Chapter One: THE COMMANDO
AT SEA, BAY OF THE SEINE
JANUARY 25, 1944
The air underwater was foul and wet, five men pulling against the thinning oxygen. He sat erect, his back painfully pressed against a coil of wire, part of the electrical system of the craft. She was an X-5 class midget submarine, designed to deliver a magnetic mine or similar explosive device, something to be attached to the bottom of an enemy ship. They were stealthy, of course, no blip on anyone’s radar screen, so the British navy had used them on raids all along the coastline, from Norway to the Mediterranean, usually with enormous risk to both the subs and their small crews. But tonight the sub was not armed, and where explosives had once been stored she now carried three passengers and their equipment. He tried to stretch his back --- no room --- and twisted his shoulders instead, working out the kinks. The air was growing worse, thin and acrid, bitter smells of oil and wet cloth. There were no dry places in the small sub, every surface had a slick coating of oily grease or water, mostly condensation. The engine made a low hum, deadened by the steel of the bulkhead, the sub lurching slowly from side to side, held now by long low waves that rolled silently toward the beaches.
“Suit up, lads.”
The voice was low, a croak from the lieutenant. He knew the order was coming, yanked hard at his small duffel bag, and retrieved it from the tight gap beneath his feet. Inside were all the tools he would need for the mission. The first priority was unrolling the tight spool of the rubber suit, a single piece, zipped open down the front. There was little room to stand, and he fought to slide the thin rubber over his legs, working his feet downward, pushing. He slid the suit beneath his bottom, pushed his arms into the narrow sleeves, freed his fingers, gave one loud grunt, and pulled the suit up over his shoulders. The others were grunting as he was, straining in the tight space, backs and arms bent low, each man forcing himself into his taut suit. He tried to relax, leaning back against the bulkhead, and took a breath, sour air filling his mouth, took another, felt his chest heave in a futile gasp. He was sweating, worse inside the suit, and the air was growing fouler still. No matter how the air cleaners strained, they were not designed to handle the nervous breathing of five men.
He leaned forward again, pulled the zipper tight against his neck, then tugged at the headpiece, sliding it over his ears, snug, only his face revealed. He reached again into the bag, found a small tube of grease, black and oily, squeezed a thick stream onto his fingers, and rubbed it on his face, coating any part that would reflect moonlight. The duffel was nearly empty now, but he found his knife, his only weapon, and strapped it to his leg, tight and secure, then went into the bag again for a small bundle, a cloth pouch attached to a thin belt, and slid it around his waist. The man beside him gave him a nudge with his elbow.
“All set here. You all right, Dundee?”
“Yep. You tight in? Ready?”
The man slapped his hands on Dundee’s leg. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”
Dundee leaned forward, looked past, and said to the third man, “Lieutenant? You set, then?”
The lieutenant scanned both men. Dundee could see his face sweating, a dull wet mask, lit by the yellow glow from the sub’s instrument panel. Then the officer began to smear his face with the black grease.
“Don’t concern yourselves with me. My job is to worry about you. And right now I’m ready to get this little show moving.”
From the main control seat, the sub’s commander turned around toward them.
“We’ll be on the surface in half a minute. On my command, Mr. Higgins will open the hatch, and out you go. Make it quick. I’ll not chance there’s some Jerry lookout who’s good at his job. This tub won’t take pleasantly to incoming fire, and the sooner I can drop us out of sight, the better I like it.” He looked at his watch. “Orders say two hours. I’ll wait for three if I have to, but that’s it. I’m not about to sit out here and wait for the damned sun to come up. Sitting ducks, all of us. You got that?”
The lieutenant pointed at his own watch. “I know my orders, Captain. We’ll be back in two hours. Don’t go off sightseeing. You’ve got a periscope --- keep an eye in it. I don’t plan to tread water any more than I have to.”
“I know my tub, Lieutenant. And we’re lucky tonight. The surface is pretty smooth right now. A dicky bird swims within a hundred yards of me, I’ll spot her. You just do the swimming; I’ll see you.”
Swimming. Dundee swallowed the word silently. Most of the commando operations were launched from surface crafts, LCNs, small and rugged navigation boats. The LCNs slipped in close to shore, depositing their commandos in folbots, folding canvas boats, flimsy canoes the men would paddle hard to the beach. But there was too much tide and too much current along this stretch of the French coastline, and a folbot might swamp and drown the men before they could even reach the shore. It was a painful lesson; several men had been lost already in earlier operations. Besides being a danger to her crew, a folbot had to be hidden from German patrols, patrols that were growing vigilant. And so, tonight, they would swim.
