08 Dec RESIST & SURVIVE
The sleek, silver machine cut silently through the clear blue sky, skimming the treetops graceful as a swallow. It banked hard right and was gone as quickly as it came, leaving the skies for the birds to fill with their warnings.
A collective sigh of relief rose up from the crew inside the tank. Franz stepped back from the barn door as radioman Blum poked his head out of the hatch, his eyes searching for a glimpse of the craft through the slats of the barn’s dilapidated roof.
The enemy drones were a scourge on the UN’s tank forces. Appearing without warning, their gauss guns could open up plate armor like shrapnel tearing through flesh. It had taken the UN weeks to learn their behaviour. The drones would sweep one area and move on to the next. Covering 12 square miles at a time, working north to south. Once a drone had left an area, you’d be free to move undetected for a full 45 minutes before the next drone occupied the airspace. Through careful planning and constant radio contact with command, the UN’s units could stay one step ahead of the drones. As long as they kept moving.
The Panther sat motionless inside the barn, sleek and imposing. Sloped armor 80mm thick, a powerful Maybach engine capable of speeds over 50 km/h, and, of course, the pièce de résistance; a 7.5cm cannon. Franz patted the side of the tank, nicknamed Hannelore after a previous gunner’s girlfriend, with obvious affection. No man who’d seen the French and Russian Fronts could fail to have anything but the utmost respect for her.
“We better move before it comes back,” he said, clambering up onto the side of the tank.
“Worse than the Jabos,” muttered Thomsen. The gunner was the only surviving member of his tank crew after the war. Caught on a road in Normandy, Typhoon fighter-bombers had hammered them with rockets and strafing runs until nothing was left of his entire platoon save himself. He carried a hatred for fighter planes like it was a badge of honor.
The radio crackled into life, “Bravo Papa One, this is Bravo Charlie, over.” Blum sat back in his seat and slipped his headset on.
“Bravo Papa One reporting, over.” Blum wrote down the message and turned to his commander. “We’re to move to Echo Romeo Victor Two, Unterfeldwebel.”
Franz rummaged for his map. “That’s seven kilometers from here,” he said, speaking to the driver. “Get us back on the road, Willi, then head south. And keep your speed up!”
He took a second bearing before refolding the map. “Also, los gehts.”
Smoke belched from the exhaust as the tank growled into life. “I hope they’re ready,” Franz grumbled. Those coordinates led to frontline command. There was a battle coming, and soon. He stood high in the turret and kept his eyes on the road as Hannelore threaded her way back onto the road. It paid to have a good view of the roads these days – you never knew what might be coming the other way…
Seven kilometers down the road, a lone figure in US combat fatigues stepped out from the undergrowth in front of them, one hand cradling a rifle, the other raised in front.
“Halt!” Franz barked the command and the Panther juddered to a stop. The infantryman slung his rifle over his shoulder and clambered up onto the hull.
“Morning, Fritz,” he said, tight lipped.
“Guten Morgen,” Franz replied.
“You speak English?”
“A little,” he held up his hand to stop the American before he could go on. “Slowly, please.”
The soldier smiled. “Better than my German,” he offered. He was filthy, his uniform stained and blackened, face and hands grubby with dirt, but his eyes were keen. His M1 Garand looked worn and he’d decorated himself liberally with foliage to stay hidden inside the tree line. “Well, never thought I’d be happy to see one of these babies rolling up the road,” he said, patting the Panther’s cannon.
He turned to look back at where he’d come from, put his fingers to his mouth and issued a short, shrill whistle. The bushes came to life, transformed into a squad of heavily armed, camouflaged troops looking pleased as punch with themselves. The guard smiled at Franz. “The rest of the battalion’s about a half a mile up that way,” he said, jerking his thumb down the road behind him. “Best head on up. Don’t reckon there’ll be much else coming down this road after you but Toasters.”
“But you’re staying here?”
“Shoot and scoot, that’s our orders. Once their heavy armor gets here, we’re ghosts. Sparky’s tin pots don’t like to fight inside the forests, those shiny skins of theirs make easy targets.”
The American hopped off the tank and waved them on, dissolving back into the undergrowth behind them.
The main body of the battlegroup lay in wait for the tank crew just as the guard had said. Foxholes and dugouts littered the ground beside the road. Infantrymen, tired and dirty, sat waiting in twos and threes, guns at the ready. A pair of Sherman Easy Eights and a solitary SdKfz 234/2 represented the armored element, all three crudely daubed with UN insignia.
