History, Fiction, and Lies

...mostly a true book, with some stretchers.

Huckleberry Finn, describing

Mr. Twain's earlier work,

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer


The classical Greek word plasma means fiction. It also means forgery or "lies." We may cringe at the word "lies." But there is no denying: much of this book is not exactly true. Five of the main characters--Kaz, Anna, Ryk, Yvonne, and Jan--are fictional; they never existed.

Nevertheless, the main story is historically accurate. World War II was precipitated by Hitler's invasion of Poland, and by the decision of Britain and France to honor their commitment to Poland by declaring war on Germany. Yet Poland was beyond salvation, caught between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union.

In addition, the fictional five participated in many real, historical events--the defense of Warsaw, the massacre in Katyn Forest, the exodus of the Polish army to North Africa, the significant role of Poles in the Battle of Britain, and, most of all, the early and indispensable Polish contributions to codebreaking.

A whole list of characters were real people, from the Polish codebreakers Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Rozycki to the main British characters at Bletchley Park--Alan Turing, Alastair Denniston, Alan Welchman, Harry Hinsley--to most of the German protagonists in France: von Kluge, Sepp Dietrich, von Stülpnagel, and Hofacker. They did approximately what they are reported to have done in this novel.

"Approximately." There's the snag. How is the reader to know what is fact, and what is fiction? Interested readers may find footnote information at www.lastgoodwar.com. For the more casual reader, this epilogue will provide some guidance, some help in separating history from "lies."

First, the flesh-and-blood dramatis personae should be identified, in addition to those listed above. Among the Poles, only Sikorski should be added to the real historical figures; the rest are fictional, although some of Anna's relatives are very loosely based on Polish diplomats of the 1930s. Bertrand, Lemoine, and Schmidt are real historical figures; they did meet in Verviers, Belgium, where Schmidt gave Enigma secrets to Bertrand.

At Bletchley Park, Yvonne joins Anna as a fictional character, but Mavis Lever was very real indeed. She did notice the strange absence of the letter L in an early Italian naval message; the result was the breaking of the Italian code and the British triumph off Cape Matapan. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham was indeed the victor in that naval engagement. When he came to BP to offer his thanks, he was backed into a newly whitewashed wall by Mavis and other vivacious, mischievous young women.

The two Americans at Bletchley Park, Bill Bundy and Lewis Powell, were also real people, although their role has been fictionalized. In later life, Bundy went on to become a senior official of the State Department, while Powell was elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the Battle of Britain, the characters are fictional, with the notable exception of Sgt. Josef Frantisek. He was a Czech ace, who, in the words of Len Deighton (Fighter) "had flying and air-fighting skills in abundance but he lacked any kind of air discipline. Once in the air, he simply chased Germans. More than once this conduct endangered the men who flew with him. He was repeatedly reprimanded until finally the Poles decided to let him be a 'guest of the squadron.'" He did decline to fly with his fellow Czechs, and he was credited with shooting down seventeen German aircraft before flying off, never to be seen again. His seventeen victims put Frantisek at the head of the list of allied aces at the time of his death, and the Polish 303 Squadron did shoot down more than twice as many German planes as the average RAF fighter squadron.

Among the Germans, most of the characters--apart from those mentioned above and well known individuals such as Hitler, Göring, Rommel, Himmler, and Dönitz--are fictional. Thus, Kurt Dietrich did not exist, even though his uncle, Sepp Dietrich, was indeed the commander of the Fifth Panzer Army and a favorite of Hitler. He did in fact stretch his orders to escape the Falaise pocket in spite of his closeness to the Führer; or perhaps because of his closeness to Hitler, which may have given him an extra degree of freedom. Nevertheless, when senior officers asked him to inform Hitler of the desperate situation in the Falaise Pocket, he did retort that such rashness was a good way to get himself shot. Likewise, Jeschonnek really was the Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, whose concern over a relative on the Bismarck betrayed the battleship to the codebreakers of Bletchley Park. Incidentally, Anna's wish--that Jeschonnek never find out that his message had betrayed the Bismarck--came true, although not, perhaps, in the way she might have hoped. Under the crushing strain of allied air raids, he committed suicide on the night the allies bombed the rocket development station at Peënemunde.

