Leipzig, Germany. September, 1944
Throughout 1944, even after the Normandy landings and the recapture of Paris and western
France by the Allies, the American OSS and British SOE continued to insert agents into the Nazi-occupied Low Countries, even into Germany, from their top-secret joint training and operations center near London. Some were trained in sabotage and demolition, some in observing and reporting, and others in liaison and resupply for the Underground in occupied countries. All were important. Initially, they dispatched agents to the continent in small boats and even submarines, but as the Allied armies pushed the Germans farther back from the coast, the majority were airdropped from their base in England. They flew a long, looping route over the North Sea and the Baltic, entering German airspace across its lightly defended northern coast. The distance was greater, but it was decidedly safer than attempting to cross Holland, France, and the Western Front, where the German air defenses and night fighters were always on high alert.
They used a variety of aircraft, depending upon the mission and the distance to be flown. This time, with the sun finally down, it was an old German Junkers tri-motor cargo plane, a Ju-52, which they pushed out of the hangar at the small, high security airfield outside London to top off its dual tanks. She was a nighthawk, hiding in her nest during the day, only to come out after dark to rise into the evening sky, turn northeast, and head out over the gleaming expanse of the North Sea. Their former owners called the Ju-52 an ‘Iron Annie’. They were a mainstay of the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force since the mid 1930s. This one had been cobbled together from bits and pieces captured in North Africa two years before, providing a perfect disguise for these surreptitious drops behind enemy lines in Europe. The fuselage was painted a dull dark gray, and its insignias and numbers were sufficiently worn and faded to create the impression of just another old, derelict cargo plane. However, it was not. This Ju-52’s three pre-war BMW rotary motors had been replaced with newer and far more powerful British Merlins. They were not enough to outrun a determined Messerschmitt or Focke-Wulf fighter, but they helped and were far more efficient. With the extra fuel tanks built into the rear cargo hold, they could make long, deep runs inside Nazi Germany.
Even in the autumn of 1944, masquerading as a German transport plane in the skies over Nazi Germany was considerably safer than trying it in an American DC-3, a British Lancaster, or a B-17, but there was the little matter of getting safely in and out of British airspace to consider. It would be hard to blame a nervous Spitfire or Hurricane pilot who happened upon a ‘German’ airplane and shot it up by mistake, but that would not be much consolation to the men inside. Two hours after they cleared British airspace and were far out to sea, the pilot finally relaxed enough to drink some of the coffee in his thermos. In two more hours, the tension would mount again, as he swung the gray bird southeast and then took her down to the deck. Skimming low over the waves, he would make the quick run to the German coast, crossing the sand flats and dunes west of Bremerhaven. Once inland, he would press on across the open north German plain, praying the unremarkable Junkers remained unnoticed on the long, crooked run around Bremen, Hanover, Braunschweig, and Magdeburg. In three more hours, as he neared the drop zone west of Leipzig, he would take it back up to three thousand feet for the jump and then turn, drop back down, and run toward the North Sea, the English coast, and home. It was that last leg which would be the point of maximum danger, when his stomach turned sour and the sweat on the palms of his hands turned ice cold, one slow, agonizing minute at a time.
The pilot was a grizzled twenty-eight-year-old-vet who had flown Special Operations missions like these for the past ten months. He knew this was not a simple re-supply drop. Tonight, there was nothing in back except his three passengers. Other than them, the Ju-52’s cargo compartment was empty. Nonetheless, with the weight of the extra fuel tanks and aviation gasoline, outbound, she flew like a pregnant cow. On the return trip home, with half his fuel gone and less to weigh the old bird down, it could finally soar, skipping and bouncing on the gusts of wind. That would come as a welcome relief, the pilot thought. After all, he wasn’t doing this for the glory; he was doing it for the money. Yet other than the big paydays, there had to be something about these goddamned ‘black’ missions to like. Maybe it was the incredible high he got when they were over.
For security reasons, in the unlucky event he went down behind German lines, they never told the pilot who or what he was carrying; but he had eyes and was not stupid. He figured tonight was another ‘insertion mission’ for the American OSS and its British counterpart, the SOE. That business had picked up sharply since D-Day. All summer and fall, the OSS and SOE had been dropping agents behind German lines like leaves falling from the elm tree in his front yard in Ohio and with about as much emotional attachment. The pilots were given the coordinates of the drop zone, but all the rest — the course, altitude, and speed — were up to the pilot and his navigator. He had to admit that was best for everyone concerned. Still, his hand was on the stick and his life on the line right along with them, whether the poor dumb bastards in back knew it or not.
