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Enjoy my JULY 2012 entry!
THE PEENENUNDE SECRET:
Honorable Mention Winner in the 2007 Writer's Digest Annual Popular Fiction Contest, Thriller/Suspense
By: Stephanie Burkhart
The heels of his boots clanked against the metal companionway of the British submarine, the HMS Mountbatten. The ship was close to the surface, rocking gently from side to side under the waves as the storm rolled over the south Baltic Sea. The autumn chill made him shiver.
The sub was running on minimal power to avoid detection. This would be a dangerous insertion. They had to avoid the German sub, Hindenburg, that was patrolling the quadrant.
“Leftantant Kent, I’ve got your final instructions.”
John Kent’s eyes cut in the direction of the voice. “Captain Rathcliff.”
Rathcliff held up a sealed envelope. Kent stepped into the small, dimly lit captain’s room.
“How do I look, Sir?” Kent asked.
Rathcliff’s eyes raked over him. “You look good, Kent – just like a German sailor.”
Kent smiled. That was part of the ruse. Hopefully the foreign uniform and his command of the German language would be convincing when he got to shore. There was a small military base on the German Baltic coast in Peeneműnde. British Intel believed the Germans were developing a massive secret weapon. It was Kent’s mission to get on the island, infiltrate the base, and obtain information about it.
Rathcliff handed him a small sealed plastic bag. “We’ve been ordered to patrol the Baltic for two weeks. We’ll be listening for a signal from you on these frequencies.”
Kent took the bag and tucked it into his uniform breast pocket. “Any word on the Hindenburg?”
“It’s in top shape. We’re lucky we’ve gotten this far without being detected tonight,” said Rathcliff.
“The weather has helped to give us cover.”
“It’s still dangerous. The ship’s taking a pounding. She’ll be good for it, but the crew is nervous.”
“I understand,” said Kent.
“Good. We’re as close as we’re going to get to Peeneműnde. The storm’s almost passed, but the water is still a little choppy. The swim to shore is two miles – challenging for even the best athletes.”
“I’m ready,” said Kent.
Rathcliff pointed to the door and Kent followed him into the hall. They went to the bridge and Rathcliff gave the order to go topside.
Kent followed Rathcliff to the nearest access ladder which led to the top deck. He waited patiently, ready to climb it as soon as the ship broke the water’s surface. This was his first mission for British Intel. He worked as a radio operator on a military base near London at the start of the war, and because he could speak German, they recruited him for this assignment.
The rush of the sub hitting the waves jarred his senses. Kent looked at Rathcliff.
“Good luck, Leftantant.”
Kent said nothing. He climbed the ladder, popped the hatch, and was assaulted by a blast of drizzle. It was hard to get a firm footing on the deck as he made his way port. As soon as he reached the edge of the ship, he jumped overboard and began to swim toward the German coast.
Every stroke was demanding. The waves threatened to engulf him. He called on all his strength, making long strokes and taking deep breaths. Slowly, he approached the shore. An unexpected wave slammed into him. He went tumbling under the water and his body struck a rock. The impact forced the air out of his lungs. His senses reeling, he knew he had to have air and struggled to get to the surface. The wind pushed him in, and now half conscious, he realized he was prone on the sand.
Kent’s eyes struggled to stay open. He ached all over, especially in the ribs. He got up on his hands and knees. Pain ripped down the side of his left torso. He needed help. There was a block of houses about 200 meters in front of him. They all looked the same, painted gray and green with several chimneys puffing smoke against the night sky.
Kent stumbled up the beach, his eyes going in and out of focus. His breathing was labored. After several excruciating minutes, he knocked on the door of the house nearest to him. It opened. A beautiful blonde appeared.
“Wer sind Sie?”
“Help me,” he said in German. Then he collapsed at her feet.
