Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo and the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the intelligence division of the SS, stood to one side, a few yards away from the group of generals and admirals gathered around Adolf Hitler. An unfamiliar figure in his eyeglasses, the Führer was standing, looking down at a large map of Europe spread out across an enormous Teutonic oak table that had been moved for the purpose of the meeting into the centre of the main hall of the Berghof, Hitler’s summer residence high in the Bavarian Alps. One by one, the military leaders took turns to brief their commander in chief on the state of preparation for Operation Sea Lion, the high command’s code name for the invasion of England. It was due to be launched any day now according to timetables that had been agreed upon at previous conferences held during the summer either here or at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin.
The line of the sharp late summer sunlight coming in through the panoramic picture window at the back of the hall lit up the group around the table but left Heydrich a man apart, lurking in the shadows. He hadn’t been called on to speak yet, and he knew that this was unlikely to happen while the meeting remained concerned solely with issues of invasion strategy. He was here not as a soldier, but because it was his responsibility to plan and organise the control measures that would need to be taken against resistance groups and other undesirables once the panzer divisions had seized control of London, and he had already identified a suitably ruthless SS commander to take charge of the six Einsatzgruppen cleansing squads assigned to carry out the first wave of arrests and deportations. A special list of high-value targets assembled on Heydrich’s orders contained 2,820 names ranging from Winston Churchill to Noël Coward and H. G. Wells.
This was a military conference, so other than Heydrich and the Führer and Hermann Goering—here by virtue of his command of the Luftwaffe—there were no party men present. Heydrich’s thin upper lip curled in a characteristic expression of contempt as he watched the debate unfold. He hated these army and navy grandees bedecked in their medals and gold braid, and he sensed that the Führer did, too. They were careerists, men who had climbed the ladders of promotion in the interwar years, drawing their state-guaranteed pay at the end of every month, playing war games in their barracks, and toasting the kaiser, while true National Socialists like Heydrich had fought behind their Führer in the streets, prepared to die for the cause in which they all believed.
But there was another reason for Heydrich’s antipathy. Once upon a time, he too had been an officer with good prospects, an ensign on the battleship Schleswig-Holstein, until he had been summarily dismissed for conduct unbecoming an officer back in 1931. A woman he’d spurned when he’d met another he preferred had turned out to be a shipbuilder’s daughter who complained to her father, and Heydrich had paid the price. Admiral Raeder had taken away his honour with a stroke of a pen: the same Raeder who was now standing ten paces away from Heydrich, briefing Hitler on the naval preparations for the invasion. Every time he saw the admiral, Heydrich felt the injustice and humiliation flame up inside him again like a festering wound that would never heal. He fully intended to get even with Raeder, but not yet. The time wasn’t right. Heydrich was good at waiting. As the English said, vengeance was a dish best served cold.
Heydrich had no doubt that Raeder remembered. Not only that—he was sure that the admiral regretted his decision. It probably kept him up at night worrying. Everyone in this room knew Heydrich’s reputation. He’d observed the way they had all kept him at a distance when they first came in, throwing him uneasy sideways glances as they’d milled about the hall before the meeting began, drinking coffee from delicate eighteenth-century Dresden cups, until Hitler entered through a side door on the stroke of two o’clock and they all came to attention, raising their arms in salute.
Heydrich knew the names these men of power and influence called him behind his back—“blond beast”; “hangman”; “the man with the iron heart.” He knew how much they feared him, and with good reason. Back in Berlin, under lock and key at Gestapo headquarters, he had thick files on each and every one of them, recording every detail of their private lives in an ever-expanding archive of cross-referenced, colour-coded index cards that he had worked tirelessly to assemble over the previous nine years.
Some of them he’d even enticed into the high-class whorehouse he’d established on Giesebrechtstrasse with two-way mirrors and hidden microphones embedded in the walls. Within moments on any given day, he could summon to his desk photographs and sworn statements, letters, and even transcribed tape recordings of them spilling their sordid secrets to the girls he had had specially recruited for the task. Facts and falsehoods, truth and lies—it didn’t matter to Heydrich so long as the information could be of use in controlling people, forcing them by any means available to do his and the Führer’s will.
