After almost 10 hours of being airborne some of the men were getting sick. The Focke-Wulf 200 Condor was a slow lumbering aircraft. It was like a wooden ship plowing through the air instead of slipping through it. The turbulence had consistent from the first take off. The longest previous flights any of the soldiers had been on was two hours and it was showing.
The three planes touched down in Baghdad in the early evening minutes apart. The planes were painted with the Lufthansa colors pretending to make their usual mail run. To maintain secrecy the men had to remain in the plane as they refueled.
A pair of men disembarked the first aircraft and headed to the hanger. The British agent sitting at a desk reading the London Times dated February 2, 1939 never looked up. He just pointed to a pile of mail bags. There was four that they threw over each shoulder. As they left the hanger the agent called out, “You must sign the book.”
One of the men dropped his bags and came over. The British agent asked, “What’s with the three planes?” The man didn’t hesitate, “Opening a new mail route to the Orient.”
“Have fun, bring me back some Chinese food,” the agent replied.
Had the agent paid slightly closer attention, he would have seen that the planes looked like they were carrying windmills. An experimental dual purpose technology, the blades provided some lift allowing the plane to take off and land on shorter runways. It also provided lift in flight helping conserve fuel extending the aircrafts range.
The blades also produced infrasonic and ultrasonic sound. German scientists got the idea from studying elephants, whales, and bats. They realized they could produce sound inaudible to humans that could be used to reflect off objects. An on board computer that took up 9 square feet of cargo space deciphered the return, the infrasonic could identify mountains ten miles out, and could locate other planes within ½ mile of each other. Like many German advanced technologies it was shunned by Hitler. He didn’t think it looked like a German plane and the programs funding dried up.
Minutes later they were airborne again heading toward the Asian subcontinent. When they reached Tehran the one plane with the mail bags landed on the normal mail route as the other two circled. The regular Lufthansa mail flight would be along in a few hours bypassing Baghdad for Tehran and then home to Germany.
The imitation mail squadron flew eastward for hours. Even with the sonar, night flying near the tallest mountains in the world wasn’t as dangerous as it was stupid. To avoid detection the planes flew with no lights, hugging the northern British controlled India border. They skirted with the Nepalese border until reaching the Teesta River a large tributary of the Brahmaputra.
There was just enough moon light to identify the river. The first plane dropped a few flares on the east side. Then the first paratroopers began jumping. The Condor wasn’t intended to be used as a paramilitary platform. Had they used the fuselage doors they would have been swept into the tail fin. They instead jumped from the bomb bay doors on the bottom of the plane.
Thirty troops per plane dropped out of the sky. The wind was calm keeping the soldiers from being scattered. The rendezvous point was back at the river where the flares were dropped. Of the sixty men that jumped eight became immediate casualties. Two ended up tangled in each other’s shoots, plummeting them into the jungle. Three were caught in the trees and strangled by their lines. One man broke his leg with no way to get him to a hospital, a bullet ended his life. Of the two that were never found, one may have been killed by a tiger. The six recovered bodies were buried in shallow graves and covered with vegetation.
When day broke a caravan of five Bedford OXD transport trucks pulled up to the river. The Indian drivers climbed out of the 1 ½ ton trucks. Oberfuhrer Schultz stepped forward to greet them. He spoke in perfect Kings English and the Indians responded back sounding equally educated.
The Bengal Volunteers were freedom fighters for India and terrorists in the eyes of Britain. It made them perfect for the task at hand. Earlier in the day the Volunteers raided a British armory, killed the guards, took the weapons and the trucks and now delivered them to Schultz. Schultz was about to hand the leader stacks of British pounds when the Germans opened fire on the Bengals.
The old additive, the enemies of his enemies is his friend aptly applies except when you are trying to run a covert operation. The SS soldiers dressed as British troops got into the trucks and headed north into the Sikkim region.
The roads were little more than dirt paths. The trip would have been faster if they were on foot but the trucks were integral to the plan. Along the way the convoy had to stop more times than anyone could count. The men had to rebuild sections of road, clear boulders, herd animals, and mend bridges. The men were selected for their unwavering commitment to Germany, their exceptional skills as soldiers, and they could all speak English.
It was late morning when the convoy stopped to shore up a crossing just outside a small village. The men began working when a squad of British Indian troops marched onto the scene. They were commanded by a chatty Brit. The Germans all stopped to salute, then went back to work. The Brit tried to engage them but they labored on. Shultz intervened before he pressed any further.
He called out, “Corporal, may I have a word?” The Brit sent his squad on up to the village, then came over to salute Schultz. Schultz saluted back then shook the Corporal’s hand. “The men are on strict silence orders. They won’t talk to anyone, not even each other, just me.”
