Nazi Nightmare (1991)
Published: Commando #2480 (June 1991)
Artist: Gordon Checkley Livingstone
Writer: Alan Hebden
For World Holocaust Memorial Day we present this Commando, with comparison to Jinty’s Holocaust story, “Song of the Fir Tree”.
In the closing days of World War II, Nazi Germany is being fast invaded by the Allies from the West and the Russians from the East. However, in between are territories still under German control and lingering pockets of Nazi evil that intend to survive one way or other. Among them is the Secret Research Centre at Badfelden, run by the “hardened” S.S. Colonel Hartmann and “merciless” (but “abject coward”) nuclear physicist Bernhard (or Hans on the back cover) Gruber, and slave labour consisting of concentration camp prisoners and Airman Carlo Fabrizzi, an Italian who defected to the Allies and then got captured. As well as the usual Belsen-style treatment, the prisoners suffer an additional cruelty that adds to the high death toll: being forced to handle radioactive material without protection.
Gruber and Hartmann been trying to develop an A-bomb to score victory for the Reich, but Gruber hasn’t had much success, and now they’re out of time with enemy closing in so fast on Badfelden. So they activate “Plan Cuckoo”. As part of this plan, Gruber is to immediately head south and surrender to the approaching Allies. But they left an office window open, and it’s right next to where the prisoners are working, so Fabrizzi overhears them. Dummköpfe! Didn’t they ever read the posters? Vorsicht bei Gesprächen! Feind hört mit! [Careful when talking! Enemy is listening!].
Realising Gruber and Hartmann plan to dispose of the prisoners and the sinking ship before the Allies arrive, Fabrizzi organises the prisoners into a revolt against the guards, which takes Badfelden by storm. However, after the initial surprise, the guards are quick to recover, and they are soon on the verge of crushing the revolt. Fortunately, the Allies arrive in the nick of time, and Badfelden is liberated. However, Hartmann has already fled, and there is still the matter of Gruber and Plan Cuckoo.
Fabrizzi informs the Allied Commander, Ken Horton, about Gruber and his heading south to surrender to the Allies. Horton says Gruber is more likely to bump into the Russians, who are in between, and they are in a very nasty mood against Germans. They head off together to find Gruber and bring him to justice. Gruber is cornered by the Russians and, being the coward he is, starts snivelling, blubbering and grovelling for the Russians to spare his life. He is saved by Fabrizzi and Horton, who persuade the Russians to let them take him into custody. The mystery of Plan Cuckoo still puzzles Fabrizzi, but it looks like Plan Cuckoo is a dead duck now that Gruber is all set to stand trial.
Unfortunately, the Americans have other ideas. They are secretly recruiting scientists, engineers and technicians from the former Third Reich for employment, to gain advantage in the Space Race and Cold War (Operation Paperclip). They want Gruber for their own A-bomb development. Under pretext of wanting him for special interrogation, they smuggle him to the US. Under a new name (Smith), Gruber is soon working for the Manhattan Project. The Americans put up a false report in the press that Gruber killed himself in American custody. Horton is surprised to read it, as he thought Gruber was too gutless to commit suicide.
Meanwhile, the Americans don’t realise their actions have unwittingly put Plan Cuckoo back on course. Gruber is cribbing as much top secret information from the Manhattan Project as he can for Plan Cuckoo to succeed. As soon as he is ready, Gruber makes a call to Germany, and a car is sent for him. He nearly gets caught, as he is carrying an implosion trigger and suspicious guards want a search, but then his car arrives. His helpers whisk him away to Nazi haven Argentina and an old friend, shooting the guards as they do so.
Two years later, Fabrizzi summons Horton to Argentina, where he is running an air freight business. At Buenos Aires airport, Horton sadly reads about the growing Cold War in the paper, and now the Soviets have the A-bomb. Then he is surprised to spot Gruber, whom he thought was dead. Gruber boards a private plane. In exchange for a nice sum of money, a mechanic tells Horton the plane is bound for San Miguel, Patagonia, Southern Argentina.
