Fox at the Frontby Douglas Niles, Michael Dobson, Michael Singer Dobson
"July 20, 1944: A group of disillusioned officers of Hitler's high command plant a bomb that successfully kills the Fuhrer. For a moment, there is an opportunity for surrender, peace, and survival for all of Germany... but Himmler has other plans. An armistice is signed with Stalin's Soviet Union. New battle lines result in a very different Battle of the Bulge, where… See more details below
"July 20, 1944: A group of disillusioned officers of Hitler's high command plant a bomb that successfully kills the Fuhrer. For a moment, there is an opportunity for surrender, peace, and survival for all of Germany... but Himmler has other plans. An armistice is signed with Stalin's Soviet Union. New battle lines result in a very different Battle of the Bulge, where the legendary Desert Fox, Edwin Rommel, meets Blood 'n' Guts George Patton." These two masters of modern cavalry tactics must join forces and push to the East, where the hungry bear of Stalin's army is readying a land grab of all of Eastern Europe, claiming war spoils it ill deserves.
"For people who love history, written by people who know it well"
"An intriguing what-if scenario, and one that could have happened ... not since SSGB by Len Deighton have I seen a more credible conclusion to WWII ... the book is a triumph!"
Walter J. Boyne, bestselling co-author of the The Wild Blue
"A colossal epic of a World War II that might have been...A real page turner!"
Frank Chadwick, New York Times bestselling author of The Desert Shield Fact Book
Read an Excerpt
Fox at the Front
By Niles, Douglas
Forge BooksCopyright © 2004 Niles, Douglas
All right reserved.
NEAR NAMUR, BELGIUM, SOUTH SIDE OF THE MEUSE RIVER, 0700 HOURS GMT
"Es gibt keine verzweifelten Lagen, es gibt nur verzweifelte Menschen." There are no desperate situations, there are only desperate people. Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, Der Schnelle Heinz (Hurrying Heinz) or sometimes Heinz Brausewetter (Hurricane Heinz), currently commanding officer of the Sixth Panzer Army, was fond of aphorisms and used them frequently.
Guderian was the sort of man referred to as a "natural leader." Handsome, with a warm, inviting smile and eyes that saw everything around him, he was popular with his men and always confident of himself and his mission. His weakness was his hot temper and his frequent and flagrant disregard of orders. It was the latter weakness that had ultimately led to his removal from command and appointment as Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen. Rommel, with whom he had an ongoing rivalry of sorts--for Guderian, not Rommel, was the supreme theoretician of panzer operations--had pulled him back into the game with control of Sixth Panzers. And to his utter and complete frustration, he'd been stopped cold at the Meuse, unable to force an opposed river crossing.
It was that bastard Montgomery, who used British and U.S. troops to establish a solid line on the north side of the Meuse from Namur through Liège. With a force superior in numbers(but not, Guderian reflected with some satisfaction, superior generalship) and time to destroy the bridges and build a strong defensive position, Monty had been able to block every thrust Guderian had made along a fifty-mile front. But Guderian was still thrusting, still probing, and was confident of an eventual breakthrough...as long as Manteuffel could hold up his end with Fifth Panzer Army. Manteuffel was lucky enough to find undestroyed bridges at Dinant, and so had leading elements across the river already. Eventually, Manteuffel's advance would force Montgomery to respond, and then Guderian would show everyone what a real panzer offensive looked like.
Finally, however, it had all come down to this: the bridges of Dinant destroyed, his forces blocked...and a transcribed message from Rommel himself at Armeegruppe B headquarters. Surrender. Scheisse! he thought as he clenched his fist in helpless rage. Scheisse! The mere thought of surrender made him want to vomit. Even when it was a necessary act, it was shameful, disgusting--not to be borne.
At least he could take some small satisfaction that Montgomery was dead, according to intelligence. That smirking little English bastard could rot in hell. And as for Rommel--arrogant Hitler's boy, the shameless self-promoter, the jumped-up corps commander acting the role of baby field marshal, the comfortable bastard who'd only faced a clean (and warm) enemy in North Africa and never seen a Russian winter...or muddy springtime--well, Guderian knew that if their positions had been reversed he would have done better.
