Authors: Alistair MacLean
Alistair Maclean - River Of Death.txt
Darkness was falling over the ancient Grecian monastery and the first of the evening stars were beginning to twinkle in the cloudless Aegean sky. The sea was calm, the air was still and did indeed, as is so often claimed for it, smell of wine and roses. A yellow moon, almost full, had just cleared the horizon and bathed in its soft and benign light the softly rolling landscape and lent a magical quality to the otherwise rather harsh and forbidding outlines of the dark and brooding monastery which, any evidence to the contrary, slumbered on peacefully as it had done for countless centuries gone by.
At that moment, unfortunately, conditions inside the monastery could hardly be said to reflect the dream-like outer world. Magic had taken wings, no-one slumbered, peace was markedly absent, darkness had given way to a score of smoking oil torches and there was little enough around in the way of wine and roses. Eight uniformed members of the Nazi S.S. were carrying oaken chests across the flagged hallway. The brass-bound boxes were small but so heavy that it required four men to carry one of them: a sergeant supervised their operations.
Watching them were four men. Two of those were high-ranking S.S. officers: of those, one, Wolfgang Von Manteuffel, a tall, thin man with cold blue eyes, was a major-general, no more than thirty-five years old: the second, Heinrich Spaatz, a thick-set, swarthy man who had apparently elected to choose a scowl as his, permanent expression in life, was a colonel of about the same age. The other two watchers were monks in cowled brown habits, old proud men but now with mingled fear and pride in their eyes, eyes that never left the oaken chests. Von Manteuffel touched the sergeant with the tip of his gold-handled malacca cane which could hardly have been regulation issue to S.S. officers.
'A spot-check, I think, Sergeant.'
The sergeant gave orders to the nearest group who, not without difficulty, lowered their chest to the floor. The sergeant knelt, knocked away the retaining pins in the iron hasps and lifted the hinged lid, the screeching of the ancient metal being testimony enough to the fact that many years must have passed since this had last been done. Even in the wavering light of the malodorous oil torches the revealed contents glittered as if they were alive. The chest contained literally thousands of golden coins, so fresh and gleaming they could have been minted that same day Von Manteuffel contemplatively stirred the coins with the tip of his cane, looked with satisfaction at the resulting iridescence, then turned to Spaatz.
'Genuine, you would say, Heinrich?'
'I am shocked,' Spaatz said. He didn't look it. 'Shocked beyond words. The holy fathers traffic in dross?'
Von Manteuffel shook his head sadly. 'You can't trust anyone these days.'
With what appeared to be as much a physical effort as an exercise of will, one of the monks averted his fascinated gaze from the glittering chest and looked at Von Manteuffel. He was a very thin man, very stooped, very old — he must have been nearer ninety than eighty. His face was carefully expressionless, but there wasn't much he could do about his stricken eyes.
'These treasures are God's,' he said, 'and we have guarded them for generations. Now we have broken our trust.'
'You can't take all the credit for that,' Von Manteuffel said. 'We helped. Don't worry, we'll look after them for you.'
'Yes, indeed,' Spaatz said. 'Be of good cheer, father. We shall prove worthy of our stewardship.'
They stood in silence until the last of the treasure chests was removed, then Von Manteuffel gestured towards a heavy oaken door.
'Join your comrades. I'm sure you will be released as soon as our planes are heard to leave.'
The two old men, clearly as broken in spirit as they were in body, did as ordered, Von Manteuffel closing the door behind them and sliding home the two heavy bolts. The troopers entered, carrying a fifty-litre drum of petrol which they laid on its side close to and facing the oaken door. It was clear that they had been well briefed in advance. One trooper unscrewed the cap of the petrol drum while the other laid a trail of gunpowder to the outside doorway. More than half of the petrol gushed out on to the flags, some of it seeping under the oaken door: the trooper seemed content that the rest of the petrol should remain inside the drum. Following the departing troopers, Von Manteuffel and Spaatz walked away and halted at the outside doorway. Von Manteuffel struck a match and dropped it on the gunpowder fuse: for all the expression that his face registered he could have been sitting in a church.
The airfield was only two minutes' walk away and by the time the S.S. officers arrived there the troopers had finished loading and securing the chests aboard the two Junkers 88s, engines already running, parked side by side on the tarmac. At a word from Von Manteuffel, the troopers ran forward and scrambled aboard the farther plane: Von Manteuffel and Spaatz, doubtless to emphasize the superiority of the officer class, sauntered leisurely to the nearer one. Three minutes later both planes were airborne. In robbery, looting and plundering, as in all else, Teutonic efficiency shone.through.
