This chapter contains scenes of violence and death as well as a brief scene of vomiting and descriptions of wounds and surgery.
53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Shebelle Plain
Though the sun had risen over Dbagbo, early in the morning the sky was so thick with clouds that a twilight gloom remained settled over the land. At dawn the glow of the sun diffused through the clouds allowed one to see through the rain, but one could not call it day.
Nine aircraft soared high over the plains of Shebelle, carefully divided into three tight, mutually supporting groups of three planes each. Clouds raged around them as though aware of their intrusion. They saw colored lightning crackling in the distance, and a buffeting wind brought the deluge right to their cockpit wind shields. One by one the aircraft banked down and to the right, slowly descending several hundred meters only to find themselves with much more grey beneath them and the unabating rain still around them.
It seemed that much like the sun overhead, the ground below was being denied to them.
“I didn’t expect the alto clouds to be this thick. What the hell is this storm?”
“Whatever it is, we can’t see shit Captain! We’re gonna have to go lower!”
“We’re not going below 4000 meters without a target, whatever the cloud cover.”
“It’s your call Captain, but I think we’re hopeless unless we shed some altitude.”
Reluctantly, the squadron leader ordered all aircraft down to 4000 meters over Shebelle. One by one the aircraft gently descended, again down and to the right. The Warlock dive-bomber was not an agile craft, it was monstrously slow compared to the Archer fighter plane and one could feel its weight when it tilted and banked. One propeller on the nose lifted the craft’s robust frame, with its distinctive gulled, inverted wings. Large, unarmored landing gear stretched helplessly below the craft and made a nuisance of itself in flight, but it allowed them to lift off and touch down from improvised airfields — the only reason they were flying at all today. Each plane’s payload of 500 kg worth of bombs was kept in a bomb bay in the belly on the craft. A tail gunner scanned the rear for contacts.
Warlocks were easy prey for fighters in the open air, everyone knew that much.
But nobody in this squadron had ever met the Ayvartan air force in open combat. In the first few days of the war they had bombed plenty of air fields in Shaila and never saw a fighter around. Some of them were starting to believe there wasn’t an Ayvartan air force.
Instead the fear of sinking below the 4000 meter threshold, a line that should not be passed without a target firmly in sight, stemmed from their position over a city. Everyone knew of the 500 air men who lost their lives to the withering gunfire over Bada Aso. It was a story that had passed around, exaggerated, over the past two weeks, but these men believed it strongly. They didn’t get to read the reports that equivocated damages and injuries and crafts “to-be-repaired.” They got to hear 500 casualties, over and over.
The Nochtish Air Force in its modern incarnation had never seriously been challenged.
Something about the sky around them took on a mythical character, and as they descended, the ground below them slowly revealed its nature as a vast, menacing foe. Through magnified bomb sights and rain-slick windows they surveyed the terrain.
“Messiah defend, look at the size of that. Do we have surveillance pictures of this?”
Shebelle was a humble city, home to scarcely twelve thousand inhabitants in peace time, with a low lying skyline, nothing like the massive spires of Rhinea’s cities or the vast urban sprawl of Tauta. A cluttered city center two or three kilometers long and wide was surrounded on its three southern-facing sides by staggered lines of small hamlets, like a shield set before the advancing front, and wide open plains to the north.
There were scattered habitations, lone cabins and small farmland and tiny three-house “villages,” all situated haphazardly two or three kilometers from the outer hamlets and the city. Though mostly flat and wide open the terrain around Shebelle also gently rose and fell, forming sweeping dips and scattered mounds with meadows between. Vegetation was intermittent and mostly diminutive, and hard landforms simple and sparse.
From the air, the sizable preparations of the city defenders were evident. Large and broad arrowhead trenches had been cut into the earth along the city’s outskirts. There were three main defensive lines, on the south, east and west of the city, each quite long and deep and composed of several trenches and positions. Large fortifications made of wooden logs and sandbags formed the joints between the trench networks, but pillboxes and cannon lines, sniper dugouts, gun nests were scattered all along the lines. There were men and guns, barbed wire, sandbags, and likely mines, in the outlying hamlets and the center.
“What do we even hit first? We’ll need a dozen sorties to make a dent in that.”
“Then we’ll sortie a dozen times. Right now orders say to soften up south Shebelle.”
“Lotta things in the south, Captain. Gotta pick one, do we hit those forts or–”
“Captain! I see a group of tanks and vehicles going out the main road.”
There was an exasperated sigh over the radio. “Problem solved, I guess.”
“I’ll deal with that column. Split up into flights. Take the two southern forts.”
Across the squadron every man responded in turn with an ‘Aye, Aye, Sir!’
The Captain smirked. “Hustle up. Infantry’s only an hour out from this mess.”
Flying in groups of three aircraft the Warlocks broke formation and descended on the southern trench grouping. Of particular interest was the column of vehicles moving south along the one main road running through Shebelle that bisected the city. The Captain claimed this as his target and led his flight toward the road. Even in the rain the enemy was easy to make out. There were fifty small tanks, likely Goblins, heading south to intercept the infantry; or perhaps to be dug-in as last-minute emplacements.
From an altitude of 4000 meters the Captain and his two wing-men lined up with the road and began their dive. Though the Warlock was clunky compared to speedy fighter planes it was a born and bred bomber with enviable features for the task. As soon as the pilot pulled back the dive lever, various assisting mechanisms came to life in the cockpit.
Red tabs protruded from the wings, signalling that the auto-pilot was properly engaged. Coolant flaps closed; soon as the pilot adjusted the throttle and threw on the brakes, the gyros kicked in and the aircraft practically dove itself, swooping down at a near-vertical angle, its speed maintained at a steady 500 kilometers per hour. From the 4000 meter starting point of the Warlock’s dive, the Captain and his men would hurtle to the 500 meter bombing point within 25 seconds. His cockpit accurately gauged everything for him.
The Captain took a deep breath, armed his weapons and stared between the cockpit front and the altimeter. When a light on the instrument blinked at the 500 meter dive point from the target, he released his bombs and instantly hit the automatic pull-out switch.
Below him one of his two bombs crashed onto the road and detonated violently among the enemy. Each 250 kg bomb was the size of a bulky man, and each blast would be a hellstorm of fire followed by a massive shockwave, strong enough to knock a tank on its side. Following in his wake, the Captain’s wingmen launched their own bombs, each capable of landing within 25 meters of the other thanks to the Warlock’s consistent diving.
As he pulled up the Captain was seeing stars from the effect of the g-forces, strong during his dive but most deadly during his renewed ascent. His Warlock plane automatically pulled up from 400 meters at a preset angle and climbed from the dive. For five or six seconds he blacked out completely from the forces exerted on his body — his aircraft climbed over 500 meters in this span of time thanks to its speed. When he regained the fullness of his senses, he was nearly 2000 meters up. He then leveled his craft and regained his breath.
“What do you see out there right now?” The Captain asked his tail gunner.
“We got them sir,” the tail gunner replied. “I can see kills. Bombs on target.”
He banked a few degrees and looked over his shoulder past the wing of his craft. Along a hundred meter stretch of the road, thick columns of black smoke rose against the rain. As he flew over the impact area he quickly appraised that perhaps twenty or thirty vehicles were wrecked by the bombs. He witnessed first-hand surviving Ayvartan troops abandoning several remaining vehicles, like ants fluttering about underfoot. Moments later, the storm gusts started to clear away the smoke and there was evidence of the chaos. Broken wrecks, smashed turrets sent flying into trees, fires and meter-deep craters on the road.
Looking up and out farther afield, he saw columns of smoke, warped by the water pattering against the cockpit glass, rising from two familiar locations along the southern lines.
Two of the large fortifications and their surroundings were burning after the attacks performed by the other Flights. Reduced to piles of shattered logs and scattered sandbags, the forts would not longer be able to hold the gaps between the trenches.
“Good kills, good kills,” said the Captain. “Looks like all bombs on target.”
He leveled his craft again and searched for his men. He found them a ways from their burning targets, their aircraft climbing and sweeping — maneuvering evasively.
Outside his cockpit he heard a snapping sound like a giant balloon bursting.
Metal shards struck his windshield, sounding like grains scattering on the floor.
“Anti-air fire from below, they’ve got us in their sights!” a wingman called out.
Bright red tracer shots ripped through the air like burning arrows, filling the sky with light and fire and smoke. Around Shebelle the ground was coming alive with the skyward fire of the anti-air guns. From as far away as eight to ten kilometers the shells came flying. Snappy automatic shots burst all around them like firecrackers, sending hot fragments bouncing off the hull and scratching the wings and leaving puffs of smoke in mid-air. Heavier and larger shells exploded just off the edge of the Captain’s vision, and he thought he felt the force of them going off, the noise generated by the distant blast, the sound of grain-like fragments scattering impossibly fast and punching tiny holes in his wings and tail on contact.
