“One metre ninety and with a face like the north side of the Matterhorn, Hans Otto Steiger, the highest-decorated warrant officer in the entire German army, stood with his hand on the open door of a black Mercedes, waiting for a man he had served under for twenty-eight years.”
Hans Steiger saved General Klaus von Menen‘s life during the First World War, and the trust between the two men is absolute. They have risen through the ranks together and, although Steiger shows deference when they are on official business, outside of the army they have a firm kinship.
In October 1944, the General and Steiger are shuffled into retirement, much to the relief of Steiger’s wife:
Greta steeled herself to ask the question. ‘And… you?’
‘I’m finished, too.’
‘I mean from now on, you’ve got me all day and every day.’
She flung her arms around him. ‘Oh, thank God, Hans… thank God.’
Steiger is a war hero, a loving husband and a role model to Carl von Menen, who regards him as an older brother. He gives Carl advice, particularly in relation to the General. His manner is perceptive and direct:
“Your father hasn’t given up, Carl, he’s simply come to terms with the inevitable. He realises that if we carry on like this, the only route to salvation for Germany is through defeat and ruination. What’s going on back east is wholesale slaughter. It’s a hopeless cause. Soldiers are dying for no reason at all. Your father’s a professional soldier, a loyal one, too, but ever since Stalingrad he’s been in a state of perpetual torment.”
But Hans also has a mischevious side. He loves all kinds of cars, particularly BMWs, Mercedes and Steyrs, and always seems to find enough petrol rations. The General has to turn a wilfully blind eye on many occasions:
“Steiger grabbed a corner of a large canvas sheet and yanked it clear, revealing a veritable Aladdin’s cave – sacks, packing crates, cardboard boxes of varying shapes and sizes, and at least two dozen jerry cans full of petrol! At the front, stacked one on top of the other, were four wooden cases, each marked with the same inscription, PK-88.
‘Did you see any of these at Borsigwalde, Carl?’ asked Steiger, tapping the bottom case with the toe of his boot.
‘Good God, Hans!’ exclaimed the General. ‘Where the hell did all this come from?’
‘Saved over the years, Klaus,’ joked Steiger. ‘You know how frugal I can be.’ He delved to the back of the cache. ‘Saved two of these as well,’ he added, removing the hessian wrapping from a pristine Schmeisser. ‘Thought they might come in handy someday.’
The General cupped a hand across his mouth, mumbling through his fingers. ‘How the hell I’ve managed to stay out trouble these last twenty-eight years, I simply do not know.’”
When the General is tasked with overseeing the transportation of a large consignment of gold, it is almost inevitable that Steiger comes up with a plan! But will they get away with it?