Authors: Nick Cook
“And then he had a problem.”
Staverton probed with the skill of a surgeon.
“We heard something over the intercom.
Sounded like trouble.”
“It looked as if he had a block in his air-supply system.
A touch of hypoxia, I reckon.
It seemed to clear as soon as he got down on the deck.”
Staverton waited till the rumble of a bomber taking off had subsided.
“You don’t think it was a touch of something else?
After all, Robert has been through more than most of us.”
Staverton’s blue eyes were cold.
“He’s an extremely brave young man, but anyone who’s suffered as he has can only expect to recover slowly.
Piet, if you think he’s been pushed too far, you have to tell me.”
Kruze bristled, but said nothing.
“We had codes of silence in the last show, too, you know, but it never did any good to some poor bastard who was too proud to admit that he had had enough.
We operate a tight unit here, you know that.
Robert has served it well, but if he’s gone over the edge, he can be replaced.”
“And we lose the best intelligence officer in the RAF.”
“There are others.
Perhaps they will take time to train for our purposes, but it can be done.”
“You know as well as I do that that’s impossible.
Fleming’s work is indispensable to what we do down here.
His presence may not always be welcome on the station, but it would take months to find the right man for his job, let alone train him.”
Staverton sensed he hadn’t finished.
“If there’s more, man, get it off your chest now.
You know rank counts for little here.”
When it suits you, Kruze thought.
Why the hell did you make him do that air-test if you suspected he was unfit to fly?”
“Because he requested it himself.”
“And you let him do it, just because you felt it might be good therapy?
Well, the answer to your first question is, yes, I do think he’s had enough, but then perhaps we all have.”
Staverton seemed unconcerned by the outburst.
“You know his wife -”
“I’ve met her.”
“How’s she coping?”
Kruze’s mind drifted back to the dinner at the cottage.
It had been an awkward attempt by Fleming to get to know one of the Farnborough team a bit better.
Just Fleming, his wife Penny, a recently widowed friend of hers and himself.
Fleming had been much as usual; withdrawn, shy almost, seeming as ill at ease with Penny as he had been at the base.
She had saved the evening.
Attractive and vivacious despite Fleming’s clumsiness with her and his guests, Penny never seemed to show any resentment.
Once though, he had caught a look on her face, gently bathed in the candle light, as she watched her husband try to make polite conversation.
At the time, Kruze thought it was pity; only on the way home did he realize that it was a look of immeasurable sadness.
“She’s fine, as far as I know.
And so’s he.”
As long as you leave him alone, he thought.
“All right, Piet, that’ll be all.”
Staverton rubbed his eyes.
“Just get that report to me in London by midmorning tomorrow.
I’ll not be staying here much longer today.
Then take a few days of that leave that’s owing to you while you’re about it.
It may be the last chance you get for quite a while.”
The officer was lying on his back in the tall grass, arms folded across his chest.
The dawn sunlight was streaming down on him, but the peaked cap cast a thin shadow across his closed eyes.
He looks dead, Oberscharführer Dietz thought as he stood above him.
The sergeant was seized by a desire to slip a shell into the chamber of his Mauser sniper’s rifle, put the barrel up against the officer’s head and blow his brains over the little grassy hillock on which they’d been holed up for the last two days.
What’s the point?
They’d all be dead before long anyway.
Every man jack of the platoon, or what was left of it.
Killing the pig of an officer would probably be doing him a favour.
The officer was awake and fully aware of Dietz’s presence.
What did the fool want now?
He had been thinking of home.
It was almost seven years since he had been there, and it still haunted him.
War hadn’t eased the contempt he felt for his father, and his so-called friends would be first in the queue to slit his throat if he ever did get back.
But the place he could never forget.
If only things had been different.
It was the same for the platoon, God help them.
They were tired, dirty and sick and they wanted to go home, but all of them knew that even if they survived this mess, home was out of the question.
For all except Dietz, that was.
The Bavarian still had a place to go back to, but he was the only one who didn’t care.
That was the irony.
Dietz had probably been quite a pleasant young man before this campaign, but by the time they left Stalingrad, Dietz, too, was living on borrowed time.
They had been behind enemy lines now for five months, off and on.
It had started when the big Soviet push came in November.
His section had been cut off by the assault, but they’d managed to fight their way back to other German units a few weeks later.
By that time the Germans had been pushed back into Eastern Czechoslovakia, but his commanding officer had been so impressed with the havoc that he had wrought behind the Russian lines that he was promoted and told to go back and do it all over again.