It was like flying through a mine field as all the mines went off at once. Dozens of shells flew at them from seemingly every direction. The Captain felt the engine lurch for a fragment of a second whenever the propellers munched on a burst of small fragments, and he banked hard to avoid the worst of the explosions, but the volume was building. The Warlock’s fixed landing gear and bulky frame created too much drag for any kind of skillful evasion. Every shot was chipping away at the craft; he gambled with every second of flight.
“One more pass, squad! Drop the rest of your bomb load and lets get the fuck out of here!” shouted the Captain, turning his sights again on the main road to Shebelle.
A Warlock could appear momentarily quicker while diving at a locked speed of 500 kilometers per hour. But that was with the force of gravity at its back. Cruising at the 4000 meters altitude that was necessary to start an optimal dive, the Warlock was limited to 300 kilometers per hour, less than half the speed of an Archer fighter plane. Battered by the rain and struggling against the wind the craft was forced to move even slower and it was almost agonizing to the pilots how sluggishly the Warlock cleared the skies around it.
The Captain’s Flight made its way over Shebelle’s center, high above the humble university campus and the central plaza where they saw scores of guns rallying over the yellow and orange brick roads and parks. All three craft endured intense automatic fire from all around the city, almost completely exposed in spite of the rain and their altitude.
Lightning flashed overhead, a bolt crashing down onto a tree outside the city. Once grey skies were turning pitch black. Around them the rains thickened. Gunfire did not abate. As the planes swept over their enemy they seemed even more exposed under each flash of lightning as if the sky was launching its own tracers down to point the way.
Sweeping around the empty northern edge of the city, still dodging tracers from the east and west, the Captain instructed his Flight to commence a soft turn. Under worsening winds and blinding rain their maneuverability had only grown worse. Tight turns were too risky, especially for partially damaged air frames — the Flight took a very wide and sluggish turn, leaving the road and doubling back around in the city’s north-eastern boroughs, tracing a quarter circle around the edge of the city before coming out of the turn facing south.
Far ahead of them the Captain spotted the other flights in time to see two planes shot out of the sky and spinning down in flames toward the trench lines across the city from him. It was almost a casual sight — he looked up, briefly confirmed the location of his other crews, and then the red tracer shot up, like a dart lancing onto a board and burning it. He could hardly believe it at first, though it captivated his mind this way for only a few seconds before he saw the tracers directed at him and reestablished control of his craft.
Suddenly the radio filled with expletives and cries and shouting back in a tone almost as incoherently as his own men was all the Captain could do to try to restore order.
“Drop your last bombs and return to base. Calm your panic. We’re almost through.”
Everyone went silent. It was as though he had killed all the men with his words.
Visibility was growing ever poorer. Through the shower he had been able to spy on the Ayvartans below, looking like ants, and their vehicles and guns like big fat beetles crawling beneath him. Now he could discern scarcely anything of his surroundings. Rain washed down his windshield with such strength that it warped the world below utterly out of recognition. Only his bomb sight gave him a clear picture, but one limited in scope.
He could still see the bright flashes of ordnance exploding in the air around him.
As the Warlocks soared out of Shebelle due south, the Captain found the vehicle column again, roaring down the road to try to get away from the battle. There was no cover from an air attack available to the tanks and trucks — there were trees, but too sparse to hide in, and the terrain was too open otherwise. Their best bet was running on the road where their speed was relatively unhindered. But he was still several times faster.
“Prepare to dive! We’re dropping the bombs in a line along the road!”
He pulled the dive brake and flipped a switch to arm his second 250 kg bomb.
As he initiated the dive he saw a flashing red from a tracer soaring up beside him.
Overhead the monstrous shell detonated and cast hundreds of fragments down.
A chunk of metal the size of his hand burst through the top of the cockpit and embedded itself in his instrument panel. Water and glass fell over him, and he felt the force of the wind battering his face as his craft pulled down into its dive. In an instant the rest of his canopy broke off, and only his leather belts kept him anchored. He heard a tiny sound near his face and found it difficult to breathe — glass or metal had pierced his oxygen mask.
Shaking his head, he suddenly realized that he smelled smoke. At his side one of his men had a chugging propeller and was losing control. He spiraled away from the dive area and disappeared. The Captain locked his hands around his control stick.
“Stay on target!” He shouted. Sparks flew from his damaged instruments.
His altimeter failed to alert him and missed the bombing window — but he had been counting the seconds in his head. A perfect dive was always from 4000 meters down to 500 meters. A perfect dive was always at 500 kilometers per hour. He focused, through the cold and the wind intruding in his cockpit, through the dangerous sparking of his instruments, through the wild swinging of his damaged gauges. He opened the bomb bay.
Despite the instrument damage, the Warlock started the automatic pull-up on cue.
Behind him the Captain heard the bombs.
First his own, and then his first wing-mate seconds later.
There was no third bomb.
He heard a discordant, distant noise as he climbed.
“We lost Adalwein!” groaned the tail gunner as if in pain.
The Captain barely heard it, and in fact the gunner barely said it. They were climbing and the strength of the g-forces increased exponentially, and the loss of the canopy took away their only slim protection against the outside pressures. The Captain’s vision went black and he felt as if his brain was being squeezed, pressed like a grape between God’s fingers.
With his oxygen mask breached he was utterly unable to breathe.
Split-second images filtered through the black.
Over Shebelle all matter of colors raged in the clouds. It was beautiful.
He thought that words escaped his lips. He thought they were poignant and fitting.
Losing all consciousness, he suffered no more as his plane rose ever skyward, the fuselage tearing, the propeller failing, and then fell back as though cast down from the heavens.
* * *
Dbagbo Dominance — Silb, 8th Panzer Division HQ
Dreschner stared at his signals officer with a hand on his chin.
His face bore a neutral expression as if observing a scientific specimen.
“You are hungover or drunk. I am certain of this.” He said.
Schicksal looked over her shoulder at him, her headset half-falling out of her messy hair. She turned down the radio’s volume controls and rubbed her forehead with her fingers.
“I’m not hungover, I just slept wrong. I’ll be fine.” She said weakly. She yawned.
“Slept wrong?” Dreschner shook his head. “How much liquor was it?”
He sniffed the air around the radio set casually as if he could discern an answer.
All he must have caught was the scent of an Evening In Rhinea — whatever that was like — because she had profusely perfumed herself with it to hide the smell of booze. As part of her professional guise she had also donned lipstick, eyeshadow and powder from the women’s hygiene ration, all of which helped hide her pale, sick appearance that morning.
Regardless, Schicksal knew the charade was unsustainable today.
She decided instead to come as clean as possible and tell the whole truth.
“I must confess that I had a lil’ bit to drink last night, General.” She said.
Dreschner raised a gloved hand to his own forehead and squeezed.
“I don’t know whether to be concerned or relieved.” He said.
She smiled weakly and raised her hand. “Permissively ambivalent?”
“No, not that. I’m going to strip your liquor ration completely.”
Schicksal dropped against the table with her hands around her head.
“We’ve a long day ahead, Mauschen.” Dreschner said, patting her on the back.
“I know.” Schicksal moaned, her forehead feeling suddenly tight.
On the opposite side of the room, the teleprinter finally spat out the message they had been waiting for. Schicksal slowly stood up from the table, deposited her headset beside the radio and shambled toward the machine. She ripped the paper from the printer’s mouth, read it over twice, and realized that it was coded, and in fact that it had no alphanumeric characters at all but instead was a series of dotted grids. Her head throbbed sharply. She took the paper to the center of the room, Dreschner hovering nearby. On the table, pencil and code book in hand, she decoded the message and presented it in simple terms to the General.
“They’re all grounded. Air Command is cutting us off.” She replied.
“After two measly sorties.” Dreschner grunted. “What good is an air force that can’t stand to lose a few planes? They cower for ten men and ignore it when it’s a hundred of us!”
Schicksal looked out the room’s single window. She saw fresh flashes of lightning in the sky and soon heard the accompanying thunder. There was a deluge falling over the camp, such thick rain that everyone running hither and thither under it seemed to be parting a curtain with every step they took. Beneath every set of boots the ground was mud.
She felt a connection to whoever was making these decisions in the Separate Air Command of the Luftlotte. She wouldn’t have asked any man to fly in that weather.
Dreschner had it wrong, she thought, but that was part of his vindictive nature.
“Sadly we can’t afford to take a rain check ourselves, not now.” She said.
The General stared at the hastily chicken-scratched message Schicksal had written.
“Well, on the bright side, at least I know you’re functional.” He said.
“Well, radios don’t get drunk, but I’m not a radio.” Schicksal replied.
Dreschner left her side and sat down behind the table hosting the operational map, giving it one more ponderous look. He crossed his arms and segued easily into giving orders.
“Go to the medical tent and ask for soda water. Then check on Captain Skoniec. Tell him he’s due to leave in twenty minutes, and to arm himself with canister shot. Got it?”
“Come back when your head has cleared up.”
