[This is an alternate storyline for 'An Act of War', Episode 14, Season 1 (1965), of the Quinn Martin Productions TV Series 'Twelve O'clock High.' The original screenplay is by Donald S. Sanford based on characters created by Sy Bartlett and Beirnie Lay, Jr., in their 1948 book "Twelve O'clock High," (Harper & Brothers). Most of the plot and dialog in the first chapter is taken from the first act of the TV episode and is the work of Donald S. Sanford, not this writer; the rest of the story is original. I didn't like where the story went in this episode, so I wrote one I liked better.]
AN ACT OF WAR REVISITED
Brigadier General Frank Savage was Commander of the 918th Bomb Group, 1st Bombardment Wing, 8th Air Force. He was a tall man, and physically fit, and at only thirty-six, young for a General officer, but promotions tended to come fast in wartime, especially if you were any good at what you did - and Savage was very good. Of course, it also didn't hurt to have the help of a mentor. Savage's mentor, and long time friend, was Major General Wiley Crowe. Though Savage rarely needed it, Crowe had helped him when he could throughout his career, and earlier this year had a hand in getting Savage his star and command of the 918th. It was a toss-up, however, as to whether this was a career opportunity, or a career ender. The 918th was what they called a 'hard luck' outfit: its bombing accuracy was poor, it lacked air discipline, had a higher than average loss rate, and had no unit pride. Savage knew it was going to be a real challenge, but in the short time he had been in command, he had turned all that around, and the 918th now was a top notch Group, the best in the Wing.
General Savage was not having a good day, or week, for that matter. He'd sent three strike missions to Metz in occupied France to destroy a German factory producing Focke-Wolf (FW) airframes, and each time he been told by his Group leader, Major Joe Cobb, that the target had been destroyed, only to have Intelligence reports contradict the claim. Unfortunately, they didn't have any eyes on the ground near Metz so they couldn't confirm, or deny, damage to the factory, but Resistance fighters in Germany reported that the rail yards at Saarbrücken were still marshalling rail cars to transport the FW airframes into Germany, and Savage had to agree that they would not be doing that if the factory had been destroyed.
The third mission to Metz returned a few hours ago, and once again, Joe Cobb reported the factory demolished. "They may be making airframes, General," he had said, "but NOT at Metz!" But now, once again Intelligence reports had come in disputing Cobb's claim. Savage had lost three planes on the previous two missions, and another one today. That was forty good men gone, and he didn't know how many tons of munitions dropped, and he had nothing to show for it.
Savage had just returned to his office from mission debriefing, only to fine his boss, and friend, Major General Wiley Crowe, 1st Bombardment Wing Commander, waiting for him. "Wiley, what brings you down?" he asked as he took off his flight jacket, lit a cigarette, and poured a himself a cup of coffee. "Buy you a cup of coffee?"
Crowe didn't look happy as he paced around Savage's office. Skipping the pleasantries, he said, "Have you READ these reports, Frank?"
"Of course I have, Wiley. Over and Over."
"Well which is it? Has the Metz factory been destroyed, or hasn't it?!"
"I don't know, Wiley."
"What do you mean, you don't know? What kind of an answer it that?"
"I.. JUST.. DON'T.. KNOW. The reports of my Group leader and those from Intelligence directly contradict each other. I don't know which to believe, but we couldn't miss that bad... not four times. That factory has to be badly damaged... or,"
"Or it's a decoy, and not there at all."
Crowe was not sympathetic to Savage's dilemma. "That's a distinct possibility, Frank, but it doesn't change the fact that Intelligence reports the first shipment of those airframes will be leaving the factory in seventy-two hours. If they get to the assembly plants in Germany, the sky will be filled with hundreds of brand new FWs in the Spring... We could lose control of our own airspace, Frank, and maybe a lot more."
"I realize that, Wiley. Until we can confirm the factory's destruction or its real location," he hedged, "maybe we should concentrate on the Saarbrücken rail yards; we're bound to get most of them."
"That's not good enough, General!" said Crowe, raising his voice. "We have to get ALL of them! We don't have enough planes or men yet to deal with the air offensive the Germans will launch with those new fighters. It could set the war back months and cost I don't know how many lives."
Crowe stopped pacing and looked Savage hard in the eye. "You've got seventy-two hours, General, to find that factory... and destroy it!"
"Oh, come on, Wiley!" Savage was raising his voice now.
"No, Frank. Seventy-two hours. You're alerted for Thursday morning. You will launch a maximum effort to Metz, and this time you had better get the job done. Do I make myself clear, General?"
"Yes, SIR; perfectly."
Crowe started to the door; as he opened it, he turned and said again, "Seventy-two hours, Frank!"
Savage followed Crowe out of his office and watched him leave. He glanced around the outer office and saw that everyone had their heads down, diligently engrossed in their work. That tended to happen when generals shouted at each other. Everyone, that is, except his adjutant, Major Harvey Stovall. He was looking at Savage expectantly.
Frank Savage stood there for a minute considering what to do. 'How can I destroy that factory', he thought, 'when I'm not really sure where it is, and I don't have any reliable information. Intelligence is sure it's in the Metz area, but where?'
'Well, there's only one way to find out for sure'. He abruptly turned back into his office and called over his shoulder, "Harvey..."
Expecting it, Stovall was already on his feet and heading toward the door. "Yes, sir."
As Stovall entered the office, he found Savage staring out the window behind his desk as he often did when he was chewing on a problem. Then Savage turned around, crushed out his cigarette, and said, "Harvey…. Get me all the maps and photos from today's mission. Then call Rosen in Meteorology and get me a weather forecast for the area around Metz for the next seventy-two hours. Next, I want to see Major Cobb, Major Herrick from Intelligence, Lieutenant Canella from Photo Interpretation, and you, here in forty-five minutes. Lastly, get me Hugh Zempke from the 56th Fighter Group on the phone."
Within a minute, the intercom buzzed: "General, Colonel Zempke is on the line, sir."
Savage picked up the phone: "Hugh? Frank Savage... Fine... Yes, we need to do that sometime, but right now I need a favor. Do you have a P-47 I can borrow for a day or two?... No?... They're ALL committed?... No, I can't wait…... That's OK, Herb. Thanks anyway. Talk to you later."
'Well so much for the easy way'. he thought.
"Harvey, I'm going down to the flight line to see Nero; I'll be back in about fifteen minutes." With that, Savage grabbed his hat and jacket and headed out to his jeep.
Savage drove along the line of planes shot up during the day's mission still thinking about Wiley Crowe's deadline. Seeing his maintenance chief, Master Sergeant Nero, working on the plane he was passing, Savage stopped and called him over. "What have you got that's flyable, Nero?"
"Well this one's in the best shape, General. The engines and flight controls are OK. The fuselage is a sieve, but there are no structural problems. although I am concerned about the empennage; it took more hits than I'd like. I haven't had a chance to check it out yet, so I'm not sure how stable it is."
"But is it airworthy?"
"Yesss, sir….," Nero replied slowly, "but I wouldn't want to fly in it without checking out that tail."
"Anything in any better shape?"
"No, not really, sir."
Savage thought it over for a minute, then said, "OK. Do what you can with the tail assembly, but I want this plane fueled and ready to go by sixteen hundred (four o'clock) this afternoon."
"But General, that's only a couple of hours from now."
"Strip it to the frame, Nero, no guns, no bombsight…. remove everything that isn't needed to keep it in the air."
Nero barely got a 'yes, sir' out before Savage sped off back towards his office.
Majors Cobb, Herrick, Stovall and Lt. Canella were all waiting as he entered his office. "General Crowe has given us a deadline, gentlemen. The first of those FW airframes at Metz will ship out in seventy-two hours, and he has given us just that much time to find and destroy that factory. All the reports we have directly contradict each other, so I'm going to take a B-17 and look for myself."
Everyone started talking at once, trying to talk the General out of what they considered a disastrous plan. But Savage simply said, "If any of you have a better idea, let's hear it. If not, get with the program!"
Major Herrick broke the silence first, "Your best chance of avoiding enemy fighters, sir, is a southeast heading to Beauvais, then due east to Metz. There's a Messerschmitt squadron at Laon and another at Reims. It won't be easy to slip between them in a B-17. Why not use a P-47?"
"None available." Savage replied.
"What about Photo Reconnaissance, sir," Cobb put in. "This is really their job."
Savage shook his head, "No dice. I don't want any more second hand reports; I have to see for myself. I'm taking Canella, a K-20 aerial camera and some infrared film. I plan to take a treetop look, then climb upstairs and take some pictures."
"Treetop… in a B-17, sir?" questioned Cobb, thinking he couldn't have heard him right.
"In a B-17."
To Lt. Canella, Savage said, "Get your gear, Canella. Check out a K-20 and some film, and meet me at the 'Bad News' on Pad 8 at sixteen hundred."
"Yes, sir." said Canella, then saluted and left.
"The 'Bad News', General?" questioned Cobb again. "That's Captain. Johnson's plane. It was shot to pieces today."
"Nero says it's airworthy. We'll need every operational plane we've got for a maximum effort on Thursday, whether we're bombing the factory, assuming I'm successful, or, if I'm not, the rail yards at Saarbrücken."
"Harvey, what did Rosen say about the weather?"
"Heavy overcast all the way, General."
"Anybody have any other input?... OK, then. That will be all, gentlemen; dismissed."
It was time to go. Savage had just finished getting into his flight gear, and was about to head out, when there was a knock at the door. "Come."
Harvey Stovall entered. "I know you're set on this, but may I suggest the General exercise extreme caution on this mission. From all reports, there's very little Resistance activity in that area, and some of the French farmers around Metz might not be too friendly to a downed flyer. We've hurt them badly trying to destroy that factory. You'd be on your own."
Savage smiled, "I appreciate your concern, Major." Then heading out the door, turned and said, "Harvey, after I've gone, you notify General Crowe, but not before I'm well away... understood?"
"…..Good luck, Frank."
Sergeant Nero met Savage at the plane, "All set, General. We beefed up the tail; it's solid. She'll get you there and back."
"Alright, thanks, Nero."
Lt. Canella was waiting as the General came up. "Stow your camera, Canella. You'll ride right seat with me until we hit the target area." With that, Savage swung himself up through the nose hatch and took his seat in the cockpit. Canella followed behind and settled into what would normally be the co-pilot's seat.
It wasn't long before pre-flight was complete, the engines run up, and the 'Bad News' started it's takeoff roll down the runway. The flight plan called for about a three hour flight, and flying without a crew, Savage would have to act as pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and navigator, as well as instruct Canella in basic emergency procedures in case they ran into trouble. It promised to be a busy and tiring flight.
Luck was with them, and they crossed the channel, and slipped past the fighter bases at Laon and Reims without incident. It was overcast, as Maj. Rosen had predicted, and Savage had to drop his altitude in order to make out the check points.
Canella tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. "Montigny, first check point outside Metz, coming up, sir."
"Can you see well enough to mark it?"
"Well it's getting a little dark, but I think so. It's a water tower."
"OK, Get your flares ready."
"All set." said Canella after placing the flare gun into its overhead firing bracket.
"The antiaircraft batteries haven't spotted us yet, so I'm going to drop down to four hundred feet and take a good look. I'll take the same heading over the target the Group has been taking, then if we don't run into any trouble, I'll climb upstairs, and you can take your pictures."
"Checkpoint, sir... Mark!"
"All..…right. I'm on the final heading. Standby flares."
"Standing by, sir."
