The night was bitterly cold, a brittle silence in air too cold for snow, no sound able to penetrate the still hush of a world immersed in a terrible winter. The moon was a small roundel of silver ice in a sky that was clear and glittered with the frozen light of a million stars. The Kommandant of Oflag IVc stood in the town of Colditz, glancing back at the house he had just left before gazing up at the implacable façade of what he knew would be his last command. The night reflected the state of his soul - frozen into immobility, bereft of feeling or purpose. A breeze blew suddenly, disturbing the stillness, sharp fingers of ice working through his greatcoat and uniform to send a chill across the flesh beneath. Wearily he conceded that it was foolish to stand there, and yet stood some moments more before he could summon enough energy to begin a slow, halting walk back to his prison.
He had spent the previous six hours sitting by the bedside of a friend, watching and waiting while the man had descended from a little coherent speech through sleep to coma and death: sat quietly, dependable even unto the final fence where he had to turn back while his friend went on ahead. Not all of him had made the journey back, he thought. Some part of his soul still remained there, waiting until he made his own final journey.
Considering the pain that had dogged Willi Schaeffer's last months his eventual release had been blessedly pain-free and Karl had, for a few brief moments, witnessed the wicked twinkle he had so often seen in the man's eyes. His halting walk stopped while he wrestled with his emotions.
Willi had been such a part of his life for so long that the thought of carrying on without his presence was almost too much to bear. For some years the man had been steadily sinking, alcohol taking him in its merciless grip and finding an easy victim in the desperately disillusioned man who saw Hitler for what he was, saw too his beloved country once again being drawn into a conflict which could so easily tear it apart until wounds were inflicted which might never heal. He had watched, helpless, as his friend had retreated, relying more and more on alcohol, able to protect the man from others but never from himself. He shut his eyes suddenly. It had taken so long for Willi's body to die, but his soul and his spirit had departed many years before.
In the bitter night he stood, remembering. Before him now he saw Willi as he had first known him; upright, blond, arrogant, ridiculously handsome, with a raffish air that suggested a character in defiance of all authority. As Willi looked so he acted, setting the military academy by its ears and leaving it with a hundred legends - only a few of which were apocryphal - to entertain and intrigue students for years to come. Willi Schaeffer came from a good, well-connected family; too good and too well-connected to allow the authorities to do what they dearly wished, to dismiss the insubordinate and, worse, idealistic student.
Willi: picturing him there, so vibrant, so alive, he tried not to think of the sodden hulk he had become. Fiercely, the Kommandant tore himself away from the images his memory insisted on sending. The cold had bitten deep into him, almost meeting the ice in his soul and freezing him completely. Surprised, he touched a gloved hand to his face, only then realising that he had shed tears. Grimly, he wiped them away. Whatever had happened to Willi in the past had no bearing on the present. He no longer shared the man's ideals and no longer believed that a world without war was even a remote possibility. Perhaps at the very beginning he had been more of an idealist than Schaeffer until together they had been thrust, still children in many ways, into the bloody, senseless 'war to end all wars'. At the tragic end he had believed the promises of his elders, content to accept even defeat should it realise that dream. Willi had read every word he could and had followed the spite and malice that was finally called the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty had been drawn up by the victorious with Germany not permitted to participate. Its terms had included punitive claims for war damages as well as removing territory, the right to bear arms, and the loss of the great industrial areas to the control of the vanquishers. On the day it was signed Willi had raged around the room, railing at all the old men who had taken the new world, bought at the cost of the best of their generation, and reshaped it: reshaped it in the image of the past and redolent of the old cancers which the youth of the world believed had been cut out and destroyed by their sacrifice. His bitterness had known no end, and on that day Willi Schaeffer had begun his descent into darkness - a disintegration which had taken over twenty years to complete. In his anger and despair he had uttered a dire prophesy. Standing on the only table in the room, his voice now quiet, he had held them spellbound, horrified; telling them all that in bitterness and hate Germany would rise from the ashes and there would be war once again. In a hoarse whisper he had delivered his final sentence before lapsing into a silence which lasted weeks.
The memory of the words which had ended his diatribe slipped into the Oberst's mind.
'I pray to the Gods, Karl, for death before that day."
But death had not taken him soon enough. He had lived to see that nightmare realised.
Sighing, Karl once again resumed his interrupted walk, resolutely fixing his eyes on the brooding structure above him, turning his mind to the here and now. The following afternoon his new second-in-command would arrive to take up his duties. Willi's impending death had left him little time or energy for much beyond the most urgent of camp business; he had been only peripherally aware at the time of how much of the burden his security officer had taken from him.
Ulmann. Karl's thoughts turned finally from the dead to the living; calling to mind the tall, broad shouldered figure of the man who had, for many months, been standing in as his second-in-command. Briefly he wondered if Ulmann had known about Willi - and then smiled, albeit grimly. Of course he had known. Ulmann knew almost everything that happened, not only in the castle but in the town of Colditz too. It was the only way he could explain the way the man had almost taken over the day to day running of the camp over the past weeks.
And now he had to tell Ulmann that his loyalty would go unrewarded. While the security officer had been told about the new second-in-command he was as yet unaware that his Kommandant had not even considered him for promotion. Willi's final illness had almost taken over his life and he had delayed telling Ulmann, realising that he himself was in no fit state to deal with the backlash of disappointment and anger which could conceivably, and justifiably, be his response. Now, though, he must tell him. He must explain.
He had reached the castle at last. Taking the salute at the outer gate he stalked, a lonely, solitary figure, into the yard. Quietly he summoned the Duty Officer to him and asked for Hauptmann Ulmann's presence in his office immediately. That done he limped wearily across the yard, heading for the Kommandantur and unaware of the man standing at the window above. When the summons came, Ulmann was ready.
The Kommandant removed his cap and greatcoat, moving haltingly to the tray on the bureau by the window. He poured a full measure of schnapps and disposed of it in one swift swallow, closing his eyes briefly as the spirit coursed through his body and hit his stomach, sending an illusory warmth to the chill heart of him. His hand hovered by the bottle for a moment before he resolutely rammed the stopper home. Instead, he moved to the telephone on the ornate desk and ordered coffee to be sent in. Not that there was any real coffee to be had, he thought ruefully. It was months since he had tasted anything but ersatz coffee, made from acorns and tasting nothing at all like its namesake. Still, he shrugged philosophically, it was hot and wet - and was not alcohol.
While waiting for Ulmann to arrive he glanced at the sheaf of daily reports awaiting his signature, seeing his security officer's hand in them all. Without reading any he signed them and then sat, still and silent, gazing around at the office. He had grown so used to its confines that he had almost forgotten what it looked like.
The pale blue walls were restful, lending the room an aura of faded splendour. A massive bureau sat between the two sets of doors, its ornately carved doors hiding shelves stuffed with books, many of which were old favourites. The doors leading to his private apartment had the map of Europe to the left and he sighed, remembering the days when he and his aide - he struggled for a moment to remember the man's name - had faithfully listened to the radio broadcasts each day, sticking in the pins which heralded another advance, another victory by the glorious armies of the Thousand Year Reich. He gazed thoughtfully at it for a moment, pondering on the folly of man, before continuing his leisurely survey. Behind him under the single sash window stood a table covered with old family photographs and to its right the bureau on which his drinks tray resided. A cheerful fire was providing the room's only heating in a fireplace which filled most of the final wall, and a comfortable armchair covered in faded chintz was close by.
Dominating the room and facing the doors which led to the outside office was the large desk at which he sat; its bulk almost overpowering - a beautifully inlaid monstrosity with its gilt desk-set. Finally his eyes softened as they rested on the photograph of a handsome young man resplendent in his Luftwaffe uniform - his son, Erich.
The sound of knuckles rapping against solid wood made him jump, realising from the impatience in the sound that the gesture was being repeated.
"Come in," he called, watching as Ulmann entered the room and not missing the intense look which was bestowed upon him. He was closely followed by the mess orderly carrying a tray. No words were spoken until the man had deposited his burden and retired.
"Please sit down, Ulmann."
The Kommandant waited until the tall man fetched a chair, watching as it was placed with meticulous care before he removed his cap and sat down.
Another rapid, intense gaze swept over him and Ulmann asked. "The Major...?"
"Died an hour ago," Karl's voice was brusque, abrupt to the point of rudeness, knowing he could not speak of it yet.
A piercing blue gaze caught the Kommandant's eyes for a moment and briefly Ulmann murmured, "I am sorry, sir," before changing the subject. "You wished to see me, sir."
Karl was grateful for his tact and silence and yet in some way wished that Ulmann had blundered on and pushed him until the floodgates opened, giving him an excuse to let go. Horrified, he stifled the thought and concentrated with fierce determination on the task of dispensing the coffee.
As he fussed over the cups he mentally reviewed the friendship he shared with his junior officer. From a beginning where all their encounters had been correct to the point of coldness their meetings had eased, each time seeming to draw them closer together as the ties which held them in the castle slowly encircled and tightened around them. They both took their duty seriously and though they never discussed it Karl knew their thoughts on Hitler, National Socialism and the war ran on very similar lines. Both intended to carry out their duty to the best of their ability, whatever their personal feelings on the ignominious position of being warders to men who had, like themselves, only been doing their duty. He poured the coffee, watching the thick brown liquid fall steaming and pungent, into the fine china cups and his thoughts turned momentarily to their charges. After more than two years he had steadily built up good relations with all the senior officers in his keeping but knew that he felt closest to the cool, aristocratic figure of the British Colonel. In turn he knew, too, that Ulmann's concern for the officers under his eagle eye went much further than simply ensuring that they stayed inside the castle walls. More than once, when the cells were - albeit rarely - quiet, he had signed orders for men assigned to a few days in solitary confinement who had done nothing worse than suddenly find themselves unable to cope with the never-ending hustle and bustle around them. Karl had never questioned those requests, knowing only too well that the tall man would point to the overall security of the camp as his excuse. Karl knew better. He recognised innate compassion when he saw it. His mind having travelled full circle, he placed one cup on the other side of the desk before settling himself.
He smiled slightly, appreciating the way Ulmann sat silently waiting for the Oberst to speak. Of the few things he had learned about the ex-insurance manager, one was that as a companion he was restful. His presence never seemed to intrude but was always a gentle experience. He shook himself free of his mental rambling and back to the matter in hand.
"So, our new second-in-command arrives tomorrow."
"Apparently he received his most recent wounds near Stalingrad - a bayonet in the stomach. He is something of a hero. You may even have heard of him - Major Horst Mohn."
"Indeed, sir. He was awarded the Knight's Cross with oak leaves. A very brave man."
Karl raised an eyebrow. It was so seldom Ulmann made personal remarks that his comment on Mohn's bravery almost amounted to open admiration.
"Yes, well, we will have to do our best to help him settle in. I suspect that he will not find it easy."
"You may be assured, sir, that I will do my best."
It was on the tip of the older man's tongue to remark that Ulmann never produced anything less than that but he swallowed the words, aware of the direction the remainder of this interview must follow. Suddenly uneasy the Kommandant stood and moved to the window, staring through into the darkness beyond. Without turning he said, casually. "You have not asked me why you were not promoted."
He returned to his seat, eyes fixed on Ulmann's face, seeing a sudden confusion that was quickly masked.
"I did not think it was my place..." he began, his voice fading at the expression which settled on the Kommandant's features.
"You have carried out extra duties capably, without complaint, for months, including covering for your senior officer over several weeks," his raised hand forestalled the younger man when he would have interrupted, "and yes, Hauptmann, I am fully aware of what you have done for me." It was as close to an apology or a 'thank you' as he dared to come at that point, with pain so fresh still threatening his control. "If it is not your place to question, I do not know whose place it is." He paused for a moment, assessing the wary expression which faced him. Bluntly, he presented the bald truth.
"Ulmann, I did not recommend your promotion to this post even though you have carried out all the extra duties of second-in-command in an exemplary fashion." He met the blue gaze steadily. "You were appointed here as security officer for very good reasons. With both prominente and high risk prisoners confined within the castle, someone of your undoubted talents was required - and will still be required. What I am saying, Hauptmann, is that while any other officer could in all honesty fulfill the post of second-in-command, I believe that for the post of security officer you are the only suitable candidate. I have made this decision and the reasons for it clear to OKW. A notification to this effect has also been entered onto your record."
Ulmann stared at him for a moment, unable to grasp whether he was winning or losing by the Kommandant's actions. He met the grey eyes and in their expression of anxiety and respect he found his answer. The warmth of that regard was unsettling, pushing him into speech.
"Thank you, sir. Is there anything else?" He placed his half-full cup on the desk and reached for his cap.
With an exasperated sigh the Kommandant stood again, moving to the window to gaze sightlessly out at the parkland. His pose was habitual, one hand behind his back, palm uppermost.
Ulmann remained seated, waiting he was sure for some mild reprimand.
Unbelievably the man turned and smiled - a gentle, almost teasing twist of his lips, if the Hauptmann could really accept what his eyes were telling him.
"Willi said I would have trouble with you," he remarked softly and the seated man felt a sudden rush of colour wash his skin.
"I am sorry, sir." His own inability to deal with the ebb and flow of emotions suddenly irritated Ulmann. He could sense the pain and loss the other man was suffering but had no idea how to offer comfort or what solace he could possibly provide. All his life he had struggled to find suitable words to express innermost thoughts and more often than not he had failed. Even success, though rare, was always dearly bought. He was uncomfortable with emotions and yet - and he wondered at the dichotomy - comfortable in the presence of this man. He had known from the first that his senior officer was a deeply emotional man; he had witnessed both great anger and great compassion within his first few days. It had been a relief to discover that the Kommandant used the emotion but did not let it rule him. The security officer had envied him that ability and had admired his sensitive handling of Willi Schaeffer. In the months that followed he had shown the same quality in his dealings with all the men in his command, opening Ulmann to the recognition that his emotions were part of what made him such a good leader. He knew that many, including himself, would follow the man wherever he led - even into death. That realisation hit him like a thunderbolt, draining the warm colour, leaving him chalk-white. It was a moment of truth. He had known almost from the first that here was someone he could like as well as respect. To know that he had gone beyond that to an acknowledgement of the commitment that respect could demand was shocking. He stared blindly ahead, his mind full of the implications of this sudden knowledge, aware now that he was emotionally as well as intellectually involved with this man and seeing him as a friend instead of simply a colleague.
His expression had not altered, still granite-carved, but the change in his colour had not gone unnoticed.
"Are you quite well, Ulmann?"
The solicitous tone brought him back to earth, "Yes, sir. I am sorry - I did not hear what you said."
"No," replied the Kommandant, his tone dry, "So I see." He continued without further comment. "I would not like you to feel that you had in some way been passed over -"
"Sir," Ulmann was anxious to break in, "I was more than content with my duties as security officer. I am happy to resume that position. I trust I will continue to serve you in that capacity to your satisfaction." He almost visibly winced, hearing the words, knowing how stilted they sounded and how insincere - yet he truly meant every word.
The Kommandant's mouth twitched slightly. "How long have we known one another now, Ulmann?"
"A little over two years, sir," His tone was puzzled.
"Long enough to be frank with one another, I think, hmm?"
"Yes, sir," The reply was cautious, the slight hesitation not lost on the Oberst although the only acknowledgement was another quickly suppressed smile.
"I appreciate your loyalty and the work you do here at Colditz. I am aware that you have gained not only the respect of your fellow officers but also of the prisoners. Let me finish," as Ulmann would have tried to interrupt, clearly ill-at-ease with this praise. "You are a very self-contained man and I know you do not make friends easily, but I feel that you and I have become more than colleagues." He paused as Ulmann shifted, not knowing that he had just echoed the Hauptmann's own thoughts. "I want you to be aware that your access to this office will not be restricted by the Major. I realise that it is a requirement for a Security Officer. You have my permission to disturb me at any time should you deem it necessary, without reference to the chain of command. I shall make this clear to the Major. And I hope," he paused, appreciating Ulmann's dislike of emotional display and choosing his words carefully, "that you realise that stands for any personal matters which you feel you need to discuss." Quickly he reverted to business. "You will in any case have to continue making daily reports to me in person. I suggest that we conduct those immediately before dinner each evening. That is all, Hauptmann."
"Sir." Ulmann unfolded his long body from the chair, putting on his cap. He returned the chair to its original resting place, turning briefly at the door to stand at attention for a moment and making his escape from the office. His mind was reeling, aware that as he pulled the door shut behind him a pair of thoughtful grey eyes had rested on his face.
The shrill peal of the telephone roused the Kommandant from his contemplation of the files before him. With impatience he grasped the receiver.
"Yes," he barked. A night peopled by ghosts and punctuated by only fitful dozes had eroded much of his usually hard-won calm. His humour was not improved by the news that his new second-in-command had arrived three hours early. "Send him in. And ask Hauptmann Ulmann to report to my office immediately " With mounting irritation he glanced distastefully at the pile of work before pushing it to one side, standing up wearily and pausing to don his cap as he waited for the door to open and admit this new, unknown quantity.
When it did he thought for a moment his heart had stopped beating, as if he had been faced with some ghost of his past. The young man who stood before him, handsome, pale and slender in the flattering uniform of the Luftwaffe, was so like the mental picture he held of the last time he had seen his son. Desperately he gathered the remnants of his self-control, returning the sharp Nazi salute and pushing all thoughts of his son from his mind as he sat down, determined to weigh this individual on his own merits rather than on any imagined similarities. The Major was self-assured, clearly aware of his own importance and position. The Kommandant noted how carefully he complied with his courteous invitation to be seated, the pallor and lines of pain around eyes and mouth a fitting testimony to the fact that the decorations liberally bedecking his uniform had been earned the hard way. He was a professional, dedicated to the Fatherland and, the Kommandant suspected, to the ideals of National Socialism and the Führer. Willi, he knew instinctively, would have hated him on sight.
"Major Mohn. Welcome to Colditz. You have been very ill, I hear. I hope you are truly fit for your duties. Conditions here are not always the most comfortable."
A half-smile touched the young man's face. "Believe me, sir, after the Russian Front I shall be quite comfortable here."
"Good, good, I'm sure you will soon settle down. This interview is simply to introduce ourselves. We will meet again tomorrow to enable me to brief you fully on your duties," He paused for a moment, choosing his next words carefully. "You will find that we work to maintain a delicate balance in Colditz. We must be firm but we must also be fair and remember that our...um...wards are not criminals but soldiers, like ourselves..."
Mohn interrupted abruptly. "With due respect, sir," he began, the Kommandant not at all sure that there was any respect in the harsh tone, "they are prisoners. They are provided with an adequate diet and recreational facilities and are, in fact, well-treated. Beyond that surely there is no necessity to go. Those who attempt to escape should be severely punished. There should be no doubt as to who is in control..." Something in the older man's eye stemmed his flow.
"Nor is there," commented the Oberst mildly, thankfully changing the subject as a discreet tap sounded at the door. "Hauptmann Ulmann, our security officer, has responsibility for ensuring that the prisoners remain within the walls."
As Ulmann entered Mohn remarked; "Not a responsibility he has undertaken with great success, it seems. Or I would not be here." His voice was cool and insolent.
Karl's eyes flew to the tall man's face, realising that he could not have avoided either hearing or understanding the acid remark. The granite face was expressionless but the greeting he gave the new officer was cool, the Kommandant recognising Ulmann at his most correct. His heart sank as he realised that all the bricks he had managed to dislodge from the wall surrounding Ulmann were once more in place. If anything, the barrier was higher. With a feeling of personal disappointment he could not quite explain allied to a sense of impending doom he tried to lighten the tense, frigid atmosphere.
"Hauptmann Ulmann will be responsible for helping you to settle in, showing you around, introducing you to the other officers and so on... I hope you will join me this evening for dinner in the Mess - it will give us all a chance to get to know one another."
"I will be grateful to the Hauptmann," Mohn replied, his voice silky. "I am sure this is a duty he can carry out with some success."
The venom in the reply left the Kommandant speechless, seeing a fire leap to life in Ulmann's eyes and knowing that in some way he was partially responsible for the attack because he had not reacted to Mohn's earlier slur. He felt his expression harden as he replied.
"You have not been among us long enough, Major, to appreciate the difficulties under which we operate. I am sure that when you do, you will appreciate the Hauptmann's abilities as much as I do. Hauptmann, perhaps you would be good enough to wait outside for a few moments, and then conduct the Major to his quarters."
When Ulmann had left, Karl considered the young officer before him. His thoughtful gaze clearly had some effect on the Major as colour seared his pallid features for a moment, and he shifted in his seat.
"You have just arrived, Major," he began, charitably, "and while our difficulties cannot compare with those you have undergone on the Russian Front they are difficulties nonetheless. We will do a much better job collectively," and he stressed the word, "and as individuals, if we remember that we are all on the same side. I will not tolerate petty bickering among my officers. Is that quite clear?"
"Quite clear, sir. I am sorry if my plain speaking offended you."
"Thank you, Major. I will see you at dinner." He put on his spectacles, pulling a file towards him, and to all intents and purposes he had already dismissed the man from his mind. After Mohn left, however, he gave up the pretence of work, staring moodily at the door. He had realised, as he had worked to calm the situation which he could see developing, and more importantly to cool the fire he sensed building within his Security Officer, that Mohn must have seen Ulmann's record. There could be no other explanation for the immediate and obvious distaste. It was the record of a man in perfect health who was not in a combat unit. The roots of the antipathy were all too clear and the Kommandant felt his heart sink into his boots, remembering his own reaction at Ulmann's arrival. After asking him to touch his toes and testing his eyesight he had made a particular point of remarking on the unusual step OKW had taken in assigning Ulmann to Colditz. He had quickly learned to appreciate the tall man's abilities but knew already that Mohn would never accept him as a man of worth. The glowing recommendations on the record, the Hauptmann's own frequent requests for transfer to a fighting unit - always flatly refused - would cut no ice with the Major. Ulmann had not fought, had not been injured in the struggle, had not suffered. Karl's own addition to the record would probably not have helped matters - his handwritten note praising Ulmann and stating forefully that his talents as security officer should not be squandered by putting him into a post that could be carried out by any competent officer. Ruefully, he realised that he had contributed to Mohn's attitude.
With another grimace of distaste he pulled the pile of reports towards him. Whatever his other problems, and they seemed to press in upon him now, the administration of the camp must be attended to. Apart from any other consideration there must be no lapse which might lead to the Wehrmacht being accused of negligence in the command of Oflag IVc. Always the SS were sitting on the fence like vultures ready to take over. Uncomfortably, Karl now had the distinct feeling that, with the arrival of Major Horst Mohn, they already had a foothold in Colditz.