The infantry was made up of a similar mix. US Army fatigues mingled with British and German helmets. Three French marines shared a dugout, armed with Browning’s and a Darne. Two Brits in berets smoked nervously in their foxhole, their free hands hanging off the mounted Bren and MG42 respectively. Gone were the days when weapons were solely the property of their respective armies. The UN forces shared everything by necessity.
A beleaguered corporal supervised the distribution of Panzerfausts, shoving them into any spare hands he could find. The men looked exhausted. The retreat had been a disaster since the Elbe. Isolated local victories that quickly turned into routs once the Watchers turned their full force on each pocket of resistance. They were putting up a good fight but it was inexorable.
Franz dismounted, hopping down from Hannelore’s flank into the mud. A harassed looking lieutenant surveyed the German tank with bleary eyes. “The commander’s over there,” he gestured. A cluster of uniformed figures gathered around the bonnet of a US jeep. “Move along, I’ll see you get resupplied. Any of your crew speak English?”
“Some,” said Franz. The lieutenant groaned.
“We’ll figure it out. Fritz? Let’s be about it!” he yelled, banging on the tank’s hull as the rest of the crew emerged.
Crossing the makeshift compound, Franz’s eyes caught sight of three Einzelkämpfer badges on the arm of a German commando, stooping to light his cigarette off the flame of a candle. He raised himself to his full height as he inhaled and turned to spy Franz watching him. A look of recognition flashed across his face and he smiled slightly and nodded once, blowing the smoke out through his nose.
Fleischmann? Thought Franz. That arsch? If he is here, then you can bet his unit is here as well. The renowned tank buster was a rogue and a scoundrel, known as much for his antics in the bars and brothels of the front line as his prowess on the battlefield. And his unit was no better. Eisenhardt had once had cause to report him for drunken insubordination to high command – it was only his record as a tank destroyer that had kept him out of trouble. But a fight like this one required men like Fleischmann to be right up there with you.
Franz reached the jeep and the group looked up. He saluted sharply, “Unterfeldwebel Franz Eisenhardt reporting for duty, sir.”
It was returned casually by the senior officer, his hair grey flecked, his right hand clutching a pipe. “At ease, sergeant,” he said, waving his pipe nonchalantly, his accent slow and nasal, a Brit with the air of public school superiority. “Major Grant,” he said by way of introduction. “My colleagues Lieutenant Marsh and Sergeant Harrison.
“What shape is your tank in?”
Franz shrugged. “We are low on fuel, Herr Major, but she’s battle ready. Mostly, we have been dodging their aircraft.”
The others nodded sympathetically. At least you could stand and fight the alien ground units. The major coughed and pointed to two battered looking vehicles with the tip of his pipe. “We’ve got one of your Flakpanzers and a junker with us. Someone welded a 40 mil Bofors onto a Panther chassis so, God willing, it’ll work alright. You have much tank experience?”
“France, Ukraine, the Caucasus, Nord Afrika, Normandy. I finished the war in Italy,” the names rolled off his tongue automatically.
“I was in Italy…” Marsh murmured, his eyes narrowing.
“Well we’re all on the same side now,” Grant said bluntly, giving his tank commander a disapproving look. “And I’m grateful we’ve got your Panzer in our ranks, sergeant.”
He moved round to give Franz space to join them over their battle plans and began to detail their defensive strategy. “We have a couple of surprises for Sparky…”
The alien column made for an impressive sight. A dozen APCs and light vehicles shepherded by eight tanks of varying tonnage. Smaller than their human counterparts, they were no less imposing. Shafts of light shone through the canopy, glinting off their sleek, steel bodies adding an extra layer of otherworldliness and menace. They moved with the slow and steady precision of automatons, a robotic calmness and control devoid of emotion.
“Predictable,” Franz muttered to himself. “They always use the damn roads.” Efficiency was a Sparky’s trait even to the detriment of tactics, as if they considered their enemies little more than bugs to squash.
The three UN tanks sat back along a low ridge that overlooked the road. Franz and his fellow tank commanders were on foot, lying in the dirt to survey the enemy. He knew the infantry were all around him, but dug in and camouflaged they were impossible to spot.