“Don’t worry,” the General had told him, “you’re not the only ones who’ll be there.
There will be enough SS units behind Ivan’s lines to cause real chaos.
Supply lines will be cut and perhaps even their advance can be stemmed long enough to give our troops a chance to regroup and smash the Bolshevik army once and for all.
Then the Third Reich will turn on the Americans and the British and then Germany will be great again.”
That had been in November ‘44 .
five months ago, was it?
It seemed like a lifetime to the officer.
For every filthy Ivan he’d put down, another ten seemed to take his place.
then Germany will be great again.”
My bloody arse, it will.
The officer watched through half-closed eyes as Dietz slipped his rifle strap over his shoulder, leant forward and prodded him.
The officer’s eyes flicked wide open, but he wasn’t startled.
He knew they thought he was too cool by half.
Whereas the rest of them stank and were covered in dirt, the officer always managed to look clean and shaven every morning, wherever he happened to be.
His face had become gaunt in recent weeks though, the skin was stretched tight over his hooked nose and his cheeks were grey from the bout of dysentery that had gone round the platoon after their withdrawal from Boskovice.
The officer stared back at Dietz for several seconds.
Sergeant Dietz served as a terrible reminder of the horror of the battle for that provincial town.
The retreat from Boskovice had been a nightmare.
The seven survivors of the once proud platoon of 22 had withdrawn across country by night, taken to these foothills and had remained here for two days without seeing any enemy activity.
Parts of Czechoslovakia were like that.
The isolated valley in which they had taken refuge was off the main Soviet armoured convoy routes and they hadn’t seen a soul.
Except Dietz, of course.
He’d been surprised by some old peasant when he went down to that hamlet near Tryskov on a clandestine forage for food the previous night.
The old man had spotted him coming out of a barn with two dead chickens under each arm and had rushed up to welcome his Russian liberator.
Even though Dietz was wearing full forage gear - the camouflaged smock and over-trousers that they all used, with no insignia of any kind - the Slav couldn’t help but notice the shape of his helmet even in the half-light of dusk.
The old man’s cry of alarm died in his throat the moment Dietz’s combat knife hit him full in the chest.
When Dietz told the story later he had bragged that the man had died before the chickens had even hit the ground.
Everyone had laughed, but he was still damned good with that knife.
It had got them out of a few tight spots before.
The officer realized that his sergeant was standing there waiting for orders.
He snapped out of his reverie.
“What is it?”
He stared up at the broad unshaven face and was about to speak again, when he heard the faint sound in the far distance and knew that it was beginning all over again.
“One jeep and an armoured personnel carrier, sir.
They’re heading this way, but haven’t yet come out of the trees.
I saw them enter the other side of the wood two minutes ago.”
The officer rolled onto his front and parted the grass so that he could get an unrestricted view of the flat expanse of land and the line of trees beyond.
Dietz lay down beside him and studied the face once more, this time waiting for orders.
The officer had chosen his ground well.
You could get a clear view of the plain that stretched away from in front of their hillock as far as the pine forest in the middle distance.
From where Dietz had been sitting on look-out you could even see the road that led into the far side of the wood.
It was on this patch of the track that the sergeant had first spotted the vehicles.
It would only be a matter of seconds now before the small convoy would be in sight again.
Thank God we’re well hidden, the officer thought.
At least Ivan won’t have a clue we’re here.
He turned to Dietz.
“As I said, sir.
One of them an APC.
One of ours.
Thought we must still have some armour left in this area, until I saw the red star on the side.
It’s a Hanomag, sir, and it must have had more than a full complement of men on board, because I saw two Ivans sitting on the front.
The rear compartment must be full, sir.”
The officer waved a hand impatiently.
“I’ll make the damned judgements around here, Dietz.
What about the other vehicle?’
The sound of engines was quite discernible now and growing louder.
“It was a jeep, sir.
Two men in the back, plus driver.”
The officer thought fast.
The jeep, that was no problem, except for its speed of course.
The Hanomag, though, that was different.
They were big brutes with drive wheels at the front and tank tracks on the rear six bogeys.
There could be ten fully armed troops in the back, if Dietz’s guess as to why the soldiers were sitting on the front proved to be correct.
So that means there could be at least sixteen Ivans and only seven of them.
Christ, it was better than Boskovice.
There must have been thousands of them there.
“Get back up to your position and take out the driver of the jeep with the sniping rifle.
