“It was a suicide mission. Sending two men deep into the heart of Nazi Germany with orders to assassinate Hitler and end the war for good. Would they be able to evade capture? Would they be able to get close enough to the most closely-guarded man in the world? And, when the time came, would they be able to pull the trigger.
Based on a real file prepared by the British Special Operations Executive, this novel imagines what might have happened if the British government had decided to put the plan into effect; had they dared to go one better than the earlier assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and kill the Führer himself.”
After what seemed like an eternity cooped up inside the narrow confines of the loading bay of the Halifax bomber, Sergeant Peter Bogarde hardly noticed the incessant throbbing of its four engines anymore. He had become immune to all extraneous noise, so focussed was he on the mission ahead. In fact, the constant din was actually having something of a metronomic effect on him—the beat of the propellers counting out the minutes to zero hour. Before much longer, he and his three companions would be hurling themselves out into the darkness over occupied Poland. The goal: to link up with members of the Polish Resistance to undertake a…What had Colonel Blake called it? A spectacular.
If you asked him, however, Bogarde thought it was nothing more than a glorified public relations stunt, designed to show the brave, beleaguered Poles that the Western Allies had not forgotten them nor deserted them in their heroic struggle against their oppressors. Back in September ’39, they had put up a brave but ultimately futile fight against the German invader. Defeat had always been inevitable, given how isolated and unprepared they were. Then, to add insult to injury, shortly after they had been overrun by the Nazis, the Russkies had seized the opportunity to drive in from the east to share with Germany in a complete carve-up of the country. Now that really was taking the piss, Bogarde thought to himself, smiling.
To be fair, Bogarde had nothing personally against Poland; as an exile from his own beloved Netherlands, he actually had every sympathy for them. He’d just rather it wasn’t his life at risk in what felt, to him at least, like a fairly worthless exercise. To his mind, it would be much better to use his skills and experience in something more beneficial, something that would bring about a significant reduction in the number of German soldiers in the world, for example.
The mission had its origins with Colonel William Blake, a senior officer in the Special Operations Executive, to which Bogarde had been attached, from his commando unit, for the duration. In the weeks running up to the outbreak of the war, Blake had been based in Warsaw as a military intelligence officer advising the Polish government on the rapidly deteriorating situation in Europe. He and the rest of his team had only just managed to escape into Romania, shortly after hearing the news, on September 3rd, that Germany had invaded, but he had departed only reluctantly. As it was, he had been an uncomfortably close witness to the terrifying and devastating German Blitzkrieg. Even now, some two years later, it was clear that Blake still carried a strong and burning sense of guilt at having left Poland and his many friends there to their fate.
This operation was a chance to assuage some of that guilt, and this fact alone was enough, Bogarde believed, to override common sense and the feeling of futility that surrounded the whole undertaking. What the hell was the point of having four highly trained Allied soldiers fannying about in the middle of bloody Poland, trying to link up with what would doubtless prove to be an ill-equipped, ill-disciplined partisan rabble? Chances were that everything would go tits-up and they would find themselves up to their necks in the shit, or worse, in no time at all.
Bogarde shook his head to try to clear his mind of such negative feelings. There was no point dwelling on it any further; there was no turning back now anyway. Instead he forced his thoughts back onto the matter in hand. Looking around the dimly-lit interior of the on-loan RAF Halifax, he could just make out the grim, blacked-up faces of the rest of his team. Like him, they were dressed in the uniform of the Polish army. To be caught wearing anything other than military uniform meant certain death at the hands of a firing squad. This way, the boffins had determined, they might stand a chance if compromised. In reality, though, Peter knew that their chances if caught were slightly worse than those of a snowflake in hell, a thought which he had chosen not to share out loud during the briefing.
To his left on the bench seat that stretched along the side of the fuselage, and also borrowed from the commandos, was Charlie Butler, a demolitions expert and, incidentally, a pure killer. What Charlie didn’t know about explosives wasn’t worth knowing. His particular forte was the use of time pencils, a means of detonating plastic explosive at any one of a number of predetermined time intervals. Butler was also deadly with a knife at close quarters. In fact, he was so skilled that he ran many of the hand-to-hand combat courses in the commandos and had the scars to prove it. If Bogarde was honest, Charlie scared him shitless. The risks he took with the explosives were unnatural. Evidently, he had more lives than the proverbial cat. Yet he was one of those men that you’d much rather have on your side than against you any day of the week.
