Chapter 1: Panzerlied
Reinhardt had awaited this moment for a long time, indeed.
It had been a while since his last great battle in 1914, and even when the campaigns of Poland, the Low Countries and France were well-fought by his foes with honor, those encounters did not match the life he had come to know in the previous war. Not to say he reveled in war like the younger officers he met, no, he regarded war as a necessary means to an end. Like many Germans his age, fighting for the Kaiser was a duty to be upheld, and he saw his service now as an extension of that. Nothing more and nothing less than repaying the kindness Germany had bestowed upon him, no matter who was leading it.
In a way, Reinhardt missed his steed, a fine German horse by the name of Gabriel. His horse had served him well in the First World War, and for a time he feared both he and his horse would be deemed obsolete, especially as the Allies imposed the harsh, restrictive measures of Versailles on Germany. How could a proud nation such as Germany hope to exist if its army were so limited? His fears were ultimately unfounded as Reinhardt found his commission reactivated, sent to the fledgling Panzerwaffe in 1936. Ultimately, the new tanks were not so different from the horses he had loved in the past, Reinhardt reasoned.
Reminiscing about the past had almost made Reinhardt forget about the train ride, rolling peacefully across Poland to head to the front. He had not received much news about his orders beyond the most basics of them – he was to take command of a newly-formed Panzerregiment, itself subordinate to a new Panzer-Division, and then doubly subordinate to the 6th Army. The train began to slow down, arriving at the Lublin station. On the platform, he could see a young German soldier holding a sign with his name on it, no doubt his staff car driver.
Once the train stopped completely, Reinhardt rose from his seat and walked to the exit, stepping onto the platform of the station. In that moment, a group of railway workers approached him, offering to carry his luggage for him. He gave a silent nod in response and allowed them to do so. He looked back up, his sight catching the man with the sign, looking expectantly at him. Reinhardt approached the man, the workers already setting off with his luggage. The man smiled, taking the sign into one hand and extending a free one, offering a handshake.
“Welcome to Poland, Herr Oberst,” he said diligently. “Wachmeister Klaus Althaus, at your service.”
The man's field-gray uniform was immaculate, as it should be befitting a German soldier. His shoulder boards, showing his rank, were lined with light blue piping, showing his place in the Army's transport corps. If Reinhardt was inclined to listen to the Führer's propaganda, he'd call this man a model of Germany – blond-haired, glistening blue eyes, and perfectly clean-shaven. He led Reinhardt to a waiting car, a beautiful black Mercedes. Reinhardt struggled to get inside, trying to stuff himself in while avoiding scuffing his boots on the brown leader at the same time. Before long, the car began moving as Althaus began driving to the front.
“A fine young man like you should be out fighting,” Reinhardt commented, settling in for the journey.
“Ah, I can only wish, Herr Oberst,” Althaus replied, smiling as he adjusted the rear-view mirror. “I think my service is driving men like yourself to the front.”
“Hmm,” Reinhardt said, looking out the window as they began to pull away from the station. Poland was rather lovely this time of year. “Still. You're young, fit – why would the Army reject a man like yourself?”
“I believe the review board said I had some kind of heart trouble? I don't know. I'm doing my duty, Herr Oberst.”
“As we all must, of course,” Reinhardt said. After a moment, he looked back, smiling at his driver. “Maybe I could pull a few strings, find you a combat post? Would you like that, Watchmaster Althaus?”
The young man smiled back, laughing. His laugh was infectious, if one wasn't careful. He nodded, barely taking his eyes off the road for even a second. “That would be very kind of you, Herr Oberst. I would gladly take the chance to serve Germany in this great war.”
Reinhardt nodded back, but he could feel his smile fading as Althaus mentioned a “great war”. This war was not great. That title belonged solely to the one begun in 1914. No, this war had not done anything to deserve the moniker of “great”, not yet.
“Ah, this is no 'great war', Driver. How old are you, may I ask?”
“Just turned twenty-two, sir.”
“Haha! Truly, a new Landser!” Reinhardt said, his smile coming back in force. “You were just a small lad when the real Great War was on! Did they tell you anything about me, Driver?”
Althaus shook his head, keeping a steady course through the woods. “No, Herr Oberst. I just drive the car.”
“When the Great War was upon us,” Reinhard began, full of enthusiam. “I had a beautiful black horse, his name was Gabriel, and he served me well! They said the age of cavalry was dead, but I proved them wrong! Gabriel and I charged many a Frenchman, and together, we found glorious victory in combat. That was a true war, an honorable war!”
“My father said the tanks of today are like the horses of old, Herr Oberst – do you agree with that? Or are you still an old soldier at heart?”
“I must find your father and shake his hand! I could not have said it better myself! Ah, how proud he must be, to have a fine young man like yourself in the Army! Do you have any brothers doing their service?”
Althaus nodded. “As a matter of fact, Herr Oberst, my brother is in France right now, part of the Feldgendarmerie. I have a sister in the German Red Cross, I think she'll be helping out over here soon.”
Reinhardt nodded. “Your father must be very proud to have such faithful young Germans so ready to help the country.”
His driver fell quiet, refocusing on his task of navigating their little car through the countryside to the front. They arrived at the army camp not long after. Already Reinhardt could see Germany's newest tanks, glistening in the sun as the crews worked on them. New Panzer IV and Panzer IIIs alike mixed together to form the new regiment. He could see the newest variant of the Panzer IV – what was it called? The E? Either way, the new models and the old mixed together, and slowly, the car rolled to a stop outside the regimental headquarters. An orderly unpacked his bags from the car, taking them to his room, while another showed Reinhardt to his office. A visit from the divisional commander was coming soon.
Reinhardt breathed a sigh of relief as he looked upon his new office. Yes, this was a wonderful place to conduct the new war from. The desk he had was pure oak, with beautifully crafted handles for the drawers and a compartment for a map. Yes, this was the sort of thing Reinhardt was used to. The sole window in his office afforded him a great view of the motor pool, where a group of German men worked on a Panzer IV, maintaining the engine and adjusting the track tension. He could tell right away these were men who knew what they were doing, and Reinhardt would love the chance to work alongside them.
A knock came at the door. Through it stepped a man clad in a familiar general officer's uniform, with long black jackboots and familiar cavalryman's trousers, a wide red stripe coming up the flares. He took off his peaked cap as he entered, tucking it under his arm and smiling, extending his free hand to Reinhardt. “Colonel Wilhelm,” he said. “Major General Roger von Stoffenberger. It is truly an honor to have an officer with your experience on board.”
Reinhardt immediately noticed this man was younger than he – at least ten years his junior, if not more. Well, that's the issue when your commission has to be reinstated between the wars like Reinhardt's was. Reinhardt returned the hearty handshake, smiling back. “It is a pleasure to be here, Herr Generalmajor.”
“Bah,” von Stoffenberger said, waving a gloved hand. “Please, no need for such formality. von Stoffenberger is fine. We are all in this together for the sake of the Reich.”
“Mhm. I understand we have a monumental task ahead of us?”
“Yes,” von Stoffenberger said. “Fall Barbarossa is one of our greatest challenges yet. France and Poland were mere cakewalks. This… this will be a campaign to truly test all of our capabilities as German officers.”
“Well, it does no good to discuss if we have no maps, Herr Generalmajor! Where are my maps?”
“They will be in your office by tomorrow,” he said. “But first, I wish for you to meet a few people.”
On cue, three people entered his office. Two he recognized immediately – Torbjörn Lindholm and his daughter, Brigitte – but the third was new to him. She was the model of a German woman, tall, fair white skin, with blonde hair kept neatly together, seemingly prepared for anything.
“Colonel Wilhelm, I would like you to meet - “
“Torbjörn!” Reinhardt shouted, grinning wide and stepping over to shake his old friend's hand. “What are you doing here? And your daughter, Brigitte, too? What a pleasant surprise!”
“Ah, already acquainted, I see,” von Stoffenberg noted. “Well, Mr. Lindholm and his lovely daughter are accompanying us as expert mechanics, overseeing the maintenance of some of our newer armored units. Their expertise has helped Germany create many a new tank – their work here will ensure our tanks should never break down.”
“Reinhardt, it's good to see you too,” Torbjörn said, ignoring the general. “Guess they still have use for us old hares, huh?”
“I'm honored to be here with you and my father, Reinhardt,” Brigitte said, barely containing her excitement to be on front-line operations. How could Reinhardt blame her? There was so much to learn, much glory to be found.
“If I may,” von Stoffenberg chimed in. “I would like to introduce you, Colonel Wilhelm, to your Regimentsartz, Doctor Angela Ziegler. She's a very accomplished doctor, and I believe in your service, her skills will only grow as part of Germany's medical corps.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Colonel,” Dr. Ziegler said, nodding in respect. “I hope I can be of use to you in the upcoming campaign.”
Reinhardt took her hand, lightly shaking it. “The pleasure is all mine, Dr. Ziegler. I am more than happy to have you in my regiment!”
“Colonel,” von Stoffenberger said, cutting in and on his way out. “Please, take some time to get acquainted – or, I suppose in the case of the Lindholms, reacquainted – with your staff, and set about a plan of action for your regiment. When you're done, please stop by my office.”
“Of course, Herr Generalmajor,” Reinhardt replied, nodding sharply.
The general officer left, leaving Reinhardt in his office with old friends, and a new one. The business with the major general could wait until later – now it was time to commiserate with old friends and gauge how this new arrival would fare in military life. Reinhardt called upon a young soldier who had been assigned as his aide – a Leutnant Ackermann – to bring them coffee and tea. Torbjörn and Brigitte settled on the few chairs nearby, while Dr. Ziegler kept to herself, taking a seat farther away. Befitting his status, Reinhardt sat in his desk chair, a massive leather piece, no doubt custom made in a fine German workshop somewhere from the north.
“Torbjörn, my friend, how has life been for you? I haven't seen you since 1922!”
“Eh, right,” he muttered, cradling a cup of tea in his good hand, the cup balancing on his prosthetic, a simple claw. “Well, losing the ol' arm hasn't made anything easier. Damn thing's loose all the time, can't fix it.”
“Only because you won't let me touch it, Dad,” Brigitte chimed in. “He's so stubborn, Reinhardt, really.”
Dr. Ziegler cleared her throat, bringing attention to her. “Uh, if I may – Mr. Lindholm, that's a very old model of prosthetic you have. If you don't mind me asking, when did you lose your arm?”
Torbjörn regarded the prosthetic almost like it had always been a part of him, without any glint of true curiosity in his eyes any longer. “Eh, wasn't it at Flanders, Reinhardt? The first or second time?”
Reinhardt laughed loudly, recalling exactly what Torbjörn was talking about. “You old fool, it was the third battle of Flanders! I remember it like it was yesterday, we had just been subjected to a two-day long artillery barrage from the British, and you walk out of the trench and call it all-clear right as the last British shell falls! We all thought you were dead!”
“That's… quite the story,” Dr. Ziegler admitted, her eyes nervously shifting to Torbjörn to gauge his response. She must have feared he would take Reinhardt's relaying of the tale poorly.
But, instead, Torbjörn laughed heartily, visibly holding himself from slapping his knee and spilling tea everywhere. “You need to stop telling these ridiculous stories, Reinhardt. No one believes they're real!”
“Ridiculous stories?!” Reinhardt asked, incredulous. “My tales of adventure and glory are all true!”
“Eh, even so,” Torbjörn said, taking a sip of tea. “You put some strange ideas in my daughter's head!”
“Dad, really, I'm here because I want to be. You told me yourself, no good sitting around an idle workshop.”
Torbjörn grumbled, stewing in his chair. “I guess you're right. Still don't like it. Battlefield's no place for one of my girls.”
“Ah, but surely working alongside her father is, right?” Reinhardt said, grinning. Even Torbjörn could not disagree with that, as much as he loved to play contrarian. Already, he could see the gears turning in Torbjörn's head, trying to find a way to rationalize his disagreement. Finding none, Torbjörn muttered something in Swedish, causing Brigitte to lightly smack his arm.
Dr. Ziegler cleared her throat again, handing Reinhardt a piece of folded paper. “Colonel, I have taken the initiative and already created a plan of medical action for this campaign. I'm unsure of how you plan to have the men conduct morning exercises, but I have recommended exercises listed in this document alongside a small treatise concerning common illnesses for the regiment's medics. I hope you can see to it that it is distributed among them.”
Reinhardt unfolded the paper, skimming over it more than actually reviewing it. He would have to study this in more detail later before approving the document, or even her plan. For now, he tucked it away on a corner of his desk, to be read another time.
Eventually, Torbjörn and Brigitte grew tired of reminiscing about the past and looking forward to the future, and thus they retired to their quarters. Therefore, only Reinhardt and Dr. Ziegler remained in the room. Which, in turn, left only one question on his mind.
“Dr. Ziegler,” he began, readjusting himself in his chair and gesturing for her to take one closer to him. “If you don't mind me asking, you are not a soldier. Why are you here, exactly?”
She smiled, nodding. She must have known this was going to come up. “Well, your very own Major General von Stoffenberg asked me to this post. I understand this is typically one occupied by a military officer, but I suppose he was impressed with my medical skills.”
“Mmm,” Reinhardt said. “And what skills would those be?”
Dr. Ziegler brushed away a rogue lock of hair, nodding sharply. “Not to brag, of course, but I was head of the Frauenfeld General Hospital. Aside from my medical degree, I am also a Master of Surgery, both from the University of Zurich.”
“Your parents must be proud, then! I assume you immigrated to Germany at some point, yes?”
Her face fell, and immediately Reinhardt could tell he had waded into a touchy subject. “Um, yes,” she said hesitantly. “I hope my parents are proud of me. They were killed in 1915. I moved to Germany in 1929, to join the board of directors at the Baden hospital.”
“My apologies,” Reinhardt said, genuinely remorseful. “I did not know.”
“No, Colonel,” Dr. Ziegler said, standing up. “It's alright. You couldn't have.” She took a deep breath, and began to walk out, saying she needed to review one of her medical journals. Just as soon as Dr. Ziegler left, Lieutenant Ackermann entered Reinhardt's office cautiously, still unsure of how to approach his new commanding officer.
“Ah, Herr Oberst,” he said, clutching a missive in his hand. “My apologies for intruding on you, sir, but you have a… well, guest.”
Reinhardt nodded, waving the unknown person in. “Well, don't keep them out there waiting, Lieutenant Ackermann. Let them in!”
Ackermann nodded, and exited to allow the new arrival in. Contrary to Reinhardt's expectations of another German, or at least an Italian or Romanian that would have been near the front, a man with tawny skin, highlighted by blue-red undertones, stepped into the room. He was clean-shaven, save for a well-maintained goatee, and a thin beard along his chin. His uniform was decidedly French in heritage, though the gray-green cloth it was woven from was clearly not European in any sense of the word. On his collar was a rectangle on both sides, displaying a yellow base with two thick red stripes, three sewn-on silver stars adorning it. His tall, block boots were immaculate, free of any scuffs or dirt – a fine display of an officer, had he been in a German uniform, but he was most obviously in an Imperial Japanese Army uniform.
“Colonel Reinhardt,” he said as he bowed, his German relatively smooth, if accented. “I am honored to be in your presence. I am Captain Hanzo Shimada, of the Imperial Japanese Army, 13th Infantry Division. I have been sent here by my government to study and learn from the German way of war.”
Reinhardt nodded, rubbing his chin. “Your German is very good, Captain Shimada,” he said. “I… am sorry that I do not speak Japanese, and will have to force you to use a tongue you're unfamiliar with. Are you here as an observer, an exchange with a German officer, or…?”
“Military attache,” Captain Shimada replied. “I must admit, I am rather confused by my posting. I was under the impression I would be following a mechanized unit during my time. Where are the infantry?”
Reinhardt looked at him, confused. Surly he was mistaken? Unless… “Oh, I see the problem,” Reinhardt answered. “Yes, and no, my friend. I command a purely armored regiment. This division's armored infantry are in another regiment, but do not worry. You will see plenty of glory here. Fine German machines, driven by brave German men, we will have no problem in our endeavor.”
Captain Shimada nodded, taking a moment to translate the words in his head, no doubt. “I see,” he finally said, flatly. “Well, I must take leave to my quarters. I thank you for your hospitality, Colonel, and I hope we can work together in the future. I am very eager to learn from you.” He bowed deeply, before leaving the room with a crisp salute which Reinhardt returned.
Reinhardt's headquarters was quickly becoming very colorful.
The day began to pass, and soon enough Reinhardt found himself in Major General von Stoffenberg's office, where he had laid out a map of the front they were to be fighting on. This map showed the dispositions of multiple German armies, right down to his very own 6th Army. As part of this army, Reinhardt's unit would be skirting around the Pripet Marshes. Hardly ideal tank country, but that was what the division's infantry was for. The plan of attack was just like the one Reinhardt had become accustomed to in Poland and France – attack at dawn, and with overwhelming tactical air and armored superiority.
Reinhardt studied the plan, and made sure each officer under his command was well aware of it. In line with his role, Reinhardt ensured he understood the overall plan of the corps as well, in case the Major General was struck down in battle. Two days passed, and soon the codeword from headquarters arrived. They would attack tomorrow.
The early morning air was cool, even if the dark made it difficult to see. Engines were being warmed up – though in this nice summer morning it wasn't like they needed it – and across the motor pool, Reinhardt could hear the men beginning their day. Rather, beginning their war. It was 2:30 AM now. In about half an hour, they would begin the first phases of Operation Barbarossa.
Like he, Torbjörn was up and about, checking on individual tanks and criticizing the lackadaisical manner some crews went about in their daily checklists. He had a list of his own in hand, though how he could mark anything off with his claw was beyond Reinhardt.
“How reports the regiment, Torbjörn?”
“Eh, Bauer's crew needs to adjust their track tension, might throw the thing off at this rate. Tank number 331 has an oil leak, I told the crew to take care of it a week ago, but they need to pull the entire engine out.” Torbjörn winced, shaking his head. “Like that'll ever happen with that Panzer III. Böhme's gunner reported a problem with the traverse lock. Beyond that, all fine, Reinhardt.”
Reinhardt nodded. “Well? Do you think the regiment ready for war?”
“War?” Torbjörn spat in disgust. “Pah! The crews are new, Reinhardt. They may have been trained in Germany, but training and combat are different entirely. I trust Zimmerman's company, he's a good officer – I spotted an Iron Cross and a silver Wound Badge on his chest.”
“All good men must be tested in time. I have faith in this regiment, Torbjörn, you should too.”
Torbjörn nodded. “Well, with you at the helm, I don't imagine much can go wrong.”
Reinhardt nodded, looking out as the sun began to rise, shedding a small amount of light onto the camp. Off in the distance, he could hear artillery firing. It was a sound he was uncomfortably familiar with – but it signaled the beginning of the campaign in Russia. It was time to head to his tank.
His personal tank – marked as R00 denoting its status as the regimental commander's tank – was a newer Panzer IV, painted in the same Panzergrau he had come to love over the years. The time was coming soon to begin the attack. Reinhardt climbed up into his tank, picking his feet up on the track, the roadwheels, and eventually the hull roof. Opening the cupola hatch was relatively easy, being a two-piece hatch and therefore light. He slid easily into his seat inside the tank, though he noted they still hadn't provided enough room for his shoulders. Shame.
His gunner, a sergeant who had not shaved in a day or two, looked up and grinned. “Herr Oberst, glad to see you. Everything is in working order, sir, we're ready to bag some Ivans today.”
“Gentlemen, we are about to embark upon the first hours of a glorious campaign! Keep your heads about you, this is not like Poland or France!”
“Understood, Panzerführer," the sergeant said, nodding and returning to his gunsight. “We've loaded plenty of HE and AP today, should be able to go up against any threat we come across!”
Reinhardt called out the order to begin the attack over the radio, and slowly, the regiment moved into gear, crossing the Soviet border as dawn began to break on June 22nd, 1941.
Chapter 2: The Unstoppable Wehrmacht
Reinhardt and his regiment begin the war against the Russians. A new visitor comes to Reinhardt's HQ.
Reinhardt stood tall in his cupola, looking upon the rolling Belorussian fields in front of him. The scene was peaceful, quiet, not at all the picture of war as he had come to know it in Flanders' fields. Behind him, the sound of hundreds of tanks rolled through the countryside. It was nearly two in the afternoon by now, and if his driver's estimation was correct, they had pushed nearly 200 kilometers into the Soviet Union. Already, he had heard news from the 3rd Panzer Group, where they had bypassed an entire pocket of trapped Russian troops and were pressing on to Vilnius. Right now, Reinhardt's own regiment was just outside a town called Lida, on the way to their newest objective.
So far, this was a rather easy advance. The intelligence community had informed all commanders that the Soviet leadership had been taken completely by surprise by the initial attack, unsure how to respond or react. Overhead, Reinhardt could hear Germany's air force flying out, protecting the tanks and bombing enemy formations and strategic positions.
However, Reinhardt was not inclined to believe this path would always be so easy. If nothing else, the Low Countries had shown him that. Many a Dutch and Belgian partisan had disrupted his supply lines, and even if a few supposedly friendly insurgents had risen up to support the German Army in its fight, he could not help but wonder how many Communist partisans were waiting in the wings for them to pass by.
“Herr Panzerführer,” Sergeant Rohme said, speaking to him through the tank's intercom system. “You really should button up. Ivan's still around, you know.”
“Hah!” Reinhardt shot back. “This is nothing! You should have seen the front in 1915! That was a terrible time to be up on a perch like this!”
“Well, I suppose. No hope of getting you back in the tank unless the shooting starts, huh, sir?”
“Not a chance!”
Rohme had a point – it wasn't safe, poking out from the cupola, displaying himself like a peacock to the enemy. But, while the Panzer IV's cupola provided him with excellent all-around vision – a trait he found sorely lacking in captured French designs he had examined – the vision blocks were no replacement for scanning the horizon with his binoculars. Sometimes, it was just best to see for yourself if that blob in the distance was just a cluster of trees, or an enemy tank waiting to take the first shot.
Reinhardt took up his binoculars, looking ahead of them. So far, it all looked clear. Barely even a cloud in sight. If the weather held up, this would be smooth. Reinhardt preferred smooth, though he knew from experience things were rarely so, especially in war. Eventually, the sounds of engines and tracks mingled together and faded away, becoming white noise in Reinhardt's ears, just another sound of war he recognized as usual.
“Panzerführer,” his radioman reported. “The division's recon has spotted a formation of enemy tanks. Upwards of two companies or more.”
“Excellent!” Reinhardt shouted. “Where is the enemy? We must meet them in open combat!”
The radio operator spent some time talking to the recon commander, and then relayed the position of their foe. A kilometer east, definitely ahead of them. Just where Reinhardt wanted the enemy – right in front. He made the call to advance full speed ahead. At the rate they were going, it would be relatively easy to reach the enemy's last known location. The only concern Reinhardt had was fuel, primarily how much and how far their available tanks could take them.
But, that was a question for after the battle. Right now, he could see their enemy. Like intelligence had reported, there were the smaller interwar tanks they expected, mostly from the late 20's and early 30's. These light tanks seemed to make up the majority of the enemy's formation. Oddly enough, there was a newer model, one that hadn't been identified by German intelligence yet. This was a larger one, probably about the same size as his own Panzer IV, but the armor was sloped. Interesting.
“Sergeant, open fire on that tank!” Reinhardt ordered, returning to the safety of the tank now that Ivan had been spotted in open combat. Soon, similar calls went down to the company commanders, and a careful dance of fire and maneuver began. His tank stopped to open fire, sending a 7.5 cm shell downrange at the enemy tanks. The lighter ones were no match for their firepower, his gunner gleefully counting each destroyed enemy tank. So far, Reinhardt's regiment was making quick work of the enemy's. He could see, even from his cupola, the Russians were using flags to communicate with one another. Sergeant Rohme turned the gun to the newer Russian tank – the first shot on it went out, and both Reinhardt and Sergeant Rohme tracked it.
Both watched it bounce harmlessly off the front plate.
“Panzerführer,” Sergeant Rohme shouted, his voice breaking. “I think we just made it angry! Hans, load faster, goddammit!”
This demanded action. His loader shoved a high-explosive anti-tank round in, calling out that the gun had been reloaded. For now, though, his tank maneuvered around at flanking speed, avoiding the traversing enemy turret that was attempting to track them. The tank lurched to a stop again, pausing so Sergeant Rohme could take aim at the enemy once more. The enemy tank's vulnerable side armor was in front of them now, and without a moment's hesitation Sergeant Rohme fired.
This time, the round went through – this, Reinhardt could tell as immediately the enemy tank stopped moving, and smoke began to appear from the hatches and gun sights. The enemy regimental – or maybe a company commander, it was difficult to tell – had been knocked out of the fight. Losing cohesion fast, the rest of the regiment began to retreat, though it was clearly disorganized. The Russian flag system was lackluster, and it took some time for individual tank commanders to recognize the signal given to them. All of this just gave Reinhardt's regiment more time to press their attack and ensure the Russians would not escape with even a majority of their tanks.
“Panzerführer,” his radio operator said. “The company commanders are asking whether or not to continue pursuit. What are you orders?”
“Tell them to join me in glorious victory! Driver! Get us closer! I want to shoot the enemy commander with my pistol!”
Immediately, his driver kicked the tank into high gear, speeding for the retreating enemy. “Understood, Panzerführer!”
One after the other, Russian tanks ground to a half as fire from Reinhardt's tank and the companies behind him took precision shots, knocking the disorganized retreat into a full-on rout. The only benefit Ivan had – and Reinhardt's only regret – was that fuel and ammo prevented him from continuing the push to destroy the enemy outright. It was time to stop, rearm, and refuel for the next day's operations. Reinhardt would have to wait for his regimental headquarters to catch up in order to fill out a report. Surely, his regiment was not the only to have encountered Ivan on this day, but he reckoned it was the first to so thoroughly decimate him.
A few hours later, the regimental HQ had caught up with the far-reaching advance of the regiment itself, making camp at an abandoned Russian village. Reinhardt had taken over control of a home, once a farmer's simple homestead. The previous occupants had left in a hurry, as evidenced by the plethora of personal items that still lay across the house, like small Orthodox crosses, icons of various saints, and books across the few bookshelves. A small table, sturdily built but clearly rustic, became his new base while he waited for a truck to bring his much more familiar desk. Though, at the rate they were advancing, it was unlikely such a thing would be needed.
Reinhardt was halfway through his after-action report, his every note copied by Captain Shimada, when Torbjörn entered, carrying a report of his own in his hand.
“What did you let those damn Russians do to my babies?!?” he cried, slamming the paper down on the table. “Seven tanks lost! Twenty-four damaged!”
Immediately, Hanzo perked up, looking away from his notes with a confused look on his face. “Colonel, you told me you faced an entire regiment in combat. How did you lose only seven tanks?”
Reinhardt ignored the Captain for a moment, reading over the list of vehicles lost, and the analysis of the damaged ones. Most had lost tracks, or needed relatively minor repairs, such as broken internal parts or a damaged radio antenna. The few tanks that needed more serious repairs, like drive train or engine replacements, were just a mere handful. Hardly anything to be concerned about.
“Torbjörn,” Reinhardt said, “these losses are normal for a regiment, especially against the tanks Ivan brought against us. They brought a new model out, you know.”
“No,” he shot back, still seething in anger. “I didn't. We're fighting with the 17th Army to get spare parts, did you know that? We're going to have ten non-operational tanks if we don't get the proper supply! Four Panzer IIIs, and six of the new Panzer IVs, all written off! Is that acceptable?”
“No, it isn't,” Reinhardt sighed. “You should know this, Torbjörn, this fight isn't like it was in the Great War. Supply here is even harder than it was then, and we even have the benefit of better vehicles this time.”
“Colonel, not to intrude, but - “
“Yes, yes, the tanks that were lost couldn't be repaired. Either they… lost a crewmember, or there was a shot that penetrated the armor and made it unusable. Everything else… that we can fix, right, Torbjörn?”
Torbjörn stewed, still unhappy that he had to fight another army for more supply, especially crucial spare parts needed to keep the regiment going. “I hope you can make an appeal to whoever runs the show over there,” he muttered. “Need more parts. Can't keep the tanks moving without parts.”
Eventually, Brigitte entered, taking her father with her. Apparently, she needed his expertise with the electronics on the Panzer IV. Begrudgingly, Torbjörn left to return to overseeing maintenance and repair, still grumbling on his way out.
Captain Shimada tapped his pencil on the paper he was writing on, putting it down and looking at Reinhardt. “Colonel, I again must reiterate my confusion over my posting. I am not trained as a tanker. I am trained as an infantryman, and must question why I am here. I hate to ask, but did someone in Germany make a mistake?”
Reinhardt paused, before releasing a good belly laugh. It had been a long while since something had made him laugh this hard. “Ah, Captain, you have much to learn about the German Army, I see. In the German Army, we cross-train soldiers to ensure each man knows how to do as many jobs competently! I was a cavalryman in the Great War, but I was a fine artilleryman too!” Chuckling, he added, “and I was also an excellent shot! Rifle marksmanship is always a good skill to have!”
“I see,” Captain Shimada said, his face neutral. “Well, I suppose we can agree on the importance of marksmanship. In the vast distances of the Russian plains, knowing how to properly shoot a rifle is an important skill indeed.”
Reinhardt nodded, agreeing for the time being as he finished the report. Even if his regiment had suffered losses, including more than a few good men and tanks that would take weeks to replace, Reinhardt considered first contact between the USSR and Germany a good fight overall. In just one day they had advanced 250 kilometers, an astonishing pace considered the supposed mass of the Russian army. Maybe this boded well for the campaign – and maybe it didn't. Reinhardt was not one for superstition, but he would not ignore the legends and rituals the men clung to. More than anyone else, Reinhardt knew how much the little comforts meant to a soldier.
“Colonel,” Captain Shimada asked just as Reinhardt finished the report. “Your report noted the Russians were using flags to communicate. Do the Russian tanks not have their own radios?”
“I do not believe so,” Reinhardt answered. “The examples we have captured indicate radios are only available to commanders. Any other tank relies on a semaphore system. Rather outdated, even by Russian standards.”
“Hmm,” Captain Shimada said, mulling over the report and notes that Reinhardt had taken after the fact. “I see a note in here about a shot bouncing off the enemy tank's front armor. Is this common with your 75mm gun?”
“No, not at all. This was an unusual event – I believe our regular armor piercing round was not up to the task this time, but we have plenty of anti-tank weaponry at our disposal!”
Dr. Ziegler entered at this point, clutching a set of papers of her own in her hands. “Colonel, not to disturb you, but I must ask how many of the regiment's trucks we can spare to carry the wounded. I… also have to ask you what you plan to do for burial detail. Are we planning on trying to get the dead back to Germany?”
The wounded. Right. Along with the material losses, the men had suffered too. The destroyed tanks had taken their crews with them, in most situations, with no less than two men dead or seriously wounded from each penetrating shell. The wounded alone could form the nucleus of a new company, nearly forty men whose lives were forever changed. And for another twenty seven, their role in the war had come to an end forever.
“The dead, we will have to bury here. I do not think we can keep them safe for a trip back to Germany at this time. Maybe afterwards, when the war has been won.”
Dr. Ziegler nodded, jotting down a note. “And the wounded? How many trucks?”
“I can spare fifteen, but no more. The rest are needed for other logistical necessities – supply, fuel, oil, food, just to name a few.”
“Colonel, one more thing,” Dr. Ziegler said, placing the papers close to her chest as she finished writing her notes. “I have my concerns about sustainability in the field, especially regarding the men's diet. I have examined the army's rations, and while they are very high in protein content, I am worried the lack of vitamins and minerals will have an overall detrimental effect on the men.”
“Well, local resources will have to do, then. The rear line cooks and kitchens haven't quite made their way. I don't expect them to for some time,” Reinhardt answered.
“Colonel, there isn't any milk, fresh vegetables, or grains of any sort to be found for kilometers around,” Dr. Ziegler said, sounding rather distraught, considering. “The Russians have burned or destroyed anything they deemed useful.”
“Yes, I noticed this as well,” Captain Shimada noted. “One of my training officers told tales of the Russians destroying their own ammunition stockpiles during the Japanese-Russian War when our troops approached the fortress walls. I suppose here it is no different.”
This was hardly good news. The soups the men had were hardly valid substitutes for good bread or milk with one's coffee. This was a logistical challenge in itself – if they couldn't source new food from the land like their ancestors had done, how could they hope to sustain themselves?
“This is a problem, then,” Reinhardt conceded. “I will get in contact with divisional headquarters, ask them when we can expect the field kitchens. Front-line rations will not sustain us forever.”
Dr. Ziegler smiled. “Thank you, Colonel, for thinking of the men. I greatly appreciate it.”
Reinhardt nodded, switching gears to prepare for tomorrow's attacks. The Russians were sure to begin gearing up for their own counter offensives. They would not be idle for long.
Three weeks of fighting had brought Reinhardt's regiment to nearly 400 kilometers outside of Moscow. The Russians tried many times to begin a counterattack in an effort to stem the tide of the advancing Wehrmacht – a trait he gave the Russians credit for – but each time their pushes failed, doomed from the start. All was not good news, though – just last week, the brutal Battle of Brody had wrecked the Soviet tank corps committed to the fight, but it also came at the cost of hundreds of German tanks lost or destroyed. The new Soviet T-34/76 tank was near invulnerable to German firepower, and the Wehrmacht lost hope in countering the KV-1.
Further frustrating Reinhardt, his company commanders, and Major General von Stoffenberger, Oberkommando des Heeres had ordered offensives slowed down in order to allow for resupply. A welcome move for Torbjörn and the regiment's logisticians, but annoying for the men who faced combat like Reinhardt. For reasons unknown, the Führer had begun diverting tanks away from a natural focus point in Moscow, instead preferring to send them north and south to chase objectives that, to Reinhardt at least, had no value.
Of course, perhaps that was why he was in a tank leading from the front, and not in a planning office somewhere in Berlin, deciding all of this. Another day of battle with the Russians had led to another disastrous defeat for the enemy, and plenty of Iron Crosses for his men. Sergeant Rohme painted another three marks on R00's barrel, indicating he had taken out a total of twenty enemy tanks over the course of fighting.
The entire situation was puzzling. Reinhardt tried to understand the path he was to follow, figure out where from Smolensk his regiment would go next. Lieutenant Ackermann appeared again, informing Reinhardt a visitor had made themselves known. Reinhardt motioned them in, far too busy for words.
A woman with long black hair, clad in a German uniform with Waffen-SS ranks on her collar, stepped in, saluting. “Colonel,” she said, using the French pronunciation. Her accent confused him. Why was she speaking with such a heavy French accent? The emblem on her uniform gave it away. “I am Lieutenant Lacroix, of the 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne, 1st French. I am to be your liaison during the upcoming battle for Moscow.”
“I did not know we had allowed the French into the Waffen-SS,” Reinhart muttered. “I also did not know we allowed local languages in German Army formations.”
Lieutenant Lacroix rolled her eyes, clearly unhappy with being forced to use German. “If you must know, I am formally a Untersturmführer in your service. I much prefer my French rank.”
“Well, I am glad to see you have made it to the front safely, then,” Reinhardt said. “I must ask – why have you volunteered to fight for the nation that occupies your home?”
