The Tank Trap
Paris, July 12, 1936
Therese de Coulaincourt had had never liked Germans and the barbarous sounds that they made. She had originally thought Klaus Seydlitz more German than American, and under ordinary circumstances, she would have exchanged extremely few words with him. But, of course, such an opportunity to obtain more information about Charlotte couldn't be overlooked. She had therefore cultivated Klaus maximally at every social gathering at which they had met. The second time, Therese had switched him from French to English, a language in which she was only moderately fluent. However, anything was better than having to listen to what he did to French. Having gotten them settled in a mutually acceptable language, Therese began to learn a few things.
At first, Klaus' elaborate courtesy had seemed ponderous and stultifying. He didn't flirt, nor did he feel for the weaknesses of his conversant. She herself liked fast clever men who forced admissions out of her while she, always a little more quickly, wormed their most embarrassing secrets out of them. She seldom drove a man to the wall or humiliated him, but Therese had once remarked light-heartedly to one of her female friends that there was always satisfaction in knowing that one could, if one wished, destroy a man. The satisfaction was even greater if the man happened to be one's lover.
With Klaus, any exciting interaction was simply out of the question. For example, Therese was sure that, if he were to come upon some fact about her which could conceivably be imagined to be embarrassing, he would make not even the most oblique reference to it. Not content with that, he would make every effort to delete it from his memory. He was, in a certain sense, hopeless.
In addition to not being able to arouse Klaus' curiosity about herself, Therese couldn't get his secrets out of him. Strictly speaking, he didn't have any. It was a source of amazement to Therese that, despite his self-deprecating talk about himself, he seemed never to have done anything he was sufficiently ashamed of to hide. He had been a dutiful son, soldier, and husband. He allowed easily that he could no longer be considered a loyal German. On the other hand, there were circumstances, were there not, in which loyalties conflicted? Unfortunate as this might be, one simply had to work things out as best one could. Did she not agree? Laughingly, Therese agreed.
It amused Therese that this utterly serious self- effacing man had managed, actually, to betray his fatherland. The most loyal soul on earth had calmly scratched a line through something so sacred that his contemporaries wouldn't have been able to grasp the possibility of the act. Then, with a casual arrogance that would have done credit to a gypsy, Klaus had substituted for that fatherland a totally alien country his mother had chosen for him. It was with this realization that Therese began to like him.
Liking him or not, she soon arrived at a brick wall. Klaus might not have any secrets of his own, but he protected those of others with a seemingly uncalculated evasiveness that could be infuriating. Whenever anyone asked him a question he didn't wish to answer, he carefully and conscientiously answered a somewhat different one. It was impossible for Therese to find out anything about Charlotte that she didn't already know.
It was only after Klaus returned from Germany that there appeared even the smallest chink in his armor. He was sufficiently worried about his wife to let Therese tell him about her. He wouldn't, of course, have listened to anything scandalous or defamatory. Nor would he have admitted to any concern. However, Therese knew just what to say. She related tiny incidents involving Charlotte and her friends. All were meaningless and even boring. Except that Therese wasn't accustomed to boring anyone. She knew that there was a pattern in the incidents, and she knew that Klaus would perceive it.
The next step was a difficult one which Therese talked over with Armand. According to Erich, Charlotte had mentioned her intention to buy a business in Luxembourg in front of Klaus. But he might know almost nothing about it. If that had been all, Therese could easily have contrived to give him some details.
But there was an odd twist. Klaus was an authority on railways, both American and European, and Therese had recently learned that he was particularly interested in the military use of railways. Was it then an accident that Charlotte had bought what was primarily a railway property?
Armand suggested that Klaus was really still on the German side, and that he had instructed his wife to buy a property which could be used, at least as a storage depot, by French Fifth Columnists. It was, of course, the simplest and most logical explanation. On the other hand, Therese had supreme confidence in her judgements about people. No actor could have had any way of knowing what seemingly disparate elements to put together to form the entirely convincing picture that Klaus presented. All this was hard to explain to Armand, but she tried.
"When someone puts on an elaborate act, there are certain signs, even if they never do or say anything wrong. For one thing, it produces a flat personality. The actor is too busy maintaining his act to relax. He's too consistent, and has no spontaneity. Klaus, modest as he is, has a certain sparkle and a rather surprising wit."
Armand was still doubtful, but Therese had finally insisted. Klaus was
on their side. She then decided to take him to see her father.
General Brossard was just prickly enough not to have gotten along with a man just like himself. It was fortunate that Klaus, while sharing a large number of interests with him, had a much softer tone. The general, to Therese's relief, wasn't quarrelsome. But he seemed puzzled.
