FLIGHT INTO CHAOS
Allowed all the darkness,
The mystery of evil has
Far more violence in the higher
Space. But to the angel no more:
To them in the mid grew the
Fruit: his earth to atone away:
To be redeemed.
-Weinheber: Between Gods and Demons
Three weeks passed without fulfillment of the hopes and expectations of Juncker’s task force. In the meantime Recke and Reimer, as well as the two SS officers, were being schooled on the Dosthra as well as incorporated into the general operation. The long, harsh announcements of the headquarters and the daily interceptions of Wehrmacht reports had let their moods fall to a low point. Even Gutmann was quiet and tripped over himself.
It was now clear to the greatest of optimists that the end of the war was imminent. Any introduction of wonder-weapons or other manners of surprise was undoubtedly too late, if such hopes were at all still held. The only pleasant factor in the monotony of their service, closed off from the rest of the world, was the predominantly clear weather, which enticed them to stay outdoors longer.
Recke was leading a long flight over the Boothia peninsula. Reimer flew in Juncker’s place, driven by his curiosity for the Netsilik settlement. Not only did they find it easy among the village, but that it was also completely deserted. A little further south, where the peninsula struck out from the mainland, appeared to the surprise of the two friends the two outposts which Van Huys, who was experience here, had singled out as fur stations. It must have followed then that the Netsilik had kept some reason or another to not betray the relatively close presence of utility posts. No doubt they’d had more contact with the white man than they cared to say.
Making a wide arc, the plane flew north again. The coastline of the Canadian mainland was the southern boundary for all test and training flights. This explicit command by the commander of Base 103 could never be broken without a compelling reason if done without order.
And so passed virtually the month of April. Vienna had fallen. The Red Army stood just before Berlin. In the West the Allies had swiftly broken into the heart of the Reich and Italy had lost. Just when their feelings of home and human solidarity drove closer to despair, Juncker and Recke were summoned by the commander. Considerable time had passed since the task forces had departed from the Grand Assembly, and nobody present counted any longer on a mission for the Juncker Group.
As the summoned officers stood in reception and reported in, they came face to face with the Chief of Operations and the Adjutant. The chief of the staff was a senior officer and he gave the two a friendly handshake.
“I can call you on the orders of the commander, gentlemen! Are you ready for a mission that requires an individual’s total commitment?” Recke caught a glimpse of Juncker, who with an air of indifference straightened his body and answered affirmatively. He immediately followed his comrade’s example.
“I expected nothing less,” the Operations Officer said quietly, “I have asked this unsoldierly question, simply and solely, because I need men who are willing to perform their orders under all circumstances. At the same time you must take with the task the knowledge of its hazardous nature, and to not be overcome by the possible consequences. It has been my experience that voluntarily accepted missions find the best performance.”
The grey eyes of the speaker glanced over the faces of the pilots, scrutinizing.
“Back then the commander spoke of a mission to Prague,” Juncker said, “It didn’t appear too difficult in particular.”
“Of the mission, nothing has changed,” he affirmed, “You will be flying to Prague. But prepare to find yourselves in a difficult situation. Above everything you must immediately go to your destination, otherwise you will run into the chaos that is already beginning and be unable to complete the tasks given. So be careful: your first task is to ensure the security of the plans for the disk-aircraft which at present are stowed in the Eastern Hall – remember this exactly, meine Herren! – of the BMW Center. Only, if at all possible, and only if the craft is ready for flight, you are to save it as well and the designer with his closest associates. The man’s name is Schriever. If you arrive to Prague at the right time, you are also likely to meet Major Küpper, who will be a valuable aid. Any decisions will be made according to the situation. In addition, try to gain an overview through appropriate reconnaissance what kind of treatment is given to our units by the Allies. This, of course, requires that you remain in the relative area so long as you report it. But the highest priority is always this: maintain the security of the aircraft entrusted to you!”
“You can count on us!” Juncker assured. Recke also nodded. Becoming serious and urgent, he added, “Whatever you may experience, and however your heart may change, turn off everything personal… This simply and solely for your duty!”
He grabbed a pile of maps and pushed them to Juncker.
“Take the maps that’ve already been compiled. Everything you need is there. Nothing’s missing. Anything additional goes to the Adju. Bring me Lieutenant Jensen, who will provide you with rations and other necessities. And now, meine Herren,” he looked at his watch, “When can you depart?”
Juncker quickly replied, “The morning is half-over. For us… about two, three hours at the most.”
He picked up the pack of maps himself.
“Excellent… it’s very urgent. Every hour lost could be a decisive one. Any last wishes?“
As they negated, he gave them his hand again.
“Then off you go, break an arm and leg!” Then, he added in a low voice, “God be with you…”
The Adjutant warned Recke, “Don’t forget – send Jensen to me immediately!”
“We will!” the Kasseler nodded. Both officers saluted and left the room.
As the Dosthra stood ready on the matte-white runway, an Arctic phenomenon appeared in the sky. Like a white, colorless rainbow, an arc spanned like a huge gate in the heavens of the Arctic region. Equally, a gate that led back into the world of man.
In the air whipped up by the propellers flashed tiny, silver-shimmering crystals of ice from the ground. Like a defiant challenge, the din of the giant beast began penetrating the seemingly vast silence of the endless Arctic.
The crew had already taken their place. Recke waved goodbye to his comrades, who stood among the adjutant on the runway.
“Ade, Herbert! – If all goes well, we’ll be back in about two or three weeks. If it works out…” he corrected himself, “Of course it’ll work out!”
With a touch of gallows humor he added, “You can’t even catch flies in the meantime. Such beasts don’t even live here.”
“Stop bullshitting,” said Reimer with bolstered roughness, “We have enough to do already to fill the time. So make sure…”
He paused. After a firm handshake, he stepped back and glided to the Adjutant. “He wants you to flip the propeller for him!”
Somewhat cumbersomely the Kasseler climbed into the aircraft. Juncker followed as the last one closely behind him.
“Ready for takeoff!”
“Ready for takeoff!” came back. While the ground crew cleared the track, the Dosthra rolled away slowly. Coming ever faster, it rose before the exit to the ring-mountains through the clear air and thundered with full-throttling power from the secure confines of the base against uncertain fate.
Recke sat next to Juncker, who piloted the aircraft, and looked at the dashboard, “Six-hundred kilometers – a new record!”
Juncker pointed through the glass window to the land, “Grant Land. Northern Canada!”
Like a treadmill the snowy land glided past. Then followed an excessive drift of water. With a glance at the map, Recke noted they were flying over Robeson Straight, which split from the rest of Greenland.
Tirelessly the men looked through the windows at the captivating image of the white desert of land and water. Viewed from a greater height, they saw the drifting ice-covered water like an infinite, green-veined surface. Then another coast came into view. Greenland!
Like the back of a whale the high-coast lifted away from the surfaces of the straight, the only bumps of the scattered icebergs seemingly standing still. The speed of the aircraft didn’t allow for a proper view of the landscape’s movement. A little later the craft flew over the mainland. Mighty glaciers of an almost completely frozen island – the biggest in the world – grew primevally like mountains in a realm of giants into the pale sky.
The glaciations formed a grandiose relief, little like a glacial landscape had ever showed before. The last castle of magic Utgard of the Nordic Thursen; so the picturesque boundary lines framed themselves familiarly away from the always anticipatory horizon. It seemed almost inconceivable that humans had already crossed through this infinite white Reich of Hrymthur, of the frost giants.
Peary, Rasmussen and Lauge Kock had passed over the eightieth parallel here diagonally and triumphed over the hostility of a defiant nature. Steadfastly the machine pursued its course, which was to bring them from a sphere of eternal silence back into the blazing riot of humanity. As far as the eye could see, ice and ice again. Nearly two-thousand meters thickness of ice sheet rested on the plains of the prehistoric paradise. Not as Green-Land, but as Hvidland – the White Land.
Again a change of scenery. Falling coasts and again the sea covered by drifting ice. Great and small floes, icebergs from the purest white to the most unlikely crystal-blue color and entire icefields beamed to the sides of them. In some places one could’ve thought they were seeing a fairytale in nephrite.
Later the ice became lighter. The density of the ice floes loosened, increasing to blue-green areas of open sea and then – the open seas!
Still scattered spots of white drove around them. Then in the distance, ahead westward, was an island. Jan Mayen. Now the plane gave further to the south and took course into the North Sea. Juncker had the intention to fly over German territory within the view of southern Norway and reach Prague on a non-stop course. After just two hours, the group of islands around Ålesund came into sight.
Following the salient bow of the coast, the Dosrthra flew just past the mountains to Stavenger and changed its direction at great altitude over the waves to the Danish Esbjerg.
“By maintaining this speed we’ll reach the mouth of the Elbe in about an hour,” Juncker spoke to Recke, “Now it’s time for all of us to watch out! – It’s possible at any time that we’ll unexpectedly run into an enemy bomber. Or worse – a swarm of fighters!”
“I thought our wonder-machine was immune,” the Kasseler smirked.
“In hindsight I’m not particularly worried. But now we have other things on our minds than doing loopty-loops in the air!”
Darkness fell. The land to the left in the German bay showed no life through lighting. On the wide expanse of the see were neither warship or yet-returning fishing boats. It seemed as if there was a spell of loneliness on this part of the world.
Grimly and silently the men of the flight crew stared through the windows. They studiously avoided every word or looking at each other. Depressed they were caught up in their own thoughts. Even Van Huis was no exception. Before them lay the homeland!
Coming from the depths of their souls, the men felt a deep ancestry equal to an inner vision. The beginning of the night has spread a dark cloak of compassion over the bombed country to spare the men the sight of the rubble and unending despair. The night was gracious, but the light of the men’s knowledge was stronger. Their eyes burned and their hearts beat up into their throats.
The man of the Dosthra were all soldiers. They could not chose their fate, rather they were positioned by providence in a place of duty which placed heavy demands on them. They had lived through the war in all its horror on various battlefields and had looked death in the eye without trembling. But all their feelings from previous experience had made them not so distraught as the area of their homeland, which despite heroic action could no longer be protected.
Only a few hundred kilometers west burned German villages and eastwards people were being hunted, tortured and massacred. Tanks moved through columns of refugees, women were raped and children impaled. Their hearts were heavy when they thought how in that same hour, while they lurked behind board weapons, countless defenseless people were suffering inhuman fates that no one could protect them from.
Juncker pulled the clutch and let the aircraft fly its path above the high bank of clouds. Playing by the pale light of the moon, the clouds glowed like ghostly fog. Even the mother-of-perl vapor trail grew iridescent in the appearance of the earth’s follower.
In the Magdeburg area they received weak flak. Some blasting clouds fizzled in the distance, and then they heard the shooting again. The silver finger of a spotlight suddenly brought through a hole in the cloud cover and jerked around, looking. After a few seconds it went out again. Apparently no one bothered to send out aircraft anymore.
“Earlier they shot from all their buttonholes when spotting a suspicious aircraft,” Recke introduced a fixed resignation, “You can tell they stay away from puffs and munition!”
Juncker nodded. With suppressed movements he controlled the course of the machine. After a short while he added, feigning indifference, “We’ll soon have reached Prague. Then we’ll be able to see trees again. Real trees!”
“And sometimes even rainy weather,” the Kasseler said maliciously, “Not just snow…”
As the clouds receded, the men saw the dull silver ribbon of the river Elbe. Juncker compared the curves of the river to the flight map, “Leitmeritz is before us. – Beer, radio the landing field! – It’s time for us to report.”
“Jawohl!” came the voice of the Feldwebel through the earphones.
“Send the password ‘Polarfuchs’ through!” Juncker added to his command.
“Jawohl – Polarfuchs!”
From Raudnitz they held to the Moldau river. Prague would soon emerge. The craft went deeper.
“Radio contact achieved with airport,” Beer reported, “We can land!”
“Good,” going by the map Juncker steered into the Prague airfield Gbley. Beer maintained contact with the air base.
After a few minutes a lit airfield suddenly flared up. The Dosthra continued in a low arc and landed, rolling out onto the track. Immediately afterwards the lights went out again and the place was covered in darkness.
“Everyone remain in the craft,” the Major ordered, “Only Captain Recke and I will get off. You can come out, Jensen, but you must remain with the aircraft. Understood?”
The officers climbed into the open. The cool night air received them, but to them it felt like the warm caress of a hair dryer. The severity of the Arctic climate had no more power here. Men from the ground crew ran up to them. An officer came up to the two of them. In the darkness they could only barely make out the dim rank insignia.
“The gentlemen are to remain in the aircraft! In a few minute a Major from the Luftwaffe staff in Berlin will be here.”
The dark hangars in the background of the place looked like huge mounds. Before them stood some Messerschmidts, whose unclear contours blurred with the darkness of the night. It was an old accustomed picture that made everything they had recently experienced seem almost like an unreal dream. The sensitive Recke ran his hand over his face, as if to prove his wakefulness.
“How’s the situation here, comrade?” Juncker asked the strange officer. The man held his tongue for a time. Then he said slowly, “From the East and North-East the Soviets are pressing on Prague. The Czechs are restless and are even taking minor assaults. North-East of here at Niemes Immelman is sorrowfully leading the fighter squadrons under Colonel Rudel, who persistently continues his Panzer-chase missions. So far he’s destroyed five-hundred enemy tanks on his own! He’s keeping the Red Army back a little from the neck pushing constantly at their spearheads. In the North though the Russians have already pressed through Dresden and they’ll get to us soon. It’s all monkey business!”
“It’s certainly not rosy,” Juncker admitted, “Even though I wasn’t expecting good news…”
He was interrupted. A Wehrmacht car came up quickly and halted with a screech in front of the Dosthra. The fine silver lining from the slots of the headlight caps dimmed, then two men jumped out and ran up to them. “Who is the commanding officer of this craft?”
Juncker stood to him and answered.
“Juncker? Ah, that’s excellent. We already know each other. I am Küpper!” They shook hands. Then the Major moved to the Kasseler and in the dim light of the night he tried to recognize his face. “We also know each other already. You’re one of the men who left from Vernäs with Gutmann!?”
“Jawohl, Herr Major. Capain Recke!”
“Ach, that’s right! I remember,” he took the two officers before him by the arms and pulled them off a few steps, “It’s high time you came! It’ll only be a few days before the whole fiasco’s over. I unfortunately cannot treat you to any peace but must put you to use for your assignments. I already know your orders and am here to support you. But above all, however: You may not stay here with the aircraft. No unauthorized personnel is to see the insignia of the craft by sunrise. In addition the airfield is at the utmost risk because the Americans have dominate the entire airspace and harass us all the time.”
“Where are we going then?” asked Juncker.
“Somewhat to the side of here,” he went with the two officers of the Dosthra back to the group of men who stood before the aircraft.
“Do you belong to the crew?” he spoke to Jensen. As he affirmed, Küpper continued, “Then be all so kind and let my driver take you to my quarters. I must take your place in the craft to bring it somewhere else!”
“Jawohl!” replied Jensen when he saw that Juncker did not argue against it. Without delay he stomped with his thick flight suit into the car.
Küpper gave some brief instructions to the ground crew, then he stepped into the Dosthra with Juncker and Recke. The soldiers in the airfield made the runway free, the engines roared again and yet again it lifted off the ground.
The Major had to know the airfield and is nearby destination with absolute certainty. He had taken Juncker’s place and in a few words he explained that he’d flown a Dosthra before. So it was understandable that the Berliner could, without hesitation, undertake the enterprise to make a night take-off under such dangerous circumstances. With somnambulistic alertness and and calm the Major came with the aircraft to an emergency landing field near the Bohemian capital.
“Here we’re reasonably safe,” he explained as the roaring of the propellers came to an end, “And now we’ll get out. Don’t forget your handguns!”
After the officers the other men from the crew stepped out. Somewhat stiffly they walked around in circles. A cry from the dark forest nearby startled them.
“Who goes there?”
“Gulls!” the Major cried immediately.
From the dark wall of the nearby forest there was triggered a series of people who came running to the plane. They were soldiers with combat packs who immediately surrounded the aircraft, while a staff sergeant reported to Küpper.
“Our security team,” the Major said to the flyers, “Yes – and then we’ll have to take the craft to the forest’s edge and camouflage it against aerial reconnaissance. Against surface sighting we’re secured by a watch cordon. We have to hurry!”
Having landed in Prague, the men of Point 103 would no longer be at rest. Heavy fighting raged in Berlin, the Russians were everywhere in swift approach and it was only a question of days until the Allies from the East and West would join hands. Küpper had lost all connection with Berlin and saw himself all on his own. He acted accordingly.
As Juncker and Recke asked him instructions as to the securement of the disk aircraft and its plans, he waved, “As for this, I already took care of it before the arrival of your Dosthra. The device is just before finishing touches, because an imbalance caused some changes. The designer is adherent himself even that the craft doesn’t come into the foreign hands and has the plans within his reach at all times. We needn’t worry about him.”
Juncker knitted his brows but said nothing. He lay the question in himself whether the designer would find his plans better secured in the Dosthra or somewhere else. Later, when he talked about it openly with the Kasseler, he immediately informed him of his opinion.
The Major didn’t seem to want to come out of his uniform. Day and night he popped up unexpectedly and handled messages or important document material. As to help from the base’s officers, he’d mostly avoided them. Juncker and Recke flew reconnaissance missions for them within a limited area with his consent. Above anything else they informed the Major as to the location of the nearest Vlasov units, who the High Police-Commanders of Prague had distrusted.
The flights always lasted for a short time only, since it was already vulnerable to a lack of fuel. Recke noted in one of his excursions that the first Vlasov Divisions had drawn upon Suchomast. At that time the Czech partisan activity had multiplied in the country. He repeatedly noted how groups of people had diverged in the squares of the smaller towns in Prague’s vicinity when they roared low over them.
On that day he met, just before landing in Gbley, a foreign aircraft with no national markings. He tried to fly in front of the plane but gave way to the high speed of their maneuvers. They showed superior agility. Since they hadn’t acted hostile, Recke dared not directly attack them. He only wondered at how a single aircraft was still flying beside him in that space, since he was always having to be prepared, just waiting, to evade a hostile formation of squadron.
When they landed on the airfield, he first tried to find Major Küpper to send a message to the foreign aircraft. At the landing strip he learned that Küpper was at the High Police-Commander’s office at Moldau.
As a request he asked the officer in the Kübelwagen.
“Don’t go alone!” he responded, “I’ll send two soldiers with you. The atmosphere’s bad in this country!”
Ten minutes later Recke himself sat at the steering wheel and drove towards the city. At a major intersection he stopped the car and asked a Czech policeman on duty and asked him about the German police office.
“To nevim,” he said and shrugged his shoulders. With a provocative gesture he turned his back on the soldiers. One of the two swore.
