The Battle of Matumaini I (12.4)

The story segment contains scenes of violence and death.

25-AG-30 South District – Matumaini 3rd, 42nd Rifles

Matumaini was alight in waves of gunfire.

From her vantage Gulab watched the machine guns spraying hot red streaks of lead down the street at the distant silhouettes of men. She took aim with her iron sights and did what she could to support, but she was not sure how she was supposed to score hits at the distance her rifle was rated for. An enemy hundreds of meters away was hard to see even if her bullets could make the distance. She was not sure she had killed anyone.

Men only seemed to appear clearly when the machine guns cut them down in the open.

Machine gun fire flew ceaselessly from the defensive line. It was crucial to the defense. A high volume of fire suppressed any enemy it did not kill. But there were many technical difficulties on their side. It was not simply standing behind sandbags and shooting.

Due to the wheeled carriages on the Khroda machine guns it was an ordeal to turn the weapons to match the enemy’s movements, limiting the spread of the line’s gunfire. She saw the machine gun crews struggling to turn the guns, and due to the effort many crews mimed the crew next to them, and saturated particular sides of the street with heavy fire to the exclusion of any other lanes. There was no real direction; the situation did not allow for much finesse. Their enemy could only struggle forward and they could only push back.

Gulab counted thirty dead from automatic fire, and the Nochtish line appeared largely suppressed. For a time it was almost as though they were firing at ghosts of men, flitting about without material direction. But then Gulab saw men coming closer and closer, their figures becoming clearer and clearer, moving wherever the guns were not.

For a half hour it seemed the guns and the mortars were tireless.

Calls started to go out for fresh supplies.

Behind them, a supply truck drove carefully into the intersection, delivering reserve ammunition. Volunteers from each platoon ran out from their sandbag positions, increasingly under the sporadic fire of enemy machine guns and soon their snipers as well, all moving closer. Dodging enemy fire they grabbed crates full of ammo belts and mortar shells and brought them back to the front to refresh their hungry weapons.

Thousands of rounds flew across Matumaini.

Whenever Nocht got it in their minds to shoot back, even Gulab had to duck. Nocht’s light machine guns made a sound like a mechanical saw, chopping and chopping with continuous fire, and as the enemy’s men got closer their rounds punctured the sandbags around her and ricocheted off the ballistic shields on her platoon’s anti-tank guns. She heard a scream, and saw a woman shot and killed instantly in the Lieutenant’s mortar pit.

She had been shot as she rose over the sandbags to fire. Things were turning around.

Soon even ordnance threatened them.

Explosive shells from what Gulab imagined was a light cannon struck the defensive line from behind a moving chunk of concrete. One shell struck the sandbags guarding a Khroda machine gun and threw the crew from their positions. Their platoon had to rush three fresh men and women to recrew the machine gun, and pull away the injured crew. Quickly the new crew worked on the gun, replacing the damaged gun barrel, adding a new water jacket to cool it, and fitting a new ballistic shield. After unjamming the ammunition belt and replacing it with a fresh one, the gun opened fire once again.

It seemed to have little effect on the grenadier attacking them.

From the same position as before a second light cannon shell fell between the anti-tank position and one of the mortars and exploded violently. Gulab felt the heat and the force, and smelled the burning. Fragments flew over her head, grazing one of the gun crewmen. Nobody was seriously hurt from it, but everyone was shaken.

To think Nocht had access to a portable light cannon!

It was clearly being fired from behind cover by an infantryman. Gulab tried to make him out, but she could see nothing but a hunk of cement debris in the middle of the street.

“Raise the guns. I want high explosive on that man.” Corporal Chadgura shouted.

This was her first order the entire battle.

Even when she shouted, though the volume of her voice rose, her tone was very unaffected, and her face looked quite untouched by everything happening. It was bizarre.

At first the gun crew looked startled – the anti-tank guns were supposed to hold their fire and to do battle against tanks. Their gun model was meant primarily for direct fire, and had very little elevation and no artillery sighting mechanisms. Despite this one of the three gun crews stopped gawking and did as they were told, loading a high-explosive shell and raising the gun elevation. One of the men raised a pair of binoculars and gave instructions on sighting. It was all raw mathematics done in their heads without the aid of an artillery sight or an elevation gauge or any other instruments. It was very impromptu.

When the gunner pulled the switch, the 45mm gun kicked back a step.

An explosive shell sailed across the street in a fraction of a second.

A modest blast issued as the shell struck the slab of concrete across the way.

Everyone was operating at ranges where Gulab found it hard to trust her eyes on what happened, but she thought she saw a solid hit and maybe even a good kill. The crew popped open the breech and the shell casing slid easily out, ready for another explosive shot.

Binoculars raised before his eyes, the gun spotter relayed a confirmed kill.

“Good work. Stand by.” Corporal Chadgura replied.

She was unshaken by the events. Gulab had not seen her flinch away from anything. Even when they were forced to duck or hug the sandbag walls tight to avoid intensifying enemy fire, Corporal Chadgura’s face showed no reaction. It was hard to tell whether she was bored, deadly serious, or perahps stunted with fear. Gulab could read nothing in her eyes or her face and the officer had seldom spoken since the shooting began.

