Honor Bound Series Book 7: Empire & Honor – W. E. B. Griffin

The opening of Empire & Honor takes the reader into the holds of a German submarine, the U-405, hiding in the South Atlantic Ocean. Mentioned in Victory & Honor as one of the few submarines that has not complied with Admiral Dönitz’s surrender order, it has on board SS Brigadeführer Hoffman, 15 SS officers and the last of the crates containing the loot from the concentration camps. The captain of U-405, Wilhelm von Dattenberg, has orders to wait till he receives a predetermined signal from one of the remote beaches in Argentina, and unload the officers and the cargo at the site.

As the signal arrives and von Dattenberg has the inflatable rafts readied for the transfer, Hoffman gives him one last order; he is to scuttle his ship after twenty-four hours have passed, and then surrender himself to the Argentines. This will allow Hoffman and his men time to conceal themselves among the ethnic Germans living in the country. Von Dattenberg, having reached the end of his fuel and food supplies as well as his patience towards the SS, disobeys the order; he instead raises a black flag and immediately sails into Buenos Aires where he surrenders himself, his crew and U-405.

The Argentinian Vice President Colonel Juan Domingo Peron is approached by an old friend of his, Colonel Ramos, who warns of a plot against him by several disgruntled officers of the Army. These officers are angered by his previous relationships with underage girls, his current one with Evita Duarte who is half his age, and by his employing Rudolfo Nulder to provide wanted SS men with Argentine passports for a price to help them escape Allied investigators; the money from the sale lining Peron’s pockets. Peron refuses to sever ties with Evita, refutes the allegations against Nulder, and sends Ramos back.

In Germany, Elsa von Wachstein, Peter’s sister-in-law and the sole surviving member of his family, is identified at a refugee check-post by a CIC operative, Lieutenant James “Jimmy” Cronley (the CIC are keeping an eye out for family members of Germans who helped the Allies as a post-war favour). A message is immediately sent to Colonel Mattingly, who informs them that he will come for Elsa in three to four days. Jimmy is tasked with looking after Elsa in the interim, and they end up sleeping together. However, she rebuffs his marriage proposal saying it would only be taking advantage of him.

Cletus Frade is still using the South American Airways to clandestinely slip the Abwehr Ost men into Argentina, despite the OSS having been officially shut down for almost three months now. His danger of discovery has reduced somewhat due to Morgenthau stepping down as the Secretary of Treasury but is by no means non-existent. When he and Peter reach Frankfurt during their latest flight, Colonel Mattingly is waiting for them with an order and some news. The order is for Cletus to slip a team of people into Argentina who will set up a listening post on his estancia to intercept Russian messages; the Soviets are seeking to gain a foothold in Central and South America.

The news is for Peter, about Elsa being alive. He accompanies Mattingly and Cletus to the hotel where she and Jimmy are staying for an emotional reunion. A second reunion takes place when Cletus and Jimmy see each other; they grew up together on neighbouring ranches in Texas, and Cletus considers him like a younger brother. Peter and Cletus fly Elsa back with them to Argentina. Once they leave, Mattingly, who has been seconded to the CIC after the “closing” of the OSS, has Jimmy join him as the Officer-in-Charge of the Bavarian schloss where the remainder of Gehlen’s team have hidden their intelligence reports and are in the process of retrieving and cataloguing it.

After Ramos’ unsuccessful attempt to warn Peron, President Farrell takes matters into his own hands. He is aware of Peron’s influence and knows that if he were assassinated, Argentina would plunge into a civil war. To protect him, Farrell has General Martin and Ramos “arrest” the Vice President and place him under heavy guard on an island prison in the middle of the river Plate. This is done in a way that his would-be assassins will have no idea of where he is at least for a few days, until they can be dealt with.

While Cletus is en route to Argentina, Martin is informed of the surrender of the U-405. He knows that Cletus and Peter are better equipped to interrogate von Dattenberg, so he flies the captain out to Cletus’ estancia and places him under the radio team’s guard. Flying back to Buenos Aires in time to meet Cletus as he lands, he waits while the families of the two meet and are introduced to Elsa, then informs them of his actions regarding both von Dattenberg and Peron. They drive back to the estancia, where von Dattenberg is initially suspicious and refuses to cooperate, even calling Peter a traitor. He comes around when Peter describes in detail the fate suffered by the Operation Valkyrie conspirators, including his father and Admiral Canaris.

