I'll See You Down There
Gran Sasso, Italy. September 1943
It was time to get Mussolini off the mountain.
That was when Skorzeny's need to be seen to have led the rescue nearly got him killed. Following a short take-off run, the plane fell more than flew off the mountain. There was a moment of alarm as everyone on the mountain held their breath and watched the tiny Fieseler Storch plane falling towards the valley floor.
It was designed for two people but Skorzeny, not wishing to miss his share of the glory, wanted to be there when Mussolini arrived. So there were three in a plane built for two, and it was taking off in thin mountain air.
The pilot was good, he put the plane's nose down and allowed it to pick up speed. Then, as the valley bottom approached, he pulled the nose up, and to everyone's relief sped off down the valley.
The soldiers, who had been expecting a more or less one-way mission, now needed to extract themselves.
With holiday-making hilarity the first group boarded the cable-car and descended the mountain. They secured the foot of the cable-car and some went searching for transport. They soon had enough lorries, and with the braver Italian drivers leading the way, those that is who had no intention of letting their vehicles out of their sight, they set off for the north.
Meanwhile, Carlo, Luigi and Badoglio's men were long gone.
Gott had been amused to overhear Luigi ask Carlo, as they entered the cable-car with all their equipment…
"Was that an adventure?"
"Yes," Carlo had replied… "That was definitely an adventure!"
Carlo was still astonished that no-one had been hurt. It could so easily have gone badly wrong for all of them. Now he not only had enough photos to make the brothers Fosetti happy, he also had a coming Sunday to look forward to, and Harald's offer of a military press-pass.
He had come a very long way since he left Calabria!
Everyone who had been on the mountain was now a celebrity. A large number of Iron Crosses, of all classes, even Knight's Crosses were awarded to the rescue team. Hitler met them in person, shaking each by the hand.
There was no medal for Carlo, but he was greeted with open arms by the Fosetti brothers. They were vastly relieved to see him return safely. They were bachelors and had no children. Carlo was the nearest they would ever come to having a son to call their own.
The small Leica and its film, and the plates that Carlo had managed to secrete away from German custody brought the brothers instant fame. Carlo's star was rising and there was still Harald's promise to cash in… a press-pass.
The brothers had reacted with both enthusiasm and worry at the idea of an army press-pass. Would he be careful if they agreed? Of course he would, Carlo assured them with all the seriousness and sincerity that the question deserved… and that a teenage boy could muster.
At first they had doubted that he could be serious, that a pass was his if he wanted. But then a message arrived for the brothers. They were invited to the Kesselring's HQ to register their employee Carlo Tonelli as an accredited war-photographer. He was to be attached to the Fallschirmjäger and Kesselring's headquarters.
Rome. September 1943.
Harald, Sigi and Gott returned to Rome following the celebrations and the award of Iron Crosses. There had been handshakes with Adolf Hitler and the general jollifications that resulted from successfully doing exactly what he had ordered. They had freed his best friend, and provided his embattled nation with happy publicity photographs, and all with no casualties. As a piece of special-forces soldiering it would be an almost final high-spot for German force of arms.
From here on in, it was going to be a down-hill slide to disaster.
The pity was that history would remember it as Skorzeny's triumph. He had been in the foreground of all the photos, and had stayed close to the Führer while introductions were made at the medal presentations. Only those who were actually there on the mountain would recall later that the mission had been planned and led by Otto-Harald Mors and that almost all the men were Fallschirmjäger.
Only they would know that Skorzeny had really just been a passenger in a Fallschirmjägeroperation.
The following weeks were to be ones of deceptive peace, and they would remain in or near Rome until early 1944. During this time, Kesselring was planning and building the Gustav Line, the defences that were going to slow, if not halt, the Allied advance up Italy. The line was drawn right across Italy. From Anzio on the west coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea it linked mountain tops that dominated steep-sided valleys, with hopefully un-fordable rivers, to the Appenines, the alps that divide Italy down the centre. From there it continued across eastern Italy to meet the Adriatic Sea.
