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Potsdam Station (John Russell World War II Spy Thriller #4) [Hardcover]

David Downing
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Review

Praise for Potsdam Station:

“John Russell has always been in the thick of things in David Downing’s powerful historical novels set largely in Berlin . . . Downing provides no platform for debate in this unsentimental novel, leaving his hero to ponder the ethics of his pragmatic choices while surveying the ground level horrors to be seen in Berlin.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Zelig, Russell, the hero of Downing’s espionage series, can’t seem to resist inserting himself into climactic moments of the 20th century ... Downing has been classed in the elite company of literary spy masters Alan Furst and Philip Kerr ... that flattering comparison is generally justified. If Downing is light on character study, he’s brilliant at evoking even the smallest details of wartime Berlin on its last legs.... Given the limited cast of characters, Downing must draw on almost Dickensian reserves of coincidences and close calls to sustain the suspense of his basic hide-and-seek story line. That he does ingeniously. It helps to read Downing’s novels in order, but if Potsdam Station is your first foray into Russell’s escapades, be forewarned that you may soon feel compelled to undertake a literary reconnaissance mission to retrieve and read the earlier books.”
Washington Post

“The echo of the Allied bombings and the crash of the boots of the invading Russians permeate the pages in which David Downing vividly does justice to the drama... The book is a reminder of what happened and those who allowed it to happen...The book lives up to the others in the Russell series, serving as yet one more reminder of a world too many have entirely forgotten.”
Washington Times

“Downing is brilliant at weaving history and fiction, and this plot, with its twists and turns—all under the terrible bombardment of Berlin and the Third Reich’s death throes—is as suspenseful as they come. The end, with another twist, is equally clever and unexpected.”
Toronto Globe and Mail

“Excellent period work.”
Tulsa World

“The main attraction is the tragic mis-en-scène of a once-beautiful city undergoing the ravages of modern warfare, a wide-angle synthesis of scenes and snapshots from the history books. A wide canvas painted with broad strokes.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Gripping ... Downing convincingly portrays the final days of the Nazis in power, and his characters are rich enough to warrant a continuation of their stories, even after the war.”
Publishers Weekly

Praise for the John Russell Series:
 
"Epic in scope, Mr. Downing's "Station" cycle creates a fictional universe rich with a historian's expertise but rendered with literary style and heart."
—The Wall Street Journal

“Will have readers clamoring for a sequel.”
BookPage
 
“An extraordinary evocation of Nazi Germany on the eve of war, the smell of cruelty seeping through the clean modern surface.”
—C. J. Sansom, author of Revelation
 
“Wonderful…. Downing’s mingling of history and thrills makes this a must read.”
Rocky Mountain News
 
“A beautifully crafted and compelling thriller with a heart-stopping ending as John Russell learns the personal faces of good and evil. An unforgettable read.”
—Charles Todd, author of the Inspector Ian Rutledge Series
 
“An atmospheric tale.”
St. Petersburg Times

About the Author

David Downing grew up in suburban London. He is the author of numerous books for adults and children, including four novels featuring Anglo-American journalist John Russell. He lives with his wife, an American acupuncturist, in Guildford, England.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Franco’s furniture

April 6 –7

As they walked south towards Diedersdorf and the battalion command post, Paul Gehrts realised that he and his companion Gerhart Reheusser were grinning like idiots. The cloudless blue sky, warm sunshine and dust-free easterly breeze were responsible, banishing, if only for a few minutes, the grim anxiety that filled their waking hours. For the moment the occasional rattle of a distant machine-gun, the odd boom of a tank cannon or gun, could be ignored.

About five kilometres behind them, the Seelow Heights fell sharply away to the Oderbruch, the meadowlands which lay between the escarpment and the Oder River. Soon—in a few days, most likely—the men and tanks of the Red Army would storm across those meadows and throw themselves at the German defences. The Russians would die in their thousands, but thousands more would follow. It would only be a matter of time. But a sunny day was a sunny day, with a power all its own. The two men were approaching the first houses of the small town when they came upon a large group of soldiers spread out along the side of the road. Few looked older than fifteen, and one boy was actually passing round his army-issue bag of sweets, as if he were at a friend’s birthday party. Most had their panzerfausts lying beside them on the grass, and all looked exhausted—the disposable rocket-launchers were a crippling weight for all but the strongest children. Their troop leader, who was probably almost out of his teens, was examining a weeping blister on one of his charges’ feet. As Paul and Gerhard walked past he looked up, and offered them a brief rueful smile.

Almost all of Diedersdorf ’s usual residents had left or been evacuated, and were now presumably clogging the roads leading westward, but the town was not being neglected—in the small central square an over-zealous staff-sergeant was supervising another band of young recruits in sweeping the cobbles.

‘The madness of the military mind,’ Gerhard muttered, not for the first time.

As if to prove his point, a half-track drove across the square, sending eddies of dust in every direction. The sergeant endured a violent fit of coughing, then ordered his boys back to work.

The division mechanics had set up shop in the goods yard of the town station, close to where a large dug-out had been excavated in the railway embankment for the battalion command post. The corporal at the improvised desk in the goods shed groaned when he saw Paul’s machine-gun. ‘Don’t tell me—it jams.’

‘It does.’

‘How often?’

‘Too often for comfort.’

The corporal sighed. ‘I’ll get someone to have a look,’ he said.

‘Come back in an hour.’