“He doesn’t know, he says. So far every cop’s understood German. They’ll be amazed at what’s coming to them…”
Recke therefore called out to an advancing army patrol who helped them immediately, “Just after the big bridge…”
Before the police station stood a double guard with machine-pistols and Stahlhelms. From the guard in the hallway Recke heard that Küpper had already left the building and was driving away in the company of an SS Major. The information was given brief and hastily. The whole place was filled with anxiousness and indicated the immediacy of the moving days. Recke got into the car and restarted the stalled motor. At the same moment that he began to press his foot on the accelerator, a man came running from the building and called to him, “Captain Recke?”
The Kasseler affirmed it.
“There’s a call from Major Küpper asking for you! Herr Hauptmann, you shouldn’t leave the office here until you receive more orders from the Major. Something’s going on in the city and it’s no longer safe to go to the airport!”
Recke whistled, “Is it? That’s a nice mess!” As if to illustrate his thoughts a few shots rang out somewhere.
One of the guards at the gate cried for the watch. Almost simultaneously the guard came from the watch house. Again shots whipped which soon passed into an irregular rattle. The guards pulled their machine guns up and looked in both directions where the road ended.
“Get in the car immediately, Herr Hauptmann!” The officer jumped to the side of the clear driveway. Recke felt bound in Küpper’s direction. He immediately reversed the car, turned the forward gear again and drove into the yard of the watch house. Behind him the heavy gate closed. When he jumped out of the car, the two accompanying soldiers waved to him and awaited hi command.
“Stay at the watch until the coast is clear. If necessary…” The Kasseler looked at the two man telling.
“Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann!” Both of them ran to the driveway with their weapons. They came straight to the door when there was a loud pounding, and then it opened and three soldiers tumbled in. One of them had a head wound that bled profusely.
“Uprising in Prague!” the injured one roared, “The Czechs are armed!”
Recke heard the man scream more and remained in the stairway. When men rushed past him to give the report, he joined them. In the corridor of the first floor they met police and SS officers who had come from their rooms to go to the chief. Immediately they asked the soldiers what was going on.
“We were going through Ulica Karoliny Svêtlé,” they reported breathlessly, “when we suddenly heard shooting. We immediately ran to the nearby bridge and received surprise fire. Armed civilians fired from the Moldau on the back opposite to us as we hurried through the short section of the Františkovo Nabeži. At the same time we heard fighting coming from the station area. We immediately sought refuge here and…”
A door opened and a major from the police came rushing out, “The telephone lines are broken! I can’t get any connection with the city commander. I…” He didn’t continue speaking in the erupting tumult.
“To arms immediately!” the Lieutenant Colonel called with commanding voice, “The spook will soon be over. Our forces are strong enough to put things just in order. In the few hours until then we can hold here lightly if we’re attacked!”
After a few minutes Recke himself stood beside the ordnance officer at the window and held his machine pistol in his hand, which he’d taken from the car in the courtyard. Behind quickly improvised cover the entire crew of the apartment stood prepared. Snipers had also taken positions.
Some stragglers showed up and were still let in. They unanimously reported that the Czechs were getting the upper hand throughout the city, “They’re hunting us like dogs– !”
According to the most recent reports it became clear that the rebels had taken the supply and arsenal and were in possession of the radio station. The trains, the telephone center, the heart of the city and most of the bridges of Moldau were in their hands. The situation was certainly very serious.
Fierce noises of fighting came down from the Castle District where the government offices were located. Here the attack waves of Czechs remained in the fire of the defenders. They likewise remained as the radio station announced to the Office of Security Service in Bubene.
On the road they could see running Czechs carrying guns. The snipers opened fire and drove back the attackers. Two men were left lying on the pavement. Their armbands identified them as irregulars.
Somewhat later the rebels repeated the attack. They came from all directions and tried to expel the defenders of the German department through machine gun fire in the windows. Clouds of plaster dust and pieces of stone flew off the wall of the house where the machine gun fire smashed with short and hard hammerings. Every now and then a piece of glass from the opened windows shattered on the floor.
Under the cover of high-lying sheaves some squads pressed forward. The German snipers concentrated their fire on the enemy machine gun units that had ventured too far and brought their weapons temporarily to silence. The other weapons couldn’t do the defenders much harm since they were usually positioned at acute angles to the row of windows. Immediately the Germans were at the window row and held themselves with machine guns in close, closely-dashed groups. Screams rang, men stumbled and fell. Under heavy losses the Czechs pulled back again.
“That should suffice for the moment,” Recke said to the ordnance officer, “The guys have had enough for a while!”
His nose crinkled, the air rife with the smell of powder, “I’ve already spent two magazines. Can someone spare some more?”
“I’ll get some right away!” the aid said, “I know this place better.”
He ran out of the room and in a few minutes came running back.
“Here!” he threw a whole box of magazines onto the table, “For the next few hours it’ll be enough.”
The din of the battle lasted all day. The police station received repeated fire a few times but a concentrated attack failed to materialize. The roof posts reported that the rebels had sealed off all entrances to the office and lied in wait. Penetration as a battle group through to the Hradčany seemed inadvisable.
With the fall of darkness it became a little quieter. Only a few shots were fired, however the Czechs bawled and screamed through the whole night.
The men at the station slept little. The events of the day and the continuous noise in the night let only a few men really come to rest. To those few also belonged Recke, who laid on a table wrapped in a blanket and after the strain of the last two days fell into a deep sleep. Only a renewed series of close shots made him hurry up in the morning.
The newly flared-up fighting in the city seemed to imply that the rebels were now trying to take down the individual block of German defense.
This morning the enemy snipers also tried to hold down the police station from above, thereby enabling a storm from the streets. But their plan was hindered by German sharp-shooters. Several of the irregulars were shot whereupon the rest went into retreat.
Hours later hell appeared to have suddenly broken loose. To the bright popping of gunfire and automatic weapons came the dull firings of artillery. An ulterior scratching and rattling hinted at tanks.
The ever-increasing noise of the fiercely raging street battles broke quite abruptly. Shortly after German tanks were already rolling through the streets and behind them followed closely and minded storm troopers of a Waffen-SS unit. By evening the uprising was for the most part temporarily crushed. The channel from Prague gave yet urgent calls for help from general Bunichenko before the disbandment, the bulk of the first Vlasov unit of which could still be found in the space of Suchomast. At the same time in the office of the Higher Police-Commander and Chief of Police Administration began the interrogation of the prisoners brought in, to determine the leader of the revolt. Reports came in that the Czechs had committed inhumane excess and had also hunted the civilian German population. The arrival of the foreign SS-units and above all the alerting of the SS Action Battalions from the Division “Das Reich” in Prague-Ruzyne and the replacement unit, the SS Artillery in Beneschau had offered a temporary halt to the bustle.
Recke initially decided to wait until he was notified by Küpper. He sent the two Luftwaffe soldiers with the car back to the airfield and gave a mediation under which he himself could be reached by telephone.
Instead of a call a light tank drove through the evening to pick up Recke on orders of the Major and to bring him to the Dosthra outside the city. Küpper lost little words and acted summarily.
While the tank rumbled through the streets of Prague, the turret gunner told him that they’d seen massacred Germans a few hours before that they would’ve thought in the long years of the war on the various fronts of their missions impossible.
Even women and children had been among the victims of the fanatical crowd, whose Germanophobia knew no bounds. Weapons had been issued to the rebels at the Bubna train station, which had fired immediately at the hospital train standing there with wounded Germans. Further a large number of Germans were missing, but the German task forces were not enough to carry out a systematic combing through the city.
No doubt some of the missing persons had been dragged by the retreating Czechs into their hideout.
As the gunner described what they’d seen and heard, he peered through the slits of the pylon constantly, always ready to fire. Now and then he swore in between.
The sun had already gone behind the white mountains and violet veils sailed across the hazy sky of Prague. The Panzer drove over the highway leading out of the city, between houses and farms all of which seemed to be abandoned. Occasionally shots still rang out from somewhere.
“You ought to be able to drive behind the houses,” said the driver, “But we have neither the time nor fuel!”
After a long drive they stopped in front of a forest.
“I think we’re already here,” the driver murmured and waved to the gunner.
He threw back the hatch of the pylon and lurched slowly, cautiously peering around everywhere.
“Damn area! Each forest has the same trees and there’s no reference table in sight. And in the face of this budding darkness…”
The tank rumbled a bit further, then the man in the pylon received a call from the forest’s edge, “You’re bringing the Flight-Captain?”
“Recke!” shouted the Kasseler and squeezed up next to the tank man before he could ask him.
“Correct!” Some soldiers jumped from the bush and a sergeant reported to Recke.
The Kasseler left the vehicle to follow the men. He was mistaken when he’d assumed that the tank would immediately turn back to drive to Prague. With amazement he heard the sergeant relate the orders of the Major to the tank commander to retract laterally and to take cover while waiting. Küpper’s special mission was revealed more and more by the auxiliaries provided to him.
A soldier led Recke into the forest while the group with the sergeant stayed at the edges as sentinel. The two men stumbled in the darkness over the roots and uneven flooring of the ground, hitting the branches of bushes and scratching their faces. The Kasseler held his machine-pistol before him and ducked his head.
Then the trees grew slightly apart and a larger clearing opened up. It could also be an indicator which stretched up to another wooded area, but this Recke couldn’t perceive so readily. About twenty paces to the left there showed the dark outline of a strange formation which threw deep black shadows. It was the Dosthra hung with camouflage netting. Some wandering shadows revealed a sharp watch.
