The Troop Office
Berlin, November 27, 1937
The summons had come with almost no warning, only a week earlier. It all made sense in retrospect. The kind of design change in locomotives Klaus had proposed was a matter of great national importance, perhaps as important as the choice of a fighter aircraft or tank. It was also known that the Fuhrer liked to concern himself with technological detail, something for which he had great facility. But, still, Klaus hadn't been able to believe that Adolf Hitler would spare the time to meet with him.
But there it was. Klaus had quickly called Herr Reinhardt with two questions. Would it be advisable and appropriate to take Harold with him? Should he take with him a short film about locomotives to illustrate what he had to say? The answer to the first question was unreservedly affirmative. The Fuhrer liked to meet bright young men. Klaus should call his secretary and suggest it. On the second point, Reinhardt had been more guarded, but still positive. If the film was short, well-made, and to the point, Klaus should take it.
There was then just a final word of advice. Klaus would find, in private, a very different man from the public figure. He was more approachable, probably, than any other head of state. But it would be a mistake to exaggerate to even the smallest degree, or to try to gild any lilies. In this case, Reinhardt believed, the facts were good enough to speak for themselves.
Accordingly, Klaus had brought Harold along, and also a short publicity film, made by the Union Pacific, about the Challenger. On the last score, Klaus had had some misgivings, not about the content of the film, but about amateur projectionists. His experience had been that, whenever someone tried to show a home movie, something went wrong. There would be a period of embarrassed silence while the person at the projector tinkered with it and mumbled. In the end, it might be gotten to work, or might not.
They obviously couldn't afford anything like that in front of Hitler. Klaus had thus insisted that they bring all their own equipment. He had also made Harold go through the whole operation dozens of times. Klaus told him, with only the slightest smile, that his entire technological competence was likely to be assessed in terms of his facility with the projector. Harold had been sceptical, but had practised dutifully with good results.
The office itself was surprisingly bare of ornamentation, and not very private. A couple of secretaries, one male and one female, worked off to one side and communicated in undertones. It reminded Klaus of the office of a newspaper editor, with constant comings and goings and an air of informality.
Klaus and Harold were about to give the Hitler salute when the man himself popped up and came forward smiling to shake hands. He then seated them comfortably and apologized for the Berlin weather as he regained his own seat. Hitler then engaged Klaus in a discussion of war experiences. It turned out that the former corporal and the young officer hadn't been terribly far from one another in the 1918 offensive.
Klaus actually relaxed and enjoyed himself, realizing that Hitler would lead the conversation where he wanted it to go. It was like being with a famous actor in a social setting. The actor believed in what he was doing, but there was no need for him to be MacBeth or Julius Caesar off stage.
The conversation drifted to locomotives in fairly short order. Hitler had already been given the general picture by Reinhardt, and had some surprisingly detailed questions about compounding, as opposed to direct steam supply, in large freight locomotives. Harold answered them persuasively.
If an engine with four cylinders used the exhausts from the small high-pressure cylinders for the large low-pressure cylinders, the engine was theoretically very efficient. Moreover, if there were valves allowing high-pressure steam to be sent directly to the low-pressure cylinders on starting, as in the Norfolk and Western Y class engines, a tremendous train could be started and moved slowly up a grade.
Unfortunately, compounding, so popular in Europe, sacrificed, not only speed, but power at speed. The important thing, Harold averred, was to keep a moderately heavy freight train moving at over fifty miles an hour, and perhaps even at sixty or seventy. Hitler quickly translated miles per hour into kilometers per hour, and seemed impressed with the result.
Klaus then broke in, suggesting that a short film they had brought with them might be more informative than anything they could say. Hitler agreed readily, and Harold had things together so quickly as to surprise even Klaus. The film began.
As he translated for Hitler the title, "The Conquest of Sherman Hill," the sound track came on, most appropriately with a selection from Wagner. The Union Pacific had, characteristically, spared no expense in the making of their film. A first-rate director and cameraman had been obtained from Hollywood, and the editing and cutting was professional. The end product was intended to attract shippers away from competing transcontinental systems to the rails of the UP. The film's creators could hardly have imagined the use to which it was presently being put.
Klaus, translating freely from the voice of the narrator, explained the significance of Sherman Hill. There were steeper grades, and there were even some longer ones. But there was none anywhere in the world which comprised such an obstacle to the daily haulage of so much tonnage. At this moment, the film moved from an air panorama of Wyoming's mountain fastnesses to a view of the thin ribbon of track snaking its way up the sides of the mountains.
The perspective then came down to ground level. Around the bend came a freight train. Klaus explained that these were the engines used before those which Harold Vandermeer had helped design. On the head end of the train were two giant 4-12-2s, their size dwarfing a man standing beside the track. The sound track momentarily drowned out speech in the office as it caught the shattering exhausts of the engines as they shot steam and smoke violently upward.
It was a stirring confrontation between steel and steam on one side and the mountain on the other. The dubious outcome of the battle was emphasized when the man at trackside came walking toward the camera, easily keeping pace with the engines. Hitler, caught up in the spectacle, asked,
"Will they reach the top?"
"Just barely, and only because there's another engine pushing at the end of the train."
The scene then shifted to some yards, where a train was being prepared for the endless battle with Sherman Hill. Klaus knew that it was a freight of only forty cars, much shorter than anything ordinarily run by the UP. He also knew that only the first dozen cars were loaded. The sound track didn't mention these facts, and the film would never show both ends of the train at once. Klaus pointed out the engine, a Challenger, that was backing down on the train. Long and sleek, it presented an almost streamlined aspect as its twelve driving wheels in two sets moved easily with only a whisper of steam.
From then on, words were unnecessary. The Challenger suddenly billowed smoke and steam from its low stacks and came toward the camera. Another sequence got it as it accelerated, cleared the yard, and headed for the open range with the mountains in the background.
The next sequence was shot on the hill itself, and featured the same stretch of the grade that had been shown before with the same man standing at track side. The Challenger appeared suddenly, steaming hard and making a good forty. Klaus knew that not even a Challenger could have gotten an ordinary freight up the grade unaided, much less at that speed. However, even he found the spectacle of the big engine swaying on the curve and eating up trackage an affecting one. Hitler looked fascinated.
Once the engine roared by, the scene shifted to another stretch of track, for the moment empty. Klaus explained that these shots were taken at the summit by a different camera. Only he knew that it wasn't really at the summit. Since there was no indication of the horizontal in the mountains, one couldn't tell that the track which curved up to the foreground and then levelled was actually the beginning of the downgrade.
One first saw the smoke with the engine hidden by a rock formation. Then there was white steam at the base of the column of black oil smoke. Then came the headlight. Almost immediately, the Challenger came ripping, at well over fifty. There was only a whoosh as it passed, and then the roar of the loaded freight cars as they almost bounced off the rails. Klaus held up his hand to stop the film. He then remarked confidentially to a transfixed Hitler,
"I'm sure this train wasn't as heavy as the one we saw earlier. It is, after all, an advertising film intended to show what a Challenger can do in the mountains. However, the next sequence shows better the use we actually have in mind for it. It's taken in the American Great Plains, but one can here imagine the terrain of most of Europe north of the Alps."
Hitler, impatient with Klaus' rather slow explanation, waved for the film to continue.
The locale was in Nebraska, somewhere west of Omaha. There was thick snow on the ground under a bright blue sky. The engine was again a Challenger, on the head end of a hundred car freight. Many of the cars may have been empty, but, apart from that, there was no cheating. However, there was expert camera work. There were shots showing the engine almost enveloped in the cloud of snow it was throwing up. There were others in which the cameraman must have had to jump to avoid being run down. Some were from an airplane, and some from ground level at a considerable distance. The shots were chosen, very effectively, to emphasize both the speed and the length of the train.
Klaus knew that Hitler had never been to America, and had thus never seen a real freight train. He therefore said nothing as the end approached.
The final shot showed the caboose receding rapidly as it bounced lightly on the rails. Far across the prairie was barely visible the smoke of the locomotive. It seemed to be on the other side of the world.
At the conclusion, Hitler rose, smiled, and led his visitors to a window from which could be seen a railway yard. He spoke, still in a pleasant tone of voice, but more insistently.
"There you see a German railway. You are proposing to replace it with an American railway, which may indeed be bigger, faster, and more powerful. And you do this, I suppose, knowing that Germany may be forced to go to war in the relatively near future?"
Klaus knew that this wasn't the time for qualifications, even legitimate ones.
"Let me now ask you, Herr Seydlitz, some further questions concerning your experiences as a German officer in 1918. I, as a mere enlisted man, wasn't in a position to know certain things."
This, of course, was partly a joke, and Klaus smiled. But he braced himself for what was to come.
"Was there ever a time when your men had no rifle or machine- gun ammunition?"
"Was there a time when our artillery had to stop in the middle of one of those tremendous barrages for lack of ammunition?
"Not to my knowledge, sir."
"Was there a time when our troops couldn't reach the front, or the wounded be evacuated, for lack of transport?"
"I remember some delays, but no serious interruptions, sir."
"Your impressions coincide with my own, Herr Seydlitz. There were severe shortages, of course, but they were due to the blockade. I might also point out that a future war would be a more mobile one with tanks and airplanes. The number of men actively involved might be far smaller, and there wouldn't be those almost continuous artillery duels which required such a large supply of ammunition."
Hitler paused to let the point sink in. Klaus could only agree. Then came the conclusion.
"I would judge that the railway system of the last war should suffice for another. Your Challengers .."
Hitler pronounced the word "Challenger" in English, indicating that he had listened to the sound-tract as well as Klaus' narration. He then gestured to Harold as he continued.
"They are certainly magnificent, but I would think that the little puffers you see below would get us through another war as well as they did the last one. Do you not agree?"
"They would suffice for the same kind of war, sir."
Klaus, speaking in desperation, hardly knew what he was saying. But Hitler, seeming like a combination of Franz Kaler and a Prussian general, picked up on it.
"Another war of the same sort. Yes. We will come back to it. But, first, you will pardon me if I ask you a few other questions."
Turning away from the railway yards, Hitler led the way back to the chairs. When seated, he remarked,
"It strikes me that you are proposing a course of action which would make it more difficult for Germany to fight France and England, and perhaps America. Your locomotives wouldn't supply the troops any better, perhaps not as well. But their construction would take great resources which could be put to better uses."
This time, Hitler didn't require Klaus to explicitly agree, and seemed content with a nod. He went on,
"I also ask myself if it is an accident that a man who is now an American proposes something that would work against Germany in a war with America and its allies. We know that great numbers of our countrymen who went to America fought against us in the last war. Consider now those who went to America after that war. Would they not fight against us in another war? After all, it's only natural. The new country always takes precedence over the old."
For a dreadful moment, Klaus wondered if their secrets had been leaked. But he then realized that Hitler wouldn't be wasting so much of his time if that were the case. The Fuhrer wanted something, and the case wasn't hopeless. Klaus replied,
"As you have perceived, sir, I am not unhappy with a development that would make Germany less likely to go to war with America. I might also remark that I am doing things in America which may make her less likely to go to war with Germany."
"So I have been informed, Herr Seydlitz. I congratulate you. Perhaps you would tell me exactly how you would feel in the case of a war between Germany and France, one between Germany and England, and one between Germany and America."
"I would welcome a German conquest of France. I would prefer to see England remain independent, but with no presence on the continent. As for the last possibility, I would regard it as the greatest disaster imaginable."
"It may surprise you to know that I share your view about England. They, too, are Aryans. And any German leader who sought war with America would be insane. We are perhaps not so far apart. But, now, given this much, why should I need your locomotives?"
There was only one possible answer, one which Klaus, strangely enough, hadn't anticipated. He now gave it.
"For war in the east, sir."
Hitler appeared delighted, but replied in a seemingly negative way.
"But our old locomotives supplied us in the east as well as in the west the last time. They were good enough to allow us to defeat the Russians."
"That war was fought in Poland, not Russia, sir. In Russia itself the conditions would be very like those in America."
Hitler actually laughed.
"Do you take me for Napoleon, sir? I, who have never placed any territorial demands on anyone? Would I undertake to conquer Russia?"
The laughter was quite disconcerting. Klaus stole a look at Harold. He might not have understood much of what had been said, but he was sitting rigid and white-faced. Klaus said nothing. When Hitler finished laughing, he spoke conversationally,
"As it happens, this is a slow afternoon, and I would welcome some amusement. If Napoleon were alive today, how would he use these Challengers to conquer Russia?"
Klaus found himself rubbing his eyes. There was no turning back. To admit that he had never thought of conquering Russia would be to admit that he had intended only to impede the Nazi war machine. He hoped that Stalin was, as many people said, worse than Hitler. In any case, the first points were easily made. No sooner had Klaus begun than Hitler stopped him.
"I suppose that, as a head of state, I shouldn't indulge in such fantasies. However, we have a man here who enjoys such things. He's always himself re-fighting Napoleon's campaign in Russia. If you have time, I'll have you driven over to his office."
The interview ended most pleasantly. Hitler again complimented them on their film and their locomotives. He asked about their travel arrangements and put a car and driver at their disposal as long as they remained in Berlin. Finally, he shook their hands warmly and remarked gaily to Klaus,
"Since you are a civilian and an American, Herr Seydlitz, I wouldn't presume to attempt to give you orders. However, we do have a certain amount of control over the activities of the Heissen works. As soon as we work out our plans, we'll be in touch with you."
Outside in the car, Klaus communicated guardedly with Harold in English. The driver probably couldn't hear them in the back, and presumably didn't understand English, but one couldn't be sure. They agreed that it was difficult to know how serious the Fuhrer had been, but much would depend on the sort of man they were now going to meet. Klaus spent the rest of the journey in silence, working out in his mind the details of a Russian campaign.
The building they drew up to was rather nondescript, and seemed to house various different sorts of government offices. On entering the busy foyer, Harold announced an urgent need for a men's room. Klaus found one, and waited outside. When Harold emerged, looking much more relaxed, he reported,
"The guy in the next toilet stall was amazing. In between plops he was grunting and sighing almost ecstatically. Finally, there was a big fart and a sort of hydraulic explosion. I'm sure I heard him say something with "wunderbar" in it. He might have been abusing himself and taking a shit at the same time, but I think it was just enal fascination. That's one of Freud's stages isn't it?"
There were times when it saddened Klaus to think that Harold was on his way to becoming a Nazi. As he explained that the enal stage was, indeed, the second of Freud's three, he wondered whether there would not, in the end, be some way of rescuing Harold. It would certainly be a pity to leave him in Germany after the war started.
At that moment, a man in an army officer's uniform emerged from the lavatory, and Harold nudged Klaus.
"There he goes. That must be the one."
Even from the back, one could see that something was wrong. The man looked as if he had slept for a week in his uniform. His walk derived either from too many whaling voyages or from the presence of animal life in his private areas. As the officer shambled into an office, he made a swipe to close the door, missed, and then gave the door a good-natured kick which practically shattered the glass. Klaus had an awful feeling that this was the man they were to see, and that it was the culmination of a dreadful practical joke on the part of Hitler.
Fearing the worst, Klaus asked the girl at the desk for the office of Major Balck. She gave an office number and pointed down the corridor from which they had come. Sure enough, the office was the same.
The glass door bore the name of the Cartography Section of the Logistic Office of the Troop Office of the Prussian Landwehr, Leutnant Otto Balck. Klaus paused for a moment to think. The Troop Office of the German Army had been the euphemism for the General Staff when that infamous body had been outlawed by the Versailles Treaty. He had never heard of a Truppenamt for the Landwehr, a reserve organization, but that was probably a further obfuscation.
It was also odd that Balck, a major, was captioned a mere lieutenant on the office door. Most men would have had their office door brought up to present rank. Balck, enally fixated though he might be, was a modest man. Moreover, the old rank did imply that the office dated back to the time when the General Staff was a secret organization covertly planning the expansion of the small Versailles Treaty Reichswehr to the enormity that now existed.
Balck, unlikely as it seemed, was a General Staff officer who had received two promotions. After explaining this briefly to Harold, Klaus knocked and opened the door in response to a cheerful summons from within.
The small office was about as cluttered as it could possibly have been, with papers and files piled high on every horizontal surface. All of the piles leaned, and it was obviously just a matter of time before they toppled to the floor. Some, indeed, already had, and had been pushed under the table, probably by a foot. Behind the desk, half-standing with his almost shaven head swelling out of his loosened collar, was Major Balck. Klaus was surprised neither by the appearance of the office nor by Balck's friendly injunction to clear off some chairs. But he was thunderstruck by what the major then said.
"Make yourself comfortable, chaps. Adolf called and said you'd be over."
Surely no one like this could be on first name terms with Hitler. And, if he wasn't, it was the height of presumption to speak that way. Klaus couldn't forbear asking if he had known the Fuhrer for a long time. The reply came back laconically.
"Oh yes. I was the general staff officer attached to his unit in the war. Although he was only a corporal, I got to know him because he was a runner. That is, he took messages to the front lines. Damned dangerous work it was, too."
Balck paused to take some files Harold was holding and drop them beside the chair. He then continued,
"I'll give you the rest of the story. I ran into him after the war and took an interest in his movement, though I wasn't at Munich in 1923 or anything like that. In fact, I was back in the army, in the General Staff, disguised as the Troop Office. The whole thing was in this building.
When it moved, I was left behind in the middle of a bunch of scurvy civilian officials. I didn't come from quite the right kind of family, and the senior officers didn't like the way I parted my hair. I'd also been rude to a colonel once. Told him I could be ordered to act as if I respected him as a senior officer, but couldn't be ordered to actually respect him. No one seemed to quite get the distinction."
At this point Balck, laughed loudly and thumped the desk. Klaus, beginning to like him, also laughed and pointed out,
"They promoted you to major just the same."
"Adolf made them. I'd become a party member fairly early on. Apart from that, he's very loyal. Anyhow, even he couldn't make them talk to me or take me into their little circle. But I do have access to all their information, and Adolf finds me useful."
Klaus felt that he could ask Balck what his work consisted in. The latter replied,
"Adolf isn't exactly a general staff boy himself, and he doesn't like to approach them with an idea that might turn out to be silly. So he tries it out on me first. If I find no serious objections, I dig up the facts he needs to back up his proposal."
Balck then leaned back and smiled.
"I've heard about your locomotives. How do you plan to use them in Russia?"
Klaus was now ready. Everyone knew that Napoleon had failed, not because he couldn't defeat the Russian army, but because he couldn't supply and shelter his own. A good deal of that was unchanged. Except for the minority of tank divisions, the German army still moved, for the most part, by horse and by foot. It probably couldn't conquer Russia in a single spring and summer. In that case, as in Napoleon's, it would be necessary to fight at least one winter campaign.
As for the supply situation, there were now trucks, but their usefulness in Russia would be limited. The extreme cold of the winter would make it difficult or impossible to start engines. The deep snows would block roads for many thousands of kilometers. The traditional Russian teams of horses pulling sleighs were probably a better means of transport. And, then, when the snows ended, there were long periods when the roads turned to mud. That was even worse for the trucks.
Balck remarked approvingly,
"I've travelled in Russia and I've seen these conditions. Most general staff officers haven't."
Klaus now left the straight and narrow a bit.
"I believe that, in traditional military terms, it's impossible to conquer Russia. They simply have too much room for retreat, after which they can lash back, aided by their terrible winter. What's needed is a movement that's as much civilian as military."
Balck now looked at Klaus intently. Without saying anything, he was obviously anxious for him to go on. Klaus obliged him.
"In the first spring and summer an attacker can only expect to take a chunk of Russia. If he gets reasonably close to Moscow or Leningrad, he'll do well to stop. The late summer and early autumn should be spent getting ready for the winter. Let's asssume that the Russians will have burnt everything of importance.
It'll then be necessary to build a string of fortified towns which will give the troops shelter and a well-conceived network of defense. There must be all-weather airfields to support them. There must also be large numbers of German civilians to create really permanent towns. They must be like German garrison towns, not just temporary camps.
This migration of Germans, running to several hundred thousand, won't occur unless the towns have some amenities. Thus, the problem is, not just to supply an army, but to transport many thousands of tons of building materials, consumables of every description, and large numbers of passengers.
A European railway couldn't do this in time. The railway we propose, with heavy engines, can do it. That being the case, the Russian winter attacks can be beaten off without great losses on our part. Then, the next summer, or the summer after, the job can be finished. But, of course, a whole new set of towns, further into Russia, might have to be created for the second winter."
Balck immediately objected,
"The Russian railways are broad-gauged, and have bad roadbed. They wouldn't even support many of our locomotives, much less the ones you plan to build. The bridges are also too weak and the clearances would be too restricted for your engines."
"The bridges will be blown by the time we reach them, and, since the track is the wrong gauge, we'd have to reconstruct the railway in any case. While doing so, it would only take ten or twenty per cent longer to bring it up to the necessary standard. As for the clearances, we'll be in conquered territory. A road overpass that's too low can be blown away with a charge of explosive. A building that's too close to the track can be knocked down the same way.
We wouldn't at first attempt to reconstruct the whole system. We'd need only a trunk line with branches to each of the fortified towns. From there, each army would handle its own logistics in the traditional ways."
Surprisingly quickly, Balck found a large map of Poland and Russia as far as the Urals, and laid it out on the floor. It was well worn with many marks on it. Indicating eastern Poland, he said,
"Suppose we start here. How does it go?"
Klaus soon found himself mapping out a military campaign and going into more detail than he had intended. Almost on the spur of the moment, he found himself advocating, for the first summer, a spearhead across northern Russia along the Baltic States. That would make things easier for the first winter. The climate near the ocean would be more temperate.
Moreover, instead of having Russian partisan forces and saboteurs in their rear, much of the population would come from the liberated countries of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. They were as anti-Russian as one could wish, and there was also a strong prospect of linking up with the Finns. Of course, it would leave a long flank open to the south. Klaus, not knowing how to read the impassive Balck, spoke in a conciliating way.
"I realize that traditionalists would think this dangerous, and would want to attack on a broad front from the Baltic to the Black Sea ...."
Balck responded with something of a sigh,
"There are enough generals of that point of view to win the debate that will take place. They're probably wrong. A spearhead reaching deep into Russia could easily disorganize the Russians to the point where they couldn't attack the flank with sufficient force and determination. What looks vulnerable on the map may appear quite the opposite when the action starts."
It was clear that Balck had been influenced by Guderian and the other tank men. Their gospel of striking deep to the enemy heartland and worrying about counter attacks later seemed to match Balck's own temperament, which was hardly one of caution. However, like the others, he was used to thinking more of roads than railways. Railways were essential, but they were something of which the strategist need think only in fairly general terms. Klaus sought to enlighten him.
"Railroads can be used with large independent tank formations much more effectively than with infantry. The infantry advances twenty or thirty kilometers over a front of hundreds of kilometers. You have to build, or at least maintain and run, a score of lines to supply the front. Tanks break through on a narrow front and penetrate fifty or a hundred or more kilometers. Then you need only a single high capacity line to supply the spearhead. Railways, like tank advances, are long narrow things, not short broad ones."
Balck was suddenly even more attentive. Klaus exploited his opening.
"You can use the railway, not only to supply the spearhead, but tactically. The infantry behind the tanks is no longer limited to the speed of a man marching. Whole divisions can be brought up and strung out along the flank. And then, when the counter-attacks come, the railway can be used again to bring forces to support any point that's threatened."
It was a simple point, but one that evidently hadn't occurred to Balck. For a moment, he looked almost as General Brossard had on a similar occasion. Both men had realized the military importance of railways, but neither had quite known how to maximize their use. Balck, already more than half inclined to support the tank generals, now had a new argument that he could use effectively. More to the point, he now saw exactly how to brief his old friend and comrade in arms.
Klaus, fearing for the Russians, could still not forbear from remarking,
"The only really new things since Napoleon are airplanes and railways. Airplanes render difficult a surprise attack on the flank and, at the least, will render such an attack expensive. But they can do virtually nothing to solve the supply problem. Indeed, they're one more thing that has to be supplied."
Klaus did not even have to draw his conclusion. Balck did it for him.
"But the railway is the one mode of transport which is largely impervious to cold weather, mud, and snow. Those factors the Russians have so long relied on are no longer decisive."
After that, they got down to calculations. Harold produced his figures. A fleet of forty Challengers and appropriate rolling stock could support the entire German army in the field. Almost as important, they could deliver enough materials and personnel for a string of fortified towns stretching from just short of Leningrad to East Prussia. That would do for the first winter. In the second summer, Moscow would be cut off from the rear with another series of mutually supporting strong points.
In the third summer, the Urals would be crossed. After that, they would be masters of the Trans-Siberian Railway. And that would be the key to everything that was left. There would again be attacks against the longest flank in history. However, air power would deny mobility to the Russians while the railway would ensure it for the Germans.
As he left, Klaus found solace in the probability that the plan was
too radical for even Hitler to sell to the generals. But it looked as if
it might get far enough to occasion an order for locomotives.