Right now I'm writing an article for Defense Media Network about the Granville Raid, in which a German commando force from the Channel Islands successfully attacked a French port and destroyed a lot of stuff, and, among other things, took a lot of US Marine officers prisoner. What they accomplished at that raid was truly amazing, though kind of poitless because as soon as they got back, they learned the US Army had just successfully crossed the Rhine at Remagen. This alone is probably the main reason you've never heard of this spectacular event.
I used it as the basis for an attempted opening chapter of my novel Germania, but for various reason it got dropped for a different opening. Still, I think it makes pretty cool reading anyway. Enjoy!
Granville Raid - an alternate Chapter 1 from Germania:
The whole way to the French coast the water was choppy with a biting cold March wind bearing down from the Northeast.
Because of that and the fact that at least half the other boats were underpowered auxiliaries, trawlers and barges, they had to make their way in slowly. The good thing was that the sky was mostly overcast with only an occasional sliver of moon, which made their approach nearly invisible. Being the force commander, Loerber was, of course, entitled to be on the bridge, but he mostly kept away, knowing first hand how young captains hated senior officers breathing down their necks. Instead he set up his command post on deck within easy earshot.
He watched one of the minesweepers draw alongside, close enough that even in the darkness he could see the faces of the helmeted soldiers standing on the decks, rifles in hand, trading serious looks with each other, hoping to hide their nervousness. A hundred yards past them, a flat-decked artillery carrier lumbered on the black waves, its guns peering out incongruously from behind hillocks of sandbags. Further back was a spread of lightly armed trawlers and behind them a captured American landing craft, loaded with soldiers, bouncing gracelessly as it crashed against each oncoming wave. The rest of the fleet were an array of shadows spread out over several miles of gray sea.
The captain-lieutenant leaned out from the open bridge window and waved Loerber to him. Loerber walked up. The captain-lieutenant pointed straight ahead. “See there, sir? The blinking green light? That’s the harbor buoy for Granville. We should reach it in another thirty minutes.”
Loerber looked down at the radium dial of his watch. It was 12:15. An hour late but otherwise going according to plan. “Carry on, keep me posted,” he said.
“Jawohl,” answered the captain-lieutenant, sliding the window shut. Loerber turned to stare ahead. By now he could clearly make out the French coastline; a thick jagged strip of black with the slightest wash of gray glow above it. In another two hours we’ll either be heroes, or prisoners or dead, he told himself. Loerber had no experience staging commando raids, having spent the war as a U-Boat captain. But since nobody on the island knew anything at all, he supposed he was the best man for the job.
Zigmund Loerber didn’t look like anyone’s idea of a warrior, at least not at first glance. He was a slightly
built man, neither tall nor short, more wiry than muscular, but even so, his years as a naval officer had given him the unmistakable presence of a man in command, certainly not someone given to joking. At thirty, he was far older
than anyone else on board, and, he assumed, other than perhaps some of the senior sergeants, older than any of the six hundred men in the entire raiding party.
He carefully made his way aft, keeping his hands on the rails, ready to grab on should a wave unexpectedly hit him. He
pulled open a door and stepped inside where the men were waiting, boots, helmets, ammunition belts, all clutching sub-machineguns and looking grim and businesslike. Seeing him enter, they started to get to their feet, but he gestured for them to remain seated and continued up the ladder to the radio room.
They looked warlike enough, he thought, but then he remembered what the briefing officer had said as he walked him out
of the Admiral’s command bunker: “Just try not to let them all surrender at once, Herr Korvettenkapitän. That’s all we’re really asking.”
They’d called him in the previous morning, sending a staff car out to the remote farm where he and his crew had
been billeted. By this point the fuel shortage was so bad they didn’t send vehicles out for anybody, especially not for the captain of a wrecked U-Boat, who, technically speaking, didn’t belong to anybody.
“We have a little job for you, Korvettenkapitän,” said the Admiral, smiling ferociously as he pointed Loerber to a chair. He nodded to his briefing officer, a worn-out looking staff colonel, who immediately started reciting in a monotonous voice the fantastic details of the planned raid. What they had in mind was to send out a fleet of forty vessels; minesweepers, torpedo boats, harbor craft, anything they had that could carry troops and cross sixty miles of open sea without getting swamped. Their target: Granville, a decidedly minor port, but the one closest to them on the French coast. A few months ago, it was the primary port feeding the Allied advance against Germany. Today it had little purpose other than as an unloading point for British coal and foodstuffs.
