Escape From Stalag VIIIB

Return to the Warehouse
2 August 1943

Terry slows the half-track a little as they keep watch on the tail.

Terry waits on Piotr’s orders, keeping the Sd. Kfz. 251/1 running smoothly along the road.

“Want me ta run ’im over, Petey old pal?”

“That wouldn’t be terribly subtle now would it, Terry?” Piotr replies with a sigh. “As Taffy says, he might be wrong about the chap following our civvies and you’d probably end up having to take a wall out along with the chap. These half-tracks are pretty easy to see coming.”

“And there’s a decent chance that he is on our side just checking us out,” adds Taffy.

And so the half-track continues to follow the civilians.

“Keep calm, everyone,” Bruce says. “Someone may be watching over us, but remember that he’s not the only one doing so. Our Lord, Jesus, is watching over us too.”

This does not help in calming the others too much.

Lodd decides that he doesn’t want to be the prey; he wants to be the predator. When the group of civvies next turns a corner, he jumps into an alleyway before the tail comes around. Upon seeing that he is now only tailing three people instead of four, the follower looks around to see what happened to the fourth, but continues following the main group.

The three remaining civvies have now reached the tram stop and wait there. Out of the corner of their eyes, they see that the tail is lingering, pretending to tie his shoelaces.

The last tram arrives bang on time. These Nazis might be responsible for mass genocide, but you have to hand it to them when it comes to the punctuality of their public transport system.

Bob, Bruce and Haim board the lead tram. Being the last tram of the night, it’s pretty packed inside. They just catch a glimpse of the tail getting into the second carriage.

A little further down the street, the three occupants of the parked Sd. Kfz. 251/1 as well as Lodd who continues to lurk in the bushes also see the tail getting onto the tram. But that’s not all they see. Someone else acting suspiciously also jumps onboard at the last second just as the doors are closing.

“Follow that tram,” Piotr says, predictably.

Lodd sees his comrades in the half-track and emerges from cover. He hops into the back knowing that he will get left behind otherwise.

The half-track follows the tram until it gets to the last stop before the warehouse. Bruce, Bob and Haim alight. Behind them, they see that their tail has done the same.

“I think I’ve just soiled myself,” whispers Haim.

“Just keep calm and take it slow,” Bob whispers in reply. “Remember we have some tame SS officers following behind him. I’m sure they’ll take care of it. They do have Lugers, after all.”

Those in the half-track are keeping a close eye on the situation. They see that both of the tails have left the tram. As they both walk after the civvies, they realize that the second tail is tailing the first tail.

Realizing that they are starting to run out of time before the civvies get to the warehouse, they decide to act, starting with the tail’s tail.

Terry stops the half-track in front of the tail’s tail, allowing Piotr and Taffy to get out.

“Ihre Papiere, bitte,” Piotr says, calmly but efficiently.

The tail doesn’t seem particularly nervous. He calmly produces his ID from an inside pocket.

The papers show the man to be Piotr Rutowski, a resident of Lublin who has arrived in Krakow just a few weeks earlier. The paperwork looks genuine to the other Piotr, but he doesn’t really know how to spot a forgery anyway.

Taffy decides to frisk the tail. Now the tail is starting to look nervous. The reason for this soon becomes apparent when Taffy finds a semi-automatic pistol inside the man’s pants. Interestingly, they see that it is a Tokarev TT-33 – a Russian-made pistol. Piotr and Taffy look knowingly at one another. Piotr calls to Terry, in German.

As Terry comes out, Piotr comes to him and whispers. “OK, time to play good cop/bad cop. I’m the good cop.”

Terry smiles as he produces his bayonet. He laughs maniacally as he makes a slitting motion across his throat and then holds the bayonet at the man’s groin.

Piotr speaks to man in a reassuring fashion, telling him that, if he cooperates, then nothing bad will happen to him. Cause any problems, however, and he will let his sidekick have his way with him.

The man’s resolve breaks instantly. He starts begging for mercy and comes up with a half-baked story about being an informer for the Gestapo and being in the process of following a known enemy resistance fighter.

Remembering the hand-written note that they recovered with the blueprints in the morning, Piotr asks him:

“Does the name Udom mean anything to you?”

The man shakes his head, but the look of pure terror in his eyes betrays the reality of the situation.

They realize that time is not on their side – that the civvies must be nearly at the warehouse now and that they need to pick up the other tail, now having a pretty good idea as to whom he might be.

Taffy manhandles Udom into the back of the half-track where Lodd keeps an eye on him while the others get into the front. Terry floors the accelerator and they go after the remaining tail.

They catch up with him just in time. Terry mounts the kerb as they pull in front of the tail. Immediately the tail starts to run. Everyone in the half-track runs after him apart from Lodd, who keeps an eye on the first tail they picked up.

As a true Welshman, Taffy was a keen rugby-player in his youth, the perfect qualifications for the chase. He quickly catches up with the man and neatly tackles him to the ground. The man reaches behind him and grabs a pistol, but Terry is also there now and stamps on the man’s wrist, which sends the pistol flying.

Piotr picks up the gun. The gun brings back happy memories for him:

“A Radom ViS wz. 35,” he says in English. “Identical to the one I used to have when I was with the uhlans.”

He shows the pistol to Terry. “Based on your Colt M1911A’s, but better,” he says proudly.

Terry snorts, “Says you, schlep.”

The man stops struggling when he hears talking in English.

“You are Polish? And American? Not SS?”

The sound of relief in his voice is obvious.

“Tu nie miejsce, aby porozmawiać, mój nowy przyjaciel jest,” Piotr says softly. “Chodź z nami, a my wszystko wyjaśnić.”

The man offers no resistance at all as Taffy and Terry allow him to get up. Terry and Piotr return to the cab while Taffy escorts him into the back of the half-track.

The man’s eyes narrow as he sees Udom in the back of the cab.

“Co za niespodzianka, aby znaleźć się tu, Jarosław, ty pieprzony komunistyczny szumowiny zdrajcę!” the new arrival shouts at Udom before spitting into his face.

Lodd steps in to separate the pair of them:

“You two will being quiet and staying calm,” he says sternly. “If there is some beating needing to do, then it will be I who it does, да?”

“да?” A look of hope comes over Udom’s face. “Вы говорите на русском? Вы большевик брата нашего?”

Fortunately Lodd doesn’t understand Russian, so just tells him to shut up and sit down.

Meanwhile, Bruce, Bob and Haim saw the original tail being taken out by the half-track crew, much to their great relief, so they headed back to the warehouse.

Terry neatly brings ‘Betty’ into the warehouse just a couple of minutes later. The three civvies look on in surprise as Lodd and Taffy escort both of the tails into the building.

“Two?” The Padre says, his eyebrows raising in surprise. “The SS of Krakow has had a busy evening tonight.”

While Lodd and Taffy keep an eye on the two tails, Piotr brings the others up to speed regarding what they have discovered during the two pick-ups.

The civvies come over to join the others as everyone looks at one another wondering what to do now.

“Does anybody here know what these two mooks said to each others in their wacked lingo when we picked ’em up? Seems like the one was pretty angry at the other.” says Terry.

Piotr sidles over to Terry and whispers to him out of ear-shot of Lodd:

“Seems like Udom’s real name is Jarosław. The other guy said something like, ‘What a surprise to find you here, Jarosław, you fucking Communist traitor son-of-a-bitch’.”

“Maybe we can play these two off against each other then, eh pally?”

“What do we have to gain by playing them off against one another?” Piotr asks. “The reason for going to the club tonight was to try and make contact with the Resistance and to find a way of knowing whether the Resistance we make contact with are in league with London or Moscow.”

“I would say that, unless these two are playing a very clever and risky game with us, we now know who is who and have a route through to the Armia Krajowa.”

“Hey, I’m just goofin with ya. Who am I to break the Devil’s dishes, ya know?” Terry says, “Just wanted as much verified gospel as we can get before we commit to one of these Polocks.”

“And anyway, it woulda been fun.” sighs Terry, “Nobody ever lets me have any fun. No killing SS men. No running people over with Betty. No messin’ with the yokels. Nyah, nyah, nyah. I wasn’t gonna whack ’im around like the Babe with a Spaldeen.”

“One question is what to do with Udom?" Piotr interjects, "I imagine that his days are numbered if we leave him to the other guy and his companions. Although I am no friend of the Russians, they are still the enemies of our enemies, which means that they are useful allies – for now at least.”

“What say we ask his buddy? That’ll get us in Dutch with the boys we like, right Boss? Makes a statement about what team we’re playing for,” Terry says.

“Unfortunately, if we want the help of one party I don’t see how we can afford to annoy them by letting Udom go. If we do let him go it may well end up rebounding on us. He’s also seen us in our SS Guise and word of that will spread,” says Taffy.

Terry nods at Taffy, “Right boss, like my pal Taffy here was sayin’, might be a good idea to get in good with them rats we like.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Piotr agrees. “Udom has obviously pissed off the loyalists pretty bad by the sound of things – betraying someone’s trust. I’m happy to go all in with the other guy – it will prove to him that we are on his side without a doubt. I have a feeling though that if we give the ‘good guy’ his pistol back, then the first thing he is going to do with it is to put a bullet through the back of Udom’s head.”

“I’ll pretend that I didn’t hear that, cobbers,” says Padre. “I’ll leave this up to you to decide. I’m heading off to get some sleep now. It’s been a long day.”

The group discusses what to do with the two captured Poles. Although killing Udom would be the simplest solution, a majority of the group are against doing so. Instead they decide to tie him up and leave him for the night well out of the way inside ‘Betty’. The loyalist Pole, who has now told them his name is Witold, they allow to remain free, although they don’t give him his pistol back.

Witold accepts this. It is obvious that he still has a slight element of doubt over the party’s story, just as they have some doubt over his. He sleeps on the grubby discarded sofa in the centre of the warehouse where the others can keep an eye on him.

It’s been a long and eventful day and everyone needs sleep. The party members all find somewhere to rest, apart from Terry and Piotr who are taking the first watch. Terry sets up his MG34 on a raised platform where he has a commanding view of the centre of the warehouse and the sleeping Witold. Piotr wanders the perimeter of the building, looking out of each window as he passes them.

View
An Evening at Na Zdrowie
2 August 1943

The group in civilian clothing set off first. After all, the whole charade would be up immediately if anyone was to see them climbing out of the back of an Sd. Kfz. 251/1. Everyone checks their weapons. Piotr and Taffy have Lugers, as is normal for an SS officer; the rest have to make do with bayonets secreted around their persons.

So Haim leads them out of the deserted warehouse and they walk for 15 minutes before they arrive at a tram station. Ten minutes later and they are onboard the tram for the Old Town.

Piotr waits thirty minutes following the civilians departure before telling Taffy and Terry that it’s time that they should leave. For them it is an easy ten-minute drive to the town centre. Once again, the guards on the bridge don’t bother stopping them to ask for papers. Terry parks the half-track around the other side of the Na Zdrowie club, in Ludwika Solskiego Straße, thinking it wise not to bring too much attention to themselves.

