Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Red Herrings and Other Fishy Arguments (Fallacies Part 2)

Red herrings are responses to an original argument that don’t address the original issue. They are distractions, attempts to throw off any examination of the argument on its own merit. Red herrings can be used by both sides: by the attacker to undercut the original argument, and by the defender to undercut the rebuttal.

One large class of red herring arguments involves shifting the argument from the substance to the people involved. Ad hominem arguments attack the arguer. Ad baculum arguments use threats. Ad populem arguments count numbers. Ad Hitlerian arguments accuse one side of being Nazis, or at least Nazi-like.

Argumentum ad hominem

My great-great-great-aunt Molly Elliott Seawell is a minor figure in the history of American letters. (Her former salon on P Street here in DC is on the Register of Historic Places.) The author of forty-something books, mostly boy’s adventure with some Graustarkian romance, she was famously attacked by Walt Whitman over her 1891 essay, “On the Absence of the Creative Faculty in Women.”

Yes, you read it right. And she was quite serious. A virulent anti-suffragette, Seawell denied that women had any intrinsic creativity. When the obvious counter-example came up, Seawell dismissed her own work as meritless — she was, after all, obviously only a woman.

Ad hominem arguments take a characteristic of an opponent and use that characteristic to discredit the argument. A mere insult doesn’t qualify. For example, “That jackass Joe is wrong because his facts are in error” contains an insult, but the insult isn’t part of the argument: the argument is the claim that Joe’s facts are in error. No ad hominem here.

“Joe is wrong because he is a jackass” contains the same insult, but now it’s ad hominem because the evidence that Joe is wrong is that he is a jackass. Joe may indeed be a jackass, for all we know, but that fact alone doesn’t establish that he’s incorrect.

But what if it does? If the personal characteristic does disqualify someone’s argument, or at least lessen its potency, is it still ad hominem?

Some years ago, I was asked to read a manuscript purporting to prove that relativity was false, and that only a conspiracy of physicists either too stupid or too venal to face the truth was keeping the veil of deceit intact. The author had a journalism degree and had interviewed exactly one scientist, evidently his source for the Einsteinian hoax revelation.

Is it logically incumbent on me to go through the arguments in that book step by step to refute them, or can I simply look at the skimpy credentialing and sourcing and use that as logical grounds to dismiss his argument from serious consideration?

My own answer is yes. In the unlikely event the argument has merit, it will sooner or later convince others. If the argument shows up again, this time in more credible mouths, it will be time for me to reassess.

So the first question is whether the claim is true, and the second question is whether the if-true claim actually discredits the substance of the argument. Which brings us back to Molly Elliott Seawell. Her proposition is, “My work is not creative because I am a woman.” The proposition “I am a woman” is true. It’s also possible that “My work is not creative” is true — I myself am not impressed with her literary gifts. If both propositions of the argument are true, is not the whole argument true?

The problem here is “because.” You can’t assume such a connection. If you want to assert it, you have to offer proof, in this case, that there is not only a correlation, but a causation.

Properly, the burden of proof lies on the shoulders of the side that claims the linkage. If it’s a valid linkage, you ought to be able to prove it, not just claim it. What criteria measure creativity? Are those criteria objectively valid (or at least acceptable by both sides)? What is the actual distribution among women and men? If there are differences, are they statistically significant? Have alternate explanations and theories to account for any significant differences been explored?

That’s a high burden of proof, but it’s fair. If you argue against a proposition by arguing against the person, it’s your responsibility to prove it’s not ad hominem, and if you fail, the argument’s a fallacy.

To me, Seawell’s claim is clearly ad hominem because the claim that her womanhood compromised her creative mechanism is on the face of it ridiculous. It can’t be accepted at face value; the burden of proof weighs heavily against the proposition. But that’s not the way she saw it. Her world (and her books) were filled with subservient Negroes and noble white boys. That was the way of the world, and it thus meant the burden of proof fell on the other side. The general wisdom said that women were creatively inferior; she had popular opinion on her side. But that’s argumentum ad populem, a fallacy for another day.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fallacies (a New Series in the Manner of Cognitive Biases) - Part 1

As a follow-up to my series on cognitive biases, here’s the start of a new one: a description of classical fallacies. For the purposes of this discussion, a fallacy is an opinion or position based on invalid reasoning. The conclusion itself may not be wrong, but the argument offered in support of it is wrong.

“He plays a doctor on TV; he endorses this medical product; therefore, the medical product is good” is fallacious not because the medical product being touted is necessarily not good, but because it’s ad verecundiam, an appeal to an authority outside the authority’s area of expertise. If the same authority made a statement about the profession of acting, however, it wouldn’t be ad verecundiam because the actor presumably has standing on the subject.

Just because the actor has standing, however, doesn’t constitute a final proof that the proposition is true. At most, it counts as an evidence point — but it’s a logically valid one.