Kent wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but when he awoke, he was lying down in a twin size bed and sunlight filtered into the room through the blinds. His sailor’s uniform had been removed. He wore a pair of civilian pants and his ribs were wrapped, the rest of his chest bare. Where was his uniform? His eyes frantically searched the bedroom.
The door opened and a woman rushed in. As he struggled to get up on his elbows, she put down the mug she was holding and placed her hand on his chest, just above the wrap.
“Stay still. Rest,” she said in German.
“I laundered it. Don’t worry. It’s drying now.”
“Oh, all right, I…” Kent wasn’t sure what to do or say.
“Please, lay back down.”
Kent did as he was told. His ribs ached less, but he still felt weak.
“I’m glad you’re up. I was getting worried. You’ve been in and out of consciousness for twenty-four hours.”
“Thank you for helping me,” he said.
She smiled and sat down in the chair next to his bed. Using a soft touch, she took his pulse. Then she removed a thermometer out of the nightstand and put it under his tongue. It had been quite some time since a woman had fussed over him and it felt nice. Plus, she was gorgeous.
“Your vitals are normal now.”
He reached out and grabbed her wrist. “What’s your name?”
“Anke Mittel. I’m a nurse at the military base. Who are you?”
“Petty Officer Josef Braun.” He released her hand, guilty over his lie.
“I think you’ve got a couple of bruised ribs. You had a fever, but it came down. Drink some tea, Herr Braun.” She passed him the mug she’d brought in earlier.
“You saved my life. Call me Josef.”
“I hardly know you.”
“You’re an angel,” he said, smiling. Kent hoped it would put her at ease. She said nothing, lowering her head to hide her reddening cheeks. Anke was tall, slender, and wore her hair in a tight bun. He realized she was wearing a nurse’s smock. Her face was feminine, but lined with wrinkles that seemed premature.
“Are you married, Anke?”
“Yes. My husband is an infantry soldier in France.”
“How long since you’ve seen him?”
“A year.” She stood up abruptly. “What happened to you, Josef?”
“My submarine was attacked by the British.”
“I hadn’t heard of an attack.”
“Perhaps the news didn’t broadcast it,” he lied. “I need to get on base and get a message to my commander in Rostock.”
“Wait a day or two. Rest for now so you can build up your strength. Do you have a top-secret clearance? They won’t let you on if you don’t have one.”
“I do,” he said. Kent leaned back against the headboard, sipping his tea.
“Josef, who is Eva?”
“Eva? That’s my mother’s name. She was a nurse, too. How did you―”
“You talked about her in your delirium, that’s all.”
Kent swallowed. “What else did I say?”
“You kept insisting you had to finish your mission.”
“Is that all?”
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“I grew up near Frankfurt in Hanau,” he replied. That much was true. His father was a British soldier in World War I. He was a POW and his father met his mother when she worked in the prison kitchen. Kent spent his early years in Hanau. When he was twelve, they went to live in England, shortly after Hitler took over.
A loud knock cut the air. Anke pursed her lips, as if she dreaded hearing it.
“What’s wrong?” asked Kent.
“It’s Herr Riedel. He’s a lieutenant with the SS. He met me about a week ago in the hospital where I work and he’s been attentive ever since,” she explained.
“Does he upset you?”
“Yes. I don’t like him. He probably wants to escort me to the base,” she replied.
“I see. Do you need me―”
“No, I’ll go with him. It’s time for me to go to work anyway. You stay here and rest,” she said.
Kent nodded his head as he watched her walk out. He was surprised at her willingness to leave him alone in her home, but assumed she believed his lies and was extending him a professional courtesy. As soon as she departed, he went to the door, hugging his ear to the wood.
“Please, Anke, go with me to the show tonight.”
“No, Unterstumführer Riedel. I’m a married woman. It’s not right.”
Kent heard them talk some more, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. One thing was certain – Riedel fancied the young woman, and she had no interest in him. Well, it wasn’t his problem.