The flares arced up and out of the plane and floated slowly back toward the ground lighting up the area below. Looking down, Savage observed, "That's what we've been pasting. A decoy; a wheat field and a lot of dummy buildings. We bomb it by day, and they rebuild it as soon as we leave." and turning away, he gently pulled back on the yoke. "All right, let's go back up and see if we can find the real factory."
He'd only been on the new heading a few minutes when suddenly columns of light lit up the sky. "Searchlights, sir, at four o'clock. Maybe six, eight miles from here."
"Check it on your map."
"Map shows a forest." Canella said as he reloaded the flare gun.
"Must be mighty valuable timber. Let's take a look." With that Savage banked to the right and headed towards the searchlights.
"Alright….. flares, Canella."
Once again the flares lit up the sky as they slowly floated to the ground. "There are warehouses down there, sir," Canella said, "the real thing! And railroad cars!"
"Yes, sir! It's the factory alright."
"Alright, mark it on your map. My heading is zero-six-two. Altitude... 2,800. Air speed... one-five-five."
As Canella marked the map, the sky filled with flak thick enough to walk on, and the airplane shuddered at the near misses. It wouldn't take them long to find their altitude and reset their fuses.
"Touchy aren't they." Savage said. "Let's get out of here." But making a ninety degree turn to the right, he ran into another thick field of antiaircraft fire. A flak burst hit the left wing, taking out both engines and setting the entire wing on fire, but the gas tanks located in the wing hadn't exploded... yet.
Another flak burst threw hot shrapnel through the fuselage into the radio compartment taking out communications and starting another fire. Canella made his way back to the radio compartment to work on the blaze and keep it from spreading to the bomb bay tanks; he was making progress, but time was against him.
Savage hit the fuel shutoff switches and feathered both left engines. He still had number three and four on the right wing, but three's oil pressure was dropping rapidly and running rough; the engine wouldn't last long. There was no way they could stay in the air; they'd had too much damage. He was heading for the ground in a steep dive. Then he caught a break - the dive had put out the fire in the left wing, so at least he wouldn't explode in the air... he hoped.
But he was dropping like a rock, and he wasn't at that high an altitude to start with. Instinctively he applied the basic rule of piloting: NEVER stop flying the airplane. Spotting a cleared field below, he struggled with the controls, trying desperately to bring her nose up, just enough to miss the trees and put her down in that field. Hitting all engine shut-off and master switches, he pulled back on the yoke with all his might, his feet working the rudder pedals to keep her straight, and braced for all he was worth as he and his plane hit the ground and plowed a furrow across the field and into the tree line where it came to a sudden and violent stop. Then everything went black.
It was eerily quiet as Savage slowly regained a pain-filled consciousness. He was disoriented, then as he came to his senses, couldn't believe he was still alive. He hurt all over, and judging by the pain in his chest, he probably had some cracked or broken ribs. His head felt like it would explode, and he had so much blood flowing down from a gash in his forehead that he almost couldn't see out his right eye. Wiping the blood away, he set about getting out of the plane. Except for the windscreen, the cockpit was intact, but the rest of the fuselage was in pieces.
He struggled out of his harness, and tried to get out of his seat, but his right leg was stuck. He felt down and found his coverall pant leg was caught on a jagged piece of metal. He fumbled with the pant leg pocket and pulled out his survival kit, then stuffed it inside his jacket and zipped it up tight. He'd need that later. He continued to pull on the material of his pant leg until it finally ripped and freed his leg. Standing slowly and painfully, he made his way back toward the plane's waist where he found a split in the top of the fuselage. With difficulty, he boosted himself up and out through the gap, then slid down the side of the plane behind a jagged stub that used to be the left wing. The air was permeated with the smell of aviation gas from the leaking tanks. 'Thank God, the fuel hadn't ignited', he thought; there was smoke, but so far no fire.
Holding his head in both hands, and wiping the still streaming blood out of his eye, he leaned back against the fuselage and slowly looked around to get his bearings. He spotted Canella face down on the ground a few yards away. He stood with difficulty and limped over to Canella's body. Kneeling down, he felt for a pulse, but there wasn't any. Canella was dead; there was nothing he could do for him. He said a silent prayer for him and hoped the Germans would treat his body decently.
Through the pain of a blinding headache, Savage forced himself to focus: Which way to go? No one had come after him, yet. He still had some time. He had to keep from getting captured and get the location of that factory back to England. He reasoned his best chance was to head northwest toward the Channel and hope he could make contact with the French Resistance, the Maquis. But he had to get out of this area first. Both Herrick and Stovall had warned him about the local French farmers being decidedly unfriendly to American flyers, especially bomber crews.
He checked his watch: twenty hundred (eight o'clock). It didn't get dark until late this time of year, so there was still enough light for him to make his way. Locating the North Star, he oriented himself to the northwest, then headed out. Looking back one last time at the wreckage, a broken shell with smoke rising into the air, he thought, 'I'll have to remember to complain to Nero... she didn't get us back'.
He started out at a slow jog, but he couldn't keep that up and settled into a slow steady walk. He was surrounded by forest and cultivated fields, but there were no buildings or farmhouses in sight, and no people. The bombings had done a lot of damage to the fields; there wouldn't be much wheat or corn harvested this year, and having been raised on a farm, he could understand the farmers' anger towards the bombers. He hadn't been walking very long when he heard a massive explosion. 'I guess that fuel finally ignited'. he thought. 'That ought to attract every Kraut from miles around'.
Stopping for a moment in a small clearing, he took stock of what he had that would help him evade capture. He had his .45 handgun with two extra clips of ammunition, a small compass concealed in the top snap of his flight jacket and a silk map of France and Germany hidden in the lining, a pack of cigarette with a book of matches, and, most important, his survival kit. But when he went to take the kit from inside his jacket, it was gone. He looked all around, but couldn't find it. It had to have fallen out when he pulled himself out of the wreckage, he thought, or somewhere along the way. He couldn't waste time looking for it, so orienting himself to the northwest again, he continued walking.
After what had to be hours of making his way through the dense woods, he came out onto a dirt road. He watched it for a while, but there was no traffic. It was heading in the right direction so he decided to travel parallel to it in the hopes of finding a sign or something that might indicate where he was. He passed a few occupied farmhouses, but decided it was too risky to seek help from any of them, so he passed them by.
Savage's reserves were running out, and he was becoming too tired to keep going. The gash on his forehead had stopped bleeding, but his head still pounded unmercifully. It seemed like every muscle and joint in his body hurt, and his ribs complained with every breath. It was becoming difficult just to put one foot in front of the other. He knew he had to find a place to rest soon before he collapsed.
A little further on he spotted a bombed out barn with part of its roof still intact. He approached the barn carefully, and after looking it over, decided it was a risk, but it was becoming too dark to keep going, and he HAD to rest... for a few hours at least. Checking his watch again, he saw it was just a little after midnight. He could sleep for three or four hours and be gone before daylight. He found a stall in the back of the barn with a little straw, and he'd barely put his head down before he was fast asleep.
Savage woke with a start. He'd heard voices, German voices, and looking at the rays of the sun streaming in through the cracks in the barn wall, he realized it must be near mid-day, and he'd slept much longer than he'd intended. He had to get out of there before they came into the barn, but as he tried to rise, his head exploded with pain, and he fell back unconscious. When he opened his eyes again, two German soldiers were standing over him with rifles, kicking at his feet and shouting at him. He had been captured.
"Auf stehen! Auf stehen!" From the way they were waving their rifles he knew that they wanted him to get up, but his head was still pounding, and he was slow to respond. Then one of the soldiers grabbed him under the arm and pulled him to his feet. His face a mask of pain, Savage stood there dizzy and swaying, trying to get his balance and willing the pounding in his head to stop.
"Hände hoch, Hände hoch!" He knew what that meant and slowly put his hands up. Then the German ordered, "Hände hinter dem Kopf" and demonstrated that he wanted him to put his hands behind his head. As soon as Savage complied, it was, "Raus, Raus!", and the German pushed him toward the barn opening with the butt of his rifle.
Outside, looking around, he saw more Germans, some searching the area around the barn, others just standing around their truck. If he tried to make a break, he'd have to deal with at least six or more armed Germans; he decided the odds were not in his favor.
His captor called "halt", and, as Savage stood there squinting in pain from the bright sunlight, he was roughly searched, and everything he had was taken: his handgun, dog tags, watch, cigarettes, even his handkerchief, and scarf. As he continued to stand there, with his hands behind his head, Savage's initial panic and fear gave way to anger. Anger toward the Germans because they were the enemy, and they had captured him; but he was more angry at himself for getting caught so easily.
One of the men took his things over to an officer standing by the truck talking to a soldier. He couldn't hear what they were saying - wouldn't understand it even if he could - but he could imagine what the gist was.
The officer, a lieutenant by his collar tabs and epaulets, looked over at Savage, said something to the soldier, then came toward him, examining Savage's dog tags as he walked. Without looking up, he said, in perfect English, "What is your name, rank, and serial number?"
"Frank Savage, Brigadier General, United States Army Air Force, Serial Number O75277."
The officer's head snapped up in surprise, and as he came to attention with a click of his heels, he saluted saying, "Oberleutnant Kurt Steiner, Herr General."
In no position to return the military courtesy, Savage said flatly, "You have me at a disadvantage, Lieutenant."
"Of course, sir, I am sorry. You may lower your arms."
As the Lieutenant looked through Savage's personal effects, Savage lowered his arms, then crossed them over his chest and slowly swiveled his head, taking in everything around him.
"I must retain your weapon and identity disks, sir," the Lieutenant said, "but you may keep everything else." With a nod from his Lieutenant, the soldier - a Sergeant - handed Savage back his things.
Observing the dried blood on Savage's head and face, "I'm sorry, Herr General, we have no medical personnel or supplies, but I will have your wound treated as soon as it is possible."
Savage said nothing, so Steiner continued, "My standing orders are to transport all prisoners to a holding area outside Reims, about 200 kilometers from here. From where we are, on paved roads, this should take only a few hours, but, on these terrible dirt roads, it will be a long and uncomfortable journey; I estimate at least eight hours, maybe longer."
Steiner paused and then, with obvious discomfort and embarrassment said, "I am also required to handcuff all prisoners between dawn and dusk. It is a new order, and I do not understand it… But, if you would give me your word not to try to escape, I will..."
Savage's face stiffened, "Thank you, Lieutenant, but no." Then he uncrossed his arms and lowered them with his hands held out.
"I understand, sir…. I also would not make such a promise."
With another nod to his Sergeant, Savage's hands were cuffed, not too tightly, in front of him.
"Now, sir, if you would get in the back of the truck, we will get started."
The truck was a medium sized personnel carrier with built-up slat sides and a long bench down each side of the truck bed. The soldiers were already in the truck, and the sergeant had just climbed aboard. Savage put a foot on the bumper to climb up, as best he could with his hands cuffed, when the Sergeant offered him his hand and pulled him up.
"Thank you, Sergeant."
"Müller, sir... You can sit there." he said pointing to the front of the truck between the benches.
Savage made his way between the soldiers to the indicated position behind the cab, then turned and with his back against the cab, slid down into a sitting position. He drew his knees up and draped his arms over them. Müller sat on the bench behind the driver, and to Savage's right, then he slapped the roof of the cab a couple of times, and the truck lurched forward and started down the road. Savage looked at his watch; it was ten o'clock.
As the truck drove away, Savage could see a column of wispy smoke in the distance. 'Must be the plane still smoldering', he thought. Looking around, he again considered his chances for escape; and again, he didn't see any. He'd have to wait for the right opportunity, and the way he felt, he wasn't sure he'd be able to do anything about it, if one presented itself.
