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Authors: Jussi Adler-Olsen

Alphabet House

BOOK: Alphabet House
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Alphabet House

Jussi Adler-Olsen


Translated from the Danish by Steve Schein

Author’s Introduction

This book is not a war novel.

Alphabet House
is an elementary story about breaches that can arise in all types of personal relationships, from daily life in a marriage or at the workplace to extreme settings like the Korean War, the Boer War, the Iraqi-Iranian War, or in this case the Second World War.

There are several reasons why I chose this war to provide the novel’s framework. Primarily because I am the son of a psychiatrist and grew up in the surroundings of ‘lunatic asylums’, as they were called in Denmark in the late fifties and early sixties, and although my father was extremely progressive and a new thinker in his field, I couldn’t avoid witnessing first-hand how the mentally ill were treated in those days. Many of them had been in the system since the thirties and I was interested in the methods of treatment and the doctors and hospitals during that period, especially during the war. I got to know a few patients who – through the eyes of a naive, alert child – I suspected of simulating their mental illness.

One of these chronically mentally ill patients essentially coped with life in the hospitals by uttering only two sentences. ‘Yes, you’ve got a point there!’ was the one he used the most. He wasn’t sticking his neck out here. Then he could enhance and round off practically any situation with a sincerely relieved, ‘Oh, thank God!’ He was one of the patients I suspected of having retreated from society into the calm and peaceful world of medical treatment facilities by using some obscure form of simulation.

But is it possible to preserve oneself and one’s mind in a situation like this if one isn’t really ill? It’s hard to believe, especially considering some of the hefty methods of treatment used at the time. Wouldn’t our verbally limited patient become ill, sooner or later?

My father met the patient again after a period of many years. It was in the seventies, by which point the world had become
freer in many ways. This had also had its effect on our man. He’d added a third sentence to his repertoire: ‘Up yours!’ He’d kept up with the times.

And again I found myself wondering, ‘Is he ill or is he healthy?’

My desire to combine these two objects of my fascination – the possibly mentally ill individual and the Second World War – was enhanced by a conversation I had with one of my mother’s friends named Karna Bruun. She had worked as a nurse in Bad Kreuchnach under Professor Sauerbruch and was able to confirm and expand upon some theories I had developed.

In the summer of 1987, under the starry Italian skies of Terracina, I outlined my fledgling story for my wife. Then, as now, I had the greatest admiration for authors for whom research and literary expertise were inseparable. She believed my story would be worth this kind of effort.

It took me almost eight years to realise.

In the course of this period I’ve been grateful to
Treschowske Fideikommis
for their assistance in the form of a travel grant to Freiburg im Breisgau where a large portion of the story unfolds, to the military library in Freiburg, and to
Dr Ecker from

Since then, my wife, Hanne Aldler-Olsen, has been my tireless muse and critic, constantly nourishing my faithfulness to my original ambitions.

In the perusal of my manuscript by my capable and wise friends – Henning Kure, Jesper Helbo, Tomas Stender, Eddie Kiran, Carl Rosschou, and not least my sister, Elsebeth Wæhrens, and my mother, Karen-Margrethe Olsen – the story underwent a multilayered process that made it both shorter in length and more profound. All elements were assessed and pondered over until the story bore the expression for which I’d hoped.