There was only one problem. He agreed with Rommel that surrendering was the right thing to do. Better the Allies than the Soviet bastards. Now that the real führer was dead, the imitation führer didn't have what it took to win the war anymore. That arschloch Himmler strutting around in his SS uniform couldn't survive as a junior lieutenant in any real army.
Because of all this, though the battle was not yet lost the war was over. Guderian well knew that the Soviet "peace" would last not a second longer than the moment either side found itself with an advantage. Besides, he knew that the Soviets advanced in a wave, then stopped for resupply. Certainly Stalin would have made "peace" only during the period his forces needed rest and refurbishment, then start rolling forward. And no one knew better than Heinz Guderian that the Soviets were now unstoppable. Western Allies or Soviets. The only choice was which side--and that decision was easy.
His forces were in cease-fire status for the moment. In a few minutes he would start his command meeting to handle the business of surrender. He looked at the sheaf of papers on his desk, started to pick them up, then dropped them again. He could do this job off the top of his head.
Straightening his cap and drawing in a deep breath, Guderian walked out of his office, closing the door behind him.
* * *
Obersturmbannführer Jochen Peiper was awakened by his orderly. It was still dark on the cold and dreary late December morning. For a moment he was disoriented, back in the depths of the Russian campaign, before he realized where and when he was. Then he was fully awake. "Time to start the day again already?" he had asked his orderly in a pleasant, if sleepy, voice.
"No, Herr Obersturmbannführer. It's Berlin. They're on the radio for you."
"On my way." Peiper was instantly out of bed, pulling on his pants and grabbing a jacket. He had his personal headquarters in a commandeered farmhouse, and the radio room was in the dining room, just downstairs from the bedroom where he had been sleeping on a thin and worn mattress.
"Here he is, Berlin," the radio operator said into the microphone, then pulled off his headset and handed it to Peiper.
The crackling and hiss of the radio blared into his ears, a sudden attack of sound that made him wince slightly. "This is Obersturmbannführer Peiper. Go ahead."
"One moment, Obersturmbannführer," he heard, and then the next voice was one he recognized.
"Ja, mein Führer!" Peiper came to attention as he heard the instantly recognizable voice of Heinrich Himmler. The SS colonel was every bit as loyal to the second Führer of the Third Reich as he had been to the first.
Peiper knew him well. He had been a member of Himmler's personal staff before the war, rising to be Himmler's first adjutant. He had even married one of Himmler's staff secretaries. Few people knew Himmler well on a personal level, but Jochen Peiper was one of those few. Although like most Germans of his generation he had admired and even revered Adolf Hitler, and was devastated by his assassination, his opinion of Heinrich Himmler was nearly as high, and he had instantly transferred his total loyalty to the new führer.
"I have had extremely disturbing news from Armeegruppe B headquarters," announced the Führer of the Third Reich. "It seems that our Desert Fox has lost his taste for war."
"I beg your pardon, mein Führer?" Peiper answered, puzzled.
"SS-Brigadeführer Bücher told me that Rommel has decided to surrender his army group." Bücher was an SS general placed on Rommel's staff by Himmler's direct order. Peiper understood that Bücher's responsibility included watching Rommel for political unreliability, and that if necessary Bücher's role would be to stop him by any means necessary.
"What? Surrender? Rommel? Not possible. There must have been a mistake." Only in the depth of shock could Peiper argue with his führer for even a moment.
"Peiper, it is true. Absolutely true and confirmed. Another radio message has informed me that Bücher is now dead."
"But why?" Peiper said, his voice revealing his anguish at this betrayal. Bücher's death was the proof, for Bücher would have fought such a move with every breath in his body.
"Rommel has gone weak in the heart, I'm afraid. He was never the same after his wounds." Rommel had spent most of the previous summer hospitalized after being strafed by Allied Jabos. "Right now, it makes no difference. What is important is that Rommel's weakness must not infect the rest of Armeegruppe B. I know I can depend on you to ensure that your own officers are reliable...or at least in a position to do no harm. Do you understand me, Peiper?"