It took the new second-in-command only hours to become universally loathed throughout the camp. By the time he had spoken to the senior officers and made his views known there was not a prisoner in Colditz who would have extended a hand had they discovered him drowning. To Ulmann, as he toured Colditz carrying out the introductions, the change in atmosphere was almost a palpable thing. Mohn's particular prejudices soon showed themselves. He displayed insolence and distaste on meeting the Senior French Officer and his men which provided a clear indication of his thoughts about the defeated French. The Major expounded his theories to Ulmann as they walked across the yard.
"Can you imagine Germans acting in such a way - surrendering, allowing their country to be invaded? We would fight to the death - every man, woman and child - before we permitted such an outrage."
Ulmann decided to exercise his normal caution and did not mention the aftermath of the Great War when Germany had been partitioned, deprived of its industrial areas and the means to retrieve its self-respect. As they continued Ulmann confined himself to naming the officers they passed, impressing Mohn with his knowledge of the men and their backgrounds. He did not want to be impressed and was annoyed at himself, taking the earliest opportunity to contradict him. When Ulmann explained about the odds facing prisoners who tried to escape, trying to get the man to see that because of the small number of guards on duty at any one time they actually favoured the inmates, Mohn contradicted flatly.
"You forget, Hauptmann. The guards are German."
It was on the tip of the tall man's tongue to remark that the guards were men with very human failings, but caution again restrained him. In the meantime, Mohn's attention had already been caught by Flight Lieutenant Carter. The man was sitting reading a letter which had seen better days. His ankle, injured during an earlier escape attempt, was stretched out before him, his stick by his side. Mohn moved towards him.
True to his general behaviour Carter was curt and insolent in his replies to Mohn's conversational sallies. The man was intent on his letter, clearly irritated by the interruption - all the more so when it came from a German. Mohn's parting remark suggesting that Carter was not one of Britain's heroes was supposed to be heard, and Ulmann was sure that it had been.
Mohn's initial dislike of Carter hardened into an implacable persecution over the days that followed. The new officer took a sadistic delight in tormenting the Englishman which Ulmann found impossible to understand, and he watched with increasing disquiet and distaste until the situation finally came to a head. Ulmann had been surveying the scene from the window of his office as Mohn entered the yard. The day was reasonably fine, comfortable enough to be in the open air as long as one was occupied. Some of the British, Carter among them, were tossing a ball idly to and fro - not enough to expend a great deal of energy but enough to maintain a level of warmth. Mohn was standing by the gateway looking around, his eyes skimming over the French class in one corner, to the chess match in another, over the various knots of men and the single occupants engaged in their solitary pursuits. Eventually his gaze lighted on the ball players and it seemed to Ulmann that Mohn must have been specifically looking for Carter as he set off purposefully towards the small group.
There was a moment of still as Mohn joined the group, a hiccup before the game continued but even from Ulmann's distant view he could sense the change in atmosphere which had taken place. What happened next Ulmann blamed on Carter's stupidity as much as Mohn vindictiveness. Somehow the German managed to become involved in the game and immediately it became dangerous, as the watching man realised was only too clear to the British prisoners. Around the courtyard the solitary men looked up from letters or books, the chess match was forgotten, the French master silent as all eyes turned to watch a war in microcosm.
The German threw the ball, deliberately pitching it wide and the Flight Lieutenant, instead of having the wit to ignore it and treat it with contempt, tried to catch it. The movement was too much for his ankle and he collapsed to the ground, obviously in agony. The remaining officers clustered around Carter, eventually lifting him and moving towards the sick bay, studiously ignoring the gloating figure who had precipitated the incident. Mohn watched while they carried him away, apparently satisfied by the result of his actions and unaware of the hostile looks from the silent ranks of the remaining prisoners. The tension in the castle rose another notch, Ulmann noticing it as a palpable tightening in the air on his next trip around the yard. The delicate balance the Kommandant tried so hard to maintain had been tipped - only slightly, but enough to make a difference - and he wondered with some concern what exactly could be done to retrieve the situation.
The Kommandant glanced up as the Stabsarzt entered the room, his attention arrested by the angry expression on the usually benign features.
"Doctor Hoffner," he began cautiously. "Something has upset you." It was not a question.
Without preamble the man launched in. "Indeed, Herr Oberst. I have this afternoon, received a visit from Doctor Merriman. Flight Lieutenant Carter's ankle has been injured again - apparently, it seems, due to the actions of your second-in-command."
The Kommandant was not sure he appreciated the implication of ownership in Hoffner's words but decided that it was a trivial point in what was a strong and possibly justified complaint against one of his officers.
"This man is not suited to this position. The Flight Lieutenant has always been of concern to the medical profession in Colditz. He is quite often on the borderline of clinical depression. Any event which can be seen as a reverse pushes him further back. The Major has no understanding of the situation in which these men find themselves, and in my opinion he is unlikely to achieve it. I strongly suggest that he is transferred to another position."
Karl considered the man for a moment before deciding that the only way to deal with Mohn was to maintain the excellent relations he enjoyed with his other senior officers. He could not ignore the man but he could attempt to limit the damage.
"I am afraid that is not possible." He spoke bluntly, then explained. "I agree with your assessment of the Major's suitability. This afternoon I had a visit from General Schaetzel and made the same suggestion to him. It appears that Major Mohn has extremely high connections - he is a personal friend of Bormann and has access to Hitler." He stopped, knowing from the expression on Hoffner's face that the man had appreciated the situation fully.
"So he stays," the doctor muttered.
"He stays," confirmed the Kommandant, "However," he continued, "I am in command of this camp and he will follow orders." He picked up the telephone receiver. "Ask Major Mohn to come to my office - immediately."
The two men waited in silence until the Major arrived. The Kommandant did not invite him to sit, considering him gravely for a few calculated moments before beginning.
"I am concerned, Major, by your attitude to certain of the prisoners in our charge. Specifically, the case of Flight Lieutenant Carter."
The Major interrupted. "I assume Colonel Preston has complained, sir. I expected he would. Flight Lieutenant Carter is weak..." He got no further before Hoffner broke in.
"Colonel Preston did not complain. In fact, the Flight Lieutenant has been reprimanded for his actions. I brought the complaint."
The Kommandant almost laughed at the expression of shock on Mohn's face, realising now that the man had not expected any resistance from the other officers at Colditz. And he knew why. Well, he thought grimly, he was going to have that illusion shattered immediately.
Coolly, he spoke. "I am well aware, Major, of your standing in certain parts of the Reich. Let me inform you, however, that I am in command at Colditz and have every intention of running this camp as I deem correct. To that effect, may I...suggest...that you have as little to do with Flight Lieutenant Carter as possible - and that includes your forays to the censor's office. Do I make myself completely clear, Major?"
Any reply the Major might have made was forestalled by a quiet tap at the door and the Kommandant, glancing at his watch, realised who it was. "Herein,"
The door opened to admit Ulmann carrying a sheaf of daily reports. His expression as he saw the tableau before him remained wooden, though his eyes settled briefly and intently on the Kommandant's face.
"If you are busy, sir..." he began.
Karl raised a hand. "We had finished. Do you understand my orders, Major?" He asked the question mildly enough but the edge of steel underlay the words.
In the face of Ulmann's presence Mohn decided to say nothing though his eyes were full of fire. "I do, sir."
When the young man had left the atmosphere lightened perceptibly. Hoffner picked up his cap, saying quietly. "Thank you, Karl. But I fear you have made a dangerous enemy."
The Kommandant shrugged. "I have some highly placed friends myself - though the Major does not know that. And I have good friends in Colditz, too." His voice had taken on warmth as he smiled at them both but all three knew that Mohn was a threat to them that had to be taken seriously.
Ulmann recalled Mohn's first meeting with the Senior British Officer. His parting words to Colonel Preston had hinted at a toughening of the regime and Ulmann knew them to be true. For all the inmates at Colditz - not just the prisoners - life would never be quite the same again.
January - March 1943
The winter continued in its bleak and bitter course, the depression of endless weeks when no sun ever seemed to dawn affecting prisoner and jailer alike. The war was at a stalemate; the German army was halted in Russia but for long weeks none of the parties involved was in possession of any great advantage. Those amongst the German complement who were far-sighted could already see that the failure of Operation Barbarossa had signed the death warrant of the Thousand Year Reich. Such thoughts were kept to themselves, however, as all the senior officers were wary of the pale, brooding presence of the Luftwaffe Major. Horst Mohn remained insistent that Stalingrad was a set-back and maintained his unshakeable, fanatical belief in the right of the Master Race to sweep across Europe. Others were no longer so certain. Morale dropped, bribery of guards by prisoners was rife and laxity in security procedures became an ever increasing problem for the camp security officer.
Ulmann could see signs of all this as he crossed the inner courtyard. His own mood was sombre and he could see its counterpart everywhere he looked, among the guards or the prisoners. As he continued his steady progress he saw the form of the Senior British Officer. He hesitated, wondering if he should first impart his news to this man but decided against it, knowing he could do so later. Instead he saluted as he passed, adhering strictly to the rules of military etiquette, and paused for a moment to pass a comment about the imminent danger of a game of stoolball commencing at the other end of the small yard. For once it was a day free of frost or snow and the courtyard was full of men trying to get a little fresh air. It was too cold to stand still for long, however, and he acknowledged privately that the game would expend energy and keep them warm though no doubt the doctor would have new cases to deal with by the end of it. As usual Colonel Preston was correct in his dealings with the enemy and almost pleasant. Ulmann had come to expect nothing more nor less than that and was content with it, knowing that it was all Preston could offer whatever he may feel.
The officer for whom he was searching was not in the courtyard and he moved on once more, walking to a doorway and nearly flattened as Tim Downing and George Brent came bowling out of the door.
"Sorry, Hauptmann," The dark man called back cheerfully before hurtling off to join the fray.
More cautiously this time Ulmann passed through,, walking slowly and silently up the steps to one of the few quiet spots available to the prisoners. He was aware that Lieutenant Player and Flight Lieutenant Carrington had often spent time in this quiet niche and was quite sure that the man he sought would be here now.
Obviously startled by the silent arrival of the Abwehr officer, Player turned quickly and looked into the Hauptmann's serious face. There was an uneasy silence for a brief moment before Ulmann, catching sight of the distinctive lines on the page of a book, asked abruptly,
"What are you reading?"
Player stared blankly at him for a moment before answering, "An English Poet. Francis Thompson."
"May I see?"
Without much enthusiasm the Englishman handed the volume over and Ulmann felt the clear blue eyes resting on him as he read the lines.
I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
And shot precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
And unperturbed pace,
More instant than the Feet -
'All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.'
Ulmann considered the words, recognising some of the feelings and pain in them, and found himself surprised at the understanding. He met Player's gaze squarely, unaware of the sympathy that was openly displayed on his face. Their eyes caught and held for a moment before the Englishman broke the eye contact, accepting the book from Ulmann's outstretched hand.
"You didn't find me to discuss literature, Hauptmann. Is there something I can do for you?"
The German wanted to be anywhere but there at that moment. He could see how tense the slight frame was and knew that the Lieutenant must have a very clear idea why he had come to him now. Taking a breath he delivered the news without frills, without excuses, but the deep regret he felt was evident.
"Pilot Officer Muir died last night. I am very sorry."
There was a long silence, then a sigh breathed out gently.
It was hardly a curse, so softly spoken that it barely reached Ulmann's ears. He hesitated for a moment then turned to leave but stopped again as the young man's voice sounded, bitterness in every syllable.
"Do we count this as a home run, Hauptmann… or do you count it as an escape successfully averted?"
For a brief moment Ulmann remembered Peter Muir; recalling him as a fresh-faced youngster who was still like a boy in many respects. But he was a boy who had shown the grit and determination to win his way out of the fortress, to travel across Germany with Player and so nearly reach the sanctuary of Switzerland. The bullet wound he had sustained on recapture together with the inherent weakness of a system which had spent two years in Colditz had undoubtedly led to his death. Ulmann could find no joy in the knowledge that a fine young man had died.
Quietly but with sincerity he answered. "It is neither, Lieutenant. It is a tragedy."
The blond head snapped up, two pairs of blue eyes meeting once more. With a voice still loaded with the acidity of grief and self-blame, Player spoke again.
"Hell of a way for a man - a soldier - to go home. In a coffin."
There was nothing Ulmann could say to that, his own half-shrug and hand movement eloquent enough. How could he sympathise openly with this man's grief, though sympathise he did, when they were enemies? Suddenly he was conscious that Player was watching him, his eyes appraising.
"What happens to him now?" The question was stark and startled Ulmann from his continuing introspection.
"OKW has informed the protecting power. The Swiss authorities will inform the British High Command and they will inform his family."
"I'd like to write," Player asserted abruptly, his tone of voice almost a challenge.
"Very well. We have his family address. I will make it available to you." Ulmann looked in concern at the slight figure, watching as Player nodded his thanks wearily and turned back to the window. His pale face had lost what little colour it had and the skin stretched over the bones, reminding the German of the way he had looked once the fever that had accompanied the pneumonia had broken. An enquiry as to his well-being hesitated on the tip of Ulmann's tongue but he did not utter it, knowing it was unlikely to be welcome.
"Pilot Officer Muir's body…"
"Peter." Player did not even turn.
"I beg your pardon?" nonplussed, the German paused.
"His name was Peter. He's not an enemy any more, is he?"
Quietly he answered. "No. He will be buried in the churchyard in the town. I will inform Colonel Preston." In his own mind he had already decided to ask the Kommandant to allow a few of the British Officers, on parole, to attend the burial but he made no mention of it. He was almost certain that the Oberst would agree but knew the suggestion should come from the Kommandant to the Senior British Officer.
He hesitated, his eyes fixed on Player's fine chiselled profile, astute enough to know that for the moment the man's thoughts were not centred on Peter Muir alone. Ulmann reviewed the escape in his mind, thinking of Grant and Carrington. The Germans knew enough of escape procedures to be sure that escapees generally travelled in pairs. In this case two pairs of comrades had left Colditz. Knowing how close Carrington and Player were he was surprised that they had not made up one of the pairs. If that had been so, he reasoned silently, then he could just have informed Player about the death of his… Ulmann took a sharp inward breath, cutting off the thought that occurred to him before it could take form and so have to be acknowledged. Now he felt he knew what fuelled Player's present bitterness. Not only was he angry that Peter Muir was dead, he was carrying his own load of guilt because he was glad it was not Carrington. Fresh understanding could not help, however, and there was nothing he could possibly say to the blond man. All he could do was to leave him in peace to come to terms with the feelings which so obviously beset him. He turned away, leaving the Englishman to begin mourning.
On his way to find Colonel Preston, Ulmann was stopped by Major Mohn.
The tall man saluted, waiting warily for the second-in-command's comments, orders - or criticisms. He knew better than to expect any plaudits.
Mohn's dislike of the French prisoners had not dissipated and, having been warned to stay away from Simon Carter, he had found them an adequate alternative. His obvious contempt had sparked several of the junior officers and men into betraying an attitude which, to Ulmann's mind, was not conducive to the peaceful operation of a POW camp. He had also discovered that Mohn had no respect for him either as a man or a fellow officer, or for his methods. Ulmann was unwilling to approach the Kommandant about it, having learned from a recent conversation that the Oberst had tried and failed to have Mohn removed. The young man had powerful friends. The Kommandant's edict that Ulmann was to have unlimited access to his presence had been tested on the Major's very first duty. Mohn had attempted to set up procedures which would have ensured that all contact with the camp commander had to be through his office - specifically, Ulmann thought, to exclude the security officer from the chain of command. He mulled that thought over for a moment, realising that Mohn must perceive him as a threat to attempt such an action as soon as he arrived. He recalled the faces of the SS personnel when he had averted their planned takeover of the castle and was certain who had provided Mohn with his information. Ulmann was astute enough to realise that if the Major had succeeded then the inevitable conclusion would have been the replacement of the Oberst by Mohn. That the Kommandant had immediately and categorically averted this had infuriated the Luftwaffe man who, it appeared, had not counted on the personal loyalty which the senior officer commanded among his men. Clearly he had not appreciated the deep respect which existed between the Kommandant and his security officer. Ulmann continued to provide daily reports directly to the Oberst and Mohn's attempt to divide and conquer the Wehrmacht had failed. The thought of Mohn in charge of Colditz almost made the tall man shudder visibly, contemplating the bedlam which would have ensued had the scheme worked. His respect for the Kommandant took another leap as he accepted that he had instantly recognised Mohn's motives and strategy.
Ulmann saluted sharply as Mohn approached. The thoughts passed in a moment, his face remaining expressionless while he waited for the Major to speak, the younger man in complete ignorance of the sudden lift in Ulmann's spirits.
Without preamble the attack began.
"I assume from certain scurrilous rumours concerning our Russian campaign that an illegal wireless is in operation in this camp."
"And have you, Ulmann, made no attempt to find this wireless?" The voice was silky smooth.
Ulmann by contrast was at his most wooden. "On several occasions, sir. Without success."
"Indeed," the tone switched to the mocking timbre the tall man was quickly learning to hate. "Well, well - that does surprise me. I have arranged an inspection of the French quarters in thirty minutes."
"Yes, sir." A spark of life flared within the security officer, though he allowed no sign of it to show, sure that Mohn's effort was as unlikely to bear fruit as his own had been. With a certain maliciousness he had always believed missing from his character he offered, "Do you wish me to be present, sir?"
"Of course, Hauptmann."
He seemed about to elaborate but Ulmann had endured enough, snapping to attention and saluting, apparently believing he had been dismissed. With quiet determination he stepped past Mohn, intending to spend the intervening time with Colonel Preston. From the frying pan into the fire. The English expression slipped into his memory and a bitter smile almost reached his lips. Pushing the whimsicality away, he began the ascent to the Colonel's quarters where he spent an uncomfortable twenty minutes.
On informing Preston that one of his officers had died, Ulmann had to undergo a cross examination that, he felt, would not have disgraced the Gestapo. Preston had expressed disbelief at his assertion that Muir had only been questioned under medical supervision, to which Ulmann replied by assuring him that all interrogation had in fact been completed before pneumonia had set in and, because of his general ill-health and weakness, the young man had succumbed. In the end the Colonel had insisted on seeing the Kommandant and Ulmann agreed, remarking in turn that the Oberst would have informed him personally had he not been called to Leipzig.
On that note they had parted, Ulmann aware that Preston would spend the remainder of the afternoon writing to Peter Muir's parents. Setting his shoulders he made his way back to the courtyard where Mohn was already waiting.
The younger man barely acknowledged his presence as he snapped out orders and followed in the wake of the guards converging on the French quarters. The stoolball game came to an abrupt halt and men stood in attitudes of silent antagonism. The air, which a few moments earlier had been filled with a mix of shouted encouragement and curses with a leavening of grunts of pain, was now still, the sound stopping as if someone had switched off a wireless. As he strode across the cobbles with the Major, Ulmann noted the cessation of activity and also, though he knew the Major did not, heard several noises which, though innocuous in themselves, could only be signals. He had secretly admired the French system of early warning, appreciating its effectiveness and efficiency and for a brief moment he experienced a certain enjoyment in the knowledge that it was still operating - and that Mohn would be the recipient - before suppressing it ruthlessly. His sense of duty informed him, albeit drily, that even if it had to be the Major who found it, any wireless or contraband discovered shifted the balance just a little in their favour..
They climbed the steps to the French quarters in a stately progress compared with the guards' helter skelter approach. At the top Mohn allowed them to enter first and used those few seconds to regain his breath. He was white to his lips and clearly still in great pain from the bayonet wound he had received some months ago. Unwillingly, Ulmann felt a tinge of admiration as the Major fought against the agony of still-healing wounds. He waited silently, apparently ignorant of the senior officer's distress, knowing only too well that any query as to the man's well-being would not be welcome. When Mohn was ready he turned to Ulmann, his tone almost pleasant. "Now, Hauptmann, let us see what we can find." And the tall man knew that his tactful silence had been appreciated.
The atmosphere in the room beyond was all he had come to expect over the past years, the air silent but thick with a cocktail of apprehension and hate. The French officers stood, surrounded by their books, half-finished games of cards or chess, partially-written letters which all testified to the innocent pursuits the raid had interrupted. Ulmann was not impressed. He had witnessed the same scene too many times to be fooled by it, knowing by the Major's part-amused, part-contemptuous look that the second-in-command was not fooled either.
While the guards were employed in an enthusiastic search, Mohn prowled around the room. Passing one of the bunks he paused and picked up a discarded letter, holding it between a finger and thumb as if to avoid contamination.
A French officer - Etienne Sardou, Ulmann recognised - stepped forward, reaching out and plucking the letter neatly from Mohn's fingers. He appeared outwardly calm but anger lurked in the brown eyes.
"That is a private letter, Major."
Mohn looked him up and down, smiling slightly. "I can read it here or in the censor's office. But I will read it." It was an open challenge.
"Then you have no honour." Sardou's Gallic temperament was quick to surface.
In the face of the Frenchman's fire, Mohn's usually explosive temper passed straight through fury to cold, icy calm.
"If you had any honour," he sneered, "then you would not be here."
A burst of idiomatic and extremely uncomplimentary French rose from all corners of the room. Perhaps fortunately Mohn's grasp of the language did not equal Ulmann's.
"Silence," he roared, deeming it wise to break into the argument before it could go any further. He risked a sideways glance at his superior's face; it was white, a study in rising fury that could easily become uncontrollable, Ulmann decided. He suppressed a shudder and turned to the Gefreiter in charge of the search. Absolutely nothing had come to light, a fact that did not surprise the security officer. He moved in front of Mohn, effectively blocking Sardou from the gimlet stare of the Major which the Frenchman was returning with interest, and so effectively defused the rising tension.
Mohn directed his gaze at Ulmann, needing no words to realise that the search had been fruitless. "Dismiss the guard, Hauptmann."
Without waiting for the other man's salute, the officer walked out of the room. With his departure the atmosphere lightened although they were still grumbling, leaving Ulmann to wonder wryly if it was because they hated him marginally less - or simply feared him less.
He carried out his orders watching the guards trail like whipped puppies out of the room. Another blow to morale, he thought, his own spirits dropping slightly. Before he left he turned his most disapproving stare on Capitaine Sardou and commented frostily and in perfect French.