Savage could feel the eyes of the soldiers watching him and could hear them quietly talking among themselves. He was pretty sure he was the topic of their conversation. Maybe they hadn't seen a LIVE American before.
Sitting there, he could imagine what was going on back at the Base. His plane would have run out of fuel hours ago, so they had to know he was down. But they wouldn't know if he was alive or dead. Wiley Crowe would request the nearest Resistance group to investigate, but as there was virtually no resistance in this area, there'd be no joy there. In his absence, Crowe would take command of the Group. Without his new information, he was certain Crowe would stick to his plan and bomb Metz again Thursday, and probably the rail yards at Saarbrücken too, trying to get as many airframes as he could. No matter how he looked at it, Savage knew that if there was to be any chance of destroying those airframes, he had to escape, and soon.
He watched the countryside passing slowly behind him. They weren't making very good time; he didn't think the truck was doing twenty miles an hour, if that. The road's condition was intermittently bad, then worse: some sections were reasonably intact; others were full of ruts and potholes, and some areas had been totally washed out. Steiner was not exaggerating when he said it would be a long uncomfortable drive. He could well believe it would take long into the night to reach Reims, and he wasn't looking forward to it. Every bump and jolt of the truck sent a lance of pain through his already pounding head. The pain was almost unbearable, and it showed on his face.
"Your head, Herr General, it hurts?" asked the Sergeant.
Through gritted teeth, Savage replied irritably, "Yes, Sergeant; it hurts!"
Sergeant Müller produced a small bottle from his breast pocket, and shook out four pills. Offering the pills to Savage, he said, "I also have the headaches. The doctors say it is because of an old wound from a grenade," then looking at his men and shaking his head, continued, "but I think it is from trying to turn these 'children' into soldiers. They are good boys; they obey orders and do their duty, but it is still an adventure to them. They are barely out of school, or right off the farm, and do not understand what war is, what is coming, and trying to prepare them is ..." he shook his head, "so, I get headaches."
Savage was about to turn down the offer, but Müller continued, "It is only aspirin. I do not know if they will help, but on my honor, sir, they will not harm you." He paused for a moment, then with a cautious smile, said, "I do not think accepting aspirin from the enemy will violate any rule of conduct."
Savage resisted a smile... then took the pills. "I'm sure you're right, Sergeant. Thank you... danke." He'd better start to learn German, Savage thought, he was going to hear a lot of it from now on.
"Bitte, Herr General; you are welcome."
Then Müller pulled a large covered water container from under his bench and taking a cup, scooped water from it and offered it to Savage. "Wasser (water), Herr General... to wash down the aspirin."
Savage hadn't realized how thirsty he was and accepted the water gratefully. It was cool and clear, and after he swallowed the aspirin, he took a long drink, emptying the cup. Müller refilled it and handed it back. Savage took another slower drink, splashed some water on his face, then soaked his scarf with the remaining water and placed it behind his head. Then he handed the cup back to Müller.
As Savage held the wet scarf against his head, Müller asked if he could ask the General a question.
"I'm YOUR prisoner, Sergeant! You can ask whatever you want. But I don't promise to answer."
Taken aback, Müller said, "Herr General, I would never... "
"It's alright, Sergeant. Ask your question."
"It is the men, sir. They do not know what to make of you. They have never seen a General up close, other than in a parade; never heard of one that went into combat with his men... except, of course, Feld Marshall Rommel, and maybe a few others. Do all Amerikanische Generals fly in combat?"
"Many do, but not all; it's not encouraged by our superiors."
"Why do YOU go out with your men?"
"Because they ARE my men, my responsibility, and I want to do all I can so they will survive."
"You've answered your own question. My aircrews are my responsibility, too, and I want them to have every chance to survive this war and go home. I can't do that from behind a desk. I don't fly every mission, but my men know I wouldn't ask them to fly a mission that I wouldn't."
Savage hesitated a moment, then said, "Now can I ask you a question, Sergeant?"
"I lost a man in the crash. Do you know what happened to his body?"
"No, sir; I was not at the crash site." Müller said, and seeing the General's concern, continued, "but the usual custom is to transport the body of an enemy airman to the nearest town and have him buried in the church cemetery there, then notify the International Red Cross of his death and burial location. I think that is what will happen to your friend."
"Thank you. Now if you don't mind, I think I'd like to try to get a little rest."
They'd been travelling on a less bumpy stretch of road for a while, so Savage closed his eyes and padding his head with the wet scarf, rested it against the truck cab. He wasn't really sleepy; he just wanted some time to think…. about his captors and his chances for escape.
Steiner appeared to be a good officer, but he was very young and inexperienced, and probably untried. His 'men', as Müller had said, were just kids; he didn't think any of them were older than eighteen or nineteen, and he was fairly certain from what Müller had said that none of them had seen any action or been 'blooded'. Müller was the one he'd have to watch; he would be his main obstacle in any escape attempt.
Müller was obviously an experienced NCO; a professional soldier who, by the ribbons on his chest and the Iron Cross ribbon in the buttonhole of his tunic, had seen a lot of service, and was probably a First War veteran. He was about his height and build, Savage thought, but older than himself, and considerably older than his men, probably in his mid-forties. His eyes were a light blue or grey, and his face had a tired, weathered look. He had dark cropped hair sprinkled with a little graying, and a scar that ran from the left side of his temple down past the top of his ear. His English, though not quite as fluent as his lieutenant's, was very good. He was respectful of Savage's rank which supported his assumption of old Imperial Army service.
He didn't appear to be a bad sort. Even though Savage was the enemy, he hadn't been hostile or antagonistic toward him. Under the circumstances, he was almost friendly, but Savage didn't want to make the mistake of underestimating him. When it came down to it, he knew Müller would kill him without hesitation if he tried to escape... and with that thought, he fell asleep.
As Savage slept, Müller related to his men everything Savage had said about why he flew and about his concern for the body of one of his men. They looked at the sleeping General, and Müller thought he saw respect in their eyes. The average Wehrmacht soldier feared and obeyed his officers, but as a rule, he neither liked nor respected them. Over the years, Müller had seen his share of senior officers; most of them weren't worth his spit. This General was different.
It didn't seem like he'd gotten any sleep at all when Müller shook him awake. Savage checked his watch; it was almost sixteen hundred (four o'clock). "We've stopped for a rest, Herr General. Would you like to get down and stretch your legs?"
Savage didn't need to be asked twice. He stood, or tried to, but found he'd been sitting in the same position too long, and was having trouble making his legs work. Once again, Müller offered him a hand and pulled him up. Savage hobbled to the end of the truck bed and holding on to one of the side rails, dropped down, grimacing as he hit the ground. When the pain in his head subsided, he began to look around... with escape on his mind.
They had stopped by a large open field, and at the far side of the field, just thirty or so yards away, there was a line of trees at the edge of a dense and dark forest... if he could just make it a few yards into the trees, he thought, he had a chance. It was worth the risk.
Savage casually walked away from the truck and closer to the edge of the field; as he went, he looked to see where his captors were. Steiner and his driver were busy with a map, going over their route. The rest of the men were talking and laughing, and paying him no attention; their rifles were stacked by the truck... yards away. But where was Müller?
He was estimating his chances of making it into the woods before the Germans could react, and take chase, when he located the Sergeant a few yards behind him, watching and shaking his head.
Coming over to Savage, and still shaking his head, Müller said, "You would never make it, sir. Even if you could get away from us and make it into the forest, where would you go? You are handcuffed. You have no weapons; no food, no water. There is no organized Resistance in this area, and because of the recent bombings, many of the French farmers dislike Americans almost more than they do us... you would get no help from them. You are wounded, and I don't mean to be disrespectful, sir, but you can barely stand, much less run. I would not like to have to shoot you."
While Müller was talking, Savage had continued to concentrate on the tree line just across the field. It was so close. Then he straightened himself and turned away. He hated to admit it, but Müller was right; he'd never make it.
"Alright, Sergeant. You've made your point."
Break time was over, and everyone climbed back in the truck; Savage again assisted by Müller. They travelled for another hour or so, then as dusk arrived, the truck pulled off the road and into the yard of a farmhouse. They'd been on the road for almost eight hours, and Savage was exhausted; he just wanted to lie down, close his eyes and make the pounding in his head stop.
Savage watched as Lieutenant Steiner got out of the truck and went to ask the owner of the farm if they could spend the night. He was surprised that Steiner had asked, rather than demand. The owner, a woman, had told them to go... not that she thought they really would. Then she saw they had a wounded prisoner. She would not turn away an injured man, and relenting, told Steiner they could stay in the barn.
As the men waited to see if they would be staying, Müller told Savage that the farm was on their patrol route, and they knew it well. It was owned by a widow, a Madam Genest; she ran the farm with her young grandson, Paul. Her son and his wife - Paul's parents - had been killed in an automobile accident before the War when the boy was a child, and she and her husband had raised him. Her husband had died last year, something to do with his heart, he thought, and she and the boy had managed alone since then. Savage had almost forgotten that people could die from something other than war.
Finally Steiner returned. He informed his men they would be staying the night, and instructed them to take their gear to the barn, and prepare a place for their prisoner. Müller had already removed Savage's handcuffs. 'Stupid order', Müller had thought to himself, 'Stupid, just like the Nazi's!' Müller didn't like the new regime, the Nazis, but he was a soldier, and he did his duty.
Savage was grateful to have his hands free, and rubbing his wrists, started slowly toward the barn following Müller. They hadn't gone very far, however, when Savage stopped. Müller looked back, and saw the General's face go pale as the blood seemed to drain from it, then before Müller could move, Savage's knees buckled, and without a sound, he fell to the ground unconscious.
When Savage awoke, he was lying on a bed of hay in a stall. "What happened?"
Sergeant Müller was standing over him, looking concerned. "You passed out."
"A few minutes."
There was a commotion at the entrance to the barn. The woman he had seen earlier was arguing with Lieutenant Steiner; whatever it was she wanted, Steiner apparently gave in. They were both heading his way.
"This is Madam Genest, General. This is her farm. She says she has come to treat your head wound."
Without waiting for approval, Marie approached Savage carrying a small canvas bag and a pan of water. Pointing to herself, she said, "Je suis Marie."
"Je suis Frank." Savage replied, as he struggled to sit up and support himself against the back of the stall.
Savage studied Marie as she knelt down beside him. She appeared to be in her late fifties or early sixties. She was of average height, slightly plump with a kind, round face and healthy complexion; she had piercing blue eyes, and long grey hair pulled back into a bun. She was a sweet-faced woman with a gentle manner - in short, a grandmother.
As Savage watched her, Marie took a clean piece of cotton cloth from her bag, and soaked it in the water. Then she began to dab at his forehead with the wet cloth, gently wiping away the encrusted blood and dirt from the gash until it was clean. Then she took a small bottle from the bag, soaked a small piece of cloth in its liquid and pressed it against the open wound.
"Owww! Damn... that stings!" exclaimed Savage as he jerked his head away.
No translation was needed, and Marie, amused, replied something in French.
Steiner smothered the laugh, but was unable to repress a grin as he translated, "She says - HER words, sir - 'Don't be such a baby. It was just a little disinfectant'."
Savage looked a little sheepish, "Well, that disinfectant had a pretty good bite to it."
