It was early afternoon when a smoldering, burning wreck was discovered by the SS, deep in the heart of the Black Forest. Sheet metal along with different metallic alloys were twisted and bent completely out of recognition, and nearly half an hour passed until the soldiers could advance closer to the wreckage without having their faces and hands blistered by the scorching heat radiating from the ruin.
“Was ist das?” queried one of the SS men as he crouched beside the smashup and closely surveyed a plate of metal that seemed to have been torn from the object.
Looks to be an Flugzeug,” remarked one of the officers grimly. “A britisch one.” He turned to the rest of the men that were milling about and glancing at the surrounding blackened trees and charred foliage. “The pilot and crew must be around here somewhere, and not one of you will rest and return to Tannenberg until they’re found.”
“How long has it been?”
Jack blinked past the smoke that still burned in his eyes, and he rested against a smooth-trunked elm tree for a moment to catch his breath. Wheezy breaths escaped his parched lips while he tried to inhale deeply, but only started to cough up blood mixed with a strange burnt substance that was acrid to the taste and burned on Jack’s tongue.
“About four hours,” responded Rand with a nod after glancing at his pocket watch. “Seems like its been the whole day, though. Dare we take a break?”
Jack gave a short, rasping laugh as he shook his blond head and hastily grasped at another tree to support his upper body. Anything he would do to release the strain on his quivering left leg that felt as if it were being seared with lactic acid, the leg that had been pushed more than he had ever exerted it before. Keeping his eyes level with his friend’s, the Brit purposely avoided even accidentally looking down at the right leg that was barely hanging onto his body.
“That was quite a spitfire we had going up there,” he grinned after a deep breath, his hazel eyes sparkling despite the blood steadily gushing from the severing cut dangerously close to his femoral artery. “I’ve never seen Newton do the Scissors so precisely before…always lost his wool in training, but I guess the chap has done alright after all.”
Isaac “Newton” Chesterfield, had been the one of them to most reliably fail to execute any sort of flying maneuver that required him to move the plane in any other direction than a straight line. Yet in his own bomber where he had been assigned as one of the engineers, Newton had been forced into the role of pilot when both the actual pilot and copilot had passed out from dysfunctional oxygen masks. Jack knew exactly what must have been going through Newton’s mind as he had strapped himself into the pilot’s seat and executed several surprisingly clean ploys to dodge the flak zipping through the air.
Jack and Rand, who had been a part of the aircrew on the Late July Runner, were both pilot and copilot and not the most experienced RAF fliers, they both were aware of.
In fact, this had been their first mission in a stealth operative to recover information about the whereabouts of several German bases. Thankfully, the rest of the crew had known what they were doing and had significantly assisted in keeping the operation running smoothly.
“How’d you get cut up so bad?”
Voicing the question that both of the men knew that Jack hated to hear, Rand sat down on a rock and stared up at his copilot and friend who was wiping his perspiring brow with a soot-stained kerchief he had drawn from one of the singed pockets of his navy-blue uniform.
“Going to need some new battle dress blues,” Jack remarked quietly as he appraised his trousers and coat. “Hope the CO won’t mind…”
“Jack.” Rand stood up and fixed his friend with a stern eye, holding his arm firmly while shaking his head. “What happened?”
“…still glad I’m not working in the Chairborne Division,” Jack was rambling as he shook his own head and ran his shaking fingers through his mussed blond hair. “I’d take anything over being closed up back in that office with a cup of stale coffee and a donut every single morning. I’ll take field rations any day before that.”
“We’re not talking about the Chairborne Division!” ejaculated Rand in growing frustration. “We’re talking about what just happened. We’re talking about the fact that we just fell eleven kilometers out of the sky, Jack. We were bombed by Luftwaffe fighters who weren’t supposed to know we were even there, however that may have happened. Now Jack—”
“Now, Rand,” retorted Jack as he blinked back the unmanly tears stinging his eyes. “Why in all of bloody Deutschland are we here in this forest when the rest of the division is now on their way back? Why were we the only one that those Luftwaffe fighters were picking on us instead of the eleven other planes up there? Why?”
There was a strange glint in Jack’s eyes that made Rand feel as if there were something the twenty-three-year-old RAF pilot was holding back, something crucial to their mission that he hadn’t been told…him, the pilot of the Late July.
“Yes, Jack, why?” Rand asked with a frustrated sigh. “These are all very good questions, but only profitable to us if one of us knows the answer. Was there something I blanked out on? Something that I need to know?”
