The Tacitus Manuscript Edit
This is the third of the Tavistock Expeditions. Other adventures in the campaign are linked to the main page.
Cornelius Tacitus’ book Germania is a description of the Germanic tribes in his time, about AD98. They were of particular interest to the Romans as they had just wiped out Quintillius Varus and three legions in the Teutoburger Wald.
The original is lost. Through the centuries, copies have been made, but all those currently available to researchers are believed to be incomplete. Because it was a sizable book and considering the cost of copying in medieval times, copies often only included sections selected by their sponsor to cover their own particular interests.
The German copies cast a good light on the Germanic tribes, particularly the Aryans, though these references are usually missing in texts seen elsewhere. Cynics say that these references may have been added by German copiers to cast a better light on their ancestors. A very early copy, the Aesinas Codex, which is rumoured to be complete, is known to be in the library of the Italian Count Aurelio Baldeschi-Balleani, who lives in Iesi.
The Tavistock Foundation has heard that Himmler believes that the full text will paint a picture of the Aryans which back up his views of them. He has demanded that the Count’s copy is obtained for a new publication in Germany. The Fuhrer, not such an enthusiast but happy to indulge him, passed this on to his diplomatic corps. The Foundation are convinced that Mussolini will not stand up to Hitler’s demands. Mrs Tavistock is ideologically opposed to the Nazi party, so does not want them to have it. She told Dalgetty to obtain the book, and the Professor sent the player-characters. According to their briefing, the Foundation have approached the Count by post before, as have several other academic institutions, but he has turned everyone down.
Session 1 Edit
After the delays caused by the Alpine Landslip adventure, they finally arrived in Venice to meet Albert’s old friend. Who was singularly unhelpful: he could guide them around Venice, but the adventure is in Iesi, 225 miles to the south.
No matter: he could give them some local knowledge about the politics of Italy. Il Duce is maintaining his popularity by scapegoating and the State’s money by requisitioning and confiscation. If anything goes wrong, Mussolini’s men find someone to blame and punish publicly, fooling the majority into thinking that they are doing something about corruption and incompetence. The usual punishment is confiscation of their assets, so a large part of the private sector has now ended up in State hands. If they can’t find a reason to punish the owners, they skip that stage and go straight for confiscation because “he is using it inefficiently, and the assets will be better handled by the State.”
This means that the Government are very popular with the lower orders, but industrialists and aristocrats alike are running scared. Though they wouldn’t say so in public, most would be very happy to oppose the Government.
Donald saw the approach they needed to make. They had to emphasise the state control of everything in Italy, Il Duce’s increasingly close links to the even more tightly controlled Germany, and the contrast with the freedom offered by a privately-controlled charitable foundation in Britain.
Kohath contributed the idea of emphasising the way the Nazis are twisting things around to their ‘racially superior’ point of view by quoting a medical text he had read – they were unable to find an Italian copy of that book in the bookshops of Venice but they did find one Albert had heard of with the same characteristic manipulation of history, and bought it to add to the gifts for the Count.
The party arrived in Iesi and booked into the smart hotel on the town’s central piazza. (They are on expenses, after all, and want the Count to see them as being backed by a well-resourced Foundation.) They enquired after the Count’s residence, and was told it was the fine palazzo opposite. Very convenient, but as it is summer the Count is at his country estate, about ten miles away up in the cooler hills. They decided to send a note up to him in the morning, and in the meantime would cruise the bars and hotels in town to see if there were any suspicious Germans eyeing up the place.
It didn’t take them long – Donald naturally gravitated to the hotel car park to look at the machines there, and while admiring a fine Isotta-Frachini he noticed a Mercedes saloon with German plates. Kohath took the straightforward approach with a bribe to the receptionist: the car belonged to the six German gentlemen who took the first-floor rooms at the front of the hotel, overlooking the piazza. Spreading the lucre around amongst the staff ascertained that at least one of the Germans is always in one of the rooms, sitting at the window. They take turns coming down for breakfast and lunch, but someone always takes dinner by room service, since dinner is such a long meal in Italy. Later, a maid reported that they had had two visitors one day. They were, like the six residents at the hotel, young, fit German men in well-fitting middle-class clothes. They had bathed in the communal bathroom on the Germans’ floor. The commissionaire confirmed that they had arrived in a second Mercedes (a different model to the one in the car park) and at that point it dawned on the party that the car they had seen was a standard saloon – comfortable for four, not so great for five on a motoring holiday, and impractical for six well-built young men.