Then, as the gash began to bleed again, Marie placed a clean cotton pad over the wound and taking a roll of soft bandage from her bag, quickly and efficiently wrapped it around his head several times and tied it off. Finally, she wet another piece cloth and began to roughly clean his face and neck of the remaining dried blood. Savage couldn't help but smile: he hadn't had his face scrubbed like that since he was a boy.
When she was done, Marie turned her head and spoke to Steiner for a moment. Then to Savage, Steiner said, "She says the wound is not serious, but the blow to your head could be. She thinks you could have a concussion... I agree with her. She wanted you to rest here for another day, but I told her the sooner we reached our destination, the sooner you would see a doctor. That seemed to satisfy her."
Finished with her nursing, Marie sat back on her heels and studying Savage with a cool measuring look, began speaking to Steiner. When she paused, Steiner translated. "She asks if you fly the planes that drop the bombs."
Meeting her eyes, Savage nodded and replied, "Oui."
"She says," Steiner continued, "she hates the bombing; it has killed many innocent people and destroyed farms, crops and livestock."
Savage started to say something, but Steiner held up his hand as Marie continued, this time turning to face Steiner squarely with a defiant stare. When she had finished, Steiner, clearly uncomfortable, translated, "She repeats that she hates the bombing, but says it is necessary. She says you must continue to bomb until you drive 'the Bosch' - as she calls us - from her country."
With that, Marie got up, and without another word, started for the door.
In his best high school French, Savage called after her, "Mercie, Madam... Marie. Mercie pour votre ...," he paused, and looking to Steiner said, "kindness?" Steiner replied softly, "gentillesse."
"Mercie pour votre gentillesse, Marie. (Thank you for your kindness, Marie.)"
"She says you are welcome. She also says that you must to eat to keep up your strength, and she will bring you some food."
Steiner looked at Savage, "A most remarkable woman," he said and walked away to join his men.
Savage lay back on the hay and threw an arm over his eyes to block out the light. He must have fallen asleep, for the next thing he heard was, "Herr General, are you awake?"
"I am now."
"I am sorry to wake you, sir. The men thought you might be hungry."
He handed Savage a tin plate with a small amount of some greasy unidentifiable meat and some hard crackers. The German army was notorious for poorly feeding their troops, and Savage was sure the men had given up some of their meager rations to make this offer.
"I don't want to take food from these men, Sergeant."
"They all gave some of their rations, sir. They would be very disappointed if you didn't take it."
"All right. Thank them for me."
Savage stared at the food he wouldn't have fed to a dog, but it was all they had, an act of kindness, and he knew he had to eat. He hadn't taken more than a bite, when Steiner came over carrying a small basket. "Madam Genest has brought you some food, General."
Savage accepted the basket and found it filled with bread, cheese and sausage. "May I borrow your knife, Lieutenant?" Steiner considered the request for a moment, then cautiously handed him his knife. Savage cut a piece of the bread, cheese and sausage for himself, then handed the knife back to Steiner, along with the remaining food. "That's more than I can eat. Please give the rest to your men. They shared their food with me; I would like to share with them."
"This is kind of you, sir. The men will be very grateful. Thank you." and Steiner left to distribute the unexpected bounty among his men.
With everyone's attention elsewhere, Savage quickly set the German food aside, then tried a little of the sausage Marie had brought. Although he couldn't remember the last time he had eaten, he found he wasn't hungry, and was almost nauseous from the few bites he had taken. He wrapped up the food for later, then lay back again to rest.
A little later, Müller came over to him. "The men asked me to thank you for the food, sir. It has been a long time since they have eaten so well." Then he handed Savage a cup of water and four pills. "I think it is time for more aspirin, sir."
Savage took a sip of the water and swallowed the pills, then finished the cup and handed it back. Müller then took a small dented metal flask from inside his tunic and carefully poured a large measure into the cup, so as not to spill a drop, and handed it to Savage, "More medicine."
Savage looked at him questioningly, but accepted the cup and took a swallow... and nearly choked. "What IS that?" he gasped.
"Just a little schnapps, sir. It will help you sleep."
Savage took another sip, grinned, then drained the cup. "Thank you, Sergeant, I believe it will."
It was morning, and Savage woke feeling like a new man. He stretched, then lay there enjoying the moment. He had had a good night's sleep, and he actually felt much better. He didn't ache so much, he could breathe without pain, and the pounding in his head had diminished to a dull throb... maybe Müller's aspirin WERE helping.
He could see the sun was well up and shining through the barn entrance; it looked like mid-day. He was surprised as Steiner had said he wanted to get an early start, and he wondered if the Lieutenant had let him sleep. He looked around: men were busy policing the area, others were stowing their gear in the truck. Steiner was shaving and seeing Savage was awake and looking his way, nodded a 'good morning'.
Savage felt the stubble on his face, and sniffing himself, thought he smelled a little ripe, too. He needed to clean himself up. Just because he was a prisoner didn't mean he had to look, and smell, like one.
As if on cue, Müller appeared. "Good morning, Herr General. You slept well?"
"I did, Sergeant; very well."
Müller nodded to one of the men - Savage thought his name was 'Werner' - who brought over a bucket of water, some towels and a little piece of soap.
"I thought you might like to wash up, sir."
"You must be reading my mind, Sergeant."
Savage stripped to the waist, then soaking a small towel in the bucket, he soaped up and began scrubbing down. The water was cold, and invigorating, and he felt almost alive again.
Müller observed Savage as he washed, noting that the general had kept himself in good physical shape, but he also saw that his body bore the marks of war: besides being extremely bruised from when his plane crashed, there were scars, one from an old wound, and one, he could see not so old, still pink and puckered. The older one ran over the top of his right shoulder; the newer one was on his chest near his heart.
Müller could see the general had seen his share of war, and pain, but he continued to fly when he did not have to. And although he had been captured by the enemy, he thought, he does not complain, and bears his captivity with dignity. Müller's respect for the man grew. He could almost hope he would escape... just not while he was in HIS Lieutenant's custody.
Savage dried himself, and as he pulled on his clothes, asked, "I don't suppose I could borrow a razor."
Müller left, then quickly returned with a razor and small mirror. Savage hung up the mirror, lathered his face, and started to shave. As he looked in the mirror, however, it was a stranger's face that stared back. He was shocked at how bad he looked: besides the bandage on his forehead and the bruising, his face was ashen and gaunt; his eyes red and bloodshot. 'God', he thought, 'I look like death warmed over'.
As soon as he finished shaving, Müller handed him a cup of coffee and more aspirin. "It is only ersatz kaffee, sir, but it is hot, and you get used to the taste."
Savage accepted the coffee gratefully, and popping the aspirin into his mouth, took a drink. "Well, it's definitely hot," he said, but that was as far as he was willing to go. As he sipped the coffee, he felt a rumble from his stomach, and realized he was hungry. Finding the remains of Marie's food, he tore into it like a man who hadn't eaten in two days. He was beginning to feel like himself again... even if he didn't look like it.
When he had finished eating, Müller approached him with the handcuffs. "I am sorry, Herr General, but..."
"It's alright, Sergeant." he said, and held out his hands.
Savage was ready to leave. He felt renewed, and if an opportunity to escape presented itself today, he'd be ready. It was well after noon when he took his place in the back of the truck. He looked across the farmyard and saw Marie standing in front of her house. She smiled at him, then crossed herself, and as the truck pulled away, said quietly, "Allez avec Le Bon Dieu, Franc. (Go with God)".
Progress was much faster today; they were travelling on paved roads now and were moving right along. At this rate, Müller had said, they'd be in Reims by late afternoon or early evening. Savage knew he was running out of time; if he was to get away, he would have to make a move soon. Once they got to Reims, there would likely be no possibility of escape. His best, and probably only, chance would be another rest stop, and he would have to be ready if an opportunity presented itself. He knew Müller would be watching him like a hawk, but he'd deal with that when he had to.
Savage had lost track of the time, but it seemed like they'd been travelling for hours. Surely they would stop soon. No sooner had he had the thought than the truck began to slow, then stop. Savage came alert, ready for whatever came. But he was not prepared for Müller to say, "We have arrived, sir."
From his position facing the back of the truck, Savage couldn't see much until they started moving again. Then, as they passed through, he saw a gate and guards. That's it, he thought. He had no hope now of getting the information back. It was time to concentrate on saving himself.
The truck emptied quickly. The last to leave, Savage stood, and took a moment to survey the area. He was in a large compound surrounded by a high block wall with the guarded entrance he had just come through, and several guard towers around the perimeter. There were two large brick buildings, situated side by side about thirty feet apart but connected by a tall fenced enclosure. He could see several men, civilians, probably French, probably prisoners, milling around inside. Jumping down, he followed Müller towards what appeared to be the main building. As he walked, he continued to study his surroundings. He could see a motor pool with vehicles, mostly staff cars, personnel carriers and a couple of armored halftracks. There were also barracks, workshops, and other structures, and at least a couple of dozen men going about their duties. No one seemed to pay them any attention, as if the arrival of an American prisoner was an everyday occurrence.
Lieutenant Steiner had gone on ahead of them and had already reached the building where two men were coming down the front steps to meet him. Steiner saluted one of the men, obviously an officer of higher rank. Müller put out his arm and said that they should wait where they were until called. As Savage watched, Steiner spoke with the officer, occasionally gesturing in his direction. Finally, Steiner waved them forward. As he got closer, Savage identified the officer as a Major, and the other, a Sergeant.
"General Savage, this is Major Krueger, Commander of this facility. He will take care of you now."
Krueger looked Savage over and nodded, but said nothing, as Steiner continued the formalities of his transfer. Speaking in English for the General's benefit, Steiner gave Major Krueger the details of his capture and of their journey from Metz, then handed him Savage's dog tags and the key to his handcuffs. He saluted the Major, and turning to Savage, "I must leave you now, General" and saluted again.
Still in handcuffs, Savage could only nod his head in acknowledgement of Steiner's salute. "Thank you for your courtesy, Lieutenant, and that of your men."
"I wish you well, sir." With that, Steiner turned and started back toward the truck where his men had already climbed aboard and were waiting. Sergeant Müller delayed a moment, and with Major Krueger watching, stuffed his bottle of aspirin into Savage's jacket pocket. He met Savage's eyes and nodded slightly, then saluted. Müller turned to leave, paused, then turned back again, took his flask from his tunic and stuffed it in Savage's pocket with the aspirin. "You may need this more than I, sir." he said, then turned and ran for the truck. Lieutenant Steiner waited for Müller to climb up, then got in himself. Then they were gone. The whole process hadn't taken fifteen minutes.
Savage studied his new captor. Major Krueger, by his age - middle fifties? - was a senior Major... a career officer, he wondered, or a civilian in uniform? A professional soldier or a Nazi political appointee? He couldn't get a read on the man; so far he had said nothing.
Looking at the General, Krueger handed the key to his Sergeant, and indicating Savage's handcuffs with a look of disgust, said, "Nehmen Sie diese Dinge ab! (Take those things off!)"
Then, coming to attention, Krueger saluted. With his hands now free, Savage returned the salute. 'A career officer.' Savage thought. 'A professional, and judging by his actions, probably not a Nazi.' Savage was beginning to understand that not all Germans were necessarily Nazis.
"If you will follow me, sir." Major Krueger said, leading the way back up the steps and into the building, with Savage, and the Sergeant, right behind him.
Inside, Savage saw an administrative office. The staff was called to attention as they entered. There was an office to the left, and the sign on the door read 'Kommandant'. Savage followed Krueger inside.
