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September 10, 1943, Berlin, Germany
Reichs-minister of Armaments Albert Speer raced up the steps of the Air Ministry on the Tiergarten. He did not feel the harsh, diagonal sheets of rain that plummeted down from the grey sky; he did not notice that his raincoat—unbuttoned—had fallen away, exposing his tunic and shirt to the inundation of the September storm. The pitch of his fury swept everything but the immediate crisis out of his mind.
Insanity! Sheer, unmitigated, unforgivable insanity!
The industrial reserves of all Germany were about exhausted; but he could handle that immense problem. Handle it by properly utilizing the manufacturing potential of the occupied countries; reverse the unmanageable practices of importing the labor forces. Labor forces? Slaves!
Productivity disastrous; sabotage continuous, unending.
What did they expect?
It was a time for sacrifice! Hitler could not continue to be all things to all people! He could not provide outsized Mercedeses and grand operas and populated restaurants; he had to provide, instead, tanks, munitions, ships, aircraft! These were the priorities!
But the Führer could never erase the memory of the 1918 revolution.
How totally inconsistent! The sole man whose will was shaping history, who was close to the preposterous dream of a thousand-year Reich, was petrified of a long-ago memory of unruly mobs, of unsatisfied masses.
Speer wondered if future historians would record the fact. If they would comprehend just how weak Hitler really was when it came to his own countrymen. How he buckled in fear when consumer production fell below anticipated schedules.
But still he, the Reichs-minister of Armaments, could control this calamitous inconsistency as long as he was convinced it was just a question of time. A few months; perhaps six at the outside.
For there was Peenemünde.
Everything reduced itself to Peenemünde!
Peenemünde was irresistible. Peenemünde would cause the collapse of London and Washington. Both governments would see the futility of continuing the exercise of wholesale annihilation.
Reasonable men could then sit down and create reasonable treaties.
Even if it meant the silencing of unreasonable men. Silencing Hitler.
Speer knew there were others who thought that way, too. The Führer was manifestly beginning to show unhealthy signs of pressure—fatigue. He now surrounded himself with mediocrity—an ill-disguised desire to remain in the comfortable company of his intellectual equals. But it went too far when the Reich itself was affected. A wine merchant, the foreign minister! A third-rate party propagandizer, the minister of eastern affairs! An erstwhile fighter pilot, the overseer of the entire economy!
Even himself. Even the quiet, shy architect; now the minister of armaments.
All that would change with Peenemünde.
Even himself. Thank God!
But first there had to be Peenemünde. There could be no question of its operational success. For without Peenemünde, the war was lost.
And now they were telling him there was a question. A flaw that might well be the precursor of Germany’s defeat.
A vacuous-looking corporal opened the door of the cabinet room. Speer walked in and saw that the long conference table was about two-thirds filled, the chairs in cliquish separation, as if the groups were suspect of one another. As, indeed, they were in these times of progressively sharpened rivalries within the Reich.
He walked to the head of the table, where—to his right—sat the only man in the room he could trust. Franz Alt-müller.
Alt-müller was a forty-two-year-old cynic. Tall, blond, aristocratic; the vision of the Third Reich Aryan who did not, for a minute, subscribe to the racial nonsense proclaimed by the Third Reich. He did, however, subscribe to the theory of acquiring whatever benefits came his way by pretending to agree with anyone who might do him some good.
In private, among his very close associates, he told the truth.
When that truth might also benefit him.
Speer was not only Alt-müller’s associate, he was his friend. Their families had been more than neighbors; the two fathers had often gone into joint merchandising ventures; the mothers had been school chums.
Alt-müller had taken after his father. He was an extremely capable businessman; his expertise was in production administration.
“Good morning,” said Alt-müller, flicking an imaginary thread off his tunic lapel. He wore his party uniform far more often than was necessary, preferring to err on the side of the archangel.
“That seems unlikely,” replied Speer, sitting down rapidly. The groups—and they were groups—around the table kept talking among themselves but the voices were perceptibly quieter. Eyes kept darting over in Speer’s direction, then swiftly away; everyone was prepared for immediate silence yet none wished to appear apprehensive, guilty.