Jussi Adler-Olsen


Title Page


Author’s Introduction


Part I


Chapter 1


Chapter 2


Chapter 3


Chapter 4


Chapter 5


Chapter 6


Chapter 7


Chapter 8


Chapter 9


Chapter 10


Chapter 11


Chapter 12


Chapter 13


Chapter 14


Chapter 15


Chapter 16


Chapter 17


Chapter 18


Chapter 19


Chapter 20


Chapter 21


Chapter 22


Chapter 23


Chapter 24


Chapter 25


Chapter 26


Chapter 27


Chapter 28


Part II


Prologue 1972


Chapter 29


Chapter 30


Chapter 31


Chapter 32


Chapter 33


Chapter 34


Chapter 35


Chapter 36


Chapter 37


Chapter 38


Chapter 39


Chapter 40


Chapter 41


Chapter 42


Chapter 43


Chapter 44


Chapter 45


Chapter 46


Chapter 47


Chapter 48


Chapter 49


Chapter 50


Chapter 51


Chapter 52


Chapter 53


Chapter 54


Chapter 55


Chapter 56


Chapter 57


Chapter 58


Chapter 59


Chapter 60


Chapter 61


Chapter 62


Chapter 63


Chapter 64


Chapter 65


Chapter 66


Chapter 67


Chapter 68


Appendix I


Appendix II




Biographical note



Part I
Chapter 1

It wasn’t the best weather in the world.

Cold and windy, with poor visibility.

An exceptionally bleak January day, even for England.

The American crews had already been sitting on the landing strips for some time when the tall Englishman approached. He was still not quite awake.

Behind the group a shape rose halfway to its feet and waved to him. The Englishman waved back, yawning loudly. Functioning in daytime was difficult after such a long period of nothing but night raids.

It was going to be a long day.

At the far end of the airfield the planes were taxiing slowly towards the southern end of the landing strips. Soon the air would be full of them.

The feeling was both exhilarating and oppressive.



The orders regarding the mission came from Major General Lewis H. Brereton’s office in Sunninghill Park. He was requesting British assistance from Sir Arthur Harris, marshal in the Royal Air Force. The Americans were still impressed by the British Mosquitoes’ discovery, during their November night-time bombing of Berlin, of the Germans’ most closely guarded secret, the V-1 missile sites at Zemplin.

The choice of British personnel had been left to Group Captain Hadley-Jones, who entrusted the practical work to his next-in-command, Wing Commander John Wood.

The latter’s task was to select twelve British flight crews. Eight of them were to function as instructors and four as supporting crews with special photo-reconnaissance duties under the 8th and 9th American Air Forces.

Two-seater P-51D Mustang fighters had been equipped for this task with radar and sensitive optical instruments.

Only two weeks had passed since James Teasdale and Bryan
Young had been chosen as the first crew to try out this equipment under so-called ‘normal conditions’.

In short, they could expect to go into action again.

The raid was planned for the 11th January 1944. The target was the aeroplane factories at Oschersleben, Braunschweig, Magdeburg and Halberstadt.

Both men had protested at having their Christmas leave curtailed. They were still suffering from combat fatigue.

‘Two weeks to figure out this bloody machine!’ Bryan shook his head. ‘I don’t know a thing about all those gadgets. Why doesn’t Uncle Sam do his own dirty work?’

John Wood was standing with his back to them both, bowed over the document files. ‘Because Uncle Sam wants

‘That’s no argument, is it?’

‘You’ll live up to the Americans’ expectations and come out alive.’

‘Is that a guarantee?’


‘Say something, James!’ Bryan turned towards his friend.

James fingered his silk scarf and shrugged his shoulders. Bryan sat down heavily.

It was hopeless. They had to go.



The entire operation was calculated to take a good six hours. A total of about 650 four-engine bombers from the 8th American Air Force were to bomb aeroplane factories, escorted by the P-51 long-distance fighters.

Bryan and James were to break away from the formation during the attack.

During the past couple of months there had been persistent rumours of an increased influx of builders, engineers and highly specialized technicians – as well as hordes of Polish and Soviet slave labourers – into the region of Lauenstein, south of Dresden.

Intelligence had learned that some kind of construction was going on in the area, but not what kind. They had a hunch it
might be factories for producing synthetic fuel. If this were the case, it would be a dangerous development that could lend impetus to new German V-bomb projects.

Bryan and James’ job, therefore, was to photograph and map out the area thoroughly, including the railway network around Dresden, so that the intelligence service could update its information. After completing their mission they were to rejoin the formation on its way back to England.



Many of the Americans who were to take part in the raid were already seasoned air warriors. Despite the cold and the impending take-off, they were lying half stretched out on the uneven, frostbitten earth some people might call a runway. Most of them were chatting away as though they were on their way to a dance, or relaxing at home on the family sofa. Here and there a few sat hugging their knees, staring dully into space. These were the new and inexperienced pilots who had not yet learned how to forget dreams and control anxiety.

