Jack Higgins - Sheba
In 24 BC the Roman General, Aelius Gallus, tried to conquer Southern Arabia and succeeded only in losing most of his army in the awesome region known as the Empty Quarter, the Rubh al Khali. Amongst the survivors was a Greek adventurer named Alexias, centurion in the Tenth Legion, who walked out of the desert carrying with him a secret of the ancient world as astonishing as King Solomon's Mines, a secret that was lost for two thousand years. Until...
AS RAIN DRIFTED across Berlin in a great curtain on the final evening of March a black Mercedes limousine moved along Wilhelmstrasse towards the new Reich Chancellery which had only opened in January. Hitler had given them a year to complete the project. His orders had been obeyed with two weeks to spare. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Chief of Military Intelligence, the Abwehr, leaned forward and wound down the window so that he could obtain a better view.
He shook his head. 'Incredible. Do you realize, Hans, that the frontage on Voss-Strasse alone is a quarter of a mile long.'
The young man who sat next to him was his aide, a Luftwaffe captain named Hans Ritter. He had an Iron Cross Second and First Class and was handsome enough until he turned his head and the dreadful burn scar was visible on his right cheek; and there was a walking stick on the floor at his feet, the unfortunate result of his having been shot down by an American volunteer pilot while flying with the German Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War.
'With all those pillars, Herr Admiral, the marble, it's more like some marvel of the ancient world.'
'Instead of a symbol of the new order?' Canaris shrugged and wound up the window. 'Everything passes, Hans, even the Third Reich although our beloved Fiihrer has given us a thousand years.' He took a cigarette from his case and Ritter gave him a light, as always slightly alarmed at the mocking in the older man's voice.
'As you say, Herr Admiral.'
'Yes, it's a bizarre thought, isn't it? One day people could be wandering around what's left of the Chancellery, tourists, just like they inspect the ruins of the Temple of Luxor in Egypt saying: "I wonder what they were like?'"
Ritter was thoroughly uncomfortable now as the Mercedes drove through the gilded gates into a court of honour and moved towards the steps leading up to the massive entrance. 'If the Herr Admiral could give me an idea of why we've been called.'
'I haven't the slightest notion and it's me he wants to see, not you, Hans. I simply want you on hand if anything unusual turns up.'
'Shall I wait in the car?' Ritter asked as they pulled up at the bottom of the steps.
'No, you can wait in reception. Much more comfortable and you'll be able to feast on the new art forms of the Third Reich. Vulgar, but sustaining.'
The Kriegsmarine Petty Officer who was his driver ran round to open the door. Canaris got out and waited courteously for Ritter, who had considerably more difficulty. His left leg was false from the knee down, but once on his feet he moved quite well with the aid of his stick and they went up the steps together.
The SS guards were troops of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and wore black dress uniform and full white leather harness. They saluted smartly as Canaris and Ritter passed inside. The hall was truly remarkable with mosaic floor, doors seventeen feet high and great eagles carrying swastikas in their claws. A young Hauptsturm-fuhrer in dress uniform sat at a gold desk, two orderlies standing behind. He jumped to his feet.
'Herr Admiral. The Fiihrer has asked for you twice.'
'My dear Hoffer, I didn't get his summons until half an hour ago,' Canaris said. 'Not that that will do me any good. This is my aide, Captain Ritter. Look after him for me.'
'Of course, Herr Admiral.' Hoffer nodded to one of the orderlies. 'Take the Herr Admiral to the Fiihrer's reception suite.'
The orderly set off at a sharp pace and Canaris went after him. Hoffer came round the desk and said to Ritter, 'Spain?'
'Yes.' Ritter tapped his false foot. 'I could still fly, but they won't let me.'
'What a pity,' Hoffer said and led him over to the seating area. 'You'll miss the big show.'
'You think it will come?' Ritter asked, easing himself down and taking out his cigarette case.
'Don't you? And by the way, no smoking. Fiihrer's express order.'
'Damn!' Ritter said, for his pain was constant and cigarettes helped.
'Sorry,' Hoffer said sympathetically. 'But coffee we do have and it's the best.'
He turned, went to his desk and picked up the phone.
When the guard opened the enormous door to Hitler's study, Canaris was surprised at the number of people in the room. There were the three commanders-in-chief, Goering for the Luftwaffe, Brauchitsch for the Army and Raeder for the Kriegsmarine. There was Himmler, von Ribbentrop, generals like Jodl, Keitel and Haider. There was a heavy silence and heads turned as Canaris entered.
'Now that the Admiral has deigned to join us we can begin,' Hitler said; 'and I will be brief. As you know the British today gave the Poles an unconditional guarantee of their full support in the event of war.'
Goering said. 'Will the French follow, my Fiihrer?'
'Undoubtedly,' Hitler told him. 'But they will do nothing when it comes to the crunch.'
'You mean, invade Poland?' Haider, who was Chief of Staff at OKW, said. 'What about the Russians?'
They won't interfere. Let us say there are negotiations in hand and leave it at that. So, gentlemen, my will is fixed in this matter. You will prepare Case White, the invasion of Poland on September the ist.'
There were shocked gasps. 'But my Fiihrer, that only gives us six months,' Colonel-General von Brauchitsch protested.