The captain turned toward his instruments and pulled a lever, the sub tilting upward, the bow rising. Dundee pushed his hands into the narrow metal seat, his back leaning hard against the tight coils, and tried to distract himself, thought suddenly of the captain’s boast. What the hell is a dicky bird? The sub swayed, rolling to one side, then upright again, and Dundee’s stomach rolled, the stink in the air filling his head with a dull pain, now growing worse. He heard the splashing of water against the bulkheads; the sub was level again, and the captain’s lone crewman stood, his hands pressed upward against the narrow hatch, and stared forward toward his captain.
“On your order, sir.”
“Steady, Higgins. Not quite on the deck. Wait for it.”
They sat quietly, feeling the low hum of the engine and, now, silence, the captain shutting down the engine. Dundee took a long breath, tried to ignore the sickening smell, his head pounding, a quiver in his hands. He shook his head, thought, All right, Henry, hold on to yourself. They taught you this. It’s all about lack of oxygen. We’ll be out of this damned can in a few ---
The crewman pulled hard on a round crank: The hatch was suddenly open, cold air filling the cabin, a splash of water. The lieutenant stood, hunched over by the overhead close above him, moved toward the hatch, slapped the captain on the shoulder, said nothing. Dundee waited for the man beside him, Henley, up and moving, the well-rehearsed routine, Dundee close behind him. The air was cold and delicious; a blast against Dundee’s face and the headache had vanished. He pressed forward, following the other two toward the blessed opening, watched the lieutenant pull himself up through the hatch, now just his legs and then gone. Henley followed quickly, up and out of the way, and Dundee grabbed the edges of the hatch and pulled himself up, his head clear of the dismal space. He was outside now, in cold darkness, and he pulled his knees up between his arms, thrust out his feet, sat on the edge of the hatchway, the deck of the sub narrow and flat. The water was black and silent, long low swells. Now came the splashes, the other two already swimming, the lieutenant leading the way, long strokes of his arms, already distancing himself from the sub, Henley trailing behind him. Dundee looked out that way, saw the shoreline, a vast shadow against the night sky. The sub suddenly rocked, caught by a swell, and Dundee released his hands, slid down, let the motion of the sub push him away, pressed his feet against the steel hull, and gave one sharp push, his arms and legs working the water, the training taking over. He moved with precise rhythm, his face bathed by the cold. He was a strong swimmer, essential for this job, slicing quickly through the water, lifted by more swells, the cold gone now, the strength returning, the power taking over: so many miles of swimming and running, months of lifting and climbing, all condensed into these long moments.
His brain kept count of the number of strokes, an exercise that might have no meaning at all. But in the dark, they would make this swim again, and if the captain was wrong, if the waves picked up or the surface became choppy, at least the men could swim out to within yards of where they had left the sub. It had always seemed to be a foolish gamble, but here, in the black water, it might be the only chance they had to be picked up again.
His brain ticked past three hundred strokes, and he paused, raised his head, scanned the shoreline, fought for a glimpse of the others, but there was nothing to see, dull blackness, new sounds in his ears, surf, gentle waves rolling forward. He swam again, pushed out sharp breaths, felt aching in his arms, his legs growing stiff, his chest heaving with each breath. Something rose up in front of him, a thin black shape, a man, standing and then dropping down again, crouched low, one hand pointed toward him, a signal, more of the training. Stand up.
Dundee eased his legs downward, his feet stopping on hard sand. He was breathing heavily, felt giddy, stupid, thought of the lieutenant, the man’s face invisible in the darkness, laughing at him. Every time, he thought, every damned swimming drill, so many times before. Every officer had teased him about it: Dundee, the man who swims until the sand bumps his chin. He knew what the lieutenant was thinking, had heard it too many times. Yes, you can stop swimming, you idiot. It’s three feet deep.
The three men moved close together, and Dundee stared at the beach, a wide stretch of flat sand, saw a fence row, posts, odd, his brain trying to understand. Fences? The lieutenant moved away, low in the water, crawling, moving up onto the sand, seeming to ignore the others, and Dundee followed, feeling his way with his hands. They were clear of the shallow surf, and the lieutenant kept himself low, began to run, heavy deliberate steps. There were no orders now, the training so familiar, and the others followed automatically. Dundee felt the sand hard beneath his feet, his footsteps echoing in small thumps, shallow puddles. He passed one of the fence posts, glanced up, saw it tilting outward, toward the open water, a small round hat on top. He understood from the briefings, drawings they had seen. They’re not fence posts. It’s low tide, and they’re shore obstacles. And the hat on top? It’s a mine.
The sand began to slope upward, the men climbing, the sand softer, beyond the high-water line, and Dundee kept running, felt the strength in his legs, his breaths heavy and sharp. The lieutenant stopped and knelt low, ducking behind a long low mound of rocks, something else from the briefings, another landmark. Then he pulled a small bundle from the pouch around his own waist, and Dundee understood. It was the tape, the fluorescent stringer that would guide their return, the only way they would ever find their way back to this point on the beach. Dundee watched him unroll it and anchor one end in the sand with a small metal spike. The lieutenant seemed to pause. All three men were breathing heavily, and Dundee heard a whisper.
