Authors: James Thayer
The Hess Cross © 2015 by James Thayer. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems without permission in writing from the author, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Visit James Thayer’s web site at
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Hess Cross: a novel / James Thayer.
Joseph Thomas Thayer
May 10, 1941
HUNDRED FEET ABOVE THE TOMATO PATCHES,
oat fields, and dairy barns of southwest Scotland, a German Messerschmitt 110 streaked toward Glasgow. The howl of its dual engines pierced the green Scottish countryside as they pushed the plane 300 miles an hour.
The pursuit-fighter had departed from Augsburg, near Munich, at 6:00
. and had flown in an unwavering course across the channel. At the English coast the plane had descended from 15,000 feet and begun hedge-hopping to avoid detection by English spotters. A British Spitfire would have made an easy kill of the Me 110, because the Me's three fuselage cannons and four wing machine guns would never be fired. The three-man fighter carried only a pilot. This was the plane's first and last flight.
The Luftwaffe serial card in the flight purse identified the pilot as Hauptmann Alfred Horn. Unlike most fighter pilots, Horn was a big man, and his broad, beefy shoulders strained sorely against the side panels of the cockpit. A
minor irritation during the first hour of the flight, this discomfort had evolved into a pain that began between his shoulderblades and seared down both arms. But this was the only blemish in a journey that had thus far been flawless.
German coastal weather stations had promised excellent flying conditions over England. Broken clouds at 10,000 feet forecast for the English coast had not materialized, which made flying by landmarks even easier than the Hauptmann had hoped. The packet of maps of England and Scotland in the leather compartment by his knee was unopened. For weeks before the flight he had studied maps and pictures of British towns. Shapes of steeples and town halls had been committed to memory. Now a glance at a distinctive building or lake or mountain would immediately confirm his location and course.
Flying the Messerschmitt was an intense physical experience. Horn's senses were assaulted by the fighter. On each side of the cockpit was a Daimler-Benz twelve-cylinder 1,350-horsepower engine. Their combined effect was to produce a roar, an endless piercing bellow of such ferocity that only with concerted effort could Horn prevent the cacophony from overwhelming him.
Air in the cockpit was thick with oil and exhaust. During his first flight in an Me 110 five months ago, Horn had prematurely landed the plane and vaulted from the cockpit almost before it rolled to a stop on the runway. He ran toward the hangar, frantically waving for the fire team. With sirens screaming, the fire trucks dashed to the fighter, but found it warm, ready to run, and distinctly not on fire. Horn asked the amused ground-crew sergeant why the Me 110, the crux of the Luftwaffe fighter force and the scourge of Poland, was devoid of such refinements as padded seats, breathable air, and a bearable decibel level. The sergeant explained that in 1938 Hermann Göring and his retinue visited Augsburg for a tour personally conducted by
Professor Willi Messerschmitt. Göring was delighted by the Me 110 and posed for photographers while sitting in the pilot's seat of a plane that had just rolled off the production line. As he climbed out of the cockpit, the obese Reich Marshal became wedged in the hatch. Although this embarrassing incident lasted only a minute, the flushed Göring and the frantic Willi Messerschmitt pulled and grunted at each other just long enough for scores of photographs to be taken. Göring's aides immediately rounded up most of the photos for reasons of state security, but Himmler was rumored to have two or three. Funds for the comfort of Me 110 pilots became one of Göring's lower priorities. This incident, the sergeant added, was not mentioned above the rank of lieutenant to that day.
So now Hauptmann Horn was paying for the Fat One's fat. The engines' howl, the acrid cockpit air, and the increasingly sharp shoulder and back pain began to dominate and muddy his thoughts. Scottish countryside, so breathtaking from 15,000 feet, swept past at a mesmerizing pace as the Messerschmitt screamed toward Glasgow a few hundred feet above the ground.
Dusk made hedge-hopping even more dangerous. Horn peered intently through the windshield, trying not to lose the land's contour. At this elevation the altimeter was useless. He suppressed the urge to yank back the stick and climb to a safer altitude. Treetops and hills flew at him in an unending, numbing stream.
Dusk dimmed to darkness. Horn could now see only the land's silhouette against the deep purple sky. Fewer landmarks were recognizable. His eyes flashed to the instrument panel. The directional gyro and magnetic compass, glowing in muted green light, showed his flight to be on course, directly northwest. All other instruments checked out. He smiled grimly as he saw the fuel gauge registering eighth capacity. This, it said, was a one-way flight. Years
would pass before he would again see his lovely Ilse and their four-year-old son, Wolf.
In the weeks before his flight, Horn had bid a silent good-bye to his family. Wolf would be much older when his father returned and Horn worried that his son's memories would not survive the absence. The boy was young. Memories didn't last. And so during April and early May, Horn had left home late and returned early each day to be with him. They walked for hours in the zoo at Hellabrunn and along the Isar River. Evenings were spent playing games in the study of their home at Harlaching. At Horn's request, his wife used rolls and rolls of film capturing father and son together.