One of the men posted nearby let out a low-voiced call that was answered by Recke’s companion, “… safe and sound here!”
The Major came there from the darkness and behind him Juncker and Jensen. The three officers made a circle around the Kasseler and shook his hand. Küpper’s tone was almost cordial as he spoke, “I’m really glad, Haputmann, that you’re safely back. You were looking for me but not at the right time. The main thing is that…”
Recke spoke then, “These days you have to be prepared for the possible and impossible! Actually I had an important message from my last flight.”
“It’s most likely long become obsolete,” the Major tried to cut him off, “Rather just tell me how it came off to you!”
The Kasseler didn’t listen, “I believe my message is still important. On the flight back from the brief exploration…”
“…you observed large groups of people from the air. Of course, the gatherings were an uprising!”
“Nein, Herr Major! – I came across an aircraft vastly superior to mine and carried no markings. They didn’t attack while I…”
Küpper grabbed the Kasseler’s arm, “How was it? A plane without a symbol? Are you completely sure!?”
“Hm… the plane evaded contact?”
“Very interesting. Could you describe the design, or at least approximate its appearance?”
“Only superficially! It was relatively short, the trunk broad and tapering slightly to the rear. It looked like a triangle with a tail. If I haven’t been deceived, it was a turbine aircraft.”
“Sehr schön. I can already imagine a lot,” Küpper’s face avoided visibility in the dark, “The most important thing is its origin. Where there’s no evidence or presentation of a flight symbol, any conclusions remain conjecture only.”
“And its behavior?” Recke asked insistently.
“It’s odd, but not unique!” Küpper replied. He also addressed Juncker and Jensen, “You will have to be very careful in the air now, gentlemen!”
In soliloquy he added, “I’ll be going as well but I must still take care of the disk designer. Perhaps this bat-plane is flying around in the air because a little bell was tinkling at the BMW-Square.”
The officers spend the night in the interior of the Dosthra. A hut in the immediate vicinity the Major had left to the guards as a base.
The next morning Küpper received a radio relay from the Gbley airfield that loud incoming reports told of the Binuchenko Division marching into Prague and disarming smaller German units. Furthermore an organized hunting of Germans would begin in the country by the rebel Czechs.
Küpper immediately called the three flight officers and the lieutenant of the watch team to discuss the situation. In a few words he told them the message bluntly and concluded, “I believe it will not be justifiable much longer to leave the guards behind after the departure of the Dosthra, cut off from all compounds. Sir, you would otherwise fall into the Soviets’ hands if you were to defend against the Czechs first!”
The leader of the guard smiled thinly, “I believe we only have a few days, one way or another, before we…” With an elegant gesture he moved a forefinger across his throat.
“God forbid!” cried Küpper, “Does anyone have any suggestions, gentlemen?”
Awkward silence was the only answer to his question. The Major looked at the men in the row before him.
“Ja, it’s a tricky thing,” he confirmed to them, “I’ll make it short then: you, Herr Oberleutnant, I command you immediately to move away with the guards to Prague, so you can settle in together with your unit if the situation is untenable. Our Panzers will accompany you to the city limits. Makes yourselves immediately ready to march!”
The lieutenant raised a hand to his cap.
“Anything else, Herr Major?”
“Ja,” Küpper said slowly, “Leave six Panzerfausts for me. I think we will perhaps desperately need them. You can even make a follow up in Prague! – So, that would be all!”
While the lieutenant immediately summoned his people and commanded the field watch securing the side of the road, the Major turned to Juncker, “Now begins our job. Since I can’t do everything alone, I must ask you to overtake command of the tank and make contact with the guard’s own units in Prague, but take the extra effort to return here with as much fuel as you can. Don’t stay away for too long because now we’re dependent on the tank for protection!”
“One question, Major!” Recke interrupted, “What happens to the Panzer men when we take off?”
“That too is already clear,” Küpper answered promptly, “The Panzer stays here, because it’s essential for our next task and for protection. If there’s no other way out, we’ll blow it up with the Panzerfausts. The men, however, today or tomorrow will be deducted from the West in the Dosthra!”
“Without papers?” Jensen asked, somewhat naïve.
“They are under my special use,” the Major taught him, “I gave them OKH-Marching Orders, so that they can’t be apprehended as deserters. Because I cannot land on the few airports remaining to us, of course!”
The lieutenant of the watch came back, “Should I still issue a message, Herr Major?”
“No!” Küpper said shortly, “We have no time for nonsense. See to it that you come back again. And all the best to you!”
Immediately afterwards the men marched off. Under the bush by the Dosthra were the six Panzerfausts. Like giant sand-colored eggs the warheads of these dreaded anti-armor weapons lay in the green vegetation. Juncker came out of the Dosthra, still clammering out. He’d picked up his machine gun and ran after the retreating team to take up his post at the Panzer.
“Hurry back,” he shouted after Küpper.
Recke scratched his head in afterthought. It was more of a gesture than a necessity. Then he said, “Major, now the Dosthra crew must keep watch. We must be prepared for all sorts of surprises!”
“That’s right! – Let the four men come here immediately!”
The Kasseler yelled for the sergeant Beer and the other men. When they came, they stood directly before Küpper and made it clear to him that it was necessary for them all to take up posts regardless of rank. During their explanations the men grinned.
“Why are you baring your teeth like ponies?” he asked.
“It’s fun for us,” Beer said equably, “Perhaps we’ll even find lilies of the valley…”
“Dumb jokes,” Küpper grumbled, “One of you must be at the street in front to instruct the returning tank, taking care of our bird from other directions of the wind. Now go!”
“Jawohl!” In a moment the four men were gone.
The Major said to Recke, “Wait a minute.”
He walked up to the plane and from inside he pulled out a briefcase. Soon returning, he opened it before the Kasseler he retrieved a thing that looked to have the size and format of a wallet. When he pulled back the lid, there was an intricate machine with a series of small control buttons, “A new way radio!”
The Kasseler marveled, “It’s cute.”
Küpper sat unceremoniously on the grass and invited Recke to sit next to him. Then he began to explain the device in detail and instructed him in how to handle it. After he repeated the few functions repeatedly, the Major said, “Keep it! I’ve secured a few of them and we’ll come to rely on the use of these small devices in the next few days. As far as I’m aware of the overall situation, in the next few days the Red Army will move into Prague, while the Americans are about to make a halt in the West. Thus a dramatic period of history will find its temporary end and at the same time begin a terrible tragedy. Our fate depends predominantly on our vigilance!”
“Then it’s about time we also retire,” Recke said. The situation dismayed him.
“The tips of the Soviets will roll past us,” the Major replied calmly, “If it becomes uncomfortable, we can still fly out of here without consequence.” On an overall map of the protectorate, which he took from the half-opened leather briefcase, he outlines the instantaneous front line.
“Undoubtedly all of our bands laying in the space between Bunzlau and Budweis will go to meet the Americans and as a result of this would not fall into Soviet hands. Therefore the Vlasov Division under Bunichenko must also vacate Prague, as they’ll have to hurry twice as fast if they’re not to be liquidated under the direction of the red commissars, immediately. The second Vlasov Division under Sveryev is already on the march west from the Budweis-Strakonitz area. Details on these Russian volunteer units would be extremely important to us, but we must leave it to the evolving realities to learn more. We also need to worry about what’s going on at the BMW-Square. Hopefully the disk will still be capable before the enemy bursts in and inherits the toy. That must not happen under any circumstances!”
“Hm,” the Kasseler remarked thoughfully. Through narrow eyes he spied a beetle crawling slowly on a stalk. A physical fatigue paralyzed his thinking. That the end finally emerging looked so different from what the victories from recent years would’ve suggested shook him. If he still managed to defeat the emergence of desperation, it was partly due to the example the Major gave him of ostentatious calm.
“Nein, Herr Major! I was only wondering about the course of events that make up this life on earth,” a made a small, force laugh, “The planet’s constantly rotating in the same place and leaves incessant fates on its big tumble, ones of blood and tears. And it’s all so obvious…”
A strange expression passed over the face of the Major, one that Recke couldn’t quite interpret. He then said getting up, “If you want to philosophize, remember only one sentence, Captain: Life is a carrousel!”
“That’s military, Major, Barras-Philosophy!”
“At the moment it’s the healthiest!” With the tip of his boot Küpper grazed a few chunks of earth.
“Let’s go to the plane; I’d like to radio the airfield!”
Before the Major could climb up, Beer appeared from the bushes who was taking over the monitoring of the road. He gasped for air, somewhat out of breath and cried, “Major– !”
“What is it, Beer?”
“I think there’s something going on in Prague again. An armed group of Czechs just marched into the city and sang songs. The Ivans will probably be in close proximity soon or engage laterally.”
“So what?” Küpper thought for a moment and then gave the sergeant one of the radios from his portfolio, which he’d tucked under his arm, “Stay on guard at all times and take this with you! You already know how to use it. You can send me messages easily then. But you may only leave your post if you or us is directly threatened. Understood!?”
“Jawohl, Herr Major!” The sergeant took the small device and took again into the forest. Küpper now tried recouping messages from Gbley with the radio. Curiously the radio station was silent. Worried, the Major came out into the open and called to the Kasseler who remained outdoors, “There’s already some devilry afoot! No more tails wagging in Gbley.”
“What do we do now?”
“Wait it off,” growled Küpper.
