Icy winds lashed the spray across the decks of the carriers, buffeting the aircraft which had been secured to the decks against the storm. Dark clouds made it seem as night, and the piercing howl as if they were steaming into the jaws of Death itself. Huddled behind a casemate on the starboard side of the flagship, Midshipman Bernhard Schmidt cupped his mouth against the wind and took a deep breath of the cigarette dangling from his lips.
"There will only be another two days of this" his friend, and watch-mate Karl Zeithen said.
"Only another two days..." Bernhard drawled in his rich Swabian accent. Whatever had made him choose the Kriegsmarine now seemed a world away from this reality.
"Then we will be off New York" Karl sounded exulted, "The first time a warship of the Reich has been there since President Byrnes fell from office"
"Damn the Americans for their democracy!" snapped Bernhard heartily.
Karl could only agree with him on that.
Above them the towering bulk of the fleet carrier Ostland carved through the seas, her sister ship Afrika a mile or so to the North, the older carriers Graf Zeppelin and Peter Strasser away to the South. Cruisers, destroyers and logistical vessels made up the rest of the fleet, all battered down by the storm, rising into sight, then plunging into another trough as the North Atlantic made to swallow them.
A siren sounded, dull and mournful and Bernhard threw the butt of his cigarette overboard with feeling. Karl nodded to his friend as he clambered through the hatchway back into the interior of the ship. He had another hour out here, but for him the ocean in all its force was not a threat but a majestic sight, it was not an enemy but a friend. His family came from Hamburg, from a long line of mariners back to the days of the Hanse, if not before, and to them all the ocean had been a road, to wealth, to fame and to glory. He rather thought that the admiral up in his deck-side island was having similar thoughts to these. For all that this had been billed as a demonstration, Karl felt in his water that something more was in the offing - something dramatically more than that.
* * * * * * *
They exchanged sharp salutes upon the runway, not for the members of the SS the use of the honorific "Herr", and now in this near-SS state it was dying out everywhere.
"The Fuhrer of course would wish to be here", Reichsfuhrer-SS Reinhard Heydrich said, "But of course..."
"I understand", Joachim Peiper nodded sombrely, "How is he this day?"
"He has bad days and worse days", Heydrich shrugged, "I think this is one of the former"
"So he is aware of the great endeavour"
"He is today" Heydrich informed him, "and he has blessed it"
Whether that was true or not, Peiper knew was an irrelevance. Heydrich was in all but name the Regent of the Third Reich, and if he said the Fuhrer had blessed the operation then nobody, not even Adolf Hitler himself, could gainsay him. After all, would the Fuhrer remember on another day if he had blessed the operation or not? Those in the inner circle of the Nazi regime, and their number was by now in the hundreds, knew that he would not.
The runway at Aalsborg was dark against the darkness of the skies, the pair of Focke-wulf Condors sitting ready, their engines revved, their crews already aboard. An honour guard stood before them, faces picked out in the subdued glare of the runway lights.
"I need not impress upon you the importance of this mission" Heydrich was saying. Peiper nodded, he knew that for certain.
"The very survival of the Reich could be in your hands.", the Reichsfuhrer glanced around him, but all those within earshot were loyal members of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, the elite SS division sworn to do or die for Fuhrer and for Reich, "We have seen the future, Obergruppenfuhrer. It is up to you to deliver it to us!"
"Yes, Reichsfuhrer!" Peiper snapped off another Hitler salute.
"Then go" Heydrich briefly grasped his hand, "Do not come back without the prize of victory"
"I will not, Reichsfuhrer"
Peiper turned and strode swiftly across to then up the steps onto the long-distance aircraft. His honour guard fell in behind him, whilst the Reichsfuhrer and his pulled back from the immediate vicinity of the aircraft. Two minutes later both Condors were barreling down the runway, a flight of jet fighters rising from nearby to meet them and escort them North.
Heydrich turned to his adjutant,
"Inform the pilot that we will be returning to Berlin immediately"
It had been necessary to come and see Peiper off in person, a necessity both of state and of morale. History would be written from this night forth, but to make it the history that the Reich needed, every man must play his part to perfection. Peiper had been chosen because he was the right man, but even the right man needed setting upon the right path.
His adjutant returned and saluted quickly
"Reichsfuhrer, the helicopter stands ready at your notice"
"Then let us depart", Heydrich pulled his coat about him against the Winter winds, "We must be in Berlin when the next chapter begins"
* * * * * * *
Dawn broke over Tromsø late in the day. This far North there were but few hours of daylight, but that suited the purpose of the elite group of men camped around the city's airfield. Reinforced the night previous by the arrival of the two Condors, the force now numbered two hundred, all either veteran fighters of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, or experts attached to it for this mission.
Amongst the latter stood Gerhardt Boldt, the liaison from Army Intelligence, under direct commission from Reinhard Gehlen, but for this mission subordinated directly to the Obergruppenfuhrer. Boldt was tolerated by the SS men, but lodged apart in his own tent, something he was not overly concerned about. As long as he could do his work when he needed to, he did not require close intimacy with these elite warriors. Since his arrival there the previous night, the Obergruppenfuhrer had been courteous, and allowed him to brief him upon his role. Now, he stood a little apart, just waiting.
It was not a long wait. The heavy twin-rotored helicopters came sweeping in from the North, six of them in pairs, landing in the designated zones upon the field. Engines powered down, they sat there like malevolent geese come to rest amongst them. But Boldt knew their power, he had been in the field during the Persian campaign a few years back and had seen just what these beasts could do. Now they served a simpler role, no tanks or artillery to lift today, all of that was already in place. Today, the helicopters had come for the men. Boldt felt his throat tighten at the thought.
They would need nightfall for the operation, Boldt had been briefed on that, so they would use daylight to make sure that everyone arrived safely at the launch point. Already he could see Standartenfuhrer Barkmann leading his assault force towards the farthest of the helicopters. Focke-Agelis, they had almost two decades of development behind them, from the first faltering prototypes of the 1930s, to the too-rare haulage monsters of the Mediterranean War. They had really come into their own during the Nazi-Soviet War, and now they were acknowledged world leaders in helicopter design. Oh, the Americans had something similar, something Bell or Sikorski had dreamt up, but in many ways they were just playing catch-up with the Reich. Would that it was so in every department, Boldt thought with a shudder.
"It is not too cold for you, Major?"
Boldt turned with a shock to find Joachim Peiper standing behind him
"Herr Obergruppenfuhrer!" he saluted, realising a moment too late he had used the honorific, still common within the army, upon one of the most senior officers of the SS.
But Peiper let it pass, if he even noticed it at all,
"We will soon be making the Americans shiver, but with fear"
"Yes Obergruppenfuhrer", the details of this were still a closely guarded secret, but Boldt could see from his eyes that Peiper himself firmly believed in this, "I am tight with anticipation"
"Ha!" Peiper slapped him gently upon the back, "It will not be long for you now. It will not be much longer before the whole world learns!"
* * * * * * *
Large wooden sheds dotted the fjords North of Tromsø, sharp-eyed SS sentries on patrol, and in position amongst the crags and forested slopes, keeping anybody, everybody away by the simplest of expedients - shooting without warning anyone who was stupid enough to try to come to close.
Around a small village, the largest concentration of sheds had sprung up, a cleared field serving as a landing ground for the helicopters that these last few days had come with increasing rapidity. This day, three had come, and the fourth was now dropping swiftly from the sky, twin rotors creating a backwash upon the beaten-down grass, half a dozen elite troopers standing with weapons raised in case of the impossible - that someone had managed to hijack the aerial vehicle and was here without permission.
A score of SS ran from out of the helicopter, a single figure in their midst, saluting quickly the guards upon the fields who now lowered their weapons, and shouting above the whine of the rotors, now readying at once for take-off,
"Where is the Oberstgruppenfuhrer?!"
Oberstgruppenfuhrer, the second-highest rank in the SS, equivalent to a full general in the army, but also encompassing the rank equivalent to Field Marshal, and there was no doubt that the Doktor had a rank equivalent to that. In order to put this operation together he had had carte blanche to demand and require anything from anyone, and he had got the best. Joachim Peiper was the best, and now he had to report at once.
"He is in the command shed" a chisel-faced Hauptsturmführer told him.
"I will be there", he snapped off to his aides, and strode quickly in the direction of the structure indicated.
There could be little doubt as to which it was, a wooden shed more than twice the size of the others, constructed where once a fishing warehouse had been before the village had been emptied of its inhabitants. Even a man of Peiper's rank was subject to a body search as he stood before the double doors, the SS men carrying out the search answerable only to the Doktor inside, not to anyone else within the organisation - by order of the Reichsfuhrer, in case anyone might doubt it. Peiper knew this from experience, he was one of the few men within the Reich who had already seen what lay within the sheds - it had been necessary the Reichsfuhrer had said, and the Doktor had sullenly obeyed.
Even so, seeing them again, here, in an environment outside of the laboratories and factories of the Harz Mountains was a shock. As he stepped through the smaller door set into the larger double doors, his eyes quickly accustomed themselves to the gloom. The first thing he saw was an armoured assault vehicle, camouflage-painted, standing proud, but dwarfed by what stood behind it.
Had Peiper not seen it before, he would have frozen in shock. It was nothing less than astounding, and yet unless you knew its purpose your senses could not comprehend what it could be. A giant bell? An enormous dome?
"Obergruppenfuhrer", Doktor Hans Kammler came into view from around the other side of the contraption.
"Oberstgruppenfuhrer!" Peiper snapped off an impeccable Nazi salute.
"The time is now upon us" Kammler said, leading him around the back of the thing, "Everything is ready", he paused, "Are you ready?"
"Yes" Peiper felt no doubts as to that, let no emotion into his voice, "I am ready"
Kammler looked at him for a full minute then nodded,
"I have impressed upon the Reichsfuhrer that there is but one chance" he said, "Take that chance, Obergruppenfuhrer, and turn it into victory"
He said it quietly but the menace of the man lay just below the surface. To Peiper's ears that was professionalism and devotion to the Reich incarnate, and he nodded at the warning,
"Victory will be ours, Oberstgruppenfuhrer"
"Heil Hitler!" Kammler snapped.