This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.
28-AG-30: Knyskna, Southeast Thoroughfare
Leander felt his heart beating hard in his chest.
He kept himself pressed against a corner of the room, his rifle in a stiff grip in his hands. As the tanks thundered closer the vibrations along the cement walls transferred to his body and sunk deep into his gut. He tried to be strong, and he endured the situation as much as he could, but the noise and smell and the shaking was turning his stomach.
Sharna lay against the wall on the opposite side of a blasted-out window frame from him. Their dilapidated hideout overlooked the road and made a prime sniping spot – Sharna herself picked it out. She raised her finger to her mouth to signal quiet, and shifted her eyes toward the window. Leander stood carefully beside the frame and peered out.
A column of five assault guns, turretless tanks, advanced in a tight formation, two wide, two deep with a fifth vehicle trailing behind. Leander had committed to memory pictures of the tanks they would be facing, and knew these to be M3 Hunters.
With their guns mounted on the right side of the tank, they would have to turn dramatically to attack Leander’s position, which menaced them from their left. Their awkward design, lack of a machine gun and their engine power meant, according to the notes he had read, that they would be quite vulnerable during such a maneuver.
He took heart in this weakness and hoped he could exploit it.
But the tanks were not completely alone.
Among the armored column traveled over fifteen men, three in a motorcycle, but most on foot – the motorcycle had to start and stop and struggle through the debris beneath and around the column. They were not outfitted for house to house fighting. They had no automatic weapons, only long bolt-action rifles like the ones Leander saw them use when fighting in the woods, and they seemed to struggle with the terrain as they moved.
In addition to the men Leander still heard noises in the distance of tanks blasting at debris, so he knew that the vanguard of the enemy probably counted on reinforcements. Their ambush had to be sprung soon before the rest of the enemy’s tanks caught up to the vulnerable M3s. Every additional tank cratered their chances of success.
Everyone waited for the signal to attack. Below them the Nochtish men kept their eyes to the road and advanced clumsily. Whenever they looked overhead they focused on roofs and balconies and cast only brief glances. They did not know that the buildings ahead and around them were taken up by men and women ready to die fighting them.
When Sgt. Agewa or Sgt. Ibori launched their attacks, it was likely that knowledge of this would be disseminated quickly across Nocht’s forces. They would become far more aware of their surroundings. It was critical to launch their ambushes as soon as possible and with some level of coordination. This was the importance of their radios.
Leander looked behind himself, across the ruined room, where a depression in the floor led to a fairly intact staircase. Elena and Bonde crouched there, waiting to ambush any troops that rushed into the building – and also listening to the backpack radio. When it was time to attack, Elena would let them know with a thumbs up from the staircase.
Leander lifted his rifle for no specific purpose. He could not yet fire, but with every movement he felt more used to its weight, better able to heft it and aim down the sights and quickly take a shot. It was not so different from a Bundu, it was only heavier.
He moved it, and pulled bolt to check the chamber, and felt that these small things could be preparation enough. It helped keep him focused through the rumbling.
“Shoot at the tanks ahead of the column. That will slow them all down.” Sharna said softly, fidgeting absentmindedly with the length of her rifle. “Try to hit the flat, depressed bed right behind the cannon housing. It is the thinnest armor, and right over the engine.”
“Alright,” Leander mouthed, nodding his head to acknowledge her.
They heard a light tapping on the floor behind them, and looked back to see Elena’s hand, raised in a thumbs-up. The time had come for the ambush.
Sharna and Leander stood fully erect against opposite sides of the window frame, their rifles in hand. In this position they were still concealed from the enemy, but could easily fire and take cover before the infantry could get them. They were ready to fight.
Nocht’s tank column was now a short ways past their building, but still well within the BKV rifle’s optimal anti-armor range of 100 to 300 meters. Leander’s five-round internal magazine was already loaded, and he only needed to shoot – the BKV was semi-automatic, a real marvel of a weapon. Leander hardly knew the advantages of this trait.
Sharna took a deep, audible breath, braced her rifle against her shoulder, raised the barrel out the hole in the window frame and took aim while standing on her feet.
In an instant she opened fire, a loud echoing boom issuing from the gun as its 14.5 mm projectile screamed out, the stock pounding against Sharna’s shoulder but hardly rocking her expert stance. She stabilized within seconds and fired again.
