Thursday, August 1, 2013

German Navy Faces Off SS in Ploen

It was midnight when they finally drove into the Ploen naval base. In the darkness all that stirred was a single petty officer who pointed a flashlight to where they should park. The men got out of their vehicles, weapons at the ready, and assembled into a tight cordon with Himmler, Macher, Grothmann and Franzi in its center. “Keep your eyes open,” Macher told them. “Anybody sees anything, sing out. If any of these Navy clowns try anything funny, we’ll let them have it. Let’s move.”

The petty officer pointed them to a small cluster of buildings at the end of a walkway flanked on either side by groves of trees. They started down the path, moving slowly and deliberately. “There’s men behind those trees,” reported one of the troopers in a loud whisper. Franzi peered into the shadows between the moon-lit tree trunks and tried to make out the shapes of men hiding among them, but could see nothing. “More behind that row of dustbins,” said another. Macher nodded but kept the group moving closer to the buildings.

“Pathetic,” muttered Grothmann. “If this is their idea of an ambush, they’ve got another thing coming.” Someone else chuckled quietly. Franzi could hear guns being cocked and safeties clicked off. “This is going to be more fun than killing Russians,” someone cracked.

Halfway there, Macher gave the order to halt. “Everyone pick a target.” Then he shouted into the darkness, “Whichever one of you is in charge I suggest you come out right now.”

A naval officer in a long leather coat emerged from behind a tree as casually as if he had his desk there. Even in the dark they could make out the iron cross around his neck. “Good evening, gentlemen,” he said pleasantly enough. “I am Korvettenkapitän Cremer, head of the Doenitz Guard Battalion. You are here to see the Grand Admiral?”

“What the hell were you doing back there?” demanded Macher.

“Just a routine security precaution,” answered Cremer.

“You tell your men to come out right now,” said Macher.

Without turning, Cremer raised his right hand and called out. “First squad, come forward. Everyone else, stay where you are.” A dozen sailors stepped out from the trees with rifles pointed, and advanced across the grass toward them. When they were about twenty feet away, Cremer put up his hand again and they halted.

“Tell your men to lower their weapons,” said Macher.

“You’re on our base, so you should lower yours first,” countered Cremer.

“Forget it,” said Macher.

“Have it your way,” said Cremer.

A minute passed and nobody moved. The SS troopers maintained their steely determination as they faced off against Cremer and his sailors, who didn’t waver either. Himmler seemed distracted, as if none of it particularly concerned him. Franzi wondered how much longer before someone started shooting. Then a light came on outside the operations hut. The door opened and a naval officer stepped out. “If you’ll come this way, Reichsfuhrer, the Grand Admiral is waiting for you,” he called out. Without a word, Himmler walked the rest of the way by himself. The naval officer held open the door and followed him inside.

After that, both sides relaxed a little. They partially lowered their weapons and settled in to wait. Cremer walked around them, looking at their weapons and into their faces. When he came to Franzi, he stopped and stared at him with a puzzled look. “Loerber?” he whispered, like he thought it was altogether amazing.

“Is there a problem?” growled Macher.

“I’m not sure,” answered Cremer. Then he turned and waved toward the bushes. “Captain, come here,” he called out.

A figure stepped out of the darkness. A naval officer in the same long leather coat and a glint of an iron cross at his throat. It was Ziggy!

He began walking across the lawn toward them.

“You stop right there!” said Macher.

Ziggy ignored him.

“I’m not going to say it again,” said Macher. “Captain Cremer, keep your man back.”

The naval guard raised their weapons again. The SS raised theirs.

Cremer kept signaling Ziggy to come forward. Ziggy was now close enough that even in the darkness, Franzi could tell that he recognized him.



“Colonel, do you mind?” said Cremer. “These guys are brothers. They haven’t seen each other for a long time.”

“Both of you, step away! Now!” said Macher.

Ziggy stopped, giving Cremer a worried look.

“Colonel Macher, you want to start something, go ahead, but I guarantee you, we’ll finish it. Second squad, lock and load.”

“Troopers, wait for my word,” said Macher.

Franzi looked at Ziggy. Ziggy smiled.

What is he thinking? wondered Franzi. It was like the old days, standing in the wings just before going onstage, none of them talking, primed to act as a single unit. The orchestra would strike up Harlem Rhapsody, and they’d wait five bars and then run out on stage.

Harlem Rhapsody. Suddenly the memory was on him, so incredibly vivid, he could almost hear its lilting sadness; the song, he imagined, of a black man on a street corner, gazing up to the window of the woman his heart cries for as packed streetcars clatter by. They all loved that song. He could hear it now, crisp and sweet.

Wait a minute, he was hearing it! Someone was whistling Harlem Rhapsody from one of the other buildings! Ziggy heard it too. They both looked over to see where it was coming from and saw a figure leaning casually against the railing in front of the entrance, cigarette in hand, looking away up into the sky as the blue notes curled up like smoke from his lips.


Everyone stood in spellbound silence; Cremer, Macher, Ziggy, everyone, as the melody drifted to them through the cold night air.

Then the light came back on and the door flung open as Himmler bolted out alone. He made his way quickly as he could toward them. Two of the troopers stepped aside to let him into the cordon. Even in the darkness, he looked livid.

“Reichsfuhrer, is everything all right?” asked Macher.

“Let’s just get the hell out of here,” snapped Himmler.

Franzi looked back at the building and saw that Manni was gone.

(Excerpt from Germania, by Brendan McNally, Simon & Schuster 2008).

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