Authors: Steve Anderson
Tags: #1940s, #espionage, #historical, #noir, #ww2, #america, #army, #germany, #1944, #battle of the bulge, #ardennes, #greif, #otto skorzeny, #skorzeny
The Losing Role
Copyright © 2010, 2014, 2015 Stephen F. Anderson
Cover Image: Planet News/TopFoto
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters,
organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either
products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Also by Steve Anderson
Lost Kin: A Novel
Liberated: A Novel of Germany, 1945
Kaspar Brothers #2)
Under False Flags: A Novel
The Other Oregon: A Thriller
The Losing Role
In the last winter of World War II a failed German
actor, Max Kaspar, is forced to join a desperate secret mission in
which he must impersonate an enemy American officer. So Max cooks
up his own fanatical plan—he’ll use his false identity to escape
tyranny and war and flee to the America he’d once abandoned.
is based on an
actual German false flag operation during 1944's Battle of the
Bulge that’s been made infamous in legend but in reality was a
doomed farce. In all the tragic details and with some dark humor,
this is the story of an aspiring talent who got in over his head
and tried to break free.
The Losing Role
is the prequel to
Liberated: A Novel of Germany, 1945—
Max Kaspar is the older
brother of German-American US Army captain Harry Kaspar in
. The third novel in the series,
reunites the estranged Kaspar brothers in 1946 Munich.
For René, of course
Max lay flat on his back, in the mud. The mud was
cold and seeping through his wool corporal’s uniform. Why were his
arms above his head? Someone must have been dragging him. Was he
hit? He moved his legs. They worked, thank God—he’d still dance
again one day. Fingers? All there. He could still play the piano.
He felt at his stomach and chest, fingering the tin buttons, dry
leather straps and coarse worn tunic, and found no blood. Lucky
The night sky burst with whites and oranges. In
flashes he saw the men of his unit rushing by, their mouths wide
He found his feet and yelled at them but couldn’t
hear himself and his heart swelled with panic. Every actor needed
good ears—to hear his cues, for timing, to sing any song at all. He
slapped at his ears. They popped and his hearing returned to the
tumult of a thousand cracks and thumps. He remembered—his unit was
being bombarded for the third time that day. The show must go on
here on the Eastern Front, and the Red Army was pulling out all the
Max ran. “Run, boys, run,” he yelled as the others
pushed him along. He’d been lying in the middle of the road, a road
exposed in all directions by vast fields. The salvos kept coming.
One had a whistle to it, a real screecher. It burst at Max’s back
and he kept going, the cold wind smacking his cheeks. Soon the
bombs were landing behind them and Max glanced back to take it all
in—the craters, the bodies and the heap of metal that had been
their last working truck. Its tires burned, spitting flames. Nearby
lay the tangled lumps of their last two horses. Their last screams
were ringing in his ears now, and he wondered if maybe it wasn’t
better not to hear. If only he could make this stop. If only he
could wear silk pajamas and sip a warm cognac. If only. Napoleon’s
winter retreat from Russia was a parade march compared to this. The
whole German Wehrmacht was a right wreck in this sector, and his
unit was only one shred of it.
After the bombing the air had a gritty, metallic
reek. Max’s thirty or so worn-out comrades trudged on with equal
pace as if sharing one mind. They passed through a wood and entered
a darkened town. One of the sergeants was waving them onto the main
street, where the signs were a mix of German and
Rubble and debris clogged the side streets. The town square was too
dark, too wide open, so they turned a corner and the sergeant led
them into what looked like a modest church or a city hall. It was
hard to tell, since its front was blackened from fire. Fatigue
setting in, they staggered through the double front doors and hit
the floor in the dark, toppling onto each other. The floor was
soft, luckily—they had actual carpet under them. Moonlight shone
through holes in the ceiling, giving them some light.
As the men tossed their gear into piles, the women
appeared from wherever they’d been hiding, their farm girl
headscarves making triangle shapes in the shadows. Whispering, they
found their men and curled up to them.
Anka came to Max, her cheekbones shining blue in the
moonlight. She pressed against him and squeezed his hands in hers,
her grip as strong as ever (from all that milking, he guessed).
These seven or so women were their only stroke of luck. They were
—Eastern ethnic Germans, who simply could not
and would not be left behind to the Red Army. Anka had great legs
under that peasant skirt of hers. Max pulled her closer.
She brushed dirt from his forehead. “The bombs, they
knocked you down and out,” she said in her antiquated German. “Drag
you along is what I tried to do.”
“That’s my girl,” Max said. He might be pushing
thirty-three years, but Anka was young and strong enough to pull
him through the mud.
As the group settled in, they lit cigarettes and
passed them around while others slept, some snoring, some with eyes
wide open from the exhaustion and constant terror. Someone wept.
Anka pecked Max on the cheek.
“Say, Maxi. Our horses back there—what if there’s
any meat left on ‘em?”
Always thinking, his girl. What a delight. Max
stroked her straw hair. “Darling,” he whispered “the Russians could
be anywhere. Lying in wait.”
Anka grunted. “Does not matter. It’s October. So we
must hoard now.”
She was right, of course. This first real cold was
harsh enough yet the truly grim conditions loomed. When Max lived
in America, this time of year held so much promise. October brought
the Halloween holiday, that strangely pagan dress-up
a land of prudish Christians. It was his favorite holiday there.