Earlier, while they were still on the ground and the pilot and his co-pilot were going through their final equipment checks, he saw three men in heavy parkas walk up to the plane, climb into the cargo hold, and close the side door behind them. Two were carrying parachutes and wearing black jumpsuits under their parkas. He immediately knew they were the ones who would be doing the jumping. The third man wore a British Army uniform under his parka and was presumably their ‘minder.’ He would stay onboard for the round trip. While the three men did not say much, the pilot had heard enough through the side window to know that one of the two agents was British, as was the minder, and the other agent was American. The minder appeared relaxed. Why not? He was staying on the airplane. The other Brit looked somewhat relaxed, too, but the jaunty demeanor and wisecracks he heard from the American were obviously papering over a bad case of nerves. Clearly, it was his first time going in, and if he really understood what he was getting himself into, he would not have been so flippant. The pilot knew better. As with the two Brits, this was not his first turn in the barrel either. On the previous trips, the men he dropped — and it was almost always men — were German Jews, Dutch, Czechs, or Poles, because they knew the territory and might blend in more easily. Still, that was Nazi Germany down there. It was the most airtight police state the devil ever invented. No one could blend in down there except the devil himself, and most were destined for a quick and very painful death at the hands of the Gestapo, not that it was any of the pilot’s business. Like a piano player in a New Orleans cathouse, he was paid and paid well to stroke the ivory and keep his big yap shut.
Still, he had to admit that these insertion and resupply missions were not quite as gut wrenching as they had been even six to twelve months before when flying into Germany in an unarmed cargo plane of any kind bordered on suicide. Back then, the tension in the officers’ club on their private base in England was so thick around sunset that it ran down the walls. Now, the war was winding down. One would expect the taut nerves to begin to ease up. Unfortunately, they did not, because no one wanted to be the last man killed in a war — in any war. It was as simple as that. The Luftwaffe bases and the deadly radar-guided flak guns that protected them had been smashed by flight after flight of American B-17 and British Lancaster bombers since the previous summer, and there were very few German night fighters left to send up after anyone. Still, bad luck had a way of sneaking up and biting one on the ass when it was least expected. Once his passengers jumped, the pilot’s plan was to take the Iron Annie down to the deck and hightail it back northwest to England. As dangerous as that would be, he guessed it would be far safer than staying behind in Germany, as those two poor bastards in the cargo bay were about to do.
It was midnight.
US Army Captain Ed Scanlon and British Army Captain Will Kenyon had trained together for the past three months. Kenyon was an upper-class career professional and an aristocrat from His Britannic Majesty’s Royal Horse Guards, no less. He had jumped in once before. That mission, however, had been a quick in-and-out turnaround to France, and Kenyon was safely back in England a week later. That was enough to give the Brit an unjustified sense of confidence, but this was Scanlon’s first trip in and he did not even have that. His adrenaline had him pumped up higher than a barrage balloon.
It was bitterly cold in the back of the unheated Junkers. All three men wore bulky parkas over their winter flight suits to try to stay warm, but even the thick down did little to stop the numbing cold in Ed Scanlon’s feet and hands as the long hours passed. With the roar of the twin engines, the stench of aviation exhaust, and the loud creaks and groans of the airframe, flying inside the old cargo plane was as pleasant as rolling down a mountain inside a fifty-five-gallon oil drum. Finally, his ears popped as he felt the Junkers drop to wave height and head for the German coast. Outside the small side window, the night sky was pitch black with only the faintest hint of a crescent moon shimmering across the open sea. Up ahead he saw the thin white line of surf breaking over rocks onto the beach. That was Germany down there, the Third Reich, and he felt the goose bumps rise on his forearms.
As the Ju-52 raced on at tree-height level, he saw the first dull orange glow on the far horizon. Glancing at the map in his lap, he knew that it must be the once-quaint northern German city of Bremen going up in flames. It must be, he thought, because off to his left he saw the glow of Hanover, which was still burning from the pounding she took two nights before. ‘Vengeance is Mine, Sayeth the Lord,’ Scanlon thought; but since He was a bit busy these days, the American Army Air Corps would gladly oblige.
