Chapter Nineteen

March 1945

 

"I see. Well, if you hear anything ... Yes. Thank you." The Kommandant of Oflag IVc replaced the handset carefully and looked across the desk to his second-in-command. "It seems that the Prominente were removed from Stalag IVz yesterday. The Kommandant has been attempting to gain some news of them. The last thing he knows is that when they left his camp they were marching towards Berlin."

"Berlin? Marching?" Ulmann was aghast at the thought.

"Yes, exactly. They will not be travelling very quickly. Apparently there is no fuel available and the roads are packed with people fleeing the Russian advance. The Kommandant believes he will soon be ordered to evacuate his camp."

"Does he know where ... ?"

"He has heard nothing."

There was an uneasy silence for a few moments while they digested the unpleasant prospect that they might soon find themselves in the same situation.

"I must inform Colonel Preston and Colonel Dodd of this development."

"They will not be pleased," Ulmann vouchsafed.

"Neither am I, Franz."

The junior officer hesitated before asking; "Will you tell them about Major Carrington?"

"Yes."

The uncompromising tone warned Ulmann that the subject was closed but he could not leave the question unresolved. Mohn's disappearance had had no bearing on the case; it seemed to Ulmann that the authorities involved were seizing their opportunity for a little petty revenge on their enemy while they still could, and everything in him rebelled against the thought that Karl might actually order the sentence of Carrington's court martial carried out. That the American's life could be thrown away in such a cause angered him, and he could not bring himself to believe that this man whom he had grown to care for so deeply would be blind to the stupidity of the order.

"Do you intend to carry out the sentence?"

"I am a soldier. It is my duty to follow the orders of my superior officers." Karl's voice was hard and he cut brutally across the Hauptmann's argument, standing up to face his junior. "I do not intend to discuss this. You have duties to attend to. Please inform Colonel Dodd and Colonel Preston that I will see them tomorrow morning after Appell." Their eyes met in a clash of wills, Ulmann eventually conceding defeat and saluting and leaving the room without speaking.

The Kommandant waited until the door had closed before slumping into his seat and burying his head in his hands for a moment, giving his thoughts over to his dilemma. He had recognised the birth of a respect and regard between Ulmann and the American almost before the Security officer had been aware of it and the older man had quickly accepted that it would, at any other time, have led to a deep and life-long friendship. What he had not expected was that the friendship had been born despite their circumstances and, without realising it, Franz and Philip Carrington had developed a bond which had strengthened even in the face of a two year separation. For a moment he considered their friendship in the light of his own involvement with Franz. He was not troubled by the presence of the other man in their life but it certainly could not be ignored - especially given the current situation. He did not know if Franz realised yet just how much the American's life meant to him, but he had no doubt of its importance. Unhappily, he wondered if Carrington's death would also mean the end of their own involvement. Ulmann would try hard not to blame him, he knew that, and yet how could he ignore the fact that the man he loved had ordered the execution of one of his closest friends? If it had been done in the name of justice then the question would not arise, but there was no justice in this - and no logic. With an increasing sense of frustration and a feeling of being trapped by events over which he had no control the Kommandant slapped his open palm on the surface of the desk.

I am a soldier, he reiterated, and I must follow my orders.

 

Receiving word of the Kommandant's return from Leipzig, Ulmann strode through the courtyard and out to the gate. He ignored the guards who snapped to attention as he passed, intent only on reaching the camp's senior officer.

The Kommandant had recently instituted daily staff meetings as the situation across Germany disintegrated. Yesterday, once he had concluded his reading of the Order of the Day from Berlin, he had announced his decision to allow wives and families to join their menfolk in the dubious safety of the Castle and stated that his own wife would be arriving shortly. In their first communication since Ulmann had stalked out of the office the Kommandant had asked politely if the Hauptmann's wife would join him in the camp. Like an echo his answer returned to him now.

"It's too far away, sir. There is no transport. She would never be able to get here." He did not add, because he knew he had no need, that his wife was better in the care of her parents. Ulmann had witnessed the sympathy which had filled Karl's expression, knowing that he fully understood. During the past months he had confided more and more in his friend, admitting the woman's mental condition was deteriorating rapidly and that finally everyone had agreed there was no hope for her. At sight of that sympathy and the sharp memories of the closeness they should still share Ulmann had hesitated, trying to find something to break through the barriers between them. Before he could speak the Oberst had covered his own obvious confusion by proposing a toast to Germany.

As he made his way to the Kommandant's side now he recalled the last occasion on which they had found themselves in the ignominious position of being held apart by the very circumstances which bound them together, and his own arrogant assumption that he would be able to prevent it occurring again. They were both still circling around one another, he recognised, still wary of involvement, emotional or physical. That was the key, he appreciated. It was not that they did not trust one another; the problem lay in the inability of each man to trust himself. That had to change, and the first step was to impress upon the Kommandant that he did not consider the older man's wife to be a rival.

The Kommandant had witnessed his approach and was waiting for him. With consideration Ulmann scanned the tired and dispirited figure and, without ceremony, commandeered his weighty attaché case, remarking simply; "You wife has arrived, Herr Kommandant. I have ensured that she is comfortable. She is with other officers' wives in the Mess. Should I bring her to you?"

Karl looked up in surprise as the speech reached its conclusion and then smiled at the serious face confronting him as he appreciated both the gesture and the emotions behind it.

"Thank you, Hauptmann," he remarked, his voice warm, "but I will go to the Mess. Perhaps you would be good enough to deposit that," and he gestured with undisguised loathing at the bag Ulmann held, "in the office and then join us. I would like you to meet Lisa."

In his words Ulmann read what was unsaid.

I would like Lisa to meet you.

 

News of Page's suicide did not reach Carrington in the solitary confinement cell. He had been aware of an increase in the level of activity in the courtyard and of a greater tension in his guards, but although they all seemed to have been affected by some cataclysmic event he was quick to recognise that they had been ordered not to talk about it. In that respect nothing much had changed at Colditz; it was still possible to keep a prisoner in solitary so isolated from the world that the war could be over - or his best friend dead and buried - long before word reached him. That would have been the case, too, back in February of '42 when Richard had been so ill, had Ulmann's instinctive humanity not come into play.

Thinking back on the travel-stained and weary version of the normally immaculate Wehrmacht officer which had slumped into his cell several days earlier, eyes frozen with horror not so much at the sights he had seen as at the imaginings that they had conjured up, Carrington felt a twist of grief tauten his gut. It was difficult for him to see how a man like himself and a man like Franz Ulmann had ended up as enemies.

Except, of course, that they had been nothing of the sort. Early on he'd recognised Ulmann's quality; gradually, too, by association he had understood that the Kommandant was also a good man struggling with an impossible situation. He'd never been tempted to see the war in terms of a cartoon spat between the wholly evil and the wholly good, more as the inevitable consequence of a clash of ideologies. For every British, Canadian, American, Dutch or Polish citizen who knew that Hitler's beliefs were the result of a sick self-obsession there was somewhere a Nazi sympathiser just as firmly convinced that the Allies were jealous of Germany's greatness and that the talk of atrocities was merely spiteful propaganda.

Or at least that had been the case once; more and more ordinary Germans were beginning to understand what they had allowed to happen, and for each one the awakening had been as agonising as it had been for Franz. In his more cynical moments he suspected the Allied Command of letting Hitler have enough rope to hang himself - of allowing him his excesses so that the German people would realise exactly what kind of man they had chosen as their champion; all along there had been the expectation that he would be found out and stopped by his own countrymen.

It would have been like that, too, except that good men like Franz and the Kommandant had been unable to see or comprehend the full obscenity of their situation. And, indeed, could they have prevented anything at all? In the end, surely, the whole point was whether individuals acquitted themselves with honour towards one another?

He had been allowed books and writing materials in his cell, on the basis that he needed them to prepare his defence of the charge Mohn had brought against him. He'd used some of the materials quite differently, however, in writing a long letter to his family. He had always been aware of the likelihood of being sentenced to death, and with that prospect in mind he felt he owed it to himself - and to Richard and Peter and to all those who had passed through Colditz - to set the record straight. The letter was his very own 'De Profundis', an eloquent plea for clemency for Ulmann and the Kommandant, an exhortation to his family and friends to do all they could for the safety of the two Germans after the War. He knew there'd be a chance to slip the letter to Colonel Dodd - or, in the last extremity, perhaps to Father Denny - and he had no doubt of it reaching its destination safely. Only with this letter on its way could he face the inevitable with equanimity; he could not look Richard in the eye unless he had done everything he could think of to protect the two men.

But I should have realised, he thought, ironically. They weren't afraid of us. They knew that loving each other didn't make us aliens or animals, just two guys who happened to find a little comfort in a tough situation. How come it took me so long to figure out they'd done the same thing?

Or maybe it took them a while to work out what was happening to them? Maybe they didn't know it could happen to guys like them, too, and not just us soft, decadent Brits and Yanks. Maybe they were too busy trying to do their duty to notice they were falling in love.

Yes, that was how it would have been; lonely men from rigid, repressed backgrounds, thrown together by chance and finding in each other something essential for existence; love grown out of respect, slowly and uncertainly, passing through the paralysing fear of the unknown to become a deep emotional commitment.

Maybe we helped a little there. Maybe when they saw Richard and me they realised it didn't change us, it didn't make us say less than we were before. Hell, it made us stronger; it gave us something to fight for.

Lacking that, now, he had reconciled himself to the prospect of death. He did not go quite so fair as to welcome it, but he saw in it a symmetry which was the direct result of loving Richard Player. if go he must, he would do so without regrets. He'd told his family that, too, and hoped they would try to understand and forgive him for it.

Whatever may be happening outside the four walls of his cell, inside a separate peace had been declared - with the Germans, with his lover's memory, and most of all with himself

It would see him through. It was enough.

 

Ulmann hesitated outside the cell door. He had spent the previous evening in the company of the Kommandant's wife, as he had taken it upon himself to ensure her comfort while her husband was busy with the burgeoning red tape. While he had known he would not resent her presence, he had not expected to like her and was disturbed by the fact that he had. Why he was here now he hardly knew, except that he felt Carrington's company - even in this place - would help him solve his own dilemmas. Angrily he traced his hesitation to fear and shame, afraid of the reaction he might justly receive from Carrington when faced with one of his jailers - one of those who could send him to his death. Pushing the fear aside, he waved away the accompanying guard and inserted the key in the lock.

Carrington glanced up from the book he was reading in time to see Hauptmann Ulmann close the cell door behind him. In silence he closed the volume and waited for the German to speak. It had been no surprise to him that Ulmann had failed to visit him since his return from the court martial, although he had been rather stunned by his own sense of disappointment. When he reviewed the years they had known one another he recognised that the respect and liking between them was mutual and somehow had known that the Security officer would seek him out eventually. In the meantime he could easily accept that Ulmann was experiencing feelings of helplessness and anger in the face of a situation over which he had little control.

Ulmann's tone was formal. "I hope you are being treated well, Herr Major."

"As well as can be expected," the American countered, "though I'm kinda wondering what you'll do when I ask for steak and champagne as a last meal - that's beef steak," he amended quickly.

The German leaned back against the door. "How can you be so calm?" he asked, and though his voice was quiet, the unhappiness it contained was startling when contrasted with his habitual reserve.

Carrington stood and moved to the opposite side of the cell, staring up at the small barred window. "It's not so bad. 'Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage ... ' To be honest I don't feel as if I have much to live for." The sound of an indrawn breath caused him to turn and face the now open distress in Ulmann's expression. "Hey, take no notice. I don't really mean it. I do want to live."

"I'm sorry - "

"Don't," the Major cut short his attempted apology. "It's not your fault. I don't blame anyone for this - and neither should you."

Ulmann stared at him, wondering what interpretation he was expected to put on the words.

The American changed the subject. "Why don't you tell me what's been happening around here since I've been away?"

Carrington moved to sit on the bed, indicating that Ulmann should take the seat and gladly he did, thankful for an alternative topic of conversation. Gravely he brought Carrington up-to-date, finishing with the tale of Page's suicide but mentioning only briefly his own part in the attempts to save the man's life. Ulmann, his gaze on his hands, missed Carrington's appraising glance and concluded his narrative.

"Lieutenant Jordan and Father Denny conducted a memorial service for the Pilot Officer. It was very well attended although he was a difficult man."

"A damaged man."

"As you say," Ulmann hesitated and then continued; "Before he jumped he said his name was not Page. I do not understand what he meant," he lied unconvincingly, "but I thought perhaps someone should be told."

Carrington was about to accept responsibility for dealing with the matter when he realised suddenly there may be no chance for him to do so. He met Ulmann's eyes for a moment, seeing them slide away from his gaze as if the man could not bear to face him.

"I should talk to Simon Carter. I know he spoke to Page when he arrived. I expect he'll know what to do."

"Thank you."

"Is there something else bothering you?"

Ulmann stared at him and Carrington could see that there was indeed something else troubling his friend. Words seemed to hesitate on the other man's lips and then were gone, suppressed with an obvious ruthlessness which told the American just how badly the German wanted to confide in him.

There was another uneasy silence and then Ulmann rose, ignoring the question. "I am still on duty. I hope ... "

Carrington stood up with him, and on impulse held out his hand. Ulmann hesitated and then grasped the fingers much as a drowning man would grab at a lifeline. When he would have released Carrington, the American brought his other hand up to reinforce the handshake.

"I meant what I said," he insisted. "There must be no blame."

Ulmann's granite features softened. "Thank you for saying that, Major, but -"

Words failed him and he tugged free of the strong hold and left, the cell door closing behind him to leave the solitary prisoner alone with a new set of troubles to occupy his thoughts.

 

By the evening Ulmann had regained some calmness of mind, horrified at how close he had come to spilling out everything to Carrington. That calm was short-lived, however, thrown once more into turmoil when a late delivery of telegrams included the confirmation of Carrington's death sentence. Ulmann tried to speak when Karl handed the paper to him but his pleas died in his throat as the telephone bell interrupted the suddenly tense atmosphere. Despite his best intentions the spectre of the American's death still remained a wedge between them and with a sinking heart Ulmann knew the situation was about to be resolved, for better or worse. He stood, waiting until the call was completed and he could put his case for Carrington's life.

The Kommandant's voice interrupted his sombre reverie. The normally incisive tones were hesitant and the older man sounded terribly tired. Surprised, the Security officer looked Karl fully in the face and felt concern rise, swamping over him until it banished every bitter thought and feeling, leaving only a presentiment as to what had happened.

The Oberst replaced the handset and sat, still and silent, staring with blind eyes at the surface of the desk.

"Karl?" Ulmann questioned uncertainly, never realising that this was the first time in a week he had addressed the man by his first name. "What is wrong?"'

Struggling through the layers of shock, Karl surfaced to the blinding realisation of what he had lost. The breath caught harshly in his throat but long training took over and he stifled the threatening breakdown.

"Erich. My son is dead. My son, Erich." He leant his elbows on the desk and covered his face with his hands.

Ulmann knew there were no tears; the action was that of a man shutting out a cruel and hideous world, ignoring all but a despair which was so overwhelming it could not be denied.

Moments later the older man looked up, having regained his composure. "I must tell Lisa."

"Do you know how it happened?"

"Yes, yes, I do. He had been placed with a fighting unit - his squadron had been grounded due to lack of fuel. Erich was injured but before his friends could get to him, he was crushed -" his voice stumbled and he cleared his throat, "- crushed under the tracks of a Russian tank."

"I am very sorry, Karl."

"I know. He is - was - such a good son to us both and he adored his mother. I do not know what she will do ... "

As if thoughts of Lisa galvanised him, he stood up. "I must tell her at once."

"Surely not - " Ulmann broke off his denial, recognising that what the Oberst told his wife was a matter for him alone to decide.

"Don't worry, Franz - I shall, of course, lie to her. I see no point in causing unnecessary grief." He tried to walk and stumbled, feeling strong arms reach out to catch him. When he would have pushed Franz away the hold tightened and suddenly he relaxed against the comfort he was being offered.

"Franz, Franz ... " He turned his face to hide it against the grey uniform jacket, trying to come to terms with a grief that would never leave him. A large hand gently cupped the back of his head and a shudder travelled through his body as gratefully he slumped against the rock that supported him. Through his misery he accepted that this strength had always been offered when he most needed it and that he had depended on it countless times. What had he ever given in return? he wondered. He had convinced himself that he did not wish to jeopardise their friendship by forcing an intimacy for which Franz may not be ready. Now he knew that it was not Franz's fear which had stopped him. It was his own. Like the basest coward he had been afraid - afraid of Mohn, of Himmler, of the SS, and most of all afraid of himself. Fear had shackled him, had almost destroyed something very precious, as this senseless conflict had destroyed his only child.

A moan escaped him then, and he was barely aware that Franz had moved, paying no heed until the touch of the man's mouth on his temple brought him back to the present. Gathering what little remained of his self-control he straightened, feeling Franz partially release him until they stood in a loose embrace and he could see an echo of his own distress on Ulmann's face. Karl wanted to stay but knew it was not possible. His first duty now must be to Lisa, to the mother of his son. The news would break her apart, as it was doing to him, but she had no-one but him to turn to for help, no-one but her husband to help her through what he knew would be the worst time of her life. This time he must be the one to offer comfort.

"Franz," he whispered, his voice loaded with his pain, and he reached up to place his hand, palm open, against the Hauptmann's breast, before freeing himself reluctantly from the circle of his lover's arms. As he reached the door he turned, meeting Ulmann's gaze once more. "In the morning you and I will have a talk, hmm - a proper talk."

"Yes, sir," The grating whisper went unheard as the Kommandant left the room. Uimann slumped into the vacated chair and stared at the telegram still open on the desk. The confirmation of Carrington's death sentence included the time scheduled for his execution. If it was going to happen then it would take place within forty-eight hours. With deliberation Franz folded the paper into a small square and then tucked it into his breast pocket. Glancing down he encountered the paperwork still strewn across the Kommandant's desk. This at least he could do and he settled down to clear the tasks before him. The concentration required for the work almost diverted his mind from the events of the previous hour.

 

The night had passed with agonising slowness for them both Ulmann realised when he faced the Kommandant across the desk the following morning, looking down with ill-concealed concern at Karl's exhausted, grey-tinged features.

"How are you?" he asked softly.

The Kommandant's mouth twisted at the gentle treatment he was receiving but he answered quietly; "I am very tired and I think - I think perhaps this is a pain which will never pass. However," his voice strengthened, sending with it an encoded message which Ulmann easily deciphered, "we agreed that we would have a talk, you and I."

It was not exactly how Ulmann had remembered the decision being arrived at but he did not argue, aware that it was time to clear the air between them.

"First of all," Karl continued, "the telegram confirming Carrington's sentence is not amongst the papers on my desk."

Wordlessly Ulmann retrieved the paper from his pocket and handed it to the other man. Just as silently Karl opened and glanced at it before placing it in front of him.

"I have contacted Leipzig this morning. The worsening situation has prompted me to suggest that the families of the garrison are moved out to the town. It seems likely that the Castle itself will come under heavy bombardment, in which case the town will be safer." He paused, as if considering his words. "Lisa and I spent much of the night talking. The situation is ... uncertain, we are not even sure what will happen to ... " he stumbled " … to Erich's body." He passed his hand across his eyes then laced the open sympathy on Ulmann's lace. The sight of it almost broke him and he swallowed, standing up and turning to stare out of the window, one hand resting at the small of his back in his characteristic stance.

"We are hoping that our son will be returned to us. It would be ... We would prefer that he was buried in the village graveyard. It is a beautiful place - very peaceful. Erich always loved it," he finished distantly.

Ulmann hesitated, unsure whether he should break into Karl's silent reverie, his decision forestalled when the Kommandant seemed to rouse himself

"In the meantime Lisa has decided to return to our home at Cochem after the weekend." At Ulmann's obvious surprise he elaborated. "Erich's wife is there. They will be able to comfort each other. Lisa can deal with the business - we own some vineyards - and continue her charity work. It will all help to keep her busy. Here, there is nothing for her to do and it does seem ... the best solution."

Ulmann felt constrained to ask; "Does she not wish to be with you?"

Karl turned to smile at him and Franz flushed, knowing that the same thought had occurred to them both.

"Lisa and I have been friends since we were children. I think perhaps she knows me better than anyone. I am almost sure she knew about Willi - although we never spoke about it."

Franz looked at him in amazement, uncomfortable with the thought that the Kommandant's wife might well understand why the Colditz second-in-command had been so attentive towards her.

The Kommandant had been watching Ulmann's face as these thoughts and feelings passed openly across his features. Reluctantly he acknowledged that while Lisa was less of an obstruction than they had ever expected, there were other pressures which could not be dealt with so easily.

The Oberst sat, one glance from him shaking Ulmann from his introspection and back to their immediate problems.

"Carrington," he opened. "He has become a good friend to you."

"Yes, sir," Ulmann met his eyes, refusing to be ashamed or intimidated. The Kommandant's gaze was cool and appraising but he could see no hint of censure in it.

"Mm." Wearily the Oberst dragged himself to his feet, picking up the telegram, and moved to stand by the fire. "Last night I heard of the death of a fine young man. There was nothing I could do to prevent that - but I can prevent this. Be quite clear, Hauptmann, if I thought justice would be served by Carrington's death then I would carry through this order despite any protests or at any cost."

"I know that, sir."

Karl looked at him as if measuring the truth in his words, and then smiled. "Of course you do." The telegram was in his hand but as their eyes locked it seemed to slip from his lingers and full into the hungry flames. In seconds there was no trace of it. "No telegram has arrived concerning Major Carrington's sentence. And no enquiry will be made from this camp regarding that sentence. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Herr Kommandant."

Their eyes met again and the warmth in the Hauptmann's gaze sent colour to flood Karl's face. The moment lengthened while they stared at one another and the Oberst felt his breathing quicken, witnessing the colour mount in Ulmann's usually pale features.

A knock on the door broke into the silent tableau and, Karl considered later, probably saved them from committing an indiscretion which, had anyone walked in, would most likely have resulted in a swift end before the firing squad. At the time they had both been startled but recovered their equilibrium with typical rapidity. The Oberst concluded their interview.

"Major Carrington will serve twenty-eight days in solitary confinement, dating from the day of his Court Martial - March 16th. That leaves twenty-one days from today. I shall inform Colonel Preston of this when I see him later. In the meantime you may tell Major Carrington." Mindful of the Gefreiter who had just entered, he added. "That is all, Hauptmann."

"Sir," Ulmann saluted and left, trying not to appear too hasty in his retreat but eager to impart his news to the person it most concerned.

He was unconscious of the fond amusement of the man who watched his departure.

 

Ulmann strode across the courtyard and made his way to the American's cell. The Major glanced up as he entered, the sombre bearded face breaking into a wide smile as he saw the identity of the person intruding on his solitude. Ulmann was surprised at the amount of pleasure he felt at the welcome he received. "Hauptmann," Carrington greeted him cheerfully. "How are you?"

"I am well, thank you Herr Carrington. You appear to be in high spirits."

"Well, maybe no news is good news, huh." His face altered and he commented; "Unless you're here as a messenger? Don't worry - I won't shoot you!"

The German half-smiled. "As a matter of fact I do have some information - "

Before he could finish Carrington cut in, his tone serious and all vestiges of his previous good humour gone. "Yeah, okay. Look - I appreciate you telling me yourself. You got any details yet?"

Ulmann stared at him. The American's bearing had altered during the short speech, his back straight, chin lifted, every line of him proclaiming his determination to lace his late without flinching. The German felt a sense of pride that such a man called him friend. Hastily he cut in.

"You misunderstand me, Major. You are to serve a further twenty-one days in solitary confinement, after which you will return to the camp."

Carrington seemed stunned for a few moments, as if the news had removed the ability even to breathe, then he let out a breathless, throaty chuckle. "Here I am making peace with myself and preparing myself to die and Goddam if you don't come along and tell me I've got to go on living. Typical."

Ulmann smiled slightly, recognising both the teasing and the element of pain behind the American's words. Carrington had not wanted to die, yet he had not been afraid of it. In one sense it had offered him a way out of his own dilemma; an opportunity to avoid the pain and loss which would be an inevitable part of each and every day without Richard Player.

His tone serious, he replied. "I am sorry to disappoint you, Major, but I am afraid it is so - you must live."

Carrington returned the smile and Ulmann knew that he had accepted his own veiled assertion. He would indeed live, using the same strength which had sustained him when he thought he was to die, and Ulmann was glad, recognising that in Carrington he had gained a friend who would be important to him throughout the rest of his life.

The American chuckled again, and this time there was more amusement than pain in the sound. "Well, Franz, I guess old Mohn ain't gonna get his pound of flesh after all."

Ulmann smiled slightly but did not comment on his remark.

"Thanks for telling me, Hauptmann Ulmann."

"It was a pleasure, Major Carrington."

*

Chapter Twenty

13th April 1945

 

Colonel Dodd paused at the door of his room to extinguish the cheroot he had been smoking. Hauptmann Ulmann was waiting in the hallway, his expression carefully neutral but nonetheless preoccupied. Well, that was fair enough, Dodd thought. None of them had been in any doubt for some time now what the outcome of the War would be on the grander scale, but its effect on individuals was less certain. Whether Ulmann - or any German officer at Colditz - would survive the final act was something he wouldn't care to predict. Come to that, if the Russians arrived ahead of the Americans his own survival had to be pretty much a moot point. You turned them loose at your peril; nobody had any idea how they'd react when it came to the crunch.

"Can't be long now, eh, Hauptmann'?"

Startled from some reverie of his own, Ulmann was slow to react. "I beg your pardon, Colonel?"

"The end of the War. It can't be long."

"No, indeed." Politely, but with only a small fragment of his attention on the conversation, Ulmann moved aside for Dodd to precede him out of the Saalhaus and fell into step a little behind him and to the side.

"Thought what you'll do - when it's all over?"

The question was a sharp one, and Ulmann was not sure he had an answer. His thoughts about the future were not of a kind he could share with the American.

"Colonel," he said, cautiously, "for several years now every moment of every day has been spent according to the dictates of a higher authority. I have no ambitions for the future - except, perhaps, to be able to sit and read a book or listen to a little music."

Dodd's sandy eyebrows rose a fraction, and he paused in the doorway to the courtyard. "That's all peace means to you? Books and music?"

"And the company of good friends. Is it so much different for you?"

"I guess not. Oh, I don't go in for a lot of reading and such, but I want to work on my golf game - and I have a grandchild on the way."

Ulmann forced a smile. He had been aware of it from censoring the prisoners' mail, but Dodd's pride in impending grandfatherhood was a delight in itself.

"Indeed? When is this to be?"

"End of July, my daughter says. If it's a boy they're gonna name him after me - Maximilian! Can you beat that?"

"I congratulate you, Colonel - and it looks as if you will be home in time for the birth."

"Yeah." Dodd's mood darkened. "Pity every guy who passed through this place couldn't have ended up safe at home."

"You are thinking of Pilot Officer Page?" Ulmann asked.

"And Muir ... and Player. I didn't know either of those boys, but they left quite a gap. Did you like Player, Hauptmann?"

"Oh, yes, he was a fine young man." The answer was out before Ulmann had even considered the question, but he would not have retracted his response. "A fine officer, who did his duty," he amended slightly, aware that his enthusiasm had been noted. "Perhaps that is all one should aspire to in wartime." Ulmann's attention returned to the matter in hand. "After I have escorted you to the Kommandant's office, Colonel, I am going to release Major Carrington from solitary confinement. No doubt he will be glad to be back among his friends."

