Episode Seven – Dante’s Inferno
Fifteen past noon, 6th June 1944
Julienne Beaurechard’s house, St. Lô.
“Where’s the woman?” Aron asked, a little agitated.
“Which woman?” Klaus asked back.
“Julienne. Where is she?”
“Downstairs. I’ll bring her up.”
Klaus went downstairs to find Julienne and bring her up to the first floor, leaving Aron and James alone. James surveyed Aron with a little more attention. The way he calmly conducted himself, even in the face of imminent danger meant that this was not the first time he was facing a situation which wasn’t in his favour. He would make a good commander, James thought to himself.
“We have a mutual interest now,” Aron suddenly said, “I need you alive and we are your only shot at staying alive in this town.”
James stayed silent although he could see the point Aron was making. If the Gestapo was to find him, there was no way they were letting him leave. Plus, as much as he was willing to die for his country, he was also willing to avoid it for as long as he could.
“So you will need to co-operate with us- at least for a little while. Once we reach Paris, you can do whatever the hell you want with the officers I hand you over to. You won’t be my headache, I’ll tell you that.”
At that moment, Klaus came back with the lady whose house they were in- Julienne Beaurechard. The first thing that caught James’ attention were the eyes. They were jet black- almost too black to be true. Contrasted against her pale skin and a white sclera, they were unmistakeably fierce too. She also had put quite a bit of makeup which probably contributed to the paleness of her face. Clutching a small handbag, she looked questioningly at Klaus, Aron and James, one after the other.
“Miss Beaurechard, we appreciate the trouble you’ve taken for us.” Aron said, in English.
“It’s no trouble really,” she replied in English laced with a heavy French accent, “anything for the Reich.”
“Now, we’re going to need something from you. Does your house have a back-door, a trap door or anything of the sort?” Klaus asked.
“There’s a basement. The entrance is via a trap door in the kitchen.” she replied, clearly not comprehending why they would ask something like that.
“Does the basement go anywhere?”
“Towards that end,” she pointed to James’ right, “of the basement, there’s a steel door. It leads into a small tunnel which leads into a bigger tunnel down the street. It’s basically a bomb shelter the Germans built. My husband worked for the Abwehr here before he got transferred to Antwerp. So they built a way for him and me.”
“Obviously,” Aron agreed, “there are other exits from the tunnel right?”
“Does it lead to any place familiar to you? Maybe a friend’s house or something?” Klaus asked.
“One of the tunnels leads to the same road that houses a friend of mine, Remy.”
“Good. We will go there and then figure out how to get to Paris.”
“I must warn you though, sir. Remy is part of the Resistance and the Gestapo has been watching his house for movements closely.”
Aron thought for a while and then said, “Alright. Let’s go to Remy’s house. I’ll handle Remy if it comes to that.”
“You cannot stay here,” Klaus spoke to Julienne, “you’ll need to come with us or the Gestapo will kill you.”
Julienne nodded meekly.
Half Past Noon, 6th June 1944.
Julienne Beaurechard’s house, St. Lô.
Slowly, making as little noise as possible, the three men and woman entered the kitchen. Julienne led the way followed by Klaus, James and Aron in that order. To ensure safety, Aron had his gun pointed perpetually at James’ back. It was not that James was planning to escape what he knew was an impossible situation, but Aron wasn’t ready to take any chances.
There were no windows on the ground floor to look into the outside world. So, naturally the Gestapo wouldn’t know they were here. In order to further deceive them, Klaus and Aron had left their helmets near the window- giving the impression that they were still in the house. It was not a fool-proof plan but given their urgency, it was the best they could come up with.
“Open it fast!” Aron barked at Julienne as she manipulated the lock and key, keeping one eye on the door, as if someone was suddenly going to break it in and emerge from it.
“I’m going as fast as I can!” she hissed back. Aron glared at her for a second before realising that any further conversation was only going to delay her further. A couple more nervous seconds later, the lock clicked and gave way. Opening the door, Julienne went in first followed by the others.