Lieutenant Lacroix smiled, scoffing slightly. “The Bolsheviks are a common enemy to the people of France and Germany. Do not worry, Colonel, we French will make quick work of the Bolshevik's defenses.”
Reinhardt nodded. “We shall see. Dismissed, Lieutenant.”
Lieutenant Lacroix nodded, performing a sharp turn and exiting. Reinhardt had little time for politics. If this fanatical Frenchwoman wanted to fight for a country that was split between German occupation and a collaboration government, fine by him. He just hoped she didn't expect him to entertain whatever delusions had been instilled in her head by Himmler and his cronies.
Chapter 3: For the Motherland
Aleksandra Ilyinichna Zaryanova heads to Moscow to join the Red Army.
The train to Moscow was rough, the engineers more concerned with keeping their train working over the comfort of the passengers. It screeched to a halt at the Yaroslavsky Station, bringing Aleksandra Ilyinichna Zaryanova to her new home. Just a week ago she had been at an all-Soviet weightlifting competition, where she and hundreds of other women were competing to best represent the Soviet Union on the world stage. Aleksandra barely even had time to pack her bags, abandoning the competition the second she heard the Germans had invaded.
Already, winter was touching Moscow. The chilly November air embraced her as she stepped off the train. All around her were hundreds of people, a mass throng of comrades trying to find a way out of the city. Soldiers directed them as best they could, and she could see them armed with rifles and smaller guns, scanning the skies for enemy planes. Gun installations had been built around the platform as well, the crews on constant guard.
Even though she was not from here, Aleksandra felt a twinge of pain at seeing the Soviet Union's capital so heavy prepared for war. The once-beautiful city had been marred by the trappings of war. She searched for the local recruitment office, but found something else. The further out from the train station she ventured, the more she saw how Moscow had been transformed. Trenches had been dug, barricades blocked off entire avenues, craters from enemy bombs and burned-out husks of buildings all proved how very real the German threat was.
It was easy to miss the recruitment office. Its walls had been broken, no doubt a victim of recent bombing runs. A worn and half-illegible sign hung outside, declaring the office's mission to recruit as many able-bodied soldiers for the Red Army. Here, her task was clear. Aleksandra marched into the recruitment office, shoving her way past others who were milling around or waiting to be processed.
“My name is Aleksandra Ilyinichna Zaryanova,” she announced, walking straight to the desk where a bored-looking soldier took notes. “I would like to join the Red Army and defend the motherland against the fascist invaders.”
The soldier adjusted a pair of round glasses, peering up at her as if he were half-asleep. “Wouldn't we all,” he muttered, his jowls jiggling. “Take a number. We will be with you when we have a moment.”
Confused, Aleksandra did as ordered, a small ticket representing her place in line. By happenstance, another soldier passed through, doing a double-take as he saw Aleksandra standing at the desk. Immediately, he rushed over, tossing his stack of papers on the desk and shaking the one behind the desk.
“You fool!” he shouted, pointing at her. “Don't you know? This is the strongest woman in the Soviet Union! Don't make her wait!”
He urged Aleksandra to follow him, and soon she was in a far more organized office, with her information being taken down as fast as she could give it. Everything was recorded – her height, weight, date of birth, blood type, known allergies, hometown – and stuffed away in a folder. Within minutes, she had again been shuttled to another part of the room and handed a uniform, graciously allowed to change into it in privacy to ensure it fit. The tailor inside the office took note of adjustments to be made, and wrote this down as well. For now however, the loose uniform would have to do; before she could even process it, Aleksandra had been shoved onto a truck with a dozen other new recruits, each one in an ill-fitting uniform all their own. Nobody knew where they were going, until they stopped outside a field half an hour away from Moscow.
There, a grim-looking man in a long coat and an old officer's hat shouted at them to get off the truck. “Comrades,” he shouted, watching them assemble in front of him. “I am Lieutenant Alexei Sergeivich Torgoshov, and I am in charge of you new recruits until you have time for full training!”
“Comrade Lieutenant,” one of the soldiers said, raising his hand. “When will the full training begin?”
“When the Germans knock on Moscow's doorstep!” Comrade Lieutenant yelled, glowering at him. “Behind you are rifles. Pick one up and don't fucking point it at me!”
The mass of untrained soldiers turned around, grabbing a bolt-action rifle from a table that was behind them as promised. The long rifle was heavier than expected in Aleksandra's hands, and she quickly realized she had no knowledge of how to work this thing. By now, Comrade Lieutenant had grabbed a rifle of his own, displaying it in front of him for them.
“This is your rifle,” he said with a condescending air. “It will keep you safe. To load your rifle, open the bolt and insert your cartridges.” As he said this, he repeated the action, gripping a protuberant metal piece on the top of the rifle and sliding it back. He slid the pointed end of a set of cartridges into place, and then shoved them into the rifle.
“Close the bolt and you are ready to fire. If you ever put your weapon on safe, twist this,” Lieutenant Torgoshov manipulated a round bit of metal that extended from the back, locking it at an odd angle. “And you are ready to fire again. Work the bolt up and back, and then in reverse again to continue firing. Turn around, take some ammunition, and load your rifles!”
Aleksandra turned around, and as ordered, each of them picked up a collection of rounds. Once again, Comrade Lieutenant demonstrated the proper loading technique for them, a method they followed. In front of them were plates lined up against a piece of wood, bottles stood upright on a fence, all varying distances away. Comrade Lieutenant waited for them to load their rifles, and demonstrated how to aim by way of aligning the front and rear sights. Satisfied with their performance so far, he ordered them to begin firing.
Aleksandra did not expect the recoil from the first shot, and judging by the reactions of the others around her, neither had they. Her shoulder felt like someone had punched it with all the force they could muster, her hands weak from trying to keep the rifle in her grip. Working the bolt proved tough – it was stiff, unwilling to cooperate with her, and she fought it the entire way. Eventually, she and her other comrades had fired all five of their rounds, with more than a few sore shoulders to compensate for their time.
“Good work,” Comrade Lieutenant said derisively. “If the Germans become bottles and plates, we are protected by you glorious defenders of the Motherland! Thus concludes your basic training, comrades, you are going to the front!”
Once again, they were shoved onto the truck, this time with their empty rifles. The newly-minted “defenders of the Motherland” looked at each other, confused. Surely, this was not the only training they would ever get? The truck began to drive off, jostling them around and shoving rifle barrels and bolts into people's sides. Twenty minutes later, it stopped, and again they had been ordered off. This time, a man in a forest green padded uniform was shouting orders, his head covered by a familiar ushanka. He clearly had not shaved in several days, judging from the stubble growing on his face.
His intense green eyes watched them assemble in a disorganized jumble in front of him, and shook his head. “Ok, here's how this is going to work,” he said. “Count off by ones and twos!”
They did so, with Aleksandra finding herself a “two”, for whatever this mean for his purposes. The twos were ordered to step back, and then to take a step to their left, standing behind the ones.
“This is better,” he noted. “I am Sergeant Dmitri Nikolayevich Druzhinovka. Prepare for inspection!”
Comrade Sergeant looked among them, prowling their two lines on the lookout for something, but for what was beyond Aleksandra's comprehension. He eyed each one of them carefully, pausing as he got to Aleksandra.
“Name?” he demanded, staring her down.
“Aleksandra Ilyinichna Zaryanova.”
“Private Zaryanova, why is your hair not in regulation?”
Aleksandra was confused. Her hair was kept neat. Perhaps it was a little longer than she liked, but she had not done anything unusual to it. It remained at her sides, the common style for women her age.
“I was not aware of any regulation, Comrade Sergeant. We have only been in the army for an hour.”
Sergeant Druzhinovka hummed. “Keep your hair out of your eyes. Tie it back or something, I don't care. No time to get you a trim.”
He continued to lurk among their lines, chewing out someone else for having scuffed his boots. Eventually, his impromptu inspection ended, and although Comrade Sergeant lamented the lack of discipline he saw, he did teach them how to properly march. A good thing, it seemed – they had new orders to march in the Revolution Day parade. Apparently, Comrade Stalin was determined to stay in Moscow even as the Germans were right outside.
The day ended with the impromptu squad digging trenches and setting up barriers around Moscow, eventually making a camp near a half-destroyed building. Tomorrow was the parade, the first Aleksandra had ever seen or participated in.
“Squad, wake up!"
Comrade Sergeant's wake-up call echoed through the snow-covered tents and ruins. It was still early – maybe about as early as Aleksandra would have woken up to if she were still a weightlifter back home. The sun hadn't risen yet, so well before 8:45 AM. Their breakfast was a cold porridge. If she believed the cooks, it had been hot when it got there, but by the time Aleksandra's squad had a chance to fill their bowls it became a chilled mass that the weak army spoon was unable to break through.
Their morning began with Comrade Sergeant checking to make sure none of them had gone missing during the night, and ordering the men to shave. Ironic, considering he had not done so himself. Satisfied with their appearance after breakfast, they hastily organized into a larger unit, the name of which Aleksandra didn't catch the name of. Rehearsals for the Revolution Day parade were underway.
It seemed like an endless march, going past the Kremlin and then circling around again. Still, she matched the beat they marched at, moved like a robot when required, and made sure she didn't do anything to risk getting yelled at by Comrade Sergeant. So far, it was working. For the most part, the rifle had lost the awkward weight it had from yesterday, and being under the watchful eye of Comrade Stalin made the entire idea of facing the Germans in combat easier.
The actual parade went off without a hitch, and Aleksandra swore that Comrade Stalin looked directly at her as he saluted her passing unit. Immediately after the parade, Comrade Sergeant sent down the word from his commander. They were heading directly to the front. Their march took them from the Kremlin straight to the growing sounds of battle, as big guns fired off earth-shattering shots, and massive machines trundled past her, belching black smoke from their exhausts. Jubilant soldiers rode on these machines, loudly singing patriotic songs as they passed. The march had warmed her up, but still she shivered. Was it from the cold air, or nervousness? It was difficult to tell.
As they marched ever closer, Aleksandra could hear rifle fire, interrupted by a repeating dull buzzing noise. Occasionally, a different, sort of crackling sound echoed across the outskirts of Moscow. Comrade Sergeant marched at the head of their formation, turning his head back slightly to look at them.
“Alright, comrades,” he shouted. “The fascists are ahead of us! We are all that stands between them and our beloved Moscow! For the Soviet Union, and our glorious motherland! Ura!”
Shouts of ura came from her mouth, as well as the mouths of those around her. As the noise of combat drew closer, Comrade Sergeant ordered them to ready their rifles. As ordered, Aleksandra drew back the bolt, inserting five rounds into the rifle as she had been taught, fumbling a little with the ammunition and shoving it down with a great deal of difficulty. Likewise, forcing the bolt into place slowed her down.
For his part, Comrade Sergeant continued to lead them to the raging battle. He kept his gun pointed at the enemy, shouting for them to break into a run instead of just marching. He also ordered they spread out, and not stay in their lines lest they be what he termed “machine gun bait”. Aleksandra didn't know what he meant by this.
The snow proved hard to move through as they headed off the streets and into the fields, accompanied by the machines she had seen earlier. Snow was thrown up by churning wheels, covering her with cold chunks and stinging her face as icy wind howled around. Rifle fire was coming from all around her. Something whizzed by her head, and Aleksandra suddenly realized that was a bullet. She was being shot at.
“Don't just stand there!” Comrade Sergeant shouted, taking cover behind a tree. “Fire back, you cowards!”
Aleksandra could hardly see the Germans. She could see their machines, painted an eerie gray with white splotches of paint hastily thrown on top. What she couldn't see were the Germans themselves. She could hear their guns, watch their tanks lob shots at nearby Soviets, and smell the burning their fire brought, but she couldn't see the men who had done this to her Russia.
Still, she had to follow Comrade Sergeant's orders. Aleksandra knelt down, raised the rifle to her face and aligned the sights – rear notch first, then the post enshrouded in the ring up front – and searched for a target. A white helmet poked out from behind a broken brick wall. Aleksandra pulled the trigger, and her sight became black for an instant as she involuntarily closed her eyes, forgetting to brace herself again for the recoil of the rifle. She looked back, trying to find the helmet she had spotted, but didn't see it anywhere. In the haste of looking, she had almost forgotten to work the bolt again, cursing how uncooperative it was as she chambered a new round.
Comrade Sergeant shouted at them to keep moving. Before she could pick herself up from her position, six others were in front of her, trying to match Comrade Sergeant's pace. He ducked down behind the same broken wall she had seen earlier – how fast did he run? - and waved a hand to them, trying to get the rest of the squad to follow him. Aleksandra picked up the pace, running as fast as she could to get to him. That same horrible buzzing noise returned, and instantly two men ahead of her fell on the ground, their blood already starting to stain the pristine white snow. They screamed in pain, their rifles falling from their limp fingers.
As she crouched behind the wall, she could hear one of them start to sob, crying out for his mother. Aleksandra looked behind her, spotting them instantly. The sobbing one had raised his arm up high, reaching out to the sky, his disgusting gurgling reaching her ears even now. She started to move to try to drag them to cover, make them safe, but Comrade Sergeant grabbed her arm.
“No,” he said harshly, staring at her with empty eyes. “We can't do anything for them.”
“They're still people,” she countered. “They don't deserve to suffer!”
“I don't mean that,” Comrade Sergeant replied. “We can't abandon the fight to take them anywhere. Let the medics take care of them… or the gravediggers.”
Without even waiting, Comrade Sergeant peeked out over the wall, firing off a short burst from his weapon even as the men behind them cried out in pain. Slowly, their screams began to wind down in intensity, dropping to agonized moans and eventually, silence. Aleksandra swallowed hard, trying to block out the sound and sights. Just in time, another soldier rushed in, jumping over the wall. She watched him run into the open field, and then one of the enemy machines spewed forth a massive plume of black smoke. The explosion created a new hole in the ground, and sent him flying – without his legs.
She could probably have heard his scream from Novosibirsk. It echoed across the field, and his blood traced a line from where he lay in the snow to the crater itself. Aleksandra could feel her eyes widening, and found a new target to channel her fear and anger into. A German soldier had appeared, a rifle of his own in his hands, and in the middle of reloading.
Without a moment's hesitation, Aleksandra took up her rifle and fired. Comrade Sergeant ordered her and whoever was still alive in the squad to keep moving forward, and by chance she passed by the man she had just shot.
“Mütter… bitte hilf mir…” he muttered, his desperate pleas for any sort of help mixing with the sound of his choking on his own blood.
One of the other members of the squad stood tall, looking out over the field. “I think we're winning this one, comrades!” He too was struck down, instantly dead – no time to even cry out.
Aleksandra could do little more but keep firing. As she heard the German's disgusting death rattle, the rifle was suddenly heavy in her hands. Fear and panic and rage and confusion began to cloud her vision as she tried to pick out targets, but finding herself missing every shot she took. The fight became a blur as more and more soldiers – people she had scarcely known for even a day – fell by her side. She didn't even see anyone who had first gotten on the truck with her.
What felt like hours later, the attack was called off, and Aleksandra retreated to the rear. Out of the entire squad who had marched past the Kremlin that morning, only she and Sergeant Dmitri Nikolayevich Druzhinovka remained. Behind her, Aleksandra could see the burning remains of machines, both Soviet and German alike, scattered across the field. The field was pockmarked with craters, and dead bodies were strewn about, like a child had taken all his toys on a violent rampage.
The minute they had reached the safety of the rear area, Aleksandra vomited, throwing away her breakfast onto the snow. Comrade Sergeant stood over her, sighing.
“Always happens,” he muttered. “You'll get used to it, Private Zaryanova.”
“I'm not sure if I want to.”
“You wanted to kill fascists, right? Why else would you be in the army?”
“It's my duty,” Aleksandra retorted as she wiped her face clean.
“Your duty is to kill fascists!” Comrade Sergeant shouted, picking her up off the ground by her collar. “Look at what they've done to Russia! Do you think they will stop because they reached Moscow? No! They'll keep going until they find your home and burn it to the ground!” He took his eyes off of her only for a moment, to find her rifle and shove it back in her hands. “If you don't have the stomach to kill for your country, at least show me you are willing to die for it!”
Disappointed, Comrade Sergeant headed off to make camp, or maybe find another new recruit to terrorize. Either was possible.
No matter which way she sliced it, entering combat with the Germans had changed Aleksandra. This was not the battle she had expected to face when she came to Moscow.
Chapter 4: Together We Are Strong
Aleksandra continues to defend Moscow against the Germans, joining a new squad along the way.
Not even two hours had passed before Aleksandra was on the move again. There was barely even time to contemplate the shaking of her hands as she was marched to the front lines. Here, there was no violence like she had seen earlier, rather it was eerily calm. She and Comrade Sergeant Druzhinovka were stuffed into a trench alongside dozens of unfamiliar faces.
The snow had begun falling, blanketing their trenches, the wrecks of enemy machines, and the dead bodies that lay unrecovered. Her gloves had begun failing her – they were simple knit woolen things, with the fingers removed for reasons unknown to Aleksandra. Comrade Sergeant leaned against the trench wall, asleep even when potential danger was just mere minutes away. For her part, Aleksandra kept herself warm by rubbing her hands together, and scanning the horizon for any enemies. She recognized this part of Moscow – this was the road to Smolensk.
“Keep that up, you'll get your head blown off,” Comrade Sergeant said lazily, groaning as he stretched his back out.
“How can you sleep at a time like this, Comrade Sergeant?” Aleksandra asked, trying to ignore the cold.
Comrade Sergeant Druzhinovka lit a cigarette, puffing a few times as he thought out his answer. “Got to sleep sometime,” he muttered. “It'll go away.”
Aleksandra drew her eyes away from the front, looking at the sergeant curiously. “What will?”
He gestured with the cigarette to her arms. “The shakes. It's good you got them, really. I'd have been worried if you hadn't reacted to your first kill.”
“Why do you say that?”
He continued puffing on his cigarette. “You'll learn.”
Off in the distance, Aleksandra heard muffled booming noises. That was odd. What was that sound? She didn't recognize it.
Obviously, Comrade Sergeant did, as he grabbed Aleksandra and shoved her to the ground, taking cover right alongside her and making himself as small as possible. She was about to ask what he was doing when an explosion rocked the trench, sending bits of earth and snow down on them. The impossibly loud explosions shook Aleksandra to her core. Someone was braving the attack, shouting that the Germans were coming – as if it wasn't already obvious.
The pops of rifles firing filled her ears, soon replaced by the clatter of a machine gun. The squealing and grinding of a nearby tank grated against her ears, each wheel protesting the very action of moving as it thundered towards the trench, deafening her for a moment as it fired a shot at the Germans. Bullets snapped past her ears, and the same horrible buzzing sound filled the air again. Aleksandra could now positively identify this as the sound of a machine gun.
The shouts of nearby soldiers mixed with the rifle shots as she fired at the smallest blobs of German helmets ahead of her. Aleksandra was halfway conscious of pained cries and wounded muttering, but in her intense focus, she couldn't discern whether the dead and dying were German or Soviet.
Despite facing withering fire, Aleksandra watched the Germans advance steadily. Their terrible machine guns chewed up dirt in front of her, and without a moment's hesitation Comrade Sergeant had dragged her to the bottom of the trench. Somewhere behind them, someone was blowing a whistle.
“That's the signal to retreat!” Comrade Sergeant shouted. “Come on!”
Aleksandra and Comrade Sergeant jumped out of the trench, dodging bullets on their way out. Horrendously loud booms echoed all around them as the earth violently exploded around them, sending snow-covered bits of dirt all over her. They ran across the Moscow-Volga Canal, taking the bridge to avoid having to swim in the frigid water. During their entire retreat to the next defensive line, bullets zipped past them, embedding themselves into the buildings far beyond.
“Steady comrades!” a lieutenant called out as they dove into the new trench. “Wait until they get close!”
“Hey, they're not German!” another person shouted. “They're French!”
Comrade Sergeant scoffed as he stuffed a cigarette into his mouth. “And how the hell do you know that, huh?”
The young soldier next to them, rubbing his gloved hands together to keep warm, smirked. “I heard them! They weren't speaking German. Who else could it be?”
Nearby, the lieutenant laughed as he leveled his gun against the incoming Germans – or Frenchmen. “The French wanted to come here to visit their great-grandfather's graves, huh? Well, come on, you cowards!”
The enemy had begun charging across the bridge, bringing with them another artillery barrage. Small machines with tracks and machine guns raked the front of the trench, killing a few of the soldiers who stood with Aleksandra. Each time the bullets hit their helmets, a terrible ping could be heard, and every time she heard it Aleksandra knew it was another life lost for Moscow.
Like the other day, Aleksandra found herself missing shots, but not for lack of trying. Already, the Germans – or French, what did it even matter – had killed scores of Soviet men and women. They had just killed four right next to her. She may not have known her comrades personally, or even their names, but they had done nothing but defend their homes. And here were these people, coming to her Moscow for what reason? To destroy? It did not make sense to Aleksandra.
A machine gun echoed nearby, and instantly she watched four Frenchmen get cut down. Their tortured screams of pain filled the air, punctuated by grenades exploding and the regular pops of each side's rifles.
“They're running out of momentum!” the lieutenant shouted. “Once more, comrades! Lure them deeper into Moscow's jaw! We'll chew them up and spit them out like it's 1812!”
Once again, a whistle was blown, and they fell back once more to another trench, this one just within Moscow itself in a suburb Aleksandra did not recognize. Behind her, there were massive guns leveled against the horizon, and men lay down on the snow, hiding behind small shields that covered a machine gun. Each machine gun team loaded a long cloth belt of ammunition into the gun, waiting for the coming French.
The French approached with a long, loud war cry that she could hear even from the trench. The second the odd green-gray of the German uniforms broke across the horizon, the machine guns opened up. Aleksandra lost count of how many enemies fell by her rifle or the machine guns, finding the idea of tracking it irrelevant at this point. The enemy machines were no longer present, but she could still hear the squeaking of tracks somewhere close. Confused Russian, Ukrainian and what sounded like Georgian mixed until the lieutenant's voice carried through the scene, demanding they push forward to drive the French out of Moscow.
As they ran out of the trench, Comrade Sergeant took the lead, kicking a wounded Frenchman as he ran past. “Don't worry, fascist,” he taunted. “We'll thaw you out in the spring! Haha!” The Frenchman, understandably not knowing Russian, only cried out in pain as he writhed on the ground, reacting to both the kick from Comrade Sergeant's boot and his gunshot wound.
None of this war made sense to Aleksandra so far. She had taken her fair share of German lives, but she had thought only the Germans were here. If these soldiers who were shooting at them were truly French, why were they here? Did they consider this a duty? Why weren't they fighting for France?
What kind of horror had this war brought upon Europe?
Two weeks later…
December came quickly. Aleksandra and Comrade Sergeant Druzhinovka received a new squad. Aleksandra herself, following good conduct in battle and a desperate need for them, had been given a new weapon. Her new weapon, a heavy, unbalanced thing called a DP, was her new machine gun. From now on, she would be the squad's machine gunner, a role she took to heart. Comrade Sergeant often referred to the new gun as a Record Player, a name she thought was the actual designation until the training sergeant corrected her. “No, Private Zaryanova,” she remembered Sergeant Mozhiask saying as he tapped the magazine. “It looks like a record, right? Like the patriotic songs they taught us in school!”
The temperature had dropped considerably, and though they were freezing, so too were the Germans. They were to begin a new attack on the Germans as Christmas crossed the front, intent on shattering the enemy as they continued to hold tenuously onto Moscow's outskirts. Aleksandra had not managed to learn their names yet, but she had heard her squadmates speak to each other and to Comrade Sergeant – one of them was a Ukrainian, she knew because he rolled his r's in Comrade Sergeant's name. Another was a Russian from Siberia like her. Yet another came from the Caucasus, another a Tatar, and yet more were Russians from in and around Moscow.
Either way, it was early in the morning and their squad was now on the march. Their breakfast was hot this time – their squad was first in line to get food today, and that made a great deal of difference to morale. By now, Aleksandra had accepted her role in this war. She still was not comfortable with it, but she could find herself reluctantly understanding the task she had. The winter air was crisp as they marched, watching the dawn break. Today, the scene of destruction was at a village somewhere west of Moscow, one she hadn't caught the name of. Large, flat fields, probably clearings for farmland, were broken up only by short cobblestone walls to demarcate individual farms and occasionally a tree or two.
“Alright comrades,” Comrade Sergeant called out, his breath billowing in short, dragon-like white plumes. “The fascists are just ahead of us! Stand steady, comrades, together we are strong!”
They broke out of their regimented march, forming a skirmish line by Comrade Sergeant's orders. Aleksandra lowered the DP, prepared in case the Germans appeared suddenly. The snow was untouched at this point, having fallen just a few hours beforehand. She could see impressions in the snow where boots had stepped the previous day, as well as tracks from machines and cars that had passed by.
Off behind her, she could hear thundering booms, signaling the beginning of another artillery barrage. Explosions went off beyond the horizon, lighting up the early morning sky with stark dark blotches of dirt. Within seconds, she also could hear the sound of engines starting. Those didn't belong to machines her army had. She could feel it – the attack was starting now.
Gunfire broke out from the Soviet side first. The Tatar had seen something and shouted out in his deep voice he had found the Germans, firing off a shot as quickly as he could bring up his rifle. Rapid rifle fire came back in kind from the Germans from wherever hiding holes they had dug themselves into, the cowards. Their fight shifted from the fields and into the village itself, as each house was well-defended by the Germans.
Aleksandra dove to the snow, setting up her machine gun. The Ukrainian pointed out a house, seized by the Germans to be used for something. Aleskandra did not need to be told what to do. She raked the house with machine gun fire, breaking a small window that provided the only vision outside the house. She spent the entire magazine, feeling the weapon slam suddenly as it tried to cycle without a round. Acting swiftly, she smacked the disc-shaped magazine away, watching it fall into the snow. Digging a new one out of a pouch, Aleksandra aligned the new bullets correctly and lightly tapped the magazine into place. Satisfied, she pulled back on the charging handle, ready to keep shooting.
She kept up her fire, shifting between targets the Ukrainian called out as he supplied her ammo and occasionally tossed snow on top of the gun to keep it cool. In front of her, she could see the squad moving up, seizing control of the house. Comrade Sergeant appeared after a few seconds, waving herself and the Ukrainian forward. By now, the squad had abandoned the building, following a road to head deeper into the village they were attacking.
The sound of tracks filled the air, squeaking as they came for them. The Caucasian held in his hands a massive rifle, straining under its weight as the tank approached. “Comrade Sergeant,” he asked, trying to hold the rifle up. “What do I do?”
Comrade Sergeant stared at him as if he had four heads. “You have an anti-tank rifle,” he shouted, and then pointed to the tank. “Over there is a tank. Figure it out!”
The Caucasian blinked, before nodding his head rapidly and propping the rifle up on a wooden fence. He took a shot, and they all heard clearly the sound of metal bouncing off metal. Aleksandra couldn't focus on him as he worked the bolt – it was time for her to provide cover for them. The Germans had appeared with a reinforcing squad of their own to help cover the tank.
She again took to the ground, aligning the sights and pulling the trigger to start shooting at the enemy. Aleksandra was somewhat aware of Comrade Sergeant shouting at the anti-tank rifleman to keep firing. She tried to keep track of grenades flying past them, and had to scramble when one looked like it was coming dangerously close to her position. Without warning, the tank was set aflame, and the German crewmen inside flailed about as they tried to get out. Helplessly, they batted at the flames on their uniforms, only for Comrade Sergeant to shoot them as he passed by.
The fight moved off of the dirt road and into a subsection of communal housing, probably for the nearby people's farm. Panicked German mixed with rapid Ukrainian as Aleksandra's assistant gunner pointed out a group of Germans running to a car. An older officer with snow white hair aimed a pistol at them, firing several shots and only hitting the Tatar in response. Aleksandra hastily set up the DP, watching them scramble into a black car and drive away. Still, she riddled it as much as she could with bullet holes, wondering what – if anything – she had hit as it disappeared in the distance.
Her attention turned back to the Tatar, who was clutching his arm. “Fuck!” he shouted, securely latching his hand back on his bicep when he saw blood pouring out of it. “The old bastard got me! Did any of you fucking shoot him?”
“Shut the fuck up!” Comrade Sergeant shouted. “If you can talk, you can fight! Keep the fascists running!”
Aleksandra needed no further encouragement. The Germans had broken into an open retreat, taking what tanks they could with them as they drove off into the morning. She laid her machine gun against a pile of wood, opening fire until the magazine clicked again. She repeated her familiar reloading process, trying to keep the German's heads down and unable to fight back, but on the inside, she wondered if this was all worth it.
Aleksandra had seen how cruelly Comrade Sergeant treated the Germans, and anyone aligned with them. He had told her before that Comrade Stalin himself said no mercy to the German invaders. She had heard the atrocities they had committed – wiping out entire villages, killing any Communists, and stealing land from the people. The more she listened to Comrade Sergeant and the Commissar, the more she began to believe maybe they were right. She had seen them retreating – the old man had shot at them the second he stepped out the door. She and her comrades were defending their country, so why was he so angry at them?
What had Aleksandra done to him to justify shooting at her?
Chapter 5: Red-Painted Steppe
Reinhardt is invited to a party. The offensive against the Russians is redirected to the south as Case Blue begins.
It had been months since the disaster at Moscow. Reinhardt's headquarters had been pushed out of the front by a zealous Russian attack, and though plans were made to resume the offensive on Moscow, Reinhardt found himself transferred to Army Group South. His unit would now be part of a new offensive, codenamed Case Blue. Specifically, he and countless other regimental commanders would be part of an operation codenamed Heron, driving towards Stalingrad and across the Don river. The sudden change of direction was disconcerting, but perhaps it was for the better. With his retinue – including the newcomer, Lieutenant Lacroix – in tow, Reinhardt moved south with the regiment.
The time in between was both good and bad. It allowed Reinhardt to resupply and rearm his regiment, but the replacements were not always as expected. Increasingly, the supply trains gave them older Czech tanks and light Panzer IIs instead of the more modern – and useful – Panzer III and IV models. Occasionally a French design came through the ranks, causing a general wave of displeasure and dissatisfaction among the crews. Many were far more used to their Teutonic tanks and rejected the inferior interwar French and Czech tanks, but in the end they had no choice. These were the only replacements they had been given, and OKH's word was final.
Of course, the interim also meant other staff duties had to be attended to.
Reinhardt hated going to parties. It took valuable time away from planning and reviewing work with his staff, and nearly every time it was just posturing, both socially and politically. Jockeying to gain favor with the Führer's inner circle was not what Reinhardt enjoyed. If anything, he felt politics and the Army should stay separate, and far away from one another. Though, these days, when wars were inherently political, that often didn't work.
It was good that Dr. Ziegler was in his office, then, because he had just gotten an invitation to a party Colonel Klink was hosting. He promised a “good time” away from the front for a little while, even if the time away also meant spending time with less-than-enthusiastic general officers. Reinhardt much preferred talk of strategy and weaponry, not economics and the meaning behind Mein Kampf. He sighed as he looked over the invitation again. Bring a date, it said. He scoffed, recalling the word. Dating. What a long-lost, foreign concept to Reinhardt. How he missed his dear Frieda. Without her, he would scarcely have been married at all.
Well, she was here now. There was hardly a more inappropriate time to ask, in the middle of planning medical needs of the regiment during the upcoming campaign. But, in the end, what did it matter? Reinhardt was used to being the joke of these parties, perpetually unable to find a date since his wife's passing. Dr. Ziegler was speaking so quickly it was hard to get a word in edgewise. He wet his lips, waiting in vain for Dr. Ziegler to pause.
“Doctor,” he said, interrupting her. “I hate to ask this, but – would you be my companion to the party Colonel Klink is hosting next week?”
Dr. Ziegler was immediately surprised, her eyes wide in shock as she tried to find the right words. Eventually, she blinked slowly several times, clearing her throat. “Well, um, not to be rude, Colonel, but… I was under the impression you had a wife. Is she unable to make the trip there?”
Reinhardt sighed, feeling his face fall. “Unfortunately not. She passed away in 1927.”
“Oh,” she said. “I'm so sorry, Colonel, I didn't know -”
“It is alright. I could not have known with your parents, you could not have known with my wife. I only ask you because I am sure the other officers will be bringing a woman of their own. It will be a good time – good food, away from the front for a little while, time to mingle with some younger officers. If you're not already in a relationship, of course -”
“No,” she said, almost immediately, her face turning a slight shade of crimson. “I mean, I… I haven't much had the opportunity to.” Dr. Ziegler's eyes darted across the floor, her cheeks returning to their natural color before she softly smiled and met Reinhardt's eyes. “Well, if we can stand to get away from the front for a little while, then of course, Colonel. I would be honored to be by your side.”
Surprising, Reinhardt thought. Maybe not too surprising. Perhaps the mention of younger officers was more enticing to her. Either way, he nodded, returning her smile. “Excellent. We will have to leave on Saturday in Kiev – it's a two day train ride. Maybe longer if these partisan attacks keep up.”
“Of course, Colonel,” she said, her smile suddenly becoming rather wide. “I… I may have to find a shop in Kiev, I… don't think I brought my party clothes with me.”
“We can stay in Kiev before the train leaves. It would be good to be away from the camp before leaving, anyhow.”
Dr. Ziegler smiled again. “Yes, that would be nice. Well, uh, I should attend to these reports, Herr Oberst, so, um...”
Reinhardt nodded, allowing her to take her leave. No doubt she had work to attend to. Reinhardt had work of his own as well, such as trying to do as much planning as he could before the party. It was a shame such a frivolous event had to put a hold on conducting the war.
Dr. Ziegler had spent her time in Kiev well. She had picked an elegant red dress, with a matching hat and long white gloves that extended to her elbows, happily watching Poland's landscape roll by on the way to Stettin. The train car was a smooth ride, despite being an Army venture, with beautiful upholstered seats and wonderfully carved oak paneling. Dr. Ziegler's excellent and varied wear, of course, was starkly contrasted by the fact that for Reinhardt, little had changed. The dress standards had changed once again, it seemed, and his white old-style dress tunic was no longer appropriate. Therefore, he ventured to Stettin in his standard service uniform, only swapping out his award ribbons for the actual medals.
He felt very much like a showbird, with a heavy row of medals pinned to his chest. The damn things weighed his tunic down, and clattered every time he moved a muscle. Useful if you wanted to impress a new Landser, less so when you were surrounded by gentlemen who had fought as long and hard as you. By the time many men were colonels or generals, an Iron Cross was less a point of pride and more just another accessory.
“We'll have to stay in Stettin overnight,” Reinhardt said, drawing Dr. Ziegler's attention away from the scenery. “Colonel Klink's party will be getting out late, especially if he is up to his usual antics.”
“What do you mean by that?”
He sighed pensively, picking away a rogue piece of lint he had spotted on his cap. “Colonel Klink is desperate to gain favor with Kesselring. He hopes his service in the Great War will mean he can fly again.”
Dr. Ziegler frowned. “Why can't he fly anymore?”
