In Berlin, January 1939, Major-General Erich von Schelledorf meets Celia Ashton at the British Ambassador’s annual New Year’s Levée, and steps into a casual affair. By August, on the eve of Hitler’s inevitable war, they are dangerously in love.
Caught in the brink of war
... between his German wife who will not live with him and the Englishwoman who loves him...
... between his English roots and his love of Germany ...
... between British Military Intelligence and his career in the Wehrmacht ...
... between his love of the Army and his hatred of Hitler ...
Erich finds himself cornered by the appalling reality of Nazi control over the country, and by knowing that out of uniform he has no identity. Compelled to pursue his own troubled conscience, he maintains a delicate balance of honour through the most destructive war in history.
Erich von Schellendorf stared past the papers on his desk. On one side, the Sudetenland file. On the other side, Poland. These things happened slowly in the army, and then on Hitler’s command it would all come together. Either they would get away with it one more time, or they would be at war.
They couldn’t go to war. Germany wasn’t ready. Wouldn’t be ready for at least three years. The troop build-up was months behind schedule. Production at full capacity couldn’t put a rifle into the hands of every new recruit.
Somebody must tell Hitler, must warn him. Must stop him…
The office door opened, startling Erich almost to his feet.
Captain Brandt stepped in. He was in full uniform.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Erich subsided in his chair.
“Orders, General. I’m required to—”
“I didn’t call for you. It’s Sunday. It’s New Year’s Day, for Godsake.”
“I, uh…” He advanced to the desk, one hand holding out a sheet of paper. “With the general’s permission…” He laid the paper gently upon the Poland file, and took a step back and stood at attention.
Erich glanced at the paper. It was a request for transfer. He picked it up and read it, every word, every letter in print and in handwriting, his mind churning. The captain had been appointed only a month ago, had reported for duty three weeks ago.
Three weeks to request a transfer…?
Captain Helmuth Brandt was not regular Army. He wore the uniform, but he was too arrogant for army. He stood before the desk not quite at attention, challenging Erich down a noble Aryan nose. Handsome fellow, eyes of steel, attitude of flint. Something of a challenge in those eyes.
“SS Panzers,” Erich said. “A fighting unit.”
“If the High Command wanted you in a fighting unit would they appoint you my aide?”
“The reason for my request, sir. An unfortunate mistake.”
“This you must learn, Captain. The High Command doesn’t make mistakes and will not appreciate your presuming so.”
“With respect, sir, I joined to fight.”
“Don’t argue.” He stabbed his signature to the paper. “I’ll approve this, but it will be denied at OKH. Dismissed.”
The crack of heels was like a rifle shot. Brandt made a careless about-turn.
He swung around. “General?”
“When I dismiss you I still require the occasional salute.”
The captain’s face turned from pale to cherry pink. He cracked his heels and flung his right arm stiffly forward. “Heil Hitler!”
“An army salute is adequate, and… to my knowledge… still legal.”
Silence. The captain’s blue eyes glittered. The heels clicked. The arm executed a quiet army salute.
Erich returned the salute with a curt nod, and watched him march out the door. Put this young fanatic in his place for the pleasure of doing it? Gain his enmity in one thoughtless stroke? More than ever he was sure Brandt was either SS or Gestapo.
But this was not uncommon. These new officers didn’t have the training or the ethical foundation of the old Officer Corps. All this Nazi stuff. Officers appointed without going through the system, without even the courtesy of earlier consultation. The SS trained a man, the Army assigned him, the Gestapo investigated him, the SA beat him up on his way home, the SD threw him into jail, and... if he was lucky... the Army sprang him out again.
No one knew these days what in hell anyone else was doing. Stupid way to run an army.
Was Brandt watching him? Senior officers had always been under a microscope. But was the captain his personal watchdog?
He shook it off, and went back to writing his brief; dispersal of three army groups at strategic points along the East Prussian frontier. Did this mean Czechoslovakia was off the table?
He stretched. The old shard of shrapnel dug against his spine, his reminder, every day, of war. Were they about to go off again? England could halt this if Chamberlain would only stop dancing and take a stand.
The door opened. The captain leaned in. “Excuse me sir, the telephone.”
“I’m not here, damn it. It’s New Years, Brandt. Why don’t you go home?”
“The Foreign Minister, sir.”
He stiffened in his chair. What did Ribbentrop want of him? He plugged in the line and took up the receiver. “Schellendorf.”
“Ah, Schellendorf. My apologies for intruding on the quietude of your Sunday...” He spoke with the exaggerated High-German accents of a stage actor, “...but I extend an unusual invitation from the British First Secretary. It seems he’s invited you by name, as a man who speaks English like a native—”
“You yourself speak excellent English, Minister.”
Ribbentrop laughed. “Ah, but never with the British. The occasion, Schellendorf, is the British Ambassador’s New Year’s Levée, so! Medals, sash and sword. General-Staff ceremonials, if you please, not your prehistoric cavalry blues. Eleven hundred hours.”
“I’ll undoubtedly see you there. Heil Hitler.”
Less than an hour.
He left the papers on his desk and put on his greatcoat and cap. “Be sure to lock everything in the safe,” he said to Brandt. “Briefcase by the desk.”
“Then you’re dismissed. Take a holiday. I have to attend this thing.”
He walked out along the corridor past closed doorways, his heels cracking on flagstones and echoing in the silence. Black SS uniforms stood guard at regular intervals as if sculpted into the architecture. They presented arms with a slap and a crash as the general passed, but did not meet his eye or twitch an eyelash. Their Mausers, he knew, were loaded.
What a damned stupid way to live. Mindless stone. Who would ever volunteer for that?
But they were the Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s personal guard, an elite corps of killers.
Was Brandt one of them? Or one of the far more deadly Gestapo?
Privately he enjoyed wearing his ceremonials. It gave him a moment of resplendence harking back a quarter century to the days of Empire when he’d first put on the uniform. Back to simpler times. Sky blue cavalry tunic, gold braid, gold buttons, braided epaulets, braided high collar and medals on a bloody rainbow of campaign ribbons. He’d never liked the helmet. He carried it under his arm, the white horsehair plume swaying as he stepped into the reception line at the British Embassy. He heard his name announced. He gave a light click of the heels to salute the British First Secretary, kissed the glove of the Secretary’s wife, and gladly surrendered the helmet to a steward.
The embassy surged with elegant crowds under blazing lights. On the mezzanine above the foyer a group of musicians played Gilbert and Sullivan, he could never remember which was the composer, which the librettist.He moved slowly into the huge ballroom. Chandeliers glittered overhead. Voices murmured with an occasional outright laugh. “Hello, how are you...” English. “Happy New Year...” People had to raise their voices to talk over the music. Snatches of other languages. He saw a few familiar faces, nodded and passed on. Nobody was dancing. The music was not for dancing. Some people had started on the champagne, but he couldn’t see the bar through the crowd. Ceremonial uniforms, the British in red or black tunics, yellow-striped black trousers. A few Scottish kilts. The ladies wore formal gowns and jewellery, as if it were a New Year’s Eve ball, rather than a brief morning ceremony.
“Erich! Erich von Schellendorf!”
He turned. “Phil, for heaven sake! When did you get back?”
“Just on my way through.” Phil Ryder was an American journalist, a lanky fellow in a business suit threading through the formal crowd. They shook hands. “Listen, old son, I’m in a real bind.” He took Erich by the elbow to change his direction in the huge room. “Brought an old friend here who doesn’t know a soul in Berlin, but I gotta catch a ride to Paris. Can you get her a drink? Maybe see her back to the hotel, she doesn’t speak German. She’s staying at the Eden.”
“Celia!” Ryder called out. “Here we are!”
A woman turned in the crowd. Her eyes were all that Erich saw for that instant. Large, direct, cool grey eyes that took him in and were not dazzled by the glitter of his medals or the sabre at his thigh or the loops of gold braid across his chest.
“Celia, I want to introduce General Erich von Schellendorf from Heidelberg. Erich, she loves Heidelberg, you’ll have lots to talk about. Celia Ashton from Chelsea, London.”
Her smile was quick, augmented with pink lip colour. Her chestnut hair was pulled back into a severe bun and held in place with a bit of silver. In this great ballroom twinkling with haute couture and gold and diamonds, she wore a modest lean cocktail gown of blue silk, and a simple silver chain at her throat.
“Chelsea?” He met her eyes again.
“Heidelberg?” Smiling eyes.
Damn it Phil...
Phil had disappeared in the crowd.
“Shall we find the bar?” he asked.
At the bar she accepted a glass of champagne. He raised his glass to her. “Here’s to the new year, and peace in Europe.”
“Oh yes.” She raised her glass. “Peace.”
They drifted among the crowd.
“What do you do in the army?” she asked.
“I push mountains of paper.”
“And what do you do?”
“Do?” She seemed surprised. “Why, nothing. I do nothing.” She stopped and looked into his face, her eyes almost level with his. “Do you know, in fact, I do... absolutely... nothing!”
“Well aren’t you fortunate.” Then added, “So what do you do for amusement?”
“I travel quite a lot between Switzerland and Chelsea. I write a little. Children’s books, if I have a decent theme.” She smiled swiftly. “And I garden. My daughter’s at school in Bern, you see, and my garden is in Chelsea, so a lot of travelling back and forth. School holidays, that sort of thing.”
“Rather pleasant sort of life.” She couldn’t be more than thirty-five...
“Rather humdrum, I should say. So then what do you do for amusement?”
“I play with a camera. And I still ride a bit, keep in shape.”
“Cavalry.” He did not mention the Olympics. “Well. They took me off my horse a few years ago.”
Waiters in scarlet livery had begun moving among the crowd carrying trays of red wine. Erich exchanged his champagne for a glass. Beside him she did the same, and started to lift it to her lips. He gave her a tiny shake of his head. She paused. People around them shuffled quietly, glasses in hand, not yet drinking. The music ended. At the stroke of noon the First Secretary stepped to a podium at the far end of the ballroom. The musicians sounded a shrill vibrato that brought silence and immobility to the room.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the Secretary announced in a loud voice, “I regret that Sir Nevile Henderson is not here today to greet you personally. In his stead I wish you all a most happy and peaceful nineteen thirty-nine!” He raised his glass high. “Long live King George the Sixth and all in his domain! Long live the British Empire!”
They lifted their glasses as the little string ensemble burst forth with a vigorous God Save the King.
Erich searched the crowd, saw who raised a toast and who did not. Over near a window, chatting with the British Military Attaché, Ribbentrop intercepted Erich’s glance and nodded to him absently. “There’s the Foreign Minister,” he said to her.
“Is Hitler here?”
“Oh, I’m sure not. Probably in Bavaria over the holiday.”
She took half a step sideways to look into his face. “Tell me what you people really think of him.”
“I have no opinion.”
“Really? How could you not?”
“The Army is here to serve the government, not question it.”
“Did you vote for Hitler?”
“Well! Having admitted that much, tell me what you think of him. Your private opinion.”
He cast a glance across the crowd surging and mixing again. He counted only a few German officers, and over in a corner Ribbentrop, now head-to-head with an Italian diplomat. “I am not a private person.” Then responding to the disappointment in her eyes he added, “But I believe Hitler is probably rather more noise than menace.”
“Really! I thought he was God to you people.”
“On the other hand, he certainly pulled this country out of the depression and restored German dominance in Europe, for which I’m personally, if not professionally, grateful.”
Her faint smile seemed puzzled. She searched his face.
“What?” he challenged, discomfited.
“Not professionally grateful? Wasn’t he responsible in the past few years for building up the army? I’ve heard... ten million, was that the number? From a hundred thousand when he came to power? Wouldn’t that please a general?”
He laughed, it was so outrageous. “The propaganda perhaps, but certainly not the fact.”
“Another fascinating concept,” she murmured. “Propaganda. What does it actually mean?”
“Propagated, um... information? Political direction?”
She laughed. “Where did you learn to speak English so beautifully? I mean with hardly a trace of accent.”
“Accent!” He pretended outrage. “I was born in London, went to Winchester as a boy, was at Cambridge for a couple of years. Couldn’t do it, was sent down.”
She smiled over the rim of her glass. One eyebrow shot up and subsided.
He hadn’t meant to say that much. He sipped the wine and scanned the crowds. Ambassadors from everywhere, did they have nowhere better to go on a New Year’s Sunday? “What brings you to Berlin?” he asked.
She jerked out of a muse of her own. “My daughter.” Her grey eyes had tiny flecks of amber. “She’s here for a student seminar with the Berlin Philharmonic.”
“The cello. She’s rather good for her age.”
“How old is she?”
“And where is she today?”
“Oh, she wanted to practice, so I left her at the hotel. I have to be back soon, take her down to tiffin.” She laughed and added, “Luncheon.”
He could not stop himself. “Perhaps you’ll allow me to take you both out to... to tiffin.”
She lowered her eyes, and he thought there was the hint of a blush. “That...” She looked at him again, direct as a rapier. “That would be extraordinarily kind of you.”
* * *