Silence would come when either Alt-müller or Speer himself rose from his chair to address the gathering. That would be the signal. Not before. To render attention before that movement might give the appearance of fear. Fear was equivalent to an admission of error. No one at the conference table could afford that.
Alt-müller opened a brown manila folder and placed it in front of Speer. It was a list of those summoned to the meeting. There were essentially three distinct factions with subdivisions within each, and each with its spokesman. Speer read the names and unobtrusively—he thought—looked up to ascertain the presence and location of the three leaders.
At the far end of the table, resplendent in his general’s uniform, his tunic a field of decorations going back thirty years, sat Ernst Leeb, Chief of the Army Ordnance Office. He was of medium height but excessively muscular, a condition he maintained well into his sixties. He smoked his cigarette through an ivory holder which he used to cut off his various subordinates’ conversations at will. In some ways Leeb was a caricature, yet still a powerful one. Hitler liked him, as much for his imperious military bearing as for his abilities.
At the midpoint of the table, on the left, sat Albert Vögler, the sharp, aggressive general manager of Reich’s Industry. Vögler was a stout man, the image of a burgomaster; the soft flesh of his face constantly creased into a questioning scowl. He laughed a great deal, but his laughter was hard; a device, not an enjoyment. He was well suited to his position. Vögler liked nothing better than hammering out negotiations between industrial adversaries. He was a superb mediator because all parties were usually frightened of him.
Across from Vögler and slightly to the right, toward Alt-müller and Speer, was Wilhelm Zangen, the Reich official of the German Industrial Association. Zangen was thin- lipped, painfully slender, humorless; a fleshed-out skeleton happiest over his charts and graphs. A precise man who was given to perspiring at the edge of his receding hairline and below the nostrils and on his chin when nervous. He was perspiring now, and continuously brought his handkerchief up to blot the embarrassing moisture. Somewhat in contradiction to his appearance, however, Zangen was a persuasive debater. For he never argued without the facts.
They were all persuasive, thought Speer. And if it were not for his anger, he knew such men could—probably would—intimidate him. Albert Speer was honest in self-assessment; he realized that he had no substantial sense of authority. He found it difficult to express his thoughts forthrightly among such potentially hostile men. But now the potentially hostile men were in a defensive position. He could not allow his anger to cause them to panic, to seek only absolution for themselves.
They needed a remedy. Germany needed a remedy.
Peenemünde had to be saved.
“How would you suggest we begin?” Speer asked Alt-müller, shading his voice so no one else at the table could hear him.
“I don’t think it makes a particle of difference. It will take an hour of very loud, very boring, very obtuse explanations before we reach anything concrete.”
“I’m not interested in explanations. . . .”
“Least of all, excuses. I want a solution.”
“If it’s to be found at this table—which, frankly, I doubt—you’ll have to sit through the excess verbiage. Perhaps something will come of it. Again, I doubt it.”
“Would you care to explain that?”
Alt-müller looked directly into Speer’s eyes. “Ultimately, I’m not sure there is a solution. But if there is, I don’t think it’s at this table. . . . Perhaps I’m wrong. Why don’t we listen first?”
“All right. Would you please open with the summary you prepared? I’m afraid I’d lose my temper midway through.”
“May I suggest,” Alt-müller whispered, “that it will be necessary for you to lose your temper at some point during this meeting. I don’t see how you can avoid it.”
Alt-müller pushed back his chair and stood up. Grouping by grouping the voices trailed off around the table.
“Gentlemen. This emergency session was called for reasons of which we assume you are aware. At least you should be aware of them. Apparently it is only the Reichs-minister of Armaments and his staff who were not informed; a fact which the Reichs-minister and his staff find appalling. . . . In short words, the Peenemünde operation faces a crisis of unparalleled severity. In spite of the millions poured into this most vital weaponry development, in spite of the assurances consistently offered by your respective departments, we now learn that production may be brought to a complete halt within a matter of weeks. Several months prior to the agreed-upon date for the first operational rockets. That date has never been questioned. It has been the keystone for whole military strategies; entire armies have been maneuvered to coordinate with it. Germany’s victory is predicated on it. . . . But now Peenemünde is threatened; Germany is threatened. . . . If the projections the Reichs-minister’s staff have compiled—unearthed and compiled—are valid, the Peenemünde complex will exhaust its supply of industrial diamonds in less than ninety days. Without industrial diamonds the precision tooling in Peenemünde cannot continue.”