“He was grounded after the Great War because of Versailles. His unit was eliminated, and now, he simply works at a desk in Stettin. But, an air force officer has little to do behind a desk unless he is out fighting, and so, he hosts parties like this, jockeying for influence.”
The train began to roll to a halt, the wheels screeching as they neared the Stettin train station. Dr. Ziegler tilted her head, trying to see how far away the platform was. Eventually, the train shuddered, stopping at the platform as people began to gather their things to disembark. A whistle blew, the signal for them to head off the train.
A staff car took them from the train station to the hotel, provided by Colonel Klink's staff. Their hotel was modest, yet still befitting the status of a German officer. Stettin was not Reinhardt's favorite city – that belonged to his home town of Stuttgart – but the region did have some benefits. For one, his prize horse Gabriel was from here, a fine Prussian horse.
This must have been the Doctor's first time in the area. On their way to the hotel, she marveled at the old homes and ancient buildings, wondering what each one had inside. As they headed into the actual hotel, a lovely older property that had been standing since the 17th century, updated over time to match the current trends. It was a quaint little place, nestled in between newer apartment complexes. If nothing else, it was a nice place to stay. It remained to be seen whether the same could be said for the party, depending on whether or not Colonel Klink had decided to host it at his barracks.
As he expected, their suite had two rooms, one for each of them. Good. He wouldn't have to have the awkwardness of sharing a bed with Dr. Ziegler. Anything to avoid further embarrassment. It was demoralizing enough to have to drag her here to begin with, and he would much rather resign himself to the couch than force Dr. Ziegler to his bed. There had been worse places he had slept, anyway.
“Well, this is rather nice,” Dr. Ziegler said, thanking the bellhop who had brought up their bags. “Is it possible we could stay in Stettin for a day longer? I would love to visit the Polish neighborhood.”
“Unfortunately not,” Reinhardt said, unpacking his shaving kit for the next morning. “We have strict orders to return to the front as soon as possible. This party is a mere distraction.”
Dr. Ziegler's face fell, and her shoulders drooped slightly. “Oh,” she muttered. “Well, I suppose it does make sense. Can't be away from the front for too long, hm?”
“I would prefer to be at the front.”
Before Reinhardt could arrange his shaving kit as he wanted, a knock came at the door. Colonel Klink's driver had come to bring them, and other party-goers, to the festivities. He sighed, resigning himself to his fate as he adjusted his uniform's collar one last time. Once more, his peaked cap went atop his head, further signifying his status.
“Well,” he muttered, “better to get this over with.”
“Not a fan of parties, Herr Oberst?”
“You will see when you get there.”
Just as Reinhardt had feared, Colonel Klink had decided to host the party at his barracks, transforming his personal quarters and office into the center of the party. Stuffed into the small building were hors d'oeuvres that he hated, music that even he couldn't find pleasant, and officers who didn't understand a real soldier's war. The rooms had been cleared of the bunk beds that typically occupied this space, and in their place Colonel Klink had rummaged up whatever furniture he could find. Most of it was mismatched and clearly out of place, especially in stark contrast to the long utilitarian wooden table that supported plates of food and drink for those who wished to partake.
Every part of it irritated him.
Reinhardt allowed a member of Klink's staff to take his overcoat and hat, graciously doing the same for Dr. Ziegler. Small flutes of champagne were handed to them, and already Reinhardt could see Klink – the monocled buffoon – trying to cajole a less-than-enthusiastic Kesselring. The same aide brought them before Colonel Klink, gesturing to them with a free hand.
“Herr Oberst,” the sergeant said. “Presenting Colonel Reinhardt Wilhelm and Doctor Angela Ziegler!”
Colonel Klink's eyebrows jumped, and his stupid monocle nearly fell off his face. “A doctor, Reinhardt? You've done well for yourself, I see!”
Reinhardt sighed, rolling his eyes. “Doctor Ziegler is here as a companion only because you imposed a requirement for a date, Colonel.”
“Oh, Reinhardt,” Klink laughed, clearly trying to show Kesselring he could have fun. “Why not stop worrying about the war for a minute and focus on this beautiful woman instead?”
Reinhardt shook his head, informing Colonel Klink that he would be far, far away from him. He parked himself by the table full of hors d'oeurves, trying to find something to please his palate. The champagne was mediocre, not that he was an avid drinker of it. He much preferred good beer.
“Uh, Colonel,” Dr. Ziegler said quietly. “Is Colonel Klink always like this?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Reinhardt replied, finding a canape that looked particularly pleasing. “Feel free to mingle, Doctor. I do not plan to stray from this table.”
Dr. Ziegler paused, slowly slipping out of Reinhardt's elbow. It was almost as if she was trying to find a way to convince him to go with her, or at least venture out from the food. He heard her walk away, no doubt to find someone far more interesting than he would be tonight. It was for the better, he reasoned.
The talk was as he expected – news concerning the home front where little changed, discussion of politics, and boasting about how the “final victory” was on its way. All of it bored him. Why couldn't any of these men care about the war itself? How could they talk about the final victory when the Army had just been pushed back from Moscow? It made little sense to be glorifying a victory when the battle for Moscow had ended in such disaster. Reinhardt lost track of time, shifting between conversations indifferently as Air Force and Army officers caught up with him, exchanged pleasantries and generally just made it so he couldn't enjoy his food in peace.
Scanning the room, he saw the usual participants – men who were far too eager to leave the front, women who did not understand the dangers and struggles inherent in a war, and through it all was Colonel Klink. The man could just look at someone and bring their good day to a crashing end. Not because he was a cruel man, no, but more because he had to find some way to make every single conversation about him, in some bizarre way to garner favor to be transferred to a combat post. And, if it wasn't his mediocre conversational skills, it was some elaborate stunt he had cooked up to show he was useful. Reinhardt remembered clearly the day he had put on a birthday party for Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle, and managed to set fire to his coat while handling the cake.
He began to wonder where Dr. Ziegler had gone to. Another quick scan of the room revealed she had been cornered by a young officer, a captain by the looks of it, who had several medals on his chest and was showing off his Iron Cross. She didn't look terribly enthusiastic about the venture, or his stories. Sighing, Reinhardt headed over to provide some relief. The captain didn't seem to notice his approach, but Dr. Ziegler certainly did.
“Oh, Colonel!” she said, grateful for the timely arrival. “This is Captain… um, I'm sorry, I don't believe I caught your name?”
The captain stiffened up upon spotting Reinhardt, but he could tell the man still bore some immoderate pride. “Captain Siegfried von Larenzberg, Herr Colonel.”
“Hm. Good to meet you. Colonel Reinhardt Wilhelm.”
“Captain von Larenzberg was just telling me about his, uh, achievements in…?”
“Yugoslavia, Doctor,” he said, flashing a smile. “I'm sure you understand the importance of keeping partisans under control, Herr Colonel. I've an entire rank of ribbons and medals just for suppressing partisans.”
Reinhardt nodded. “I see. And the Iron Cross?”
“Haha, that was for destroying an entire brigade of partisans! Eh, granted, I had to root them out of some backwater Serbian town, but it was well worth it! They couldn't hide forever!”
Reinhardt glanced down at his uniform – he was part of the military police. Was he saying what Reinhardt thought he was? Either way, he could tell it was beginning to distress Dr. Ziegler. Something had to be done.
“Ah, Doctor,” Reinhardt said, cutting in as the captain began to go into detail about his endeavors against Yugoslav partisans. “Would you perhaps like some fresh air?”
“Yes, please,” she said, maybe a bit too quickly.
Together, the two stepped outside Klink's quarters, leaving the old jazz music and clatter of silverware behind, the noise of the party replaced by the cool evening air and a comfortable quiet. Dr. Ziegler exhaled sharply, resting against the wooden railing that surrounded the deck.
“Not what you expected?” Reinhardt probed, lighting a cigarette.
“I can't say it was,” she replied, waving a hand to her face. “You shouldn't smoke, you know. There was a study in 1939 that showed it could cause lung cancer.”
“Flawed study,” Reinhardt said. “It showed correlation, not causality.” As he smoked, Reinhardt looked out to the camp that Colonel Klink called home. It seemed he was now in charge of a prison camp, judging by the barbed wire and guard towers, with bored-looking sergeants and privates patrolling the perimeter. The nearby field had been cleared of all trees for a solid three hundred meters, totally flat and perfect killing grounds for any escaping prisoners. Why on Earth did Klink insist on hosting his parties here?
She sighed again, resting her head in one of her hands. “Still. It's not healthy for a man your age.”
Reinhardt laughed heartily, exhaling smoke – though this time, away from her. “If I can survive four years on the Western Front, I can survive a cigarette!”
Dr. Ziegler said nothing, just looking up to the sky. Why was she so concerned with his health, anyway? He had lived a good, long life. A cigarette or two here or there would not kill him.
“Colonel,” she finally said, breaking the awkward silence. “You don't want to be here. After listening to the Captain, I barely want to be here. Why are we still keeping up this facade?”
Well, she had a point. Reinhardt rolled back his sleeve, checking his watch. 8:30. It was too early to leave. Colonel Klink would be offended, and officers like Kesselring would definitely take notice. Not a good impression.
“It's too early still,” he muttered. “At least another hour here.”
Dr. Ziegler let out a disgusted groan. “I don't think I can stand another hour with that captain, Herr Oberst.”
“Please,” he corrected. “We've been working with one another for nearly a year. You are not a soldier. You can call me Reinhardt if you wish, Doctor Ziegler.”
She looked up at him, obviously confused and surprised. “Y-you're sure?”
“We are in the same boat here, Doctor.”
Her surprise turned to a look of gratefulness, and her features relaxed. “Well, in that case,” she said, smoothing out a few wrinkles on her dress as she smiled. “You may call me Angela, if it would please you. It's so… formal for you to call me Doctor Ziegler all the time.”
Reinhardt nodded, extinguishing the cigarette now that he had taken his fill of it. He slowly turned back around to the door that led to the party, already regretting even accepting the invitation to begin with. “Unfortunately, I think people will begin to talk if we spend too much time out here. Shall we return to the party… Angela?”
She smiled again, graciously allowing her arm to slip into his waiting elbow, prepared to face the storm once more. “Lead the way… Reinhardt.”
As he expected, their return to the party was met with some sly, approving glances, and a grandiose nod of approval from Colonel Klink. This, he could ignore. Knowing that even Angela was struggling to find true joy in this redundant affair comforted him, made this entire frivolous waste of time almost worth it.
He watched the clock carefully as they talked, with Angela deftly providing witty commentary when needed, and allowing him to take over with his usual short answers. Occasionally she prodded him when a newer officer wanted to discuss medals, real valor and not just made-up tales. Their time at Klink's party was soon coming to an end, but before he could make good his escape with Angela and begin their journey back to the front, he had to dance.
Reinhardt hated dancing. Ever since his wife had passed, dancing did not bring the same joy it once did. He had heard complaints from women before – usually bridesmaids at weddings he had been asked to attend by old friends – that his dancing was wooden, lacking emotion. Tonight, it seemed Angela had the same reaction.
“You can relax, you know,” she said quietly. “You're not on the battlefield anymore.”
“Dancing has not been my strong suit.”
Her hands were incredibly warm, he noticed, as she began to take the lead from him. “I would have expected a man of your caliber to know how to dance,” she joked. “A friend of mine once said war is like ballet.”
“Soldiers are not dancers.”
She looked up at him, tilting her head as if she were challenging him to back that assertion up. “Are they not? Do you forget the 18th century, when regiments marched as one to the sound of a drumbeat?”
He pursed his lips, desperately trying to avoid her eyes. “That was then. Today, soldiers march to the parade field and back. A modern war is no place for a drummer boy.”
“But you still dress up like it's 1751,” she teased. “For someone who dislikes dancing, you certainly have a natural rhythm about you.”
Finally, he looked back at Angela, and Reinhardt found his breath lodged in his throat as he noticed all at once how lovely she looked. When they had first met a year ago, she had entranced him with her beauty, but back then, he had appreciated it much like one admired a priceless work of art, hanging in a museum.
Tonight, however, was different.
As he looked into her striking blue eyes, it was like he had just seen the ocean for the first time. Her steps were light, angelic, almost as if she made no effort to glide her feet across the floor. He, on the other hand, practically stomped about in his jackboots, his medals bouncing against his chest with every step. But her? The only sign she even moved at all was the bounce of her hair on every beat.
She took the lead from him again. Her soft skin contrasted harshly with his own hard, calloused hands worn hard by years of combat. It had been years since he had feelings for someone in this way. ever since Frieda had passed. For the first time since Frieda had passed, he saw the person standing across from him smile, the mischievous curve of her lip promising to deliver a clever remark at exactly the right time. It reminded him so much of Frieda, how she always found ways to tease him and take the harsh edge of military life off of him, but where it was more in Frieda's nature to play harmless practical jokes, Angela was more inclined to to use her words as her weapon.
And yet, he could not bring himself to try to take it further. She was part of his regimental staff – it simply wouldn't be appropriate. He could not bring dishonor to himself by beginning an inappropriate relationship. What would the others think? Would he find himself ostracized if this happened? Would she even want an old hare like him?
These questions – and dozens more – burned in his mind as he and Angela began to depart. As he usually did, Colonel Klink headed over to bid them farewell, hanging around as Reinhardt put on his overcoat.
“Leaving so soon, Colonel Wilhelm?” he asked.
“Well, you know how I view these parties, Klink,” Reinhardt replied, straightening out his collar.
“Yes, yes,” he said, waving a hand dismissively. “You know, Reinhardt, I think most men don't know how to host a proper party, but me? Haha, well, I happen to make an excellent show of it!” He smiled wide, clasping his hands together as he laughed. Mere seconds later, he became very concerned, his voice dropping low. “Uh, speaking of, how do you think I did?”
“Colonel Klink, usually I consider such parties boring and not at all worth the effort,” Reinhardt began, sliding on a pair of gloves as Angela patiently waited, watching over the conversation.
“Mhm?” Klink said, expectantly awaiting a compliment.
“But you, Klink? Well, when you host a party, I consider them a colossal waste of my time. Good evening, Colonel.”
Angela smiled, suppressing a laugh as she headed out the door with him.
As it turned out, Reinhardt could have fun at these parties. Who would have ever thought?
28 June, 1942
The regiment had made excellent progress, breaking into Voronezh brutally and efficiently. For reasons unknown to Reinhardt, the sole bridge that could have paused his advance had not been destroyed by the Russians, and thus his forces, with the help of the French Waffen-SS unit, were able to sweep aside the token defense force there. The outskirts of Voronezh itself looked like hell. Small wooden houses, built to house people to work on the nearby farms, were stubbornly held by the Soviet defenders. Reinhardt's tank had been parked outside the city, and Sergeant Rohme lobbed high-explosive shells at the enemy over a relatively flat plain. Before too long, he heard someone banging on the turret roof. It must have been the Lieutenant.
Reinhardt opened up his hatch, poking out enough to speak to the Frenchwoman, but not enough to be shot at by a Russian sniper. “Yes?” he asked, keeping his head low. “What is it?”
“These bâtards are killing my men!” Lieutenant Lacroix shouted, pointing vaguely to the Russians in Voronezh. “I need your regiment to conduct fire support to help us!”
He sighed, trying to understand where she was coming from. “Lieutenant, do you think we're not already doing this? What do you expect us to do?”
“I don't care!” she screamed, gripping her MP40 tight. “Something! Anything! Just blow these Bolshevik scum to hell!”
Reinhardt shook his head, waving her away. “Get off of my tank, Lieutenant, and let us get to work!”
Lieutenant Lacroix did as asked, screaming in French to the nearest soldiers. Through his vision blocks, he could see the French SS division charging forward under the fire of his regiment. They had fuel tanks on their backs for flamethrowers. What were they planning to do? Concerned, Reinhardt opened up his hatch once more, searching for Lieutenant Lacroix.
“Lieutenant!” he shouted, drawing her attention.
Irritated, she wandered over, frowning. Lieutenant Lacroix shrugged her shoulders, silently demanding Reinhardt get on with it.
“What are your men doing?”
She looked out at her men, arching her back to get a better look from behind the tank. “Solving the Bolshevik problem,” she said. “Why? Does your regiment feel like joining the war, Colonel?”
“You intend to burn the homes, yes? Have you cleared the city of civilians? What if there's still people inside?”
“There's only Bolsheviks there,” Lieutenant Lacroix spat. “Do not worry, Colonel, I will make sure this area has been sufficiently pacified.”
“What does that mean?” Reinhardt asked, but it was for naught. Lieutenant Lacroix had already begun running off to rejoin her unit. Ahead of him, he could see the French begin lighting buildings on fire with their flamethrowers.
“Oh shit!” Sergeant Rohme shouted. “Panzerführer! Russian tank!”
Reinhardt's attention was drawn away from the French, and to a lone green-painted tank that had appeared before them. It was tall, an unfamiliar silhouette to him. The turret slowly began to turn, and the gun went up in arrested motion.
“They're going to shoot at us!” the loader yelled, hastily shoving in an armor piercing round.
“Sergeant, blow that bloated tank to hell!” Reinhardt ordered.
Without needing further encouragement, Sergeant Rohme sent the shell downrange, and through his vision blocks, Reinhardt watched it hit the enemy tank. He heard it clearly ring out as steel violently vibrated.
But still the enemy tank persisted. Its gun kept going up, no doubt trying to lob a shell of its own at them. It stopped, but instead of shooting at Reinhardt's tank, it sent a shell screaming at the French, which threw men around like dolls both with and without limbs.
“Panzerführer, the armor's too thick! What do we do?!”
“Fire at the tracks! Demobilize it, the turret is slow!”
Sergeant Rohme did as ordered as the gun was reloaded, and once more, Reinhardt watched the shell hit the enemy tank. This time the track slid off, useless for movement, though the enemy tank still kept firing.
“Driver! Circle to the side, it can't track us if we're faster!”
His driver kicked the tank into high gear, moving rapidly around buildings that were quickly collapsing under the fire. Other tanks in the regiment began to report similar lack of success against the new Russian tanks, panicked transmissions asking for guidance and wondering where the Luftwaffe had gone to. With the enemy tank slowly moving to their new position, Reinhardt's tank careened around a corner, with the side armor providing an excellent target for Rohme's gunnery skills. Another shot went out, and again it impacted.
To no effect whatsoever. Reinhardt could see the impact it had made in the armor, but it had not penetrated.
All hope seemed lost. After all, they couldn't destroy this tank, and he had no jagdpanzers attached to his regiment. They could only spend so long trying to make a penetrating shot, and odds were not looking good.
“Panzerführer,” Sergeant Rohme asked. “Panzerführer! What are your orders?!”
Before he could answer, Reinhardt saw a Frenchman climb onto the tank and throw open the turret hatch, spraying it with submachine gun fire and following it up with a grenade. The French cheered victoriously, continuing on their marauding and destruction.
The new Soviet tanks had only caused problems, and Reinhardt began to doubt that his regiment's tank guns were sufficient to deal with these threats. He had to talk to Torbjörn about this when he returned to base. Perhaps there was a new model, or a new ammunition type that they could use to make up for the deficiencies of the Panzer IV and III.
Unfortunately, it would be another several hours before his division and the French disengaged from combat here to head towards Stalingrad. By the time they had left, Voronezh was a burning ruin, half of it caused by the French, the rest by the retreating Russians. What did it matter to take all of this land if the Russians just burned everything they left behind?
Chapter 6: Storm Clouds over Stalingrad
Reinhardt's regiment continues the advance towards Stalingrad.
Sometimes this needs to be said - I do appreciate any and all concrit, and I will do my level best to respond to every comment I get on my fics, both this one and others. Do not be afraid to leave a comment!
Reinhardt was usually up early in the morning, far earlier than most others. After all, he had to set an example for his men. How could he expect them to work hard if he did not? Today, though, it seemed someone else had beat him to be up first. He could hear clearly a record player, from which a bizarre, unfamiliar piano tune emanated. Captain Shimada stood in his room, alone, doing… something, no doubt. Reinhardt did not speak Japanese, but he did not have to be fluent to gather that these were commands of some kind coming from the radio. Perhaps a routine the Japanese army demanded of their soldiers each morning?
The regimented routine was unlike anything Reinhardt had seen before. In the German Army, mornings were left to the men to handle for themselves until formation. Even then the first formation of the day was just to ensure each man had survived the night, and not dishonored himself by deserting. The music came to an end, and the record skipped as it began to repeat. Captain Shimada said something in Japanese, turning and jumping in surprise as he saw Reinhardt observing him.
“Colonel,” he said, clutching his heart. “I did not expect you would be there. My apologies for not hearing you enter.”
“No, it is alright. Was… was that…?”
Immediately, Captain Shimada nodded, masking any emotion he may have had. “Morning routine for all soldiers and citizens of the Empire. It is intended to cut in half the time it takes for the body to wake up in the morning. Within a few hours I should be ready to face the day.”
Reinhardt nodded, still unsure what exactly he had just witnessed. “I'm sorry,” he said, trying to comprehend it all. “You said for all people of Japan?”
“Well, of course,” Captain Shimada replied, almost like it should have been obvious. “We are all servants of the Emperor. It is our duty to ensure we remain fit for when he needs us. My apologies, Colonel, but could we discuss this later?”
Right. Yes. He had interrupted the Captain's morning routine, hadn't he? Rather rude, Reinhardt. He excused himself, allowing Captain Shimada to get on with his morning. Reinhardt had his own routine to finish anyway – for one, his first cup of coffee.
Fuel shortages now meant that, for a moment at least, Reinhardt's regiment had to stop. It was for the better, anyway – increasing Soviet resistance near the Don River convinced him and Field Marshal Paulus that the Sixth Army was not strong enough to challenge the Soviets across the river, and thus by the Field Marshal's orders the advance had been halted to wait for reinforcements. Stalingrad was within reach, he could feel it – but it also meant expanding an already shaky supply line.
The question of logistics had always come up, but in these recent months, it was a question that was ever-present. It was a daily struggle, and the regiment needed to find the balance between maintaining the offensive, and conserving already limited fuel and spare parts. Usually, Captain Shimada provided a coldly indifferent view of the situation, seeing each number as exactly that – a number. To him, fuel and spare parts were not representative of how healthy and fit for fighting the regiment was, but were merely figures that told him only what he wanted to hear.
“Captain,” Reinhardt probed one day, intensely curious about this mindset. “You seem to have a certain knack for numbers. What is your background?”
Captain Shimada glanced up, hastily jotting down a note as he prepared to switch back to German. “My family is part of the new… zaibatsu that exist in Japan. We are proud gunsmiths, and our arsenals are some of the finest in Japan.”
“You use a term I'm not familiar with.”
“Yes, I… am unsure how to translate it.” Captain Shimada said, nodding. “Our company is not as large as your Mauser, or Krupp, but we are doing well regardless of the war.”
Ah. He understood now. A corporate entity.
“So you are a businessman first, not a soldier.”
“No,” Captain Shimada replied. “I am a loyal servant of the Emperor first. Anything else is subordinate to my duty to the Emperor.”
Reinhardt nodded. He could understand that, at least. It was not so different from his service to Germany, at least outwardly. So what if his idol was a man and not a flag? Of course, such ideals strayed dangerously towards the Nazi ideology he avoided. Reinhardt was not one for hero worship, or even leader worship. Such things were dangerous, lest he neglect his duty to Germany herself.
“If you don't mind me asking, Captain,” Reinhardt said, circling a number that seemed suspect. “What is your view on this war?”
Captain Shimada's eyebrows jumped up, as if he were unsure what he was being asked. He put his pen down, his eyes darting back and forth as he began to formulate an answer. “Well, if we only speak of the Russian Front, Colonel, then I believe the German Army has a high chance of success. German espirit de corps is high, much higher compared to the Russian examples I have seen. Certainly, the fact that the Russians have opted to continue retreating, especially after Moscow, is evidence to this.”
Reinhardt nodded, pausing as he stared at the fuel levels for last week. They were particularly concerning, almost as concerning as Captain Shimada's overconfidence in morale and fighting spirit. “High morale does not make for a sure victory, Captain.”
“Does it not? From what I have seen, high morale leads to victory.”
“What do you call Moscow, then?”
Captain Shimada paused, unsure how to respond. “A fluke. Even the Chinese were able to find victory against my army.”
“I see,” Reinhardt replied, unimpressed. Captain Shimada must have picked up on it, and bowed his head. Either out of respect or deference, Reinhardt didn't know, but he remained quiet for the rest of the afternoon. Torbjörn and Brigitte came in for a short while, with Torbjörn complaining about more tanks in the regiment needing repair. With a critical lack of spare parts, he was close to cannibalizing other tanks to make relatively simple repairs. Brigitte reported most of the regiments tanks now had the side skirts attached, a series of 20mm steel plates that were attached to the sides and front of the tank's hull, and enshrouded the turret almost completely. It destroyed visibility out the side for the driver and gunner, but the recent developments in Soviet anti-tank weaponry demanded the change.
Even Angela made herself known, remarking that a third of the regiment had called in sick for various reasons. Nearly a fifth of the regiment was wounded, not to mention the incalculable deaths from combat over the past year. The regiment was bleeding, badly, and recent experience with toughening Soviet resistance after crossing the Don river was not making it any easier. He could only hope that, from this point forward, their task would become easier.
Maybe it was just wishful thinking.
26 August, 1942
The regiment was on the move again. The Don river had finally been crossed, and a bridgehead established on the eastern shore. Behind the regiment stood the Italian, Hungarian and Romanian armies, each one within range of Stalingrad but suffering constant setbacks and Soviet counterattacks. From where he was, Reinhardt could see Stalingrad's outline, spewing noxious black smoke as fires raged unchecked. Aircraft engines roared overhead like clockwork as planes flew back and forth, dropping bombs on Stalingrad that echoed even from here.
A far more pressing matter, however, was the group of Soviet tanks ahead of him, accompanied by a seemingly endless wave of infantry. His radioman had long stopped answering calls from the division's headquarters, far more focused on reloading the MG34 and keeping the advancing Russians suppressed. Next to him, Sergeant Rohme was constantly adjusting the gun, trying to alternate between firing HE shells into oncoming Russian infantry and attempting to demobilize or stress enemy tanks. The critical lack of HEAT rounds only complicated their defense, and if his own tank lacked such crucial ammunition, Reinhardt had to wonder how the rest of the regiment would fare.
“Panzerführer, the machine gun is out of ammunition!”
Well, that just added another problem to the whole mess.
“Sergeant,” Reinhardt asked, scanning the swarmed fields in front of them. “How long do you believe you can sustain this defense?”
“Hans! How much fucking HE do we have left?”
“Seven rounds!” Hans shouted over the sound of the gun being reloaded.
“Honest opinion, Panzerführer?” Sergeant Rohme said, turning back to the gunsight. “Thirty more seconds!”
“Panzerführer,” the radioman reported over the intercom. “Division HQ is saying to retreat back across the Don. Hilkenberg's regiment has been pushed back!”
Sighing, Reinhardt looked out on the field once more. There were far too many Russians out there. Even when they demobilized a tank or somehow got a penetrating shot, the crews refused to give up, often dismounting and rushing forward with whatever personal weapons or tools they had as their only means of fighting. “Driver, full reverse, keep our front armor pointed at them. Inform the regiment we are retreating.”
“Understood, Panzerführer,” the drive replied, smoothly putting the tank in reverse.
To his left, Sergeant Rohme smacked the side of the turret, shaking his head in disappointment. “I can't believe it. Panzerführer, when do we-”
His words were cut short as a Soviet tank round slammed into the turret, and at once Sergeant Rohme's head disappeared. The force of the round impacting the tank rang in Reinhardt's ears, with the driver asking what had happened through the intercom. Blood stained the white walls of the interior, and Sergeant Rohme's headless body slumped over in his seat, his right hand still gripping the gun controls.
Reinhardt could hardly believe his eyes. He heard the driver's repeated demands for knowledge, only for the loader to coldly inform him Sergeant Rohme had been killed. Even now, blood was seeping out of him, dripping onto the turret floor.
“Driver!” Reinhardt ordered, finally finding his voice. “Turn us around and get out of here!”
As ordered, the tank began to turn. Small-arms fire bounced off the hull and turret. The Russians clearly had not forgotten about them, and harassed them the entire way back across the Don. The iron smell of blood mixed with oil and gunpowder, stinging Reinhardt's nose with every breath.
Upon returning to their base after the disorganized retreat, which had resulted in the loss of another four tanks, maintenance set to work immediately towards at least attempting to restore the tank. The turret was written off as unusable due to the penetrating shot, which compromised its armor. The gun's breech had taken some shrapnel, but not enough to seriously prevent its use for spare parts, or replacement for another tank, and so Torbjörn happily took the remnants of the turret with him.
Unfortunately, it had to be taken off first. And before even that could be done, Sergeant Rohme's body had to be extracted and given a proper burial. This task fell to Brigitte and a few able-bodied men who knew the Sergeant well and wanted to make sure he was treated with respect. Reinhardt could not help but wonder as he climbed out of the tank whether or not anyone had told Brigitte of the nature of Sergeant Rohme's death.
Almost immediately after getting out of the tank, Angela was upon him, having stepped outside the headquarters to greet him back from combat. She approached him with clear concern on her face, her eyes wide in terror. “Colonel,” she said as she got close. “You're bleeding.”
“Bah,” he said, waving a hand dismissively. “It's from… the Sergeant, I-”
“No, Colonel,” Angela said, much more insistently. “You're bleeding.”
Behind him, he heard Brigitte scream, and turned to see she had opened the tank turret's side hatches. By now she had already jumped off the tank and was bent over, vomiting. The nearby tankers groaned, shouting at her to get on with it and help them. Wiping her mouth, Brigitte stood tall for just a second, turning to face the tank – and then whipping back around when she caught sight of the blood on the hatch to vomit again.
“Colonel, please,” Angela urged. “Let me take a look at you. What happened out there?”
Reinhardt relayed the story as Angela dragged him inside, Torbjörn's shouting fading out as the door was closed behind them. He and Angela headed into the office, where by her orders he took off his black tanker's tunic. Once he had done so, he looked down at his undershirt – which was stained red with blood. When had that happened?
“What in the...” Reinhardt muttered, daring to touch the wounds. Almost immediately, his skin began to itch, and suddenly even just moving and not focusing on the pain became impossible. Angela turned around, practically pushed him into his chair. Not like he could have done it himself if he wanted to. He had no energy to do much other than endure the pain.
“This shrapnel is dangerous,” she muttered, cleaning off the area with an alcohol-soaked rag, which stung each time it touched his wounds. “It's a good thing I'm here, otherwise who knows what would have happened. This needs immediate medical attention, Reinhardt.”
“I cannot lead the regiment from a desk,” Reinhardt complained, wincing in pain as Angela began extracting bits of shrapnel.
“Well, you may have to,” Angela said, frowning as she called in Lieutenant Ackermann, ordering him to find a surgeon immediately. As he departed, she sighed, resting her head on her hand. “Reinhardt, I don't know how you conduct war, but at least recognize you could have died today. I got some shrapnel out, but if your medic can't get the rest out… well, suffice to say it will be a very painful death.”
The hidden words “You don't deserve that” scarcely needed to be said. He could tell she thought it just by the worry etched onto her face alone. Frieda had been the same way. Every time Reinhardt returned with an injury, she had stayed by his bedside constantly fussing over him, making sure he had everything he needed. He remembered clearly the day he had returned from Flanders with his ruined eye, a victim of a British bayonet. Even now he struggled to see out of his eye sometimes, but back them it was a minor inconvenience.
It was something Frieda worried about much more than he ever did.
And now, with his body full of shrapnel, being carried away by the doctors to the nearest surgery room, he wondered how much of Angela's worry was borne out of a real concern for him, or if she was more focused on his general health as part of the overall regiment. It was a question he took with him as he slipped into unconsciousness as the regiment's medical team began to work on him.
12 September, 1942
Though he had scarcely been cleared for duty, and the effects of the shrapnel still affected his ability to move his arm, Reinhardt continued to personally lead from the front. His old regimental tank, now used for spare parts, had been replaced by a new model. This one featured a longer 7.5cm gun, and according to Brigitte, better armor. Today, they had begun approaching Stalingrad proper. Due to the nature of Stalingrad, they had to cross the Volga River frontally, a prospect he did not look upon with favor. Most of his old crew was with him in the new tank, save for his gunner of course – Sergeant Rohme had been replaced by a certain Sergeant Hutmacher, a man fresh from service in North Africa.
Thankfully, none of them had to take much time to adjust to the new tank. The positions remained relatively the same, and aside from the quirks of a tank that each man comes to know, there was virtually no need to spend time training. Much like the quirks of a horse, every tank had its own unique personality to it. The old Panzer IV F1 he had used until just recently had a tendency to have stuck gears, a chronic issue that Torbjörn could never fix. The new F2 he was in now seemed to have a troublesome turret drive and suspension issues – often the tank was front-heavy, and slipped in neutral gears. He would have to have Torbjörn and Brigitte take a look at this when they had a chance.
It seemed relatively quiet. The Soviets had abandoned much of Stalingrad, leaving it a ruin that threatened to hide danger around every corner. Lieutenant Lacroix's French SS soldiers surrounded the incoming convoy from his regiment, mixing with the panzergrenadiers from another unit. A few Germans and Frenchmen shared cigarettes and rides on the few tanks which opted to take riders, conversing with one another and scanning the environment.
“Ah, how lovely,” Lieutenant Lacroix muttered, smiling as she looked upon the destruction of Stalingrad.
“What is lovely?” Reinhardt asked, propping up his good arm on the cupola roof. “The reckless destruction of a city?”
Lieutenant Lacroix laughed, leaning back against the turret as she gestured to the ruins. “Look at it. A city named after the Bolshevik's leader, a smoldering ruin. What proud anti-Bolshevik could not find beauty in this?”
Reinhardt scoffed. “I suppose you and I have different definitions of beauty, then.”
“Do not worry, Colonel. Just like at Voronezh, we will pacify this area. Soon, the oil here will be Germany's, and we can finally rid the world of the entire disgusting Bolshevik ideology once and for all.”
Reinhardt did not see fit to reply. There was no point. He could hear the Luftwaffe flying overhead, screaming sirens dropping bombs on far-away targets as the deep booms echoed throughout the ruins. These wrecks were a positive and a negative – he would not have wanted to have fought in a built-up city, but these ruins provided so many ways to slip in and strike at them. Each broken wall, every collapsed roof could have hidden scores of Russians. Smokestacks from fallen factories could have hidden anti-tank guns, or snipers waiting to kill tank commanders. It made him feel all at once vulnerable and unsafe.
How ironic, since he should have the best armor of all.
Chapter 7: Taking Station No. 1
Zarya arrives in Stalingrad as part of the 62nd Army.
Aleksandra had done well for herself since Moscow.
Now part of the 62nd Army, she had shot like a rocket up the ranks, taking Comrade Sergeant Druzhinovka's place as Sergeant. He had likewise earned a promotion, and was now Comrade Lieutenant. Though to her, he was just Dima. By this point, the two had become genuine friends, having fought together through the mud and blood of Moscow, Rzhev, Demyansk, and most recently at the Don river. In Dima's eyes, Aleksandra had proven herself as a capable fighter and a soldier to be trusted, and that made “Zarya” invaluable to him.