"If you do not wish others to read your letters, Capitaine, they should not be left where they can be seen. Good afternoon, gentlemen."
His silent descent of the steep stone steps allowed him to surprise Mohn who had stopped at the foot of the spiral. The expression on the young man's face perturbed him, recognising that the tight-lipped anger boded ill for the French prisoners. Sardou's taunt about honour had hit the man hard. Mohn was not likely to forget it - and would never forgive.
With a sinking heart Ulmann watched as Mohn strode across the courtyard, heading for the Kommandantur. The Luftwaffe officer seemed oblivious to the way activity ceased as he approached, beginning again only when he had passed. It was a palpable wave of dislike and Ulmann was almost stunned by its force and by Mohn's apparent ignorance of it. With a sigh he followed his superior across the yard.
It was amusing and almost gratifying, had he allowed that thought time to take root, that as he walked through the prisoners in Mohn's wake there was no cessation in their activities. In fact he had to sidestep sharply to avoid becoming part of the continuing stoolball game, picking his way around those of the casualties still with enough fortitude to spectate. They either ignored him completely or exchanged a brief greeting. His eyes rested on Player for a moment, seeing him hunched over a game of chess with Simon Carter as his opponent. Player was scowling at the board; apparently it was his move and he was in difficulties. Ignoring the ebb and flow of the edges of the game which occasionally threatened to engulf them, he was fathoms deep in the problem confronting him. Ulmann watched him; it was only a few days since the end of his sojourn in solitary. Considering the news he had taken him earlier in the day it would perhaps have been kinder to leave him there for a little longer.
His reverie was interrupted as the Flight Lieutenant became aware of his gaze and directed an intense, almost interrogative stare in his direction. Without making any sign, Ulmann walked past them, feeling Carter's gaze on his back as followed Mohn towards the Kommandantur. Not that it would do the Major any good. The Kommandant had left for Leipzig early in the morning and was not expected back until late in the evening. For a moment a wave of concern banished every other thought from him. The Oberst always seemed to look tired these days, leaning more and more on the stick that had once seemed only an affectation.
He met Mohn as the Major made his way back down the steps, the man brushing past him without speaking. Wearily, Ulmann continued. Mohn had obviously not left a report and he would rather the Kommandant faced the approaching confrontation with at least some idea of what had actually happened.
It was almost ten by the time the Oberst entered his office. Almost too tired to think he made his way to the drinks tray, letting the fire of the schnapps lend him a little warmth and life. He noticed the buff folder lying on his desk and grimaced, turning back to refill his glass. He was still in the process of removing his coat when an imperious knock at the door warned him that Mohn was outside. He asked the second-in-command to enter but did not offer him a seat. Instead, he bade him a cordial good evening and took a few moments to study the report in front of him.
Eventually he glanced up, surprising a predatory look in the Major's eyes that sent a sudden shiver down his spine.
"You wish to discuss the events covered by the Hauptmann's report?" he questioned, adding at the Major's look. "The search to uncover the wireless."
"I see." His eyes returned to the report which he had already read, taking extra time to gather his fast-dwindling resources. His introspection was interrupted by another tap at the door and with a sense of relief that almost bordered on joy he watched the tall form of his Security Officer enter the room realising only then that he had been waiting for Ulmann to arrive.
"I have brought the daily reports, sir. I am sorry to interrupt." He placed the folder on the table and turned as if to leave.
"Wait a moment, Hauptmann. The Major wishes to discuss the search of the French quarters today. I believe you were present."
"Sir." The reply was cautious but Ulmann moved to stand beside the Luftwaffe Officer.
"Now, Major. Please report."
Mohn seemed slightly nonplussed by Ulmann's silent presence but was soon in full flow, managing to blame everybody for the day's outcome but himself. Most of his spleen was vented once again at the Security Officer, personal disappointment and anger at his own failure prompting much of the diatribe as the other two men in the room realised only too well.
Karl glanced at Ulmann once or twice but could read nothing in the expressionless demeanour he was presenting and so concentrated instead on ignoring the call of his body for sleep and gave his attention to the Major, realising that some proposal or other was likely to be forthcoming.
Ulmann in turn took the chance to study the Kommandant's features. He looked tired, a grey tinge to his skin and a haunted aspect indications of just how exhausted he must be. A rush of protectiveness assailed the tall man, desperately wishing the he could turn the Major out of the room and let his Kommandant get some rest. How much more of this could the man take? He wondered, knowing that the situation was unlikely to ease. The Oberst appeared calm, his features set in a controlled mask conveying professional interest. The grey eyes flicked to him, catching his gaze for a moment. In that brief instant the set expression softened and a corner of the aristocratic mouth quirked, a spark entering the older man's eyes. It lasted for the briefest moment and was gone before Mohn could possibly have seen it; a silent communication from the Kommandant to his Security Officer. More than that, Ulmann realised in a daze of sudden wonder; from Karl to Franz, two friends with a single adversary. For some strange reason Ulmann felt a surge of sheer happiness and Mohn's next sentences washed over him as he spent a few moments trying to rationalise the feelings which assailed him. Before long, however, reality intruded as he caught the flow of Mohn's argument, his eyes catching the Oberst's again for a brief instant. This time the Kommandant's expression remained hard.
Mohn was still speaking.
"These men are from a defeated people. They have no honour, no right to the benign treatment they receive at our hands. Surely, sir, you see that. It would be more just if they were sent to work for the Fatherland. They tried to destroy our land, our people, to overthrow our great leader. They should pay."
"And you suggest that they should be deported to some place where they could work - in direct defiance of the Geneva Convention?"
"Yes, sir - and I intend to put forward the suggestion to OKW at the earliest opportunity."
Mohn met the Oberst's eyes defiantly. Ulmann felt his heart sink, recognising that this was the first major test of strength between the older Wehrmacht officer and the younger Luftwaffe Major; looking at the handsome, arrogant features, the Security Officer realised that Mohn had no doubts as to his victory. He was, after all, well connected in the highest circles. Ulmann braced himself.
"You realise, Major, that you require the clearance of your senior officer to carry out such an action?" The enquiry was mildly spoken, a mere request it seemed for some official notice which he would rubber stamp.
The Hauptmann, however, could see the banked fury of the Oberst, utter contempt for Mohn in the clear grey eyes. Mohn had not reckoned on meeting someone with a highly tuned sense of honour and a distaste of those who used their good connections to gain advancement. He also, Ulmann knew, was aware of Mohn's particular dislike of the French. Ulmann found their lack of order an irritation but realised that was why they were undisciplined and so contrived to ignore it as much as possible. Mohn could not do that, rising to the bait on every occasion. It looked as if the French love of baiting their captors was to have unwanted repercussions - if not now then certainly in the future. Ulmann knew Mohn well enough by now to appreciate that even if he lost this round he would eventually manage to rid himself of them.
"Let me remind you, Major," the Kommandant's tone was glacial. "that I am in complete control of this camp. Neither you nor any officer under my command will make such a representation to a higher authority unless it goes through me." He held up a hand for silence as Mohn would have protested. "I do not intend to discuss this matter further." He paused. "However, " he continued, in a more conciliatory manner. "such behaviour as the French displayed today cannot go unpunished. Hauptmann Ulmann, I wish to see the Senior French Officer after Appell tomorrow morning. I will see Colonel Preston after that. Dismissed, gentlemen."
He turned coolly back to the papers on his desk. Ulmann saluted and turned to leave. His action seemed to rouse the furious Mohn and he turned to follow, his salute absolutely correct.
When the door was closed Karl threw down his pen in disgust, pushing away from his desk to stand staring out of the window into the inky blackness of a cloudy winter's night. He shut his eyes briefly, wondering how on earth he could rid himself of the millstone Horst Mohn had become. He was quite obviously the worst type of man to be in a position of power in such a place and it galled him that he could not simply make that fact plainly known and get him transferred. Thank God he had Ulmann. The thought exploded without warning, blasting through his consciousness until it gained his full attention. Thank God for Ulmann.
The daily life of the castle continued in its unchanging routine. Mohn became a fixture in the camp, cordially loathed by all the prisoners as could be seen by their attitude to him. In some way the Luftwaffe man had brought captives and many of the captors closer together, united in despising him. He spent his days haunting the courtyard or ferreting through the administration as if constantly seeking for faults to bring to the Kommandant's attention. He had given up trying to circumvent communications between the senior officer and his men but still took every opportunity to destroy the closeness he sensed but could not understand which existed between the Oberst and Ulmann.
On one bright day when a hint of spring sent an occasional teasing warmth to the occupants of the castle, Mohn stood in the prisoners' courtyard and thought about that closeness. He shivered as the warmth was banished by a blustery March wind that still retained the ice of winter. All his schemes and plans had come to naught because of the loyalty between Oberst and Hauptmann and he was beginning to believe that they had become too close to their prisoners. The Kommandant in particular seemed to him to be growing more and more like the Senior British Officer with each passing week. Such personal loyalty was British, he reasoned; a German's first loyalty was to the Führer who was the Reich.
Having thus restated his own personal creed he dismissed the Kommandant and the security officer from his thoughts for the time being. Instead he surveyed the courtyard, considering each of its inhabitants in turn. Most of them he still found difficult to recognise and only a few were of enough interest to merit the time it would take to become fully conversant with name and history. It was not that he lacked the ability but there seemed little point in spending time on those prisoners who passed each day in a round of activity and study. Those he found of interest were people like Carter, Brent, Player and their colleagues. They were the diehards who spent every waking moment planning and plotting, scheming with every means at their disposal to fight their way out of the fortress and away to freedom. A dubious freedom, Mohn felt - out into a desolate and hostile landscape and travelling through a country with which they were at war, knowing they could trust no-one. For a moment he felt an unwilling respect before pushing it away from him. They were the enemy. He could never forget that. They did not deserve his admiration. They had been defeated. They did not deserve his respect.
He frowned as thoughts of the British contingent again claimed him. That morning the Kommandant had taken the unprecedented step of allowing the Senior British Officer and five of the officers to attend the burial of Pilot Officer Muir. Muir's body had duly arrived in the town of Colditz to be interred in the local graveyard. Not only had the Kommandant allowed attendance at the short service but the Oberst and Ulmann had gone, too. He had been in the courtyard when they had assembled - Colonel Preston with the Padre, Carter, Brent, Downing and Player - all unbelievably smart in full uniform - and he knew his own face had registered his disapproval as the Kommandant and the security officer joined them. No other guards were required, it had seemed, despite his own protests. In a distant voice but in a tone that brooked no argument, the Oberst had stated that the Colonel and his men had given their parole. There would be no breach of security.
Eight men had marched out of the gate, matching their speed to the slightly halting gait of the Kommandant, and eight men had returned less than an hour later, their faces grim. This afternoon the Padre and the Roman Catholic Priest had held a memorial service in the castle and for the first time the small chapel had been full. Once that was over the British contingent had disappeared for some time and only now were they beginning to gather in the courtyard once more. In twos and threes they spilled out of the doorway, their voices loud and strident. Mohn frowned, finding it impossible to equate the earlier solemnity with such apparent good humour.
The security officer followed the Kommandant into the prisoners' yard. A communiqué waiting for the Oberst on his return had informed him that Muir's family had been told of his death and had requested that any personal effects be sent to them. The Kommandant had decided that it would be more politic on this occasion to talk to the Senior British Officer on his own territory and had waited only until he was sure the scheduled service was over before making his way towards the courtyard. Ulmann, his senses attuned to the ebb and flow of the camp's moods instantly recognised the atmosphere of incipient hysteria. It was something he had grown accustomed to meeting at Christmas and New Year and his quick mind made the connection between Muir's burial and the prisoners' brewing activities immediately. He did not realise he had stopped until the Kommandant turned an enquiring face to him.
"They appear very…happy?" he remarked cautiously.
Ulmann hesitated for only a brief moment before remarking. "I believe they have been holding a wake." He waited almost nervously for the older man's reaction.
"I see," was the mild response, and Karl continued his walk across the yard.
Ulmann let out the breath he did not know he had been holding and began to follow him once more. Their attention was caught suddenly by the sight of Lieutenant Player weaving a none-too-steady path towards the brooding figure of Horst Mohn. Paralysed, they watched as Player approached and laid a friendly hand on the Luftwaffe officer's sleeve and his words came clearly to them. His voice was not slurred but even from this distance it was clear that he was so drunk he appeared almost sober. Ulmann cast a quick glance at the other British officers, realising that they too had been stunned into immobility. Through the now silent air of the cobbled yard, Player's voice sounded.
"You didn't come to the service, Major."
Mohn shifted under the direct gaze. "I did not know the Pilot Officer," he managed, more unnerved than he wished to admit by the very closeness of the Lieutenant.
"He was a good bloke. You would have liked him. Came from a good family - like me."
Mohn was flustered. "If you will excuse me…" he began.
"Oh, don't go," Player's tone of voice was almost pleading. "Let's have a stroll" And without further ado he tucked his arm into the Major's and proceeded to walk the usual circuit of the small area. Perforce, Mohn had to go with him or begin an undignified struggle but anger was beginning to simmer within him, unable to discern the Englishman's motives but knowing that he was being made to look ridiculous.
In horrified silence, the German senior officers and the British contingent watched.
"It was a nice service," remarked Player, his tone confidential although his volume was not. "Peter would have liked it, I think. Do you believe in God, Major?"
On the other side of the yard the Kommandant and the security officer traded glances. It spoke volumes for the understanding they shared that they did not exchange a word. While the Kommandant headed towards Mohn with a brisk, "Ah, there you are, Major," Ulmann walked behind the Major and gripped Player under the elbow, ushering him from Mohn's presence. The blond man stared up at him mutely, loosening his grip on the Major's arm and Ulmann felt his own gaze fall at the depth of pain in the blue eyes. In Player's face he had witnessed only too clearly the load of guilt the Englishman was carrying. Player stumbled and he tightened his hold on the other man's arm. The lieutenant halted in his tracks and Ulmann waited in silence, aware that Mohn's attention had been engaged by the Oberst and that immediate danger had been averted. There was a little time, he reasoned, enough to allow the young man a moment to collect himself.
Player spoke, his voice strangled by emotion; "Peter was a good man," he averred, hoarsely and Ulmann had no inclination to argue. With difficulty, the British officer continued. "We'd been spotted. He wanted to stop and hole up somewhere until the fuss died down. I wanted to go on. If we'd stayed where we were he'd never have been shot. God."
It wasn't a curse but a supplication, from a man driven by guilt and alcohol until his mind was fogged with doubts and recrimination.
Ulmann's voice was deliberately brutal, alarmed by the spectacle of a man's sanity unravelling before his eyes. "You cannot know that. And even if it was true, indulging in pointless regrets will not bring him back."
Startled by the brusque tone, Player looked up and met the blue eyes. The anger in his own face died and the Hauptmann knew the lieutenant had seen and recognised his enemy's compassion. A sad smile touched the Englishman's mouth and he nodded. Ulmann felt a shuddering sigh travel through the lithe body before the man straightened himself until he was no longer leaning on the German's strength.
Without any further words Ulmann piloted the lieutenant away from the Kommandant and Major who were still deep in conversation, and presented him to Brent and Downing. Still in silence he handed Player over to them, acknowledging Brent's nod of thanks with an abrupt inclination of his head then smoothly returned to his senior officers. The whole episode had taken barely a minute and when Ulmann briefly scanned the courtyard once more Player, Brent and Downing were gone.
Spring - Summer 1943
The bell for morning Appell was followed by the clatter of feet on stairs as the strident sound brought the various contingents from their quarters to the courtyard below. The morning was bright though the air was cold enough to ensure that heavy coats and gloves were still required. The men shuffled into their places, chatting amongst themselves until the Officers of the Day called them to attention. The Germans had learned better over the years than to try and hurry them, discovering by bitter experience that this only prolonged the whole process. Ulmann stalked around the yard while the guards counted, a brooding figure in the long brown leather coat and gloves, his bearing straight and his every movement controlled. He had surveyed this scene many times and sensed almost immediately that today was different. It was almost like a scent on the breeze, he thought; a rustle of movement, a suppression of some emotion. Sensing it bubbling under the surface, however, did not give him a clue as to its shape. He watched as the guards walked along the ranks of the British once and then once again. No trace of his inner thoughts showed on his face as he saw the huddled conference take place before the guard approached him. His heart sank as the gefreiter informed him that two of the British officers were missing. So that was it, he mused. With the coming of spring it appeared that the escape season was open once more. He strode to the front of the British contingent and stood face to face with the Senior British Officer.
"Two of your men are missing." He knew he supplied the information needlessly.
Preston's mildly sardonic response and the careful non-expression on his face was enough to convince Ulmann that the Colonel knew exactly how and when his men had disappeared. He forbore to comment, already aware of Major Mohn's presence in the cobbled yard. Ulmann cast a brief glance in his direction. Mohn's expression was not encouraging as the roars of delight from the remaining prisoners added fuel to a fury he could not hide. Ulmann managed not to sigh. It seemed that he was about to have a difficult day.
He began the business of searching the castle, ignoring the obvious delight of the captives and the knowledge that Mohn had departed in the direction of the Kommandant's office. By now he was sure enough of his standing in the older man's eyes not to trouble too much about the Major's comments. When he had finally dismissed the prisoners he followed the course the second-in-command had taken.
The Kommandant had barely managed to sit at his desk before the Major was admitted to his presence and spilled out the events of the morning, predictably blaming Ulmann's inability to carry out his duty.
"There is search and listening equipment available. Why has Ulmann not installed such equipment? Surely, sir, you must see that his inefficiency endangers us all?"
For a moment Karl surveyed the officer before him, marvelling that he could ever have seen a likeness to his own son. Quietly he reached into the desk drawer and handed Mohn a file which he had kept ready for such an occasion, although why he should take such a precaution was an issue he had no conscious wish to address.
"Would this equipment meet your requirements?" he asked mildly, scanning Mohn's expression and reading in it his overt approval of the report's contents.
"Hauptmann Ulmann indented for that equipment fourteen months ago." He noted the sudden compression of the thin lips at the mention of the Hauptmann's name. Mohn was still not willing to admit that Ulmann could ever produce good work. "It seems unlikely that we shall receive any of it for some time. The detection equipment delivered last week is all that has been issued to us."
"But this equipment is essential for security..."
The Oberst marvelled at such blatant inability to accept the reality their armies faced; the ever-increasing shortages that any General could have, and most likely had, warned the Führer about. Fighting a war on two fronts required food, clothing and arms for two armies. The supply lines were growing longer and more and more disorganised. The German war machine was failing in its most basic function. Karl was a pragmatic man and no fool, already seeing the ultimate end. He did not attempt to expound such views to the fanatic before him, however, merely contenting himself with a mild reply. "They are also required for the military, Major."
A discreet tap at the door announced Ulmann's presence, an instance that usually brought pleasure to the Kommandant. Today he felt a rush of annoyance that surprised him, acknowledging that he would rather have dealt with the two men separately. However he knew Ulmann well enough by now to accept that the Hauptmann was unlikely to avoid a confrontation when he knew that he would be assigned a heavy apportionment of blame. For some reason, despite his original thoughts, the very appearance of Ulmann lifted his spirits. It was good to know that they were allies, he conceded. Good to know that they were friends.
The Major's next outburst put an end to any mood of introspection and Karl turned his attention to the matter in hand. It was not long before he was forced to intervene, robbed of breath for a brief moment as Ulmann, after months of calm and stoic acceptance of Mohn's slights, suddenly retaliated.
Mohn had snapped out his enquiry; "Men escape from Colditz but German prisoners do not escape from British camps. Why is this, Ulmann?"
With cool deliberation Ulmann replied. "We may be forced to conclude that they do not wish to escape."
What both amused and horrified the Kommandant was the ease with which Ulmann could find the reply which was most likely to enrage the second-in-command. Before Mohn could rise to the remark and escalate the incipient breakdown in all relations between the two men, the senior officer interrupted.
"We will all do our jobs more effectively if we do not bicker amongst ourselves, gentlemen." Despite his desperate attempts to maintain a completely impartial stand he could not help the harsh note which entered his voice as he continued. "Major, as the men appear to have left the castle you have my permission to carry on."
The order was a reminder to Mohn that he had recently been given the task of co-ordinating efforts to recover prisoners who had escaped the castle environs. A fanatic he may be but a fool he was not. He had recognised the post for what it was - a creation to ensure he was involved in the castle as little as possible at such times. It left the security officer in control within the walls and Mohn resented it fiercely, reasoning correctly that the Kommandant did not consider the second-in-command fit to undertake those duties. He turned to leave.
"Hauptmann." The Kommandant stopped the tall man in his tracks as he tried to follow the Major. Sure that Mohn was listening to every word Karl hardened his tone. "This is a serious situation. It is your job to deal with it. Do so."
He watched as the man saluted and turned to leave. The look Ulmann bestowed on him as he closed the door was intense but Karl could not decipher its message.
Ulmann spent the remainder of the day searching the castle from the attics to the cellars. Temporarily the use of the detection equipment was in abeyance while he drafted every officer and man at his disposal to scour the prison.
In any other sense the day might have been termed a success - by the end of the evening three caches of contraband had been discovered - but of the men there was no sign and the report from Mohn was no better.
Wearily the security officer trudged his way up the stairs to the Kommandant's office and the thoughts and fears he had been holding at bay by feverish activity all through the day would no longer be denied. Why had he given in? Why had he finally risen to Mohn's baiting? Why could he not have remained silent? He called to mind the moment's stupefaction on the commanding officer's face and the grim expression which had immediately followed it. In a moment he felt he had accomplished what all the months of Mohn's sniping had failed to do; he had undermined his own position in the Kommandant's esteem. He was sure that Karl was disappointed by his conduct and that thought depressed him. Would he even still trust him, he wondered, if he could not retain his self-control?
At the sound of the Kommandant's voice he entered the office, a place which had always seemed restful to him before and had provided a respite from the drudgery of each endless day. Now, however, he felt uncomfortable. To know he had failed was bad enough but to know he had failed this man was almost more than he could bear.
"The daily reports, sir." He stood woodenly while the Kommandant read and signed the reports. As soon as the task was completed he picked them up and saluted, turning to leave.
He stopped at the sound of Karl's voice but did not turn.
There was a faint amusement in the older man's voice as he asked. "Have I offended you?"
Ulmann spun to face him. "Offended ... ? No, sir, of course not. But..." He floundered to a halt unable to verbalise any of the thoughts which had preoccupied him.