Heydrich smiled, thinking how one word from him in Hitler’s ear and the highest and mightiest of these strutting commanders in their glittering uniforms could find themselves down on their hands and knees, naked, manacled to a damp concrete wall in the cellar prison located in the basement underneath his office at 8 Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. It amused him to have his victims cowering and screaming so close to where he worked, seated behind his magnificent nineteenth-century mahogany desk with an elaborately framed photograph of the Führer staring down at him from the oak-paneled wall opposite, ready to provide him with inspiration whenever he looked up from the stream of documents that required his constant attention every day.
From the outset, when he first joined the party back in 1931, Heydrich had felt a sense of kinship with Hitler that he had never experienced with anyone else he’d met before or since. And for several years now he had sensed that the Führer felt it too. Once, closeted together in the Führer’s apartment on the upper floor of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, where Heydrich had gone to brief Hitler in the aftermath of the Kristallnacht pogrom two years earlier, the Führer had held up his hand for silence and looked Heydrich in the eye. It was only for a moment or two, but it felt to Heydrich as if he were back in the church at Halle where he had grown up, with the Catholic priest examining his soul. As a child he had turned away ashamed, but as a man he had met Hitler’s gaze and felt as though the Führer were looking inside him, turning him inside out, searching for the truth of who he really was. And then, after a moment or two, Hitler had nodded as if pleased with what he’d seen.
“We will go far together, you and I,” the Führer had said—Heydrich remembered his exact words—“because you are a true believer, and because, like me, you have the will. The will is everything, Reinhard. You know that, don’t you?”
Afterward they had carried on talking about roundups and press releases and other administrative measures against the vermin Jews, but the moment had stayed with Heydrich, vividly engraved on his memory as a life-changing moment. He admitted it to no one, but secretly he thought of himself as Hitler’s heir and the Third Reich, vast in size and purified in blood, as his own personal inheritance.
Nowadays he looked forward to meetings with Hitler almost like a lover awaiting his next tryst, and when he was in the Führer’s presence he watched him intently, as if he were storing up every impression of his master in the filing cabinet of his mind, packing each one carefully away for later scrutiny when he was alone, back in Berlin. There was a power, a certainty, in Hitler that drew Heydrich like a magnet. It always had, even in the early days when the National Socialist faithful had been so few, meeting in the back of smoke-filled beer cellars and conspiring together in the watches of the night, dreaming the impossible—Heydrich had known from the outset that Hitler was the one who could make the impossible come true.
But today the Führer seemed unlike himself for some reason. He was uncharacteristically silent, allowing the debate between the Wehrmacht commanders to carry on unchecked. Backward and forward, reproach and counter-reproach, the argument growing more heated by the minute. It was as if he were unsure of what to do, uncertain of his next move. To Heydrich it felt as if they were on a ship in a storm, keeling from side to side while the rudder stood unattended, crashing around with the buffeting of the waves.
“The weather conditions in the English Channel are extremely variable,” said Raeder mournfully. He sounded just like some miserable provincial schoolmaster reading from an instruction manual, thought Heydrich, and a Cassandra too—everything he said seemed negative, designed to undermine the invasion plan. “And we lack specialised landing craft,” Raeder continued. “Instead we are relying on converted river barges and ferryboats. Many of these are unpowered and can only be used in calm seas. They will make easy targets for the enemy. And there are also problems with transporting the heavy armour. We are working on making our tanks submersible, but we need more time. It is not the same as when we attacked Norway. We sustained heavy losses in that campaign, and this time the British know we are coming. They will use their navy against the beachheads even if we are able to establish them. And that is a big if—”
“I have said it before. The invasion front is too narrow,” interrupted Halder, chief of the army general staff, who had been shifting from one foot to another with growing impatience as Raeder talked. An old-school Prussian officer, he spoke in a clipped, angry voice, jabbing his finger down on the part of the map that showed the southeast coast of England. “One hundred miles is not enough even with paratroops landing in support. We might just as well put Army Group A through a sausage machine.”