People are not the only problem, but also events. In this book, real people do fictional things, and fictional people do real things. For example:

--The characters in the Warsaw Post Office are fictional, but their activities are real: the Poles did intercept and open a package with the Enigma machine.

--Churchill really was First Lord of the Admiralty during the First World War, and then again before he became Prime Minister in 1940. He could hardly have intervened in Anna's security clearance, however, as she is a fictional character.

--In this novel, Kaz plays a key role in the demise of German tank commander Wittmann. This is obviously untrue, since Kaz is a fictitious character. The Polish Armored Division was, however, attached to the Canadian Army, and the Poles played an important role in closing the Falaise gap. But they were not present at Wittmann's final, fatal encounter; he was trapped by five Canadian Sherman tanks.

--Anna's role in codebreaking is exaggerated, which is scarcely surprising, as she didn't exist and therefore played no role whatsoever. To fit the story, the work on Enigma has been greatly simplified. For example, the steckerboard was introduced at a much earlier date than this novel suggests, although the Germans did begin to use it much more heavily in 1938-39, and in this sense, the account in Chapter 6 is very loosely consistent with the facts.

In spite of the liberties taken to simplify the Enigma story, an attempt has been made to retain the flavor of how codebreaking actually worked: the meticulous, painstaking building of one small block upon another--interspersed with flashes of insight that unlocked parts of the code, and with windfalls from German misuse of the machine or from captured equipment or codebooks

Of course, real people also do real things in this novel. For example, Marian Rejewski did figure out the internal wiring of Enigma wheels in a brief period of several months in late 1932, aided by information provided by Schmidt and passed by French Intelligence officer Bertrand. Rejewski did repeat his feat by reconstructing the wiring of the fourth and fifth wheels in a more difficult setting, an achievement that Gordon Welchman "found hard to believe." And Welchman himself was a mathematician.

The codebreakers did live with the nagging worry that the enemy would suspect that their messages were being deciphered. Observation planes were sent out, with the objective of being observed. But there were lapses. At one point, late in the war, the Allies used decryptions to sink two tenders that were scheduled to meet U-boats at obscure locations in the Indian Ocean. The Germans came to the conclusion that Allies must have known about the rendezvous points, either from a breaking of Enigma or from a traitor. Dönitz issued an emergency order. Rather than setting the rotors from their codebooks, U-boats were to use the initials of their radio operators. Unfortunately for Dönitz, this provided little protection. By then--March 1944--allied machines were so powerful and so numerous that they continued to break Shark.

The tales of the First World War are factual: the Zimmerman Telegram, which is described in fascinating detail in Barbara Tuchman's book with that title, and the story of the drunken German commander in the Middle East who sent out season's greetings in a number of different ciphers. The term "snookered santa" is, however, invented. Other codebreaking terms, such as "kisses," are not.

The story of the real Polish codebreakers after the outbreak of the war is also factual. Rejewski, Zygalski, and Rozycki did flee to Romania, where they offered their services to the British embassy, only to be rebuffed; they could come back in several days. The Poles thereupon went to the French embassy, where they were cordially welcomed. When the Germans occupied Vichy, Rejewski and Zygalski escaped to Britain--Rozycki having lost his life when his boat went down between Algeria and Vichy France, perhaps as a result of a mine. In Britain, the talents of the two survivors were in fact wasted; they were given low-level decryption tasks.

Their sad history did not end there. At the end of the war, Rejewski and Zygalski were finally promoted to the elevated rank of Lieutenant. Rejewski joined the trickle of Poles returning from Britain to Communist Poland, where he searched without success for a position teaching mathematics at a high school. Having lived in England, he was considered untrustworthy. For decades he was ignored until, in a tardy act of contrition, a Polish University offered him an honorary degree in 1978. By then, just two years before his death, he was not interested. Zygalski's story had a happier ending: he stayed in England and became a college teacher in London.