The Kommandant rose and moved to the bureau with his usual halting gait. Unstoppering the schnapps bottle he poured two small glasses.
"Sit down, Ulmann."
It was not a request.
Ulmann fetched the chair and sat, removing his cap and accepting the glass which was placed by him on the desk with a murmured. " Thank you."
The Kommandant watched his junior for a moment. He could sense that Ulmann was troubled and guessed what the cause might be but was unsure how to how to offer reassurance. Eventually he cleared his throat and Ulmann looked up to meet his eyes.
"We both have difficult jobs to do here, Ulmann," he began, "and we both have to do many things that we dislike. We are soldiers and in this posting we must regard ourselves as being on duty at all times. However," for a moment he paused, trying to find the words, "even if I have had to be...harsh...it does not alter my regard for you as an individual or as an officer. Do you understand me...my friend?"
The look of relief that suffused the normally expressionless face was answer enough. Thankfully the Kommandant steered away from the personal matters he knew they both found difficult and began chatting generally about the war and their own situation. It was part of the routine they had become accustomed to, a comfortable exchange in the half hour or so before dinner after the day's business had been concluded. By the time they left for the Mess both felt that their friendship had been re-established and had even, in some way, become stronger.
The following day Ulmann joined the detail who were attempting to locate the tunnels that were undoubtedly under construction. Security equipment which had recently arrived had included sound detectors, consisting of flat discs each attached to a meter. The discs picked up any vibration and sound underground that could be caused by tunnelling and the reading on the dial provided the Germans with some indication of how close they were to the source. While he waited for the guards to set up the equipment he considered the results of his meeting with the Kommandant. Despite another encounter with Mohn that morning he felt content and the Luftwaffe officer had been unable to ruffle his calm demeanour despite all the ill-temper that pain, a sleepless night and lack of success could provide. Imperturbably he had stone-walled every insult, finding a new strength in the knowledge that the Kommandant not only valued him but thought of him as a friend.
His attention was attracted by the guard at that moment and he crossed to him, watching the needle as it swung crazily across the dial. Perhaps today will be better, he thought.
"We must try another location to pinpoint the tunnel, sir."
The guard's voice brought him fully back to his duties and he pushed all other thoughts from him as he agreed. Within an hour the readings had convinced them it was a major construction and all they had to do was discover the entrance.
Ulmann glanced around the courtyard and his eyes finally settled on the clock tower in the north-west corner by the chapel. He frowned. Some months ago they had discovered two French officers digging in the base of the tower and as a result had bricked up the doors to each floor and sealed the top with beams. Still frowning, he walked to it and began the laborious task of checking all the entrances to the tower from each floor. Once he was sure that they were all still blocked he accepted that there was only one way in remaining.
Collecting a guard, he climbed to the top. Once there he moved two of the beams and shone his torch into the opening. As he did so he heard sounds of very human origin and saw a light. For a moment he was stunned by the very fact that the entrance to the tunnel works was almost fifty feet above ground level. He shook himself from his unwilling admiration. What he needed to find now was a way into the tunnel itself. From the evidence of the detection equipment Ulmann guessed that it ran under the chapel. Silently he replaced the beams and posted the guard by the top.
Summoning the rest of the sentries he moved rapidly and with a purposeful stride which stopped all activity throughout the prisoners' courtyard. Ulmann was aware of eyes following him every step of the way. A number of people, he concluded, were very, very nervous. They entered the chapel and headed for the sacristy. For once the early warning system the Abwehr officer secretly admired broke down and in this small room they discovered not only a way into the tunnel workings but also a sophisticated electrical system. Ulmann smiled grimly. This was one round of the game that the German contingent at Colditz were going to win.
Within fifteen minutes four French officers were being ushered out of the chapel door. They were in shorts and vests, covered in dirt and sweat, their hands clasped on top of their heads. And all of them looked furious at their discovery. Following them out, Ulmann cast a rapid glance around the courtyard carrying out a catalogue of the expressions on the surrounding faces. The French showed their disappointment and anger, the British showed a relief which sent danger signals to the Hauptmann's ever-suspicious mind.
As he passed the gate guards Ulmann issued his orders.
"Close off the chapel. Lock and bar the door. No-one is allowed access."
Once the men had been delivered to the solitary cells he made his way to Mohn's office. The Kommandant had once again been called to Leipzig and the second-in-command was in control. Somehow Ulmann was sure that by the time Mohn's report got to the Oberst's desk it would appear as if the Luftwaffe officer had discovered the tunnel single-handedly. He pushed the thoughts from him. What mattered was that another escape route had been closed and a major escape thwarted. Ulmann found himself reluctantly impressed by the French tunnel, amazed at the engineering skills involved, not to mention the amount of material which had been scavenged to allow it to go ahead, and could not dismiss the feeling of relief that they had found it now. The French had made it through the castle wall. In another few days there would most likely have been a mass escape. He knew, however, that the Major would never think along such lines.
Nemesis fell that evening with Mohn yet again taking every opportunity to undermine Ulmann. The tall man accepted it stolidly only briefly allowing his annoyance to show as Mohn demanded he read the report of their findings aloud. Irritation was banished, however, as he caught sight of his Oberst's mouth twitch during his declamation of the list of materials used.
"140 metres of shoring timber," he intoned, attempting to keep his voice expressionless, "36 metres of timber rails for two trolleys with wheels, 14 metres rope, 162 metres electric cable, 19 electric lightbulbs and holders, 1 fuse switchboard, 38 sandbags, 4 shovels, 4 hammers, 2 picks, 1 crowbar, 3 metal pulleys, 6 wine bottles from our own cellar and one Brabant sausage."
Mohn's indignation was not faked, Ulmann could see that. The Major simply could not understand how the French could appropriate so much material. To the two veterans of Colditz the only surprise was that any wine remained in the cellar at all, given that the French contingent seemed to have access to it.
Ulmann considered Mohn, appreciating now that the young man could never accept that the discovery of such a ruse could possibly be seen as a victory. To him it was a humiliation that the French had even been able to begin such an undertaking.
Mohn rounded on the security officer, demanding; "How can this be?"
Ulmann's now habitual calm when dealing with the second-in-command deserted him finally and he snapped out his reply. "We have to deal with people who -"
He was allowed to go no further, his own anger immediately cooled as the Oberst's voice cut calmly across him, defusing Mohn's attack simply by requesting a progress report on the two missing British officers. Gently and without further argument the Kommandant drew the interview to a close and Mohn was dismissed.
The tall man paused as Karl's mild voice detained him. Once more he turned to face the Kommandant, intrigued by the laughter he could see lurking in the normally too-serious grey eyes.
"Sir?" He questioned, gravely.
"Please make a note to check the contents of the wine cellar in the morning." There was a brief moment of shared, though silent, laughter as grey and blue eyes met in perfect understanding before Karl concluded the interview. "That is all, Hauptmann. You may go...and well done."
"Thank you, sir." Ulmann saluted and then left quietly.
Mohn fully agreed with Ulmann's decision to lock and bar the chapel and firmly believed that as it had been used in an escape attempt, its return to the prisoners should not be entertained. During the days following he noted with interest how often Ulmann was waylaid by British officers and this afternoon after an abortive courtyard service he was advised that Colonel Preston requested an interview with the Kommandant. The Padre had decided to hold his Sunday service in the open air. It had been well attended, a fact Mohn had noted with surprise given the usual attendance figures and the fact that the day was bitterly cold. Apparently it had concluded with one man in the sick bay and the Padre attempting to deliver a sermon over German propaganda broadcasts echoing from the tannoy system. In short, a débâcle. Mohn was not concerned. The Major had issued his own orders insisting that all requests from Senior Officers must be made through his office. When Preston entered with the Padre, Mohn saw instantly that the Senior British Officer did not appreciate the change. The German dismissed the man's feelings, reminding himself that Preston was merely a prisoner; defeated and not worthy of his respect.
Mohn stared at the Colonel as if the man was some species of insect lately crawled from under a stone. The effect on the Senior British Officer was negligible; he merely returned the look with an even, steady gaze which discomfited Mohn and so further angered him. Their exchange was short and sharp, Mohn finally snapping. "Your request to see the Kommandant is denied."
The German put as much finality in his voice as he could muster, furious at his own inability to master the officer before him. He was even more incensed when Preston, with a final, speaking look, took his leave without uttering another word.
The bell for the evening Appell had rung several minutes before Mohn entered the prisoner's courtyard and he stood in the gateway for a moment, nonplussed by the scene facing him. By now the guards should have been working their way along the serried ranks of men completing their count. Instead the British officers were not on parade and Ulmann was apparently having a polite conversation with Flight Lieutenant Carter in the midst of bedlam. As far as he could see men were milling around chatting and smoking while some were actually playing cards or chess.
"What is happening here, Ulmann?" he demanded.
Ulmann, who had been hoping desperately that he could defuse and deal with the problem before the second-in-command made an appearance, felt his heart sink into his boots.
"There appears to be no chain of command, sir," he replied. "Colonel Preston has refused to issue any orders."
Ulmann could have predicted Mohn's strong-arm tactics, listening with well-concealed horror at his next words. The Luftwaffe man turned to a sergeant and ordered:
"Take two men and bring the Colonel here."
Before the order could be carried out the calm voice of the Kommandant sounded across the courtyard. The tone was one of polite enquiry, as if he had not just arrived in the midst of a situation which could so easily become a riot. Ulmann and Mohn both stiffened to attention as their senior officer approached them.
The Kommandant moved round to face Simon Carter. Ulmann noted the way the Englishman brought himself rigidly to attention and wondered at himself as his heart warmed to the other man. Carter would never think of saluting the security officer and would certainly never have afforded Mohn the courtesy. That he accorded the Oberst this mark of distinction made the Hauptmann look at him with new eyes, experiencing a sudden liking for the blond man. It was a sensation that confused him for a moment, recognising that it was not the first time he had appreciated the conduct of an enemy and compared it favourably with the behaviour of his fellow German officers.
He turned as the Kommandant addressed him.
"Hauptmann, you will inform Colonel Preston that the Kommandant is taking the parade and his presence is requested at once."
Ulmann saluted and turned to carry out his orders, reaching the Saalhaus door just as it opened to reveal the Senior British Officer. The two men exchanged a long look and Ulmann felt, in a way, that they had reached some kind of understanding. More and more baffled by the twists and turns his thoughts were taking, he trailed in the other man's wake as Preston made his way to stand before the Kommandant, saluting with a stance and bearing that spoke clearly of his respect for the German who commanded Oflag IVc.
"What is the meaning of this, Colonel?" the Kommandant asked firmly once he had returned the salute.
"Kommandant, this afternoon I made a request for an interview with you. That request was denied. As the Senior British Officer it is my right to have access to the senior officer of this camp regarding matters concerning the welfare of the men under my command. If I am denied this right then I can no longer command the British contingent in Colditz."
There was a brief silence and no-one in the now still courtyard would have believed from the German's face what thoughts were travelling through his mind as he cursed the man who had caused this situation. He had often tried to warn Mohn about the balance which must be maintained for the camp to function. Time and again Mohn had seemed genuinely blind to that need.
His voice was as mild as ever as he finally replied. "Colonel Preston, there has obviously been a misunderstanding of my orders. If you would call your men to attention, I will see you after Appell."
"Thank you, Kommandant. Flight Lieutenant Carter."
The roll call proceeded without further difficulty, the Oberst ignoring the mortified and furious expression of his second-in-command.
Ulmann stood at his office window and looked over the prisoners' courtyard below. Since the events surrounding the chapel closure life had continued much as before, settling into an underlying routine that became entrenched week by week, month by month, and even Horst Mohn could be tolerated. The daily routine underlay everything and even Ulmann was pleased when something different occurred - as long as it was not an attempted escape. Even the occasional startling event led to little variance in the established course of each day. Recently a new prisoner had arrived and Ulmann's eyes sought out the solitary figure of Pilot Officer Page. He was a tall, powerful man who was habitually grey-faced and sometimes almost furtive, destroying features and bearing that should have been strong and handsome. Usually after a few days new inmates settled down and became absorbed into camp life but Page seemed oblivious to it all, never entering into the spirit of baiting that could almost seem like a game. Ulmann was used to backchat from prisoners, inured to occasional rudeness, a past master at ignoring jibes on anything from Hitler to his own parentage, knowing that to take any action was a form of defeat. He took no notice and over the years the comments had become something of a habit for the inmates - somehow losing their venom and becoming similar to a line in a British farce, rather amusing but only because of the endless repetition. He had gone to a farce one evening during his time in Britain. For two hours he had sat in the auditorium among the laughing crowds and almost squirmed in ever increasing embarrassment at the antics on the stage. After that experience he had decided that Shakespeare was more to his taste.
That thought turned his mind back to Page, surprised at how his mind had wandered. Shakespeare made him think of Page and he wondered at the connection until the memory of Hamlet came to him. That was the link. Page reminded him of Hamlet - madness just beneath the surface - but unlike Hamlet there was no doubt in the spectator's mind. Even taking into account his memories of Wing Commander Marsh, he had never seen a clearer case of insanity waiting to happen. The wary reaction of the other prisoners to him and a recent incident in which Page had attacked a fellow prisoner, nearly costing the man his sight, had removed any doubt from his mind.
He made a mental note to put a special watch on him and then picked up the sheaf of reports. It was time to attend the staff meeting. He grimaced at the prospect of more time spent in Major Mohn's company. More and more often he was finding it difficult not to rise to Mohn's perpetual sniping.
That knowledge stopped him again. Why, if it was so easy to ignore the taunts of the prisoners, had he let his senior officer break through his defences in only a few short months. As he pursued the thought the answer became clear. Comments from the prisoners were not personal. It was all part of the game they played and underlying it was a certain respect. With Mohn there was no base, nothing on which to build any kind of relationship. The Major hated him and did his utmost to destroy the Kommandant's faith in him at every opportunity.
And there was the reason he could not ignore those attacks. The constant effort expended by the older man in keeping the situation under control, in trying not to show favouritism, was wearing him down. Ulmann could never forgive Mohn for that. Anger had risen within him and he looked down at the papers in his now-clenched fists. Sighing, he tried to force himself to relax, wondering why it was that his nature, which he had always believed a cool one, had lately become so passionate. The reason that passed fleetingly through his mind was pushed away before it took enough shape to demand acknowledgement, and with an exasperated sigh at his own weakness he left the confines of his office.
As he walked across the courtyard he saw Page enter the cold darkness of the chapel. After Mohn's outburst the Kommandant had decided to re-open the church and it was now in daily use, although Ulmann often wondered to what purpose. The various escape attempts, successful and unsuccessful, in the past had provided him with an endless wonderment at the ingenuity of his charges. His mind drifted from the prisoners' exploits to rest on the other problems which had beset the German contingent over the previous weeks.
The ebb and flow of the war outside created an uneasy atmosphere and events within the castle walls served to further unsettle the inhabitants. No sooner had the débâcle over the chapel been resolved than another escape from the woodshed in the exercise yard had been averted. Of the two men who had escaped earlier there was no sign. Mohn's aspect had darkened as the days passed and he had to admit failure at the end of every one. And now, to add fuel to a steadily building fire, three commandoes had been captured and brought to Colditz. Every man in the camp knew they were there. Every man in the camp knew what Hitler had decreed. Commandoes were spies and terrorists. They were to be treated thus. They were to be shot.
During the course of their stay at the castle the British contingent had attempted to rescue the men. What they had proposed to do with them once they were out of their cells Ulmann had not discovered, but in trying to throw the Germans off the scent the Englishmen had used their best kept secret. They had set up a phoney escape using the route that must have been used when Carrington and the others had made their successful bid for freedom. In the event orders had come through transferring the Commandoes to Oflag XVII and they had departed that morning in the company of Major Mohn. The Major had travelled with them in order to reassure the Senior British Officer that the men were delivered safely to the Wehrmacht Kommandant at the new camp. In the meantime Brent, Downing and Player were in solitary confinement cells, their best route lost, and all for nothing. The conjunction of Player to Carrington in the seemingly random direction of his thoughts slowed his steps on the stairs. The weather was not yet warm and the solitary cells were never comfortable...
On his way from the Kommandantur he stopped at his room to pick up an extra blanket. He could have ordered a guard to do it but was reluctant to foster any gossip. Without giving himself time to think he walked towards the cells.
Player was lying on his bunk when he entered the small damp square that would be the man's home for the next 28 days. Flat on his back, his hands tucked behind his neck, his thoughts were seemingly far away from his drab and heartless surroundings. Ulmann cleared his throat and Player took notice of him, sitting up as he saw the identity of his intruder. The same memory was haunting them both. The last time Ulmann had visited him in a cell it had been to report the lapse in Muir's health shortly before his death.
For a brief, panic-stricken second Ulmann wondered what on earth he was doing here and then pushed it aside, holding out the bulky object in his hand. "An extra blanket, Lieutenant Player."
Player stared at it as if it had been impregnated with smallpox and Ulmann could not find it within himself to be surprised at the man's attitude. Bright blue eyes suddenly speared him and he forced himself to meet their gaze. A smile tugged the corner of the aristocratic mouth as the blond man reached out taking the blanket from the German's grasp.
It was his only response but Ulmann recognised the real gratitude behind the word and inclined his head before he removed himself from an encounter that should have meant nothing yet had assumed a significance he could not understand.
Slightly bemused he crossed the courtyard. The bell for the evening Appell rang but he ignored it and the hum of activity, aware of a junior officer already on hand to deal with the formalities. He exchanged salutes and stopped for a brief moment, but soon continued on his way towards the Kommandant's office.
Ulmann entered the office at the curt command, wondering at the unusual tone from his senior officer. The scene he encountered was fraught with tension. Mohn, still clad as Ulmann had last seen him in dark leather coat and gloves, was standing rigidly to attention before the Kommandant. Mohn's face was white with anger, pain and another emotion that Ulmann could not discern. The Kommandant was angrier than Ulmann had ever seen him. There was a moment's hiatus as the security officer broke into the tableau.
"Ulmann," the Oberst's greeting was short. "Please inform the duty officer that essential leave only is permitted until further notice."
"Sir." Ulmann felt his face settle into its habitual wooden pose, beginning to understand what might have prompted the older man's anger. He waited, watching silently as Karl gathered together the remnants of his self-control.
"The Major was ordered to return before the British officers reached the camp. I have since received a wire informing me that all three men were shot while trying to escape. The Major informs me that they were stopped on the road and that he saw guards digging."
Ulmann spent a moment wondering what had prompted Mohn to add that piece of information. It would not have pleased the Kommandant.
"With all due respect," Mohn began, "these men were terrorists-"
"These men were soldiers," Karl thundered, "and they deserved better even of their enemies." Both junior officers stood silent before his wrath. With a conscious effort the Kommandant controlled the rage that was boiling within him and walked to the window, staring out at the night sky. When he spoke again his voice had cooled.
"Major Mohn. You and I will see Colonel Preston after Appell tomorrow morning. You are dismissed."
"Sir, I protest-"
"You may go." The man did not turn but the ice in his voice would have frozen an erupting volcano.
Mohn saluted and left.
As the door closed behind him the Kommandant sighed deeply. For a moment he continued in his silent survey of the darkness beyond the window before, with another sigh, he walked determinedly to the schnapps bottle on the bureau.
Without waiting for an invitation Ulmann brought a chair to the desk and sat, placing the sheaf of reports on the desk before him and accepting the glass he was offered. With hidden concern he watched as Karl despatched his first glass quickly and poured a second.
That one he brought to the desk and sat nursing it for some time, seemingly unaware of Ulmann's presence. The security officer sat silently, used to the mercurial moods of this man and content to wait until Karl was ready to speak about the events of the day.
In his turn the Kommandant was considering the man who sat so quietly on the other side of the desk, wondering how he could ever get through the days without Ulmann's strong and steady presence. It had become an evening ritual, thought Karl, this sharing of a glass of schnapps once the work of the day had been done. Except that since Mohn's arrival Ulmann's work never seemed to be done. The Kommandant was surprised at how easy he found it to decipher what his junior officer was thinking and feeling, these days. In the beginning he had remarked at how difficult he was to read and yet now... It seemed that since Major Mohn had been amongst them the carefully erected barriers sustained for so long were crumbling - and not just Ulmann's, he realised. The weary and unending struggle to maintain the delicate balances between enemy and friend, prisoner and captor, suddenly seemed more onerous than ever. Even during the worst days of the Great War, through the stench and the mud, he had never felt so tired - so beaten. A sigh seemed to be dredged up from the very centre of his being, remembering who it was that had sustained him through those days.
He looked up suddenly, knowing that the blue eyes would be watching him.
"You must not blame yourself, sir." The voice was warm and concerned and Karl wondered if Ulmann had any idea how revealing it was. He ignored the allusion to the events of the day.
"I was thinking about Major Schaeffer. You did not think much of him?"
"I did not know him, sir," Ulmann evaded.
"He was a good man, once. An idealist, though, and a war is no place for a man with ideals. Willi and I were friends for a long time and I miss him." He paused for a moment to pass a hand over his eyes. "I am tired."
Ulmann felt alarm rise within him. He had never before heard the other man admit to any weakness. Haltingly, remembering that only a few months had passed since the other man's death and what those months had held, he tried to find words that might help. "It is always difficult to lose a friend."
"Do you know from experience, Ulmann? I know so little about you. In fact, I know just as much now as I did when you arrived in my office. Do you remember I made you touch your toes?" He took a sip of his schnapps, smiling at the memory before asking, "Tell me about your life before the war?"
The Hauptmann was nonplussed. The last thing he wanted to talk about was the sterile, meaningless existence he had lived before hostilities had pushed him into uniform. It was a change he had accepted without any regrets, leaving little behind that he was not glad to let go.
"There is little to tell, sir," he prevaricated. And it was true, he thought. He had filled his days; working hard, his spare time spent in the reserve but nothing that now seemed to make any real sense. "I am married, as you know. My wife has been ill for a long time and we have no children. In a way the war has given me some purpose."
The bald statement held undercurrents; regrets and pain and inadequacy intermingled and Karl was stunned at how clearly he understood, how easy it was to recognise and sympathise with that pain.
To cover his sudden confusion he commented drily, "I am glad to see that someone finds some purpose in this situation." His expression changed as Ulmann moved uneasily, realising that he had taken the comment as some kind of rebuke. Karl lifted a hand in a silent apology, startled again when his compatriot relaxed and acknowledged him with a half-nod. How far they had come, he thought again, since those early days.