She accepted the new name – not at all her usual moniker of “Sasha” that most of her friends from Krasnoyarsk would have called her – in stride, eager to take up his former role. She retained the DP-28 she had been trained on, in contrast to many squad leaders who preferred using submachine guns or the new semi-automatic rifle that few could get their hands on. It was for the better that she had been promoted – for one, now she had to learn who these people who were in her squad were. The Tatar was not just a description, but Rashid Garipova from Yelabuga. The Caucasian was not just from some broad geographical area, but a proud Azerbaijani named Mirza Iskandarov from Ganja.
But, not all could last forever. The Russians she never knew, replaced just as quickly by similarly nameless men from across the Union. The Ukrainian, Sergei, had been killed by a German machine gun at Rzhev. Dima had often told her not to get too attached. Learn the names and nothing more. Anything else, he said, and one risked losing their mind. It was why up until Demyansk, Zarya was just “Private Zaryanova” rarely, much more often “you with the rifle”. Thus, Zarya had similarly implemented such measures. Each soldier was only Private, or just their role if she did not recall their name.
The sound of a bomber flying overhead brought Zarya out of her ruminating. Right. They were marching on a destroyed railroad, on the way to a train station. The Germans had taken Mamayev Kurgan, a vitally important hill that offered an excellent view all around Stalingrad, and just at the foot of the height was Railway Station No. 1, their objective. Zarya's squad, and the company that Dima helped command, was reinforcing the already beleaguered comrades who had just taken Mamayev Kurgan back.
The station was in sight now. Zarya called out to form a skirmish line, breaking out of their road march. The area had not been touched by artillery yet – the few craters that existed were small, probably from mortars or similar. Dima called out that the attack would be beginning soon, and to prepare themselves. The Germans had just taken the railway station, and they were unlikely to give it back so easily.
Almost immediately, the sound of a German machine gun filled the air, and the newer squad members took to the ground. “Get up!” Zarya yelled, urging them forward. She took position near a broken wall, propping up her own machine gun to respond in kind. “Garipova! Take the fresh ones and flank to the left! The rest of you, keep moving forward!”
Ahead of her, she could see the Germans moving, their gray helmets popping in and out of windows as they tried to form their defenses. Rifle fire poked in and out between machine gun bursts, and the staccato of a German submachine gun echoed from somewhere inside the station. A squad of Germans burst out, ducking and weaving to get to cover on the station platform.
Out of ammo. Zarya swiftly reloaded, one of the new Russians handing her a fresh magazine. She knocked the uncompromising disk into place, sending out more and more rounds as her squad moved forward. Each step they took brought them closer to the station, and though the Germans used well their grenades and rifles, Zarya's machine gun was the difference. The German machine gun from earlier had been silenced, and Garipova's flank prevented anyone else from taking it up and maintaining fire.
“Into the station!” Dima shouted, pushing Iskandarov forward. “Go! Go! Go!”
Zarya picked up her DP, jumping over the wall to rejoin the rest of the squad as they flooded into the railroad station, firing unaimed shots at the Germans as they retreated. Shots and the guttural screams of dying Germans rang out from the interior as the station was slowly secured.
As the last shots were fired, Dima tossed an empty magazine to the floor, gesturing for them to head to him. “Alright,” he said. “Good work, comrades. Go out and take ammo from the dead and wounded.”
Dima's voice began to fade out as Zarya stopped listening to him. It was standard things by now – secure the area, get any extra ammo lying around, settle in and drink some water or eat food if you had it. Zarya found a nice spot to rest, leaning against an overturned desk.
A deafening boom erupted, and Zarya saw a station wall disappear as she was thrown to the floor. The gaping hole showed a German tank had arrived, and the squad was panicked, trying to find their cohesion.
“COUNTERATTACK!” Dima shouted, helping Zarya up. “Radioman! Where the fuck are you?!”
A new kid, one of the few Ukrainians still left in all of Russia, scrambled over herself trying to get to Dima, tripping over a broken piece of the floor. Dima and the Ukrainian had taken cover behind an overturned sofa, rapidly calling for mortar support from higher up. Acting quickly, Zarya shoved her way past her, setting up her machine gun to start shooting at Germans.
“Where's the anti-tank rifle?!” Zarya screamed, taking over temporary command.
“Right here, Comrade Sergeant!” Iskandarov yelled back, lugging the massive rifle forward and slamming it on the same wall Zarya had taken position on. Without further orders, Iskandarov shouldered the rifle and took aim. Immediately, the sharp report of the rifle nearly deafened her, but not enough for her to miss the sound of metal pinging against metal, the telltale sign that once again the anti-tank rifle was not up to snuff to actually kill a German tank. Iskandarov cursed in Azerbaijani as he reloaded, again firing. This time, a solid thunk could be heard, and the tank's turret stopped moving. He must have done something.
“Artillery's coming in thirty seconds!” Dima shouted over the noise of gunfire. “Get to cover!”
The squad scrambled, finding anything solid enough to offer decent protection. Zarya took cover near the ticket counter, keeping watch for more Germans. As promised, the familiar sound of mortars came in, sending dirt flying in massive showers. The only problem was that none of the rounds were hitting Germans.
“Dima!” Zarya shouted, drawing his attention. “The mortars aren't hitting!”
“What?!” he called back.
“The. Mortars. Are. Missing!” she yelled. “Get them to change their fire!”
“Fuck!” Dima shouted, dragging the Ukrainian with him to the ticket counter to get a better look. Once he saw the inability of the mortars to do anything useful, he swore again. “Give me that fucking radio!” Meekly, the Ukrainian handed over the receiver, which Dima ripped from her hands. “This is platoon commander, calling battalion artillery! ...yes, ask the mortar battery one question; have they ever actually hit anything with that mortar?!”
A garbled reply came back, but in the distortion of the radio and over Zarya's machine gun, she couldn't hear it. What she could hear clearly was Dima cursing again, throwing away the receiver and causing the Ukrainian to rush to try and retrieve it.Pained Georgian could be heard from the next room over. The Germans had broken in. Dima called a hasty retreat, back out of the station and back to Mamayev Kurgan.
Just as quickly as they had taken it, they had lost Station No. 1.
Two hours passed. They had taken, lost, retaken, and lost again the station four times by now. The minute Zarya expected that they had finally won the battle for good, the Germans came back in force and seized the station once again. By this point, Dima considered the entire affair a personal affront to him. This building was no longer Station No. 1 to him, it was his station, and any other order was condemned as not useful. For him, the only goal any of them had was taking and holding the station once and for all.
A lull arrived on their seventh attack on the station, time to reload and settle down. Zarya had not eaten since the morning's meal at 8 AM, and the long march to Mamayev Kurgan meant they arrived with their breakfast already digested at noon. Dima had elected to begin the attack on Station No. 1 immediately, which also meant they had no time for lunch. With a little time graciously allowed by the Germans, Zarya pulled out chunks of black bread from her bread bag, preparing to eat them as she waited for her tea to finish boiling.
Unfortunately, she would not get to enjoy her tea. Almost the instant that she had bitten into the bread, German rifle fire broke out, and with bread still in her mouth, Zarya went back to fighting. For the eighth time, they lost the station as they were bullied out.
Zarya realized as they ran back to Mamayev Kurgan that she had left her tea still steeping in the station.
At nearly four thirty, another attack brought them into the station for the tenth time, and despite running dangerously low on ammunition, the Red Army once again claimed control of the destroyed building. Little remained of any actual cover in the station, with most having been destroyed by grenades, artillery, and tanks. In the chaos of the attacks and retreats, Iskandarov had died, and Zarya counted four times they had stepped over his body on the way to and from the station. A Tajik she had known for all of twenty minutes had perished as well, but he had refused to die quietly. Instead, during the back-and-forth pitched battle, he moaned and cried out for any sort of relief. By the time they had taken back the station the tenth time, he had finally passed.
Zarya found her tea undisturbed, far too bitter to drink.
The sun began to set on Stalingrad as one final time, they attacked the railroad station. In their final assault on the dilapidated station, the sky had the hue of a woman on fire, giving a signal as to what to expect in their upcoming assault. Dima had elected to take the men's vodka rations and collect them into bottles he had found lying around and create improvised incendiary grenades. This move was initially taken without the men's favor, but once Dima explained what he was doing with it, popular support rallied around the Comrade Lieutenant and each man willingly surrendered his vodka for the task.
With a loud, reverberating ura, the company again charged into battle as night began to fall on Stalingrad. Her machine gun had run out of ammunition long ago, and to compensate Zarya had picked up a Mosin from one of the long-dead comrades on the ground. After a year of fighting, the Mosin was no longer heavy for her, instead it was just another rifle. After all, carrying around the machine gun had made it easier to wield the Mosin more effectively.
“Burn the fascists!” Dima shouted, lighting up a grenade of his own and lobbing it at the Germans. Rifle fire mixed with submachine gun fire as they charged in, with the Germans trying to both fight them and the fires that were now consuming the station. A brutal, disgusting close-quarters battle ensued where all form of military discipline broke down. Zarya had fixed the bayonet to her borrowed rifle, beating up on Germans and stabbing them at every opportunity. She lost track of time, space and even reality itself as she moved through the burning building, killing as many Germans as she possibly could. Before another fifteen minutes were up, the enemy was in full rout, a fact that Dima took great pleasure in, taunting them as they ran away.
The day had ended, finally. Zarya had spent nearly seven hours in combat, and the only proof they had that they had even effected anything was the burning remains of Station No. 1. She overheard from scattered radio reports that the 13th Guards Rifle Division, the division her company was assisting, no longer existed. It had been completely destroyed by the day's combat. Even her own company was decimated. Apart from Iskandarov, the young Ukrainian had died as well, her skull opened up by a German with a shovel. From the relatively untouched corner of the station Zarya had begun resting against, she could see the remains of the girl's bloodstained pilotka lying on the ground, mere inches away from her head.
The remains of the company fell into an uneasy rest, with a camp established in the railway station for the night. Tomorrow, with any luck, they'd be able to head out and destroy the Germans somewhere else. They began to settle in for the night, with most lighting up cigarettes. Since she did not smoke, Zarya often traded away her matches and instead of getting packs of cigarettes, she usually received chocolate or biscuits in her rations. By the time they had all gotten organized and secured the station, it was almost pitch black.
Dima settled down next to her, rummaging through one of his pockets. Soon enough, though, he sighed, frustrated. “Goddammit,” he muttered. “Hey, you, got any spare smokes? I'm fucking out.”
“Yes, Comrade Sergeant,” one of the replacement Russians said. “Do you need a match too?”
“Nah, I just need the smoke.”
The Russian headed over, handing Dima a cigarette before retreating to his corner of the station. Stuffing the cigarette into is mouth, Dima lit it and began smoking, relaxing as he stared out to the sky. For the first time in nearly a month, it looked like Dima had actually fully relaxed and forgotten about the war.
“Good cigarette?” Zarya asked.
“Fuck yeah,” he replied. “Haven't had a good one in months. I think this came from America.”
“You can check the pack if you want,” the Russian said. “I can't read the thing anyway.”
Dima scoffed, standing up to head over to their comrade. “You can barely read Russian, you fucking moron.”
Before he had even crossed the room, a distant rifle shot rang out, and the sound of a bullet hitting flesh echoed in the broken lobby. Dima fell to the floor as blood poured out of him. The squad all at once began to shout and cry out, panicking.
“Shut up!” Zarya barked. “Put out your cigarettes!”
After a little back and forth shouting, and a fruitless search for a hidden German sniper, the squad's cigarettes went out and once again they were in darkness. Zarya further ordered them to stay away from the windows and holes in the wall for the rest of the night, after having dragged Dima to cover. One of the faster men she had dispatched to find a medic, with orders to literally pull him to the station if he had to. Zarya would not allow Dima to die in Stalingrad like this, not when she could help him.
The night passed with few being able to sleep. Dima's moans of pain kept them up for most of the night.
Chapter 8: Not One Step Back
Zarya settles in for a long winter in Stalingrad.
22 November, 1942
Winter had fallen over Stalingrad, enshrouding the entire city in a blanket of snow. Temperatures dropped to near-frigid conditions as new soldiers, mostly Uzbeks and Armenians, joined the ranks to replace fallen comrades. Like the others, these new soldiers were just “you with the rifle” or Private, and none had the honor of calling her Zarya. To the entire squad, in fact, she accepted no form of address other than Comrade Sergeant. Zarya, or Zaryanova, was solely for fellow sergeants or Dima, and even then she only ever allowed Dima to call her Zarya.
The incoming winter had made just staying alive difficult. Their bread was often rock-hard, and boiling water for tea took far more effort than it was worth to enjoy it. The army had failed to give them adequate blankets for the harsh winter, and warm gloves were difficult to come by. It was not unusual for the men, who were unable to shave properly without risking cutting their necks open, to wake up in the morning with snow and ice on their beards and mustaches. Dima's arm, useless for several weeks after being shot at Railway Station No. 1, had finally healed up fully, allowing him to take his weapon back up and technically shave. He rarely did so, preferring the warmth his beard offered him.
Of course, combat always warmed a body up, even if the cold made working rifles near impossible. The fight for Stalingrad itself was just as brutal – if not more so – than the fight for Mamayev Kurgan and Railway Station No. 1. Often, Zarya had to confront a near impossible challenge, fighting to clear out the first floor of a building to relieve comrades, only to find that they were on the third floor, and between the first and second floors were Germans, with more hiding in the basement. Common soldier's field implements, like shovels, pickaxes, and less-common items like bludgeons and bags, became weapons that were just as deadly as any bayonet or rifle.
Compared to other sergeants in the company, Zarya found herself thriving in this combat. The Germans wanted to fight dirty? Then fight dirty she would. On the rare occasions they had captured enemy soldiers (Dima much preferred executing them, claiming the fascists deserved no sympathy) Zarya had heard them refer to Stalingrad as Rattenkrieg, which apparently meant “rat war”. How fitting a description for this madness-induced combat.
As bad as they had it, though, the Germans surely had it worse. Every day, Zarya and her squad passed by the bodies of frozen Germans, with tunics and pants that were far better suited to fighting in the summer. Some had tried to wrap scarves around their heads to stave off the cold, or stole the boots from dead Soviets, but neither seemed to help them much. Far more often they came across dead Germans than alive ones in Stalingrad, though this did not diminish the ferocity of their fighting any. This sort of stubbornness made reinforcing their comrades, much like Zarya and her squad was doing today, difficult work.
By now, the brutality and close-quarters nature of the fighting meant Zarya was involved in much shorter ranged fights than she was used to, and so she had decided to swap out her reliable DP for a submachine gun, a simple weapon called a PPSh-41 that featured an absurdly high rate of fire and far too few magazines issued for her liking. Ironically, it was now a machine gun that had pinned her down, and there was virtually no way for her to fight back. The small-caliber round of her “Burp Gun”, as many called it due to its distinctive report, did not carry much power behind it. Certainly not anywhere enough when compared to the full-powered rifle cartridge that the Germans were spitting her way now.
Being pinned down was not helped by the German propaganda that blared constantly in her ear. The Germans had set up a loudspeaker system, and a man spoke to them daily, pleading for them to give up their fight. Sometimes, cowardly comrades listened and surrendered, never to be seen again. Dima had a standing order for the squad to immediately shoot anyone who dared to surrender without orders.
“Comrades of the great Soviet Union, we have nothing against the common Soviet soldier,” it echoed, irritating her ears. “It is your leaders we are fighting, who send you into battles you cannot win! Can you truly trust your own commanders who shoot you for taking cover, or falling back in retreat? The German Army is not your enemy. Surrender and you will be treated with compassion and respect!”
Across the broken boulevard, covered by wrecked trucks and wooden boxes, Zarya could hear Dima shouting for artillery support over the sound of the machine guns. She dared to poke her head out for just a second, and was met by a flurry of ricocheting bullets. Maybe, just maybe, there was a splotch of white, a clue that the German was actually there and not just a faceless enemy. She had noticed lately that the Germans had begun using white tunics and painted their helmets white to provide them with some semblance of cover in the frozen hellscape that was Stalingrad.
“Mortars incoming!” Dima shouted as loud as possible.
The mortar company did not have a good track record. Zarya shook her head, checking the ammo level in her magazine. It was heavy, a good sign – probably over half full, at least. Right now she knew she had plenty of ammo, with a large 71-round drum magazine loaded in her weapon. She had at least four more of the smaller 35-round stick magazines in a pouch on her belt. Time to find cover, the mortars were bound to fire soon and she did not want to be caught in the crossfire.
The machine gun on the top floor of a half-ruined apartment building tracked her as she sprinted from one broken wall to the next. Bullets pinged off of a destroyed truck and embedded themselves in the ground in front of and behind Zarya, as grenades exploded all around. The familiar sound of tracks filled the air, but she could not recognize them. She didn't remember whether there were any tanks operating in this area, but in the confused mess of Stalingrad, the line between units was blurred almost daily.
The mortars screamed into the Germans, and at once the enemy machine gun stopped firing. Zarya could hear clearly the sound of concrete falling to the ground as brick crumbled and collapsed. She and her squad edged their way out of cover just in time to see a German tank demolish the first floor of the very building they were supposed to reinforce. There was no deluding themselves about this one – those men were dead. Not even the best medics they had could have helped them then.
“This is suicide!” Garipova said. “Those men are all dead, we're next!”
“Get a hold of yourself, Corporal!” Dima shouted. “Zarya! I think they had anti-tank weapons! I'll call off the artillery and we can cover you!”
The mortars continued to fall, some hitting Germans, some not. More often, they just sent freezing chunks of snow into the air, disturbing the relatively peaceful snow of Stalingrad. Zarya glanced over, noticing the new radioman was better at his job than the previous one. She scarcely remembered where he was from – maybe Siberia? Uzbekistan? It didn't matter much, in the end. All she knew was that he was big, and had a long name she didn't bother to remember.
The artillery stopped, giving Zarya a chance to head into the building. The tank slowly moved to shoot at her, but the crew was slow, allowing her to get into the ruined apartment building unscathed. Immediately, the smell overwhelmed her, the sickening hint of explosives and blood mixing together to create a disgusting, offensive odor that she was sure would stick with her for the rest of her life. Steeling herself for what she was inevitably about to face, Zarya began to search the wrecked first floor for anything useful. At this point, she would have taken anything if it meant she could kill this damned tank. Its machine gun raked the building she occupied, even though it hardly knew where she was.
Next to the legless torso of a brave comrade, she found an American-made anti-tank rocket, covered in blood. This would have to do. Zarya took the weapon up, trying to figure out where the trigger was again. She remembered briefly being trained on it, but her company was not given this weapon and it remained unfamiliar to her. Well, whatever, the thing looked simple enough. Zarya pointed the damned thing at the German tank, which so far had not spotted her and began wasting ammo on the upper floors. She pulled the trigger and watched a plume of smoke burst out, blinding her. A solid, loud explosion confirmed she had hit her mark. Satisfied, Zarya tossed the American weapon away, no longer useful.
“Dima!” she shouted as she headed back to the squad. “Tank destroyed!”
“Good fucking work,” he called back. “Let's go! There's another company that needs our help!”
Zarya and the squad linked forces once more, heading to another ruined building. Someone had set up a familiar Maxim gun here, having removed the gun shield for better visibility. Across the street, someone was shouting, probably in German. Dima ordered them to take up positions near the windows and broken walls, explaining that the other company was trying to reach a German ammo depot. Their task was to provide cover.
From her window, Zarya could see the other company, forming up near a wall. Germans darted in between windows from their building, probably an old warehouse by the looks of it. In Stalingrad, though, everything was either just another objective, or quickly destroyed. The presence of ammunition must have meant this building was spared for the time being.
“I see them!” one of the newer soldiers shouted. “On the left side!”
“It's good to know you can see!” Zarya replied. “Now shoot them!”
The Maxim echoed as it ejected bullets and spent casings. Usually, she would be able to hear the screams of dying Germans, or at least their pathetic cries for help, but by now she had learned to filter them out. It was all just useless noise anyway, not like she could do anything to help them. Besides, with the Red Army's situation as precarious as it was, they could not waste supplies on dying Germans. They had to go to good Soviet soldiers first.
“Don't let up!” Dima yelled. “They have to reach the depot! If you stop firing, I'm shooting you myself!”
Zarya shifted fire left, right, and back to the left again, until she saw the brave comrades below her hug the building. They gathered up grenades, and tossed them in as quickly as they could through every opening and then made a hasty retreat. Seconds later, one explosion then seventeen more, came from inside the warehouse. They must have hit the ammunition itself.
She could not stop herself from laughing. “Such a shame they could not defend their ammunition!”
“Looks like our comrades did the hard work for us,” Dima noted. “Good work, comrades!”
Another day, another two hours of insanity-inducing fighting. In the end, Zarya concluded the Germans were right. This was a rat's war.
1 December, 1942
Today's goal was to engage one of the most hated and despised elements of the entire German Army – the French Nazis. The presence of the French was well-known to the Soviet military, and their brutality was unmatched across the front. Many a neighborhood was wiped out entirely not because of any military value, but because the French, acting under orders from their officers, deemed the residents beneath them and preferred to simply massacre the population. By the order of the company commander, it was time for the French to be stopped once and for all.
They had tracked down the remnants of the French division, decimated by constant artillery and infantry attacks, to a department store. Snow had begun to fall, covering the piles of dead bodies – Soviet, German and French alike – that lay in the no-man's land between the apartment complexes Zarya's unit had taken control of and the French position.
“Once more, comrades!” Dima called out, standing tall amongst them. “Destroy these fascist bastards with everything you have!”
Once more, they shouted out their war cry and in unison, rose up and charged across the open field. Angry French mixed with the sound of rifle and machine gun fire as grenades exploded in the snow and the building, and blood from Soviets and French cascaded upon the ground. With great force, Zarya's troops broke through the feeble French lines on the first floor, clearing them out of the main shop floor with little effort. Occasionally, they were shot at from the upper floors where holes had been made in the building, making their task of securing the building harder.
As they began clearing out the stockroom, which by now was devoid of any sort of goods, Zarya noticed that Dima had suddenly disappeared. Where had he gone off to? She broke off from the fighting, ordering the squad to keep up the assault. She heard French coming up the top of a stairwell, with Dima standing at a set of doors pounding his fist on it in vain.
“Damn those fascists!” he shouted. “They barricaded themselves on the upper floors!”
Garipova slung his rifle over his shoulder, rubbing his hands together to keep warm. “Shouldn't we ask them to surrender, Comrade Lieutenant?”
“I'll ask them when I've blown them to hell!” Dima yelled, pounding his fist on the door one last time. “Get the explosives up here, now!”
Zarya obliged, rounding up the few engineers they had. Taking stock of the explosives, they could probably use them to either bring the entire building down, or blow open the doors. Dima opted to take the former course of action, pointing out specific pillars to use them on. Once the charges had been planted, they retreated to a safe distance, where a zealous engineer gleefully detonated them, sloughing the entire front of the building off. A massive wave of dust mixed with the snow as it enveloped Zarya and her squad, forcing most of them to cough uncontrollably.
“That, comrades,” Dima said, “is how you negotiate with fascists!”
“Let's go,” Zarya commanded. “We're securing this area!”
Just as the squad began to rise to move through the dust, a shot from a German rifle rang out, and once more Dima fell to the ground. This time, however, Zarya could hear clearly the sound of metal impacting a helmet. She turned to check Dima, and saw blood began to pool around his head, mixing with the freshly fallen snow that had begun to rest on his body.
Zarya could hardly believe her eyes. Just a few seconds ago, Dima had been bravely leading them in combat, and now he was dead, killed by a dishonorable Frenchman. Gritting her teeth and barely able to even breathe, Zarya whipped around, marching to the remains of the building. The French had come out, their hiding hole disrupted by the explosives. Instead of weapons, though, they held their hands above their heads. At the head of the surrendering column was a woman in a German uniform, her long black hair a complete mess and pure hatred in her eyes, coldly tossing away a rifle.
“Get them on their knees out here!” Zarya screamed, marking out a place with her foot. One by one, the French were stripped of their weapons, hats and helmets, and forced to kneel on the cold snow. Garipova and one of the Azerbaijanis stood by them, their rifles at the ready.
“What are we to do, Comrade Sergeant?”
Zarya narrowed her eyes at the Frenchwoman, their leader by the looks of it. Even when she was at the lowest possible point, she made no effort to look submissive, rather she seemed defiant in defeat. Zarya turned around, retrieving Dima's pistol from his holster, checking the magazine as she headed back to the French. Eight rounds, eight French.
She started with the ones on the end, leveling the pistol at their heads and coldly pulling the trigger once. They pleaded for their lives, of course, and some made moves to run away.
“Keep them in place!” Zarya ordered. Garipova and the Azerbaijani poked their bayonets into some of their backs, impressing upon them how futile running would be.
Zarya stepped in front of the officer. The French fascist stared up at her, moving her mouth around slightly and spiting in Zarya's face. She sighed as she wiped away the spit, disgusted, but did not aim the pistol at her. She would have to wait her turn.
One by one, the French were executed, until only the officer remained.
“Chienne bolchevique,” she spat, flipping rogue locks of hair out of her eyes.
Zarya looked down on the Frenchwoman, raising the gun to her head. Almost as if she had always been expecting it, the fascist pressed her face to the gun, staring into Zarya's eyes, daring her to pull the trigger. Zarya could only hope that the anger and hatred she saw in the fascist's eyes were matched by the same rage that was now consuming her.
“This is for Dima, fascist.” With little effort, Zarya squeezed the trigger one last time, watching blood spurt out of the fascist's head as she hit the ground.
A smile crossed the fascist's face as she lay in the snow, dead. If Zarya didn't know any better, she would have guessed she was happy to die for the Nazi cause. Well, if this fascist bitch wanted to die for the Germans, she was more than happy to oblige her. Zarya would do the same for every single fascist who had come to the Soviet Union. They had come all this way just to die? Die they would.
But how could Zarya face Stalingrad without Dima by her side?
Chapter 9: Ghosts in the Snow
The winter of 1942 sets in at Stalingrad.
Reinhardt's headquarters had moved to what was supposed to be a forgotten corner of Stalingrad, but he was quickly learning that no part of this city would ever be forgotten. He had expected that this mostly-intact factory would be a fitting place for the headquarters, but it proved to be just another target. Just last week, he had gotten a report that the French Waffen-SS division had been shattered entirely, with Lieutenant Lacroix's body found half-buried in snow. It seemed the Russians had seen fit to execute her. In a way, Reinhardt expected it. He believed that, one of these days, the Lieutenant's actions would catch up to her. The war she waged was not honorable, not the sort of warfare he was familiar with.
What Reinhardt did not expect was the winter of 1942.
Few were able to escape the bitter cold. On his own recommendation, Angela had requisitioned a military-style coat, with dark-blue piping on the epaulettes. She had begun wearing a field cap much like the soldiers did, often wrapping the ear flaps around her head and allowing the remnants of her hair to spill out the back. Even Captain Shimada had found his own source of personal warmth, in his case a heavy wool coat stolen from a dead Russian. Reinhardt's entire retinue had been called in for a general staff meeting as December 8th arrived; time to address the issues that would inevitably crop up as the army settled in for the winter.
“This winter is destined to be one of the coldest we've ever seen, Colonel,” Angela advised, checking the latest weather reports. “Just this week alone, the temperatures are positively frigid. The men don't have proper winter gear, and already four percent of the regiment has been admitted for frostbite-related injuries.”
“Very concerning,” Reinhardt said. “I will have to reiterate the order to requisition civilian and enemy equipment when possible.”
“I'm not sure if that will be enough,” Angela countered. “From what I've seen, not even the Russians can keep up with this cold.”
“Eh, not to interrupt,” Torbjörn said, doing exactly that. “I think far more concerning than the cold is the fact half the tanks in the regiment won't even start. The fuel and oil are freezing solid, and if we can't even warm it up, we're done for. Moving them out before spring will be impossible.”
“We should be getting something to help with that on the next supply train,” Brigitte chimed in. “Right, Reinhardt?”
Reinhardt nodded, checking his notes. If all went well, the next supply train would be here next week. That was a rather large “if”, though. It felt like being back on the Western Front, with an uncertain supply line and brutal conditions that wore down even the best army. The entire affair was depressing. According to their maps, the Soviets threatened to close the pocket every day, and there was apparently little Reinhardt's regiment could do about it.
“Reinhardt?” Brigitte's question brought him out of his thoughts. “We are getting resupplied, right?”
“Can't fight if the tanks won't start,” Torbjörn repeated.
“Yes,” Reinhardt answered. “Next week.”
“What?!” Torbjörn exploded, his eyes bulging wide in shock. “What d'you mean next week?! We need this equipment now!”
Reinhardt sighed, rubbing his temple. “Yes, I am aware, Torbjörn, but the supply corps-”
“Can't do their jobs, apparently!”
“Torbjörn, the transports are doing their best, but between partisans and the snow, it's hard to move much of anything, never mind several tons of spare parts and fuel.”
“This is more than concerning,” Angela said, concern etched onto her face. “This is outright dangerous. I had requisitioned additional medical supplies for the cold, if they don't get here… Colonel, is there any way the air force could assist? Surely the airplanes can still start?”
Reinhardt shook his head grimly. “The Luftwaffe has issues of its own. Besides, even if they could spare the planes, the Russians would shoot them down before they even approached Stalingrad. If they don't come through… well, we may have to wait for spring.”
Torbjörn scoffed, folding his arms. “As if they can even get here through all that mud. Spring just brings more problems. Reinhardt, if we have to try to retreat from this city-”
Reinhardt pointed a finger at the diminutive Swede, narrowing his eyes. “Lieutenant Lacroix and her SS cronies may not be here anymore, Torbjörn, but do not think that gives you free reign to criticize military decisions. We were all soldiers once, and soldiers follow orders.”
He rolled his eyes, barely concealing a groan of disgust. “Don't tell me you buy into the ludicrous things that buffoon in Berlin says!”
“I am a soldier of Germany,” Reinhardt reminded Torbjörn. “I have been called, and I must answer. There will be no more talk of abandoning Stalingrad so long as we have our orders, is that understood?”
Slowly and solemnly, Brigitte, Angela and Captain Shimada, the latter of whom had been quietly observing, nodded. Begrudgingly, Torbjörn also nodded. Reinhardt let out a weary sigh. This was not how he wanted his staff meetings to go. And yet, here he was, reprimanding his former comrade-in-arms for being his usual contrarian self. What had happened since the years at Ypres?
“Alright, I see no reason to draw this out further,” Reinhardt muttered. “Dismissed.”
Torbjörn and Brigitte both left quickly, attending to the regiment's tanks. Though, in this weather, there was often little to do. Angela and Captain Shimada remained behind, with the Captain looking over notes he had taken during the meeting.
“Colonel,” he said, his first words since entering the room. “The reports are less than enthusiastic. I note low morale among the regiment. Is this common during winter campaigns?”
“No,” Reinhardt said. “This is an unusually troublesome winter. Perhaps the coming spring will bring morale back to the men.”
“One can only hope. The cold makes a man bitter, Colonel.” He looked over his notes for a few moments, before standing up and bowing respectfully. “Please, excuse me, Colonel. I must take solace in myself.”
Reinhardt nodded, waving him off to show he was dismissed. His departure left only Angela in the room, rewrapping a scarf around her neck. He could see the sadness written on her face, her grave concern for the men of the regiment overwhelming even her own safety. Angela had decreed the men were to get rations first, refusing to even consider eating until Lieutenant Ackermann reported the regiment had gotten their fill. Even then, Reinhardt knew Lieutenant Ackermann lied. Food was incredibly scarce, and if this battle went on any longer, he wasn't sure how many men would be left at all.
“Angela,” he said, almost so quietly he didn't hear her. “I'm sorry you had to see that. I do not enjoy losing my temper, especially with old friends.”
She sighed, casting her eyes to look out the window as she frowned. “No, I… I understand, Reinhardt. All soldiers need to follow orders. Even if they disagree with them?”
“Especially if they disagree with them. I am not proud of the war here. It is not honorable.” Reinhardt swallowed, slowly closing his eyes as he thought of better days. “There is no glory to be found here.”
Angela seemed far more downcast than usual. He could always rely on her to provide at least some glimmer of hope from day to day, but on this afternoon, it was as if her spirit had finally been broken by Stalingrad. He mulled over the meeting more. Perhaps… perhaps he had said something wrong. Maybe there was another thing bothering her. He knew she did not revel in the glory of combat like he and Captain Shimada did.
Something was the matter with Doctor Ziegler, and he racked his brain trying to find an answer. Eventually, she stirred, moving away a rogue lock of hair and tucking it securely under her hat's flaps, standing up. “My apologies, Colonel,” she said. “I'm… I'm afraid I'm not very good for conversation today. Please keep me updated on the supply condition?”
“Yes, as much as I can. When I know something, you will be appraised.”
She smiled softly – how he had sorely missed that this day – and nodded. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”
Angela left the room, leaving Reinhardt alone in his office. It was time to turn to the maps, with nobody to talk to. Perhaps solving the Russian problem would take his mind off of the melancholic issues of his staff.
The next morning, the regiment attempted to get on the move. The motor pool was abuzz with activity, yet little work was being done. Snow-covered tanks struggled to start, and men bundled up in all the heavy layers they could muster found it difficult to use their tools and perform basic maintenance. Through it all stood Torbjörn, yelling at mechanics and stepping in to do the job himself when all else failed.
“Torbjörn!” Reinhardt called. “How reports the regiment?”
“Half-frozen in place, is how it reports,” he answered, gesturing to their tanks. “These old Czech tanks can't even start. The new IIIs and IVs are cooperating, but it's not enough. Don't even get me started on these French contraptions they sent us!”
“Do you think we could go out, support the Romanians?”
Torbjörn scoffed, shaking his head. “I hope they don't expect too much support. The regimental command tanks are ready to go. Most of the 1st and 2nd Companies report in. Half of the 4th is ready. Third can't start. But that's not the problem – tank 300 started, but 100 and 400 can't.”
This wasn't good. If the company commanders didn't have their tanks, they couldn't effectively lead. And, without the right leaders, the platoon commanders wouldn't be able to understand what was needed. Either a platoon leader would have to be temporarily promoted to company commander, or Reinhardt had to order the 3rd Company's commander to take over battalion operations.
“How reports the 2nd Battalion?”
“Stuck in place. Nothing's starting.”
This was a problem indeed. Well, it looked like someone was getting an early promotion either way. Reinhardt sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. This entire mess was just making everything complicated.
“Alright. Could you get me a list of all tanks which are operational, my friend?”
Torbjörn nodded, handing over said list. Each tank had been marked off as either operational, or unable to start for one reason or another. Torbjörn had already gone over the list once, making notes in Swedish for himself and Brigitte. There was a long list of men who would be excellent at their new job, but it also meant throwing at least one unit into disarray. Eventually, he opted to send Captain Herzog to battalion commander's position, shifting over platoon commander Lieutenant von Hessen to his captain's former position.
Today's action might prove more trouble than it was worth, if the tanks continued to prove troublesome.