“Yes, yes, I have heard this before,” said Hitler, showing undisguised irritation as he stepped back from the table. “More men; more armour; more boats. But it is air supremacy that we need—and before the autumn gales make a Channel crossing impossible. You promised me this,” he said, wheeling round to face Goering, who was standing on his right. “And yet the enemy is shooting down our planes every day, hunting down our bombers like dogs. Tell me the truth, Herr Reichsmarschall. No gloss; no varnish. Can you control the skies or not?”
Everyone turned to look at Goering. He was a natural focus of attention, as he was far and away the most distinctive figure in the room. His flamboyant uniform marked him out from everyone else, which was in fact just what he intended. Rumour had it that Goering changed his uniform five times a day, and his choice for this meeting was garish even by his usual standards. It was one of several bright white outfits that he’d designed for himself, replete with multicoloured crosses and decorations. Some of the larger medals he’d awarded to himself, and Heydrich knew from his army of spies that Goering’s appearance in this costume on cinema newsreels was an object of popular ridicule throughout the country, as no one could understand how he kept his uniforms so white when most of the population couldn’t get enough soap to keep their clothes even passably clean. Goering’s vanity was as boundless as his appetite, dwarfed only by his gargantuan self-belief.
“It is only a matter of time,” he said, standing with his arms akimbo, inflated with his own importance. “London is burning. The population is cowering in makeshift shelters … the docks are half-destroyed—”
“To hell with the docks,” Hitler interrupted angrily. “The skies are what matters. You heard my question. Can you break the English air force; can you destroy them like you promised?”
“Yes. Operation Eagle is succeeding,” said Goering, responding immediately in a quieter voice. His acute sensitivity to Hitler’s changing moods had stood him in good stead over the years, and he had gauged correctly that a measured assessment of the Luftwaffe’s capabilities, free of hyperbole, was what was now required. “It is a matter of simple mathematics,” he said. “Our attacks on British factories and airfields have massively reduced their capacity to keep pace with the severe losses that they are continuing to sustain every day. They are running out of planes and they are running out of pilots. Any day now their fighter command will have to withdraw from southern England and our landings can begin. Their weakness is shown by the damage we have already been able to inflict on London. They would never have allowed it if they could have prevented it.”
Hitler stared balefully at Goering for a moment, as if trying to assess whether his subordinate’s confidence was an act put on for his master’s benefit, but Goering met the Führer’s gaze full on without dropping his eyes.
“We shall see,” said Hitler, taking off his glasses. “We shall soon see if your assessment is correct, Herr Reichsmarschall.”
It was a signal that the conference was over. One by one, the military commanders saluted Hitler and left the hall. Heydrich moved to follow them, but Hitler held up his hand.
“Stay,” he said. “There is something I need to talk to you about. We can go out on the terrace. The fresh air will do us good.”
* * *
It was one of the last days of summer. The green-and-white umbrella canopies moved gently in the slight breeze above the white chairs and tables, and the bright afternoon sun threw shadows across the wide terrace and glittered in the windows of the Berghof. Across the tops of the pine trees down in the valley, the snow-capped mountains of Austria reared up under a cloudless blue sky. Who would have guessed, thought Heydrich, that hidden not far away from where they were standing, a battery of smoke-generating machines stood ready to drown the Berghof in a blanket of thick white fog should it come under threat from enemy bombers.
The war seemed very far away in the silence. The sound of his and Hitler’s footsteps echoed on the flagstones as they walked over toward the parapet.
