Chapter 16- A Nervous Wait
"Colonel Hogan, von Stalhein is heading towards the Cooler."
Hogan dropped the book he had been staring at without reading for the past half hour and dashed out of his quarters, nearly bowling Lebeau over as he headed for the trap door.
"How long ago?" he demanded as he slapped the bunk.
"Only a minute or so," Lebeau reported.
Hogan clattered down the ladder and ran along the tunnel heading to the Cooler. If Hebblethwaite was injured or killed by the German, he had to know before the events planned for tonight. Choosing the right ladder, he climbed up into the nook he had shared with Kestrel the previous day. Had it really only been 24 hours ago?
Peering through the spy hole he watched as von Stalhein traded salutes with the guard on duty, one of his own men, and went into the cell. He strained to hear anything that was said.
"Hello Erich," Hebblethwaite's voice came. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Don't toy with me, boy," von Stalhein snarled back, "Where is Bigglesworth?"
"If he's sensible, in England," Hebblethwaite replied reasonably. "Where did you expect him to be?"
"You know very well where. Have you seen him or spoken to him?"
"What do you think? I've been locked in here for how long now? Three days? The only people I've spoken to are you and your guards."
"He is here, I know he is," von Stalhein stated. "Where is he hiding?"
He was, Hogan realised, getting desperate. He was glad the rescue was planned for that night, the longer they held off the more enraged von Stalhein would become and the more likely it was he would take that frustration out on the one captive he already had.
"I don't know, I haven't seen him. Oof!"
There was a clatter of chains on stone and an audible gasp.
"Where is Bigglesworth!" von Stalhein bellowed.
"I don't know!" Hebblethwaite yelled back.
"What was your mission in Germany?" von Stalhein demanded in a softer tone.
"Are we back to that again?" Hebblethwaite asked, his voice strained. "I told you, I was on a joy flight."
Hogan winced at the answer. There was the sound of another blow.
"Don't be foolish, boy," von Stalhein said. "I will get what I want out of you, one way or the other. Save yourself a lot of discomfort and tell me what I want to know. What was your mission in Germany?"
"Flying Officer Hebblethwaite, RAF, serial number 541893," Hebblethwaite said defiantly.
"You're beginning to try my patience."
"I didn't know you had any."
There was the sound of a gun being cocked. Hogan closed his eyes and muttered a quick, silent prayer. If von Stalhein killed Hebblethwaite, Kestrel was going to do something they would all regret; he could feel it in his gut.
"I should have shot you years ago," von Stalhein said, his voice dripping with venom.
"You had plenty of opportunities, you're the one who called the firing squad off," Hebblethwaite replied. His voice was calm, but there was tension underneath, and more fear than he could truly hide*.
"I could kill you now, you don't actually need to be alive to trap Bigglesworth," von Stalhein said quietly. "This time you're a soldier, and I suspect a spy, I have every right to shoot you here and now."
Hogan tensed and released the catch on the hidden panel. If von Stalhein looked like he was going to go through with his threat, then he would have to act. The only sound to break the silence was Hogan's tense breathing as crouched, ready to spring into action.
"No," von Stalhein finally said after what felt like lifetime. "You still have some value."
Hogan breathed a sigh of relief.
"When I finally have Bigglesworth in my grasp, you will be a valuable tool. He won't sit by and watch you suffer, not the one he thinks so highly of," von Stalhein said, his voice cold and smooth.
"You'll never break him," Hebblethwaite replied, his voice shaking a little from his close encounter with death.
"Oh, I will, and he will tell me everything. My interrogators are highly skilled, they never let a man loose consciousness. He will break when he can no longer stand your screams." Von Stalhein's voice was as smooth as silk, and as cool. "I will have his secrets, and yours, before I am finished with you. Think about it."
Hogan felt like shaking himself. He had faced the prospect of torture and stood firm, but if any of his friends were made to suffer while he watched helplessly on, would he have the strength to hold out? He didn't know. He peered through the spy hole and watched von Stalhein leave, lock the door behind him and exchange a few words with the guard. Hebblethwaite was safe, for now.
Hogan waited until von Stalhein had left and the guard settled himself back on his chair, then slipped back down the tunnel.
"What happened, Colonel?" Lebeau asked when he reached the radio room.
Hogan was more shaken by the encounter than he would admit to anyone. "Hebblethwaite and von Stalhein had a bit of a discussion," he said, "von Stalhein roughed him up a bit, but he's still okay. We need to make sure that tonight comes off smoothly, otherwise…" he didn't want to finish.
"It will work, mon Colonel," Lebeau said firmly. "For an Englishman Bigglesworth seems to have his head on straight, and Kestrel as well."
"Let's hope so."
"And rest assured, in spite of today's mishap, Stalag 13 will soon once again be the most escape proof POW camp in all of the Third Reich," Klink announced grandly.
The incident was, of course, referred to the melodramatic dive Aircraftman Phillips took off the roof of Barracks 14 earlier in the day to provide a distraction for Kestrel's quiet departure from the camp and Bigglesworth's insertion into the ranks of the guards. Since no hue and cry had been raised, Hogan assumed that both had successfully slipped away and were now waiting for the next stage of the plan.
Hogan eyed von Stalhein who stood on the porch of the Kommandantur behind Klink, his eyes skimming over the compound. He looked as though he had just bitten into a lemon when he expected an orange. Hogan couldn't help but glare at the man who, mere hours before, had beaten and threatened to torture and kill a helpless prisoner. They had pulled the wool over his eyes thus far, and with any luck, he would be out of the camp and out of their lives by morning.
