Berlin, April 22 1945
Cops and Robbers
Capital … has no motion that has not been imparted to it,
but is a reservoir of force which will perpetuate the motion
of the machinery after the propelling power has ceased.
Senator Leyland Stanford (1823-1893)
Churchill had advocated seizing the capitals of Berlin, Prague and Vienna before they were overrun by the Red Army, but his voice no longer counted. Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower was contented with the idea of the Red Army taking Berlin. It was the prize many of Stalin’s troops had already died for. Yet the massive red tentacles of an interminable scarlet octopus of grim retribution, revenge, murder and rape were already enveloping the city, and the constant artillery bombardment and bombing had reduced its beautiful old streets to rubble. Already, to the east of Berlin, wherever the Red Army appeared, they carried with them an unforgiving hatred, a lust for vengeance for every foul thing National Socialist Germany had done to their homeland. This was their long-awaited revenge for the massacres, the blitzkrieg, the slaughter of millions of innocent people, the burning of villages and towns, the insane Nazi racial policies and the homicide of millions of Jews. The wild sons of the Steppes were an unstoppable wave of ruthlessness, pillaging vicious beasts, devoid of any chivalry, made so by the enforced lust of war. Their officers and commissars would turn blind eyes as Germany’s female population, from schoolgirls to grandmothers, would be repeatedly violated, with those who side-stepped the option of suicide left mentally and physically damaged for life. This tragic payback for Germany could have never been imagined by the arrogant ‘victorious’ regiments of the Reich, the blowtorch battalions who had rolled their murderous blitzkrieg forward in Operation Barbarossa four years earlier.
Yet still Hitler, pumped full of crazy pharmaceutical compounds with up to 17 injections per day, fumed in his bunker, waving a newspaper at Albert Speer, jumping with sardonic joy at the news that Roosevelt was dead, as if this was yet further proof of providence guiding him to victory. The dogged faithful, Bormann, Goebbels, Hitler’s doctors, Brandt and the quack Morrell, and the hard core of the SS still crowded the bunker, almost convinced that there would still be a turning point in the Reich’s history to avert defeat. By 11 April, American troops were within 48 hours of Berlin, but they advanced no further. Frustrated though the GIs were, they knew that the big prize was Ivan’s. And now, the Russians were at the city gates.
In the corpse-strewn streets the air was thick with the pulverised dust of atomized architecture and the acrid, all-pervasive smell of cordite. In sad futility, women still queued for that rare commodity, bread. Whenever an exploding shell shattered the queue, its bloody gaps of death were closed up as the surviving hungry wives and mothers moved forward. Better to step over a neighbour’s torn corpse and risk death than miss the last crumbs from the baker’s shelves.
The city was already in ruins from Allied bombing. Now yet more Soviet artillery shells began to fall in the streets. Berliners were finally getting a nasty taste of what their glorious Wehrmacht had inflicted upon the besieged city of Leningrad for 900 days. The people faced these events with stoicism. They had placed their faith in a false god, an immoral, unprincipled madman. This was the culmination of his reign, the abrupt, premature end, after only 12 years, of his ‘1,000 year Reich’. Many had already taken their own lives, almost 7,000 of them.
Late in the afternoon of April 12 in the incredibly still standing Philharmonic Hall, Albert Speer had ordered a final performance by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. What was left of Berlin’s music lovers took their seats. It was cold as there was no heating, and the grim-faced audience sat swathed in their overcoats and scarves as conductor Robert Heger raised his baton, knowing this may be the last music he would conduct for some time. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Brunnhilde’s final aria from die Gotterdammerung, and the finale, Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony. The last, poignant tones of the Bruckner had been, as instructed by Speer, a musical message to all in the cold building; if you could leave Berlin, this is the signal to do so. Beyond this music, only degradation and death remained. As the fearful, chilled and unhappy Berliners began to file out of the venue, still mentally savouring the fine musicianship they had just witnessed, the insane reality of their situation in the Nazi state struck home with evil gravitas. Standing by the exits were the fresh-faced children of the Hitler Youth in their uniforms, holding forth baskets full of cyanide capsules, free, courtesy of the Reich, to all those who no longer thought life worth living.
By April 22 it was clear to those few Nazi diehards still in Berlin that it was all over.
At Berlin’s SS Headquarters some telephone lines still worked. The one on the desk of the head of the SS budget administration section, 38 year old SS Standartenführer Josef Spacil was ringing loudly. He wiped the brick dust off the handset. The voice on the line was sharp and commanding.
“Spacil! Kaltenbrunner. How are things there?”
“Terrible, Herr Oberst. We can almost smell the Bolsheviks. They’re on the outskirts now. Everything is wrecked. Many of our departments are packing up and leaving. But we’re intent on going down fighting. How are things in Austria?”
“If you think you’ve got problems, think on. The Russians have taken Vienna. The Second and Sixth Panzers have been routed. The Bolshevik bastards are raping and pillaging. At least for the time being we’re safe here in Salzburg. But I will not surrender to the Russians, never, ever. The Americans are getting closer. So you need to get out of Berlin because if Ivan gets you, Spacil, you’re finished in more ways than one. It can only be days now. How many good, reliable and committed SS men can you get together?”
“How many do you need?”
“Enough to rob a bank.”
“Sorry, Herr Oberst, did you say ‘rob a bank’?”
“When were your men last paid, Spacil?”
“They haven’t been paid for weeks.”
“Well, you’ll need to brief them well. Tell them if they want their wages then they’ll have to go and take them. Here’s the plan. The Reichsbank, Kurstrasse. You know it well?”
“Of course, but -”
“But nothing! Shut up and listen! We’re down here in the Alpine Redoubt and we’re going to try and hold out. But we need money to oil the wheels, and even though our men have been acting on all sorts of orders to remove stuff from the bank from various quarters recently, whatever’s left in those vaults is ours.”
“You want us to rob the Reichsbank?”
“For God’s sake! Of course I fucking do! It’s not immoral; all the gold and currency in there is ours anyway. Think of it as a Robin Hood mission. Paying us – the poor, those who’ve been fighting on whilst that crowd still eat their soup and croissants in the bunker. We’ve been collecting loot for Himmler for five bloody years, so it’s time we had a bonus.”
“But what about Reichsfűhrer Himmler? What about the police?”
“Just remind yourself, Spacil – We are the bloody police!”
“But you realise, Herr Oberst, as I’m given to understand by the Leibstandarte’s Sepp Dietrich, that the Reichsfűhrer still has his own special vault and his deposits at the Reichsbank?”
“Yes, yes, yes. Fuck Himmler! That’s why the previous raids didn’t touch that. We know all about the bloody Max Heiliger accounts. He has them in several banks, and in Switzerland, but we can’t be everywhere.”
“So what do we do in that case? Is the Reichsfűhrer in contact with you?”
“Unfortunately, yes. Now, listen and listen carefully. He’s given me the name of an Untersturmfűhrer Gluckmann in the Leibstandarte. He’s still at Lichterfelde. Dig him out for this mission because he’s one of the Max Heiliger so-called ‘guardians’. Bloody Himmler, with his melodrama! He has the documentation to get the bank to open Himmler’s vault. Whatever’s in there, for Christ’s sake keep it separate from the other loot. Don’t send that by road. It has to go on the train – Himmler’s arranged a train from Tempelhof. It will terminate in a siding at Radstadt, and we’ll look after his precious cargo from there. Have you got that?”
“It all seems very complicated, Herr Oberst. There’s been a lot of allied bombing on the tracks.”
“There’s been a lot of allied bombing everywhere, Spacil! But we’re talking Himmler here, and that means complications, but even I refuse to get the wrong side of him. God knows where he’s going to crop up next. He failed miserably to be the next military hero with his bloody Army of the Vistula. He’s spent half his cowardly time in and out of Hohenlychen Sanatorium with his imaginary illnesses. Some military hero! The man’s a hypochondriac.”
“I’d heard he hasn’t been at the Fűhrerbunker since the Fűhrer’s birthday.”
“I’ve heard that he’s going north to Flensburg or somewhere away from the fighting. He thinks he can open peace negotiations. That’s like asking a Jew to open a pork butchers. He was always a naïve bastard. But forget all that, it’s over, Spacil. Take as many men you can muster – good men, strong men, men who remember their oath – and they need to be fit – there’ll be a lot of humping and lifting – remember this Gluckmann, some of the Chancellery Leibstandarte lads would be right – make sure you’re all armed to the teeth, take plenty of ammo, grenades, everything – and if the staff at the bank complain, shoot the bastards.”
“What will the Fűhrer think?”
“If he ever decides to talk to me, I’ll let you know. Now, listen up. Himmler’s train is only four box cars and two saloon carriages with accommodation, so at least you’ll have somewhere to bed down between watches. It’s in siding number four at Tempelhof. Obersturmbannfűhrer Anton Schnelling is in charge of the yard. He has my authority and Himmler’s instructions. Don’t take any shit from the train crew, either. You’ll also need as many L-4500 heavy trucks as you can get.”
“I don’t know how many we have serviceable. Then there’s fuel.”
“Stop presenting obstacles, Spacil! There’s a Wehrmacht fuel dump at Luckenwalde. I’ve checked and there’ll be enough to get the convoy down here. If the army give you any trouble, you’ll have to either bribe them or fight it out. Tell them its important Reich business. Whatever you can get onto the train, then see to it. The rest can go by road to the planes. You need plenty of fire power and security on the train. The rest of the stuff goes straight to Tempelhof airport, where planes have been requisitioned in my name. You’ll have no trouble there. Load them, get your wife on board as well, and I’ll meet you in Salzburg. The train will probably take a while to get down here, depending on the state of the line and the bombing, but make sure the men on board stick with those box cars. Have you got all that?”
“How much stuff do you think there is?”
“There’s still loads of it. But take everything you can. Gold, currency, valuables, gems, the lot. We need it all. It’ll take you all a while to shift it, but you’ll all be rich men if you do.”
“What do I say to the bank staff?”
“You say ‘hands up!’ Tell them the Fűhrer has requisitioned the state’s reserves for a final military push. Tell them anything, but get those vaults emptied!”
27 year old Untersturmführer Mickael Gluckmann’s platoon of the SS-Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler were among the most committed Nazis still in Berlin. Tall, stunningly Aryan with his broad physique, blonde hair and sharp blue eyes, as a Second Lieutenant with an Iron Cross he was looked up to by his men. They had all been through much together, and even as the Russian shells continued to fall around them, they refused to accept the slightest possibility that the Reich was in retreat. As he addressed the selected 36 men in the Lichterfelde Barracks, he could see by the expression on their faces just how much of an impact this final mission was going to have.
“So there you have it, men. We’ll be joined at the bank by other SS support squads and some Volksturm and Hitler Youth who’ll do most of the humping and carrying. Our job is to enter and secure the bank, take no shit from the staff or management, ensure they open the vaults on pain of death, and if they don’t, we’ll use explosives. But they’ve had so many official raids recently I think they’ll know the drill. This is different however. Our orders come direct from our highest authority, SS-Gruppenfűhrer Kaltenbrunner. The contents of the Reichsbank vaults must be released to us in order for us to continue the struggle in the south against Bolshevism.” He proceeded, with the use of a large architectural plan of the bank, to allocate the men their duties and positions during the raid.
It was dusk when they stormed through the massive doors. Faced with a grim SS phalanx of cocked rifles, Luger pistols and machine guns, the stunned staff in what remained of the once beautiful Reichsbank building, much of which had been reduced to rubble by the US Air Force in February that year, did as they were told. Hands held high above their heads, they waited until their superiors, the directors, entered the main reception area. Led by an outraged, portly middle-aged man in a smart suit, black silk waistcoat and crisp white fly-collared shirt, they formed a thin rank between the massed SS and the rest of the terrified employees.
“What is the meaning of this and who are you?” Standartenführer Spacil stepped forward, his Luger aimed at the man’s chest.
“It’s plain to see who we are. So who are you?”
“I’m the duty manager, Artur Romberg. What are all these armed men here for?” Spacil clicked his heels and gave a nod.
“SS Standartenführer Spacil at your service, Herr Romberg. We have instructions from the Fűhrer to remove what deposits, reserves and other valuables remain in your vaults for the purpose of defending the Reich. You will facilitate this by opening all the relevant vaults and rooms to my men, and your staff will assist our men in removing the contents to the transports we have waiting outside. Any resistance to this request is punishable by death, as ordered by the Fűhrer. Heil Hitler!”
The confused Romberg dutifully returned the salute and glanced at his alarmed assistants.
“But this is outrageous! The SS and the Wehrmacht have already plundered this building several times this year! This is the national bank of Germany, not a village peasant’s savings account! This is robbery! I wish to see your authorisation!”Spacil stepped forward and jammed the barrel of his pistol into Romberg’s chest.
“This is my authorisation! Now do as I say before we start shooting – and if you refuse to open the vaults, we have explosives. Do you understand?”
Romberg’s face drained to a pasty white and he stepped back a few paces.
“Very well, very well. But I insist my clerks take an inventory of everything you remove, and that you sign a receipt.” Spacil sneered, looked around at his squad, and they all laughed.
“That’s fine with us. Let’s keep it legal, eh? Now lead on – we haven’t much time – we’ve trains and planes to catch!” Romberg looked around at his assistants and the rest of the assembled staff and clapped his hands.
“Very well, ladies and gentlemen. You heard the officer. Down to the vaults and give all the assistance requested…”
Guards were stationed outside the building, others in the reception, as the clatter of jackboots echoed across the dusty marble floors as dozens of further armed SS made their entrance. Low trolleys were brought out ready for loading, and soon, in the basement, the nighty steel doors of the cavernous vaults swung open. For almost two hours the SS men, and the aged, wheezing members of the Volksturm, accompanied by the keen, fit teenagers of the Hitler Youth laboured to clear the Reich’s fiscal storehouse. Trolley after trolley was loaded with gold bars, sacks of jewels, canvas bags of foreign currency, until, at the end of the main vault, a further door remained unopened. Spacil grabbed Romberg by the scruff of his neck and pointed at the mystery entrance.
“What’s that – get it opened!”
“I can’t do that! It belongs to SS-Reichsfűhrer Himmler himself. That is his personal vault. It can only be opened on his own personal instruction!” Spacil raised his Luger at the back of the man’s head and fired a shot at the ceiling. Trembling, Romberg fell to his knees with a whimper, as Spacil violently shook him by the shoulder.
“Open the damned door, or the next one goes into your skull!”
“But I need authorisation! If I do this my family will suffer!”Spacil looked around and spotted Gluckmann.
“What’s bothering you, Gluckmann? Have you seen a ghost or something?”
“No, sir. It’s just that I was in the original Leibstandarte squad responsible for the items in this vault. We gave an oath to the Reichsfűhrer that we would protect it in perpetuity, no matter what, at all costs.” Romberg looked desperately from Spacil to Gluckmann.
“I need a password for authorisation.”Gluckmann took a deep breath and murmured “Stahl Adler.”Relieved, Roberg began gesturing wildly to the staff.
“Very well, you know the drill! Open it!” Romberg’s dashed over to the heavy door, and worked at the combination dial until, at last, the assistants swung open the heavy steel portal.
Spacil entered the vault with Gluckmann and surveyed the many neat wooden packing cases stacked high to the ceiling. About a dozen of them seemed very peculiar, over ten feet long. Each one was carefully stencilled with the symbol of the Reich, beneath which were the letters SA H.L.H. As the removal of the contents began, Gluckmann retained his concerned expression.
“Some of the men here and I took an oath to the Reichsfűhrer to protect this material.”
Spacil laughed and patted the younger man on the back.
“Well, Gluckmann, rest assured that’s exactly what we’re doing, protecting it all, is it not? And as usual, Himmler’s as meticulous and organised as ever. And you and your Leibstandarte will be riding the train. That’s some very careful crating and packing there. I wonder what the hell he’s got in those long boxes – any ideas?”
“Yes, sir. Very valuable Persian carpets. The Reichsfűhrer seemed to be particularly obsessed with them.” Spacil shook his head in dismay.
“Dear oh dear. Bloody carpets. All this gold and he collects carpets. Only the best for the boss, eh? What’s the letters on the crates stand for – do you know?”
“Stahl Adler – Steel Eagle. That’s Himmler’s personal designation for the goods, but this is all officially deposited under the bank’s Max Heiliger account. H.L.H. is Heinrich Luitpold Himmler, so there’s no mistaking who this all belongs to. He’s going to be pretty incensed about this raid if anything goes wrong.”
Spacil pondered for a moment as the workers assembled and began moving the boxes.
“Well, maybe he should’ve stayed in Berlin to face the music instead of scarpering off up north. But just to keep him happy, we ought to make sure that what’s in this vault goes onto the train. You’d better oversee the loading, Gluckmann.”
A further two busy hours passed until the last of the 15 large, heavy Wehrmacht trucks had been loaded up. Spacil gave a cynical laugh as he signed Romberg’s hastily assembled inventory and receipt.
“Where is this all going to?” asked Romberg.
“That’s between me and Oberst Kaltenbrunner. Stop worrying. You’ve issued your precious receipt. If I were you I’d pocket some currency and get out of Berlin tonight, before the Ivans get here.” As he finished speaking, another artillery shell fell across the street, exploding and shattering bricks and concrete into the air, some of it falling with a thud on the canvas canopies of the trucks. The low-lying cloud over the city glowed red with the reflection of a hundred fires, and the sound of gunfire and artillery thumped and crackled from all directions. Four SS armoured cars, two at the head of the convoy, and two at the rear, revved up their engines as a dozen well-armed motorcycle and sidecar outriders took up positions at either side of the trucks. Spacil boarded the lead armoured car, and standing like an old time western wagon master, waved the convoy into forward motion, shouting “Tempelhof!”.
In the second armoured car, Mickael Gluckmann lit a cigarette and looked back at the ruined Reichsbank. He would remember this night for the rest of his life.