Loerber remembered the profound sense of unreality he felt staring at the map, as if in the month since he and his
men had come ashore there, he’d completely forgotten where they were: Jersey, one of the British Channel Islands,
taken five years earlier along with all of France. One of Hitler’s most-prized and least strategic possessions, it had been turned into a fortress with gun batteries, tens of thousands of troops and miles of underground tunnels and bunkers. But France had been liberated and Germany had retreated behind the Rhine and now Jersey was part of an absurd constellation of remnant German outposts that dotted the Atlantic coast: La Rochelle, Lorient, St. Nazaire, Guernsey, Sark, Dunkirk, Dieppe, all run by die-hard fortress commandants who continued to preach faith in the Fuhrer and inevitable victory.
Every other day a convoy of coal ships arrives in Granville from Plymouth,” said the briefing officer. “It would
be optimal if, along with wrecking the harbor facilities, you could capture some fully loaded coal ships and bring them here. They also have warehouses full of food. Get as much of it as you can and bring it back as well. For this
you might need to commandeer enemy lorries or organize the prisoners into a passing line to load it onto the boats. There is also the Hotel Normandie, being used to house senior American officers. Try to capture as many of them as you
“Sulfa drugs,” added the Admiral.
“That’s right,” said the briefing officer. “Intelligence reports that the clinic is well supplied with them.”
Loerber nodded. He didn’t need to be told why they wanted those. Venereal disease was completely rampant here on the
islands. Too many men, not enough prostitutes and a surly civilian population with problems of their own.
The colonel went on with the order in which the harbor facilities were to be destroyed.
“...Five, plant explosive charges on the cranes, on the bridge supports and on the canal locks. Six, open the
primary and secondary spigots at the fueling docks. Signal the artillery carriers to take their firing positions, which will be here and here,” he said, tapping his stick against different points outside the harbor.
“Seven, signal the artillery ships to begin bombardment, and begin the first and second phases of your withdrawal…”
“So are you interested?” asked the Admiral when the briefing officer had finished.
Loerber stared at him for a second. “If I may ask a question, Herr Admiral,” he said.
The Admiral raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Isn’t it obvious? How long have you been with us here?”
“Almost a month.”
“And what is your opinion of Fortress Jersey? Please, speak freely. What do you think of the morale here? Extremely
low, wouldn’t you say? It’s not surprising. There’s no food, no coal, nothing to do, bullying the civilians doesn’t do anything. They’ve spent four years preparing for the Allies to attack, and when the time came what did the Allies do?”
“Yes sir, I know,” said Loerber. The ignominy of having been bypassed was an insult they were finding particularly
hard to bear.
“We need to do something. The men are in a bad way. They have lost faith in their officers, the officers have lost
faith in themselves. Give the men their pride back, their fighting spirit. We need to let the people back in Germany know that we’re not just giving up. It’ll be like a pirate raid from the old days. Korvettenkapitän, you and your
“Excuse me, Admiral,” interrupted Loerber. “If I do this, I want my men kept out of it. They’re sick and they
need to rest. Your garrison troops might need to prove themselves, Admiral. My men don’t.
The Admiral nodded and gave a relieved smile. “So you’ll do it, then?”
“Sir, you still haven’t answered my question. Why me?”
He’d expected the Admiral to get angry at his borderline insolence. But instead the Admiral leaned back in his chair
and his face broke out into a big fat grin. “You think I don’t know who you are?” he said.
“You know how many times I saw you and your brothers perform at the Blue Star? At the Admiralspalast? Hah!” he said,
slapping his hand against his belly. “Ziggy Loerber of the Flying Magical Loerber Brothers! All that singing and dancing! The acrobatics, the magic! And now you’re going to lead my own raiding party against Granville. Did you know Harlem Rhapsody is still one of the Fuhrer’s favorite songs? He told me so himself. Ach! He will be so pleased with us.”
The Admiral stood up from his chair and put his hand on Loerber’s shoulder. “Don’t you see, Korvettenkapitän? I am
choosing you because nothing will ensure the mission’s success more than having one of the Loerber Brothers lead it. After all, you’re magic!”