“Time to go to work, gents. Welcome to Omaha Beach.”
They were one squad of the Combined Operations Assault Pilotage Party, a mouthful of description for the men who were sent ashore to find out just what the Allies might be facing on the beaches that had been designated for Operation Overlord. The training had begun months before at the enormous facility at Achnacarry, Scotland. Nearly every commando unit in the British army had received training at Achnacarry, and the Americans had gone as well, Darby’s Rangers, men who had already been through the bloodiest days of the fights in the Mediterranean. Many of the commandos had been designated to make armed raids, landing in fleets of rubber rafts, attacking the enemy’s seaside installations, ammo and supply dumps. Some of the raids were launched against various ports, other midget submarines slipping into the harbors to target German ships. Few of the raids had been terribly successful, and many of the Royal Navy’s higher-ups considered the midget subs a dangerous waste of machines and good men. The X-5 class midgets had no defenses and could barely escape the enemy’s spotter planes and fast-moving E-boats, but in the dark the subs could bring their commandos close to the shore, close enough for the folbots and, tonight, close enough for the men to swim. Their mission was absurdly simple: Gather samples of the sand and rock on Omaha Beach. The beach itself was cut by four draws, deep ravines, passageways that led inland, dividing the high bluff into sections that the mapmakers had designated by various code names. But those ravines interested not just the infantry commanders but the engineers as well. Over the centuries, streams and floodwater had flowed into the sea, and with it had come tons of silt. If that silt was too soft to support the weight of trucks, tanks, and other armored vehicles, an amphibious landing on Omaha Beach simply wouldn’t work. The entire motorized portion of the invasion would grind to a halt, embedded in a mire that would make them stationary targets for the German artillery above. The engineers had another concern as well, so more commandos had gone ashore on other nights with other objectives. Behind the bluffs, around the seaside villages of Colleville-sur-Mer and Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, the land was rich in history, a countryside once occupied by the Romans. But the Romans had left a mystery and, possibly, a deadly problem. The land along the Normandy coastline had often been used to farm and gather peat, thick layers of sod used for fuel and building material. The question had to be answered: Had the two-thousand-year-old peat bogs become vast pits of soft mud? For now, though, that wasn’t Dundee’s problem. His problem was keeping up with his lieutenant.
On this night, Dundee’s mission had much more to do with engineering than combat, the men armed only with their knives, since any weapons fire was certain suicide. On the bluffs high above what the planners had named Omaha Beach, German gun emplacements, artillery pillboxes, and machine-gun nests covered the open sands below in what would certainly be interlocking fields of fire. Among the various outposts, German infantry had also been positioned, the Allied aerial reconnaissance showing miles of trench works. Any lookout who heard movement on the beach would know to fire a star shell or a Very light, which would bathe the beach in the glow of man-made sunshine for deadly seconds. As much as Dundee felt the itch to have his pistol handy, tonight there could be no firefight. Just do the job and then find that precious line of tape and make your way back into the surf, all the while praying the midget sub’s captain could find you in the black water.
They moved across the sand in total silence, even the gentle surf too far away. Dundee knew the timetable, the tide expected to rise well before dawn, but to a level he found hard to believe. The training taught them that the tide here rose eight feet or more, and in a few short hours, the flat plain of hard sand they had run across would be completely submerged. The high tide would provide a fatal disguise, submerging the posts, the steel girders and wooden poles capped by the mines. As the tide came in, the distance they had to swim would lengthen by hundreds of yards. But it would be far worse to make that swim over and around the hidden obstacles. There was danger enough from the enemy lookouts, without risking a single kick of the leg that could blow you to pieces. He followed the shadows, the lieutenant leading the way, Henley between them. The ground above them seemed to fall away, a deep cut opening up in the hillside, a wide draw: their objective. Dundee was counting to himself, more training, each step forward ticking off how far they had come, and as the lieutenant stopped, Dundee’s mind locked on the number of steps: Two hundred eighty-six.
They remained still. Dundee, staring at the dark form in front of him, thought, What is it? I don’t hear anything. Sure as hell nobody out here tonight. We in the right place? Looks like the draw we’re supposed to find, for sure.
The men moved along the rocky ledge, a few feet above the commandos, the sounds of footsteps on loose rock. Dundee took a long breath, put a hand slowly down, slid it along his leg, and touched the small leather strap that clamped around his knife. The men above them moved closer, low voices, now one man talking aloud, clear and sharp, the words bursting into Dundee’s brain. He didn’t know much German, only what the training had taught him: the right questions to ask if he was captured, the right responses to give. The loud German began to laugh, right above them, more steady footsteps, moving past. Dundee wrapped his fingers around the knife, stared ahead, fought the aching need to look up: No, keep your face down. He held his breathing in, soft and low, his brain focused on the sounds above and the feel of the knife in his hand. Where the hell is my pistol?