The Corporal nodded, “So what are you doing rebuilding bridges?”
Schultz laughed, “For now we are. Our mission is to cross the border and keep an eye out for the Japs. They have been pressing deeper and deeper into China and now there is talk of them in Malaysia. The Crown has asked them to make sure nothing funny goes on.”
The Corporal looked a little uneasy, “You don’t think they will invade the Jewel of the Crown?”
Schultz shifted his weight, “I think they will have their hands full with His Majesties Finest, and if they do make it this far there are fine soldiers like yourself to defend the crown.” Both men smiled for a moment before it was interrupted by one of Schultz’s pseudo lieutenants, “Sir we are ready to move out.” Shultz gave a parting salute as the Corporal watched them roll out.
The roads ended at the Tibetan border. Unlike the modern border it was completely unguarded by both sides. The elevation was extreme, the mountains flanked on either side of the dirt path the convoy was on. The place was like an alien, hostile planet. The landscape was barren and rocky. Cold winds blew down off the frozen peaks a vast difference from the Indian jungle they landed in.
The convoy picked their way through the valleys and pushed into Tibet. The trucks were holding up well enough, the biggest issue was flat or punctured tires on the tracks of herders. Then dirt roads materialized from the wasteland leading north towards the capital Lhasa.
To the northwest of Lhasa lies the Nyainqentanglha Mountains, a range mirroring the Himalaya’s in size and beauty. The southern snowcapped peaks called the Kailas Range could be seen for miles. The tributaries fed Namtso Lake, one of the largest bodies of water in Tibet, surprising a salt water body its name translating as Heavenly Lake or God’s Lake. The waters held a variety of fish the most abundant being carp.
Even though it was easily accessible this is surely what James Hilton pictured when he wrote of Shangri-La. Vast, flat green plains fed by their mountain guardians were supplied with year round water. The four seasons were moderate, rarely experiencing searing summer heat or frigid winter cold in the lower valleys.
An occasional Yak herd was spotted along with the remnants of human encampments. The convoy turned off the dirt track at the base of the Kailas Range. The trucks were driven around a small hill hiding them in the fluke chance there was a passer-by. Several men got out and covered up the tire tracks.
The men checked their gear top to bottom. They changed into their cold weather clothes, donning jackets, multiple socks, gloves, and plastic boot covers. Five men didn’t suit up, they would guard the trucks.
From a few hills over a flare arced into the sky. The 74 men led by Schultz headed in its direction. Waiting for them were two men with two mules, Max Kueble and Bruno Beger. They had departed from the publicly known Ernst Schafer German Tibet Expedition, under the guise they were observing wildlife at Lake Yamzho Yumco.
Max Kueble was an SS officer that worked for the Race and Settlement Office. Outwardly he served as background checker to ensure SS men were marrying racially pure women. Unbeknownst to anyone in the organization Max was a cousin of Himmler and a spy for him.
Himmler made sure Max was on the two previous expeditions to Tibet. The first expedition had heard rumors of a hidden monastery and some strange practices and rituals along with ancient artifacts.
The second expedition had a new Tibetan interpreter and guide, Ananda Dopta who was eager to impress his guests and gain their good favor. Tibet was looking for foreign support in their struggle against Chinese aggressors and needed weapons, the Germans were happy to oblige.
With permission from the local Lama, Ananda took a small group of Germans into the mountains. The structures of the monastery showed overlaps of the ancient Bon religion with both Hindu and Buddhist architecture and practices. The monks shared with the Germans their ancient practices, tapestries, artwork, Sanskrit documents, sand mandala, artifacts and maps.
Max had to hide his enthusiasm as they walked through the gate adorned with a giant swastika. To Max it was a symbol of his beloved Nazi party and affirmed that they had a cultural superiority passed down through the ages. The reality that the swastika has been a symbol of many religions and cultures through the ages with a variety of meanings and representations was conveniently overlooked by the Nazi’s.
Max took detailed notes of everything, focusing on the tapestries and texts. Himmler was convinced Tibet was the origination of the Aryans and Bon being an ancient religion of the region must have connections to it. As the centuries passed, Bon became gradually integrated into Buddhism. With its beginnings in the obscurity of history, Himmler was convinced it had ties to the master race.
Max who had become proficient at interpreting Sanskrit found the stories of the Bhagavad Gita in its simplest, purest form. He found reoccurring accounts describing the sacred chariot that Arjuna and Krishna watched the Battle of Kurukshetra. On a faded papyrus scroll, Max finds a passage that the monks were appointed protectors of Arjuna’s chariot. A prize of the ages, an artifact that could be misrepresented to serve the Nazi cause.