Inside the radio room, two petty officers sat in swivel chairs, earphones on their heads, scanning the different
frequencies for friendly and enemy traffic. “What are you hearing?” Loerber asked.
“Nothing much, sir. Communications back and forth between Plymouth and St. Malo. Jersey radar reports a convoy of ships coming from Bristol.” The radio operator looked at Loerber with hesitation. “Sir?”
“What is it?” asked Loerber.
“Sir, we intercepted a news bulletin on the American Armed Forces Radio. They claim the American Army has crossed the Rhine at Remagen.”
Loerber remained still, trying not to act shocked. The Rhine was the final barrier in the West and if it had been breached, then the war was as good as over. And if that was so, what were they doing staging a raid against a third rate little coal port? He leaned over and spoke in a low voice. “You’re not to mention this to anyone,” he told them. They nodded smartly. He doubted they would.
Loerber left the radio room and returned to his spot on the deck. I’m magic, he kept saying to himself as he stared out glumly at the dozens of black shadows covering the sea’s surface. The waves were kicking up heavy spray that pelted his face. The jagged strip of French coastline loomed larger. It wouldn’t be long now. I’m magic. I’m magic, I’m Ziggy of the Flying Magical Loerber Brothers, the toast of Old Berlin and I’m magic!
How long had it been since he’d heard any of that? Ten years. Ten years since Sebastian’s disappearance and ten years
since Manni and Franzi, his two other brothers, had confided in him their decisions to become enemy spies inside the Nazi Party and SS. Ten years since the act broke up and he stopped talking with them and ten years since he’d entered the Flensburg Marineschule as a naval cadet and put his old life completely behind him. And he assumed that was it, since not once in that whole time had anyone shown the slightest awareness of his child-star past.
Two of the petty officers came up, both dressed in naval infantry gray. He found himself looking at them with
suspicion, but it turned out they only wanted to report one of the men had broken his foot. He nodded and they returned aft. Loerber continued staring at the waves.
Or was it simply that they wouldn’t have dared to speak that way of a Navy officer? Had everyone been secretly
whispering Ziggy, Ziggy, Ziggy the whole time behind his back? He hated the thought of Ziggy Loerber. He hated
remembering the cabarets and variety theaters with their greasy elegance, and the audiences and the endless corny routines; Mystery of the Disappearing Bluebird, Hawaiian Hallucination, April in Nanking. He wondered why anyone would want to remember that awful stuff. Old Berlin was so long ago. And besides, if they started remembering that, they might also start remembering that the Loerbers were Jews.
Then he heard the thick low moan of a shell coming in. A second later, an explosion and a splash, far enough away he
knew they’d been missed completely.
“Lookouts!” he shouted, then, putting his binoculars to his eyes, he began scanning in the direction the shot
came. “Starboard, third back! Patrol craft!”
“Guns, get coordinates and prepare to fire.”
He saw the silhouette of the gunboat and wondered what kind it was. No torpedoes, probably a single 37mm deck gun.
Why haven’t they fired a second salvo? It had been almost thirty seconds. What were they waiting for? Loerber stared into the black spot and felt himself inside the breech of the cannon and all around him the fevered shouting: Skipper, something’s wrong! It won’t lock! Hard right! Full speed! Evasive! Radioman, get on the horn to Granville, tell them...”
Loerber jerked his head back and shut off the stream just as he heard the Lieutenant on the bridge shouting, “Main
A tearing through the air, then another, and another. Then the shells exploded, first one in the water, but
then the second one hit and an instant later the patrol boat was blown in two, followed by tiny arpeggios of explosions as their ammunition cooked off. Then it was over.
“Finish her off, sir?”
“Don’t bother,” Loerber said. “Continue course.”
Ten minutes later, as they approached the signal buoy, two more patrol craft came out of the darkness, this time flashing challenge signals. The seconds ticked by as Loerber hesitated over how to respond. They repeated the challenge. He watched the gun crew swiveling the cannon into position. How long would it take them to figure out they were Germans and start shooting. Do something, he told himself. What had his father, old Gustav Loerber, always said? Give them something, anything. As long as you put something in front of them, the audience won’t notice. Fill the space!
First rule of magic.