The men stopped, one man close by responding to the call, more words flowing down from high up on the hill. Dundee listened to the words, his brain screaming at his own ignorance: Dammit, teach us German next time! What they hell are they saying? The Germans began to move quickly, away from the rocky wall, climbing, moving into the draw, their footsteps fading. And then they were gone.
He felt himself sag, released the grip on the knife, saw the lieutenant turn and sit down slowly in the sand; audible breathing. Dundee wanted to say something about his pistol: Who the hell thought of that? Send us in here without a bloody firearm? He knew the answer, of course. We’re not here to kill Germans. And, we’re expendable, after all. Part of the stinking job.
The lieutenant began to move again, pulled himself up, grabbed Henley by the shoulder, pushed him away. Dundee knew the message: The time had come for the men to spread out, go to work. He felt for the pouch at his waist, the small zipper, felt inside, the cloth sack he was supposed to fill. Henley was scampering silently up the ravine, staying close to the left side. Dundee waited, and the lieutenant reached back, touched his shoulder. All right, sir. I got it.
He felt his way silently over the small rocky ledge, hard flat ground above it. He pushed out to the right, focusing on that side of the draw, his brain still counting steps. Won’t get lost now. Those rocks behind me are what matters, just so I can find that damned tape. He thought of the Germans, moving up this same direction: Bloody swell, that is. One of them stops to drain a kidney, and I’ll run right up his fanny. Of course, if they went this way, it means there’s no booby traps, no mines. Keep a good thought, mate.
He glanced to the left, tried to see Henley, fought the urge --- Nope, stay on course. He knows what to do. The ground was softer under his feet, and he stayed low, his knees beginning to ache, thought of crawling. Slowly, mate. It’s here, don’t break your damned neck. His eyes probed the dark, the lightness of the sand, and he saw now the wide yawning ditch, what the reconnaissance maps had shown to be a tank trap, a wide trench dug along the mouth of the ravine. He probed with his foot, slid down the side of the ditch, the bottom hard and wet, and climbed quickly up the other side, a spray of sand in his eyes. Dammit! He was up again, past the tank trap, and his brain began to count the steps, methodical, a steady rhythm, the orders matching the cadence of his steps.
Find... some... damned... rocks... small... ones. The count continued, the steps slowing, the hill growing more steep, his brain clicking off numbers: One hundred. He paused and took a long low breath. One hell of a mission: finding something for the engineers to play with. You’d think, if this place was full of rocks, that’s all they’d want to know. Hell, you could see them from a damned plane. He thought of the briefing the night before, the colonel, those two engineers.
He saw movement out in the open center of the draw and froze, a cold shiver in his chest. The shape was hunched low, as he was, and he thought, It’s the lieutenant, you stupid idiot. He’s got the happy job after all, waltz right up the wide open middle of this damned ravine and scoop up a pail of dirt. Dundee moved forward again, his brain still counting: Two hundred. All right, time to do the job.
He pulled the cloth bag from the pouch, settled down on his knees, ran his hand across the ground. He felt a rock, smaller than his palm, let out a breath. Good, that’s one. Eleven more, and we can go home. He stuffed the rock into the bag and reached out again, his hand sliding over the rough dirt. Another rock? No, hell, too large. Keep looking, mate. He crawled to his right, closer to the high wall of the draw, felt soft dirt with his hands. All right, now we’re getting into it. He felt another rock, the size of an egg: Perfect, stick that one away. The ground was still soft, and his fingers pushed through, probing, and now he felt something hard, thought, No, too big... and then he froze. His brain snapped into focus, his breathing stopped. It wasn’t a rock at all. It was steel and curved, buried slightly beneath the soft dirt. He knew the shape, had drilled and studied, and on one terrible day during training he had watched one blow off a man’s legs. It was a land mine.
He pulled his hand away, felt his fingers twitching, his heart pouding. That’s why the ground is so damned soft, you bloody moron. You’re in a minefield. He looked to the side, saw no one, no motion, thought, Two hundred steps. That was the drill, where I’m supposed to be, and that’s where I am. No one said anything about a minefield. But those damned Jerries came up here.... Well, hell, they knew the trail, even in the dark. Something about land mines makes you pay attention to that sort of thing. He backed away now, retraced his knee prints. The ground was harder, and he let out a breath, closed his eyes, thought, The lieutenant won’t mind if I just... take a bit of a break. He felt the cold again, a breeze on his face, clenched his fist around the top of the cloth bag. A dozen. All right, mate, keep looking.
