A longer-than-usual “short” story, so I’ve broken it into two parts.
The great course of history can turn upon small and unexpected things, never more so than in wartime. Significant events can happen, or not happen, pivoting on mere moments in time. Luck? Chance? Coincidence? Dubious magic?
The Brandenburg Regiment of the Abwehr Second Division was not the most popular element within the German army.
The SS and the Abwehr maintained a deep-seated and bitter rivalry. Military intelligence was the Abwehr’s provenance, and there were many in the SS who resented their lack of ready access to secrets they felt entitled to.
Some of the die-hard traditionalist old soldiers in the High Command still felt that the Abwehr’s techniques of subterfuge and espionage weren’t a “proper” way to conduct a war, and regarded the whole organization as intrinsically dishonourable.
And there were some, even within the Abwehr itself, who felt that the whole idea of the Brandenburgs was an affront to their treasured ideal of Aryan supremacy.
The men of the Brandenburg Regiment were the equivalent of the British Commandos. Highly trained both physically and mentally, in disciplines from swimming and hand-to-hand combat to map reading, secret messaging, forgery, demolition and camouflage, they were an elite group designed to operate behind enemy lines. By the time of their dissolution in the autumn of 1944 they’d earned more decorations and commendations than any comparably sized unit in the German army.
The problem for the Aryan supremacists was that, in order to function effectively in foreign countries, it was necessary for the Regiment to be largely composed of foreigners. This was a further affront to the SS, who sought out recruits with exemplary Nordic features. The Brandenburgs, in contrast, specifically wanted men who looked like they belonged in their chosen fields of operation.
To join the Regiment it was essential to speak at least one language other than German, preferably more. They recruited expatriate Germans from across Europe and Africa, but also the likes of Slavs, Poles, Ukrainians – even Spaniards.
Spain was a vexation to Hitler. The leader, General Franco, stubbornly refused to enter the war on the side of the Axis, although he was just as intransigent about joining the Allies. It seemed to the Fuhrer that the man would not commit to anyone until the war was over and a clear winner could be identified.
One tiny corner of southwestern Spain was of particular concern. Out on the edge of Andalucía, Gibraltar had been held by Britain since the Treaty of Utrecht in1713.
The British fortress on the Rock of Gibraltar was a key strategic position, giving the Allied navies a significant tactical advantage. It also provided a well-sited airstrip for combat operations. If it could be taken, or at least incapacitated, it would be a powerful blow. The difficulty was that it was a very, very tough nut to crack.
By the middle of 1942 the Rock was actually rather less solid than it appeared. Five companies of British engineers and two companies of their Canadian allies, equipped with diamond tipped drills, had riddled the Gibraltar limestone with an impressive subterranean network.
The size of a small town, it had more than thirty miles of tunnels and chambers – more tunnels than there were roads on Gibraltar. The tunnels linked up storage rooms, office space, signaling stations, even a power station, water supply and a well-equipped hospital. At the very heart of it all was the recently established Headquarters of Operation Torch – coordinating the Allies’ planned invasion of French North Africa. General Eisenhower had only just arrived to take command of the Operation.
The General didn’t especially like his new environment. He found it damp and dank, but he readily acknowledged how secure and safe it was as a base. It certainly seemed as near as possible to impenetrable.
In large part that was due to the construction of his HQ, but he was also pleased to acknowledge the caliber of the British troops who formed the majority of Gibraltar’s defence force.
Among those troops were members of the 4th Battalion of the Royal Highland Regiment, better known as the Black Watch. Among them was a soldier named William John McEwen.
Corporal McEwen had been an orphan, shipped to the Hebrides island of Islay in his youth and raised in the little village of Sron Dubh. His hair, which he could never make tidy enough for the satisfaction of some officers, lacked the fiery redness so often associated with Scots. He was middling tall, with broad shoulders. He’d competed with some success in the hammer throw event at Highland games, routinely launching the 22 pound metal ball and its four foot wooden shaft over a hundred and fifty feet.
