Mid-day, June 2nd 1943 became the turning point in the complex life of Karl Strom. As a spy, betrayal and brushes with death were ever present, but with Hitler’s new mission and when lust became love, would his carefully laid plans turn into shattered dreams.
Events were triggered when Karl ambled away from the Peenemünde Army Research Centre, thinking about the secret project Adolph Hitler had tasked him with, weeks ago. He was heading towards his regular spot along the lake shore of Cammerer See to eat his sandwiches and review progress.
Karl had been an electronics engineer before the war started and had the gift many engineers have of stripping away the complexity and simplifying, until the result seems so obvious. This was the challenge that faced him now. It was not for his engineering skills alone, that Berlin had selected him, but his extraordinary abilities as a spy and obsessive determination to succeed. They had chosen well, for this was a mission that would tax Karl to his limit.
The small village on the way to the tranquil lake was deserted, families were taking lunch. He was aware of a young woman some way behind him. She worked as a cleaner at the research centre, according to the 22 year old Gestapo agent, Ernst Huber, who was shadowing them both. She had become part of the routine over the last week, but he did not need to worry about such things these days, now that he was no longer an active spy, that was Huber’s job.
The lad had taken a keen interest in spy craft and often consulted Karl on the subject. It was because of such tips that Ernst seldom had the same appearance two days running. As Karl pointed out, most spies can spot the typical Gestapo agent from afar. If the agent is following someone, the spy need only follow the agent, they would all end up at the same destination, but the spy would remain undetected.
Ernst noticed the girl take something from her shopping bag and lob it underhand, high in the air. She instantly ducked up an ally between buildings and vanished.
There was a loud thump of a heavy, fist sized metal object, as it landed on the pavement just behind Karl. It rolled past and smacked into the side of a projecting stone step, just in front of him.
It was a grenade and there was no cover for him, to take the blast.
“Arghhh!” he yelled, as he dived to the shallow roadside gutter. Instinctively he turned his face from the grenade and protected his head with his arms. A couple of nerve wracking seconds of his life, passed like a slice of eternity, before the device exploded. The shockwave flipped the concussed and shrapnel riddled body like a rag doll, out into the road. The stone step had directed shrapnel at Ernst, but he was in shock, his head swam from the explosion, so he never felt the spray of searing fragments.
Fearing the worst, he ran to help Karl. From shoulder to buttock on the blast side was blood drenched clothing, it was torn and smoking. He could only stand and stare at the awful mess, as residents rushed out of their homes to see what had happened.
Someone ran for the Doctor, who arrived minutes later and quickly checked for a pulse. It was strong but irregular; fortunately the victim was still breathing. Examining the wounds overwhelmed him, there were so many. He realised blood loss was the first problem to solve, so he called for clean towels. To some extent, the searing hot fragments had cauterised many blood vessels and the cloths were acting as a crude bandage, all the towels were going to do was hide the gore.
Minutes later, a military ambulance arrived with soldiers and Gestapo agents who ran around questioning everyone. Karl and Ernst were rushed away in the ambulance, back to the medical centre.
Ernst knew he was in big trouble and would become the centre of the investigation into what had happened, after all, it was his responsibility to protect Strom. Why hadn’t he? They would ask.
Ernst decided to seek advice and help from his father, Franz Huber, an SS General. Their relationship was a strained and distant one up till then, but he listened carefully to his son.
“Ernst, there will be a formal enquiry and you need to present your account before they form their own conclusions. Right or wrong, they won’t change their minds. You also need to take the initiative, it is too your credit that you had arranged for the girl to be investigated, two days previous. If there were indications she was a threat, why had they not informed you?
“Another tactic is to present a summation of the situation and a strategy for dealing with it. It has the effect of moving the focus from you to the real issue, the security of the project. Done respectfully, but assertively, I believe you will be exonerated.
“Finally, it is better for you that I do not intervene in any way, because it will work against you on your record.