During this period Gott saw less of Harald than he had expected. Harald was distracted. He had a new interest and a new task. It was one that he hoped would be a great success in a number of ways. He was creating a war-photographer in young Carlo. The question was… was Carlo simply too young to be plausible? War was a rough place to learn a new trade. Harald intended to keep him safe, but… he had other motives as well.
If he were honest, and in such matters which of us is, Sigi, his usual source of relief had become a rather beefy soldier with the sort of physique that rough men envy. The problem was that Harald was attracted to slightly more lissom young men.
Carlo Tonelli was certainly lissom.
While Harald was in camp surrounded by rough soldiery, Sigi was as attractive as any other, and more accessible than most. Sigi of course was someone that Harald was very fond of, that he loved as… well as someone that he had once been in love with. But now? Now that he had met the young photographer, who was barely sixteen, Harald was besotted with the Italian youngster's glossy hair and flashing black eyes.
He wasn't totally sure of Carlo's exact age and he wasn't sure if he wanted to know.
He had never thought of himself as attracted to teenage boys. His attraction to Gott and Sigi in the beginning he had innocently put down to their exuberant youth and exceptional courage. But… with Carlo it was different. The beauty was simply too obvious for its importance to be ignored. Harald knew that he was attracted by the physical beauty, the smoothness of skin, the lack of hair on chest and stomach… put simply… the youth of the boy.
To fool himself, he chose to think of Carlo as a young man. That was why Carlo's exact age was something he chose not to inquire too deeply into.
To his superior officers the idea of Carlo as an Italian press-photographer, particularly a naïvely unquestioning one, made sound strategic sense. The Gustav Line was still relatively fragile. There was still a lot of concrete to pour, and not a lot of time to pour it. What Kesselring needed was for the Allies to halt, re-group and reinforce before they mounted an attack. That was what they would have done if the Gustav Line had been stronger… In fact, it was what they would be forced to do if they simply thought that the defences were stronger than they really were.
That was why, on Gran Sasso, Harald had his great idea. While talking to Carlo it had come to Harald as a solution to so many problems… If Carlo were handled carefully, Harald could show him a Gustav Line that seemed almost impregnable. If it seemed impregnable then, for a while, it would be. The beautiful thing about the idea was that it would cost almost nothing in men and arms (and concrete, mines and barbed wire) to achieve. As he said to his commanding officer, and as he in turn said to Kesselring…
"If we feed this young Italian with opportunities to photograph the most impregnable parts of the Line, making out to him that they are typical of all the defences, he'll publish that idea and the Allies will be led to believe that the whole front is to that standard. Mark Clark will then need to slow his advance to gather strength. We can use that time to pour more concrete and bring in reinforcements from Germany. If we are lucky we can delay their final attack until winter. Fighting from defensive positions in winter… we shall indeed be impregnable. What we need is a grand illusion… a great bluff… and Carlo Tonelli can provide it for us."
So, that was how and why young Carlo Tonelli of Fosetti Brothers, Rome, became the youngest accredited press photographer of the war.
Harald's remaining problem was that he wanted to keep Carlo to himself. To achieve that he needed to persuade him that Luigi was too young to tag along with them. His initial argument was that Luigi's obvious youth undermined the seriousness of Carlo's position as an accredited war-photographer. However, that was an argument that didn't play too well with Carlo. Luigi was barely younger than Carlo himself. The latter demanded to know if Harald was saying that he Carlo Tonelli was also too young to be taken seriously?
No, Harald assured him, he was not saying that at all. Yes, Carlo was young, but he was no younger than many of the soldiers… That was not true exactly, but Carlo was not in a mood to check.
"If Luigi and I are old enough to satisfy your other needs, why are you saying that we are too young to photograph the war?" He demanded.