At the rear of the lead plane, beyond rows of boxes secured to painstakingly prepared racks on the floor, Von Manteuffel and Spaatz sat with glasses in their hands. They appeared calm and unworried and had about them the air of men secure in the knowledge that behind them ky a job well done. Spaatz glanced casually out of a window. He had no trouble at all in locating what he knew he was bound to locate. A thousand, maybe fifteen hundred feet below the gently banking wing, a large building burnt ferociously, illuminating the landscape, shore and sea for almost half a mile around. Spaatz touched Von Manteuffel on the arm and pointed. Von Manteuffel glanced through the window and almost immediately looked indifferently away.
'War is hell,' he said. He sipped his cognac, looted, of course, from France and touched the nearest chest with his cane. 'Nothing but the best for our fat friend. What value would you put on our latest contribution to his coffers?'
'I'm no expert, Wolfgang.' Spaatz considered. 'A hundred million deutschmarks?'
'A conservative estimate, my dear Heinrich, very conservative. And to think he already has a thousand million overseas.'
'I've heard it was more. In any event, we will not dispute the fact that the Fieldmarshal is a man of gargantuan appetites. You only have to look at him. Do you think he will some day look at this? Von Manteuffel smiled and took another sip of his cognac. 'How long will it take to fix things, Wolfgang?'
'How long will the Third Reich last? Weeks?'
'Not if our beloved Fuehrer remains as commander-in-chief.'
Spaatz looked gloomy. 'And I, alas, am about to join him in Berlin where I shall remain to the bitter end.'
'The very end, Heinrich?'
Spaatz grimaced. 'A hasty amendment. Almost the bitter end.'
'And I shall be in Wilhelmshaven.'
'Naturally. A code word?'
Von Manteuffel pondered briefly, then said: 'We fight to the death.'
Spaatz sipped his cognac and smiled sadly. 'Cynicism, Wolfgang, never did become you.'
At the best of times the docks at Wilhelmshaven would have no difficulty in turning away the tourist trade. And that present moment was not the best of times. It was cold and raining and very dark. The darkness was quite understandable for the port was bracing itself for the by now inevitable attack by the R.A.F.'s Lancasters on the North Sea submarine base or what, by this time, was left of it. There was one small area of illumination and subdued illumination at that for it came from low-powered lamps in hooded shades. Faint though this area of light was, it still contrasted sufficiently with the total blackness around to offer marauding bombers a pin-point identification marker for the bombardiers crouched in the noses of the planes of the surely approaching squadrons. No-one in Wilhelmshaven was feeling terribly happy about those lights, but then no-one was anxious to question the orders of the S.S. general responsible for their being switched on, especially when that general was carrying with him the personal seal of Fieldmarshal Goering.
General Von Manteuffel stood on the bridge of one of the latest of the German Navy's longest range U-boats. Beside him stood a very apprehensive U-boat captain who clearly didn't relish the prospect of being caught moored alongside a quay when the R.A.F. appeared as he was certain they would. He had about him the air of a man who would have loved nothing better than to pace up and down in an agony of frustration, only there isn't much room for pacing on the conning-tower of a submarine. He cleared his throat in the loud and unmistakable fashion of one who is not about to speak lightly.
'General Von Manteuffel. I must insist that we leave now. Immediately. We are in mortal danger.'
'My dear Captain Reinhardt, I don't fancy mortal danger any more than you do.' Von Manteuffel didn't give the impression of caring about any danger, mortal or otherwise. 'But the Reichsmarshal has a very short way of dealing with subordinates who disobey his orders.'
'I'll take a chance on that.' Captain Reinhardt didn't just sound desperate, he was desperate. Tm sure Admiral Doenitz —'
'I wasn't thinking about you and Admiral Doenitz. I was thinking about the Reichsmarshal and myself.'
'Those Lancasters carry ten-ton bombs,' Captain Reinhardt said unhappily. 'Ten tons! It took only two to finish off the Tirpitz. The Tirpitz, the most powerful battleship in the world. -Can you imagine —'
'I can imagine all too well. I can also imagine the wrath of the Reichsmarshal. The second truck, God knows why, has been delayed. We stay.'
