Admiral Canaris – An extract form the book “1939”
Admiral Wilhelm Franz Canaris sat in the garden of his house in the suburbs of Berlin. It was a sunny afternoon, but the leaves on the trees were already turning, ready for the autumn winds to blow them into his garden. Canaris lamented about his gardener, who he had to let go because he was Jewish. He was a good man, and a good gardener.
The neighbor’s children laughed and ran around and it was a joy to watch them, but Canaris still felt heavy-hearted. There was so much to do, so many things going wrong. He was head of the abwehr, the German intelligence, and he was one of the few people who had a clear view of what was going on in Germany. He also knew that he would have to make a choice, and that choice would be soon. He needed to know if he had support among his colleagues at the abwehr, and among the allies in Britain, France and America. It would be dangerous. Hitler had already ransacked his offices because he wanted to make sure Canaris’s army officers would not warn their Polish officer comrades about attacks.
Most of the German civilians were ignorant of the terrible things that were happening in Poland, the unlawful deeds taking place in the name of the German government. He knew, despite his initial support of Hitler, he would have to do something about it. He hoped Hitler would unite a troubled Germany, decimated by WWI, and save Germany from the communists in the east. This had been the case, but now Hitler was now a greater evil himself. His hopes that Hitler would mature into his role as leader were dashed. Canaris decided he wanted to relax. It had been a long week, and he could not carry this entire burden all the time. He watched the children play and enjoyed the last day of the summer.
Erika looked at her husband from the kitchen window. She was glad he was relaxing. He had been working too hard in these troubled times. She loved him because he was a brave man. He was a gentleman, who treated all with respect. He was also a brave man, who had been in many adventures.
Erika brought out some lemonade for her husband and the children, so they all came and sat in the grass next to the admiral.
“Tell us a story,” said one of the boys. He knew the admiral and always loved his tales of adventure. All the other children joined in and shouted for a story.
“Yes Wilhem, tell them a story.” said Erika.
The admiral smiled. It would be a nice distraction. “I was once an intelligence officer on a ship in the German fleet, just at the start of the Great War,” he said. “Ah, yes, the SMS Dresden, a great ship. We were being attacked by the British down by the Falklands, which is way down south, so far south the next land is the Antarctic. The British managed to sink all the other ships in our fleet but we managed to escape. We had turbine engines and could get up to 20 knots. It was a fine ship.
“Twenty-two hundred German sailors were killed or drowned in the encounter, including Admiral Spee and his two sons. A further 215 survivors were rescued and ended up prisoners on the British ships. Most of them were from the Gneisenau, nine from Nürnberg and 18 from Leipzig. There were no survivors from Scharnhorst.
“We were on our own out there but not defeated and for nearly a year we disrupted trade and evaded the British. The British have always had a better Navy than us, because they are an island, and Germany has few good harbors. Anyway, it was tough times, as we could not return to Germany, and we were on rations.
“One day we saw a French ship the RMS Ortega, with food and money and coal for the boilers. So we chased her. They did a great job of running from us; they managed to get their ship up to 18 knots, but we could do 20 knots! Slowly we got closer and closer. We aimed our guns and fired a warning shot – we didn’t want to sink her, we needed her provisions!
“But they were crafty sailors and kept their stern to us all the time. Try as we might, we could not approach her broadsides. She kept running and ran into the uncharted channels of Nelson Strait, which were too shallow for us. They sailed right through; some people in small boats rowed ahead to take soundings, to make sure the water was deep enough.
“They succeeded eventually in working their way through nearly one hundred miles of the narrow and tortuous Smyth’s Channel and emerged into the Straits of Magellan. After that, they navigated to Rio de Janeiro without even having a scratch on their plates.
“So we were stuck, and later we tried to hide from the British, but they found us at Robison Crusoe Island. We were trapped – no fuel, nothing.
So I got in a boat and went over to the British to discuss terms of surrender. Of course, I took my sweet time getting over there and tried to be as pompous and formal as possible. While I was buying time, the captain of the ship prepared to get all the crew off and scuttle the ship her by detonating the main ammunition magazine, so it would not fall into the hands of the enemy.”
The children sat around the admiral, the mouths open and their eyes wide in awe.
“I kept the British captain talking until one of the lookouts called that the Dresden was sinking. I hoped that most of the crew would escape, but we were captured and sent to Chile, where we were kept as prisoners of war.”
“Where is Chile?” asked a child.
“It’s in South America,” said the Admiral. “It’s a nice place; I learned to speak Spanish there. Many of the sailors who were prisoners there decided to stay after the war and live there. I, however, decided to escape, and I made my way back to Germany pretending to be a Spaniard. I even grew a mustache! I even went through England, pretending to be a seaman. That’s how desperate I was to get back to the fatherland.”
Erika laughed, “He looked very handsome.”
The children laughed, and the admiral rolled up a piece of napkin and placed it under his nose.
“Now you look like Herr Hitler,” laughed Erika.
“Then I shall shave it off immediately,” said the admiral. Erika looked at him disapprovingly, not that she was a fan of Hitler–far from it—but she knew that they were living in dangerous times, and her husband had to be more careful than anyone. Even among children. She knew her husband considered the Nazis to be thugs and a disgrace to Germany, but they did not talk about it. It scared her.
“Come on children, let the admiral rest,” she said. They all complained but did as they were told and left the admiral to enjoy the remains of the day. Erika smiled at the admiral and kissed his forehead, then left him to his thoughts.
Those were exciting times in South America, he thought. Maybe it was time to take risks again. It was time to meet the American. He unfolded a piece of paper he had in his pocket. It was a receipt from a clothes shop in Belgium. He took out a pen and wrote some numbers down.