Sunday, January 19, 2014

Schellenberg Picks a New Masseur for Himmler

When the call came, Franzi Loerber had already officially gone off duty and was sitting by himself in the staff and junior officers’ canteen having a cigarette while working out the final calculations on a large batch of horoscopes he’d been assigned to do on senior members of the planning staff. It was crap work, very tiresome. Calculate algorithms based on the variations factored from the shifting positions of fifteen ascendant and twelve descendant groups of stars over twelve nine-day intervals starting a month before conception. It was all complete nonsense, something he’d invented on the spur of the moment a long time ago, but for some reason people swore by it. And far be it from Franzi to tell anybody what they should believe in.

All in all, horoscopes were fairly formulaic stuff. The calculations took forever but the actual writing never took more than five minutes. You always had to make sure it offered so much opportunity, so much warning, and lots and lots of ambiguity. Just write something down, and boom, you’re done and you move on to the next one.
He went on with his number crunching for another hour until the tediousness finally got to him. Putting the horoscopes aside, he took out his hand-written Moscow Center coding chart and began composing a long overdue report.

“47361 73908 66214 38947 03418 87451,” he wrote. It was his way of saying everything was under control and that some promising leads were coming up. “15376 21294 97124 33965,” he added, more as an afterthought. It meant everyone believed the end would come soon.

Franzi looked up to see the cute captain from internal security eyeing him from the next table. Under normal circumstances he might have seen if he could take it somewhere, but since the captain was a spy-hunter and Franzi happened at that moment to be writing a coded letter to Moscow, he instead looked away. He thought about mentioning him in the report. Moscow seemed to like hearing who in SS Headquarters was queer. He tried to remember what the captain’s name was; Hessler, Hindemann?

“96101 49327 85634.” He hated what he was doing. Ziggy was a U-Boat captain, Manni an assassin, Sebastian was an operative for a secret Jewish terror network, all of them living lives of adventure and excitement. And all Franzi had done this entire war was calculate horoscopes and report his fellow SS queers to Moscow and London. “68225 79031 66496.”

Franzi looked at the clock. There was a dead drop hidden in one of the lavatories on the second floor. If he posted the message in the next twenty minutes, he could have Moscow off his back for at least two weeks, maybe longer if things went downhill fast enough. “98343 74588 19632.” He stared at the paper for a long time. Then he looked up. The cute captain was staring at him again. What did he want? Sex? Betrayal? Both? Why not? The captain smiled. Franzi smiled back. He crumpled the paper into a ball, then tossed it into a wastebasket along the wall. Franzi rolled his eyes. The captain gave him a sympathetic smirk like he knew what that was like.

He was done serving Moscow, Franzi decided. The war was all but over and now he had to start taking care of himself. Manni was already gone. He’d left for the Ruhr a month earlier and by this point he was probably safely behind Allied lines. Now Franzi needed to do the same. But how?

It had been a big mistake agreeing to spy for the Russians in the first place, but then at the time he hadn’t felt like he had any right to be picky. If he’d only waited for two more weeks, he could have gone to work for the British. It turned out their friend Nigel Westerby was a British operative and had already signed up Manni. Though Franzi readily agreed to share his information with them, he remembered seeing the disappointment on Westerby’s face.

He remembered how the Russians had first come to him after they’d found out Gustav had just wangled him a cushy research post with the Ahnenerbe, the SS-run racial heritage and occult studies institute. Franzi hadn’t liked the idea of spending the war working with a bunch of charlatans and mystic crackpots, but the Russians insisted it would be an excellent career choice and a great way to fight the Nazis from the inside. It turned out he’d been right on his first guess; it was worse than being a librarian. For someone like him, who’d spent his entire life in the celebrity spotlight, it was a living death. He remembered how, at first, everyone there was excited to have one of the Magical Loerber Brothers on the staff and people would come up to him all the time to ask questions and reminisce, but it wasn’t long before the utter mid-level facelessness of his new job wiped the shine right off him. And once that happened, everyone stopped thinking of him as anyone special.

He noticed two staff majors waving frantically at him from the canteen doorway. “Loerber, come here!” one of them hissed. They waited until Franzi was up close, then whispered. “You’re a masseur, aren’t you?”