There was a lull. They had been fighting for over an hour. Orders were to delay Nocht’s advance, but for how long? To Gulab it didn’t feel like this intensity could be maintained forever. Along the street there were far fewer targets. Those enemy soldiers that had made it to cover stayed in it and traded small arms fire. When the machine guns sounded back to them, they hit rubble and kept the enemy’s heads down. No one was making progress.

More targets – taking the corner to Goa spotters found a pair of gray hulks.

“Ready yourselves! Load Armor Piercing!” Corporal Chadgura declared.

Behind the central 45mm gun, the crew inserted a new shell, and pushed a lever to feed it and lock it in place. The platoon’s two other crews followed, loading their own guns and raising the carriages, turning them to try to get a good angle on the enemy. Gulab’s heart skipped a beat – they were really engaging armor. Faces glistened with sweat and a little soot, and everyone in the crew hunkered behind the sandbags and ballistic shields.

Gulab peered over the sandbag wall and saw the two armored vehicles, and another following behind them. Unlike men they were clearly visible even from afar, each three meters wide and tall, a lumbering iron box with a gun, each one fast approaching.

Machine guns opened on them to no avail, trying to force them to button down their hatches and viewing slits and blind themselves – but Nochtish tank crews had no fear of rifle caliber bullets. Their tracks rolled easily over the uneven street, across the shallow craters made by mortars, driving through mounds of rubble and collapsed concrete ruin without obstacle. On the right-hand side of each tank’s face was a gun with a large bore.

“Assault gun sighted!” Shouted the spotter, after adjusting the elevation on the gun slightly. Elevation of the central gun completed, he hurried to aid the other two crews, and soon the entire platoon was ready to fight. Three guns, fully loaded with Armor Piercing High Explosive (AP-HE) rounds, and a line of direct fire to the enemy.

“Fire!” Corporal Chadgura declared.

First shot went out at about 500m distance, and crashed into the center of one tank’s glacis plate. Two consecutive shots from the other guns smashed into the thick front of the tanks at awkward angles. Gulab saw and heard the detonations one after the other, and for a moment the tanks were obscured by smoke from the blasts.

Then the armored hulks strode forward again, still advancing as unbroken unit.

There was no penetration of the armor, and no visible damage as the tank rolled forward. Nocht’s assault guns continued their meticulous advance toward Matumaini 3rd.

As one, 3rd Platoon’s crews ejected the spent shells, reloaded, and at Corporal Chadgura’s command they fired again and again, pounding the tanks relentlessly, but this did little but momentarily slow the enemy. Their front armor was simply too tough!

As the front row of tanks endured the blasts of three anti-tank guns at once, around them the enemy gained a second wind. Gulab heard the whipping noise of rifle bullets.

Reflexively she hid behind the sandbags for cover.

She promptly felt like a coward when she saw Corporal Chadgura standing behind one of the the AT guns without fear and continuing to direct their fire.

More AP-HE shells loaded, and flew. All of the guns sounded continuously.

Gulab swallowed hard, and stood again with a mind to retaliate.

She then failed to raise her rifle.

Under continuous anti-tank fire, the assault guns reached a distance of 300 meters, about the halfway point from Matumaini 2nd and Goa to the intersection. There all three of the guns stopped, and from behind them two more tanks started to roll out of Goa with a new mass of men huddling around and behind them. Reinforcements.

The Assault guns in front adjusted their cannons and opened fire.

Powerful 75mm high explosive shells rocked the defensive lines. One shell struck a machine gun position dead-on just thirty meters in front of Gulab. While the double-thick stacks of sandbags absorbed a heroic amount of the blast, people ran out of the impromptu redoubt nonetheless, panicking and coughing from smoke. Repeated blasts rolled along the line. Every thirty meters the front two tanks would stop and shoot a half-dozen rounds.

Open terrain around the intersection was smashed repeatedly, forming smoking craters.

Sandbag pits were struck time and again and collapsed entirely.

Corporal Chadgura dauntlessly ordered the anti-tank teams to fire and fire, but they could not stop the enemy armor. The 45mm, with its small bore and short barrel was too weak for the thick front glacis of the tanks even at this close distance.

Soon the assault guns crawled to within 200 meters, now almost upon the defensive line, and the Nochtish men that had been hiding saw the near-total defeat of the Ayvartan machine gun positions and began to move on the intersection, running without fear.

Triumphantly the assault guns now fired constantly even while on the move, and they targeted their fire exclusively at the second tier of defenses. Gulab heard the thundering of the guns and the booming of explosives hitting the ground and scattering the defenses.

“Spirits preserve me,” Gulab mumbled.

Fire and black smoke blocked her view and it felt like it was digging into her eyes, like black and red was everything she could see. It was overwhelming, the blasts came twenty a minute. She felt her heart pound and her stomach tighten. A hot hand dug into her chest and she felt short of breath. Nochtish rifles and machine guns opened up on them unopposed, showering the sandbags and the ballistic shield on the anti-tank gun and adding to the noise. There was flame and thunder and a storm of metal streaking past.