In the afternoon the Panzer came back. Jensen, who was constantly on the lookout for aircraft, received Beer’s delivery and reported promptly. Küpper and Recke rushed immediately to the road and waited until Juncker had arrived in the vehicle driving into a small lane and stepped out. When he saw the two officers he instantly came to them.
“No more turning back to Prague!” he reported.
“Why?” Küpper wanted to know.
“With the Russians’ help the Czechs have taken up fighting again to take the city. They slaughtered our wounded and hunted all the German civilians. The airfield at Gbley is taken and forty-six aircraft have fallen into the hands of the rebels. The SS-bands and small armed forces are fighting fiercely but can barely cope with the situation. Our guards immediately assumed a defense from a hospital that was about to be stormed by the Czechs!”
“Fucking swine-gangs!” cursed Küpper.
“When they saw our tanks,” Juncker continued, “they piled up like rabbits. When I had to turn around they peppered us again out of every hole.”
“And what about the fuel?” said the Major.
“We did capture back a truck-full. The Czechs left a convoy in the stitch as we rumbled past and at the same time an SS-unit showed up. Our tank’s fully loaded with canisters and the rest was taken by the men in the unit.”
“Now what?” Juncker looked at the Major, waiting. Küpper considered briefly and then said, “Let’s take a detour to the Dosthra, Juncker!”
While the tanks moved off again, the officers went though the shortest path through the woods back to the machine and took Beer.
“We don’t need a Dosthra Watch,” Küpper had meant. Juncker and Recke looked at each other but said nothing.
“I will fly out the Panzer crew immediately!” the Major said afterwards, noticing their looks. At the Dosthra the Major assembled the men. After a few words about the events that had just passed, he handed the tank commander marching orders from the homeland. He would be partaking in the departure with Juncker himself.
“Get your things,” the Major ordered the Panzer men, “and get to the plane immediately!”
They were glad to get out, especially without risk from the cauldron. Immediately they followed the instructions of the staff officer. Küpper continued, “For you, meine Herren, I’ve made the following arrangements: you, Comrade Juncker, assume the Panzer with Captain Recke! I will give you a man from the Dosthra crew as well. The rest will take the plane for the evacuation of the tank crew and we’ll meet at an approximate south-south-west direction from Prague. I’m thinking of it in a way that you drive down the Moldau valley, the result of which will be relatively secure from the shifting underground operations – for at least the next two days – and at seven-twenty tomorrow morning we’ll begin using our ultra-shortwave links. At this time I’ll be departing to south-western Bohemia until we resume connection. Is everything clear?”
Juncker said differently, “By order of the base commander from one-o-three I have command of the aircraft and it is not to be transferred without the express command of my direct superior!”
“My dear Juncker,” the Major said softly, “You know well enough what duties and powers I have. It’s not so much about skills, but completing what has been started. We have all liberties within our joint communion and shouldn’t be petty. Do you not think so?”
“If you accept full responsibility, then I accept,” Juncker agreed. He chose Krammer as a passenger since the man was a little weedy and wouldn’t occupy much space. With that the division of the groups was made. Krammer took some rations from the Dosthra and on the orders of the Major stowed three of the Panzerfausts inside, the rest loaded onto the aircraft. A part of the fuel was also tanked into the Dosthra with a chemical additive blended into it from some cartridges that Küpper had, the reaction as secret as many other details about the craft.
At five forty five the Dosthra rose ino the air, quickly gaining altitude and flying into the setting sun. Through the radio-phone they yet still sent best wishes for the Panzer’s progress, which at the same time was pulling its tracks through the Moldau Valley. Juncker thought it wise to go directly to the site. Above all he cut their distance so as to not have any surprise meetings with Soviet tanks that could come at any time from this area. Passing over small towns and individual farms, the three men came to the junction of the Moldau and the Beraun after about a half hour. Driving along the left bank they met a few armored vehicles which stood on the road.
Juncker had learnt from the lieutenant that they had orders to Prague, but no one wanted to continue with an unclear situation. The Czech capital could’ve been, for the most part, in the hands of the insurgents by now. The two officers hadn’t managed to give him a response.
These were the first signs of decay for the minor missions and fronts. The gears of the hitherto unsurpassed war machine had begun to fail. They drove around the King’s Hall and were later overtaken by an SS convoy that had managed to start bringing materials westward. Everywhere on the street there was lively movement and various troops with vehicles busy loading various things that were to be taken from the underground factories for transfer in safety. They even had Czech workers who seemed to work willingly. At present the German SS were respected here.
A little ways from the bank-road, however, they were ambushed. It was immediately clear to them that the Czechs were only waiting on the withdrawal of the German units to descend upon the German civilian population. At Mirowitz they branched off while a Wehrmacht company charged with refugees drove to the south. The coming of the night was clear and their progress was going easily.
When they rattled past a solitary home, they were called out by a woman. It was a Sudeten German who wanted to remain even after all the warnings issued by the army. She explained that some refugees had told her that the rebels sitting near Pibram had captured Vlasov’s Chief of Staff Trukhin and his Adjutant Romashkin two days ago. The Soviets had already broken through Trukhin had been taken away immediately.
Recke, who had spoken with the woman from the Panzer’s hatch, thanked her. She rejected however his suggestion to travel through some of the road with them and bring her to safety. The final words of the woman revealed that there was no solid front any longer and that the Soviets had already reached around the backs of the Moldau units. Juncker decided therefore to drive around Strakonitz.
They crossed the road to the western side of Blatna when they heard shots being fired in the nearby area. Juncker stopped the vehicle while Recke carefully surveyed. Behind them to the right there was a group of people on the road, their yelling and screaming becoming clearly audible. Then two shots popped through the air again. A woman screamed shrilly.
“Go, come on,” he urged Juncker, “There’s a mess in progress!”
“We can’t,” the voice of the driver came back from the depths of the cabin, “We just can’t…”
“Bullshit you can’t!” Recke screamed back in despair, “Do it or I’ll jump out and run to them myself!” Before he could go on they could hear the woman with a blood-curtling scream again from the dark mass of people, “Heeeeeeeeeeelp!”
Recke abruptly swung the gun barrel from underneath and unleashed a shot.
“Fool!” cursed Juncker, “Now it’s neck or nothing!”
He turned the Panzer with its engines roaring on and headed for the crowd, which immediately darted apart. On the street was a passenger car that had been held up by the Czechs. Two dark bundles lay before the asphalt. A woman came running up to the Panzer without hindrance. The rebels took cover from the tank, and after a few minutes they fired a few rounds at its armor. They didn’t prevent Recke however from staying in the open hatch.
The hurrying figure was a young girl, her blouse and shirt hung in tatters. She held her arms crossed in front of her bare breasts and fell to the ground just a few steps before the Panzer. Juncker opened the window completely and stopped their movement, “Get her inside, Krammer!”
“Ignore that!” Recke shouted back. He jumped from the tower, rushed to the girl and picked her up. She was totally devastated and was lifted like a helpless creature into the vehicle.
Krammer waited ready and helped her into the cabin. No sooner had the men stepped back inside than the Czechs began another round of shots, but it could do no damage to the tank. From the nearby brush the fire continued. Provocative calls followed.
“Nenechte nêmce startovat – not let Germans take off! Usmrt te nêmce – Kill Germans! - Napred – forward!”
Despite encouragement from the coverage he didn’t allow himself a glance at the inciters. Recke threw two shots from the tower while Juncker took them to the standstill car and stopped beside it. The two bundles laying next to the car’s radiator turned out to be in the pale light of the moon two German flight officers who showed no signs of life anymore.
Krammer jumped into the open and in two steps he was at the car, tearing open the door. With quick glances he saw that it was empty. He took a small briefcase from inside and fled back into the Panzer.
Even as he stepped inside another shot rang out. The man squeeled, “Heaven’s ass!”
Recke took the case and helped him inside, “Anything?”
Krammer, mubled, “I think a scratch on my leg…”
The tower’s lid and seeing hole closed completely, the caterpillar tracks chafing the pavement and then grinding off onto the soft soil. Still the yelling could be heard.
“Zabite nêmce! Slay Germans!”
“Shoot, Herr Hauptmann, shoot!” cried Kammer beside himself, “I got a good look at the officers. The Czechs shot them in the neck! I saw it clearly…”
“Calm yourself, Krammer. Look at your leg!” Nevertheless while speaking Recke looked out into the bright night. From a nearby bush two Czechs tried to escape.
The Kasseler pivoted and shot. One of the men lept high and fell to the ground. The second continued running rather than taking cover. Despite the darkness Recke caught the figure. With a cry he fell like a piece of small game.
They drove around again but no one appeared. Even the shooting had stopped, the Czehcs perhaps having seen the pointlessness of it. The Panzer was invulnerable to them. Only inuntelligable curses followed.
While Juncker continued carrying them, Recke looked to the girl and then Krammer. The soldier crouched on the deck against the wall, his pants pulled down without worry to fix his injured leg.
He took the first aid pack from his hand and looked at the injury with a flashlight. It looked like no more than a fleshwound. He wrapped the bandage above the thigh and brought two more rolls since the first one had bled through, “Lay still, Krammer!”
The girl also sat on the floor and was fully apathetic. As she touched Recke gently, he could feel the continuous shiver go through her body. He therefore reached for a blanket and threw it over her, “Wrap yourself tightly!”
Instead of an answer she suddenly cried out loud, “Oh my God!”
She pulled the blanket over her head and the sobs turned into a persistent wail. Recke looked at Juncker, “What should we do with this poor creature?”