Schicksal nodded, saluted with a shaking hand, and shambled out.
Umbrellas occupied more packing space than did raincoats, thousands of which could be pressed flat into boxes at once. As such every division received little or no umbrellas and tens of thousands of thin, flat rubber raincoats. Whenever Schicksal left the headquarters in the rain she had to put on a simple, drab grey button-down cloak with a hood. It whipped about by itself, so Schicksal often took an extra step and fastened a rope over it. She donned a pair of galoshes and some gloves left by the door, and finally ventured outside.
Soon as she left the building Schicksal felt the drops of rain pounding heavily on her head and shoulders. There was such a volume of rain that it felt like a burden one had to endure to walk. Tree branches thick enough not to dance with the gusting winds instead bowed under the falling streams. Not a plot of the ground remained that was not turned to slippery mud, and Schicksal had to be careful walking. Her galoshes were perfectly smooth and had no grip on the soft, oozing floor. In places she had to walk over ankle-deep puddles.
It was about 0800 hours when she left the tent, and the sky was predominantly gray with distant streaks of ominous black. Lightning seethed to the northeast. It was under these dire conditions that everyone would labor for the remainder of the day, it seemed.
Nevertheless Silb was a hive of activity. It was more crowded than ever, almost like the whole division had assembled there — though it was only one Regiment at the time.
Men (and the few women) moved to and fro under the rain, ferrying supplies to trucks to be driven behind the advance, taking last minute meals, double-checking their orders and the overall plan as given to them, and setting personal affairs straight. Staff administrators picked out small groups of underlings and gave them their orders, to be carried out at the new forward base waiting to be established outside Shebelle. Schicksal had already plucked a few radio operators in advance to send to the planned FOB around noon.
She guessed that part of their buzzing about, like her own, was out of disdain for the weather. Were the ground more amenable to it she would be running at full speed.
For a southern nation, Ayvarta could be awful cold in bad weather. Moving about was all she could do to keep warmer in the rain. Out in the open the storm wind was chilly and moist like breathing in ice melt. It disagreed strongly with her post-drunken condition, and she recalled Dreschner’s orders for soda water (a “scientific” cure for drunkenness).
But she felt then that she did not want to meet the resident first-aid medic in this state, whom she considered a disagreeable teenager with a bad taste in literature.
Instead Schicksal proceeded first to the last order given. Outside Silb over eighty tanks of the 8th Division’s 8th Panzer Regiment sat on the partially-submerged road in the middle of the meadow, waiting for the command to begin operations. They represented about a third of the Divisions’ combat power. They were divided into three companies of 25 tanks, along with Noel’s jagdpanzerzug of 3 tanks and General Dreschner’s unoccupied M4 Befehlspanzer and its bodyguard unit of 3 M4 tanks for the General.
As an older Panzer Division, the three Regiments of the 8th Panzer Division were primarily composed of Panzer kompanie with 25 to 30 tanks and traditionally little in the way of infantry or combat support of any sort. Larger Battalions, or Abteilungen served within the Regiments of other Panzer Divisions in place of standard Kompanie. In the defunct 2nd PzD that was once part of the Vorkampfer, for example, Panzer Battalions boasted motorized artillery and indigenous infantry support. Unlike them, the 8th and its Kompanies were almost entirely pure armored combat power with little support.
This was not an impediment once upon a time, but now they were running into problems, some of which were clearly evident as Schicksal looked upon the order of battle before her. Her chief concern was the number of Light tanks in the roster. She counted at least 60 M5 Ranger light tanks, with their 30mm of front armor and 37mm guns, and only 20 of the heavier M4 Sentinels with 50mm guns and 50mm armor. There were no M3 Hunter assault guns present around Silb — the paltry few they had left were committed at the front.
After Knyskna, despite repeated requests by the division’s logistical procurers for identical replacements for all the M4 Sentinels and M3 Hunters lost, instead they had received a plethora of M5 light tanks, reducing the 8th’s raw power to that of a Leichte Division.
Everything had to be shipped from overseas. And M5 tanks were smaller and lighter.
For Divisions that had been upgraded with Panzerabteilungen, they could make up for these losses to their combat power in some other way, using their infantry or artillery. For the 8th’s old Kompanies, all they had was experience and Dreschner’s envisaged genius.
And now also, she supposed, Wa Pruf and the Panzer aces, whatever that was worth.
Schicksal scanned around the meadow and found Noel’s tank farther up the road. She spotted it not only by its purple stripe and the word Konnigin written in curly letters on it, but also by the bright and cheerful so-called “fairy” standing beside it with an umbrella. As she approached he spotted her from all the way across the meadow and waved.
“Hello, hello! You are looking lovely today miss Schicksal!” Noel said.
She felt a bit of irritation looking at him. As usual he looked prim and pretty and perfect. Somehow he had even managed to scrounge up an umbrella, and he was standing beside the driver’s-side hatch where his partner– his driver was staring out into the rain. Despite the weather Noel had a glow about him. One could almost call it an afterglow– no.
Meanwhile she felt like she had swallowed a wine bottle whole and her brain pounded.
“I don’t feel lovely.” She said upon reaching his side.
“A lady ought to feel lovely, because she is!” Noel said.
“I don’t feel lovely.” Schicksal dully reiterated.
“All ladies are lovely!” Noel insisted with a smile.
“I guess you’ve been around enough to know.” Schicksal said.
Noel giggled and shot a little look at Ivan in the tank. Ivan chuckled.
“I wouldn’t put it that way.” Noel said, raising an index finger to his cheek.
Schicksal blinked. “Dreschner wants you to know–“
“Tell the good General we’re ready to go at any time!” Noel said.
“Ok. Twenty minutes. He says you need to load up on canister shot too.”
Noel’s face darkened. A little look of disgust came over him. He flashed a shark-like little grin but it looked more nervous than usual, his eyes avoiding her own suddenly.
“Canister is a bit much, isn’t it?” He said.
“I don’t really know what he means by it.” Schicksal replied.
“Canister is a fragmentation style shell that explodes and mulches infantry. And not to protest too much here, but I don’t enjoy fighting infantry. Especially not with canisters.”
“That’s too bad, then. Because those are your orders from the General.”
Noel shrugged. “I guess I can load some useless canisters with my HE and AP. But the fact is, I’m part of a Panzer jagdzug. It’s a waste to make me fight infantry and pillboxes.”
“He’s right y’know. Makin’ the boss fight boots is a damned shame.”
One of Noel’s subordinates approached, wearing the same uniform as he but at a visibly lower rank. Visibly, because he was not wearing a raincoat. He was not even carrying a flowery umbrella like Noel. He was out in the rain, bearing the full brunt, soaking wet.
“Captain here, he’s the wrath that was brought down to destroy all tanks.”
Noel raised a hand to his mouth and laughed, a gentle oh ho ho.
“Dolph is imaginative.” He said. “Have you met? This is Alexei Dolph.”
Schicksal had not formally met him. Noel’s men were always off doing something or other by themselves. She had carried the fanciful thought that they were perhaps imaginary, but Dolph was here in the flesh, and there was a sizable amount of it. Dolph was tall and robust, with a shaved head a round nose, and thick hands. He seemed too big to fit inside a light tank. He was over a head taller than Noel and her and much thicker.
Around his neck he wore a wooden messianic cross, old and weathered, on a string.
Schicksal stretched out her hand, and Dolph shook it amicably and vigorously.
“Corporal, you should consider getting out of the rain.” She said.
“Nah, a little rain won’t kill me. And if it does, all the better.” He said calmly.
“Well, you might not be bothered by it, but others will be.” Schicksal said.
Dolph stroked his smooth round chin while looking down at her face.
“You’re the Siren, right? We hear you on the radio. You got a voice for choir.”
“Are you trying to recruit me to your church?” Schicksal said, amused.
“Ah, we don’t need a church. We just need a room with an echo!”
“We also need you to survive potential pneumonia.” Schicksal said.
Dolph raised his hands in defense. “So persistent! Fine, I’ll get in the tank.”
Noel watched the whole time from the sidelines, his thumb and forefinger pressed delicately over his lips, as if trying to squelch his own comments before they happened. Dolph turned and walked calmly up the line to his M5, a plain, boxy model with riveted armor, unlike Noel’s M5A2 with its sloped contours and smoothly welded plates. He climbed into the turret and closed the hatch. Noel waved goodbye, twirling his umbrella.
“He’s a joy to have around a campfire most of the time.” Noel said.
“Most of the time?”
“Sometimes he gets drunk and condemns you to hell. It’s unappealing!”
Schicksal bristled, a twinge of irritation at the very mention of drunkenness.
“You could use some soda water, I think.” Noel said.
“I’m leaving.” Schicksal said.
Before she could turn around, she heard a series of sharp taps on the side of Noel’s tank.
She heard a dull, low voice. “Me too.”