Through the snow they trundled, the dull roar of their engines echoing across the broken cobblestone of Stalingrad as they made their way down an abandoned avenue. The Romanians escorted the tanks, keeping an eye out for any Russians that might be around. Nobody had to tell them how dangerous this city was. A Romanian commander had pointed out a building for Reinhardt's unit to surround, a perpetual trouble spot for them. The Romanians would be assaulting the department store head-on, while Reinhardt's tanks provided fire support.
The avenue gave way to a massive square, with frozen fountains all over and a giant statue of Lenin in the center. Their objective stood at the far end of the square, standing peacefully in contrast to the machinations of war that advanced upon it. Reinhardt retreated into the safety of the tank, giving the order for the regiment to spread out and assist the Romanians in any way they could. The 2nd Company had already swung far to the right, aiming to cut off a potential Russian retreat.
As they approached, bullets began bouncing off the tank. The Russians had spotted them. Hurried Romanian mixed with the sound of gunfire as the Romanians began their assault.
“Alright, Sergeant,” Reinhardt said. “Let's see if Africa prepared you for Stalingrad.”
High-explosive rounds were shoved into their gun, and for the first time Reinhardt could now see the effects the new long 75 gun had. The round went flying, violently hitting the department store and ruining the front wall, a bright explosion emanating from it. Smoke poured out, as more and more bullets pinged off their armor.
“Good shooting, Sergeant. Enemy machine gunner, ten meters to the right.”
Sergeant Hutmacher looked through the gunsight, shaking his head. “Panzerführer, I don't see him. What's the bearing?”
“293, Sergeant. Make it quick, the Romanians are counting on you.”
He chuckled, traversing the turret slightly. “Well, Panzerführer, when you put it like that...”
Another shot went out, and another explosion rocked the inside of the Russian position. So far, this was going rather well. However, Reinhardt was well aware such pleasantries would not last long. He was sure the other shoe would drop soon enough. Ahead of him, he saw the Romanians advancing.
“Driver, move up, let's keep pace with them as best we can.”
“Understood, Panzerführer,” the driver replied.
From inside the building came a flash of fire. That wasn't caused by an explosion. One of the smaller Panzer III tanks in the regiment stopped suddenly, a loud, dull noise coming from it. It had been hit.
“Russian anti-tank gun!” Reinhardt shouted. “Look for it and take it out!”
Radio transmissions from the regiment flooded through his tank, each company and platoon trying to find the Russian gun before it took out another tank. It fired again, this time hitting Reinhardt's tank. No penetration, but the impact of it hitting their frontal armor rang in Reinhardt's ears. Another round, another hit. His driver cursed loudly.
“What's the issue, driver?” Reinhardt demanded, trying to spot the anti-tank gun inside the building.
“The brakes are stuck!” he replied. “We're immobile, Panzerführer!”
Just one more problem to add to the list. Reinhardt sighed, ordering the regiment further in and trying to help Sergeant Hutmacher find the gun that threatened them. The Romanians had nearly made it in – if they actually got inside, they would have to rely on them to take it out. He was unsure if the Romanians could be trusted that much.
Another shot rang out, with another tank eliminated. If this kept up, what little remained of the regiment would be decimated. He couldn't let that happen. Reinhardt opened up the cupola hatches, taking his binoculars to try and see if he could find their enemy. He scanned left, right, then left again, desperately trying to see inside the dark Russian position. There we go. A brief flash of Russian green paint gave it away.
“Sergeant!” Reinhardt shouted. “Bearing 290! 300 meters! Blow that gun to hell!”
The Sergeant obliged, and another shell was ejected from their gun. Reinhardt followed the shell into the building, watching chunks of Russian steel fly out from it. A secondary explosion followed. Must have been ammunition.
“Good shooting, Sergeant! Alright, dismount! Let's see if we can't fix these brakes.”
One by one, the men evacuated the tank through their hatches, with only the radioman staying inside to provide updates from the regiment. Reinhardt circled the tank, trying to judge what else – if anything – had been hit in the short firefight. Already, the driver and loader had retrieved their tools from the box on the tank, putting them out on the snow for them to work with.
“Goddammit,” the driver muttered. “The fucking track's wrecked. Uh, apologies for my language, Herr Oberst.”
“Ah, do not worry about it. Can we fix the track? Or do we need to find spare links?”
The driver shook his head. “Hans, go over to that III, does the track look alright?”
Hans nodded, running over to the destroyed Panzer III from earlier. He tugged at the heavy links of track, before reporting it was in good condition. The driver nodded, heading over to the front of the tank where he pulled open the hatches to the brake and steering system.
“Well, Panzerführer, ” the driver said, “the way I see it, we have two choices. We have a lot of broken track links, and I don't think our spares can cover it. I can fix the brakes… probably, but we might need to take some links off of that III to cover holes. Do you want us to do that?”
Reinhardt examined the track for himself, kneeling down in the snow. “Yes,” he said. “That's our best action. Sergeant, get those tracks off the side, would you?”
Sergeant Hutmacher did as ordered, lugging the new track over. Hans was already busy knocking a length of track off of the Panzer III. The driver monkeyed away on the brake system, swearing profusely as he did so. Reinhardt had already begun unlocking the pins on the tracks, bending them out of place to allow the broken, useless track to be taken off.
“Hey, how much track do we need?!” Hans shouted out.
“Four more links!” Reinhardt called back, noting their spare track was not nearly enough for the job. Hans nodded, carrying the track over to them. As swiftly as they could, they put the track on and restored at least that part of their mobility to the tank.
“There we go!” Laughing triumphantly, the driver slammed the front hatches closed, wiping snow off his hands. “We're back in business, Panzerführer!”
The good news was, unfortunately, not quite enough. Since they had fixed their tank, the battle moved on without them.
Captain Herzog had been killed leading the regiment forward, and other company commanders made the call to fall back and leave the Romanians to their fate. There was little else Reinhardt could do but agree with the order and retreat. They nursed their wounded tank back to base, hoping there would be more spare track for them. Hans noted the track he had cannibalized from the Panzer III might not hold up forever.
Reinhardt hated it when his own predictions were right.
Chapter 10: So Far From Home
Stalingrad is surrounded by the Soviet Red Army.
It was a term written into many a book about military history. Never did Reinhardt think he would be in this position, and yet, here he was, in command of a beleaguered force, besieged on all sides by ravenous hordes of Russians. They circled around the 6th Army, waiting for a moment of weakness that would allow them to pounce upon the vulnerable German Army. Every moment of his career as a German officer had prepared him specifically to avoid this sort of scenario, and yet, here he was.
The ruins of wrecked planes were visible almost anywhere one went in Stalingrad. The Transportgruppen had suffered heavily, and Reinhardt did not have to be an air force man to understand the deleterious effect it would have on the Luftwaffe in the future. However, Reinhardt was more concerned with the encirclement and what it meant for his starving regiment. The regiment, by now, was but a ghost of itself, having been worn down by constant Russian attacks day and night. The general inability of the regiment's armored vehicles to start did not much help the situation.
Day-to-day staff meetings went poorly. Company and platoon commanders complained of inadequate supplies, and a critical lack of food. Torbjörn whinged about no spare parts, and the fundamental issue of fuel. Angela was not nearly as vocal as others, but she too took issue with the increasing reports of frostbite and other illnesses from the men. There was little Reinhardt could do. Field Marshall Paulus had took strictly his orders not to abandon Stalingrad, and refused petitions from subordinates to attempt a breakout operation.
It was truly depressing. Never in his life had Reinhardt felt so powerless. Here was a strong German tank regiment, crippled by command indecisiveness and a terrible situation that only grew worse by the day. The mood was affecting the entire regiment. The only real bright spot in his day was the fleeting conversations with Angela. There was little to discuss these days, since the regiment was almost permanently fixed to its current position, but catching the other up on their days was proving to be a pleasant distraction.
Of course, puzzling over the chronic lack of supplies was anything but.
“Do you ever stop thinking about the war, Reinhardt?” Angela asked, genuinely curious.
He looked up at her, tried not to show how much he had come to appreciate her, and smiled. “I cannot. Not when the Russians are all around.”
She got out of her chair, walking around to look at the map from the same perspective he used. Angela leaned on his left shoulder, analyzing the positions and markers he had made with the same scrutiny she no doubt used on her patients.
“It seems rather simple,” she commented. “Surely they can't sustain this forever.”
Reinhardt could not help but laugh, a dry, hollow one. He had heard it all before. He knew she meant well, but the critical lack of understanding always amused him. He scratched at the beard he had now grown – in Stalingrad, it was impossible to shave. Yet, he did not find himself laughing at her because she was ignorant. No, he found it so amusing if only because it was that simple. If they could only gather the strength for a counterattack somewhere, they could link up with the operation von Manstein was preparing to undertake. Anything to keep morale up.
“Yes, it does seem rather simple,” Reinhardt agreed. “But, the Russians have a nearly limitless pool of manpower to draw from. Whenever we knock down one Russian division, ten more spring up to take its place.”
Without warning, she rested her head on his, still staring at the map. “Reinhardt, please be honest. We're surrounded. How likely is it that we'll leave Stalingrad alive?”
He paused, taking a deep, slow breath. There was no good way to answer this. He struggled to find the words, alternating between trying to soften the blow, and put the entire scene into a military context for her.
Eventually, he decided on the direct approach. “If we do not get relieved soon,” he said grimly, “this city may very well be our grave.”
Angela remained quiet, barely even breathing. He could hear her swallow hard, perhaps trying to come to terms with her fate. He felt her grip on his shoulder tighten for a split second, and as if it would help, he placed his hand over hers.
“I'm so sorry,” he muttered, so quietly he wasn't sure she even heard him. Still, she remained motionless, until he felt her slip out of his grasp and move off his shoulder.
“Reinhardt,” she said, her voice cracking. “I'm… if we're to die here, then I can't face it without doing this.”
He stood up, immediately heading over to Angela. He could hear soft sobbing, and even from where he was, he spotted tears running down her face. “Without doing what?” he asked.
She faced him, revealing her distressed face in all its shame. Her makeup had already been ruined, with black lines racing down her cheeks. Her lips quivered, almost as if they were ready to run away, and her breathing was stilted, like the very act of it was a pain upon her. “Reinhardt, I was hoping that night at Colonel Klink's party was… just one night of misguided judgment.”
This was confusing. What in the world did she mean? Well, standing around the office was no place to discuss this. He guided her over to a couch he kept in the office, and offered his handkerchief to her. As she vainly wiped away tears, he sat down next to her and draped his arm across Angela's shoulders, hoping to provide some amount of comfort.
“Angela, please,” he said. “Talk to me. What do you mean?”
She laughed through the tears, looking up at him. “Don't you see, Reinhardt? I was afraid of this. I thought I would never fall for a man of your stature, if only because of your rank. But now… well, I fell for you purely because I saw you were the polar opposite of every man there.”
Surprise overwhelmed him immediately. Surely he had not heard right. Surely she had said something else. It wasn't right, her confessing these emotions as if they were on a picnic field somewhere, and not in the best representation of Hell on Earth. Hadn't he been right all along, when he guessed she would not want an old hare like him?
If he was right, why was she staring at him with these blue eyes of hers, smiling like nothing else in the world mattered?
“I…” Reinhardt said, unsure how to react. “I don't know what to say.”
“You don't have to say anything,” she replied, collapsing onto his side and resting her head on his shoulder. “I… I'll understand if you don't want to associate with me. I know how improper it would be.”
“No,” he said. “I mean… you are right. It would be improper. But I would be lying if I told you that I did not feel the same way.”
Now it was Angela's turn to be surprised. She seemed hardly able to believe it, her eyes wide in amazement as she jumped off of him. She eyed him suspiciously, trying to judge if he meant the words or not. “You do?”
All Reinhardt could do was nod. What other words were necessary? Was it even possible to find the right words for what he felt for her, and still manage to hold her interest? Her eyes darted back and forth, trying to figure out if he was telling the truth or trying to soften a blow. Eventually, she smiled, and once again fell into him.
But this time, she wept.
“What's wrong?” he asked, as if he was unaware of the answer. “Why are you crying, Angela?”
All the work she had put into drying her tears went to waste, as she pulled away from his uniform. “Isn't it obvious?” she asked, her very spirit broken. “Even if we make it out of here, Reinhardt, we can't be together. Who would ever allow it?”
He sighed, taking her soft hands in his. Once again, she had hit the nail on the head. At this point, there was little he could say or do. “If nothing else,” he said quietly, so only she could hear. “We… we could wait until the war is over.”
“I fear the war may be over for us sooner than we think, Reinhardt.”
He would not dare to admit to her that she was right. She must have been worried enough – there was no need for him to add by providing an old soldier's outlook on the situation. What good would that do, other than make her even more afraid? She did not deserve to live in fear. Slowly, so as not to rush her, he took her hands in his and drew her back into his shoulder. She accepted it, wrapping her arms around him and holding tightly. He could feel every arrested sob, each agonized breath of air. Reinhardt held her close, hoping the warmth of his embrace would soothe her pain, at least a little.
It was the least he could do.
As Christmas descended upon Stalingrad, the situation had improved little. The regiment was now completely out of fuel, unable to even start the engines to warm up in the morning. Paralyzed, there was practically nothing they could do, and so the crews had taken to seizing any weapon and ammunition they came across. Abandoned Russian guns, forgotten Romanian rifles, and the handful of German weapons they had been issued made for a complicated supply situation, but when supply was already critical, it essentially became a nonfactor.
That in mind, it surprised Reinhardt that this morning's staff meeting was going as well as it was. Torbjörn did not have much more to complain about, since his grumblings had been ignored for the better part of the month. The cases of frostbite had gone down, surprisingly enough, and so Angela had little to find issue with. Captain Shimada, as usual, kept to himself. Other than facing the grim reality of being encircled, there was little to really complain about.
“Alright,” Reinhardt said, shuffling papers together. “Besides the tanks being unable to start, we could be able to use them as bunkers for defense, yes? Captain von Mecklenberg, is your company able to do so?”
“Ah, yes it is, Herr Oberst,” the captain reported, nodding. “We'll be slower without the batteries, but I think we can manage regardless.”
Reinhardt nodded. “Good, perhaps if we can scavenge some fuel, we can get Bricktenwald's company in a better-”
Outside, a bell began ringing, first slowly, then more rapidly. Panicked shouting could be heard, but it was too far away to tell what they were saying. Heavy boots stomped on the wooden platforms outside Reinhardt's office, as sergeants shouted out orders. Lieutenant Ackermann threw the door open, carrying an armful of rifles and submachine guns.
“Herr Oberst,” he shouted, “Herr Oberst! Ivan is attacking!”
The officers scrambled, kicking away chairs as they rushed to pick up a weapon. Reinhardt left the handful of submachine guns to those who could handle them, preferring the standard Kar98k in his hands. As the officers checked ammo, cocked, and loaded, they gathered up the handful of magazines and spare clips Lieutenant Ackermann had brought with him.
“Lieutenant!” Reinhardt ordered. “Go get more ammunition! We can't fight the Russians with one magazine each!”
Lieutenant Ackermann rushed out. Already, gunfire could be heard. The little office became a fortress as the younger officers threw open windows, exposing them to the harsh cold outside. From where they were, they could see at least a handful of tanks protecting them. Wooden snow-covered walkways spanned the remains of mudpits, and just a scant hundred meters away was the factory the regiment had called home.
“NO!” Torbjörn shouted out. “N! O! Put that weapon down, young lady, before you hurt yourself!”
Reinhardt turned to see Brigitte had picked up an MP40, racking back the bolt as Torbjörn desperately tried to convince her to put it down. He had not expected her to pick up a weapon so quickly. But, then again, they would need everyone if the Russians had come in force.
“Father, just trust me!” Brigitte shouted back. “I'm not going to cower in the corner like a scared little girl!”
“You don't know how to handle that thing!” Torbjörn said. “Just give it to me!”
Reinhardt sighed, pulling out his Luger and handing it over to Torbjörn. “Torbjörn, my friend, you can't even handle it properly. Here, take my pistol. We need everyone to man a post.”
Torbjörn grumbled, but begrudgingly accepted the pistol. He clearly was not thrilled about the situation. He looked around – Angela had disappeared. Where had she gone? Unfortunately, there was no time to look further. Lieutenant Ackermann had returned with more ammunition, and the sound of angry Russian was getting close. Men outside had already begun shouting for the regiment to wake up and get ready to fight.
The sound of a machine gun – an unfriendly one at that – ripped through the air. Scattered rifle fire popped in between tanks and buildings. One of the crews scrambled to get in the nearby tanks parked outside the headquarters, rushing to throw open the frozen hatches and dodge bullets at the same time.
“Here comes Ivan!”
The call was not necessary, but it reminded him where he was all the same. He shouldered the rifle, taking aim at a Russian bundled up in far too many layers to count. One squeeze of the trigger, and he was out. Next target. A sergeant, judging by his hat and the way he gestured wildly to those around him. His blood painted the side of a tank.
Bullets came flying from an unseen foe, shattering the window. As Reinhardt worked the bolt, he saw Brigitte firing her weapon at the Russians, shouting in Swedish. Time to get back in the fight. He took aim at another Russian, killing him as well. Slowly, the turret of the nearby Panzer III turned, and the cannon fired. A group of Russians disappeared in snow and dust. Just as quickly, screams began to emanate from the small road that led from the factory to Reinhardt's headquarters. The two languages mixed together as they shouted out tactical orders and cries of pain.
“They're breaking in!” Lieutenant Ackermann shouted, scrambling to reload his rifle. Angry Russian came from the anteroom, combined with a collection of gunfire. One of them kicked in the previously closed door, and was immediately shot by Torbjörn for his efforts. The Russians conferred with one another, before deciding to send a new ambassador in – a grenade.
“Grenade, displace!” Captain von Mecklenberg shouted.
Acting quickly, Torbjörn rushed over and grabbed the grenade, throwing it back through the door. Seconds later, it exploded. This did not seem to deter the Russians. Reinhardt took his focus away from the door, instead opting to start firing at the Russians who were practically lining up to get in.
Machine guns off their parked tanks fired as quickly as they possibly could, and the crews scrambled to move the turrets fast enough to track targets. Explosions rocked the tiny road, and panicked radio transmissions filled the air once somebody managed to get Reinhardt's regimental radio working. Out of ammo – time to reload. Another flurry of bullets his way. Did they never give up?
Reinhardt looked away just in time to see a Russian stomp into the room, submachine gun in hand as he emptied the entire magazine into Captain Bricktenwald. His breathing became short, and his rifle fell to the floor. The captain twitched, trying to find a way to stop the bullet holes from leaking out all of his blood. Reinhardt repaid the Russian in kind, shooting him without a moment's hesitation. Right behind him was another Russian, who raised the rifle faster than Reinhardt could work the bolt.
The bullet impacted his arm, sending him to the floor involuntarily. He heard Angela cry out for him, a noise that drew the Russian's attention towards her. Acting quickly, Brigitte charged the Russian with her MP40, smacking him with the stock and emptying the magazine while he was disoriented. The Russian's groaning was difficult to hear, but it was clear as day. With a clear opportunity, Angela ran over to him, checking his wounds.
“Yes, yes, I know,” he muttered. “I can still fight.”
“You need a medic!” She tried her best to hold him down, desperately looking for something, anything to keep the wound from bleeding too much. He looked down on it – a grazing hit. He would be fine. She did not need to worry this much. Not when he could have been like the Captain. He stood up – as best he could through the pain, anyway – and looked out at what remained of the headquarters. The anteroom had been demolished by the grenade, the light green paint replaced by blood and chunks of Russian. Blood stained the snow as bodies, German and Russian alike, lay face-first. 7.5 and 5 cm rounds had torn holes in the dirt, excavating excellent hiding places if – and when – the regiment would be attacked next.
The Russians had broken off their attack. The regiment could lick its wounds, and see how many tankers had fallen. Reinhardt stood crestfallen as he stared out at the former battlefield. Not a single German man fell honorably today. They did not deserve to die fighting a battle they were not trained for. They should have died in their tanks, gloriously braving the enemy's iron steeds, not in a disgusting, brutal close-quarters fight.
He later found out nearly three hundred men from the regiment had perished in the battle.
12 January , 1943
The paper in Reinhardt's hands was confusing for a variety of reasons.
First, it was ordering him on the next plane out of Stalingrad.
Secondly, it was allowing him to bring his entire retinue with him if necessary. Captain Shimada especially was seen as critical to get out of the city, owing to maintaining friendly relations with the Japanese. On the whole, however, Reinhardt was allowed to bring whoever he wished as long as there was room on the plane for them.
Unfortunately, there were only five seats available on the plane. The decision was essentially made for him. Nobody other than Angela, Captain Shimada, Torbjörn and Brigitte could leave Stalingrad with this final flight. Privately, he informed each one of the decision that Oberkommand o der Wehrmacht had made, that out of every man in Stalingrad who deserved to leave, they would be the only ones leaving. Even Field Marshall Paulus had elected not to take a flight out, despite the fact he out of any of them should have been extracted from the city.
The preparations to leave were made quietly, before anyone else could be made aware of what was to happen. There were only a handful who knew what Reinhardt's new orders were. Lieutenant Ackermann was one. Watchmaster Althaus was the other. Not a single soldier in Reinhardt's regiment was to know of their travel plans by Reinhardt's order. He feared what it would mean for morale if it was known he was leaving Stalingrad, but other officers or men in the regiment could not.
Of course, it was difficult to hide such maneuvers when the men were restless, unable to go out and fight properly. They watched with scornful eyes as Lieutenant Ackermann and Watchmaster Althaus loaded up Reinhardt's regimental staff car, the only vehicle left in all of Stalingrad that could still drive. Reinhardt could not hide his shame. This was not honorable. If he had his way, they wouldn't have even been encircled in the first place.
Reinhardt and his staff said nothing as they loaded up into the vehicle, stuffing themselves in as much as they possibly could. The drive to the airfield was quiet, almost mournful as other regiments and companies watched the car pass. Each pair of eyes upon his retreating staff car made Reinhardt want to throw himself out of the moving vehicle, stand and fight to the bitter end with them. But he knew that Angela would never allow it. He had scarcely recovered from his wound since the Russians had intruded upon the headquarters. She worried for him intensely, constantly fussing over him day and night to check his bandages and ensure his arm was healing properly. He suspected if he did not leave, she would not want to either.
They arrived at the airfield, where a transport plane waited with a nervous crew. The airfield garrison was on high alert, no doubt fearful of a Russian incursion. Another unit stood nearby, gathering supplies from an airdrop, and took notice of Reinhardt and his staff.
“You're Colonel Wilhelm?” the pilot asked, extending a hand. “Major Marcus Pletcher, please, let's get everyone on board quickly.”
“Why the rush, Major?”
“Look around you, sir,” the major said, gesturing to the airfield and its environs. “Ivan could be anywhere. They've got mobile flak batteries all over the place. Please, I insist, let us get a move on?”
With as much speed as they could muster, Reinhardt, his staff, and Watchmaster Althaus helped load up the various bags and personal items they needed on the plane. The crew jumped in, running final checks as Reinhardt turned to face his driver. Here was the face of a man who knew full well he was going to die, searching for any small glimmer of hope.
“I… I suppose it would be too much to ask if there's room for me?”
“I'm afraid not. Strict orders.”
Watchmaster Althaus swallowed hard, nodding sharply. “Sir, please, if you find my sister…tell her I fought bravely?”
Reinhardt nodded, biting his cheek if only to distract himself. “Yes, Wachmeister. I'll be sure to do so. I am so sorry.”
Taking a few steps back, Althaus saluted Reinhardt for the last time. Reinhardt returned the salute, walking onto the plane itself. His seat was right between Captain Shimada and Angela, the former of whom had an excellent window view of the plane as it began to depart. Major Pletcher informed them that they were about to take off, letting them know they'd make it to Lemberg in a few short hours.
As they took off, Reinhardt heard thuds.
“What the fuck?” the copilot asked.
“Oh, goddammit,” Major Pletcher complained. “Stragglers. Let's hope they fall off before we retract the flaps.”
Reinhardt looked out the window. A handful of soldiers had latched themselves onto the plane, desperate to find any way out of Stalingrad possible. Captain Shimada's eyes were fixed on the scene, and Reinhardt could see his knuckles turn ashen white as he gripped the plane's armrests.
“So much death,” Captain Shimada muttered as the soldiers slowly slipped off the wings, screaming for the plane to take them with it.
Reinhardt closed his eyes, trying to relax as they ascended from the depths of hell. This was not honorable. This was not the war he had signed up to fight in. How had the German Army ever found itself in such a disaster? He felt Angela's hand wrap itself around his, and returned her grip. Sleep would not come to him on the flight to Lemberg. How could he sleep, knowing he had abandoned over 4,200 men to their doom?
Chapter 11: Zugzwang
Despite escaping Stalingrad, the war is not yet over. Operation Citadel is on the way.
12 February, 1943
Escaping Stalingrad was not the end of the war, for either Reinhardt or his staff. Just as quickly as he had been extracted from the doom and gloom of Stalingrad, new orders were handed down to him by none other than Major General von Stoffenberg himself.
“I am confused, Herr Generalmajor, ” Reinhardt said, puzzling over the assignment. “Battalions are commanded by Oberstleutnant, not Colonels.”
von Stoffenberg nodded grimly. The years had not been kind to him. His uniform had been washed recently, but it bore scars of recent combat and rough life. The Major General had not been assigned to Stalingrad, but was seeing combat near Leningrad, which apparently was just as brutal as the hell Reinhardt had just escaped from. “Yes, they usually are.”
Reinhardt did not need further explanation. “This is an abnormal situation, I assume.”
“After the 6th Army's surrender at Stalingrad, we are at a premium for good officers. You are lucky to have gotten those orders when you did.”
Wait. Surrender? Nobody had told Reinhardt of a surrender. When did this happen? He blinked, wetting his lips as he tried to comprehend the words. Surrender. It was not a word he was familiar with. The harsh morning light bouncing off the snow blinded him as he felt increasingly nauseous. There were nearly a quarter of a million men in the 6th Army when he had left Stalingrad. Maybe there had been a mistake. Maybe someone had reported incorrectly. Surely they had fought as hard as they could, right? This ran counter to everything he had experienced in that accursed city.
“That can't be right,” Reinhardt said, having finally found his voice. “Why would we surrender at Stalingrad?”
von Stoffenberg could not offer an answer even if he wanted to. His weary eyes told Reinhardt all that he needed to know – not even a Major General knew what was going on with the war anymore. “You can read all about it in Wehrmachtbericht,” he said, gesturing to the unread copy that lay on Reinhardt's desk.
Reinhardt scoffed. “As if. Sir, we both know they don't write the truth in there.”
“A harsh reality of Herr Goebbel's office. Still, take pride in your new command, Reinhardt. You'll be meeting your battalion staff tomorrow.”
A schwere Panzerabteilung. It was not a position he thought he would hold. Well, time to inform the others. The orders specifically listed that Torbjörn, Brigitte, Angela and Captain Shimada would remain by his side. von Stoffenberg departed from his headquarters, and after his new aide, Lieutenant Löwe, had made it known to retrieve them, Reinhardt sighed. Already, there was a plan for a new operation to begin, Operation Citadel. The details of it – and his new unit's role within – were all right in front of him.
His friends, old and new alike, gathered, expectantly awaiting the reason for being assembled in his new office. Reinhardt could tell right away how much Stalingrad had changed them. Torbjörn remained as stubborn as ever, of course – but the stubbornness was tempered slightly, perhaps with the knowledge it could be worse. Angela remained as concerned as ever, but one had to be blind to miss the shadow of nightmares written on her face, haunted by the thousands of men who had been left behind in Stalingrad. Captain Shimada was stoic, as per his usual, but there was a certain shaken quality to him.
Poor, poor Brigitte.
Not since his first month at Ypres had Reinhardt seen a look as empty and hopeless as hers. At Stalingrad, she had picked up the MP40 bravely, fought with all the honor and valor of a true German soldier. But her hollow eyes stared at ghosts that had long since dissipated. He was well aware what she saw – the Russian she had killed brutally, as close as one could get without returning to an older age of warfare. Every so often, he could see Brigitte's right hand twitch, as if even now she replayed the moment of killing the Russian in her mind.
He cleared his throat, trying to find the right words. Thankfully, this was much easier than telling them Stalingrad was surrounded, or that they were going to be leaving. “Ladies, gentlemen,” he began. “We have been assigned to a new unit, a Heavy Tank Battalion. We are the elite of the German tank corps, which means from this day forward, we are outside any normal command structure. Torbjörn, Brigitte, we should have the new tanks soon, I would like you two to conduct a thorough inspection of all tanks, ensure we are ready.”
“Consider it done, Reinhardt,” Torbjörn said, nodding. “Eh, anything we need to know about these tanks?”
“Yes, these are new Panzerkampfwagen VI H Ausführung H1,” he said. “The men tend to just call them Tigers, so feel free to use that designation in your reports. Doctor Ziegler, I would like you to get in touch with the battalion doctor, his name is…Captain Andreas Lindsburch. Ensure everything is up to your standards?”
“Of course, Colonel,” Angela said, nodding and writing down the Captain's name.
“Germany is planning another operation in the coming weeks,” Reinhardt informed them. “We must do everything we can to prepare for it. I must return to planning, so you are all dismissed. Until next time.”
Torbjörn left, taking Brigitte with him. Captain Shimada and Angela remained, a blessing and a curse. He sought the captain's input in the upcoming operation, would perhaps show him how Germany conducted pre-campaign operations. But, also, it had been quite some time since he and Angela had a moment to themselves since that fateful day in Stalingrad. He wondered if she felt the same, or if the desperation of the situation had led her to confess to something that was never really there.
“Captain,” Reinhardt said, turning to the Japanese officer. “Would you perhaps like to see the preliminary intelligence reports on the Russian dispositions?”
As if suddenly snapped out of a trance, Captain Shimada blinked several times, looking around confused. “Oh, I…my apologies, Colonel, I must have been distracted. Yes, please, I would like to see them.”
Nodding, Reinhardt handed over a copy of the reports. Captain Shimada flipped through them, clearly not paying much attention to the contents. Reinhardt ignored him, turning back to his maps. His unit would be heading to Kursk, it seemed, assisting an infantry division in driving towards the city.
“Colonel, excuse me,” Captain Shimada eventually said, rubbing his temple. “You once asked me how I viewed the war.”
Reinhardt nodded while Angela looked on, completely lost as to the context. “I did,” Reinhardt said.
The captain sighed, his mouth twisting and curling as he tried to form the right words. “I believe I have changed my mind. It is not enough for high fighting spirit to be maintained to win a war.”
Captain Shimada did not often talk unprompted. Him bringing this entire conversation up was unusual in itself. What had caused this change? “So what do you believe is necessary to win a war?”
“Sun Tzu once said 'Warfare is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.' If I may be so bold, Colonel, I do not believe Germany has sufficiently prepared for the war against the Soviet Union.”
Reinhardt nodded. This was not an unfamiliar concept to him. He had held his own reservations about campaigns – such as Case Blue and the drive for Stalingrad – but more often than not had kept them in his mind. There was often little point in going against the Führer, especially if he had made up his mind about something.
“Well,” Reinhardt finally said. “I do not believe you will find many minds in the German Army who disagree with you on that. What brought this change, may I ask?”
“Stalingrad was a case study, and I am afraid not in a good way. Imperial General HQ – my army's supreme command – is of the general opinion that any enemy can be overcome with a strong warrior spirit.”
“I get the sense you disagree with this assessment,” Reinhardt guessed.
Captain Shimada nodded. “Japan's position is perilous, if what I understand from the radio is true. Our warrior spirit cannot possibly overcome the weapons the Americans have, or their strength. I…Colonel, I am afraid the same may be true for Germany.”
Angela gasped slightly, putting a hand over her mouth. Reinhardt grimly nodded.
“Yes, this is not the first time I have heard such things. All we can do is continue to carry out orders.” He returned to the paperwork, before wagging a pen at the Captain. “Be sure to be careful who you say that around.”
The Japanese officer nodded, before taking his leave after having apparently said all he wanted to.
Angela's hand dropped from her face, and she looked at the map Reinhardt pored over, reflecting once more on the situation they faced.
“Reinhardt,” she said, clearly nervous as he met her eyes. “I…I hope that what happened in Stalingrad did not -”
“Did not what? Happen because of a fluke?” He chuckled, putting his pen down. “Angela, I gain nothing by telling you what I did. If anyone heard, or…saw, I could put my whole career in jeopardy. What happened in Stalingrad was not because I was afraid of death. I respect it. I was afraid of losing you.”
She frowned, drawing short, rapid breaths as her face turned beet red. “Reinhardt, I…I don't know what to say.” Angela's eyes slammed shut, and he heard the faintest whisper escape her mouth as tears before to leak out. Immediately, he got up and was by her side.
“Angela?” He rubbed her shoulder, desperately trying to help her overcome this emotional hurdle. “What's wrong?”
She swallowed hard, trying incredibly hard to maintain an even tone of voice as she slowly opened her eyes, welled with tears. “I'm so sorry. I've lied to you, Reinhardt.”
He frowned, racking his brain in an effort to understand what she was saying. What had she lied about? What could she possibly mean? “What do you mean?”
Angela looked down at the floor, rubbing her face in an attempt to keep the tears at bay. “I hate the German government with everything in me. Everything they represent and say and do makes me sick. I…I'm involved with several underground groups that-”
Before he was even conscious of it, Reinhardt had left her side, leaning against the window as he struggled to come to terms with this. His relationship with her was no longer just improper, it had become outright dangerous. He was not blind to the implications. He knew full well what the SS and Gestapo had been doing in the occupied territories ever since they crossed the Polish border.
“Reinhardt, I'm so sorry, I should have told you earlier, I…I shouldn't even-”
She sighed. “Four years,” Angela confessed.
“Were you ever going to tell me, if we were not carrying on in this way?”
He heard her suppress a heavy sob, and she took a long, deep breath in. Silence hung in the air as she carefully considered her words. “I don't know.”
Reinhardt closed his eyes, gritting his teeth as he rested his head against the window frame. All at once, it felt like his world had just come crashing down. His poor heart ached, not because Angela had confessed to this deadly deception, but because he had been so blind as to miss it. In the span of thirty seconds, his entire perception of Angela had changed from an angel of mercy to a devil in disguise. And yet, not even that perception could be reconciled in his mind. She had not done anything to impede the German Army. Other than confess that she had contact with illegal groups, she did not appear to be a threat.
But still his heart ached, as if she had taken a knife and stabbed him herself. As if the ruin of heartbreak was not enough, he felt his mouth dry out, making every potential word like sandpaper against his throat. He barely could even understand why he had felt this way. All they had done was share a moment in a bleak, cruel, depressing corner of hell. It should never have mattered this much to him.
So why did he feel the same pain he had when Frieda had passed?
“I'm so, so, so sorry, Reinhardt,” Angela said, retreating from his office. “You don't deserve someone like me. I'm sorry I couldn't be better for you.”
Reinhardt said nothing as she left. What could he say? How could he express the grave pain he felt, the hopelessness and despair of thinking something had gone right, only for the entire world to conspire against him once more? How could he face a woman he had prepared to call a lover, only to realize she had misrepresent herself to him, and for what goal?
How could Reinhardt ever trust someone again?