“We can talk here,” said Hitler, sitting down at one of the tables and motioning Heydrich to the chair opposite. Hitler sighed, stretching out his legs, and then rubbed his knuckles in his eyes. Perhaps gazing at the map during the briefing had given him eye strain, or perhaps it was something more profound. Whatever the cause, the Führer had certainly seemed out of sorts at the conference.
“I don’t like it,” said Hitler, shaking his head. He had his hands folded in his lap now, but he was gently clasping them together—a sure sign of inner turmoil. “This is not what I wanted. This is not the war we should be fighting.”
“Yes,” said Hitler, bringing his hands together suddenly and holding them tight. His bright blue eyes were blazing with the intensity of his feeling. “They are not our enemy, and yet they will not listen to reason. It’s that fool Churchill. He has possessed them with his talk of blood and sacrifice. Don’t they understand that we have no quarrel with them? They can keep their empire. I want them to. It’s a noble institution. I have told them that again and again, but they will not listen.”
Hitler had begun to shout, but now he stopped suddenly. It was as though an electric motor had been suddenly turned off, and Heydrich tensed, waiting for the power to resume. But Hitler continued after a moment in a quiet voice, visibly holding himself in check.
“I don’t want this invasion. I am fully prepared to spend German blood to get this great country what it needs, but that is in the east,” he said, pointing with his forefinger out toward the mountains facing them across the valley. “We must defeat Bolshevism and take the land west of the Urals for our people. That is our destiny, but to lose an army trying to conquer Brighton or Worthing or Eastbourne … that is intolerable.
“Unerträglich!” Hitler spat out the word. It seemed once more as if rage were going to get the better of him, but again he pulled himself back from the brink. “The war in the west is a means to an end,” he said slowly, choosing his words carefully. “The object is to ensure that we are not stabbed in the back when we begin the war that matters, the one against Russia. And that must be soon, Reinhard … soon. We cannot wait much longer. Stalin is rearming; the Soviets are expanding—they are like ants; they come up out of the soil and multiply, and soon we will not be able to destroy them. Not if we wait.”
“Yes,” said Heydrich, inspired by the Führer’s vision. “As always, you are right.”
“And so we need peace with the English, not war,” Hitler went on after a moment. “But how do we achieve this? Not with an invasion. Not unless we have to, and even then I am reluctant. Raeder is an old woman, but he is right about the difficulties that we face with the crossing. You cannot rely on the weather. The Spanish tried three hundred and fifty years ago and their ships were wrecked. Napoleon could not even make it across the Channel. Our landing craft are second-rate and we don’t have the naval superiority we need to protect them.”
“But if we win in the air,” said Heydrich, “perhaps that will make the difference. The Reichsmarschall said that it is only a matter of time—”
“Time that we do not have,” said Hitler, interrupting. “I will believe Goering when the English air force stops bombing Germany. For now we need to try something else. And that is where you come in, Reinhard.”
Heydrich came alert. He’d been absorbed by the discussion of grand strategy and had forgotten for a moment that the Führer had had him wait behind after the conference for a purpose.
“What can I do?” he asked eagerly.
Hitler held a finger to his lips in a warning gesture. A pretty serving girl wearing a Bavarian peasant dress had appeared behind Heydrich with a tray of peppermint tea. She set the cups on the table and curtsied to the Führer, who smiled affably in response.
“Tell me about Agent D. Is he continuing to be reliable?” asked Hitler, sipping from his cup. He seemed serene now, and there was no trace of the anger and frustration that had been in evidence before the tea arrived. It was as if he were introducing a subject of minor interest into the conversation.
“Yes,” said Heydrich without hesitation. “He is one of the best agents I have ever had. I trust him implicitly.”
“Good. And his intelligence—is it useful?”
“He is doing well. As agreed, he provides disinformation where it cannot be detected as false and true intelligence where it does not threaten our security and can be verified by the enemy. His masters in the British Secret Service are pleased with him—he has recently been promoted to a level where he is present at some MI6 strategy meetings, and his reports are read by their Joint Intelligence Committee. Soon, if we are patient, he should have access to the most top-secret information.”