Leander stifled a surprised gasp at her and hastily joined the attack, aiming poorly and letting loose a hasty shot – the round ripped from the barrel with a noise like thunder, and the stock pounded his shoulder and nearly pushed him a step back. It was certain to bruise.
The projectile struck the lower left side of an M3 and did seemingly nothing to the track. In a panic the enemy footsoldiers raised their guns and opened on the window.
Leander returned immediately to cover.
From three buildings across the street came similar volleys of sustained anti-tank fire.
Sharna ignored the enemy’s rounds pounding uselessly against the concrete wall around her. She leaned out and fired twice more at Leander’s previous target in quick succession, punching two visible holes into the bed behind the cannon housing.
Her target stalled, black wisps fuming from inside the engine compartment.
Under accurate fire from a building directly overlooking it, four smoking holes quickly appeared on the bed of another leading M3, causing it to stall near its companions.
Nochtish men huddled behind rocks and near stalled tanks, shouting Hinterhalt! as the battle was joined in earnest. With their way blocked by their immobilized lead tanks the remaining three M3s in the back started the laborious process of turning, slowly shifting their glacis plates so that their guns could face toward the buildings and open fire.
“Tracks now, try to aim for the tracks!” Sharna shouted, pausing to work her bolt and load a new clip. “Aim for the farthest tank from you to get a straighter shot at it!”
Leander shifted a step out of cover, swinging the barrel of his gun out of the window and taking aim across the street from his building, where an M3 committed to a ninety degree turn to fire on them. He took aim at the tracks and fired.
His first shot struck the hull plate over the tracks. Enemy fire forced him back to cover.
Because the gun was so large he was unused to thinking of it as semi-automatic – it felt like it should naturally be bolt-action like the Bundu and so he did not rap the trigger or fire successively before going into cover at the sight of retaliatory gunfire.
He had the shoot-and-hide muscle movements from the Bundu too close in mind.
Breathing deep, he stepped out of cover to shoot, this time aiming a touch lower.
Sharna joined him, her rifle now reloaded; Leander’s shot punched through one of the road wheels, blowing it out, and Sharna took out two in quick succession. Under this violence the track split completely, stalling the tank mid-turn and helpless to respond to the ambush. From the opposite side of the street, anti-tank grenades flew toward the immobilized tanks, setting ablaze their stalled engines and smashing holes in their cannons.
Anti-tank fire fell relentlessly upon the hatches and sides of the stalled tanks. Under this onslaught three tanks were rendered useless and their hatches flew open, the crew running out to the street with pistols out and screaming audible nonsense into hand radios.
Stray rifle rounds struck the window frame, kicking up tiny wisps of plaster and cement dust. Sharna and Leander hid again. Nocht’s men were rallying in ever more vigorous support of their tanks, the shock of the ambush fading from them. They aimed for the windows with greater fervor, and though sporadic their fire endangered the snipers.
But the AT rifles were not alone: peeking over the window again with great care Leander saw automatic fire pouring out of the lower floors of the buildings, bouncing off tanks and cutting across the positions of Nocht’s riflemen. Caught in the crossfire several Noctish men fell instantly to the automatic bursts, riddled with bullets in the middle of the road. Several men rushed desperately onto the remains of the streets and charged into the buildings with their pistols out – more easily manageable in close quarters than their rifles.
From behind him, Leander heard the belabored thumping of the DNV light machine guns as Bonde and Elena fought back against the incoming home invaders.
Hidden along the staircase, they could fire on anyone trying to pass the building’s open doorway, as well deliver suppressing fire over the thoroughfare. Their raid on the Djose must have taken its toll on Nocht’s forces, because no grenades or other explosives were flung toward the buildings to dislodge the defenders – the sounds of battle grew decidedly one-sided as the cries and guns of Nochtish men were silenced. DNVs beat like drums from the lower floors. Joined by the booming of intermittent BKV fire this cacophony overwhelmed the mechanical chugging and snapping of Nocht’s weapons.
Leander pulled the bolt on his rifle and loaded a new clip – the bundles were large and difficult to manage, especially while standing with his back awkwardly to a wall.
“You need to shoot more before hiding, Leander,” Sharna said. She was already through two clips, loading her third; Leander was just now reloading for the first time.
