The Heights of Zervos
Thursday, April 3, 1941
Less than ten minutes to zero, to detonation point, Macomber, lying on his stomach along the top of the oil tanker wagon, listened to the German patrol closing in round the Bucharest railyard. His escape route was blocked, his body chilled to the bone by the snow which drifted down through the night, and the frightening barks of the Alsatian dogs assaulted his ears, a sound punctuated by orders rapped out in German. 'Watch the wire… At the first sign of movement open fire… Gunther, take the signal-box – you can see what's happening from up there…'
It was the third night of April and Rumania was still gripped by winter, still showed no inkling of spring on the way, still lay numbed under the icy wind which flowed from the east, from the Russian steppes and Siberia beyond. The insidious cold of 2 AM was penetrating Macomber's leather coat as he remained sprawled over the curve of the tanker, not daring to flex even a gloved finger as a German soldier walked beside the track below, and the crunch of boots breaking the crusted snow came up to the trapped Scot like the sound of twigs snapping.
The sub-zero temperature, the realization that arms, legs, feet were gradually losing all feeling, the trudge of marching troops below the wagon – these were the least of his worries when he remembered what was supporting his precariously poised body. He was lying on top of several thousand gallons of refined aviation spirit, petrol already bound for the Luftwaffe even though the Wehrmacht had occupied Rumania only recently, and a ten- kilogram composite demolition charge was attached under the belly of this huge tanker. The time fuse he had set was ticking down to zero, synchronized with other charges spaced out along the petrol train. And now the patrol had arrived and was checking for an intruder, searching for a saboteur – although perhaps sabotage had not yet entered their minds as they systematically surrounded the petrol train.
The snow, damp and paralysingly cold, was building up over his exposed neck, forming an icy collar where his woollen scarf parted company with his bare skin, but he remained perfectly motionless, thankful that his head at least was protected by the soft hat squashed over his brow. There's too damned much of me for this concealment game, he was thinking. Over six feet tall, over fourteen stone in weight, there was far too much of him, but he dismissed the thought as he stared at the illuminated hands of his watch, a watch strapped to the inside of his wrist as a precaution against the phosphorescent face betraying his position. Eight minutes to zero. Eight minutes before the charges detonated – and the tankers detonated seconds later – turning the railyard into a flaming furnace, a furnace which would cremate Ian Macomber. And there was yet a further hazard which made it impossible for him to protect himself against the elements which were slowly embalming him with a covering of freezing snow – as though to prepare his body for the imminent cremation. Ice had formed over the metal surface of the cylindrical tanker, ice which would send him slithering down into the path of the searching patrol if he altered his position by so much as a centimetre. So he lay still as a dead man while he watched a field-grey figure pass under a lamp close to the wire, mount the steps to the signal-box and enter the stilt-legged structure which overlooked the petrol train.
The lamp was hooded against direct observation from aircraft flying overhead, as were all the lamps inside the yard -hooded to avoid giving guidance to Allied planes which might appear on their way to bomb the vital oil- fields at Ploesti. Not that Macomber was expecting an RAF raid – the chronic shortage of bombers, the lack even of a machine which could fly the distance, guaranteed the Germans the safety of their newly acquired oil reserves – which made the sabotaging of oil for Germany vital. More footsteps crunched in the snow and then stopped immediately below where Macomber lay. His muscles tensed involuntarily and then relaxed. The metal ladder attached to the tanker's side ended a few inches beyond his head where the final rung rested close to the huge cap concealing him. Was someone coming up the ladder to investigate? His brain was still wrestling with this contingency when it received a further shock: something metallic clanged against a wheel. The demolition charge was hidden behind the front wheel. Christ, they'd found it!
'Get under the wagon – cross to the other side and wait there!' The voice spoke in German, a language Macomber understood and spoke fluently. An NCO issuing an order to a soldier – so there were two of them standing not fifteen feet below him. The voice continued, harsh and keyed up by the sub-zero temperature. 'If he runs for it, he'll run for the wire. I'm posting men the whole length of the train…' So they knew someone was inside the railyard. Macomber blinked as a snow flurry percolated under his hat and clouded his eyes; fearful lest the snow should begin to freeze his eyelids, he blinked several times while he waited for the soldier to crawl under the tanker. He would, of course, find the demolition charge. At least there was little sign of activity from the signal-box where he could see two shadowed figures under a blue light behind the windows – Gunther was checking with the signalman presumably. Feet crunched through the snow again, were swallowed up quickly as the NCO continued his march to post more men along the train – men who would inevitably close the door to escape. Not that he had a chance in hell of covering the hundred yards which would take him to the hole in the wire where he had cut his way through, and the wire-cutters in his pocket were now so much dead weight; with the place so well covered he could never hope to cut a fresh hole before they spotted him. He heard a fresh sound from below, the rasp of metal against the tanker as the soldier began clambering under the wagon. A clumsy Jerry, this one. Perhaps a stupid one, too, but not stupid enough to miss seeing the charge…
More scrabbling noises, hurrying noises from under the tanker. The German didn't like passing over the track in case the train started moving. An illogical fear since the wagons would never be moved during the search, but Macomber understood the reaction and had experienced it himself. Wondering whether he would ever be able to stir again, Macomber lay motionless and waited for the noises to stop suddenly, which would warn him that the charge had been found. And then he would wait again, but only briefly before the soldier's shout announced his lethal discovery. The scrabbling sounds ceased and Macomber held his breath, waiting for the shout, but he heard only a wheezing cough and a shuffle of frozen feet. The damned fool had missed seeing it, thank God. He was now standing on the other side of the tanker, the side nearest the signal-box – which put him between Macomber and the wire. The Scot checked his watch. Five minutes to zero.
The uncanny silence of winter's darkness descended on the railyard once more. The dogs had been taken farther up the line, the sound of feet crunching through the snow had ceased, and the wind was dropping. The stage was set, the Wehrmacht were in position, and now it only remained for Macomber's nerve to break, for him to be apprehended when he climbed down the small ladder and ended his career by the tracks of a desolate junction few people had ever heard of. As the snow fell more slowly the silence was so complete he heard in the distance coals going down the iron hopper in the eastern rail-yard. The silence was broken by the sound of a window opening in the signal-box, opening with a fracturing crack as ice on the ledge shattered. Gunther leaned out of the window and stared directly at the snow-shrouded hump on top of the last petrol wagon.
Macomber stared back at Gunther's silhouette, moving only his eyes to take in this new source of danger. He was boxed in: observed from a distance and trapped by the soldier below. His eyes swivelled back to his watch. Four minutes to zero and still no way out, not even the ghost of a diversion he could take advantage of. It was his swansong as a British saboteur, the end of his dangerous passage down through the Balkans, a trail not only blazed by the series of devastating explosions which had destroyed vast quantities of strategic war materials – but also a trail which the German Abwehr Intelligence service had followed, often only one step behind him. He weighed up his chances.
With a great deal of luck the Luger in his coat pocket would eliminate the soldier below the wagon, but then there was the German in the signal-box who had apparently noticed nothing amiss, who had left the window while he talked to the signalman again; there was the wire fence he could never hope to climb; and there was the line of Wehrmacht troops posted along the train with instructions to watch that wire, to shoot on sight. His mind raced, estimating possibilities, and his watch raced faster. Three minutes and thirty seconds to go. He had calculated the odds and decided they were loaded impossibly against him. The sound of the car starting up so startled him he almost lost his balance; he hadn't even realized it was there, but now the driver switched on a light inside the vehicle and he saw it parked close to the signal-box on the far side of the wire. A Mercedes. The driver was having