"Jawohl, mein Führer!" Peiper understood completely. He was a ruthless man, one that others looked toward when difficult jobs had to be done.
"Report as soon as you have any new information. Make sure that you keep in touch with my headquarters at all times. And take decisive and final action when it is necessary."
"Jawohl, mein Führer," Peiper said again. "I am heading to the command staff meeting shortly. I will report instantly as soon as I have additional information."
"Berlin out" was the radio answer.
Peiper put down the microphone and pulled the earphones off his head. "Lay out my uniform," he told his orderly, who had followed him downstairs. The orderly nodded as he handed Peiper a cup of much needed, if ersatz, coffee.
Shortly, he was on his way. His driver paid close attention to the unlit road in the dark, his headlights carving a path through the early morning fog as he drove along with reckless speed. The unrelieved blackness was beginning to lighten into a deep gray as the car arrived at Guderian's command post in an abandoned school building near Namur.
Emerging, Peiper stretched and looked around. Other cars were pulling up, and he spotted several other officers emerging. Those from the Wehrmacht marched straight into the building, but a number of the SS men stood around quietly, looking to each other with narrowed eyes and unspoken questions.
Peiper went over to a small knot of these, several Sturmbannführers who saluted him grimly. "I have spoken to the führer," he began bluntly. "The reports of treason are accurate. He needs our loyalty, and our courage, now."
"We are ready, Herr Obersturmbannführer!" replied one. Peiper nodded, watching as the men straightened, visibly donned a sense of purpose and pride. Among them were other, higher-ranking SS men in the group, he realized, but all of them seemed to be looking to him for leadership.
"Spread the word, quietly," he commanded. "Station yourselves where you will be able to act."
Seeing that his commands were understood, Peiper set his mouth in a thin line, lips tightly pressed together as he marched across the frozen yard to the command staff meeting. His clear blue eyes were also tight and focused, his dark, pencil-thin brows forming a single straight line across his brow.
He was a handsome and stylish man, freshly dressed and washed, wearing a ribbed white mock turtleneck under his trim and neat SS uniform. His Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves and Swords, awarded for achieving the bridgehead across the Mscha River on the Eastern Front in the recapture of Kharkov, was fastened tightly across the collar of the turtleneck on a black band. His brown hair was crisply parted and slicked down on his head.
How had it come to this? Victory had seemed so close, and then first stalemate at the Meuse, the loss of the final bridges of Dinant...and now news so stunning, so disturbing, he could hardly credit its truth.
Scant days ago, his own Kampfgruppe Peiper was unstoppable. Tearing through the Belgian countryside, he had one of the places of honor in the great Fuchs am Rhein offensive, as befitted the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, the First SS Panzer Division, which he had proudly served throughout the war, in battles both east and west. It was he and his kampfgruppe who had stumbled upon the fuel supplies at Malmédy, then again upon the great Allied fuel dump at Stavelot. His contempt for the Allies had increased as he saw the flagrant display of wealth that Stavelot represented. Anyone could win a war with unlimited supplies. It took military genius to win without them--and that was a quantity with which the Germans were well supplied.
Peiper hardly remembered the incident at Malmédy, when he forced Allied POWs to fuel the tanks of his kampfgruppe. He had had no time for prisoners, so after they had finished the job, he'd ordered them shot. It was a necessity of war--time was short and resources were short. War was not a business for the sentimental.
There was a loud buzz in the conference hall as Peiper entered to take his seat in the first row of the large, crowded room. He was sure a thousand rumors were making the rounds, each wilder than the next, many so amazingly incorrect that he wondered sometimes what on earth could have inspired them. He glanced over his shoulder, saw that the men he had spoken to were taking positions in the back corners of the room.
As Guderian entered the room, everyone stood at attention with a Nazi salute. The panzer general's face was stern. His face was lined and leathery, his mustache trim and gray.
Guderian returned the salute casually. Peiper could see in his face that Guderian also knew about the surrender. He confidently sat down and leaned back, knowing that Guderian would have the correct response.
