Werra, Germany – December 14, 1944
Henryk was desperate. He couldn’t bear the thought of waiting until spring. He had lingered for this opportunity for days. Was this it? The armed SS guard at the front of the underground assembly line looked the other way, his back to the prisoners. Henryk glanced at the cave entrance. Darkness had covered the vast, mountainous terrain. He knew the artificial lighting beyond was somewhat dim in spots, mainly in the corners of the grounds. That would be to his advantage.
Another quick glance at the guard... then the entrance... the guard... then again at the entrance. He gulped.
Henryk took a breath and broke for the opening.
Once outside, he raced through the two inches of freshly fallen snow for the nearby, interim safety of the adjoining woods, one hundred feet off to the right. He stumbled once, got up, and ran even faster. A shot rang out. A second shot pinged off the gravel at his feet. Henryk didn’t dare look back. He leaped the three-foot-high barbwire cleanly, and slid down the ravine in the darkness, grazing two trees as he went, bashing into a sharp, massive boulder at the bottom. He jumped up, slightly dazed, blood trickling out the corner of his mouth. He rubbed his face, licked the blood with his tongue, and looked around, brushing himself off. The moonlight dancing off the snow was bright enough to guide the prisoner’s path.
South! He had to head south.
Switzerland. Where else? Make contact with the Americans. Or the British. Wouldn’t either of them – or both – love to get their hands on this place. The Russians? Piss on them! What did the Russians ever do for him? They were worse than the Nazis.
Polish prisoner Henryk Dubinsky would enjoy giving the right Allies the details of the underground project of the new radical Luftwaffe fighter-interceptor. If he could only get away. Henryk spoke German fluently. That was one plus. But his shaved head, lean body, hollow-eyes, and pale face would give him away as a prisoner. How far would he get in the snow and cold without a thicker coat than the one he was wearing? He had a few hundred kilometers to go to reach the Swiss border. He’d have to take that chance. Anything was better than what went on... in the cave.
At the bottom of the hill, he got his bearings and turned to what he took to be the general direction of south... and freedom. Switzerland. Where there would be some semblance of normal life, again, like peaceful, uncomplicated pre-war Poland. Back in the tunnel, all hell had to be breaking loose. Someone – a guard or two – would undoubtedly be shot for incompetence.
Then dog barks pierced the night air.
Run, you fool... run... run...
Washington, DC – January 12, 1945
Donovan needed time to think.
He twirled his padded chair ninety degrees into the sunshine streaming through the open vertical window blinds. A car horn honked down at street level. Today’s first-thing-in-the-morning phone call from the White House hadn’t surprised him. Orders were orders. Besides, every boss had a boss too. Such was politics in the nation’s capital.
OSS Director Bill Donovan had been witness to four years of drastic changes in his business, in this the sixth year of war. The intelligence agency had evolved from its first rather silly label of Coordinator of Information by a 1941 presidential order, to the present day OSS – Office of Strategic Services – a year later. With only ninety-two people to kick-start it in 1942, the OSS now deployed 16,000 members world-wide, many of those engaged in clandestine operations behind enemy lines. All this out of Donovan’s headquarters here at 2430 E Street in the nation’s capital, where his door was said to be always open to anyone.
Donovan had tolerated the earlier mass of confusion in setting the secret force up.
The colorful figures. Actors. Poets. Lawyers. Bankers. Filmmakers.
In time came the stress. The countless hours in the office after midnight. He had also put up with the jokes on what the OSS stood for. Oh, so sweet. Oh, so social. Oh, so stupid. They were often accused of fighting a plush war. But only the jealous said such things, and in whispers.
Major-General William “Wild Bill” Donovan was a vigorous sixty-one years young. Most men would consider retirement at his tender age, after such a flamboyant career as Wall Street lawyer, decorated World War I battlefield hero, Republican nominee for New York Governor, and OSS Director. But this modern knight of the twentieth century had no intention to retire from public service. He still had a mission to fulfill, and that was to see the end of the war, the war that saw the OSS conduct subversion, propaganda, and extensive military operations to confuse America’s enemies. This was the war that made Donovan the man of the hour in Washington, the nation’s number one information gatherer. In Washington, hordes were talking about Bill Donovan and his activities. The organization that he had pieced together from nothing in 1941 was now more powerful and more influential than the FBI. And certain people cringed at that, namely FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Financed by secret funds at his disposal, with minimal security and little red tape to bother with, the OSS was a law unto itself, the way Donovan and President Roosevelt preferred it. The less the public knew, the better.
The President. Bless him.
Now there was a sad case, Donovan thought painfully.