Harald protested that he wasn't saying that at all. He said that he had a perfect plan for using Carlo's skills with a camera… and both he and Luigi were certainly old enough to satisfy all his needs… It was just that it would all be more straight-forward, if Luigi was left safely at home. Harald said that keeping one photographer safe was going to be hard enough.
Carlo still seemed unimpressed. Fortunately, the second approach worked much better. Harald simply started to stress how careful Carlo was going to have to be. He would have to make sure that he always wore a helmet with Press written on it, keep his head down, dive flat when shouted at…. He told him how even experienced soldiers were caught out. He stressed how dangerous it was going to be.
Of course, none of this put our young hero off… He was determined to be a great photographer, and this was a unique opportunity. But… his boyfriend Luigi? No, that was different. He, Carlo Tonelli was unstoppable, immortal even, but he was inclined to agree with Harald that Luigi was perhaps a little impetuous. Perhaps later, when he was more steady, and less likely to place himself in danger… but now… now he should stay in Rome.
"If you love him then you owe it to yourself to keep him safe."
Added to that, with the influx of German soldiery to reinforce Italy, there was plenty of work in Monte Caprino Park. It would have been a pity to miss out on that windfall. Once the Germans moved south to the positions that were being prepared, it would be back to priests and professors… and it would be winter.
It wasn't as if Harald and Carlo were the only ones who hoped that Luigi could be persuaded to stay safely tucked up in bed… I mean Rome… No, in this case I mean bed. Fr Barnabas also wanted Luigi to stay safe. Harald had a quiet word with the priest, and suddenly Luigi was surrounded by people who thought he would be better off, and safer, learning to read and write… and selling his tail if he must.
Some time ago, the good priest had concluded that, the idea that it was their duty to keep elderly priests happy had been taken so much to heart by the boys that it would take a better theologian than he was to persuade them that one priest deserved a special share of that happiness. It really was very trying for Barnabas. He had to watch Luigi headed off to the park, knowing that when he returned he might have made so many men happy that it would be pot-luck whether there would be any pleasure left in him, for himself… The boy really was self-less.
So, that's how Harald and Carlo came to set off alone, to render the Gustav Line impregnable… but that's another tale, told elsewhere. Luigi meanwhile had his own life and customers to turn a trick with. He was going to feature in Gottfried's future… while Carlo and Harald… aided by Kesselring… kept the Gustav Line impregnable.
Gott was now more or less alone in Rome. Sigi had gone off to France, posted to one of the divisions that Student was persuading Hitler to keep there. They were there to provide strength in depth for the Western Wall, the line of cliff-top fortifications that Rommel had built along France's Atlantic coast.
Gott had, much against his better instincts, become friendly with Father Barnabas. He was intrigued by what he saw in the man. There seemed to be a genuine affection and desire to do good to the boys. He had achieved significant success with Carlo's career and seemed to spend all his spare time teaching Luigi to read and write. That he was honestly doing them good was at odds with fact that he was also clearly using them quite ruthlessly for sex. He would appear… say that he needed to relax… and Luigi would smile apologetically to Gott or Harald, and then quietly show them to the door.
The similarity to Heinie's approaches to Gott and Sigi as children was obvious, but there the resemblance ended. Luigi clearly welcomed the priest's attention. He was older and fitter than Gott had been with Heinie and could easily have made short work of the priest if his attentions had been unwanted. But, Luigi seemed perfectly happy, he clearly loved the priest and valued the time that was lavished on him, and his education.
It was a queer situation… but Gott couldn't see anything fundamentally wrong… and the priest made excellent coffee.
Barnabas could see in Gott the intellectual qualities that would in other circumstances have made him a writer or artist. So, he set about teaching Gott something of the history of Rome and her artworks. Together they enjoyed the works of Raphael, Donatello, Caravaggio and… well in Rome the list was endless, as was the list of churches and art-galleries that they could visit.
Then of course there was the coffee. That a late afternoon coffee almost always ended with a chance to meet Luigi at the good priest's door was an added bonus.
