A Beacon On The Horizon (3.3)

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Shaila Dominance – Outskirts of the Djose Wood

In the darkness of the early morning the 8th Panzer Division prepared for battle.

Across the edge of the Djose wood, facing Knyskna, the Panzertruppen established three large staging areas. Fuel, ammunition and spare parts were gathered and jealously guarded in these three camps. Tank crews waited idly beside long rows of dormant tanks.

A majority of their vehicles were M4 Sentinel medium tanks with curved bodies and pan-like turrets, supported by small hosts of squat M3 Hunter assault guns, characterized by the unfortunate position of their main 75mm gun – on a recessed portion of the glacis to the right side of the machine. This arrangement gave the gun little horizontal traverse.

Engineers busy with tune-ups and repairs rushed across the aisles of machines to make their very final inspections and preparations, and marked all machines ready to fight.

Their attack would begin in the afternoon, under a centered sun.

Knyskna, or at least the outskirts, was suitable territory for them.

Surrounded on three sides by the Djose wood – and in turn by the three camps established in advantageous positions – the land between forest and city was flat and broad territory that gave the Panzers terrific sight lines toward the outermost Ayvartan defenses.

Six Panzerkompanie had been gathered to commence the assault on the city, while four remained in reserve. One thrust of three companies would attack first, to be joined in the late afternoon by a second wave of three companies – one company would attack from each of the camps and divide the enemy defenders’ already limited resources.

Each of these companies boasted 20 tanks, mostly M4s, divided into four platoons of five tanks. Two platoons from each company would advance first, to be joined by the two others at least two hours after the initial penetration of the city limits.

Once their turn was up the second wave of companies would follow the same doctrine with their own platoons before night fully fell. This staggered assault would allow Nocht to thoroughly probe the Ayvartan defenses meter by meter and to keep a steady but flexible advance, able to react to any trouble with an injection of fresh reserve armor.

Their target was the railroad hub in the city’s north-center, where they would cut off any opportunity for escape. A thrust from the south would meet thrusts from the east and west at that point, and seal the enemy’s fate – or so it was planned.

“Our intelligence on the enemy puts their rifle strength at essentially one Regiment cobbled together from various formations and vastly under-strength and fatigued owing to constant battle; their armoured strength as one or two Platoons; and their artillery as scattered batteries. Despite our superiority, the terrain could potentially make the advance difficult. So therefore, our initial goal is only a partial encirclement of the city center, enough to quickly knock out the rail hub,” Dreschner concluded, “any questions?”

In a tent a kilometer from the southern staging area, Dreschner briefed his subordinate officers on the grand scheme he had concocted. His map of the city, pinned to a chalkboard behind him and heavily written upon, was a vast collage of slightly blurred, black and white photographs, taken and arranged by Luftlotte pilots. It was four days old and the city center was a blank circle that read Ziel, of which no pictures had been safely taken.

Ayvartan anti-air cover was fierce.

Schiksal had interviewed pilots by radio to get an idea of what was there.

She watched everything from outside the tent, sitting on the bed of a heavy truck parked beside the war room and housing an enormous encryption machine and messaging set. Due to the weather, she had requested the tarp be removed, so the truck was open to the air, and gave her a slightly raised view of the men.

To the last man the Nochtish officers were indistinct Karls and Jörgs and Svens with grave faces, gray coats and cropped hair. Schicksal knew their radio channels and divisions better than their actual names and ranks, though she had made a mental note to familiarize herself better with them. All of them scratched their chins and pored over the plans, save the beleaguered commander of the 14th Jager Division’s forward battalion.

He was the quietest and meekest man in the room – the failure of his men had been so costly that he had lost any ability to raise an objection to the Panzer COs.

Though Dreschner left the room open to questions, his brow developed a slight twitch the instant a man raised his hand to ask something. First in line was Lieutenant Reiniger, a slender man with a slight dusting of a beard and wide grin on his face.

“Say, Brigadier-General, any chance we can get a few birds to shit on the Ayvartan line before we go ahead?” Schicksal cringed away from Reiniger’s crude, slurred rendition of their language, indicative of a man from the backwaters.

Dreschner looked partway between shame and anger.

“Schicksal!” Dreschner called out. “What is the status of our air support?”

“Nonexistent.” Schicksal replied. “The Luftlotte contingent in Shaila has been almost entirely committed to reducing the Tukino pocket. Fighting there is fiercer than expected, with multiple breakout attempts supported by Ayvartans from outside the pocket.” She had been on the radio and working the Loki encryption machine all day to gather such information. However, she knew Dreschner wanted it only as a matter of routine.

“That should be sufficient for you, Reiniger.” Dreschner said.

“Sorry Brigadier-General, I am just fond of the gallantry of our air divisions.” Reiniger replied, his face still dominated by a smile. Everyone knew Dreschner’s antipathy toward non-Panzer units. “It would have been a show to see them dive on our helpless enemy.”

“They are far from helpless against the air,” Schicksal said, her voice a little low and unsteady, “Luftlotte took many casualties from their concentrations of anti-air batteries.”

Lt. Reiniger side-eyed the communications truck. She should not have spoken then.