Bruno Beger was Max’s superior officer on paper and to preserve the illusion he was leading this venture. Bruno and Max would lead the soldiers to the monastery and any secrets it held.
They led them into the mountains under worsening conditions. As if Krishna knowing the German’s plan turned nature against them. The wind picked up and the snow began dumping down upon them. Their progress was made numbingly slow.
The path into the mountains allowed only for a single file line. After two hours they had only made it a mile. Max was becoming disoriented in the snow, the peaks all looked the same. Then the soldiers at the rear began shouting.
Schultz stopped the column and marched back to see what the commotion was about. The men were pointing up to the ridge line several hundred feet above them. Schultz raised his binoculars and caught a glimpse of a hairy bipedal creature as it ducked over the far side of the ridge. Bruno was beside him muttering, “Yeti.”
Fear washed over the ranks, men murmured to each other. Schultz ordered them to huddle around him. “We are SS soldiers of the Third Reich. Each of you was hand selected for his loyalty and bravery. I have met neither man nor beast that can survive this.” Schultz drew a Colt pistol and fired at the last location of the Yeti.
The men cheered leaping to their feet. They were emboldened by their leader and pressed on. From the valley below the monastery looked unattainable. It sat on the cliff side thousands of feet up. The glacial cap of the mountain pressed down on the upper most reaches of the monastery.
Schultz ordered a dozen men to guard the bottom of the mountain as the rest climbed. There was a semblance of a footpath for the first five thousand feet. The men struggled with their equipment as loose rock, snow and ice impeded their progress.
The footpath led them onto the spine of the mountain. On either side was a steep slope. The fall may have been survivable if the unlucky person was able to keep themselves from endlessly rolling. The narrow spine became carved vertical stairs for a hundred feet or so, before leveling out beneath a giant overhanging rock. Hand and foot holds were carved straight into its surface.
The most experienced climber went first. He methodically cleared the hand and foot holds of ice and snow. He placed anchors for a safety line stringing it as he went. One by one the soldiers navigated the stairs and under the overhang.
The course eased out again making the next five thousand feet seem easy. The soldiers were fairing moderately in the conditions while Max and Bruno struggled. Even though their bodies were accustomed to the low oxygen, the rigorous climbing coupled with the anxiety of the climb itself was taking a toll on them.
The last five hundred feet was a vertical wall. The men strapped crampons to their boots. They unfurled ropes and laid out carabineers, cams, bolts, ascenders and pulleys. Four free climbers headed up setting the course for the rest.
They hauled the gear up and reformed their ranks on level ground the size of two football fields. They marched up to the gates where they were greeted by a two story talk wooden gate adorned with the swastika. Schultz waved at a soldier, who ran over to the gate and dropped his pack. He began placing explosives and laid out the cable to the blast box and plunger.
The Germans took as much cover as possible and then the explosion came. The wooden gate vanished in a flash of light and sound. Schultz began marching towards it as the cinders were still falling and the remaining wood burned. He marched into the main courtyard and was greeted by a large group of monks.
One came running up yelling and gesturing wildly. Schultz shot him in the head. As soon as he pulled the trigger his men responded with an applause of bullets. They mowed down everyone in sight.
Fire teams worked through the levels clearing out the occupants. Schultz and a small group of soldiers led by Max headed to the upper levels with Bruno in tow. What they found was unexpected. The upper levels were sealed off by walls of ice. Schultz ordered a pair of soldiers with flame throwers to start melting it down and ordered the rest of the soldiers to chisel away with pick and axe.
This left Karl Schreiber to clear out the remaining rooms by himself. Karl was a twenty-five year old army veteran. He enlisted at eighteen and worked his way quickly into German elite units. He spent a year as a paratrooper, another as part of a mountaineering troop. He was given “special leave” so he could go fight on behalf of the Fascists in Spain before being recalled to the Fatherland.
Karl was a soldier but he was a father first, a husband second and a soldier third. Karl kicked a door in and swept his gun across the room. Nothing moved but he could hear shallow breathing. He slowly entered, watching every inch. He pushed aside a hanging blanket revealing five children. One child had suffered burns to his face and head. The boy obviously was in agony but his devotion to their religion allowed him to endure the pain.
They were ordained into the order and spent their entire lives devoted to their practice. Karl looked into their frightened faces and saw his own children. He placed a finger to his mouth and slowly backed away. He closed the door behind him and marked it with a chalked white X.
Back at the upper levels the flame throwers were making progress into the ice. The water was running down the hallways like small streams. The men had cleared a narrow passage and several stories of stairs. They were working on what was becoming an increasingly large room as the ice was removed. As large chunks became separated from the glacier men were pushing them down the corridors into the court yard.