Jack sighed as he shakily lowered himself onto a rock, burning, excruciating agony searing through his right leg. Even without looking downward, by feeling he could diagnose what exactly was wrong and was fully able to visualize what it looked like in his mind.
“No,” Jack said, shaking his head slowly. “There isn’t. All I know is that we have to destroy all of our papers and documents.”
The pilot gawked down at the copilot in something akin to disbelief.
“I believe that this is the Black Forest,” Jack stated as his gaze roved the thick masses of trees surrounding them on all sides, “from the dark pines, beech, and oak. And if it is, in fact, then there could be any number of SS men waiting for opportunities such as this. So we have to destroy all evidence that we’re with the RAF. That’s what we’ve been trained to do, Rand.”
With visibly shaking hands, Jack drew a pack of papers bound with a knotted string from inside his uniform jacket. One by one, he went through each personal letter, each RAF document, and then the coded operative letter that stated their goal for the mission.
Finally, Jack lifted the cord around his neck and let his eyes caress the familiar Bakelite surface of the round brown disk and then the green octagonal one. Through training after training and countless nights at Butlin’s Filey RAF base, the tags had been with him and were taught that they were invaluable to a soldier.
Now, he gave the cord a hard tug, and the knotted string gave way.
Together, both the copilot and the pilot made a small pile of all their personal belongings and Royal Air Force papers, and Rand struck a match.
“Wait!” blurted out Jack as he reached forward and instantly capped his palm over the flame. “The Luftwaffe will be able to see the smoke from the sky and will immediately alert the ground patrol. It would be like asking to be caught and killed, Rand.”
Nodding in agreement, Rand waved the match in the air a single time for the wind to extinguish it and moved to his hands and knees to begin digging.
A literal buried secret, Jack thought while he bit his lower lip and watched as their items were gradually covered by the German soil of the Black Forest. If we aren’t able to come back to retrieve these, we may as well be counted as Nazi spies.
After trekking through the woods for close to three hours, Jack and Rand found themselves in no more of a better place than they were in before. Every Scots pine appeared the same, and every clump of wildflowers or ferns seemed like one they had passed before.
“You can’t go on walking like this,” Rand remarked as they paused to catch their breaths and take a small sip of the precious water from their canteens. He glanced over at Jack’s right leg where bloody tendons and part of a half-severed femur glared out from beneath torn navy-blue pants.
Jack’s face was pale, his lips thin and drawn as if striving to keep back any manifestation of his pain. Ruffled and sticking out in every direction, his blond hair stood matted to his forehead that was damp with a cold sweat. Eyes glazed over with pain, the young RAF copilot leaned his left side against an oak and inhaled a shuddery breath.
“We can’t stop,” he murmured. “They’ll find us…they’ll kill us, Rand. You know what they do.”
“Yes, but only if this doesn’t kill you first! Come to your senses, Jack. You’re bleeding to death…we need to try to wrap your leg up before that happens.”
“Don’t have time,” Jack mumbled as he took several hard breaths.
“Jack, I can’t have you die on me,” choked Rand, agitatedly running his long, slender fingers through his jet-black hair. “We’re in this togeth—”
All of a sudden, a siren blared through the woods, sending both RAF pilots to their knees as they covered ears that felt on the verge of beginning to drip blood. In a few minutes or more, the deafening sound that had split the air like nothing they had ever heard before, dissipated off into the far reaches of the surrounding woods.
After the seconds of recovery, Jack was aware of a scrambling sound just behind the nearest clump of bushes and began to drag his body in that direction.
“What are you doing?” hissed Rand in disbelief.
“There are people over there—behind the wire,” breathed Jack. “I can see them.”
“Yes, SS officers…I know. I didn’t think we’d find anything else here.”
Jack’s voice was flat and hard, with an edge to it that suddenly stopped Rand’s mounting irritation in its tracks.
“Those people are not SS.”
In a few moments, both Brits were up against the barbed wire dividing a barren field beyond from the thick forestry. With their eyes drawn to the thin figures stiffly and painstakingly slowly going about building a rickety hut, the pilots both held their breaths, almost as if one noise could alert any lurking SS men nearby.
One of the emaciated shadows had wandered off closer to the fence than the others and was sitting down amongst a pile of rubble that looked to be composed of limestone and cement. Head in its hands, the personage—if indeed that’s what this disformed and bent figure was—began to shake uncontrollably, knees knocking together with audible clacks. The tattered striped rags it wore fluttered in the slight breeze and exposed marked deep indigo bruises along the shins and forearms as well as deep cuts revealing several layers of flesh.