Franzi nodded warily. “I’ve done some,” he said. “Not professionally.”

“Get your things,” one of them whispered. “You’re needed immediately at the Reichsfuhrer’s offices.”

Franzi picked up his papers and followed them upstairs to the fifth floor. He was brought past the guards and the identity checkpoint without anyone even taking his name down or checking his papers. Once inside, he was led through a warren of corridors and outer offices where an array of majors, colonels, generals and secretaries all stood attentively, waiting for his arrival. Outside the Reichsfuhrer’s office, a young general stood before the door. Franzi recognized him at once. It was Schellenberg, head of SS intelligence, head of all German intelligence, foreign and domestic, and Franzi’s boyfriend’s boss.

“The Reichsfuhrer needs your help,” Schellenberg said. “Do the best massage you can. And not a word of this to anybody, do you understand?”

Franzi nodded.

But Schellenberg wasn’t satisfied. “I mean nobody. Not your office mates or your fellow astrologers, and certainly not your boyfriend. Clear?”

Franzi nodded.

“Good,” said Schellenberg. “Now go in.”

“But Herr General, isn’t Professor Kersten the only one...?”

“Kersten is gone,” answered Schellenberg, holding open the door and then following him inside.
(Excerpt from Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008, now also available on Kindle here).

Friday, January 10, 2014

Speer and Hitler: The Birthday Party

It was April 20, Hitler’s birthday. The day was declared a national feast day and in an effort to make it just like all the earlier ones, the last stocks of flour and sugar and sweets were opened up and distributed to the public. For several hours there was electricity and water again flowed from the pipes. People broke from whatever they were doing and took baths, baked cakes and then went outside to watch the parade and cheer.

As in years past, there was a party at the Chancellery. But instead of the usual long line of limousines pulling up with smiling ambassadors, envoys and high government officials, today the guests arrived in a handful of shared staff cars.

Speer came as he always did, driven in his Porsche, which he had parked in one of the underground garages. He made his way through the wrecked halls, climbing over collapsed beams and shattered walls to the bunker’s entrance. The Chancellery, his Chancellery, was falling apart. For five years it had stood up to the Allied air bombardment, but three days of pounding by Soviet artillery had turned it into ruins.
Passing through the airlock’s steeldoors and going down the steps, it seemed he’d returned to a world of order. Here the concrete corridors were still clean-scrubbed, the lights all worked. But then as he got down to the main level, he began noticing the uncollected dirty glasses, plates, and silverware gathering in the corners and beneath end tables. After weeks of endless parties, the housekeeping staff had clearly lost enthusiasm for the job.

In the corridor outside the conference room, a crowd of aides and adjutants milled around, while liveried waiters swirled among them with silver trays of canapés and drinks. Everyone tried to act festive, though it was obvious that what was really on their minds was getting out of Berlin. The Fuhrer had announced he would be flying out to the Obersalzburg to conduct the war from there. But so far he hadn’t told anyone when he’d be leaving. The Russians were now rumored to be in the outer suburbs, and while it was anyone’s guess when their encirclement of Berlin might be completed, until the Fuhrer officially gave word for them to decamp the city, they were all stuck there.

Inside the large room the situation conference was already underway. General Keitel was giving the briefing. Even now, in the midst of the catastrophe, he managed to find morsels of optimism. Whenever the Soviets had elected to withdraw from a sector, Keitel seized upon it as the portent of an upcoming reversal. In each instance, Hitler reacted with glee, rubbing his hands and ordering Keitel to elaborate on how they would exploit it. There seemed so many possible paths to victory, it left scant opportunity to examine those other places where German forces were fleeing in disarray. It went on for another hour. Speer listened to Keitel and Jodl predict how that alliance between the Jewish Bolsheviks and the West was on the verge of disintegrating. Goering talked about the new jet fighter squadrons which were becoming operational that very day. Doenitz chimed in with news that the first of the new miracle U-Boats had finished their testing and were beginning their first war patrols. Hitler loudly praised Doenitz for his indomitable fighting spirit.

Throughout, Hitler ignored Speer. Somehow he had fallen out of favor again, though he had no idea why. It had been weeks since he had committed a single subversive act.

