Chapter 11 : Fireworks at Stalag 13
Fireworks at Stalag 13
“And then, he pulled the bow out of my hands, and fiouuu… boom! On the first try!” young Sergeant Carter exclaimed as he mimed the explosion, completely forgetting who he was addressing. Then again, Captain Lackey seemed more amused than annoyed, listening with interest to the American’s animated narration.
As for Kinch, he was still concentrating on his radio. If everything had gone well, the colonel’s message should be coming any time now. And actually…
“There it is!” he told Lackey and Carter, interrupting the young man in the middle of his story.
“Schultz is on the line with Klink,” the American went on. “It seems that General Eberhart has vanished… that’s the signal.”
“Then it’s my turn to play,” Carter said, slipping the stick of dynamite into his jacket before grabbing the ladder to exit the tunnel.
“Be careful!” Kinch called after him, before the bunk closed again on the entrance to the tunnel.
“Okay,” Hogan whispered into the back of the truck as they listened to Schultz bellowing his panic into the walkie-talkie. “It’s up to Carter now.”
“I hope he’s not going to do anything stupid again, or worse, that he doesn’t get himself captured,” murmured Lebeau, who, sitting nearby, had his fingers crossed and was saying a silent prayer. “And if the package wakes up? Have you got a plan?”
“No,” the colonel said honestly without the least trace of concern marring the calm in his voice.
The Frenchman threw him a grim look but didn’t say anything. It wasn’t the first time they had let luck decide their future. And strangely, luck had often been on their side. So, why worry?
Newkirk was seated in the bottom of the truck. After making sure that none of the Germans were looking inside the vehicle, he pressed his ear to the wooden wall.
“Not budging at all,” he reassured his companion. “He’s nowhere close to wakin’ up if you want my opinion.”
A fake wall. Leaving a space just big enough to stash an adult-sized body. And it was exactly with that perspective that he had been loaded inside. After all, if the Germans let their enemies handle the repairs to their military vehicles, the enemies in question had every right to make a few modifications.
While feigning interest in the card game that was going on at his feet, not far from the entrance to the cooler, Jones was watching the closest barracks out of the corner of his eye. When he saw Carter sliding nonchalantly along with his back to the wall of the building, he knew that it was up to him.
“Hey!” he called, loud enough for the guards who were watching the cells to hear. “You had a two, not a king!”
The volunteer cheater, an American soldier, presented to be caught red-handed, attracting the ire of his English adversary who stood up and readied his fists.
“Cheater!” he accused, approaching dangerously close, attracting more and more attention towards their little group.
The soldier accused of cheating stood up to protect himself from the right hook that was thrown, avoiding it in the nick of time. He returned the punch, catching the Englishman in the stomach.
Jones tried (without the slightest conviction) to separate them and took a punch himself, his right hand immediately taking on a red hue. To put on a convincing fight, it had to look like the punches were for real. And they were.
Very quickly, the other prisoners began to join the fight, obliging the Gestapo guards to intervene.
Andrew made sure that the all Luftwaffe men up in the guard towers had their gazes fixed on the all-out brawl, and also that those of the Gestapo were sufficiently distracted from the cooler. The young American wiped his damp hands on his pants and swallowed hard, the fear of failure gripping his insides. At the moment, everything rested on his success. He picked up the bow which he had put against the wall behind his back and took an arrow out of his jacket. He had hooked the dynamite on, hoping that the weight of the object wouldn’t make him lose control of his aim. In an instant, the string, stretched to the maximum, was released and the lighted projectile took flight.
Jones had already pushed the group of intermingled prisoners out of his line of fire.
The arrow flew directly towards its target. All his practicing had finally paid off. A Luftwaffe soldier, on the run on his way to break up the fight, nearly interrupted the arrow’s course, but it passed as if by some miracle just behind his back.
The elongated shaft of wood flew into the cooler window and in an instant, everything was over.
The explosion was more violent than had been anticipated. Lebeau had placed several explosives in the crates when he had unloaded part of the contents, and the chain reaction begun by the explosion of the stick of dynamite made the whole camp shake. German soldiers and Allies alike threw themselves on the ground, covering their heads with their hands to protect themselves from the debris.
Carter didn’t have the time to admire his work; he returned to the barracks to get rid of the weapon.
After the shock of the explosion, the men got to their feet to evaluate the damage, either with satisfaction or horror, whichever side they happened to be on. There was nothing left. No more dossiers, no more films, but most of all, no more cooler…
Yes, the explosion had been a bit stronger than anticipated. And the men had all been very lucky not to have had any of the cement blocks that now covered Stalag 13 fall on their heads.
When Klink arrived at the scene, he opened his mouth several times without any sound coming out, stood perfectly still for another instant in front of the destruction, and then returned calmly to his office as if it had all been a dream from which he would soon awaken…
Schnell, schnell ! Into the barracks!”