The office was not unlike his own. The door opened across from, and slightly to the right of, Krueger's desk and chair which were centered on the room; there were two chairs in front of the desk. On the wall in front of the desk was a large map of France. Several filing cabinets occupied the wall to the right. Behind the desk, a window overlooked the fenced area, and on either side of the window, there were pictures of Krueger's chain of command and of Adolf Hitler. Another window on the left wall overlooked the front of the building and courtyard.
Standing behind his desk, the Major indicated one of the chairs. "Please, sir, be seated."
The Sergeant, who had followed them into the office, placed the handcuffs and key on the desk, then took a position behind Savage by the door.
"I am sorry about those things, General." Krueger said, indicating the handcuffs. "Orders of the Fuhrer," as if that explained everything.
Savage took the offered seat but made little effort to listen as Krueger described what would happen to him next. "This is a temporary holding area for captured Allied personnel and members of the Resistance. Airmen, such as yourself, are normally held only a short time for initial interrogation and any necessary medical attention. Then they are transported to a 'Durchgangslager', or 'Dulag', a transit camp, for further interrogation and eventual assignment to a Luft Stalag. The Resistance personnel, as they are not covered by the Geneva Accords, I'm sorry to say, must be handed over to the Gestapo for interrogation."
Savage had been staring blankly at the wall in front of him, contemplating his future in a prison camp, and hadn't been paying attention to what Krueger had been saying, but at the mention of 'Gestapo', his head snapped up. He wanted nothing to do with the Gestapo. From everything he had heard, they were a thoroughly nasty bunch.
"In your case, sir," Krueger continued, completely unaware of Savage's lack of attention, "due to your rank, you will be transported immediately. Headquarters must be notified of your capture, of course, and there are forms to fill out. Lieutenant Steiner also informed me of your head injury. As soon as we finish here, I will have our doctor examine you."
"Shall we start with the paperwork?" Opening a desk drawer, he withdrew a blank form and began to fill it out.
"What is your name, rank, and serial number?"
As Savage replied, the Major compared it to his dog tags, and entered the information on the form. Still writing, he said, "I would say you are about six foot, 150 pounds, with blue eyes and brown hair. Is that correct, sir?"
"Scars or distinguishing marks?"
"Well, the doctor will document these when he examines you."
"Now, what is your unit?"
"Major, you have my name, my rank, and my serial number. That is all I am required to tell you. There is nothing more."
Krueger was about to reply, when he heard a commotion outside. Annoyed, he ordered his Sergeant - 'Wagner' - to see what the noise was about. Wagner went to the front window and looked out into the courtyard. He saw a Gestapo-flagged staff car, a Mercedes 260D, a known favorite of the Gestapo, and a small covered personnel carrier. A civilian in a black leather coat was walking toward the building. "Gestapo, Herr Major!"
"Scheisse!" Then, embarrassed to have cursed in front of a general officer, "Please, excuse me, sir!"
"Quite alright, Major. My sentiments exactly."
Before anything further could be said, the Gestapo agent, followed by two black-shirted SS troopers, appeared unannounced in the office doorway.
"Schmidt, Gestapo!" he said flashing an identity disk. Then he threw up his right arm in a rigid Nazi salute, and exclaimed, "Heil Hitler!"
Krueger rose and returned Schmidt's salute with the more conventional Wehrmacht salute, and Savage noted that Schmidt didn't miss the implication, and didn't like it. His assumption that Krueger was not a Nazi had just been confirmed.
'But Schmidt', Savage thought, 'Schmidt was a proper little Nazi bastard: a tall, blonde, blue-eyed, pompous example of the master race, complete with the long black belted leather coat, hat and gloves'.
"Was kann Ich heute für die Gestapo tun? (What can I do for the Gestapo today?)" Major Krueger asked, knowing full well why he was there.
Slowly removing his gloves, one finger at a time, and dropping them into his up-turned hat on the desk - and without so much as a 'please' or 'thank you' - Schmidt arrogantly replied, "Ich habe für die Französisch Gefangenen gekommen. (I have come for the French prisoners.) Nehmen sie ihnen zu mein Fahrzug sofort! (Take them to my truck immediately!)"
Krueger nodded to Sergeant Wagner and said, "Erhalten die Franzosen. (Get the Frenchmen.)" As Wagner hastened to comply, one of Schmidt's storm troopers followed along behind.
Having deliberately ignored Savage's presence thus far, Schmidt suddenly, and with obvious sarcasm, asked Krueger, in English, "Who is your 'guest', Herr Major? I say 'guest' because, even though he appears to be an American, he could not be a prisoner. A prisoner would be standing before you, manacled, as the Fuhrer has ordered. So, PLEASE introduce me."
Major Krueger, clearly intimidated, started to reply, but before he could get a word out, Schmidt cut him off.
Turning to Savage, he said loudly, "You! Stand up! Put your hands behind your head!"
Savage began to rise, but before he could get all the way to his feet, the SS trooper behind him pulled the chair out from under him. He barely kept himself from falling... which he was sure was the intention. But this was not the time to stand on pride, and he righted himself and put his hands behind his head as ordered.
Krueger was indignant. "Herr Schmidt, I must protest. This officer..."
"This officer," Schmidt interrupted, almost shouting, "is the ENEMY, and should be treated as such, not pampered! Were you planning to offer him tea next?!"
As Savage stood there, he was thoroughly searched, again, and relieved of his possessions. This time, however, he didn't get them back. Schmidt, without hesitation confiscated his cigarettes, placing them in his coat pocket, while the SS man took a liking to his watch and Müller's flask and pocketed them as well. He was allowed to keep his handkerchief, scarf and the aspirin.
Satisfied there was nothing else worth stealing, Schmidt tossed the handcuffs to his man, who roughly pulled Savage's hands together behind his back and placed the handcuffs on his wrists, deliberately tightening them so as to bite into his wrists almost cutting off his circulation and making Savage wince.
"That is much better." said Schmidt smiling. "Now, let us see who you are. What is your name, rank, and unit?"
"Frank Savage, Brigadier General, United States Army Air Force, Serial Number O75277."
"And your unit?"
"As I informed Major Krueger, you have my name, rank, and serial number. That is all I am required to give you under the provisions of the Geneva Convention."
Suddenly, Schmidt drew back his right arm and backhanded Savage viciously across the face, causing his head to whip painfully around and knocking him back against the trooper behind him. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.
Savage spit out the blood, and glared defiantly at the Gestapo agent. If looks could kill, Schmidt would be lying dead at his feet.
"Herr Schmidt, you cannot do this!" exclaimed Krueger. "He is a General Officer and a Prisoner of War."
Schmidt ignored Krueger, "Shall we try again, General? What is your unit?"
"Frank Savage, Brigadier General, Serial Num…..."
Before he could finish, Schmidt drew back his hand again. Savage expected it this time, but with his hands cuffed behind him, there was nothing he could do but stand there unflinching and wait for it.
Schmidt stopped in mid-swing, and smiled maliciously. "You are a proud man, Herr General, and defiant. That is good! I like a challenge. I will enjoy breaking you."
Then turning to Krueger, "I will take this prisoner with the others, Major. Have him taken to my staff car."
"Herr Schmidt, I cannot allow..."
"You cannot allow? YOU... CANNOT... ALLOW! Be very careful, Major! Remember who you are speaking to!"
"The Geneva Convention..."
"The Geneva Convention, Major, is for the treatment of Prisoners of War," and leaning over Krueger's desk, he snatched up Savage's dog tags and the partially completed prisoner form, and crumpling the paper into a ball, stuffed them both into his pocket.
"I don't see a Prisoner of War, Major. How could I, this man was never here!"
'Wait a minute. Wait just a minute', Savage thought. 'This is getting out of hand'. He was beginning to feel as if he were in a bad dream. The situation had gone from really bad to probably fatal. If he wanted to stay alive, he needed to do something, and standing there panicking wasn't going to help.
Improvising, he said, "It's one thing to hand over French prisoners to the Gestapo, Major, but an American general is something else. There will be questions you won't be able to answer. Too many people know I was here. You can't….."
Looking over Savage's shoulder, Schmidt nodded to the SS trooper, saying, "Verschloss ihn! (Shut him up!)" Without warning, the SS trooper struck Savage in the back of the head with the butt of his rifle, and Savage dropped to the floor unconscious.
"Wache! (Guard!)" called Schmidt, and as the guard rushed in, "Nehmen Sie diese Gefangene zu mein Auto! (Take this prisoner to my car!)" Uncertain what to do, the guard looked to the Major for direction, but Schmidt ordered, "Nicht, ihn anzusehen! (Don't look at him!) Ich befehl hier! (I am in charge!) Nehmen Sie ihn zu mein Auto... JETZT! (Take him to my car...NOW!)"
As the guard and the SS trooper grasped Savage under the arms and dragged him out of the office, Schmidt stared at Krueger, daring him to countermand his order. He smiled as the color drained from Krueger's face, and with a shaking hand, he pressed a handkerchief to his forehead to dab away the beads of sweat that had formed there. Schmidt knew Krueger would do nothing.
At that moment, Sergeant Wagner and the other SS trooper returned to tell the Gestapo agent that the French prisoners were all in the truck, and they could leave whenever he was ready.
"Excellent! (Ausgezeichnet) Ich denke, dass schliesst unser Geschäft, Herr Major. (I think that concludes our business, Herr Major.)" Schmidt said. "Ich bin sicher, Sie sind ein beschäftigter Mann, also werde ich sie jetzt schon verlassen. (I'm sure you are a busy man, so I will leave you now.) Heil Hitler!"
Krueger just stood there as Schmidt and the SS trooper left his office, then slowly sat down and placed his head in his hands.
"Sind sie in Ordnung, Herr Major? (Are you alright, sir)" asked Sergeant Wagner.
"Ich konnte nichts machen, Wagner, nichts. (There was nothing I could do, Wagner, nothing.)"
Schmidt adjusted his hat, and walked to the front door, slowly drawing on his gloves, then stood there waiting, until one of the office staff jumped up to open the door for him and the SS man. Leaving the building, Schmidt casually looked around, then slowly descended the steps and sauntered to his staff car where the trooper had hurried ahead to open the door for him.
As he got in the back seat behind the driver, he saw the prisoner slumped unconscious against the seat on the opposite side. Smiling to himself, he ordered the driver to proceed. As they passed through the guard gate, the Mercedes turned left and headed down the highway with the truck carrying the French prisoners following.
When they were several miles down the road, well away from the compound, the trooper in the front passenger seat turned to Schmidt, and in English, said, "By God, Tom, I think we pulled it off!"
"Let's don't get ahead of ourselves, Bob. We're not out of the woods yet. Did we get everyone we came for?"
"Yes, sir. Belloc, his lieutenants, and a half dozen more for good measure."
"How long before they break off, Jack?" he said to the driver.
"In about thirty minutes, sir.
Looking back over his shoulder at their unconscious passenger, Harris asked, "How's the General?"
Painfully lifting his head, and struggling to sit up, Savage answered irritably, "The General... has a splitting headache." Then after a pause, "Who are you people? I've heard enough to know you're not German."
"No sir." 'Schmidt' replied in public-school English. "British, actually; SOE, Special Operations Executive."
"I know what SOE means, Mister..." he paused again, "What IS your name? It's obviously not 'Schmidt'."
"Actually, sir, it is... Leftenant Tom Smith. My friends are Sergeant Bob Harris, in the front seat, and Corporal Jack Burns, driving."
"Gentlemen, I can't TELL you how happy I am to meet you." Savage said relieved, then painfully leaning forward to expose his hands, "Can you do something about these, Lieutenant?"