Once the count had been completed, they were dismissed from formation and headed quickly back into the Barracks to prepare for the night's work.
The four man patrol marched confidently through the dark, forested hills surrounding the POW camp Stalag 13, on the look out for people getting in and prisoners trying to get out. They were firm in their resolve, as was their leader, a tall man with dark hair in a Leutnant's uniform. They were also not in the least bit German.
"Halt! Who goes there?" a voice rang out from the shadowed trees.
Hogan stopped his crew. They had been half expecting an encounter with another patrol and were well prepared. That did not, however, stop them from breathing a sigh of relief when it was Schultz who emerged from the trees with Wolfgang on a lead.
"What are you doing here, this is my section… Oooh, sorry Leutnant, I didn't realise, I thought… I was… assigned… Colonel Hogan!" His eyes went wide and his pitch increased by at least an octave as he recognised the officer he had confronted. "Colonel Hogan, what are you doing out of your barracks? What are you doing out of the camp?"
"Relax, Schultz, we're not escaping if that's what you're worried about," Hogan said and waved Carter, Lebeau and Newkirk onwards.
"But you're in a German uniform; Carter is in a German uniform… Newkirk! Lebeau!" Schultz spluttered as they went by. "You shouldn't be in German uniforms; you aren't in the German army. There's going to be SUCH trouble over this."
"There's only going to be trouble is you go shooting you mouth off to Klink. Don't worry, we'll be back in time for morning roll call," Hogan reassured him. "You won't have even known that we were gone."
"But you are here, now, outside the camp, wearing those clothes. What kind of monkey business are you up to?"
"Well, you know that RAF pilot in the Cooler?"
"Ja. What about him?"
"There are two British agents who have plans to get him out, and we're going to help them by-" Hogan started.
Schultz cut him off. "I don't want to know," he stated firmly, "I don't see anything, I don't hear anything, I don't know anything!"
"Whatever you say, Schultz," Hogan agreed placidly.
"Just make sure you are back in camp by morning roll call, and in your proper uniforms."
"We'll see what we can do," Hogan promised.
"Now, I go that way and I have not laid eyes on you," Schultz said and headed off parallel to the fence, his eyes fixed resolutely in front of him.
Hogan shook his head with a quite chuckle and followed his men. They were waiting for him by the road. A truck had been left there for their use.
"Good old Schultz," Newkirk commented, "You can always count on him to know exactly where not to look."
Hogan checked the time by the truck head lights. The last vestiges of twilight were fading away and night closing in fast. "Let's get going. Kinch will be placing the call through to von Stalhein in about 15 minutes, and we still have to get to Wartmannswroth."
For an abandoned farm, the place looked surprisingly warm and inviting. There was even a cow in the yard next to barn, light coming from the windows of the house and smoke curling up from the chimney into the still night air. There was no electricity, but lamps had been set up in the yard and by the door of the house.
Bigglesworth was waiting for them and stepped out of the shadows as Hogan pause at the entry to the farm yard and flashed the truck headlights three times. Hogan drove the truck in once Bigglesworth had opened the doors, then jumped down to shake hands with the Squadron Leader.
"You made it alright, then," Hogan said, observing that Bigglesworth was back in his RAF uniform- artfully smeared with dirt.
"Not a problem," Bigglesworth said, "Clare is inside with three underground agents going over the final details."
"Good. Kinch placed the call about five minutes ago, so we can expect von Stalhein to turn up in 20. Newkirk, go get geared up," Hogan said.
"Right you are, sir," Newkirk said and headed for the house where his disguise was hopefully waiting.
"I'll be inside with Newkirk and Clare," Bigglesworth said, "I'll leave the disposition of the outside squad to you."
"You can count on me," Hogan promised.
"Just remember, try not to speak while von Stalhein is around, he'll recognise your voice in an instant, even if you try to disguise it," Bigglesworth issued a final warning. "And if you have to speak to any soldiers he brings with him, speak German."
Hogan nodded, he understood very well what was at stake. Bigglesworth accepted the gesture and headed back inside. Two of the underground agents, men he recognised from previous encounters, joined them a few moments later while Hogan was scanning the yard for best positions and cover.
"Papa Bear," one of the agents greeted him, "It's good to work with you again."
"You too. Did Kestrel bring you up to speed on the operation."
"Yes, we know what we are to do."
"Excellent." Hogan scanned the yard again. It was a perfect spot for an ambush with hidden sniper points and plenty of cover. So long as they could cover all angles of attack and cut off any retreat by the enemy, they would be in an unassailable position. "Lebeau, Carter, take up position on this side of the yard, you two, on the other. Keep the soldiers pinned down in the middle, but try not to hit the vehicle, with any luck Hebblethwaite will be in it and I don't want to risk Kestrel's claws if we damage him. We've got about 15 minutes to wait if my guess is correct, so get yourself into position and don't fire until I do. Understood?"
His team all nodded.
"Very good, lets get in place and hope that we can pull this off without too much blood shed."
Authors note: Wartmannswroth is actually a village a few miles from Hammelburg- I didn't make it up! As I noticed when I was in Germany, everything is so close together, for an Australian it was a bit of a shock.
*The reference is from "Biggles and Co.". Set before WW2, the crew was tasked with ferrying gold shipments to and from between banks in the UK and France, which had previously gone missing on route. One thing led to another and the crew ended up in Germany, and Hebblethwaite ended up in front of von Stalhein's firing squad! That was the first meeting between Hebblethwaite and von Stalhein, a precursor to what was to come.