The SS-Officer peered steadily into the night.
“If we come across a convoy, we’ll pass her on to them. Perhaps we’ll meet one behind Strakonitz heading to Bavaria.” Light regret crept into his voice, however.
The Panzer ate mile after mile into the forested hills. In Strahl-Hoschtitz they crossed a creek through a small bridge, despire their weight. They were suddenly halted by a strong group. They were soldiers of the second Vlasov Division who hadn’t been marching with the main unit towards Krumau. A Russian Staff Officer, speaking fluent German, told them when asked that the Americans in the south had taken Krumau as a detention camp. He and several of the other officers were of the view that they wouldn’t be safe there against the clutches of the Red Army.
“I have no desire to fall into the hands of the Americans so quickly,” Juncker told the Russians, “The proximity of the Soviets would also be unpleasant.”
“We’re also concerned,” said one of the Vlasovite officers, “If we Americans trade us off to the Kommissars…”
“Where are you going now?” asked the SS-Officer.
“Straight westward. Far to the west!” The Russian waved in a big sweep with his arm.
“It could be that we’ll meet again in the coming days,” said Juncker, “In any case – good luck!”
The Russians stood crowded around the Panzer and gesticulated lively, “Now not go! With us, with us…”
Juncker feared a surprise attack on the vehicle, “Make way!”
The staff officer brought his face to the seeing hole, “Germanski – good comrades! Stay a little while with us! We’ll be leaving in a few hours. Protect our rear-guard!” Some of the Russians repeated, “Germanski – good comrade!”
Recke leaned towards Juncker, “We should stay if nothing else! If anything it’ll help our observation. When the head of the unit comes into contact with the Americans, we can escape from the rear!”
“Good,” he said to the Russians, “Temporarily we’ll stay with you!”
“Good, good!” The man called with a few words of Russian to the soldiers standing next to him. They ran off and came back promptly with a fuel canister.
“Here fuel! We drive no more. All march!”
Recke stepped out and took the canister with thanks. Juncker filled the tanks immediately and threw the empty container into a ditch. He then turned the Panzer into the field while Recke stayed with the Vlasov officers.
After leaving behind Krammer as guard, the SS man returned and the stff officer explained to him the details of the American terms of surrender. He and the other officers expressed concern about accepting the Americans as a protecting power in the Soviet vicinity, “They will turn us over if the Kommissars make the request. And they will raise thar request for sure!”
The Kassler doubted them.
“But!” argued another Russian, “Amerikaner khave no idea about Russian and about Europe! I was in delegation and khave kheard the Amerikaner speak. They know nothing of Liberation Army and are dumb friends of Bolsheviki. They will see yet!”
“That may be,” said Recke, “But turning you over…?”
All the Russians nodded actively, “They will…”
The staff officer told the Germans that part of the second division had already begun the march towards Kramau. A part of the brigades and officer schools wanted, however, to keep pressing towards the West. He was also leading two battalions westward. His distrust of the Americans here was too great. He complained, however, that the Germans had not even met them with full confidence. Nevertheless he handed out his hand impulsively to them, “We good friends!”
Even in the darkness of the fading night the departure of the unit began. Half-loud Russian commanders brought the soldiers to their feet, which immediately formed disciplined marching columns. The leader of the rear-guard and another officer requested permission to sit on the tank.
The bustle, which wasn’t without noise, had aroused the girl. The fatigue after the shock of the experience had let her fall asleep despite the uncomfortable position, while Krammer had held steadfastly as guard. When the two officers got inside, they looked down at her.
“Are you cold?” asked Recke.
“It’s not bad,” she replied. Her voice was thick and brittle. Shortly afterwards she tried to say a few words of thanks for the help.
“Where are you from?” Juncker wanted to know.
“I was a news assistant in Prague. Two officers took me with them when we had to leave the town in a hurry. We came in a rountabout way into the country and at first we had several cars and Panzers. It was only when we turned directly to the south…”
As far as he could see in the darkness of the cabin, the girl had brought her hands before her face, “Oh – it was frightening!”
“Chin up, Mädchen,” the Kasseler said gently.
“They weren’t people anymore!” she screamed suddenly, “They dragged us out of the stopped car, the officers were kicked and beat with rifles right in the face. And then – then – I only heard the roar of gunfire. They even wanted to rip my clothes off and take me. They were like animals – like beasts! Oh, there’s no God anymore…”
Krammer remembered something, “Whose briefcase was in the car?”
The girl swallowed a few times, then said, “That was probably my luggage. The officers weren’t able to take any more.”
“It’s here,” said Krammer simply.
“Oh! I thank you,” after a few seconds she added, “I can at least wear a shirt and a blouse now…”
“You may do so!” said Juncker, “We’re driving again and our men will all have to be looking outside the Panzer!”
Juncker made his way into the driver’s seat and pressed the starter. While Krammer still limped after, the Panzer roared again back onto the road. The hum of the engine swallowed the marching of the soldier’s boots. Company by company they moved on into the incipient dawn with the Panzer as their rear-guard.
The Russians sitting on the tank spoke softly with Recke who stood in the open tower and looked out into the wooded land. They admitted openly that they were all obsessed with an excessive fear.
Recke himself couldn’t escape the spell of this collective fear of death of the desperate and agitated men. The whole atmosphere was charged absolutely with the tension of a rectified thinking. Everything around the Panzer dwindled now into a contained, mystical exhibition.
On both sides of the road the walls of the ancient forest, black and looming, rose high while the sky arched like a pale-grey blanket. The columns of the preceding companies were a snaking schema, which had been sucked up by the retreating night and swallowed. Only occasionally rattled a rifle or some cookware against a gun. If their engine was temporarily turned off so as to catch the sounds of any foreign motors, the little noises in an almost unreal silence could be heard.
As the morning mist rose completely and the coolness made the men shudder, the specters of fear and trepidation marched next to each individual Vlasovite as an invisible companion, called into speaking from the consonance of sensations. Stopping exactly south-west, the unit left the larger road and moved to the narrow trails. The transition slowed their pace temporarily. They passed another small, unsightly place whose inhabitants were invisible. At the head of the procession the top of a large and dark mountain was balanced considerably.
In a silent and hasty trot, the Vlasovites moved towards it.
The path began to rise and the forst drew closer to the road. The underbrush was thick with ferns which decorated the seam of the path like a primeval or magical garden, and the squarrose branches of giant, ancient trees swayed gently in the cool breeze of the morning, which set the fog moving.
The sound of the clanking tank at the line’s long end was rendered ugly and sharp against the oppressive silence of the gloomy environment. The Russian officers sat like gnomes shivering against the hull of the steel chariot.
The leader of the rear-guard turned then to Recke, “Such forests like here are also in our homeland.”
His melancholy eyes roamed around. More to himself than to the German he added, “Whether we will ever see her again? Oh sviataya Rossija!” Holy Russia.
The procession stopped abruptly. Waving arms planted themselves from column to column until the rear-guard halted. Scraps of words whirled past.
“Engine noises from the side.”
The rear-guard leader, who had translated the order, asked them to stop the Panzer. The men listened intently. Some of the Russian soldiers had thrown themselves down and listened to the ground for the noises propagated through the soil. Nothing. Only steadfast silence. Not even a bird’s song.
The halt was also used then for a short rest while the soldiers swarmed at the head. Since the Russians had only meager rations, the Germans divided their morning snacks with both of the Vlasovite officers.
The girl was now somewhat calmer in the morning too and not coy when her breakfast was offered. When she stuck her head out of the pylon, somewhat hungry for air, and was greeted by the Russians almost humbly, they even stole a trace of a friendly smile on her face.
In the dim and early light of the day it appeared that she might have amounted to about twenty-three years of age. Her tousled blonde curls could also not hide that she was unquestionably pretty. With somewhat weary movements she brushed the hair back from her face. She had large, blue-grey eyes still red from crying.
“Good, that girl comes to homeland with us,” said the read-guard leader, “Otherwise get through nothing alone. Ceski like animals. Not good!”
With a few words Recke told the Russians about the incident. Tears again fell down her cheeks. The Russians nodded seriously at what he said, “Khave in recent days seen a lot. But could not khelp any more. Was already too late.”
The second officer added still, “Ceski khave killed wounded in khospital, before eyes cut out, ears cut off and other tortures… khave found German women in village. Naken belly cut open, breasts missing and babies thrown to walls of house. Khave myself seen it, so may God khelp us…”
The girl moaned, “Mein Gott, can humans even do such a thing…”
“Oh,” the rear-guard replied, “Ceski not human!”
Again there was arm-waving and half-loud calls. The columns set themselves again slowly into movement. After a short stretch of the trail the forest receded a little and overlooked a wider road that cut through their path. Behind it gathered the green and brooding curtain of the great forest, which rose steeply in places to the crest of the now harshly-rising mountain road.
“Behind this mountain range is Bavaria!” Juncker almost cried from inside the cabin. He had oriented himself sternly with the map.
The unit crossed the road and swung into a dark ravine which headed into the mountains. Juncker expressed concern about the distance, as to whether or not they could keep following the troop.
Before Recke could speak of it to the Russians, there was the coming of several hundred throaty cries. Immediately after the explosion of a grenade tore apart the previous silence of the vast, apparent loneliness.