Donovan chuckled, his memory selecting one particular White House visit in 1943, when he had pulled a fast one on his vigilant commander-in-chief. The general, by then a common visitor to the mansion on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, had approached the Oval Office carrying a sandbag and a concealed weapon, a new, noiseless, flashless .22-caliber pistol. Roosevelt, dictating a letter to his secretary, waved for Donovan to enter the room. While Roosevelt and the woman were preoccupied, Donovan set the sandbag on the floor, then quickly fired an entire clip of bullets into it. Neither Roosevelt nor his secretary so much as flinched. When the secretary left the room, Donovan wrapped the hot barrel with a handkerchief and presented the silent killer gun to the startled president, who hadn’t heard a thing.
“Wild Bill,” the president had roared after the incident, “you’re the only black Republican I’ll ever allow in my office with a weapon like this. Give my regards to the manufacturer.”
Donovan did just that. He also placed an order for several of the guns for his OSS people.
Those were the last of the fun-loving days at the White House. Roosevelt was a different man in 1945 – with little spark left in him now. He was sick and he was stubborn. And he wanted to travel halfway around the world to meet with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta, the third of the conferences between the influential Allied leaders who held all the cards in a stacked deck. Furthermore, he wanted to check in with the Kid, Wesley Hollinger.
The general nodded to himself. He played with the lapel of his military-style uniform, then punched his intercom button. Figures. Especially after some of the crazy rumors coming out of Germany, via his OSS men and women. Yes, Hollinger was the right choice. He’d keep his mouth shut.
A woman’s voice broke the silence. “Yes, General.”
“Get me London on the phone,” he demanded. “The SI branch.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll get right on it.”
Martin Bormann was the acting Deputy Fuehrer since Rudolf Hess had flown off on his crazy peace mission to Scotland in 1941.
The Nazi leaders had many names for this short, thick set, bull neck man with the bulbous nose and beer-belly stomach. The Brown Eminence. The Executor. Herr Moneybags. The Shadow. The Little Fat Man. The Boot-licker. The Kiss-Ass. The Pig. The Skirt-chaser. Every name seemed to fit. And more. Only the kindest of voices called him an opportunist. Earlier in the war, Luftwaffe Reichmarshall Hermann Goering once went so far as to say that he hoped that Bormann would rot in hell one day soon! Others in authority echoed Goering’s remarks.
Martin Bormann was Adolf Hitler’s personal secretary, answerable only to the Fuehrer. Bormann was the mystery person. He toiled in the shadows as Hitler’s spokesman, carrying with him the important title of Reichsleiter. Feared by the other Nazi leaders, he secured his position by hanging onto Hitler’s coattails, while remaining virtually unknown in the public eye. Unlike Hermann Goering and others, titles meant nothing to the forty-four-year old Bormann. Power was everything. To reach Hitler, one had to go through Bormann first. Few people in the Nazi party knew that Bormann was the real builder of Hitler’s Bavarian mountain resort, Berghof. As Hitler’s trustee, it was Bormann who had expropriated surrounding farms and forests, and had laid out the roads and the buildings for the estate. And just that morning Bormann had hoodwinked Hitler into signing the paperwork for Bormann to access the Swiss bank accounts of Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Goering, and other notables in the event of their deaths. They didn’t call Bormann “the Executor” for nothing. They were quite the duo, Hitler and Bormann. The Little Corporal and the Little Fat Man.
As the war had dragged on and Germany had lost ground, Hitler became occupied more with military affairs, leaving the internal party matters to Bormann. This was where the true strength and power lay. And Bormann knew it. It was the Party. This afternoon in his hut next to Hitler’s, Bormann was scribbling on his writing pad. He was dressed in his favorite attire, Reichsleiter uniform consisting of reddish-brown service tunic, gold-braided red armband adorned with black swastika, gold insignia featuring his rank on the collar flaps, tight riding breeches and glossy-black riding boots.
“Bormann!” the Fuehrer shouted from next door.
Bormann bounced to his feet, trotting around the corner, his daily log – his tagebuch – in hand. “Yes, mein Fuehrer.”
“Close the door, Bormann,” Hitler ordered, his voice labored and raspy. “I need to have a word with you.”
“Yes, mein Fuehrer.”
Hitler was pacing the floor, slowly, stooped over. “We have no choice but to make haste to Berlin. There we will make our final stand. Is the Fuehrerbunker at the Chancellory ready?”
Bormann hadn’t expected the move so soon. “They are putting the finishing touches to it as we speak, mein Fuehrer.”
“How much longer?”
“One week, mein Fuehrer.”
“Make the arrangements. I am too busy with other matters.”
The order didn’t sound too difficult to Bormann. “Certainly, mein Fuehrer.” Bormann knew what matters those were – tending to the mighty Russian Red Army knocking at Hitler’s door in the snow only a few miles away. For weeks Bormann had received only scant attention from the Fuehrer, so now was a good time to ask about the idea he had been toying with.
“May I have your permission to see my wife for a few days? I promise to be back in time for the move to Berlin.”
With listless eyes, Hitler stared at his secretary for a long period. “Yes, go ahead. You deserve it. Gerda is a good woman. Spend some time with her.” He tore at an individually-wrapped chocolate and popped it in his mouth.