The supposed SS members arrive around 8.15pm. The club is pretty busy – around three-quarters full. Around a quarter of the clientele are Nazi officers. Piotr tries to hide his contempt for the amount of Polish women – collaborating bitches – who are accompanying the Nazi scum.

He sees with some relief that the other half of the party dressed as civilians were able to enter the club – he was worried that they might not be allowed in as their clothes were less than impressive. Sensibly they have taken a booth in the corner of the club so as not to attract attention. As safe as it might be, however, they are not going to obtain much in the way of information sat there.

Piotr remembers his position as a senior SS officer and swaggers into the place with Taffy and Terry following behind him. He offers lazy, arrogant salutes to the other officers and then stands at the bar. He clicks his fingers for a waitress to bring Schnapps for the three of them, standing back and surveying the room for a while.

A little under ten minutes later and the lights go dim with a spotlight on a piano on the club’s simple stage. A pianist starts to play and he is joined after the first couple of bars by a gorgeous-looking singer who starts singing some sultry torch song to rapturous applause from the audience.

Lodd starts dribbling.

Piotr takes advantage of the fact that all eyes are on the glamorous blonde singer by casually sauntering over to the booth occupied by the civilians. He has a fake smile on his face as he hisses to Haim:

“Haim, nie tylko, kurwa, siedzieć. Początek sieci albo nigdy nie będziemy mieć szansę, aby jakieś kontakty tu i tego wieczoru będzie całkowita strata czasu.”

Piotr offers up his glass as a toast to the table of civilians and then walks back to the bar so as to enjoy the show with his SS companions. Haim, looking nervous, excuses himself from the others and also heads to the bar – albeit at the opposite end from where Piotr is standing.

For the next thirty minutes, everyone apart from Haim sits back to enjoy the show. The singer starts to move around the room, toying with all of the male patrons of the bar, taking the German officers’ hats for a while and sitting on laps until any of them try to touch her, at which point she moves on, leading to loud chuckles from everyone in the room. As she continues with her performance, the party members notice that Haim is engrossed in conversation with someone standing behind the bar. He is not dressed as a barman – it looks as if he must be either the manager of the owner.

The others watch on as Haim and the manager, or owner, continue to talk. Haim then slowly starts to move towards the toilets, glancing at Piotr as he does so. Piotr waits for half a minute, watching the crowd carefully before heading after him.

Piotr takes a stall next to the one that is locked, realizing by process of elimination that Haim must be in there. Piotr waits until the place is empty before he whispers:

“So?” he asks.

“The chap I was speaking with is Henryk Hellecki, the owner of the place,” Haim whispers back to him. “We spoke for a while. We spent ten minutes dancing around any issues, but then he told me that he has a daughter living in Chicago who is married to a Yank. I took this as a good sign – that he is not as pro-Nazi as one would think from the company he keeps.”

“I took a risk. I asked him if he knew of any way that I could contact the resistance. He went quiet and told me to be at the Florianska Gate at 2.00pm tomorrow. He then told me to make sure that I told no one of the conversation and then headed off to speak with another client.”

“Hmmmmmmmm,” Piotr ponders. “Maybe he’s for real. Maybe he is leading us into a trap. No way we can tell, but it’s a lead at least.”

“You tell your group of this and I will tell mine. Now go.”

Haim heads off back to the booth and relays the conversation to the civilians. Piotr relays the information to Taffy and Terry.

The chanteuse is continuing to sing and work the room. She spies Lodd who is looking at her with eyes the size of saucers, heads over to him and sits on his lap. She looks into his eyes and sings sweetly to him until she gets the uncomfortable feeling of something hard rubbing against her behind, at which point she moves back to the stage.

Her performance is at an end. She bows graciously to the hearty applause and grabs a few flowers that are thrown upon the stage.

It’s around 10.30pm now. Each group decides to have one last drink before calling it a night. Before they have finished, the singer comes out. She talks a little with the German officers and some of the best-dressed Poles before coming over to Lodd.

“Ich habe dich nicht hier gesehen. Ist dies das erste Mal in Krakau?” she asks him.

Lodd slowly stands up from his outer seat at the booth. Unused to hard liquor, he steadies himself with a hand on the pockmarked old wood of the table. He looks down at the singer, this most exquisite form, truly the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Her haunting rendition of ”Rosemarie“ and “Westerwald” touched every man’s heart. Even the almost scandalous ”Lili Marlene” (an Allied popular song) was greeted with enthusiasm.

As he stood there, it was as if all eyes were on him. Sweat started pouring out from behind his neck while he looked longingly into the cool blue eyes of this blonde-haired seductress. He dared not look anywhere else. He was more than sure that most of the German Officers from the last few tables she visited had followed her with their eyes. He would jeopardize the whole team if he didn’t think fast.

Luckily the Padre had done the thinking beforehand.

Lodd slowly reached for his collar and pulled it gently down revealing a very professional small white bandage taped to the right side of his throat. Lodd pointed at it then pulled his finger across his pouting lips. Haim who had returned to the table some time ago tells the singer the pre-planned excuse.

“My very strong cousin, Marek here, recently took a war wound to the neck," Haim explains nervously in Polish. "The Doctor said it would heal in a few weeks, but it’s best if he did not speak. Poor boy, thank goodness he has so much endurance. All the other parts of his body work very well, however.”

As the world’s greatest wing-man explains Lodd’s strange condition, the Slav takes up a paper napkin from the table and begins folding it.

When Haim is done talking of how his silent friend held up the crumbling building to allow the orphans to gain safety, Lodd holds up an origami rose made of white napkin paper and offers it to the soft, smooth hand of the lady. He then nods his head to the door that leads outside to the patio and grabs a half drunk bottle of Vichy Water and some glasses then offers her his arm. She takes it with a smile and allows herself to be escorted to one of the tables placed outside on the Old Town Square.

“Strewth, cobbers, that was a close one,” The Padre whispers while exhaling deeply. “Thank the Almighty that she was a dumb blonde; a brunette would never have fallen for such a lame excuse.”

“I don’t trust Lodd not to still screw things up now he thinks he’s pulled it off,” Bob says. “I think we had better extricate him from there fast – give up while the going is good.”

“I agree,” Haim says quickly – he’s obviously desperate to leave the place as soon as possible.

He asks for the tab, which they pay quickly, not wanting to hang around for the change.

They follow the direction that Lodd and the girl took.

Lodd’s eyes are wide and it looks as if he is just about to go in for a kiss when Haim comes up to him and coughs loudly.

“Es ist fast 11 Uhr, Marek,” Haim says pointing at a non-existent wristwatch. “Sie wissen, dass wir wieder in der Pension vor Mitternacht benötigen, oder wir für die Nacht gesperrt werden.”

Both Lodd and the girl look disappointed, but the look on The Padre’s face tell him that he has little choice in the matter.

“Auf Wiedersehen, mein Liebling,” the girl says as Lodd gets up, offering a peck on his cheek as a consolation prize.

“Auf Wiedersehen, mein Liebling,” Lodd mumbles back in his best attempt at a German accent.

In case he changes his mind, The Padre and Bob stand either side of him, practically frog-marching him away from the club.

Still stood at the bar, Piotr, Taffy and Terry had been nervously watching the whole encounter and are relieved when they see that the civilians have left now.

“Let’s slowly finish up our drinks and then head off after them in ten minutes,” Piotr whispers as he takes another sip of Schnapps.

At this late hour, the streets of Krakow are fairly empty. Haim looks around nervously as they head towards the tram stop. After ten minutes of walking, Haim starts looking even more panicky than he usually does.

“Chaps,” he whispers, “Don’t look round right now, but I think we are being followed. Someone tall and well-built dressed as a civilian. He’s on the other side of the road about 100m behind us. I think that he’s been following us ever since we left the club.”

Meanwhile …

Having saluted all of the remaining officers in the club, which is now fast thinning out, Piotr leads Taffy and Terry back to the half-track, which is exactly where they left it. They take the same route back to the warehouse as the civilians will be taking.

“There they are,” Piotr, who is riding shotgun, says with relief as he sees the group ahead of them.

Taffy is in the rear of the Sd. Kfz. 251/1.

He comes forward to speak to the others at the front:

“I might be wrong, but I think the others might have picked up a tail. See that tall, well-built chap behind us on the opposite side of the road dressed in civvies?”

View
To The Ghetto
2 August 1943

Haim directs Terry to drive them back to the south of the city. They pass over one of the bridges across the Vistula going through a German checkpoint as they do so. Fortunately the guards just offer a stiff-armed salute and a “Sieg Heil” as they pass through rather than checking papers.

A few minutes later and the half-track is parked outside the entrance to the Jewish Ghetto in the run-down Podgórze slum district of the city.

“Stay here while I speak to the guards,” Piotr says, climbing down from the half-track.

While waiting for Piotr to get the guards to open up, everyone notices that the whole area is eerily quiet.

The glum look on Piotr’s face tells everyone that he is about to bring them some bad news. He looks at Haim sadly as he explains:

“They’ve all gone,” he says quietly. "The last ones went in the middle of March. Most of them have been taken to a new labour camp they constructed a few kilometers from here at Płaszów.

Haim says nothing. He is just silent. Whether he had guessed that this was the fate of his few remaining friends or has become immune to grieving as a result of all of the tragedy in his life, it’s hard to say.

The uncomfortable silence hangs in the air until Piotr starts looking nervously at the guards.

“We need to move on from here or else the guards will start getting suspicious,” he says. “Terry, just drive.”

Terry just drives.

“So the only person in this city you know who might be sympathetic to the plight of your people is this Oskar Schindler fellow?” Piotr asks Haim.

Haim just nods.

“Dobzhe. Then show us to his factory.”

It turns out to be just a couple of minutes away in the next district. The half-track passes the Deutsche Emaillewaren-Fabrik which still seems to be as active as it was when Haim last saw it.

“I can speak to them,” Haim says. “But not while dressed as a member of the SS obviously.”

Terry drives around a few corners until he finds a spot that is out of sight of anyone. Haim changes into his civvies and then heads off for the factory.

Thirty minutes later and Haim scuttles back to the rest of the party.

“Better news,” Haim reports. “Schindler was able to retain his original staff. They come from Płaszów under guard each morning and leave again under guard each evening. The forger I know, Leo Rabinowitz, is still working for him. I was not able to get inside to speak with him though. No outsiders get into the factory without Schindler’s agreement whether they are German, Jew or Poles. He has a lot of powerful friends in this city – more powerful than an SS-Hauptsturmführer, so we aren’t going to be able to bully him into anything.”

“What else do you know about Schindler?” Piotr asks.

“As I said before, he may sympathize with the plight of the Jews, but he is still a Nazi Party member. Also he is making a great deal of money from this arrangement. I’m not sure which is most important to him – money or the safety of ‘his’ Jews.”