The angst of the Vlasovites, which had until now been dull, rose to an almost insane horror as the hull of a Soviet T34 emerged from one of the deeper bends in the road with its wide tracks. Its long gun swung like a finger and again a shot broke loose. Howling, the shell went over the heads of the rear-guard and burst ahead with a light blow. The German Panzer finally reached the road and offered it a good target.
While the Vlasovites broke into broad lines in the forest to seek protection in its increasing depth, Juncker first had to turn in order to start issuing into the trees. The officers jumped from the tank and ran for their men.
Recke shifted the turret to the rear, even though they had already been bested by the Soviet tank. Before he could fire a round an enemy grenade hit the crawler of the Panzer and forced it into an inevitable circular drive, thereby hindering its escape.
Their tank was grinding into a pit in the earth and sagged. In an instant Recke had opened the lower lid and pushed the girl out into the open. In spite of fear and horror she pressed her small suitcase against herself and fell behind a bush after just a few jumps.
At the same time Krammer crawled out from the rear of the Panzer and dragged out a Panzerfaust. Standing without cover, he removed the tube from under his arms and worked it in a matter of seconds. The incandescent cloud shot sizzling from the back of the device while the projectile bounced just a short distance to the point between the massive hull of the tank and its massive tower. A bright blaze beat high on up with a deafening roar and splinters of fragments flew about. Then a powerful jet, the flame a bright yellow, ran into a red hue and conceiled everything under a cloud of black smoke – that was the end of the T34.
“So, that was easy,” said Krammer. He then knelt down as if he had forgotten something. The tube of the Panzerfaust clattered against the ground.
“What’s wrong, Krammer?” Recke and Junger rushed to him. As they stood by him they saw that his face was chalk-white. Krammer twisted his mouth into a grin, “It was just by a hair. But life’s so cheap!”
He slumped further and dragged his upper body with visible effort.
“Man, something happened!” Juncker reached for him but Krammer refused.
“Please don’t – it would cause me unnecessary pains…”
“Then talk, Krammer! Where did it…” urged Juncker.
“It’s just a little thing. The Colossus didn’t forget to spare a few beans of its machine gun for me. Just enough for a free ticket into the kingdom of heaven, or the kitchen of the devil’s grandma.”
The two officers looked at him perplexed. From the burning Soviet tank came the crackling of exploding ammunition and the stinking fumes spread out in a surging wall. Behind them, again, a roar was heard. Krammer’s face distorted, “Give me another fist! Quick, quick – they’re coming!”
“Quit shitting us, Krammer! We’re taking you with us!” The Major called to Recke, “Carry him by the legs…”
“Nein, nein!” screamed Krammer, “I don’t want to. Give me a fist!”
The men hadn’t noticed that the two Vlasovite officers had also come back. The rear-guard leader had brought without word the remaining Panzerfausts from the tank and placed it in silence against the greviously wounded man.
“Germanski brave!” the Russian said to Krammer. He knew there was no help anymore. He said to the German officers hastily, “Make quick – up into forest! Hear! – There Bolsheviki coming…”
“Please go!” Krammer begged, who’d understood his words. Juncker leapt back into the Panzer and took out only a leather bag and some machine guns. In the bag was ammunition, a few maps and the radio devices. As the men retreated into the bush a second T34 blurted out from the smoke.
They heard him call out, “Unterscharführer Krammer reporting out! Give my regards to…”
Then again a detonation, accompanied by a prolonged roaring noise. Looking back they saw what Krammer had done to the second tank. He was lying face down in the dirt road and didn’t move.
After a few steps they found the girl, who with fear in her eyes had watched the whole scene and waited for the take-away. She had felt unable to flee further alone.
It was high time that the men had left the road. Despite two burning tanks, already gunfire was heard from behind the wall of smoke. The four men and the girl hurried uphill. Before them and to the side rushed other groups of men through the thicket. As they ran the rear-guard leader yelled to the Germans, “We khave already some dead! First grenades – three men dead… Behind us Bolsheviki – now many die!”
Sweat ran in streams down their faces. Their breaths pressed whistling through their noses, hastening undeterred. Again and again gunshots rang out through the gloom of the forest.
In crazed fear of having been hunted by superior forces, they urged each other more and more into groups and pushed further up the mountain. A large column of smoke before them then pulled its magic over the fleers.
Apparently the Soviets had had the better ground. Suddenly squads of Soviets broke out at the same level as the escapers.
“Vperjod!” their cries rang out, “Urre, urre…”
Some of the Vlasovites fell down from being hit. Their screams ran cold through the forest. Inflected by the clamor of the early chaos the girl began to scream.
The officers cursed at her and tried to bring her to silence. Only a harsh command from Juncker was successful. Bullets were already whistling around them through the row of trees, and the Vlasovite soldiers who tried to stand their ground fell immediately.
They continued running, following unconscious compulsion, to the high smoke which swelled seemingly as a singular from the earth. Before them a clearing opened up.
Behind it a weathered cliff towered with cracks and crevices. A broad wave of the Vlasovites stumbled across the surface. Hundreds of them ran towards the rocks as if they would find protection in the gaping spaces.
“This is madness!” cried Recke and took hold of Juncker and the girl. One of the Russians stayed, the rear-guard leader also running into the open. After a few moments he also collapsed.
“This way!” Juncker violently pulled his companions with him. They squeezed themselves behind a bush that grew at the foot of a giant boulder. The hole at the bottom of the cliff was just enough to protect four huddled people. At the last moment the Russian broke out into the open and tried to win with his comrades. He ran in a zig-zag after them.
Juncker and Recke peered at the events from behind the branches. By chance the first earth-brown Soviet troops had come walking across the clearing, the collapsed and wounded Vlasovites spiking them relentlessly with bayonets. At the same time the wave of desperate men, obsessed with the fear of a terrible end, surged to the rock wall.
And then the two Germans saw a strange figure suddenly standing before them with both arms lifted to the sky in an imploring gesture. A Mongol, with the strange garb of his country, and with the characteristic hat on his head. A tension hung in the air that almost paralyzed and undoubtedly emanated from the man who was standing like a statue in front of the Russians pushing forward. A hypnotic effect was noticeable.
The smoke coming from the crevice thickened and became a screen of invisibility before the drove of Soviets. Simultaneously the hunted soldiers rushed, as if following a call, into the largest column in the wall and disappeared inside, as if being swallowed up. Behind the screen the rock danced in the flickering of the lowering smoke. And suddenly the Mongel had vanished.
A little later the smoke dissipated from the ground completely. The Soviet soldiers uttered cries of anger and surprise. The majority of the Vlasovite battalion had dissolved into nothingness and had escaped them.
Carefully Recke and Juncker pulled their heads back as the strange Mongol had disappeared as suddenly as he had stood before the rock. The girl was pressed against the boulder and held her hand clenched over her mouth. Her eyes were wide open with fright…
The officers looked at the time. The same thought had inspired them. It was around seven. Recke took the radio device from the bag and Juncker turned to him. Although the agreed time had not yet come, they still gave they callsign.
There was nothing. The men had no choice but to persistently lie flat in tranquility. The sun was passing minute after minute. The dewy grass was an unpleasant cold.
After a while Recke tried again. This time he got a response immediately. The Dosthra was already airborne and was circling around somewhere.
Küpper’s first request was their location.
“Cannot be specified,” Recke replied, “Mid-height of high mountain forest, near a cliff.”
Juncker took the device from his hand. With scarce wording he reported that Krammer had fallen and the tank was unusable.
“Break to the south and maintain connection!” was the command from the Major of the Dosthra.
Nothing else came through. In the opinion that the Soviets had already regrouped, the two officers crawled from the bushed and called the girl to come along. Readying their machine guns, they had only stalked forward a few steps before they were suddenly called from behind, “Ruki verkh – Hands up!”
Juncker and Recke dropped the weapons. The girl tried to run a few steps but a loud “Stoy!” halted her.
“Damned and condemned,” Juncker railed under his breath, “Such a situation…”
In no time they were surrounded by a group of Soviet soldiers. One of them picked up the weapons while another grabbed the woman, “Oh, Mädchen – khoroscho…”
A Russian corporal rammed the butt of his assault rifle on Recke’s side, “Davai, davai!”
They stumbled forward and were still happy that the Russians had tolerated the girl being moved along with the captured officers. Coming in a small arch, they came back into the clearing of the dramatic event. They were immediately brought to a group of officers.
A Russian captain turned to the prisoners, “Where Vlasovite soldiers, heh?”
Juncker looked at him. Then he pointed to one of the curved shapes laying there. About ten feet away lay the dead and one of them still had an arm locked in the air clenched tightly into a fist. On the upper part of the sleeve was the blue St. Andrew’s cross illuminated with white.
“Pjos – dog!” the captain hit Juncker in the face. The SS man stood stiffly without expression. A stream of blood shot from his nose that blotched his uniform. Only his eyes gained an unapproachable and haughty expression. It was as if he could see through those standing before him.
The Russian took Recke by the shirt, “You talk – Where Vlasov people?”
He pointed to the rock wall, “There!”
The Russian raged, “Nothing there – you come! – Show me!”
The prisoners were pushed forwards until they stood beside each other before the wall. In fact there was no sign of the vanished soldiers to discover. Even to the Germans nothing was so puzzling as this. Only for a moment there seemed to be the glimmer of some secret knowledge in the willed and angular arrogant features of the SS Officer.
While the Russians took steps further shaking their heads, the group came upon a man who lay groaning on the ground with his hands clasped to his stomach. It was the leader of the rear-guard who’d caught a bullet.