When Horton meets Fabrizzi, he is shocked to see him in a wasted state. Fabrizzi says it’s radiation sickness from being forced to handle radioactive material unprotected in Badfelden. He won’t last much longer and has summoned Horton to carry on his work after he dies. No, not the air freight service – Nazi hunting. Gruber is at the top of the list. There’ve been other sightings of Gruber, and US contacts have told him what happened. But Horton’s lead is the first to link Gruber to San Miguel. Fabrizzi is still able to fly despite his illness, so they fly to San Miguel.
They arrive at San Miguel, but there is no sign of Gruber’s plane at the airport. They soon learn that many ranches have private planes and airstrips, and they file a flight plan for the airport for the sake of convenience. To find the plane, Fabrizzi and Horton have to do some aerial reconnaissance around the area. But at the airport, a Nazi spy spots them, recognises Fabrizzi, and reports them to the boss. He then plants a bomb on their plane. The explosion has the plane crash on a ranch belonging to Rhys Griffith and his son Manuel, who save the men from the crash.
The Griffiths tell Horton and Fabrizzi about a landowner named Alfonse Klein, a dangerous man of suspected German origin, who arrived straight after the war with a group of thugs. Klein forces his neighbours into selling their ranches to him by threatening to set them on fire. When Horton and Fabrizzi investigate Klein, they discover he is Colonel Hartmann from Badfelden.
Everything fits now, and the answer to Plan Cuckoo must be on Klein’s ranch. But when Horton, Fabrizzi and Manuel Griffith try to infiltrate the ranch, they discover it is fortified to the teeth and booby-trapped to set off any intruder alarms. When they try to cut through the wire fence, they discover it’s electrified and rigged to set off an alarm, which alerts Klein’s thugs. They manage to shake off the thugs, but they take revenge by setting fire to the Griffith ranch, killing Rhys.
The men take refuge at a ruin and decide they need reinforcements. No problem – Klein has made more than enough enemies for that. Manuel calls in his father’s friends and the local people who fell foul of Klein. Fabrizzi calls up his fellow ex-prisoners from Badfelden, and his airline flies them in. The black market supplies weapons and explosives.
Alerted to the booby traps, Horton and Manuel take a team of gauchos on a more planned infiltration of the ranch. This time they get past the fence and come in distance of the ranch, where they see barracks and Gruber’s plane. They decide to withdraw, but one of the gauchos trips an alarm, alerting Klein and his heavies. Only Horton and Manuel escape the slaughter. Manuel is dispatched to get help while Horton draws Klein off. He is captured, and Klein, instead of finishing him off quickly, decides to take him alive and show off his little Nazi operation to him.
Yes, Gruber and Klein have a cosy Nazi shrine/bunker set up in the cellar for building the A-bomb they had failed to construct at Badfelden. They had known from German intelligence how advanced the Americans were in developing the A-bomb and their being on the lookout for German scientists to help them. Hence Plan Cuckoo: plant Gruber “like a cuckoo’s egg” to learn their secrets and then fly him to their secret base to develop their own A-bombs. Now their first test bomb is ready. Their plan is to take advantage of the growing Cold War by using their A-bombs to trick the Soviets and the West into an atomic war so “the three wartime Allies will be laid waste”. Then they will move in with their new Nazi order. “It sounds crazy enough to work,” Horton thinks.
Klein then tells Horton that in the morning that he and his heavies will make sport of him in a great manhunt – they will give him 15 minutes and then chase after him. Yes, when he could have just finished Horton with a bullet there and then…and it’s given Horton one advantage – more time for his rescuers to organise themselves.
Manuel has made it to airstrip where Fabrizzi’s Badfelden buddies have arrived. They are all like Fabrizzi: living skeletons dying from radiation sickness, out for Gruber’s hide, and have nothing to lose by joining a deadly fight. They call themselves The Society of the Living Dead. Fabrizzi flies them into the ranch by planes fitted with machine guns to quickly clear the area. They and their guns soon have the manhunt on the run and rescue Horton.
They head for the cellar, where Gruber threatens to detonate the bomb if they come any closer. Knowing the cowardly Gruber doesn’t have the guts for that, Horton calls his bluff and seizes him.