The babble of voices—excited, guttural, vying for attention—erupted the second Alt-müller sat down. General Leeb’s cigarette holder slashed the air in front of him as though it were a saber; Albert Vögler scowled and wrinkled his flesh- puffed eyes, placed his bulky hands on the table and spoke harshly in a loud monotone; Wilhelm Zangen’s handkerchief was working furiously around his face and his neck, his high-pitched voice in conflict with the more masculine tones around him.
Franz Alt-müller leaned toward Speer. “You’ve seen cages of angry ocelots in the zoo? The zookeeper can’t let them hurl themselves into the bars. I suggest you lose your benign temper far earlier than we discussed. Perhaps now.”
“That is not the way.”
“Don’t let them think you are cowed. . . .”
“Nor that I am cowering.” Speer interrupted his friend, the slightest trace of a smile on his lips. He stood up. “Gentlemen.”
The voices trailed off.
“Herr Alt-müller speaks harshly; he does so, I’m sure, because I spoke harshly with him. That was this morning, very early this morning. There is greater perspective now; it is no time for recriminations. This is not to lessen the critical aspects of the situation, for they are great. But anger will solve nothing. And we need solutions. . . . Therefore, I propose to seek your assistance—the assistance of the finest industrial and military minds in the Reich. First, of course, we need to know the specifics. I shall start with Herr Vögler. As manager of Reich’s Industry, would you give us your estimate?”
Vögler was upset; he didn’t wish to be the first called. “I’m not sure I can be of much enlightenment, Herr Reichs-minister. I, too, am subject to the reports given me. They have been optimistic; until the other week there was no suggestion of difficulty.”
“How do you mean, optimistic?” asked Speer.
“The quantities of bortz and carbonado diamonds were said to be sufficient. Beyond this there are the continuing experiments with lithicum, carbon and paraffin. Our intelligence tells us that the Englishman Storey at the British Museum reverified the Hannay-Moissan theories. Diamonds were produced in this fashion.”
“Who verified the Englishman?” Franz Alt-müller did not speak kindly. “Had it occurred to you that such data was meant to be passed?”
“Such verification is a matter for Intelligence. I am not with Intelligence, Herr Alt-müller.”
“Go on,” said Speer quickly. “What else?”
“There is an Anglo-American experiment under the supervision of the Bridgemann team. They are subjecting graphite to pressures in excess of six million pounds per square inch. So far there is no word of success.”
“Is there word of failure?” Alt-müller raised his aristocratic eyebrows, his tone polite.
“I remind you again, I am not with Intelligence. I have received no word whatsoever.”
“Food for thought, isn’t it,” said Alt-müller, without asking a question.
“Nevertheless,” interrupted Speer before Vögler could respond, “you had reason to assume that the quantities of bortz and carbonado were sufficient. Is that not so?”
“Sufficient. Or at least obtainable, Herr Reichs-minister.”
“How so obtainable?”
“I believe General Leeb might be more knowledgeable on that subject.”
Leeb nearly dropped his ivory cigarette holder. Alt-müller noted his surprise and cut in swiftly. “Why would the army ordnance officer have that information, Herr Vögler? I ask merely for my own curiosity.”
“The reports, once more. It is my understanding that the Ordnance Office is responsible for evaluating the industrial, agricultural and mineral potentials of occupied territories. Or those territories so projected.”
Ernst Leeb was not entirely unprepared. He was unprepared for Vögler’s insinuations, not for the subject. He turned to an aide, who shuffled papers top to bottom as Speer inquired.
“The Ordnance Office is under enormous pressure these days; as is your department, of course, Herr Vögler. I wonder if General Leeb has had the time . . .”