"I have received word from Field Marshal Rommel at Armeegruppe B headquarters," he began without prelude. "The bridges of Dinant have been destroyed. The divisions that have crossed the Meuse are almost certainly lost to us. We are blocked at the Meuse, and Antwerp appears out of the question now."
He paused and looked over the assembled senior commanders, generals and colonels all. "Feeling that the war in the West is now over, and convinced that our old friends the Soviets will shortly resume their offensive, General-feldmarschall Rommel believes the best hope for Germany lies in immediate surrender to the Allies."
"What? No--you can't be...Ridiculous! We aren't beaten yet!" Military discipline temporarily evaporated at the stunning announcement, many officers voicing their gut-level objections. Peiper held his tongue, for he had already experienced his moment of surprise. He looked at the face of each person in the front of the room, searching for signs of weakness, futility, or betrayal. He saw some expressions worth noting for the future, but he was satisfied that most of the faces reflected the same sort of shock and anger that he had felt. Confidently, he turned back to face Guderian, still standing, facing his officers.
"'Surrender' is the most distasteful word in any military, and I regard that option with the same disgust I am sure each of you feel." He paused again. "But as officers, we must see clearly and act strongly in the way that most benefits the Fatherland. I believe, with Generalfeldmarschall Rommel, that the most important thing is to save Germany from the Soviet Union. And though it goes against every feeling I have as a general officer, I must reluctantly conclude that Generalfeldmarschall Rommel's analysis is the correct one. I therefore am ordering that Armeegruppe B's directives be implemented for Sixth Panzer Army. We are..." His voice caught for a moment, then cleared. "...surrendering."
Chaos broke out in the room, with generals and colonels yelling and shouting their arguments, both for and against. Guderian tried to speak above the noise, and when he could not, finally roared out "Attention!" with all the power his command voice could muster.
"You are still officers of the Wehrmacht!" Guderian raged. "You will follow military discipline and you will behave like officers in this as in every situation. This is not a matter for discussion or vote. As commanding general of Sixth Panzer Army, and in accordance with orders from higher headquarters, this is my decision in line with the lawful and correct orders I have received."
Peiper was disgusted, especially at the last claim, for Guderian's disregard of orders he thought were stupid or incorrect or contrary to his own ideas was legendary, and had nearly brought down his career numerous times. His inability to follow the orders of Field Marshal von Kluge had led to his dismissal from service only a year ago, to be recalled only after Stalingrad and then to an inspector role rather than line command. To give the excuse of following orders at this time and on this order was beneath contempt. He could at least have the decency to declare this as his own judgment, not Rommel's.
Although numerous people in the room outranked him, it was Peiper who stood up. Immediately, Guderian's temper turned to him as a visible target. "Sit down. I am not finished."
"Yes, sir, you are finished," said Peiper coldly. His grossly insubordinate tone and manner temporarily surprised everyone in the room, including Guderian, who was taken aback momentarily. Exploiting the moment, Peiper continued. "I am now acting under the personal orders of the führer, who radioed me earlier this morning."
As it was well known that Peiper had been Himmler's adjutant, eyes turned to him. "Führer Himmler is aware of the alleged surrender, which is a flagrant violation of the military oath each of us has taken to the State and the Party. He rejects the surrender and orders us to take action. He states that anyone obeying the surrender order is guilty of the crime of desertion under fire."
Guderian's rage was now full-blown. "Shut up and sit down, Peiper. You and that arschloch Himmler may be willing to turn Germany over to the schweinische Russian hurensohnnen, but I'm not."
Peiper went white in the face. "The führer is in charge of the army and the nation, not you! You will speak of our führer with respect, not in that filthy manner!"
"Sit down right now before I have you arrested and shot!" screamed Guderian. "I am commander of Sixth Panzer Army. Don't you dare talk back to me in that tone of voice!"
"You have forfeited your rights as a commander by this cowardly and traitorous act!" shouted Peiper in return, his own temper exploding.
Caught up in the drama, everyone else around the table waited in silence for the conflict to resolve.
"Cowardly?" yelled Guderian in rage. He started striding toward Peiper, his fists clenching, ready to enforce his dominance of the room.
But Peiper's gun was already in his hand.
