Episode Six – Premonition
2.45 A.M., 6th June 1944
Near Coutances, France- 32 Kilometres from St. Lȏ
“It was supposed to be a one hour drive.” Aron complained.
“Yeah.” Klaus was too tired to add anything to it. This was the fifth time they had to stop- for various reasons. Sometimes it was because German officers met them on the way and insisted on searching their vehicles and at other times, it was simply because one of the two was tired from driving. In this case, it was the latter. They’d been driving for three hours- being forced to take a circuitous route to St. Lȏ from where they began. Normally, it would be a straight road from where they started via Carentan, a right near St. Pellerin, straight again till Hébécrevon and then a left turn leading them into St. Lȏ. That’s it.
But tonight was no normal night. So far, they had been forced to take so many detours- both by design and by accident, that they were literally near the other end of the peninsula – it just sounds big, it actually wasn’t that much distance between the two ends of the Cotentin peninsula. Nevertheless, for two men who had been in the middle of battle, it was a tiring journey.
“What town are we near?” Aron asked, looking into the distance, where they could both see the silhouettes of the buildings.
“Coutances. Thirty kilometres or so from where we’re supposed to go.”
“Funny name, that.” Aron commented.
“I don’t know. It’s the sound of it, I guess.” Aron said, shrugging his shoulders.
“You need to sleep. Come on.” Klaus said, patting him on his back. Reluctantly Aron followed and seemed relieved when Klaus decided he would continue the drive till St. Lȏ. As Aron passed the trunk of the car to go to the other side, he paused, knocked on the trunk and then remarked, “You really knocked him out cold.”
“Not really. I gave him two shots of morphine after that. That should keep him asleep for a while.”
“Whatever does the trick man,” Aron said, “Whatever does the trick.”
“I can’t sleep.” Aron declared, five minutes into their drive towards St. Lȏ. Klaus smiled. They were cruising at about sixty kilometres an hour and barring any unexpected turn of events like an ambush, they should at St. Lȏ within a half hour. In the distance, they could hear the bombardment still go on- a low rumble that somehow felt like a distant background noise in a movie that usually never caught your attention but was there.
“I had a friend back in North Africa- Theo Wolff.” Aron said, his eyes clearly looking much further into the distance. Klaus, sensing that Aron wanted encouragement to go ahead with the story, gave a glance at him- which Aron didn’t miss.
“He was a good lad. He must have been eighteen- straight out of Hitler Youth actually. He joined us in Tripoli, I think. Or somewhere else in Libya, I can’t be sure. But it was definitely in Libya.” He confirmed.
“So, anyway, this chap- Theo. He’s well mannered, well put together- had a good physique for a soldier and could flat out run a half mile in the desert at midday before he slowed down. He was a quiet lad- didn’t speak much but somehow we became good friends over the months.”
Aron paused as the car roughed it’s way through a slight crater in the road- causing a jerk.
“So, anyway, the night before Alamein- the first battle- he is awake- like wide awake. It’s strange, because Theo is a good sleeper. In fact, we used to envy him. The guy had the ability to fall asleep at a moment’s notice. We’d all be tired, smoking cigarettes and what not after fighting the Brits and this guy would be asleep in his bunker- like nothing ever happened.”
“Anyway,” Aron realised he was digressing, “he was awake that night. I go up to him and I say, ‘Theo, what’s happening? Why are you awake?’ He doesn’t say anything first- he’s still staring at the wall opposite. I shake him, he responds and I repeat my question. Then he turns to look at me.”
Aron fell silent at this point. Klaus continued to drive- thinking that Aron would continue on his own. And sure enough, he did.
“That look, Klaus,” he said, his voice was ghostly, “I will never forget that look. His eyes- he had green eyes- they were glazed. He had a photo of somebody in his hand. He was holding it tightly, like his life depended upon it.”
“His mother?” Klaus asked.
“His sister, actually. Maria, her name was, if I remember rightly. He had Maria’s photo in his hand. It was an old photograph- taken when she was a kid. I look at it and I say, ‘You’re missing her?’ He just shakes his head, and then buries it in his arms. Now I’m not good with emotions- which is what makes me a good soldier but a bad friend, you know?”