Gulab felt outside her own body, trapped watching the environment, shaking, stuck. Her courage had left her, obliterated with the last semblances of thought by the falling of the shells. It hadn’t merely collapsed the sandbags but reality itself all around her.

“Private Kajari, get down!”

Gulab was falling.

She felt stricken across the face, but in reality Corporal Chadgura had thrown herself atop her. Behind them something roared with heat and power, casting a massive gout of flame and choking black smoke into the air. When the shell fell they were both thrown against the sandbags, as though picked up and launched by a giant.

They hit the ground together in embrace, gasping for breath.

Gulab’s vision swam, but she saw the burning husks of the anti-tank guns behind them, and the corpses of the crews caught in the inferno. For a second she thought the corporal too might have been a corpse, and she panicked, and scurried away from her.

On the floor, Chadgura looked at her with that unchanging expression.

She pushed herself up on her knees.

“Are you capable of walking, Private Kajari? We are in danger here.”

Her voice was still so dry and drained.

She did not look as if in pain, as if affected. Cpl. Chadgura’s endurance was astonishing. Almost heroic. Gulab felt a biting pain across her shoulder, but it was nothing tragic, and she found she could move all of her limbs, shaking perhaps, but without undue effort.

Her mind a sudden blank, Gulab stood, and Chadgura stood with her, seemingly unharmed. There was smoke all around them, but Gulab could see others reeling and standing and running. There was a great outcry, and dozens of people running to the back of the intersection. Corporal Chadgura collected their rifles from the floor.

“We must retreat to the 3rd Battalion area. This position is useless now.”

Together Chadgura and Gulab joined the remains of the battalion retreating pell-mell across the intersection. As they ran, a pair of shells flew overhead and smashed one of the few buildings standing intact along the eastern side of the intersection. From the first floor ran its remaining occupants, some burnt, some pulling along concussed allies.

Gulab grit her teeth and held her breath and ran herself raw.

Now it was their side’s turn to be cut down.

Enemy machine guns grew closer and fiercer, and the shells continued to fly from their advancing armor. In the middle of the intersection the drivers and crew of the ammunition truck abandoned their vehicle and joined the runners. Soon a small mass of humanity was running past the end of the intersection and into 3rd block proper.

Behind the retreating Ayvartans the enemy’s assault guns rolled over what was left of their Khroda machine guns, and Nochtish soldiers set up their bipods and took parting shots at them from the opposite end of the remains of their sandbag walls. More and more soldiers poured into the breach and took the positions she and her crew once manned.

Gulab ran almost a hundred meters past the intersection.

Soon she found herself and Chadgura well into the 3rd Battalion area. There the men and women from 3rd Battalion pushed up Khroda guns on their wheeled carriages and prepared their own 45mm anti-tank guns to retaliate against the invaders. She and the corporal both stopped near an alleyway and waited as more people from their platoon filtered in. About half of them were accounted for within a few minutes. There was a flurry of movement all around them, and the gunfire never ceased even during the retreat.

It seemed the fight would continue right into the 3rd Battalion area.

“Are you unhurt, Private Kajari?” Chadgura asked.

Gulab couldn’t reply. She was still catching her breath. She nodded her head instead.

Chadgura nodded back. “Do not fear. We have not shown an inkling of our tenacity.”

Gulab nodded her head again, sweating, weeping from the smoke in her eyes. It was hard to be inspired. She felt like she had been defeated, like she had run like a coward instead of fighting. And hearing her late-comer, lazy-voiced officer was not helping.

Chadgura checked her bag suddenly, and held out a thin little book triumphantly.

“Ah. It survived.”

Nocht advanced quickly upon the 2nd Battalion area, and through the power of its assault guns ejected them from the intersection. Along the diagonal road and the northern road to Matumaini 3rd the Nochtish attack continued, with grenadiers rushing forward and engaging the 1st and 3rd Battalion lines. Others dug hastily into the intersection, in many places using the remnants of Ayvartan positions to springboard fresh assaults.

The 1st and 3rd Battalions held on tenaciously, and for a brief moment they fought only the enemy infantry, but it was a short-lived respite, and within ten or fifteen minutes the M3 Hunters were moving forward again, savaging the Ayvartan’s defenses with their 75mm guns and withstanding blows to their thick armor. The 42nd Rifles Regiment and the 4th Ox Rifles Division requested anti-tank support as quickly as possible.

According to the operational plan, this call was soon answered.

Elements of the elite 3rd KVW Motor Rifles assembled behind the 42nd Rifles’ Regiments struggling front line. Black-and-red clad veterans of Cissea began to intersperse themselves among the Ox troops, preparing for Major Nakar’s counterattack.

Farther behind them, waiting for their chance to lunge, Ayvarta’s new armor stacked up to bewildered gazes, their crews quiet inside the giant machines. Major Nakar delivered her orders through the radio, primarily to the KVW and to select units of the Ox rifles.

The Ogres would not reclaim the street; they would annihilate the occupants.

It was time for the real face of Matumaini’s defense to make itself plain.

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