a path through a hedge, heard voices, and saw the enemy. Fifteen—no, twenty of them.
His training urged him to bring up the platoon, but instead he attacked, firing rapidly as the enemy survivors scrambled for cover in nearby farmhouses, from where they returned fire. His platoon moved up and he had them ignite bundles of straw, half his men providing covering fire as the others kicked in doors and threw the flaming bundles into the farm buildings. He led them on foot, house by house, until the village was cleared. And he could see the flames, hear the screams, remembered his own pain, and struggled to awake.
Still he lived…they could not kill him…but like all those who survived he was helpless, frozen in concealment under the glare of daylight. At night he might scuttle across the landscape like a crab, but he would have to seek another hiding hole before dawn brought the lethal aircraft swarming back into the skies. Even now he could hear them droning, fighters and bombers diving from all sides, roaring around his head…
The sounds formed the rhythm of his darkness, the dull hum of skyborne doom. For a time it was North Africa…and then it was France…and then ultimately it made no difference, for everywhere was the same beneath the naked sky…the enemy would find him, kill him, kill his men, his tanks, his Fatherland. Always there was the sound, the nagging buzz…
But again the thick curtain parted, and it was not the sound of aircraft. They were merely flies…insects, a minor irritant, but they were nearby and they were real…as a he was real. He almost wished he weren’t, for if he was real, he would be forced again to preside over defeat. Defeat for the Fatherland, defeat for his soldiers, defeat for himself. For there was no longer any hope as long as the enemy held the skies.
Voices of men in the room, coming from the space beside his bed.
He held the curtain of consciousness apart with a pure effort of will, embracing the pain through his entire body…he could not see, nor gesture, nor even make a sound, but through a great cloud he understood words.
“…other man would have died—Dr. Schennig says it is so.” “Any man but the Desert Fox…you watch, he will be up biting the surgeons by the end of the month!”
“Surely not—he lost so much blood!”
“Bah—it matters not. I tell you he will make it! You should have seen him in Africa, standing tall in his car, racing right along with his tanks while the bombardment fell all around! No, they shan’t get him this easily!”
“But the head would—the bullet went into his temple!”
“And I repeat—he will live…” More words, then, but it was too much to make them out. A head wound, he thought. My brain—my mind… Was that the reason he was having so much trouble organizing his thoughts?
A depressing chill settled into him. He would sooner lose an arm, or a leg, or an eye—anything other than accept damage to his intellect. It’s my best weapon, he thought.
Worry was futile. If he could worry, his mind could not be completely gone. Instead, he yielded to his fatigue; but now when the darkness came there was peace, and he slept.
Ministry of Propaganda, Berlin, Germany, 1915 hours GMT
The Reich minister of propaganda limped across his huge office to surreptitiously pull the curtain aside one more. Outside, in the streets of Berlin, the summer evening was still well lit, long shadows and an elarging sun the only evidence that night was falling. He could see them: at least a full battalion of Wehrmacht infantry, outfitted with grenades and small arms. They had marched into place a few hours before, coming south from the Brandenburg Gate. At each corner surrounding the huge house a machine gun rested on its squat tripod, dark barrels pointed all too obviously at the doors of the structure.
Irritably he stalked away from the window. In his agitation his crippled leg nearly collapsed beneath him, and he lunged forward to catch himself on the edge of the desk. Furiously he picked up the phone.
“This is Dr. Goebbels! Have you connected me to the Wolf-schanze? Idiot—keep on trying! It’s imperative that I speak with the führer!”
Slamming down the phone, the Nazi minister stared at the wood-paneled walls of the elegant office. He ignored the lush Persian carpet covering the floor, the gold and silvered plaques adorning the walls. His gaze rested upon a man, the only occupant of the room.
“What does it mean—‘The bridge has been burned’?” demanded the chief of propaganda. “Why do they fill the airwaves with such drivel?”
The other man remained silent—it was no a question he could have answered in any event.
“Leave me!” spat Goebbels. “Go find out why those troops are there!”
The other man, taller and younger, stiffened at the tone in the minister of propaganda's voice. “Come, Herr Speer,” Goebbels added, his tone modulating to the persuasive purr he reserved for such moments. “I must make some private telephone calls. And we have to communicate with the officer outside the building—find out whose orders he follows!”
“Very well,” replied Minister of Armaments Albert Speer, turning and leaving abruptly.
