Chapter 3 : Show time
It was still early; the sun had hardly broken over the horizon. But already, most of the men of Barracks Two were awake and in uniform.
“There they are!” Corporal Louis Lebeau exclaimed, his eyes riveted to the eyepiece of their industrial periscope. The lens, camouflaged in a barrel of water outside, had a direct view of the entrance of the camp. Two trucks had just passed the gates, stopping in front of Colonel Klink, who was waiting for them steadfastly. The commandant seemed to be fidgeting with impatience, but to the casual eye it was mostly with apprehension that he was trembling. He didn’t like the Gestapo much, like any other sane man. And his guest wasn’t just any Gestapo officer, but a general, no less.
“What are they doing?” asked Kinch, who stood with his back to the barracks door to prevent any unwelcome intrusions.
“This Bosch seems like a big shot. I’d almost be sorry for Klink. Although, we could be sorry for this general too. I’m sure Klink is about to give him the usual nonsense.”
“Welcome to Stalag 13,” Carter translated. “The most secure stalag in all of Germany. Never a single escape.”
“If he only knew, the silly sod,” Newkirk commented, seated on his bunk.
“And the cargo?” Hogan pressed. “Can you see what it is?”
“No. There are two trucks and a bunch of new and not very friendly faces, all armed to the teeth. Hey, they’re getting out. Going in the direction of the cooler, it looks like. And Schultz is coming this way!”
At that, Lebeau lowered the eyepiece of the periscope which again took on its innocent camouflage as the faucets in the sink.
The prisoners immediately took different positions around the room, picking up a book or a cup of coffee to fool the enemy about what they had actually been doing. The enemy in question, Sergeant Schultz, opened the door briskly and shouted out his orders:
“Roll call! Raus! Everybody on your feet!”
He stopped short at the threshold of the barracks as he realized that the men were already up and ready for roll call.
“A coffee, Schultz?” Lebeau politely suggested, holding out a cup to him.
“Oh, that’s very nice,” the big man replied in kind, before catching himself. “Now is not the time for coffee! Raus! Schnell, schnell, schnell!”
“You don’t have to shout, Schultz,” Newkirk chided him as he climbed down from his perch. “You can see perfectly well everybody’s ready.”
“That’s right, Schultz; relax,” Carter added, passing in front of the fat sergeant to leave the barracks, closely followed by his companions.
As Colonel Hogan, following his men, passed the door, Schultz took him by the arm.
“Colonel Hogan, why are they so ready to go out today? You aren’t planning any funny business?” asked the German with suspicion.
The American gave him his best smile and had the pleasure of answering him honestly.
“Well, if you really want to know, Sergeant, we’d been thinking…”
“No, no, no!” Schultz cut him off briskly, his fear of the consequences that one of their pranks could have on his career and also on his life easily read on his face. “I don’t want to know anything about it. I know nothing. I see nothing. I hear nothing.”
“It’s your call,” the colonel answered simply, shrugging his shoulders.
The men of Barracks Two remained silent and motionless while Schultz counted them, which in itself was out of the ordinary enough to be noticed. Colonel Hogan and his team, who were often the source of trouble in the ranks, were attentively observing the crates that were being unloaded from the Gestapo truck and then brought to the cooler. After all, there was no place more secure than a prison. If one omitted the tunnels dug by the prisoners of the stalag which led directly to several of the solitary confinement cells…
“It’s impossible to know what’s in those crates,” Hogan murmured.
“If you like, guv’nor, I’ll volunteer for the cooler,” Newkirk, who stood at his left, proposed.
Hogan lifted an eyebrow. The offer was logical; it was the only way to verify the contents of those crates. To use the tunnels would be too risky with all those Germans inside the building. But what surprised the senior POW was the sudden enthusiasm with which Newkirk presented himself as a volunteer. He was never a willing volunteer, balking nearly every time Hogan assigned him to a mission. It was almost only for show, but it was still a significant difference from this sudden desire of the corporal’s to wind up in a cell.
Of course, thought Hogan. Once he’s inside those four walls, he won’t have to worry about running into Lackey.
“Okay,” he acquiesced finally. “It’s your show, Newkirk.”
Klink came out of his office to listen to the report from his sergeant, accompanied by the Gestapo general. Schultz saluted his superior before making his report.
“All present, Herr Kommandant!”
“Very good, Schultz. And also ahead of what I can see for myself.”
And it’s showtime, Newkirk thought to himself before calling out, in response to the commandant’s remark, “We couldn’t have waited a moment longer to see your radiant smile, Colonel.”
“Humpf…” Klink grumbled as he advanced toward the prisoners. But he was stopped by General Eberhart of the Gestapo.
“If I may.”
The question sounded like an order, and the general stepped in front of Klink to position himself in front of the English corporal.
“It seems you like to be noticed,” he said, examining with disgust Newkirk’s somewhat neglected clothing.
This last made Newkirk suppress a shiver as he met the cold gaze of the German. This was not the time to be afraid. After all, it was only the Gestapo. And he had a mission to accomplish. And so he didn’t respond to the general’s remark, who took that as a personal victory and grimaced some semblance of a smile before starting to head back to Klink’s office. Until he heard the laughter of the prisoners rising behind him and he saw Klink’s face fall.
He turned around immediately and couldn’t help the red flush that came over his face when he saw the corporal who had just returned to his place in the ranks in the process of juggling with a dagger. He instinctively moved his hand to his belt. With his dagger!
The prisoner tossed him a look of defiance without displaying the slightest difficulty in keeping the weapon in perfect balance on his index finger, whether on the handle or on the pointed blade, offering a very diverting spectacle to his comrades. The general clenched his fists and took a step in the direction of the Englishman, but he was stopped short by the blade of his weapon which had just plunged into the ground, a few centimeters away from his foot. And the Englishman kept smiling at him, as if he had nothing whatsoever to fear from him.
That was the last straw. He tore his dagger from the ground and lunged towards the Englishman who, to his great pleasure, unconsciously took a few paces backward to protect himself from the general, an expression of worry replacing mockery on his face.
Newkirk didn’t even have time to understand what had happened when he found himself already on the ground, lying on his back, one knee pressed brutally against his chest and one burning hand encircling his throat, preventing him from breathing. The blade of the dagger with which he had been amusing himself a few moments earlier was at present so close to his eye that he could almost feel the coldness of the metal.
He tried to throw the German off him, to break his hold, but the harder he tried to get loose, the less he was able to breathe.
“Losing an eye may relieve you of the desire to laugh, once and for all.”
The threat made the Englishman tremble; he was now barely struggling. The world around him was beginning to become dangerously blurry… and then, the air was flowing into his lungs once more, and the weight on his chest disappeared. Friendly hands were helping him to his feet, gently rubbing his back while he coughed painfully.
Once his coughing had subsided, it didn’t take long for him to realize what had happened. Colonel Hogan must have thrown the general off; the German was now looking at the senior POW with a vicious glare. And the colonel had also, in the process, recovered the dagger.
“General Eberhart, you’re not hurt?” Klink ran up in a panic.
Hogan returned the weapon to the Gestapo general and turned his back, thus offering him total indifference, to verify that Newkirk wasn’t badly hurt. It reassured him to see his men putting the corporal back on his feet. For an instant, he had really believed that the nutcase had indeed planted that knife in his eye.
“I’m all right, guv’nor,” the Englishman reassured him, his voice still a bit hoarse.
“I want that man punished for his behavior, Klink,” ordered General Eberhart, who had begun to recover some semblance of getting a hold of his emotions.
“Of course, General,” the commandant of the camp obeyed. “Colonel Hogan, accompany the corporal to my office.”
“Corporal,” the commandant sighed as he seated himself at his desk. “Do you have anything to say with respect to your behavior?”
“Uh, no, Colonel. In fact I’d really like a glass of water if it’s not too much to ask,” Newkirk replied, rubbing his throat.
Klink’s exasperated look passed from the impertinent corporal to Colonel Hogan, who stood at his side.
“As for you, Colonel, you’re lucky that General Eberhart doesn’t hold you responsible for your actions.”
“I hardly nudged him. He shouldn’t have gone after one of my men,” Hogan replied calmly.
“Well, tomorrow morning, it won’t be a problem anymore. They’ll be leaving before breakfast.”
At these words, Hogan turned towards Newkirk and saw that his companion was thinking exactly the same thing as he. They had very little time to discover what was in those crates and develop a plan worthy of the term to accomplish the mission assigned to them by London. They were going to have to cut it close.
“To provoke a general, and even worse, a Gestapo general… what in the world were you thinking, Newkirk?” the commandant tried to understand, using all the patience of which he was capable, certainly believing that the English corporal must have lost his mind.
When he didn’t respond, Klink added:
“We’re used to seeing you play with fire since you were transferred to Stalag 13, Corporal, but I was under the impression that you were settling in a bit since then.”
“He was only trying to impress his buddies. You don’t have to punish him too harshly for that,” Hogan intervened, placing a paternal hand on the Englishman’s shoulder to underscore his words. “Sending him to the cooler is too cruel. He won’t do it again,” the American colonel promised.
“Oh, so that’s it; a little slap on the wrist and all is forgotten,” said the commandant, pretending to enter into the senior POW’s game without understanding that he was headed in the exact direction that Hogan wanted to go.
“Fifteen days in the cooler. And not a day less!” he added quickly just as the American opened his mouth to protest. “Schuuuultz!”
The sergeant entered the office immediately as soon as he heard the commandant’s call.
“Ja, Herr Kommandant!”
“Take Newkirk to the cooler.”
“Jawohl,” Schultz acknowledged, gently taking the English corporal’s arm to guide him to the solitary confinement cells.
“And Schultz,” Klink added, “get him some water.”
That indication of caring touched Hogan. He wasn’t used to seeing the German colonel show any compassion unless he had been forced into it. General Eberhart’s reaction must have really rattled him. He had stuck to his guns; he didn’t appreciate it when a stranger, not even a general, came into his camp and abused his prisoners.