Once the briefing had wrapped up, Hitler surprised everyone by leading them topside to the Chancellery garden, where a large group of twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys stood in ranks, waiting to be decorated for heroism in combat. It was criminal, Speer thought grimly, as he watched Hitler going from boy to boy, exchanging a few words with each, praising their courage and pinning iron crosses on their tiny chests. He doesn’t believe in Victory any more than I do, yet he happily sends children to their deaths.

The sight of Hitler plainly shocked the boys. He wasn’t at all what they’d expected. The hero they’d been taught to revere since the day they were born was just this decrepit old man? Those who’d fanatically believed in victory now knew they’d lost. Hitler immediately sensed their unease. His initial good humor and heartiness turned brittle and soon he was handing out the iron crosses without a word. Once he’d finished, the Hitler Youth were dismissed and he led the partygoers back to the bunker entrance. But at the threshold he stopped and turned to face everyone and announced that he was staying in Berlin. Whoever wanted to leave was free to do so, he declared with an angry wave of his hand. Uneasily, they followed Hitler back down into the bunker for cake.
(Excerpt from Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008; now also available on Kindle here).

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Legend of Werner Baumbach: Karl Hanke's Mysterious Escape to Prague from Breslau

To fans of the Third Reich and its vaunted war machine, few characters get venerated quite as rabidly as Werner Baumbach, the Luftwaffe’s top bomber pilot. He ranks right up there alongside fighter aces like Adolf Galland, Ernst Rudel, Erich Hartmann, and a handful of others who somehow survived the war and then wrote books about it. But Baumbach is different. While everyone else’s fame rests on combat exploits which are more or less documented, Baumbach’s legend is fed by shadows. Around him whirl a host of stories, of rumors and innuendo, none which can ever be proven or disproven, of secret missions, of the daredevil helicopter rescue of one particularly loathsome individual, and reports that he might have flown out possibly hundreds of top Nazis to safe havens abroad during the final days of the war.

It turned out that in addition to having flown Ju-88 dive-bombers in nearly every front of the war, Werner Baumbach also flew for a shadowy Luftwaffe special operations command known as Kamphgeschwader 200, or KG200. Very little has ever been found out about them other than that they were organized into different squadrons, or Staffeln, which were all kept far apart and mostly ignorant of each other. There was a special unit that flew long-range agent insertion missions, and another that flew shorter-range ones. There were units that flew captured B-17s, B-24s, Mustangs, Spitfires and Soviet aircraft. There were units that did electronic warfare and others with massive flying boats officially used to service distant weather stations, including robotic ones set up in Labrador. There was even a squadron being developed to fly suicide missions using manned versions of the rocket-powered V-1 buzz bomb.

Baumbach’smemoir, titled variously, The Life and Death of the Luftwaffe, or Broken Swastika, made no mention of any of it, not surprisingly, since it largely avoids mentioning the end of the war in the first place. It is mainly about flying Ju-88s and the art of dive bombing ships and bridges. But if Baumbach’s book fails to mention what he did at the end of the war, other memoirs do. Mostly it’s just fragments, but added up, they paint a picture of a man moving at incredible speed, in and out of a multitude of places.

In November, 1944, Baumbach was put in command of KG200. He apparently already knew something about it, having flown missions for them from time to time and also having advised actively on one of their weapons development programs. This time he was surprised to learn that a new staffel was being organized made up of suicide pilots. Baumbach didn’t like the idea to begin with and after talking to some of them, he quickly concluded they didn’t really understand what they’d gotten signed up for and had the unit disbanded. Almost nothing is known about what else Baumbach did during his time running KG200. But since its job was running operatives in and out of places behind enemy lines, one can only assume that was what they did during this period. It is known that one of its B-17s crashed while transporting a group of agents into France. Other missions, presumably, were more successful.

