Chapter 5 : A night full of surprises
A Night Full of Surprises
Hogan knew that it was risky to leave the camp while the presence of a general, and one from the Gestapo no less, risked pushing Klink to overzealousness. On top of that, this time the vast majority of the men of Barracks Two accompanied the colonel’s team. Ten men. Difficult to be discreet in such large numbers, but this time the speed of the operation took priority over everything else.
Sergeant Kinchloe had stayed at the camp to oversee the activity of the Germans, hoping to be able to warn the outside team in time if a nocturnal visit from their commandant seemed to be on the horizon.
The American colonel and his men didn’t have far to go. They split up into two groups to be more efficient, each team covering one of the roads leading to Stalag 13. Hogan’s team included Carter, Lebeau, Olsen and Jones. He left the command of the other team to Captain Lackey.
While Carter placed his ‘noisemakers’ along the side of the road, the other men of his team set about using shovels and picks to render the road as impassable as possible. All the while knowing very well that they would have to repair the damage themselves. After all, why should the Germans tire themselves out, with a prison camp full of men to use as a work crew so nearby?
They needed no more than two hours and a lot of sweat to complete the operation. Hogan had feared that the nocturnal passage of some vehicle would put their plan in jeopardy, but they didn’t see a single car. Fortunately! If they wanted to pass their work off as the result of an Allied bombing, it would be better if nobody saw it before the explosions were heard.
The result was more than satisfactory. Even a motorcycle would have had trouble crossing what now resembled a minefield.
“Carter, did you set the timer?”
“Yes, Colonel. It should blow in forty-five minutes.”
“Well, that leaves us just enough time to return to camp. Lackey should have finished his part; he should meet up with us near the entrance of the emergency tunnel. Don’t leave anything behind. The Allies rarely drop shovels instead of bombs.”
A series of explosions rang out in the air, but Newkirk didn’t even lift his eyes to try and spot the Allied aircraft. Instead, his gaze was focused in the direction of Barracks 2. The timing was too perfect; it could only be something to do with one of the colonel’s plans.
The Englishman had to suppress a smile when he saw Klink exit his quarters in terror, very quickly joined by General Eberhart who, unlike the commandant of the camp wrapped in his bathrobe, had taken the time to put on his uniform. The two men peered anxiously into the shadows, trying to estimate the distance that separated them from the Allied bombs.
As for Schultz, he didn’t appear until any trace of danger had passed and the silence of the night had fallen again on the camp.
“Schultz! An attack! Where have you been, you fat imbecile?” snapped Colonel Klink.
“I came as quickly as possible, Kommandant!” replied the German sergeant, knowing very well that his superior wouldn’t believe him. He himself very often had trouble convincing himself of his own sense of duty.
“And then, Colonel,” Schultz added in a small voice, “I don’t very well see what I could have done against those bombers.”
Klink shot his sergeant a look before remarking in an acerbic tone, “You could have stood still in the middle of the camp. Seeing you, the British would surely have taken pity on us.”
Eberhart cut short the dispute about which he was completely disinterested, putting his finger on a rather important point. “There is no strategic installation in this vicinity… what could they have been aiming for?”
“The railroad, probably,” Klink replied, proud to be able to be useful to the general’s musings.
The general in question didn’t even give him a look, and murmured an unconvinced ‘possibly’ while turning in the direction of the prisoner he had chained to the wall of the cooler. A prisoner who gave him a little wave of his hand while smiling broadly at him.
Eberhart scowled in return. That Englishman really got under his skin and he didn’t know how long he would be able to put up with his impertinent expression before wringing his neck once and for all. Fortunately, he was leaving for Berlin in the morning.
The explosions rang out at the moment that Hogan and his men were returning to the barracks.
“That was close,” Lebeau remarked.
“Very close,” the colonel agreed, before turning toward Carter who was washing his face, still covered in black wax. “Carter? You’re sure you set that timer for forty minutes?”
“Yes, Colonel. Well… with that type of homemade timer, you can have a few minutes’ delay.”
“Twenty minutes is a lot,” Lebeau commented, throwing him a grim look. “The next time, be a little more accurate. Most of all when it has to do with real explosive charges.”
“There wasn’t any danger,” Carter claimed.
“This time,” the Frenchman retorted.
“That’s enough, you two,” Hogan interrupted them. “We’ve all done our best tonight. Get some sleep.”
The fatigue from all the work they’d accomplished during the course of the night was making his men irritable. But what weighed the most on their morale, as on his own, was the absence of one of their own. None of them doubted that Newkirk would have difficulty getting any rest.