Gott had been reawakened from a sexual slumber by Luigi when they met on Gran Sasso. He had not expected to want penetration with a man… even less a boy, after the death of Gerhard. He hadn't wanted it, until it was much too late, with Mustafa either. But Luigi, in the excitement of Mussolini's rescue… in a strange location and in stranger circumstances… had taken him by surprise. The occasion had run away from him. Far from penetrating Luigi's rump, he had found himself on the receiving end of Luigi's rough hewn ardour.
Quite what it was he didn't know… It didn't happen for him with other men, even less boys. He frankly didn't understand Barnabas's taste for youth, and Sigi's enthusiastic advances were eminently resistible. Luigi on the other hand, Luigi he found totally irresistible. At least twice a week, sometimes more often, he found his footsteps mis-directed towards Monte Caprino Park, or Carlo and Luigi's apartment.
While Luigi was pummelling his rump, the lust and occasional pain allowed him to forget the war, Gerhard, Mustafa and the uncertain future. It was a mystery to him, as was his apparent willingness to be dominated by a boy. He didn't think he had found the third love of his life. He felt sure that it was simply an infatuation. He knew it was probably unhealthy, that he took unwise risks, he recognised those facts and took care to be careful, to reduce the risk of discovery.
There was just one problem with this idyll… money! Luigi insisted that he pay, and that he pay by the hour. If Gott wanted all afternoon then it would cost him the same as it would any Italian professor or cleric. That wasn't how Gott wanted them to see the relationship. He finally asked Luigi, as they recovered from their post-coital triste…
"Luigi, tell me… Why is it different with me? I really don't mind the money, but… you don't make Barnabas pay and you don't charge Harald… so why do you always charge me as much as you think I can afford? Not even an occasional freeby!"
"But, Gott… Why wouldn't I ask you to pay? You're one of my very best customers. To give free gifts to a good customer would make no sense at all!"
"Barnabas and Harald… aren't they equally good customers?" Gott asked.
Luigi looked stunned. Perhaps at the stupidity of the question.
"But… They aren't customers!" He seemed shocked at the idea. "I love Barnabas like a father… and Carlo loves Harald, so I do it for Harald when Carlo is away and Harald is without… Carlo!"
So that was it… He was just a customer. Gott could accept and pay for sex with Luigi on Luigi's terms or he could move on.
He decided that it was time to move on. If straightforward commercial sex was all that he was ever going to get from Luigi, then he might as well get it free with the regiment. He applied for a transfer to Student's divisions in France… and returned to Sigi.
Monte Cassino. January to May 1944
Harald was right, Carlo and his camera proved immensely valuable to the German army. His photographs lent credibility to his stories, and his stories from the front had a touch of the rough hewn about them. They didn't sound like the carefully crafted creations of a propaganda department.
The battles to hold the Gustav line… the fighting over the Liri river crossing, the Rapido river and steep sided Garigliano valley and young Carlo's coverage of them have been told elsewhere… so again we can move quickly on.
It all culminated of course in the battle for Monte Cassino. The historic hilltop abbey that Benedict of Nursia had founded in AD 529 stood on the top of the large hill that controlled the entrances to the Liri and Rapido valleys.
Kesselring had anounced loudly and clearly that he was not occupying the abbey itself. Mother church of the Benedictine order, it was an art treasure too important to be a battlefield. His men were restricted to occupying and heavily fortifying the slopes below the abbey. They ostentatiously left unoccupied the abbey itself.
That wasn't enough for the Allied command. They didn't trust his word. Suddenly and without warning, the priests and civilians who had remained to keep the abbey and Benedictine Order operating were bombed into non-existence on 15 February. American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of bombs onto just the abbey. The irony was that in doing so they created a perfect rubble strewn defensive platform. It took just two days for Kesselring's paratroopers to convert the site into a virtually impregnable fortress. Monte Cassino was now a lot harder nut to crack than it had been before the bombing.
Capturing it would now take a lot of lives and effort and it wouldn't be until 18 May that the Allies would finally take the mountain. It would require twenty divisions across a twenty mile front to do it.
All this time Carlo's camera was clicking, and his reputation as a war photographer and correspondent was growing, but our war and Gottfried's role in it move on.
Fall of Rome. June 1944
Harald's departure from Rome came suddenly. Once the Allies were past Monte Cassino and through the Gustav Line there was nothing between them and Rome. They covered that distance with armour at some turn of speed. Harald hadn't expected to have to leave quite so suddenly. He hadn't even expected Rome to be US General Mark Clark's target. His Fifth Army's target should logically have been an attempt to cut off the Axis retreat and capture huge numbers of men and equipment.
Instead he went for photographs of himself entering Rome.
Harald just had time to give Carlo and Luigi a last hug… and then he ran.
Russian Front. 1944
Gott and Sigi were nominally in France, but things in Russia were now in a parlous state and they suddenly found themselves posted to the Eastern Front when Hitler decided that the situation with the Russians was a greater risk than the Allied advance in France.
Stalin had launched a summer offensive in Belorussia in June. Known as Operation Bagration, he caught Army Group Centre and the German High Command completely by surprise. On 22 June, exactly three years after the launch of Barbarossa the Russians unleashed two and a half million Red Army soldiers against a much less well manned or equipped German front. The Wehrmacht were outnumbered two to one in men, four to one in guns and six to one with tanks.
Stalin intended to encircle and annihilate Army Group Centre in one move.
By August the German army was retreating as rapidly as it could. Everyone but Hitler could see it was a rout. The Russian advance was no longer slowed by the Germans… it was only limited in speed by its own transport and supply columns.
Hitler now realised that he had a three hundred mile wide gap in his eastern defences. He did what he tended do in such situations… He chose a man. He sent in Field Marshal Model. The youngest of Hitler's Field Marshals, Model was known as the Führer's Fireman because of the number of times he had managed to rescue Hitler from a situation that others had judged irretrievable.
All available forces were now sent to the Russian Front, Normandy could wait. Three Fallschirmjägerregiments remained in France to help to contain the Allied breakout, but the rest, Gott and Sigi with much of what remained of Kampfgruppe Witzig that we last saw in Tunisia, went with them.
Harald meanwhile remained detached from his regiment, serving with Kesselring's staff, planning and organising the defence of the north of Italy. The war would end before Mark Clark could take the whole of Italy and break out… He had missed his chance.
Gott and Sigi's time at the Russian Front could hardly be described as enjoyable. They had been placed between two SS divisions. The nearest was a penal battalion, and penal battalions are never good for morale. The other problem was that they didn't stay long enough in any one place to feel part of the enterprise, to gain confidence in the men on their flanks. Much of the time they were in retreat whether they saw an immediate need or not. This was because everyone around them was in retreat. It's all very well being an elite fighting unit, but the reality is that you are only ever as good as the men supporting your flanks. That's especially true when the enemy's plan is encirclement. The only thing they could do was to withdraw as fast as everyone around them, to avoid being the ones left in the circle when the music stopped.
It came as a relief when Hitler's swing of mood moved his focus of worry back to Normandy. Kampfgruppe Witzig was summarily ordered to return to the Western Front, to join the Fallschirmjägerin Normandy.
It was now a matter of slowing down the Allied advance rather than of halting it.
It was there in Normandy that Gott and Sigi would come face to face with disaster… and it was all down to three French children and a goat.
The countryside was bocage… an impenetrable patchwork of small fields with narrow roads and high dense hedges. It was ideal landscape for the French Resistance to operate in, every bend in a winding road could be an ambush. The Fallschirmjägerwere being used to clear the country ahead of the retreating army. Every farm and every barn, as well as every hedgerow and farm gate, had to be checked and cleared.