The Englishman strode between the seated figures towards his partner, who lay stretched out on the ground with his arms behind his head.

Bryan gave a start when he felt the gentle kick in his side.

Snowflakes drifted above them, settling on nose and brow as the sky above became more and more overcast. This expedition would differ very little from one of their night raids.



Bryan’s seat vibrated gently under him.

The radar screen showed the surrounding airspace to be thick with signals from the planes in the formation. Each echo signalling a plane’s position was clearly distinguishable.

Several times during training they’d joked about painting over the windows and flying on instruments alone. The equipment was that precise. It was a joke they could just as well have taken seriously on this flight. According to James, the visibility was ‘as clear as a symphony by Béla Bartók’. The windscreen wipers
and nose of the plane penetrating the snow clouds – that was all they could see.

They’d been arguing. Not about the crazy idea of changing duties and equipment at such short notice, but about John Wood’s motives. According to Wood they had been chosen because they were the best, which James was willing to accept.

But Bryan blamed his friend. There was scarcely any doubt in his mind that John Wood had picked them because James never protested while on active duty. And on this operation there had certainly been no time for questioning orders.

Bryan’s reproaches irritated James. There were worries enough already. It was a long trip and they were handling new equipment. The weather was terrible and there was no one to support them once they left the rest of the formation. If the intelligence services were correct in assuming that important factories were under construction, the target area would be very heavily guarded. Finally, it was going to be an extremely difficult task getting the photos back to England.

But James was right. Someone had to do it. Besides, it couldn’t be very different from the bombing raids on Berlin.

They’d made it this far.

Bryan sat silently in his seat behind James, doing his job irreproachably, as always. The vibrations gradually shook loose his combed-back hair. Bryan’s hairstyle was his most distinguishing feature. Freshly combed, he looked almost as tall as James.

Between Bryan’s map and measuring instruments hung the photo of a WAC by the name of Madge Donat. In her eyes, Bryan was an Adonis.

He’d stuck with her for a long time.

As if responding to the authoritative cue of a conductor’s baton, the Germans began greeting the arriving planes with an anti-aircraft overture. James had foreseen the barrage a few seconds previously and given Bryan the signal, so they managed to change course. From that moment on until some undefined time in the future, their fate was out of their hands.

Unprotected and on their own.

‘We’ll be scraping the bottom off this machine if you want us to fly any lower,’ Bryan grunted, twenty minutes later.

‘If we stay up at 200 feet your pictures won’t come out,’ came the reply.

James was right. It was snowing over the target area, but the wind was constantly forcing the flakes to whirl upwards, creating holes through which it was possible to photograph. Assuming they were close enough.

No one had been interested in their presence since they’d turned away from the barrage over Magdeburg. Apparently they hadn’t been observed. Bryan would do his utmost to ensure that they weren’t.

Many planes had crashed behind them. Far too many. In the midst of all the noise James shouted back to Bryan that he’d seen German fighters firing rocket-like things. A short flash followed by a totally devastating explosion.

isn’t worth shit,’ an American pilot had bellowed out the previous evening, a broad Kentucky grin on his face. Perhaps experience had taught him something different now.

‘And then 138 degrees to the south!’ Bryan was following the sea of snow beneath him. ‘You should be able to get a glimpse of the main road out of Heidenau. Can you see the crossroads now? Good. Then follow the turning towards the ridge.’

Their speed was down to scarcely 125 miles per hour, which in that weather made the entire fuselage complain audibly.

‘You’ve got to zigzag over the road here, James, but watch out! Some of the southern slopes could be steep. Can you see anything? You should have a good chance between here and Geising.’

‘All I can see is that the road seems quite wide. Why would that be, in such a deserted place?’

‘That’s what I was wondering. Can’t you swing southwards now? Look at those trees! Can you see how dense they are?’

‘Camouflage netting, you mean?’