One of the Soviet officers went to him and gave him a kick. The Germans couldn’t understand the questioning because it was in Russian. The Vlasovite officer rose a bit from the ground and looked at the them.
“Germanski – Brothers! – We will see Russia again – through the womb of mother earth…” A bang, and his head fell to the ground. The Soviet officer had unceremoniously put a bullet through his forehead.
The Germans turned away disgusted. Although their fate was completely uncertain now, they both worried about the girl whose fate was undoubtedly within the next few hours. Escape was impossible here.
“Davai!” On the command of the Russian captain they were led downhill with their original escort who still carried their weapons and had left behind the girl’s suitcase. With intent the officers faked a rapid tripping and slipping down the hill in order to keep the accompanying soldiers from walking in peace. They noticed the looks of desire for the girl. Just before they reached the street where they’d been taken out before, they heard the humming of a large aircraft.
A quick glance communicated an exchanged agreement, assuming that the Dosthra had canceled their rendevouz for the search. Recke shrugged his shoulders resigned.
The surprises of the day had not yet come to an end.
They walked onto the road not far from the still smoldering tanks and were taken to a convoy which, abandoned by the soldiers that had fled into the woods, was empty. The corporal pointed to a small car at the end of the line which was open, “Davai!”
Some soldiers shouted to him. They raised their weapons and pointed them at the Germans. The situation had become threatening. Apparently, however, the corporal had given a command which barred the liquidation of prisoners. With two Russians to the side and a few more sitting in the back with the captured, the car drove for a short time northeast from the area of the German border. They made good speed. The hard drive on the badly sketched road shook the car properly. The guard cursed.
At a turning point in the road the car stopped with a sudden jerk. An open passenger car stood ajar in which sat Russian officers who were exclusively Mongols. One of them rose from his seat and came to the prisoners, which he observed closely. He scarcely noticed the girl however, instead looking carefully at Juncker’s black collar tab and Recke’s yellow. He then returned to his companions with whom he spoke in great detail.
As the corporal began to drive off again, the Mongols turned and followed close behind. After ten minutes they came to a small place whose houses were marked with Czech flags. Irregulars with rifles and arm-bands stood at the entrance and waved their weapons as the car came by, “Zabite nêmce!”
They stopped before one of the better looking houses. The Russians stepped out and forced the Germans by the mass of raging Czechs into the gate. The corporal walked ahead and went through a dark passage leading to the barn house of the building.
While the prisoners waited, he walked down the tract and opened several doors until finding a stable suitable for them.
“Pashol – get in!”
The officers let the girl precede. The corporal made a gesture as if to snatch her back but it failed. Only a mocking laugh was left on his features, distorted, “Evening!”
The room was completely dark. Only through the cracks in the door boards filtered a fine strip of light which drew a bright line across the opposite wall. At times it disappeared as a guard passed it. The girl was crying again and was completely broken. The two men didn’t dare to award her consolation.
Juncker’s first impulse was to take off his watch and empty his pockets. Recke followed his example at his own behest. Then the asked the girl to stow the small radio devices and her personal commodities in her suitcase. Juncker’s radio had unfortunately been in the leather bag taken by the Russians. They had actually been very lucky that the girl still had hers and that they hadn’t been plundered so readily. They attributed it only to the excitement that had passed that morning, the Russians themselves having been a big surprise.
Whispering, the two men discussed things. The most obvious thing was their destiny, which in the best case meant a deportation to the East. In any other case, their lives might be concluded within a few hours. They studiously avoided talking about the girl. A prison break was also completely hopeless. It was impossible for her to get out of this place even if the guards were finished with her. Even the latter was just a mind game.
Recke thought of sending a message through the radio, but Juncker rejected this idea categorically. Knowing the reckless Küpper, the Dosthra and her crew would only be endangered without the ability to even get help.
“If there’s danger, we’ll be shot!” said the SS Officer, “We already know how the Ivan does things…”
“Then we’re just abandoning our possibilities!” Recke opposed with anger.
Juncker reassured, “Time will tell, as that nice saying goes!”
“And a cold grave in the summer is good,” sneered the Kasseler.
After a while of deep silence Recke asked, somewhat more conciliatory, “I’ll eat a whole straw hat if I figure out what happened there with the miracle smoke. Can you explain this, Juncker?”
“It’s as strange as it is simple! The mysterious Mongol, personification of the roof of the world, has used his magic powers as the Asiatics would say. We Europeans can resign ourselves that we’ve failed with a mass suggestion. The Ta-Lama is guiding them especially well.”
Juncker stroked his rough chin, “The esoteric would say: Agartha has opened the gates for the persecuted and deprived them of a menacing fate. The exoteric: A mirage of the gods beat the runner-up with blindness. Expressed even more simply: the Soviets were fooled by a Lama!”
The day passed on without anyone bothering with the prisoners. Sometimes shots were still heard in the distance, but no conclusions could be drawn. Juncker gave the suspicion that they might be witnesses of the mountain spell, thus people of temporary value and thus given a grace period.
The narrow strip of light on the wall was already pale and completely extinguished after a little while later. A new night fell and the girl let out a shiver, now clinging to the men for protection.
“Kill me,” she said pleadingly, “Before you leave me to these animals!”
As if to confirm her unbridled fear there came a polyphonic din and growls from the outside into the barn. Apparently the intoxicated locals were celebrating a cheap victory and fraternized with the soldiers of the Red Army. The uproar continued uninterrupted.
In a single moment the planked door of the barn stall was flung open. In the brighter doorway were the silhouettes of several men. One of them said in guttural German, “Up! Come immediately!”
Juncker came first into the open, the girl rushing immediately behind him and Recke following after. There were four men who covered them on all sides.
“Don’t speak!” one of them warned.
Going across the barnyard, the Germans saw the guards shrinking behind them and staring at them. The men crowded into the hall where they waited a moment. A few minutes later a second guard came out who handed the machine guns and Juncker’s leather bag to the four.
“Further!” the voice said. In the light of the opening door, through which the guard had given the items, the Germans had realized that they’d been picked up by Mongols. Perhaps the same ones that had stopped the car that morning.
Stepping out onto the village street, they were pushed hastily into a car awaiting them. While the Mongols took their seats they made space for the girl to sit between them, Recke and Juncker having to squat in the foot space. Then the car took off quickly.
Before leaving the place they stopped only briefly. A few words in Russian were enough to let them leave instantly. As the car went on they could see that the armed Czechs were all drunk at the village’s exit. Grinning they stayed behind.
Out drove the car into the darkness of the night. After a short while the driver turned off the road and rolled onto a narrow forest path. Recke estimated that the village was somewhat over ten kilometers away by now. A few houses standing by the road showed no light.
When the vehicle stopped at the edge of a thicket, and the pitch-black trees cast their shadows, the girl opened her mouth to scream. Instantly one of the Mongols sitting beside her moved a swift hand over the lower part of her face, trying to stifle the cry, “Not speak. Otherwise broken!”
His threatening tone intimidated her. One of the men left the group and stayed away for a long while. When he return he conversed with his companions in a foreign tongue. They then slowly moved the car forward into a swath and drove several hundred kilometers across a clearing with fields. Rocking and moaning the car drove over a small ditch and continued on a dirt road to a house standing by itself.
The door was flung open at its hinges. No animal revealed itself and no inhabitants made themselves noticeable. A Mongol’s flashlight showed that the house was in the greatest disrepair or had been at least sacked at some time.
One of them went back to the car. The other three walked with the girl and the officers to the bedroom of the house which had a bed at both walls.
The German-speaking Mongol took the girl by the arm and pulled her to the bed, “Here – sleep a few hours! No fear!”
Then he turned to the officers, “We stay here. Until morning.”
“And then what will happen to us?” Juncker asked without emotion. The Mongol looked at him for a moment in the eyes. The mild finger-rays of the rising moon haunted his broad face and his eyes glittered, “Buddha’s ears are everywhere. He has heard this question and he will answer at the right time.”
“Buddha’s ears?” Recke approached him. Juncker also seemed surprised. But the Asiatic only turned away after speaking the faultless German sentences and went with his companions.
The watchers remaining seated around the table in the middle of the room, the officers threw themselves safely onto the second bed. The physical and mental fatigue made them fall immediately into a deep and dreamless sleep.
“Up!” the Mongols were already at the door, “Quick, quick!”
Again a pale morning. Fog and a cool freshness rose before the house. The car drove through the field and the forest path back to the road and then at a great speed. Juncker and Recke both noticed that the driver and his cohorts scrutinized any signs of crossroads carefully.
Turning into a narrow lane after exiting the short stretch of forest, the car stopped with a sudden jerk, “Everyone out!”
They trudged all together over a soft ground, turned into a forest trail and were suddenly faced with a large and strange aircraft, the remarkable design of which strongly resembled that of the encounter that Recke had had above the Prague airspace. The first rays of the rising sun played over the hull.
The Mongols went to the fuselage in a hurry beneath the short triangular wing. The head of the plane showed two horizontally protruding horns which gave it the appearance of a caribou head. The two German officers couldn’t guess at the strangeness of its purpose. Most strikingly appeared, after a few rushed glances, the caterpillar tracks under the central fuselage and the lack of any flight markers.
There wasn’t a lot of time to look. In a few minutes the men and the girl were stowed inside. Two Mongols waiting in the plane even took the belongings of the Germans from the car, which simply remained abandoned on the dirt road. The metal bird’s turbines roared, lifted it into the sky and shot eastward with increasing speed, flying the Germans now against an unknown fate…