It was a barn that was their undoing. They heard voices as they approached. An argument in French…
"No, lets hide her here… If we take her back to the farm it'll be harder to hide her… the salles boches will eat her if they catch us… Papa will try to stop them, and then he'll get hurt!" It sounded like a girl or a very young boy.
"But… if we leave her here and they burn the barn… ?" Another young voice.
Gott relaxed, a few children… not a problem. Although… there were rumours enough of the youth of some of the Resistance… and he remembered that some of the most dangerous Cretan fighters had been very young. He approached with caution. It cost nothing to be careful.
The barn door stood open, so they rushed it, Gott and Sigi turning right and left inside. They dropped to one knee, machine guns at the ready.
They were faced with three children, a boy and girl perhaps ten years old, perhaps twins and a sixteen year old boy. On a short rope between them was a young goat. The girl quickly stepped between it and the soldiers.
"Celestine's my goat! Papa gave her to me! You shan't take her… she's mine!"
Then she stuck out her bottom lip, and burst into tears.
By contrast, her older brother was visibly terrified, and raised his hands quickly.
"We have nothing you could want. Please search the place... Please leave my sister alone." He looked scared but defiant.
This was a problem they really didn't need. Gott looked to Sigi for an opinion, and Sigi just shrugged.
"Search the barn and move on?" He suggested.
It wasn't a large barn and it took no more than ten minutes for Gott to be satisfied that it contained three children, a goat, straw and hay. No resistance fighters or hidden guns.
He was about to tell the children to take the goat with them and go home when there was the sound of the arrival of a lorry outside the doors. Gott stuck his head out, and groaned… three SS men climbed out.
"What's happening here?" The SS sergeant shouted at him.
"Three children, a goat and an empty barn… we've searched the barn… no contraband, just a goat." Gott replied.
This wasn't a welcome addition to his day. He never trusted the SS to avoid spoiling his day for him.
"Come on out!" He called in through the doors. "Bring the goat with you, take the silly thing home!"
The twins appeared, towing a reluctant Celestine.
Their older brother followed, and when he appeared the nearest SS man grabbed him and slammed him against the wall. The little boy leaped at the SS man and the girl let go of Celestine. For a moment chaos reigned.
"He's old enough to be a resistance fighter!" The SS sergeant said, looking at the older boy. He began to raise his weapon.
"I don't think so!" Gott said loudly.
"I wasn't asking your opinion!" The sergeant said, turning to Gott.
He found himself looking down the barrel of Gott's gun.
"I wasn't expressing an opinion." Gott said quietly. "I meant that I didn't think it would be my idea of war for you to start shooting children. You would spoil my afternoon. This isn't Russia or Poland and these aren't Jews."
He sounded as if he was simply trying to be reasonable.
"Now, lets all lower our weapons, forget about shooting the kids and send them and their goat back to their mama." His gun was still aimed squarely at the sergeants chest. By this time, Sigi had recovered Celestine and was handing over control to the girl.
The SS men lowered their guns, they could of course shoot the children if they wished, they could shoot these soldiers if they wished… or more precisely, when the sergeant wished. They were SS, they were in control wherever they went. They were SS and could afford to relax.
Gott on the other hand had a fairly clear idea of the peril of the situation and didn't keep his side of the bargain. His weapon remained aimed at the SS sergeant.
"Now then," Gott continued, "Let's all be sensible… You get back in your lorry and drive on. There're plenty more barns and farms to check. Our men are on their way…" He pointed to a cloud of dust down the road.
"The British are on their way too, and I want to be ready for them. It's the same lot that cut us to pieces on Crete. So I'd much prefer not to be distracted." That concluded his peace negotiations.
The sergeant thought about it, clearly concluded that three on two, but with the paratrooper guns at the ready, was not his idea of a fair fight, and shouted to his men.
"We've wasted enough time here already, get back on the lorry!"
Gott breathed a sigh of relief.
It was premature. Across the field came a staff car with SS markings. "Oh no!" sighed Gott.