"Just as glad as they'll be to see him, Hauptmann. The place isn't the same without him."

"He is a very popular officer."

"He sure is. Hey, I thought Colonel Preston was going along on this trip?"

"The duty officer is escorting him; he will meet us there."

Dodd's shoulders lifted and dropped again in a mild shrug. "Okay," he said, jauntily, "lead on, Hauptmann."

 

Having deposited Colonel Dodd alongside Colonel Preston in the anteroom to the Kommandant's office, Ulmann retraced his steps towards the prisoners' courtyard and approached the solitary confinement cells near the main gate. Carrington was waiting for him, his meagre belongings already bundled together for transfer back to the senior officers' quarters. He stood up as Ulmann entered the room, gripping the bundle as though for reassurance.

"This is a most pleasant duty for me, Major," Ulmann told him, with what might almost have been a smile. "It would have been unjust and unnecessary to punish you any further. Your only concern was for Lieutenant Phipps and the other Prominente, that much was obvious."

"Obvious to everybody but Major Mohn. What happened to him, anyway? I gather he's not around any more."

"Major Mohn has left the Castle."

"Uh-huh. Where's he gone?"

"I do not know."

"I guess that makes you second-in-command, then, doesn't it?"

Ulmann inclined his head, making no reply but ushering Carrington towards the exit and down the short stone-flagged corridor to the barred door which led out into the sunlight. Escorting Carrington down the steps he paused, looking up into the clear blue sky.

"It is a beautiful day, Major."

Stunned, Carrington examined Ulmann's expression for signs of ulterior motive or incipient insanity. Finding none, he eventually replied.

"Yes. Yes, it is." Beautiful in more senses than one, he realised.

"Please carry on, Major."

Formally dismissing him, Ulmann moved away and observed Carrington's re-absorption into the daily life of the Castle. He watched as the American approached the reclining figure of Captain Nugent, stretched out in a deckchair trying to make believe there was a little warmth in the sun, and with amusement took in the delighted response not only of Nugent but of the other prisoners present in the yard when they realised that he was back among them. This was the harvest of Karl's decision to burn the telegram, and he wished they could have shared the pleasure of this moment. There would be little enough time to indulge in such triumphs from now on - and perhaps very few such triumphs would again come their way. Nevertheless, whatever Carrington might achieve henceforward, Ulmann would always feel that part of it belonged to him.

 

No such pleasant reflections attended the Kommandant's meeting with the Senior British and American Officers. His orders were that the prisoners were to be evacuated from the Castle, and that they would no longer be under Wehrmacht control. The situation with the Prominente was still fresh enough in the minds of the two armed officers to cause serious alarm at this news. Matters were rapidly moving out of the Kommandant's control; while he had not even admitted it to Ulmann and scarcely to himself he now felt justified in laying out all the facts before the two Colonels.

"Once you leave the Castle, gentlemen, you will pass beyond my protection. There is nothing more I can do for you." He willed them to make the obvious assumption. "The SS are in the town, communications are in total confusion ... No doubt there are trains still running," he added hopelessly.

"The mode of transport is hardly the issue," Preston interrupted. The Kommandant's heart leaped with sudden confidence; for as long as he had known Colonel Preston he had been absolutely convinced of the sharpness of his mind. No doubt Preston had already understood what he was steeling himself to say, but the words must be spoken plainly.

"No." He wished he had discussed this with Franz, but there had been so little time. Besides, the burden was his alone; the decision to lay it down must be his also. "Perhaps we might consider, Colonel, the terms under which this command could be surrendered to the American Army?"

Dodd and Preston exchanged glances, Dodd rising to his feet and crossing the office to look out of the window before he made any reply. In itself it was the act of a man already in command; unthinkingly he had behaved as he would in the office of a subordinate.

"Kommandant," he said, "I have no authority to negotiate terms on behalf of the US Army. You must know that. What I can do is accept your personal parole and that of your officers. If you place the garrison under the command of Colonel Preston and myself we'll make representations on your behalf to whatever side gets here first."

It was a bleak enough assurance. The Kommandant watched the two Colonels briefly, wondering whether they had already worked out their response to this not unexpected turn of events, or whether their calm acceptance of the situation was merely the result of their training.

"I will require some ... guarantees ... concerning my men," The words were formed only with difficulty; striving to remain the old-style Prussian aristocrat with the habit of command, the Kommandant had succeeded only in sounding like a man unable to face reality. "No flags to be displayed, either national flags or white flags of surrender. And the daily business of the Castle is to carry on as usual."

Without consultation Preston responded. "I think we can agree to that, Kommandant. The guards will remain on the gate, but they will no longer be armed. You will give me the keys to the Armoury and require all your men to surrender their ammunition. We wouldn't want any accidents at this late stage."

"Very well. But your word, Colonel Preston - and yours, Colonel Dodd. My men have done nothing but their duty, and your treatment here has been fair."

"If you don't count locking us up in the first place," Dodd growled, nevertheless conceding the point. "I can't speak for Colonel Preston, but I'll do whatever I can to make sure your men are treated within the terms of the Geneva Convention."

Both men turned to look in Preston's direction. He, aware that he was under scrutiny, paused before replying.

"As you say, Max, if the Kommandant is prepared to co-operate with us we'll see what can be done for his men. I'd better have those keys now, Kommandant."

Slowly the Kommandant reached into his desk drawer, and with a hand that trembled hardly at all placed the small bunch of keys into Colonel Preston's open palm. It was so ordinary an action that the implications it carried did not immediately dawn on him; when at last he fully realised that he had just given over his command into the hands of his enemy he let it go without regret. Freedom came in many shapes and sizes, and in entrusting his keys to Colonel Preston he had bought the first measure of his own liberty. He should be feeling relief; no doubt he would, at some stage. For the moment, he felt only hollow - and a little afraid.

"Where is Hauptmann Ulmann?" Preston asked, the harshness gone from his tone.

"I have given him orders ... there are confidential papers to be disposed of."

The prisoners had seen various officers staggering across the courtyard carrying bundles of papers for some days now. The Castle's furnace had been busy day and night as Ulmann supervised the destruction of a mountain of paperwork. Stores lists, duty rotas, personnel evaluations, medical reports ... the Wehrmacht had flourished on its bureaucracy, and now without a backward glance these documents and the man-hours that had gone into creating them were being consigned to the flames. Some future archivist would curse Ulmann's thoroughness.

It would be pointless to try and stop the process. Anything that might have been of value to the former prisoners would have been burned with the first batch; only the dross was left now. Ulmann might go on burning papers until the US Army marched down Unter Den Linden for all Preston cared - the damage had been done long ago, and he had no stomach for any attempt to preserve what remained.

"I'll want to see him," he said briskly. "We'll need his help to keep things running smoothly."

"Hauptmann Ulmann will do whatever is required," was the arid response. "I will call a meeting of my senior staff and inform them of the altered situation. At such times as this men are likely to resist any authority, but as far as possible I will try to ensure their compliance.

"Thank you, Kommandant," Preston told him, with some finality, as though he were dismissing from his presence this man who had so abruptly and without fanfare ceased to be his captor.

 

The Kommandant's meeting with his senior staff was not protracted. Already the sounds of shelling were drawing closer; whilst the gunners of the US Army had not quite got the range of the Castle as yet, it was only a matter of time before they had it firmly in their sights. All contingents had been ordered to seek safety in the cellars; indeed there were men down there already, vast numbers of French prisoners having arrived weary and hungry at decreasing intervals over the past few days. If the paperwork was up-to-date - and despite Ulmann's best efforts he doubted it somehow - there were by now over twelve hundred men within, the 'prisoners' outnumbering their 'guards' by at least two to one. In the circumstances there was little he could do for them; food supplies might last another week at best, although he doubted that would be necessary. Bedding could be found, in the form of palliasses and blankets, for any who felt they could sleep. Apart from that they were under cover and sheltered from the bombardment, and it was no longer necessary for them to march anywhere. It was the best he could do.

With his officers gathered together in one place the comparison with the early, optimistic days of the War was all too evident. They were all tired, the absences in their ranks only too noticeable, their physical condition not much better than that of their charges. He did not intend to make a speech - all the fine words had been drained from him a long time ago - but he could not let the occasion pass without a word of gratitude for their loyalty.

"My friends," he said, suppressing the shake in his voice with the last remnant of his determination, "our work here is almost over. The Americans will arrive today, or perhaps tomorrow, and we will be their prisoners. I cannot predict what will happen to us, although I think we can expect generous treatment from Colonel Preston and Colonel Dodd. Our duty was to follow the orders we were given, and we have tried to do that with honour and compassion. Now ... our honour is in ruins around us. I ask you to join me one last time in drinking a toast to our country; we have done all it asked of us, and can do no more. To Germany."

The little schnapps glasses, already placed on the salver and filled in readiness, were lifted. The men drank the toast willingly, although plaster-dust from the cracked ceiling had already spilled and filmed the surface. The Kommandant savoured the fiery alcohol for some long time, then set down his glass and stood to attention, briskly saluting those who had been under his command through thick and thin. He had not come to know many of them very well; Willi Schaeffer had been his friend, and Doktor Hoffner, and Franz Ulmann who had become so much more, but apart from that they had done their jobs and drawn their pay and he had had little involvement with their lives. Now, as they saluted and left the room, he began to regret that. Where would they go and how would they fare?

Hoffner and Ulmann remained behind.

"Karl? You will be safer in the cellar with the rest of us." The doctor's indulgent tone was the one he would have used with a hurt child, but the words seemed foreign to the Kommandant and he turned unseeing eyes towards his old friend.

"I'II join you there, Anderl. Just give me a moment. I want to make sure that I've remembered everything."

"Do you wish me to leave also, Herr Oberst?"

"No, Franz. Stay with me a while." Neither man turned to discover whether the doctor had left the room, although the discreet sound of the door closing reached them in a lull between bombardments. The room was already a ghost of its former elegance, thin white powdery plaster laying like snow on every surface. It was ridiculously dangerous to remain here, but Ulmann was as aware as the Kommandant of a need to close this chapter of their lives with some appropriate gesture. He stepped closer to the diminutive figure by the window, looking down into Karl's face in deep alarm at the signs of age that were now so apparent. Had they been there all along and he too blind to notice? Or had this ending caused them?

"Somehow," he said, attempting to be reassuring, "we will stay together, Karl."

"My dear Franz ... " The tone was hopeless, as though in contemplation of a lost " ... naturally, if we can. But if not ... You must know, you have meant everything to me."

Ulmann drew nearer, almost crowding the other man into the window embrasure. He had always known the words would not come readily, but they were needed now more than ever.

"I love you," he said. "You knew that."

A wan, distant smile. "Yes. of course."

The words ceased. Ulmann had no more. Time was closing about them, the fates marching relentlessly in their direction. Without preamble he lowered his head, unsurprised when his mouth found that of his commanding officer, and in a moment his arms had closed around the smaller man and pulled him into a kiss, an embrace, compounded of passion and reassurance and need and of so much more. Karl moved against him, responding avidly, hands holding onto him obsessively as though to press him into this moment and preserve it against the darker times to come. Duty had denied them so much - had denied them the closeness and the release Player and Carrington had discovered. Now duty was done, and briefly it could be theirs.

"Franz."

Scarcely aware he had broken away, Karl somehow resisted the urge to resume the embrace and remain locked in Ulmann's arms until the fortress tumbled around them.

"Franz, we must go below."

"Are you sure?" For himself, Ulmann could not have cared less at that moment. His own safety had never been of much account; only Karl had ever concerned himself with it.

"If we can live, and be together ... Yes, I think we must join our friends."

It was immaterial to Franz; he had all he needed here, in this dilapidated remnant of an office. Nevertheless he acceded to Karl's wishes, picking up his cap from the dusty desk. Karl took up his own, and the silver-framed photograph of his dead son. That, and Franz Ulmann, was all he cared to take with him from this place.

Still following some long-outmoded pattern of behaviour he allowed Ulmann to open the door for him and stepped through it first, and they walked together into a world that had changed.

 

The cellars were full. The various groups had remained together according to nationality, the Germans looking somehow smaller and less intimidating than ever now that they and their erstwhile prisoners were all under the same threat.

Carrington and Colonel Dodd watched the arrival of the Kommandant and Hauptmann Ulmann with detachment. Since the British seemed to have taken command of most of the functions of the Castle - inventorying supplies, organising meals, issuing blankets to the French and so forth - they had had plenty of time to talk about their present situation. It was obvious enough that the US Army had no idea the fortress on the skyline was a prisoner-of-war camp; they were merely using it for target practice on the grounds that it was German-held. It could be anything. Even had they known there were Allied prisoners inside, there was no guarantee they would have ceased shelling on that account. No-one on the outside could know that the garrison had surrendered to the prisoners. Displaying national flags or flags of surrender would be useless; there were German artillery units still near enough to take to shelling them even if the American bombardment ceased.

"Someone has to let our guys know what's going on," Carrington said, flatly. "If I could get through the lines, speak to the officer in charge ... "

"It's a good way of getting yourself killed," Dodd responded sourly.

"Yeah, I know. And if I don't do it, how many other guys're gonna get killed?"

Another barrage echoed around the Castle, men glancing upward in alarm as the ancient building creaked and groaned around them.

Carrington could sense the unease of friend and foe alike, and became aware that on the far side of the room Hauptmann Ulmann had turned to look in his direction. It was as though their thoughts mirrored one another; he would have bet his last dollar Ulmann was also concerned with the same problem.

Excusing himself from Colonel Dodd, he threaded his way through the crowd in the cellar and found Ulmann moving towards him. They met at the side of the underground room in an area piled high with wine casks.

"How much more d'you think the place can stand?" Carrington asked without preamble, giving no hint of the plan which had formed in his mind.