“I wish you luck and I want you to know I have every confidence in you.” He abruptly ended the call.
Later that afternoon Ernst Huber was called to attend the inquiry, he had just left the medical facility and his face was heavily bandaged. There was nothing they could do though to prevent scars on his face.
Ernst knocked on the door and he was summoned in. The gathering of six high ranking officers, all of whom he knew, looked stern as they sat at the large rectangular table. They were gathered at one end, each side of the chairman SS-Oberführer Wilhelm Keppler who presided over the meeting and he asked Ernst to take a seat. The lonely chair at the far end was a ridiculous distance away from the group and if he sat there, it was them against him. It looked like he was too late; they had most likely made up their minds about blame. He had nothing to lose, everything to gain, by taking the odd seat with the group. There were now three people each side of the chairman, everything was in balance and he was now one of them.
The chairman spoke, “Ernst, we see you got caught in the blast, I hope you will heal quickly. Please tell us, being so close, why didn’t you prevent the woman from throwing the grenade? Surly you could have shot her?”
“I was not close at all, the woman was never aware of me, or she would never have thrown the grenade. The grenade exploded against a stone step and directed some of the blast in my direction. You may be aware that I flagged the woman for investigation two days ago, because she started following Karl Strom three days before that. On every occasion, except today, there were bystanders along the route. Had it not been for them, she would have thrown the grenade then. Have you received any intelligence from the agents investigating the woman?”
The chairman grunted and looked questioningly at the other members, but they looked down and shuffled papers.
“There was no opportunity to shoot the woman and prevent the attack. She had her back to me when she moved the shopping bag in front of her, so I had no way of seeing what she had in her hand. The instant she lobbed the grenade, high in the air, she vanished up an ally. The best I could do was shout a warning to Karl, but by then, it hit the ground and rolled past him, into the step. He dived into the roadside gutter to take cover.
“Now that I have had chance to examine the facts, I believe there is far more to this incident that the killing of one man. With respect Sir, would you all care to hear what I have to say?”
The group nodded their agreement and Ernst continued.
“The attack on Karl Strom was not random, because in exchange for his death, the British lose a valuable asset and the opportunity to learn more about what we do here. That tells me at least two things; first, they are aware of what he is doing here, to some extent, and that they have no idea where exactly to drop bombs to cripple us. The recent bombing runs show clearly they are guessing. The next best thing is to eliminate the key man by killing him and thereby halt development for a while.
“I questioned why they chose to blow him up, and that tells me they only have the woman on the outside, spying on us. Just because she is a woman does not mean she cannot shoot, but even at close range, people do survive being shot. It is better to blow them to pieces and ensure success.
“I have also tried to lob a grenade like she did, and it takes practice to become so accurate. This tells me the attack has been well planned for some time. I also wondered why she lobbed the grenade high in the air, and not just throw it directly. I reasoned that she wanted the explosion to occur the moment it hit the ground so Karl had no time to take cover. If she just pulled the pin and counted off a few seconds before throwing, I or someone like me would have had time to shoot her. Several seconds passed when it was in the air, undetected by Karl.
“This is the sort of thinking that would come from an expert. The same applies for the escape up the ally. I am convinced the woman did not know I was there, or she would have found another way to kill him.
“I respectfully suggest we let the woman believe Karl is dead and she can report this back to SIS in England. This will get them off our back for a while, believing work here is halted. We can also feed misinformation to them through her.”
Ernst could see from their faces, he had their full attention and had impressed them with his presentation. What happened now was up to them.
“Ernst, I want to discuss what you have said with my fellow officers, I will let you know what we decide, if it is relevant to you. I can put your mind at rest however, we see no failing on your part and that will be stated clearly on your record. Thank you for your thoughts.
“You can go back to your duties.”
Ernst saluted and left, greatly relieved the matter was closed.
The following afternoon he joined a small group of officers and staff at the village cemetery for Karl Strom’s funeral, a hasty affair, but understandable under the circumstances.