Donald, Mrs Stanley, and Kohath decided to approach the Germans in the bar at cocktail time before dinner. Emil Zaunhafen was fluent in English from his days studying electrical engineering in Oxford, though his companions spoke no English. Herr Zaunhafen said they were junior members of the Diplomatic Service, hoping for a posting in Italy when Herr Hitler establishes closer ties to Signor Mussolini. They were touring Italy to improve their knowledge of the country and command of the language. They stopped in Iesi since it was far from the tourist routes where they might be tempted to speak to other German-speakers.
The party did question why a qualified electrical engineer was in the Diplomatic Service – he explained that German Trade Attaches are expected to have technical skills so they know what they are talking about when broking trade deals. He was less smooth at answering the question about what they would recommend seeing in the town and area – churches, palaces, etc. In fact, it beat him completely as he couldn’t recommend any! He covered, eventually, by saying that they were not really looking for tourist sites, though they had of course been to Rome and Pisa for the classic places, and spoke of the glorious feeling of standing on the sands of the Coliseum, imagining himself in ancient times awaiting mortal combat…
Meanwhile the others had been pub-crawling around the other hotel bars in town (luckily, not too many of them) and bribing barmen to establish that the other two Germans were not staying at any other hotel in Iesi.
Next day, they sent a note up to the Count’s country estate asking for an appointment, and received the answer that the Count would see them that afternoon. The party split as usual: the respectable Donald, Kohath, and Mrs. Stanley would see him, the more plebeian Albert, Willie and Haggart would hire horses to ride up into the hills and look around the countryside to gain some local knowledge.
The ‘respectable’ party took a local taxi out to the Count’s estate, loading up the crate containing the Roman bust and plaque from the Alpine Landslip mine. They managed to establish French as a common tongue, which put Kohath out of the conversation as he doesn’t speak it. While unloading the crate, they noticed scratches around the screws: the crate had been opened and re-sealed since they had loaded it. The only place that was likely to happen was in the hotel’s luggage store, where it had been overnight.
The Count was grateful for the gifts, and the story behind them which went on for a while, but he was less welcoming when the subject came around to the Codex. Despite their best efforts, the Count would go no further than a polite promise to ‘consider their request’ which was clearly not going to happen.
They retrieved the empty crate with the vague idea of seeing what happened when they brought it back to the hotel, and checked their rooms. They didn’t find any signs of them having been searched, though it would have been near-impossible to tell the difference between a subtle searcher and a chambermaid’s cleaning. They stripped down all the guns they had left in their cases, looking for signs of sabotage, but there was no damage.
Session 2 Edit
Much speculation about what they had learned. The group retired to their rooms to plan what to do next. They decided that their visit to the Count would have been observed by the Germans, and the Germans would now be prompted into action by the prospect of rivals seeking the Codex. In order to protect the Count, they decided to set up a watch on his country estate next day. Mrs Stanley and Albert would stay in town to continue trying, despite their lack of knowledge of Italian, to find out more about the Count’s activities, interests, and possible areas where he may be subject to persuasion.
Kohath finished the evening with a stroll around Iesi, only to discover another black Mercedes with German number plates parked in a side-street near their hotel. But it was about equidistant from two other hotels, so he went around to check their car parks. Each of the three car parks had empty spaces, which ruled out the chance of another tourist having to find an alternative because of a full one at their hotel.
Alerted about this, Donald came out with his pockets full of tools, only to find that the car had gone in the meantime. The usual bribe at the Reception desk confirmed that the Germans had received a visitor, one of the two who had visited them before. He had not given a name, as one of the hotel guests had come down when he arrived and guided him straight up to the room. He had stayed for about half an hour, then departed shortly before Kohath returned from his constitutional.
Next morning, they had a civil chat with Emil as they entered the dining room for breakfast. He claimed that his friends would be ‘out and about, talking to people, improving our Italian’ and Albert blurted out that they would be birdwatching. This was a throwback to an idea of Asha’s for a diversion that the rest of the group had ruled out. Albert wanted to publish in a twitchers’ magazine the news that a rare bird had been seen either around the Count’s estate, or on his townhouse roof. This would attract a swarm of twitchers…The rest of the party overruled the idea since it would involve a long delay till publication, if they could find an Italian twitcher’s magazine, there may not be enough twitchers in Italy to make a crowd (no-one knew), the crowd would be equally good cover for the Germans to do something nefarious, and what was he planning to do once the diversion was in place anyway?