There is now the question of what to do with the atomic arsenal, as they don’t trust the local authorities. Fabrizzi comes up with an idea, and as Horton wouldn’t agree, he has to apply strong arm tactics to get his way. He will give them 15 minutes to clear the area. Then he himself, who is already doomed anyway, will detonate the test bomb, taking himself and Gruber with it. Horton reluctantly respects Fabrizzi’s wishes.
Most of the men clear the area by plane, but Manuel and Horton are trying to leave by jeep, where they run into Klein, who blocks their escape route. Their two jeeps head on a collision course with each other, in a crazed game of chicken, guns at the ready. Klein’s driver is the one to crack and swerve, giving Horton the scope to shoot Klein dead. It’s then a mad drive to get clear before the coming of the mushroom cloud and the fallout.
The authorities never report the atomic explosion, so the world never learns what happened or how close things came to an atomic war. Fabrizzi dies an unsung hero.
It was a surprise to find a Commando that not only uses the Holocaust theme, an extremely rare thing in Commando, but also shares some parallels with Jinty’s “Song of the Fir Tree”.
Both stories open in a concentration camp setting where its days are numbered because of the approaching Allied-Soviet advance into Nazi Germany. Although the concentration camp itself is swiftly liberated early in the story, it establishes the setup for the rest of the story. Its legacy casts casts a long shadow, which refuses to be dispelled until the final panels, and in both cases it is told against the backdrop of post-WW2 and its fallout. In Fir Tree, it’s a war-shattered Europe and the emergent Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In Nightmare, it’s the growing Cold War and its companion threat of nuclear war, and post-war obstacles in bringing down Nazi war criminals.
The setup for both stories are very similar. It’s Nazis vs their former victims, which takes the form of pursuit and conflict between them right up until the end of the story. The victims may have been liberated from their concentration camps, but there are lingering unresolved issues from the concentration camp because the Nazis responsible were not caught and punished. They escaped and are still on the loose, getting away with their crimes and committing even more. Justice has been denied for their former victims, but it’s not just the past that affects their lives – it’s also the present. In Fir Tree, the two liberated children from the camp have to run for their lives from the Nazi collaborator Grendelsen, who is out to silence them. In Nightmare, Fabrizzi and his friends have to live with radiation sickness from their Badfelden days.
Though the setup of both stories is very similar, the two types of pursuit between the Nazis and their former victims are on opposite ends of the spectrum. In Fir Tree, Grendelsen is the pursuer and his former victims are the quarry. He wants to silence those meddling kids because they are the only ones who can identify him as a war criminal. In Nightmare, the former victims are the pursuers and the Nazis are the quarry, in a Nazi hunt. In both cases, the authorities can’t be trusted to help. In Fir Tree, it’s because they think Grendelsen is respectable and wouldn’t listen to stories that he is a Nazi collaborator. In Nightmare, it’s because they are helping the Nazi fugitives, out of connivance, greed, sympathies, or even fear. In both cases, the victims can only depend on each other, whatever help they manage to find, and strokes of luck. When it comes to dealing with the Nazis, in both cases it’s a final confrontation and fight with them. Conventional legal proceedings are of no use, but in both cases the Nazis receive poetic justice that satisfies all round. Grendelsen is killed by a falling fir tree just as he is about to kill his victims. Klein dies in conflict and Gruber by his own bomb, and their victims, both old and new, finally get the chance to settle the scores.
Commando often drew on historical events for inspiration and realism, and this story is no exception. Even Klein and Gruber’s secret atomic bunker was based on something real – the Huemul Project in Patagonia. Unlike Klein and Gruber, it is questionable as to whether the Huemul Project was even serious atomic research, much less producing a bomb. The threat of nuclear war makes the story even more intense although the Nazis’ plan to carry it out sounds more like television than reality.
Having Fabrizzi die an unsung hero when he deserved so much more seems so unfair and sad. Still, one of the strengths of Commando was that not all its heroes ended up with military honours. As with Fabrizzi, the only recognition they received was in the grateful hearts of their companions, and some Commando heroes did not achieve even that. Some died with their feats unknown, for security reasons, the authorities not knowing what happened, or whatever. Such a thing must happen so often in warfare.