'Ample time,' Hitler told him. 'If there are those who disagree, speak now.' There was a profound silence. 'Good, then get to work, gentlemen. You may all leave except for you, Herr Admiral.'
They all filed out and Canaris stood there waiting while Hitler looked out of the window at the rain. Finally he turned. 'The British and the French will declare war, but they won't do anything. Do you agree?'
'Absolutely,' Canaris said.
'We smash Poland, wrap things up in a few weeks. Once it's done, what is the point of the British and French continuing? They'll sue for peace.'
'And if not?'
Hitler shrugged. 'Then I'll have Case Yellow imple- mented. We'll invade Belgium, Holland, France and drive the English into the sea. They'll come to their senses then. After all, they are not our natural enemies.'
'I agree,' Canaris said.
'Having said that, it occurs to me that I should demonstrate to our English friends as soon as possible that I do mean business.'
Canaris cleared his throat. 'Exactly what do you have in mind, my Fiihrer?'
Hitler gestured towards the huge map of the world that hung on the far wall. 'Come over here, Herr Admiral, and let me show you.'
When Canaris returned to the reception hall at the Chancellery an hour later, Hoffer was seated behind his desk with the two orderlies. There was no sign of Ritter. The SS Captain stood up and came to greet him.
'My aide?' Canaris asked.
'Hauptman Ritter was badly in need of a smoke. He went back to your car.'
'My thanks,' Canaris said. Til find my own way.'
He went out of the huge doors and stood at the top of the steps, buttoning his greatcoat, looking out at the rain. He went down the steps and had the rear door of the limousine open before his driver realized what was happening, and climbed in beside Ritter.
'My office,' he called to the driver, then closed the glass partition.
Ritter started to stub out his cigarette as they drove away, and Canaris sat back. 'Never mind. Just give me one of those things. I need it.'
Ritter got his cigarette case out and offered a light. 'Is everything all right, Herr Admiral? I saw them all leave. I was worried.'
'The Fiihrer, Hans, gave us his personal order to invade Poland on September the ist.'
'My God,' Ritter said. 'Case White.'
'Exactly. He has been negotiating with the Russians, who will do a deal. They'll let us get on with it in return for a slice of eastern Poland.'
'And the British?'
'Oh, they'll declare war and I'm sure the French will go along. The Fiihrer, however, is convinced they will do nothing on the Western Front and for once I agree. They'll sit there while we wrap up Poland, and his feeling is that once it's an accomplished fact, we can all get round the negotiating table and get back to the status quo. Britain, as he informed us, is not our natural enemy.'
'Do you agree, Herr Admiral?'
'He's right enough there, but the British are a stubborn lot, Hans, and Chamberlain is not popular. Since Munich his own people despise him.' Canaris stubbed out his cigarette. 'If there was a change at the top, Churchill for example...' He shrugged. 'Who knows?'
'And what would we do?'
'Implement Case Yellow. Invade the Low Countries and France and drive whatever army the British had brought across the channel into the sea.'
There was a pause before Ritter said, 'Could this be done?'
'I think so, Hans, as long as the Americans don't interfere. Under the Fiihrer's inspired leadership we have reoccupied the Rhineland, absorbed Austria and Czechoslovakia plus one or two bits and pieces. I have no doubt we'll win in Poland.'
'But afterwards, Herr Admiral? The French, the British?'
'Ah, well now we come down to why the Fiihrer kept me back when everyone else left.'
'A special project, Herr Admiral?'
'You could say that. He wants us to blow up the Suez Canal on the ist of September, the day we invade Poland.'
Ritter, in the act of snapping his cigarette case open, said, 'Good God!'
Canaris took the case from him and helped himself. 'He got the idea from this Colonel Rommel who commanded the Fiihrer's escort battalion for the occupation of the Sudetenland. He thinks highly of Colonel
Rommel and with reason and there is a certain mad logic to the idea. I mean, the Suez Canal is the direct link to the British Empire. Cut it and all shipping to India, the Far East and Australia would have to go by way of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope. The military implications speak for themselves.'
'But Herr Admiral, how on earth would we get men and equipment into the area?'
Canaris shook his head. 'No, Hans, you've got it wrong. We're not talking direct military action here, we're talking sabotage. The Fiihrer wants us, the Abwehr, to blow up the Suez Canal on the day we invade Poland. Put the damn thing out of action. Close it down so fully that it would take a year or so to open it again.'
'What a coup. It would shock the world,' Ritter said.
'More to the point, it would shock the British to the core and make them realize we mean business. At least that's the way our beloved Fiihrer sees it.' Canaris sighed. 'Of course, how the hell we are to accomplish this is another matter, but we'll have to come up with something, at least on paper, and that's where you come in, Hans.'
'I see, Herr Admiral.'
The limousine pulled in to the kerb outside the Abwehr offices at 74--6 Tirpitz Ufer. The Petty Officer hurried round to open the door for Canaris and Ritter scrambled out after him. The young Luftwaffe officer was frowning slightly.
Canaris said, 'Are you all right?'
Tine, Herr Admiral. It's just that there's something stirring at the back of my mind, something that could suit our purposes.'
'Really?' Canaris smiled and led the way up the steps, pausing at the door. 'Well, that is good news, but sooner rather than later, Hans, remember that,' and he led the way inside.