Albert had indicated the most countrified member of the party, Haggart, as the lead birdwatcher, much to Matt’s surprise. He fluffed it utterly, leaving Emil in no doubt that the party would be up to no good today. He smiled and went to join his fellows at breakfast.
As planned, four of the party hired horses again and rode out. Mrs Stanley settled in the nearby pavement café with a good book, Albert in the hotel bar. Shortly after the rest of the party left, the Germans’ car left the hotel. Mrs. Stanley rushed over to the taxi standing in the square and managed to get across her request. Luckily the driver had seen enough American movies to understand “Follow that cab!”, and roared off in pursuit. Aware of the risk of possibly confronting them alone, and that the car had only contained two of the six Germans, Mrs Stanley returned to her book.
As the Germans’ Mercedes drove past the party on horseback followed by the taxi, there was feverish discussion of whether the whole German party was moving and was even larger than previously suspected – three seats remaining in the Merc (it contained a driver and Helmut, the Germans’ ‘face-man’), five in the one seen the previous night and thought to be out in the country somewhere, and they still needed to bring along a taxi?
They found a spot overlooking the Count’s country villa, by which time the Merc was stopped in the yard, no sign of the Count or the Germans. The taxi was heading back towards town. The party split again: two watching the estate houses, two riding back to the road to see if they could see where the taxi was going. They missed it, but did see the Merc returning, but turning onto a side-road rather than heading for Iesi.
The Germans had come out of the house followed by the Count. There were no farewell handshakes and Donald thought that the Count’s body language was very hostile.
Willie and Haggart followed the Merc up the sideroad, and came across it in the woods, pulled off the road onto a logging trail. The driver stood beside it smoking, and watched them warily as they rode past with as much nonchalance as they could, trying to project an air of “we’re not following you, we just happened to be coming this way…”. Once out of the roads beyond, they looked around. Two farmhouses faced each other across the road, which then continued up over the next hill. Haggart sabotaged a piece of his tack by ripping open the stitching and they tried the first farmhouse, holding it up to ask for assistance. The householder helpfully pointed up the road and jabbered away in Italian for a while, and they retreated, defeated.
At the second house Willie suggested that they revise their strategy, so they asked to buy ‘vino’. Sure enough, the farmer’s wife led them down to her cellar and sold them some overpriced wine, since Willie failed so miserably at bargaining in an unknown language. But it got her chatting, so they managed to get lucky with ‘touristi’, to which she helpfully pointed across the road to the other farmhouse, saying “Doo-eh Tedeschi.” From their enquiries in the village they had learned that Tedeschi was Germans, and the guessed that ‘doo-eh’ was probably two, since they sounded similar… They returned to the first farm and looked more carefully, this time seeing the tyre tracks of a car in the gateway that were significantly bigger than those of the Fiat in the vino-farm. The farmyard had a barn easily big enough to hide the other Merc.
At that point the Merc in the woods started up and drove away, not coming past them. During the delay while Haggart restitched his tack, the others arrived with their update.
Since only the driver had been with the car in the woods, they dismounted and tracked Helmut’s path. He came up to a point where he could see the estate buildings, and then the tracks seemed to end. A determined search found a well-concealed observation hide overlooking the villa and estate houses containing one German with powerful binoculars – and a packed lunch and a book on European birds!
So back to the hotel to catch up. Mrs Stanley had been very self-satisfied with her taxi-driver’s information that the Germans had been back to the estate, only to have that trumped by all the others had seen. Albert had just become steadily drunker in the hotel bar…
As the conversation turned on the problem of communicating with the locals, Willie suggested employing a local guide- interpreter. “Why didn’t we think of that earlier?” grumbled Kohath. The concierge’s 14-year-old grandson fitted the bill, since he was learning English to enter the hotel industry.
The party have now established the total number of Germans, and their locations. They suspect that their arrival will push the Germans into action. Their first thought was of an attack, so they all settled down for the night in one room, with the door barred, two people on watch at all times, and in possession of all their weapons.