Ulmann shrugged, a remarkably informal gesture from one who had always been so correct. "I don't know," he admitted.

"If someone could get across the river - let the Americans know we're here ... "

"That is madness." The tone was even, the German officer not allowing his alarm to show. After five years at Colditz and a closer acquaintance with this man than with any other prisoner he was fully aware that Carrington would never consider sending any one else on such a mission. "You do not know the area, Major. There will be Volksturm, maybe even SS units ... "

"I know the area better than you think, Hauptmann. Could you find me a guard -someone who knows his way around out there?"

Ulmann's expression was grave as he considered. "Yes, there are a few local men in the complement - but the Kommandant would not order them to go. They would have to volunteer." Almost unwillingly his eyes strayed to the older man, following his steps as he walked slowly backwards and forwards as though unable to rest.

"Why don't you ask him?"

Carrington's soft words were scarcely an intrusion on his thoughts. Ulmann had already formed that determination.

"Very well You should discuss this with Colonel Dodd and Colonel Preston. If they will agree ... " He left the rest of the sentence unspoken.

"Okay. But I'll have to go as soon as it's dark enough - we don't want to waste any time."

 

Several hours later Carrington stood in the courtyard flanked by two of the German guards. Ulmann had not had far to seek for his two volunteers; the first two men he had approached had agreed without hesitation. They stood now, slightly indecisive, looking from their Hauptmann to the American Major and awaiting their orders. They had been fully briefed on Carrington's intentions, bemused that in these last hours of the War it suddenly seemed that they and their prisoners were all on the same side. Perhaps, after all, the rumours were true, and Britain, America and Germany would join forces against the Russians. Britain and Germany were old allies; it had never seemed right that they should fight one another.

"Be careful, Major," Ulmann warned him anxiously. "if you run into any Volksturm, let the guards do the talking. I have been unable to find out where the front line is at present, but there are still SS in the town."

"I know, Hauptmann, I'll keep a watch out for them. You keep things together until I get back, okay?"

Ulmann acknowledged the request with a smart heelclick, as the instruction of a senior officer. Absent-mindedly returning the salute, Carrington was hallway out of the gate before he realised that there was anything unusual about it.

There was very little light as the three men made their way down through the Kommandantur courtyard to the main gate, turning left as they passed through it to exit the Castle complex via the buildings that formed the married quarters. Losing height rapidly, they were soon in almost total darkness as they edged around the perimeter fence of the park which had featured in so many past escapes. The notion came to Carrington that this was just another such escape, only this time he had Hannes and Friedl with him; they should be security enough against any marauders they happened to encounter, with the possible exception of the SS who would shoot all three of them without hesitation.

No sense in looking for trouble, though; they edged well clear of any signs of human activity. Their one encounter was with the Volksturm - with a greasy-faced, fanatic-eyed young man, to be exact, who looked far too fit not to have been on active service - and it passed off safely, Carrington's German guards convincing the man that they had just recaptured an escapee and were returning him to the Castle. In passing, they asked him for the location of the front line. The Volksturmer laughed in their faces.

"Front line? Front line? It's all over the place. The SS have pulled out. We're the front line, now, if you ask me. Go carefully; I've seen no American units this side of the river, but they'll be across before dawn."

Thanking him they went on their way, for perhaps half a mile more along the line of the river and away from the town. Then, cutting down through the pines towards a place where the river ran wide and relatively shallow, Carrington parted with his guards.

"Go back to the road and wait for me there," he whispered. "I'll be okay from now on. " In the darkness he reached out and shook hands with each of them in turn.

"Good luck, Herr Major."

"Thanks boys. You too."

He waited until the sound of their footsteps had died away, then began to search for a place to cross the river. Before long he had come across an area where the bank had fallen in, where he would be able to wade out for a certain distance before he began to swim. Stripping off his outer clothing, he lowered himself into the water.

 

Back in the cellars of the Castle someone had conjured up a meal. The Germans sat solemnly at tables, eating as though they might never eat again, while the British, French and Americans made inroads into the wine. No-one had dreamed of touching it until the senior officers had given their permission, but now with Colonel Preston's blessing they had set out to drink as much as they could before morning - and Colonel Dodd was apparently determined to set a good example to his men. Already his face was a deep shade of brick-red and his voice slurred as he rambled through anecdotes of his long career and grandiose schemes for the future. At this moment, indeed, he felt there was very little he could not do.

Colonel Preston, less extrovert but just as deeply moved by the occasion, leaned against a pillar and watched proceedings with a fond eye. He had never felt so close to officers under his command as he had during his five year stay at Colditz, and he would never do so again. As a widower with two young children life in civvy street would not be easy for him; there would be challenges that equalled any he had met here. He hoped he had learned something from this experience that he could put to good account after the War; at the moment he was not sure what it might be, although he supposed that keeping the unruly British contingent in order might be useful practice for bringing up children alone. He noticed, too, that he was not the only one wrestling with thoughts and emotions that seemed to require solitude. Carter was sitting aside from the general melee, his thoughts apparently turned inwards, and in another secluded corner Brent sat, pencil poised motionless over his sketch-pad. Whatever good intentions he had harboured of immortalising this scene on paper had obviously gone from his mind.

The Kommandant, too, seemed preoccupied with some inner turmoil. His face was expressionless, seeming to have had all emotion drained from it, and Preston noticed that Hauptmann Ulmann was leaning close to his commander as though offering moral - or even physical - support. For a moment Preston envied them that closeness; he had never known a comrade who would always be there no matter what vicissitudes life threw his way. He had thought instead that was what marriage would be. Perhaps Dick Player and Phil Carrington were in the right of it after all - perhaps in time of war the only closeness that was safe was that between brother officers. It was a bleak viewpoint, one he doubted Carter or any of the other married men would have endorsed, and yet could any of them claim as strong a bond with their wives as with their fellow inmates? He thought not.

 

Reaching the far shore in total blackness Carrington slithered on his belly through the muddy shadows, fetching up under the curling lip of the bank in a spot sheltered by low vegetation. He was already shivering the moment the cold air touched his wet skin, but he pursed his lips and whistled a shaky rendition of the opening bars of 'John Brown's Body'. Somewhere in the shadows he heard the sound of a rifle being cocked.

He whistled again.

"Hey, Kraut, we gotta copyright on that," came a voice out of the night -unmistakably that of a young American soldier.

"It's in the public domain," Carrington responded mildly. "Soldier, I'm an American POW; I need to see your officer.

Silence, while a certain amount of slow thinking went on behind the butt of the rifle.

"Step out where I can see you," the soldier called out. "And identify yourself."

Carrington obeyed, hands aloft, calling out his name, rank and serial number as he rose.

"Okay, Major," said the GI, obviously not believing a word of what he said, "Just you stay in front where I can see you, and we'll walk real slow along the road until we find my Lieutenant."

"That's line by me, soldier," Carrington told him, through teeth that chattered, "but could you hurry it up? I'm freezing to death out here."

 

Morning crept over Colditz in unchanged form. In the kitchen the orderlies started breakfast as usual, baking bread and assembling the ingredients for the unhealthy grey sludge they passed off as porridge. Men with fragile heads shuffled out from various places of concealment; some had spent the night in the cellars, whilst others had returned to their accustomed quarters on the basis that although they ran the risk of being killed while they slept they had an even chance of a decent night's sleep. In the cellar only those who had anaesthetised themselves with alcohol got any rest.

This morning there was no sound of guns from any side. Instead birdsong could be heard above the Castle. It was like an English Sunday morning, the languid recovery from the night before coinciding nicely with someone else's preparation of breakfast, and a strange contentment hovered about the camp.

The opening of the main gate almost went unnoticed, given that most men's thoughts had turned inevitably to the subject of food. Indeed, when Major Carrington and his two German guards stepped through into the courtyard there were very few people present who had any idea of where he had been, or why. Those who did noticed that although apparently very tired he looked fit and well, hair and beard brushed tidy, wearing different clothes to those in which he had left. A small group of British prisoners approached him as he thanked and dismissed his two companions of the night, but Carrington fobbed them off without answers to their questions. He would report directly to the two senior officers before he told anyone else his news.

Hauptmann Ulmann intercepted him before he could reach the Saalhaus steps.

"Franz!" Carrington's greeting was warm and familiar. "C'mon, you'd better be in on this."

Without giving the German officer time to respond he headed off up the spiral staircase and was shortly thereafter thundering on Colonel Dodd's door, which opened to reveal a rather sorry red-eyed specimen of humanity chomping on a wilted cigar. Within, Colonel Preston was seated at the table; some strategy meeting had apparently been in progress.

"Jesus, Phil, give a guy a break; we didn't get a lot of sleep last night."

Taking the mild rebuke at face value, Carrington grinned back. "Sorry, Colonel, only I thought you'd like to know our boys'll be here by noon. I spoke to a Captain who said they had a bit of mopping-up to do in the town before they could get up to us. I assured them," he added, turning to Ulmann, "that we'd keep for a couple more hours."

"We'll play that down, I think, Phil," Preston told him decisively. "I don't much fancy trying to contain nine hundred prisoners if they suddenly decide they want to go out and join in the battle. The only way to keep these men safe is to keep them inside the Castle until proper arrangements can be made. What do you say, Max?"

Relieved that someone else was doing the thinking this morning, Dodd was only too happy to concur.

"I'll leave it in your hands, John. It's gonna take me till noon to clear my head. It's that damned German wine," he added accusingly as if the potency of the wine had been another underhand tactic in the War.

Ulmann did not take the bait. "What do you wish me to tell the Kommandant, gentlemen?" he asked.

"Tell him," said Carrington, keeping the initiative, "that we've been told to put out national flags. I know the Kommandant didn't want us to do that, but I don't think we have a choice. I'm not at all sure those guys trusted me, and if we don't do what they want they just might flatten this place and all of us with it."

And if I'd been them, I don't know that I'd have trusted me either, he thought with rueful honesty.

"I will report that to the Kommandant," Ulmann assured him gravely.

"Okay," Dodd put in. "Then I guess apart from putting out the flags there's not a lot we can do before our boys get here?"

"Oh, I don't know," Colonel Preston told him with a smile. "We might have some breakfast, don't you think?"

 

By late morning those who knew the import of Carrington's nocturnal assignment had managed to quell their sense of anticipation enough to try and keep the peace. Ulmann's document-burning campaign was drawing to a close, and elsewhere in the Castle men were taking stock of their years of captivity and making plans for the future. Captains Nugent, Downing and Brent were strolling in the courtyard like the old friends they felt themselves to be, skirting a boules match on the cobbles which seemed to involve at least half of the massive new French contingent.

"You know what I'm plannin'?" Nugent asked them, with a swagger as if no-one else in the world could have had the cleverness to think of it. Dutifully the two Englishmen shook their heads. "Army surplus. Figure it out - there have to be hundreds of jeeps, ambulances, uniforms, cooking-pots, desks, chairs, mattresses ... things the Army don't need any more and Joe Public'll be only too grateful to get his hands on. A guy could make a fortune sellin' it all off."

"Oh yes," Brent laughed. "Everything khaki or olive drab. Don't you think people'll be ready for something that doesn't remind them of the War, Harry?"

Slightly deflated, Nugent declined to answer. "So tell me how you plan to forget about the War, huh, George?"

Brent's far-away expression hinted of a dream that had kept him sane throughout his years of captivity. "I'm going to train as a zoologist," he said. "I want to spend the rest of my life studying animals and birds. Oh, they kill," he added in justification, "but they don't spend their lives dreaming up nastier and nastier ways of doing it, and building machines so that they don't have to see it done. There's something ... honest ... about animals."

"And there ain't about humans? Gee, thanks, George. How about you, Tim, what's your big plan?"

"Don't have one," Downing admitted "The Army's all I know. It's what I trained for - the Guards. I'll stay if they'll have me. If not ... farm somewhere, I suppose. Kenya, maybe, or the Far East."

"I don't believe it." Brent's flat denial seemed churlish, and Downing hastened to assure him he meant every word.

"No, honestly, George, I..."

"No, not you, Tim … That."

Downing and Nugent's gazes followed the direction of Brent's pointing finger, and in the same moment many of the others in the courtyard seemed to notice what had taken his attention. The main gate had opened just a chink and a head had appeared around its edge - low down and seeming so small and far away that men rubbed their eyes in disbelief. The head wore an American issue 'turtle' helmet, and as the figure stepped cautiously into full view it became apparent that the rest of it was dressed to match. Nugent, paralysed by the sight, let out a long, low whistle.

"Christ, it's one of ours! "

"It's a bloody Yank!" Downing yelped delightedly, advancing towards the small, timid shape with no clear idea of what he intended.

Other men had the same thought - the same impulse to sweep towards the astonished visitor. For a moment the American seemed as if he would turn tail and run, and then the human tide engulfed him and he was lifted shoulder-high as cheering erupted around the courtyard and echoed off the ancient walls, doubling and redoubling the shout of triumph that suddenly pervaded every room in the Castle and flew joyously over the rooftops and into the crown of blue sky above.

*

Chapter Twenty One

14th April 1945

 

The solitary, gum-chewing GI looked like every American mom's cherished picture of her son. Fair-haired and freckle-faced, his mouth open wide with astonishment at his discovery, he was at first intimidated by the crowd of strangely-dressed men who thundered towards him - some apparently French, some British, and at least one bearded guy with a booming voice as American as the Statue of Liberty. Instinctively he shrank back, then when their friendly intent became clear he allowed himself to be hauled onto their shoulders and carried aloft around the courtyard to a cacophonous accompaniment of cheers, whistles and the clattering of tin cups on bars whilst a ticker-tape welcome of toilet paper and torn confetti showered down from the windows above. On the far side of the yard he could just see a group of enthusiasts ripping a German flag lengthwise before setting fire to the remains. No doubt about it; this had to be some kind of lunatic asylum.