For the list of fallacies, I’m starting with the list on Wikipedia. There’s another extensive list at The Nizkor Project.  The examples and discussion are my own.

Fallacies come in two basic flavors.

Formal fallacies, as the name suggests, are errors of form: regardless of the contents of the argument, or the truth of any of the statements, the argument is invalid on its face.  An appeal to probability is one such fallacy: the idea that if something could happen, it necessarily will happen.

There are subsets of formal fallacies. Propositional fallacies are structural errors in logic.  “It’s raining or it’s Tuesday; it’s not raining, therefore it’s Tuesday” is a propositional fallacy (affirming a disjunct). It may not be raining, but that doesn’t make it Tuesday.

Syllogistic fallacies also fall into the category of formal fallacies. “Some cats are black; some black things are televisions; therefore some cats are televisions” involves an illicit treatment of the minor term (you can’t assume that the set of televisions and the set of cats have common members because they share a particular color).

Informal fallacies are not fallacious because of their structure, but usually because of their content. Ad verecundiam and its kissing cousin ad hominem both use a personal characteristic to prove or disprove a proposition without establishing that the personal characteristic in question actually determines whether the conclusion is true or false.

I learned a lot doing the cognitive biases series, and I hope to learn a lot on this project as well. If you’ve seen any great examples of any of these fallacies, please let me know.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

MacArthur's War

For our third alternate history novel, Doug Niles and I turned from the European Theater to the Pacific with MacArthur's War: A Novel of the Invasion of Japan. Using the original battle plans for the US plan Operation Downfall and the Japanese response known as Ketsu-Go, we explored what might have happened had we not had the atomic bomb.

Here's the opening of the invasion of Kyushu.

Monday, 19 March 1945

Approaching Beach Pontiac, “Roadster” Beach Zone, Kyushu, Japan, 0815 hours (Operation Olympic X-Day, N-Hour +0215)

As the Higgins Boat churned toward the beach, the chop increased into gray swells, lifting the little landing craft onto the crests, and then dropping it precipitously into the troughs. The bow kept lifting up and slapping hard on the water. Already, nearly a third of the Marines had puked, the vomit mixing with the sea spray and coating the bottom of the boat. Whether the vomiting was seasickness or nerves, Pete didn’t know. From the sickly white looks of terror on a lot of faces—officers as well as enlisted—nerves certainly played a big part.

This was Pete’s fourth beach landing. The first was Gavutu, part of the Guadalcanal, which had been nasty. He’d just made lance corporal then. In the Philippines, where he went from corporal to staff sergeant, the opposition was pretty tough, but he was in a pretty late wave. At Okinawa, the landing unopposed. Nothing from the enemy for about two weeks, then the shit hit the fan.

What else could he do? How else could he prepare his men for what they were about to experience?

“Everybody’s scared shitless,” he shouted over the roaring diesels. “Some get scared before, some during, and some after. Your best bet is to get scared after. Before is okay. During can get you killed.” That was true enough. “I’m scared shitless the whole time, but I keep moving. I don’t bunch up with other Marines. I don’t freeze. Those three things get a lot of men killed. Focus on your job. Afterwards, you can get the shakes. But that’s what booze is for.”

Pete didn’t know if a Marine gunnery sergeant was supposed to admit he was terrified, but it was the truth. The biggest reason he hadn’t died so far, though, is because he didn’t let his fear freeze him. He kept moving. He hoped that advice would make the soldiers a little calmer. A few were listening in, and that was good. Calmness was increasingly in short supply as they got closer and closer to the beach.

As for Pete, he felt the odds were against him. He’d done this before. So many people had died around him, it was simple justice that it would be his turn this time.

Down in the boat, he couldn’t see the action, but he could hear it. A barrage of explosions, swooping aircraft engines, and the occasional gush of water were about all that could make it over the diesels of the Higgins boat. Overhead, the dawn skies had turned brimstone black from the incredible barrage, as if marking a signpost: “You are now entering hell.”

The boat churned onward, bouncing more violently as they neared the breakers. Closer to shore, the Japanese artillery opened up with a barrage so intense it felt like rain. Pete couldn’t stand not seeing any more, so he stuck his head up. His stripes kept the three-man crew from ordering him to keep his head down and the rest of him the hell out of their way, but he stayed carefully to the side anyway.

Plumes of water shot up as shells hit the water. Many rounds fell short, spuming ocean and sand up from the shallows. Other shells hit true. A burst of flames marked the funeral pyre of a nearby landing craft that didn’t make it in—the boat was incinerated, a whole platoon killed, at the moment of impact. Another boat about twenty yards to the right took a direct hit. Pete could see bodies and body parts flying into the air. A minute later, there was an explosion right in front of them. As the boat hit the wave, it was lifted several feet into the air, canted to the right, and came crashing down, knocking men and equipment everywhere. One of his men fell out of the boat altogether. He couldn’t tell who it was. The poor bastard was probably drowning, and there was nothing anyone could do. Maybe he’d get lucky and shed his equipment before he died. Maybe.