Ulmann was silent, at a loss. In all his time at Colditz they had never exchanged much personal information but in one short meeting that had all changed, and for some reason it was important to him that Karl should know more and perhaps understand why this war had appealed to his sense of duty. It had allowed him a different life and an escape from the drudgery which had been dragging at his spirit for so long.
Ulmann searched for words and from within a part of him he thought long since dead he found the candidness in personal matters which he applied to other areas of his life. "I was studying in England - at Oxford - in 1920. My mother became ill and I returned to Germany. Times were difficult then as you know." He was silent for a moment, struggling for words to describe a time in his life that had quickly assumed a nightmarish quality. He had watched his mother descend into a frightening madness which had stripped away her beauty and the serenity he had always associated with her, as well as her mind. "I had to work to pay the doctor's bills. I was lucky and managed to secure a post in an insurance office. I did not find the work difficult and the manager seemed to like me. He was very...understanding and often invited me to his home..."
There was a short pause which the Kommandant filled dryly; "And he had a daughter."
The blond head snapped up, gazing wordlessly at the older man, seeing a sympathy in the grey eyes that was missing from the cynical tone of the words."
"I was - am - very fond of her..." His voice tailed off, realising how much he had given away by that slip of the tongue. After a moment he added; "She was never strong. Lately, there have been symptoms I recognise."
The Kommandant stared at him, amazed that he had known the man for so long and had never appreciated the load he carried. He had watched Willi die slowly over years but to the last he had retained some remnant of his own true character. To watch someone you love go further and further from you with each passing day until only a stranger remained... and then to see it all begin again...
"I can understand now how even a posting such as this would have its attractions. I am glad you told me. I know how private a person you are, my friend, but if you do wish to talk further..."
The open affection in the man's voice sent a twisting sensation searing through Ulmann, not understanding why it should mean so much to him; why it should matter that this man called him friend. He looked up again, seeing through the concern to the fatigue which lay below. However much Ulmann may need to talk, his Kommandant needed rest first. He marvelled a little, wondering at how much of a burden seemed to have lifted from him. Perhaps he should have talked to someone before - but there had never been anyone he felt would understand, or care.
"You need to sleep, sir." Ulmann did not realise how soft his voice was, how the concern and fondness shone clearly through the words.
"You are right, Ulmann. As so often - you are right."
The Kommandant put his glass on the desk, rising and walking past before the junior officer could get to his feet.
"Do not get up," the older man murmured, and he rested his hand on Ulmann's shoulder, gripping hard for a brief instant, before passing on. "Thank you, Franz."
Into the empty room Ulmann whispered; "Goodnight...sir."
He sat for some time in the office, thinking about his life and the way it had gone. Looking back, he could not pinpoint the moment they had become friends; when the dry dust of his life had blown away to show him that there was something beyond work. The work had brought him back to life, but the friendship he was offered now provided the depth, the feeling that there was, at last, something worth living for.
The thought was suddenly uncomfortable and he moved away from it, alighting on one at least as disconcerting. In all this, he had not given much consideration to the fact that all the men in the camp had lives outside these walls. He thought of Simon Carter for a moment, recalling those times when he occasionally had to read the British mail. Carter's letters to his wife always struck him as stiff and formal, intriguing him, and he had eventually learned that the Englishman had been married for only a few weeks before he had left on his final, fateful mission. They could hardly know one another at all, he thought, feeling a strange pity for the blond man touch him. As he sat quietly it occurred to him that the Flight Lieutenant had not been on any of the recent escape attempts. The man's ankle was obviously still painful but, even so, he seemed to be heavily involved with the group that Ulmann thought of as the high risk prisoners. His mind was suddenly and firmly back on his work, almost sure that he now knew the identity of the British escape co-ordinator. A man to be watched - and he thought pityingly of Kathy, a woman he knew only through her short, sad letters, whose husband would no longer be able to struggle his way back to her.
Sighing he tossed back the rest of his schnapps, hearing the clock strike midnight. Rousing himself he stood to leave the room, aware that in a little time he had to make his customary rounds. Leaving introspection behind him, he quietly vacated the office.
July - September 1943
Steadily Ulmann worked his way around the castle, checking that every guard detail was in place. The night was dark and the only illumination was cast by floodlights and the occasional glimpse of a half moon hanging high in the sky casting a weak light periodically obscured by the clouds scudding across it. He made his way through the main gate, glad to note that the guard immediately challenged him, and he pulled out his identity papers, waiting patiently while the man compared them, and then returned the salute. A flash of mild amusement tinged with annoyance claimed his attention for a moment and he traced the emotion to its source. Ruefully he accepted that the guards now knew they must challenge their security officer but he doubted whether any of the other German officers met the same treatment. Given the attitude he knew some of the officers would take were it to happen, Ulmann found it difficult to blame the guards for their lapse.
His silent patrol had brought him across the courtyard, his reverie interrupted as something claimed his attention. It might have been anything - even a shadow cast by the clouds and the moon - but his experience told him otherwise. Frowning he tried the kitchen door, frown deepening as it opened beneath his hand. Walking in, he panned the torch around and caught sight of three men; men he knew immediately. They stood silently watching him, their eyes glittering in the light cast by his powerful torch. Ulmann knew a moment of real fear and it shamed him though he banished it instantly. If the men had appeared angry he would have felt easier, but it was the implacable calm with which they regarded him which had sent the fear. These men had lured him here to take their revenge for the discovery of the French tunnel and no other thought - for their own safety or that of their fellow prisoners - crossed their minds. As he wondered about the location of their comrade the silence was broken by the sound of the door closing behind him. He knew he had been carefully manoeuvred and cursed himself because he should have called for the guard before checking the building. Before he could shout or reach for his revolver a blow from behind caught him in the kidneys. Stumbling towards the men now moving forward to meet him he smashed his torch into the face of the individual nearest him, managing not to cry out as another blow fell and his arms were grabbed. Ulmann was strong and his assailants had been weakened by long imprisonment and poor rations. As he fought he began to suspect that they had not expected such resistance, but the odds were still overwhelming and he knew this was one fight he was going to lose unless he could make enough noise to attract the attention of the guards. The moment's thought robbed him of his concentration and a solid fist caught him at the back of his neck. Momentum took him forward and he fell, agony exploding behind his eyes before unconsciousness claimed him.
Ulmann's first waking thought was filled with pain and every part of his body seemed to ache to some degree or another, but he stifled a groan as he sensed he was not alone. Disoriented and sore he searched his memory for the reason he was here and the reason he was injured. Memory surfaced slowly, and with it an increasing amazement that he was still alive. The identity of his silent companions suddenly became of importance and he opened his eyes. A tiny flickering glow gradually coalesced into a small oil lamp of a type he recognised as used by the prisoners. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness he recognised the figure of Flight Lieutenant Carter by his side. The man was holding a damp cloth that seemed stained and a look of relief suffused his features as he saw that Ulmann's eyes were open.
"I was beginning to think you were never going to wake up."
Carefully, Ulmann pulled himself into a sitting position, stifling a cry as a stabbing pain caught him in his side, and he accepted the help Carter offered him. Even through his suffering he still found the ability to be amused as he caught sight of Captain Brent keeping a careful watch on the guard through a crack in the door.
Despite his situation force of habit prompted his next comment. "You should be in your quarters, gentlemen.
"There's gratitude for you," muttered the Flight Lieutenant and the German saw both amusement and annoyance in his face before he continued. "Captain Brent couldn't sleep. He saw you go in, but not come out."
Ulmann's scattered wits found it difficult to accept that his enemies had come to his aid. "So you came to help. How philanthropic"
"Where did you learn to speak English?" Carter asked, inconsequentially, before continuing with more strength; "Come on, Hauptmann, you know as well as we do what's going to happen if... certain people... find out what's happened here."
As the man who was nursing the bruises the German did not feel inclined to let them see how grim the consequences could be - or the fact he had no intention of allowing it to happen. "Why should there not be an enquiry?"
"Mohn - and the SS. Good enough reasons?"
"So, what do we do now? How badly are you hurt?"
"I don't know; head and ribs - possibly concussion."
"Can you walk?"
"In a moment."
Carter seemed to mull his next words over for a moment, then asked; "What would happen to the rest of us . . .?" He did not have to complete the sentence.
Ulmann weighed up the consequences of speaking the truth to the Englishman, accepting eventually that in this situation they were allies - however reluctantly. He could identify his attackers but it was the opening the SS had been waiting for. The prisoners would suffer, the Wehrmacht would be disgraced. The Kommandant... He bit back a cry as he moved incautiously and agony ripped through him. The scene before him receded and he fought against the threatening faint, angry at showing any weakness. When he recovered it was to find himself being held by the Englishman. Carter had pulled Ulmann against him offering a more comfortable support to his body, easing the pain that his sudden movement had triggered.
'Yes." Ulmann did not try to move, leaning against his enemy and breathing carefully. Once the pain subsided he answered the question. "It is possible that some prisoners would be punished."
'You mean shot." It was not a question.
"If the SS take over - yes."
"Will you report this?"
There was a short, tense pause.
"I cannot." Ulmann felt the man supporting him relax. "However," he added. "I will need medical treatment."
"What can we do?"
"I must reach the Kommandant. He will know what to do and he does not wish any SS involvement in the castle." Ulmann bit back any further comments, aware that he had already said too much.
"Would he agree to cover up an attack on an officer?"
Without hesitation the German answered. "Yes."
"Okay. That's good enough for me." He threw the cloth at the Captain. "George, can you rinse that?"
With another glance for the still patrolling guard the dark man headed for the sinks, while Carter helped Ulmann to a nearby seat, hunting around for the German's cap. It was lying where it had rolled, and was smeared with blood. Ulmann suddenly realised what had stained Carter's cloth.
Carter accepted the damp cloth, handing the cap to Brent in exchange. "Try and get the blood off that, would you."
Carefully the blond man wiped Ulmann's face, muttering an apology as the other man winced. For a moment there was perfect understanding between them, before Carter's glance fell and he continued his task.
Ulmann closed his eyes while the ministrations lasted, unwilling to catch that gaze again. He was reluctant to admit how grateful he was that Carter and Brent had found him. He might have been there until discovery by the orderlies in the morning ensured that news of the incident travelled round the entire castle in no time. He was not too worried about being a laughing stock but the thought of Mohn's probable reaction was enough to send shivers down his spine. He was brought back to the present as Carter caught the edge of the head-wound again and he winced.
"Sorry," Carter was quick to apologise.
"It is not important," remarked Ulmann.
"Can you get to your feet?"
"With some help..."
He needed to say no more and with Brent and Carter helping him he managed to stand, grunting a little as his injured rib caught him
Carter studied him. "You don't look fit to walk, sir. Would it be easier if we fetched the British MO?"
"No." He had not missed the acknowledgement of his rank, and it touched him more than he would have believed. "It simply adds to the danger we are all in. I can manage." He accepted his cap as the other Englishman handed it to him. "Thank you, Captain." And, taking his torch from Carter, he asked; "How will you get back to your quarters?"
"Oh, don't worry about us, Hauptmann Ulmann. That's no problem at all"
"No. I do not expect it is." His face did not change its bland expression although the two men must have sensed his inner amusement as they both smiled sheepishly. "I know I can rely on your discretion, gentlemen. I assume you will inform Colonel Preston of what has occurred?" He acknowledged Carter's nod. "Of course, you must. Goodnight Mr Carter, Mr Brent." He hesitated for an instant and then added; "Thank you."
Ulmann was aware of them watching him as he walked slowly and with great deliberation towards the gate, but once through into the outer courtyard he had to forget everything except concentrating on getting one foot in front of another. Somehow, he was not sure how in retrospect, he found his way to the Kommandant's quarters and leaned against the panelled door while knocking quietly but urgently.
By the time the Kommandant finally answered Ulmann was beginning to think that he would disgrace himself by fainting on his commanding officer's doorstep, and only willpower was keeping him standing.
"Good God. what has happened?"
Ulmann had removed his cap, revealing his usually immaculate hair as a rumpled mop, thick with matted blood that seeped from the gash close to his left ear and trailed stickily down the side of his head.
The voice seemed to be coming from a long way away and Ulmann forced himself to concentrate on the well-known tones.
"May I come in, sir?"
The Kommandant took a closer look at him, seeing the ashen skin and realising that Ulmann was close to losing consciousness. Immediately he opened the door wide, helping the Hauptmann into the suite of rooms. He heard him gasp.
"What is it?" he demanded.
"A broken rib, I believe."
"Broken... ?" Out of the corner of his eye, Ulmann could see the tight-lipped anger on his superior's face but the man did not speak until he had helped the injured man out of his jacket and onto the settee.
Ulmann felt better once he was seated, easing his position to give himself as little pain as possible. The real problem was the head-wound, he acknowledged, aware that medical treatment was necessary.
"Well," the Kommandant snapped. "How did this happen?"
Carefully, Ulmann gave an account of the night's proceedings.
"You know who did this and yet you say we can do nothing about it?" The Kommandant was clearly outraged by the thought.
"Worse than that, sir," he volunteered. "We must work with the prisoners to ensure that it does not reach the ears of any other German in the Castle."
"Have you any idea what you are suggesting?"
"Can you think of any other way? Sir, you know what nearly occurred when Gefreiter Henneburg was murdered. If the SS find out it will give them the excuse they have been waiting for."
"And you do not like to fail."
Incautiously, Ulmann amended. "I do not want us to fail, sir."
The other man stood, pacing around the room and Ulmann watched him idly, feeling unconsciousness beginning to nibble at the edges of his mind.
"Sir. I am sorry, but I believe I require a doctor.
"The Stabsarzt is an old friend. He is completely trustworthy." The Kommandant thought quickly. "You must stay here. I will inform the duty officer that you requested and received seventy-two hours' leave to attend to urgent family business. I cannot make it longer, I'm afraid. My batman has been transferred to a fighting unit and the orderly is ill, so no-one else will enter these rooms." For a moment the mask of anger slipped to reveal the concern. "This is appalling," he exclaimed.
"Sir ... " Ulmann's gentle reminder brought him back to the matter in hand.
"I am sorry, Ulmann. I shall fetch the doctor. Please try to stay awake. I will only be a moment." His hand fell on the Hauptmann's shoulder again, the grip infinitely comforting.
"Thank you, sir," he murmured.
Ulmann did his best to obey the Kommandant but when he finally struggled back to consciousness he found himself lying half-naked on the settee with the doctor leaning over him, shaking him gently by the shoulders.
"Ah, good," the man said. "Please do not move too much, Hauptmann, - in a moment we will move you to the bedroom. I took the opportunity while you were unconscious to strap your ribs. Only one is broken, you will be glad to hear, and there should be no danger to the lung as long as you do not try anything too adventurous. The concussion is also slight, although I will have to put a stitch or two into the cut on your scalp and you need bed rest. Karl has explained the situation to me; seventy-two hours is not enough but if you do stay completely quiet and you are careful for a week or so afterwards, well, I suppose we have no choice."
Lying down and with the rib strapped Ulmann already felt considerably better, but the look he could see in the Kommandant's eyes and the hard set to his features warned him to stem his own instinctive attempt to rebel against the doctor's dictates. As he pulled himself upright a wave of dizziness almost sent him back to unconsciousness and underlined the doctor's assertion that he was not fit for duty. In fact, he realised with disgust, he was not fit for anything.
The doctor's mild voice chastised him. "I did suggest that you were careful, Hauptmann. Now, let me have a look at that injury."
Ulmann could not quite suppress his wince as gentle fingers probed the area.
"Hmm, as I suspected. Nothing to worry about, but I will have to put in those stitches."
With quiet efficiency and a slightly fussy air the doctor placed the materials he would require on the table. Ulmann watched him, warily. He had never had much to do with the doctor in the past and in truth had barely paid him much attention. On looking at him now he saw an elderly, sallow-featured man who looked to be in need of his own ministrations; of medium height, he had thinning grey hair and a benign, kindly expression. A slight man, but there was some indication of the hidden wiry strength that often went with such a build and hands that manipulated the tools of his trade with sensitivity and a delicate precision. Even that, however, could not help Ulmann relax.
The Kommandant stood at the end of the settee, watching the proceedings in a grim silence that drew the injured man's glance to him at regular intervals. He desperately wanted to find something reassuring to say to his junior officer but knowledge of the anger bubbling within him kept him silent. Instead he concentrated on the doctor's actions, watching as the scalp was cleaned up and the Stabsarzt prepared to stitch the head wound.
It was the doctor's admission that he had no anaesthetic that first pushed him into speech.
"Surely there must be something you can give him. Schnapps...?"
The doctor shook his head, as Ulmann protested.
"I need nothing, thank you, sir. It is only a scratch - nothing."
The Oberst bit his lip, meeting Ulmann's eyes for the first time since the doctor had been with them with a shock, he realised that he could read their message clearly, even more surprised to find himself relaxing slightly at the reassurance he found there.
It was still difficult to watch, however, and he found himself flinching in sympathy as the needle entered the skin, looking on with growing concern as Ulmann's face lost what remained of its colour until it was chalk white and his eyes closed. The doctor peered at the scalp, tugging the thread through gently until the skin pulled slightly, slipping in the needle once again. The Kommandant did not realise he had moved, suddenly finding himself behind the seated man, his hands on the wide shoulders, gripping hard.
"Good," murmured the doctor. "Keep him still, Karl."
That was not why he had moved and he accepted his true motivation. He was not there to help any medical process but to offer what strength he could - and more. The chink in his emotional armour which this man had pierced opened a little further. He was there trying to offer comfort, and by the gradual relaxation in the muscles under his hands he knew it had been accepted and welcomed. Confusion hit him as he recognised the thoughts and feelings running through him but he thrust it all from him savagely.
Thankfully for his peace of mind, the doctor chose that moment to announce that he had finished his grisly task. Hoffner spent a few moments ostensibly tidying up, using the time to keep a close eye on both his patient and the Kommandant. His knowledge of the latter's temper had been gained from many years acquaintanceship. Eventually, when Ulmann had regained some colour and the other man a measure of calm, he suggested that the Hauptmann should move into the bedroom, where he was under strict instructions to stay for the next three days.
Suddenly Ulmann was uncomfortable with the idea. "Surely I could return to my own quarters?" he questioned, unaware of the Kommandant behind him. The older man's nice hardened, angry at the sense of disappointment that hit him because Ulmann had made this suggestion.
"No." The doctor was adamant. "Neither Karl nor I would have any reason for going into your quarters if you are supposed to be on leave. You will stay here."
"But, sir ... " On this point Ulmann was inclined to argue, turning carefully until he could see the Kommandant. "You need your sleep. What will you do?"
"I will manage quite comfortably on the settee, thank you, Ulmann." The thought that the man was concerned about him sent warmth flowing through him, dissipating some of the cold knot of anger and fear that had been building within.
Ulmann, sensing that he had no real choice, capitulated and allowed himself to be helped carefully to his feet. He had no memories of having suffered illness in his life, and his habit with injury was to retire from any acquaintance. He was not used to either needing help or accepting it, hating the feeling of inadequacy and of being dependent on someone else. At least, he thought, he did not truly mind accepting help from his Kommandant but he wished the doctor was not present. The thought surprised him, his tired and injured brain chasing it around while he made his halting way through to the other room before abandoning it when he caught sight of the bed and realised just how ill he was.
He looked vacantly at the bundle the Kommandant was holding out to him, recognising, after a brief struggle, a pair of his own pyjamas, and it did not register until a long time later that the Kommandant must have collected them from his quarters when he went to fetch the doctor. At that moment he was simply grateful to see them, knowing that all he had to do was to fight his way into them and then he could lie down.
The doctor moved away, packing items into his bag, and with something akin to alarm Ulmann saw that his earlier wish was being granted; he was being left to the care of his Kommandant. Suddenly the prospect was not so appealing, knowing that he did not want the older man to see him weak and helpless. With another shock he noticed that he was sitting on the bed sheet and that the covers must have been thrown back when the man rose to answer his summons some thirty minutes earlier. He had no explanation to offer, or none that he could admit to, for the surge of warmth that ran through him then at the thought of the man lying in this bed, on these sheets. Wearily he tried to push everything away from him; the emotions he did not recognise, the feelings that seemed familiar and unknown at the same time and the need that was waking from a long, long sleep. With an effort he dragged himself back to the here and now to concentrate on what the doctor was saying.
"Can you manage, Karl? I should get back to my quarters in case anyone else needs me." Turning to Ulmann he added; "The Kommandant will invite me to his quarters for a drink tomorrow - this - evening and if I can I shall see you during the day."
"Thank you, Herr Doktor. May I have a drink?"
"A little water only, until the morning."
The doctor took his leave and the Kommandant moved to Ulmann's side.
"I can manage, sir. You shouldn't have to … "
"Oh, hush man." The voice was affectionate and it silenced Ulmann. Instead, he endured the other man's help in undressing, the business completed in an embarrassed silence. Ulmann was fighting against an unexpected surge of panic as the older man's hands touched his body and the Kommandant was desperately aware of his discomfiture, his own feelings at being able to touch him buried under anger and concern so deep that when he finally realised it was there the shock had him stepping abruptly away. Ulmann, weariness and pain encroaching further with every passing moment, noticed the sudden withdrawal but did not even attempt to discern its cause. The Oberst moved to a small table and only returned with the water when Ulmann had levered himself into the bed and pulled the covers over him. In silence the older man watched for a moment until Ulmann's eyes opened and seemed to pierce him to his heart, laying bare all his innermost thoughts. He started and moved forward, reading the acceptance of his presence in the gaze and sudden affection brushed away all his doubts. Putting the glass on the bedside table, he helped Ulmann lean forward slightly until he could arrange the pillows behind him. Sitting on the edge of the bed he let his arm remain behind the injured man and eased him up to sip at the glass of water.
Without noticing that he had moved Ulmann changed his position until he was supported by the Kommandant and once he had drunk he dropped his head back, turning slightly until his cheek rested against the red silk Paisley pattern of the other man's dressing gown. He shut his eyes against a level of exhaustion he had never experienced before. It was also a long time since he had felt so comfortable and he revelled in the warmth of the arms holding him. If he had been well he most certainly would have been extricating himself as quickly as he could manage, but the implications of his position escaped him for the moment, happy simply to be so close to the person he admired most in the world.