Actually, Klaus didn’t. But he didn’t say anything because he figured it was a rhetoric question.
“I knew he was sobbing and I didn’t know what to do. So I just patted him on the back and was about to leave when he said, ‘It’s not that I miss her. It’s that she’s going to miss me.’ I didn’t understand so I asked him again and this time when he turned I could see it clearly in his eyes- a sense of impending death. Within his eyes, I searched for light but I could see none. I didn’t know what had gotten into him but I knew it wasn’t good. Anyway, we left it at that and I slept.”
Klaus knew where Aron was going with this but he didn’t want to stop the latter. When it came to emotional army experiences, as a doctor, he felt it was the right thing to do to let his patients talk. He found that reliving those memories helps them get it out of their systems. It was a slow process, but one whose benefits outbid any lasting damage that reliving trauma could have.
“The next day, the fight for Alamein started. And Theo,” Aron exhaled deeply, “never came back.”
They stayed silent for a while- both taking in the cool breeze, a welcome respite. The road to St. Lȏ was dark, only somewhat brightened by the full moon.
“War creates strange people, strange things.” Klaus said.
“Emotional suffering, creates strange people and makes strange things happen. War is only a tool by which we suffer.”
4.00 A.M., 6th June 1944
Feldkommandantur 722, St. Lȏ
They had arrived at St. Lȏ half an hour ago. But having no idea whatsoever of the town, Aron and Klaus circled the deserted city till they found a Nazi office- the field command of the Gestapo.
The office was busy- to put it mildly. In reality, it was swarming like a beehive. Looking at the two men in Wehrmacht uniforms, one of the Gestapo guards approached them and stopped them at the entrance.
“This is the Gestapo office- there’s no Army here. You can go back.” He said.
“We just want to speak to somebody in charge. We’ll get out of here in a minute.” Aron said.
“Just in case you haven’t noticed,” he took a look at Aron’s insignia, “Obersoldat, we’re having a busy day. You need to go back to the Army command office.”
“Look,” Aron said, peering at the officer’s insignia just because it was tit-for-tat, “Kriminalinspektor, I have an American prisoner of war and I was told to bring him to St. Lȏ on orders and talk to the Gestapo office about it. So are you going to let me in or not?”
Klaus knew Aron was lying but he didn’t correct him. If Aron was doing something like that, he’d better have a good reason for it. The lie worked on the Gestapo officer though. When Aron mentioned the fact that there was an American, the officer’s attitude changed. Telling them to follow him, Anders Stiehl- that was his name, he told us- led us past the milling crowd of Gestapo officers into a secluded room.
Telling Aron and Klaus to sit, he said he would return with the officer-in-charge, a Kriminalassistentanwärter Ralf Friedrichs.
“What was all that about?” Klaus asked when Stiehl left the room.
“There’s no Army command here, I think.” Aron declared.
“How do you know? Bergheim was sure Strass would be here.” Klaus said.
“We roamed this town for a half hour. Did you see any Army officers there? Anywhere? They must have moved recently. If there’s an Army command, there will be Army officers patrolling the city. It’s the way we work in occupied cities- especially when the enemy threat is real and close by, like tonight.”
“There’s still parts of the town we haven’t seen.” Klaus tried to protest.
“We can’t hang our hopes on finding it here and moreover, it would be a futile exercise were there to be no Army office here. All we would do is roam around the city, wasting gas and time.”
Just then, Ralf Friedrichs walked in. Ralf was a tall man- that was the thing that first struck Klaus. He had black hair, graying on the sides a little and a clean shaven face. Both Klaus and Aron stood up and did the standard “Heil Hitler!” salute. Ralf signalled them to sit down.
“So what is this about an American prisoner I’m hearing?” his voice was gruff and cracked a little. Klaus assumed Ralf was a heavy smoker.
“I’m Obersoldat Aron Schrieber and this is Unterarzt Klaus Morstein.”
“A doctor?” Ralf interrupted.
“Yes sir.” Klaus said.
“Go on.” He said to Aron, although he still eyed Klaus.
“We’re from the 1st Army-”
“I don’t care,” Ralf interrupted and leaned forward, “why are you here?”