“Thank you, mein Fuehrer.”
Hitler grunted, plunking himself down in his chair. His shaky hand went out to his loyal Alsatian dog, Blondi. Only twenty minutes out of bed, the Fuehrer’s face was ashen. For months he had taken to being moody, with frequent fits of rage. He was a recluse. Dependent on drugs, he was sleeping in until early afternoon every day. The rest of the time he was a walking skeleton, his clothes drooping on him. Bormann thought it pathetic how the Fuehrer was fighting a war on words only, now that his 1945 empire was a mere one-tenth the size it was during its peak in late 1941, when all Europe trembled at the sight and sound of Nazi jackboots. No more.
“Everyone has turned against me. My generals! Some generals! We had the strongest army on earth. We had Moscow in our sights. We had control of the continent. My backers! They were the worst! They were the true traitors. They deserted me.”
“Are you referring to the group?”
Hitler patted his dog. “Yes, Bormann. Of course, the group!” he shouted, trying to sustain the anger in his voice, and failing. “And to think some of them were Americans. Prominent Americans who expected favors. Wall Street money. They only wanted me to dig Germany and Europe out of the Depression. They didn’t want to see the misery spread elsewhere. Europe needed a leader. And I was it. I had great and wonderful designs for a new Europe. So did they. They agreed to it. A united Europe with a common currency, a central bank. My Council of Peace. A European Economic Community that would include Great Britain, had they so wished. Then they decided I was no longer useful to them. They sold me out.” Hitler breathed a sigh.
“Yes, they did, mein Fuehrer.” Bormann had heard his leader explode about this same subject only four days before. You can’t fight the people who sign the checks, Mein Fuehrer, he thought.
“They left me and Germany on our own,” Hitler continued, intoxicated at the sound of his voice. “Those rich Jews in the group engineered this act of treachery. George Washington once said that it is better to be alone than be in bad company. Britain was my friend. My ally. I sought peace with them. We could have had a great future in alliance with Britain. They could have kept their sea power, leaving us with the continent. That was the arrangement. Crush the Russians! The hordes of the east. Then that bastard Churchill came along to spoil everything.”
“Yes, he surely did, mein Fuehrer.”
“Mein Kampf was written in vain. England was our friend, and we fought them. So useless. Oh, so useless. But we still have our secret weapons. But there’s more. Our scientists and their machines will turn the tide where our imbecile generals have failed.”
Bormann smiled. “You are absolutely right, mein Fuehrer, as usual.”
Hitler rose to his feet, a sudden quickness to his movements. “I know I’m right! Go, now. See your wife. I have to attend a military conference. Go, but hurry back.”
“Of course, mein Fuehrer.” Bormann stood in an instant. “I will always be your humble servant.”
“Yes, yes. Give my compliments to your dear wife.”
“I will, mein Fuehrer. And she will give you hers, I’m sure.”
Hitler smiled, sadly, lost in something else for the moment.
Bormann clicked his heels and excused himself. At his office, he wrote down what he had remembered Hitler had said to him, a ritual that the secretary had started that week. Recording every word uttered from the Fuehrer’s mouth in his daily log was one way to keep his mind occupied and off smoking, which he had quit at Christmas. It was also for posterity, for future generations.
Near Hamburg, Germany
Word had come down. Zerstorer Unit 22 had their assignment.
An hour after sundown, two men in overalls slid back the long, steel-plated hangar door at Loebitz airfield. Two more men joined them and began the task of rolling out and positioning the strange, shiny fighters on the outside concrete.
Six machines in total.
Finished, the four men stood back in awe. These fighters were an odd, distinct shape, smaller than the Messerschmitt BF-109’s on the far side of the airfield. Each machine had an undercarriage, complete with tires. It had wings, if you could call them wings, and a long nozzle poking out the nose. But there was no room for a pilot aboard. Too tiny, for one thing. Besides, there was no access to the cockpit. These same four men were told by their superiors when the machines arrived the day before that this was Germany’s new, revolutionary fighter-interceptor that would change the course of the war.
This was the V-4 – designated the Messerschmitt V-4 Experimental Series 1-1a – fourth in the series of the vengeance weapons.
The four men relaxed, lit cigarettes in the night air, and waited for the voice prompt from the tower. The sergeant in charge looked to the starry sky, devoid of any Allied bombers for the moment. But they’d be coming on schedule. As sure as the sun rises in the east.
Soon. In minutes, probably.
“Do you think these things will actually work?” one of the men said.
The sergeant dragged on his cigarette, delaying his answer. “It’ll be... interesting.” He nodded. “Yes, they’ll work.”
“I wish I could be up there to see them perform.”
“Me, too. You know, I have an idea.” The sergeant grinned. “Why not strap yourself to one of them?”
“Hey, don’t pass that around. Our superiors may ask someone to do it.”
The men laughed in agreement, their voices echoing off the hangar.
“Yes, you may be right.”
“I know I’m right.”