The tunnel was well constructed- solid steel all around the four escapees. The only problem was that the height was not enough. Even Julienne, at about five feet eight, had to crouch a little as she walked. Motioning everyone to stay silent, she walked as fast as she could through the dimly lit pathway.
Aron’s pistol still nudging him from the back, James walked, slowly and steadily behind Klaus. Around them, they could vaguely hear noises from above as they walked. Often the tunnel would vibrate whenever a car passed above them.
“How far is this place?” Klaus whispered to Julienne.
“Twenty minutes. Fifteen if we can speed it up a little.” Julienne replied, her focus still on the path ahead.
Suddenly, they heard a bang some distance behind them and all four of them froze. There was no mistaking where the sound had come from. The Gestapo had just breached the door into the tunnel.
“Run!” Aron shouted from behind. Julienne and the others needed no second call. They started to run like never before. Behind them, in the distance, they could hear the boots thumping against the cold steel floor and the sound of men shouting orders.
They seemed to have been running forever when Julienne suddenly turned right towards one of the exits. Nearly caught off guard by her sudden turn, Klaus stumbled a little before following her. James, however, didn’t miss a stride and started to climb down the staircase as quickly as he could. Looking up, he saw Aron standing by the staircase, hesitating.
Klaus had noticed this too. Pausing and causing James to stop, he asked, “What the hell are you doing? Get down!”
“You guys go ahead. I’ll join you. I just need to distract them.”
“What are you going to do?”
Klaus saw Aron take a knife, cut his finger just enough to let out a few drops of blood. He looked at Klaus and seeing that neither he nor James had descended, he said, “Listen! I’ll join you when I can! Now get that woman’s friend will you?”
He wanted to find out what Aron had in mind and how he would join them later but he decided against it given that he could now hear the soldiers shouting and stomping more clearly than ever before. Quickly he descended down the stairs and allowed James to do so after him.
“Quick! Hurry!” Julienne hissed from his right, waiting inside another tunnel- probably the last one before Remy’s house. James was already in the tunnel, halfway between Julienne and himself.
He looked up one more time. Aron was gone.
As he stood there waiting for Klaus to come, James Kirby weighed various options in his mind. Remy was part of the Resistance, according to Julienne. And since Remy and Julienne were friends, he assumed she was a spy for the Germans inside the Resistance. Now, taking down a woman in one-to-one combat wouldn’t be an issue for him. The two Germans were the problem.
Aron was a soldier through and through while Klaus was a doctor-soldier. When the two were together, he didn’t fancy his chances but now that Aron was gone- even if it was only temporarily- he thought he could take down Klaus. Of course, there was a problem in that he could only use his bare hands while the German could use a gun, knife and an assortment of weaponry to put it generally. And in such a scenario, he had to consider the lady. She could very well possess a gun, be able to handle a gun and should a fight arise between James and Klaus, there was no doubt whose side she would take.
Moreover, even if he did come out of this improbable fight as the victorious one, he would need the help of Remy and the Resistance to get out of St. Lô. And from having spoken to many of his colleagues who were from France and now fought with the British and the Canadians, he knew that the Resistance had, at best, a sketchy record when it came to organising escapes.
At that moment, James saw Klaus turn towards him, gun pointed and motion him to walk. James duly obeyed. Keeping a fair distance between himself and Julienne, he followed her through the tunnel. At this stage, he felt it was best to let nature take it’s course. He would seize the best opportunity to escape when it came.
1.00 P.M., 6th June 1944.
Remy Fache’s House, St. Lô
Julienne knocked on the door of Remy Fache in a very precise fashion. Three short staccato beats followed by a long pause before two more staccato knocks. She was on top of the steps leading up to his door while Klaus and James waited at the bottom of the short staircase. They could clearly hear the shuffling of the feet from inside the house, the dragging of a chair, a loud groan and finally the sound of measured steps growing louder with each second.