Wait until he gets to the bend in the track and you can see the Order of Lenin swinging on his bloody tunic and then let him have it.
With any luck, he’ll roll the car and that’ll take care of the two men in the back.”
The officer got to his feet and picked up his MP40 machine pistol which had been propped against a nearby tree.
He turned back to Dietz, who had already concealed himself behind an old tree trunk on the brow of the hill.
He had unslung the Mauser and was drawing a bead on the point where the sandy track led out of the forest.
“I’ll take the rest of the men and the panzerfaust and deal with the Hanomag.
We’ll hold our fire until you shoot the driver.”
Dietz gave the thumbs up signal without looking at the officer.
He may be a complete swine, the officer thought, but he was a damn good soldier and was the best shot in the Das Reich Division.
For that matter his remaining six men were the best soldiers in the Waffen-SS.
They didn’t like him much and Dietz hated him, he knew that, but they had all survived and that bonded them together.
The officer moved fast down the slope towards the boulders that would shield him and his men from the road.
As long as the Soviets didn’t leave the track, they’d get a clear shot at the Hanomag as it reached the slight bend fifty metres away from their position.
Just don’t get any big ideas about the roads being mined, Ivan.
As he approached the rocks the other five were already there with the panzerfaust.
It was just as well they had trained for this over the last two days.
He hit the ground in the middle of the group as the Hanomag came into view.
Two seconds later, the jeep followed it out of the wood.
The officer watched with satisfaction as the two vehicles continued along the track.
Just to his right he heard a faint click as the panzerfaust was armed and out of the corner of his eye he could see the soldier raise the device to his shoulder.
The bend in the road was right at the extreme of the rocket launcher’s range, but there was nothing else for it.
They would have been spotted a mile off if they left the cover of the rocks and got any closer.
Let’s just hope that hothead Dietz doesn’t get an itchy trigger finger.
It was then that the Hanomag stopped.
The word was hissed under his breath.
He didn’t dare use the powerful Zeiss binoculars for fear the bright March sun might reflect off the lenses and alert the Russians.
He squinted into the distance and could see an Ivan standing up in the rear of the Hanomag, flagging down the jeep.
The man jumped over the side of the personnel carrier and wandered over to the smaller vehicle.
Thirty seconds later he was back at the Hanomag, walked ten metres past it and dropped to his knees.
He’s looking for mines.
For God’s sake don’t leave the track.
The officer held his breath and felt his stomach knot and twist, until the pain was agony.
Nerves and dysentery could incapacitate a man.
Then the Russian stood up and beckoned the Hanomag on.
He walked, scanning the ground, while the Hanomag inched along the track several metres behind him.
Christ, if he carries on at this rate, the bloody war will be over.
Worse than the tearing pain in the officer’s stomach was the awful realization that the Russian scout might be able to see Dietz, or even the whole group as he got to the bend in the road.
Then it would be all over.
The Hanomag’s heavy calibre machine-gun would pin them down amongst the boulders and they would fire back until their ammunition ran out.
Without surprise on their side they would never be able to get a clear shot with the panzerfaust.
One thing was for sure, he wouldn’t be taken alive by those savages.
The officer’s anxiety faded when he saw the scout jump back in the Hanomag and then both personnel carrier and jeep proceeded swiftly along the track towards them.
The scout must have satisfied himself that the patch was free of mines.
They reached the bend.
The panzerfaust wobbled briefly in the hand of the man on his right.
Come on Dietz.
Come on, you Bavarian oaf.
Ten metres away, Dietz shifted the centre of the cross on his telescopic sights from the driver’s head to his left shoulder.
He was briefly fascinated by the animated discussion which the two officers in the back seemed to be having.
Then he fired.
The wheels on the jeep locked hard round to the right and the vehicle slewed over onto the side, catapulting one of the passengers onto the ground ten metres away from the edge of the road.
The officer saw one of the Russians on the front of the Hanomag crane his neck round to where the jeep had been behind them.
His eyes were wide with terror.
There was a flash and a deafening crack to his right.
The rocket shell left the panzerfaust and hit the Hanomag just behind the driver’s cabin.
It was no coincidence that it had found the thinnest point of the vehicle’s armour.
Anyone who had travelled in the German personnel carrier never sat just behind the driver’s seat.
You could use the metal there as cigarette paper it was so thin, had been the old Wehrmacht joke when the Hanomag made its first appearance during the Blitzkrieg in Europe.
The corporal with the panzerfaust knew exactly where to aim.