Those in Peril James Follett © 2008
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bids the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep:
O hear us when we cry to thee
For those in peril on the sea.
W Whiting, 1825-78
It was, and will remain for many years, the longest and most
hazardous rescue in maritime history.
Admiral Karl Doenitz Commander-in-Chief, U-boats, 1935-1943
PART ONE 1
Paris fell quietly to the German army on Friday, 14th June 1940.
At 6:30am the sky was already bright, heralding another fine day, when an advance column of military vehicles reached the Place de la Concorde. Within fifteen minutes key government offices were occupied. Early-morning workers who seemed unable to comprehend what was happening to their capital, watched as a huge swastika was hung from the Arc de Triomphe, and army engineers strung loudspeakers from buildings along the Champs Elyses in readiness for the triumphant parade that would take place later that morning. There was some resistance, however: a postman remonstrating with a feldgemdarmerie sergeant before a small, sympathetic crowd. He had mail to deliver to the Air Ministry and he was determined that an army of occupation was not going to stop him. Eventually, to a chorus of cheers from the onlookers, the steel-helmeted military policeman allowed him through.
An open-top field grey staff car leading a convoy of three commandeered Citroen vans scurried past the trucks and armoured cars, intent on its own mission. It was occupied by three Kriegsmarine NCOs all chief petty officers, and an officer. The CPOs looked suitably imposing in their Marine Artillery field service dress, their helmets and sub- machine-guns gleaming. They kept their gaze rigidly ahead although they were secretly delighted at being chosen to be among the first naval personnel to enter Paris.
At the wheel was Leutnant Zur see Dieter Rohland, feeling self-conscious in his navy blue walking-out uniform. His otherwise good-humoured features were drawn into an unnatural and unconvincing impassive expression of someone who was trying to look unworried about the responsibility that had been thrust upon him. He had a tall, gangling frame which had been the despair of his tailor. It was only the second time that he had worn his walking-out uniform, but he had promised his chief that he would put on a good show. Normally, Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, the navy's military intelligence service, would not have given a damn what his subordinates wore -- he rarely wore a uniform himself, but the occupation of Paris was considered special. It was an army show, therefore the navy had to look their best for the tiny role they were playing.
Dieter used back-doubles to avoid the snarl up around the Hotel Crillon where the army were setting up their headquarters, and nearly lost one of his following vans in the process. He knew this part of Paris well: he had spent long periods the previous year posing as a tourist, looking his part as the son of a wealthy Berlin factory-owner with a passionate interest in photography, because that was exactly what he was. The truth was always the best cover of all.
Armed with a Leica, he had spent many happy hours photographing the imposing government buildings, especially in the early hours when the long shadows created interesting variations in light and shade on the over-elaborate facades. The evenings had been spent, or ill-spent, drinking coffee and brandy in the cafs and bistros of Montmartre, and falling in and out love.
Dieter and his retinue of vans drew up outside the admiralty annexe office block. It was a drab, nondescript structure in reinforced concrete, thrown up by a speculative builder in the 1920s, and tucked down a side street as if the magnificent city was ashamed of the abortions it was capable of producing. Yet the building had featured in a number of Dieter's photographs. On one occasion he had even managed to photograph senior anti-submarine experts from the navies of the allied powers arriving for one of their committee's monthly progress meetings. They had all obligingly glanced towards the camera as they entered the building because Dieter had been photographing a provocatively-dressed model whom he had hired for the occasion.
Despite the early hour, the doors of the building were ajar and a party of workmen, were dragging crates of box files from the lift. Directing operations was a frantic, arm- waving civil servant. Two hours before he had been asleep in his flat, unaware until his phone had rung that Wehrmacht columns were marching into Paris. Now the lobby was strewn with orange boxes and tea chests crammed to overflowing with bulky manila files, all was noise and bustle, a tone close to panic in the confusion.
`Where's that damned transport!' the officer wailed, grabbing the reception desk telephone and frantically rattling the antique hook. `It should have been here thirty minutes ago.'
`It's right here, Monsieur Dellan,' said Dieter pleasantly.
The workmen stopped unloading the lift. The civil servant gaped and dropped the telephone, his face suddenly haggard. Confronting him was a tall, serious-looking German officer. The Frenchman's startled gaze took in the single gold sleeve stripe on the tunic, and the gold lightning flash on the white shoulder boards denoting a communications officer. Flanking the resplendent officer were the three chief petty officers. There wasn't much doubt about the credentials of the sub-machine-guns they were holding at the ready. Their expressions suggested that they were eager for trouble. In reality not one of them had ever pulled a trigger in anger. Dieter saluted the official and clicked his heels while peeling off his gloves, finger by finger. `Good morning, Monsieur Dellan. Leutnant Dieter Rohland at your service. We have both had an early start to our day.' His French sounded good because he had been rehearsing the greeting. It added to the hapless official's confusion -- precisely the effect Dieter had hoped for. He crossed to one of the tea chests, picked up a file at random, and opened it.
`Those documents are Government property!' the official protested.
Dieter bowed. His solemn expression covered his delight. He had expected to have to turn the building inside-out in his search for these files. `Correct, m'sier. German Government property, and now in the care of the Kriegsmarine. Please do not look so upset I will give you an official receipt for them.'
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