A man walked around the tank, covered in a grey raincloak. Noel waved goodbye to him as well. From what little Schicksal caught of his face, he had a sharp nose, deep-set eyes and brown sideburns, almost to his thin beard. He had his hands in his pockets and his head bowed, and he entered his own tank very soon after leaving their side.
“That’s Bartosz. He’s a bit reserved, but he always goes along with whatever you do without many conditions so he’s pretty fun to have around most of the time.” Noel said.
“I’m leaving.” Schicksal said again.
Noel grinned. “Don’t forget the soda water! You don’t want to chuck on the radios!”
She turned sharply around and trudged again across the meadow, back to Silb proper. Her feet were sinking into the puddles off the road. Every step she felt the ground giving and the water tossing. It was almost like walking along the beach. She thought she felt a current, though perhaps that was just the swaying of her fatigued legs. Behind her, she heard a few engines starting up; the tank companies began to prepare their machines for war.
Her stomach started to churn and she felt cramps with every step she took.
Schicksal hurried as much as she could up the muddy road to the village, and turned toward a big white tent with a red cross drawn across the top and the front. Inside a young red-headed girl was about to welcome her warmly; before she could, Schicksal fell to her knees in front of an empty garbage can and lost control of her stomach.
For about a minute the medic watched — she then crouched near Schicksal and gathered her hair up and out of the way while the signals officer emptied herself.
Schicksal then fell back from the garbage can, breathing heavily, limbs shaking.
Evangeline looked at her helplessly. “Um, please state the nature of your emergency.”
“I am going into battle,” Schicksal said deliriously, “and I need your strongest seltzer.”
53-AG-30 Dbagbo — Chanda General School
Moaning, gasping men and women in stretchers choked the halls of Chanda’s main building. Hundreds of soldiers returning from the front lay freshly wounded across the converted offices, on the staircase landings, in the connecting hallways. Covered in red streaks and blotches on their bandages and on their cloth slings and soft splints, bloodstream weakly pumping with penicillin and morphine, many laid alone for hours, having been patched up quickly by frantic medics and Chanda’s few doctors as they leaped from stretcher to stretcher; as more men and women arrived and more stretchers and beds did not.
After being rushed through an initial checkup the patients had to be treated in order of severity. Or at least, in a perfect world they would have been. In reality patients continued to appear with severe emergencies that demanded the immediate attention of several medics. Trucks came and went with a dozen men and women in dreadful states. They wouldn’t be getting any sick folk or flesh wounds. In a fight those people got put in tents near the front. Chanda was almost exclusively seeing people who could die.
Nobody could handle this. Medical personnel were as frantic as the most fearful of their patients. There was such a cacophony and of so disturbing a character that all of the children were moved out of the vicinity of the main building and out to the supporting buildings facing the meadow. Leander hoped none of them had hear or seen any of this.
For a moment he had been fixated on a wall, because it was the only respite he could get. He felt distant, as if he could watch the mayhem around him from over his own shoulder.
Dr. Agrawal then shouted, “Leander! He’s losing blood, suck it up from the wounds!”
Leander looked down at the medical tray and found his hand pump. It was an immediate reaction, done without thinking. He barely knew what he was doing intellectually. He started sucking up the pool of blood that had been running since they removed the man’s first-aid bandages and found the extent of the wounds the field medics had to cover up with bandages. There was not a lot left of his back to sew closed together. He had been grievously wounded by shrapnel. Medics gave him first-aid then brought him behind the lines for surgery. They said that he had been hit by a new kind of shrapnel out there.
“Leander, please stabilize the patient on the table, he is thrashing!” Dr. Agrawal said.
There was a dawning of recognition that the wounded in the halls were not the problem of an abstraction of “frantic medics.” He was a frantic medic. He was here in real life. They were his problem. He almost felt like had snapped back into his own body then.
Was that really how he had dealt with the past few hours? By vanishing from himself?
Leander looked down at the wounds, really looked at them, forced himself to look at them while he worked. He didn’t want to turn away from then, no matter how much it scared him or turned his stomach. He thought, this was what a man had to do before wounds. He set his hands on the writhing man and tried gingerly to push him farther inward–
“Hey, hey man. Listen, man, listen to me. You gotta listen man, listen to me.”
He had been babbling a little ever since they brought him in and pulled open his eyes, checking them by shining an electric torch into them. Leander thought he heard him call for his attention. But that couldn’t be — he had not been so lucid before. Then the man raised his arm and grabbed hold of Leander. Dr. Agrawal jumped back a little, startled, as if a corpse had moved. Slowly the man turned his head, over the protestations of the doctor.
“Listen, man, my man,” he moaned. His lips were curled into an awkward smile, an uncomprehending smile. “You gotta listen.” A little chuckle escaped his lips. He had been shaved smooth, even his head, because there were a few stitches yet to be sewn on his cheek and across his skull. Dr. Agrawal and Leander stared in confusion. He kept talking, more lucidly than they could have ever imagined. “You gotta shoot them in the right-hand side. Those grey tanks; right-hand side, when they’re facing you. Ammo goes up sky high. Everyone inside goes out in the fire. Works on the big ones and the small ones.”
“You have to save your strength.” Dr. Agrawal said. She was pleading of her patient as though powerless to have any effect upon him. She stood uncomprehending of what was happening. She had stopped sewing his wounds. She stood, perhaps shocked by the sudden intrusion of reality. They were not working on an inert object. Leander knew this. He looked between the man’s face and her own face, hoping for an intervention, but this was a moment where all of their authority over life and death had been stripped.
Perhaps they never had it to begin with, not when faced with such grievous wounds.
Suddenly the wounded man gripped Leander harder, painfully hard, with more strength than Leander had ever felt, and he pulled Leander closer. Blood splashed on Leander’s robe.
“Tell my son, man.” He wept. Blood and spit trickled from the side of his mouth as he spoke through heavy, pained, choking sobs. “Tell my son how to kill them, my man.”
Leander found himself weeping too. He raised his own hand and he held the man’s stiff , gruesomely bloody arm that was gripping his own so harshly. “Right-hand side, facing you.”
“Ammo goes up, works on the big ones and the small ones, works with a BKV or a grenade or a forty-five,” said the wounded man, “tell my son; tell him so he can win this someday.”
His grip grew so strong that Leander thought he would tear his arm off.
In an instant all that strength vanished. His fingers unwound. His arm fell limp.
Leander fell back onto the floor, a hand over his mouth, weeping profusely.
Dr. Agrawal ran a hand over her lips too. Her eyes were glistening in the hall light.
“We have more patients, Leander,” she said through a sob. “We have more. There’ll be more coming. We just have to continue. We see things like this. We can’t let it stop us.”
Her words started to become a little slurred.
She sat on the medical tray with her head down and wept to herself.
There was a flurry of activity behind them.
“I’m back! We got six more from the front but they look stable–”
Elena reappeared from around the corner and froze at the sight of them.
Without word she seemed to join them in the isolation and defeat of that dire instant.
* * *
Everyone in Chanda had braced for casualties when the school received word of Battlegroup Rhino’s offensive along the Sandari. There was a sense of urgency, but the fighting came and went seemingly with little stress. From the 47th to the 51st Leander braced for a surge in the wounded and dead, but the actual numbers bore out little to no increase in the intensity of the fighting. He worked with haste and dedication, trying to perform his tasks to the letter while saving the doctor time wherever he could. It was hardly needed then.
“Because we were the ones attacking we also controlled the rhythm and potential of retreat. This minimized the number of casualties our hospital would see.” Dr. Agrawal said. She crossed her arms. “Nocht controls the rhythm of battle now. They have massed all their forces and they are moving relentlessly. That is the stark difference a day has made.”
Leander sat behind her desk, cooling off with her mechanical fan, while Dr. Agrawal sat atop the desk, kicking her legs. Elena stood by the door. Despite the cool air brought in by the storm, Leander was sweating terribly. His chest in particular felt hot, pressed down by his new binder. Even retreating to the office and taking a break didn’t seem to help. They still heard the commotion. They still knew in their minds, or at least Leander knew, that there was more work to be done. Under the clap of thunder and the pattering of the rain they heard wheel stretchers running, the stamping of boots as medics dashed across the crowded halls, and the lamentations of the wounded and the delirium of those patched up.
“I heard that we might get some volunteers from the town coming in.” Elena said.
“Still, this volume is just too much. We can’t handle it.” She said. Elena nodded grimly. “It’s not about hands, not anymore. It’s about space. With infinite space we could work our way through each patient as best we could. But they’re lining the halls now, it’s inhumane!”
Chanda was once a school. Its three buildings were all long halls lined with either small offices or 400 square meter classrooms. There were only two big, broad spaces: the lunchroom and the auditorium on the southern building, and the playing field to the north. They had already filled the auditorium, which wasn’t that big to begin with — and they couldn’t put the wounded near the food, which everyone needed, nor out in the elements.
There were also still children in Chanda. Not that many, but enough to raise concern.