Horn sadly remembered his wife's many questions during this time. Why during the war should he come home early? Why the new radio transmitter-receiver in the workroom, contrary to war regulations? And why the long hours reading in the study at night, door bolted from the inside? Not telling his beloved Ilse about the plans had pained Horn. But a few hours from now she would know. The entire world would know. And they would not believe.
Horn looked up from the panel and instantly knew he was in peril. There was no purple sky, only blackness.
Gott in Himmel
. The ground. He jerked back on the stick and slammed the throttle to full. The Daimler-Benz engines erupted with sound and Horn was thrust back into the metal seat as the Messerschmitt shot upward. For three timeless seconds the fighter screamed into the blackness. And then the curved, dark indigo line of the horizon dropped into view and rushed under the plane. The Me 110 skimmed over the crest of a large hill.
Horn fought back the euphoria that drugs men who have cheated death. There was no time for it, because he instinctively knew that the small mountain which almost took his life was his target, Dungavel Hill.
Horn leveled the straining plane and banked it southwest toward the Firth of Clyde. He throttled back until it was cruising toward the sea at 150 miles per hour. A few minutes later he reached the firth and turned south, to follow the coastline. He spotted Ardrossan, the small spur of land jutting out from the Ayr County coast. His flight had been exactly on course. He pulled a catch under the panel and the auxiliary tank dropped from the fuselage and fell toward the sea.
Night was almost total as the plane banked left to make the final approach to its destination. He cinched up the front buckles of his parachute and for the last time checked the position of the release cord. To have attempted to land the plane in a rough Scottish meadow in pitch blackness would have been fatal. And he was too good a German to give the Tommies a chance to closely examine an intact Messerschmitt with its new and secret innovations. Pilot and plane would part company at 3,000 feet.
Several lights flickered below. This was Eaglesham, a tiny town eight miles west-by-southwest of Dungavel House. Anyone so flagrantly violating the blackout laws in Germany would have been arrested.
Horn's eyes darted between the panel clock and the ground-speed indicator. He could no longer see landmarks, so to gauge distance he counted slowly, unaware he was mouthing the seconds. Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine. Thirty.
He thrust the stick ahead. The fighter plunged downward in a power dive, accelerating faster and faster toward the ground. At 1,000 feet he pulled the plane up into a tight arc. Centrifugal force crushed him into the seat and ground pain into his shoulders. The plane swept toward the stars
Horn had rehearsed the bail-out maneuver in his mind a hundred times. He tugged the hatch release on the windshield frame and slid the cabin roof back over his head. Cold, violent wind poured into the cockpit. He flicked the
engine tumbler switches and feathered the props. The mills died abruptly.
The chilling silence heightened the German's sense of impending danger. Penetrating engine rumble had been a source of confidence, and now there was only rushing wind. The plane was pushed by momentum and it slowed rapidly as it climbed. Timing was critical. At stall speed the flaps and rudders would be useless and the plane paralyzed. Horn had to anticipate the loss of maneuverability by several seconds, because the Messerschmitt had one final, vital act to perform.
An instant before the stall, Horn rolled the plane onto its back. Black Scotland turned upside down. He jammed his left arm against the cockpit wall to brace himself and then popped the safety-strap buckle. Twisted by the wind, the straps dangled crazily and the buckles slapped Horn's chin. Blood rushed to his head. Gripping the window frame, he let himself drop to a standing position on the seat. Even at this low speed the crash of wind pummeled him against the hatch cover as he emerged from the cockpit. The German waited until the plane was almost motionless, released his grip, and fell into space.
A thudding jolt ripped through Horn and sucked out his breath as the chute burst open and the billowing white cloth strained against its rope environs.
Crystalline silence. Stillness. Horn's taut muscles unwound. The night air was brisk as he gently swayed to and fro in the harness. His chute was an ephemeral vision, a pale, ghostly presence obscured by the darkness above him. Time was suspended. Maybe only seconds passed. Maybe minutes. Horn had no sensation of descending, just a comforting calmness as Scotland came to him.
Horn hit the pasture, and something cracked in his ankle. He rolled twice, then lay still for several seconds, trying to orient himself. The grazing grass was damp and cold.
Just as he raised himself to his knees, a wind gust caught the chute and jerked him backward into the air and heavily to the ground. The parachute bloomed and raced along the pasture. Horn was pulled like a sled at a frantic pace across the field. His hands automatically reached for the release buckles. His one thought: he did not want history to record he had been pulled through a Scottish cow pie.
A new squall blustered the chute into a swirl and whirled it across the field like a cartwheel. The lines twisted and spun Horn onto his stomach, then onto his back, and finally into a bumpy roll. Plow rows, gopher mounds, and creeping blackberry vines bruised and tore him. Damp rye grass splashed his face. His arms bounced and jarred against the ground, reducing his efforts to release the harness to a wild flailing of his chest. He skidded across the pasture.