As soon as he opened the door, the middle aged man, who James thought was not a day younger than fifty, widened his eyes in surprise and instantly clenched the gun in his hand tightly.
“Julienne, what’s going on?” he asked, a little alarmed and bewildered at the sight of a Nazi soldier, an American soldier and a Resistance member all within ten yards of his home.
“Let us in, I’ll explain.” she said, taking a glance at Klaus and James. When Remy was still suspicious, she added, “They’re friends. Don’t worry.”
Still wary of the sight he was confronted with, Remy nevertheless seemed to be temporarily convinced by Julienne. Standing aside, he let Julienne in and on her signal, James ascended followed by Klaus, who still had his gun within a second’s reach, hidden in his pocket.
Pulling up a chair, Julienne told James and Klaus to sit. She was still standing, which Klaus thought was odd. It didn’t matter to him though. He was only too happy to oblige her and sit. Remy was still standing near the door, looking at the three of them with interest.
“What’s going on?” he asked
“The Gestapo is after us.” Julienne said, flatly.
Instantly, a look of alarm came across Remy’s face. He quickly took a look at the front door to make sure that it was bolted. His attention then shifted to the windows. Seeing that the curtains on one of the two windows in the living room wasn’t completely closed, he ran to it and did a more complete job of it than earlier.
“What do you mean ‘The Gestapo is after us’?” he said, shocked.
“Well, it means what it means. The Gestapo wants us dead. My house was compromised so I had to run here.”
Remy took a moment to process this information. Closing his eyes, he thought and then asked her, “And who are your friends?”
“The German’s name is Dieter Raumann,” Klaus and Julienne exchanged looks when she lied about his name, “and the American is Mike Orwell.”
James looked up suddenly when he realised she was lying about their names. He couldn’t figure out why she lied. The Frenchman, however, didn’t look at them. He still had his eyes closed. If only he looked at me, James thought. He was ready to give some sort of a signal to Remy that all was not what it seemed.
“Where are they from?”
“Dieter is from the German Army. He was stationed in Coutances when he got made out for helping the Resistance. He’s been on the run since yesterday.”
“He had a misdrop and landed midway between Coutances and here. Dieter picked him on the way before any other Germans got their hands on him.”
Damn, she is good, James thought, No wonder she’s survived for so long as a double agent in the Resistance.
“Alright,” he said, finally opening his eyes and looking at Julienne with a singular determination, “what do you need?”
4.45 P.M., 6th June 1944
Remy Fache’s house, St. Lô.
The three of them – Klaus, Julienne and James – were sitting around the dinner table, sipping coffee. “Drink and eat as much as you want. This is the last good food you’re going to get in a while.” was Julienne’s pep talk. Upstairs, Remy was trying to establish contact with Resistance members in Paris- which is where they were headed to next.
“So, what is the deal with you two?” Julienne asked, breaking the silence. Despite the relative darkness- the curtains were still on – Klaus could feel her eyes staring right at him.
“He’s a prisoner.” Klaus replied flatly. He wasn’t interested in entertaining her queries.
She, however, didn’t seem to be deterred by his tone. “Alright. Where did you fight?”
“Let’s just drink our coffees in silence, shall we?” Klaus said, even more firmly this time. Understanding the sentiment, Julienne leaned back and sipped her cup.
As James drank his coffee, he kept thinking about a way out. So far, he had tried to subtly warn Remy in Morse code by tapping his index finger on the table, he had tried to somehow talk to Remy separately and finally he tried to directly mouth the warning to him until Klaus jabbed him with the gun’s nozzle before he got through the first word.
Now, the two of them- the German and the collaborator- had succeeded in isolating him and Remy for a while. Demoralised by his quandary, he decided for the time being to give up thinking about an escape plan. Any way he saw it, he was finding that the odds on him surviving the ordeal was very less, at least as long as he was at St. Lô. Maybe he could get to Paris and then see something.