"Of course, sir". Smith said, taking the key from his pocket. He unlocked Savage's right hand, but just loosened the cuff on the other hand. "We should leave one hand cuffed, sir, just in case we run into any Germans, and you have to become a prisoner again."
Savage wrists were raw from the tight cuffs, and his arms and shoulders ached from being dragged to the car. Massaging his wrists to get his circulation going, he said, "You couldn't have come for me. No one could possibly have known I was there."
"No, sir. We were after the Frenchmen. A week ago, the Jerries rounded up a bunch of suspected Resistance members; unfortunately, one of the top leaders of the Maquis and a couple of his lieutenants were among them. They know too much to be allowed to fall into Gestapo hands, so we were sent to get them out.
I must say you gave me quite a start, General, when I saw you sitting there in Krueger's office." Smith continued. "I recognized you at once, of course."
Savage looked puzzled, "Do I know you, Lieutenant?"
"You came to SOE Headquarters at Baker Street for orientation briefings, sir, shortly after you took command of the 918th Bomb Group. I was one of your briefers, though I'm sure you don't remember me. At least, I was hoping you didn't remember me.
Sorry for being such an ass, sir," he continued, "but Krueger had to absolutely believe I was Gestapo, and the Gestapo are right bastards."
"Well, you certainly had ME convinced!"
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir, but I was, as you American's say, 'winging it'. I was trying to make you mad enough to say, or do, something that would give me an excuse to take you... but you're a hard man to provoke, General. And when you started talking about the Geneva Convention, and how handing an American General over to the Gestapo would raise a bloody stink, I was afraid Krueger would grow a backbone and refuse to let you go, so I had to shut you up."
"I am sorry about the hit on the head, sir," Sgt. Harris, 'Bob', put in. "I didn't think I hit you that hard. I tried to make it a light tap, just enough to daze you so we could get you out of there."
"My head has been 'tapped' several times in the last couple of days, Sergeant. It's pretty much 'tapped out'. Next time you want me to stop talking, PLEASE just tell me to 'shut up'!"
That brought a chuckle, and eased the tension in the car. Smith reached into his coat and brought out a pack of cigarettes. Taking one for himself, and grinning, he offered the General one of his own cigarettes, "Cigarette, sir?"
"Yes, thank you." Savage said stone-faced as Smith lit both their cigarettes. "In fact, I think I'd like the pack back," then leaned forward and tapped Harris on the shoulder, "the watch, and flask too, Sergeant."
Smith, afraid that his little attempt at humor had fallen flat, said defensively, "Sorry about your things, sir, but no self-respecting Nazi would have failed to take a pack of American cigarettes or an American watch. It could have blown our cover," he finished weakly.
"Relax." Savage said, grinning. "Getting out of there was worth a pack of cigarettes, but I would like my watch... and the flask."
As he put the flask in his pocket and strapped the watch back on his wrist, Savage asked, "What happens now? I have vital information that must get back to England within the next ten hours."
"Not a problem, sir. In a few miles, the truck will turn off at a fork in the road, and our French friends will disappear. Then we will continue on for about an hour or so to a field where we'll rendezvous with a small plane that will fly us back to England. If all goes as planned, sir, we should have you home and dry by a little after midnight."
Savage quickly checked his watch; it was eighteen-thirty, six-thirty, Wednesday. He had given up any hope of making Wiley Crowe's deadline. Now, it seemed, he could be home with time to spare. He couldn't believe his luck.
Back at the Holding Compound, Major Krueger was shaken and ashamed that he had let Schmidt intimidate him and take his prisoner. The American General was in his custody, his responsibility, and he had failed to protect him. All he had to do was say 'No'. There were only three of them.
But what if he had, he wondered. What would the consequences have been to his career... or even to his life. With the Gestapo, anything was possible.
Just then, Sergeant Wagner knocked on his door.
"Herein kommen. (Enter.)"
Entering and standing at attention, Wagner said, "Herr Major, die Gestapo sind hier. (Major, the Gestapo are here.)"
"Sie haben zurückkommen? (They've come back?)" asked Krueger, somewhat bewildered.
"Nein, Herr Major, dies ist jemand anderes. (No, sir, this is someone else.)"
"Schicken ihn herein. (Send him in.)" said Krueger as he rose from his chair.
Saluting as he entered, the man said, "Guten Nachmittag, Herr Major. (Good afternoon, Major.) Mein Name ist Bauer, Gestapo (My name is Bauer, Gestapo); Ich habe für die französisch Gefangenen kommen. (I have come for the French prisoners.)"
Handing Krueger his papers, he continued, "Hier ist meine Genehmigung und Gefangenen Transportaufträge. (Here is my authorization and prisoner transfer order.)"
Krueger suddenly turned pale and slowly sat back down in his chair.
"Was ist los, Herr Major? (What is the matter, Major.) Sind Sie krank? (Are you ill?)" asked Bauer.
Ten minutes later, both men watched out the window of Krueger's office as a truck filled with troops exited the compound, turned left, and sped down the highway chasing the now obvious Gestapo imposters and the escaping prisoners.
Then Bauer turned from the window, and taking Krueger's chair behind his desk, motioned for the Major to take the chair in front, and with a menacing tone, said, "Jetzt, Herr Major. Vielleicht Sie könnten mich erklären, im Detail, wie es ist, Sie haben mein Französisch Gefangener und eine amerikanische Luftwaffengeneral verschenkte. (Now, major, perhaps you could explain to me, in detail, how it is you have given away my French prisoners and an American Air Force General.)"
The Mercedes carrying the SOE agents and General Savage came to the fork in the road, and Harris lowered his window and waved as the truck carrying the Maquis turned off and sped away. The Mercedes continued on, and as Savage took a final pull on his cigarette and flicked it out the window, he put his head back against the seat, and started to relax.
It had been an 'interesting' couple of days, to say the least, and he would be glad to get back to the base. He told himself, 'never again' would he do anything so stupid. What hubris to think that he could locate that damn factory... well he had, but that was beside the point. From now on he'd leave the gathering of intelligence to those whose job it was... and he'd stick to what he knew best, flying.
They were almost to their destination, only about a half mile before their turn off, when Jack said, "There's a Jerry staff car coming towards us, Tom."
Spotting the car, Smith said, "We're Gestapo, Jack. Just keep driving and ignore them." Then to Savage, "You're a prisoner again, General. Be ready to put those cuffs back on, just in case. And please," he said with a grin. "try to look appropriately sullen."
"That won't be a problem, Lieutenant."
As the German car came closer they saw it was a Kübelwagen, a light armored car with a rag top, the German version of the American 'Jeep'. The car had its top down and was carrying four Wehrmacht officers. The officers looked curiously at them as they passed but continued down the road.
As Corporal Burns slowed and turned right onto a dirt road, he said, "I think they saw us turn off, Tom. They kept going, but if anybody's looking for us, they'll remember where we left the road."
"We'll just have to take that risk," Tom replied. "We're almost there."
The car kept going for about a mile until the dirt road disappeared, and there was only a grass track that opened onto a small clearing before a large field. The field was about 50 yards wide bordered by a thick forest, but he couldn't tell how long it was from where they stopped. In the clearing they could see the plane, it appeared all shot up, and tucked into the trees at the edge of the woods, an old Renault sedan.
"Something's not right, Tom," said Burns. "Where's Jeffers? Why isn't he here to meet us?"
Smith, Harris and Burns exited the car and went forward with their guns drawn to check out the area, while Savage headed toward the plane.
Suddenly, from the woods, a voice called out, "Nous sommes Français! (We are French!)" Then the voice said, 'RENARD'.
Everyone took cover where they could, and the SOE men aimed their weapons toward the sound of the voice. Recognizing the 'challenge', Smith replied with the 'countersign', 'CHIEN'. Then yelled, "Sortir avec vos mains en haut! (Come out with your hands up!)"
Two men, with rifles slung over their shoulders, came out into the clearing carrying a third man between them.
"It's all right." saidSmith, standing as he recognized the man they were carrying. "They're the Maquis sent to guard the field and signal the plane, and they've got Jeffers."
Coming closer, the two men laid the wounded man on the ground, propped up against a fallen log, and raising their hands, announced, "We are Maquis, Monsieur!"
As the others gathered around the unconscious pilot, one of the Frenchmen said, "We speak English, Monsieur. I am Henri," he said. "and my friend is Jean Paul. The plane landed a few hours ago. The pilot, he was wounded, and we have been caring for him in the woods, awaiting your arrival. He was hit in the chest. I bandaged the wound and tried to stop the bleeding, but ..."
"It's about time you lot got here!" said Jeffers weakly as he came around. Then seeing Smith, "Sorry about the plane, Tom, (cough, cough) bloody Jerry was on top of me before I knew it. I was able to hug the ground and shake him off (cough), but not before he shot me up a bit. But I'll be able to fly, just give me (cough, cough, cough) a few minutes to rest... then I'll be right as rain..."
"That's all right, Bob." Smith said softly as he knelt beside him. "Just you rest now. We've plenty of time."
Then Smith stood, and asked Henri, "Any sign of the Jerries?"
"No, Monsieur. We have been here since early this morning. All has been quiet."
"Good. But, I'm afraid, we may have been observed turning off the road. It might be a good idea if you take your car and go keep a watch on the highway so you can give us warning if we have company."
" Je d'accord. (I agree.)" and as he headed toward the Renault, he motioned to Jean Paul and explained to him where he was going.
Turning then to Savage, Smith asked, "General, can you fly that plane?"
Savage had recognized the plane as a Lysander, a plane he was familiar with. "It's been a while; but if it's not shot up too badly, I can fly it. Let me have a look."
Savage started to walk away, but Smith called after him, "General, wait!" and pulling something from his coat pocket, Smith handed the General the key to his handcuff. "I don't think you need those bracelets anymore, sir."
"Thanks." Savage said, as he unlocked the handcuff from his left wrist and stuffed the pair into his jacket pocket. "You know, I'd almost forgotten they were there."
The Lysander was a high-wing monoplane, with fixed landing gear, painted matte black with subdued British roundel markings. Both the pilot's cockpit and the rear cockpit were glass-enclosed with an aft-sliding roof, and the cockpit sat high on the fuselage so the pilot was eye level with the wings and had an excellent field of vision.
It was the favorite light plane used by the SOE for its clandestine operations, mainly due its short takeoff and landing capabilities. It could fly into, and take off from, small unprepared fields as short as 400 yards. It carried over 120 gallons of fuel, and had a range of six hundred miles, so it was ideally suited for their purposes.
It had its draw backs, however, in that it had been originally designed for a crew of two, a pilot and a rear gunner. As SOE operations mainly involved transporting agents to and from France as well as evacuating downed Allied airmen, it needed to be able to carry more than the pilot and just one passenger. To improve upon this, its rear cockpit guns, twin .303 Brownings, had been removed, allowing for up to three passengers sitting tandem one behind the other, although uncomfortably. For speed of passenger access to the rear cockpit, the plane had also been fitted with a step ladder permanently affixed next to the rear cockpit on the left side.
Savage ran these details through his mind as he approached the plane. There were step and hand holes in the wheel spats on the right side that allowed the pilot to climb up into the cockpit. It was getting dark, and even with the light from the full moon, Savage needed a flashlight. He found one in the glove compartment of the Mercedes.