Colonel Hogan took the time to chat up Klink’s secretary, Hilda, before leaving the commandant’s office, flirting more or less innocently with the young woman.
When he walked out into the fresh air, he noticed immediately that something was wrong. Schultz was in the process of taking Newkirk out of the cooler, although he should logically have been putting him in there. According to the plan, at any rate. The U.S. Air Corps colonel quickly understood the reason when he noticed that General Eberhart was right behind them, visibly angry.
“No one comes in here; is that understood, Sergeant!”
“Jawohl, General. But Colonel Klink…”
“I don’t give a damn about Colonel Klink.”
Noticing that Hogan was looking in their direction, Newkirk gave him the high sign, discreetly raising his thumb to let him know that he had had the time to take a glimpse of the Gestapo’s precious cargo. Hogan nodded. That would kill two birds with one stone: they would know what was in those crates that were so important to London, and Newkirk wouldn’t have to stay locked up. Even if it had been the Englishman’s idea in the first place, Hogan knew that he, more than any of the others, had a hard time tolerating being locked up.
Unfortunately, the Gestapo general wasn’t thinking along those same lines.
“There aren’t any other ways to punish prisoners here?” he demanded of Schultz, who lifted his eyes to the sky, looking into his memory to find any other punishments that had been inflicted on the prisoners. They usually had something to do with suspension of privileges, but that generally affected the entire prison population. When an offense had been committed by just one man, the rule was to take him to the cooler.
“I wonder if the reputation of this stalag is not overestimated,” grumbled Eberhart, whose gaze, attracted by something inside the cooler, suddenly took on a worrisome sparkle.
“Here,” he said, taking hold of one of the chains that hung from the wall, brandishing it proudly in front of the guard and his prisoner. “Bring him over here,” he added as he approached one of the small openings of the cooler, passing the chain around the bars at the window.
Reluctantly, Schultz pushed Newkirk toward the general who was obviously waiting for the prisoner to offer his wrists to be lashed together.
You can always run, pal, thought Newkirk, faking incomprehension even as his blood had begun to boil at the idea of being displayed in the middle of the camp like an animal at the fair. He could see from the corner of his eye several of his companions watching the scene, most of them already beginning to raise a protest. He saw Lebeau and Carter advancing towards them, but a sign from their colonel dissuaded them; then the colonel himself stepped up to Schultz.
“What’s going on here?” Hogan intervened, obviously already having understood perfectly well what the German general intended to do. “You don’t have any right to chain this man here.”
“No? Who says so?” he mocked.
There was no adequate response to that question. He would have been able to invoke the Geneva Convention, but Eberhart wasn’t Klink. The Gestapo wasn’t concerned with the protection of enemy prisoners.
Newkirk could see the colonel’s anger mounting, his features tense and a savage fire in his dark eyes. He knew very well that Hogan was torn between the need to trample the Nazi’s dominating pride, and the necessity of keeping a low profile. This wasn’t easy for a man who placed the well-being of his men above anything else, and the Englishman knew that very well.
“Let it go, guv’nor. I don’t want to give this man the satisfaction… obviously he needs some entertainment.”
At that, without paying any mind either to the hateful stare of the general nor the concerned look of his colonel, Newkirk held out his wrists to the German, who clamped the cuffs on with a pleasure tainted with sadism.
“A day and a night should suffice as a lesson, Corporal.”
The Englishman immediately tested the length of the chains to check the range of mobility, and the result really wasn’t very encouraging.
“He can’t even sit down like that!” Hogan protested. “You could at least lengthen the chain a little.”
At everyone’s surprise, the general seemed to do as the colonel asked. At least, that was what he thought until the German further reduced the length of the bonds, obliging the Englishman to remain standing against the wall, not permitting any freedom of movement whatsoever.
For the third time in less than a half hour, Hogan had to restrain himself from punching Eberhart in the nose. And it was hard.
“Sergeant Kramer!” the general called, immediately attracting the attention of the Gestapo soldiers who were guarding the entrance of the cooler. “I want you to watch this prisoner. Don’t allow anyone to come within three meters of him, is that understood?”
“Jawohl, Herr General!” the Gestapo sergeant responded, saluting him and immediately turning his rifle in Hogan’s direction.
He glared in the soldier’s direction but did what was expected of him, moving away from the cooler and from Newkirk at the same time, his silent apology receiving a reassuring smile from the RAF corporal in reponse.
He immediately noticed the fire that was burning in Lebeau’s eyes, but the French corporal didn’t say a word. Sergeant Carter didn’t have that kind of restraint.
“Why did you let him do that, Colonel?” he asked, unable to understand, nearly beside himself.
“You think I had a choice?” Hogan snapped without intending to, immediately regretting the tone he had taken.
He lightly tapped the sergeant’s head by way of apology, and signaled to his men to follow him into the barracks. They needed to come up with a plan, fast. And while Newkirk didn’t seem too troubled by the fact that he was chained in full view of everyone, like an animal, he knew how humiliating that had to be for him. And to stay and watch couldn’t help but add to the humiliation.