The Prisoner - Robert Muchamore

Part One

May–June 1942

‘This war will be over before America is ready to begin fighting.’

Adolf Hitler, 1942

In early 1941, Britain stood alone against a Nazi empire that controlled most of Europe. This changed on 22 June when Hitler betrayed his ally Stalin and began a massive invasion of Russia. Five months later, Japan launched a surprise attack on the United States at Pearl Harbour and America became the last great power to enter the war.

As 1942 began, the Second World War had become a global conflict, with the Axis powers led by Germany, Italy and Japan lined up against the Allies: led by Britain, Russia and the United States.

On paper, the Allies were stronger. They could muster more men and produce enough weapons to crush the Axis. But the USA was ill-prepared for war, while Germany was fully militarised and controlled huge sections of Russian territory.

To win against the Allies, Hitler had to beat Russia before America reached full fighting strength. As he threw all his military resources into the war against Russia, back in Germany over ten million prisoners toiled, producing the food, fuel and weapons needed for the largest land battles the world has ever seen.

This army of workers comprised captured soldiers, criminals, communists, Jews and other groups persecuted by the Nazis, plus forced labourers drawn from occupied countries such as Poland and France. From pensioners to teenagers, these slaves lived on meagre rations, with poor sanitation and limited safety equipment, while under constant threat of punishment by brutal guards.


Frankfurt, Germany, May 1942

The sky was the colour of slate as Marc Kilgour crossed a damp gangplank on to the Oper. The old steamer had spent three decades taking passengers along the River Main before fire crippled her. After years sulking at dockside, layered with rust and soot, war had brought her second life as a prison hulk.

Oper was bedded in a remote wharf east of Frankfurt’s centre and only floated off her muddy berth on the highest tides. All windows above deck had been boarded and the passenger seating ripped out and replaced with stacks of narrow bunks.

Marc had lived aboard for eight months; enough time that the fourteen-year-old barely noticed the stench of bodies and cigarettes, as he walked down a gangway between bunks that was barely wider than his shoulders. Almost all the other men were out at work, leaving behind sweat-soaked straw mattresses and graffiti etched into pine bed slats.

A man groaned for attention as Marc passed. To get off work you had to be seriously ill and while Marc didn’t know him, he’d heard how the big Pole had crushed his hand while coupling freight wagons, then picked up a nasty infection that was working up his arm.

The words came in a half-delirious strain of Polish. The man wanted water, or maybe a cigarette, but he was crazed with pain and Marc upped his pace, wary of getting involved.

The timber stairs that led below Oper’s main deck still bore the scars of fire. Charcoal black rungs creaked underfoot as Marc’s hands slid down a shrivelled stair rail. The stench below deck was denser because the air got less chance to move.

All three light bulbs in the passageway had burned out. Marc felt his way, counting eight steps, passing a foul-smelling toilet, then stepping through a narrow door. A mouse scuttled as he entered the wedge-shaped room. Mice were no bother, but the rabbit-sized water rats Marc occasionally encountered freaked him out.

Marc had no watch, but guessed he had an hour before his five roommates returned from twelve-hour shifts in the dockyard. He groped in the dark, finding the Y-shaped twig they used to prop open their oblong porthole.

Fresh air was a privilege – not many cabins below deck had them. The light revealed two racks of three bunks against opposing walls, with a metre of floor space between them. Upturned crates made chairs and a wooden tea chest served as a table.

One of Marc’s predecessors had fixed up a shelf, but everyone kept their mess tins and any other possessions tucked under straw mattresses: theft was rampant and it was riskier feeling around a bunk than stealing from an open shelf.

Marc dug into his trouser pockets, pulled out two small, rough-skinned apples and let them rest on the table. He’d swiped them from the Reich Labour Administration (RLA) office earlier. He was easily hungry enough to eat them, but the six cabin mates always shared food.

They were a decent bunch who looked out for each