The Kommandant considered what he could see of the strong features, his expression softly affectionate. Ulmann was drifting towards sleep and though he would have been more than happy to sit holding the man in his arms, he knew it was too cold. The thought that had slipped into his mind froze him suddenly, dropping his temperature, instantly followed by a rush of heat to his face as he finally understood what was happening to him.
Ulmann noticed the sudden tension and stirred, believing that the other man was embarrassed by the embrace. The thought banished the comfort and left him uneasy. He shifted and the Kommandant took the opportunity to say briskly; "We had better get you settled, Hauptmann. Sleep is the best medicine, now."
Silently a voice in Ulmann's mind whispered that his best medicine was sitting by him at that moment. He almost cried out as the Oberst gently disentangled himself and helped Ulmann to settle himself more comfortably. The Hauptmann watched as he moved back to the nightstand, refilling the glass. Unease returned as he was startled by the thoughts running through his mind, weariness and pain breaking down barriers that had been impenetrable for many years, and he recognised now that they had slowly been eroding, falling brick by brick, ever since he had first offered his loyalty and trust to his Kommandant. He shook his head, trying to dispel the wishes and dreams that suddenly flooded into him. The action was unwise. He stifled a groan as his head spun, drawing the other man's attention to him.
"Ulmann, are you feeling worse?"
The injured man warmed at the tone of worry in the voice, answering wearily. "No, I moved without thinking, that is all." Incautiously, he added; "Please don't worry."
The Kommandant moved back to the side of the bed, aware of Ulmann watching every move he made. "You must sleep now."
Obediently, Ulmann closed his eyes but opened them again as he heard his companion's deep sigh. His gaze met brooding, dark features; the Kommandant at his most unapproachable. Pushed into speech, Ulmann tried to apologise.
"Sir, I let you down. I..."
"Stop it." It was an order delivered in the commanding officer's most authoritative tone and it served its purpose, stopping Ulmann in his tracks. Sure that he had the Hauptmann's undivided attention, he continued. "You are not to blame for what happened. I am not angry at you - but appalled at what the consequences might have been. Good God, you might have been killed!"
The possibility rose like a spectre - the one aspect of all this that he had desperately been trying to ignore - that he might have lost this man's presence, his friendship, for ever. The thought was too terrible to be borne and certainly too terrible to be dwelt upon. Impatiently, he thrust it from him. It had not happened, he told himself fiercely. But it had brought him to the point where he was forced to admit how much Ulmann meant to him. The man's gaze was fixed upon him still and he made himself relax.
"Go to sleep, Franz, hmm. We win talk about this tomorrow."
The Kommandant settled himself on the settee but sleep eluded him, his thoughts centred on the man in the next room. He had believed that such feelings were in the past and he had not expected the desire that had surfaced when he had helped Ulmann undress. He closed his eyes briefly and savoured the memory. Grimacing, he moved away from uncomfortable thoughts, alighting on another train of thought just as disconcerting as he traced his relationship with Franz Ulmann and how it had changed over the years.
It had been a rocky start, he admitted, neither of them sure they could trust the other. For him the leap to trust had come sooner, appreciating how hard Ulmann had worked and his cunning in letting the SS set and spring their own trap so keeping them out of Colditz. In his eyes they had become allies then, although he could not be sure when Franz had begun to trust him. He knew his junior officer trusted, respected, and liked him now - but lately there had been other incidents, too, moments that suggested something else might be happening beneath that implacable facade. He caught his breath suddenly as he remembered an increasing catalogue of small instances, minor kindnesses, and suddenly he was speculating wildly. What if... No. He thrust it from him. It was too much; too much to wish for and certainly too much to hope for. And yet …
Impatiently, he got up and moved quietly to the open bedroom door. For a long time he stood there and watched Ulmann sleep, his expression a strange mix of desire, concern, love and plain exasperation. Sighing quietly he walked to the bedside, looking on as almost against his will his hand stretched out and his fingers brushed gently across the injured man's forehead.
Ulmann's eyes snapped open. The Kommandant froze, his hand still outstretched, watching the expressions chase across the strong features. His own feelings were still plain to be read and he knew he had given himself away completely. Silently, he waited.
The other man stared at him, startled by the openness of expression. Mingled wonder and fear held him still for a moment until, with care, he raised his hand gripping the Kommandant's hand and brought it to lie above his strapped rib. Through the pyjama jacket he could feel the strong heartbeat quicken. For a long time they were still, eyes locked as they reached their understanding. Eventually weakness won through and his eyes closed as Ulmann drifted into sleep.
Karl stood by him, holding the hand in a loose grasp until he was sure he was deeply asleep. Once more he brushed his fingers across the wide forehead, and then he left.
The Oberst began the day facing Mohn, whose veiled enquiries concerning Ulmann's sudden absence had to be fielded as firmly as possible. The Major's instincts had told him that something out of the ordinary had happened, a feeling that had been confirmed by the atmosphere in the courtyard and a request from Colonel Preston to see the Kommandant. With only the briefest hesitation Mohn had acquiesced, indicating that Preston should follow him; his curiosity, however, was not to be satisfied on this occasion.
"Please sit down, Colonel. Thank you Major. Do not let us keep you from your duties."
Courteously dismissed, Mohn could do nothing but leave, his mouth pursing in obvious displeasure as he did so. Preston took his time moving the chair, clearly hoping that the officer would be well out of earshot before he said what he had come to say.
"Kommandant, this morning two of my officers came to me to report a very disturbing incident in which they were involved last night."
"Oh, Colonel Preston?"
"How is Hauptmann Ulmann, sir?"
The Kommandant considered him for a moment before answering, "The Hauptmann is on leave for the next seventy-two hours. There is no doubt in my mind that he will return to duty as soon as his leave is over."
Preston appreciated the subterfuge, recognising the reasons it had to be played this way. He was grateful for the implicit reassurance in the Kommandant's words and was aware that the older man would probably prefer that nothing was discussed openly at all. But there were still things he had to say. He had to be sure the Kommandant knew just exactly where the British officers stood in this matter.
"I want you to know, sir, that I absolutely deplore what happened and shall take every step in my power to ensure that there is no chance of it happening again. I can scarcely offer apologies on behalf of other officers, but I am sincerely appalled that such a thing has occurred. Quite apart from the cowardliness involved, the possible repercussions for all of us have not escaped either myself or the other senior officers."
"Thank you, Colonel. Is there anything else?"
"When Hauptmann Ulmann returns please tell him that I hope he found his leave restful." He hesitated for a moment, and then continued, joining the charade knowing it would be enough to inform the Kommandant about the decision he had made regarding the incident. "Flight Lieutenant Carter mentioned that he had seen him leaving the castle last night. I believe he has also informed other officers of that fact."
The Kommandant's lips pursed, almost as if he was going to smile, but instead he stood, "I shall be sure to relay your best wishes to the Hauptmann on his return. Good day, Colonel."
In the empty office Karl breathed a sigh of relief The co-operation of the British in this matter was paramount. He was glad to see that Preston had been just as horrified by the attack as he was - and just as aware of the possible consequences. He glanced at his watch. In another hour he could legitimately go to his quarters to check on his invalid. They had a great deal to discuss and the Kommandant had every intention of making use of Ulmann's weakness to reach some conclusions. Smiling grimly he turned back to the stack of files before him.
October - December 1943
Looking across at the Senior British Officer, the Kommandant considered his request. During the course of their interview Colonel Preston had proposed that the theatre, which had been closed the previous year following an escape attempt, should be reopened. Concentrating a number of the prisoners into one area mght have some advantages but, as he had experienced from his time at Colditz, these particular prisoners could not be relied upon to spend their time in lawful pursuits. He had begun by refusing the request outright but the Colonel had persisted, arguing that the provision of this amenity could be beneficial for morale and so indirectly for discipline. It was an argument the Kommandant could not ignore but he was well versed by now in Preston's ability to employ the words he thought the Kommandant most wanted to hear. I would be prudent, he believed, to talk to his senior staff before reaching a decision.
"I will inform you of my decision, Colonel."
"Thank you, Kommandant."
Once the man had departed he asked for the presence of his second-in-command and the camp scurity officer. He could have predicted Mohn's strong-arm approach.
The man was as direct as always. "The prisoners have done nothing to merit the return of this facility. I recommend that the request is refused."
Ulmann looked across at the older man and tried to find a more positive approach. "Concentrating a large number of the prisoners in one place may make it easier to watch them."
"You think it could aid security?"
Ulmann had seldom met such a loaded question and with his new understanding of the man knew exactly the answer he was looking for.
"Very well. The theatre may be open from first to last Appell. The security arrangements are your responsibility, Hauptmann." Anything, thought the Kommandant, to keep Mohn away from the prisoners.
As Ulmann saluted and left he averred. "The mistakes of a year ago will not be repeated."
The Kommandant watched him leave and once he was alone allowed his growing fondness for Franz to show openly. He sighed. Increasingly he found it more and more difficult to maintain impartiality when Ulmann was in his presence. Even during that most businesslike of meetings he could not hide the warmth of his regard. It would not have been so marked, he thought, if it was not for the fact that he disliked the Major more with each passing day. Having seen the man exercise poor judgement on so many occasions it was difficult to accept that he was in fact very shrewd and occasionally picked up on schemes being hatched by the inmates. He accepted that his own judgement could be flawed and that he might dismiss a suggestion of Mohn's simply because it did not fit in with his perception of events in the prisoners' yard. In a sense his closer friendship with Franz added to that problem; Ulmann wished to please him and his own judgement could suffer because of that.
He would speak to Franz later, he decided. Watever was between them they both had to exercise their professional judgement - whether or not they agreed.
His mind drifted back to the three days Ulmann had spent in his rooms after he had been attacked.Franz had quickly grown bored by the enforced bed rest and he had taken to spending as much time in his quarters with him as he possibly could. It had given them opportunities to talk that otherwise they might not have managed, and out of those discussions had come a greater knowledge of one another and of what had happened between them.
In some respects Ulmann had been devastated, even though he admitted that he had begun to recognise that their growing closeness was something beyond comradeship. The question of a physical relationship was an issue they carefully skirted. Both men were quite clear that it was an aspect they desired but the political climate was far too dangerous to risk their lives for something that they knew would be less important than the emotional ties that bound them. During their conversations they had charted the journey each had taken to reach this place, and he had learned that he had an unlikely benefactor in the guise of Willi. He let his mind dwell on that particular conversation. A chance remark on his part had provided an opening which Franz had obviously been waiting for.
Looking down at his hands he had murmured, "I met Major Schaeffer in Colditz one evening."
Despite the fact that the Kommandant had introduced him into the conversation the remark was still something of a non-sequitur.
"Yes?" he questioned.
"It was soon after he had left the castle. I was walking through the town and met him leaving the Bierkeller."
"Ah." No further embellishment was needed. By that time Willi had known he was going to die and had seen no reason to try and curtail his drinking despite the pain it caused. He could well imagine in what state Franz had found him.
"He was ... "
" ... stinking drunk."
"As you say. I was concerned about him and thought I should take him to his lodgings."
"I do not expect he welcomed your help," he had ventured.
"He told me to leave him alone and go to Hell."
"That sounds like Willi."
"Yes, sir," Franz had replied dryly. He was still looking at his hands and so had missed the expression of fond exasperation that crossed the Kommandant's nice as the reminder of the difference in their ranks was voiced.
"What did he say?" At the man's questioning gaze he had expounded. "Willi was never discreet when he was drunk and I gather he said something about me or we would not be having this conversation. Tell me, Franz." He had kept his tone encouraging, willing this most taciturn of men to open up and tell him what was on his mind.
Ulmann had glanced at him before returning his gaze to his hands as they twisted restlessly in the sheet covering him. Greatly daring, the Kommandant had reached out and stilled the nervous movements by the simple expedient of pressing his own hand over Ulmann's.
Startled, the other man had looked up once more. Whatever he had seen in the man's expression seemed to relax him, though colour had touched his skin as he turned one hand to clasp Karl's fingers loosely, looking down as if he could hardly believe what he had done.
"He said nothing until I got him to his apartment. I asked him if he needed any further help. He told me to go to Hell again." Ulmann had shrugged, indicating that such abuse from a drunk had produced little effect. "Then he began to talk about you. He said … he said he never knew what he had until he had thrown it too far away. I didn't understand. I thought … Then he looked at me and said he had told you there would be trouble because of me, and he laughed." Ulmann's eyes had become unfocussed as if he was once again in the cramped, disreputable room listening to Schaeffer's damning testimony.
"He said that you deserved better; better than him, better than a wife who could never give you what you needed. Then he looked at me and said that I could - I could give you everything. I - that was when I left."
The Kommandant had been well able to believe it, imagining Ulmann's controlled but hasty retreat. And he had never mentioned it until that moment. For over a year Ulmann had held the knowledge that his Kommandant and Major Schaeffer had once shared an intimate relationship, and had said nothing. The depth of the man's loyalty had taken his breath away. And not just his loyalty. Accepting that such feelings deserved absolute truth he told Franz all about the friendship he and Willi had shared and eventually his voice had tailed off as he retreated into those memories.
Even thirty years ago Willi had been a wild one, flirting with anyone, male or female, and his younger, impressionable friend had often been hurt, believing for a long time that there was something special between them. The day he had learned that Willi had merely used him had been a painful one and it had been a long time before he could come to terms with it. Eventually, with a naturally wise and understanding temperament, he had come to know the other man's character, realising that Willi had loved him as much as he could ever love anyone - other than himself. They had become real friends then, gaining a friendship that was based on the true knowledge of one another. It had also given him the experience to see that now he was being offered something much deeper. He had grown to know a little about Franz Ulmann, despite his reticence, knowing that where he loved, he loved deeply and with total commitment. The thought that this was being offered to him, so different from Willi's base coin, was very tempting. This was someone who would not let him down, who would never desert him or deliberately hurt him. This was someone with whom he could be himself; no charades, no barriers. He was being offered everything he ever wanted, by the person he most wanted to share it with.
"Karl?" Ulmann's voice had at last roused him from his reverie.
He had tightened his grip on Ulmann's hand, smiling into the concerned gaze.
"He hurt you." The grip had tightened, Ulmann's anger giving him strength.
"It is not quite so simple. With Willi nothing was ever simple. Our friendship was dearly bought - and not just by my pain. Willi suffered, too, never doubt that. He hated what he was; knew he was shallow. It hurt him that he could never return what he was given. And in the end..."
"In the end - he drank - and caused you more pain."
The Kommandant had realised that the condemnation had left the deep voice and had been glad to know that the man could listen and understand.
The scene faded from his memory, recollecting how in that moment he had made his own commitment, accepting that he had found the person he wished to share his life with and that those wishes were returned. How they could achieve that in the present climate he had no idea, but whatever happened they would face it together.
Gradually he returned to the present and pulled a sheaf of reports towards him, his mind fully on his duties as he read the Stabsarzt's report on Pilot Officer Page and the recommendation that he be examined by a psychiatrist.
Ulmann walked purposefully into the noisy theatre. For a moment he stood in silence and surveyed the chaos surrounding him. As someone with more than a passing interest in drama he could see nothing approaching any order whatsoever. His gaze rested on Captain Downing, reflecting that the Captain seemed to be in exactly the same position as he had witnessed in his previous visit. Downing was wielding a broom to little effect and if Ulmann calculated correctly that particular patch of floor had been swept a number of times already - not that one would guess from examination of the dusty surface. A devil of mischief within him that he did not recognise tempted him.
"Who is in charge of the show?" At Downing's look he elaborated; "Who is running the production?"
Downing was clearly nonplussed. "In charge ... ? Well ... no-one, really." He continued, giving a brief run down of acts that Ulmann had already witnessed. "The French are providing the music, the Dutch are doing folk dancing..."
"I assume all this activity is leading up to some kind of performance."
"Well, yes, I suppose."
Ulmann enjoyed Downing's growing horror at his next words.
"If this facility is to be used, it is to be used properly. You will mount a proper show." Further memories of his encounter with farce haunted him for a moment and he added hastily; "None of your bawdy British humour. I want a list of the acts and the contents of those acts by the end of the week. The 29th, I think, will be the date of the show. You will be responsible."
"Me?" Downing almost squawked his reply. "Organise this lot? That's impossible."
"Impossible or not, you will see to it." He stalked off to examine those who were rehearsing, unable to conceal his reaction to the Dutch clog dancers who were failing miserably in their attempts to dance in time to the music, and leaving Downing behind him gasping like a landed fish. The type of activity in the theatre worried Ulmann immensely. It was plain that the production of a show was not in the thoughts of those who frequented it. If they were not truly engaged in theatricals then what were they up to? Ulmann had a shrewd idea, particularly when Flight Lieutenant Carter, Captains Brent and Downing and Lieutenant Player seemed to be involved.
All he could do was to keep a close watch on them - and he had every intention of doing so. He knew that if anything went wrong the Kommandant would be held accountable. When he returned to the door he looked over the milling men again, watching the interplay between the French and British officers. The sight reminded him of the events in the summer, shortly after he had been attacked.
The doctor had been right. Three days' bed rest had not been enough to heal the damage inflicted by the French attack. However he had gritted his teeth and by careful manoeuvring had dressed himself and managed to reach the courtyard by the time the bell for Appell had stopped ringing. His progress had been interrupted by a meeting with Major Mohn who, Ulmann had decided uncharitably, had apparently been lurking round a corner specifically to waylay him. He recalled the short conversation.
"You enjoyed your leave, I trust?"
"It was business rather than pleasure, sir." He had been at his most correct, his most implacable.
"Oh, nothing serious I hope."
"Excuse me, sir, it is not something I wish to discuss - but thank you for your concern."
Mohn's eyes had narrowed as if considering probing further.
Ulmann had decided to cut the interview short asking. "I'm sorry, sir, is there something else? It is time for Appell."
Gratefully Ulmann had made his escape, once more reminded of how dangerous Mohn could be, and then had concentrated instead on the next hurdle to be faced. He had been angry with himself as he approached the inner courtyard, aware that he was nervous of facing the prisoners and irritated by what he considered a weakness. The French would have been expecting to see signs of injury and the British knew the truth of what had happened. The Kommandant had offered to be present at Appell but they had both known that only occurred on special occasions and this had to be as ordinary as possible.
In the event it had all passed off extremely smoothly and Ulmann had been surprised to find he had quietly enjoyed the disconcerted expressions on the French faces and had studiously ignored Flight Lieutenant Carter's sly wink as he had passed.
The next morning's Appell had occurred without the earlier unease. Another night's sleep, albeit in his own quarters, had helped and he had been feeling stronger.
His expression had frozen and his eyes became glacial as he had taken in the ranked men before him. Without a word but with disapproval oozing from every pore, he had walked along the French ranks. The four men who had attacked him had been skulking in the back row but had been unable to disguise the mess they were in. Black eyes, cut lips and at least one broken nose he had tallied, his mouth tightening. Without commenting he had passed on to the British ranks and had considered them. His eyes had alighted on Carter, and he had noticed the man sucking his fingers. As soon as the Flight Lieutenant had realised he was being watched the hand had slid to his side, but Ulmann had not missed the skinned knuckles. He had stared at the British, seeing the smugness on their faces, and had had to quell an almost overpowering urge to laugh that had melted the anger. He had seen the Flight Lieutenant relax, the ease with which the man had read him bringing home how much had changed in his life in such a short time. The knowledge that he could not take any legal redress against his attackers without laying the whole camp open to danger had caused him some frustration. As things had stood, there had been a breakdown in discipline in the camp which had not been corrected. It was tantamount in Ulmann's mind to giving the go ahead for other attacks on guards. He should have realised, he had thought, that many of the other officers would seek revenge for the danger in which they had been placed. He knew now it would not happen again and that the delicate balance they lived under had been restored.
He had stopped in front of Carter, grabbing his wrist suddenly. "You appear to have hurt your hand, Flight Lieutenant. I hope you have not been fighting."
Carter had stared at him and had cleared his throat, mumbling something non-committal, obviously relieved when Ulmann had walked away with only one final remark.
"I hope there will be no repetition, Mr Carter."
"Oh, I think I can guarantee that, sir.
Nothing else had ever been said about the incident. The Kommandant had spoken to the Senior French Officer and issued an ultimatum that had stunned a man used to the Oberst's even-tempered attitude. It had passed into history, apart from a lingering bad feeling between members of the British and French contingents. For a little while it was as if the historic alliance between the British and the Germans had reformed against a common French enemy.
There seemed to be little animosity between the two contingents now and for that Ulmann was grateful. Any conflict, even if it did not concern the Germans, affected the atmosphere of the camp. Ulmann sincerely hoped that the theatre would be put to its proper use and that some type of show would help morale; the signs were that they would all be here for some time to come. Whether they knew it or not, the prisoners were going to need some escape. He revised his thought wryly. They would need some diversion that would keep their morale up.
His eyes lighted on Lieutenant Player and with a sudden attack of whimsicality he wondered what the Englishman would think if he knew how matters stood between the camp Kommandant and security officer. His amusement died. It was not the type of information that anyone could be privy to - not while the present regime was in control. Soberly, he descended the steps and entered the courtyard once more.
"Well, Hauptmann, and how is the show progressing?" The joviality in the Oberst's voice signalled the end of the daily business and Ulmann took his cue, leaving his seat and pouring two glasses of schnapps.
"Thank you," the older man murmured as the glass was put in front of him "Well?"
"I am not convinced they have any intention of mounting a performance," Ulmann replied baldly.
The Kommandant's eyebrows raised and his expression became serious once more. "You think it is merely a cover for an escape attempt?"
"I am almost sure of it. But I have no proof."
"'Hmm, well we can only watch them and at least it means we know where to watch."
The Oberst raised his glass. "Prosit, Franz."
The Kommandant regarded him over the rim of his glass, marvelling at how difficult he seemed to find it to say his name. Bluntly he asked; "Are you happy, Franz?"
Ulmann stared at him in consternation. Their altered friendship was more a matter of thought, look and an occasional touch that anyone else could construe as mild affection. It was seldom that any reference was made to it in speech. For a moment he searched the face before him and then answered just as bluntly. "Not particularly, sir. Why do you ask?"
"Because I wanted to know the answer. Are you regretting - ?"
"No," Ulmann broke in hastily. "It is not that - or rather," he amended, honestly, "not exactly that."
"We do not talk, Franz. I know it is difficult for you but there are times when I do need to know that you are still … "
It was true, Ulmann knew, and cursed once more his inability to vocalise the thoughts and feelings within him. He tried again. "The situation is not ideal - and then there are our wives. We both have other responsibilities. Sometimes, I cannot see how it can ever work."