As soon as they left, he went to the kitchen. A calendar on the wall told him it was October 2nd. He’d been unconscious for two days. Kent then explored the cupboards. They were sparse, yet there was enough for a meat stew. He’d make her some for dinner tonight. Then he spied the laundry area off to the side of the kitchen. There was his uniform, hanging from a line, drying out. His property rested in a neat pile on a wood shelf. He grabbed his plastic bag. It was sealed. He was curious if she’d looked at it. If she had, she wouldn’t know what to make of it. How much information had he revealed to her in his half conscious state? He’d try to find out more from her tonight. He walked out of the laundry room and made his way back to the kitchen and had some more tea. He recalled that she wore an ID badge on her smock. If he had one of those, he wouldn’t have any problem getting on base. Tomorrow, Kent would make it his mission to acquire a badge so he could get on the installation.
Kent heard the door shut as he was in the kitchen. His stew was simmering, ready to be eaten.
“Josef?” Anke questioned. She walked into the kitchen and unsnapped her cloak. “You made a stew?”
“I figured you wouldn’t mind.”
She smiled at him. “Thank you.”
He began to set the table, but she insisted on helping. Just as he was about to order her out of the kitchen until dinner was ready, there was another knock on the door. Anke sighed.
“You think it’s the lieutenant?” Kent asked.
Anke nodded her head and went to the front door. There stood Riedel. “Anke, I was hoping you’d changed your mind about tonight.”
Riedel brushed past her and walked into the den. “Have you been cooking? You just got home.”
Kent had heard enough. He stepped into the den. “Stop harassing her.”
“Who are you?” Riedel demanded. His eyes cut from Anke to
Kent. “Who is this, Anke?”
“I am a sailor she’s befriended. Now I suggest you leave,” said Kent. He walked up to Anke and put a hand on her shoulder.
“What is your name, Sailor?” Riedel demanded.
“I’m Petty Officer Josef Braun from the Hindenburg.”
“I think you should leave, Unterstumführer Riedel,” said Anke, holding her chin up proudly.
“This sailor should leave as well,” said Riedel.
Kent had enough. He stepped into Riedel’s personal space. “Leave. Now.”
“I am an SS lieutenant. A common sailor doesn’t tell me what to do.”
Kent pushed Riedel against the door, grabbing the man’s badge swiftly without calling attention to it. Riedel lunged at Kent and they fell to the floor struggling. Kent pushed the badge under the carpet as Riedel put his hands on his throat.
“Get off him!” yelled Anke. She grabbed Riedel by the arm and tugged him off of Kent.
Kent got to his feet as Riedel backed toward the door. “I’ll leave for now, Anke, but I’ll be back to talk to you – and that sailor better be gone.”
Anke trembled as Riedel slammed the door behind him. “I just wish he’d stop.”
“Can you report him to his superior?” Kent suggested.
She nodded and Kent wrapped his arms around her. She tucked her head against his shoulder. His shirt grew moist with tears.
Kent slept on the couch. When he awoke, he found Anke had breakfast ready for him. She was determined to go to work and speak to Riedel’s superior about his harassment. Kent was impressed with her resolve. It was precisely this tenacity that made the Germans such fierce enemies. He just hoped the lieutenant’s superior would take Anke seriously. They exchanged goodbyes and Kent watched her board the number two werksbahn from the front window.
Moving quickly, he changed into his now dry uniform and tucked the plastic bag Rathcliff had given him back into his pocket. Then he went to the rug and retrieved Riedel’s badge. It was 8:45 when he left the house. After waiting at the same stop Anke had, Kent slipped onto the number two werksbahn.
There weren’t many people on the tram and it drove right up to the front gate of the military installation. Kent clasped his hands behind his back to hide his anxiety as he meandered behind the other passengers past the guards at the gate. They didn’t stop him. Pleased, Kent strode down the main street. If he recalled the reconnaissance photos accurately, there was a large military hanger on the east side of the base. Intel thought the Germans were building a massive bomber plane but they needed confirmation. It was Kent’s mission to do that.