The 4th Battalion had been among the last troops to be evacuated from Dunkirk. McEwen had earned his promotion during those desperate days in France, together with a reputation for having a cool head in a crisis. It was also noticed by alert eyes that he had a knack for being in the right place at the right time – where and when he was needed.
Not an ambitious man, Braw Wullie as he’d been known in Sron Dubh (many of the village men were named William, and each of the ‘Wullies’ had his own nickname to distinguish him) tried to keep a low profile on the Rock. There was only one wee little problem with that.
That wee little problem was a Barbary ape. One of the many macaques that inhabited Gibraltar had attached himself to the Corporal. It was peculiar behaviour. The beasts were normally scavengers, not people-shy but not at all tame, either. This one on the other hand had wandered up to the Scot when he’d first arrived at the fortress, tilted his small furry head to one side as if studying the man, then proceeded to accompany him all around the place.
McEwen had done nothing at first to encourage the attentions, but eventually would talk to the monkey as an intelligent companion.
“He’s smarter than some o’ you bampots,” he’d said with a smile when a few of his comrades made disparaging remarks. He even gave the creature a name, hearkening back to the habits of his old village. ‘Hairy Wullie’ – who immediately learned to respond to the moniker (although mostly only when called by McEwen).
The Gibraltar fortress ran on routine. Eisenhower recognised when he arrived that what was in place already was working, so he didn’t mess with it. His biggest challenge was getting the American servicemen to fit in with the British way of doing things.
Part of the routine was a ‘market day’, when some of the local farmers and traders would bring their wares to sell in the parade ground of the base. There was heavy security around their entry and exit from the fortress, but the local ‘treats’ were popular and good for morale.
Two men of the Brandenburg Regiment had been based in the Campo de Gibraltar – the Spanish area outside the Allied fort – to take advantage of any opportunity to disrupt enemy operations.
Ulises Lope Guiomar was the son of a German mother and Spanish father. He had gone to sea at a young age and travelled widely. Several harsh experiences in various countries had firmly set his sympathies to the Fascist cause. He was lean, quiet and dangerous.
His partner in the two-man team was a classic example of a Brandenburg recruit – a Spaniard who passionately believed that his country was making a grievous error in not joining the Nazis. Gonzalo Olegario was a local man whose ready smile and charm concealed ruthless steel that the Abwehr training had shaped to best advantage.
The pair had started to become recognised at the regular market days in the fortress. Ulises’ taciturn nature was made up for by Gonzalo’s cheery salesmanship. They had an old canvas covered lorry, from the back of which they sold oranges. Olegario had family from whom he could source crates of the fruit cheaply before selling it on at a useful profit. The Brandenburgs were encouraged to be self-reliant. Olegario and Guiomar were proving adept at that, although they never failed to be alert for the opportunity to pursue their real vocation: espionage.
The recent arrival of so many US servicemen on the base opened up the chance they’d been waiting for. The Brandenburgs hadn’t been able to learn why the Americans were there – security around Operation Torch was very tight – but that was actually less important to them than the opportunity that they saw to put into action a cunning plan.
In the course of his travels Ulises had spent several months working the docks and living in the Gaslight district of San Diego. A good listener and mimic, he’d cultivated the local accent to improve his employment prospects. Now it would be put to another use.
It was a pleasant November afternoon. The guards at the fortress gate had flicked up the canvas flap at the back of Gonzalo’s truck. As usual, they saw a small pile of wooden crates, each full of oranges. One guard, being efficient, slid a hand into a couple of the outer crates. He even climbed up onto the tray and reached into one of the top boxes.
“All fine,” he’d said on jumping back down. Olegario and Guiomar were waved through to join the other sellers on the parade ground.
Gonzalo chose a parking spot at a corner of the square, a little away from their nearest neighbour. A stone wall stood to one side, a dull brick ablution block forming the other part of the corner.
“We catch the passing trade this way, si?” the amiable Spaniard said to one of their customers.
The pair had an established routine, taking only two crates of fruit from the back of the truck at a time, so the oranges stayed as shaded and cool as possible.
Among the customers that day was Braw Wullie McEwen. He’d been idly crossing the parade ground when his simian companion had started to dance excitedly. The animal had his nose in the air and was flaring his nostrils. He looked up at the corporal for a moment, and then took off on a loping run straight to Gonzalo and Ulises’ truck.
Before a furry hand could purloin any of the fruit though, McEwen’s voice barked, “Hairy Wullie! No!”
To the astonishment of the Spaniards, the macaque immediately dropped to his haunches and rested his knuckles on the ground. The corporal trotted up. “Sorry lads, seems the wee terror is a bit partial tae oranges,” he said.
Olegario spread his hands, bemused but smiling. “No problem, cabo,” he said, recognizing the stripes on the Scot’s uniform. The vagaries of the duty roster meant that McEwen hadn’t chanced to be available to ‘shop’ on previous market days when the Brandenburgs had been present.
Private Gavin Currie, who was standing by the truck handing a few coins over to Ulises, leaned down and gave Hairy Wullie a cautious pat. The macaque merely glanced up, tolerant but not enthused. “Yer a funny wee bugger,” he chuckled. “Ye’ve got ‘im well trained, Braw Wullie.”
McEwen shrugged. “Never trained him – never tried. He just listens tae me for whatever reason o’ his own.”
Guiomar looked perplexed. “It is strange. The other apes do not behave like this – they keep well away from hombres.”
“No’ apes – monkeys,” corrected the corporal. “They’ve got a wee stub o’ a tail, ye ken. Here, gi’ us half a dozen o’ your oranges please, pal.”
He handed over the right money, and cradled the fruit in the crook of an arm. He pulled a purple handkerchief from his breast pocket, polished one of the oranges and tossed the fruit up, saying, “Right ye are then, lad”.
The monkey jumped straight up, snatched the treat out of the air and immediately began devouring it with messy enthusiasm.
“Thanks lads,” said McEwen, walking away followed closely by Hairy Wullie, who was happily stuffing pieces of orange into his mouth. As they went the others heard the soldier say, “That’s all for noo. The rest are goin’ intae ma footlocker where you’ll no’ put your greedy paws on them. We’ve just got time tae pop back tae barracks before I go on duty.”
Again Guiomar shook his head. “He takes monkey on duty with him?” he wondered aloud.
Gavin laughed, as amused by the Spaniards’ reactions as much as the picture the two Wullies presented. “I dinna think he takes it anywhere. It just sort of follows him around. The brass cut the corporal some slack. He did aye right by a few people getting’ oot o’ France, including one or two o’ the captains.”
“He is a hero?” asked Gonzalo quietly.
“Never heard him say such,” said Private Currie casually.
He didn’t notice the dark look that crossed Guiomar’s face. Such men were dangerous, the Abwehr man mused.
Soon after, the area around the orange sellers had gone quiet. The two men valued such times, casting their sharp eyes around the base, learning and memorizing whatever they could.
One of the American soldiers who’d recently arrived on the base strode briskly past towards the ablution block, obviously on a private mission of some importance.
Guiomar appeared suddenly at his side, plucking at a uniform sleeve.
“Scusi, senor. I would like to use the tocador… the, ah…” He gestured in the direction the GI – Hank Morgan by name – had been heading.
“The can? Sure, I ain’t stopping ya,” replied Morgan.
“I cannot without, er, escort, si? For base personnel only,” he said adding a lightly mocking tone of stern officialdom to the last phrase.
Hank frowned. “Oh. Yeah, sure. Come with me, buddy. Can’t have ya makin’ a mess on our nice clean parade ground. The Limeys wouldn’t like it.” ‘Probably make me clean it up, too’, he thought to himself.
Hank Morgan believed life treated him unfairly. His attitude was such that he was seldom disappointed in that view.
The two men stepped briskly into the brick building. There was no one else inside.
“There ya go,” said Morgan over his shoulder as he opened the door of a latrine cubicle for himself. He scarcely felt the stiletto that slid up between his ribs and into his heart.