Pete could see the boat’s coxswain struggling to keep on course. At least there wasn’t too much danger from mines. Divers had been busy for several nights clearing safe lanes. Still, they might have missed a few.

There was a horrible skidding and scraping sound from underneath the boat as they reached shallow water. The front bow began to open.

“Weapons! Keep ‘em high and dry! Move! Make sure you know where your feet are! Head for cover as soon as you get to shore!” All the platoon sergeants were hollering the same advice at their men. Everybody knew what to do, but when there was live ammo, people tended to forget the small stuff.

“Come on, men! Let’s show those Japs what American Marines can do!” shouted Captain Gilder, and the men piled out of the boat and into the water. The cold came as a shock. The water only came up to Pete’s waist, but some Marines were at chest depth. Holding their rifles overhead, the Marines slogged forward into a hail of machine gun bullets. He could hear them whizzing by like angry bees. He could see them splash into the water. One hit the water directly in front of him only a foot away. He could feel the impact, but not much. Someone screamed, right in his ear, but he didn’t stop to see who or why.

He was in a lottery of death. Skill and experience meant nothing. The bullets hit you or they didn’t. You moved as quickly as you could in the water, but it was agonizingly slow. The water was another enemy, viscous and stubborn and resistant, dragging down his feet with its leaden weight. He pushed on, dragging his boondockers through the soft, shifting sands.

A bullet hit Private McKinlay in the face, spattering blood and pieces of skin and bone around him. He fell backward into the water, probably dead. Pete’s only thought was relief. It wasn’t me. Thank god it wasn’t me. McKinlay was from Ohio, somewhere. That was all he could remember.

Corporal Lichtman, who was ten feet ahead of him, crumpled forward and landed face down in the water. Pete didn’t see what happened. Schubert had been with the company since the Philippines. It wasn’t me. Thank god. It wasn’t me.

More angry bees buzzed by him. Then suddenly there was a sharp pain in his upper right shoulder. Shit! Omigod omigod omigod I’ve been hit! Don’t let me die don’t let me die. His heart pounded in his chest. He vomited the remainder of his breakfast. But he wasn’t falling, wasn’t dying…not yet.

There went one…two…five more of his men. Even those who were only wounded fell with loaded packs into the water. The only ones who stood up again had dropped pack and weapon.

The water was taking on a pink froth, the tinge of curling visible in the curling breakers, the explosions of brine as the waves broke and crashed onto the sloping sand of the shore. The waves dumped more than water onto the beach—they cast limp bodies onto the land and rolled back out to collect more flesh. Some of those bodies lay motionless, soaked and lifeless, while others twitched and groped and clawed their way farther out of the sea.

Ahead of him was the beach, right there. It was only another ten yards or so. Each step he took was an agony of slow motion. He had the strange sensation that the strand of dry land was moving away from him, warping like a funhouse mirror. Waves still carried the detritus of battle, the bodies of Marines cast upon the land as the breakers crested, surged, and broke.

The beach itself looked like the surface of Mercury—the side that always faced toward the sun. It was cratered and alien. A massive DUKW, an amphibious truck that had been torn in half by a direct hit, lay on its side and burned. The huge fire was painful to look at as the intense heat blistered the air for twenty or thirty feet. The constant barrage made the surface roil in a constant tremor. Sand flew through the air in stinging blasts, mixed with spray, tainted with blood. Nothing felt steady.

The beach ahead was littered with corpses from the two earlier waves. Just a quick glance at the bodies told Pete it had to have been hell, worse than any fighting he’d ever seen. Some corpses were intact. Others had been blown apart, body parts strewn randomly and intermixed. Still others had been reduced to a smear of blood, flesh, and char. The air stank. It reeked of petroleum and cordite and gore and shit.

The early waves had put machinery on the beach. A flame-throwing amphibious tank, burned black, still had flames licking out of it. A crewman who had been caught halfway out gave off the smell of cooked meat. He was nearly unrecognizable as a human.  Other amphibious tanks, armored amphibian tractors sporting 75mm howitzers, and various American and Japanese fighters had all been twisted into strange modern sculptures by the application of high explosives.

It was all cover, though. Even the corpses.

He felt warmth in the cold water and realized he’d pissed himself. At least no one would know. And he’d done worse. In the Leyte invasion he’d lost control of his bowels. He hadn’t been the only one, though, not by a long shot.

An artillery shell landed at the water’s edge about twenty feet away. The ground shook under him, a miniature earthquake, and sand spattered up in his face, blinding him temporarily. The spray drenched every part of his body that wasn’t already soaked.