A leaden weight seemed to settle in the Kommandant's stomach. "We can try to forget that it ever happened," he offered.
"No, sir, we cannot." They stared at one another across the desk and Ulmann correctly read the distress and despair on his Kommandant's face. Softly he added; "And I have no wish to."
A deep breath shuddered through the older man, and he picked up his glass to dispose of the contents in one swallow. Painfully he pulled himself to his feet and walked round the desk, laying a hand on the other man's shoulder. He let it linger there for a moment, well rewarded as Ulmann brought his own hand up to press firmly against his fingers in wordless reassurance. Without speaking the Kommandant left the room.
Each succeeding visit to the theatre heightened Ulmann's suspicions and an encounter with a piano blocking the entrance hardened suspicions into certainties despite the disorienting impression that he had somehow inadvertently wandered into a madhouse. The large echoing room with its stage at one end and the muddle of chairs, musical instruments and props offered him no obvious answers. There was still no proof and even an exhaustive search once the piano had been removed provided no clues. He knew his face was expressionless and his control intact but he felt a sense of impending doom. Something was going to happen in here. He did not know when, but all the signs were there. With another look round, eyes searching for any hint, he left, ignoring the mocking notes from the piano as they followed him.
Life continued to be difficult. Mohn was obviously avoiding the theatre, for which Ulmann was grateful, although he knew it owed nothing to the wishes of the Kommandant but much more to Mohn scenting trouble and absenting himself to ensure that none of the blame could possibly be laid at his door. He sighed. The frank exchange with Karl had rocked their evolving friendship and meetings since had been strained. Ulmann was becoming frantic to break through the wall of Karl's reserve, while understanding that the intention was not to shut him out but to give him time to adjust. Unfortunately neither of them seemed able to find the requisite words to bridge an ever-widening gap. Their working relationship had reverted to brief exchanges concentrating only on the business that faced them; the evening discussions over a glass of schnapps had ceased, as both men fought to come to terms with personal feelings.
The next indication of trouble followed Appell next morning. Ulmann scented it on the air. As he glanced around he encountered the Senior French Officer having a violent argument with one of his men. A further survey turned his eyes to the theatre entrance and suggested that another visit to the facility was called for. His tension heightening, he thrust the report he was holding at one of the guards and strode purposefully across the cobbles, unaware of his clenched fist slamming repeatedly into the palm of his hand as he went, almost shoving people aside when they impeded his progress.
Silently he passed by a recent arrival at the camp, who sat by the steps playing inane tunes on a recorder, and worked his way up the stairs, surprising the two men who were clearly supposed to give warning of his approach. His entry into the theatre was unheralded and he was aware of a faint scurry of movement. It was, he deemed, time for a major search.
The sounds of activity gradually stilled as the performers became aware that this was more than a cursory inspection, the music degenerating into a final discordant jangle before there was silence. Eventually his patrol brought him to the locked doorway of the theatre light well. He frowned for a moment before signalling for the appropriate keys. It had been years since he had naively believed that a locked door was any kind of deterrent to these men.
At first he was unaware of the rising noise behind him. Scuffling from the stage was his first indication that there was trouble. Irritated, he thrust the keys back at the guard and strode onto the stage from the wings, intending to sort out the problem and return to the locked door. The sight which met his eyes froze him for a split second, stunned by the incongruous vision of Flight Lieutenant Carter wrestling with a Dutch peasant girl. The man under the white cap and woollen pigtails was giving a good account of himself and as he watched they tumbled off the stage and onto the floor. In the brief moment when Ulmann wondered what on earth his guards were doing allowing this to continue, Carter had stumbled backwards and overturned one of the sentries. That event galvanised Ulmann into action, anger at the situation and his staff's obvious inability to handle it prompting his barked commands.
"That is quite enough. Flight Lieutenant Carter, you are under arrest for assaulting a German soldier." He raised his voice over the rising indignation of the other prisoners including, he noticed, the Dutchman with whom he had been fighting. "Guards, take him away."
Seething, he followed them out of the theatre, ignoring the patriotic outbursts as Land of Hope and Glory resounded. He stalked down the stairs in Carter's wake and the walk to solitary was completed in silence as Ulmann considered the events of the previous half hour. The cell door opened and Carter entered.
"Do you realise the serious nature of this charge, Flight Lieutenant?" Ulmann's austere attitude finally seemed to shake the blond man.
"It was an accident, Hauptmann. Come on, you must have realised that."
"Perhaps. That is not for me to decide. I will report the matter to the Kommandant and he will decide what charges are to be brought and whether you should be court-martialled. I assume Colonel Preston will institute his own enquiry into your disgraceful behaviour."
Ulmann pressed the point, still angry at his guards and the unshakeable feeling that he had been fooled. First he must report to the Kommandant, and then he was going to close the theatre completely. And if he had his way this time it would remain closed.
Ulmann's impression that events were overtaking him coalesced the day after Carter's arrest when two of the French officers disappeared. That had not eased his concerns about the British, however, still convinced that they were planning something and that the theatre was at the bottom of it. Meanwhile, Major Mohn had contacted the castle to report that the two missing officers had been recovered close to the town of Colditz and that he was returning with them.
Hail the conquering hero, Ulmann thought, acidly, as he waited in the courtyard. The gate opened and in stalked the Major, arrogance and self-satisfaction radiating from him. Behind him, watched over by the guards, shuffled two French officers. Ulmann said nothing as he looked at them, wondering why it was that only recently returning prisoners had arrived bloody and battered. Perhaps, he thought, that was the difference between a soldier and a fanatic. A soldier can usually accept and even admire his enemy's point of view where a fanatic never could. In that climate, any one of the Wehrmacht officers would have been unwilling to use force unless provoked. Mohn, it seemed, had no such compunction. He waited by the foot of the steps, allowing none of his inner thoughts to show.
"Try not to lose them again. Carry on, Ulmann."
Mohn's arrogant remark could only be ignored and he turned to follow the French officers as they were pushed towards the solitary cells. The feeling of being watched prompted him to turn and he met the Major's gaze. For a moment he held the man's eyes, his own dislike and contempt of Mohn clearly displayed. There was a silence lying thick over the courtyard as many of the inmates witnessed the obvious dissent in the ranks of their captors. Having displayed his own feelings for once Ulmann made his way up the steps. That he had shaken the Major he did not doubt - he had seen him flinch - but he did not hope that it was likely to lead to any change in the way Mohn treated him. Not that he cared, he told himself; but for the inevitable fact that dissent between two senior officers made not only his life more difficult but also Karl's.
The Kommandant glanced up as the two officers entered, recognising the brittle atmosphere. Both men came to halt in front of the desk. Characteristically it was Mohn who began, delivering his report concerning the recapture of the Frenchmen. The Oberst was arrested by the tone of his voice, sensing a dissatisfaction in it and immediately attempting to get to the bottom of it.
"I had not realised that the return of the prisoners should make you so despondent, Major." He almost made the remark a question, hoping it would lead to Mohn expanding on what was obviously troubling him.
"That is just it, Herr Oberst. Two French Officers escape and we recapture them - very easily."
"How fortunate." The Kommandant managed to keep the dry humour he was feeling from being obvious in his statement.
Mohn continued, as if he had not even heard him. "That was not the case with the British officers who escaped in April. They seemed to vanish completely."
Ulmann broke in, aware that the conversation was leading in a specific direction but unable to discern what it might be. "What are you inferring?"
"Two men went missing. They were never seen. They were never heard of They certainly never sent a postcard."
"Postcard?" The senior officer looked at the two men, and Mohn provided the explanation.
"As you know, sir, a successful escape by British officers has always been announced by a postcard."
"Are you saying they never escaped?" He shot the question at Mohn.
"I am saying, sir, that they never arrived."
"What exactly are you suggesting, sir?" Ulmann broke in, his voice hard, angry because he had not picked up the non-arrival of the postcard. Cursing himself; he realised he was going to have a lot of explaining to do, particularly if the look in Karl's eyes was anything to go by.
"If they never arrived, and have never been heard of, then perhaps they never left."
Ulmann turned to the Kommandant. "That could mean they were still in the castle. I want a snap Appell now." He realised that his tone of voice had been peremptory and added; "With your permission, sir."
"As you see fit, Hauptmann."
The Oberst's voice was cool and Ulmann felt his heart sink. It seemed as they became closer so they also seemed to become further apart than ever. He could not understand it but it was so and he did not know how to stop it. Pulling his mind back to the task in hand he followed the Major from the room, well aware of grey eyes on his back as he left the office.
The Appell confirmed Mohn's assertion that all the men were present and correct but he refused to allow any further action until late into the night. Then, armed with the camp record cards, they worked their way through the British dormitories. The cards were split into sections and each one had a photograph attached by which they could check the inhabitants. All went well until Lieutenant Player's name was called. Ulmann glanced up to look at the blond man and found himself face to face with a stranger. What was more, of the lieutenant there was no sign. The last place Ulmann remembered seeing him for sure was two days before in the theatre. He cursed, remembering Carter's fight and the locked door that had remained locked. As he suspected, he had been fooled. He left it to Mohn to deliver the news to the Kommandant, not sure that he could face him, and he began the thankless task of searching the castle to find out whether Player and the other man missing were in hiding or had truly left the castle grounds.
The search had uncovered nothing of importance and certainly had not resulted in the apprehension of the two British officers. As the days passed Ulmann accepted that they were most likely well on their way to Switzerland and began to believe that he would not see them again. He had thought about Lieutenant Player on several occasions, wondering if, assuming they made good their escape, he would contact Flight Lieutenant Carrington.
In the manner of life at Colditz no sooner had one irritation ceased than another took its place. This took the form of Squadron Leader Anthony Shaw, a much-decorated pilot who flew for British photo reconnaissance. His capture was a feather in the Reich's cap and he had been immediately despatched to Colditz - another security headache as far as Ulmann was concerned. It was also an opportunity for Mohn to goad Ulmann, and as he sat in the Kommandant's office he wondered why the senior officer was allowing it to continue. Their dealings with one another had reverted to the correctness with which they had first conducted their meetings and he was becoming desperate to break through the icy reserve with which he was being treated. He met Karl's eyes, surprising in them an echo of his own pain, and took sudden heart before attending to the Major's words.
"All our prisoners are special cases. Why should we treat Shaw any differently? If we do we will be creating something much more dangerous - a martyr. I do not think we want to do that."
Listening to him, Ulmann had to concede that he had a point. His own gut reaction had been to put Shaw in a solitary confinement cell and throw away the key. Perhaps he had been wrong but he would still put a special watch on the man. He made his request, ignoring Mohn as that individual looked skyward.
The Kommandant took the same view as Mohn. "He has won his reputation as a flyer. Let us see how long it lasts in captivity. Not long, I expect."
In the event it seemed that they were right. Shaw settled down to a quiet routine of study and literature classes which surprised Ulmann, although he was not displeased. The Squadron Leader was one less man to worry about.
Ulmann approached the office door with some trepidation. After witnessing that look in Karl's eyes he had been awaiting an opportunity to speak privately with him. Mohn had disappeared early in the evening - meeting a woman in the town, Ulmann knew - and they would not be interrupted. He entered at the quiet command and walked up to the desk. Setting down the report he was holding he took a deep breath and proceeded to win the battle over his natural caution and reticence.
"Karl," he demanded, seeing the man look at him in surprise. "Tell me what is wrong."
The reserve that had been between them seemed to disappear as the Kommandant stood and held out his hand.
"Franz!" The voice was full of relief and almost indulgent, as if he had been waiting for Ulmann to come to him.
Startled, Ulmann accepted the handshake, the two hands meeting across the desk and gripping tightly in an affirmation that contained more passion than he had ever experienced. He released the hand and sank into the chair behind him, gazing in mute enquiry at Karl.
"I am sorry," the Oberst shrugged, an uncharacteristic gesture that betrayed his discomfort. "I should have talked to you before. When you told me you were unhappy - I wanted to discuss it with you but I could not find the words, and I know you do not like to talk about emotional matters..."
Ulmann bit his lip, eventually responding; "I admit I am uncomfortable, but if you feel we need to talk then you must tell me."
The Kommandant's eyes softened. "Do you mean you had not noticed?"
Ulmann's gaze fell, acknowledging his own guilt.
The older man moved to the bureau, concentrating on the task of dispensing the alcohol into glasses, a ritual that had been absent from their lives and which both had missed. He was clearly considering his words and choosing them with care. He did not speak until he had turned to face Franz once more.
"I do not regret what has happened. I think perhaps I need to hear you say the same."
Blue eyes met grey and Ulmann smiled. "I do not regret this." His voice was quiet and yet forceful leaving Karl in no doubt that he meant what he said. They exchanged another smile and then the Oberst turned to business, their friendship re-established and on a stronger foundation than before.
"So, you believe Squadron Leader Shaw has settled down?"
"It is early days, sir, but the pattern appears established."
Karl chuckled, walking around the desk and handing Franz the glass of schnapps. "I like to think," he expounded, "that academic temperament has finally triumphed over heroic ambition. Who knows?"
They exchanged a smile before they drank.
"Was there anything else, Franz?"
Ulmann marvelled at the ease with which they had slipped back into their earlier camaraderie, days of doubt and silence finally over. He would not let that happen again, he vowed silently before answering his senior officer's query.
"Only this, sir." From the file on the desk he handed a card to the Kommandant. "The censor's office handed it to me today. I did not know whether we should pass it or not."
Intrigued, he turned the card over in his hands. It was a pre-war postcard of Basle railway station and he read the reverse with growing understanding.
"It is addressed to Captain Brent," he remarked. "I think we will pass it, Ulmann."
"Very well, sir."
There was a moment's silence and then Karl spoke again. "So - Lieutenant Player is free."
"Yes, sir." Their eyes met and Ulmann continued; "They are both free."
In silence they raised their glasses and drank.
April - June 1944
Ulmann stood at his office window and surveyed the scene below him. The day was bright, white clouds moving slowly across a sky that particular shade of blue which announces the true arrival of spring. The sounds drifting up from the yard were cheerful, but he recognised that the men had been affected by more than simply the seasonal weather. Despite the best efforts of the propaganda machine there was no disguising the fact that the German army was in retreat. That the prisoners were aware of this did not surprise him. Several abortive searches had been carried out over the months but the wireless he knew existed remained hidden. In some respects he was not sorry. Eventually the information gleaned from the foreign news broadcasts made its way to him, and experience had taught him long ago that those reports were not only accurate but also provided more information than was ever released to the German people. Hence this surge in the spirits of the prisoners and a corresponding dive in the morale of the German contingent at Colditz. As for Mohn, he stalked around the castle, apparently still full of belief - on the surface - in the inevitable ascendancy of the Third Reich.
Thoughts of Mohn prompted Ulmann to check his watch and pick up his cap, not attempting to stifle his heartfelt sigh. Another meeting, he thought, gloomily; another bruising encounter with the Major for the Kommandant and the security officer.
Mohn had already arrived and was seated, ignoring Ulmann's entrance in his usual fashion. The Hauptmann did not care and took his time arranging a seat to his satisfaction and dealing with the pleasantries offered him by the Kommandant. The look on the senior officer's face had been eloquent and Ulmann read its meaning clearly.
Once settled the Kommandant began the meeting, his voice mild as always although it was clear to someone who loved him that he was furious.
It took a moment for the words Ulmann had unconsciously used to register fully and when they did he knew his face had paled as the truth ambushed him, to leave him wondering why it had taken so long to accept. Almost four years ago he had fallen in love with this strong, quiet presence - a man of steely will, great compassion and sympathetic understanding. Ulmann knew he had avoided the truth, but now the emotion had named itself and he was forced to admit both the knowledge and the feelings.
Mohn's sarcastic tongue brought him suddenly back to earth.
"Any time the Hauptmann is willing to grace us with his attention ... "
"I beg your pardon," he apologised mildly, ignoring the Major's sneer, and not attempting to provide any explanation. He noticed the Kommandant's mouth twitching in amusement and knew his own eyes had softened before the Oberst returned to business.
"I have had a communiqué from OKW in Dresden. It seems that the French prisoners are to be transferred. Did you know about this, Major?"
"How could I, sir?" Mohn was all innocence.
Ulmann remembered his thoughts of some months before and was sure that Mohn had indeed contrived to rid himself of the French contingent.
"The transfer is perhaps not unexpected," the senior officer was continuing. "However, these men are being sent to a labour camp in Poland."
Mohn shrugged; "And why not, sir? I believe you know my views on the soft treatment we accord the prisoners."
"Indeed," the Kommandant's voice was dry. "I am not satisfied, however, and I have taken the matter up with OKW. They are adamant. I have recorded my disapproval at this violation of the dictates of the Geneva Convention."
Both men stared at him. The political and military climate was not one which tolerated dissension within its ranks. Occasions where those Wehrmacht officers with doubts could display them openly them were becoming rarer and fear was finally taking over completely. Anger suddenly sparked within the security officer, and with it the recognition that the emotion stemmed from his own fear. Why should the Kommandant lose any sleep at all over the disruptive and unruly French officers?
He answered his own question, his anger dying. It was that consideration which made him the man he was and, in spite of all the trouble which might come their way because of it, he would not really see him subvert his code of honour.
The meeting broke up soon afterwards, the Kommandant forbidding either of them to say anything to the French until nearer the time for their departure. Without speaking the two men left the office together, Mohn stalking away to his quarters and Ulmann deciding that an inspection of the British quarters was long overdue.
The climb to the dormitories was accomplished in Ulmann's usual silent manner, although as everyone would be at their meal he did not expect to meet any British sentries. However he also knew that this was one of the few times when they all gathered together and so was the optimum time for information to be passed among them. He walked through the door, able to hear a clear voice issuing some kind of statement to the obvious delight of those listening. He stepped forward, deliberately making a noise, and as they caught sight of him an officer sat down hurriedly, shovelling the thin soup into his mouth.
Ulmann sat firmly on his amusement.
"I have no wish to interrupt your meal, gentlemen. Do carry on." He uttered the words with a dry edge as they were all industriously ignoring him. "Lieutenant," he continued, "you appear to have been in the process of making some kind of announcement."
The man sat back in his chair. "Yes, as a matter of fact I was - "
Carter cut into the attempted explanation. "The Lieutenant was reading the news." He glanced at the German and Ulmann saw the devilment in his eyes.
"Well, that should interest all of us. Please continue."
"Go ahead, Mike."
Ulmann made no sign that he had heard Carter's muttered encouragement but listened in silence as the Englishman delivered the news that Field Marshal Rommel had been relieved of his command in the Middle East. He managed to keep all expression from his face, aware of Carter's sidelong glances in his direction.
"Where did you get this lie, Lieutenant?" He asked the question in equable tones.
"It's not a lie. Is it, Mike?" Carter cut in again, meeting the Hauptmann's eyes for a moment. Their expression puzzled Ulmann and he filed it away to think over later.
"I don't think so," was the reply.
"Your notes, please." He surveyed the seated men. "You have been warned, gentlemen. I have no choice but to report this to the Kommandant." Taking the notes with him, he stalked out of the room.
Ulmann had intended including the issue in his daily report. However as he exited the door at the foot of the stairs, he met the second-in-command.
"You have been to the British quarters, Ulmann?"
"And have you discovered anything of interest?"
Given that he was still holding the Lieutenant's notes, Ulmann informed the Major of the scene which had just occurred. Without another word, Mohn accepted the piece of paper and proceeded towards the Kommandantur. Ulmann sighed, but quickly suppressed his emotion as the members of the padre's choral group spilled out of the doorway behind him. He realised that Flight Lieutenant Carter had paused by his side, the Englishman's eyes on the retreating form of the man, Ulmann was sure, he hated most in the world.
"Bad news travelling fast, Hauptmann?" There was an underlying sympathy in the man's voice.
"I do not understand your meaning, Flight Lieutenant." Ulmann spoke as repressively as he could. Since Carter and Brent had come to his rescue that night in the kitchen he had known their attitude towards him had changed. For his part he could no longer think of them as enemies, but recognised how dangerous that could be - for all of them. He could not be seen to be on friendly terms with any of the prisoners.
By his side Carter chuckled softly. "Of course you don't," he murmured, and then strode past Ulmann and the choir.
Ulmann watched him, slightly puzzled, as the Englishman ducked into the doorway leading to the French quarters. If he was honest he would have to admit that Carter's attitude disconcerted him - the man seemed to delight in baiting him, but there was little or no malice in it that the German could detect. Another word came to mind. No, Carter was not baiting him - he was teasing him. Suddenly he realised that he had been standing there for too long and was collecting curious gazes from the members of the choir. Without further thought he walked past them, moving towards his office and relative sanctuary.
The Kommandant had been expecting Ulmann to join him and so had called a pleasant greeting at the knock on his door, having great difficulty in suppressing his annoyance when he saw who actually entered. Increasing paperwork and red tape dictated that he spent more and more time at his desk and had his meals delivered to the office. He was part way through his dinner when the Major entered, full of fire and indignation at the lies being promulgated by the illegal wireless in operation in the camp. In his turn the Kommandant was less than encouraging when the Major spilled out his woes, answering his assertion that the French were operating a radio-receiver with a non-committal grunt.
Their conversation was interrupted by the sounds of the choir practice in the courtyard below, and the Kommandant listened for a few seconds before commenting.
"It is an old German melody - Bach, I believe."
Mohn looked at him as if he had taken leave of his senses. The music had touched the Kommandant, reminding him of services he used to attend when he was a boy. Standing in the great Church with his parents he had listened with a sense of wonder to the soaring voices of the young boys and the deep tones of the older men. For a moment he enjoyed the memory of simpler times before turning his attention once more to the Major.
"Have you heard the evening bulletin from Berlin?" he questioned, mildly.
"Field Marshal Rommel has been relieved of command. I fear things are not going too well for us in North Africa."
Mohn's mouth was working and the Oberst felt a moment's pity for a young man nurtured at the breast of National Socialism and raised on a diet of Aryan supremacy who was watching his certainties and dreams begin to crumble. Dispassionately he considered the Major. I allowed this to happen, he thought, and all those of us who did nothing and watched while the Nazis robbed our children of their lives.
"Temporary setbacks are inevitable," Mohn managed at last, but it did not sound as if even he believed his words.
"Yes. Yes, of course."
Subdued by this encounter Mohn was absent from the prisoners' yard for the next few days and the atmosphere, buoyed by the good news from the front, lightened even further.