The bag began to fill, and Dundee raised up, searching, saw the shadow of the lieutenant again, the man huddled low, watching him. He began to back slowly down the flat draw, his mind locked on the number of rocks in the bag, and now his hand gripped one more, perfect and round. Bloody hell. That’s twelve. He slipped silently toward the lieutenant, saw the man’s hand come up, Yes, all right then. Slow it down. He thought of the timetable, how long has it been? Well, that’s his job. Mine’s done.
Dundee followed the lieutenant, both men crouched low, soft steps. They slipped down into the tank trap, then up again, and he could see the rock ledge, lining the shore, remembered the lecture, some geologist, so many years of pounding surf, the ocean spitting out these small bits, pressing them up on the sand. The lieutenant went over the ledge, dropped down, still silent, waited, Dundee doing the same. He felt his breathing again, relief, the bag of rocks heavy at his waist. Bloody engineers. Ought to keep one for myself, a souvenir.
The lieutenant was up and moving, and Dundee followed, jelly in his legs, quick steps, realized he could see the tape. He stared down, ran in step with the lieutenant, his brain taking over, counting, one hundred, but the thoughts were swept away now, no need to count, the tape visible even in darkness, some toy invented by some engineer, the stupid joke from training: Your line of bread crumbs. His chest was burning, hard breathing, and now there were shots, blasts of machine-gun fire, arcing lights streaking over the beach. He wanted to stop, to lie behind the cover of the rocky ledge, but the lieutenant kept moving, and Dundee knew to follow, could not forget the training. Never stop. The streaks of tracer fire popped close overhead, a shattering of rock behind him, fire well out in front of them. His brain screamed at him, They don’t know where we are! Firing blind! Thank God! The lieutenant suddenly turned, ran toward the water, and Dundee saw now, the tape had ended. He followed, felt the soft sand, glue-like on his feet, slowing him down. Behind him, at the draw, men were calling out, the rattle of machine guns filling the darkness, more tracers arcing into the open water. The lieutenant was leaving him behind, a faster runner, and Dundee focused on the man’s back, lit by the tracers, the sand harder, splashes of water. The water was up to his knees now, and still they ran, louder splashes, water in his face, the beach behind him suddenly bright with daylight, the pop of a star shell. The lieutenant dove down, was gone, and Dundee took a hard breath, couldn’t hold it, gasped for air, tried again, filled his lungs, felt the water at his waist. He dove as well, streaks of light past his head, pops and splashes of machine-gun fire, zips in the water. He could hear nothing but his own swimming, gasped for breath, rolling over in the water, a quick glance back, the flare extinguished. His feet couldn’t touch the bottom, and he began to swim again, his arms and legs leaden, searing pain. He had forgotten to count, vicious anger in his brain, stupid orders, useless. He pushed himself through the water, ignored the burning, Find the rhythm, one arm, turn, the other, steady kick. He couldn’t hear the machine guns, the sky black again, his shoulders on fire, numbness in his legs, a quick look up, straight away from the beach, Yes, keep going. Thank God for swimming. No damned folbot, not tonight. We’d be staring at bayonets, or worse.
He kept swimming, peered up every few seconds, felt himself rise up on a swell, scanned the smooth surface, no sign of the lieutenant, dammit! What the hell do I do, swim to Dover? He looked back toward the beach again, saw a searchlight, the sound of a truck, Yep, you go right ahead, search that whole damned beach. He let his legs drop, treading water, thought of Henley, the man’s big laugh, always a slap of the hand on your back. Swim, you idiot. He turned in the water, began to kick again, the motion steady, thought now of the submarine, where the hell are you? And now he heard a quick shout, raised his head up, a huge hulking mass. Oh, God! Thank God! He gulped a bellyful of salt water, pushed himself that way, his legs useless now, no strength at all, and there was a hand, grabbing his, pulling him clear of the water, the submarine already moving, submerging, and he dropped down, inside, the hatch closing above him.
“Yeah. Never knew what hit him, most likely. A blessing in that. We were damned lucky to get out of there.” The lieutenant looked down toward his own belt, raised the pouch. “Mission accomplished. Got what we came for. They’ll test this sand, see what it can hold.”
Dundee nodded slowly, tried to see Henley’s face, gone now, as though he never existed. The word came to him again, the word they all understood: expendable. He put his hand on his waist, felt for the pouch, the rocks. He pulled the pouch around in front of him, unfastened the strap, held it up. Mission accomplished. Those bloody engineers had better make some use of this. We lost a good man... for a bag of rocks.
“No, sir. This one is wearing fatigue clothing, beneath a rubber suit. No firearm, no demolition equipment. There had to be more than one of them. This one apparently tripped a land mine. Along the beach, there are tracks in the sand, men running, toward the east, and we found a strip of some sort of marking ribbon. They must certainly have escaped in a boat.”
