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SEVEN IRON CROSSES

First episode taken from Adventure No. 1073 - October 5th 1946.

THE MAN WHO HUNTED IRON CROSSES!

THE DYING MAN’S SECRET!

The great steel doors of the headquarters of the German General Staff in Berlin had closed. Cordons of troops had been rushed to surround that grim building in the Berlin Wilhelmstrasse. Not a soul was allowed to leave. Guards with tommy-guns watched every window and exit. Not even a mouse could have got out unobserved. Inside there was bustle and confusion. Bells rang. Telephones whirred. Up and down the lifts and stairs moved groups of the special corps of Storm Troopers who were the interior guards. Every man’s face was set and grim. The word had been flashed around that the famous Panzer Code was missing. The Panzer Code was the key to ALL German Codes!” Only six men in all Germany knew how to use that code, which was the most secret the Nazi cipher experts had yet evolved. It was only used for matters of the highest importance. Hitler’s own secret plans were said to be in it. Now the closely guarded code had disappeared from the safe in which it was kept, and only one man could have had access to it that afternoon, Captain Kruft, of the Records Department. Word had gone out for Captain Kruft to be seized wherever he might be. At the moment he could not be found, yet it was known that he could not have left the building. A methodical search of every room was taking place. The hunted man was speeding along a corridor on the second floor. So far he had dodged his pursuers, but the net was closing in tightly. He knew he could not avoid them much longer. He could hear men in the lift which was about to stop at this floor. Hurriedly he opened the first door he came to and darted inside. A tall, fair man with determined chin, he was panting as he leaned against the inside of the door. He knew he was doomed. The whole thing had been most unlucky. Captain Kruft was an Austrian, but his sympathies were not with the brutal Nazis. When war had broken out he had offered his services to the British Secret Service, and had been told to remain in his present post until use could be made of him. It was well into the second year of the war when a British agent had contacted him.

This agent had actually managed to get himself appointed to the special inside guard at the Wilhelmstrasse. At this moment he was posing as a Storm Trooper. He had told Kruft he was there to try and secure the Panzer Code, and the German had promised to help him. Today had come his chance. He had managed to take the code from the safe where it was usually kept, his idea being to keep it only long enough to copy it out. It was a series of groups of figures, and five minutes would have been sufficient for his purpose, but as ill-luck had it those five minutes were not granted him. General Milch himself had demanded the code a minute after Kruft had “borrowed” it, and the loss had been discovered immediately. He was the only one who had been to the safe, so his guilt was certain. The manhunt had started at once, and so far he had not been granted a moment in which to copy out those vital figures. Neither had there been any chance of passing it on to the British secret agent. The soldiers were coming along the corridor, opening and closing every door, searching every room. Captain Kruft quickly turned the key on the inside of his door, and knew he was cornered. What could he do with the code? He snatched it from his pocket and read the neatly-typed figures. Even if he did manage to memorise them he would not live to be able to pass them on to the British agent. “I must leave the code some place where he can find it,” thought the Captain as the heavy feet came nearer and nearer, and he glanced wildly round the room. There was not much scope for hiding anything. In any case the room would be turned upside down to see if he had left a copy of the key behind. What hiding place could he find that they would not discover? Someone turned the handle of the door and discovered it was locked. There was a shout and a heavy foot thudded against the paneling. “Open up! If that’s Captain Kruft—open up!” thundered a voice. The trapped man gnawed his lip feverishly as he looked around the big desk. There was a black leather case slightly to one side of the blotter. He jerked it open and saw seven medals confronting him from their plush lined partitions. They were all Iron Crosses of the first class. He knew why they were there. General Milch was to present them in the morning. There was to be a grand parade, but Captain Kruft would not see it. He would be dead before then. Crash, crash! Rifle butts thudded on the door. It would not be long before the barrier was down. The seconds were ticking away rapidly. Suddenly Kruft had a brain wave.