A week later, he received a telephone call from SS-Oberführer Wilhelm Keppler.
“Kriminalassistent Ernst Huber, I thought you would appreciate taking part in the arrest and interrogation of Ingrid Hine known as Rabbit at her home in Karlshagen for her part in the attack on yourself and Karl Strom. I have informed your superior, so report to him immediately. It will be good experience for you.”
“Thank you Oberführer Keppler, I am honoured.”
“I am sure you are, Huber. Good day.” He laughed and hung up.
That afternoon, Rabbit heard the commotion of many soldiers running in her direction as she cleaned the Sleeping and Living Quarters. This was the block where the menial staff and general labour resided. She hastily removed from a pocket, a piece of hard chewing gum and forced it into the gap of an extracted upper molar.
As the soldiers surrounded her an officer pushed through them and stood up close, face to face. Blood drained from her brain, her guts churned and her bowel contents turned to liquid as adrenalin pumped through her system. Now her mouth and throat went dry, so dry, she could not speak.
“Frau Ingrid Hine, I arrest you for acts of spying and other crimes against the Reich,” announced Kriminaldirektor Georg Koppe.
Then the soldiers firmly grasped her arms and forced her away to be stripped and searched. It was a deliberately dramatic arrest, aimed at instilling terror into everyone who worked at Peenemünde and dissuading them from acts of sabotage and betrayal.
That evening, her husband and five-year-old daughter were brought in for interrogation.
The interrogation room was cramped, and intentionally depressing, with a light grey painted concrete floor and neglected, bare white walls. The picture of the Führer, high up on the wall behind Georg Koppe, glared down at the prisoner. His expression said it all; you decided to go against me, now you pay the price.
Koppe sat behind a simple wooden table with a small sheaf of papers in front of him, illuminated by a basic table lamp. Alongside, in the corner sat Ernst Huber, he was there to learn and where necessary assist and restrain. Both men looked cadaverous and sinister as the single dim light on the ceiling cast dark shadows across their features.
Ingrid Hine noticed the freshly bruised and scabbed face of the man sat in the corner. Although she did not recognise him, she knew it was her handiwork that had done the damage. Under different circumstances, she would have felt sympathy for the lad, such a handsome face, disfigured for life, but at this moment, she felt nothing for him. Instead, her mind was filled with abject terror. Georg Koppe, the interrogator at the table, had a reputation for brutality and he was staring dispassionately at her.
Her British contact, Whisky, had warned her of the risks when he recruited her nine months ago, but she had got away with so much, spying right under their noses, she thought she was too smart for the Germans. What was she going to do now? The British will have abandoned her and covered their tracks, she had a daughter and loving husband to take care of, they knew nothing of her secret. She could hold out for a time, she imagined, but she knew she would tell all in the end. What if they threatened her family? No, she could not bear that, she decided she had only two cards to play.
Ernst Huber tried to imagine what was going on in the woman’s mind as she sat there, so tense. Rabbit, her code name, was very apt just now; this rabbit was caught in the proverbial headlights and had good reason to be tense.
She had permanently disfigured him, and he hated her for that, even though he realised he was just collateral damage. As an interrogator, he knew he had to supress emotion, or he would fail in the task. It calmed him to consider their differences, she had her beliefs and acted on them, and he had his and would do the same. In war, the British kill Germans, and the Germans kill the British.
He wondered what he would do in her present, precarious position. He tried to imaging how she would be feeling. Huber could not comprehend such terror, but he knew what awaited her, so he knew would panic. That must be why she is so still, she has no idea what she will go through before she gives in or dies. She will foolishly be brave and resist, but will she be so brave when she sees it is her husband and child that are taking the pain? I doubt it, he decided.
How would Koppe start the interrogation, it was common knowledge amongst the officers he hated the unpleasantness of torture; he only used it as a last resort, because he had to win.