The base itself was small and the buildings were close together. Several of them appeared to be made out of concrete. How unusual. Concrete was used to build the bomb bunkers in London. As he walked east, small admin buildings gave way to bigger ones. The sunlight started to peer through the gray fog. He passed several soldiers and civilians who took no notice of him. The atmosphere of the base itself felt heavy; serious. Everyone he passed appeared very focused – almost single minded.
He rounded a corner and stopped, awed by what he saw. A vertical hangar stood approximately 150 meters tall with two large metal doors. A platoon of SS soldiers marched into view and stopped before the hangar. Kent slid between the berth of two concrete buildings, and watched from that concealed position as the hanger’s doors slowly swung out. The air became charged with excitement.
A large rocket on a support platform crept out of the hanger. Two two-ton trucks towed the platform with the squad of soldiers marching before it. The massive rocket proceeded to a clearing not far from the hanger. It must have been approximately 50 to 100 meters tall with four fins at the bottom and it was painted in a green woodland pattern.
Kent didn’t expect this! He studied the hangar. On the far east side was a pedestrian entrance. While the soldiers’ and civilians’ attention appeared focused on the tall rocket, Kent took long strides toward the hangar, gaining access by sliding past the pedestrian entrance.
Several civilians dressed in starched shirts and dress pants were conversing in excited tones inside an office with a window facing toward the launch area. Kent’s eyes cut to look outside the hangar doors. The trucks detached from their payload. He needed to get information on that rocket. Adjacent to the civilian office, he spied a work station cluttered with technical manuals and notes. Kent took a deep breath, stepped out of the shadows, and made his way to that work station. He kept his posture relaxed, despite his unease, and examined the paperwork.
“V2 rocket; supersonic travel allows it to reach target in silence. Rocket will travel four times the speed of sound. Immune to electronic countermeasures, invulnerable to anti-aircraft guns, liquid fuel rocket engines with a range of 200-300 miles…”
Kent’s voice drowned off. A weapon like this in the hands of the Germans would devastate the allies.
An ear-splitting noise pierced the air. Kent ran to the hangar doors. His eyes were riveted on the massive weapon in front of him. The V2 rocket lifted off from the launch platform, propelling itself high into the air. The rocket’s path was smooth. There was no sound as it ripped through the sky. In the distance, it was now a dot on the horizon over the sea. Falling into the Baltic, it exploded as it hit the waves.
“Holy shit,” muttered Kent.
Cheers exploded from the civilians. Kent had to radio Rathcliff immediately.
“This third day of October, 1942, is the first of a new era in transportation, that of space travel,” a loud male voice thundered throughout the installation’s P.A. system.
Kent shivered. What the hell had the Germans done?
“Petty Officer Braun.”
Kent spun around. Standing just inches in back of him was Riedel.
“A check of the Navy’s records doesn’t reveal a petty officer named Braun serving in the Baltic theatre.”
“I see,” said Kent coolly. “The records are wrong.”
Riedel’s eyes cut to the badge on Kent’s uniform and he plucked it off. “I was wondering where this was.”
Kent sneered. Riedel pulled out his gun and pointed it directly at Kent. “You’re under arrest.”
Kent didn’t think. His time was up. He rammed his shoulder against Riedel’s chest. The lieutenant shot off a round into the air as he fell to the ground. Kent kicked the gun out of Riedel’s hand and into the bushes before sprinting in the direction of the admin buildings. Riedel tackled him from behind. Kent landed hard on the pavement.
“You are a traitor – or worse yet, a spy!” Riedel said.
Kent twisted underneath Riedel as the men struggled on the ground.
“What have you told Frau Mittel?” Riedel demanded. “Have you made a traitor out of her as well?” Riedel grabbed Kent’s neck. He gasped for air and lunged for his opponent’s wrists, pulling them off his neck.
“Leave Anke alone,” Kent grunted. He slammed his fist into Riedel’s jaw. The lieutenant rolled off him, blood dripping from his jaw.