Goebbels spent another fifteen minutes rebuking the telephone operator for his failure to reach the Wolf’s Lair when the door to the office opened and a Wehrmacht major entered the room. He halted at rigid attention, fixing the minister with an impassive stare. “I am Major Remer—you wished to see me, Herr Reichsminister?”
“Why have you encircled my residence?”
“I act under the others blocks of the government quarter—no one is allowed to enter or leave.”
“But why? You are an office—you’ve taken an oath to your Haase. I am to seal off these blocks of the government quarter—no one is allowed to enter or leave.”
“But why? You are an officer—you’ve taken an oath to your Reich!”
“An oath to my führer, Herr Reichminister. And now he is slain. I can only obey my commander. This quadrant is rife with conspirators!”
The news hit Goebbels like a thunderclap, and he had to clasp the desk for support. “You lie!” he gasped. “The führer is alive—I spoke to him at Wolfschanze this morning!”
The young major was obviously uncomfortable with the subject. His own face showed the strain of grief mingled with disbelief. “He was killed this afternoon—a bomb planted in his headquarters!”
“In that case, you must know that I cannot possibly be implicated!” pleaded Goebbels, whining. “You must release me—allow me to draw in the reins of government!”
At that instant a burst of small arms fire stuttered through the air, coming from the yard beyond the huge house. The minister of propaganda blanched, his eyes going to the Walther in the holster at the major’s side. “No…” He whispered the word, his eyes darting from the officer to his desk and back again. He would not be captured, tortured, killed by the enemies of the Reich. Better he controlled his own fate, no matter how cruel.
Abruptly Goebbels lunged at the desk, pulling open a drawer with astonishing quickness. Major Remer watched miserably, obviously reluctant to draw his weapon against this man who had been such an icon of the state. “Don’t!” he groaned, eyes wide.
Frantically the minister reached inside the desk, scrambling for something with groping fingers. His eyes glowed and his lips were twisted into a crazed sneer—a taut grin of triumph, it must have seemed to the hapless Remer.
“Stop it!” cried the officer, finally drawing his sidearm and leveling the cold steel barrel. He watched Goebbel’s hand emerge from the desk drawer, and relaxed slightly when he saw no gun there. “Come with me, Herr Reichsminister…”
Major Remer’s words were cut short by the cackle of glee emanating from the quivering Nazi. Goebbels raised a hand and Remer saw that it wasn’t empty—the minister held a tiny white object between his fingers. Again the major raised his gun, ineffectually waving it as the man popped the capsule into his mouth.
“No—wait!” cried the soldier, dropping his gun and lunging forward. But Goebbels bit down hard, cracking the capsule. Immediately potassium cyanide filled his mouth, passing almost as quickly into his system through the salivary glands.
Three seconds he was dead.
SS Command, East Prussia, 2200 hours GMT
Another headquarters lay concealed in the East Prussian woods, though it was not so large or so active a compound as Wolfschanze. Here, too, the swastika hung listlessly, and black-shirted SS guards patrolled with pacing Alsatians. Besides the smaller size, there was another, more subtle difference to this compound—here all the guards wore black. Nowhere could be seen the feldgrau tunics of the Wehrmacht, for this was the headquarters of Reichsführer SS Henirich Himmler.
During the course of the hot afternoon and muggy evening, no sign of undue excitement had stirred around the gray concrete blocks or amid the wide walkways bordered with bright flower beds. Yet within these bombproof shelters, a controlled frenzy drove the officers who manned the radio and telephone centers. Desperately they tried to establish contact with the Wolf’s Lair—with Hitler, or at least with some member of his staff. Meanwhile, the reichsführer had brooded in the darkness of his office, consulting star charts and then acing in agitation, waiting for news as darkness settled over Poland and inched westward to blanket the rest of the continent.
For most of these hours the officers had been able to establish precious few facts—until shortly before midnight a frantic telephone call arrived form the Wolf’s Lair. Within minutes, General Gerhardt Fuller entered the reichsführer’s office and snapped to attention. His black eyes gleamed beneath the brim of his high, peaked cap—the only sign of the general’s rising state of excitement.
“The führer is deal!” he began, without preamble. “Conspirators have moved in Berling, Munich, and other districts—but there is a lack of coordination in their efforts.”