“Take it easy, Schultz, it’s not every day we can see something like that,” Colonel Hogan smiled as he passed through the door.
“Oh, Colonel Hogan, tell me that you had nothing to do with it. Please. First of all the general who disappeared and now… this.”
“Too bad that we missed the fireworks.”
“Hogan…” implored the German, his eyes beginning to fill with tears.
“I had nothing to do with it, Schulz,” the American reassured him, before adding with a smile:
“If that’s what you want to hear.”
“Hey, Schultzie! We could get in a lot easier if you weren’t blockin’ the door.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, Newkirk. But you can’t keep these tools in the barracks. It’s against regulations.”
Newkirk and Lebeau were transporting a heavy load rolled up in a tarp from which seemed to vaguely resemble a human silhouette. One of the men from Barracks 2 came to their assistance to carry the package, which appeared to weigh much more than it should have.
“We have to keep the tools for now,” Hogan intervened.
“Why?” the fat sergeant failed to understand.
“Well, first of all because the tools are dirty and it’s our duty to clean them before putting them away, and also because we’re confined to the barracks.”
“That’s true… but promise me that you won’t use them to dig any tunnels.”
“Of course we won’t. Why would we be digging any tunnels? We already have plenty,” the colonel replied, pushing the sergeant outside the barracks.
“Hogan…” the German groaned, “Tell me nothing. I know nothing.”
The door closed on the German before he had the time to protest, and the colonel turned immediately towards his men to give them their instructions.
“Take the package down into the tunnel and tie it up good. Kinch, the explosion didn’t do too much damage?”
“Everything we had underneath the cooler is caved in, and most of the tunnels that lead to it are unstable,” the American sergeant replied as he opened the passageway situated underneath the bunk. “The emergency tunnel seems to be intact.”
“At least the Germans aren’t likely to come across any of our tunnels while cleaning up that mess,” Lebeau remarked, helping to slide ‘the package’ as best he could across the ground.
Olsen came to give them a hand to get the package down into the tunnel, dropping it without too much care into Kinch’s arms as he waited below.
“That must have been some explosion!” Newkirk said happily as he came up to Carter, who had been sitting wordlessly at the table since their return. “Well then, mate, you should be happy,” he said as he gave him a pat on the back.
No answer. Which when it came to Carter was rather alarming, he who was incapable of staying silent more than a few minutes.
“What’s the matter, Andrew?” asked the Englishman with concern, attracting a few intrigued looks in their direction from all the men in the barracks. “Our hard work paid off, didn’t it? The little deer running in the forest finally found Robin Hood.”
“That isn’t it,” the American groaned.
“Then what is it?”
Carter lifted his sad eyes towards his friend and said:
“It’s that… I didn’t even get to see the explosion…”
The Gestapo general had finally awoken, bound and gagged in a tunnel that he immediately linked to the prisoners of Stalag 13. He never would have thought that Major Hochstetter could have been so right about the underground activities of Colonel Hogan and his men. Such an infrastructure under a prison camp, such an organization, it appeared to be impossible. And yet…
His gaze rested on the two men who were talking next to what appeared to be a long-range radio. The general had stopped struggling a moment after having figured out that it would only serve to aggravate the pain in his head, and satisfied himself to watch the comings and goings of the ‘prisoners’. They weren’t going to be able to keep him there forever, in any case. All the German soldiers in the area would be out there looking for him. But that reality didn’t seem to visibly concern the American colonel who kept speaking calmly with his second-in-command.
“The submarine will be ready in two days. I already contacted the Underground; they’ve recovered the documents and the films that you left this morning but it’ll be impossible for them to get back to the rendez-vous point with all those Krauts out there looking for their general.”
“Don’t worry about that, Kinch. We just need Klink to call back his own men. That’ll only leave the ones from the Gestapo, which should leave us enough of an opening to be able to meet up with the Underground and give the general over to them to take care of,” Hogan explained.
“Klink’s going to recall his men? Why?” asked Kinch with a raised eyebrow.
“Because I’m going to ask him to.”
Eberhart frowned as he heard the colonel’s words and felt a cold feeling pass through his body. That American was the embodiment of the devil.
Hogan had been convinced that Colonel Klink would eventually summon him, which was what he always did when things were out of control. He was therefore not surprised when Schultz came looking for him, just before dinner.
The pleasure of seeing the Germans scrambling around what was left of the cooler was equal only to the sight of Klink in the state he was in. The poor commandant was pacing in his office, incapable of concentrating, convinced that some big shot was about to arrive from Berlin, bringing him a one-way ticket to the Eastern Front. Or worse. In the same day, he had succeeded in losing a shipment destined for the High Command, a whole building, and a general.
“Everything okay, Colonel?”
