Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Fox on the Rhine

I've featured nonfiction on this blog, but I thought I'd share sections from the three alternate history novels I coauthored with Doug Niles. Our first, Fox on the Rhine (Forge, 2000), explored what might have happened had the bomb plot of 1944 been successful.

The book also has a Wikipedia page. Our own website is here.


July 20, 1944

Wolfschanze, East Prussia, 20 July 1944, 1132 hours GMT

The sharp-featured Prussian field marshal approached Hitler's headquarters bunker, trailed by several staff officers. The SS hauptmann standing guard at the door snapped his arm upward in a salute and shouted as a heavy cement truck rolled by.

“Field Marshal Keitel. Der Führer is expecting you. Since they are reinforcing the command bunker, the conference will be held in Minister Speer's barracks.”

“Very well,” the aristocratic commander replied. His face was etched with deep lines, and black circles darkened the skin around his eyes. Keitel turned to one of his accompanying officers and glanced down at the man's solid briefcase. “Did you bring the information on the Replacement Army?”

Colonel Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg instantly tightened his grip upon the satchel's handle. He stood stiffly, nearly as tall as the field marshal, and was every bit his equal as an aristocrat if not in military rank. Von Stauffenberg was a soldier who had suffered grievously for the Reich. A black patch covered his left eye, and his sleeve on the same side was pinched shut at the wrist, hanging empty beside his Wehrmacht colonel's tunic. He clasped his large briefcase in his right hand, even though he had lost fingers there to the same explosion that had claimed his arm and his eye. “Jawohl,” he replied, indicating the briefcase with a nod. He was sweating for reasons other than the oppressive heat.

The colonel glanced over at the footings for the new, large command bunker, a symptom of the Soviet advance. A foreman was yelling at his crew; as always, Wolfschanze, the “Wolf's Lair,” was a beehive of construction activity, with new fortifications being thrown up while the war moved closer and closer.

Keitel noticed Stauffenberg looking at the new command bunker. “The tide will yet turn in our direction,” the field marshal observed.

Stauffenberg looked at his commander. “Yes, Field Marshal,” he replied. “And perhaps sooner than we think.” His face was carefully expressionless, giving away nothing of his true thoughts. Only the beads of moisture on his forehead betrayed his tension, and those could easily be explained by the heat. He knew Keitel was still loyal to the Führer, and would be until the end - which would come sooner than the field marshal could possibly imagine.

Minutes before, Stauffenberg had opened the briefcase and reached inside to crush a glass ampule. The subsequent chemical reaction had activated a fuse. By the colonel's estimate, the bomb in the briefcase would go off in about ten minutes. If all went well, by the end of the day Germany would begin to emerge from the long night of dictatorship and fascism.

Keitel merely nodded, obviously pleased at the patriotic response, as he led his staff toward the barracks. Twice, staff officers offered to carry Stauffenberg's briefcase, be each time he refused the help. The seconds crept slowly by as they approached the Speer Barracks. This was one of the old wooden structures, built before fortifications at the Wolf's Lair were deemed necessary. The building looked like a long, one-story lodge in the woods, not at all like a sophisticated field headquarters for the mighty military machine that was the Third Reich.

To von Stauffenberg, the change raised a pragmatic concern. He worried that his bomb might not be sufficient for the job, that the open windows would diffuse the blast and reduce the damage it would cause. He suppressed a grimace. Why had Keitel interrupted him before he could get the second bomb from Haeften? But there was nothing to be done about that now.

Inside the conference room more than a dozen uniformed officers stood about in various states of unease, while an equal number of stenographers scribbled their notes at writing tables placed haphazardly around the perimeter of the conference bunker. A broad map table filled the center of the room, and the short, dark-haired figure of the Führer bent over those sheets, his shoulders and arms tight with barely-concealed tension. He looked up, piercing eyes flashing angrily, as Keitel and Stauffenberg entered.

General Adolf Heusinger was clearly trying to complete his briefing without provoking another Hitler outburst. “The attempts to reform Army Group Center are being met with some--er, limited success. Zhukov's armies continue to advance, however. Three days ago some elements of the First Guards Tank Army crossed the Bug River into Poland - although the defenders of Lvov stand heroically firm. In the north, I regret to report, there is a real possibility that Stalin's horde will reach the Baltic. In that case, our armies in Latvia and Estonia will be lost—unless - or rather, if - they were to make a strategic movement toward the Fatherland -”

“The German army will never withdraw! It will fight and be victorious - or it will die! But it will never retreat.” Hitler's voice rose He was sweating for reasons other than the oppressive heat. Nearly to a shriek, his eyes fastened on the quivering lieutenant general. “How is it that you cowards in the Wehrmacht can't get that fact through your thick heads? Proceed - but do not mention withdrawal!”

“Jawohl, mein Führer!” Heusinger gulped and mopped his brow, then continued with the dolorous report, trying unsuccessfully to highlight the rare bits of positive news.