“Signalman,” he barked. “Send them back the same signal they sent you. Now!”
The signalman held up his light and began blinking back the message. A long, tense moment followed as they waited
for a response, but then to everyone’s surprise, the two patrol craft moved on and they were alone again. This isn’t right, thought Loerber. It was like being pitted against apparitions, which might put up a big show, only to evaporate
into a swirl of fog. He stared at the innocently blinking harbor light, trying to sense if the quiet concealed something foreboding. The thin crescent of moon came out and then hid again behind the clouds. “How much time?” Loerber asked.
“Five minutes,” came the answer.
“Five minutes, Magical Loerber Brothers!”
As usual, none of them answered. They were all staring intently into their illuminated mirrors. The stage manager’s
assistant chuckled to himself and tried again. “Manni, Ziggy, Franzi, Sebastian? Are you ready?”
The four put down their powder brushes and combs, turned and nodded in unison.“All right!” answered the stage
manager’s assistant. “Let’s go, then.” And they’d get up and put on their sequin jackets and top hats and follow him out to the stage right wings. On stage, the lights would go down as the orchestra started its signature medley of
Harlem Rhapsody and Sweet Georgia Brown. Then they’d get their signal and run out onstage and just seeing them, the audience always went nuts.
“Sir,” said the signalman, “Minesweeper Two is signaling that they’re ready to take the lead.”
“Tell them to proceed,” answered Loerber. “Petty Officer, tell the landing parties to prepare for action.”
As they approached the harbor, Loerber quickly made his way aft to the back deck where the troops had formed into
assault squads. One of the men helped him into an ammo harness, then handed him a submachine gun and a helmet, which he put on, tightening the leather strap under his chin. Well, he thought, we’re as ready as we’ll ever be.
Clearing past the rocky point and getting their first view of the harbor, Loerber was surprised to find it was
lit up by bright lights blazing from above the embankments, like their arrival was expected. But except for an ancient bucket crane, chuffing tiredly as it scooped coal from one ship’s hold and then carried it over to a waiting line of rail cars, everything was eerily quiet.
He counted three small coastal steamers docked on the left bank at the bottom of the hill, while on the other side of
the harbor five decent-sized ships were waiting their turn at the bucket crane. All they’d have to do was turn them around and bring them back to Jersey. That and steal all the food and medicine they could grab. Pull this off, and, as the admiral had broadly hinted, he’d get diamonds and swords added on his Knight’s Cross. Everybody else would
probably get the Iron Cross. They were handing them out now like paper roses at a shooting gallery.
He watched a single dockworker strolling out of a warehouse, cigarette dangling from his lips, apparently unconcerned at the appearance of enemy warships in his harbor. Had he not noticed the rows of gleaming helmets, the bayonets or the red and black Reich battle flags fluttering from the masts? Or was it merely that it was one thirty in the
morning at a port hundreds of miles from enemy lines. Hundreds of miles, unless you bothered to remember the fortress islands just offshore, full of armed, dangerous, and very hungry men.
The dockworker let out a yawn and pushed open the door to a small wooden hut and went inside. Loerber felt his
heart pounding as they pulled closer to the embankment. Everything looked so still. It seemed terribly wrong that in another moment, the quiet would be shredded by gunfire and otherwise peaceful people would be killing each other. And to one degree or another, it would be his fault. Of course if this turned out to be an ambush, a hundred windows might suddenly open and a hundred enemy rifles and machine guns start raining lead down on them. Why had he agreed to
lead this harebrained raid? Why? So his crew could sit out the rest of the war, pretending to repair an unrepairable submarine, that’s why.
Closer, closer, twenty feet, eighteen feet, fifteen feet. He fingered the safety above the trigger on his
submachinegun. Twelve feet, ten feet. He remembered how queasy he’d always get standing in the wings just before he and his brothers would go on stage. You’re Ziggy Loerber, you’re magic! Once or twice at the Marineschule, someone had asked him if he was Ziggy Loerber, but each time he shook his head and it was never brought up again. Eight feet, five feet. And then the stage manager would point at them and out they’d run and from that moment, everything was like clockwork. First they’d toss Manni up high into the air, and as he was coming down, Sebastian would jump to the far side of the springboard. Manni would come down onto the other end, propelling Sebastian high into the air to the first trapeze. Then Ziggy would boost Franzi up onto his shoulders, Franzi would jump down onto the springboard, launching Manni upwards where he was caught by Sebastian, who swung him around and around
before flying him off to the other trapeze. They were like cogs in a machine, spinning and flying from trapeze to trapeze, precise, every movement timed exactly in abeyance to the laws of velocity, trajectory, resistance. To the
audience, of course, it was all magic, magic. You’re Ziggy Loerber! You’re magic! Like it was going to make a
difference out here. What the Admiral didn’t understand was that magic could only happen when it was safe to dream. In wars, dreams and illusion were what got people killed.
