Levensau Bridge was only a mile or two east of the British front lines and in the last day all the fighting seemed to have come to a halt. Though the bridge still stood, it had been too heavily bombed for vehicles to cross over. They parked on the road leading up to it and waited. For the first time in days, the bridge was empty. Presumably everyone on the other side who’d wanted to flee the British had already done so, and anyone who wanted to go west thought better of doing it right there.
On the opposite bank a Navy staff car was driving up. Then it stopped and Admiral von Friedeburg got out and began clambering across the bridge towards them. For several minutes, Doenitz stood with his aides, silently watching von Friedeburg’s progress through his field glasses. Then he abruptly took them away from his eyes. “Wait here,” he said and started quickly up the bridge to meet him.
Doenitz started barking something at him, but von Friedeburg kept crying and shaking his head like he was saying, no, I tried but it didn’t work. Hans, get hold of yourself, Doenitz seemed to be saying. Remember what you are! But von Friedeburg only kept pleading. Please don’t make me go back. Please, I can’t take it. I can’t!
Ziggy kept his eyes on the two figures, clearly defined against the grayness of the river and sky. Their gestures seemed to describe what they were saying so completely it made Ziggy wonder if, without even knowing it, he was telepathically reading conversations again.
Whatever the case, there was no question about Doenitz’ answer. You have your orders and you will carry them out! Then Doenitz softened his stance slightly and said something reassuring. Von Friedeburg set his mouth hard into a grimace, and stood rigidly at attention as the rain pelted his face. Doenitz finished speaking, then turned and began angrily marching back. Von Friedeburg stood motionless for a few seconds and then started walking back to his side of the river.
Ziggy lowered his glasses. He wished he hadn’t witnessed any of it. The way von Friedeburg was acting seemed less like head of the Navy than some freshly-minted ensign being dressed down after panicking during his first depth charge attack. What had happened to him?
Twenty yards from the bottom of the bridge, Doenitz stopped and gestured for his adjutant. The adjutant ran up, but before he even got there, Doenitz snapped out a couple words and the adjutant turned again and ran back to the others.
“Korvettenkapitän Loerber,” he barked. “Report to the Grand Admiral on the double!”
“Jawohl,” shouted Ziggy and ran to see what the old man wanted.
Doenitz looked at him cold and hard as iron. “Something has come up,” he said. “I need you to go back with Admiral von Friedeburg to help him negotiate with the British.” Then, softening his voice, he added, “You’re a U-Boat captain. You’ll know how to handle it.”
“Yes, sir,” said Ziggy, completely bewildered.
Doenitz went on. “The Admiral is having problems. He has a very difficult job ahead of him. You must help him, be his friend, but if things get out of hand you are to remind him of his duties, as a German Naval officer and as a man.”
Ziggy looked at Doenitz and saw how his eyes blazed with cold anger. “You speak pretty good English, as I recall,” he continued. “That might be helpful. Loerber, you need to make sure he’s able to function. The Navy’s honor is at stake. Do you think you can do that?”
“I’ll do my best, Grand Admiral.”
“No! That won’t do, Loerber. The Admiral just did his best and it wasn’t enough. Whatever it takes, Loerber, you must see to it that he carries out his task. On this I am giving you full leeway. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Grand Admiral.”
“It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours. Now get moving.”
Ziggy saluted and started across the bridge. He hadn’t been walking a minute when things started reeling on him. Be his friend? Remind him of his duty? Full leeway? If it hadn’t been Doenitz telling him this, Ziggy would have thought it a joke.
The rain clouds that hung over them, low and heavy, cloaked everything in gray gloom, making the riverbank look more like a forlorn late fall than the middle of springtime. So the war was ending, he thought. Hitler was dead, Doenitz was Head of State and Von Friedeburg was apparently in the middle of negotiating a ceasefire with the British. Peace was finally descending on Europe. Germany was finished. We’d wanted war and gotten it. He tried to imagine what peace would be like, but couldn’t.
Ziggy walked across at a brisk pace. As he approached the Admiral’s Mercedes, the driver got out and came to attention.
“Come on, let’s get going,” said Ziggy, not bothering to salute back.
“Sir?” asked the driver. “Perhaps you might prefer to ride in the front.”
Ignoring his suggestion, Ziggy opened the rear door and leaned inside. Admiral von Friedeburg sat empty-eyed in the back. “Herr Admiral?” asked Ziggy.
Von Friedeburg did not look at him.
“The Grand Admiral has asked me to accompany you, sir.”
Von Friedeburg glanced at Ziggy just long enough to let him know he understood.
“I’ll be sitting in the front, if you need me, sir.”
Von Friedeburg gave a slight nod like he thought it was a good idea. Franzi shut the rear door and took the seat next to the driver.
Two minutes down the road, a pair of British Army motorcyclists picked them up and with their sirens blaring, escorted them past miles of parked tanks and milling British soldiers to a large encampment out on the Luneberg heath where a British flag snapped arrogantly from a hastily erected flagpole. A hand-lettered white sign proclaimed, “TAC HQ 21st Army Group.” Hearing them come, soldiers in mud-colored uniforms streamed out of the tents to get a look at them. The car stopped outside a tent where a group of unpleasant looking sergeants stood waiting to receive them, rifles in hand. One of them opened the car’s door and they got out. Inside the tent the rest of the German delegation was waiting. Ziggy immediately recognized Admiral Wagner. The others were a Wehrmacht general and a major who carried a leather satchel, which Ziggy assumed belonged to the general. They all seemed embarrassed by von Friedeburg’s reappearance. As von Friedeburg stood silently with Wagner, the general took Ziggy aside and murmured to him, “We’d hoped the Grand Admiral would send a replacement. Did he not get my note?”
Ziggy looked directly into the general’s eyes. “Well, I guess he didn’t, Herr General,” he said.
The general obviously didn’t like Ziggy’s answer, but before he could say anything, a heavyset British officer appeared in the entrance. “Admiral von Friedeburg, General Kinzl, if you’re ready, the Field Marshal would like to proceed.”
Von Friedeburg nodded emptily. The British officer gestured for everyone to get in line and then led them outside to another, larger tent crammed with officers and men with newsreel cameras. They were brought up to a large table where a short, prissy, but domineering man dressed causally in a field jacket and beret stood glaring at them in irritation, like he’d already had quite enough of them, thank you.
“Gentlemen, we shall begin,” he told them in a shrill, accusing voice.
A soldier came up and set down four large documents in a row on the table. Next to them were pens set into tiny round jars of ink. The prissy little man, who Ziggy surmised was Field Marshall Montgomery, gestured to von Friedeburg to come forward. As he did, glaring lights came on and a battery of newsreel cameras began loudly whirring. Von Friedeburg took a pen and bent over to the first paper, scratching his name onto it. Then, returning the pen to its well, he went to the next document, where another pen was waiting. He put his name to that second copy and proceeded to the third and then the fourth. As he did, Montgomery signaled General Kinzl to come forward and sign, then Admiral Wagner. One after another they worked their way signing their names to the copies. When they were done, they stood in a group while Montgomery and two of his officers did the same.
Once they’d finished, Montgomery brusquely signaled for them to be taken away. As they stood outside in the rain, Ziggy approached von Friedeburg. “Admiral, what about the negotiations? Wasn’t I supposed to help you with them?”
For the first time, Von Friedeburg looked directly at Ziggy. “Negotiations?” he exploded. “There aren’t any negotiations, you fool! This is an unconditional surrender!” (Excerpt from my novel Germania, first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available on Kindle here).