"Good evening, sir."
The Kommandant looked up from the file before him and smiled. "Franz," he exclaimed. He closed the buff folder and pushed it away contemptuously, settling back in his chair and waiting until Ulmann had placed a full glass of schnapps before him and had taken his own seat at the other side of the desk. The night was cool and a small but cheerful fire burned in the hearth, casting flickering shadows over the room. With a sigh Ulmann removed his cap and placed it on the desk, raking his fingers wearily through his dark blond hair.
"A difficult day?" the Oberst asked, sympathetically.
"No, not really," Ulmann admitted.
The older man played with the glass before him for a few moments. "I had a visit from the pastor of the Protestant church today." He glanced up in time to witness Ulmann's raised eyebrows and provided the explanation. "He has heard the prisoners' choral group. Apparently the Bishop of Leipzig is to grace the church of Colditz at Easter and he wishes to … borrow... the choir."
The Kommandant enjoyed the stunned expression which spread across the security officer's normally immobile face.
"Prosit," he toasted, letting the fire of the alcohol burn a path down his throat and keeping his eyes on Ulmann over the rim of his glass.
"Prosit." The Hauptmann replied to the toast absent-mindedly, taking a sip of his drink and still staring in a bemused fashion at his superior officer.
"You said 'no'," Ulmann presumed.
"I did, but ... "
The initial relief which coloured the man's features vanished again. "Karl, you are not seriously considering allowing the men out of the castle?"
"If they give their parole, it may be possible."
Bluntly, Ulmann replied; "It is madness."
The Oberst's eyes flashed, his ready temper rising. "You forget to whom you are speaking," he snapped, immediately regretting the words as the security officer's face became shuttered. He sighed. "Franz, forgive my temper. You are not normally ... outspoken. Do you believe it is such a terrible risk?"
Ulmann's face had softened at the apology. "After the episode in the theatre I am inclined to grant few privileges. To allow them to leave the castle ... ?"
"Mm - that was my initial reaction, I must admit. However if I can get the senior officers to give their parole I think I may allow it. I would want you to go to the church with them on each occasion."
"How many times must they go?" Ulmann was clearly horrified by the whole concept.
"They would need to rehearse, I expect."
"Then I request a full guard detail - and dogs."
"You have them. Are we agreed?"
"No, sir. I do not like it - at all."
"I shall note that" he met Ulmann's eyes squarely, praying that he would understand that he had to make this decision despite the security officer's misgivings.
"Thank you, sir."
The Kommandant smiled at him. "if the worst happens, Franz, you have my full permission to say 'I told you so'"
Ulmann looked at him keenly and then smiled. "Thank you, Karl," he replied, and lifted his glass again. "Prosit."
"Prosit," Karl toasted and then threw back the remainder of his drink, suddenly rather shaken by the short exchange. It was the first time they had disagreed materially and he had been shocked by his own reaction to his friend's doubts. It was clear they both still had to come to terms not just with their changing friendship, but with the strains that put on their inter-relation as officers of the Wehrmacht. Well, he thought philosophically, at the rate of retreat in North Africa that could well be a short-lived problem. On that reflection he thrust all such concerns from him and seemed down to enjoy Ulmann's company.
The following day the Kommandant advised the second-in-command that the transfer orders for the French had arrived, leaving it to the Luftwaffe officer to inform the men while he spoke to the Senior French Officer. Mohn was clearly not averse to the task and the Oberst had great difficulty maintaining a civil attitude towards him.
Without further delay Mohn hastened to the French quarters and, ignoring the fact that Flight Lieutenant Carter was in their midst, he immediately launched into his announcement.
"The entire French contingent is to assemble in the courtyard at 8.45 on Monday 20th April - dressed in winter clothing and carrying all personal possessions." It was all the information he intended to offer - unless they asked for their destination.
'You are going to Oflag IVa," he replied. "I believe it is rather cold there at this time of year," he added, malice in every syllable, "but there will be work enough to keep you warm." Having delivered that coup-de-grace he left, enjoying the stunned silence which followed him. He had finally rid himself of the French - and paid them back for Sardou's comment on his honour so many months before. As he entered the courtyard a smile was hovering about his mouth.
The senior officers had duly offered their parole and the choir was allowed to march to the church. Before they left the Castle, Ulmann reminded them of the surety their officers had given and demanded that the men conduct themselves in an orderly fashion. He was more apprehensive than he cared to admit about the proceedings and spent the whole time in the town lingering outside the church, unwilling to enter. The music spilled out of the building, its sombre notes further unsettling him, and he was grateful when the men streamed out of the church after the rehearsal and formed up into ranks.
His irritation and apprehension increased when it was discovered that one of the French officers was missing. The man had to be retrieved from the gallery where he had been enjoying an encounter with the organist who was, Ulmann realised, young, blonde and pretty enough to tempt any man, most of all one who had not seen a woman for four years. The French Captain was dark, lean and handsome with a slight scar running down his left cheek which added a dashing aspect to his appearance. Ulmann recognised that the girl might be as susceptible to his charms as he obviously was to hers, a situation made worse by the lack of young German men in the town. He sighed, sensing trouble approaching.
Two more rehearsals took place without further incident, Ulmann taking care that a guard remained in the gallery until all the men had been accounted for. He viewed the approaching Easter service with increasing trepidation, knowing that he could only relax once it was over and he had all the men back in the camp. They marched down in good order and filed up the stone steps to the gallery. Ulmann settled himself outside and waited.
In the Kommandantur the camp's senior officer stared aghast at the photograph Mohn was holding towards him. The second-in-command had taken advantage of the turmoil among the French to mount a snap search and the consequent finds of contraband had constituted one of the Germans' best successes. Among the items was a box containing partially-completed papers and photographs of French officers who were clearly involved in preparations for escape. These included one photograph which Mohn held out to the Kommandant.
"This man is with the choir."
"Get down there at once," he snapped, hoping against hope that Ulmann had been able to avert disaster.
By the time Mohn got to the church and Ulmann had disrupted the service completely by ordering out the entire choir while in the midst of their performance, the Frenchman had disappeared without trace. A major search of the town was begun and the Kommandant suffered an extremely unpleasant interview with General Schaetzel. That conversation had ended with Schaetzel warning the Oberst that he would be unable to protect him should anyone else escape from the Castle. Now the Kommandant was seated at his desk going through the reports from the town. A tap at the door lifted his hopes but they were dashed immediately at the sight of Ulmann's sober face.
"Well, Hauptmann?" he inquired. "Are you going to say 'I told you so'?"
Sympathetic eyes flashed to his face. "No, sir." He replied equably, ignoring the self-derision in the older man's tone. "I am afraid we have no further news. The Major is still in the town but I do not think we will find the Captain. He was very well prepared."
Shrewdly, the Kommandant assessed him. "You think he had help."
Ulmann hesitated, realising what his next words would lead to and wishing he could leave them unsaid. "Yes, sir."
They looked at one another briefly before each glance shifted, uneasy with carrying out what they knew to be their duty.
Without looking up the Oberst fiddled with the ornate desk set, keeping his voice level and asking; "You know who?"
"I believe so, sir. There is a young woman who plays the organ at the church."
The older man stood and moved to the window, a gesture Ulmann recognised as a habitual reaction to a situation which disturbed the Kommandant. "We must inform the Gestapo."
There was a heavy silence.
Eventually Ulmann broke the deadlock. "I could telephone them, Karl?"
The Kommandant's expression was wounded, holding a deep pain, but his voice was firm as he answered. "No. I will contact them. Goodnight, Ulmann."
Ulmann hesitated, seized with the need to offer comfort and yet knowing there was little he could say when they were about to destroy a young woman's life. Once again the stakes for everyone in the Castle were too high and they could not ignore what was, after all, a treasonous act. "Sir, there is nothing else we can do."
The Oberst spun to face him again and his voice was harsh. "I know that. Do you think it helps? Please leave me, Hauptmann."
The Oberst was left gasping by the polite but determined response. "That was an order, Hauptmann," he warned.
Ulmann stepped forward in entreaty. "Karl, let me stay."
The Kommandant stared at him, only too aware of the other man's empathy, wondering how he could accept the strength and compassion he was being offered without losing face. He dismissed the thought. If this was the person with whom he intended to spend the rest of his life then perhaps he had to begin making adjustments. The rest of his life - if they survived this madness. The thought took him by surprise - not so much by its content but by the very fact that he contemplated it. Something inside him eased, relieving his troubled spirit. "Order some coffee for us," was his only reply but his reward was the sight of the anguish melting from Ulmann's face to be replaced by something else - something which caused the breath to catch at the back of his throat.
The duty was an unpleasant one but did not take much time and afterwards they talked over the consequences of this latest escape. The Gestapo had been brusque and vaguely threatening, hinting that the SS would be informed about the lack of control the Wehrmacht appeared to wield over its charges in Colditz. The Kommandant had maintained his studied calm and had managed to end the conversation as quickly as possible.
Setting back he picked up his cup and viewed the seated figure opposite. "I will see all the senior officers involved tomorrow."
"Do you think they knew of this escape?" Ulmann questioned..
"I am sure Colonel Preston would not allow his word to be broken - but the French ... " He shrugged in an eloquent gesture that would have graced any Frenchman.
Ulmann nodded in agreement. "Will this bring in the SS?"
"I rather think they have other issues to worry them at present," the senior officer remarked. "However..." He paused, pursing his lips and stirring the cold coffee, his eyes fixed on the murky liquid.
"However?" prompted Ulmann.
"With the Prominente housed here it may be more difficult to keep them out as the war draws to a close."
"What about the other prisoners? Apart from the orderlies they are all officers."
"Indeed." The non-committal reply was not encouraging but Ulmann, emboldened by the rapid tumbling of the barriers which held them apart, pushed the point.
"Would we be ordered to evacuate the Castle?"
"Undoubtedly - should the military situation demand it."
"And move the prisoners where?"
There was a pause and then the Kommandant voiced the thought which had occurred to them both but which hitherto neither would have uttered. "Assuming we are ordered to move them at all."
"Karl, do you seriously believe that we could be ordered to shoot the prisoners?" The Hauptmann was horrified at the very thought and knew it was an order he would find impossible to obey. Which would mean, he appreciated dryly, that he would be shot with the prisoners. Somehow there was no doubt in his mind that the man standing alongside him should it happen would be the Kommandant of Oflag IVc.
"I think perhaps, Franz, we should not worry too much about the possibility. Time enough to deal with it should it occur, hmm?"
"Yes, sir," he agreed, and the conversation turned to other topics.
The escaped French officer was never found and the woman who had helped him disappeared without trace. The Kommandant tried to trace her and failed. Despite using all his contacts he could find nothing and in the end gave up, knowing now that even if he found her he could not help her. His conscience troubled him, even though he knew there had been no choice and that sooner or later she would have been arrested. It had been clear from the start that the man had received local help and she was the obvious suspect. What most concerned the Kommandant was the thought that even if it had not been her doing, she would still have been blamed. The threat of SS involvement in the Castle had come to nothing and, after taking each of the senior officers to task over the breaking of parole and dealing with the indignant Bishop of Leipzig, the Oberst dropped the matter and the camp returned to relative normality - although without the French. Yet, for the Kommandant, events in the wider Germany were impinging on his notice and once that process had begun he could see its invidious progress all around him. He knew that the only person to whom he ever spoke his true thoughts was Ulmann, and knew the same was true for the Hauptmann. Even with Hoffner, an old and trusted friend, there were only ever the most superficial conversation about the war and the Reich.
As the Allies advanced in North Africa and Italy conditions throughout Germany worsened, a situation reflected in the daily life of the camp. Rations were cut, German morale dropped further and an atmosphere of distrust prevailed. The figure of Major Mohn, still apparently full of certainty and fire, was an added irritant for all. Even the prisoners were unhappy for, even though the tide of the war had clearly turned, it was still only the beginning of the end. Everyone knew there was still a long way to go.
Ulmann stood at the edge of the courtyard and watched a football game, suppressing with difficulty an unexpected urge to join in. More than half his mind was involved with the techniques of the game but even so his eyes flicked around the yard, his ears attuned for any shift in the tenor of the voices surrounding him. At the other side of the cobbles Mohn was involved in a similar pursuit, watching everything with narrowed eyes. As Ulmann's gaze wandered over him the Hauptmann was arrested by a change in the man's attitude, realising that he was now focused on something specific. Following his gaze he could see a huddle of men in one corner which included Captain Brent and Pilot Officer Page. With them was Flight Lieutenant Collins, a recent arrival and, Ulmann considered, a most disruptive influence. It had already been noted that the man had a penchant for gambling and appeared to be particularly successful. Ulmann frowned. Page was giving more and more cause for concern as time went on. It was not so much the tact that the man could be violent that worried the Stabsarzt, as he had confided to Ulmann; it was the fact that Page clearly recognised it himself and tried to control it. His rate of success was diminishing over time and that concerned them all. To see him associating with a man like Collins was alarming - and to have Mohn present at the same time was a cocktail of coincidence that prompted Ulmann to walk smartly across the courtyard, hoping to reach the men and break the conclave before the Major arrived.
As he grew nearer he could hear Page's voice.
"You find it easy to take money from fools."
"Brent is a grown man - aren't you, George?" The man's tone was insolent and his opinion of the Captain eloquent in his lazy glance.
"You can stop it." Page was looming over the gambler who appeared to have no idea how much danger faced him. Ulmann wondered at Page's attitude, recognising that it was the first time this unstable character had shown interest in any of his fellow officers. What had Captain Brent done, he wondered, to earn the Pilot Officer's championship?
Ulmann realised that Page had maintained a remarkable self-control for several weeks, a combination of his own efforts and those of his compatriots who avoided him as much as possible, and that the other man had never seen what he could do to someone who crossed him. Others had, and among those converging on the spot was Flight Lieutenant Carter.
Carter detained the security officer for a moment, muttering; "I've sent someone for Colonel Preston."
Ulmann nodded his understanding and moved forward again.
"Why should I stop it?"
"Easy - either because you have a kind heart or," Page paused and the gambler looked up as if seeing him properly for the first time while Page continued, "you'll find it bloody hard to play cards with ten broken fingers." The man moved with a suddenness that surprised them all, gripping Collins' hand and twisting.
The Flight Lieutenant's scream of pain was short-lived but had turned all attention to them. He stood, holding his injured fingers and gazing in mute disbelief at Page. Ulmann stepped between them.
"Pilot Officer Page - "
His voice was cut off by Mohn's arrival.
"What is going on here, Ulmann?"
The Hauptmann turned and saluted, seeing the Senior British Officer exiting the Saalhaus and moving towards them, surprised at the relief the sight sent him. Like the Kommandant, he thought, the man engendered enough respect among his men to wield iron control with little obvious effort, while his cool head and his understanding of everyone's situation in the camp was an asset for which Ulmann had often been grateful.
The security officer paused, allowing the Colonel enough time to join the group and make his way to its heart.
"What has happened, Hauptmann?" he asked.
"There appears to have been some argument, Colonel. Pilot Officer Page has injured Flight Lieutenant Collins. Perhaps seven days' solitary confinement will teach him that we will not tolerate such behaviour."
Both men had effectively ignored Mohn but he was not going to allow that to continue.
"This disgraceful matter must go to the Kommandant," he declared. "We must take further action." Spitefully, he added; "If Colonel Preston is unable to control his officers, then we must do so for him."
Silence surrounded them. Collins was leaning against the wall, his face pale and breathing shallow, his pain obvious. A rapid survey of all the faces told Ulmann a story; Brent was embarrassed and ashamed, Carter angry and concerned, Preston coldly furious and Page stone-faced with eyes which were fixed on the injured man and carried a promise that no-one could misunderstand.
Preston glanced once at Mohn and then issued his orders. "Flight Lieutenant Carter, please take Collins to the MO. Captain Brent, I will see you in my quarters in twenty minutes. Pilot Officer Page, please follow Hauptmann Ulmann." He spun to face the Major. "If the Kommandant is free, I would like to see him immediately."
Ulmann, with an eye to the second-in-command's mounting anger, remarked; "The Kommandant is in his office." Having ensured that Mohn was deprived any excuse for not acceding to the request, he ushered Page ahead of him and the group broke up.
Mohn cast a furious look at the Hauptmann and then his eyes narrowed in suspicion as he watched Ulmann move with Page towards the cells. They were walking side by side and no other guards accompanied them, even though Page had just injured another officer, and to Mohn they looked almost amicable.
Ulmann was far too friendly with the prisoners, he thought, recalling the muttered conversation he had witnessed between the Hauptmann and Flight Lieutenant Carter. If it continued, he considered it would be his duty to inform the Kommandant. And if the Kommandant did nothing … He smiled unpleasantly and led Preston to the Kommandantur, his mind full of thoughts of how he could turn the Wehrmacht's shortcomings to his advantage.
Through the weeks that followed Flight Lieutenant Collins continued to cause trouble for all the inhabitants of Colditz. Both the Kommandant and Ulmann knew that the RAF officer had undergone a serious dressing down by Colonel Preston but this seemed to have had little effect on the man's attitude or activities. Page had served his time in solitary and had withdrawn ever further into himself, ignoring even Captain Brent. Collins' escapades culminated in his baiting of Mohn to the point where the Flight Lieutenant had been rifle-butted by one of the guards and the Major, faced with a near riot even after a volley of rifle fire over their heads, was ready to order the guards to open fire at the prisoners. The shouting had brought Ulmann and the Kommandant from the Kommandantur, Ulmann secretly amazed at how quickly the older man could move when the situation demanded.
The scene that faced them on arrival was bedlam. The prisoners, chanting their own version of the German anthem as provocatively as they could, were taunting the guards. Carter was crouched over the prone figure of Flight Lieutenant Collins and among the noise and confusion the German sentries stood, solid and unshakeable, their rifles pointed into the midst of the British contingent.
"Major." Despite the noise the Kommandant still managed to get his voice heard. "Tell the men to order arms." Mohn retained enough sense to deliver the order and the guards obeyed. With the immediate danger averted, the Kommandant continued. "Tell the prisoners to return to their quarters."
This time the second-in-command found it impossible to make himself heard and the Germans stood, impotent, until the Senior British Officer emerged from the British quarters. Even when faced with this situation he still made his way through the German ranks to salute the Kommandant before attempting to silence his men.
Ulmann watched from the sidelines, curious to see how long it would take him to restore order. Despite the ferment around him it took less than a minute for all those present to be standing silently before Preston. His demeanour made his reaction to their conduct clear and there were a number, particularly amongst those who had spent longest in the camp, who were shame-faced.
At last there was silence. Preston ordered them to their quarters and then, ignoring the Major who was still standing rigidly to attention, he moved to stand before the Kommandant, saluting once more.
The Kommandant surveyed the man. Over four years he had learned to read the stoic Englishman and he recognised the anger and concern radiating from him.
"I would have expected you here, Colonel, in charge of your men."
It was not quite a question but Preston treated it as a request for information. His voice was level but hard as he replied.
"I was on my way from the British quarters when one of my men was hit by a stray bullet. He needs urgent medical attention."
The Kommandant turned to Ulmann. "Get him to sick bay at once, Hauptmann."
The Oberst was all business, barely realising that Ulmann had left them.
"Please go to your quarters, Colonel. I will speak to you later."
He met Preston's eyes squarely meeting a gaze just as direct. Then the Englishman turned, directing a look at the back of Mohn's head that informed the Kommandant, without need of any accompanying words, just where Preston placed the blame. He tried to keep his own face expressionless but the other man's salute and a minuscule lessening of the tension in Preston's demeanour told him that just as he could read the Colonel, so that individual had learned a few things about the camp Kommandant over the years.
When the yard was empty the Kommandant addressed Major Mohn, managing to show no obvious reaction at the face of fury and disappointment which turned to him. "You will kindly explain to me how all this happened," he snapped.
It was over an hour before the Oberst had untangled the web of incident and consequence. By that time he had seen Mohn and had ensured that both injured men were not in danger. The Captain who sustained the gunshot wound was resting in sick bay and Collins had been despatched to a hospital in Dresden to have his broken jaw wired. Privately, the Kommandant intended that he should stay there. The interview with Colonel Preston had been brief but, he believed, satisfactory for them both. He had taken the opportunity to return papers found in Collins' boot which, to his eyes, spelled the bankruptcy of Captain Brent, and had only just restrained himself from telling Preston that he had forbidden Mohn to call Appell in future without his express permission. A long night broken by only one roll call had gone some way to calming any excitement and fortunately the shortage of rations generally meant that strong emotions were difficult to sustain.
Mohn had also benefited from a night's rest, thought the Kommandant, as he, Ulmann and Mohn met in his office after Appell the next morning. The young man was much calmer and had regained some of the cool aloofness that had so characterised him in his early days in the camp. Ulmann looked the same as always, he thought affectionately, surveying the other man's expression. The Hauptmann returned his look but his eyes held a hint of warning and he became aware that the Major was witnessing their exchange, a hint of suspicion in his face.
In a brisk voice the Kommandant began the business of the day, but had managed only a few sentences when his attention was diverted by the noise from the prisoners' yard. It was quite different from the noise of the previous day. This time it held an exultation, a joy, that was difficult to ignore. Exasperated, he used the telephone to contact the office and ordered them to despatch someone to discover the reason for the uproar. The news must already have been making its way towards the Kommandantur for in a few minutes there was an urgent tapping at the door. At the Kommandant's initited summons the door opened and a Gefreiter almost fell into the room.
Almost absent-mindedly he pulled himself to attention and then stammered out his news, half an eye on the unpredictable figure of the Major.
"They are saying it is the invasion. The English and Americans have landed in Normandy."
The Kommandant felt his face leach of colour, sitting down heavily. The other two men in the room seemed as stunned as he felt.
"It is a lie - enemy propaganda," Mohn spluttered, then fell silent, his mortification apparent.
It was not only mortification, recognised the Kommandant, and a sympathy for the young man took unexpected hold of him. This was the end of the dream. He looked up and saw Ulmann's expressionless face. For them all this meant a time of uncertainty that could make or break each one of them. His glance travelled around the room, resting on the map which was still covered with pins advertising the extent of the glorious victories.
Dust and ashes, he thought, it has all gone to dust and ashes and all for nothing. He looked at Ulmann once again and realised that the Hauptmann's gaze seemed transfixed. He saw at once what had claimed his attention.
The date on the calendar read 6th June 1944.
Click here for THE FIRST DUTY - Part Three