Sometime during March, all or part of KG200 morphed into a “Special Escape Section,” whose primary purpose was to fly Nazi bigwigs out of Germany to Spain and other neutral countries. They used whatever aircraft they had, including captured B-17s, B-24s, British Wellingtons and other Allied aircraft. How many got out? Dozens? Hundreds? No one knows. But apparently none of it rested well with Baumbach, who was himself a bit of a diehard. At one point he discussed with his old friend Albert Speer possible ways Hitler might be tricked into boarding one of his airplanes, whereupon they would fly him to where he could be handed over to the British or Americans. The enterprise apparently never went beyond the talking stage and the SS-run charter airlines seem to have continued its operations through April. At one point earlier in that month, they began using a Ju-390, a massive six-engine bomber/transport which was said to have taken several planeloads of passengers out of Prague’s Ruzyne airport to Spain. Baumbach was said to have flown at least one of these missions.

Then a very odd thing happened. Hitler found out from the news that Heinrich Himmler, his ever-loyal head of the SS, was secretly negotiating a peace deal with the Western Allies. Hitler went into a rage and fired Himmler from all his posts, though not his Nazi party membership, and then sent messages to Grand Admiral Doenitz informing him of Himmler’s treachery and ordering Doenitz to move against him. Doenitz promised to do something. He went and confronted Himmler, but Himmler thinly assured him the news reports weren’t true, all the while positively primping himself with the anticipation of becoming the next Fuhrer. Not long after returning to his headquarters, Doenitz received another cable from Hitler, this time telling him he was the new Fuhrer. Some time after that Hitler shot himself, but not before sending out another message; this time to Karl Hanke, Gauleiter of Breslau. Hitler decided to reward Hanke for his steadfast defense of the city, surrounded and under Russian siege since February, by making him the new Reichsfuhrer SS.

Since KG200 took its orders from the SS and not the Luftwaffe, it meant that Baumbach was no longer obliged to take orders from Himmler or answerable to him. At the time of Hitler’s death, Baumbach was in Hamburg alongside its gauleiter, Karl Kaufmann, who wasn’t sure what he should do. His orders had been to fight to the death, something the British Army, now fighting its way through the city’s western suburbs, was more than willing to accommodate them on. But Baumbach advised Kaufmann to just put up white flags and save what was left of the city. He did and after that a cease fire was called.

It was a different story in Breslau. For the three months that the siege had gone on, Hanke had brooked no discussion about what they should do. They would fight to the death and anyone who thought otherwise ended up hanging from a lamppost with a placard around his neck offering a suitable warning to anyone else whose resolve might be wanting. But now, suddenly, Hanke had pressing business elsewhere. His orders for KG200 were quite simple; ‘Get me out!’ Luckily, Baumbach was an old friend of Hanke’s, having been introduced by their mutual friend Albert Speer before the war.

Truth be told, no one actually knows how Karl Hanke got out of Breslau and showed up at Prague Ruzyne airport just as it was about to fall to Czech partisans. The accepted explanation is that Hanke probably already had a Fieseler Storch or some other light airplane waiting for him under a tarp on the airstrip in Breslau and that he flew off in that. It’s a commonsensical explanation, especially compared with the incredible story Albert Speer tells in his ‘Spandau Diaries.’ In that account, Baumbach flew into Breslau in a helicopter, picked up Hanke and then flew him all the way to Prague.

All that is known is that Hanke did arrive at Ruzyne and that the 18th volunteer SS Panzergrenadier Division, or what was left of it, was there at the airport to take him back to Prague. But once in Prague, the fighting going on there had gotten to the point where Hanke’s rescuers didn’t see the point in sticking around. They tried heading back to Ruzyne, but the partisans had taken the area. They changed direction and headed west, up the Karlsbad Road, trying to get back to Germany. A day later they were all taken prisoner and put into a stockade near Nova Ves. Hanke was in the uniform of a private and not recognized. A few weeks later he was reportedly killed trying to escape.

As for Baumbach, nothing at all is known about how he got out of Ruzyne. Perhaps there was something there waiting there for him, a Ju-88 or some other longer-range aircraft. Perhaps he flew the helicopter to another location where he got flown out. All that is known is that five or six days later, Baumbach flies into Flensburg, the little port city on the Danish border that was the Reich’s new capital city, with a flight of four or five gigantic, six-engine B&V-222 flying boats.

It doesn’t take much to assume the aircraft had been flown into Flensburg with the purpose of taking out a very large number of well-heeled Nazis on a one-way flight to someplace friendly and that might have been what was intended, but once Baumbach had landed, it seemed he decided to call it a day and just kick back and start getting very drunk. Luckily, Albert Speer was there as well and from the look of him, looked like he could use cheering up.