“This is no prisoner of war camp,” Jack said under his breath.
Sucking in a breath, Rand whispered, “What are those yellow stars for?”
Indeed, the emaciated youth had a yellow triangle sewn to his extremely large, billowing shirt that, the triangle superimposed with yet another triangle of an indistinct color.
“They’re the Jews, I think.”
There was silence between the two as they continued to gaze at the different men struggling to lift the planks of wood up onto the roof of the thin house frame, some falling to the ground in exhaustion and others sometimes dropping the planks that one British soldier could handle with ease.
In the distance stood three gray-uniformed men with metal helmets and Karabiner 98k’s held at bay. Beside them waited a massive German shepherd with ears up and alert, occasionally looking to the men for the single word that would send him bounding toward the hut-builders.
“Mann, sind Sie verletzt?” asked Jack gently of the sobbing figure.
Rand stared. It was obvious the man wasn’t alright, so what was Jack doing by wasting precious time?
The Jew looked up, startled, his eyes roving over the foreign uniforms clothing the two men; yet the next second, a torrent of broken German was pouring forth from his mouth as he explained to Jack the conditions of the camp, how they had come to be there, and the train that took the sick to Auschwitz…to be exterminated, the Jew surmised as his body shook and his chest rapidly rose and fell with each breath.
“Ist das alles wahr?” Jack questioned quietly after the man had finished.
Silently, the Jew gulped and nodded.
As he turned to face Rand, the pilot instantly shook his head with a worried look coming into his eyes.
“Getting involved in this will only get us into more trouble than we are already in. Jack, you can’t possibly be thinking of—”
“We have no other option as RAF soldiers. My conscience will not allow me to do anything less…you have to understand that. You know me, Rand.”
But any response Rand was going to come back with was silenced by the whirring and coughing of an engine as a plane landed right on top of the large field beyond the barbed wire and past the location where the inmates were constructing the building. In utter disbelief, Jack’s eyes were past comprehending the de Havilland Mosquito DH.98 descended upon the grass.
“That’s the Mossie!” shouted Rand in astonishment. “Jack…it’s impossible.”
Out of the plane leapt four men, men that Jack had never thought he would see again. Faint and blurry-eyed, he leant his head against a post that held up the barbed wire as a smile drifted across his face. The tendons securing the copilot’s leg were taut, stretched to their utmost ability after the three-mile hike through the thick woods. Gradually, the loss of blood had come to a mere trickle from the severed arteries and ripped muscle that quivered as several flies landed on Jack’s leg. His face deathly pale, the young Brit suddenly went into the last stages of hypovolemic shock while Rand struggled to gather his friend into his arms and desperately waved at the aircrew rapidly subduing the shocked SS guards and rushing past the startled Jews.
“You came back,” Rand said in disbelief. “You aren’t supposed to do that, Viper…you know that.”
Peter “Viper” Densmore, the most qualified pilot of them all, merely grinned on the other side of the barbed wire as he nodded to Newton. Instantly, Newton retrieved a small machete from his bag-of-all-trades and began to hack at the places where the wire was twisted around the poles.
“We saw the Late July go down,” he said quietly as his eyes went to the unresponsive Jack. “None of us could go back without you two…not without seeing if you were alive or not. No man brave enough as you two should be left to die in the hands of the enemy without a way out.”
Chlorry, the doctor that had happened to be assigned to the Mossie and call-signed as such both from the chloroform he used and a British lorry, unwrapped a bandage from his pack and began to bind Jack’s leg where it had been mostly severed just below his hip. Silently, yet quickly, the intelligent young man had first tied off several of the arteries and doused the wound with antiseptic.
“How is he? Does he stand any chance?” queried Rand.
“He is very weak,” admitted Chlorry with a deep sigh and a grave glance at Viper. “He’s barely hanging onto life, he lost so much blood.”
Rand struggled to hold back the tears beginning to flood his eyes, and he turned away, unable to behold for one more second the cold, almost lifeless body of his friend as his heartbeat grew weaker by the moment.
“He wanted to keep on going,” he said in a cracking voice. “I told him we should stop, but he’s as bloody stubborn as the Führer himself! No wonder why he’s going to die now!”
“Calm down,” ordered Viper sternly. “There’s no place for carrying on like this. Act like a man. If it hadn’t been for Jack, an SS division would have caught you two hours ago. You’d better hope he lives because he saved your life and obviously was the one to destroy the evidence that would have blown our whole scheme.”
“Destroying the Führerhauptquartier Tannenberg not five miles from here. Jack saved all of our skins here today, Rand.”