“We made the time,” said Leeb, his sharp military bearing pitted in counterpoint to Vögler’s burgomaster gruffness. “When we received word—from Herr Vögler’s subordinates—that a crisis was imminent—not upon us, but imminent—we immediately researched the possibilities for extrication.”
Franz Alt-müller brought his hand to his mouth to cover an involuntary smile. He looked at Speer, who was too annoyed to find any humor in the situation.
“I’m relieved the Ordnance Office is so confident, general,” said Speer. The Reichs-minister of Armaments had little confidence in the military and had difficulty disguising it. “Please, your extrication?”
“I said possibilities, Herr Speer. To arrive at practical solutions will take more time than we’ve been given.”
“Very well. Your possibilities?”
“There is an immediate remedy with historical precedent.” Leeb paused to remove his cigarette, crushing it out, aware that everyone around the table watched him intently. “I have taken the liberty of recommending preliminary studies to the General Staff. It involves an expeditionary force of less than four battalions. . . . Africa. The diamond mines east of Tanganyika.”
“What?” Alt-müller leaned forward; he obviously could not help himself. “You’re not serious.”
“Please!” Speer would not allow his friend to interrupt. If Leeb had even conceived of such drastic action, it might have merit. No military man, knowing the thin line of combat strength—chewed up on the Eastern Front, under murderous assault by the Allies in Italy—could suggest such an absurdity unless he had a realistic hope of success. “Go ahead, general.”
“The Williamson Mines at Mwadui. Between the districts of Tanganyika and Zanzibar in the central sector. The mines at Mwadui produce over a million carats of the carbonado diamond annually. Intelligence—the intelligence that is forwarded regularly to me at my insistence—informs us that there are supplies going back several months. Our agents in Dar es Salaam are convinced such an incursion would be successful.”
Franz Alt-müller passed a sheet of paper to Speer. On it he had scribbled: “He’s lost his senses!”
“What is the historical precedent to which you refer?” asked Speer, holding his hand over Alt-müller’s paper.
“All of the districts east of Dar es Salaam rightfully belong to the Third Reich, German West Africa. They were taken from the fatherland after the Great War. The Führer himself made that clear four years ago.”
There was silence around the table. An embarrassed silence. The eyes of even his aides avoided the old soldier. Finally Speer spoke quietly.
“That is justification, not precedent, general. The world cares little for our justifications, and although I question the logistics of moving battalions halfway around the globe, you may have raised a valid point. Where else nearer . . . in East Africa, perhaps, can the bortz or the carbonado be found?”
Leeb looked to his aides; Wilhelm Zangen lifted his handkerchief to his nostrils and bowed his thin head in the direction of the general. He spoke as if exhaling, his high voice irritating.
“I’ll answer you, Herr Reichs-minister. And then, I believe, you will see how fruitless this discussion is. . . . Sixty percent of the world’s crushing-bortz diamonds are in the Belgian Congo. The two principal deposits are in the Kasai and Bakwanga fields, between the Kanshi and the Bushimaie rivers. The district’s governor-general is Pierre Ryckmans; he is devoted to the Belgian government in exile in London. I can assure Leeb that the Congo’s allegiances to Belgium are far greater than ours ever were in Dar es Salaam.”
Leeb lit a cigarette angrily. Speer leaned back in his chair and addressed Zangen.
“All right. Sixty percent crushing-bortz; what of carbonado and the rest?”
“French Equatorial: totally allied to de Gaulle’s Free French. Ghana and Sierra Leone: the tightest of British controls. Angola: Portuguese domination and their neutrality’s inviolate; we know that beyond doubt. French West Africa: not only under Free French mandate but with Allied forces manning the outposts. . . . Here, there was only one possibility and we lost it a year and a half ago. Vichy abandoned the Ivory Coast. . . . There is no access in Africa, Reichs-minister. None of a military nature.”
“I see.” Speer doodled on top of the paper Alt-müller had passed to him. “You are recommending a nonmilitary solution?”
“There is no other. The question is what.”
Speer turned to Franz Alt-müller. His tall, blond associate was staring at them all. Their faces were blank. Baffled.