By this point Speer was third man in the governing troika set up by Hitler’s successor, Grand Admiral Doenitz. He was in charge of economic issues while Doenitz acted as “Reich President” and an aristocratic non-entity named Schwerin von Krosigk served as Chancellor and Foreign Minister. It was obvious from the beginning it was going to be a thankless task. The only thing they could do that actually mattered was end the war, which was accomplished via three different unconditional surrenders which took nearly a week.

Each day, parts of the Reich got cut away. One day it was Denmark, then Norway, then the Channel Islands, and the French Biscay ports, followed by Crete, Rhodes, and Dunkirk. Soon the only remaining piece of sovereign German territory was the Marineschule where the Doenitz government had its offices. At the same time their government grew. Ministers were added, along with assistants, secretaries, clerks and typists. And each morning at eight, Doenitz would convene his government, during which time they would methodically attend to the affairs of state. It was the first time a Nazi government had met. In the twelve years Hitler had been in power, he hadn’t allowed it to convene even once.

For ten whole days, Speer stood by stoically as the Reich got dismembered and attended the government meetings, as if the business being discussed actually meant something. But then the day came when the advance team of Allied representatives arrived; about thirty, mostly British, mostly junior officers, and thoroughly unpleasant to a man. Almost the first thing they did upon showing up was taking over the Patria, the large, rusting Hamburg-Amerika liner docked just below the Marineschule, and ordering everyone currently living aboard it to immediately gather their things and clear out.

Speer was livid. Patria had been a kind of haven for him, a tiny piece of order and stability after being on the move non-stop for almost two months. Now he and three hundred others were being kicked off it so that a handful of Brits could rub their noses in the dirt!

Speer was still shaking with anger as he walked down the gangplank, bags in each hand. That was when he ran into Baumbach, who laughed long and loud when Speer described his misfortune.

“Kicked off the ship? No place to stay? Well, I guess you’ll just have to move into the castle with me, Speer,” said Baumbach. It turned out he was ensconced in Schloss Glucksburg, the stately castle just outside town, which his friend, the Duke of Mecklenburg, had lent him. At Baumbach’s invitation, Speer moved into the castle and almost immediately, the two of them started getting drunk.

Speer’s memoir reveals little of what the two talked about during the next two weeks, except that at one point during their drunken ramblings, Baumbach proposed the two of them fly off to Greenland in one of the flying boats, to spend the summer hunting, fishing, kayaking and writing their memoirs together. Speer never found out if Baumbach was joking. A day or two later, Speer had some surprise visitors; a group of American bankers, lawyers, and economists from something called the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, eager to pick Speer’s brain on the effectiveness of the American daylight bombing campaign on the German war economy.

For the next ten days, Speer held court with the Americans at the castle, while Baumbach just mostly stayed drunk. One night, somebody blew up the four flying boats, as they sat moored in the harbor. A few days later, Eisenhower and the Western overlords decided they’d had enough of Doenitz and his government and rolled it all up.

Speer and Baumbach were both arrested. Speer was tried at Nuremberg as a major war criminal and served twenty years in Spandau Prison. Baumbach spent three years as a British prisoner, during which time he was repeatedly interrogated. What he might have told them about KG200 and his end-of-the-war exploits has never been learned. He did testify during later war crimes trials. Finally Baumbach was freed, whereupon he moved to Argentina and became a test pilot and flight instructor for the air force. He settled easily into the German émigré community, painting himself as an unreconstructed Nazi.

One day in October, 1953, he test flew a British Lancaster bomber, which the Argentinean air force had just acquired. Some time after taking off, something exploded on the bomber. Baumbach managed to bring it down to a watery landing in the Rio de la Plata, but drowned before he could be rescued.

Baumbach's role in the three-week Flensburg period is explored heavily in my novel Germania (2008, Simon & Schuster, and now also available as an ebook). Baumbach's earlier activities, including his activities with the Special Escape Section, his rescue of Hanke and subsequent escape from Prague and arrival in Flensburg with the BV-222 flying boats will be the subject of my upcoming novel, tentatively titled Baumbach and Speer.