The hopeless situation of the Polish people, trapped between Hitler and Stalin, was one of the great tragedies of the war. The barbarism of Hitler is well known, particularly the horrors of his extermination camps. Perhaps less well known is the ruthlessness of Stalin. The murders at Katyn Forest may have made some sort of perverted sense, as they helped clear the way for a Communist regime in postwar Poland. But Stalin was equally ruthless with fellow Communists. As mentioned in the novel, most of the leaders of the Polish Communist Party were shot during the purges of 1938.

Wladyslaw Gomulka was a notable exception; he had the good fortune to reside in a Polish prison, thus escaping Stalin's purges. When he was released in the early months of the war, he moved from the Soviet-occupied sector of Poland to the German one. Why, is not clear. Perhaps he wanted to build a Communist resistance to Hitler; perhaps he preferred to take his chances with Hitler's storm troopers rather than his treacherous Soviet "comrade." It was only later that he came to an uneasy, unstable truce with Stalin--a truce that was scarcely reinforced by Gomulka's sad postwar observation: "The masses do not regard us as Polish Communists at all, but just as the most despicable agents of the NKVD" (an earlier incarnation of the KGB). From the Soviet viewpoint, he had misplaced loyalties; he looked on Polish Communism as a shield against Soviet imperialism. He went on, after Stalin's death in 1953, to head the Government of Poland. Soon, it was threatened by a Soviet invasion. In a tense confrontation, Gomulka stared down Nikita Khrushchev.

The list of enigma seizures by the British Navy is accurate, although not exhaustive. Some details have been embroidered. HMS Gleaner, under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Price, did sink the U-33, but the rest of the yarn is fictional, particularly Price's interview of the U-boat captain. Liberties have also been taken with the encounter between HMS Petard and U-559 in the eastern Mediterranean, although in this case, the story is closer to the truth. Three British naval men did swim to the foundering U-boat, and two of them--Fasson and Grazier--died as the submarine slipped below the waves. They were awarded the George Cross for their heroism. The Honours and Awards Committee judged that their "gallantry was up to the Victoria Cross standards," but they were not granted that highest of British awards because their heroic acts were not, as required, "in the face of the Enemy."

The stories of the bizarre characters at Bletchley Park are based on fact, except when they are interacting with fictional characters like Anna. Josh Cooper did jump up and say "Heil Hitler," returning the salute of a German pilot. Turing was an eccentric genius who wore a gas mask as protection against asthma, he did bury silver bars as a hedge against inflation, and he was said to have chained his coffee cup to a radiator. Frankly, there is reason to doubt that last story. A teacup, perhaps, but it is hard to believe that anyone would cherish a cup from which he would drink the horrid British coffee of that era.

Lt. Commander Ian Fleming did propose to ditch a captured plane near a German rescue ship in order to seize Enigma codebooks. The plan--Operation Ruthless--was taken seriously, in spite of Anna's skepticism, and an airworthy German plane was procured. But Anna's reservations soon turned out to be correct; after a month of preparation, the navy concluded that Operation Ruthless was impractical. The fictitious Anna was also right on another score. With Fleming's overcharged imagination, he had missed his calling; his talent lay in spy novels. He went on to invent 007--James Bond.

Strangely enough, Yvonne's note--about the plan to blind submarines by training seagulls to poop on periscopes--is based on fact; the British did consider such a scheme during WWI. Wartime spawns a strange eagerness to pursue crackpot ideas, and not just for comic relief. In his book, Roosevelt's Secret War, Joseph Persico reports one of the "madcap schemes" of Wild Bill Donovan, the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the predecessor of the CIA). He hatched a plot to put female hormones in Hitler's food to raise his voice, make his mustache fall out, and enlarge his breasts. Quite apart from the medical implausibility--female hormones in an adult male would not cause a higher voice or the shedding of facial hair--the scheme does raise an obvious question. If you have access to the Führer's food, why not just poison him? But, according to Persico, this cockeyed caper "did not offend, but seemed to excite the President's own imagination."