He kept slogging through the water, rifle over his head. Bullets buzzed angrily past him to slap against the water. Waves surged from behind him, pushing him. He’d been fighting the water all the way in, and now he hated that irresistible propulsion, impelling him in the direction he had been trying to go.

Another Marine in Fox Company fell. He saw the face, he knew who it was, but for the life of him he couldn’t think of the man’s name. The body hit the surface of the water and began to sink slowly. Who the hell was that? (It wasn’t me it wasn’t me it wasn’t me…)

The water receded below the level of Pete’s knees. He could move faster now, pulling his feet free of the clutching surf. Finally he was on the beach. Twenty more feet and he’d be temporarily safe behind a metal nightmare that looked like it had its origins in a P-38. Other Marines had already reached it. Another artillery shell burst a few feet away. The explosion knocked him sideways. He crawled behind a Marine corpse for shelter.

Pete’s ear hurt. He reached up with his good arm and touched it. When he looked at his hand there was blood. He noticed that all the battle sounds had become distant. The explosion had knocked out most of his hearing.

Pete took a look at the dead Marine. His stomach had been torn open and the guts were spilled onto the beach. He glanced at the face. Private Palermo. Second Platoon. Good looking. He’d done some professional crooning in nightclubs before the war and everybody kidded him about being the next Sinatra. It wasn’t going to happen now.

Pete shouted through the din at Privates Carr and Sullivan, who had just escaped the deadly surf at the cost of their packs and rifles, “Take what you need from the bodies. Rifles and ammunition first.”

Carr looked at him in shock, like he’d just proposed eating the dead. He said something Pete couldn’t hear.“Dammit,” Pete shouted, “Take what you need! They don’t have a use for it any more!”

Then it all stopped mattering to Carr as red flowers appeared on his chest and he, too, crumpled forward. That motivated Sullivan to dive onto his belly and begin creeping forward to Pete’s position.

“Stay the fuck away from me,” Pete yelled. “Groups attract more fire. I don’t want to be hit by the bullet with your name on it! We all meet up at the end of the beach.”

“Fuck you, Gunny,” Sullivan gasped. “I’m gonna take the rifle and supplies off—shit, it’s Palermo.”

Pete suddenly realized he could hear the words through a loud ringing in his ear. His hearing was coming back, though slowly. Pete patted Sullivan on the shoulder by way of an apology. The sudden sharp pain in his arm reminded him that he had a little scrape to take care of, but right now nothing was more important than moving forward. Pete looked around for his next bit of cover, and did a sprint.

Gasping for breath under the weight of pack and supplies, he dived for cover behind the wreckage of the P-38. He felt himself trembling all over. He was wet and cold, colder than he should be.

Fox Company was spread out along several hundred feet of Beach Pontiac. They needed to be pushed forward, when the temptation was to stay behind the first piece of decent cover you found. That was part of Pete’s job.

Crouching low and dodging as best he could, Pete started to work his way across the line, getting his company re-organized, collecting stragglers, and helping men who’d been separated from their teams. Twice he hid behind corpses and felt bullets thud into the already-dead bodies. The spray of blood and other fluids stuck to his face.

In between the P-38 and the burning tank, Pete could see Captain Gilder. He was pointing toward a couple of wrecked tractors about twenty yards ahead of them. “Platoons! Move forward and take cover behind those tractors!” The lieutenants passed the word and the sergeants pushed their men forward—for those platoons that still had a lieutenant. Fox Company was already down two lieutenants, one a shavetail. Sergeants were running the show now.

Pete took a deep breath and started his run toward the tractors. He saw bullets ping off metal hulks and thud into the sand. He could hear them. He felt as if he was running in a dream, his limbs heavy and unresponsive. And then, suddenly, he was almost at the tractor and he dived once again and threw himself on the ground next to Captain Gilder.

The captain said something. Pete couldn’t make it out.

“I stood too near an explosion, Captain. My ears…I can hear a little.”

“How are we doing?” shouted the captain.

Pete panted for a minute, and said, “It looks like we’ve lost about forty so far.” He had been keeping rough track in his head, and the number was bad. That was a casualty rate of around twenty percent. They’d planned on no more than ten percent, and they were only twenty yards away from the surf.

“I thought the Japanese weren’t supposed to fight us at the beaches,” the captain shouted. “That’s what the briefing said.”

“I guess the Japs missed the briefing,” Pete replied.

“Guess so. Shit. What a complete fucking nightmare.”

Pete looked back. At the water’s edge, the Higgins boats were pulling away, heading back to the transports for another load. At a platoon per load, they would be ferrying troops for hours. As he watched, a Japanese artillery shell hit one of the outgoing boats, and the wooden craft exploded in a hail of splinters. At least it was going out, not in, he thought. Then he thought about the three men on board. Three more down.