"Where're you from, soldier?" The bearded man was wearing the uniform of a US Army major, and the GI slipped down from his perch to greet him properly.

"Sandusky, Ohio," he replied briskly. "Sir. Say, what the hell is this place?"

"This is Oflag IVc, a prisoner-of-war camp, and you just liberated it."

"I did?"

"All by yourself" The man clapped the GI on the shoulder. "Nine hundred guys in here will never forget you for that. Go on - enjoy it."

So saying, the officer released the young man to the mercy of the wildly capering crowd, losing sight of him almost immediately as he slipped away to take his place in history.

 

Not everyone who had been present when the gates opened had chosen to indulge in the most extreme celebrations. A small group had remained to one side watching the proceedings with older or more cynical eyes, the two senior officers foremost among them. Thus they were ideally positioned to notice when the gate opened a second time, this time to its widest extent, and a jeep swung through to the accompaniment of renewed cheering from the multitude. As it pulled to a halt the officer in the passenger seat stood up, and Preston and Dodd both made their way over to greet the man.

"Colonel Harrity, 9th Armoured Division." He introduced himself with the kind of grin that signified he could cope with just about anything, and Dodd took a liking to him immediately.

Harrity was about forty, wiry and fit-looking, his hair longer than the US Army would normally have countenanced and his eyes a shrewd and good-natured blue. Given half a chance Dodd would have adopted this man as his son right there and then.

"Colonel Harrity, may I present Colonel Preston, the Senior British Officer? And my name, sir, is Maximilian Dodd." The smooth Southern courtesy which was as much Dodd's trademark as his cigars had not been dulled by his time in captivity.

"Delighted, gentlemen, delighted. Now, is there anything you need?"

Dodd and Preston looked at one another, and it was Preston who spoke.

"I think, Colonel, that as soon as it becomes available we'd all like transport out of here."

"Sure, I'll see what I can arrange, but it's going to take a couple of hours. Can you keep things together that long?"

"I should think we might manage." The Senior British Officer could not help the broad smile that crossed his face as he spoke. Only a couple of hours more, when he had kept things going for more than four years? Yes, he could cope with that.

"Okay. Now, is there anything you want me to take care of?"

"In what respect?" At a loss, Preston glanced over towards his fellow senior officer for guidance.

"I - er," Dodd coughed. "I think, John, he means a little 'summary justice'. No, thank you, Colonel, I don't believe that will be necessary - although there are a couple of things we need to bring to your attention. Won't you step inside for a moment?"

At Harrity's assent, Dodd guided the man towards an open doorway which led away from the noisy celebrations and into a small dim area that was for the moment untenanted. As soon as the three of them drew to a halt, Dodd broached the subject that was troubling him.

"Colonel, a detachment of eighteen prisoners was removed from here on 8th March heading for Stalag IVz at Altengrabow. We believe them to be under Wehrmacht control, but it's our opinion that Hitler ultimately intends to use them as hostages. There was nothing we could do to stop them being taken, although we did try to assure ourselves of their safety as far as possible. We'd like very much to find out what happened to them"

Harrity nodded. "Can you get me a list of names?

"No problem. One more thing."

"Yeah?"

"You need to look out for a Major Horst Mohn, a Luftwaffe officer. He's maybe six feet tall, brown hair, grey eyes, probably still carrying the scars of an old stomach wound. He was second-in-command here until he disappeared on March 16th. If you find this guy, make sure you hang on to him. He's pure poison."

"I'll pass the word around. Consider it taken care of."

"Thank you, Colonel." It was Preston who spoke. "Now, may I ask your intentions concerning the German officers remaining in the castle?"

Harrity rubbed a thoughtful hand across his chin. "They'll be the prisoners of the US First Army," he said, "and dealt with strictly in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Is that what you mean?"

"Partly," Preston nodded, "but within the limitations of their duty the Kommandant and Hauptmann Ulmann in particular have treated us with great courtesy, and we would be obliged if you would treat them in the same way."

Harrity's eyebrows rose. This was a new one on him; he did not often meet anyone with much concern for the defeated German Army, and it was perhaps the last thing he had expected of liberated prisoners of war.

"I'll see to it personally," he confirmed. "My orders are to take everybody here - prisoners, Germans, the whole crapgame - to a transit camp near Chemnitz. There's a unit from the War Crimes Commission waiting there to interview you, and what ultimately happens to your Krauts will be up to them. I guess you could put in a good word on their behalf if you wanted to."

"Thank you, Colonel Harrity, we'll give that serious consideration." Dodd was aware his younger colleague was anxious to be about his business; it had become customary to think of Colditz as the centre of the universe, and it would have been easy for them to lose sight of the many claims on the Colonel's time. "We'd like to offer you a drink, but I suspect you have other duties."

"Afraid I'll have to take a rain check, Colonel, but thank you. I have things to do in the town - but first I need to go on over and accept your Kommandant's formal surrender. You want to come with me?"

"No. No thank you." Preston demurred instantly; Dodd, who might have accepted, chose instead to follow his example. The victories and defeats of armies in the field seemed scarcely relevant at this moment; there had been no personal triumph over the Kommandant for either of them, and neither felt any need to witness his final capitulation.

"You go ahead, Colonel," Dodd conceded, accepting and returning a casual salute, friendly rather than military. In a moment Harrity was striding back across the yard, leaving the two men staring after him with their thoughts in some disarray.

"Is this really freedom, Max?" Preston asked after a moment. "It's been so long, I'm not sure I recognise it any more. It seems incredible that it can be over as easily as that - just because Colonel Harrity says so."

"Oh, you'll get used to it - but for the time being we're needed here; for one thing, we have to try and stop our men taking the place apart and smuggling it out bit by bit as souvenirs. C'mon, John, we still have a little 'senior officering' to do."

With a laugh Preston conceded the point, following Dodd out of the seclusion of their small corner and into the chaos of the courtyard once more.

 

The sounds of rejoicing had long since reached the devastated Kommandantur building where the remaining German contingent were housed. The Kommandant and Hauptmann Ulmann had settled in a small office, no larger than seven feet in any dimension, which had formerly been the preserve of the Supply officer. It contained a large scratched and battered desk and two chairs, and one wall supported a set of pigeon-holes which had long since been emptied of anything but dust.

The Kommandant's only concern now was to make his handover to the Americans as correct as possible. He had been working for some time on updating the nominal roll of prisoners, annotating it so far as he could with the departure dates and destinations of all those who had been removed through official channels during his tenure, and as he did so it was brought home to him with crushing force how few of their fates were known for certain. What, for instance, had become of the French who were removed in April of 1944? Where, now, were the Prominente whose destination had caused both Carrington and Ulmann such anxiety? He supposed all such matters came under the cloak of 'Nacht und Nebel', the notorious policy of 'darkness and fog' which had surrounded so many official decisions towards the end of the War.

"There are," he said, unevenly, "two hundred and seven men I am unable to account for; one hundred and forty three French, forty one Poles, eighteen Prominente - and five prisoners escaped and recaptured away from the castle whose fates are not known. We know that the French and the Poles were taken away to work camps; how many of them, Franz, do you suppose have survived?"

Ulmann's hand rested lightly on the Kommandant's shoulder, bestowing reassurance. He had tried to relieve Karl of this particular task, but the older man's stubborn sense of duty and his obsessive need to concentrate on the minutiae of the handover had been too great for him. Instead he had opted for sitting as close as he could, offering occasional support and encouragement, trying to distract Karl's attention from the uncertainty of their own destiny.

"I ... don't know," he said slowly. "But what more could you have done? You brought the garrison and the majority of the prisoners to the end of the War alive and in reasonable health; how many commanders in the field can say the same?"

"It was not enough," Karl told him. "My hands are still just as dirty; I should have seen the evil in what we were doing - all of us, Franz, even you - but I didn't. Willi tried to tell me, but I didn't listen to him. I often think that perhaps he had the best of the bargain; where he is, no guilt can touch him."

Recognising the blackness of the mood, Ulmann refrained from comment. How could he utter platitudes, even with the best of intentions? Their country, their beloved Germany, had lost so much - and so had they. Finding each other, acknowledging the truth of the feelings they shared, had been their only consolation; it was all they would take from the wreckage of so many lives.

Outside in the corridor there was a flurry of activity, the sound of footsteps, and then a brisk knock at the door. One of their own guards entered and stood smartly to attention, capless and dishevelled but still adhering to his duty to the best of his ability. Despite himself; the Kommandant found a thin smile for the man.

"Herr Oberst, the American Colonel is in the courtyard. He says ... he says he is ready to accept your surrender."

A deep sigh, an acknowledgement, and Karl rose to his feet wearily. With slow, deliberate movements he took up his cap from the desk and set it on his head, taking an extra moment to adjust it to perfection. Then, with Ulmann close at his side, he stepped out into the watery sunlight.

The Kommandantur courtyard seemed much changed, even allowing for the considerable contingent of American soldiers ranged around its perimeter. The garrison had formed up in neat files, soldiers standing at ease as they waited for the final act but snapping to attention at the sight of their Kommandant. The scene was orderly enough to gladden the most critical eye; civilised men behaving in a civilised manner, no matter what their various governments may have decreed.

The American Colonel strode over, snapping off a sharp salute which the Kommandant returned.

"Sir, my name is Harrity, Colonel, United States 9th Armoured Division. I'm here to accept your formal surrender."

For a moment the Kommandant eyed the man almost in disbelief. He had been anticipating this moment for a long time, and somehow he had expected it to be different; he had expected it to be without any shred of dignity for the conquered; he had expected mockery and insults rather than this punctilious military courtesy. A sense of bewilderment had set in, his mind dissociating itself from its surroundings, and it was only with an effort that he managed to pull himself together enough to respond to Harrity's greeting.

"On behalf of my officers and men - and myself - I surrender," he said resolutely. "I have here a manifest of the garrison and prisoners which is as complete as I can make it. I would ask," he added, in a lower tone, "that we be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention."

The American nodded in acknowledgement. "You are prisoners of the Army of the United States of America, Kommandant, and will be treated appropriately. My orders are to move you out as soon as possible, and I expect to have transport here within the hour. Until that time you may move around the castle freely, but if you make any attempt to leave you will be shot. Is that clear?"

"Perfectly clear, Colonel."

"Uh-huh," Harrity took a moment to assess the man who faced him; pale and resolute, the German officer seemed an unremarkable figure to have inspired such respect even in his prisoners. Many men in his position would have tried to impose their personalities on the command by sheer arrogance, suppressing with brutality any opposition to their will, but the two captive Colonels had obviously had a very different experience with this man. Despite the circumstances, he found time to be intrigued. "Very well, Kommandant, you may carry on. I'll inform you of the transport arrangements personally as soon as I can. If you're in any doubt about your personal safety I'd suggest you stay put over on this side of the Castle, but I guess you know your prisoners have a pretty high opinion of you and this guy Hauptmann Ulmann. Whatever it was you did to deserve that, don't mess it up now."

The American's remark only added to the Kommandant's bewilderment. He had known Ulmann was held in great esteem by many of the prisoners but it had never really occurred to him that he himself was also kindly regarded, although he had been aware of a mutual respect between himself and the senior officers. Perhaps he would take more away from his time at Colditz than he had anticipated.

"Thank you, Colonel, I will bear in mind what you say." A further brisk exchange of salutes, and the brief interview was terminated. Colonel Harrity turned and walked away, the papers the Kommandant had given him tucked under his arm, and with his departure went the very last vestige of German authority in Colditz castle. The Kommandant watched it go, and did not feel a single twinge of regret.

 

The sudden change in the regime at Colditz, although predicted well in advance, had nevertheless taken some men almost by surprise. Carter, in particular, was feeling excluded from the general air of rejoicing. He left the courtyard and made his way to the dormitory, spending some time collecting together all the letters his wife had sent him over the years, preparing himself mentally to leave the Castle. His movements were slow and considered, everything he did now being stored away in some secret reserve of memory for future reference. There would be those who could not wait to walk away, to turn their backs on the fortress and forget about it forever. Of them all, Carter was the first to realise that freedom might have its drawbacks - that they might, in some cases, look back on their time in Colditz fondly, as the time in their lives when they had been of most use.

A modest career in the Town Clerk's Department beckoned him; the permanent weakness in his ankle meant that he would always limp, and no doubt by the time the vivid memories of the War had faded his younger colleagues would come to consider him a figure of fun. Only in Colditz - in the four and a half years of his residency - had he made a difference. As a seasoned escaper and later Escape Officer he had helped or hindered men's plans, had used his wits and his talents time and time again in the cause of his own freedom and that of others. Compared to his brief career as a pilot it had been a far greater achievement; what could civilian life show him that paralleled in any way his role here? Fatherhood, he supposed without much enthusiasm. Growing old and fat and forgetful surrounded by his family. It was what many men dreamed of - and indeed what a good many of them had been fighting for. Could it ever, now, be enough for him? Or would there always in future be an emptiness inside, a sneaking unworthy wish that captivity - and usefulness - could have extended forever?

He shuddered, bundling together his belongings in a distracted haze, trying to find within himself that joy he had always expected would follow when the end of the War was announced. It was there, but it was far below the other feelings whose presence caused him such grief. Much of his growing-up had been done at Colditz; it had been his University, and the thought of leaving it behind gave him more pain than he could ever have imagined.

 

Carrington, too, had taken a back seat during the merriment in the courtyard. His exertions of the night were beginning to catch up with him, and he had suffered many of the misgivings that had occurred to Carter. Feeling detached from the celebrations around him, he had nevertheless stayed long enough in the midst of the throng to exchange greetings with his friends, retiring at last to the turret windowsill where he and Dick Player had spent so much time together. Now, when he looked out at the vista of stone walls, blank sky and figures in the courtyard, the pain of Richard's absence was somehow dulled, transformed by the delight of their fellow prisoners. How many of them would spare a thought for the young Naval officer? Very few, he suspected, although they had all valued him when he was alive. Memories fade; Carrington knew that. In time even he would find it difficult to recall Richard's face, the tone of his voice, the mannerisms that had once been so familiar to them. That was the way it was supposed to be, however, and nothing could take away from him the knowledge of Richard's love; he'd carried that with him through two long years of separation, and would carry it for the rest of his life.