“I am pretty sure that he will want nothing to do with the Resistance though,” Haim continues. “It would be pure and simple treason for him to do so. Helping Jews might be frowned upon by other Nazis, but it’s not a hanging offence – not for someone as cunning as Schindler. But helping the Resistance or other enemies of the Nazis? That definitely would be.”

Piotr thinks on the matter a while but then sighs:

“Anyone got any ideas as to how we can get to the forger? Or how we can make use of what we know about Schindler to maybe get to the Resistance?”

There is another long pause as everyone looks at one another. Piotr is wracking his brains for an idea.

“How about this?” he says. “Maybe I can meet with Schindler and tell him that I have similar sympathies to him – that I am a Nazi who sympathizes with the plight of the Jews and that Haim has told me that Schindler has the same loyalties? Schindler can’t rat me out as he would be exposing his own loyalties in the process. This probably isn’t going to get a direct link to the resistance, but should hopefully be able to get us the forged documents at least.”

“I think that it is worth a try,” Haim says.

No one has any better ideas and so Haim and Piotr head off together.

They seem to have been gone a long time. The others start worrying that perhaps the plan has gone completely awry and that Piotr and Haim have been captured, But, around the middle of the afternoon, the pair of them return.

“Dobzhe,” Piotr says as he climbs back in the half track. “So Schindler and I are now the best of friends. Haim is going to work there for a day or two – as long as it takes for him to get the document altered. I just need to provide him with a photo and some cash and Haim says that the forger will take care of the rest.”

“Naturally I didn’t get the direct contact information for any members of the resistance, but he did tell me that if we want to find out what is really going on in Krakow, then there is one place to find it, and that’s at the Na Zdrowie bar and night club. Everyone who is anyone in Krakow goes there and the place is a hotbed of gossip and information.”

“Well it looks as if this is the only lead that we have so we should give it a try,” says The Padre.

The others nod in agreement, not having any better suggestions.

“Dobzhe,” Piotr nods. “We have a few hours to kill before the bar comes to life. Let’s take care of the sundry other matters first. I need to visit a photographer’s to get a photo taken for the identity papers and we should also find somewhere discrete to hole up for the next night or two – somewhere where we can enter as SS and leave as civvies or vice versa without anyone seeing us.”

They set off back over the bridge to the heart of Krakow once more. The first task – getting a photograph taken is easily taken care of – although the finished photo won’t be ready to pick up until the following morning. Finding somewhere to hole up is a more difficult task, however – or rather finding somewhere to park the Sf. Kfz. 251/1 is. They end up returning to the industrial district south of the river not far from Schindler’s factory where they find a half-demolished warehouse that looks like it took a direct hit from a Stuka or an artillery barrage and so are able to hide the half-track in there.

“It’s a relief to finally get out of the vehicle and to be able to speak in English again without fear of attracting the wrong kind of attention.”

“So any ideas as for our strategy for going to the club tonight?” Piotr asks. “Should we go as SS or as civilians?”

“My uniform not fit so good,” says Lodd. “All these Nazis like skinny dwarves. New clothes fit much better. Maybe I can take SkullCrusher – my favorite entrenching tool with me?”

“I can just hear the conversation now,” Piotr says. “‘Is that an entrenching tool in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?’”

“Maybe better to play it safe and just take your bayonet instead?”

Lodd nods:

“У реду, онда,” he agrees.

“Perhaps we should split into two groups,” the Serb continues. “Half of us as SS and the other half as civilians. If we meet the resistance, the civvies could explain the situation and if we run into Nazi flak then the SS part of the team could jump in and smooth things out.”

Piotr nods, considering the idea:

“Who agrees with Lodd? And, if so, who are going to be the SS and who are going to be the civilians?”

The group discussed Lodd’s suggestion and decide that it is probably the safest option. They then spend a while discussing who are going in as SS and who are going in as civilians. Eventually they settle on Piotr, Taffy, and Terry as SS officers, while Lodd, Haim, The Padre and Bob as civilians.

The party members have a couple of hours to kill before it is time to go to the club and so they dine on some roast chicken that Lodd liberated from the forester’s cottage in the morning. They then change into the right clothing. Taffy takes the SS-Untersturmführer uniform knowing that there will be few enlisted men at such a high-class establishment. Terry takes the SS-Rottenführer uniform – good enough that he would be sufficiently important to act as Piotr’s chauffeur and butler, but hopefully not of sufficiently high rank that any officers he encounters at the club would lower themselves to speak with him.

The others change into their civvies and try and smarten themselves up as best they can so as to appear affluent enough that they would not look out of place at the club. Piotr gives everyone RM 10 so that they can buy drinks so as not to look inconspicuous by sitting nursing the same pint of beer all night. He tells them not to go crazy with the money though as it’s pretty much all of the money that they have and they will probably need as much as they can get on their way to Yugoslavia if they are not able to make any contact with the resistance.

“Dobzhe,” Piotr says. “It is time to go. Just remember to keep your mouths shut unless absolutely necessary. And remember that we are not going there to have a good time – we are going there purely to try and get some leads on how to make contact with the resistance.”

The others nods in agreement and then they start to head off.

View
Heroes in a Half-Track
2 August 1943

“Start heading south first of all,” says Haim, sitting immediately behind Terry, the elderly Jew looking highly uncomfortable and not terribly believable dressed as an SS Sturmtrooper.

“Roger that,” Terry confirms as he lets out the clutch, admiring its smooth action. The Nazis might be inhuman scum, but they sure know how to engineer some good vehicles.

The journey south only lasts for three miles, taking little time as Terry soon has Betty up to her top speed of 52.5 km/h. He turns east, hoping that they are already far enough away from Auschwitz that they don’t run into any more patrols looking for Haim.

Fortunately Haim knows the area well and keeps them away from any of the major towns, although they pass through a few smaller villages, just coming to life now that it is after 7.00am. After another half hour, they start running parallel to the River Vistula. They wait until they find a spot far away from any settlement and Terry stops Betty on the riverbank.

They spend thirty minutes weighing down the corpses of the dead SS troopers with rocks and dragging them down into the river. No one’s going to be finding them any time soon, that’s for sure.

For the next couple of hours, they are running almost due east, with the Sd. Kfz. 251 eating up the miles nicely compared to their slow progress on foot on the previous couple of days. The weather is still a little overcast, but the rain looks like it will hold off and the scenery is pleasant, particularly to the south where they can see the foothills of the Tatras. Once they make it to the mountainous range, the heat should be off them for a while, as there is little in the mountains of interest to Nazis.

But first they need to get into – and out of – Krakow, the largest city in southern Poland and head of the Nazi’s government for the area.

It’s a little after 11.30 when they see the towers and spires of the castle on Wawel Hill ahead of them and just a couple of minutes later before they hit the checkpoint.

They knew that they were going to hit a checkpoint before entering Krakow, but it doesn’t make anyone less nervous as hands grip weapons as a reflex action. Lodd, sitting close to the pintle-mounted MG34, observes the checkpoint carefully and relaxes. If it came to a shootout against the second rate squad of troops with their single MG34 behind sandbags, he knew they could take them. He’s too dim to realize that doing so would blow their cover instantly and doom them to another long and dangerous walk.

Ahead of them at the checkpoint is a battered-looking Polski-Fiat 508-I. The driver seems to be in heated debate with two of the guards who are questioning him. The questioning is taking a long time.

Taffy whispers to Piotr:

“Remember you’re supposed to be a high-ranking SS Officer, Pete. Act arrogant and impatient.”

“Oh yes, you’re right,” Piotr says, not used to acting as anything other than charming.

Terry sounds the horn and Piotr gestures, trying to look angry.

One of the guards looks a little apologetic, but holds his hand up as if to say ‘just give us another couple of minutes’.

They watch on ahead of them at the checkpoint. Things seem to be getting heated. One of the guards pulls open the car door. As he does so, there is a crack from a pistol shot and the guard falls to the ground clutching his gut.

“Wolność dla Polski!” a cry comes from the driver as he floors the accelerator.

The Polski-Fiat crashes through the barrier, which does not do the engine of the frail car much good at all. The German guards are on the ball and the car is immediately peppered with MG34 fire and shots from the guards’ Mausers. The car travels less than 100m before it comes off the road and crashes into a ditch.

“He could be resistance!” Piotr says excitedly. “Hit it, Terry.”

Terry brings up the half-track to the checkpoint.

Piotr throws the guards a stiff salute:

“Gut gemacht meine Herren, aber das ist jetzt eine Sache für die SS,” Piotr barks calmly in perfectly-accented German.

The guard throws Piotr back a stiff salute in return:

“Jawohl, mein SS-Hauptsturmführer.”

“Lassen Sie, Gottfried,” Piotr barks to Terry.

The Yank gets the message and passes through the checkpoint quickly, bringing the half-track next to the car.

Everyone gets out to investigate. The guards did an efficient job as the driver is very much dead. In his hand he is holding a Colt M1911A – the American-made weapon giving more credence to Piotr’s theory that the man was a member of the Polish Resistance. More interesting though is the fact that they see, tucked under the driver’s seat but now visible as a result of the jolt from the impact, a slim leather briefcase.

“Careful,” Taffy whispers. “It may be booby-trapped.”

“Let’s just grab it and get out of sight from the guards,” Piotr whispers back.

Gingerly, Taffy takes the case and they all return to the half-track. They take the Colt M1911A with them too. Looking back, Piotr sees the guards are watching them, but aren’t making any movement towards the crash site.

Terry drives on for a little under half a mile. The area to the north is wooded up to the Kościuszko Mound and so he pulls over. They walk a little into the trees so as not to be seen by anyone walking or driving by.

The others stand well-back as Taffy places the briefcase on the ground. He uses his bayonet to slice open the bottom of the case.

“It’s safe,” he says.

Turning the case over, three canisters of 35mm film drop out, as does a sheaf of papers.

Most of them appear to be blueprints.

To the others, they make little sense. The shapes drawn on them look like darts. They see some words in German – Vergeltungswaffen and Peenemünde, which make little sense.

Taffy seems to find them fascinating, however, and is studying them intently.

Piotr sees a handwritten note among the blueprint:

“Sympatie Udom leżeć z Sowietami,” he reads. “’Udom’s’ sympathies lie with the Soviets.”

“‘Udom’ sounds like an agent’s codename,” he thinks out loud. “It means nothing in Polish.”

“These seem to be plans for some kind of a new rocket weapon,” Taffy says after investigating the blueprints closely.

Everyone’s eyes go wide.

“He must have been trying to get them to a Resistance contact in Krakow,” Piotr conjectures. “Why else would he have taken the risk to get into the city when he would know that the city is guarded so well?”

“We need to get these plans to British Intelligence,” says Bruce. “And somewhere in this city is someone who can arrange that obviously. But how to find them?”

“And we need to get these documents altered, remember?” Piotr chimes in. “So we have two tasks to perform in Krakow.”

Bruce nods:

“But if the Resistance is able to get documents out, then maybe they can get us out along with us?”

“Maybe we should just stick to da story that’s true: we’re POWs looking for help getting out. Any mention of da papers and junk will probably just get us in hot water with somebody as these mooks fight over who gets the goods,” says Terry.