Gilder’s eyes were glassy, his skin pallid as he looked frantically around. The captain was a bit shell-shocked, Pete knew, realizing that he felt the same way himself. All around them, the carnage was terrific. The American advance was pressing forward slowly, but at a terrible cost. The Japanese defenders were evidently determined to make the Americans pay a high price for every foot of ground. Artillery shells continued to thunder and lighting while machine gun bullets fell like hail.

Gilder took a deep shuddering breath. “Okay. We’ll do it the way we rehearsed it. Our first objective is those machine gun emplacements. We’re right in line for them, as planned.” They had done this landing under simulated conditions four times, and rehearsed it on paper a dozen more. While “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy,” as the saying went, at least having a plan was a definite improvement over trying to improvise one while people shot real bullets at you.

“Gunny,” the captain said, “get me a real headcount, okay?”

“Yes, sir.” The platoon leaders, the captain, and Pete had walkie-talkies. Pete unhooked his. “Torpedo Two.” Torpedo was a pre-war Pontiac model. Pontiac had stopped making cars for the duration. “Check in.”

“Torpedo Three,” was the first platoon, the only one with an officer left. First Lieutenant Berry had seen the elephant at Okinawa, and had done pretty well. “Eight down.”

“Torpedo Four. Sergeant Schalles commanding. Fifteen down, including the lieutenant.”

“Torpedo Five. Sergeant Townley. Nineteen down, ditto.”

“Torpedo One.” That was Captain Gilder.

Once the captain had a handle on his actual losses—the equivalent of a full platoon—he issued orders. Scouts went out right and left carrying two of the precious walkie-talkies. About ten minutes later, they reported in. The Japanese were holed up in a concrete pillbox on a small hill about forty feet away. There was little cover on the direct line between Fox Company’s position and the Japs. A direct attack would be suicide.

“What do you advise?” asked the captain.

“Circle around and hit it from the rear, sir. More cover there.”

“Roger. Stay in position and report on any changes.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Torpedo One out.”

The captain thought for a moment. “Okay. Gunny, here’s what I want. You take two rifle squads and keep firing. When you hear from me, really open up. I’m going to circle left with the rest of the rifles and our flamethrowers until I’m behind the pillbox, if I can get there. Meanwhile, I want the mortars to circle right, find a good spot, and wait for my signal to send them a little love note from Uncle Sam. Got it?”

“Suggestion, captain.”

“Go ahead.”

“A rifle team with the mortars. In case there are some loose Japs roaming around. And one mortar team here, if you can spare it.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Gilder took a quick swig of water from his canteen. “Go ahead.”

Pete toggled his walkie-talkie. “Torpedo Two to Torpedo Six.”

“Torpedo Six.” That was the scout on the left.

“Mark a route and find a good staging area. You’ve got company for dinner.”

“Torpedo Six. Mark route, find staging area, welcome dinner guests.”

“Confirmed. Two out.”

It took less than five minutes of coordination for Pete to put the teams together. The captain and the mortar team moved out to left and right respectively, keeping low and moving from one bit of cover to another. They now had the other two walkie-talkies, leaving Pete with the last one.

Pete called out, “Good hunting, Captain.”

He had one sergeant, Townley, and a full corporal, Canfield. The mortar team had a lance corporal as team leader. “Let’s spread out the line and fire widely to make them think it’s a whole company back here,” Pete told them. “The better job we do, the better chance the captain has of putting those machine gunners out of commission permanently.” Townley knew weapons, so he could oversee the mortar teams.

Now that they had some cover and were shooting back, a little life was coming back into his men. Pete duck-walked down the line, staying low. He stopped beside one private. “What’s the matter, son?” he asked, even though the private was maybe two years his junior. The private—the name badge read Sanvito—was aiming his rifle but not firing.

“I’ve—well, I’ve never shot at a human being before.”

“I see. The Japs don’t seem to have that trouble, though, do they?”

“No, Gunny. But—”

“I know. It may surprise you, Sanvito, but you’re not the first Marine to have this problem.”

Sanvito, who was clearly expecting to be bawled out, court-martialed, or shot, looked at Pete. There were tears in his eyes. “I can’t!”

“Okay.” Pete kept his voice calm. If he screwed up, he could ruin a perfectly good potential Marine. “Try this. Don’t shoot at human beings. See that wrecked tank?”

“Uh—yeah, Gunny?”

 “Shoot at that. It’s not a human being.”

“Okay,” the private said, a slight question mark creeping in at the end. He shot.

“Now shoot at that pillbox. Not at the slit, just at the building.”

“Okay.” He shot again.

“This is suppressive fire, Marine. I don’t care if you kill anybody or not. I want them to keep their heads down and not shoot at us. Can you do that?”