Then there are parts of the story where the historical record is unclear. In the early chapters, the Poles have an Enigma machine bought on the commercial market, prior to the German adoption of the machine for their military services. This account is true, according to most of the recent sources. According to others, the Poles stole German machines just before the Second World War. This lack of agreement runs throughout the Enigma story because so much of the original record was destroyed, both accidentally and intentionally, and participants were forbidden to write about their experiences for decades, until their memories had been subjected to the tricks of time.

Likewise, it is uncertain whether the Polish Government in exile definitely knew of the massacre at Katyn forest at an early stage, although they certainly had strong suspicions. Relatives of prisoners stopped getting letters after April 1940. The Poles did raise the question of the missing officers with Stalin in December of 1941 and got the ludicrous response, that the missing men had run off to Manchuria. But there was no Kaz and no Jan; as far as I know, the government in exile had no first-hand information. There apparently was a single escapee from the massacre, but his whereabouts thereafter are vague.

By the time the thread is picked up, in April 1943, the government-in-exile undoubtedly knew what happened at Katyn. This part of the story is accurate: the Polish request for a Red Cross investigation; the simultaneous request by the Germans; and the Soviet breaking of diplomatic relations.

The simultaneous request by the Germans indicates that they somehow got information from the government-in-exile, and therefore, that somebody in the Polish offices was a spy for some country. But there is no readily available record on this point; the story of the spy is invented.

Most of the story of the Normandy invasion is accurate, with the exception of incidents involving the fictional characters, notably Kaz and Kurt Dietrich. The Poles did lead the spearhead that closed the Falaise Pocket from the North. One of their columns did get lost at a critical time because their guide misunderstood their heavily accented French, delivering them to Champeaux rather than Chambois. A Polish column was waved through a German checkpoint, apparently by a quick-thinking German soldier who decided he wanted to live. And Germans in a castle did surrender, unwilling to provoke a possibly-vindictive Polish force.

Likewise, the story of the temporary American withdrawal near St. Lô is accurate; the American Air Force constantly worried that it might bomb friendly troops. Though cautious, the American forces were not cautious enough. In spite of the withdrawal, bombs still fell on advanced units, killing over a hundred American servicemen, including Lt. Gen. Leslie J. McNair, the highest ranking American officer killed in battle during the Second World War. Unfortunately, casualties from "friendly fire" were far from uncommon. The 30th U.S. Division suffered so many losses that their commander adopted a simple rule. Whenever he was given an order to attack, he flatly refused the support of heavy bombers. And the brilliant colors on the wings of allied aircraft on D-Day--broad, bright blue stripes alternating with wide white stripes--were the opposite of camouflage. Their purpose was to announce the presence of allied aircraft, to prevent a repeat of the Sicilian invasion when numerous aircraft fell to friendly fire from the ground.

In contrast to the military operations, almost all of the messages have been made up, even where they are based closely on historical events. There are two exceptions. The report to von Kluge from the division facing St. Lô--"Not a single man is leaving his post! Not one! Because they're all dead. Dead!"--is an abbreviation of a real report. And the intercepted order to deliver Röhm "dead or alive" is the actual message. The Poles had advance warning of the Night of the Long Knives, an early demonstration of Nazi barbarism.

Likewise, almost all the dialogue is fiction. Again, there are several exceptions, where conversations might reasonably escape classification as plasma. Stalin's curt responses to Sikorski's queries about the prisoners at Katyn--"They have run away," and "Well, to Manchuria"--were reported in Dmitri Volkogonov's Autopsy for an Empire. According to Bradley, in A Soldier's Story, Patton did threaten to close the Falaise gap and "drive the British back into the sea for another Dunkirk."

In addition, the interchange among von Kluge, von Stülpnagel, and their associates on the evening of the attempt on the Führer's life is quite close to what actually happened that surrealistic and haunting night; it is based largely on the account by Samuel Mitcham in Hitler's Field Marshals. Incidentally, Graf von Stülpnagel was a patrician supporter of Hitler even before the Nazi leader came to power, but he soured on the Führer by 1944.

In light of the success of the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, an interesting puzzle arises. How did the Germans take the Allies so completely by surprise in the final December of the war, in the Battle of the Bulge?