William Grenville Kenyon was half of their ‘hands across the sea’ team. He had been assigned to the operation by the British Special Operations Executive or SOE, as had Colonel Mervin Bromley, their Chief of Section, and Sergeant Major Rupert Carstairs, its ranking NCO. The London staff consisted about equally of Brits and Yanks up and down the chain of command. Bright-eyed and smiling, with a dry, unflappable, upper-class British wit, Will was the younger son of a Baronet. “That is a very small baron,” he would offer over a pint in the pub, “or it could be an odd-looking instrument in the brass section, I never could remember which.” While he joked about it, his family’s military record stretched back unbroken for more than three hundred years. Kenyons fought beside Marlborough and Wellington. They commanded British squadrons, regiments, and divisions at Blenheim, at Waterloo, in the Crimea, in the Sudan, and on the Somme. Following his graduation from a top ‘public school’, he had also graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst before being posted to one of His Majesty’s elite regiments, one that both his father and grandfather had commanded, of course. The Americans thought of him simply as a nice young man with an odd sense of humor, but the Brits in SOE knew without being told that Will was destined for much higher places.
Edward P. Scanlon III, on the other hand, came from the American ‘aristocracy’ — a wealthy New York Brahmin family, a Yale Skull and Bones, and a third-generation trust fund. While some thought that ‘shanty-Irish’ would always be shanty-Irish, the Park Avenue Scanlons were about as ‘upper class’ as American society had to offer. Impetuous and headstrong, he had been a maverick since the day he learned to crawl. His family called him “the Third” when he was not around, or they used the diminutive “Eddie” when he was. He hated both names with a passion, preferring to be called “Scanlon” or even “Edward,” if absolutely necessary.
One of his great-grandfathers paid the $300 ‘commutation fee’ to avoid the draft during the American Civil War. Other than an occasional Gilbert and Sullivan play in college, Scanlon men had scrupulously avoided military uniforms for well over one hundred and fifty years. As his grandfather famously said, “We Scanlons have more important things to do than to crawl through the mud and be shot at.” No, the family’s well-trodden career path was through Yale and Columbia Law and on to a private bond house on Wall Street. At Yale, Edward excelled at lacrosse, foreign languages, the bars of New Haven, and coeds. The week after Pearl Harbor, however, he broke with family tradition and joined “the great unwashed,” as his grandfather called them, in a line outside a recruiting office. To compound the folly, he enlisted in the Army, another piece of fresh meat for a long, ravenous war, not that anyone knew it at the time. He even refused to use the family’s numerous connections to secure a direct commission to the Navy or a safe War Department post in plans, finance, or procurement as various cousins did. No, Ed Scanlon had things to prove to himself, and he wanted something far different.
“Frivolous,” was how his father had characterized his son’s decision. “Rash, immature, and thoughtless, as usual,” the older man added with his typically muted rage.
“I guess we’ll see, won’t we?” Ed countered with a cryptic smile. Then, to compound the folly, he chose the infantry and OCS followed by airborne and ranger schools. With his athletic abilities and skills in four languages, one of which happened to be German, after a year and a half of hard training, the OSS came calling. Why not, he thought — adventure, travel, and excitement, meet interesting people in interesting places… It did not take long for him to realize they were right about that last part, if nothing else. When he told his father of this new career twist, all he got was an even colder, angrier stare, but perhaps his father had been his primary motivation for enlisting from the very beginning.
Opposites often do attract. During their three months of rugged training, Will Kenyon and Ed Scanlon became as close as brothers. One night over a pint, Scanlon admitted that he was impressed by Will’s family military history. Kenyon smiled in his usual self-deprecating way and replied, “It’s what we do, old boy. If we look back far enough, I’m sure we’d find a Kenyon who served in Ireland and gave some drunken sod named Scanlon a good whack on his backside with a broadsword.”
“I expect we would. Probably deserved it, too,” Scanlon roared with laughter.
“Didn’t do much to improve the bloodline, though, did it?”
“No, but I’ll bet one of my grandfathers returned to the old country, bought the sword factory, and tried to corner the market.”
Tall, thin, and handsome, Scanlon kept his black hair cut short. Perhaps it was from the years playing lacrosse; he had the smooth, confident, athletic stride of a jungle cat with penetrating gray eyes. They always reminded people of a winter sky, low and dark, as when storms were rolling in. Kenyon, on the other hand, was blue-eyed and fair-haired, quiet and relaxed with the easy confidence of a man who knew who he was, with a future that was predetermined and assured. As to the Nordic looks, “I suppose I have some Viking raider to thank for that,” Kenyon said.
“Weren’t they the ones who ran around England raping nuns?”
“Oh, come now, Edward. If the Viking was a tall, handsome devil, I’m sure it wasn’t always rape. We must make some allowance for a modicum of Scandinavian persuasion and charm, mustn’t we?” Once inside Nazi Germany, those Aryan good looks could not help but come in handy. If they dressed Will in black and silver, Scanlon thought the Brit could have posed for one of Heinrich Himmler’s SS recruiting posters.