“Well, I—I guess—if you put it that way…”

“Good man,” Pete said, patted him on the shoulder, and moved on. He was satisfied to hear a steady stream of rifle shots. It was hard to shoot at humans. A lot more soldiers—even Marines—failed to shoot their rifles in combat that most people suspected. It was one of the many surprises he’d found when he first became a sergeant.

The second mortar team opened fire. Blasts of sand and smoke erupted from the crest of the dune, where the pillbox was located. The crump of explosions, so close in front of him, seemed more real than the distant artillery, the continuing thunder of the naval bombardment.

The Japanese pillbox was taking quite a pounding. Pete could imagine what they were going through. He’d been on the receiving end of a mortar himself.

The walkie-talkie crackled to life. “Torpedo One to Torpedo Two.”

“Torpedo Two.”

“Am passing to the attack. Stop suppressing fire.”

“Roger. Torpedo Six, cease fire.” That was the second mortar team. Then, off the walkie-talkie, he shouted, “Cease firing!”

Now the noise was coming from the hilltop as the captain and the rest of the company moved in. It was hard to tell the grenades from the flank attackers from the background artillery shelling that was still going on.

It was easy to tell when the constant machine gun fire stopped.

“Looks like the captain did it,” Pete shouted, and received cheers in return. “Move forward by squad.” His two squads and the mortar team began to move forward toward the now-silent pillbox; the squad that wasn’t on the move crackled off suppressive fire while the other Marines crawled and scrambled onward.

The radio burst into noise. “Torpedo Five! Stop where you are! The fucking Japs have—”

The titanic explosion threw the pillbox nearly twenty feet into the air.

“Jesus fucking Christ!” said Corporal Canfield. “They mined the fucking thing and blew the shit out of it when they got breached.”

“Yeah, and they took themselves with it,” Sergeant Townley pointed out.

Pete stood there in shock, and then in horror as the torso of a dead soldier landed right in front of him, followed by a red spray that spattered everyone in his small command. He retched and gagged emptily; he couldn’t help it. He went down on his knees, wracked by dry heaves. The smell of blood and offal mixed with the sulfurous odor of gunpowder kept him in spasms for a long minute, even though there was nothing left to come up.

“You okay, gunny?” Townley asked.

“Yeah,” said Pete weakly. He straightened up as best he could. I must look like warmed-over shit, he thought. Hardly a sight to inspire confidence in his men. “Townley, Canfield, each of you send three men to scout the perimeter for survivors. Don’t go closer than about twenty feet. There may be more mines.”

With Gilder and Lieutenant Berry dead, that left Pete in charge.

There were seventeen survivors. Added to his existing force, that gave him the equivalent of three squads.

One platoon.

That was all that remained of Fox Company.

(Copyright © 2007 by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fox at the Front

The second alternate history novel I wrote with Doug Niles was a sequel to Fox on the Rhine, featured last week. Fox at the Front continues the story of an alternate history in which the bomb plot of 1944 succeeded in killing Adolf Hitler.

Critical response to this book was quite favorable. Publishers Weekly wrote, “The authors' attention to military detail and maneuvers would satisfy any drill instructor, and they imbue even minor historical characters with authenticity and personality, demonstrating how an individual's actions and reactions shape history. This is a thoroughly plausible what-if scenario, and as such will please and titillate alternate history fans, WWII buffs, war gamers and others.”

Roland Green in Booklist wrote, “The outstanding sequel to Fox on the Rhine (2000) continues Niles and Dobson's alternate World War II to its bloody conclusion. [...] Character-centered alternate history is not that common, and this is an eminently successful example of it, thanks to Niles and Dobson's work on real and fictional characterizations alike and their choice of Rommel as principal protagonist. Standing head and shoulders above its predecessor, this is must reading for imaginative WWII buffs.”

There's also a Wikipedia page for the book.

This scene from the book's beginning chronicles Rommel's surrender to the Allies.

27 December 1944

Armeegruppe B Headquarters, Dinant, Belgium, 0529 hours GMT

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had never thought that surrendering would prove to be so complicated.  He had personally forced the capitulation of thousands of enemy soldiers in two wars and numerous campaigns, and it had always seemed like a straightforward procedure.  He would call upon them to lay down their arms, they would do so, and he would detail sufficient guards to escort them to the nearest POW holding facility.  Very quickly they would become the responsibility of some rear echelon formation, and he would maintain his focus on the continuing battle.

But now there was no continuing battle, neither for him nor for his great army group. His head ached and his eye, the one that had been wounded by an Allied bomb the previous summer, watered constantly.  This was annoying, but not unprecedented.  Sometimes he thought he’d fought more of his battles sick than well.  Of course, there was not only the pain and stress of this surrender, but the price for several sleepless nights finally catching up with him.