Shining the flashlight as he climbed up into the cockpit, he examined the holes in the cabin's Perspex windscreen and assessed the damage to the instruments and controls. The radio, interphone, and many of the instruments and gages had been shot up, but the most essential items - the engine priming and starting controls, compass, altimeter, and fuel gage were untouched. The fuel gage registered over half a tank, so there was sufficient fuel. Then he worked the plane's flight surfaces, confirming that the ailerons, elevator, and rudder, as well as the horizontal stabilizers, and other trimming surfaces still operated correctly.
Hopping down, he removed the engine cowling, and shining the light, examined the engine. It looked in perfect condition; he couldn't believe that none of the fighter's rounds had hit it. There were some holes in the fuselage, but even if the plane's fuel tank had been hit, it was self-sealing, and he wasn't too concerned. He would have to do an engine run-up run to make sure, but there didn't seem to be any insurmountable reason why the plane couldn't take them home.
The number of passengers, however, WAS a concern. It was stretching it to try to take off with a pilot and three passengers; even if they could all get in, weight was an issue. But four passengers was out of the question.
Walking back over to where Smith was talking with the pilot, Savage motioned him aside. "The plane has taken a lot of hits, but the actual damage is minimal. I need to run the engine up to be sure, but if everything checks out, it will get us back to England... but it can't take all of us."
"I know, sir. When we added you to our 'merry band', I knew we would have to adjust our plans. I had already decided before we got here that you would go back with Jeffers, and we would stay and arrange a later pickup. But with Jeffers shot up, you'll have to do the flying; and I want Jeffers to go, with Burns to look after him. Harris and I will go with the Maquis and use their radio to set up another pickup."
Savage asked quietly, "Are you sure, Smith? I know Jeffers is your friend, and I'm sorry, but as bad as he's been hit, he could be dead before we land. It would be kinder to leave him here with the Frenchmen; they might be able to get him to a doctor."
"I appreciate your concern, sir, I do, but as you say, he's my friend; I can't just leave him. Corporal Burns found a first aid kit in the Mercedes, and among his other talents, Jack is a medic. I want to hear what he has to say."
While Smith watched as Burns treated the pilot, Savage returned to the Lysander and ran the engine up to full power. When he was satisfied everything was operating within acceptable parameters, he shut it down.
Now it was up to Smith to make a decision. But, checking his watch, Savage knew he couldn't wait too long. He didn't want to have to pull rank on Smith, but his information had to get back in time to change the Group's target for tomorrow.
Back on the highway, Sergeant Wagner thought the chase was hopeless. The Gestapo imposters had had over an hour and a half head start. He had followed down the highway in the direction they had taken, but now they had come to a fork in the road, and he had no idea which way to go. The only thing he knew for sure was, with the Gestapo involved, he couldn't go back without them.
It was late and getting dark, and he was studying the map trying to decide on a direction, when his driver spotted a Kübelwagen coming down the highway toward them. When they were almost up to them, he sent a soldier to flag them down.
After a brief discussion with the occupants - Wehrmacht officers on their way to Paris on a week's leave - he learned that they had met a Gestapo-flagged staff car about an hour ago, and as they passed, they had noticed it turn left off the highway onto a dirt road. After further questioning, Wagner determined that the officers had not seen any other places to turn off between there and where they were now.
Thanking the officers, and sending them on their way, Wagner returned to his vehicle, and with renewed hope, continued his pursuit down the highway.
Savage had informed Smith that the plane was operational and that they could leave whenever he, Smith, was ready. But Smith was still struggling with what he wanted to do against what he knew he had to do. Then as Corporal Burns approached, the decision was taken out of his hands. He could see it written on Burn's face.
"I'm sorry, Tom. He's bleeding inside, and he's lost too much blood. Even if he could be operated on right now, he wouldn't make it... He doesn't have much time. Go be with your friend."
Jeffers was awake when Smith knelt down beside him. "Not much longer now, Bob. The General says the plane's OK to fly, and we can leave anytime. We'll just get you and Burns into the back..."
"God, but you're a terrible liar, Tom! I'm not a fool, you know. I'm done for, and I know it. (cough, cough, cough)... So why don't you lot just bugger off before the Jerries show up and everything goes pear shaped." then he paused, overcome with another fit of coughing and spitting up blood.
When he was able, he said in almost a whisper, "You'll look after Kathy and the boys."
"You know we will, Bob. Mary and I..." but Jeffers had continued as if he hadn't heard him. "and tell her I love her, and the kids, and that I'm sorry I won't..."
Smith continued to kneel there looking at his friend as if expecting him to go on, until Savagelaid his hand on his shoulder and said quietly, "He's gone, Tom."
"I know, General." Smith replied sadly, as he closed Jeffers' now sightless eyes, "We'd been best friends since we were in short pants. I was best man at his wedding, and I'm godfather to his boys."
Then he removed Jeffers' identity disk and stood up continuing to look down at the body, "He was seconded to SOE because of me... and now he's dead. I can't even take him home for a proper burial... God, I hate this BLOODY war!"
"Do not worry about your friend, Monsieur," said Jean Paul. "We will take him with us. He will be buried in the churchyard of Saint-Pierre in our village of Baslieux, a few miles north-east of here... For the church records, what was his name?"
"Flight Lieutenant Robert John Jeffers, Royal Air Force. He was Church of England."
"I do not think Le Bon Dieu will care about his denomination." and with that, Jean Paul and Burns carried the body over to the Mercedes and gently laid him out in the backseat.
Savage had thought about the route they should take, and had told Smith the simplest and most direct course would be to head west to the Channel, then northeast back to England. The Lysander's intercom was out, and they would have no way to communicate once in the air so he wanted to let him know the plan before they took off.
He had decided to head for his base at Archbury, he told him, mainly because once they were over the Channel, he knew the route, but also because he still had a deadline to meet. He estimated the flight would take less than three hours. Until he got to the Channel, he planned to fly at a low altitude, below radar, to avoid detection; then once over the Channel, he would climb to 5,000 feet for the rest of the flight.
It was almost midnight. Even though they had a full moon, Savage instructed the Maquis to position the Mercedes so that its headlights lit up the 'runway'.
Waving his 'thanks and goodbye' to Jean Paul, Savage climbed into the cockpit, started the engine, and once it had reached operating temperature, taxied the plane to the end of the field facing into the wind.
Suddenly, the slit headlights of Henri's Renault lit up the Lysander as he came racing toward them. "Bosch!" he said as the car came to a skidding halt and he jumped out, "A truck full of soldiers just turned off the highway heading this way. They are right behind me."
The words were barely out of his mouth before Henri's Renault and the side of the Lysander were spattered with bullets from the rifles of several Germans dismounting from a truck near where they had originally entered the clearing. The troops kept up a heavy fire toward the Lysander, while the truck carrying the remainder of the soldiers sped toward the end of field to cut them off.
Smith and the others returned the Germans' fire as they raced for the plane, quickly climbing into the rear cockpit, somehow squeezing themselves into a space originally meant for one. The Maquis took cover behind the Mercedes and kept up a steady fire to keep the Germans heads down and away from the plane.
Standing on the brakes, Savage slowly increased the throttle and revved the engine up to its top rpm, then released the brakes and started down the field, picking up speed as he went. He needed a minimum air speed of 80 mph to get into the air, and the field was flying past at an alarming rate.
Paralleling the plane, the German truck tried to block their takeoff. Firing their 9mm Schmeisser machine pistols from the back of the truck, the soldiers' stitched a line of bullets up the side of the Lysander, and Savage felt a sharp pain in his left leg as he finally reached the necessary the air speed. Pulling back on the stick for all he was worth, he just managed to clear the treetops as he climbed into the night sky. The Germans, running out of field and unable to stop, crashed into the trees at the edge of the field and burst into flame.
As the remaining Germans ran across the field toward the burning truck to help their comrades, the forgotten Maquis jumped into the Mercedes and sped toward the track leading back to the road and escape.
Once in the air, Savage turned west and headed for the Channel. He was flying by compass and VFR, visual flight rules, helped along by a little moonlight and a few natural landmarks. He examined his leg; he had been hit in the upper thigh. It was bleeding, but he hadn't hit an artery, and he wrapped his scarf around the leg and tied it off as tight as he could. It hurt like the devil, but at least, it helped to take his mind off the ever-present throb in his head.
It was peaceful up there, he was back where he belonged ... and as long as he didn't run into a night fighter, or some hawkeyed antiaircraft battery, or bleed to death, it should be an uneventful trip.
He'd been flying for over two hours, and they were making good time, but his leg hurt like hell and continued to bleed as he had to use the rudder pedals. Then all that was forgotten as he saw he the English Channel ahead, and a short time later, he was over water. He changed his heading to a more northeasterly course, climbed to 5,000 feet, and headed for the white cliffs he could almost see in the distance.
He had been constantly scanning the sky for enemy aircraft, so he was surprised when he saw he was no longer alone. Flying off his nine o'clock was a formation of three Spitfires, probably returning from a mission over France. They hadn't made any hostile moves towards him, he assumed because of the British markings on the plane, but they were clearly curious. One moved in close enough for Savage to see his face. He was pointing to his headphones, indicating he wanted to raise him on the radio. Savage shook his head to signify his radio was out. Then finding his flashlight, he signaled in Morse code that he was American and heading for the 918th Bomb Group at Archbury.
As they were a little over mid-way across the Channel, the other Spits peeled off heading for home, but the leader gave Savage a thumbs up, and signaled that he would stay with the them, then took position off his left wing and a little behind. It was comforting to know the Spitfire had his 'six' and would provide protection and escort to their destination.
As the two planes passed over the Dover Cliffs and headed inland, the Spitfire leader radioed ahead to Archbury tower to let them know that the Lysander was headed their way, and that from what he could see, the plane had been shot up and probably had wounded aboard.
At the 918th Base Hospital, Doc Kaiser came out of the operating room and wiped the sweat from his face with his surgical mask. He was tired. He looked at his watch; it was three o'clock in the morning. He had been called in a little after midnight to perform an emergency operation on a young pilot. The boy would live, but Kaiser had had to take his right leg off above the knee; he wasn't looking forward to telling him when he came out of the anesthesia. He was heading toward his office where he kept a cot for nights like this, when the Night Nurse came up to him.
"Doctor, we just had a call from the tower. There's a British light plane coming in from across the Channel; apparently it's all shot-up, and they think they have wounded aboard."
"All right, send an ambulance out to meet them." and he continued towards his office. Then he stopped. 'Why would a British plane be coming here?' he asked himself. 'There are several fields closer.' Then he had a wild thought: 'It couldn't be ... could it?'
He called after the nurse, "Tell the ambulance to wait, I'm going with them!" then quickly went to change out of his scrubs.
Savage was over familiar ground now. He knew he was only a few minutes from the Base. Then the runway was in sight. He made his decent with a long approach, almost gliding in with a very slight nose-up attitude; then throttling back, he touched down, and pulled the stick back while gently breaking. As he rolled to a stop, and shut down the engine, his guardian spitfire roared overhead, waggled his wings goodbye, then headed off... home he imagined. He would have to find out who that pilot was and thank him.
Savage just sat there for a moment: he was alive, he was home, and he had made it in time. Considering everything that had happened over the last three days, it was, as Smith would colorfully say, 'a bloody miracle'.
Pushing back the canopy, Savage tried to get up, but with his wounded leg, he found he couldn't stand. He had gotten used to the pain, but it was almost numb now. He decided he'd just wait for some assistance. He could already see an ambulance racing across the tarmac coming toward him.
When the ambulance stopped, Kaiser jumped out. He could see men in the rear cockpit as well as the pilot up front, but nobody seemed to be making any effort to get out. Directing his corpsmen to help the men in the back, he grabbed his bag and headed for the pilot.