In the rear compartment of the Junkers, Will Kenyon sat on the side bench next to Ed Scanlon. Across from them sat Sergeant Major Rupert Carstairs. He was watching them both but watching Scanlon far more intently. Carstairs had been the bane of Scanlon’s existence for the past six months. In public, each man behaved with impeccable military courtesy, especially with Kenyon around. In private, however, they had developed a thorough loathing for each other. Carstairs came from the working class in Birmingham. He rose through the ranks in the peacetime army, driven by a particularly nasty determination and an implacable belief in rank and the British social structure it represented. Carstairs had the utmost respect for a fine, well-bred British officer such as Will Kenyon, but to expect him to grant equal status to any American, much less a piece of upstart Irish trash with an irritating big mouth like Ed Scanlon, utterly galled the Sergeant Major. To Carstairs, it was all about the rigid class system, where everyone knew who he was. Regardless of Scanlon’s New York money, the American came from a middle-class family, which equated to bank tellers, door-to-door salesmen, and shop clerks. That meant he was not a proper officer, never could be, and Carstairs did everything he could to wash him out. When Scanlon proved able to take everything the Sergeant Major could throw at him with a smile and a smart comment, it drove him mad.
Because tonight’s drop was important, their commander, Colonel George Bromley at headquarters, sent Carstairs along as his personal minder. The Sergeant Major had donned a heavy down parka matching theirs. It was one of the few concessions to comfort and common sense that Scanlon had ever observed Carstairs make. Under his heavy jacket, he wore the standard British green wool field uniform and combat boots. His shirt would be bereft of any patches, ribbons, or medals, not that Carstairs had not received a chest full, but he never wore them. That was perhaps his only admirable character trait, Scanlon thought. The only ornamentations Carstairs allowed on his uniform were his Sergeant Major stripes and the small, simple, and very elite patch of the British Special Air Service on his sleeve. To Carstairs, the stripes and that badge said all there was to say. Besides, when you are as big and nasty as a side of raw beef, as Carstairs was, you did not need to impress anyone.
When the two-minute amber warning light flashed above the cabin door, Scanlon nudged Kenyon. With bulky ‘drop bags’ tied to their ankles, that contained their clothes, weapons, ammunition, explosives, a radio, and other equipment they were bringing to the Resistance cell in Leipzig, they rose and wobbled to the airplane’s belly-hatch located in the floor further aft. Carstairs rose and joined them, as Scanlon and Kenyon stripped off their parkas and re-checked their gear. Carstairs straddled the hatch and pulled up on the handle until the heavy door opened onto its side and came to rest back on its hinge. With cold air now roaring in, the Sergeant Major stood at the opposite end of the hatch, hands on hips, feet spread, and toes dangling over the edge. He had an amused smirk on his face as he glared at Scanlon, confident that tonight would be the last he would ever see of this arrogant young Yank.
Scanlon chose to ignore the big bastard as the airplane’s floor suddenly tilted upward. Scanlon knew the pilot was taking it up to jump height, so it would not be much longer now. He turned his head and looked back at the lights on the bulkhead, waiting for the jump light to turn green. Like it or not, though, his eyes were drawn back to the hatch and to the dark abyss below. Dimly, he could make out the black, empty German farm fields as they raced by beneath them. With nothing but a smattering of old men and young boys to do the work now, most farms had lain fallow all year, leaving only puddles of dark autumn mud to splash into. Still, the empty landscape appeared more friendly and inviting than the expression on Carstairs’s face.
Scanlon felt an icy chill run down his back. He had made night jumps before, but those were at Fort Benning in Georgia or the rolling farms and forests of Sussex. This was different. That was Nazi Germany down there. The mere thought was terrifying enough, but he was not about to let that bastard Carstairs see it. The jump light on the front bulkhead flashed green, and Carstairs looked at his watch. “Time to go,” he screamed. “Uncle Adolf is waiting for the two of you, so out you go, lads.” He was addressing them both, but Carstairs was looking directly at Scanlon.
Scanlon smiled. “Why don’t you come with us, Rupert, old man? The drop’s supposed to be a piece of cake,” he shouted as he toppled forward into the hatch. As he did, he reached out, took a firm grip on Carstairs’s pants leg, and pulled. “But mind the sudden stop.”
The smirk on Carstairs’s face vanished as he jerked his leg back and almost lost his balance. “You bloody Yank bastard!” Carstairs screamed, but Scanlon did not let go until he had dropped through the hatch and the Sergeant Major’s bellowing was lost in the roar of the airplanes’ engines.