Opposite Peter and Charlie were two Polish soldiers that had managed to escape to London in the aftermath of the invasion, along with many of their compatriots. These two, Tomasz and Jerzy (Peter had no idea of their surnames and doubted he could have spelt them anyway, let alone pronounce them), had proved exceptionally proficient in the art of killing and clandestine operations. Whilst this gave Bogarde considerable comfort, the main reason for their presence, aside from their martial skills, was to act as interpreters for when they managed to link up with the Resistance.
All three of them were staring grimly ahead, seemingly focussed on nothing in particular. Peter was sure, however, that they were running over the details of the final briefing that had been chaired by Blake, in the draughty hangar at Duxford airbase in Cambridgeshire, just hours before take-off.
As leader of the four-man team, Bogarde had been aware for some days of the objectives of this mission, but for the rest of the team, the briefing was the first they knew of what they had let themselves in for. Of course, there had been speculation during their intensive training over the previous three weeks, and, to be honest, it could not have come as a huge surprise given the evidence before them. Their training had included parachute jumps, explosives, and close-quarter combat, both armed and unarmed. This, coupled with the fact that two of their number were Polish, suggested to Bogarde that no self-respecting bookie would have offered odds on anything other than a jump behind enemy lines into Poland. Looking at the faces of his men in the brightly-lit hangar as Blake had revealed the map pinned to the blackboard, Bogarde could see that they too had reached the same conclusion. All three faces had been devoid of expression as the objective was uncovered; instead they were intent on the words coming from the tall, immaculately-attired man standing on the raised dais.
“Your drop zone is located two miles west of the town of Skórcz,” Blake’s crisp, clipped voice informed them. “I’m afraid I haven’t the faintest idea about the proper pronunciation, but hopefully that was not too wide of the mark. No doubt the two of you could make a far better job of it than me.” He smiled. Tomasz and Jerzy gave the merest hint of a nod, tacitly approving Blake’s efforts.
Blake went on to fill them in on the specifics of the mission, all the time tapping his map pointer against the board as if bringing an imaginary orchestra to order. “You will be met at the DZ, here, by members of the Polish Resistance whose job it will be to lead you to the target and to meet up with the rest of your twelve-man attack team.
“The target itself is the railway line where it crosses the river Wda, or Schwarzwasser, as I believe the Germans call it.” Blake located the point where the railway crossed the river on the map with the end of the pointer. “Your mission is to destroy the railway line, causing the maximum damage in order to put it out of action for as long as possible. If you manage to take a train with it as well, then so much the better.” Blake’s eyes betrayed their familiar mischievous look, as if the thought had just occurred to him at that point.
“On reaching the target, you will split into two teams of six. Team A, led by Sergeant Butler, will be responsible for laying and detonating the charges, while team B, led by Sergeant Bogarde, will provide the necessary cover. We believe that the latter will hopefully be just a precaution, as our intelligence indicates that there is very little in the way of German military presence in the area, other than the odd railway policeman guarding the bridge itself.
“On completing the mission, it will be up to the Polish Resistance to get you over the short distance to the coast in the north, onto a boat bound for Sweden and thence home to Blighty. Right,” Blake summed up, “you’ve heard enough from me; any questions from you lot?”
This was Bogarde’s cue. “Just a couple, sir. What’s so important about this bridge? What difference will it actually make? How can we be so sure that there is minimal opposition at the target? How far is it to the coast? How are we supposed to get there undetected, and how on earth do we find a suitable boat when we get there?” Bogarde had never fancied himself as much of an ideas man, but he was always pretty damned good at knocking holes in other people’s. One of his many annoying traits, he thought to himself.
Blake fixed Bogarde with one of his trademark, steely-eyed stares. Peter could also see the bristles on his expertly trimmed moustache almost standing to attention. “Yes, quite a number of questions, thank you, Sergeant Bogarde. I will attempt to answer your points in an orderly fashion, but no doubt you will let me know if I miss anything pertinent?”
The irony was far from lost on Bogarde. He felt himself redden involuntarily but, otherwise managed to maintain his composure.
“Firstly the point, or rather points, which I would have thought were fairly obvious. This railway line is one of the main arteries from the German industrial heartland to the Eastern Front. Therefore, there is an almost constant stream of trains carrying arms, tanks, support vehicles, artillery, munitions, not to mention troops, all bound for the mincing machine that is the Eastern Front. Put this artery out of action for even a short time, and we put a dent in the German war effort and relieve the pressure—to a small degree I grant you—on our Russian allies.
“Secondly the operation is a chance to maintain what are already excellent relations with the Polish government in exile. Their people have been suffering untold hardships since the very start of the war, and the chance to provide a welcome boost to their morale should not be missed. Thirdly, and finally for now, the skills and knowledge that you four can pass on to the Polish Resistance will, hopefully, help them to continue the struggle more effectively after you have gone.”
Blake was getting into his stride now. Despite his misgivings, Bogarde could not help but be impressed at the way in which the colonel carried you with him, making this potentially deadly mission sound for all the world like a Sunday morning stroll in the park.
Blake was off again. “As far as the expected opposition is concerned, we are in touch with members of the Resistance by way of radios that we have previously dropped to them. The information we have is accurate at the time of going to press. In the main, the Germans believe the Polish people to be a beaten force, capable of little other than the most token acts of sabotage. As such, they tend not to bother wasting too much in the way of resources guarding things, even things as important as railway bridges on key routes. Clearly they feel those resources are best deployed further east. Obviously I cannot one hundred per cent guarantee the information or whether the situation will have changed when you get there, but then, if that does prove to be the case, perhaps you would be good enough to take that up with our Polish friends on your arrival?
“Now, it’s up to you men to punish that arrogance and show the Germans that nowhere is safe. Make a success of this mission, and they will have to review their policy and consider diverting much-needed men and materiel from the front line to guarding these so-called soft targets deep to their rear. Also, think of the impact this will have in terms of the morale of the German soldier when the letters from his wife or girlfriend fail to arrive, not to mention the monthly ration of cigarettes. On top of that, they will find themselves even more stretched in keeping the red hordes at bay given that troops will have been withdrawn to guard their supply lines.
“Last, and by no means least,” Blake continued, “we cannot ignore the fact that this organisation, the Special Operatives Executive, has some pretty influential critics within the British government. Men from the old-school way of thinking who do not like to see funding diverted away from frontline troops in favour of what they would call “dirty-tricks warfare.” To put a stop to this talk, or at least dampen it down to more manageable levels, we need a major success by which to demonstrate exactly what we can do here. In short, you could say that you men are being entrusted with the very future existence of the SOE!”
Bogarde had heard enough. The build-up to the mission was not the real problem as far as he was concerned. “OK, sir, you have convinced me as to why we are going. What about some of the more trivial details like how we get back home safe and sound? When all hell breaks loose, how on God’s earth do we get out of Poland with every Nazi within fifty miles intent on kicking our collective arse?”
Blake smiled, though not, as far as Bogarde could tell, reassuringly. “Are you one of life’s natural worriers, Sergeant?”
“No, sir, I have to practise every day in front of a mirror. But so far I have found it has helped to keep me alive just that little bit longer.”
“OK, settle down, men.” Blake calmly sought to restore order in the midst of the laughter that had greeted Bogarde’s riposte. He was fully aware of the tension in the room and appreciated that a little comedy could help to relieve things, as long as it was kept in moderation.
“Do you think we’d really leave such things to chance, young man? This is where our loyal Polish cousins come to our rescue. In return for the arms and expertise that you and Butler bring with you, they have agreed to spirit you across Poland to the Baltic coast and thence on a boat to Sweden. We have it on good authority that there is a complex and widespread network of Poles working underground in the country. Since 1939, they have been instrumental in providing safe passage out of the country for several of their fellow countrymen, people the Germans would rather have been able to get their hands on. But let’s not take my word for it when we can go straight to the horse’s mouth, as it were.”
Tomasz may not have understood the metaphor, but the fact that Blake was staring expectantly at him gave him the cue he needed. “It is just so, Colonel,” he said in his slow, halting English. “Jerzy and I are in this room today as proof of it. Once the Nazi bastards had taken our homeland, many of us, we decided to leave to fight on from the outside. Our countrymen who stayed behind, they were happy to help us escape. For many, the best way, it was to go north to the sea and from there to find a boat, either to hide on it or to pay the captain.”
Jerzy took over. “It will be a simple matter for us to do the same again. Every village from the river to the sea will have friends who will help us. We will have plenty food, shelter, and somewhere to hide in the day. We only travel at night.”
Bogarde could see from their earnest manner that there was no need to question the Poles further on this point; he was confident that it would be as they said. The main issue would, therefore, be to evade capture immediately after the strike until they could get out of sight.