ARMEEGRUPPE B HEADQUARTERS, DINANT, BELGIUM, 0709 HOURS GMT
Generaloberst Doktor Hans Speidel, Rommel's chief of staff, had been leading a double life for more than a year now. When he first was recruited into the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler and replace the Nazi regime with a new German government, he quickly became a power in the organization. Regardless of how morally upright, how idealistic, or how determined the many conspirators were, they tended not to be outstanding leaders. After all, to be a conspirator meant that one was dissatisfied with the regular order of things, not a part of the power structure, not in charge of that which one wished to overthrow. Such people were generally not found at the top of the organizations of which they were a part.
Speidel was a pragmatist above all else. There were many high-ranking German officers who were aware that their nation was heading toward certain and complete destruction, many who could see that Adolf Hitler and his most intimate associates were responsible for that destruction, and even many who understood at least some of the crimes against humanity being committed by the Nazis. But for many, the path of least resistance meant to follow their soldier's oath, to continue in their hopeless jobs, to comply with or at least to avoid knowing too much about such things as the ongoing liquidation of the Jews.
Speidel was different.
As was often the case, Rommel's genius had astonished his chief of staff. Surrender reconceived as an offensive move! How brilliant and how obvious, especially in retrospect. Now it was up to Speidel to perform the detailed maneuvering within Rommel's broad strategy. He would get Patton alone and give him the story of the conspiracy, and then he would somehow find an opportunity to tell the story to Eisenhower. For Rommel's surrender was only the opening move--Speidel was still committed to a new Germany, a free Germany, with the right leadership at the helm.
And Speidel fully intended to be one of Germany's new leaders, alongside the Desert Fox once again.
Now he had a perfect chance to prove his value. He had seen orders dispatched to the various components of the army group; he had marked the latest positions on a map of Belgium; he had seen to the functioning of the entire staff. Rommel had been out already this morning, supervising the conduct of the surrender, while Speidel remained here, behind the scenes, making sure that everything functioned. Who knew how long the field marshal would be making his rounds?
But that was all right, as it should be. The great man would make his presence felt, that powerful force of personality that caused things to happen just by being there. And Speidel would see that Rommel's orders were carried out.
THE WHITE HOUSE, WASHINGTON, DC, 0753 HOURS GMT
A hand shook Hartnell Stone's shoulder. "Mr. Stone?" A muffled sound resulted. A second shake. "Mr. Stone!"
A third shake. "Mr. Stone, the president is awake."
"What time is it?"
"Almost three o'clock in the morning."
"All right," he replied, voice thick. "Let me throw some water on my face and I'll be right down." He sat up slowly on the office sofa and bent down to fumble with his wing tips, moving, but still mostly asleep. His eyes scrunched tightly shut when the aide turned on the light, then opened very slightly, sticky with sleep. The aide stood patiently by as Stone tied his shoes, stood up, and crossed the hall to the men's room.
The cold water splashing on his face woke him more fully. He combed his jet black hair, pulled up his Windsor-knotted tie, and retucked his white shirt. He smoothed his shirt and trousers as much as he could, but he was still rather rumpled. Well, it couldn't be helped. He was on call, and the president was awake and in his study, an oval room--variously called the Oval Room or the Oval Study--on the second floor of the White House next to the president's bedroom.
This room, distinct from the president's formal Oval Office on the ground floor of the West Wing, was the actual nerve center of the Roosevelt presidency, a chaotic, messy room filled with cast-off furniture from other federal agencies, sofas, card tables, ship models, bookcases, and anything else that had caught FDR's fancy during three--and now a fourth--terms in office.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, thirty-second President of the United States of America, looked old, tired, frail. His skin was white, nearly translucent, like crumpled parchment. Only the inner circles of the White House knew just how perilous the president's health had become, but anyone with eyes who saw the president in candid moments could tell that he had aged terribly. His hands shook, his memory faltered on numerous occasions. He had an increasingly hard time sleeping in the cold and damp Washington winter--indeed, anywhere except for his Warm Springs retreat.