Reinhardt was desperate to get last week's event out of his mind, and thus he turned himself entirely into planning the upcoming offensive. Today's meeting involved a general battalion report with Torbjörn and Brigitte. The new Tiger tanks that they had were unfamiliar to all of them, and thus he had ordered his maintenance chiefs to study it and take it on several test drives with the crew of his personal command tank. Torbjörn had entered the room with a veritable laundry list of issues and notes, which he was going through as fast as he could possibly read through them.
“...and another thing,” Torbjörn complained. “These German engineers, I don't know what gets into your heads sometimes. Each road wheel is interleaved. It's great for maintaining good pressure and mobility off-road, but mud gets all over the place in these things.”
Brigitte nodded in agreement. “We tried replacing one of the wheels in a maintenance trial,” she explained. “To remove one inner wheel, we had to take out nine others. The good news is, the armor is much thicker than on any previous German tank.”
“Eh, little comfort that is,” Torbjörn added. “The track likes to override the rear sprocket, and these crews keep the tension so high you have to break the damn track with explosives. We really ought to tell them otherwise.”
Reinhardt sighed pensively as he looked over the reports. Numerous issues with the engines. Criticism about slow turret traverse times. Worse, if the crews weren't careful, they could break the engine outright by going too fast or trying to tow a friendly tank. This regiment was supposed to be a step forward, not cause more issues than it was worth. As if the trouble with the new Tiger I wasn't issue enough, their only backup were Panzer IIIs. Although by now most of them had been fitted with 5 cm guns, it wasn't enough to counter the rapid advancement of Soviet armored design. The offensive was set to begin next week. How could they maintain momentum if these issues plagued their vehicles?
“Eh, Reinhardt,” Torbjörn said, shifting nervously in his chair. “You seem…well, distracted. Something goin' on over there?”
He had been Reinhardt's friend for years. Of course Torbjörn would know if something was off. He thought he had done a good job of hiding it, but maybe his deep commitment to work was being displayed more as a way to escape, and not just the commitment of a German officer who had gotten out of hell. Maybe the stress of what Angela had told him was etched onto his face. He couldn't tell.
“No,” he blatantly lied. “I'm fine.” What he had wanted to do was ask his old friend a question he knew he could never answer. Why had Angela lied to me? Reinhardt knew deep in him that Torbjörn would not report him to any superior officers, but the old engineer was not known for keeping his mouth shut.
Distracting himself further, Reinhardt shuffled the reports around, collecting them into a folder. “Alright. Inform all Tiger I crews they are to attend a mandatory workshop so you can show them how to properly adjust their track tension, and where to keep it at. Be sure to advise the crews of the issues we discussed here as well.”
Torbjörn and Brigitte nodded, heading out to prepare the workshop. Just as they did, Reinhardt's assistant, Lieutenant Löwe, walked in, reporting he had urgent news for Reinhardt's eyes only. He handed him a small piece of paper and sharply saluted, retreating to his desk. Reinhardt unfolded the paper, curious as to its contents.
The upcoming Donets Campaign would be delayed another week.
19 February, 1943
Today was the first day that the new Tiger I would be facing combat under Reinhardt's command. The crews were a mixed bag of experience and age – there were many young men among them, to be sure, new Landser plucked away from all corners of Germany. A handful were veterans of fighting in Italy. A larger percentage were men who had been fighting in Russia since 1941, when this entire venture started.
The dull rhythm of the engine mixed with the clacking sound of the tracks as Reinhardt pushed forward with the regiment. Today, only half of their Tigers had come out to the field, with the rest inoperable due to some crews still ignoring Torbjörn's advice concerning proper operation, or because a mechanical issue had plagued their tank and the replacement part was nowhere to be found. The offensive had begun on a sunny February day, with the battalion ordered to the Dnieper River to assist a group of Waffen-SS tanks in breaking through.
The fields across Ukraine had surely been green at one point. After three years of unending combat, though, they had been scarred by tank treads, artillery fire, and the results of dozens of planes crashing into the ground. The small villages and towns they passed by fared no better – half-wrecked buildings and demolished houses dotted the landscape, with several church towers having been outright destroyed. Virtually no trees remained, and the few that did retained no leaves, a remnant of not only winter but the numerous fires that had failed to be contained. The only real positive was that it was a nice, sunny day with barely a cloud in sight.
The first contact with Soviet armor that morning had gone well. They tried to break through Reinhardt's armor, but it held strong. It seemed Brigitte was right when she had predicted that Russian tanks would not be able to penetrate the Tiger's frontal armor. However, she had advised Reinhardt not to tangle with any heavier enemy tanks like the KV-1C. There was no way of knowing whether its gun could defeat their plate.
Time to get in the tank. The sounds of battle drew closer. “Radioman,” Reinhardt said. “Inform the battalion we are to attack a Russian village. We may encounter enemy tanks.”
“Understood, Panzerführer,” the radioman replied, relaying his message to the rest of the battalion.
Immediately, small arms fire began bouncing off their armor. Typical. Newer Russian units tended to waste ammo on shooting the tank. The gunner, Sergeant Strohkirch, slowly turned the gun towards the offending building, sending an 8.8cm shell flying towards it. He reported a successful hit as the loader shoved another high explosive shell into the breech.
“Herr Panzerführer,” the radioman reported. “Uh, I'm receiving word that the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler is cutting through the Russian flank, should we join them?”
“The SS can do their job, we are doing ours,” Reinhardt replied. “Continue this advance.”
The sound of a shell impacting their frontal plate ruined Reinhardt's ears as the ringing echoed in his head, with a sharp noise the only thing he could focus on.
“Ivan's got an anti-tank gun!” the driver reported. “Right side, near the old barn!”
“Sergeant, blow that gun to pieces!”
Reinhardt ordered the tank to stop, giving Sergeant Strohkirch time to line up the gun as a high-explosive shell was loaded in. He found himself distracted by thoughts of Angela's confession to him as the 8.8cm gun fired, a dull cannonade of noise. The Soviet tanks and anti-tank guns they were facing thus far did not interest him nor warrant thinking of as anything more than an annoyance. This was not the sort of combat he could wrap his mind around.
5 July, 1943
It was an early morning in the Ukraine. Their advance following the army's bombardment was slowed considerably as combat engineers in the 6th Infantry Division cleared safe lanes to travel through minefields, but already the plan was changing. Prisoners revealed there were a handful of Russian divisions weakened by the bombardment, and thus the two heavy tank battalions had been redeployed to strike at a weak boundary line.
Breaking through the two divisions was not hard. Like the prisoner had claimed, the boundary between them was weak, manned by shocked and unprepared Russian soldiers. A group of enemy tanks quickly moved in to counter their advance, beginning what was to be a three-hour fight between the Russian and German tanks.
It seemed the Russians still had not advanced their tank's cannons. Reinhardt sat rather comfortably in his Tiger, nervously listening to each Russian shell strike their front plate without effect. Sergeant Strohkirch gallantly took aim and fired at the Russians, claiming more than a few kills for Reinhardt's tank. Reinhardt looked out his vision blocks – the battalion stood strong, maintaining an excellent defensive line. It had been nearly an hour since the battle had begun.
“Panzerführer,” his radioman reported. “Ivan's attacking on the left flank!”
“Driver, shift left. Radioman, have Brauner's company hold the line.”
Without even a moment's hesitation, Reinhardt's tank began to move. He checked left, ensuring that the battalion was moving with him. So far so good. Out of nowhere, however, one of the Tigers exploded, sending its turret to the sky. Panicked radio reports indicated a sergeant and his crew had been lost. What had happened?
“Keep pushing!” Reinhardt ordered, despite knowing full well his battalion could not hear him.
The left flank was soon reached, where a handful of Russian tanks stood in defiance of their efforts. More shells struck their tank, most bouncing off harmlessly. Each one shook Reinhardt's bones. He spotted enemy tanks for Sergeant Strohkirch, allowing him to bring down the wrath of Germany on each one in turn.
“Another tank's been hit!” his radioman called out.
How long would they have to take destroying these Russians before they gave up? The Russians began retreating. Good. Maybe they could finally seize the initiative after the disaster of a delay this morning. After chasing the last of the Russian tanks off, Reinhardt's battalion and the 292nd Infantry Division settled in the small town of Ponyri, already digging in to defend it. The station house, gun factory, and large houses seemed to be nice spots to stay in, if a bit drafty from artillery fire. At least this city was not yet on fire. If all went well, Ponyri would be a nice little home to stay in for a while.
Chapter 12: The Great Soviet Showpiece
Zarya takes part in the Battle of Ponyri.
Unfortunately, I'm not sure if I can keep to my usual updating schedule this week because of particular events.
I'm gonna miss you, Grandpa.
It had been a long time since she had thought of Dima.
Only seven months had passed since his death, and Zarya would be lying if she said she did not miss him. In January and February, when she was overseeing the surrender of the Nazis at Stalingrad, she had thought about him daily. Zarya swore she had seen his face in the Nazis as they walked past her, a ghost of a man haunting her. Sometimes, she thought she saw him at the top of Mamayev Kurgan, waving for her to group up with him.
Alas, there was little time to cry. She had only cried once since Dima died, when she was sure nobody had seen her. In the face of all her comrades, she stood stoically like the great monuments to Lenin she often saw. Zarya could not allow them to know she had been weak, that even she felt the pain of losing comrades. She had to maintain her facade of a strong-willed Soviet woman, impervious to the cold, the bullets, the hunger.
Her new lieutenant, Comrade Lieutenant Leonid Yevgenivich Pavlovsky, had been her latest in a string of junior officers. One had been killed in Rostov, foolishly firing his pistol into the air as he urged them forward only to be felled by a sniper. Another had died somewhere near Smolensk, eviscerated by a Nazi's tank. It remained to be seen whether this Ukrainian, a staunch non-drinker and non-smoker, would survive longer than a few days.
She looked over, seeing Garipova leaning against one of their T-34s, apparently nicknamed “Bastion” by the crew. He had a handful of the newer squad members by him, all staring up at him like children at storytime.
“I told Mama we'd be seeing Tigers, Elefants and Panthers,” he said. “She thought I was visiting Moscow Zoo.”
“Doesn't your mama know that Moscow Zoo is gone?” Corporal Bahramov, the Azerbaijani she had met in Stalingrad, asked.
Garipova tilted his head, confused. “Of course not, you idiot, she lives in fucking Izhevsk, not Rhzev!”
Zarya looked over the turret of the tank she was riding on, spotting Ponyri contrasting again s t the morning sun in the distance. “Alright, comrades,” she shouted above the roar of the T-34. “The Nazis took Ponyri from us this morning. We are taking it back, is that understood?”
“Yes, Comrade Sergeant!” came the eager reply from her soldiers. At least someone was enthusiastic this morning. Zarya had lost all motivation for seeking battle since Dima's death. Stalingrad had made her indifferent. Nowadays, she preferred hunting the Nazis for sport during quiet periods. Fighting them in battle was just so boring. Maybe Ponyri would change that.
Ponyri's station was approaching fast. Time to get off the tanks. Zarya ordered her squad to use them for cover as they advanced under withering Nazi machine gun fire. The first order of business was clearing the station of the Nazi filth that squatted within it. Zarya ordered her squad around the collection of rail cars, engaging with Nazis who had hidden themselves behind sandbags. Disgraceful, Zarya thought as she fired a burst at one of them. They don't even have the courage to stand and die like men.
The exterior of the station was cleared without much issue, as there was only a handful of Nazis defending it. Zarya rounded the station yard with her squad, on the hunt for any stragglers that may not have been smart enough to run. A pair of their T-34s fired into the station, opening a massive hole for them to floo d through, and then broke down a stone wall so they could begin surrounding the building. Zarya led the charge into the station house itself. A flurry of German could be heard from upstairs, with the Nazis trying to establish defenses inside the station. They had done all manner of flimsy, hasty defensive works, from overturning benches and filing cabinets to tossing piles of wood from the broken roof and walls around to impede progress.
As she ran into the station, Zarya heard clearly the pop of multiple rifles and the familiar clatter of an MP40. The enemy wasn't talking to themselves up there on the second floor – that was someone talking on a radio. They might have been calling for reinforcements.
“Comrades!” she shouted, reloading her PPSh. “The fascists are calling for help! Push through and make sure they never get it!”
“Yes, Comrade Sergeant!” shouted the newer Ukrainian. Maybe he'd be good for something. He along with Garipova and Bahramov surged through under covering fire, ascending a set of double stairs up to the second floor. With the last fascist on the first floor falling, choking on his blood as he did, Zarya joined them.
The panicked voice s were coming from the left. Garipova had already set himself up to kick down the door, he was just waiting for Zarya to join him. Time to fill these Nazis with lead. After nodding to confirm she was ready, Garipova kicked in the door, and it fell to the ground with a clatter. Inside the room stood an officer, his peaked cap nice and new. The other was a soldier, his sleeves rolled up. Both of their hands shot up, splayed to show they had no weapons. They were surrendering, h ow quaint. Zarya leveled her PPSh at them and pulled the trigger, leaving both to moan and sputter hopelessly.
“Sergeant Zaryanova!” Comrade Lieutenant called. “Is the station house clear? We need to move into Ponyri itself!”
Zarya and her squad clattered down the stairs as she reported it was all-clear. Ponyri was across the stream. Just as they had left the station, artillery, most likely unfriendly given how it landed right on top of their tanks, began to fall on the small village . Scattered rifle and machine gun fire could be heard across the uneasy stream, aimed at them but not hitting anyone significant. A short break in the enemy's artillery allowed them to cross, arriving on the opposite shore just as one of their tanks was destroyed.
“German anti-tank gun!” Comrade Lieutenant reported. “In that schoolhouse! Sergeant, take your men and clear it out!”
“Fuck!” Zarya shouted, running to cover. “More than just an anti-tank gun! They have a machine gun nest in there too!”
“Well, what the fuck do you want from me, Hero of Stalingrad, a goddamn medal?!” Comrade Lieutenant shot back. “Take care of both of them! We have to move up!”
Zarya furrowed her brow as shook her head, mouth agape and flanking to the right with her squad. The schoolhouse had been ruined – only part of the word “school” remained on its entrance, and the roof was nonexistent. Walls were randomly broken, and all windows had been shattered long ago.
Bahramov had learned since Stalingrad. Instead of going in first, he tossed a handful of grenades in. German came first, then explosions. Time for them to go in now and cause their own havoc. They entered the main room of the schoolhouse, where once happy Ukrainian children came to learn and hang up their coats. Today, however, there were only the angry stomping boots of Soviet soldiers, purging this place of Nazi villainry.
“Go right!” Zarya ordered, shoving new soldiers into a wrecked classroom. The desks and chairs had been destroyed long ago, with the teacher's desk remaining as a central place for the Nazis to hide. Basic Russian words remained on the chalkboard, a reminder of what the former pupils had been learning before Ponyri fell to the Nazis in 1941.
Submachine gun fire burst through the air as Zarya led the push into the classroom, showing no mercy to the Nazis as they tried to withdraw. The earth-shattering boom of the anti-tank gun was close. One room over, probably. Zarya kicked a squirming fascist out of her way as she pushed into the hallway once more, the main path blocked by rubble. She could hear German in the next room, and the sound of mechanical clanking. That had to be the anti-tank gun and its crew. Above her, she could hear clearly the sound of a Nazi machine gun.
“Bahramov!” she shouted, jerking her head to the other room. “Kill those fascists bastards!”
“Understood, Comrade Sergeant!” Bahramov took one of the new kids with him, rushing into the room and mercilessly beating up the Nazis with rifle stocks and bayonets, shooting the ones they could not kill in their close-range melee . One problem do wn . She sent Garipova back to let Comrade Lieutenant know the anti-tank gun was down. The next problem was this Nazi machine gun; o ne final classroom held the nest. A simple grenade assault should clear this out. Zarya pulled a grenade from her belt, priming it and preparing to toss it in. A rifleman kicked the door down, and she flung the grenade in immediately.
Unfortunately, Garipova didn't notice her throwing the grenade in, and followed behind it.
“Gairpova, no!” she shouted, but it was too late. He had already gone in. Seconds later, the grenade exploded, and screams began to emanate from the room. She and the rifleman ran in. A Nazi lay on the floor, helplessly reaching for his missing legs as he screamed his head off. Another one had been thrown against the wall, his ribs exposed to the world and without his right arm. In the middle of the room stood Garipova, clutching his head. Zarya ran over to him, grabbing his back to help him up.
“Garipova,” she said, helping him stand up straight. “Are you alright?”
“Huh?” he asked, taking his hands off his ears. She could see blood pouring out of them. “What'd you say?”
Fuck. This wasn't good. Zarya couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity, but at least he was okay. “You're an idiot,” she said. “You! Take Garipova to see the medic! You're seeing the medic, alright, comrade?”
“Medic?” Garipova asked. “Eh, alright. I…yeah, fuck, I can't hear anything, motherfucker! Let me kill the Nazi bitch that did this to me!”
Zarya shook her head as she linked back up with Comrade Lieutenant, reporting the school was all-clear and that they could begin pushing forward once more. They had a new objective – the Nazis had taken a nearby factory, and it was up to them to take it back. Comrades elsewhere were engaged in brutal house-to-house fighting elsewhere on Ponyri.
There was no telling how many fascists were in the factory, and Zarya didn't much care at this point. The only good fascist was a dead fascist, and she intended on killing every fascist she could find in Ponyri. They ran past ruined houses and burning buildings on their way to the factory, with a T-34 supporting them. So far, the fight for Ponyri was going well.
Until a Nazi tank burst out from the factory, knocking down the doors dramatically.
“It's a fucking Tiger!” Bahramov shouted. The Tiger's turret slowly turned, belching smoke and light as it destroyed their tank escort. Zarya and her squad scattered, trying to find a way to destroy the Nazi tank without their own. A handful of Nazi soldiers flooded out of the factory, posing another problem. One of the new riflemen had an anti-tank grenade, which was handed off to Bahramov who had the best arm of the squad. He ran as fast as he dared to the tank as he approached its right side , throwing it with all his might onto the tank 's hull roof, hearing it collide solidly with the side of the turret. They waited anxiously, hoping something would happen, and after a few seconds the grenade exploded in a brilliant flash of light, and the Nazi tank began to burn.
“Push forward!” Comrade Lieutenant shouted. With a resounding ura, they surged ahead, freely firing into the panicked and disrupted Nazis as they did. The factory was apparently only defended by a small garrison of twenty men – the six outside were already dead, and with their squad's numbers and superior will, the firefight for the factory became a dance of ducking in and out between machines. The Nazis, disorganized from losing their tank, had little else to do but die.
Ponyri had ended up becoming a little Stalingrad. If only Dima were here. Then she could relax, find peace with herself. With the new lieutenant, however, she just found herself constantly on edge. Maybe Garipova would rejoin them soon, and she'd have another Stalingrad comrade. Bahramov was excellent at his job, but he was not one of the few who had been with her since Moscow. That title belonged solely to Garipova and Smiranoy, the latter of whom had been transferred out last week to join another squad as their sergeant. If the war continued any longer, she was afraid there would be barely any Stalingrad veterans still alive. Zarya may very well end up being the last one.
12 July , 1943
The bright purple flares the Nazis sent to the air burned against the bleak, gray clouds that had settled over Prokhorovka. Zarya and her squad again were riding on tanks, this time to face the inevitable threat of the Nazi's most disgusting and hated Waffen-SS divisions. She knew from experience these men would not go down without a fight, if they fought with even half the vigor they had displayed at Stalingrad. The tanks fired their machine guns the entire time, sending green tracers flying across the broken field that once was green and lush with life and numerous farms. They neared a massive anti-tank ditch, where the tanks slowed to allow Zarya and the rest of her division to get off the tanks and surge forward, engaging with Nazi mechanized infantry.
As she took cover in the dirt, the sound of an MG42 clattered in her ears. Too many tank guns to count bellowed behind her. There was nowhere to go but forward. Rising up, Zarya led the charge into the Nazi lines. As she advanced up the slope of Hill 252.2, the stark black of the Nazi's uniforms became clear in her eyes. These were not men. These were untrained animals, released upon her Russia to maraud freely with no oversight. She would correct this mistake for the Nazis. High-explosive shells exploded around her, churning up dirt and dust as she and her squad pushed forward, killing with great efficiency every Nazi in front of them.
The only problem was that their tanks were not following. Their fire became less and less accurate, until it stopped entirely. They were supposed to have direct support for this. What had happened? Zarya turned to see what the issue was. Several of their tanks had driven right into the anti-tank ditch, underestimating its size in relation to their T-34s. Already some were being destroyed outright as easy targets for the Nazis and their tanks.
“Keep pushing!” Zarya shouted. “Show the fascists no mercy!”
She could hear German coming from just beyond the crest of the hill. No doubt they were planning to prepare for a counter attack. Time to disrupt their plans. Zarya called out for a grenade assault, almost calling for Garipova to lead a flank until she remembered that he was still in the hospital. In Stalingrad, losing track of her soldiers had once scared her. No longer. It was merely an annoyance now.
“Corporal! Where's my corporal?” Zarya shouted, preparing to throw a smoke grenade to cover their advance. From her right, a young man slid over, nearly losing his pilotka.
“Right here, Comrade Sergeant!” he said.
Zarya jerked her head to the left, lobbing the smoke grenade forward as she did so. “Take two rifles and go that way, flank widely so we can cut off the Nazis. The rest of us will push forward under the smoke.”
The corporal nodded, rounding up two suitable privates for the task and running to the flank. Zarya reminded her comrades to wait for the smoke to fill. If they pushed now, the smoke would do nothing for them. Behind them, one of the tanks fired a shell over their heads, probably hoping to hit something.
The smoke grenade had now fully filled out. Time to go. Zarya ordered her squad forward with a resounding ura, leading the way as usual. The fascist's black uniforms began to seep red as Zarya and her squad filled them with bullets. Screams began to emanate from the wounded as explosions ripped men apart.
“Kommunisten!” one of the fascists shouted, pointing to her and her squad. “Mit dem zerstörten Panzer!“
Zarya pulled another grenade from her belt, taking cover behind a burning tank. The flames licked at her neck as she pulled the pin on the grenade, throwing it at a high angle over to the Nazis. She heard them panicking. Good, they'd be easy pickings when she headed back out to shoot them. The corporal's flank attack must have worked out, since she spotted him moving forward and firing his rifle. At least he was good for something.
“Comrade Sergeant!” one of the riflemen shouted, pointing to the plateau of the hill. “German tanks!”
She looked up to see he was right. The Nazis had pushed back to the top of the hill with their armor. One of them had poked his head out from the turret like a groundhog, lazily aiming a pistol at wounded Soviets he could see and executing them without a second thought.
“Get out your molotovs!” she shouted. Immediately, two of them brought out gas-filled glass bottles and lit them on fire. “Burn that Nazi!”
Without a moment's hesitation, the improvised grenades flew to the tank, shattering on impact and spreading the lit gas all over it. The Nazi who had decided to shoot her friends went up in flames, screaming as he tried to lift himself out of the tank.
“ Don't waste your ammo!” Zarya ordered as they headed past the Nazi tank, which had stopped moving as the crew attempted to fight the fire. “He does not deserve a quick death!”
“More German tanks!” the corporal yelled.
Zarya looked around at her squad – they had scant anti-tank weapons. Most had been used trying to assault the hill. The molotovs they just used had been their last hope to kill or disable another enemy tank, and now she saw four of them rapidly approaching. Curse the Nazis , she thought as she gave the order to retreat. They had just taken this accursed hill, and they dared to fight back? Who did the fascists think they were fighting? Did they expect they could kill all of Russia?
A disappointing end of the day, as she and her unit retreated off the hill. But at least she was alive, and could fight another day.
Chapter 13: A Red Army Rising
The Soviet Red Army's push through the Ukraine continues.
7 August, 1943
The smell of diesel burned in the air as Zarya sat in the mud, watching American-made trucks slip and struggle against the deep Dnieper swamp. Dozens of soldiers stood around, waiting for the trucks to get out of the mud so they could climb back in and get moving again. Supposedly Zarya and her troops would be reinforcing a battalion on its way to Roslavl, taking the fight to the Nazis.
“Come the fuck on!” someone shouted. “How hard is it to get a fucking truck unstuck?”
A supply trooper, covered in muck from his endeavors to help get the truck out, wiped dark Ukrainian mud from his forehead. “Hey, if you want to come pull, be my guest!”
The truck's wheels slipped and cast mud everywhere, soiling many a once-pristine uniform. It didn't much matter to Zarya. At this point, she had been in worse conditions. The worst that Stalingrad had offered was far more brutal and uncomfortable than sitting in the mud here.
“Are we on our way yet?” Comrade Lieutenant asked, stepping wide to avoid getting his tall boots sucked in by the mud.
“No,” Zarya said, shaking her head. “These American trucks keep getting stuck.”
Comrade Lieutenant looked over the green-painted vehicle with a dismal eye. “That truck is from America? I suppose they are keeping the good stuff for themselves.”
“Keep pushing! Come on!” The heavy grunting of each soldier, trying to keep the truck moving at least a little, filled the air, mixing with the loud roar of the truck's engines. Zarya couldn't help but smile. Her soldiers looked like different men when covered in mud.
“It's no use, comrades,” one of the drivers said, leaning out his window. “We're stuck!”
“Hey, why not get Sergeant Zaryanova to help?” someone from another squad asked. “She hasn't done anything!”
Bahramov cocked his eyebrow at him, shaking his head. “Sergeant Zaryanova has more balls than any of you combined! I watched her execute seven fascists in Stalingrad after one of them shot our lieutenant!”
Zarya chuckled, getting out of the mire and rolling up her sleeves. “Let us settle it once and for all, then,” she said, tossing her PPSh into the back of the truck. “Out of the way! Let me show you true strength!”
“Alright, comrades, we got Comrade Sergeant Zaryanova to do something that isn't killing fascists! On three, ready?”
The countdown began, and Zarya braced herself to start pushing on the back of the truck in an attempt to get it to budge from the mudpit it had been sucked into. Someone started singing “Song of the Volga Boatmen” as they pushed, probably to inspire them. They were a long way from the Volga, unfortunately.
“Once more!” the singer called out. “Heave ho!”
Zarya pushed with all her strength, and as if by some miracle, the truck bounded out of its pit, free at last. The comrades who had been pushing all slapped each other on the back with mud-covered hands, cheering loudly at their success. Bahramov smiled up at her, crouching down in the slop and trying to wipe his hands clean.
“Comrade Sergeant,” he said, “I think you have something in your hair.”
“Better than the blood of dead Nazis,” she replied. “At least I can clean mud out.”
“Alright comrades,” Comrade Lieutenant yelled. “I want this company on the move in twenty minutes! We have Germans to kill!”
Two hours later, Zarya and her squad had joined the fight, finally. Their mud issues did not cease after reaching the battle, as the Nazis had decided to focus their defensive works solely across fields of mud, mud, and more mud. She could scarcely move comfortably, the thick sludge sucking on her boots and leaking dirt into her footwraps. Like she was so used to, the sound of an MG42 echoed in her ears as the mud was churned up by bullets. Today, there would be no armored support. The tanks had gotten bogged down, and could not help them. Comrade Lieutenant was busy on the radio, trying to find some kind of support for them in the form of artillery. Zarya clawed her way towards him through the mud, hoping that by concealing herself with the thick slop, the Nazis could not shoot her.
“Any word?” she asked, wiping mud off of her PPSh.
“Good news, we have a mortar incoming,” he said.
Zarya sighed, shaking her head. Mortars had never much been her friend. “What's the bad news?”
“It's a 203mm mortar, so we can't move too far forward, not unless you want a one-way ticket to Berlin without your legs.”
Zarya chuckled, shaking her head. He really knew how to call up support, didn't he? Where did they even have a gun that massive, anyway? Whatever, it didn't matter much to Zarya at this point. She called out to hold the advance, wait for the gun to fire. Would it fire an entire salvo, or just one shot? With how big the round was, maybe one was all it needed.
“Artillery incoming!” Comrade Lieutenant shouted out. Seconds later, she heard a massive booming noise, probably the gun, but it couldn't have been too close. Surely not, right? Maybe it was just the sound of the gun from kilometers away. Before she could even process it, an equally massive shell dropped in front of them, nailing the Nazis and shaking the very earth they laid upon. A shower of mud cascaded upon them, throwing fascists to the air like they were leaves in the wind. Broken trees from where the enemy bunker had been built snapped, sending millions of tiny splinters as far as the eye could see.
“Holy fuck!” one of the new soldiers said. “Where did we have this artillery before?!”
“Two more rounds!” Lieutenant Pavlovsky called out. “Wait just a bit more, comrades!”
Another deafening boom. Round two created another massive crater, the explosion mixing with even more wounded screams from the Nazis. This time, Zarya could clearly see limbs and broken bodies flying their way, scattering legs, arms, hands, feet and chunks of flesh across their dirty home in the mud. One more round, then they could clean out whoever still survived in this small corner of hell.
The final round came careening down, and by now they were practically one with the mud itself as another layer covered them. A secondary explosion accompanied the shell, and chunks of metal joined with bits of fascists. What she recognized as a wheel went sky-high, following up by the remains of a Nazi halftrack. Part of a fascist utility truck was embedded in the mud in front of them. Ignorant to the destroyed vehicles flying their way, Comrade Lieutenant blew a whistle, urging them forward. Together, the squad charged up to what remained of the Nazi bunkers as hundreds of voices called out for sympathy, or at least a bullet to end their pain. Zarya again reminded her troops not to waste the ammo. There were still more Nazis waiting to join the fray. It didn't help to be short on ammo when they came. Within seconds, the Nazis counterattacked, with a wave of their infantry bursting through the defensive lines. Zarya and her squad occupied a formerly abandoned trench, though not without loss. Almost immediately, one of the new Russians that had filled Garipova's spot was killed, his body tumbling into the trench with them.
“Focus on the fascists!” Zarya shouted, sending off a burst to an advancing Nazi.
One of the fascists stopped, pulling out a stick grenade and throwing it towards them, forcing the squad to disperse. By the time she had gotten clear of the grenade's blast zone, she had no idea where the rest of the squad was, as only the radioman had joined her in her escape.
“Comrade Sergeant,” he asked, his hands shaking, “what are we to do?”
It had begun raining when the Nazis began jumping in the trenches with them. One of them, a sergeant judging by the way he was screaming and ordering the others around, gestured wildly as he tried to reload his rifle. Zarya aimed her weapon at him, killing him with a single well-aimed burst.
Reinforcements arrived soon for both sides, but Zarya did not recognize her new allies as soldiers. These were communications troops. Why were they here? Where had Lieutenant Pavlovsky gone? Confused Russian, Armenian and Ukrainian mixed as the soldiers and rear-line troops tried to form a coherent line. The mass melee in the trenches became no better than an ugly barroom brawl as Nazis and Soviets clashed in the sort of madness she had not seen since Stalingrad.
Zarya charged back to rejoin her squad, still confused by the rush of oncoming Nazis and the sudden arrival of rear-line infantry. The roar of tanks soon flooded her ears as friendly tanks burst onto the scene, angrily decimating the Nazis. Not all was well, though – just as soon as they had burst onto the battlefield, several tanks were destroyed, exploding and sending chunks of hot metal everywhere as the internal ammo racks detonated. Burning Soviet tankers tried desperately to get out of their tanks, and as she passed by, she could hear them pounding helplessly on their stuck hatches.
They had to push forward. Through more blood and mud they trudged, diving into a muddy, waterlogged trench the fascists had built. A group of fascists, some with rolled-up sleeves and some without, tried to set up a machine gun on a tripod. Zarya took it upon herself to initiate combat with them, spewing bullets their way. Two of them abandoned their attempt with the machine gun, but the third and fourth fell to the ground. One called out for his mother, while the other intermittently moaned and took sharp, blood-filled breaths.
The rain continued to pour down, soaking Zarya to the bone as she took cover in the trench. A storm had fallen on the area, and thunder mixed with the sound of tank guns as they continued to fight the Nazis. Fascist tanks showed up, starting a long-range tank duel that rendered Zarya's squad without their armored support. Comrade Lieutenant asked for another salvo from the 203mm mortar battery, which got a response of “Not at this time”.
Distant booms could be heard. Zarya could tell immediately it was not friendly artillery. She almost mistook it for thunder, had there not been a crack of lightning just a second ago.
“Displace! Enemy artillery!” Zarya shouted, already heading to what looked like more solid cover.
Seconds after finding the new cover, Nazi artillery shells began to fall, hitting the trench. Planks of wood broke off violently from the walls, and part of the trench caved in as the retaining walls were destroyed. An ear-piercing scream could be heard. Zarya looked over to see one of the communications soldiers, a young girl, without her left arm. She lay on the floor of the trench, screaming in pain.
“Keep pushing forward!” Zarya yelled as the Nazi artillery began to let up.
“I'm still alive!” the wounded girl screamed hoarsely in between moans. “I'm still alive! Help me!”
Comrade Lieutenant led from the front, demanding they ignore the calls of their wounded comrades. The rain bounced off of his hat and he wiped away the water on his face in vain, waving them forward. She could see the Nazis ahead of them in another trench line, this one protected by a barbed wire fence several meters in front of it. How many of these trenches did they have?
Zarya heard something click, and before she knew it, Comrade Lieutenant disappeared in a cloud of dirt in front of her as a sharp explosion rang out. She recognized this immediately. The Nazis had laid a minefield in front of the trenches, too.
“Stop!” Zarya ordered as Lieutenant Pavlovsky screamed in pain. “Radioman! I need a radioman here, now!”
The radioman shakily crawled over, handing Zarya the field telephone. Already, it was covered in mud, and she had to waste time trying to clean it off before she could properly speak into it.
“Company command,” Zarya said, speaking as quickly as she could. “This is acting platoon commander, requesting artillery support on grid 2-7, over.”
Stress-filled seconds ticked by as she waited for an answer, bullets cascading all around. Had they even heard her? Or was she speaking to ghosts?
“Platoon commander,” came the crackled reply. “This is company command. Request clarification. What is the third grid square, over?”
“Flatten the entire grid,” Zarya said. “There's fascists everywhere, we just need them killed, over.”
More seconds ticked by as they interpreted Zarya's transmissions. “Understood, platoon commander. Firing 280mm battery and Katyusha battery on your target.”
Good. That would definitely rid the area of these troublesome Nazis. The artillery would be there in a minute. Until then, all she could do was wait with her squad and hope the Nazis didn't get better at shooting anytime soon. She was almost out of ammo. Maybe she would have to go back and get a rifle from one of the communications troops.
Finally, the prerequisite minute passed, and the sound of dozens of rockets filled the air. They screamed down into the fascist bunkers ahead of them, once again violently throwing dirt, mud, equipment, chunks of concrete, and pieces of Nazis all around. Another few seconds later, earth-shattering 280mm rounds slammed into the earth, virtually deleting the bunkers entirely as thunder echoed in the background. Though, given how soon it had happened compared to the artillery falling, maybe it was just the sound of the mortar itself firing.
Zarya and her troops seized the remains of the bunkers, executing without question those still alive who dared to surrender. They would advance no further that day, however. Constant Nazi counterattacks and staunch defenses prevented them from advancing. Soviet Army cavalry joined in the fight later, but their horses got caught in the mud, easy pickings for the Nazis. They settled in the demolished bunkers, seeking refuge from the rain in the few structures that remained standing. By now, their numbers had been boosted by engineers who had put down their tools and taken up rifles.