He looks at Haim, “Do you knows anywhere da resistance is likely to be holed up? Sum place da good Polocks might be found, pally? You know, like somebody who seemed sympathetic in your old digs?”

“It looks like the first decision that we are going to have to make is whether we carry on acting as SS or whether we hide the half-track and the uniforms and wear civvies instead,” comments Piotr.

“There are risks associated with either option. If we act as SS, we are unlikely to have too many problems with the Nazis, but are unlikely to make much progress in contacting the resistance. Walk through the Śródmieście in civvies talking in English and we shouldn’t have too much of a problem in getting the resistance on our side. But unfortunately the chances of getting to them before the Gestapo are pretty remote.”

Haim turns to Terry.

“I am sorry to say but most Polish are only slightly less anti-Semitic than the Nazis.”

Piotr’s cheeks glow a little red at this statement, but his lips remain sealed.

“In fact I can remember only one Goy in Krakow who helped our plight and he is actually a German. A Nazi Party member at that.”

“He runs a factory producing enamelware for the Germans.”

“His name is Oskar Schindler.”

“I have no idea how to contact the resistance,” Taffy admits with a shrug. “Maybe we should focus on the forger first?”

“That’s kinda my thought too, Taffy,” agrees Terry. “Let’s get our ducks in a row, then decide who to contact, and what info to give them.”

The others nod in agreement, all realizing that with Haim’s contacts, finding a forger should be the easiest of the two tasks.

All except Lodd, whose thoughts are elsewhere. Lodd thinks back to his days as a resistance fighter for the Unified Peoples Liberation Organisation of Soviet Liberty trying to remember what his Captains said about the Western resistance fighters. After an hour of hard thought all he could come up with is that he thinks one of the contacts first name started with a “P”. He was never very interested in the meetings about politics, primarily his job was to quietly escort any trouble makers outside and pound them into the snow.

“Do the Resistance have Hell-Majic ? I know the S.S. have Hell-Majic . I want to walk around like S.S. so they don’t curse us again, and besides, if anyone starts to shooting at us, we will know they are Resistance fighters and we join them!” Lodd says slowly with inescapable logic. Mostly this idea stemmed from the fact that Lodd really likes clowns and he believes it would totally suck if he were ever ‘turned’ to fear them.

“Until I felt the unholy fear and saw the bolts of darkness that the witch threw at you, I thought talk of magic was nothing more than fairy tales,” Piotr replies. “If the Resistance had such magic, then Poland would be free again.”

“They haven’t got it.”

“Which is why we need to get this information back to Britain, to the Armia Krajowa and British Intelligence. What we have learned today could affect the outcome of the war,” he finishes dramatically.

There is a pause as everyone considers the significance of their finds – both of them.

“Dobzhe,” Piotr continues. “First things first. Having only these SS uniforms limits our options. We need a set of civvies each. Getting tailored suits for all of us would use up all of our Reichsmarks though and I am sure that we will be needing them later in order to grease some palms. Getting tailored suits would also take too long.”

“There should be plenty of secondhand clothing around Krakow,” says Haim. “The Jews alone had to leave most of their possessions behind when they were sent to the ghetto. I think I can show you to where they have some for sale.”

“OK,” Piotr nods. “You find somewhere and I think that I can do the talking.”

They head back to the half-track. On the way, taking advantage of the fact that Lodd is out of earshot and lost in his own thoughts, Taffy whispers to the others:

“If we do make contact, we need to be careful mentioning what we’ve found if there is a Soviet Spy in the ‘organisation’. We want this stuff to go west, not east.”

“I agree with you 100%,” whispers Piotr in return. “The Soviets are no better than the Nazis. All Poland knows the atrocities that the Soviets inflicted on my comrades at Katyn.”

Everyone takes up their positions back inside the Sd. Kfz. 251/1 and Terry drives on, entering the city of Krakow itself. With the Nazi Blitzkrieg attack on Poland having been so fast, the city is little damaged and retains most of its beautiful Medieval architecture.

Although everyone feels very conspicuous driving through the streets which are teeming with Nazis, no one seems to be paying much attention to just another German half-track driving through the streets.

“Over there,” Haim points at a shop. “Looks like we can get some clothes there.”

“Everyone come with me, but keep your mouths shut,” Piotr says.

All enter inside the store.

“Guten Tag,” Piotr greets the shopkeeper. “Meinen kamaraden und ja are going to ein fancy dress party tomorrow evening und we thought it would be sehr funny if we all dressed like Polish Jews.”

“Ha, ha!” the shopkeeper laughs nervously. “Das would be sehr funny indeed!”

“So ve vill be needing some funny Jew clothes, bitte,” Piotr continues. “Und ve vill be needing this funny joke to be a surprise, ja? So you vill not be telling anyone about our funny joke, ja?”

“Nein, nein, SS-Hauptsturmführer,” the nervous shopkeeper laughs. “Your funny joke is safe with me.”

“Das ist gut,” Piotr says, sliding a RM5 banknote over the counter.

Thirty minutes later and another RM 50 lighter, the party members return to the half-track with their new civvies wrapped in brown paper.

“Well that went well,” Piotr says a little smugly. “Right, on to the ghetto.”

View
Kampf mit dem SS Hexe
2 August 1943

“Dzień dobry, panowie,” Piotr says with a smile on his face as the first SS Sturmtrooper opens the door to the barn. He shoots at him with the Luger, injuring him slightly.

As soon as Piotr fires, the other party members swing into action also, reaping a hail of death upon the SS troopers. The two troopers approaching the forester’s house are quickly taken down with controlled bursts by the MG34’s of Terry and Lodd. At the rear, Taffy shoots the SS machinegunner while Bob stuns the other trooper.

With the troopers outside being taken care of seemingly quite easily, Lodd comes to the door to help Piotr fight off the two troopers at the door, as they are starting to attack the Pole with bayonets, causing him some real difficulties.

Close by, Terry realizes that he still has plenty of work to do as he can see more troopers who were out of sight at the entrance to the farmyard. The Yank take a few potshots at them as they maneuver into position, but the troopers are smart and are keeping to cover. At the rear the lone trooper is firing again. With the SS men plus Taffy and Bob all well in cover, however, their Mauser shots are simply hitting the dirt or sides of the barn with neither side making much progress.

Piotr is really struggling now against the two guards at the door as he is outclassed and only pure luck saves him from getting badly hurt. Lodd manages to even the odds a little by taking out one of them with another quick burst from the MG34, narrowly avoiding cutting down Piotr in the process.

The four SS at the front of the farm have now managed to get into good firing positions and, with their own man in front of the door, they see that their only target is Terry. The result is that he comes under a withering amount of fire, with shots pinging off the brickwork and his helmet. No sooner has he calmed himself than he feels fear like he has never known before – an unnatural fear that all but consumes him as he fights to stay calm.

The SS trooper at the door is putting up a good fight and manages to injure Piotr with his bayonet. The Padre rushes up with bandages in hand to try and patch him up while Lodd finally manages to finish him off.

At the rear, Bob finally manages to win the firefight with the only remaining trooper at the back while Taffy comes around to the side to try and relieve the pressure off Terry.

Terry is locked in combat with the Untersturmführer in the bushes who is peppering him with fire from his MP40. Both combatants are lucky to survive each other’s accurate attacks. As another wave of fear passes over those in the barn, all realize that Haim’s claims of witchcraft at play must be true, and seek out who is behind the unholy craft.

Suddenly there is the sound of smashing glass coming from the western side of the barn as two more SS troopers, as yet unseen, start to shoot into the barn. Lodd manages to stun one of them. Bob quickly heads for cover as he realizes he needs to reload.

Taffy leans through the eastern window and sees the hidden witch, and catches him with a great shot to the witch’s shoulder which sends him lurching backwards. The witch tries to jump over the fence to get better cover, but fails. Instead he starts casting and sends the fear at Taffy. Unprepared, Taffy lets out a howl of terror as he runs towards the back of the building.

Lodd has the witch in his sights now, but the witch manages to fight off any more wounds. In return, he sends three bolts of dark energy at Lodd, but fortunately the Serbian’s toughness saves him.

At the western window, The Padre realizes that, pacifist or not, desperate times call for desperate measures:

“Lo! the Lord shall smite thee with a great vengeance, and thy people, and thy sons, and thy wives, and all thy chattel,” The Padre says as he points his Luger at the trooper right before him.

He squeezes the trigger and the SS trooper’s brains spray over the farmyard.

“2 Chronicles 21:14-15, Nazi arsehole,” Bruce adds as he ducks back into cover.

There is still one trooper left on the western flank though – one armed with an MG34. He reaps divine vengeance of his own as he sprays wildly on full auto, hitting both Piotr and Lodd and injuring them badly. Lodd just laughs off the pain though and proceeds to take it out on the witch, who finally expires in the hail of bullets from Lodd’s MG34.

Bob manages to finish off the machinegunner at the western side of the building, while the Untersturmführer’s luck finally gives out as Terry finally manages to bring him down.

Taffy has now managed to get over the witch’s terror but, by the time he gets around the side of the building, Lodd and Terry have managed to finish off the last two remaining troopers and the Nazis are vanquished.

The Padre immediately sets to work in patching up Piotr and Lodd. There is plenty for him to do. Taffy goes straight over and heads for the witch. He puts a final 7.92mm slug through the witch’s skull just to be on the safe side and then rifles through the witch’s belongings.

In addition to the standard SS Officer’s equipment, he finds two items of interest. One, he realizes, is some kind of identity papers identifying him as a high-ranking SS Officer who should not be obstructed by any regular Wehrmacht troops. The other is more curious. It is bound in a type of leather that Taffy has never seen before. He realizes, with revulsion, that it is covered in human skin.

Hands shaking, he flips over the pages. They are written in a language that he has never come across before – nor from any alphabet he has seen before. They look Scandinavian – reminding him a little of Viking runes.

He brings the items over to the others to take a look at.

Piotr, who has now been bandaged up by The Padre, looks delighted at the travel papers.

“Excellent find, Taffy!” he exclaims. “Unless we run into a higher-ranking SS Officer, no one should give us trouble.”

His smile fades a little:

“But the photograph could be a problem,” he continues. “The witch looks nothing like me. One nosy Gestapo taking a close look would immediately see that the document is not mine. We need to get the papers altered. It won’t be easy though. I have no skills in such areas. We will need a good forger. And God knows where we will find one in the middle of nowhere.”

“I know a good forger,” Haim says, his nerves still rattling after surviving the battle. "But only if we can get to Krakow.

“Where’s that?” Terry asks.

“Forty or fifty miles east of here,” Haim replies.

“Well east is in the right direction,” Terry nods.

While the others are looking at the travel papers, Taffy shows the other book to The Padre. Bruce’s hands are quaking as he leafs through its pages, feeling its unholy attributes.

“You better look after this, Padre,” Taffy says. “We need to get it back to Blighty. We might not be able to understand it, but maybe British Intelligence might.”