“It would help me better if I knew what you wanted to go to Paris for. I could arrange something since I have contacts there.” she whispered, breaking the silence.
Klaus sighed and whispered back, “We have to meet Generalmajor Reinhardt Strass and hand the American over. We were told he is going to Paris to meet some higher ups in a day or two.”
“I heard something about that.” Julienne responded, thinking as she did.
Silence descended again on the table. Julienne was still trying to plot her way into Paris. She would, obviously, need help getting into the city. Given that a Nazi soldier was with her and in uniform, she didn’t see much problem with that. The bigger issue was what she would do once inside the city. The Resistance had quite a few sympathisers in Paris. And one of their abodes would serve as the house where they would stay. Getting Klaus into a Nazi building while not being made out as a Nazi herself was going to be a problem.
“I got you a place.” Remy’s voice suddenly woke all three of them up from their slumbering thoughts.
All of them looked at each other but none said a word. Descending down the stairs, Remy elaborated, “There is a house. One of our members that can take you in.”
“Alright,” Julienne said, getting up, “fill me in on the details. The lesser these two know, the better.”
Seemingly on the same page, Remy and Julienne went back upstairs to discuss the plan. James sighed. It was yet another successful attempt to separate him and Remy.
6.00 P.M., 6th June 1944,
Remy Fache’s house, St. Lô
The noise of bombardment was unmistakeable. It had been there most of the day but he had not noticed it. However, since Julienne had left James and his German friend alone and they never spoke, he couldn’t help but notice. Deciding that if he couldn’t escape in the near future, he might as well try to make conversation, he said “We’re going to win the war, you know.”
Klaus stayed silent. He wasn’t even thinking about the outcome of the war yet. He was more worried about Aron. It had been just over five hours since Aron had gone. By now, he should have returned.
“You’re worried about your blond friend aren’t you?” James said, partly guessing and partly deducing from the worried look on Klaus’ face.
“How does it matter to you?” Klaus hissed.
“It doesn’t. It’s one less Kraut for me to deal with,” James shrugged, “they must have got to him.”
“Shut up.” Klaus could feel the anger rising within him.
“What do you think they’ve done with him? What do you people do with traitors?”
Klaus stayed silent even though he knew James was trying to provoke him and get a reaction.
“At the Army, we hear a lot of rumours, you know?”
“You’ll find out yourself if the rumours are true soon enough.” Klaus replied, clenching his jaw.
“I hear you like shooting them in the balls. Painful method but effective, I must say.” James went on, like he never heard Klaus say anything.
“I told you to shut the fuck up.” Klaus said, his voice turning into an angry whisper.
“Electrocution is one more I’ve heard.”
At that moment, Klaus lost control of his temper temporarily and elbowed James on the nose, sending the American flying back with his chair. Klaus took out his gun and was about to point it at the American. Suddenly, an unexpected but familiar voice called out loudly, “What is going on here?”
Looking up, both Klaus and James saw Remy standing at the top of the staircase with Julienne behind him. For a moment, the whole room seemed perfectly still- almost too perfect. And then, the unexpected happened.
Taking out a gun from her handbag, all Julienne said was “I’m sorry you had to find out this way.”
And then she fired two bullets into the skull of a confused Remy Fache, ending his life once and for all.
6.50 P.M., 6th June 1944.
Remy Fache’s house, St. Lô
For over forty minutes, nobody spoke. Overpowered once again, James was, under supervision, allowed to change into civilian clothes and then had his hands tied up and his mouth taped.
“You didn’t need to do that.” Klaus finally said to Julienne, who was wiping any remaining spots of blood from her clothes.
“I had to. Remy is a smart man. He would have figured out sooner or later that something was fishy.” she said, as cold as ice.
“We could have explained it as a minor disagreement between two people.”