He took a sip of cold and somewhat stale coffee, and glanced out the window for a moment.  It was still dark, new clouds coming in, harbinger of yet more dreary December weather in Belgium.  The dark was penetrated by the headlamps of motor vehicles and guardpost lights, a monocolored illumination that gave everything it touched an eerie, unearthly look, as if he was looking at the surface of the moon.  With all the fighting this poor city had taken, the resemblance to the lunar surface was even greater.  Heaps of rubble were strewn everywhere.  At the very limit of his vision, a single tree stood bare and unadorned, facing the elements.

Rommel turned back to the details of the order of battle.  Armeegruppe B, consisting of the vast majority of German forces in the West, included three complete armies:  the 5th Panzer Army, under von Manteuffel, the 6th Panzer Army, under Guderian, and the 7th Army under Brandenberger.  Two more panzer armies had been relocated from the Eastern Front after the Soviet treaty had been signed; they were in reserve behind the Westwall and the Rhine River.  While the 6th Panzer Army was stopped at the Meuse, elements of the 5th Panzer Army had already crossed the river at Dinant before the remaining bridges had been destroyed, and were trapped without hope of resupply or relief deep behind enemy lines.

His job was to arrange the surrender of all those forces, and looking at some of the individual divisions and their commanders, he knew that not all of them would surrender.  What would happen then, he did not know.

He had another concern, for his wife Lucie and son Manfred.  As soon as he realized that surrender was a necessity, he had telephoned Lucie at their home in Herrlingen.  Quickly, using agreed-upon code words, he’d told her to grab Manfred and leave.  There were people in Bitburg he trusted, and he had arranged a rendezvous there.  He worried, but there was nothing more he could do.

The Desert Fox turned back from the window.  He was not alone.  Sitting at the conference table was his opposite number, General George S. Patton, who had driven in a jeep with a small escort to accept his surrender.  Rommel had studied Patton for years, had been aware of Patton even before the war started, but of course they had never met.  And while he would no doubt have appreciated a meeting with Patton after the war was over, two victorious generals comparing observations, this was not the meeting he had in mind.   Rommel was determined to be gracious, but it was hard not to feel some bitterness as well.  Patton and the Americans had such a materiel advantage that the campaign had been lopsided from the start.

Patton, though by all accounts a rather brusque and insensitive man, was obviously aware of the essential awkwardness of the situation.  His first words to him had been, “I thought Infanterie Greift An was a masterpiece.  I’ve read it fourteen times.”

Infanterie Greift An was Rommel’s first book, a study of infantry tactical operations based on analysis of Rommel’s own World War I campaigns.  The book had first catapulted him to public recognition, and had set the stage for much of his later advancement.  “Thank you,” he had replied.  In an effort to return the compliment, he added, “I thought your advance to the Westwall was rather a masterpiece as well.”

Patton had laughed as soon as the remark was translated.  His laugh was irresistible and hearty, much like the man himself.   Rommel felt himself almost unwillingly put at ease, to like the American general, even under the difficult and painful circumstances.

While the official surrender had first taken place at the more-or-less neutral setting of the Church of Notre Dame in the lower city of Dinant, the business end of the process had quickly led to the parties relocating to Armeegruppe B headquarters just outside the city.  Accompanying Patton was General Henry Wakefield of the US 19th Armored Division, which had successfully attacked Rommel’s flank and blown the final bridge at Dinant, and Lieutenant Colonel Reid Sanger, the 19th Armored’s intelligence officer, who was acting as Patton’s translator.  Initially, Rommel had used the translation services of Chuck Porter, a captured Associated Press reporter, but Porter’s German was not up to the challenge of complex technical negotiations, so Sanger was shouldering the load for both sides.

“I believe the biggest immediate challenge is to arrange the surrender of 6th Panzer Army.  Their headquarters is here—” Rommel pointed to the map. “—near Namur.  I have sent a radio message to Generaloberst Guderian.  He sees the rationale in the same way I do, and has agreed.”

“Good,” said Patton, his incongruously high voice standing in contrast to his imposing physical demeanor.  “I read his book, too.  Our military people did translations of both his and yours.  Brilliant.  Used it a lot.”

Guderian’s Achtung Panzer was one of the seminal works on the use of armor.  “I wonder if this means Guderian and I are both guilty as authors of the crime of giving aid and comfort to the enemy,” Rommel mused, only partly in jest.  What he or Guderian could have accomplished, if only he had the resources of the Americans!

Sanger, the translator, laughed before he repeated the sentence in English.  Patton grinned when he heard the statement.  “Hell, Field Marshal, amateurs borrow, but professionals steal.  I thought you knew that.  I stole from the best.  Haven’t you gotten an idea or two from our side?”

“A few,” Rommel admitted.

“So, we’re even.  Right?”

Rommel smiled in agreement.  Patton was rather like a tank himself, barreling through obstacles as if they were not there.  He was what Rommel thought of as typically American, so cheerfully ignorant of the manners of the European gentry that it was almost charming—almost.   “I shall take that under advisement.”

