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ESCAPE

 article about ESCAPE

December 1944 – Forest near Cochem, Germany.


Rolf hid behind a tree, adjusted his binoculars, and watched Friedrich slowly approach the farmhouse. A pale moon laid its beams over the landscape, and Rolf was having difficulty keeping his friend in focus because he had reached the area where the house cast shadows on the ground. His eyes drifted away from the lens and took in the stars winking around the scowling clouds. A biting wind chilled him. He pulled his overcoat closed and wondered whether it would snow. He placed his hand out, and touched his rifle that was leaning against the tree.


He removed his battered hat and his long hair flopped forward onto his face. He pushed it back and jammed his hat on his head to keep it out of his eyes. He scratched his beard with his fingernails. Then he thought; no one would recognise Rolf Krieger now.


The dirty torn overcoat hid his brown pants. Not only was his beard itching, so were his balls. He pushed his hand under his belt and adjusted the irritating rough seams of his trousers, because he no longer wore underpants. His last pair had worn out. He was also wearing the rest of the clothes he possessed, a shirt, two pullovers, and gloves.


The farmhouse was small and surrounded by pens where a horse stood feeding from a nosebag. Further around were several cows slowly chewing their cud. Out in the field were more cows now indistinct in the night. Closer to the farm was a chicken hut within a yard with a few chickens pecking at food on the ground. He could hear fowls clucking in the fowl house.


Friedrich was attempting to listen to the English radio broadcast on the farm. Rolf looked at the mast rising above the shingles, and willed the farmer to turn on his radio. Friedrich was almost caught the last time when the farmer had visitors and Rolf was concerned his friend had to hide and was long overdue at the camp. This time, they had arranged for Rolf to watch the house, and make a bird call if anyone approached.


Friedrich must be in his hiding place under the broken window by the farmer's living room, thought Rolf. From that position, the radio could be heard. Rolf had a good view of the approaches to the farm, and unless the farmer suddenly caught Friedrich, he should be safe and able to escape if anyone approached.


For weeks they had been discussing leaving the forest and trying to get to France. The batteries in a radio were too heavy to carry, so they reluctantly had determined not to buy one. Friedrich discovered he could hear the receiver at this farmhouse and had heard the Allies launched an attack in June. It was difficult to know what to do without news so they decided to see what they could hear at the farmhouse again. With winter approaching, it was going to be uncomfortable in the camp. They were anxious to leave if it was safe.


Two hours later, Rolf was relieved to see the bearded figure of Friedrich emerge from the shadows, pulling his greatcoat closer around his body to keep out the cold. He held his finger to his lips and pointed towards the shadowy forest about half a kilometre away. They walked quickly in silence until they gained the trees where they stopped.


‘The Germans have pulled back to the French border. That can only mean they've been thrown out of France,' said Friedrich.


‘Do you think we could chance it?'


‘I think if we could get over the border we would have a chance.'


‘Wouldn't there be more Germans than usual on the border?'


‘Yes,' said Friedrich. They stepped around some bushes and descended an embankment. ‘What are you going to do? It could be difficult for Germans in France.'


‘Don't know,' said Rolf as he hoisted the rifle further back onto his shoulder when they were crossing a small creek. Stones were protruding out of the water giving them something to stand on. ‘They might put me in prison until the war's over. I heard they treat prisoners well.'


‘Bullshit,' said Friedrich. ‘No one treats prisoners well.'


‘Look at it this way. If we're caught in Germany, we'll be shot. If we're caught in France I'll go to prison and you'll be a bloody hero judging from those letters you showed me.'


They were deeper into the forest. Progress was slower because the trees were keeping moonlight from filtering onto the ground. ‘We should stay in the forest. At least until the Allies attack,' said Friedrich.


‘It's going to snow soon and we could freeze,' said Rolf.


                                                          *


 


Next morning, Rolf awoke and noticed Friedrich wasn't in his bed. They had built a hut out of tree branches, scraps of tin, and wooden sheets filled in the areas around the walls and roof. To cover the gaps in the joins they spread canvas from their tents to keep out the cold air. The back of the hut was formed by a small rocky hill. Rolf smelt eggs cooking. He pulled aside the canvas covering the doorway, saw that Friedrich had started a fire and had four eggs frying in a pan.


Friedrich slid the eggs onto two tin plates and handed one to Rolf. The campsite had logs laid out around the fire. A wire cage was holding four chickens scratching around near the hut and drawn up against the hill. Meat was hanging in a tree ready to be prepared. The camp was in the thick green wilderness. Trees and bushes screened the whole campsite.


Rolf sat on the log, picked up a knife from the small box they used as a table, cut into the eggs, and started to eat.


‘Have you made up your mind?' asked Friedrich.


‘I want to go,' said Rolf. ‘What about you?'