Ulises caught the body as it fell, and hefted it into the cubicle. Swinging the door shut with his foot, the Spaniard propped Hank Morgan’s body up, sitting on ‘the can’ as he’d called it. He slipped the fine blade back into his boot, unconcerned by the thin smear of blood he left on his sock. In moments he’d removed the GI’s shirt.
He doffed the long shopkeeper’s apron he’d been wearing, and the coarse black jumper under it. Beneath the jumper was what looked at first like an ordinary sleeveless vest. Guiomar pulled it over his head, turned it inside out and pulled it back on. A series of elasticized straps had been sewn on. They sat snugly against his torso. He put Morgan’s uniform blouse on over the vest and buttoned it. It wasn’t a perfect fit, but what army uniform ever was?
The apron had disguised the khaki drill pants he’d been wearing. His boots were regular army boots, but that had attracted no attention. Many of the local men had bought or scavenged footwear from the base. It may not be comfortable but it was tough.
Kneeling awkwardly in the cramped cubicle, he pilfered the American’s gaiters and applied them to his own ankles. Finally, he pulled a comb from his trouser pocket and swept his hair back in a style completely unlike that he’d worn moments before.
He clicked his heels and gave the late Private Hank Morgan a mocking salute of acknowledgement, then stepped out of the cubicle. Closing the door behind him, he wedged it shut with a folded piece of card, so cunningly inserted that it would be unnoticed by all but the closest inspection. Guiomar did not expect such an inspection would occur in time to complicate the operation.
He left the ablution block and walked back toward the truck in crisp, even strides. Even his walk had changed. A curt nod from Gonzalo confirmed that the coast was clear. Wordlessly he went to the back of the truck and climbed up onto the tray, pulling the canvas flap shut behind him. The little bundle of his apron and jumper were tucked out of sight.
Olegario kept watch outside while Guiomar went to work.
He moved several crates of oranges to get at one particular box at the very heart of the pile. Crouching low, he reached in and pulled a carefully wrapped package from within the oranges in that special box. Having unbuttoned the blouse of the late Private Morgan’s uniform, he slipped the package behind one of the straps of his cunning vest. The strap held the small bundle tightly to his chest. Quickly but methodically he repeated the procedure with four more similar parcels.
Suddenly Ulises Lope Guiomar felt the sun on his back. The canvas flap had been lifted a little. He froze momentarily in the act of securing the fifth package in place. Preparing to whip the stiletto from his boot, he looked back over his shoulder.
It was a monkey! Maybe the same one as before – who could tell? Restraining a curse behind his teeth, Guiomar kicked one foot out backwards. The heavy boot caught the ape high on the outside of its leg, and sent the animal tumbling back out of the truck. Hairy Wullie, for so indeed it was, grasped at the corner of the canvas, pulling the flap shut as he tumbled out.
McEwen, some distance away on the other side of the truck from Olegario, only saw the ape swinging briefly from the canvas.
“Get oot of it, ye wee villain!” he shouted.
In the back of the truck Guiomar hastily restacked the crates with one hand, buttoning the baggy uniform with the other. To his relief, Gonzalo intercepted the Scot before he got too close.
“Naughty monkey! Mi apologia, cabo, if your pet has hurt himself.”
“Nae need for you tae apologise, pal. Hairy Wullie, ye thievin’ beggar! Serves ye right if ye hurt yersel’ fallin’ oot o’ there.”
If it occurred to the Corporal that it was odd for a sure-footed Barbary ape to fall from the back of a truck, he gave no sign of it. He took the apparently contrite creature by the arm it meekly offered up to him.
“Come on, ye wee rogue. I’m meant tae be on duty any minute.” He turned to Olegario. “Disnae look like he managed tae pinch anything. Sorry, pal – I’ll get him oot of yer way.”
With that McEwen strode off, his hairy companion loping at his side. Neither looked back. The truck driver shook his head at the peculiar sight.
“All clear,” called Olegario softly after looking around.