He turned over one of the Iron Crosses. The back was blank but for the name of the man who won it. With a pin taken from one of the other medals he began to scratch on the medal one line of figures. 39762915, he wrote, pressing as firmly as he could. Then he returned the medal to its place the right way up, and grabbed a second. A similar batch of eight figures went on this. The massive door was still holding back the soldiers, although they were now using an axe. He might have time to scratch all the figures on the medals. He worked as swiftly as possible. Right along the line of medals he progressed, and by the time he had got to the seventh medal a complete record of the Panzer Code had been made. He closed the plush lined case, thrust the original typed key into his pocket, and stood tight-lipped behind his desk. The door collapsed at last. Men surged into the room, headed by a Staff Colonel. He immediately pointed his revolver at Captain Kruft. “You’re under arrest, you treacherous dog! What have you done with the Panzer Code? You must have taken it from the safe.” “Yes, I took it, and here it is. I had no chance to get away with it,” admitted Kruft, holding out the paper. The Colonel snatched it, and glowered. The Storm Troopers were closing in. Captain Kruft looked to see if the British agent was there. He could not see him. He must have been with one of the search parties in another part of the building. Somehow he must be given a hint about the medals. “Cur! Swine-hound!” barked the Staff Colonel. “What made you do it? Trying to make a fortune for yourself by selling it to the enemy, eh?” “No, I was accepting nothing for it,” said Kruft. “I was going to hand it over to those who will one day rid Germany of the tyranny which now grinds it down.” The Colonel’s face twisted with mad fury. At point blank range he fired into the speaker’s chest, and Captain Kruft fell back into the arms of those who had been about to seize him. The Colonel had fired on the spur of the moment in blind anger, and a moment afterwards he probably regretted what he had done. It was not his business to take the law into his own hands like this. Kruft should have been court martialled before execution. However, the thing was done, the man was obviously fatally wounded, and the Colonel shrugged his shoulders as he commanded—“Throw the dog on that sofa. Never mind about staunching the blood. Leave him there to die. He deserves worse than that. The Storm Troopers obeyed instructions and the dying man groaned as they threw him down roughly. Someone struck him on the face, saying—“Filthy dog! British spy! Traitor!”

All the others crowded round to heap insults and blows on him. The Colonel had left the room with the precious paper, but had given orders that the place was to be thoroughly searched in case a copy had been hidden by Kruft. Through the crowd of tormentors the dying Captain saw the search proceeding. He saw someone open the case of medals, glance inside, and close it again. Kruft sighed with relief. His ruse had worked. Then he saw another Storm Trooper come in from the corridor, and tensed himself for a final effort. The newcomer was the British agent, Major Warren Elton, of the British Secret Service. He pushed his way through to the wounded man. No sign of pity showed on his face, or distress of any kind. He had to play a part, and Kruft did not expect him to do otherwise. “So this is the dog, eh?” snarled Elton, who was known to the others as Karl Mayer. “I’d like to bash his face in.” He leaned over as though to do this, tripped, and fell face down across the figure on the sofa. His German friends roared with laughter at his clumsiness. “Trying to kiss him goodbye, Mayer?” shouted someone. “Have you got it?” the British agent was whispering, taking advantage of the closeness of his lips to the other’s ear. “No,” came back the equally soft whisper. “I copied it out. The—the Seven Iron Crosses!” His words died away in a choking gurgle. When Major Elton raised himself upright the man was dead. He had willed himself to keep alive just long enough to pass on his secret.

THE SEVEN NAZI HEROES.

Although he had shown no outward emotion, Major Elton was profoundly moved by the Austrian’s unpleasant death. The brutal behaviour of the Storm Troopers made him itch to smash his fist in their faces, but he had learned to swallow his feelings since he had taken on this dangerous job of entering Germany and pretending to be a Nazi. In appearance he was as big as any other Storm Trooper there. With hair cut in the Prussian fashion, with a face which he tried to make as brutal as possible, and with the tight uniform of the special corps of Storm Troopers, he looked the part to perfection. Nobody had ever suspected he was British, or that he had worked his way into this corps in order to steal the Panzer Code. Now Captain Kruft had given his life for the same thing. Those dying words of his must contain some clue, decided Elton, as he helped search every nook and cranny in the room. “The Seven Iron Crosses! The Seven Iron Crosses!” Elton kept repeating to himself. “What in the world did he mean by that?” Suddenly he saw the medal case, and pressed the catch that opened it. Seven new Iron Crosses lay in a neat row, medals ready attached. A glad light flashed to Elton’s eyes. Those were the seven Iron Crosses that were to be presented on the morrow. His own section officer, Captain Kaub, was to have one of them. Hardly had this thought crossed his mind when a hand reached out and snatched the case from him. It was the Staff Colonel, who had now returned. “There’s nothing hidden in there,” he rasped. “It’s been examined before. I’ll take them to General Milch in his own quarters. Examine the walls and wallpaper through a magnifying glass. What we are looking for are figures, several rows of figures. Get busy man, get busy and don’t stand there staring at me!” “Very good, sir!” said Major Elton, clicking his heels smartly as he saluted. Again his face showed no emotion, but there was a cold fury in his heart when he saw the Colonel walk away with those medals in his possession. Now there was no hope of having a peep at them before they were distributed on the morrow. Could it really be that Kruft had scratched the key to the code on those medals, if so, it was a brainwave. Not even the methodical Nazis had thought of looking on them! The room was pulled to pieces before the search was finished. By that time the highest officers were satisfied nothing had been left behind in the way of a copy of the code key. The door of the room was repaired and a new lock put on it.