“He wouldn’t have bought that. Besides,” she turned, “I was going to do it anyway before we left for Paris. I don’t want any loose ends here.”
That, Klaus found, he couldn’t disagree with. Suddenly, they heard a rumbling noise in the distance. Slightly opening the curtains of one of the windows, they saw- set against the backdrop of a blue sky – a host of bombers flying in formation. They seemed to be coming from Caen and heading in their direction.
James smiled inwardly when he caught a glimpse of the planes. At the same time, however, he was hoping that they weren’t going to bomb St. Lô. Otherwise, he would caught in the middle of it.
“We have to go.” Klaus said to Julienne decisively, to which she nodded her head in agreement.
“Tunnel. Now!” Klaus turned and said to James, gun pointed at the American. When the latter refused to get up from his chair, Klaus forced him up and thrust him forward to the door. With no choice now, James walked behind Julienne. Closing the door behind them, Klaus followed James into the tunnel and towards the bomb shelter which was a short distance away.
8.45 P.M., 6th June 1944,
Bomb Shelter Near Remy Fache’s house, St. Lô
Everything had been eerily quiet for the last ten minutes or so- both outside and inside the shelter. The continuous shaking and shelling of the ground that they had to endure for the last hour and a half was suddenly gone. Julienne was still perched on top of a makeshift bench, leaning against the wall while Klaus sat on the ground, eyes wide open in anticipation of what was to happen next. Together, they had relegated the American to one corner of the shelter, where he sat crouched, head between his hands.
“Looks like they’ve stopped.” Klaus finally ventured.
Waking up from her superficial sleep, Julienne managed a loud “Hmmm”.
“We should go now before they start again. We should leave for Paris.” Klaus said, this time a lot more decisively.
Exhaling loudly, Julienne got up and signalled the American to do the same. His brain already fried from all the noise he had to endure, James was in no mood to disobey. Slowly and uncomfortably, he got up.
They followed Julienne to the top of the staircase and into Remy’s house again. Or at least what remained of it. The sight that greeted them was not one James was likely to forget very soon. The window panes were non-existent, having been blown to smithereens. The two modest couches in his house were charred, as were most of the other furniture pieces. The bombing had taken down nearly the entire front wall, so much so that the only thing demarcating his house from the street was a half-demolished pillar. As he looked to his left, the staircase where Remy had been shot was filled with rubble and some of the carpet was still engulfed in fire.
“Let’s go. Fast.” Julienne said, crouching and protecting herself from any sparks flying around.
As they transitioned from the house to the street, all they felt was a soaring temperature. The air got progressively hotter and within seconds, James was sweating. Once they got into the middle of the street and paused, the full view of war hit them. For as long as the eyes could see, there was fire and debris. All around them, the black of the French night sky was freely masked by the red, yellow, orange and white of human tragedy. Occasionally, they would hear blasts- sometimes in the distance, sometimes close by- of objects being obliterated by this visible, untameable monster. A little further from where they were, a small apartment building, having fought for so long, gave up and finally collapsed into an anonymous pile of wood, stone and dust.
“Let’s go. We need to get to the underground garage nearby. There’s a car waiting to take us.” Julienne said, finally gathering her wits about her. And this time, nobody wanted to stay back- least of all, James. As he was pushed forward along the path, he couldn’t help but think that this was what hell must be like.
Author’s note: From a historical perspective, the bombing of St. Lô was only paused for a few hours. The Allies would again hit the city in the minutes immediately past midnight. During the course of the bombing through the night of June 6-7, 1944, St. Lô would report 77% destruction and 352 civilian casualties- which would have been higher had it not been for the tunnel constructed by the Germans protecting French civilians. Later on in the war, the city would be bombed again by the Allies as part of Operation Cobra- the final chapter in the Normandy Campaign. Together the two bombings would destroy 99% of the town, earning St. Lô the name, “The Capital of Ruins” given by Irish author Samuel Beckett.