Session 3 Edit
Having survived a less-than-comfortable night, the party came down to breakfast to see four well-rested Germans enjoying the fare.
They decided to try again to persuade the Count, so sent off a note in a taxi. While planning the rest of their day, they had an unpleasant surprise when six Carabinieri turned up and arrested them on suspicion of subversive activities. After being isolated in separate rooms for an hour or so to stew, they were taken in for interrogation.
The first question didn’t go well – questioned separately, they gave different accounts of why they were in Italy. All agreed that they wanted to see the Count’s antiquities, but their emphasis and reasons did not match up.
Then came the nasty surprise of an accusation that they were planning to smuggle guns to an anti-Fascist cabal, the evidence being the samples of heavy military-grade weapons they had brought with them – Donald’s Browning BAR and a selection of ordinary infantry rifles and pistols.
The sudden reveal of the BAR from under a sheet produced the appropriate surprised reactions in a couple of cases, throwing the suspects just as the Capitano hoped and their stories, though at least consistent, didn’t sound like natural responses. Like they were well-rehearsed on that question, for example.
Then he moved onto the mystery of the crate filled with rocks. The Carabinieri knew from the hotel staff and taxi-driver that the party had taken the crate to the Count’s villa in the country, then returned with it. Il Capitano thought it very suspicious that they had filled it with rocks to conceal the fact that they had delivered something, and concluded that it must have been filled with something illegal – explosives and perhaps pistols, being too small for rifles and machine-guns. Otherwise, why conceal the fact of the delivery of a ‘present’? These, he thought, were samples of the terror weapons the Count’s reactionary conspiracy would use to oppose the enlightened government of Il Duce.
The party managed to keep their stories straight on that one, though it was still delivered unconvincingly, and still sounded like a consistent story agreed in advance to conceal their nefarious activity.
They were each allowed to send one message asking for representations – instead of contacting local lawyers, they chose to send telegrams all over the place. Two to the British Embassy in Rome paid off, however: the Second Secretary came to see them and ensure that the Carabinieri knew that the Embassy was keeping an eye on them, and they risked an international incident if they railroaded people into convictions without good evidence. So the party sat in jail while the investigation ground slowly on, but at least they were allowed visits from their interpreter. He told them that the word in town was that the Count had gone on holiday, and the Germans were now living at the country estate’s villa. It didn’t take much guesswork to realise that their arrest was a ploy to keep them out of the way while the Germans obtained the Codex, and it was the Germans who had informed on them.
Then suddenly, after four days in jail, they were released. However, the Carabinieri were keeping hold of their ‘military weaponry’ until they leave town. The party then spent time meeting the people they had found to be helpful and sympathetic before, to catch up on developments.
They had decided that, since the Germans were still at the villa, they did not yet have the Codex. That meant that the party still had time to foil them.
The steward of the Count’s town house told them that the Count and his family had no previous plans for a holiday, and a phone call established that either they were not at his seaside villa outside Ancona, or the staff had been briefed in advance to say that. With Donald convincing him that the Count was probably held prisoner in the country villa, the steward agreed to loan them some of the Count’s hunting weapons – three rifles and four shotguns – when the time came for an assault. They would be dispatched to a ‘friendly’ farmhouse so the party would not have to smuggle them out of town when it was time to act.
They looked through the back rooms of the library, with the help of the librarian who was reputed to be the Count’s mistress, and found no sign of any antiquarian books – though the party thought it would have been an amusing idea to hide the priceless Codex in a municipal library!
Deliverymen and taxi-drivers confirmed that whenever anything was sent to the villa, the Germans ‘helpfully’ assisted with the unloading, making sure that drivers were never left alone with the household staff. Since the Germans’ arrival, no-one had left the villa to have a night off in town or to shop in person, but telephoned their orders through for delivery.
In order to allay suspicions, the party had their weapons crated up and sent away to England, via Rome. The Carabinieri saw the box onto the train with suspicion, but couldn’t see the trick. The party spent some time unsuccessfully looking out for ‘tails’, coming to the conclusion that there were probably enough informers in this Fascist state that the Carabinieri didn’t need to use manpower for the job.
So now they have settled into their hotel rooms to plan – how to overcome a superior number of German agents, probably heavily armed, in a defensive position, and rescue the Count and his family?