‘Possibly.’ If there were any factories here, they must have been dug into the hillside. Bryan was in doubt. Once such a building was discovered, the earthworks wouldn’t provide sufficient protection against intense precision bombing. ‘This is a wild-goose chase, James! There’s nothing in the vicinity to suggest recent building.’

If possible, they were to follow the railway line northwards towards Heidenau, turn west towards Freital and follow the railway line to Chemnitz, then turn north and afterwards northeast along the railway line to Waldheim. The entire network was to be photographed in detail. By Russian request. Soviet troops were exerting heavy pressure near Leningrad and were threatening to roll up the entire German front. According to the Russians, the railway junction at Dresden was the Germans’ umbilical cord. Once severed, the German divisions on the Eastern Front would soon be lacking supplies. It was merely a question of how many cuts were necessary in order to be effective.

Bryan looked down at the railway line beneath him. There would be nothing to see in his photos but snow-covered rails.

The first explosion came without warning and with incredible force, only a foot behind Bryan’s seat. Before he could turn around, James was already forcing the plane into a fast perpendicular climb. Bryan fastened the snap hook in his seat and felt the cockpit’s tepid air being sucked out from under him.

The jagged hole in the fuselage was about the size of a fist, the exit hole in the roof like a dinner plate. A single round from a small-calibre anti-aircraft gun had hit them.

So there was something they’d overlooked, after all.

The engine screeched so loudly during the steep ascent that they couldn’t tell if they were still being shot at.

‘Is it serious back there?’ James screamed. He appeared satisfied with the answer. ‘Then here we go!’ Almost instantly James
had looped the loop, tipped the plane on one side and put it into a vertical dive. After a few seconds the Mustang’s machine guns began ticking away. Several anti-aircraft muzzle flames pointed directly up at them, showing them the way.

In the midst of that deadly blaze there had to be something the Germans were extremely reluctant to have outsiders know about.

James swung the plane from side to side in order to confuse the enemy while the German gunners on the ground tried to get them in their sights. They never saw the guns, but there was no mistaking the sound. The Flakzwilling 40 made a bloodcurdling noise all of its own.

When they were close to the ground, James levelled the plane with a jerk. They would only have this one chance. The entire area was two to three miles wide. The camera needed a steady hand.

The landscape whipped along beneath them. Grey patches and white swirls alternated with treetops and buildings. Tall fences encircled the area they were flying over. Several watchtowers fired machine-gun salvos at them. Slave labourers were kept in camps like these. Tracer-bullet salvos from a forest thicket in front of them made James instinctively dive still lower, straight towards the trees. Several rounds from his machine gun made it past the tree trunks, silencing all resistance from that quarter. Then, grazing the tops of the fir trees, James flew the plane right over a gigantic greyish mass of camouflage netting, walls, railway carriages and scattered heaps of materials. Bryan had plenty to photograph. A few seconds later they again banked upwards, and away.


Bryan nodded, patted James’ shoulder and prayed that the guns below them were their only opponents.

They weren’t.

‘Something funny’s going on here, Bryan! You can just see it if you sit up straight. It’s the engine cowling! Can you see it?’

It wasn’t difficult. A triangular bit of cowling was sticking straight up in the air. Whether it was caused by the dive, a hit, or blast waves, was immaterial. It wasn’t good under any circumstances.

‘We’re going to have to really reduce our speed, Bryan. There’s not much hope of getting back to the bomber formation now.’

‘Do what you think is best!’

‘We’ll follow the railway line. If they send fighters after us, they’re probably thinking we’ll make off due west. You keep an eye on the air around us, OK?’

The trip back was going to be interminable.

The countryside beneath them gradually became flatter. On a clear day they would have been able to see the horizon to all sides. Had it not been for the snowstorm they would have been audible miles away.

‘How the hell are we going to get home, James?’ asked Bryan quietly. Looking at the map was useless. Their chances were slim.

‘Just keep your eye on that little screen,’ came the reply. ‘You can’t do much else. I think the cowling will stay put as long as we stick to this marching pace.’

‘Then we’ll take the shortest way back.’

BOOK: Alphabet House
8.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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