‘I'll go if you go. We're a team, where you go I go.'


Rolf had never had a deep connection like this before – except for Ilse his wife now dead-- although this friendship was even closer because they had to depend on each other to stay alive. Rolf cut a piece of egg and expertly balanced it on his knife then slid it into his mouth. ‘If you don't want to go we'll stay,' he said.


‘No, let's go. You're right. When do we leave?'


‘We should eat what's left of the deer.'


‘We'll cook it, and cut it up for the trip. We can leave tomorrow,' said Friedrich as he stood. He plunged his plate into a bucket of water and began to clean it.


                                                *


 


They emerged from the forest and stayed in Cochem only long enough to buy fresh food, long underwear, wire cutters, extra clothes, and then continued the trek down the railway line towards France. They hid during the day and walked at night. Even though they had heavy coats and plenty of clothes beneath, the icy winds penetrated ensuring they were continually cold.


On the third day they hid in a thick green bushy tree, they heard voices. Friedrich pointed to a German foot patrol of about a twelve soldiers searching the area only twenty metres from them. Rolf nodded, and slipped the rifle into position, not that it would be much good against the patrol, he thought. Snow was falling, creating a bright white desert, and covering their tracks. Rolf felt fear rise in his stomach and he held his breath. The patrol passed within a metre of their hiding place. One of the soldiers relieved himself into the tree. Rolf felt heat rising from the hot urine. The soldier shook his pale member and walked further away buttoning his fly. Rolf breathed again.


‘They might come back. Do you want to move?' asked Rolf.


‘This is a good place. They won't find us.'


The patrol returned later in the day but didn't come within a hundred metres. That night they carefully continued trekking towards the border.


Two days later, they reached the approaches to the Siegfried Line where they noticed more activity. Rolf climbed a tree to look at the assembled German Army. There was a two-metre mesh fence running along the border, and in some places, concrete emplacements and pillboxes showed their imposing presence.


Rolf climbed down to where an anxious Friedrich waited. ‘There is nowhere to cross,' he said.


‘What now?'


‘We'll have to find somewhere else. This is where the train used to cross and go on to Metz in France. We should have cut away from the line. I think we should go south along the border.' Rolf folded his binoculars, and put them back in his bag. He swung his pack onto his back and started walking.


‘Don't I get a say in where we're going?' asked Friedrich.


Rolf stopped and turned, ‘Where do you want to go?'


‘I'd like to be asked.'


Rolf walked back towards Friedrich. ‘There's only North or South. If we go north, we'll have to cross into Luxemburg and if we go south, we cross into France. We agreed it should be France. So what's the problem?'


‘You just assume I'm going to do what you want. I'm sick of following a selfish bastard like you.'


Rolf turned to go, ‘Suit yourself.'


‘Rolf,' Friedrich yelled. Rolf worried that the Germans might hear. ‘Stop. Don't be like this. I just want you to ask me. You're acting like a bloody general.'


‘My dear Friedrich,' said Rolf in a cultured voice waving his arm and going into an exaggerated bow. ‘What is your pleasure? Would you like to go north into Luxemburg, or do you want to go south along the border? Or perhaps I could trim your beard or cut the dags out of your arse?'


Friedrich ignored him and walked past the bowing figure. Rolf caught up with him and threw his arm around his shoulders. He pushed him to the ground and tried to pull his pants down. ‘I want your arse?'


‘No,' said Friedrich as he turned his body trying to push Rolf off. They rolled in the snow trying to get on top of each other. Rolf started smiling. Friedrich stopped fighting and they sat in the snow laughing at each other. Friedrich rolled some snow into a ball and threw it at Rolf. They were soon on their feet having a snow fight. The activity left them breathless and they sat back in the snow and laughed.


They walked for about an hour during the daylight when Rolf found a thick bushy area. ‘I think we're far enough away not to be noticed. We should hide until it gets dark?' said Rolf.


‘We haven't got the railway line to show us the way in the dark,' said Friedrich.


‘We should travel in the day?' Rolf sat on a log and rolled a smoke. Friedrich joined him.


‘We'll get as far away from the railway line as we can? Then cut back to the border when we think there won't be as many patrols,' said Friedrich.


‘Who's the General now?'


‘It's just a suggestion.'


‘We'll stay in the trees and the hills for today and tomorrow, then get closer to the border. We'll travel in daylight. We don't want to fall down a bloody cliff,' said Rolf.


Friedrich pulled his coat around him. ‘It's cold. Wish we could light a fire.'


‘We'll just have to stay cold,' said Rolf as he stood.


They travelled for the rest of the day then built a crude shelter out of bushes and small trees to keep out of the snow and wind. They ate the last of their food, and tried to sleep in the miserable conditions.