Stauffenberg felt some sympathy for the man, knowing that the task of sugarcoating the news was virtually impossible. In truth, Army Group Center - the greatest concentration of men and material ever gathered under German command - had been virtually obliterated by the massive Soviet spring offensive. About the best the hapless Heusinger could do was dangle the hope that the sweeping Soviet advance must surely be carrying the Russian tanks far beyond their bases of supply. Also, he emphasized, the bridgehead across the Bug was still small. Of course, none of the unspoken realities would escape any of the experienced army officers here, but these professional soldiers knew to a man that it was nothing short of suicide to confront the Führer with truths he did not wish to hear.

Stauffenberg stepped up to the table as Field Marshal Keitel moved to Hitler's side. The colonel had asked Major von Freyend to find him a place close to Hitler to compensate for his poor hearing, and von Freyend was happy to oblige. Stauffenberg's one good eye never blinked as it appeared to consider every detail on the wide map, with its huge expanse of flags and colored lines, the sweeping horde beneath the hammer and sickle closing onto the heart of the Reich. His heart pounded, and anger and despair writhed together as he observed this graphic depiction of national catastrophe. So this is the end to which the Führer would lead us. Well, today, right here, the madness stops.

The colonel carefully set his heavy briefcase down underneath the plywood table. Months of stealth, of plotting, of careful recruiting, had led to this moment. The explosion would kill most of the people in the barracks, he knew, and not all of them deserved to die, but then so many people had not deserved to die. These deaths, at least, would bring the insanity to an end.

“Herr Oberst - there is a call for you, from Berlin.” Stauffenberg turned to see a messenger whispering at his side. “General Fellgiebel said it was urgent.” Nodding silently, the crippled officer took one last look at Adolf Hitler, Führer of the Third Reich, and smiled his tight smile before following the messenger from the conference hut, moving quickly across the compound toward the communications building, following the cue of his co-conspirator. He completely forgot his cap and gunbelt.

He didn't forget his briefcase. It remained exactly where he wanted it, under the table, a few feet from the Führer's legs.

Colonel Heinz Brandt moved into the space at the table vacated by Stauffenberg. Brandt, an aide to General Heusinger, was an operations officer on the general staff. He was pondering a disturbing bit of news. Unconfirmed reports from the Balkans had been coming into the OKW headquarters, indicating the possibility of defection by Rumania and Bulgaria. The two nations had never been enthusiastic participants in the epic war against the USSR, and now that the eastern hordes rolled toward them Brandt's sources indicated that either or both countries might be preparing to change sides.

Yet how could he bring this up to the Führer? Brandt's idealism and patriotism had been sorely tried these past months. He still revered his Führer, but those bursts of temper were coming more and more frequently. And too often they meant disgrace or disaster to the recipient.

His position at the table was awkward, and he realized that his foot was blocked by Stauffenberg's briefcase. He reached down to move the leather satchel to his right, finding that it was surprisingly heavy. As he started to shove it behind the thick stanchion supporting the table, however, he was possessed by the sudden urge to sneeze. He froze, embarrassed by his awkward stance, tense because of his proximity to Hitler. Struggling to suppress the tickle in his nose - a distraction such as a sneeze, however involuntary, always irritated the Fuhrer - Brandt decided that the briefcase could remain where it was. He straightened with careful dignity, ignoring the damnably heavy satchel, relieved that he managed to keep from attracting unwanted attention to himself.

 More ominous facts and figures mounted up: the Americans and British continued to reinforce their beachhead in Normandy, which was now six weeks old. The German defenders held their positions with heroic courage, but the Wehrmacht commander in the west, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, had just been critically injured by an Allied air attack. The report sent by his replacement, von Kluge, indicated that his troops were stretched to the breaking point, that the defensive shell must soon crack.

Meanwhile the heavy bombers kept coming, day and night, raining death on Germany's cities and destruction upon the Third Reich's industrial capabilities. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring's representative reluctantly admitted that the Luftwaffe was horribly depleted, critically short of spare parts, barely able to scrape together enough fighters to harass the thundering fleets of enemy bombers.

Hitler's eyes again flashed. “And the rigging of the jet bombers? How fares that?”

The unfortunate Luftwaffe officer paused awkwardly. Like every other former combat pilot, he undoubtedly realized the potential of the rocket-fast plane designed by Willy Messerschmidt - the Me-262. Certainly it was glaringly obvious to him, and to everyone else in the Luftwaffe, that the short-ranged aircraft would make a magnificent fighter. Still, Hitler felt a passionate need to strike back at the enemy homeland in revenge for the bombing of Germany, and to that end he had insisted that the aircraft be rigged to carry bombs - a task for which the plane was patently unfit. Thus, the development of a premier weapon had been placed indefinitely on hold. Brandt, an army man more familiar with diplomacy than air power, nevertheless felt sympathy for the flying officer who was now forced to confront his ruler's irrationality.