While von Dattenberg shares the names of the SS officers he put ashore, Brigadeführer Hoffman has already made contact with Erich Raschner who has eluded capture and is hiding in San Carlos de Bariloche. Through him, he procures fake identity papers for himself as an ethnic German. He also meets with a banker from the Credit Suisse Bank, who takes charge of the latest shipment of crates and tells him of Manfred von Deitzberg’s actions regarding the earlier funds before he was killed. Hoffman decides to track down both Werner and Inge von Tresmark to retrieve the money and to have Werner killed, to send a message that the SS is still alive and a force to be reckoned with.

Back in Germany, the covert nature of the Gehlen operatives’ work is threatened when a CIC Inspector General stumbles upon the schloss and is denied entry by Jimmy and his troops. His complaint puts Mattingly on the spot, who decides to give all the files in his possession to Cletus for safekeeping in Argentina, lest Eisenhower decide to close the operations out of fear of any potential embarrassment to President Truman. Until then, he puts them all together in a couple of canvas bags rigged with thermite grenades, guarded round the clock.

Cletus is in the middle of a family lunch and is scheduled to fly to Germany later in the day, when his plans are abruptly changed by the arrival of Martin and Father Welner. They inform him that one of the officers who wants to assassinate Peron, has discovered where he is being kept and is marching his troops towards the closest point that will allow him to commandeer boats, travel to the island prison and execute him. Martin and Welner want Cletus’ help in flying Peron out of the island before the troops arrive.

Isla Martin Garcia

Being fully aware that if the Vice President dies the ensuing civil war will ruin his operation, Cletus agrees to help despite his animosity towards Peron. He flies Peter’s Storch (which was confiscated as war booty when Argentina declared war on Germany and sold to him), overtaking the troops who have put out to water and lands on the island. After convincing Peron that they are there to save him, Cletus has Welner and the guards leave the island by boat while he flies back with Peron and Martin. Their initial plan, to land in Buenos Aires and transfer Peron to a heavily guarded military hospital, goes awry when they realize another company of the troops has taken over the airport. At the same time, Evita and Nulder have mobilized vast numbers of the “Descamisados” (The Shirtless Ones, the impoverished and underprivileged Argentine workers who were Peron’s chief supporters) to protest his arrest; they have blocked all major roads in the process.

Improvising, they load Peron onto Cletus’ Lodestar parked at the airport and fly to Casa Montagna, his mountain villa which is easier to defend with members of his private gaucho army. During the transfer, Martin gets shot in the leg and gets left behind, and Peron receives a cut to his face when bullets shatter one of the Lodestar’s windows while taking off. Enrico patches him up to the best of his abilities, but he loses a lot of blood and requires medical attention. On landing, Cletus takes him to the convent near the Casa where the Mother Superior arranges for a blood transfusion from Cletus to Peron and stitches up the cut. With all this action, he misses the scheduled transatlantic SAA flight, and Peter takes charge instead of him.

The next day, while Cletus attempts to find out Martin’s status, the convalescing Peron is overcome with gratitude towards Cletus’ actions and tries to make amends for his past transgressions. He apologizes and explains himself regarding the allegations against him. He confesses he is going to marry Evita at the earliest, and to supplying Argentine passports to escaping Nazis. He claims to have done it to finance his political career, so he could work for the welfare of the Argentine people. Cletus doesn’t believe him, but realizes it is to his advantage to have a person of Peron’s political influence as an ally and pretends to go along with his tales.

They are interrupted by the arrival of Martin’s men, who informs them that though injured, Martin is alive and has the situation in control. He has instructed Cletus to fly Peron back to Buenos Aires where the Vice President will, according to the original plan, be taken to the military hospital where President Farrell is waiting for him. Peron agrees, but after landing at the airport refuses to travel incognito, as that would be tantamount to admitting cowardice in the face of the assassination attempt. A compromise is reached where he travels accompanied by Cletus and his gaucho bodyguards with Martin’s car following.