Nodding, Leander maneuvered his rifle out of the window to fire once more.
Two remaining tanks had managed to complete their turns and now faced the row of buildings across the street from his position. Leander’s heart skipped a beat when he saw the guns climbing. There were more of their comrades on that side of the street, and their fire had drawn the most attention. He spotted several snipers on the targeted windows, desperately firing into the glacis and gun mantlet of the M3 to no avail.
Alone, their weapons could not stop what was coming.
“Spirits defend,” Sharna gasped, “We have to help them Leander!”
From her pouch, Sharna sought out an anti-tank stick grenade, and found a single, solitary example among a few useless fragmentation grenades. While she prepared to throw it, and at a loss for how else to help, Leander fired three shots into the engine bed of the tank closest to him in quick succession, the BKV stock pounding into his shoulder.
He struck the bed several times at a good angle, smashing through to the engine housing but with seemingly no immediate effect. Sharna took the opportunity to throw her primed grenade at the tank below, aiming to exploit the damage Leander had caused to the engine housing. Those 700 grams of explosive encased in the grenade detonated on contact and blew open a great hole into the weakened engine hatch. Flames burst up from the exposed engine compartment and spread dangerously across the back of the tank.
It was not enough – the vehicle clung on to life. Even as the fire spread they saw the assault gun adjust its cruel aim. Assuredly in its death throes, the gun still readied to fire. There was now no way for Leander and Sharna to stop what was coming.
The M3 Hunter had raised its 75mm cannon as high as the short-barreled gun would elevate. With a dying roar it launched a high-explosive shell through the window across the street, past several snipers still firing in a panic. It detonated behind them.
Leander felt the explosion like a shockwave sinking through his flesh.
Fire and smoke expanded from the windows and doors, casting out burning, dying bodies onto the street. The roof burst from the inside out and showered the thoroughfare in cement chunks, and the upper floor collapsed entirely, burning and burying the machine gunners guarding the doorways. Five meters away the fifth M3, almost entirely unharmed in the chaos, opened fire on a building further down the street, its cannon smashing open the facade and ejecting snipers from the second floor with a crash of thunder. The snipers landed unceremoniously on the streets, instantly dead from their expulsion.
Moments later the vehicle below them had become an inferno.
Leander and Sharna’s previous target had had enough, and the fires finally spread to the ammo racks. From the inside out the great, murderous assault gun burst into pieces with an explosion that forced Leander and Sharna instantly to cover despite their shock.
Whether it had roasted its crew inside it they did not know, but finally the M3 Hunter lay ripped apart along the road. In the span of a few minutes three other assault guns, numerous men, but most importantly, many of their comrades, lay dead with it.
One assault gun remained, and it was unsatisfied with the bloodshed. It once again began to turn, this time casting its murderous cannon directly at Leander’s position.
Bonde ran up to the second floor, loading a new pan magazine atop his empty DNV as he went, and with Elena trailing close behind him and standing guard by the steps. They too had sought cover from the explosion happening almost right in front of them. “We’re abandoning the building. Gather your things quickly. We’ve got time before it shoots.”
Leander and Sharna peeled themselves away from the window, and nodded in silent shock. Leander still felt as though the blast were rolling over him.
Together the crew gathered pouches of ammunition and grenades, clipping them to their belts as they rushed down the steps, Elena and Bonde leading with their machine guns. They each fired a burst out into the streets at any men who might have been cowering somewhere, injured but alive. Seeking new cover the group ran out of the ruin and put their backs to one of the smoking husks, stepping over the dead and the unconscious dying.
Behind them they heard the tank moving and cracking of its gun as it elevated. The squadron crouched near the debris and the hull of a broken M3 and they covered their heads. A 75mm high explosive shell flew into the window that had once been their sniping position and blasted the inside of the building. Chunks of hot concrete and smoke poured out over the street. They heard the tank’s tracks laboring to move once again.
“Does anyone have an AT grenade we can throw at it?” Elena asked.
“Only frags left in my pouch.” Sharna replied, and looked to her fellow anti-tank specialist. Leander silently raised his hand from his grenade pouch, holding a Faru-Kombora 28 or FKB-28 stick grenade, the communist’s AT grenade model.