“And no equipment? His friends may have been able to carry it away.” Rommel stared out along the wide beach, scanned down into the sandy draw, the wide cut in the cliffs. “Where is the barbed wire I ordered?”
“No, of course it has not arrived. Never mind. I will make some calls. Again.” Below them, the tide had fallen quickly, and men were filing out onto the flat beach, a wide plain of wet sand. Rommel saw the pattern of steel and wood stakes, other barriers, more elaborate, crisscrossed steel beams, what the soldiers were calling hedgehogs. The columns of men began to move past the rows of stakes, some carrying poles, others in pairs hauling more steel, some with tools, shovels, one small bulldozer following behind. He watched them for a moment, spreading out over the exposed sand. Yes, he thought, move more slowly. Go about your job as though you have an eternity to complete it. He was angry, knew the feeling too well, slapped the baton into his hand again.
“Colonel Heckner, I want more men on that job. You have four companies of infantry within a kilometer of here. Call upon them, under my authority. I did not order these works to be constructed to provide these men a holiday at the beach.” He watched for a response, saw a slight nod, weary obedience. “Are you paying attention, Colonel?”
The man glanced down. “Well, yes, sir. There are reports.... I have heard that the enemy is planning an invasion of Norway. It seems to me, sir, that our energies should be directed to where we know he is coming. Forgive me, Field Marshal, but is that not reasonable?”
“Colonel Heckner, I will not waste your time with a discussion about matters of strategy, of which you know nothing at all.” He felt his voice rising, the control slipping away. “You have orders. My orders! You will construct a strong line of obstacles to prepare against an invasion along this portion of this beach in which you hold command! In both directions, commanders have been ordered to perform the same task. What might occur in Norway is none of your concern. It is none of your concern what might occur anywhere along this entire front, except in your specific zone of command. Should I be explaining this to you, Colonel?”
Rommel turned away, fingered the binoculars at his chest, took a long breath, calmed himself. How much of this can be blamed on one colonel? These are soldiers, after all, and we put them to work beside laborers, so they begin to think like laborers. He stared out to sea, raised the binoculars, stared at the empty horizon: old habit.
“What shore batteries, Colonel? Most of them are not yet constructed. The largest piece I see here is a 105, not what I would call a target to inspire a commando attack. You said the man carried no demolition equipment. Would they risk a team of commandos just to see how our construction work is progressing? They can do that from the air.”
“Do not tell me what the British would do. They dare, Colonel. Those commandos came here for a specific mission. They have been coming in all along this coast for weeks now. We capture some, kill some, and we cannot know how many more complete their missions and return home.”
Rommel looked at the man, thought, An empty mind, telling me only what I want to hear, so I will leave him in peace. He thought a moment. All right, here’s some peace for you, Colonel. “It occurs to me, Colonel Heckner... perhaps, it was you they were after, an assassination squad, targeting senior officers. Your minefield might have saved your life.”
The man seemed to soak up his words, pondering the thought with growing alarm. Rommel had planted as much of a seed as his patience would allow, thought, Maybe tonight you will be more vigilant. He turned away, moving toward the staff officers, who waited beside his car. They stiffened as he approached, and he looked past them, saw a cluster of soldiers gathered around the dead commando, could see the man’s black bloody clothes, shreds of rubber on the man’s blasted legs. All eyes were on Rommel now, the men moving slowly to attention. He scanned them. Yes, they look like common laborers. What has happened to my soldiers? He turned and looked back toward Heckner, who stiffened again.
“I will have your barbed wire here as soon as possible. I want it deployed in depth across every access point at the base of this bluff. I will also send you more land mines, a great many more. Those barricades in the tidal area must be increased, made far more numerous. Take advantage of the lowest tides and add another row, farther out. And, for God’s sake, widen that tank trap. The enemy has engineers, Colonel. They will find a way to bridge your little ditch. Put land mines in the bottom.”