Once at the hospital, he stops Farrell from court martialing the officer responsible, and instead leads all of them – Farrell, Cletus, Martin and the officer – along with Evita to the Casa Rosada, the office of the President of Argentina. Gathered there are more than a quarter of a million of the descamisados. Peron addresses them with everyone at his side in a show of solidarity and assures them of his wellbeing and commitment to the people’s cause.

Cletus not being on the SAA flight to Germany poses a problem for Mattingly, who doesn’t want to entrust the documents to anyone else, so he has Jimmy fly with the files, ordering him to hand them over to no one but Cletus. The flight back also has Peter’s friend Willi Gruner (whose father was killed by Enrico in retaliation for the assassination of Colonel Frade) and Dieter von und zu Aschenberg, the Condor pilot who helped him move the von Wachstein money; Peter finds them through the refugee notice board system, alive and well. They are accompanied by Boltitz who has news of U-234, another submarine that did not surrender. On the way back, Peter fills them in on the situation in Argentina, ending with his last glimpse of Cletus’ Lodestar taking off while being fired upon by machine guns.

Cletus is recuperating from the events of the last couple days, when Colonel Peron requests his immediate presence at a small town on the outskirts of the Buenos Aires. When he arrives, accompanied by Dorotea and his cousin, he sees that Father Welner and General Martin are there as well. Peron is getting married to Evita and has called the three of them as witnesses. After the ceremony, while wondering about the reason behind getting married in such a remote place, Father Welner provides the answer. Evita, he tells them, was born in this town, out of wedlock. It was the place of her childhood humiliation, which she now seeks to erase by getting married to the most powerful person in Argentina in the same place. Dorotea also surmises that the photographs of the three witnesses will be a power play, to show his detractors that he has the support of the Church, Colonel Frade’s son and that he controls the BIS.

Returning to Buenos Aires, Cletus and Martin meet the just arrived Constellation. Cletus is surprised to see Jimmy on the plane, until he explains Mattingly’s reasons for doing so. They all reach the Frade guesthouse, where Boltitz tells them that the rumours of U-234 carrying half a ton of uranium oxide are true, and the submarine has orders to make landfall at a point in the extreme southern reaches of Argentina if they are unable to make it to Japan. Von Dattenberg contributes that every German submarine has a list of coded coordinates given to them, and they should be able to use the list from U-405 to try and discover it. Once the list arrives, Jimmy through some intelligent guesswork and the process of elimination pinpoints a location in southern Patagonia, which could very likely be the one they seek.

Unknown to them all, U-234 has in fact surfaced at that very spot some time ago. The uranium oxide is accompanied by SS Brigadefüher Kurtig, who carries a sample with him and makes contact with Hoffman. Hoffman informs him he is in talks with the Russians, who are eager to buy the uranium and the money can be further used for the concealment and protection of the escaping Nazis. He further tells him of the arrival of Peter, Willi, Dieter and von Dattenberg, all of whom he labels as traitors and of his plan to ambush and kill them and Cletus on the way from the Mendoza airport to Casa Montagna.

Cletus’ team decides to split into two, one group with Willi heading to Patagonia with two planes and supplies to locate either the submarine or the landing site, and the other group to Casa Montagna where they will await news from the first before mobilizing. On arrival at the Casa, his gauchos inform Cletus of people surreptitiously observing the road to the airport. With the help of the Gendarmeria, he apprehends them; they are Mountain Troops, the regiment earlier headed by Colonel Schmidt who had tried to oust President Rawson. The leader of the group, Captain O’Reilly, refuses to disclose any information, and they decide to keep him locked up.

On the way back to the Casa, Cletus, Jimmy, Dieter and his tailing team of gauchos are ambushed by SS troops. Cletus and Jimmy’s quick reactions turn the tables on the attackers, who are all killed, but Dieter is injured. The team detours to the convent, where the Mother Superior tends to the wounded. Cletus and Jimmy return to the Casa under a full guard of the Gendarmeria, and are informed that Nervo is on his way with the captured Captain O’Reilly. When they arrive, Martin interrogates and breaks O’Reilly down, whereupon he agrees to accompany Father Welner to Buenos Aires and make a full confession to Peron.