6 September, 1943
Usually, forests were peaceful.
Nazi infantry dodged and weaved in between thick trees, sending wide, unaimed shots her way as Zarya and her squad pushed forward. The sound of a DP echoed, only interrupted by the occasional rifle shot. Her head felt bare – she had lost her pilotka sometime in the past hour, knocked off by either a bullet or an artillery shell's shockwave. The fighting was brutal here, characterized by more hiding than actual tactics. Grenades went off so often they were more like a distant drumbeat than an actual threat.
Across the leaf-covered ground, she could hear the Nazis shouting at each other, trying to organize a plan of action. She peeked out from her tree, watching the Nazis push up an infantry support gun.
“Artillery!” Zarya shouted, pointing to the incoming gun. “Make sure they don't start firing!”
Her squad responded almost immediately, dispersing as needed and opening fire on the light gun. For whatever reason, they kept shooting at the shield.
“Stop shooting the gun!” Zarya yelled, demonstrating what they should do instead as she shot one of the crewmembers. “Shoot the crew, you idiots!”
Despite their efforts, the gun crew shoved a round in, firing as quickly as they had loaded. Before she knew it, the round had hit Bahramov, his legs vaporizing as he was thrown about, blood trailing behind him as his screams bounced off the thick trees.
His screams continued as they kept shooting the enemy gun, pleading for any help that they all knew couldn't be given. The medics would have to be brought up to get him. There could be no abandoning their posts to even drag Bahramov to safety. There was nothing to do but keep shooting. The time to mourn would come later.
One of the engineers charged forward, a flamethrower on his back. He gleefully braved the bullets, ignorant to the danger inherent in using the flamethrower and moving so brazenly ahead.
“Are you cold, fascists?!” the engineer shouted, lighting up the forest ahead of him. “Here, this will warm you up!”
The screams of men being burned alive filled the air, and the Nazis dropped their rifles as the sticky petrol caught on the fascist's clothes. They danced like men possessed as the fire consumed them, waving their arms wildly in a vain attempt to extinguish the flames.
“Let them burn, comrades,” Zarya ordered as they pushed deeper into the forest. The loud whoops and uras from her squad and the engineers were music to her ears. They had done a good job here. Time to clean out more fascists in Bryansk itself.
25 September, 1943
The good thing about the Dnieper River was that it was three kilometers wide, and they were not under threat by Nazi machine guns.
The bad thing about the Dnieper River was that it was three kilometers wide, and they needed to cross it.
It was why she was now helping build a boat with approximately whatever the fuck they could find lying around. The raft was as makeshift as makeshift could be, but it would get them across. Probably. It didn't much matter in the end – Zarya would swim across the Dnieper with her entire squad on her back if she had to.
“Alright, comrades,” she said. “Get in!”
“Uh, Comrade Sergeant,” Private Antonov said, one of the few who had survived since Ponyri. “I…I think there's a problem. I get seasick.”
Zarya's face twisted in confusion, and she furrowed her brow as she stared back at Private Antonov. Blinking slowly, she shook her head and sighed. “I do not care if you get seasick,” she bellowed. “Get in the boat!”
“Understood, Comrade Sergeant!”
Once they hastily assembled in the raft, the squad began paddling. There was no talk to be had as they crossed the river, slowly approaching the western shore. Even though they were far outside of range, the Nazis threw bullets their way. Each burst fell into the water around them, throwing up small flicks of water.
“I don't suppose anyone wants to start singing, huh?” one of the new privates asked.
“Yo, heave-ho,” Corporal Mogilyevov started, slowly rocking the boat.
“If you finish that,” Zarya warned, paddling hard. “I'm shooting you myself.”
“Not a big fan of the Red Army Choir, Comrade Sergeant?”
“I'm not a fan of pointless distractions,” she replied. “Keep paddling!”
They paddled closer and closer to the opposite shore, and the bullets began to hit their mark. On her right, another makeshift raft was mowed down by a fascist machine gun. One of her soldiers, someone who had replaced a casualty last week, was shot in the head, his body falling out into the Dnieper as they moved forward without him. She could see clearly now the bunkers and trenches the Nazis had built on the Dnieper's shore, where flashes of gunfire lit up the afternoon sky. Bullets continued to ricochet off the water, until they finally reached the western bank of the Dnieper.
“Get your shovels out!” Zarya ordered. “Dig in and fight back!”
Private Antonov groaned, looking greener and greener with the passing second. “Can I just puke instead, Comrade Sergeant?”
“Would you rather be digging graves, Dmitri?!” somebody else asked.
Zarya temporarily put down her shovel, picking her PPSh up to fire at the Nazis up on the hill. As she did, somebody hit her with a shovelful of dirt. And then another, then another, on both sides.
“The next digger who hits me with dirt will regret it!” Zarya screamed, swapping out tools to contribute to their defenses.
Another hour stuck in hell as they waited for reinforcements to make it across the Dnieper. Constant back and forth fire was traded between them and the Nazis, until finally a full company could be arranged on their side of the Dnieper to push forward. It was nearly six by the time they crested the hill, charging into Smolensk and starting the fight for the city itself. Ruined city blocks told the tale of a city decimated not just by Soviet artillery, but also constant air attacks. The windows had been shattered years ago, and the city reminded her far too much of Stalingrad, with its piles of bricks lying on the sides of the road. Wrecked buildings, many with massive gaping holes in them, stood in defiance of the destruction all around them.
The Nazis had learned since Stalingrad. Snipers remained a constant threat, killing Private Antonov almost the second they stepped into the city. There was no time to stop to eat. The only thing they could do was fight, fight, and fight some more. Artillery was called upon for every problem, and it became the ultimate solution to the Nazi issue. Each shell that dropped on Smolensk destroyed another building in turn, wrecking roofs, eliminating floors, and killing more fascists. The Nazis were weakening – she could feel it. Each squad they killed, every group they wiped out, meant it was one less Nazi that could kill good Soviet soldiers.
Night fell before she even realized it, and the combat went from spotting clearly the fascists that squatted in Smolensk, to chasing muzzle flashes. Burning buildings and headlights from the few vehicles that had made it across were the only illumination, as the moon was covered up by dark clouds. Tracer rounds for Nazi anti-air guns lit up the night, trading their bright white tracers with incoming Soviet planes, strafing them with luminescent green rounds that occasionally bounced off the ground, ricocheting back up in wild angles.
By her count, it was almost midnight before the last fascist holdouts were killed. Just before she had time to find a place to sleep, Corporal Mogilyevov ran up to her, calling for help.
“Comrade Sergeant! Comrade Sergeant!” he shouted, out of breath. “We have a problem! You need to see this!”
Zarya sighed, her shoulders dropping. It felt like every bone in her body was aching. Was this the sort of thing Dima had to deal with when she was a new soldier? “Can't this wait until tomorrow, Corporal?”
“No, Comrade Sergeant,” he said, shaking his head. His face was ashen white, his eyes wide in horror. What was going on?
“Fine,” Zarya said, rolling her eyes. “Show me whatever it is you want me to see.”
Corporal Mogilyevov brought her to a church, the steeple caved in by either a shell or a bomb. She was not religious, and as far as she knew, neither was he. What was he point of all this? It became clear once she stepped inside the church. At once, the smell of blood and gunpowder hit her nose. She cringed, bringing a hand to her face in a vain attempt to filter the smell out. It was not the first time she had smelled something like this – memories of Stalingrad were still as fresh as the blood in here – but it always pained her to smell this sort of thing.
At the head of the simple chapel, where a preacher would have been, lay the bodies of far too many people to count. None looked military. They were dressed in simple Soviet clothes, soaked in blood. Some had stab wounds in them, apparently a bullet had not been good enough for them. It confused her, until she looked around. This was not merely a church – it was a synagogue. These people must have been Jewish. Was this the ultimate reason the Nazis had felt fit to execute them? How many people were even in here? Had all of Smolensk's Jewish population been murdered by the Nazis?
“Get the squad in here,” Zarya said, holding back tears. “Any man who doubts what we are doing to the Nazis can ask the Jews if we are going too far.”
Chapter 14: The Descent into Hell
As the summer of 1944 arrives, the German Army's position becomes more and more perilous.
7 April, 1944
Reinhardt was tired.
Tired of constant partisan attacks. Tired of retreating every day. Tired of losing men and tanks near daily.
But more importantly, he was tired of being tired.
He and Angela had not spoken for some time, not since she had confessed to him her deepest, darkest secret. Not that he could blame her – Reinhardt represented the martial will of the very thing she had sworn to work against. But, as of late, he could not avoid seeing her. The shrapnel he had taken at the Don just before 1942 had begun bothering him, necessitating constant appointments with not just her, but with the battalion medic as well.
The rain had begun early this month. Reinhardt sat in Angela's office, waiting for her to finish examining him as he watched the rain streak down the window. He couldn't help but glance down at her fingers as she ran them over the scars of his old wound, poking and prodding him as if he were more a piece of beef than a person. She seemed concerned, but still relatively detached. Probably helpful.
“Tell me again your symptoms,” she said, intensely staring at his scars.
“It's painful to move my arm up and down,” he replied, sighing heavily. “It makes it rather difficult to get out of the tank.”
Angela frowned, leaning back on her chair to take a note of some kind. She looked almost ready to give up all hope, but Reinhardt knew this couldn't be the case. She had been in a much worse situation in Stalingrad, and she had come back from that. Where had her joy gone? Where was the woman he had known at Klink's stupid party in 1942?
Maybe more importantly, did she know how much he still cared for her? Did she know that her face kept him up at night, wishing he could see Angela smile again? Maybe it was all a pipe dream once more for him. He could remember the last time they spoke personally like it was yesterday. She had broken, confessed every crime – real and imaginary – to him, and Reinhardt had responded by shutting down. She must have taken this as a sign their relationship was to end before it ever began.
“Reinhardt,” Angela said, her voice shaky as she slowly took off her glasses. “What I feared most is coming true. The…the shrapnel is affecting you quite negatively. If we don't get it out soon…”
He nodded, groaning. “I suppose it was inevitable. The doctors are not as good as they used to be.”
“This is serious. Reinhardt, I can't –“ Angela caught herself, slamming her eyes shut and taking a sharp breath. She shuddered, almost as if she had caught a chill. “You could die. You've taken bullets. You've taken steel. You've absorbed shrapnel. I don't want to even think about the toll your years of smoking and alcohol consumption have taken on the rest of your body.”
Ignoring the pain in his shoulder, Reinhardt sat himself upright, meeting the doctor's eyes. “Angela, if it is my time, then it will be my time. I have accepted the embrace of the grave.”
“Youmay have,” she said, her face contorted in pain, “but what about the rest of us, Reinhardt?”
He paused. Perhaps the years on the Russian Front had deprived him of all emotion, of compassion. He had forgotten Angela was not a soldier like he was. No, she did not see the world in patches of gray. She saw it as it truly was – full of color, vibrant, teeming with life. A life she had often told him was worth living. Angela saw beauty where nobody else did. Reinhardt could only ever see destruction these days, ruined cities marred by the ugly machinations of war, but she could pick out the vibrant, electric colors in the Russian prisoners they captured, tended the gardens she came across.
How cruel must Reinhardt be, to dare to tell her that the color she had seen in him would fade away? He nodded pensively, trying to figure out words so he could atone for his faux pas. “I'm…sorry, Angela. I…this war has brought out the worst in all of us.”
She closed her eyes again, rubbing her temple. No doubt she was as stressed as he had been lately. “I'm well aware military officers tend to have a more…shall we say, nihilistic outlook on life. But does that mean you have to have that as well? Does anything matter to you, Reinhardt?”
It's a good thing she doesn't have a stethoscope to him right now, otherwise she could hear his heart skipping so many beats he was sure she would call it a heart attack. What he wanted to tell her was that she was his everything. Reinhardt had long mulled over the contacts she had with the underground, debating whether it constituted a security threat.
In the end, he had decided that Angela was not a threat. Maybe to his old habits, but not to the army. Not to Germany. The only threat she truly posed was to his heart. Yes, she had lied to him, and it tore at his mind every time he went to bed. But she had admitted something to him that could very well have gotten her killed if he had been a more zealous officer. Angela had trusted him with her very life. He could only hope the feelings she had confessed to him in Stalingrad had not faded.
She sighed, her shoulders falling. “Your silence speaks volumes, Reinhardt.”
“Angela, wait…” he pleads, almost begging. “You know how long it has been since my beloved Frieda passed. I have been alone for over a decade. Since that day in Stettin…I have not felt alone.”
Angela pauses, her mouth agape as her eyes darted between his own, slowly widening. He can see every breath she takes, her chest quietly rising and falling as silence overwhelms them. She takes a deep breath, pulling her notepad close.
“Reinhardt,” she ekes out, her voice shaky. “Are you saying what I think you are?”
Reinhardt cannot hide from the truth any longer. He solemnly nods. “Yes. I love you, Angela.”
Her eyes are wider than he thought even possible, and she gasps slightly. A hand flies to her mouth, masking the crimson hue her cheeks have taken. Angela gave a hollow, empty laugh, as if she can't believe what she's just heard. “You…you mean that?” she asks, her eyes searching for any hint of deceit in Reinhardt's face. “Even after everything I've done to you?”
“Angela, if you were to leave this posting, I would miss you the way you miss Switzerland's lakes.”
A sharp, hesitant sob escaped Angela's lips, and her eyes began to well up. Slowly, she put the notepad on her desk, trying very hard to avoid Reinhardt's eyes, softly crying the entire way. Before he could even offer a consolation, she threw herself against him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders.
“I thought you would be killed before I could ever say this,” she whispered, tears rolling down her face. “I love you too, Reinhardt.”
He lightly pushed her back, looking at her distressed, but still clearly joyful, face. Her smile had returned, for good this time, almost as if she were finally relieved to hear the words from his mouth. Did he dare? Was he so bold as to kiss her, to find out for himself if her lips were as soft as they looked? Her eyes glanced down – no doubt Angela was thinking the same. They were so close that Reinhardt could feel their breaths mingling, sharing the same air as they inched closer together.
Until a gunshot brought him out of it.
His head snapped to the right, trying to see out the window, but the curtains had been drawn. That was not a rifle, or a submachine gun. No, that was somebody's pistol. He could hear it now, the begging, desperate Russian barely made it through the walls. What on Earth was happening out there? Angela had jumped off of him by this point, trying to compose herself, coughing to give off an air of nonchalance.
Reinhardt had to investigate this, however. He grabbed his jacket, slipping one arm on but leaving his left arm free, unwilling to endure the pain of trying to put it on fully right now. He stepped outside, having hastily put his cap on. Near tank 253, Lieutenant Holzknecht stood behind a line of kneeling Russian prisoners, his pistol unholstered. Another shot rang out as he executed a Russian, who fell face-first into the mud.
“Lieutenant!” Reinhardt shouted. Immediately, the men stiffened up, saluting as he passed by them. He ignored them, marching straight to Lieutenant Holzknecht, who had transferred his pistol to his left hand and threw up a salute. Reinhardt grabbed his hand, taking it away from the salute. “Put that hand down,” he growled. “What do you think you're doing, Lieutenant?”
“Herr Oberst,” he said, staring straight ahead. “Orders from Oberkommando der Wehrmacht. All Soviet prisoners are to be interrogated, then executed.”
“And you think this gives you a blank check to execute these men?” Reinhardt asked, gesturing to the Russians. “What service branch do you think you are in, Lieutenant Holzknecht?”
The lieutenant blinked, wetting his lips as he tried to understand the question. “Uh, the Panzertruppe, sir.”
“Yes, the Panzertruppe. Is the Panzertruppe part of the Waffen-SS?”
“No, Herr Oberst.”
Reinhardt stared into his eyes, making sure he got a good look at how furiously angry Reinhardt was with him. “Then why are you acting like an SS thug, Lieutenant? Do you want a transfer? Would you be more comfortable killing defenseless women and children than fighting a real battle?”
“No, Herr Oberst,” Lieutenant Holzknecht replied. “My place is here, side by side with my brothers under your leadership.”
Reinhardt looked at the gathering crowd of men from the battalion. From the headquarters building, Angela, Torbjörn, Brigitte and Captain Shimada had ventured out to see what was going on. Finally, he looked at the two dead Russians lying in the dirt, their blood barely visible in the mud. Six more were on their knees, guarded by a young private with an MP40.
“Lieutenant,” he said finally, turning back to face the beleaguered officer. “Give me your pistol.”
“Yes, sir.” Lieutenant Holzknecht put the weapon on safe, handing it grip-first to Reinhardt.
“Take note of this,” Reinhardt shouted, making sure all could see and hear him. “There will be no murders of this sort on my watch. Lieutenant Holzknecht is lucky that I am not recommending his immediate court martial. If I hear word of – or, God forbid, see – such another act like this, I will make sure you are court martialed without question.”
“But, Colonel,” Captain Schultheiss said, stepping forward. “These were orders from OKW itself. Are we supposed to just ignore them?”
“I am telling you that this unit is not following that order,” Reinhardt declared. “We will take prisoners as necessary and as we see fit, but we are not handing out executions. That is not our job as tankers. This is not honorable. If there is any man who has an issue with this, I will accept your transfer request.”
Having sufficiently made his point, Reinhardt headed back into the headquarters. He saw Angela reaching out to him, but held her hand back. She must have remembered that officially, they were not anything more than colleagues. Reinhardt stowed away Lieutenant Holzknecht's accursed pistol until he could figure out an appropriate punishment for him.
22 July, 1944
He wasn't sure how the army's intelligence arm had gotten this wrong. Just a scant few weeks ago, OKW had informed his command that the Russians were massing tanks near Lemberg, and to expect a Russian counterattack aimed at Army Group North Ukraine. Yet, for weeks the Russians had countered him and engaged his heavy tank battalion, pushing him back from Minsk. Reinhardt did not think that, just three years later, he would be right back where he had started this war.
The situation was growing more and more desperate by the day. Like right now, as a storm rolled across the front. The new Russian heavy tanks were more advanced, more than able to match the Tiger he was in now. Their armor was still vulnerable to the 8.8cm gun, but just barely. Massive Soviet guns were more than able to contest them. As if that weren't the worst part, it seemed every time one Soviet tank was knocked out, seven more took their place.
Trying to participate in this counterattack was a losing proposition. Reinhardt did not need to see what was going on to know this battle was lost. Strong Soviet defense lines and strong-willed men made delaying almost impossible.
“Tiger reporting,” one of his men said, his voice coming through loud and clear on Reinhardt's radio. “We're done for, baling out!”
He had kept a running list in his head of the losses. Of the 45 tanks in the battalion, over half had already been lost. There was almost no hope for them, truth be told. All Reinhardt could do was keep retreating, hoping that by the time he reached Germany, there would be a way for them to reverse this misfortune once and for all. Well, a way to do it that didn't involve a bullet to the head. But he could not do that to Angela, not after what had happened.
“Herr Oberst, ” his radioman reported. “News from OKW, they're…uh, they're ordering you to withdraw.”
“Do they think we are not already doing this?”
“I-I don't know, Herr Oberst,” the radioman said. “It's just what I'm hearing.”
Reinhardt sighed, shaking his head. “Break off the attack. We have lost too many anyway.”
Slowly, the radioman relayed his orders to the battalion – what was left of it anyway – as the driver threw the tank into reverse, extracting them from the battle even as hate-filled shells screamed past the tank. What glory could possibly be won here? Where had all the hope and spirit of the German army of 1941 gone? Was this all a fool's errand, an operation doomed from the start?
Something told Reinhardt that he would find out sooner rather than later.
Their tanks rolled into what remained of the small Polish village they now called home, parking in their usual spots. Unfortunately, they were also far fewer than they had been that morning before heading out. It pained him that they could not even recover the destroyed tanks and crews. How many good men were now lost, prisoners of the Russians or just killed outright?
As usual, Angela met him at the headquarters building, excusing her behavior as observing him for signs of further physical deterioration in face of the shrapnel in his body. Torbjörn and Brigitte were also here, counting off the tanks as they rolled in.
“I can't believe it!” Torbjörn shouted. “They destroyed my beautiful Tigers! Reinhardt, what happened out there?”
Reinhardt sighed, wincing in pain as he lifted himself out of his cupola. “The same thing that has been happening since Stalingrad, my friend.”
Angela dared to step closer, almost as if she were afraid he was going to fall and break something, At this rate, the only thing that could be broken further was his spirit and passion for war.
“Reinhardt,” Brigitte asked, still going over the lost tanks. “What…what's going to happen? Weren't we going to win?”
Climbing off the tank, he tried to conceal the complete lack of hope in his face. “I need to talk to you all inside.”
Confused, they followed him into the headquarters building, leading his retinue into his office. Captain Shimada had been asked to join them as well by this point, equally lost as to the purpose behind this meeting. Despondently, Reinhardt closed the door, turning to face his old friends.
“I will not lie,” he began. “Germany is losing. We…we have orders to withdraw from all front-line operations.”
“What does that mean?” Brigitte asked.
“I do not know what it means for Doctor Ziegler, or for Captain Shimada,” Reinhardt admitted. “But I believe I do know what it means for me.”
One could hear a pin drop. Angela had pressed her hands to the sides of her face, trying but failing to stop tears. Captain Shimada had accepted the news with a level of stoicism, his face neutral as ever. But Torbjörn and Brigitte did not seem to understand, their faces twisted in confusion.
“You really think they're gonna do to you what they did to the fellas who lost in Africa?” Torbjörn finally asked. Execution. The ultimate penalty for a job left unfinished in Hitler's Germany as of late.
“They…they can't do that, can they?” Brigitte asked, her voice shaky. “You've helped Germany do so much.”
“The Führer can do what he wants,” Reinhardt said. “Torbjörn, Brigitte, you should leave Germany while you can. The Americans and British are making headway in the West. The Russians are destroying us almost daily here. There is no hope.”
Torbjörn's beard danced as he threw back and forth a chunk of chewing tobacco in his mouth, trying to work out a solution to the problem. “Well,” he muttered, “maybe we can…hrm. I…”
Reinhardt sighed, putting a hand on Torbjörn's shoulder. “It is over, my friend. I'm sorry. Please, just…leave before anything goes wrong.”
The Swede scratched his chin, furrowing his brow. “Well…I guess if we start packing now we can get back to Stockholm in a week.”
“Please do,” Reinhardt replied.
Brigitte shot up from her chair, pushing Reinhardt as hard as she could, sobbing. “You can't order us anywhere! We need to be here! Helping you! We promised!”
Reinhardt bit his lip, bringing her close to comfort her. “I'm sorry. It is for the best, I'm afraid.”
A car rolled to a stop outside the headquarters, followed up by the sound of several doors slamming shut. All talk outside the camp stopped dead cold, as heavy boots stomped into the building Reinhardt was using as a field headquarters. Who had come here? He had to find out, excusing himself to investigate. Through the front door, a group of Gestapo agents, each one dressed in a black uniform with the ever-familiar red armband on their left arm, signifying who they really served. They prowled the headquarters, on the hunt for somebody. But who?
“What is the meaning of this?” Reinhardt asked, heading to the highest-ranked officer present.
The officer removed his hat, tucking it under his arm. “I am Chief Inspector Sylvester Burkharter, heil Hitler.” On instinct, the other Gestapo agents – and those in Reinhardt's own staff – threw up the Nazi salute, as required. Sighing, Reinhardt paid lip service to it, tossing a hand up. Inspector Burkharter seemed to accept this, retrieving a warrant from his jacket and handing it to Reinhardt. “Colonel, I have it on good authority that a member of your staff has been involved in a plot to assassinate the Führer.”
“What nonsense is this?” he asked, furrowing his brow as he unfolded the warrant. It named specifically their legal right to search the headquarters, and to detain anyone they suspected as being involved in the so-called July 20 plot. What had happened then? Who on earth did they suspect?
“Start searching!” Inspector Burkharter shouted, taking his leather gloves off.
“Inspector, this is patently absurd,” Reinhardt said, shaking his head. “Nobody on my staff is involved in this plot of yours.”
Inspector Burkharter lit a cigarette, puffing on it as his men began to tear apart the building. “Nevertheless, like I said, we have good word that a member of your staff is involved.”
Reinhardt rolled his eyes. “This is ridiculous. Inspector, nobody here intends to kill the Führer! What proof do you need?”
“I will know when I have it!” he yelled, frowning as he wagged his cigarette at him. “Nobody hides from the Gestapo, Colonel Wilhelm, mark my words.”
There was little else Reinhardt could do, truth be told. The Gestapo had the ultimate authority here, and even if they didn't, what they said usually became law very quickly. They overturned filing cabinets, rifling through them as if collected army documents would hold some sort of clue. They tore through maps, raided desk drawers, and even went through the bags that his staff kept on hand.
Hours later, it seemed like they were done with their pointless exercise in ruining his headquarters. They had found nothing, much like Reinhardt expected they would. The Gestapo agents gathered in the anteroom, empty-handed after their time there. Inspector Burkharter extinguished his cigarette, looking down on all of them as he did so.
“I suppose we made a mistake, Colonel,” he said, tugging on his jacket. “My apologies for the mess.”
He ordered his men out, stepping past Torbjörn, Captain Shimada, Brigitte and Angela as he headed to the door. Before fully stepping out, however, he paused, slowly turning and casting a suspicious eye upon Angela.
Inspector Burkharter told his men to stop, his boots squeaking against the floor as he turned his feet in place. His intense blue eyes focused on Angela as he tilted his head, studying her with a critical look. Finally, he rolled his shoulders back, wetting his lips. “Fräulein, I do not think I caught your name. Could I perhaps see your papers?”
Angela swallowed, retrieving her papers for him to examine. He snatched them from her hands, critically examining them with far more scrutiny than even the harshest military policeman. For a split second, he glanced up at her from the papers, his brow furrowing with each second. After about a minute, he took a step back, gesturing for two of his agents to come to him. The two Gestapo goons pulled Angela from the line, holding her arms behind her back.
“Dr. Ziegler,” he announced, “you are being detained for questioning relating to the July 20th plot to assassinate the Führer. If you do not answer us, we have ways of making you talk.”
“Wait!” Reinhardt shouted, daring to step between him and Angela. “You are not taking my battalion doctor. She is needed here.”
Inspector Burkharter sighed. “Herr Oberst, do not intervene, this is official Gestapo business, please, step away.”
“You do not have the authority to detain my battalion doctor,” Reinhardt countered. “This is not Gestapo business.”
He narrowed his eyes, glaring at Reinhardt. “Do not dare to tell me what is and is not Gestapo business. If I were you, Colonel -”
“You are not like me, Inspector. I do not believe you ever will be.”
Inspector Burkharter bit back a retort, but he could tell from his voice that he was getting very annoyed. “Once again, Colonel, this is Gestapo business, step back or-”
“Your business is not in arresting innocent members of my staff.”
“Do not tell me what is and is not Gestapo business!!” Inspector Burkharter screamed, a vein popping out of his forehead and a clenched fist shaking barely a meter away from Reinhardt's face. “This one is coming with us! She is a traitor to Germany!”
“Inspector,” Reinhardt said, very calmly considering the circumstances. “I have friends who are very close to Herr Himmler. Should I give them a call, tell them how you are treating a proud veteran of the World War? How do you think the Führer would see this situation?”
For a second, his anger flared up again, until he managed to get it under control, melting away into a coldly indifferent expression. “You win this time, Colonel,” he said, his voice full of venom. “Release her. Rest assured, the Gestapo always gets their man…or woman, in this case. Do not think you are free from suspicion, Dr. Ziegler.”
Just as quickly as they came, the Gestapo left, assembling in their cars and speeding off, no doubt to terrorize somebody else. Angela dropped all pretenses of hiding their relationship, falling into Reinhardt's arms and weeping. Torbjörn, Brigitte and Captain Shimada stood by, each recovering from the event they had just witnessed. Nobody else had stood in Angela's defense – only Reinhardt was brave enough to face the Gestapo and scare them off.
It was a clear sign to Torbjörn and Brigitte, or at least Reinhardt hoped. Reinhardt was the only person who knew of her anti-Nazi activities. Would this scene spur Torbjörn and Brigitte into leaving for good? Would this inspire the rest of his command to avoid the declarations from Berlin? He could do nothing but comfort Angela as much as he could, try and protect her for longer.
The war was ending, for all of them.
Chapter 15: Fallen Heroes
Reinhardt is recalled to Berlin.
7 August, 1944
Berlin was not particularly pleasant this time of year. How could it possibly be, when the entire regime was crumbling around them? Berlin had been continuously bombed since 1940, the year British bombers reached past the Luftwaffe and managed to make it to Berlin intact. These days, massive flak towers dotted the crown of Germany, manned by mere children as the men were taken away to the front. Very few – if any – men above the age of 16 remained in the city, leaving only the women to work in the factories and keep Germany's war machine running.
It tore at Reinhardt's heart, seeing Berlin in ruin like this. The scars of four years of continuous bombing had not faded even the slightest, and the broken cobblestone streets barely had any functional cars left on them. The few that did were quickly requisitioned by the army, used to transport new soldiers and aging reservists around, or supply ammo to a flak tower somewhere.
Few things in his life had made him more depressed than this. As promised and as ordered, Torbjörn and Brigitte had left, just the other day in fact, heading to Stockholm on the first possible boat out. Only Angela and Captain Shimada remained, though even the Captain's presence was in flux. He anxiously awaited news from Tokyo, trying to determine if the German newspapers told the truth, or were lying about Japan's situation in order to cheer up the German population some.
These days, there was little for any of them to do other than wait for news. Maybe Reinhardt would get shipped out to fight the Americans. Maybe he would be dismissed from active duty. Or, perhaps more likely in his mind, one day the Gestapo would come arrest him, execute him for any number of charges real and imagined. The staff busywork could only keep him occupied for so long.
“Colonel,” Captain Shimada said, bowing deeply as he entered his office. “I wish to speak with you.”
Reinhardt motioned for him to sit down, resting his pen on his familiar desk. “Of course, Captain. What is it?”
Captain Shimada settled in his chair, solemnly rubbing his chin. “Have I ever spoken to you of my brother, Genji?”
“I do not think so,” Reinhardt answered. The name was unfamiliar to him, but then again, he did not often hear Japanese names.
“My brother and I, in 1927, were destined to take ownership of the Shimada zaibatsu. For us, there was no limit to how far we could go. Our father told us that the sun would never set on the Shimada empire so long as the Emperor lived. With us at the helm, the Shimada zaibatsu would grow, rival the power of Mitsubishi, Yasuda and Nakajima. We were destined for greatness.”
“If I may ask,” Reinhardt said as Captain Shimada paused to reflect. “What happened, Captain?”
“Please, you may call me Hanzo,” he said. “We have known each other for three years, Colonel. I cannot ask you to call me Captain Shimada.”
“Right. Hanzo. So…?”
Hanzo sighed, closing his eyes slowly as he tilted his head down. “Japan is dominated by military politics. Like all loyal servants of the Emperor, my brother and I joined the military to serve the state. I chose the Army, and he…the Navy. The Navy saw itself pushed out of favor of the government until the army all but shoved all navy personnel out of the halls of Tokyo. He did not take this well. Vocal men do not get far if you are on the wrong side, and Genji was not in favor.”
Reinhardt nodded. He was well familiar with this sort of story. “Is your brother a strong fighter?”
“One of Japan's best,” Hazno said, his chest swelling up in pride. “But…my superior officers asked me to temper him. Keep him under control. And…I did. I asked him to more seriously consider his words, his actions.”
Reinhardt furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”
“He had grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle. Preferred luxury, rather than heeding the Emperor's calls to limit such unnecessary things in one's life. The army, and even a few navy officers did not like him. They considered him a threat to the Emperor's personal honor. Such affronts to the Emperor cannot go unanswered. I pleaded with him to understand, to amend his ways, but he refused to listen.”
This entire concept had quickly gone from familiar to foreign. Reinhardt was no stranger to the idea of honor and duty. But this was going far beyond it. He dared not ask for further details, an explanation, for fear he would offend his guest.
“They had me plant a bomb in his home. I understand that sounds like a horrible thing to do -”
“You are correct,” Reinhardt interrupted, keeping his face as neutral as he possibly could. He wanted to go into a rage, demand to know why, but there must have been a point to this. Hanzo would not so freely speak of such things if he did not have a reason behind it.
Regret filled Hanzo's eyes as he clenched his fists, daring to let a single tear leave his eye. “My superior officer told me if Genji would not atone for his crimes against the Emperor, then he would have to die. He was to have an offer. Either seppuku or death by the bomb, but he was never to know of the bomb. I met my brother for tea at his home, told him what I had been asked to do. He refused to commit seppuku, cursed me for suggesting such a thing, told me I had dishonored our father.”
Reinhardt paused, unsure whether he wanted the answer to the question he was about to ask. “You set the bomb, didn't you?”
“Yes. It turned out to be a…dud. Completely ineffective. Many officers believed I had convinced him until he turned up at his base the next day, no worse for wear. As punishment, I have been sent here, far away from any battle. My brother, proud warrior he is, has been given garrison duty as far as I am aware.”
Reinhardt puzzled over this. “Surely, this is good? You and your brother both are safe?”
Hanzo chuckled, wryly smiling. “For a Japanese soldier, combat is the only honorable way to live. If one does not die by the sword, you do not deserve a sword. The katanas in my family's collection have been handed down to us over a period of four hundred years. If my father were still alive…he would take away our swords without question.”
The Japanese sense of honor and duty could not be much swayed, it seemed. At the same time, he could understand, and not understand. The story Hanzo told was so familiar, and yet so strange at the same time. “Hanzo, I still do not understand. You are safe. Your brother is safe. What is your worry?”
Hanzo sighed, shaking his head. “When I first came to your headquarters, I had already seen combat in China. I had faced Chinese troops with my men, and came out victorious. We easily defeated our Chinese foes, and I believed that it was due solely to the highly motivated will and training we had.”
“Yes, I recall this,” Reinhardt replied. “You mentioned something similar before Stalingrad.”
Hanzo nodded. “Precisely. Stalingrad, and every campaign since, has shown me that war is not what I thought it to be. War is not like the tales of glory and valor my brother and I were told. There is a disgusting element to it, and I have seen it in spades here. German paramilitary forces execute scores of civilians, have burned the land, sent people to camps. If this is happening here, I shudder to think of what Japan is doing.”
Reinhardt sighed, pensively shaking his head. He did not need to be reminded of the atrocities the military had undertaken. “You did not answer me.”
“I do not know what my brother has been doing since 1942. The last dispatch I received from Japan only told me his unit was heading back to Japan, where from I do not know. I have gotten nothing since. If he is dead, then the Army has not seen fit to tell me. Maybe they do not know, maybe they have decided the death of a troublesome officer is not worth the effort of informing his family. I was reminded of the men in Stalingrad yesterday, the ones we left behind. Do you know how?”
He shook his head. What could have reminded Hanzo of that terrible, terrible defeat?
“A woman approached me on the street. She had a red cross on her arm, and she asked me if I knew you. When I said I did, she asked me if I knew Watchmaster Althaus.”