Dreschner did not seem to care that she did. He did not even acknowledge that she had. “We will make do, Reiniger. Artillery support will also be scarce. Rebuilding our lost fuel supplies and tank ammunition took priority over all else, due to unexpected events.” Saying this Dreschner fixed his eyes on Major Baumgaertner of the 14th Jager, who had been the villain of this cheerful film since the fiasco on the 25th. Despite the striking largeness of the man, he was cowed by the Brigadier-General, who had a fiercer nature overall.

“How soon can we count on any infantry support then?” Asked Lieutenant Kunze, a man with caricaturesque shoulders, a thick build and heavy cheekbones who commanded one of the first Panzerzugs to enter the battle. He always spoke with a high-strung voice regardless of the subject. “Without air or artillery we will need more men on the ground.”

Schicksal looked away briefly, feeling embarrassed for Kunze. What a faux-pas!

“Our plan has no need of men, Kunze. If it did, you would get them.” Dreschner said.

Unwisely, Kunze pressed him. “City fighting would be safer with extra eyes.”

Though unasked for, Schicksal had the information and hastily interjected then.

“Elements of 13th Grenadier will be trickling in over the day, but mostly they will cover our rear. Everything else is in Tukino.” Her voice trembled a little and her heart sped a touch, since she knew she was stepping quite slightly out of line. The officers could all speak among themselves – she should have only spoken when spoken to.

Kunze eyed the radio truck with contempt.

“That satisfy you?” Dreschner added, before Kunze could say any more.

There was then yet another unwise interjection, this time from poor persecuted Major Baumgaertner, who nearly pounced on the chance to offer his men to the slaughter.

“The 14th Jager is eager provide support to the heroic Panzers, Brigadier-General. I can have one of my Rifle Platoons accompany each of your Tank Platoons.”

Dreschner lips curled slowly down with a building fury. Kunze, dangerously oblivious to the social circumstances within their little clique, openly counted his fingers and then loudly scoffed at Baumgaertner, feeling far too free to criticize and act out at the disgraced Major. “That’s only thirty-two men to each of our ten tanks Baumgaertner, surely you must have the manpower to muster a fiercer presence; we need more than three men per tank!”

“Your offer is adequate, Baumgaertner, and we all pray that it may it absolve your infamy!” Dreschner shouted then. He turned sharply from the recon commander to his subordinate. “Kunze, unless you want to personally dig my latrines until we take Solstice, you will heed how you speak and act in my war room. Do you understand me?”

Reiniger covered his mouth to stifle a laugh.

Schicksal ducked her head from the suddenness and strength of Dreschner’s shouting.

Other officers followed suit.

Kunze nodded his head slowly and quietly. It was not his conceited attitude that had earned him a strong reprimand, but his ignorance of Dreschner’s predilections.

He had begged for supporting troops – a taboo.

Meanwhile Baumgaertner voided his face of emotion and dipped his head down like a beaten dog. Even his one small victory had been subverted through vicious reprimand. Schicksal felt quite sorry for him. If he had any hopes of promotion they were now lost.

On this note, the conference ended.

Officers trickled out of the tent until it was empty, and on personal motorcycles they made their ways back to their staging areas with hand-drawn copies of Dreschner’s map prepared by intelligence officers. Schicksal waited in the truck for everyone to be clear of the place, before stepping off and walking around the camp. She immediately cracked open her tin and lit another cigarette. She’d been craving it for a while.

Schicksal took a deep smoke while spying a gaggle of horses waiting near a wagon loaded with fuel drums. She had come to notice them from their neighing and impatient tapping a few hours earlier and found their presence quite humorous.

Though she knew dimly about the horses, seeing them in the flesh was always a marvel. They used their horses for many things – infantry transport, short-range delivery of supplies between staging areas, artillery hauling. Between the disparate troops in the Djose, and around Knyskan and Tukino they had over a thousand animals.

Nobody wanted to acknowledge them too much, even as they rode them everywhere. Here was the most advanced army in the world, scientifically proven down to the number of bullets in crates, and their tenuous fuel supplies made horses a serious option over trucks or motorcycles. It was almost embarrassing. And it made Schicksal laugh.

Ever since she spotted the horses she had wanted to give them a good petting.

She approached the wagon, and ran her fingers through the mane of one of the animals, and brushed its neck with her hand. It was a beautiful horse, tall and regal, with a soft hide and marvelous hair, a top quality breed exclusively for a demanding and exacting army.

She pitied it.

It was another misunderstood and maligned part of a system plagued by callousness. It simply did its work as best as it could, even as its companions sneered and ignored it. They would run it to the ground and expect it to be pleased and proud of its labors.

In a few hours they would attack a city with no essentially no gun or rifle support, led by bickering men in tanks who only agreed that they found their enemy inferior, while awaiting the animal wagons hauling their fuel between staging areas and bringing their ammo crates from supply corps miles away. Oberkommando wanted them in the desert around Solstice before the Postill’s Dew, but refused to release reserves this early.

Everything was rushed and stressed. The technocrats demanded dramatic results.

She still expected they would win. Nothing she had seen thus far proved otherwise.

Thinking about the army like she was watching it from the clouds was simply too depressing to sustain. Schicksal took a final drag of her cigarette, bid farewell to the horses, and made her way back to the Befehlspanzer as the sun started to rise in earnest.

She would be spending the next few days on the radio in that hot metal box, but at least she would be hearing some pleasant voices talking back.

Everything would be too stultifying to cause her real grief.

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