The degree of linguistic confusion would have puzzled anyone. Part of the time, Klaus spoke in French to the general and his wife. The rest of the time he spoke in English, allowing Therese to translate. Not realizing the surprising degree to which Klaus could understand the language he so butchered in speech, the Brossards would add gestures and bits of English.
Madame Brossard, who had come from a French family in Lorraine when it was the German province of Lothringen, spoke German almost as a native. However, feeling that it was virtually traitorous to actually use it, she had hardly uttered a word for years. Now, to Therese's amazement, she heard her mother speak German to Klaus.
General Brossard was probably also confused by the fact that someone who was so obviously a German now seemed to be on the side of the French. Therese wouldn't have brought Klaus at all if she had not previously had a long, and largely successful, conversation with her father on that subject. The general did trust his daughter's judgments about people more than one would have thought, but he obviously wanted to see for himself. It wasn't too long before an animated conversation sprang up between himself and Klaus. As usual, he ignored his wife. He would have ignored Therese too, but for the necessity of appealing to her for translation.
General Brossard already believed that the way to fight tanks was with mines and armoured trains.
"The German tanks aren't capable of more than thirty kilometers an hour, and would do well to average much over half that over any distance. And that's on roads. We can often use mines to force them off the roads, where they'll be much slower. In any case, their tracks would have to be replaced after a few hundred kilometers. A train is much more durable and reliable, and is four or five times as fast."
Klaus nodded, but, at the same time, spread his hands palms up as he spoke softly,
"However, it depends on having lines to take the train to the point of action."
"We have a whole lattice-work of lines in the northeast. My idea is to selectively mine the roads in such a way as to force the tanks into the fields of fire of the trains."
That, of course, was only the beginning. Huge maps of northeastern France were unrolled and laid on the floor. Then the inevitable markers came out. As Therese said to her mother,
"You might as well give up and line one wall with cork. Then they could pin their maps and armies to it without taking over the floor. You could even have drapes that pulled across the maps when you don't want war in your salon."
It was, in all seriousness, a rather good suggestion. However, Therese knew that her mother would never do anything that she, Therese, thought of first.
Madame Brossard most often retired to her bedroom when the guns started firing. On this occasion, she puzzled Therese by remaining. The latter, momentarily flattered by her mother's apparent desire to talk with her, realized her mistake before very long. Klaus was the reason. When he came in, he had complimented Madame Brossard on her home. It mattered not that even he couldn't have been sincere. Then, not content with that, he had valiantly attempted to involve her in a general conversation, even as it tended toward the military. He had gone so far as to remark that she, as an officer's wife, had doubtless acquired her own viewpoint with regard to military affairs. Even now, when he was deeply involved in a technical conversation, he still directed glances at her and acted as if she understood what was going on.
Therese was greatly amused. She had thought Klaus the least likely man in the world to charm a woman. Moreover, her mother wasn't easily charmed. She had hardly deigned to glance at Paul Giroud. But there was no doubt that she was quite taken with this water buffalo of a man now crawling down the coast from Dunkerque to Abbeville. Wonders would never cease!
It seemed to Therese that her father had quite a good idea, a railway tank trap to go with his railway airplane trap. The first step was to scatter individual men belonging to a special unit all over the northeast countryside with radios and telephones. They would fulfill the simple but essential function of reporting the movements of enemy tank columns. The reports which came from regular army sources would be disregarded as being hopelessly contaminated by rumor, exaggeration, and panic.
Some of these special corps men would have at their elbows, in some remote barn or shed, a row of switches. These would be connected to mines dug in along a road, perhaps half a mile away. By lining up a tank against a tree or other mark, the observer could blow it up. Then, when the column, having searched fruitlessly for magnetic mines, got under way again, he could blow up another tank. Or he could let all the tanks pass undamaged, and systematically destroy the supply column following them. The risk to the observer and mine controller would be almost nil. After a time, the Germans might be lucky enough to dig up one of the buried wires. But it would lead only to a telephone pole, and would be lost in a maze of other wires. As General Brossard put it,
"The observer can sit at his window with binoculars and a cup of tea. He'll find that it's fun to blow things up. It'll take very little courage. This is a job for which we can find reliable men."
By these means, progress along many roads would be considerably impeded, while others were to be left free, at least during the initial stages. The German tank forces would naturally tend to take the open roads. Inevitably, there would be a series of bottlenecks and large concentrations of tanks. The roads to be left open would be chosen according to their position relative to railway lines.
Ideally, a tank column would suddenly and unexpectedly come upon an armored train. The train would either be hidden in ambush or rushed up according to the reports of observers. The nucleus of its armament would be quick-firing naval guns, perhaps six inch in caliber. A shell from such a gun would penetrate the armor of any tank in existence, and would destroy it and its crew. A dozen such guns could blanket a road very quickly and devastate everything on it.
The train would also be supplied with many machine guns and a company of infantry. The latter would be dug in parallel to the line, and would be supported by fire from the train. If any enemy foot soldiers were accompanying the tanks, they wouldn't get near the train.
The general, in the enthusiasm of his presentation, assumed, Therese was certain, that no sane man could disagree with him. She could see, however, that Klaus wasn't convinced. That created a problem that might require all her skill and tact.
Armand, she knew, could sometimes successfully contradict her father. But he did it with elaborate calculations. He would simply hand them to General Brossard and sit quietly until the latter had digested them. The general might then object to some of the values assigned to the variables. Armand would change them. He would then make the calculations anew, but the conclusion generally remained the same. At that point, the general would revise his claim.
Therese couldn't recall any other instances where her father had been forced to change his opinion. She herself had influenced him at times, but only in areas where he hadn't already taken a position. She now suspected strongly that Klaus would have a good point, but it was doubtful whether he would be able to get it across.
Klaus began by expressing general agreement with the scheme General Brossard had proposed. He, too, believed that railways could be used, not only logistically, but tactically. Although only an amateur in these matters, there were perhaps a few points, relating only to railway construction, that might be worthy of the general's notice. Klaus proceeded so slowly and deliberately as to be frustrating. Therese saw that her father, never one to welcome any sort of criticism, was nevertheless becoming anxious to hear what Klaus had to say.
It came by degrees, each detail being dismissed by the speaker as being of only trifling importance. To Madame Brossard it must have sounded as if Klaus were suggesting only the most minor modifications in her husband's plan. However, by the time Therese had taken in and put together the points Klaus had made, she was convinced that her father's plan could never work.
In gently rolling countryside, such as that to be found in the likely area of invasion, railways were built by constructing embankments across the valleys and cutting through the hills. The embankments and cuttings would generally be no more than four meters in height and depth respectively. But that might pose a problem.
A train in a cutting couldn't shoot at anything but aircraft. A train on an embankment could shoot at tanks, but not under favorable conditions.
One wanted to place artillery on hill tops with the greatest command of the surrounding area. Trains on embankments would be in valleys, perhaps able to shoot only as far as the next hill. They would also be easy to spot from the air. And then, if the tanks did blunder into their valley, the train, set up above the surrounding ground like a target at a shooting gallery, would be highly vulnerable. The locomotive, in particular, could be disabled by one shot through the boiler.
What was remarkable was that Klaus was able to suggest a vivid image of a military debacle while, all the time, warmly recommending the use of trains against tanks. Perhaps more quickly than her father, Therese saw that Klaus had long since thought all this out for himself, and had his own plan.
General Brossard at length clutched his head. His trains, if not bombed off the embankments, would be attacked by tanks swarming overland from all directions. Having been warned, the tanks wouldn't be concentrated on the roads. A few tanks would be destroyed, but the train, its locomotive disabled, would be a sitting duck for a hundred or more guns.
The only persons present who were not dismayed were Madame Brossard, who didn't understand, and Klaus, who, as Therese had guessed, had a solution to propose. He first asked his hostess' permission to use some books to illustrate his suggestion. He then moved some maps and piled the books up in such a way as to simulate a hill. He then spoke,
"In most cases the hill isn't steep enough to justify a tunnel. The line climbs to go over it. However, it's relatively cheap to cut a trench of four or five meters at the top, and that significantly reduces the grade that has to be climbed. This cutting, with its sloping sides, is, unfortunately, quite conspicuous from the air."
To illustrate the cutting, Klaus parted the books to create a straight gap across the middle of the hill. He then placed his finger at the point where the cutting met the edge of the hill.
"My suggestion is to place a switch here and build a light line which diverges from the main and spirals up the hill. If necessary, it can cross the main line cutting on a bridge. Ostensibly, the purpose would be a siding to load agricultural products, and it might be welcomed by the local farmers. Its real purpose would be quite different."
Klaus explained that such sidings were often built in shallow ditches, and otherwise followed undulations in the terrain. In this case, the ditch would be just deep enough to give cover to the flat cars, their wheels, and the track itself. But the sides of the ditch would be just low enough to allow the guns mounted on the flat cars to fire over them.
Foliage would be allowed to grow, with the result that the track would be very hard to spot from the air, or from the ground any distance away. Even a train on the siding wouldn't be so very conspicuous. Klaus then concluded,
"Since the track spirals up almost to the hilltop, the train could conveniently fire in any direction simply by moving forward and backward. It will then have an excellent command of the surrounding countryside with its guns."
General Brossard, who Therese knew to be capable of belittling even rather good ideas he hadn't produced himself, acted as if he had just been presented with a victory on the field. Therese couldn't remember ever having seen him so pleased. Indeed, in order to bring him back to earth, she had to ask Klaus about the number of sidings that would have to be built and their cost.
"I should think that there are probably thirty suitable hills in the area likely to be invaded. These are the cheapest kind of lines to build. The expense wouldn't be a major one in military terms, but it might be a problem to justify it in civilian economic terms."
It was then that Therese saw what she could do to help. Happy to have something to contribute, she made sure that she had her father's attention as she spoke.
"Our party has strong connections with the peasantry. I can suggest to a couple of deputies in key regions that they could please their constituents by providing some agricultural sidings. Low rates could be arranged to encourage the peasants to use them. Then, once they do, it'll be very easy to take advantage of the natural jealousy of the neighboring towns. They, too, will have to have their sidings, even if they have no real need for them. It can all be accomplished without overt military involvement."
There followed a discussion of certain details. It would be necessary for the railway board to appoint the right man to supervise the placement of the sidings. It wouldn't be unnatural or unusual for a woman of Therese's political prominence to demand that this plum fall to a friend of hers. The friend would turn out to be the American railway expert, M. Klaus Seydlitz. Where his French failed him, he could turn to his young secretary and assistant, M. Armand Saveuse.
Therese herself, occasionally accompanied by her father, would frequently visit the sites to mend any local political fences that might become disarrayed. She could also apply a little oil in the right places and see that there were no controversies of the sort that might make the newspapers. General Brossard, having been silent during most of this last discussion, now spoke.
"It would do well to try to confuse the enemy by putting some sidings in militarily unimportant places. I think that, even so, some clever young German staff officer will guess the truth. Or, at least, something close to it. However, in military affairs, guesses aren't always very useful. The Germans won't allocate men and money to plan and execute counter-measures against armored trains on the basis of some junior officer's hunch. They'll need something much more solid, something we hope they won't get."
Klaus again had a suggestion.
"It might be possible to construct the gun cars and train the crews as part of a scheme to provide even more defense in depth for the Maginot Line. Heavy guns could be introduced in that connection without arousing suspicion that they might be used in the northeast."
General Brossard replied,
"The range of these guns would far exceed the line of sight, but my observers could call in fire on any targets they wanted. We could register the guns so that, when the train pulls up to a particular marker, the gunners would already have the range and bearing of every crossroads and bridge within the whole district. The shells might still not drop on the road, but they'd be close enough so that a very few corrections would put them on the tank column."
Yet other uses for the sidings were imagined. Repair trains could hide on them, ready to dash out and repair any track that might be bombed. Other trains with infantry detachments could wait to be concentrated wherever desired. For example, they could be used to overwhelm any motorized unit whose vehicles were disabled, or which was stopped by blocked roads. And, of course, anti-aircraft trains could be held on such sidings. For these other purposes, sidings could be put where they would actually be of the most use for agricultural and commercial purposes.
There was then something of a respite as Klaus talked with Madame Brossard about her childhood in Lorraine. It wasn't terribly far from the old home of his mother's family, and it turned out that there were a number of customs, and even phrases, which had crossed the rather unstable Franco- German border. Even the general, who seemed to have no high regard for Lorraine, was moved to make a few non-military remarks. At last, when they were beginning to think about leaving, Madame Brossard, speaking in German, said to Klaus,
"I certainly hope the Germans don't have someone like you left to plan the invasion of France!"
Klaus looked a little embarrassed, and Therese, thinking her mother had said something suggestive, demanded a translation. When she got it, she asked him how Germany might use railways to invade France. Klaus replied,
"There are, of course, the ordinary uses, but my young cousin has a rather curious idea. He's supposed to do a school paper during the summer, and he's already done it. It concerns a program of railway sabotage which might be used against France. I did help him with some of the details, but he did most of the work, and all the writing, himself. He's very proud of it, and he's showing it to anyone who'll look at it."
When the others pressed Klaus for details, he explained,
"A German sympathizer could establish a warehouse with railway sidings somewhere. He would then accumulate railway cars, load them with high explosive, and fuse them to explode when the doors are opened. On the outbreak of war, he would dispatch them to munitions factories, to army depots, and even to the front. When they went off they'd take a good deal with them. They'd also be difficult to trace. The result would be that, after a certain time, no one would dare unload any car. Such a disruption of supply would give the Germans an advantage, as if they needed one."
Therese managed to act as if nothing unusual had happened. Her father was quite impressed with the plan. He remarked that, fortunately, the Germans had no talent for anything resembling irregular warfare, and were unlikely to think of any such scheme. Klaus and Therese then left with a final round of courtesies.
In what looked as if it might become a habit, Therese took Klaus to the cafe down the street to review the meeting with her father. She immediately asked him more about his young cousin's "German plan." Klaus was obviously proud of his cousin for thinking it up, and was quite expansive.
"You could load twenty tons of high explosive on board a standard European goods wagon. That's a tremendous charge. It's as much as several hundred bombs. Some cars would be marked as containing chemicals for munitions plants, and would probably be opened right in the plant. After the factory disintegrated, they'd eventually discover that the cause was an explosive railway wagon. But, before then, it should be possible to take out a number of factories and depots in that fashion.
By the time that the problem was discovered, the wagons would be dispersed all over France, and it would be impossible to identify them. It would be then, when supplies were running low at the front, that no one would dare open a freight car door anywhere in the country."
"Isn't it possible, then, that a good many would never explode?"
"They would all have chemical delay fuses that detonate when an acid eats through a wire to release a spring. That could be a matter of weeks. Railway cars are almost never isolated. They're packed into marshalling yards. According to the odds, many of the explosive cars would end up in the great Paris marshalling yards. In wartime, many other cars would be loaded with explosive and inflammable materials. The whole yard would probably be wiped out, and, very likely, some nearby railway facilities. The potential for destruction would really only be limited by the number of explosive cars that could be assembled."
Therese knew, without being told, that the material damage wouldn't be the worst. Faced with such massive evidence of Fifth Column activity, ordinary people would lose their balance. Everyone would be suspect. Recriminations and accusations would multiply. The public would tear itself apart before the Germans ever reached Paris. Anxious as she was to get on with the main business, she didn't bother to mention these facts. She instead asked,
"Would it be hard to buy the explosives?"
"There's a market in high explosive. A surprising amount is bought and sold among shady groups, irresponsible governments, and restless colonies. It takes only money."
"Would the warehouse have to be in France?"
Klaus looked puzzled, and made a gesture with his hands. Therese clarified her question.
"Could it be in Belgium or Luxembourg?"
"I suppose so. On the outbreak of war, there'd be a rush to move anything of value out of those countries. I don't suppose the customs guards would be likely to cause bottlenecks by inspecting trains."
It was now just a matter of breaking the news in the most humane way. Therese asked,
"What does your wife think of a man and a boy who concoct such diabolical plans?"
"She doesn't usually know about mine. In this case, Hans insisted on explaining the whole thing at tea when she and Marie-Claude were there. Finally, Charlotte said she was going around to the German Embassy to sell Hans' plan to them."
Klaus actually laughed. It was touching to see how much, even now, he trusted his wife. In that moment, Therese realized that there was no need to tell him at all. At least, not if he were willing to take her seriously in a somewhat different connection. She spoke carefully.
"Your wife is a fascinating person. I admire her tremendously. However, I'm certain that she's become too deeply involved with people I would term irresponsible conservatives. People who tolerate Hitler because he's anti- communist. People who are almost hysterically anti-British, and who could do great harm even to American interests."
Therese had no doubt that Klaus was taking her seriously. She was sure that he had guessed some of this, but he had never had to confront it directly. It was also obvious that he knew nothing about the warehouse in Luxembourg. He probably believed that Charlotte owned only the dress shop there. Klaus thus had no inkling of the enormity of the problem, or of his own inadvertent role in it. It was necessary to add only one more item.
"Charlotte really shouldn't help subsidize violent hoodlums, such as those who belong to the Cross of Fire."
Therese was thankful she hadn't told Klaus the whole truth. Undemonstrative as he was, the fact that his wife had, in effect, paid to have people beaten up reduced him to absolute silence. As he remained almost transfixed with one hand on his forehead, Therese wondered if she had offended him. Perhaps he didn't believe her, and thought that she was retailing calumnies against his wife.
In the event, Klaus finally looked up, smiled wistfully, and quietly asked Therese what she thought he should do. Therese placed her small hand on top of his large one.
"Take her home to America. She'll be safe there. You can trust me to tie up all the loose ends over here."