The Padre nods. “Although I want as little to do with this evil tome as possible, I know that someone needs to take care of it and keep it out of Nazi hands. Hopefully God will protect me from its unholy contents.”

Just to be on the safe side though, he wraps it securely in some spare sacking that he finds and tucks it away.

“We need to get out of here as soon as possible,” Taffy says to the entire group. “Sooner or later they are going to realize that they’ve lost a witch and will mobilize everything they have to find him. We need to be as far away from here as possible by then.”

The party members quickly make plans for everything they need to do before they leave – by covering their tracks as much as possible. They set about stripping the uniforms and gear from the fallen SS troops.

As they do so, the silence is torn by the mighty roar of a Maybach HL 42 TUKRM six-cylinder engine. Everyone dives for cover as a Schützenpanzerwagen 251/1 half-track rumbles into sight. They quickly relax, however, when they see that it’s Terry’s ugly face behind the wheel, smiling at them rather than someone bringing a squad of reinforcements.

“Hey guys, look what I just found!” Terry smiles. “I’m going to call her ‘Betty’. But I think that I’ll have to wait a while before I give her some nose art!”

Terry’s find changes the plans a little. Now everyone dons one of the SS uniforms, with Piotr taking the uniform of the witch. They put all of their possessions and the bodies of the killed troopers onto the back of the Sd.Kfz 251, plus all of the gear. They realize that they have enough MG34 and Mauser ammo that they are going to need – and more besides. Piotr takes the MP40. They also manage to take RM 160 from the dead soldier’s wallets.

Before they head off, Lodd barges into the forester’s cottage and finds an elderly couple hiding in the cellar. Although he doesn’t speak German, Silesian or Polish, just the terrifying form of the Slav in an ill-fitting SS uniform pointing at them and giving them the universal sign for ‘keep your mouths shut or we will slit your throats’ is enough to know that they aren’t going to be blabbing about a firefight on their premises any time soon.

On the way out of the cellar, Lodd spies five plucked chicken carcasses handing from hooks and so decides to liberate them to add to the party’s food supplies.

They take a good look around to make sure that they haven’t missed anything, then Terry guns the engines and the half-track sets off.

View
A Nocturnal Visitor
2 August 1943

It’s sometime in the middle of the night. Lodd and Taffy are on watch when Taffy hears footsteps heading towards the barn.

“Wake up everybody,” he whispers. “Someone’s coming!”

Instantly, everyone throws off their slumber, grabs their weapons and takes cover, aiming their weapons at the door.

There is a click at the door and the shape of a man enters the barn.

By the light of the moon, you make out the bedraggled figure of a man. He looks to be in his late-fifties, but hideously thin – little more than flesh and bones. He wears a uniform of gray and black stripes. Over his left breast is a yellow star of David patched on in yellow felt.

Blinking, his eyes adjust to the deep darkness inside the barn. He sees the glint from the metal of the guns pointing at him and then the Wehrmacht uniforms that you have put out to dry and sinks to his knees, weeping:

“!הו, אלוהים, בבקשה תציל אותי, O Boże, proszę uratuj mnie! Oh Gott, bitte rette mich! Oh God, please save me!” he cries as he falls to his knees, praying for redemption.

Terry looks on in amazement, never having seen a human being this emaciated.

“Haben Sie Angst nicht, aber seien Sie ruhig! Wie ist das Problem, Freund?” asks Taffy quietly.

The man just continues to look on in terror, not sure whether to believe Taffy or not.

“Spokojnie, stary,” Piotr whispers as quietly as Taffy. “Nie jesteśmy nazistami. Jesteśmy również zbiegów, takich jak Ty.”

The man looks a little confused now, but not quite as petrified.

“Strewth, mate, yer look bleedin’ starvin’,” Bruce says. “Let’s get yer some tucker.”

The Padre holsters his Luger and heads over to the man offering him a fistful of the berries that he picked earlier. The man takes them, still looking a little confused, but starts eating them hungrily.

“Dziękuję. Thank you,” the man says.

“No need to thank us. Just get inside and close the door before someone sees us,” Taffy says, practical as ever.

The Padre closes the door and leads the man to sit among them. The party members just watch him as he continues to eat and drinks from the Padre’s canteen.

Once the man has finished eating, Piotr starts to question him, translating as the man speaks in Polish.

“His name is Haim Goldstein,” Piotr explains. “He used to be a Professor of History at the University of Krakow until the occupation. He spent a year living in the Jewish ghetto before being transported with his family to a concentration camp called Auschwitz II-Birkenau. His family are all dead now. He managed to break away from a working party in the fields and has ran all of the way here.”

“He doesn’t know how far he ran exactly – maybe four or five miles. The concentration camp is north-east of here.”

Haim seems to be rambling on now – gibbering like a mad man.

“He tells me that this Auschwitz is Hell on Earth,” Piotr continues to translate. “He says that they were practically starved to death, as we can see from his condition.”

The Padre nods, “Well without our Red Cross Parcels, there but for the Grace of God go we.”

Haim continues to ramble. He is sobbing now. Piotr’s eyes go wide as he continues to listen to the details.

“He said that those who were kept near starvation were the lucky ones though. He says that those who were of no use for working were just slaughtered – poisoned to death with gas and then their bodies burned in ovens.”

“I find this hard to believe, sport,” Bruce says skeptically. “As we’ve seen for ourselves, the Nazis might be bastards, but at least they follow the Geneva Convention.”

“Apparently not if you are a Jew, a Gypsy or a homosexual,” Piotr replies.

“That’s funny, they didn’t treat the Sarge any different.” quips Terry quietly.

Haim is still rambling, sobbing his heart out now. Piotr does not translate for a while. He is just shaking his head, saying, “Nie, nie mogę w to uwierzyć. To nie może być prawda.”

Haim just nods and collapses into the hay. He seems totally spent.

“So what else did he say?” the others ask Piotr as one.

Piotr seems in a state of shock. “He’s not making any sense,” he says. “I think that the hardships must have driven him insane.”

“He is rambling about bizarre and evil medical experiments.”

“And witchcraft.”

The others are just staring at Piotr too.

“He says that the Nazi SS are practicing evil witchcraft. Their power comes from the souls of the Jews incarcerated in the camp.”

A silence falls across the barn as all try to comprehend what Piotr has just told them.

“Witchcraft? You mean like that voodoo hoodoo theys always yammerin’ about down in Harlem? Pin cushion dolls and the evil eye and all that?” asks Terry.

Piotr shrugs, obviously highly skeptical:

“Maybe Baba Yaga is also now working for the Nazis alongside the SS,” he says, obviously not believing Haim’s tale.

“Hezus Christie!" exclaims Bob. "Those f&@kin’ bastards! We need to report this. We should sneak over there and have a look. Who’s with me? Course we’ll need a good plan first. Let’s get some details on this camp from ol’ Hamish here.”

“How big is this camp?” Taffy asks Haim, speaking slowly and clearly.

“Big,” Haim replies. “Very, very big. There are three camps. Together they contain many prisoners kept alive. I would say around 30,000 in total, and that doesn’t count the thousands more coming through each day who are sent straight to the chambers of death.”

Taffy looks at the others:

“If they have a similar ratio of guards to prisoners that we had at Lamsdorf, then we’re talking two or three thousand guards. And these are no second-rate fat, old and half lame guards that we had – these are SS. The best the Germans have.”

“Of course investigating the camp is likely suicide," Bob concedes. "But who’s gonna believe us if all we have is this poor bastard’s crazy story? We’re soldiers, here to wipe the Nazi scourge from Europe.”

“I’m with you on that reconnoiter, my Canadian pally, just so’s we can get the dope on the Krauts for HQ," Terry agrees. "Dollars to donuts they’re up to no good, even if you only believe half of what this starving, whacked out Yid is sayin’.”

The fine hairs on the back of Lodd’s neck rise as goosebumps runs down his spine. He knows the deaths of him and his companions await at that sinister place. He has survived alone in the woodlands of his home for weeks on end eating the grub-paste and other bounties. He could do it again if his companions choose to do the foolish thing.

However, Lodd has thrown his lot in with these strong-hearted misfits. His new found loyalty is like an iron shackle that binds him to these desperate people and he knows, deep down, he will not abandon them. With a shrug of his massive (massively aching) shoulders he listens to the debate with a typical Soviet Fatalism.

“I’m with Taffy,” Piotr says. “We’ve just escaped from one prisoner of war camp and you want to head off and check out an even worse and bigger one because one old man has listened to too many ghost stories after lights out?”

“It’s a suicide mission.”

“What’s the size of this place?” he asks Haim.

“Around a square kilometre, perhaps.”

“Fucking huge!” Piotr exclaims in frustration. “And no doubt they’ve cut back the trees by many tens of yards in order to create a killing zone. What are we likely to see even if we stay in cover?”

“And even if we did see something, what difference does it make? Are General Sikorski and Winston Churchill going to pin medals on our chests? No, they would just consider us as seven crazy people instead of just one.”

“Piotr and Taffy do make some good points,” Bruce agrees. “Escaping alone is challenging enough.”

A silence falls across the barn.

“I think that we should just sleep on it for what little remains of the night and finalize our plans just before we leave in the morning,” The Padre finishes, unsuccessfully trying to stifle a yawn.

The others agree. It’s the middle of the night and, as such, not the best time to be making important decisions. Although no one has a watch, dawn can’t be too far away now and so Bob and The Padre take over the final watch of the night, leaving Haim and the others to sleep.

Two or three hours pass – it’s hard to tell – and dawn is starting to break. The rain has also stopped although the skies remain cloudy. Bob is just wondering whether or not to wake the others yet – after all, they want to be away before whoever is in the forester’s hut gets up – when he spies movement.

“Wake up everyone,” he hisses to the others.

They are up in an instant, reaching for their weapons.

“What is it?” Piotr asks sleepily.

“Germans,” Bob whispers, readying his Mauser as he peeps through the barn window. “Four have just entered the courtyard. Looks like two are heading for the cottage and two are coming this way.”

“I might be wrong,” the Padre says from the rear of the barn where he is keeping watch. “But I think two more have just taken up position in the trees at 11 o’clock.”

“They are only expecting a lone escaped prisoner,” said Taffy quietly. “Let them come in and then we jump them. Quietly if possible, but if we have to shoot, we shoot.”

Terry does not say anything nice about Taffy’s idea, but he nods his assent.

“Dobry,” nods Piotr to Taffy’s suggestion. “However, if we beat the Nazis, then we may have to kill some innocent Silesian farmers … witnesses.”

“Kill da witnesses? What’re you, a goomba dego? We just tell ‘em we’re Americans and they’ll be so happy to see us they’ll give us the code to Herr Hitlers personal hidey hole! You know, the Mummmenschanz! No wait, it’s the Rosencrantz! Wait…”

“That’s the Wolfsschanze Terry.” interjected Bob, shaking his head.

“Yeah. That’s it. Thanks buddy.”