“We have an American prisoner of war from up in Saint-Mère-Église from earlier tonight. And our orders were to take him to be interrogated by Generalmajor Reinhardt Strass. We were told he would be here in St. Lȏ.”
“Well, he’s not,” Ralf put it plainly, “They were here till yesterday. They packed up and moved.”
Klaus and Aron looked at each other. “Where did they go?” Klaus asked.
“Before I answer that, tell me,” he leaned back again and asked, “where is the American?”
“In the trunk of the car that we came in. He’s sedated now. He won’t wake up for a few hours.” Klaus answered.
Ralf thought for a while before saying, “Alright. Since you’ve brought him here, how about we interrogate him?”
“We?” Aron asked, suspiciously.
“The Gestapo.” Ralf said, flatly.
“I’m sorry, sir. That’s not possible.” Aron replied, with consternation.
“Be careful with your tone, Obersoldat. We might be in different branches, but I do outrank you. And you will give me the respect I deserve.” Ralf said, threateningly.
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to offend you but this order has come from Generalmajor Strass himself. His orders were to bring the American to the Army and nobody else- especially seeing as he is our prisoner. I cannot go against them, sir.” Aron said, his voice even. Klaus personally thought Aron was taking a big risk. Strass had given no such order and for all he knew- Strass didn’t even know about an American prisoner. It was a gamble but under the circumstances, Klaus knew they could get their way.
Ralf thought for a while. As much as he wanted to interrogate the American, he didn’t want to run the risk of upsetting a senior Army officer. In the volatile Nazi military circle, it could even be seen as treason. Then again, he wanted as much information from the enemy as he could, especially now given that the war so close to his home turf.
“Look, Obersoldat,” he said, standing up, “this war is at a critical juncture right now. The enemy is on our doorstep and we need as much intelligence as we can. You, being in the Army, will leave this place and go off to fight the Americans somewhere. But this is my town and I am responsible for it’s protection- from the Resistance, from the British, from the Americans, whatever. And I intend to be as informed as I can be on where threats to our existence here are.”
“I understand, sir.” Aron said.
“How about a compromise? Give us a day with the prisoner. We interrogate him on the Resistance and American troop activity and you can take him to Generalmajor Strass tomorrow. There’s an upside for you too. You get a rest day today.”
“Alright. But on one condition.” Aron insisted.
“He has to be in our custody at all times- during his interrogation and beyond.”
“Done. Now,” Ralf said, “as for your Generalmajor Strass, he has gone to Paris. Rumour has it he is meeting Rommel there along with a bunch of high level commanders. Now, as for you boys, there’s a collaborator’s house down the street. Her name is Julienne Beaurechard. When you knock on her door and she asks you who it is, say ‘I’ve brought the wine you asked for.’ That’s the code to say you’re German and not an American in disguise. You can rest there till the afternoon. We’ll start the interrogation at two. Till then, you’re responsible for the American. Clear?”
Saluting Ralf, Klaus and Aron got out of the station and sped along towards Julienne Beaurechard’s house as fast as they could. While Klaus was relieved to be breathing fresh air again after the stuffy, cigarette-smoke filled atmosphere they were exposed to, Aron was not so comfortable.
As Klaus drove, all Aron kept thinking about was that something was off. The Gestapo didn’t compromise unless they gained something out of it and in this case, Aron couldn’t see what they gained. Something didn’t add up. He just didn’t know what.
Noon, 6th June 1944.
Julienne Beaurechard’s House, St. Lȏ.
As soon as James came to, he knew something was wrong. So he didn’t open his eyes immediately. Mentally, he asked himself to recall the last thing he remembered. He heard gunfire and bombs- lots of it. It was loud- almost too loud for human tolerance. And he remembered being hit- on the right side of his head.
That memory kicked his brain into action, bringing with it a searing pain from where he was hit- forcing a wince out of him, more as a reflex than anything else.