“Colonel!” inserted Kinch, who had just come up from the tunnel, interrupting his thoughts. “I finally got through to London. I reported what Newkirk saw and they confirmed that the shipment is definitely what they thought it was.”
His sergeant’s serious expression indicated to Hogan that he had received important information. He urged him to continue with a nod of his head.
“The unit where Eberhart was based on the French front was charged with collecting information on the Resistance. And we know all the Gestapo’s methods for extracting information…”
“You mean the dossiers, those names Newkirk was talking about, are actually lists?”
“Yes, Colonel. Lists of information about the Resistance.”
“We can’t let them get those documents to Berlin!” Lebeau insisted.
“Don’t worry, Louis,” Hogan told him, patting his shoulder. “In one way, we’re lucky.” In answer to the Frenchman’s concerned expression, he added, “They would have been able to transmit that information to the Vichy government… their lack of confidence is going to play out in our favor.”
“And the films?” Carter put in. “What are they exactly?”
Hogan, like Lebeau, anticipated the response but he preferred to hear it directly from Kinch’s mouth.
“They’re recordings of… interrogations.”
Newkirk shivered. He was beginning to get cold. Although it was late in the spring, the nights were still cool. Schultz had come by to pay him a visit after the end of the ‘bombing’ to leave him a blanket ‘on the commandant’s orders’. That was so like the German sergeant, to worry about the health of an enemy soldier. On the other hand, he doubted that the order had really come from Klink. To lie like that to a Gestapo man, little Schultzie was coming up slowly but surely in the Englishman’s estimation.
Although, even with a blanket over his back, he wasn’t likely to fall asleep. Not standing up. And how he had tried! But after a whole day, his legs had begun to hurt and when he closed his eyes, the only thing that came to him was pain.
It was time to take things in hand. The guard wasn’t really watching him. His first guardian had been replaced by another for the night, and this one, having the impression that a chained prisoner didn’t present any risk of escaping, only turned rarely in his direction to verify that he was still there. He was not counting on the Englishman’s talents.
Reaching up to his neck with his chained hands, Newkirk succeeded after a few ineffective attempts to grasp a metal wire that he kept hidden in the lining of the collar of his jacket. He twisted it lightly to make a small hook. Pretending to press himself against the bars of the window to ease the pain in his legs, the Englishman discreetly set himself to his task, while keeping a close eye on the guard.
The metal hook slid into the lock that held the chain around the bars, guided by his skilled hands. No lock could hold out on him for long, and this one was no exception. In less than a minute the click was heard.
The guard didn’t react, confirming Newkirk’s suspicions. He had probably fallen asleep. So much the better. Trying to make the least amount of noise possible, the Englishman slipped the chain around the bars to give it a little more length. Then he replaced the lock.
Neither seen nor known, he thought, proud of himself as he sat down on the ground, his back against the cold wall of the cooler. The clanking of the chain caused by the motion seemed to wake the guard who turned in the direction of the prisoner, and he looked at him with disbelief. He had been under the impression that the Englishman had been restrained to the point of having to remain standing. To be on the safe side, he approached and pulled on the chain. The lock was still there, the prisoner had no way of escaping. The German threw a fresh look of defiance at the Englishman, but he hadn’t at first glance done anything wrong. The guard returned to his post, keeping one eye on the prisoner, just in case.
Newkirk was amused by the reaction of the German and closed his eyes, bundling up as best he could under his blanket. In spite of the chilliness of the night and the hardness of the ground, it didn’t take him very long to drift off to dreamland.
The next morning, on their way out of the barracks for roll call, the prisoners fully expected to find their English friend in the same predicament as the day before, on his feet and chained. He was definitely still tied, but that was the only thing that hadn’t changed.
Newkirk was sleeping like a baby, comfortably positioned against the wall of the cooler, unaware of the morning’s activities, loud though they were, of Stalag 13.
“It was hardly worth the trouble of worrying,” grumbled Lebeau while Schultz counted the prisoners.
“You were worried?” Kinch kidded.
“No. But even so.”
Hogan smiled at the restrained demeanor of his French corporal. He never stopped squabbling with the Englishman, but in the end, he was the one closest to him.
“All present!” Schultz reported to his superior, proud of himself.
Each time he counted he expected to be missing a prisoner. A prisoner who, most often, had miraculously returned by the next roll call. And each time the same dilemma was presented to him: hide the absence of one of his men from Klink, or do his duty and report it. Most of the time, Colonel Hogan made him understand that it would be better to keep such an absence to himself. And most of the time, he obeyed. Sometimes he wondered whether it was Colonel Klink or Colonel Hogan who was running this camp.
