Broadman & Holman
The Narrow Door at Colditz
May 25, 1940
The spring sky shone a brilliant blue, the color of the cool waters of the English Channel lapping upon the sandy beaches just beyond Colais, Belgium, but the scene was far from peaceful. Nazi Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers swirled out of the clouds like deadly fire-spitting gnats. The fixed undercarriages of the “Shrieking Vultures” airplanes resembled the talons of hawks, swooping out of the sky to devour prey. Along with striking the beaches, the small airplanes kept strafing the country lanes leading out of the small French town of Calais toward Boulogne and up the opposite road north toward Belgium’s Nieuport and Ostend, forcing the retreating British soldiers to fight back from behind the meandering stone fences lining both sides of the road.
Tony Irving hurried down a narrow trench behind a winding section of the wall with a couple of British soldiers trailing behind him. Tony was a tall, broad-shouldered youth with a thick back and strong arms. Although he was a twenty-year-old American, several months earlier Sergeant Irving had been secretly assigned to the Forty-eighth Division of the British Royal Army Service Corps for advisory purposes. As if a bona fide Englishman, Tony’s assignment was to teach the British how to use the long, metal tube that was now a new innovative instrument of war so they could stop the German’s twenty-ton Panzer IV tanks. The maneuverable yet formidable medium tanks had been the cutting edge of the German sword, slicing with terrifying speed through the Low Countries. The 75 mm guns and agile maneuverability of the Panzers easily stopped the British Matilda tanks, but the strange black gun Tony called a “bazooka” could instantly wreck the arduous Panzers.
Tony listened to bombs exploding up and down the road. If he’d had a choice, he certainly would rather have been listening to Benny Goodman or, better yet, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, but the bombs didn’t intimidate him. He felt almost invincible. After all, not only was he an American, but Tony was certain God was on his side. He, the Brits, and God would stop those Krauts no matter what happened.
“Come on, Lord,” Tony prayed under his breath. “Help me put an end to these advancing bums. We can do it. Let’s hit ’em hard! Amen.”
Balancing the narrow missile launcher on his shoulder, Tony slowly raised out of the trench. “Hang on, boys. We’re about to have one of those tasty little Panzers for supper.” Irving leveled the bazooka quickly and took a deep breath. For a moment the scent of smoke and gunpowder filled his nose and irritated his eyes.
“Watch out!” the British Expeditionary Forces soldier behind Tony screamed. “The Germans are breaking through again!” With his overcoat flapping in the spring breeze, the soldier pointed toward a Panzer tank suddenly turning into the road.
Dropping to one knee, Tony aimed the bazooka at the Panzer only several hundred feet in front of him. He could see the 7.92 mm machine guns sticking out of the hull. “Steady,” Irving mumbled to himself. “Easy does it, boys.”
Tony squeezed the trigger. A moment later a blast of fire roared across the road and a ball of crimson flames rolled up into the blue sky. Irving instantly dropped into the trench and ducked his head. Pieces of metal whizzed by, and the rumbling clank of the approaching tank instantly stopped. Irving knew the iron beast was dead.
“Great shot, mate!” the Brit screamed in his ear. “But we’ve got to get out of here! ’Em bloody Panzers ain’t stoppin’ for nothin’. Run!” The Royal soldier trotted back in the opposite direction.
Irving picked up the bazooka and retreated behind the Brit, hustling down the fence line. Thirty feet ahead, the remainder of the platoon huddled together against the rock wall. Not many of the original squad had survived the blitzkrieg attack that was sweeping across the Belgium countryside like a summer storm.
A second Stuka dive-bomber strafed the lane, sending the British into the ditches. Irving’s helmet tumbled into the dirt, and the American grabbed his head. His closely cropped crew cut felt like a boar-bristled hairbrush. His narrow spot in the ditch cramped him, leaving his back exposed. When the Stuka returned, Tony knew he was vulnerable.
“We can’t stay here,” the lieutenant insisted. He tightened the leather strap on his metal helmet. “Stoppin’ one of ’em tanks won’t slow down these monsters rolling all over us. More’s a-comin’!”