Himmler turned to look at the general. His hands were clasped behind his back. In the dark room, his black uniform made him virtually invisible, except for the metallic glistening of the SS death’s -head insignia. As usual, the general’s skin crawled as he felt the penetrating eyes of the reichsführer on him. Although Himmler was not a physically prepossessing figure in his wire-rimmed spectacles, there was something about his gaze that put Fuller in mind of a snake facing a rabbit. Fuller could swear that Himmler was not surprised by the earthshaking news.
“Are you certain?” said Himmler in a mild voice.
“Yes, Herr Reichsführer. Hauptmann Braun, loyal officer of the SS, reached us by ordreing a technician to splice into the telephone line at the Wolf’s Lair—the switchboard and radios there were destroyed shortly after the assassination. In fact, the man underwent no little risk to get his message out.”
“I see,” observed Himmler. “Please continue.”
“A bomb was planted, apparently by Count von Stauffenberg, Fromm’s chief of staff. No one knows who’s in command, and everyone is accusing everyone else.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s to be expected. And the rest of the army? ” inquired Himmler, his voice almost prim.
“They are paralyzed. There is no doubt that high-ranking officers stand behind the revlot but the bulk of the rank and file—and the generals as well—await guidance, orders.”
“Of course,” murmured the leader of the SS. For a few moment Himmler was silent, and Fuller remained rigid.
The leadership of the state stood vacant, but it would not remain so for long. Of course, with the Reich threatened by looming defeat on all sides, even the prize of the government might seem a hollow trophy. Still, the murderous act meant that right now Himmler was the most powerful man in Nazi Germany. As personal commander of the SS, the reichsführer had the fanatical loyalty of those vast legions—a private army that existed alongside, and even within, the conventionally structured Wehrmacht. Could he use that power to seize control, to arrest this chaos in the early stages?
It was Fuller’s job to see that he didn’t get that opportunity. The important had been clear to Fuller since those five words had been whispered over the telephone, long before Braun had leaked the news to SS command. The bridge has been burned—the phrase still echoed in his mind. Neutralizing the SS was crucial to a successful coup, and that meant Himmler needed to die. Fuller knew that his own death would follow quickly thereafter. It is too bad that Stauffenberg couldn’t have gotten them bother together, he thought regretfully.
Slowly, with mechanical precision, he drew his automatic and raised it toward the reflective reichsführer.
Himmler blinked, the only expression of his surprise. Two shots thundered in quick succession, resonating in the confined office. The impact of the bullets hurled General Fuller backward, smashing him into the closed door before he slumped to the floor. His eyes were wide, staring in an expression of astonishment. “Well done, Colonel Büher,” Himmler observed quietly as a second SS officer emerged from behind a wall partition. The scent of gunpowder followed him as he trained his Luger carefully on the lifeless Fuller. The general’s blood looked black in the shadowy room.
The fierce-eyed SS colonel looked at the dead man with a cold, contemptuous stare, allowing himself the shadow of a smile. The dueling scars that had slashed both his cheeks blazed redly, the only sign of his emotions. As Fuller’s life ebbed away, his passing was marked only by the sharp degrading smell of his bowels releasing.
“Quickly!” he commanded, throwing open the door. “Get this offal out of here!” SS troops rushed in to drag out the corpse. Bücher was sorry only that he would not have a chance to interrogate him. Soon, he was left in the darkness with Himmler once again. Only a little of the odor of Fuller’s death remained in the room, and that was tinged with the smell of gunpowder.
“Herr Reichsführer,” the tall, learn officer said, “I must confess that I found it hard to believe you when you said an SS general would turn against you. And is it true—the führer is dead? This is a black day for the Fatherland.” Left unstated was the two men’s realization that Göring was now destined to become führer—and both men shared the same low opinion of the Luftwaffe head.
“Indeed it is, but from these ashes we will yet come back to life,” Himmler said. “I didn’t expect the attack against the führer at wolfschanze; I thought the conspirators would wait until the führer and I were together. Still, I have made plans against this day. Only the SS can save Germany now. And as for you—my special thanks, General Bücher.” Before the loyal officer cold frame a reply, Himmler absently gestured for the phone, and Bücher hastily handed him the receiver.
“Commence Operation Reichsturm.” The SS reichsführer spoke these three words into the telephone, nodded dismissively at Bücher, and sat back in his chair with an expression of pensive satisfaction. Bücher’s last image of him was Himmler as a black shadow, even darker than the surrounding night.
Copyright © 2000 by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson