What follows is an excerpt from the first chapter of Human Game.
“I have to acquaint you with a top secret matter.”
Kiel Gestapo chief Friedrich (Fritz) Schmidt sat behind his desk with a single sheet of paper in front of him. It was Wednesday, March 29, 1944.
“It is an order from the Führer. Four prisoners, who are with the Kripo at Flensburg, will be shot at a place determined by me. They are enemy agents who were condemned to death and tried to escape to Denmark. You, Major Post, will go to Flensburg and interrogate the prisoners. It is not expected they will make any statement. You will leave Flensburg by car and shoot them at a pre-arranged spot. Oskar Schmidt will see that the cremation is carried out and all formalities complied with. For the firing, service pistols will be used. If, contrary to expectations, an escape should be made, service rifles will be used, as pistols will not be sufficient.”
Thirty-eight-year-old Johannes Post was an ardent Nazi, fanatical in his loyalty to Hitler and intimidating to all who knew him. Although only five and a half feet tall, he boasted a solid physique—what some considered corpulent, and others thought imposing. His eyes—an arctic blue beneath a thick main of blond hair always brushed backward—rarely betrayed any emotion. Whatever moral convictions he possessed were solely defined by Nazi policy. He had, since the outbreak of the war and for the glory of the Reich, killed many he deemed inferior. Married with three young children, he spent little time with his family, preferring instead the company of his mistress.
Next to Post stood forty-three-year-old Oskar Schmidt and three other Gestapo officers. They received their instructions without protest, though some would later claim feeling ill at ease with their assignment. No such reservations burdened Post. He knew the condemned were British airmen, and he considered death by bullet too merciful. He listened attentively as Fritz Schmidt detailed what needed to be done. The shootings would take place in a meadow along a rural stretch of road about eight miles south of Kiel in the direction of Neumünster. The prisoners were to be escorted a good distance from the road so as to prevent any passing motorist from witnessing the murders. No official record of the slayings would be kept. Post was placed in charge of the overall operation.
“Anyone not complying with this order will have to reckon with immediate sentence of death and punitive measures against his family,” Fritz Schmidt said. “The same applies to anyone talking about the matter with outsiders.”
Schmidt walked around his desk and shook each man’s hand, binding him to secrecy. The meeting, having lasted no more than ten minutes, was over.
At that moment, unaware of the dark machinations at work, Australian Squadron Leader James Catanach sat in a cell in the police prison in Flensburg. Freedom had seemed so close just three days prior. For two years he had sat in Stalag Luft III, having arrived there after being shot down over Norway. The twenty-two year old spoke fluent German and believed, the night of the escape, that he harbored a fair chance of ultimately making it to neutral Sweden. Before the breakout, he partnered with flying officer Arnold Christensen of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. In the hours following the escape, the two men managed to make their way to the Sagan railway station and catch the 3:15 A.M. express to Berlin.
On the same train, also hoping to make Sweden, were fellow escapees Hallada Espelid and Nils Fuglesang, Norwegians with the Royal Air Force. They reached the capital shortly before 7:30 A.M., their journey having passed without incident. In the gray light of that cold winter morning, the men were perhaps satisfied to witness at ground level the devastation wrought by Allied bombers. The city was one of shattered architecture and gaunt, hollow expressions. They spent the night in Berlin, avoiding detection, and purchased train tickets the next day—March 26—to Flensburg on the Danish border. It was here, in this ancient city on the Baltic coast, that their bid for freedom came to an end. Catanach and Christensen were taken into police custody while walking along the Holm, a pedestrian thoroughfare in an area of the city that had thus far escaped bombardment. The two arresting officers were specifically on duty that night as a result of the Sagan breakout. In another part of town, Espelid and Fuglesang were apprehended at a police checkpoint on the Marienhölzungsweg. What aroused police suspicions and led to the arrests has been lost to history, the records having been destroyed by Allied bombs.
Once in custody, the men were taken to the local Kripo headquarters and briefly interrogated. Confessing to being officers of the Royal Air Force and fugitives from Stalag Luft III, they refused to surrender details regarding the escape’s planning and execution. They gave only their names and ranks, military identification numbers, and the route they had traveled while on the run. Their information was noted and forwarded to the Central Security Office in Berlin, where it followed a bureaucratic paper trail to Kaltenbrunner’s desk. From Kripo headquarters, the men were transferred to the city’s police prison and put in a cell. Three days had now past since their recapture; three days with no official word on what fate awaited them. They assumed the Germans would return them to a prison camp, as was normal protocol. The question was, were they destined once again for Sagan or a different compound altogether? On that Wednesday afternoon, an answer seemed close at hand.
The Gestapo men drove in two cars. Johannes Post and Inspector Hans Kaehler rode in a black four-seat Mercedes; Oskar Schmidt followed behind in a black six-seat Adler, with fellow officers Franz Schmidt (no relation) and Walter Jacobs. They arrived in Flensburg shortly after noon and stopped for lunch at the Harmonie restaurant. After their meal, they drove to the Polizeidirektion, where the four RAF officers were being detained. Prison officials, notified of the Gestapo’s pending arrival, retrieved the airmen from their cell and seated them in the main corridor, ready for transfer.
Post and his comrades arrived at the prison and separated the airmen for questioning, but fifteen minutes of futile interrogation failed to yield anything beyond what was already known. At 3 P.M., the prisoners were handcuffed—their wrists shackled behind their backs—and marched to the waiting cars outside. Post and Kaehler took custody of Catanach; Christensen, Espelid, and Fuglesang were bundled into the Adler with the two Schmidts and Walter Jacobs. The vehicles pulled away in a convoy, with the Mercedes leading. In the backseat, Catanach stared out the window as the gothic architecture of Flensburg eventually gave way to open road. The cars traveled via Schleswig Eckernvoerde in the direction of Kiel, the rolling country soon surrendering to a ravaged urban scene.
In the car’s front passenger seat, Post eyed his captive in the rearview mirror. He played morbid tour guide, pointing out Kiel’s once-great monuments and buildings recently devastated by Allied air raids. Catanach nodded and said he was most familiar with the city’s architecture, having flown several combat operations against Kiel before his capture. Post shrugged and lit a cigarette.
“We must get on,” he said. “I have to shoot you.”
Catanach turned his gaze from the window, puzzled. “What did you say?”
“I am going to shoot you,” Post repeated. “Those are my orders.”
It was well known in local Gestapo ranks that Post took great pleasure in telling prisoners they were doomed to die. He enjoyed their desperate pleas for mercy. Although Post knew Catanach spoke German, he addressed the airman in English.
“Do you mind?” the airman laughed, mistaking Post’s statement for a sick joke. “Another time. I have an appointment in the cooler of Stalag Luft III. I’ve done nothing wrong except go under the wire. You can’t shoot me.”
“Well,” Post said, “those are my orders.”
The car continued to navigate the city’s shattered streets. As the Mercedes turned a corner, Post barked an order to his driver, Artur Denkmann. He had tickets for the theater that night, but with the business now at hand, he was doubtful he would make the performance on time. Post directed Denkmann to an apartment building on the Hansastrasse. He pulled the tickets from the inside pocket of his gray leather overcoat and ordered Kaehler to run them upstairs to his mistress. When Kaehler returned several minutes later, the journey resumed without another word. The Mercedes left Kiel and headed south in the direction of Neumünster, along the Hamburger Chaussee. Roughly nine miles out of Kiel, where the road curved sharply to the right, the car pulled onto the right shoulder and came to a stop. Post ordered Kaehler, sitting next to Catanach, to remove the airman’s shackles and got out of the vehicle. During the car ride, when conversing with Catanach in English, Post had seemed almost jovial. Now he barked his orders in angry German and told Catanach to get out. The airman did as he was told but showed no sign of concern, apparently still believing Post’s earlier threat to be a morbid joke.
Post ordered Catanach to cross the road, where, directly opposite the Mercedes, a gate opened into a meadow bordered by hedgerow. Kaehler got out of the vehicle and followed them across the carriageway. Post stayed three steps behind Catanach and slid his right hand into his coat pocket as they approached the gate. Entering the meadow, Post marched Catanach to the left, concealing them behind the hedgerow. Catanach kept walking, not bothering to look back. Without uttering a word, Post pulled a Luger 7.65mm pistol from his pocket and fired. Catanach screamed, the slug striking him between the shoulder blades, and fell dead to the ground. As Post pocketed his weapon, he heard the second car arrive. Engine trouble in Kiel accounted for the Adler’s late arrival. Oskar Schmidt ordered his driver, Wilhelm Struve, to pull in behind the Mercedes and turned to the prisoners on the car’s folding backseat. The journey back to Sagan, he said, would take several more hours. The men would be wise to relieve themselves. He got out and opened the car’s rear left door for the airmen. Post stood watching impatiently at the gate, eager for what was coming.
Christensen, Espelid, and Fuglesang clambered out of the car—their wrists still shackled—with Walter Jacobs and Franz Schmidt behind them. Oskar Schmidt and his two partners marched the airmen across the roadway, toward the gate. It was five o’clock when they entered the meadow, and the men trod carefully in the fading light. Corralled by Post and the other agents behind them, they moved to the left of the gate. They were no more than seven steps from the gate when one of the airmen saw a dark object lying in the grass. The realization that it was James Catanach drew a panicked scream from one of the men. All three airmen jumped backward and tried to scramble as Jacobs and the two Schmidts drew their weapons.
“Shoot them!” Post roared. “Shoot them! Why don’t you shoot them?”
Three gun reports echoed across the meadow in the evening gloom. Two of the airmen fell lifeless alongside Catanach; the third hit the ground in apparent agony and made a feeble attempt to get back up. He struggled, his wrists still chained behind his back, and opened his mouth as though wanting to speak.
“He is still alive!” Post screamed. “I shall shoot him.”
He rushed at Kaehler and snatched the rifle from his hands. He approached the airman and put a bullet in his head. Satisfied the job was done, he ordered Kaehler to accompany him back to Kiel and told the others to guard the scene. Oskar Schmidt watched Post and Kaehler leave before turning his gaze to the bodies in the grass.
“He was not mine,” he said. “Mine died instantly.”
“And so did mine,” said Franz Schmidt.
Post still hoped to make the theater on time. The Mercedes sped north, back up the Hamburger Chaussee toward Kiel. Coffins were needed to transport the corpses to the local crematorium. Post directed his driver to Tischendorf’s, an undertaker at Karlstrasse 26. It was six o’clock when Post and Kaehler entered the establishment and spoke with Wilhelm Tischendorf, the proprietor. From the leather coats and long boots the men had on, Tischendorf presumed his customers were Gestapo.
“I need you to collect some prisoners who have been shot in the vicinity of Rotenhahn,” Post said by way of greeting, flashing his identification.
“What prisoners are they?” Tischendorf asked.
“French. Shot whilst trying to escape.”
Post said no more and returned to his waiting car. He left Kaehler to handle the details. Suspicious of Post, Tischendorf asked Kaehler who the prisoners were.
“They’re British airmen,” Kaehler said.
“Are they some of the seventy-six airmen I have read about in the papers?”
Kaehler answered in the affirmative.
“I shall have a car ready to leave in half an hour,” Tischendorf said.
Kaehler went outside and told Post, who nodded his approval. He ordered Kaehler to see the job through to its conclusion before demanding the driver return him to the apartment on the Hansastrasse, where his mistress waited with theater tickets.
The hearse—and two lidless, tin coffins—was ready sooner than expected. Tischendorf directed Kaehler to a parking lot behind the building, where he found two mortician laborers waiting in a burial van. Kaehler got in the front passenger seat and ordered the driver to get moving. The three men drove mostly in silence; Kaehler, giving directions, was the only one who spoke. As the van approached the right-hand bend on the Hamburger Chaussee, near the Rotenhahn, an inn and pub, Kaehler told the driver to slow down. The Adler was still parked on the right-hand side of the road, opposite the meadow’s entrance. Kaehler pointed to the gate, which was open, and ordered the driver to turn left into the field. He did not want passersby on the carriageway to witness the bodies being loaded. The driver, Wilhelm Boll, although worried the van’s wheels might get stuck in the damp earth, did as instructed. In the meadow, as he cut the van’s engine, Boll saw three men—one armed with a rifle—standing several feet off to his left.
Kaehler climbed out of the van; he had been gone no more than forty-five minutes. He ordered Boll and the other laborer, Artur Salau, to retrieve the two coffins from the back of the vehicle. The men did as they were told without comment and placed the caskets alongside the four bodies. Oskar Schmidt, charged with ensuring the victims were properly disposed of, ordered the bodies be stacked two to a coffin. The Gestapo men simply stood and watched as Boll and Salau commenced the morbid task. The bodies, both laborers noticed, were dressed in what appeared to be new civilian suits. Two of the dead men had bullet wounds to the head.
“If the Russians get here, they’ll do the same to us,” muttered one of the Gestapo agents.
Boll and Salau, wanting only to be done with the job, heard the comment but did not respond. They placed the bodies in the coffins and loaded the caskets into the back of the van. Oskar Schmidt ordered the bodies be taken immediately to the crematorium in Kiel. The journey back to the city was made in two cars. Boll and Salau drove the burial van, while the Gestapo agents followed close behind in the Adler. At the crematorium, on-duty engineer Arthur Schafer knew better than to question official Gestapo business. It was six-thirty when the four agents arrived, accompanied by two undertakers hauling four bodies in a pair of cheap coffins. It was Oskar Schmidt who did the talking.
“Here are four corpses to be cremated.”
“Do you have the necessary documents?” asked Schafer.
“Berlin has ordered it.”
Schafer opened the crematorium’s leather-bound register and reached for a pen.
“You will not make any entries.”
Although notified in advance that such a visit was likely, Schafer found the circumstances peculiar. Regulations, he said, dictated that names of the deceased be recorded. Schmidt told Schafer to enter each body in the register only as a Roman numeral, I through IV. The bodies were not to be assigned cremation numbers, nor were any notes to be made of the date.
“The corpses are those of prisoners who were shot whilst on the run,” Schmidt said.
Schafer did as instructed and asked the undertakers to carry the coffins to the furnace. Before consigning the bodies to flame, Schafer gave each one a cursory glance. All four victims were dressed in civilian clothing, wearing woolen underwear, woolen stockings, and woolen pullovers. He didn’t see any visible wounds. The four Gestapo men stayed until the bodies had been destroyed and the ashes relegated to four urns, each labeled with a Roman numeral I through IV. Walter Jacobs took possession of the urns, which were to be sent to Stalag Luft III for burial. By nine o’clock the agents were back at local Gestapo headquarters, their work done. Boll and Salau returned the burial van and checked in with their boss.
“Everything in order?” Tischendorf asked.
“Yes,” Boll replied.
“What kind of bodies were they?”
“They were all shot from the back.”
In another part of town, sitting with his mistress in a darkened theater, Johannes Post enjoyed that evening’s operatic performance. He had made the show on time.