He had none of Carter's anxieties about the future, however. His life's pattern was already set; plans made long ago and only delayed by the War would finally come to fruition and he would continue to serve his country as he had been doing. The details of the work might change from time to time, as might the identities and uniforms of his colleagues, but as long as there was a job for him to do he would do it.

He'd worked as hard for the freedom of the individuals in Colditz as any man, and in the end he'd been the one privileged to usher in the freedom of them all; this was as much his triumph as anyone else's, and while he could not share in their noisy delight he took quiet satisfaction in the achievement. Every stone of the castle had some tale to tell; the rooftop opposite was the one over which he and Carter had edged with the two Poles back in '42 before the identity of the traitor was discovered, the kitchen to his right had marked the first stage of his escape with Pat Grant, the chapel away to his left had been the site of the extraordinary French tunnel. It would be interesting to go over there now and lift the floor and see whether the tunnel was still in place - maybe even go down there and take a look; he'd never get a better chance.

And then there were all the escapes that hadn't got further than the planning stages; tunnels and substitutions, false papers and uniforms made and hoarded - the place had been a hive of industry, with officers making whatever contribution they could to the general effort. They could all take a great pride in having been involved.

Hell, he thought, we even built a glider! What would Ulmann have made of that, if he could have seen it?

And in that moment, the determination formed that Ulmann should see the glider. There was just about time, the transport wasn't coming for a while; why couldn't he just walk on over to the Kommandantur and invite Hauptmann Ulmann to come for a stroll with him?

The Kommandant'd never make it up all those stairs, he acknowledged ruefully, but Ulmann... yeah.

He had little difficulty talking his way into the Kommandantur building. Even walking out freely through the main gate with American servicemen standing guard was not the culture shock he might have expected, but the pleasure of the two senior German officers when he arrived at their refuge caught him unaware. His request to the Kommandant to be allowed to 'borrow' Hauptmann Ulmann for a few minutes, however, returned the compliment in full.

"Of course, but ... why?"

"Well, Kommandant, I can't tell you that without ruining the surprise; you're just gonna have to trust me. What d'you say, Franz?"

"I ... yes. I'll go with you."

Carrington nodded. Then, without a trace of awkwardness, he held out his hand to the Kommandant.

"We might not get a chance to say 'goodbye'," he told him. "I guess you already know how much we three have in common; it's good to know some of us found something to hang on to in all of this. I ... er, I brought you something."

From his jacket pocket he drew the battered remains of the book of poems Dick Player had abstracted from the Castle library and which Ulmann had passed on to him three months earlier. It was all he had to remember Richard by, yet there seemed to be a more pressing need than his own; if these two men were also to be separated, they too might find some value in the verses Mohn had so despised.

Karl took both the book and the offered hand in some astonishment. "Goodbye, Major Carrington," he said, with stunned simplicity, not betraying whether or not he had any idea of the significance of the gift. That was all right with Carrington; he knew Ulmann would understand. "Perhaps - perhaps we will meet again, under happier circumstances?"

"I'm counting on it." The handshake was as warm as any between friends, and then Carrington spun away towards the door. "Don't worry about Franz - don't I always make sure he gets back in one piece?"

Before the Kommandant could make any further response Carrington had vanished out into the courtyard and with a shrug and a bemused expression Ulmann followed him a moment later, leaving Karl standing alone in the small office and wondering whether, at this late stage, everyone around him had succumbed to a particularly virulent form of infectious insanity; nothing else could explain Carrington's conduct - except perhaps that he had been insane all along and no-one had ever noticed.

Carrington's gift had left him dumbfounded, and he turned the small volume over and over in his hands as though he had no real idea what a book was for. Yet he remembered that one particular book had been a talisman for Player and Carrington, and he supposed that this was it. The American's generosity was astonishing, and he patted the book affectionately before slipping it into his pocket. Major Carrington had certainly turned out to be a man one could respect; in fact, he had displayed some very unexpected qualities. But where on Earth had he taken Franz - and why?

 

They encountered many amused glances as they crossed the courtyard and entered the building side-by-side, but no hostility was expressed towards the German. Indeed one or two officers even called out greetings, culminating in Captain Downing's friendly "Hello, Hauptmann, where are you heading?" as they worked their way up the second spiral staircase.

"Major Carrington has invited me on a 'mystery tour'," Ulmann replied swiftly, provoking great amusement in his audience.

"Has he really? Well, if you're going where I think you're going, Phil, I'd like to tag along."

"Be my guest, Tim. Any idea where Shaw is?"

"I think he's up there already, doing guided tours at half-a-crown a head."

"Great minds think alike. Well, c'mon, Franz, we still have a mountain to climb."

"But there is nothing up there except the prisoners' library!"

"That's what you think!" Carrington called back, dashing on ahead.

Downing laughed again. "Press on, Hauptmann," he urged, "it's worth all the effort, I can assure you; I'll follow on behind."

In this order, therefore, they made their way up the remaining stairs, arriving at the prisoners' library to encounter a small group of men laughing and chattering in very high spirits. To Ulmann's astonishment, however, a large set of bookshelves had been pulled away from one wall to reveal a hatchway which obviously led into some secret area, and Carrington made straight for the opening and dived through it.

"After you, Hauptmann," Downing told him genially.

Ulmann folded his long frame into the gap, emerging onto a narrow, dusty stairway, and set off upwards in Carrington's wake to find himself in a wide attic space entirely dominated by the blue and white bulk of what appeared to be - and when he closed and re-opened his eyes in disbelief certainly was - a full-sized glider.

"Why, Hauptmann Ulmann - come to see Colditz's best-kept secret?" Squadron Leader Shaw's hearty greeting resounded around the attic. A few other officers were present, inspecting and admiring the astonishing contraption Shaw and his team had created, exclaiming in delight over the ingenuity of its construction. "Let me take you through the design of the beast, Hauptmann; the airframe is made of beech, the ... "

Shaw got no farther, for the German officer's response to the sight stopped him in full flow. A grin of stunned delight crossed his face, to be followed a moment later by a deep rumble of laughter which took Ulmann firmly in its grip. A moment later he was convulsed by it, his eyes shining with mirth as he caught at breath without success. Here was farce, indeed! Here was something funnier than any contrived stage performance! Here was the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, and he found it at once so comical and so enlightening that he was helpless before it.

"Oh, gentlemen," he said, struggling for words, "my congratulations. It is a wonderful sight - a work of art - a miracle!"

Amused, Shaw clapped him warmly on the shoulder. "I'm glad you like it, Hauptmann. You truly had no idea it was here?"

"None in the world; this attic does not even appear on the plans. And you have built all this ... this beautiful craft ... without proper materials or tools? Squadron Leader Shaw, you are a true visionary."

"Thank you, Hauptmann. Come and have a look at the workshop."

"Certainly. And you must tell me how you did this ... "

As Shaw led the German officer away on his guided tour Downing leaned closer to Carrington. "Imagine that," he grinned. "Old Ulmann, laughing. Didn't know he had it in him."

"Great, isn't it? Maybe he'd just forgotten how. Maybe we all have."

"Hmmm. Well then, no doubt this is where we start to learn again - eh, Phil?"

"Can't be soon enough for me, Tim," Carrington told him with a smile.

 

The first trucks pulled into the Kommandantur courtyard some forty minutes later to remove the German contingent. Ulmann and Carrington were at the time just returning through the gateway, with Colonel Preston close behind, much to the relief of the Captain who had been left in charge of the transport arrangements and had formed up the remaining guards as before whilst allowing the officers to remain inside the building. The Kommandant, however, stood in the doorway with Doktor Hoffner, overseeing the procedure with his usual thorough caution. His men had not been handled with kid gloves precisely, but he had seen no evidence of maltreatment of any sort, and they filed into their allotted vehicles with weary resignation rather than anger or fear.

The American Captain ticked Ulmann's name off the list he carried. "Okay, that's everybody. Senior officers in the last truck."

Preston crossed to where the Kommandant stood, facing him with neither a smile nor a salute but with an expression that carried genuine regret.

"Well, Kommandant, in four years this is the first time we've said 'goodbye'."

The Kommandant's mouth twisted wryly. "You have won a great victory here, Colonel Preston," he said. "You, personally."

A momentary embarrassment, then Preston said; "Somehow one doesn't think of it like that."

"No. I am quite sure you would not. Goodbye, Colonel." The Kommandant offered a salute, the correct form imbued with a respect that had been earned over four painful years. Preston returned it, but then spoke again, holding out his hand.

"I hope you'll shake hands as well, Kommandant. Goodbye, and good luck."

"And to you, Colonel." A brief handclasp, and the Kommandant turned aside to conceal a sudden flux of emotion. This was all far more difficult than he had expected it to be.

"Hauptmann Ulmann." Preston also shook hands with the Kommandant's perennial shadow, then stood back with arms folded and head on one side whilst Ulmann and Carrington helped the older man into the truck.

"So long, Franz," Carrington said, loudly enough for at least half the Americans in the courtyard to hear him. "Take good care of yourself"

"Thank you, Major Carrington. I have ... " Words failed Ulmann then and a long pause ensued, the two men looking at one another intently as though remembering everything that had passed, measuring the years of captivity in the growth of friendship.

I have learned so much from you.

But perhaps it was something that should not after all have been said.

It was Carrington who broke the impasse, gripping Ulmann's hand in both of his and squeezing with all his might.

"The next time we meet," he insisted, "I'll expect you to call me by my first name."

"Philip," Ulmann said, with difficulty. "Goodbye, Philip."

"'Bye, Franz - for now."

 

Ulmann could not afterwards have said how he struggled into the truck; it was certain that he could not see for the stinging in his eyes, and that willing hands had pulled him upwards - Karl's and those of Hoffner among them - and helped him into his place on the last half-metre of wooden bench. The lower back of the truck was closed up instantly, Ulmann's view of the courtyard restricted to a small rectangle at eye height as Preston and Carrington obligingly moved back into his line of sight. There could be no more conversation; the engine of the truck was already being revved up, a shudder passing through it and everyone aboard as it began to move. Then, slowly, the figures of the two Allied officers began to grow smaller as the truck moved at funereal pace towards the exit, the town and the future. In one last despairing moment Ulmann held up a hand, seeking a final contact with the friend who had had such a catalytic effect on his life, and the wave was returned by both Carrington and, to his surprise, Preston. Then the truck passed under the archway and out onto the road and Ulmann turned to face the small, pale figure of his Kommandant on the seat opposite.

Karl reached across and patted his hand reassuringly.

"This is not the end of anything, Franz," he said, and Ulmann nodded in agreement.

"No," he said, accepting the truth of the words even as he turned his hand to accept his lover's grip. "This is where it begins."

 

The trucks to remove the ex-prisoners were not brought right into the castle but remained lined up along the road outside. It proved difficult to marshal their intending passengers into any semblance of order - an end-of-term spirit imbued the men, and they clustered in the courtyard with their belongings like so many overgrown schoolboys heading home for the holidays. Some, it seemed, were intent on taking half the castle home in their luggage, whilst others had formed the determination to walk out unburdened, hands in pockets, and shrug off in that moment everything that Colditz had meant to them.

The French would not be quelled; in vain their officers called for silence, but to them freedom meant also a release from the necessity of obeying such commands and they continued to sing at the tops of their voices and generally to act like wilful children until the order was given to board the trucks. What ensued then was something resembling a stampede of wild animals, with the British and American contingents standing well back while the chaos began to sort itself out, taking great delight in the enthusiasm of the French troops and at the same time feeling slightly superior to them.

It took a considerable time, and if a muted chorus of 'Why are we waiting?' broke out amongst his own men Preston had the good sense to ignore it. He certainly took no notice of the buzz of conversation that became more apparent when the French chattering and shouting was subsumed in the roar of truck engines as their allies preceded them on the road to Chemnitz. Eventually, however, he called everyone to order.

"Gentlemen, will you now please prepare to board the trucks?"

 

He was impressed with the way they lined up quietly to do so, as though in deliberate contrast to the performance of the French. Most of them were going to have to leave their souvenirs behind, he thought with an indulgent smile; there was far too much extra baggage for any self-respecting aircraft to carry. But let others explain that to them when it came to embarkation; he had done with his role of headmaster, his chivvying and chiding and chastising. It was a profound relief, now, to let the responsibility not only for them but also for himself pass into someone else's hands at last.

Colonel Harrity's driver was standing by the gate waiting for him. So were Carter and Brent; everyone else had gone on ahead. They had filed out neatly in ones and twos - Downing had rocketed out on a 'liberated' motorcycle, Shaw strolled away deep in conversation with the Padre, Carrington and Nugent wisecracking to the last.

"Colonel Harrity's waiting outside, sir," the driver told him, interrupting a moment of reflection as Preston stared slowly around the litter-strewn yard. Whatever the fate of the castle, someone was going to have a monumental cleaning-up job to do before it could be put to use again. "Colonel Dodd's with him They thought you'd be more comfortable in the jeep."

Preston's eyebrows rose. "Thank you. I'll be along shortly." He turned back to his contemplation, the voices of the years calling to him from the now-silent stones. Like Carrington before him he saw a story in every cobble, every window bar, every discarded length of plaited blue-and-white rope festooned around the walls. Men's ingenuity was written in every line, their courage in every shadow, their determination in every lock, bolt and bar. Let others see captivity as failure if they must, but to him Colditz had been a triumph. In years to come none of them would be ashamed of having been captured; they would speak of their time at Colditz with pardonable pride, and he would be among them. It was the achievement of their lives, and it must never be forgotten.