Keeping Peron busy with O’Reilly’s confession gives Cletus the time and freedom he needs to locate U-234. His team down in Patagonia informs him of the presence of more Mountain troops guarding the closest point accessible by air, so he has Peter and Jimmy fly additional gauchos as support, accompanied by von Dattenberg. The latter’s presence is essential as he claims to be old friends with the captain of U-234, which might tip the scales in their favour. They arrive to find that Willi has finished attaching the wings to the Piper Cub and the Storch, which had been detached to transport them by road, and is getting ready to test them; Jimmy volunteers to fly the Cub.

Von Dattenberg joins Willi in the Storch, and as they test the integrity of the wings by diving and rising steeply, Jimmy all but runs into U-234 camouflaged amid the snow. Around it are strewn empty fuel canisters, indicating that the sub is fueled and can submerge at will. With the element of surprise lost, the trio land next to the sub to try and talk to the captain; of the three, only Jimmy has a Tommy gun for protection. They are met by the sub’s crew, captain, and four SS officers, all armed with Schmeissers. As von Dattenberg speaks to the captain and convinces him to surrender, the SS officer tries to overrule him and take control of the crew, which leads to Jimmy shooting him. The story ends with the sub’s crew complying with the orders to hand over the smuggled uranium oxide.

The saga that began seven books ago comes to an end here, but in a very different form than what it began as. The tale of wartime espionage morphs into a generic thriller; the subtle maneuverings of Martin, Graham, Canaris and others of their ilk replaced by conspiracy theories and stereotypical flash-bang one associates with Hollywood. What starts as an attempt to deny Nazi war criminals a place to hide after the war changes course midway to accommodate the concealment of the Gehlen operatives, with the distinction being carefully made to differentiate between the “good” (read: useful to America) and the “bad” (read: not useful to America) Germans. It ultimately culminates in the “bad” Germans joining hands with the Russians (the go-to bad guys for the next five or so decades) and being defeated by the “good” Germans under the benevolent command of the American hero.

Even the characters get similar treatment. The rookie Cletus from Honor Bound, who wins more by luck than by actual skill, and who over the course of the next few books gets a hang of the spy business and thrives in the environment, becomes a brash caricature of himself; arrogant, wisecracking, impulsive, giving in to random rages and cocky beyond measure. Peter von Wachstein and Karl Boltitz, honourable officers who risk their lives to oppose the evil perpetuated by the Nazis, are now sidekicks, reduced to following Cletus around and jumping at his commands. Peron, most probably because W. E. Butterworth IV isn’t as ardently opposed to him as Griffin was, suddenly gets a redemption arc that makes him, if not fully one of the good guys, at least somewhat more palatable. The list goes on.

As with The Honor of Spies and Victory & Honor, the abrupt ending of Empire & Honor leaves the reader with a feeling of more to come. Perhaps it is just W. E. Butterworth IV’s signature finishing style, as the lack of any more releases in the series since 2012 indicates. The book also has another classic characteristic of those in the series co-authored by the son – almost thirty percent of it is recounting events of the past books as a means of filling in any reader who might just pick up this one before the others. This is annoying for someone who is reading serially, and one finds oneself skipping a lot of pages before coming to the current plot again.

The plot itself is weaker compared to the earlier books. U-234 (coincidentally or intentionally, an isotope of Uranium) was a real submarine carrying half a ton of uranium oxide to Japan, but was captured by the Americans in May 1945, months before the events of the book. A lot of events exist merely as fillers and do nothing for the story line. Peron’s redemption arc leads nowhere, and the romance between Jimmy and Cletus’ sister feels shoehorned. Beyond the one single attempt on Cletus’ life, there is nothing to show the Nazis working towards recovering their stolen loot or eliminating their enemies. The combination of the fillers and the recaps stretches the plot to the point where you are simply waiting for it to get over.

If you are looking at reading this as a fan of Griffin, my recommendation would be to stop after Secret Honor, the third book. The holes in the plot, the unnecessary universe building and the dead-end fillers in the latter books make them the equivalent of the last season of Game of Thrones.

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