The study looked out onto the south lawn of the White House in the direction of the Washington Monument. The skies were clear and the gibbous moon was bright. The white marble obelisk shined silver in its light. In the room, a single lamp cast a thick yellow light onto the old man in the wheelchair.
"Good morning, Hartnell," the president said. His voice was thin and dry. "I see they sent you in to keep an old man company." He gestured at the table with the lamp. His cigarette holder sat next to an ashtray, with a pack of cigarettes beside it. Stone fitted a cigarette into the holder, gave it to the president, and picked up the heavy silver table lighter so the president didn't have to bend forward. Roosevelt's hand trembled as he lit his cigarette.
Stone stood as Roosevelt smoked and looked out the window across the broad expanse of the Ellipse and Mall. He still felt a sense of awe in the presence of the president, even though he had known him since childhood as "Uncle Franklin." The president was not actually a relative of his, but Stone's father had been a longtime friend. Hartnell had grown up knowing the aristocratic governor of New York even before he had been stricken with polio. The personal connection was critical. It was, after all, how a man in his early twenties with no experience beyond a Harvard degree gained a presidential appointment. He felt no guilt about that; it was the way the world worked, the way it had always worked. After all, personal connections were the only ones on which you could truly depend.
"There are times I almost think I can see the artillery fire," Roosevelt said. His voice was weak and distant, not the mellifluous tone with which all Americans had become familiar. "The war is that way, you know." He pointed his cigarette holder out the window in the direction of the monument. "While you and I sit in peace and quiet, there is a battle raging over the horizon. Boys are dying in the mud right now. Boys I sent."
There was a long pause, and Stone waited patiently. He knew there were boys dying in the mud, and not infrequently he felt guilt because he was not one of them. He had been in ROTC at Harvard, and held a current Army commission as a major, but he hardly ever wore a uniform. He had served on the SHAEF staff in England for a year, as one of hundreds of officers preparing for Operation Overlord, and had even set foot on the beaches of Normandy a few weeks after D-Day. That was as close as he'd come to combat. Soon thereafter, he had been transferred to Washington, to the White House staff, as one of the many aides surrounding the president.
"Hartnell, pick up that folder on my desk. No, the other one. That's right." The folder was labeled TOP SECRET, as were others on the president's private desk. Although Stone had as much curiosity as any man, he accepted the need for secrecy. He handed the folder to the president, but the president waved his hand. "No, open it. Read it."
There was a long telegram in the folder, from the current SHAEF headquarters in France. Stone scanned it quickly. His eyes widened. "Surrender?"
"That's what it says," Roosevelt replied.
Stone kept reading. "But nothing has been confirmed."
FDR chuckled. His voice warmed as he spoke. "That, my boy, is the bane of my existence. No one wants to go out on a limb even so much as predicting that the sun will rise in the east in a few hours. No, it's not confirmed. Even so, it opens a host of possibilities. It could cut months off this terrible war. I might yet live to see its end."
"Of course you will, sir," Stone interjected.
"Ah, my boy, the certainty of youth. No, I'm an old man and just about used up. At least Uncle Joe did me a favor by dropping out of the war when he did."
"Sir?" It was well known in the White House that FDR had been furious about the Soviet double cross, the separate peace Himmler had negotiated after the assassination of Adolf Hitler.
"We would be having another conference about now--Stalin, Churchill, and I--and I don't think I could survive another long trip. Now I can stay home and husband my strength just a little longer. A little longer..." His voice grew bleak and thin again. "If only I could sleep...."
Roosevelt's eyes were focused far away, past the monument. "Do you know what I most wanted, Hartnell, my boy?"
"I wanted to make this war the end. The last one. And for that I needed Stalin at the peace table. Without him, all we will get is a temporary respite. Germany defeated, of course, and Japan not far behind. Then, as soon as everyone recovers a bit, on to World War Three. Democracy versus Communism." He shook his head. "I would have given Stalin almost anything to avoid a third global war. I'm not sure humanity can withstand another such conflict as the one we are about to conclude. The progress in weapons has been terrible...terrible...." His voice trailed away, and he was lost in thought. Stone continued to stand, watching, listening.