Session 4 Edit
The plan revolved around catching the Germans napping – literally. They decided on a night-time assault, taking out whatever sentries they had set up stelathily and then taking the rest of the group while they slept. If they fired a shot from their borrowed weapons, it was probably all over because of the Germans' superior firepower and military training. They spent a day practicing the use of shotgun-butts as blunt instruments and injecting oranges with hypodermics full of anaesthetic.
Night fell, and as usual in country households, the Germans shut down the electrical generator to conserve fuel while everyone slept. Oil lamps moved around the house for a while till everyone was settled in. Once the bedrooms went dark they moved in, taking a long arc around to their chosen entry point at the rear of the house and giving the Germans plenty of time to fall deeply asleep. From the back of the house, they could see there was a lantern burning in the upstairs gallery, silhouetting one of the Germans standing sentry, looking out towards them.
Using hedges and garden features for cover, they stealthily approached, separating to approach the house at two potential entrance points. As they passed the block of servants’ quarters, Kohath’s party had to be on their sneakiest behaviour as they heard the sound of another sentry walking around to keep himself awake.
At the servant’s entrance, Dr. Kohath revealed an unexpected talent for picking locks. Around the opposite side of the mansion, Donald used a mechanic’s skill with stiff wire to lift a shutter-bolt and open the windows. Both groups inside…
Sneaking down the rear corridor, Donald’s group discovered that there was another lantern down in the lobby. Coming up the main stairs, they would be right in its light with the sentry looking down at them. They trekked across the full width of the house to join the others climbing the servants’ stairs from the boot-room.
On the upper corridor, Kohath and Mrs. Stanley noiselessly sneaked along the doors tying the handles together with a fine rope so that if there was an alarm, the inhabitants could not open them. By the time they had done that, Donald’s trio had joined Haggart on the back stairs so the three sneakiest party members could tiptoe along the corridor and then spring round the corridor. Suddenly confronted by three levelled shotguns at point-blank range, the German raised his hands silently.
One by one the party moved around the bedrooms, two of them pouncing on each sleeper to keep them quiet while Kohath injected them with sleeping-drug. Soon five Germans joined the unlucky sentry in dreamland. Two of their alarm-clocks were set for just before 2am, so the party deduced that was the time for sentry-change. They secured the outside sentry by the simple expedient of waiting till 2am, walking towards him in a hat and coat ‘borrowed’ from a German then suddenly whipping up a similarly-borrowed MP38 submachine-gun. The final German was sleeping out at the gatekeeper’s cottage, and was easy to secure through sheer weight of numbers.
With the house secure and full of grateful servants, they learned that the Count had escaped just an hour before the Germans arrived, saying that he, his family, and their body-servants were going “on holiday”. The Germans had been there for five days since, tearing the villa apart trying to find the Codex. But this left the party baffled. They hadn’t rescued the Count, they didn’t have the Codex – but luckily, nor did the Germans – and they were at a bit of a loose end. They couldn’t do anything to the Germans as they had committed no crime more serious than a bit of untidiness in the Count’s home, and yet the Germans had demonstrated their connections with the Italian police so were quite capable of making serious trouble for the party.
The party decided to leave the Germans in the tender care of the villa staff who they had been holding prisoner for five days, and steal their cars to get out of the country. They dropped into the Count’s townhouse to let them know how it had gone, and the steward there asked them to return after they had retrieved their belongings from the hotel. He said that he had had a phone call from the Count’s third town house, this one in Osimo, which is where the Count and his family were hiding. He had been sufficiently scared by the Germans’ taking over his house that he was now prepared to get out of the country till the Codex was published, after which the Germans would have no reason to threaten them. But that required bodyguards, and going back to the villa to retrieve the Codex from its hiding place (which the Germans still hadn’t found), so he had decided that it should be handed over to the Tavistock Foundation, since they seemed such competent agents.
So our heroes vanquished the Germans – whose papers showed that they belonged to the mysterious SS-Ahnenerbe – and secured access to the priceless Roman relic for the Foundation’s consultants, all without anyone getting hurt. A triumph!
(This adventure was based on the Secret History programme ”Hitler’s Search for the Holy Grail”. The Germans actually spent 18 days occupying and searching the Count’s country villa without finding his secret room where the Codex was hidden.)