Three feet, two feet, then a metallic groan as the ship scraped and bounced against the stone quayside. Immediately
the men began leaping off the deck onto the embankment and then racing toward their assigned target points; the warehouses, the cranes, the harbormaster’s tower, the dockworkers’ huts, the telephone exchange, the power station, the coal ships.
Loerber stepped onto the embankment and hurried toward a protected spot near a wall, where he established his command
post. “Machine gun crews, take your positions,” he shouted. “Security detail, set up the inner perimeter, now! Petty officer, take your squad and check out those warehouses.”
From inside one of the buildings a burst of pistol fire erupted. A few seconds after that a machinegun opened up and then another. A grenade exploded, blowing out the doors and windows of one of the huts. Then all the lights went
out and it was quiet again. A few seconds later, word came back that all the cranes were theirs and the demolition teams were already placing charges.
Loerber put his field glasses to his eyes and looked across the harbor. Over on the coal dock, a gun battle had
broken out. Within a few seconds, the duet of gunfire became a quartet, then an octet, then a full chorus, before suddenly stopping altogether. Two minutes later a man with signal light started blinking a message from the deck of one of the ships. The docks and five coal ships were all theirs. Five minutes had passed. Everything looked like it was running according to plan.
One of the troopers ran out of the warehouse. “Sir, we’ve got some prisoners. Five Americans and three French
workers.” Loerber looked at them; all very fat and, except for the Frenchmen, utterly harmless-looking.
“Have you looked at the contents yet?”
“Yes sir, it’s full of sacks of flour. Hundreds, thousands of sacks.”
“Sir, there’s crates of canned food; meat, vegetables, condensed milk!”
“Chocolate, sir, and coffee!”
“Sir! They’ve got beer! Cases and cases of it!”
“All right then, start loading. Put these birds to work,” said Loerber, pointing at the prisoners. “Everyone else
not doing security, start a line.”
Loerber looked at his watch. By now the diversionary attack should have started on the Hotel Sur-la-Plage farther down
the coast. But he hadn’t heard any shot fired from that direction. Had they reached it yet? Was there a problem?
On the other side of the harbor, the coal ships’ engines started coming to life. White smoke blew from their
smokestacks and the water behind them began churning white as their screws started to turn. Looking through his
glasses he could see lines being cast off. Good, he thought, in another few minutes they’ll all be out of the
harbor. Then we can get out of here.
A grenade exploded and then a machine gun opened up, raking the embankment a few feet away from him. One of the soldiers grabbed him and pulled him behind the wall for cover. “It’s coming from the church tower.”
“Suppressing fire!” shouted one of the sergeants. “Keep him pinned down.”
The men began firing back. A man in Luftwaffe camouflage ran up. “Sir,” he shouted. “Red Team reports they’ve set
up the outer perimeter. No sign of counter-attack yet.”
A petty officer in naval infantry gray followed. “We’ve got the clinic secured. We’re loading up some Jeeps we found.
Sir, we’ve got enough penicillin for the whole island.”
“Good,” said Loerber. “Now if we could just get everything loaded and get out of there before the Americans get
organized.” He looked at his watch again. Twelve minutes had passed.
In the distance he could hear the steady rattle of machineguns. They didn’t sound German. Then he heard
cannonfire. The Americans had apparently rallied faster than the planners back on Jersey had expected. They were going to need to get out of there quickly.
On the other side of the harbor, the first coal ship had pushed away from the dock, and was making its way toward
the harbor entrance. He waited for the others to follow, but they weren’t moving. Their engines rumbled louder, the water around their screws churned a furious white. Then Loerber realized why. It was the low tide. The ships’ full
loads had them stuck on the bottom. It would be hours before there’d be enough water to float any of them. They couldn’t hang around that long.