Everything seemed to remind him of America these days. The further
he was taken from her, the more he wanted her. Anka, with her
scrapping wiles, reminded him of New York City—and of Lucy
Anka sat up. Her face hovered over him in shadow and
the glints of her eyes darted back and forth. “You hear me? Do the
bombs make you deaf? It’s good horsemeat, that.”
“Well, I could lend you my knife,” Max said,
“No. You go and starve if you want.” Anka shoved at
his chest and stood. She lifted her skirt and scurried past the
intertwined bodies for the front doors.
What could he do? The knife line was meant to be a
joke. He sat up and lit a harsh Polish cigarette.
Others were sitting up, hunched silhouettes facing
each other. “Where are we?” someone asked. “Who can tell?” replied
another, and they huddled around and rubbed their hands
“Maps are no good,” added a sergeant. “Could be into
Poland. Prussia maybe?”
Someone spat and said, “Screw Prussia.” Screw
Hitler, this really meant.
“Soon Old Prussia will be no more, I can tell you
They were lost and doomed. If they didn’t die first,
they’d freeze in a Soviet POW camp. Max had heard it all before. He
even half believed it. Yet something told him he was going to make
it, something he’d learned from his time in America. In show biz
alone the Americans had a thousand proverbs about survival. “It’s
not how you get knocked down,” went one, “it’s how you get up
again.” Or, “Rock bottom is a PhD.” They tossed their slogans about
like their penny candies, and he’d judged them silly at the time.
But now? What else could he believe in?
Max woke with a nasty kink in his neck and a whopping
headache. He must have gotten a concussion in the bombardment. In
the carpeted room, the light had turned a faint purple. Morning was
coming, and his Anka hadn’t returned. The sad truth of it helped
kill his aching hunger pangs.
Then, as his eyes adjusted, he saw a second set of
double doors across the room. They were cracked open—through them
he could make out, shining within shafts of morning light, the tops
of rows of seats. This sight was all too familiar. He crawled over
to the doors. Farther down, beyond the seat rows, he saw the
contours of a stage.
They were in a theater. They’d been hiding in the
lobby of it. How fitting, he thought—a bomb-damaged drama house for
a banished actor.
He nudged at the sergeant sleeping next to him, but
the sergeant only snorted and rolled the other way. He clambered
over to another sergeant and suggested they move the group into the
main hall where it was safer. The sergeant agreed and Max led them
in. The holes in the ceiling had showered the hall with dust and
plaster chunks, yet its gilded decor still shined. Golden harlequin
monkeys served as wall sconces. A red carpet ran down the center
aisle. Max strode the gradually inclining lane and gazed at the
plush seats, the balcony up above, the orchestra pit before the
stage. The place was damp like a barn and smelled like an outhouse,
but no matter. Again he thought of New York—there they knew a stage
when they saw one. The group straggled in, rubbing their eyes, and
Max showed them a little bow. A private smiled, a farm girl
curtsied back and Max, grinning, produced one of his last German
cigarettes that he had placed in his silver holder (which he kept
safe in his boot). “A fine spot we got here,” he said in American
English, lighting up. “Just swellegant.”
The Russians never came so they holed up. The sun
beamed down through the punctured ceiling and lit up the gilding,
and they kept the doors open so the breeze would kill the damp
reek. In the afternoon, Max took the stage and sang for them. He
did folk songs and they danced. He did schmaltzy songs. He took
requests. He did his best at “Lili Marleen” and nailed “The Ballad
of Mack the Knife.” Meanwhile, the sergeants and privates went out
on forays and scored sawdusty bread, turnips, and even a stray
chicken. As evening came more soldiers wandered in, having heard
about the good thing they had going at the theater hall. They
brought wine and a potato schnapps that wasn’t too bad. Max told
them about New York City, about how much he missed the hustle, the
color and the fair chances they gave you. All you needed was luck.
He told them:
“If I can confide in you? I will return there, I can
tell you that.”
No one had seen Anka. They found candles and used
them as footlights. Max did Rodgers and Hart, the corniest he
knew—“I Wish I Were in Love Again,” from
Babes in Arms
one got the English, but no one was complaining. To keep things
lively, he trotted out his impersonation of their
Commander-In-Chief, Hitler. Chaplin’s was far better, he knew, but
who here had seen the great Charlie? Of course, he was taking a
chance. What motif could be more taboo? Yet he gave it everything
he had, and soon most of his comrades were laughing and clapping,
even the Austrians and the ones who slept with their machine guns.
He pranced around and shook his fists and played up the Austrian
dialect. He spat and stomped.
A private bounded in through the open double doors.
“Stop, stop,” the kid yelled waving hands.
Max halted center stage. All turned, listened. They
heard vehicles. A sergeant barked at the private who pulled the
doors shut. Outside, brakes screeched and engines revved. These
sounded like German makes, but who could be sure? The women headed
backstage while the men drew their guns and held positions behind
rows of seats. Max blew out the candles, and the hall went dark. He
crouched down at the rear of the stage.
A rap on the front doors. A shout: “Open up, please,
No one answered it. The voice sounded German, but
that meant little—the Russians played impostors all the time.
The fool kid private had not locked the double
doors. The lever turned, the doors opened wide, and soldiers—German
soldiers—charged in wearing shoulder flashlights that shot white
beams through the darkness. Roughly twenty in number, they took up
places along the walls, their machine guns aimed.