As he got closer, he could see the pilot's face. 'I don't believe it!' he thought as he climbed up to the cockpit. "General? ... General!"
"Doc. Good to see you."
"We thought ... we were afraid..."
"So was I, Doc." he said. "So was I. Give me a hand, will you? I need a little help getting down. I caught one in the leg."
Kaiser helped Savage stand, then guided his feet out of the cockpit and down the strut to the ground. He looked the General over as he stood there leaning back against the plane. He had a head injury; a leg wound which was still bleeding; and he looked in bad shape. "General, I need to get you to the hospital."
"I feel better than I look, Doc. The hospital can wait a little longer."
At the back of the plane, the corpsmen had to literally prize Smith and his friends from the rear cockpit. They had been in such a cramped position for so long that their legs had gone numb, and they were all but unconscious from the lack of circulation. As they carried each of the men down, they laid them on the tarmac and began to massage their legs and arms to get their circulation going. They were a little concerned about their German uniforms, but they were corpsmen, and they were in England, and a patient was a patient.
Just then, two jeeps came to a screeching halt next to the ambulance, and several MPs led by a Lieutenant jumped out.
"At ease, Lieutenant," ordered Savage, as they approached the German-uniformed SOE men with their rifles ready. "They're British. Special Operations Executive. Lower your weapons."
But the Lieutenant wasn't about to give up his first encounter with the 'enemy', and he quickly looked to see who was giving him orders and stopped…..
"General Savage, sir. Aren't you... I mean we thought you were... How did you?..." Then before he dug the hole any deeper, simply said, "Yes, sir", saluted, and told his men to stand down.
Motioning him over, Savage said, "Come here, Lieutenant. What's your name?"
As the Lieutenant approached, he replied, "First Lieutenant Hansen, sir, Robert L."
Smith and the others had finally managed to get their circulation going again and were able to get to their feet, although somewhat shakily. While Harris and Burns responded to the questions of the curious corpsmen and MPs, Smith came over to where Savage, Kaiser and the Lieutenant were standing.
Saluting, he said, "For a while there, General, I had my doubts that we were going to make it... but, here we are."
Then Kaiser interrupted, "General, you're still losing blood; I really want to get you to the hospital. And these men need to be checked out."
"In a minute, Doc".
Turning to Hansen, "Lieutenant, this is 'Leftenant' Smith, SOE. I want you go to the hospital with him and his men, and when Doctor Kaiser releases them, I want you to get a staff car and driver, and take them back to their unit. Do you have that, Lieutenant?"
"And Lieutenant," Savage continued, "These men rescued me from the Germans and saved my life. I wouldn't be here except for them. So treat them right. Have you got THAT!"
As Hansen started to leave, "One more thing, Lieutenant." Savage said. "Leave me a jeep and driver when you go."
"Yes, sir." said Hansen, then turned to detail a jeep and driver for the General and send the rest of his men back to their posts.
As Smith, Harris and Burns started toward for the ambulance, Savage stopped them and shook each man's hand, saving Smith for last, " 'Thank you' doesn't nearly say it, Tom, not for what you men did. I am more obligated to you than I can ever repay. I won't forget."
"You'd have done the same for us, General; in fact, I think you just did. We're even as far as I'm concerned," Smith replied. Coming to attention, he executed a crisp British salute, then climbed into the back of the ambulance with the others.
"Alright, General, let's go."
"Not yet, Doc, there's one more thing I need to do."
"No, General, you're going to the hospital." As the Base Chief Medical Officer, Kaiser had the 'last word' when it came to medical matters.
I'm sorry, Doc, but I'm going to have to overrule you on this one. I've just spent the worst three days of my life getting information that is essential to this morning's mission. If I can't get that information to those pilots, then it will have all been for nothing... Lieutenant Canella will have died for nothing." With that said, Savage limped over to the jeep and got in.
Kaiser knew when he was fighting a losing battle. "All right, General. I guess a little longer won't matter that much. But at least let me put a fresh bandage on that leg before you bleed to death ... and I'm going with you."
After getting some supplies from the back of the ambulance, Kaiser shut the doors, then slapped the side, sending the ambulance on its way. He went over to Savage, had him turn in the seat, and gently eased his left leg out onto the ground. He removed Savage's improvised scarf bandage, then cut the bloody fabric of his flight coveralls, and the uniform pant beneath, revealing an inflamed oozing wound. He cleaned it, then redressed it with a new bandage.
Other than a grunt or two, Savage hadn't said a thing, until, "Are you done?" he said impatiently. "Can we go now?" Then he paused, and slowly ran a hand over his face. "Sorry, Doc. I ... It's been a rough couple of days."
OK, driver. Mission Briefing Hut. Let's go."
As the jeep sped across the tarmac, the briefing was just beginning. General Crowe had taken command of the Group, as Savage had thought he would. Standing on the stage in front of a map that covered France and Germany, he announced, "There will be two targets today."
Turning to the map, with his back to the room, he pointed to the targets as he named them. "The first will be the factory at Metz, AGAIN." That brought a groan from the room. "... and the second," Crowe went on, "will be the rail yards at Saarbrücken. We have to destroy those airframes, gentlemen, before..."
There was a commotion at the door, and someone called the room to attention. Crowe was the senior ranking officer on the base, and he turned to see what that was about. He looked towards the door and couldn't believe what he was seeing; then a broad smile slowly crossed his face. He looked over to Major Cobb and Major Stovall. They looked incredulous, but they were smiling as well.
"As You Were." Savage said, limping slowly towards the stage. The men started to retake their seats, but as word of Savage's presence spread, they rose again, and you could hear their comments as he limped past: 'It's the General!' ... 'God, look at him!' ... 'How'd he get here?' ... 'It's General Savage; he's back!'. Then the whistles, and cheers, and clapping began.
Savage finally made it to the stage. Taking one step at a time, he painfully climbed up the three steps. Major Stovall met him at the top, "Welcome back, General."
"Thanks, Harvey. It's good to be back."
Then Stovall asked softly, "Lieutenant Canella?"
Savage shook his head, "No." There was nothing else to say.
Next it was Major Cobb, "I don't know how you did it, sir, but it's good to see you."
Finally, he crossed the stage to where General Crowe was waiting. He saluted, and it was returned by a smiling Crowe, "You cut it pretty close, General."
"Sorry, sir," he said with a tired grin. "I was unavoidably detained."
Crowe looked at Savage with both relief and concern. He was back, and alive, but besides his obvious wounds, he was pale and gaunt, with dark circles under his eyes. He looked exhausted. "God, Frank..."
"It's all right, Wiley; I'm OK … I found the factory!"
The room was still going wild over the General's unbelievable return from almost certain captivity, or death, when Savage turned back to them, and raising his hands for quiet, said, "Alright, gentlemen, thank you. I'm just as happy to be here, believe me, but let's settle down. We have a mission to fly."
As the room quieted, Savage turned to the map, and began, "There will be a change in targets... The factory we had been bombing is a decoy: a wheat field with a lot of dummy buildings. The real target is here" tapping the map with a pointer, "in the middle of a forest a few miles east of Metz." At once, everyone's attention was riveted on the General and on the map; their minds back on the business of war.
Kaiser, who had been sitting in the back of the room, seeing that Savage was still operating on adrenaline and in no immediate distress, got up and quietly left the building. Finding the jeep and driver still waiting, "Take me back to the hospital, Private, then come back. When the General is finished, bring him to the hospital. I don't care what he says. Bring him to the hospital ... even if you have to arrest him. That's an order!"
"Yes, SIR!" the driver said emphatically, but thought to himself, 'like that's going to happen.'
Savage slowly opened his eyes and looked around. The room was dark, but he could see he was in a hospital room, in a bed, this time, not on the floor of a barn. The door opened slightly, and a nurse peeked in, then quickly closed the door again. Almost immediately it opened again, and Doc Kaiser came in.
He opened the blinds letting in the sun, then turned to Savage, "How are you feeling, General?"
"Still a little tired, and sore, but I feel good. How long have I been out?"
"Two days! What's the damage?"
"I put a couple of stitches in that gash on your forehead, and you have a concussion, but the x-rays didn't show any skull fractures. You'll have headaches for a while, but I'd say you're over the worst of it.
We got the bullet out of your leg; there was no major or permanent damage, but you'll have a limp for a few weeks.
You're also suffering from extreme stress and exhaustion ... recovery from that will take a little longer."
"So what's the bottom line? When can I get out of here and go back to work?"
"If you behave, and follow doctor's orders, you can be released in a day or two, for light duty only ... but as for returning to full duty, that'll be a week at least."
"Oh, come on Doc!"
"That's the way it's going to be, General ... unless you'd like to stay here until you're fully recovered."
"Anybody ever tell you, you have a lousy bedside manner, Doc?"
"Yes, you! ... Now, are you hungry?"
"I'm starving. Think you could find me a nice big juicy steak and some eggs?"
"An appetite is good. But no steak, not yet. We'll start you with some soft boiled eggs and Melba toast, until I'm sure your stomach can handle solid food."
Savage started to complain, but Kaiser held up his hand, "Do you think you're up to some visitors?"
"General Crowe and Harvey Stovall have been taking turns hovering around the hospital waiting to see you as soon as you were awake, and Air Intelligence sent two officers down from Wing to debrief you."
Then reaching into the pocket of his coat, Kaiser pulled out a set of dog tags and a crumpled piece of paper and handed them to Savage. "Lieutenant Hansen brought these back for you from Leftenant Smith shortly after we checked you into the hospital. Smith thought you might want to keep the paper."
Savage slipped the dog tags over his head, then straightened out the paper. It was the form Major Krueger had started, registering him as a Prisoner of War. He would keep it, he thought staring at the form, if only to remind himself what can happen when he does something really stupid.
"Thanks, Doc. I think I'd like to see General Crowe and Harvey now. Air Intelligence can wait."
Kaiser opened the door, and motioned Crowe and Stovall into the room. "The General's awake and would like to see you. But not too long, he still needs a lot of rest."
General Crowe came in first, carrying a paper bag. He was followed by Stovall. "God, Frank, but you gave me a scare." he said. "I thought - I don't know what I thought - but if you ever do anything like that again..."
"It all worked out, Wiley. We got the factory ... didn't we?"
"We plastered it, General." Stovall cut in. "There won't be any FW's coming out of Germany this year, not from those airframes."
Then, in all seriousness, Crowe said, "General Prichard is beside himself, Frank. He doesn't know whether to give you a medal, or court-martial you for such a foolhardy stunt. ... Can you IMAGINE the propaganda value had the Nazi's captured an American General? ... When he has a chance to calm down, and think it through, I think he'll just let it lay. But no more of this do-it-yourself intelligence, General, is that understood?!"
"Yes, sir. I had already come to that conclusion myself."
"Good! Now that that's settled..."
Crowe then pulled a pair of handcuffs, a bottle of aspirin, and a flask from the paper bag he was carrying and handed them to Savage one at a time. "Doctor Kaiser found these in the pockets of your flight jacket. I'm sure there's a story here, Frank, and Harvey and I want to hear it."
"You're not going to believe it, Wiley. I lived it, and I'm not sure I believe it." and with that, Savage began to recount his seventy-two hours in France...
Savage went on with his story, and Kaiser would liked to have listened further, but he was sure it would be told, and retold, for some time to come. The General was back, and things would be returning to normal. He left the room, quietly closing the door behind him, and headed down the hall. He had other patients and rounds to make.