The Storm Troopers were dismissed to their own quarters and the Wilhelmstrasse resumed its normal appearance. The precious paper was safely back in its well guarded safe. The British Secret Service man bitterly regretted his bad luck. Whilst cleaning his equipment in the bare barracks at the back of the building, he racked his brain for some way of getting at that case of medals. If he had been on headquarters guard that night there might have been a faint chance, but as his section were to form the guard of honour at the ceremony on the morrow they had been excused night guard duty. He could think of no way of getting the medals. After this afternoon’s business everyone inside the Wilhelmstrasse would be doubly alert. “Poor Kruft sacrificed himself to get that key, and I’m not going to have him sacrificed for nothing,” he thought. “Seven Irons Crosses contain the greatest military secret in Germany! Huh!” It was his first adventure of this kind. He had already brought off several daring coups inside Germany. He was considered the bravest and most resourceful of all our agents, spoke perfect German, and knew the country better than many Nazis. He turned the matter over in his mind again and again. Even in the morning there would be no opportunity of looking at those medals. They would not appear in public again until the case was given to General Milch at the investiture. After that the secret would rest in the keeping of seven different men! Major Warren Elton went to his bunk that night hoping there would be a heavy R.A.F. raid on Berlin before morning. That might give him a chance to get into the upstairs room during the confusion! But the weather was against our bombers. Berlin had a quiet night. Major Elton’s bad luck did not change, and when the bugle blared reveille in the morning he was no nearer success. He had not a moment to spare before the parade. Spick and span, everything glittering with polish, he and his fellow Storm Troopers formed stiff lines round the little parade ground where the investiture was to take place. A table had been covered with the Nazi flag, and on this lay the open box of medals. It was tantalising to see them there yet be unable to go near enough to look at them. The appointed hour came, and the seven men to be honoured marched on to the parade ground. Major Elton looked at them grimly. It was in the keeping of those seven that the secret of the code would be held. They were of different types and from different units. There were four soldiers, two airmen, and a submarine man. Five were officers, one a sergeant, and one an engineer. Like wooden dummies they stood in line. Captain Kaub, of the Storm Troopers, was at the near end.

Then General Milch and other high officers arrived, the usual patriotic speeches were made, and someone read out the deeds of the men who were to receive medals. Judging by those records, they were a daring bunch, but some of the things they had done to earn the medals were not of the kind a Britisher would have been proud of doing. Open towns had been bombed, refugee ships sunk, the cities and villages of quiet little countries had been shattered by armoured columns. But the medal winners marched up stiffly and proudly, received their Iron Crosses from their General, saluted, and as stiffly retired. From the ranks Storm Trooper Karl Mayer watched closely. Many another man would have decided this was the end of his hopes, but not so the disguised Britisher. He was determined Captain Kruft’s death should not have been in vain. If he could have got the box of medals from the Wilhelmstrasse he would have had the entire key to the code. Now he would have to get those seven Iron Crosses separately, one at a time, from their seven different owners. It was going to be difficult, for the seven men would soon be dispersing to their units. It would mean many adventures of many different kinds for Major Elton. The difficulties seemed to be unsurmountable, but Elton did not despair. He had pulled off desperate chances in the past, and meant to do so again in the future. He would be able to get particulars of these men’s units from the notice which had been posted on the board that evening, and meantime he had one task on which he could start right away. Captain Kaub was one of the new medal holders, and he was Elton’s own commanding officer. It would be possible to start with him very soon. The parade was now being dismissed. The Storm Troopers marched back to their quarters, with their newly decorated officer at their head.

MIDNIGHT AT THE BARRACKS.

The midnight change of guard had taken place at the barracks of the Storm Troopers. Except for the occasional sound of the sentry’s feet, there was silence in the big, concrete building. The men were worked hard, and usually slept soundly when the R.A.F. did not pay that part of Germany a visit. Along one of the inner corridors crept Major Elton on stockinged feet. He had donned his big military coat over his sleeping garments and had in his hand a small but useful electric torch, which he shone as rarely as possible to light the way. He was heading for the officers’ quarters. In these barracks the officers had cubicles, and he knew Captain Kaub’s was the second from the end. He also knew Kaub had been out with a party of fellow officers until a late hour, celebrating his receipt of the Iron Cross. The captain should be sleeping soundly. Major Elton bent and listened outside the door. Just as he expected, there was no sound of movement within, only the deep breathing of the sleeper. The door was unlocked, and he quietly slipped inside. There was need for silence, as the walls of the cubicles were thin, and there were officers on either side. The tiny shaft of light from his torch stabbed the darkness of the room. He was seeking the Iron Cross. The sleeper lay on his back with his mouth open. His brutal face was not a pretty sight. Very soon he would begin to snore. The Britisher wanted to be gone before then, lest the man wakened himself. At last he saw the tunic hanging over the back of a chair, and pinned to the front of the tunic was the new Iron Cross. His heart beat fast as he crossed the room in a couple of strides and bent to unfasten the medal. The pin was stiff. It took several seconds to get the medal off. Major Elton immediately turned it over. He meant to examine the other side of it at once. If there were no numbers scratched on it, he might as well put the thing back. Shining his small torch on to the medal, he turned it this way and that as he searched for new scratches. A sudden thrill passed through him when he saw unmistakable figures. He could not help pausing to read them— 39762915. That was what he made out, each figure as clear as could be. Captain Kruft’s hand had not shaken when he had inscribed the numbers above Kaub’s name. They were perfectly legible. The British Secret Service man moistened his lips, and thrilled with satisfaction. The dead man had not failed him. Here was part of the Panzer Code. If he could only get the other six—“Stand where you are!” rasped a voice behind him. “Make one move and I shoot!” The startled Britisher saw Captain Kaub was leaning up on one elbow, supporting himself as he levelled a heavy Service revolver at the intruder. By what ill-chance he had wakened at that moment it was impossible to say. Major Elton felt himself go rigid. He knew his luck had failed him again. As he stood there he was outlined against the window at the end of the room.