It was a name a lifetime ago. It felt like just yesterday he had first met the sergeant, with both of them eager to surge forward for Germany. And yet, out of the two, only he had left Stalingrad alive. Watchmaster Althaus had been condemned to die in Stalingrad, with no comfort for him.
“His sister,” Reinhardt said, connecting the dots. “I…I hadn't been able to find her. Is she still in Berlin?”
“She did not give me any information. She just wanted to know what had happened to her brother. I told her he had been in Stalingrad, but that was it, and she left to disappear into the crowd. I have wondered since that encounter if Genji has been told the same thing, or if I may return to Japan, find a man from his unit, and have the same conversation, and remain a nameless ghost in his memory.”
“There is still time,” Reinhardt said. “You can go back to Japan, I am sure.”
Hanzo scoffed. “The German Navy is at the bottom of the ocean, Colonel. I am not a fool. I will not return to Japan until after the war ends, if things in Asia are progressing the same as they are here. I would most likely be captured by the Americans or the British, and held for intelligence purposes. And then what? Return to Japan, and be asked by all around me why I did not fight to my last breath against my enemies? Be shamed publicly for not dying in battle against the entire British navy?”
Finally, Reinhardt saw what Hanzo's fear truly was. He did not fear death. He did not fear defeat. He did not even fear failing to return to Japan. He feared dishonor.
“You have not done anyone – your Emperor, yourself, your brother – a disservice, Hanzo. You must understand this. Your actions have been nothing but honorable. If you were a man in my army, I would be proud to have you by my side.”
For a split second, Hanzo's stoic face changed, and he showed a rare display of emotion as his eyes widened. Just as quickly, though, he blinked, wiping away the sadness. “Thank you, Colonel. That does make things easier to accept. I am honored to have served by your side during these past three years.”
Reinhardt nodded, pausing to pick out a selection of schnapps and two glasses. He poured out two shots, one for him, and one for Hanzo, sliding over the half-filled glass to the captain for him to accept at his pleasure. Hanzo took the little glass in his hand, raising it up and cupping it in his hands like one would tea. The two shared the drink, taking what little solace they could in the alcohol as it burned against their throats with a subtle fruity taste to it. Reinhardt could not help Hanzo, but he could at least make the end of the war better for him.
Reinhardt did not much enjoy living in Berlin. If he was to get away from the front, he would have preferred heading back to his farm in Stuttgart. At least there he could tend for Gabriel more directly, show Angela what he had built for himself in the interwar period. Maybe, if he were a man inclined to dream, he could see himself and Angela settling down there in his final years. Right now, though, he could just see this small apartment the army had set aside for him.
It was not a terrible apartment. Sure, the walls were covered in a strange light green wallpaper, and the furnishings reminded him more of his great-grandmother's house than a modern flat. But it was not his home. It was more like the houses and factories the army had requisitioned across Russia, just another place for him to rest his head after a long day and nothing more. He dreaded going back to this apartment every day, because he knew it was never truly comfortable.
It was dark by the time he had gotten to the apartment, lighting an oil lamp to provide some sort of illumination. Not that there was ever much to do at the house. Maybe read a little. Write down a note or two for tomorrow. Maybe have a cup of coffee, when the rations came through. The routine was always the same. Come home, have what little food he had stocked up from the week's shopping venture, go to sleep, and then wake up in the morning to shave.
Tonight, though, a knock came at the door. Unusual. Unless…was it the Gestapo, making good on their promise from earlier in the year? Had they come to arrest him, finally execute him like he had always suspected? Cautiously, Reinhardt headed to the door, peering out onto the porch to see who it could be at this hour. He expected to see a Gestapo goon, or perhaps, nobody at all. They were well-known for pretending not to be there and kicking the door in while their victim checked.
Instead of a Gestapo agent, he saw…Angela. What was she doing here at this time of night? Confused, Reinhardt opened the door, furrowing his brow. She looked up at him, a shy smile on her face. “Good evening, Colonel,” she said, nodding slightly. “I hope I'm not bothering you.”
“Angela, what on earth are you doing?”
She nervously laughed, batting away some rogue hair from her eyes. “I…I thought we could maybe…spend the evening together? I know it's a very forward thing to ask, but-”
Reinhardt sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Angela, I am very honored, but…what do you think-”
“Reinhardt, don't you see what's happening?” she asked, her smile fading as she tilted her head to the side. “There are very few people who truly care about what we are doing. The men here...they only care about themselves or their families. Nobody will care about us. We can…we can be together.”
He felt his shoulders drop, and at once everything on his face felt heavy. Unfortunately, he could see with perfect clarity what was happening. The war was lost, and there would be no Versailles Treaty for Germany this time. The way this war was going, Germany would be completely destroyed. And, at this rate, Reinhardt's body would give out too. He could no longer hide the pain in his arm, as even the army medications were no longer good enough. The dull pain clouded his thoughts daily, but he could see clearly what Angela did not.
“Angela, I do see what is happening here. Do you?”
The sudden reversal strikes Angela by surprise, judging by her shocked expression. No use keeping her outside – Reinhardt lets her in, but only to get her out of the night. One could never tell who would be watching. She pretends to be calm, takes a seat on the couch that belongs in a museum more than it does this apartment's living room. Maybe some tea would help. He puts a pot on, despite it being far more later than he would usually make it. In the meanwhile, Reinhardt sits down next to Angela. She's shaking, quite visibly, her facade failing.
“Angela, I cannot tell you how much I love and appreciate you. I would love nothing more than to give you the life you deserve. Not this,” He gestures to Berlin, to Russia, the destruction and death they had left behind. “You should have the best possible life, not live in fear of the Gestapo. But…I can't give you that. I don't think I ever will.”
She doesn't even blink, even as the tea begins to boil. By the time he comes back and has poured her a cup, her eyes have become glassy, her mouth still shut.
“You have told me so much about your farm in Stuttgart,” she finally said, slowly blinking. “About your prize war horse, your fields, the dream you and Frieda tried to achieve. Is there really no time left? Are you really so tied to Germany's fate that you have to stay in Berlin?”
“If I abandoned my duty now,” he said, cringing at the very thought. “We could never live comfortably. The…the Gestapo, the army, they both would track me down. I have told you before, Angela, I have been called. I must answer.”
At this, she can't possibly keep her emotions in. She smacks him, tears cascading off her face as her shoulders shudder with each breath. “Stop saying things like that!” she yells, her voice escalating in pitch with each breath. “You may have been called, Reinhardt, but that doesn't mean they own you! You've served your time, is two wars not enough for you?”
“It is my duty to serve until they tell me I cannot any longer.”
Angela stares back, her brow furrowing, mouth open in shocked confusion as she grapples with his words. “Reinhardt, you know exactly how much you mean to me. Why do you insist on driving me away by telling me these things?”
Reinhardt sighed deeply, putting down a barely-touched cup of tea. He didn't really want it anyway. “I am telling you this precisely because I know how much I mean to you. I am not some young officer who has gone gallivanting around, picking up Iron Crosses like scarves. This was always to be my last war for Germany, and I think we are both aware of that fact. Even if this damned shrapnel did not give me pain every day, I would be on my way out anyway.”
Confused, she looked to his shoulder where the shrapnel once had bled so clearly, and slowly her eyes grew wide in horror as she realized what he was saying. “No,” she muttered. “No, no, no, Reinhardt, you can't – please, no. There – we can…”
She's in full-on panic mode now, he can tell. Alternating between reaching out to him, and putting her hands on her face, her words lose coherency until finally, she's just sobbing. “I can't lose you,” she finally sputters. “I have tried so hard to be strong, Reinhardt, to be like you, but I can't anymore. If I have to face a life without you by my side…then I don't think I want to face it at all.”
“Do not tie yourself to me, Angela,” he said, holding her close. “You still have a life ahead of you. I…I am an old hare. My time has come and passed.”
“Do you think that ever mattered to me? Why do you think I preferred to dance with you, instead of all the captains we met at all those parties? Reinhardt, I fell in love with you, you old fool, not…whatever you think I'm attracted to. You are what I always wanted to find.”
Well, how could he argue with this? Reinhardt sighed, begrudgingly accepting her argument. Once again, he enveloped her in his arms, allowing her to spend the night with him. If that would make one night of her life joyful, so it would be. Little else could matter. He found his worries of the war, of Germany, of the pain in his shoulder melting away as they found peace in each others arms, perhaps for the only time before the Russians and Americans came knocking on Berlin's door.
Chapter 16: Final Push
The Red Army pushes into Germany.
16 April, 1945
The sound of thousands of brand-new ISU-152 assault guns broke through the air, their engines roaring as she rode on the back of one towards the Nazi lines. In just mere months, the Red Army had reached Seelow Heights, the final defensive line of the fascists. Here, they would break through once more, and the gate to Berlin would be open. There, in Berlin, they could end this war once and for all.
Katyusha rocket barrages and the booming of hundreds of guns could be heard all around, barraging the Nazis constantly. Dawn had barely broken, and each explosion lit up the morning perfectly. It was music to her ears.
“I am missing a biscuit,” Private Rishatov yelled over the roar of diesel engines. “Stealing is not the Soviet way, comrades!”
“You probably ate it, you fucking pig,” Corporal Ignatov shouted back. “You'd forget your rifle if Comrade Sergeant didn't keep throwing it at you.”
Zarya exhaled, feeling proud for the first time since Stalingrad. The world was no longer the dark, bleak hellscape she had long seen it as. For the first time since losing Dima, she could see something to live for, even if that something was murdering as many fascists as she could get her hands on.
The attack was starting soon. No time left to ruminate on the past or wonder about missing biscuits. Now it was time to get off the tanks and start killing. Zarya and her squad dismounted, covered by large-caliber heavy machine gun fire and the high-explosive booming of the accompanying tanks. The Nazis were just ahead of them, trying to reorganize in the chaos that followed the artillery barrage. Searchlights that the army had brought up perfectly illuminated the fascists in their trenches, and also blinded them as she and her squad surged forward. Zarya saw their shadows creep along the plains, making them look like deformed monstrosities as they advanced.
Upon hitting the fascists defensive lines, swampy terrain slowed down their tanks as the treads struggled to get a grip, spewing mud everywhere. Nevertheless, Zarya and her comrades persisted, continually pushing forward even as the Nazi machine guns buzzed terribly in the air. Within seconds, though, an enemy counter-barrage began, forcing them to stop to take cover in the trenches they had just taken. Pieces of wood, chunks of earth, and splintered trees were tossed about, alongside Soviet soldiers and the various limbs they did and did not have anymore. Occasionally a direct hit destroyed a tank, and it would send pieces of metal across the broken landscape. The artillery let up faster than expected, and once again the brave comrades rose up to engage the Nazis in open warfare.
Toiling through the swamp with no respite, Zarya and her squad mercilessly slaughtered any fascist they came across, pushing to fight tooth and nail with their enemy at all points. Zarya could not believe they still dared to resist so heavily. Who did they think they were? Did they think they could rape and maraud their way through the Soviet Union without punishment? Did the Nazis think that after Stalingrad, all would be well in the world? They had come to her home, killed her people. So long as Zarya lived, she would vow to kill every Nazi she saw.
The line still could not be broken by brute strength alone, but constant artillery attacks weakened the Nazis and forced them to poke out from their defensive works. Zarya had lost count of who was and was no longer part of her squad, aside from Private Bogdanov, a recruit who had only joined the Red Army a few days ago on his 18th birthday. How he had not been recruited during Stalingrad or Leningrad, she didn't know. All she cared about was whether he could shoot a rifle competently, and it seemed he was able to do that so far.
“Keep pushing!” Zarya screamed, covered in mud and dirt from the day's endeavors. Her pilotka was – again – long gone, having been knocked off by something. Maybe she should take a dead man's helmet for protection. Or maybe not. Maybe it was better to just kill every fascist in front of her, make them pay in blood for taking her pilotka away. The wrecked bunkers and trenches were filled with not just broken pieces of concrete, but the remains of the guns the Nazis had stowed upon them. Anti-tank guns, light artillery pieces, and machine guns all lay broken and destroyed across the landscape, joined by a burning Soviet tank or two.
The fighting was necessarily brutal. The Nazis refused to yield even a meter of land, trying to prevent the Red Army from continuing their march to Berlin. If only they knew it was all in vain. Zarya ran out of ammunition twice, and had to resort to taking a rifle and ammo off of a fallen comrade. The same manner of fighting she had become used to since Stalingrad came back in force here. Bayonets, shovels, clubbing the Nazis to death with anything and everything nearby, bullets, knives. Nothing was unsuitable for killing the Nazi.
They had only advanced roughly four kilometers by the time evening fell on the first day. A second Nazi defensive line had been established, but it proved difficult to break through without further support. Reserve troops had come forward, as the army Zarya was part of had taken severe losses and could not hope to break this line on their own. They settled into an uneasy sleep, punctuated by occasional moments of waking up to fire back at the Nazis.
19 April, 1945
The breakthrough at Seelow Heights meant two things. One, the road to Berlin, a mere 90km away, was now wide open for them. Two, there were only broken and shattered Nazi units standing between the Red Army and Berlin itself. It was time to clean house and make sure the fascists would not cause further issues for them as they advanced and encircled Berlin.
They had very strict orders from above. Destroy everything. The fascists had attacked the Soviet Union, burned and blown up anything they found to their distaste. The Red Army would return the favor in full. Germany would cease to exist when they were done here, and Zarya would make sure of it. This afternoon, they would be advancing through the countryside near a forgotten German village, burning the fields of wheat and corn. Pockets of fascists still remained, trying to defend their land against the will of the Soviet people. Zarya had already given out orders to destroy without question anyone who dared resist.
“Over there!” Private Bogdanov shouted, pointing to a small house. “I saw some Germans go in there!”
“You!” Zarya yelled, pointing at a nearby soldier, “get on the tank and tell him to knock on that man's door!”
The soldier complied, scrambling on top of a nearby tank as Zarya took cover behind a cobblestone wall, trading fire with the Nazis. Their dying screams of pain were wonderfully pleasant to hear. It was finally their turn to feel how 1941 had ruined her so. It was their turn to see their country in shambles around them.
The nearby tank blew open a wall in the farmhouse. Time to clear it. Zarya kept her squad outside, bringing Private Bogdanov with her. Three Nazis were in the room, two on the floor and wounded from the cannon's blast. The third was getting to his feet. Was he reaching for a weapon? It didn't matter – Zarya put a burst in him, killing the Nazi for good. She stepped over the ruins of the wooden wall, checking the damage to the interior. It seemed these Nazis had captured some fellow Soviet soldiers, and executed them. Two lay in a pool of blood, but the third…
“Garipova?” Zarya asked, scarcely believing her eyes as she found herself smiling for the first time in four months. “Finish those rats,” Zarya said to Private Bogdanov. She reached out to Garipova, helping him back on his feet. He was covered in dirt, still grinning despite the horror he no doubt must have endured. “Hahaha, once again, you cheat death, Garipova. Our tanks are ready to smash through to Berlin, and…”
Something was off. What was Bogdanov doing? She turned around, frowning as she looked at Private Bogdanov kneeling over one of the wounded Nazis. “Bogdanov!” she shouted.
Private Bogdanov jumped, startled by her sudden shouting. He looked up at her, terrified as he clutched a journal of some kind in his hand.
“I am not hearing gunshots.”
“T-there is no point, Comrade Sergeant, these men are already bleeding to death…”
Zarya remained unamused, picking up a Mosin that lay against a table, handing it to Garipova. “Then maybe Comrade Garipova will help them to bleed faster.”
She left the house to the sound of a rifle firing. Good. At least one of her soldiers knew how to follow orders. Zarya returned to the fight to see the fascist pocket retreating from the nearby wheat field.
“Burn it all!” she shouted. “Burn the wheat fields! There will be no escape, shoot the fascists!”
“Are we to shoot them in the back?” Private Bogdanov asked.
“The back! The front! The head, whatever you wish! Just so long as they are dead!”
The fires began to rage in the field as they pushed forward, chasing the fascists into a forest that had been burned before, judging by the charred trees and still-burning logs that made up the Nazi's defensive works. There were far too many fascists here. There had to be a camp or something nearby. Somewhere for all of these disgusting vermin to come from.
“Keep moving!” Zarya encouraged. “Keep killing! Let their burning country be the last thing they see!”
They moved over Nazis full of holes, those without limbs, and the blackened remains of Nazis who had been set on fire, trading bullets with those who still refused to curl up and die already. The Red Army would correct them of this mistake in short order. After all, it was the only acceptable outcome.
She had turned out to be right. There was a full-fledged Nazi encampment merely half a kilometer from the farm they had just burned, filled with what had to be at least a platoon of fascists. It was the same story as elsewhere – show no mercy to them, kill everything in sight. The fascists stood little chance, trying to fight back against a revenge-filled Red Army. Zarya could not even pretend to care about the plight of the fascists at this point. It was only a question of whether or not they died.
The camp had just been cleared, and Zarya smiled as she looked out among the dead Nazis in front of her. Some dared to cry out in pain, others had been dead before they hit the ground. Many others had lost limbs or chunks of their bodies, collected flesh and blood and bones scattered across the dirt road that led out of the camp.
“Comrade Sergeant,” Private Bogdanov said, “you seem to relish in the slaughter.”
“I have watched my friends die at the hands of this scum,” Zarya said, not taking her eyes off the dead. “The fascists are not people anymore, Private. They are rabid animals, and when an animal is rabid, you put it down.”
Garipova body-checked Private Bogdanov, laughing as he stumbled around. “Sergeant Zaryanova is ten times the soldier you will ever be, Private. I'd wager she's a better man than you, too!”
“This is not war,” he shot back.
“What do you know of war?!” Zarya shouted, finally turning away to confront this foolish private face to face. “Have you been in Stalingrad? Were you there when the fascists marched on Moscow? Did you abandon everything in your life only to watch friend after friend die in front of you?”
“No, Comrade Sergeant, I-I was only 14 then. I helped in the factories-”
“Until the army took you away to join us in the last moments of victory! You do not know anything of war, Bogdanov, because you do not know the sacrifices we have made! You complain of bad food, uncomfortable clothing, a heavy rifle, what do you think Garipova and I had to do in Stalingrad?! We went days without food, in freezing cold that could kill a man before dawn! Compared to Stalingrad, this is nothing!”
Zarya shook her head, walking away from him to find somewhere to make some tea. “Make sure this coward doesn't come near me again for the rest of the day,” she ordered. “If he does, I'll shoot him!”
29 April, 1945
The Nazis had recruited all to stand and fight for their ruinous end. The old, the young, the weak – all had been given arms as far as Zarya could see. Some of her other comrades may have taken issue with it, but for her, the standard was clear. If they stood for Germany, they died for Germany. The Red Army would scrounge up every rat from every hole they hid in, and make sure they saw justice.
A Katyusha barrage rocked Berlin, collapsing a corner building and setting the ones next to it on fire. Rain poured down with the rockets, the gray skies contrasting with the black smoke that crept out across Berlin in long tendrils. A flash of lightning illuminated with perfect clarity Berlin's destruction. The decadent, rotten heart of the fascist Reich was seen clearly, and all who saw it knew without question it was falling.
“This is not war,” Private Bogdanov muttered. “This is murder.”
“This, Bogdanov,” Zarya said, gesturing for the squad to follow her to the next building, “is how you win a war!”
“Our rockets are tearing the city apart! This is madness!”
Garipova scoffed, checking the ammo in his PPSh. “You want madness, Bogdanov, go to Stalingrad!”
Now inside the neighboring building, they descended a staircase. She could hear German being spoken close by. It didn't sound like they were panicked. No, they were planning something. She could also hear the sound of a wireless set, ticking away in morse code. They had stumbled upon a headquarters of some kind.
“Shh,” Zarya ordered. “Move quietly. We will take them by surprise.”
As ordered, the squad began to to lighten their steps, cut down on chatter. The headquarters was right in the very next room. The Nazis were unaware of them entirely, focused on a map. Someone in her squad fell over, alerting to the fascists of their presence. The radio operator threw off his headset, scrambling for a rifle, as the officers turned around, wondering what was going on. The firefight was quick, and brutal. One of her soldiers had found a shotgun in his ventures, and charged up to the officers, blowing their legs off without a second's hesitation. Their pained moans filled the building as they reached helplessly for something, anything to save them.
“Leave them!” Zarya yelled, already heading deeper into the building. “We need to push to the Reichstag!”
She kicked down a door, coming face to face with a squad of panicked young men. Her squad flooded through the door, firing their weapons the whole way through. It mattered little who the victims were – if they held a gun and stood to fight for Germany, they must die. The houses and buildings they were fighting in by now had become ruins, mere shells of themselves. The hollow bones of each building were clear to see, each structure barely held together by wood and plaster. What few pieces of furniture remained were riddled with bullet holes or were half-burned.
Another group of Nazis wiped out, another push to the next building. She could see glimpses of the Reichstag through the shattered windows, the disgusting Nazi flag flying defiantly in the wind. The rain had stopped by now, tapering off and leaving everything and everyone wet. Broken buildings and pieces of glass and wood piled up on the sides of the streets, with demolished boxes and crates lying around for cover here and there. One of their 203mm mortars had been shoved up the street, almost right up to the ruined apartments, demolishing an entire building with a direct level shot to it. Their massive guns were no longer being used for artillery – they were now using them to delete troublesome apartment buildings entirely.
“Comrade Sergeant, come here quickly!” That was Private Bogdanov. He and several others were standing around an entrance to the Berlin metro. Some of them had abandoned their rifles, holding flaming molotovs over their heads. In the bottom of the stairway to the metro, the pooled rain mixed with the blood of a wounded Nazi, swirling around a drain.
“What is going on?”
“These men are trying to surrender, Comrade Sergeant.”
Zarya scoffed, rolling her eyes. “Look around you, Bogdanov. Do you think these men will be denied their revenge? Death only comes two ways – fast, or slow. Garipova, it is your choice. Decide their fate for them.”
Garipova nodded, moving to the top of the staircase. The desperate Nazis pleaded in their disgusting tongue, trying to find mercy as they laid down their rifles and held their hands up. He took several moments to look them over, before nodding to the comrades around them. On cue, they threw the molotovs at the fascists, setting them aflame. Their screams filled the air as they tried to bat away the fire, failing.
“You should learn from Garipova. He understands the nature of this fight.”
Rather than responding, Private Bogdanov collapsed on the ground, and began to vomit. Zarya sighed, disgusted as she looked him over.
“What's the matter?” Zarya asked, looming over him. “You wanted to kill fascists, right? Why else would you be in the army?”
“No,” he said, coughing. “I wanted to defend the Soviet Union.”
Zarya scoffed, picking him up off the ground. “Look around you! We are not in Russia. We are in Germany. This is not 1941! We are not defending the Soviet Union, we are protecting it, and we protect it by killing as many fascists as possible!”
Bogdanov looked up at her, wiping slime off of his mouth. “Do you really believe that, Comrade Sergeant?”
Zarya picked him up, standing him upright so she could show him Berlin's destruction in all it's glory. “I have been fighting since 1941! When I left my home, Moscow looked like this. Stalingrad looked ten times worse! The Nazis deserve everything they get. Know this, Bogdanov, the fascists have more honor than you, because they at least have the stomach to stand and kill for their country! Are you willing to at least die for yours?”
“I am here because it is my duty,” he sputtered.
“Your duty is to kill every fascist you see! When we reach the heart of the Reich, I expect you to kill every single fascist in front of you! Your Motherland expects this of you! Every Soviet man and woman who has died fighting for your safety demands it of you!”
Zarya spat at the ground he stood on, shaking her head as she walked away. There were more fascists to kill, more ground to take. Nothing would stand between them and victory.
30 April, 1945
“The Motherland needs your final commitment!” a commissar shouted, speaking into a megaphone as they ran past him into the Reichstag. “The SS honor guard defending this building will fight to their last breath! Make sure they cannot breathe any longer!”
Zarya and her squad headed into a large anteroom, filled to the brim with makeshift wooden structures to give the Nazis room to maneuver and fire at strange angles from, but it was for naught. Wave upon wave of Soviet infantry crashed into the building, and for each man that was lost, seven more took his place. Zarya aimed carefully at each Nazi, ensuring they would not have an easy death. They were truly desperate – many men she passed had bandages on them, indicating they had been wounded before. Shouting, the sound of gunfire, and explosions echoed throughout the building as they fought tooth and nail for every room. The building did not even look like a building anymore – it was more like a collection of rubble that happened to provide shelter from the wind and rain.
“This is madness!” someone shouted. “The building is collapsing around us!”
“We'll be buried in here!”
“Then die with your hands wrapped around the throats of the enemy!” Zarya yelled.
They pushed their way through the great lobby, killing so many Nazis Zarya had long lost track of how many were left. Through the demolished, burning rooms they charged, tossing grenades in to deal with troublesome ones. Groups of fascists were executed if they tried to surrender, and those who dared to stand and fight were cut down like trees.
Soon, they entered the debate hall, where members of the fascist parliament would come to discuss politics. A massive metal eagle was hung on the wall, clutching a swastika, the ultimate representation of the fascists and their sick, twisted ideology. Numerous Nazis stood in the rows of benches, ducking behind them and popping out to shoot at the Red Army. Zarya incited her squad to throw their molotovs at them, burning them where they stood. One fascist dared to stand up with a flamethrower on his back. An excellent marksman removed his head seconds later, and the fascist fell to the ground with his finger on the trigger, setting several of his friends on fire.
“Bring down that fucking eagle!” Zarya screamed. Someone – not a soldier from her squad – complied, picking up a rocket launcher and bringing the eagle down. It crashed to the floor, sending dirt and dust everywhere with an equally massive boom. The sound of DP machine guns echoed in the halls of parliament, and slowly, the Nazis were exterminated from their one-time home. Like rats, they were hunted down and dragged out, killed without mercy.
The resistance stiffened as they charged up to the roof, fighting for each office like it was as important as Berlin, but it was ultimately for nothing. Little could stop the charge of the Red Army. The rooftop held but a handful of dedicated soldiers, each cut down as the Red Army punched through, a final artillery strike crippling the defenses of the Nazis.
The rooftop had finally been cleared, after hours of fighting. Wounded and dying Nazis crawled around, trying to find the strength to fight back. The screams and moans of dying fascists filled the air, as gunfire raged all around Berlin. The battle may have been ongoing elsewhere, but in the heart of the Nazi government, it was over and done with. Zarya stood on top of the Reichstag, looking out on the destruction of Berlin with Garipova next to her.
“So long as you and I live, Garipova,” she said, “the heart of this army will never be broken. As heroes, we will return to Russia's embrace. Together, we are strong.”
“It's over,” he said, leaning against the edge of the rooftop. “We can finally go home.”
“Stirb, du verdammtes kommunistisches Schwein!”
Zarya turned to the source of the German, to see a young man with a pistol in his hand, who had already fired it at Garipova. She heard him cry out in pain, and responded immediately, taking her PPSh and swinging it at the little bastard. His pistol went flying as Zarya continued to beat him until there was little left but a bloody mess where his face had once been. She turned back to Garipova, who sputtered as he coughed up blood.
“Garipova?” she asked, knowing fully well he was dying. “Garipova, can you hear me? It's going to be okay, alright? You'll be fine…”
She could not lie to herself. She saw the blood seeping through his tunic, the hollow glaze in his eyes. His short, desperate spurts of breath, mixing with the sharp coughs as he spat blood out. He had to have been shot in the heart, or somewhere close. They couldn't fix this. The medics were too far away. Garipova met her eyes, trying to speak, but only weak, pained breaths came out as he slowly breathed out for the last time.
Why was she cursed to be the only survivor of Stalingrad? Why was she the only one who would survive this madness? Did all of her other friends not warrant a good life? What sort of cruelty was this?
1 May, 1945
The war was well and truly over.
Reinhardt, Angela and Hanzo made their way to his office, trying to find a way to the Americans and British before the Russians completely engulfed the city and swallowed it whole. At this point, Reinhardt wasn't sure whether that was truly possible. All night, they had dodged Russian patrols, avoided their tanks, hid from their searchlights. They had finally made it, not much worse for wear. The same could not be said for his office, however.
Someone had evidently burned it, judging by the fact his desk showed clear signs of being on fire, the once-glossy varnish now marred by flames. The rug was burnt, frayed at the edges, and the windows had been broken by either bombs or gunshots, it was difficult to tell. Books were scattered across the floor, broken from boots that stomped over them and mangled by hand grenades. The entire room looked how Reinhardt felt.
He collapsed in his chair, creased by many a seat taken and more than a few Russian bullets. He sighed long and hard. The war was lost. It was clear, even to him. Reinhardt could feel his bones failing him, the cursed shrapnel causing so much pain he could scarcely bear it any longer. He had spent a long sixty-five years serving Germany. How fitting that he would die for her as another regime found itself on the losing end of a war.
“The dream is over,” he muttered. “The pain is too much to bear.”
“Reinhardt,” Angela said, her eyes welling up with tears. “It's okay, w-we can get you some morphine, get you to a hospital, or…”
“It is too late,” Reinhardt said, meeting his lover's eyes. “Please, Angela, stay by my side while I rest?”
He could see she wanted to cry, but kept the tears inside. Her breaths became shallow, and she swallowed hard, trying to keep her emotion from breaking free. “Okay,” she said, her voice straining. “Of course.”
Angela wrapped her hands in his, and the two touched foreheads, happy to let Reinhardt live out his final moments together. This was what he had always wanted, even if this was not the place he thought it would end at.
“It's never too late,” she whispered. “I…I can give you something, and then we can go to Stuttgart. You can show me Gabriel, like you always wanted to.”
“Yes, that would be nice, wouldn't it?” Reinhardt said. “You would love Gabriel. He's a fine horse.”
She laughed, as much as one could find a reason to laugh in this hellish world. “I've never been much of a horse person, but…I suppose I could find a way to appreciate them.”
“He has served me excellently. I'm sure he will do the same for you.”
“Colonel,” Hanzo said gingerly. “I must insist we keep moving, we-”
“Hanzo. Look at me. I can barely focus on anything other than my damn arm. You…you can go on, save yourself.”
Hanzo drew a sharp breath, furrowing his brow. He contemplated this, until he shook his head. “No, Colonel. I am not going to leave you.”
“We're not leaving you, Reinhardt,” Angela said, holding his hand even tighter as tears came down in force. “I'll never leave your side.”
The door to the office was broken down, the old wood collapsing to the floor as heavy boots stomped in. Reinhardt expected them to be Russians, but instead, he watched a squad of Gestapo goons walk into the room. Surprised that there was anyone even in here, they leveled MP40s at them as Hanzo aimed a pistol at the threat. Their uniforms still had an air of formality about them, but each one was tattered, bloodstained. One had a wrap around his head, covering a head wound of some kind. Another had an obvious bandage on his arm. Slowly, though, the leader got a glimmer of recognition in his eye.
“Wait, wait,” Reinhardt said, wincing in pain. “What…what is this? Hanzo, stand…stand down.”
“Dr. Angela Ziegler,” the lead one said, marching towards them and roughly grabbing Angela's arm. “You are under arrest for your role in plotting the Führer's assassination attempt.”
“No! Reinhardt! Please!” Angela was unable to keep her tears from flowing, uselessly reaching out to him as she was dragged away. Immediately, Reinhardt rose up, feeling his old bones protest every movement, only to be stopped as the Gestapo raised their weapons to aim at him.
“Not this time, Colonel,” the leader said. He remembered. It was Inspector Burkharter. “Resist, and you will be shot. You are better left to die a hero, than as an enemy collaborator. This one… this one will die a traitor to Germany.”
Through tears and shouts of protest, calls for Reinhardt to do something, Angela was dragged away, with the Gestapo keeping their guns trained on him and Hanzo the entire time until eventually, he couldn't hear their bootsteps or Angela's cries of agony. He did not have to be a fortune teller to guess what would happen next. Defeated, Reinhardt fell back into his chair, feeling his heart drop into an abyss from which it could not recover from.
“Leave me, Hanzo. I…I'm feeling rather tired.”
Hanzo paused, still clutching his pistol. Eventually, he nodded, holstering his weapon and saying something in Japanese, bowing deeply. Soon, he too left the room, and Reinhardt leaned back as much as he could. He slowly closed his eyes for the last time, breathing in deeply and doing his best to remember Angela's face as it should have been – happy, joyful, full of life. The things he desperately wanted to see one last time, as he took his last breaths and finally, died.
Zarya and what remained of her squad roamed the streets of Berlin, hunting down pockets of fascists that refused to sit quietly and die. By now, most of the gunfire in Berlin's interior had died down, but there remained many SS holdouts and regular army troops who did not see reality. For the SS, they tended to hold up in buildings, and were usually dealt with by way of just blowing up the entire building with a heavy assault gun. The enemy regulars were dragged out of whatever holes they had made for themselves, and executed without mercy.
The ruined streets offered some solace, though. Killing fascists made her forget about Dima, Garipova, Iskandarov, Bahramov, Mogilyevov. She had heard that, for the time being, all they had to do was crush these last pockets, and then they could finally go home once the Red Army had finished the job. So far, there hadn't been much, but that was alright. She had spent four long years fighting. It was nice to take a break every now and then.
“Comrade Sergeant!” a private said. “There's something over here!”
She followed the private, who led her around a corner. In the middle of a street lay a blonde-haired woman, shot through the head. Her blood was still wet. She hadn't been dead long. This didn't look like Soviet work, but Zarya didn't much care. A dead German was a dead German either way. The woman's makeup was smudged and smeared, like she had cried up until they pulled the trigger. This was the price of war, she decided, when you were so disgusting even your own countrymen find reasons to kill you.
“Hey, guys!” another private said, standing in front of an open door. “There's something in here!”
Curious, Zarya headed inside, finding an old fascist sitting on a chair, not moving. The private who had discovered this place poked him with his Mosin, with the old man unresponsive. “Huh,” he muttered. “Too bad we couldn't shoot ourselves another Nazi officer, right, comrades?”
Something about this old officer jogged a memory in Zarya's brain. It was far away, but she could distinctly remember having seen his face before. Maybe it was nothing. Or, maybe, she had once seen him in a picture somewhere. The Nazis were fond of keeping mementos of past victories.
“Come on, let's keep moving,” she ordered.
The squad moved out, walking back into the streets to hunt. Zarya stayed behind. She knew she had seen him somewhere before, but the memory was long gone, if it had ever been there in the first place. Something about the lines in his face, the pained dying expression he had, and the way his entire body seemed to cry out in defeat, struck her. This was no ordinary fascist, she concluded. No, he had too many medals to just be another old man. Even in death, he exuded a warrior's aura. She sighed, shaking her head sadly at him.
“Maybe you can be better in death, old man,” Zarya quietly said as she left the old fascist to rest. Privately, she couldn't help but wonder. Did Stalin have a need for heroes like her, when his speeches told of the collective heroism of the Soviet Union?
Well, this is the end. Thank you to everyone who has supported me in making this, from my regular readers in Tiny, Coyote and Lonesome Tiger, to my amazing beta Deos who put up with far too many chapters of me rambling on about the German army, and everyone else who has left comments or kudos! It was a ton of fun writing this, and even more fun watching people react to it and go through this journey with me.