Two bench seats from the nearby railway station had been left outside the battalion command post entrance, offering a place to wait and watch the war go by. The two of them had only been sitting there a few minutes when a captured Red Army jeep pulled up. A Wehrmacht major and two NCOs leapt out, shoved their manacled Russian prisoner onto the other seat, and disappeared into the dugout. He looked like an ordinary rifleman, with dark dishevelled hair and vaguely Mongoloid features. He was wearing a bloodstained kaftan above badly frayed trousers and worse-worn boots. He sat there with his mouth slightly open, his eyes gazing blankly into space.

But he wasn’t stupid. Catching Paul’s look he returned it, and his eyes, once focused, seemed full of intelligence. ‘Cigarette?’ he asked.

That, at least, was one thing the Reich wasn’t short of. Gerhart got up and gave him one, placing it between the Russian’s lips and offering a lighted match.

‘Spasibo.’

‘You’re welcome, Ivan.’

‘No, he fucking isn’t,’ another voice exploded behind them. It was one of the NCOs who had brought him in. He knocked the cigarette from the Russian’s mouth, throwing sparks all over his face, and swung round on Gerhart. ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’

‘What I hope . . .’

‘Shut the fuck up. And get out of my sight.’ He turned away, grabbed the Russian under one arm and hustled him through the curtained door of the dug-out.

‘Wonderful,’ was all Gerhart said. He looked at the still-swaying curtain, as if contemplating pursuit.
‘Let’s try and find some hot water,’ Paul suggested.

‘I’m not going anywhere,’ Gerhart told him. ‘I’m not going to let a shit like that order me around.’

Paul shrugged and sat down again. There was no use arguing with Gerhart at times like this.

They’d been sitting in silence for about a quarter of an hour when shouting started inside. This went on for several more minutes, and culminated in a gunshot. A few moments later, there was another.

Gerhart leapt to his feet.

‘Let’s go and find that hot water,’ Paul said quietly.

Gerhart spun round, anger in his eyes, but something in his friend’s expression did the trick. He closed his eyes, breathed out heavily, and offered Paul a rueful smile. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘If we both take a bath, the war might stink a little less. Let’s go and find one.’

But they were out of luck. The only hot water in town came complete with a queue, and was already brown. A drink proved easier to come by, but the quality was equally dire, and after scorching their throats with a single glass neither felt thirsty for more. They went back to the workshop, but the mechanic still hadn’t got round to checking the machine-gun. Rather than return to their seat outside the command post, they pulled a couple of armchairs out of the empty house next door, and settled down to wait. Paul thought about checking the location of the nearest basement, but found he couldn’t be bothered. The sun was still shining, and it looked like the Red Air Force was having an afternoon off. If worse came to worst, they could simply throw themselves into the dugout across the yard.

Gerhart was devouring a cigarette, angrily sucking in smoke and flicking off ash while he wrestled with his inner demons. He was still pissed off about the Russian prisoner, Paul realised. Which might be admirable, but was unlikely to serve any useful purpose.

Paul had known him a long time. They’d been best friends at their first school, but Gerhart’s father had moved his family to Hamburg when both were nine, and they’d only met up again two years ago, when both were drafted into the same flakhelfer unit at the Zoo Bunker Gun Tower. Gerhart had persuaded Paul that pre-enlistment in the Wehrmacht made sense, partly because he wanted out of the flakhelfer, partly to avoid SS recruitment. Paul had resisted for one reason—the girl he had just fallen in love with was one of those directing the neighbouring tower’s searchlights. But after Madeleine’s mounting took a direct hit he could hardly wait to get away. He and Gerhart had started their compulsory labour service together, and then been called up as seventeen-year-olds when the age limit was lowered early in 1944. They were still gunners, but now they were soldiers of the 20th Panzergrenadier Division.

They had been with their Pak-43 88mm gun for almost a year, somehow surviving the collapse of Army Group Centre the previous summer and the winter battles in Poland. When they had left Berlin for their first Ostfront posting, Gerhart’s mother had taken Paul aside and asked him to look after her son, but if anything Gerhart had looked after Paul. Gerhart’s relentless negativity when it came to the war, the army and the Führer was sometimes irritating, but he never let it lessen his sense of duty toward his comrades. In fact, the one probably reinforced the other.

These days, Gerhart was the closest thing Paul had to family. His father John Russell had deserted him in 1941; his mother Ilse and stepfather Matthias Gehrts had died in a car crash the previous year. His stepsisters were alive as far as he knew, but Paul hadn’t seen them since their evacuation two years ago, and the relationship had never been really close. He hadn’t spoken to his mother’s brother Thomas since their argument about his father almost three years ago.

‘Here he comes,’ Gerhart interjected. A mechanic was walking towards them, the machine-gun over his shoulder.

‘Is it fixed?’ Paul asked.

The mechanic shrugged. ‘Seems to be. I just a filed off a few micrometres. Give it a proper test in the woods—random gunfire this far behind the front makes people nervous.’

Paul hoisted the gun over his own shoulder. ‘Thanks.’

‘No problem.’

They walked back through Diedersdorf ’s empty streets. The young recruits on broom duty had vanished, but a Waffen-SS staff car was sitting in the otherwise empty square, and the gruppenführer sitting in the back seat turned a surprisingly anxious pair of eyes in their direction.

‘He’s seen the future, and it’s not looking black,’ Gerhart joked.

The sweet-sucking youths had also moved on, and the road running north was empty. After about a kilometre they turned off into the trees, and followed the winding track to their position on the eastern edge of the wood. The unit’s two cruciform-mounted 88mm anti-tank guns were dug in twenty metres apart, covering the distant Seelow-Diedersdorf road, which curved toward and across their line of vision. The first few Soviet tanks to bypass Seelow would certainly pay for their temerity, but those coming up behind them . . . well, their fate would depend on whether or not Paul’s unit received another shipme...
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