“With the Nochtish troops advancing, we can’t count on much help with relocation.” Dr. Agrawal said. “We’re lucky they’ve got a truck to bring us the wounded here.”
“Have you been in combat medicine before ma’am?” Elena asked suddenly.
“Let’s just say I know how these things tend to shake out.” Dr. Agrawal replied.
Dr. Agrawal was the only full-fledged doctor in Chanda, but there were several competent medical students. There were at least 12 medics in total, counting Leander and Elena. But like she said, it was not about hands. Twenty-four hands could have worked themselves raw and tended to everyone sooner or later. It was about space. Bullet wounds and surface shrapnel could be cared for in the field, and a hospital in Benghu town was taking patients too — but this did not even put a dent in the number of people ending up in Chanda.
In a day they went from a few dozen active patients to well over a hundred.
All of them had bad wounds. Deep shrapnel wounds and bullet penetrations necessitated careful incisions to remove the offending metal. In five hours they saw everything from shattered limbs requiring amputation to terrible hernias caused by explosive shocks, vehicle impacts or even close quarter beatings by advancing enemy infantry. They spent the morning and much of the afternoon performing quick surgeries.
There were a few deaths; but Leander still heard the voice of the man from before.
Perhaps Elena could see it in his face. She was always concerned for him.
“Leander, you can switch with me and perform triage.” Elena offered. “It’s easier.”
Dr. Agrawal shook her head. “Leander can’t do that as efficiently as you. It’d be better if he remained at my side handing me tools and doing the tasks I have trained him in.”
“He’s exhausted.” Elena said. “All he has to do is follow the lead of the other medics.”
“I’m not exhausted.” Leander said. His voice sounded miserable — in part childish and irritated and also very forced. He wanted to stop worrying Elena with his weakness.
He thought to himself, was he not a man? What did a man do in this situation? But he didn’t really know. He didn’t really like the answers when he thought of what a Zigan man from his caravan would do in a situation — and he felt unsatisfied with his own answer.
Elena nodded silently to him. She didn’t seem to catch his tone nor was she privy to his contemplation or the reality of his situation; but she took him at his word, gently and kindly.
“How are we doing on medical supplies? Do you know?” Dr. Agrawal asked Elena.
“Last I checked we’re covered on bandages, disinfectant, replacement tools, and that sort of thing; but we’re low on drugs. We had enough for the volume before, in moderation.”
“I figured that would be the case. We’ve been ground down badly today.” Dr. Agrawal shook her head. “As long as we can cut, pinch, pull and sew, we can save lives. It’ll be awful on the patients without morphine to help cope, but they won’t be left to die.”
Elena nodded. “I should go downstairs. I feel skittish just standing around here.”
Leander bolted upright from behind the desk. “I’m ready to go back to work as well!”
Dr. Agrawal turned her head over her shoulder to stare; Elena looked at him dead-on and blinking. He was still sweating and judging by the mirror on Agrawal’s desk he really was a little pale. Standing so quickly unsettled his vulnerable stomach too. But he didn’t want to look lazy or like he was not doing his utmost. Not in the face of this chaos.
“And here I was planning to vegetate a few more minutes.” Dr. Agrawal said.
With a whimsical smile on her face she stood up from her desk and stretched her arms. She bent one arm around her back, arching herself a few degrees and groaning.
“Had to set my back again. Let us move before I become a patient myself.” She said.
53-AG-30 Dbagbo — Shebelle Plains
Nocht’s fighting men saw no dawn on the 53rd. Through the thick and storming skies above Shebelle and the lower Dbagbo the light of the sun scarcely brought the world out of the twilight. Under a grey gloom and worsening rain the men marched at exactly 0600 hours.
The Grenadiers marched to rally points along the front line from the Sandari riverside, masking their approach and concealing their idle forces in short stretches of wood to the southeast, behind low-lying rocky scarp to the southwest and behind shallow hills rising and falling along the road directly south of Shebelle city. In these places they settled for some time and made their final preparations for the battle only hours or minutes ahead. Between 0700 and 0900 a Regiment of 5000 men deployed among these various points along the southern city approaches. They gathered ammunition and weapons, tested their communications, and carefully performed their final scouting missions.
To the Nochtish eye the approach to Shebelle was picturesque countryside consisting mostly of flower and grass meadows that were muddy underfoot, dotted with trees and all beset by thick rains. They were a few kilometers away from the southern hamlets but the line of sight was open enough for many along the southern road to see the little roofs and the brown brick and wooden constructions that separated the country from the beginnings of the city.
From the edge of the trenches to the first houses of southernmost Shebelle, the first echelon of visible Ayvartan defenses stretched two kilometers wide and around one kilometer deep. There were a few discreet fighting positions in the open, and more along the first and most visible trench line. Though the biggest forts had been flattened by bombs from the short-lived preparatory bombardment entrusted to the Luftlotte, the smoke and fire was clear and there were certainly soldiers hiding in the hollowed-out redoubts.
Another immediate fact was the lack of cover before the first echelon of the defenses.
Men would be running most of the way out in the open with only scattered boulders, bushes and trees for cover, too sparse and spread too far apart to serve as jumping-off points.
Soon the artillery and the few supporting tanks allotted to the infantry regiments began to arrive along the Nochtish lines and to establish their own positions and calculate their firing lines along Shebelle’s borders. There was a hasty, last-minute tactical debate among the infantry commanders as to whether the shooting would expose their positions too early. It was quickly realized however that exposure would nonetheless happen immediately when the men stepped forward, and that without good cover and without air support or artillery they would have nothing but their feet to count on as they advanced.
To preserve some modicum of surprise and momentum, it was decided to start the fire mission ten minutes before the Grenadiers charged. At around 0950 the men took up final positions as their 10.5 centimeter guns lobbed shells over and around their various forms of natural cover. Soaring over the little hills, from within the patchy wood and between the rocky scarps, the howitzer shells navigated their arcs and found their way across the meadows, crashing haphazardly around the Ayvartan lines. Eighteen guns from six different positions laid down a barrage of fifty-four rounds in a minute. Rolling blasts rocked the length of the Ayvartan front, kicking up copious smoke and dirt.
Almost 600 shells had come down on the Ayvartan defenses within ten minutes.
But 600 shells scarcely made a dent in a defense that was measured in kilometers.
Everyone knew it but they could no longer consider their options. It was time to move.
At around 1000 hours the first wave of infantrymen from the 17th Grenadier Division began their attack on the southern approach to Shebelle city. Along two kilometers of frontage 3000 men would move, divided into four battalions each with two companies forward. As such for the very first stage of the charge, there were about a thousand men running. Every man was privy to at least a hundred others running in his line of sight.
For the first nearly thousand meters from the starting positions, almost halfway to the Ayvartan lines, the men charged without arousing even a single bullet. Rifles in hand, heads bowed, bounding from short sprint to short sprint, the men advanced unopposed by enemy or obstacle. Between bounds several men raised their rifles and took shots into the rain, aiming for the sandbag-lined trenches and for the half-dozen wooden redoubts along them. Their bullets disappeared into the air and the cracks of their rifles went unanswered.
Behind the advancing Grenadiers the Regiment’s guns sounded a slower barrage than that which opened the charge. Ahead of them the Landsers saw a dozen shells falling every minute, kicking up sharp columns of dirt and smoke, sending wood and sandbags flying from impacts on the trench, and shredding every bush and tree along the defensive line. As they advanced the men were kept on target by the periodic falling of shells in front of them, as though they were signal flares flashing under the pervasive gloom of the storm rains.
Accompanying the sound of explosives was the pounding and chugging of engines.
Forty M3 Hunter assault guns had been scrounged up from the 8th and 15th Panzer Divisions and attached to the Grenadiers for the attack. Twenty were dispatched with the first wave, charging in five minutes behind the men, each tank a hundred meters apart from the next on a broad front that would cover the whole width of the defensive line.
By the ten minute mark on the assault the tanks had nearly overtaken the men, and were ready to cover the remainder together. Like the men the M3s bounded forward and paused periodically to fire their 75mm howitzers. Several direct hits were scored on improvised wooden bunkers and on quiet sandbag walls, sending them flying in pieces. The tank’s tracks slipped on the muddy earth and cut great gouges into puddles and soft dirt, and they advanced quite slowly for fear of becoming stuck in the oozing earth.
Fifteen minutes into the attack without a sign of resistance, the infantry commanders behind the Nochtish advance felt great trepidation and failed to communicate it quickly enough to their men. Under the rain and the clap of thunder, delighting in their momentum, the Grenadiers cleared invisible kilometer line and the nebulous halfway mark to the trenches. With the enemy closer and clearer in sight, they felt bold.
Then the ground started giving in a hundred different places for a split second.
Men started to suddenly give away with it, tripping over bursts of dust and metal.
Soon as a foot touched the plate atop the hidden Ayvartan Tiddi mines, a small explosive triggered that tore through boots and sent shards flying through men. As the men ran through the minefield it appeared as though a sudden rising foam beneath puddles and mud knocked them over. But then they wound find themselves seriously wounded.