Out got a rather dapper SS major. "What's going on?" He said. "Why are you all standing around. Why are your guns pointing at my men?"
"I'm sorry major… they aren't pointing at anyone. We were just discussing the need for the children to take their goat home. Your men were on their way to the next farm when you arrived." His gun remained pointing at the sergeant.
The major drew his pistol. Gott's gun was now pointing at the major. The major's pistol decided to remain at his side.
The major pointed at the older boy. "He looks sixteen. My orders are to shoot any stray men of sixteen and over. There's no sense in taking risks."
He started to point his pistol.
Gotts barrel pressed down on the major's wrist.
"Please major… I really would prefer not to have an angry farmer at my back when the British arrive." He sounded regretful, even reasonable.
The major looked at him, not quite believing the level of insubordination he was witness to.
"This is ridiculous… show me your papers!" He demanded.
"Please major, get back in your car and take your men with you." Said quietly but firmly.
Gott was considering how best to disappear before the major could return with reinforcements.
"I know you… You were at Gran Sasso… I remember your faces. You were those homos who kept disappearing with the photographer's boy!"
Gott sighed, the day was going from bad to worse. He really didn't want this. It was clearly not going to end well.
That was when the girl lost her grip on Celestine, and the goat disappeared into the barn, bleating noisily.
The major whirled towards the noise. The older brother stepped in front of the girl. The major raised his gun to shoot the boy, and…
Gott's automatic weapon fired, virtually cutting the major in two. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Sigi, who had been listening with alarm, anticipated Gott's action, while extreme it was probably the only solution…
He cut the sergeant down. The two SS privates fell a fraction of a second later.
"You three, take that damn goat. Go home, tell your parents they need to disappear for a day or two. Go!"
The children ran off. The little girl turned and waved goodbye… she smiled.
"Right, lets get them into the lorry!" Gott grabbed the sergeant and heaved him into the back of the lorry. Between them Sigi and Gott lifted the two privates in as well. They went to move the major.
"Wait." said Gott "Let me arrange things first.
He got into the lorry cab and drove the lorry to cover the blood stained grass.
"Right, sit them in the back, with a stove and billy-can… Yes, that'll do."
Then he draped the SS major over the tailgate, as if climbing in when he died.
Satisfied with the tableaux he had created, he told Sigi to back off, and rolled a grenade under the fuel tank. A brief burst of gunfire to explain the shot occupants. Four seconds for the grenade to go off and… barbecued men in black… a catering accident? or maybe the Resistance had scored another small victory? That would be for whoever found the remains to decide.
"God alone knows what the SS will think… Gott said. "It depends on how much the fire hides."
"I hope the farmer runs." Sigi said… "The SS are not going to be happy."
"While I don't normally advocate running… I do think it's time we checked the next field." Gott said with a smile.
He acted as if he executed SS detachments every day. "I do hate men in black who shoot children!" He added.
"I just hate the SS… they give me the creeps!" was Sigi's take on things.
The paratroopers walked away across the field, while a black cloud of diesel smoke billowed into the sky. Yes, it would be a very good idea for the farmer and his family to absent themselves, at least until the British arrived. The British arrived two days later.
1944, The Collapse, France, Belgium, Holland… and Germany.
Everybody loves a victory… Defeat has no friends.
For Gott it was a long year. Nothing interesting happened. Most days they were shot at and most days they shot back.
Retreating was as boring as attacking had once been exciting.
By this time Harald had rejoined them, by a route that only a Fallschirmjägercould have managed. Having been raised there as a child he particularly hated their journey through Holland. He came close to mutiny when they were ordered to plant explosives in the oldest and finest of the buildings in The Hague. The Führer had ordered Himmler to punish the Dutch before leaving. Before Harald could disgrace himself, word came to leave the explosives and pull out. Apparently Heinrich Himmler had been persuaded to ignore his leaders instructions… no time? no good reason? other priorities? Who knew, presumably someone had talked him out of it.