The driver went on ahead. Carter and Brent flanked their Colonel as silently, involved with their own thoughts, the three of them stepped through the gate, walked down across the Kommandantur courtyard - and exited at last into the road outside.

*

Chapter Twenty Two

14th April 1945

 

Neither Preston nor Dodd looked back as the jeep pulled away from the Castle. Ahead of them stretched their convoy, thirty trucks in a dark green snake already spread out over a mile or more of road, and steadily Colonel Harrity's driver worked his way up through the procession passing one after another with the jeep's lights on and one hand on the horn. There would have been little possibility of conversation, had any of the parties felt in a talkative mood, until the leading vehicle in the convoy had been passed and they were out on the road to Chemnitz at the head of the parade. Their progress was not especially rapid, however, due to the unpredictable nature of the road's surface and the frequent pot-holes and diversions. As they slowed to overcome yet one more in a series of obstacles, Harrity swung round from the front seat and addressed his two passengers.

"That Luftwaffe officer you mentioned to me ... Major Mohn?"

With difficulty Dodd drew his attention away from the infinite and back to the immediate. "Horst Mohn. What about him? Have you found him?"

Harrity grimaced. "Well that's kind of a moot point, Colonel. We've got a body - charred and buried in a shallow grave on the edge of a wood - and we've got your man Mohn's identity documents. Problem is they're not as badly burned as they ought to be, which makes me wonder if they were put there for us to find. My people say the man's been dead about three or four weeks, which would fit in with the last time you saw Mohn, but were going to need an autopsy before we can be sure."

"I'm sure," Colonel Preston said crisply. "It's just too convenient. When he left the castle he must have been well aware that someone would come looking for him sooner or later; what better way to put them off the scent than by providing them with a body?"

Harrity's grin broadened as Preston spoke. "That's pretty well what the guy from the War Crimes Commission said, too. He called him a sneaky bastard; said he'd strangle his own grandmother if he thought it'd do him some good."

"Sounds as if he knew the Herr Major pretty well," Dodd told him. "Who are these people, Colonel? Intelligence?"

"Mostly. This one was seconded from your British Navy, Colonel Preston. Said he used to be in submarines. Matter of fact," he added thoughtfully, "he said he'd been a POW too, but he didn't say where. Guess it could've been Colditz at that."

A thin smile from Preston. "I doubt it, Colonel. We only had one Naval officer who escaped from Colditz, and he was reported killed in the Med." That memory would live with him forever; Carrington's quiet grief; the compassion of the Kommandant and Ulmann, his own stunned disbelief at what he was hearing and the way it was said were images he sometimes had difficulty reconciling with the circumstances of the War. So a man had died; what made him special enough for the two Germans to pay such particular attention to his death? Yet recalling it now was the twisting of a knife in a wound, as though in some way Dick had represented all that was good in Colditz - the spirit of survival, perhaps.

"Is that so? Well, that's a pity," Harrity continued, oblivious to Preston's internal monologue. "From what I've seen of this guy Player, though, he knows what he's doing. If that body isn't Mohn - well, we'll just keep on looking."

In the back seat of the jeep looks were traded that spoke of a sudden convulsive surge of hope ruthlessly quelled by souls that expected nothing but the worst.

"Did he say 'Player'?" Dodd asked Preston. "Can it be a brother or something? I mean, how common a name is it in England?"

"Comparatively rare." White-faced, Preston sought to deal with teeming emotions and thoughts that would not be controlled "Colonel Harrity, you did say the Naval officer's name was Player? Do you happen to know his first name?"

Catching on quickly, Harrity shared the wildness of the surmise.

'You think it could be the guy you knew? No, I don't know his first name - but he's a Commander, young, blond, I guess what you'd call upper-crust."

"That certainly sounds like Dick, although the last thing we heard he was only a Lieutenant-Commander." Preston had become agitated, glancing back towards the ribbon of the convoy as it followed them along the tortuous route. Somewhere in one of those thirty trucks was a man who would sell his soul to see Dick Player alive and well again; was it possible that he might after all have the chance?

"Colonel Harrity, if this Player is the same man who escaped from Colditz back in '43 we have some people who are very anxious to meet up with him again - and one in particular he's gonna want to see. They - uh - they were close." That just about covered it, thought Dodd, although if what he knew of Phil Carrington was anything to go by it matched his passion about as closely as a candle-flame matches the sun.

"Is that so?" Harrity's eyebrows soared, but to his eternal credit he did not ask any awkward questions; had they known it, the two Colonels were projecting the strong desire that he should not, so he accepted their words at face value. "Well, what d'you want to do about it?"

"I think I'd better speak to Commander Player as soon as possible," Preston told him, "and Max, you'd better take charge of Phil. We can't have this situation getting out of control."

The older American nodded his agreement. "Okay," he said. "Colonel Harrity, is there any way we can get there well ahead of the trucks?"

"Sure - they're restricted to convoy speed. We can go faster, but we'll get shaken to pieces."

"I think we'll risk that, Colonel. If this is Dick Player, we've got to get to him first."

Harrity didn't quibble. He'd learned enough about Preston and Dodd in the last few hours to trust their instincts; if they said it was important then hell, who was he to argue?

'You heard the Colonel," he told his driver with a shrug. "Step on the gas."

 

The transit camp was based at an airfield which had obviously been damaged by bombing at some stage in its career. Camouflaged buildings in a variety of utilitarian designs bordered a network of roads and runways, and the place was a hive of activity as trucks and jeeps in all manner of Allied liveries pulled in and out at frequent intervals. In all conscience it was not an attractive location, but to Dodd and Preston who had seen little but the environs of Colditz Castle for some considerable time it was Shangri-La.

As the jeep turned onto a perimeter road the two officers were distracted by the sound of a transport aircraft thundering along the main runway, making a laboriously slow take-off into skies that were no longer filled with the Luftwaffe. They watched it go in fascination, then turned back to Harrity as he remarked quietly; "There go another fifty guys heading for home, gentlemen. Your turn in a few hours - just the formalities to deal with first."

"My children," Preston said suddenly. They had never been far from his thoughts, but the notion that he would see them in the next day or so was utterly bewildering. How they would have grown! His daughter would be almost nine by now, his son seven, and he had missed the most vital part of their childhood. What was more, he hadn't been there to console them when their mother was killed; how long ago it all seemed, yet the wound was still raw. "My children."

A comforting hand on his shoulder. "C'mon, John, this is no time to fall apart. Your children'll be fine for a couple more hours."

"I know. I just hope they'll recognise me.

Dodd grinned. "Let's get this Player business sorted out," he said, "and then I'm going to buy you a drink. What about it, Colonel Harrity, is there somewhere around here a man can quench his thirst?"

An answering smile from the younger officer. "There sure is, Colonel - and by the way, the name's Ed."

 

Within ten minutes of arrival at the transit camp, Colonel Preston found himself alone in a small waiting-room into which the sun poured like molten gold. Half a dozen odd chairs were ranged around the walls, a few books scattered on a table in the centre - it could have been a dentist's waiting-room but the signs of recent occupation placed it firmly in a Luftwaffe establishment of some description; even the calendar bore Gothic script and the text in German. When shown into the room he had taken a seat as requested, but as soon as his escort departed he had stood and walked to the window, feasting his eyes on a view of hangars, taxi-ing aircraft, trucks, motor-bikes and the general melee of activity. It so fascinated him that he did not hear the door open and close quietly, and the words which dropped into the room hit him with a hammer blow.

"Colonel Preston?"

He swung round, finding himself face-to-face with a strong-looking and confident fair-haired man in the uniform of the Royal Navy, three rings of gold braid on his sleeves.

"Good God, Dick, we thought you were dead." The impulse to greet Player like a long-lost brother almost overcame him, but Preston settled for a handshake which became a two-handed grip while his eyes stung and blurred. "I can't tell you how glad I am to see you. Do you know that Phil Carrington's with us - in our convoy?"

"Phil? No, I had no idea. How on Earth did he end up back at Colditz?"

"That's a long story, but he's coming here. He believes you're dead," Preston reiterated. "The Germans told us HMS Tercel had been sunk with all hands."

"So she was, but I wasn't with her - I'd just been seconded to Combined Intelligence. She was under her new captain; he lost her first trip out - and himself if it comes to that. Colonel, are you telling me Phil's ... " He stopped, the words just not forming in the face of Preston's revelation and his own sudden confusion.

"You know Phil." It was the understatement of a lifetime. "How do you think he'd have taken news of your death?"

Distress washed across Player's regular features. "God," he breathed, "I can't begin to imagine. I only know how I'd've felt ... Colonel, I'm going to have to put this right."

"The minute our convoy arrives, Colonel Dodd will find Phil and bring him here," Preston assured him. "In the meantime, tell me how in Heaven's name you ended up in Combined Intelligence."

A short, delighted laugh. "Oh, Colonel, that's the funniest part of all. One weekend when I was on leave I bumped into Ted Bentinct-Boyle at a party; he was working for the War Crimes Commission and he said they might have a job for me. By the time I got back from my next cruise it was all set up - and now I'm preparing cases for the Tribunal."

"Tribunal?"

"It'll be at Nuremberg, as soon as we can get everything organised. We're going to put Hitler and all the top Nazis on trial - and we need witnesses against them. People like yourself, Colonel."

Preston's expression froze. "I can't be a witness against anybody," he said coolly. "Except possibly Major Mohn. I won't say anything against Ulmann or the Kommandant, and I don't suppose you'll find anyone else who will."

"No, Colonel," Player responded reassuringly, "I don't expect to. I would imagine they'll be interned for a while, but I shouldn't think we'll need to prosecute either of them. They'll be free to return to their homes - if their homes are still there."

The Colonel let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding. "Anything else," he assured Player with gratitude, "would scarcely be justice."

The Naval officer did not hear him. He had turned away and was now looking out of the window towards the main gate - which, for the moment, appeared to be quieter than usual.

"How far behind did you say your convoy was, Colonel?"

 

It was another half-hour before the slow-moving convoy approached the perimeter of the airfield. Dodd, smoking and striding back-and-forth along the length of the building like an expectant father, spotted the first truck as it turned in through the gate and hurried back towards the point where Harrity's driver had set the three Colonels down. If he wasn't careful there could be total chaos here as nine hundred prisoners tumbled out of the trucks, and he wouldn't stand a snowflake's chance in hell of getting Carrington out of the middle of the mess. He'd evolved a simple enough plan; stop the first truck and send one man from it to each of the others looking for Major Carrington. Until he had Carrington, no-one else would leave the trucks - and they could make whatever they would of the delay. Preston's assurance that the Intelligence officer was identical with the Player who had escaped from Colditz eighteen months earlier had been no real surprise to him - it would have been too much of a coincidence had it been anyone else - but there were still a lot of questions unanswered, chief among which was how the hell Phil was going to cope with knowing that the lover he had been mourning was alive and well and not a hundred yards away.

From somewhere close to the tail of the convoy Carrington came hurrying, uniform cap in hand, an expression of deepest concern on a face which had aged appreciably even during the short time Dodd had known him Oblivious to the shouts of the other ex-prisoners as they disembarked, Dodd drew Carrington into the building and into the temporary quiet of a long, cool corridor.

"What's the matter, Colonel? You look like you've seen a ghost."

"Not yet. But you're about to." He gripped Carrington's arm in ham-fisted reassurance. "Phil, Dick Player's here - alive and well, and can't wait to see you. Room 31, down the corridor on the right-hand side." Dodd turned, indicating with his free hand. "It's him all right, Colonel Preston's been talking to him. You'd better move, Phil, before we both get trampled in the rush."

"Colonel, I ... " Utter mystification on Carrington's face, and for a moment he held onto Dodd as to a life-raft in a treacherous sea. His mouth was moving but no sound came as he made incoherent attempts to question or thank his unexpected benefactor. Then he tore himself away, turned and ran down the corridor, the hurried sounds of his feet a counterpoint to the babble outside.

What the Colonel had said made no sense at all. Richard alive? Here? Some mistake, of course, some trick of the light or error of identification. Richard was dead, drowned in the Mediterranean

But men like Max Dodd didn't make that sort of mistake, and his heart had given one convulsive leap of intuition as if it knew far better than his head that he had heard the truth.

Richard ...

Thirty-one right. He stopped in front of it, trying to get his breath, straightening his jacket and tie - and the door opened and Colonel Preston stepped out. Beyond Preston Carrington could see nothing, but he was aware that the door was being held open for him and he was being ushered inside. A desk, a couple of chairs, filing cabinet, wall-map ...

It was a plain, functional office like a hundred thousand others all over the world and he thought he was alone there until someone spoke to him gently.

"Normally," the well-remembered voice told him, "I object to kissing men with beards, but in your case I'm prepared to make an exception."

"Richard? Oh my God, Richard!" Astounded, Carrington turned to find the slender uniformed figure of his deepest fantasies. He had changed hardly at all, except that he looked healthier and better-fed and that his hair had been cropped shorter. He still had that expression of gravity over mischief, the schoolboy suddenly turned serious, and Carrington's heart plunged and curvetted frantically as his emotions ran riot.

"Put your arms around me, you bastard," Player demanded, the words trembling with anguish.

Carrington's cap dropped to the floor, unregarded, and he swayed forward like an automaton, arms extending of their own volition to enfold him in a crushing embrace that threatened to topple them both.

"Hold me. Just hold me. I've spent the last two and a half years wishing you were there to hold me, Phil ... "

Then words ceased abruptly as Player's arms snaked around Carrington's neck and he drew the taller man down towards him and into a kiss that had less to do with passion than with bloody-minded obstinacy and an affirmation of their shared survival.

"I'm alive, Phil, and so are you!"

That notion was slowly seeping through to Carrington's stunned senses, although he was still half-expecting to be woken by a grim-faced Hauptmann Ulmann come to escort him out of his solitary cell on one last long walk.