“The other thing to consider is that these might not be the only ones,” Taffy adds. “There is probably a whole search line moving through the woods, so any gunfire might bring the whole nest down.”

“If they are searching carefully enough, they will spot the motorcycles. We didn’t camouflage them because we didn’t think we’d be leaving them too long.”

“Either way we need to get ready to move.”

“Piotr, is trickery possible? With our uniforms and your fluent German?”

“They’re not wearing usual Wehrmacht uniforms,” Bob interjects, carefully watching the Germans approach. “They’re wearing black; not grey.”

“Kurwa!” Piotr exclaims. “Sounds like the pierdolony SS!”

He flicks the safety off his Mauser and attaches the bayonet.

“There’s no way a Wehrmacht NCO can give orders to the SS. Looks like we are going to have to fight this one out.”

View
Hiking through Silesian Forests
30 July / 1 August 1943

The group spends the next two days hiking through the forests of Silesia, using only the sun to navigate by.

They make fair progress during this time – fair, but not excellent. The forest is not vast – rather it seems to be a strip of land remaining wooded varying from one to two miles wide. Quite often they find that they need to doubleback on the route to avoid leaving its confines and on several occasions carefully have to cross some roads running north to south as well as taking care to avoid some small villages cut from the forest. On occasions, Bob who is scouting ahead, drops and frantically signals for everyone to get to cover as he spies someone on the path. Fortunately, however, they are just local Silesians and there are no signs of any Nazis out here in the middle of nowhere.

As they continue, they look for anything that may be edible. The forest proves to be less than bountiful, however, as they find little more than berries to supplement their fast diminishing stocks from the Red Cross Parcels.

By the end of the second day, the party members are starting to get irritable. The bikes have been slowing them down and are heavy to push. To make matters worse, the weather that had been fine since they left Stalag VIIIB breaks mid-afternoon and so it’s starting to drizzle. It seems as if this journey has taken forever, even though they estimate that they are probably covering less than a dozen miles per day.

It’s late in the afternoon now and there is plenty of talk of ‘ditching the fucking bikes’ when Bob signals to everyone. They know the drill now having done it more than half a dozen times already. But then they see that Bob is beckoning the others to some up and join him. Leaving the bikes where they are, they cautiously come up to join him.

“Looks like we have run out of forest now,” he says.

The others looks around too in the fast disappearing light and see that he is right. They are at the end of a wooded peninsula with open fields and buildings in the distance. Just 50 yards away, however, is a small cottage in a small compound which also contains a barn. They can also hear the occasional clucking of chickens.

Lodd’s eyes go all dreamy.

“Barn with roof,” he says. “No rain. Soft hay for to sleep on. Roast chickens and fried eggs.”

“Not so fast, Lodd,” Piotr says. “The cottage is in good condition. It does not look abandoned. And, as I said before, we cannot trust any of the Silesians not to turn us into the Germans.”

“I agree that we should exercise caution,” Bruce says, as usual.

“Let’s just keep watch on the place for a while,” Bob says.

As twilight falls, Piotr’s hunch was right, as a dim light comes on in the cottage. Someone is in there.

“We just need to wait here until we see the lights go off,” says Bob. “Then hopefully we can sneak in the barn. As long as we are away again early, they should never know we were here.”

The wait seems to take forever, especially in the rain which has increased in force drenching everyone despite the forest cover. But after a few hours, the lights in the cottage eventually go off. They all wait another 15 minutes in the hope that the occupant or occupants are now asleep.

“I’ll check it out,” Bob says. “Cover me.”

With the others all covering the cottage, Bob stealthily enters the compound, scuttling among the trees. Silently he opens the gate to the picket fence and tiptoes to the barn. With relief, he finds the door is open. He gestures to the others to come – one at a time.

One by one they follow Bob’s route to the barn until they are all safely inside the barn with Piotr, the last to arrive, silently closing the door behind him.

Sure enough, there are chickens here. Wringing their necks will probably start them squawking, but there everyone is able to get a day’s worth of food in eggs from them. Fried eggs will have to wait for another day though as they are afraid to start a fire inside the barn for fear of waking the occupants of the cottage. Instead they eat more of the rations from the Red Cross Parcels. It’s late now and they know they will need to get away early in the morning before the occupants of the cottage are up and so those not on watch go straight to sleep. The soft hay beneath them sure beats the forest floor and so they are asleep in an instant.

View
Transfer Day
30 July 1943

To the potential escapees, it seemed to take forever, but eventually Monday came around.

As usual, they were awaken at 06.00 by the sound of the door to their huts opening and jackboots marching up and down among their bunkbeds to the familiar cry of “Aufstefen Sie alles!”

Quickly everyone saw to their ablutions and pulled on their clothes, ready for rollcall at 06.30. As they each took their position, they saw that the weather was perfect – a warm late summer’s day in Silesia without a cloud in the sky – temperatures will be sure to reach the mid-twenties later on.

As usual, the German officers counted up all of the POWs to determine that none had gone missing overnight. Equally as usual, no one had. The German NCO’s each confirmed that the numbers were correct to Oberleutnant Klein, who then addressed the POWs in his flawed, but passable English. As normal, he started off with his usual propaganda and sundry notices of negligible importance.

But then he started reading out a list.

“The following men should reassemble here at 09.30 hours for transport to your Arbeitskommando detachments with all of your belongings.”

He then listed each of the six new comrades in order.

“Dismissed,” he said, before promptly turning on his heels.

Kurwa, this is not looking very promising,” Piotr cursed. “I was hoping that there would be more groups so that we got the best of the assignments. But it is obviously not to be.”

He shook his head.

“Not looking good at all.”

All knew that they were committed now, however, and they just had to hope that there was no heavy work detailed.

With each of the POWs meager possessions, packing was not a major issue, and so each member of the party spent his final two hours in the camp saying farewell to the friends that they had made while at Lamsdorf. They then reassembled in the centre of the camp well before their allotted time, bringing what’s left from their last Red Cross parcels with them.

At 09.30 prompt, they were met by four guards.

“Kommen Sie mit uns,” the Unterfeldwebel barked, before marching the six of them towards the main gate.

Ten minutes later and they were in the outer compound of Lamsdorf, where the Germans had their quarters – still well enough protected that there was no chance of making a run for it.

In front of them was a standard Mercedes L3000 truck – one of the main workhorses of the German army. Despite the fine weather, its canopy was up. Either side of the truck were two BMW L75 motorcycles with sidecars, with both of the sidecars mounting MG34 light machine guns.

Standing around the vehicles were eight members of the Wehrmacht. As with the majority of the prison guards, these were no crack troops – second or third-rate troops – either too old, too young, too injured, too lucky or too privileged to be at the front. But they had weapons and they knew how to use them.

Three of them had standard issue Mauser rifles slung over their shoulders while the other four – presumably drivers and machine gunners, carried just sidearms.

The party members spent a few minutes sizing up their guards while the Unterfeldwebel finished up the paperwork which he gave to the Obergefrieter who seemed to be in command of the transfer.

The two German NCOs exchanged salutes and then it was time for the Germans to load the prisoners into the back of the truck. The Obergefrieter and the driver got in the cab of the truck while four got onto/into the motorcycles and sidecars. This left two guards to usher the prisoners onboard.

“Bekommen Sie in,” they ordered, unslinging their Mausers.

The party members climbed up on the back of the truck, seeing that, unlike British trucks which have their seats lengthways on either side, the Mercedes truck had three benches in a row. The guards made it obvious that they were going to be taking the end one guarding the rear of the vehicle, but left the prisoners free to choose their own positions on the other two benches.

The other three sides of the bed of the truck were covered with canvas.

Piotr exchanged furtive glances with the others. It’s obvious what is going through his mind. Is it going to be possible to make an escape while in transit, or are the odds stacked too much against them still?

The party members take their positions inside the rear of the truck. The group’s two bruisers, Terry and Lodd sit facing the two guards while the others head for the rear. Piotr sits between Terry and Lodd so that he can try and figure out where they are heading based upon what he can see from the rear.

The small convoy sets off from the Stalag. Piotr concentrates, trying to figure out where they are heading. Initially he figures that they are heading north-east. The others look at him for a clue as to where they are going, but Piotr just shrugs.

“Nothing much that I know of in this direction,” he says.

But after around 8 miles, the truck turns sharply to the right at a junction. It takes a while for Piotr to figure out the lay of the land, but then the Polak raises his eyebrows.

“Now we are heading south-east. This will take up to the industrial heartland of Silesia – to the coal mines and ironworks. This is not good.”

The guards seem to speak no English; they are chatting to one another, their Mausers between their legs.

“I’m not working in no coal mine,” Piotr whispers. “I think that we should try and taken them – as soon as we reach the next forested section as long as there is no traffic. The journey to the industrial will not take long – we have less than an hour to make our move.”

The next wooded section is a long time in coming. It takes over 40 minutes until the terrain changes from open fields to another wooded section.

“This could be our last chance,” he whispers. “It’s now or never.”

Terry and Lodd nod in agreement. Terry counts down on his fingers. As one, both Terry and Lodd luge at the two guards in front of them. Terry’s training and Lodd’s pure brawn easily win the day and the two totally surprised guards both collapse from well-placed punches to the jaw and are dragged into the centre of the truck.

Piotr advances and peeps over the tailgate. Much to his relief, he sees that the two crewmen of the BMW R75 rearguard are totally oblivious as to what went on in the back of the truck, too busy chatting with one another and admiring the scenery to see the two guards go down.

Bob and Taffy take the two Mausers dropped by the guards. Bob advances back to the front of the cab and uses one of the guards’ bayonets to slash open the canvas so that he can see the motorcycle in the vanguard. At the same time, Taffy takes the other and draws a bead on the driver of the R75 in the rear. After taking aim for a while and then squeeze the triggers.

BLAM!”

Both shots find their marks and the two motorcycles slur to a halt. The noise of the rifle shots have alerted the driver of the truck, however, as he puts his foot on the brake and the Mercedes L3000 skids to a halt. This simply provides a more stable firing platform for the two riflemen, however and, before the two machinegunners have quite figured out what’s going on, Taffy and Bob have taken both of them out. There is just the driver and the NCO riding shotgun to worry about now.

Terry and Piotr are the first out of the back of the truck, trying to rush those in the cab. Piotr’s recklessness is rewarded by his getting shot in the arm, leaving him stunned. Terry manages to open the cab before he too is stunned by a flesh wound from the driver. The Padre dashes out to see if he can fix up the Pole, while Taffy and Bob head around the other side to give supporting fire to Terry.

Piotr shrugs off the injury, a look of grim determination on his face as he charges the NCO.

“To dla mojej ojczyzny, skurwielu matka!” Piotr growls as he punches the NCO in the face, sending him to the floor.

Lodd remains in the rear of the truck. He hurls one of the unconscious guards at the canvas, only to see the body bounce back before crunching to the ground.