“He’s right,” the sergeant agreed. “The Nazis are eating at us like a swarm of locusts.”
Abruptly, the frightening rumble of another Stuka dive-bomber filled the air, sending the British platoon into the dirt again and pushing them even closer to the stone wall. The terrifying roar deafened. Suddenly a bomb exploded, sending dirt and rocks showering over the soldiers. The Stuka zoomed back into the sky out of sight, and for a few moments relative quiet filled the country lane. The biting smell of burning sulphur kept stinging Tony’s nose, and smoke made his eyes water.
“Can’t hardly hear anything,” Tony mumbled.
“They’ll be back,” the sergeant insisted. “Don’t worry. They intend to annihilate us until the last man is dead.”
“Exactly where are we?” Tony asked, shaking his head to unstop his ears.
“We’re probably a dozen miles or so from some town called Dunkirk, and directly behind us is the ocean,” the lieutenant explained. “The Germans swept up from the south, crossed the Somme River, and have overrun Boulogne. They are squeezing us from the north as well. The Nazis got us in their grips like the teeth of a shark tearing off a hunk of meat.”
“We need to get out of here!” the sergeant begged desperately.
Tony Irving cussed passionately. “Listen! I didn’t sail over here from America to be overrun by these stinking Krauts. I’m not retreating anywhere until I knock out another one of those tanks! Come on, boys. We can do it!”
“Listen to me, mate!” the lieutenant’s shaking voice gave away his fear. “We’re in an impossible position. The platoon has learned what you can do with that long-fanged gadget, but now we must retreat quickly or they’ve got us. ’Em Germans are coming on with armor and motorized infantry in addition to the Panzers.” The lieutenant wiped his brow. “We simply can’t stop ’em.”
“Maybe not,” Irving said, picking up his bazooka. “But I’m from Texas, and I didn’t land in Europe to be run into the English Channel by those green-shirted clones of Hitler. These lunatics don’t frighten me.” He wiped his brow and took off his metal helmet. “I’ve bulldogged bulls out behind the barn worse than chasing these pussycats. I’m going to get one more tank and then we’ll leave.”
The lieutenant shook his head. “Make it fast. I don’t like this delay. We’re in danger.”
“We’re always in danger!” Tony inched up the side of the wall. “Watch me, boys. I’ll show you exactly how to use this little tunnel of fire. When the next one comes down the road . . .” He raised his head and shoulders above the stone fence and stopped, frozen in place.
“What’s happening?” the sergeant called from beneath Irving.
Tony didn’t move.
“Come on. What are you waiting for?” the lieutenant asked. “Shoot!”
Tony dropped the bazooka and raised his hands. In front of him inching their way out of the trees and across the road were at least twenty German soldiers. The Nazis’ knee-length boots, green helmets hanging down over their ears, and bayoneted rifles made the men of the Wehrmacht appear ominous, horrifying. Their guns were aimed straight at Tony. “Don’t move,” he said quietly. “The Nazis have us trapped.”
The lieutenant slowly peered over the wall. “Good Lord, the Huns are everywhere! We don’t have a chance to run.” He stood up slowly and extended his hands upward. “Stand up very carefully men, and leave your guns on the ground. The Krauts have got us.”
One by one the remnant of the depleted platoon stood up with their hands over their heads. Artillery fell to the grass with dull thuds. The German soldiers kept walking forward cautiously, their bayoneted Gewehr 98 rifles pointing at the Allied soldiers.
“I messed up,” Tony said quietly. “You were right. We should have run.”
“The Huns would have caught us anyway,” the lieutenant said. “They might have shot us fleeing down the road. We did our best.”
Tony shook his head. “Our best wasn’t good enough.” Tony cursed again. “They got us.”
“Sich beruhigen!” a German soldier shouted over the stone fence. “Sei still!”
Irving watched the man’s face. As the German came closer, he looked almost like a boy, like Tony himself. The soldier appeared more nervous than murderous. He was only a kid doing his job. Tony took a deep breath. That’s about all any of them were doing on that godforsaken road, but he had intended to do far more than simply fulfill his job. He had come to stop the advance of the Nazis across Europe . . . but now the Germans had captured him.