The American’s sudden interest in the German was ostensibly diminished by the amused smile that he had on his face.
Klink dismissed Schultz with a wave of his hand and sat down at his desk, running his hand nervously over what remained of his hair.
“Hogan, I’m finished.”
The American swallowed his smile as best he could and sat down facing Klink, in the process helping himself to the box of cigars. He slipped three into his jacket without Klink saying a word, which showed to what point the poor man had been affected by all the catastrophes that had recently befallen him.
“Come on, Colonel. You don’t have to work yourself up into such a state. You haven’t done anything wrong, after all.”
“Nothing… you’re mocking me, Hogan! The general, the cooler… actually everything that’s happened. You call that nothing ?”
“No. I only said that you didn’t have anything to do with those… unfortunate events.”
“Do you think they’re related somehow?”
“That seems obvious. How about a schnapps?” Hogan suggested, filling up two glasses without waiting for the response.
He held one out to the camp commandant who emptied it in a single gulp, and saved the other one to savor it with as much pleasure as he was savoring this conversation.
“So the people who took General Eberhart might have also blown up the cooler…” the German colonel mused out loud.
Hogan sighed as he listened to Klink’s theory, which was actually right on the nose, and shook his head slowly.
“Oh, the Gestapo… they’re good, if even the invincible Iron Eagle falls into their trap…”
Klink’s eyes opened so wide that his monocle fell out.
“A trap? By the Gestapo?” he repeated.
“Not just by the Gestapo, but by Eberhart. It seems obvious.”
“The general would have… noooo. It’s impossible,” Klink laughed, waving the idea away with a motion of his hand. But when the idea began to build in his mind, a look of horror twisted his face. He leaned across his desk to get closer to Hogan and murmured as if he were afraid of being overheard by a curious ear. Which was far from being an unfounded fear, since Hogan’s men were probably sitting around their coffee pot/receiver, listening with rapt attention to the exchange between their superior and the camp commandant.
“What should I do?”
“Well,” Hogan began, pouring another glass of schnapps, “you could tell all your suspicions to General Burkhalter, have Eberhart arrested if you can get your hands on him, and get all the glory, but it’s risky… the Gestapo might want to hush up the whole thing. And you along with it.”
Colonel Klink paled at that remark but didn’t make any comment, letting Hogan finish.
“Or you could let the Gestapo fix the problem. After all, it’s their general, their cargo.”
“Their general, yes,” Klink agreed, as if hypnotized by the American’s words. “But what can I tell Berlin if they ask me about the general?”
“Just that you did your duty. Your guards were watching over the security of the camp, especially since the attack, but the Gestapo men haven’t even been able to prevent a building they were supposed to be guarding from blowing up.”
The commandant nodded his head and slightly knit his eyebrows as an idea came to him:
“There was a fight amongst your men and the guards were distracted for a moment. Hogan, if that was some sort of diversion…” he warned.
“Come on, Colonel, have you ever seen any of the prisoners walking around this camp with explosives? That’s crazy,” Hogan pressed.
“You’re right. I wonder why I even thought it. It’s ridiculous. A prisoner with explosives. In my stalag! Unthinkable.”
“Okay, I’ll leave you alone. You have a few phone calls to make to call your men back in. I wouldn’t want to disturb you,” Colonel Hogan told him as he got up from his chair and headed for the door.
Once again, the Iron Eagle had been manipulated by the hand of the master.
“You think I should wake him up?” asked Lebeau while he served his casserole, filling the bowls held out by his companions.
Hogan glanced in the direction of Newkirk’s bunk. The Englishman had stretched out on his mattress a little while after the American had returned from Klink’s office and hadn’t moved since. The light snoring that rose from his bunk proved that he was deeply asleep, not disturbed in the slightest by the activity that continued around him, or by the strong aroma of cooking that perfumed the barracks. These last few days had completely exhausted him.
The colonel stood up with the intention of asking the Englishman if he was hungry, leaning against the lower bunk to reach the one on top, but he stopped when he saw the corporal’s face. Newkirk was far from having the peaceful expression of deep sleep. His eyebrows were tense, his eyes twitched behind his closed eyelids, and his breathing was too fast. He appeared to be in the midst of a nightmare.
Hogan rested a hand on the corporal’s shoulder, without really knowing if he should be reassuring him or waking him. At the gentle touch, Newkirk calmed down almost instantaneously, falling into a sleep that would hopefully be less terrifying and more restorative. Hogan hadn’t noticed it before, but Newkirk hadn’t even taken the trouble to remove his uniform. He had to be more exhausted than he’d let on.
With the nightmare passed, and not having the heart to wrench the Englishman from the arms of Morpheus, the colonel satisfied himself by simply pulling the blanket up to his shoulders before returning to the table along with the other prisoners, who hadn’t failed to notice the worry lines that creased his forehead.