As daylight came, they were on their way, and walked until noon. They stopped while Rolf climbed a tree and scanned the border with binoculars where he noticed the patrols were less frequent. They walked for the rest of the day then cut towards the border and were in position near the frontier as darkness fell.


It was a bitter night, no snow, and the moon was hidden behind clouds. Rolf and Friedrich raised their head above the snowdrift and watched the guardhouse about a hundred metres away. The guards appeared relaxed and their voices drifted across to the fugitives. ‘I think this is it,' said Rolf. On the line of the border was a wire mesh fence about two metres high with vee shaped barbwire on the top. The undergrowth was cleared along both sides of the border for about a hundred metres. They would be exposed for two hundred metres and have to negotiate the fence. Rolf felt the wire cutters in his pocket and he was glad they wouldn't have to climb over the barbed wire.


‘It's the best chance we've had,' said Friedrich.


Rolf pointed, ‘We'll move back towards the other guardhouse. It's about a kilometre away.'


‘Will they patrol tonight?' asked Friedrich?


‘We'll wait until about four o'clock tomorrow morning. If they're not patrolling we'll go.'


‘They'll see us.'


‘We won't run or walk. We're crawl through the snow. It's not deep enough to cover us but we'll be hard to see.'


‘It'll take a while to crawl that far.'


‘Are you sure you want to come?' Rolf placed his hand on his friend's shoulder. Friedrich's eyes were darting towards the border and back to Rolf in fear.


‘Off course,' said Friedrich.


They moved back into the forest and found a hiding place under an over hanging tree branch opposite where they wanted to cross. The German guards patrolled every hour as Rolf signalled Friedrich to sleep. He tried but Rolf noticed how restless his friend was. If he is as cold and hungry as I am, thought Rolf, he'll never sleep. At midnight, Rolf shook his friend and told him to watch while he tried to sleep. He closed his eyes but he kept thinking about a burst of gunfire and falling bloodied in the snow.


Rolf felt Friedrich's hand, ‘ It's nearly four. There hasn't been a patrol since midnight.'


They crawled to the area where they wanted to cross, and lay flat in the snow. Rolf went first; he crabbed along slowly with Friedrich following. Rolf had to tell himself to concentrate on crawling to erase thoughts of bullets crashing into his body. He touched his forehead and felt sweat. How could he sweat in this weather? Half an hour later, they reached the barrier.


Rolf attempted to cut the wire but it was thicker than he thought and the wire cutters were meant for thinner wire. Eventually, he was able to cut one strand. It was getting lighter and they worked anxiously on the fence. Each strand took about five agonising minutes to cut. And, each moment Rolf felt sure they would be seen and shot. It took an hour to cut a hole large enough to crawl through.


It was daylight when Rolf slipped through the fence with difficulty. Friedrich was halfway through when his pack caught. Rolf had to stand to free him and he thought he saw the flash of something in the snow. The crack of a gunshot broke the silence; Friedrich groaned and was thrown hard against the fence almost freeing the pack. Blood seeped through his coat where the bullet had entered. In that moment, Rolf felt his world crashing around him. They couldn't escape with one of them wounded. He was weary of the struggle and thought of surrendering so Friedrich could seek medical help. Friedrich's hunted wild eyes made him forget it. Then the thought of certain death from a firing squad gave him strength. He wrenched the wounded man through the wire. They heard shouting, then more gunfire. Someone was shooting at them from about a hundred metres away. He readied the rifle; a guard was standing with a smoking gun. Rolf hoped the rifle would work after being in the snowdrift. He fired at the guard, who collapsed.


Friedrich found it hard to run and Rolf had to hold him up. They had almost reached the trees when there was another shot and Friedrich pitched head first into the snow. Rolf thought he should abandon his dreams of escaping with Friedrich. But, he couldn't leave him. Another guard was running towards them. Rolf dragged his wounded friend into the trees. He took the rifle and fired six rounds at the guard who dropped to the ground and fired from a prone position.


More blood was showing on Friedrich's back. Rolf picked him up onto his shoulders and ran as fast as he could away from the Germans while bullets from the guard whistled past. Eventually, exhausted, he sank down to the ground and laid Friedrich on his back. Blood was oozing from the corners of his mouth. He tried to speak, ‘ I, I. Get away,' he whispered.


‘No, we'll do this together,' said Rolf. Friedrich lifted his head and tried to speak again; more blood was coming from his mouth. No sound would come. He shuddered and his head collapsed. He stopped breathing.


Rolf shook Friedrich for a few moments. Tears formed and he brushed them away. Must he lose everyone he was close to, he thought. He took the identifying documents from his friend and placed his papers in Friedrich's pocket.


‘I hope I don't disappoint you. I didn't manage very well as Rolf Krieger, I hope I'll be better as Friedrich Wielun,' he said as he heard the Germans approaching.


He rushed through the snow away from the pursuing troops.


 



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