“Excellent,” said Hitler, rubbing his hands. “As always, your work does you credit, Reinhard. You make the Abwehr look like circus clowns.”
Heydrich bowed his head, savouring the compliment. There was nothing he would have liked better than to further extend his Gestapo empire into the field of foreign intelligence, where he was currently forced to compete not only with the Abwehr, the traditional Secret Service headed by Admiral Canaris, but also with Ribbentrop’s equally second-rate Foreign Office outfit.
“But I am afraid that we are going to have to be a little less patient,” Hitler went on smoothly. “Agent D gives us an opportunity not just to make the British believe that we are serious about the invasion, but also to make them think that we can succeed. That is what is missing now. Churchill still thinks he can win. If he receives information that makes him stop believing that, then he will have to negotiate. He will have no choice. Do you understand me, Reinhard?”
“Yes, of course. But if they find out that what D is telling them is untrue, then his cover will be blown. He is an important asset—”
“And will remain so,” said Hitler, holding up his hand to forestall further objection. “If D’s cover is blown, then Churchill won’t believe the information he’s being given and our scheme fails. No, we must exaggerate our strength on the sea and in the air, but not to the point where it strains credibility. It’s a delicate balance—a task requiring a sure hand. Can I rely on you, Reinhard? Can you do this for me?”
“Yes. I am a tool in your hand. You know that. But I will need authority to obtain details of our capability from the service chiefs and advice on the level to which it can be distorted without arousing suspicion.”
“Here. This should be sufficient,” said Hitler, taking a folded document from his pocket and handing it across the table. “Now, tell me about D’s source for his information. What do the British believe the source’s position is at present?”
“On the general staff, attached to General Halder.”
“I see,” said Hitler, licking his lips meditatively. “Well, I think we are going to have to award him an increase in status if the British are going to believe that he’s able to provide D with information of the value that I have in mind. What do you suggest, Reinhard?”
“Yes, very good—that sounds just right,” said Hitler, looking pleased. “Sufficient status to give him access to top-level military conferences like the one today, and to make it credible that he’s heard me speak of both my willingness to invade and my desire for peace. We can downgrade the source’s status later if it becomes too conspicuous for a fictional character,” Hitler added with a smile.
“All as you say—it will be done,” said Heydrich, getting up from the table and putting on his SS cap, which he had held balanced on his knees during the conversation. He was about to salute, but Hitler forestalled him.
“Remind me—what is your usual method for communicating with D?” he asked.
“We have a reliable contact in the Portuguese embassy in London. Information and reports are sent through the diplomatic bag to Lisbon and then brought on to Berlin from there, and the same in the other direction. It takes time, but it is safe and efficient.”
“The codes we have work for short messages. But not for anything longer—D does not have an Enigma machine and so a report or a briefing instruction like this one wouldn’t be secure. There is a drop we can use that D knows about.”
“Yes. On the coast of Norfolk, northeast of London. We have a sleeper agent there who will pick up documents that we drop from a plane. It works. I have used it before, but D would have to go there to collect.”
“Very well. Use the drop. Time is of the essence. Everyone needs to understand that. If we wait too long, the weather will turn against us and Churchill will know we are not coming. So you must give this task top priority—put aside everything else that you are working on until the briefing document is ready for me to look at. And when it is, bring it here in person, and then, if I approve, you can send it.”
Hitler nodded and Heydrich raised his right arm in salute and turned away. At the top of the steps leading down to the road, he looked back at the Führer, who was now leaning back in his chair with his hat tipped down over his eyes and his legs stretched out in front of him. He looked like a holidaymaker, Heydrich thought, enjoying the last of the day’s sunshine with a cup of afternoon tea at his side. A neutral observer would have laughed at the suggestion that this was the most powerful man in Europe, who held the fate of nations balanced in the palm of his hand.
Copyright © 2012 by Simon Tolkien