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The commander nodded for him to continue.

‘I have family in the east, in the Sudetenland. For all I know, the Russians are there already.’ There were sympathetic nods from amongst the men. ‘Your pardon, Commander, but I’m not content to sit idly back on my ass comforting myself in the thought that I am a survivor while those I love face the Russians. Sir!’

The reprimand implicit in his words and the rough language used to his commanding officer caused a stir of anger, but the commander waved it away. He was too tired to fight, particularly with one of his own men.

‘I intended no sense of satisfaction in what I said, Hencke, but survival is all we have to look forward to. I fear there is little other choice.’

‘I believe we always have a choice …’ The sting of accusation in his voice had guaranteed him a hearing, but now he had their attention and his voice softened. ‘Sir, it is the duty of German officers to resist. It is an oath of duty which we have all taken and which still, to us all, should be sacred.’

‘An oath to generals and politicians who got us into this mess?’ a voice interrupted from the darkness at the edge of the fire.

Hencke turned in the direction of the questioner. He had begun addressing the whole group, not just reporting to his senior officer, holding centre stage in the midst of an audience he could scarcely see in the night gloom. His gaze travelled around the group slowly, deliberately, piercing through the darkness at the shadowy masks which confronted him, probing like a scalpel into their inner thoughts. ‘I agree. What have our beloved generals and politicians done for me? I haven’t even got buttons to do up my flies anymore, and my proudest possession is the piece of string I use for a belt. It’s difficult marching unquestioningly behind your leaders with your trousers round your ankles – present commanders excepted, sir.’

A stirring of appreciation rustled through the prisoners.

‘Whether our leaders have let us down or not, my oath of duty wasn’t taken for their personal benefit but for my country and for those I left behind. It’s them I’m interested in. They are the ones who deserve our help. And we’re doing nothing to help them sitting round here scratching ourselves and gossiping about three “Fs”.’

‘Three “Fs”?’ enquired the commander wearily.

‘Er, “Food”, “Freedom” and …“Females”, sir,’ one of his subordinates leaned over to advise him.

‘Forget the females. I’d sell my mother for a tin of corned beef,’ a voice volunteered from out of the shadows to general approval.

‘Tell me, Hencke,’ the commander continued. ‘I share your frustration. But what on earth can we do? This is a prison camp, for God’s sake.’

Hencke delayed his reply, giving them time to silence their shuffling, giving him command of the stage. When he resumed his tone was once again harsh. ‘What can we do? Why, we can roll over and let the guards kick us whenever they feel bored. We can continue to scrabble around in the mud for the scraps of food they choose to throw at us, hoping they’ll get so tired of all this that one day they will simply throw open the gates and let us struggle back home. “One day. Some day. Never”,’ he mimicked the words of a song of lost love popular in Germany. ‘In the meantime what are we left with? “Wag your tail” – “Lick my boots” – “Sit up and beg” – “Bend over”.’ He was moving around the circle, inviting contradiction as he threw the guards’ taunts at them. None came. ‘Or we can remind our captors that we are still German soldiers, that simply because they wish to treat us like dogs there’s no need for us to act like dogs. Show them that we’re not garbage, that we’re not here just for them to piss on whenever they feel like a bit of fun. OK, they may have captured us, but for God’s sake don’t allow them to crush us. Let’s show that we’re still men!’

‘How? In Heaven’s name, how can we resist in here?’ The commander’s voice was plaintive as he swung his cane around to indicate the barbed wire surrounding them.

‘Not in here, sir. Out there.’

‘What? You mean …’


‘But that’s preposterous, Hencke. No German has managed to escape from Britain back to Germany through the course of this entire war. Not a single one! And you are willing to risk your life gambling against odds like that?’

‘It’s better than staying here to have a finger shoved up my ass. Sir.’

‘I cannot allow you to escape, Hencke. It would be folly.’

‘I’m not suggesting that I escape, sir. I’m suggesting we all do.’

His words hit the assembly like ice water, and the men began to shake themselves as if to get rid of an unwelcome drenching.

‘Think about it, just for a second,’ Hencke continued, anxious not to lose their attention as he resumed his walk, cat-like, around the circle. ‘It’s because no one’s ever escaped that it makes such sense. The guards are pig-lazy and idle, the last thing they expect is trouble. And if we all get out, the confusion will be huge, there’ll be a far greater chance of at least one of us making it back.’

‘It’s worth a shot,’ someone prompted.

‘That’s all you’re likely to get – shot!’ retorted the commander, wiping spittle from his lips. He had seen so much unnecessary death, his conscience couldn’t take responsibility for permitting still more.

‘Sir, when did you ever hear of a German POW being shot after trying to escape? These British are sticklers for the rules. Twenty-eight days’ solitary is the maximum they’re allowed to throw at us.’

‘Yes, but these Canadians don’t play by the rule book …’

‘This is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for to get our own back. What the hell are the Canadians going to do if they lose an entire campful of prisoners? More to the point, what are the British going to do to the Canadians? It’s our chance to get our own back, to catch them with their trousers down!’

‘Oh, yes. It’d screw the verdammten Canadians rigid,’ a prisoner applauded. ‘I’d just like to see Pilsudski’s face the morning after. I’d risk anything for that.’

‘But what purpose would it achieve?’ the commander began, lacking the strength to join in the enthusiasm that was beginning to bloom around him.

‘It would show our loved ones back home that, whatever they are about to go through, we have not forgotten them,’ Hencke responded quietly, his words massaging away the doubts. ‘That we remembered our duty to them. That we share the burden of their suffering. That we are still their men. Anyway, what’s the alternative? Staying behind for more of this!’ He stuck his middle finger in the air, imitating the gesture Pilsudski had thrown at the commander, and a shiver of fury cut through the assembly.

The commanding officer could sense the change of mood and motivation amongst his men. A chance to revenge the humiliation, to end the despair, no longer to be Pilsudski’s catamites. To become whole men once again. It was his duty to stop it, of course; it was folly. But he no longer had the energy to resist. He sat, head resting in exhaustion on the top of his cane, unable to find any further protest while those around him began to chatter away with more animation and spirit than they had found since entering Camp 174B.

Hencke smiled grimly. The escape was on. His mission had begun.

Churchill attempted to wipe the dribble of rich gravy from his waistcoat with a crisp linen napkin, but all his effort served only to impregnate the grease more firmly into the fibre. He gave up the unequal struggle; the stain wouldn’t be noticed, anyway, amongst all the rest. Perhaps he should have felt a prick of conscience surrounded by so much good food while most of the country were struggling on a weekly meat ration that looked no more appetizing than a Trafalgar Square pigeon and eating breakfasts concocted from powdered egg that had the consistency of fast-drying concrete and much the same impact on the digestive system. Still, he could no more stand the pace on an empty stomach than he could run a war without shedding blood. Conscience often had to go into cold storage. So he would enjoy his food and his bathtime and continue to exhort others to use no more than five inches of water.



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