“We calculate”—Blake was continuing—“that it is fifty miles, or near as damn it, from the target to the coast. Allowing for any evasive or diversionary tactics that you might need to employ, then three, or possibly four, nights should be sufficient for you to reach the coast. On this basis, we have been working with our colleagues in the Polish government in exile in order to come up with a suggested route. This route shows towns and villages along the way where, as Jerzy says, people will be on hand to help you out: food, clothes, places you can hole up for the day, that sort of thing. How much use you make of it is entirely up to you; you may, for example, decide to go it alone and manage things accordingly. Either way, Sergeant, you’ll find all the relevant bumf in the mission pack on the desk in front of you. I need hardly remind you that this information is highly sensitive, and so I suggest that you commit it to memory before the drop. I cannot overemphasise the consequences of such information falling into enemy hands. Is that clear?”
As no comments were forthcoming, Blake moved on. “All being well, you should reach the coast on or around the fourth day. Once there, you will need to make contact with the Polish underground, details of which you will find in the pack. There will be a boat waiting to take you across the Baltic Sea to Gothenburg. Once there on neutral soil, you will be met at the docks and escorted to the British Embassy and thence home to base. This should, in theory, be the least traumatic part of the journey.
“Right, if there are no further questions, I will hand over to Wing Commander Bailey, who is going to be your pilot tonight. He will fill you in on what you can expect in the way of weather and conditions both on the flight and in Poland.”
A sudden lurch accompanied by a dull thump jerked Bogarde back to reality. Down at his feet, Butler was exercising his extensive and colourful vocabulary to register dissatisfaction at not only having been woken up but also dumped unceremoniously onto the floor by the sudden movement of the plane.
“Bastard part-time fly-boys should learn to bastard fly the bastard plane properly. Hasn’t anyone told them that we’re precious goods? They should be treating us like bloody royalty instead of bastard pigs in a bastard sty! We should be reclining on soft cushions with dusky maidens attending to our every need, instead of lying on rock-hard metal benches with no bastard room to even bastard fart.”
Just at that moment, the pilot popped his head round the door from the cockpit. “Sorry, chaps, we’ve just crossed the coast. Those slight bumps were the result of a bit of ack-ack from Jerry welcoming us to occupied Europe. Awfully nice of them, but there was really no need to go to that sort trouble on our behalf. Hope it didn’t upset your flying experience too much.”
“What? You mean that this sort of thing is normal?” Butler complained.
“Oh yes, rather! SOP.”
Butler looked blank, none the wiser.
“Standard operating procedure, old boy. As we fly so low across the water, Jerry can’t pick us up on the old radar. Therefore, they only hear us very late on as we approach the coast and so only have time to loose off a couple of shells in our general direction. With so little time to aim, it’s rare that they ever land one on the nose, as it were.”
“Jesus Christ, you guys are so laid-back you’re horizontal.” Butler shook his head, clearly unimpressed with the thought of being shot at, and unable to get his head round the nonchalant approach of the airman.
The pilot was one of those cheery types who refused to be upset by anything or anyone. Damned annoying, Peter reflected.
“No use worrying about it, chum. If your number’s up, there’s not a lot you can do, so you may as well hold on tight and enjoy the ride. Anyway, just popped through to say we’re two hours from the drop. Cheerio!” And with that, he retreated back into the cockpit.
“OK, men.” Bogarde started to pull himself carefully up into a standing position. “You heard him. T-minus one-twenty. Time for a final check of the equipment. No mistakes, right? This needs to go as smoothly as possible. We don’t need any dropped bollocks tripping us up; we’ll have enough to worry about without any of those as well.”
Working in pairs, the four men started on the pre-drop routine. It was mundane work but could make the difference between life and death. When dropping behind enemy lines at night, it was essential that you didn’t give yourself away to any passing patrols, either by sight or sound. For the former, you had to make sure there were no bright objects that could glint in the moonlight; jewellery, watches, and the like, were all either removed or carefully concealed. It was also necessary to ensure that there were no loose items that could bang against each other in the wind or on landing. It was a fact that sound travelled further at night, and so this was a key precaution. Straps had to be removed from weapons, as they tended to knock against the barrel, making loud metallic clunks. Anyway, it was far better to hold the weapon at the ready, as this had the added bonus of the weapon being closer to hand should you need it in a hurry on the way down.
