Title: WOLVES AT OUR DOOR
Author: Soren Paul Petrek
Publisher: Editions Encre Rouge/Hachette Livre
The Allies and the Nazis are in a deadly race to develop the ultimate weapon while supersonic V-2 rockets rain down on London. Madeleine Toche and Berthold Hartmann, the German super assassin who taught her to kill, search for the secret factory where Werner von Braun and his Gestapos masters use slave labor to build the weapons as the bodies of the innocent pile up. The Allied ground forces push towards Berlin while the German SS fight savagely for each inch of ground.
Finding the factory hidden beneath Mount Kohnstein, Hartmann contacts his old enemy, Winston Churchill and summons Madeleine to his side. While she moves to bring the mountain down on her enemies, Hartmann leads a daring escape from the dreaded Dora concentration camp to continue his revenge against the monsters who ruined his beloved Germany.
Together with the Russian Nachtlexen, the Night Witches, fearsome female pilots the race tightens as the United States and the Germans successfully carry out an atomic bomb test.
Germany installs an atom bomb in a V-2 pointed towards London, while the US delivers one to a forward base in the Pacific. The fate of the Second World War and the future of mankind hangs in the balance.
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Peenemunde Research Facility
In Northern Germany on a remote peninsula, jutting into the Baltic Sea, the Nazi government maintained a covert research station. Hoping to turn the tide of a stalemate war back in Germany’s favor, Adolf Hitler had become fascinated with the development of superweapons. The larger the weapons, the greater his interest and the Peenemunde facility was producing the biggest and most lethal ones ever conceived.
It had required ten thousand workers to build the twenty-five-square-kilometer compound. Schools and living quarters were erected for the families of the two thousand research scientists who had worked to produce weapons to satisfy Adolf Hitler’s desire to crush the enemies of the Third Reich. Liquid oxygen production plants sucked 70 percent of the electricity the on-site power station produced. Peenemunde was the largest military facility in the world. The work being done there had nothing to do with the development of atomic weapons; rockets were built and tested. Missiles that could reach cities and battlefields far away from where they were launched. Once perfected, their range could be increased to reach, potentially, anywhere on earth.
Late evening August 17, 1943
The car that pulled up to the front gate was met by a security detail. As he stepped out of the passenger side, German rocket scientist Werner von Braun flicked his cigarette butt onto the gravel drive; he then reached into his pockets for his identification papers. He had been put in charge of the entire complex, and he was only thirty—an enormous achievement for someone who had been fascinated with rocketry since childhood. His area was liquid-fueled rockets, which he hoped would one day take men to the moon. For now, the research was used to develop a weapon that would flatten London. And he had produced one. A forty-six-foot monster: the V-2 Rocket. Most of the prototypes detonated on the launch pad or quickly skirted into the sea, but some of the missiles achieved altitude before crashing farther out. It was enough to keep his funding and the research moving forward.
Von Braun walked up to the main gate, where he was welcomed by a guard who took his papers. According to his orders, all visitors to Peenemunde were required to produce the necessary documentation. The facility was top secret, and, at least so far, the Allies hadn’t determined its purpose. Von Braun hoped that would continue until he had a reliable working model. With a flick of his flashlight and a smile, the guard checked von Braun’s face against his identification. It was hardly necessary. Tall and fit with a thick head of black hair, von Braun came across as a man of both position, thanks to his bearing, and wealth, thanks to his suits. It would have been difficult to impersonate a man the guards saw every day.
The main gate was one of the few access points to the sprawling compound. It was surrounded by two layers of fence with barbed wire and overlooked by several high guard towers. One hundred kilometers from the nearest town, there was no one around. Vast stretches of beaches along the Baltic Sea were deserted. There were no fishing boats or industry of any kind there except for Peenemunde.
Von Braun walked along one of the paved roads that crisscrossed the south end of the research and manufacturing campus. Reaching into his pocket for a cigarette, he glanced up at the sky. Even though the night was clear, motion stirred the sky. But what was it? He heard the whine of a large falling object.
He barely had time to react when the first bomb hit. He stood dumbstruck as masses of clustered bombs followed the first. Buildings around him popped open, spilling people from their dormitories and offices. Groups of men and women ran for the nearest fallout shelter. Detonations tossed torn-apart vehicles and bodies into the air. Against the backdrop of crumbling buildings, incendiary bombs set off raging fires that sucked in oxygen from everywhere. A firestorm raged through the compound, torching everything in its path. My research, von Braun thought as he ran toward his own office. Nearby coworkers raced after him to save the documents. The fire had not yet reached the second floor as he and his coworkers sprinted up the stairs to salvage what they could.
They were headed toward the records room when a flash of fire burst through the doorway. Von Braun dashed through the flames, shouting, “Throw it all out the window!” He picked up a file box and tossed it out an open window. Two men shoved an entire file cabinet out another window, and others followed suit, collectively rescuing months of work. Somewhere in the paperwork lay a clue of why the tests weren’t yet successful.
Waves of heat intensified as the men’s clothing started to scorch.
“Get out!” von Braun screamed, pushing his men ahead of him and out of the room. Had he missed anything? Only the fire drove him from the room.
He charged down the stairs and through the blaze on the first floor. Outside, he watched a guard, who’d had the presence of mind to shelter the research, loading the boxes into a truck.
The people who weren’t already dead crawled, bloodied, through fire and burning rubble. Screams of pain and yells for help compounded the chaos, coupling with the smell of burning flesh. The acrid stench of cordite hung in the air, left after the concussive blasts. What little oxygen there was fed the fires.
Von Braun watched silently as his dreams burned.
Dawn came as the broken buildings smoked. Walls crumbled under their weight as workers tried to find bodies in the rubble.
Notified of the bombing, the first of the Nazi officials showed up on the scene to assess the damage. A motorcade came through what was left of the main gate. There were no guards posted. There was little left to protect.
Stepping out of his staff car, SS General Hans Klammer looked over the compound. He held a Ph.D. in civil engineering and could easily see beyond the surface damage. The overall structural impact on the buildings was significant. A few fire trucks continued to spray water in an attempt to keep other fires from spreading, but there were too many of them. Most of them were allowed to burn themselves out as long as they couldn’t spread to the nearby forests and grassy areas. Klammer thought the Allies must have used thousand-pound bombs. And they certainly weren’t concerned with accuracy. The goal was to decimate the facility, and it was easily achieved.
Large bomb craters left the landscape pockmarked, as though an angry giant had pummeled it with a hammer. All of the buildings were damaged, some reduced nothing but piles of concrete and twisted metal. Even the ones still standing had scorch marks and shrapnel scars from bombs that had narrowly missed them. Crews of prisoners moved bricks and pieces of concrete manually, while bulldozers and tractors lifted the larger sections. It was beyond repair.
As von Braun walked across the compound, Klammer thought he looked like a stricken man, and he vowed to help sooth his nerves. After all, von Braun was a civilian and a scientist to boot, someone they needed for the project—someone they needed calm, level-headed.
“I’ve lost my main design engineer and several other key scientists,” von Braun said, lighting a cigarette with a shaky hand. His drawn face appeared to have aged years in a matter of hours. “One hundred and seventy key personnel killed and the extent of the damage hasn’t been calculated. We were able to save most of my most important documents. I almost died pushing files out windows with my staff,” he said, throwing his hands in the air. “This is a scientific facility. And then this.” He gestured. “Most of the men aren’t even in the military.”
“Herr Doctor, I know you're upset and feel partially to blame.” Klammer placed a gloved hand on von Braun’s shoulder. “You’re not to blame. We are at war and would have done the same to the British if they had been building rockets. Your project is too important to let this dissuade you.” Klammer gesticulated passionately against the ash-colored sky. “Clearly the facility needs to be moved beyond the range of their bombers. We can’t rebuild this, and even if we did, they’d just bomb it again. No, clearing away all of this debris and tearing down the buildings will cause an unacceptable delay. We will find a more suitable location, somewhere in central Germany.”
“We’ve also lost five hundred prisoners,” Von Braun added. “Some of them were highly skilled at assembly.”
“The survivors will work when we locate an appropriate site. We’ll have work for many others as well,” Klammer said with a smile. “Don’t worry, Doctor; you’ll be back in business in no time. Just leave it to the SS. We’re very efficient at construction. Down to the last Mark and Pfennig.”
“I worry about using new unskilled labor to build the rockets,” Von Braun confessed. “Each one is individual to itself. With three thousand independent parts, consistency is vital. Conditions have to be optimal for assembly and testing. Do you know what kind of location you are considering?”
“Underground,” Klammer told him, “where bombers can’t do any more damage. We have already begun an exhaustive examination of potential sites within Germany, and we’ve narrowed it down to a few. The Fuhrer wants no more delays caused by destruction. He has great expectations for the use of rockets against England. He hopes to fire at least a dozen per day at London with no loss of German lives. When they land, only the British will die. We’ll test their resolve to keep on fighting with London in flames.”
“But construction of another factory will take months,” von Braun argued.
“Three or four, if everything goes according to plan.”
“Three? Isn’t that a bit aggressive?”
“The Jews will build it. They’ll work day and night. We will find a suitable location that won’t require an enormous construction budget.”
“When can we relocate?”
“We will move the equipment that can be salvaged to a temporary location. Your testing and experiments can continue there. Don’t worry,” Klammer assured the scientist, “I’ve built several work camps under budget and ahead of schedule. I know what I’m doing.”
“We will determine what equipment is viable and catalog it immediately,” von Braun said, nodding his head. “Several rockets survived, and testing can continue as soon as we can relocate.”
“Fine, the future of your project depends on continued progress. The Fuhrer often grows impatient and loses faith when things don’t go according to plan. As a fellow engineer, I have the utmost faith in you, Dr. von Braun. I’ve rarely seen a man so driven to succeed.”
“Thank you,” von Braun said. “This research could win the war. My hope is that we can settle this nonsense on our terms. So that we can pursue the real goal, Germany’s conquest of space.”
“We all want that. Everyone is tired of war, but we must win a decisive victory. Now I must get back to Berlin. Keep me abreast of your progress, Werner.”
“I will, sir. Thank you for lifting my spirits.”
“We’ll be up and move forward in no time. You do the science and leave the rocket building to me.” With that, Klammer climbed into the back seat of his car. He waved at von Braun and motioned for his driver to leave.
Von Braun watched Klammer depart. He felt better, but the design problems with the rockets nagged him still. He walked back to his makeshift office to begin the cataloging project. No doubt with enough cruelty and loss of Jewish life, the SS would accomplish their task. A new factory was one thing, but he had to find out why the rockets weren’t achieving altitude. With the structural design team in tatters, what would von Braun have to do? Stand underneath one of the things as it crashed back down to earth?
Half of the Jews forced to work at the Peenemunde installation were killed or wounded. Those with superficial wounds were herded among the other men. Those too far gone were shot where they lay.
The survivors were crammed into cattle cars in which hay and dung littered the floorboards. They were pushed inside until it was standing room only. Many pairs of lungs competed for the thin and stifling oxygen.
As they left the Peenemunde facility, those men near the sides of the car tried to see through the tiny slits serving as windows. Other than briefly glimpsing civilization as the train passed a town, the men saw nothing but trees and open fields; they had no idea where they were going. Hungry and tired, they gratefully took turns sitting when they could no longer stand, though sitting room diminished as the train meandered down through the middle of Germany, picking up other prisoners as it headed south.
In the late afternoon of the first day, the train stopped. The men were offloaded and given some weak soup and water. They were permitted to sit as the food was distributed. The guards had been given orders to deliver them alive; dead workers were useless. They were allowed to relieve themselves at the side of the tracks, long ago having lost the privilege of privacy. Few of them looked at one another, and none spoke.
They were jammed back onto the train, and there were no more stops. On the second afternoon, the train reached its destination. With Mount Kohnstein looming above them, their rail cars were opened by SS guards. As they were herded toward the face of the mountain, they were handed pickaxes and shovels. They moved toward a small track railway that led into what looked like a mine entrance protruding back into the dark recesses of the mountain. A guard hit a switch, and a string of dim lights illuminated the tunnel farther than sight could follow. Men were already chipping away at the Gypsum rock that lined the walls. Metal clanging against rock echoed. It was a soft mineral and came out in large chunks that were immediately loaded into metal carts and pushed by hand out of the mine. No indication was given to the workers as to what they were supposed to do, other than keep digging.
Inside the mine, there were no mechanized engines, only manpower. If a cart tipped over, the prisoners were beaten until the car was set upright and the rock reloaded. The dust choked the workers and made it hard to see. Fumes from blasting perpetually hung in the air.
They worked around the clock, and the shifts changed every twelve hours. Afterward, the prisoners were taken to an area where wooden bunks were stacked four high. The thin mattresses brought no comfort and allowed for little sleep. Stale bread and a thin foul tasting soup gave little nourishment. Over the weeks and months, as many men died from dysentery and Typhus as were executed or worked to death. The lack of proper nutrition gave the prisoners violent diarrhea; a bucket was their sanitary facility. Every straw filled mat they slept on was stained with excrement and vomit. Lice, scabies and other insects, tormented the men constantly.
The passageways were widened, and the ceilings made higher. The main tunnels needed to accommodate fully assembled rockets as they were put together. Scaffolding was necessary to reach the roof. Men fell on every shift. Some died while others were injured. The men who could no longer work were shot. Their bodies tossed on rail cars laden with rock. Outside, they were transferred to piles of human corpses. Every day and night, the piles of dead grew.
The progress was rapid despite the inhuman conditions. The two main S-shaped tunnels ran parallel and snaked through the mountain. Forty-six connecting passageways had to be dug through rock walls. Storerooms and barracks for the prisoners and guards were hollowed out along one of the main tunnels. A small hospital was constructed and various workshops and laboratories. The pace was brutal. When a prisoner died, there were always replacements coming by train from concentration camps all over Germany, Poland and elsewhere.
About the Author
Soren Petrek is a practicing criminal trial attorney, admitted to the Minnesota Bar in 1991. Married with two adult children, Soren continues to live and work in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Educated in the U.S., England and France Soren sat his O-level examinations at the Heathland School in Hounslow, London in 1981. His undergraduate degree in Forestry is from the University of Minnesota, 1986. His law degree is from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota 1991.
Soren’s novel, Cold Lonely Courage won Fade In Magazine’s 2009 Award for Fiction. Fade In was voted the nation’s favorite movie magazine by the Washington Post and the L.A. Times in 2011 and 2012.
The French edition of Cold Lonely Courage, Courage was published January 2019, by Encre Rouge Editions, distributed by Hachette Livre in 60 countries. Soren’s contemporary novel, Tim will be released along with the rest of the books in the Madeleine Toche series of historical thrillers.
His latest book is the historical action adventure novel, Wolves at Our Door.