The endless retreat went on. They were paratroopers, they arrived by plane. But, they always seemed to return home on foot, or so it appeared to Gott.
It got more depressing when he heard the SS boasting of how they had repelled the British paratrooper attack at Arnhem. He almost wished that the British had won. At that moment it didn't really matter to him which side won… He just knew that it should have been the paratroopers. The SS might be wearing feldgrau for the moment but the Death's Head was still there and they still had their sinister black uniforms back at base. They were not Gott's idea of how an army should be… especially in defeat.
Defeat. 8 May 1945
When defeat came it came suddenly. One day they had a Führer, and an Army Group North that was on its way to relieve Berlin… The next day, one was dead at his own hand and Army Group North turned out to be an illusion.
Hope in Germany not so much ended as faded… evaporating in the sunshine of a May morning.
Gott, Harald and Sigi had been living off the land for some days. Being of an independent frame of mind they had avoided being swept into the battle for Berlin. They perceived it as the trap that it indeed was, and reasoned that they could be more useful harrying the flanks of the Allied advance.
That was what they were doing when an enemy soldier waved a white flag at them. Gott spoke all the languages that the holder of the flag might speak, so it was he who went forward to accept the surrender, though why they were surrendering was unexplained.
"Why are you surrendering?" He asked.
"Surrendering? merde! Turn your fucking radio on! The war's over… Hitler's dead!"
Without replying, Gott turned his back and returned to his friends. Tears were pouring down his face, though whether they were of sadness or joy, for himself or for Gerhard was not clear to him. It didn't occur to him that they might be for his parents, though they had been killed by the Russians just a week earlier.
Harald, Sigi and Gott were taken into custody by French Foreign Legion forces.
Germany was being de-nazified. The search was on for war-criminals and at that moment every German male over sixteen was a suspect. The war might be over but the Legion were taking no chances. They sat them in a barn, placed a guard outside and told Gott that their guard had orders to shoot them if they moved. War over or not, to the Legion they were les salles-boches and shooting them only required an excuse.
The Legion's food was being acquired from the land. The problem was that this far into Germany there hadn't been much food before the retreating and advancing forces got there. There certainly wasn't much left for German prisoners. All the Legion provided them with was some bread and a bowl of thin soup each day for nearly a month. Gott was beginning to think that escape was worth the risk when… an impeccably dressed Legion officer, in white kepi and dress uniform strode in. He turned his nose up at the accommodation, in the way that only a Frenchman can show distaste for the way foreigners live.
"I'm told you dislike the food." He said.
"Your hospitality lacks… hospitality." Gott replied with admirably faked politeness.
"The Foreign Legion at Sidi Bel Abbes eat a great deal better than this!" The officer replied.
"I expect that's true, but why tell us? Are we to be envious of their good fortune?"
"No, I expect you to share it. We are a Foreign Legion, and you are Germans… our NCOs have traditionally been German. My orders are to re-instate that tradition. You have the opportunity to enlist."
He paused, perhaps to ensure that he had their attention.
"If you wish to eat… you had best enlist… or escape. You have had your last free meal from us." Then he saluted laconically, turned and left.
"Well, that wasn't what I was expecting!" Gott remarked to himself.
"One thing is certain, the German army aren't about to re-employ us!" Harald said. "It sounds a good offer to me!"
"The Foreign Legion… See the world, meet interesting people… and kill them!" Sigi said with a laugh.
"It's a chance to stick with what we are good at. The world out there is full of people who will shoot at us if we ask them nicely!" Gott had the first real grin that his face had seen for six months or more.
"Start shouting!" He said. "I want to sign on!"
"Mein Gott… I'm with you. I followed you into the Fallschirmjäger, I'm with you into the Legion!" Sigi said.
"Actually, you both joined the Fallschirmjäger because you wanted me!" Harald laughed.
"If you still want me, you'll have to follow me into the Legion… I shall look wonderful in a kepi!"
So that's what they did.
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