At first nobody seemed to see nor hear the mines, for they were designed not to be seen nor heard. It was an explosive not designed to tear off a limb, but to disrupt advances and wound and frighten running men. But the men continued to bound forward as though their falling allies were none of their concern. They scarcely noticed the men toppling over.
Those who did notice and those who paused to help failed to see flashing ahead.
Like the shining eyes of lurking predators, muzzles flashed a fleeting orange from a kilometer away, all along the trench line, and their leaden claws struck the running men and alerted them to resistance. Suddenly machine guns opened up automatic fire from redoubts thought cleared and from trench lines thought blasted. Streaks of colored tracer fire cut across the distance, slicing clear through the rain and splashing across the puddles and mud. Like a cloud of flashing locusts the gunfire mounted, seemingly from thousands of rifles.
Out in the open the Grenadiers were cut down every second. Bright lines of gunfire swept across the meadow, punching men to the ground in mid-run, taking limbs and heads from men crouched to fire, cutting around crawling men, bouncing off the armored fronts of advancing assault guns. Those men close enough to duck near the armor rushed to hide behind the trundling bulk of the M3 Hunters, while those out in the open dropped onto the mud, concealing themselves in the tall grasses and in deep puddles, crawling with their faces down, all the while relentless grazing gunfire kicked up dirt and water over them.
Everyone foolish enough to keep running in the open was dead in a fleeting instant.
Artillery shells from the Nochtish lines continued to fall on the Ayvartan trenches, but it seemed to do little to stem the gunfire. Then within moments, with a great blast that cut a squadron off from behind a tank and lit the vehicle’s engine ablaze, the first Ayvartan shell responded. Men looked up in horror and saw great arcing lines of tracer fire lighting up the dark grey sky. Fired from Shebelle, the lobbed howitzer and long-range mortar shells painted in the sky a red web-work before hurtling earthwards into the Nochtish advance.
Blasts from 122mm guns and 120mm mortars stationed 6 to 10 kilometers away raised plumes of smoke, water, grass, and mud, bursting from the earth like pillars and stopping men in their tracks just as brutally as the solid object could. Men hiding behind tanks felt and heard metal fragments striking their cover as though falling hail stones. Men crawling along the ground felt terrible blast waves blowing hot over their prone bodies. Thousands of shells fell every minute, inaccurate individually but annihilating in bulk.
Unless a direct or very close hit was scored, however, a tank had little to fear from an Ayvartan fragmentation shell. The M3 Hunters continued to bound, closing to within 500 meters of the Ayvartan trench with a dozen men following behind, taking shots from around the sides of the vehicles. They caught glimpses of the automatic guns and of the snipers and light machine gunners along the trench line and fought back as best as they could. As the assault guns closed they too could better see the enemy, and laid accurate, explosive direct fire over the trench line, into the pillboxes, into the sandbags, and up in trees and around boulders from which muzzle flashes had distinctly been spotted moments earlier.
After each 75mm shot from the M3 Hunters, the men creeping behind looked around their moving pillboxes and saw Ayvartan light machine gunners dashing from stricken positions, footing it quickly to new places from which to resume their automatic fire. Like phantoms under the rain they could escape being targeted and resume fighting between blasts.
Below 500 meters a new threshold was crossed, and brighter muzzles flashed ahead.
M3 Hunters rocked as their front plates endured fire from light anti-tank cannons.
From behind the tanks the Grenadiers witnessed the direct fire of the guns, carefully hidden past the trench lines in bushes and camouflaged hay bales and fake boulders. Bright AP-HE tracers flew close over the ground and exploded against the tanks. The M3 Hunter’s front armor was unparalleled in the Nochtish army, and there were no penetrations scored, but the combined volume of fire was staggering and insurmountable. Disoriented by repeated hits against their faces the assault guns slowed to a greater crawl, and the men behind them were exposed to ever more accurate gunfire and relentless artillery barrages.
This drama seemed to play out across every hundred meters width of the charge.
Save for a dozen men huddling behind the struggling assault guns, the first wave of the advance had been thoroughly repulsed within thirty minutes. Assault guns and men traded ineffective fire with the Ayvartan line from 400 meters away at the closest, and the advance had become so lopsided that there were parts of the line still 600 and 700 meters away.
The 17th Grenadier Division injected more men — the Regiment had many more men, and the Division had two other Regiments. Soon a thousand more men and ten additional assault guns joined. There would be many thousand more after them, each building off the momentum of the last, almost literally walking over the corpses to take the trench, and from the trench to reach the southern hamlet, and from there to fight in the city streets.
All of them had been told to charge the city, to take distant Shebelle from the enemy’s hands. None had been told they were a distraction, and that 700 casualties in 30 minutes was somewhat expected, and that 5000 by the day’s end would not be frowned upon.
* * *
Noel Skonieczny knew voices. He was particularly familiar with men’s voices.
When the radio came alive, he knew the Colonel’s voice sounded distressed.
“Captain Skoniec, we have run into a problem!” Spoor said. His tone was subtle.
To the Colonel this was the most dignified voice he could muster in his situation.
“I can see some of that!” Noel replied, spying on the slaughter with his periscope.
Far across from him there was a grizzly show of flashing gunfire and dying men.
The plight of the infantrymen was not his plight, however. He had only stopped along the road so that Ivan could refuel for the next stretch of the journey — past south Shebelle and across the east, toward the town of Benghu. He was safely ensconced away from all of the southern fighting that he could see. Watching them was tangential to his mission.
Colonel Spoor of the Panzergrenadiers had an entirely different problem to report.
“The Ayvartans’ eastern defenses stretch out farther from Shebelle proper than we initially thought. They have occupied a one kilometer stretch of wood along a path that we intended to take on our way to Benghu. It is an isolated dirt road straddling a small dry gully located east of Shebelle. There are tanks or guns dug into the foliage there.”
“What about the Leichte D? Surely they can handle a few tanks?” Noel asked.
“We’ve lost a platoon of tanks we sent into the wood. I’d like you to appraise the situation. I’m afraid my men’s anti-tank weapons are too short-ranged for this predicament.”
“Very well then! Tell them Panzer ace Skonieczny is coming to the rescue!”
Noel switched his radio quickly with one of the preset options on a box at his hip.
“Bartosz! Dolph! Fuel up quickly, we’re running ahead.” He said excitedly. Through his periscope he watched the two tanks parked a few meters distance from him, their crews dismounted with fuel cans in hand, laboring in the rain while Dolph and Bartosz supervised. They had full crews at their disposal — they did not work quite like Noel did.
Ivan pulled open the front hatch of the M5A2 and climbed in, shutting it down and locking it up behind him. Noel bent down from the gunner’s post and gave him a smile. He was dripping wet, his drenched hair hanging around his eyes and ears. Rivulets of water trailed down all of him, and he was visibly shivering a little as he smiled back.
“You were right, it’s real cold out. But I got everything ready. We’re good to go.”
“Look at you, Ivan! You’re gonna catch a cold. I told you I would do it!” Noel said.
Ivan chuckled. “No, it’s just wouldn’t be right to get that pretty head all sopping wet.”
“You mean you’re not curious what I’d look like all wet?” Noel said cheekily.
Ivan sneezed, rubbed his nose and tried to smile back. “You got me there.”
Noel sat back up, produced a thermal blanket from a kit on the wall, and threw it down.
“I’ll warm you up myself once we’ve settled things in Benghu.” Noel said sultrily.
From the driver’s seat Ivan stretched his arm back and gave Noel a thumbs-up.
Engines rumbling under the intermittent thunder, the M5A2 and its attendant M5s pulled out of the patch of wood in which they had hidden and veered off-road across the country, due to northeast. They gave a wide berth to Shebelle and its defenses, traversing the rougher terrain in the wilderness and headed diagonally due north. Though part of the 8th Panzer Division, Noel’s Panzerjagdzug moved on its own, a lone platoon without supporting vehicles or the additional Ranger tanks of a Leichte Kompanie or light tank company.
He was tasked with acting in an eerily mercenary fashion during this operation.
Armies deployed in echelons. The 8th Panzer Division was not sending all 180 or so of its remaining vehicles into battle all at once. Instead, 80 tanks from Silb, divided into four companies, would attack first, while the 40 “fatigued” tanks deployed for the previous Sandari offensive would take it easy and establish forward positions to the southeast of Shebelle. There they would wait for the fresh tanks to open the way for them. In addition, 40 Assault Guns had been lent to the infantry of Shebelle to help effect their breakthrough.
Noel had already seen at least two M3 Hunter wrecks out in the southern meadow.
It was not his job to care about that — he had not been told to care about that. Dreschner had ordered him to run from hot spot to hot spot, supporting any attacks that lost steam. Spoor was his main charge. His sector had less tank power to count on than any other.
As they spoke, Reiniger was rushing east Shebelle, leading his M4 Medium Tank kompanie and two Leichte kompanies in skirmishing attacks on the defenses. Meanwhile, the remaining Leichte Kompanie as well as a company of men under Spoor, travelling in their half-tracks and light vehicles, were wheedling their way out of Ayvartan earshot trying to find unguarded parts of the line through which to attack Benghu. They had pinned their hopes on a stretch of sparsely wooded path along an old dry gully several kilometers east of Shebelle’s eastern-most reaches. They had been wrong.
For one, not all of the path was sparsely wooded. Much of it was open, and then there was a kilometer-long stretch that was almost forested right in the middle, in their way.
Secondly, that path was very visibly not unguarded at all. Time to revise the maps!
A half hour’s travel from the southern lines Noel spotted scattered vehicles spread out in a defensive posture just off the gully and outside the stretch of trees barring the way. Just inside the wood, packed in front of the road, Noel spotted three M5 tanks abandoned and damaged. From his vantage he could not see all of the damage, but these were likely frontal penetrations. Outside the wood there was a front line of six or seven M5 tanks casting shells blindly into the wood, using the slope of a tiny mound for some measure of cover.
Behind them, seven Squire type Half-Tracks stood along the road with their men dismounted and gathered around them as if using them for cover. A few men ranged their rifles and Norgler machine guns by firing tracers into the wood from around the sides of the half-tracks. As Noel and his men approached the gathering, he trained his periscope on the wood, and saw muzzle flashes trading fire back. There were defenses in the wood alright.
A particularly bright flash then startled him; the next instant a howitzer shell flew out of the wood and crashed into the front of an M5 Ranger, resulting in a brilliant explosion.
Though the shell had too low a velocity to penetrate, the detonation was so violent and came from less than a kilometer away, retaining all of the force of the gun as well as the strength of the explosives. In an instant the turret of the M5 Ranger was torn off its body and sent flying backwards, gun spinning, the men inside flying in pieces amid a storm of metal, fire and rain. Those who remained in the hull were incapacitated by the blast wave. Inside a tank, an impact with that force rocked men unconsciousness or dead by itself.
Remains of the turret landed as far back along the road as Noel’s approach.
Before the smoke had even begun to waft off the wreck, there were additional flashes from inside the wood. Red lines from tracers cut across the air like calligraphic ink, connecting track guards, bogeys, gun mantlets and glacis plates with unseen guns. That little hill was no defense at all — it barely covered the tracks from this gunfire. Smaller, faster anti-tank shells struck around the forward tanks, some bouncing off, others hitting dirt, but one lucky shot snapping a track on a tank. Noel counted six shots by the tracer lines.
Those must be the Ayvartan tanks. But Noel could not see them! They must have been huddling around the trees and the rocks, using every piece of cover. This was not good.
From the moment he had arrived Noel had got to thinking of what to do. Nobody thought of him as being particularly bright or fierce — at least nobody who did not know him. But throughout the unfolding carnage his eyes had been appraising, and he had been pinning pictures on his mental bulletin board. He quickly formulated a course of action.
“Everybody back, now! Right now!” Noel broadcast to on the Panzergrenadier’s signal.
“Back where?” Spoor replied via the radio. Noel scanned around the vehicles for him, and finally trained his periscope on a radio half-track farthest back in the formation and saw Spoor standing atop it, waving his hand high up in the air to get his attention.
“There’s no cover anywhere Captain Skoniec! We need to attack now!” Spoor continued.
He could hear the impatience in his voice and a kind of restrained hostility.
Noel knew men’s voices all too well. Particularly the voices of frustrated men; of men who had not gotten their way exactly. Spoor’s voice was all too familiar at that moment.
“We will attack, but we’re too close right now! Just trust me!” Noel replied.
“Very well!” Spoor replied. He gave his signal to his men to pull back.
Every vehicle in the vicinity started its engines and began to maneuver in a directionless retreat. The M5s reversed course from the edge of the wood under repeated anti-tank fire. Men loaded back into their half-tracks while the vehicles were in frantic motion. Noel kept his eyes peeled for that howitzer, hidden somewhere along the dirt road in the wood. There were trees and rocks and maybe even camouflage obstacles in his way however.
“How deep is that gully, and is it flooded from the rains?” Noel asked.
“Not flooded; and it is only a meter and a half or so deep.” Colonel Spoor said.
“Send five tanks and some men down the gully. Right now!” Noel said.
“I shall heed your advice, Captain.” Spoor replied with feigned politeness.
Certainly if he was offended at Noel’s impudence before he must have been livid now.
He called for support, but perhaps he was unready for Noel to take the lead.
But Noel had no time to worry about the chain of command. He switched back to speaking to his own people. “Dolph, Bartosz, follow me! We’re going around this mess! Ivan, full speed due east for a kilo and then swing around north a kilo to clear the wood.”
It was a mercenary action, but Noel had always been praised for being mercenary.
Ivan was quick to turn the tank, and at full speed Noel and his men cut to the east for at least a kilometer before swinging around back north, well clear of the sparse patch of wood in which the Ayvartans were making their stand. He saw from afar the tanks lining up and moving into the gully, gingerly dropping within the walls and aiming their guns over them.
Farther north there were no more Ayvartans coming from the clearer parts of the dirt road. They had all elected to entrench inside this kilometer-long stretch. He expected something like that. He had yet to see timely Ayvartan reinforcements in the war. He had also yet to see them affect any kind of mobile defense. So he counted on these facts.
“Our tanks are moving up the gully, and they are engaging the enemy.” Spoor said. “The Ayvartans have six tanks. That Howitzer that they’re using as a direct fire gun that has not been found, and there are at least a hundred other troops according to my men.”
“Tell your guys to go slow and aim carefully.” Noel said. “At close range, the difference in elevation means the enemy’s tanks can’t hit your gully men unless they climb up.”
“I shall relay.” Colonel Spoor replied. Noel thought he heard surprise in his voice.
As the Panzerjagdzug trekked their way up north and around the obstacle, Noel looked out his periscope at the wood, and saw the heavy flash of the howitzer from within.
Smoke rose up from somewhere south, out of his sight. A violent explosion.
“That damned Howitzer fired into the gully. One tank down!” Colonel Spoor reported.
“I know where it is now.” Noel called back. “Just hang on! Dolph, Bartosz, charge!”
He received his affirmatives within seconds. His subordinates were always ready.
Dolph and Bartosz lined up, forming the sides of a spread out and enveloping reverse arrowhead. Together the M5s turned sharply around and doubled back south.
Masked by the rain and thunder and by the timely distraction of the tanks creeping up the gully, the Panzerjagdzug attacked the Ayvartan position directly from behind.
“Dolph, sweep around right, and Bartosz take the left, and meet 500 meters ahead, divide the enemy and take the best shots you can! I’ll go along the road! Ivan, keep moving and do not decrease your speed below 20 km/h! We can’t afford to stop yet!”
His subordinates spread out, forming the jaws of Noel’s expertly commanded attack.
Noel drove in as the tongue. He immediately got a taste of the enemy position.
One gun, six tanks, maybe a hundred men with machine guns and grenades and anti-tank rifles, spread out across the kilometer of wood without a thought as to their own flanks. His eyes scanned across the enemy and took in their positions like reading faces in a crowd.
Not a single position ahead seemed to be looking out for its rear.
Even a single tank could do a lot of damage to such a nearsighted formation.
As soon as he cleared the treeline, Noel loaded his despicable canister shot and flung a round forward while Ivan kept the tank continuously moving. The 37mm fragmentation shell landed atop a camouflage tent a hundred meters away, held up by poles and covered in brush, strung up between a pair of trees. At once the canister violently erupted into hundreds of individual bits of metal shrapnel that shredded the net and eviscerated the men crouching around the net’s contents — a 122mm howitzer, pointed down the road.
Though the gun itself was mostly undamaged it was instantly unmanned.
Several hundred meters ahead he sighted the Ayvartan tanks, Goblins as usual, taking pot shots at the gully and moving in reverse, trying to build distance to counter the difference in elevation. They were divided into three echelons, interleaved such that they could shoot past each other. It would have been a good formation — for anti-tank guns.
At the loss of the howitzer the tanks were alerted to Noel’s presence.
Judging by their movements, two of the closest tanks, maybe two hundred meters ahead, seemed to have been given the immediate task of stopping him. They turned to meet him.
Switching his viewpoint quickly between periscope and gun sight, Noel gave his orders.
“Ivan, make for that rock up ahead and stop behind it! Then move on my signal!”
Soon as they spotted him the Goblins engaged, muzzles flashing and tracers burning. These initial shots flew well past him as he swept onto the road and off it at full speed. The M5A2 stormed through their gunfire and out of their sight. Ivan hid the tank quite snugly behind a large boulder just off the dirt road. Dolph and Bartosz swung around the outside, both of them avoiding fire from the tanks closest to the gully down the road. Noel was fortunate enough to be able to look over the rock with his periscope.
Both of the Goblin tanks opened fire on the rock formation, smashing its face with their explosive AP-HE shells, the Ayvartan’s preferred type, and kicking up a cloud of smoke.
They did nothing to the rock — it was two meters thick and nearly three across.
Suddenly the tanks split up, each Goblin charging down its own side of the road.
Through the smoke he saw the silhouettes of the tanks, intending to sweep his flanks.
He smacked a loud kiss with his fingers on the radio — Ivan’s signal for the maneuver.
Like a boxer avoiding a knockout blow, the M5A2 backed suddenly out from behind the rock and swept down the road in reverse, suddenly facing the tanks coming around the sides of the rock formation. As Ivan retreated Noel sighted and fired, and put a round through the front of the first Goblin as it emerged from around the rock. Such a shot was certain to kill the driver inside. Noel loaded and fired a quick second shot into the turret.
Two neat holes, almost perfectly aligned on the hull and gun mantlet; one could probably superimpose a picture of the Goblin’s layout and find the driver and gunner exactingly killed.
Soon as the second Goblin swept around to clear the rock it turned its turret on them and opened fire, but the 45mm shell hit air as the M5A2 swerved sharply to the left and hooked around a tree. Noel felt a thrill as the tank swerved — Ivan was a genius with the sticks! But the Goblin was not letting up. Its next shot came very quickly. A sharp-tipped shell tore suddenly toward the M5A2, snapping through the tree trunk and striking armor.
It plinked right off the side plate, having lost nearly all its momentum within the tree.
Responding in kind, Noel engaged the turret drive, swinging his gun around the tree and shooting as if in one single motion. He punched right through the flat hull front of the Goblin with a rigid, capped armor-piercing shell. There was no explosion inside the tank from Noel’s shot, but the cone of metal from the point of penetration would kill the driver and hurt the gunner, who were packed close together in the cramped interior of a Goblin tank.
To make certain he loaded and fired a second shot from his ready basket.
Noel’s armor piercing shell soared through the exact same hole as the first.
There was a burst of fire from the back of the Goblin as the engine ignited.
In a moment he had taken out both tanks. There was no more movement from them.
“Ivan, move forward behind a tree, we’re about to be almost done here!”
In the next moment the remainder of the attack came to its predicted conclusion.
Down the road two more tanks went down within moments as Dolph and Bartosz penetrated the wood from opposing sides, firing their guns on the move in close quarters.
Across the right flank of the wood the tanks creeping along the gully had managed to close to the first echelon of the enemy, and they started to open fire with their cannons and machine guns almost as soon as Dolph and Bartosz entered the wood. Ahead the Ayvartan infantry was pinned under tremendous gunfire, while their remaining tanks were quickly detracked and destroyed from the seemingly omnidirectional barrage.
With the withering of resistance the Panzergrenadiers gained courage, and Noel saw their Squire half-tracks, norgler machine guns blazing, moving up the dirt road.
In an instant the seemingly formidable position dug into the patch of wood was wiped out.
With all their heavy firepower lost, the remaining Ayvartan troops, bewildered, surrendered themselves to the Panzergrenadiers. Those who fled did not get far under fire.
Panzergrenadiers disarmed the captives and bound them like farm animals, arms to legs and behind their back, and some even to the trees and the rocks, their bonds nailed in place with bolts, and left them for the next echelon to catch and take back behind the lines.
Many of them looked defiant still. A few struggled a little against the bonds. Others protested continuously in their language which nobody could quite understand.
Once the area was cleared, the softer vehicles crossed the path and started out of the little wood. Having sent word previously, Colonel Spoor dismounted his half-track and met with Noel, who had his flower umbrella to cover him from the rain. He stretched out a hand.
Noel delicately shook the fingers of his glove with the tips of his own fingers.
Spoor smiled. He was an older man, sparsely-haired, sharp-featured, like a bird. When calm he was like a resting owl; when angry he was probably a diving hawk. Noel knew his gentlemanly demeanor from their sparse interactions before — but hearing his agitated voice today, Noel thought he knew an entirely different side of him now.
He didn’t begrudge him this. If he did begrudge it he would just hate everybody.
“I must admit at first I did not think you looked like much of a tanker.” Spoor said.
Noel smiled and waved with a flamboyantly limp wrist. “Everyone says that.”
Nobody did, not openly, but Noel knew. Subtext did not slip past him easily.
“I’m a true believer now, Captain Skoniec. That was excellent maneuvering.”
Noel knew men’s voices; from the sour to the adoring. He had heard them all in their possible tones. So he felt a touch of warmth in his heart, because though Spoor had a serious, implacable demeanor to his face, his voice now betrayed his admiration.
A more cynical part of him reminded him that one could easily abuse and discard something one admired. He had experience with that too. Still, it was rewarding.
“You can thank my driver for the maneuvering. Now, the shooting, that was all me.”
Noel pointed proudly to the holes in the husks of the Goblin tanks along the road.
“Most excellent shooting as well, of course.” Spoor said. “Captain, you have opened the way for us. Next stop is the town of Benghu. I’d be honored to lead the way alongside you.”
“Oh ho ho!” Noel laughed. “I love this old cavalry pageantry. Sure, let us ride then.”
In the back of his mind Noel still wondered whether he was truly honored with the Colonel’s right-hand, or whether he was meant to stand in the way of a bullet targeting it.
That was usually how things went with Lachy folk found worthy of Nochtish wings.
And it was not something that voices and tones could fully communicate to him.
Spoor returned to his radio half-track, and Noel followed at his side, cruising down the road at a leisurely 40 km/h. Following behind him were ten tanks from the Leichte, the remainder looking for a place to extricate themselves from the gully; farther back were five more half-tracks and sixty men between them. Dolph and Bartosz covered the rear.
Perhaps inauspiciously, they had found their hole in the line. Benghu lay ahead.
Residual adrenaline coursed through his body. Noel felt a brimming in his hands. His fingers tapped on the electric trigger almost by themselves, play-acting gun shots.
He wondered how his most excellent subordinate must have been feeling.
This would be their first major tank operation. Tukino had been an interesting fluke.
“Ivan, how are you feeling?” Noel asked.
“I’m shivering, Captain.” Ivan said.
Noel smiled brightly to himself. “Cold, or fear?”
Ivan stammered. “Both, but don’t worry, I’ll be fine Noel.”
“You know I trust all the driving to you.” Noel reassured him.
“And I trust my life back, my Captain.” Ivan sweetly said.
Now that was the very rare kind of voice that Noel loved to hear from a man.
53-AG-30 Dbagbo — Chanda General School
In the middle of a shrapnel extraction procedure a pair of men showed up at the door.
“Elena, take over, you know what to do.” Dr. Agrawal said.
She pulled down her mask and stepped out of the office in which they had several men awaiting shrapnel extractions. Elena took over the tools, and Leander looked up, his eyes following the doctor out of the room, but when Elena asked him for tools with the same authoritative voice as the doctor he segued right back into his role without trouble.
Outside, Dr. Agrawal met with two men, their green capes dripping water onto the floor.
“Ma’am, we’re sorry to bother you, but since your rank reinstatement–”
Dr. Agrawal felt a sharp jab in her chest and an unwanted thrill in her stomach at the thought of being regarded again as Captain Agrawal. She had left all that well behind.
“I’m the commanding officer. I know. But this is a medical and supply installation.”
“I’m afraid it is also in danger, ma’am,” said the second man, speaking up.
“Report.” She said to them. She curled one arm under her breasts and raised fingers to her chin while they spoke. Her hands were visibly stirring without her consent.
“Benghu received word that Nochtish units broke away from the southern attack and bypassed our defenses. Our scouting unit was sent out to spot the Nochtish units, and we found enemy forces moving toward Benghu. We continued to track the enemy’s movements and found a mechanized company bypassing the defenses at Benghu. We asked for no more ambulances from the front to be sent here because of the intrusion. Shebelle is being outflanked, and Benghu has no mobile forces to counter. We’re exposed.”
“They are headed here to cut the railroad and capture our supplies.” Dr. Agrawal said.
“Yes ma’am. We’ve been tasked with helping you defend the area, but there are only eight soldiers and three tanks in our recon squadron. We don’t know what to do.”
Dr. Agrawal raised her hands to cover her face. This position felt all too familiar.
“I’m afraid we only have five or six soldiers to spare here.” Dr. Agrawal said.
“Is that counting you and the medics here ma’am?” asked one of the soldiers.
“No. But you’re right. That brings it up more.” She bitterly conceded to them.
She felt her heartbeat grow faster. She started to pace around in front of the men. Her head hurt and she started getting all kinds of dire ideas and sights intruding in her mind. For a doctor, Panchali Agrawal’s life seemed a constant struggle not to do harm.
“I’m going to need a rifle, I suppose.” She said, almost to herself; to her past self.
Next chapter in Unternehmen Solstice — The Benghu Tank War II