He turned and looked along the quay where groups of men were hurriedly unloading boxes from a military truck and staggering with them across the quay and up the gangway to an opened hatchway for'ard of the bridge. Small boxes but inordinately heavy: they were, unmistakably, the oaken chests that had been looted from the Greek monastery. No-one had to exhort those men to greater effort: they, too, knew all about the Lancasters and were as conscious as any of the imminent danger, the threat to their lives.
A bell rang on the bridge. Captain Reinhardt lifted a phone, listened then turned to Von Manteuffel.
'A top priority call from Berlin, General. You can take it from here or privately below.'
'Here will do,' Von Manteuffel said. He took the phone from Reinhardt. 'Ah! Colonel Spaatz.'
'We fight to the death,' Spaatz said. 'The Russians are at the gates of Berlin.'
'My God! So soon?' Von Manteuffel appeared to be genuinely upset at the news as, indeed in the circumstances, he had every right to be. 'My blessings on you, Colonel Spaatz. I know you will do your duty by the Fatherland.'
'As will every true German.' Spaatz's tone, as clearly overheard by Captain Reinhardt, was a splendid amalgam of resolution and resignation. 'We fall where we stand. The last plane out leaves in five minutes.'
'My hopes and prayers are with you, my dear Heinrich. Heil Hitler!'
Von Manteuffel handed back the phone, looked out towards the quay, stiffened then turned urgently towards the captain.
'Look there! The second truck has just arrived. Every man you can spare for the job!'
'Every man I can spare for the job is already on the job.' Captain Reinhardt seemed oddly resigned. 'They all want to live just as much as you and I do.'
High above the North Sea the air thundered and reverberated to the throbbing roar of scores of aero engines. On the Lancaster flight deck of the point plane ojf the squadrons, the captain turned to his navigator.
'Our E.T.A. over target area?'
'Twenty-two minutes,' the navigator said. 'Heaven help those poor sods in Wilhelmshaven tonight.'
'Never mind about the poor sods in Wilhelmshaven,' the captain said. 'Spare a thought for us poor sods up here. We must be on their screens by now.'
At that precise instant another aircraft, a Junkers 88, was approaching Wilhelmshaven from the east. There were only two people aboard, which seemed a poor turn-out for what was supposed to be the last plane out of Berlin. Colonel Spaatz, seated beside the pilot, looked uncommonly nervous and. unhappy, a state of mind that was not induced by the fact that their Junkers was being almost continuously bracketed by exploding anti-aircraft shells — practically the entire length of their flight lay over what was now Allied-occupied territory. Colonel Spaatz had other things on his mind. He glanced anxiously at his watch and turned impatiently to the pilot.
'Faster, man! Faster!'
Both troopers and seamen were working in a frenzy of activity to transfer the remaining treasure chests from the second military truck to the submarine. Suddenly, the air raid warning sirens began their ululating banshee wailing. As if by command, and in spite of the fact that they had known this was inevitable, the workers stopped and looked up fearfully into the night sky. Then, once more, again as if by command, they resumed their frantic efforts. It would have appeared impossible that they could have improved upon their previous work-rate but this they unquestionably did. It is one thing to be almost certain that the enemy may appear at any time: it is quite another to have the last lingering vestiges of hope vanish and know that the Lancasters are upon you.
Five minutes later the first bomb fell.
Fifteen minutes later the Wilhelmshaven naval base appeared to be on fire. Clearly, this was no run-of-the-mill raid. By this time Von Manteuffel could have ordered the most powerful arc-lamps, searchlights if necessary, to be switched on and it wouldn't have made the slightest difference. The entire dock area was an inferno of dense and evil-smelling smoke shot through with great columns of flame, through which shadowy Dante-esque figures moved as in some nameless nightmare, seemingly as oblivious of their surroundings as they were of the screaming aero engines, the ear-numbing explosion of bombs, the sharp whip-like cracks of heavy anti-aircraft fire, the ceaseless stuttering of machine-guns, although what the machine-guns hoped to achieve was difficult to imagine. Through all this the S.S. men and the seamen, reduced now, despite all their will to the contrary, to almost zombie slow motion by the increasingly heavy burden of the chests, continued their by now fatalistic loading of the submarine.
On the conning-tower of the submarine both Von Manteuffel and Captain Reinhardt were coughing harshly as the dense and evil-smelling smoke from the burning oil tanks enveloped them. Tears streamed down the cheeks of both men.