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Germany December 1945
he plane took off from the airfield near London shortly after 2 P.M. It was December 12, 1945. It was drizzling and chilly. Occasional gusts set the wind sock fluttering, then all was calm again. The airplane was a four-engined Lancaster bomber that in the autumn of 1940 had taken part in the Battle of Britain. It had been hit several times by German fighters and forced to make emergency landings, but they had always managed to patch it up and send it back into the fray. Now it was used for transport jobs, taking essential supplies to British troops stationed in defeated and devastated Germany.
Mike Garbett, the captain, had been told that he would fly a passenger to somewhere called BÃ¼ckeburg. The passenger would then be picked up and flown back to England the following evening. Who he was and why he was going to Germany Major Perkins, his immediate superior, did not tell him, nor did he ask. Even though the war was over, he sometimes had the impression that it was still going on. Secret missions were not unusual.
After being issued with his flight instructions, he was sitting in one of the messes with his first officer, Peter Foster, and the navigator, Chris Wiffin. They spread out the maps on a table. The airfield was some miles outside the town of Hamelin. Garbett had never been there, but Foster was familiar with it. There were no hills in the vicinity, so the approach should not be a problem. The only potential difficulty was fog. Wiffin went off to consult the meteorologists, and came back with the news that clear skies were expected over northern and central Germany all afternoon and evening. They plotted their route, worked out how much fuel they would need, and rolled up the maps.
“We'll have just one passenger,” Garbett said. “I have no idea who he is.”
Nobody asked any questions, nor did he expect any. He'd been flying with Foster and Wiffin for three months. What united them was that they were survivors. Many RAF crews had fallen in the war, and each of them had lost many friends. Having survived was not only a source of relief: they were also dogged by the sense of having been granted the life denied to their dead comrades.
Shortly before 2 P.M. a closed car drove in through the gate. Foster and Wiffin were already aboard the big Lancaster, going through the final checks before takeoff. Garbett was waiting on the cracked concrete apron. He frowned when he saw that their passenger was in civvies. The man who emerged from the backseat was short. In his mouth was an unlit cigar. He took a black suitcase from the trunk just as Major Perkins drove up in his jeep. The man who was to be flown to Germany had his hat pulled down and Garbett could not see his eyes. Something about him made Garbett feel uncomfortable. When Major Perkins introduced them, the passenger mumbled his name. Garbett didn't catch what he said.
“All right, you can take off now,” Perkins said.
“No more luggage?” Garbett said.
The man shook his head.
“It's probably best not to smoke during the flight,” Garbett said. “This is an old crate. There could be leaks. You don't usually notice airplane fuel fumes until it's too late.”
The man made no reply. Garbett helped him aboard. There were three uncomfortable metal seats in the plane, which was otherwise empty. The man sat down and placed his suitcase between his legs. Garbett wondered what valuable he was about to fly into Germany.
Once they were in the air Garbett banked to the left until he was able to settle into the course Wiffin had set for him. When they had reached the designated height, Garbett handed over the controls to Foster. He turned to look at the passenger. The man had turned up his overcoat collar and pulled his hat even further down. Garbett wondered if he was asleep, but something told him that the man was wide awake.
The landing at Buckeburg went smoothly, despite the fact that it was dark and the lighting dim. A car guided the airplane to the edge of the
long operations building. Several military vehicles were already standing by. Garbett prepared to help the passenger off the plane, but when he reached for the suitcase the man insisted on taking it himself. He got into one of the cars and the convoy drove off immediately. Wiffin and Foster clambered to the ground and watched the taillights fade away. It was cold, and they were shivering.
“Makes you wonder what's going on,” Wiffin said.
“Best not to ask,” Garbett said.
He pointed to a jeep approaching the airplane. “We're staying at a base near here,” he said. “I assume that's our car.”
After they'd been allocated their quarters and had their evening meal, some of the mechanics suggested they go into town for a beer in one of the bars that had survived the bombing. Wiffin and Foster agreed at once, but Garbett felt tired and stayed in the camp. He had trouble getting to sleep, and lay awake wondering who their passenger was. What was in that suitcase he hadn't let anybody else touch? The passenger must be on some secret mission. All Garbett had to do was fly him back home the following day. The rest was not his concern. He looked at his watch. Midnight already. He adjusted his pillow, and when Wiffin and Foster got back at around 1 A.M., he was fast asleep.
Donald Davenport left the British prison for German war criminals soon after 11 P.M. He had a room in a hotel that served as a base for British officers stationed in Hamelin. He needed some sleep if he were going to carry out his duties efficiently the following day. He was a little uneasy about Sergeant MacManaman, his nominated assistant. Davenport disliked working with people unused to the job. Any number of things could go wrong, especially when the assignment was as big as the one in store.
He declined the offer of a cup of tea and went straight to his room. He sat at the desk and sorted the notes he'd made during the meeting that had begun half an hour after his arrival. The first paper he addressed, however, was the typewritten document he'd received from a young major by the name of Stuckford, who was in charge of the operation.
He smoothed out the paper, adjusted the desk lamp and read the names. Kramer, Lehmann, Heider, Volkenrath, Grese.... Twelve in all, three women, nine men. He studied the data on their weight and height, and made a few more notes. It was a slow process. His professional
pride required him to be absolutely meticulous. It was 1:30 by the time he put down his pen. Now he had it all figured out. He'd made his calculations and double-checked them. He had overlooked nothing. He checked again, just to be certain. He got up from the desk, sat on his bed, and opened his suitcase. Although he never forgot anything, he checked to make sure everything was in place. He took out a clean shirt, closed the case, then washed in the cold water that was all the hotel had to offer.
He never had any difficulty in dropping off to sleep.
When they knocked at his door just after 5 A.M., he was already up and dressed. They had a light breakfast and then drove through the dark, drab town to the prison. Sergeant MacManaman was waiting for them. He was deathly pale, and Davenport wondered again whether he would be up to the job. Major Stuckford seemed to sense Davenport's misgivings, took him on one side, and told him that although MacManaman might look shattered, he wouldn't let anybody down.
By 11 A.M. everything was ready. Davenport had chosen to start with the women. Their cells were in the corridor closest to the gallows and they could not have avoided hearing the trapdoor open. He wanted to spare them that. Davenport paid no mind to the crimes of the individual prisoners. It was his own sense of decency that made him start with the women.
All those required to be present had taken up their positions. Davenport nodded to Stuckford, who signaled to one of the warders. Orders were barked, keys were rattled, a cell door opened. Davenport waited.
The first to appear was Irma Grese. A fleeting sensation of surprise disturbed Davenport's icy calm. How could this slight, blond twenty-two-year-old possibly have whipped prisoners to death at the Belsen concentration camp? She was hardly more than a child. But when her sentence had been passed, no one had been in any doubt. She looked him in the eye, then glanced up at the gallows. The warders led her up the steps. Davenport adjusted her feet so that they were immediately above the trapdoor, and placed the noose around her neck while checking to make sure MacManaman made no mistake with the leather strap he was fastening around her legs. Just before Davenport pulled the hood over her head he heard her utter one scarcely audible word: