The following terrifying tale is by Marcel Krueger, a good friend of The Reader Berlin. I first read THERE IS NO HOPE AND THE NIGHTS ARE COLD some time ago in one of my workshops and I thought its harrowing nature would suit our purposes well. Marcel not only joined us a mere week or so after his wedding (we hope his bride forgives us for borrowing him so soon), he also kindly contributed an introduction which gives a little background to our erstwhile weekend home.
To appreciate it fully, you may want to imagine yourself deep amongst Gorgast’s dark tunnels, at the foot of a lightless broken staircase. You turn to your left and there, in the gloom, you make out the shadowy silhouette of a figure smoking a pipe…
Sadly, Marcel had to leave early next morning, despite having planned to stay for the whole weekend. We saw him hurrying away with unseemly haste almost as soon as it was light. A cold, he told us…or did he mean a curse?
Fort Gorgast is an old Prussian fort, built in 1883 to protect the nearby town of Küstrin (Kostrzyn in Poland today). In its heyday it used to house 160 soldiers, 60 artillerists, canons, horses and equipment in its red brick casemates. However, as fortress development in the 19th century could not keep up with weapons and artillery technology, it was soon outdated and no longer used by the German army.
The only time it was used as a fortification for defensive purposes was in 1945, when the Red Army used it as a stronghold during the Battle of the Seelow Heights; their last battle against the Wehrmacht before surrounding and storming Berlin. After the war, Fort Gorgast was used as an ammunitions depot by both the Red Army and the NVA (National People’s Army of the GDR).
THERE IS NO HOPE AND THE NIGHTS ARE COLD
The wind slams violently into my face as I jump out of the plane. For a second or two, I have the stomach-twisting sensation of being in free fall, but then my parachute opens and pulls me up, violently jerking at my shoulders. I swing from left to right, and see the plane again. The bulbous silhouette of the Dornier bomber is clearly visible against the Russian dusk, her propellers no longer running, the whole machine gliding to earth in a slow curve, almost gracefully.
As I drift to earth, I watch the plane that had so recently turned from a life-saving aluminium hulk into a fuel-less death-trap. We had gone off course hours ago, due to malfunctioning instruments and the endless frozen earth waves of the Russian steppe beneath us. It should have been a simple mission: bomb a Russian oil field near Stalingrad – one the Russians had recently recaptured from the 6th army, but where they had no time to set up proper flak defences. We were to fly in and drop our explosive cargo over the field and the Russian tanks and trucks that were lined up, hungry for the fuel they needed to continue their advance towards our lines.
Our mission was a success. We were pleased. No losses, all bombs on target. Everyone felt relieved when the squadron turned back west, the glass noses of our planes heading away from the on-setting dusk towards the low-hanging sun, leaving Russian men to light up the dark with their burning corpses.
But then we got lost and ran out of fuel. In the end four men jumped out into the frost: Captain Knipper, co-pilot Peter, front gunner Till and I, the dorsal gunner.
‘Fred! Over here!’ the captain shouts as I’m gathering my parachute together. I finish picking it up and run over to Captain Knipper and Peter, who are standing next to a lonely group of trees. Till and his parachute are nowhere to be seen. The captain sets down his pilot cap on his short brown hair and rubs his greying seven-day-stubble. Scrawny co-pilot Peter is busy cramming his parachute under a few stones. We huddle together beneath the spindly leafless branches, our breath steaming skywards.
‘Listen!’ the captain snaps at me, this is what we need to do. We have three flares, and I’ll shoot one now so Till and other friendlies know where our position is. You two collect wood and light a fire. We stay put and warm for the moment.’
‘Do we know where we are?’
Peter unfolds a map and retrieves a compass from his flying vest.
‘We should be somewhere near Baustivo. I’ll get our exact bearings in a minute. But we are definitively behind our own lines. This area was cleaned of partisans about three months back. Our best chance is that a German patrol finds us.’
‘And they will. Flare away!’ The captain fires and the rocket shoots skywards, dousing the area in eerie silvery light. West of our position there are what look like ruins. I tap Peter’s shoulder.
‘Looks like an old churchyard,’ he turns towards the captain, ‘It may offer better protection against the cold’
‘Okay,’ Kipper replies, ‘it’s close enough. Till will find us there once we get a fire going. Gather as many branches as you can and then move out!’
The churchyard is not more than a crumbled stone wall enclosing two knolls. There a few old wooden crosses cluttered around the frozen ground, which provide more fuel. We settle behind the most intact part of the wall and soon have a fire going, a meagre little thing fed by the names of dead people and tiny branches.
‘Captain! Behind the knoll!’
‘I saw movement!’ We all un-holster our pistols.
‘Peter, take the left side, Frederick and I will take the right.’ We slowly inch towards the knoll, the Walthers aimed. The flickering light of Captain Knippers torch makes it look much bigger than it seemed at dusk. The captain gestures towards the silhouette of Peter, and we sprint around the base of the hill, aiming our guns at whatever is there. The light of the torch shows us something that should not exist. Three bodies lay at the base of the knoll, three stocky corpses wearing pot helmets with red stars, hands frozen cramped around Kalashnikovs or outstretched as if conjuring the Holy Ghost from the night sky. Their chests and abdomen are ripped open, splintered rips sticking out between frozen chunks of innards and flesh. Peter emits a choked scream, and the captain holsters his weapon as he steps closer.
‘Looks like a lost Russian patrol,’ he shines his torch across each body, ‘but these are no gunshot wounds. Wolves?’
I shake my head. ‘We have wolves in East Prussia. They would eat anything in winter, but the faces and limbs of these men are untouched. Whatever did this, it only went for hearts, lungs, the good stuff.’
I’ve seen bad things in this war, but the frozen death masks of the Russians are unsettling.
‘Let’s search them.’
‘I said: let’s search them. They may still carry rations.’
The captain hands the torch to Peter and turns the first corpse, which emits a ripping sound as its back is torn from the frozen ground.
‘What killed those men?’ Peter asks.
We are huddled together next to the fire, munching chocolate and sipping hot tea thanks to the Russian rations we found. I toast our dismembered benefactors with my canteen.
‘Must have been some scavengers. Somebody shot them and left them here, the animals went for the good parts first and were interrupted by us. That would explain the movement Peter saw.’
‘I don’t care about dead people,’ Peter says, ‘But what about Till? Should we fire another flare?’
‘You’re right, I’ll fire the second one.’ The captain arms the signal pistol and fires. Again, the inky black of the Russian tundra is illuminated by silvery light. We stand up and scan the area.
‘There! There he is!’ Peter shouts and points towards a dark figure running towards our position, a man clad in a Luftwaffe-overall. I lift a burning twig from the fire and wave it around.
‘Here, Till! Over here!’
Till has seen us and sprints towards our position. Suddenly, there’s movement next to him. The frozen ground is erupting at several points in the steppe left of Till; six, seven shadows rise from the ground in an shower of frozen dirt and snow, seven human forms emerging from what looks like a huddled position, shaking earth and snow from their backs, arching their heads back and start…howling? What is this? Till has stopped and stares at the figures gathering 200 metres from him. The howl, which is the only way to describe the sound the figures are emitting, is not the howling of a pack of wolves. It’s a deep, drowning sound that sends an atavistic shiver down my spine and makes me grip the torch harder.
‘What is that? Till, get over her!’ The captain shouts and chambers a round in his Walther. Till shakes his head as if to clear his thoughts and sprints towards us. The moment he sets off, the shadows start running as well, in a galloping motion that strangely reminds me of apes scampering around their enclosure in Berlin Zoo. The flare goes out.
‘Scheisse Scheisse Scheisse! What is that? Wolves?’ Peter asks.
‘ I don’t think so,’ Knipper answers. ‘You two grab a torch from the fire! We have to get Till! Quick!’ He stares into the dark as Till suddenly comes into sight, wildly waving his arms at us. Two seconds later, something that looks like a huge white ape jumps on Till’s back and knocks him to the ground. I run towards Till, my flickering torch outstretched to scare away the animal.
The thing sits on his back, pinning him, one arm holding Till’s head down, its legs on Till’s arms, and the other arm slashing away at Till’s back. It raises its head and I stop. It has the face of a man, bit its nose and mouth are strangely elongated like the snout of a wolf. The eyes are black coals behind enormous nostrils, and the ears and the back of the head are covered in dirty white fur. Black horns grow up out of its forehead.
It hisses, baring long pointy yellow teeth at me. I’m frozen with terror. It raises its hand with long black claws and hacks into Till’s back, blood squirting up. Till emits a muffled scream and starts twitching. The ape has its hand inside Till’s back and pulls, Till’s screams getting louder and louder, and suddenly there a snapping noise, the twitching stops and the beast pulls a lump of dark meat from Till’s back. The liver? Is that his liver? It sinks its teeth into the meat and starts chewing, all the while focussing me with black eyes that do not mirror the flame of the torch. The gunshot coming from my right is extremely loud, and the creature is snapped back, the top of its head exploding in bloody spray.
‘Bastard!’ Captain Knipper steps into the light of the torch with his gun smoking. ‘Whatever they are, they bleed and die. Let’s retreat back to the fire, our position is safer behind the wall there. Go!’
The captain grabs my shoulder, and after a last look at the mauled body of Till I run.
We are standing around the fire, having added more old crosses and twigs to keep it going. There are six more horned apes out there, but for the moment there is no sign of them. Peter is smoking a cigarette, his hand trembling.
‘Did you see how easily it killed Till? It ripped out his guts in no time.’
‘This must be some kind of Russian animal…’
‘No captain, I don’t think so.’ Peter throws the butt into the darkness. ‘Remember when I told you this area was cleared of partisans a few months back? I was part of that operation, and we found a group of dismembered Wehrmacht soldiers with similar wounds in a birch grove. Our translator then told us a story about a local legend: that in times of war white demons will arise and rip your insides out, devouring the spirits of all soldiers coming to this land until it belongs to the people again.’
We are all silent for a moment.
‘So you honestly believe that we are attacked by demons?’ I ask.
‘I’m only telling you what I saw.’
Captain Knipper snorts.
‘White apes, monsters, devils, I don’t care. They bleed and die. As long as we stay on watch until dawn we have a good chance of being found by a patrol. So stay focused, men!’
Peter turns to Knipper and opens his mouth as if to argue, but is cut short by the howling of the beasts who are suddenly emerging from the darkness all around us. I grip my Walther and try to make out their shapes, but it pitch dark beyond the glow of the fire. Peter nervously sways from left to right, his right arm with his pistol stretched out. Suddenly, a flash of white jumps from the cover of darkness, lunges for Peter’s pistol and vanishes in the dark again, Knipper and I firing at it.
‘Damn! Fred, did you hit it?’ The captain shouts.
‘I’m not sure, it was so fast.’
We turn around to Peter. He’s holding his right forearm in his left hand. Where the gun and his outstretched right hand were moments ago is now only a stump ending in bloody pulp, blood spurting onto the frozen earth.
‘Fred, cover us and don’t let the bastards come near us. Peter, lay down!’ The captain holsters his gun and jumps to Peter, unbuckling his belt and wrapping it around Peter’s arm as a makeshift tourniquet. I turn around and continue to scan the darkness, ignoring Peter’s cries. Suddenly, the howling starts again, and it sounds even louder than before.
‘Fred, we need to do something.’ The captain has pulled out his gun again, kneeling next to Peter, who’s shivering and moaning. The horrible wound is now bandaged, but the dressing is already soaked with blood.
‘Peter needs shelter, more shelter than we can offer here, with those creatures around. Did you say you saw where the plane crashed?’
‘I’m quite sure – I could see it from the parachute and later from the ground.’
‘Okay,’ the captain says while angling the map ‘come here and let me know where exactly. If it did not disintegrate completely it will offer more protection than we have here.’
‘Got it. It’s about three kilometres east of here, give or take.’ I point to the map.
‘Here’s what we’ll do. We both grab the biggest torches, and you’ll take the vanguard while I carry Peter. If we do it double-quick it should not take us long.’
‘Are you sure, Captain?’
‘Yes. The bastards will come again soon, so it’s better to surprise them. Let’s go – I’ll shoot the last flare.’
The rocket shoots skywards with a whooshing sound, and as soon as the flare explodes we see white shapes scattering for cover around us.
‘Come on Fred, help me with Peter’. I hoist Peter onto the shoulders of the Captain, grab a piece of a burning cross from the fire and set off in the direction of the plane.
‘Whatever happens, don’t stop. You hear me?’ The captain already sounds tired. We slog over the hard-frozen ground, and I look up at the flare and pray it lights our way for just a little longer. Stay. Stay up there. Give us light. I see some shapes running parallel to me, in a strange hopping motion, but I ignore them and keep on running. Then, unbearably, the flare goes out and darkness blankets us once more.
‘Captain, are you alright?’ I hear his heavy breathing behind me, but get no answer. ‘Captain?’
‘Keep on running!’