Roosevelt's next words came as a whisper. Stone strained to catch them. "Terrible weapons. And shortly we will have the most terrible of all." Another pause, lasting more than a minute. Stone grew more and more uncomfortable in the silent room, illuminated only by the single lamp.
"Communists believe in historical inevitability, you know," Roosevelt said, his voice returning to a slightly more normal volume again. "I had hoped that would be enough to gain Stalin as a partner in peace. After all, he believes time is on the side of the Communists. Give them the shattered nations of eastern Europe to digest, and that would keep them busy for decades. It would let them draw comfort from 'historical inevitability' while we rebuild the West. We could let our two systems compete in how well they serve their people, and the conflict would resolve itself without a need for another war."
"Will we win?" Stone asked.
Roosevelt's eyes focused on him, and his famous jaunty grin briefly illuminated his face. "Who cares, my dear boy? Who cares? If it becomes clear that one system benefits humanity better than the other, whichever it may be, then let that one triumph. We Americans are pragmatists, you know. The proof of the pudding is in the eating." His chuckle was dry, and drifted away. His expression became distant again. "A peaceful conflict is infinitely preferable to war, to more death and destruction. But Stalin couldn't see it that way. He thinks I will reward him after he deserted us, or be willing to simply turn back the clock and behave as if nothing has happened. But I cannot. As much as I despise war, I do know how to wage it...." His voice trailed off again. "So much death. So much death. And now I must order more.
"What I would have given Stalin freely as a partner I cannot give him as a reward for his betrayal," Roosevelt kept on. "I thought we might have to go directly from this war into the next war, but if this surrender is real, there is hope. We can reach Berlin before Stalin's armies, and we order him back to his own lands without a new war." His voice was a whisper again.
"And if he won't go?" asked Stone, his own voice now a whisper. He had a good idea how strong the Soviets were, and a detailed understanding of how strong the Western Allies were. The Western Allies would not have the necessary might to enforce Roosevelt's order, not without the horrible new war Roosevelt hoped to avoid.
The President of the United States looked grim as he turned to look directly at Stone. "He will go. Believe me, he will go."
ARMEEGRUPPE B FIELD HOSPITAL, NEAR DINANT, 1442 HOURS GMT
The short, pudgy man had been pacing back and forth in the waiting area for the past hour, periodically removing his round, wire-rimmed glasses to polish them, then slipping them back on over his watery blue eyes. He could overhear the occasional whispers. "That's the man who saved the field marshal's life?" He knew he didn't look the part of the hero, and he didn't feel the part either. But he had indeed managed to chase a trained SS assassin through dark, battle-strewn streets, then kill the killer before he could end the career of the Desert Fox.
Colonel Wolfgang Müller was in charge of supply operations for Armeegruppe B, and until the previous night had never fired a gun in anger or at a living target. Nervous around superior officers, not particularly assertive, Müller survived because he was good and careful with his work.
"Herr Oberst?" asked a doctor just coming out of the operating room, pulling off spattered gloves as he walked.
"Is there news?" Müller responded, a combination of desperation and concern in his voice.
The doctor's face was stern, his words carefully chosen. "I'm Dr. Schlüter. Yes, Herr Oberst. Your friend is in very serious condition, but he's past the worst of it. The prognosis is only satisfactory, but I have good hopes for this one."
Müller let out a deep breath he had not been aware he'd held. Relief flooding his body, he suddenly remembered to ask, "And the feldwebel--the field marshal's driver? How is he?"
"You mean Mutti?" Schlüter smiled. Everyone knew Mutti, Carl-Heinz Clausen, Rommel's driver, orderly, and mother hen. "The wound was less serious than it first appeared. His condition is good. He'll be up trying to help his wardmates before too long. We'll probably have to tie him down to the bed to give him time to recover."
Müller smiled broadly. Hearing the news took a huge burden off his shoulders. This was good news all around in a time when good news seemed increasingly scarce. "Is it possible to see either of them?"
"Briefly," replied the doctor. "Follow me, please."
Müller followed the doctor through double swinging doors into a long hall. Doctors, nurses, and aides of all sorts were bustling around, but it was only ordinarily busy rather than utterly chaotic--the worst of the battlefield wounded had been dealt with, and now the hospital's business had returned to a more normal state.