It was their only one left.
“Do you think you can get close and hit the back?” Bonde said solemnly.
Leander gulped, the fire and smoke and the dead still flashing in his mind.
It was time to be brave.
He set his shoulders and forced his shaking voice.
“I can do it. I just need some covering fire or a distraction.” He said.
Elena looked grimly at him, hands gripping her machine gun as if to say it was useless.
“I think I can keep it busy.” Sharna said. “I can break its periscope and try to put something in the barrel and hatches. I can be very annoying! There are small targets all over the face of that tank I can hit, even if I can’t destroy it by doing so.”
“I guess that will have to do.” Elena said. She patted Leander on the back.
“Run out first, Sharna. Use the debris. Find a good spot.” Bonde said.
With the sling around her shoulder, Sharna confidently rested her BKV against her hip. She held the weapon with one hand on the carrying handle affixed to the barrel, and the other on the trigger guard. Leander nodded to her in the direction he intended to run out from – Sharna nodded back and took position away from it, bracing herself.
She left cover as close to the opposite side of the street as she could, running out into the open and briefly staring down the tank. From the hip she fired her BKV twice at its face – the heavy rounds blasted open the periscope and sank into the front of the leftmost track and took chunks from the treads wrapped around it. A strained noise issued from them as the track began to churn and the tank moved forward. Sharna rushed away from it and took cover behind a collapsed portion of the roof recently shattered by the M3.
Leander marveled for a moment at Sharna’s grace with the BKV – she could carry it and heave it much more competently than he could, and shoot it much more accurately. Perhaps it was her size relative to him, but more likely it was her experience.
“You’re up Leander,” Bonde said. “May the ancestors be with you!”
“Don’t do anything foolish. Throw and hide!” Elena added.
Taking a deep breath, Leander plunged out of cover in the opposite direction from Sharna, scrambling over the fallen men. While in cover he had hardly noticed them, but in motion they all seemed to reappear, staring at him from the earth, bleeding from dozens of wounds across their gray uniforms and unable to even raise their pistols to stop him.
He thought he heard the moaning of their souls in the process of leaving behind their ruined bodies as he ran around the husks they once defended.
Almost on reflexes alone he weaved between the wrecks of the other tanks, using them to conceal himself as he ran closer to the remaining enemy vehicle.
More BKV shots rang out from Sharna’s position and from far up the street, where the last remaining BKV team still lay in hiding and now found occasion again to provide their support. All the shots bounced harmlessly off the tank, but Leander heard the target’s tracks stop and the sound of its gun clanking and groaning as it adjusted elevation.
They had drawn its attention away. Now, however, it threatened his comrades as it had done before, and any one shot would be too much for them. It had to be stopped.
Keeping himself on its left to avoid the gun, Leander ran out into the open, just a few meters from the monster. He threw his anti-tank grenade overhead as best as he could.
Having no immediate and good cover, he hit the dirt and crawled near low-lying rubble.
He closed his eyes and heard the grenade explode atop the vehicle and felt a wave of heat washing suddenly over him. Only a moment later he heard tracks again, and his heart sank. Did he not manage to stop it? He stood and got a grip on his BKV, intending to shoot it anywhere he could in a desperate bid to stop the thing once and for all–
Bonde and Elena opened up on the tank with their machine guns from up the street, despite having no hope of penetrating the thing. Leander realized that it was not moving forward, but retreating carefully down the street, its damaged track rattling as it moved.
Smoke blew from atop the machine, and a hunk of shattered metal flapped against its side. He had blown open the top hatch! Its interiors were now vulnerable.
Leander was breathing again suddenly, ragged, his eyes drawn open, his mind racing to process the opportunity. As his allies’ DNV machine gun fire crashed uselessly against the face of the retreating tank, Leander reached into his pockets and drew his bundle of frag grenades. Purging his mind of dissenting thoughts Leander charged headlong again toward the vehicle, closing physically as fast as he could with the giant machine.
He instantly heard an incoherent screaming from behind him. All machine guns stopped firing lest they kill him as they had done the men lying around him.
He could hear in his head Elena’s voice distinctly asking if he had lost his mind; but he knew he had to move then, as he had in the forest. With a damaged track the vehicle’s movements had been reduced to a careful creep to avoid splitting its treads completely.