Loerber turned to the signalman. “Tell the coal ship crews to abort. They should carry off any food they can, load it
onto the trawlers and then get out.” He turned to one of the runners. “Go down to the demolition crews, tell them to send a team onto the coal ships to set charges. I want them ready to detonate in fifteen minutes. Go!”
As the signalman began flashing out the message, Loerber glanced over at the one coal ship steaming out of the harbor.
It had sailed out of the lit-up areas and with the gleam on its hull already beginning to fade, it was turning into a shadow. There’s probably enough coal for several months in there, he told himself. Enough to last till the end of the war.
“Sir, Red Team reports six tanks approaching from the west, infantry company strength. Request artillery
Loerber nodded. “Tell Red Team to send the firing coordinates to the artillery ships. Radio the artillery ships, tell
them to fire when ready.”
A forklift pulled out of the warehouse with a huge crate in its prongs and a half dozen carts trailing behind it,
piled high with boxes. But then someone opened up with rifle fire, bullets ricocheted against the ground and a second later, the forklift driver slumped over the steering wheel. “Covering fire!”
As the soldiers began shooting back, one of them ran up and pulled the driver off the forklift, hoisting him on his
back and carrying him to cover. Another took the driver’s place and brought it all the way over to where the minesweeper was docked. Within seconds, its contents were carried aboard and he was driving it back inside the warehouse for another load.
“Sir! More prisoners!”
Loerber looked up and saw a group of middle-aged men in dressing gowns and slippers with their hands behind their
heads. The soldiers escorting them grinned. “American officers,” explained one. “We got ‘em out of the Hotel Normandie. Pretty warlike, wouldn’t you say, sir?”
“Get them aboard Minesweeper Two, forward hold,” ordered Loerber.
“Sir, Blue Team leader reports Trawlers Eberhardt, Gustav, and Jochen all fully loaded, requesting permission to
“Given,” said Loerber. He turned to one of the sergeants. “Begin Phase One of withdrawal. Any word from the coal ships?”
“Yes sir, the raiding parties are all off and the demolition crews are finishing up laying the explosives. Demolition
team leader says another five minutes.”
He watched the first wave of boats heading out of the harbor and felt a tremendous relief. So far it had all been
easy. Offshore, the artillery ships were firing off round after round which shrieked overhead in a steady stream, crashing in the fields east of town. The Americans were keeping themselves out of range, which was all any of them
wanted. In another few minutes it would all be over.
“Hey look! We’ve caught a nigger!” some men were shouting. They led out a black American soldier at bayonet point, holding his hands above his head and looking both frightened and angry. “We found him hiding behind some bins,” one of the soldiers said excitedly. “Thought you were going to get away, did you, nigger?”
Loerber waved them out of the way and stepped in front of the American. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“New Yawk,” the black man answered warily.
"Harlem?” asked Loerber.
“Harlem Rhapsody,” one of the sergeants snickered.
Loerber shot him an angry look, then turned back to face his captive. The black man nodded back. “Yeah, Harlem,” he
said, almost like he was daring Loerber to make something of it.
Loerber leaned in closer to him. “I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “If I let you live, will you think about me in
Harlem, on Lexington Avenue?”
The man looked back at Loerber long and hard, like he wasn’t sure it was a joke or not.
“Man, I’ll think of you in the Apollo. Just don’t fucking shoot me.”
"Good, then we have a deal.” Loerber looked around. “You don’t have a rifle hidden here, do you? You’re not going to
start shooting at us when we let you go.”
The man made a grimace. “Man, you think the motherfuckers let us even touch rifles?”
Loerber nodded and turned to leave. “Wait!” called out the black man. “What’s your name? The A-Train will want to
Loerber turned and saw the man was grinning. He made a polite smile. “Korvettenkapitan,” he started to say, but
then paused and said, “Ziggy, Ziggy Loerber.”
“Ziggy-loe-bahr,” the man said back, like it was all one continuous word. “That’s easy to remember.”
