A Novel by Bill Meilen
Reviewed by Gary Botting Ph.D.
Faculty of Law, University of British Columbia
In 1943, Adolf Hitler initiated an elaborate plan to infiltrate North American prisoner-of-war camps with Waffen SS agents fluent in English who would liberate captured German troops and arm them with sophisticated weaponry. The plan called for overrunning military and police outposts in the sparsely populated prairies, thereby opening up a truly western front in the Second World War. Bill Meilen’s gripping and well-researched historical novel The Armourer is the credible tale of how one disaffected German soldier stumbled across the plan and threw a spanner in the works, pitting his will and wits against Nazi infiltrators whose plan was to perpetuate the war.
Before the war, Meilen’s protagonist, Rudolf Kristl had been a skilled Austrian blacksmith. His elaborate metalwork came to the attention of his sometime neighbour Adolf Hitler, who commissioned him to design the ornate metalwork for the gates to his estate at Berchtesgaden. Upon receiving an award for his creation of the gates, he innocently lit up a cigarette, whereupon he incurred the wrath of the Führer’s, who was obsessed with protecting his documents from tobacco smoke. Kristl was summarily transferred to the Africa Korps and the searing forge of the Sahara, where his talents could be used on Rommel’s war-weary tanks and trucks. Upon his capture, he was shipped as a prisoner-of-war to a camp in western Canada, suffering the depredations of weeks kept literally in the dark on troop ships and troop trains. At one whistle-stop, Kristl saves the commanding officer of the elderly guards, Captain Hamish Sutherland, an endearing old sod, from certain injury when he is nearly run over by a supply wagon.
Confined to a camp in central Saskatchewan, Kristl quickly discovers that prison politics are not all they seem: many German prisoners had been mercenaries for the French Legionnaires, and were determined not to follow the orders of captured Nazi officers, who appeared to give Waffen SS soldiers preferential treatment. When two of the mercenaries murder a German soldier, Kristl informs the Waffen SS, and as a reward for his apparent loyalty is quickly incorporated into their plans to escape the prison camp in bins of organic garbage. By arrangement, Kristl meets Franz Wulbrand, head of the infiltration operation, but decides to head off on his own: he has had enough of war.
Rudy Kristl travels across country, living off the land, until he sets up camp in a levee unwittingly close to a Hutterite colony. He is soon discovered and befriended by a Hutterite woman, Hannah Hober, who mistakes him for a fellow Hutterite attempting to avoid conscription. When he proves his mettle by repairing the colony’s heavy farm equipment and shoeing their horses, he is reluctantly accepted into the community by Hannah’s father, the pre-eminent minister. But the second in command, Brother Spaan, remains suspicious of Rudy. Although Spaan sets him up with a woman, to whom he is required to make love blindfolded, this act naturally creates tensions in the colony. Spaan subsequently orders three of his men to beat Rudy and his striker, Johann Kranz, who has shared Colony secrets with Rudy. Johann is whipped to within an inch of his life.
Forewarned of Spaan’s intentions, Rudy is able to turn the tables on his would-be assailants, then breaks into Spaan’s office to discover that Spaan is an undercover Nazi officer with a radio and Nazi codebook. He absconds with Spaan’s Beretta. Spaan responds by pulling rank – telling Kristl that since he was aided in his escape by Nazi forces, he is still a German soldier under orders. Kristl’s orders, directly from Franz Wulbrand, are to drive a truck to the U.S. border and take delivery of an arms shipment that will be used to overrun the prison camps and arm the liberated Nazi prisoners.
Once the armaments are transferred, Wulbrand describes in glowing terms Hitler’s horrific plan to incarcerate and eradicate visible minorities, leaving the Canadian West free for German settlement and domination. Nauseated by this anachronistic vision, Kristl shoots Wulbrand, and from his dispatch bag recovers the plans for the internal invasion of Canada and the Western U.S. He also finds hundreds of thousands of dollars in both U.S. and Canadian currency to bankroll the operation. Upon his return to the Hutterite colony with Johann, he hides the money and then takes inventory of the weapons, stashing them in the barn and using his skill as an armourer to booby-trap the building. He takes Spaan out of commission, then activates Spaan’s radio transmitter so that the allies can pinpoint where the transmission is coming from.
In the lull before the storm, Hannah Hober at last recognizes Rudy as her man and they make love, even as Nazi agents race to the Hutterite farm to stanch the security breach. Alerted by the radio transmission, Canadian troops led by Hamish Sutherland encircle the Hutterite colony. Nazi agents enter the barn, setting off the booby-trapped arms in an explosion that demolishes the barn and all that is in it. Rudy dutifully delivers to Hamish the plans for the invasion, including details of all the undercover operatives in Canada and the U.S. Impressed, Hamish looks the other way as Rudy rides off, stopping just long enough to unbury his fortune – the funds to finance the thwarted Nazi plan.
Once the character of Rudy Kristl has been established as a person of integrity, ingenuity and quiet inner strength, the reader identifies with him and follows his adventures with alacrity. Meilen succeeds in establishing with finesse and credibility the tensions of various degrees of loyalty encountered by Kristl: to the Afrika Korps, then to fellow Germans, and finally to broader humanity as he recognizes the limitations of being tied to a political creed. The tunnel vision and blind faith that Rudy encounters at the Hutterite colony are cleverly drawn by Meilen as a paradigm and microcosm for the similar narrowness of scope encountered in Nazism, with its obvious dangers for freedom. By the end of the novel Kristl is ready to spurn militarism of any stripe for a peaceful existence as a wealthy country blacksmith. He is fully developed as an amiable, reluctant hero who does what he believes is right – and is well rewarded for his pains.
Each of the characters comes to life as fully dimensional – the fretful Hanna with her petty jealousies, the jolly Brother Hober with his naïveté, and the deceitful antagonist, Spaan, who manipulates the Hutterites to his own nefarious ends. Meilen defines and distinguishes male and female conceptions of love with sensitivity, and explores the boundaries of apathy, adulation and hatred from a number of perspectives to create a fabric of atmosphere that serves as a backdrop to the huge landscapes of the Canadian prairie, with its sloughs, levees, forests and endless plains, all of which Meilen deftly paints in word-portraits. The rich prose allows the reader to follow the protagonist on his personal journey, as he experiences yet overcomes discomfort, pain, sorrow and moral anguish, capping them with an abundant harvest of love, joy, peace – and untold wealth.