In the center of the column below him were two Thors, monstrous machines capable of beating a Tiger with ease. There was little need for tactics with behemoths like these in your ranks. Up front, a squad of Threshers on point. They were small but he’d seen their railguns blast through a Panzer the long way and these six-wheeled scouts were lightning quick.
“Just a little closer…”
The mines went off all along the column. The infantry had laid explosive traps all along the road, and they went off in tandem. The lead Thresher disintegrated under the destructive power; there was nothing left but scrap metal. Its partner was thrown onto its side by the blast, wheels spinning futilely.
Another plume of black smoke rose from the rear of the column but the majority of the alien force was untouched – scarred and pockmarked maybe, but still perfectly capable of fighting. A ripple of small arms fire peppered the Watchers from inside the tree line, the flash of bazookas and Panzerschrecks announcing rocket fire. Fleischmann’s unit broke cover, charging the enemy tanks silently, armed with crudely made improvised explosives. Fleischmann reached the column of enemy tanks first, and attached his bomb just under the turret, sprinting for cover as soon as he was done.
The Sparky infantry took out two of his allies before they could reach their targets but the explosive force of Fleischmann’s self made device ripped the tank’s turret clean off and sent it spinning into the Sparky foot soldiers. The last of the commandos fixed his bomb to an enemy tank and hurled himself back towards the tree line as the tank turned its turret and fired on him, leaving no trace of the man save one ragged, torn boot.
The lead Thor skittered off the road, its main weapon tracking the enemy fire. It discharged with a blinding flash, silencing the guns of the men it fired on, small arms’ fire pinging uselessly off its armor. In front and behind, enemy infantry threw themselves into the fight, right into the teeth of the infantry fire. An enemy robot fired a single shot from its gauss rifle before being torn apart by a rocket.
Franz ran back and scrambled onto his tank, “Forward!”
The Panther and Shermans rolled up the slope in unison, halting on the lip of the ridge.
“Gunner, left five degrees… Feuer!” Hannelore shook with the recoil as Franz strained to see. “Good hit, gunner!” The light tank was aflame, shrouded in noxious black smoke. One of the Shermans had crippled an enemy tank too but the second had only winged a Thor. “Driver, reverse!”
The trio conformed to the move but Marsh’s tank came under fire. A railgun struck just beneath the turret, blasting it clean off.
“Christ!” the radio crackled. “Move to position two, Bravo Papa One… Let’s get even.”
They’d excavated firing pits along the ridgeline to enable them to go hull down in a bid to mitigate the Watchers’ firepower. Two bloodied infantrymen came running over the ridge and dived into the tank pit, their eyes widening in horror as the UN tanks bore down on them, rolling out of the way in the nick of time.
Franz’s heart was in his mouth as the Panther halted. The turret swung round to bear down on another alien tank, the gunner waiting until the barrel had steadied.
“Feuer!” Franz didn’t bother waiting this time to see the results, ordering his crew back the moment the shell had left the barrel.
An infantryman climbed up onto the hull. “They’re coming up the ridge!” he roared, his voice ragged over the cacophony of battle. A scout tank and APC chased a section of infantry, machinegun fire ruthlessly cutting down the stragglers.
“Traverse turret left!” Franz demanded, the aliens fired just as they did.
The Panther rocked under the impact of enemy shells.
“Herr Unterfeldwebel! The tracks – they won’t move!” called his driver.
Franz snarled, “Aim for the APC!” of all the things to finish us off. Gunner Thomsen followed orders, the APC turning to accelerate towards them. “Feuer!”
Franz was first out of the tank, smoke clogging his lungs. He hit the ground hard, lying prone in the grass as machine gun tracers cut the air above him, gripping his Walther with white knuckled hands. Sparky infantry moved between the burning hulks, firing freely into the fleeing UN forces.
“Fritz! Over here!”
Franz could see no one, but the characteristic English voice came from the tree line and then a head popped up from the brush. Franz ran for it, bent double under a hail of fire. He couldn’t tell which of his crewmen had survived, but he could hear someone coughing behind and sensed they were following. Throwing himself to the dirt, he crawled the last ten yards, strong hands pulling him into cover.
Mission accomplished. They had slowed down the Watchers’ progress for a few hours and bought mankind a little more time. If the rumor mill was to be believed, the UN was preparing a major counter offensive north of Munich. Eisenhardt would need a new tank before then.