Patton was already onto the next item.  His finger was pointing to the large operational map.  “So, 6th Panzer Army HQ is here.  That’s good.  I can ask Hodges to send the 99th Infantry Division from First Army down to meet them.  How about the two panzer divisions across the Meuse?”

“Now that they’re cut off from resupply, I don’t think there will be any problems.  I note that you have the British XXX Corps near Waterloo that can make contact with those units.” Rommel placed his finger on the map.  “I’ve radioed the necessary orders from this end.”  He smiled internally.  His intelligence about the Allied order of battle and location was good, and he hoped Patton would notice.

Patton did, and immediately riposted with evidence of his own intelligence.  “Now, about half of Panzer Lehr managed to cross, and its leading elements are here.”  He pointed to another spot on the map, grinning broadly.  Patton’s boyish pleasure made it difficult for Rommel to resent the bragging.

“Closer to three quarters of Panzer Lehr is actually across, but yes, the leading elements are here.  I’ve spoken with General Bayerlein, and they are withdrawing back in the direction of Dinant.”

“They’ll hit 19th Armored first, right, Henry?” asked Patton, turning to his subordinate general.

Henry Wakefield nodded.  “Combat Command B is in the upper city.  That’s Bob Jackson.  I’ll let him know to expect contact shortly.  By the way, General, I’d like to get my engineers up here.  We need a pontoon bridge across the Meuse pronto.  Plus, I’ve got some wounded I’d like to evac.”

“Good idea, Henry.  And see if you can get your kitchens to whip up a hot meal for the boys.”

After the exchange was translated, Rommel interjected.  “If my hospitals are more convenient, your wounded are more than welcome.  I would offer my own engineers in support of the bridging, but I am in the position of a surrendered foe, so cannot.  Officially, at least, we are still enemies.”

“I understand, and I appreciate the offer, Field Marshal.  I’ll check with Ballard in Combat Command A - they got the brunt of the fighting down in the lower city.”

“Combat Command A.  That was Colonel James Pulaski, correct?” Rommel asked.  He had stopped Pulaski once at the Somme, heard him accused of barbaric war crimes in the massacre of Metz, and now was in his current position because of the daring and aggressiveness of that same Pulaski.

“Yes it was.  He bought it in the attack.  Lieutenant Colonel Ballard ran the tank battalion; he’s acting CO right now.”

Rommel nodded gravely.  This was not an uncommon experience, hearing about brave men who were now dead.  “Please convey my personal respects to Lieutenant Colonel Ballard.  He and his men fought courageously and well.”

“I appreciate that as well, Field Marshal.  I’ll pass it along.  General Patton, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some work to do.”

“Go ahead, Henry.  Holler if you need me.”

“Yes, sir.”  Wakefield left the conference room, pulling out a stogie as he went.

The two old adversaries looked across the table at one another.  “General Patton, you understand my motives in this,” Rommel stated.  “In fact, you have expressed similar thoughts.

The American general grunted in response.  “The Soviet Union.  That’s right.  I guess I’m about the only one who wasn’t shocked down to his boots when the separate peace deal broke.  Those Red bastards won’t be satisfied with crushing Nazi Germany; they’ve got designs on all of Europe—hell, all the world!”

“I believe this to be true.  Our führer was always surprised that the West didn’t understand that our attack on the Soviet Union was of benefit to them as well as to us.”

“The choice we had was either Commies or Nazis.  And pardon me for saying so, but that wasn’t a hell of a choice.”

Rommel nodded.  “I understand.  But the Nazi threat is over.  Kaput.  So the choice is easier now, don’t you think?”

“And we pull your fat out of the fire at the same time?”

“We can help you.”

“You’ve surrendered.  That means you’re out of the game.”

“I understand.  But at least the way is clear for you.  This surrender not only eliminates much of the forces that would oppose your advance, but also can deliver a safe crossing of the Rhine far ahead of any schedule you could have set for yourself.”  Rommel sat back.  He needed to show Patton that surrendered or not, he still had cards to play.

As Patton chewed on the idea, Rommel reinforced.  “Armeegruppe B controls a significant section of the Westwall and numerous bridges across the Rhine.  I suggest that the Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht troops still under Berlin’s control will want to retake and reinforce the areas I have left unguarded, but it will take some time to do this.  General, I am not any longer a supporter of the Nazi government, but I am still a German.  Work with me, and I can deliver Germany safely into the hands of the West, and save us all from Soviet domination.”

“It sounds like a good idea,” Patton said slowly.  Rommel watched his body language, listened to the sound of his voice while the translator did his work.  He was swaying the American armor general, just as he planned, just as he must.

“There’s only one question,” added Patton.

“And what is that?” replied Rommel.

“Will all of your forces surrender?”

“I wish I could be sure.”

 (Copyright © 2003 by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson)

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)