We press on for another few minutes, and begin to hope we’ll make it, to believe that the sun will soon rise soon and this horrible nightmare end, when suddenly there’s a scream behind me. I turn around and hold up my torch: two of the white creatures have caught up with Captain Knipper, and now he’s caught in a deadly game of tug-of-war as both have grabbed Peter’s unconscious body and are pulling on the legs while the Captain is holding on to an arm and trying to aim his gun.
I aim and fire three times. The bullets slam into the chest of one of the creatures, the body going limp in an instant and releasing its grip on Peter’s leg. The other creature turns towards me and jumps, taking an inhumanly long leap and landing right in front of me. I stumble backwards and try to aim at its head, but my gun jams with a hollow click. I wave my torch, the creature hissing at the fire. Suddenly four more shots ring out, the white monster is hit in the arm and the shoulder. It bellows, before turning tail and running.
The Captain is propped up over Peter’s body, steading his smoking gun with both hands. His shoulder is bleeding where the beasts have got him.
‘One dead. And we wounded the other,’ the captain snorts.
‘But you’re wounded too, Captain.’
‘It’s nothing, a scratch! Help me lift Peter up.’
‘Let me carry him!’
‘No! It worked this way before. Now, let’s hurry!’
We stumble on towards the plane. Five minutes, ten minutes. The sky is slowly lightening in the east, and we’ll surely be at the plane soon. We struggle a small hill, and there she is: a dark shape about 500 metres in front of us, like a broken toy plane, missing the tail. The rest of the machine looks intact, the muzzle of my machine gun poking out of its cupola and aiming at the sky. The Captain stands next to me, breathing hard, the shoulder of his tunic completely soaked in blood. Peter is still unconscious.
‘Damn it Fred, there they are!’ The Captain points at the three shapes running towards us from the direction of the plane – they must have circled around us and now rush us head on.
‘Put the torch in the ground, kneel and aim. We take them all out’.’ The captain drops Peter and kneels.
‘Are these the only ones left?’
The beasts start to howl, and I can clearly see their pumping arms and legs and gaping snouts. I kneel and take aim…Steady. A roar! Right next to us!
A white monster rises from the ground beneath us where it must have been hiding and hacks its claws into Peter’s chest, pulling at the body. The Captain fires, and the lower half of its face explodes in blood and bones and teeth. Another monster jumps up from the ground, this time right behind the Captain. I fire into its chest, and with a cry it falls backwards and rolls down the hill to where its companions have now arrived. They stare at the body rolling towards them and then at us, and howl even louder.
‘Fred, you have some bullets left? My clip is empty.’
‘A few rounds, three or four.’
‘Give me your gun. Once they rush us you’ll run down the back of the hill and towards the plane. I’ll stay and cover Peter.’
‘This is an order! You’ve got no choice – here they come…’
I fall back slowly, watching the captain kneel next to Peter’s lifeless body and the bloody corpse of the monster and shout his challenge to the beasts.
‘Come on! I show you how a German officer dies!’
I run, zig-zagging around the base of the hill and towards the plane. I hear screams, human and non-human, a shot rings out, another, and then only screams. I don’t look around, only focus on the plane. It has survived the crash almost intact, only the tail section has been detached from the fuselage. I scramble through a hole in the hull, ripping my overalls, and enter the plexiglass-bubble with the machine gun. I rack the slide and hope that nothing happened to the barrel during the crash, slowly turning the gun and aiming at the hill.
I can hear howling again, muffled through the metal and glass around me, and there they are: two shapes running towards me. So the captain got another one. I aim the MG. 200 metres, 100 metres. Steady. Steady. 50 metres. I pull the trigger. Nothing happens. Shitshitshit. I punch the barrel and the ammunition belt. They’re almost at the fuselage! I pull the trigger again, and 890 rounds a minute burst from the muzzle with a deafening roar, making the upper torso of the nearest beast explode in bloody spray, one arm sailing away. The other monster jumps onto the fuselage and is almost upon me but I move the barrel without stopping fire and the monster’s head is clearly cut off by the bullets. The body tumbles to the ground, but I keep firing until my ammunition belt is empty and both beasts have been turned into bloody mush. Finally, I lean back and exhale.
The sun has risen. I leave the wreck and stand on the wing in the clear winter sun and light a cigarette, not sure if I’m dreaming or awake. I stare at the bloody puddles and the gore on the ground and wonder what these things really were, demons or animals or something in between. I take another drag from my cigarette and hope the patrols will find me soon. The whole plane is creaking, it must be the frost thawing under the sun. Something’s growling behind me.