After hours of melting the hall was revealed in most of its grandeur. There was sitting room for over a 100 meditating monks. In front a small raised alter about a foot high where the Lama would sit. Behind it sat two magnificent golden and cooper objects.
For several minutes none of the Germans spoke. Completely awe struck of what they uncovered. Schultz was even caught off guard by the size and beauty of them. They stood 12 feet tall and had a diameter of about 8 feet. They looked like giant upside down vases widest at the base tapering upward eventually reaching a point. Max staggered forward in a trance reaching out to touch one. Bruno stood in the back bewildered by it all.
From his previous trips to the region he could make out Sanskrit symbols decorating a strip around each vase. There were other rings of symbols and writing that Max had never seen them before. He placed his hand on the object and ran his fingers over them.
Schultz approached the other lightly rapping a knuckle on it. The structure reverberated revealing it was hollow on the inside. Schultz turned and signaled to his men. A group came over dropping their packs removing hundreds of metal poles each a foot long. They began assembling them into a cohesive structure with nuts and bolts. Fifteen minutes later they were done with their metal baskets.
Schultz ordered four massive soldiers to each side of the first vase. They hoisted it with ease. The gold and copper must have been hammered razor thin with nothing inside. They placed it down into the basket and the men secured it in place. They repeated the process with the second and then covered both of them.
The next step would be systematically removing the walls to get the vases out. Shape charges were placed throughout the complex to remove any impediment to the objects retrieval. They blew the walls with utter disregard for the history and their structural function.
The strongmen went to collect their claimed prizes as the rest of the soldiers cleared the rubble. Outside the monastery soldiers had already erected a crane that they used to get the heavier supplies up.
Schultz took most of the men and descended the mountain ahead of the vases so they could begin immediate extraction. On the plateau outside the gate, they crated the vases and lowered them down the cliff side. As Schultz, Max, Bruno and a group of soldiers had descended halfway to the valley floor a blood curdling howl echoed off the mountains.
Then Schultz heard screaming from the front of the column. He sprinted ahead to a group of soldiers staring down at the snow. Schultz shoved them aside to see a pool of blood in the blanket of white and a trail of blood leading across the mountain.
Schultz turned to scream for the men to pick up the pace when an even more terrifying sound reigned down upon them. The cracking and crunching of the alpine glacier overhead. The Germans were unaware that all their blasting and melting had weakened the glacier to the point of failure.
The snow and ice were cascading down upon them as they moved down the mountain. At their quickened pace a few men were lost on the dangerous slopes. Nothing compared to the catastrophe that was about to be unleashed. The glacier unfurled an avalanche sweeping away all the men at the rear of the column.
Schultz paused to catch his breath next to a body lying face down in the snow. He flipped him over revealing claw marks across his face and chest. The other soldiers soon crowded around as Shultz walked away he yelled out, “He died for the Fatherland, do you wish to join him?” The soldiers all scurried to keep pace as Schultz pushed on.
When they reached the bottom the second crate was just arriving. The men were rambling about being attacked by a horde of screaming Yeti’s. They were able to fend them off but lost two men. Schultz knew that the human cost was inconsequential to the artifacts.
He had the men put poles through the crate to carry them to the trucks. The snow paused for a moment as it made way for a new falling object. A body came down at such speed it killed the man it landed on instantly. From the monastery above screams came cascading down. Then another object came down. The flame thrower tank hit the ground and exploded. Three nearby men caught on fire and dropped to the snow.
Schultz had seen enough. He ordered six men to carry each crate and the rest to cover them. He looked around for the civilians but only found Bruno. In the haste to get down the mountain Max had lagged behind.
The hike back to the trucks was uneventful. Schultz had a new problem Max was part of the actual expedition team and the Tibetan hosts would surely notice a missing man when Bruno returned. He found a soldier that closely resembled Max, ordered him to take a truck, get Bruno back to Lhasa and take Max’s place on the expedition. He saluted and left with his new orders.
They loaded up the crates and remaining men heading south back to India. Schultz settled into the front seat of the lead truck. He felt defeated, losing two-thirds of his men was never part of the plan. He snapped himself back to reality, it was a mission they all knew the risks. As long as they got the two artifacts back to Germany they would all be heroes, the living and the dead.
Two days after leaving the monastery the convoy pulled into the port of Haldia. An Italian freighter was being loaded at the docks. The soldiers loaded the crates and then boarded the ship to act as security.
40 days later the freighter pulled into Hamburg. The precious cargo was unloaded and Shultz and his men had finally completed their mission. A few months later the main expedition returned home to a hero’s welcome, greeted by Heinrich Himmler.