In the end, he couldn’t make an honest report to his commandant unless he wasn’t missing anybody.
“Fine,” said Klink. “Diiiiiiiiismissed!”
“What about Newkirk?” Hogan asked as he approached the colonel. “He should be set free this morning.”
The German general chose that moment to appear, heading without even a look for the commandant of the camp towards the cooler along with three of his men. He gave them some orders and they went inside to carry out the crates that had been placed there and start putting them back onto the trucks stationed nearby.
Knowing Klink by heart and knowing very well that he wouldn’t do anything to risk annoying the Gestapo general, Hogan decided to take things in hand. He was about to appeal to Eberhart but the general had already moved quickly, stopping suddenly in front of the sleeping Englishman as if he had just noticed something.
He stood still for a moment, convinced that the length of the chain left to the prisoner had not permitted him to sit down. In spite of that the Englishman was well and truly seated with his back against the cooler, his legs drawn up against his body, rolled up in a blanket come from who knows where, and quite obviously sound asleep.
At least, he appeared to be asleep… When the German pulled violently on the chain to verify that the lock still held, and it did, the Englishman looked up with annoyance. Annoyed but alert. He had certainly been awake for a while already and the German didn’t doubt that this little act had for its sole purpose to make him look like an idiot. He tried nevertheless to keep hold of himself, and went to find the keys to the handcuffs to finally get this prisoner out of his sight.
Newkirk got up, letting the blanket slip against the wall, and held his wrists in the direction of the German, the motion sending the handcuffs falling to the ground before General Eberhart even approached the key.
An astonishing silence fell on the stalag at the absurdity of the scene. The general held the key in the air, his gaze riveted on the handcuffs that rested on the ground, still held by the chain. The Gestapo soldiers had stopped all activity, waiting for a reaction on the part of their general. Those of the Wehrmacht, on the other hand, who knew Newkirk very well, looked away to prevent anyone from seeing that they were starting to smile. With the exception of Klink, who, having turned as white as a sheet, was surely asking himself if he would have the choice between the Eastern Front and a firing squad, to have allowed one of his prisoners to make such a laughingstock out of a general of the Gestapo.
The prisoners present in the compound, on the other hand, couldn’t contain their laughter for long. Only Hogan was trying to maintain a minimum of seriousness, hiding his smile behind his hand. The English corporal always had to add something. He enjoyed attracting the attention of his comrades too much and most of all, he liked ridiculing the Germans too much. And that sometimes scared the colonel, who knew that would end by attracting some real problems one of these days.
Not this time, in any case. The general satisfied himself, after a moment of inattention, to turn toward his men to order them to resume their work. He didn’t have to play this prisoner’s game and show any interest. Even if that interest should earn him another punishment. And then, he had more than that to do. He needed to escort his cargo to Berlin as quickly as possible.
Mostly, he would really have liked to know how the Englishman had gotten himself out of that to free himself, and in spite of himself he was beginning to realize that there might be more to this man than a simple show-off.
A little disappointed by the lack of attention from the German, Newkirk rejoined his companions who welcomed him with a flurry of pats on the back and congratulations on his last number.
“Achoo!” the Englishman sneezed suddenly.
He sniffled and then sneezed a second time, under the amused glances of his friends. The night had been cool.
Kindly, Lebeau guided him inside the barracks, made him sit down at the table and placed a cup of very hot tea in his hands.
“Thanks, Louis,” he thanked him, savoring a sip of the delicious nectar that had been prepared especially for him.
The growling of his stomach reminded him that in addition to being cold, he was also very hungry, and, as if by magic, a plate of crêpes appeared on the table.
Happy to be back in the midst of his friends, Newkirk didn’t even notice the presence of Captain Lackey who was keeping to the back, observing the scene with interest, and he devoured the crêpes enthusiastically.
Suddenly recalling something important, he lifted his eyes towards Hogan, who was watching him eat with amusement.
“Did you get my message?” he asked with concern.
“Thanks to our little Frenchman,” Hogan replied. “It was a brilliant idea, Newkirk.”
Lackey observed how the expression of his subordinate sparkled at that remark. There was a bond between the members of this team that he couldn’t understand. And most of all, he couldn’t understand why everyone seemed to have absolute confidence in Newkirk. He was only a mere corporal, only promoted because of the war. He didn’t even deserve his uniform.
While Hogan and his men related what had been happening and what they had learned in Newkirk’s absence, the captain went back down into the tunnel. Only Hogan noticed him, leaving his companions to talk amongst themselves in order to follow the English officer. There were a few things he needed to shine some light on.
No one noticed the flash of worry that crossed Newkirk’s face.