The German officer could not miss such a target at such close range. Elton remained perfectly still, his brain working at lightning speed. “Guard—turn out!” thundered the Nazi, knowing the sentry would hear him. There were movements in the adjoining cubicles. Someone shouted to know what was happening. “I’ve just caught a thief in my cubicle,” called Kaub. “I don’t know who it is yet, but—” Crash! Major Elton had been silently reaching out with his foot towards the right. He had deftly kicked over the chair on which the tunic had been hanging. It fell with a crash, and the German’s eyes flashed in that direction without meaning to do so. For a moment the revolver wobbled. As quick as sight the Briton leapt to the bed, his knee catching the man in the stomach, his hand snatching for the gun. So unexpected was his action that Captain Kaub relinquished the weapon without a struggle. The next moment it had thudded down on his own uncovered head, and he feel back with a grunt. There was not a moment to waste. Major Elton could hear men running along the corridor. There was no escape that way. He must get away by the window. Grabbing the fallen chair, he hurled it through the window, smashing frame as well as glass. Someone burst in through the doorway at the exact moment when the desperate Secret Service man was diving through the opening from the top of the corner table. A shot followed him, but missed, and he landed lightly on hands and knees, the distance to the ground being no more than four feet. He immediately scurried along the foot of the wall towards the nearest door. He knew it would be unlocked because that was the way out to the air raid shelters. Once he got back to his own quarters he would be safe, for nobody could have recognised him yet. The door swung inwards as he put out his hand to push it. Two half-dressed Storm Troopers were in the act of rushing out. They barred his way. “Mayer!” gasped one. “What—” There was no time for hesitation. Major Elton remembered the Iron Cross in his pocket, and what it meant to Britain if he could get the code complete. He remembered we were at war, and that these two were his enemies. One of them had recognised him. There was only one way to deal with the situation. Crack, crack! Twice only he fired, but he left two dead Storm Troopers on the doorstep as he rushed inside, turned to the right, and made for his own quarters. Being further away from the scene of uproar, no one there had yet been disturbed. He had dropped the gun on the two bodies, and now ripped off his greatcoat as he made for his bunk.

Ten seconds later the coat was back on its usual hook, and he was between the blankets. Hardly was his head on the pillow when the alarm signal went. Men scrambled from their bunks, sleepy-eyed, wondering if it was an air-raid alarm. An n.c.o. appeared in the doorway and snapped—“Get some clothes on! Bring your rifles! There’s trouble in the barracks! There’s someone running amok!” Warren Elton scrambled into some of his garments the same as the others were doing. His quick wits had so far saved him from disaster, but there was a chance search would be made for the missing Iron Cross. If it was found in his possession everything would be finished. Hiding places were not easily found in the bare, concrete barracks. He decided to use another method. As they scrambled into their uniforms in the semi-darkness he contrived to lift the lid of a tin of rifle oil that stood on the shelf above his bed. Into the oil he dropped the Iron Cross, and it sank to the bottom with the ribbon. The scratched numbers would not be affected by the oil, and it was unlikely anyone would look in such a place. Once he had a chance to copy off those figures accurately he could get rid of the medal altogether. The thing was to make sure no suspicion attached to him during the inquiry that was bound to follow. At the double, carrying their rifles, the men from that barrack room passed out into the corridor. All over the barracks similar movements were taking place. The outer gates had been closed and locked. Sentries in the drill yard had been trebled. “There’s a killer at large somewhere in the building,” a wild eyed officer told them. “Take no chances with him. He’s hatless and has a topcoat. Shoot on sight! Get busy!” The hue-and-cry began, and Major Warren Elton joined in it! He was wondering if his luck would hold this time.

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd

Vic Whittle 2007