One reason lies in the radio silence observed by German forces prior to the attack. There is also a second, less reassuring explanation. It is one thing to intercept information; it is quite another to use it. Decrypted messages pointed toward a major German counterattack in the Ardennes. Jim Rose and Alan Pryce-Jones--military advisers from Bletchley Park--flew to the Supreme Headquarters of Allied Forces in Paris in November to brief British General Kenneth Strong, Eisenhower's chief of intelligence. Rose recalled their frustrating encounter:

"Strong said, 'This is the way we read it. The Germans are losing a division a day and this can't be maintained. They're bound to crack.' Alan Pryce-Jones was just a major. He just sort of sat on the corner of the desk and said to Strong: 'My dear sir, if you believe that you'll believe anything.' "

Three weeks later, the Germans launched their Ardennes offensive.

Almost without exception, I have relied on secondary sources in this novel; it is not a serious historical work. It is, however, perhaps worth noting that I did not make up the story of Patton's generals calling him "Georgie," or the tendency of his already-high voice, on occasion, to rise into the "squeaky" range. I got these anecdotes from the widow of one of Patton's generals. Sorry, Hollywood. Sorry, George C. Scott. But I did like your movie.

The accidental bombing of London by a single German plane on the night of Aug. 24-25, 1940, which led to the retaliatory attack on Berlin the next night and then to the Blitz, is based on the accounts by Sir John Keegan (The Second World War) and Len Deighton (Fighter). One important detail has been changed. The German plane was not attacked by a Spitfire, but was simply lost. There is, however, an even more fundamental problem with this story. Respected historians do not universally agree; according to another account, the August 24 raid was by a large number of German planes, and was no accident.

This is a matter of some significance in attributing blame for one of the more ghastly practices of the Second World War--namely, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations--although Germany had obviously committed the first offense by attacking cities in Poland, Holland, and other countries that were in no position to return the insult. (Even earlier, German bombers had practiced their techniques on defenseless cities during the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini had bombed Ethiopia, and Japan had bombed Chinese cities.) I am inclined to go with Keegan's account, not only because I am swayed by his remarkable writing style, but because of his reputation for accuracy. Furthermore, circumstantial evidence supports the lost aircraft version. The bombing of London did not begin in earnest until Sept. 7. If Hitler had really intended to demolish London, it would have been out of character for him to wait two weeks between the initial attack of Aug. 24 and the full-scale blitz.

Bombing is a sobering illustration of how quickly the veneer of civilization can chip and crack in wartime; truth is not the only casualty. During the first months of the war, Bomber Command attacked German naval ships, including those in harbor, but avoided civilian populations. British planes flew over the heart of Germany only to drop leaflets, urging the German people to overthrow their tyrannical Führer. At least, that apparently is what the leaflets said. The facts are not altogether clear, as Harold Nicolson, a noted writer and Member of Parliament, reported in his diary. When the American correspondent, John Gunther, asked the "duds" at the Ministry of Information for the text of a leaflet, the request was refused.

"He asked why. The answer was, 'We are not allowed to disclose information which might be of value to the enemy.' When Gunther pointed out that two million of these leaflets had been dropped over Germany, the man blinked and said, 'Yes, something must be wrong there.' "

In spite of their bombing of cities in Poland and Holland in 1939 and 1940, Germans also showed restraint in the initial stages of combat with Britain. On occasion, German bomber crews returned to base with their bombs if they were unable to identify a military target, and at least one German pilot was reprimanded for attacking an "unmilitary" target--a train. On the British side, Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood was shocked by a proposal to set German forests on fire with incendiary bombs. "Are you aware," he said in disbelief, "that they are private property? Why, you will be asking me to bomb Essen next."

Then came the Blitz of London, the bombing of Coventry, and the thousand-bomber allied raids on the cities of the Ruhr--including Essen. By the final months of the war, allied bombs were raining on the beautiful, historic city of Dresden, long after it could possibly play any significant military role.

There is no good war.

And yet.... Hitler had to be stopped.

Perhaps, then, after all--and in spite of it all--it was a good war.

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