“Ingrid, you have a husband called Josef, and Sophie, your beautiful daughter aged five. She looks very much like you.” Koppe smiled warmly.
“They are both here and their fate rests in your hands. You are here because you are a British spy who has also attacked my staff. And for that, the penalty is death by firing squad.” Koppe looked deeply saddened.
“The British have used you to gather intelligence about what we do here, but I want you to fully appreciate the word – used, because that’s what they have done to you. Used you, and abandoned you, now that they have all you could give them. They have forgotten you already. I understand all this, and having regard for the young family that needs you, I can help you if you help me.
“I can hold you, until the war is over, a year or so and then you can return to your family. As I said earlier, the alternative is the firing squad.
“In exchange, I want to know everything you told the British, so I can take countermeasures.
“Is that what you want to do?
“If it is, you can make a start and I will bring in Josef and Sophie to see you for a few minutes.”
Georg looked up at her and with the facial expression of a kindly uncle; he reached forward and placed both palms on the table, in a gesture of sincerity.
Tears welled up in Ingrid’s eyes; there was really only the one card that she could play.
In a fit of emotion, she bit hard on the softened gum in her mouth and attempted to swallow. The cyanide loaded saliva tasted like bitter salt for an instant and then her mouth and throat when numb. It took only a few seconds for the poison to be transferred through the mucosa into her blood. Then every cell in contact with it became deprived of oxygen.
She fitted and fell forward onto the floor, gasping and writhing, her visible skin turning pink. The final gasp came fifteen seconds later.
Huber was shocked to the core, rooted to the chair.
Koppe looked surprised, but it quickly turned to fury as he accepted she had thwarted him. He remained seated, noted the time and wrote a brief note in the file.
Two days after her death, there were high level meetings that discussed the relocation of various sections of the Research Centre to different countries.
Sir Peter Stern in MI6 picked up his telephone and called John Caplin.
“Good afternoon John, Sir Peter here, how is Margret? A little one on the way I understand, due in October, is that right?”
“Oh! Hello Sir Peter. I was about to call you, we have officially lost contact with Rabbit now, just as you expected, still, that well was running dry. I have reviewed all she sent us, and everything up toseems reliable. I am not convinced one way or the other about the success in killing Karl Strom. If I were Jerry, I would say he was dead, even if he wasn’t, just to keep the other side quiet. The funeral was a simple affair, but nothing we wouldn’t do.
“Operations Whitebait and Hydra will go ahead anyway on, the maps and sketches Rabbit sent from the two polish Janitors she knew, are authentic, according to IMINT.”
“Spot on my boy, just what I needed to know. Thanks!”
The driving rain had only one upside for Karl Strom; it flattened the dark water of Braye Bay, allowing a smoother landing for the Blohm & Voss BV 138 flying boat. He was its only passenger. The freezing cold air on this vile night, December 1st 1943 had even paralysed the wind.
The sudden hiss, jerk and bounce as the hull briefly kissed the sea, roused Strom from his ruminations. Relief swept over him as the sea sprayed loudly against the thin metal and he felt the prolonged deceleration of a perfect water landing. The trimotor Junkers Jumo aircraft diesel engines spluttered lumpily and vibrated the whole aircraft as it taxied up to the floating pontoon.
For Strom, this long flight from Germany was all he could have hoped for. Although his tired body ached, where it still had feeling, his joy came from knowing his top secret equipment was likely to have survived the smooth journey.
The silence as the engines stopped was replaced by the roar in his head from assaulted eardrums. It would be hours before they returned to normal and he could enjoy silence again. He tried to move, but his muscles and joints had seized, it was the equivalent to rigor mortise, for the living. Clicking open his seatbelt, it slip away, rattling as the ends fell against the seat frame. Screwing up his face and forcing himself through the agony, to stand, he walked through the plane. Past injuries had healed, but the lasting damage was done, fortunately only he knew his limitations, but then he was a master at keeping secrets. What was one more?
AUTHOR LINK: http://johnday.webplus.net/