Having satisfied themselves that they would not give themselves away, they next checked, for the umpteenth time in the last twenty-four hours, their weapons. Each man was equipped with a Sten gun, a Browning pistol, and a commando knife for close-quarter work. The Sten gun was the weapon of choice for this sort of action, as it was light, small, and easily concealable. That said, it was also prone to jamming, especially if you held it the wrong way. Bogarde was aware that the tendency, especially in the heat of the moment, was to hold the magazine, which jutted out horizontally on the left-hand side of the gun. This, however, could lead to problems; the magazine could easily become unseated and so stop feeding bullets into the firing chamber. It might look good as a pose on the recruitment posters, but it was certainly not recommended. The last thing you needed was to confront an enemy soldier whilst struggling with a jammed weapon.
You could not spend too much time looking after your weapons. It was never wasted effort, as you were helpless without them. Many soldiers used much of the vast amount of time that they spent waiting around for things to happen to ritually clean and oil their firearms; Peter considered this to be a pretty sensible habit. It was especially true for parachute drops, as you could never be sure what you were dropping into. Knowing that you had a fully functioning weapon at your side was a definite boost to the confidence in such situations.
Butler, meanwhile, had opened his rucksack and was checking over the explosives contained therein. Peter didn’t understand much about explosives—that was Butler’s department for sure—and this was probably the reason why he was always slightly nervous when in their presence. Butler caught the look on Peter’s face out of the corner of his eye and, as usual, could not resist the opportunity to wind up his superior.
“Relax, boss, this stuff”—he indicated the lump of plastic explosive that he was casually tossing from one hand to the other—“is as safe as—oops—houses.” This last word was delivered with his best sheepish look and in time with the thud made by the plastic hitting the floor.
“Still,” he continued, “it just goes to prove my point. You can do pretty much what you like with this stuff. Chuck it in a fire; hit it with a hammer. Won’t make any difference. It will still end up looking like a lump of dough that smells slightly of almonds.”
At this point, Butler reached into another pocket within the rucksack. “But if it comes into contact with one of these babies”—he held up a slim metal tube—“well, that’s the time to start saying your prayers. A thing of beauty is the time pencil.” Butler was getting into his stride now on one of his favourite subjects. “It’s actually ironic, don’t you know, that here we are heading for Poland and that’s where these little beauties were first developed. It’s like they’re going home.”
Peter had paid scant attention to the explosives training sessions and had no idea whether that particular gem had been mentioned. He had tended to focus on what he considered to be the important bits, like what made them go bang.
Butler, meanwhile, was still in full flow, and Peter knew better than to interrupt. Smile and nod, smile and nod, he told himself.
“This pencil”—Butler held up the thin, six-inch-long metal tube—“acts as a detonator which, when inserted into the plastic explosive, creates a chemical reaction that triggers the explosion. You need to ease it in gently, like it’s your first go with a new girlfriend. No point ramming it in willy-nilly, as you really do not want to damage it; that could get you a one-way express ticket to see St Peter.
“Before you slip it in, of course, you need to decide how long you want the time delay to be: anywhere from a month, if you have time to go on your holidays before it goes bang, all the way down to ten minutes, though you need to have your running shoes handy if you go for that one. Look.” He pointed to coloured lines on the pencil. “They have even made it colour-coded for the hard of understanding. All you have to do is press a ridge on the pencil at the appropriate point as shown by the relevant colour. I reckon even you could manage that, boss!
“Pressing down on the ridge releases the acid, which then eats through a wire of a thickness that matches the time chosen: the thicker it is, the longer it takes to eat through it, in theory. Once the acid has done its job, a spring is released, which enables the detonator to explode, causing the plastic to go up. Apart, they are as harmless as kids’ toys; together, they can tear you, and everyone within a fifty-yard radius, a new arsehole if you’re not very careful.”
Peter had to admit it was a simple concept and, doubtless, very safe in the hands of an expert, but that didn’t stop the whole thing from scaring the living crap out of him. “OK, Butler. Stop pissing about with that stuff, now, will you? If you’ve finished checking it, shove it back in the bag…but gently!”
“Alright, alright, keep your hair on. I know what I’m doing. You’d soon have words to say if this stuff didn’t work when it comes to the crunch. I just have to be sure that everything is fully functioning so we don’t have any cock-ups.” All the same, Butler complied with the order and replaced everything, taking, at least to the outward observer, inordinate care over the task.
Satisfied that all the necessary checks had been completed, Bogarde resumed his seat and tipped his cap down over his eyes. “Right, we’ve got ninety minutes before the drop. I suggest we all get some sleep. You don’t know when you’ll next get the chance.”