Loerber returned to the embankment and gave the order to start the detonations. One by one the charges went off and
the cranes toppled obediently into the water. One crashed into the stern of a steamer, causing its bow to jerk upward and then come down on its side, capsizing. The men cheered. Then the coal ships went up; loud, dull thuds
echoing across the harbor like thunderclaps. Another explosion and the bucket crane blew apart. Suddenly the ships were on fire. They were pulling out. The trawlers were on their way out of the harbor and all that remained was their gunboat. The last of the Red Team were coming down from their abandoned perimeter. He watched them troop aboard the boat, slapping each other on the back. Then Loerber stepped aboard the back deck and signaled the Captain Lieutenant to head out. The engines thundered under his boots as the land slipped away.
“Well done, everybody,” said Loerber to the men standing on the back deck as the boat sped up the channel toward the
open sea. “So how did it go, Sergeant? Any casualties?”
“Two men seriously wounded, five with minor wounds. Mortar team reports one man missing.”
Loerber didn’t like that. “Missing? Who? What happened.”
“Bootsman Brier,” answered the sergeant. “They said they were coming back from the line. They heard some
shooting, one minute he was there, next minute he was gone.”
“Did they search for him?”
“They said they did.”
“Bring them here,” said Loerber. A minute later the mortar team was standing before him. He listened to them go
over the story and knew they were lying. Then he informed them that if they liked, he would convene a court martial on the spot and that if they kept lying to him he’d have them shot. “What’s it going to be?” he asked. The men looked
at each other, then began explaining how Brier had a girlfriend in town and that he’d gone off to be with her.
“Turn the boat around,” Loerber shouted to the Captain-lieutenant, “We’re going back.”
By the time they got back to the dock, one of the coal ships was already on its side, flames licking up from its
holds. Back at the embankment, Loerber told the men to take him to the house where the girlfriend lived. They led him up an alleyway to a door around the corner from a shuttered pub. He had them kick open the door and stepped inside,
pistol in hand. Brier was sitting at the kitchen table with a girl next to him who was holding a baby. He was a skinny, fidgety man with dark eyes and small ears set so low on his head that he looked more like some grazing animal than a man. The girl herself was lumpy and though Loerber guessed she was barely out of her teens, there was nothing about her that seemed either particularly young or pretty.
Brier looked surprised at first to see Loerber and the others, but he quickly sank in to a kind of determined fatalism. “I’m not going back,” he declared.
“That’s desertion,” said Loerber. “Desertion in the face of the enemy. You know the punishment for that. Don’t
make me shoot you.”
“Do what you want, Herr Kapitan, I’m staying here. She is my wife, this is my home. I’m not going back to that
stupid island. To hell with Hitler, to hell with Germany and the whole goddamn Third Reich!”
It was obvious the girl didn’t understand what they were saying, but she glared at Loerber with defiance, like
she wasn’t hiding anymore, here in her house they were making their stand. Her face had scars and her nose looked like it had been broken and not set back very well. She had still-short blonde hair which must have been shorn off
several months earlier. It was one of the things that happened to French women who’d slept with Germans.
“Brier, listen to me,” said Loerber. “What you are doing is a very stupid thing. Do you love this woman?”
“Then do her a favor and come back to the ship. I’ll forget this incident ever happened. In a couple weeks this war
will be over, and before you know it, you’ll be a civilian again and you can come back here. What you’ve got here isn’t something to die for. It’s something to live for. Now I’m giving you an order. Pick up your rifle and come with me.”
But Brier shook his head resolutely. “No, Herr Kapitan. I’ve been sitting on that island for ten months, twiddling
my thumbs while my wife gets beaten and raped and I’m not leaving her again. And for what? Those Nazi bastards? I’d rather die than spend another minute of my life serving them.”
Loerber had his pistol out pointing at Brier. “This isn’t about Hitler or the Nazis, Brier. It’s about the Navy. It’s
what we both volunteered for. That means following orders. You can’t desert your comrades in battle. All we have to count on right now is each other. Now for the last time, I’m giving you an order. Get up. Get your rifle, kiss your
wife goodbye if you’d like and come back to the boat.”
Brier shook his head. “No. I’m not going.” He turned his back on Loerber and for a second, brushed his hand
against hers. Loerber felt his finger tightening against the trigger. The sound the pistol made was loud and sharp and it was still ringing in his ears when the man fell onto the floor, blood gushing from his forehead. And then all
Loerber heard was the woman screaming.