Carl-Heinz was in a large, brightly lit ward filled with heavily bandaged soldiers. Some were sitting up; others were even ambulatory. Hospital machinery surrounded the feldwebel's bed, an IV drip fed into his arm. Müller was shocked at how pale and drained his face had become. Carl-Heinz was normally filled with life and confident energy, and to see him like this was unsettling.
As Müller approached, Carl-Heinz smiled, and something of the old energy showed through in his face. "Guten Tag, Herr Oberst," he said. "Pardon me for not saluting. My salute hand is temporarily occupied."
"How are you, Feldwebel?" Müller asked. "The field marshal asked me to make sure you were all right, and to tell you that he would be here to visit you shortly, as soon as he can. He depends on you utterly, you know."
Carl-Heinz smiled. "I know he does. And now the rest of you will have to take care of him until I get back. You tell the field marshal that he is to get a good night's sleep and a real meal into him before he comes traipsing over here. I won't have him straining himself, you know."
"I'll relay your orders to the field marshal as soon as I see him." Müller smiled in return.
"I can get back to work soon. It will be in a couple of days, all right? Definitely no more."
Müller nodded. He knew it would likely take more than a few days before the brave feldwebel was back at his post.
"Herr Oberst--that was a heroic act you did, killing Brigadeführer Bücher before he could assassinate the field marshal," said Mutti. "Thank you."
Müller waved off the thanks with an embarrassed shrug. He still could hardly believe he'd done the act, and the thought brought back the sheer terror of the event. "I--er, well--it was..." He stammered for a minute, then simply replied, "Er--thanks. Is there anything I can do for you, anything you need? Something to eat, perhaps?" Müller remembered that there was still some cake his mother had sent, one made with real flour and real eggs.
"No, Herr Oberst, nothing at all. They're taking wonderful care of me and granting my every whim," Carl-Heinz said with a grin, his expression seeming more robust. But the fatigue and pain were also still clear.
The doctor lightly touched Müller's arm. "I must leave you alone now, I think," the pudgy supply officer said. "If there's anything I can do, send word immediately." He moved on.
The intensive-care ward was only dimly lit, and smelled of carbolic acid and other odors he didn't want to dwell upon. Numerous tubes dripped into one patient; a nurse sat beside him, monitoring his vital signs as the pudgy colonel hesitantly approached. The patient's face reflected in the highly polished metal surfaces of the equipment.
"Günter? It's me--Wolfgang," he said in a voice only slightly above a whisper.
The eyes of the patient remained closed, but his lips moved slightly. "Did you do it?" Oberst Günter von Reinhardt, Rommel's senior intelligence officer, had been the first to try to stop Bücher and was shot in the process. Müller had found him near to death, and had taken over the mission simply because no one else was there.
"Yes, Günter. Bücher is dead. It's over."
"And our field marshal lives?"
"Yes, he lives. I'm glad you live, too. I thought you were dead."
"So did I. The surrender--did it go all right?"
"Yes, yes, Günter. It's all over now."
"Not quite, I think," said the gravely wounded intelligence officer. "But this is good news. Wolfgang, you did well." He seemed to drift into unconsciousness at that point, surrounded by reflections of his own face. Müller reached down and touched his hand lightly, then followed the doctor out of the room.
"He's in bad shape, isn't he, Doctor?"
The doctor nodded. "Yes. He's young and strong and there's a good chance he'll escape death, but he'll never be quite the same. The bullet punctured one of his lungs, which collapsed. We were lucky that he didn't die before we got him here."
"When will he be out of here?"
"Within a few weeks, assuming no serious complications. But that means out of the hospital, not a return to duty. For that--well, it's too early to tell."
"Thank you, Herr Doktor," Müller said, shaking his hand with both of his own. "Thank you very much."
"It's mostly God's work," the doctor said, waving off the compliment with a smile, "but I'm happy to take the credit."
Copyright 2003 by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson
Excerpted from Fox at the Front by Niles, Douglas Copyright © 2004 by Niles, Douglas. Excerpted by permission.
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