Despite the truck driver being the only Nazi remaining, he doesn’t give in easily despite being totally outnumbered, stunning Terry again with another shot from his Luger. The driver’s days are numbered, however. Bob wounds him with a shot through the cab, while Lodd finally punches his way through the canvas and the window, grabbing the driver by the throat and ripping open his neck on the jagged glass. The guards are all dead or knocked out.

The Padre immediately sees to Piotr who was the only one injured. Fortunately the Pole’s wounds were not severe and he is quickly patched up.

The party members go through the downed Nazi’s gear, dividing up the eight guards’ weapons between them. They decide to change into the guards’ uniforms, despite the warning from The Padre that to do so will lead to their being shot.

Piotr just shrugs at The Padre’s warning:

“For what we have done, they will shoot us anyway if we are captured. So what have we to lose?”

“S’pose your right, cobber,” The Padre says with a shrug as he too puts on a uniform and takes a Luger.

“Let us put motorcycle in back of truck, da?” Lodd suggests.

The others nod in agreement – better than leaving them here for someone to find in any case.

While the other maneuver the motorcycles into the back of the truck, Piotr goes through the guards’ belongings. He takes their IDs and what little cash they have – a total of 25 Reichsmarks. He also finds the NCO’s orders.

He nods as he sees them:

“The Delbrückschächte Hindenburg coal mines,” he says with a sigh. “Good that we escaped now. It would surely be hell there.”

He looks at the others:

“But, my novy przyjaciele, this was just the easy part. The Nazis place their camps in this part of their territory because they know that we are so far away from neutral territory. Where do we go now? The Baltic ports in the hope that we can get passage to Sweden? Switzerland where we may be interned again? The Russian Front? Yugoslavia? All are 300-500 miles away.”

They discuss among themselves. Eventually they decide that, because of Lodd’s connections, Yugoslavia is probably the best option.

“Dobze,” Piotr agrees. “Note, however, that we probably won’t get very far with the truck. There are road blocks at the entrances to most towns and cities where they will want to see our papers and our papers are only good to take us to Delbrückschächte Hindenburg,”

“Well let’s see how far we can get anyway,” suggests Terry.

Piotr can’t argue with that.

“Dobze, so let us see.”

Terry takes on the role as truck driver, while Piotr rides shotgun in case there is any talking to be done. The others hide in the back together with the motorcycles, ready in case of any trouble.

Terry lets out the clutch and continues on the road to Hindenburg. After just a couple of miles, however, there is a crossroads and Terry takes the turn to the south. He continues driving for another 40 minutes due south. However, as Piotr predicted, they see in the distance a police checkpoint at the start of a major town. The Germans have removed all of the signposts and so Piotr does not know exactly where they are.

Piotr sighs:

“As I thought, we would not get far by truck before we are stopped. So what do we do now? Do we try and bluff our way through even without papers? Fight our way through? Abandon the truck and try and bypass all of the obstacles in our way? Takes the motorcycles although they can be heard for miles or continue on foot?”

“I vote for a recon of the checkpoint, then a frontal assault,” says Terry, stroking the MG34 next to him, blood-thirsty as ever.

“Maybe we go to Francia instead,” Lodd says. “I see pictures. Looks pretty.”

Terry says, “Je voudrais aller en France. Ma grand-mère était française, et je ne parle pas la langue.”

Seeing the other man’s blank look, he adds, “I said I speak French, ya mook.”

“The more trouble we cause, the more attention we attract,” says Taffy. “We can’t fight the whole Wermacht through 500 miles of enemy territory.”

“We are half a dozen indifferently equipped raggedy arsed soldiers, not an army. We should use our brains rather than mashing them against the nearest wall.”

“Too right, cobber,” The Padre says, nodding his head vigorously. “There’s no point in causing any needless death and injuries if we can avoid them.”

Bob also agrees with the Welshman and the Aussie:

“If we’re heading to Yugoslavia, we definitely need a plan. I suggest we avoid trouble, keep out of sight, skirt the roadblocks, and knife any fu*^ing Nazi we come across.”

“Well said, Bob,” Taffy agrees.

“Once one of us takes a serious hit, we’ve no means of recovering-and so that man is effectively dead. Which is why we need to avoid trouble as much as possible. I’ve no doubt we won’t be able to avoid it sometimes, but need to minimise the amount we have.”

“If we start to be a real pain the Nazis will also throw additional resources to catch us-and then we’ve had it.”

“Hm. What’s yer play then, Limey?” Terry asks Taffy.

“The first thing we need to decide is on our mode of transport,” Piotr interjects.

He looks up at the position of the sun through the clear blue skies in order to determine the time. It’s around midday.

“We should be arriving at Hindenburg around now – probably around thirty minutes ago. I don’t think the Krauts will start panicking yet, but they will definitely figure out that something is up by the end of the afternoon. If we’re lucky, they will leave it until first light until they start to see what happened. Fortunately we didn’t leave any clues at the scene to my knowledge so they should be clueless as to what happened and where we went.”

“This truck sticks out like a sore thumb,” he continues. “From tomorrow, the Krauts will definitely be putting all of the police in a wide area on high alert to look for it. Option B is to dump the truck and take the bikes. As they can go offroad, we can go cross country with them. They make a hell of a racket though and with three of us on each bike, we will immediately arouse suspicion if anyone sees us.”

“Plan C would be to simply abandon the vehicles and walk. It’s a hell of a long way to walk though and the going is tough – from memory we have three mountain ranges to cross to get there. If we made it in less than two months, then we would be doing well.”

“Plan D would be to try and take trains some or part of the way, but we don’t have any papers and will look incredibly suspicious dragging MG34’s onboard a civilian train.”

He sighs.

“None of the options are particularly attractive. But it’s just going to be a case of going with the least worst of them.”

Piotr looks around at the terrain. While the ground is open to the south, there are woodlands to both the west and east.

“My vote would be to follow the woods to the east and see how far we get before they run out,” he says. “Whether we go on foot or try and take the bikes down some bridleways, I’m not sure about.”

He looks around at the others:

“Any suggestions or better ideas?”

“I suppose we may as well resign ourselves to footslogging most of the way anyway," Taffy replies. "As long as we can find thick forest to move through, and we can manage the food problem.”

“Food problem?” asks Terry, “Isn’t this like Deli Central?”

“My ex, Sarah, used to tell me that all the best delicatessens were in Eastern Europe. Wouldn’t every local farm have a pile of Corned Beef and Blintzes stashed away?” he adds with a laugh.

“Just kidding. If we get desperate we can eat the big guy.”

Then, more seriously, “Why don’t we take those bridle paths Ol Petey was yammerin’ about, but say we walk the bikes? If Lodd and I put the MG’s in the sidecars we’re strong enough to push ‘em, and then we’d have wheels if we needed ‘em in an emergency like? It’ll slow us down, but not so much so’s you’d notice and I always feel better about facin’ trouble if I’ve got wheels nearby…”

Lodd looks into the forest with a peculiar look in his dark eyes, seemingly unaffected by the New Yorker’s cannibalistic jest. Growing up in a desolate Slavic village cut off from most civilization he has more then his share of superstition. It seemed that every year news of children lost in the dark woods would filter into his village and once again the wizened elders would preach in hushed tones about the foolishness of traveling into the woods.

Lodd feels fear. Fear has been his constant companion since all this ‘War’ business started. He knows its flavor well. He is not a coward, but the fear of what lies waiting for them all in the shadowed hollows of the forest turns his heart to stone. He’d rather take his chances against all the bullets in Germany.

Unfortunately, due to his lack of education and his smattering of any common language the others would understand he is unable to convey his deepening sense of dread. He says “Road ist goodt.” and points north even though he knows that the decision has already been made.

“I’m afraid that it looks like yer out-voted, Lodd, me ole mucker,” The Padre says, glad that the numbers are on his side and he didn’t have to beg the others not to try anything too heroic.

“Dobzhe,” agrees Piotr with a nod.

Cautiously, Terry shifts the gears into reverse and slowly backs up the Mercedes L3000, Piotr’s eyes never leaving the guards at the roadblock in case they see this strange behavior. Fortunately though, they are far away and did not see the vehicle approach. Once out of sight of the roadblock, Terry turns the truck around so they are heading north again.

Piotr keeps his eyes peeled for any minor turning where they will be able to get the truck off the road and out of sight. It only takes 300 yards before they find a suitable logging path, so Terry turns off the road. They only get 250 yards down the track before it becomes too narrow. Terry then drives the truck into the forest as far as it will go.

“Help me try and hide it as best we can,” Terry says.

After taking the two motorcycles off the truck, they use their captured entrenching tools to cut off boughs from the conifers. After half an hour, it is covered as well as it will ever be. There’s no way that a 3-ton truck is ever going to be completely hidden, but in this less well-traveled part of Silesia, hopefully they should be days away before anyone stumbles upon it.

They then maneuver the bikes onto the bridleway, getting into formation. Bob takes the vanguard position, travelling 20 yards ahead of the bikes to check the route. Terry and Piotr maneuver the first of the bikes with Lodd and Taffy taking the second. The Padre brings up the rear, relieved of any of the heavy pushing work.

The group makes fair progress during the afternoon. Most of the way they are able to follow paths where the going is not too bad. Rarely, however are the paths heading directly south-east so they find themselves zig-zagging through the forest, sometimes going due south, at other times going due east.

By 7.00pm, it’s almost pitch black in the gloomy forest and they realize that they will have to stop. Not only would using the bike’s lights drain the batteries after a couple of hours, but they would also be spotted from miles away. So they pull off into the forest and make camp under the trees. Fortunately the weather is fine so sleeping under the stars is no great imposition. Having not eaten for 24 hours, they use up some of their precious rations.

It’s been a long day and so they set up a watch rota – two on/four off. Pushing the bikes was hard work and so they soon fall asleep, even with just the forest floor for beds.

View
Piotr Reports
25 July 1943

The next day dawns as usual on Stalag VIII-B, starting with the early morning roll call.

The would-be escapees seek one another out during the day, asking each other the same question:

“So where do you think we’ll end up?”

Some of them fantasize about dream assignments, some of which they have heard about from other POWs who have returned from other working parties – the best of which seems to have been working in an upscale hotels in ski resorts, with gourmet food easy to steal from the kitchens and horny frauleins in their rooms who are often up for a bit of verbotten hanky-panky in their rooms while their boyfriends are away at the front. More often than not though, the reports are the opposite – hard work from dawn to dusk doing the most backbreaking demeaning work.

All they can do is guess, however.

So all are assembled in the RSM’s hut well before 19.00, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Piotr.

The Pole arrives at 19.00 on the dot. All eyes are upon him looking for a clue as to how the meeting went, but his features betray little in the way of emotions.

“So, mate?” Bruce asks the question that is on everyone’s lips. “Where are we going?”

“I don’t know,” Piotr replies.

This news is met with sighs all round.

“All I can tell you is when we are going, which is next Monday,” Piotr replies.

“So five more days to wait, then?”

Piotr nods.