The man would never formulate his reply.

The explosion ripped through the confined space with the deafening power of thunder, a blaze of fiery light and a shockwave that twisted the ground itself. An eruption of smoke and debris choked Brandt, who suddenly found himself lying on his back, staring up at the tattered remnants of the ceiling's crude wooden paneling. Patches of sky showed through the lumber, a fact that struck him as bizarre.

What had happened? The colonel couldn't fully grasp the situation. Looking around, blinking the dust of the explosion from his eyes, he saw Field Marshal Keitel stagger past. The tall man's hair stood on end and his face was plastered with soot as he knelt beside a shapeless form to Brandt's left. Other officers groaned or cried for help, while two stenographers stumbled toward the door, which hung limply by a single hinge.

 Idly, with a sense of curious detachment, Colonel Brandt dropped a hand below his own waist, noticing that his legs were gone. He was dying, he realized, though it was a distant thought. The horrific wound didn't seem to hurt, a fact that surprised him. He noticed a leather shred, the same color as the heavy briefcase, fluttering in the ruins of the smoke filled room.

Then he saw Keitel lurch to his feet, the field marshal's face distorted with a grief so strong that it penetrated even Brandt's mortal haze. Rubbing a hand across the blasted skin of his face, the chief of staff tried unsuccessfully to conceal his profound distress. His jaw stretched tight by emotion, the field marshal's words caught in his throat. He looked down again, as if to deny some madness that afflicted his mind. Finally, haltingly, he spoke.

“Der Führer ist tot,” Keitel declared, his voice as dull as the echoes of the assassin's bomb.

General Erich Fellgiebel, standing outside the Speer Barracks, spun around in alarm as the sound of the explosion echoed through the Wolf's Lair. For a moment his mind froze in awful, incomprehensible fear. What have we done? The question resounded through his mind until he roughly pushed it aside. We have taken back the Fatherland!

The older general's mind still churned with the conflict between his military oath and his duty to his country as he saw it. It was a difficult choice, a bitter draught from a cup he'd wished would have passed him by. History might brand him a traitor, an oath-breaker, and the thought of his reputation forever stained by betrayal was almost too much to bear. He admired the younger Stauffenberg's stoicism, his aristocratic certainty that his choice was correct, honorable.

He watched the dust cloud trailing Stauffenberg's staff car as the colonel and his driver drove away from the Wolf's Lair without apparent urgency. His co-conspirator would board an aircraft for Berlin within a few minutes. Not so long ago he'd thought of the young officer as almost a son. Now, in the end, it seemed as if their roles had reversed. May God be with him...and with the Fatherland.

Fellgiebel knew that he had his own mission to carry out, but now that the time had come the general's will strangely deserted him. He knew he had only minutes to live.

“Treachery! Murder! Help - bring the surgeon!” The cries came from the destroyed staff building, and several officers stumbled into the sunlight, caked with dust and debris. Was Hitler among them?

Fellgeibel gawked, frozen in place, feeling the pulse pounding in his temples. Had they succeeded? What should he do?

“The Führer is slain!” gasped one general, falling to his knees in shock or despair.

In that admission Fellgiebel found his strength, and darted through the door of the communications center. Idle couriers stared in surprise as the general pulled open a large case, withdrawing several long hand grenades. Holding the fragmentation bombs in one hand, he drew his pistol with the other. The wide-eyed radio operator lurched to his feet, staring at the general in disbelief, while the two operators spun around at the telephone switchboard.

“Back!” snarled the general, gesturing the men away from the signals equipment. Gun in one hand, grenade in the other, he made a formidable picture of persuasion. Stumbling over chairs, the communications staff scrambled toward the doors.

The general ran to the switchboard and picked up the telephone speaker, barking a series of numbers into the phone. In another moment, the line was answered with a curt “Was?”

“Die Brucke ist verbrennt!” barked the panting Fellgiebel, before quickly breaking the connection.

 The signal for success -”The bridge is burned!” - would be spread by the conspirators across the Reich, though Fellgiebel now felt a piercing regret at the knowledge that he wouldn't be alive to see the effect of those momentous words. Arming the grenade, he dropped it behind the bank of the telephone switchboard.

Next the general fired four shots from his Walther into the cabinet sized radio, each slug splintering tubes and wiring. Fellgiebel reached out and pitched the huge radio onto its side before firing more shots from his handgun.

He was still shooting as an SS guard burst through the door. Fellgiebel did not look up as the man's Schmeisser erupted, stitching a line of bloody holes up the general's back, knocking him onto the switchboard that would never be used again.

A second later, the grenade behind the telephone switchboard exploded, shredding the panel into lethal shrapnel, simultaneously ripping into the SS guard and tearing away at Fellgiebel's unfeeling corpse.

(Copyright © 2000 by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson)

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