How? why?

Yet the warmth in his arms was real and solid enough and the ensuing kisses were at once familiar and new, the first exchanged in freedom and the pattern for many more to follow.

"God, I thought I'd never see you again!" It was Player who was doing all the talking, his brain racing like an over-revved engine as he tried to assimilate the fact that they were together at last.

"How can it be you?" Carrington asked dazedly, his lips tingling with the taste of the younger man's mouth. The last few hours had been a patchwork of discordant images that formed no logical picture; this reunion with Richard was the last thing he could possibly have expected, and therefore it was what had happened. The world had turned upside-down and they were still together; he clung to the form that had ghosted through his dreams, and still more tightly to the knowledge that this was real. "How can you be here? Jesus, Dick, they told me you were dead and I believed it ... everybody believed it. How the hell did you get away when the sub was attacked?"

Bruisingly aware of the pain his lover had endured, Player was almost apologetic.

"I'm sorry," he said shakily. "I'd forgotten how good the Colditz grapevine was. It didn't occur to me anyone there would have heard about Tercel - that I was aboard in the first place, let alone what happened to her."

"It was Franz and ... and Karl, who told us." Carrington was conscious that for some time now he had been thinking of the two German officers more by their names than by the ranks they had held in what was no longer an Army. "Ulmann and the Kommandant," he explained to the bewildered Player. "I guess if you have to hear that kind of thing it's better if it comes from a friend." Much of the context of this remark was lost on his companion, but Carrington knew that there would be endless time, now, to explain everything that hadn't been clear at first. "God, I've got so much to tell you," he admitted, wryly. "About them, as much as anything else ... but I want to hear what happened to you."

"There's no story … none at all. I'd left the ship just before she sailed; I wasn't on board!" Never had the guilt of that knowledge seemed quite so acute to Player as at this moment. "Charlie Creegan, poor sod, my First Lieutenant ... he got the command ... "

And Charlie Creegan and all the others had died aboard HMS Tercel. How could anyone be alive and free and happy when so many good men had perished? Or was it only right that they should celebrate the knowledge that something had been saved from the wreckage? Was the very fact that they were here, and together, the validation of everything their friends and comrades had fought and died for? In that moment Carrington knew it would take years... decades even ... to reconcile the internal conflict, to balance the guilt with the joy and to come at last to an equilibrium.

"I love you," he said, suddenly. It was the only thing that seemed important. "If I hadn't been such a coward I'd've said it right at the start, as soon as I knew it myself. I thought I'd lost you ... and we'd never said it. In case I never get another chance, you'd better hear it now."

"I've known it all along, idiot." The reply was gentle as Player's hands swept in warm reassuring circles across Carrington's broad back. "You never fooled me for a moment with your speeches. But we'll have plenty of time, Phil. We'll have all the days and nights together we could possibly want."

"Well, you sure as hell better love me!" Almost truculently, Carrington made one more effort to extract the words he had for so long needed to hear. "That's all that's gonna make any of this worthwhile. Just say it, Richard ... please."

"Yes. Yes, I love you. You know I do; you always knew. Trust me, Phil, everything's going to be fine. I promise."

Now, after it was all over, it would have been so easy to fall apart, to let go and let Richard take the strain for a while, but Carrington pulled himself together and stood looking down into Dick Player's pale eyes and watching as they filled with unholy fire.

"That's a promise I'm going to hold you to," he told him... and kissed him again.

 

The noise level in the corridor had risen appreciably by the time the door to the small office opened about ten minutes later and the two figures emerged. Although they had done their best to replace their masks of professionalism, neither Carrington nor Player could be unaware that their happiness hung around them like a golden cloud - nor that it would be infectious. Plunging out into what threatened soon to become a chaotic situation, with men milling and queueing and being ushered in all directions through the low, dark passageway that ran the length of the building between distant squares of sunlight, the two men were reminded irresistibly of the mayhem of the first day back at school - an impression heightened by the appearance of the two Colonels waiting like anxious parents a few paces away.

Gripping Player's elbow in a proprietorial manner, Carrington steered him through the crowd.

"Colonel Dodd, sir," he said without preamble, "may I present Commander Richard Player, Royal Navy? Dick, this is my CO, Colonel Max Dodd."

The formal introduction appealed both to Dodd's sense of propriety and his sense of humour, and the look on Carrington's face was that of a young man presenting a prospective bride for inspection.

"My boy," he said, "I've heard a lot about you." He shook hands warmly with Player, free hand patting him on the upper arm.

"I wish I could say the same, Colonel, but there hasn't been time to hear about all your exploits."

Dodd's grin made him appear ten years younger. "Well," he said, wryly, "for that you can be profoundly grateful. But I hope we'll have a chance to meet when things are a little quieter."

"Rely on it," Carrington told them both, determinedly.

Player turned his attention to Preston.

"Colonel," he said, "I know we both caused you a lot of trouble, one way and another. I'm sure it will be a great relief not to have to worry about us any more."

Preston grimaced, the expression on his face not the mask of unadulterated delight Dodd had worn so much as a tortured look of pleasure which sat uncomfortably on top of concern and distress.

"Worrying about you both has become second nature," he confessed with uncharacteristic frankness. "I wish I thought things could be easier for you now, but your way of life will always be fraught with difficulties."

"We know that, Colonel," Carrington told him. "It's just that we've come to believe it doesn't matter a hill of beans."

The Senior British Officer nodded his acceptance of this gentle philosophy. "I hope you're right, Phil. What are your immediate plans, do you know?"

Dodd glanced at him in some amusement, wondering what Preston's response would be if the two said that they were planning a June wedding followed by a honeymoon in Scotland. Fortunately it did not seem to have occurred to either of them to be flippant.

"I'Il have to stay here, at least for the time being," Player said. "This assignment will take months, if not years. Ted will be flying out in a day or two, and we'll get on with interviewing POW camp administrators. I'll do what I can for our Kommandant," he added, reassuringly.

"Just make sure he's not separated from Hauptmann Ulmann," Carrington told him. "I don't think either of them would ask for more than that, just at the moment."

"They would probably have been kept together in any case," was the response, "but I'll make certain of it. Leave it to me."

"And what about you, Phil? You'll be sent home to the States, I suppose?"

Carrington shrugged. "Yeah. No choice about that," he said. "And I'd like to see my family ... and maybe Patti. But as soon as I can, I'll turn around and come right back. There has to be some kind of job I can do over here; if I pull a few strings I can probably get assigned to cover the Tribunal." He glanced across at the fair-haired Britisher who had made all this not only possible but necessary. "Looks like I'm not going to get away from Germany for a while after all. I could be back here in two or three weeks."

"As long as you manage to find enough time to shave before you turn up here again," was the whimsical answer. "I told you before, I don't like beards."

"In that case," the American said affectionately, "consider it a thing of the past."

"My God!"

A sudden roar, the length of the corridor, and conversations all around them that had been in full and jovial flow were interrupted. At the far end of the passage a group of Colditz old faithfuls, including Captains Brent and Downing and Flight Lieutenant Carter, had just emerged from an office and Downing, somewhat loftier than the rest, had caught sight of a face he thought he recognised ... but could not have done, surely, because the man to whom it belonged was dead. "Dick bloody Player!"

The chorus of disbelief around him grew, then fell away in the face of his certainty. Brent struggled to see what his friend had seen, then began wading through the crowd in a despairing effort to fill his eyes with the spectacle of his friend alive and whole and restored to them all. "Dick! Dick, is it really you?"

Behind him the group of ex-prisoners jostled to meet up with a similarly striving group comprising the two Colonels with Carrington and Player. Somewhere in the middle of the corridor they met, surrounded by strangers, in a chaos of handshakes and embraces, Brent making a beeline for Player with every intention of wrapping him in a brotherly bear-hug and trying to say in a split second all that he had omitted to say over their shared captivity. When he reached him, however, he found that he was simply standing back, smiling fondly as others crowded in to look at Player, to touch him, to convince themselves that he was alive, to absorb into themselves a little of the magic his return had created.

"Good old Dick," Brent breathed, his eyes misting in a way he hadn't expected. "Good old Phil."

A hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed affectionately, and he found himself turning to look into Carrington's insanely-grinning face. The worry-lines had begun to vanish already, the haunted quality was gone from the American's eyes, and although he still seemed shocked there was a serenity about him Brent could only envy. There would be time enough for stories later, Brent realised; for be introductions and explanations, for plans and schemes, but for now there was only the simple fact that they had all survived and that their friendships were intact. He grinned back at Carrington, trading without words the reassurance that they were both free of their personal prisons; that peace had found them at last.

There was nothing else - nothing in the world - that mattered any more than that.

 

The evening was beginning to close in. It had been a long day, colder than he had expected, and he had spent most of it tucked down in a damp corner between a wall and a barn in a place where the weeds were shoulder-high. The farm was derelict anyway and had obviously been that way for a good many years, but he wasn't about to take any risks at this stage. He'd covered his tracks as carefully this morning as he had for the last several weeks, never making a move unless he was certain it would be safe to do so, considering every possibility before settling on a course of action. That was why he'd decided against hiding in what remained of the farmhouse or the outbuildings; while he would certainly have been warmer, he would also have been trapped. This ill-smelling corner was uncomfortable, but the discomfort was keeping him alert - and there were several different avenues of escape available to him.

He was moving around every so often, making sure his legs didn't cramp into uselessness, checking the horizons in all directions for any sign of movement. So far, apart from the infrequent drone of an aeroplane, there had been nothing to disturb the atmosphere of rural decay. That was the way he liked it.

He'd had plenty of time to think, just lately. Not only here, but also on his long pilgrimage across the countryside. It had all been on foot; the identity documents he had stolen might just fool the occasional country policeman but they wouldn't stand up to inspection on the railway, and the only things moving on the roads were military transports. Those and refugees, amongst whom it had been easy enough to lose himself when the need arose. Who looked at the dispossessed, with their long sad faces and their bundles of belongings? He'd helped to push carts, carried children on his shoulders, made small-talk with people who had lost everything; despising them, he had let them hide him. Even they had their uses.

He had let his beard grow, of course. Having no way of preventing it anyway he had accepted it as the best available natural camouflage, but had been shocked to discover how much of it was grey. Still, it made him look more like a peasant or a labourer, and for the time being that was what he must appear to be. After all it was a labourer whose documents he carried, a man at least ten years older than himself whose twisted back had kept him from any useful service in his country's hour of need. Killing such a man had been no real difficulty, even after two days living rough in a wood without food or shelter, and burning the body afterwards had been a positive pleasure; the heat from the flames had been welcome on a cold night, and no-one had come to investigate.

At first the idea of disguising himself as a peasant had disgusted him. Used to the best of everything - to the finest food and wines, to the best conversation, to the company of men of vision - he had been reluctant to lower himself to the level of the underclass. They were, after all, not real human beings like himself but something raised only slightly higher than the animals. He was one of the conquerors, not of the conquered - but he had told himself that kings in legends often strolled among their people in disguise, in order to learn more about them. Knowing about these less-than-people would be useful when he returned.

When they all returned; when Germany was great again.

The inner pocket of the coarse jacket he wore contained all his luggage. It held his Iron Cross, and the photograph of himself shaking hands with the Fuhrer. It also contained a small amount of money, all he had been able to assemble at short notice, which should be enough to get him to Geneva. There, once he could establish his identity to the Bank's satisfaction, he had all the finds he needed to get him into the Odessa's pipeline to South America. It might take several months, but the routes were secure; unlike the stupid British whose short-sightedness had sabotaged so many escape plans, he was absolutely certain of every move along the way and was prepared to wait endlessly until the time was right.

A smile twisted his scarred face. The British had always thought so highly of their puny attempts and had found it so amusing to twist that fool Ulmann around their little fingers. None of them had seen how trivial and pointless it all was, how they were running around like mice in a maze in a futile endeavour to evade something so much greater, so much more magnificent than they could contemplate. The Thousand Year Reich would come; if it was postponed a year, a decade, even a century, it did not matter. Millions of men had died to make Germany great; millions more would die, if necessary, to establish that greatness in the eyes of the world. Men were mortal; the vision was eternal.

 

As nightfall approached he made his move. Crossing an empty hillside, he skirted a scar in the ground until he could hear the sound of running water several feet below. Loose rocks slid about under his feet, and at times he had to brace his hands against the ground to stop himself sliding sideways. The direction of the setting sun and the pattern of the stars as they appeared gave him his compass heading; he was a pilot, and he knew his constellations as well as any man. Navigating by the stars was nothing new for him.

The other side of the ravine lay in Switzerland. There were no border patrols here, in the wild country. It had never been possible to cover every mile of every frontier; even the Romans with their stoutly-built walls had never quite succeeded in producing a border without weaknesses. This one he had known about for some years - without ever thinking that he might need to use it himself. He wondered how many of his comrades had already passed this way, and how many more would do so? Was the Fuhrer already safely out of Berlin? Or was he still somewhere behind on the lonely road, his brilliant tactical brain already turning towards the next campaign, the next glorious victory?

Stumbling, sliding, catching at clumps of weed and prominent rocks as he descended, he realised he had reached the bottom of the ravine only when his feet landed in ice-cold water and the shock drove the breath from him. He lurched sideways, standing upright in water up to his knees, then stepped out into the current. It was a struggle, but as he reached the middle of the river a shaft of moonlight fell on him and he was able to see the way ahead.

Half-falling, his heart thudding dangerously from a combination of effort and excitement, he forded the rest of the stream and emerged shuddering with reaction to scramble up the opposite bank and throw himself face-down on the grass at the top. He was soaked, and the nearest habitation was at least five miles away, but a feverish thrill ran through his body as he repeated to himself again and again that he was free. The road lay open now before him, and he would not return until he returned in triumph.

He was the last man to escape from Colditz Castle.

His name was Major Horst Mohn.

 

THE END