“The Oberleutnant isn’t the one who decides who goes where, exactly,” Piotr explains. “Requests for POWs to work on Arbeitskommando units come from civilian managers from around the region. They are then processed by Regional Command and put in order of priority.”

More sighs.

“So we could be ending up in a bleedin’ mine after all?”

“Hopefully not,” Piotr replies. “There are over 10,000 POWs at Lamsdorf, so it is unlikely that we are the only ones asking to be detailed to an Arbeitskommando unit this week. The Oberleutnant did agree that we would be placed on the best … or shall we say, least worst … assignment.”

“If all of the assignments are bad, then there is nothing that he can do – it will look too suspicious if I try and meet with him again. So all we can do is to wait until Monday, cross our fingers and hope that there is one cushy assignment that has come in.”

“Until then, are there any preparations that we can make? I am sure that we will be searched upon leaving the camp and once again upon arriving at our work detail, so our options are quite limited as to what we may be able to take from here with us. Something small we might be able to get away with, however.”

“Any thoughts or suggestions, any one?”

View
Drawing Straws
24 July 1943

The POWs all looked at one another. With most of them being Brits, there was no great rush to take the first straw, just lots of looking to the side and cries of, “After you, mate.”

The first few POWs to try their luck either sighed or shrugged their shoulders as they each emerged holding a short straw. Then it was the turn of ‘Polish Pete’, the lone Pole amidst all of the native English speakers. As he drew the first of the long straws, he simply nodded, his face hard to read.

“Well done, Pete,” said the RSM. “You’ll be missed but, with your knowledge of the local area and command of all the local languages, you’ll be a big help in getting the others out with you.”

“Stand over here, can you?”

Piotr just nodded and strided over to the side of the room. The RSM started to scowl at not receiving a salute from the Pole, but then remembered that ‘Pete’ was actually a Captain and so officially out-ranked him.

A couple more short straws and then it was time for “Grumpy Bob” – one of the many Canucks to go. He drew the second of the long straws.

“Probably just signed my death warrant,” he moaned.

The RSM sighed. “Over there with Pete, if you would.”

Bob threw the RSM a salute and went to join the Polak.

A few more failures, and then it was the turn of Lodd Yegor, “The Beast of Belgrade” to take his turn.

“Да!” exclaimed the huge Serb as he produced a long straw.

Piotr showed no reaction. Grumpy Bob uttered a silent curse under his breath, while several of those who had already had their turn grinned that the freak would soon be on his way. They could never figure out why the Commie bastard was in their camp anyway – shouldn’t he have been in the the other camp with the rest of the Russkie animals?

Lodd threw the RSM his best imitation of a salute as he stomped to join the others, sending the floorboards of the hut shaking as he went.

Next in line was one of the Yanks, Terry Mallory, one of the more recent arrivals at Stalag VIII-B compared to the majority of the POWs who had been in here since the disaster of the BEF in France in 1940. There were a few groans as he too pulled out a long straw and gripes that it should be one of the old-timers going in his place. He saluted and joined the others.

Short straw after short straw was drawn until there were just a handful of men remaining. Then it was “Taffy” Williams turn. He received the penultimate straw.

The RSM tried not to smile. “Nice that they others will have a fellow Welshman to keep them in line,” he said. “Just remember to send us a postcard when you’re back in the valley.”

Taffy threw the Welsh Guards’ Senior NCO a salute and went to join the others.

More POWs went and returned with just short straws until there were just two POWs remaining – both of them Aussies – Alec Gray an artilleryman who was captured at El Alamein – and the Padre, Bruce Gibson.

Alec went first, but drew the last of the short straws, to his disappointment. The RSM opened his hand revealing the last of the long straws to the Chaplain.

Bruce looked torn as he saw that he was to be the last of the six to make the latest escape attempt. He considered asking the RSM to give it to Alec instead but then sighed:

“If it is God’s will that I will return to active service, then it shall be so,” he said.

Although he was technically a superior to the RSM, Bruce was not one to stand on ceremony, so saluted the RSM before joining the others.

The RSM addressed the others. “Sorry lads, that’s the luck of the draw. Better luck next time, boyyos.”

“Would everyone who has not been chosen and who is not part of the Escape Committee please now leave the room?”

The majority of POWs saluted the RSM and then shuffled away, moaning quietly to themselves, until there was just the RSM, the chosen six, and a handful of other men left in the room.

“Congratulations all of you,” the RSM said. “Please take seats, if you can find any.”

The six all looked around and sat on the bottom bunks around them, apart from Lodd who preferred to lean against the wooden wall rather than to try squeeze his bulk into the confined space.

“So, lads, you have a major decision to make – one that will probably be the determining factor in whether your escape is a success or a failure.”

“One of the options is to try and make an escape from the Stalag itself. The advantages is that you have all of the facilities of the Escape Committee here to assist you. We can provide you with detailed maps of the local areas and the places to avoid, civilian clothing, tools, travel permits, currency and forged papers. The downside, as I am sure that you are all too aware, is that here is no holiday camp – it’s going to be ruddy hard to get away from here.”

“The second option is to get assigned to a working party. The downside to this is that you aren’t going to know where you will be going or what you will be doing when you get there. You could be down a pit and under heavy guard; you could be assigned to an agricultural job halfway to a neutral territory with just one half-blind, half-lame guard to try and keep you in line. Normally though, security is a lot more lax on these working parties. However, escaping your guard on one of these working parties will be the easy part. You’ll be on your own after that and we can’t be of any more assistance. You’ll need to make your own plans on where to go and how to get there once only once you are in position.”

He paused for effect.

“So any questions or thoughts at this stage? We’ll give you all of the information that we have, but that’s not a lot about the working camps as they are opening new ones all the time.”

“If you have no questions, then what is it to be?”

“Is there ‘any arm in just joining a work party anyway?" Taffy asks the others. “That’s give us an option even if we don’t take it up, surely?”

“Youse ‘tinks we’re gonna get a cush assignment, Limey?" Terry immediately replies. "Let’s just bust outta ‘dis joint. I joined up ta kill Hitler’s bums, so let’s get goin.”

“No PRIVATE," Taffy replies with the emphasis on the Yank’s lower rank. "I mean: if we get an assignment which does give us a better escape opportunity, we might then have the choice of two options. As to killing Germans, that’s all very well once we’re back home and in the Fight. Goin’ Mad and killing Germans during the escape is just going to mean reprisals for the lads left back here at the camp. Or don’t you give a damn about them?”

“I do agree with Taffy, ’ere, mates,” Padre Bruce chimes in. “We should definitely err on the side of caution rather than simply agree to the first half-baked plan that any of us come up with. I also agree that we should try to avoid any loss of life except in the case of exceptional circumstances. The guards are not SS stormtroopers after all. They are second-line troops, many of whom are barely fit for service and have wives and family waiting for them.”

Piotr reacts angrily at this. Being a Catholic, the Padre’s faith means little to him.

“And what about my countrymen that the Nazis butchered? You think that they didn’t have wives and children? You think that the Nazis didn’t butcher the wives and children along with the male defenders? They all swore allegiance to Hitler before they put on their uniforms otherwise they would have left the country when they had a chance. My countrymen had no such choices. We didn’t ask for a war.”

“If they march under the swastika, then I’m with Terry. It is every captured soldier’s duty to make escape attempts, no matter what the cost.”

The RSM sees that the situation is getting heated already:

“Calm down, lads, please.”

Bruce is already calm. He knows no other state of emotion than calm.

“Is it true what Taffy says, RSM?” he asks. “Would there be reprisals here were to get killed or injured during our escape attempt?”

The RSM strokes his chin. “Injuries – unlikely. As for what would be the case were you to kill Germans making an attempt escape, I’m not so sure. Probably not to the rest of us left here, but the escapees are going to be in a lot of trouble. Fortunately Jerry doesn’t seem to contravene the Geneva Convention in such matters. They know that, whatever they do to our boys, their boys in our POW camps will get the same treatment.”

There is a silence after the RSM has finished speaking:

“Terry, if you want out now, then I’m with you,” Piotr says. “But what did you have in mind? I can’t think of an easy way out of here. Once we’re out of here though, then I think that we will find more options.”

At a loss for a good idea on how to break out that he could convince the others to go for, Terry says:

“I ain’t been here as long as you mooks, so’s maybe I don’t know nuthin’. So we’ll do it Taffy’s way.”

Pointedly leaving out the other man’s rank, he continues with a bold stare:

“But I want in on ‘dis war again before it’s over. I gotta grudge with dem naatzees.”

Lodd speaks. His voice seems to come from under a rock in a very deep cave.

“I can work. I can work, goodt.” His smattering of stilted English is almost overrun by his rural Serbian accent. To emphasize his point, he makes slow shovel movements with his massive arms. Through the tears in one of his sleeves the assembled can see the purple bruising from the most recent “Friday Night Fights”.

Being practically Russian, why was this Slav kept here? It would seem that some of the Offizerien are amateur boxers and professional sadists. At the end of the week they like to entertain themselves with a few boxing matches among the prisoners which are less protected by the Geneva Convention. One Unterfeldwebel in particular likes to cheat and, when his fists begin to ache from punching Lodd in the face, he grabs whatever is around the ring to use. The mark on Lodd’s arm is shaped like a rifle stock.

Other then a few slow hay-makers that never connect does Lodd ever fight back? Hell no, he’s stupid, but not crazy.

Lodd looks at Terry and says “Naatzees!” then crushes his fist on an imaginary enemy.

Piotr looks less than impressed with his supposed Slavic brother:

“Dobzhe, I will take that as another vote for joining an Arbeitskommando working party, unless you have any violent objections, Robert?”

He pronounces Grumpy Bob’s name as in French – Rob-airt.

Grumpy Bob just shrugs. “Looks like the decision has been made already anyway.”

Piotr nods:

“Dobzhe. I agree to do the talking, but will need your assistance in terms of some donations from your Red Cross Parcels. A decent bribe to the right person and we should hopefully be able to avoid getting assigned to something that requires twelve hours per day of grueling physical exercise, such as mining.”

He takes off his cap – the same strange-looking four-cornered square cap that is standard Polish issue. Into it, he deposits a dozen cigarettes and a bar of chocolate.

“The Germans particularly like the British chocolate,” he explains. “And cigarettes are always in demand. The rest of our supplies they aren’t that bothered with.”

The Padre throws in his entire tin of 50 Player’s:

“You can have all my smokes, mate. The bleedin’ things ain’t no good for you anyway.”

Piotr smiles.

“Compared to living in this camp for another year, everything is healthy. OK, Padre, keep your chocolate as you are so generous with your smokes.”

He passes the cap around waiting for donations from the other four would-be escapees.

Once all have contributed, he places the voluminous cap back upon his head at the same jaunty angle he always wears it at, hiding the contents.

“Dobzhe, kolegy. So I think that we are all done for this evening. I will speak to the Oberleutnant responsible for working parties tomorrow and will report back to you here at 19.00 hours tomorrow.”

He clicks his heels, throws a neat salute to the RSM and his new companions and heads back to his own hut.

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