“Es sieht aus wie unser amerikanische freund wach ist.” He heard someone say. What did he mean by “our American friend is awake”? And why was it…
That’s when he had a miserable realisation- that he was taken prisoner by the Germans. Seeing that he couldn’t hide from the truth any longer, he opened his eyes. There were two Germans in the room. One was a tall, blonde man- early thirties, at the most- looking at him with a crooked smile while the other was seated on a chair opposite to him. James couldn’t get a clear look at him since he was turned the other side, looking outside the lone window in the room. But he somehow seemed familiar.
It was a strange setting, considering the situation he was in. It seemed posh, for some reason. The floor was carpeted- a red and gold Arabian design embroidered intricately on it. There was a table next to the window on which both the Germans had placed their rifles and their helmets. On the wall to his right was a small painting, of a scenic countryside- hut, river, hills, and the whole charade, really. To his left was a staircase going downstairs. Otherwise, the room was empty.
“Good morning James!” Aron said in English, positively beaming. Of course, who was he kidding? Both he and the American knew it was a false cheer. James didn’t respond.
“Don’t worry about the house- it’s that of French friend of ours- Julienne Beaurechard. You’re safe with us.” Aron was undeterred by James’ lack of response. At this point, Klaus turned back to look at the American. Instantly, there was a moment of recognition- James widened his eyes and Klaus’ forehead wrinkled. Aron did not miss this.
“You two know each other, I see. Tell me, James, how is that?”
Again, no reply. Aron turned to Klaus and asked him something in German- James assumed it was the same question. He wasn’t really paying attention. Instead, he was trying to escape from the clutches of the ropes that had tied him to a chair. Unfortunately for him, the Germans had been very thorough. He was finding it arduous, if not impossible to cut through the ropes.
“Klaus tells me,” James realised he missed listening to the reply, “that you have spared his life before. That’s a good deed that we will reward, Private James.”
He paused for a moment and looked at the insignia on James’ shoulder. Briefly recollecting his knowledge, he realised his mistake.
“I’m sorry. Corporal James. Soldier to soldier, I think it’s important you be respected for your rank. To be honest, Corporal James, if you were in the Wehrmacht right now, you outrank me. But alas, you’re not in the Wehrmacht and you don’t outrank me, which brings us to where we are now- you being my prisoner.”
Aron leaned forward and significantly lowered his voice, “What are you doing in France?”
James didn’t even bother to reply.
“Now look,” Aron said, “we can do this the easy way with us. We ask you questions and you answer properly. We may even consider letting you go back to your friends in the Army. But we only have so much time. Just under two hours, in fact.”
James looked up at Aron, not understanding what he meant. It was not like he cared anyway. Try as they might, they were not going to get anything out of him, no matter what they did. And if he only had two hours to live, then so be it.
“Oh you don’t know? That’s right. You see, we have a deal with the Gestapo. At precisely two in the afternoon, we hand you over to them for interrogation. Now, we, Corporal, are from the German Army. We know the struggles you go through every day just to stay alive, so we will show you mercy if you tell us what we know- either here or later when we take you to our commander. The Gestapo, on the other hand, is not so merciful. They will use whatever means they can to get whatever they want. And then they will kill you no matter what.”
“Trust me, Corporal, when I say that their interrogations are not pretty. I’ve been through some of those in Berlin and,” he whistled for effect, “they are brutal. You think you’ve seen the worst of humanity last night, Corporal? Wait till you see the Gestapo in action.”
“So,” Aron said, “Corporal James Kirby. Why are you in France? What does your unit have to do in France?”
“Aron!” Klaus suddenly called out, a note of alarm in his voice, “you have to see this.”
Aron, his frustration visible on his face, turned and walked over to the window where Klaus was pointing at something and muttering furiously. James strained to listen to their conversation.
“Schickte Das Auto?” Aron said
“Ja. Und jetzt gibt es mehr Zahl der Soldaten hier mit Maschinengewehren und alles!” Klaus replied, furiously.
“Sie wollte nie uns lebend raus.” Aron said, in a slow whisper that James really had to struggle to hear
They never wanted us to get out alive? James’ curiosity was piqued. He looked interestedly at the two Germans in front of him for some kind of explanation.
Slowly, brooding, Klaus turned back to face James. “Well, Corporal James, looks like we’re out of time and luck. We’re going to see the Gestapo in action far earlier than we thought.”