The staff car bounced along the pockmarked farm lane, past open fields hemmed in by tall ridges of brush. The roads were mostly hard, gravel or packed dirt, and Rommel kept his eye in front of the car, thinking of tanks, the road’s surface more than adequate to support a panzer division. In the front seat, his aide said, “Sir, we are approaching zone fourteen. Colonel Sasser’s headquarters.” Rommel thought of Sasser, a small thin man, capable. “Yes, very well. Let us visit Colonel Sasser.” “He will probably be out with his men, you know. He does that sort of thing.” The voice came from beside him, the tall man in the dark uniform of the German navy. Rommel nodded. “Yes, Friedrich, I know. Sasser is a colonel who uses a shovel. If we had more like him, we might be winning this war.” The naval officer did not respond, and Rommel thought of the ears in the front seat, the staff officer, the driver. He glanced at the man beside him, nodded. Yes, I know. I should not make the staff uncomfortable. Some thoughts are best kept quiet. He spoke silently in his mind, apologizing to the man beside him. Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge had been assigned to Rommel’s command as a liaison for the navy, to coordinate naval strategies and activities along the French coast, that vast stretch of territory that Rommel controlled as commander of Army Group B. Both men had come to France from Italy. While Rommel had chafed in the northern mountains with virtually nothing to do, Ruge had been effective as head of naval operations in the one theater of the war that might still favor the Germans. Rommel knew Ruge had spent most of his life on the water and was one of the most capable seamen in the Kriegsmarine. He was three years younger than Rommel, their ages close enough that each man knew the various daily challenges of rising up from a hard bed. Besides Ruge’s expertise and clearheaded grasp of naval tactics, Rommel had been surprised to find that, unlike most of Hitler’s naval commanders, Ruge understood the army’s side of the war as well, and thus was perfect for the job as Rommel’s liaison. Rommel had become far too accustomed to commanders and their subordinates who seemed to be fighting a war to serve their own glory. Others were fighting only for survival, to find a way to endure the inevitable, a war going badly, men making discreet preparations to protect their families should Hitler’s Reich collapse. Ruge seemed to have none of that, no pretense, no mindless pride, none of the conspirator’s slipperiness, and no need to curry favor with anyone. After working alongside the man for a few short weeks, Rommel had come to regard Admiral Ruge not only as a valuable colleague but also as a trusted friend, something Rommel had not experienced since his days in North Africa.
They stepped from the staff car, and Rommel saw the salutes, the troops quickly aware of his presence. He began to move, stopped on instinct, heard a low hum, the men close to him staring up, searching the sky. The sounds grew, a low steady drone, very high and far away, the sound of bombers. It was commonplace now, American B-17s making their daylight raids far behind Rommel’s Atlantic Wall, into Germany itself. All throughout Germany the raids had grown more numerous and more intense, the bombers seeking industrial and military targets around every major city. It had become well known that the Americans came only in daylight and the British at night, a peculiar division of labor Rommel had never understood. He avoided the skyward stares of the troops --- there was nothing to see and certainly no danger here, so close to the coastline. Behind him, Ruge emerged from the car, a second car rolling to a halt, discharging more staff officers. Along the edge of a wide field, tents were scattered, a field headquarters, sheltered by sheets of camouflaged netting. The officers were emerging now, word reaching them that Rommel had arrived. “Welcome, sir!” Rommel recognized the face, a young captain, Sasser’s aide. “Where is Colonel Sasser?” The man stood at attention, saluted, then pointed.
Rommel glanced at Ruge, saw a smile. The young captain did not hesitate but moved away along a wide graveled trail. Ruge, now beside Rommel, said, “I never received any reception like this, not on any ship in my command. It’s true, all that talk I’ve been hearing. You are nothing less than their hero.”
They followed the young officer, climbing a short rise, a cold stiff wind in Rommel’s face, the ground falling away to the open sea. Below, along the beach, a swarm of men were hauling and digging, more pieces of the same barricades Rommel had ordered all along the coast. To one side of him, the ground rose to a fat knob, made fatter by a vast wall of concrete. Above, a crane holding a large spiderweb of reinforcing steel began to lower it into place, one more piece of the great wall, shirtless men shoveling wet concrete into a vast pit below. Rommel heard shouts, commands, a half dozen men responding, moving in one motion toward the descending web of steel, hands going up, turning, guiding, as the steel settled into the waiting concrete. Rommel clamped the baton under one arm, clenched his fists. Yes, by God, that is strength! That is what this ridiculous Atlantic Wall is supposed to be.
Rommel saw him now, the short man scampering up the bluff. Sasser’s shirt was open, a gray smear across his white undershirt. He drew himself up, saluted, said, “Welcome, sir! I did not know when you would arrive.”
Rommel thought of Africa, riding a tank straight into the chaos of a fight, seeing it for himself, the inspiration the men drew from that, and the enjoyment Rommel felt from the startled looks on the faces of his young lieutenants who thought they were in command. Where was Sasser when I needed this kind of man in Egypt?
Rommel looked at Sasser again, the man still puzzled, and said, “Colonel, as you know, I have been inspecting the Führer’s impenetrable Atlantic Wall for some months now. When I arrived here, I was shocked by what I saw: the complete lack of urgency, the utter disregard for our Führer’s orders. I was given the responsibility, and the very specific instructions, that this coastline be made invulnerable to any assault the enemy could attempt. I have made every effort to carry out that order, to instill and inspire a sense of mission in these men. In you, Colonel.”
“It is my hope that one day, when this war has concluded, the officers who have received these gifts might gather at some place and share their accomplishments. I would be very proud to be a part of that.”
Rommel spun around, Ruge and the aide following, the men moving quickly along the path to the camouflaged tents. More of his staff were gathering at the cars, the rear doors of his car pulled open. In seconds, the two officers were in the car, the driver moving them back out into the countryside.