A crowd was starting to gather. Kent bent over, grabbed the badge off of Riedel’s uniform and ran.
“Follow him! Capture him!” Riedel yelled at the cluster of soldiers. Kent sprinted to the communications building and ducked inside, well aware of the fact
he had a squad of soldiers following him.
Quickly he found the radio room. He peeked into the window on the door. A soldier sat behind the radio. Kent rapped his knuckles on the glass. The unsuspecting soldier walked to the door. As soon as he opened it, Kent shoved his knee into the soldier’s groin. He collapsed in pain.
Kent went to the radio, took out his notes and radioed Rathcliff’s ship, the HMS Mountbatten. He didn’t have time to wait for Rathcliff’s response. Kent stepped over the soldier on his way out. Two SS rounded the corridor. Kent pushed them out of his way as he sprinted down the back steps. Bullets whizzed around him. He didn’t know how long he could keep up this pace, but he knew he had to.
A loud clanging noise ripped through the air. Kent’s eyes cut to the main gate. The guards were bringing the heavy metal doors together. Damn. He had just about enough time to get to the two-ton truck parked nearby and ram the fence with it. More bullets paraded over the space around him.
Kent ran all out to the truck, jumped in, and turned the manifold heater, waiting precious seconds as it warmed up the engine. More bullets sliced the air around him. Finally the heater turned green and Kent started the vehicle.
She stood next to the truck. Kent wasn’t sure how she got there. The soldiers seemed confused about her presence and had stopped firing.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“I have no time to explain. Get in or don’t. Riedel knows who I am and he won’t spare you for helping me.”
She froze. Her eyes grew wide, laced with confusion. “I can’t,” she mouthed.
Kent wanted to pluck her up right then and make the decision for her, but he knew he couldn’t. “Bitte.”
She took a step backward.
Kent couldn’t wait any longer. He stepped on the gas. A barge of bullets rang out, several of which struck Anke. She collapsed to the ground, blood slowly trickling out of her mouth. Kent’s vehicle quickly accelerated, punching a hole in the fence. A squad of soldiers followed behind in two jeeps. Bullets punctured the truck’s tarp and shattered the side windows.
Waiting just off the shore was a biplane. It was small, yet Kent could see the side was open and a machine gunner was prepared to lay down suppressive fire. Kent drove the truck onto the beach. The tires quickly sank into the sand. He jumped out of the door and raced toward the water. A fierce gun battle played out just inches over his head as he swam to the biplane. Lord, he ached all over, but he couldn’t give up. The pilot pulled him out of the water while the machine gun rattled in his ear. Kent lay prone on the plane, gasping for breath.
The biplane flew off, the wings sustaining several bullet holes. Within twenty minutes and well over the Baltic Sea, the plane landed next to the HMS Mountbatten which was topside. The plane had sustained too much damage to go on and the submarine took the pilot and gunner on as well. As soon as Kent was aboard, the ship descended in the waves, leaving behind the biplane.
Rathcliff let Kent recover in his room. The submarine made its way out of the Baltic Sea and rounded Skagerak, the northern cape of Denmark. He felt the ship take evasive maneuvers and felt the thud of undersea waves graze the ship. No doubt the Hindenburg was in pursuit. The seconds ticked into minutes and then hours. The explosions grew quiet. Kent was free to tell his superiors the Peeneműnde secret, but he’d be forever haunted by the thought that Anke paid for that secret with her life.
Author's note: I just want to thank everyone who gave me feedback on my opening scene. It helped me to tighten the story.
That said, I did do research on this and Peenmunde, Germany was where production of the V2 Rocket was conducted from 1936-1944. Also, I was stationed for two years with the British back in 1986-1988 and I can honestly say it is a matter of their speech to say "Leftantant" when they mean to say "Lieutantant." I am going for dialogue authencity when I write that. Any feedback, comments, welcomed.