Leander ran with all his might and caught up.
He ran alongside the machine, pulling the pins on several grenades and then tossing the entire pouch through the smoking hatch. He heard the deadly metallic ringing of the grenades bouncing down off the commander’s seat and around the interior.
Still running he turned immediately and hurtled away from it as fast as he could, making for any kind of cover from what was about to transpire. He was still running when the blasts began, making his way across the street. It was an instantaneous chaos behind him. Fragments, heat and smoke blew first from the hatch, and then the ammunition stored inside the machine felt its share of the violence as the remaining grenades exploded.
From the inside-out the tank burst open as its stored shells detonated.
Hunks of steel blew from the vehicle’s punctured sides and roof, and when the engine blew the tank almost leaped. Leander heard the pieces flying off the battered machine, whizzing across the air with deadly new life, its rivets, hatches, glass, everything was now ammo. Hundreds of tiny fragments and projectiles blew over him like a cloud, stinging his back and scraping his sides, falling like metallic ashes from a mechanical volcano.
As he set foot on the adjacent street Leander threw himself with all his strength into an open doorway as the larger pieces of burning steel came crashing down around the street, sure to kill whoever they fell upon. He made it to the safety of a building’s interior.
Rolling on the ground in pain; flailing his arms as though trying to beat insects or snakes off his body; blowing out labored breaths as though they could cool the burning metal pinpricks across his back. In this brief, annihilating moment of agony Leander had hardly any time to process that he had almost single-handedly destroyed a tank.
Outside, the street was covered in smoke and fire and metal that any advancing force would have to clear. The ambush had made its indelible mark on the fighting.
No one could be under any illusions, however, that they had stopped Nocht.
As he thrashed over a mound of pulverized concrete and tried to batter down the hot pain across his back, Leander became acutely aware of new sources of noise.
Fresh explosions thundered in the distant parts of the thoroughfare, and Leander, dazed by adrenaline and still in pain, thought it had to be the ammunition in the tank still going off. However, the retorts from cannons soon became unmistakable.
Shots began to fall closer to the ambush sector.
Within minutes he saw the first shell making landfall directly outside his building, and he felt the rumbling of the blast drive right through him like an invisible knife.
Leander forced himself to his feet, grit his teeth against the pain and climbed out of a side window and into a nearby alley. He saw Sharna running up the street and he joined her without looking back, hugging the buildings as he went for what minimal concealment the awnings and collapsed facades might give him from the tanks. Bonde and Elena were not far behind, and vacated their position as Leander and Sharna ran past.
Soon every survivor from the forward platoons was running pell-mell across the ruins.
“How many are coming up?” Leander shouted over the throng.
“It’s a fresh platoon, probably five more tanks. We’ve lost more than half the forces we had here. We can’t stand and fight any longer.” Bonde replied. He seemed stricken suddenly with a thought. “I think it’s about time we called in a favor.”
He paused for a moment, and then he withdrew his flare gun.
Sharna and Elena almost skidded to a stop ahead of them, looking back to see what was keeping their comrades. Bonde raised the gun overhead on a shaking hand.
“Can those three mortars we have left even damage a tank?” Elena asked.
“If they’re 120mm then they might be able to.” Sharna said.
Leander looked back on the street as well in time to see Bonde shoot.
Briefly he saw the M4s charging in the distance, until Bonde launched the flare over the road in as far and high an arc as he could. Before the first shells were even loaded from across the thoroughfare the team began to run again, joining anew the remainder of their company’s forces also fleeing from the sector. Soon the shells began to fall around the advancing M4’s, kicking up dust, rattling the hulls and putting strain on the tracks.
The M4s fired on the retreating forces with their 50mm cannons, but once the platoons dispersed into the ruins they became impossible to directly hit with cannons. Even so, Elena would not yet get her clear answer as to whether the mortars could damage the tanks.
Nobody was looking back into the midst of the shells and the enemy cannon fire.
Under the cover of the mortars and across the rubble-strewn road, the company left behind that bloody, ruined block of houses and the road between them, dotted with bodies and the wrecks of tanks shredded by BKVs and grenades. Their next position was the FOB.
In all, the fighting around that lost block, that had claimed so many lives and tanks, had lasted only minutes, and much of the Nochtish force remained intact.