Surprised, Rommel looked at Ruge and shook his head. “I do not agree. Have you seen how many medals we are awarding now? Berlin is minting them faster than we produce artillery shells. Every officer on this front expects to receive one for his outstanding service to the Reich. Our officers have come to believe that loyalty to the Führer is the most valuable skill they can demonstrate. It is a deadly mistake. It will destroy this army.”
Ruge said nothing and stared out toward the fields, the car bouncing on the rough road. Rommel felt a familiar pain in his side, rubbed his hand inside his heavy coat, and looked at the two men in the front seat.
Rommel smiled and tapped his driver on the shoulder. “I am not concerned about you, Sergeant.” He turned to Ruge. “The sergeant has proven himself to me on many occasions. Sometimes, I am not even certain he is capable of hearing anything at all. Are you deaf, Sergeant Daniel?”
“I promise you, Friedrich, when all of this has past, when medals and decorations hang over every fireplace in Germany, those concertinas will occupy a special place. Those men will not forget that I chose them to receive a gift so... unmilitary. They might even learn to play the thing.”
There was silence, the car breaking out into open ground, a village in the distance and, to one side, a railroad track, a line of heavy railcars. Rommel strained to see, and his driver seemed to feel the movement.
“No. We have much ground to cover. I was just observing. Those railcars were carrying a shipment of eighty-eights. Very good. We will need enormous quantities of those along every open beach, especially the Pas-de-Calais. The enemy knows already that we have no better weapon to destroy his armor.” He glanced at Ruge again. “I have tried to explain that to von Rundstedt ever since I arrived here. I have asked that batteries of eighty-eights be interspersed among every one of the larger shore guns.”
“Guns that big are too visible from the air. The enemy will send their bombers to target every installation. Despite Colonel Sasser’s good work, we do not have enough concrete to protect every battery, and our outstanding engineering corps seems to believe that we can make do in those casements with half the thickness I have specified. In any invasion, we could lose our most effective shore batteries before the enemy even attempts to land. The eighty-eights are mobile, can be hidden from the bombers, and, should the enemy attempt to land his armor, they can be moved quickly to the greatest point of attack.”
Rommel saw the familiar smile, felt his own good humor fading away. “It so distresses me. For every Sasser there are ten Colonel Heckners. The British land a squad of commandos right under his feet, and the only way we find out about it is when one of them blows himself up.”
“How dangerous can they truly be? The British are scouting us, determining what kind of strength we have put into place. There was no evidence that the raid this morning had any other intent than to observe. Somewhere in London, mapmakers are drawing furiously, mapping out every meter of our coastline. You and I would do the same thing. And if they come, you know as well as I do that they will come at a place that makes the most strategic sense. If they come, you will know where and when. You are as capable of knowing the mind of the enemy as any British or American strategist.”
“But, Friedrich, I do not make the decisions. No matter what I may believe, I am subject to orders.” He paused. “You saw Colonel Sasser, the man’s hands. He works, he is a soldier’s soldier, he will do his job. Behind us, old men and sycophants hold our future in hands that are fragile and soft, hands that have never held the steel. We are losing this war because of Russia. We have drained Germany of the strength and the power that could so easily have prevailed. The Russians are savages, led by subhuman Bolsheviks. But their numbers are too many and their land is too vast, and they have bled us dry. The British and the Americans know this with complete certainty, so what will they do? It is a question any schoolchild could understand. We are weakened now, and so they will come. They will come here, somewhere on this coastline, and if we do not meet them at the point of attack, if we do not destroy them on the beaches, they will keep coming.”
“They all disagree with me. I know what they believe. We should allow the enemy to land: Then our mighty Luftwaffe and our mighty panzers will strike them and destroy them. Yes, yes. I have heard that too many times. It is wrong. Damn them all, it is wrong. If we allow the enemy to plant his feet in the sand, we will never get him out. Last autumn, we held every advantage in Italy, the Bay of Salerno. Kesselring will destroy them on the beaches. Yes, I heard that. Now where is Kesselring? His back is pushed north and north again.”
“A stalemate? Are we so desperate that we now believe that a stalemate is a victory? There can be no stalemate here, Friedrich. I have seen what the Americans bring to this war. I have seen the tanks and guns and trucks. And one day soon, how many millions of those Americans will push their way into France? Von Rundstedt insists that the most brilliant strategy is simply to allow that to happen, then, once they are ashore, we can attack them and drive them into the sea. It is fantasy. No, worse, it is suicide. And men like Colonel Sasser deserve better.”
The Steel Wave: A Novel of World War II
- hardcover: 528 pages
- Publisher: Ballantine Books
- ISBN-10: 0345461428
- ISBN-13: 9780345461421